The Greenwood And The Grail

Book Three in the Arthur Quartet

The Greenwood And The Grail is the third book in Lance and Arthur's story.

Book One is When First I Met My King. Book Two is The Dragon's Tale.

The Greenwood And The Grail

Driven apart by merciless currents of fate, Arthur and Lance soon find out how much colder the world is to each of them without the other’s love. And Arthur has a fight for the kingdom on his hands, not to mention his struggle to make sense of his marriage to Queen Guenyvre.

For Lance, the loss of his king is too much. On the journey to Camelet, his inner demons overtake him – demons that flourish in the lonely moorland nights, and drive him into the trackless wastes of the Forest Wild.

But the Forest is a place of healing as well as madness and grief. After a battle that costs him his dearest blood, Arthur too takes refuge there.

 

Can the ancient magic of the Greenwood restore Lance and Arthur to their rightful companionship? With Lance at his side, will Arthur begin to understand his destiny as Britannia’s once and future king?

Excerpt

“Lancelot. Lancelot, wake up.”

He didn’t want to. He’d been sailing in the wind, and the voices sailing with him had been rich with truth and love. Oh, my own Lance, his king had said, in the fire-crackle silences of the seaward chamber at Joyous Gard. My brother, Guen had whispered. My own self, my other half. The three had joined hands, and the earth had fallen away beneath them, freeing them into forever.

“Lancelot!”

 

That damned name! He sat up, groaning. None of Drusus’s men called him that: only Parzival, who had seized it like a key to Lance’s inner kingdom, and over the past few days had tried every which way to fit it into the lock. “What the devil do you want?” Lance demanded. “It’s barely daylight.”

 

“You were calling out His Majesty’s name, Lancelot. And... and the queen's. I don’t know which disturbs the other men most.”

Lance shuddered. What did the boy want of him? There were lights of adoration in his eyes. And if he was boy to Lance, the difference was one of bitter experience, not years: there couldn’t have been more than five between them. How could Lance explain to him that he was forever out of bounds to all attempts at seduction, effectively castrated, bound in ice? One hand and one only could set him free. “The men can’t hear,” he said shortly. “For once I have a chamber of my own and some privacy. Which doesn’t explain how you know what I happen to say in my dreams.”

 

“I was sleeping outside your door,” Parzival said simply. “You think me a fool, but I have travelled. These country taverns are filled with thieves. And you call out every night, but this is the first time I’ve been alone with you long enough to let you know.”

 

Lance stared at him. His mind was on thin ice and skidding wildly. Fragments of memory, ice or mirror shards, trying to find a pattern... He let them vortex and whirl: anything was better than considering the wretched thing Parzival had just told him. The lad could barely sit a horse, though Lance had done his best, over the last few days, to correct his posture and save him from being shaken to bits at a trot. He scarcely knew how to hold a bow, and had shot one of the poor hunting dogs in the arse in an attempt to kill a deer – a flesh wound, thankfully, which Lance had passed off to Drusus as an encounter with blackthorn barbs. There were strange scars on Parzival’s hands, the marks of old burns behind the knuckle. The village baker at White Meadows had had them too.

 

“You are not Lord Parzival of Gaul,” Lance said flatly, hitching himself upright on the narrow frame bed. “You are Percy, the scullery lad from the Din Guardi kitchens.”

 

The boy heaved a great sigh. He sank down without permission on the edge of the bed, as if, now the game was up, he had nothing left to lose. “I’m only surprised,” he said, putting his face into his hands, “that Parzival lasted this long.”

 

“Me too,” Lance replied wonderingly. “For a soldier, you ride, hunt and shoot incredibly badly. For a kitchen boy, you do all those things rather well. How on earth did you – ”

 

“Because you helped me,” Percy interrupted him passionately. “You didn’t ask me questions. You just helped.”

 

“I’m asking questions now. Did Arthur really allow you to leave the fort?”

 

“He allowed Percy. Who else could he send after you that nobody would miss? He’s watched day and night by the priests – and by some of his own men, too. The night before I left, I thought it all over. This journey was my one chance. I could go as Percy and return the same way, or I could set myself up as a knight and see what the fortunes of the road brought me. It was easy enough. The soldiers grow careless in the security of Din Guardi. I only wish that the men from whom I stole my breastplate, my chainmail and my horse had been of the same size.”

“The nag you’re riding isn’t bad. Nor are the other things, in themselves. But you should go into High Cross and trade it all for things that fit, and a taller horse – I’ll lend you some gold to make up the difference.”

 

“You aren’t going to tell Drusus?”

