Darkness on the Edge of Town

“When is it,” Merlin inquired of the empty air, “that one goes from simply looking old, or being told by the calendar that one is old, to actually feeling old?”

He had begun to look old somewhere in between the time when he arrived on Sir Ector’s doorstep and the Battle of Carleon. The calendar had only confirmed what the gray hairs and wrinkles had told him. But it was only recently that the stiffness in his joints and perpetual weariness in his marrow had made him begin to feel old.

He leaned heavily on his stick as he made his way through the temporary camp to his tent. Not so very long ago the stick had only been a prop for his vanity at best and a necessary part of his costume as a wizard at worst. Now, he felt – especially in the evenings – that if he didn’t have his stick, he might have to be carried back to his tent.

Or fly. Though in truth Merlin was afraid to try his merlin-shape, afraid to find that the bird’s feathers and wings had been subjected to the same pressures and aging as his hair and skin. Maybe later – maybe once the battle was over, which it surely would be in a week at the most – maybe when he wasn’t forced to sit on a damned contrary bit of horseflesh all day long, maybe then he would try flight again. Maybe his tiredness was merely a symptom of the stressful time, and it would fade when the war was over and Arthur secure on his throne, a project nearly twenty years in the making safely completed.

It had better, Merlin thought, for in his heart he knew that the project was only just beginning. And Arthur, though his intentions were good and his ideas almost surprisingly sound, was not yet experienced enough to rule a kingdom without help.

But now Merlin was nearly at his tent, his steps quickening as he thought of the warmed braziers, the complete and utter lack of horseflesh, and best of all, his bed …

Someone was standing outside. Of course it was outside – Merlin had a set of very good wards up on his tent; there was not a sorcerer in England or indeed all of Europe who could get past them, at least not without raising a ruckus that would rouse the whole camp. Nor was there anyone with inimical intentions who could get quite so close, indeed next to the tent-flap, without alerting him. And even if there was – well, Merlin’s joints might be getting on, but luckily skill with magic only increased as long as the mind stayed sharp.

“Can I help you, lad?” Merlin asked as he came closer. At least he thought it was a lad; the figure was too small and not broad enough to be a fully-grown knight, and Arthur had put his foot down and included no women in the camp. He said he didn’t want to risk innocents, considering that Lot’s army outnumbered his three-to-one, not counting the secret allies of Ban and Bors, most of the knights had to admit he had a point.

The figure looked up. “Yes,” said a very familiar contralto, “but only if you promise not to address me as ‘lad.’” The hood was tossed aside and a smile alighted on the visitor’s face.

Merlin blinked. “Morgan! Morgan, my goodness, welcome—come in, come in.” The nice thing about magical wards was that, unlike, for instance, a guard dog or a booby trap, Merlin’s sincere welcome was enough to disarm them for long enough to let he and Morgan inside the tent. “Take off your cloak, child; ‘tis plenty warm in here. Can I get you anything?”

“No, thank you.”

“Are you certain? Sit, my lady, you must be exhausted after your …” Merlin hesitated. “How much of a journey was it?”

“From Amesbury. Mama’s convent. Not from home.”

Merlin nodded; unlike most the rest of England, he had a very good idea where Morgan’s elusive Castle Chariot was. He knew better than to come calling without invitation, however. If the wards on his tent were a particularly noisy and ferocious guard dog, Morgan’s were a fully manned and stocked fortress.

“I see. A journey indeed. So how are you?” Merlin asked, taking a seat across from the one Morgan had chosen. It did not escape him how she folded her cloak carefully, not looking at him. Morgan was well past twenty now, positively ancient for a maiden unwed and not in a convent, but something about the way she didn’t look at him made her seem so young, so awkward and unsure still …

He valiantly held back a sigh. Of course seeing her, whom he remembered as a child of six – a precocious one, but still a child – be fully grown and yet seem so young only made him feel about a hundred.

“I’m well,” Morgan replied, finally looking at him. She still wore that wary, guarded look in her eyes that had only become more pronounced as the years went on. “Mama sent me.”

“So you came not for the pleasure of my company? How disappointing.” Merlin smiled. “How does your mother?”

