Ill-Made Knight: Part Three
By Rahsaan Footman
Previously on Pendragon...
Macbeth: "Merlins magic was stronger than
everything, except the human heart."
-- Lighthouse in the Sea of Time
~ Bamburgh Castle, shortly after dawn ~
Elaine's lips pressed firmly upon Arthur's. She leaned further, deepening the kiss. It had been a long time for both of them, too long by half. For her it was a year, for him a millennium and a half, but they both had came to this same point. The point where their lips touched and their hearts opened.
Arthur pulled away just a little. Elaine withdrew the rest of the way. Smiling, Elaine whispered a 'whoa'. The kiss was so intense; she had to catch her breath. Her arms were still wrapped around Arthur's neck. Arthur's were stiffly at his side.
Elaine playfully reached up to wipe off some lipstick from Arthur's lips. Arthur flinched, then separated from her. He left, no, fled out of the room without a word.
"Arthur?" Elaine sprinted out the door after him. "Arthur? What's wrong?"
She caught up with him a few paces down the hall, then turned him around to face her.
"What is it, Arthur? Was I out of line? Is there someone else?"
"Yes," Arthur said quickly. "No... I don't know."
"Well, thanks for clearing that up," Elaine frowned.
Arthur continued walking away from her, but Elaine moved to block his path.
"Answer me, Arthur. A moment ago, we were tongue-wrestling, and now you're acting like I'm a gorgon or something."
"Tongue-wrestling?" Arthur repeated the unfamiliar phrase.
"Arthur! Talk!" Elaine drew herself up with arms crossed.
Arthur nodded, then began slowly. "No, you weren't out of line and no, there is no one else. But it just isn't right."
"Give me one good reason why not?" Elaine challenged.
Arthur was stumped. There was nothing preventing him being with her. Just a small voice in the back of his head telling him this wasn't right. Arthur looked her over, trying look anywhere but her eyes. Then his eyes fixed on the arms folded across his chest.
He grabbed her right hand and held it up. A golden wedding band shone in the morning light, mocking her. Elaine stood in the hallway stunned silent, while Arthur retreated to the kitchen. Frantically, Elaine tried to pull off the ring. Not for Arthur's sake but for her own. But the ring wouldn't budge. Elaine slumped back against a wall. This was the last time the past would ruin her life, she promised herself.
Arthur grabbed a bowl, some milk, and a small box of cereal with a colorful tiger on the front. He sat at the table farthest from everyone, his back to the wall. Elaine came in a couple minutes later. She sat at the opposite end of the room from Arthur, breakfasting on half a cantaloupe, cottage cheese and cup of skim milk. The meal was a torturous affair: Arthur and Elaine each tried hard to ignore the other, while at the same time trying equally hard to watch the other.
Arthur finished first, then departed for his room. He sat on his bed. Arthur couldn't stop thinking about Elaine and couldn't stop cursing himself for how he acted. Why had he pushed her away? He wanted to believe it was because she was married, but deep down he knew that was just a way to stay safe. There was more to it than that. The past, ~his~ past, told him that love was a vulnerability, one he could ill afford. But how could he remain human if he refused to love?
Cavall and Griff were gone, but Griff had left the Iris journal. Arthur grabbed it and laid on the bed. He needed something to get his mind off 'her' and the questions burning in his heart. Arthur poured himself into the reading, hoping to forget.
* * * * *
The Flower of Chivalry was in full bloom. Lancelot's fame had grown exponentially since his rescue of several knights from Sir Turquine. Now, people cheered loudest for him during the jousts. Ladies threw their favors at him during every in the tournaments. His biggest fans were the knights of the Round Table. The honors he brought back from each quest grew with his fame. And while knights like Sir Agravaine thought his ego bordered on arrogance, others like Sir Gareth felt it was well deserved.
Heralds sung countless tales of his valor. So many, that even Lancelot began believing their words. The humble self-effacing knight of his youth was slowly being replaced by an overconfident one.
At this moment, Lancelot was patrolling the countryside. He shifted in his full armor regalia as he crossed the bridge of Corbin. The padding underneath itched and the armor weighed fifty stone riding and seventy stones standing. It was also hot and unpleasant, but he wanted to give the townsfolk the best impression of a Knight of the Round Table. His arrival wasn't quite what he expected.
The people of Corbin milled about listlessly. Occasionally, a child might laugh or a couple of brothers shout in play, but then parents would quickly hush them. Lancelots arrival didn't elicit the usual praises and hosannas he'd grown accustomed to. At first, they stared at the knight, then a few lined the street Lancelot trotted along. Whispers began to travel through the village, and soon throngs of people joined those staring at the knight. Lancelot felt a little unnerved at the quiet masses watching him. They neither cheered nor shouted, nor even jeered at him.
The knight knew something was going on, and he was just about to ask when he felt a rapping on his shin plate. Lancelot looked down and saw a small boy look up at him and smile.
"Are you here to slay the dragon?" he said before his mother snatched him back.
"Dragon? There's a dragon terrorizing your village?"
An elderly man emerged from the multitudes. "Please, sir knight. Don't get involved. We don't want any trouble."
"Sounds like you already have that," Lancelot said as he swung out of his saddle. "Why haven't you sent for help?"
"We did," the elder spoke up. "A knight came here the week before, but he fled and we were left with a twice-enraged monster. We don't want that happening again."
"It won't." Lancelot drew his sword. "I shall slay this monster."
"There's no need," another elder interjected. "The beast has already been appeased."
Lancelot suddenly felt uneasy. "What do you mean, 'appeased'?"
"The lord of the land offered his daughter as a virgin sacrifice. We haven't heard from the beast since, so we assume it is appeased."
"What?" Lancelot was appalled. "A sacrifice? Where can I find this dragon!"
* * * * *
Lancelot left his mount at the edge of the cemetery, as he entered the graveyard and headed for the abandoned church on the other side. It was still unbelievable to Lancelot that the town would sacrifice an innocent child to get a few days peace. What would happen when the dragon grew restless again? How many more children would they sacrifice? One, ten, a thousand? They should have fought, fought to the end.
And yet Lancelot couldn't fault them too harshly. They were just simple farmers and the like, not brave knights.
As Lancelot approached the church doors, he thought of the outrage of having such a creature as a dragon in a place of worship. He promised himself to bring the foul beasts head back to Camelot and to wear its teeth as a keepsake. And his thoughts also turned to the fact that it had been ages since a knight fought a dragon. This would be Lancelot's first, and if successful, the encounter would be an epic the bards would sing of for seasons to come...
Entering the tiny cathedral, Lancelot unsheathed his sword. He scanned the interior, but didn't see anything other than the pews laying scattered about the stone floor. Lancelot moved some benches out of his way, slowly moving down the nave. At the crossing, where the nave, the transepts and the apse formed the junction of a 't', the area was spread clear, with pews piled up shoulder high around the clear space.
Lancelot heard a muffled crying. Climbing over the debris, he saw a young woman bound and gagged in the center of the clearing. Her tear-reddened eyes looked up at the knight, and she tried to shout something, but the gag muffled her words. Lancelot dropped on the other side of the barrier, removed the girl's gag and started working on her binds.
"Who are you?" the redhead gasped.
"Lancelot du Lac, from Camelot," Lancelot said as he cut through her wrist binds.
"No!" the woman tried to stop him. "The dragon will destroy Corbin if it's not appeased!"
"No, it won't. I'll see to that."
"Braver men than you have said as much," the woman whispered.
"Braver? I doubt it." Lancelot cut her feet free.
The woman was rubbing her wrists to get some feeling back in them when they both heard a low, rolling growl. Lancelot and the maiden both turned as the dragon appeared from the darkness.
Immediately, Lancelot could see that this was no dragon, but merely a wyvern. As the creature emerged from the back of the church, the two humans could make out its features. A serpent head flicked a flame-red tongue. A long sinuous neck followed, widening into the trunk of its body. The wyvern moved on its two legs, its tail thrashing with agitation.
As he watched the creature begin to scan the building, Lancelot was drawn back to a conversation hed once had with Merlin on the subject. Wyverns, the mage had said, differed from their cousins, the dragons, in many ways. Most telling was that dragons had six limbs; four legs and a powerful set of wings. Wyverns were bipedal, with two small vestigial wings.
But the most important difference between the two species, Merlin had said, was intelligence. A dragon was highly intelligent, whereas a wyvern had only three modes of thought: eat, attack and reproduce. And it engaged in all three with a ferocity that made it very dangerous to anyone facing it.
"Get out of here. Now!" Lancelot ordered the young woman.
Any further ideas of self-sacrifice fled from the girl's mind when she glimpsed the fearsome creature. She started climbing the tossed benches, while Lancelot brought up his sword to face the monster.
The wyvern stalked out of the ambulatory and glared at the two people in its domain. It saw them as food, but food that would fight. The wyvern hissed, flapping its small wings irately as it made its challenge. Then, a moment later, the wyvern's hiss turned into a high pitched shriek and it attacked.
The wyvern sprinted up quickly up the apse, and in a flash, it leaped into the air, sailing over the rubble and pews to clutching the column behind Lancelot. With a hiss, it sprang from the column at the knight, who turned just as the monster knocked him off his feet. Lancelot lost grip of his sword, and he felt the weight of the animal on him, its sharp claws raking across his breastplate. But Lancelot's arms were still free and he landed a right to the monster's eye causing it to howl in pain and roll off him.
Lancelot tried getting up, but seventy stones worth of armor made that next to impossible. The best he could was roll over and get his feet under him, before the wyvern leapt onto his back, slamming the knight into the floor again. The wyvern was about to clap down Lancelot's neck, when a board smacked it upside the head.
The wyvern turned, just as the woman swung again, and it ducked. Hissing with rage, the wyvern chased after her. The redhead ran behind a column and then shuffled back and forth keep the column between her and the monster.
Meanwhile, Lancelot had managed to recover. He undid the buckles to his breastplate. He would undo the rest later; right now the damsel needed him.
He searched for the wyvern with his eyes, and then found it by the column, still snapping at the young woman. Lancelot tackled the wyvern, but the monster merely kicked the knight, sending him clear across the cathedral to crash into the pulpit.
The wyvern turned back and looked for the woman, but she had disappeared. No matter; it'd pick up her scent later. There was still Lancelot, who was out cold.
The wyvern went over to the fallen knight, but as it neared him, a rock hit its flank. It turned and saw the woman again. She stood atop the wreckage throwing rocks and pieces of wood at it. The wyvern charged her, but she quickly dropped back behind the barrier. Stymied, the wyvern started back toward Lancelot until another piece of wood hit the back of its head. It turned again toward the girl, but didn't advance. She was just an annoyance to it, while the knight was an easy kill.
The wyvern walked over to Lancelot, and was about to rip out the knight's throat, when he came to. The wyvern clamped down on his gauntlet-covered forearm, squeezing on the armor in an attempt to taste the flesh beneath. Lancelot let out a cry as the teeth bent the armor, digging into his arm. He stared into the creature's eyes, the color of burning pitch. Desperate, Lancelot returned the kick that the wyvern had given him earlier, putting a boot in the wyvern's midsection.
The wyvern shrieked, releasing Lancelot's arm, and allowing the knight to roll out from under it and get to his feet. He needed his sword, but any weapon would do at this point. While the wyvern recovered, Lancelot ran for the crossing to find his sword.
"Over here!" the woman shouted. She was hiding in an alcove and as he watched, she lifted his sword high. Using both hands, she swung it to Lancelot.
The sword tumbled end over end in a low arc, threatening to fall short. But, Lancelot reached over the pile of broken benches and grabbed it by the hilt. In a fluid move, Lancelot spun around to face the wyvern right behind him, its fangs bared.
Lancelot continued turning as he brought his sword around. The blade made whistling sound as it sliced the air, then cut through skin, muscle, sinew and bone. The wyvern's head still bore a malefic visage as it separated from the rest of its body.
Lancelot, still carried by momentum, tripped on his own feet and crashed to the floor. The wyvern's body fell next to him, the head bouncing off the ground last. As it lay there, the serpent's body pumped black ichor that covered the floor. Lancelot quickly got up before the blood soaked him, and nearly jumped back when he saw the wyvern's face glaring at him. It took a moment to register that the head was resting on the pews, its eyes staring lifelessly back at him, and another moment to realize that he had survived and slain the monster.
Oh, thank you Sir Lancelot," he heard the woman say as she run up to him and leapt into his arms. She buried her head into his neck and, reluctantly, Lancelot hugged her back. After a few moments had passed, Lancelot pulled away.
"I won only because of your aid. What is your name?"
"Elaine," the young woman said, smiling. "I am the daughter of King Pelles."
Lancelot and Elaine returned to Corbin triumphant. The news had spread like wildfire. The 'dragon' was dead. Their town was safe. A great feast was prepared to celebrate their deliverance, and Lancelot was to be the guest of honor. But the knight respectfully declined the invitation; Elaine had wanted to go tell her father the good news personally, and it was the least he could do to take her home, in gratitude for her aid.
On the way, Lancelot stopped by a river, to wash up before meeting the King. As he knelt by the river, he first removed his chewed gauntlet. It was more than chewed, though; the armguard had been bitten through. Two rows of teeth marked either side of his arm; bright red welts marked where the wyvern's teeth bit through steel and chainmail.
As he looked at it, Lancelot shivered, contemplating what could have been. He pushed it out of his mind as he removed his tunic and dunked his head into the river. Then he doused himself with water, washing the slippery wyvern spit off his arms and sweat off his upper body. Now feeling refreshed, Lancelot looked for his tunic, but it wasn't on the tree branch where hed left it.
"Looking for this?" Elaine offered the knight his shirt, stifling a girlish giggle as she took in the muscular figure of the knight. Lancelot took his shirt and pulled it on. Returning to his steed, he packed his battered armor. Elaine approached the knight shyly.
"I didn't mean to embarrass you," she apologized.
"I'm not embarrassed. Come on, we should be on our way." Lancelot helped her up on the horse.
She visibly blushed as he lifted her up. The ride back was like a dream for Elaine. As she rode sidesaddle in Lancelot's on their way to her father's castle, she couldnt help but think she was living a minstrel's song. A brave knight had come forth, vanquishing a monster and rescuing her. Now, they were going to see her father, and if the rest of the song held true, they'd wed and live happily ever after. Elaine was of marrying age and Lancelot was handsome beyond words. In her mind, how could anything go wrong?
Lancelot wasn't blind to Elaine's looks, either. He noticed how comely she was, but he had no romantic intentions toward her. His heart belonged to Guinevere. He could never love anyone else. Still, Elaine was lovely to look at...
Suddenly, his arm itched fiercely and he clutched at it. The redness had spread, growing into angry red circles and it felt like a tiny fire ablaze in each welt. As he was concerning himself with this, he heard Elaine sigh deeply. Lancelot looked down and felt her leaning against his chest. Then he noticed that his arms were wrapped around her. She must have thought it was a subtle embrace. Lancelot quickly untangled his arms, hoping she would get the hint, that there was nothing between them. Meanwhile, the pain in his arm subsided to a dull throb: annoying, but tolerable. He just needed some rest.
Elaine's father was a warrior; stolid, grim-faced, a rock. King Pelles met her and Lancelot in his castles courtyard, saluting the knight formally as they rode up to him. Elaine jumped down from the charger and hugged her father fiercely. King Pelles' face didn't change from his grim mien, as he stiffly hugged his daughter back. Pelles asked about her health then sent her into the castle to prepare for dinner when he learned that she was well. Lancelot noticed that he didn't act like he had sent his daughter to be a wyvern's breakfast this morning; it seemed to the knight that Pelles showed little emotion, and none of it in affection.
Elaine gave Lancelot one last look as she entered the castle, then disappeared through the front door. Pelles only a raised an eyebrow at the exchange. Lancelot approached him, unsheathing his sword. Then he saluted the king and presented his sword to Pelles as a sign of submission. King Pelles took the sword, then returned it to Lancelot, completing the ritual.
"You have saved my daughter and my land from a great evil," Pelles explained. "So you are a welcome guest in my home."
With the formalities out of the way, both could be at ease with each other. Pelles noticed the battered armor on Lancelot's steed.
"My blacksmith can see to your mail," he offered. "Damaged fighting that beast no doubt. Tell me, what became of the monster?"
"I was a pain in its neck. So I removed it, the neck I mean," Lancelot quipped.
Pelles laughed, a loud booming sound. "Well said, my boy, well said." Swapping jokes, Pelles lead Lancelot into the castle. Pelles was a tall man with a long face, his build muscular from years of campaigns and warfare. Lancelot soon learned there were three things Pelles loved: his daughter, a good joke and a good drink. Evidence of the second and third appeared in the numerous vineyards surrounding the castle and the amiable nature of the guards in the castle of the dour man.
Pelles personally led Lancelot to his chambers, and then closed the door after notifying the knight of that evenings feast. Lancelot was about to rest when he gasped in pain again. The pain in his arm had gone from a dull, aching throb to a muscle-twisting pain. Rest, he told himself as he tried to fight down the pain; he needed rest. It took some doing, but he managed to fall asleep despite the agony he was going through.
When he woke up, hours later, he felt a bit warm, but he could feel that the pain was gone. That was all that mattered to him right now.
The main hall of King Pelles castle glowed bright from scores of candles and the six hearths roaring with a high blaze. King Pelles, Princess Elaine, and Lancelot all sat at the head of a large table set in the middle of the room. Pelles' retainers and liege men filled the hall, each praising Sir Lancelot, their deliverer. Jugglers and troubadours entertained everyone with their antics, while the jester was exceedingly clever telling jokes and anecdotes.
Sweat glistened on everyone's face from the heat. The autumn night had a chill to it, but nothing warranting every hearth afire, which was a concession to their guest of honor. But Lancelot was not sweating from the heat. Rather, he felt terribly cold. His right arm no longer throbbed or itched. In fact he hadn't felt his arm since sunset and he was so relieved that it no longer bothered him, that he forgot about the wounds hed suffered at the wyverns hand.
