The Guinevere Trilogy (Book 3)
Author: Sharan Newman
2014 Reissue Edition
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ISBN 978-1-62268-065-8 ebook
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The Guinevere Trilogy (Book 3)
Author: Sharan Newman
Lancelot of the Lake,
son of Ban of Banoit, and most illustrious knight of the Round Table,
squatted by the campfire, polishing his armor with casual grace. He had
been aware for a while that someone was watching him from the woods; someone
who could hide as cleverly as a wild animal. But Lancelot knew it was
human, or close to it, and he waited for whoever it was to make his move.
He hoped it would be soon, as he was tired and there was still a long
journey to Camelot tomorrow. He was sorry now that Gareth had left that
afternoon, to spend some days at Tintagel with his mother, Morgan le Fay.
It would have been easier if one man could have slept and the other watched.
He laid the armor on a blanket and picked up his
sword, running the cloth up and down the steel blade with a kind of caress.
He kept his right hand on the hilt as he spoke.
"You have been sitting there for nearly three
hours. Wouldn't you rather come out and share the fire?"
There was a rustling in the bushes for a moment,
and then a boy crawled out. He stayed on his hands and knees until he
reached the circle of light from the campfire. Then he lifted his hands,
arms stretched, palms up in the Christian attitude of prayer.
"Please forgive me, my Lord," he bleated.
"I was overcome by your glory. I saw you and the other angel pass
by this afternoon, and I followed you. Never in my life have I seen anything
Lancelot set down his sword. He shifted uncomfortably.
He had been called many embarrassing things in his life, but "angel"
had to be the worst.
"Look, boy," he replied with some sharpness.
"I am a man, just like yourself." May I be forgiven for that!
"My friend and I are not angels, we are knights."
"I never heard of knights. My mother never
mentioned them. Are they a kind of priest? Mother doesn't want me to be
a priest, but she thinks they are good men."
"Where have you lived, child, that you have
never heard of King Arthur or his knights?" Lancelot was affronted
by such ignorance. By now everyone knew of Arthur. "He rules almost
all of Britain and we are his lieutenants. We see that his laws are enforced
and that evildoers are punished."
"And what do you do with that long metal
stick?" The boy pointed to the sword.
Lancelot could not cope with such stupidity. He
turned his back on the boy, wrapped his armor against the night air, rolled
up in his cloak, and went to sleep. When he awoke, the boy was gone. He
felt a little guilty for his impatience.
"He was probably some poor farmer's son,
never more than a mile from his own pigsty. I should have been kinder
He had loaded his horse, Clades, when he became
aware that the boy was back. His face was dirtier than before and his
nose was running, as if he had been trying not to cry. He carried a leather
bag over his right shoulder and from his left hung a scabbard and sword.
The work on the metal was delicate as lace.
"I'm ready," he announced. "I told
Mother about meeting you and that I wanted to be a knight too. At first
she cried and said she would never let me leave her. But I said I had
to go and that was that, and so she gave me this thing. She said it was
my father's and love of it killed him. She told me to find a wise man
to learn from and to be dutiful, obedient, and honorable to women. Then
she cried some more and hung on me and made me promise to come home if
I didn't become a knight. So here I am."
Lancelot felt his sympathy for the boy disappear.
"You left you mother in tears to come after
me? Who said you could become a knight? You don't have any idea of what
a knight is. You can't just appear and say that you're joining us and
be accepted. It's an honor that must be earned."
The boy's jaw set. "I want to be a knight.
I'll do anything you say."
"Very well." Lancelot mounted his horse.
"You may come with me, if you can keep up. I see you brought nothing
to ride on. How fast can you run?"
The boy smiled. "I can outrun the deer!"
"Then we'll see if you can outrun Clades."
He set off down the road at a gallop. With barely
a hesitation, the boy started after him.
An hour later, Lancelot looked back. Even though
he had kept Clades to a trot, that idiot child was still following. He
was falling behind now. Sometimes, when the road bent, it was a full five
minutes before he came in sight again. But he hadn't lied. He could run.
Even with the sword slapping his side at every step, he kept up the pace.
He would have some colorful bruises tomorrow.
With a sigh, Lancelot reined in and waited. When
the boy drew even with him, he leaned over.
"Clades cannot carry two and our gear, but
I will take your baggage on behind me. You needn't fear. If you should
change your mind and decide to return to your home, I will return it to
He tied the bag and the sword on with his own
equipment and set off again. The boy took a deep breath and started running.
