Darkness on the Edge of Town

“A holy dream,” King Brandegoris of Stranggore mused, stroking his flaxen beard. Lot sat up and tried his best to look attentive and humble. After only ten years on the throne, Brandegoris already had a reputation for abnormal piety. If the dream-story didn’t work on him, it wouldn’t work on anyone.

Which was not to say that Lot had had no success in his quest for more allies. He had won three more to date: Clarience of Northumberland, Crandelmas of North Wales, and Anguish of Ireland. There was also Idres of Cornwall, whom Lot did not consider to have “won.” Hard to say you “won” a man to your side with new information when he had merely slipped from house arrest at the first opportunity. Hard to say you “won” a man to your side when it was quite obvious that all he wanted was to avenge the dishonor done to his family upon the most prominent of Uther’s blood.

However, with the exception of Idres, the other three kings had not been drawn in so much by the “holy dream” – although all of them were naturally chary of being on the wrong side of God – as they were by the idea of the High King becoming an elected post. All of them, naturally, were entertaining dreams of their own, dreams in which their noble heads were further enriched by crowns. Lot wasn’t too worried about training their allegiance from their own narrow self-interest to his interest. He planned to lead this army so well that he would be the natural choice for High King, acclaimed so by the troops themselves if necessary.

Brandegoris, however, was different than these other kings. Brandegoris was well contented with his house, his lands, and his chapel. He had no wish for greater power. (Proof, in Lot’s opinion, that excessive prayer had already turned the man mad. He was almost as bad as Pelles of Carbonek, obsessed as he was with prophecies regarding the Holy Grail and his own family tree, which included Joseph of Arimathea.) However, Brandegoris did have five thousand knights at his disposal. Knights that Lot would much rather see in his army than in that brat Arthur’s.

But Brandegoris was frowning. “Don’t you think, my lord, that your dream comes at an awfully convenient time?”

Luckily Lot was prepared for this; Morgause had insisted that he be. “Indeed, I wondered as much myself. But the priest at Lothian thought it to be a true dream, and he wrote to many more learned minds than his own. They all agreed.”

Brandegoris still looked unconvinced. Lot hesitated before playing his second card. “I—would you care to hear how Father Pàl put it, when I asked him why was it that God did not speak until I was desperate?”

The other king’s eyebrows went up. Lot barely managed to hide a smile. “Father Pàl said that to not intervene until times were desperate was God’s way. Look at the story of Moses and the Red Sea. God did not part the sea until Pharaoh was very close to Moses, did he not?”

“There is some—” Brandegoris started.

Lot ignored that. “And think of the story of the loaves and the fishes, and the wedding at Cana. Our Savior did not cause the loaves and fishes to multiply until it was suppertime. Nor did he transfigure the water until the wine was gone.”

Brandegoris nodded. “That is true.”

“A miracle is not really a miracle,” Lot pressed, “unless times are desperate, are they not? A man who happens upon a purse of gold in the road when his pockets are full has merely had good luck. A man who happens upon a purse of gold in the road when he is starving has encountered a miracle.”

“Assuming,” Brandegoris murmured, “that the town guards don’t hang him for thievery.”

Lot waved that aside. “You know what I mean, my lord.”

“But you said that your dream claimed,” Brandegoris continued, “that you lost because you were fighting for the wrong thing. You said that the High King should become an elected position. My lord, are you sure God would ordain such a thing – that is, are you sure that is wise? To open the throne of the High King to any man who could buy enough votes …”

“It is a fearsome prospect when you put it like that,” Lot agreed, “but I myself am sure that God will choose the right in every election. I am also certain, or nearly so, that elections will be few and far between, since the post will be for life.” He paused, dropping the pious tone. “More practically, it is my personal belief that the eldest son of the former king will get the throne most of the time. After all, what better candidate can there be, other than a young man who was raised at the High King’s side and learned his statecraft at his father’s knee?” Brandegoris nodded, appreciating the logic. “The election is really just a failsafe, in case the High King dies like Uther – without issue – or in case the firstborn son should be obviously unsuitable for the role.”

“Very true,” Brandegoris agreed. “And you are quite sure this dream came from God?”

If God came in the form of a woman-temptress, a woman with the body of Eve and the cunning of the serpent, then yes, Lot was sure. They did say that God worked in mysterious ways.

So instead of nodding, Lot merely smiled. “Indeed, I am positive, my lord.”

“Then if God is on your side …” Brandegoris rubbed his beard thoughtfully. After a long moment, he nodded. “My lord Lot, I would be honored if you would accept my service, and those of my vassals.”