Pelles, a man who loved his wine, liberally dosed Lancelot with his own vintage. By the time Lancelot excused himself to bed, five bottles circled his plate like tiny sentries. Flushed from all the wine, Lancelot stumbled back to his room, finding it eventually with the help of a page. Even then, it was a difficult feat, what with the walls and floor spinning around. As he entered the room, he closed the door behind him and stared at the bed, the empty bed. Tears welled up as he realized how alone he was.
"Guinevere," he whispered. "Oh, my sweet Guinevere."
Elaine was with her lady-in-waiting, Dame Brisen, preparing for sleep. The older lady brushed the princess's hair as Elaine told her all about Lancelot. The princess sighed when describing his eyes and his smile. He was so handsome and so strong; Elaine was sure they'd be a perfect match.
"You're certainly taken by this man," Brisen commented.
"He's handsome and courageous, Elaine replied. What's not to like?"
"I know the feeling. I was in love like that once, actually three times." Brisen patted Elaine's shoulder.
"Don't sound so surprised," Brisen went on. "I was young and in love, still am. The body may have aged, but this heart still beats as fiercely, especially for 'him'. He was a wandering knight making his way in the world. I was a serving maid to the lady of the manor. That night I snuck away to his room and..."
"... And?" Elaine prompted.
"That's not for your delicate ears, missy," Brisen said as she finished brushing the princess hair, adding a light tap in rebuke for Elaine's prying. Soon, the lady in waiting departed, leaving Elaine to presumably go to bed.
But Elaine was well beyond the age to be tucked into bed. Shed really just wanted someone to talk to when shed called Brisen to brush her hair. And their talk had now given Elaine an idea. She opened the door and looked around. No one was in the hall. On slippered feet, she sneaked out of her chambers and went towards the room of her fathers guest.
"Oh my Guinevere, why can't I love you?" Lancelot wept in the dark confines of his room. "It's all Arthur's fault! Curse him for marrying you before we met! Curse him for taking you away from me! But,... Lancelot's voice softened from its earlier malicious tone, I love Arthur. He is a great man. He saw promise in me before any did. How can I hate him? Oh, what a wretch I am!"
"Guinevere, I wish we could be together," Lancelot cried.
Then he heard a knock on the door. "Guinevere, beloved. Sweet rose, you've come to answer my prayers," Lancelot whispered hopefully. In a louder voice he commanded, "Entrez vous!"
"Lancelot?" Elaine slowly entered the dark room. Light from the hallway made a long rectangle of brightness into the bedchamber. Elaine neared the edge of light, then swung the door closed, taking with it the light.
A pair of hands stole around her in a passionate embrace. A pair of lips brushed against hers. "My beloved, you came to me," Lancelot's whispered in her ear. Elaine felt the warmth of his breath and the heat from his body. It was like he was on fire.
"Lancelot," she sighed before a finger buttoned her lips.
"Say no more. Just for tonight, be with me like we were always meant to," Lancelot lightly kissed Elaine, and she returned it with passionate ardor.
* * * * *
A forceful knock brought Arthur back to the present. He squeezed through his cubbyhole of a room, and as he reached the door, he hoped it was Elaine. He wanted to apologize, set things right with her. But instead, he encountered the ascetic Mr. Daniels.
"You're awake. Good," Mr. Daniels noted. "We have a tour group arriving shortly. They're members of a quilting circle. I thought you might give them a tour of the tapestries in the castle."
Judging by his tone, this was more an order than a request. Arthur felt like refusing. From the grumbling the other scholars and staff made, Daniels was just itching to be taken down a peg, but now wasn't the right time. Arthur nodded acceptance of the caretaker's order.
He hastily showered and dressed, and met the quilting circle by the main gate. The bus deposited fifty older women and departed for the bus parking lot. Arthur fixed a pleasant smile on his face and welcomed them to Bamburgh Castle.
It was fortunate Arthur was a king, because he made a lousy tour guide. Part of it was because he didn't know much about tapestries and even less about quilting. What little he did was 1500 years out-of-date. It didnt help that the old women constantly questioned him on this waft or weave and how one hung a tapestry on stone walls. Arthur did know where all the tapestries were in the castle, though, so he wasn't completely in over his head.
He was leading the group of quilters through the main gallery hall when he spotted Elaine. She hastily turned to avoid Arthur, but when she noticed the gaggle of elderly women following him, she stopped and turned to watch. A bemused smile crossed her lips as Arthur tried his best to answer half a dozen questions.
"I'm sorry madam, I don't know if they used sepia thread back then," Arthur deflected.
"Well, how did they get such a dark brown, without sepia," the leader of the quilters continued grilling Arthur.
"Oak galls." Elaine offered. She wore black pants, a purple blouse and a black vest with violet embroidery.
"Excuse me." The octogenarian turned to Elaine.
"It was common to boil oak galls to create darker hues. The colors gain a muddier texture," Elaine explained. This satisfied the woman, and she turned to confer with her compatriots. Arthur gave Elaine a look of immense gratitude.
She smiled in kind, "You know, Mr. Daniels is setting up lunch in the gardens. It should be ready by now."
The mention of food brought cheerful noises from the ladies. Arthur and Elaine guided them through the halls to the waiting pavilion tents outside. Arthur mouthed a 'thank you' to Elaine as he took the quilters to the buffet, and they left the guests to their lunch. Then Arthur and Elaine hurried back into the castle before Mr. Daniels could give them some other task to perform.
"Elaine, I am in your debt," Arthur smiled. "I would rather face an army than those ladies again."
"That's nothing, you should have been here a week ago when the reporter from 'Antiquities Today' did a piece here. I felt like I was back taking college midterms. He grilled me with so many questions I thought my head would explode," Elaine shrugged.
An uncomfortable silence followed. Neither one knew what to do or say to bridge the gulf growing between them. Then Elaine courageously took a gamble.
"Look, Arthur, I'm sorry if I was ... too forward this morning. I shouldn't have put you on the spot. And I'm sorry I didn't tell you I was married."
"There's nothing to apologize about," Arthur kept his eyes to the floor. "Truth to tell, I feel some of the same things you do."
"Some?" Elaine asked gauging his words.
"It's not just my feelings for you. There's more to it than that," Arthur continued. "There are things about me that you don't know, might not accept, maybe not even believe. It's better if you don't get involved with me."
"I'll decide what's 'good for me', thank you very much," Elaine's eyes flashed with defiance. Before Arthur could speak again, she shot another question. "Have you committed any crimes?"
"No," Arthur answered impulsively.
"Only in battle," said Arthur with a tinge of regret.
"Are you married?" Elaine asked. His head snapped up. The question struck Arthur like a lightning bolt.
"No, I'm a widower," Arthur said with a finality that ended all other questions.
Elaine moved closer to him, wrapping her arms around his waist. "Then I know all that I need to know for now. The rest can come in its own time. Arthur, I care about you; that much I know. And I think you care about me too. Am I mistaken?"
There was such love and hope in her eyes, it tugged at Arthur's heart. But did he have any claim on her? Sadly, the answer was no. She was married and his life was far too strange to drag someone else into it. He had to push her away.
"Tell me about your husband," Arthur said, bringing up the thorny subject.
Elaine's face clouded over, and there was something familiar to the sadness Arthur saw in her eyes. It didn't seem foreign to him. Then he recognized it. ~She still loves him,~ he realized. This should have made his course clearer, but instead the king felt worse. Instead of pulling free, he felt himself sinking deeper into this entanglement.
"It's a long story, but here's what's important." Elaine drew Arthur into an empty study so they could talk in private. "My husband and I have been separated for a year. During that time, we haven't resolved our differences."
"You still wear his ring," Arthur pointed out.
"It doesn't matter," Elaine tried to reassure Arthur.
"It matters to me," Arthur argued. "While you wear that, you are another man's wife. I won't be an adulterer."
Arthur got up and left. Elaine tried to grab his arm, but he eluded her grasp, quickly disappearing down the hall. She called after him, but he didn't stop. For a moment, she thought about chase him down again, but she knew he needed to be alone.
She knew she also needed to be alone for a bit as well. Entereing a study, she sank into an overstuffed chair, then closed her eyes to squeeze out the tears. She hadn't felt such heartache since her school days. She knew Arthur was trying to do the honorable thing, and that only increased his appeal in her eyes.
Arthur was definitely a man from the age of chivalry. He had a personal code and he lived by it, even if it meant denying his happiness. Very different from the world Elaine came from. The men around her husband saw marriage only as a way of marking territory. If a young woman caught their eye, they didn't think twice about taking her as a second wife.
"Except Hector," she corrected herself. Her husband wasn't like that. Before theyd wed, hed told her that he had loved someone deeply, but that she had died some years before and he had moved on. The heartache in him was so great, he could never find joy in an affair. And that was the problem. When Elaine looked into his eyes she could see love in them only for this lost love, not her. How could she compete with a ghost for her husband's love?
"You're always first in the boss' heart," a grave voice replied to Elaine's thoughts.
Elaine's eyes snapped open. Sitting across from her in the other overstuffed armchair was her bodyguard, Norman Dent. For security reasons, Hector's 'business' had issued her a bodyguard. She didn't have anything to do with the 'business', and she hadn't wanted a guard, but Elaine had had no say in the matter. Since her honeymoon, she had been Hector's wife, not her own person. That was what Elaine hated the most, and her hatred showed as she glared at Norman.
Even sitting down, Norman's head peaked over the tall backed chair. Quite easily 6' 9'', Norman wore a hand tailored, stylish pale blue, double-breasted suit, that covered a muscular frame. He had a chiseled face with a powerful jawbone covered with a square russet beard. His face always looked grim; when angered, it deepened into a silent scowl. When he was happy (a rare occasion) he cracked a small Buddha smile.
At the moment, he was midway between grim and a scowl. Anyone else might have been intimidated, but Elaine had known him for more than fifteen years, so she didn't bat as much as an eyelash.
"I thought youd left," Elaine commented casually.
"My job is to protect you," Norman stated.
"And we all know how much protection I need from paintings and tour groups," Elaine added sarcastically.
"Not from them. Your new friend."
"Arthur? What do you know?" Elaine was fearful for him, but didn't show it. Norman wouldn't hesitate to use force if he felt she were in danger. Since he hadn't yet, that meant he was still unsure about Arthur.
"Arthur Jones doesn't exist," Norman reported.
~Doesnt exist?~ Elaine thought to herself. ~Well, his kiss certainly felt real.~ Aloud she asked, "What are you talking about?"
"I did some checking. Mr. Jones has the standard ID, bank accounts, and credentials for anyone skimming the surface. But there is no record of him at any university: no tenure, no research post, not even a canceled check from a Bursar's office. There's no medical record of this Arthur Jones, from physicals to polio vaccinations. And what it means is that your Arthur either popped up out of nowhere or he isn't who he says he is."
Elaine remembered what Arthur had said a few moments before, ~There are things about me that you don't know, might not accept, maybe not even believe.~ But hed said he wasn't married; hadn't killed anyone in cold blood. What could he be hiding that was worse?
Norman leaned forward, "I know you are fond of him, but he may be a danger to you."
"If he is, I'll handle it," Elaine said defiantly.
"Sometimes I think you do this just to be contrary," Norman shook his head.
Elaine smiled. "Maybe I do take a perverse pleasure in being stubborn. But that has nothing to do with you." Elaine got up to leave.
"What about the Boss?"
At the mention of her husband, Elaine stopped in her tracks. She turned to face Norman. "What about him?"
"He still loves you."
"He still loves 'her'." Elaine's voice chilled. "And I won't be second place in his heart. Tell him that!" Elaine left quickly before tears could form on her face. Romance had a way of treating her like a chew toy. On the one hand, she had an enigma who wasn't what he seemed to be; on the other, there was Hector. Someone she loved but who she knew didnt return that love equally. She couldn't deal with Hector, but she could do something about Arthur. Besides, hed promised to read some more of the Journals of Sir Lancelot. This might be a chance for him to open to her. She wasn't going to pry, but she needed to know if he was hiding something dark or painful.
* * * * *
When Lancelot awoke, he found he couldn't move his right side. Panic welled up in him as he struggled to move. But at last the weight disappeared, and relief washed over him. That relief turned to cold shock when he heard a light voice sigh in waking. Fearfully, Lancelot turned to see Elaine in his bed.
Lancelot half stumbled, half ran through the forest. Morning light streamed into the woods, and birds of the dawn chirped happily. But all this was lost on Lancelot as he crashed through forest, blood pounding in his ears, despair and guilt preying upon his heart. He had betrayed his one true love.
He couldn't recall the night, it was a blur of dark and gray. He did recall that at one point Guinevere had appeared in his chambers, but that was all. How had Elaine wound up in his bed? How did all of this happen?
His muscles burned, but not the hot fire of exertion from his flight into the woods. It was a cold fire that was bringing pain to his body. Sweat chilled as it ran down his face, mixing with his tears, and he thought the pain a fitting punishment for breaking Guinevere's trust.
He let the pain go unchecked. The spots began to flash in his eyesight and the world began to spin around him uncontrollably. Deep in the forest, he stumbled over a log, falling into a shallow pond. Exhausted and heartsick, Lancelot remained in the water, his consciousness slipping away...
Only the birds and squirrels nearby noticed what happened next. A wind blew ripples across the pond, ripples which flowed out from the ponds center, broke over Lancelot, and then returned to their origin. Slowly, a hand emerged from the water, followed by an arm clad in shimmering, fishscale samite. The silver haired Lady of the Lake rose from the water, a sad, sympathetic look coloring her face. She knelt by the fallen knight and brushed back a few soaked locks of hair.
"My poor boy." She picked up his arm, and then noticed the red welts on it. "Wyvernsblight!" she breathed in shock. Lily quickly touched his forehead, and felt the burn of fever. He looked terribly ill.
There was a cure for wyvernsblight, she knew, if there was still time. It was dangerous, but she'd do anything to save her son. She prepared to take him to the one place that could help, her homeland. And so the Lady of the Lake took Sir Lancelot beneath the waves to Avalon.
Lancelot never knew how lucky he was. Wyvernsblight came from the bacteria that accumulated in the mouth of a wyvern after eating carrion. Typically, when a wyvern actually chose to attack a live target, it would only bite the prey, then run back and wait. Within an hour, the blight would kill the victim and rot the carcass, thus providing a new source of carrion for the wyverns appetite. But only a tiny amount of blight had infected Lancelot, so its effects were slower on him. It gave the Lady of the Lake time to get him Avalon.
Lily placed a cool towel on Lancelot's burning forehead. He had remained unconscious when shed brought him to Avalon, and now he mumbled insensibly from the delirium brought about by the disease. Lily gave the knight some willow bark tea to ease his aches. He coughed it up at first, it tasted so bitter, but she finally got him to keep it down. It would make him comfortable, but wouldnt cure him. She needed to go to Oberon's Palace to get a cure, but she was reluctant to leave Lancelot here. Neither Lord Oberon nor Queen Titania had much love for humans, and there was no telling what her brothers and sisters might do if they found this particular human here. They might turn him into a gargoyle, just for laughs. Or enchant him to fall in love with his reflection. While he was on Avalon, Lancelot would be in danger.
~Better to be in danger than to be dead,~ Lily reminded herself. ~He needs those apples.~
Lily took a look at her work, and then nodded to herself. Lancelot was safe for now in this sylvan glade by the lake. Across the water she could see the portico with its marble benches and circular reflecting pool. Those who came here would be interested in seeing themselves in the mirror-like pool, or engaging in a romantic tryst; they wouldn't be looking for a sickly knight. He'd be safe, she hoped. The Lady of the Lake kissed Lancelot's fevered brow, promising to return soon, and then vanished.
A long history had grown up around serpents and apples. In this case, the apples of Avalon were a panacea for wyvernsblight. Lily returned from the orchards with a basket full of ripe red and gold apples, and as soon as she had peeled and cut one of them, she fed him a slice. The juice wetted Lancelots parched lips, as the tiny sliver slid down his throat. At first, there was no noticeable change. But Lily didn't fool herself; it'd take time for her boy to recover. In the meantime, she kept feeding him the apples in every form imaginable.
For the first couple of days, he ate only small portions of the apple and a lot of willowbark-apple seed tea. By the end of the week, Lancelot was still unconscious, but his fever had broken and his delirium had ended. She started feeding him pressed apple juice in the morning and mulled apple cider in the evening. The meals in-between consisted of an herbal broth with just a bit of apple peel in it.
By the end of a fortnight, a fully recovered Lancelot opened his eyes. "Where am I?" he asked as he stared up into the forest canopy.
"You are awake," Lily said as she came to sit next to him. Lancelot looked up and smiled at her.
"Mother?" he asked; then his face fell. "But not my mother are you?"
Lily closed her eyes, but nodded. "I am not your mother by blood, but that does not mean I do not love you."
"I think I understand," Lancelot said as he reached up and caressed her face. He propped himself on his elbows and looked around. "Where am I? This doesn't look like the Lake."
"You are on Avalon, my son," Lily answered. "It was necessary to bring you to the cure."
Lily showed Lancelot his right arm. The red welts that once dotted his arm were now tiny scabs.
"You were sick with wyvernsblight. The apples I fed you cured you."
"So that is why you have been in and out of the palace orchards," a rich voice spoke from behind. Lily turned around, and stared in shock at the visage of Lord Oberon.
Lancelot didn't know who this person was, but the blue skin and pointed ears made him out to be one of the fay, and the way this stranger distressed Lily didn't make him out to be a friendly one.
"My L-l-l-lord," the Lady of the Lake stammered.
Oberon raised his hand, cutting her off. "Answer our question. Is this mortal the reason for your absence from court?"
