Darkness on the Edge of Town
“I don’t know how to thank you all,” Arthur said, his voice husky as he looked at his knights. Kay and Cador; Griflet, his cousin Lucan and Lucan’s little brother and squire Bedivere; the twins Balin and Balan; Ulfius and Brastias; King Pellinore and King Leodegrance; Ector; Accolon; all stood smiling at him like they had spent the day in a pleasurable hunt, not in a battle that left their horses running in blood up the fetlocks. Not like they had won a battle that any military strategist would have told them they would lose in an instant. Not like most of them had been hurriedly shriven last night, half-convinced that they wouldn’t be alive to see this sunset.
“I mean it. I know there’s lands, and offices, and parts of the ransoms, and believe me, you’ll all be getting your fair share of that. But it doesn’t seem like enough. I’d be a dead man without all of you. And if you hadn’t all believed in me enough to risk your lives by my side, well, there wouldn’t have been much of a point for me to go on trying to be king, would there?”
He chuckled, almost mirthlessly. “Of course, there is a reward I had in mind – I wanted to offer you all seats on my new Table. It’ll be an elite order of knights, meant to bring peace and justice to the land, instead of a bunch of barons beating up on each other … but therein, you see, is the problem.” He chuckled again. “I’m really only asking you to do more work for me.
“However, my offer remains open. If any of you want a hand in making certain that your sons, and your sons’ sons, do not have to fight another war like this one, please consider taking a seat at the Table – the Round Table.” He hesitated. “I assure you, my friends, that I would not be offering you seats had you not acquitted yourselves spectacularly today.
“And as for you, my lords …” Arthur turned to Ban and Bors, giving them a bow and a salute. “Despite all the valor my knights showed this day, I fear we should have lost far more of them had it not been for your assistance. Should you ever need my aid, send and you will find me on your doorstep before you have a guest room prepared.”
Their stay in England had improved the brother-kings’ understanding of English immeasurably, though they retained thick accents, and both were able to smile and laugh at the remark. “Keep Claudas well ‘amstrung for us, my lord, and we will require no further reward,” Bors began.
“Although,” his brother interrupted, “I think I would like to ‘ear more of this Table … mon fils Lancelot … et tu, Bors? Bors et Lionel?”
Bors raised his eyebrows, and the two brothers began to confer rapidly in French. Arthur glanced at Cador, who of all the men had picked up the best understanding of that language. Cador was clearly listening, but after a moment he turned to Arthur. “They’re debating asking you to foster their sons for a time.”
Foster? Arthur blinked, but after a moment he nodded. More boys learning the new values of chivalry could not be a bad thing, and perhaps a couple of the younger boys might be consent to be knights of his Table for a time …
Whether the brother-kings would have broached that topic immediately is a question lost to history, for while Arthur was still waiting for them to conclude their discussion, a distinctive hunting-horn cut through the air. It was followed not five minutes later by Merlin coming into view, accompanied by the eleven kings and twice as many guardsmen.
Arthur stepped forward to meet them, but Merlin forestalled any speech by dropping to one knee. “Your prisoners, my liege!” he said in a voice that carried too well to be entirely natural, and perforce, all conversation within a twenty-yard radius stopped. Even the dogs and horses were silent.
Arthur was aware of two sets of footsteps, and within a few moments felt Kay and Ector flanking him. If the circumstances had been less formal, Ector would have laid a protective, comforting hand on his shoulder. As it was, Arthur allowed himself one glance at his foster-father’s face – and almost panicked at the expression of black anger he found upon it, until he remembered that (for once) that anger was not aimed at him.
“Kneel before your King!” Kay ordered. Ten of the kings looked to Lot, who only narrowed his eyes at Arthur and stood even straighter. So his army was in tatters, his shoulder bound and the bandage on it growing slowly redder, and his lips must taste of defeat, but Lot’s pride remained unbroken.
Kay nodded to the guards, but before Arthur could intervene, Lot drew himself up farther with a haughty sneer. “You would dare to order peasants to lay hands upon us, men of noble blood, in order to make us bow to a pretender?”
The guards moved forward threateningly, but they stopped at a simple, “Stay,” from Arthur. He would have been blind not to see their openly chagrined faces. Arthur stepped forward, into Lot’s territory, into his face. “Do not allow yourself to believe, my lord,” he said in a conveniently audible whisper, “that I asked them to hold out of respect for your parentage—for in no wise do I consider the blood of a traitor and murderer to be noble—but I have things to say to you, indeed to all these men, that you would not be able to comprehend if I were to permit my good guardsmen to give you the thrashing they crave and you deserve.”
