Strong and powerful warriors of nobility and honor, the Knights of the Round Table fought for kings, rescued damsels, and undertook dangerous quests. But true love may be the most perilous quest of all…
Sir Lancelot, First Knight of King Arthur’s realm and the Queen’s champion, cannot be defeated by any earthly man—as long as he keeps his oaths to Arthur and Guinevere. Though arrogant and supremely confident, he will be brought to his knees by a mere maiden: Elaine of Corbenic. Together, they will have a son, Galahad—the knight destined to find the Holy Grail.
Lancelot du Lac is the greatest knight of a peerless age, blessed by the Lady of the Lake with extraordinary military prowess. His fighting ability has earned him a place at King Arthur's side, but the powers the Lady has given him come with a terrible price.
Elaine of Corbenic is struggling to hold her impoverished family together. The keep is a wreck and the peasants, starving, are on the brink of rebellion. Elaine's father is obsessed with finding the Holy Grail, and her older brother, maimed by Lancelot in a joust, is a bitter drunkard. Without a dowry, she has little hope for the future.
Incognito, Lancelot rides into Corbenic on his way to the king's tournament. He finds the practical Elaine irresistible. Thoroughly dismayed when she reveals her contempt for "Lancelot," he must face his own arrogance to win her hand. For only with Elaine at his side will Lancelot have the strength to free himself from the enchantments that bind him…
Read an Excerpt
“My brother rode his first joust against Sir Lancelot,” Elaine said. “It was his last. As I waited by the surgeon’s tent, all the talk was that Sir Lancelot would as lief have stayed at home as waste his skill on such raw country lads—”
“That was your brother?” the knight interrupted. “I—I remember hearing of it.”
“It was a bad fall,” Elaine went on. “His leg was shattered. He very nearly lost it.” What was the matter with her today? She had thought herself long past weeping, yet the knight was looking at her with astonished pity. “I’m sorry. What were we talking about? Oh, it was Sir Lancelot. A subject we generally avoid.”
“I’m not surprised.”
They reached the edge of the forest.
“Wait,” he said. “’Tis a pretty day for a ride, and I’m sure you know all the best paths. That is, if you would like to . . .”
When he smiled, that strange dizziness came over her again. What could a man like this possibly see in her? She was nearly one and twenty, and she did not delude herself about the damage done by years of starvation. Yet he looked as though he genuinely hoped she would accept. All at once her heart lifted, and it seemed anything was possible, even that she might have caught the interest of a young and wealthy knight.
“I would like to,” she said. “Come, we can water our horses by the river.”
A bow-shot from her bower-eaves,
He rode between the barley-sheaves,
The sun came dazzling thro’ the leaves,
And flamed upon the brazen greaves
Of bold Sir Lancelot.
ALFRED LORD TENNYSON,
“The Lady of Shallot”
Table of Contents
ONCE Elaine noticed how like a bull her uncle was, she wondered that she had not marked the resemblance before. The thickly muscled neck, the flaring nostrils and close-set eyes—it was uncanny. Put a ring in his nose, and you could lead the man to market.
“A damned plague, that’s what they are!” he bellowed, pounding a meaty fist upon the trestle table. “Worse than the bloody Saxons, those Corbenic serfs, and I’ll stand for it no longer!”
“It was a hard winter,” Elaine said, holding onto her temper with an effort. She faced her uncle down the length of the trestle, covered with a crimson cloth and crowded with platters of bread and pots of honey, along with two enormous pork and mutton pies made from the remains of last night’s feast. The guests between them had been subdued this morning, but now they were wide-awake and rigid with embarrassment.
“A hard winter?” Ulfric roared, his face purpling with rage. “Every winter’s hard, but that’s no excuse for poaching!”
“Of course it isn’t,” Elaine answered through clenched teeth, “but you know our harvest was poor, and—”
“The same old story.” Ulfric snorted. “But it won’t do, my girl, not anymore. I’ve turned a blind eye in the past, but if you think I’ll just stand by while your villeins invade my demesne and make off with my game—”
Elaine set her cup down very carefully. “It was one man,” she said, “and one deer. Hardly an invasion.”
“One that I know of! But this is not the first time I’ve caught those thieving ruffians skulking on my lands, and God knows I have enough to do without defending my borders against yon scurvy pack of rogues! Your father is useless, and as for Torre—by God, when I think of all I’ve done for that boy, all wasted now—”
Elaine leapt to her feet. “Keep your tongue off my brother! And my father, too! If you want recompense for the damned hind—”
“Oh, I’ll have what’s due to me. I’ve—”
“Ulfric,” Aunt Millicent said. “That is quite enough.”
Ulfric glanced at his lady and deflated like a pricked bladder. Elaine looked to her aunt, as well. Hypocrite, she thought with impotent fury; it was Millicent who had raised the subject of the poacher in the first place, waving it like a red flannel before her husband’s nose.
“I’ve complained to the king, that’s what I’ve done,” Ulfric muttered sulkily. “And not for the first time, either.”
“Elaine,” Alienor said swiftly, looking anxiously from her father to Elaine, silently pleading with her cousin to hold her tongue. Elaine was very fond of Alienor, who looked pale and wan this morning, not the blushing bride at all. The groom stared at his father-in-law with well-bred distaste, as though he was already having second thoughts about his marriage, not even four and twenty hours old.
Elaine resumed her seat without a word and forced herself to smile at Alienor, who managed a crooked smile in return. Still, the awkwardness lingered, casting a pall over the remainder of the meal.
The moment she could do so without drawing further attention to herself, Elaine stood. “I must begone,” she said, speaking not to her aunt or uncle, but to Alienor, who came forward to embrace her.
“Thank you—for everything,” Alienor said, slipping something into her hand. Elaine looked down at the gold chain and shook her head.
