Darkness on the Edge of Town
Another long wait for the horde of knights, nobles and kings to finish trying their luck at the sword. Lot milled through the crowd and tried not to look too impatient. As a king, and an important one, he had already had his (fourth) attempt at the sword within the first hour of testing. Nothing had come of it, of course, but he wasn’t expecting it to. The real object that was going to place a crown on his head was tucked next to his breast.
The pen, after all, was mightier than the sword, or so they said.
Yet Lot had never believed it before he saw the marriage articles of Uther and Igraine. It had taken him months to find one; all copies had seemingly disappeared sometime in the sixteen years since Uther’s marriage. It was only in the interval between Easter and Pentecost that Lot had had time to travel to Carleon, place a few appropriate bribes, and see to it that the original marriage articles were copied by a trusted scribe. But of course all the money was worth it.
Morgause was right. He was the next High King. Which meant, of course, that the famed Sword in the Stone could be none other than a fraud set by the wizard Merlin. Of course the boy pulled it out every time. It was probably bespelled to allow no one to succeed but the boy.
Why Merlin would choose an obscure fosterling of an obscurer knight to be the vehicle of this fraud was beyond Lot’s ken, but he had heard that Merlin had been tutoring the boy for almost ten years. Probably what Merlin really wanted was the crown for himself, but knew that the good folk of England would never accept a half-demon as their king. So he had done the next best thing: chosen a gullible young lad, probably already dependent on Merlin to do his thinking for him, and schemed to rule the country through him.
The gullible young lad sat on a dias between the stone and the church, not on a throne, since that was symbolically left empty, but on a stool perilously close to it. Funny, but he seemed to have grown since Easter. Not just physically, either, for all that he was at the age when lads grew like weeds. But today, instead of being in merry if impatient spirits, he seemed almost thoughtful, withdrawn. Every now and again he brought a hand to his mouth, though Lot could not determine what it was he was doing. Biting his nails, perhaps?
But all of the boy’s newfound maturity was likely to mean nothing. It more than likely wasn’t even maturity, after all. Probably just the country-bumpkin mannerisms finally wearing off.
It was five hours after noon, though, and the last of the commoners bold enough to have a go at the sword was approaching it. The churl seemed almost to be quaking in his boots. He put a hand to the sword, cast a faintly panicked look at the dais, then brought his other hand to it and pulled.
Nothing happened, of course, but the churl hesitated. Lot hoped devoutly that he wasn’t going to be an idiot about it, pulling and cursing and sweating when it was clear that the sword would only be taken by the boy. Luckily, though, the peasant was reasonable. He stepped away, bowed toward the dias, and vanished – almost gratefully – into the crowd.
Now it was the boy’s turn. Sir Ector nudged him, and the lad shook himself from his thoughts. He stepped off the dias and walked to the sword. No peacocking or posturing this time, no playing to the crowd. There was a bit of hesitation as the boy put his hand to the hilt; Lot almost thought that he was steeling himself, preparing to take an irrevocable step into an uncertain future. Then he grasped the pommel with both hands and, as cleanly and easily as if he were taking the sword from a sheath, brought it forth from the stone.
Arthur held the blade high, clearly showing it to the crowd. Then, before any of the gathered peasants could cheer, he sheathed it and bowed to the closely-clustered bishops and minor kings. “Will this test be sufficient, my lords,” he asked in a voice pitched to carry through the crowd, “or must we go through these ceremonies again and until Doomsday?”
One of the bishops opened his mouth, probably to suggest another test at Michaelmas, perhaps, but Lot interrupted. Quickly appropriating a good spot on the low retaining wall of the church, so that all men could see him, he shouted, “This test is a fraud!”
Of course that was bound to cause a reaction. In his later years Lot would realize that he was lucky he hadn’t started a riot. But now he would have no truck with peasant’s rumblings and murmurings. “Peace!” he called, flinging his arms wide. He didn’t even notice the rotten head of cabbage that sailed past his own head. “I said peace!” he ordered when the hubbub refused to die.
The commons of London may have been, as a group, restive and insubordinate, but every citizen in that crowd knew better than to protest when a noble took that tone. Slowly, in fits and starts, they quieted.
