Darkness on the Edge of Town
“Come on, Passel!”
Yell as he would, the old cob would simply go no faster, not through the crowds of people slowly streaming down the London streets, all rushing to see the tourney. Easy for them to be eager and yet slow, they didn’t have an older brother who needed a sword before the tourney started in less than an hour. And they didn’t have to get halfway across town and back again in that time. But they were also a mass, a veritable river of people, and there was only so fast that any horse could travel through such a mass. Particularly when said horse was past his prime and never inclined to great exertion in the first place.
So Buck – for that, although not his given name, was what Passel’s young rider was called – kicked, and cursed, and spurred as well as he might, but the cob only gave an indignant whuff whenever the kicking grew too much of a discomfort and refused to go any faster. It took only ten minutes for Buck to grow heartily disenchanted with this method of transportation. He started casting about for a place to tie the horse.
It didn’t take him long to find out; he steered Passel toward the hitching post and the cob, sensing his rider’s intent, actually moved with something approaching speed. Buck dismounted and tied Passel to the post. Then he put his hands on both sides of the horse’s muzzle, stared as well as he could into the warm dark eyes, and ordered, “Stay.”
Passel whuffed and stamped one hoof, almost indignant. It was, Buck reflected as he took off at a run through the crowd, one of the good things about riding a horse with all the stubbornness of a mule. Not only was it hardly a temptation for thieves; if a thief should be so tempted, the contrary beast would refuse to move until his rightful master returned.
Yet Buck had barely gone three steps before he realized the wisdom of Passel’s approach. It was damned hard to move against the crowd; far wiser to go slow and pick one’s way through than to try to push and dart among the burghers and peasants. Slow and steady wins the race – or at least that was what his tutor Merlin always said, referring to some Greek tale about a turtle and a rabbit having a race. It was never “slow and steady” to Buck; he would have called it “sheer dumb luck.” But when he had said as much to Merlin, the old hedge-wizard had fumed and raved and said he was missing the point.
Maybe he was, but slow and steady wasn’t going to get Kay—Sir Kay now, Buck had to remember that—his sword before it was his turn for the joust. Fast and faster would have a better shot.
So young Buck squared his shoulder and proceeded to push, shove, try to run, and generally make a nuisance of himself, all the while cursing his too-slow and too-fast growth. Too slow because, now that he was fifteen, anyone could see that his shoulders were broadening, thighs thickening, and arms becoming more and more burly; he would be a stocky, muscular man someday in the not-so-distant future … but he wasn’t one now, when he could have used that extra muscle to get through the crowd. Yet his growth was too fast, for here he was, fifteen and already past the short and skinny days of childhood, when he could have slipped into the tiny spaces with ease.
Other than his half-grown status, and his borderline-rude shoving, there was not much that would attract anyone’s eye to young Buck. He was about average height with a thatch of mahogany hair. His features were good but not at all special. He did have a cheerful lopsided grin that could set the maid’s hearts a pitter-pattering when he wanted it to, but he hadn’t discovered that yet. Back home, the only maid was the milk-maid, and it wasn’t that long since Buck had been pulling her braids and then running like hell. There were more eligible, prettier maids here in London, but Buck had only been here a few short days. Besides, he was only a squire. The maids weren’t even curious to see what sort of grin he might have.
His eyes, though, were his most remarkable feature. The unobservant would call them merely gray, those who cared to look closer would see that they were more like quicksilver. Not in color, not directly, but in infinite mutability. When Buck was happy, his eyes lit up like the brightest silver; when he was merely content, they were like the clouds of the English sky. Anger saw them turn steely; sadness, rainy.
There! He could see the corner, his corner, up in the distance; it led to a grand street with a nobleman’s house at the end of it. It wasn’t his house, or rather, it wasn’t his foster-father’s house, but that of a distant cousin whose hospitality they were taking shameless advantage of. Sir Ector did have properties in London that paid him handsome rents, but they were the commercial sort of properties. And even though the properties did have living quarters, for a nobleman, one of King Uther’s very own knights, to stay with the beer-brewer whose brewery he happened to own would be quite beyond the pale.
Except there was no King Uther any more, Buck had to keep kicking himself to remember that. King Uther had died at the beginning of December, leaving no prince to rule after him but (according to popular rumor) only a score of bastards to fight for the crown. That was why they were here in London on New Year’s Day. After the tourney – or was it during? – there was to be a grand trial to determine who was best fitted to the kingship, since there were no legitimate heirs.
