Thursday, May 23, 2013

A Short Story!

Let's get this weekend started right! I have here a short story of the Arthurian sort for your amusement. Something just for fun. If you like (or hate) Lancelot and/or Merlin and/or Elaine of Astolat, you may get a kick out of it. Or if you just like strong, tricksy ladies (inspired by historically strong, tricksy ladies) and stalwart knights!

Not quite so much of this, though it is very pretty.


"The dead will spread plague in my city," Elaine says to Lancelot through a messenger's voice. "We cannot keep them inside. I ask only this boon of you, that you let my people pass through the gates to take the dead away. Just a man or two at a time with a wagon; please. It has been a long time since I asked aught of you."

She isn't there to see it and the messenger boy says nothing, but Elaine knows the kind of smirk that spreads over Lancelot's face at her words. Even years later, his face is perfectly preserved in her mind.

"I will grant you this plea," he says, magnanimous with her mounting dead and his impending victory. And she is forced to send the messenger back with her gratitude.

When the whole distasteful business is transacted and the soldiers outside go back to shooting arrows over the outside walls of the castle, Elaine tugs up her thick skirts in her hands and climbs the stairs to look over the wall of the battlements. The exercise is difficult in her whale-bone corset, but her breath comes easier all the same.

The few soldiers - so far fewer, their ranks are so thinned - stationed at the top of the castle flick their eyes to her and give her weary nods. At first they tried to graciously bully her downstairs, but no longer. She has long since made her point, and in any case they are too tired now. Sleep is a wistful memory. Lancelot's men in their bright blue sashes have been outside the walls for six weeks. Elaine leans her forearms against the stone and lets its blunt edge cut into her arms.


The last boon she asked of Lancelot was just for him to stay.


"Milady." Breunor's voice would be familiar to her anywhere; she does not need to turn to look to know him.

And yet she does, she inclines her head and gives him a slight smile, because these are the things that he expects and perhaps she still cares a little for that.

"It is done," she tells him, and turns her face back into the wind. She thinks that she can see a hint of blue down below, in the shadow cast over the side of her walls. "The dead may pass in peace."

Lancelot would have laughed; Elaine would have allowed herself a sly smile with him. Breunor just nods and she does nothing.

"I suppose it is a comfort to know that even he has some honor left. The people will be grateful for your work," he says. Everything about him - his close-cropped hair growing long, his furrowed brow, his arm in a sling - is earnest. Upright. Good.

He is a good man, and she is not.

Breunor thinks she is, but the truth is that she is more like the man outside the gates that she could ever be like him.


Breunor insists on taking her hand to guide her down the stairs. Never mind that his arm is hurt and the angle drags on it; never mind that she made her way up alone. Elaine accepts his help, because there's no way to talk him out of it.

Lancelot would not have offered. But Lancelot is outside the gates, not here.

"How much more food?" she asks at the bottom of the staircase, once Breunor has his breath back and the blood has started to return to his face.

"Enough," Breunor says. His mouth tightens like it does when he's trying not to frown.

They stroll sedately along the corridor, stones thick under her feet and tapestries attempting to trap heat against the wall. When it's quiet like this, Elaine can almost imagine that she's back in those days when it was always quiet. Six weeks is not such a long time, and yet she feels hard-pressed to remember the last time Breunor smiled.

The last time she truly smiled was long before that, back when a dying man whispered words of love to her while he lay across her lap, and she was a fool enough to believe them. She knew better, but - there is no joy like that of speaking with a man who understands not just your words but the meaning behind them. The last man to do that before her all-too-lovely knight was her father, and he has been in the ground so many years that the people do not look for him anymore. They look look for her.

Elaine lifts her chin just as Breunor brushes over her arm with his callused fingertips and says, "Milady, perhaps it is time to leave."

She hides the chill in her blood by narrowing her eyes. "Impossible. Lancelot's army guards more than just the front gate, sirrah. And could I go, I would not."

His fingers wrap around her forearm and tighten; their feet stop. Breunor stares at her with dark, desperate eyes.

"If it was a surprise, in the night, if men went with you - enough men to guard your back while you ran."

Breunor hates surprises. He doesn't believe they are honorable.

Gently Elaine draws her arm back out of his grasp. She shakes her head and tries for a smile that's neither too confident nor too broken.

"Thank you, but no. I still have faith. As should you."

Now his dark eyes are sad; they stare at her and then flit away to the faded tapestries.

"I will try, but milady, it would take a miracle at this point."

Not quite.


The wizard appears to her in her private rooms. He is old and sharp and shadowy and there is green at his cuffs but blue on his cloak and she does not trust him.

"Still you persist with this," he says sadly, and Elaine cannot tell if he approves or not.

"This is my land. I will not hand it - and my people - over like a mere favor." She has done that already. It proved ultimately unsatisfying.

"Death waits outside the gates for your people," Merlin points out. He shuffles closer and stares out the archer's slit in her wall. "Lancelot is a good leader. Would it not be better to cede him control?"

"Would you ask me that if I were a man?" Elaine says softly.

Merlin tilts his head to meet her eyes. "No," he says, almost smiling, and she can't decide if she hates or admires him for his honesty.


That night she walks out in the near-darkness and listens to the rattle of the wagon wheels as an old, thin horse pulls the coffins out of the city. Slowly the gates roll open and she watches the wagon rumble past Lancelot's guards.

"He won't forgive you, you know." She doesn't startle at Merlin's appearance out of the shadows at her side. "He won't understand that you can distrust him and love him at the same time."

