“Lady Guinevere, sit down. They won’t be in sight for another week, at least.”
“It shouldn’t have to be this way, Mary. Don’t women have the right to defend their homes and families as well?”
“You’re not saying you want to be out there fighting, milady?”
Guinevere turned away from the window, giving up the idea that she would catch a glimpse of whatever was happening. Her father would return and give her the full tale, complete with embellishments of his deeds and of his favorite men. If he returned.
“No, the sword isn’t for me. I just wish I didn’t have to pretend I was interested in sewing flowers on clothing and sheets while something so…important is happening,” she slumped into a chair, holding her embroidery, staring at the tiny blue flowers she had been so proud of the day before. “We don’t do anything, Mary.”
“Sure we do. We sew, make beautiful embroidery, we clean and cook and—”
“You clean and cook,” Guinevere said.
“You are more than welcome to help.”
“You know what father would say if he caught me at that! Besides, the maids don’t like me.”
“They don’t know you. If they did, they would love you.”
“Why do you think the men make all the decisions?”
“Not this again. Lady Guinevere, sit up and focus on your needlework, would you? We have talked about this many times. When you are married you will make most of the decisions regarding the way your house is run and how the land is cared for.”
“But not anything important!” Guinevere protested, threading her needle and pushing it through the cloth. It went through crooked, but she ignored that. It would only get worse if she tried fixing it. “Making sure the mead is well seasoned and the cheeses aged, solving domestic skirmishes between moonstruck pages and arguing cooks. It’s no way to live, Mary. Not when the men are deciding our fates on the battle field, or in throne rooms. Marrying us off to their friends or reluctant allies. Forcing us to bare heirs until our bodies go to ruin and we’re only fit for the solitude of nunneries. All while they drink and fight and take any woman they like any time they like. Even you can’t make that sound more appealing than it is,” she had been trying to embroider while talking, something she was clearly not good at. She had no fewer than three knots in her thread, and the flower she was working on looked more like a bird. A fat, lumpy bird.
“True, I have no experience in marriage. I’ve been too busy taking care of you, much less a husband!” Mary glanced at her, and Guinevere felt a small smile grow on her face.
“Have you ever wanted to marry?”
“Once. I was your age, a stable hand I fancied used to kiss me in the fields on our days off, and in stolen moments when we were alone. He promised to marry me someday.”
“What happened?” Guinevere asked, giving up on her embroidery completely. She would have Mary sort it out later.
The maid shrugged. “He became a page for your father, then a squire. His duties kept him too busy for me. By the time he joined your father’s men he had married another woman. Even so, he was killed very young in battle. I wonder if those few short years of happiness would have been worth being his widow the rest of my life.”
“I’m sorry.” Guinevere said honestly.
“No need.” Mary replied, shrugging her shoulders. “The way I see it, I’m better off unattached. That way, I can go to bed with whomever I choose and be none the wiser,” she winked and Guinevere laughed. A lady should balk at such talk, but Guinevere liked it. It was honest, real. None of the flowery chatter other ladies indulged in when they visited. It was good she would never be the wife of a mighty king; she hadn’t the manners for it. Or the patience.
Mary caught sight of her embroidery then, and tsk-ing at the knots she took it from Guinevere, who gladly relinquished it. She fidgeted, then glanced out the window. Something was happening.
“Mary, look! They’re back!” she rushed to the window, leaning out to see as far as she could.
“Already? Your father said this battle would last months.” Mary joined her at the window. “But you speak rightly. There they are, after a single moon, and far more of them than I expected. I better tell the cook.” The woman grabbed her skirts and ran from the room, leaving Guinevere staring at the approaching army. It was definitely her father’s, his flag was flying high on the standard. But next to it another standard blazed in the sun, a red dragon on a field of white. The red dragon of the Pendragon house. It was the High King’s banner; his Highness Arthur Pendragon had come all the way to Carmelide to help her father? The battle must have been terrible indeed to warrant the presence of the king.
The king. He was young, as kings go. And looking for a wife, if the rumors of several moons ago still held. Guinevere flew to her closet and pulled out her red dress. It was her favorite, for it complimented her black hair and fair complexion, giving her dark eyes a mysterious allure men couldn’t help but notice…or so she imagined. Since Mary was busy she brushed through her own hair, wishing she had time to put it up, and dressed herself, working her way into the flowing gown with some struggle. The laces weren’t as tight as she would like, but it would do. The king would be coming back from battle, after all. The sight of any woman half-pretty would be sure to please him. She had her hand on the dress, fully intending to wear it, when she stopped, a chill running through her. Was she really going to parade herself before the king like a jewel to be admired and added to his treasury?