 

“Knowing Drusus, I don’t need to. If he’s chosen to let Parzival be, why should I spoil his chances?”

 

“The blessing of the Goddess be upon both of you, then,” Percy declared fervently: put a hand to his mouth and glanced around in a habit Lance had begun to learn at Din Guardi, too. “As it happens, I am of good knightly stock. My father was Piers de Val of Gaul – but he didn’t marry my mother, you see, and these things seem to matter terribly now. Then they both orphaned me, so it was academic. Can a bastard orphan still be considered a bastard at all? Anyway, a cousin of mine came to Britannia to try his fortune with Arthur’s new army, and he brought me with him – I was barely twelve summers old at the time – as his body-servant and squire. Then he was killed at the battle of Glein, and the king took pity on me and found me a place with his kitchen staff. It was good of him, and I was grateful, but you know how it is – once a scullery boy, always a – ”

 

“Percy. Be quiet.”

 

“Oh. Have I been talking too loud? Are the other men waking?”

 

“No.” Lance realised that the grip he’d fastened on the lad’s skinny arm would break it if he didn’t ease up. “You said... You said that Arthur sent you.”

“Yes. I don’t really have family near Cam, or anywhere else for that matter.” Percy sat patiently under Lance’s grasp. “I couldn’t give you his message until I was alone with you. And... there was something else, for which I doubt you’ll forgive me. I wanted to see what kind of man had brought such sorrow to my king – and set the court by its ears with scandal, and made Guenyvre lock herself up in her room and weep till the whole fort shook on its foundations.”

 

“She can still do that, can she?”

 

“So the frightened priests say, but I don’t believe them. She’s only a girl.”

 

“It wasn’t always so. And I... I would have torn out my own heart before I caused sorrow to Arthur.”

 

“You mustn’t try to claw it out now.” Percy took hold of the fist Lance had clamped to his chest and gently drew it down. “I had to learn your nature for myself before I gave you his message, because certain things were sacred to my mother’s people, too. I was begot at a Beltane fire, like many a good man before me.”

 

“I don’t understand.” Lance pushed himself further into the corner. The pressure of the two walls would hold him together, perhaps, against the growing pressure in his skull and lungs and spine. “Please, Percy. What was his message to me? What did he say?”

 

“Nothing. He only gave me this, and said you’d understand.”

 

Percy reached into the neck of his jerkin. He withdrew from it a piece of gold, flashing and shimmering at the end of its chain. A silence fell, and the sun sign swung like a pendulum, marking out time in this strange space lost between the old world and the new. “Take it,” he said hoarsely at length. “It’s yours, and you’re worthy of it. How else may I serve you, sire?”

“Go into the town and do as I have told you. And whether you journey on to Cam, or back to Din Guardi, go as Lord Parzival of Gaul. You’re right – it is your only chance. And for now...for God’s sake leave me alone.”

 

***

 

A chamber of his own: an expensive luxury in a roadside tavern like this, and there had been no need for it. Lance would have bedded down without a murmur with the men in the long room beneath the thatched roof. It was Drusus who’d made the arrangements, and Lance – exhausted as he often was now, after a day’s ride that would never have troubled him before – had stumbled off when bidden to drop into the fathomless dreams of the wind.

 

He hadn’t bothered to change out of his long woollen britches and vest. He had a clean set in his pack, Arthur having taken as much care about his underwear as his transport and supplies, but the effort of stripping down in the cold room had seemed mountainous. He was itching and starting to stink. He’d once have run down to the river, cracked the ice on it and washed himself even if the process had half-killed him with cold. His mother had taught him as much as that, and at Din Guardi it had mattered still more: to be clean and comely for his king.

 

Skin shrinking, he drew his knees to his chest. He pulled up the motheaten tavern blanket to shield him from the biting cold. That was the other advantage to sharing quarters – the warm fug of other bodies that built up overnight, keeping the dawn chill at bay. Well worth putting up with the snores and the farts. Drusus knew all that.

 

You call out the names of the king and the queen in your sleep. Oh, God. Lance, who strove so hard to be a good soldier during every waking moment, making such a liability of himself the moment his eyes were closed that Drusus had had to isolate him! He clenched his hand around the golden sun sign, tighter and tighter, until the rays were digging into his palm. He raised it to his mouth, the better to lip-read the message Art had sent.

