Darkness on the Edge of Town
It was a warm Sunday morning in June that found Buck—or King Arthur, as everyone had insisted on calling him for the past six months—practicing archery with his brother – foster-brother – Kay, as they waited for the Sword Trials, as they were beginning to be called. In other words, Buck was waiting for evening, when he would be asked to draw the Sword from the Stone. Again.
He’d almost lost count of the amount of times he’d had to do it. Four, at least – four “officially,” that is. First was the time on New Year’s Day, then Twelfth Night, when all the knights and barons and kings in London had tried their hand, and failed. Except for Buck. But apparently everyone wasn’t there, so the barons and bishops had decided to delay the coronation until after Candlemas, when presumably everyone would show up to try at the sword.
They had, or at least the crowd had seemed bigger. And all the noble-born men had tried at the sword. They had all failed. Except for Buck.
And yet the bishops and barons still wouldn’t crown him. They’d made noise about Candlemas being at the very beginning of February, so there were probably several people who couldn’t make it. They’d pushed back the coronation until after Easter, when another trial would be made.
Even more people had shown up for this one, including some commoners who had shoved through and tried at the sword. They had all failed. Except for Buck.
But there had been heavy rains across the country that week! the barons and bishops protested. Surely some nobles had not been able to make it!
Buck wanted to know how they had known the weather across the entire country, but it had certainly rained in London (though it was April! Didn’t people just expect rain in April?), so he had acquiesced to another push-back of the coronation. He’d wait until Pentecost. And, in Buck’s opinion, if there was anyone who failed to show up for that, then clearly he (the person who didn’t bother to show) did not want to be king.
So that was that. One more time, and Buck would be king, and he would finally get to keep Excalibur, which was what the wonderful sword was called. And maybe people would start listening to what he had to say. Oh, suddenly he had dozens of servants, and they were all very deferential, willing to do whatever he wanted. And most people he met were the same. They all bloody fawned over him. In fact, it was a bit disgusting.
But maybe after today he’d have a chance to make decisions that really mattered, beyond eating roast boar for supper every night if he wanted. Which he had already attempted. The servants had only been too happy to oblige, but it had gotten boring rather quickly. It had only taken a week before Buck decided to use his kingly power for greater causes than the micromanagement of dinner.
But for now, he had time to kill, and an idea he wanted to try out … he waited for Kay to line up his shot, then asked quietly, “D’you think I should try to pull Excalibur out with my teeth?”
Kay choked, the arrow flew wide, and six months ago Buck would have had to run. He very nearly had to duck, as Kay aimed to thwack him with the bow. Kay stopped himself, though, just before it hit. With a guilty look at the two guards Buck now had, he pulled the bow away and contented himself with giving Buck dirty look. “Idiot! You messed up my shot!”
Buck glanced at the guards too, with something of a frown. These were not the sleepy sentries that watched the treasury and gatehouse back home; these were knights, important ones too. Their names were Sir Ulfius and Sir Brastias; Sir Ulfius had been Uther’s personal chamberlain, Sir Brastias the head of the Queen’s personal guard. He’d come with her from Cornwall and everything. But the Queen – the Dowager Queen – was safely ensconced in a nunnery now, and Sir Brastias had left her service, probably for some excitement. If so, Sir Brastias might have been better off at the nunnery. If being Buck had a tendency to get dull, then shouldn’t guarding him be twice as dull?
“Buck?” Kay asked. Buck recalled himself with a start.
“You never answered my question,” Buck replied, to cover up his momentary lapse of attention. “D’you think I should?”
“You should, it’d be gre—” Kay stopped and sighed. “You’d probably start a riot. Or else the barons would all try to kill you. For desecrating the sword or something.”
“It’s my sword! I should get to desecrate h—it if I want to!” Buck protested. “Besides, I’d like to see them try. They wouldn’t get within five feet of me when I had Excalibur in my hand.”
“Of course they would. The blade’s only three feet long, idiot.” Before Buck could protest that he hadn’t meant five feet literally, Kay added, “More importantly, you’ve been getting worse at swordplay. How long do you think you’d be able to hold off an army of barons twice your age, eh?”
