"Betrayer of Kings"
Disclaimer: The characters and incidents portrayed in this story are fictional. No infringment was intended.
Summary: Can she ever be more than a betrayer?
How someone like Arthur, of all people, had managed to become king was something Guinevere could never understand.
The sickly, bookish boy would have been perfect as a lowly monk in some undistinguished monastery beyond the woods. The worst of it was that he knew it, and everyone else knew it too. It was an embarrassment that Arthur, of all people, was High King of Britain.
For one thing, he was simply too nice. Guinevere had actually seen a young man come up to Arthur when he was attempting to court a girl - who seemed amused at his fumbling attentions - and lead her off, saying all the while, “you don’t mind, do you, Arthur old chap?” And Arthur, nodding and smiling, simply replied, “no, not at all, old thing”, although Guinevere knew that he’d secretly hankered after that girl for long days!
It had irritated her, and she’d gone and spoken sharply to Bors - who was as boarish as his name - after it. It simply wasn’t done to take advantage of Arthur’s niceness. He’d agreed and solemnly apologised - but that was after he and the girl had squabbled, anyway.
He was hopeless at all the things a king really needed to excel at. His thin puny arms were certainly not made to hold a sword, and so he tended to drop the thing at the slightest tap. Guinevere had spent long hours trying to teach him a few skills, but she’d given up, exasperated. His heart wasn’t in it. On the other hand, his long, delicate fingers were made exactly right for grasping a quill. A king wasn’t supposed to write his own missives, though, simply dictate them.
But he didn’t have the right words for composing the kind of messages a king needed to send - the subtle threats to his enemies, the encouraging speeches to his armies; even a plain request to his cook was beyond his skill. When he had to stand and give a speech to court, he spent so much time fumbling and murmuring that no one had the least idea what he meant to say at all.
Like this very evening, Guinevere thought, watching the noble king of England clap his hands and laugh at a dancing bear. It was meant to be some kind of celebration - one of their battalions had managed to fight off a minor attack from the northern raiders - and every member of the nobility had been invited.
But it was a very poor show. Oh, the servants had known their job, had hung the place with fresh tapestries, lit a thousand candles, and set the place with bright flowers. Someone had even managed to order some entertainment in the form of a very mediocre minstral and an even less inspiring jongleur. Even the flea-bitten bear held more interest.
Guinevere cringed as she remembered Arthur’s attempt at a congratulatory speech. People had laughed at him, openly. In fact, there had been a visiting dignitary from Normandy, and he had looked especially delighted at Arthur’s awkwardness. That was all they needed - for the French to discover how very weak their leadership was.
She frowned, looking over at him. Whoever had dressed him? The colours didn’t match, and nothing fitted. His hair was sticking up as though he hadn’t bothered with oil for a month. And he had a great greasy stain on his sleeve; he’d most likely dipped it in his soup.
She sighed, and got up, brushing out her skirts. She couldn’t help but feel sorry for the boy, and yet annoyed, too. She’d made the effort, with her new linen dress, her dark hair held up with silver combs and threaded with flowers. She’d come all the way from Lyonesse to Camelot, as though there wasn’t enough to do ruling her own kingdom. And Arthur couldn’t even be bothered finding clothes that matched.
“Look here, Arthur, you can’t come out to a celebration looking like that!” she hissed, sliding onto the wooden bench next to him.
“Oh, hello, Guinevere!” Arthur cried, delighted. “I hoped you’d come when I sent out the invitations. How are things going with those Picts?”
“I’m nowhere near the Pictish border, and you know it,” she told him curtly. “And you’re fortunate that anyone at all turned up tonight - after all, you forgot to mention where and when this celebration was to occur! I heard a few people say they had to torture the rest of the information out of the messengers you sent.”
Arthur frowned. “That’s no good - I’m finding there’s a distinct shortage of good pages in this area. Don’t know why. Well, are you enjoying this evening?”
“In spite of the fact you forgot to order in enough wine?” Guinevere asked.
“Oh dear. I knew there was something I had to do. Ah well - the bear’s first rate, though, don’t you think?”
Guinevere sighed. “Yes - perpetually entertaining, Arthur.” Her anger dissipated. It wasn’t his fault that he was simply no use as a king. Sometimes she just wanted to take him in hand and fix up the kingdom, before someone else got the same clever idea and assassinated him. She could just imagine the chaos, with the Picts and Normans fighting over whatever the Saxons left of the country.
It was too bad that Uther of all people had managed to father such a useless son. He - and his father before him - had been wonderful kings of Britain, managing to unite all the quarrelling factions, and kick out the Romans on top of that. It was probably fortunate that Uther had never known his son, because Guinevere could just imagine the disgust and disappointment with which he would have regarded the boy. And really - Arthur deserved neither of those responses. He was a good man, even if he wasn’t a good king.
She noticed the visitor from Normandy in close conference with Mordred of all people. Already planning the takeover, no doubt.
“Arthur, you really need to keep an eye on them, you know,” she mentioned quietly.
“Who? Nephew Mordred? Why, does he need more ale?” Arthur asked, puzzled.
Guinevere sighed, and then said sweetly, “That’s right. Ask your servants to give him more ale - plenty of it.”
“All right,” Arthur agreed placidly, passing on the instructions. The bear dance finished, and he settled back, watching over his guests. “What now, do you think? A battle of wits or something of the sort?”
Guinevere knew any such game would end in the complete humiliation of Arthur.
“More music, perhaps?” she suggested hastily. “Everyone seems happy enough talking.”
Except the talking had suddenly died down. People were standing up, staring over at the great oak doors which were slowly opening. Probably they thought Arthur had devised some new entertainment; but Guinevere knew that it would be the last thing on Arthur’s mind. She realised that her pulse had sped up a little. Surely no one would be so daring as to attack Arthur in his own castle!
“Arthur, stand up!” she told him harshly. “I don’t think these are going to be welcome guests!”
He was still looking at the bear. Guinevere dragged him up, and he peered over at the opening doors. “That’s strange. I -”
A single knight, bearing a gleaming sword.
The figure marched directly into the centre of the now-grubby feasting hall, with visor were lowered. Guinevere looked quickly over at two of her own men, who had accompanied her. They nodded back, arms at the ready. She saw that a few of the other guests had made the same signals to their own serving men.
Suddenly, the armoured figure grabbed at the disguising helmet, and pulled it off. Guinevere could not restrain a gasp.
The woman’s long blonde hair spilled out from beneath the heavy helmet. Her narrow brown eyes flashed with disdain.
“It’s Morgan!” Arthur said with a smile. “Cousin Morgan, you know, who -“ He opened his mouth to bid her welcome, but Guinevere elbowed him hastily.
“You idiot, Arthur! Do you think she’s come here dressed like that in order to pass the time of day? This is a threat to you - who knows how many others surround this castle?” she hissed, exasperated.
Arthur’s forehead furrowed in confusion. “Why, I can’t imagine cousin Morgan would ever . . .”
Guinevere knew from personal experience that Morgan had and would continue to do, many a thing that Arthur could not imagine.
“Repeat what I say. Repeat it, or I’ll strangle you myself!” she persisted. “Say - say - `Why do you enter my court in such an unseemly manner?’”
“That sounds like a very formal greeting to dear old . . . all right, all right,” Arthur complained. He stood up straight, and frowned.
“Why do you enter my court in such an unseemly manner?”
His voice echoed in the silence, sounding bold and confident. All the guests looked taken aback at his sudden transformation.
“Why, cousin Arthur, I would have expected more of a welcome on a night such as this -”
Guinevere was impressed in spite of herself at the way Morgan managed to completely contrast her innocuous words with the threat implicit in her tone of voice.
“I welcome all who come with peace to Camelot; who celebrate Britain’s victory - my victory - over the raiding war party from the North.”
“As I do.”
“Yet you are dressed for battle, not for feasting, cousin.”
Guinevere was beginning to enjoy herself.
“There are many more battles to fight, Arthur. We are hard-pressed on every front. This is no time for celebration . . .”
“We celebrate what we have won; and in anticipation of victory. The enemy has no stepped on Britain’s shore for many years. They shall not; for we will be victorious!”
Arthur was enjoying his puppet role, Guinevere noticed. The last phrase had shouted out with some pleasure, and had been accompanied with some minor cheering from the other members of court. Morgan herself was looking a little uneasy, a little confused. She had expected to humiliate Arthur; instead, she was beginning to look a fool.
“Come, cousin, sit and enjoy the fruits of our triumphs. You are too late to assist us with this battle; it was over days ago. But you are not too late to enjoy our merriment. Minstrel! Give us the ballad of King Rion!”
The minstrel struck up the tune, and slowly the chatter began to grow, while Morgan stood still, fuming. Guinevere pulled Arthur down hastily, and set him to watching the minstrel. She herself kept her eyes on Morgan. She was certainly not used to being the ignored in favour of a less than skilled minstrel. Guinevere suddenly wondered whether that last move had been a little too much. Perhaps angering her would be the most dangerous thing of all . . .
Suddenly Morgan turned deliberately and caught Guinevere’s gaze. She stilled. For almost a minute they stared at one another, Morgan’s brown eyes locked on her own, deeper blue pair. Then Morgan’s mouth turned upwards in a slight smile. As though she’d guessed Arthur had spouted her words. But Guinevere refused to admit any vulnerability into her expression. She held her gaze; she waited. Morgan had once threatened to kill her on sight. But she didn’t rush forward, her sword at the ready. Instead she turned, and walked coldly out of the feasting hall.
Guinevere acted swiftly. Gathering her skirts, she moved over to her men, and bade them to seek out every corner of the castle, watching for any unfamiliar souls. And she sent her most trusted knight to follow after Morgan herself.
The feast went on all night, until the ale ran out. Then the guests staggered into their beds, or were pulled into carriages to be dragged home. Mordred and his French friend were so drunk Guinevere was certain that neither would have any memory of the night by the next morning. Her own men had ascertained that none of Morgan’s followers had stayed behind. And best of all, the other guests were looking at Arthur with something like respect in their eyes.
It had been a satisfactory evening after all.
