Perennials: The Shield in the Flame
 
This is the first of my stories for the open source fandom The Ursulan Cycle, which is a genderswapped King Arthur. This is the same world as the May 2016 Patreon story, The Stranger Knight. Read more stories and poems set in this fandom here!

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“Wake up, Little Bear!”

Something large and heavy hit Ursula on the side. She didn’t even have to wake up all the way to know what it was: her older sister, Kate, who was up earlier than she was as usual, jumping on her in the bed. She grumbled and tried to draw the featherbed up over her face to shut out the light and, hopefully, Kate’s voice.

“Not today, Ursula!” Kate grabbed the featherbed and tore it out of Ursula’s grasping fingers. “Did you forget where we are? It’s tournament day!”

Ursula blinked in the light from the rising sun, but the reminder did make her sit up, though sleep still dragged at her eyes and limbs. “I did forget,” she said. “I was dreaming about… oh, something. It’s forgotten now.”

“Well, get up!” Kate hauled Ursula out of the bed—despite the fact that Ursula was trained as a knight and Kate had always been more interested in magic than physical prowess, she was strong enough to make her little sister do what she wanted. Part of that came from her somewhat extraordinary height and part of it came from the fact that she was a few years older. Ursula had always figured that was just what came from having an older sister and bore it with good grace.

“Mother won’t let us miss Mass,” Kate said as she helped Ursula into her clothing—one of the reasons Ursula didn’t usually mind Kate’s tendency to make her do what she wanted; she always helped, too—“and there’s to be a feast after that. Then the tourney starts! There will be jousting and magical duels! You don’t want to miss <i>those</i>, do you?”

Ursula grinned. She was awake enough now to remember that Kate was scheduled to duel Falcon the conjuror, supposed to be old King Uthyr’s greatest magician, as part of the tourney. Even though she was barely old enough to be considered a woman, Ursula’s sister was vain enough to think she could beat Falcon. And it would be glorious for their family if she did. Ursula would be cheering for her sister the whole time. “I don’t know,” she teased as her sister combed the tangles out of her hair. “Magical duels? That sounds boring. I mean, it’s not like anybody really good will be there.”

Kate smacked her lightly with the comb. “There, your hair is done. Let’s get our shoes on.”

Ursula jumped to where her shoes were waiting and quickly laced them on. At home she would dress in hand-me-down tunics and stockings most of the time, but for the tourney in the great city of London, she’d packed fine gowns and embroidered slippers. They weren’t her favorite clothing, but she did enjoy dressing up sometimes. And at least they laced up more quickly than the sensible boots Kate needed to keep herself from losing her footing while dueling.

She leapt up before Kate had finished getting her boots on. “Race you to the church!” Leaving Kate’s howl of protest behind, she took off running, out the door of their inn and down the hall of the fine inn where they were staying.

She was laughing until the floor seemed to disappear beneath her foot and she fell, her skirts tangling all about her feet. Damn these slippery shoes! Kate must have been right behind her, because she tripped over Ursula and went sprawling. They both shrieked with laughter until they heard their mother’s voice booming at them from the next room.

“Girls! Comport yourselves with a little dignity! I am ashamed of you. What if Falcon the conjuror should see you now? She would never deign to duel with you when you are so low.”

Kate’s laughter immediately stopped and she flushed. Sir Electra had found exactly the way to get her to calm herself. Ursula immediately felt bad, too. It was, after all, her fault. She struggled to her feet and reached down to help her sister up before brushing off her own dress. Kate wouldn’t accept her help, however, so she just turned to their mother.

“I’m sorry, Mother. Don’t blame Kate—it’s my fault. I tried to get her to race.”

“And she was quite difficult to convince, I see,” said Electra dryly. She was allowed to wear knightly clothing to the tourney; of course, she had been one of King Uthyr’s most favored knights. She had declared that she wouldn’t joust today, but seeing how she had dressed, Ursula wasn’t so sure. “Well, brush yourself off, girls. If you can behave yourselves throughout Mass, I may just let each of you have a little pocket money for the fair tonight.”

