Darkness on the Edge of Town
“So I hear, wife, that you had no compunction against throwing me to the wolves in order to save your sorry self.”
Morgause carefully looked at Lot through her lashes. This was the first chance they had had to speak since before he had left for Badon. Their rooms were stationed on opposite ends of the castle, and after her intriguing meeting with the King, the rest of Morgause’s afternoon had been taken up by settling in and readying for supper.
Still, it did not escape Morgause that Lot chose to have this conversation in public, in the crushing crowd that fought their way to the Great Hall and the evening meal. Perhaps he was still afraid of her.
“My lord, you are mistaken.” She kept her eyes downcast but did not bother to subdue her voice to a submissive squeak. “I threw us both to the wolves to save our sons. Surely, my lord, you will agree that their safety and security is far more important than ours.”
Lot snorted, but he could hardly disagree with a gaggle of listeners dogging their every footstep. Instead, he only remarked, “I am glad you are so concerned for our boys’ well-being. Surely, then, you will agree to the plans that I have devised for their future government.”
Plans? What plans? Morgause stared at him but realized that this was not a conversation she wanted to have in public. For a moment she regretted having sent Morgan on ahead of them. At the time it had seemed like such a good idea; Morgan with her silly notions of independence would be certain to challenge Lot the moment he appeared to be harassing Morgause. And Lot, of course, would see Morgan as a wayward woman in severe need of “discipline,” and if his hand so much as twitched … well … it would be embarrassing to have her sister turn her husband into a newt in the middle of the corridor.
They made their way to the high table – not so much because of the family connection, according to Morgan Arthur still had no idea about that – but because of their rank and Arthur’s insistence upon healing wounds and showing them all to be friends now. Arthur. What a strange country bumpkin Uther had sired. Her mind flickering back to their meeting, she was dismayed to note that had Arthur not been so much the spit and image of his father, she might have felt some sisterly affection toward him. That, and had he clearly not inherited his father’s lust as well.
Still … when was the last time a man – any man, even her father – had dried her tears and promised that everything was going to be all right?
Well, he’s not only a lusting country bumpkin, he’s a fool, Morgause reminded herself. No one can make that kind of promise and expect to keep it. No one.
Finally they sat, Morgan already present and to the right of Morgause’s seat. Lot sat to her left. All of them were ranged on the left side of the King, along with Sir Kay and Sir Ector of all people. King Ban, King Bors and the rest of the French allies were on the King’s right. She and Morgan were the only females at the high table.
Sir Ector seemed to notice that, he turned to Morgan and Morgause with an apologetic smile after the prayer was over and the food had appeared on the tables. “Begging your pardon, my ladies, for the uneven number of men and ladies, but, well …” He chuckled ruefully. “These past few summers have been too chaotic for any of us old warhorses—”
“Or not so old warhorses.”
“Yes, Kay, or not so old warhorses, to gain a wife.”
“And those of you who happen to have wives,” Morgan nodded toward King Ban and King Bors, “see no reason to drag them into a country torn apart by war. I understand, my lord.” Morgan smiled. “Though I hear that Queen Evaine is more than capable of taking a war zone well in hand.”
Sir Ector laughed. “You’ll have to ask King Bors about that, my lady. My French is not quite up to the task.” He hesitated a moment before asking, “Your pardon, my lady … but both my sons—pardon me, my son and the King—carry on as if they know you. Yet I’m quite sure you have never come to the Castle Sauvage. May I ask from where they can claim an acquaintance with you?”
Morgan’s eyes twinkled, and, as Lot silently fumed and Morgause listened with astonishment, she relayed a story involving a griffin, a pair of lost boys, and a night’s hospitality in the land of Faerie. She—she KNEW them? She met him before he became King—and she never told me?
Morgause was still reeling from this revelation when Arthur – who had clearly been listening to the story – broke in with a laugh. “And look, my lady Morgan, how much wiser Kay and I have become from our brief – fostering, let us say – in the world of Faerie!”
Morgan only blinked, not missing a beat. “Truly, my lord? You are now always careful to carry a map when you go questing after creatures much larger than yourselves?”
Lot would have struck a woman for that kind of impudence. Uther would have scowled and growled out a sharp lesson. Vortigern probably would have sent for the headsman.