“Well. As happy as can be expected.”

Merlin bowed his head. “No mother enjoys seeing her children fighting.”

“And they enjoy it even less when these fights lead to the deaths of thousands.”

“Indeed. Indeed.” It was no use asking why Igraine did not lend her powers to mend this breach. She had already tried to, with Morgause. But the way to scry to her was barred, Igraine had badly strained herself trying to break through, and Morgan refused to allow her to try again.

“And she is right,” Igraine had said to Merlin the last time they saw one another, roughly a year ago. Her eyes, swimming with tears yet clear and sane, fixed on his with an intensity that she had not even reached in her mad years. “She is right for the wrong reasons, but she is right. Morgause does not want me, Merlin. And I gave up any right to force her to heed me long ago.”

“Surely, my lady, that cannot be true,” Merlin had protested. “Morgause has neither the knowledge nor the power to set up a shield to block your powers—”

“Not a shield such as you or Morgan might construct, no. But a desire, a wish, a fear? A fear so strong that her power takes hold of it and will do whatever necessary to prevent that fear coming to pass?” Igraine shook her head. “Morgause fears me, Merlin. She fears what I will say, what I will think if I can see the way she is now. So she does not let me see.”

Magic in its most primitive form,” Merlin murmured. “The straightforward, focused application of will to desire …”

And Morgause, though she inherited but little of the power that runs in our veins, has both will and desire in quantities stronger than the usual measure.”

Indeed Morgause had. If she had not, they would not be in the mess they were in now.

“Mama sent me with a message, Merlin,” Morgan said. “Or, rather, the message is from both of us.”

Merlin sat up. He watched the puzzled frown on Morgan’s face, the knitting of her brows. “I take it that it is not good news.”

“No. Merlin … that is … Mama and I both sense …” She sighed. “Have you told Arthur the truth yet?”

Yet. Merlin winced. The barb of impatience on her tongue was, Merlin was certain, all from Morgan. Well, she had cause to be impatient, perhaps. Four years could be an eternity to one so young. And he had been teaching Arthur for well over ten altogether.

“About his parentage? No, I have not. And I have no plans to do so,” Merlin said quickly, to head her off, “until after the battle is over and Lot defeated.”

“And why not?”

“Because …” Merlin sighed. “Because if I give Arthur any indication that he might possibly deserve the fight Lot is bringing to him, then he may not be able to win it.”

“Deserve it how?” Morgan asked tartly. “Do not forget that it was my father as well as Morgause’s whom his father killed, and my mother as well as Morgause’s whom Uther drove mad. Yet even I cannot see how Arthur deserves to have to fight for his life because of either. None of it was his fault.”

Merlin’s mind darted uncomfortably back to a cold March day in Cornwall, an infuriating meeting with a king, and an encounter with a court magician that had begun to be every bit as infuriating as the meeting with the king, but had turned into a prophecy powerful enough to alter the course of the world …

Would Morgan still be saying what she was if she knew about that prophecy?

Maybe she would. Maybe she did know, and that was why she forgave Merlin and Arthur for what was done to her parents. Or maybe Morgan was just a sensible soul who saw no reason to blame a man for actions that occurred before he was born.

Merlin cleared his throat before his woolgathering attracted undue attention – though, knowing Morgan, she had already noted it. “His life, no. But his throne?” Merlin raised one eyebrow. “I believe you would be the first to say that Uther’s actions while upon said throne do not argue for a continuation of the line of Pendragon kings.”

“Ambrosius, so I hear, was an excellent king.”

“For how little long he lasted. Uther had a reign of twenty-odd years. Understandably, he sticks out more in the people’s memory.”

“Yet Arthur is not only his father’s son. He has a mother, too – a rather fine one, for all that she was not allow to have a hand in the raising of him – and perhaps he could draw strength from her example, were someone to mention her existence to him,” Morgan fired back, her eyes flashing.

“The boy has enough on his plate, Morgan.”

“The boy, or his tutor?”

Merlin winced. “Perhaps both.” He rubbed the space between his eyebrows. “I shall be glad of a break when this is all over.” He gazed at her between his fingers. “I plan on visiting my old tutor, Blaise, after the battle. I don’t suppose I could press upon you to watch out for Arthur while I am gone?”

