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The New Britomart 

eluki bes shahar 

 Mine humble and o’b’t Correspondent informs me that something like this really happened too. As she is also a Penwoman of some Authority and Reknown upon the subject of Regency texts, I perceive small reason to doubt her. 

     It was entirely the fault of the book which that great enchanter, the Wizard of the North, had made, to begin with; for once Sir Arthur Mallory obtained his copy of that eagerly-awaited tome from Hatchard’s, the damage was done past all repairing. 

“Hello, Wilfred,” Miss Rowena Spencer said, opening the top half of the kitchen door on a brisk March morning. “Have you come to do Papa’s accounts again?” 

Rowena Spencer was a damsel of that blonde buxomness long celebrated by the less-respectable English poets, though Rowena herself was a young woman of impeccable probity. Her birth was the result of a delicately disregarded mesalliance between Lady Letitia Burroughs, only daughter of the Viscount Greystoke, and the village blacksmith, young Weland Spencer. Upon the occasion of the Viscountcy’s devolution upon the broad shoulders of a distant cousin raised entirely in foreign parts by wildly unsuitable persons, Lady Letty had announced that rather than remain one more instant beneath Cousin John’s roof, she would marry the first man she saw, the subject of her vow being the fellow who was shoeing her horse at the time. 

There were times at which Rowena Spencer wished that her late mother had been a shade less precipitate, but she was a stout-hearted English girl who embraced her present station with a stalwart heart while dreaming of better things. 

One of those better things was Wilfred. Wilfred Roland Oliver Charlemagne Lancelot Mallory was the only son and principal heir of Sir Arthur Mallory, a robust gentleman whose fortune obtained in equal measure from Scottish sheep and Birmingham mills. Young Wilfred had scarce nineteen summers to his credit, and—though his hair and eyes could charitably be called blond and blue—to name them so would be the most definite thing about Mr. Mallory’s person. 

“Hullo, Rowena,” Wilfred said gloomily. “No, that isn’t until the end of the week.” He drooped endearingly upon the doorsill, reminding Rowena of a desolate dandelion. “Is your father in?” he pursued, for he was a polite young man, and cognizant of the social necessities. 

Mr. Wilfred Mallory’s greatest desire was to be an accountant: he had first salved that burning hunger in his maiden soul by preparing so rigorous a catalog of his father’s extensive library that his work was quite the envy of the entire county. There had been numerous offers tendered for his services, but Sir Arthur had angrily rejected them all, saying that one in whose veins burned the immortal blood of the greatest of English kings (Sir Arthur having conveniently forgotten that he had purchased his title in 1807) would not stoop to clerking drudgery. 

As Wilfred found himself without many outlets for his natural talents at Camelot Court, and the recipient of little peace within its walls, he had endeared himself to the tradespeople of Miching Malicho by a positive yearning to handle their accounts and billing, and for this reason he was much seen in the shops on High Street around the fifteenth of each month. 

“He’s at the smithy, of course,” Rowena said. “But come inside, Wilfred—there’s new bread made and the cloth laid for tea. Is it about the tourney?” 

“So you know, then,” Wilfred said despondently. “Does everyone know?” 

“Only everyone in the county,” Rowena said, in an attempt to be consoling. “And possibly London,” she added. 

Sir Arthur Mallory had taken up the new Gothic fashion embraced by Horace Walpole seventy years before, and with the inspiration of Strawberry Hill before him, Sir Arthur had taken the fruit of many successful years in the wool trade and erected his own homage to medieval chivalry and his own hotly-mooted ancestors. The erection of Camelot Court in the otherwise undistinguished border town of Miching Malicho (located between the Whiteadder and the Tweed, and of very little earthly import whatever) was far more than a nod to the current interest in the Gothic style: it represented, in fact, the first flowering of Sir Arthur’s greatest obsession—to prove his descent from the legendary King Arthur himself, and, failing the seizin of the throne of England by genealogical means, the restoration of the Court of Camelot at the very least. 

That Sir Arthur had not been invited to dine among the peers of the realm last year, when Prinny had finally legitimately assumed his father’s dignities and the style of King George IV with all the medieval pomp and splendor that a blithe disregard for financial economy could muster, had been a crushing disappointment to Sir Arthur’s medieval ambitions, it is true, but in all probability that gentleman would merely have retreated to the sanctuary of his anachronistic crenelations to lave his psychic wounds in the salt of resentment, were it not for The Book. 


Sir Walter Scott—the Wizard of the North, the Great Enchanter— was a noted romancier who could always be counted upon to produce something ornate and dramatic about the many injustices suffered by his beloved Highlanders, but, sales having fallen off on the Waverly series of late, he had turned his mind and his pen to a time and a place he hoped would be dearer to the hearts and pocketbooks of his reading public. 

