One moment Tommy was walking across the courtyard, literally minding his own business—mainly in the form of wondering when was the next time he would be able to spirit Lynn from her father’s gaze—the next found him sprawling on the ground from a hard shove, skinning the palm of his hand as he tried to break his fall. “Wha—what the hell?” he angrily demanded, turning on his back, eyes narrowing as he caught sight of Andras, Einion, and Padrig.
Andras had his sword out—the tip was pointed toward Tommy, though not actually touching, yet. “It was the least you deserve—for what you did to our sister!” He waved his free arm—in a second Einion and Padrig had moved to either side of Tommy, effectively surrounding him. No escape seemed possible …
Of course, that was assuming that Tommy might want to escape—which, at the moment, he did not. Instead he got up, slowly and warily—looking at Andras suspiciously. “And what would that be?”
“You know,” Einion growled.
“Oh, what—you need me to tell you, because you forgot already?” Tommy taunted. Einion snarled and smacked his fist against his palm. “Or you didn’t understand in the first place?”
The beefy middle brother stepped forward threateningly—“Hold it, Einion,” Padrig said easily, “we all want our piece of him.”
Tommy pressed one hand to the hilt of his dagger. “What did I supposedly do to your sister?” he repeated—to Andras.
Andras narrowed his peridot eyes. “You know very well—”
“Courted her? You’re a little late on that—I was finished with her three weeks ago.”
“You mean—she finished with you,” Andras corrected—raising his sword just slightly, only a few inches away from Tommy’s heart. “You’d best be careful, Pendragon—she told us everything.”
He would have expected a thrashing from the three of them for courting Mairwen—and taking it as far as he had—but naked steel was another story. He eyed the blade askance. “If she finished with me, how are you annoyed with me?”
“Because,” Andras hissed, “you hadn’t finished with her.”
He raised one eyebrow. “Oh, really?”
“No, you didn’t,” Einion grunted, smacking fist to palm. “You decided that you had to try to ravish her—”
“What?” Tommy shouted.
“Idiot!” Padrig called to his brother. “Now the whole bloody court’s going to know what he tried to do—are you trying to ruin Mairwen’s reputation?!”
“Tried? I’m taking that she told you I didn’t succeed in whatever she said I tried to do.”
“She did—” Andras stepped forward, shoving his sword against Tommy’s chest. Tommy held his ground. “You had better not have succeeded.”
“I didn’t even bloody try.”
“You most certainly did—Mairwen would not lie and say that you had attempted to steal her virginity—”
“Careful, Andras,” Padrig hissed, gesturing around to the crowd that was rapidly forming around them.
“Aye—careful,” warned another voice. Another person sandwiched himself into their rough circle. “Tom isn’t without friends.”
Andras narrowed his eyes. “This is not your fight, Sir William.”
“To defend the truth is every knight’s fight,” Will replied in a low voice.
“He’s got a point, mate,” Tommy murmured. “We’re probably both going to get—how did Ben put it—spread out like rushes over the courtyard?”
“Something like that,” Will agreed. “But two on three is slightly better odds than one on three.”
“Slightly,” Tommy muttered in reply, eyeing the three brothers, each in a different stage of fury. Neither of them was as big as Padrig, the smallest of the brothers; and he and Will together probably did not weigh as much as Einion alone. “Nice knowing you, mate.”
Will gave a grim smile.
Andras advanced a step closer—Tommy took his dagger out. Will quietly unsheathed his sword.
Lynn, standing on the sidelines with her father, squealed and covered her eyes with her hands as the swords came out—Bors stared at the scene in open-mouthed astonishment. “Is he mad?” he wondered aloud. “He’s the closest thing Lancelot has to an heir—what is he doing?”
If Lynn had ever in her fifteen years of living come close to telling her father off, this was the time, as the part of her mind that was not praying fervently for Tommy snapped at her father, He’s standing up for his friend, in case you didn’t notice! There’s more to this world than the du Lac clan!
But it seemed that a higher power was listening to Lynn’s prayers and tactfully ignoring her dishonor of her father—for a quiet voice came from the end of the courtyard closest to the door to the Great Hall: “You have five minutes before I send for the headsman, so you had best make your explanation good.”
The ap Vaughan brothers started uncomfortably, turning in the direction the voice had come from. The crowd parted as King Arthur made his calm way through. Andras gave a stiff bow, Padrig and Einion followed. Einion in particular was looking at his two brothers nervously. Will lowered his sword, though not quite sheathing it—the way Tommy gripped his dagger suggested that he was either not trusting his father’s ability to bail him out of this, or he did not care and wanted a go at the ap Vaughan brothers anyway.
Arthur crossed his arms over his chest. “I warned you that you had only five minutes—I suggest you start explaining before I lose patience.”
