By Shadowfax <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted June 2001
Summary: Lois and Clark in a different time and place.
This story is set in a fictitious time, and although it takes place on Earth, no attempt has been made to achieve accuracy pertaining to Earth history. Don't expect the characters, their language, behaviour or their style of clothing to conform with any known historical period, since there would be a number of anachronisms, such as, for example, Clark's eyeglasses.
For the most part, I used late twentieth century U.S. dialogue, especially for the main characters. This is because I wanted Lois to sound like Lois, and Clark to sound like Clark. I hope I've achieved this to a certain extent. <g>
All standard disclaimers apply. Characters in this story (except those of my own creation and as otherwise noted in the credits at the end) are the property of DC Comics, Warner Bros and December 3rd Productions Ltd. Dialog or scenes that I've borrowed from the show L&CTNAOS are also copyrighted to Warner Bros, et. al. I am not profiting monetarily from their use and no infringement of any property rights is intended.
I love him.
I love him and only him and I will never love anyone else in my whole life, even if he never loves me back.
But he *does* love me; he loves me, too. I know it because I saw it in his eyes … I felt it when he held me in his arms.
I love him and he loves me and we will be bound together forever, regardless of whom we each marry or if we each marry. We will be together in our hearts and in our souls as long as we both shall live.
Part 1: Looking for a Hero
"Lois! Lady Lois … wait!"
Lois slowed her pace, turning reluctantly towards the speaker. "Hi, Cat," she said woodenly.
"Is it true?" asked Lady Catherine, breathless after her sprint to catch up to Lois, "… what they're saying? Has the King really asked permission to have your hand in marriage?"
"Asked," affirmed Lois sadly, "and granted."
"I can't believe it. After all this time! If I were to tell you the number of women who've set their caps for him — beautiful women, too — and he's never fallen for any of them. Lady Antoinette … the Earl Tailor's daughter … even Lord Lang's eldest, Lady Lana. It was said he had a preference for her once, but it came to nothing." She gave Lois a sly look. "I even took a shot at him myself …" Lois nodded — *that* she could believe. Lady Catherine "took a shot" at *every* man. "He's so handsome, too," Lady Catherine continued. "And the finest figure of a man I have *ever* seen. You won't mind producing an heir with *him*." She paused, suddenly noticing Lois's lack of enthusiasm. "Don't you agree, Lois?" she asked. "You've seen him …"
Lois nodded, although she hadn't "seen" him, not really, anyway. When the King of England and his court had come to Metropolishire, she had barely looked at any of them, her thoughts dominated by the man who had stolen her heart three weeks earlier. "Do you know anything about Sir Lancelot?" she asked.
Lady Catherine looked surprised by the abrupt change in subject. "Know anything?" she said. "Of course not — who does? He came out of nowhere to help us when we needed him, after the Court persuaded the King to lay down his arms and retire from active combat. The King never goes into battle now, since he's considered to be too valuable to risk … but you know that. But to answer your question about Sir Lancelot: no one knows who he is or where he lives. We know only that he has super strength, fights like ten men possessed, and says that he's come to fight for truth-"
"-and justice!" finished Lois. She clasped her hands together, her eyes shining. "For *everyone* … not just the rich and wellborn! That's so honourable!"
Lady Catherine looked at her oddly. "It's hardly original, Lois," she said. "It's what the King himself says."
"Does he?" said Lois vaguely. "How nice."
"Yes," continued Cat. "He's talking about making the conference table for his knights round so that there will be no hierarchy. Everyone equal before God and men."
But Lois was no longer listening. "Here comes my sister."
"Come to fetch me away, probably," said Lady Catherine, still eyeing Lois askance.
Lady Lucy had reached them by this time. "Lady Catherine, will you-?"
"You've come to tell me that your mother wants to see me," said Lady Catherine. "I promised her that I'd fill her in on the court gossip. I have to go. Are you going to go riding today, Lois?"
"Later," said Lois absently.
Nodding pleasantly to the two sisters, Lady Catherine left with a swish of her skirts.
"Lois, Mom and Dad told me what happened," Lucy said as soon as Lady Catherine was out of earshot. "You can't be serious about refusing the King! It'll ruin us!"
"Not you too, Lucy," Lois scowled. "You can't want me to marry a man I don't love. After all we've talked about …"
"That was silly the way we used to talk about marrying for love," said Lucy. "You know we don't have that luxury. And besides, why not fall in love with the King? You always used to fall for powerful men, anyway, before you closed yourself off from men after Sir Claude-" she broke off when she received a fulminating glare from her sister. "And you're too picky, anyway," she continued boldly after a tiny hesitation. "You're always looking for the perfect relationship, the perfect man. You're never going to find him-"
"But I have-" Lois blurted out.
Lucy stared in surprise. "Who?"
Lois half-turned from her sister and gazed at some point in the distance. "Sir Lancelot," she said softly.
"You've seen him? When? I didn't know he had ever come to Metropolishire."
"He did," said Lois, "three weeks ago." In a rush, she proceeded to tell her sister how she had happened to meet Sir Lancelot. She had gone out riding one day, alone, having managed to shake her groom. She had had a special purpose in wishing to be without an escort that day: she was planning to explore the Haunted Wood, forbidden to her due to its reputation for being inhabited by the spirits of men who had been ambushed and massacred in a long-ago war. She was convinced that the Wood wasn't truly haunted, but was being used as a hideout by a gang of thieves, who were using the Wood's reputation of being haunted to frighten away the curious.
"You rode out there alone, Lois? Are you *crazy*? If you were right, you could have been set upon-"
"I *was* right!" said Lois, casting a triumphant look at her sister. "There *is* a gang of thieves hiding in the Wood. But I knew I wasn't in any danger; there's no horse alive that can outrun Silken Thread."
"That's true," said Lucy thoughtfully. "So how did you meet Sir Lancelot?"
"He rescued me," said Lois simply. "I was set upon by the gang of ruffians-"
"But how could that happen?" Lucy objected. "You just said that Silken Thread could outrun all other horses."
"I had dismounted," said Lois, ignoring another *are you crazy* look from her sister. "I wanted to get closer to a glen that I believed hid the thieves' lodge, and the undergrowth was too thick for my horse to walk through. Unfortunately, I was spotted by one of the ruffians. Several of them came after me." She paused while Lucy waited breathlessly to hear what happened. "And then … *he* came!" Lois said reverently. "It was three men against one, but he fought like ten. He rousted the three and chased them all away. And then he turned to me and picked me up — he's so strong, Lucy … they say no man can hurt him, but he was so gentle with me — and he set me on my horse. Then he said — and his voice was so kind — he said, 'I don't think you belong *here*.' And I told him that I'm from Lane Castle and he said that I should go back there. I asked him what he was going to do and he said that he was going to track down the thieves and turn them over to King Arthur for justice. He had come to the Haunted Wood for the express purpose of finding them."
"He rode back partway to the castle with me to make sure that I got home safely and we talked and he told me some of his ideas for enforcing justice and then I rode away and I've never seen him since, but, Lucy-" Lois paused for breath, "the moment he held me in his arms, I *knew* that I love him and he loves me and I will never love anyone but him my whole life."
Lucy was silent. Finally she said, a little sadly, "Lois …"
"I know, I know," said Lois crossly. "I have to forget about him and do my duty and marry the King. His asking for my hand is supposed to be such an 'honour' to our family — phaugh! I don't think it *is* such a great honour. *You and I* are descended from one of the oldest families in England, granddaughters of a king ourselves, Lucy, and our father is the brilliant strategist who pulled together the Hobbes's factions. It's *our family* who honours *him*."
"Shhh, Lois! Don't talk so loud," Lucy whispered, half shocked, half amused.
It's too bad the King just happened to be in Metropolishire at this time," Lois added angrily. "The same day that I met Sir Lancelot we received the King's Messenger, who told us that we were about to be honoured by a visit from His Royal Highness. If only he hadn't come … if only I had had another chance to see Sir Lancelot before the King asked for my hand." She clenched her fists.
If only she had been able to exchange vows with Sir Lancelot, if only she had been safely betrothed, even married, before the King had met her … !
"Maybe the King will change his mind about marrying me … decide to withdraw his offer," she said with determined optimism.
"You know he can't do that, Lois," Lucy looked gravely at her sister, "… even if he wanted to. And I don't think he wants to." She gave Lois a sly look. "I saw him come into the Great Hall, Lois. As soon as he entered, he started looking around the room, and when he saw *you*, he stopped walking and whispered something to one of his men. We found out later that he was asking who you were. And then a few minutes later, Mom and Dad took you up to him and-"
"-and presented me to him," Lois interrupted. They had told her that the King hadn't been able to keep his eyes off her, but she wouldn't know, since she hadn't raised her gaze to look at him. She hadn't dreamed that he would be asking her father for permission to marry her, or she would have at least looked him over.
"And by sunset he had asked Dad if he could marry you," Lucy finished. "Don't you think that's romantic, Lois? He obviously fell in love with you at first sight!"
"How nice for *him*, that *he* can marry for love," said Lois waspishly. "But what about *me*?"
"Don't you think you could fall in love with him, Lois? Don't you think he's cute?"
Lois shrugged. "I didn't really look at him," she said carelessly.
"Well, *I* looked at him, and … we're talking *major* hunk here, Lois! Your Sir Lancelot can't hold a candle to him, I'll bet. Is Sir Lancelot handsome?"
Lois hesitated. "I don't know if he's *handsome*," she said. "He was wearing the helmet so I didn't see his face. But I saw his eyes, Lucy. The kindest, most gentle eyes in the world, for all his ferocity in dealing with the King's enemies … and let me tell you, he's *some* fighter, too! And his figure! Cat said that the King is a fine figure of a man-"
"-but he can't possibly be as fine a man as Sir Lancelot!"
Lois escaped to the stables soon afterwards, and eluding her groom, set off over the fields at a mad gallop. She hadn't ridden far when she heard the sound of hooves behind her, and turning, saw a man on a powerful grey stallion racing swiftly after her. Not recognizing the horse, she realised that the man must be one of the King's coterie.
She had half a mind to gallop off, certain that Silver Thread would be able to leave the man's mount in the dust, but curiosity impelled her to rein in her horse and wait for the rider. As he approached, she looked the horse over, noting with approval his broad chest and powerful legs, the strong, smooth back and muscular, well-rounded rump. Her eyes traveling upward, she noted also the refined head and the kindly brown eyes. Altogether a magnificent creature, she concluded. The King and his men obviously appreciated good horseflesh. And maybe it was just as well that she hadn't tried to run away from him — he looked like he could give Silver Thread a run for his money.
"Lady Lois …" said a voice, jerking Lois's attention to the rider. She looked up into a pair of brown eyes rimmed with eyeglasses, and saw that the man was watching her with amusement not unmixed with admiration. "You like my horse?" the man asked as his mount fell into step beside hers.
"He has the blood of the horses from the south," said Lois quickly, feeling strangely flustered by the stranger's scrutiny.
The stranger nodded. "So does yours," he said, giving Silver Thread an appraising stare. His gaze returned to Lois. "He's probably so fast that you feel safe riding him out alone the way you do. But … do you think it's wise for you to ride out completely unattended like this?"
The man's voice was gentle, but Lois felt stung by his words. "Who are *you* to tell me what to do?" she cried, the blood mantling her cheeks.
He looked startled for a minute, but then he said mildly, "I just don't want to see you get hurt."
"Thanks for your concern, but I'm quite capable of taking care of myself!" Lois flashed.
"I'm sure you are," said the stranger gravely. "But don't you think that in your new position as the King's affianced bride, you may be a target for-"
"The King's affianced bride!" said Lois bitterly. "Faugh!"
The stranger looked distinctly taken aback. "You don't want to marry … the King?" he asked after a brief hesitation.
"'Marry the King??' Of *course* I don't want to marry the King!" exclaimed Lois. "I don't even *know* the man and he barges into our castle and makes arrangements with *my father* to marry me. They tell me that he's in love with me, but he didn't make any attempt to let me get to know him or to consult me about my feelings or to find out whether I could ever possibly love *him*, or *anything*."
The stranger took one hand off the reins and adjusted his glasses thoughtfully. He seemed disconcerted somehow. "That was obviously a mistake on his part …" he said, his voice odd. He added cautiously, "But maybe after you get to know him you'll find that he's not so bad …"
Lois shook her head mournfully. "I don't think so," she said, her voice low. She knew she shouldn't be talking to him like this, one of the King's men, but there was something about the stranger that invited her confidences. Maybe it was the way he fixed his brown eyes on her face and listened patiently to hear what she was going to say next. Or maybe it was his air of quiet acceptance. Whatever it was, she found herself opening up to him and telling him things that she would ordinarily never have told anyone but Lucy.
"Maybe you'll learn to love him …" the stranger suggested.
"I don't think so," Lois said again.
"Why not? Unless you've already fallen in love with someone else …"
Lois said nothing, and the stranger took a quick breath. "You haven't, have you?" he asked. His voice sounded strangled. Lois nodded sadly. "Are you sure?" he asked, the light dying from his eyes. Lois nodded again.
"I will never love anyone else in my whole life," she said.
Her air of finality must have convinced the stranger, for he didn't reply and they rode together in silence for a few minutes, the stranger seemingly subdued. Finally he spoke again, first clearing his throat. "Lois, the King isn't an ogre," he said quietly. "He won't force you to marry him if your heart lies with another. He'll tell your father of your rejection of his suit-"
"No!" cried Lois in alarm. "In the first place, I haven't rejected the King's suit — I haven't even seen him. And in the second place … I can't go to the King and tell him that I'm rejecting his offer of marriage!"
"I just … well, I just *couldn't*! And, besides, it would dishonour our family … and the King might hold a grudge-"
"No dishonour will come to you or your family," the stranger assured her. "The King will see to that. He'll hold no grudge. And you don't have to go to the King and tell him that his suit is rejected."
"Why-?" Lois looked at him in surprise, her eyes narrowing. "You'll tell him," she guessed.
"Well, hmm …" the stranger gave her a sad half-smile.
"Why would you do this for me?" asked Lois suspiciously. "What's in it for you?"
"Let's just say that I don't want to see a lady made unhappy."
Lois digested this in silence for a few minutes. "I don't know …" she said finally, taking a deep breath. "Are you sure that the King won't-"
"He won't hold it against you," said the stranger, looking away, off into the distance. "And then you'll be free to marry the man you've fallen in love with." He added something under his breath that sounded like, "lucky."
But Lois's face had clouded. "Marry?" she said.
"Yes." The stranger looked at her. "That would be your intention wouldn't it?" He studied her face. Lois averted her head, biting her lip. "Unless-" a suspicion crossed the stranger's mind, "-he's not already married, is he? Lois? Lois?"
"No, I-" Lois's words caught in her throat. "No. At least, not that I know of. I've never heard-. Wait." She looked at the stranger speculatively. "If you're from Camelot, from the court, then perhaps you would know. Do you know anything about-" she blushed, "Sir Lancelot?"
There was no mistaking the stranger's reaction to her words; it was pure stupefaction. "Sir Lancelot?"
"Yes. The mysterious knight who-"
"*That's* him? *He's* the man you're in love with?"
"Yes. I-I-" Lois stopped as the stranger threw back his head and laughed, the sound of pure joy. "What's so funny about that??" she asked angrily. "Is it so strange that-"
"No," said the stranger, adjusting his glasses again. "Sorry. It's not … I'm just surprised, that's all."
"Are you going to answer my question?" Lois asked impatiently.
"About Sir Lancelot."
"What about him?"
"What do you know about him?"
"What do you want to know?" asked the stranger with a teasing smile.
"Is he married?" said Lois through her teeth, annoyed that this exasperating man was making things so hard for her.
"No," said the stranger, his eyes dancing. "Not yet."
"Not yet-? Is he going to be married, then?"
"He hopes so," said the stranger fervently.
"He's in love?"
"Very much so," said the stranger, regarding her with such tenderness that Lois felt herself blushing again. Why was he doing this to her? *How* was he doing this to her?
"I might have known," said Lois, shaking off the feeling that the stranger had elicited in her. He looked as if he were about to say something else, but he changed his mind when several voices hailed them. Several riders were galloping their way, gesturing to Lois's companion.
"Lois," said the stranger, hurrying to speak while the other riders were still out of earshot, "take my advice: marry the King. I think you'll find that it's not so terrible."
He turned as the first of the riders reached them. "My Lord," the rider sprang from his horse and knelt beside the stranger's stallion. "Your Royal Highness, Lord Lex has arrived in Metropolishire and wants to talk to you."
"Lex?" he frowned. "I'd better go, then." He turned to Lois, who was sitting very still on her horse, gazing at him with horror and dawning outrage. "I hope to see you later, Lady Lois," he said, his eyes brimming with amusement. "In fact, I'm counting on it." He turned back to his men, the rest of whom had reached them by this time. "Rudolf and Cecil, see that the Lady Lois returns safely to Lane Castle. Stay at her side at all times … if you can." Glancing at Lois one last time, his eyes warm and friendly, he wheeled his stallion and took off at a gallop for the castle.
"Is he gone yet?" Lois asked, approaching the guard for the tenth time.
