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Under Camelot’s Banner — Prologue

My wandering monk returned today.

He found me brooding in the apple orchard where I sat hoping, without really believing, that the meagre sun of this green island would bake some of the pain from my crooked bones.

“You are troubled, Brother Kai,” he said, in his bluff, booming voice.

“Memory,” I said, making room for his broad frame on my stone bench.  “An old man’s last and bitterest companion.”

“And what brought on these memories that so darken your brow on one of the finest days God ever wrought?”  There was a twinkle in his eye as he said it, letting me know he was attempting to goad me into better humour.

“The market has been here this past week.  Some of the brothers helped walk me around it.  Not that I have anything to exchange for goods, but they thought to give the old man a change of scenery, and some of the younger brothers find me an amusing and slightly dangerous companion.”  I am sure I smiled then, but my monk is not easily shocked, nor is he the sort to scold.  These are attributes that make him an easy companion.  “There were all manner of mountebanks and tricksters there, as there are at such gatherings, but there was a harper too.  Perhaps the man was a true bard in the old style, I do not know.  But as the brothers brought me forward to listen, the harper turned to a lay of Tristan and Iseult.  It seemed as if he knew me and had been waiting for me to come.”  I am a distinctive figure, prodigiously lame as I am, and such men may be paid well in advance for their songs.  After all these long years, the fate of Iseult on Britain’s shores still rankles with the men of Eire, and she still has kindred here.

“And did you speak to him?”

I had indeed spoken, demanding to know what pig had taught the man to sing.  I mocked his voice and manner until the crowd roared with laughter, and the man sat there, watching me.  He took my mocking with a calm that would not be shattered.  It is a poor thing to make such a spectacle of oneself, and I was not ready to confess to it.

The monk took my silence as answer enough.

“Did you know them?”  he asked after awhile.

“Sir Tristan I knew, a little, the short time he was a knight at the Round Table.  A bold youth.  A warrior to make his enemies quake in their saddles.  Queen Iseult I never knew at all.”

“Is it as men say now, that there was a potion of love drunk between them?”

I laughed a little at this.  Let it loose into the world, and how much a history may change!  Were there any left on either shore who had not heard this version of the tragedy?  Sir Tristan came to Ireland to defeat an Irish king and fell head over heels in love with that same king’s wise daughter.  But – oh, fell fate!  – he must deliver her up to his own lord, King Mark who demands her hand to make the peace and to spite Sir Tristan, of whom he has grown jealous.

The stories diverge after that.  Here in the land of Eire one will hear that Sir Tristan arranged for Queen Iseult to be kidnapped so that he might effect her rescue and take advantage of her.  On the Briton’s strand, you hear that as the lovers crossed the ocean, they accidentally drank a potion given to a servant by Iseult’s kin and, by its power fell into an unbreakable passion one with the other.  So strong was this passion that when Tristan believed Iseult dead, he died of a broken heart, and then Iseult succumbed herself to the same malady when she saw Tristan in his tomb.

“It makes a fine story does it not?”  I answered tartly.  “The potion absolves the pretty pair from having to think about what they’re doing.  He was a liege man of the High King and she was married to an embattled king, and childless to boot.  Oh, yes, a pretty story.”

The monk cocked his head towards me.  “Do you know it to be untrue then?  I thought you had never known the queen?”

“Her I did not know, but I knew one who did.  A girl sent to Tintagel for fostering.  Lynet was her name, and she, to her sorrow, knew far too intimately what befell Tristan and Iseult.”  Memories, too many of them old and sour, came to me.  “It is a hard thing to be caught up in the stories of the great,” I said.

He looked at me keenly.  “As it is to be brother to a hero?”

“Just so.”  I think he knew how close to my heart he struck, but my monk is not one to apologize for the wounds his honesty brings.

“Well.”  He stood, taking up his staff.  “It would seem to me that to exorcise this bitterness of yours, you must draw out that memory with the balm of ink and paper.”

