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“Certainly,” said Merlin, “as of her beauty and fairness she is one of the fairest living. But if you did not love her so well as you do, I would find you a damsel of beauty and goodness that you would like, and who would please you, if your heart was not set on Guinevere. But where a man’s heart is set, he will not change his mind.”
“That is true.” said King Arthur.
But Merlin warned the King covertly that Guinevere was not good for him to take as his wife. For he warned him that Lancelot would love her, and she him, in return.
Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur
The soft light filtered between my flickering eyelashes, the lovely golden light dappling through the spring green leaves was blinking and dancing. I could smell the grass beneath me, feel it on the bare skin at the base of my back, hear my heart beating in my ears, still fast. I had the adrenaline of the hunt still rushing in my blood, and I was thinking of the men coming home from war, the same bright victory in their veins. I was lost in the same daydream I dreamed every day, back then. It will be soon, I told myself, it will be soon. The air around me smelled of the coming summer, and the breeze on my face was light and lovely as a kiss. Contentment, deep and soft, was upon me.
I sat up at the sound of my own name. One of my ladies was running towards me through the clearing, her dress torn from running through the woods. Through the thin silk tiny streams of blood, soft, white flesh showed. She must have been in a hurry, to run out here in her dress. I stood as she came towards me, pushing the thick, coarse red curls of my hair back from my face, running my fingers through them and twisting them back out of my way, tying them fast, and then I took up my bow.
“What is it? Why are you out here?”
I knew something was wrong. Badly wrong.
She shook her head, gasping in breath, leaning down on her knees. I put a hand on
her shoulder and shushed her until she had gathered herself.
At last she steadied her breathing, and then she glanced up at me, and in those
glassy eyes, brimming with the tears she had been choking back so long, I saw already the answer that she would give.
“The war… the war is lost.”
The great hall of Carhais was empty when I entered it. This was not so unusual. My father’s feasting-hall had lain empty these past two years and more, since Carhais had emptied out its armies onto the battlefields of Britain, across the sea. The last time it had been full, we had been sending our men – and our boys – off to war; my three brothers among them. And the man to whom I had been promised in marriage. I had been meant to become his wife that summer, and instead I stood at the gates of Carhais with the other women, the children, the old and the weak, and my father, and watched the men ride away to war, with my mother at their head. I had taken my brothers’ place; hunting, overseeing the organisation of what little of the household remained, and Carhais’ defences. That had been easy. I had been schooled for it all my life. It had not been easy watching the news of each new loss reach my father.
When there had been someone to scold me for it, I would not have come into the great hall in my hunting leathers, but my mother was gone, and there was no one left who cared. For the enormous formal hall she would have had me in a dress of silk, a circlet of gold about my head, but today I came straight from the forest. My fine clothes were sold for iron, and horses, and there was no one left to note that I strode in without fanfare, without a bow to anyone. No one to be a proper princess for. No one who cared how I looked, or if I could sing, or read in Latin. What mattered now was that I was useful, that I could count the dwindling stores; that I could hunt. That was how I spent most of my days now; hunting in the forest. There was little else to do, and those of us left behind needed to eat.
Or, I thought it was empty. A black shadow on the dais, on my father’s throne, unfolded itself as he lifted his head from its droop of despair.
“Guinevere…” He breathed my name, and shook his head. I let the lady at my arm slip from my grasp, ran forward and knelt before him, taking up his hands in mine.
He put a hand on my head in the same fatherly benediction that I had experienced there since I was a child, but this time it was trembling. No, I thought. But he was already speaking.
“Guinevere, they’re all dead. Your brothers are dead, our allies are dead.” He drew a breath in that rattled him at the core.
“What happened, father?” I turned my face up to him, and he cupped my chin in his soft, aged hand. I was glad in that moment – deeply deeply glad – that my father was too old to fight. My mother had not been. And she was not here.
“No one thought Arthur capable of it, but he came, that child, with his army of brutes. They wiped us out. The way they tell it, he would not have done until all his enemies were dead. All those he could lay his hands on. Barely one in ten left alive. He’s returned to his court at Camelot. Like father like son – his father Uther was a brute, too. The men from our lands who made it back alive are… few. Mainly deserters who fled. Carhais will turn them away; this castle is no place for cowards.”
“And…?” The name I wished to speak stuck in my throat, and my father nodded, and pressed his lips together. The man among them I was pledged to marry was dead, and he had been sweet and kind. I had hoped he would come back to me. He had been my safety. Marriage to him would have meant I could stay in my own home. Now, all of sudden, I was a defeated princess, heir to a proud and ancient kingdom, with no brothers. I felt the dread gathering around me. Some awful foreign man would come to claim me. I would be taken from my home.
“He, too, Guinevere. He was brave, at the front, and so he died first.” I choked back the tears, then, for the first time. I hated to cry, I hated to seem weak. I would not mourn. I would carry on. Gather my fighting women, and the few men who were left, and defend my lands. When I had three brothers older than me, it had not mattered much to whom I would be given, but now whoever had me would have Carhais, and Brittany with it. If I wanted to stay in my home, if I wanted to keep possession of myself now, I would have to fight for it.
