Tales of Lady Guinevere
PART II: QUEST
There were times when I thought the beliefs of the old ones and those of the followers of Jesu were in conflict, but when I learned to look beyond the limitations of my reason, I realized it was only the details of the matter that were in conflict; not the spirit of the matter, which has always possessed the true nature of love.
– Guinevere, Queen of Camelot
The 11th day of November in the year of our Lord 536
Written from the abbey at Amesbury
“Can you see him, Guinevere?”
I stiffened at the hushed tone of my mother’s voice. Morning dew wore through my slippers, numbing my toes. Mother had not taken time to put on my leather overshoes when she dragged me from my bed, threw on my clothes, and rushed me to the meadow before dawn so Father would not notice our departure.
Though I followed the line of her finger as she pointed toward the hillside, nothing came into view; a gray mist clung over the fields.
“No, mamma, I cannot.”
Mother’s tresses dangled around her ermine-lined mantle as she knelt next to me, her skirts soiling in the moist grass as she slunk down to my height. I took comfort in the fact that the strands of her hair matched my own in color—brown, like the lighter shades of bark.
“Close your eyes little one, and think of nothing.”
“Quiet, child, and count to ten. Then open your eyes and tell me what you see.”
I obeyed, counting to myself. When I reached ten, I opened my eyes and focused on the hillside.
“Oh!” A squeal escaped me. “I see him!”
Emerging from the haze, an enormous white hart lifted his head and turned toward us. His antlers razed the sky like a storm of tree branches, a dark tangle against the mist. A snort blew from his nostrils sending a puff of white to mingle with the cool morning air; his muscles rippled underneath his hide.
“Sometimes you can see beyond your normal vision—into the Otherworld, and other times, into the hearts of men. But most importantly, you must learn to see into the corners of your own soul.”
I didn’t know what Mamma meant, but I quivered, mesmerized by the majesty of the creature as if I had been captured by a fey. My childish mind scrambled with sightings of deer—all red or tawny, never shimmering like beads of fresh snow.
“Why is his fur white, Mamma?”
“Do you know who he is, Guinevere?” Her tone remained hushed and reminded me to lower mine as well.
I shook my head.
“The old ones called him the Lord of the Wild Things, and the new God heralds him the messenger of peace. It does not matter what he is called. What matters is we understand his essence—that he is immortal. He is goodness and light. When he appears, he reminds you a challenge is at hand, and in order to overcome the ordeal, you must stay pure of heart.”
I thought for a moment, furrowing my brow. “Why would he remind us of such a thing, Mamma? Are our hearts bad?”
A knowingness flicked in her blue-gray eyes. She placed her hand over my heart and smiled—a sad but tender smile. The white hart pawed the ground behind us, then jolted, springing over the meadow; he vanished into the mist. Mother lifted her gray-blue eyes to meet my own.
Elibel interrupted my mother’s reply with a sharp nudge of her elbow into my ribs, jarring me out of the long-ago memory.
“You gawk, My Lady,” scolded Elibel.
“I do not—”
“You might as well drool, My Lady.”
Then I understood: while the recollection had filled my mind, my gaze had wandered across the crowd to stare at one man—not my soon-to-be husband, but Sir Lancelot.
The knight ignored me, or perhaps he did not notice I ogled him. Instead, Lancelot watched King Arthur with all the intensity of a gargoyle while we milled near the door to Camelaird’s granary at my father’s request.
“Straighten up and act your part, My Lady.”
I turned toward Elibel as she scolded me, breaking my line of sight to the knight.
The largeness of my cousin’s eyes narrowed into slits as she whispered, “I fear you will make an ill-suited queen if you can’t restrain yourself and show a little decorum.”
My fingers continued to trace the triquetra, circling each loop of the charm as it hung around my neck.
“I am sorry, Elibel. I didn’t mean to stare. I was thinking about Father—”
“About how he’d flay you like a disobedient hound if he caught you salivating over a man who is not your betrothed?”