“I am such a fool, Guinevere! I don’t know how I got myself into this situation at all.”
Guinevere knew exactly how Arthur had managed to be drawn into a fight with the Irish, and she told him so mercilessly.
“If you’d simply given them part of their demands, they would never had bothered with the attack. But summarily dismissing their entire message - well, what did you expect?”
Arthur groaned, pulling on his boots. “The fact is, Guinevere, that I lost the letter they sent, and so I -”
“You lost it?” Guinevere nearly tore out her hair with frustration; except that it was piled up in a knot which had taken three maids to set exactly. “Oh, Arthur!”
“I know.” And for the first time Arthur looked completely miserable. “Everything they say about me is right. I’m useless as a king. Maybe I’d better give over the whole kingdom to my nephew Mordred and be done with it.”
“You’d give up Britain to a tyrant, because you can’t be bothered?” Guinevere asked scornfully. “You know that Mordred would carve up the entire country into bits and feed it to whatever dogs sought out a bite. No one would serve such a man.”
“Then what am I to do?” Arthur wailed, his head in his hands. “If only I’d been the second son; I could have led a contemplative life, instead of being drawn into battle after battle!”
“Well, you’re not, and you can’t,” Guinevere told him briskly. “Now, listen. If you manage to survive this battle - and I’d prefer it if you did - I may have a plan which will suit you, me, and Britain. Now go out - and please, don’t make any decisions without talking to Galahad, for goodness sake. The Lyonesse troops will back you up.”
“All right.” Arthur picked up his sword and headed for the door. “I’ll meet you back here in a month, I suppose?
“At your next victory feast,” Guinevere said firmly. “Oh - and if you manage to pick up a better sword in your travels, please do so. That one is simply not made for you at all.”
She noted with some pleasure that Arthur’s servants had actually listened to her complaints and had dressed him properly, in the royal blue tunic she had suggested, and had scrubbed away at his armour until it shone. They had even brought up a shine on his old leather boots from which he refused to be parted. They had muttered amongst themselves at her demands; but Guinevere knew that dressing the part was simply another way of getting the respect one deserved. It had served her well enough, for her days as Lyonesse’s queen, and before that, too. Even Morgan knew the art of making a spectacle of herself.
Remembering Morgan brought a frown to her face. She had been ominously quiet ever since her humiliation at the feast only two months previously. Such quiet did not bode well. She had set men to watch her, but nothing had come of it. Whatever Morgan was planning remained a mystery.
Dismissing the problem of Morgan with a sigh, she followed after Arthur and watched as he set off with his troops. At least she could trust Galahad, the young knight, to lead the troops into battle with the minimum of humiliation. He was brave and strong; but he also possessed common sense, which was rare around Camelot. Most of the knights seemed to be brawling boys, using chivalry as an excuse to rush into any fight that was happening. If she had her way, the majority of them would be out battling instead of lazing about court.
Once the troops had left, she got into her own carriage and headed straight back to Lyonesse. Her own army was hand-picked, utterly loyal, and moreover had the sense not to seek out death unnecessarily. She did not want to waste them on a skirmish with the Irish, but she’d use them to guard the rear. Somehow she had a feeling the battle wasn’t going to be as straightforward as it looked.
The army of Camelot was striving mightily with the Irish army, and prevailing, at that. They were set out on the plains beyond the hills of Wales, soldiers on horses brandishing huge axes, those on foot clashing sword against sword. The noise could be heard miles away. In fact, that was where Guinevere had placed her own men; a few miles away, where she could see what was happening. But the real trouble was not on the plains. There was thunder coming from the hills; but not a cloud was in sight.
The loud rumbling was not of man, and not an ordinary portent of rain. Guinevere looked grimly over at the wooded hills.
“There,” she told her men. “Keep your eyes to the north, and be ready. When I give the signal, you’re to ride your hearts out. Ready?”
They trusted her implicitly, because her commands had saved their lives many times. To them, the echoing booms signified no more than a storm. But Guinevere knew that untimely thunder was the sign of something darker; it was Merlyn’s sign.
No one loved chaos so much as that magician - no one loved to see humans fighting one another so much as that ancient man, who used his magic to move nation against nation, and even set friend and against friend. Oh, she knew it well, for because of him, she had set herself up against her own father. She’d taken Lyonesse, and he would have given it to her, rather than battle his own daughter. But she’d betrayed her own father and taken command of Lyonesse, and had done it with pleasure. It was only afterwards, when she realised that for Merlyn there was no joy in rule, in the workings of a peaceful country, that she understood that she’d paid dearly for something she could have had for free.
“My lady Guinevere?”
She looked over to where her commander pointed. There was a movement in the hills - it was hard to make out. She nodded at him, and he sent scouts closer.
The thunder roared again. Once that sound had excited her. Even now - something thrilled inside. She ignored it.
“It’s not the Irish, m’lady -“ the commander began, but broke off at Guinevere’s exclamation.
It was Morgan. Of course, it was Morgan, coming behind Arthur’s army to cut him off. It made perfect sense. She’d bribed the Irish, probably, to make a greater fuss than once they would have. And now she hoped to wipe out the army of Camelot entirely.
And she was doing it with Merlyn’s help.
“All right - we’re ignoring the Irish. We’re ignoring the army of Camelot. Our fight is with Morgan, and we’re going to rout her army, we’re going to destroy it to the very last man. Let’s go!”
She touched her heels to her horse, and it sprang up, while her army let out a cheer. Then they leapt forward, racing over to the army spilling from the hills to the plains. They galloped hard, hoping to cut off the army before they came anywhere near Arthur.
Morgan’s men pulled back a little at the sight of Guinevere’s army coming towards them; and their slight hesitation cost them the battle. Guinevere’s soldiers surrounded them, refusing to allow them access to the plains. Instead, they had to fight amongst the brush of the woods, on the slopes of the hills. The soldiers leapt from their horses and took down the men on foot, while the archers pulled back and dispatched those who came out into the open.
Guinevere headed straight for Morgan, her fury spurring her on. The two women faced one another, Morgan clad in the armour of a knight, the heavy steel weighing her down. Guinevere had slipped chain mail over the royal red tunic of Lyonesse, refusing the heavier armour. Now she leapt from her horse and challenged Morgan, balancing her sword in her hand.
“Surely you didn’t think that Arthur would be so easy to beat, Morgan!” Guinevere mocked. “I expected better of you - although, if you’ve been listening to Merlyn, I suppose you’d believe anything.”
Morgan paled at Guinevere’s swift understanding of the situation. “Arthur is nothing - everyone knows that. Britain is failing under his rule . . .”
“And needs yours, I suppose?” Guinevere laughed, sourly. “I won’t let that happen, never fear.” She stepped forward, taking pleasure at Morgan’s hasty withdrawal.
But not for long. Although Morgan had hesitated, something drove her on. Guinevere had no doubt about what that was - bitter revenge, fury, hatred. Once she had had the hatred of almost everyone in Lyonesse for the things she had done to take the throne. Since then she had been forgiven by nearly everyone, for the peaceful and prosperous rule that had followed; and for her own obvious regret.
But Morgan had never forgiven. Cousin of the king, her household had been divided and destroyed because of Guinevere’s excesses, and she would never forget, never cease causing pain to Guinevere because of it. Taking control of Camelot was not her deepest desire. Destroying the Lyonesse that Guinevere had created was.
Their swords clashed; they moved together, equally matched in swordplay. The rest of the battle-sounds dimmed around them, disappeared. As though none of it was real, and the only fight that existed was the one between them.
One flick of her sword, and she had dashed Morgan’s helmet to the ground.
Another forward thrust, and Morgan was down on her back, with her armour so heavy she could not rise, and with Guinevere’s sword at her throat.
“Kill me, and finish what you began,” Morgan hissed.
Guinevere drew her blade back in obedience.
Guinevere started, and looked around.
“My lady, the day is won!” her commander shouted joyfully.
Cheers rose up, as the last of Morgan’s soldiers fled the scene. On the beach below, Guinevere could see the Irish ships leaving the shore. It was done - the battle was theirs. Then she looked down at Morgan.
She had taken on chivalry only as part of being queen. She had never really believed that the strange code meant anything to her at all. But now, strangely, she found she could not kill Morgan in cold blood. Something stopped her.
“Take her prisoner - she must be tried for treason in front of the king,” she commanded finally, sheathing her sword.
The commander obeyed, and Guinevere turned, grabbing at the reins of her horse, and mounting wearily.
She led the animal down to the plains, towards Arthur’s tent; feeling her body ache with a kind of tired sadness that came from regret and guilt as much as anything. She no longer felt pleasure in winning; she no longer felt triumph. Just a deep exhaustion.
“My lady!” Galahad called out to her.
“Ah - a great day, a great battle,” she nodded, trying to smile.
“If it had not been for your army, perhaps it would have had a different conclusion,” he told her seriously. “I thank you.”
Guinevere opened her mouth to dissemble, but could not. “Arthur’s tent?”
“This way,” he told her, leading her to the large marquee, festooned with waving blue banners. She entrusted her exhausted horse to a page; then made her way inside.
He was lying, grey-faced, on a couch, while a surgeon sewed up a large gash across his chest.
“Is that the worst of it?” she inquired, collapsing onto a seat opposite.
“Yes - but it hurts like the dickens,” he reproved her, and frowned at her laugh. “Well, I must say, you’re not so sympathetic!”
“I’m too tired,” Guinevere apologised, and lay back. A page brought her a mug of ale, and she quaffed it, thirstily. When the surgeon excused himself, she sat up and looked more firmly at him.
“Now, do you realise what happened today? That Morgan made an attack from the rear?”
“Yes - Galahad told me,” Arthur nodded. “We would have been in a little trouble if it hadn’t been for your men!”
“You would have been dead,” Guinevere told him bluntly. “This is one of many situations, Arthur, which could have left you dead - and in a lot more pain than you’re currently feeling for that scratch, there.”
“It’s not a -”
“I don’t think you can go on like this much longer, can you?”
Arthur opened his mouth, then closed it again. “No.”
