Thursday, April 03, 2014

An Excerpt from "The Once and Future Lover" in WICKED GAMES.

A pair of chairs had been set up for the royal couple under a bright red canvas awning draped over a wooden frame. Merlin and Nimue stood waiting beneath it, looking deceptively young, like children playing dress-up in tunics of embroidered silk. The pair bowed deeply to the king and queen.
Chattering courtiers fell silent and rose in acknowledgment as Gwen and Arthur entered the courtyard. Catching Merlin’s gaze, the king dipped his chin in a nod of acknowledgement.
To Gwen’s grim pleasure, most of the onlookers appeared worried as they watched him stride onto the field. Mordred’s followers wore expressions of anticipation, as did four lords Arthur had defeated in the battles that followed Uther’s assassination. Gwen made mental note of them, in case she needed revenge later.
She was not in the mood to turn the other cheek.
The kingdom’s elite Knights of the Round Table had gathered in a tense knot off to one side of the awning: Galahad, Bors, Gawain, Tristan, Percival, Marrok, Kay, Cador, Bedivere, and Baldulf. Like Arthur and Lancelot, they were dressed for war in helm and hauberk, shields on their arms and swords hanging at their belts. Mordred stood stonily at the head of his own eleven, though his followers included at least another twenty, most of them the sons of the wealthy. His resemblance to his sire was uncanny, save for his greater height—and the green eyes, as pale and feral as a cat’s.
“Is it my imagination, or does Mordred and his pack of dogs look entirely too confident?” Gwen murmured to Arthur.
“You’re not imagining anything,” he growled. “They expect me to lose. I won’t. Too much rides on this.” His gaze lingered on her face in a way that told her he was talking about her more than his throne.
Gwen stared up at him, struck by the savage determination in his eyes. Shed always known Arthur loved her, of course, but on some level she’d thought he loved his country and his knights at least as much. It was startling to realize he held her dearer than any of it.
His knights started toward them. Arthur and Lancelot advanced to meet them, with Gwen trailing. She broke step as her attention fell on one particular face among those seated around the courtyard.
Gwen and Morgana Le Fay had become unlikely friends soon after Arthur’s former lover appeared at court with her young son. At the time, Gwen hadn’t expected to like the woman, had only meant to pretend friendship as a way to quiet any rumors that Morgana and Arthur were still lovers.
And the ruse had worked. Gwen did not have a reputation as a pliant wife; the court reasoned that if she’d become friends with Morgana, there must be nothing to all those lewd whispers.
Yet if the friendship had started out as pretense, that soon changed when Gwen realized Morgana was as witty and bright as she was beautiful.
Best of all, she was loyal. Morgana had never tried to use their friendship to wheedle riches or favors as too many others did, and she never repeated anything the queen said to her. She quickly became the dearest friend Guinevere had ever had, the one person, other than Arthur himself, whom Gwen trusted without question.
Which was why Gwen worried for her friend now. Morgana’s lovely face wasn’t just pale, it was almost ghostly, and her green eyes looked huge with anxiety.
Gwen couldn’t blame her. No matter what her own feelings were, Morgana would soon have to watch her son either die or kill his father. Another woman might imagine all the riches that would come her way as the mother of the new High King. The healer wasn’t that woman. She was far too intelligent not to see the implications.
Her anguished gaze met Gwen’s. The queen glanced at Arthur, now deep in conversation with his knights, then gestured Morgana over. Her friend shot off the bench and started toward her.
Gwen was so intent on the healer, she ignored the soft ring of approaching chain mail. She realized her mistake when Morgana’s eyes widened in horror.
A male hand clamped over Gwen’s right upper arm hard enough to bruise. Hot breath gusted against her ear as Mordred whispered, “After I’ve killed him, my sweet stepmother, I’ll fuck you. In your cunt and your mouth. In your ar . . .”
She wheeled and slapped him with every ounce of her body weight behind her hand. As he released her in shock, she jerked the dagger from her jeweled belt sheath and plunged it toward the only unarmored part of him she could reach: the underside of his jaw.
Her knife wrist slapped into Mordred’s palm. For all that he looked like a bullock, he was fast.
“You ungrateful cur!” Gwen raged. “I will die before I ever let you touch me!” She lunged at him, her sandaled feet thumping harmlessly on his booted shins, her free hand curling into claws as she went for his eyes. He grabbed her wrist and jerked her off her feet. He didn’t even have to work at it. She was distantly aware of outraged male voices, drowned out by Arthur’s furious bellow.
