Darkness on the Edge of Town
“He’s coming?” Kay hissed as he and Arthur walked into the moonlit, snow-covered courtyard to see Cador waiting for them.
“Stuff it. Yes, he’s coming,” Arthur answered. It was December again, and they were in London, again. Merlin had said that they couldn’t go wrong if they had the City on their side in the coming war, besides, London would be a good place to gather men and provisions. The wizard, so wise in the ways of diplomacy and war, had perhaps not considered what being unexpectedly dumped into the City would do to his young student-king.
Well, Arthur had been a good and dutiful king for the past six months, keeping most of his complaints locked firmly between his teeth. He’d gone to the meetings, looked at the maps, negotiated with allies and ambassadors. Now it was time to have some fun.
And not the sort of fun that came at feasts and hunts and Christmas celebrations. That sort of fun, being officially sanctioned, really wasn’t what he was looking for at all. He wanted something with zest, with spice, with just a little bit of—danger. Yes, danger. And since he wasn’t likely to see any fighting until spring …
Sneaking out in the middle of the night to go tavern-hopping ought to cool his hot blood quite nicely.
“And don’t you go making him uncomfortable, either,” Arthur hissed. Kay was still jealous of Cador, even all these months later. “If it wasn’t for Cador, we wouldn’t be going at all.”
“What? You don’t think you and I could manage to sneak out by ourselves?”
“Sneak out, yes. Find a good tavern, no, because we couldn’t ask around. Hoy, Cador!” Arthur greeted his half-brother. Then he turned back to Kay. “And don’t say that we could. If I started asking after taverns, everyone would know and I’d get a thousand lectures about being kingly and responsible. If you started asking, somebody would be sure to tell Father and then the same thing would happen, only you’d be in on the lectures, too.”
“And why won’t King Mark be annoyed with Cador for asking about taverns, hmm?” Kay challenged.
Cador, who had walked up as Arthur lectured Kay, answered that. “Because I’m sixteen. He’d think it stranger if I wasn’t looking for a place to go carousing.” He shrugged. “As long as he doesn’t have to come get me out of gaol, I doubt he’ll care what I get up to.”
Kay glanced at Arthur. “Something tells me that he’ll care this time.”
“Not at all. I am a loyal knight. I do as my king bids without question or protest.” Cador bowed. Even in the dark, a twinkling light was to be seen in his eyes. Kay stood shocked for a moment, then tossed his head back and laughed.
He clapped Cador on the back, laughing a little more. “You’ll do, mate, you’ll do.” Arthur grinned. Admittedly half of his purpose in going out tonight had been to work out some sort of détente between Kay and Cador. Life would be so much more fun if he could get the three of them to be working on mischief together.
First things first, however – ground rules. Arthur cleared his throat. “Before we go, though—don’t call me Arthur. Anyone can be named Kay – we’ll say it’s short for Caius if anyone asks – or Cador. But Arthur’s a bit more … uncommon. I’ll have to be Buck again tonight.”
“Buck?” Cador asked.
“It’s a long story – I’ll explain as we go,” Kay replied.
It was not much work to sneak out of the castle. A tree in one of the gardens grew close to the wall; it was child’s play for Arthur and Kay to scramble up it and over, a little more difficult for Cador but not impossible. Next to the wall was a house, with a bit of rooftop climbing (which, admittedly, was not as easy as the tree-climbing, especially not after Cador’s foot went right through the thatch on one of the homes) they managed to find a safe way down. Though it must be understood that by “safe” it was meant only that no bones were broken; all three of the boys landed on the cobblestones with a few bumps and bruises.
Arthur might have been the leader of the group owing to his rank and personality, but it was Cador who led the way. And a good thing too, because Arthur, as good as he might be among the paths and walks of the Forest Sauvage back home, was hopelessly lost after the first few turnings. Yet soon enough they found their way to a tavern in a middle-class stretch of town, frequented mostly by young tradesmen and apprentices.
The tavern was called the Round Table – not that it had the name written over the door, for few, if any, denizens of this neighborhood could read – but it had a signpost showing a group of men seated around a circular table, with drinks in their hands, evidently laughing and talking with perfect conviviality. A round table would solve a lot of problems, Arthur reflected – no more fighting over placement and rank when one should be eating supper. Maybe he should have one put in at the Court.
The boys hesitated for a moment, glancing at each other. Then Arthur took a deep breath, ducked his head and opened the door, Kay and Cador following in his wake.