“Good. Now listen, I’ve got an idea. I can’t keep you out of trouble if I’m continually dashing between Lyonesse and Camelot. And if Camelot falls, Britain falls with it. I think you need some real help to rule, so I’m willing to marry you.”
“What?” Guinevere asked, offended.
“Well - Guinevere, you’re not serious, are you?” he began. “I mean - well, we can’t simply get married!”
“Why ever not?”
“Well, I’d never thought to marry again,” Arthur frowned, and Guinevere remembered his short alliance with a young girl, who’d died after just a year. “What if you fall in love? With someone else, I mean?”
Guinevere considered the stipulation unnecessary.
“It’s unlikely,” she told him. “And I’m quite certain that if you make up your mind not to fall in love with someone, then you probably won’t.”
Arthur spluttered a little longer, but finally agreed that the plan made sense.
“Well, shall we call for a priest?” he asked.
“No, we will do this properly. I’m returning to Lyonesse - you can send for me formally,” she told him, getting up. The ale had done wonders; she felt her strength returning. “Oh, and I’ll send some missives to your servants about the wedding preparations; I think they’ll need all the help they can get. If this is a real celebration, then Britain will be the stronger for it.”
“Oh - yes, of course,” Arthur agreed unconvincingly. “Well, Guinevere - you know I’m not in love with you, but it will certainly be a relief to have you about the place.”
Guinevere laughed, finally, before going off to find her horse. She felt pleased at the day’s conclusions; Britain was finally going to be ruled properly, and Morgan was finally going to be under lock and key.
But Morgan escaped on her way back to Camelot.
A month passed, during which time Guinevere sent out men to seek Morgan - who, nevertheless, could not be found - and wrote long missives to Camelot, planning all aspects of her wedding.
She wanted the day to be the most talked-about event since Arthur’s coronation. Such celebrations were the things which made a nation strong and unified. Constant threats wore people down; but joy strengthened them. In that spirit she planned an event lasting at least three days, with feasts and entertainments for the ordinary people, and grand balls for those at court. She sought out the best minstrels and jongleurs, discovered the most fashionable dances and ensured a supply of the finest wines and ales in the country. In the meantime, she worked upon several gowns to be worn during the celebrations, and gave stern warnings to Arthur’s pages about his clothing. The tailor had been paid handsomely in advance.
Guinevere had also asked Arthur to send one of his best knights to escort her, as a mark of honour. She assumed it would be Galahad, whom Arthur loved like a son. Of course, when the escort arrived, she remembered never to assume anything of Arthur.
She had planned a great feast in the gardens of her palace for her own people, as a reward for their loyalty, and as an assurance that they would always be her people, whether she ruled from Camelot of Lyonesse. It was in the middle of this feast, while the minstrels strummed their lyres and played their pipes, and the people danced about in great circles, that Arthur’s knights sought her out.
They came in full armour, on fine black horses, carrying the banner of Camelot, with the rearing lion silver on royal blue. The people drew back at the grand sight, and they rode proudly up to Guinevere, who sat on a throne in the centre of the large garden. She rose up, waiting as the knights dismounted, and wondering nervously whether she had just invited Morgan’s soldiers into her midst.
The chief knight knelt before her and in a single movement tossed her helmet to the ground. Her blonde locks flowed around her. She looked up; and her green eyes shone mischief, as though she were enjoying the spectacle she had created.
“Rise, knight of Camelot. I confess, you are an unfamiliar face to me.”
“My name is Lancelot, my lady, and I am only lately come to court,” the young knight admitted. “I served in battle with my king, and there he knighted me.”
“For great bravery, my lady,” the older knight - whom Guinevere remembered as Sir Belvedere - broke in, removing his own helmet. “Lancelot is the first knight of Camelot, for her many chivalrous deeds.”
“Then I am honoured indeed,” Guinevere said finally, holding her hand to the knight. “We will feast tonight in joy - and leave tomorrow, in the greater joy of my wedding. Minstrels; play on!”
The music rose up again, and the knights rested, watching the spectacle with enjoyment.
“And how do you enjoy life in court, Sir Lancelot?” Guinevere inquired.
“I have never been so happy, my lady,” Lancelot admitted. “I serve under the kindest King in Christendom, and for the greatest cause - a free Britain. They have given me great honour, but I have only done a small part. I hope to do much more.”
Guinevere’s heart ached, suddenly. She had wondered why Arthur would have showered so much honour on the young knight so quickly - and why the other knights would have accepted this so easily. But there was something about the young woman; something which reminded everyone of their own youth, and infected them all with the same hopeful joy. She believed in it all, more than any of them - and she helped them believe, too.
So the journey to Camelot, whose tedium she had in part dreaded, was in no way dull or worthless. In some way, she felt that every moment spent with Lancelot was one in which she regained some of the things she had lost as an enemy to Lyonesse so many years ago. Previously she had had little time for stories, had had no ear for songs; but Lancelot’s voice was sweet, and when she listened she remembered the tales of her youth, and how they had thrilled her. She laughed more with Lancelot that she had ever laughed, and although she was looking forward to her wedding, in some ways she hoped the pleasant journey could continue indefinitely.
One of the more amusing things was Lancelot’s faith in the king. Guinevere chose not to dispel her sincere belief in the king’s kindness, goodness and wisdom; after all, she was not deceived about two of them. And her deep faith in Arthur’s greatness meant that they all began to see the king differently, even Guinevere herself. When they stopped at villages for food, and Lancelot spoke about the wonderful king they served, all the local people drank in the stories, and were spurred up to serve such a good man. Guinevere had assumed some mocking tales of Arthur’s inadequacy would have already gone out to the people; but she realised they wanted a hero more than they wanted a fool. They would remember the great Arthur.
It was not many days before they reached Camelot. The great city was alight, already celebrating, already feasting in the expectation of her coming. It was a large walled city - larger than any other in the country - with well-tended homes surrounded by thick stone walls. In the very centre, up on a slight hill, lay the palace itself. The many-roomed fortress was built about a large grassy courtyard; that evening hung with lanterns and filled with music and dancing.The servants had obeyed her every instruction; the palace was alive with flowers, with caged singing birds, with flickering candles, and with finely woven tapestries and coloured hangings. The cellars were filled with the finest wines, ales, sweetbreads and meats, great round cheeses, fruits, grains and nuts. The minstrels sung more sweetly than angels, played with great skill than Orpheus. The jongleurs and tumblers entertained with much laughter. And in the centre sat King Arthur, his robe lined with furs, a heavy jewelled crown on his head.
For her. Guinevere’s heart swelled with gratitude. She was doing this for Britain and for Camelot, but he’d obeyed her requests out of respect for her.
A great cheer rose up as they entered the feasting hall. She had changed into one of her finest gowns for the evening, bathing and arranging her hair with care. She saw the effect that she made on the awed faces of the knights and courtiers, and was glad. And when Arthur reached out his hand for her, she took it proudly, standing with him before all present, as he announced their betrothal.
The actual ceremony took place quietly in the small chapel the next day; for that she had dressed soberly, veiling her face and keeping her head bowed.
But the day after that was a day of rejoicing, of feasts for the people and for great entertainment for those in court. They danced together for the first time, laughing at the ribald comments being thrown at them, and drinking far too much good wine and ale.
After that Guinevere was glad she had limited the celebration to three days. The knights met around the Round Table - with many a red eye and heavy head - to discuss the needs of the kingdom, and Guinevere watched, wanting to know those who served Arthur. They were not all loyal. Mordred, Arthur’s nephew, was kept close simply so that they could watch him constantly. He wanted the throne. Many of the others looked on her with suspicion, fearing - rightly - that she was there to change their lazy, well-paid existence. A few, like Galahad, and Lancelot, believed in Camelot with all their hearts.
Those two became Guinevere’s greatest supports. She wondered often how she imagined she would survive in court without them. They spoke to her diplomatically of the ways of the court, so that she did not break any taboos. They laughed and agreed with her exasperation over the follies of the knights, who sought after incredible things, and fought over nothing at all. And Lancelot’s tales entertained them all.
Arthur was able to spend far more time doing what he liked best - reading and translating ancient texts. Often Guinevere found him there, explaining a difficult passage to a confused looking Lancelot.
On the other hand, Guinevere was finally able to rid the court of many of the most bellicose knights, through devising wild quests and inventing desperate causes. The entire court was happier for it. Coupled with Lancelot’s ballads, declaiming the great deeds of both King and court, Guinevere’s actions meant that Arthur’s reputation grew, until he was no longer thought of as the boy king or the fool king - but as Arthur the Great.
Still, Guinevere wondered sometimes whether she had gained far more from Camelot than she had ever given. But that was before Mordred’s betrayal.
He had become even more disrespectful to Arthur after Guinevere had arrived. His none too subtle digs about Arthur’s skills, his mockery of the ideals of chivalry, and his habit of causing others to argue and fight became hard for even the most bitter knight to endure. And one day - he simply disappeared.
Arthur and the knights were relieved, but Guinevere was concerned.
“Better to have someone like that close - under our eyes - than wandering who knows where, and gaining support from others who have felt hard done by. Or even seeking out Morgan herself -”
The four friends sat in Guinevere’s own chamber, watching the bustle of morning activities in the courtyard below.
“Surely not!” Lancelot exclaimed. “Mordred, for all his ambition, was still a knight of Camelot. He would never side with such a traitor!”
Guinevere raised an eyebrow. “No? Well, he is no longer a knight. I wonder whether he might take his grievances to someone else with a gripe against Camelot.”
“Still, if all your men could not find Morgan - perhaps she is not able to be found,” Galahad suggested.
“And if it comes to war - well, Merlyn will help us, as he has in the past,” Arthur declared.
The other three stared at her, and Guinevere’s colour rose. “I mean - how do you know Merlyn is even real?”
Arthur snorted. “Real? What do you mean? Of course he’s real! That great magician has helped my father, and his father before that, and now he is helping me. Why, his greatest wish is for a unified Britain; which is why the old man spends all his time in his home in the woods, working for Camelot, rather than spending time in court.”
“Have you ever seen him?” Guinevere demanded.