 

The world where we met, my Lance – the world of the sun god and the goddess of the moon, where the holy men spoke to seals and eagles, and the priestesses danced with the dragon of earth in her cave – that world is gone. No longer can I even wear the sign of it. You had the sun and moon crafted for me when I lost my own, because you believed I could make my new kingdom in the image of the old. But that was a dream, and I now pass the dream into your safekeeping. Listen to the wind, my love, and hold fast the vision! Hold for me the world where Guenyvre could make her choice unhindered, and be a queen to all of us – to you, to me, to the land, and roar through the sacred night as the dragon, the serpent, the worm. Hold fast the world where I could love you, and no damned priest had hissed in my ear that I must not lie with man as with woman. Listen to the wind!

 

Lance got out of bed. Like Drusus and the others, he’d had himself barbered and closely shaved before leaving Din Guardi, to save time in the towns and ensure they didn’t arrive at Cam like wild men of the woods. His hair would sometimes grow back in spikes after such a short crop, amusing Arthur greatly. He reached up with trembling fingers. Yes, a small thicket of broom-brush spines was rising across the top of his scalp. I could pick you up, turn you upside down and sweep the dining hall with you, his king had said, lying with him in the morning light that poured through the seaward bedchamber. And Lance had turned to him, rolling up onto one elbow, hitching a lazy grin. Just try it, Your Majesty, and see what happens to you.

There was something wrong inside Lance’s head. He knew that the wind didn’t speak to sane men, and although Father Tomas might have said such sounds could come from heaven, Lance was fairly certain he wasn’t hearing the voice of God. He’d seen a lunatic once, a poor fellow in White Meadows who’d had to be kept locked up in a hut on the outskirts of the village. Lance’s mother had commanded that the hut be lined with sacks of wool, and had carried out bowls of broth to the man with her own hands. He’d escaped one night, and cast himself to his death off the Whin Sill crags. Although his family had grieved, his absence had come as a relief to them.

 

Lance broke the ice on the ewer of water on the window ledge. It wasn’t a river, but it would do. He splashed the water into his face, filled both hands with it and damped down the spikes in his hair. He dried himself off with a cloth. Then, out of habit, he clambered into his deerskin trousers and long-sleeved chainmail vest. The only garment that remained was his white linen tunic, printed with the Pendragon crest.

 

He lifted the tunic and pressed a kiss to the dragon’s head: then, for luck, to her sinuous, coiling tail too. He could still think and understand, but a storm was coming, a tempest that would pluck out his reason by the roots, and such a creature as he would become had no right to bear Arthur’s sign into the world. He folded the tunic neatly and laid it on the bed.

 

He would carry the other sign to the death. He took the sun symbol by its chain and carefully fastened it around his neck. The blacksmith who’d crafted it for him had shown him the one link that was weaker than the others and would snap if seized in a fight. Lance and Lance alone could pick out that one link. Perhaps he was the link, the thing designed to break so that Art could make his kingdom – a world of men and of war, with the women’s voices silenced and all the dragons slain.

Excerpt

(Rufus has finally arrived, on a very delayed train. Drusilla - now Lady Birch, of course - has brought them a festive gift, in the form of a huge stag's skull.)

“I’ve never done this before. I’ve never had this.”

“What, my love?”

Archie swallowed hard. His heart was thudding in astonishment that Rufus would risk the endearment, here on the path where the yellow roses had closed over their heads in the summer, and the green leaves provided such sheltering shade. There was no concealment now, only thorns. His fingers on one hand were laced tight through Rufus’s. He had to wait before he could answer, and his words came through gritted teeth. “Waiting for someone. Long enough to wonder if they were alive or dead.”

“Oh, God.” Rufus turned to face him. He lifted his face, and Archie wouldn’t kiss him, not out here, but somehow their brows were resting together. Giles had discreetly vanished, all the noisy new arrivals briefly quenched. If the house itself had a power of protection, channelled through his transformed spirit and the watchful souls of Drusilla and Maria Nettles, they would be safe. “I’m so sorry. The railways seem to like to keep their most urgent work for the busiest time of the year, and...”

“And what?”

 

“Nothing.”

 

“No, not nothing.” Archie picked up and followed the glimmering threads of unease, his keys to the labyrinth of his lover’s mind. “Why else are you late?”

 

“Oh, Archie. Someone jumped in front of the train. One of the reporters who... who went into Belsen and took all the photographs, the guard said it was. Another one.”

 

Archie closed his grip tighter. He said, for want of a wiser or more consoling word, “Fuck.”

 

“Sorry. I wasn’t going to tell you.”

 

Archie gave him a gentle shake. “Why on earth not?”

 

“Because I’ve come home for Christmas. And there’s nothing festive about...”

