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  • Dragon's Lair
  • Written by Sharon Kay Penman
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Dragon's Lair

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July 1193. King Richard Lionheart lies in a German prison, held for ransom by the emperor. His mother, Dowager Queen Eleanor, ransacks England for gold to buy his freedom, while his younger brother, John, plots with King Philippe of France to ensure that he rots and dies in chains.

When a ransom payment vanishes, Eleanor hastily dispatches young Justin de Quincy to investigate. In wild, beautiful Wales, his devotion to the queen will be supremely tested–as an arrogant border earl, a cocky Welsh prince, an enchanting lady, and a traitor of the deepest dye welcome him with false smiles and deadly conspiracies. The queen’s treasure is nowhere to be found, but assassins are everywhere . . . and blood runs red in the dragon’s lair.



July 1193 Westminster, England

Walking in the gardens of the royal palace on a sultry, overcast summer afternoon, Claudine de Loudun recognized for the first time that she feared the queen. This should not have been so surprising to her, for the queen in question was Eleanor, Dowager Queen of England, Duchess of Aquitaine, one-time Queen of France. Burning as brightly as a comet in her youth, Eleanor had shocked and fascinated and outraged, a beautiful, willful woman who’d wed two kings, taken the cross, given birth to ten children, and dared to lust after power as a man might. But she’d survived scandal, heartbreak, and insurrection, even sixteen years as her husband Henry’s prisoner.

The older Eleanor was wiser and less reckless, a woman who’d learned to weigh both words and consequences. Her ambitions had always been dynastic, and in her twilight years she was expending all of her considerable intelligence, political guile, and tenacity in the service of her son Richard. She was respected now, even revered in some quarters, for her sound advice and pragmatic understanding of statecraft, and few appreciated the irony—that this woman who’d lived much of her life as a royal rebel should be acclaimed as a stabilizing influence upon the brash, impulsive Richard.

To outward appearances, it seemed as if the aged queen had repudiated the carefree and careless girl she’d once been, but Claudine knew better. Eleanor’s tactics had changed, not her nature. She was worldly, curious, utterly charming when she chose to be, prideful, stubborn, calculating, and still hungry for all that life had to offer. She had a remarkable memory untainted by age, and although she might forgive wrongs, she never forgot them. As Claudine was belatedly acknowledging, she could be a formidable enemy.

Claudine was not a fool, even if she had done more than her share of foolish things. It was not that she’d underestimated the queen, but rather that she’d overestimated her own ability to swim in such turbulent waters. It had seemed harmless enough in the beginning. What did it matter if she shared court gossip and rumors with the queen’s youngest son? She had seen it as a game, not a betrayal, just as she’d seen herself as John’s confederate, not his spy. How had it all gone so wrong? She still was not sure. But there was no denying that the stakes had suddenly become life or death. Richard languished in a German prison. John was being accused of treason. The queen was sick with fear for her eldest son and vowing vengeance upon those who would deny Richard his freedom. And Claudine was in the worst plight of all, pregnant and unwed, facing both the perils of the birthing chamber and the danger of disgrace and scandal.

She’d never worried about incurring Eleanor’s animosity before, confident of her own power to beguile, putting too much trust in her blood ties to the queen, distant though they might be. But in this fragrant, trellised garden, she was suddenly and acutely aware of how vulnerable she truly was. It was such a demoralizing realization that she quickly reminded herself how understanding the queen had been about her pregnancy. She’d feared that Eleanor would turn her out, letting all know of her shame. Instead, the queen had offered to help. So why, then, did she feel such unease?

She glanced sideways at the other woman, and then away. She’d often thought the queen had cat eyes, greenish-gold and inscrutable, eyes that seemed able to see into the inner recesses of her soul, to strip away her secrets, one by one. Claudine bit her lip, keeping her own eyes downcast, for she had so many secrets.

