Named to Kirkus Reviews' Best Books of 2016 A Tale of the Last Knight of the Round Table Seven years after the death of Arthur Pendragon, Sir Percival, the last surviving knight of the Round Table, returns to Albion after a long and futile quest for the Holy Grail. The peaceful and prosperous home that he left a decade earlier is no more. Camelot has fallen, and much of the Pendragon’s kingdom has been subjugated by the evil Morgana and the Norse invaders who once served under her banner. Although the knight desires only to return to his ancestral lands and to live in peace, he vows to pursue one last quest before he rests—to find Guinevere, the Queen of the Britons. This journey will force the knight to travel the length and breadth of Albion, to overcome the most fearsome and cunning of enemies, and to embrace a past that is both painful and magnificent.The Return of Sir Percival is the tale of a knight who seeks peace, but finds only war, of a Queen who has borne sorrow and defeat, but who will not yield, and of a valiant people determined to cast of the yoke of their oppressors. It is also a tale of tragedy and triumph, and of romance lost and then found. The unique vision of the Arthurian world brought to life in S. Alexander O’Keefe’s The Return of Sir Percival takes readers on a journey that is as enthralling as it is memorable.
|Publisher:||Greenleaf Book Group Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)|
About the Author
S. Alexander O’Keefe was born in Providence, Rhode Island. He is a graduate of Dartmouth College and Fordham University School of Law, and he practices law in Newport Beach, California. Mr. O’Keefe and his wife, Cathy, who live in Irvine, California, have three children. The Return of Sir Percival is Mr. O’Keefe’s second novel.
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The Return of Sir Percival
Book 1: Guinevere's Prayer
By S. Alexander O'Keefe
Greenleaf Book Group PressCopyright © 2016 Sean A. O'Keefe
All rights reserved.
The Passage to Albion
Aldwyn Potter stared at the Frankish coast from the stern of the Mandragon, his eyes fixed on the walled settlement drifting in and out of the morning fog a league to the south. Despite the cold breeze, a river of sweat flowed down the old mariner's weathered cheeks to the point of his chin, before falling to the deck below. Like a man in a trance. Potter murmured a prayer over and over again, in cadence with each sweep of the galley's oars.
In each fervent chant, he thanked the Almighty for the fair wind and following sea and begged deliverance from the threat on the receding coast. The twenty rowers amidships, sensing their captain's disquiet, pulled together in a strong, silent rhythm, seeking, with each stroke, the safety of Albion's shores to the north. They, like Potter, lived in mortal fear of the men within those dark walls — the Norse raiders known as the seawolves.
When Potter had first gone to sea, three decades earlier, the Norse had raided the coasts of Albion and Francia from the late spring until the early fall and then returned to the northland until the next season. Alas, even this brief respite was now a thing of the past. In recent years, the seawolves had established settlements on the islands off western Hibernia and along the Frankish coast — settlements allowing them to prowl the surrounding seas from the first day of the sailing season to the last. In these fell times, a sailor from Albion was far more likely to die by a Norseman's sword, or worse, to serve as a slave under his lash, than to die in the cruel embrace of the sea.
On this voyage, Potter had left his Frankish port-of-call to the south well before dawn, intending to sail past the seawolves' settlement in the early hours of the morning. The day before had been a Norse feast day, and he knew the raiders would be slow to rise after a night of drinking and wenching. Thankfully, in this he had been right. The settlement was as quiet as a grave, and with each stroke of the oars, the threat from the savage men within its wooden walls receded.
After taking a last look at the coast, Potter allowed himself a moment of hope. On this, his last voyage, the bones had mercifully rolled his way again, as they had so many times in the past. As he turned and started toward the bow of the ship, the Mandragon passed through a patch of fog reluctantly yielding its grey cloak to the rays of the morning sun. The moment the ship emerged from its shelter, the sailor on watch in the ship's prow screamed a warning.
Potter scanned the sea and seized upon the long galley off the Mandragon's port side. For a moment, he stood there transfixed by the sight of the black dragonprow cutting through the waves toward the Frankish coast and the wall of armed warriors standing amidships, returning his stare. As the captain watched, the galley wheeled in a slow and sure arc toward the Mandragon, and the cadence pounded out by the raiders' oarsmaster — a red-haired giant in the stern — grew louder and more rapid.
As the ship drew closer, a desperate rage came over the old captain, and he broke free of the ice-cold tendrils of fear that were binding his feet to the deck. They will not take my ship without a fight. Seizing the iron-tipped cudgel lying on the deck a pace away, he ran toward the bow of the ship.