He called it Ivanhoe, and it burst upon the literary scene in December of 1819. 

In February of 1821, Sir Arthur Mallory, cheated of the greater ceremony beyond his touch, determined that Camelot Court would be the site of a tourney that very summer. 

“This is the outside of enough,” Sir Arthur’s son said forlornly. He seated himself at Rowena’s well-scrubbed kitchen table and regarded the corn-gold curls, coral-pink lips, and gillyflower-blue eyes of his hostess without any particular approval. If the truth were told, Wilfred liked numbers much better than girls, although some girls— Rowena being one—were slightly less objectionable than others. 

Rowena placed a mug of hard cider in front of him, along with the end of a hot loaf fresh out of the oven. He was, she felt, too thin, and wanted feeding. “A tourney,” Wilfred repeated, just in case either of them had forgotten the cause of his depression. 

“Perhaps it will be amusing,” Rowena suggested hopefully. “The banners, and the horses—and the armor.” 

“Do you know how to wear a suit of armor?” Wilfred moaned. “Do I? Do any of the half-mad antiquarians Papa is inviting? We have had nothing but the tourney for breakfast, nuncheon, and tea since he took this maggot into his head—the winner of the joust is to crown whom he will the Queen of Love and Beauty and ask what boon he will, and I am sure Papa would award Elaine’s hand in marriage to the victor, did he think he could manage it without her turning him into a toad!” 

“Ah,” Rowena said. An idea was beginning to take strong possession of her, and she felt her heart beat faster. “And may anyone compete in this tourney?” 

Wilfred—who had finished one large mug of alcoholic apple juice and was beginning on the second—laughed as harshly as so indefinite a young man might. 

“Oh, aye—anyone who shows up with horse and armor will doubtless be invited—the more mysterious, the better! But there is one whom you will not find in the lists on the Feast of St. John, and that one, Miss Spencer, is I!” 

It should not be particularly difficult, Rowena told herself, looking about the now-deserted smithy (Papa having gone for his usual three-tankard lunch at the Bell and Candle, the local coaching house), and it is my only chance to fix my interest with Wilfred. 

Rowena gazed about the Miching Malicho smithy with a practiced eye. Through this well-built structure at the edge of town came every horse, cart, and hinge in the county requiring shoeing or maintenance. Rowena had helped her father here on many an occasion. Now she was going to help herself. 

Wilfred said that anyone might compete. And that he would not. And that the winner could crown the Queen of Love and Beauty—who would sit beside him at the feast that Sir Arthur will hold thereafter. 

She picked up a crested helm that was lying in the corner, awaiting removal of its dents. Most of the armor gracing the halls of Sir Arthur’s castle had been made here, there not being enough available from Samuel Pratt’s fine antiquarian show rooms in Bond Street to nurture Sir Arthur’s anachronistic mania. 

And if what Wilfred—and local gossip—said was true, orders would soon be flooding in from all over the nation for improvement and custom-fitting of ancestral armor. In such confusion, it would be simplicity itself to add one more requisition. 

So all I have to do is win the tourney—and crown Wilfred. That should make him notice me! 

Nobody will notice me. Elaine Mallory sat in the window seat of her tower laboratory, her battered green kerseymere dress wadded up around her knees as she sat curled up in the window seat. The heat from the athanor nestled in its straw-filled cradle did little to palliate the chill of the room, likewise the small alcohol-fed flames beneath certain of her other experiments. 

If it was Wilfred Mallory’s curse to have been born an ordinary chap into a family of monomaniacal eccentrics, Elaine’s curse was to wish to have everything both ways. 

Elaine Guinevere Astolat Mallory was a well-grown damsel of three-and-twenty, the pleasing effect of her black hair and brown eyes—and a most agreeable countenance for one whose marriage settlements were known to be so large—marred only slightly by a certain randomness of toilette and a tendency to slouch. While her dowry ensured no lack of eligible suitors for her hand, her lamentable tendency to quiz young hopefuls upon their Latin and Greek made it likely that she would be keeping house beneath her father’s roof for many a year to come. 

This did not normally cast Elaine’s spirits so far into the dismals as it might be supposed, as Elaine was the recipient of a generous allowance, the entire North Tower to her personal use, and a strong tendency to follow in her father’s footsteps: she was studying sorcery. 

However, what was tolerable and even agreeable when it was unknown to those whose regard must always be solicited became far otherwise when it was to be held up to consideration before an audience drawn from half the persons of ton resident in the counties of England. 

There would be a Queen of Love and Beauty chosen at the Mallorean Tourney, and it was, after all, only reasonable that the daughter of the tourney’s host should receive this encomium. 