Ursula immediately bit her tongue and began to brush herself off. Thankfully, it had been a clean floor already—probably the reason she’d slipped on it—so there wasn’t much to brush off. Then she quietly and meekly followed her mother and Kate out to Mass.

As Ursula had expected, her mother did allow her friends to convince her to take a turn at the jousting tourney. She acquitted herself well, even if she didn’t win. Of course, she was older than many of the other knights, old enough to have a knightly daughter herself. But Kate didn’t joust, and much as Ursula would have liked to try it, she wasn’t old enough yet. Maybe there would be another tourney in a few years that she could join in on.

She did have a hazy idea of the purpose of this particular tourney in London. Her mother had tried to hide it from her, for some reason, but everyone knew that there had been a lot of fighting since King Uthyr’s death almost ten years ago. They thought that maybe by establishing the knights of greatest valor at a tourney, everyone would be able to agree on one king. She could hear people muttering about it even now, wondering whether this or that valiant knight could ever live up to the example of Uthyr. Ursula shook her head to herself. Fighting wouldn’t prove who would make the best king. Even if the best fighter was the best person to be king, that wouldn’t make people actually agree.

Finally, it was time for the magical duels, and Ursula left the audience with Kate to help her get ready. She had a pouch of magical materials that she would draw from during the duel, and she poured it all out on a table. “Feathers, quartz crystal, knife… oh, no!” she gasped.

“What is it?” Ursula asked, looking at the things on the table. It looked like plenty to her—and plenty arcane. Magic was interesting, but she’d never had much of a head for it.

“I’ve forgotten to bring a mirror,” Kate groaned. “I can’t duel without a mirror. I must have left it at home. Little Bear, won’t you be a dear and find one for me? Someone must have an extra.”

“What do you need a mirror for?”

“To send spells through and deflect them,” Kate said impatiently. “<I>Please</i>, Little Bear. I can’t go running off on my own. They’ll think I abandoned the duel.”

“Of course I’ll find you a mirror,” Ursula said, and she immediately ran outside in search of one. But she was focusing on her slippers, trying not to fall again—it was dusty out here—and must have made a wrong turn. She didn’t come out among the audience, but in an abandoned alleyway, and she couldn’t find her way back to their mother or anyone else who might have a mirror.

She sighed and began to pick her way along the street, the only way she could go, though it looked less and less like the right direction. Just when she was about to give up and turn back, she bumped a door open and turned, startled, to see what was inside.

There was a beautiful, fragrant garden, blooming in despite of the hot, dry weather—but what was even more mysterious than that, there was a cave behind the garden. Just a small one, but big enough for her to step into, and someone had obviously protected it on purpose. And there was something glinting inside…

This was probably a conjuror’s den. But it hadn’t been locked. And that meant there had to be a mirror in there, right? Well, maybe they wouldn’t mind if Kate borrowed their mirror. After all, she just needed it for one duel. And Ursula would put it right back. She felt a little bad, but something about the cave was drawing her.

She stepped into the cave.

Inside was a beautiful, shining silver mirror, hanging behind a flame. This had to belong to a conjuror. Maybe even Falcon herself—though why she would have left it here when she had duels to fight, Ursula had no idea. But it would be perfect for Kate. She could send and deflect all kinds of spells!

She reached in for the mirror. The flame must have been magical, because it didn’t burn her. The mirror was heavier than it looked, and when she brought it out, she was surprised at its size—it could have been used as a shield. But that would be good for magic, right? It wasn’t as though she had time to look for another mirror, anyway, so she clutched it to herself and dashed back off the way she’d come.

At least it was easy to find her way back. There was only one path. She burst in to Kate’s changing room, panting a little from carrying the heavy mirror—it was awkward to carry this way, though it did look as though there was a place to attach a handle. “I found one,” she said.