Well, there were the Queen’s daughters – daughters of the lovely, mad Queen Igraine – but though they were legitimate, they weren’t Uther’s daughters; they were the get of Queen Igraine’s first husband. There was some sort of scandal there, somewhere; Buck could tell that by the way that Sir Ector never really talked about how the King and Queen had come to be married. But it didn’t matter, whatever it was, how could it when it had all happened before Buck or even Kay had been born?
But Buck was turning the corner now, soon he would be in the great house, finding Kay’s sword, and rushing back to the stadium to give Kay the sword. Soon, soon he would be done, in the very nick of time, too—
The gate to the great house was shut.
Worse: there was a chain and a large, wrought-iron padlock hanging off the gate. The gate itself had to be ten feet high, the walls to either side twelve.
Well, no matter, Buck was a country boy. He climbed trees the way most city folk climbed steps. Surely climbing a gate couldn’t be that much harder, right?
Wrong. Buck found this out the only way he tended to find such things out, the hard way, and it was only when he had several new bruises to add to his collection and no less than five failed attempts did he choose to admit defeat. As close as his mercurial spirit could come to despair, he turned around, panting, and surveyed the street around him for ideas.
Later – much later – certain enterprising individuals would make much of the fact that when Buck was most in need of aid, his eyes turned to a church. And, behind his hand, the aged Buck, with his eyes lightening to a shade near to his youthful silver, would laugh. Because it wasn’t the church that had attracted young Buck’s attention. It was the pavilion pitched in the front lawn.
It was a gaudy pavilion to young Buck’s eyes, but as he grew older, he would realize that the pavilion was really just new. But how was he to know that at the time? He was used to Sir Ector’s pavilion, twenty years old and faded almost past recognition but still whole and serviceable. This pavilion, made of new-dyed scarlet samite with gold dragons embroidered up and down the length of it, how could it be anything other than unbelievably ostentatious and gaudy to young Buck’s eyes?
Still, the pavilion, eye-catching as it was, did not hold Buck’s attention for long. The sword directly to the left of it did.
A sword! Oh, there were problems inherent in the sword: first of all, it was probably church property; second, it was probably some sort of holy memorial; third, it was stuck clear through an anvil and a stone and Buck had no idea how he was going to get it out. But surely whoever-it-was wouldn’t mind if Buck was just borrowing it? If he promised to give it back? Maybe he should try to find a sexton and start begging—
The sun came out from behind the leaden January clouds. An errant beam of light caught the sword, winking at Buck. Come, try me, feel me in your hand, you’ll find no sword half so light, half so true—
Buck was through the church-yard gate and next to the sword before he properly knew what had hit him.
Oh, what a sword it was! There was something written down the blade, in gold no less, but Buck didn’t trouble to read it. He was more concerned with the properties of the blade itself; it—no—she was steel, he knew that, but she shone as bright as if she was made of pure silver. Buck ran a thumb down the edge and pulled his hand back with a hiss—so she was sharp. Then, carefully, he wiped the few drops of blood away from the blade. She was such a beautiful thing; no blood should ever mar her.
And the pommel – a ruby was set in it, a big, fat ruby that caught the fire in the sunlight and spat it back in a shower of sparkles. The hilt was pure gold—well, maybe not pure, there was probably silver or steel underneath to keep it from bending—but in any case it was finished in gold, but somehow Buck knew this was a blade that would never slide or slip, no matter how sweaty or blood-stained his hand might be.
… His hand?
The thought, somehow, troubled him, and Buck took a full step away from the sword. The sun went back to its accustomed winter haunt behind the clouds, and the unearthly glow was gone.
The sun? “Bloody hell,” Buck murmured below his breath. He needed to get moving before more time passed. So he stepped forward and, with one hand, took the sword.
A sudden sense of rightness washed over him, like this sword was his, like she had been destined for him from the beginning of time, and he for her. He thought—he was almost certain—in that moment he almost saw vast vistas opening up before him, great battlefields calmed by the might of this sword alone, other men surrounding him, not enemies but friends, allied knights, brothers-in-arms—
Buck let go and stepped away.