There was no sudden silence, no hush as they entered the room. The only people who seemed to notice their entry were the barkeep and the man sitting nearest the door, who shivered in the wind until Cador shut it. The barkeep only raised one eyebrow. “Color o’ yer money, lads?”
Luckily Cador had thought of this – not that they would need money, Kay and Arthur had been well aware of that – but that a nobleman’s gold or silver would be most unusual in this section of town, and would attract attention. The reason why they were in this section of town in the first place, instead of one of the classier taverns frequented by the knights, was to avoid detection. Cador, who was in charge of the purse, held up a copper coin. The barkeep nodded. “Find yerselves a table, one o’ the lasses ‘ill get to ye in a moment.”
Unable to believe that it had been quite so easy, the boys exchanged glances again, before doing as the barkeep bid.
An hour passed in laughing, drinking – much drinking – and talking, but they were sensible enough to keep the volume down and none of the other patrons of the bar paid them so much as a second glance. Until Kay suddenly sat up and nudged Arthur.
“Hey,” he whispered. “What do you think of that?”
The dent on the wall? … Oh. Kay meant the barmaid standing in front of the dent on the wall. A pretty thing she was, too, blonde and buxom, the way she was leaning to talk to a customer enabled Arthur to see almost entirely down her bodice. She was missing a few teeth, which was a pity, but if Kay was after what Arthur thought he was after, the absence of a tooth or five wouldn’t matter much.
“Pretty,” Arthur agreed.
“Think I should try for her?”
“I don’t know if we brought enough money to … pay for …” Cador blushed. “At least not for all of us. And the drinks.”
“Drat. Well, maybe I can set up a contact for later.” Kay preened. “Or maybe she’ll be so charmed that she’ll give me a sample for free.”
“Oh, aye, and maybe Lot will disband his army and stop berating m—the King about his throne if you ask him nicely.”
Cador laughed, while Kay aimed a swat at Arthur that he, being just a hair more sober, managed to dodge. “Oh, go ahead and try,” Arthur laughed. “We’ll be here to laugh at you when she chases you off.”
“Just for that, next time you see a girl you like—”
“You can feel free to share embarrassing stories from my misspent youth – if you can find any that don’t leave you looking just as bad.”
Kay stuck his tongue out, but he rose to his feet, a little unsteadily, and made his way over to the blonde. Her eyes widened a little, but she didn’t seem averse to a bit of a chat. So, being deprived of a show, Arthur looked away.
“See anyone you like?” he asked Cador, mostly to make conversation.
“I …” Cador’s clear skin had a tendency to flush easily. It did not fail him this time.
Arthur sat up. “Really? Which one?”
Cador shook his head, but Arthur was able to tell, mostly by searching the direction that he was studiously not looking in. “The dark-haired one?” Arthur asked. He squirmed to get a better view as Cador’s flush deepened. “She’s pretty enough. Got a saucy eye,” he added. “Why don’t you go talk to her?”
“But … but we don’t have enough money …”
“Talk is cheap, my friend – actually, in most cases I think it’s free. Come on. It can’t hurt to talk to her. I promise not to laugh if she rejects you.”
“You just told S—Kay that you would laugh.”
“That was to get him moving. See, Kay works best if he’s being challenged. You … seem to respond better to more subtle encouragement.”
Cador lifted one eyebrow. “I think,” he replied, “that I’ll talk to the girl.”
“But what will you do?”
“Oh,” Arthur replied, leaning back on his chair, “I’m sure some opportunity will present itself.”
And so it did. At first Arthur thought that excitement came in the form of a third barmaid, a whippet-slender one with light hair that glowed red when the candlelight hit it. But for all his brave words, Arthur was still screwing up his courage to talk to her (to say nothing of trying to come up with something to say) when the real excitement arrived.
Arthur was only one among many to jump at the bellow, interrupting as it did the general hubbub, which though loud was quite a bit calmer. His eyes flew in the direction of the speaker. A large-thewed man stood in the doorway, face red with what Arthur guessed was rage, since, if he was just walking in, he probably hadn’t had anything to drink yet.
And he was staring at Kay.
Arthur jumped up, behind him he heard Cador doing the same, but the enormous, angry man was faster. In a few gaping strides he crossed the room, grabbed Kay’s collar, and slammed him into the wall. “What were you saying to my betrothed?”