“I cannot take this.”
“You can. You shall. I don’t know what I would have done without you these past weeks. I’m so sorry about Father—”
“Think nothing of it,” Elaine said with a charity she was far from feeling as they walked together toward the door. “Belike he has a sore head this morning.”
“Aye, I’m sure he does. But if you ask me,” Alienor murmured, glancing over to her stepmother, “’twas Millicent who started it.”
“Well, you’re free of her now,” Elaine said. “I hope you will be happy.”
They both turned to look at Alienor’s husband, Lord Cerdic, who stood between his parents. A slender young man with a wealth of golden curls, Cerdic was keenly aware of his beauty. At the moment he was entirely absorbed in adjusting the curling feather in his cap.
“Thank you,” Alienor said, “I’m sure I will be.” Their eyes met, and in the same moment they looked away. There was no more to be said; the deed was done, and Alienor had no choice but make the best of it. “Please remember me to—to your family,” she added, her voice breaking as she caught Elaine in a fierce embrace before hurrying away.
Elaine’s farewells to her aunt and uncle were far less cordial.
“I am sorry you have been inconvenienced by any of Corbenic’s people,” Elaine said coolly, drawing on her gloves. “I assure you it will not happen again. You can send the man home with me, and he will be suitably punished.”
“Oh, he has already been punished,” Ulfric replied.
Elaine stiffened. “Indeed?”
“I hanged him three days ago.”
“You hanged one of my father’s men?” Elaine demanded, so shocked by this breach of courtesy that she could scarce believe she’d heard aright.
Ulfric’s teeth showed in something that was meant to be a smile. “I did consult him first, of course—at least I tried. I wrote to him twice, but he did not deign to answer. You can tell him from me that he’ll be needing a new fletcher.”
“Fletcher? You mean—are you telling me you hanged Bran Fletcher?” Elaine gripped her hands together hard, lest she give in to the impulse to slap the smile from her uncle’s face.
“I hanged a thief.” Ulfric’s small eyes narrowed. “I know what a busy man your father is. It was my pleasure to do him this small service.”
Before Elaine could think of a suitable reply, her aunt leaned forward in a wave of heavy scent to kiss the air beside her cheek. “Farewell, my dear. Godspeed on your journey. Do give my love to your father and your brothers.”
Elaine left without another word. Bran Fletcher was but a face to her; she doubted she had ever spoken to the man. Yet still she felt bereft, and angry, too, both at Ulfric and herself, that anyone belonging to Corbenic should have met with such a fate.
There is nothing to be done about it now, she told herself as she mounted and rode out of the courtyard. And at least she had the chain. It should fetch enough to buy a new ram—theirs was on his last legs—and with luck an ewe or two, as well, to supplement their dwindling flock.
She was halfway home before she remembered something else Ulfric had said, that he had complained of her father to the king. Not for the first time, either. And Ulfric, unlike Father, had the means to send a dozen knights and fifty men-at-arms to Camelot whenever the king had need of them.
It meant nothing, she told herself. King Arthur was far too busy to concern himself with the quarrels of two country nobles.
But still she clapped heels to her mare, urging the ancient beast into a reluctant, jogging trot, fearing she had been far too long from home.
LATER, when Lancelot had regained some measure of control, he realized that the silence could not have lasted longer than a minute. At the time it seemed an age crawled by after Guinevere stopped talking and the three of them stood, frozen like figures in some vile tapestry, waiting for Arthur to reply.
The worst of it—if one element of the horror could be seized upon and called the worst—was that it had been such a stupid lie, tossed off by the queen as though she were remarking on the weather. Looking at Arthur’s face, Lancelot knew the king felt exactly as he did himself, as though he had been dealt a solid blow between the eyes. What possible response could one make when confronted with such a blatant disregard for anything resembling the truth?
Whatever it might be, Lancelot could not be the one to make it. That was Arthur’s duty—and his right. Mild as he seemed, Arthur was very much a man, and any man, so grievously provoked, was capable of violence. Lancelot waited, not daring to draw breath, for the royal fury to erupt.
And then, at last, King Arthur spoke.
“That’s that, then, isn’t it?” he said, turning to gaze out the window. “If you are in pain, Lance, you must stay behind.”
Lancelot’s mortification, which he had thought complete, increased a hundredfold. He had never been better; he had said as much when he and Arthur dined together just last night. He drew a long breath and looked past the king’s broad shoulders out the window, where the garden wavered behind thick panes of glass.
“Sire,” he said carefully, “truly there is no need. ’Tis a trifling thing—”
“No!” Guinevere shot Lancelot a pleading look behind her husband’s back. “You mustn’t risk yourself.”
A shift in focus showed him Arthur’s face reflected in the glass—just as he and Guinevere were reflected for the king to see. Lancelot’s hands clenched into fists.
“My lord,” he began, with no clear idea of what he could say next. To go on insisting he was well was tantamount to calling Guinevere a liar, which would be not only redundant at this point, but unthinkable, for he was bound by oath to serve her. Yet even the most tacit acceptance of her lie was a betrayal of his oath to Arthur. Before he could resolve this conundrum, the king spoke over him.
“Guinevere is right.” Arthur turned and added with a smile that did not reach his eyes, “’Twould be folly to hazard my best warrior for the sake of a day’s entertainment.”
“Just so, sire,” Guinevere agreed.
Lancelot stared from the queen to the king, uncomprehending. False, it was all false, the words they spoke, the smiles they exchanged. After his solitary years in Avalon, Lancelot was often confused by the subtleties of human relationships, but he knew the dark emotions swirling between the king and queen spelled danger to them all. His head began to ache as he searched vainly for the words to make things right.
“Stay,” the king ordered curtly.