“My lady, in order for us to do that, we would first need to escape from the well-meaning elder knights of the court. They seem to have some sort of objection to Kay and me putting ourselves at risk in order to go on quest. Perhaps, my lady, you have some faerie glamour you could lend to us, to help us out.”
Morgan snorted. “Foolish boy. Faerie glamour is more likely to attract attention than promote concealment. Didn’t your wizard tutor teach you a thing about magic?”
There were many gasps and furtive signs against evil at that comment, but Arthur, again, only laughed. “Oh, no, my lady. Merlin always said that the two of us caused enough trouble with our wholly mundane talents.”
“He put it slightly more colorfully than that,” Sir Kay put in.
“Yes, brother, but there are ladies present.” Here Arthur assumed a thoughtful look that Morgause did not believe for a moment. His voice grew loud enough to carry throughout the court. “However … you and I were quite lucky in our education, Kay. But not all lords and ladies are fortunate enough to attract a philosopher of Merlin’s caliber to teach their children.”
“I think,” Sir Kay deadpanned, “the fact that he knew you were going to be the next King had something to do with that.”
“Yes, Kay, I believe it would. However, don’t you think that the lack of enough good tutors to go around is a … flaw in our fair kingdom that ought to be remedied?”
“My liege, you are the thinker, I merely finger the abacus and tell you whether you can afford your latest scheme.”
“Ah, Kay, I know I can always count on your instant and enthusiastic agreement with any idea I might propose. And so,” here Arthur lifted his voice to carry, although half the court was listening already, “I propose, here in Carleon and later in our new court, Camelot, to take in noble sons and see that they are well taught in knowledge of books, of weaponry, and of chivalry.”
An excited buzz picked up through the court.
“As a gesture of goodwill and continuation of our alliance,” Arthur continued, the buzz quieting down as he began to speak, “King Ban and King Bors have agreed to let their sons be fostered here for a time.”
For some reason, Lot was smiling.
“And as a further gesture of goodwill and trust,” Arthur went on, “King Lot has agreed to let his four sons be fostered here as well.”
Morgause froze—it was only through sheer willpower that she did not exclaim aloud—but slowly, inexorably, her eyes turned to Lot.
He was smirking. He—he planned this! Before she had come, or after? It did not matter. He saw his dreams dying away, he saw the shame and calumny heaped upon him, he had to swallow his pride and accept mercy from a king he despised.
And he blamed her.
But he still feared her enough, apparently, not to harm her—physically. Her threat still held. But to take away the one thing she loved more than life, the treasure she held more dear than jewels or even revenge—this he would do—this he would do and enjoy it thoroughly.
No need to give him that satisfaction. Morgause turned away. Had her nails been a trifle sharper, they would have left score marks in the heavy wood of the table.
She needed to plan. To think. To find some way to get her boys back. To make sure that, even though they might live at Carleon (for she knew she had no hope of getting Arthur to recant that statement), they never really left her.
She needed a hold. Not over Lot so much – she had all the hold over him she was likely to get – but over Arthur. Something that would keep her boys safe and hers. Something to keep her from falling into the same abyss her mother had jumped into headlong—
Remembering the man and the babe who had driven Igraine into that abyss, Morgause looked up.
Arthur stared at her, clearly stricken – horrified at the reaction his words had produced in her. His gaze was pitying and despairing and confused, so confused, but most of all it was—
She had it.
Her idea. Her plan. The way she would keep her boys safe.
Having her idea, Morgause grinned. It was a cruel, frightening sort of grin – but only Morgan noticed. The men of the court – those close enough to see – saw only what they wanted to see, a woman smiling and happy in her obedience of her husband and her king.
Morgause brought her goblet to her lips to keep from laughing aloud. Docile and happy, ha. She had her plan, she had her hold, she had her boys’ safety assured.
And—perhaps best of all—after all these years, she finally had her revenge.
It had been three days since Lot’s sons and their lovely mother had arrived at Carleon. And for those three days, Arthur had been utterly miserable.
He knew the reason, of course. It was the same reason why his heart beat faster whenever Queen Morgause entered the room and why his palms would break into a sweat whenever he heard her voice. The same reason why he could not look at Lot without having to choke down a raging dragon that rose from his heart, ready to spew fire. The same reason why he had eagerly arranged the private audience Morgan le Fay had requested, the instant she had mentioned something to do with her sister.