Five thousand more men! Lot did his best not to break into a grin. Instead he graciously bowed his head. “I am honored that you ask, my lord. And of course …”

Here Lot was unable to hide his smirk. “I believe your request was granted even before you asked it.”

Late autumn. The trees had mostly shed their leaves; the harvest was in; the animals that had not yet been led to the slaughter were being hurriedly fattened in preparation. One good thing about Lot’s desperate ally-gathering was that it had kept him too busy to be raiding villages, giving the peasants time to, for once, reap what they had sown rather than what Uther had sown in his years of mismanaging the kingdom. And that, or so Arthur kept telling himself, was all that really mattered.

Hopefully the brother-kings Ban and Bors would be impressed. England, or the England that they would see, hardly looked like a country ravaged now by three years of war. The fields they would see, though fallow for winter, were turned over and well-cared for; the livestock was chubby; the peasants healthy and happy. Surely, if England could look this well while in the midst of a civil war, Arthur was a good king. Surely, he would be able to quickly defeat Lot and his Army of Eleven Kings (even if all of them weren’t quite kings, it sounded better that way), with just a little extra help.

Surely. Surely. Surely. Funny how that word kept running through Arthur’s mind as he stood outside the blue-and-silver pavilion that Ban and Bors had brought with them from France, waiting to be announced. Funny how “surely” became a drumbeat in his head as his stomach twisted and cramped and Arthur had to admit – at least in the privacy of his own thoughts – that he was anything but sure. He couldn’t admit it aloud, of course, not with Merlin standing on his right and Brastias and Ulfius on his left. He couldn’t let Brastias and Ulfius think for a minute that their harrowing journey past Claudas’s men and into the interior of war-torn France was in vain. That would be cruel beyond comparison.

It still made Arthur’s blood boil when he thought of the trouble Ulfius and Brastias had gone through, how Claudas had sent his knights against even messengers. Of course there wasn’t any love lost between any of them, and even Arthur had to admit that it could have been worse. The eight knights could have gone against Ulfius and Brastias all at once, instead of taking Ulfius and Brastias only two at a time. They could have—

A French guard, his surcoat marked by the fleur-de-lis, came out and waved them (only Merlin and Arthur) inside. A French servant announced, “Arthur, roi de l'Angleterre!” And Arthur found himself face-to-face with Ban and Bors, brother-kings of France.

Both were dark-haired men with angular faces, faces women would call handsome, and both were on the tall side of average. Ban (or so Arthur thought, given that he sat under the coat-of-arms of Benoic) was the taller, and more slender; Bors (who sat under the banner of Ganis) had a more muscular build. Ban had eyes as blue as the choppy waters of the Atlantic; Bors was dark-eyed. Other than that, they were very much alike.

There was a set speech he and Merlin had worked out and practiced for this occasion – something about unity across the Channel, the ancient friendship between Britain and France (none that Arthur could remember hearing about, but it wouldn’t do to suggest that they were attempting an entirely new thing here), the many benefits that would come from this alliance. But now, now that he was faced with the two kings after months of plotting and scheming to get them onto his doorstep without anyone knowing, now the entire speech went clear out of his head and Arthur had no idea what to say. All he knew was that the speech was to be in Latin, since all of them understood that language.

And Merlin was staring at him, clearly waiting for him to begin.

So were the brother-kings.

Arthur took a deep breath. “Greetings, King Ban, King Bors. We welcome you to our fair shores …”

And hope you had a pleasant trip over? No, that couldn’t be it. Anything that Merlin had a hand in would be grander, loftier. More fit for a king to say and a pair of kings to hear. And Arthur couldn’t think of what it was.

His insides seized up, if he was a woman he would have seriously considered fainting …

To hell with this.

“My lords,” Arthur said, his tone switching from formal and elevated to plain and simple, although he kept the Latin. Merlin stared at him. “My lords, you have come a long way, and your time is short. I appreciate that. So I will not bore you and waste your time by beating around the bush. I simply sum up my case by quoting to you an adage that is very well-known: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

Maybe it’s not so well-known in France, Arthur wondered, but it was too late to worry about that now. He could practically see the steam coming from his tutor’s ears already. Hopefully Merlin would not choose now to follow through on all his toad-threats. If that didn’t cause an international incident, nothing would.

The kings, too, looked somewhat shocked, so Arthur continued before they decided to call off the negotiations. “King Claudas has been ravaging your lands for years. Now he is an important, I daresay necessary, ally in the group that seeks to push me from my throne. Furthermore, he’s supposed to be my vassal. Quite frankly, I can’t understand why King Uther let him – Claudas, I mean – get away with attacking your lands, but let me tell you, once I get control over him again, it will stop. But I can’t get control over Claudas and the rest of the kings without some help. That’s where you come in.”