“Stay,” echoed the queen.
Two people living had the right to command Sir Lancelot du Lac, First Knight of Arthur’s realm and the Queen’s Champion. When they spoke as one, he had no choice but to obey.
“I am, of course, your servant,” he said unwillingly.
Arthur did not acknowledge his acquiescence or even seem to notice it. “Farewell, Guinevere,” the king said, his gaze still riveted upon his wife. The queen raised her face to accept her husband’s kiss, and Arthur brushed his lips across her cheek in a perfunctory farewell. “And to you, Sir Lancelot,” he added coolly. “I hope to find you both in better health when I return.”
The king’s eyes burned into Lancelot’s for one fleeting moment before Arthur turned and walked away.
Wait, Lancelot wanted to cry out, stop—but he could not force himself to make a sound. Like a man enspelled to silence, he watched the king vanish into the corridor. Only the slam of the door snapped the enchantment.
The queen moved as silently as a cat, the furred hem of her sapphire chamber robe trailing behind her. She opened the door a crack, peered out, then eased it shut again. Turning, she leaned her back against the wood and met Lancelot’s gaze. Her face was pale as whey, save for the dark patches like bruises beneath her eyes. Unlike Lancelot, she had been genuinely ill, but whatever pity he had felt for her was swept away by the rising tide of anger that shook him where he stood.
“You know you will forgive me in time,” she said, “so why not save us the bother of a quarrel and do it now? Sit down—I’ll have something sent up from the kitchens and we can—”
“You fool!” The sound of his own voice was strange to him, harsh and trembling with rage. “Do you have any idea what you’ve done?”
Guinevere paced to the window and threw the casement open, breathing deeply of the cool, fresh air before replying. “Very well, Lance, have your little temper if you must. But you’re being quite ridiculous, you know. You’ve often told me you dislike jousting, and Arthur was quite willing for you to stay, so—”
He crossed the distance between them in three paces and seized her by the shoulders, so abruptly that she cried out in surprise. “Do you not know what is being said? Dinadan and Agravaine—”
Beneath his palms, her slight shoulders moved in a shrug. “The two of them are like old women, forever gossiping in corners. Nobody credits anything they say.”
Guinevere was no coward. She met his gaze straight on; only the pulse beating rapidly at the base of her throat betrayed her fear. And she was right to be afraid. This was no “little temper,” but the sort of blinding rage Lancelot had experienced only on a battlefield.
“Arthur believes this,” he said, his fingers digging into her flesh. “How do you think it looks for him to walk into your chamber and find us here alone? And when you came out with your lie—my God, his face! Did you not see it for yourself? Are you blind? Witless?”
Two spots of brilliant color stained her ashen cheeks. “Unhand me at once! How dare you speak to me like this!”
“I dare because I must! I should have done it long before, but I assumed you knew.”
Her pale lips twisted in a mocking smile. “Knew what? That fools whisper idle tales about their betters? So what if they do?”
“Think you Arthur has not heard these whispers?” Lancelot shook her hard, his voice rising to a shout. “He has, I know he has, I’ve seen the way he watches us!”
“You are wrong—mistaken—”
“I am not. I know him, none better—he is no fool, he suspected long before today.”
“But even so, he would not believe—”
“He does not want to. But now, now that you have openly connived to keep me by your side when he is gone away—what else can he think?”
At last he’d reached her. The queen’s eyes, so oft compared to woodland violets, widened in terrified comprehension. “Then you must go, right now, this moment,” she cried, pressing her soft palms against his chest.
“How can I? My old wound is troubling me,” he said in savage mimickry. “I can barely walk. The king himself ordered me to stay behind. And if you think this won’t cause more talk—”
“Wait.” Guinevere jerked free and put her hands to her temples, pushing aside the thick waves of raven hair that curled loosely past her hips. “Just wait, let me think.” After a moment, her head snapped up. “Do you remember that evening last month when the three of us dined here?”
“We had the brace of partridge—Arthur took them with his falcon—”
“Are you raving?”
“Listen! Arthur said it was hardly fair for you to joust these days, do you remember? He said your opponents are so frightened by your reputation that they are incapable of giving you a proper match.”
“You will ride in the tournament, Lance, but in disguise. Then you can tell Arthur it was a test—a test of honor—that you wanted to see if you could win without anyone knowing who you are. He will like that, he’ll think it a good jest.”
Lancelot stared at her, half admiring and wholly appalled at this new proof of her nimble mind.
“Oh, no, but it isn’t! Arthur did say that, I heard him, and you were a bit insulted, were you not?”
How well she knew them both. Arthur would believe it, not only because it was the sort of trick he himself would play, but because he wanted—was quite desperate—to accept any alternative to the rumors spreading like poison through the court.
“This is wrong,” Lancelot said. “Please, Guinevere, I beg you, let me tell him—”
“No! Do not start all that again! You will tell him naught save what I have said. You promised—and I need—”
“I! I! Is that all you ever think about? What of Arthur? What of me? Are you too stupid to understand what you are doing to us both? Or are you too selfish to care?”
Tears welled in her eyes. “How can you say such things to me?”
Lancelot slumped down on the window seat and leaned his throbbing brow against the glass. “Oh, God,” he whispered, “what am I to do?”
“I have already told you! If you would only listen—”
Wearily, he rose to his feet, rubbing the aching space between his eyes. “I cannot,” he said, despairing, “the king has ordered me to stay.”
Her brows rushed together in a frown. “And I say that you shall go.”
He knew that look. Quickly he started toward her, one hand extended. “It is impossible. Surely you understand that I cannot disobey a direct order from my lord. We’ll find another way—”
It was too late. All at once the queen of Britain stood before him, gesturing with imperious dignity toward the door. “Don your armor, hide your face, and do not speak your name until the tournament is done.”
