The Arthurian epic that began in Mad Merlin continues in Lancelot du Lethe, the story of the greatest knight, paramour, and traitor the Round Table has ever known.
The story of Lancelot is one of striving for perfection only to fall short due to the sins of the flesh. But in Lancelot du Lethe the knight is only partially of the mortal realm. He and Guinevere share a mystical bond of which Arthur cannot be a part, for they are both of the bloodline of the fey, immortally destined to be betrothed. This ensuing war of loyalties and love threatens the uneasy peace not just mortal realm but of the entire netherworld of the multipantheons of gods as well.
Drawing from Joseph Campbell, and from sources both historical and literary, this is a new take on the story of Camelot's most famous knight, told as only the author of Mad Merlin can.
At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.
About the Author
J. Robert King is an Origins Award-winning author for his gaming fiction. Mad Merlin was his first non-gaming-related novel. He lives in Burlington, Wisconsin.
J. Robert King is an Origins Award-winning author for his gaming fiction. Mad Merlin is the first book of his Arthurian trilogy that also includes Lancelot Du Lethe and Le Morte D'Avalon. He lives in Burlington, Wisconsin.
Read an Excerpt
Lancelot Du Lethe
1Between Fire and Water
It wasn't a blessing, but a curse,"King Ban told himself. He chewed the syllables angrily."Those things he said over my son--they were a curse."Ban stood in the solarium of Benwick Castle. Rare glass windows gave him a view west and east. To the west, the Atlantic Sea boiled beneath a fiery sunset. To the east, the city of Benwick burned beneath an invasion.Claudas's soldiers swarmed the hills. They bore torches in their midst--torches for homes and swords for their owners. A thousand fires already beamed upon the hillside. A thousand hovels flamed. Smaller fires rose in flocks upon the wind. Shafts arced over the sparsely guarded wall and brought pitch-soaked points to the thatch below. As rapidly as Claudas's armies marched upon Benwick, the citizenry fled. Caught between fire and water, they crowded the docks and climbed on anything that floated."My best legion--off in Britannia," King Ban mused. "Bors's best legion--off in Britannia. Merlin has robbed us of our defenders. He wins, and we lose.""What, dear?" asked Elaine. Tall and lithe, the queen had arrived silently. She held the infant Lancelot to her breast. "What did you say about Merlin?"King Ban lowered his eyes. They reflected his burning city. "We must begin to think of alternatives, my dear.""Alternatives?" she asked. Instinctually she gripped Lancelot closer. "Alternatives to what?"To staying here and dying, he wanted to say, but Ban was not a cruel man. He turned toward his wife, strode to her, and wrapped her and the child in an embrace. "Lancelot has a future, a bright future, and that's what I am thinking of. Before Lancelot, I would have remained. I would have faced down Claudas myself, on this very spot. Now that I have a son, though, an heir, it would be foolish to stand against overwhelming forces--" He stopped himself too late. Pulling back from the embrace, he divined her eyes.Question had turned to desperation. "Just an hour ago, you said the city watch could stem this tide. You said the second legion outnumbered all the warriors of Claudas.""Words spoken in haste, to soothe, to dismiss needless worry," Ban explained uncomfortably. "Now worry is needful. It's not for me, or even for you, my dear. It's for Lancelot."She drew a deep breath. Lancelot cried fitfully. Elaine was slender and sweet, but also strong. Even as she stared into the face of her child, her back straightened. Something hard entered her features. "What must we do?"King Ban reached out to her. "Come with me. It's a small thing, easily done." He grasped her elbow and guided her toward the door. "Down we go, my sweet, down to the kitchens." The door swung onto a spiral stair in polished stone. Bronze lamps and olive oil filled the descent with fragrant light. KingBan coaxed his wife down the passage. "The peasants flee the city, rats from a sinking ship. They know what befalls. Claudas lets them run, for peasants always return. One master is the same as any other. It's the nobility he is after--us, and our son--""Please, Ban," Elaine protested mildly."Claudas will reach