This short, action-packed adventure is the next step in the Knight Traveler series that launched with Heart of Time and Timeless Vision.
King Arthur has been warned of a talisman infused with powerful magic that could threaten Camelot. Summoning Sir Kay and his bear companion to ride with him, Arthur travels to assess the trouble. But they aren't alone in the quest as the blackhearted Mordred is determined to steal the amber talisman and use it to advance his twisted, evil agenda.
This story includes a preview of Timeless Changes, coming summer of 2016
Arthur strode through the bailey, the urgency of his persistent nightmares pressing him from all sides despite the sunshine and clear skies above. He couldn’t allow his concerns to show or share his worries over a future no man here would live to see.
Merlin had left weeks ago in pursuit of some legend or talisman that might help their cause. Arthur didn’t bother keeping track of the magician, fully aware his friend and advisor had his own agenda. Especially amid the challenge as big and dark as the one they faced now.
Arthur watched his knights testing and training, eyed those tending horses or weapons, and enjoyed the harmony of the community at large going about their daily endeavors. His knights had fought valiantly to bring about this peace and he wanted to ensure they could preserve it for future generations.
Months had passed without further news from Sir Gawain. His young squire had returned to Camelot, confided what he knew of the knight, and traveled home per Gawain’s orders. Arthur tentatively counted it a victory that Morgana, Gawain’s quarry, had also seemingly disappeared. He’d sent out a party to confirm that the survivors who had followed her, greedy for power and darkness, had been few and scattered so they could do no more harm.
Yet his nightmares plagued him. In some there were visions of a hard and violent future crowded with people and inventions he could barely comprehend. Others showed Camelot withering away, reduced stone by stone to nothing more than a crumbling ruin and the founding ideals of his kingdom no more than dust blown to myth by the winds.
Of course he would not live forever but he’d established Camelot with a lasting legacy in mind for those generations unborn. What he and the knights had built, they’d built to last and he would invest his every breath and beat of his heart to safeguard that future.
A horn blasted from the tower, followed quickly by a cry at the gate. Arthur leapt to a wagon for a better view, startled by the sight of a lone horse, hooves thundering over the bridge at a full gallop. A rider pressed close against the mount’s neck, clinging like a burr. The horse weaved through every man’s attempt to slow him until he stopped abruptly in front of Arthur, giving a hard shake from nose to tail.
An enchantment to be sure. Arthur hopped back to the ground, calling for help for the lathered horse and weary rider. The rider slid off, and bowed low, only to stumble forward. Arthur caught him up.
“My king,” he said as Arthur steadied him. “I bring word from Sir Eiddlig.”
As of the last report, Eiddlig, the dwarf knight, was camped with his men in the north to protect growing villages. A student of myth and mystery, the dwarf’s gift for unraveling true power from mere rumor rivaled his accomplishments on the battlefield. Enchanting a horse to deliver a missive indicated a troubling desperation. The rider was young, caught in the awkward stage when a lad is all jutting knees and sharp elbows, but he would have been small burden for the horse.
“You need a meal and rest. Then we shall speak.”
“The message first, if you please, my king. It is quite urgent.”
As if the nature of his arrival hadn’t made the urgency clear enough, the plea in the lad’s eyes outweighed the exhaustion. Arthur conceded. “This way.” He turned toward the closest source of privacy, the chapel, slowing his strides to allow the lad to keep pace with ease.
“Your name, lad?”
Arthur opened the door of the chapel and looked about to be sure they were alone. “How many days have you been on that horse?”
“We were sent out two nights ago, sire.”
“You stopped for nothing?”
The lad’s eyes went round in his lean, pale face. “We stopped only when the horse needed water.”
“I see.” He assumed the child had not been able to dismount at those times, held in place by the enchantment Eiddlig applied to propel the horse. Arthur sat down on the bench closest to the altar, pleased when the boy did the same. “Deliver your message so we may see to your care.”
“Sir Eiddlig sends you his fond regard and hopes you are well,” Daniel began, reciting every word quietly and with great care, his gaze locked on Arthur’s. “After recent stormy weather, he requests the assistance of Sir Kay immediately.”