“Don’t,” he whispered, “Guinevere, please—”
“Now!” she cried, stamping one slippered foot. “I command it!”
Lancelot had often been impatient with the queen, sometimes angry, but never until this moment had he hated her.
“So be it, my lady,” he ground between clenched teeth. “I will go. And I will do your bidding once again, as I have sworn. But this is the last time. I am finished with your lies—and with you.”
He spun on his heel and reached for the latch.
“Lance, wait, I didn’t mean—please don’t go like this,” she cried behind him. “Please!” She stumbled on the long hem of her gown and caught his arm. Her eyes were brilliant as she stared beseechingly into his face. “It was a mistake, I wasn’t thinking—I’ve been so wretched, I only wanted you to stay with me. I’m sorry, sorry—”
“You are always sorry,” Lancelot said coldly, “yet you never change. Good day, my lady.”
He shook off her hand and went out. Halfway down the corridor he hesitated, listening to the muffled sobs coming from behind the door. “Damn you,” he said beneath his breath. He could imagine her there, crouched among the rushes with the tears streaming down her pale cheeks, muddled and miserable and utterly alone.
Then he remembered the cold fury in the king’s eyes before Arthur walked out without so much as giving him a chance to speak.
“Damn you,” Lancelot said again, no longer certain which of them he meant, or whether he was speaking to himself. Turning, he ran swiftly down the stairway without once looking back.
ELAINE pulled her mare up on the forest’s edge, savoring her first glimpse of Corbenic’s tower in the distance. Home. The sight never failed to lift her heart. Her smile faded as her gaze traveled downward to the north field, acre upon acre of good brown earth, stretching between the forest and the manor. Something was amiss. For a moment she could not imagine what it was, and then understanding hit her like a blow.
The field was empty. No plough, no straining oxen, no peasants toiling beneath the pale blue sky. Not a child picking stones, not a scarecrow—not even a crow to scare, as obviously no seed had yet been planted. Indeed, ’twas clear that no one had so much as touched this field since she had ridden past it near a month ago.
Over the past weeks, Elaine had watched carefully the ordering of her uncle’s demesne, hoping to learn the secret of his prosperity. Every morning she was up to see the villeins go off to the fields, shouldering their tools, and her afternoon walk invariably led her past the neat expanse of furrows, lengthening with every day. She had passed many a weary morning in Alienor’s bower imagining the same work going forward at Corbenic.
What a fool she’d been.
Dismissing her uncle’s serving man with a curt word, she turned her mare from the path and cut across the field, mud flying from beneath the horse’s hooves.
She should never have left home. Now the sowing would be late again, and they would have to race against time to harvest whatever poor crop could reach maturity. You would think that after last winter they would have learned. The sheer folly of it, the waste of time when every day was precious—why, why was everything at Corbenic such a hopeless muddle? Was it so much to ask that people simply do as they were told?
The anger that had simmered in Elaine’s breast this past month flared into rage as she pounded across the barren field and burst into the courtyard, scattering a flock of chickens—Holy Mother, had no one mended the hen coop yet?—pecking among the refuse heaped outside the stable door.
Dung, she noted with cold fury. Dung that should have been carried to the fields long since. Someone had obviously begun the job and just as obviously abandoned it, leaving the barrow upended on the cobbles and the broom beside it, its bristles trampled in the mud. Apart from the chickens and the swarms of flies, the courtyard was deserted.
Elaine could remember how it had looked before the Saxons came: the gleaming cobbles, fresh-scrubbed twice a week, the whitewashed stable where a dozen blooded horses champed their oats, the mews and the kennels, each with its own attendants. And the sounds! Sometimes Elaine thought she missed them most of all. The dairymaids in sacking aprons singing as they churned; the high, excited voices of the squires in the practice yard; the laughter of the pages scurrying about, brave in blue and crimson; and far off in the distance, barely noticed, the voices of the villeins in the fields.
Above all, she missed her mother’s voice. “No, you mayn’t have a hawk, Elaine, but if you are a good lass, next year we shall see. Chin up, sweeting, that’s the way, and shoulders back. You will do your husband little honor if you slouch.”
The bright image faded into grim reality. What would Mother say to this? Elaine wondered, her gaze moving over the filthy, silent courtyard that could have passed for some peasant’s hovel. If things went on this way much longer, it might as well be. The once-proud family was already sinking. Soon they would be little more than peasants. In another generation, the difference would vanish altogether.
“Groom!” Elaine cried, fear sharpening her voice. “Groom! To me—at once!”
But it was no groom that staggered from the stable, his shirt hanging loose as he struggled to tie up his breeches. The unshaven young man did not lift a finger to assist her. He merely braced himself against the stable door and squinted up at her through bloodshot eyes.
And what, what would Mother think if she could see her eldest son right now? Torre scratched idly at the auburn curls showing through his torn shirt and yawned. “Elaine. You’re back.”
“Well spotted, Torre. How clever of you to notice.”
“I could hardly help it. You were screeching like a banshee.”
A giggle drifted from within the stable. Elaine narrowed her eyes at her brother. “Help me down.”
“Help yourself. I’m busy.”
“Torre.” Elaine did not sink to the vulgarity of shouting, but still, he halted and turned back.
“All right, all right.” He limped heavily across the courtyard and extended his laced hands.
The moment her feet touched the ground, Elaine strode to the stable and threw open the door. Two horses raised their heads, looking at her curiously. The nearest stall was empty save for a mound of straw, upon which reclined a girl, naked to the waist. She regarded Elaine boldly through the matted hair falling over her eyes.
“Get up!” Elaine cried. “Dress yourself and go tell Lord Pelleas that his daughter has returned. And find a groom to stable my mare before you get back to the kitchens.”