the castle. That much is sure. Perhaps within the hour, he will stride these very steps. If we remain, we are doomed. If we flee as king and queen and prince, we are worse still, for our own folk might slay us. But if we become something less ..." the sentence broke off midthought as the royal family shoved their way through a servant's door into the kitchen.It was a low place. Massive beams brushed Ban's head. Wide fireplaces yawned their black throats. The remains of one beast still hung spitted above smoldering logs. Ironwork pots boiled over or burned their contents to acrid cinders. Most telling of all, the silver set and the knives had all gone missing.Elaine surveyed the abandoned scene. Her lip stiffened. She clutched the sleeping baby with a kind of ferocity. "I will become like them to save this babe. I will become something less, anything I must become."Ban only nodded. He gestured her toward the cellar stairs. Dark, rail-less, and patched in moss, they were altogether different from the stairs in the royal apartments. "It is not so horrible a thing, to become a peasant. They are freer than any noble. Yes, they are owned. Yes, they must serve as they are told, but who seeks to kill a peasant? No one. Who seeks to kill a king, a queen, a prince? Everyone."Cautiously descending, Ban pushed back the cellar door. It grated open, and a cool rush of wet air emerged. Beyond thedoor stood cask upon cask of ale. Past the barrels and crates were pegs where peasants left their own shabby garb to don the livery of Benwick."You see me?" Ban asked as he drew off his ermine stole and the silken shift beneath. In their stead, Ban snatched up a weary-worn tunic of sackcloth. "If clothes make the man, I am unmade." He tried to smile at his joke, but his gaze caught on Elaine.She stood, tall and statuesque, tears streaming onto Lancelot. "How will we regain it? If we cannot hold it when we have our armies about us, how will we regain it without them?""How will we regain it if we are dead?" Ban shot back. He cringed. "I should not have been so blunt. Forgive me, my dear. I am only thinking of our son."Yanking off his canons, Ban hurled them aside. He snatched up a tattered pair of trousers with holes in knees and crotch. "Even if we cannot regain what we lose here, Lancelot can. Our lives may have been written in full, but his only begins." He cinched a rope-belt around his waist. "Merlin said he would be a knight--the greatest knight. He will regain what we lose today."From a nearby peg, Ban grasped a crone's dress and brought it to his wife. "Put it on." He took the babe in one arm and presented the dress.Elaine visibly trembled. Her arms, emptied of the child, clutched around her as if she were cold. "I can't wear that.""Put it on," King Ban demanded.She shuddered. Reluctant, tearful, angry, confused--she began to disrobe. It was a terrible scene. She seemed a woman being raped. In a way she was. Her every virtue was taken from her, dragged away like the silk chemise that pooled on the floor. Soon, she stood naked before her husband, the crone's dressstill clutched in her left hand. She released a yelp of despair.Lancelot stirred and reached for his mother. He felt his father's broad chest and tried to latch on. Only sackcloth filled his mouth. He growled, preparatory to a full-fledged holler.Rough and insistent, Ban rocked the baby. He suddenly realized he had never done this before. "Lancelot," he muttered in sweet awe. Picking up a commoner's shift, he wrapped the child in it and kissed his forehead. "Do you see, Elaine? Already, I am a better man. Already I tend my own child, and kiss him, and protect him--a peasant's work. A peasant's freedom.""Already, I am a worse woman." She drew the despoiled fabric down around her. Slender, strong, youthful skin was hidden beneath a shell of tattered filth. "Already I am a crone.""Not to me, though I do hope you grow into one," Ban said. "Let us go, my darling. Let us save ourselves and save the future king of Benwick!" He snatched up Elaine's hand and led her out the kitchen steps toward the dark night beyond. "Darkness helps us," reasoned Ban. "And dirt and desperation. They will bear us along like a river." A door barked open, and his words were proved true. The bailey thronged with fleeing folk, and the street beyond had become a river of humanity. "We will ride this tide and emerge in safety."