Kate turned with a smile on her lips, but the smile died and her eyes widened when she saw that. “Ursula, where did you find that?”

“Not far away,” Ursula said uncomfortably. “It wasn’t—it wasn’t protected or anything. I’ll put it back when you’re done.”

Kate shook her head, taking a few slow steps backward. Ursula felt her grip on the mirror falter. Had it been that wrong to take it? Kate’s face was turning pale. But she wasn’t saying anything. What was Ursula supposed to do?

Kate had reached the entrance to the tent. Without fully turning away from Ursula, she put her face to the opening and shouted, “Mother!”

“You needn’t shout,” came their mother’s voice, only a few feet away. “I’m coming. I knew you couldn’t—“ She stopped stock still when she saw Ursula. Now both her mother and her sister were staring at her, and she was growing even more uncomfortable. “No,” whispered Electra. “I didn’t think it was the right time yet.”

“I’ll put it back,” said Ursula, completely confused now.

“No,” said Electra, taking a swift step forward and grasping Ursula’s arm. “No—but wait here a moment. Kate, go fetch Falcon. And Sir Brandigen, if you can find her.”

“Falcon?” Kate said, doubt in her face and voice. “But—oh. Yes, of course.”

“You can’t give up your duel because of me!” Ursula tried to shout, but Kate was already gone, her long legs bringing her swiftly out of speaking range. Ursula could hear the crowd outside, obviously wondering what was taking so long for their entertainment to begin. Ursula was wondering, too.

After a few minutes in which she and her mother waited in silence, Falcon the conjuror herself swept in through the tent opening, followed closely by Kate and Brandigen, an old friend of their mother’s from when they were both at King Uthyr’s court. Ursula had just enough time to marvel at Falcon’s gorgeous, many-colored clothing before she seized the shield—though still keeping it close to Ursula’s body. Then she let out a long sigh and smiled.

Well, at least someone was smiling.

“It’s time,” Falcon said to Electra.

“But—“ Electra looked terrified. “She’s only nineteen! She’s not even a knight yet!”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Falcon. “She found it. If we wait, there will just be even more doubt.” She turned back to Ursula and looked directly into her eyes. “Allow me to be the first to pledge fealty to you, Queen Ursula.” And as Ursula gaped, Falcon knelt at her feet.

She looked around in a mute appeal for help to the others in the room. Kate smiled at her, but her eyes were sad. “Read what it says on the shield.”

So it was a shield? Confused, Ursula turned it around so she could see the shiny front of it. Her eyes opened with astonishment. There hadn’t been writing on it when she’d pulled it out of the cave! Hesitantly, she read out loud. “Whosoever shall draw this shield from out of the flame shall be known, now and henceforth, as the rightful ruler of all our land.”

When she looked up again, Electra and Brandigen had both knelt to her, as well. Kate rolled her eyes, then did the same. Ursula felt like she could hardly breathe. “But—but I can’t be! Get up, everyone, please, you can’t kneel to me! Mother, you mustn’t—“

“I am not your true mother,” said Electra, her voice remarkably calm. “You are the true-born daughter of King Uthyr and Queen Igraine, who gave you into my keeping when you were very small. You had to be protected from the people who wanted to steal your throne.”

Ursula turned to Kate, who was the only one without her head bowed. “I’ve known for a while that you weren’t my natural sister,” said Kate. “But you’re still my sister in every way that counts. Don’t forget that.”

“But—“ Ursula said, trying to come up with more objections, because there was no way this could actually be true. “But no one knows who King Uthyr’s heir is! Isn’t that what all the fighting has been about?”

“A few people have known who the heir is,” said Falcon. “I have. Your foster mother. And Sir Brandigen. We’ve kept it a secret for your sake. But now the time for keeping secrets is over.”

“But—“ Ursula was afraid she was going to cry, and wouldn’t that be embarrassing, just when they were telling her it was time to be an adult? “Why didn’t anyone ever <i>tell</i> me?”