Lily stood between her foster son and her king. "It is my lord."
"And you have brought this mortal creature on our isle without our consent?" Oberon continued.
"Yes," Lily answered, "I brought my 'son' here to save him."
"Your son?" Oberon barked a laugh. "Like Nimue? Another halfling? By another father?"
"Father and mother," Lily felt her face flush with what her king implied.
"She is my mother by love," Lancelot said as he came to stand by Lily, an arm around her shoulder. He glared defiantly at Oberon. Lily reached up, placing her hand on her sons shoulder.
Oberon regarded the knight with only a raised eyebrow, and Lancelot took the opening to defend his mother. "Mother is a kind, gentle woman. She brought me here to save my life. I won't let you talk about her like she's some harlot."
"Such ill manners," Oberon waved a dismissive hand. The knight rocked on his heels for a moment, then fell back onto his cot.
"Lancelot!" Lily cried. She dropped down to his side, checking his breathing. It was stable.
"He merely slumbers," Oberon reassured her. "We tired of his impertinence, but we are minded to be merciful. Because you show such love for him as a mother for a child, I will make his end swift and painless."
"Kill him?!" Lily sprang to her feet again. "Why?"
"He has been to Avalon. He knows our ways." Oberon towered over the diminutive Lady. "He will bring others. They always do, exploring and discovering every speck of land. And I haven't the inclination to deal those who follow. Better to destroy him now."
"Do not interfere!" Oberon's voice boomed with thunder behind it.
"No!" Lily stood up to her king. Small in stature, but big in heart, Lily wasn't going to let anything harm her boy.
"You risk much," Oberon warned her.
"I would forfeit my life for him and still come out ahead, as long as he is safe!" Lily stood her ground.
Now, it was Oberon's turn to rock back on his heels. The Lady of the Lake was so vehement, so passionate; she seemed sincere about protecting this mortal. He'd never experienced a mother's love before. That irrational, irrepressible, incomprehensible, undeniable force. That one of his subjects would risk expulsion or worse for a ~human~.
It was baffling and yet a little reassuring. Such conviction was lacking in his race. They lived in the moment, pursuing their whims and petty jealousies, and they had neither respect for nor thought to the consequences of their actions. If dealing with the mortal world gave the Lady this type of will, maybe it would be best to send all the Children to Earth for a time. But he could think on those things later. Right now, he needed to deal with this human and a fit-to-be-tied fay.
"I could destroy you and your 'boy'," Oberon spoke a low voice that implied 'he was in control', "but I will not. If you can ensure that he will remember nothing of Avalon or its inhabitants, he may live."
Lily looked confused. "I don't understand."
"He must forget about you." Oberon's words sliced like a dagger through her heart, and he sensed her hesitation. "You said you loved him so greatly that you would forfeit your life for him. Surely his memories are less than that drastic price."
Lily looked at the sleeping face of Lancelot. He'd grown into such a handsome knight, but Lily could still see the cherub face of the infant he'd once been. She saw his whole life grow before her. From the infant that had tugged on her hair, stuffing it into his mouth, to the toddler who learned to swim before he could walk, to the boy who loved to tromp through the woods and listened with rapt attention to her stories. Even when he had gone to Camelot, she had looked in on him from time to time. She had seen him meet his true mother before his accolade and his valorous career as a knight. That he'd forget she was ever part of his life hurt worse than a serpent's tooth.
But it was as she had said. She'd do anything, give everything for him.
"Know that I will always love you, little Galahad," Lily said in a voice choked with tears. In a stronger, but quavering voice she spoke:
'Across the shifting sands of time,Where once and future do entwine.For you, the past must never beam,Cloaked in shadows of a dream'
Her hand began to glow, and then she brushed her fingers across Lancelot's brow. Two tears dropped on his cheeks, as Lily tried and failed to hold back her sobs. Oberon remained unmoved by the sacrifice. He felt regret, but it was buried under a mountain of ego and courtly propriety. When she was done, he carried on to the next matter.
"It is time to send him back to the world." Oberon waved a hand, magically lifting Lancelot. Then he felt a tug on his cape. It was the Lady of the Lake.
"Please, my lord, let me take him back." Lily wasn't begging, simply asking to do this.
Oberon pulled his cape from her grasp. He was about to say 'no', but then he saw that same spark of motherly love that had argued for Lancelot's life. He quietly nodded his assent, then departed. Just before he left the glade he spoke to her, "Return immediately to me. We have matters to discuss."
Lancelot awoke, staring at high vaulted ceilings. "Avalon?" he whispered.
"No, Glastonbury," a friendly voice spoke from out of Lancelot's field of vision. Lancelot turned to face a friendly monk. "Welcome to the Abbey of Glastonbury."
In the forest beyond the abbey grounds, a woman with silver hair and a shimmering samite dress looked on. She sighed heavily as Merlin joined her.
"I thought we had an agreement," Merlin said without preamble. "You don't interfere with Lancelot's life and I will do the same."
"I had to save him, he is my boy," Lily shot back. Then she sighed. "It doesn't matter anymore. I will never be able to help him again."
Merlin looked her in the face and saw the tear tracks on her cheeks. He waited for her to continue.
"Oberon feels I am too attached to Lancelot. He has forbidden me from seeing him again." Tears began rolling from her eyes once more.
"Can't you appeal to him?" Merlin asked.
"I used most of his leeway just keeping Lancelot alive. I cannot go against Lord Oberon on this."
"My sincerest apologies," Merlin patted her shoulder. "I wish there was something I could do."
"There is," Lily turned to him. "Our agreement. You can still touch Lancelot's life, if you use it to help him instead of harm him, as I fear."
Merlin was quiet for a time. "I can't promise anything. The future is still stormy. And Lancelot's near the eye of that storm. But I can promise I will think on your words before I act....And watch him for you."
Lily was still unsure if she could trust her son's life to the mage. But she had little choice. Merlin followed her troubled thoughts.
"If it's any consolation, your part in this story of Camelot isn't finished. I don't know when or if we'll met again, but I know you are still tied to this." Then Merlin left the Lady with his prophecy, departing for the abbey to pick up Lancelot.
* * * * *
Arthur knocked on Elaine's door, but got no response. He knocked again two more times, then gave up; she could have been anywhere in the castle besides her room. Arthur shrugged and started back to his own room; he'd catch up with her at dinner.
He couldn't believe how hed behaved around her. As king, he had faced raging battles, rampaging giants and evil magic with aplomb and cool-headedness. With Elaine, he had acted like a frightened page.
Why? His mind wrestled with the problem until he reached his room. Turning down the long hallway, he saw Elaine knocking on his door, and as she turned to leave, she noticed Arthur.
"It seems great minds think alike," Arthur said, smiling. "I just came from your room."
"I was wondering if you've gotten anywhere with the journals?" Elaine asked in a professional tone.
Arthur felt a little disheartened at the distance that was growing between them, but it was his doing. ~Better learn to live with it,~ Arthur admonished himself.
"The journal you found is also incomplete," Arthur replied, returning the professionalism. He opened the door to his room, and invited her in. He found the two books, sat on the bed, and then began thumbing through the Iris journal.
He waved Elaine over to his side, and noticed that she sat rather close to him. Arthur pointed to a passage halfway through the book.
"This is when the kindred of Ban, Lancelot, Lionel, Bors, Bleoboris, and Ector de Maris, returned to Benwick and fought King Claudas to free their homeland:
~I walked up to the knave and said, 'Prepare to die, my father's murderer!' The battle was fierce. Claudas fought like a cornered animal, but he was no match for my father's sword and my arm wielding it. And so I dispatched the villain quickly, avenging a wrong longing to be righted.~
"I had almost forgotten that, it's been so long," Arthur smiled.
"Hmm?" Elaine looked up at Arthur.
"Since I've read this," Arthur recovered none too smoothly. He quickly flipped through the journal, reaching a point several pages from the end.
"See here," Arthur drew Elaine's attention to the page. "This tells about his encounter with a dragon in Corbin and then..."
"The pages are blank," Elaine pointed out at the empty pages following. "What happened?"
"No one knows," Arthur flipped back and forth between the pages. "It's widely rumored Lancelot went mad and wandered the forests as a hermit. He returned to Camelot after a year's absence."
"Could those things have been made up?" Elaine asked. "Maybe Lancelot died and the rest was added years later by someone else."
"I don't think so. There's still a lot Lancelot achieved that isn't written about, and there's one other thing."
"Guinevere," Elaine guessed. "There's no mention of her or their affair in the journal."
Arthur nodded, but remained silent. Elaine didn't notice his silence or, if she did, thought nothing of it.
"So there's at least one more book out there. Any idea where to look?" Elaine asked.
"We've already found these two in chests, it follows that the other one might be in another chest," Arthur reasoned.
Elaine nodded agreement. "It seems logical. I'll talk to Daniels. Let's say we pick up the search after dinner?"
"Sounds ideal," Arthur smiled.
Elaine got up to leave. "We should get some rest. Gads, it's past noon. And tonight is going to be a long one."
As she stepped out of his small room, Arthur suddenly remembered what he had wanted to speak to her about this morning. "Elaine," Arthur spoke up, but the door closed before he could continue.
He sprang to the door and called to her, but she continued walked down the hall, as though she didn't hear him or was maybe ignoring him. Arthur couldn't blame her. But still, he wanted to straighten this out. ~Tonight,~ he promised himself, ~Tonight, I'll make it up to her.~
Dinner was held early, a combination of soup and leftovers from the luncheon. Elaine and Arthur said little as they ate, and the bags under their eyes revealed that both had just awoken. Neither was in a chatty mood, remaining quiet for a variety of reasons.
Arthur warred with himself as to whether to reveal the truth to Elaine. Of all the people he'd encountered, she seemed the most likely to be able to handle it. The arguments for and against raged in him as he calmly sipped his soup.
Elaine drowsily nibbled on a sandwich. The past couple of days had been a disruption to her nightly routine, just as Arthur had been a disruption in her routine life. That was why she loved him; he was mystery and danger rolled into one. But she was far more dangerous. Her life, her whole world was a danger and if he entered it, she was afraid it might kill him. But how could she deny her heart?
Elaine figured that as long as they kept it professional, they were safe. Nothing warmer than a handshake, nothing more intimate than a private joke. ~Keep your distance, Elaine,~ she told herself.
The sun was a half hour from setting, when the two of them left; the last to leave the dining room. Elaine's vitality improved after the meal, and she spoke with more pep as they searched the long corridors of the castle. Arthur's spirits, however, didn't change one iota. He went along with her, but didn't say more than 'okay', 'yes', or 'no'.
"I talked to Mr. Daniels. He says that anything the previous owners left him would be in the storage room above my workshop. I think we should..." Elaine paused, but picked up quickly. "...start there first and work our way around the castle."
Elaine had just glimpsed Norman doing his duty, bodyguarding. He kept to the shadows, trying to stay hidden, but if she could spot him maybe Arthur could. Elaine tugged on the king's arm, urging him to hurry up. Arthur obliged, but commented, "The journal has been hidden for centuries. I'm sure it can wait a few more minutes." Elaine looked back down the hall, but Norman was nowhere to be seen. She knew he was there though, his interest focused keenly on Arthur.
It was fortunate that the storage room was just above her workshop. Elaine hoped she could elude her protector. He wouldn't intrude in her activities, and if he thought she was in her workshop, she might have a chance to tell Arthur the truth. Whatever might happen between them, he deserved that much.
The stairway to the next floor was in a bookcase-sized portal sinking into the recess of the wall. She led Arthur up the shallow steps to the door, and then they entered the room. The storage room was the closest thing to an attic in the castle. In Arthur's time, this would have been the ward room, where staff uniforms were hung after washing. Boxes and crates of varying sizes littered the spacious room, while chests and steamer trunks lined the walls.
The golden rays of the setting sun spilled through a window, taking opposite ends of the room as they separated from one another. Arthur worked his way around a mountain of tall thin boxes that housed life-size portraits like the ones Elaine was working on. He opened a few crates, liberating a few moths and stirring up dust in the musty ward room.
As the two of them worked, the golden rays sparkled in the swirling dust slowly turned into a deep russet. Arthur crossed a valley of steamer trunks, and suddenly came across the two statues of Griff and Cavall. "Oh no," Arthur sighed.
"Elaine!" he shouted.
"Over here," she shouted back from the middle of a forest of coat racks. "If you can find me."
"We've got to get out of here. Now!"
"What's with you, Arthur?" Elaine said as she parted through the sea of clothes, finally emerging on the other side. Arthur grabbed her hand and made for the door, but Elaine resisted. She didn't want him to find out about Norman. He, on the other hand, didn't want her to find out about Griff and Cavall. But soon, it made no difference.
The sun slipped below the horizon, and soon after the sound of stone cracking preceded the mighty roar of two awakening gargoyles. Elaine jumped at the sound, but she got over her fear quickly. Arthur just shook his head, and then was surprised when Elaine moved toward the disturbance, rather than away.
"Where are you going?" Arthur asked.
"A mouse doesn't roar, so what did?" Elaine didn't slow her advance.
"Are you sure you want to meet anything that can make a sound like that?" Arthur asked.
"Hey, this is the most excitement I've had in months. What's a little danger?" Elaine smiled confidently back to him. That was when she ran into somebody, a very tall somebody.
"Well, I don't know about the danger part," Griff said cheerily as he smiled down at her.
Elaine took a few steps back, shock coloring her face. "Wha- Who are you?"
"Name's Griff. I'm a gargoyle," he laid a hand on her shoulder, a sign of friendship.
At that moment, the stairway door burst open, and Norman rushed in. To the bodyguard's eyes, it looked as though a green monster was attacking Elaine, and he immediately sprang at Griff, knocking the gargoyle away from Elaine. The two crashed into the mountain of boxes, spilling clothes and dishes all about.
As soon as Griff got over his surprise at the attack, he tried lifting the bodyguard off him. But Norman laid a punch to his midsection, knocking the wind out of him. Then Cavall came to Griffs aid, knocking Norman away. The bodyguard rolled with the tackle, springing to his feet.
A moment later, Griff was on his feet as well, eyes glowing. He and Norman faced off, ready for another round, when Elaine and Arthur intervened.
"Griff! Stop!" Arthur ordered.
"Norman!" Elaine's voice broke through the bodyguard's battle rage.
Both of them pushed back their respective protectors as they eyed each other warily, while Cavall growled menacingly at Norman.
"Elaine, what is going on?" Norman said in low whisper.
"That's none of your concern!" Elaine ripped into him. "You don't charge into a place and start swinging! You got me!"
"And what about the monster? Seems your new friend has some old ones," Norman pointed out.
"Yes, and I mean to find out what the deal is," Elaine stole a glance at Arthur as he settled the two gargoyles down. Then she turned, pointing a finger at Norman. "But you just calm down and stay out of the way. Understand!"
"Do you understand?!" Elaine commanded, a livid expression on her face. Norman paused, then nodded. Elaine took a couple of deep breaths before returning to the middle of the room to wait for Arthur.
Arthur checked to see if Griff was hurt, but the gargoyle was fine. Arthur explained what he could, but Griff gave a significant look behind Arthur. Elaine was waiting a respectful distance behind the king. Arthur caught his knights meaning and joined the lady, while Griff settled Cavall with a pat on the beasts head.
"Seems like a night of revelations," Elaine commented. Arthur nodded in agreement.
"Your 'friend' and his 'pet'." Elaine looked to the gargoyles. "They're the reason you acted so weird this morning?"
"Partly," Arthur answered. "And the walking mountain there? Your secret?"
"Partly," Elaine answered in the same even tone. "Maybe, we should talk. Care for a stroll through the gardens?"
Arthur seemed uncertain for a moment, then agreed. "What about them?" Arthur looked to the three others in the room. Elaine smiled. "I'll handle it."
She turned and looked at Norman. "We are going for a walk, and we'll be back in a few minutes. You, two stay here and try and clean up this mess. Be nice, Norman!"
The bodyguard let out a low rumbling sigh; he'd obey, but he obviously didn't like it. Cavall kept a glowing eye on the human, but Norman ignored him. Griff looked to Arthur with an 'are-you-sure-about-this' look, and Arthur nodded an affirmative. Then Griff folded his arm and took a position by the door, while Norman took one by the window, directly opposite the gargoyle. It seemed as though they'd behave themselves, so Arthur and Elaine left for the gardens.
The garden colors were fading in the growing darkness of night, when the floodlights in the castle switched on, bathing the late fall blooms in yellow-green fluorescent light. Neither Arthur nor Elaine said anything as they left the castle halls, but Elaine was first to speak when they stepped onto the primrose path.
"Your companion. He's a gargoyle, like the ones in New York?"
"He's what you thought I wouldn't understand?"
"Part of it, yes," Arthur kept his eyes fixed straight ahead.
"Well, I've seen him and I'm not running through the halls screaming. Got anything bigger than that?"
"Would you believe I'm King Arthur?" he said, glancing at her to see her reaction.
Elaine walked beside him in silence for a moment. "Yesterday, I might have replied, 'Well, if thats true, then I'm the blooming May Queen'. But today is a very different day. And it does explain a lot."
"Well for one thing you don't know beans about tapestries. Oak galls make ink for painting, but not dying fabrics used in tapestries. Then there was the absolute authority you showed on the subject of Lancelot. I don't know the legends that well, but I do know that they've been told and retold for centuries. You accepted this as gospel the moment you saw the first page, even though we had no way to authenticate them."
"So you believe I am who I say?" Arthur asked.
"Until I learn otherwise, you are who you say you are," Elaine judged. "One thing, though. How did you manage to stay alive for all this time?"
"Magic," he answered simply.
"Ah." Elaine's reply was half wary and half accepting.
They continued until the path turned back toward the main hall. She chuckled softly to herself. "It's funny: without those gargoyles, I wouldn't have believed you're King Arthur. But if stone creatures can come to life, why not the ancient king of the Britons?"