And she wouldn’t. No matter who won. Even if by some miracle Wilfred were to win (unlikely in the extreme, as he was so far refusing even to ride in the opening procession) he would be unlikely to remember to choose her, no matter how black-and-blue she pinched him the night before. 

Oh, if only she had a champion to ride into battle for her! 

Elaine’s gaze sharpened, looking not to the meters of glass tubing and flasks of bubbling reagents, but to the bookshelf beyond. Slowly she got to her feet and crossed the room. 

There, between a copy of Francis Barrett’s The Magus and John Dee’s Talismantic Inteligencer was a copy of The Book. She flipped it open and began to read, her lips moving as she told over the familiar description of a knight, raven-haired and ebon-eyed, his skin burnt black in the fires of Outremerian suns. The most puissant, the most ascetic, the most able knight and Templar in all Christendom. 

All she had to do was find some way to get him. 

News of Sir Arthur’s entertainment was broadcast across an England desperate for diversion and uneasy beneath the rule of their new (and most unsatisfactory) king. All over England, the thought of dusting off great-grandfather’s armor, borrowing the tenant’s 

best plowhorse, and going off to tourney, took on a lustre that no sensible pastime could match. 

Sir Arthur spent lavishly. There was the venue of the event itself to be constructed: tilt-yard and melee field, as well as the grandstands from which the entertainment was to be watched. There was the small army of seamstresses, at a half-shilling a day, needed to sew up the cloaks, tabards, surcoats, shield covers, pavilions, banners, bannerets, pennons, gonfalons, and the ornamental swagging that would decorate both the tourney field and the banqueting hall. 

The banquet itself had grown to a feast with covers for five hundred souls, three hundred of whom would have to be accommodated at trestle tables on the south lawn, their revelries lit by torches. And that was only the beginning. 

In fact, if not for the chere amie who had been (so she said), drawn to Miching Malicho by news of the tourney, Sir Arthur might have given it up altogether. Sir Arthur, in short, had met a lady. Mrs. Titania Underhill’s vague personal antecedents were more than offset by her opulent personal charms. The young widow (Mr. Underhill having exited the scene in a manner equally inexplicit) had, upon inspecting it, found Camelot Court so quaint, so charming, yet so comfortable and modern, that she had quickly extracted an invitation from Sir Arthur to hold herself his guest for the indefinite future. 

“It’s disgusting,” Elaine had said. 

“It isn’t quite the thing,” her brother had responded, and the siblings had found themselves as close to agreement as they had been any time these past two decades. 

What neither of them suspected was that Mrs. Underhill reciprocated their feelings, and felt that she could certainly dispense with both of Sir Arthur’s inconvenient children before settling into a domestic arrangement with their father. 

The Mallorean Tourney would be the perfect opportunity. 

By day Rowena Spencer aided her father at the forge. By night she first crafted a suit of armor, and then a sword and shield. Once these items were hers, her evening hours were devoted to practice, since to bear away the prize at the tourney she had to win against all comers. 

In these solitary hours, wielding sword and shield against an anonymous army of straw opponents, Rowena found true happiness and avocation. It was a great pity that there was no employment for female soldiers, much less for soldiers of any kind who fought with sword and buckler, for the sense of liberation their use gave her was not one she would lightly set aside when the tourney’s day was done. 

Ah, but to sit beside Wilfred at the High Table, to address to his ear alone the appropriate courtly speeches (for Rowena’s later evenings and Sunday afternoons were devoted, like those of many of the other townsmen who had received free copies from Sir Arthur, to reading out loud the stirring or uplifting segments of The Saga, until Rowena felt herself—semantically at least—more than a match for the linguistic wiles of such an one as Sir Brian de Bois’ Gulibert) would recompense her for a lifetime spent without the thrill of live steel in her hand. 

Or so Rowena told herself. 

At the moment, Sir Brian might have agreed with her. 

Although she was an efficient sorceress and housekeeper, there had been times that Elaine despaired of finishing her preparations in time. While a simple evocation was child’s play for one who had studied as she had, this was not quite a simple evocation. 

There was, for one thing, the difficulty of providing a corporeal body once she had summoned the spirit. 

At first she’d thought of stealing a corpse from the local cemetery, but none of the locals had been obliging enough to die at a time that suited her purposes—and then there would have been the added difficulty of transporting the body all the way to her tower. 

She next thought of dispatching one of the servants, but in addition to the fact that Papa would surely miss any of the footmen whom her choice might fall upon, there was the possibility that the departing spirit of the slain domestic might interfere in her conjurations. 

