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The Knight of the Sacred Lake: The Second of the Guenevere Novels (Guenevere Novels)by Rosalind Miles
High on its crag, Camelot slumbered in the shining gloom. The owls drowsed in the bell tower, and the round turrets with their pointed roofs, bright pennants, and golden spires hung in the glimmering air. The guard in the lookout shifted himself on his haunches and prepared for an easy watch. On these blessed summer evenings a silver twilight lingered all night long, even in the dead hours, when the Fair Ones walked.
He chuckled softly. The Fair Ones, yes. Well, a June watchman was never short of company. But a wise man learned to look the other way when he felt the Fair Ones near. And they'd surely be abroad tonight, what with the Queen's feast and all.
Thin snatches of sound came fleetingly to his ears, the chant of plainsong rising from far below. His eyes traveled down to the courtyard, where a long building huddled in the shelter of the wall. Through the high mullioned windows, a single light burned brightly in the dark. It was the flame above the altar, the symbol of unfailing hope and prayer.
Hope, was it? They'd need it, all those poor devils down below. The watchman shuddered as he pondered it. Ye Gods, to be down there now, and all night too!
Yet to the men inside the chapel, their night's work was not an ordeal, but a great honor, he knew. He scratched his head, and let his mind roam free. What must it be like, to be made a knight by the Queen?
The Queen — his senses misted with a fleeting memory of white and gold, a drifting shape, a shining smile. A haze of precious thoughts descended on him like a cloud of winged things. To kneel to her, and call yourself her knight, to touch her hand and swear to die for her — yes, any man would thrill to that destiny, that kiss of fate. And all the young men in the chapel had fought for this, chased after it for years. They had valued it above the love of women, above life itself. No matter then what they were going through. Some would endure, some wouldn't, that was all.
And afterward, they'd have a feast to end all feasts. Gods above, he grinned to himself, what the Queen had commanded from far and wide! Wagons full of beer and wine, carts groaning with fresh meat, every home farm raided for miles around. The cooks had been cursing and tearing their hair for weeks as the Queen's orders flew like arrows from her high tower. "Nothing but the best! There are queens and kings expected, and all our people from here and far away. Above all we must honor our new-made knights."
The new knights.
Well, their honor would be dearly bought.
With a sigh, he turned his eyes down again to pray for the sufferers below.
Inside the chapel the air was misty and cool. The young knight swayed on his knees and lifted unseeing eyes. High on the wall, the Round Table hung suspended above the stout trestles that supported it when it was in use. The great circle gleamed with its own light like the face of the moon. The knight fixed his gaze on it and tried to drag his mind back from wandering in some lost realm of pain. Dear Lady, Queen of Heaven, bless my vigil, he prayed humbly. Let me not faint, let me not disgrace my newfound honor and Your sacred name.
At the back of the church the Master of the Novices viewed him sardonically, and echoed his prayer. Folding his arms, he leaned his back against the damp chill of the chapel wall, and surveyed the kneeling rows facing the altar, all silent now, and gray-faced like old men. They were all the same, these young knights-in-the-making, on fire to be the best in the land. But after the first hour on their knees on the cold stone, even the strongest was praying to survive.
They could lie down, of course. Every one of the twenty young men kneeling now in prayer would spend some part of the hours between dusk and dawn prostrate before the altar, arms outstretched to form the sign of the Cross. After the first hour or two, when the stones they knelt on felt like knives of fire, the weaker vessels would fall on their faces and remain there all night long. Others would repeatedly struggle to remain upright, till the bell rang for first light.
The Novice Master smiled coldly to himself. Already he could tell which of them would fall, and even when. And he could tell too, from this simple fact, those who would make good knights, and who would not.
And most would not. His eye passed carefully over their ranks. He was too old a hand at knight-making to sigh over young men's frailties and lost hopes. But every year at this time he remembered how ardently the new knights all embarked, and how few were destined to survive the course. Some would perish cleanly on the point of a lance or sword, often on their first outing from the court, as they sought the deeds of daring that would make their name. Others faced a messier, crueler end, the long slow death of hope and faith, as they measured themselves year by year against the dreams they once had had, and found themselves further back than when they had begun.
These would be the ones who had fallen on their faces at the first trial of strength. He could smell it on them now, the stink of fear and failure, the terror of a little pain. The Novice Master sucked his teeth, and rocked back on his heels. So many were called to knighthood, and so few would prove to be knights of any worth.
Take the Orkney princes now --
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