The guard sighed. "Yes, milady," he said, "Lord Lex is gone. But the King has gone to his chambers and … wait-! You can't go-"
Lois brushed past him and strode rapidly down the hall towards the chamber that had been allotted to the King during his stay at Lane Castle. "Milady, you can't go in there!" cried the guard standing outside the King's door. He tried to block her, but she ducked and danced around him, flinging the door open and stalking into the room.
"You!" she spat out furiously. "You tricked me-" She halted abruptly, her face flushing when she took in the scene before her. An attendant was standing between her and the King, who was, as far as Lois could see, without a stitch of clothing and about to step into a hot, steaming bath. Quickly the King snatched up a cloth and fastened it around his waist.
"What are you doing, Rolfe?" he asked the guard, who was trying to hustle Lois out of the room.
"My Lord," said Rolfe, snapping to attention, "The Lady Lois is desirous of seeking an audience with Your Royal Highness … perhaps at a later time?"
"I'll see her now," said the King calmly, picking up his glasses and putting them on. He motioned to Rolfe and the attendant to leave, which they did, closing the door behind them. "Hi, Lois," he said, his face breaking into a grin as soon as they were alone. "I was expecting you … but not … quite like this-"
"You-you-!" Lois sputtered. "You are without a doubt the lowest, most miserable, despicable … *creature* I have ever met! I can't be*lieve* you did this to me!" She began pacing back and forth, keeping her eyes averted from the King's bare chest. "Your Highness-"
"Clark," said the King.
"Call me Clark. Please; it's my name. Arthur Clark of Kent."
"Clark," said Lois. "You didn't tell me who you were … you let me talk … let me say things … *things* that you had no business hearing! How *could* you?? I would never have talked to you like that if I had known who you were!"
"And that would have been a shame; I found our conversation to be very informative," drawled Clark, folding his arms across his chest, "especially the part about Sir Lancelot."
Lois blushed more deeply than ever. "That's what I mean! That you of all people should hear that — what I said!" Unable to face him, she wheeled and stared into the fire.
"Have you thought about what I said?" asked Clark finally, breaking the silence.
"What?" said Lois.
"About … marrying the King," said Clark. He was attempting to speak offhandedly, but the tension in his voice betrayed that he had more than a casual interest in her answer.
"I can tell you that Sir Lancelot is not available. That he will never be available. And you say that you could never love anyone else, so …" Clark took a deep breath. "I'm sorry that I didn't ask you first, Lois, that I didn't find out your feelings before I asked your father if you'd marry me. But since I *did* … what do you say?" He added in a voice which shook slightly, "Will you marry me?"
"But … you know … everything …" gasped Lois, the intensity of his gaze making her feel unaccountably breathless. "… how I feel … and about Sir Lancelot … and *everything* …"
"That doesn't matter," Clark assured her.
"But … how can you … when you know that I love another man … ?" Lois stopped, confused.
"It doesn't matter," Clark repeated. "Will you marry me, Lois? I won't hold it against you if you refuse, but if you accept … I will do everything in my power to make you happy, I promise." His voice was low, earnest.
"But … are you sure … about Sir Lancelot? That he's in love with … someone?" Lois was blushing again. She knew how shocked her parents would be if they found out that she was talking to the King like this, and yet she somehow knew that this man would not hold her frankness against her. And, indeed, her question seemed to amuse him somehow.
"I'm sure," he said, his eyes dancing.
Lois felt her irritation rising. Was he laughing at her? "Then I might as well marry you as anyone," she said. Realizing that she had been rude, she opened her mouth to apologize, but she closed it again quickly, thinking better of it. There was no point in pretense; Clark knew how she felt: about Lancelot, and about *him*, and he didn't mind. This was a marriage of convenience contracted between two adults and it was best if they both understood that.
Clark didn't appear to be offended by her rudeness. "You won't regret it," he assured her.
Lois's temper flared. "So you understand how I feel?" she said in an attempt to puncture his smugness. "You understand that I love Sir Lancelot; that I will *always* love Sir Lancelot?"
"Yes," said Clark, smiling broadly.
"And you don't care??"
"Uh … let's just say that I don't *mind*," said Clark.
"And you know that it's no use you falling for me; that I will never love *you*?" continued Lois, still nettled.
"Never is a long time, Lois," said Clark. "You might change your mind …" That odd smile still hovered about his lips.
"Never!" repeated Lois. "Don't hold your breath!" She spun on her heel and sailed out of the room, oblivious to Clark's appreciative gaze on her retreating back.
As Lois strode down the hall, Clark's guards drew back against the wall as if fearing they'd be scorched in her passing. The King's attendant, Ban, stuck his head cautiously into Clark's room, his gaze alighting on Clark's face to see how he had weathered the termagant's storm. To his surprise, instead of looking displeased, His Royal Highness was smiling and seemed to be in quite good spirits. Ban mopped his brow surreptitiously. Well, if the King could pull together all the warring kingdoms of Britain into one united country, he guessed that His Majesty could handle one slender young woman. And he was welcome to her.
Back in her room, Lois sank down on her bed, putting a trembling hand to her mouth. As anger fled, her audacity in saying what she had began to sink in. How could she have told *him*, the King of all England and the man to whom she had just been promised in marriage, that she was in love with another man? And that she would never love *him*?
But … she jumped to her feet, striding vigorously back and forth in her bedchamber … how could *he* have let her say anything in the first place? He should have identified himself once he realized that she didn't know who he was … for how could she have been expected to recognize the King of England — the man more revered than anyone else in the country, even Sir Lancelot — in the quiet man who had ridden up to her on his grey horse?
Clark was nothing like what she had imagined. She would have expected the man who had united Britain to have a commanding presence and an air of importance that proclaimed his rank for him; she was shocked to discover that he was in reality a mild and self-effacing young man whose good nature and quiet acceptance seemed to invite confidences like the one she had blurted out — her distaste for his offer of marriage.
How could he have let her speak so frankly of her upcoming marriage to him without revealing his identity? Eavesdroppers hear no good of themselves, and apparently the King was no exception.
Still … for her to have confided in him like that … !
And to burst into his bedchamber to find him preparing for the bath!
She blushed hotly as the image of his nearly nude form rose before her. A fine figure of a man! Cat — and her sister — had both told her that. But they had no idea! No idea.
She sat down again, putting her face in her hands.
Her whole body burned.
She married him, of course; to have refused the King would have been unthinkable.
Strangely, although the news of her intrusion into the King's bedchamber had rocked the castle and scandalized her parents, on the whole it did not hurt Lois's reputation with the King's subjects. If she had behaved in such a manner with a lesser man, she would have been ruined, but the King's people had taken it as evidence of her eagerness to be with him, and since he was such a popular and well-beloved figure, it had the effect of increasing her own popularity. It was obvious to everyone that the King adored his new bride, and "proof" that his regard was returned made Lois a beloved figure also.
And to her surprise, Clark's prediction turned out to be true: marriage *wasn't* so terrible. She was allowed more freedom in the well-guarded Camelot than she had ever had at Lane Castle, and Clark was a kind and considerate husband. At first, Lois had eyed him rather warily, half-afraid that he would taunt her about her feelings for Sir Lancelot, or otherwise make her feel uncomfortable in some way. But he didn't. In fact, he treated her with such easy friendliness that she soon found herself continuing the casual relationship that they had begun, opening herself up and confiding freely in him.
In return, he shared with her the details of his dreams for England's future. He envisioned a prosperous and peaceful country, governed by rules of justice and equal opportunity for everyone.
Amazingly, he treated her as an equal in these conversations. He didn't make the assumption that as a woman she would be incapable of understanding matters not directly pertaining to home and family. Instead, he sought out and appeared to value her insights into his proposed methods for governing the kingdom.
And so, as the wife and confidante of a venerated King, and with a certain popularity in her own right, Lois found that life was pleasant.
And yet … she yearned for something more. She listened eagerly for tales of Sir Lancelot, the mysterious knight who had sworn to protect the weak and to uphold truth and justice. The elusive figure who had captured her imagination was so heroic, so awe-inspiring in every way!
True, many of his ideas were echoes of the vision propounded by her husband, but the dashing knight's methods of enforcing them stirred her blood and thrilled her soul so that she longed for just one more glimpse of the great man.
She knew that nothing could ever happen between them now that she was married to the King, but still she wanted to see him, to speak to him just one more time.
Since she didn't dare to show any public interest in Sir Lancelot because of the gossip that would arise, it was Clark to whom she applied for news of the great man. After every Lancelot sighting, she would contrive to get her husband alone and then would ply him with questions. Sometimes she would see a fleeting expression cross Clark's face, almost as if he were hurt or jealous by her interest in the hero, but the expression would always vanish so quickly that Lois believed she had been mistaken. No, she *knew* that she *must* be mistaken. Clark had been aware of her feelings for Sir Lancelot from the beginning and he had assured her that he was okay with them. He had not been jealous of Sir Lancelot then, and so he *could* not be jealous now.
She found it frustrating that Clark would tell her nothing of Sir Lancelot's deeds that were not public knowledge. In spite of his reticence, she believed that he knew more of the great knight's secrets than he was willing to share with her. She could not forget the evening several days after their wedding when he had appeared to be about to impart some information about Lancelot. During their subsequent conversation, he had wandered off course and had never completed the thought that had led him to broach the subject, and in fact had denied that he had any more information about Sir Lancelot to give. And yet, looking back, Lois was convinced that he had been about to tell her something of great import, but had changed his mind. She went over the conversation again and again, sifting every word …
They were dining alone when Clark turned to her, a smile hovering over his lips. "Lois … there's something I have to tell you about … Sir Lancelot." At the mention of her hero's name, Lois's gaze rested on Clark's face with singular focus. Seeing that he had her attention, Clark cleared his throat and took a deep breath. The smile faded as he continued seriously, "It has something to do with *me*, too. As you know, two years ago, the Council took a vote and decided that I shouldn't be going around the countryside doing, uh, knight-errantry anymore-"
"Yes, I know," Lois interrupted, "So it was a good thing that Sir Lancelot arrived from France, or wherever he came from, to take your place."
"Yes, well," Clark cleared his throat again. "That wasn't a coincidence … exactly."
"No, of course not," Lois said calmly. "Everyone knows that you must have sent for him, and a good thing, too; the Council was right about you being too valuable to risk."
"I didn't actually *send* for him," said Clark cautiously, "I decided to … uh- wait. You think the Council was 'right?'"
"I *know* they were right," said Lois emphatically.
"But, Lois, I could do so much good by riding around and enforcing-"
"Are you crazy?? Clark, we can't risk losing the King over an attempt to recover some farmer's stolen pig!"
"You might not 'lose' me-" Clark began.
"And if you went riding out alone and unprotected like you used to, then you would certainly be ambushed sooner or later by Lot or one of your other enemies, and with you gone, Cole and Rheged would be at war with each other immediately, as would Lot and Vornwall, who would of course be trying to conquer each other and everyone else, too-"
"But if it were unlikely that I would be killed-"
"Clark!! Just the *idea* that you could be killed at any moment would create unrest and instability throughout the whole country!"
"But if thieves and robbers have to deal with the possibility that I could surprise them *at any time* by catching them in the act and apprehending them-"
"It's not worth it, Clark-"
"Yes, it is Lois," Clark insisted. He jumped to his feet and ran a hand through his hair. "The good that I could do-"
"-the risk involved … and for what? To catch a few petty criminals-"
"What if there isn't any risk? What if it's perfectly safe for me to-"
"It's *not* perfectly safe, and even if it were, no one would ever believe it. The kingdom would be thrown into a state of uncertainty, with Lord Lex and some others I could name counting the days until they would be able to take your place!"
"So you think that I shouldn't ride around the kingdom enforcing justice?" he asked, looking at her with a strange, almost-pleading expression.
"Of course not! Not in combat, anyway! Division of labor … that's what you're always preaching, isn't it? 'Let a farmer be a farmer' and 'let a craftsman ply his craft?' You're the King; do what kings do and leave the knight-errantry to Sir Lancelot!"
Clark was staring at some point on the opposite wall. "What if no one knew it was me?" he asked finally. "If I wore my helmet and no one saw my face-?"
"No!" Lois jumped to her feet and ran around to face him, grasping his arms. "You can't do it! If you were ever unmasked-!" She shook him. "Promise me you won't try it! Clark!"
Clark fixed his gaze on her face, sudden hope in his eyes. "Would it matter so much to you if something happened to me?"
"Of course!" said Lois impatiently. "I just told you-"
"-that you don't want any risk to the King, yes… Is there any other reason?" His voice was elaborately casual.
Lois stared. "No," she said in surprise. "Should there be?"
Clark lowered his eyes. "I guess not," he said. Disengaging himself from her, he sat down again and picked up a loaf of bread, breaking off a piece and extending it towards her.
Lois dropped into her chair and took the bread he offered. Instead of eating it, though, she turned it over in her hand, looking at it rather wistfully. "I wish I could see him again," she sighed. "He has such grace and strength … it's the most wonderful thing in the world to see him in action. He's so strong, so adept at handling his weapon and his horse, so-"
"I used to be considered a pretty fair fighter myself," Clark growled, interrupting her eulogy. "And a good rider, too!"
"Ummm," said Lois vaguely.
"I *was*!" Clark insisted.
"Oh, Clark, I'm sure you were a nice little fighter," laughed Lois, amused by the fragility of the tender male ego. "But believe me, you make a much better king. You're just and compassionate, and … well, yes … sweet and kind, too." Her eyes softened momentarily, then her gaze sharpened as she continued briskly. "Have you ever seen Sir Lancelot in action?"
"Seen him? Well, no … not exactly …"
"He is so powerful, acts so swiftly and decisively-"
"Because he's in battle, yes. *I* would act differently in battle, too-"
"And besides, Sir Lancelot is so much more effective at knight-errantry than you could ever be!"
"Don't be so sure about that, Lois," said Clark, nettled.
"Oh, Clark, I'm sure you were a wonderful knight, too. I believe you, okay? But I think you make a *better* king and it's ridiculous for you to consider risking the peace of your domain by running around playing knight in shining armour. So let's just leave it at that."
Scowling, Clark returned to his meal. They ate in silence for awhile. "What was it you were going to tell me?" asked Lois when she remembered how the subject had first come up. "You said you had something to tell me about Sir Lancelot?"
"Not really," said Clark heavily. Seeing that more was expected of him, he added, "I just … uh … I wanted to tell you that he had been seen in Cornwall."
"Really?? When?" Her eyes shining, the star-struck Lois plied him with questions about the reported sighting of her hero, and was somewhat disconcerted when Clark began to exhibit signs of jealousy. But that was ridiculous; after all, Clark hadn't married her for love. Lois knew this to be true in spite of her sister's belief to the contrary. Clark had always known about her feelings for Sir Lancelot, and he hadn't minded … or at least he had *said* that he didn't mind, and Lois had taken him at his word. So if he was annoyed now by her admiration for the knight — Lois lifted her chin — he had no one but himself to blame. *She* had been honest with him from the start; *she* had made no secret of her feelings then, and she wasn't going to start hiding them now.
It wasn't until much later, after she had reviewed the conversation in her mind, that Lois came to the conclusion that Lancelot's appearance in Cornwall hadn't been what her husband had planned to discuss with her at all.
She was filled with an intense curiosity, and attempted to broach the subject several times over the ensuing months, but inexplicably, each time, their conversation would somehow end with Clark insisting that he could disguise himself and fulfill the same role as Lancelot, and with Lois insisting with increasing emphasis as the months passed, that he could not, should not, *must* not!
Clark appeared surprised at her vehemence, as was Lois herself. She was unable to account for the fear that gripped her at the thought of Clark exposing himself to danger in such a manner, but after careful consideration, she arrived at the conclusion that she simply did not want England to risk losing the best king it had ever had. It certainly was not lost on Lois that Clark's subjects almost idolized him.
His prowess in battle was celebrated, his exploits having been told and retold until they had assumed legendary status. But it was as a fair and beneficent king that he was most renowned, and it was as such that Lois had come to know him. She had never seen him in battle, since he had retired from active service when he had aged into his late twenties.
She respected him for his ability to resolve sticky issues and craft win-win solutions to the problems presented to him, but it was in cases like the one with the poacher that he won her whole-hearted admiration.
A youth had been caught poaching in the royal forest, but after determining that Jack had been driven by hunger and was trying to get food for the other members of his family, the King had instituted a new policy regarding the royal lands. Clark had declared that game could be hunted during certain seasons and had designated certain men who were knowledgeable about the forests as wardens. Rather than ordering that the lad who had been caught poaching be hanged, which was the usual penalty, Clark had pardoned him and assigned him to be the first apprentice to the game wardens.
But if Lois admired his ability to render just decisions in difficult cases, he still was no Lancelot, and it was for the powerful knight that her heart longed.
As time passed, Lois mentioned Lancelot to Clark less frequently, although the knight remained much in her thoughts. She had gradually come to the realisation that in spite of his reassurances to the contrary, it *did* matter to Clark that she was in love with the mysterious knight. A strange, hurt light would appear in his eyes when she rhapsodized over her hero, and he was often uncustomarily distant with her afterwards.
So when the castle buzzed with news of Sir Lancelot's latest confrontation with several of Lord Lex's men, instead of rushing to ask Clark for details, Lois gleaned what scraps of information from court gossip that she could without showing undue interest in the knight's exploits. She was frantic to know what had happened, but she had no one to ask.
