Darkness on the Edge of Town
Two long years passed. Two years of bloodshed, two years of strife, two years of mayhem and destruction, two years of rapine, loot and murder. Two years, in short, of civil war.
When Lot reflected back on them, it was mostly with a pleased sense of accomplishment. Oh, it had not all been triumph, certainly not that. He had not yet been fortunate enough to score a major victory that would crush all opposition. That was tomorrow’s plan. Nor had he faced Arthur yet in the field of battle, which was also part of tomorrow’s plan. There was a part of him that was in fact a bit apprehensive about doing so. Despite being barely more than a squire, the stories that circulated about the boy and his sword were fearsome.
But Lot had had some success, he thought, in the battle of winning hearts and minds. The fact that it had been over three years since Arthur had been crowned was making some of the other nobles and kings sit up and pay attention. Lot had been careful to send missives to them, giving them a prompt update on every successful venture. Just as a courtesy, naturally.
The peasantry hated him by now, but it mattered not what they thought. Early in the war, he and his allies had made a practice of burning villages in territories controlled by Arthur and making it quite clear to the carefully chosen survivors who they could blame for their troubles – that is to say, Arthur, who was defying the will of God by insisting upon a throne that was not his to claim. Except that strategy had begun to backfire relatively early. The first few village-burnings had gone off well – well for him, not so well for the villagers – but after the news had started to spread, something … unexpected had happened. The villagers had begun to fight back.
This would not have worried Lot, for what could pitchforks and scythes do to a man in full armor? But the peasants in one particular village had been crafty; they had set a trap and unhorsed a knight. Before the knight could catch his breath and rise to fight, another peasant, carefully hidden, had run up and stuck his pitchfork through the visor.
Of all the undignified ways to die! Once word of the atrocity came to his ears, Lot had ordered that all peasants possible in that village should be captured, not killed, and had seen to it that the knight (who was a distant relation) got a grand funeral. Then he had hanged the peasants responsible and set guards over their bodies to ensure no friends or relatives cut them down for a proper burial. He had also sent particular word of this tragedy around the kingdom, to show the other kings just how dangerous this Arthur boy was. Only two years into his reign and the peasants were rebelling against their rightful lords and masters!
Yet even this had turned against him. Not among the nobles, who were rightly outraged and more than a bit frightened, but among the peasantry. There were more traps, more resistance, more pitiful attempts at unseating and killing knights. Later Lot learned that not only was Arthur bringing prompt relief to ransacked villages, he was giving special restitution to the widows and children of peasants killed fighting back. Yet out of the other side of his mouth, the young king exhorted peasants not to fight back, but to run and hide in the woods and fields when possible. His reasoning was not simply that it was wrong for a peasant to kill a noble under any circumstances, which Lot would have applauded, but that attempting to fight back would cause too many peasant deaths!
But eventually Nentres, Lot’s second-in-command who was far more skittish about attacking unarmed villages, had convinced him to halt the attacks. Not only were they doing little practical good, they were winning more and more of the peasantry over to Arthur. He pointed out to Lot that, although the peasantry’s opinion did not matter in the normal course of events, it would be a mistake to incense the commoners past their reasonable limit. Too many massacres and the country might have a real rebellion on its hands.
So now it was time to stop playing war-games and to wage real war, war that would destroy that pitiful boy Arthur and any pretensions he may have to kingship. That was what brought the League of Six to be camped outside the front gate of Carleon Castle this fine spring evening.
Lot looked up and down the rectangular council table and smiled as the kings went over their battle plans for the next morning. Directly to his right was Nentres, the mild-mannered King of Garlot. He was staring at the maps before him and chewing his lower lip. To Nentres’s right was Uriens of Gore, the eldest and most experienced of the brethren. Unfortunately Lot could never look at him without a bit of a frown, though not because of any fault of Uriens’s own. He had attempted to marry Morgause’s sister Morgan to the widower (and Uriens had been quite enthusiastic), but unexpectedly Morgause had opposed him on this score. “She won’t do it,” she had warned him. “She won’t marry anyone. Remember what happened to Mark’s men when they tried to carry her off?”
Lot had not been ready to take that for an answer. Instead he demanded Morgan’s whereabouts from Morgause. She had refused to give them. He’d kept asking her, even given her a light beating, but still Morgause had refused to say where her sister was staying. The knights he’d sent through the kingdom chasing rumors did no better. Eventually Lot had no choice but to give up.
