The Mists of Avalon: Avalon Book 7 | Chapter 33 of 81

Author: Marion Zimmer Bradley | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 197041 Views | Add a Review

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7

On a day in late summer, Queen Gwenhwyfar, with several of her ladies, sat in the hall at Caerleon. It was afternoon and very hot; most of them were making a pretense of spinning, or of carding the last of that spring’s wool for spinning, but the spindles moved sluggishly, and even the Queen, who was the best needlewoman among them, had ceased to set stitches in the fine altar cloth she was making for the bishop.

Morgaine laid aside the carded wool for spinning and sighed. At this season of the year she was always homesick, longing for the mists that crept in from the sea over the cliffs at Tintagel . . . she had not seen them since she was a little child.

Arthur and his men, with the Caerleon legion, had ridden out to the southern coast, to examine the new fort that the Saxons of the treaty troops had built there. This summer had brought no raid, and it might well be that the Saxons, except for those who had made treaty with Arthur and were living peacefully in the Kentish country, would give up Britain for lost. Two years of Arthur’s horse legion had reduced the Saxon fighting to a sporadic summer exercise; but Arthur had taken this season of quiet to fortify all the defenses of the coasts.

“I am thirsty again,” said Pellinore’s daughter, Elaine. “May I go, my lady, and ask for more pitchers of water to be sent?”

“Call Cai—he will attend to it,” Gwenhwyfar said.

Morgaine thought: She has grown a great deal; from a scared and timid child she has become a queen.

“You should have married Cai when the King wished for it, lady Morgaine,” said Elaine, returning from her errand and sitting down on the bench beside Morgaine. “He is the only man under sixty in the castle, and his wife will never lie alone for half a year at a time.”

“You are welcome to him, if you want him,” Morgaine said amiably.

“I still wonder that you did not,” Gwenhwyfar said, as if it were an old grievance. “It would have been so suitable—Cai, the King’s foster-brother and high in his favor, and you, Arthur’s sister and Duchess of Cornwall in your own right, now that the lady Igraine never leaves her nunnery!”

Drusilla, daughter of one of the petty kings to the east, snickered. “Tell me, if the King’s sister and brother marry, how is it other than incest?”

“Half-sister and foster-brother, you goose,” said Elaine. “But tell me, lady Morgaine, was it only his scars and lameness that deterred you? Cai is no beauty, certainly, but he would be a good husband.”

“I am not deceived by you,” Morgaine retorted, pretending a good humor she did not feel—did these women think of nothing but marriages? “You care nothing for my wedded happiness with Cai, you merely wished for a wedding to break the monotony of the summer. But you should not be greedy. Sir Griflet was married to Meleas last spring, and that should be weddings enough for now.” She glanced at Meleas, whose dress had already begun to grow tight over her pregnant body. “You will even have a babe to fuss and coo over this time next year.”

“But you are long unmarried, lady Morgaine,” said Alienor of Galis. “And you could hardly have hoped for a better match than the King’s own foster-brother!”

“I am in no great haste to be wed, and Cai had no more mind to me than I to him.”

Gwenhwyfar chuckled. “True. He has a tongue near as waspish as your own, and no sweet temper—his wife will need more patience than the saintly Brigid, and you, Morgaine, are ever ready with a sharp answer.”

“And besides, if she should marry, she would have to spin for her household,” Meleas said. “As usual, Morgaine is shirking her share of the spinning!” Her own spindle began to twirl again, and the reel sank slowly toward the floor.

Morgaine shrugged. “It is true I had rather card wool, but there is no more to card,” she said, and reluctantly took up the drop spindle.

“You are the best spinner among us, though,” said Gwenhwyfar. “Your thread is always even and never breaks. Mine breaks if one looks at it.”

“I have always been neat-handed. Perhaps I am simply tired of spinning, since my mother taught me when I was so young,” Morgaine conceded, and began, reluctantly, to turn the thread in her fingers.

True—she hated spinning and shirked it when she could . . . twisting, turning the thread in her fingers, willing her body to stillness with only her fingers twisting as the reel turned and turned, sinking to the floor . . . down and then up, twist and twist between her hands . . . all too easy it was to sink into trance. The women were gossiping over the little affairs of the day, Meleas and her morning sickness, a woman who had come from Lot’s court with scandalous tales of Lot’s lechery . . . I could tell them much if I would, not even his wife’s niece escaped his lecherous hands. . . . It took me all my thought and sharp tongue to keep out of his bed; he cares not, maiden or matron, duchess or dairy maid, so it wears a skirt . . . twist the thread, twist again, watch the spindle turning, turning. Gwydion must be a great boy by now, three years old, ready for a toy sword and wooden knights such as she had made for Gareth, instead of pet kittens and knucklebones. She remembered Arthur’s weight on her lap when she was a little girl here at Caerleon in Uther’s court . . . how fortunate it was that Gwydion did not resemble his father; a small replica of Arthur at Lot’s court would have made tongues wag indeed. Soon or late, someone would still put together reel and spindle and spin the right thread to the answer. . . . Morgaine jerked her head up angrily. It was all too easy to fall into trance at the spinning, but she must do her share, there must be thread to weave this winter, and the ladies were making a cloth for banquets. . . . Cai was not the only man under fifty in the castle; there was Kevin the Bard, who had come here with news from the Summer Country . . . how slowly the spindle moved toward the floor . . . twist, twist the thread, as if her fingers had life of their own, apart from her own life . . . even in Avalon she had hated to spin . . . in Avalon among the priestesses she had tried to take more than her share of the work among the dye pots, to avoid the hated spinning, which sent her mind roaming as her fingers moved . . . as the thread turned, it was like the spiral dance along the Tor, round and round, as the world turned round the sun in the sky, though ignorant folk thought it was the other way. . . . Things were not always as they seemed, it might be that the reel went round the thread, as the thread went round itself over and over, spinning like a serpent . . . like a dragon in the sky . . . if she were a man and could ride out with the Caerleon legion, at least she need not sit and spin, spin, spin, round and round . . . but even the Caerleon legion went round the Saxons, and the Saxons went round them, round and round, as the blood went round in their veins, red blood flooding, flooding . . . spilling over the hearth—

Morgaine heard her own shriek only after it had shattered the silence in the room. She dropped the spindle, which rolled away into the blood which flooded crimson, spilling, spurting over the hearth. . . .