“Would you have believed us?” asked Electra, finally lifting her head.

“I don’t believe you now,” said Ursula stubbornly.

Electra smiled. “Yes, you do, or you wouldn’t be asking why we didn’t tell you. But—Falcon,” she said suddenly, turning to the conjuror. “She said it wasn’t protected. Could your protections have failed?”

“Perhaps,” said Falcon, raising her head. “Where did you find it, Ursula?”

“There was a door,” Ursula said hesitantly. “It just opened when I bumped it. There was a really beautiful garden inside, with a cave in the middle. And I thought—but—“ She stopped, confused again. Obviously, the mirror hadn’t belonged to a conjuror, and she wasn’t going to have to put it back.

“You thought there was a mirror inside, right?” said Kate. “I sent her to find me a mirror, since I didn’t have one for the duel. I didn’t know this existed.”

“Inside the cave was a flame,” said Falcon calmly. “And behind the flame was a mirror, as you supposed. Is that correct?”

Ursula nodded. “But I thought it was a magical flame, because it didn’t hurt.”

“It is a magical flame, and that’s why it didn’t hurt you, but it would have hurt anyone else who tried to reach past it,” said Falcon. “That’s what it was there for. Well, there you are, Electra. All my protections were in place, and they did their job.”

Electra bowed her head in assent. They were all silent for a moment, Ursula noticing how sweaty her hands were as she clutched the shield. Then Brandigen raised her head and smiled. “There’s no point in having a ruler if no one knows about it. We’re going to have to announce her.”

Electra sighed, and they all stood. Falcon strode out of the tent, Electra and Brandigen following. Kate put her hands on Ursula’s shoulders. “Come on,” she said. “May as well get it over with.” And they followed the others out to the dueling arena.

Ursula saw Falcon touch her throat, and when she spoke, her voice was magnified to be heard by everyone in the stands. “People of Britain!” she cried. “Many years have we been without a rightful ruler! But now one has been restored to us! The shield has been drawn from the flame. I present to you—Queen Ursula!”

Completely to Ursula’s surprise, she felt strong hands on her waist, and she was lifted up to sit on Kate’s shoulders. “Lift up the shield!” Electra called to her, and she did so that it caught the sun.

There was a cheer from the stands, but it cut off quickly. Then there was a rumbling, and then everything started to move as people rose from their seats.

“Surround her, you three,” said Falcon. “Let them see her but not get to her. We must be on guard for Saxons in the audience—not to mention other people who might want the throne.”

Kate, Electra, and Brandigen surrounded her. Kate didn’t have a sword, but Ursula knew with her height and her glower, she could look highly intimidating when she wanted to. She swallowed, clutched the shield, and prepared for the onslaught.

There were many, many questions asked during that day and the rest of the evening. Falcon tried to answer all of them. Some people were satisfied by Falcon’s belief that Ursula was the true daughter of Uthyr and Igraine; some people thought she was lying, or had been tricked. Eventually, they brought Ursula back to the cave so she could prove her ability to reach through the flame. Then other knights and warriors had to line up so that they could try it, too, and prove that Ursula was the only one who could do it. It was exhausting. And she didn’t think, even when everyone left for their homes and inns, that they were all satisfied.

Finally, Falcon took her elbow. “Will you follow me, Your Highness?”

Ursula swallowed. “I suppose I’d better. Where are we going?”

“To Uthyr’s court. It’s been closed all these years, but now is the time to reopen it, and to set his rightful heir on his throne.”

To Ursula’s relief, Kate, Electra, and Brandigen all followed them. Falcon took a key from her sleeve to open the great doors of the castle and threw them open. Inside it was dark and enclosed-feeling; they must have covered the windows to keep the wind and rain from getting in. And yet, as soon as Ursula stepped inside, it felt familiar.