In the interval, Lot came to notice that the boy-king was no longer the only one from the dias to be standing. His allies – Sir Ector, Merlin, the new-made knight who carried more than a hint of resemblance to Sir Ector – had come to flank him. With them were Sir Ulfius and Sir Brastias. Blast – Lot had hoped to have Sir Ulfius’s backing on this plot. Of them, though, clearly Arthur and the other boy were the most furious; Sir Ector seemed mildly frightened, the other knights watchful, and Merlin resigned.
When the noise died, Merlin asked in a tone which sounded perfectly reasonable for a quiet conversation and yet somehow managed to reach the ears of every hearer in the crowd, “Would you care to explain your remark, King Lot?”
“I shall! I attest that this test is a fraud,” he brought out the marriage articles, “perpetrated to cheat my wife and my sons out of their rightful inheritance!”
He had perhaps overestimated the power of his rhetoric when he had assumed that, as soon as he showed the scroll, the crowd would instantly shout and scream and back his claim. Or if not the crowd, then certainly the nobles. But nobody moved.
So perhaps a bit more explanation was in order. “I have here the marriage articles of King Uther and Queen Igraine! In them, it is promised that should Uther die without a legitimate heir, I—I mean my wife Morgause should inherit the throne, to be passed onto her sons! Or barring sons, her sisters Morgan and Elaine! You helped to negotiate these articles, Merlin—do you deny that this is what they say?”
“Not at all,” the old man replied mildly.
Lot was almost taken aback, but he recovered quickly enough to ask, “Then do you deny that this ‘sword in the stone’ is naught more than a fraud perpetrated by you, in order to gain control of the crown? That this orphaned fosterling is nothing more than some waif you picked up and groomed to adorn a throne?”
“Do you question my honor, sir?” the boy called out, stepping forward. “If you think I am not fit to be king,” he unsheathed the sword, “then come here and prove it on my body, if you dare!”
“Buck!” came the strangled cry of the boy’s foster-father.
“I’ll second him!” the other boy added, taking his place by his foster-brother’s side.
“Kay! Keep out of this!”
But Lot paid no attention to this exchange, nor to Sir Ector attempting to restrain his son while Merlin remonstrated quietly with the foster-son. For Lot’s eyes were on the sword, now, owing to a trick of the light, bathed in an ethereal glow. And from deep within him came a tendril of fear …
Soon, though, he would have had some sort of dismissal ready for the boy, something to the effect that he, as a man of truly noble and moreover royal blood, had better things to do than to take shiftless, bastard pretenders to task. Soon he would have put the boy in his place.
But fate had other plans in store. “We will have none of this!” cried a particularly burly member of the crowd – probably a blacksmith. “No fraud and pretenders!”
Lot’s spirits rose, here, then, was popular support—
“We will have Arthur unto our king!”
Lot’s jaw fell.
“Aye!” another man called. “We will have no more in delay, for we see that it is God’s will that he shall be our king!”
“And who that holdeth against it, we will slay him!”
Then the crowd’s voice rose in a din fit to shake the foundations of St. Paul’s itself: “ARTHUR! ARTHUR! ARTHUR!”
The boy-king beamed, but more than that Lot had no opportunity to see. A fist thrown inopportunely into the air had the unintended (or was it?) effect of throwing Lot off balance, and into the crowd he fell.
Had Lot, perhaps, been a little less lucky that day, or the new King Arthur a little more lucky, a thousand feet and a thousand bodies would have trampled the King of Lothian and Orkney then and there, but Lot was lucky and Arthur was not. Before so much as one foot could find its way into the flesh of Lot’s stomach, a group of armed men had shoved their way through the crowd and hauled Lot ignominiously to his feet.
Lot almost protested at the rough handling – he was a noble and a king and High King by rights! – but then he saw the crest on the guards’ livery.
Garlot. This could prove advantageous …
“Begging your pardon, my lord,” one of the men called over the door, “but our king wishes to see you immediately. He believes you and he would have much to discuss.”
“King Nentres?” Lot asked. The guard nodded. “Lead on, then!”