“I’ll have to consult my schedule,” Morgan answered dryly.

“I’ll take that as a yes.” Running a hand through his hair, even more bushy and unruly than usual, he continued, “But you had a message to relay.”

“Indeed. I did.” Morgan fell silent; her lips pressed together into a thin little line. “’Tis more a warning, Merlin.”

He sat up. “A warning? About the battle? Should we call—”

Morgan was shaking her head even before he began his second sentence. “No. Not that battle. That … well, I would not suggest you tell Arthur, lest he become overconfident, but that will go as you and the others have hoped and planned. No. What Mama and I … sense, will come after.”

“What you sense,” Merlin repeated. “Not see?”

“Sometimes what we see can deceive,” Morgan murmured to one of the braziers. Her gaze slowly swiveled to him. “You of all people should know that.”

Merlin barely avoided a gulp. “Indeed.”

“In any case, Mama has nightmares, and I …” She blinked. “Do you know how the air feels before a thunderstorm? It is thick, laden with an invisible load. The birds are silent, the wind still. The sky turns yellow, and it seems as if the whole world is holding its breath – waiting – waiting for the lightning to strike, the thunder to boom, to do what damage it will, and then—only then—can life begin again.”

“And that is what you feel?”

Morgan nodded.

“Intriguing. Are you certain it has to do with—” Morgan sent him a look that could, and very often did, send lesser men crying for their mothers. “… Arthur,” Merlin finished. “I see you are. And Igraine’s nightmares?”

“She does not remember them, upon waking. Not—very well. All I know …” She shrugged. “All I know is what she shouts before she awakens and just after.”

“And?” Merlin asked, quite certain that he was not going to like this.

“‘They’re killing each other,’” Morgan whispered. “‘My babes, they’re killing each other.’

“And that,” Morgan concluded, rising and sweeping her cloak up in a fluid motion that Merlin could not help but envy, “is why I tell you, old man, to tell Arthur the truth of his parentage. There are very few people in this world whom Mama refers to as ‘my babes.’”

Politeness demanded that Merlin rise with Morgan, and so he did. “So that warning comes from you, not your mother?”

“You trust her more than me?”

“Just getting my facts straight.” He sighed. “Morgan, please. I will tell him as soon as it is feasible. Just—after the battle. Believe me, worse will befall us if I attempt to tell him the truth before it.”

Spending her childhood in the cesspool that was Uther’s Carleon had taught Morgan the art of keeping a perfectly blank, vacant face, and that art served her well now. “I hope you are right, old man,” she whispered as she turned to go.

“Now, Morgan, hold on just a minute, you cannot think to leave in the middle of the—” The tent flap swayed a bit in the balmy breeze. “Night,” Merlin muttered. He tottered over to the door and looked out.

Was that bit of a night sky a bit inkier than the rest? He sighed as he watched the shape he assumed was Morgan leave. “I hope I am right, too, my young friend.”

The sun was shining, the birds singing, the flowers in full bloom, and in less than two days Lot would, after four years of fighting, be High King of England. It was no wonder that Lot was smiling as he and his carefully-chosen contingent rode up the track to the crest of Badon Hill.

Oh, there would be preliminaries to complete, of course – that damned election, for one – but, like the meeting with Arthur today, those preliminaries would be mere formalities. After he had wrested the throne away from the iron grip of the Pendragons, who would be able to gainsay his claim to it?

No one.

So it was with good reason that Lot smiled as he and his allies rode to the meeting-place. He was, however, considerably surprised to find a similar smile on Arthur’s face when the boy – already waiting, with his much-smaller contingent – came within his sight.

Lot nodded to his herald, who rode forward, his chin up and scroll in hand, ready to announce Lot and his allies, being sure to name every title and every attendant vassal. It was a carefully crafted display, one that was meant to cow the boy with the sight of the sheer manpower raised against him. Lot had been quite pleasurably imagining every wince and squirm and blanch Arthur would show during the long recital.

But the boy, damned contrary as he was, refused to give Lot that satisfaction. “Lovely day, isn’t it, my lord Lot?”