It was high summer
at Camelot. The air was warm and a soft wind teased its way among the
buildings and over the practice field where the clash of sword and shield
was accompanied by cries of laughter and good-natured joking. Laundry
hung drying between the Great Hall and the women's quarters. The flapping
of the linen and the clank of the metal blended with a hundred chattering
voices as the inhabitants of Camelot went about their work.
The smell of roasting meat wafted across the courtyard
and filtered down to the practice field, where the men began wiping their
blades and removing the padded mail they wore. Soon, they joined the rest
of Camelot at the midday meal.
The dining hall was crowded and the doors and windows had all been thrown
open to let in the light and let out the odors. The food had been set
on the tables, but no one took any. They stood waiting. King Arthur tapped
his knife handle against the back of his chair as he chatted with his
Queen Guinevere rushed in, a little breathless.
"I'm so sorry I'm late." She smiled at everyone in the certainty
that she would be forgiven without explanation and hurried to her seat.
As soon as she sat down there was a great clatter
as everyone reached simultaneously for the meat and bread and pitchers
of ale. Arthur's favorite hunting dog, Cabal, curled himself around the
table legs, his eyes following every flick of the knife, prepared to catch
his share of the meat before it hit the floor.
It was not a particularly elegant group. Most
of the people were going back to work after eating. Their clothes were
not their finest and their faces and hands not all that clean. The unmarried
knights all sat in one corner, laughing at ribald jokes and poking each
other for emphasis. Fosterlings hovered around them, serving the meat,
refilling the pitchers and dreaming of the day when they would be knighted,
too. The ladies sat in their own section, some balancing babies in their
laps as they daintily carved their meat into tiny pieces and soaked bits
of the bread in gravy to stuff into the children's mouths at frequent
There was a sudden commotion at the doorway. Everyone
turned to look. Arthur craned his neck to see what it was.
"Good Lord!" He stood up in his chair,
knocking over the water pitcher. "Lancelot! What are you doing riding
your horse in here, and who is that with you?"
The room had suddenly become more crowded as Sir
Lancelot, silver armor shining and white plumes waving, pulled his panting
horse up in front of the dais. Hanging onto his ankle, nearly in a state
of collapse, was a young man. He was wrapped in a rough woolen tunic and
his shoes were coming apart. As he stood gasping for air, he raised his
shaggy head and looked around. He breathed more deeply and a slow grin
of delight appeared. Lancelot dismounted. He climbed up to the table,
bowed to the King and Queen, looked back at his companion, and shrugged.
"Arthur, this is Percival. He followed me
home. May I keep him?"
believe the place he had come to. His mother had not given him any clues
about the outside world. She had hated any mention of what might be beyond
their gates. Now there was so much to learn that the days weren't long
enough for him to ask all he wanted to. At first, he spent his time trailing
"Why is the road up here so twisty?"
"To keep out invaders," Lancelot told
him. "Not that we have any trouble now. Arthur has put the Saxons
in their place and the Irish raiders, too."
"Then why must we practice fighting?"
"In case they forget or some new foe attacks
"I want to help. When can I learn to use
my father's sword?"
"When you stop tripping over it."
Percival thought it was time to change the subject.
"Who is the little boy who is always with the Queen? He looks like
her; is he her son?"
"No, he is my son, Galahad. Guinevere has
taken him to foster. "
"Your son? I thought you weren't married.
Are you married? Where is his mother?"
"I'm not married. His mother is dead. I think
you've asked enough questions for now."
The look on Lancelot's face told Percival that
he had. "Poor Sir Lancelot," he thought. "He must miss
his dead wife very much."
He wandered around, bemused by the wonder of it
all, his eyes everywhere but where he was going. There was a chapel decorated
with paintings in bright new colors. Brilliant pennants flew from all
the towers, and roses and ivy climbed the walls. Even more awesome and
unnerving was the small building behind the Great Hall. In it were great
stone basins, sunk into the earth and filled with hot and cold water.
He was expected to remove all his clothes and wash there, even if other
men were present. It took both coaxing and threats to get him in there
the first time, and he never was able to feel at ease among the splashing
bodies. He usually huddled in a darkish corner away from the others so
that he wouldn't be noticed.
Still, it was a good place to find things out.