And so I shall.  Herewith I set it down.  Not the tale of Sir Tristan and Queen Iseult, of which I was, by God’s mercy, spared the witness of, but of Lynet of Cambryn who was far less fortunate than I.  Let this tale stand as evidence of the true nature of love, and how the brave soul carries itself in the face of the worst that may come.

Let me begin.

Kai pen Hir ap Cynyr

At the Monestary of Gillean, Eire

 

Chapter One

Lynet Carnbrea stood beside her siblings atop the watchtower in the first light of spring’s chill dawn, listening to the bishop proclaim the holy words, and trying not to shiver.

For the Lord thy God bringeth thee into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and depths that spring out of valleys and hills!” Bishop Austell’s voice rang out in the crystalline air of dawn, lovingly drawing out the long and stately Latin.  “A land of wheat, and barley, and vines, and fig trees, and pomegranates; a land of oil, olive, and honey!”

It was crowded on the watchtower’s heights, with Lynet, her brother Colan, their older sister Laurel, Father Lucius to hold the Holy Writ and the bishop to declaim the verse.  Laurel tucked a strand of pale hair back under her hood and pressed close to Lynet so they might better share their warmth.  The salt winds whipped around their heads, forcing their way under fur-lined hoods, woollen cloaks and even between laces and seams.  On the horizon, the sun’s light stretched out red and gold above the distant moor.  Lynet could just barely make out the glowing remains of the bonfires that had burned all night.  Men and women still moved sluggishly around the pools of glowing coals.  They stretched, they embraced, some still danced, having trod the fires down to ash already.

Day had come, spring had come.  The waters were clear of ice, and all the world would live again.  In other places this rite was not held until the first of May.  But in the land above the River Camel, they celebrated the thaw when the river ran free of ice and the tinning could begin again.

Every spring, Lynet came up here with her family to greet the dawn and hear the call to work the turning of the year and the quickening of the season.

They were a widely varied group, the children of Steward Kenan and Lady Morwenna.  Laurel, the oldest of them, was so pale she might have been a wraith of dawn.  Her braid of white-gold hair hung over the shoulder of her substantial brown cloak and the warming morning light shone in her pale green eyes.  Colan, Lynet’s long-limbed, sparsely bearded brother was darker than Laurel, but not by much.  He stood with one foot on the parapet, looking over the rocky country that spread around them.  His hair was tarnished brass, and where Laurel’s eyes were as green as the sunlit sea, his were like that same sea under a storm cloud.  Indeed, there were those who said that it was not Steward Kenan who had fathered these children, but one of the morverch, the people of the sea.  No one, however, said it where the steward could hear.

Of them all, only Lynet resembled their solid father.  Like him, her hair was a rich chestnut, her eyes summer hazel and her skin golden in the winter and brown in the summer.

Steward Kenan did not stand with his children this morning, and Lynet found her gaze drifting towards the west, towards Tintagel where he had gone.

How do you fare, my father?  she wondered.  What do you speak of with King Mark?  Does he speak to you at all?

Bishop Austell drew in a final breath and cried, “A land wherein thou shalt eat bread without scarceness, thou shalt not lack anything in it; a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills thou mayest dig brass.  Amen!”

The prayer shook Lynet out of her thoughts, and she was grateful.  She had no wish at all to dwell on what might or might not be happening at Tintagel.  Beside her, Colan raised his great hunting horn and blew long and hard, sending the curling note out across the countryside.  When the last echo died away, the bishop smote the stones with his crook, and called out, “Rise up!  Rise up!  Rise up all you men!  Rise up all you women!  The waters run clear, and the Lord of all the Earth calls you forth!”

In this fashion, Bishop Austell led them all down the tower’s twisting stairs: Father Lucius and the great Bible first, then Laurel, Colan, and Lynet.  Together, they marched out into the sprawling cluster of dwellings that formed the castell called Cambryn.

“Rise up!” they cried.  “Rise up you men!  Rise up you women!  The Lord of All the Earth calls you forth!”