Merlin glared at him, but it was King Ban who first spoke, “The feud between Le Roi Claudas and ourselves is of a long-standing, familial nature. Why should Le Roi Uther have interfered?”

“If King Claudas had wanted to get on his horse, go over the Channel, and challenge you in person, in personal, fair fights, that would be his business alone. But he didn’t. He sent in an army to harass your peasants and burn their—your fields and basically make the lives of everyone in France miserable. And that is wrong.”

The kings stared at him, and approximately two seconds before the start of the stare and one after Arthur had finished, he realized that he had stuck his foot into it. Damn it! “Besides,” Arthur added, hoping that the whispers the Continent spies had brought to him were true, “King Bors, didn’t King Claudas try to kidnap your sons? And surely they’re not old enough to stand as hostages?”

By the murderous light that sprang into Bors’s eyes, Arthur had guessed right. “Bors is not even ten!”

Huh? It took Arthur a moment before he realized that the King was referring to his son, whom he must have named for himself. Awfully egotistical, that, not to mention confusing. If—well, when, it would have to be when what with having to pass on the kingdom and all that—Arthur ever had a son, he certainly wouldn’t make his first name “Arthur.”

“It was,” Ban added, looking almost as angry as his brother, “a very near thing. My sons were almost taken in the attempt as well, although my eldest managed to fight the attackers off and hide his brothers before trying to follow his cousins.”

Arthur did his best not to blink. Some eldest son, he thought, but trading yarns was not the point of the discussion. “So, you see, Claudas is a monster, a madman who must be stopped. I don’t care what he thinks his feud with you two is; you don’t go trying to take another man’s children. For any reason. And I want to stop him. But I can’t unless I get some help in crushing this rebellion.”

The brothers exchanged glances. “But why, my lord Arthur, are your people in rebellion against you?” Ban asked.

And isn’t that the million-pound question. “Because, instead of leaving legitimate sons behind him, born and raised in Carleon and in full sight of the kingdom from the time they could walk, like you two seem set on doing, my father only left half-a-dozen bastards and a magic sword.” Merlin looked profoundly uncomfortable, probably at the way Arthur was butchering this. But Arthur ignored him and tapped the hilt of Excalibur. “The sword picked me. But some of my vassals didn’t agree with the choice.”

“And why?” Bors pressed.

Arthur was wise. He did not say the answer that first sprang to his tongue … immediately. “Ostensibly because of my youth – I was a bare few days past fifteen at the time – inexperience, and doubtful parentage. In truth …” Arthur shrugged. “In truth, I believe they rebelled because they were not the ones chosen to be King, and because they thought they could win.”

“A few days past fifteen,” Ban repeated, laboriously. “I believe – according to the diplomatic news I received – that your first pulling of the Sword from the Stone occurred on New Year’s Day?” Arthur nodded. “Indeed. And when, my lord, is your date of birth – exactly?”

Arthur couldn’t see how this mattered in the least, but he answered dutifully enough. “Christmas Day, my lords.”

Ban and Bors exchanged glances. Bors opened his mouth.

“My lords.” This was Merlin, sweeping forward, leaning against the council table – a circular table, Arthur had asked for that specifically. “I assure you, King Arthur is God’s own choice for the throne of England. He is as … legitimate a king as there ever was. The Sword was no trick of mine, I swear it to you, but was God’s way of indicating His anointed. Now, please, my lords, can we return to business?”

Ban and Bors exchanged glances. “A … legitimate king?” Bors asked.

“The closest England has to one, at the moment,” Arthur replied. But Bors did not look at him. He – and his brother – looked only at Merlin, who nodded.

“Indeed,” Ban replied. “Well. So legitimate he is. Bon. So … you say you want our help. But what will you give us in return?”

“Peace,” Arthur replied. “I’ll rein Claudas in. And should he ever slip underneath my defenses, I’ll be the first to come to your aid and trounce him once and for all.”

Another set of looks passed between the brothers. “It is well,” Bors answered. “But how, my lord, do you propose that we help you without laying our lands open to even further waste by Claudas?”

“Actually, we already had a plan for that.” From his sleeve – literally, although Arthur had no idea how the old man fit it up there – Merlin pulled forth a map. “Our idea was that you would come in from some sort of cover, as a sneak attack …”

“Indeed. Well, sit, my lords, we cannot plan with all of you standing like that,” Ban replied, absently, as he drew the map toward him.

Arthur’s breath came out in a whoosh. The meeting had gone better than he had any right to expect. And now all four men could sit around the round council table and talk shop.