The guards provided a protective cocoon from the crowd as they proceeded to fight their way through. But though progress was slow and indeed risky, Lot could not keep a smile from his face.
King Nentres of Garlot, though young, was powerful. He controlled a sizable tract of land and a strong, well-fed army. But that was not principally what made Lot smile.
King Nentres of Garlot was married to Elaine of Cornwall, the youngest sister of his own wife Morgause.
Lot’s grin deepened. Perhaps his plans were not ruined after all.
“So Lot has five kingly allies, and I’ve only got one?” Arthur asked Merlin as the company rode to meet the man who was probably going to be Arthur’s most influential ally, Mark, King of Cornwall.
“It is not the quantity but the quality of your allies that matters,” Merlin replied. “The men Lot has gathered about him are tyrants every bit as greedy as he is. Uriens of Gore has ill-treated three wives into the grave; Claudas of Scotland has been bleeding France white for no decent reason for years; Barrant le Apres of the Hundred Knights starves his peasantry to feed his army. And Caradoc of the Dolorous Tower is most charitably described as a sadist. The only half-decent man among them is Nentres of Garlot, and even he is not immune from the stinging bite of avarice.”
“They’re all gits. I’m not disputing that,” Arthur retorted. “But they’re gits with armies.”
“Who won’t be fighting you until spring at least, so why are you worrying now?” Merlin snapped.
Before Arthur could come up with a suitably tetchy answer, Sir Ector intervened. “Come now, Majesty, don’t be so fretful. Remember that the alliance with King Leodegrance looks promising. And Merlin, be …” At the withering look the wizard sent him, Ector’s flow of words dried up.
Kay nudged Arthur. “Don’t you know better than to bother Merlin when he’s on a horse?”
“I’m trying to think like a king.”
“Well, try thinking like a king some other time. He gets in a bad temper as soon as he’s within ten feet of the stables, you know that.”
Arthur checked to make certain that none of the escort was looking, then stuck his tongue out at Kay.
But the weather was fine, he was outside, and he, unlike Merlin, actually enjoyed being on horseback, so Arthur settled back to enjoy the ride. The trees to either side of the path were heavy-hung with apples, their leaves just tinged with yellow or orange. In the fields, scythes moved up and down, scattering bands of sunlight as the reapers rushed to get the harvest in. The hogs were being fed to excess, in order to better grace the tables come winter.
Arthur felt it hard to restrain a sigh. Summer was over, his first summer as king, and never had he passed so dull a summer in all his life. He’d looked forward to the remove to Carleon after Pentecost, but as soon as he had gotten there, it had been nothing but an endless round of maps, reports, and disputes to be settled. Oh, and meeting with ambassadors, he couldn’t forget that, much as he hoped to. They all said the same thing, only their English was so atrocious that it could barely be understood, and he couldn’t try to speak Latin to them. Or at least, he had tried, but between his English cadence to the ancient tongue and their whatever-it-was accent, the results were even more of a muddle. Better just to keep the conversation in English and nod and smile as necessary.
But the ride, pleasant as it was (apart from Merlin’s muttered curses against all things equine) could not last long, for soon they were rounding the bend in the path to meet the encampment of King Mark of Cornwall.
Arthur had heard of King Mark, of course, everyone in the nation had. He had been one of Uther’s key knights and supposedly had slain the treasonous Duke of Cornwall in person. It was for this that he had been made king of Cornwall. He was a good enough king in his way, devious to other nobles but reasonably fair and just to his vassals. Merlin for some reason didn’t seem too fond of him, but the old man had only sighed when Mark had offered his service and had said that at least the king was an experienced general.
But it was one thing to hear of a man, and another to meet him in person. Stranger still, when this hero of past wars dismounted his from his horse and greeted you with a sweeping bow. “My liege,” the king said.
“Er—greetings, King Mark.” Arthur glanced sidelong at Merlin, but Merlin was eyeing the distance between his foot and the ground with what could only be called trepidation. “We—um—hope you had a pleasant journey?” Ector nudged him, and Arthur added. “Oh! You can get up now, if you want.”
Mark rose with a hint of a smile. Arthur decided that he somewhat mistrusted the amused look in his black, hooded eyes, but so what? He had to make do with the allies he had, not the allies he wanted.