For a moment Lot’s surprise showed on his face. To dismiss with all proper form and chivalry and send out a greeting like that, as if they were peasants calling to one another in the fields! Yet quickly the surprise was replaced by a sneer. If he needed more proof that this upstart was not fit to be king, well, here it was.

The herald gaped, but a single shake of the head from Lot and he fell back into the crowd. “Indeed, my lord Arthur, a lovely day it is,” Lot replied as he spurred his stallion – a bright blood bay – forward to meet the young would-be king. Glancing over his assembled allies, Lot was unable to restrain a sneer.

Arthur had only brought his most key allies – at least Lot hoped, for the sake of the sport of the day after tomorrow, that these were only his most key allies. Of course the “family party” was there, Merlin, Sir Ector, Sir Kay, and Sir Cador of Cornwall. Arthur’s most faithful guards, Sir Ulfius and Sir Brastias, were nearby. The next tier consisted of King Leodegrance of Cameliard and King Pellinore of Listenoise. Lastly was Sir Accolon of Gaul. Each of the knights and kings had but one or two vassals or servants with them, and indeed the family party had only three servants between them, while Sir Accolon had none.

In contrast, with him Lot had brought all ten of his allies – Nentres of Garlot, Uriens of Gore, Claudas of Scotland, Caradoc of the Dolorous Tower, Barrant the King with a Hundred Knights, Clarience of Northumberland, Idres of Cornwall, Crandelmas of North Wales, Brandegoris of Stranggore, and Anguish of Ireland. Each of these men had no less than ten of their vassals, and with each vassal were at least two or three servants to attend his needs.

Lot believed that first honors went to him.

“A pity that we came here to figure out how best to kill one another, instead of to enjoy the day,” Arthur remarked.

“That, my lord, is easily remedied,” Lot replied with a smirk.

“Oh, indeed. You could surrender.”

Lot started, staring at the boy. Surely he couldn’t mean—? But Arthur never so much as blinked, looking entirely guileless, and Lot narrowed his eyes.

“I did not come here to be mocked, boy,” he snarled.

“And I did not come here to be insulted, traitor.” Something steely, like that damned sword the boy put so much faith in, flashed in Arthur’s eyes. And for a moment, from the depths of Lot’s heart, came fear.

But Lot was never gracious at the best of times, and he was even less gracious when he felt unmanned. So he endeavored to deal with his fear in the only way he knew how – by making someone else fear him. “You will pay for your insolence, my lord.

Insolence? How so? All I did was call you by a title that is yours by right every bit as much as those of Lothian and Orkney are,” Arthur answered. Before Lot could come up with a fittingly stinging reply to that, he continued, “After all, you did swear fealty to my father and his heirs, did you not?”

Skirting away from that tender subject, Lot answered, “Your father also swore to my wife’s mother that her daughters—”

“Would get the throne in the absence of legitimate issue? My lord, I thought you had given up on that. Besides, let us be frank with one another – this is a promise Uther made to Igraine shortly after killing, or rather having her husband killed. My father’s promises weren’t worth a damn.”

Several gasps came from behind Lot; however, before any of them could progress farther than that, Arthur continued, “However, Lot, I had hoped that you might be more a man of your word than our late king.”

Lot, still processing the bald bluntness of Arthur’s statement, could do little more than stammer, “You—insult—he was the king—he was your father.

“And he left me with a right royal mess,” Arthur pointed out. “Besides, he ignored me when he was alive, so why should I pretend to respect him now that he’s dead?”

“Arthur.” That was Sir Ector, and the tone was of mild reproof. Arthur made a face but said no more.

“You allow a mere knight to order you about, my lord? And you wonder why we believe you are not fit to be king—”

“I guess this means you aren’t willing to surrender,” Arthur mused.

Lot would have had a stinging retort for that, but the wizard nudged his horse forward. “My lords, I believe we came here to work out the details for a battle, not to trade insults. May we get down to business?”

“Indeed. We should discuss business.” Lot turned to Arthur. “As you can see,” he smirked, “my men, and those of my allies, are willing to fight yours at any time. Simply name your hour.”