“Well - no,” Arthur admitted reluctantly. “But -“ Then he brightened. “Who of us have ever seen the Questing Beast? And surely we know that is real, for else why have we sent so many knights after it?”
“Of course, you’re right,” Guinevere murmured, not wanting to admit the real reason she’d sent the carousing knights on such a long and fruitless journey.
Arthur and Galahad left to inspect the battlements; Lancelot hesitated. After some time with Guinevere, she knew her more closely than any other.
“Do you really think Merlyn isn’t real?” she asked quietly.
“Lance - I know he’s real. Or rather, that there is a man called Merlyn. But he isn’t the kindly old man in the woods that Arthur imagines. And he has no interest in a unified Britain. In fact, he wants nothing more than dissension and chaos. It’s the kind of energy he feeds on.”
Lancelot stared at Guinevere. “You sound as though -“ she hesitated.
“As though I know him?” Guinevere asked quietly. “You’re right. I do - or rather, I did know him, I knew him well. How much of my story have you been told?”
Lancelot had got up, moved over to the window; but now she sat down beside her friend and looked at her seriously.
“I know that as a girl you stood up against Lyonesse - you raised an army and took it by force.” Then she winced. “And your own father died, because of it.”
“That’s right,” Guinevere said, almost harshly. “And who prompted me to do such a thing, who wanted such chaos as father against daughter? Merlyn, of course. His magic enchanted me, his power drew me. I wanted to have such power myself! But he’s not one to share. Once I had Lyonesse, he tried to take it from my grasp, but I resisted. I resist still.”
“And what is he like?”
“Ancient.” Guinevere looked over at the light pouring through her chamber window. “As ancient as the hills, although he presents as a young man, without a grey hair to mar his dark locks. He laughs as though there is nothing in the world worth crying about. He fights as though there is no fear of death - and of course, for him, there is not.”
“And this is the one who supported Morgan?”
“Yes. If Merlyn, Morgan and Mordred band together, we are lost,” Guinevere stated simply. Then she got up. “But we are not lost yet.”
“No, not yet,” Lancelot agreed. Her eyes were sure. “I want to go after him -”
“He’s very dangerous,” Guinevere warned.
“And I am a knight of Camelot,” Lancelot retorted. “I will find Mordred, before Merlyn corrupts him further.” Then she paused. “Ask forgiveness of my king for travelling without his blessing.”
“I will,” Guinevere promised. She watched as her truest friend left her chamber, then sought out Arthur.
“We have another quest for Camelot.”
Arthur had always acceded easily to her requests, but for some reason he was reluctant to agree to sending Lancelot after Mordred.
“If he is what you suggest, surely another knight - Galahad, perhaps -”
“Lancelot is your chief knight, Arthur,” Guinevere said patiently. “It would not be honourable to send any less.”
He finally agreed, without good grace; which Guinevere felt was fortunate, as Lancelot had already set off.
It seemed strange around the palace with Lancelot, however. She was used to spending at least part of every day in conversation with her. It wasn’t nearly so interesting sitting at table with the knights, without Lancelot to communicate with, by raised eyebrows or pursed lips. And oddly enough, she felt a mild concern at the idea of Lancelot chasing after Mordred - or worse, meeting up with Merlyn.
It was ridiculous, of course. Lancelot was the bravest knight of them all. Her only weakness was her good heart, which led her to trust where perhaps she should doubt, to believe where she should suspect.
The kind of weakness both Mordred and Merlyn loved to play upon.
After a week had passed without a word from Lancelot, Guinevere had had enough.
“I’m going after her,” she told Arthur. “I’m sure she is fine. But - I don’t like this silence. She should have sent word by now.”
“In that case, I’m going too, and Galahad, and all the knights,” Arthur said, his voice agitated.
“No - you can’t do that. What would it look like to our enemies? How shamed would Lancelot feel?” Guinevere explained patiently. “I will seek her out quietly, under the pretext of visiting Lyonesse. You must not act concerned. If there is need for you - if it seems to me that Mordred is raising an army to seek the throne - I will call on your help. Until then, you must pretend to the world that nothing is wrong.”
“How can I do that?” Arthur begged, terrified. “I don’t know how to pretend such a thing . . .”
He was guileless, Guinevere decided, which is why Lancelot served him so utterly.
“Imagine we are not gone, that Lancelot is safe, that we are all right. Believe it in your heart.”
Then she went out and readied herself for her journey.
There was little she could take, apart from her sword, and her thickest cloak, and some food. When she went out to the stables to saddle her horse, she thought of her hawk; who would be able to hunt for her, and to fly a message to Arthur if need be. So she rode out with the hawk on her wrist.
She didn’t often take her hawk with her, although it was a well-trained bird, because it reminded her too much of the old days. Merlyn had taught her to hunt with the hawk. He said he was named after the merlin bird because he loved to hunt. She believed him.
Once he had shown her what it was like to be the hunter - he had let her fly with the hawk she sent out against its prey. She could never forget the freedom of flight, nor the pleasure of the kill. So she did not often go hawking. She did not want to remember.
Instead she thought hard about where Lancelot might be found. Mordred had his family lands to the North, near the Pictish borders. Guinevere had never visited there, but she had heard his home was situated on the sheer cliffs overlooking the North sea, where the freezing waters pounded at the ancient stone day and night.
So she turned her face northwards.
It was a long, hard, journey. Occasionally she sent messages back to court - simple words “I am well”, tied about her hawk’s jesses. The bird always returned to her, with an equally basic reply “Be well.”
She spent her nights in the woods, or sometimes in the simple cottage of a villager, never revealing who she was. They would take her in as a charity; but always she left hidden, either in her bedclothes or amongst the crockery, a gold coin in payment for their kindness.
Most days it rained, a steady grey drizzle, but her heavy cloak sheltered her from the worst of it. One day, however, it poured, until her horse’s hooves slid in the mud, and Guinevere found herself thoroughly soaked. Though it was early afternoon, it was almost dark; she realised she was beginning to shake, too, and so sought shelter. There were no cottages around, however, and no large forest trees - everything was wizened and sickly-looking. Instead, a large imposing castle - its windows brightly lit - loomed ahead of her. She knew it was not the best choice, but it was the only one she had. So she rode up to the gate and asked for shelter.
She had expected a stern gate-keeper, and some pleading; she did not expect the warm welcome, the attentive steward, the hurried bustle of servants.
“Our master welcomes you,” the sallow-faced man assured her, “as he welcomes all lost travellers. He is ill, alas; and yet he will try to see you, before evening is nigh.”
She was given hot baths and fresh cloths, hot food - oysters and stuffed trout, with plenty of ale - and freedom to wander through the rooms of the ancient castle. It seemed filled with every luxury known in the land. Guinevere racked her mind, trying to discover who the master of such a house could be. Who could have a palace greater than Camelot?
“I saw few people in the land surrounding this great house,” she remarked cautiously to the steward - who seemed to be wherever she found herself.
“The land is not good - it has not flourished for ten long years. So the people have moved on.”
Guinevere remembered the wizened trees, the bare land. Ten years! She tried to recall whether she had heard of such a thing. Ten years ago . . . she winced. That was when she had taken control of Lyonesse, of course.
Suddenly she felt something like foreboding; she wanted to leave the almost sinister place, but something inside prevented her from leaving before the master showed. It seemed rude, when he had provided so much for her, to leave so summarily. Instead, she stayed by the fire, asking the steward occasionally about his master - to which, whatever question she offered, he would give the same answer. “He is not well; but he will try to see you, before evening is nigh.”
But evening came, and still the master did not show. Guinevere realised she had no choice but to spend the night within the castle. Her feelings of apprehension grew. Was this some trick of Mordred’s, to delay her? She decided she would leave in the morning, whether the master showed or not.
Guinevere started, and got up hastily from her seat at the fire. It was the master of the house; a bent, weary figure, leaning on a cane, wrapped in furs.
“I - I thank you for your hospitality, sir,” she said quietly. “It is no night to be out - not this night.”
His face was grey and lined; she could not tell whether he was young or old, only that he was in great pain. The steward settled him comfortably in a chair by the fire, and then left.
A kind of spasm went across the man’s face - and Guinevere found herself almost unbearable sorry at the sight of the man.
“What is it - your pain? Can I do anything to help?” she asked impetuously, leaning forward.
Something changed, as she spoke.
Guinevere blinked. The man before her was altering under her very eyes, as though her words had held some power. His deep furrows were disappearing, and the colour was returning to his cheeks. His grey, sparse hair was growing dark and thick on his head. His tired eyes began to sparkle.
“You!” she uttered.
“Yes; it is I,” Merlyn agreed, and threw back his head and laughed. He leapt up, leaving the furs and wooden cane behind, instead standing clothed only in his usual rough overshirt and trousers, dark clothes that would have suited none but he. On a highwayman they would have been repellent; on Merlyn they had the opposite effect.
Guinevere got up, and backed away.
“It’s been ten long years since I’ve seen you - can’t you see how I’m suffering?” he asked her, smirking.
She shook her head. “This isn’t real, is it - this house, the servants, even the food I ate. The clothes I wear.” She looked down and saw that she was no longer wearing the simple brown frock she had donned after her bath. Instead, it was a extravagant gown of purple and gold, studded with pearls, shining with tiny jewels.
“Real? Whatever I imagine, that is real,” Merlyn scoffed. “Oh, things are getting so interesting, now! Not only queen of Lyonesse, but of the whole realm. Aren’t you just itching to see it all fall apart?”
He stepped forward eagerly. “But just imagine the excitement! Kingdom ranged against kingdom, the Picts dashing in, the Normans sniffing at trouble and invading, and oh, the Saxons! It could be a war that never ends . . .”
“I don’t want that.”
“Don’t tell me that - I know you. I know you better than any of those fools at court, that Arthur, that Lancelot. You were bored, mindlessly bored there! Don’t tell me that you longed for something like this to happen - so that you could go riding out into the chaos . . .”
Guinevere held her breath. “Something like -”
“Like Mordred.” And he laughed again. “Oh, no, it has nothing to do with me. I’m just enjoying it. His entire mind is chaos!” He shook his head, grinning. “Now’s the time to choose, Guinevere. Go with Mordred - so much more volatile than Arthur!”
