The knights had noticed a change in Chris ever since Briar Bend. His usual gruffness had turned to a biting anger that alternated with a black cloud of despair. Something had happened to day he’d fought Fowler. Vin could tell Buck knew what was bothering Chris by the way Buck kept watching him. The tension was getting to everybody. They were all sitting around the table eating supper when Vin decided he’d had enough.
“There something we should know, Chris?”
“About whatever’s bothering you. It’s eating you up inside. We can all see it. You going to tell us what this is about?”
Chris got up from the table abruptly and went to stand by the window. This was something he really didn’t want to talk about, but they had a right to know. Ella wasn’t going to quit her plans just because Fowler was gone. She’d find some other way to strike at him and his kingdom. He and his men would be fighting her schemes sooner or later. This just wasn’t something that was easy to talk about.
He caught Standish looking at him. The man’s face showed nothing. He’d proven himself courageous in Levinshire, but could Chris really trust him? There was still something about him that seemed…off. Perhaps there was another way to test Standish’s character. He drew his sword and handed it to Vin, indicating he should look at it and then pass it along. “Excalibur was given to me the night after my coronation. I’d gone down to the lake to think when a strange woman rose up out of the water. That was Viviane, Lady of the Lake. She said that I alone among the rulers she knew understood the people and the land. She also believed my pain and loss would drive me to protect others from experiencing the same thing. Excalibur was entrusted to me for as long as I used it to serve the people.” He tried not to hold his breath as the sword was passed to Ezra. It was a secret known only among his knights that Excalibur was enchanted. It could never be used for evil or even wielded by evil. The metal would burn the hand of any evil man or woman who would hold it—even through a gauntlet. The others realized what Chris was doing and also watched Ezra surreptitiously, waiting to see what would happen.
Ezra held Excalibur with awe, turning it over and over in his hands. It was magnificent. The metal shone like new, glinting even in the low light. And the feel of it! It was incredibly light, yet looked stronger and more finely made than his own sword. It was strange, though. He could almost hear it hum when it moved. “It is a beautiful weapon, Your Majesty. Fit for a king, indeed.” He reluctantly passed it down to JD.
Chris knew he’d hear about that later from Buck, Vin, and Josiah. They would say it was confirmation that they were right about Ezra all along. Now Chris would have to talk about Ella. Where to begin?
Buck saw the tension in Chris’s face. He couldn’t help but think of the night he came back upstairs at the tavern in Eagleton to find Chris crawling across the floor of his room screaming “Ella” at the top of his lungs. Chris’d had a hard time telling him what happened and they’d known each other ever since they were boys. “You want me to start, Chris?”
Chris nodded after a moment. Buck was better at this sort of thing. Sometimes his big mouth was good for something.
Buck made sure he had everyone’s attention. “It was about eight years ago. Me and Chris were celebrating his last night as a free man at a tavern in Londinium.” At the puzzled looks on everybody’s faces, he thought he’d better explain that. “Chris was going to be crowned king the next morning. He’d be tied up with figuring out all his new responsibilities and such after that and wouldn’t get to drink it up at the taverns with me anymore for a while. I met this woman…she was something else! We went off to get to know each other a little better. I left Chris in his cups. I probably shouldn’t have left him alone, but he wasn’t acting too sociable. When I got back, he was in his room, but he wasn’t okay. He was laying on the floor yelling for someone.”
Chris came back to the table and sat down, his hands clenched together in front of him. “I was well on the way to blind drunk when this woman propositioned me. I wasn’t interested. She slipped something into my ale. I don’t know what kind of potion it was, but after about ten minutes I could hardly stand up. I remember stumbling into my room. There was a woman… I was delirious. I thought… I thought she was Sarah come back to me. Sarah was my wife. The one Fowler burned up with my son, Adam. But it wasn’t Sarah. It was the lady from the tavern. She made me think she was… Then she laughed when I came to my senses and saw who she really was.” He slammed his hand on the table and got up to pace. No one said anything for a long time.
JD finally broke the silence. “Why? Why would somebody do that?”
Buck still watched Chris. “Revenge, JD. And power. Her name was Ella Gainsborough. Her father and Chris’s wanted the two of them to marry. When Chris ran off with Sarah, it destroyed all their plans. She blamed Chris for ruining her life. Chris and Camelot didn’t mean a thing to her, though. Ella wanted the power.”