“Any time? Hmm. I’ll remember that.” A corner of Arthur’s mouth poked up. “Would ten tomorrow morning be convenient for you?”

Strange that the young king should be so eager to end his life, but he was only nineteen. Perhaps he still had the cocky self-assuredness of all the young, convinced that he was invincible, that any battle in which he fought could only end in victory. Maybe he was still placing all his faith in that sword. Or maybe he was just trying to appear brave for the sake of his men.

Either way, it would suit Lot’s purposes wonderfully. He grinned. “Ten o’clock,” he agreed, “would do admirably.”

“As you can see, my men, and those of my allies, are willing to fight yours at any time. Simply name your hour.”

“Ten o’clock would do admirably.”

His face was covered by the heavy visor, so Arthur felt no qualms about grinning. Foolish, foolish Lot. Ten o’clock would suit Arthur admirably, too – just not, perhaps, the same ten o’clock that Lot had in mind.

Clouds of steam blew from the horses’ nostrils, glowing eerily in the moonlight. Hooves stomped, harnesses jingled, leather creaked, but other than that, there was only the sound of crickets. Unless Lot’s men had very keen ears indeed, and keener eyes, the horses waiting just over the crest of the hill would be undetectable. Arthur had purposely ordered that no torches be lit, and Merlin had some “friends” lying in wait to take care of the camp sentries before they could sound an alarm. There would be no warning that they were about to wash over the sleeping camp until the wave had already broken over Lot’s head.

Because Arthur’s conscience refused to be quiet about the unknightly nature of attacking a sleeping camp in the middle of the night, he had issued some very specific orders. Only knights and their pavilions were to be attacked, kerns were to be left alone. There were also to be no fires set. Fires were an undiscriminating weapon, far too likely to devour innocents – pages, squires, kerns, servants, camp followers – as well as his own men.

Arthur rode his white stallion (conveniently dyed black by Merlin, at least until daybreak) Ande up and down the front line, ostensibly inspecting his men, really to work out the fidgets in his horse and hands. He heard, rather than felt, something tap his shoulder. He turned around to see Kay holding out an arrow, the head resting against his armor. “Relax,” Kay hissed.

“All will be well, Arthur,” Cador seconded.

Arthur managed a smile, remembered that they couldn’t see it, and nodded. He was saved from the necessity of answering them by the appearance of the get-ready signal: a brilliant golden comet (that really wasn’t a comet, but looked close enough,) flashing against the sky. That meant that the camp had just about quieted down and Merlin’s allies were in position. Arthur threw up his visor, cupped his hands to his mouth, and let out a soft owl’s call.

His generals – Sir Ector, Sir Accolon, King Leodegrance, King Pellinore, Sir Ulfius and Sir Brastias – materialized. Arthur took a deep breath. “You know your orders,” he said, his voice not breaking too far above a whisper. “Attack, get the knights, cause a panic. When they regroup—”

“If,” Kay interrupted.

“When,” Arthur repeated, glaring at his foster-brother. “We draw them toward the woods, where …” This time Arthur’s grin was visible to all. “Well—we all know the surprise we have in store for them there.”

A series of battle-hardened grins were all the reply Arthur got to that.

He glanced into the sky, then murmured, “To your men, my lords!” The horses broke apart, and Arthur resumed his place at the forefront of the line.

He watched the sky. Merlin said that he would have about ten minutes between signals, so Arthur began to count the seconds. One one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand …

Finally, the signal came.

A great golden dragon suddenly lit up in the knight sky, rearing on its hind legs and blowing a jet of golden flame onto Lot’s tents. Arthur’s men had been prepared for this, but there were still shouts and gasps as for a moment the black sky was bathed in gold.

Better stop that, Arthur thought.

Excalibur sang as she fair leapt from the scabbard, her blade dyed gold in the borrowed light of the dragon. Arthur pointed it straight at Lot’s tent.

“Charge!” he shouted, the first sound to break the night quiet.

And the men obeyed.

“To the woods! To the woods!” Lot shouted, or tried to, over the screams and the hoofbeats and the crash of metal. He lifted his sword, frantically waving it, the sun of the early afternoon catching it and reflecting.