Guinevere thought hard. “That’s true.”
“Oh, you could have every one of them in your hand, you know that, don’t you?” Merlyn spoke admiringly.
“Oh - yes. Tell me, am I riding in the right direction? Towards Mordred, I mean?”
“You’re barely ten leagues from his fortress,” Merlyn assured her. “Although you know that you can only reach his palace in low tide, over the sandbank that connects it to shore. It’s quite ingenious.”
And quite impregnable, Guinevere realised. Anyone arriving that way would be swiftly dispatched by an archer with a good eye.
“I’ll need a boat, then,” she decided. “Mordred may take some persuading before he comes around to my way of thinking.”
“Our way of thinking,” Merlyn agreed. “I wondered how long it would be before you were bored to tears by all this talk of chivalry. What kind of power is that - to give yourself up again and again?”
“A different one, to be sure,” Guinevere told him, before retiring to her room. Perhaps the bed wasn’t real, but it felt real, and that was all she needed to sleep that night. Somehow she knew he would leave her alone; whether because he believed her deception, or because he admired her courage. Either way, she knew she could sleep easily that night; and that there would be a boat by the shore.
Just before she slipped into sleep she found herself wondering; who was Merlyn - the vibrant young man, or the aged and ill master?
Guinevere woke up the next morning lying on a pile of furs by a fire. There was no sign of the strange castle or its stranger inhabitants.
Her horse was unsettled - it had been hobbled beneath a wide oak tree. Her hawk’s jesses were tied to a branch. It stared at Guinevere reprovingly; she gave it leave to hunt a good breakfast, although she noticed a fresh fish was lying on a leaf beside the fire.
When at last the morning tasks were complete, she saddled her horse and set off for the shore. There was a path along the cliff, where the wind pulled at her, and the waves crashed wildly against enormous boulders. And in the distance, the dim forbidding shape of a fortress.
A set of stone steps led down to a forgotten beach; there a small boat rested, a single oar within. Guinevere reluctantly let her horse free, but retained the hawk. It perched uncomfortably on the stern of the boat, occasionally letting out a cry of disapproval as the water splashed around them.
She knew boats, of course - she had played in the river that ran through Lyonesse as a child. But it was hard work, pushing the tiny craft through the rough sea. And her feeling of foreboding grew. She could imagine Lancelot riding proudly along the cliffs, confronting Mordred with the expectation of repentance and contrition . . . then Guinevere shook her head. Lancelot was no fool. Perhaps she’d found a boat, too.
The thought stilled her, a moment. She would accept Merlyn’s odd gifts, because she knew she was more than a match for the wily magician. But the idea of Lancelot within his grasp - it bothered her. It worried her. She had given the young knight little warning of Merlyn’s treacheries. And - so good-hearted was Lancelot, it would be difficult to explain. In some ways, impossible.
The mist rose up with the morning, hiding Guinevere’s passage to the rocky tower. It was an enormous building, of black uneven stone, with lichen growing over the base. There were few windows, just some keep-holes, mostly about the main entrance - where the sand-path led - which was heavily guarded. On the eastern side, however, there seemed a small opening, unwatched. She supposed it was the way kitchen waste was routinely disposed of. A number of seagulls certainly hesitated hopefully about the place.
She moored the boat, tying it awkwardly to a rough outcrop of stone before settling the hawk onto her wrist. She pushed at the small wooden door; it opened easily, and she slipped through, finding herself as she expected, in the kitchen.
The large room had two wide benches running along the two adjacent walls, with herbs hanging down, and various pots, knives and spoons alongside. There were a few pans set out, with bread rising in them, and a brace of fowl lying with their legs still tied together. Two large ovens billowed out heat, and a cook-boy sat in the middle of the floor, busily scraping out a bowl of pudding with his fingers, and licking them.
Guinevere found that one of her boots had landed in the bin of vegetable waste, and the other in the receptacle reserved for meat scraps. She curled a lip in disgust, and lifted herself onto the floor before grabbing a rag and scrubbing at the mess. Evidently the cook-boy was supposed to have got rid of the waste, and had got distracted instead. In fact, he had not even noticed her arrival.
He jumped - the bowl clattered on the floor, and he stared up at her with eyes full of fear.
“You were supposed to empty those, weren’t you?”
The child swallowed. Then he nodded.
“Then empty them,” Guinevere went on calmly. “Hurry, for I have a job for you to do.”
The boy scuttled over to the entrance, throwing out the buckets of waste while the sea-gulls cawed and fought over their treat. Then he went back to his bowl, and picked it up awkwardly, setting it on one of the benches.
“Is that your bird?” he whispered.
Guinevere nodded. “This is Brighteye,” she told him. “He can see further than any man, and - see those claws? He can scratch out a boy’s heart, if he chooses, and steal it away for me.”
The child gasped, and stepped back a little. “You must be a great magician!”
Guinevere’s mouth pursed with something like disgust at herself.
“No. I am a lady in need of a boy’s help,” she told him. “I need you to show me to the cellars.”
The boy nodded, his eyes still glazed with fear. There was a small door in the corner of the kitchen, which upon opening revealed a small flight of stairs.
“Stay here, boy. I may send my hawk after you - so be still.” She paused. “And don’t eat any more pudding!”
The boy uttered a muffled squawk, his eyes wide, his face pale. Guinevere hesitated no longer and made her way down the flight of stairs to the dark cellar beneath.
The steps led to an airy wide room, hung with various meats and cheeses, and stacked with barrels of ale and wine. There were jugs of milk keeping cool in dark corners, and crates of apples and pears set beside them. And there was another door.
It was locked, of course, but Guinevere slipped the knife from her boot and worked at the catch, until it clicked and opened. A narrow stone passage-way - dark and damp, with the smell of the sea - greeted her. She shivered involuntarily.
She noted the passage curved, as though it were following the rounded shape of the walls. The stones under her feet were slippery, and moss grew on the walls. She could hear faintly the sound of the waves crashing against the tower.
It felt as though she had walked a mile before she found the cells.
Guinevere had wondered how Lancelot would bear imprisonment. Would she be singing, composing some new ballad to honour the king? Or uttering solemn words to the gaoler about what was right, true and good?
She didn’t have the opportunity, however, to ask the gaoler, because she dispatched him as soon as he caught sight of her rounding the bend. Her thrown dagger found its mark; the man expired without a sound.
Then she turned to Lancelot.
“Oh! Lance -”
They’d stripped her, shorn her lovely hair, and chained her to the wall, so she could see nothing but the black cold stones, and the iron fetters which held her. Guinevere saw the marks of beating on her back, and fury ran hot within her. Grabbing the ring of keys from the dead man’s belt, she unfastened the door, swinging it open, before releasing Lancelot from her shackles. The young knight fell back, but Guinevere was there to catch her, dragging her out of the cell.
“How dare they - how dare they!” she murmured furiously. “What treachery is this, to beat a knight like a common thief, to chain her like a dog or a bear!”
“Treachery indeed - Mordred hopes that Arthur himself will be drawn into war - and thereby to claim the throne -“ Lancelot gasped out.
“He will have his war,” Guinevere uttered quietly, “but not the throne.” She scribbled a message onto a scrap of parchment, tying it about her hawk’s jesses. “I’m sorry Lance - I should not have sent you into such a trap -”
But the young knight smiled. “No, I have discovered their plan, and so have done good service to my king and to Camelot.”
Guinevere thought privately that such a plan could have been discovered without the necessity of a humiliating beating; but she held her tongue, and, throwing her arm about her friend, helped her along the winding passageway.
When at last they were in the dry airy space of the wine-cellar, Lancelot begged to be set down a moment.
“How long since they have given you food?” Guinevere asked, understanding dawning at last. She broke off a little cheese, and lifted a jug of milk to the knight’s lips. She drank thirstily.
“I lost count of the days,” Lancelot admitted. “Well, whatever there is to say about Mordred - he makes a fine cheese -”
Guinevere could not help but laugh at Lancelot’s pronouncement. “Come, it is nothing compared with the feast which will be supplied on your return to Camelot. Just up these stairs . . .”
Lancelot winced at the bright light pouring from the kitchen. Guinevere hesitated for another reason; the room was filled with guards, and Mordred at their head.
“Go now, Brighteyes!” she shouted out, releasing the bird from her wrist. The hawk gave out a loud cry, and made for the entrance by which they had arrived. Guinevere saw the cook-boy push the tiny door open, giving the hawk its freedom; and then saw no more, as a large fist crashed down upon her head.
She woke to find herself chained beside Lancelot.
“I may as well not have dragged you along that passage!” she lamented.
“That cheese was worth every step,” Lancelot assured her. “And now the army of Camelot is coming; I know my king will rescue me.”
Guinevere was hoping Galahad had the sense to lead the army, however. If Mordred gained Arthur as prisoner, there was no hope at all. And anyway - Arthur was useless in a fight.
“Well, I hope we get free before all the fun is over,” she said finally. “For one thing, the troops of Lyonesse won’t fight under any leadership but my own.”
“I’m sure our rescue will be just the beginning of a great battle -“ Lancelot began, then broke off. “What are you doing?”
They’d stripped her of every weapon; but they hadn’t thought to take her boots, and she always kept a thin strip of steel hidden within them. She worked at the metal, rubbing her boot against the stones until the small strip came loose. Then came the gamble - she flipped her shoe sharply upwards, and the metal jumped loose, and into her outstretched hand.
Guinevere let loose a sigh. She hadn’t actually expected the venture to succeed.
She used the metal to release the catch on her shackled, before working on Lancelot’s fetters.
“Maybe we won’t need to wait,” she murmured. “Here - stay back.”
Guinevere crept forward quietly, laying her feet carefully on the straw to muffle her movements. The guard was leaning against the iron bars of the cell, his back to the two prisoners. With a single swift movement, Guinevere had plunged the strip of metal through the back of his neck. The man toppled silently to the ground.
She clawed at his belt, grabbing at the keys hung there, dragging the body closer to the cage. Finally she had the key in her grasp, and she stood, shaking, fitting the key into the lock and pushing open the door. Then she held out her hand for Lancelot.