At the foot of the table was Claudas, who styled himself the King of Scotland even though Lot was the largest landholder in that territory. Since he was useful and had plenty of arms and men, Lot let him get away with the presumption. After him was Caradoc of the Dolorous Tower, whom Lot would much prefer to have at the foot of the table, if only to place him at the greatest possible distance away himself. The stories that came out of that Tower sent chills down even Lot’s spine.
Last was Barrant le Apres, whose Hundred Knights made up the backbone of the knightly contingent of the army. He brought a fair amount of kerns with him, too, thus earning his place at Lot’s left hand. It was his spindly finger that was pointing on the map. “Unfortunately, the boy has proven too foolhardy to give the underminers time to work. They’ve barely broken dirt on the west curtain wall.”
“The fact that the ground is practically frozen,” Claudas pointed out, “hasn’t helped, I’m sure.”
“It was necessary to begin the siege in early spring,” Lot replied, “in order to catch the boy off-guard.” That had necessitated moving troops in the middle of winter, which had been a nightmare in and of itself. They’d lost nearly a quarter of the army in the remove from the upper reaches of Scotland to the warmer south. But Lot had factored that in when he had made his plans and had purposely filled out the numbers by pressing more and more men of “military age” into his forces as they moved.
Strangely enough, the whole strategy had been his wife’s idea—well, not exactly. No woman could create a truly original battle plan, of course, and he wouldn’t even trust one to implement the most tried-and-true of plans. But Morgause had a good memory, and since she had been oddly angry when he had mentioned that he had yet to personally cross swords with Arthur, she had thought and thought and finally remembered the trick by which her father had fallen.
“A winter siege, my lord,” she had told him practically as soon as he walked in the door last autumn. (This was some time after the Uriens debacle.) “That was how Uther most shamefully defeated my father. He tried to hold a siege in winter, and my father had not the supplies to feed his armies until spring.”
“That sounds more like poor planning on your father’s part than any superior strategy on Uther’s.” He had had his back to Morgause, so he had not seen the furious, near-mad light that leapt into her eyes. “Besides, I remember that siege. It was madness from the beginning. Uther was merely lucky that he won.”
“So alter his plan, my lord,” Morgause had purred. “What about, say, a siege that commences at the very end of winter … or as early as possible in spring? Arthur would have no warning and would have no way of increasing his supplies until you were already there. You could starve him out easily.”
“A spring siege …” The idea had possibilities. Lot had followed them up. And so here they were.
Returning to the present, Lot added, “Besides, we all know that the boy has foolish ideas in his head about chivalry and bravery. He will no doubt throw all his forces at us in an attempt to rout us. In fact …”
He chuckled and poured some wine. “Frankly, I would be quite surprised if by this time tomorrow, we are not celebrating victory, my friends.”
“Victory, my friends!”
The wine and ale were flowing, the spring air was invigorating, and his head was already buzzing, but it was all to the good. Arthur leaned on Kay’s shoulder, took a long draught of ale, and concentrated on feeling the thrill.
Victory! His first real victory! Oh, there had been other wins, in skirmishes, but none against the Six Kings all at once, and none against Lot. He had Lot on the run now! It hadn’t looked like that in the beginning – in the beginning, he, personally, had not done so well, given that he was fighting with an ordinary sword and not Excalibur – but when he had taken his blade out, how things had changed! Everything seemed to click then, every spare lesson he ever been given, every offhanded tip, every trick he had seen or even only heard of. He’d disarmed Lot in a trice, but before he could have the coward at mercy, Lot had turned tail and run. The rest of the kings had been thrown into confusion, the army had panicked, and Arthur and his men had kept their heads enough to turn it into a total rout. Now there was nothing to be seen of Lot’s army but groups of tents hurriedly abandoned, a score or two of prisoners, and the dust Lot and his men had kicked up behind them as they fled.
And seven hundred dead kerns.
Arthur decided he wouldn’t think too hard about that. He was eighteen now, and though he had reached his full growth, had the scratchy beginnings of a beard, and had learned some of the skills necessary to being a king, in some ways he was still the boy who had pulled Excalibur from the stone without having the least idea what it all meant.
Like now, with the sun setting over the walls of Carleon and the field of sweet victory stretching before his eyes, Arthur decided that he would just enjoy the sensation now and worry about the consequences later. Hell, even Merlin was smiling and sipping at a goblet of wine, so surely his levity was justified – wasn’t it?