“Morgaine! Sister, did you prick your hand on the reel? What ails you?”

“Blood on the hearth—” Morgaine stammered. “See, there, there, just before the King’s high seat, slain there like a slaughtered sheep before the King . . .”

Elaine shook her; dizzied, Morgaine passed her hand before her eyes. There was no blood, only the slow crawl of the afternoon sun.

“Sister, what did you see?” asked Gwenhwyfar gently.

Mother Goddess! It has happened again! Morgaine tried to steady her breathing. “Nothing, nothing . . . I must have fallen asleep and dreamed for a moment.”

“Didn’t you see anything?” Calla, the fat wife of the steward, peered avidly at Morgaine. Morgaine remembered the last time, more than a year ago, when she had gone into trance over her spinning and foreseen that Cai’s favorite horse had broken its leg in the stables and must have its throat cut. She said impatiently, “No, nothing but a dream—I dreamed last night of eating goose and I have not tasted it since Easter! Must every dream be a portent?”

“If you are going to prophesy, Morgaine,” teased Elaine, “you should tell us something sensible, like, when will the men be home so we may have the wine warmed, or whether Meleas is making swaddling bands for a girl or a boy, or when the Queen will get pregnant!”

“Shut up, you beast,” hissed Calla, for Gwenhwyfar’s eyes had filled with tears. Morgaine’s head was splitting with the aftermath of unsought trance; it seemed that little lights were crawling before her eyes, pale shining worms of color that would grow and spread over her whole field of vision. She knew she should let it pass, but even as that knowledge crossed her mind, she exploded, “I am so weary of that old jest! I am no village wise-woman, to meddle with birth charms and love potions and foretellings and spells. I am a priestess, not a witch!”

“Come, come,” Meleas said peacefully. “Let Morgaine be. This sun is enough to make anyone see things that are not there; even if she did see blood spilt on the hearth, it is just as like that some lack-witted serving-man will overset a half-roasted joint here, and the red gravy spill down! Will you drink, lady?” She went to the bucket of water, dipped the ladle and held it out, and Morgaine drank thirstily. “I never heard that most prophecy came to aught—one might as well ask her when Elaine’s father will finally catch and slay that dragon he goes off to pursue, in and out of season.”

Predictably, the diversion worked. Calla jested, “If there was ever a dragon at all, and he was not merely seeking an excuse to go abroad from home when he was weary of the hearth!”

“If I were a man, and wedded to Pellinore’s lady,” Alienor said, “I might well prefer the company of a dragon I could not find, to the company of one in my bed.”

“Tell me, Elaine,” asked Meleas, “is there truly a dragon, or does your father follow it because it is simpler than seeing to his cows? Men need not sit and spin when there is war, but when there is peace, they may grow weary of the fowlyard and the pastures, I suppose.”

“I have never seen the dragon,” Elaine said. “God forbid. But something takes the cows from time to time, and once I did see a great slime trail in the fields, and smell the stench; and a cow lay there quite eaten away, and covered with a foul slime. Not the work of a wolf, that, nor even a glutton.”

“Cows vanishing,” jeered Calla. “The fairy folk are not, I suppose, too good Christians to steal a cow now and then, when the deer are not to be found.”

“And speaking of cows,” Gwenhwyfar said firmly, “I think I must ask Cai whether there is a sheep or a kid for slaughter. We need meat. Should the men come home this night or tomorrow, we cannot feed them all on porridge and buttered bread! And even the butter is beginning to fail in this heat. Come with me, Morgaine. I would that your Sight could tell me when we shall have rain! All of you, clear the thread and wool from the benches here, and put the work away. Elaine, child, take my embroidery work to my chamber and see that nothing spots it.”

As they went toward the hallway, she said, low, “Did you truly see blood, Morgaine?”

“I dreamed,” repeated Morgaine stubbornly.

Gwenhwyfar looked at her sharply, but there was real affection between them sometimes, and she did not pursue the subject. “If you did, God grant it be Saxon blood, and spilt far from this hearth. Come, let us ask Cai about the stock kept for meat. It is no season for hunting, and I have no wish to have the men about and hunting here when they come again.” She yawned. “I wish the heat would break. We might yet have a thunderstorm—the milk was soured this morning. I should tell the maids to make clabber cheese with what’s left of it, not throw it to the pigs.”

“You are a notable housewife, Gwenhwyfar,” Morgaine said wryly. “I would not have thought of that, so that it was out of my sight; but the smell of curd cheese clings so to the dairies! I would rather have the pigs well fattened.”

“They are fat enough in this weather, with all the acorns ripe,” said Gwenhwyfar, looking at the sky again. “Look, is that a flash of lightning?”

Morgaine followed her eyes, seeing the streak of glare across the sky. “Aye. The men will come home wet and cold, we should have hot wine ready for them,” she said absentmindedly, then started, as Gwenhwyfar blinked.

“Now do I believe, indeed, that you have the Sight—certainly there is no sound of hooves nor no word from the watchtower,” Gwenhwyfar said. “I will tell Cai to be sure there is meat, anyway.” And she went along the yard, while Morgaine stood, pressing her aching head with one hand.

This is not good. At Avalon she had learned to control the Sight, not let it slip upon her unawares, when she was not attending. . . . Soon she would be a village witch indeed, peddling charms and prophesying boy- or girl-children and new lovers for the maidens, from sheer boredom at the pettiness of life among the women. The gossip bored her to spinning, the spinning beguiled her into trance. . . . One day, no doubt, I would sink low enough to give Gwenhwyfar the charm she wants, so that she may bear Arthur a son . . . barrenness is a heavy burden for a queen, and only once in these two years has she shown any sign of breeding.

Yet she found Gwenhwyfar’s company, and Elaine’s, endurable; most of the other women had never had a single thought beyond the next meal or the next reel of thread spun. Gwenhwyfar and Elaine had had some learning, and occasionally, sitting at ease with them, she could almost imagine herself peacefully among the priestesses in the House of Maidens.