Arthur stepped back, pitching his voice to more obviously carry. “I suppose you are all wondering what it is, now that I’ve won, that I intend to do with you.” He glanced around the kings, each with a differing degree of fear or defiance on his face. “In truth … I haven’t completely decided yet.” He permitted himself a lopsided grin, seeing much of the defiance fade away to be replaced by nervousness. “However, I have decided what to do in regards to killing you.
“But before I tell you what that is, I want to make something utterly and absolutely clear. There is not a man standing behind me at this moment who would have any objection to my killing you.” Since Merlin was a little to the side him, Arthur could say this with a perfectly clear conscience. “In fact, were I to consult their opinion, I believe they would press very hard for your deaths.”
A hearty bellow of approval, coming from behind, was all the answer Arthur needed to hear to that. He smirked. “As you can see. And in a way, my men are right. You are, all of you, traitors to oaths of fealty you swore – oaths you swore to my father, oaths that you swore would be just as valid and just as strong for his heir.”
Arthur suddenly whipped Excalibur from the sheath, sticking her point-first into the ground. “Well. Here it is. Proof that I am my father’s heir – a proof strong enough that I literally could not have hoped to win my kingdom without it. Yet for four long years you denied the evidence of your own eyes and embroiled your country in civil war. You murdered men, women and children, holding their lives and deaths of no account simply because they lacked a—a pedigree as fancy and extensive as your own.
“And yet, when I was lying dismembered in some pit somewhere, you expected to rule these people whom you thought nothing of killing, and raping, and forcing to watch as you burned their barns and fields and livestock.” Arthur almost laughed. “Allow me to explain, Lot. If you would take your head out of your ar—” He stopped on the cusp of language that would be unkingly. “If you would step out from beyond your own castle walls and really look at the people and listen to what they are saying, then you would realize that you lost this war the second you burned down a village while I saved one.”
“Hogwash,” Lot replied, though, much to Arthur’s gratification, it came out as a croak. “The peasantry have no voice, no say to what happens in England.”
“The peasantry are England, and let me tell you something, my lord,” Arthur snapped. “It may be God who puts us on our thrones, but ‘tis by the grace and sufferance of the peasantry that we stay there. You could not recognize that, so you lost England before you ever had it.
“The question that remains, however, is will you and your allies lose your lives?”
Eleven men, still and straight as statues, stood before him. He could hear the murmurs behind him, remarking on the bravery of these kings in the face of certain death.
Certain? Arthur smiled. “You will not,” he said softly – too softly, almost, for anyone but the ones most concerned with his statement to hear. “Or at least, you will, eventually, but not by my hands. And let me tell you why.
“My father would have killed you. He would not have hesitated for a second. You would have killed any man who stood before you in the place where you stand before me now. But I will not. Because—and mark me well, Lot—I will not be a king like you.
“I will not be a king over the people but for them. I will rule not by whims but by justice. And someday – someday when both you and I are dust, someday when men cannot even remember the name of this mountain we stand on, someday when Carleon and Dunlothian are alike piles of moss-covered stones – someday, men will still remember my name, and cherish it, and tell my stories to their sons and grandsons.”
Arthur smiled. “And you, Lot, will be forgotten.”
It was happening again. For the second time in her twenty-seven years, everything Morgause had planned, worked for, dreamed – her world – was falling apart.
The moment she had heard the news of Lot’s defeat she had rushed to her tower room, locked the door and sat against it, panting. Let the steward try to deal with it all. For heaven’s sake, she was a woman, no one would blame her if she fell apart! They would only be happy she had taken her weeping and wailing elsewhere!
Yet there were no tears to weep with, and when she tried to wail, her voice came out in rasping croaks. It hadn’t been like this the first time her world fell apart. The first time she had cried and cried and cried, and only a few hard slaps from her nurse had been able to stop the tears in time to meet her “new daddy.”
The first time, however, she had been but seven years old. There had been only grief, mixed perhaps with a child’s vague fears of the unknown. Now there was no grief, only the very specific fears of an adult.
Would Arthur be as merciful to her and her sons as his father had been to her, her sisters and her mother?
Shuddering, Morgause remembered the trouble that Uther’s mercy had caused for his son. Arthur was not fool enough to choose mercy and send such trouble down on his son. He would not leave a brood of fatherless boys to grow up in peace and attempt to avenge their father’s death.