Once he had his men’s attention, he turned his horse and broke for the woods, trusting them to follow him. Part of him wanted, desperately, to not stop galloping until he reached Lothian, but after a few yards, he stopped, waved his subordinates forward to lead the retreat, and waited, bringing up the rear only after he had personally spotted each of the eleven kings. Of course more of his and the others’ men were left to be grist for the slaughter of Arthur’s army—but that was their own fault. If they could not follow simple orders, that was their problem.

Now that Lot had two minutes together to think, his sight grew clouded with red and his veins felt tight, crowded by the blood suddenly pulsing through them. The little bastard! A sneak attack in the middle of the night! And Arthur was not battling in the accepted manner of knights, slaughtering kerns while leaving his fellow noblemen to their own devices. No, he had the gall to unleash Excalibur’s blade only on men of noble blood, and to make matters worse, his knights were following his lead!

As the trees came closer and closer, Lot occupied himself by imagining just what he would do to that boy when he finally had him at mercy …

The other ten kings were waiting for him by a large, lightning-struck oak, and Lot hurriedly spurred his already-exhausted and bloodstained horse to them. It did not escape him that practically none of them had the same horse they had started with. Lot and all of them had been doing their best to discomfit Arthur’s men by unhorsing them, but Arthur’s men were a close-knit bunch. To unhorse one was to invite at least another five to avenge his hurt. Sir Barrant, the King with a Hundred Knights, looked particularly shaken. With good reason—he had been foolish enough to unhorse Sir Ector, and for his trouble Arthur himself had come down upon him. Part of Sir Barrant’s helm was missing, and the horse that had been Sir Ector’s was dead. Meanwhile, Sir Barrant’s steward, as far as Lot knew, was still wandering around horseless – Sir Kay had taken that horse and given it to his father.

Lot took a deep breath, ready to let loose a speech haranguing the kings into more forceful fighting, braver displays, and above all the need to kill that boy, but Nentres interrupted. “We’ve lost half our knights.”

Lot almost choked. “Half?” he bellowed. “We started off with fifty thousand! Arthur’s men don’t even number twenty thousand! How did they do that?”

“Attacking in the middle of the night helped,” Nentres snapped. “They fight like demons, so that helped. They went after dozens of knights while the knights were busying themselves with the kerns – that helped too, at least until our side started catching on.”

“Perhaps God—” Brandegoris quailed.

“Don’t start!” Lot shouted. His sword came up. “One more word about God’s favor or the lack thereof and I swear I’ll send you to meet Him.” Brandegoris stared. “I will not have mutiny among my men!”

Your men?” Anguish of Ireland asked laconically. A glare from Lot and he quieted quickly, going so far as to back his horse up several steps.

“So then we have thirty-five thousand men—” Lot started, but Nentres cleared his throat. “What?”

“It gets worse. Most of the kerns have fled. We’ve maybe a thousand left, and those are like to flee as soon as their commanding knights turn their backs.”

Lot’s veins felt fit to burst.

“We should retreat,” Uriens suggested.

“I’ll slay the first man—and every man—who runs like the coward he is,” Lot threatened. The way he held his sword made it clear that the words were no jest. “We still outnumber them – even if Arthur hasn’t lost any men, which he must have, we’ve got five thousand more seasoned knights than he—”

Brandegoris’s visor suddenly flew up. He stared at something behind Lot and over his head, and his flaxen beard almost looked dark, so pale was his face. “D-do we?” He pointed.

Lot turned around.

Further in the trees, not a hundred yards away, was another army.

A small one, by the standards of Badon – not more than ten thousand men. But another army. Led by two men in blue-and-silver surcoats, their shields decorated with fleur-de-lis.

Lot blanched. He knew those men. Claudas had been trying to bleed them dry for years, but they stubbornly refused to give up more than a few drops. Even Claudas had a sort of grudging respect for them, going so far as to call the taller, leaner leader one of the best knights in the world …

Lot was staring at King Ban and King Bors, brother-kings of France.

“Jesu defend us from death and horrible maims,” Lot whispered to himself, before the French knights called out a battle cry, and all hell broke loose once again.