The knight did not move.
“Is this your chivalry? The silent kill, without a chance to defend? Like an assassin, a murderer in the night?”
Guinevere opened her mouth, then stopped, looking down at the man sprawled over the stone floor.
“No - that was not chivalry, Lance. It was simply my choosing your life over his. Perhaps that wasn’t right, perhaps I don’t know enough about right at all. But I do know this is our chance to ensure Camelot stays in the hands of the king.” She paused, then looked at her friend directly. “Are you with me?”
Lancelot sighed, then nodded. “I am. Let’s go -”
They found the fortress nearly undefended, with just a few men for show on the battlements. Instead, the main battle was being fought on the cliffs.
It was both a tremendous and dreadful sight. The two armies were locked closely together, the colours of Mordred and Camelot blended in the sea-mist. The ringing of steel against steel, and the bellows and shouts of the soldiers, blended with the steadier roar of the sea. Occasionally a soldier would fall from the high cliffs onto the rocks, or a great wave would snatch him from the crumbling edge. His long cry would be lost in the noise of the battle.
It was impossible to see who was prevailing; but both Guinevere and Lancelot felt the desperate need to go over there and help, to show that they had already struggled and overcome Mordred’s machinations.
“The tide won’t go down for hours yet,” Lancelot said with some despair.
“Perhaps my boat remains yet,” Guinevere suggested. “But first - let us seek out any others who may have been taken, and are prisoners like ourselves.”
They searched through the darkened rooms, finding fresh tunics and armour to replace their lost clothing, and finally coming across the weapons that had been taken from them. It seemed that no one else had been taken by Mordred; even the servants had hid themselves. Only the cook-boy remained, hiding in the kitchen.
“Come, boy - you repaid me good for the evil I did to you when you freed my bird,” Guinevere told him. “You did not know I was the queen, did you?”
His awe-stricken face gave her her reply.
“Will you leave Mordred for Camelot?” Lancelot asked more gently. She had hidden her short hair beneath a chain-mail hood - and the boy looked on her as if she were an angel.
“I will,” he breathed, and followed them into Guinevere’s tiny boat, still moored near the kitchen entrance.
Guinevere took them far beyond the battlefield, to the tiny beach where she had found the vessel. Her horse had stayed in a field above the cliffs, and she reclaimed the beast joyfully. Sending the cook-boy to safety in a nearby village, she lifted Lancelot onto the horse behind her, and raced towards the cliffs.
The fighting was fierce. The knights contended with men who knew they would be tried for treason, and so were fighting not only for their lives but their names. Many of Mordred’s men had been trained knights, and had as much skill with the sword as any other.
They rode up the mass of soldiers, then leapt from the horse’s back and into the fray. Their anger gave them strength, so that they cut a path through the enemy, driving them back. A small band of men broke away from the main battle and rode off - Guinevere saw Galahad urging soldiers after them. She made her way over to him.
“My army - they will come at a word -“ she gasped.
“They are standing ready, my lady,” he assured her. “I’ll send a messenger -”
She nodded, deflected an oncoming blow, and then made her mark on the parchment before giving it into the hand of a rider.
“Go - you may save Camelot, if you are swift enough.”
The messenger’s horse reared and then leapt away, racing along the cliff path to Camelot. Guinevere looked after it for just a moment, before turning back to the fight.
It seemed for a moment that the sea-mist had swept up and around the fighters in their ghostly dance. They moved slowly, their voices muffled, their figures dim. Guinevere moved forward, but the soldiers faded away.
“Merlyn?” she called suspiciously.
A familiar laugh - and her own exasperation - confirmed her hunch. She kept her sword raised, and looked around. There was a cry of a bird; Guinevere automatically held her wrist up, and looked towards the sound. It was not her hawk, however; it was a great merlin, who flew directly at her until he was all she saw.
Then the man stood before her.
“Well, you played me well, then. But with great consequence - you know I like nothing better than a battle where family fights family. Chaos.”
“Then why disturb me?” Guinevere snarled.
He stepped closer, his eyes narrowing, and lifted a hand. His smallest finger brushed slightly the curve of her face. “If this battle goes your way, then there will be peace -“ His mouth moved in a motion of disgust. “Think about it. Is that what you want? A peaceful life by Arthur’s side, remembered only in rhymes? With Arthur taking the credit for all your work?”
“I don’t care if I’m forgotten,” Guinevere said steadily. “In fact, I hope I am.”
Merlyn’s brow creased in confusion. “Forgotten? Dead, nameless, unremembered?”
“The day everyone forgets the things I have done is that day I am free.” Her mind slid to Morgan. “Why do you bother me? You come at Morgan’s call, do you not? Perhaps she is asking for you even now . . .”
“Oh - I wouldn’t worry about who is asking for my presence, Guinevere,” Merlyn assured her, then inclined his head. “But who is asking for you?”
The mist the bird the man disappeared.
She stopped a blow automatically then looked around. Lancelot was atop her horse, holding out a hand. “The king!”
Guinevere’s blood froze. Had Merlyn distracted her so that Mordred - or Morgan - could murder the king? Somehow, it did not seem the kind of thing he would do . . .
She leapt behind Lancelot, and they raced west, away from the coast and the battle on the cliffs. There came a wood, and a path through the wood; there came a lake.
It was so broad that Guinevere could not see across it. Instead, mist covered the horizon; there did seem to be an island, far, far in the distance. But she did not wait to see, because Arthur was lying there alone on the grass.
Lancelot jumped from the horse with a sob, and ran wildly towards Arthur. Guinevere reined the animal in, and stared at the young knight, bent over the king. Then she felt as though a blade had entered her, the sharp pain making it hard to breathe.
She had ruined everything. Everything. Arthur was not dead, or even badly wounded; she saw that he had a slight gash across his chest - just where the other had been. A scratch. But the look in their eyes, as they found one another again . . . oh, Guinevere understood. She had ruined everything. She was everything they said about her - the betrayer of kings. Her father, Arthur, even Uther’s legacy. She had forced Arthur into this false marriage, when he was meant for Lancelot. Lancelot who would have loved him and would have ruled wisely in Arthur’s stead. A betrayer of kings, a betrayer of friends.
She was still atop the nervous horse, still staring. For a moment Lancelot dropped Arthur’s hand, and looked out with a smile towards the lake. That was when Guinevere remembered that Lancelot was also called du lac - Lancelot of the Lake. She knew this strange place.
“Guinevere!” they called to her, and she dismounted reluctantly, moving over to the pair, bright with their reunion. They did not know, yet. They did not realise what she had done to them - not yet.
“Another scar, Arthur -“ she began, then broke off. “That sword!”
A sword lay by his side, the like of which Guinevere had never seen before. With jewelled hilt, shining with strength, it was a sword no mortal could have made.
“Arthur says he lost his, somewhere in the battle. And that a strange woman gave it to him - he fought without realising its worth - but look where we are, Guinevere!” Lancelot said excitedly. “The gates of Avalon. It must have been -”
“The lady of the lake.”
“And who is she?” Arthur asked, frowning. He balanced the perfect weapon in his hand.
“Merlyn’s sister - a woman of magic, who like all those who dabble in magic are tricksters,” Guinevere told him roughly. “Vivien is usually good to ordinary mortals, our games amuse her.”
Lancelot stared. “Vivien is wise and good, Guinevere,” she told her, reproving her gently. “Her greatest rule is love.”
“But that isn’t always the kind of love we know . . .” Guinevere broke off. “Forgive me. I’m tired. And this day is not yet won.”
She turned back to the horse and left the king and his knight at the lake. Riding back, she saw with relief that the reinforcements from Lyonesse had arrived. Galahad too was still contending mightily against the enemy. He was the youngest knight of all, but a man of such valour and wisdom that all honoured him - even if Arthur in his foolishness sometimes didn’t see all that Galahad was to him.
Before Guinevere had time to land a blow, she saw that the soldiers of Mordred had been routed utterly. They began to flee back to the castle, over the sandbank . . .
Except the tide was rising.
The men of Camelot waited on the cliffs, in silence, without a jeer or a jest. The waves rose - knee high, now, and still Mordred and his men struggled on.
The fortress seemed further away than ever.
The cold sea took one man, then the next, the waves tugging at them, drawing them out to sea. At last only Mordred stood, ploughing through the waters, his arms reaching out to safety . . .
And then a great wave crashed, and carried him away.
Camelot’s triumph over Mordred’s treachery meant great celebrations across the land. Somehow, vanquishing the enemy from within made the entire kingdom seem stronger, less vulnerable - to both those within the land and those without. Relations with the Saxons and the Normans altered a little, as though they were beginning to feel some respect towards those who ruled the tiny island.
Guinevere, however, felt more like grieving than rejoicing. Each day she rose to watch - to watch Arthur spending more time with his knights than ever before; to watch Lancelot glow under his gaze. She searched for signs of confirmation of what she had seen that day by the lake, and found such signs; she watched for the moment of realisation she knew would overtake them, and waited with sick heart for their shared pain.
Her inner suffering did not go unnoticed in court, especially at a time when all others rejoiced. Evil murmurings arose; that she had been secretly Mordred’s lover, and mourned him; that she wanted the throne for herself, and had hoped for Arthur’s death. The knights who had been sent on strange quests - and had therefore missed being honoured in battle - resented her; some, who remembered the lady of Lyonesse and her dark history, feared her.
To all of this was both Arthur and Lancelot unaware. Guinevere would watch the young knight’s face light up at the sound of Arthur’s step, and see the change in her smile - and hide the bitter pang of guilt she felt.
She would watch Arthur bend forward and listen carefully to every word of Lancelot’s new ballad, when before he would have fallen asleep long before the final stanza came.
Greater tales of Arthur abounded throughout the countryside, because Lancelot delighted to talk of him, wherever she went. In the same way did the fame of Lancelot grow, because of Arthur’s honour of her.
Sometimes Guinevere held onto the hope that they would never realise that love, rather than knighthood, bound them. She knew it was because she never wanted them to look upon her and see the one who separated them.
It fell upon her softly.