Guinevere dropped the dress and turned, spotting her every day dress still on the floor where she had discarded it. No, she couldn’t wear that for the king. Something nicer, to show the proper respect. She went back to the closet and noticed a simple pale blue gown hanging on the far side. It was nice enough, though the color washed her out. It was one she didn’t particularly like and only wore if she had to.
It was perfect.
As was proper, Guinevere waited in her room until Mary retrieved her. The maid clucked without satisfaction at her chosen dress.
“You could at least try, milady. His highness has yet to choose a queen, and even you wouldn’t begrudge a crown, I wager,” she sighed. “I suppose there’s nothing to be done for it, they’re waiting for you downstairs.”
Guinevere allowed herself to be led. The hall was filled with men, unwashed and stinking of battle. Most of them had been out for well over two months. Guinevere tried not to wrinkle her nose as she walked through the crowd to where her father stood.
“Ah, Guinevere! It is good to see ye, daughter. A sight for sore eyes, eh?” He nudged the man next to him and chuckled. Guinevere curtseyed, ignoring the anger that flashed inside of her. Whether she prepped herself or not, she was on display. She tried not to think about the men that milled all around her, their eyes wandering unchecked and unnoticed in the crowded hall, lingering on her.
“As are you, father,” she tip-toed and kissed his cheek. “I am glad to see you return. Victorious, I assume?”
“Eh? Of course! Of course. King Rience never stood a chance, and the timely arrival of our king’s knights sealed the deal. He saved me, in fact, from many a death blow. It’s all thanks to him yer father is here alive, my dear.” he clapped the man beside him on the back as he removed his helmet and Guinevere found herself staring. He was by far the most handsome man in the hall, hair fair as the sun, eyes blue as a lake. And his smile, hidden though it was by a weeks-old beard, dazzled her mind so she could hardly find words to speak. His lips brushed her hand, which she didn’t remember offering, and a gentle tingle traveled up her arm. She almost regretted not wearing the red dress.
“Many thanks to you, my lord,” she stammered, curtseying.
“My pleasure, milady. He was loyal to my father and has ever triumphed in protecting this border of our kingdom from the Saxon armies. I am glad to have been here to prevent losing such a noble man.”
Her father’s chest puffed out like a red-breasted robin’s before it bursts into song. She wouldn’t have put it past him if he had, either. He was not subtle in receiving praise.
He managed to humble himself enough to bow, hand in a fist over his heart in a sign of fealty. “Ye’ll always have me and my armies, my king,” he straightened, armor clanking. “That is, if these blasted Saxon hoards don’t wipe us off the map! Where do they get their men, I want to know. They are endless. They must breed like rats!”
The king placed his sword back in its scabbard at his side. “This was not the work of Saxons, Lord Leodegrance. King Rience of Wales has wanted my beard hair to trim his cloak as long as I’ve sat on the throne. He made deals with the Saxons, bringing them into this army, but I recognized his insignia on many shields. We ride to hold him accountable for this battle after a brief respite here, by your leave of course.”
“We welcome the knights of Camelot,” Mary said, her grace almost effortless. “Shall I tell the cooks to prepare a feast?” Preparations were already being made, of course. But it would be improper to assume without inquiring of the master of the house.
“Eh? Of course! Fire up the...er...fires! Bring out our best and finest. Our swords have feasted well enough on the flesh of our enemies. Tonight we feed ourselves!” This he bellowed loud enough to be heard by all, and the men roared their approval, banging swords on shields and stomping their feet.
“Might I propose a requirement for dinner?” Guinevere shouted above the din.
“A bath before the stewards let you in the feast hall!”
Her father looked stunned. Beside him, the king burst into laughter, and Guinevere found herself blushing. Despite all her attempts to pretend his opinion didn’t matter, it pleased her very much that she could at least make him laugh, inappropriate though her comment was. Her father caught on after a moment and chuckled before sending her off to see to the preparations with Mary. It was all she could do not to glance over her shoulder to see if the king was watching her with those blue eyes.
The feasting began long after the sun went down. The cooks hadn’t had much time to prepare the meal, but it was among the finest Guinevere had seen. The hunting had been fair, despite the war, and meat was plentiful. Cider and mead even more so, and it seemed the men could drink endlessly the way they downed pint after pint, getting louder with every empty mug. Her father was possibly the loudest, and she wondered if the king, sitting at his right hand, wouldn’t go deaf. She glanced down at her plate and shifted in her seat. Mary had managed to convince her to change into her red dress, after all, raising her eyebrows at Guinevere’s poorly feigned indifference. The matronly woman sat beside her now, occasionally smiling to herself in a way that had Guinevere wondering if she had picked out her wedding flowers yet.
