Darkness on the Edge of Town
Morgause divined the defeat as soon as her husband and the straggling remains of his army rode over the drawbridge.
She was assembled in the courtyard with her children, Gawaine and Gareth on her right, Agravaine and Gaheris on her left. The rest of the household stood behind them, waiting. Gawaine was eleven and nearly up to her shoulder now; as Lot clattered across, Morgause felt herself gripping her boy’s arm, almost for protection. He looked up at her, his beady dark eyes, already so like his father’s, narrowing. Morgause forced a smile and let go. She absently tousled Agravaine’s straight reddish-blonde mop of hair. Agravaine pulled away and tried to smooth it.
Lot reached the courtyard, pulled off his helmet, and glowered. Morgause fixed her face into a welcoming smile, stepped forward—
And before she was properly aware of time passing, she was on the ground, the left side of her face on fire, and Lot bellowing above her, “Do you want my head on a block, woman?!”
Morgause closed her eyes and opened them; the world swam as if the ocean surrounding the island had decided to reclaim its own and toss them about like a boat in a bathtub. Stones and bits of gravel dug into her palms. A foot suddenly exploded into the tender, soft flesh of her stomach; Morgause cried out and curled into a ball. “Do you?”
“Don’t hit Mummy!”
The pain vanished.
Gareth, her brave little Gareth, was standing in front of his brothers, his little hands balled into fists, swallowing as he stared up at his father. The boy was only seven, and with the temper Lot was in—God only knew what Lot would do to him—
Lot took a step toward his littlest son.
“Gawaine!” Morgause shouted, a raw sort of sound that she usually never let her husband hear. It shocked Lot enough that he stopped and looked at her. “Get your brothers, go to the practice yard.”
“No,” Lot said, just as Gawaine had grabbed Gareth’s arm with one hand and Agravaine’s with the other. “No, I want them to see this.” Lot glared at her, the kind of glance he would give a bothersome fly that he was about to kill, and suddenly his hand shot out and pulled her to her feet. “If they can learn anything from me,” he squeezed her hand and Morgause locked her tongue between her teeth to keep from crying out, “it will be how not to be ruled by a wife.”
“Boys,” Morgause ordered, though part of her knew it was futile, “go.”
They did not move, as she had expected. Of course they would stay there if their father ordered. Morgause looked away, trying to think of a way to get Lot to “lesson” her in private—
Gaheris, her third son, stepped forward, grabbed Gareth’s arm, and with a practically murderous glance at Lot, pulled Gareth away and set off at run toward the practice yard.
Gawaine, not to be outdone by his younger brothers, watched them for a minute, then bowed to his father and followed them. “Agravaine, come on!” he called over his shoulder.
Agravaine stayed rooted to the spot. “AGRAVAINE!”
With a peculiar look at his mother, the boy nodded his head at Lot and ran after his brothers.
Lot watched them go with shock—then his angry eyes turned back to Morgause. “Is that what you teach them when I’m gone? To disobey me and listen only to you?” He let go of her arm; his gauntleted hand crashed into the right side of her face this time. “IS IT?”
Morgause stumbled back, her heel caught on her skirt and she fell again. “Are you training them to murder me in my sleep? Isn’t that it? Isn’t that why you sent me to this bootless war—so your boys wouldn’t have to commit patricide?” He grabbed the collar of her dress and hauled her to her feet again. “ISN’T IT?”
The servants were watching; they would talk. The boys were out of sight but they couldn’t be out of earshot. But twelve years of barely-contained hatred, egged on by the bruises developing on her face, her stomach, her legs and hands, bubbled to the surface. She shouted, “You fool! If all I wanted was your death, I would have done it myself years ago!”
Lot let go of her; Morgause fell once more. He took a step back. “Y-y-you … whore …” That was a lie; Morgause had been nothing if not loyal through their entire marriage, but of course the most potent way a man could think to insult a woman was to tear at her chastity. “Whore—witch! Yes, witch!” he shouted. “You think I don’t know your little tricks, your powders, your enchantments—the way you look into the mirror and know the future?”
Damn. So he did know. Well, good, maybe that would be a way to change the balance of power in this relationship. Morgause had been chaste, silent and obedient for too long. Far too long.
She stood up. “And what of it?” she challenged. Lot crossed himself. “Do you think you haven’t benefited from having a wife with a little … hobby on the side?”