He found he could ask more there, before he was told to go away. One day
he caught Gareth, one of Arthur's nephews. Gareth had only recently become
a knight and seemed willing to talk. Percival didn't know that Lancelot
had told his friend especially to be kind to the feckless newcomer.
"The King and Lancelot must be very good
friends," Percival opened.
"Of course. After all, Lancelot is the greatest
knight at Camelot; the strongest, the bravest, the most religious. Arthur
depends on him. And they also go hunting together and play chess and that
sort of thing."
"I thought Sir Gawain was the strongest knight,"
Gareth frowned. "Only in the daytime. Old
Gawain can't stay awake past sunset and even before then, he's almost
too weak to crawl to bed."
"What happened to him?"
"Nothing. He's always been like that. We
used to play some great tricks on him when we were boys, but he was a
"Did you grow up with him?"
"For a while, until Mother sent him away
to Cador. He's really nothing special; just one of my brothers. Are you
going to wash or just sit there, Percival?"
But Gawain fascinated
Percival. He was so energetic. And he had the courage to walk right up
to Queen Guinevere and pick her up and swing her around, or pull her braids
loose, or steal a comb so that she had to chase him all over the gardens
to get it back. They were just like children together and nobody seemed
to mind. Gareth said it was because Guinevere had been fostered with Gawain,
so that they felt more like brother and sister. But Percival still couldn't
understand it. He was in awe of both of them, but especially Queen Guinevere.
She glistened in the sunlight as she walked, her silk skirts shimmering
about her. He doubted that he would ever have the courage to speak to
her. He noticed that even Lancelot was different around her. Once Percival
came upon them as they stood watching Galahad at play. Her hand was on
his arm. She spoke and Lancelot looked down at her. Something in the stillness
or something in their faces made Percival shrink back against the wall,
hoping he hadn't been seen. He wondered about it for a long time.
Autumn was early that year and the roads had iced
over before everyone was safely transported to the winter quarters in
Caerleon. There were more people than ever, and the old Roman fort, though
large, was hard put to hold all those who had now become indispensable
to the running of Britain. Arthur had started to consider creating several
mini-capitals in which he could leave regional administrators all year
round. There were men holding such positions now, unofficially. The trouble
was that the very men strong enough to be left to do a job on their own
were also the ones who might decide it was unnecessary to answer to a
High King. And the good men he trusted were too useful to have them gone
nine months of the year. Still, the congestion was breeding petty animosities
that got on everyone's nerves. Every day, it seemed, there was some sort
of argument brought into the hall at dinner. The seating arrangements
had been changed so many times to accommodate the feuding that Arthur
wasn't sure anymore where he sat, himself.
Percival didn't notice any of the bickering. Caerleon
was even more fascinating to him than Camelot. It was so old and the stones
of the walls were so large. Giants must have lived in Britain to make
such a fort. There was more work to do here, too. He had to clear out
after the animals and spread hay and rushes on all the floors. He helped
in the kitchens and carried hot ale to the shivering guards. One day he
was sent to curry the horses. But after a few minutes he threw down the
brush and swung around, aching to punch something.
"And what war are you in, boy?" The
harsh voice stopped him cold. Percival looked up. Caet, the horsemaster,
was staring at him with disdain. Slowly, he opened his fists. But his
anger wasn't stilled.
"I came here to be a knight and they have
me doing slave work. Lancelot said he'd teach me, but all he does is stare
at the Queen," the boy muttered.
Caet was a small man, but he caught Percival up
in hands of iron and shook him until his ears rang.
"No man here is a slave! But my horses have
better sense than the likes of you. Get out of here and don't ever let
me see you around them again. And watch your tongue, young gossip, or
you'll never be a knight. What do you know about the Queen? She's far
above anything you've ever seen. Now, get out!"
Stunned by the force of the man's anger, Percival
scurried out and hid for the rest of the day behind the storage bins.
He was found there by one of the serving girls.
"What's the matter with you? Seen a ghost?
They say the old soldiers still march up and down the watch by night."
She laughed at his face. "Well, you can't stay here anyway. Come
on, what's wrong?"
She smiled encouragingly. Shyly, Percival smiled
back. Stumbling a little over the words, he told her what he had said
to anger Caet.
She shook her head at his ignorance. "Now
look, just so you don't make any more mistakes like that, I'll tell you
what I know." She became abruptly serious. "It goes back to
before I came here. But they say that Lancelot and Queen Guinevere have
always been, well, very fond of each other, but she's the King's wife,
you see, and we all love Arthur. I mean, he's not to be hurt. Do you understand?