The wind was cold, coming off the chilly northern Atlantic as it was. The ground was rough, every stone easily felt through her thin shoes. The noise was deafening, between the sea and the gulls and the shouts of five children. The air was salty, it caught her hair and she would have a devil of a time untangling it tonight. But now, just for these few moments, Morgause was at peace.

Until Elaine started shouting. “Nimue! Nimue! Get away from the water!”

Morgause sighed once before opening her eyes, her blissful reverie spoiled. “The nurses will watch her. Calm yourself, sister.”

Elaine frowned. Of all the sisters she was the most conventionally pretty. Not in coloring – her hair was the same raven-black as Morgause and Morgan’s, her skin the same cream, though her eyes were china-blue – but in features. Igraine had been regal, Morgause seductive, Morgan simply herself. Elaine, however, from the soft arch of her brow to the upturn of her nose to the dimple on her cheek, was delicate and charming.

Delicate she was at all times, but right now, she was making no effort to charm. “Morgause—she is so willful—I fear if we do not both curb her, the nurse and I, that she will do as she wishes and put herself in danger.”

“Willful? Has she been spending much time with Morgan, then?” Morgause asked flippantly.

“Morgan? Oh, no! Morgan has not seen her since … since Nimue was born, I’m sure of it.” Elaine shivered, though whether from the wind or from her thoughts was anyone’s guess. “Nentres would never allow it in any case.”

Morgause rolled her eyes. Nentres, though he was an unusually affectionate husband to Elaine and a dutiful father to Nimue, was a man like any other and had his whims. Granted, there wasn’t a man in England who wouldn’t second Nentres’s demand that Elaine’s wayward sister be kept from his impressionable young daughter. Especially since it had been six years since Nimue’s birth and there was still no sign of another babe.

Now it was Morgause’s turn to shiver. Nimue’s birth. They had almost lost Nimue then, Elaine too. If Morgan hadn’t flown in – literally – when she did …

And now Nentres wanted to keep the woman who was the sole reason he still had a wife and daughter away from his wife and daughter.

“Perhaps Morgan could teach her the consequences of willfulness. Do you think Nimue wants to spend the rest of her days chained to a faerie castle that disappears and reappears overnight, swallowing knights whole?”

Elaine blanched. “A f-faerie castle?”

“Rumors, Elaine. I’m certain that Morgan does not live in an actual faerie castle.” Morgause hesitated. “In faith, I don’t know where she lives. Still.”

“And if you don’t know, then certainly no one does. Unless she’s still with Mother.” Elaine turned wide, disingenuous eyes upon Morgause. “Wasn’t that where she was last sighted?”

“Before or after she allegedly put Pelles of Carbonek’s daughter into a tower filled with steam?” Morgause asked, her brow lifting with the irony of it all.

“Oh, you can’t believe she did that!”

“I never said I did.” Morgause frowned. “I don’t. Morgan … Morgan has too much sense to be locking up a ten-year-old just because she is, or will be, more beautiful than Morgan.” After a moment’s hesitation, Morgause added, “Besides, I heard that little Elaine of Carbonek is a fair-haired, milkmaid-pretty sort of lass. ‘Twould be hard to compare her and Morgan. Surely, if Morgan was looking to lock up her competition in towers, she’d go after you or me first?”

Elaine’s eyes went wide for a moment, then she laughed. “I almost thought you meant it.”

Morgause smiled, though in a way she had meant it. It was, after all, what she would do.

Still, there were things she wanted to know … “You heard Morgan was with Mother?” Morgause asked, as a way to dance toward her intended topic. “When was that?”

“Not so very long ago … the rumors come off and on. I keep wondering if Morgan was only there once, and the rumors just arrive separately, or if she’s truly gone back there a number of times.” Elaine’s eyes suddenly lit up. “Maybe she’s discovered a vocation!”

Morgan as a nun? Morgause struggled to keep her face serene. Much as Morgan might find a cloistered life useful in some respects, the idea of her sister placidly taking the veil, of swearing herself to poverty, chastity and obedience …

It was ludicrous. But, “Maybe,” was all Morgause would reply. “Perhaps she has not decided yet. You know Morgan. Her way or no way.” The tone was dismissive, so hopefully her jump to a different topic would not be thought of as too strange. “Have you heard from Mother at all, by the way?”

Elaine sighed. “No. But …” She frowned. “Mother is still being watched, you know. And Amesbury is within lands controlled by the K—I mean by Arthur. If Mother tried to get a message through, she could be imprisoned for treason …”

Morgause sighed. “True. I just thought, since Garlot is so much closer …”

“No, nothing, sister.” Elaine shook her head. “You?”