"Cadeyrn, Drust, Seisyll, Wade, and Ninian, grab your steel and make ready! The rest of you men, pull for your lives!" Potter roared.
Before Potter and his men could reach the forward rail, three Norsemen were already aboard. The leader was a fair-haired mountain of a man, easily twenty hands tall, clad in a foul-smelling bearskin. In one hand, the giant held a wooden shield nearly half as tall as Potter, and in the other, a short, wide sword designed for cutting flesh and smashing bones in close quarters fighting. The web of cuts and gashes in the thick leather helmet atop the giant's head, along with the scars on his face and arms, marked him as a seasoned warrior.
As Potter and his sailors traded blows with the first wave of Norsemen, the old captain could see the growing stream of raiders climbing over the rail behind them, and he knew the battle for Mandragon was being lost. In a desperate effort to turn the tide, Potter dropped beneath the sweep of the blond giant's sword and swung his cudgel at the man's exposed knee.
A moment before the iron tip smashed into the bone, the giant realized the danger and raised his leg. The blow smashed into the primitive iron greave protecting the Norseman's calf, drawing a howl of pain, but otherwise leaving him unharmed. The enraged giant retaliated by smashing his upraised heel into Potter's chest, hurling him backward against the starboard rail.
As the dazed captain struggled futilely to stand and get back into the fight, a man sprang out of the starboard cargo hold. A second man followed on his heels, and the two raced across the deck to join the battle. For a moment, Potter stared at the men, bewildered, and then realized it was the two passengers who had come aboard at Lapurdum, a port in southern Francia. Potter had paid the men little heed, assuming they were wealthy merchants, based upon the quality of their traveling cloaks and their plentiful supply of silver coins. Now, he could see his judgment had been wide of the mark.
The first man out of the hold was nineteen hands tall, but he moved with the ease and speed of a man half his size. His chiseled face was framed by a mane of black hair that flowed past the ropes of muscle in his neck to the formidable shoulders below. He wore a mailed shirt over his torso, steel gauntlets on his forearms, and a gleaming steel buckler shield strapped to his left forearm. The steel sword he grasped in his right hand seemed merely a part of the far more lethal weapon that was the man, rather than a separate instrument of war.
The second man was a bald African, similarly clad. He was a head shorter than the tall man, but had the arms and chest of a blacksmith, and his sword was curved like that of a Moorish warrior. As the African ran across the deck with his companion, he wheeled his sword in a blinding circle, as if performing a ritual, and then his powerful hand enclosed the pommel in an iron grip.
When the two men waded into the Norsemen flooding the deck behind the blond giant, it was as if something terrible and magnificent had been unleashed. The pair weaved among their opponents like wind-borne scythes, working in unison, both masters of the same lethal dance. In moments, the second wave of raiders lay either dead or dying, and the third wave attempting to board had been driven back into the sea.
As the Norse giant and a second raider pressed forward to kill the last of the five sailors who had answered Potter's call to battle, the scream of a dying companion drew his attention. The blond warrior glanced over his shoulder at the carnage on the deck behind him, and then he wheeled around, dragging his companion with him.
The tall, dark-haired man moved forward to engage the giant, leaving the African to hold the rail against further boarders. As soon as the man was within striking distance, the leader of the Norsemen shoved his smaller companion in front of him, using him as a shield. He then leaped forward, intending to strike his adversary down. His gambit failed. The dark-haired man sprang to the right with blinding speed and smashed his buckler shield against the smaller man's head, dropping the stunned raider to the deck.
The blond warrior bellowed out a roar and swung his sword in a slashing blow at the other man's neck, but his enemy dove under the strike, rolled, and came to his feet behind the giant. There, he struck the giant down with a single fluid stroke and stepped aside as the body fell heavily to the deck.
When the sailors threw the giant Norseman's body over the rail, the oarsmaster on the dragonship roared out a command and began to pound out a different beat. As Potter watched, the galley moved away and once again headed toward the settlement on the Frankish coast. The captain of the raiders had decided the blood price for taking the Mandragon was not worth the expected treasure.
An hour after the battle ended, Potter walked the length of the raised quarterdeck, surveying the worn oak planks that ran the length of the ship. After a long moment, he nodded his silver-haired head in satisfaction. The crew had swabbed away all traces of the blood and gore, and the cold sea air had swept away the odor of death. Sadly, neither toil nor wind could resurrect the four sailors who'd breathed their last only steps away from where he stood, nor render the memory of the attack that had taken their lives any less painful.