“It may yet be for the best, Guinevere.” He drew in a deep breath, and gently turned my face up towards him to look him in the eyes. Those old eyes, the wrinkles drooping sad at the sides, the deep lines of care. I knew what was coming. “Arthur has sent messengers. They wish to bring you back to Camelot. To be his bride.”
“No!” I jumped back, and I was on my feet before I realised what I had done, the anger pumping hot through my veins. I had not thought it would be so soon. I had not thought it would be him. I was not ready to leave my own lands, nor was I prepared to go into the hands of the boy-king Arthur, the savage who had slaughtered my people. Never. I was shouting already. “Father, he’s a brute. He’s a child. No. I won’t do it.”
I had not even thought to fear it. What could have convinced my father that the only way was to send me to him? I had been betrothed to a man, and everyone said that Arthur was nothing more than a boy, and a foreign conqueror besides. I didn’t want a boy. I wanted a man, and I wanted one of my own people. I wanted someone who would stand by my side and fight for Brittany’s independence from Arthur, not for it to be handed over to him, and me with it. I thought at least I would be married to a prince from our own side. I could not imagine my father would agree to this if there were any other choice. The losses had been that heavy, then. But I would not go. I would not marry Arthur. I had not given up.
“Guinevere…” My name fell like a sigh from his lips and it clutched me in the pit of my stomach. He did not have to say the words, I knew there was no other way, not really. We could not refuse Arthur, and I could not refuse my sad, old father. He has lost everyone else. Perhaps, since I am not a parent, I cannot know the desire to have
a child in slavery, rather than dead. I inclined my head in a nod. Arthur had conquered Britain, and if we wanted the remains of Carhais to stay alive, we did not have a choice. I did not have a choice.
My father took me by the hand and led me through the empty halls of our home. Before, this emptiness was expectant, tingling with the possibility of our people about to return from war. And the return of one man I already knew I would never speak of again, could never speak of again. Especially if I was to wed Arthur, to keep myself alive for my father’s sake, and to keep the people of my lands from his ravaging wars. My father led me up to his tower and into the room that I had not been into since I was a child. Before my first bleeding, I was allowed in there all of the time. After that, my mother always said, a woman’s blood is too potent. I didn’t know why, or what she meant, but I knew she was right. She was afraid that I was not ready, that the old magic of that room was too much for a new-made woman. Not too much for a girl, not for a child, but once my age had come she was afraid. She had always avoided that room herself. And my father, my father the witch, would laugh indulgently at my superstitious but magicless mother, who had not a drop of Otherworld blood in her veins. Still, he did not let me in, and I knew there was some wondrous secret within, for I had felt it, in my blood. I knew myself to be my father’s daughter.
The room was as I remembered it, the shelves stuffed with leather-bound books, and animal parts in jars, and drying herbs – that acrid smell of plants with secrets. Plants I remembered the names of, and the uses. But these things were small and whispering nothings compared to the table. Gorgeous dark wood, smooth, smelling of the ancient powers of the woodlands, the Round Table of Carhais. Fashioned by my ancestors, the witches. Before I even stepped in the room I could feel its powerful presence.
As I did when I was young, I climbed onto the table and lay on my back across its breadth. It always smelled the same. That lovely, intense smell of old wood. Of old magic.
“Last wishes, Guinevere. Last wishes.”
I closed my eyes, I breathed in deep of the air of my home. I would come back here.
I wish for Arthur’s death.
“I’m sending the table to Arthur, Guinevere,” my father said softly, after a long pause.
I sat up.
“No, no, father. It belongs here, in Carhais. Not with him.”
“Guinevere, I am an old man. You may yet have a son. The Round Table belongs
with you.” He took my hands. His hands were dry as parchment and trembling. I wanted to beg him again not to send me, but I knew that this was as hard for him as it would be for me. I was the heir to Carhais now the others were all dead, and I had to act to protect my people. I didn’t want it, I could hardly bear it, but I would have to do it. For him. For them. “Just keep it close by you. Don’t forget your old father. Don’t forget your ancient blood.”
I kissed his wrinkled forehead.
Last wishes. The last day of my life as a free woman.
I was loaded onto the boat along with the Round Table and three of my ladies, Marie, Christine and Margery. I was not supposed to take my hunting gear, my bow and arrows, my sword, but I hid them among the rest of my things, the fine dresses of silk, the books and jewels. What was left of them. Almost everything had been sold, as the war went on, but I had at least saved all my books. I had to leave behind my fighting women, and I had to go dressed like the kind of princess Arthur desired. No longer with the trappings of a celtic warrior princess – the iron and leather and sweat
– I felt vulnerable and naked. Arthur did not want a warrior queen. I was bought and sold, and if my people were going to be safe, Arthur had to get what he wanted.
The journey was long, and the sea made me sick. I had never wanted to leave Brittany. The air was cold when I stepped off at Dover. The wind blew right through the pale green silk – chosen by my women to emphasise my porcelain skin, my dark red hair – and I felt my skin turn to goosebumps already. The country was as hostile to me as I was to it. I had never had to be a thing of beauty before. It was enough to be strong, enough to be swift and deft. But I had to, now. For my people. For my father back in Carhais. I wondered how young this boy king was; he could not have been such a child to tear through Britain as he had done, but I knew he was younger than me. I hoped he would be small and weak, and that I might be able to bully him into sending me back home. But those were not the tales that came back to us at Carhais.