In the end, both for practicality and ease of transport, Elaine had settled upon a hundredweight and a half of mutton chops from the 

butcher, suitably interlarded with talismans particularly subject to Hermes Psychopompos, the Conductor of the Dead, and the addition of a Spell of Transmogrification to her enchantment. As during the last few weeks she had also succeeded in creating the Philosopher’s Stone (at least, the black residue in the bottom of her athanor ought to be the Philosopher’s Stone, if everything had gone properly), she felt a certain certitude of success. Thus, at the appropriate hour, she chalked a Solomon’s Seal upon the floor of her tower, filled three copper braziers with suitable herbs and resins, lit thirteen beeswax candles stolen from the local church (Elaine was always especially generous to the parish poor box to make up for her thefts, and would not have made them at all save for the inconvenient fact that her recipes demanded them), draped a white silk pall over the mutton chops, and began her conjuration. 

As she chanted, pausing at intervals to throw more incense into the braziers, the air grew thick, the room grew dark, and the temperature dropped to near-Hyperboreal levels. A wind blew up—seemingly from nowhere—ruffling the pages of The Book to which she had turned for last-minute inspiration. At last the shape beneath the silk flowed, coalesced—and moved. 

“You’re no angel,” Brian de Bois-Gulibert remarked, regarding his conjuror critically. 

And that, he discovered, was only the beginning of his troubles. 

The day of the Mallorean Tourney dawned gloriously fair, and— unlike the preceding three months—blessedly calm. The innkeepers and tradesmen for miles around blessed Sir Arthur’s name, for their inns were full and their storerooms empty, so great were the numbers of those who came—with invitations or no—to view Sir Arthur’s entertainment. The Earls, Viscounts, Barons, and Knights who vied one with the other over their precedence in the opening procession were enough to gladden a sterner epigone’s heart than Sir Arthur’s, and the resurrection of their ancestral duties for such men as the Knight Marshall of England and the Master of the College of Heralds was enough to ensure that Sir Arthur’s tourney was the social event of the Season. 

But Sir Arthur’s elevated spirits upon this St. John’s Day were not due entirely to these felicities, but to the fact that he had recently asked Mrs. Underhill to become his wife, and that lady had assured him of her answer at the banquet this very night. He was perhaps not perfectly aware of the fact that Mrs. Underhill had no intention of enacting even a bigamous liaison until all of Sir Arthur’s progeny were extinct. 

With that end in mind, it was a simple matter for Mrs. Underhill to see to it that Wilfred, too, competed in the tourney. She’d had a suitable suit of armor ready for weeks, and through the addition of a simple philtre to his morning tea, the opening of the tourney found young Wilfred Mallory seated upon the back of his confused and skittish hunter in a gleaming suit of 14th century enamelled German plate, wearing a silk surtout with the salvaged arms of the Mallorys upon it and a helm extravagantly plumed with egret feathers pillaged from Elaine Mallory’s best Sunday bonnet. 

Observers laid young Wilfred’s silent abstraction at the door of pre-tourney nerves, and it was true that the company gathered here at Camelot Court upon this bright June day compassed the bluest blood and scatteredest brains of all England—plus one. 

“Now remember what I told you,” Elaine hissed up at her champion, who was seated upon a raking grey from her father’s stables. 

“This mock combat likes me not,” the knight growled. He glared down at the woman standing at his stirrup. 

“I don’t care what you like—all you have to do is go out there and hit people! You’re the best knight in England—The Book said so!” 

“Aye. All save Richard, and no man knows now in what dungeon the Lionheart respires.” 

“Well he won’t be here, so what has that to say to anything?” Elaine snapped. The difficulties attendant upon clothing and concealing an irritated Templar for ten entire days would have been enough to ruin a sunnier disposition than Elaine Mallory had ever possessed. 

“And crown thee Fairest of the Fair. Woman, wouldst bargain with the honor of Brian de Bois-Gulibert?” 

“I don’t give a fig for your honor!” Elaine cried in exasperation. 

“Win—and crown me—or it’s back in The Book for you!” The fact that she had no idea of how to accomplish this was a fact she conveniently chose to forget. 

“To die for the love of some wench I’ve not yet met,” the dark knight growled. “It seems a poor recompense for such service as I have rendered Christ and His church.” 

“Oh, go on—the line’s starting to move!” 

Considering that the last tourneys to be held on English soil had taken place some two centuries before, the flower of English chivalry did passably well. The day began with tilting at the ring and the quintan, and after a few passages of that, the jousting itself. 

The dark man with the device of the skull and raven issued no challenges at first, and, seated in the stands between her father and Mrs. Underhill, Elaine worried first her handkerchief and then the ribbon at the end of her braid into tatters. 

