The antechamber behind the throne was crammed with bodies. Stifled sobbing occasionally interrupted by shouts and the general noise of battle that permeated through the small oaken door. It was dark, save for the erratic flicker of a single torch.
"What if they break through the gate?"
"I want mum," Gareth's face pulled back from the damp splotch it had created on Agravain's shoulder.
"I know," his older brother said with a strained expression.
Riona turned her gaze to where Artorious was pacing furiously in the corner. His displeasure at being kept from the fight was palpable. Riona thought of the young boy wielding a sword against the Saxons that had raided her village and silently thanked whatever god had kept him here instead.
Gwenivar was surrounded by a clump of her ladies, whispering comforts to each of them. She looked anxious but unafraid. In a moment, she wriggled her way from the group and joined Riona, where she sat with the Orkney boys.
"Riona," said the queen as she knelt down, "I willn't sit here and wait for death."
Riona's eyebrows shot up her forehead. "What else do you plan to do?"
Gwenivar's eyes glinted with an unspoken thought. "I am a Pict," she said beneath her breath, "I was not raised to hide in the dark while the men fight."
Riona swallowed thickly. "That's very brave, but—"
"Look around you," the queen interrupted.
Riona did as she was told. "And?"
"Where is Luc?"
The thought struck Riona in the stomach. "Merlin's tower."
"And where is Merlin?"
Riona said nothing; her mouth suddenly dry. The commander had been forgotten in the chaos of the attack.
"Luc is defenseless," whispered Gwenivar, "I will not leave him to die alone."
"I am sure it willn't come to that," said Riona wistfully, not quite believing the words she spoke.
"If you don't join me, I will go alone."
Riona hesitated. "No. I will come with you," she stood, feeling Gareth tug on her hand. "Though I willn't be of much use.
Gwenivar smiled mischeviously. "I'll be the judge of that." She tapped her fingers against her lips for a moment. "First, I need a weapon." She glanced about the room. Her eyes rested on Palamedes, who had been left behind to defend the king as a last resort.
"Distract him," Gwenivar commanded Gareth.
Gareth, to Riona's surprise, hopped up to do as he was told. Palamadeds looked down at the red-headed boy with a quizical expression as he approached. Soon Gareth had the knight's bow and quiver in his hands, asking Palamedes everything from what it was like to be a part of the Alt Clut to what he had for breakfast. Gareth's non-stop babble and Palamades' eagerness to please kept them occupied as Gaheris and Agravaine joined in, allowing Gareth to sneak away, bow and quiver in tow.
"Thank you," said the queen, planting a kiss on the young boy's forehead as he handed her the weapon. Gareth blushed furiously beneath his thick swath of freckles, distinctly reminding Riona of Gawain. Before anyone could pay them any mind, Gwenivar dragged Riona out the door and into the main hall, which was deserted and eerily quiet.
"This way," whispered Gwenivar.
She led Riona through a side door. They passed through the kitchens where a fire still roared unattended in the hearth, several loaves of bread burnt to a crisp within. Next came a series of pantries and storage rooms until, at last, they discovered the courtyard. The din of battle immediately surrounded the women. What remained of Artorious' army was clustered around the main gate. The two of them slipped unnoticed into Myrddin's tower. Gwenivar took the stairs two at a time, arriving out of breath and ragged at the top. With gruff push against the door, she nearly toppled into Myrddin's chamber, Riona panting as she caught up.
The room was dark and still.
Riona stumbled forward in the gloom until she found the bedside table and lit a candle. The small flame leapt out perilously into the shadows, illuminating the bed and Luc's resting form.
Gwenivar sat beside her lover delicately. Her fingers found their way to his face, tracing the lines of the thin beard that had formed without his attentive care.
"Riona," said the queen hesitantly, "would you...would you wake him?"
Riona nodded and rummaged momentarily among Myrddin's vials and herbs until she found what she needed. She uncorked the small flask beneath Luc's nose and waited. In little time he sputtered to life with a groan, one hand to his chest. He lifted it when his fingertips met the layer of bandages, eyes wide with confusion until they settled upon Gwenivar.
"Gwen—" He reached out and took her face in his hands, then suddenly aware they were not alone, let his arms fall back down.
"It's alright," said the queen softly, her face warm and open, "Riona knows."
Luc's eyes slowly drifted to Riona, filled with a wild mixture of emotion. "What has happened?"
"Camalann is under attack—" Before Gwenivar could finish the thought, Luc was struggling to get up.
"Lay down," the queen commanded.
Luc visibly balanced his duty and his love for her. The latter seemed to win out because he slowly lay back down onto the bed, his eyes still glinting with anxious questions.
"You are in no condition to do anything about it."
"I remember the tourney, I was fighting Aidan and then..." his voice drifted off.
"Aidan wounded you," said Riona thickly. "Mortally. It was only through Merlin's magics we were able to save you."
Luc stared up at the ceiling, absorbing this information. "Are we safe here?"
The queen shook her head.
"Then you must go," he pleaded with her, "Please, Gwen—"
Riona watched the silent battle of wills. No words were spoken, but they still seemed to know what the other was thinking. Finally, Gwenivar leaned forward and kissed Luc tenderly. Luc's fingers hovered above her cheeks as if her skin were a flower and he the bee. Then with renewed courage, he slowly tangled his fingers in her hair and kissed back. Riona felt a moment of embarrassment before turning and moving out onto the balcony that overlooked the courtyard and the battle raging below.
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The Hawthorn Throne (Book 1, The Blood Of Emrys Duology)Fantasy
Aidan and Riona, an outcast and a witch, must survive the dark ages and unravel the threads of two kingdoms tied together by prophecy and blood. ***** In the Kingdom of Elmet, a b...