Gwen barely heard them. She was utterly focused on Mordred’s face, so disturbingly like Arthur’s—except for those cruel eyes. “If you kill my husband, by the womb of the Virgin, I’ll see you dead. Get out of the habit of sleeping, boy. My assassins will come at you from behind every tapestry and column, every rock and hedgerow. You’ll know every smiling friend could belong to me, just waiting to dig that viper’s heart out of your . . .”
“Shut up, Gwen!” Morgana screamed.
Blinking, the queen realized her friend had both arms wrapped around Mordred’s forearm as she desperately tried to keep him from hitting Gwen.
Then Lancelot was there, his fist slamming into Mordred’s jaw so hard, the prince dropped Guinevere and staggered back. She hit the packed dirt of the training field, her head striking hard enough to send stars shooting behind her eyes.
A pair of booted feet came down on either side of her hips. She looked up woozily to see Arthur standing astride her, his sword raised to protect her. “By the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, I am still High King of Britain! Any man who lays hand on my queen dies now!”
“She’s gone barking mad!” Mordred spat. “I but spoke to her, and she tried to bury her dagger in my throat!”
“You threatened to rape me!” Gwen had just enough self-control not to screech the words loud enough for the entire court to hear. Above her, Arthur froze.
“Mordred!” Morgana cried in stricken betrayal. “Guinevere took us in, treated you like her own . . .”
“Because she knew she’d never give Arthur an heir,” Mordred sneered. “That blond bitch is as barren as a salted field. Which is to the good, or she’d have surely presented our king with his champion’s brat.”
“You lying lickspittle cur!” Arthur launched himself at his son, sword aimed at the prince’s throat. Mordred parried and retreated, his gaze icy with calculation.
Arthur’s knights lunged at Mordred’s followers with a chorused roar of outrage. The prince’s men bellowed and drew their weapons. The air filled with clangs and curses as the two groups began to fight.
“Get up, Gwen, before you get trampled!” Morgana swooped down and helped her to her feet.
“Get the queen off the field!” Arthur bellowed at Lancelot, stalking his son with murder in his eyes.
Lance planted his palm against the small of Gwen’s back, urging her toward the dubious shelter of the awning. “Move!” Galahad backed along behind them, keeping an eye out for would-be attackers as he brought up the rear.
“No!” Gwen set her feet, looking back at Arthur. “Protect your king! I’ll go . . .”
Arthur’s sword bounced off something invisible in a cascade of blue sparks.
“Enough!” Merlin’s roar could not possibly have come from the throat of the beardless boy he appeared to be.
Both men flew off their feet as if dragged into the air by an invisible giant. It dropped them again to land, staggering. Everyone else froze in astonishment as Merlin stalked between the two groups of warriors. “You will cease!” the wizard snapped, “Or I will leave this little world of yours to drown in blood, as your vicious nature apparently dictates!”
“He threatened to rape my queen.” Arthur glared at Mordred, who snarled back like a reflection in a demonic mirror. “I’ll see him dead!”
“Kill him, then!” Merlin spat, stepping right against the king’s chest with an expression so savage, the larger man retreated a step in sheer astonishment. “And then watch as humanity sinks into darkness because you lacked the strength of will to control your ugly temper.”
“Who do you think you . . . ?” Arthur began.
Merlin talked right over him. “You are supposed to be High King of Britain, Arthur Pendragon. If you can’t put the good of your people above your pricked ego, you are no good to me.”
“A threat to my wife is not an ego prick.” Arthur glared at Mordred. “Especially not when it’s my own son who threatens her!”
I do not care!” Merlin roared. “This is your test, Pendragon. And you are failing it!
The sound of his voice was like being plunged into a frozen lake. Every hair rose on Gwen’s body in atavistic terror. She wouldn’t have been more astonished if the stripling wizard had turned into a dragon.
She wasn’t alone, either. Every face she saw drained of blood in unison. Men as well as women cried out.
Gwen had never seen her husband retreat from anyone, including other kings, but he actually took a step back from Merlin. Even so, he didn’t let his gaze drop as he curled a lip. “You’ve made your point. I might as well slay my bastard in ten minutes as now.”
Catching Lance’s gaze, he jerked a thumb at the pavilion and the chairs standing there. Lance dipped his head and sheathed his sword. “My queen?” He offered his arm.
Gwen schooled her face, concealing just how shaken she was behind her best regal air, and placed her hand in the crook of his arm. “Morgana, attend me.”
Mordred’s mother blinked once. “Of course, your majesty.” She fell in behind them, all three of them ignoring the astounded stares of their audience in the stands.

WICKED GAMES is out now.  I hope you'll take a look at it; you'll find it here on Amazon, as well as at your local bookstore and B&N. 

Angela Knight

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