Oh, hell …
“Let go of me, you oaf!” was Kay’s reply as he aimed a kick for the giant’s shin. It made contact and Kay fell lightly to the ground. The giant lunged for him again, but Kay managed to squirm out of the way. “You’d better watch yourself!” he shouted. “I’ve killed griffins before, I can kill you too!”
The giant was growing more and more red-faced. Kay managed to scramble fractionally closer to Arthur and Cador. “And I’ve defeated knights twice your size in single combat—two on one!”
Despite the fact that it brought them into closer proximity with the increasingly enraged near-cuckold, Arthur and Cador ran to Kay, grabbing him and hauling him to his feet. “More than that,” Kay continued to shout, “I’ve—”
Arthur brought his foot down on Kay’s. “Shut up, Kay!”
“Um, Ar—Buck, I think …” Cador broke off and pointed.
Arthur looked around. The rest of the bar’s patrons were taking no small amount of interest in the brewing argument, some were even getting up and tapping their clubs and cudgels. But somehow … Arthur didn’t think they were about to enter the fray on their side.
And he had left Excalibur at home …
“Let them come! We can take them!” Kay shouted. Cador shot him a look that said, more clearly than words ever could, that it was Cador’s firm opinion that Kay had taken leave of his senses. “Come now, my heroes—”
“Kay, shut it!” Arthur looked wildly around the room. By some miracle, the way to the door wasn’t blocked … yet …
“Kay, you might be right,” Arthur said, thinking on his feet as he dragged Kay backwards. Cador looked like he was about to be sick.
“Of course I’m right, I’m always—”
“We can beat them.” His back found the wall, and he spoke quietly, trying to school his features into a fearsome attack-face. “But only one way.”
“I-I’m all ears,” Cador whispered.
Arthur’s hand reached for the doorknob. He’d have to time this carefully, otherwise one or more of them might be left behind. “Running,” he whispered.
Then he threw the door open, shoved Kay and Cador through (though Cador didn’t need much shoving) and followed, slamming it shut behind him. Kay and Cador stood goggling in the street. “You heard me!” Arthur shouted. “RUN!”
None of them needed to be told twice.
Without the slightest care to where they were going, they took off down the lane, darting into the first side-street they saw as the rest of the patrons spilled from the tavern. “That way!” one of them shouted, and Arthur and the rest had to change direction again.
They ran for a quarter hour—twenty minutes—twenty-five, until even Arthur could detect no thudding sounds other than the beat of his own heart. He grabbed Cador and Kay’s sleeves and the three of them collapsed. “I think,” Arthur panted, “we lost them.”
“I think,” Cador replied, equally panting, “you’re right.”
But they were not out of the woods yet.
Another half-hour and they still hadn’t found their way home, or even properly where they were. Arthur was not too worried – not yet – but even he felt a little thrill of fear as they turned down yet another alley that looked the same as all the rest of them, and they saw a tall, thin cloaked man standing at the end of it.
Cador’s first instinct was to quietly turn back and try some other way; Arthur was more inclined to wait, see if the man meant harm. Kay, however, swaggered forward. “What’s the matter, my heroes? There’s three of us—only one of him—”
A golden light appeared by the man’s head – at first Arthur thought it was a lantern. Then the man threw back the hood of his cloak.
It was Merlin.
Arthur had a positive premonition that his troubles were only just beginning.
Merlin was fuming; Arthur could practically see steam coming from the wizard’s ears as he frog-marched them all back to the castle. As soon as they arrived, he sent Kay and Cador to their chambers. “Sir Ector and King Mark,” he growled, “will hear about this first thing in the morning, I promise you. Arthur, come with me.”
Arthur gulped. He knew better than to argue with his tutor when he took that tone. He followed.
Merlin, as if intending to draw out the suspense, led the way to his workroom. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, but the workroom was at the top of the tallest tower of the castle, only accessible by a long spiral staircase. Arthur tried to count the steps, if only to divert his mind, but his stomach was roiling too much. Apparently the ale wasn’t sitting well.
Finally they reached the tower room, Arthur’s legs now aching from both the run and the climb. “Don’t sit,” Merlin replied, as if he knew this. He himself took a seat on the other side of his large desk.
Arthur gulped again.
Merlin sighed and ran a hand down his face. “I don’t even know,” and here he sounded more tired than angry, “where to begin.” He took a deep breath. “Arthur, what were you thinking?”