Andras bowed again. “Your Majesty—my sister accused Thomas of trying to ravish her.”
“Trying?” Arthur questioned. “As in he did not succeed?”
“I didn’t even bloody try,” Tommy forced between gritting teeth.
Arthur gave his son a quick, calculating look, before nodding. “That’s good—I would hope I had raised you better than that.” He turned back to Andras. “Have you any proof of this accusation?”
“I consider my sister’s word as proof enough,” Andras said rashly.
Lynn heard Padrig croak out a strangled, “Andras!”
Arthur lifted one eyebrow. “Proof enough? Proof enough to come after my son—surround him—three to one against a young man who has yet to be knighted—betraying all rules of decency, honor, and chivalry? I’m surprised,” hear he cast a withering glare at the rest of the courtyard, “that Sir William was the only one with the courage to call you on that fault alone.”
Will and Tommy exchanged a quick glance. It was plain by the look on both of their faces that upholding the protocols of chivalry had been near the bottom of Will’s list of priorities, but Arthur pretended as if that facet of the story had not occurred to him. Lynn took a deep breath and held it.
“And, moreover, you do all of this against the son of your king, whom you are sworn by your knighthood to honor and protect—and despite the status of his birth, my son is still my son, and is to be treated as any member of the royal family—I’m beginning to regret that I gave you five minutes.”
Andras took a deep breath. “I consider my sister’s honor—”
“If Thomas only tried, as you allege, then your sister’s honor is unstained, and you are doing her more harm than good by dragging the matter out into the open.”
“Then you will not even permit us to challenge him and have him prove his innocence?”
“I might have—provided that the date would occur after his being made knight—except you’ve lost that privilege. In fact,” Arthur added darkly, “you stripped yourself of nearly all privileges, including living.”
Andras narrowed his eyes and crossed his arms over his chest. “Then you will pardon your son for a crime that you would allow any other brothers to avenge.”
“There’s pardoning and then there’s pardoning—however—we will allow this matter to be proven—and not through conflict,” Arthur added quickly, seeing how Andras went for his sword, “but calmly, and through logic. Your accusation is?”
“That Thomas attempted to ravish my sister.”
“We’ve been over this—I refuse to ask ‘how’—why?”
Andras took a deep breath. “He and my sister had been in a—courtship—my sister broke it off, and Thomas did not wish for it to end.”
Arthur looked at his son. “Your rebuttal?”
“I was never happier than when I saw her go,” Tommy spat out. “And I wouldn’t do something like that, even to—or perhaps especially—to her.”
The king raised one eyebrow at Andras. “I believe that is fairly definite—where and when did this occur?”
“The gardens, yesterday afternoon.”
“That’s easy enough to disprove—Thomas, where were you—” Arthur stopped, staring at his son—Lynn had gone stiff at the mention of that, and Tommy looked as if someone had punched him in the stomach. “Thomas?”
Tommy swallowed. “I would—rather not say here—Father.” He shot her a fleeting glance—then looked back at his father, resolute.
Arthur blinked—the crowd began to erupt into whispers. “Thomas …” Tommy swallowed again, shaking his head.
This was looking bad—Lynn gulped and wrung her hands together. “Y-your Majesty?” she asked, stepping forward.
“Gwendolyn!” Bors hissed.
Arthur turned to her in some surprise—but his tone was gentle as he inquired, “Yes, Lady Gwendolyn?”
“Your Majesty—To—Lord Thomas won’t say, but—I know he was not w-w-with Lady Mairwen at the—time indicated, b-because—well,” Lynn glanced down at the dirt of the courtyard, not noticing how Tommy stared at her in pure disbelief, “he was with—m-m-me.”
Arthur was in as much shock as the rest of his court as he stared at the small girl in white—he saw Bors start forward, and in a low growl, inquire, “What?”
Sheer terror was evident on Gwendolyn’s face as she slowly turned around. “F-f-father, it wasn’t—it wasn’t like that …” She started to back away, slowly, from her father; Bors lunged forward and grabbed her arm. “Ow! Father, you’re hurting me!”
Arthur saw a jerk of movement from where the ap Vaughan boys and his own son were standing – he heard his son call murmur, “Damn it, Will, let me go,” and then call out, “I didn’t touch her!”
Gwendolyn stared in Tommy’s direction—Bors’s grip on her arm tightened and she yelped again. Bors grabbed her chin and roughly forced her to look at him. “Listen to me, girl, whether he did anything or not isn’t the issue—how dare you allow yourself to be in such a compromising position with any man—and then you go and tell the whole godforsaken court—”
“But, Father, I couldn’t let them accuse Lord Thomas of something he didn’t do when I knew—”
“In public? Putting your whole reputation at stake? Girl—”
“Sir Bors,” Arthur finally interjected, “considering that my son’s life was potentially at stake, I think young Lady Gwendolyn has earned herself a reputation for courage rather than besmearing her reputation as a virtuous maid. And,” he added, after a smile and a wink to Gwendolyn, “I don’t appreciate you calling my court a godforsaken one.”