All rivers, even human rivers, run to the sea.The flood of refugees boiled down every street and sluiced down every alley. At last, the fleshly wave gushed out across the docks. Some few folk continued on to splash into the waters. Most churned along piers until they found a gangplank and ganged aboard. All they needed was an unoccupied square foot on deck. They didn't even need a willing captain; unwilling ones were thrown overboard.Ships sailed. Laden with many times their typical payloads, the vessels of Benwick harbor set out in a huge and hopeless armada. Crafts collided. Boats capsized. Fights broke out. Mutinies abounded. Despite every setback, the ragtag flotilla straggled away from the burning city. The stone jetty clawed at them--the last grasp of land--and a few more folk died. The rest drifted out into the black belly of the sea.Some vessels sailed south, toward Iberia. Others plunged west, toward nothing but doom. Most headed north, hoping for a friendly welcome in Brittany.Queen Elaine, King Ban, and Prince Lancelot had found themselves on just such a ship--an argosy that last had borne barrels of salt fish. Everything reeked of it, everything but the captain, who reeked of other things. The old sot was half-slain by rye spirits when his boat was seized. Amiable with drink, he agreed to visit his brother in Brittany. "He'll welcome you all. He's got daughters for ever'one." The good ship Scruple--smelling foul with fish and fear--sailed.In the hold, stench made the air swim. At least folk packed there were warm, shielded from winds and blackness. Those crowded on deck breathed better--or worse--in the cold night. Wind shoved them, rifled their clothes, slapped their faces, howled in their ears. The wind had a co-conspirator in the sea. Waves shouldered past the hull in an angry stampede. Deep troughs opened before the bow and hurled the ship down until it scraped its keel. Watery ridges rose thereafter and flung the craft into angry skies.In tumult's heart, King Ban lost his own. Benwick was gone now, in flames beneath the horizon. There was only this ink, above and below, churning fitfully. He was king of nothing, in worse tatters than most on the ship, smaller than plowmen and weaker than fishwives. The woman beside him was no longerqueen, but a desperate and terrified crone in rags. Worst of all, though, Lancelot had ceased to be anything but a squalling babe. Past and future were eaten by blackness, and only the omnipresent, insufferable moment remained.Lancelot screamed. Any creature with that much rage would fight, could perhaps prevail.Ban wanted to feel that rage. Shifting sideways, he reached for his son. Elaine seemed only too glad to relinquish him. Ban lifted the kicking boy, gray against the night. Elaine dragged Ban's arms down. He cradled the child, pressing his head to his heart. "Let that steady beat calm you, sweet child. Let it assure you."Lancelot calmed for a moment, but then kicked sharply. Ban's arm, which had borne a thousand strokes of sword on shield, could not bear that single infant kick. An ache spread hotly from his shoulder to his elbow, and then to his wrist. It was as though the babe were made of red-hot iron. Ban struggled to hold him, but the candent ache spread toward his neck. Lancelot's protests only grew."It was a curse he laid on you," King Ban gasped. His left arm jangled nervelessly as his right took hold of the child and dragged him toward his mother. Take him, Ban meant to say, but he suddenly had no breath.Elaine took the boy anyway, her face sour.Gulping, Ban clutched his chest. It was all gone now, all but the pain. Even his own pulse was gone.Ban turned bulging eyes toward his wife. Elaine and Lancelot floated in the center of a roaring tunnel. They seemed to be getting farther away, but it was Ban who retreated."Guard Lancelot, my love," gasped King Ban of Benwick, and he was no more.