Lot took another wobbly step away. “Thou shalt n-not suffer—”
“If you decided not to suffer a witch to live,” Morgause growled, “then who will save you next time the plague sweeps through Orkney? Yes, the plague,” she continued, as Lot went white, remembering the last time – five years hence – that the plague had come to Orkney. “You, Gawaine, Agravaine – thank God the little ones did not catch it, they were so young that I doubt all my art could have saved them. But you survived. When almost no one else who caught that plague did. Why do you think that might have been?”
“The bishop—Masses said—”
“The bishop died! Do you think he prayed harder for you than he did for himself?” Morgause retorted. “No. Who nursed you, and the boys, Lot? Who stayed with you when half of the servants had fled in panic while the other half lay dying on their pallets?”
Lot’s eyes were very wide, his skin, already pale because of his red hair, going a few degrees whiter.
Morgause stepped forward, her face mere inches from Lot’s. Lot seemed frozen. “I saved you. All of you. I did. And I paid dearly for the secret to save your life. Remember your mother’s pearl necklace, how it disappeared? And remember this?” Morgause pulled the collar of her dress away from her breastbone, revealing a small, pearly white scar. “Remember how you gave me this for ‘losing’ that necklace?”
Lot began to shake.
Morgause moved, if possible, even closer. “And hear me now, Lot, though God knows you’ve never heard a word out of my mouth in twelve years,” she whispered, low enough that only he could hear. “What has the power to heal has the power to hurt. You can beat me bloody – you’ve proven that time and time again. But I can put you into the ground. Remember that.” She stepped back.
“Now.” She took his hand; Lot flinched as if he expected the contact to burn him. “Come with me. We will discuss your latest failure in private, and what I can do to fix it.”
He had lost the battle. Morgause knew that. He had eroded his allies’ confidence in him, let over five hundred kerns be killed in the fighting, and lost far more in the winter march to Carleon and the spring run home. Morgause could have guessed as much. There was now every possibility that Arthur could give chase, lead an army to lay siege to Dunlothian.
Morgause doubted that.
“No. That would not be Arthur’s way. Nor Merlin’s,” Morgause mused once they were safely ensconced in their bedchamber. Lot stared at her. “Arthur considers this land to be his. Thus, he is eager to damage it as little as possible.”
“The land is mine,” Lot growled.
And thus Arthur is truly a wiser king than you are, husband. Morgause barely refrained from rolling her eyes. She cared nothing for the collateral damage Lot caused in his quest for the throne, but she was not the one who was going to have to pick up the pieces Lot and his men had so impatiently strewn about the country. Still, Arthur had advantages that Lot did not: the passing wise Igraine for a mother, for one, and Merlin for a tutor, for another.
“Yes, husband. But still, Arthur wants to win the hearts of the peasants, and the fewer of them he has to harm, the happier he will be. So, he will not try to chase you to Orkney unless he has no other options. Besides,” Morgause added, “in order to get to our lands, he will have to go through Claudas’s … with any luck, Claudas’s men would bleed him and his armies white. No, to attack us here would be foolish in the extreme.
“Although,” Morgause continued, tapping her fingers against the wash table, “it could not hurt to gain an extra buffer zone. You should form an alliance with King Clarience. If Arthur has to fight his way through Northumberland as well, I’d be shocked if he could bring more than a quarter of his army to our shores.”
“An alliance?” Lot cried. “I lost, woman! Who do you think is going to join me now? I could barely keep my allies together as it was!”
Morgause made a vague shooing motion with her hand, as if she would chase his objections out of room. “It has to be done. You need more men.” She turned around. “Unless you want to end up with your head on a block.”
“I didn’t think so. So,” she mused, “why did you lose?”
“Why did I lose?” Lot jumped up, banging his hands on the table. “Because of that brat Arthur! His sword has some sort of enchantment on it, the minute he took it in hand—”
“I don’t mean why you really lost, fool!” Morgause shouted. “I mean why you should tell people you lost! How it was that you came to lose God’s favor!” She shook her head, disgusted, then turned and began to pace.
“I have it!” Morgause cried out. “A holy dream! A vision!”
“Eh? I had a vision, and so I lost?”
“No! You will tell people that after you lost, you had a vision and God explained why he refused to grant you victory. You see, you – or at least this is what you will tell the other kings – you were going about this all wrong.”
