The Raven Warrior (Tales of Guinevere)

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9780345444011: The Raven Warrior (Tales of Guinevere)

With the knowing eye and fiery voice of an accomplished storyteller, Alice Borchardt takes us back to the amazing world of a re-envisioned Camelot in the continuing Tales of Guinevere. Remarkably strong, magically talented, a match for friend and foe alike, Guinevere has come into womanhood—and faces a new relationship with Lancelot that will lead to the sharp-edged triangle of legend. . . .

Born of the Highlands, along Pictish shores washed by the icy North Sea, Guinevere, Queen of the Dragon People, has become a woman. She has taken the power offered to her by the Dragon Throne. Now there is no turning back. In order to protect her beloved homeland from the obscene greed of the Saxon raiders, Guinevere knows she must launch an attack. The sub-chiefs refuse to fall in line with her plans (because what does this young thing, barely a woman, know of warfare?) and give her an army of the useless, the outcast, the weakest of their young boys and girls. But the war party must proceed. If it fails, the command of both land and sea will fall to the enemy.

Facing her first battle against the pirates on foreign shores, and backed only by a meager band of ill-equipped fighters, Guinevere calls upon the spirits of the dead to aid her in the attack. Diving into the dark, morbid depths, Guinevere suddenly understands more of hate, love, anger, and revenge than she has ever wanted to. But the power the dead provide comes at a severe price. If she makes it through the raid, she will be a changed woman, in more ways than she can possibly imagine.

Further south, Black Leg, her childhood companion, sets out on his own. It is a quest to become a man—a man, he hopes, who will be worthy of the newly crowned Guinevere. A shapeshifter and the son of Guinevere’s adoptive man-wolf father, Black Leg (soon to be Lancelot) feels he has much to learn—and even more to prove. He discovers both his inner strength and an unmitigated passion when he meets the Lady of the Lake. But the trials of his journey— both mental and physical—turn out to be more perilous with each step. And when Lancelot and Guinevere are finally reunited, the consequences of both their ordeals will unleash a torrent of anguish and desire.

With familiar names brilliantly repositioned for a new generation of Arthurian fans—evil Merlin, conniving Igrane, complex Lancelot, tainted Arthur, and of course, warrior Guinevere—Alice Borchardt’s creation stands as a testament to the power of imagination.

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About the Author:

Alice Borchardt shared a childhood of storytelling with her sister, Anne Rice, in New Orleans. A professional nurse, she has also nurtured a profound interest in little-known periods of history. She is the author of Devoted, Beguiled, The Silver Wolf, Night of the Wolf, The Wolf King, and The Dragon Queen. She lives in Houston.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

CHAPTER ONE

AS I SUSPECTED, STEALING FROM PROFESSIONAL thieves takes some skill and a lot of hard work. We took shifts at the oars once we were out of the territory of the Painted People and didn’t, as was more usual among peaceful mariners, go ashore to sleep.

She—the ship—was decked only lightly, boards nailed over her ribs and hide bottom. We were drenched by squalls and frozen by the icy spring seas breaking over our bows. But, Lord, she was fast! Small and light, propelled by ten at the oars by day and six by night. We all took rowing duty, as I said, the ones not pulling at the sweeps eating, then sleeping on the narrow deck between the rowing benches. Or we slept when we could.

At times we would row into an icy rain squall. Then the sleepers had to rouse themselves and bail like mad, not to keep her from sinking but so as not to slow those of us plying the oars. She wouldn’t sink, but if her forward progress were slowed, heavy seas might break her up. Whereas, more or less empty of water, she was able to ride the combers like a floating cork, and in calmer waters, skim along as might a bird.

We had no sail, since we wished to announce neither our passage nor arrival to any watching coastal people. And watch they do, being as they are used to trouble coming by sea.

I don’t like to remember the start of our voyage or our first few days aboard. We were all seasick and none too sure of ourselves at the oars. But Dugald, who is my Druid, gave me medicine for seasickness. True, it tasted like the floor of a town midden pit and stank worse than a herd of goats, but withal—it worked. And most of us recovered well enough to devote ourselves to the oars within a day or two.

I’m not sure Dugald considers himself my Druid. Once he was my guardian, then my teacher. But when I became a woman and a queen, I felt he should be my Druid. He couldn’t agree less. He says I’m a child and only an honorary ruler, and not to be so presumptuous as to drape a mantle of authority over my shoulders.

I wished I had something to drape over my shoulders. Gods above and below, it was cold in that boat. But I knew if I could pull this off, I would be rich and a real queen. So I must make the attempt, no matter how great the hardships involved.

Four days out of port, I understood I had good companions. Our flotilla—there were three small ships—held seventeen men each. “Men” not always being actual men; some were women. But there was a man at the tiller of each boat; Maeniel, my foster father, on one; Gray, an oath man of mine on another; and aboard this one, Ure, a relative of Gray’s, an experienced man of the sea.

Ours was the lead ship; the rest followed us. Ure knew the coast and its hazards: rocks, reefs, sand spits—though with our shallow-draft, those weren’t a problem—currents, and, last but not least, pirate nests. He told us he would undertake to keep us clear of them all.

In return, we didn’t ask him how he knew so much and promised to devote ourselves to the work of the oars. When I asked him if we shouldn’t have some dry land practice first, he fixed me with an eye cold and green as a breaking winter sea and said, “One learns best by doing. And when you do a thing day to day on a regular basis, you will eventually learn all there is to know about it. Sometimes more than you want to know.”

