Darkness on the Edge of Town
Rain poured, the sea tossed and crashed, the whitecap waves were covered in suds like a mad witch’s washing, but the windows of the queen’s chamber in Dunlothian were flung open. Morgause stood in front of them, entranced by the smell of the brine. Lightning crashed offshore, framing her figure in an eerie light.
Lot was gone! Gone to gather forces and men at Garlot, despite the fact that there would be no fighting until spring at least. Some – most, maybe – women wept when their husbands went off to war, and so for that matter had Morgause, crying quite prettily when she and Lot were alone together and letting a few stray tears fall down her face when she watched his horse go over the drawbridge. She’d wiped them away quickly, as if they were something to be ashamed of, but the servants and her ladies had noted. And so had her boys. Especially her boys should notice, because she would never let them know how things really stood between her and their father. Let them believe that she and Lot were a love-match and happy together. Hell, Lot himself believed it.
A love-match … Her parents, the lovely Igraine of Cornwall and the noble Duke Gorlois, had been a love match. Not, perhaps, at the time they were wed, but certainly by the time that Morgause was old enough to have memories of them. She’d been only seven when her father had been murdered, but she could still remember the way Igraine had looked at Gorlois whenever he left, and more than that, the way she had looked when he came back …
How ironic that the faces of mother and daughter should show the exact same expressions at precisely opposing times …
A gust of wind blew in, driving drops of splattering, stinging rain towards her. Morgause wrinkled her nose. Her fondness for the ocean, given that it reminded her of her childhood home, had its limits. She pulled the windows shut.
Onto the bed she threw herself, spreading her limbs quite indecently, arching her back and practically purring. This huge bed, which (as Lot had informed her when she had first come to Dunlothian) had been the site of the siring and birth of kings of Lothian for five generations (six including her boys), was hers, all hers! She could take as much room as she liked, at least for the first few nights, spread out over the pillows, and above all, get hours of blessed sleep, unbroken by any amorous husband’s urgings. Oh, when the winter cold set in, she’d invite one of her ladies to share the bed for warmth, but for now, this was hers.
She burrowed into the covers, confident that she would not be interrupted, for she had ordered the servants not to disturb her for anything short of an emergency. They probably thought she was weeping or something.
No, weep she would not, but sleep she well might … Lot, realizing that he would be going for months without Morgause’s favors, had been particularly desiring these past few nights. Not that she supposed he would be chaste in the interval, oh no. Lot, as befitted a man of his station, would likely pick a comely young whore to slake his lust whenever he felt the need. Well, Morgause wished the whore joy of him. She would enjoy her cold bed just as much – probably more – than Lot would like his warm one.
But as for now … these first few hours of freedom would be good for a nap … just a short one …
Morgause bolted upright, heart beating wildly, although she knew what the crash was. It was the window, she must not have latched it properly and the storm—
Someone else was in the room with her.
The candle had blown out with the wind, but Morgause could see the silhouette by the window, a tall cloaked figure, standing mere feet away from her bed—she opened her mouth to scream—
She heard cursing.
Not loud cursing, not even particularly harsh or creative. “Blast it, where is that candle …” The voice was female, and Morgause thought she recognized it …
The candle was on the nightstand, ten feet away from the intruder; Morgause couldn’t have even reached it without some squirming. Yet it lit.
The window shut of its own accord.
The intruder pulled her hood back and smiled.
“Morgan!” Morgause felt her head hit the pillows, stared at the canopy of the great bed. “Grace of God, but you frightened me!”
“Sorry,” came the sheepish reply. “I tried to be quiet.”
“You tried to be …” Morgause’s heart was slowing, her brain slowly working its way out of the fog of fear—and she sat up again. “What are you doing here? I thought you were …” Morgause stopped, as she had no idea where her sister had been since she had left the convent in Cornwall where she had been schooled.
“In Faerie?” Morgan asked archly. A strange, secret smile lit her lips. Before Morgause could ask what the devil she meant by that, Morgan frowned. “I don’t suppose I could trouble you for a washbowl?”
“I—over there,” Morgause said, gesturing to the washstand. She stared at her sister as she crossed the room. “You’re soaked!”
“As I should be. I did fly almost a day through the rain.”
Morgause did not wonder at the “flying” comment; she had known for years that her sister had the second shape of a raven. But she did wonder what Morgan, who was soaked to the skin, could possibly want with more water.
Her answer came soon. Morgan did not bother to pour water from the pitcher. Instead she just took the bowl, took the swaying raven curtain of her hair, and rung it out into the bowl.
Except it was not a normal wringing out, oh no. Morgause could not tell how she did it, but as soon as Morgan let go of her hair, it fell over her shoulders completely dry. Next came the cloak, dried in a similar fashion. Morgan then looked down at her plum-colored dress, drenched and sticking to her skin. “Blast,” she muttered.
“You can borrow one of my dressing gowns,” Morgause said, relaxing onto the pillows. “I have two in the wardrobe,” she gestured. “They should fit you.”
