The following is a first chapter excerpt of The Bear King, sequel to The Hawthorn Throne, and final piece of the duology.
"I swear to the gods above he was clothed in all green!"
Gaheris bent at the waist, hands locked to the edge of the round table, face flushed equally with the heat of the fire that burned at its center and the wine in his blood. In one swift leap, he landed with a clatter among the remnants of the feast, and a great guffaw went up from the Knights seated there. The young man's flaming red hair glowed in the light of the oily torchlight as he took less-than-careful steps amid plates stacked with tarts and hand pies. Mordred watched his adopted brother perform the tale he regaled them with every Yule, the story of their eldest brother, Gawain, and the mysterious Green Knight.
"Cut off my head if any of you are brave enough!" Gaheris' voice boomed over the gathered crowd, and he kicked a goblet from the table for emphasis. It clattered, already empty, to the stone floor, "but in a year's time, I will return the favor."
One of the ladies-in-waiting gave a squeal. Gaheris paused, straightening, and closing his eyes as he wavered slightly on his feet. He snapped them back open, fixing Mordred in his hazel gaze.
"And who stepped forward?" a hush fell over the hall as he leaned over toward him, that familiar smirk etched into his features. Mordred did not allow his face to portray any emotion in response, "who was the bravest of the Alt Clut? Unafraid to meet the green devil's challenge?"
When no one answered, Gaheris stood up and raised his arms over his head.
"Well?!" he demanded.
"Gawain!" the Knights raised their goblets and shouted in unison. Gawain himself was seated opposite the table from Mordred, looking quite green himself as his younger brother ritualistically embarrassed him, as he did every year. The tale was a true one, but not the way Gaheris told it, with fresh embellishments at every opportunity. Gaheris jumped down from the table and took a seat on Ser Lamorak's lap. The willowy Lamorak wrapped one tender arm about his lover's waist as Gaheris continued the story, slipping his freckled fingers around a fresh goblet of wine. Mordred winked at Gawain and then stood from the table. Moving around those gathered to hear the tale, he strode toward the throne at the other side of the hall. King Artorious was seated there, one hand stroking the thick blond beard on his chin, the other faceted to the dragon head that made up the arm of the throne.
"No stomach for Gaheris the minstrel this year?" asked Artor, his pale blue eyes twinkling mischievously.
"I could get up there and do it myself," said Mordred sitting down upon the steps of the dais and leaning back on his hands, "but he tells it so artfully."
"That is one way to describe it," said the king, laughing ruefully into his own goblet as he took a long drink. The music was more audible in this portion of the hall, not drowned out by the merriment at the other end. Mordred closed his eyes and relaxed into the dulcet notes of the fife and drum. Unlike most everyone else in the room, he remained mostly sober, a habit of his having grown up around the Orkney brothers who were more like to be drunk than not, given the opportunity. His moment of peace was shattered as the doors to the hall flew open. The cold winter wind rushed across the space between the archway and the throne, fluttering tapestries and sending shadows across the room as the torches sputtered and fought against the breeze. Mordred stood, one hand resting instinctually on the sword at his right hip. Gaheris gave a loud complaint at being interrupted but hushed as Lamorak shooed him off his lap and stood at the ready.
The click of wood against stone echoed from pillar to pillar as a stranger stepped through the doors. Mordred recognized the glint of a spear in their hand. Before they had even made it to the round table, Ser Luc cut them off, stepping into their path with his imposing form.
"And who might you be?" the general's rumbling voice broke the thick stillness.
The stranger unwrapped their face, which had been shielded from the winter air by a thick shawl of richly dyed wool. A collective gasp rippled its way toward Mordred and Artorious, and he stepped down to get a closer look at the newcomer.
It was a woman, robbed in expertly made Numidian armor of leather and bright silks. She was tall but not imposing when compared with the brute of a man blocking her path. Her dark skin shone in the light of the moon, filtering in through the doorway behind her.
"Are you Ser Llwch du Lac?" her voice was low and sweet as honey.
The woman straightened, her feet parted and planted to the floor in a powerful stance.
"My name is Ghada," she sank down to one knee, still gripping her spear in her right fist, "I am the daughter of one of your closest companions, Ser Bors."
Another wave of whispers washed over the hall. Mordred glanced at the accused Ser Bors whose skin had gone ashy in shock. He glanced back at the woman, who raised her head to look up into Luc's stony gaze. Her hair was braided tightly across her scalp and then bloomed into its full mass of black curls behind her ears and down her long neck.
"I have traveled here over many months from my homeland of Aksum to join your Alt Clut and fight by my father's side in the name of King Artorious."
Every eye in the room shifted to Artor as he stood. Mordred studied his expression. The king looked curious, amused even. Artorious' voice was calm and welcoming as he spoke.
"You are most welcome here Ghada of Aksum," he stepped down from his throne, the crowd parting before him like blades of grass, "but if you are here to join my most trusted circle of knights, you must prove yourself first."
The woman stood, her face stoic.
"How might I do that?" she asked.
Artorious smiled as he approached her.
"Traditionally, you must prove yourself against my best fighter."
Ghada slammed the butt of her spear into the floor beneath her, the sound cracked loudly in Mordred's ears.
"I accept this challenge."
"Then you shall fight—"
"My Lord," Luc began to protest his involvement, "I do not think—"
Artor turned, one arm raised, pointing authoritatively.
Mordred felt his face pale in shock as he took a step backward. Heads turned from Luc to gaze at him, wearing matching expressions of surprise. Gaheris stared at him, gaping like a fish, his eyes darting from Ser Luc to him and then back again.
"My Lord?" Luc's voice wavered.
Artorious smiled genuinely at Mordred and then turned back to Ghada.
"Yes," Mordred felt his stomach give a flip as the king reiterated his choice, "Mordred it shall be."
There was a pregnant pause as the decision settled over the room. Mordred blinked in surprise.
"Well," Artor spread his arms before him in a grand gesture, "shall we begin?"
Check out this fun guide to the worldbuilding, lore, and research that went into this duology on my profile!
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