Trouble, but not as Arthur might have expected from his nightmares. If Eiddlig was calling on Kay, nothing good was happening in the north. He didn’t care for the reference of storms, knowing any of his resourceful knights could manage normal weather conditions. “There must be more to the message.”
The lad’s wary gaze flitted around, even lingering on the ceiling beams and the high window over the altar before he reached into his tunic. He withdrew a travel-worn parchment. “I cannot read, my king, though Sir Eiddlig has promised to teach me. This message has been protected as he intended.”
“Many thanks for your honesty, Daniel.” Arthur read the short missive twice over. He wanted to stand and pace as he considered his options, but he remained seated so the boy would not feel obliged to stand as well. He read the missive again, his curiosity piqued by the mention of a powerful talisman and his thoughts and eyes catching repeatedly on one terrible name, that of Mordred.
Years ago, Sir Eiddlig allowed himself to become Mordred’s prisoner and had used the time to undermine a plot to betray and destroy Camelot. Sir Kay and the bear he traveled with had been instrumental in the dwarf knight’s rescue and putting down Mordred’s rebellion. Now it seemed Morgana’s black-hearted younger brother was stirring another uprising.
“May I ask, sire, if I have arrived in time?”
Arthur reached out and clapped him on the shoulder. “You have indeed. I am certain we are all indebted to you.”
Color rose in Daniel’s face. “I would like to serve by any means necessary, if you will allow it.”
The boy’s earnestness reminded Arthur of several friends and foster brothers he had known at this age who grew into honorable men. He would not leave Daniel in Camelot when Eiddlig clearly had use of him. “First you must rest and eat well while I make plans.”
He could see the disappointment in the lad’s brown eyes. “I assume you can ride without the aid of an enchantment?”
“Good.” Arthur studied the boy closely. He had courage to go with that earnest mien. “The spell Sir Eiddlig wove around you and the horse did not frighten you?”
“A little,” Daniel confessed, his cheeks going pink once again. “I did not want the horse to come to any harm in our haste.”
“You understand by now Sir Eiddlig would never allow such a thing?”
“Yes, sire. I only joined his camp a short time ago.”
Eiddlig would take no chances by risking this message to just anyone. There was more to the boy than Arthur could see at the surface. “You must have proven quite trustworthy in that short time.”
The lad’s chin bobbed up and down. “Sir Eiddlig and those with him have been kind to me.”
A story here, Arthur thought. A story better coaxed out of the lad during the journey ahead of them. He pocketed the missive and led the way as they exited the chapel. Signaling one of his guards, he gave instructions for the lad to be indulged in the kitchens until his belly was full and then allowed to sleep in the stables near his horse.
“Prepare to ride out with me at dawn,” he told the lad before striding away.
The missive gave him much to contemplate and much to research before they roused Sir Kay and turned north to assist the dwarf knight.
Sir Kay heard them coming almost as soon as they stepped into the shade of the trees. Two riders approached, harnesses jangling and disrupting the quiet morning. As his companion silently lumbered out of sight to flank the riders, Kay crept closer to the wide path, picking out the voices.
Good lord. It was his king, chattering away as if he were some carefree peasant. The second rider was young, the youthful exuberance in his voice as the pair approached. The king riding through the forest with only a child for company aggravated Kay. Where in damnation was Arthur’s usual guard?
Those closest to the king knew Kay kept the wood clear of enemies when he was camped here. They were also aware Kay traveled often. Kay vowed to have a word with his king as well as the captain of the guard at the next opportunity.
“You must not be startled by Sir Kay,” Arthur was saying now. “Unless he is away, he already has eyes on us.”
“It is true he is a giant?”
Yes, Kay thought even as Arthur denied the wild claim.
“Only Sir Eiddlig calls him such to his face. It is their jest alone.”
Kay stayed back, curious now. What did the lad know of the dwarf?
“I will remember.”
“He is the tallest of men, to be sure,” Arthur added. “As a knight, he pledged an oath to protect our kingdom and its people from harm. You need not fear him.”