I could see far away the party of knights approaching. Hardly a greeting for a new queen. But then I had heard that this was what Arthur was like – not so much like the French kings with their showy courts and fine things, but a killer with a small war- band of knights, swift and violent. I steeled myself for it. I could be a good queen. I would bide my time. I would have my revenge on him for killing my people, for leaving my father alone, without a wife or sons. For, after all of that, demanding me from him.
They came closer fast, a band of five of them. I could not tell which one was Arthur. Some of them were dressed for war, in platemail from the neck down. Hostile, unwelcoming. Perhaps he had not even come himself, but had sent his servants to collect me, like cargo. I did not like the look of a band of heavily armoured men coming to fetch me. I supposed the land was still recovering from its wars. In that case, I should have liked better to come armed myself.
The knight at the front of the party jumped deftly from his horse. He was not armed, but dressed in a beautiful surcoat of black and gold, though he had a sword at his side. Handsome, dark features, tall and broad, with an easy smile. A flicker inside me betrayed my hope that this was Arthur.
“Do I have the honour of addressing the lady Guinevere?”
I and my ladies curtsied. It rankled with me. In my country, as a princess, I bowed like a man, and only to my father. Margery had come to me from Logrys, Arthur’s country, and instructed me on their customs. She, too, was sorry to return to them.
“Lady Guinevere, I am Sir Kay, King Arthur’s Seneschal,” he took his horse by the bridle, “may I help you onto a horse?”
Arthur had sent his Seneschal to collect me. Oh, we had one of those in Carhais, but we were not so grand about it. We called ours the keeper of the household. Arthur had sent his housekeeper to collect me, as though I were a sack of corn that needed to be checked for quality before it was accepted. Sure enough this man was the keeper of the whole of Britain, but I did not think much of it, nonetheless.
I strode forward, and took the bridle from him. I was aware of his eyes flicker across the taut silk of my dress, glancing for a second where my nipples, hard from the cold, were just visible. I was not afraid. I had been looked at like that many times before. As he reached forward to try to help me onto the horse, I grasped the saddle and swung myself up, pulling my dress up to my knees to sit astride it like a man. I hated that dress. Too thin for Britain’s cold, too small, since it had been a long time since I had been required to wear such a thing, and I had grown taller, more muscular since, though Arthur’s war had made me thinner.
“Do you think we do not have horses in Carhais, Sir Kay?”
He laughed. I noticed that, behind him, a knight dressed in green armour with thick stubble, and wild orange-brown hair did not laugh with the others. His face was heavily freckled, and scarred. From the look of him, he was one of King Lot’s sons. It was King Lot who began the war we all lost so badly against Arthur, my king and
captor. Another half-prisoner, then, brought here to be another one of Arthur’s servants. Another old enemy. He noticed me looking at him and met my gaze. His grey eyes were steady and cold. I did not sense an ally there. I felt a cold shiver at the base of my spine, and I wished that I had more about me that made me feel safe.
Three of the other knights took my ladies on the back of their horses, and Sir Kay leapt up behind the knight on the remaining horse, and we turned away from Dover, and I turned my back on the sea, and my home beyond it, as though it were nothing at all to me. Nothing at all.
The ride to Arthur’s new-made court, the city of Camelot, felt unbearably long, even though it took less than a day. I could feel my heart heavy within me, heavy and slow with the thought of my home receding farther and farther away behind me. The land we rode through was ravaged and bare. In the villages we passed though, the people cowered from the knights, lowering their grubby faces and retreating into the shadows of their doorways, as the huge men with shining armour on themselves and on their horses thundered by. This is not how it had been in Carhais. I had walked barefoot through the woodlands to the villages nearby and no one had known who I was. I had listened in on the conversations of my father’s subjects, smelled their food cooking, seen them crying. Perhaps if Arthur had walked among his people he would not be such a warlike king; perhaps he would be gentle and prudent instead, like my own father, who would rather have sent his daughter to a stranger, and a brute, and a conqueror, with no more protection than an enchanted table, than risk his people’s lives.
I was glad to be ahead of the rest of the party – my horse was strong and fast, and bearing less of a load than the others was happy to prance ahead. I could see the landscape opening before me, softer and less wild than my own country, but full of deep, lush-looking woodlands and wide, proud hilltops. Perhaps I could be happy here in my time alone, as long as I was far from the war-hollowed villages or Arthur’s brutish court. If I could ride through the land, smelling the earth and the warm, homely scent of the horse beneath me. He was a handsome horse, the one I was riding, a bay with a glossy mane and velvety nostrils. I had left my own dear horse at home. I tried to put these thoughts from my mind. If I were to have any chance of happiness I had to be resolved to my new life, and try to forget about the past. My childhood stubbornness still lingered with me, determined to go home, but another part of me – I supposed what I had inherited from my father – knew I needed to be practical. That I might never go home.
