Love's Birthright By Jeune Ecrivain

Rating: PG

Summary: Set in medieval England, this short story tells the tale of Guinevere, whose forbidden love for the squire Arthur will soon be vindicated in a way neither one of them would ever have imagined.

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It seemed that every knight, lord, squire, and page had congregated near the cathedral of Caerlon, a village that previously possessed no extraordinary characteristics or attractions. The tall and imposing central church, complete with a cavernous chapel, could be seen for miles away. Two stained glass windows, each twenty feet in height, hugged the stone arch that overhung a pair of huge oak doors. To each side of the main church was an oblong monastery, between which lay a luxurious courtyard paved with fine Scottish stone.

To the west lay an expansive field, dotted without end by pavilions of various sizes. Weaving among the pavilions were knights on horseback, often led by a their respective squires or pages. Some noblewomen could be seen sewing or knitting outside some of the tents, which were generally surrounded by scattered mail, swords, and pikes. Attendance was far greater than that of any joust or tournament known in Britain, whose very fate, many said, was to be determined that day.

To the east of the cathedral was the castle, which stood upon a hill more majestically than the church. A central keep of substantial area and height with a turret in each corner was surrounded by a close-fitting wall with a multitude of round turrets and two hundred bowmen patrolling between the hoardings.

In one of the castle's many bedchambers sat a young lady of seventeen looking out upon the scene with a distant look in her eyes. She idly traced circles on the stony sill of the slit-shaped window. She was a fair child with wide brown eyes, a fine nose, and rosy lips. Her long auburn hair framed her head and neck and decorated her back much like a cape.

This was Guinevere of Cameliard, daughter of Lord Leodegrance, one of the guest barons who at the moment were in their pavilions preparing for the trial to come. Her father had brought his whole family and a few of his servants and willing knights the great distance to Caerlon to join other members of the nobility in seeking a much-coveted prize. While everyone else thought only of the upcoming event, Guinevere was consternating on more personal matters, mostly surrounding a young man only slightly older than she.

Among her father's vassals was Sir Kay, a gentle knight of humble means. He had two sons, Sir Ector, a poor knight with moderate potential, and Arthur, who served his elder brother faithfully as his squire. She had encountered this squire one morning when she was eight years old, having decided to embark on a promenade on horseback with a page leading the horse. Arthur, a scrawny boy with unruly blonde hair and gray-blue eyes had boldly challenged the page to a duel using wooden swords. She had giggled as the two pages fought their knightly game. When Arthur had finally triumphed, he surprised his opponent by helping him back to his feet with a kind smile.

Something about him had struck her fancy. She had promptly inquired where Arthur lived, and it had soon become routine for her to ride out to see him and engage in lively talk with a boy she found very curious. It was during those carefree outings with him that she had come to know Arthur perhaps even better than her guard and servant in the castle. Arthur was a very modest boy with a very unassuming manner. He was very content with his place in life, aspiring only to be the best knight he could be. Sir Ector knew and more or less followed the code of chivalry to the letter, but it was Arthur who had truly taken it to heart. Arthur was a marvel to Guinevere. The growing squire had been more chivalrous than any duly anointed knight she had ever met. It was as if chivalry to him was not a code to be followed but a virtue to believe in.

Guinevere closed her eyes, remembering vividly the first time she had ever felt unorthodox sentiments towards Arthur. She had been fourteen, and his time had been increasingly occupied by training with Sir Ector. One day, during a precious hour he had had to his liberty, Arthur had led her by the hand to a small lake fed by an infant waterfall. He had said it was where he went to think or spend some time alone. She had smiled at the beauty and comfort of the locale and turned to face him. In that moment, an urge to kiss him had snuck up on her rapidly.

She had rushed to the cathedral that night and confessed to "impure thoughts" about a man. The priest had promptly absolved her, but the thoughts did not cease. Time with Arthur had become bittersweet. She had been torn between her growing fondness for his effortless kindness and humbly virtuous character and her scruples about the nature of her inclinations towards the squire. Arthur made her feel safe, warm, and loved. But her duty was to honor her father and augment his estate by marrying a man of the gentry, someone whose noble birthright made him worthy of her hand. Yet she had known even then that no matter how noble and gentle her husband was to be, she would always feel as if he were attempting to fill a superficial version of the sublime void that Arthur already filled.

Meanwhile, the priest to whom she had habitually confessed to the same sin had surprised her one day when she was fifteen by saying to her, "My child, these thoughts persist, yet you are not a sinful girl by nature. God condemns lust alone, but love is God's gift. Before you seek absolution again, ask yourself which of the two is at the heart of your inclinations."

She had contemplated his words and been quite sure that it was lust, that she was being a naughty girl in betraying her duty to her father by thinking of an unacceptable suitor. Guinevere decided that day to tell Arthur that she simply could not visit him anymore. Duty forbade it. She had known he would understand. Yet the tears had still fallen from her eyes, dreading the moment she told him. She had to. It was the right thing to do. Her conscience had commanded it, but her heart had begged otherwise, reminding her of all that she would miss.