"Please don't call me ancient," Arthur said, smiling. "It may be fifteen centuries later , but I still am in my prime."
Elaine shared a bright smile with him. "Deal."
Now it was Arthur's turn to ask questions. "Who is that big fellow guarding your back?" he asked, trying to be unobtrusive.
"Oh, Norman. He's my bodyguard," Elaine reached out, offering her hand, and Arthur took it. It felt good to hold her hand.
"You don't seem in need of protection, unless, I count as a threat."
Elaine laughed at the last part, thinking better not tell him Norman's suspicions.
"I don't need the protection, but my husband disagrees. You see, Hector is a powerful man with some dark connection. He's had some dealings with organized crime, so for my 'protection', Norman serves as my guardian angel. He watches over me."
"It seems...intrusive," Arthur commented.
"It is, that's one of the reasons why I left Hector. But Norman still follows me around like a second shadow."
"Can you trust him?"
"With your identity? Probably, but let's keep it our secret." Elaine spoke bluntly. "As far as he knows, you're a man without a past, an enigma. I'll keep calling you Arthur. I hope you don't mind if I skip the 'your majesty' bit."
"I'd prefer it," Arthur squeezed her hand, as they returned to the main hall entrance.
"Arthur," Elaine began softly. "Now, that our secrets are out, what about us? I meant what I said earlier; I really like you. If we can handle this, surely we can handle whatever else comes?"
"There's more," Arthur sighed.
"There always is." Elaine tried for a bit of humor, but failed.
"I'm on a quest and I don't know when I'll be finished. Thus far, I've encountered several dangers, and I don't wish to put you through that. From what you've told me, your life has been in jeopardy long enough...and I love another."
"Who is she? Guinevere?" Elaine said that as a jest, but the long pause that followed told her she had stumbled upon something close to the truth. "Did Guinevere survive to this age?"
Arthur let out a deep sigh. "No," he answered sadly. "But I still love her."
Elaine pulled her hand from his. "So I'm competing with another ghost. What is this? Is Fate playing a tremendous joke on me?
"You don't understand..." Arthur began.
"Oh, I understand exactly!" Elaine spat. Arthur tried to comfort her, but she jerked back from his touch.
"Oh, Arthur," raw hurt made her voice ragged. "Life is for the living. Don't waste it in the past."
She ran back into the castle. Arthur hurried to catch up with her, but she didn't want to hear anything he had to say. She wasn't going to be drawn into another relationship like the one with her husband. She and Arthur returned to the wardroom, and there a surprise awaited them.
Griff had found something while they were gone, and now presented it to them proudly. In his claws was a leather-bound book with a white rose embossed on the cover: the third journal. Elaine took the book from the gargoyle, looked at it, and then handed it to Arthur.
"Lancelot's third journal?" she asked.
"This is the real thing," Arthur confirmed. "Where did you find it?"
"In the crates we smashed during our 'introduction'." Griff looked meaningfully to Norman. The big man only humphed.
"Well, you know Latin," Elaine looked to Arthur. "What does it say?"
Arthur looked at Elaine, troubled by her detached manner. But what could he do? He took the book and began reading.
* * * * *
Lancelot awoke early, then went to practice on the training grounds. The ground was still damp with dew at this hour, and his breath steamed as he worked out with vicious zeal. He had a lot of frustration to work out.
All of Camelot was conspiring against him, it seemed, trying to get him married. It had begun with subtle hints, like 'why aren't you married' or 'she'd make a fine wife for you'. Then it grew to an assortment of dining companions and dance partners, followed by strategic ambushes, like last night. Arthur had called him to his aid in dealing with King Hoel of Brittany...and his lovely daughter.
Arthur had asked Lancelot to entertain the princess, while the royalty discussed other matters. While both he and the princess were French, it was the sum of their commonality. She had giggled foolishly all the time, and while she was very lovely, she couldn't speak her own mind. At one point, the princess let slip the true intentions of their visit to the knight, saying that Arthur and the King thought they'd make a good pair and had arranged this little meeting to test the waters.
Lancelot upper-cut the training post with extra vigor as he continued to think on the subject.
Arthur wasn't the only one trying to marry him off. Gawain and Gareth, his trusted friends, were just as bound and determined to see a wedding band on his finger. Gareth invited Lancelot to his home often, and many was the time Lancelot visited his friend. Gareth and his wife were the happiest couple he had ever seen; even Arthur and Guinevere commented how beautiful their love was. Lancelot never refused an invitation to their home, but Gareth saw the sadness in his hero's eyes, the mans loneliness and longing. Gareth felt certain that sadness could be lifted with a wife and happy home of his own, so he had made discreet inquiries, and had then passed the suggestions on to Lancelot.
Gawain was worse, though; he didn't want give Lancelot a choice. The week before, hed given hints to the ladies of the castle as to when and where Lancelot would be at all times. Consequently, a gaggle of maidens were present when he ate in the Great Hall, and when he went on his rounds along the battlements. One was even bold enough to follow him into the bath.
Lancelot gave the post a spinning kick.
The loss of privacy was especially acute for Lancelot; he dared not visit Guinevere with half the castle watching him like a hawk would spy a rabbit. People could get the wrong impression, or maybe the right one if they saw the Queen and him together. Their relationship had grown beyond mere friendship. And now everything they did to break the attraction made it stronger. The recent enforced distance made the few times they were together that much more sweet.
Lancelot never missed their French lessons, and it took him a moment before he realized that he would have to move if he wanted to make it on time today.
"Ca va, Guinevere?" Lancelot greeted the queen as he entered the library a little while later.
"Tres mal," she answered. Her frown emphasized her sour mood.
"Pourquoi?" Lancelot sat next to her.
"Because my champion has abandoned me," Guinevere switched back to her native Celtic. "What's wrong Lancelot? Why are you avoiding me?"
"I'm not avoiding you," Lancelot explained. "It's all the do-gooders out there who won't rest until I'm wed."
"Yes, Gareth and Gawain, even Arthur, think I've lived the bachelor's life too long. So they've set themselves to find a mate for me."
"And they haven't succeeded?" Guinevere asked half hoping, half dreading.
"No," Lancelot reached out to hold her face. "How could I love anyone else?"
Guinevere turned away with a sad look in her eyes. "I know, but you can't have me. Please be happy with someone else."
"And what about you?" Lancelot asked softly. "Could you see me day after day, knowing I spend each night in another's arms?"
"You do. You think I can not?. But this isn't about me." Guinevere straightened up into a royal pose. "This is about you. I don't matter."
"But you do," Lancelot responded. "You matter a great deal to me."
"Mi amore," Guinevere drew closer to him. "Follow your heart."
"My heart leads to you." His voice was a whisper.
"Then it must lead somewhere else." Guinevere closed her eyes; the words were tearing at her heart.
Both stood so close together, they could embrace if they just reached out. But both were trapped by their duties; as a knight and as a queen, both had to deny their hearts. They remained near for a moment to feel the other's closeness. Then, finally, Guinevere stepped away.
"I think we should skip our lesson today," Guinevere said as she wiped her eyes, speaking in a stately voice. "Thank you for your time. You are dismissed."
Lancelot left the library feeling miserable. He walked along the high vaulted corridors of Camelot, not caring where he was going, when he heard someone laughing. ~It must be one of those girls,~ Lancelot thought disgustedly. He was going to put a stop to this right now. As Lancelot turned the corner, though, he ran into Mordred.
"Sir Mordred?" Lancelot skidded to a halt. "My apologies to you and your..."
"My advisor," Mordred introduced the man he was talking to. The stranger was cloaked in black with silver trimming the cuffs and hem, and he was pulling on his hood, so Lancelot didn't get a good look at his face. After a moment the advisor quickly departed down a poorly lit passageway without a word or a gesture.
"I didn't mean to intrude," Lancelot tried to make amends.
"Well, you did," Mordred said irritatedly. "Good day."
Lancelot then went to the stable to prepare his steed. He needed some time to think, and to let this whole 'Lancelot-get-married' thing to blow over. He sent a page to Arthur to let the king know he was going to Joyous Garde for a couple of weeks. When the page went away with his message, Lancelot left Camelot for the open road.
He spent the day traveling in a contemplative gloom, one so thick that it wasn't until he heard cries for help that he snapped to and took in his surroundings. The growing amber in the sky indicated late afternoon, and he was deep in a forest, perfect for hunting. Lancelot followed the cries for help off the main road, and when they stopped, he dismounted and continued by foot.
"Forget it, Lavaine," one voice spoke up. "No one's going to hear you in the middle of these woods. You can't even hear a tree fall this deep in."
"Someone's got to," a boy's high treble voice replied. "I can't carry you out of here myself."
"Are you in need of some help?" Lancelot asked as pushed his way through some bushes to reach two boys, a young boy barely ten hovering over an older boy of about sixteen years. The teen was clutching a bloody rag to his leg.
"Yes, Sir...?" the boy asked as he got to his feet.
"Sir Lancelot du Lac," the knight introduced himself.
"Of Camelot?" the boy grew wide-eyed.
"The same." Lancelot smiled, then checked the older boy's injury. It was a nasty gash slicing the back of his knee and going up to his thigh. "What happened to you?"
"We were hunting a boar when it turned and charged me," the teen answered. "It gored me as I tried to climb a tree."
"Well, he got you pretty good. Lets get you out of here." Lancelot helped the teen up. "You," he pointed to the boy, "What's your name?"
"Lavaine, Sir Lancelot," he answered. "This is my brother, Tirre."
"Lavaine, bring my horse here." Lancelot pointed toward the direction he had come from. The boy hopped to, and quickly brought the stallion the rest of the way through the wood. Lancelot helped the Tirre into the saddle, then led the way back to the road.
"Our father's castle isn't far from here,..." Tirre started, but he sounded woozy as he spoke, and he stumbled a bit.
"You've lost blood," Lancelot said as he steadied the teen. "Light-headedness is to be expected. Save your strength."
"Lavaine, can you lead me to your father's home?" Lancelot asked, turning to the boy.
"Of course." Lavaine took the lead, Lancelot and the ailing Tirre following close behind.
The three of them arrived at a castle just after sunset. Tirre was immediately taken care of by the castle's physician, while Lavaine rushed to his father to tell him what happened. The father listened to his son as he approached the newcomer.
"That boy of mine has got more nerve than sense." The father looked on as the surgeon got a couple of stable hands to carry Tirre on a litter. Then he approached Lancelot and his stern frown turned to a relieved smile.
"I'm Bernard of Astolat. My thanks for returning my boys safely."
"It was no trouble." Lancelot took Bernards offered hand and shook it firmly. "Will Tirre be all right?"
"Our surgeon is a capable sort," Bernard looked to the shed his son was being taken to. "He's in good hands."
"Father, what about the tournament?" Lavaine asked.
"Later, Lavaine," Bernard patted his son's head absently. "Right now, we need to see to your brother."
Bernard turned back to Lancelot. "Please consider yourself a guest in our home. Lavaine, find your sister and see to our guest, okay."
Bernard departed to talk with the surgeon, while Lavaine looked on dejectedly. But then the boy remembered his legendary guest and lead Lancelot into the castle.
"Elaine!" he shouted. "Elaine, where are you?"
That name triggered something in Lancelot's mind. He saw a face shrouded in firelight and night. A memory or a dream too elusive to fully recall, but he felt ashamed somehow. He couldn't explain it, but the name meant something, something shameful to him.
"You can just send someone to find me," a girl shouted down from the second floor. "Try and act cultured, you lout! What?"
"We have a guest," Lavaine continued shouting up to her.
Elaine was a beautiful girl of fourteen, with long dark hair. Her hands flew up to cover her nose and mouth when she saw the newcomer; they had guests and the castle looked like ~this~. She rushed down the stairs to meet the newcomer, and to ostensibly apologize.
"This is Sir Lancelot du Lac from Camelot," Lavaine said with a measure of haughtiness. "He's spending the night. Father says to..."
"Prepare the guest rooms!" she ordered her little brother. Her eyes fixed on Lancelot.
"Father told me! That means I'm in charge!" Lavaine stamped his foot. Elaine gave Lancelot an apologetic look, then turned to her brother.
"Go up and prepare the room!" She fixed her younger brother with a stern gaze.
"No," Lavaine replied petulantly. "I want to talk to Lancelot."
Elaine gave Lavaine's arm a pinch, causing the brother to cry out in pain. "There'll be time to talk to him at dinner. Go fix his room!"
Lavaine looked at his sister darkly as he rubbed his arm. But he did as he was told. When he was at the top of the stairs, he stuck out his tongue at his sister. Elaine started up the stairs to get him, but Lavaine dashed out of sight.
"My apologies," Elaine said, trying to smooth over the tiff with her little brother. "Can I get you something to eat or drink?"
"I am a little hungry," Lancelot nodded. "I haven't eaten since this morning."
"Right this way!" Elaine led the way to the kitchen. "Dinner's almost finished. I don't think the cook will mind us starting early."
Dinner that evening was casual and friendly. Elaine served Lancelot, then prepared settings for her father and brothers. Lavaine came in first, his foul mood evaporating when he saw the knight. Happily he sat to Lancelot's right, reaching for the bread, while Elaine sat elegantly to the knights left. Both asked him questions about the world beyond Astolat.
"What are the ladies wearing this year?", "Is there any new fabrics from the continent?", Whats it like being in Camelot?" Elaine pelted him with questions about courtly life. Lavaine, in contrast, asked about his adventures and the monsters he'd fought.
"Have you fought any dragons?" Lavaine asked him excitedly.
Lancelot got that feeling again. A feeling like a door in his mind opened a crack. He remembered snapping jaws and his hissing fury. He got an impression of a weight on his back and hot breath on his neck, but nothing concrete. It felt frightening. But then Lancelot pushed it out of his mind.
"No, I haven't," Lancelot replied in a distant voice.
It was then that Bernard entered with his advisor, interrupting Lancelot's slight revere. Both siblings looked to him, and Elaine spoke up first. "How's Tirre?"
"He's fine, but he'll be laid up for weeks," Bernard said as he sat down to eat.
"What about Blackthorn?" Lavaine asked.
"One of the soldiers will have to take Tirre's place."
"What about Lancelot?" Lavaine offered. "He's a great knight. He can kick Blackthorn's sorry tail..."
"Lavaine! Watch your tongue! Don't talk like a stable hand!" Elaine reprimanded her brother. "Besides, Lancelot is a guest. We don't burden guests with our trouble."
"Helping friends is never a burden," Lancelot said, including himself in the conversation. "What is the trouble?"
"We have a minor dispute with Sir Blackthorn, the neighboring baron. We've agreed to settle it over a jousting tournament. Tirre was to champion the family honor, but with this injury?" Bernard shook his head.
"You'll help us, won't you?" Lavaine looked to his hero with adoring eyes.
"Well, I'm in no rush to be anywhere. I'd be glad to help."
"I thank you, Sir Lancelot," Bernard said gratefully, accepting the knights offer. "We'll start tomorrow. Now, let's eat."
Some time later, Lancelot was preparing for bed. The guest room was spacious, but the furnishings were simple. He was washing his face in a basin of water when there was knock at the door, and when he opened it, he saw Elaine standing there with a bowl of fruit.
"I thought you might like a little dessert," Elaine offered. Lancelot picked an apple from the assortment of pears, apples and berries.
"Thank you," Lancelot smiled and began closing the door.
"Do you find everything to your satisfaction?" Elaine asked, holding the door ajar.
"Everything is lovely," Lancelot answered.
"As good as Camelot?" she persisted.
"I think you could teach a few people in Camelot about hospitality. This is a wonderful place and you are a wonderful host."
Elaine blushed hotly with the praise. Impulsively, she stood up on her tiptoes and kissed Lancelot on the cheek, then she hurried down the hall. Lancelot smiled at the vital young girl, then the shame he felt earlier resurfaced. Something about Elaine being in his room made him feel guilty, like hed betrayed someone, though it didn't make sense. Lancelot quickly pushed the thought out of his mind and then went to bed.
The next morning saw a flurry of activity in Astolat Castle in preparation for the days event. At mid-morning, the procession of retainers, men-at-arms and lower nobility made a casual ride from the castle; wagons carrying tools, wares, tents, and provisions followed behind. Before joining Bernard, Elaine and Lavaine at the head of the procession, Lancelot went up to the weaponsmaster and talked to him for a moment.
"What was that all about?" Elaine asked as Lancelot came riding. She could rarely keep her eyes off the knight.
"Oh, just a change of armor. Something a little less well-made," Lancelot chuckled to himself, then turned to Bernard.
"I didn't have a chance to ask last night, but what is this all about?"
"Cows." Bernard pointed to a herd as they passed the practice grounds on their way to town. "Blackthorn's cows wandered through a break in his wall and devoured a third of my fields. When I found out about it, I took the cows as my own and told him I'd return them once hed repaired the wall. The hothead charged me with thievery, and demanded my lands in payment for the cows. I didnt want things to get completely out of hand, so I've arranged for this tournament as a way to smooth things over...I hope."
"And a chance to knock his teeth in," Lancelot added.
Bernard gave a sharp, barking laugh. "Yeah, that too. Blackthorn's a young lord; very passionate, quick to temper. Taking him down a peg might do the lout some good."
Lancelot nodded agreement. "I'll need a squire during the tournament, though. Do you have one you can loan?"
"Oh, please father, let me," Lavaine spoke up. He turned to the knight. "I won't let you down, Sir Lancelot."
"Well, someone from the family should represent us on the field..." Bernard stroked his beard thoughtfully.
"He certainly has the enthusiasm of a squire..." Lancelot joined in the teasing play.
After a moment, Bernard nodded. "Okay, you can assist Sir Lancelot, Lavaine. But you must do as he says and no slip-ups."
