Sir Lancelot du Lac was stunning to look at, and Elaine was hard-pressed to keep from staring at the tall, lean, gorgeous young knight. She knew his reputation—he was a fearsome knight of King Arthur's Round Table and said to be the best knight in the world. She'd also heard the furtively-whispered gossip that he was hopelessly in love with his king's wife, Queen Guinevere, and she with him, that they often trysted behind Arthur's back. Elaine could see why Guinevere would be so attracted to Lancelot. He was everything a woman could hope for in a man: Brave, strong, handsome, young, cultured and charming. Lancelot was everything her old, crude pig of a husband was not.
She shuddered at the thought of Pelles, a man more than old enough to be her father, to whom she had been given in marriage when she was just seventeen years old. Indeed, foreign visitors to the court often mistook him for her father. There was always an awkward, humiliating moment after she had to gently correct them and they hurried to make their uncomfortable apologies. Pelles was a warrior of the old school, rough and vulgar. His touch made Elaine nauseous, but she had stoically put up with him, as she had been firmly taught that a good wife should. The marriage had brought much prestige and favor to her family, and it was her duty to them to do nothing that endangered their new high status. At first, the inexperienced young woman had simply assumed that all kings were like Pelles, but now that she'd been at court long enough to observe noblemen from all over Europe and to see this new breed of knight—courtly, chivalrous, noble—the thought of being Pelles's wife and sharing his bed disgusted her.
Lancelot's visit to Pelles's court was a surprise. He was fresh from killing a dragon that dwelt in a nearby forest, and the entire court was humming with excitement over the visit from such a noble personage. The monster had killed or wounded several of Lancelot's men and animals, so he and his party asked refuge in Pelles's court until they could recover sufficiently enough to travel back to Camelot. Pelles eagerly agreed. Playing host to King Arthur's premier knight would increase his cachet greatly with the neighboring kingdoms. So Pelles threw a tremendous feast in Lancelot's honor to welcome the knight and his party to the kingdom, and that was where Elaine was first introduced to him.
They shared the king's table, Elaine taking every chance she could to look past her husband and take in the sight of Lancelot as he drank and celebrated his victory over the dragon. He was tall and thin, but muscular, with piercing blue-gray eyes and a thick head of longish strawberry-blonde hair that Elaine wished she could run her fingers through just once, not to mention a perfectly shaped square jaw that bespoke power and confidence. Compared to bald, fat, old Pelles, Lancelot was like a god.
It wasn't long before the young queen began to fantasize about sharing her bed with this striking man. She tried to suppress the thoughts at first, but the harder she tried to shove them away, the stronger and more insisted they became. Soon she didn't even try to refuse them. She wanted Lancelot badly, wanted to feel his powerful, manly hands on her body, feel his lips on hers, feel his hot breath on her skin as he moved over her. It made her lightheaded just to think about it.
And so, under the auspices of being a good hostess, Elaine worked hard to spend as much time with the beautiful knight as possible. She flirted with him, testing the waters, but to her dismay and disappointment, he never responded in kind. Clearly the gossip mills were correct; Lancelot was committed only to Guinevere. Jealousy took root in Elaine's heart, watered by her hatred for Pelles and fed by her desire for Lancelot. She did what any noblewoman in her position did. She began to plot.
Her chief lady in waiting, the Lady Brusen, was a very old woman who still remembered the old ways. Elaine ordered her use her magic to enable Elaine to spend just one night with Lancelot, to make him desire her as much as she desired him. The old woman, who had no love for Arthur and his new-fangled Christian ways, readily agreed. She mixed a sweet-tasting potion and instructed Elaine to pour it into the knight's wine that night. She also gave the young queen a ring that Brusen had stolen from Guinevere the last time she and Arthur had visited Pelles on a state visit. She told Elaine to put the ring on, then go to Lancelot's chamber late at night, after everyone else was asleep. Brusen assured Elaine that all would go well for her.
Elaine did as she had been told. She surreptitiously slipped the potion into Lancelot's wine at dinner. Hours later, after everyone else had retired to their bedchambers, she slid Guinevere's ring onto her finger and hurried through the darkened corridors until she was standing outside of Lancelot's rooms. Her heart was pounding when she lightly tapped on the heavy oak door. This is madness! Her conscience screamed. Pelles will surely kill me if he ever finds out about this! Nevertheless, she held firm. Elaine took a deep breath and knocked again. This time the door opened.
The look on Lancelot's face when he beheld her nearly took Elaine's breath away. After his initial surprise, his expression became one of adoration and love, not just the perfunctory look of polite pleasantness he'd had plastered on his face whenever he spoke with her over the past several days. Now she saw longing in his blue eyes, now she saw hunger, and it sent a thrill of triumph through her small body.