“A toast!” Arthur called. “To victory, and to our friends – may we never find ourselves lacking in either!”
“Hear, hear!” Goblets were raised, clinked, and tossed off. Arthur looked around and all he could see were smiles. There was Ector, of course, and Kay, and Merlin, and King Mark, as well as several other allies. King Leodegrance of Cameliard was one, King Pellinore of Listenoise another, and lastly the poor knight Accolon of Gaul. Sir Ulfius and Sir Brastias were also naturally in attendance. Only Cador was missing, but Arthur wasn’t worried. He had seen Cador after the battle ended, and Cador was the one tending to the prisoners.
Besides, he was riding up now, a train of prisoners tied to his horse. He vaulted easily from the mount, having discarded most of his heavier plate-armor before he went on his prisoner-searching expedition. Cador gave the customary bow to his king, but he barely had time to get up before Kay called out, “A drink for Sir Cador – and be quick about it!”
“Thank you, Sir Kay,” Cador replied as he accepted the goblet from a servant. “I take it I’m arriving mid-toast?”
Two years and there was barely a trace of the old jealousy between Cador and Kay. Arthur did his best not to play favorites, but when he had to, it was with Kay. Cador was far more easygoing and sensible enough to realize that while he and Arthur may be brothers by blood, it was Kay whom Arthur had spent his youth running wild with.
“Naturally. But we’ll fill you in. Something about victory … friends … having plenty of both … etc., etc., clink glasses, and drink. You can skip to the drinking,” Kay replied.
Arthur used the pause necessitated by Cador’s refreshing himself to take another gulp of his own ale. Another servant quickly rushed to refill his goblet. Once he had swallowed, he asked, “So, Sir Cador, how stands the situation with the prisoners?”
“We have fifty, my lord. Some injuries among them, but none too serious. I brought these as an example.” He nodded to the ones tied to his horse.
“How many knights?” King Leodegrance asked. He always asked this question. King Leodegrance was the poorest of the kings, given that his lands were nearly always under attack by Clarience of Northumberland, and was the most attentive to financial matters in general. Knightly prisoners meant ransoms, which meant a very welcome influx of revenue to the kingdom’s coffers. Providing relief to burned villages and restitution to widows and orphans, however right it might be, got very expensive very quickly.
“Only one, I’m afraid. Sir Ulbawes of Galloway. He had a broken leg, so I sent him straight to the bonesetters – well, not before making him swear on his honor that he wouldn’t try to escape. He swore, and I believe him. Besides …” Cador trailed off.
“He has a broken leg,” Kay finished, “so it’s not like he’d get very far even if he decided to be false?”
Arthur chuckled. Then he glanced at the other prisoners, or at least the sampling tied to Cador’s horse, with a frown. “Where are we going to put them all?”
There was room in the castle – some of those seven hundred dead kerns had been his, after all – but to expect his men to lodge with the very men they had fought against earlier was an insult that Arthur would never expose them too. Maybe he could move some under-servants to the barracks … no, to expect them to make way for prisoners would be an insult, too …
“What does it matter?” Mark asked negligently. He didn’t slur his words or anything quite so obvious, but Arthur knew from the tone that the wine was beginning to get to him. “Let them sleep outside. We’ll only hang them in the morning.”
One of Cador’s prisoners – an awfully short one – fell.
A strange silence fell over the company. Though he stared at Mark, Arthur could sense all other eyes staring at him. “What?” Mark asked. “They’re peasants in rebellion. What else are we to do with them? Fill up their packs and send the back home to fight again?”
But—but … There was something in Arthur’s mind, on the very tip of his tongue, but damned if he could get it out. He shook his head. And heard something.
Sniffling. Like the crying of a child. And it was coming from the direction of the fallen prisoner.
Arthur felt himself moving toward the sound.
The other prisoners had moved in front of the fallen one as well as they could, given that all of their hands were tied together. Arthur glared, tapped the handle of Excalibur, and they moved aside.
The short prisoner sat on the ground, his gangling little legs pulled to his chest. Arthur realized very quickly why he had heard something like a child crying – this was a child crying. “What’s the matter, my lad?” he heard himself asking. You idiot, the part of his brain that wasn’t over-muddled by the ale scolded, he just heard he’s going to be hanged in the morning, why shouldn’t he be crying? “Come on, lad, look up,” Arthur coaxed. “I shan’t hurt you, I promise.”