 

“A body on the railway line. For such awful reasons.” Quickly Archie checked around. He’d learned that one glance wasn’t enough, that observers could congregate without a breath or shoe-scrape of warning. He hated his vigilance, but he’d pay the price a thousand times over if it meant he could lay a hand on his lover’s face, give him that comfort right now when he needed it, not half an hour later when – knowing Rufus – he’d have found a way to choke the trouble down. “I’m so glad you did tell me. We’re being called post-war England, you know. I read it in the Times.”

Rufus pushed his cheek against Archie’s palm. He’d closed his eyes, and the relief of the loving touch at the right moment had softened the lines of pain on his brow. “So everything’s over, is it? Shall I break out my demob suit?”

“Oh, did you finally get one of those?”

 

“Yes. I shouldn’t have, really, because they more or less shipped me home in a bucket, and I never did get to trade in my uniform for civvies at one of the centres. Still, they issued me one, and sent it care of the museum because they didn’t have my address down here. It’s rather dapper, I have to say – pinstripes, with a little waistcoat to match. I should have brought it with me. It’s just that...”

 

“It’s just that for you, it won’t ever be over. Not for you, not for the Jews, not for anyone who saw what happened in the camps. Not for me either, and that’s the good part, dear Rufus – we don’t have to hide from each other. We never have to pretend that everything’s all right.”

 

Rufus let go of an unsteady breath. Then he looked up, and gave Archie a smile of such brilliance that for a moment summer returned, and the scent of golden roses. “But the strange thing is that... knowing you feel that way, everything is all right for me, somehow. Come along, Squire Archie. You’d better introduce me to your house-load of Christmas guests.”

 

“I didn’t invite any of them, you know. They just descended. And you mustn’t call me squire, love!”

 

“I suppose you shouldn’t call me love, out here in the open, if it comes to that. Ah, if you could have seen yourself, though – standing on the doorstep surveying your domain, and all the birds flocking to you for shelter!”

 

“For Mrs Nettles’ mince pies, is more like it. Very well, then – come on in, if I’m not to be allowed half an hour with you in the bike shed first.” He took hold of Rufus’s wrist, drew his arm through his own. “We’re allowed this much, aren’t we?”

 

“Yes. We’re allowed this much.”

 

Together they made their way into the house. Archie’s whole attention had focussed on the link between them, where human warmth had made its way through tweed and cotton and was sending up bright signals to his heart. He barely noticed the new shadow falling across the hallway: stopped with a jolt when Rufus did, clamping one hand tight to his arm. “Good Lord, Archie. What’s that?”

 

Archie followed his gaze. The huge stag’s skull had been hoisted over the archway that led to the kitchen, and expertly lashed into place there, tinsel and all. “Ah. Drusilla brought us that as a kind of Christmas gift, although she doesn’t hold with new-fangled modern festivals. He’s for Yuletide, I gather. I’ve no idea how he’s ended up there so quickly – although, having said that, the house is full of able-bodied young men at the moment.”

 

“Oh, really? Who have you got? Captain Meredith must count for one.”

 

“Several, if being an adoring husband qualifies him. Billy Prescott is around here somewhere, come to show off his constable’s uniform. And then of course there’s...” Their eyes met, and they both finished out the thought in rich amusement. “There’s Giles.”

 

Stifled giggles exploded from the living room. Archie’s reflexes weren’t fast enough to pull his arm out of Rufus’s grip, and damned if he would anyway: we can have this much, Rufus had said, and Archie was ready to defend their small permissions and privileges to the death. Straight-faced and steady, he turned to the source of the noise. “Ah,” he said, as urbanely as he could manage. “Rufus, I haven’t yet had the chance to introduce you to...”

Oh, hell. He couldn’t remember their names. Worse, he couldn’t think how to define them, these glittering, silk-clad apparitions. And that was ridiculous, because if they’d been men he’d have simply said that they were Giles’s friends. Distress began to shadow the younger woman’s face, and Giles, as if receiving a silent summons, shot out of the kitchen. He edged past Archie and Rufus, smiling, and went to put an arm around her waist. “My fiancée,” he said firmly, making her beam in pleasure and relief. “And this is her sister, Greta. Ladies, this is Dr Denby, the famous archaeologist I told you about.”

“Oh,” said Loretta, “I’ve read about you in the papers, Dr Denby. Ever so interesting. Such an honour to meet you.”

