Virtuous? Not since…well, none of your business.
The difference between me and the Knights of the Round Table? I make medieval look good.
Loren Van Alst is an independent, twenty-first-century woman, an accused forger, a suspected thief, and the last descendant of Sir Galahad of the Arthurian court. To claim her seat at the Round Table and protect her newly found family of modern-day witches, she’ll need to convince the current Arthur and his knights to let a woman take the knights’ trials. But things go sideways when a crazed wizard goes on the loose with a magical spear that can strip a witch of her powers. As if that weren’t enough, the clique of mean girls from middle school arrives in Camelot and turn out to be witch hunters.
To safeguard a future she never knew she wanted, Loren will have to evade the hunters, defeat the wizard, capture the spear, and pass her trials. No one ever said becoming a kick-ass heroine would be easy!
Urban fantasy goes medieval in this modern day, action-packed, calamitous series of misadventures.
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You can tell a lot about a man by the way he wields his sword.
A man who jabs at his opponent’s body with the tip of his blade using quick, jerky motions? That shows he’s eager and unpracticed. If he gets in any good shots at all, they will likely be a hack job on his opponent’s wrists and knuckles. That kind of action will leave him breathless and his opponent in need of a manicure. Also, he will probably never get asked to spar again after such an impotent showing.
Then there are the ones who come at their opponent’s body with a couple of long, deep thrusts. Those lunges might stem from a flexible groin and fluid wrist action, but that kind of foreplay can be misleading. These types of fighters often exert all their energy at the outset, relying solely on their strength and thrusting power. Then, after a moment of fighting, they roll over on their backs with exhaustion. Yeah, those swordsmen can simply have a seat. In fact, they can go and have several seats.
But the one who can hit all the targets by working his sword hand at just the right speed? The one who knows how to put pressure at just the right angle? The one who can use his blade to slice from the breast to the hip? Oh yeah, that type of swordsman can fill my dance card anytime.
Because that’s what swordplay is: a dance. The movements more intimate than a waltz or a tango or whatever Baby and Johnny were doing up in the Catskills in the eighties with their bodies pressed together, their hips jamming to the music, and their legs and arms slicing into one another.
The opponent facing off against me was proving himself a worthy adversary and a superb dance partner. We faced each other with long swords, my weapon of choice. My stance was open at the moment as I prepared to go toe to toe with him. My weight was evenly balanced, my feet eager to advance. He held steady across from me, waiting to see what move I would make.
I took advantage of his courtesy and advanced. Leading with my left foot, I closed the distance between us. I stepped slightly to the right, to avoid any possible counterattack as I brought my blade straight down to his neck, going for the kill strike and preparing to slice his handsome head off from his lean body.
I feared I’d have to pull back at the last moment and not complete the advance, but he did not disappoint. He met my attack with a wrath strike, stepping off his line and bringing his blade down decisively against mine.
He had a good hundred pounds on me. But swordplay wasn’t won with brute force alone. My thumb met my cross guard as my opponent tried to take control of the situation and pressure me off balance.
I swiveled my wrist and thrust my sword, aiming for his heart. I knew by now that I didn’t have to take it easy with him, and I was right. He stepped aside at the last minute and I met with air and empty space. I pivoted, sword raised, ready to advance again.
Wide grins slashed at the corners of both our faces. We both breathed hard from the exertion. There was a hitch of desire to his deep voice as he spoke.
“Do you surrender, my lady?”
“No, sir. Not even when I’m handcuffed to a headboard.”
That little remark caught him off guard, and I advanced.
The man I danced with was no English gentleman asking for my dance card. Nor was he an Argentinean count swiveling his hips in a tight pair of trousers and vest. And he absolutely wasn’t some Jersey Boy with dirty moves beckoning me from the corner of a country club dinner table.
Sir Gawain, the third of his name, was a knight. One of King Arthur’s knights. Yeah, that King Arthur. Though Arthur wasn’t actually a king. Just another thing that history got wrong. But Arthur did have a castle, complete with a round table and magical swords. Gawain and I were training in the backyard of said castle on the grounds of Camelot.