The smell of spring was strong in the air, and the gentle breeze that lifted my hair lightly off my forehead was soothing. It was when the sky began to redden at the edges, when the first edge of the sun dipped below the horizon and threw its fire onto the underside of the clouds above it, that I first saw Camelot. Black and sharp against the horizon, high on a broad hill, I could count eight round turreted towers reaching up high into the sky, and around them the castle walls. Silk banners whose colours I could not see fluttered in silhouette in the breeze above it. It was everything I had refused to believe it would be. The boy king’s city was a thing of beauty with its delicate towers fluttering with flags and banners, but also a siege weapon – oh, I could see that, too, from where I was already. Word of Camelot had come to Cahais years ago when it had been the mighty fortress of the warlord Uther Pendragon, the man they said was Arthur’s father, and people had associated its name with a shiver of the spine. I had imagined iron, and steel. The smell of blood. It looked a different place from that, now. Welcoming, though I only saw it black against the red sky, and far-off, with its fluttering banners. It was a place of celebration. Of course it was. Arthur had the victory. It was as though all the joy in the world had poured out of Carhais, and into this place. Of course it had. Joy followed victory. The sight of that
city, my future home, black against the setting sun, filled me with a tentative, fluttering hope, but it also filled me with dread.
By the time our party rode through Camelot’s gates and arrived in its great courtyard, night was almost fallen, and at the edges of the sky I could see the little white stars peeping out, and the ghost of the moon in a sky that was still indigo with night. This is the last moon I will see as a free woman, I thought. I slid down off my horse and handed Sir Kay the reins. Our hands brushed as I passed them and our eyes met, but this time I saw that I had been mistaken in what I had seen in him before. The look he gave me was not one of lust – as I had thought before – but something more complex, softer. A look of kind interest, but also of strange affinity, as though he knew me already, and as he brushed past me to take the horse by the nose and lead it away I felt a power that I recognised, and I understood that Kay was one of the Otherworld, and he had seen it in me too. My father had told me that I would meet others like us at Arthur’s court, and this giant of a man – for Kay stood head and shoulders above me, and I was tall for a woman – left some strange vibration in the air that was at once unexpected and deeply familiar to me. I felt I would be pleased to have him around.
The other knights had not introduced themselves. Lot’s son had jumped down from his horse, leaving Margery stranded on the back of the charger, clinging on to the saddle, unable to get down, terrified and unable to ride or jump down safely from a horse so large. I made to walk to her and help her down, and Kay put a gentle hand on my arm to hold me back. I felt it then for sure, the warmth of knowing, of the same Otherworld blood in our veins. I wished harder that it was he, not Arthur, that I would wed. One of my own. What would a man with no magic in his blood do with my father’s Round Table?
“Gawain, help her down,” Kay scolded patiently. Now I had a name for Lot’s son, and it was the one whose reputation on the battlefield had already reached me. The second of them, I thought. I wondered if the other sons, too, were at Arthur’s court. He strode back over and plucked Margery down from the saddle, his hands around her waist, and placed her lightly on the floor. He didn’t look at her or say anything, and he disappeared down a stone hallway into the night.
“Don’t mind Gawain,” Kay said, his gaze following where Gawain had gone, his tone distracted for a moment, before he turned to me. “He is not usually so uncourteous. His mother blames him for bringing his brothers to Arthur’s court. She thinks he should have stayed in Lothian. She’s worried that all his brothers will follow him here. They probably will.” Kay turned back with a smile, less serious, and I was glad. “He usually wouldn’t pass up a chance to put his hands on a fair lady, such as your Margery.”
Kay gave Margery a gentle little nod of a bow, and she seemed to relax. He had an easy charm about him; another gift from the Otherworld, I supposed.
The knight Kay had shared his horse with trotted over. He was a large man, muscle-bound like an ox. I could see it in the way he moved, with an easy, muscular grace. He had a tanned, handsome face and a ready smile, and his golden hair was scruffy from the ride. He looked like an overgrown boy, flushed with excitement, and eager to get off to some game or other. I wondered if he were Kay’s squire. He jumped down from the horse and handed the reins to Kay.
“Sir Kay, I hope you don’t mind taking the horses.” He turned to me and inclined his head. “My lady, Princess Guinevere.”
I inclined my head in return, and the knight strode away. Marie and Christine had been helped from their mounts and were looking anxiously to me, uneasy about what we should do. I did not know either. It was not my country. They were not even speaking my native language. My head hurt already from the effort of speaking it, of understanding, and I just wanted to go to sleep. I had no idea what I was meant to
do, did not know the customs of the court. No one had offered to show us to any rooms or offered us any refreshment. The man who had demanded me as his bride had not even come to greet me. The wedding was due to take place the next day, but what would be done with us until then was unclear. And I was prepared to protect myself. Beneath my silk dress I had concealed a small but highly effective dagger, in case the need might call for it. I was not so young and naive that I had not thought that some trick at my expense might be played. I had to submit to a lawful marriage, but not to anything else.
“Sir Ector, my father, will take you to your chambers, my ladies,” Kay said, leading the horses away, all together. And they were calm for him, of course, and quieted their whinnying when he put his hand gently on their flank. Otherworld. How could I have not seen it at once?