The storm broke just before sunset—there was hail that clattered in the courtyard and bounced on the stones, there was drenching rain; and when the watchtower called down the news of riders, Morgaine never doubted that it was Arthur and his men. Gwenhwyfar called for torches to light the courtyard, and shortly after, the walls of Caerleon were bulging with men and horses. Gwenhwyfar had conferred with Cai and he had slaughtered not a kid, but sheep, so there was meat roasting and hot broth for the men. Most of the legion camped all through the outer court and the field, and like any commander, Arthur saw to the encampment of his men and the stabling of their horses before he came into the courtyard where Gwenhwyfar awaited him.

His head was bandaged under his helmet, and he leaned a little on Lancelet’s arm, but he brushed away her anxious query.

“A skirmish—Jute raiders along the coast. The Saxons of the treaty troops had already cleaned most of them away before we came there. Ha! I smell roast mutton—is this magic, when you did not know we were coming?”

“Morgaine told me you would come, and there is hot wine as well,” said Gwenhwyfar.

“Well, well, it is a boon to a hungry man to have a sister who is gifted with the Sight,” said Arthur, with a jovial smile at Morgaine which rasped on her aching head and raw nerves. He kissed her, and turned back to Gwenhwyfar.

“You are hurt, my husband, let me see to it—”

“No, no, I tell you it is nothing. I never lose much blood, you know that, not while I bear this scabbard about me,” he said, “but how is it with you, lady, after these many months? I had thought . . .”

Her eyes filled slowly with tears. “I was wrong again. Oh, my lord, this time I was so sure, so sure . . .”

He took her hand in his, unable to express his own disappointment in the face of his wife’s pain. “Well, well, we must certainly get Morgaine to give you a charm,” he said; but he watched, his face momentarily setting into grim lines, as Meleas welcomed Griflet with a wifely kiss, holding her young swollen body proudly forward. “We are not yet old folk, my Gwenhwyfar.”

But, Gwenhwyfar thought, I am not so young either. Most of the women I know, save for Morgaine and Elaine who are yet unwedded, have great boys and girls by the time they are twenty; Igraine bore Morgaine when she was full fifteen, and Meleas is fourteen and a half, no more! She tried to look calm and unconcerned, but guilt gnawed within her. Whatever else a queen might do for her lord, her first duty was to give him a son, and she had not done that duty, though she had prayed till her knees ached.

“How does my dear lady?” Lancelet bowed before her, smiling, and she held him out her hand to kiss. “Once again we return home and find you only more beautiful than ever. You are the only lady whose beauty never fades. I begin to think God has ordered it so, that when all other women age and grow old and thick and worn, you shall be ever beautiful.”

She smiled at him and felt comforted. Perhaps it was just as well that she was not pregnant and ugly . . . she saw that he looked on Meleas with a faint scornful smile, and she felt that she could not bear to be ugly before Lancelet. Even Arthur looked shabby, as if he had slept in the same crumpled tunic all through the campaign, and wrapped himself, in mud and rain and weather, in his fine, much-worn cloak; but Lancelet looked as crisp and new, his cloak and tunic as well brushed, as if he had dressed himself for an Easter feast—his hair trimmed and combed smooth, his leather belt polished, and even the eagle feathers in his cap standing up dry and unwilted. He looked, Gwenhwyfar thought, more like a king than Arthur himself did.

As the serving-maidens carried round platters of meat and bread, Arthur drew Gwenhwyfar to his side.

“Come sit here between Lancelet and me, Gwen, and we will talk—it seems long since I heard a voice that was not rough and male, or smelled the scent of a woman’s gown.” He passed his hand over her braid. “Come you too, Morgaine, and sit by me—I am weary of campaigning, I want to hear small gossip, not the talk of the camp!” He bit into a chunk of bread with eager hunger. “And it is good to eat new-baked bread; I am tired of hard-baked army bread, and meat gone bad by keeping!”

Lancelet had turned to smile at Morgaine.

“And you, how is it with you, kinswoman? I suppose there is no news from the Summer Country, or from Avalon? There is another here who is eager to hear it, if there is—my brother Balan rode with us.”

“I have no news from Avalon,” said Morgaine, feeling Gwenhwyfar watching her—or was she looking at Lancelet? “But I have not seen Balan for many years—I suppose he would have later news than mine?”

“He is there,” Lancelet said, gesturing toward the men in the hall. “Arthur bid him to dine here as my kinsman, and it would be a kindness in you, Morgaine, to take him a cup of wine from the high table. Like all men, he too is eager for a welcome from some woman, even if it be a kinswoman and not a sweetheart.”

Morgaine took one of the drinking cups, horn bound with wood, that sat on the high table, and beckoned a servant to pour wine into it; then she raised it between her hands and went around the table among the knights. She was pleasantly conscious of their regard, even though she knew they would look like this at any well-bred, finely dressed woman after so many months of campaign; it was not a particular compliment to her beauty. At least Balan, who was a cousin, almost a brother, would not eye her so hungrily.

“I greet you, kinsman. Lancelet, your brother, sent you some wine from the King’s table.”

“I beg you to sip it first, lady,” he said, then blinked. “Morgaine, is it you? I hardly knew you, you have grown so fine. I think of you always in the dress of Avalon, but you are like to my mother, indeed. How does the Lady?”

Morgaine set the cup to her lips—mere courtesy at this court, but perhaps stemming from a time when gifts from the King were tasted before a guest, when the poisoning of rival kings was not unknown. She handed it to him, and Balan drank a long draught before looking up at her again.

“I had hoped to have news of Viviane from you, kinsman—I have not returned to Avalon for many years,” she said.

“Aye, I knew that you were in Lot’s court,” he said. “Did you quarrel with Morgause? I hear that is easy done by any woman. . . .”

Morgaine shook her head. “No; but I wished to be far enough away to stay out of Lot’s bed, and that is not easy done. The distance between Orkney and Caerleon is hardly far enough.”

“And so you came to Arthur’s court to be waiting-woman to his queen,” said Balan. “It is a more seemly court than that of Morgause, I dare say. Gwenhwyfar guards her maidens well, and makes good marriages for them, too—I see Griflet’s lady is already big with her first. Has she not found you a husband, kinswoman?”

Morgaine forced herself to say gaily, “Are you making an offer for me, sir Balan?”