The clanging of sharp metal brought me back to the present and out of my musings about male dancers and castles and swords. Overhead, the grumble of a passenger plane punctuated the clash of swords. Someone’s cellphone played the theme to Final Fantasy, providing a soundtrack to the battle.
Gawain came at me with an overhaul strike. He brought his sword down against mine, hard. My lower body wasn’t braced, and the blow reverberated down to my knees rendering me to the ground.
Gawain pulled his blade back at the last second so it didn’t pierce my boobs. But the retraction cost him his balance. He tumbled to the ground on top of me and my boobs, which were covered in chain mail for my protection. Another pity since my boobs were my most fearsome weapons.
“Are you alright, Lady Loren?” Gawain asked as he loomed above me.
His dark curtain of hair brushed each of my cheeks. His angled eyes were a deep coffee brown and not black like I had originally thought. His nose was a long slope that curved at the tip. A lush forest of hair outlined the skin above his upper lip and entirely covered his chin.
This man, this dark knight, was all svelte muscle. From this angle, I caught a glimpse inside his linen shirt and was rewarded with a view of the defined chest I had yet to taste. But my gaze fixed on his mouth and the name he’d called me.
I’d been called a lot of things in my life. Beautiful. Thief. Fashionable. Liar. All true. But I’d never been called a Lady, like, as a title of honor. Because for a long time, I didn’t have any honor.
I was a woman with all the requisite parts including long legs that could rock a six-inch pair of heels. A trim waist that looked best in a halter dress or wrap skirt. My long blonde hair was all my own, no weave or extensions, which meant it was perfect for a man to gather in his fist and tug if the mood was right. And man, oh man, was I in the right mood for this shining knight. No armor necessary.
“You nearly had me,” said Gawain as he stood and offered me his forearm to give me a lift up. “If only you’d stepped off your center line, you could’ve evaded my blade.”
I hadn’t done anything wrong. I had the knight right where I wanted him. I reached for his forearm and gave a tug before he could brace himself to hoist me up. Gawain lost his footing and came down on top of me again.
“Oops,” I said as two-hundred twenty pounds of virile man came crashing down on my welcome body. This time, his nose met with the valley of my breasts. Like I said, I hadn’t done anything wrong.
Gawain braced himself so that his forearms took the brunt of his weight and not my boobs. Pity.
A grin lit his wicked lips as his brown eyes twinkled. “Why do I get the feeling I’m the one who’s fallen into the trap?”
“‘Cause you’ve got brain and brawn.” I slid one leg up, bending at the knee to trap him further. “Wanna show me again how to properly thrust a sword? I’m sure I’ll get it this time if I concentrate real hard.”
Gawain chuckled and made no move to escape, until a voice sounded over us.
“I told you this was a waste of time.”
I’d completely forgotten that we had an audience. Looking to the side, I took a moment to admire the eye candy all around me. From my position down low, I panned and tilted my gaze around the long feet, thick thighs, and bulging chests of the men assembled.
For a century, photographic, motion film, and television cameras had been capturing images. For most of that time, men had been training the lenses on women’s body parts; the Male Gaze it was called. Cameramen zoomed unapologetically onto our boobs and asses. They panned up our legs and tilted up our skirts to display our wares on the big screen. So, I had no trouble turning the tables on them from my low vantage point.
Gawain ended my screening early. He rose to his feet, pulling me up alongside him with strong arms. His action brought me face to face with my complainer.
“She’ll never take her place amongst us as a knight,” said Sir Geraint.
Geraint’s eyebrows were set in a perpetual arch, like the symbol used to accent letters. It made every statement he said in his droll voice seem incredibly dramatic. Even though I had yet to see him smile or laugh or speak in anything other than a tone brimming with disdain.
Like the other five knights present, Geraint had long, lush locks, and a face covered by a thick beard. Beneath his dark hair, the mocha skin of his Moorish ancestry shone through. Another thing the story books got wrong. The knights of Camelot were a diverse bunch. From Gawain and his Asian heritage, to Percival and his Middle Eastern birthright, all the way to Lance with his Highland ginger looks, and back around to the youngest knight, Tristan, with his angelic face and blond, Icelandic legacy.
And then there was the man himself, Arthur.