Arthur dismounted and cast a glance around Mark’s escort. Most were small, dark-haired Cornishmen, very few of whom attempted to meet his eyes. So there was still bad blood between the High King and the Cornish, even though that war had concluded before Arthur had been born? Arthur barely refrained from rolling his eyes.
As he looked, though, something—someone—caught his eye. A boy, around the same age as he and Kay. He was dressed as a knight, and was regarding Arthur with an expression of unalloyed interest. The boy was average in height, stocky of build, with auburn-black hair and eyes a warm, dark brown. But none of that was what drew Arthur’s attention. Something about his face … something in the square jaw, the Roman nose, the—
Hey—he looks like me!
King Mark saw the way the Arthur’s eyes were tending, and he beckoned the young knight over. “Majesty, if I may be so bold, might I introduce my foster-son?”
Arthur blinked. Foster-son? Another fosterling, like him?
“Majesty, this is Sir Cador of Cornwall, natural son of my late wife Glynis and Uther Pendragon.”
Arthur’s eyes went wide. “Natural,” as everyone knew, was a euphemism for “bastard,” so if this Cador was one of Uther’s many sons born on the wrong side of the blanket …
Then he and Arthur were half-brothers.
Arthur gulped as Cador bowed. “My liege,” he said, with a smile that, had Arthur not usurped a throne from Cador, Arthur would have interpreted as friendly.
“Pleased to meet you, Sir Cador. I …” He swallowed. “Um—haven’t we things to be discussing?”
King Mark laughed. “Goodness, my liege! So eager to get to business. Not at all like …” He paused for a moment. “Not at all like our last king.”
Arthur gave a shaky smile.
Mark coughed. “If, my lords, you would wish to re-mount—”
“No, we would not,” Merlin said testily. “I’m sure wherever it is you want to go, it is near enough to walk. Our legs could use some exercise.”
Mark shot him a faintly incredulous look, then laughed. “My lord Merlin, I must say, you haven’t changed a bit.”
“Neither have you, Sir Marcus. Now, to your tent, I presume?”
Mark’s eyebrow shot up at the odd address, but after a moment he bowed his head. “Indeed. This way, my lords.”
They set off in the direction of the grandest pavilion, the one marked by the snake of Cornwall. And of course once they arrived, it was straight to business.
It was all very long and truthfully, quite dull – troop levels and provisioning and potential strengths and weaknesses and all that rot. Apparently Mark had some wonderful bases at his disposal, but the problem with those was that they couldn’t be moved and – since Lot and some of the other kings had participated in the last attack on Cornwall – it was very unlikely that the League of Six would be induced to attack on Cornish soil. But Arthur strove to listen, and pay attention, and sometimes make suggestions. If he was going to be King, he’d have to do this sort of thing all the time, so he’d better get used to it.
The golden autumn afternoon was mellowing into a golden-red twilight when they finished. Ector pulled the flap of the pavilion open. “We won’t be able to make it back to Carleon before nightfall – might we depend on your hospitality for a night, then we can all remove to Carleon in the morning?”
“Of course, Sir Ector. I already told my cooks to prepare dinner for four extra. It should be ready within the hour.”
Within the hour? “So there’s time for a walk, then?” Arthur heard himself ask.
King Mark quirked one eyebrow, but Ector just laughed. “Forgive me, your majesty, but I’m afraid our young King is not overly used to sitting down for long afternoons. He’s more accustomed to stretching his legs.”
Mark gave a smile that was almost paternal and understanding, but wasn’t … quite. “Of course, my liege.”
“Good,” Arthur replied. Kay was already in the process of getting up, but Arthur asked, “Sir Cador, care to come with me?”
Sir Cador, who had stayed with them but had not said much of anything, looked up, blinking. “Aye, of course, Your Majesty.”
“Good. I …” Arthur saw Kay’s face, which looked stricken. Oh, dear. He sent a half-sheepish, half-apologetic shrug and smile to his foster-brother. It might seem cruel, but really, Sir Cador was his half-brother, and Kay … Kay would understand, wouldn’t he?