What was taking him so long? If she didn’t get the crown after all this, she’d— She’d try out some other spells she knew, that’s what she’d do! To make things worse, her disobliging brother hadn’t even bothered to show up at all, leaving her to swelter alone in her unseasonable velvets. 

Elaine tried to look on the bright side—maybe she could get Papa to disinherit Wilfred after this! 

At Elaine’s side, Mrs. Underhill—who was not only more familiar with these clothes than any here but had possessed the wit to have her outfit run up in summer-weight fabrics—was equally vexed. While young Wilfred should receive his quietus in the melee if not earlier, the plans she had made for his sister, and predicated upon the arrival of a certain Sir Robin from the continent, had not come to fruition, due entirely to the continued absence of the so-disobliging Sir Robin. 

Put a girdle round about the earth in forty minutes, but never around when you want him, oh, no— 

She would have to improvise. 

Staring up at the cloudless sky, Titania Underhill began to hum a soundless tune under her breath. 

It was fortunate, thought Miss Rowena Spencer some hours earlier, that everyone in the county would be at Camelot Court today so that no one would be left to remark on her suspicious departure from or dramatic return to Miching Malicho. As soon as she was certain that the village was quite deserted she slipped out to where her horse and armor were hidden. 

Since the smithy itself had offered no concealment of her aims, Rowena had concealed her armor—and since last night, her horse— in an old tithing barn just outside the village. The Bell and Candle did not yet know of the new career being taken up by this one of its equine hirelings, and Rowena only hoped that ten years as a change horse on the coach roads of England would translate to a certain nimble-footedness on the tourney field. 

With the speed of long practice Rowena donned first the leather padding, then the armor to top it, until she was habilimented from hauberk through gambeson and onward to spurs. Once the last buckle was secured, Rowena saddled and bridled the burly white gelding, his pedestrian leather harness covered over with gaudy satin and bullion in the approved style. 

After that, all that remained to do was to climb carefully to the top of a stack of hay bales and let herself down carefully onto the animal’s back. Her shield—blank and virginal, just as Romance demanded—was already hung from his saddle, and, once her feet were in the stirrups, she leaned over gingerly to retrieve her lance. 

She was ready. And tonight Wilfred would be hers. 

The last thing Wilfred Mallory remembered with any clarity was the odd taste of his breakfast tea. When he came at last to his senses, Wilfred was standing in the shade of a pink and blue pavilion, leaning on a pennoned lance and watching other people get hurt. 

By accident or design, no one had challenged him yet—not the neighbors, whose quarterings made their shields more resemble polychrome antique lace than grants of arms, and not the stranger, whose skull and raven on a field gules was disturbingly unambiguous. 

The first thing to do was to remove himself from the armor—and 

then, from the tourney field. It might next be necessary to remove himself from Scotland entirely, but Wilfred felt it was best to deal with one thing at a time. 

Making certain the pavilion he stood before was deserted, Wilfred ducked inside, as quickly as one may who is wearing fifty-five pounds of jointed steel plate, and began searching for the buckles. 

The Knight of the Skull and Raven, about halfway through the morning (and following a furious written message from the grandstand), began challenging—and unseating—his brother knights with depressing regularity. So monotonously had he unseated everyone against whom he had ridden, that a number of the wilder sparks were suggesting evening the odds by the addition of a pair of Purdys shotguns to the permitted weaponry of the lists. This would have disturbed Sir Arthur far more had he been awake to see it, but his paramour, concerned that her hopeful familicide might disturb her intended, had made certain that the malmsey flowed thick and fast in that quarter, and now Sir Arthur slept the sleep of the spifflicated. 

The marshals, harassed, were about to declare Sir Brian the winner against all comers—mendacious as that might be—and break for lunch when the stranger appeared. 

The stranger rode a white horse and bore a white shield, and the heralds (who had very little experience with the actual exercise of their hereditary office) were entirely at a loss to define him. 

“An Unknown Challenger!” the nearest herald finally shouted, and the White Knight rode up to the line of waiting combatants. The Knight of the Skull and Raven put his mount forward, and thus was the first to accept the challenge of the stranger. 

“Do I know you?” Sir Brian asked curiously of the impassive metal countenance before him. “You have the look of Saxon scum about you.” 

The White Knight—Saxon scum or not—chose not to answer, and Sir Brian, who had been unhorsing the squirearchy all morning with monotonous regularity, thought this new challenger would be more of the same. 

He was wrong. 

An English coach horse is nobody’s fool, and an English blacksmith’s daughter is stronger than she looks. Rowena’s lance point took Sir Brian at just that point in the shoulder where the necessity of jointure makes the armor weakest with the predictable result. Sir Brian went flying. The spectators (saving Sir Arthur) surged to their feet with a roar. 