We don't talk about it much, even among ourselves. I don't think even
Guinevere and Lancelot want to hurt him. It's more like they just can't
help themselves. You can't hate them for it, really. It just seems so
She sighed at the romance of it all.
Percival shook his head. "I thought Lancelot
was still grieving for his wife."
The girl's eyes widened and she looked carefully
around, to be sure no one else was near. Her voice dropped.
"I know about that; I come from Cornwall.
Lancelot never had a wife. He was tricked by Morgan le Fay and her sister,
Morgause, into sleeping with poor Galahad's mother, Elaine. There's some
that say he thought she was Guinevere. Anyway, he accepted the son, but
cast the mother out, sent her back to Morgause." Now she was whispering
hoarsely. "She killed herself, because of him, they say. But Lancelot
didn't care. He only loves the Queen."
She stopped. She looked at Percival, waiting to
see what he thought of such a story.
"It doesn't make sense to me," he said
finally. "You must not have it right. I'll ask Lancelot."
The girl grabbed him with razor-sharp nails. "Are
you mad? Don't ever breathe a word of this to anyone. I'll be sent home
to my father if you do. You must promise me." The nails dug harder.
Percival nodded as he tried to pry her fingers
from his arm.
She relaxed a little, then smiled. "If you
truly promise, then you must seal it with a kiss."
He leaned away from her. "I never kissed
anyone but Mother. Is that the custom here?"
"It certainly is, and, if you like, I can
teach you some of our other customs."
Percival thought. His mother had said to be dutiful
to women. It occurred to him that this one was very pretty. He nodded
and smiled. She smiled back.
For Arthur, the winter
was a time to go over plans and study the problems for the next year.
He tried to get men from all over Britain to come and tell him about the
concerns in their lands. The north worried him. There were too many independent
kings there whose tribes had never really been under Roman control. They
needed careful treatment before they would agree to submit to Arthur.
But who to send to them and what should they promise? He studied a list
Gareth had compiled during his last journey north. But his train of thought
was broken by the abrupt arrival of his seneschal, Cei, with his wife,
Lydia, at his heels.
"Arthur, you've got to do something about
that Percival!" Cei bellowed. "He just tried to attack Lydia!"
"What? Lydia, dear, are you all right?"
Arthur looked from one to the other. Cei was red with fury but there was
a look of exasperation about him. Lydia was clearly not damaged and seemed
more as though she were about to burst out laughing.
"I'm fine," she assured him. "Although
Percival may be a bit sore for a few days. My husband saved me with more
energy than was really necessary. But Arthur, dear, we really have to
do something with the boy. He doesn't know the first thing about how to
behave around other people."
"All right, tell me what happened."
Cei began sputtering, but Lydia intervened.
"It was nothing, really," she insisted.
"I was trying to show Percival how to mend that tunic of his. I can't
imagine what his mother was thinking of, to send him away with such ragged
clothes. He had just managed a rather crooked seam and I praised him;
he seems so eager for approval. Arthur, I swear, I just gave him a sisterly
hug and a pat on the back when, all at once, he was all over me. He grabbed
me and started kissing my hands and arms and on up to my face. He seemed
to think it was the custom here. I tried to push him off and explain that
it just wasn't done, but then my gallant husband showed up. Poor Percival,
I don't think he knows yet what hit him!"
"Poor Percival!" Cei exploded. "Arthur,
he was slobbering all over Lydia, ripped her dress and everything."
"It was just a tear in the sleeve,"
Lydia added. "I'm sorry, darling. If it had been anyone else, I would
have been more than grateful for your magnificent defense, but Percival
. . . he's no more danger than an overgrown puppy. He is as much nuisance,
however. Someone really must take him in hand. Isn't he supposed to belong
Arthur nodded. "Do you really want Lancelot
to teach Percival how to behave?"
Cei and Lydia squirmed. They had grown to love
Lancelot dearly, but there was no denying that he was still inclined toward
some strange viewpoints and actions. Bringing Percival home with him,
"There must be someone who can do
it?" Cei broke the awkward silence. "What about Bedivere?"
"He's a good man, but he hasn't the patience,"
Arthur answered. "Never understood that; he's wonderfully tactful
in negotiations but absolutely unforgiving of ignorance. What about one
of the women?"
