In Clothar the Frank, the first novel of a two-book miniseries called The Golden Eagle, Jack Whyte invites us to explore his cast of fascinating characters during the reign and tragic downfall of the Riothamus Arthur, High King of All Britain. From Gaul, now the land of the Franks, comes young Clothar, the son of one king and the nephew of another. He has just survived a fierce civil war in Benwick, the land of his childhood—a war involving his own family, pitting brother against brother—to discover that his fate is not in his own hands. Instead it rests with his teacher and mentor, the renowned and powerful Bishop Germanus; Germanus's old friend, the elusive and enigmatic Caius Merlyn Britannicus; and Merlyn's young ward, the future king, Arthur Pendragon. Clothar's story is the story of Lancelot—his past, his loves, his loyalty and his role as King Arthur's friend and betrayer.
I cannot recall much about my early childhood, but I have always been grateful, nevertheless, that I survived it, and that the memories of it that remain with me are happy ones, steeped in the eternal sunlight of long, bygone summer days and unaffected by the truths I learned later. The Lady Vivienne of Ganis, who occupied the center of my life then, since I grew up regarding her as my mother, was in fact my mother’s twin and therefore my aunt. Her husband, whom I also believed for years to be my father, was called Ban of Benwick, King of the Benwick Franks who settled the Ganis lands in southeastern Gaul before my birth.
I was seven years old when first I heard the story that my mother had abandoned me, and I remember the occasion well. I scoffed at first, pointing out to Frotto, the loudmouthed lout who was tormenting me, that my mother was Vivienne, whom people called the Lady of the Lake. Everyone knew that, I told him smugly, except him.
Not so, he yelled at me, in a jeering voice that contained an awful note of conviction. His mother had told him that the Lady Vivienne had taken me in as a homeless baby, after my true mother had abandoned both me and my father to run off with another man. Infuriated, and strangely frightened by his outrageous accusations, I charged at him. He sidestepped my rush easily, being two years older than me and almost twice my size, and kicked me hard on the shin. While I was hopping on one foot and clutching my injured leg, he punched me twice with large, meaty fists, bloodying my nose with one and then knocking me down and blackening both my eyes with the other.
Of course, I went running home, half blinded by tears and bruises and bleeding from my nose like a gravely wounded man, and Lady Vivienne was horrified when I burst into her rooms, dribbling blood and mucus all over her clean floor. She rushed to me and held me, uncaring about damage to her clothing, then hugged and comforted me and listened to my distraught tale while she tended to my wounds, holding my head back gently but firmly until the bleeding from my nostrils had dried up, then cleansing and dressing my cut leg. As soon as my face was free of blood and snot, she laid me on her own enormous bed and bathed my swollen eyes with a cool cloth, holding me to her bosom and crooning over me until I was pacified, while her women made sure that none of my siblings made their way in to gawk at me in my distress.
The major part of my comfort that day sprang from Lady Vivienne’s immediate denial of Frotto’s tale. She told me I must pay no heed to him or to his wicked lies, and I believed her. How could I not? She was my mother, the most beautiful being in my world, and it was inconceivable to me that she could lie, even to save me from pain. And so three more full years passed by before I learned the truth.
Once again, it was Frotto who precipitated things. By then he and I were implacable enemies, although he had learned to curb his tongue and keep away from me, most of the time at least. He was still larger than I was, and fatter, but I had grown too, gaining height more quickly than he and thickening steadily towards the strength and bulk that would sustain me as a warrior thereafter. I was larger than any of the other boys I knew of my own age, and that in itself might have been enough to keep Frotto away from me; he liked his victims to be much smaller than himself. And his father was a wheelwright, whereas mine was the King, so while he spent his time roaming at large with his cronies—and I was often jealous of his freedom—I spent most of mine, from the age of eight, in training to be a warrior. Chulderic, my father’s Master-at-Arms, was my official tutor in such things, and he kept me hard at work, learning to ride and fight with sword and spear, and I was an apt pupil.