She kept pacing. “The High King of Britain, you will tell them, was never meant to be a hereditary position. First of all, it is simply too much power to hand down father to son – what if a son should turn out evil, or weak? Secondly, what if, like Uther, a king dies leaving no legitimate son, or daughter, or even niece or nephew behind?” Morgause’s eyes glinted as she turned to face him. “Do you understand? A post so high, with so many people dependent upon it, cannot be left up to chance. Instead, it should be elected.”
“Elected?” Lot spat.
“Yes, elected. After the High King dies, all of the other kings – and perhaps other nobles, if you wish, but that is a minor detail – should gather at one central point and elect from their number the man who will be the next High King, for life.” Lot sank back in his chair, seemingly relieved. “What,” Morgause asked, “did you think I would have the lowliest churl voting as well? Preposterous.”
She shook her head. “And, now, you see – between your ‘vision’ and the vision every other king will have of he himself wearing the crown – you’ll have so many allies, you won’t know what to do with them all.” Morgause sent a decidedly feline smile over at him. “Don’t you think it is a brilliant idea, husband?”
Lot narrowed his eyes. “One difficulty, wife.”
“I am fighting this war,” he said softly, “to become High King myself. Not so that any foolish man with enough gold to buy the votes of everyone else can warm his arse on my throne.”
Morgause made a tch noise, but it was mostly at herself. Foolish of her not to remember that her husband’s greed would rule all, even now. “No, husband. You began fighting this war to win a crown. Now you fight it to – forgive me – keep your crown firmly attached to your shoulders.” Lot swallowed.
“Besides,” Morgause added, “who is to say that you won’t become High King? Indeed,” and here her eyes glinted slantwise at him, “as the leader of the army to establish this new order, as the first man who had the courage to stand up to Arthur and his wizard’s tricks, I should imagine that you would be the logical choice.”
Lot leaned back with a smile. “Indeed. So I should be.” He grasped, for the first time, the goblet of ale he had demanded when he had first come indoors. “I must say, wife – I believe that I am beginning to like the way you think.”
“No, no – the room has to be big,” Arthur said to his architects as they went over the plans for Camelot, the castle that Uther had begun over ten years ago and that Arthur would finish. “Very big. Big enough to fit, oh, a hundred, two hundred knights even. Comfortably. With room for … for …”
“For what, my liege?” asked Garvan.
Arthur tried a disarming smile; the architect’s exasperated expression refused to go away. Arthur swallowed. “I—see, I’m not so sure myself yet. This—this room, it’s going to be the home base, so to speak, for a whole new order of knights, and …” Garvan’s set jaw told Arthur that he didn’t care. “Well, I’m still working out the details on that. But I need room for everybody.”
“Your Majesty,” Cadogan, who seemed more reasonable, or at least patient, began, “we only have so much space to work with. The outer walls of the palace are all constructed and can’t be changed, unless you want to tear down half the structure …”
“No, no, no!” Arthur replied. King Leodegrance had sat him down and gone over exactly how much Camelot had cost Uther and was costing Arthur, effectively putting the fear of God into the young king. He didn’t even want to think about the cost of tearing down half the palace and rebuilding it. Nor how long that would take.
Arthur scratched his head and frowned at the drawings. “Look … everything else is fine. The living quarters, the servants’ spaces, the storerooms and armories … it’s just this that I need to think about … how long can you afford to wait?”
Garvan and Cadogan exchanged glances. “Not more than a month,” Cadogan replied.
Bloody brilliant. I need to come up with a plan to set chivalry straight in less than a month? Arthur sighed. Well, if it had to be done, it had to be done. “All right. I’ll have something more specific ready for you by then. On my honor.”
“As you wish, my liege,” Garvan replied, as calm and unconcerned as if he had not just cornered Arthur into that agreement. He started to gather his papers, clearly assuming the meeting over.
But Arthur still had questions, questions about the size of the practice grounds and possible improvements to the defensive structures of the castle … but a glance at the door, and Kay and Cador standing in it, forestalled those questions. Arthur gulped at the way they frowned and continually glanced at each other, all the while beckoning to him.
“Thank you for this meeting, gentlemen, and I’ll speak with you again before the end of the month … now, if you will excuse me …” Arthur nodded to the architects before walking over to Kay and Cador. “What is it?” he hissed as soon as they were out of earshot of the architects.