He was right; by now, eight days into our voyage, I knew a lot more about rowing than I ever wanted to. About blisters that broke and bled, scabbed over, then broke open again the next day and bled. About excruciating pain in the arms, back, and neck. About the discomfort of perpetually wet clothing that chafed and itched, or sleeping on a hard, wet, stinking plank among the wet, stinking bodies of fellow crew members. Of huddling together with them to try to coax a little warmth from one another. Not to mention the joys of hanging off the stern up to your waist in the icy sea as the small craft you are clinging to battles fifteen-foot waves while you try to take care of necessities, since there is no room aboard for such nonsense as chamber pots.

See, the water ran to the back of the craft because she was lighter at the bows, so the steersman bailed with one hand while he clung to the tiller with the other. Guess what he used to do the bailing?

When I was much younger, I used to think the sea was romantic.

Despite our many struggles, we moved with almost unbelievable swiftness toward the south and the forts of the Saxon shore. On the tenth day, we arrived at the mouth of the river that flowed through the Fenlands. Ten days of rowing in the heaving, pitching sea. We were all glad to pull the narrow craft into the tall reeds and sedges, rest, and wait for dawn.

It came without a sunrise, a gray illumination of ridged storm clouds. I was sleeping, my head on the gunwales, when I awakened to see Maeniel, as wolf, slip over the bow of the boat next to ours and vanish into the water. I had slept hard and drooled; it dried on the side of my face and left a damp spot on the wood near where my lips rested.

There was no color in anything, and the sedges, reeds, and cattails were a dark frieze reflected in the silvered water. Everyone else was asleep except Ure. He was sitting in the bow and his eyes met mine, green as slag glass and twice as hard. I opened my mouth to ask him where Maeniel was going. His hard gaze edged into contempt.

I reflected that I knew exactly where the Gray Watcher was headed. And Ure had no use at all for what he called senseless blather.

No sense waking half the boat to ask a question when I knew the answer already. I put my head back down on the gunwale. I didn’t think I could, but I drifted off to sleep.

When I awakened again, Maeniel was climbing back into the boat. He was dripping wet and wrapping one of Gray’s mantles around himself. I rose; pulling up my stiffened body was a painful effort. But I stepped to the deck and tiptoed around the sodden sleepers between the rowing benches until I reached the three standing in the bow, Gray, Maeniel, and Ure.

“What?” I whispered.

“Nothing good,” Maeniel said. “The smartest thing might be to turn around and go back.”

Ure grunted.

Gray whispered, “Say on, Lord Maeniel.”

“I didn’t think their strong point would be this strong. The pirates have refitted an abandoned Roman fortress about ten miles upstream. There are seventy to a hundred men there, all mature, able-bodied warriors. Twice our force and more. Better armed, tried and tested in battle.”

“Ships?” Ure asked.

“I counted twenty careened and upside down on land. A few more in the water,” Maeniel said.

“We have what?” Gray said. “Forty boys, three men, and eight women.” He shook his head. “We should look for easier pickings.”

I felt my failure, and, yes, the failure was mine. Though I sat on the Dragon Throne and it was acknowledged I had the right to be there, the subchiefs hadn’t fallen in with my plans to carry war to the Saxon raiders who harried our highland coasts and Out Islands. When I visited the villages recruiting among the war bands and coast watch, none were willing to chance such a hazardous endeavor as striking at the Saxons in their home ports.

Yes, they had hailed me wildly at my accession to the Dragon Throne, but in the cold light of morning, they had second thoughts. What did a woman, a child, as yet, know of warfare? I got the useless, the outcast, the weak, the orphaned, the despised among the boys.

And as for girls, the ugly. One had a strawberry birthmark that covered one cheek and part of her mouth. Another was taken captive and left for dead by the same Saxon raiders. Another hid her harelip. The others, drudges, broken by hard labor before they were in their teens, without friends or kin, bearing the load of endless work by day and the weight of their owners’ bodies by night. Leading lives so filled with misery that they had come to believe any chance of freedom was better than their day-to-day existence. If they should fail and fall into death, why then . . . so be it. Nothing beyond death could be worse. “At least I can sleep,” one called Albe told me.

“At least we could burn their ships,” I said bitterly.

“As I said, there are some in the water,” Maeniel told me. “We would probably be run down in the open sea. The pirate craft are oared and also light and very fast. Not to mention much better manned.”

“Suicide!” Ure said.

“Over the wall by night and take them in their beds?” I suggested.

“Full of ideas!” Ure commented. “No! These are children, not blooded. I’m a corrupt old devil, but even I won’t be a party to the slaughter of innocents. For such tricks you need a group of experienced men.

“Any others?” he asked.

I hunkered down and looked up at the three men. “Yes,” I said.

Ure made a beckoning gesture. “Say!” he said.

“What’s inside that fortress? Is it stone or wood?” I asked.

“Wood,” Maeniel said. “But on that scale . . . you can’t.”

“I can,” I said between my teeth. “I can.”

Then I reached over the side and fished out a floating branch, narrow, maybe a foot long. Very waterlogged. I clamped my right hand around it. With a whistling hiss, steam erupted around it, erupted the way steam does when water is poured into a hot metal pot. Then from the top to the bottom, the dry stick burst into flame and was ash before it had time to heat my fingers.

“I’ll go over the wall while you and the rest strike at the gates and burn them out.”<...

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