Authors: Jane Yolen
Copyright Â© 2003 by Jane Yolen
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First Magic Carpet Books edition 2004
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The Library of Congress has cataloged the print edition as follows:
Sword of the rightful king: a novel of King Arthur/Jane Yolen.
Summary: Merlinnus the magician devises a way for King Arthur to prove himself the rightful king of Englandâpulling a sword from a stoneâbut trouble arises when someone else removes the sword first.
1. Arthur, KingâJuvenile fiction. [1. Arthur, KingâFiction. 2. Knights and knighthoodâFiction. 3. Middle AgesâFiction. 4. Great BritainâHistoryâTo 1066âFiction.] I. Title.
ISBN 0-15-202533-2 pb
Merlinnus led them right up to the stone. On its white marble face was a legend lettered in gold:
WHOSO PULLETH OUTE THIS SWERD OF THIS STONE
IS RIGHTWYS KYNGE BORNE OF
OR A LONG TIME
none of them spoke. Then Arthur read the thing aloud, his fingers tracing the letters in the stone. When he finished, he looked up. “But I am king of all Britain.”
“Then pull the sword, sire,” said Merlinnus.
Arthur smiled and shrugged. He knew he was a strong man. Except for Lancelot, possibly the strongest man in the kingdom. It was one of the reasons Merlinnus had chosen him to be king. He handed the torch to Gawen, who held on to it with both hands.
Then Arthur put his hand to the hilt of the sword, tightened his fingers around it till his knuckles were white, and pulled.
The sword remained in the stone.
To editor Michael Stearns, who knows how to wait,
and to my husband, David, rightful king of my heart
There was seen in the churchyard, against the high altar, a great stone four square, life unto a marble stone; and in midst thereof was like an anvil of steel afoot on high, and therein stuck a fair sword naked by the point, and letters there were written in gold about the sword that saiden thus
WHOSO PULLETH OUT THIS SWORD OF THIS STONE AND ANVIL, IS RIGHTWISE KING BORN OF ALL ENGLAND
âSir Thomas Malory,
Le Morte d'Arthur
Midnight by the bell. The churchyard was deserted and in darkness. By the front door, which was but a black rectangle in a blacker mass, a large square was marked off on the ground. In the square's center stood an enormous stone, whichâif the moon had been shiningâwould have reminded any onlooker of a sleeping bear. A dead bear, obviously. For in the bear's back was thrust a great sword, its haft pointing slantwise toward the night sky
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 brothersâor even his father, when he was aliveâever dared knock on any other section of the door.
There was no answer.
Grinding his teethâsomething he seemed to do only when he was home, in OrkneyâGawaine 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:
. 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, “
!” His voice rose to a whine.
, he thought angrily,
for a Companion of the High King
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.
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 twinsâthey 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
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
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.
couldn't help himself: He spluttered. All the fine speeches he'd rehearsed slipped away, and his mother just stood there smiling her damnable smile.
“Always on time,” she was saying. “That's an admirable quality in a young man.” Though she herself used time as a weapon.
“You...” he sputtered, “asked for me.”
She was still giving him that beautiful and seductive smile that drove the men around her mad. Running a ringed finger through her silky black hair, she purred, “I always like to see my boys.”
Ever a dangerous sign
, he thought. When she purred, she was satisfied. Or hunting.
“Did you want something, Mother?”
There. Better to be plain about it. Not elliptical, not like her
“Do I always have to want something?” she asked.
But she does
, he thought.
She always does
She held out a hand and drew him to her, and he went into her chamber, reluctantly but inexorably, as if bespelled. She went ahead of him and arranged herself, catlike, on a low wooden settle, its hard lines softened by plump feather pillows. Then she patted a place beside her with a nail-bitten hand. It was the only thing human about her, those nails, bitten down to the cuticles.
He remained standing. “Mother.”
She smiled. “Son.”
An uncomfortable silence seemed to stretch like silken spiders thread between them.
At last she spoke. “Do you have to go back to Arthur's court so soon? There is plenty enough to do here in your own kingdom.”
So that's it
! She would try to keep him here as ruler, though of course he knew which one of them would actually rule.
He shook his head. “I like Arthur's court, Mother. It's a place of knightly practices and fine company. Arthur is a prince among men.”
“Put silk on a stick,” she said bitterly, “and it will still look fine.” Her beautiful face was suddenly fierce with anger, her eyes drawn down into slits.
“Mother,” he began, but she cut him off.