He chuckled. “You are all too close kin to me, Morgaine, or I should accept your offer. But I heard some gossip that Arthur had intended you for Cai, and that seemed a good match to me, since you have left Avalon after all.”

“Cai had no more mind to me than I to him,” said Morgaine sharply, “and I have never said I would not return to Avalon, but only on that day when Viviane sends for me to come thither.”

“When I was but a lad,” Balan said—and for a moment, his dark eyes resting on Morgaine, she thought that indeed she could see the resemblance to Lancelet even in this great coarse man—"I thought ill of the Lady—of Viviane, that she did not love me as it was fit for a mother to do. But I think better of it now. As a priestess, she could not have had leisure to rear a son. And so she gave me into the hands of one who had no other work than that, and she gave me my foster-brother Balin. . . . Oh, yes, as a lad I felt guilty about that too, that I cared more for Balin than for our Lancelet, who is of my own flesh and blood. But now I know Balin is truly my own heart’s brother, and Lancelet, though I admire him for the fine knight he is, will always be a stranger to me. And too,” Balan said seriously, “when Viviane gave me up to Dame Priscilla for fostering, she put me into a household where I would come to know the true God and Christ. It seems to me strange, that if I had dwelt in Avalon with my own kin, I should be a heathen, even as Lancelet is. . . .”

Morgaine smiled a little. “Well,” she said, “there I cannot share your gratitude, for I think it ill done of the Lady that her own son should abandon her Gods. But even Viviane has often said to me that men should have such manner of religious and spiritual counsel as liked them best, that which she could give, or other. Had I been truly pious and Christian at heart, no doubt, she would have let me live by the faith which was strong in my heart. Yet, though I was reared till I was eleven by Igraine, who was as good a Christian as any, I think perhaps it was ordained that I should see the things of the spirit as they come to us from the Goddess.”

“Balin would be able to argue that with you better than I,” said Balan, “for he is more pious than I and a better Christian. I should probably say to you what no doubt the priests have said, that there is only one true faith in which man and woman may trust. But you are my kinswoman, and I know my mother to be a good woman, and I have faith that even Christ will take her goodness into account on the last day. As for the rest, I am no priest and I see not why I should not leave all those matters to the priests who are schooled in them. I love Balin well, but he should have been a priest, not a warrior, if he is so tender of faith and conscience.” He looked toward the high table and said, “Tell me, foster-sister, you know him better than I—what lies so heavy on our brother Lancelet’s heart?”

Morgaine bent her head and said, “If I knew, Balan, it is not my secret to tell.”

“You are right to bid me mind my own affairs,” said Balan, “but I hate seeing him miserable, and miserable he is. I thought ill of our mother, as I said, because she sent me so young from home, but she gave me a loving foster-mother, and a brother of my own age, reared at my side and as one with me in all things, and a home. She did less well by Lancelet. He was never at home—neither in Avalon nor yet at the court of Ban of Benwick, where he was dragged up as just another of the king’s unregarded bastards. . . . Viviane did ill by him indeed, and I wish Arthur would give him a wife, so he might have a home at last.”

“Well,” said Morgaine lightly, “if the King wishes me to wed Lancelet, he need only name the day.”

“You and Lancelet? Are you not too close kin for that?” Balan asked, then thought for a moment. “No, I suppose not—Igraine and Viviane were but half-sisters, and Gorlois and Ban of Benwick are not in any way akin. Though some of the church folk say foster-kin should be treated as blood kin for marriage . . . well, Morgaine, I will drink to your wedding with pleasure on that day Arthur gives you to my brother, and bids you love him and care for him as Viviane never did! And neither of you need leave court—you the Queen’s favorite lady and Lancelet our King’s dearest friend. I hope it comes to pass!” His eyes dwelt on her with kindly concern. “You too are well past the age when Arthur should give you to some man.”

And why should it be for the King to give me, as if I were one of his horses or dogs? Morgaine wondered, but shrugged; she had lived long in Avalon, she forgot at times that the Romans had made this the common law, that women were the chattels of their menfolk. The world had changed and there was no point in rebelling against what could not be altered.

Soon after she began to skirt the edges of the great mead table which had been Gwenhwyfar’s wedding gift to Arthur. The great hall here in Caerleon, large as it was, was not really large enough; at one point she had to clamber over the benches because the table pushed them so close to the wall, to get by the great curve of it. The pot boys and kitchen boys, too, had to sidle past with their smoking platters and cups.

“Is Kevin not here?” asked Arthur. “Then we must have Morgaine to sing for us—I am hungry too for harps and all the things of civilized men. I am not surprised the Saxons spend all their time in making war. I have heard the dismal howling of their singers, and they have no reason to stay home!”

Morgaine asked one of Cai’s helpers around the castle to fetch her harp from her chamber. He had to climb around the curve of the bench, and lost his footing; only the quickness of Lancelet, reaching out to steady boy and harp, kept the instrument from falling.

Arthur frowned. “It was good of my father-in-law to send me this great round mead table,” he said, “but there is no chamber in Caerleon large enough for it. When the Saxons are driven away for good, I think I must build a hall just to hold it!”

“Then will it never be built.” Cai laughed. “To say ‘when the Saxons are driven away for good’ is like to saying ‘when Jesus shall come again’ or ‘when Hell freezes’ or ‘when raspberries grow on the apple trees of Glastonbury.’ “

“Or when King Pellinore catches his dragon,” Meleas giggled.

Arthur smiled. “You must not make fun of Pellinore’s dragon,” he said, “for there is word it has been seen again, and he is off to find it and slay it this time—indeed, he asked the Merlin if he knew any dragon-catching spells!”

“Oh, aye, it has been seen—like a troll on the hills, turned to stone by daylight, or the ring stones dancing on the night of the full moon,” Lancelet gibed. “There are always people who see whatever vision they will—some see saints and miracles, and some see dragons or the old fairy folk. But never did I know of living man or woman who had seen either dragon or fairy.”

Morgaine remembered, against her will, the day in Avalon when she had gone searching for roots and herbs and strayed into the strange country where the fairy woman had spoken with her and had sought to foster her child . . . what, indeed, had she seen? Or had it been only the sick fantasy of a breeding woman?