A knight, older than the others, the one who had shared his horse with Christine, came over. He had a kind face, and I could see instantly the family resemblance to Kay. This must be his father. He led us up to a set of rooms perfumed with spices and oils I had never smelled before, and decked in silks. Our Breton court in Cahais was more of a gathering of warriors, and I had silks only because they were gifts from courtiers coming to pledge their faith to my father. We did not value such things. Our rooms smelled of leather and straw. Our riches were in the arts of medicine, of poetry. We valued our ancient blood; we did not gather such things. I had never seen riches like this. How could this warrior king have also such a rich and decadent court already? I suppose it was the plenty of victory. The beds were heaped with rich coverlets and more candles than I could count at a glance filled the room with a soft, enticing light. The value of the luxuries in my room could have bought my father’s court. And now Arthur had bought me. Perhaps he had sent my father silks from the east, and gold and candles. But my father would have no use for them; these were not our ways.
Sir Ector bowed goodnight as he made to leave.
“My lord King Arthur sends his greetings to the beautiful Princess Guinevere and wishes you to have as a gift for your wedding tomorrow the dress and the jewels laid out upon the bed for you. He asks that you forgive his absence.”
And he shut the door.
The dress on the bed – he obviously had thought me too much of a savage to have fine clothes of my own – was nonetheless beautiful. Marie gasped as she lifted its soft fabric in her tiny bird-like hands and gently laid it against her cheek. It was a deep emerald green. It would be a beautiful colour for me. I could see as I looked at it that Margery was only being kind when she told me the dress that she had chosen for my being brought here – the finest of my dresses – was as fine as the dresses women wore in Logrys. No. It was old, and plain, the silk thin but coarse. I brushed my fingers lightly against the fabric of the dress that had been left for me. It was like a whisper, like a kiss. I sighed. Arthur sends gifts, but will not see me himself. I am truly something he has bought, a token of a distant kingdom. Otherwise he would care if his wife-to-be were beautiful or clever. He could have bought a cripple or a simpleton; he didn’t seem to care. I suppose it was not really me that he wanted; it was Brittany, and the table, and the last knights of Carhais who would gather for him now in Camelot, now that he had me.
The jewels sparkled with gold in the candlelight, a gold net set with emeralds for my hair, and thick gold bangles, and a necklace set with an emerald the size of Marie’s little fist and hundreds of tiny diamonds. I supposed that, compared to these, what I had brought with me could hardly have been called jewels. I had gold – my gold circlet, the circlet of my ancient people, and a bangle of beaten gold that had been my mother’s, made to be worn high on the arm, no good for cold Britain, but nothing set with jewels like this. I would be covered in gems when I went to my marriage tomorrow. No one would see me. They would see a thousand dazzling gems
and I would be a display of the riches and grandeur of the great King Arthur’s court. Or perhaps he was worried I would be plain. I knew I was not plain, at least. I had seen many of the women of Logrys and found them plainer, smaller, quieter than our own Breton women, many of whom like me were touched with fire, red in the hair and the soul, passionate and quick with life. What would Arthur make of me? I knew what I made of him already.
I did not sleep during the night. Instead I listened to my heart fluttering in my chest, trapped under my skin, under the useless hushing of my ribs. I didn’t know what I was afraid of, or even if I was afraid. I wasn’t afraid of what I knew would come after the wedding, like other girls I had known were, though I knew all about it. I had heard other women talking about it, and even seen it once as a child when I walked past a half-closed door and peeped in to see one of my brothers on top of a girl from the village. It had not looked so bad as it sounded when I’d heard it described. Besides, I was not going to let Arthur touch me. He was not going to think he was just going to demand me here and throw me down beneath him like a whore. No, I was not worried about that, because it was not going to happen. Perhaps if it had been a man like Kay, as I had wished when they had come to collect me, then I could have borne it, to have his hands on me, but not a man who hid from me, and who in turn tried to hide me beneath silks, and jewels.
I was anxious, though, that I had not seen yet the man I was to marry. Only his knights. Of them all, only Gawain was what I had expected; rough and quiet, with the ungentle hands of a killer. Sir Kay had been kind, and Ector. But what would Arthur be like? He was not a man who had been born and raised to his throne, so he would not be a spoiled fop, but he was a man who had killed for it, who had slaughtered his rivals for it, including my father’s own men, and done so relentlessly to get it, so he would not be a gentle man, a civilized man. Not that there had been so many of those at my father’s court, but we were wild people in a different way. Woodland hunters, proud fighters, but not warmongers, not battle-generals. We didn’t ride around on armoured horses, terrorising the peasants as Arthur’s men seemed to do. My father had sent our people because my mother’s people had owed King Lot allegiance, not because he was interested in wars. And now the war was over, and he found himself on the losing side. The knights of Carhais who would now come to Arthur were the last of my father’s forces, and though Carhais would be safe, it would also be empty. The glory of Carhais was all gone from it, seeping out into the big, bloody sponge that was Arthur’s Logrys, and the bloody beating heart at the centre, Camelot.