Guinevere let her eyes wander about the hall, skipping over groups of drunken men singing bawdy tunes. It wouldn’t be long before she was sent to her room, to be kept out of rough company. She might as well enjoy it while she could, and not draw attention to herself. One figure caught her attention, standing in the shadows, stooped over a cane. Guinevere squinted, trying to see who it was. None of the stewards or maids was so old, and it certainly wasn’t a knight. Though perhaps one emptying his stomach of alcohol…she blinked and the figure was gone, and though she scanned the crowd again she found no sign of the figure. She did, however, catch the eye of the dark-haired knight sitting across from her at the table. He grinned at her, not unfriendly, and she found herself smiling back. Maybe it was the wine, but his face seemed familiar to her, and she stared without concern for who might be watching, trying to place him in her memory. He said something to a burly knight at his side and they both laughed, and that’s when it happened. She was knocked her flat on her back, and in the brief darkness that followed she saw the same dark-haired man approach her in her mind, wrapping his arms around her, kissing her. Was it a dream? Or was it a memory?
She came to a moment later. It must not have been long, for Mary was the only one who had noticed her collapse.
“Oh dear, are you all right? I suppose it is time for bed.”
“No, I am fine.” Guinevere mumbled, and she reached for Mary’s arm. Only, it wasn’t Mary’s arm she grabbed. She was pulled to her feet and came face-to-face with the dark-haired knight. She looked down and away quickly, afraid to be pulled back into the vision. Her face burned with the force of it.
“I saw you tumble and came at once to your aid. Are you all right?” he asked. His voice was like a melody, gliding through her thoughts. Guinevere looked up suddenly, meeting his eyes. She was not disappointed. There, in the depths of his gaze, was a flash of recognition. It was fleeting, but she was not imagining it.
“I am all right, thank you for your quick thinking, sir…?”
“Lancelot. I am sir Lancelot.”
She realized she was still holding his arm and released it, folding herself into a curtsey. “Thank you, sir Lancelot. I am indebted to you. I believe I must retire now, however. The drink has gone to my head and I feel ill.”
“Very well.” he seemed disappointed. Guinevere was too befuddled by the heat and noise to reply. She nodded and curtseyed once more, then followed Mary from the room, her mind spinning. The image that had come to her mind had felt so real. But she had never kissed a man in her life, much less one of the king’s knights. There were those that believed in past lives, and that sometimes the very observant or very skilled could tap into them and see into the life they had lived. She had never put much thought into it, however. But now…what if they had known each other, not in this life, but in one long past? Her heart fluttered at the thought, and she shook her head, laughing. Soul-mates. Life-partners. Past lives. She was just being a silly girl, imagining herself in the arms of a knight. Ridiculous romance.
Mary finished undressing her and pulled a night gown over her head, Guinevere fending off her questions the entire time. Mary didn’t rest until Guinevere was tucked in bed, and Guinevere finally dismissed her. She closed her eyes and was nearly asleep when she saw a shadowed figure move across the room.
She sat up in bed. “Mary?” she hissed, clutching the covers. “Is that you?”
The lights were out, the fireplace burning low for the night. Mary had most assuredly gone by now. Perhaps the old maid was right, too much excitement in one evening could make one ill.
“The time has come.” A voice, so hoarse it might not have been used for a hundred years, rasped from a dark corner of her room.
“For what? Who are you?” Guinevere demanded. A fire flared up in the grate and revealed the stooped form of an old woman. The figure in the shadows at the feast sprang to Guinevere’s memory. Had it been this woman? How had she gotten in Guinevere’s room?
“So, you have forgotten everything? Fortunate that Mordred fared better.”
Guinevere opened her mouth to demand she leave, or perhaps scream for Mary, but the crone continued.
“Tell me, is Guinevere your true name?”
“Of course it is, it’s the only name I’ve ever—” she paused, frowning. Something itched in the back of her mind, just beyond her reach. Something about what the woman had just said...
Morgan. Her true name was Morgan. The thought came with no other information, but she knew it with a clarity she could not deny.
She looked back at the old woman, who revealed her missing teeth with a wide grin. “Yes?” The woman croaked.
“Morgan.” Guinevere said slowly. “But how did you—”
“How did I know? I know much about you. Far more than you do, apparently. The spell isn’t meant to take one’s memories, unless there was much you wished to forget.”
Guinevere’s head was starting to hurt. “Who are you?” she demanded again.
“My name is Niviane. You knew me once, and you will know me again, in time. For now, it is vital that you remember. Your name is a beginning. Do not be troubled as the memories come back. It will be a process, but I believe you will remember with enough time to finish what you started.”
“What are you saying? Finish what I started? My true name? What does any of this mean?”
The woman, Niviane, chuckled. “You will see, and you will understand. For now, sleep.” suddenly the woman was at her bedside, somehow without Guinevere seeing her move. The crone waved a hand over Guinevere’s face and her demand for answers left her lips as she lay down, eyes closing against her will.
“Sleep well, Morgan le Fay. Next time we meet it will be as friends.”