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A month had passed, almost more quickly than I could blink, and in that time, I had managed to very nearly forget Morgan la Fay all together. I became happier, and my training was making me stronger by the day. I still was not as broad as the men I looked up to, and likely never would be, but I could handle a sword and a mace, which made me feel rather accomplished and I had gained some more muscles to my slight frame. I had become a moderately skilled swordsman, and had finally moved on to using real swords when I sparred which I did every day, mostly with Gawain but also with Percival, Bedivere, and always Arthur when he was able to make it to the lists, which gave me no small amount of joy as any son would feel in the presence of the father he adored. And though I knew well enough that I was not really his son, I had come to truly adore my king and surrogate father as one.
That first month was blissfully uneventful apart from a few scrapes I sustained in training since that first bruise Arthur had given me that had blackened and been painful to the touch for a few days afterward. I had worn it with pride, however, for how many other boys my age had the honor of being bruised in a practice duel with the king?
Then came the time when Arthur decided to organize a hunt, wanting to get out of the palace and having heard rumors of wolves roaming the countryside nearby. I had secretly hoped that Gawain, or more importantly, Arthur himself, would ask me to come along, but it was not to be. Gawain simply had me pack his bags and then patted me on the shoulder as he left, telling me to be good. I would have moped like a child had I not been charged with a task by Arthur himself just as he was riding away and I was standing aside, after bringing Fenna for Gawain, to watch them go.
“Mordred,” he told me, pulling up his mount right beside me. “I wish it that you would act as Guinevere’s personal guardian while I am gone. And keep her company. Can I trust you?”
“Of course, my lord!” I exclaimed, and he smiled, impulsively cupping his hand against my cheek before he kicked his horse into motion and left with a hunting party of all his most faithful knights.
I sighed at their parting, feeling the memory of his rough hand against my cheek in that fatherly gesture, envisioning myself riding alongside him, and bringing down a wolf single-handedly. But I had a task to uphold, and I would need to be about it. I stopped at my room to wash and change into my nicer set of tunic and hose for if I would be serving in the palace for the next two days at the hand of the queen herself, I would need to look presentable, and not smell of the stable and my work in the lists. The part of me that was no longer a child realized that Arthur had likely set me this task for the soul purpose that I wouldn’t feel disappointed from not going on the hunting trip, and even thought with some melancholy that Arthur likely thought the same thing; but I was a young man still, and not so old that the task seemed like an insult. And, as I was later to find out, it proved to be the most important thing Arthur could have asked of me. I liked to think later, that he might have had that thought in mind when he gave me the command, but I never got around to actually asking him.
After I had freshened myself, I strode off for the castle, and though I was still a little sad about not getting to join the hunt, I was in a better mood now. I looked to one side where I saw three figures standing outside the barracks and realized it was Lancelot and his two fellow knights, talking together before they cast a furtive look my way. I frowned, wondering why they had not gone on the hunt as well, but decided it must be something to do with Lancelot’s fall from grace.
I made my way inside and found a maid to direct me to the queen’s solar. I found Guinevere there doing some needlework and I stopped in the doorway, bowing respectfully as she looked up at me.
“My queen, I have been charged to keep you safe and in company while the king is away on his hunting trip,” I told her.
“Yes, Arthur told me you would come to stay with me; please come in, Mordred, and make yourself comfortable.”
I felt slightly awkward being alone apart from two ladies’ maids stitching in the corner, in the presence of the queen in such a common place as her solar, but she soon put me at ease with small talk, asking about my training and how I found living here in Camelot.
“I enjoy it here very much,” I told her truthfully. “It is the nicest place I have ever lived, and I have no intention of leaving any time soon.”
“That is good to hear,” Guinevere said, selecting a bright red thread for her needle. “Is there a girl here who has caught your eye?”
I blushed but smiled and shook my head. “No, I fear I have no time to have formed an acquaintance. Perhaps when I am a knight. Sir Gawain works me far too hard to have any free time for courting.”
She smiled as she continued to work. We talked for a while and then played a game of chess, and by the time we were done with that, I was surprised to find it time for supper. Guinevere asked me to fetch some food from the kitchens. As Arthur and the knights were gone, she would not eat in the dinning hall and she invited me to stay and eat with her in the solar.
I bid her good night afterward, to go to the room I had been given in the palace for the time I was to stay there. I was just going to go and check on Elith in the stable before turning in, and had just reached the courtyard when one of the maids who had been with Guinevere all day came running outside to catch up to me, looking in a right fright.