I must have slept, because Margery gently woke me with a hand on my shoulder. It was full light already, so late, but my head throbbed with an insistent weariness, that of a night of broken sleep. I think I had dreamed of home, and the dappled light of the forest, watching the leaves dance in the breeze, chasing a doe through the woodlands.
Marie and Christine came in with a bath and began to fill it with steaming water, and then lavender and rose oils. So Arthur even knew how he wanted me to smell. I slid out of bed, and out of my nightdress and into the water. It was too hot, and my pale skin blushed deep red at the heat of it, but I didn’t care. It felt as though it was burning the journey away, my past life away, preparing me to be the queen I was now going to have to be. Margery brushed out my hair with soft strokes as I lay soaking, and when I got out, wet and pink like a newborn, plaited it into the style the women wore in Logrys – not loose how I had always had it, but plaited into two thick ropes that she wound together into a bun at the base of my neck and pinned in place with the jewelled pins and net of gold that had been left by the husband I would acquire today. She placed the delicate golden circlet I had brought from home, made to look like an ivy-strand twining around, on my thick, red curls. The dress Arthur had chosen fitted well, its sleeves long and close down to the wrist where they ended with a point that reached almost to the knuckle of my middle finger, its bodice tight and embroidered all over with little gold leaves of ivy. He must have known the traditions of my father’s people. I was pleased with that, and with the swish and flow of the silk
skirt around my legs. It was a well-made dress, truly. But, it was the dress of a princess, who stood still and was looked at. If I had wanted to run in it, I could not have done. When I was dressed in the green silk dress, and the emerald jewellery, they brought me before the mirror. I had been told, always, that I was beautiful, but all the young marriageable daughters of lords were told this every day, and I was not interested in being beautiful, so I had shrugged at it, and turned away, bored. I had been expecting the fairness of my youth, and the brightness of my hair, but dressed as I was I looked like the queen I was about to become. It was a fierce beauty I saw looking back at me, grand and aloof. I looked proud and cold, and I was pleased with it. I did not want this boy king to think that he had a defeated princess in his grasp. I was still strong, and proud even if my father’s people were defeated and gone.
Sir Ector came to fetch me to Arthur, when it was time that we were wed.
“My Lady Guinevere.” He took my hand and kissed it lightly. His manner was fatherly, and I was glad to see him. “You have the beauty of a true queen.”
“Thank you, Sir Ector.” I dipped in a slight curtsey.
“And your ladies, they are lovely little stars beside your radiant sun.”
The three ladies bobbed in thanks. It seemed to be all talk at Camelot. Perhaps I
would get used to all of these little politenesses, or perhaps they would stop once people had got used to me. I could not say I liked them; they seemed artificial to me. My ladies were dressed in matching gowns of pale blue that I had had brought over with us, all embroidered in silver with little flowers. It best suited Christine, whose dark hair, ice-blue eyes and pale skin made her seem every bit the fairy-woman in her dress. There would be many eyes on her, too, this day, although she was the oldest of us.
Sir Ector offered me his steady arm and I took it, and he guided me down the stairs of the tower, and out across the open courtyard of Camelot’s keep, to its small chapel. I ought to have had my own father there, but I knew why he did not come. He was too old to leave his home. To old to suffer the final grief of watching me be handed away. Outside the chapel stood a man dressed in a plain black habit whom I would have mistaken for a monk, were his shaven head and face not patterned with the ugly bruise-blue of woad in beautiful swirls and whorls like the depths of the sea. He measured me with black, beady eyes. I suppressed a shiver down my spine and turned my gaze away.
Inside, the chapel was decked with red roses, and white roses, and white wildflowers all through. But these paled beside the gilded decorations within, pictures of the god of the Christians emblazoned in gold all around; or rather, not their god, but the man who reminded me of our Hanged God, but who I knew was not, but who hung there all the same, made in gold and on a gold cross. I think, like the Hanged God, he too had come back from the dead. So I was to be wed in the sight of Arthur’s gods, not my own. I don’t know why I should have expected anything else. Arthur’s strange Hanged God would be my god now, too.
Everything in that chapel was red and gold and white, shining and overwhelming, so bright and ornate that it took me a while to notice that the chapel was filled with the lords and ladies of Logrys, men and women in ceremonial dress for my wedding, and some knights too, in their armour. I noticed Gawain in his, sat beside a woman with the same russet hair, who had a beautiful, gentle face, and clever, darting blue eyes that caught me with a swift look of appraisal as our gazes met. And in all this, I could scarcely see the golden-haired boy king waiting for me at the altar. All I knew of him was his name, that he had conquered all of Britain and that he was a few years my junior. But I was old for a bride at nineteen; his war had made me so. As I walked down the aisle with my ladies I realised with a sting of betrayal that he had been among the knights that had come to meet me at Dover. He had wanted to look at me,
to check I wasn’t ugly or old; he wanted to decide if he liked the look of me before he agreed we should wed. That was the action of a child, a selfish child who wanted only what was good for himself. I felt my cheeks burn with anger. If I had not the thought of my father and my country in the back of my mind, I would have slapped him in the face, right there.