He breathed her name: Guinevere. He took her hand, quickly pulled her inside and closed the door behind them. He pulled her into his arms and into a deep, passionate kiss. Elaine felt faint and giddy as she wrapped her arms around him and held him tightly. She could feel the hard muscles of his back and arms under her hands, smelled his clean, musky scent, and it sent waves of warmth tingling through her insides. She felt his manhood hardening and pressing into her flesh through her nightgown. Elaine nearly fainted with joy as Lancelot finally scooped her up into his arms and carried her to his bed.
The effects of the potion wore off by the next morning. When Lancelot awoke and found Elaine lying next to him rather than his beloved Guinevere, he was at first stunned and confused. That soon gave way to fury as he realized Elaine's deception. With a cry of rage he leaped up from the bed and seized the hilt of his sword. He drew it from its scabbard, intent on killing the treacherous woman. Just as he was about to plunge the cold steel blade into her naked belly, Elaine, knowing that Lancelot was childless and craved an heir, cried out for him to stop, that perhaps she had conceived a child by him, and that he might well be about to slay his only heir.
Lancelot paused and eyed her warily, sensing another trick, while Elaine babbled almost incoherently about the possibility of being pregnant. In the end he decided to err on the side of caution and he spared her; they would learn soon enough if she had, indeed, fallen pregnant by him. Lancelot needed an heir, even if it was a bastard; half a loaf was better than none. If it turned out that she was lying, he could always kill her then, if that old fool, Pelles, didn't do it first.
Lancelot went straight to the old king and informed him of what his wicked young wife had done. Pelles was furious, of course, and when Elaine did, indeed, turn out to be pregnant with Lancelot's child, Pelles was absolutely livid. He had known all along that Elaine was dissatisfied with him as a husband, but it didn't really matter to him what she thought—she was his wife, it was her duty to keep quiet, run his household and give him children, not play the whore and use witchcraft to seduce other men and give them sons! Pelles had been told by a seer long ago that his wife would bear a son who would grow up to be the greatest knight in all the world, that the child would one day find the long-lost Holy Grail itself; Pelles had naturally assumed the child would be his. Now this wretched little bitch had made him nothing more than a cuckold and a laughingstock. She needed to pay for that.
Pelles had the witch, Brusen, executed immediately, and he banished his wayward wife from the court. He sent her to a small, dilapidated castle as far away from him as possible, despite her pleas for mercy. He provided her with just enough plain food and clothing to survive, and nothing more—her fine dresses, jewels, rich foods and wine were forbidden to her. She was permitted one maid and a nurse for the child—and a contingent of armed guards to make sure she stayed put. They had orders to kill the fallen queen on sight if she dared to set one foot outside of the castle's main gate.
As her belly swelled over the long empty days that followed, Elaine began to curse her fate. She cursed Pelles, she cursed her family for having saddled her with that fat, impotent old man in marriage. She cursed Lancelot for having come to her husband's castle in the first place. She cursed Lady Brusen for using her magic to get Elaine into Lancelot's bed. She cursed and railed against everyone around her, blaming all of them for her fall from the king's favor. Everyone but herself.
She then turned her rage against her unborn child, screaming at her quickly growing belly every day about how much she hated the child and cursing it as an unwanted burden, for she truly believed now that had she not become pregnant with it, Pelles would've forgiven her eventually. But not now. Pelles would never forgive her indiscretion now, not with this little bastard brat around to always remind him of it.
The baby, a healthy, strong boy who squalled lustily as soon as he could open his mouth, arrived at last on a cold November night after three full days of grueling labor. By the time he was born, Elaine had come to completely despise him. It was bad enough that she had been banished from court because of him; now he had to make her suffer even more as she struggled to give the hateful little bastard life! She had come to hate him so much that she even considered smothering the child the moment he was born. To her mind it would be a fitting revenge on Lancelot, still free as a bird to live his life and to continue his affair with Guinevere, unpunished, while Elaine languished in this wretched castle in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately, the midwife was experienced and had seen this kind of madness in birthing before, especially those abandoned by the father of their child and left to fend for themselves as best they could. The midwife had her assistant rush the crying babe away from his irrational mother the moment his umbilical cord was cut. Elaine, cackling crazily with relief at finally being free of the hated child, bid him a joyous good riddance as the frightened girl carried the newborn out of her reach and to the safety of the nursery.
From that day on, Elaine refused to have anything to do with her son. She refused to hold him, nurse him, speak to him or even hear him spoken of. She hated the hapless child with every fiber of her being.
Elaine didn't even bother to name him. She sent word to Lancelot of the birth; it was his brat, let him tend to it. Several weeks later he arrived at the castle, demanding to see his son. The guards allowed him to pass, and the nurse led him to the nursery. There Lancelot found his son, his only child, sleeping peacefully in his cradle.
