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We heard no more of Lancelot for the next month either, and thankfully, I had little time to dwell upon my meeting with Lady Morgan, for there was a tourney to prepare for, and I was busy helping Gawain train extra hard in the lists. I wished that I had earned my knighthood so that I might fight in it as well, but I knew there would be many more tourneys, and for now, I must watch on the sidelines, and keep Sir Gawain in weapons for the duration.
Tourneys always marked a day of excitement and celebration in Camelot. Everyone, from the lords and ladies to the shopkeepers and even the beggars came to watch the entertainment. A huge cheer rose up as Queen Guinevere appeared in the stands, Merlin acting as her escort as Arthur would be jousting with his knights. I smiled as Guinevere stood for the benefit of the crowd and welcomed them to the tourney.
“People of Camelot, I am very glad to see you all here today in support of our brave knights. May you feel safe and secure knowing that they have prowess to rival even the most notorious warlords in the kingdoms.”
The crowd cheered again and Guinevere waited for them to quiet before she raised a hand. “Let the tourney begin!”
Arthur and Bedivere leapt out down the field to the roar of the crowd and just when we all thought they would joust against each other, they both raised their lances in a salute and filed up to rein their horses under the royal box with the other knights. They all removed their helmets and the crowd cheered even more, as did I, when they saw their king sitting proudly on his black charger, his golden hair curling at the top of his chainmail and framing his face in a halo, making him look like a mighty hero of legend. I adored him. My surrogate father, my king; the man I longed to serve and bleed for as I had bled for Queen Guinevere.
“My knights shall demonstrate their worthiness!” Arthur called out. “Let us show you what the men of Camelot, my brothers, are capable of!”
I cheered along with the crowd as the knights filed off and went back to their respective tents. Gawain and Percival would be the first knights up so the big blond man found his way over to me where I stood by his rack of extra lances. He grinned down at me as I stood on a box to make last adjustments to his armor, checking to be sure it was all in place.
“Ready?” I asked him.
“Of course,” Gawain scoffed before I clamped the helmet onto his head.
“Knock Sir Percival in the dust,” I told him and I heard the hollow laugh from inside the helmet as he walked Fenna up to the starting line and then kicked her into a gallop as the flag was dropped.
The first pass, Gawain knocked Percival’s shield askew with his lance, but the big, young man kept his seat. The second pass nearly had Gawain off his horse, but he held on and turned around for the third pass in which he hit Percival square in the chest and sent him flying off the back of his mount and rolling in the dirt. His squire came out to assist him, and Gawain and I laughed as Percival shouted something rude at his opponent.
“Language, Percy, the Queen is present,” Gawain scolded and handed me his helmet and lance before he leapt off. “That will get me into the next round. Better luck next time, my large friend.”
Percival made a face at him, but I knew that only meant he would practice all the harder in the tilts now so that he would beat Gawain in the next tourney.
“You did well,” I told Gawain as I helped him off with his heavy breastplate so he could relax until his next turn came. He sat on a bench in his tent and I rubbed out his left shoulder that had jarred from Percival’s blow to his shield, draping steaming cloths over it to loosen it up.
He shrugged. “That was nothing. This is just tame jousting. You should see what it’s like when we have open competitions with neighboring kingdoms. Those are the really fun tourneys. These are little more than practice for the public. Probably won’t even be blood by the end of the day.” He took the cup of water I gave him. “I’ll have to start training you on the tilt pretty soon. Elith has been well conditioned now, and I think he’ll do fine.”
I smiled in pride and excitement, wondering how exhilarating the rush of charging full tilt at an opponent would be. It was exciting just watching the others do it; I couldn’t wait to see what it felt like from the saddle.
“Arthur will be jousting soon. Why don’t you go watch him?” Gawain asked, reaching up to pat my hand on his shoulder. “I’m good here for now.”
I thanked him and hurried out of the tent to the sidelines, seeing Arthur and Bedivere readying at the marks. Arthur’s stallion was already prancing on the spot, and seemed to know what the flag dropping meant, for Arthur didn’t even need to urge the horse on; he was already halfway across the field. Bedivere didn’t stand a chance. Arthur took him on the shield, shattering his lance in the process and Bedivere reeled off his mount, falling heavily to the ground.
Arthur got off to see to him and helped him to his feet. They clasped forearms to the joy of the crowd. I smiled and went back to see to Gawain.
The rest of the knights took their turns at the jousting and then, once the first round had been completed, it was time for the winners to challenge each other. I helped Gawain into his armor again and once he had mounted Fenna, I handed him a lance.
He won that round as well, and pretty soon, it was down to only him and Arthur. He smiled as I congratulated him.
“I do believe I partly have you to thank for my success,” he said. “Lancelot was always the best jouster of all of us. I’m more of a melee man myself. But without him around, it’s nice to know I’m second to Arthur.”
I should have taken that as a warning, but it had been so long, nearly a month, since I had thought much more than an inkling of Lancelot, that I never would have considered what happened next. If I had been more ready, if I had only kept my senses a little sharper, I would have been able to prevent a whole plethora of trouble, and heartache. But that was not to be.
Arthur and Gawain were just readying at the marks when a sudden commotion broke out amongst the group of spectators, mostly the poor people, who were standing on the sidelines to watch the jousts. Three horsemen sped through onto the field, two flanking the one, as if in protection, and the head man, going straight for Arthur himself, a lance leveled at him; not a blunted one like the knights were using that day, but a battle lance.
“Arthur!” I heard Guinevere scream and she leapt up and started for the stairs down from the box, evading Merlin’s grasp as he called her back to no avail. Arthur turned and I could only watch in horror as his stallion reared, trying to protect his master, but actually sending him right into the line of the rogue knight’s lance. Arthur was flung to the ground and lay still, the crowd gasping and screaming, making it nearly impossible for the guards and the other knights to get through to protect the king.