“No. About how clearly I can see events I could not remember before, as if something inside me seeks to find the truth.”
“Perhaps you should seek the truth of how dangerous your actions are.”
She turned her attention back toward Arthur, dismissing me. My chest tightened at her reproach and subsequent dismissal. Since I had agreed to become Arthur’s queen, Elibel’s rebukes about my demeanor had increased.
Despite the late day in May, a constant drizzle settled over Camelaird as we waited on my father. I tightened my arms around my waist, protecting myself from the dampness and, I suppose, from my cousin’s coldness. The clamminess of my dress weighed down the already heavy velvet as it clung to my skin.
“King Arthur,” my father began.
“Why so formal?” Arthur beamed at my father.
His blonde curls lit with a glow despite the morning’s gloom. His good-looks held the crowd captive, but for whatever reason, he didn’t stir tender emotions in me. I examined him, trying to discern what everyone else saw in him.
“We are soon to be family. Arthur will do. Or son if you prefer, for you have proved yourself as a father to me through our long-time alliance, and now by the hand of your daughter—the most enchanting woman in all of Britannia.”
I rolled my eyes, but the sag of my father’s eyelids lifted at Arthur’s statement. The tiredness that stretched his features released as he stared up at the younger king; his eyes filled with hope.
“Son, then,” replied Father.
A smile spread both men’s lips. A twinge of regret for my earlier thought of Arthur’s insincerity hit me and I chided myself for my cruelty, this time, without the aid of Elibel.
“For my daughter’s bride price, gold, jewels or cattle would not serve, for your wealth is far beyond my own. Alas, I thought, what could I offer so great a king that he did not already possess?”
Arthur’s grin spread his entire face, magnifying his attractiveness; he relished my father’s praise.
Elibel seemed dizzy at the sight of Arthur’s beauty, though she tried to control her admiration by tightening the line of her lips.
While everyone remained under the spell of Arthur’s charms, my gaze wandered back toward Lancelot. It wasn’t as if I could control the matter. Whenever the knight was near, he drew me as if a string pulled me toward him without my consent. And when Lancelot was absent, my thoughts became obsessed with his whereabouts. Though I tried to withdraw, my instincts won out, and I found myself staring at him once more.
What tugged at me remained a mystery; he was attractive, but in a dark, enigmatic way, not like the flamboyant brightness of Arthur, and by all outward appearances, he discounted me. Yet there was something more, and that something nagged at my heart.
Elibel jabbed my ribs with such ferocity, I grabbed my side and swung my head back in her direction. Her eyes chastised me; she had caught me gawking. Again.
Shame flushed through my body and I cast my eyes downward, studying the mud that clung to the hem of my dress and covered the pale blue of my shoes.
Father’s gesture toward the granary took the edge off the moment; his soldiers swung open the doors at his command.
Arthur clapped and I glanced up to see why he showed such excitement.
An enormous table, divided into twenty-four sections, sat in the center of the chamber beyond the reach of the doors. The cast of light from outside caught the inlaid silver and gold swirls, causing the circumference to glimmer.
“Your father, Uther Pendragon, commissioned Merlin for this table many seasons past. Your father gifted the table to me in hopes that I could unite the kingdoms of Britannia, but I never retained the loyalty of enough knights to fulfill the requirement of the Round Table, as each spoke represents a retinue of six. I give this table to you as my daughter’s bride price, knowing you will achieve the destiny I could not.”
Arthur strutted to the table, settling his hands across the surface as he strode around in a circle. “This is the same Round Table that belonged to my father?”
“Yes.” My father’s eyes glistened as he watched Arthur’s reaction.
“I shall fill it with the bravest and most honorable of men!”
Father nodded, knocking loose a strand of his gray hair. It sprang over his face, like a slash from a sword.
“I could not have received a more valuable gift, King Leodegrance, or shall I say, Father?”
“The hope of all Britons resides with you now, Son.”