The next day she had embarked on what was to be her final journey to Arthur's small home, weeping sporadically along the way.

Arthur had taken one look at her tear-stained face and asked gently, "What is amiss?" with an expression of concern on his face.

Her tears had flowed anew as she tried to tell him what she had intended, but her resolve had faded rapidly. He had taken her in his strong arms and cradled her, pleading to her to tell him what ailed her so that he could alleviate it. She had looked up at him and, without thinking, kissed him tenderly.

He had returned her kiss with little hesitation, but when they broke apart, he had regarded her sadly. "Forgive me, my lady," he had said. "I ought not to have kissed you in such a manner."

She had realized then that her original conclusion had been wrong. How could lust be the principal force that drew her to him if she had felt a growing attachment to him long before she was of an age at which she was capable of lust? What she felt for him, though not entirely pure, felt too sublime to be condemned by God. Shaking her head, she had replied, "Regret it not. 'Twas I."

"My lady."

"Guinevere," she had cut him off. "My name is Guinevere."

He had caught her meaning but responded only with an expression of reluctance.

"As your lady, I command you to call me thus," Guinevere had added with gentle persistence.

"Guinevere." Arthur had said, touching her cheek lightly. "Nothing would make me happier than to call you my own. But we must not. You know your father would never."

"Think not of my father!" she had said desperately. "Let us forsake reality, if only for a moment. I am yours, and that cannot be helped, not even by myself."

His will had failed him, and he had kissed her.

For two years they had continued to visit each other as often as they could. Guinevere came to Arthur by day and thought of him by night.

Returning momentarily to the present time, Guinevere closed her eyes once more, remembering the day only a week before that the servant who had silently escorted her to Arthur's home for so long finally betrayed her confidence and told her father of her excursions with Arthur. Lord Leodegrance had forbidden her to see him again and chided her as a "foolish child" who was blinded to what was truly best for her by "the courtship of a lowly squire."

She smiled sardonically. If only Arthur were a member of the gentry. He had the heart and the nobility to be the best among them, yet he was not. What backwards system is it, she wondered, that too often places those with the best character in a position where their virtues can do little good for their country or the world? Despite herself, she began dwelling on the hard reality that she could never marry Arthur. The man she loved was probably out among the pavilions at that moment, serving Sir Ector with the loyalty that she so admired. So close and yet so far he was, and she lamented the fact that all of her romantic affections were so inconveniently placed, still knowing, however, that she could never abandon Arthur.

As she neared tears, her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the oak doors opening. In stepped her mother, Lady Leodegrance, a tall and reserved woman who spoke little. Today, however, excitement drove her speech. "'Tis a strange trial, is it not?" she asked idly.

"The people trust the wise one's word," Guinevere reminded her, "though they ask why he gives a challenge to the contenders and does not simply identify the rightful heir forthright. That is a good indication of his wisdom. The most thorough wisdom is seldom understood readily by the masses."

"You speak like a philosopher, daughter," her mother replied. Lady Leodegrance then sighed dreamily. "The time draws near when your father will undergo the trial," she said. "Would it not be grand if he were the chosen one?"

"Mother, I cannot lie. I am not certain I wish my father to succeed."

Her mother looked at her, shocked. "You would not have your father crowned?"

"My father is a respected man of the gentry, and therefore those who may seek my hand are limited therein. If he were king, I fear the pool of men whom Father considers worthy would shrink further still."

"Be not selfish, daughter," the lady said heatedly. "Arthur is a lowly squire. It is not his place to consort with a gentlewoman, much less marry her."

Guinevere scoffed. "Arthur is lowly only in status, Mother."

"I am afraid status is the only thing of import, Guinevere."

"And I suppose that is your only explanation for a man with the heart of a king serving as a humble vassal to those who are less qualified but are granted the opportunity to seek the crown."

Conversation faded between mother and daughter. They were soon reduced to spending in hour in the bedchamber, only engaging in brief bouts of small talk.

Meanwhile, as that hour drew to a close, Lord Leodegrance's turn had finally come. Stepping to the forefront of the crowd of noblemen that had gathered in the courtyard of the cathedral, he saw clearly for the first time the strangely simple omen in the courtyard center given to them by a trusted magician who said only that this trial alone would identify the man who was meant to sit on the British throne.

It was indeed an odd sight. A large, rounded rock about the height of a man's breastplate and roughly equal in breadth stood alone in the center of the courtyard. With half its blade embedded in this rock stood a sword of fine Welsh steel with an ornate, golden hilt. The most eerie aspect of this marvel, however, was the inscription on the face of the rock:

Hail he who draws forth the sword from this stone,
For that man and no other is rightfully born
King of the Britons.