As I reached him at the altar and my ladies and Sir Ector stood back, Arthur took my hand and kissed it lightly. He had the smug, laughing face of a boy who had got everything he wanted. He was big and strong, clearly, but looked young, barely a man. I would have guessed seventeen years of age at most, from the look of him. Probably younger. Truly, a boy king.
“My apologies for yesterday, Lady Guinevere,” he said, quietly, as he turned from me to face the altar.
I gave only a small nod. I had to be obedient, I did not have to be kind.
The words of the ceremony were unfamiliar, and they rushed by me without my comprehending them. There was nothing about the sun, the moon, the stars, the cycles of the earth; it was all about this strange God of his. I said what I was bidden to say, and when Arthur took me in his arms to kiss me as his bride it was with all of the impetuous passion of a young man, new with women. But still I could feel his formidable strength as he held me to him. I was in the arms of a conqueror. I could not have slipped away.
There was more of the ceremony – we drank from a libation cup together, and ate a small piece of bread. I did not follow the meaning, but I hoped it was a ceremony about husbands and wives sharing their meat and wine. We had something like the same, and I would have liked to feel that our ways were not so utterly strange.
As Arthur led me by the hand out of the chapel, the lords and ladies around us cheered and clapped, and threw flower petals over us. I liked their cool soft kisses against the bare skin of my neck and the top of my chest. I closed my eyes against them, for a moment. As we walked out, Arthur leant down and spoke softly in my ear,
“I am pleased to have you as my wife, my Lady Guinevere. I hope you are pleased, as well.”
I gave only a little nod. He would not have more from me until he had deserved it.
He slid an arm around my waist and again I felt how strong he was. Even in that light touch I felt it, the power that was held back. He had earned his throne with war, for sure, and at least this man, who was my king now, was not a king who needed others to fight for him. But it was possessive, too. He put his arm around me as though I were already his. As though he owned me. But then again, I supposed that he did. In the eyes of his law and his god, I was his possession now.
He led me to Camelot’s great feasting hall. This was more familiar to me than the chapel, though grander than the one I knew from home. There was a long table on a raised dais at one end, where Arthur and I would sit with those he favoured, and down the hall long trestle tables for the other lords, ladies and knights. The high- ceilinged hall was hung with tapestries, embroidered in dark green, red and gold, with scenes of hunting a white hart, or knights riding through the forest. There was a wonderful savoury smell of some kind of meat stew that reminded my stomach that I had not eaten properly since news came to my father’s kingdom of a lost war.
Arthur pointed to the high table. “My lady, I will put your Round Table there, so that I and my knights may feast around it as equals. I won this kingdom with war, and in war, a king is no different from a knight. These knights are my brothers and my friends, and it is an honour to me that you bring me this table where we might eat as equals with them.”
He shouted an order, and servants spilled out from the shadows to take away the high table, and brought from behind us through the crowd at the main door of the hall – it was the only place where it would fit – my father’s enchanted Round Table. I felt sick inside once more. It wasn’t an eating table, to be smeared with wine and mead
and meat grease. It was a sacred table. I closed my eyes for a moment, and breathed in and out slowly. He was using it for what was sacred to him – his fellowship of knights, his war-band. I had to try, to try to understand his ways, their ways. There was, after all, no going back. The servants set down the Round Table and threw over it a rich tablecloth of crimson embroidered with Arthur’s heraldry, the twisting, roaring dragon of the Pendragon line, bright in gold, and around the border, a little gold row of ivy leaves. Glorious enough for a king and a queen, that simple wood table, when it was thrown over with that. If only its magic could fill the empty seats they were placing around it with the men that had been lost as Arthur forged this glorious new kingdom of Britain from its heart, Logrys, outwards, swallowing up the kingdoms like the dragon swallows its prey. No hesitation. No mercy. A beast has no need for mercy.
When the table was ready, Arthur led me down through the hall and we sat side by side. He had spoken of equality, but our chairs were gilded and larger than the others, and we had crimson velvet cushions beneath us. Sat round with his men, but still a king. The crown on his head was the crown of his father, Uther Pendragon, who had ruled Logrys before him. It was a war-king’s crown, truly. Made of gold, yes, but wrought with the sharp shapes of crosses and set boldly with sapphires, it looked proud and brave. It shone bright against his golden hair, but it did not look gaudy. It was thick-made and strong set. I no longer wore the slender wreath of ivy leaves brought from my home that I had worn into the chapel. My head was bare – the priest had lifted the little circlet off me when we wed.
Now approached Arthur’s mother, the Queen Igraine of Cornwall. She was a beautiful woman, still, though she looked as though she must be nearly forty years of age. Long, dark, glossy brown hair flowed down her back, pulled back simply at the front. On it had been a crown like Arthur’s but smaller, the crosses slimmer and more delicate, the gold hammered thinner, and set with little sapphires at the centre of each cross. Now she held that crown in her hands. She moved with grace and around her eyes were the soft lines of kind smiles and gentle wisdom. If Arthur had a mother like the Lady Igraine, then perhaps, perhaps I could be happy. Though I remembered she had not raised him. The Lady Igraine placed the crown gently on my head, and kissed my cheek. I felt the weight of it, pressing down on me.