Maybe not. Well, too late to do anything about it now. He’d patch things up with Kay later. For now, he and Sir Cador were walking out into the late afternoon, and for the first few minutes Arthur concentrated on getting the cramps out of his legs.
But soon the time for speaking came, and so Arthur, who had not yet learned diplomacy, blurted out the first thing that came to mind – in fact, the thing that had been bothering him the most. “You’re not mad at me, are you?”
Sir Cador paused in mid-step. “Mad at you, Your Majesty?”
“Don’t call me that. Call me …” He almost said Buck but Kay, who was the only one who still called him that, would only get upset if he heard Cador using it. He thought. “Call me Arthur. And yes, mad at me. You could have been king. I took it from you.”
“If I may presume, my—Arthur, you’re Uther’s son as much as I am.”
“Yes, but I’m younger—at least—I think I am—how old are you?”
“Sixteen two weeks ago.”
Goodness, Uther must have been busy. Arthur’s sixteenth birthday was only three months away. “So you are older than me. So you could have been—”
Sir Cador was shaking his head. “I tried the sword almost as many times are you did. It didn’t want me. It wanted you.”
Yes, and Arthur was beginning to doubt the sword’s choice more and more. Still, he wasn’t fool enough to say so out loud, and he patted Excalibur’s pommel, where she hung at his side, as if to apologize in case he had offended her. “Maybe, but—”
“Arthur, I could never have become king. Even if you hadn’t shown up. Who would back my claim?” He shrugged. “We’ve five more half-brothers, all older than us. Acknowledged ones, that is. If you hadn’t taken the sword, there would have been six of us fighting for the crown. I daresay Madoc would have gotten it, since he’s the oldest. Or maybe Borre, since people like him more than they do Madoc.”
Arthur nodded; Cador, as the youngest of the brothers, probably would have had no chance. “Do you know where they are now?”
“Well, Gildas entered a monastery two years ago. But the rest, so far as I’ve heard, are in …” Cador made a face. “They’re in Lot’s army.”
“Why? Lot isn’t fighting for them.”
“No, but they probably have a better chance of being made king if they distinguish themselves in Lot’s army – and if Lot manages to disgrace himself – than they do if they distinguish themselves in yours. Most of the other kings aren’t fighting so much for Lot as against you. Or so my lord Mark says.”
“Merlin says the same thing.” Arthur shook his head. “I don’t know what I did to offend them all.”
“Being king when they couldn’t, I suppose,” Cador answered with a shrug.
“Rather a stupid thing to be mad at me for, I think. I mean, if it wasn’t me it’d just be someone else – someone who also probably wouldn’t be them.”
They walked for a few more moments in silence, before Arthur impetuously asked, “What was he like?”
Cador blinked. “Who?”
“Your—” He paused. “Our father.”
“Oh, Uther?” Arthur almost blinked at the familiarity, but then again, he supposed it was easy to be familiar when you had known all your life that you were Uther’s son, as opposed to being told that only this past January. “He …” Cador shook his head. “I only met him three times. That I remember.”
Arthur blinked. “Three times?”
“Well, it was probably more than that. Uther was in Cornwall until I was six months old – that was when his legitimate son, Igraine’s son, died and she went mad and they all went back to Carleon. So I probably saw him then, or he saw me, but like I said, I don’t remember.” He shrugged. “Other than that, he visited Cornwall when I was five and eleven. And the year before last, my lord Mark brought me along when he went to Carleon for Christmas. But each time …” He shrugged again.
“Well, it’s not like I spent much time with Uther. When I was five it was barely half an hour. A couple hours when I was eleven, not counting the time spent at feasts and during the hunts we had. And the time I went to the court it was the same. A couple hours alone, most of the time seeing him from a place far off in the crowd.” Cador paused. “You know, if you really want to know what Uther was like, you should ask my lord Mark. They were great friends for years, until Uther died.”
Arthur shook his head. After hearing that he had only troubled to see one of his bastard sons three times in the latter’s life, Arthur wasn’t sure he wanted to know too much more about Uther at all.
And he never came to see me … didn’t even acknowledge me. What kind of a father were you really, Uther?
And more importantly – what kind of a king?