Elaine glances over at the wizard's craggy face and sees those eerily bright blue eyes staring back at her. He looks like he's waiting for something.

She turns her head to stare out over the battlements again.

"Will he not?" she says carelessly. She doesn't distrust Breunor; not in the way the wizard means. Breunor would never betray her, not on purpose, but even good men can be manipulated from the outside.

She trusts Breunor with danger. She does not trust him with kindness.

"There are other men," she says softly.

"Are there?" Merlin asks, but when she turns to sneer at him he is gone.


Dinner is hushed and unhappy; Elaine and her few fellow nobles eat well, but even their stores are wearing thin. There is no music or entertainment. Nobody could stomach it, not now.

In the past, bards and fools brought her stories of women who don armor and ride like men; women that tie their hair back and spill blood with their swords.

They think that she will be pleased by these tales, and maybe she is. Some nights they amuse her; some nights they irritate her. But either way, it is of no real matter to her. She will never be a warrior. She must fight her battles in other ways.

Elaine sips her wine and forces herself to sit quietly at the table until all the food is gone. She doesn't once look to the window.


"Do you really have hope?" Breunor asks that night as she turns to take her leave.

Elaine smiles at his serious expression. He expects grim practicality from her. He will get it.

"More than you know."


The next morning Elaine is up before sunrise, pacing the battlements, waiting for the horizon to light. Only one guard keeps her company. The castle grounds are still. Suspiciously still.

"He will come back." Elaine almost sighs as the wizened old man slips into existence beside her. But ladies do not sigh, and she is a lady, or was once, so she continues to breath evenly and give no sign of irritation.

"You do not know Lancelot as I do."

"Undoubtedly true," the wizard jeers. She does tilt a look at him for this, and Merlin gives her a craggy-toothed grin, unrepentant.

"Once beaten, he will consider the thing done." Rosy fingers are beginning to creep over the green hills. Her hills. "Besides, there will be another adventure for him. There will always be another adventure." There always must be another adventure for a man like him. Consistency cannot hope to keep his attention, which is why Elaine and her steady heart lost him to a married woman.

"Ah, it will be done for him. But will it be done for you?"

Elaine tears her hills away from the land long enough to give him a look. Her clothes are more worn than they might be, but she is still the lady of this land.

"What would you propose that I do, throw myself away in the lake?"

"You loved unwisely," Merlin says, which is not an answer. Now his eyes are trained on the horizon too.

"I had another love first," Elaine says softly, and turns to watch the dawn light spread over gently rolling fields strewn with silver-armored bodies.

Nearly all the bodies are decorated with blue sashes.

"You have done it, my lady," the wizard says like a bitter taste in his mouth.

"I have," she says, and smiles.


Some of her precious dead men came back to life only to die again. Elaine watches them troop back through the gates, triumphant but staggering, and feels the lack of men like a blow in her gut. Still, they have won, and she stands tall above the ramparts as a woman runs to the bell tower and starts to pull wildly at the rope, ignoring the tears running down her face.

Elaine wonders if they are happy or sad tears; if her dead man came back to life. If she had one.

The second-in-command who is now the first-in-command reports that Lancelot's troops were taken utterly by surprise in the dark. They slept the deep sleep of the confident. Now they sleep deeper.

"The man himself is alive, I have heard," a voice brushes against her ear, and Elaine turns to see Breunor staring at her with an expression she can't decipher.

"Is that so?" she asks, but her relief is a secret to neither of them. She wishes she didn't feel this way, but she does. She thinks it likely Breunor hates her for it; she would not hold it against him.

But then a rueful smile tugs at the corner of his mouth, and he shakes his head, dark hair spilling over his face.
"It was a clever plan, milady. Send out soldiers instead of the dead, and have them rise up in the night." The smile fades but doesn't entirely disappear. "Dishonorable, but clever."

"Honor is for those who can afford it," she tells him sharply.

Breunor blinks and then looks away.

"I - I thank you, milady," he says. It is Elaine's turn to furrow her brow in puzzlement.

"For what favor?"

He straightens and looks her in the eye. "For not telling me," he admits.

They stand in silence together for a moment. Elaine looks down and watches her people celebrate in the castle grounds, some brave souls already venturing outside the gates to dance in the grass and call the names of their lost cattle. Soon most of them will be gone again, back to the patches of land that are as close as they can come to ownership.

This is as close as Breunor can come to compromising himself. Perhaps it is as close as she can come to loving him.

Neither of them makes to move away.

"What happens now, milady?" he asks.

Even with the taste of victory thick on her tongue, Elaine knows that the legends will likely tell a different story. A woman cannot beat a man; cannot recover from his love. Her story will likely never be told true. She wonders who she will be, in the future - will she weep inside her stone walls and wait for doom to come? Or will she push open the gates herself, welcome the man who scorned her as her conqueror?

A crowd of her people have gathered below and are shouting her name. Beside her, Breunor is smiling and waving with his one arm.

"We will live," Elaine tells him, though he is no longer listening. Her people are throwing flowers over the wall. She plucks one out of the air, threads it through her hair, and listens to her people cheer.


  1. Love this retelling! I've always been a sucker for Arthurian stuff. (And I've totally seen that Waterhouse painting in person. AMAZING.)

    1. ME TOO. I am the biggest sucker for King Arthur & co. I'm super jealous of you, the Waterhouse is gooooorgeous.

  2. I love Arthurian legends! Especially when it's a new take or a different angle.
    Great short!