Cambryn had grown out of the soil over many generations.  The paths between the stone and thatch houses with their little courtyards spread out like old roots.  They delved into earth and stone to reach the cellars and storage chambers that were also hiding places in times of war or great storm.  Then they pushed up to meet the great timbered hall with its central tower, second storey and roof of pale slate.

Any other morning, if someone had marched through the castell bellowing at the top of his lungs, the people would have risen slowly from their beds, rubbed the sleep from their eyes and cursed him mightily.  Not this morning.  Cambryn’s folk surged out of their houses, beating sticks, pots, kettles, stones, whatever might add to the joyful riot of noise.  Some wore holly crowns on their heads, or the first of the snowdrops tucked into belts and hoods.  Some hoisted leathern bottles of strong drink.  Children skipped between their elders, adding their own piping voices to the racket.  The bishop’s cry was fast drowned out by the song taken up by each and every new voice.

 

“Rise up, all you women!

All in your gowns of green!

Rise up and greet the morning!

Rise up for Heaven’s Queen!”

 

Another procession snaked down from the heath.  This one carried the king and queen of the day hoisted high on two chairs.  It was Deane and Nance this year.  Both strong and fair, they had been clad in loose robes of red and green.  Garlands of holly and ribbons twined in their hair and about their waists.  Each carried a stave decked with tin bells that they shook to add to the clamour.  They clasped hands over the heads of the crowd, their faces flushed with dance and drink and celebration.  There was some noise that they’d been out the night before, not merely treading the fires down to bring luck and health, but observing an older practice which would stretch the bishop’s patience to its limit.  The thought made Lynet’s own spine stiffen, but she prayed they’d come to their senses, and the altar, if that were so.

 

“Rise up all you young men!

All in your tunics red!

Rise up and greet the morning!

Greet the Lord of all the Earth…”

 

The procession descended the steep river valley.  They stormed into the forest, their singing shaking the branches that made a living roof overhead and causing the birds to cry out in angry response.  At last they reached their destination.  Up ahead, the River Camel ran chattering down the rocky hillside, as clear and cold as the morning around them.  The weirs and sluices waited open and empty.  The great kettles of ale that had been warming all night with wrinkled crab-apples bobbing in the amber brew stood on the bank.  The ale’s smell hung heavy in the air, mingling with the scent of the warm bread that had been brought down from the hall.

Lynet’s stomach growled, but she hung back with the others, waiting for Bishop Austell.  The sturdy churchman marched into the stream.  As the frigid water lifted up his robe’s hems and swirled around his knees, he raised his holly-twined crook once more.

For thou shalt eat the labour of thine hands: happy shalt thou be, and it shall be well with thee,”  he cried.  “Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine by the sides of thine house: thy children like olive plants round about thy table!  Behold!  That thus shall the man be blessed that feareth the Lord!”

Laurel stepped forward, took up a ladle full of the warm ale from the nearest kettle and passed it to the bishop.  He poured a long libation into the river waters, and then drank down the rest himself.  When he had emptied the dipper, he lifted up his head, ale still dripping down his beard.  Lynet moved to stand beside her sister, who handed Bishop Austell a honeyed cake from the basket of breads.  He crumbled the cake into the river.

In nomine Patre, et File, et Spiritus Sancte.”  Bishop Austell drew the sign of the cross over all.

At this sign, the folk of Cambryn surged forward, lowering their festival king and queen to receive their own offerings.  Laurel refilled the ladle so they might drink.  Lynet popped pieces of sweet, sticky cake into their mouths.  With each motion the crowd roared its approval.  Deane and Nance kissed, clasped their hands and shook their bells.  The folk cheered once more and planted the king’s and queen’s chairs on the riverside, so ‘their majesties’ could oversee the work and celebration, and give blessing or pass judgement on what they saw.  The rest of the folk danced in and out of the river, barefoot, never minding the cold.  They swung their shrieking, giggling children from bank to bank.  Lynet and Laurel remained by the massive kettles and baskets, offering food and drink to all who demanded it.  The people kissed and laughed and partook eagerly of what was offered.