Bors snapped his mouth shut, then opened it again—“No,” Arthur said before he ask, “you may not have leave to go to discipline your daughter more harshly in private. You should consider yourself lucky to have a daughter so unselfish as to place the needs of others before concern for herself.”
He did not give Bors time to reply before turning back to the ap Vaughan brothers – and his son. Tommy still looked as if he was barely containing his fury; Arthur noted that Will had his arm in a death grip. As for the ap Vaughan brothers … Padrig looked worried and frightened, Einion close to panic, and Andras … Andras was cool and uncaring, or at any rate he gave the appearance of being so. Arthur narrowed his eyes. Insolent fools. They deserve worse than they’re going to get.
“We have two sets,” Arthur said quietly, “of verbal evidence to consider. The first being young Lady Mairwen ap Vaughan’s affirmation that my son attempted to forcibly take what she would not give him freely—the second Thomas’s firm denial of that, and the further corroboratory evidence provided by Lady Gwendolyn. From this, and from my own personal knowledge of the characters of these three witnesses, it is clear to me that my son and Lady Gwendolyn are the ones speaking the truth in this instance—therefore, Lady Mairwen must be lying.”
Arthur gave a grim smile as Einion blanched, his knees shaking; Padrig took in a sharp gasp; and even Andras’s eyes went wide. “I see that you understand in what position this places her, and you – conspiracy to commit high treason.”
Andras’s mouth fell open; Arthur held up his hand. “I care not whether you believed your sister’s lies or not—even if she had been speaking the truth, you still attempted to murder a member of the royal family, without giving him even a chance to prove his innocence. That alone is good cause for me to have you killed.”
He paused a moment, then said. “I have every right—and no little provocation—to send the three of you to the headsman’s block, and your sister to the stake … however, I keep my promises. Therefore, unless my son desires otherwise—” Arthur took a deep breath and glowered. “You are, the four of you, banished herewith. You have one hour to leave court, and two weeks to get yourselves out of the country. If any of you are captured after that time has passed, it will be on pain of death.
“Moreover,” Arthur added, “upon your father’s death, his lands are confiscate by the Crown and will be distributed as we see fit. You will also travel from England with an armed escort—should you make any attempt to retreat into hiding within England, or to send any messages to your father, you will, all four of you, be killed on the spot.”
He waited for a long moment, and then stated, “You have already wasted one minute of your allotted hour—I suggest you get moving. Unless, of course, Thomas …?”
Arthur glanced at his son—Tommy seemed to start under his gaze. “What? Oh—no objections.” Immediately he began to scowl again; Arthur wondered what had made him so angry and resolved to find out as soon as this minor … distraction had been taken care of.
He snapped his fingers, waving a couple guards toward the three brothers. “You—escort the ap Vaughans to their chambers—see to it that they are gone from the castle in an hour, and that they bring no weapons. Sir Kay,” he glanced at his foster-brother and the seneschal of his lands, “find knights suitable for their escort. Tell them that I apologize for the short notice. You three,” he turned back to the three brothers, “get moving.”
Andras hesitated for just a moment—then he narrowed his eyes and began to walk quickly toward one of the doors to the castle, his green cloak billowing out behind him. Padrig and Einion followed, the guards close on their heels.
Arthur took a deep breath. He glanced at Bors. “Sir Bors.”
The knight, still gripping his daughter’s arm tightly, jumped—he saw a quick spasm of pain shoot across Gwendolyn’s face. “Every father must of course discipline his children as it suits him,” Arthur said quietly, “but my own opinion is that, to punish a daughter for showing courage unusual in her sex, and moreover to prove her loyalty to the royal family in the same stroke, is sending the wrong sort of message. Do I make myself clear?”
“My liege,” Bors replied, stiffly, “while I appreciate my daughter’s … virtues, even praise her for giving her evidence so swiftly—I do not appreciate the fact that she was in a garden, alone, with a young man, even one so … eminently trustworthy as your son.”
Arthur raised his eyebrows. “You are not given to flattery, Sir Bors—however, as I said …” He felt a twinge of guilt as he repeated, “Every father must discipline his children as it suits him.”
Bors gave a quick bow of his head—Gwendolyn just looked sick. Arthur looked at his son again—Tommy seemed about ready to burst from Will’s hold. “Tom—with me.”
Not sparing another glance at his court, Arthur took his son’s elbow and led him into the castle.