The girl’s eyes moved over Elaine’s shoulder. Finding no help there, she muttered, “Aye, mistress,” and pulled her kirtle up.
Elaine whirled and stalked over to her brother. “The planting hasn’t even begun, and this place—” She waved a hand wildly about the courtyard. “What in God’s name have you been doing?”
“I should think,” he drawled, wiping his hands upon his filthy shirt, “that would be fairly obvious.”
Unfortunately, it was, even before he lifted the wineskin to his lips. Straw stuck out of his wild auburn curls, and a two-day growth of beard stubbled his jaw. The once-fine angles of his face were blurred, his brilliant blue eyes streaked with red and sunk deep above pouched flesh. Looking at the ruins of her brother, Elaine did not know if she wanted more to weep or rage at him.
“Well?” he said, slouching to take the weight from his bad leg. “How were the nuptials?”
Elaine sighed, her anger melting into confused pity and resentment when he smiled down at her. “Wretched. I should have stayed at home.”
“I told you—”
“I know you did. You were right.”
“And you were wrong? You? Quick, someone fetch a scribe, such a moment cannot be lost to history!”
She smiled, pretending not to notice the bitterness that robbed his words of humor. “Uncle Ulfric was insufferable,” she said, “and Aunt Millicent worse. Geoffrey sends you greetings. He said he’ll ride over with his hawk soon.”
Torre’s lips twisted in the cynical grin that she had come to dread. “Right. And Alienor?” he added, his face averted as he bent to gather the mare’s reins. “Did she send me greetings, too?” Without waiting for an answer, he went on in a voice that sounded almost unconcerned, “What about that fellow she married? What’s he like?”
“Young. A bit vain. But then—” She’d been about to say that Lord Cerdic had plenty to be vain about, being not only young and comely, but rich into the bargain, but something in her brother’s face halted her. “Oh, Torre,” she said, “you’re not still brooding about Alienor, are you?”
“Brooding?” His eyes were hooded as he raised the wineskin once again.
“I know you were disappointed, but there are other heiresses. Not so rich as Alienor, perhaps, but—”
“Is that what you think it was? Her gold? God, what a fool you are sometimes.” Before Elaine could respond, he sighed and touched her shoulder. “That was wrong of me. I’m sorry.”
“I don’t want you to be sorry. I want you to do something.”
“What? Go out to seek my fortune? Oh, no, I tried that, didn’t I? Mayhap I should till the fields myself! Or no,” he said savagely, glaring down at his leg, “I’d be no use there, either.” All at once, his anger seemed to die. He sighed and ran a hand through his tangled curls. “Sometimes I think our family has been cursed. No, don’t smile, I’m serious. When you look at all that’s happened—the Saxons coming, Mother’s death, Father and his—”
Elaine held up a hand, stilling him before he could say the word they never spoke. He sighed again. “Father’s illness,” he went on, using the accepted phrase, “and then me. Don’t tell me you’ve never wondered if all of this is more than luck.”
Of course Elaine had wondered. The same question had occurred to her many times during the past winter, in the dark of night when sleep refused to come. But if she had refused to credit the thought then, she was not about to now.
“There is naught amiss with us that a bit of hard work and common sense won’t cure,” she said stoutly.
“Think you so, Elly? Truly?”
“Blaming a series of perfectly natural misfortunes on magic is the refuge of the weak and cowardly.”
Torre gave her a wry grin. “If your tongue gets any sharper, ’twill be a very gelding hook. But you are wrong, you know. Magic does exist, and to deny it won’t make it go away.”
“Stuff and—” Elaine began.
They both whirled as their younger brother crossed the courtyard at a run. Their father followed more slowly, his head bent over something in his hands, no doubt some scroll or parchment. Lord Pelleas’s patched robe hung loosely about his sparse frame, and his hose had been darned so many times with different threads that their original color was impossible to guess. White locks floated in sparse wisps about his long, narrow face as he looked up; he brushed at them impatiently with his free hand and smiled with a piercing sweetness. Elaine noticed that he had an ink blot on his nose.
“Elly!” Lavaine called again, his face aglow beneath his cap of blazingly red curls. He caught her in a hard embrace and smiled down at her. When had he grown so tall?
“Elaine! I think I’ve got it!” Lord Pelleas cried, brandishing a sheaf of parchments. “Damnedest thing—right under my nose the whole time, and I didn’t see it until last night, when—”
“Did you catch a noble suitor?” Lavaine interrupted.
Elaine sighed. “No, I did not.”
“Fools,” Lavaine said loyally, “but never mind, I’m sure you will in time. Listen, can you—”
“What does this look like to you?” Pelleas demanded, pointing out a word. “Because I think—by God, I really think I’m on to it at last. See here—”
“Elaine!” Lavaine tugged at her elbow. “My jupon is torn. Can you mend it for me?”
“Just a moment, Lavaine. Father, I must speak with you at once. Uncle Ulfric said—”
She broke off as Sir John, the steward, made his way across the courtyard, leaning heavily upon his stick. “Sir John,” she called, “attend me if you would. Do you remember that we spoke of planting the north field before I left? Yet it seems to me that naught has been accomplished.”
“True, lady,” Sir John said, “I did try—but, alas, since Martin Reeve has left us—”
“God rest him,” Elaine said, signing herself with the cross, “but he has been dead these six weeks past. Surely it cannot be so great a matter to find another reeve!”
“No, my lady,” Sir John said, “in the usual course of events—indeed, I did speak to the villeins, and Lord Pelleas has promised to consider the list of candidates I presented him.”
Sir John smiled so proudly that Elaine did not have the heart to point out that this same promise had been made many times before. Indeed, on the eve of her departure, Father had solemnly assured her he would attend to the matter just as soon as he could find the time. Which, apparently, he had not managed to do in the month she had been gone.