 

Rufus would always have trouble with women, Archie wryly reflected. Despite his wholly restored reputation and growing fame, he brought a shy charm to introductions which inevitably bowled them over. He had let go of Archie and was stepping forward now, hand outstretched. “I’ve made your acquaintance too, in a way,” he said, and Loretta took his hand and looked as though she’d have liked to kiss it. “Yours too, Miss Lombardi. Archie and I saw you in a film, the last time we were in London. Highly...” He paused, and no-one but Archie would have detected his brief struggle for a word. “Most diverting. It’s my great pleasure to meet you both too.”

Trust Rufus to remember the womens’ faces, to pick out the one link between them. Over time, Archie had learned how close he’d come to losing him to Alice Winborne, who even in her grief had come down like a weary dove in response to his diffident kindness. Greta’s mouth had fallen open. She said, in what might have been meant as a whisper but carried clearly across the room,”Oh, my God, Lorrie. I know what you said, but I can’t possibly choose!”

 

Loretta went scarlet. She grabbed her sister’s arm. “That was a joke,” she hissed. “A joke between us, and a private one, you fool!”

Archie and Rufus watched in bewilderment as she dragged Greta to the door, then out into the hallway. Their voices faded off in a series of yelps and snarls. Giles, left behind and blushing vividly too, turned to face them. “I’m very sorry, gentlemen,” he said. He really was the pink of post-war English perfection, Archie thought, with his handsome, open face and immaculately cut motoring gear. Again over time, the memories of his emergence from the pit beneath the church had begun to seem like a dream. “I’m very fond of Greta, but the truth is that she’s travelling with us because Lorrie is so keen to help her find a husband, and... well, when I told them about the two of you, they had their little joke about which of you Greta would prefer.”

 

“Oh,” was all Archie could think of to say, and was relieved when Rufus added a slightly more articulate, “Good grief.”

 

“I know,” Giles agreed, nodding fervently. “I’d be angry with her, only I do remember how it was when... well, when I was like her. A man in his thirties has the world at his feet, if he’s talented and hardworking, which she is, in her way. An actress that age has to look around her. Most of them jump out of the business to get married, you see.”

 

Archie rubbed his brow. “And... she thought to land here?”

 

“Not seriously. It’s my fault really. I talked to them so much about you both – how kind you were, and how good. One of you a country squire, and the other getting so well known for making all those discoveries... I suppose they’ve come to think of you as what they call a catch.”

 

But I’ve already been caught. Archie didn’t know why he didn’t just say it. He hadn’t dreamed the transformation in the pit, the turning castle where his lungs had been healed by Rufus’s kiss and Gillian had turned into Giles. He was certain that Giles knew. “I’ll tell you what,” he said, keeping a tremor of laughter out of his tone, trying to imagine either himself or Rufus pairing off with such a bird of cinematic paradise. “You and your Lombardis stay here for Christmas. And perhaps you can find a way of telling Greta that, lovely though she is, she’ll find better opportunities...”

 

“Archie, look.”

 

He swung round. For a minute or so he’d been aware that Rufus’s attention had detached itself from the discussion of Greta’s hopes and dreams. Archie was used to these shifts. They happened more and more often, as Rufus healed and regained the gifts that had put him in the archaeological spotlight before his terrible war. He was standing with his hands in his pockets now, to all appearances just a quiet man at the end of a long journey, but his eyes were shining. With one hand he indicated first the great stag’s skull, just visible through the doorway to the hall, and then the painting over the fireplace – George Mount, the vast hilltop labyrinth he had discovered, now visited by historians, folklorists and historians from all over the world. He caught and held Archie’s gaze, smiling. “Look.”

 

Archie couldn’t look anywhere else. After a moment, Giles said, quietly, “Thank you, then, Squire Thorne. Dr Denby. I’ll go and help the ladies unpack.”

 

He strode away. Archie allowed himself a moment to wonder at his powerful movements, the air of sheer masculinity that had brought his polar opposites, the flickering, glittering moths, to flutter around his flame. Then he focused on Rufus. “You’ve discovered something.”

 

“Yes. Isn’t it strange? I could do this before the war, but only occasionally. Then when it all got knocked out of me, and I came to Droyton and...” His voice shook slightly. “And you put it back, you must have added something extra. Because now it happens all the time.”

 

Archie held himself stiffly back. Rufus’s gift for landscape archaeology, for picking out a site without so much as sinking a trench or turning a trowel-ful of soil, had flown them both off to all the round Earth’s imagined corners. Then he saw that Giles had carefully, lovingly closed the door behind him, and he crossed the lily-patterned carpet in four big steps and pulled him into his arms. “Rufus. Dear fellow. Thank God you’re home.”