The storm would not relent--not here, on land, in broad daylight two days later. Not here in Britannia (hadn't they said the boat sailed for Brittany?) on the wide plains, far from the rocks that had torn the ship apart. The storm would never relent around Elaine. It was inside her. Her ears roared with wind. Her mouth burned with brine. Her skin stung with rain. Worst of all, though, as she stared down at her child, at Lancelot, she saw black clouds tear across his blue eyes.The boy's father was dead. He'd died of grief. Why had the angel descended to take the father but not the mother? What of her grief?They had wanted to throw Ban overboard once he was cold, but she had not let them. "He is king!" she'd insisted. "King Ban--your king!" They had consoled her, their arms soft but their smirks hard. They thought she was mad.They were right. She should have let them throw the body to the sharks. The rocks chewed him up just as surely.For two days, she had wandered with Lancelot. She grew weaker all the while, and he stronger. She ate nothing but water, while he nursed upon her body and blood and bone. A woman needn't be sane to care for her infant, as long as she had milk.Now, though, the milk was gone. She had nothing to offer him. Death would claim them both.A seven thousand six hundred thirty-fourth step, a seven thousand six hundred thirty-fifth, and she was knee-deep in a marsh. She raised her eyes from the stagnant water, reeds jutting up all around her. Wetlands stretched out beneath sloping hills and a charcoal sky. In the midst of the gnat-filled slough rose a triangular mound. It seemed a rumpled hat, its brim sodden and dripping.Elaine went to her knees in the muck. If she drank, perhaps her milk would come again. Her parched lips moved toward the water. She uttered an accusation, a blasphemy, a prayer: "Mother of God!"Sudden brilliance enveloped Elaine. She looked up.Someone approached. She strode on the water, as her son had done on Galilee. She beamed light as if clothed in a star. Her presence burned away the dry stalks and radiated through the murky flood and purified the swamp. It grew deeper, wider around her. Her footsteps made the surface silver. Angels moved in the waters and the air.Elaine gazed into that loving light and felt the storm at last cease. Every gritty corner was cleansed, every hopeless, helpless impulse. Her arms, for two days clutching the babe, dropped loose. Elaine stood before the glorious presence."Mother of God," she breathed, "you have heard my prayer."A voice of infinite love replied, "Yes. I have come to take your child."Only then did Elaine see that Lancelot, gone from her slack arms, rested quiet and content upon the breast of the woman.Though mad, dry of milk, and destitute, Elaine was still a mother. "You cannot take my baby."A look of deep sadness came to the woman's eyes, a sadness that grieved Elaine. "I can ... but I will not. If he comes with me, he will fulfill his destiny--to be the greatest knight ever to live, and to reclaim Benwick after Claudas is dead." She held out the child. "If I return him to you, neither of these things will come to pass, and you both will die mad and starved. It is your choice."Elaine was still a mother. She bowed her head and said, "Save him, then, Mistress. Lead him to his destiny."It was enough. Moments in dream and divinity last for hours, and a single sentence begets a whole book.She was gone, the woman garbed in a star. The reeds had returned, and the gnat-filled marsh, the rumpled hills and all. It had been but a vision, a delirium-dream--except that Lancelot, too, was gone.Elaine remembered her arms going limp, and she gave a cry. Dropping again to her knees, she rammed her hands down in the muck and sent fingers raking through. He had to be here. He wasn't floating on the surface. He had to be here, among the snake holes and roots.There was no warmth and nothing solid, only cold rot."Lancelot!" she shrieked.She flailed forward, to one side, to the other. The water around her roiled with filth. She dived and dragged her arms through the reeds. It was no good. This was true grief. Forgetting herself, she took a deep lungful of water and convulsed as her lungs hurled it out. Only more turbid muck flooded down to replace it.She was drowning. It didn't matter. First Ban, then Lancelot, and now Elaine. She was drowning. Unless she touched his flesh, her child's flesh, nothing mattered. She was drowning.A hand--she felt a hand--it grasped her, pulled her forth--not a child's hand, but a crone's, a bent old woman, her muscles like yarn on twiglike bones."Child, what manner of devil possesses you?" the abbess asked.Elaine yanked her hand away and spat at the woman. Mary had not heard her prayer. Mary had mocked her, had taken her child. Elaine screamed. The sound came out in bubbling blood. She tried to throw herself back into the marsh but the ground swept up to strike her.The abbess knelt, setting a knee on her back. "Rest, child. We will cast the demon out. You will heal. You will be yourself again."Elaine's hiss gushed mud through her teeth."In nomine patri, et filio, et spiritus sanctus ..."
He dreamed. Even infants dream. Infants only dream.There had been waters that bore him before--the waters beneath Mother's thundering heart, the waters beneath Father's thundering sky. They had borne him from one world to the next. Now he dreamed new waters--as soft as swaddling and as deep as an old woman's gaze. The waters bore him to the next world, an old place but utterly new ... .Copyright © 2001 by J. Robert King