"We've done more than our share already,"
Lydia insisted. "It was bad enough that he suddenly decided he was
in love with me. But when Risa helped him get settled in the boys' quarters
and made sure he didn't get into any fights about precedence, do you know
what he said to her? That idiot child told her she was almost as pretty
as his mother. His mother! You can imagine what Risa thought about that."
In spite of himself, Arthur chuckled. "Especially
when her eldest isn't much younger than Percival. Well, we have any number
of people here who are free for the winter. Suppose I ask for volunteers?"
"Do you really think anyone would take him
on?" Cei was more than doubtful. "We need someone with considerable
patience as well as manners. I can't think of anyone here with both."
"You know," Lydia said thoughtfully.
"Palomides could do it. He has exquisite manners. He's traveled all
over the old empire, and he doesn't have any specific job to do this winter.
He could civilize the boy to the point where the rest of us could take
over and teach him about what we do in Britain."
"I don't know." Arthur would never admit
it, but he was somewhat in awe of Palomides, who had come from Constantinople
via Africa, Greece, and (it took his breath away even to think it) Rome.
The fact that the man had made his way to Britain specifically to put
his mind and his sword at Arthur's service abashed him still more. He
was so damned elegant. It had been a long time since anyone could make
Arthur feel like a country lout, but watching Palomides at dinner made
him aware that his hands and face were greasy and his clothes were rumpled.
Arthur wasn't sure he could stand it if Percival became like that, too.
One could tolerate it in a foreigner, but not in a raw recruit. Still
. . . "He could probably teach the boy well. Do you think he would?"
"I'll ask him." Lydia was glad that
the matter was settled. "He's really very kind about doing favors.
Now, don't worry any more, darling. You have enough to do around here."
"That's true enough," Cei grunted. "But
if that snot-face bothers you again, he'll be breathing out of the back
of his head."
"Don't be crude, dear." Lydia kissed
his cheek lightly. "If that's taken care of, I must be going. Cole
found mildew in the vegetables this morning and it will take all afternoon
to empty the bins, clean them, and refill them with the sound food that
"That won't affect the food supply this winter,
will it?" Arthur asked.
"No, we caught it early enough. And we always
have an abundance of turnips. There will be plenty left as long as your
men make sure there is fresh meat all winter."
"That we can do. It's the best way I've found
to get the men out and keep them active in the cold weather."
"Then don't worry. You certainly have better
things to do than fret about mildew."
Arthur nodded and she left. Cei remained to go
over reports from the east and south, where Britons were living in uneasy
proximity to the Saxons. Although there was a truce of sorts between the
old people and the new, it took constant and delicate diplomacy to keep
it going. Messengers crisscrossed the kingdom in every weather to keep
the High King informed. Even in winter, Arthur felt submerged in the paperwork.
But, in a way, that was what he had been working for. People knew now
that they had someone to turn to. They no longer needed to fight their
battles alone or suffer unjustly from their neighbors. Even the priests
were coming around. Oddly enough, it had been Guinevere who had remembered
the line about rendering unto Caesar. But then, she was much more well
read than he was. He let his mind drift to his wife again, a ridiculous
thing to do, considering they had been married nearly thirteen years.
She still enchanted him with her elegance and mysterious, distant allure.
She was like a spirit who had kindly consented to remain for a bit in
human form, something never touched by mundane worries or needs.
As Arthur tried to focus his thoughts on the paper
before him, the door was blown open by a small gold and green whirlwind,
shrieking at the top of its lungs.
"King Arthur! Sir Cei! Save me! She's going
to catch me!" It dove under the table, scattering loose rolls as
Guinevere entered the room. She was panting hard from running, and her
face was red. Her hair had caught several cobwebs in it when she had crawled
through a storage room seeking her prey. Now, with a whoop of delight,
she pounced on the little foot sticking out from beneath the table.
"I've got you fairly now, Galahad. You're
going right down to the baths. You're going to be cleaned from head to
toe whether the other boys laugh or not. And, when you've done that, you
can consider yourself promoted to dinner at the high table with me, your
father, and Arthur. But only for tonight!"
She pulled him by the ankles out from under the
table. As soon as she let go, he threw himself on her in a bear hug.
"At the high table! I'll even wash between
my toes for that!"
"Cheldric will be there to see that you do.
I'll race you there."
With a wave to her husband, the spirit wiped her
face with her sleeve and ran.
©2014 Sharan Newman