I can't ask Clark about it … he'd sulk for days, she thought acerbically.
It was unfortunate that she never learnt the details of the contretemps, for if she had, maybe she would have been more careful. Or then again, maybe she wouldn't. In any case, she was to get her wish to see the great Sir Lancelot again, but not in such a way as she would have chosen.
Lois reined in the stallion and looked uneasily at the horse and rider who barred her path. "Good day, sir," she said, nodding politely to the man who sat so silently on his own steed.
"Your Highness," said the stranger, bowing low over his horse's crest.
Lois was relieved that he had recognized her, for it was unlikely that the man would dare to pursue an indignity against the wife of the powerful King of England. Nodding again, she urged her mount forward, expecting the man to give way before her. He stood his ground, however, and she was forced to rein in again. "Sir … if you would be so kind as to yield the trail …" she said haughtily. Still he made no move to turn aside. "Are you going to let me have the trail, or am I going to have to ride over you??" cried Lois, losing her temper.
"If it please your Highness, you're coming with us," said the stranger. There was no discourtesy in his voice, but no room for argument, either. But … what had he said about … *us*?? She glanced apprehensively at the apparently impenetrable undergrowth lining the trail. As if on cue, there was a rustling in the brush and suddenly she found herself surrounded by four riders on well-built horses. "Be assured, your Highness, we're not going to hurt you," said the first man. "If you'll just relax and come with us-"
"In a pig's eye!" retorted Lois. She wheeled Grey Bullock and drove him straight for a slight gap between two of the riders. Before the men could stop him, Grey Bullock had plunged through the opening and charged directly into the undergrowth. Lois urged him forward, forcing a way through the tangled brush. Branches whipped her face and jagged brambles tore at her clothes, but she pushed on unheedingly.
Her mind raced while she rapidly plotted how best to elude the riders thundering after her. She was heading east. If she could manage to out-distance her pursuers, she could turn north and ride parallel to the highway until she reached Mithras Inn. She would find King's men quartered there, and they would see her safely back to Camelot.
Satisfied with her plan, she poured all her concentration into navigating Grey Bullock through the forest. She was glad that she had taken one of Clark's own stallions to ride today. In an open field, no horse could beat her Silken Thread for speed or stamina, but in the close quarters of the rock-and-sapling-strewn undergrowth, it was best to have the sure-footed and sturdy mount she now rode.
"Your Ladyship!" called a voice from behind her. "Your Highness! Wait! We mean you no harm! Please wait for us!"
But she only drove Grey Bullock harder, and the big horse reached into his great heart, pouring his soul into leaving the others behind.
This part of the forest was strange to Lois and she was therefore taken completely by surprise when Grey Bullock burst out of the woods into a long and narrow clearing. Rather than running the length of the clearing and giving her pursuers a chance to catch up to her, she turned Grey Bullock and ran him at a diagonal through the open space, hoping to lose the other riders once she got into the forest on the other side again.
But it was not to be. Her pursuers, apparently more familiar with this part of the great forest than she, had fanned out behind her, and one of them, the man bestriding a powerful bay, was threatening to overtake her. She turned Grey Bullock slightly and headed in a different direction, the thunder of hooves behind her warning that her pursuer was drawing nearer. She drove her heel into her horse's side, causing him to spring forward.
She had almost reached the protection of the forest when she heard a whistling sound from behind her. Grey Bullock gave a surprised grunt, and his stride faltered. Lois urged him forward, but it was too late. There was another whistling sound and Grey Bullock screamed with pain as he went down on his haunches. Lois clung to his neck, but the riders who had overtaken her at last wrested her from the saddle. As she struggled, she saw Grey Bullock lurch to his feet and stumble forward. An axe was solidly embedded in his left haunch. She didn't see what instrument had severed his tendon, but his useless leg trailed behind him as he hobbled towards the edge of the clearing. He was snorting in pain.
The stranger who had first accosted Lois galloped across the clearing and jerked his horse to a sliding stop. "You fools!" he roared. "Who threw that axe? You might have killed the Queen!"
"*Didn't* kill her!" panted one of the men fighting to control Lois's flailing arms. "Got the horse!"
"My horse!" screamed Lois, struggling fiercely against the arms that sought to contain her. "Grey Bullock!" The horse was one of Clark's favourites. She screamed again.
"Take … it … easy, Your … Highness," grunted one of the men trying to subdue her.
"Put him down!" screamed Lois. "Don't let him suffer! Don't leave him here for the wolves! Put him down!" Tears were running down her cheeks and she sobbed openly. The men had her arms pinned to her sides now, but she continued to writhe and undulate against their hands, kicking at whatever parts of their bodies she could reach.
"Don't hurt her," instructed the first man. "Tie her hands … yes, like that … careful …"
"She … fights … like all the demons in Hell," gasped one of her captors.
"Grey Bullock, Grey Bullock!" sobbed Lois. "My horse …" With her arms tightly bound, she ceased struggling and bowed her head, hot tears cascading down her face. "He'll suffer …" she moaned. "Don't let him …"
"Don't worry, Your Highness," said one of the men. "We'll take care of him." He moved behind Lois and towards Grey Bullock, who was now out of her sight. She heard a sound, and then another, and then the horse's death scream tore the air, tearing at Lois's heart as well. She heard a thud, and then silence. Strong arms were lifting her onto a horse … one of the men snatched the reins and began leading her mount back the way they had come.
Lois was still sobbing.
The horse … dead … Grey Bullock … a favourite … horse … his … Clark's … Clark …
She swayed in the saddle.
Something happened, something … terrible …
What … ?
… darkness …
No, no, not Clark, please, not Clark.
Clark … love …
Dead. I never got to tell him.
Night … no, my eyes … closed … must be … sleeping.
She heard a footfall and felt a surge of hope. He wasn't dead; he was here, he had come to her bedchamber, as usual. He was just late, as he sometimes was. "Clark?" she whispered.
"So you're awake, Your Highness." The voice was not known to her, and she stiffened as she became fully awake and memory flooded back.
It's Clark's horse that's dead. Not Clark.
She felt overwhelming relief.
"Perhaps you would like to change your attire and prepare for dinner, if you are feeling well enough," the voice continued.
Lois reluctantly opened her tear-filled eyes and blinked at the man standing beside the couch on which someone had placed her. "Sir Melwas," she croaked.
He bowed. "There is bath water in the other chamber, Your Highness," he informed her. "You'll find clean clothing, also. I regret that we have no lady to attend you, however."
Lois didn't reply. She was completely devoid of strength, too exhausted even to formulate questions to ask of her host. She rolled to the side of the couch and sat up gingerly, dashing the dampness from her cheeks with the back of her hand. The lacerations on her face and on her body where the brambles had pierced her clothing were stinging and she ached all over, but most alarming was the languor that seemed to have overtaken her limbs. She felt drained of everything, even emotion, and when Sir Melwas gestured towards the open door on the other side of the room, she merely nodded her head and made her way weakly to it without pausing even to reconnoiter the layout of the chamber.
Once in the privacy of the other room, however, she did force herself to conduct a thorough exploration, a task which proved to be of dismally short duration, as the small room was without windows and its only door led to the chamber where Sir Melwas had greeted her.
Discouraged, she wearily stripped off her clothing and lowered herself into the tub of hot water that awaited her, soaking in its welcoming warmth until the water began to grow tepid. She climbed out of the tub again and toweled herself off slowly, putting on the gown and other accouterments she found laid out on the chair.
After brushing out her hair and binding it up again into a loose knot, she reluctantly returned to the outer chamber where Sir Melwas awaited her, tossing a light shawl over her shoulders. "If Your Highness will be seated, I'll serve dinner," said the knight when she appeared.
Lois dropped wordlessly into the chair he indicated and allowed him to give her a bowl of rich venison stew flavored with burgundy. She broke off a piece of the good bread he handed her and proceeded to eat in silence.
As she ate, strength began flowing back into her limbs, and with returning strength came curiosity. When she had finished her meal, she set the bowl aside and tapped her spoon against the table top. "Where am I?" she asked, looking up into Sir Melwas's face with glittering eyes, "And what are your intentions towards me?"
"You're in a lodge on an island in the middle of Guinevere Lake," replied Sir Melwas. "And I have no intentions towards your Highness at all. I'm here to watch over you while we await the arrival of your Lord."
Lois dropped her spoon. "Clark??" she said tremulously.
"I should say, 'your *new* Lord,'" Sir Melwas smirked. "The King will not be coming here, I think."
The hope that had briefly flared died, and Lois gazed at Melwas through narrowed eyes. "Who, then?" she asked.
"I'll let him tell you himself," said Melwas, his voice non-committal.
"Lex Luthor," Lois guessed. Melwas didn't answer, but his confirmation wasn't necessary, Lois already knew. "It's been rumored that you had become one of Luthor's men," she said. She cleared her throat. "What does he hope to gain by kidnapping me?" she asked, forcing herself to stay calm.
"What does he hope to gain by kidnapping you?" repeated Sir Melwas, raising his eyebrows. "*You*."
"Me??!" Bile rose in Lois's throat, and she pushed her chair back from the table. "I don't *think* so!" she spat. "Luthor will *never* 'have' me! And you'd better take me back to Camelot before my husband starts on your trail," she added. "I hate to think of what he'll do to you when he catches you. But if you see me safely to the castle, I'll put in a good word for you with him."
"The King will never find us here," replied Sir Melwas. "At least, you'd better hope he doesn't, Milady."
"You *dare* to threaten the King?" said Lois furiously.
"I'm not threatening the King," replied Melwas calmly, "I'm just pointing out how short your life will be once the King finds out that you've run away to be with Lord Luthor."
Lois gaped at him … the man was crazy! "What makes you think," she said, choosing her words carefully, "that the King will believe that I've *chosen* to be with Lord Luthor?"
"Lord Lex has already started rumors that you're in love with him," said Melwas, "helped, I'm sure, by the fact that it's well known that you *were* in love with him once-"
"I once *believed* that I was in love with him," Lois corrected. "That was years ago — and I was … mistaken."
"And that knowledge, coupled with your quarrel with the King this morning — yes, the whole castle knows about that by now — will make it obvious that you ran away to Lex."
Lois dropped her eyes again, hoping that her incredulity didn't show in her face. The man really *was* crazy if he believed that Clark would think for one minute that she had run away from him on account of their argument this morning!
Lois had been furious with Clark because he had (uncharacteristically) *ordered* her to stay within the palace. How *dare* he tell her what to do?? she had raved, not seeing the irony. But, really, in spite of his position as King of all England, he had never ordered *her* to do or not do anything, and in fact had bent over backwards to indulge her in every way possible. Tears rose to her eyes when she remembered that and the many other ways in which he had shown his great love for her.
And the order he had issued this morning was another such indication of his love for her, although she hadn't known it at the time.
But he hadn't made his reason for issuing the order known to her, which had angered Lois more than the initial command. Since she hadn't seen any reason to obey him, she had promptly decided to do what she had been planning for weeks. She had stolen away on one of Clark's stallions and started on a ride for the Cleddagh Place, the village where Sir Lancelot had been sighted two nights ago. She had dressed in a plain gown, hoping that in her quiet inquiries about Sir Lancelot she wouldn't be recognized as the Queen.
But she had subsequently been kidnapped into this mess, and incidentally, had cost Clark one of his favourite horses.
She bit her lip.
But … wait … what does this mean in terms of Luthor's plot? If Clark had warned her not to ride outside the confines of the palace, it meant that he must have known that some kind of aggression was being planned against him or a member of his household.
It was clear, though, that Melwas had no idea that Clark had somehow been warned that something of this nature was going forward.
Equally clear that although Melwas knew that she and Clark had had a fight, he had no idea what it was about, since if he had, he would have known that Clark would never believe the tale the knight had just suggested.
She would not tell Melwas of his error in believing Clark ignorant of a plot against him, though. No, she would give Clark the element of surprise.
What she *would* do, however, was apprize this misguided knight of the futility of trying to create an estrangement between Clark and herself.
"My husband will never believe anything of the kind," said Lois, responding to Melwas's last statement. "So if I were you, I'd-"
"So? It doesn't really matter whether *he* believes it," interrupted Melwas. "Once it becomes widely known that you've spent the night without chaperone in the company of another man, he'll have to execute you for treason."
"That's ridiculous!" exclaimed Lois. But her heart sank.
"It's the law, Your Highness, as I'm sure you know. Of course, if the King is feeling merciful, he may just exile you to a convent instead of burning you at the stake."
Burned at the stake. Lois shuddered.
"However, I rather think that the King will burn you. It's well known that he is mad for you. He goes to your bed every night-" He put up a quelling hand as Lois made a movement in outrage at the man's insolence, "-and a man who loves passionately can hate in the same way. Which would you prefer, your Highness: exile or death? Or do you think that you might decide to go with Lex Luthor and become his lady, after all?" He smirked again. "Either way, the outcome of Luthor's plan will be assured. As Lois McMaster Bujold once said, or rather, will have said, 'The key of strategy … is not to choose *a* path to victory, but to choose so that *all* paths lead to a victory.'" 1.
"And where, exactly, is the victory in having me exiled or executed?" Lois asked, forcing herself to speak coolly and dispassionately.
"Division of the kingdom, of course," said Melwas. "Your father and his supporters will naturally object to the King's treatment of you and will be obliged to rebel against him in order to defend your honour — and theirs. Lot and Rheged will of course join your father against His Highness, while Cole and Vornwall will remain loyal to the King. Lord Lex will remain carefully neutral for the duration of the civil war so he can conserve his resources."
"When it's all over, and both sides are ravaged, Lord Lex will step in and easily overcome what is left of both armies. And *he* will be our next King."
"Divide and conquer," snorted Lois in disgust. "And just what makes you think that my husband will follow either of the courses of action you've laid out for him? What if he decides to take me back? There will be no insult to me and my family, no feud in defense of my honour, no civil war, and … no … King Lex," she finished.
"What you don't seem to understand," said Sir Melwas, "is that the King will have no choice. Your being with Lord Lex — no matter whether it is your will or not — is treason under the laws of England, and as the chief enforcer of justice, His Highness will be forced to order your execution or exile. To do otherwise would be to go back on his word that the Law is to be obeyed by everyone, high and low, no exceptions." He leaned back in his chair and looked triumphantly at Lois.
And then Lois saw how diabolical was Luthor's plot. Melwas was right; Clark had been preaching equal rights and responsibilities under the law ever since he had ascended the throne. To let her "treason" go unpunished would be tantamount to admitting that rank had privileges not enjoyed by the lower classes. It would invalidate his whole system of justice. Clark would have to order her execution or exile in order to demonstrate that *no one* is above the law. And it would break his heart to do either.
Lois's heart twisted when she realised the dilemma Luthor's fiendish plan would place her husband in, the man who had the weight of the whole kingdom on his shoulders, and she felt a fierce stab of anger towards the absent Lex. Clenching her jaw, she determined that she would find a way to foil the plot; if Clark were forced to send her to a nunnery (she *knew* he would never order her execution!), then she would prevail on her father not to make war in order to defend her honour. She would have to somehow make him see that he must not be the instrument that would bring about the Reign of Luthor.
But first, she would do her utmost to see that Clark never had to take such a heart-breaking course of action. Only one man stood between her and the door to the outside world, and if that man had it in him to stop her, then she was not Lois Lane!
She lowered her eyes, as if in defeat, and after a moment asked meekly if there was any more stew. Sir Melwas rose and took her bowl. Striding over to the fire, he began to fill the dish from the stewpot. As soon as his back was turned, Lois jumped to her feet and dashed to the door. Throwing aside the bolt that secured it, she thrust it open and stumbled over the threshold, halting in dismay when she saw that the lake was lapping at the doorstep. After less than a second's hesitation, she cast off her shawl and prepared to dive headfirst into the water.
"I wouldn't," said Sir Melwas's voice behind her. "Sharp stakes have been driven into the lake bed all along the shore line of this small island. You will certainly be impaled if you go into the lake … which is quite shallow in this area, by the way. Much too shallow for diving. It was really very foolish of you to contemplate diving into unknown waters."
Chagrined, Lois bit her lip. She regarded Melwas's stalwart form, wondering if he were bluffing and if she should call his bluff. But, no, it was a common enough trick, driving stakes into shallow water to defend the point of land beyond, and rather than risk killing or maiming herself by jumping into the water, she would do better to wait and try escape later.
Without speaking to Melwas or even looking at him again, she swept past him into the private chamber. Melwas made no objection; in fact, he looked as if her agitation was precisely what he had expected.
When she reached the relative security of the private room, she closed the door behind her and leaned against it, breathing hard while she considered the ironies of her fate.
Once, she would have given almost anything to become Lex Luthor's lady. Now, she would give anything to avoid that destiny.
She remembered what her sister had said about her being attracted to powerful and domineering men, an assessment of her character that had been confirmed by Dame Friskin. The good lady had told her much the same thing, predicting that Lois's preferences would change when she matured and learned what was really best for herself. Lois had realised tonight that the Dame's prediction had come true. Over the past few months Lois had learned to respect and admire her kind and gentle husband, and those feelings had gradually turned into love.