Eleanor was aware of the young woman’s edginess, and it afforded her some grim satisfaction. She bore Claudine no grudge for allowing herself to become entangled in John’s web; she’d had too many betrayals in her life to be wounded by one so small. And so once she’d discovered Claudine’s complicity in her son’s scheming, she’d been content to keep that knowledge secret, reasoning that a known spy was a defanged snake. She’d even used the unwitting Claudine to pass on misinformation from time to time. But if she felt no desire for vengeance, neither did she have sympathy for Claudine’s predicament. Every pleasure in this world came with a price, be it a dalliance in conspiracy or one in bed.

Glancing about to make sure none of her other attendants were within earshot, Eleanor asked the girl if she was still queasy. When Claudine swallowed and swore that she no longer felt poorly, Eleanor gave her a skeptical scrutiny. “Why, then, is your face the color of newly skimmed milk? There is no need to pretend with me, child. Only men could call a pregnancy ‘easy,’ but some are undoubtedly more troublesome than others. For me, it was my last. There were days when even water could unsettle my stomach. I’ve sailed in some fierce storms, but God’s Truth, I was never so greensick as when I was carrying John.”

Claudine’s eyelashes flickered, no more than that. But she could not keep the blood from rising in her face and throat. Watching as her pallor was submerged in a flood of color, Eleanor smiled slyly. This was new, like an involuntary twitch or a hiccup, this sudden discomfort whenever John’s name was mentioned. Not for the first time, Eleanor wondered who had truly fathered Claudine’s child. Was it Justin de Quincy as she claimed? Or was it John?

“I think it is time,” she said, “for you to withdraw to the nunnery at Godstow.”

Claudine nodded reluctantly. This was the plan, with cover stories fabricated for the court and her family back in Aquitaine. She should have gone a fortnight ago, but she’d found excuses to delay, dreading the loneliness and seclusion and boredom of the coming months. “I suppose so,” she admitted, sounding so forlorn that Eleanor experienced an involuntary pang of empathy; she knew better than most the onus of confinement. It was true that this confinement was by choice and temporary, but Eleanor could not help identifying with Claudine’s aversion to the religious life. There had been times in her past when she’d feared being shut up in some remote, obscure convent for the rest of her days, forgotten by all but her gaolers and God.

“I will speak with Sir Nicholas this eve,” she said briskly, determined not to soften toward this foolhardy, unhappy girl. “The arrangements have all been made. It remains only for you to settle in at Godstow.”

“Sir Nicholas de Mydden?” Claudine echoed in dismay. “But Justin was to escort me to the nunnery.”

“Justin cannot—”

“Madame, he promised me!” Claudine was so flustered that she did not even realize she’d interrupted the queen. Lowering her voice hastily lest they attract attention, she said coaxingly, “Surely you understand why I would prefer Justin’s company, Your Grace. I know I can trust him. And . . . and he wants to accompany me. This child is his, after all.”

Eleanor looked into Claudine’s flushed, distraught face, striving for patience. “Well, this is one promise Justin cannot keep. He is away from the court, and I know not when he will return. As for Nicholas, he is no gossipmonger.” Unable to resist adding, “Those in my service know the value I place upon loyalty.”

Claudine’s lashes fluttered down again, veiling her eyes. After a moment, she said meekly, “Forgive my boldness, madame. It was not my intent to argue with you. If you have confidence in Sir Nicholas’s discretion, then so do I. But could I not wait till week’s end? Mayhap Justin will be back by then.”

She took Eleanor’s shrug for assent and fell in step beside the queen as they cut across the grassy mead. “I did not even know Justin was gone, for he did not bid me farewell.”

She sounded both plaintive and aggrieved, and Eleanor found herself thinking that Justin might be fortunate that he was not considered a suitable husband for this pampered young kinswoman of hers. It would be no easy task, keeping Claudine de Loudun content.