“Not here,” Kay murmured out of the corner of his mouth as they passed a servant maid. “Council room.”
Oh, hell. This can’t be good.As soon as they arrived in the council chambers – which held only Merlin, Ector, Sir Ulfius and Sir Brastias – Arthur’s suspicions were confirmed. “King Lot is gathering more men and allies, and will in all probability seek to move against you sometime next spring,” Merlin said without preamble.
“What?” Arthur asked as he took his place at the head of Uther’s old council table. Kay and Cador took their places nearer to the foot, since they were clearly the most junior members present. Something about that bothered him, but he shoved it aside to deal with the more pressing matter. “But we trounced them not four months ago!”
“Apparently Lot is a persistent bastard,” Ector snarled – then his mouth clamped shut. His eyes moved down the table. “Meaning no offense to anyone present, of course.”
“None taken, sir,” Cador replied with a smile.
“Why do you apologize to the boy,” Merlin inquired of the ceiling, “when I’m the one who could turn you into a toad?”
“Because, Merlin, you’ve been threatening to turn me and the boys into all manner of creatures for the past dozen years now, and all those threats came to naught. Whereas I’ve never seen young Sir Cador here make a threat that he did not deliver upon.”
“I’ll not dispute that, but Father, when you have seen Cador make a threat?” Kay asked.
“Shush, you, before you really do get me turned into a toad!”
Arthur allowed himself one chuckle before turning back to the matter at hand. “How many men?”
Sir Ulfius cleared his throat. “King Lot has contacted no less than ten kings. We should assume that he will manage to win over at least five of them. Between those new kings, and his allies from before … we could be facing an army of fifty thousand knights. And as many as ten thousand kerns.”
If Arthur had not already been sitting, he would have found a seat very quickly, on the ground if nowhere else. “Fifty thousand knights?” he repeated in a tone of voice best described as a “squeak.”
“And ten thousand kerns.”
“We can’t possibly raise that many,” Arthur replied. It was not a question.
“No,” Merlin agreed.
For a long moment, Arthur stared into space, or more properly at the Pendragon banner hanging in state directly opposite him. Three years of fighting, three years of winning, and now, almost-certain defeat? All his work, all his plans … his new order of knights … all for nothing?
No. No. Not yet. He would not give up yet. “But we can get some men. Enough to beat them with superior strategy. Cador – will King Mark still be with us?” Arthur asked. The king had been notably tetchy since being so visibly rebuked after the battle of Carleon and had removed himself to Cornwall soon after.
Cador stared at the table.
“He hasn’t turned on us—has he?” Arthur asked.
“Not … exactly, but … he cannot give you more men. He has none to give.”
Arthur lifted one eyebrow.
Cador sighed. “You remember how my lord Mark put Sir Idres under house arrest at the start of the hostilities?”
Sir Idres … Arthur cast his thoughts back. “He was some sort of relative of the old Duke, wasn’t he?”
“His cousin,” Sir Brastias said softly, his gaze not leaving the table. Sir Ulfius frowned.
“Thank you, Sir Brastias. But King Mark didn’t want to risk Idres joining with Lot the first time around, because …” Arthur squeezed his eyes shut and tried to remember. “Because it hadn’t escaped King Mark’s attention that the two leaders of the rebellion were married to two of Gorlois’s daughters.”
“Yes, exactly. Well, since my lord Mark thought that the war was over, he took some of the guard away from Sir Idres in Terrabil. And he didn’t monitor the messages Idres was getting very carefully … two weeks ago, Idres staged a minor uprising, raised five thousand Cornishmen, and fled the county.” Cador made a face. “The dead duke’s name still has purchase with the common folk, apparently. I just got the letter from my lord Mark this morning. He asked me to share it with you.”
Arthur stared. “Why didn’t King Mark send me news when this first began? I could have sent him men; we could have kept Cornwall under control …”
“Nay, my lord,” Sir Brastias replied. “Cornwall still feels as if it has a score to settle with the Pendragons. The only way Idres’s men would return to their homes would be in pine boxes – and sooner or later, another five thousand would march against you, this time seeking to avenge Gorlois and Idres.”
“But why?” Arthur asked plaintively. “All of that was twenty years ago!”
