When First I Met My King

Book One in the Arthur Quartet

This is book one of Lance and Arthur's story. Book two is The Dragon's Tale, and book three, The Greenwood And The Grail, will release in August 2018.

Once upon a time, there was a winter that wouldn’t end. And all that’s standing between the people of White Meadows and starvation is a young man called Lance.

He’s sixteen years old, and for all his courage and hunting skills, he’s running out of fight. His family has been wiped out in a border raid, and he’s drowning in loneliness. When strangers arrive at White Meadows, all Lance can think of is using his last strength to drive them away.

 

But these men have come in peace, not to burn and destroy. Among them is a hot-headed, utterly charming prince-in-training named Arthur.

 

For Lance, Arthur’s arrival is like the return of the sun. The prince has everything – learning, battle skills, a splendid destiny. But as the days unfold in the remote northern settlement in the shadow of Hadrian’s Wall, it soon becomes clear that Arthur needs Lance, too.

Excerpt

Lance stumbled up the last few steps of the crag. The Wall was falling into disrepair here, and it didn’t take him long to reach its crest. He halted, one hand poised on the hilt of the sword.

 

The white hart had vanished. Instead, making their way boldly along the valley road to Vindolanda, a dozen men were riding.

 

Saxons! The thought flashed like lightning through Lance’s mind. His only evidence was the colour of their hair, shining gold and red in the sun. Danes, perhaps... It didn’t matter. Saxons and Vikings seizing land here, Goths and Vandals descending on Rome in such brutal hordes that the army had abandoned towns like Vindolanda and left them to burn... Every loss Lance had endured was the fault of raiders like these, a small-scale invasion he would stop with his own hands right now.

 

With his own sword. He unhitched the weapon and it seemed to leap to his grasp, no longer a burden but a living extension of himself and his rage. Yes, he would stop them, if his own blood had to be the price.

 

The riders came to a halt on the road. Had they seen him? Lance almost hoped so. He felt ten foot tall, a vengeful giant on the dragon’s spine. But as he watched, one of the men pointed in the direction of the V-shaped notch in the ridge to the east, to the place where the burn poured through.

 

The turret, magical gateway guarding the moor. Lady Viviana’s moor, Lance’s sole refuge… Fury swept like a blizzard through his mind, whiting out all thought, all sense of self-preservation, all sanity. He dropped back down the north side of the Wall, landed lightly as a cat, and began to run.

 

***

 

It was Bear who had spotted the water. His guardian, a straight-spined old soldier of Roman descent named Ectorius, nodded in approval. The boy must learn to be aware of the needs of horses and troops, and become adept in meeting them. Their journey had been long, and the animals were thirsty. Ectorius nodded, giving permission for him to lead off toward the glittering burn.

 

They had almost reached the ruined turret when Bear reined in his horse and stood listening. Ectorius exchanged a glance with his own son, Gaius. Neither of them could hear anything but skylarks, and the long-billed water birds called curlew which sang so joyously up on these moors when the sun came out.

 

It was shining brilliantly now. The locals all the way from Pons Aelius in the east had complained of an endless winter, and although Ectorius had seen signs of it—barely the beginnings of growth in the fields, the people thin and weary, lambs few—all around them, this spring day was perfect. The good weather seemed to be following them. Gaius, a big, raw-boned lad, with a face as kind and ugly as his father’s own, had teased Bear that the sun had started to shine from his regal backside, and the boy had begun to take such nonsense good-naturedly, instead of trying to engage his foster brother in mortal combat every time they quarrelled. Now, as often, Bear had seen or heard something imperceptible to other senses, and Ectorius had learned to take him seriously.

 

“What is it?” he softly asked.

 

“I’m not sure. Someone coming, I think. But he moves like a cat, or the wind.”

Ectorius drew his sword. He motioned to the armed grooms travelling with them to take up defensive positions. Their journey had been safe so far, but up here in the borders, so the tales said, little Pictish hunters could emerge from the very hills to seek their prey. Their reputation was uncanny. Blue ghosts who sailed in on the wind and snatched up lambs and babies from cradles… It was nonsense, of course, Celtic twilight, but nevertheless he made ready.

 

Yes. He could hear it now, too. Light, running footsteps. Bear had trotted his horse forward to meet the sound, almost into the shadow of the turret’s arch. Ectorius didn’t think there was much to worry about, and he knew that from now on he had to let the boy fight his own battles. Reining back his horse, gesturing to the others to do the same, he kept a discreet watch.