"No slip-ups, I promise." Lavaine beamed with excitement; he was going to squire the greatest knight in the world! He vowed to do everything extra special for the man.
"You'll need a lady's favor, too," Elaine said as she smoothly rode up next to Lancelot.
"It seems only fitting that I have your favor as lady of the manor. What did you have in mind?" Lancelot smiled warmly at the girl. Elaine looked around her, suddenly seeming like she was at a loss.
"Where is it? I must have left it back at the castle." Elaine sounded distressed for a moment. "Oh, here." Elaine tugged at her the sleeve of her red dress. Her father was considerably alarmed, but before he could say anything, she tore the sleeve from the shoulder. Lancelot started to object, but it was too late: the sleeve was off and Elaine was tying it around Lancelot's arm.
"Know that when you wear this, you ride for my honor," Elaine said, probably quoting from some epic shed been told.
"And what are you going to do with the other sleeve, young lady?" Bernard said with great disapproval.
Elaine tugged the other sleeve loose, then rode next to Lavaine and tied it to his arm. "Now they match: knight and squire."
Bernard shook his head, and was about to give her a stern lecture, when the blaring of trumpets in the distance told them they were nearing the tourney grounds.
"It's always an interesting sight to see a pompous noble humbled," Elaine commented with a straight face. But one look at Lavaine was enough to cause her to lose all composure, and she started laughing uncontrollably. Lavaine quickly joined her, and soon the rest of the procession was laughing as they made their way back to Astolat.
The tournament had been less a jousting match than a one-sided game of tag. As soon as Sir Blackthorn had seen Lancelot in his 'Ill-Made Knight' guise riding up onto the field, the minor nobleman had turned his horse around and fled. Apparently, Blackthorn had heard of the powerful knight in mismatched armor and had lost the will to fight.
The fun had really started, though, when Lancelot had rode toward his opponent to talk to him. Blackthorn was so frightened of the legend that was coming towards him, he kept on goading his horse to run round and round the tourney grounds fleeing the Ill-Made Knight until it nearly dropped from exhaustion.
For all his bluster, Blackthorn had turned out to be a cowardly man, and now everyone knew it. He agreed to fix Bernards fence and withdrew his charge of thievery, and because that was all the lord of Astolat wanted, he and the rest of his retinue were now headed back to the castle for a victory celebration.
"You were amazing out there," Elaine complimented Lancelot.
"I did little," Lancelot replied. "Blackthorn's own cowardice defeated him."
"Why'd you spare him?" Lavaine took Lancelot's attention from his sister. "He should have died like the cowardly dog that he is."
"A knight's task isn't to kill. It's to serve those you care about." Lancelot leaned closer to Lavaine. "Besides, men like Blackthorn die a thousand deaths from their shame."
Lavaine nodded in awe of Lancelot; for the impressionable lad, everything the knight said was like wisdom of the ages.
The victory celebration was a big affair. Astolat Castle glowed with torches filling every sconce. Music and wine flowed liberally, and everyone drank to Lancelot's health and ate to his fortune. This was one of the things that Lancelot liked most about being a hero: happy faces, pleasant people, high revelry, and the knowledge that all this had been earned and was honestly deserved.
The party didn't wind down until very late that night. By then, the minstrels were playing a somber tune that sounded remarkably like someone snoring through their horns. The men of the castle had either passed out, sleeping where they lay, or disappeared with a serving maid somewhere. Lancelot had remained awake only because his tankard had had a crack in it and had spilled beer like a sieve; a fact which caused the soldiers to remark about how he drank ten steins to their three.
Lancelot was debating to himself whether it was worth the trouble to get up and find his room, when he spotted some movement to his side. He turned to see Elaine making her way through the slumbering bodies, then stumble her way to him when she saw he was awake.
"Could you escort me to my chambers?" she said, her speech slightly slurred. "I seem to have lost my way."
"You shouldn't be drunk," Lancelot said rebuked drowsily.
"Oh, don't be an old maid," Elaine waved him off. "What father doesn't know won't hurt me."
"When did you grow so bold?" Lancelot sat up in his chair.
"Oh, about three ales ago," Elaine counted on her fingers. "Will you see me up to my chamber, or should I ask one of these fine gentlemen to?"
The knight knew the honor of drunk 'gentlemen' wasn't to be trusted, and what would happen if her father found her in this state? Lancelot didn't want to dwell on that. So he nodded agreement and levered himself out of his chair. Both of them were drunk, but Lancelot, being bigger, wasn't as inebriated. Elaine, on the other hand, wasn't as lucky. It was obvious to Lancelot that this was her first time drunk; she giggled at everything that happened, including stumbling on the stone steps up to the bedchambers.
Leaning against the hallway for support, they stepped over the sprawled body of a sentry who was snoring loudly, a jar of brown ale firmly in hand. Lancelot knew the man would need that the next day, when the captain caught him away from his post.
They turned into another corridor, and passed by several doors. Behind one they heard some commotion: sounds of a man and a woman laughing came from behind it. The woman screamed from being tickled, and then the man murmured playfully.
"I wonder what they're doing?" Elaine started for the door.
"That's not for your eyes, Lancelot quickly said as he steered her away.
"You think I don't what people do behind close doors? I am fourteen, you know." Suddenly, Elaine stumbled. But Lancelot was quick, and he caught her before she landed on the floor.
"Then you're old enough to act like a proper lady," Lancelot admonished her. His head began throbbing.
"Maybe tomorrow." Elaine still held onto Lancelot, even after she regained her balance. They only had a little ways to go before they were at Elaine's chambers, and soon Lancelot brought her into her room and lit the lanterns to cast away the darkness there.
"Speaking of what's proper," Elaine said as she ran her fingers through her hair, "don't you know you aren't suppose to enter a lady's room unless youre invited?"
"My apologies," Lancelot mumbled as he finished lighting the room.
"'Tis all right. I invite you to my boudoir." Then Elaine leapt up and wrapped her arms around Lancelot's neck, and planted a kiss firmly on his lips.
Caught by surprise, Lancelot struggled to get free. "Young lady..." he began.
"That's right. I am a lady and you are a man. We should be together." She reached up for another kiss.
Lancelot held her at arms length. "This isn't right."
"Why? I love you. You must have known."
"I know you have a crush on me," Lancelot said. "But it's not love."
"It feels like love to me." Elaine grabbed his hand and placed it on her chest. "Can't you feel it? My heart pounds like this every time you're near. I'm surprised the whole castle doesn't hear it."
"What you are feeling is very real, but it isn't love. It's infatuation," Lancelot said, trying once more to dissuade Elaine. "It will pass."
"And what if it doesn't? What if youre wrong and this really is love?" Her eyes widened with realization. "You wouldn't love me. Even if this was true love, you wouldn't return it?"
Lancelot was beginning to get a headache. This scene seemed so familiar, and yet handling it seemed so foreign. How could he relate to the emotional state of a teenager? "My heart belongs to another," he explained.
"Then take mine," Elaine insisted. "I can be anything you want me to be."
Reason wasn't reaching her, and his headache made thinking very hard. He'd have to be blunt. "What do you know about love? You're just a simple girl who's had too much to drink. You'd probably say you love the swineherd or the jester if they were here instead of me."
"No, I love you!" Elaine's eyes glistened with tears.
"Go to sleep, girl," Lancelot ordered her. "And hope I don't tell your father what an embarrassing spectacle you've made of yourself."
He had to be as stern as possible so she'd get the message. He didn't want to hurt her, but he didn't see any other way for her to understand. Then Lancelot strode out of the room, but turned one last time, and saw Elaine sitting on her bed with a stunned look on her face. Lancelot had seen knights with that look when the wind got knocked out of them: they seemed disoriented, lost. She knew she hurt, but didn't register the pain. Lancelot wanted to make sure she was all right, but she might mistake concern for love, and Lancelot had to make a clean break, so he left her there, alone.
He left Astolat early the next morning. He didn't want to run into Elaine because he wasn't exactly proud of the way he handled her. But it would be better if he just left and let her mend her broken heart alone.
The castle was still in a hangover when Lancelot departed, so only the outer sentries noted his leaving. He then turned onto the river road that took him straight to Joyous Garde, wondering if he could have handled the situation at Astolat better.
As he approached his home, he saw a surprise: the king's flag was waving on all the standards. As he entered the courtyard, Lancelot was greeted by King Arthur and Queen Guinevere themselves. But he could see they were by themselves, a fact which struck Lancelot as being curious; the monarchs rarely went anywhere without a gaggle of courtiers. When Lancelot reached them, he dismounted and greeted king and queen warmly.
"When we heard you left Camelot, Guinevere told me how intrusive we've all been playing matchmaker," Arthur explained. "Can you forgive me?"
"It's already forgotten, my friend." Lancelot shared a warrior's handshake with him. Guinevere smiled, glad things seemed to have been patched up so smoothly.
Then Arthur looked around at the castle. "You've made some remarkable improvements."
"Well, the dark, brooding motif just wasn't me. I've added on to Joyous for years. The fishing is pretty good in the marshlands, and I'd love to show you around."
"Please do so," Arthur said, smiling. "I think Camelot can do without us for a couple of days. What do you say, my love?"
"A holiday from court sounds lovely. And this place could use a lady's touch, if you don't mind," Guinevere added. Then the three of them entered the castle for lunch.
"We have to get there early," Lancelot explained. "The wetland's best fishing is at high tides. If we don't move we'll miss it."
Arthur rode close to Lancelot. "It's your land. You know best."
Most of the wetlands were brackish, reed choked regions, but there was a long clear lagoon where the fishing was excellent. It was near a river that flowed east out the interior, past Astolat, and all the way to the sea just below where Joyous Garde was. The two fishers arrived just as the waves were rolling over the spit of beach separating the lagoon from the ocean, spilling froth onto the lagoons surface. The small body of water frothed a little more as the river fish came to feast on the seaweed and green foam scum brought in by the waves. When the two friends found a likely looking spot, they set their poles and then waited for a nibble.
High tide came and went. King and knight brought in small catches, but the fish weren't interested in their pitiful bait; they had already eaten their fill from the ocean. By late afternoon, Lancelot and Arthur were about to pack everything up, when an object floated into the lagoon from the river. It looked like a skiff, but it had no prow and it rode low in the water.
Both men walked up the shore to get a better look. As they got closer, they could see that it wasn't a skiff, but a coffer. Plain in make, it floated towards them, until it finally stopped and settled in a bed of water lilies. Lancelot wadded out to the coffer and then, after a moments hesitation, he opened it. What he saw shocked him so, that he fell back into the lagoon, his stunned look distorted in the rippling water below him.
"Oh my," Arthur said in a voice half sympathetic, half with grief, as he saw what was inside the wooden box.
Inside the coffer was a young woman, no more than fourteen years of age with long dark hair. It was Elaine of Astolat, and she was dead.
Lancelot sat in the water, too stunned to get up or do anything. After a moment, Arthur recovered from his shock and returned to the coffin. Elaine's hand clutched a note close to her heart. Asking for her forgiveness, Arthur removed the note for her cold hands.
"Lancelot? Do you know this girl?" Arthur asked after reading the note.
"Yes." Lancelot sounded very distant. "Her name is Elaine, daughter of Bernard of Astolat. I met them a couple of days ago."
Arthur pulled the coffer out of the water, then did the same for Lancelot. "This letter is for you," he said as he handed the scrap of paper to the knight. Bewildered, Lancelot picked up note, and began to read.
"To whom it may concern:Please make sure this note finds Lancelot du Lac of Camelot.
Lancelot, I do love you. My heart tells me this is true. But you love another, so we can never be. Going on without your love is more than I can bear. So I'll end it and hope we can be together in the next world. Please know that I love you. It isn't the whim of a silly girl, but the deep, abiding feelings of a woman.
With all my love,Elaine"
Lancelot read and reread the letter several times as Arthur got the horses. He was shaken to the very core of his being, and he didn't register Arthur tying the coffin to his horse or helping him mount his own steed. The ride home was jarring, but his mind was miles away; for him it was as if everything had stopped.
Guinevere was stunned by the news. She went to Lancelot to comfort him, but he gently pushed her aside and went to his room. Arthur had to send a messenger to Astolat with the sad news. The joy had gone out of Joyous Garde that day.
Guinevere and Arthur had breakfast without Lancelot. Since the discovery of Elaine's body, the knight neither slept nor ate. He closed himself off in his room, refusing everyone.
"I've never seen Lancelot like this," Arthur spoke in a concerned whisper with Guinevere, as he looked over the bread, fruit, and wine they were having.
"He has a mountain of grief to overcome," Guinevere commented.
"I wish there was something we could do for him," Arthur replied.
"No dear, this is something he must see through himself. Guinevere reached for Arthurs hand across the table.
"I just feel for him," Arthur repeated. But he let the subject settle, and soon both returned to their meal.
Guinevere lightly rapped on Lancelot's door. She had told Arthur to stay out of it, but she couldn't take her own advice. Lancelot needed her. After a moment with no response, she unlocked the door with the master key and entered. She stepped into the darkened room, and saw the curtains drawn and the candles spent, the chambers a pit of darkness.
"Lancelot?" She neared the edge of the light created by the door. "Lancelot?"
Then she heard breathing by the four-posted bed. She left the light and crossed the darkness to him. Lancelot sat on the far side of the bed, staring down at a scrap of red cloth. He didn't even register her in the room, until she stood in front of him.
"What do you want?" he asked miserably.
"For you to snap out of this." Guinevere knelt down to look him in the eye.
"What's to snap out of? I killed this girl."
"No! You were honest with her and she took her own life out of sadness," Guinevere said hotly, then checked her self. Her words made her sound cold and unfeeling to a terrible tragedy. "Lancelot, Elaine wanted you to love her as a husband. Could you?"
"No," Lancelot answered grimly.
"If you knew she would take her life, would you have changed your mind? Would you have married her if you thought she'd take her life otherwise?"
"I don't know, but I guess not."
"Then you have nothing to feel guilty about." Guinevere grasped his hands. "It would be worse if you strung her along with false promises. If you told her you'd marry her and then left. You were honest to her and yourself, and that's nothing to be ashamed of."
"She's still dead," Lancelot looked into Guineveres face, his eyes watering up.
"Yes, and that is a great tragedy. I wish it weren't so, but I can't change what happened and neither can you. Beating yourself up about it won't change that."
"So I should just forget her?"
"No." Guinevere kissed his hands. "No. You must grieve, but not in this self-destructive way. This pain will become a part of you. It will take time, but I want you to come through the other side of this. For me?"
Lancelot looked into her eyes and caressed her face. Then he closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "For you, and for me." He straightened up. Smiling, Guinevere stood up.
"Now, do you feel like a bite of breakfast?"
Lancelot nodded and his stomach rumbled in agreement. They left to go downstairs, Lancelot leaving the red sleeve on the bed. A break in the curtains allowed a shaft of morning light to fall on the bright cloth.
"Are you sure about this?" Guinevere asked Lancelot.
"Yes," the knight said solemnly. "This was Bernard's only daughter. He'll need help getting through this time. I'll return to Camelot after the funeral."
"We understand," Arthur said as he patted Guinevere's shoulder affectionately. Lancelot saddled his horse, preparing the coffin for transport as he waited for Lavaine. The boy had arrived late the day before to claim the body, and he had been understandably torn up over the death of his sister.
Guinevere's words couldn't have come at a better time. Lancelot needed to be strong to help Lavaine through this. Bringing the body back and attending the funeral was the least he could do. Bernard might not accept him, but he had to say good bye to Elaine, and a funeral was the only way let the healing begin.
Lavaine came out of the castle hall, a cloud of sorrow shrouding him like a cloak. He moved briskly enough, but he didn't speak and didn't meet anyone's eye as he hopped onto the wagon and moved it to the main gate. Arthur and Guinevere looked to Lancelot, worry and sympathy coloring their face. Lancelot only nodded before ordering the gates open and before the two mourners took the river road back to Astolat.
On the way, Lancelot at first tried to start a conversation, but Lavaine would only nod, shrug or shake his head as a response. The trip was slow because of the wagon and their cargo, and when the sun reached midday, Lancelot stopped their trek. Lavaine obediently complied, but by his frown he disapproved. Lancelot started eating lunch, but Lavaine refused, instead sitting off by himself on a boulder above the river. The boy sat curled up, his arms wrapped around his knees, and Lancelot grew more worried about the lad with every moment he stayed silent. After a little while, Lancelot made a decision.
The knight walked up to Lavaine and handed him the note. Lavaine looked perplexed at him for a moment, the then read the note. When hed finished, the boy paused for a moment, then suddenly sprang to his feet and charged the knight, pummeling Lancelot's midsection. The knight took the punishment, letting each blow hit him, and only stood his ground. Hot tears flowed down Lavaine's cheeks as he threw punch after punch until he couldn't lift his fists anymore. Once hed stopped, Lancelot hugged him. Lavaine cried openly, wailing his sorrow to the world.
Lancelot spoke into Lavaine's hair, "Hate me, if it makes you feel better. But I didn't kill your sister."
"She loved you!" Lavaine said accusingly.
"Yes and no," Lancelot explained. "Part of her did love me. But a large part loved the idea of being in love and couldn't stand the loneliness. That was the part that killed her."
Lavaine pulled himself away and dried his eyes. "I believe you, Sir Lancelot," Lavaine suddenly sounded older than his ten years. "You are a knight of the Round Table and the Flower of Chivalry, and you speak the truth. How can I blame you for my sister's death?"
"Because it hurts. Her parting affects us all. I'm sorry she's gone." Lancelot spoke what was in his heart.
"I am too, but I won't blame you for her death," Lavaine said as he wiped the dried tear tracks from his cheeks.
"I'm glad to hear that," Lancelot said evenly. "Now, let's move on." In more ways than just traveling, they did.
* * * * *
"That is so sad," Elaine said as she felt tears wet her face. "But I thought Elaine was older than fourteen?"