Morgause blinked. “Me? You just gave me several excellent reasons why you cannot communicate with Mother—would they not apply double to me?”

“For ink and parchment communication, certainly. But aren’t there … other … ways you can use to talk to people?” Elaine tilted her head a little to the side, a habit she had shown since girlhood, and crept into herself, another habit since girlhood.

She never did like magic, Morgause thought, reflecting once again that it was a blessed thing that only she and Morgan had shown any talent for it. Although with Nimue, one never knew … “Yes,” Morgause replied. “Yes, there are. However …” She sighed. “They are closely related to how Mother … that is, I don’t want to try them, for fear of … hurting Mother.”

Elaine brought her fingers up to her lips. “Goodness.”

“No, no, Elaine. Not ‘goodness.’ What happened to Mother – what happened to us­ – has very little to do with that.”

Silence. Elaine turned away to stare at the children, Morgause’s four boys and Elaine’s one little girl, who somehow was holding her own amidst the four rambunctious lads. Morgause closed her eyes and let the soothing sounds and smells wash over her.

“… Morgause?”

“Yes, dear heart?”

“Do you ever wonder if we … if we did right?”

Morgause’s eyes popped open. “What,” she demanded in a tone that, since this was her baby sister, she valiantly kept from becoming a hiss, “do you mean by that?”

“Well … I mean … such a lot of people have died since Lot and Nentres started this war …”

She almost breathed a sigh of relief. If that was all that was troubling Elaine … “What, exactly, did we do?” she asked.

She had never confided in Elaine the true depths of her anger, her desire for revenge. How could she? Elaine was so like how Morgause remembered Igraine, back in those idyllic days before Uther had brought his scowl and his armies into all of their lives. Sweet, gentle, mild of temper, obedient and loyal. Even now, when Elaine had been calling for Nimue to stay away from the water – how many times had that been Igraine admonishing Morgause?

But it was worse with Elaine, for though Igraine had spent most of her years with her second husband stark raving mad, Igraine possessed something Elaine did not. A core. A sense of herself, of her own desires and needs, of her identity. Oh, that core had been battered and bruised, but Igraine still had it. Elaine had no such core. Elaine was only too happy to be the dutiful wife, molding herself like clay to her husband’s needs and desires, keeping his house, raising his children, praying in his chapel, warming his bed. Igraine had known that there was evil, black evil, out in the world, but had trusted in her husband to protect her … and when he could not, her sanity crumbled in the face of the monster who had become her second husband while that core took itself off and hid to wait out the storm. But at least the evil had come from a known enemy, much as Igraine had tried to force herself to turn that enemy into a friend. If Elaine ever found that such evil rested in the heart of her very own sister—

Evil? a voice inside Morgause challenged. What evil? What Uther did to me and mine was evil! What I do to him and his is justice!

Still – justice or not – it would not do to let Elaine know.

“If we had not been married to Nentres and Lot … if they had not thought they had a claim to the throne better than Arthur’s—”

“You mean, if the marriage articles hadn’t named us, our husbands and our heirs as the successors of Uther’s crown, barring legitimate issue?” Morgause interrupted, one eyebrow raised.

“You told Lot about the marriage articles,” Elaine pointed out sulkily.

“So? He was the one who made the decision to go to war. As did Nentres. If anyone did wrong, they did.”

“We wanted them to,” Elaine whispered. “Or at least … you wanted Lot to. And I didn’t want Nentres to be fighting against you and Lot.”

“Yet we both know that it takes more than a woman’s wish to get anything done in this world.”

“But cannot a wish be powerful? Cannot a wish, turned into a prayer—”

“If either of us prayed that Lot or Nentres would enter this war, then God must have answered that prayer. And if God answered it, then it must be His will, in which case this is all for the best. So no, Elaine, we have not done wrong. We have not done wrong at all.” Her words at the end grew dangerously clipped, but Elaine scarcely had time to do more than widen her eyes before Morgause let out a half-wild laugh. “But come, Elaine, it is not even Sunday! Let us leave theology to the priests. It is all in God’s hands, however it falls – is that not enough?”

Elaine seemed comforted by this, as Morgause knew she would be. “Indeed, it is. However it falls.”

However it falls. Morgause barely suppressed a shiver. There could be no mystery in how things would fall – could there be? Lot’s army outnumbered Arthur’s three-to-one.

No. There could be no mystery, no doubt. Arthur would fall and Lot would emerge victorious.

Still, Morgause was hard-pressed to avoid a shiver – because of the wind – and it was not long before she suggested to Elaine that they take the children inside.

Just in case.