“Will there be anything more, my lady?”
Elaine glanced at Torre, who held up his hands as if to say, not me! Not her father, either, who could scarce be bothered to eat a meal, let alone worry how it managed to arrive at table. And surely not Lavaine, still half a child with his head stuffed full of dreams of noble feats of arms.
“Send to Britt and bid him hitch up the oxen,” she ordered crisply. “Have every able-bodied man and woman leave whatever they are doing and go immediately to the north field. Lord Pelleas and I shall join them in one hour.”
“Aye, my lady,” Sir John said, “I will see to it.”
“Thank you. Now, Father, please listen. Uncle Ulfric said—”
“But my jupon!” Lavaine cried.
“In good time,” she said impatiently.
“I need it now!”
“Lavaine’s got it in his head to ride off to a tournament tomorrow,” Torre put in.
“Tomorrow?” Not yet, she thought, it is too soon. Though she knew it wasn’t really. Lavaine had been knighted just before she’d left for Alston. But he was so young still—just eighteen this year, and even mock battles could be dangerous. One only had to look at Torre to see that.
“What tournament is this?” she asked.
“The king’s Pentecostal festival,” Lavaine began. “Knights have come from all parts of the world to compete—”
“And everyone knows Sir Lancelot will win,” Torre snapped, shooting his brother a scowl that Lavaine had done nothing to deserve. Not that Lavaine was cast down in the least. He was far too used to Torre’s surly moods to pay them any mind.
“The prize is an enormous diamond!” Lavaine went on eagerly.
“A diamond?” Elaine stopped short. “How strange.”
“Not really,” Lavaine said, “the king always offers something magnificent at Pentecost.”
“And I suppose you think you have a chance to win it!” Torre demanded with a scornful laugh.
“I can try, can’t I? Just because you can’t compete doesn’t mean that no one else should!”
“A diamond?” Elaine repeated slowly, and her brothers broke off to stare at her.
“You seem strangely interested in this diamond,” Torre said. “Why? Have you acquired a taste for vulgar jewels?”
“Given half a chance, I daresay I could. But I dreamed last night—oh, it was nothing—”
“Tell me,” her father ordered, looking up from his parchments, “and perhaps we can divine its meaning.”
Dreams! It was always dreams with him! They were as meat and drink to Corbenic’s lord, more real than the filthy courtyard all around him and more pressing than his idle serfs. But he was looking at her so expectantly, his bright blue eyes as guileless as a child’s, that she lacked the heart to chide him.
Poor Father. It wasn’t his fault he could no longer distinguish fact from fancy. Elaine had a sudden, piercing memory of him sitting in the hall on court day, settling each dispute between villagers and manor folk with a few decisive words. And then, later, he and Mother would preside over the feast, while Elaine and Torre danced with the village children in the courtyard.
It was seldom that Elaine remembered any of her dreams, so she held this one out to him, an offering to make amends for her impatience.
“Very well,” she said as they walked together toward the hall, “this was my dream . . .”
LANCELOT was sweating in full armor as he rode toward the tourney field. He longed to strip down to his tunic, but he was too well-known to pass unnoticed through the crowds upon the road. On the deserted stretches, he had removed his helm, but even after all these years the harsh sunlight, so unlike the muted glow of Avalon, troubled his eyes. So he kept that on, as well, with the visor tipped up to allow a tiny thread of air to cool his streaming brow.
At last he drew up his charger on the crest of a hill and surveyed the field below, a broad swathe of meadow surrounded by dense forest, split neatly by a silver ribbon of water. One side of the River Usk was a patchwork of bright color; dozens of pavilions had already been erected, and dozens more were going up. The other held the tilting ground, cleared and fenced, surrounded on three sides by wooden stands. Tiny figures scurried about, and the scent of woodsmoke from many small fires drifted lazily upward on a warm spring breeze.
The Pentecostal tournament had become a yearly tradition in the years of Arthur’s reign. What had started as a solemn ritual during which the king dispensed justice to his subjects, and his companions renewed their vows had become, over time, an event of great magnificence.
Last year the castle had been filled and the surrounding fields crowded with what seemed to be every knight in Britain, along with their servants, squires, and families. There were others, too—knights who had traveled from all corners of the world to compete in the tournament, eager to test their mettle against the Knights of the Round Table—and to win the generous prizes Arthur offered.
With so many competitors, the tournament dragged on for days. Even when it was finally over, no one seemed in any hurry to depart. Quarrels had sprung up between the knights, resulting in private challenges that kept the marshal busy. There had been fights between their squires, too, and their servants, until the castle guards were exhausted with the effort of keeping order.
Yet to hear Guinevere tell it, the real war had been waged within the castle. The ladies fought sweet and deadly battles over precedence in claiming this chamber over that, or a seat at table, or, in one memorable instance, who had the right to bow first to the queen. The last had turned into a furious argument in which a stately dowager completely lost her head and accused her rival of resorting to witchcraft to steal Uther Pendragon’s notice from herself some forty years ago, upon which the second lady used her walking stick to deal the dowager a stunning blow.
“Oh, it’s easy for you to laugh,” Guinevere had said sourly to the king and Lancelot when they dined together in the gardens, “you didn’t have to pull the two apart.”
After the last guest finally departed, Sir Kay took to his bed for a week, and the court was reduced to dining on cheese and increasingly stale bread. It was then Arthur declared that this year’s tournament would not be the traditional combat fought at Camelot but a melee lasting only a single day and held far enough from court to discourage any visitors. To soften the blow, he was offering a prize of such magnificence that any knight put off by the inconvenience soon changed his mind. Judging from the crowd below, their families had all decided make the best of changed conditions.