“Madame . . . it is not my intent to pry,” Claudine said, with such pious prevarication that Eleanor rolled her eyes skyward. “Whatever Justin’s mission for you may be, it is not for me to question it. I would ask this, though. Can you at least tell me if he is in any danger?”

Eleanor paused, considering. Her first impulse was to give the girl the reassurance she sought. But the truth was that whenever her son John was involved, there was bound to be danger.

It was a sparse turnout for a hanging. Usually the citizens of Winchester thronged to the gallows out on Andover Road, eager to watch as a felon paid the ultimate price for his earthly sins. Luke de Marston, the under-sheriff of Hampshire, could remember hangings that rivaled the St Giles Fair, with venders hawking meat pies and children getting underfoot and cutpurses on the prowl for unwary victims. But the doomed soul being dragged from the cart was too small a fish to attract a large crowd, a criminal by happenstance rather than choice.

The few men and women who’d bothered to show up were further disappointed by the demeanor of the culprit. They expected bravado and defiance from their villains, or at the very least, stoical self-control. But this prisoner was obviously terrified, whimpering and trembling so violently that he had to be assisted up the gallows steps. People were beginning to turn away in disgust even before the rope was tightened around his neck.

Luke’s deputy shared their dissatisfaction, for he believed that a condemned man owed his audience a better show than this. “Pitiful,” he said, shaking his head in disapproval. “Remember how the Fleming died, cursing God with his last breath?”

Luke remembered. Gilbert the Fleming had been one of Winchester’s most notorious outlaws, as brutal as he was elusive, evading capture again and again until he’d been brought down by Luke and the queen’s man, Justin de Quincy. His hanging had been a holiday.

Sharon Kay Penman|Author Q&A

About Sharon Kay Penman

Sharon Kay Penman - Dragon's Lair
Sharon Kay Penman has lived in England and Wales and currently resides in New Jersey. She is the author of six other novels: Falls the Shadow, Here Be Dragons, The Reckoning, The Sunne in Splendour, When Christ and His Saints Slept, and the first Justin de Quincy adventure: The Queen’s Man.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Sharon Kay Penman

Q: Like the rest of your fiction, this novel is set in medieval Europe.
What drew you to this particular time and place? And what
keeps you there?

Sharon Kay Penman: Well, I spent twelve years working on my
first novel, The Sunne in Splendour, and by the time it was done, I
was hopelessly hooked on the Middle Ages. It is very familiar terrain
to me now, after setting nine books in that era, so each time
I begin a new book, it is like coming home. That doesn’t mean I’d
have wanted to live back then, though; I am much too fond of our
century’s creature comforts!

Q: Who or what inspired the character of Justin?

SKP: Justin is not based upon any particular person; I never do
that for purely fictional characters. He just “came” to me during
some long walks in the woods with my dogs.

Q: Justin is such a lonely character. Does much of his loneliness
stem from the fact that he is trapped between two worlds—that of
the highborn and the lowborn?

SKP: Yes, I wanted a character who would have the perspective of
an “outsider,” someone who did not quite belong in either of his

Q: What does Justin gain and lose because of his class “mobility”?

SKP: You might say that Justin is a social chameleon, that he is
able to take on the coloration of his surroundings. He can maneuver
in the shark-filled waters of the royal court, yet he is also
capable of blending in at the corner tavern or alehouse, a very
useful attribute for a spy. But he lives in a world in which people
are defined by birth, a concept utterly alien to Americans. He
is very drawn to Molly; there is a strong connection between
them, one that is emotional as well as sexual. Yet it would be difficult,
if not impossible, for them to have a future together. The
flip side of this coin is that marriage to the Lady Claudine is also
beyond his grasp.

Q: Justin does not let himself think too hard or long about
whether or not Richard is worth the money, effort, and lives that
his ransom costs. Is the price too high?

SKP: Knowing what I know about Richard’s kingship, I’d say the
price was much too high. But I am looking at it from a modern
perspective. In Justin’s world, few would even raise that question.
One of the cornerstones of a class system is that all people are not
created equal, and a consecrated, crowned king was at the very pinnacle
of the social pyramid.