Her mind was filled, as it had been for the last several hours, with images of Clark: the easy grace of his walk, the quiet assurance in his manner. The compassion on his face when he made a ruling in a case brought before him, and the warmth in his eyes when his gaze fell upon her. She thought of how the firelight danced off his muscular chest and broad shoulders when he disrobed, and of the glow of eager anticipation on his face when he slid into bed beside her.
She had been so wrapped up in her fantasies about the dashing Sir Lancelot that she had never taken the time to notice the quiet man beside her, until now. She grimaced when she thought of the supreme irony in the fact that she realised how much she loved Clark only when she was on the eve of losing him forever.
She moved slowly to the bed and lay down, willing the tormenting thoughts away. She would find a way out of this for herself and Clark, but first, she needed to rest in order to gain strength to effect the escape she must engineer.
She closed her eyes and, surprisingly, she slept.
There was a loud crash, and Lois stirred in her sleep. A thunderstorm? She opened her eyes to almost total darkness, recognizing instantly that she was not in her own castle bedchamber. She moaned softly.
The door to her room burst open and she was swept up into strong, comforting arms. "Are you all right?" asked her husband's voice. The big body holding her was trembling.
"Yes …" Lois whispered faintly.
"Are you sure? I swear I will kill him if he's … hurt you." His voice shook with suppressed fury.
"I'm all right," Lois gasped. She added the words that she had been longing to say for hours, the words that she had become increasingly afraid she would never be able to tell him: "I love you so much …"
He stiffened, and as Sir Melwas charged into the room, a blazing torch in one hand and a sword in the other, Lois saw with horror that her rescuer wasn't wearing the crest of Kent. The words of love she had just expressed had been said, not, as she had thought, to her husband, but to the great knight, Sir Lancelot.
There was no opportunity for her to correct her error, for Melwas had launched himself towards them, sword extended. And then Sir Lancelot demonstrated one of those legendary abilities for which he was so famous; by the time Melwas and his deadly sword had reached them, Lancelot was simply … no longer there. How he did it, Lois couldn't tell; one minute Melwas was advancing on them from the open doorway, and the next, Lancelot had somehow danced around him and moved into the outer chamber.
Still carrying Lois, the great knight strode swiftly to the outside door. "Wait! There are sharpened stakes in the bed of the lake!" Lois warned her rescuer.
"I know," said Lancelot. Without hesitation, he jumped over the threshold, twisting in mid-air so that his body was underneath Lois's when they plunged into the lake. Lois took a great gulp of air, then held her breath, expecting that they would be submerged. It was only Lancelot, however, lying flat on his back, who sank briefly beneath the water's surface. Lying on top of him, Lois was barely wet.
Lancelot began kicking with his legs, propelling them across the lake. Lois marveled at their rapid progress, marveled still more at the knight's ability to keep them afloat. She would have thought that their combined weight would have submerged them, but somehow they were skimming atop the water, barely touching the lake's surface. How did he do it? And how had he managed to avoid the deadly stakes?
They reached the opposite shore within a matter of minutes. Regaining his feet, Lancelot sloshed through the shallow water, still carrying Lois. He gave a low whistle and a dark horse trotted out of the shadows to halt before them. Lancelot hoisted Lois into the saddle and swung himself up behind her. They set off at a fast walk, following no trail that Lois could see.
"Sir Melwas … ?" asked Lois.
"I-the King will deal with him later," said Lancelot curtly. Lois shivered.
They lapsed into silence as the big horse picked his way through the dark forest, the trail illuminated only by the full moon. Lois wanted to tell the knight of her mistake, to tell him that when she had uttered her declaration of love, she had thought that he was her husband, but with Lancelot's arrival, she had become possessed of a strange languor, borne partly of relief and partly of the sensations that coursed through her body at the feel of his strong arms around her.
How can I feel this way? I love Clark … how can I still love Sir Lancelot … ?
The knight loved her, too — she knew it. She could feel it in the protective way his arms cradled her body, in the tenderness of his hand holding her steady on the saddle in front of him.
A wave of weakness rushed over her and she collapsed backward, leaning back into his chest. He didn't speak, but she could feel his heart beating thunderously through his doublet.
By the time they had pulled up abruptly on the edge of a clearing, she still hadn't said anything about mistaking him for her husband, and now Lancelot was vaulting out of the saddle, lifting her, placing her on the ground beside him. Lois straightened and prepared to move away, but Lancelot retained his grip on her arms. "Just this once," he muttered so low that Lois was not sure she heard him correctly, "you'll kiss me like you mean it …" He whipped off his helmet and bent his head.
The kiss was over before Lois could protest, and the knight released her, leaping back into the saddle and melting into the shadows of the forest. There was a murmur of voices from where he had disappeared, followed by a rustling in the undergrowth. The bushes parted, and a horse plodded out, carrying-
"Lucy!" gasped Lois, still breathless from the kiss.
"Lois, are you all right?" Lucy scrambled down off the mare and dashed into her sister's arms.
"Yes … no … I don't … I guess so," said Lois, her head in a whirl. "What brings you here? When did you come to Camelot?"
"I got here this afternoon, but I haven't been seen in the palace yet. Somehow the King got wind of your kidnapping before I even arrived, and he hustled me out of sight immediately. Said he might need me for a cover story."
"Get on the horse. I'll explain while we ride. I don't want to hang around here for very long. We chased away the wolves, but-"
"They were after your dead horse." Lucy stood aside and for the first time Lois saw the body of Grey Bullock. Sir Lancelot had brought her back to the clearing where she had been kidnapped.
Wasting no further time in conversation, Lois led the mare over to a stump that they could use as a mounting-block, then hustled Lucy into the saddle, climbing up behind her sister. Putting her arms around Lucy, she grabbed the reins from her and pulled the mare's head around, heading out of the clearing towards the trail she had ridden that morning.
As they rode, Lois told her sister about the events that had occurred during that long day, and then Lucy filled her sister in on the cover story that the King had concocted. "I'm going to say that I arrived in Camelot this morning and we rode away together before anyone had seen me. We were accosted by those men who 'tried' to kidnap you, and your horse was killed. You climbed into the saddle with me and we somehow managed to escape from the ruffians, but we got lost ourselves in the process and we've been wandering around the forest all day. In a few minutes James Olson will find us and bring us back to the castle."
"He's one of the vassals."
"The King was wonderful. I don't know how he found out what was going on with you, but he did! And he was so kind … to me, even though I could see that he was half out of his mind with worry about you. He loves you so much, Lois … I think he'd give his life for you." Lois mumbled something that her sister didn't catch, and Lucy continued. "He told me that Sir Lancelot was going to find out where they had taken you and that he would bring you back to me. I am to tell everyone that we have not been out of each others' sight all day. The King will deal with your kidnappers later, in such a way that your name will never be mentioned in connection. This way we save your reputation."
"I … see," said Lois. "Yes, it'll work. The men who kidnapped me won't contradict our story because they would incriminate themselves if they did. It's a good cover. Will Olson keep his mouth shut, though?"
"I don't know how much he knows," said Lucy, "so it's best if we just stick to our story and not mention anything else. The King is so sweet, Lois; you're lucky to be loved by a man like him."
"Yes," Lois affirmed. The sisters fell silent, Lois picturing her upcoming reunion with her husband. She would rush into his embrace, feeling the comforting strength of his arms as they engulfed her, and then she would tell him how much she loved him. She would lament the death of Grey Bullock, and Clark would hug her tightly and tell her that it didn't matter, that the only thing that mattered was that she got back to him safely. And they would to into her bedchamber and she would make love to him with all her newly-discovered passion.
Yes, she could picture the whole moving scene, contrition, forgiveness, and love.
(Later, she would take issue with him for keeping her in the dark about the events that had been brewing. If he had told her what was going forward, she would never have stolen away like she had; she was going to have to make it clear to him that if they were to deal together he was going to have to be forthright with her. But that would come later; for now, she would be content with making up and making out.)
And when she told him her story she was going to leave out that one eentsy detail of Lancelot's stolen kiss. Whatever feelings his caress had awakened in her — and she wasn't admitting to any of them — were strictly private, and as the kiss was *not* going to be repeated, it was completely irrelevant to her situation with Clark. What he didn't know wouldn't hurt him.
Impatient to get back to him, she began fidgeting at the slow pace of her sister's mare.
Unfortunately, the affecting little reunion with Clark that she pictured on her ride back to Camelot never took place. The castle was in an uproar when they arrived, and she was forced to reunite with her husband in front of a score of members of the court. She thought that Clark gave her a strained look, but she attributed it to the peculiar details of their situation.
After their public greeting, she didn't see him again that night. She retired to her bedchamber, where she fell immediately into an exhausted sleep. She awoke late, and he was not at her side. She didn't see him privately all that day, nor the next, and was never asked for the 'real' version of what took place when she was kidnapped, although Lucy told her that he had questioned *her* about it at length.
When this pattern continued for several days, Lois was forced to conclude that Clark was upset with her and avoiding her.
She had evidence, though, that he was continuing to come to her bed every night, although she was always asleep before he did so, and he was always gone when she woke up.
Why, she wondered, did he continue to sleep in her bed if he was so angry with her that he wasn't interested in resuming intimacy? And then she knew the answer; if the King stopped visiting the Queen's bedchamber, the news would be all over the castle within a day, plunging them into the kind of gossip that would have prevailed if it were known that she had not, as was now commonly believed, spent that fateful day with her sister, but unchaperoned in the company of men. Clark was maintaining the appearance of normalcy for both their sakes.
The question was: what was Clark so upset about? Or to put it another way: which event that *could* have upset him was the one triggering his avoidance behaviour?
Alone in her chamber one night, Lois was determined to wait up for Clark and confront him. She paced back and forth, worriedly reviewing all the events that could have caused the estrangement between them.
Lucy had told her that he hadn't seemed to be upset that she had ridden outside of Camelot in defiance of his orders; rather, he had appeared to be ruefully resigned.
He wasn't angry about Grey Bullock's death; Lucy had reassured her about that, too.
Clark *couldn't* believe that something had happened with the men who had kidnapped her. He couldn't think that she had been *assaulted*! But, no, he knew that nothing had happened to her; she had told Lucy everything, and Lucy said that she had relayed the information to Clark.
She took a deep breath, wincing when her mind touched on the matter that her guilty conscience had caused her to avoid thus far. Was it possible that Lancelot could have told Clark about the Kiss? *She* had renounced Lancelot in her own mind and declared that her love was reserved for her husband, but neither Lancelot nor Clark had any way of knowing that. And if Lancelot had told Clark about their kiss …
No, no, it wasn't possible. Sir Lancelot wasn't the type to kiss and tell. He was reputedly such a gentleman …
Not much of a gentleman in kissing another man's wife, Lois. And Clark told you once that Lancelot was in love and planning to get married, too.
But maybe … maybe … Lancelot's action was so against his character that he was wracked with guilt afterwards. He and Clark were reportedly good friends, as well as lord and liegeman. Maybe Lancelot had cleared his tortured conscience by confessing to his friend that he and Lois had kissed.
*He* kissed *me*! thought Lois indignantly. I didn't … *participate*!
(You didn't exactly fight him off, either, girl.)
It was over so quickly! I had no chance to show him how much I … I *disapproved* of it.
(Yeah? You could have slapped his face afterwards, couldn't you? Isn't that what a woman's supposed to do when a man insults her by foisting an unwanted kiss on her?? And why didn't you explain to him that when you said you loved him, it was because you had mistaken him for your husband?)
Okay, okay, so I should have slapped him. That still doesn't give him the right to *assume* that I liked it … and to tell Clark about it.
But I don't believe he did tell Clark; I don't think he *would*.
So if *he* didn't tell Clark about the kiss … who did?
Was Lucy close enough to see that kiss? No, it was dark, she was still in the forest, surrounded by trees. Besides, Lucy would **never** betray me like that.
Could someone else have been there? Hiding in the shadows … one of Melwas's men? Melwas? Could he have followed them? Could he have …?
She sucked in her breath sharply. Melwas! She had forgotten — he had been just outside her room when she had told Sir Lancelot she loved him. Could he have overheard her?
If Melwas knew what she had said to Lancelot, then Luthor did, too.
Her blood ran cold.
Luthor would know how to use information like that; he was a master at employing a mixture of truths, half-truths and lies to formulate and change public opinion. He would know exactly how to distort the facts in order to create the reality he wanted people to see, and he certainly wasn't above using this particular fact in order to create an estrangement between herself and Clark that he could use for his own ends.
If he had somehow let Clark know what Melwas had overheard …
She had no choice but to tell Clark about what had happened. But …
What if that wasn't the cause of Clark's unhappiness with her? What if it was something else that was bothering him and he didn't know anything about what she had said to Lancelot?
Or what if he knew what she had *said* to Lancelot, but didn't know that she had kissed — that Lancelot had kissed her? Or what if he knew about what she had said *and* knew about the kiss? If she told him what she had *said*, but didn't mention the kiss, and he knew about both … it would be disastrous.
On the other hand, if she *did* mention the kiss, and he hadn't known about it previously … omigosh … she couldn't tell the King that his best friend, the knight who stood for decency and honour, had kissed his wife!
Lois dropped into a chair, her head whirling. This was getting too complicated. If only she knew what Clark knew, if only she knew why he was acting so cold and distant.
How like him to go into a fit of the sulks without telling me why! She thought indignantly.
Well, if Clark wouldn't volunteer the information, she would have to pry it out of him. Once she knew exactly what his problem was, she would know what to say to set his mind at ease.
She only wished that he would hurry and get back from wherever he was; she was beginning to get sleepy. She leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes.
She dozed off several times before he came in. The sound of the door opening woke her and she opened her eyes, seeing Clark before he noticed her. He had a look of weariness on his face, mixed with sadness. She must have made a sound, for he looked up suddenly and gave a guilty start when he saw her sitting there with her gaze fixed on him. From the hunted expression that crossed his face, it looked like he would have liked to retreat back out the door again. "Uh … you're still awake," he said, closing the door behind him.
"We need to talk," said Lois tightly.
Clark winced. "Not tonight, Lois," he pleaded. "I'm tired and-" he raked his fingers through his hair. "I'm tired," he repeated firmly. He began pulling off his doublet, averting his eyes from Lois's suddenly fascinated gaze.
Lois was indeed looking him over, wondering how she could have been so blind that she had never observed her husband's magnificent physique before. True, she had noted it the time when she had burst into his private chamber unannounced, but somehow she had shoved that image to the back of her mind, too busy with her fantasy about Sir Lancelot to bother noticing the extraordinary man she had married.
Keeping her gaze on him, she leaned forward slightly, licking her lips. She couldn't believe that for the last few months she had been spurning the man who was now disrobing in front of her. She must have been crazy to overlook him. Well, she could make up for it now …
But Clark sat down on the bed and turned his back to her, bending over to remove his boots.
In a flash Lois was on the bed beside him. "You could at least tell me why you're so upset," she said, trying to get him to open up to her.
"I'm not upset, Lois," he said. His voice was devoid of inflection.
"If it's about Grey Bullock, I'm really sorry," said Lois.
"Grey-? Oh, the horse. No, it's okay, Lois. I told Lucy to tell you-"
"And if you're upset about me leaving the castle that day-"
"No, it wasn't your fault, Lois; I should have explained *why* I didn't want you to leave, instead of just ordering you-"
"So what's the problem?"
"There is no problem, Lois. I'm tired and I want to go to sleep." He finished removing his clothing and slid under the bed covers, rolling over so that his back was to her.
"Clark!!" said Lois angrily. He didn't answer, and his breathing immediately became deep and regular.
Lois flounced down beside him, staring at the ceiling. Why wouldn't he talk to her?? Maybe if she told him how she felt … "I love you," she said tentatively. There was no response from the man lying beside her, and, muttering under her breath, she closed her eyes and prepared for sleep.
Clark lay in bed, eyes wide open, while he listened to the regular breathing that told him that Lois finally slept. He had heard her declaration of love, but it had confused rather than gratified him. This was nothing new; Lois was always confusing him.
Truth to be told, Clark often had a hard time understanding his wife, particularly in regard to Sir Lancelot. Her crush on the knight had amused him at first, but as time wore on, he had found himself becoming increasingly irritated, and lately, even before the kidnapping incident, he had felt … well … he guessed he was … jealous. Of Sir Lancelot. Which was kinda crazy, since he *was* Sir Lancelot.
But Lois didn't know that.
What's so great about that knight anyway? He's the exact same person *I* am, but Lois loves *him* and not me. But he *is* me. When is Lois going to recognize that fact?
Clark shifted uncomfortably in the bed, wondering how his simple deception could have led to such a complicated state of affairs. He had fallen in love with Lois minutes after meeting her, and thinking that his ardor was returned, he had rushed to ask her father for her hand in marriage. It had turned out that he was right about Lois being in love with him, too, but it was the persona of Lancelot that she had fallen in love with. It had been a mistake — as Lois had let him know pretty quickly — not to woo her as the King first, but he had thought that she would get over her indignation about that as soon as she found out he was the man she had fallen in love with. For he had had every intention of telling her that he and Sir Lancelot were the same man.
But the night he had started to tell her of his secret pastime, her blatant hero-worship of his alter-ego, coupled with the subtle way in which she had managed to put *him* down at the same time, had so annoyed him that some perverse streak had led him to withhold his secret.