“You say that, when you were yourself fostered as Lancelet of the Lake?” she asked quietly, and Lancelet turned round to her. He said, “There are times when that seems unreal to me—is it not so for you, sister?”

She said, “It is true indeed, but at times I am homesick for Avalon. . . .”

“Aye, and I too, kinswoman,” he said. Never since that night of Arthur’s marriage, by word or look had he implied that he had ever felt anything more for her than for a childhood companion and foster-sister. She had thought she had long accepted the pain of that, but it struck her anew as his dark, beautiful eyes met hers in such kindness.

Soon or late, it must seem even as Balan said: we are both unmarried, the King’s sister and his best friend. . . .

Arthur said, “Well, when the Saxons are driven away for good—and do not laugh as if that were a fabulous event! It can be done, now, and I think they know it—then I shall build myself a castle, and a great hall big enough for even this table. I have already chosen the site—it is a hill fort which was there long before Roman times, looking down on the Lake itself, and near to your father’s island kingdom, Gwenhwyfar. You know the place, where the river flows into the Lake—”

“I know,” she said. “When I was a small child I went there one day to pick strawberries. There was an old ruined well, and we found elf bolts there. The old folk who lived on the chalk had left their arrows.” How strange, Gwenhwyfar thought, to remember that there had been a time when she had liked to go abroad under the wide, high sky, not even caring whether there was a wall or the safety of an enclosure; and now she grew sick and dizzy if she went out from the walls, where she could not see or touch them. Sometimes now she felt the lump of fear in her belly even when she walked across the courtyard, and had to hurry to touch the safety of the wall again.

“It is an easy place to fortify,” Arthur said, “though I hope, when we are done with the Saxons, we may have leisure and peace in this island.”

“An ignoble wish for a warrior, brother,” said Cai. “What will you do in time of peace?”

“I will call Kevin the Bard to make songs, and I will break my own horses and ride them for pleasure,” Arthur said. “My Companions and I will raise our sons without putting a sword in every little hand before it is full grown to manhood! And I need not fear they will be lamed or slain before they are full grown. Cai—would it not be better if you need not have been sent to war before you were old enough to guard yourself? Sometimes I feel it wrong that it was you, not I, who was lamed, because Ectorius wanted me kept safe for Uther!” He looked with concern and affection at his foster-brother, and Cai grinned back at him.

“And,” said Lancelet, “we will keep the arts of war alive by holding games, as they did in the days of the ancients, and crown the winner of the games with laurel wreaths—what is laurel, Arthur, and does it grow in these islands? Or is it only in the land of Achilles and Alexander?”

“The Merlin could tell you that,” Morgaine said, when Arthur looked perplexed. “I know not either, but whether or no we have laurel, there are plants enough to make wreaths for the victors at your games.”

“And we will give garlands to harpers too,” Lancelet said. “Sing, Morgaine.”

“I had better sing for you now,” Morgaine said, “for I do not suppose, when you men hold your games, you will let women sing.” She took up the harp and began to play. She was sitting nearly where she had been sitting this afternoon when she saw blood spilled forth on the King’s hearth . . . would it truly come to pass, or was it fantasy? Why, indeed, should she think she still possessed the Sight? It never came upon her now save in these unwelcome trances. . . .

She began to sing an ancient lament which she had heard at Tintagel, a lament of a fisherwoman who had seen the boats swept out to sea. She knew that she held them all with her voice, and in the silence of the hall she fell to singing old songs of the islands, which she had heard at Lot’s court: a legend of the seal woman who had come out of the sea to find a mortal lover, songs of the solitary women herders, songs for spinning and for carding flax. Even when her voice grew weary they called for more, but she held up her hand in protest.

“Enough—no, truly, I can sing no more. I am hoarse as any raven.”

Soon after, Arthur called the servants to extinguish the torches in the hall and light the guests to bed. It was one of Morgaine’s tasks to see that the unmarried women who waited on the Queen were safely put to sleep in the long loft room behind the Queen’s own chamber, at the opposite end of the building from the soldiers and armsmen. But she lingered a moment, her eyes on Arthur and Gwenhwyfar, who were bidding Lancelet good night.

“I have told the women to prepare the best spare bed for you, Lancelet,” said Gwenhwyfar, but he laughed and shook his head.

“I am a soldier—it is my duty to see horses and men bedded safe for the night before I sleep.”

Arthur chuckled, his arm around Gwenhwyfar’s waist. “We must get you married, Lance, then you will not spend your nights so cold. I made you my captain of horse, but you need not spend your nights lying down among them!”

Gwenhwyfar felt a pain within her breast as she met Lancelet’s eyes. It seemed to her that she could almost read his thoughts, that he would say aloud again, as he had said once, My heart is so full of my queen I have no room there for any other lady. . . . She held her breath, but Lancelet only sighed and smiled at her, and she thought, No, I am a wedded wife, a Christian woman, it is sin even to think such thoughts; I must do penance. And then, feeling her throat so tight she could not swallow, she felt the thought come unbidden. Penance enough that I must be apart from the one I love . . . and she gasped aloud, so that Arthur turned startled eyes on her.

“What is it, love, have you hurt yourself?”

“A—a pin pricked me,” she said, and turned her eyes away, pretending to hunt for the pin at the folds of her dress. She saw Morgaine watching her, and bit her lip. She is always watching me . . . and she has the Sight; does she know all my sinful thoughts? Is that why she looks on me so scornfully?

Yet Morgaine had never shown her anything but a sister’s kindness. And when she had been pregnant, in the first year of their marriage—when she had taken a fever and miscarried the child within five months—she could not bear to have any of her ladies about her, and Morgaine had cared for her almost like a mother. Why, now, was she so ungrateful?

Lancelet bade them good night again, and withdrew. Gwenhwyfar was almost painfully conscious of Arthur’s arm around her waist, the frank eagerness in his eyes. Well, they had been apart a long time. But she felt a sudden, sharp resentment. Not once, since that time, have I been pregnant—can he not even give me a child?

Oh, but surely that was her own fault—one of the midwives had told her it was like a sickness in cattle when they cast their calves unborn, time after time, and sometimes women took that sickness too, so they could not carry a child more than a month or two, three at the most. Somehow, through carelessness, she must have taken that illness, gone perhaps into the dairy at the wrong time, or drunk of milk from a cow who had cast her calf, and so the life of her lord’s son and heir had been forfeit, and it was all her doing. . . . Torn with guilt, she followed Arthur into their chamber.