He was in love with the fair Morgause. IN LOVE with the fair Morgause. And – this was the key to his misery – he had absolutely no hope of seeing his love to any kind of conclusion.
It wasn’t so much that she was another man’s wife, or that (Arthur forced himself to acknowledge this possibility) she was unlikely to be interested in him, or that he had probably so offended her by his offer of fostering her sons that she never wanted to look at him. It was that she was Lot’s wife. Even Arthur’s lovesick brain wasn’t addled enough not to know what kind of political disaster his carrying on with Queen Morgause would be. It would likely set off a whole new war. And no use hoping that no one would ever find out – a secret that explosive was bound to come out sooner or later, likely at the worst possible time.
So there was little choice for Arthur but to endure the misery and hope it would go away. No use talking about it to anyone; there was no sympathy for his predicament in Carleon. Ector would only be disappointed in his lusting after a married woman; Merlin wasn’t around but would hardly understand anyway. Any of his knights and friends, though he would trust them with his life, he could not trust with this kind of secret. Although Ban’s eldest son Lancelot looked a likely lad, and they were already becoming fast friends … well, they weren’t that good of friends, not yet. And Kay, to whom Arthur had already confided, was as coldly pragmatic as Arthur’s conscience. “Forget her,” Kay had said. “Now. The last thing you need is another war.”
Now, if Cador was here, then, then Arthur knew he would get over this disease that much more quickly. A night of drinking, commiserating, and saying absolutely horrible things about women the world over would have left him right as rain (barring the hangover) by the next morning, he knew it. At least, they always seemed to cure Cador’s bouts of heartsickness. Arthur had, after all, nursed several awful hangovers in the past four years in the name of helping Cador get over heartbreak.
But Cador was not here; he had been forced to return to Cornwall shortly after Badon. So Arthur had to fight his demons alone.
He was trying to distract himself with papers and proposals, although he had already retired to his chamber, ostensibly for bed. But the parchment he had picked up at random only had to do with possibilities for his marriage. Not the line of thought he wanted to pursue right now.
Besides, he thought, throwing down the papers in disgust, we’ve already practically decided on Leodegrance’s daughter, anyway. The only thing holding up the wedding was the girl’s age, she – Guinevere – was only eleven.
He pushed himself away from the desk, grabbed Excalibur and belted her above his dressing gown. Mental labor would not quiet his thoughts tonight. Perhaps physical labor, a round in the practice ring (especially if Lancelot was still awake), would render him so exhausted that the sight of his bed would raise no thoughts but those of peaceful oblivion.
Long strides quickly ate up the distance between his desk and the door, thoughts still swirling as he threw it open—
He stopped dead.
She stood in the doorway, her hand in prime knocking position. Her eyes were impossibly wide, staring at him from beneath the hood of her heavy cloak. Her lips, like rubies in the torchlight, were slightly parted in shock.
With an instinct his father would have applauded, Arthur grabbed her hand and pulled her into the chamber, shutting the door behind him. He rested against the door, pushing his hair back from his face. He realized belatedly that his hand was shaking.
One deep breath. “My lady—what are you doing here?”
Morgause said nothing, just stared up at him, blinking slowly.
“Is this—is this about your sons?” He hadn’t spoken to her since her petition, but he would have had to be a blind fool not to see her reaction to his impetuous announcement about his fostering program. Oh, how he could have killed Lot at that moment! Lot had assured him that Morgause would instantly fall into step with his desires, but any fool could see that the idea of being parted from her sons had been horrifying and heartbreaking.
He pushed those thoughts aside, swallowed and continued to babble. “I—I understand that you’re upset—but when I said all four boys, I meant all four boys eventually, you can send them one at a time if you …”
As he spoke, Morgause was shrugging off her cloak. It puddled to the floor behind her. Under the cloak she wore only her chemise, which was made of a thin, nearly sheer fabric suitable for summer. Under her chemise she wore … nothing.
Arthur’s eyes were nearly perfect circles, so wide were they. A detached portion of his mind reflected that it was a good thing the doors of Carleon were of such thick oak. Otherwise, he would have been on his arse halfway down the hallway.