Although I’d learned that that wasn’t really his name. All of these men were descendants of the original Knights of the Roundtable. When they succeeded their fathers, they took on the title. That meant each knight was The Arthur and The Lancelot.
I was the granddaughter of Sir Galahad, the second of his name. But granddad had left no sons. His two daughters, my mother and my aunt, each had girls. The seat of Galahad had been empty for over three hundred years. But the sword of Galahad had found its way to me outside of this magical place.
I hadn’t known about this side of my family. My mother had run away from this place to be with my dad—an archaeologist. After I was born, we’d traveled the world with him. Every night as a child, my mother read me stories about Arthur and his knights, about Camelot and quests, and wizards and witches. But she never told me that any of the tales were real. She never told me I was a part of these books that I loved.
But like I said, I’d found my way here. And now I was ready to claim my rightful place: a seat at the freaking Round Table. If I could just get past all this chivalry and chauvinism crap.
Arthur stepped forward. He looked the spitting image of Liam Hemsworth with his dirty blond hair and light gray eyes. His huge biceps were crossed over his massive chest as he pinned me with his assessing gaze like a headmaster. I should mention, I got kicked out of boarding school when I was a teen in a blaze of glory.
“Geraint’s right,” Arthur said.
My head snapped up, way up, and I suddenly felt three feet tall. I couldn’t be sure, but I think my bottom lip may have trembled as I asked, “What?”
“This was a mistake.”
“Oh, come on, Artie.”
The Arthur glared down, shaving off another foot of my bravado.
I’d been in life or death situations. I’d even died once—another story. But Arthur was the only man who made me squirm and not in the good way. He didn’t know me very well. So, he didn’t know that I used humor and sass when I felt intimidated.
“My liege.” I executed a bow I’d seen on one of the BBC historical programs. “I’m just getting started with my training. At least give me a chance to actually screw up.”
“That’s my point,” said Arthur. “You’re just getting started. Every knight trains from birth to take his seat. We all start out as a page, learning our duties. Then after a few decades, we advance to a squire.”
Geraint came up beside Arthur, rubbing his hairy chin. The arches of his brows rose as the hint of a smile touched the corner of his mouth. “Making her a squire isn’t a bad idea.”
“Okay,” I said. “What’s a squire have to do?”
From the corner of my eye, I saw Gawain wince. Percival’s lips quirked up and his eyes twinkled as though he were expecting rousing entertainment. Tristan shut his eyes and bit his lip as though he were anticipating his parents starting an argument.
“A squire is… let’s see if I can find a human term…” Geraint continued to toy with his whiskers.
I let the human crack slide, but not too far. I’d spent a good deal of my life defending my human father and his reputation. But that had been against other humans who’d disdained his research methods. Now I’d have to take it from magical kind? Because knights were magical. They had a special sauce running through their blood that enhanced their strength and allowed them to live long lives.
“Humans might call a squire an apprentice,” Geraint continued. “They tend to a knight’s weapons and his horse. They care for our personal effects. And do odd jobs around the castle.”
I cocked my head to the side as I glared at his pointy brows. “You want me to be an errand boy?”
Geraint grinned for the first time since I’d met him. “I believe the politically correct term is personal assistant.”
I rolled my head around, hearing the tendons in my neck crack along the way. Oh. No. He. Didn’t. “You want me to be a secretary?”
He shrugged. “If the armor doesn’t fit.”
I dropped the practice sword and picked up my grandfather’s sword, the magical sword of Galahad. I pointed to the sword holstered at Geraint’s side. “Draw your sword.”
“What?” Geraint held up his hands. “I don’t fight girls.”
“I’m not a girl.”
I charged. Geraint gripped his weapon with both hands a split second before I brought the wrath down upon him.
“I am a grown ass woman who was trained by the best swordsmen over the world since I was nine.”
I had been holding back with Gawain, toying with him because I wanted to dance with him in more ways than one. Facing Geraint, I wasn’t playing footsie anymore.
“I have gold medals in swordplay,” I said. “Not a single one that’s silver or bronze or for participation.”
Geraint jabbed at me with quick, jerky thrusts. I wasn’t the least bit surprised at his sloppy swordplay. I unloaded on him. Swiveling my sword, I made figure eights around my body as I advanced on him.