“It is more than a jest, Gwen,” said Arthur, sitting to draw off his leather hose. “We must get Lancelet married. Have you seen how all the lads run to him, and how good he is with them? He should have sons of his own. I have it, Gwen! We will marry him to Morgaine!”

“No!” The word was torn from her before she thought, and Arthur looked at her, startled.

“What is the matter with you? Does it not seem perfect, the right choice? My dear sister and my best friend? And their children, mark you, would be next heirs to our throne in any case, if it should be that the Gods send us no children. . . . No, no, don’t cry, my love,” he begged, and Gwenhwyfar knew, humiliated and shamed, that her face had twisted with weeping. “I meant not to reproach you, my dearest love, children come when the Goddess wills, but only she knows when we will have children, or if we will ever have them at all. And although Gawaine is dear to me, I have no will to put a son of Lot on the throne if I should die. Morgaine is my own mother’s child, and Lancelet my cousin—”

“Surely it cannot matter to Lancelet whether or no he has sons,” said Gwenhwyfar. “He is fifth—or is it sixth—son to King Ban, and bastard-born at that.”

“I never thought to hear you, of all people, reproach my kinsman and dearest friend with his birth,” Arthur said. “And he is no ordinary bastard, but son to the grove and the Great Marriage—”

“Pagan harlotries! If I were King Ban, I would clean all such sorcerous filth from my kingdom—and so should you!”

Arthur shifted uneasily, clambering under the bed cover. “Lancelet would have little cause to love me if I drove his mother from this kingdom. And I am sworn to honor Avalon, by the sword they gave me at my kingmaking.”

Gwenhwyfar looked at the great sword Excalibur, where it hung over the edge of the bed in its magical scabbard covered with mystical symbols that seemed to shine with pale silver and mock at her. She put out the light and lay down beside Arthur, saying, “Our Lord Jesus would safeguard you better than any such wicked enchantments. You did not have to do with any of their vile Goddesses and sorcery before you were made King, did you? I know such things were done in Uther’s day, but this is a Christian land!”

Arthur shifted uneasily and said, “There are many folk in this land, the Old People who dwelt here long before Rome came to us—we cannot take their Gods from them. And—what befell before my crowning—well, that touches you not, my Gwenhwyfar.”

“Men cannot serve two masters,” said Gwenhwyfar, surprised at her own daring. “I would have you altogether a Christian king, my lord.”

“I owe allegiance to all my people,” said Arthur, “not those alone who follow Christ—”

“It seems to me,” said Gwenhwyfar, “that those are your enemies, not the Saxons. The true warfare for a Christian king is only against those who do not follow Christ.”

Arthur laughed uneasily at that. “Now do you sound like the bishop Patricius. He would have us Christianize the Saxons rather than putting them to the sword, so that we may live at peace with them. For my part I am like to the priests who were here in the older days, who were asked to send missionaries to the Saxons—know you what they said, my wife?”

“No, I have never heard—”

“They said, they would send no missionaries to the Saxons, lest they be forced to meet them in peace, even before God’s throne.” Arthur laughed heartily, but Gwenhwyfar did not smile, and after a time he sighed.

“Well, think on it, my Gwenhwyfar. It seems to me the best possible marriage—my dearest friend and my sister. Then would he be my brother and his sons my heirs. . . .”

In the darkness his arms went round her, and he added, “But now we must strive to make it come to pass that we will need no other heirs, you and I, my love, but those you can give to me.”

“God grant it,” whispered Gwenhwyfar, moving into his arms, and tried to close away everything out of her mind but Arthur, here in her arms.

         

         

Morgaine, lingering after she had seen the women to bed, stood near the window, restless. Elaine, who shared her bed, murmured to her, “Come and sleep, Morgaine; it is late, you must be weary.”

She shook her head. “I think it is the moon that has gotten into my blood tonight—I am not sleepy.” She was unwilling to lie down and close her eyes; even if she had not the Sight, it was her imagination which would torment her. All round her the newly returned men joined with their wives—she thought, with a wry smile in the darkness, it is like to Beltane in Avalon . . . even the soldiers who were not wedded, she was sure, had somehow found women for this night. Everyone, from the King with his wife down to the stablemen, lay in someone’s arms tonight, except for the Queen’s maidens; Gwenhwyfar thought it her duty to guard their chastity, even as Balan had said. And I am guarded with the Queen’s maidens.

Lancelet, at Arthur’s wedding . . . that had come to nothing, through no fault of their own. And Lancelet has stayed away from the court as often as he might . . . no doubt, so that he need not see Gwenhwyfar in Arthur’s arms! But he is here now . . . and like herself, he was alone this night, among soldiers and horsemen, no doubt dreaming of the Queen, of the one woman in the kingdom he could not have. For surely every other woman at court, wedded or maiden, was as willing to have him as she herself. Save for bad fortune at Arthur’s wedding, she would have had him; and honorable as he was, if he had made her pregnant, he would have married her.

Not that it is likely I would have conceived, with the harm I suffered at Gwydion’s birth . . . but I need not have told him that. And I could have made him happy, even if I could not bear him a son. There was a time he wanted me, before ever he saw Gwenhwyfar, and after too . . . save for mischance, I would have made him forget her in my arms. . . .

And I am not so undesirable as that . . . when I was singing tonight, many of the knights looked on me with desire. . . .

I could make Lancelet desire me. . . .

Elaine said impatiently, “Will you not come to bed, Morgaine?”

“Not yet awhile . . . I think I will walk a little out of doors,” said Morgaine, though this was forbidden to the Queen’s women, and Elaine shrank back, with that timidity which so exasperated Morgaine. She wondered if Elaine had caught it from the Queen like a fever, or a new fashion in wearing veils.

“Are you not afraid with all the men encamped about?”

Morgaine laughed. “Well, think you not I am weary of lying alone?” But she saw that the jest offended Elaine and said, more gently, “I am the King’s sister. None would touch me against my will. Do you really think me so tempting no man could resist me? I am six-and-twenty, not a dainty young virgin like yourself, Elaine.”