Over time, he had become increasingly glum as her infatuation for the great knight didn't diminish. He told himself that he should find her steadfastness gratifying — after all, *he* was the object of her admiration — but when her behaviour showed how underwhelmed she was by the King, particularly when she objected so vehemently to the very *idea* that he might disguise himself and perform knight-errantry like Lancelot did, he had felt that stubborn steak of perversity rise up and kill all desire to let her know that *he* was Lancelot. Why, he wasn't sure. Maybe it was because he wanted to prove something. Maybe he wanted to show her that Clark Kent was as worthy of her love as Sir Lancelot.
Lois had high standards, he knew. Exacting and driven, only the best would do for this woman — and rightly so. She strove for perfection in every endeavor she undertook, and she expected no less from the man she hoped to love. This lady's approbation would not be easily won, and Clark had an intense desire to earn it, to prove to her that the King was as worthy of her love as was the mysterious knight.
Recently, he had begun to hope that Lois was finally coming around. He thought he had garnered her respect, and even, perhaps, her love. There had been a soft look in her eye when her gaze rested on him that had offered him more encouragement to hope than he would have believed possible as short a time as a month ago.
His hopes had been cruelly dashed when she had told Sir Lancelot that she loved him. For Lois to have uttered such a treasonous declaration (although he didn't think a niggling little detail like treason would stop Lois from doing anything she truly believed in), was so unlike anything he would have expected from her that he had been staggered. While Lois might commit what the State dubbed "treason" if she believed it was the right thing to do, Clark hadn't thought that cheating on one's husband was on her list of right things to do.
Apparently, he had been wrong.
It looked like the King had lost the battle for Lois's love. Worse, it looked like the Queen was ready to throw everything away for the love she felt for an errant knight.
Maybe it was time to end the deception before anything disastrous came of Lois's seemingly illicit love. Maybe he should let her know that he was Sir Lancelot.
Yeah, thereby letting her know that *he* knew that she was two-timing him. Could cause some awkwardness in their relationship. <Snort.>
Or did his reluctance to let her in on his secret spring from another cause? Did he cling to the deception because of the small crumb of gratification he got from believing that Lois loved one part of him?
Was he afraid, perhaps, that telling her that Sir Lancelot was nothing more than himself in disguise would kill forever the passion she felt for himself as the mysterious knight? Maybe her infatuation for the knight was as unreal as was Sir Lancelot himself, and telling her about himself would make that infatuation vanish like the mists on the moors with the morning sun?
It was especially difficult to think of losing her passion now … now that he had had a hint of what it would be like to hold an ardent Lois Lane. The way she had clung to him when she told Sir Lancelot she loved him, the way her body had melted into his when he carried her, the way she had draped herself against his chest when they had ridden together, the way her lips had yielded softly when he had pressed his mouth against hers …
He squirmed. If Lois had ever surrendered herself to him like that in his persona of the King, if she had ever shown *half* that much passion for him, he would have been down on his knees thanking heaven for it.
But the passionate woman who had kissed Sir Lancelot had behaved nothing like the wife he had taken to bed, the woman who fulfilled her marital duties from an apparent sense of obligation, who behaved as if physical intimacy were an unpleasant chore to be carried out through gritted teeth …
Why, though, her sudden loving attitude towards him, Clark? Why her declaration of love tonight? Why the passionate glances, the hot, aroused look in her eyes when she had watched him undress?
If only that look that devoured him so ardently had been real! If he had any reason, any straw to clutch at, to believe that the passion in her sultry gaze tonight had been sincere-!
He didn't understand this; he didn't understand any of it.
He rolled over onto his back and stared at the ceiling, giving in to his bitter thoughts.
Part 2, Sex and Lies, But No Videotape
Lois didn't see Clark the next day, and therefore had ample time to mull over his estrangement from her, wondering once more if it had anything to do with Sir Lancelot. She went over the events of their relationship again and again, many times deciding to confess what had happened between herself and the great knight, and each time rejecting that decision.
How many times had she heard the old women of the castle advise never to tell the man you love of any previous attachments? How many times had she heard their assurances that what he didn't know couldn't hurt him, but what he *did* know could hurt *you*?
But … was this the reason that she forbore to tell Clark? Or did she, perhaps, have another reason? Did her reluctance to discuss Sir Lancelot with her husband stem from the uncertainty of her own emotions? Did she, maybe, still cherish a secret desire for the errant knight?
I … *couldn't*! thought Lois, squirming with self-loathing. I *don't* want him; I *can't* love him; and I *couldn't possibly* desire him! It's one thing to look up to and admire a man who is not the husband you have just discovered you are deeply in love with, but it's quite another to want that man to take you in his arms and hug you and hold you and kiss you and kiss you and kiss you and *kiss* you until your body is weak and trembling all over …
Lois bit her lip. She had responded sensuously to Lancelot's kiss; she knew she had. She could deny it no longer. In some strange, twisted, ironic way, at the same time that she had realised that she was in love with Clark, Sir Lancelot had decided that he was in love with her. And his love was returned. It wasn't possible, but it was true; she was passionately, sensuously, whole-heartedly in love with two men at the same time.
Of everything that had happened to her in her young life, this was the cruelest, most devastating of all. And she was going to have to bear it. Silently. For she was going to tell no one. Not her gentle mother, not her sister, and especially not her loving husband. No, she was never going to let him know about her love for Sir Lancelot. She was going to hide her love in order to shield Clark from the hurt that the knowledge would inevitably bring.
She loved Clark. She knew that now, knew that she had acted like a fool ever since she had met him. She didn't know why he was angry with her now, or hurt, but if it was because of Sir Lancelot, then she would have to show him that her love for the knight was not going to come between them. She would shower Clark with all the caring and devotion that she could muster, giving him every attention to show him how utterly devoted she was to him. And she would never, ever again talk about or even think about Sir Lancelot.
Lois choked back a sob and determinedly turned her thoughts away from Lancelot and towards the problem of proving to Clark how much she loved him. Seized by sudden inspiration, she jerked abruptly away from the window. She ran to her wardrobe to fetch a shawl, then slipped quietly from her chamber, wending her way to the village by the castle.
Lois was asleep when Clark came to bed that night.
His entrance into the bedchamber woke her, however, and she snuggled up to him when he lay down on the bed with her. He smelled of fresh air, as he often did when he came home so late at night, and she found herself wondering for the nth time what it was that he occupied himself with until all hours of the night.
Tossing aside that thought to be dealt with later, she placed a tentative hand on his bare shoulder, drawing it back quickly when he flinched. "Clar-rk," she said in a low voice, wishing that he would respond to her. She loved him so much, and it was unfair that this estrangement should separate them just after she had realised it.
She simply had to get him to talk to her. If he was upset because of Sir Lancelot, then *he* was going to have to mention the knight's name first.
Clark didn't know what Lois was trying to do, but whatever it was, he was not in the mood to cooperate.
He squeezed his eyes tightly shut and tried to pretend that he didn't hear her pleas. What was she trying to pull, anyway? He knew that she was infatuated with Sir Lancelot — she had told the knight that she loved him, had even kissed him — so why was she suddenly getting so lovey-dovey with Clark?
Probably trying to salve her guilty conscience, he thought sourly.
Funny, he'd respected her more when she had been unabashedly open about her love for Sir Lancelot. At least then, she hadn't been a two-timing hypocrite.
"Clark!" Lois was speaking, cutting in on his thoughts. Her low voice was throbbing, insistent.
"What do you want, Lois?" he asked in a tone of great disgust.
"I want you to talk to me," cried Lois, trying obviously to keep the quaver out of her voice.
"For starters, you could tell me why you're acting like this!"
Keeping his back determinedly towards Lois, Clark grasped his pillow with both hands and pulled it more firmly under his head.
He heard her take a deep breath. "Clark, I told you that I love you! Doesn't that mean anything to you?" When he didn't answer, she began running her fingertips over his bare skin, apparently trying to elicit some kind of reaction out of him.
"What do you want, Lois?" Clark burst out, desperate to distract her before he gave way to feelings he knew he'd regret later.
"I told you-"
"What's the *real* reason? Did you see a horse you'd like to buy … a horse that's too expensive for your own income? Do you want me to give my … my *blessing* on some scheme you have planned?" Some scheme that you're going to carry out anyway, whether you have my backing or not …
"No-o-o," Lois's voice was husky now, deep with unshed tears. "I just want … you. I want you to love me." Clark gritted his teeth, finding it harder to resist that low, pleading voice. He had to resist her, though; it was a matter of self-defense. He just didn't think he could stand it anymore. Waiting all these months for Lois to fall in love with him, only to find out that she was still stubbornly infatuated with a fantasy figure that she had imbued with humanly impossible virtues. To have her *pretend* to be in love with *him* was heart-rending. What was she up to, anyway? Was she trying to cover up her love for Lancelot by being overly-solicitous towards himself?
Lois began kissing him lightly and he tensed his muscles, determined that she was not going to get one spark of reaction out of him, that he was not going to-
Clark sat up and lit a candle with his heat vision, staring at Lois.
What was she doing???
It wasn't possible that she would be going to such lengths just to get him to buy her a new horse, nor could he honestly believe that she was trying to cover up what she thought was an illicit relationship — it just didn't fit the character of the Lois he knew. Something else was going on here — but what?
And where did she learn to do *that*??
Lois fell to one side as Clark sat bolt upright in bed and somehow lit a candle with lightning speed. She sat up, drawing her legs up beside her. "How did you — where did you learn *that*??" Clark exclaimed, a flush mounting to his face.
"Not from Sir Lancelot!" Lois said quickly.
Clark looked startled. "I didn't think you *did*."
Lois bit her lip. Great, girl; if he wasn't suspicious before, he will be now. "I went to a wise woman in the village," she hurried to tell him. "I asked her what to do to … how to … please a man did you like it?"
"I … uh … well, *yes*, but …" Clark looked dumbfounded, and very, very unsettled. He raked his fingers through his hair and took a deep breath. "Why is it suddenly so important for you to 'please' me?"
"I already told you, Clark," said Lois, trying to make him understand, "I love you."
"Lois, I'd like to believe you, but … I … can't," said Clark.
He was looking at her with such heartbreak in his eyes that Lois felt tears start in her own. She became convinced at that moment that he knew *something* of what had gone on between her and Lancelot. But she was still in the dark as to exactly what. She hesitated while she considered explaining *part* of what had gone on with the knight, considered telling him of her mistake in thinking that Sir Lancelot was him.
Before she could speak, however, an expression of frustration crossed Clark's face and he interrupted her. "I have to go, Lois," he said. He jumped from the bed and began throwing on his clothes haphazardly.
"What do you mean, you have to go?" demanded Lois. But she was talking to an empty room.
Clark didn't come back that night, and since he was called away to Caer Wyn the next day to settle a dispute that had arisen between two landholders, he wasn't expected to return for several days.
As was usually the case when Lois was feeling troubled, she threw herself into her work, losing herself in investigating what she believed to be a ploy by the Glenholdens to gain more land for themselves.
Clark could have taken me with him, she thought; he knows that I'm the best when it comes to finding out the facts in these cases.
It was true; Lois had an extraordinary ability to ferret out the truth, and had taken a more active position in matters of intrigue affecting the country than any other Queen in known history.
But Clark was mad at her, she reminded herself, and in his present state of mind unlikely to seek her assistance in running the kingdom.
She bit her lip.
Lois prepared for bed alone, as was happening more and more often these days. She had just had word that Clark was not expected back until the end of the week. She walked restlessly about her bedchamber. It was past her usual time for retiring, but she was not at all sleepy. Giving up the attempt at last, she threw on some outer clothing and decided to take a stroll around the grounds.
She had been walking for several minutes when she heard a muffled scream which appeared to come from the vicinity of the stables. She began to run in that direction, almost colliding with a young serving girl who was racing at full speed away from the stable.
"Are you all right?" asked Lois, grasping the girl's arm to keep her from falling.
"Yes, Miss," gasped the girl. "I was just-" Her eyes widened. "-excuse me — Your Highness!" She sketched an awkward curtsy. "I — one of the men got a little too fresh with me, if you know what I mean. I took care of the problem, though; he won't be bothering me, or anyone else." She tossed her head.
"Do you want to make a complaint against him?" asked Lois.
The girl shook her head. "I took care of it," she repeated.
A smile twisted Lois's lips. The girl must have kicked him in a very tender place. "If you change your mind, ask for me, personally," she said aloud. She nodded at the girl to indicate that she was free to go, then continued towards the stables, her pace quickening as she suddenly thought of a different interpretation to put on the girl's words.
I hope she didn't kill him, thought Lois. Clark wouldn't like it.
And speaking of Clark …
Her eyes widened and she halted in her tracks, her heart jumping as she spied him standing next to a man who was bent over as if in pain. Clark's back was to her and his face was in the shadows, but she had no trouble recognizing him; she'd know those shoulders anywhere.
He must have come back early.
The man said something to him, then hobbled painfully away, grimacing.
Lois broke into a run and, hearing her, Clark half-turned. Laughing with pure joy, Lois launched herself into his arms, crying, "I'm so glad you're here … I wasn't expecting you-" The words died on her lips when she saw that he was wearing the helmet of the great mysterious knight.
It wasn't Clark; it was Sir Lancelot.
This isn't fair! It just isn't fair! It's not fair that I've made the same mistake twice. He has the same voice as Clark, the same height, the same shaoulders, the same …
And then Lois knew.
And it wasn't a matter of measuring the breadth of his shoulders or the girth of that chest, it was simply that … this man — the strong, kind man holding her so tenderly in his arms — was Clark.
A thousand different thoughts, coloured by a thousand different emotions, whirled through her mind. She felt surprise, chagrin, anger — but the overwhelming emotion was relief. Relief that the two men she loved and admired most in the world were one and the same, that her heart no longer had to feel torn into two. Relief that she hadn't betrayed Clark when she had kissed his alter ego, and most of all, relief that he was quite obviously still very much in love with her.
For he had received her into his arms gladly, crushing her to his chest while he murmured broken terms of endearment.
Lois put her arms around him as all at once everything about Clark's behaviour in the last few days was made clear. She didn't have to wonder any more about whether he knew that Lancelot had kissed her, or whether he knew that she had told Lancelot that she loved him. He most decidedly knew about both. And had apparently been suffering because of it. But *why* he felt this brooding, bitter hurt, she couldn't begin to fathom. It wasn't as if she had cheated on *him* … so why was he so upset? Come to think of it, his whole jealous attitude towards Sir Lancelot from the beginning was incomprehensible — how could he be jealous of himself?
And they say *women* are hard to figure.
But no matter how unreasonable it was, the only thing that really mattered was that he *was* hurt. Any anger that she may have had towards him because of his deception vanished, and she didn't care about anything except the need to reassure him of her love. She hugged him without restraint.
All her married life she had been holding back: first holding back from Clark because she was in love with Lancelot; then on that fateful night, holding back from Lancelot because she was in love with Clark. From this moment on there would be no holding back. Half-sobbing, she wrapped her arms around his waist and clutched him fiercely, burying her face in his shoulder.
Clark had experienced several long and trying days. First, there had been the news that Luthor was actively plotting against him, followed by Lois's kidnapping and the subsequent revelation that his wife was still in love with Sir Lancelot.
But then she had begun behaving erratically: professing to love *him* and going to great lengths to prove it. His spirits had risen accordingly, but before he could get to the root of her contradictory behaviour and confirm that she really did love *him*, he had been called away to Caer Wyn to resolve a dispute between two landholders.
By evening today he had found out that the dispute he had been called to mediate was bogus — the landowners who had reportedly been about to go to war to settle their differences were actually firm friends and allies.
Realising that he had been sent on a wild goose chase, Clark suddenly became filled with the gut-wrenching fear that another assualt was being planned against Lois in his absence and he made plans to leave for Camelot immediately. Since Clark Kent could not possibly have returned from Caer Wyn yet, he had changed into Sir Lancelot's garb and ridden into Camelot in disguise.
His heart swelled with relief when he turned and saw Lois running towards him and he received her into his arms gladly, reaching up a hand to stroke her hair.
And then he stiffened.
He had forgotten momentarily that he was dressed in the persona of Sir Lancelot.
He looked down at the dark head nestled against his shoulder and winced. He was confused again. Just when Lois's actions had encouraged him to hope that she had fallen in love with Clark, she began showing this astonishing display of passion for Lancelot. Again. He knew that she was volatile (try, *mercurial*), but this beat any of her most erratic previous behaviours.
He closed his eyes while he fought down his disappointment. When he opened them again, it was with determination.
He couldn't allow this to go on. The charade had gone far enough; he had to tell her. Whatever the consequences, whatever her outrage and disappointment at his deception, she had to learn that Sir Lancelot was really her husband.
He gently began to push her away in preparation for breaking the news.
And then he hesitated. She was hugging him hard now, clinging to him and rubbing against him in a way that inflamed his senses.
Among other things.
It was pretty obvious what she wanted to do. And it just so happened that it was exactly the same thing that *he* wanted to do.
But after he told her who he really was, she was going to be mad. *Really* mad. And likely — considering that she was about to find out that her husband had caught her in an act which *she* believed to be traitorous — humiliated. Devastated, even.