Lancelot searched the pavilions, finally locating his cousin Bors’s standard floating in the breeze. Bors would keep his secret, little as he might like it. But Lancelot would have to be careful not to draw attention to himself if he hoped to fight unknown. His armor was plain enough; if he kept his visor down, he should pass unnoticed. He took a quick look at his saddle to assure himself there was nothing that could be recognized, and he groaned aloud as his eyes fell upon his shield, covered now in canvas but bearing his own, instantly recognizable device.
He wheeled his charger about, cursing himself for not considering the need for a blank shield, the haste with which he’d pulled his own from the peg, and most of all, Guinevere for putting him in this position in the first place.
But he didn’t want to think of Guinevere. That would only make him angry, which could lead to more mistakes. He would have to ride to Camelot and back again, which meant his charger would be weary before the tournament began. A weary mount was easily injured, and Lancelot was fond of this one. To lose him would mean months of inconvenience while he found and trained another to his ways.
His mood was not improved by the sight of a group of horses approaching down the road. With an irritated sigh, he flipped down his visor, though even so, he felt ridiculously conspicuous. But they had no reason to stop for a stranger; he should be safe enough—and then he noticed the banner held proudly in the squire’s hands. His gaze moved past the squire and fastened on a lady, her bright blue hood thrown back to reveal auburn hair glinting in the sunlight.
Queen Morgause of Orkney.
Lancelot told himself he had no reason to fear Gawain’s mother—and yet he did. Morgause’s sharp eyes saw far too much, and she had once said that magic was her . . . How had she put it? Oh, yes, her passion. He remembered now how she had purred the word, and every instinct screamed a warning he did not stop to question. He pulled his horse off the path and plunged into the forest.
An hour later, he was hopelessly lost. The track he had thought would be a shortcut to Camelot had dwindled into a tiny path and finally vanished in a swamp. Rather than turn back the way he’d come, he’d found another path leading roughly west, and when that veered off to the north, he’d tried another that doubled back upon itself so many times that he was now utterly confused.
But at least he was off the road and far from prying eyes.
This latest path seemed to offer some hope; it had clearly been well traveled in the not-too-distant past. It must lead somewhere, and with any luck, to a place where he could buy or borrow a blank shield. It was blessedly dim beneath the trees, the air pungent with the scents of swamp and loam, and birds chattered busily overhead. Lancelot fell into a half doze as he rode along. “Oh, the broom, the bonny, bonny broom,” he chanted softly in rhythm to his charger’s plodding steps.
As a rule, he had no ear for music, but there had once been a harper in the Lady’s hall in Avalon who played so marvelously that even Lancelot had been enchanted. Thomas, the minstrel’s name had been, sometimes called the Rhymer, and the Lady had said he’d come from far, far away, which seemed odd because Thomas spoke the tongue of Britian with an accent very like Gawain’s.
Lancelot’s thoughts drifted to Gawain, and a scornful smile curved his lips. The noble Sir Gawain—what a hypocrite he was! He was always so very courteous to Lancelot, at such pains to disguise his resentment and dislike. Not that Lancelot was deceived. Nor did he care a whit. Let Gawain detest him. Why should he care? He remembered suddenly that he had dreamed of Gawain the night before, a vivid dream of their one meeting in the lists on the day Lancelot relieved Gawain of the title of First Knight of Britain. Gawain had fought well that day, but of course he never stood a chance. It was Lancelot’s destiny to gain that title, the great destiny bestowed upon him by the Lady of the Lake.
Lancelot only wished the Lady had mentioned how it would befall that he would win the title. But the Lady kept her own counsel, he reflected drowsily; she never answered any question straightly. About the mysterious origins of her harper, she would only say that miles were not the only measure of distance, which Lancelot still did not understand.
There had been one song he sang that Lancelot liked best of all, about a lass climbing a hill on her way to market fair and the lad who wagered that she’d not come down again a maiden. As a boy, Lancelot had often sung it in his empty courtyard where there was no one else to hear. Now, though, he could not seem to catch the tune, and the words he had once known so well slipped from his mind before he could quite grasp them.
It was happening again. Lately he’d had the oddest feeling that his past was disappearing, the memories blending together like a painted panel left out in the rain. That minstrel’s song—what had been his name? For a moment his mind was quite blank, then he remembered. Thomas. Thomas, who they called the . . . the Singer? The Harper? No, something else . . . but it was gone.
Had there ever really been a harper? he wondered with a sudden stab of fear. Or had that been a dream? He didn’t know. He could not be certain which of his memories of Avalon were real and which he had imagined.
He thrust the disquieting impression away. The past was not important. It was the present that mattered.
But Lancelot found he did not want to think about the present, either, or how he had come to be lost in this dark forest. Arthur’s face—but no, he would not think of that. Better—safer—to think about the future, a future so distant that today’s disturbance in the queen’s chamber would be quite forgotten.
’Twas folly to doubt that it would be forgotten. He was Lancelot du Lac, beloved foster son of the Lady of the Lake, and through her grace he served King Arthur as no other knight could ever do. Arthur knew his loyalty. How could he not? Had Lancelot not proven himself a hundred times already? His fame had spread throughout Britain and beyond, just as the Lady had foretold. Whenever he rode out, people lined the streets to cheer him, and the minstrels competed to make songs of his adventures. Perhaps by now they were even sung in Avalon itself by that harper of the Lady’s . . . What had been his name? Lancelot searched his mind, but the memory was gone.
No matter, he told himself, trying to ignore the cold pricking of his spine. Belike I imagined the whole thing. Yet a part of him was certain that he hadn’t—that there had been a harper in the Lady’s hall—though now, when he tried to picture him, there was only a blank space where he had sat, and only silence when he sought for the song about . . . what had it been about? A market? Or had it been a broom?