"You're thinking of Elaine of Corbin," Arthur corrected.
"How many Elaines are there?" she asked.
"Three. Elaine of Benwick, Lancelot's birth mother; Elaine of Corbin; and Elaine of Astolat."
"You wouldn't happen to be one of them?" Griff asked.
"Funny," Elaine retorted. She held up a hand to stay Norman as he started advancing towards Griff. He was looking for a rematch with the gargoyle, but Elaine wasn't going to put up with any more fighting.
"Well, we've run across stranger things," Griff explained. "Between stone dragons, water creatures, and talking stones, it wouldn't be a stretch."
"I'd know," Arthur added with a twinge of sadness. "Queen Elaine of Benwick stayed in Camelot while she was in exile. She died peacefully in her homeland after Lancelot won it back from Claudas. I discovered Elaine of Astolat along with Lancelot during that tragic affair, you look nothing like her either."
"What about Elaine of Corbin?" Elaine asked meanly. "Do I remind you of her?"
Arthur sighed. "No. I met that Elaine when she visited Camelot. It was shortly before Lancelot vanished."
* * * * *
Sir Lancelot and his squire Lavaine were returning to Camelot after a month of questing. Taking Lavaine as his squire had turned out to be an inspired decision for the knight. The two years following his sister's death had seen many changes in the lad. Hed found a deeper maturity that made him wise beyond his years. He was also a loyal servant, but an even better friend, and now Lancelot never went anywhere without him.
Knight and squire entered under the portcullis into the main courtyard, and found a page awaiting them with an urgent message. "Lady Elaine awaits you in her guest chambers."
"What?" Both arrivals were shocked by the name.
"Lady Elaine of Corbin awaits you in her guest chambers," the page reiterated, a little nervous from their reaction.
Lancelot relaxed and Lavaine's face fell. Lancelot patted him reassuringly. It still hurt to think about his sister. Lavaine regained enough of his good cheer to return the smile.
"Tell her I'll be with her right away," Lancelot said as he steered his mount to the stables. He tried recalling if hed ever met Elaine of Corbin before, but his mind drew a blank. His heart shrank a bit at the thought, which he found odd. Why did he feel this way about someone he hadn't even met?
Lancelot puzzled over this as he climbed the steps to the guest tower. He lightly knocked on the door, entering when bidden. Elaine was an attractive woman with copper red hair and a bright face, one that brightened further when she saw Lancelot.
"There you are!" She ran up to him and gave him a warm hug and a kiss on the cheek. Lancelot was a little surprised at the affection, but didn't show it. He quickly hugged her and let her speak.
As she released Lancelot, she began to talk excitedly. "I was so worried! When you left, you were raving like a mad man. I didn't even know whether you were alive or dead until a few weeks ago. But all that can wait. Come!" She led him to the next room, where a toddler lay on the bed. "Lancelot, meet your son, Galahad."
"Merlin! Merlin!" Lancelot burst into the wizard's room. Few dared enter Merlin's inner sanctum with its bubbling flasks and frothing potions. The alchemy paraphernalia was mostly for show, but it didn't intimidate Lancelot this time. Merlin sat next to the window reading a tome, and as the knight burst in, he turned towards him with a half-amused, half-irritated look.
"Is it true?" Lancelot went on without preamble, without even stopping to hear if he was welcomed. "Is Galahad my son?"
"The child with Elaine of Corbin?" Merlin placed a bookmark in his volume and closed the book.
"Yes! She says that this child is my son, but I've never seen Elaine before."
"Inaccurate," Merlin said simply.
"What do you mean?" Lancelot was growing annoyed. "The child is three years of age, which means I must have been with Elaine four years ago. That year is a blur for me."
"~That~ is accurate," Merlin nodded.
"The only thing I remember is you coming to fetch me at Glastonbury. Which begs the question: what do you know about this?"
"Tell me about your mother," Merlin said in a calm reassuring voice.
"What?" Lancelot looked at the magician incredulously.
"Your mother holds the key to that year," Merlin answered.
Lancelot straightened up and blinked. "I ask you a question, you answer in riddles. Typical."
Merlin bolted out of his chair. "This isn't a riddle! Your mother gave up a great deal to save you, and I won't have you wasting the sacrifice!"
"What do you mean?" Lancelot was stunned by Merlin's vehemence. "What did Queen Elaine do?"
"Not Elaine of Benwick," Merlin backed off a bit. "Your mother by love, the Lady of the Lake."
"My mother...by love?" Lancelot felt the door to his memory open wider. "Tell me what you know."
"What a darling boy," Guinevere said as she knelt down to look at Galahad. His strawberry blonde hair almost matched the ruddy look of his face as he grinned excitedly at the Queen.
"He's the most perfect child the world has ever known," Elaine agreed. "Of course, I'm biased."
"It's a mother's right to be." Guinevere made faces at Galahad. "Your child will always be the dearest thing to you. I hope I'll know that joy soon."
"Is your majesty expecting?" Elaine looked up from fussing over Galahad.
"No. Arthur and I have been trying for so long," Guinevere looked wistful. "I'm still hopeful, though."
The boy motioned to gain the queens attention, and then said, Look at what I can do! With that, he drew and then hefted a large dagger that hed had at his side. Then he performed a few tricks with the blade before reseathing it. Guinevere smiled brightly at the boy. "Oh, you are strong! She turned back towards Elaine. He'll be a strong knight when he grows up."
"Just like his father," Elaine smiled. "Speaking of which, I wonder where Lancelot got to?"
For Guinevere, the world and her heart stopped for a moment. She was thunderstruck; this was ~Lancelots~ child?!
"My queen, is anything the matter?" Elaine asked.
"NO! I mean,...I just remembered something that needs attending to," Guinevere covered.
"Well, thank you for spend time with my son and me. It'll be something hell remember always."
"If you want for anything just tell a page," Guinevere said and quickly departed, ignoring the Good-bye! that Galahad called after her. She practically ran through the corridors before finding her room, and when she entered, she quickly locked the door and cried.
"The Lady of the Lake saved me?" Lancelot was dumbfounded.
"Yes," Merlin informed him. "She saved you from the wyvernsblight, and then again from the fairy king's wrath."
"And I saved Elaine from this wyvern before falling ill?" Lancelot still found it hard to believe. "How come I don't remember any of this?"
"Delirium from wyvernsblight," Merlin answered, bending the truth a bit.
"But that was only one night...what about the entire year?"
"In the domain of the Third Race, time flows differently. In the mortal world a year went by, but for you it was little more than a couple of weeks."
"Why didn't you tell me this before?" Lancelot asked. "I've been back for three years and not once have you mentioned this."
"I made a promise not to interfere," Merlin answered. "But since you asked, I can tell you."
"What did my mother sacrifice for me?" Lancelot was a bit hesitant, unsure what to expect.
"She can never see you again." Merlin's face aged as the weight of the sadness sunk in. "She lost you in order to save you."
Lancelot remained silent for a long time. "She loved me greatly," Lancelot said quietly. "I hear it in your voice. She loved me more than life itself."
"That is what a mother does...and a father," Merlin brought him back to the reason for his visit.
"Galahad is my son." Lancelot said it more as a statement than a question.
"That is up to you," Merlin said as he stood up. "I can't divine paternity. Do you believe this woman? Do you love this child? Those are questions you must answer for yourself."
Lancelot joined Merlin as the magician left his room. The knight had one more question.
"Merlin? Why did you make a promise not to interfere? What is that about?"
"Sir knight, there is a spark of greatness in each of us. For some, it's buried deep and may surface only once in a lifetime. For others, like yourself, it's so close to the surface, it peaks out without effort. The Lady of the Lake saw this in you and so did I. It's a greatness to do great good or great evil. The Lady knew you would do good; I feared you'd do evil. In the end, we both agreed you had to be the person you were meant to be. Neither of us could change that."
"I didn't know you thought so low of me." Lancelot dropped his head.
"I didn't know you then." Merlin clapped a hand on Lancelot's shoulder. "But I've seen you in action. You've faced peril after peril. Your heart's always been in the right place. Look to it now in this matter."
Then Merlin walked away, leaving Lancelot with a lot to think about. Just before the mage turned the corner, he looked back at the introspective knight and shook his head.
Lancelot was returning to Elaine's quarters, when a page intercepted him with a message from the Queen. Lancelot went to the library, always their meeting place, but she wasn't there. Perplexed, he went to her chambers.
"My Queen, you sent for me?" Lancelot said as he entered Guinevere's chambers. "Mi amore?"
It was dark, save for one drawn curtain spilling light across the spacious bedroom. Guinevere stood facing out the window with her back to him.
"I've heard some disturbing rumors of late," the queen began without preamble. "They say that you will be leaving Camelot with Elaine of Corbin and her son."
"Yes it is true, I just received the king's leave. I was going to tell Elaine and then you. We'll be departing soon."
"Rumor also says that Galahad is your son. Is this true?"
Lancelot could hear the desperation in her voice, how much she wanted this to be false. "Yes, he is my son." He saw her head fall and knew she was crying. He moved to comfort her, but when he held her shoulders, she flinched away from his touch.
"It's foolish of me to be carrying on so." Guinevere wiped her tears away "We can't be together. It's only natural for you to find another. We've been here before."
"No." Lancelot turned her around. "She hasn't replaced you, Mi amore. You are still first in my heart."
"Then what happened four years ago?" Guinevere asked, a hard edge to her voice.
"It was an accident," Lancelot tried to explain.
"An accident? What you slipped, fell, and four years later Elaine came here with a son?"
"You're not listening." Lancelot shook his head.
"Maybe because I don't want to hear it."
"No!" Guinevere held up an imperious hand. "It was a foolish game we were playing. Our love isn't more than a daydream fancy. Let's not treat it as if it were one of the great romances of history."
"Guinevere, I love you. This doesn't change anything."
"Even if it didn't," Guinevere said as she stared hard into his eyes, "what can we do about it? I love Arthur too much to hurt him, and our love can come to nothing. It's better if you go with Elaine."
"And spare ~you~ the pain of having to choose." Lancelot's words cut Guinevere to the quick.
"You wound me," Guinevere said, her face reflecting the hurt.
"You wound ~me~ when you trivialize our love like this. I've cared about you since the moment I laid eyes on you. I pledged my life to your service, not because it was duty, but because I loved you. I know our love can't go further than deep friendship. But that won't change what is in my heart."
"Yet, you leave with Elaine."
"And Galahad. They both need a father and a husband, and I can't abandon them. But Gwen, I have always and will always love you."
"I wish I could believe that," Guinevere said as she turned her back to him. Lancelot let out a heartfelt sigh and started to leave the room, but before passing through the door, he turned back.
"Search your heart, Mi amore," Lancelot advised. "Do you truly feel our love is gone?"
Early the next morning, Lancelot, Elaine and the young Galahad departed from Camelot. It was a bittersweet departure. The knights all wished him safe journey, but the one face he longed to see didn't appear. And from her view in the library, Guinevere watched Lancelot ride out of her life.
* * * * *
"So what happened next?" Norman asked. Hed stopped cleaning the room a little while before, preferring to listen to Arthur's narrative.
Arthur and Griff both looked surprised at the big man's request. Elaine smiled, "Why, Norman, don't tell me you're getting into the story?"
Norman frowned unconvincingly. "Of course not. Its just that the sooner you finish with the story, the sooner we can leave."
"Right," Elaine said almost laughingly. She known him far too long and far too well. Despite his rugged exterior, Norman was a big softie; shed even caught him once with one of her romance novels.
"Lancelot was gone for several years, with neither a word nor mention of him by the heralds. The interesting thing, though, was that while Lancelot seemed to have dropped off the face of the earth, sightings of the Ill-Made Knight increased. Id never put it together until reading these journals that they were one and the same."
"But Lancelot had to have come back," Elaine added. "Otherwise, Guinevere wouldn't have..."
She caught the gargoyle nervously shaking his head and remembered her bodyguard. She was skating on thin ice with this subject.
Arthur continued in a lower voice, "Lancelot was the Queen's champion. Even away, he served the queen first and foremost."
"What are you talking about?" Elaine asked, beating Griff to the question.
"The kidnapping of Guinevere by Meleagant."
* * * * *
Lancelot, his squire, Lavaine, and his page, Galahad, made their way towards the tournament at Bridgeford, the knight donning the helm of his alter ego La Chevalier Mal Fet, the Ill-Made Knight, as he continued on. The mismatched assemblage of hauberk, gauntlets and shin guards, once comical, now brought worried glances from the challenging knights and piercing gazes from the maidens who saw it.
Squire and page rode respectfully behind their master. Lavaine, strong and resolute for twenty-five years, kept his passions and temper in close check as the three of them made their way across the field. The maidens found his brooding introspection all the more alluring, but Lavaine kept his distance as he focused on the impending tournament; love could come later. Lavaine had recently been creating a name for himself in the quintain and archery, and felt certain of a win today; where his master dominated jousting, Lavaine kept winning the individual sports.
Two steps behind Lavaine, Galahad rode on a yearling. Galahad was strong like his father and eternally rambunctious, but he also had the reputation of being a do-gooder. Maybe because he walked in the shadow of his father, the 'Flower of Chivalry', or perhaps because it was in the blood, Galahad constantly helped those around him. He participated in every virtue and eschewed every vice. He loved to race his gelding, but hated to gamble. And when he won a contest, he'd turn around and give the purse to someone in need. Extremely helpful, Galahad was an inseparable part of this trio.
Soon they entered the town of Bridgeford for the annual tourney held there. The Ill Made Knight was a heavy favorite, mainly because he hadn't lost in the seven years he had attended the match. This year promised to be a mighty tournament, as every visiting knight who wished to make a name for himself wanted to unseat 'Mal Fet'.
The three rode through the center of town on their way to the tournament, and as they passed the blacksmith's shop, four girls stepped out from the shed. The two older girls waved at Lavaine while the younger ones waved hankies at Galahad. Lavaine remained stalwart in the saddle, giving them each a brief glance and nod, and the gestures seemed enough for them to fall into a swoon. Galahad, however, gave his fans a scrunched up face, as though he had just tasted something bitter. That was enough for the girls to fall into a swoon as well. As he saw the display beside him, Lancelot couldnt help but laugh.
"Hearts weren't meant to be broken, boys." He smiled beneath his helm. "You might want to talk with them."
"What would girls know about being a knight?" Galahad asked as he rode up to his father's side.
"You might be surprised." Lancelot looked down to his offspring. "Besides, there's more to life than being a knight. It's what you do, but it isn't entirely who you are."
As the threesome approached the fairgrounds, the absence of several tents and shields caught their attention. The Bridgeford tourney usually brought several of Camelot's finest to speculate, if not participate, and this was usually the closest Lancelot got to his former comrades these days. This year, however, none of them seemed to have showed; Tristram, Gawain, Lionel, Urre, Agravaine, and even Mordred were absent from the field. Lancelot thought it highly peculiar, but he couldn't ask about it. Hed closed the door on that life, and he didn't want to open old wounds.
Lavaine, however, still held hope that they'd return to Camelot one day. After he and Galahad set up the tent, he went around the stands and asked about the absent Round Table knights. The news he received was so shocking that he returned to Lancelots tent right away and roused the sleeping Lancelot and Galahad.
"I found out where the Camelot knights are," Lavaine said as he sat next to Lancelot's cot. "The queen has been kidnapped!"
Lancelot sat bolt upright in his cot. "Explain!"
"A couple of weeks ago, the Queen and her ladies went for a day in the countryside. They were ambushed and she, her ladies, and their escort were taken prisoner. Arthur's recalled all his knights to begin a search for her."
"What knave would committed such an outrage?"
"I don't know. The brigand hasn't shown up since."
"We must go right away!" Lancelot got up. "Boys, pack our things! I'll give the master of ceremonies our regrets and we'll return home, then see what aid we can offer to Arthur."
"You're going to save ~her~, aren't you?!" Elaine asked, sadness and anger in her voice.
"Yes," Lancelot answered directly. "How did you know?"
"Arthur sent word to Joyous Garde some time ago. He wants you back to help with the crisis."
"They need me," Lancelot said as he continued packing.
"~She~ needs you," Elaine pointed out.
"I wish you could understand." Lancelot stopped packing to look up at her.
"Don't I? You've been with me for more than ten years, but I never had you heart." Elaine shook her head.
"Elaine..." He didn't know what to say.
"I think I'll return to Corbin," Elaine said quietly, turning away from him so that he couldn't see her cry. "I haven't seen my father in a while."
Lancelot knew what she was saying: it was over between them. Actually, it had been over a long time before; she was merely putting an official end to it. Lancelot knew he should comfort her, but words or gestures could not take the hurt from this moment.
"I know you too well." Elaine guessed his words, "You want to say 'youre sorry', that there's someone out there for me and that I just have to find him. I know. I know you did this for Galahad's benefit more than my own. Well, Galahad is growing up and he'll be his father's son. You have your firstborn male. You certainly don't need me anymore."
"Elaine!" Lancelot protested.
"Don't sound so shocked." Elaine's voice remained calm but she sounded very tired. "If he wasn't your son, would you have spent these years like this? No, you wouldn't. I guess I wanted to believe I actually had a chance with you. Foolish me."
Lancelot started to argue, but Elaine cut him off with an angry glare. "I'm too angry and too heartbroken to listen your lies anymore, no matter how much I wish they were true. Lie to yourself if you must, but don't expect me to deceive myself so we can feel better. I loved you and you couldn't return those feelings. Let's leave it at that."
Lancelot looked at his pack. He didn't want to leave on such a sour note, but time was precious. "Okay," Lancelot said simply.
He felt lousy; Elaine had been a wife to him, even though he didn't marry her. It was as she said: she loved him and he couldn't love her back. He felt terrible, but she had spoken truthfully; it was better to end things. She wasn't there to wave him, Lavaine, and Galahad off as the three men left Joyous Garde. As they made their way to Camelot, Lancelot promised to himself that this would never happen again. Love was painful enough, the absence of it was even more hurtful. He would never let down someone who loved him again.