“You make a lovely queen, Guinevere,” she said, and leaning down as if to help me adjust the crown on my head she whispered in my ear, “It will get easier, my dear.”
She had known it, too. She had been married twice to men whom she did not know, who had desired her and chosen her and to whom she had been given. I hoped that she was right. I hoped that she would stay at court. I also hoped that my discomfort was visible to no one else but her. I did not want to show any weakness. She slid into the seat beside me, with a warm smile. I supposed I ought to take some comfort in the fact that Arthur had such a woman as his mother.
The woad-faced man in the black cowl and habit sat beside Arthur, at his left hand side. His dark eyes were on me, I could feel them. I had not seen him sit down; he must have slipped in there, like a shadow. I tried to ignore him. Approaching the table came Sir Kay and Sir Ector, who greeted us both warmly. Arthur smiled a deep, warm smile like his mother’s as he greeted Sir Kay, his Seneschal and, as he told me then, his foster-brother. I thought it strange that Arthur had been fostered with one of his father’s subjects, but I was glad that they would be there, in places of high honour and close by me, because of it. After them came a pale, slender woman with dark hair pinned back at the front, but loose and free behind, shining in the candlelight in a cascade that fell all the way down her back. She was robed in dark blue, sewn all over with little dark sapphires so she appeared to be covered in a dress made of dark, glossy scales. Her face was pale as porcelain with high cheekbones and thin, arched eyebrows, a tight, thoughtful mouth and watchful grey eyes. Like the man beside Arthur, her skin was decorated with the blue woad of the druids, all over her pale face
in delicate swirls like the growth of vines, and down the deep neck of her dress. Her hands, too, were patterned with it, and I suspected she was painted like this all over. She walked up to Arthur and bent down to kiss his cheek. Her gestures were affectionate, but her look was absent. He kissed her other cheek and gave her the kind smile of his affection.
“Guinevere, this is my sister Morgan, wife of King Uriens.”
She turned to me with a respectful nod, which I reciprocated, but she looked at me as if she did not see me, and while Arthur looked on her with kindness, she did not seem to see him either, and the grey eyes remained hollow, as though they were looking at something else far away. She sat beside her mother Igraine, whom she also did not seem to see. From what I knew, it was only the mother they shared, and Uther Pendragon had killed her father in order to have the Lady Igraine for himself.
After her came the russet-haired woman I had seen sitting beside Gawain in the chapel. I would not have called her beautiful now that I saw her close before me, but she had all the look about her of a noble queen, a broad proud face, striking and attractive, with a few pale freckles. On her head she wore a crown of dark gold, formed in spikes. She must still rule Lothian as Lot’s widowed queen. She seemed strong and brave enough to do so. I wondered why Arthur had not wanted her as a wife, but I supposed she was almost ten years older than I was, and she had many sons already. She came forward to greet Arthur and I noticed that though she kissed his cheek, he did not return the kiss as he had done with Morgan, but seemed to shy back from her. She did a curt little curtesy towards me.
“My lady Queen Guinevere, I am Morgawse, who was King Lot’s wife, sister to King Arthur and mother to Aggravain, Gawain, Gaheris, Gareth and Mordred.”
Well, that explained well enough why Arthur did not marry Lot’s queen. And she was older than the other sister. Another half-sister of his. I gave her a little nod and she sat beside her sister Morgan with Gawain and another one who was clearly her son, and older than Gawain. It must have been Aggravain. His name, too, had come to Carhais. Lot’s widow. My father would have known her pain, a widower himself from Arthur’s wars. Perhaps I should ask Arthur to send her over the sea to keep my father company. She was gentle of expression and good-looking, far more comely than her grim sister Morgan. She had a ready laugh, which I had heard already, tinkling like a bell, and something about her movements made her seem as though she were about to dance. I liked her already.
The fifth knight who had ridden with us from Dover came up and was introduced to us, a quiet, slender youth with a serious demeanour and dark sandy-coloured hair, named Sir Perceval. More came, more names that swirled in my head – Pedivere, Bors, Uriens, Accolon, Urry, Tristan – until I could no longer remember who was who. I would, I supposed, have all the time in the world to learn.
When all were seated, Arthur stood with his goblet of wine in his hand – a golden goblet, studded with jewels, but old and worn, too, with the hands of many kings of Logrys – and announced, “Lords and Ladies of Britain, I invite you to feast with me and my new wife, Queen Guinevere.”
Queen Guinevere. I was already becoming someone else. I had been just Guinevere all my life until now. I supposed there had been those who had called me princess, but not in my own land, not in my own castle. And later tonight I would become yet another woman, or I was supposed to. A wife, in every sense of the word. I wrapped my hand tight around the stem of my golden cup, which was full almost to the brim with wine. I did not intend to change.
There was a loud cheer and a thundering as the people in the hall thumped their cups against the tables and stamped their feet in celebration. I could feel my heart racing within me. I knew no one in the room, really. I was their queen, but we were strangers to one another. I stared deep into my own goblet of wine and in the dark
red liquid saw the shadow of my own reflection, red hair, white face, gold crown, and then I drank.
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