Potter's gaze scanned the rest of the ship and came to rest on the two passengers who were standing in the prow talking quietly, now innocuously clad in their traveling cloaks. He started toward them, intending to thank them once again for saving his ship, when he noticed Bede, the youngest sailor, staring at the two men as if they were monsters from the deep.
"Quit your gawking, boy, and get on with it," he ordered. "We're an hour out of port, and I want those ropes and barrels stowed."
The young sailor jumped at Potter's growl.
"Aye, Captain. I'll be hard at it."
The exchange drew a grin from Fulke, the bosun, as he lugged a barrel of wine up from the hold on his shoulder.
"You do that," Potter said as he turned to Fulke. "And you, Fulke, don't spill a drop of that wine. That barrel will go for a king's ransom in Caer Ceint."
"Not a drop, sir," Fulke said, the grin on his hard, sea-worn face widening.
Potter slowed as he approached the two men and stopped a respectful distance away. The dark-haired man turned to face him, and for a moment, the captain stood in silence, transfixed, as the memory of the battle with the Norsemen replayed in his mind yet again. Potter suppressed the recollection as he stared thoughtfully into the taller man's face.
Potter was a trader, and a successful one. He'd bargained and parleyed with the Franks, Moors, Greeks, and yes, even the cursed Norsemen, from time to time. He prided himself on being able to quickly take the measure of a man from his mien — in particular, from his eyes — and to use those insights to gain an advantage. In this instance, the dark-haired man's face remained a mystery. The confluence of the strong jaw, aquiline nose, and prominent forehead, all of which had been bronzed by the sun in some distant land, was more noble than handsome, but the enigma lay in the contrast between the eyes and the rest of the man's face.
The striking blue eyes staring back at Potter were those of a man who had waded deep into the cauldron of life and borne the pain of its most scalding waters; the eyes of a soldier who'd oft engaged in battle and felt the near touch of death; and most surprising, the eyes of a man who had found, in spite of the ordeal, a path to the rarest of gifts — wisdom. What troubled Potter was the rest of the man's face: His mien was unscarred and bereft of the burdens of age, and yet he was skilled in battle and wise in years.
The tall man waited patiently for a moment and then stepped toward Potter and extended his hand, revealing a web of scars running over the back of his hand and continuing across much of his heavily muscled forearm. The hand that closed upon Potter's own was like a piece of worn iron, but at the same time, there was an honest warmth in the man's grip and in the words he spoke.
"Captain Potter, it seems our voyage together will yet have a peaceful end."
"That it will," he said with a nod. "And I will thank the Lord and all his angels from this day until my last for sending you and your friend on this voyage. If not for your bravery and skill, we ... we would all have been killed or sold into slavery, for that is the way of the seawolves."
"So I have heard, Captain." The man turned to the silent African by his side, whose face was hidden within the hood of his dark grey cloak. "I would have you know my friend and brother-in-arms, Capussa."
The African drew off his hood and nodded solemnly to Potter, revealing a square jaw, a wide, prominent nose, and brown eyes that radiated power, confidence, and more than a hint of mirth. Unlike his friend's face, the African's bore the marks of battle; a scar ran from his right ear to the cleft of his jaw, and a second marred his left cheekbone.
The dark-haired man gestured to the approaching shore. "Captain, you seem to be coming in short of the Tamesis. Is Londinium not your port?"
Potter shook his head. "It was my home port, until Hengst and his raiders came."
"Hengst?" the tall man asked.
Potter raised both brows. "Surely you have heard of Hengst the Butcher?"
"No, Captain. I have not."
"Sir, may I ask how long you have been away from Albion?"
The man exchanged glances with the African and then stared at the approaching coast for a moment before turning his attention back to Potter. He slowly shook his head, as if reaching for a distant and painful memory.
"I sailed from Londinium nearly ten summers ago."
Potter let out a slow breath. "Why, the Pendragon was —"
"Still on the throne, and the Table yet unbroken," the man finished. The captain paused at the quiet anguish in the man's voice and then continued.
"The war began a year after you left. That foul witch, Morgana, and her band of brigands — may she burn in the bowels of hell — were never a match for the Pendragon and the Knights of the Table. But then ... somehow she found the gold to hire an army of sellswords from the lands of the Norse and Saxons. Those hell-spawn became the scourge of the land. The things they did were truly the devil's own work." Potter's breath rasped in his throat, as if it had become as dry as a bone in the sun.
The African drew a metal flask from his cloak and handed it to the old man. "Drink," he ordered in a voice like the growl of an old bear.
Potter took the flask and drank. For a moment, he thought he'd swallowed a hot coal, but then the burning eased and he could taste the flavor of the fiery brew, a taste he found pleasing.