But Gawain and I were both running toward him and I reached him first, kneeling by his side, my breath catching in my throat as I saw the blood staining his armor. I gently removed his helmet as Gawain crouched over me, looking unsure of what to do.
“My lord!” I called. “My lord! Arthur!” I frantically felt for a pulse, cradling his head in my hands, and feeling blood matting the hair on the back of his head, staining the gold crimson. His eyes were closed and he was so still, but there was a pulse in his throat, and I felt a relief wash over me.
“Move! Fools! Get out of the bloody way!” Merlin was shouting, thrusting his way through the reeling crowd and skidding to a halt on his knees beside the king. He started to unbuckle the armor to see the wound. “Help me, Mordred, there’s no time!”
I tried to do as he asked, but my fingers were slick with Arthur’s blood and they wouldn’t undo the clasps. It seemed like hours since he fell, but it was only a minute at most, and the knight—if one could call him that—who had done the deed was evading the knights who had made their way through the crowd, protected by his two companions. He laughed and reached up to take off his helmet. Merlin was shouting at me to get Arthur’s armor off, but all I could see was the dark hair falling out of the helmet, much more unkempt than the last time, and the wicked eyes that laughed mockingly at all and sundry.
“Lancelot, curse you!” Gawain spat, standing and reaching for his sword, but remembering that it was not at his hip.
“I thought I’d invite myself, since no one did me the courtesy of doing so,” the rogue knight said. “It looks like I’ve won. I’ve come to claim my prize.”
A chill clutched my heart as I cast about for Guinevere and found her being guarded by Percival, but trying to escape him to come to Arthur. I wasn’t sure she even noticed Lancelot there, but before I could turn back to him, he leapt away from his companions, and the knights trying to capture him, and galloped his horse over to the queen, knocking Percival aside with his mount and grabbing Guinevere around the waist, depositing her face down across his saddle bow. She screamed, and so did I, moving before I knew what I was doing. I heard Gawain shouting at me to stop, but I had already grabbed the reins of Arthur’s stallion and swung onto the wild creature, shouting for a sword.
“Mordred, don’t!” Merlin commanded, but he had his hands and mind busy with Arthur’s wound. I couldn’t see how bad it was, didn’t have time. Someone listened to my plea, perhaps seeing me the only one with a chance of rescuing the queen, and threw me a blade. I caught it, kicking the horse into a gallop, and nearly flew from the saddle with the swiftness of the stride. It was as if he knew his master’s queen was in danger and he was determined to help me get her back.
I vaguely heard another set of hooves pounding behind me, and somehow knew it was Gawain, though I didn’t want to risk falling off by looking around. I bent low over the saddle and charged after Lancelot. I was gaining, for his mount was carrying two and Arthur’s stallion was by far superior to the rogue knight’s.
Lancelot knew this well enough, and veered off into the woods, I supposed, in an attempt to lose me. I didn’t think it would work, but then a few minutes in, I lost sight of him ahead of me. I pulled my mount to a stop and he skidded on the loam, seeming angry that we had given up the chase. He snorted in anticipation.
In a few seconds, Gawain slid Fenna to a stop beside me.
“Where is he? Did you find him?” he asked breathlessly.
“No, let’s split up and see if we can catch him between us,” I told him, not even noticing that I was giving orders to my superior. Gawain didn’t seem to take notice either at that moment, the urgency of the situation and our need to find the queen overriding any need for propriety.
I let the stallion go again, though kept him in a canter this time to better navigate the trees and rocks. I saw flashes of movement up ahead and I hoped it was my quarry. I urged the horse on a little faster.
I soon found myself in a clearing and looked around. The stallion seemed uneasy, and he shifted under me and snorted. I patted his neck to calm him, looking around with the hopes of finding Lancelot. The forest was quiet. Too quiet. I knew someone or something was around, but I didn’t know what.
A scream came from farther away and I turned in that direction, knowing it had to be Guinevere and hoping Gawain was closer than I.
As it turned out, we both arrived on the scene at the same time. Lancelot had stopped to tie Guinevere’s hands and gag her for she was putting up a mighty fight, and he grabbed for his sword as we crashed through the trees toward him. He held the sword out at us, and clutched Guinevere close to him.
“If you don’t want her harmed, you will let me go,” the rogue knight snarled.
“You wouldn’t harm her,” Gawain said. “Somewhere in your twisted mind you love her, or at least want her for yourself. I know you too well.”
Lancelot sneered and turned toward me. “I don’t have a quarrel with you, Gawain, though I never did like you much; but the whelp called me a coward, and I will have my reckoning with him.”
“Then you had best face me,” I told him defiantly, getting down from my horse and drawing my own blade. “Face me like a man this time, Lancelot.”
“Must you continue to make things harder for yourself?” Lancelot sighed with mock boredom. “You and I will meet again, whelp, don’t fear. But right now, Guinevere and I have a lot of catching up to do.” He gave her a mocking kiss on the cheek and she shuddered, mumbling something past her gag and suddenly kicked backwards, catching him between the legs. Lancelot howled and let go of her, nearly dropping his sword in the process as well. Guinevere wasted no time in running to Gawain who leapt in front of her with his sword held out. Lancelot looked from one of us to the other, his sword wavering between us as we advanced on him.
“Come quietly, Lancelot,” Gawain said coldly. “You know you can’t kill both of us. You might be good with a lance, but I’m better with a sword, remember. And Mordred’s had my training.”
Lancelot seemed to consider his options, and for a moment, I thought he really would try to fight us both, but he spun around and leapt onto his horse, spurring away into the forest, escaping once again.
©Copyright 2014 by Hazel B West
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