Not to mention disappointed that her hero is really only her husband.
It was definitely going to put a crimp in the activity that they were about to engage in, maybe forever.
Clark thought quickly.
I love her.
She's my wife.
If we make love now, we won't be doing anything treasonous, immoral, or unethical. Well, okay … unethical — on my part.
Or is it?
Can it be unethical for a man to make love to his own wife if she mistakenly believes that he's someone else? It would be unethical if it were the other way around, but in this case, she *is* my wife.
I can't do this, though. I should tell her. I *have* to tell her.
But … her fingers were dancing up and down his back, sweeping over the backs of his legs, squeezing his thighs. And her slender yet luscious form was rubbing against his chest And her hips were pressing against him, wriggling, grinding …
He took a deep breath and threw away the last vestiges of conscience.
Before I tell her … I am going to have this one night. One night of passion. Just this one time, I will make love to her when she wants me unequivocally. It may be all I have for the rest of my life.
She is my wife, and if my wife loves Sir Lancelot, then Sir Lancelot is who she'll get.
Sweeping her into his arms, he carried her into the darkened stable.
Life is sweet.
What … ?
A roaring sound. Coming closer … And then …
Crippling, stabbing pain.
Never … felt … anything … like … this … before.
Clark managed to raise his head, staring dazedly at the shadows surrounding him. Looking into the aisle below, he saw dimly that many men had come into the stable, were running back and forth, lanterns raised as they peered into the vacant stalls. It was their voices that were making the roaring sound, but he was unable to distinguish the words. Moving slowly, his limbs heavy as if drugged, he began pulling on his clothes, dimly conscious that Lois was doing the same. He had just managed to put on his helmet when one of the men looked up, saw them, pointed. The man had a sword in his hand. A sword with a pale green, crystalline blade.
Shouldn't have a sword. Shouldn't be pointing. Pointing at Lois. Have … to … protect … my wife.
He stood up, swayed, and fell out of the loft and onto the stable floor. He tried to lighten his descent, but floating didn't work and he landed heavily. The man holding the sword lunged at him, aiming the blade directly at his heart. Clark half-twisted as he staggered to his feet, but he was unable to completely elude the wicked blade and it pierced his arm, going clear through and entering his side. He heard the sound of someone shouting in pain, and was surprised to find that it was himself.
He twisted again, wrenching the blade from his assailant's grasp, and making a mighty effort, flung the man halfway across the aisle. The would-be killer landed awkwardly, grunting in pain as his leg folded under him at an unnatural angle.
Clark was dimly aware that Lois in the loft above was shouting something, and then several men in palace livery rushed past him, racing for the ladder. "There she is! Look to the Queen!" The men were palace guards; they would see that Lois was protected. Waves of relief washed over him, and he turned his attention back to his own situation. With Lois safe, his next concern was protecting Lancelot's identity. He had to get away before they discovered who he was.
He whistled for his horse, heard the clatter of hooves as Black Light trotted into the stable from the yard, answering his call. Clark staggered towards him, the sword still stuck in his flesh. He had almost reached the stallion when the man who had stabbed him shouted, drawing his retreat to the guards' attention. In an instant he was surrounded by palace guards. One of them grasped the hilt of the sword as a convenient handle, trying to keep Clark from the horse. Instead, the guard pulled the sword completely out of Clark's body, causing the King to cry out in agony. Gasping for breath, Clark summoned the last of his strength and hurled himself onto Black Light's back.
His hooves striking at the men who surrounded him, scattering them on all sides, Black Light trotted swiftly out of the stable with Clark clinging to his neck.
"Your Highness!" Lois looked up at the servant girl who had just burst into her room. Realising that her entrance had been too abrupt, the girl blushed and begged pardon. "I'm sorry, Your Highness, but I'm to tell you that they're going to start tomorrow."
"I thought that they were going to wait for the King to return," Lois frowned.
"Begging your pardon, Your Highness," said the girl, bobbing a curtsy, "but the King is missing."
Lois paled. "Missing? What do you mean, he's missing? He's in Caer Wyn, resolving a dispute. Didn't we send messengers to fetch him?"
The girl shook her head, backing away from the dark look in Lois's eyes. "The messengers have just come back from Caer Wyn; they report that the King is not to be found; he's been missing for — Your Highness? Are you all right?"
Lois sank into a chair. "I'm okay," she managed, waving the girl away. After shooing the girl out of the room, she buried her face in her hands. She had assumed that Clark would head back to Caer Wyn that night, since that was where the King was supposed to be. But apparently he had never made it; he must have been more severely injured than she had thought.
Removing her hands from her face, Lois took a deep breath and walked slowly to the window.
Her face tense with worry, she stared sightlessly at the gray sky.
Clark was missing.
Why, oh, why, had she let him ride away … alone, unattended, perhaps to fall off his horse and lie in the forest … suffering, lingering for days, tormented by thirst, agonized by his wound, and finally … to die … ?
Why hadn't she identified the King to his men? Even if she had been unable to stop that misguided knight from stabbing Clark, she could at least have seen that he was brought to his chambers, had his wound tended, been nursed back to health.
But she hadn't thought he was that badly injured, so her first priority, like his, had been protecting his secret.
Her reticence might cost them Clark's life.
For, in her initial concern that Clark get away without betraying his identity, Lois hadn't considered that to all appearances she had been caught in the hayloft with a man who was not her husband.
She hadn't thought that her actions would be used to charge her with treason.
Sir Lancelot and the Queen, caught in a love nest.
It was a setup; Lois was sure of it. In spite of the fact that at least *some* of the chain of events had happened by chance, her instincts told her that she and "Lancelot" had been set up. The circumstance of their being caught in the loft by a *score* of palace guards on a night when Clark happened to be away could not be, *must* not be, a coincidence.
For example, why had the man who wielded the green sword, Mog, been so quick to accuse Lois and Lancelot of treason? The palace guards who dashed into the stable in search of Lois had been fearful for the Queen's safety. They had thought that Lancelot was an unknown assailant or potential assailant — until Mog had correctly proclaimed that the two were willing lovers. He had *known* that they were lovers; he had come into the stable to find them and expose them, Lois believed.
She was now convinced that Melwas had overheard her tell Lancelot that she loved him and had subsequently reported it back to Lex Luthor. It was Luthor who had engineered a trap for the treasonous lovers.
She was so sure of it that, before she was *formally* charged with treason and confined to her quarters with liveried guards outside her door at all times, before she realised that Clark must have been more seriously injured than he appeared, she had spent two days attempting to uncover the plot. Disguising herself as a serving woman, she had visited all the taverns and other public gathering places in Camelot, as well as many private dwellings. She had questioned countless acquaintances, listened for gossip, and probed deeply into rumours.
What she had found was highly gratifying to her instinct for investigation, if not very reassuring to her peace of mind: in the first place, the altercation Clark had gone to Caer Wyn to settle was completely bogus. The two men supposedly at each others' throats over a land dispute had been best friends and allies for years, and they were also — Lois smiled with joyless satisfaction when she learned of it — reportedly Luthor's men.
I *knew* Clark should have taken me with him, she thought with bitter satisfaction. Clark is so naive and trusting … he would believe anything anyone tells him. But *I* would have discovered the sham dispute … and then we would have had warning that something was afoot.
During her investigation, Lois had also found out about the chain of events that had led to her getting caught with Clark in the stable that night. She learned that one of her women, Mirta, had gone to the Queen's bedchamber in the middle of the night — something her maids had *never* done before, and this week, Mirta had done it two nights in a row — and discovered that Lois was missing. Mirta had told Mog, and he had set the entire castle to hunting for their queen, eventually finding her in the stables with her lover.
Mirta, Lois now discovered, was originally from the same province as Lex Luthor, as was Mog.
Figuring out how the setup had been planned was easy. Believing that the Queen and Sir Lancelot were having an affair, Luthor had laid a trap to catch them together. First, he had made arrangements for Clark to be safely out of Camelot for a few days. Then, under the assumption that Sir Lancelot would take the opportunity of the husband's absence to be with his lover, he had sent Mirta into the Queen's chamber in the middle of the night, expecting to catch them together.
It was at this point that Luthor's plan hit a snag: Lancelot was never found in the Queen's bedroom. But on this particular night, neither was the Queen. Hoping that someone would find Her Highness in whatever love nest she and Lancelot had retreated to, Mirta had raised the alarm that the Queen was missing. And then Luthor's luck changed, since, ironically, it was on this of all nights that Lois and Lancelot had decided to consummate their love.
He was lucky, too, in that the guards had been led to investigate the stables by the tale that an assault had just been attempted on a young woman there. Fearful for the Queen's safety, the royal guard had rushed to the stables, where they had found a man with their Queen. They had attacked him without realising his identity.
It was Mog who had first identified the man. The knight was Sir Lancelot, he said positively. He hadn't seen the man's face, but he knew the horse. This was confirmed by the guards at the outer gates, who hadn't stopped the lone rider from galloping away because they had recognized the horse as Black Light.
Lois had maintained strict silence on the whole subject, refusing to confirm or deny that the man was Lancelot, and refusing to say what she had been doing with him in the loft. She fully intended to wait for Clark so that they could coordinate their stories.
But while she was awaiting Clark's return, one of Luthor's sycophants (it hadn't been Luthor himself; he, of course took great care to distance himself from the proceedings) demanded that the Queen be charged with treason. She had been so charged, and subsequently confined to her chambers while awaiting trial.
Lois had no illusions about the outcome of that trial should Clark not appear to exonerate her. She could, of course, take the only defense open to her and tell the truth: that she hadn't committed treason because the man she had been with was her husband, but without Clark to back her up, who would believe her?
In the meantime, some part of her still clung to the hope that she could get out of this without revealing Clark's secret. She was determined to keep quiet for as long as she could, exposing him only if he didn't reappear and she needed to do so in order to save her own life. Clark would have wanted it so, she knew.
If only she could have any expectation that telling the truth would exonerate her, that she would be believed.
I could be the first woman in the history of the world to be executed for having an affair with her own husband, she thought wryly.
Sighing, she placed her hands on the window sill, gripping it tightly as her thoughts returned to the absent Clark. She wished that during the last free days of her life she had bent her energies to looking for Clark instead of investigating Luthor's plot, but she hadn't realised how seriously her husband had been injured. It had looked like the sword pierced his arm — a flesh wound, not likely to be serious, she had believed at the time, although she was now chiding herself for that cursory conclusion.
She had believed that she hadn't heard from him in the last few days because he must have returned to Caer Wyn in his guise as the King. She hadn't known that he had never arrived at that village.
Lois wrung her hands.
Incredible for Sir Lancelot to have been thus wounded! Why had his fabled power of elusion failed him at that minute? She had seen him in action — twice — and each time he had shown an almost magical ability to avoid any number of swords thrust at him. In the stable that night Lois had not thought to fear for his life; she had just been concerned for his secret identity.
The wound must have been more serious than it appeared, or maybe it had become infected and he had fallen into a fever. Either way, Clark was apparently in serious trouble.
And if he didn't come back to confirm her story, so was she.
"Are you ready, Your Highness?" The girl who had entered Lois's chamber stood just inside the door. Her tone was respectful enough, but she did not meet Lois's eyes. Lois's trial was into its third day now and two days of damning testimony against her had already taken its toll. Lois was beginning to receive curious looks and sidelong glances not only from members of the court, but from servants, too.
If Lois had not already been convinced that the thing with Sir Lancelot had been engineered by Lex Luthor, the outrageous testimony being given against her would have clinched it.
For two days she had listened to a constant stream of lies about herself. She would have thought that the incident in the stable would have offered proof enough of her "treason," but someone had gone to lot of trouble to fabricate evidence against her, apparently in the interests of making the case airtight.
Lois had watched with increasing wrath as palace staff, many of them retainers who had been greatly trusted by Clark, swore to having seen her dally with Lancelot in the palace, in the courtyard, while riding in the forest.
Lies! All lies. She had seen "Sir Lancelot" exactly two times in her life before the stable incident, and the only occasion which had been witnessed by anyone still alive was when Sir Melwas had kidnapped her.
Denial was useless. When the first servant had begun telling his bald-faced lie, Lois had sprung to her feet, shouting. She had been silenced and re-seated by the bailiff, and had spent the remainder of the two days sitting in angry silence.
She expected today to be more of the same.
Looking up at the girl, Lois asked the same questions she had asked yesterday: "Any word of the King?" and "Have Sir Jonathan and Lady Martha arrived in Camelot yet?"
Lois had sent for Clark's foster parents in the hopes that they could confirm Clark's identity as Lancelot, if, as it looked increasingly likely, it became necessary.
Learning that the answer to both of her questions was "no," Lois bit her lip. Initially, she had been so preoccupied with worry about Clark that she hadn't had time to be concerned about her own situation. Now the situation was beginning to look serious, however.
Snatching up a shawl, she left her chamber, following two guards down the corridor. When she left her room, she heard two more guards close in behind her.
Once in the Great Room, she took her place in the defendant's chair while she tried to survey the chamber without betraying that she was doing so. The great hall was thronged with people who were controlled by guards. The King's and Queen's thrones on the raised dais at the end of the room were vacant, but a sizeable armchair had been placed on the top step leading to the thrones. It was on that armchair that Sir Gawain, who was presiding over the proceedings, seated himself.
As the accused, Lois had lost her status as Queen during the trial proceedings, and was not allowed to sit on the throne. Instead, she was forced to sit on an uncomfortable chair placed on raised scaffolding erected just for the occasion. She knew that Clark was trying to institute a new policy — the accused is considered innocent until proven guilty — and she was beginning to think that that would be a good thing.
During his years as King, Clark had managed to effect *some* changes in trial procedure. In the past, if someone had a dispute with the government or anyone else, both sides would use military force to decide who was right. The court would hold a tournament, with each of the disputants hiring a knight to represent them. The knights would battle, and whoever won the tournament won the dispute for his master. Thus, whoever could afford to hire the better fighter would be declared right.
Clark had changed all that. Now, instead of hiring a fighter to decide who was right, both sides would present oral arguments to a court convened of knights selected by the disputants. This court would decide, on the merits of the case, who should win. Only, instead of arguing their cases themselves, the disputants had begun to hire talkers to present their cases for them.
So whoever could afford to hire the speakers most talented at picking a court likely to accept the view of the case that they wished to present, the most talented at twisting and distorting facts to fit their case, and most eloquent at creating a reality that was appealing to the prejudices and backgrounds of the knights who made up the court, would win the dispute. 2
Lois wasn't sure whether this was an improvement or not.
She had hired Sir Gareth, one of Gawain's brothers, to represent her. She had wanted to hire Sir Agravaine, but he apologetically declined on the grounds that he was leading the prosecution against her.
Sir Agravaine was considered to be the more persuasive speaker, but Sir Gareth was a brilliant strategist. Lois had told him nothing about what had happened that night in the stables; Sir Gareth told her it wasn't necessary that he know the truth in order to formulate a valid defense.
He had decided to present a line of defense that opened several possibilities for Lois's innocence:
First, he was going to present the possibility that the man in the loft with her was not Sir Lancelot. The identification of the man himself was uncertain, since it had been too dark in the stable for anyone to see his crest, and Sir Gareth was going to cast doubt on the horse being Lancelot's.
Second, he was going to raise the possibility that the activity that Lois and the unknown man were engaged in was not sex.
Finally, Sir Gareth was going to delicately suggest that Clark had been a cruel and neglectful husband and that if Lois had turned to another man for solace, who could blame her?
He was, of course, going to try to make sure that the knights judging Lois had a significant number of closet anti-royalists who were also feminists. He wanted jurors who didn't believe in the divine right of kings and who thought that death was an inappropriate penalty for a Queen guilty of infidelity, considering that the same penalty didn't apply to the King.
Thus, even if they didn't believe in Lois's innocence, Sir Gareth would be offering them an opportunity to acquit her. They could *pretend* to believe in her innocence so that they could justify a not-guilty verdict in accordance with their beliefs that had nothing to do with her guilt or innocence in this matter.
When Sir Gareth had outlined his strategy, Lois had said dryly, "So the man I was with wasn't Sir Lancelot, or if he was, the reason we were in the loft was because we were playing tiddley-winks, or if we weren't playing tiddly-winks but were engaging in naughty nookie, then in any case there shouldn't be a double standard regarding women's infidelity and to hell with primogeniture because who cares if the next King is a bastard fathered by a man not from the royal line?"
"I wouldn't put it exactly in those words, but … yes. I will, of course, suggest that the man in the loft was perhaps a messenger from your father or sister, and that you had hurried to the stables to meet him in your eagerness to hear the message."
Lois had raised her eyebrows, but offered no further comment on the defense strategy. It was probably the best they could do unless they blew Clark's secret.
Now, as she stood in the Great Hall, Lois came to attention as the bailiff strode to the front of the room, signaling that the proceedings were about to begin. "The trial of Lois Lane, Queen of England, and Sir Lancelot, Knight of the Round Table, will now continue," intoned the bailiff in a solemn voice, and the room began to quieten.
"We'll hear from more of Sir Agravaine's witnesses," said Gawaine, nodding to his brother to begin.
"First I'm going to call Betsy, a scullery maid from the King's kitchen," began Agravaine.