“Oh Master Mordred, it’s the queen! Sir Lancelot has forced his way into her solar, and I daren’t think of what he will try!”
“Go fetch some guards,” I said, turning to hurry back.
“I couldn’t find any!” she cried, nearly in tears.
I was already on my way back up the stairs and into the castle before she had finished and soon enough confronted the closed door of the solar, hearing Guinevere shouting inside and Lancelot laughing. I threw my slight frame at the door, wondering what I was going to do if I couldn’t get it open, but it was suddenly pulled inward and I sprawled on the floor, looking up at one of Lancelot’s companions; the same two who had been with him when he confronted me that first day in the stables.
I leapt to my feet, and had my hand on my sword. “Let her go, Lancelot,” I said in a cold, dangerous voice.
He looked over to me and sneered, trying to haul Guinevere closer to him with a cruel grip on one wrist, but she was holding onto the window sill and was not coming quietly. “And what does a whelp like you think you can do?” he asked with a chuckle. “I never did give you your beating, did I? I might have to rectify that. Raymond, Arnulf?”
The two other knights advanced on me, and I ripped my sword from its sheath with enough conviction to make them leap back a pace. I took a stance and pointed it at first one then the other. “Get back against the wall, or I will kill you. I was charged by the king himself to protect Queen Guinevere and I will not fail in that duty, sirrahs.”
“You are not even a knight,” one of the men laughed, though he made no move to come closer.
“Nor are you if you would come—three of you—against one woman, your Queen at that, and try and force her against her will. When Arthur hears of this, he will have you all executed. So if you are a man, Lancelot, if you are indeed a knight, as you profess, fight me like one, and I’ll give you a chance to die by my hand rather than by the indignity of the noose.”
Lancelot seethed for a moment, then he finally waved his companions off. “Leave him, I’ll take him up on his offer. But you got one thing wrong, boy,” he said as he advanced on me, drawing his own sword. “I will not die by your hand, but you will almost assuredly die by mine.”
“Careful, Mordred!” Guinevere called from where she had pressed herself, pale, against the wall. “He is a very skilled swordsman.”
Lancelot smiled sickeningly but I forced myself not to feel anything, drawing my old darkness back to me even though I had done so well forgetting it all these weeks. I fueled my hatred for Lady Morgan into my hatred for Lancelot and used it to my advantage to give me strength and conviction for the coming fight.
Lancelot struck out with lightning quickness, but I was ready for him. Arthur had always started our duels the same way, and I had gotten used to heightening my senses before the first strike so I could be ready for it when it came, keeping the sword directly in front of my chest. Neither of us had a shield, but I was all right with that; I had trained both ways, for Gawain had been adamant in the fact that a shield was far too easy to lose in battle to be always dependent upon it.
I saw the surprise on his face when I blocked his blow and took pleasure in it, but not too much, for being too sure of yourself in a fight was never a good thing. I stayed on defense for a moment longer, letting him get some fire out of his veins with his fast and heavy strikes, but I soon blocked one and shoved him back with our hilts locked before I went on the offense and gave him a few vicious blows of my own.
He stumbled back slightly, but wrenched himself upright again before I could take advantage. He really was a master of the sword, and he moved gracefully but powerfully, and it was also true that he was much bigger than me, though not as tall and broad as Gawain. Unfortunately, my offense had not lasted as long as I would have liked, for Lancelot had caught one of my blows in the same way I had done him, and shoved me back so violently, I tripped and fell onto my backside. I scrambled to my feet as quickly as possible and just barely got my sword up in time, still with my other hand braced on the floor, to block the blow he swung at me. He began raining down blows so fast that I couldn’t stand up, and I had to block them from my awkward position, half on my knees and half on my feet. He started laughing as he saw my helpless state and when he struck the next blow, he kicked me in the chest and I was flung onto my back, losing my sword in the process. Lancelot snarled tauntingly, and swung a vicious blow at me, looking like he meant to take off my head. I rolled to the side just in time, but felt the blade burn across my upper arm. I felt the hot blood flow fast and heavy, but he had given me a window to scramble to my feet and I dove for my sword as he tried another swipe, this one missing me by a hair’s breadth. As I retrieved my sword I had no time to get back to my feet, but I rolled onto my back and blocked the blow he swung down at me, and as his sword was engaged, I swung my body to one side and swept his legs out from under him.
