King Pellinore’s Daughter
“Move over, Gwen. It’s my turn.” Elaine tugged at her cousin’s sleeve. The two girls lay flat on their stomachs on the cold stone floor of the parapet. Guinevere had one eye pressed against a break in the mortar low in the castle wall.
“The courier’s just coming. He’s entered the room. He’s making his reverence.”
“Move over,” Elaine demanded. “I let you look first. Now it’s my turn. You keep watch.”
Guinevere moved aside. “He looks exhausted. I wonder if he’s come straight from the battlefield.” She wriggled closer. “What’s he saying? Can you hear?”
“Shhh! Not if you talk.”
They had known that the new arrival was a royal courier by the dragon cipher on his belt, although he had ridden in with a party of merchants and wagons. Everyone had seen him, a young man with a military straightness in his carriage and the dust of travel still clinging to his clothes. He had come while the tables were being laid for dinner, and Queen Alyse had postponed the meal in order to receive him alone. She had been waiting weeks for a message. Elaine and Guinevere had taken advantage of the confusion and excitement at the courier’s arrival to sneak up the guardroom stairs and learn firsthand through their peephole whether Elaine’s father, King Pellinore, was still alive.
It was six long weeks since Arthur’s courier had come at snowmelt to summon Pellinore of Gwynedd and all his men to war. Half of Wales had risen with him. All of them were eager to fight for the young High King who never lost a battle.
Guinevere crossed herself quickly. Please, God, let nothing happen to King Pellinore. She missed him dreadfully. He was a rough bear of a man with a jovial nature and a willingness to believe the best of everyone. He had to return safely. If he did not, Queen Alyse would rule Gwynedd alone.
“Listen, Gwen!” Elaine cried. “Father is—”
Guinevere clapped a hand over her mouth, but too late. Behind them, the guardroom door squeaked as it opened, and a sentry emerged. The peephole lay near the corner of the western wall, low to the ground and deep in the shadow cast by torches outside the guardroom door. Experience had taught the girls that they could not be seen if they huddled inside their cloaks and kept absolutely still.
The sentry walked along the rampart, sword in hand, and looked warily about him. It had been a cool spring day, and dusk had brought a chill sea breeze ashore. Nothing stirred but the wind.
The sentry spun around. “Sir?”
“We’ve just got word! The High King’s done it again! The Saxons are running for their lives, and King Pellinore is on his way home at last. Come, lad, and drink a cup of wine with us.”
The sentry’s gaze swept the parapet and peered into the shadows. He sheathed his sword. “I’m coming, sir. I thought I heard—but there’s no one here.”
Guinevere exhaled as the man disappeared back inside the guardroom. Through the open door, she could hear the soldiers’ celebration, a chanted victory paean, and the slosh of wine poured from a jug. “That was close.”
Elaine sat up and pushed the hood from her face. Bright golden curls danced about her shoulders, and her voice exulted. “Father’s alive and coming home victorious! The High King beat the Saxons back—didn’t I say he would? He’s not lost a battle yet. Admit it, now. He’s the best warrior in all the kingdoms. And Father is coming home! Oh, what a feast we shall have when he arrives! I’ll wager my last coin I can beg a new gown from Mama.” She grinned. “You can have my old blue one if I do.”
Guinevere smiled. “Let’s hope those wagons that came in tonight carry your mother’s order of cloth, for the storerooms are as empty as your purse. Hurry now. We’ve got to get back before Grannic and Ailsa discover we’ve gone.”
They tiptoed through the flickering torchlight and past the guardroom door. From within, they could hear the guards’ joyous cheer: “Long may he live, long may he reign! Praise be to Arthur, King of all the Britons!” The girls just had time to fold their cloaks away before their nurses arrived to usher them downstairs for the evening meal. Elaine’s nurse, Grannic, a lanky woman with a sour face and small, calculating eyes, busied herself laying out a new gown for Elaine. She asked no questions about how Elaine had dirtied her present gown; she knew from long experience she would not receive an answer. But Guinevere’s nurse, Ailsa, round, plump, and cheerful, pulled Guinevere into the anteroom for private speech.
“What have you been up to, then?” she said half under her breath as she brushed dust from Guinevere’s skirts. “You were perfectly clean when I left you. And just look at you, with the roses in your cheeks and your hair pulling loose from its pins. You’ve worn your hood. You’ve been outside.”
Guinevere bowed her head. She never liked fooling Ailsa, however easy it was to do. But Elaine had sworn her to secrecy long ago on the subject of the peephole and, in exchange for her silence, allowed her to look through it now and again. Having accepted the bargain, she could not go back on her word.
“I’m sorry, Ailsa.”
Ailsa’s nimble fingers worked swiftly and firmly, replaiting her hair and straightening her gown. There was no question of laying out another; the girl did not have enough to spare. “Now, why, I ask myself, would two young maids want to go outside on a cold spring night? Something to see? Or someone to meet?”
“No, no, nothing like that. Whom would we meet?”
“We were perfectly safe. Honestly. It was just . . . something to do.”
“Are you so idle, then? Perhaps I should speak to the queen. I’ve no doubt she could find a way to relieve you both of the time on your hands.”
Guinevere hid a smile at Ailsa’s pretended threat. “Please, Ailsa, I would tell you if I could. But I can’t. I’ve promised. We were perfectly safe.”
Ailsa finished her ministrations and lifted the girl’s chin so she could look into her face. “I know who it was got the promise out of you, and all I can say is, be as careful as you can. Please, Gwen, for both our sakes.”From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Guinevere's Gift by Nancy McKenzie. Copyright © 2008 by Nancy McKenzie. Excerpted by permission of Bluefire, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.