Maybe—a voice in the back of his head warned—he should forget about this sword. Maybe he should try to find a blacksmith that was open, or, failing that, another war memorial. Maybe he didn’t want this sword.
Don’t be ridiculous, Buck told himself. It’s not for me, it’s for Kay. And we’ll be bringing it right back anyway.
Besides, she was such a wonderful blade, such a fair sword … and how could anything so beautiful bring harm?
“It’s not for me,” Buck whispered, trying to appease the vague niggling of foreboding in the back of his mind. “It’s for someone who needs it far more than I.”
With that, Buck stepped forward, wrapped both hands around the hilt of the sword – and easily, cleanly, as if the marble-stone and anvil were no more than a sheath of the softest and most slippery silk, pulled her out.
The sun came out again, bathing the courtyard with a pure golden light, as Arthur – for that was young Buck’s given name – stood transfixed and surveyed his Excalibur for the first time.
Later that night, a witch pulled away from her handsome silver mirror with a hiss.
So the rumors were true. Uther’s only legitimate get had finally manifested and staked his claim to the throne. Oh, not that he had known it, not at the time – but the witch had no doubt that he knew it now. His foster-father and tutor would surely have explained it to him by now.
And that was likely to throw all of her plans into utter ruin.
A lesser woman might have stood, might have begun to pace about the room, but this witch always found that staring at her own reflection was the best way to induce calm and clear thinking. A fine reflection it was, too. The witch was commonly regarded as one of the greatest beauties in the land. Hair raven-black, glossy and springy, usually tied into the severe and intricate updos that fashion demanded but now let down for bed. It fell to either side of her face in luxurious waves. A deep widow’s peak lent to her face the impression of a heart, an impression heightened by her high cheekbones and delicate chin. The nose was straight and true, if perhaps a trifle thin. Mouth wide, lips delightfully plump, giving the impression of rubies on her otherwise marble-hued face. If that effect was somewhat heightened by cosmetics, well, the witch was skillful enough in their application that no one would be the wiser.
But it was her eyes that would draw the attention of most men and hold it, not because of any real uniqueness – women were in fact wont to call the color “cat’s-eye green” and say that it reflected the witch’s soul – but because of their allure. Something in the way the witch used her eyes, the faint lift of the sweeping raven brow, the appreciative glance up and down the body of a man – any man – above all the knowing, come-hither twinkle. Yes, even if she had not been blessed with a beautiful face and exquisite figure, this witch would have no trouble luring men to her side.
Still, she sighed, for a moment ruining the image of perfect composure. This was not a difficulty that mere allure could solve.
She tapped her fingers against the fine wood of her vanity, then cocked her head to one side. Yes—that particular angry stomp could belong to none other than her husband. The witch glanced sidelong at the two other occupants of the room. “Gawaine, Agravaine, to bed.”
The two boys cast betrayed glances at each other – they had been promised an opportunity to say good-night to their father – but they knew better than to argue with their mother when she took that tone of voice. With grumbles thankfully stifled until after they disappeared, the two boys disappeared into the adjoining room. A quick spell ensured that they – indeed, everyone not inside the bedchamber – would be deaf to all that passed within.
Once the boys were gone, Morgause, Queen of Lothian and Orkney, set herself to the considerable task of arranging herself in the way most likely to dispose her husband favorably toward what she had to say.
So when Lot walked into the bedchamber he found his wife leaning her elbows against the windowsill, partly bent over, letting the moonlight seep through her semi-sheer chemise and leaving the outlines of her figure clearly exposed to view. The fur-lined dressing gown, which she had been wearing while her sons were in the room (if only because the room was freezing), was cast on the bed. Married though they had been for almost ten years, Lot still stopped and stared appreciatively. Morgause could see his tongue make a quick pass over his lips in the reflection in the window.
She permitted herself only one eye-roll before turning around. “Lot!” There was the joy of an innocent maiden in her voice and a light in her eyes as she greeted him. She’d learned years ago that it was better to treat Lot as if his merest presence was enough to send her into ecstasies, as if every moment that he deigned to spend with her was a gift she was not worthy to have. Morgause clasped her hands together and gazed at him with an expression that he could not fail to take as complete adoration.
As usual, Lot preened and smiled, a smile that would be raffish and attractive if Morgause were not his wife and forced to play these games in order to get anything that she wanted. And she would have to play hard tonight, and for longer odds than she had ever played before.