Lancelot, Lavaine, and Galahad were three days from Camelot when they came across something peculiar: a spear embedded into a tree. Lancelot dismounted for a closer look, and saw the wilted remains of a flower crown made of white roses that laid pinned beneath the spear. The crown looked like a festive decoration, something worn on a celebration or a picnic.
"This is ~hers~," Lancelot said as he held the darkening petals in his hand. "The Picts have her."
"The Picts?" Lavaine looked perplexed. "They haven't been heard from in years. I thought they'd died out."
"Well, there are some still alive." Lancelot pulled the spear out of the tree. "This is their mark of claiming territory. And this, he held up the garlands, is Guinevere's; from that picnic she was ambushed in."
"What are Picts doing this far south?" Galahad asked. "When you told me about winning Joyous Garde, you said that it was at the Pictish border. That's miles north of here."
"I know." Lancelot remounted as perplexed by this as the other two. "It must be a rogue tribe or something."
"So we search the forest?" Lavaine began to turn his steed off the road.
"No," Lancelot said, halting the squire. "Galahad's right. The Picts can't be this far south. Not if they're on their own, sleeping in the woods. They must have an ally close by. Someone must be harboring them."
"The lands around here belong to either Brundis, Arn, or Meleagant."
"Meleagant?" Lancelot looked up from his musing.
"You know him?"
"Not very well," Lancelot said as he thought on it. "He served with us fighting the Picts, though. Let's check him out first."
Meleagant lived in a seaside castle much like Joyous Garde. It stood on white cliffs, amid a plain of knee high grass; a strong, defensible position. There was no way so much as a dog could walk up to the castle without being noticed, let alone three men, but its position also gave Lancelot and the boys a clear view of the encampment surrounding the castle. A Pictish camp.
There were at least a hundred Picts, smeared and colored with blue paint. The castle gate was open with wagons coming and going, making it obvious that the Picts were guests of Meleagant. The trio looked on in grim observation.
"Looks like we've found them." Lancelot crawled away from the rise, and the boys followed.
"So we go to Camelot and get reinforcements?" Galahad asked.
"You will," Lancelot said, pointing to his son. "Lavaine and I will see if we can get in there."
"Get in there?" the squire said as he looked at the field with a doubtful expression.
"You said the queen was accompanied by her ladies and their escorts? And that there was only one survivor?" Lancelot asked.
"Yes," Lavaine answered, not sure where Lancelot was going with this.
"We didn't find any bodies, so Im betting that Meleagant took them prisoner. If we can free them, we might have chance."
"That's if we get pass this army of Picts, the fortifications, and untold numbers of castle guards."
"Challenges are what make life interesting." Lancelot backed down until he was a safe distance away from the rise and stood up. "Galahad, ride to Camelot and tell Arthur what we've found. Go now!"
The reddish-blonde boy nodded and departed. Lancelot returned to his mount where his armor and the Pict spear were strapped. The knight stared at the weapon for the longest time, and then inspiration hit.
"Lavaine? Remember the gargoyles living in the North Woods of Camelot?" he asked.
"Vaguely." Lavaine peered at his mentor. "You have a plan?"
"Yes, but it's very risky."
"Hey, risks make life interesting," Lavaine smiled.
Evening came and cook fires dotted the land surrounding Meleagant's castle. The Picts were in the midst of finishing off their dinners, when they heard a galloping in the distance. Sentries sounded the alarm as the lone knight rode out on to the field, clearly visible by the Picts and the forces inside the castle.
When he got close enough, Lancelot, in his Ill-Made disguise, held aloft the Pict spear and hurled it into the camp. To the Picts, this was a clear challenge to their claim and their honor, and no less than the chief could take it up. Lancelot waited on his mount for a response until it came in the form of a seven foot tall behemoth, with limbs like oak branches and a wolf's skull for a helmet. On the level field, the chief stood eye to the mounted knight until Lancelot dismounted, unmoved by the intimidating Pict.
He approached the giant, unsheathing his sword. The Pict merely looked at the knight and gave a big belly-laugh, then pointed at the knight with his cudgel and spoke some words to his men in their native tongue. The other Picts began laughing as well. Lancelot looked up and saw the battlements crammed with sentries, looking on at the spectacle below. Then he returned his gaze to his adversary, as the Pict raised his club against him. The battle was joined, and now it was up to Lavaine.
A cool sea breeze chilled the sweat on Lavaine's forehead. He couldn't wipe the liquid from his eyes, so he stopped his ascent until the stinging subsided. Scaling the chalk cliffs was the easy part: the soft chalk easily yielded to the spikes strapped to his hands and toes. The fortress's stone walls were the source of more exertion. Lavaine fit the spikes in cracks and crevices in the blocks, but it was slow going. How the gargoyles did this with only their claws was a mystery to him, but he wished he had their claws now. It'd make this climb so much easier.
Looking up, Lavaine could see the top of the battlement, and he strained to reach the edge. His first knuckles went over, then the second and third. He held on and then pulled himself up and over onto the walkway.
This part of the battlements was deserted. The guards were all clustered above the front gate, watching Lancelot fight the Pictish chieftain. Lavaine didn't have time to catch his breath, as he had to get out of view. Half-crouching, half crawling, he made it to the stairwell and then down into the castle.
Lancelot ducked under the Pict's swing, and then kicked the back of the chief's knees. The Pict buckled and collapsed, and Lancelot was on him before he could recover. The knight had his sword to the other mans throat, and the battle was over. The Picts looked on with sad, resigned expressions, while the guards in the castle were calling for blood.
But Lancelot wasn't here for blood. He let the Pict get up, but kept the cudgel away. The Picts looked to Lancelot for instruction: he was their chief now. Lancelot handed a spear to the ex-chief, as the exiled among the Picts were allowed one weapon and a skin of water. The chief took the weapon and a waterskin tossed to the ground and then fled into the woods. Come dawn, if any of the tribe saw him, they'd kill him on sight; that was the way of the Picts.
Lancelot didn't address his new followers, but instead approached the castle gates. The guards crossed their spears, barring him entrance.
"Manners, boys, manners. This is the leader of the wolf clan, now," an oily voice came from behind the guards. It belonged to Meleagant, a man roughly Lancelot's height, with silver blonde hair and light blue eyes.
"I should have you killed," Meleagant said as he inspected the man in the hodgepodge armor and mail standing before him. "I had a very good relationship with that man. He and his Picts have been an effective tool for me."
"If you wanted me dead, I'd be so," Lancelot said through his helmet's visor.
"Rather cocky," Meleagant noted, trying to peer into the headgear to see who was inside. "But accurate. I'm curious why you're here my Ill Made Knight. Oh, I've heard about you and I'm wondering why a tourney player is here at my doorsteps. Its doubtful you came here just to fight Picts."
"I came with information you might find useful." Lancelot remained stock still. "It concerns your acquisition of the Queen of Britain."
Meleagants smile remained on his face, but some of the laughter left his eyes. "You've piqued my interest. Come!"
Lavaine moved swiftly to the barracks, and stole a uniform. After putting it on, he started searching the castle; he had to find the Camelot prisoners. He followed passages and corridors downward, and it didn't take long to find the dungeon. Three guards covered the entrance, but Lavaine knew it would only take one to sound the alarm, so he returned to the courtyard and hunkered down to wait.
"Tell me what you know," Meleagant said as he and his guest entered his sitting room.
"Arthur knows you kidnapped his queen. He's on the move, and he'll be here in four days," Lancelot informed the warlord.
Meleagant laughed. "This is your urgent news? Arthur would've found out eventually, and it matters little. He won't attack knowing his love is here. We'll be safe from Arthur's forces."
"Underestimating Arthur Pendragon has always been a fatal mistake," Lancelot warned. "You might want to ask the 'Eleven Kings' about it, if you live through this.
"True." Meleagant gestured for Lancelot to sit down. "But Guinevere is the heart of Arthur, and he is the heart of Camelot. Without the heart, the rest is a lifeless body."
Meleagant stopped for a moment, scrutinizing the knight before him. "Why did you come here?"
"I thought that was obvious," Lancelot answered. "I saw an opportunity to serve.
"No, I mean why does a knight who is only an enigma on the tournament circuit start paying out his services to warlords? I wasn't aware you hated King Arthur."
"I don't. I merely saw a chance to make more money than a tourney's purse." Lancelot thought fast to quell Meleagant's suspicion. "An impending battle needs every available sword arm, and I thought there might be room. If not, I'll pack up and move on."
"And fight on Camelot's side, I'll wager?" Meleagant spoke with a dangerous edge to his voice.
"If they're willing to pay." Lancelot stood up and adjusted his hauberk. "By your leave, sir."
Meleagant chuckled again. "No need, Sir Ill-Made. You see the right of it. I can use every sword arm available, and you brought me some valuable information. Report to the man-at-arms, then return to me. The Picts follow you now and I need them for the upcoming battle."
"Yes, sir." Lancelot bowed, and then left.
Lancelot was striding purposefully to the barracks when Lavaine signaled him over. Quickly, the knight made a great deal of fussing over his armor, and seemed to have trouble untying his trews. The guards gave him a cursory glance as he rounded a corner, and then went to his squire.
"What have you found?" Lancelot asked. Lavaine was hiding in the smithy's shed behind him, shielded from the eyes of the guards.
"They're keeping the soldiers in the dungeon." Lavaine then added, "No sign of Guinevere."
"I didn't think so. Meleagant probably has her secreted away in a tower somewhere. He's had his eye on her for years."
"We'll need a diversion in any case," Lavaine pointed out.
"In confusion, there's opportunity." Lancelot looked to the castle gates. "Give me an hour. I'll rouse the Picts and the fighting will draw the guards away from the dungeons. That'll be your cue."
"Got it," Lavaine said, and then went on his way while Lancelot did what he could to stir up the castle.
It wasn't remarkably difficult for Lancelot to turn the Picts against Meleagant. The Picts had finished off a wagon full of ale meant for the castle guards, and with most of them drunk, it took little instruction for the Picts to rush the gate and demand more ale.
Meleagant's men, already deprived of one wagon, weren't going to give up another. Pushing turned to shoving, and soon blows were exchanged. Not long after that, the fighting boiled over into a riot.
Lavaine heard the rioting and then saw the sentries leave their posts. Two guards rushed up from the dungeon to join the fray. The squire took the opportunity and tackled the remaining guard and took his keys, and as he did so, the knights clamored at the door to their cell, begging Lavaine to set them free.
"Shhh," Lavaine hushed them. "This isn't an attack, just a diversion. When I set you free, you must follow me to the barracks, arm up, and take our foes by surprise."
The knights looked to each other. None questioned Lavaine's plan. The squire opened the cell doors, and then led them out of the dungeon. He crossed the courtyard, then signaled a few of the soldiers at a time to sprint across to the barracks with him. The Britons quickly took the sleeping barrack guards by surprise, and then hastily distributed swords, bows and axes amongst themselves.
When they were ready, Lavaine signaled to Lancelot, who then headed into the castle and demanded to speak to Meleagant. The guards admitted him, and when he was inside, Lavaine lined up his men facing the main gate. With a smile to his brothers-in-arms, he raised his sword and cried out, "For Camelot!"
The men gave similar shouts and battlecries as they charged the enemy. The castle guards turned around, too stunned to react. Trapped between the drunken Picts and the now-freed knights, the guards did the only sensible thing they could think of: they ran. The guards tried fleeing through the front gate, but the Picts blocked their escape. Some tried to climb to the battlements, but the Camelot bowmen picked them off on the open stairways. Surprise was on the side of the men of Camelot, and they made full use of it.
Lancelot was hurrying to Meleagant's quarters, when he heard the door flung open and saw the nobleman dragging Guinevere with him. The kidnapper had heard the 'For Camelot!' battle cries below and had seen his plan begin to falter. Now, he sought to escape with his prize. Meleagant pulled the struggling queen along the empty corridor, and as he turned back to curse the queen at one point, he looked up instead at the Ill Made Knight.
"Release Guinevere," Lancelot ordered.
"Not on your life," Meleagant snarled. "She's my insurance against Arthur's wrath."
"It's not his wrath you should be worried about." Lancelot unsheathed his sword with a hiss.
"This isn't a tourney, Sir Ill Made." Meleagant pulled his own sword. "You think you can handle a ~real~ warrior."
"Let's find out." Lancelot stepped a little closer.
"Ah, ah, ah," Meleagant chided as he turned his swords tip to Guinevere's neck. "~You~ may be ready to die, but can you say the same for her?"
Lancelot was caught; he dared not risk Guinevere's life. Reluctantly, Lancelot dropped his sword and kicked it to the nobleman. Meleagant smiled. "Thanks," he said, and then stabbed Lancelot in the chest.
"No!" Guinevere screamed.
"Shut up!" Meleagant yelled back, backhanding her.
The queens scream rang in Lancelot's ears, and he saw them move down the hall as his vision dimmed. Something inside of him yelled at him to get up: Guinevere needed him and he couldn't fail her. It was a struggle to get to his feet, and his left side burned with the pain, but he was alive. It hurt like hot death, but he was alive. And while there was still fight in him, he'd get Guinevere back.
Between the sounds of battle and Guinevere's pleading, Meleagant never heard Lancelot coming. The knight ran as hard as he could, bowling the evil noble over. Once free of the warlord, Guinevere fled for the nearest room. Meleagant came to quicker than the injured knight.
"You again?!" Meleagant looked at the collection of armor. "Looks like I'll have to take out your heart to make sure youre dead!"
Lancelot was just getting to his feet when Meleagant poised for the strike. Lancelot quickly tucked and rolled, coming up with his sword, and then stuck it into Meleagant's rib cage, piercing the mans own heart. Meleagant slumped over, and he was dead before his body hit the ground.
Lancelot struggled to get to his feet, then went after Guinevere. When Lancelot entered the room the Queen hid from him. He was surprised by her reaction; she seemed positively terrified of him. Lancelot was perplexed by this until he realized she didn't recognize him, and so the Ill Made Knight removed his helmet, revealing to her the man underneath.
"Lancelot!" she breathed a sigh of relief.
"Meleagant won't trouble you anymore my dear," he said, smiling.
Guinevere ran to him and hugged him deeply. Lancelot loved the embrace, but pain lanced through his side from the pressure, causing him to collapse. Guinevere immediately undid his breastplate and removed his hauberk to see what damage had been done. Meleagant's rapier had poked through Lancelots chainmail; the wound was small, but deep. Guinevere immediately laid him down, while she ripped some of her dress to use as a bandage, and she had him dressed and conscious by the time Lavaine found them.
"Good news sir!" The squire was all smiles. "Meleagant's men and the Picts have fled! The castle is ours! We've won!"
"Where are the wounded?" Guinevere asked
"In the barracks, my queen," Lavaine answered, then he noticed his mentors pale face and the bandage on his shoulder. Soon he was under Lancelot's arm, helping him up without the queen's urging. Together, they got him down to the barracks and to some first aid.
Fortunately, Meleagants sword had hit too high in Lancelots shoulder to be dangerous. Stretching his arm was painful, but he managed. The bandage and a sling was all the attention needed. But others weren't so lucky. Of the forty knights captured with Guinevere, three had lost their lives and seven more were laid up with injuries. Guinevere, her ladies, and the castle staff abandoned by Meleagant saw to the wounded.
The queen was up late into the night tending the injured, and it was very late when she returned to her room in the castle. A moment later, a knock on the door came, followed by a creak as it was opened. "What is it now?" She turned around and came up short when she saw it was Lancelot. "What can I do for you?"
"I'm wounded," Lancelot eased himself on the table, and she checked the bandage.
"It doesn't seem to be getting worse," Guinevere diagnosed.
"Not that wound." Lancelot moved her hand until it was over his heart. "This one."
"Oh, Lancelot," Guinevere breathed. "I've missed you so."
Lancelot caressed her face. "Mi amour."
"I should have never let you go." Guinevere turned and kissed his palm. It brought back so many memories. "Don't go. Stay with me."
"I wasn't going to leave." Lancelot brushed back a tear on her face. Both fell into a warm embrace, but the pain flared up again, causing Lancelot to wince. Guinevere immediately fussed over his wound, but he stopped her, putting her hand back over his heart and drawing her close. Then, ever so gently, he leaned over and kissed her.
* * * * *
"When our forces arrived two days later, Lancelot and Guinevere were there to greet us," Arthur explained. "They were so happy; old friends reuniting after so long apart. Lancelot, humble as ever, heaped all the praise on Lavaine. Lavaine's endurance climbing the sea cliffs, and his leadership during the battle made him a knight in the eyes of the men. My dubbing him was merely a formality, but Sir Lavaine accepted it as a sacred trust, as humble as his master."
Arthur shook his head. "I was so happy to have my queen and my best knight back, I never realized something was between them."
"You don't need to go any further," Griff consoled his king.
"Yes, he does." Elaine contradicted the gargoyle. "I want to know what happened next."
"Lancelot and Guinevere betray Arthur," Griff explained curtly. "He finds out. They escape. Arthur pursues, and while he's away civil war erupts in Camelot. End of story."
"But that's not the whole story," Elaine said as she glared at the gargoyle, then turned to Arthur. "What happened to you, Arthur?"
"I don't know what you mean," Arthur looked at Elaine. She stared right back at him, crossing her arms.
"You may fool others, but I've gone down this path before. There's more to it than betrayal, isnt there?"
"I've resolved my feelings about this long ago," Arthur said with a certainty he didn't entirely feel.
"I know that much is untrue," Elaine kept on him. "You've pushed me away several times because you're afraid to love. Why? I'm guessing its guilt."
"Guilt has nothing to do with it," Arthur argued. "What do I have to be guilty about?"