 

It was just a lad, and a skinny one at that. But he leapt with such force from the reeds behind the arch that Bear did not stand a chance: in an instant he was dragged from his mount and down into the stream. His thin, dirty assailant crashed into the water with him. “Saxon!” the newcomer bellowed, shoving Bear under the surface, sending rainbows flying. “Danish pig! This land will never be yours. I defy you!”

 

Bear was startled into passivity. He was winded, too, and shocked by the water’s cold sting. It was an instant only. Ectorius watched in approval as he twisted out from under and sprang to his feet. His sword had never left his hand. “Saxon?” he demanded in his turn. “Dane? How dare you, you savage? I am prince of Cerniw, and my father was the son of the Dragon of the South, as good a Briton as ever lived!”

 

The blade flashed. The dark-haired lad staggered up out of the water and jumped back, but only far enough to draw his own weapon.

 

Ectorius leaned forward in his saddle. This stranger bore a sword such as the old Roman had never seen, and he wielded it well. Too well for his protégé? Ectorius tensed. If the boy fell, all was lost…

 

Then, suddenly, the very air changed. The flaring rage between Bear and his opponent seemed to fall out of it like scales. Bear had been schooled in the rules of combat, and apparently so had his opponent, although God alone knew where. Engagement with a worthy foe must be fair. Soldiers on the battlefield could hack at one another like butchers, but this boy had offered himself one-on-one. Bear found his balance, waited till the other was firm on his feet too, and made his move.

 

Blade hit blade, and sparks flew.

 

Ectorius watched the fight progress. Bear was putting into practice all he had been taught, and keeping his head, too, which could not always be counted on. The other, after his initial burst of rage, had settled into a combat stance that was almost cool, and heaven only knew where he had got that astounding sword. Bear was actually smiling—had breath and poise to ask, between parries, “Well, what are you, moorland warrior? A long-legged Pict?”

 

Pict?” the other demanded, accurately mimicking Bear’s outraged echo of Saxon. “I am Lance, son of King Ban of Vindolanda…” He paused, long enough to spring up the stream bank, obliging Bear to move after him, fighting uphill.

 

“As good a Roman as ever drew breath.”

 

“Oh? I am Roman, too, by upbringing.”

 

The boy called Lance seemed to consider this, although he didn’t ease the ferocity of his attack. “In that case we probably have no fight.”

“Probably not,” Bear admitted. He was getting the worst of it. Childishly he added, “But you started it!”, and lunged in with an uncontrolled thrust whose force Lance effortlessly caught and turned against him, dumping him backover into the water once more.

 

The splash was considerable. Gaius roared with laughter. Lance put up his sword at once and waded in, one hand extended to help.

 

And Cerniw’s heir lost his temper. He scrambled to his feet, evading the other boy’s grasp. His hair swung round his face like a wet lion’s mane, and he seemed from somewhere to gain a foot in height. “Peasant!” he snarled. “You have no idea who I am! How dare you block my way, here or anywhere in this land?”

 

Ectorius frowned in an effort to keep his face straight. It felt like only yesterday he had watched the child being chased by its nurse around his courtyard for a change of undergarments, but he held his tongue: like the fighting, within certain bounds he must let the budding regality have sway. Lance only looked disgusted. What a change came over that handsome face, when his smile was replaced by disdain! He turned his back and began to walk away.

 

A mistake. In this state of mind, Bear would not be ignored. And he was a good boy, Pendragon’s heir, but he had the hot blood of both his parents—the warrior king, and the bride he had stolen, starting a war in the process, and she just as much of a spitting wildcat as her new lord could handle—running through his veins. He could only take so much, Ectorius knew, for all the lessons in courteous defeat he had tried so patiently to learn. He might have been gracious, had Gaius not laughed. Instead, he grabbed Lance by the shoulder, spun him round and knocked him down with a flying punch.

 

Ectorius jumped off his horse. “Arthur!” he barked. “Stop that at once. How dare you treat a brave warrior so shabbily?” He strode across the stream. A time would soon come when he would not be able to clout his ward over the head to restore his manners, but until then, Ectorius retained full parental privilege. Bear took the blow without flinching, as he had been taught, his eyes wide and fearless on his guardian’s.

 

Then Ectorius glanced down. The lad lay motionless and pale on the turf. His eyes were closed. “By Our Lady, Art. What have you done?”

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.”