The Guinevere Deception – Kiersten White

There was nothing in the world as magical and terrifying as a girl on the cusp of womanhood. This particular girl had never before felt the power she held by existing in a space of men, but today, surrounded by them, it radiated from her. I am untouchable. They revolved around her as though she were the Earth, and they the adoring but distant sun and moon and stars. It was a type of magic in and of itself. A veil obscured and dimmed the world around her. She sat back-achingly straight in her saddle. She did not wriggle her toes in the boots they were so unaccustomed to. She pretended she was a painting. “I cannot believe the convent had no nuns willing to travel with you,” Brangien complained, brushing at the fine layer of dust that baptized their journey. Then, as though unaware she had spoken aloud, she bowed her head. “But of course I am very pleased and honored to be here.” The smile offered in response to Brangien’s apology went unacknowledged. “Of course,” the girl said, but the words were not quite right. She could do better.

She had to. “I do not love travel, either, and I appreciate the kindness you have shown by being my companion on this long journey. It would be lonely without you.” They were surrounded by people, but to them, the blue-and-scarlet-wrapped girl was goods to be guarded and safely delivered to the new owner. She hoped desperately that Brangien, eighteen years to her own sixteen, would become a friend. She would need one. She had never had one. But it would also complicate things. She had so many precious hidden things. Having another woman with her at all times was both unfamiliar and dangerous.

Brangien’s eyes were black like her hair and hinted at cleverness. Hopefully those eyes would see only what was offered them. Brangien caught her staring and offered a tentative smile. Focused on her companion, the girl did not notice the change outright. A subtle shift, a lessening of tension, her first breath fully drawn in two weeks. She tipped her head back and closed her eyes, grateful for the leafy green reprieve from the sun. A forest. If she were not barred on all sides by men and horses, she would hug the trees. Run her fingers along their veins to learn each tree’s story. “Tighten the circle!” Sir Bors commanded.

Under the heavy arch of branches, his shout was hushed. He was a man unaccustomed to being muted. Even his mustache bristled at the offense. He moved his reins into his teeth to grip them and drew his sword with his good arm. The girl snapped out of her daydream to see that the horses had caught the fear of the men. They shifted and stamped, eyes rolling to search as their riders did. A gust of wind lifted her veil. She met the gaze of one of the men—Mordred, three years older than she, and soon to be her nephew. His subtle mouth had twisted up at one corner as though he was amused. Had he caught her reverie before she realized she should not be pleased by the forest? “What is it?” she asked, turning quickly away from Mordred, who was paying far too much attention.

Be a painting. Brangien shivered and shrank into her cloak. “The trees.” They crowded in on either side of the road, twisting trunks and grasping roots. Their branches laced overhead to form a tunnel. The girl did not understand the threat. No crack of a twig, no rustling. Nothing disturbed the beauty of the forest. Except her and the men around her. “What about the trees?” she asked.

Mordred answered. His face was serious, but there was a songlike quality to his voice. Playful and low. “They were not here on our journey to retrieve you.” Sword still drawn, Sir Bors clicked his tongue and his horse moved forward again. The men clustered around her and Brangien. The peace and relief the girl felt at being among trees again disappeared, soured by their fear. These men claimed every space they went into. “What does he mean, the trees were not here?” she whispered to Brangien. Brangien had been mouthing something.

She leaned over to adjust the girl’s veil and answered in a whisper as well, as though afraid the trees were listening. “Four days ago, when we passed through this area—there was no forest. All this land had been cleared. It was farms.” “Perhaps we took a different route without realizing it?” Brangien shook her head, her face a blur of dark eyebrows and red lips. “There was a jumble of boulders an hour back. Like a giant had been playing a child’s game and left his toys behind. I remember it very clearly. This is the same road.” A leaf drifted down from the trees, landing as lightly as a prayer on Brangien’s shoulder.

Brangien squeaked with fear. It was a simple matter to reach out and pluck the leaf from Brangien’s shoulder. The girl wanted to lift it to her face, to study the story in its lines. But, touching it, she instantly sensed that it had teeth. She dropped it to the forest floor. She even checked her fingers for blood, but of course there was none. Brangien shuddered. “There is a village not far. We can hide there.” “Hide?” They were a day from their destination.