This, thought Mrs. Underhill, is BEYOND boring. 

While Bois-Gulibert had looked like a plausible candidate for removing the tedious Wilfred, it seemed far too probable that the White Knight just arrived would turn out to be some distressed nobleman who would befriend Wilfred Mallory and swear eternal fealty, saving Wilfred’s hide as well as adding one more person to a household that Mrs. Underhill thought already overlarge. And there was Elaine to consider, after all, as Sir Robin, Mrs. Underhill’s constant cicisbeo, had failed her in this matter upon which she had most required him. 

And so Mrs. Underhill—who had a husband still living, although she saw him only rarely—twisted a certain ring about on her finger, and sketched a certain symbol in the air. And above the tourney field the summer sky darkened as if with summer thunder. But the darkness wasn’t clouds, not at all. 

The darkness was a dragon. 

Sir Brian had gotten to his feet to continue the combat afoot with live steel—the knights-marshals not having the wit to stop it—and as Rowena gazed down at the impassive armored figure in the blood-red surcoat, she felt a strange stirring in that part of her anatomy previously occupied with thoughts of Wilfred. 

While it was true that she’d never seen her opponent’s face, any man who would assume the arms of the wicked yet romantic Templar Bois-Gulibert, that dark paraclete who had imperiled Wilfred of Ivanhoe’s life and happiness, in a company of this sort must surely be such an one who would not scorn a lowly blacksmith’s daughter—especially since she’d just unhorsed him. 

It was at that moment that Sir Brian looked skyward, and relieved 

himself of an oath as blasphemous as it was authentically archaic. 

Rowena, puzzled, followed the direction of his gaze. 

It was a dragon. 

As fanciful as the Wizard of the North’s works might be—though only later generations would compass the full extent of their whim-sy—he had stopped short of introducing dragons. Nevertheless, Sir Brian and Rowena were both conversant with—though disbelieving of—what they saw. 

Its wings covered the sun. The surface of its hide shone like hammered metal, and the scent of hot iron preceded it upon the summer air. As Rowena watched in spellbound disbelief, she saw sunlight flash across the smooth skin of its wings as it banked. 

It was going to land. 

“You!” Rowena addressed her erstwhile opponent. “Get back on your horse! Someone catch it for him!” 

No one mentioned the egregious breach of tourney etiquette that this was, possibly because while she was speaking, the dragon landed at the far end of the tourney field, and a number of the erstwhile combatants took flight—including, alas, Sir Brian’s mount. 

The dragon, Rowena noted despairingly, was much, much larger than Farmer Graythorpe’s prize Black Angus bull, although it certainly seemed to share that animal’s disposition. Head weaving and tail lashing—resembling nothing so much as a maddened housecat grown to enormous size—the heraldic and impossible beast dominated the foot of the lists. 

Her horse, having seen, in its opinion, far worse, remained where it was, tail switching in boredom. 

“It seems, then, that only we two remain to face the beast,” Sir Brian said. 

Rowena—who, until that very moment, had only considered retreating in good order, the experience of Graythorpe’s bull firmly in mind—suffered a reversion of feeling. 

“Indeed we do, Sir Knight!” she sang out gaily. “And mayhap this day, by God’s grace, we shall win victory over the nightmare beast and such glory for ourselves as shall show us to be the most true knights in Christendom.” 

“I had rather trust me to a good sword,” muttered Sir Brian, drawing his blade. 

The dragon roared, and a jet of pale flame appeared about a foot from the end of its muzzle. Rowena couched her lance and urged her horse forward, wondering precisely how one did slay a loathy worm with a lance, Sir Walter having failed to cover that matter in his otherwise superior volume. Sir Brian walked at her stirrup. 

In the stands, a genteel retreat was in process, less abrupt than that occurring upon the field due to the feeling among the spectators that this was merely another refinement to Sir Arthur’s entertainment. 

Elaine Mallory, however, doubted that the dragon was another of her father’s fabrications. She pulled the unfashionably full skirts of her medieval costume tight about her and stood. 

“Oh, don’t go, dear,” Mrs. Underhill cooed. “After all, we do want it to go away again, don’t we? And to arrange that requires a virgin sacrifice.” 

“But I’m not—” Elaine began, and then stopped, in mortified confusion. 

Although there was no point in trying to put a gate between herself and something that could fly, Rowena did her best to lure the dragon away from the stands and toward Camelot Court’s south lawn. Using her lance against it was like teasing a barn cat with a piece of straw: fortunately, this was something not unique in Rowena’s experience. 

Following in her wake, Sir Brian—intemperate, luxurious, and proud, yet with a good backswing—rained blows upon the creature’s haunch, producing no result save a sound like an axe blade being applied to stout English oak. 