I double fisted my sword, aiming for his throat. He dodged and took a deep lunge into me, thrusting with his sword arm. I parried his single-handed blow, hard enough to disarm him. Then I thrust the hilt of my sword backward and into his chest. He went down with an oomph. I came over top of him with my blade pointed at that arch in his brows. My hands were on fire as I advanced on him.
“And if you ever call me a secretary again, I’ll cut off your eyebrows.”
The hilt of my sword was in flames. Literally. Fire licked at the leather bindings and then down to the wooden part of the cane. I dropped the burning sword and shook my flaming hands, trying to douse the flare of magic.
Oh, did I forget to mention that my mother was a witch, and I’d recently come into my powers? I’ll come back to that. First, I needed to get my powers under control.
I clenched my fists tightly. After a couple of deep breaths, my hands cooled. But not my temper.
“Like I said,” Geraint uttered from his place on the ground. “She’s untrained and out of control, a liability if we take her into the field. And we don’t even know if she can be trusted. Her mother stole that sword and her father is a notorious fraud in the human world. Someone like her can’t take Sir Galahad’s seat.”
I felt my hands heating up again, but I balled my fists even tighter. Half my life I’d spent under the cloud of insults against my father and his work, when my father had been innocent of the crime he was accused of.
People just needed to know the whole story to understand. But no one ever listened. They all just labeled him a villain and moved on. I’d been cast under the same label back in the human world and it would appear I wouldn’t escape it here in the magical town of Camelot.
The fire had gone out of my hands and my spirit. Looking down, I saw that the wood of the cane that had hidden the magical sword of my grandfather had burned away. The cane had been my father’s.
All that was left was the blade. The steel winked at me under the sunlight. I leaned down to pick it up.
“Where did you learn that?” Arthur asked.
“Gwin’s been trying to teach me to control the magic. It’s just that it’s so much—”
“Not the magic. The swordplay.”
“Oh.” I blinked as I looked up at him. “I’ve been taking fencing lessons since I could walk.” I’d learned from the world’s greatest masters, including a certain Spartan King forever immortalized in a Hollywood film, King Leonidas. But that’s yet another story.
“I’ve been felling men twice my size since I was twelve.”
Arthur studied me anew. I held still, realizing for the first time exactly how much I wanted his approval. That scared me more than the magic rushing through my blood. Waiting for his judgment felt like my skin was being sheared off my bones.
“I’m not gonna jump through your hoops,” I said. “I’ll just take my sword and go.”
“You can’t leave,” said Arthur. “Not with a power you can’t control coursing through your veins. You need protection more than you need training.”
“I’m no man’s damsel.”
“The truth is, Loren, you’re not giving us a chance. You need training—as a witch in addition to a knight. But even before that, you need to earn the respect of the men here if you want to be accepted into our ranks.”
There was that word again. Acceptance. Did I want their acceptance?
“You’re a part of this family,” said Arthur. “You belong here with us.”
My arms instinctively wrapped around my middle. Though my parents were both gone, I did have other family, my father’s family. But they’d rejected me when I was a little kid. Right after I’d lost my mother. And then again after I lost my father. I’d never expected to hear those words again: you have family, you belong. And Arthur wasn’t done.
“The sword chose you to wield it, but the knights choose who takes a seat at the Round Table.”
“So you want me to be your little gopher?” I hadn’t signed up to be in the shadows. I’d spent half my life cast as a femme fatale, a role which, admittedly, I’d cultivated and had the wardrobe and smoky voice to support. But I was done being the villain or the sidekick. I was ready to be the hero of the story.
“We all had to squire before we earned our seat,” said Arthur. “If you want to be treated like an equal amongst the knights, if you want to earn your grandfather’s seat, then you’ll need to earn our respect.”
I looked around at the bearded faces assessing me. My gaze stuck on Gawain and his sultry eyes. And then I realized, these knights were all men. I could have each of them wrapped around my finger before the week was out.
“Fine,” I said. “Hit me with it. I can handle whatever you throw at me.”
Yeah, right. Two cliché catch phrases in a row? I was clearly asking for trouble.
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