And fatherless they would be; Morgause had given Lot up for lost the moment she had heard of the defeat. The messenger had sworn that Lot was still alive and that Arthur had promised mercy, but that sort of promise was made to be broken. Besides, the thought of Lot’s death was not that distressing – widowhood, Morgause felt, would be very agreeable indeed, provided it was not in the shadow of the axe.
But without her boys? Her wonderful boys! Her brave Gawaine, her clever Agravaine, sweet Gareth, and dear Gaheris, the boy who was not as brave or clever or sweet as the others but who nonetheless possessed a knowledge beyond his years?
She could not lose her boys! She would fight, she would claw and scratch—she would stab Arthur in his own fortress rather than let him harm one hair on her boys’ heads—
Terror swept over her, and then the screams began.
“Morgause! Snap out of it!”
That voice—that voice should not be here—Morgause pushed her flyaway hair out of her face and looked up. Morgan stood over her, glowering, hands on hips. “That’s better,” she said. “Much more and I would have had to throw cold water over you. What has gotten into you?”
Morgause blinked. It so suited her strange sense of unreality and fear that Morgan should appear from nowhere, scolding, that Morgause forbore to ask even how she had come. Besides, knowing Morgan, she would just point to the open window.
Her hand shaking, Morgause pushed a stray curl out of her eyes. “Lot lost.”
“Yes, I know. So?”
“So?” Morgan could not have planned a better way to draw Morgause from her fast-spinning web of fear. “So?” She jumped up. “Morgan, have you gone mad? This is—I am—think what happened to Mother when Daddy—”
“Hardly a similar case,” Morgan pointed out, her tone a little too dry for Morgause’s liking. “Aside from the obvious impossibility of Arthur marrying his own sister, Lot is still alive.”
“Still? You know that, for certain?” Morgause bit her lip. The messenger’s news was stale by a few weeks, but Morgan’s might be fresher. If Arthur was waiting to kill Lot … what was he waiting for?
Did he want to kill all of them – Lot, the boys, her – at once? Were their soldiers coming to capture them now? Should she prepare for a siege? Or should she grab her boys and jump off the highest tower before Arthur and his executioners could find them?
“MORGAUSE!” A stinging slap brought her back to her senses, that and Morgan’s hands on her shoulders, forcing her into a sitting position. “Stop screaming! You’ll scare your boys senseless!”
Morgause panted, and shook, and tried to grab hold of her whirling thoughts. “Maybe that would be better,” she whispered, not knowing she was speaking aloud. “Better not to know that the axe is about to fall than to see it coming in terror—”
“Stop that!” Another slap. “Do you want to end up as mad as Mama?”
Morgause looked up, to see Morgan panting just as she was. The hand on her shoulder shook as well. “Do you?” Morgan demanded a trifle more savagely than the situation demanded.
“You never called Mother mad before.”
“Don’t change the subject!” Morgan’s other hand was shaking as well, much as she tried to hide it within the folds of her gown. “Grace of God, Morgause, what has gotten you so frightened?”
“You know! Lot lost!”
“I repeat, so? Oh, he’ll lose some lands, and you’ll be without new jewels or gowns for quite some time, I daresay, but that’s no reason—” Morgan’s hands found Morgause’s shoulders again, now not shaking but clamped like a vise. “Do you think he’ll blame you, Morgause? Would he hurt you?”
“Hurt me? Lot?” Morgause frowned. He had not dared to lay a hand on her since he had come home from Carleon last spring. Still, a beating would be a mercy compared to what she imagined … Morgause shuddered. “He’d have to be alive to do that.”
“You fear Lot dying?” Morgan stared at her. “I thought that Elaine was the one who had some affection for her husband. I thought you would—” She broke off, blushing.
“Dance on his grave?” Morgause asked. Morgan nodded. “I would, if … if I did not see …” If I did not see them digging my sons’ graves beside it, and mine … “My boys!” she wailed, burying her face in her hands.“You think Arthur would hurt them?” Morgause nodded. “Oh, Morgause …” Morgan’s voice broke off, and for a few moments Morgause heard nothing. Then there was a whoosh and a thump. “Pack!” Morgan demanded.
Morgause looked up to see her trunk lying open on the bed beside her. She gaped. “Never mind, I’ll pack for you,” Morgan said, pointing at the wardrobe. The doors opened and dresses, hose and underthings flew out and began to place themselves in the trunk. “Tell your servants and a suitable escort to get ready for a long journey. You’d know what would be required more than I would.”
“But-but—where are we going? For how long? Are we fleeing the country?” That was one avenue she had not yet seriously considered, but surely Arthur would try to block all egress out … unless they got a ship straight from the Orkney Isles …
“In a manner of speaking,” Morgan replied. “We are leaving Scotland. Morgause, tell me when to stop with the wardrobe.”