Morgaine lay down, without undressing, beside Elaine. In the darkness and silence, as she had feared, her imagination—or was it the Sight?—made pictures: Arthur with Gwenhwyfar, men with women all round her throughout the castle, joined in love or simple lust.

And Lancelet, was he alone too? Memory attacked her again, more intense than imagination, and she remembered that day, bright sunlight on the Tor, Lancelet’s kisses running that first awakening knife-sharp through her body; and the bitterness of regret that she was pledged elsewhere. And then, when Arthur was wedded to Gwenhwyfar, and he had come near to tearing off her clothes and having her there in the stables—he had wanted her then. . . .

Now, sharp as the Sight, the picture came to her mind, Lancelet walking in the courtyard, alone, his face empty with loneliness and frustration . . . I have not used the Sight nor my own magic to draw him to me in selfish purpose . . . it came to me unsought. . . .

Silently, moving quietly so as not to waken the younger girl, she freed herself from Elaine’s arm, slid gently from the bed. She had taken off only her shoes; she stooped now to draw them on, then silently went from the room, moving as noiselessly as a wraith from Avalon.

If it is a dream born of my own imagination, if he is not there, I will walk a little in the moonlight to cool my fever and then go back to my bed, there will be no harm done. But the picture persisted in her mind and she knew that Lancelet was there alone, like herself wakeful.

He too was of Avalon . . . the sun tides run in his blood too. . . . Morgaine, slipping quietly out of the door past the drowsing watchman, cast a glance at the sky. The moon, a quarter full, flooded down brightly into the stone-flagged space before the stables. No, not here; around to the side. . . . For a moment Morgaine thought, He is not here, it was a dream, it was my own fantasy. She almost turned about to go back to her bed, suddenly flooded with shame; suppose the watchman should come upon her here, and all would know that the King’s sister crept about the house after all honest folk were asleep, no doubt bent on harlotries—

“Who is it? Stand, show yourself!” The voice was low and harsh; Lancelet’s voice. Suddenly, for all her exultation, Morgaine was afraid; her Sight had shown truly, but what now? Lancelet’s hand had gone to his sword; he looked very tall and thin in the shadows.

“Morgaine,” she said softly, and he let his hand fall from his sword.

“Cousin, is it you?”

She came out of the shadows, and his face, keen and troubled, softened as he looked at her.

“So late? Did you come to seek me—is there trouble within? Arthur—the Queen—”

Even now he thinks only of the Queen, Morgaine thought, and felt it like a tingling in her fingertips and the calves of her legs, anger and excitement. She said, “No, all is well—as far as I know. I am not privy to the secrets of the royal bedchamber!”

He flushed, just a shadow on his face in the darkness, and looked away from her. She said, “I could not sleep . . . how is it you ask me what I am doing here when you yourself are not in your bed? Or has Arthur made you his night watchman?”

She could sense Lancelet smile. “No more than you. I was restless when all around me slept—I think perhaps the moon has gotten into my blood.”

It was the same phrase she had used to Elaine, and somehow it struck her as a good omen, a symbol that their minds worked in tune and that they responded one to the call of the other as a silent harp vibrates when a note on another is struck.

Lancelet went on, speaking softly into the darkness at her side, “I am restless these nights, thinking of so many nights of battle—”

“And you wish yourself back in battle like all soldiers?”

He sighed. “No. Although perhaps it is unworthy of a soldier to dream early and late of peace.”

“I do not think so,” Morgaine said softly. “For what do you make war, except that peace may come for all our people? If a soldier loves his trade overmuch, then he becomes no more than a weapon for killing. What else brought the Romans to our peaceful isle, but the love of conquest and battle for its own sake?”

Lancelet smiled. “Your father was one of those Romans, cousin. So was mine.”

“Yet I think more of the peaceful Tribes, who wanted no more than to till their barley crops in peace and worship the Goddess. I am of my mother’s people—and yours.”

“Aye, but those mighty heroes of old we spoke of before—Achilles, Alexander—they all felt war and battle the proper business of a man, and even now, in these islands, it has come to be that all men think of battle first and peace as no more than a quiet and womanly interlude.” He sighed. “These are heavy thoughts—it is no wonder sleep is far from us, Morgaine. Tonight I would give all the great weapons ever forged, and all the gallant songs of your Achilles and Alexanders for an apple from the branches of Avalon. . . .” He turned his head away. Morgaine slipped her hand within his own.

“So would I, cousin.”

“I do not know why I am homesick for Avalon—I did not live long there,” Lancelet said, musing. “And yet I think it is the fairest place on all earth—if indeed it is on this earth at all. The old Druid magic, I think, took it from this world, because it was all too fair for us imperfect men, and must be like a dream of Heaven, impossible . . .” He recalled himself with a little laugh. “My confessor would not like to hear me say these things!”

Morgaine chuckled, low. “Have you become a Christian then, Lance?”

“Not a good one, I fear,” he said. “Yet their faith seems to me so simple and good, I wish I could believe it—they say: believe what you have not seen, profess what you do not know, that is more virtuous than believing what you have seen. Even Jesus, they say, when he rose from the dead, chided a man who would have thrust his hands into the Christ’s wounds to see that he was not a ghost or a spirit, for it was more blessed to believe without seeing.”

“But we shall all rise again,” said Morgaine, very low, “and again and again and again. We do not come once and go to Heaven or their Hell, but live again and again until we are even as the Gods.”

He lowered his head. Now that her eyes were accustomed to the dimness of the moonlight, she could see him clearly, the delicate line of temple curving inward at the eye, the long, narrow sweep of the jaw, the soft darkness of his brows and his hair curling over it. Again his beauty made a pain in her heart. He said, “I had forgotten you were a priestess, and you believe. . . .”

Their hands were clasped lightly; she felt his stir within her own and loosed it. “Sometimes I do not know what I believe. Perhaps I have been too long away from Avalon.”

“Nor do I know what I believe,” he said, “but I have seen so many men die, and women and little children in this long, long war, it seems that I have been fighting since I grew tall enough to hold a sword. And when I see them die, I think faith is an illusion, and the truth is that we all die as the beasts die, and are no more ever—like grass cut down, and last year’s snow.”

“But these things too return again,” Morgaine whispered.