The boy looked up. Tears were still standing in his eyes, but he struggled to keep them in and wiped those that escape as best he could. Arthur smiled, but that only seemed to make the lad look more frightened than ever.
Oh, hell. “Er …” Arthur started to chew on one nail. “How old are you, lad?”
The lad looked from side to side, then stammered, “T-t-twalve summers, m’lord.” He tried to tug his forelock, but couldn’t manage it with his hands tied.
“Twelve,” Arthur repeated. “Then how came you to be in this army?”
“Was pressed, m’lord. Me mam cried an’ begged ‘em not t’ take me, but they ‘it her an’ took me anyway … said I ‘uz old enow to fletch arrows an’ run errands …”
“Pressed,” Arthur repeated. He glanced at the other prisoners, most of whom – he could see that now – weren’t much older than sixteen. He’d have been surprised if there were very many older than him. “I suppose many of you have a similar story?”
Assorted nods. Arthur sighed and rose to his feet.
He turned to Mark and the rest of his allies. “We’re not hanging them. Any of them.”
“And no, that’s not a prelude to me saying I’m going to find some other, more horrible way to kill them,” Arthur snapped. The ale was getting to him – where all had been joy before, now he could feel his temper bubbling under the surface. “Damn it, did any of you bother to ask why they were fighting against us? They were press-ganged! Plucked from their villages and thrown into Lot’s army! Look,” Arthur pointed to another prisoner, “this one doesn’t even have proper boots! Do you expect me to hang a bunch of innocent men who were only in the wrong place at the wrong time?”
“Arthur,” Ector began, stepping forward. “Arthur, calm down …”
“No, I’m not going to calm down! Hanging people with no good reason, that—that’s what Lot does! And I won’t!” Ector was looking at him with something like shock. “I won’t! And I—I—” There was no way he’d get the words out now, not with his blood up. “I’m going for a walk! And nobody had better follow me – that means you, Kay, Cador, Father!”
With that he turned and stomped away.
He kept stomping until he found a place, on the hill to the west of Carleon, that was sufficiently abandoned for his tastes. He stood at the crest of it, staring at the rising moon. He was stupidly vulnerable to any kind of assassin in this position, the years of military training crammed into his head told him that, but for once (all right, not just once) he did not care. One hand remained ever on the pommel of Excalibur, though … just in case.
Arthur almost wished for an assassin, it would be good to work out some of his frustrations on someone who deserved it. Then he became disgusted with himself. He’d just saved the lives of two score and ten men, and he wanted to celebrate by killing someone else? Hadn’t they had enough of death for one day? Oh, aye, the battle had been exhilarating enough, one could almost say fun while it lasted, but now that it was over, there were seven hundred dead kerns sitting there, taunting him, cheapening his memories of the hard-won fight. For however hard it had been for him, for them it had been harder.
And yet Mark wanted to add fifty more to the death toll …
His temper rose again, choking reason. Why should he be reasonable, anyway? Mark wasn’t being reasonable! Every village idiot knew that it wasn’t the peasants who had started this rebellion; it was rarely the peasants who started any war. Wars were the province of nobles, who had their armor and their press-ganged armies to make sure that they were able to bash each other to their hearts’ content without ever having to fear real harm.
Even capture was never a real risk, for of course gentlemen would not shamefully slay each other, but instead would bargain with the other army over what a suitably stiff ransom would be. As for the peasants captured, well, rope was cheaper than feed, apparently, so it was the rope they got. Or so it was according to Mark and his ilk.
Why was he the only one to protest it?
Footsteps—and instantly Arthur whirled, Excalibur half-out of the scabbard before he clearly saw his visitor. Arthur scowled. “I said I didn’t want anyone to follow me.”
“That indeed you did, but I’ve defied your sire many a time before this, and he was far more prone to send for the headsman than you are. As you so amply proved just now,” Merlin replied. “Speaking of sires, I believe,” he added, finding – or maybe magicking – himself a comfortable rock and seating himself upon it, never mind that Arthur was still standing, “that you owe your foster-father an apology.”
“Why should I? If he was agreeing with Mark …” Arthur scowled. “You, of all people, should understand why I was angry with Father! You, you taught me …”
Merlin’s eyebrows rose. The past two years had aged him greatly; both eyebrows were almost entirely white now, though strands and tufts of red still remained in his hair and beard. “Indeed. Well, Buck, I stand corrected. You in fact owe your foster-father two apologies.”