Arthur reached out and grabbed my father, pulling him into an embrace. Father returned his enthusiasm by hugging him back; his affections for Arthur bore no resemblance to his regard for me—none of the detachment that characterized our relationship existed between the two men. I also noted that the Round Table had trumped my value as far as “gifts” went.
Arthur pulled away and turned on his heel. “Now, I must be off to start this quest for worthy knights. Guinevere, fetch your belongings. We take leave at once.”
“No!” I don’t know what demon possessed my tongue, but every bit of me refused him and, regardless of Elibel’s warning to act like a queen, my emotions got the better of me.
“No?” Arthur turned, a fascinated grin crossed his lips.
He strode toward me, and despite our audience, settled his hands on each side of my waist. A shock wave of his energy shot up my sides as his blue eyes sparked with amusement. He looked like an all-powerful god smiling down upon me. I swallowed hard, trying to retain my wits. This is why no one refused Arthur.
“Do you plan to conduct our marriage from a different residence?”
I shook my head.
“Good, because that would be a cold arrangement, Guinevere, and I have warmer plans in mind for my bride.” He squeezed me for emphasis.
His intimate insinuation formed a knot in my throat, rendering me speechless.
“We will plan the marriage ceremony upon our arrival in Camelot. The Bishop of Canterbury has already been summoned and I have much business to attend to with the ordination of new knights for your father’s generous gift.”
“But I must have time to…”
My mind whirled. Leaving Camelaird, the only home I had ever known, sent me into a panic. “To say a proper goodbye and collect my belongings. And Aethelwine—”
“How much time do you require?” Arthur pulled me tighter and my skin jumped.
I stared helplessly. For the first time I could remember, Elibel had not come to my aid. I glanced at her from the corner of my eye. She stood as stiff as a marble column, no inkling of her intervention at hand.
Father cleared his throat as if to speak, when Arthur cut in, “Of course you are right. I forget how women can be with their emotional attachments. You may have two days leave. I will ride ahead and prepare and you may come after.”
An unpleasant rebuttal broke past the knot in my throat, but my father jerked his head in my direction so I said, “Thank you,” instead.
When the phrase did not appease Father’s furrowing brow, I mumbled “My Lord.” Though the words seemed distasteful in my mouth after Arthur had left out any title when he addressed me, they won my father’s approving nod.
“Sir Lancelot,” said Arthur still holding me in his grip, “you will stay behind until the lady is ready. I entrust you to escort my bride back to Camelot.”
Lancelot as my escort? My heart started to thud against my ribs.
“But Sir Lancelot—” Elibel cut herself off in midsentence. All eyes turned to my cousin; she seemed uncertain of how to proceed. She glanced toward me, then toward Lancelot.
My pulse quickened until I felt the thunder of blood in my throat. Would Elibel betray me and announce my passion for the knight, here, in front of everyone?
“If I may be so bold, My Lord, Sir Lancelot is not the best choice for said task.”
Arthur’s bright eyes sparked. “And why is that? Lady Elibel, is it?”
Elibel smiled at his recognition of her name; her face lit. His use of a title before my cousin’s name and neglect of the same usage before mine did not escape my notice. I tried to capture Elibel’s attention and send her a plea for discretion, but she avoided my attempts and continued.
“Sir Lancelot is your most capable knight. He should remain by your side should you run into marauders.”
I had not realized I had been holding my breath, but the air rushed from my lungs—my cousin would not expose me after all.
“Yes, he is,” replied Arthur. “Which is why he must escort my bride. I would only entrust her safety to the most capable of men.”
Elibel curtsied, conceding the point—all of her emotions hidden behind her well controlled façade.
My face, however, seemed an open book as my gaze flicked over Arthur’s shoulder, toward Lancelot. A craving to be held in the knight’s arms instead of Arthur’s besieged my mind. And in that moment, Lancelot’s deep eyes caught my own and I could have sworn he experienced the same mix of longing and fear for our upcoming journey that I did.