“It was just a bit of fun …” Arthur started, hearing how petulant he sounded.
“A bit of fun?” Merlin looked up, his fist slamming onto the desk. “You could have been killed!”
“Not killed …”
“What if one of Lot’s men had found you? I see you’re not even wearing a sword – what about cutpurses? Sell-swords? Assassins?”
“If someone was going to send an assassin after me, wouldn’t they send him here, not to some random pub in the middle of London?”
“Random? Oh, was it truly? Wasn’t Cador asking after pubs matching a very specific description?” Merlin glared.
“I—” Arthur swallowed. “Well, if you knew we were going to try it, why didn’t you stop us?”
“Why didn’t I stop you … hmm, let me consider. One: I knew, or at least had a glimmering, of what you were planning, but did not know when you would make the attempt. Two: I decided to give you the benefit of the doubt and hope you would realize the folly of your plan before you decided to put it into practice. Three – and this is the most important …”
Here Merlin’s fist crashed, again, onto the table. “I cannot always do your thinking for you, Arthur!”
Arthur took a step back.
“Did you not give one single thought,” Merlin growled, “to the responsibilities you have – to the men who are depending on you to lead them into battle – to the people who are willing to lay down their lives so that you can be king?”
“No!” Arthur admitted, feeling wretched, as Merlin no doubt had meant him to feel when he put it that way. “No, I didn’t!”
“As I expected.” Merlin shook his head.
“But it’s not like I asked them to!” Arthur fired back. Merlin looked up. “It’s not like I asked anyone to want to lay down his life for me – and how stupid is that a thing to die for, so some sixteen-year-old brat can become king?”
“I didn’t ask for them to do that! I didn’t ask for all these people to send me presents and swear fealty to me and all the rest of it! They must be mad anyway! Can’t they tell I haven’t a clue what I’m doing? Can’t they tell that I’m just doing what you and Father and King Mark are telling me to do?”
“That is because,” Merlin growled, “you have not yet learned to think like a king.”
“I don’t know how to think like a king!” Arthur retorted. “You and everyone else keep telling me to think like a king but no one tells me how! You know what?” Arthur kicked the desk, ignoring the pain it caused his toe. “Maybe I should just tell Lot to go hang himself; I’m not wasting my time with him. Let him rule the North if that’s what he wants. Maybe what I should be doing is making this city safe enough that even I can walk through it in the middle of the night and not have to worry about cut-swords and sell-purses and the rest of it. And maybe I should be thinking of ways to make this country run well enough on its own so that I can go out for a night of fun every now and then without being yelled at as if I’d turned the over to country to the Saxons!”
He did not notice how Merlin had looked up and was staring at him intently. He kept ranting. “But no, all kings do is plot ways to kill people, then they go out and kill them, then go home and think of more ways to kill people. It’s amazing anyone even has time to live in this country, with all the killing that goes on!”
“Arthur,” Merlin replied, “when you were younger, you told me that you wanted nothing more than to be a knight. Is that not one of the principle duties of knighthood, to kill people?”
“No!” Arthur shouted. “It’s rescuing damsels and going on holy quests and fighting for truth and justice! It’s not just cutting down anyone who’s decided that he doesn’t want you to be king – because who knows, maybe he’s right!”
“Excalibur did not seem to be of that opinion,” Merlin answered dryly.
“She—it’s a sword! What the hell does a bloody sword know?”
“Perhaps more than you think,” Merlin answered. “What you do not yet understand about thinking like a king, Arthur, is that being a king requires spending a significant amount of time attending to the sphere of practical politics. Telling Lot to go hang himself, however tempting it may sound and however therapeutic it may be, is unfortunately not within that sphere.”
“And there you go again!” Arthur yelled. “Every time I try to ask a bloody question all anyone gives me are explanations that make no sense and go around and around! Is it too much to ask anyone to make some sense?”
“Quite possibly.” Merlin shook his head. “Oh, go to bed, Arthur. You’ve a long day ahead of you tomorrow. We both have.”
“Fine!” He turned on one heel. His temper was still raging; he slammed the door as he went out.
It was not until much later that he realized that the scolding and the lecturing had not lasted as long as he thought it would.
And it was not until very much later that Arthur realized that somewhere in their conversation, Merlin’s mood had switched. And that as Arthur had left, Merlin had seemed almost … pleased?