On the day I was to learn the truth about my parentage, I ran into Frotto and two of his friends while leading my injured horse, Rollo, to a lush pasture, a clearing in the woods I had discovered days earlier. Rollo and I had taken a fall that morning, and while I had been no more than slightly scratched and winded by the event, Rollo had gashed his pastern on a splintered branch that lay hidden in the thicket we had tried to gallop through. Now, a few hours later, his injured leg cleaned and firmly bandaged, I had thought to make reparation to him for my carelessness by taking him where he could eat his fill of succulent grass. I was walking slowly, allowing him to pick his way carefully as he hobbled beside me, favoring his sore ankle, and I was daydreaming, fretting about the damage I had caused to my beloved horse through my own enthusiasm and lack of thought. We Franks have always been proud of our prowess with horses, and we regard ourselves as natural horsemen, born to ride. But it had never really dawned on me until that day that the invincibility and invulnerability I felt, once mounted on my horse’s back, were foolish. My poor horse was anything but invulnerable. By sending him charging into that copse the way I had, into its hidden dangers, I might easily have killed him and myself.
Thinking that, I led him around a bush, and found myself face to face with Frotto.
He was as surprised to see me as I was to see him, and it was pleasant for neither one of us. His first reaction was to draw back guiltily, leaping away from what he had been doing and looking beyond me as his two friends scattered, too, to see who else might emerge from behind the bush. For my part, I immediately looked to see what he had been doing. A skinny eight-year-old child I recognized as the daughter of one of my father’s house servants lay on her back in the long grass, naked, her legs spread wide to expose everything that made her female. Her eyes were wide with fear, although whether she was frightened by what they had been doing to her or afraid of being caught doing it I could not tell. The truth is, I did not know myself what they were doing. I simply reacted to the guilt on Frotto’s face.
“What’s going on here? What are you up to, Frotto?”
My question broke his momentary panic. He had seen that there was no one with me, and so he charged at me, catching me with a shoulder to my chest and sending me flying to rediscover aches and bruises that I had sustained earlier in my fall from Rollo’s back. Winded for the second time that day, I sprawled in the grass, looking up at him towering above me, his fists clenched and his face contorted with anger.
“What’s it matter to you, shit spawn, what I’m up to?” He drew back his foot and swung a kick at me, and I rolled towards him, catching his flying foot between my arm and my chest and twisting to pull him off balance. He landed on top of me, and the sour stink of his stale sweat flooded my nostrils as I pushed him away and rolled again to regain my feet. Before I could rise, one of his friends kicked me behind the knee and I went down again, this time on all fours, just in time to take a third kick, full in the ribs, from the third boy. My vision hazed with red and I fought to keep from vomiting from the pain, but I could see Frotto scrambling away from me and I thought he was going to run.
I was wrong. He scrabbled on hands and knees until he reached the place where they had abandoned their fighting sticks, and he picked one up and rose slowly to his feet, hefting the short, thick club in his hand while measuring me with his eyes and grinning the grin that I had learned to detest. Seeing what was coming, I tried again to stand up, but again his friends prevented me, one of them sweeping my legs from under me with a wide, looping kick. And as I huddled there, face down, half lying and half kneeling, Frotto struck me across the shoulders with his cudgel.
Pain flashed across my back, but he had not hit me as hard as he could have; I knew that even as the blow landed, and a part of me wondered why. Chulderic, my trainer, had long since taught me that, once committed to a fight, it was sheer folly to hold back and be anything less than ruthless in disabling your enemy. Now, despite my pain, I was wondering what was going on in Frotto’s mind. Perhaps he was still afraid of my status as my father’s son. I fell forward onto my elbows, my face brushing the grass, and then I gathered myself and lunged, pushing upwards and forward, forcing myself to my feet in a shuffling run that caught all three of them by surprise.