“Long enough,” Buck retorted, not taking up the swordplay comment. He had been getting worse, or seeming worse. And the reason that he wanted to give for his uncharacteristically poor performance would only seem like whining, or worse, excuses. It was just that no other sword they could give him was Excalibur.
And there was no sneaking over to the churchyard to borrow it for a little clandestine practice, either. There were ten knights guarding the sword now, five on guard at all times. Buck would never be able to get past them. He’d already tried.
“Well, you’ll get your sword soon enough. By nightfall, probably,” Kay temporized. “And then you’ll be king for once and for all …”
“And we can stop this madness. And you can start to be seneschal for real.” Buck bit his lip. “Kay?”
“You did find a good scribe to help you out with the work, right? At least at first?”
“Buck!” Kay aimed another thwack for him, though this time one with his hand. “If you didn’t think I could do it, you shouldn’t have given me the job!”
“I think you can do it,” Buck hedged. “I just don’t think you can do it legibly. Remember how Merlin used to pull his hair out over your lettering?”
“God’s blood, let’s not get into that … amazing the old man has any hair left …”
“Your Majesty!” That was Sir Ulfius. Buck turned. “You’re wanted, Your Majesty. The wizard Merlin—”
“Speak of the devil,” Kay muttered, while Merlin interrupted the knight, “For God’s sake, Ulfius, I can announce myself! Bu—Your Majesty! Come here a moment! I’ve a message for you!”
A message? Who would be sending him a message? Not just the general well-wishing that had been coming in ever since New Year’s; Merlin wouldn’t be bothering him for that. But a real message?
Buck nodded to Kay and ran for the fence. “What is it, Merlin?”
Merlin laid a hand on his shoulder. “Come with me, my lad. We should discuss this in private. Ulfius, Brastias, leave us. His Majesty will be quite well guarded my me, I assure you.”
“Merlin, my lord, I am not so sure …”
“Or, of course, I could always turn you into a toad for the duration of our conversation. You see, Ulfius, I must speak to the King in private, but if you insist on being present …”
Sir Ulfius and Sir Brastias made themselves scarce in record time.
“I thought that might get rid of them,” Merlin said with a devilish smile. “Come, lad.”
Buck grinned and walked by the side of his old tutor.
It was still hard to reconcile the Merlin who had taught him his amo amas amat with the great wizard who had prophesied the end of King Vortigern’s reign and broken the siege at Terrabil, but when Buck had asked – oh, so many years ago! – if his Merlin was the same Merlin who had done all those things, Merlin had laughed heartily and said no. And now he insisted that what he had said was true … in a manner of speaking.
“Truthfully,” Merlin had said, “I didn’t do either of those things. The red dragon/white dragon bit with Vortigern wasn’t so much a prophecy as a bit of illusion designed to get me out of being a human sacrifice. That it ended up resembling later events, inasmuch as the white dragon was Vortigern’s symbol and the red dragon the symbol of Ambrosius and all the Pendragons, was … well, not exactly a coincidence. I designed the red dragon, you see, in order to ensure that Vortigern would need a new pair of trews and thus give myself time to escape. But it certainly was no prophecy.
“As for Terrabil …” Here the old man had sighed and actually looked, well, old. Which, despite the white hairs speckled within the wizard’s bushy copper mane and Merlin’s professed age (two-and-forty), was not something Buck generally thought his tutor to be. “It is an incredibly complicated story, and I am not—altogether proud of the part I played in it.”
Of course then Buck had only wanted to know more, but Ector had interrupted and they never had a chance to resume the story.
But in so many ways, Merlin was still the same old Merlin, even though he now had a heroic past grafted onto him. And now he was clearly puzzled and worried – Buck could see that by the way he nibbled absently at his lip, catching some strands of his beard in the process.
“What’s the matter, Merlin? Who sent the message?” He tried to stand on tiptoe to read the letter Merlin still held in his hand. But even though Buck was nearly at his full growth, Merlin was a tall man and easily able to hold it out of the sight of his erstwhile pupil.
“It is … well, to be completely truthful,” Merlin said as soon as they entered an empty solar. He closed the door behind him and did a certain something that Buck could only identify as a faint buzz just on the edge of hearing or feeling. “To be completely truthful, the letter was not sent to you. It was sent to me. But it has a message for you.”