"That ... it is noble mead," Potter said with a gasp, returning the flask to the African. "Like fire at first, and yet it has a fine taste once you take the full measure of it."
"That's not mead, Captain," the African said with a smile, "but I'm happy you find it agreeable."
Potter took in another breath. "It is indeed. Now, where was I ... Oh yes, the war." He frowned. "It raged for two, maybe three years. The King nearly drove the raiders into the sea during the last year, but then the witch brought in a fresh army of Norse and Saxons — Picts too — and the tide began to turn. Then came the last battle ... Camlann."
He hesitated and drew in a heavy breath before continuing in a voice filled with heartfelt regret. "It was a terrible slaughter. The witch and her foul army were driven from the field, but the price was high ... too high. The Pendragon was killed, and the Table died with him."
"All were lost?" the tall man asked, his voice hushed.
"Do you say that all of the Knights of the Table fell that day?"
Potter lifted his shoulders in a weary shrug. "Some say one might have survived the battle, and others claim Sir Percival is still in the Holy Land." He shook his head. "I cannot say. I —"
"And Galahad?" the tall man interjected. "Are you sure that he fell at Camlann with the rest of my ... with the rest of the Knights?"
Potter eyes widened, surprised at the intensity in the tall man's voice. "That is a true mystery," he said. "They say his body was never found, but he was in the very thick of the battle. I just can't say, sir."
Potter shook his head, and his eyes grew distant. "It ... it seems like it happened so long ago. Sometimes, well, the younger ones, when they talk of the Pendragon, the Queen, and the Table, it's as if they were legends, people who lived in a far distant time."
"You were speaking of this Hengst," the other man prodded gently.
Potter felt a rush of fear and hate, in equal measure, at the mention of the name.
"He was the leader of the second band of sellswords, who came from the north. After the battle, he took the remnants of his men and began to raid the smaller villages. In the first year, he looted, raped, and killed. Then, as more brigands joined his band, he started to besiege the towns. Several years ago, he made a surprise raid on Londinium in the early morn. He attacked from the landward side and his brother, Ivarr the Red, from the river. A traitor within the city opened one of the gates, and by the time the guards realized the peril, it was too late."
The ship dipped sharply into the trough of a wave, unbalancing the old sailor for a moment. The African put a hand on his shoulder and steadied him. Potter nodded his thanks and went on with his tale.
"The devil himself would have been shocked by the slaughter that followed. My uncle was a cooper there, he ..." The captain's voice trailed off and he hesitated for a moment, anger welling up inside of him, but he suppressed it and continued.
Excerpted from The Return of Sir Percival by S. Alexander O'Keefe. Copyright © 2016 Sean A. O'Keefe. Excerpted by permission of Greenleaf Book Group Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1: The Passage to Albion,
Chapter 2: Abbey Cwm Hir, Wales,
Chapter 3: Morgana's Castle,
Chapter 4: The Road to Londinium,
Chapter 5: The Road to Londinium,
Chapter 6: The Road to Londinium,
Chapter 7: Morgana's Castle,
Chapter 8: Abbey Cwm Hir,
Chapter 9: The Home of Aelred, Royal Seneschal,
Chapter 10: The Camp of Cynric the Archer,
Chapter 11: Morgana's Domain,
Chapter 12: The Road to Londinium,
Chapter 13: Pen Dinas, Wales,
Chapter 14: Morgana's Domain,
Chapter 15: The Tournament Field in Londinium,
Chapter 16: Abbey Cwm Hir,
Chapter 17: Londinium,
Chapter 18: The Wid River,
Chapter 19: Camp on the River Wid,
Chapter 20: The Battle of the River Wid,
Chapter 21: Town of Cestreforda,
Chapter 22: Abbey Cwm Hir,
Chapter 23: Abbey Cwm Hir,
Chapter 24: Abbey Cwm Hir,
Chapter 25: Abbey Cwm Hir,
Chapter 26: The Queen's Sitting Room, Abbey Cwm Hir,
Chapter 27: Abbey Cwm Hir,
Chapter 28: The Marches,
Chapter 29: Noviomagus Reginorum,
Chapter 30: The Road from Noviomagus Reginorum to Londinium,
Chapter 31: Guinevere's Quarters, North of the Vale of Ashes,
Chapter 32: The Vale of Ashes,
Chapter 33: Guinevere's Quarters, North of the Vale of Ashes,
Chapter 34: Londinium, Three Weeks Later,
Chapter 35: Pen Dinas,
Reading Group Guide,
Author Q & A,
About the Author,