“But where are we going?”
The wardrobe stopped its emptying. Morgan surveyed her carefully. “You,” she said, “need to get over your fear—and hatred—of Arthur. And I promised the old man I would look after Arthur in the meantime, so this should kill two birds with one stone.”
The old man? “Merlin?” Morgause demanded.
“Yes, if you must know. But that is not the point.” The wardrobe’s emptying started up again. “Also, if you must know, we are going to Carleon. And you are going to beg for mercy – at Arthur’s feet if that suits your sense of drama – which will be granted to you, because while Arthur may be Uther’s get, he is not his father’s son. But even that is not the point.”
Morgan glared at her. “The point is that you and Arthur – but mostly you – need to learn to live with each other, and you are going to learn to live with each other, if I have to beat you both senseless in order to accomplish it.”
For four years now Arthur had been told to be circumspect, be gracious, and above all to behave. It had been hammered into his head that, because of his youth and inexperience, he would need to project an image of calm, clear thinking. He would need to pretend that he deserved the honors and power heaped upon him, until he actually, well, deserved them. That meant – if Merlin and his coterie were to be believed – being utterly dignified at all times.
But it was hard to be dignified when you were plainly confused. Arthur took a deep breath, scratched his head, and looked from one irate farmer to the other. “So … allow me to piece this together. Your daughter,” he nodded his head to the first farmer, “married his son.” He nodded to the second farmer before turning back to the first. “You gave a cow as part of her dowry. However, because the marriage happened a bit—sooner than you had expected,” he was going to go over that very quickly, since mention of that was like to lead to another shouting match in which both farmers blamed the other for the fact that he was a grandparent a mere three months after the wedding, “you got permission to get one more calf out of the cow, though the cow had already joined his herd.”
“However, the cow gave birth to twins. And now you think you should get both calves, because it was your cow to begin with and had you been able to have the calf as planned, both would have been yours, no question. But you,” he nodded again at the second farmer, “think you deserve one of the calves, because it is your cow, and you were feeding it all these months, etc.”
“Hmm.” Arthur leaned back in his chair – throne, actually, but he still didn’t care to consider that too closely – and thought. If Merlin were here he would urge some sort of creative compromise, for instance, selling the second calf and splitting the proceeds.
But Merlin wasn’t here – he was off visiting his tutor in the North – and these farmers came here for the King’s judgment, not Merlin’s. Besides, simply solving the financial problem skirted what Arthur felt to be the real issue.
So, stretching out a little, he asked, “How do your children feel about this?”
The farmers stared at him. “Your Majesty?” the second one asked.
“Your children. Your son, and his daughter. They’re the ones caught in the middle while you argue. What is your fight doing to them?”
The first farmer had the grace to look slightly ashamed, while the second actually flushed. By that Arthur divined that the “happy couple” were still living with the second farmer, and that they were probably getting a daily earful on the subject of the first farmer.
Arthur sighed. “Let me ask you this. You say that your daughter had a child, er, sooner than expected. Is the child healthy?”
“Yes, Majesty, God be praised.”
“And your daughter?”
“She’s doing well, too, Majesty.”
“So … both of you are grandfathers now, with a healthy grandchild. Shouldn’t you be celebrating that instead of fighting over money?” He took care not to say a cow in the contemptuous way of noblemen; that would only alienate him from them. Instead Arthur thought of the cow as, perhaps, a bit of land that had borne an unexpectedly large harvest. To be fighting over that when there was a safe mother and a healthy child to celebrate was just as crass.
“Here is my judgment.” Arthur sat up a little straighter at that and tried to look kingly. “Instead of one of you or the other of you getting the second calf, you will wait until the point where it will be worth the most money – both of you contributing to keep it fed – and then you will sell that calf. But you will not split the money or use it to buy something else. Instead, you will set that coin aside, and when your grandchild comes of age, you will give it to …” Arthur hesitated.
“Him, my liege,” the second farmer supplied.
“Him—thank you—you will give it to him. And he will use it to start a life for himself.” Arthur chewed on a thumbnail. “You see … you could say that my father, King Uther, once got a second calf when he only expected one.” He would leave this “second calf” up to interpretation – whether it was the Queen when what Uther wanted was Cornwall, or the Queen’s marriageable daughters when he only wanted the Queen, or Cornwall when Uther wanted the Queen – it didn’t really matter. “And he squandered it for short-term gain.” That worked for any of the “calves”: Uther had driven poor Igraine mad, married the daughters off to men who had promptly rebelled against his heir, and the entire populace of Cornwall still hated Uther’s memory. “So, instead following in my—esteemed father’s footsteps … why don’t you take that extra gift of God’s and use it to better the life of the first, and more important, gift of God?”