Ezra felt like he was going to shake apart inside. He was shocked to hear the name Ella Gainsborough. That was his mother’s real name. It was one of the many little things he wasn’t supposed to know, but Lot always did talk too much when he was in the bottom of a tankard of ale. Maude just brushed the comment aside. The queen said Lot always spouted a lot of nonsense when he was drunk. Ezra had made the mistake of asking Lady Morgan. She’s been furious and quite…violent with him for mentioning it. It was one of the many things he was told never to speak of again if he knew what was good for him. So many secrets, so many lies. He was only just getting a glimmer of it all.
But this…this story Chris was weaving for the others. It couldn’t be true…could it? It wasn’t like Morgan had told him at all. She was the victim. She had suffered.
Nathan thought this woman sounded like a cold one. “She did that to cause you emotional pain?”
Chris stopped and looked at the floor. “That was a big part of it, but like Buck said, she still wanted the power. And if she couldn’t get it through me, she was going to take it through my son. With her as the boy’s guardian, she’d be the one in power. The poor boy would just be her little puppet.”
Now Vin was completely confused. “But… I thought you said your son died in that fire?”
“Adam did. But I have another son…at least I think I do. She said she knew how to ensure pregnancy. After that night… Ella was positive she was already with child—a boy she would raise to take the throne from me.”
Josiah leaped to his feet. “What!? Where is he? Surely you didn’t leave him with her?”
“I didn’t have a choice! She disappeared that night and I was in no shape to chase her right then! As soon as I was able, Buck and I rode far and wide trying to find her. We even tried to find the Sacred Isle, but you know that its location is a closely guarded secret among the women who’ve trained there. Someone told me she had a cousin who sponsored her into the sisterhood. We couldn’t find her, either. You think those trips Buck and I have been taking every chance we get are pleasure trips? We looked for her and the child. We’re still looking for them! She just completely disappeared, Josiah! And now it’s probably too late.”
“What do you mean?”
“She’s had him for eight years, Josiah. What do you think she’s made of him? He’s probably a spoiled, vindictive, mean-spirited little hellion by now. If that insane witch even told him about me, she’s surely poisoned him against me. I didn’t think she’d make her move this soon, though. I thought she’d wait until the boy grew old enough to be more of a threat to me.”
Ezra was sweating. He hoped no one noticed. A strange paranoia made him worry that everyone was looking at him. Surely not. His secret was still safe.
“If I could’ve had that boy with me, Josiah, I would’ve. He’s my son. What kind of life has he had with that witch?”
“So he’s no good to you now that she’s had him for eight years?”
“That’s not what I meant! If we found him now, I’d bring him to Camelot so he could learn what it really means to be a prince. We would teach him. He’d be a part of our family. She killed one of my sons and took the other. I’d give anything to have him here safe with us. But how long, Josiah? How long before it’s too late to save him from her influence?”
Ezra’s head was spinning. That couldn’t be true! It couldn’t! The king had looked for him…wanted him? Ezra would have been welcomed at Camelot? Lady Morgan always said that Chris wanted him dead because he was a complication, a future hindrance to his plans. Such a loose end could not be left dangling.
The men talked for a while longer, asking questions and discussing strategy, but Ezra’s mind was not on the same tasks. The walls seemed to close in on him as the minutes passed. As soon as they were done talking, Ezra headed outside to give free rein to the thoughts galloping through his head.
What was going on here? Someone was lying to him. But who? Lady Morgan said the king was a lascivious defiler of women, but Buck had painted him as a devoted husband and father. Queen Mary did not seem disturbed at all to be in his presence. Surely a man with such base appetites would have forced himself on the Queen by now.
King Lot had often boasted how he fought to protect his and neighboring kingdoms from King Christofer’s dreams of conquest. But Chris only seemed interested in defending Camelot from evil bandits and outside forces. He wasn’t raising any armies or vigorously training his men for imminent attacks on others. That was plain for anyone to see who’d spent time at Camelot.
Queen Maude told Ezra many times that Christofer was a commoner with low-born tastes who was drunk on power and ruled his people with an iron fist, surrounding himself with other like men. But Ezra had been among the villagers. To them, the king was their champion. He treated them with a respect rarely given by nobles to commoners. And, yes, his knights were rough, but they were hardly power-mad deviants. They loved the people, and in turn, were loved by them.