Q: Have we heard the last of Molly and Bennet?

SKP: Not at all! Molly and Bennet appear in the next mystery, and
I expect them to be complicating Justin’s life for some time to come.

Q: Is Justin’s understanding of his father going to continue to

SKP: Of course. Theirs is an ongoing, evolving relationship, and
there will be advances and retreats, backsliding and detours. It is
not an easy road, but they are traveling it together, if not always

Q: Will we learn more about the identity of Justin’s mother?

SKP: Yes, eventually Justin and the readers will learn more about
his mother. I don’t mean to sound cryptic or mysterious—well, I
guess I do—but his father has good reason for wanting to keep her
identity secret. And that is as much as I can say!

Q: Since Claudine is unwilling to consider marriage to Justin,
what is going to happen to their child?

SKP: You’ll have to keep reading the books to find out, won’t you?
I will tell you that more about the baby will be revealed in the
next mystery, Prince of Darkness.

Q: Notable among the many important and thought-provoking
themes in this novel (which also appear in your other work) is your
focus on the conflicts and differences between medieval English and
Welsh culture and society. Would you talk about this tension and
what you find so compelling about it?

SKP: This was a clash of cultures, a war of attrition between a
predatory feudal society and a tribal Celtic one. When I moved to
Wales more than twenty years ago and began to research Here Be
I was fascinated from the first by the Welsh medieval laws,
by the discovery that women enjoyed a greater status in Wales than
elsewhere in Europe. By our standards, Welshwomen were not that
emancipated, but in comparison to their French and English sisters,
they enjoyed a remarkable degree of freedom. A Welsh girl became
her own mistress when she reached the age of puberty and could
not be forced into marriage against her will. She was not automatically
denied custody of her children if her husband died or the marriage
ended, as was the case on the other side of the border. She
could even end the marriage herself. And a woman who bore an infant
out of wedlock had one great advantage over all of her sisters
in Christendom: An illegitimate child acknowledged by the father
had full rights of inheritance and was on equal footing with his or
her siblings born in wedlock. Medieval Welsh law did not punish
the child for the sins of the parents, an enlightened position that
can be truly appreciated only when we consider how many centuries
it would take to gain widespread acceptance elsewhere.

Q: You make clear the very real limitations women of all backgrounds
faced in medieval Europe. How challenging is it to create
plausible opportunities and interesting experiences for your female

SKP: It is very challenging, truthfully. Women did not have as
many options as men, and I need to reflect that reality in my mysteries.
So whether I am writing of a woman of Claudine’s class or
one of Molly’s, I try to stay true to the boundaries and constraints
that each would have encountered. A woman of high birth was
blessed with certain freedoms that Molly would never enjoy, among
them the freedom from hunger or want. But Molly had freedoms
that were denied to Claudine, such as the right to chart her own
course and make a marriage of her choosing.

Q: Would you agree that Eleanor and Emma have a great deal in

SKP: Superficially, yes. They were strong-willed women, fortunate
from birth, for both were said to be beautiful and both were born
into families of privilege and power. Eleanor was the daughter and
heiress of the Duke of Aquitaine, married at fifteen to the young
King of France. She acquired that high rank through no actions of
her own. But when she later became Queen of England, that was
very much her own doing. One of the reasons why Eleanor continues
to fascinate us so is because she did not always play by the
rules of her world, rules that made it virtually impossible for a
woman to exert much control over her own destiny. Eleanor dared
to break these rules, and although she paid a high price for her
willingness to rebel, I like to think that, on her deathbed at the advanced
age of eighty-two, she had few regrets. Emma, of course,
was never a great heiress like Eleanor; she was the illegitimate
daughter of Count Geoffrey of Anjou and thus sister to England’s
King Henry. Hers was the more traditional fate for women of
the nobility, a political pawn wed to a Welsh prince because her
brother the king decreed it. We know little of Emma’s external
life, nothing whatsoever of her interior one. I suspect, though, that
she had more regrets than Eleanor.