She took a few tentative steps into the center of the room and turned around, staring around at it. She didn’t see anything that she could place as familiar. There was no door that she could point to and say yes, that one, I know where that goes. There was no chair that she could point to and say yes, that one, I know who sat there. And yet it felt familiar nonetheless.

All the sound in the world seemed muffled as she made her way across the room, past the long table where she knew knights had sat for many days during the reign of King Uthyr. She walked to the very front of the room, to the head table. It was as though there was nothing else in the world but her, the shield, and the throne.

She came to the throne. She swept her skirts aside, laid the shield on the table, and sat.

The spell of silence was broken as Kate burst out into laughter and applause. Ursula laughed and blushed along with her. Electra scolded Kate, and the four women hurried to Ursula’s side. Falcon brought a candelabra from somewhere and lit it swiftly, so they could see one another.

There were tears shining on Electra’s cheeks, but she smiled nonetheless. “I suppose Falcon was right. You are ready.”

Ursula bit her lip, suddenly nervous. “I don’t know if I am. How can I be the queen? I don’t know anything about ruling. I always thought I was just going to be a knight.”

“You will be a knight,” said Brandigen. “Electra, you must make her a knight, before anyone else sees her. But beyond that—Ursula, don’t think of yourself as greater than the other knights. You’re the leader of the people, but the knights are your equals.”

“And you’ll all be my knights, won’t you?” Ursula said, looking around at them. “I couldn’t do it without you.”

“I wouldn’t let you do it without me,” retorted Kate with a grin. “Of course I’ll be your knight.”

Electra drew her sword. “Brandigen is right. You must be knighted. Brandigen, Kate, Falcon, you are all witnesses. Ursula, kneel.”

Ursula resisted the urge to bring the shield with her, as a shield both literal and metaphorical, as she slipped out of the throne and into the dust at her mother’s feet. She felt the flat of the blade press on her head. “In the name of King Uthyr and Queen Ursula, I make you Sir Ursula, knight of Britain. Rise, Sir Ursula.” Electra put out her hand and helped Ursula rise.

“Thank you, Mother,” said Ursula. She actually felt better now that she was legitimately a knight. But a moment later she put her hand over her mouth. “I can’t call you that anymore, can I? Thank you, Sir Electra.”

“It was my pleasure, dearest,” said Electra, sheathing her sword and giving Ursula’s hand an affectionate squeeze. “I don’t mind if you keep calling me Mother from time to time. But it shouldn’t be done in public. And your true mother might have a problem with that.”

Ursula’s eyes widened so much they ached. “My true mother! Queen Igraine! I’d forgotten—she’s not dead, is she? Where has she gone?”

“To a convent,” said Falcon. “I’ll fetch her as soon as I can—or perhaps I should send one of you?”

“I’ll go,” said Brandigen. “She should be informed as quickly as possible, in fact. I’m certain she’ll want to see you, Ursula.”

Ursula nodded. She was full of curiosity to see her, even though she was sure she would never be able to think of anyone other than Electra as her real mother. At least she didn’t have any siblings to try to replace Kate. That could never be done.

“Electra and I will hire servants to get this place cleaned out and brightened overnight,” said Falcon. “Then in the morning the fealty oaths will begin. We must get you cemented as the ruler with as many knights and kings as quickly as possible. The more of them are sworn to you, even if they don’t mean it, the better your position will be. And when the Saxons attack again, as surely they will, you will be able to call on all of them.” Ursula’s apprehension must have shown in her face, because Falcon smiled, a surprisingly warm expression. “Don’t worry. They’ll swear to you. And I will be here the whole time, with Sir Electra and Sir Kate. You’ll be fine.”

Ursula took a deep breath and nodded. She was King Uthyr’s daughter—she was Sir Electra’s foster daughter, and she could handle anything. But as she sat down again in the throne, her slippers skidded in the dust.

She looked down at them. “Can I have some proper knightly clothes for tomorrow?”

As all five of them burst out laughing, Electra assured her that she could.