Sometimes she had imagined it - that Lancelot would be gravely wounded, and there they would grieve not only for what was to come, but that which never had been, because of Guinevere.
Or that perhaps a great attack would come upon Camelot from the French, and that precarious day would show but one thing as strong - their love - and yet only able to be a dream to them, because of Guinevere.
But it fell upon her softly. Just an ordinary day in court, where some comment of Arthur’s made Lancelot laugh, the knights with her - no one could resist her infectious laugh - and Guinevere was watching her, and saw the moment.
Her face changed. The laugh ended, and the discussion moved on, and so did those surrounding her. But Lancelot stayed where she was - stayed in that moment. Her mouth was still half-open. Her eyes were wide, and she blinked as though for a moment she could not believe what she saw. And then, oh, her face was suffused with joy. Guinevere could not believe that she had ever hoped for Lancelot to be unaware, when she saw her deepening smile.
It lasted as long as a breath. Then all her colour drained from her face, her eyes darted towards Guinevere, and looked upon her with guilt. It had never occurred to Guinevere that Lancelot would find anything shameful in what she felt, until she saw her eyes. It hurt. Lancelot had had just one moment of untainted joy.
No one noticed any change at all. The usual morning meeting progressed as it always had, with knights dispatched to do their brave work about the entire kingdom. Lancelot slipped away as soon as court was ended, and although Guinevere searched about the place, she could not see her. She had ridden away, so the stableboy said - as though she was being chased by Mordred’s ghost. She’d ridden over the bridge, and out of Camelot.
Lancelot was gone for five days, and in that time Guinevere went almost mad with worry; the only thing that distracted her from her fears was Arthur. He still had no idea of Lancelot’s feelings, or even his own. But he missed her. He said so plaintively, until Guinevere felt both maddened and sorry.
One evening Lancelot walked into court, and asked for ale and bread in a voice as harsh as a crow’s. She drank up the bowl of strong ale in a gulp, and tore apart the rough black bread, swallowing almost too fast to chew. The knights gathered round, placing fruit and meat and hot strong broth at her elbow, wondering at her strange appearance. Her clothes were rags, filthy and torn. Her hair was a mass of knots, her face smudged with dirt. She took her fill of the food placed by her, and then she looked up at the concerned faces around her.
Galahad was the first to venture a question. “Where did you go - and what happened, that you return in such a state?”
“I think I was mad,” Lancelot replied. She coughed, trying to shake the hoarseness from her throat. “I wandered for days and days, living like an animal without care - I ate what I found (which as you can see was little) and I saw no living being. But from this madness some strange vision came.”
She leant forward, but she already had the attention of everyone in that room.
“I came across a land I had never seen before. Everything was dry and bare - there were no trees, no grass, no living thing. No birds sang there, no beasts crept across that place. It was a dead place, a wasteland.” She shuddered at the memory, before going on. “There was a great house right in the centre of that place, and there - returning to my right mind - I took refuge.”
Guinevere felt the beginnings of a great fury come over her. She began to tremble.
“In that sorry place lived a man, with a dreadful wound in his side, that would never heal. Oh, he was in such pain! Such pain so that nothing could thrive, not in that place, not for miles around. I begged to know what I could do, and this he said -”
Every knight listened closely, entranced by the tale. Guinevere bit down hard on her tongue. She had to listen. It was not Lancelot who she was angry with.
“There is a grail, whose water brings life to all who drink it. Only a draught from this goblet can save the poor man, and his land. It is to this quest that I go, now.”
An excited babbling broke out amongst the knights.
“What does this cup look like?”
“And where is it?”
“And if it heals this man - who else might it heal?”
Lancelot described the goblet to her eager listens, while Guinevere’s black anger grew. Did they not see? Could they not understand the tale, what it meant? That the goblet was embellished with the very jewels of Arthur’s own crown - that the rearing lion was carved into its base. Could they not comprehend?
Guinevere could wait no longer. She gathered up her skirts, unmindful of those who stared, and left, left Lancelot to the wonder of the knights, and to Arthur’s gaze. She went to her own room, locked the door, and shouted out for Merlyn.
The very force of her anger shook her.
It was something she had not felt in a long time, not since besieging Lyonesse, or since the day she realised she had sacrificed all for something she already possessed. It was a palpable anger, she could taste it, hold it in her hand. And the strength of it drew Merlyn, so that he appeared before her at her cry.
As always, he appeared in a strange form - Guinevere realised then that with his magic she would never know what he truly looked like. He was no bird or sickened man, this time, but a boy, with a boy’s voice, and a boy’s innocent air. It infuriated Guinevere further.
“Why? Why are you doing this to me?” she cried, shaking him. “You have Morgan as your plaything - leave me alone!”
“You?” Merlyn inquired innocently. “I have merely sent Lancelot after the very same beast which you sent the other knights. What did you call it? The Questing Beast? I simply gave it another name.”
“I know what name you gave it - Arthur’s crown. When you know that it is impossible for Lancelot -”
“Now.” Merlyn gave a smile of pure malice, and transformed before her from boy into man. The change, as always, disturbed Guinevere - she did not know whether this man-form bothered her more than the others. “Yes - Lancelot may well have gained the crown, seeing she has gained his love.” He sighed. “Alas, with your well-meaning plans, that is, of course - impossible!”
Guinevere tried to relax her fists. “How do you know all this?”
Merlyn stepped closer. “I know you.”
“Then you know I love Lancelot. Is this my punishment?” Guinevere asked swiftly, staring at him with a scornful eye.
“I would have thought you would be glad to have her away - then you won’t have to feel guilt every time you see her -”
“Oh no - not guilt, just terrible worry, every moment,” Guinevere retorted. “But how could you understand that? It means nothing to you if one of us magicless mortals is stabbed, or starving, or falls ill, or becomes prey to any evil . . .” She choked. “You should have sent me on your quest, not her.”
“You would not have believed in it,” Merlyn replied, almost sadly. He shifted, almost melting into boy-child again. “You wouldn’t have believed me,” he repeated, and faded.
When Guinevere came back to court she discovered Lancelot had already left, and many of the knights with her. She had not even had the chance to speak with her. She had not had the chance to tell her goodbye.
The vague suspicion and dislike that had fallen upon Guinevere after the battle with Mordred grew greatly after Lancelot’s departure. Everyone missed the brave young knight. She had almost personified Camelot, and all that they fought for. She believed so strongly in the kingdom that no one dared doubt her.
Guinevere’s odd behaviour before and after Lancelot’s disappearance was discussed in murmurs all about court. Some thought her jealous - of Lancelot’s goodness and popularity. Others thought her simply wicked, a witch in alliance with Morgan - many thought she had sent the madness upon Lancelot herself. As she had, Guinevere thought to herself.
Arthur slipped slowly from court life into his own world of books and translations. He became more and more the fool king he had been from the beginning, the awkward bookish man who abhorred the responsibilities brought on him by the crown. Lancelot had brought out the best in him, Guinevere thought sadly; without her he wanted nothing to do with court.
For long weeks no one at all saw the king. He was in the library, working on a fresh copy of a rare book. Or he was in his study, struggling with a translation. Or he had not risen from his bedchamber at all, but had stayed reading there all day. Instead Guinevere issued orders on his behalf; orders that were increasingly resented and disobeyed.
“Did I not say yesterday that a bear was sighted in the woods outside Dunsmeade?” she asked with exasperation. “And did I not suggest a hunt - and now, look! The villagers are panicked and think some strange monster has appeared instead!”
The knights muttered amongst themselves - but Guinevere knew that they also believed that the bear was some poor bewitched soul that she had set there, perhaps Lancelot herself - and so they would not go out there. Only Galahad braved their opinions, and slew the bear himself, without fanfare.
“Why, Richard and Bors were to fight the highwayman who terrorises the roads between Camelot and Lyonesse!” she exclaimed. “Why are you yet here?”
They murmured their excuses, with a touch of insolence in their voices. Often they asked her about Arthur, as though they believed she had secreted him away somewhere. She would go and ask Arthur to appear - but when he did, he would be so pale and distracted many of them doubted it was the king at all.
So many rumours abounded that Guinevere could not understand how they had time to invent them all. One moment she was a weak woman, torn by her passions; the next, an evil witch with designs on the throne. One day, a spy for the French; another day, a traitor for the Saxons. She was all of these and more and more and more, every day.
Arthur fell ill, after that. It came upon him suddenly; he had been seen entering the library, and then he was found, collapsed onto the floor. Guinevere thought it was probably because he kept forgetting to eat, but the knights believed it was poison.
She had to tell them of his illness in the court that afternoon; but as soon as she opened her mouth, she was interrupted.
“How much longer must we put up with the oppression of her presence? She has driven away our knights, and now she makes an attempt on our king -”
Guinevere froze. It was Sir Bors, of all people, who had once humiliated Arthur so politely.
“Her guilt is written on her face. The witch is attempting to take over Camelot -”
“And give it to the Saxons -”
“And the Normans -”
“And destroy us all!” Richard shouted. “I cry treason!”
“Yes, treason!” Another voice joined, until they all were shouting it. “She should burn!”
Galahad had slipped away, Guinevere noticed; she was surprised at how much that hurt. It hurt more than the hands that took her and led her to the high tower, pushing her within the tiny cell and sliding the metal bar across the door with a clang. It hurt more than knowing that she would probably burn for treason because she needed a champion and no one would act in that way for her. She decided she didn’t mind so much about that though, because if she died, then Arthur would be free, and Lancelot would come back, and everything would be all right. Except she wouldn’t see it - that hurt a little, too.
She stayed in her cell for five days, for as long as Lancelot’s madness. They brought her black bread and water, and she remembered how Lancelot had torn the loaf apart and devoured it with such fervour. It was very quiet up in the high tower. She could see over all of Camelot; she could see the birds, the hawks swooping over the land searching for their prey.
She lay on a pile of straw, watching the changing sky and wondering how long it would take to charge her with treason. The squeaking of a mouse disturbed her; she stood up.
“From hunter to prey,” she said sarcastically. “Where’s your pride, Merlyn?”
The tiny creature grew larger, transforming into the man. He raised an eyebrow.