“Because Gorlois was a good man, a good ruler, and because he was wronged most shamefully in that defeat,” Merlin replied. “But the quarrels of twenty years ago are not what we are here to discuss—”
“Apparently we are, since it’s the quarrels of twenty years ago that are bringing fifty thousand men against me,” Arthur interrupted. Merlin blinked rapidly. “I thought, at first, that Lot and Nentres were against me just because of Uther’s marriage articles. Now, I’m not so sure. And what of the third sister’s husband? Where is he in all this?”
“To answer your second question, the Lady Morgan is at present unwed, and is likely to remain so for the,” half of Merlin’s mouth quirked up into a queer smile, “foreseeable future. Ask Cador for the details as to why at some other time, should you wish to know.”
“What, did you try to marry her, Cador?” Arthur asked.
Cador looked positively terrified. “Good Lord, no. I like living.”
“Ahem,” Merlin interrupted. “If I may continue? Thank you. Now, Lot and Nentres were fighting you because of the marriage articles. I say ‘were’ because they have changed their rationale, somewhat, in order to gather more allies. If a thought of revenge is in anyone’s head, it is in Morgause’s.”
“King Lot’s wife,” Arthur filled in.
“Exactly. She …” Merlin sighed. “She is very angry, still, over what happened to her father.”
“Gorlois doted on her,” Brastias murmured. “She was the apple of his eye, anyone could see that. Almost dearer to him than Igraine, and he loved Igraine more than life. Morgause … Morgause just adored him. Anyone could see that.”
“How …” Arthur began.
“Oh, I was Gorlois’s second-in-command,” Brastias replied, a hint of a twinkle in his dark eyes. “All those twenty years ago, as you would put it, my liege. Served him all my life, to that point. Then, when he was slain and Igraine wed Uther, I became chief of her guard. To this day I’m astonished that Uther allowed it.”
“Uther had little choice. You and the other Cornishmen were the only ones that could restrain her, after …” Merlin swallowed. “After what happened to her. She would listen to you, calm when you asked her. Any men of Uther’s would have only terrified her the more.”
“The Queen went mad soon after her marriage to Uther, didn’t she?” Arthur asked.
“About a year,” Brastias replied.
Arthur frowned. “And Morgause … she was Igraine’s daughter too, was she not? I mean, she was not a daughter of Gorlois’s from a previous marriage?”
“No, she was not.”
“And how old was she when all this happened?”
“Seven when her father died, eight when her mother …” Brastias shook his head. “She was the eldest, too. Morgan was but five when it all began, and Elaine only toddling about.”
“I see,” Arthur murmured. “And the three of them were raised in Carleon, after their father’s death?”
“Oh, aye. Perhaps it might have been better for the girls if they did not have to see that, but with the Queen’s condition being what it is … we were all afraid of what she might do to herself, if she were separated from her daughters.”
Arthur nodded. He glanced at Ector, then Kay, thinking of his childhood in the Castle Sauvage. Of days spent birds’-nesting and nights watching the stars. Of the hunts and feasts (nothing compared to the grandeur of Carleon, but warm and homey), of running wild through the village secure in the knowledge that there wasn’t an adult present who would let anything happen to him. Of being in fact so securely wrapped in love and safety that he and Kay would go adventuring in the Forest Sauvage just for some room to breathe. Arthur’s smile deepened as he remembered one particular adventure, a griffin Kay slew, and a night spent in the enchanted castle of Morgan le Fay, Queen of the Faeries …
But the smile vanished as he imagined, or tried to, the childhood of Morgause and her sisters. He tried to imagine being removed from Castle Sauvage to Carleon when he was as young as they. And not being to run the place themselves, oh no, in fact under the sway of a mad mother and a dour, ill-tempered stepfather, moreover a stepfather who slew their true father …
Arthur shuddered. “No wonder,” he whispered, “Morgause wants so badly to hurt somebody.”
“Morgause should know better, given that she saw what happens to traitors,” Sir Ulfius replied, completely missing the point in Arthur’s opinion. “That does not solve our difficulty, however, my liege.”
Arthur gulped. No, it most certainly did not. “We need more men,” he murmured.
“And we will not get them here,” Merlin agreed. “However …” He raised one eyebrow. “Arthur, have you heard of the brother-kings Ban and Bors of France?”