“One: for interrupting him so rudely. Two, and far more importantly: for supposing that the interruption was because he agreed with Mark’s judgment. Your foster-father is nowhere near as ruthless a man as King Mark.”
“Then why did he tell me—” Arthur broke off, the answer to his question coming as he asked it. Of course Ector would tell him to calm down; that was just his way. Poor Ector had wasted much of his young manhood and early middle age telling Arthur and Kay to calm down and striving (often in vain) to keep them from jumping on each other. Poor Ector, he knew from hard experience that when Arthur’s voice rose, disaster was sure to follow. So his first tactic was always to try to smooth over ruffled tempers.
“Well, at least you’re on my side,” Arthur amended his statement.
“I never said that.”
Arthur spun. “But—but—you—” Every lesson of importance that Merlin had ever taught suddenly came to the fore of his mind, clamoring to be let out. It was no wonder that Arthur’s tongue, so set upon from all sides, was unable to get out more than vague stammers.
“Mark is ruthless, but not bloodthirsty.” Arthur couldn’t see much of a difference between the two terms, but long habit kept him silent while Merlin explained. “He does not take pleasure in killing for the sake of killing. However, when he believes it necessary to take life, he does so without hesitation. Remember,” and here Merlin sighed, “that he slew the Duke Gorlois, a good man if there ever was one, because to do so would raise him greatly in the estimation of his king.”
“And it seemed to work,” Arthur remarked bitterly. “He became King of Cornwall after that.”
“Indeed he did.”
“But all that proves is that he’s sticking to a strategy that worked in the past. And there’s a difference between killing another knight in a fair fight and hanging defenseless peasants!”
“Defenseless?” Merlin asked. “I believe all of them were captured with weapons on them.”
“Cudgels, arrows, maybe a pike. How much would that do against a knight? To drop their weapons and surrender was the only sensible thing they could do!”
“Perhaps, but hardly very courageous. I believe there are a great many knights who would say that those men are cowards and deserve to be hanged for it.”
“If they were knights, maybe, but they’re not! And I’m sure there are knights who would surrender if they had to fight other armored knights while they had nothing more than a bit of creaky old leather and a cudgel! And did you see how young those men—boys—were?” Arthur added, recklessly, as Merlin opened his mouth. “That one—the little one—he had to be younger than Tris!”
Merlin raised his eyebrows at the mention of Tris, nephew of King Mark, an irrepressible squire who had had to be literally tied to a chair to be kept from following them into battle. “And what has that to do with anything?”
“I’ll not be the murderer of children!”
“To keep your throne,” Merlin replied, “you may well have to be. I suggest you remember that. But tell me, why are the lives of these ignorant peasants so worth saving?”
“Because they’re my people!” Arthur fired back. “I swore to protect them, when I was crowned, didn’t I? I swore to look after them with mercy, didn’t I? All of them, not just the ones who were lucky enough to have lords who took my part.”
“But there is no one in this land who would consider you to be breaking your oath if you destroyed them. They were, after all, in rebellion.”
“No, they weren’t! Their lords were! Maybe, if I catch Lot and his—his—his goons, I’ll hang them instead, and then I’ll say justice has been done!”
“Hang a nobleman?” Merlin asked, so laconically that Arthur, had his blood been cooler, would have known something was amiss. “Nonsense. The system would never support it.”
“Then maybe the system is wrong!” Arthur shouted. He turned around. “Maybe instead of looking at a man’s birth to determine how to treat him, we should look at what he’s done since then. Lot may be a nobleman, but I’d be surprised if he’s acted nobly a day in his life!”
He started to pace. “Maybe—maybe instead of fighting pointless war after pointless war, because men like Lot would rather war amongst themselves to see who is greatest than sit at home and try to make something instead of destroying it, maybe I should take all those fighting men and—and—fight Lot and men like him! And get rid of them altogether! Then we could have a second to breathe! And maybe instead of hanging a peasant who was just in the wrong place at the wrong time while setting a noble free for a stupid paltry bit of silver, it should be the other way around! And maybe—”
Arthur got no farther in his improvised rant, for he was arrested by a strange, sudden sound. It was steady, rhythmic, like the beat of a heart. Yet it was also sharp and quick …
It was … clapping?
Arthur turned around.
Indeed, it was clapping, Merlin clapping, in fact giving his young king a standing ovation. “Bravo, my lad.” Merlin’s voice was thick, and were those tears in the old man’s hawkish eyes? “Bravo. Now you are thinking like a king.”