Could Maude and Lot and Lady Morgan have been mistaken about King Christofer and his men? Ezra wanted to believe that because to believe otherwise would be to accept that he’d been a blind fool…and that he’d been horribly used. Who had the most to gain from such deceit? Certainly not Chris. The man didn’t seem to care what anyone thought of him. He was also unflinchingly honest. He’d treated Ezra with thinly-veiled contempt ever since his arrival. If he were a devious man, Chris would’ve showered Ezra with gifts and pretty words in an attempt to sway him to his side or to reveal Lot’s plans. And then he had even apologized to him in front of his men when there was no need.
Lot, Maude, Lady Morgan. He could easily see how such lies would benefit them. And such underhanded tactics fit their personalities so well. Lot was a hard, mean-spirited man who never gave Ezra anything except the back of his hand. Maude had never stricken him—at least not physically—but she’d shown her contempt in the way she looked at him, spoke to him.
But Lady Morgan. She was his mother. Ezra had wanted to believe that she wouldn’t lie to him. He’d always believed her inability to show him affection was because Chris had destroyed that part of her. Sometimes he’d thought it was because Ezra was a tangible reminder of her past suffering. More reasons for Ezra to hate Chris growing up. But now he questioned everything. Had she ever loved him at all? Just for himself? Ezra tried to recollect some word or gesture of affection, but nothing came to him. Instead he remembered all her little cruelties that he’d overlooked because he’d wanted so badly to believe he was worth something to her. Maybe he was—not for who he was, but rather what he was. Chris’s son. A tool in her greedy schemes.
Had everything been a lie? Everything he’d been taught to believe?
Josiah had been watching Ezra with concern. The young man seemed distraught as he paced the courtyard. Josiah walked over to Ezra, putting a hand on his shoulder. “Ezra? Are you alright?”
A startled Ezra tensed at the touch. He spun around, coming face to face with Sir Josiah.
“Sorry, son. Didn’t mean to frighten you.”
Ezra brushed at his sleeve. “Sir Josiah. May I remind you that I’m not your son? And you didn’t frighten me in the least. I was merely surprised at your sudden appearance.”
“If you say so, son.”
Ezra sighed in frustration.
“You still didn’t answer my question. Are you alright?”
No, Ezra was not alright. He felt like his head had been turned inside out. “Yes. I’m fine.”
“You look pale.”
“Well, it has been overcast for quite some time here. I do believe you look pale, too, Sir Josiah, bereft of the sun’s rays as we’ve all been lately.”
Josiah sighed. “You’re very good at that.”
“If this is the beginning of some sort of lecture, then I really don’t…”
“No, no. Just an observation. You don’t always have to pretend with us. We would like to get to know the real Ezra, the one in hiding.”
Ezra laughed. “Does that include the king and Sir Nathan? I can assure you, they would be only too happy to see me ride out of Camelot.”
“Is that your intention?”
“I rather like my soft bed and the sturdy roof over my head. I have no desire to eschew such comforts for the trials of the open road at this time.”
“Good. We’d hate to lose you.”
Ezra said nothing to that. Instead he ignored the prying man to watch the children play in the courtyard. They were enjoying themselves in a mock battle, using simple sticks as swords. He was envious. They seemed so happy and carefree. Had he ever been like that? Ezra glanced around nervously, worried that someone would scold them for making too much noise. But no one seemed to notice. He relaxed again.
Josiah watched his young friend out of the corner of his eye. He was taken aback at how forlorn he’d looked when he saw the children rush past. Ezra seemed to be following their movements with such longing. “They make me feel twice as old, running around like that. Ah, to be young again. We all grow up so fast, don’t we?”
Ezra snorted. “You have no idea.”
“What was that?”
A man came around the corner, walking hurriedly towards the children. He had a serious expression on his face. Ezra tensed as the man grabbed one of the children from behind. Perhaps he was supposed to be doing chores instead of playing. He hoped the boy wouldn’t be punished too severely.
The man suddenly spun the boy around, swinging him in the air. Little giggles turned to squeals of laughter as the man hugged his son to him and then hoisted him onto his back. The two of them went off together, smiling and laughing.
An ache he couldn’t name clenched at Ezra’s gut. He turned and walked quickly away, leaving a perplexed Josiah to wonder exactly what had happened.