“What is it?” Buck asked.
Merlin sighed. “Sit, my lad.” Long accustomed to obedience, Buck sat. The wizard, however, refused to do likewise. He began to pace.
Just before Buck was about to repeat his question, Merlin sighed and spoke. “Before I answer ‘what,’” he said, “I had best answer ‘who.’ The person who sent me this letter is none other than England’s most talented Seer. And what she wanted to say—”
“She?” Buck asked.
“Aye—this … lady, we shall say, comes from a long line of powerful female Seers. And what she wants me to tell you …” Merlin looked at the letter and sighed. “She wants you to know, Buck, that you still have time to walk away.”
“By walk away I mean leave this – the kingship, the sword, all – and go live your life as … as a normal man. A knight no better and no different than any other. By so doing, you could—”
“Is she mad?” Buck interjected.
Merlin opened his mouth and shut it. “Not—anymore.”
“Show some respect for the lady, Buck—no, not anymore. This lady … she has had … truly terrible things done to her. She lost her husband, was forced to marry a man she despised, then she lost her first-born son …” Merlin sighed. “And there is still so much I need to tell you …” He shook his head. “This first. Buck, what this lady wishes for me to tell you is that there are now two paths open before you. One leads to obscurity, but freedom, longevity. The small triumphs and tribulations that make up any life. The other …”
His eyes became unfocused; he seemed to be staring off into a great distance. “The other leads to fame. Fortune. Adventure, even. Songs and stories. But … at a price. A fall as spectacular as the rise, this lady writes. And slavery, of a sort. In short, the second path is that of the kingship of England.”
“Slavery?” Buck repeated.
“Of a sort.”
“What’s that supposed to mean? I’d be the King of England, there’s not a man in the realm who would outrank me—”
“And thus you would be the slave of all.”
“How? I’d be the King! They would all have to do what I wanted! That’s not slavery, that’s—that’s—that’s being the ultimate master! One step down from God!”
It’s not that simple—Buck, listen to me. Yes, you would be the King. And you wouldn’t be a slave in the usual sense. You wouldn’t be expected to do manual labor or work under the lash. And yes, most people would be rushing to do your bidding. I doubt you would ever have to lace your own boots again if you didn’t want to.” Seeing the look in Buck’s eyes, Merlin added, “Don’t. I’ve suffered the indignity of having others tie my bootstraps for me. Believe me, it is far easier to just do it yourself.
“But what I mean is … you would be the master of all, yes. But because you were the master, you would be the slave of all. It would be your job – your sole and unavoidable duty – to ensure the health and happiness of every person in your realm. Just as a baron must ensure the health and happiness of every peasant on his lands.”
“But they don’t!”
Merlin froze. “Have you listened to nothing that I taught you?”
Buck swallowed. “I—”
The look on Merlin’s face was positively terrifying – like a man who was watching his entire life’s work be eaten by flames. “Buck, is it right that the barons care nothing for the peasants by whose labors they are fed, clothed and sheltered?”
“Of course not!”
“So, were you a baron, would act the same?”
“No! Of course not! But—but I can’t keep everybody healthy and happy! Not in the whole of England! Not—not even just in this house!”
Merlin sighed, but smiled. “No. I misspoke. You cannot guarantee the health and happiness of everyone. But what could do – what it would be your sovereign duty to do – would be to set, to the best of your ability, the conditions that would allow for health, prosperity, and safety for the greatest possible number of your subjects.” Merlin shrugged. “Happiness, alas, we must leave to the individuals. Though I do find that having enough food on the table and a solid roof over one’s head contributes greatly to it.”
Well, that made the whole responsibility seem much easier. Heaven knew if Buck could never determine what it was that would make every soul in England happy. He didn’t even know what would make him happy half the time.
But safety, health and prosperity for everyone in England, or close enough to it … how was he to do that? Other than securing the borders and enforcing the laws? But that only covered safety, what about everything else?
Plus, there was that thing the Seer had said about a fall every bit as spectacular as the rise …
“What will happen if I walk away?” he asked.
“A life of obscurity, as I said. I daresay you would be able to manage about the average amount of happiness. Maybe more.”
“And if I stay … then I’ll be a slave and miserable?”