The knight picked up the baby and held him up for inspection, his sharp eyes looking for any flaw or deformity. The child had unusually long legs for a baby, but otherwise was strong and healthy. He and bore a close resemblance to his mother, with large brown eyes and a goodly head of soft, wispy black hair.
As soon as he was disturbed, the baby began to cry and struggle mightily against the unfamiliar hands holding him up in the cool air. Surprised by the unexpected strength in a babe so young, Lancelot smiled, pleased. This boy was no weakling, and he would grow up to be a strong, fearsome knight of the House of Du Lac. It was a pity that he was bastard-born, Lancelot might have been able to put him on the throne of Britain one day. But no matter; perhaps the boy's sons could be placed there, instead.
He handed the baby back to his nurse, instructing her to tell Elaine that his son's name was to be Galahad, thus publically acknowledging the boy as his blood and his rightful heir. He ordered the nurse to take care of his son, and that if any misfortune or illness befell the boy he would have her flayed alive. When the trembling nurse asked Lancelot if he would now like to see Elaine, he spat with disgust and informed her that he had no desire to see or speak to that viper of a woman. He then turned and left the castle without as much as a backward glance.
Elaine de Corbinec watched from the window of her chambers as the nurse led young Galahad by the hand out through the courtyard of the castle. Galahad was six years old now; it was time for him to be fostered out to a relative for the rest of his upbringing. She was sending the child to her great-aunt, the Abbess Agmar of the Convent of St. George. The abbess would see to it that the boy was fed and clothed and was brought up to be a good Christian. When he was old enough, his father would then take him in hand and make a knight of him. She had rarely seen the boy, never spoken directly to him even once in the last six years. She hated the very sight of him—him and that despicable hangdog look that always seemed to be on his small face. The very sound of his voice set her teeth on edge. Elaine was glad to be finally rid of him once and for all.
Just before one of the guards picked him up to place him on one of the waiting horses, Galahad turned to look up her. His pale face was far too somber for a child of six years, and that irritated her. Seeing her in the window, he raised his hand and waved faintly in farewell. For just an instant, something approaching pity passed over her heart like a shadow, but she quickly, brutally quashed it. Without giving any indication at all that she had seen him, Elaine turned from the window and walked away.
Even after Pelles died several years later and one of his kinsmen had ascended the throne, Elaine was still not released from her imprisonment. Pelles, practically with his dying breath, had issued a verbal decree that she was to be permitted to leave her prison only on the day she herself died.
Over the long decades of her exile, Elaine began to hear stories of her son and his exploits, brought to her by the few visitors that she was allowed to receive by the new king. They informed her that Galahad had grown into a tall, strong, handsome young man, with dark, flashing eyes, thick hair the color of a raven, and a gentle smile that was freely given to all he met. He did, indeed, become a great knight, winning a coveted place for himself at the prestigious Round Table of King Arthur himself. Galahad showed courage and boldness in battle; courtesy, wisdom, and justice tempered by mercy in peace. He slew dragons, defeated evil-doers, achieved honors without number in the tournaments, all the while remaining humble, pious and generous. Some were even beginning to say that Galahad was the best knight in all the world—greater, even, than his father, Sir Lancelot.
Though her heart was still hardened against her only child, not even Elaine could prevent the tiny crack of maternal pride that now appeared in it.
In Galahad's twenty-seventh year, he was stunned to receive a message from his mother. For years he had tried to contact her, asking again and again to see her, but each time he was coldly refused. Heartbroken, he eventually gave up trying to see her, but he never gave up the hope that one day he would be allowed to see her, to speak with her, to mend their broken relationship, especially after things had gone so terribly wrong between him and his father. He knew the circumstances of his birth, he knew why she hated him so much, but it didn't matter to him. She was his only other living relative left, his only family. She was his mother, after all, the one who had given him life, and her absence left a gaping hole in his aching heart and in his psyche that nothing else would fill. As foolish as it might have sounded to another, Galahad forgave his mother for what she had put him through, and longed with all his heart to just hear his mother say that she loved him, or that she at least didn't hate me anymore.
The message urged haste; Elaine was ill with a fever, and it didn't look as though she was going to last very long. With death looming, she finally relented and asked to see her son before it was too late. So Galahad shouted to have his fastest horse saddled immediately, and as soon as the animal was ready, he climbed into the saddle and spurred it into a gallop. He didn't even stop to pack any clothes or food.
He rode hard, almost killing his horse in the process, but he arrived at the castle in a matter of hours rather than days. The guards quickly ushered him to her bedchamber, but as soon as he saw his mother, saw the weeping maid at foot of the bed, Galahad realized with dismay that he was too late. His mother was dead.
He had missed her by only one hour.