Q: Justin leaves Angharad mourning a man who never existed.
Was this the kindest or wisest choice Justin could have made?

SKP: Under these particular circumstances, I think it was both a
wise and a kind decision. But if Justin were forced to choose between
the two, he would always err on the side of kindness.

Q: Which would upset John more: learning of Durand’s role as
Eleanor’s spy or as his own protector?

SKP: Very interesting question. I think John would be most offended
by the notion that Eleanor saw him as being in need of
Durand’s protection. John’s jealousy of his brother Richard was a
destructive force in his life. Putting it in modern terms, Richard
was the Golden Son, the best beloved, and John was the afterthought,
John Lackland, forever measuring himself against the Lionheart
and forever coming up short.

Q: I would like to ask you a question you raise in your author’s
note: What is the responsibility of the historical novelist?

SKP: I cannot answer for other historical novelists; I can only offer
my own guidelines. In writing my historical novels, I have to rely
upon my imagination to a great extent. I think of it as “filling in
the blanks.” Medieval chroniclers could be callously indifferent to
the needs of future novelists. But I think there is a great difference
between filling in the blanks and distorting known facts. Whenever
I’ve had to tamper with history for plot purposes, I make sure
to mention that in my author’s note, and I try to keep such tampering
to a bare minimum. I also attempt to keep my characters
true to their historical counterparts. This is not always possible, of
course. Sometimes all we know of a medieval man or woman are
the stark, skeletal outlines of their lives, rather like the chalk drawing
of the body at a crime scene. And some historical figures are
so controversial—Richard III is a good example—that I feel comfortable
drawing my own conclusions. But if I were to deviate dramatically
from the traditional portrayal of a person who actually
lived, I would feel honor-bound to explain to my readers in my author’s
note why I chose this particular approach.

Q: Do you need to work from a detailed outline to ensure historical

SKP: I use a detailed outline for the mysteries, but that is more to
avoid any plot holes than to ensure historical accuracy. I use an
outline for chapters in both the mysteries and my historical novels,
in order to have a road map when I am beginning a book.

Q: Sharon, you were writing your first novel in your “spare” time
while in law school when the only copy of your manuscript was
stolen. What happened next?

SKP: The first manuscript for The Sunne in Splendour disappeared
from my car when I was moving to an apartment during my years
in law school. The car was crammed with the usual college student’s
possessions, including a small television, but the only thing
taken was a notebook containing my novel. At that point I’d been
working on it for more than four years, and its loss was very traumatic
for me. For the next six months, I would periodically ransack
my apartment, deluding myself that I had somehow “missed”
it during those other, futile searches, and I was unable to write
again for the next five and a half years. I never learned what had
happened to the manuscript. The most logical explanation is that
one of the children playing in front of the apartment complex had
wandered over to the car and snatched the notebook on impulse.
It was either that or vengeful Tudor ghosts, and I find it hard
to believe any of them were hovering over Lindenwold, New Jersey.

Q: What is the most notable book you have read recently?

SKP: I am currently reading a fascinating novel called Star of the
by Joseph O’Connor; it takes place in 1847, aboard a ship of
Irish refugees who are fleeing the Great Hunger and seeking to
start life anew in America. I haven’t finished it yet, but I can say for
a certainty that the first two-thirds of the novel are utterly compelling
so far.

Q: If you could create your own reading group composed of notable
historical figures, whom would you include, and what would
the group read?

SKP: My own reading group? I think I would want Eleanor of
Aquitaine and Henry II in my group; they’d definitely liven up
meetings. And Elizabeth Tudor and Cleopatra and Napoleon and
Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain. I would also invite the Welsh
poet-prince Hywel ab Owain, who did a star turn in my novel
Time and Chance, and the tragic nine-day queen, Jane Grey. Now
what would they read? I wouldn’t dare suggest my own books to
such a high-powered group. I think we’d read one of Shakespeare’s
plays, possibly Richard II or King Lear or, if they were in the mood
for lighter fare, Much Ado About Nothing.