Kay scowled. He didn’t make a habit of frightening children, primarily because he avoided them. If Arthur had some idea of foisting a squire or foster on him, Kay would disabuse him of that notion at once. Coming to his feet, he moved up the rise to stand in the middle of the road. The horses, catching his bear’s scent behind them, whinnied and shied under their riders.
“Be at ease,” Kay called. With a subtle wave of his hand, he turned the light breeze and pushed his bear’s scent away from the horses. They relaxed at once.
“My thanks,” Arthur replied, urging his mount closer.
With his remarkable hearing, Kay caught the encouragement the king murmured to the young rider next to him. “I’ve learned it’s better to be cautious in all things,” Kay said, letting his voice carry through the trees.
Arthur acknowledged that with a brief nod and Kay saw a weariness in the gesture that concerned him. His king was particularly spry and confident. Or he had been until recently. Having learned of a terrible danger he could not confront directly, those closest to the king saw the strain and struggle of leaving the heart of the fight to others.
Kay bowed low, maintaining protocol in front of the young stranger. “How may I be of service to you, sire?”
“I am told Sir Eiddlig has immediate need of your help.”
Kay’s attention locked on to the lad. “You were the messenger?”
The boy nodded, his knuckles going white where he gripped the reins.
“This is Daniel,” Arthur said. “He has shown great courage in carrying out his task according to Eiddlig’s instructions.”
Instructions, ha! Under differing circumstances, Kay might take those words as a challenge and put the boy’s mettle to the test. Not today, when Arthur was silently beseeching him to behave as one of the more typical knights of his round table. “That is a substantial recommendation, lad. Our king does not ride with anyone of questionable character.” Nor would he ride alone without good reason. “Your guard, follows close, sire?”
“They remain at the forest’s edge,” Arthur replied. “I saw no reason to upset them or your companion.”
Kay caught the lad’s gaze flitting about, searching the shadows for confirmation of the unusual company Kay kept. “Have you heard about my friend?”
“Yes, Sir Kay.”
The lad’s voice held steady. “Courage indeed,” he said to Arthur. “And you’ve come to guide me back, then?” he asked Daniel. “Despite the rumors?”
“Not rumors,” the lad blurted out as color stained his fair cheeks. “Sir Eiddlig told me true, I am sure.”
Kay threw back his head and laughed. “We’ll see about that.”
“Hold the horses a moment, Daniel.” Arthur swung out of the saddle and handed his reins to the boy. “I need a private word with Sir Kay before we start our journey.”
Kay walked with his friend and king down the road, well out of the boy’s hearing. “The boy cannot read,” Arthur began, revealing a scrap of parchment. “Naturally I could only read the portion meant for my eyes. I would ask you to explain all that you can about the message writ specifically for you.”
Kay muttered an oath as he read the mention of Mordred. The useless sack of flesh was a plague on all he met. A chill slid across the back of Kay’s neck as he turned the bit of parchment, deciphering the symbols crowded along the top and bottom edges. “May the Lord have mercy on us all.”
“What is it?”
Kay looked into his king’s somber gaze. “It is precisely what you think. May I keep this?”
“Of course. I feel it is meant for you more than me.”
Kay tucked away the missive and rubbed his hand over the heat building behind his breastbone. Months ago, Arthur had called Kay, Gawain, and Bors to a private meeting and asked them to join a quest to battle a growing evil. The vow Kay had given on that day was accompanied by more mystery and magic than he’d previously encountered, including a fire nymph and weeks of training in Avalon. For a man of his strange, specific talents whose closest companion was a bear, he still found it startling when he dwelled too long upon it.
So he did not dwell. He pressed onward determined to wrap his quest now, in a time he understood rather than be pushed into a fight in the bleak and murky future Arthur worried over.
“We will travel as three,” Arthur said. “Four when we add your bear.”
“Sire, you should stay behind,” Kay countered, his thoughts on the coded message. “The lad will be safe with us.”
“I must know what Mordred is plotting.”
“Power, as always,” Kay said with a grunt. “Eiddlig has learned of a talisman of great importance.”