“Thank you, Morgause, I …” She could feel Moran staring at her. “Are you all right?”
“Other than the ten years you just took off my life?”
“I said I was sorry …”
Morgause sighed. “I was resting. I’ve had a few … sleepless nights.”
Morgause closed her eyes. She could hear Morgan moving about, the wardrobe opening and shutting, the whisper of sodden cloth as she changed. Another few sounds of cloth being wrung out, water dripping into the bowl. Then more movement.
Next, she did not hear so much as feel—a weight lowering onto the other side of the bed. Morgause opened one eye.
Another sheepish smile from Morgan, as she stayed, half-on, half-off the bed. “Sorry. Do you mind?”
Morgause smiled. “No, of course not.” With a grin Morgan clambered the rest of the way onto the bed. From habit, the sisters nestled together, as they had when they were little and shared a bed in the nursery of Tintagel.
Morgan rested her head on Morgause’s shoulder, and Morgause took the opportunity to give her sister only a semi-critical once-over.
Well, Morgause was in no danger of losing her reputation as the beauty of the family. Morgause was the taller, but Morgan’s hands and feet were larger, capable ones, not the dainty little feet men would marvel over and the hands that they would love to take within their own. Morgan might have a figure better suited to childbearing, but there was nothing at all unusual or eye-catching in it – even less so in the thick tartan dressing gown, which barely became Morgause (she only wore it when she wanted to put Lot off love-making). They had the same color hair, but Morgan’s was straight, not at all wavy, if anything inclined to an unsightly frizz. Their features were much alike, but …
It was very odd. Both Morgan and Morgause took much after their mother, but if you looked very closely, it was Morgan who was the true heir to Igraine’s graceful and regal bone structure. Indeed, in that alone Morgause was inferior. She had more of a look of her father, feminized, but still a look. But somehow, Morgan’s face did not cast off the same enchantment, the same allure that Morgause’s – or Igraine’s for that matter – did. Maybe it was her complexion. Morgause took great care to keep her face protected, but Morgan’s face and hands were actually a shade of brown, like a peasant’s! And maybe the eyes as well had something to do with it. Not that there was anything wrong with Morgan’s eyes, it was just that they were a perfectly ordinary slate blue, while Morgause had her captivating eyes of emerald.
Morgan was looking at her. “What?”
“Oh, nothing,” Morgause replied quickly. She stretched … then froze. “Morgan?”
“What are you doing here?”
“… Oh …” Morgan did not answer, instead she sat up, hunching over herself and pulling the dressing gown closer. Morgause sat as well, one hand reaching for her sister’s back. Morgan looked so troubled, so worried … was something wrong? Was she sick? No, if she was sick she surely would not have flown all this way, in the rain, surely she would have gone—
Where else could she go?
“What’s the matter, poppet?” Morgause sat up and wrapped her arm around Morgan’s shoulders. She usually wasn’t this protective with Morgan, with Elaine, certainly, but Morgan was inclined to be restive and so stubbornly independent …
As she was now, shrugging Morgause’s arm off. “Morgause …” She sighed and turned to face her sister. “Morgause, why have you not been sleeping nights?”
Morgause blinked. “You came all this way to interrogate me about my sleeping habits?”
“Just answer the question, please.”
She shrugged. “I suffer from an incredibly virile husband. He wanted to enjoy me before …”
“He went off to war. He left this morning, didn’t he?”
“Yes—wait, how did you know?”
“I scried it. That’s how I knew when to come to you.”
Morgause rolled her eyes. “Of course. I should have guessed.” She leaned back against the pillows. “Some days I wish I could scry as you do …”
“But you can scry, too …”
“Oh, aye, into the past, or into the present. To communicate with you, I can scry. But into the future? That would be a truly useful gift—”
“Or a curse. Look at Mama.”
Morgause had no reply to that.
“Morgause … that was what I came here to talk to you about. Mama.” Morgan shifted. “Do you know that she’s been better? Fully recovered, since Uther died?”
“She’s better?” Morgause sat up … then sank down again. “No, no. It must be a temporary phase. Besides,” she added bitterly, “how would I know how Mother does? She was packed off to a nunnery at Amesbury as soon as Uther died. Did you know they even sent the chief of her guard, Sir Brastias, to guard that brat who pulled the sword? And he took half of the guard with him?”
“Well, now you do.”
“That isn’t what I meant.” Morgan shook her head. “Nobody took Sir Brastias from Mama. She sent him to guard Arthur.”
“What? How do you know that?”
“She told me so herself.”
“She told you—you scried?”
“No, I saw her.”
“You saw …” Morgause swallowed. “You saw her?”
“Aye. I went to her as soon as Uther died.”
Morgause’s eyes had been compared to emeralds by many a hopeful swain, and indeed there was something jewel-like about them now. Something hard, and cold, and glittering. “You saw her?”