Q: If you could spend a day living the life of one of your characters
in Dragon’s Lair, whose life would you choose?

SKP: I think I would like to follow in Llewelyn’s footsteps, for he
was blessed with that rare combination of confidence, humor, and
optimism tempered by reality, so I’d probably have the most fun
living his life—although I’d rather not step into his shoes on a day
when he was fighting a battle.

Q: Can you tell us anything about Justin’s next adventure?

SKP: Justin’s next adventure will be Prince of Darkness, which we
hope to publish in early 2005. I am working on it now and am
giving poor Justin a rough time. Due to circumstances beyond his
control, he finds himself on the “pilgrimage to Hell and back,” as
John wryly describes it, a journey made in the company of the
three people he’d least like to be traveling with: his hostile ally,
Durand de Curzon; his sometime love, the Lady Claudine; and his
unforgiving adversary from Dragon’s Lair, the Lady Emma. It’s a
journey that takes him from the streets of Paris to castles in Brittany
and then to one of the most celebrated of medieval shrines,
the island abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel.



“Once you enter Penman’s world, you’re hooked.”
–Seattle Post-Intelligencer

“Penman writes about the medieval world and its people with vigor, compassion, and clarity.”
–San Francisco Chronicle

“Welcome to twelfth-century English and Welsh politics by way of this riveting and rich mystery novel.”

“A polished and absorbing historical mystery."
Kirkus Reviews
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. Discuss the pros and cons of being “the Queen’s man.”

2. In the beginning of the novel, Justin is momentarily taken
aback by Eleanor’s command that he seek his much-loathed father’s
assistance, but then he sees the truth. What is that truth?

3. Justin is aptly described as “a natural lone wolf, not happy
hunting with the pack.” Do you think this wolf will ever form his
own pack?

4. Has Justin met the right woman yet? If not, will he ever?

5. If you could plot Justin’s future, what would it look like?

6. What do you think would have happened in the chapel if Durand
had not been interrupted?

7. Justin recalls being punished as a child for sneaking food to
Bennet and Molly. Why was his kindness met with hostility and
condemnation from the society around him?

8. Molly helps Justin see his father in a whole new light. Has anyone
ever helped you in this way?

9. Justin worries about Piers and his reaction to Molly and Justin’s
relationship. Do you think his worries are warranted?

10. Justin tells a bereft Angharad that “love can change; it can
even die.” Discuss the vagaries of love.

11. When is virtue not a virtue?

12. What do you think of Emma’s use of her feminine wiles to accrue
and wield power?

13. What does Emma mean when she tells John that “a widow’s
lot is better than a wife’s more often than not”?

14. What do you think Davydd would do if he learned of Emma’s

15. John and Emma are kin, but their true bond is their thirst for
revenge. Discuss how bitterness has crippled them and imperiled
those around them.

16. Two very different kinds of sibling relationships—Richard and
John versus Bennet and Molly—are represented in this novel. Do
they share any common ground?

17. How do you interpret John’s dream of his absent, imprisoned

18. Eleanor’s assertion that “all the Welsh are inbred” is a perfect
illustration of the prevailing English attitude toward the Welsh.
What is the cost of England’s cultural and political myopia and imperialism?

19. Other than Justin, which character did you find most compelling?
Least compelling?

20. Are you the kind of reader who must solve a mystery in
advance or do you prefer to let it unfold before you?

21. What historical figure would make for an interesting addition
to your group’s discussion of Dragon’s Lair?

22. How has the group discussion enriched your understanding of
Dragon’s Lair?

23. What book is your group going to read next? Do you plan to
read the next installment of Justin de Quincy’s adventures?

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