"Oh, I don't know." Elaine shrugged. "Maybe it's guilt over sentencing your wife to die? Maybe it's guilt over ignoring an affair happening right under your nose? Then her tone became vehement, taking on a hint of accusation. Or maybe it's guilt of hypocrisy. I mean you accuse her of adultery, but you did the same thing yourself once. Otherwise Mordred wouldnt have existed. What's good for the gander is treason for the goose, is that how it goes?"
"That's enough!" Griff started to go over to Elaine, but Norman held him back. The gargoyle's eyes flared bright, but Norman wasn't impressed and continued to hold on.
"We can go another round. I'm more than game." Norman cracked a half-smile that seemed to say 'I eat gargoyles for breakfast'. "Let them work this out," he suggested.
Griff roughly shook off the bodyguard's arm, but didn't interfere, and after a moment, Norman returned to his watchful position while Cavall went to Arthur.
"It ~is~ guilt," Elaine insisted as she looked into Arthurs eyes. The sad look he returned confirmed it. "Guinevere's still in your heart, and it's eating you up." She continued to dig into him. "I mean, what does it say about a king who can't satisfy his woman?"
"Why are you doing this?" Arthur stared at her. "I thought we were friends."
"I'm doing this because you ~don't~ deserve this, and that's what you've been putting yourself through. You aren't a hypocrite, and you aren't a bad husband, and you aren't to blame for what happened. It's time to let that go. To let go of the past."
"How can I give it up?" Arthur stood up. "It's what I am."
"It was what you ~were~," Elaine persisted. "That Arthur has been dead and gone for more than a thousand years. You may be the same person, but you aren't the same man."
Arthur continued flipping through pages in the book until he came to a section where the pages were torn out. Elaine placed her hand over his and gave him a look was warm and open. Her smile spoke volumes, but it was summed up in one phrase: I understand. Arthur returned the smile with a sad, careworn one, and an entire conversation seemed to be shared in the exchange. Then Arthur turned his hand upward, his palm touching her, and gave her own hand an encouraging squeeze.
Elaine nodded. "Take your time." She took the journal from Arthur, and then looked the book over. "What happened to the pages?"
Elaine knew she was changing the subject, but Arthur needed to think things over, needed some space. Arthur took the book, and then examined the pages before and after the missing section. In a few minutes, he was completely absorbed into the mystery.
"The Grail Quest is missing," he declared.
"Lancelot was one of the knights who came closest to finding the Grail," Norman interjected. Again the gathered looked at the bodyguard with mild surprise. Norman returned their shocked look with a face like marble.
"He's right though," Arthur said as they returned their attention to the journal. "Only four knights came close to obtaining the Grail: Percival, Bors, Lancelot, and Galahad. Galahad lost his life on the quest, and when Lancelot returned, he was so devastated, nothing could console him. If it weren't for Guinevere, he might have died from melancholy. She put him back to rights, and then that's when their relationship really began to show.
He sighed. And that's when things began to fall apart. Mordred was creating dissension in the court. His main rallying point was the gargoyles, but it just wasn't compelling enough. He needed something big to begin an insurrection. And that something came in the form of a kiss."
* * * * *
As Lancelot left the library, he could feel his heart breaking. But he had to be strong for Guinevere's sake. He got his pack from the room and headed down to the stables, nearly barreling into Lavaine.
"Lancelot, where are you off to in the middle of the night?"
"Anywhere," Lancelot mumbled.
"Are you all right?" Lavaine saw his mentor's distressed face.
"Yes, just fine," Lancelot lied.
"I'm not a gawky page anymore." Lavaine steadied the knight. "You can tell me."
Lancelot looked up at the young man and managed a smile. "No, you're not my page anymore. You've been a true friend to me. Can you do me a favor?"
"Anything," Lavaine said.
"Watch after Guinevere." Lancelot looked back up the stairs. "She'll need a friend when I am gone."
Lancelot didn't say any more as he rushed down the remainder of the staircase and on to the stables. "When you're gone?! Lancelot?!" Lavaine called after the knight, but Lancelot didn't slow down.
Lancelot was leading his horse out into the courtyard when someone shouted his name. It was Agravaine leading a pack of twelve knights towards him. In the best of moods, Lancelot tolerated Agravaine's pettiness, but this was not one of those times.
"What is it, Agravaine?" Lancelot asked testily. "I don't have time for this!"
"You have all the time in the world," Agravaine smiled nastily. "The king's ordered you detained. He said not to use force unless given cause, but I certainly hope you give us cause."
"What's this all about?" Lancelot held tightly on the reins.
"Don't know. Something about the queen and treason or something or other," Agravaine wondered idly, knowing it dug at Lancelot.
For the first time in his life, Lancelot began to panic. Not even when fighting against the wyvern of Corbin was Lancelot in anxiety's grip like he was now. All he could think about was escape. He sprang up onto his steed, preparing to flee, but Agravaine was waiting for that. He had the knights surround Lancelot, using clubs and poles to bring him down. Lancelot drew his sword, keeping the poles at bay for a time, but there were too many of them. When he swung to keep five off to his right, a staff knocked him between the shoulders from the left, and he was unhorsed.
Agravaine stood over him with a malicious grin on his face. "You don't know how many years I've wanted to see you unseated, Lancelot. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. You and the queen will share the gallows when you're both executed." He laughed.
*Crack*. A staff smacked Agravaine upside the head.
"Stuff it!" Lavaine shouted as he looked at the dazed knight. Then he set into the other knights, laying out half of them before they knew what had happened, giving Lancelot time to recover.
He and Agravaine looked at each other. Hate glared in Agravaine's eyes. They reached for their swords and then scrambled to their feet.
"We don't have to do this," Lancelot said as he tried one last time to end this peaceably.
"You will yield to me!" Agravaine snarled, and then lunged at Lancelot before he could answer.
The battle was joined as the two knights fought amid the chaos. But Agravaine had never been a match for Lancelot, and now was no different. As he lunged, Lancelot sidestepped the thrust and knocked him to the ground. Then Agravaine spun around and swung his sword in wide arcs. He acted like a man possessed, growing more and more enraged with every miss. After his initial panic, Lancelot regained some of his cool and disarmed Agravaine in short order. The knights sword went flying, clattering on the flagstones.
Disarmed, Agravaine was harmless, and Lancelot started to sheath his sword and get out before reinforcements came. But then Agravaine produced a knife and charged Lancelot. Instinct told Lancelot to turn around, and he spun on his heels, bringing up his sword in defense. Before he could stop himself, Agravaine impaled himself on Lancelot's weapon, a look of surprise, then hatred on his face at the man whod bested him this last time. Then Agravaine slid back, falling off the sword and to the ground with a thud that silenced all action in the courtyard.
The other knights stood stunned. Agravaine, one of the Knights of the Round Table, lay dead, slain by one of their own.
Lavaine kept his wits. He got Lancelot on his horse and on his way before the others recovered from the shock. Lancelot was almost out of sight of the castle when he heard the alarm raised. He could see the gargoyles circling the castle and the torches light up the late night gloom. Soon the whole castle would know: Lancelot was a murderer.
"Lancelot's not a murderer!" Lavaine protested.
"Then whose sword is sticking out of my brother's ribs?!" Gawain demanded. "Whose hand put it there?! Sire, you charged my brother with holding Lancelot. There's no reason it should have turned violent. Lancelot tried to flee, and when that failed he fought his way out, injuring some good knights and killing Agravaine."
"Your Majesty, Agravaine hated Lancelot since before I was born! He saw his chance to humiliate Lancelot, not just hold him, and he took it."
"Your devotion to your mentor blinds you to the facts!" Gawain said, dismissing the young knight's words.
"And your devotion to your brother is as well!" Lavaine shot back. "I was there; you weren't! Agravaine came at Lancelot with a knife while his back was turned. Hardly respectable behavior for a knight."
"As you said, Agravaine has been here longer than you've been alive," Gawain brought up. "Who are you to say what's proper and what isn't for a knight!"
"Enough!" Arthur commanded, silencing the quarreling knights. The broken-hearted king had little patience for them. "Where is Lancelot now?"
"Gone, my liege," Gawain reported.
Arthur looked to Lavaine expectantly.
"I don't know either, your majesty," Lavaine answered the unspoken question.
"Very well." Arthur stood up. "Gawain, I charge you with finding the knave and bringing him back to face trial. Dismissed!"
Arthur turned to leave. Gawain, sensing the kings mood, didn't say any more. Lavaine, however, made the attempt.
"Your majesty, please drop these charges. Not against him, but against Guinevere. He'll face whatever punishment you have for him, but the Queen doesn't deserve the same fate."
Arthur whirled on Lavaine, anger burning in his eyes. "They are both traitors, and I suggest you watch what you say, lest those same charges are leveled against you! You were there and saw everything because you took part in Lancelot's escape! That's aiding a criminal! Do you want to return to Astolat a dishonored knight?! If so, then by all means, keep pressing!" Arthur continued down the corridor, anger and sorrow wrapped around him like a cloak.
Gawain wasted no time in tracking the wayward knight, but Lancelot was far too adept at disappearing. Both questing knights, Gawain knew Lancelot could hide in the forests and hinterland for years without running into anyone. And Lancelot had every reason not to be seen again.
After two weeks, Gawain returned to Camelot empty-handed. When Guinevere heard that her love was still free, she breathed a sigh of relief, but knew it wasn't over. Tomorrow, she'd be burn at the stake. Shed evaded that fate before, but now it was almost comforting. She died everyday from guilt, and at least this way that pain would be over. She only wished she could end Arthur's pain with her death. For Lancelot's sake, she hoped he wouldn't come charging to her rescue this time.
Lavaine wearily returned to his room. He'd spent the day trying to rally support against this travesty. He thought that if enough of the Round Table opposed the action, Arthur might recant, but so far hed only gotten Lancelot's kin behind him; not a big feat.
Most of the old guard staunchly supported Arthur, while the younger knights didn't want to make waves. It was an exercise in futility: Arthur was so torn with grief, he wouldn't hear reason.
As Lavaine entered his darkened bedchamber, rough hands grabbed him. "Easy, boy, easy," Lancelot whispered into his ear as the young knight struggled. Lavaine immediately relaxed and turned around.
"By the ancients," he said. "How did you get here?"
"Gawain's not the only tracker in court. I found him searching for me and followed him back," Lancelot explained quickly. "What's happened to Guinevere?"
"You haven't heard?" Lavaine grew sad. "The queen's to be executed on the morrow."
"No!" Lancelot grieved for a moment, then grew resolute. "No, she won't die tomorrow, not if I can help it. Will you help me?"
"I'm at your disposal," Lavaine replied, and the two set to planning.
The first part of the plan, fetching Guinevere, went without a hitch. She readily went with Lancelot, while Lavaine roused the pages, and kept the rest of the castle distracted with all sorts of mischief. The next part of the plan called for a hurried exit from Camelot, but Lancelot encountered his old comrade, Gareth. Before either knew what they were doing, Gareth lay dead.
The first thing that went through Lancelots mind was the dinner hed had with Gareth and his wife a few weeks before. How could he tell Gareths wife that she was a widow by his hand? Lancelot could feel himself shut down. He felt numb, and his eyes remained fixed on his hand, which was stained crimson with his friends blood.
Guinevere had to bring him back to his senses; they were still in danger. "Lancelot, I know Gareth was a good friend, but we must go NOW! Grieve later, my champion."
Lancelot recovered and helped Guinevere to safety. They left Camelot, but they also left a lot more behind, though Lancelot didn't realize what until he heard Guinevere's decision the next morning.
"A convent?" Lancelot felt his heart sink. "But why?"
"I'm tired, my love," Guinevere said as she stared off into the forest. "Tired of the fighting, the dying. Tired of the pain we've caused."
"Guinevere," Lancelot began, but she continued, unable to steam the emotions coming forth.
"I know you were fond of Gareth. I remember when he came to Camelot; he wouldn't be knighted by anyone except you. His wife, Liones, made him so happy. But he's dead. Dead because of us."
"You don't think I grieve for him?" Lancelot argued.
Guinevere shook her head. "He'll be only the first casualty. How many of our friends must we bury? We both feared a civil war and now that's what we're facing! The only way to prevent this is for me to go away. I'll be safe in a nunnery, and it might even stop this tragedy before it starts."
Lancelot shook his head, trying to deny this. "I just got you back. I don't want to lose you again."
Guinevere took his hands in hers. "I know, my love. I thought if we just got away, we might find a small measure of happiness. But things have spun out of control and our chance together has gone with it. Please, don't fight me on this. You know it's the right thing to do."
"What do you want me to do?" Lancelot asked. "Stop loving you?"
"No." Guinevere gave his hands a squeeze. "But what we want, to be together, can't be. Please?"
Lancelot remained silent. Guinevere pulled his face towards her. "As a friend, and as my champion, accompany me to Amesbury."
When the two arrived at the convent, they prepared to say their good-byes. Lancelot shared one kiss with Guinevere, their final kiss, and he wished things were different. Looking into her eyes, he could tell she wished the same thing.
"Mi amore," Guinevere said as she held him close. "You know that I love you?"
Lancelot looked at her with a sadness that could break a heart. "Then stay," he pleaded. "Whatever it is, love can see it through."
For a moment, Guinevere followed her heart. She imagined what a life with him would be like: a small cottage in the woods. Not much, but they'd have each other. Maybe a child or two, one they could love and care for. It could be theirs. All they had to do was keep riding to Joyous Garde, then France, and maybe even past the Rhine if Arthur gave chase. To stay by his side was her fondest wish, and it was so real she could taste it.
But then reality set it in, feeling like a cold weight in the pit of her stomach. Their love didn't affect just them anymore. The whole kingdom was at risk. If they were the only ones who suffered, she'd gladly take the punishment, but she had no right to ask this of the kingdom. She was still queen and Britain came first.
"No," she said the words that closed her heart. "Sometimes love isn't enough."
* * * * *
"We laid siege to Joyous Garde until we learned Lancelot wasn't there," Arthur explained. "He had gone across the straits to his homeland, and I chased him all the way to France. While I was gone, Mordred took the chance to seize power, and when I heard of that my anger for Lancelot flew, replaced by fear for my kingdom. The rest is...well...legend. 'The battle of Camlann' and the 'Death of the King'. Despite all our efforts to save it, Camelot fell."
"Nothing lasts forever." Elaine stood up and stretched. "Not Camelot, not hate, not love. Not even you, Arthur."
"Well, that's a cheery sentiment," Griff commented.
"There's more." Elaine took Griff's umbrage. "Nothing lasts but the moments in our lives. Life is part comedy, part tragedy, part drama, and part farce. This was a tragedy, but remember the good parts as well. Then move on to the next moment."
Arthur peered at Elaine. "You wouldn't happen to be related to Merlin, by any chance?"
Elaine smiled. If cracking jokes was any sign, he'd be okay. She took the book from him, and then flipped through to the end. There between the last page and the cover, a letter fell out. Arthur picked it up. It was from Lancelot, and everyone huddled around Arthur as he read it.
"So you've read my account of things. I hope history has kept it close to the truth.
For most of my life, Arthur and Guinevere have been my closest friends. Guinevere had my love, Arthur my admiration. Guinevere with her noble bearing and courtly grace rivaled many goddesses in mythology. But I fell in love with her spirit more than her looks. She was so special, and I only wish I had seen it first. That honor goes to Arthur. He saw how special she was and treasured her. We may have disagreed about many things, but we can both agree that we loved her.
The same can be said about Arthur. Guinevere and I both knew the greatness in him. Forging a kingdom, creating a place of beauty and wonder; his task wasn't easy. If there is one wish I could have granted, I'd wish Arthur might think well of both of us.
Guinevere's love for him never wavered. And my love for him couldn't be stronger. I hope that wherever my king finds his rest, whether it be heaven or Avalon, that he knows that his knight kept his pledge.
My sword and service to the king. My life and honor to the queen."
* * * * *
"You feel it's time to go, dont you?" Elaine asked as she walked Arthur down to the entranceway.
"Yes," Arthur nodded. "I came here to pay my respects to Lancelot. Instead, I've got a better insight into the man and myself. I have you to thank for that."
Elaine smiled. "All part of the service."
"Im sorry we can't spend more time together," Arthur apologized. "But I feel ready to return to my quest."
"A knight errant's job is never done," Elaine said with a tinge of regret. "Who knows? We might meet again. If we do, what do you say we catch a play? How do you feel about 'Camelot'?"
Arthur stared at Elaine. Then they both burst into laughter as they reached doorway. The fog had rolled in, blanketing the countryside; a perfect night to simply slip away into the darkness.
"You'll explain everything to Mr. Daniels?"
"Yeah," Elaine said and then nodded. "He might have an aneurism over the mess Norman and Griff made, but nothing he won't survive."
They stood in the doorway for a moment, just smiling at each other. Then Arthur surprised her, stepping up to her and giving her a deep kiss that left her breathless.
"Thank you," Arthur said as he caressed her face and departed into the fog.
Just before Arthur's silhouette disappeared into the mist, it was joined by two others. One a winged shape taller than a man, the other a dog-shaped shadow. Griff and Cavall had joined their King, and they were leaving Bamburgh. Elaine watched on and felt more than heard Norman's approach.
"Thanks for not calling Hector about this," Elaine said casually.
"It seemed important to you," Norman replied.
Elaine watched Arthur depart into the mist, and let out a slow sigh.
"I have a question for you," Elaine said as she continued staring into the night. "Do you dream? I mean, do you think there's room enough in our world for Camelots, King Arthurs, Guineveres and Lancelots?"
Norman answered as he always had, plainly. "In our world, there's little room for dreams."
Elaine hugged the journal with the embossed rose close to her chest and let out another sigh. "That's what I thought. A shame really. A crying shame."
A teardrop wetted the leather-bound journal.