Elaine's spirit watched helplessly as her son slowly approached the lifeless body lying on her bed and knelt onto the floor, his face like stone. He took up her cold, thin hand in both of his and held it, his dark eyes unreadable as he stared down into the prematurely aged face of the woman who was in reality a complete stranger to him. Elaine tried to go to him and hold him, tried to tell him through her bitter tears how sorry she was for the way she'd treated him, but it was too late now. He could neither see nor hear her. Elaine's heart filled with sorrow, regret and shame as she sobbed. Galahad made no sound, expressed no emotion, good or bad. Was he so angry with her that he could not even shed a single tear for her? Did he hate her so much? Why, then, had he bothered to come? Was he disappointed to have missed being able to gloat over her, to tell her how much he despised her before she died?
She wailed with renewed anguish over what she had done to her son, for along with all of the reports of Galahad's glorious achievements, Elaine had also heard some of the darker stories of how Lancelot had treated their son. The older Du Lac had grown hard and cold over the years, and Galahad had suffered because of it. Because of her and her selfishness. Elaine had heard the stories—the torment and ostracization he'd had to endure because of the circumstances of his birth; the betrayals and losses he'd had to bear at such a young age; his spectacular failure at ruling as a king in his own right—each new tale driving a wedge of pity deeper and deeper into her stony heart until one day it had finally split open.
She had begun to feel pride for him; the small, sad little boy that she had happily sent away all those years ago had grown into a good and kind man, a brave and honorable knight, despite all of the hardships he'd had to endure.
Then, along with pride, love began to grow within her softening heart, quickly followed by regret. The years alone to think on what she had done with her life had mellowed her temper, and it struck her suddenly one day just how cruel she had been to him. She broke down and wept bitter tears at her heartlessness on that day, had wept many more tears of repentance since then. She began to think of sending for him; perhaps it wasn't too late to reconcile, to beg his forgiveness? She almost sent a messenger on several occasions, but each time her courage failed her. How could she even think that he would forgive her now, after all this time? Galahad must certainly hate her by now, just as she had once hated him—only his hatred was more than justified.
When the fever came that summer and forced her to take to her bed, something told Elaine that her time was running out, quickly. If she didn't at least try to speak to her son now, she may well never have another chance. So she crushed her fear, just as ruthlessly as she had once crushed her love for her son so many years ago, and sent a message asking him to come, as fast as he could.
But she had waited too long. She tried to hold on until he could arrive, but she just wasn't strong enough. She slipped out of this life quietly, and into this new existence between the worlds. She understood that she was a spirit now, a ghost. She could not speak to her boy, could not even touch him. She could only watch and listen, her heart breaking all over again as she watched him, hoping to see some sign of grief at her passing, some sign that he still held a small measure of affection for her.
She saw nothing. Unbeknownst to her, Lancelot had trained his son to keep his emotions under a very tight rein; the elder Du Lac believed that tears were only for weak-hearted women, not a knight of Camelot. He had severely punished Galahad for showing any sign of them, until finally the young knight learned to show no emotion whatsoever lest he be considered weak and womanly. Even now, in this moment of bitterest disappointment and loss, he couldn't allow himself to weep for his mother, the only family he'd had left other than his estranged father.
For a long time the stoic Galahad merely looked down at her corpse as Elaine frantically, fruitlessly tried to communicate to him her sorrow and remorse, to beg his forgiveness. Eventually he rose from the floor and gently replaced her hand, then turned around to stride quickly from the room. His hard expression filled her with unbearable pain, and she ran after him, screaming as loudly as she could that she was sorry, to please forgive her, that she did, indeed, love him.
But Galahad could hear none of it. She trailed after her son, nearly insane with frustration that she couldn't make him understand how sorry she was, how much she regretted the terrible injustices she'd done him, that she regretted being so cruel and heartless to him as a child, that she was sorry for all of it and wanted to make amends. She tried to grab his arm to stop him, but her ghostly fingers merely passed through his flesh. She tried to throw herself in front of him, but he only walked through her. She screamed, she cried, she shouted, she wailed, all to no avail. Galahad passed through her prison and out into the cold winter air.
Elaine watched in horror as he climbed back onto his exhausted horse, turned its head towards home and gently kicked it into a slow walk. She trailed after him, completely forgetting her earthly remains back in the castle. They were of no concern to her now, let the king dispose of her wretched, treacherous body as he saw fit. She only cared for Galahad and his well-being, she cared only about trying to make him understand that she had repented of her selfish cruelty to him and sought only his forgiveness; she didn't even dare to hope that he might love her. Her only concern now was to make things right with her son, her precious baby boy, the priceless treasure that she'd thrown away all those years ago.
If need be, she would follow him until the End of All Things to accomplish that goal.
AN: If you wish to read the conclusion, please see "For As Long As It Takes", which was written for the Crossover prompt of the Librarians Prompt Month 2019.