Lancelot fell heavily on his back, his breath whooshing out of him and his sword clattering on the ground. Guinevere kicked it out of his reach and it spun into a corner. I got to my feet and pressed the tip of my sword against his chest. He scrambled backwards, fear lighting his eyes, and I felt the bloodlust leave me, replaced by disgust. I jabbed him slightly to scare him then pulled my sword back and kicked him in the haunch.
“I won’t sully my sword with a coward’s blood,” I told him, knowing, even as I said the words that I was sealing the fact we would meet again. “Get out, and take your dogs with you.”
He glared at me, but there was nothing he could do. He knew it, and he hated me for it. He slowly got to his feet and, backed toward the door. “We will meet again, you little maggot. And when we do, I’ll make you sorry you ever dared call me a coward.” And then he turned and left with his two companions, casting one last hateful glance at me before he hurried away.
I turned back to Guinevere and sheathed my sword, holding out a hand. “Are you all right, my lady?”
“I’m fine, Mordred, but you are bleeding; let me see to your wound, my brave young hero.” She smiled gently, but I declined.
“In a moment, my lady, but I must find a guard and tell him of Lancelot. I was foolish to let him go, he should be incarcerated.”
I hurried out of the solar, one hand clamped over the wound that I realized was bleeding more heavily than I had thought. I wondered at the absence of guards, for I had seen none, and even the noise of my fight had not brought one to investigate. I began to wonder whether something was wrong, but I finally found a guard to tell the tale to. He gathered several of his men, who had been casually drinking and gambling, thinking they were done for the evening, and some of the other knights who had stayed behind and then went on a hunt for Lancelot and his companions, assuring me they would surround the town to make sure he didn’t get away.
I went back to Guinevere’s solar, angry with myself for being so overconfident and having let my power go to my head. I had enjoyed telling Lancelot off and, perhaps a part of me had been showing off for the sake of Queen Guinevere, but I should not have let him go, and I would realize that this would come back to haunt me later.
But right now, I still had to protect the queen, though first she insisted that my wound be seen to. A maid had joined her with a bowl to hot water and bandages and she made me sit and, much to my protest, to strip out of my tunic so she could see the wound better.
“My lady, it is hardly proper!” I protested.
“I have seen many wounds in my time, Mordred,” she smiled at me. “And I have treated most of the knights at one point or another, and I will not tear the sleeve of your tunic, for as it is it can be mended easily enough.” I finally consented and winced as I tried to pull it over my head. The wound proved too painful, however and the maid had to help me, much to my embarrassment. I was bright red by the time Guinevere started cleaning my wound. She washed it gently with the warm water as the maid held the bowl under my arm to catch the bloody water dripping from it. The wound was deep and would have to be stitched, another thing I bore stoically, though I was biting the inside of my cheek hard enough to bleed. But I was determined not to cry out in front of the queen, and indeed, compared to the torments I had suffered at Lady Morgan’s hands, this was little enough to bear.
She had finally finished cutting the thread and bandaging the wound with clean linen and offered me some mulled wine to drink, but I declined.
“I mustn’t be too drowsy, lest Lancelot come back and somehow slip past the guards. I shall sleep on your threshold tonight, my lady.”
“You must get your rest, Mordred, I will have a knight posted,” she protested.
“With all respect, your majesty,” I said, bowing my head, but making my voice firm. “The king gave me instructions to watch over you, and I shall do just that. I will not face him to say that I took to my bed to recover from a scratch to leave your care to another while you were in any danger.”
She smiled slowly and consented. “Very well, then Mordred. I would not have you say that either, and it is the mark of a true knight of you to do so. I shall retire for the night. Adeline, please fetch Mordred a pallet and blanket.”
When she had retired to her room, I laid the pallet in front of her closed door. I had told her to lock it as well, but I had no intention of anyone getting past me. I lay down with my hand on my sword. My arm hurt, but not unduly so, for I was still silently pleased with myself, even though I had let Lancelot get away. I had to admit, a bit to my shame, that I was looking forward to seeing what Arthur would say when he found out how I had protected his queen. It was a silly, boyish thing to think, but I found more and more that I wanted nothing but his approval, and if I could do something that impressed him, it would make me the happiest man in the world.
But there was also a darkness lying over me, albeit a darkness that left me with anticipation in my blood, for I knew that what had passed between me and Lancelot would not be forgotten. He would be back for me eventually. His honor had been tainted in front of his companions and the woman he coveted, and I knew he wouldn’t let that stand. We would have a reckoning again, though when, I was not sure. But I fell asleep with a challenging smile on my lips as I thought of that inevitable meeting, and looked forward to it with anticipation.
©Copyright 2014 by Hazel B West
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