"A scullery maid!" Lois burst out, jumping to her feet. "You can't be serious! What can a scullery maid know about me, or my relationship with my husband … or with anyone else, for that matter!"
"If it please your Highness, to please sit down and-"
"It doesn't please me!" Lois said angrily. "This whole thing is ridiculous. It's nothing but a collection of trumped-up charges. And how can you put Sir Lancelot on trial when he isn't even here to defend himself? I demand that you wait for him … or for the King!"
Sir Gawain looked uncomfortable. "I don't really expect Sir Lancelot to show up, Your Highness," he said. "And it looks like the King is not going to appear, either. In the interests of expediency, we need to bring this trial to a conclusion as soon as possible." Having delivered that message, Sir Gawain set his jaw. There were many, and he was among them, who believed that the King was purposely staying away because, even in spite of Lois's adultery, he was still in love with her and unable to bear the thought of sentencing his beloved wife to death. Sir Gawain was determined to spare his king as much as possible and to that end, was trying to hurry the trial to its conclusion.
"But this whole thing is a travesty!" Lois continued loudly. "We've heard nothing but lies for two days!
"Today we're going to hear from the witnesses who were in the stable," said Sir Gawain, giving her a stern look. "Are you going to say that the testimony of those eighteen men is all lies, too?"
"I'm going to *say* that if anyone thinks that I committed treason-"
A commotion in the hall outside interrupted her, and a heavy-set guard burst into the room. Darting his eyes around the great hall, he approached Sir Gawain, indicating that he had something of importance to relate. "What is it?" asked Gawain. "Speak, man."
"My Lord, it is believed that Sir Lancelot has entered the palace!" said the guard. "His horse, Black Light, has been spotted near the stables-"
"What are you standing there for?" said Gawain sharply. "Send extra guards to the stables at once! If you see him, capture him and bring him here … and tell the men to be careful!" he shouted at the guard's retreating back. He clenched his fists. He would have loved to be out there with them, to be the man to capture Lancelot and bring him to justice. He had once had a great love for the mighty knight, but for the man to have betrayed his country, his lord, and his best friend in the heart-rending manner he had chosen was a crime so heinous that Sir Gawain would have been glad to personally wield the blade that cleaved Sir Lancelot's head.
"Gawain," said Lot sharply, "maybe we should increase the security both here and in Execution Square. Sir Lancelot may have come to Camelot with the intention of snatching the Queen and taking her away to prevent her execution."
"You're right; see that it's done, man." Gawain's face was grave.
Lois had stood quietly while all this was taking place. Her heart had leaped when the guard reported that Lancelot's horse had been spotted; she was almost overcome with relief that Clark was alive. At Lot's words, though, she wondered what Clark's intentions were. Would he indeed come as Sir Lancelot to spirit her away and hide her somewhere? It would be a solution to their current dilemma, perhaps the best solution, since all her cogitations over the past few days had failed to come up with a workable plan.
Clark could continue to visit her in her hidden location if he came in disguise. He could come and see her as Sir Lancelot, if not as the King. Maybe he could take her to a convent — no-! She decided that probably the convent wouldn't approve of conjugal visits. So, no, not a convent. But somewhere else where she could have sanctuary … and where Clark could still come and visit her. It would break both their hearts to be separated like that, but if it was for the good of the country, they would have to do it.
He could, of course, come clean to the English people and reveal that he was Sir Lancelot, but to Lois, that was unthinkable. The people need a hero and if Clark had to stop being Sir Lancelot, which he surely would if his identity were revealed (since the King couldn't go around openly and rescue people, now that the council had declared that he was too valuable to risk in such a manner), then England would lose one of it's most precious symbols of honour and justice.
Swift on the heels of that conclusion, though, came the realisation that if Lancelot spirited her away and hid her, England would be losing its hero just as surely as if they found out that Lancelot and the King were one and the same. How could Lancelot represent honour and justice after he had betrayed the King and his country? No, Clark would have to reveal all in order to save them both. And yet … her heart rebelled at the thought of England losing its hero. She tensed in her chair, bending her mind once again to the task of finding a solution to the problem that had plagued her for days.
Suddenly a mighty shout rose throughout the hall. "The King! It's the King!" The roar intensified, and all eyes turned towards the entrance way to the Great Hall as the doors were flung open. One of the guards marched into the room and shouted, trying to be heard above the tumult, "His Majesty … the King!" Clark walked unsteadily across the threshold and stood there, swaying. He was not wearing the King's armour, nor was he wearing Sir Lancelot's crest; he was dressed in a plain tunic and leggings, clothing that looked as if it might have come a simple yeoman's cottage, as indeed it probably had. He must have taken refuge with one of the forest-dwellers, and then, been too ill to ride back to Camelot all this time.
Her heart twisting, Lois jumped to her feet and tried to run to him, but the bailiff held out an arm, preventing her from leaving the defendant's box. "Clark!" she called. But the crowd's shout had crescendoed into a deafening roar in which Lois's cry was completely swallowed up.
Clark walked haltingly through the crowd, which swiftly parted to let him through. The shouting died away to murmurs as he made his painful progress through the aisle cleared by his subjects. Hushed whispers began to circulate. "He's ill; see how slowly he walks." "The King is not well."
Lois observed his pallor with sinking heart. He looked quite ill; his injuries had certainly been more extensive than the flesh wound in his arm. Her heart in her mouth, she fixed her eyes on him, giving him the most welcoming, gladsome expression she could muster through her worry. Clark was not looking at her, however; he kept his gaze on Sir Gawain as he slowly advanced to the dais.
Gawain, who had jumped up off his chair and knelt as soon as he recognized Clark, got back to his feet and put a supporting arm under Clark's elbow, assisting him up the stairs and over to his throne. As soon as he had been seated, Clark said, still without looking at Lois, "Why isn't my wife seated in her proper place?"
"Sire, Her Highness is-" began Sir Gawaine. He broke off, biting his lip, and gestured to the bailiff to escort Lois to her throne beside the King's. Still, Clark did not look at her.
Lois wondered what Clark was planning to do. If he intended to keep Lancelot's secret, it was risky for him to come to Camelot on Lancelot's horse and to show himself when he was obviously wounded; people were going to make the connection that the two were one and the same. It would have been better if he had worn Sir Lancelot's disguise — but, no, that was impossible. Sir Lancelot would have been arrested, tried, and executed with her. What was Clark planning to do … he wasn't going to reveal his secret, was he? She hoped not; with his appearance, the answer to their dilemma had been revealed to her in a blinding flash. She wished that she could get a chance to talk to him before the proceedings went any further.
She concentrated on Clark's voice when he began speaking again: "Tell me what's going on, Sir Gawaine."
"Your Honour," said Gawaine with a very red face, obviously uncomfortable with the task set before him, "I regret to inform you …" He cleared his throat and then continued, staring straight in front of him and not looking at Clark, "We are conducting a trial to determine if Her Highness, the Queen, committed treason against the Crown."
"She didn't," Clark said shortly.
Lois felt an icy chill go up and down her spine. Clark's voice was so cold … was he mad at her? He hadn't looked at her since he entered the hall. He obviously had the intention of rescuing her from her current dilemma, but he didn't look at all pleased with the situation. She supposed that she should be glad that he wasn't going to let her get convicted of treason, especially since she wasn't guilty, but she wanted some sign from him that his exoneration of her came from more than his sense of justice.
But Clark didn't know that *she* knew that she wasn't guilty, she reminded herself. He must really think that she would cheat on him … that she *had* cheated on him — in her own mind, at least. Maybe he was wondering if she would cheat on him with someone who wasn't really him.
Or maybe he blamed her for causing the demise of Lancelot and the exposure of his secret.
"Sire," Gawaine said gently in response to Clark's assertion, "The Queen's guilt or innocence is what this trial is to decide." He placed a hand on his sword hilt, fidgeting with it nervously. "If Your Honour wishes to be apprized of the evidence that has been given so far, the court can take a recess and continue the trial after you've had a chance to review what has transpired. We can reconvene after-"
"There's no need," said Clark. "I'm dismissing the charges against the Queen."
There was a collective gasp from around the crowded room, and Mordred, the man who had been leading the charges against the Queen, sprang forward. "You can't do that!" he said angrily. "The Queen was caught committing treason in a hayloft with Sir Lancelot, and eighteen witnesses can attest to that fact!" There was another gasp from the crowd and many looked fearfully at Clark's face.
Sir Gawaine spoke sternly to Mordred, "Quiet, man; you're speaking out of turn. That information was to be presented as evidence-"
"But if the King dismisses the charges, the evidence will never be heard-"
"I *am* dismissing the charges," Clark interrupted. "The Queen didn't commit treason." He paused, weighing his words carefully, and added, "I'm the man who was in that hayloft."
A great murmur of voices arose at his declaration, the sound swelling to a high pitch.
Lois bit her lip. Was he planning to reveal that he was Sir Lancelot? Or had he arrived at the same solution to their problem that she had?
"Impossible!" said Mordred. "Sir Lancelot was identified positively. It was Sir Lancelot who was in the loft; he rode away on his own horse." Recalling himself to his surroundings and realising that his tone was not properly respectful of the King, he moderated his voice somewhat and added, "We are aware of Your Highness's great love for your wife, but you are ill and perhaps can't recall recent events very clearly. If you reflect on it, you'll realise that what you just said isn't possible. Sir Lancelot was injured while trying to escape and would have the wound to prove it." It was obvious that Mordred was saying, and not very subtly, that Clark was lying to protect Lois, and a gasp went up among some in the crowd at his audacity.
Clark smiled grimly at Mordred's words and rising to his feet, began to remove his tunic. Since it was obvious that he was having trouble, Sir Gawain sprang to help him, as did Lois. Clark looked at neither of them, although he accepted their help in disrobing.
There was another gasp from the crowd when his wounds were revealed: a slash on each side of his left arm, and another gash in his left side. The injuries looked ugly, as if they were not healing well.
After standing still for a minute, letting everyone look their fill and verify that he had truly been injured by a sword, Clark silently struggled back into his clothing, still not looking at Lois.
Mordred was the first to break the silence that ensued after Clark finished dressing. "The King may have been wounded," he said, addressing the room at large, "but so was Sir Lancelot. He was positively identified that night. He was wearing *his* armor and riding *his* horse-"
"*I* was wearing Lancelot's armour," said Clark. "And *I* was riding Lancelot's horse." At his words the Great Hall became so quiet that one could have heard a banner flutter from the nerveless hand that held it.
"What reason would the King have for doing such a thing?" protested Mordred.
Although it was obvious that it pained him, Clark drew himself to his full height. In a quiet voice which nevertheless carried throughout the Great Hall he said, "The reason I was dressed as Sir Lancelot is because I *am*-"
"-because he had to come to Camelot in disguise," Lois interposed, springing swiftly forward and laying reassuring fingers lightly on Clark's arm.
"What-! What tale is this?" roared Mordred among the general hubbub that arose at Lois's statement.
"It's no tale," said Lois, raising her chin proudly. "The man who was with me in the stables that night was my husband, the King."
"Do you really expect us to believe that?" spat Mordred, forgetting to whom he was speaking. "Why would the King disguise himself as Sir Lancelot? This is a fairy tale made up to cover up your treasonous-"
Clark made a violent movement, but before he could speak, Lois had rushed to the edge of the dais and launched into a tirade against Mordred. After expounding at length on the unfounded charges he had brought against her and England's most honoured knight, she favoured him with her opinion of him, his manners, and his morals, and wound up her diatribe by laying open her suspicions that he was nothing more than one of Lex's cat's-paws and hinting at the dire fate in store for him if he didn't switch his allegiance to the only true King.
Clark had sunk back into his chair when Lois began her homily and he slumped, exhausted, while she continued. Although he winced visibly at her choice of adjectives, there was a gleam of rueful amusement in his eye. He was glad she was spewing that vitriol at Mordred and not himself, and hoped that she would wear herself out on that traitor; if she did so, hopefully she wouldn't have any energy left to start on *him*. Much as he loved her, even in full rant mode, he didn't think that he was up to listening to her harangue him about keeping his secret from her — at least, not today.
He wondered if she had figured out yet that he really *was* Sir Lancelot, or if she was just playing along and following his lead. If she didn't know the truth yet, she would learn it soon, and he just hoped that she wouldn't hate him for everything he had put her through. She certainly had reason to do so. Not only had he concealed his secret life from her, but he had let her audibly idolize Sir Lancelot without revealing that Sir Lancelot was himself, and — the crowning indignity — he had made love to her in the persona of the knight.
Add to all that the fact that she had been brought up on treasonous charges because of his ill-judged act in making love to her in the stable that night. He judged that Lois had plenty of reasons never to speak to him again.
He cursed the impulse that had led him to continue his deception after they were married (his stubborn pride!) … and still more did he curse the impulse that had led him to make love to her as Sir Lancelot. If he had not done so, this would never have happened.
But he really couldn't regret what they had done that night. Freed of her inhibitions, Lois had proven to be every bit as fiery and passionate as he had always dreamed that she would be.
Watching her slender form while she continued her animadversions on Sir Mordred, he lapsed into memories of that wonderful night, and as he did so, some of the color came back into his face.
He was brought back to awareness of the present circumstances by the hushed stillness that fell on the gathering when Lois completed her speech. It was Sir Gawain who dared to break the silence. "Your Highness," he said, bowing to Lois with great deference, "With all due respect, I would like to point out that Sir Mordred had a reasonable question: why did the King and Sir Lancelot switch places? Not that I'm questioning that they did so," he added hastily to quell the returning fury in Lois's eye, "if His Highness the King and you both attest to it, that's good enough for me … but I'm sure we are all wondering why the King in his great wisdom deemed such a thing necessary."
Clark glanced quickly at Lois, but she didn't look at all disconcerted. "If you would all just *listen* to me, instead of jumping in and asserting that it couldn't possibly be true," she looked pointedly at Sir Mordred, "you'll find out." Seeing that she had their attention, she took a deep breath and commenced with the cover story she had just concocted.
"The King, as you well know, was away on business in the village of Caer Wyn. What you *didn't* know is that Sir Lancelot was out of the country — and still is." She smiled with satisfaction at the murmur of astonishment that arose at her words. "The King has sent him on a mission … a holy mission of such secrecy that even now I'm not at liberty to reveal what it is."
"Your Highness," said Sir Mordred, his tone noticeably more deferential towards Lois than it had been a few minutes previously, "that still doesn't explain why the King assumed Sir Lancelot's guise and returned to Camelot."
"Are you going to let me finish, or not??" said Lois crankily. Clark grinned openly. "While in Caer Wyn, the King discovered that the dispute he had gone there to settle was fake." Lois paused and noted with satisfaction that Mordred looked distinctly taken aback.
Behind her, Clark was gazing up at Lois with a gleam of admiration. So she, too, had discovered that the dispute was bogus! He had found that out himself, but he wouldn't have dreamed it possible that Lois could have done so, too.
He could see that he had vastly underrated her. He was going to have to appoint her as chief investigator for the Court. That is, he reminded himself glumly, if she was still speaking to him when this was all over.
Lois continued: "The King realised that the phony dispute in Caer Wyn must be a decoy, to lure him away from Camelot."
From Mordred's expression, Clark could see that the King wasn't the only one who was in the process of revising his opinion of Lois.
"The King decided to return to the palace secretly," Lois went on, "and the best way to do that and gain entry through the gates was to disguise himself as Lancelot. He had already sent word to me that he was coming and I went to the stables to meet him. As for what happened next … I … well, I guess I had missed my husband while he was gone …" She lowered her head to hide her blushes while a murmur of amusement swept through the room.
Clark relaxed somewhat, relieved by the crowd's reaction. They liked the picture that Lois was painting of a woman rushing to the stables to greet the husband she had been longing for. They *wanted* to believe it was true. There might be hope yet for keeping Lancelot's secret.
But Sir Mordred wasn't through yet. "Your Highness," he protested, "the King was seen in Caer Wyn that very day; he could not possibly have made it back to Camelot by nightfall."
Clark tensed involuntarily, but Lois offered a quick reply. "Who says that the King was seen in Caer Wyn?" she challenged Mordred. "Lex's pawns?" She fixed her eye on him and it could be seen that the knight had nothing to say. The disputants at Caer Wyn, having already been exposed as deceivers, would not be believed — even though, in this instance, they were actually telling the truth.
We've won, thought Clark exultantly, surveying the Great Hall. Not that there was any question that he was going to dismiss the charges against Lois; he had made that clear already — but he found it cheering that the people appeared to be fully prepared to believe Lois's story, thus exonerating her in their minds as well as in the eyes of the law.
He looked at Sir Mordred and was satisfied to see that the knight looked stymied. Funny, though, how far away Sir Mordred looked all of a sudden. In fact, the whole room looked farther away. He sank lower in his chair.
Sir Gawain strode to the front of the dais and respectfully taking Lois's arm, led her back to her seat. Once she had been seated, he turned to the gathering. "Well, men," he bellowed, "ye've heard the Queen's explanation … ye've seen the King's wounds … and ye've heard the King's pronouncement: ALL CHARGES AGAINST THE QUEEN ARE DISMISSED!"
The crowd erupted.