“Let me make sure that I understand,” Morgause interrupted. “After that debacle with King Mark, you go into a hiding so deep that you will not even let me, your beloved sister, know where you are …”
Morgan flushed. The “debacle” was a marriage proposal – actually more like an order, given that he had Uther’s consent and will behind it – from King Mark of Cornwall. Of course to propose to marry Gorlois’s daughter off to the very man who had slain him was nothing more than the vilest of insults, but Morgan had reacted in a way most unbecoming and unladylike. Not only had she refused to marry Mark – which would have been bad enough in any case – but she’d attacked three of his men when they tried to carry her off by force. Not just with maiden kicks and feeble fists, as would be expected, but with powerful and painful magic. And while they were still recovering, she had changed herself into a raven and flown away while they stared, goggle-eyed.
“And as soon as Uther dies, you wander straight into a trap of his men, to see Mother – and don’t even tell me?”
“It was hardly a trap. First of all, Mama’s guards are Cornishmen, Father’s men; they wouldn’t touch me. Secondly …” Morgan smiled. “The stories of what happened to King Mark’s men are still quite, quite fresh in their minds.”
And she smiles! Morgause could not help but give her sister an appalled look. She might have never loved Lot, even despised him at times, and certainly did not mold herself into a model of wifely obedience, but at least she knew her duty well enough to marry where she was told … or so she told herself …
“That isn’t what’s important—”
“Morgause,” Morgan interrupted. “Did you hear nothing of what I said? Mama sent Sir Brastias to watch over Arthur.”
“Mention not that brat’s name to—”
“Mama wants him safe, Morgause!” Morgan’s hand locked on her shoulder.
Morgause looked away.
“She’s finally better, Morgause. She’s well. She knew who I was—and—and she knew when it was, and I don’t mean the hour of the clock, but she knew the year. And she knew how old you were, and how many sons you had, and how old they were, and she knew how old Elaine was and how old I was, and she knew that I was still unwed and …” Morgan sighed. “Mama isn’t rambling any more. She’s not confused anymore, she’s not—”
“Don’t say that. She was—sick, that’s all. Sick in her heart.”
“As she had been ever since that brat was born,” Morgause spat.
“No, Morgause. Ever since Arthur was taken from her.”
“She wants him safe. That’s all. And she does not want you to be fighting him, Morgause.”
“What—she wants us all to pretend to be one happy family?” Morgause tossed her head. “Mother, and daughters, and son, who the only reason he isn’t a bastard is because his father had our father murdered and forced our mother to wed him—”
“Have you forgotten about Father, Morgan?” Morgause whirled to face her sister. “Have you forgotten how he used to laugh and play with us? How he loved us, girls though we were? How hard he fought to protect us, and to protect Mother from dishonor?” Her voice rose. “He died protecting us! And you want me to call the son of his murderer ‘brother’?”
“—before Arthur was born,” Morgan pointed out. Somehow she kept her voice steady. “You cannot blame him for what happened to Father.”
“I cannot? Bah! Men do it every day. They slay the sons of their rivals, and the grandsons, and the great-grandsons, to the point where no one can remember who struck the first blow, only that once a blow was struck and we must fight over it until Doomsday!”
“And do you think that is wise, Morgause?”
“I can remember the injury Arthur’s father did me. And you. And Elaine. And Mother.”
“And for you to hurt him would only injure Mama more.”
“Oh, I shall not hurt him. I can swear that to you now – I shall not touch a hair on young Arthur’s head to do him harm.” Thunder boomed in the distance, but Morgause barely noticed.
“No, instead you set your husband on him.”
“And what of it? I am a woman, and my sons are only boys! If a husband cannot fight in a wife’s quarrel, then who can?”
Morgan sighed and shook her head. When she looked up, there was something—otherworldly in the glow in her eyes. “Your quest will not bring you joy, you know. It will only eat at your soul – and try as you might, you will never be able to fill the hole it will make. Do you really want to grow only older and bitterer, Morgause?”
“As long as my quest is fulfilled and Father avenged,” Morgause answered, “I care not what my fate is.”
Another bolt of lightning, throwing the room in sharp contrasts of light and shadow. Morgan closed her eyes. “So I see. But the path is not yet set, Morgause. Remember that. You can still turn back.”
“I doubt that. Lot’s already left, there’s no way to call him off. Even if I had wanted to.”
“His fate – at least for the next couple years – is set. Yours is not. Remember that, especially as I see it will do neither of us good for me to remain here.”
“Don’t be a fool, Morgan, ‘tis late and storming, of course you must stay here—”
Morgan only gave Morgause a withering look as she gathered her dress and cloak. Magic or the fire had completely dried both. A wave of Morgan’s hand sent Morgause’s dressing gown floating back to the wardrobe, and soon Morgan was dressed.
She walked to the window, but before Morgan could shift her shape and fly into the night, Morgause rose and laid a hand on her shoulder. “Morgan, wait.”
Morgan turned her head and raised one eyebrow.
“We—we are still sisters, are we not? Morgan … please don’t tell me that I am doomed to lose you as well as Father, and Mother …”
Morgan smiled. Thunder, child of the lightning, cracked in the distance. “No, Morgause. You will not lose me. We are sisters – and we always will be.”