Eventually, however, this activity went far enough toward claiming the dragon’s attention that it withdrew its consideration from Rowena and swung its head around to regard its hopeful tormentor. That the resulting side sweep of wing knocked Rowena from her saddle—and that her mount took the opportunity to leave the scene of an activity which held no further interest for it—was an entirely irrelevant side effect. 

The dragon fixed Bois-Gulibert with one baleful orient eye. 

“You,” it announced, “are a fictional character.” 

“Not a virgin?” Mrs. Underhill snarled, holding fast to the wrist of her future daughter-in-law. 

“Well, you see—” Elaine began. 

“Never mind that now, you appalling chit! Find me a virgin!” 

The dragon’s voice reverberated all across the east lawn of Camelot Court. It had a surprisingly loud voice for something that oughtn’t have been able to talk at all, although since it was an entirely mythological beast the consideration of its ability to talk was, in a certain sense, moot. 

“Fictional!” it repeated, outraged. 

“And you,” said Sir Brian, who had had time enough to adjust to stranger things than this, “are a vile and mannerless caitiff villain. If human speech is vouchsafed you, knave, then declare your name and your condition, that I can recall them ere my sword drinks deep of your heart’s blood.” 

“But I— But you— Now look here—” the dragon sputtered. 

“Your name,” Sir Brian repeated, as implacably as he could manage while listening with every fibre of his being for the faint sound of clashing ironmongery in the background that meant his ally, the Knight of the White Shield (about whom Sir Brian had, at this moment, a certain number of irrelevant suspicions), was regaining his—or possibly her—feet. 

“Mauvais de Merde, of a very old and still very well regarded lineage, much good may it do you!” the dragon snapped. “But I have no intention of contesting with fictional characters of whatever stripe, kidney, or ilk—and I’m behind in my job search program as it is—so you might as well just find me the virgin now and let me go home!” 

With that, it sat back on its haunches and glared about itself, tendrils of smoke rising up from its nostrils. 

Wilfred stumbled out of the pavilion wearing his underclothes, his surcoat, and a cloak held tightly about himself for personal modesty’s sake. His entire universe at the moment consisted of an intense desire for three fingers of brandy and a quiet bed. 

“Ah,” said the dragon, with satisfaction, “there he is now.” 

“Wilfred!” shrieked his sister. “Wilfred’s a virgin!” 

At any other time the boldness of this unsolicited declaration might well have brought a blush to the cheek of any unwary listeners, but in the disorganized chaos currently obtaining, it passed without comment. Oblivious to the necessity of anything other than providing an alternative candidate for dragonbait, Elaine, with Mrs. Underhill in tow, advanced upon the dragon Mauvais de Merde, who was at this present dividing its attention between the inattentive Wilfred and the resupine knights before it. 

“Wilfred!” Elaine said, grabbing his surcoat. “You’re a virgin!” 

Her sibling’s eyes focussed on her vaguely; Wilfred had a pounding headache. “Really, Ellie, this is hardly the time . . .” 

“Well, get his clothes off; I’ll just eat and run,” Mauvais said resignedly. “Oh, not that it’s necessary—but what would I do with him once I got him home? It isn’t, after all, as if he knew anything useful—like the general rules for cataloging, for example.” 

“Don’t be silly,” Mrs. Underhill snapped. “Nobody does. Melvil Dewey won’t be born for another thirty years. We have other problems right now.” 

“As for that, dearie,” the dragon camped, “did anyone in particular give a thought to my problems when they whistled me up? Sixty-five thousand volumes, new books coming in at the rate of a dozen a day, and who have I got to process them? Gnomes and tree-spirits, that’s who—and don’t even talk to me about OCLC!” 

“I warned you about those book clubs,” Mrs. Underhill said. 

At last Wilfred appeared to notice the dragon—at least slightly. 

“Did you mention cataloging?” Wilfred said with interest. “You must have a catalog, don’t you know—without one you’ll never know what your holdings are. Accession numbers, that’s the ticket, and the sooner, the better.” 

Everyone stared at Wilfred. 

“I’ve changed my mind,” said Mauvais. “I won’t eat him. Just hand him over and we’ll be on our way.” 

Some quarter of an hour later, matters, though quieter, were at even more of an impasse. 

The dragon Mauvais de Merde was entirely willing to take Wilfred as its teind and depart—and even, at a stretch, willing to devour Elaine—but there was nothing at all it could do about the presence of Sir Brian de Bois-Gulibert. 

Elaine Mallory, approached with the possibility of putting Bois-Gulibert back into the book she’d taken him from, tearfully confessed she had no idea how she’d taken him out of it in the first place. 