But somehow their shouts seemed very far away to Clark. He was dimly aware of a commotion at the doorway, and he heard a well-loved voice calling, "My boy! Where's my boy?" Immediately followed by a female voice: "My son is hurt; I demand to see him at once!" There was a scuffle and Clark watched helplessly while a diminutive woman beat back one of the guards, winning passage through the crowd only after she had been recognized.
"It's the King's foster parents! Make way for Sir Jonathan and Lady Martha of Kent!" A path opened through the cheering crowd and within seconds his parents were hovering over him while he sank still lower. He felt himself slipping out of their hands.
Lois, he thought, where's Lois? She must be mad at me … of course she's mad at me … can't blame her … love her … Lois …
Sharp, stabbing pain, followed by a burning sensation, and then something cool flowing over the hurt. Soothing, healing. And then wrapped in something warm and soft.
The pain eased. He became aware that he was lying down, and that someone was holding his hand. It felt good, that hand. He relished the clasp of the fingers against his skin.
Voices, speaking softly. At first he couldn't understand what they were saying, but when he concentrated, the indistinguishable murmurs diverged, forming into words.
"How is he?" His mother's voice, slightly tremulous. Mom … he thought, warmed by her presence.
"He should be more comfortable, now that I've dressed his wound. I've applied a poultice to draw out the poison." Clark opened his eyes and blinked, startled at the bright light that was blinding him. The light wouldn't stay still, but kept whirling in dizzying circles. He brought all his will to bear on making the light stop, and as he focused, the light steadied and sharpened, revealing itself to be a torch that the physician's assistant was holding over him. It was the court physician who was speaking, his voice grave.
"Is he going to be all right?" His father, standing off to one side. Clark tried to turn his head to look at him, but quickly found that that was a mistake since the room began moving in dizzying circles again. He closed his eyes. He had seen enough to know that he was lying on the bed in his bedchamber. It had been a long time since he had lain in that bed. Not since he married Lois … He bit his lip.
"He's awake!" His mother's voice again. "How do you feel? Clark?" Her voice was sharp with concern.
"Mom," he said. At least, that's what he tried to say, but it came out more like "Mmmmph."
"Clark, look at me," commanded his mother.
"Martha, give the boy some time," his father protested.
Clark opened his eyes and was relieved that this time the room remained steady. "Mom, when did you come to Camelot?" he asked. His father made a sound while his mother gasped in relief. The hand holding his tightened and he closed his eyes again.
"Is he going to be all right?" Martha asked the physician.
The doctor stroked his beard thoughtfully while he formulated a reply. This was the first time he had ever been called to attend the King and he was conscious of the responsibility entailed. "The wound itself isn't that serious," he said cautiously, "but it got infected somehow. If the poison leaves him and the injuries heal properly, he should be all right." Martha and Jonathan sighed thankfully, but the Queen's sharp eyes that were fastened on him told him that she hadn't been fooled a bit by the equivocation in his reply. What he had essentially said was that if the King recovered, then he would recover, a meaningless statement. And Lois Lane knew it.
The physician thought that this would be a prudent time to withdraw, and he did so, beckoning to his assistant to follow. "We'll let nature take its course," he pronounced before he exited, avoiding the Queen's sardonic gaze.
Oblivious to the by-play that had just gone on over his head, Clark opened his eyes again.
"Clark, how did you get wounded?" asked Martha. "How is it possible? You've never been hurt before!"
"Never been hurt before!" echoed Lois. "What do you mean?"
Ah, so Lois was here. A wave of warmth swept over Clark. He managed to turn his head enough to look at her. She was gazing at him with unshed tears in her eyes and she didn't look at all as if she hated him. It was she who was holding his hand. His fingers quivered involuntarily in her palm, and she gripped his hand convulsively.
"Are you going to be all right, Clark?"
"How can he know that, Martha? He's never been hurt before. Even the doctor doesn't know. What he said-"
"I heard him," snapped Martha. "And of course he doesn't know. How can he know anything about our boy? No one does."
"I doubt if Clark knows either, then, so it's no use asking him. How are you feeling, son?"
"What do you mean, he's never been hurt before?" Lois repeated.
"Because of his invulnerability," Martha said, removing her eager gaze from her son for an instant. "What do you think, Clark? What happened?" She gave Lois a closer look. "He did tell you about his invulnerability, didn't he?" At the bafflement in Lois's face, she looked back at Clark again. "Clark?"
"No," Clark managed weakly. "I didn't tell her."
"But … she must have been so worried." There was a look in his mother's eye that he didn't like, and Clark squirmed. "With you spending half your time careening around the countryside as Sir Lancelot-"
"He didn't tell me that, either," interrupted Lois. "But I knew anyway," she added hastily, thinking of their interlude in the hayloft. "I figured it out."
Clark switched his gaze to Lois. She knew. So that night in the stable …
He swallowed. Impossible.
Martha looked from one to the other. "You didn't tell her that you were Lancelot? She had to figure it out? What were you thinking, Clark?"
"Now, Martha, whatever our boy did or didn't do, I'm sure he had his reasons," Jonathan defended his son. He put his arm around his wife's shoulders. "What I want to know is, what happened to him … why did he lose his invulnerability? Do you know, Clark?"
"No," said Clark weakly. "I lost my super powers, too."
"Lost your-?" Martha said, and at the same time, Lois said, "Super powers??"
Jonathan glanced from Lois's puzzled face to Clark's drawn one, then looked significantly at Martha. "Why don't you and I go to our rooms now?" he suggested. "We can figure this all out tomorrow."
Martha looked like she was about to say something, but she changed her mind. She bent to give Clark a kiss on the forehead and whisper that she loved him.
"We'll see you tomorrow, Clark. Lois," said Jonathan.
"Sleep well," said Martha. "You'll feel better in the morning," she added optimistically.
Left alone, Lois and Clark looked at each other. "Clark-" "Lois-" they said at the same time.
"Lois, I'm so sorry," said Clark, squeezing her hand and looking up at her contritely. "For everything I've put you through. If I had told you about Sir Lancelot, none of this would have happened — the accusations against you, the trial. But I swear to you that I had no idea that you had been charged with treason. I came as soon as I heard."
"I know," said Lois softly. "And as sick as you are …" She wrapped both her hands around his and raised his hand to her lips, kissing it tenderly.
Clark closed his eyes briefly. "There's so much I have to tell you," he said when he could open them again. "The super powers …"
"What are 'super powers?'" asked Lois. "Oh, never mind that now," she said, believing that it was probably some Kentian euphemism, like 'invulnerability,' for Lancelot's much-vaunted prowess with arms. "I just want to know-"
"I'll tell you everything," Clark promised. "About me, about Lancelot …"
"Why didn't you tell me?" Lois interrupted. "That you were Lancelot?"
A flush mounted to Clark's face. "I was going to tell you right after we got married," he said shame-facedly. "But you were always talking about Lancelot, how decent he was and how good … you had built him up into such a perfect person, and I didn't think I could ever measure up to him. And … I guess … I wanted you to love *me* as much as you loved that imaginary knight."
Lois maintained a thoughtful silence for several minutes. "I did love you, Clark," she said finally. "I just wouldn't allow myself to see it. I guess it's because of what happened with Claude, the man who trifled with me — I told you about him." Clark nodded, his brow darkening, and Lois went on. "I pretty much gave up on men after that," she said. "But when I met Sir Lancelot, he seemed different. The one perfect man. A man with no faults, a completely pure and perfect human being totally devoted to performing acts of disinterested good. A man who didn't experience the lesser human emotions of hate and greed and lust, only the good ones of love, compassion, and devotion." Lois took a breath before continuing.
"That changed on the night that he — you — kissed me. After that night, I learned that Lancelot was human. After you kissed me, I wondered sometimes if he wasn't just taking advantage of the situation. After all, you thought that I had told him that I loved him."
Clark frowned. "*Thought* you told him …?" he said, trying to follow this narrative, with all its mixed pronouns.
"When I heard your voice asking me if I was all right, I recognized it as *your* voice, Clark's," Lois explained. "I was horrified when Melwas shone the torch in the room and I saw that it was Sir Lancelot and not my husband."
"Ahhh …" Clark collapsed back against the pillows, overcome with relief. "So that's why … You thought it was me …"
"Anyway, after that night, which, incidentally, was when I first realised how deeply I had fallen in love with you-" she squeezed his hand, and Clark smiled in bewildered gratification, "I started to see then that he was a real man. Like you told me once, 'he could be anybody.' Only, of course, he was still kinder than most. More caring. More dedicated to making the world a better place."
"Lois-" said Clark.
"You, on the other hand," Lois continued as if she hadn't been interrupted, "I always knew that you were human, and I simply assumed that you had all the usual human failings of men. It wasn't until I got to know you that I started to realize that I was wrong. Oh, you were human, all right, you *are* human, but you're more than that. Kinder and more caring than any man I have met in my whole life-"
"Lois …" said Clark, squirming in a mixture of embarrassment and pleasure at the unaccustomed praise.
"When I saw you that night at the stables, I thought that it was you again, not Sir Lancelot. And then suddenly — I don't know how — I knew that it *was* you, *and* Sir Lancelot." She gazed down at him tenderly.
Clark let out his breath in a long sigh. "Uh …" he said helplessly.
"I love you," she told him. "Both of you."
"Lois … I can't believe you're taking it like this," he told her. "You should be mad at me … should want to kill me or something."
"I probably will … later," Lois confessed. "But right now … I've been so worried about you that I'm just glad to have you back." She knelt beside the bed and rested her forehead on his good shoulder.
She didn't hate him, she loved him. She forgave him for everything he had done, for embroiling her in a treason court case. She was smart, she was beautiful, she was his wife. And when she made love with all her heart, she was … unbelievable.
He should tell her more about himself, about his invulnerability — er, his former invulnerability — and about his secret powers.
But her dark hair was falling over his hand, the wisp-light touch tantalizing him. And the memory of the feel of her soft skin under his fingers was making him long to touch her again. And the ghost of images from that wild night in the stables was driving him mad …
"Make love to me, Lois," he whispered. He was still holding onto her hand and he tugged at it now, seeking to pull her onto the bed.
"We can't! You're too sick," said Lois, gently resisting him.
"I'm not sick," insisted Clark.
His eyes were burning with an intensity that Lois found hard to resist. She shook off the feeling his gaze evoked in her, out of concern for his condition. "How can you even be *thinking* about that at a time like this!" she said, half-laughing, half-exasperated.
"I'm thinking about it," he assured her.
"We'll wait until you feel better and then-"
"I'm feeling better *now*," Clark interrupted. "And I'll feel even better after we've made love." He began struggling to sit up.
"Clark!" cried Lois in real alarm. "Don't try to get up. You need to rest." She laid a hand on his head, seeking to push him back. His skin felt hot to her touch and his eyes were sunken deep within hollow sockets.
"I want to hold you," said Clark.
"You can hold me," said Lois. Quickly she drew back the covers and slipped into the bed beside him, snuggling up gently against his good side.
"I love you," said Clark, slipping his good arm under her head. "I've loved you from the first moment I saw you. You were standing there beside your horse, surrounded by those thugs. You, a small, unarmed woman, were standing up so bravely to a ruthless gang of thieves and murderers. You didn't love me then, but-"
"Yes, I did," protested Lois. "I loved you, too, Clark."
"-but at that moment I knew that I loved you."
"I *did* love you, Clark, I *did* love you! Don't you remember that I told you — the King — that I loved Sir Lancelot? And he's *you*."
"He's not me," protested Clark
"Yes, he is," said Lois firmly.
"But you didn't love *me* … you just loved *him* — okay, you just loved *that side* of me. And I've been waiting for you to love me so I could make love to you and now you do love me, so-"
"When you're better, Clark," said Lois, laughing as she pushed his wandering hand away. "And anyway, we already made love that night in the stables, remember? I loved you then."
"But it wasn't me, it was Sir-"
"*I* knew that it was you-"
"*I* didn't know it," said Clark stubbornly. "I didn't know you knew. It's not the same. I want to make love to you with you knowing and me knowing you know." He rolled onto his side, wincing a little from the pain.
"No, Clark, lie down …" said Lois breathlessly, trying to get him to lie on his back again. She was desperate to stop him from doing something that she was sure was beyond his strength. She wondered fleetingly if she should go and get his mother. But the Kents had traveled a long way and were doubtless enjoying a well-deserved rest.
Clark had removed his good arm from beneath her head and was fumbling with her clothing. In his feverishness, he seemed determined to accomplish his goal. "Clark," she said again, "If you lie still, I'll do that … that thing that the village wise woman showed me."
"Is that the … what you were doing the other night? Before I went away to Caer Wyn?" asked Clark, showing signs of interest in complying with her request at last.
"Yes. Now lie back down. That's it. Good. I'll just-oomph!" The last was said as Clark suddenly snatched her and pulled her down onto his chest. Shifting his grip to the back of her head, he drew her up and kissed her. "Stop that!" said Lois crossly, trying to push herself away.
"Kiss me, Lois," said Clark huskily. "… like you love me."
"I *do* love you," said Lois quickly. She hastened to demonstrate, taking his face between her hands and pressing warm kisses to his lips.
"I want to make love to you," said Clark for the third time. He began nuzzling behind her ear.
"Yes …" said Lois breathlessly. She stroked her hand gently through his hair. "But you mustn't strain yourself. Shh-" she said as Clark began to protest. "We'll figure something out."
"Yes," said Clark, satisfied at last, "-figure something out."
Clark's attendant, Ban, knocked at the door of the King's chamber. Receiving no answer, he opened it a crack and peered cautiously inside. What he saw brought a smile to his lips. Clark was lying on his back with one arm around Lois. He looked exhausted, but content. Lois was snuggled up to his good side and they were both fast asleep.
The retainer approached the bed quietly, creeping on silent feet. The lovers were mostly covered, but their shoulders were bare. Reaching down a silent hand, Ban gently pulled the quilt up to their necks, then withdrew from the room as silently as he had entered.
He was smiling when he made his way down the hall to the servants' quarters. There were those who said that the King was lying about being in the stables that night, that he had wounded himself with his own sword in order to save the Queen's honour, but he, Ban, knew better. While he had no doubt that the King wouldn't hesitate to inflict such a wound on himself to protect his beloved wife, he knew quite well that in this case there had been no need. It was unthinkable that the lady would ever contemplate being unfaithful to her husband; it was obvious that she loved him. Ban had known that from the day when Lady Lois had burst into the King's bedchamber so unceremoniously. Only a woman deeply in love, who knows that she is loved herself, would have had the confidence to intrude into the King's private quarters so freely.
She had shown her love for the King many times and in many different ways since then, too. Ban had often noticed the soft expression in her dark eyes when she looked at him. He had seen how frequently she had touched the King, had patted, stroked, and fondled his arms, shoulders, and chest. If the lady had been any woman other than the Queen, he would have said in vulgar parlance that she couldn't keep her hands off him!
No, the uninitiated could speculate as freely as they liked, but as for people in the know, they would smile wisely and say nothing at all.
In the room that Ban had just left, Clark stirred and opened his eyes. He had just had a dream in which Lois told him that she loved him, and then he had awakened to find Lois nestled against his side. Using his good arm, he tightened his hold and pulled her closer. After dropping a kiss on the top of her head, he closed his eyes and sighed. The sigh was one of pure contentment.
With thanks — and apologies — to Mary Stewart and T.H. White, whose re-telling of the King Arthur story brought the legend to life and served as inspiration for this story. Thanks also to, of course, Thomas Malory. :)
Melwas's abduction of Guinevere in Stewart's *The Last Enchantment* gave me the idea for the Melwas/Lois abduction, although my account varied considerably from Stewart's. Stewart's source was a medieval romance: Lancelot by Chretien de Troyes.
1. <<"As Lois McMaster Bujold once said, or rather, will have said, 'The key of strategy … is not to choose *a* path to victory, but to choose so that *all* paths lead to a victory.'" >>
The quote is from Lois McMaster Bujold's novel "The Vor Game." (Thanks Pam, for getting me started on reading Bujold's fantastic series. :) In this line, I'm parodying T.H. White's character Merlin. White's Merlin had the ability to see into the future and was always getting confused about which events had already occurred and which would happen in the future. Consequently, he would often slip up and refer to future events as if they had already happened and then he would correct himself. No copyright infringement is intended.
2. << During his years as King, Clark had managed to effect *some* changes in trial procedure. In the past, if someone had a dispute with the government or anyone else, both sides would use military force to decide who was right. The court would hold a tournament, with each of the disputants hiring a knight to represent them. The knights would battle, and whoever won the tournament won the dispute for his master. Thus, whoever could afford to hire the better fighter would be declared right.
Clark had changed all that. Now, instead of hiring a fighter to decide who was right, both sides would present oral arguments to a court convened of knights selected by the disputants. This court would decide, on the merits of the case, who should win. Only, instead of arguing their cases themselves, the disputants had begun to hire talkers to present their cases for them.
So whoever could afford to hire the speakers most talented at picking a court likely to accept the view of the case that they wished to present, the most talented at twisting and distorting facts to fit their case, and most eloquent at creating a reality that was appealing to the prejudices and backgrounds of the knights who made up the court, would win the dispute. >>
This section was inspired by White's expression of how money can buy "justice." No copyright infringement is intended.