In the midst of this revelry, the men stripped off their shirts, took up their picks, and began attacking the ragged hillside, loosening great chunks of earth and stone down into the sluices and the baskets.  There were not as many of them as there had been in years past.  War and raiders had carried off husbands and sons alike.  So a number of the goodwives and their daughters waded into the stream beside the men, their hems tucked into their waistbands so they could wield the baskets and the sieves.

Colan stepped briskly up for his ale and his cake.  He gave Lynet a broad wink before he stripped naked to the waist and waded into the river with the rest of the men.  He’d toil beside them all day, adding his sweat to the libations already offered for the river, the tin and God’s blessing.

The great sieves rattled as hands shook them hard, sifting out the dirt and the dust.  Then, one woman dipped her hand in and pulled out a rock flecked with silver that glinted in the rising sun.  The first of the ore had been found.

Another mighty cheer went up.  The festival king and queen kissed long and lustily.  Lynet added her voice to the cheering and raised a dripping ladle.  Bishop Austell drank deep once more, and Lynet sipped.  The brew was warm and welcome, but she had only eaten a mouthful of bread as yet, and she did not need the strong drink’s dizziness added to the effects of a sleepless night.

Suddenly, a man’s voice rose up over the clamour and the laughter.  The tone of command and warning was so clear and so different from the merry riot about them that all went silent in an instant.

On top of the fell stood a small host of men, ten in number, Lynet counted.  Two on horse, the rest on foot.  She did not know any one of them.  All were dirty and windblown.  Their hair stuck out in all directions where it was not braided tight, and travel had heavily stained their dull woollen cloaks.  The men on horseback had swords and knives at their belts, and those on foot carried pole-arms that had been used at least as hard as the men.

The two leaders rode their horses forward to the very edge of the hillside.

“We seek the Steward of Cambryn!” boomed the right-hand man.  He had the colouring of an autumn fox, dark red hair with keen black eyes.  His chin was stubbled by only a traveller’s scrubby beard, but his moustaches hung down almost to his waist.

Colan, soaked to the knees, his dripping arms filthy with mud, straightened up.  He surveyed these newcomers, and saw, Lynet was sure, how they all went armed.

“Steward Kenan is not here,” he said.  “He has gone to Tintagel to take counsel with King Mark.”

Discreet of you, brother, thought Lynet, half with admiration and half with irony.  Gone to plead more like, and all Mark’s other vassals with him.

“I am Lord Colan, the steward’s son, and I stand here for him at this time.”  He hoisted himself out of the stream, mustering what dignity he could, filthy, dripping and half-naked as he was.  “I do bid you welcome, Chief Mesek Kynhoem, and you Chief Peran Treanhal.”

Kynhoem.  Treanhal.  Now she could place these men.  Their peoples lived to the north and east of Cambryn’s borders.  They lived by their kyne mostly, growing some small crops to feed the beasts and themselves.  They came up from the moors from time to time, to trade and to reaffirm their loyalties to the steward and the absent queen.  There had been trouble between them recently, she remembered hearing.  A raiding that had left some men dead.  But she thought the blood-price had been settled before Lord Kenan had left.  What brought them here now?

The second man, Peran Treanhal, was the taller of the two.  His brown hair was thin on top, letting his speckled pate show through, but still long enough behind to make a stout braid that hung down his back.  His hawk-like face had been horribly burned on its right side.  The flesh was pebbled and puckered and his eye and mouth both twisted and pulled.  The back of one long, raw hand was mottled red and white as well.  The whole sight made Lynet wince in sympathy.

“I am here for justice, Lord Colan,” Peran said.  His voice was painfully harsh, and Lynet looked again at his burns.   The fire that gave him those burns got its smoke down his throat as well… ”There has been murder done.”

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