The largest of the three came close to catching me. As his fingers closed on my tunic, pulling me around, I seized his own tunic in both my hands, then head-butted him hard. His nose crunched and he fell away from me, howling and falling hard to the ground, his hands clamped over the blood spewing from his ravaged face. Before either of the others could recover from the shock of what had happened, I leaped over the distance remaining between me and the other two cudgels that still lay on the ground. I snatched them up, one in each hand, spun towards my tormentors and dropped into a fighting stance.
The fight should have been over at that point. I had cut their strength by one-third and now I held two clubs to their one. And they must have seen how angry I was, in the set of my face. They knew I had been training hard for more than two years with cudgels very like those I now held, except that my own were longer and even heavier. It was plain to me that neither of them wanted to be the one who would put my training to the test. But poor stupid Frotto couldn’t simply back away and accept the situation for what it was. Perhaps if he had, and had kept his mouth shut, I might have allowed him to walk away, even then, but that was not Frotto’s way. He had to try to convince his dullard friend that they had bested me and that I wasn’t worthy of their time or attention, and so he went into his customary diatribe about my parentage, and how my “real” mother had been a faithless slut.
I had heard the tirade many times by then, and I had almost grown immune to it, accustomed to letting it flow around my ears without heed. This time, however, I decided I had had enough, and I knew that Frotto’s additional height, weight and years were no longer significant to me. I raised my right hand high and lowered my left, advancing towards him slowly and daring him to swing at me. He did, and I parried his blow with the club in my left hand, then smashed him on the wrist with the other. He howled, his club went flying, and he spun away in agony, tucking his injured wrist beneath his armpit. I followed him, moving quickly, bringing one cudgel and then the other down as hard as I could on his bent back, driving him to his knees.
The lout with the broken nose had managed to struggle up, but there was no fight left in him. The third, uninjured one stood gaping at me, hovering between flight and fight. I lunged at him and he broke, running for his life. As he went I noticed that the little girl had vanished, probably having escaped as soon as our attention had been removed from her. Broken Nose rose to his feet, one blood-covered hand upraised palm outwards, mutely begging me not to hit him again. I jerked my head at him and he, too, ran off, leaving me with Frotto. My tormentor had regained his feet by that time and stood looking at me, still hugging his wrist under his arm, his face the color of bread dough.
My anger had all drained away, leaving me cold, but I was far from finished with Frotto. I jumped towards him and slashed the club in my right hand downwards, striking him brutally on the left knee, and his leg gave way, pitching him at my feet.
“Now listen to me, you fat pig,” I hissed. “If I ever hear you say another word about my mother, or about anything to do with my family, I’ll kill you. Do you hear me?”
He groveled, whining and blubbering, and the coldness I had been feeling suddenly welled up in me, blinding me to everything but the infuriating sight of him. I hit him again, this time on his upraised arm, wanting to break it, but as I raised my cudgel yet again I became aware of violent movement beside me. A powerful blow sent me spinning to fall flat on my face.
“Enough, I said!” The voice roaring above me snapped me back to my senses. “God’s teeth, don’t you know when a fight’s over? Are you trying to kill him? Pick that sack of guts up and get him out of here. See to him, and hold him with the others.”
I raised myself on one elbow and saw two of my father’s men-at-arms pulling the blubbering Frotto up between them. Beside me, Chulderic, the Master-at-Arms, was livid with rage. I looked away from him, shaking my head to clear it, and saw four more men holding my other two assailants by the arms. Both of them looked terrified.
I had caught the rough edge of Chulderic’s tongue and temper before, but I had never seen anything like the fury that drove him now. King’s son or not, he hauled me up by the back of my tunic and sent me sprawling again with his boot in my backside before recapturing me and dragging me, kicking and struggling, to his own horse. He picked me up and threw me face down across his saddle, yelling at me to stay there and not move if I valued my hide.
"Clothar the Frank is a book that will take its rightful place alongside those many works that have tried to capture the spectral essence of the Celtic imagination.”—Edmonton Journal
“To read Jack Whyte is to surrender to a storyteller of the old school … When Clothar finally meets Arthur, most readers will experience a shock of both recognition of an archetypal moment and fresh suspense.”—Quill & Quire