A boldly imagined tale of the early days of King Arthur's court.
The newly crowned King Arthur has yet to win the support of the people. Merlin must do something before the king is betrayed, or murdered, or--worst of all--gets married. So Merlin creates a trick: a sword magically placed into a slab of rock that only Arthur can withdraw. Then he lets it be known that whosoever removes the blade will rule all of England, and invites any man who would dare, to try to pull out the sword.
But then someone else pulls the sword out first. . . .
PRINCE GAWAINE took the stone steps two at a time, trying to guess why his mother, the queen, had sent for him. She only did that when she was angry with him, or wanted something from him, which usually came to the same thing. Either that or she was going to recite his stupid bloodlines again.
"I've half a mind," he said, puffing a bit as the steps were steep and many and he hadn't climbed them in a while, "half a mind to tell her what I've decided." He stopped on the landing and took a deep breath. "That I don't want to be king of Orkney. Not now. Not when I turn eighteen. Not ever."
He smiled faintly, having spoken aloud what he had been thinking secretly for over a year. Though of course he hadn't said it aloud to his mother, just aloud to the stone walls.
Let Agravaine have the throne, he thought fiercely. Or the twins. He took a deep breath. Or that brat Medraut. He started up the stairs again, still taking them on the double and thinking crankily about his mother and the throne. He knew that even if they were given the throne in his place, none of his brothers would have a chance to rule, anyway. Morgause would keep the power close to her own breast, with her spiderweb intrigues, with her spiteful magicks, with her absolute conviction that he or one of his brothers should not only be king of the Orkneys but High King of all Britain. And she the ruling queen.
A blast of wind through one of the arrow slits scoured his corn-colored hair. It blew sense into him at the same time. He slowed down.
No sense running, he thought. She might think I'm eager to see her.
When he made the last turning, he came face-to-face with her chamber door. No matter how often he came to it, the door was always a surprise, a trick of space and time, another of her plots. Made of a single panel of oak carved into squares, the door looked like a game board and was painted black.
Gawaine smoothed down his grey linen tunic and knocked on the one blank square. The rest of the squares were warded with arcane signs, spells that only she could read. The blank square was well-worn. No one, not any of her servants or his brothers-or even his father, when he was alive-ever dared knock on any other section of the door.
There was no answer.
Grinding his teeth-something he seemed to do only when he was home, in Orkney-Gawaine knocked again.
Still no answer.
"Damn her!" he whispered.
How she loved to play these games. Her servant Hwyll had said, specifically, she wanted to see Gawaine at once. He'd emphasized the two words: at...once. Poor Hwyll, a nice enough man, always kind and thoughtful, but he had no backbone. She had chosen him exactly because he had none. He was a conciliator, a peacemaker, the perfect servant.
"A pus pot," Gawaine said aloud, not knowing if he meant Hwyll, his mother, or the situation he found himself in.
He banged on the door with his fist, and cried out, "Mother!" His voice rose to a whine. Hardly fitting, he thought angrily, for a Companion of the High King.
MORGAUSE COULD hear her son's angry cry as she came down the stairs from the tower, clutching a handful of bitter vetch. She smiled.
It's good to let him stew, she thought. A stew long boiled makes easier eating.
She never tried to make things simple for her boys. Princes needed to be tested even more than peasants.
And my sons most of all.
Stopping on the stairs, she flung open one of the corbelled windows and glanced out.
The late-spring seas around the Orkneys were troubled. Ninety islands and islets, and all of them buffeted by extraordinary waves. "High wind and waves build character," she told herself. Her sons were in want of character.
Agravaine she was certain of, though he still needed a bit more tempering. And the twins-they dangled together, like rough-polished gems on a chain. Medraut was so like her, she knew his mind without working at it. But Gawaine...
Gawaine had gotten away from her. It had been three years or more since she'd understood him. It was all she could do to keep control. Of him. Of herself when she was with him. He made her angry when anger did not serve. He made her furious to the point of becoming speechless. Still, she needed him more than he needed her, and so she had to bring him close again. To heel. Like a hound.
Speaking a word of binding, she flung three leaves of the vetch through the window. The wind brought them back to her and she closed her hand around them, stuffing them into her leather pocket. She smiled again, willing herself to calm. Gawaine would be hers as he once was, the adoring and adorable towheaded first child. All of Lot's sons were susceptible to spells of binding, as had been their father. It was just a matter of patience and time. She had plenty of both.
Continuing down the stairs, she discovered Gawaine red-faced and furious, standing with his back to her door.
"I'm glad to see you, too, dear," she told him.
Copyright © 2003 by Jane Yolen
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[star] "Spellbinding . . . A standout in this enormous canon."--Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"A subtle, many-layered tale . . . It is, as the book's ending tells readers, 'an old story but a good one,' and Yolen does it honor." --VOYA (5Q--highest rating)
[star] "[A] page-turning tale of magic and adventure, betrayal, loyalty, and love."--School Library Journal (starred review)
[star] "Combining old and new, adventure and idealism, this will leave many readers hoping for a sequel."--Booklist (starred review)
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