“I only wanted to be Queen!” she wailed, causing her complexion to become even more unbecomingly blotched. 

“This doughty knight is the only true soul of chivalry among you,” Sir Brian snarled, resheathing his sword and removing his helm. He glared at them all, including Mauvais, in a fashion suggesting he’d be trouble wherever he was. 

The doughty knight he’d spoken of, relieved both to be alive and to not have to kill a dragon, removed her helmet as well. Cascades of guinea-gold hair spilled about her shoulders. Sir Brian stared. 

“It’s Rowena!” Wilfred bleated. “Rowena, what are you doing here?” 

Rowena blushed prettily. Wilfred gulped. Sir Brian put his hand upon his sword. 

“I’m not giving him back, that’s all I have to say,” snarled Mauvais. 

“If I might lend a hand?” a new voice suggested. The newcomer was dressed in the height of Town fashion, from his Moroccan leather slippers to the lustrous surface of his curly-brimmed, high-crowned beaver. His coat of bottle-green superfine perfectly complemented his butter-yellow waistcoat, which article was discreetly ornamented with a pocket watch whose dial held thirteen numbers and a carved malachite fob of Triple Hecate, as well as being of the only possible shade to harmonize with his biscuit-colored pantaloons. Overtopping all this subtle sartorial rainbow were collar points with which one might have sliced bread and a cravat whose folds fell in the starkly ornamental simplicity of the difficult “Labyrinth” style. 

His elegant gloved fingers toyed with a walking stick that seemed to possess, for its knob, the largest diamond that most of the onlookers could conceive of. 

In short, Sir Robin Goodfellow had arrived. 

“It took you long enough to get here,” Mrs. Underhill said. 

Sir Robin bowed. “When one has as many engagements as I, dear lady, one may see that celerity, while always devoutly to be wished, is not in all things possible. I am delighted, however, to be able to offer you a path out of your current difficulties.” 

The look that Mrs. Underhill turned upon Sir Robin was marginally more baleful than that of the dragon Mauvais; Sir Robin hurried onward. 

“And while it is also true that the lady Elaine cannot in any wise affect Sir Brian,” Robin paused to make a slight bow in Elaine’s direction, “the same is certainly not true of our gentle colleague.” Here a bow to Mauvais. “Let Mauvais de Merde put Sir Brian back into his book, and take Wilfred away with her, and there’s an end to it.” 

“There’s still the matter of the girl,” Mrs. Underbill said doubtfully, regarding Elaine. “Although I suppose I could simply—” 

“Leave the girl to me,” Sir Robin said briskly. “She wishes to be Queen? She shall be—until Your Majesty should choose to return, of course,” he added diplomatically. 

“No fear of that,” Mrs. Underhill muttered. “Do you think I enjoy getting nothing but lukewarm bathwater and having a bunch of damned elves yodeling under my window every night? Even English plumbing is preferable to the Court’s, and the nights are quieter.” 

“And what if I choose not to condole in the plans of fiery serpents and losel wights?” Sir Brian demanded. “Having been told something of this book whereof the lady speaks, I have no desire to go back there.” 

“Go to another one, then—it’s all the same to me!” Mrs. Underhill snapped, her good humor fraying with the likelihood that Sir Arthur might awaken at any moment. 

“Not without me you don’t!” Rowena said. 

It may well have been the dragon, or perhaps the sight or Sir Brian’s sun-bronzed countenance, but Rowena Spencer was the only one of the day’s participants who still felt any affection whatsoever for the days of chivalry. 

“Fine,” said Mauvais, who was getting bored. The dragon raised a claw. 

Suddenly, where the two knights had stood, appeared a leather-bound book with golden clasps. 

“We’ll be off, then,” said Sir Robin hastily, and hustled Elaine toward a waiting carriage drawn by six milk-white horses with ninety-nine silver bells per horse braided into their manes and tails. 

“Well, now that I’ve got my virgin I don’t see any more reason to stick around,” Mauvais said. “Unless as there’s something else?” it asked politely. 

Mrs. Underhill assured it that there was not, and that, furthermore, Mauvais was entirely welcome to visit Camelot Court on any occasion when she herself was in London. 

There was a pause. 

Wilfred (whose only certainty was that, no matter what else had happened this day, he was going where there were thousands and thousands of books to be organized) picked up the book from where it had fallen to the greensward. 

“Well,” he said, “I suppose I’d better take this along and, er, catalog it, shall I?” 

He opened the book, and in the moment before Mauvais de Merde swept him off, such spectators as there might be supposed to be could have beheld a colored frontispiece, upon which a knight in a scarlet surtout knelt at the feet of a blonde lady in shining armor. 

But that’s another story. 


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