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The Fair Beginning of a Time

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It had been spring. Guinevere remembers that. She remembers the laughter of her ladies-in-waiting as they gathered the first herbs and flowers of the year, the plants still thin and pale but so much more alive than anything that had been seen through the months of winter. She remembers her knights, arrayed in green for the season, the way they had squinted at the newly-bright sun, the way they had vied to show off their strength and skill for the watching, smiling women. She remembers her husband, and how he had complimented her gown on that last morning. In truth its cloth had been too light, worn more in the hope of warmth than for its true presence, and she had shivered as he kissed her.

Despite all the things she does remember, Guinevere can not tell how long she has been here in the Summer Country. Sometimes it seems merely yesterday that her Maying was interrupted by Sir Meleagant emerging from the forest. He had worn armor and been followed by archers and men at arms and squires; all of their faces had been grave. But he was a Knight of the Round Table, and so for a moment Guinevere had only been confused, never suspecting that he had come for her. If she had known then what she knows now, she would never have left Camelot’s walls on that last morning of her innocence and safety. Although perhaps to imprison herself there would be no better of a fate.

At other times she feels she has been held captive in the Summer Country for years, as though time has gone wrong and the cycle of the seasons is broken. Once she thought that her gown had rotted to cobweb-like threads and fallen from her body, but when she looked again, it was as perfect as ever, still smelling faintly of dye, the way it had the first day she’d worn it. It is always hot here. She sometimes hears the roar and splash of running water, but though she searches and searches, she never finds the source of the sound. She dreams of its cool embrace and wakes to another day of thirst and sweat and endless drying heat. She is certain, at such times, that centuries have passed since she was abducted from Camelot, and yet she has not aged. When she looks at her hands, they are as smooth and unlined as they were on that May morning so long ago.

She remembers the stories of fairy realms and how time could not be trusted within them, but to experience it is another matter entirely. She no longer trusts her memories, not only the ones made here in the Summer Country, but those of all of her life. Was she the daughter of a Roman family, or of a King? Is she Arthur’s only wife, or one of three? Histories blend one into another and the only thing she knows to be true is that she is Guinevere, and she was once Queen of Britain.

***

When the knight comes, riding in a hangman’s cart like a condemned criminal, Guinevere sees no shame in it. Lancelot du Lac, her rescuer. She would go with him no matter how he came riding to her side; it is time to go home. She feels it in her bones, in the way her heart aches for the place she belongs. Besides, he looks so earnest, so aware of her respected station, and so young too; his golden hair is worn a little too long and his eyes, the blue of lake waters indeed, are too wide.

Sir Meleagant also looks mortal. An average-looking man, older than her but no more so than Arthur, the muscle of his youth just beginning to melt away to paunch. There are heavy crows’ feet around his eyes as though he is a man who laughs often, but she has never heard him do so. When he smiles, it is faint and quickly gone, and never reaches his pale gray eyes. He indulges in no mortal habits at all. He accompanies Guinevere to the table, when she must eat and drink or die – she knows it is unwise to take fairy meat and wine, but her body hungers beyond her ability to deny it – but he consumes nothing himself. He pledged his love to her on the day he stole her, but here in the Summer Country he has never touched her, not even the simple courtesy of assisting her to rise from her chair. Appearances can be deceiving, she has learned. Meleagant looks like a man, but has nothing of a man’s needs. Nor understands a woman’s.

***

Lancelot comes back that night – or the next, it is so hard to tell here – and breaks into her tower. He injures his hand in the process. Guinevere takes it in her own, and his skin is cool against hers. A relief. For so long she has been tired of heat, tired of her own scent of sweat, her own sticky touch. Lancelot of the Lake, clear and clean as forbidden waters.

His blood is as red as hers. She has never seen Sir Meleagant bleed but surely fairies must do it in some other way than humans. As Lancelot stares, Guinevere lowers her head to his hand, splits her lips, and slowly takes a finger into her mouth. His blood tastes of salt and cold iron, rare meat and death. Mortal things, sinful things, things that speak of life ending and therefore life that grows and changes.

In the morning, blood covers her sheets.

***

Time passes, or perhaps it doesn’t. There are duels, tournaments, imprisonments, many trials of knightly honor, but not one of them feels new. It is a memory, Guinevere thinks, even as she lives through them. This all happened long ago, and will repeat itself forever.

When the quest is over and Lancelot brings her back to Camelot, it is spring. She does not ask him if it is the same spring as the one in which she left or the next year’s. She does not think it matters. It will always be spring, here in the beginning, when she returns. Camelot’s towers smell of wet stone from a recent rain, and the pennants overhead crack in the brisk breeze. Guinevere smiles and lifts her face to the sparsely clouded sky. Sunlight dapples her closed eyelids, and finally its faint warmth is a welcome thing.

She embraces Lancelot chastely when he presents her to King Arthur, then turns to take her husband’s hand. She is happy, as she has not been in what feels like a very long time. She is Guinevere, Queen of Britain, she is in love, and it is spring. For the moment, nothing else matters, and she has learned to live in the moment.