“Good evening, wife,” he said, walking up and kissing her. His hand wrapped around her waist but did not stay there, it was not long before Morgause was forced to giggle and coo as he pinched her buttock.
“Oh, Lot,” she said, ducking her head as if she was shy of the attention. Hardly, they’d already had four sons! She was no green girl! But Lot loved the act, so she had no choice but to perform.
The look in his eyes said he was thinking of one thing only, and Morgause knew this would work better if she left her favors dangling before him, a carrot to set his mouth watering, not if he was already sated and ready for nothing but sleep. So she slipped away from his grip and turned back to the window. “I love the city at night … do you suppose we’ll be able to stay here often, after …?”
He’d been dropping such hints the whole way down from Orkney, saying that she should see how she liked London, whether she might want to “set up court” in it. He always laughed heartily after he said it, as if he had made a great joke. As if she couldn’t understand what he meant!
Stupid of him not to think she would understand, especially when she had set the idea that he might be the man to pull the sword from the stone almost as soon as they had heard of the fantastic test for the new king. Sighing and moaning over her dear step-papa Uther (she’d nearly choked on the words; the only bad thing about his death was that he had died in his bed before she had a chance to stick a knife into him herself), wishing they could have been in Carleon to give him comfort in his last days, wondering aloud who could be the next king. She had let her eyes light up as if she had thought of someone, but when Lot had asked – and he had been bound to ask – she had dropped them and pretended shyness and coyness.
It was only when he had gotten angry and raised his hand just the tiniest bit that Morgause had cried out, “Oh, husband, I only thought that there could be no man as fit to lead this land as you!”
Lot had dropped his hand. And his forehead had wrinkled. And so he had begun to think, his thoughts following the track that Morgause had oh-so-carefully laid for him, never suspecting the trap at the end of it.
Of course all the hopes she had raised had been dashed today, as she had known they would be eventually. No enchanted sword in its right mind would pick Lot as the next High King of England. But a far more prosaic sword – or rather, an army of swords – might do the job just as well.
So now she had pick up the pieces of his disappointed hopes and set his thoughts, once again, into the track she had laid for them.
“After what?” Lot snapped, throwing himself onto the bed. “Come here, wife, I am tired and want rest.”
If Morgause obeyed his command she would be in for nothing but a night of rough rutting – it could not be called “love-making” when Lot was in this black a mood – and be no further along in her plans. So instead she hung back, ostensibly to place her dressing gown into the closet. Her back carefully to Lot, she shrugged. “After … I don’t know. You’ve just been hinting, is all, and—”
“God’s wounds! Do you insist on listening only when it will do me harm?” Lot exploded. Morgause jumped back, ostensibly in surprise, really to place herself out of range should he decide to take his frustration out on something physical. Say, her.
“I don’t understand—” she started, shrinking into herself and holding the dressing gown before her.
“Do you understand nothing, woman?” Lot shouted. “There is no ‘after’! Nothing but an endless humdrum now!” He stood up but luckily went not toward her but to the window. “When I had a crown in my grasp, only to have it wrenched away by an unbreeched bastard—”
“A crown in your grasp? But my lord, you are still king of Lothi—”
“The High Kingship of England, you fool!”
Morgause let her eyes go wide as she stared.
Lot groaned. “Must I explain everything to you? The sword! Someone else has it!”
She dropped the dressing gown. “No! That’s impossible!”
“Impossible? I tell you it is so!” He started to pace. “Some boy, a squire, pulled the sword out! He’s a fosterling, too, and nobody, not even his foster-father, knows who his real parents are! His name is Arthur and he claims that he was trying to get the sword for his foster-brother, didn’t even know it would make him king …” Normally Lot would have continued in that vein for God only knew how long, but Morgause could see the wheels of him mind catching up with the vituperation of his tongue. He whirled around. “Impossible, you say? Why?”
“Oh …” Morgause swallowed. “I—that is—I really don’t … don’t know. I mean, it’s just a wife’s fondness, and I’m only a simple woman, I know nothing of policy, I mean …” She ducked her head, then busied herself with picking up the dressing gown.