She wanted this to be over with. Everything to be done and settled. The idea of huddling with these men in a village while they waited to—what, fight a forest?—made her want to tear off her shoes, her veil, to beg the trees for safe passage. But the trees would not understand. They were on opposite sides now, after all. I am sorry, she thought, knowing the trees could not hear her. Wishing she could explain. Brangien cried out again, putting her hands over her mouth in horror. The men around them stopped abruptly. They were still surrounded by green, everything filtered and unclear through the veil.

Shapes loomed out of the forest, enormous boulders covered in moss and trailing vines. Modesty be damned. She tore off her veil. The world came into startling, perfect focus. The shapes were not boulders. They were homes. Cottages much like ones they had passed before, made of lime-washed cobs and beams with thatched roofs sloping down to the ground. But where smoke should have been drifting up from the roofs, there were flowers. In place of doors, trailing curtains of vines. It was a village reclaimed by nature.

If she had to guess, she would say it had been abandoned generations ago. “There was a child,” Brangien whispered through her fingers. “He sold me bread weighted with stones. I was so cross with him.” “Where are the people?” Sir Bors asked. “We must not linger here.” Mordred veered his horse toward hers. “Surround the princess! Quickly!” As she was carried by the momentum of her guards, she saw one last vine-covered boulder, or perhaps a tree stump. Just the right size and shape for a little boy, offering bad bread. They did not stop until dusk claimed the world far more gently than the forest had claimed the unfortunate village.

The men regarded the fields around them with suspicion, as though trees would spring forth, impaling them. Perhaps they would. Even she was unnerved. She had never before viewed the green and secret things of the world with fear. It was a good lesson, but she wished that the village had not paid the price for her education. They could not go much farther in the dark without risking injury to the horses. Their first night together, they had stayed in an inn. Brangien had slept beside her in the finest bed the inn had to offer. Brangien snored lightly, a friendly, companionable sound. Unable to sleep, the girl had longed to pad down the stairs, to find the horses in the stables, to sleep outside.

Tonight she would get her wish. The men divided the watch. Brangien fussed setting up bedrolls, complaining about the lack of proper sleeping arrangements. “I do not mind.” The girl once again offered Brangien a smile that went unclaimed in the darkness. “I do,” Brangien muttered. Perhaps she thought the veil obscured hearing as well as vision. Even with the fire crackling in defiance of night, of cold, of beasts and creeping things, the stars were waiting. Men had not yet figured out how to beat those back. The girl traced her favorite constellations: The Drowned Woman.

The Swift River. The Pebbled Shore. If any stars winked a warning, she did not see it through the sparks the fire sent heavenward. They pushed the horses harder the next day. She discovered she was less afraid of the forest behind them than of the city awaiting them. What peace she could find was in the sway and bump of the horse beneath her. Horses were deeply soothing to touch. Calm and purposeful. She stroked her mare’s mane absentmindedly. Her own long black hair had been plaited that morning by Brangien, woven through with threads of gold.

“So many knots!” Brangien had said. But she had not seen their purpose. Had not suspected. Had she? There were too many unforeseen complications already. How could the girl have known this young woman would explore her hair so carefully? And Mordred, always watching. He was beautiful, smooth-faced, with mossy-green eyes. She was reminded of the elegance of the snake gliding through the grass. But when she caught him staring, his smile had more of the wolf than of the snake. The other knights, at least, cared nothing about her except out of duty. Sir Bors pushed them ever faster.

They passed tiny villages where the homes huddled together like the men had in the forest, protecting each other’s backs and staring outward at the land around them, fearful and defiant. She wanted to dismount, to meet the people, to understand why they lived out here, determined to tame the wild and exposing themselves to threats innumerable. But all she saw were hazy forms and green and gold hints of the world around her. The veil was a more intimate version of her guards, sealing her away. She stopped disliking Sir Bors’s pace and wished they would go even faster. She would be happy to have this journey behind her, to see what threats lay ahead so she could plan for them. Then they came to the river. She could make up her mind about nothing out here, it seemed. She was glad for her veil now. It hid the winking treachery of the water from her, and hid her panic from those around her.