If only there was someone he could ask, someone he could tell of his days in Avalon and the glorious destiny that was his, someone who could help him understand all the questions that seemed to have no answers, long though he had pondered them in the dark watches of the night. Even Arthur, who knew him best of all, did not really know him. And it was best that way.
There is only one question that need concern you now, he told himself sternly, and that is how to get out of this wretched forest. A moment later he had the answer, when he glimpsed a stone tower rising above the treetops. With a sigh of relief, he turned his charger’s head toward the tower and kicked the beast into a canter.
THEY had nearly reached the hall when Elaine realized they were not alone. A knight stood before the mounting block, holding his horse’s reins. She halted, thinking at first that Cousin Geoffrey had remembered his promise, until she realized that this was no knight she’d ever seen before. Even Geoffrey did not have armor half so fine, and his charger, the envy of five manors, was like a cart horse compared to this blooded beast.
The knight’s helm, adorned with a blue plume, turned in their direction. Though the visor was up, the face beneath remained in shadow.
Her father stepped forward. “Good day to you, Sir Knight, and welcome to Corbenic.” He gestured proudly across the shabby courtyard to the crumbling tower. “I am Pelleas, lord of this demesne. Whence comest thou, my guest, and by what name?”
Elaine held her breath, dreading the strange knight’s mockery, yet when he spoke, there was no laughter in his voice. “I am a knight of Arthur’s hall,” he answered with grave courtesy, “and tomorrow I joust as one unknown to win King Arthur’s diamond. Hereafter you shall know me, but I pray you ask me not today.”
At his last words, Elaine’s smile died upon her lips. It was unheard of for any stranger to refuse to name himself. Why, he could be any sort of outlaw—Bruce sans Pitie, who had abducted dozens of maidens to his stronghold, or the infamous Sir Turquine—he could be anyone at all! Elaine and Torre exchanged a look, but before either of them could speak, their father forestalled them.
“As you will,” Pelleas replied easily. “I hope that for tonight, you will remain with us.”
“Thank you,” the knight said with a little bow. “And if I might ask another favor . . .”
“By mischance, I came out with my shield. I pray you to lend me one, blank if such you have, or at least with some device not mine.”
Elaine glanced at the shield in question, strapped to his saddle in its canvas cover. What device did it bear, that its owner was ashamed to show? She threw her father a warning glance, but he was smiling at the stranger as though his extraordinary request was no great matter.
“Oh, that we can give you easily. My elder son, Torre, was hurt in his first tilt. His shield is blank enough.”
Elaine sensed Torre’s shocked anger at this casual bestowal of his equipment upon a nameless stranger, but there was nothing to be done about it now. “Why not?” he said, “you may as well have it; ’tis no use to me.”
“Fie, Sir Churl!” Pelleas chided, laughing. “What sort of courtesy is that? I beg you to forgive him, sir.”
The blue plume dipped as the knight inclined his head. “I am grateful for the loan, Sir Torre.”
Torre nodded briefly, still unsmiling.
“Now, my younger son, Lavaine,” Pelleas continued, “who is but lately knighted, he would ride with you to yonder joust. Why, he is so full of lustihood that he will win yon diamond in an hour, then bring it home to set it in this damsel’s hand! Is that not what you were telling us, Lavaine?”
“No, Father,” Lavaine protested, “do not mock me before this noble knight! I was only joking, sir,” he said earnestly to the stranger, “I but played on Torre—”
“Enough,” Torre ordered sharply, but Lavaine hurried on.
“He was so sullen, vexed he could not go—”
“Did I not say, enough?” Torre growled, and aimed a blow at his young brother’s head. Lavaine skipped nimbly away.
“And so I jested with him—for you see, Sir Knight, my sister dreamed that someone put this diamond in her hand, but it was too slippery to hold—”
“Lavaine!” Elaine cried, but he ignored her, too.
“And she dropped it in some pool or stream—belike the castle well—and so I said that if I went, and if I fought and won it—but it was all a jest, a joke between ourselves—that she must keep it safelier. It was all in fun. But Father,” he cried, “do give me leave to ride to Arthur’s tourney with this noble knight! I shan’t win, but I will do my best to win. I know I am young, but I would do my best.”
“He won’t want to be bothered with you,” Torre began.
“On the contrary,” the stranger cut in smoothly, “I would welcome a friend and guide. And you shall win this diamond if you can—for I hear it is a fair large diamond—and yield it to this maiden, if you will.”
Whoever he might be, his manners could not be faulted. He had a lovely voice, as well, deep and musical and tinged with the faintest suggestion of an accent she thought might be Gaulish. Surely no man who spoke so prettily could be evil.
Torre was not so easily won over. “A fair large diamond is for queens, not simple maids,” he said, both his tone and his expression conveying an unmistakable warning.
“If what is fair belongs only to the fair, what matter if she be queen or not?” the knight retorted coolly. “This maid could wear as fair a jewel as is on earth and never violate the bond of like to like.”
Ha! Elaine thought, shooting a triumphant glance toward her brother. He’s put you in your place! She nearly laughed aloud—until the knight removed his helm.
Coal-black hair was plastered to his high brow and heat-flushed cheeks in little whorls. His features were perfectly symmetrical: large, dark eyes and high, chiseled cheekbones, full, ruddy lips above a jaw at once delicate and strong. No man should be so beautiful, Elaine thought, the breath catching in her throat. No man was. On that she would have sworn an oath. Yet here he stood before her, like some mythical creature who had wandered out of legend into their humdrum little world.
Her last suspicion vanished. Impossible to believe a man so young and fair—for he could not be more than three or four and twenty—and so well-spoken could be anything other than he claimed to be.