The two farmers looked at each other. The first smiled tremulously. The second returned the smile and stuck out his hand. When the two walked away, they were half-embracing.
Good, Arthur thought, smiling, that’s one family no longer fighting. He looked up, waiting for the next petitioner.
His eyes went wide when he saw her—them—her.
They were actually two women, escorted by a fair amount of knights and four young boys. Arthur had met one of the women; she called herself Morgan le Fay, Queen of the Faeries. But though, as a callow boy of thirteen, he had thought her breathtaking, he had no eyes for her now.
Instead, Arthur’s eyes were on the woman standing to her left – the most beautiful woman Arthur had ever seen.
His heart started thudding as he stared and simply wouldn’t stop. She was—perfect. Yes, that was the only word out of all the languages he knew that could adequately describe her. Tall, with a graceful, willowy figure – shining raven hair, springy and soft (or so he imagined) – smooth alabaster skin – and those eyes, so green and full of life, framed by black lashes that made them look even larger than they were already.
If he had been a few years older – or even just a little more experienced – he wouldn’t have been hit quite so hard. Oh, he still would have lusted, one would have to be dead not to lust after that, but his heart would not have been affected. Had he been a few years older, it might have occurred to him that, despite all the delights that her body promised, they were delights of the body only. There was no real warmth, no tenderness in her allure. Years would have told him that. And had he a bit more experience with women, even in just their use of cosmetics, he would have known that much of her flawless appearance owed more to powders and paints than to nature.
But he lacked that experience, and he was only nineteen. He was—in short—hooked.
And she … she was …
“No,” Arthur whispered, reflexively, not even meaning to speak at all. He did not see Kay, stationed at his left hand with the list of petitioners, cast him a quick, hard glance.
“Oh, hell,” Kay muttered.
Arthur did not hear. And neither did the fair lady. She was stepping forward, hesitantly, not waiting to be announced. A few steps away from his throne, she knelt – but it was not a gesture of respect – more like her knees had given way. Her voice, every bit as sensual as her appearance, rang out, echoing off the stone walls and vaulted ceiling of the audience chamber. “Mercy, Majesty!”
And she started to sob.
If Arthur had had eyes for anyone other than the mysterious lady, he would have noted Morgan le Fay indulging in an action very un-queenly, i.e., rolling her eyes. But all he saw was the lady.
“If not for me – or my lord – I know we deserve it not – but for my sons! Please, Your Majesty, they are only children!” Well, if she said they were only children, then she must be right – at least, she didn’t look old enough to have borne children who were anything other than, well, children.
“My lady—” Arthur began.
“They will not follow their father and I into treason, I swear it! I will beg them from the block not to if you desire it—”
Roughly about the time that Arthur realized talking this lovely lady out of her hysterics would not work, he realized that he was already halfway down the dias, tugging at his sleeve and the handkerchief he kept up it. The lady sobbed in the middle of the floor, and not a soul moved to comfort her.
Except Arthur. He moved closer, slowly but inexorably, like he was caught in a tide that would not pull him under but would equally not let him go. Before he had quite decided to do it, he was on his knees before the lady, taking his finally-extricated handkerchief and dabbing it against her eyes. “There now, my lady. Don’t cry. There, there.”
The lady looked up, her eyes incredibly wide. “M-majesty?”
“Are those your boys?” he asked, trying to smile as he gestured to the four lads ranged behind the Faerie Queen. The lady nodded. “Well, then. You’ve nothing to worry about. They’re but children. I’m a King, not a monster – I don’t harm youngsters.” His smile grew perhaps a bit shaky as he stared into her eyes, so green and yet so—Other. Perhaps feline, though Arthur recoiled at appending the image of a self-serving, aloof cat to this lovely woman. “All will be well, I promise. They’re safe.”
“Oh, Your Majesty …” Whatever the woman might have said was drowned in a sudden cacophony of what felt like hundreds of voices exclaiming at once.
A couple cut above the fray. One was Kay’s. “Your Majesty, allow me to present to you Morgause, Queen of Orkney and wife to Lot, King of Orkney; her sons; and her sister Morgan of Cornwall, alias Morgan le Fay!”
The second was Morgan le Fay’s. “See, Morgause! I told you so!”