“Is there no way around?” She tried to make her voice both light and imperious. It did not succeed. She sounded exactly how she felt: terrified. “The ferryman will see us safely across.” Sir Bors delivered it as a fact. She longed to cling to his certainty, but his confidence flowed swiftly past her and out of her reach. “I would be happy to ride longer if it meant we could avoid the crossing,” she said. “My lady, you tremble.” Mordred had somehow slid next to her again. “Do you not trust us?” “I do not like water,” she whispered.

Her throat closed around how inadequately that phrase captured the soul-deep terror she felt. A memory—heavy black water over her head, around her, pressing in everywhere, filling her—surfaced, and she pushed it away with all her strength, pulling her mind from it as fast as she would her hand from a burning brand. “Then I am afraid you will not find your new home to your liking.” “What do you mean?” Mordred sounded apologetic, but she could not see his features well enough to know whether his face matched his tone. “No one has told you?” “Told me what?” “I would hate to ruin the surprise.” His tone was a lie, then. He hated her. She felt it. And she did not know what she had done already in their two days together to earn his ire. The rush of the river drove every other consideration away, its only competition the beating of her heart and her panicked breaths, trapped by her veil in a humid cloud of panic.

Sir Bors helped her dismount and she stood next to Brangien, who was lost in a world of her own, distracted and distant. “My lady?” Sir Bors said. She realized it was not the first time he had addressed her. “Yes?” “The ferry is ready.” She tried to step toward it. She could not make her body move. The terror was so intense, so overwhelming, she could not even lean in that direction. Brangien, finally realizing something was wrong, moved in front of her. She leaned close, her features sharpening beyond the veil. “You are frightened,” she said, surprised.

Then her voice softened, and for the first time she sounded like she was talking to a person instead of a title. “I can hold your hand, if you would like. I can swim, too. Do not tell anyone. But I promise I will see you safely to the other side.” Brangien’s hand found hers, squeezing tightly. She took it gratefully, clung to it as though she were already drowning and this hand was all that stood between her and oblivion. And she had not yet taken even a step toward the river! This would all fail before she reached the king, because she could not get over this absurd fear. She hated herself, and she hated every choice that had brought her here. “Come along.

” Sir Bors’s words were clipped with impatience. “We are expected before nightfall. We must keep moving.” Brangien tugged gently. One step, then another, then another. The raft beneath her feet dipped and swayed. She turned to run back to the bank, but the men were there. They moved forward, a sea of broad chests and unyielding leather and metal. She stumbled, clinging to Brangien. A sob escaped her.

She was too afraid to be ashamed. Brangien, the only solid thing in a world of turmoil and movement, held her. If she fell in, she knew—she knew—she would be unmade. The water would claim her. She would cease to exist. Sealed in her fear, the passage could have lasted minutes or hours. It was infinite. “Help me,” Brangien said. “I cannot move, she clings so. I think she is insensible.

” “It is not right for us to touch her,” Sir Bors grumbled. “God above,” Mordred said, “I will do it. If he wants to kill me for touching his bride, he is welcome to, so long as I get to sleep in my own bed one last time.” Arms lifted her, reaching beneath her knees and cradling her like a child. She buried her face in his chest, breathing in the scents of leather and cloth. Never had she been more grateful for something solid. For something real. “My lady.” Mordred’s voice was as soft as his hair, which her fingers were tangled in like claws. “I deliver you safely to dry land.

So brave in the forest—what is a stream to you?” He set her down, hands lingering at her waist. She stumbled. Now that the threat was past, shame claimed her. How could she be strong, how could she complete her mission, if she could not so much as cross a river? An apology bloomed on her lips. She plucked it and discarded it. Be what they expect. She straightened carefully. Regally. “I do not like water.” She delivered it as a fact, not an apology.

Then she accepted Brangien’s hand and remounted her horse. “Shall we move along?”

.

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