“Not miserable. Not all the time. The letter did not say that. There will be moments of happiness—of triumph—moments that will lengthen into hours, hours into days. But there will always be …” Merlin’s mustache twitched, as if he was remembering something. “Shadow. There will always be shadow over your reign. And your life.
“But, Buck, you see … to speak of ‘your life’ after you take up the burden of the crown is, in fact, to misspeak. Because once you take the crown, the life you lead will no longer be your own. You will no longer be Buck. You will have to be King Arthur.”
Buck gulped. He turned away and began to gnaw on a thumbnail. “And—if I walk away, who will be King then?”
“I don’t know. There will probably be a civil war. Whoever emerges the strongest will have the crown, I daresay.”
“Civil war?” Buck whirled around. “But—but I can’t walk away if—”
“Buck, shush. Don’t worry about that.”
“You just said that I—”
“Buck!” The temper that came with the red hair showed, just a bit, and Buck shut his mouth. “I—I did not want to tell you this before—but I do not think you should let the possibility of civil war bear too much on your calculations, because I very much believe that we shall have war on our hands no matter what you decide to do.”
“Yes. Oh. Buck …” Merlin sighed. “Just this once – and perhaps, depending upon what you decide, for the last time – make this decision only as it will affect you. That is all that this Seer asks of you.”
“I …” Buck turned away. “Merlin?”
“Yes, my lad?”
“What is it that you want me to do?”
“Don’t ask me that, my lad.”
“Because …” A sigh. “Because I have no answer. Buck … Arthur … I have worked long—oh, so long—to bring you to this place. To put the sword in your hand and the crown on your head and to bid you to rule. I have done things that will haunt my soul forever. But … but at the same time, I have taught you for nine years now, and I am fond of you. And I do not want to see you suffer. If you take up this burden,” Merlin concluded, glancing at the letter, “suffer you will.”
Buck looked up. “How does that,” he nodded to the parchment, “say I’m going to suffer?”
Merlin shoved the letter up a voluminous sleeve. “Now, Buck, it is not wise to know too much of the future. Remember the story of Oedipus.”
“God’s blood, am I to marry my mother then?”
“Good heavens, no! I meant the reference metaphorically!” Merlin shook his head. “Come now, Buck my lad, noon approaches and you must have your answer by then. What is it that you want to do? And think only as yourself, only as a lad of fifteen winters. Think as Buck. And enjoy it. After this … it may well be that you will have to think always as a king.”
Buck took a deep breath. And thought.
“Yes, my lad?”
“Father—I mean Sir Ector—”
“Don’t bother with the correction, my lad. Except for the actual siring of you, Sir Ector is your father in every way that counts.”
Buck nodded. “Well, Father always says that when a man reaches the end of his life, it’s not the things he did that he regrets, it’s the things he didn’t do.” He began to gnaw on the thumbnail again. “Well—if I walk away, as you say—I know I’ll regret it always. I’ll always be thinking—what might have happened? What kind of king would I have been? Whereas if I go and be king … well, at least I’ll know how it all turns out in the end.
“Besides,” Buck added, “what if one of those other barons becomes king? The ones who treat their peasants worse than their animals? What would that do to the country? And what kind of person would that make me? Wouldn’t it be better to try to rule well and, well, flub it than it would be to throw the country into the lap of a tyrant by running away?”
Buck turned around. “Well—wouldn’t it?”
“I cannot answer that question for you, Buck. Only you can answer it.”
Buck made a face. “Well, I think it would be. At least I know I’ll try to be a good king. I can’t say that for anyone else.
“More importantly …” Buck swallowed, and his voice suddenly shot up an octave, making him sound that much younger. “I won’t—I won’t have to do it all by myself, will I? You will help me—won’t you?”
Merlin smiled. “Indeed I shall, Buck.”
“Good. Then that—that’s settled.”
“Is it?” Merlin raised one eyebrow and laid a hand on Buck’s shoulder. “This is your last chance, my lad. Be sure before you go outside and pull that sword one last time. Now—is it settled?”
Buck swallowed. And he thought.
“Yes, Merlin. I shall be King.” He swallowed again. “I shall be Buck no more. From now on—I am King Arthur, and King Arthur alone.”