“How did you know it was me?”
“There isn’t a spare crumb to attract even the smallest of mice,” Guinevere assured him. “No mouse would be here on ordinary business.”
He laughed at that, then stared at her. “Well - mice can go where people can’t. Here, become small with me and we’ll escape this. Then you can get your revenge.”
Merlyn winced, and pushed back a lock of dark hair from his eyes. “Well, all right - we can skip the revenge if you’re squeamish. It’ll all fall apart soon anyway -”
“No - I won’t escape.”
Guinevere thought she saw a look of panic reflected in his dark eyes. “What is this martyrdom?”
“It’s better if I die. Better for Lancelot and Arthur; better for the people I hurt.”
Merlyn laughed, but there was no joy in it. “Oh, you think so, do you? That these squabbling knights will do anything apart from handing Camelot over to anyone who wants it? That Lancelot and Arthur will be able to love, love when you are ashes under their feet, love when you died because they weren’t there for you? Your death will taint everything. Will ruin everything.” His hand was tight around her wrist. “Don’t be a fool. Come - let’s go.”
“No.” A thousand things whirled around Guinevere’s mind, but she refused to name them. “No.” She stared at him directly. “Why bother me? You have Morgan, now -”
“Morgan?” He spat, as though tasting something bitter, and closed his fingers around her wrist.
“You can’t.” And this time it was Guinevere’s scornful laugh that rang out. “You can’t take me out by force. I know too much -”
“Too much, damn it!”
He was gone as quickly as a dream. Guinevere returned to her straw and tried to stop shaking. Then she heard a great roar from the courtyard below, and looked through the bars. They had begun to build the fire.
The courtyard seemed to be filled with people, Guinevere decided absently. All of them had some twig or branch to add to the growing pile. Thrones had been set up, and she saw a knight leading a pale Arthur to one of them. He could not be her champion; he was the king, he must be neutral. He wouldn’t have been any good anyway.
The footsteps that came up the long flight of stairs towards her cell were slow and deliberate.
Then the metal bar was pulled aside, and she was dragged downstairs in chains like a thief. They thought she was a murderer, or a witch, or something of that kind anyway. When she came out into the light she winced. Her eyes closed automatically, but she did not have to see the crowd. She could hear them well enough, jeering, mocking, shouting, accusing. The noise filled her ears -
It was King Arthur.
“Stop this ignoble clamor, or I will send you all away!” His voice echoed through the place; the noise died immediately. “If the Queen must stand trial -“ the sarcasm in his voice was evident to all - “let the dishonour be shared by the few, not the many.”
Guinevere found that she had been led to a small raised platform, directly facing the bonfire. Arthur was on her right side, while the knights sat on her left. All others stood scattered around.
Then Sir Bors stood up from the knights. “The charges are read! That Guinevere, Queen of all Britain, has committed treason, against Camelot, against our High King!” He paused, while the mutterings began again, then went on. “Does the Queen have a champion?”
The silence - and the sporadic laughter - that followed was a little harder for Guinevere to bear that she had thought. Arthur tried to get up, but was pushed down firmly by a knight.
“Then, seeing there is no one to deny these words -”
The gates pushed open and a whirlwind entered.
“What is this!” Sir Bors uttered, staring. A cry grew up, and the murmurs grew louder. Sir Lancelot and Sir Galahad had just ridden into the courtyard as though pursued by the Worm of Salanges.
“I stand as Queen Guinevere’s champion!” Lancelot announced, her voice ringing throughout the courtyard. “And I will defend her honour with my life!”
Something ordinary had revealed Lancelot’s love; something extraordinary illuminated Arthur’s eyes. He sat up straight, shook off the knight’s arm, and glowed.
“Who dares utter such lies about the Queen, who is the most valiant lady in the whole land? Who dares say she is none other than faithful and worthy, who was put herself at risk again and again for Camelot? Who dares say so?”
Words from any other would have evoked anger and scorn; from Lancelot, only shame.
“Does not the king himself know whether his wife is treasonous or not?”
Arthur stood. “I know what I know. This trial is a sham. Guinevere is altogether worthy. And Lancelot - Lancelot is. . .”
A volley of arrows flew out from the walls.
Screams suddenly echoed where it had been silence. From the walls, and from within the crowd itself, soldiers wearing Morgan’s colours appeared.
“To arms!” Lancelot shouted. “This is treachery - treachery from within! For Camelot!”
She ran forward, her sword crashing through Guinevere’s shackles. “This was all Morgan’s witchery -“ she said hurriedly. “And I was deceived! Forgive me!”
“Forgive -“ Guinevere began in surprise, then ducked as a sword came at her. She pulled the soldier down with her and grabbed his sword, before racing towards the stables. “I must send word to Lyonesse!”
When the message was safely dispatched with her hawk, she mounted her horse and rode back into the fray. All of the knights who had left with Lancelot had returned, indignant - and now they fought hard, side by side with those who had doubted and were happy to die for their shame.
But they did not die without a fight. Together the knights prevailed against Morgan’s army, driving them out of the keep, destroying their defences. Many of them, including Arthur, had sought out their horses and were now chasing the retreating army.
She looked down and saw Lancelot deflect a blow with her sword, then kick out the soldier’s legs and dispatch him with a single move.
“The witch herself has fled!” The young knight cried. “She has gone to Avalon - the seat of power - we must stop her!”
Guinevere grabbed her arm and pulled her onto her horse behind her, then urged her beast onwards, north to Avalon.
It was a long hard ride to the lake, and they were harried but not overcome by lone soldiers of Morgan’s army. There would be few left alive after that day.
“I was a fool to leave after some illusion,” Lancelot said suddenly. “I’m sorry I left. If you had died -”
“Then you would have been free to love Arthur. Perhaps I was meant to die.”
Lancelot was quiet, and when she spoke again her voice was filled with tears. “If you’d died I would never have been free. Not for anything.”
Something hard and cold within Guinevere dissolved then, and she suddenly remembered how Lancelot had broken her fetters with a blow. “It’s - it’s all right then.”
“Yes. Oh, yes.”
The path towards the lake was winding and shadowy, as evening drew nigh. Enormous trees grew thickly alongside the road - the wind picked up, and a strange sighing filled their ears. The horse whinnied restlessly, shied at a blown leaf, and reared.
“Shh! Whoah, there!”
The beast bucked again, kicking at nothing, turning back and racing away. Guinevere dug her heels in, with no effect. The horse reared - and they crashed onto the ground, and watched him race away.
They picked themselves up almost sheepishly, then turned.
The lake was ahead.
But someone had already gone after Morgan, found Morgan. He stood and confronted her, arguing loudly, while she stared at him with her expression unmoved. Then she lifted her blade.
“No!” Lancelot screamed and ran towards them, raising her own sword. It only took a single thrust, however. Then they were both down; Lancelot and Arthur.
It was the same place, Guinevere thought absently, walking slowly towards them. Arthur took the blow across the chest - where he was already scarred. This time, however, it was no scratch.
She laid her hands on his chest, her side. There was so much blood.
“Fight me or die!”
Morgan was still there, Guinevere realised. She looked up at her.
“Kill me, then. What do I have left, now?”
“Fight me!” Morgan’s voice sounded panicked - almost frightened. “Or I’ll kill you here, where you lie, like a fool or a child. I’ll kill you!”
She lifted her blade, hesitated, opened her mouth to speak. Then she swirled around.
“Oh - it’s only you.” The expression on her face changed - she tried to smile. “Watch me kill her, then. Make her fight me!”
“Fight her, Guinevere,” Merlyn said.
She didn’t even bother raising her head. “No. Let me die. Let me die here with them.” Except they weren’t dead yet. Lancelot was still making tiny sounds. “Kill me.”
“No?” Morgan repeated, incredulous. “I’ll kill her over the body of those two - in memory of all the other bodies she never saw -“ she lifted the blade again.
And then they sat up.
The blood was gone, Guinevere thought dully. From their bodies, from her hands. They were blinking, laughing. They were alive.
She shook her head, trying to understand, and then looked over to her left. Merlyn had fallen to his knees, his hand stretched out, his face strained. Their eyes connected for a moment, and Guinevere opened her mouth to breathe an astonished thank you thank you thank you -
She heard the sound of the blade and turned in a moment, leaping at Morgan, her own sword cutting through air, gleaming in her hand. They clashed, the sounds of their blades echoing over the waters. She met Morgan’s ferocity with an energy of her own, pushing Morgan backwards, meeting her every move, until Morgan’s moves became desparate slashes, wild thrusts. And then she leapt - but not for Guinevere. She chose the lake, and the lake took her.
Guinevere found that she was on her knees.
She turned. She had once dreaded Arthur and Lancelot discovering their love - but there was nothing to dread, now. It was. That was all.
“I think it’s better if we all stay dead, don’t you?” Arthur suggested as Guinevere came over. “Perhaps they’ll find some things of ours floating in the lake . . .”
“But Camelot!” Lancelot uttered, shocked.
“I think Galahad will rule as the next high king,” Arthur said, pleased with himself. “And will do a better job than I.”
“You mean -“ Guinevere’s eyes narrowed. “He was your son from your young bride, all those years ago?” She had actually wondered whether Galahad was a by-blow; he was in some ways like Uther reborn.
“I didn’t want him troubled by his father’s legacy, as I was,” Arthur said quietly. “So he was brought up away from the court. It was hard, but - I had my son all these past years, and he is a greater man than all of us.”
Guinevere smiled. “He will be a great king. And that means we are -”
She had been freed so many times that day she had no words for it.
“- are embarking on a great adventure.”
She turned. “What are you still doing here?”
He looked different somehow. He was the man, not the bird or the boy or the aging king. But this time he looked like that was all he could be.
Merlyn coughed. “Well - it seems that the amount of magic it takes to bring two people back from the grave - was about the exact amount of magic that I had . . .”
Guinevere found that a small smile was growing on her lips. “Or maybe there’s another reason why I can finally see you as you are.” She hesitated. “Where will you go now?”
He laughed a little. “Oh - I’ll wander the earth, I suppose.”
Guinevere held out a hand. “Come - wander with me.”