Lot was having none of that – and good thing, too, else she would have to find another ploy to drop this important bit of information. He stepped up to her, grabbed her chin, and forced her to look up at him. “Don’t lie to me, wife.” The words were a hiss, his face altogether too close, spittle spraying across her nose. “You do not bandy words like ‘impossible’ around unless you have good reason. So tell me what it is you mean.”
“Oh, Lot,” she whispered. “Oh, Lot, please don’t hurt me …”
“Tell me the truth!”
“I—but I could so easily be wrong—it was all so long ago—”
“M-my mother’s marriage!”
Lot took a step back. “What?”
“M-my mother—when she m-m-married His Majesty—s-she—it was in the m-marriage articles …” Morgause, ever adept at manufacturing crocodile tears, gulped back a “sob.” “It said—in the articles—that if King Uther predeceased my mother and had no legitimate heir, then the kingdom was go to us. My sisters and I and our heirs. In the order of our birth.” Morgause gulped again. “So—so I thought—since my poor mother was never in a condition to bear a son—”
“But she did bear a son,” Lot insisted.
Drat him, he had been part of the siege that killed her father and dishonored her mother—and of course Lot would choose to remember the details now! Morgause nodded. “Oh, yes, that baby. But … but he died … when he was three months old … it was what drove my mother mad. To lose my father, and then the only son she ever had, so close together … poor Mother, she couldn’t take it …”
“I never heard that the baby died.”
Morgause sniffled. “Step-papa—I mean—King Uther kept it quiet … he didn’t want people to think that God had cursed the marriage or anything like that … besides, they were never certain whether the baby was truly King Uther’s or my father’s …”
A more astute man would have wondered whether a girl who was but eight years old at the time these events occurred could truly remember them as accurately as she seemed. A particularly astute man would have wondered if that baby had truly “died” or whether it was back from the dead, in the form of a young man named Arthur, a name so close to Uther. But Lot was not that man. He saw only one thing, the option that would give the best possible advantage to him.
Exactly as Morgause wanted him to.
“So … so by those marriage articles, I am King …” Lot’s voice was an awestruck whisper.
“Oh, but husband, if that boy pulled the sword from stone, then I must be wrong. Surely I must be wrong … the marriage articles must have said male heirs, not legitimate, yes, I’m certain that must be it now, otherwise …” Morgause suddenly gasped and put her hand over her mouth.
“What?” Lot demanded.
This time there was no attempt at coyness, just puzzlement. “Husband … did you not say that the wizard Merlin had something to do the appearance of the sword?”
“Yes, I did, ‘twas he who convinced the Archbishop to pray …” Lot stopped. “Why?”
“Oh, dear,” Morgause murmured. “Oh, dear.”
“Well … Merlin was no friend to my father, or my mother …” A patent lie if there ever was one, Merlin was the only true friend in court that her mother had ever had. He was her protector, her guardian angel whenever he was at court. But he had left Carleon years ago. “You know it was he who arranged the—the disgraceful trick that led to my father’s death.”
“Yes …” Lot whispered.
“And Uther banished him from court, oh, just before our marriage, I believe, though he did not leave until just after …” That was another lie; Merlin had left of his own free will. If anything, Uther had been begging him to stay. Still, that had no bearing on events now. Morgause pursed her lips together and pretended to think. “I—I hate to say it, but I almost … I almost could believe …”
“We’ve been cheated out of a crown,” Lot snarled.
“Oh … I fear it … but I could be wrong about those marriage articles …”
“Never you mind being wrong – I’ll find that out easily enough. Still—from what you say, it looks awfully likely …” Lot suddenly shook his head. “No.”
For a single terrifying moment, Morgause thought she had lost everything, that he had remembered the truth of those years, that for once his mind had jumped away from her ruses and he had come to the realization that the fifteen-year-old boy Arthur could be none other than the missing babe of fifteen years ago. But then she saw his leer and all-but-sighed with relief.
“You are a woman, wife – a weak, delicate reed, altogether too prone to talking when you shouldn’t.” Morgause blushed and bowed her head, as if there was the slightest bit of truth in the claim. “Besides, treason and plots … that is business for the day … and this, wife, is the night …”
It was hours before Morgause could be free of Lot, before he was safely snoring on the pillow and she could rise from the bed. If he awoke, she would tell him that she needed to use the pot. But in truth, she went to the window.
Morgause surveyed the moonlit city, and this time, as she stared, her lips bore a smile every bit as feline as the color of her eyes.