“M-madam,” Arthur stammered, “that’s not necessary.”
And kicked himself instantly. What, did he want her to believe that he thought her some kind of whore? Prostituting herself to keep her sons nearby? She was a Queen and a duke’s daughter, surely she was above—
“With you? I am certain not, Majesty.” Morgause took a step forward. Had there been any way to move farther away, had the door suddenly turned to liquid and let him pass, Arthur would have taken it. And regretted it as soon as he did so.
As if she sensed his discomfort, she stopped. “No, Majesty, I am certain that I do not have to—to prostitute myself with you.” Well, she said it, not me! Morgause looked away, almost ashamed. “It is with my husband that I have to resort to tricks and teasing, comporting myself little better than a common whore in order to ever achieve what I need.”
What she needs? What could Lot possibly be denying her? Food—drink—companionship? Oh, if Lot was hurting this fair creature, Arthur would strangle him with his bare hands.
“With you … with you there is no need for that. With you, I can be … honest. With you I can be … myself. And indeed, that is all I can be, all I can offer …” She looked up at him, almost stricken for a moment. “If, that is—you want me, Majesty?”
“Arthur,” he corrected, desperately trying to stave off that moment of final reckoning. “C-call me Arthur.”
She smiled. “Very well. Arthur.”
He never knew his name could be said—no—purred quite so seductively …
Arthur shook his head. In his mind, Ector, Merlin and Kay all shrieked abuse at him, demanding he get this woman out of his chambers before he found himself embroiled in another war, before he had to conquer Orkney as his father had conquered Cornwall. “My lady—” he began.
“Morgause,” she corrected.
“M-morgause.” He swallowed. “I—that is—it’s impossible for me to—”
“You don’t want me?” Her lips trembled, her eyes watered, and Arthur felt like someone had launched a blunted lance into his gut. She turned away. “No, no, of course you don’t. Why would you? I can offer you no land, no titles, no children that would bear your name and could inherit your throne—”
“It’s not that!” Arthur cried, taking an unthinking step forward—and stopping, as though some invisible force held him back. “I don’t care about that! My lady—Morgause—if I want you, ‘tis for you, not whatever advantages you can give me.”
She gave a watery smile. “So you simply do not want me.”
“No! No, not that—n-never that. It is just …” Arthur sighed. “You are married.”
“Married?” Morgause spat. “Oh—you mean shackled for life to an unthinking brute who will beat me senseless for the smallest slip of the tongue; who thinks nothing of making me bear four sons in five years, though I begged and begged him for more time between bearings; who, even though he knows I would die for those sons, takes them away without so much as telling me?” She looked away. “Oh, yes, Arthur, I am married, if that is what you mean by the term.”
He stared at her helplessly. There could no talk of politics, of danger, of war to her. She would not hear it; or rather, she would only hear a particularly cowardly way of rejection.
But perhaps there still was a way to salvage this situation. “Morgause,” he whispered, taking another step forward and softly touching her hair, “if we can prove that Lot is as cruel as you say, we can—that is, there must be a way to set you free from this marriage.”
Morgause looked up; quite by accident, her head turned so that his hand was stroking her cheek. Arthur was about to pull away, but Morgause laid her hand, oh so gently, on top of his, holding it to her. “Oh, Arthur,” she whispered. “You can set me free from this marriage right now – if only for a little while – and we have no need to prove anything.”
He felt himself inch closer. “Are you—sure?”
For a second Arthur thought he saw hesitation in her eyes – and why not? What they were about to do was foolish—illegal—a sin. If she wanted to back out, he would in no way blame her.
Her face hardened for a moment—so quickly that Arthur was sure he imagined it—before it softened. “Oh, yes, Arthur.” She moved closer—he closed the distance—their lips met.
It was not long after that that they found themselves abed. Morgause’s chemise and Arthur’s tunic and dressing gown were discarded at the end of the bed. Excalibur, however, half out of her sheath, lay carelessly tossed halfway across the room.
She lay there, still and silent (as is the general way of swords) as the couple continued their sport on the bed. Her blade, generally so bright and reflective, shone dull in the candles. The golden letters almost seemed faded to nothing.
If a sword could be betrayed, then this sword was betrayed and more.
She was heartbroken.