“Do they? Or is this the illusion?” His voice sounded bitter. “I think perhaps there is no meaning in any of it—all the talk of Gods and the Goddess are fables to comfort children. Ah, God, Morgaine, why are we talking like this? You should go to your rest, cousin, and so should I—”

“I will go if you wish it,” she said, and even as she turned away, happiness surged through her because he reached for her hand.

“No, no—when I am alone I fall prey to these fancies and wretched doubts, and if they must come I would rather speak them aloud so I can hear what folly they are. Stay with me, Morgaine—”

“As long as you wish,” she whispered, and felt tears in her eyes. She reached out and put her arms around his waist; his strong arms tightened about her, then loosened, remorsefully.

“You are so little—I had forgotten how little you are—I could break you with my two hands, cousin. . . .” His hands strayed to her hair, which she had bundled loose under her veil. He stroked it; twined an end of it around his fingers. “Morgaine, Morgaine, sometimes it seems to me that you are one of the few things in my life which is all good—like one of those old fairy folk they tell of in legends, the elf-woman who comes from the unknown land to speak words of beauty and hope to a mortal, then departs again for the islands of the West and is never seen again—”

“But I will not depart,” she whispered.

“No.” At one side of the flagged yard there was a block where sometimes men sat waiting for their horses; he drew her toward it and said, “Sit here beside me—” then hesitated. “No, this is no place for a lady—” and started to laugh. “Nor was the stable that day—do you remember, Morgaine?”

“I thought you had forgotten, after that devil horse threw you—”

“You should not call him devil. He has saved Arthur’s life in battle more than once, and Arthur would think him guardian angel instead,” Lancelet said. “Ah, that was a day of wretchedness. I would have wronged you, cousin, to take you like that. I have often longed to beg your pardon and hear you grant me forgiveness and say you bore me no malice—”

“Malice?” She looked up at him and felt suddenly dizzied by the rush of intense emotion. “Malice? Only, perhaps, to those who interrupted us—”

“Is it so?” His voice was soft. He took her face between his hands and bent, deliberately, laying his lips against hers. Morgaine let herself go soft against him, opening her mouth beneath his lips. He was clean-shaven, in the Roman fashion, and she felt the prickly softness of his face against her cheek, the warm sweetness of his tongue probing her mouth. He drew her closer, almost lifting her from her feet, making a soft murmuring sound. The kiss went on until she finally, reluctantly, had to move her mouth to breathe, and he laughed softly, a sound of wonder.

“So here we are again . . . it seems we have been here before . . . and this time I will cut off the head of any that interrupts us . . . but we stand here kissing in the stable yard like serving-man and kitchen wench! What now, Morgaine? Where do we go?”

She did not know—there was not any place, it seemed, secure for them. She could not take him to her room where she slept with Elaine and four of Gwenhwyfar’s maidens, and Lancelet himself had said he preferred to sleep among the soldiers. And something at the back of her mind told her that this was not the way; the King’s sister and the King’s friend should not go seeking a hayloft. The proper way, if truly they felt this about each other, was to wait until dawn and ask Arthur’s permission to marry. . . .

Yet in her heart, hidden away so that she need not look at it, she knew that this was not what Lancelet wanted; in a moment of passion he might desire her indeed, but no more. And for a moment of passion, would she entrap him into a lifelong pledge? The way of the tribal festivals was more honest, that man and woman should come together with the sun tides and moon tides in their blood, as the Goddess willed; and only if they wished, later, to share a home and rear children was marriage thought upon. She knew in her heart, too, that she had no real wish to marry Lancelet or any other—even though she felt, for his own sake, and Arthur’s, and even for Gwenhwyfar’s, it would be best to remove him from the court.

But that was a fleeting thought. She was dizzy with his closeness, the sound of his heart pounding against her cheek—he wanted her; there was not, now, in his heart, any thought of Gwenhwyfar or anyone but herself.

Let it be with us as the Goddess wills, man and woman—

“I know,” she whispered, and caught at his hand. Around behind the stables and the forge there was a path leading to the orchard. The grass was thick and soft and sometimes the women sat there on a bright afternoon.

Lancelet spread his cloak in the grass. Around them was the indefinable scent of green apples and grass, and Morgaine thought, Almost, we might be in Avalon. With that trick he had of catching up her thoughts, he murmured, “We have found ourselves a corner of Avalon this night—” and drew her down beside him. He took off her veil, stroking her hair, but he seemed in no haste for more, holding her gently, now and again leaning down to kiss her on cheek or forehead.

“The grass is dry—no dew has fallen. Like enough there will be rain before morning,” he murmured, caressing her shoulder and her small hands. She felt his hand, sword-callused and hard, so hard that it startled her to remember he was full four years younger than she was herself. She had heard the story—he had been born when Viviane thought herself well beyond childbearing. His long fingers could encircle her whole hand and conceal it there; he toyed with her fingers, playing with her rings, moving his hand to the breast of her gown, and unlacing it there. She felt dizzied, shaken, passion sweeping through her like the tide surging in and covering a beach, so that she went under and drowned in his kisses. He murmured something that she could not hear, but she did not ask what he had said, she was beyond listening to words.

He had to help her out of her gown. The dresses worn at court were more elaborate than the simple robes she had worn as a priestess, and she felt clumsy, awkward. Would he like her? Her breasts seemed so soft and limp, they had been so since Gwydion’s birth; she remembered how they had been when he first touched her, tiny and hard.

But he seemed to notice nothing, fondling her breasts, taking the nipples between his fingers and then, gently, between his lips and his teeth. Then she lost thought altogether, nothing existing in the world for her except his hands touching her, the pulse of awareness in her own fingers running down the smoothness of his shoulders, his back, the fine dark softness of the hair there . . . somehow she had thought the hair on a man’s chest would be wiry and coarse, but it was not so with him, it was soft and silky as her own hair, curling so fine and close. In a daze she remembered that the first time for her had been with a youth no more than seventeen who scarce knew what he was about, so that she had had to guide him, to show him what to do . . . and for her that had been the only time, so that she came almost virgin to Lancelet. . . . In a rush of grief she wished that for her it was the first time, so that it might have been so blissful for her to remember; it should have been like this, this was how it should have been. . . . She moved her body against his, clinging in entreaty, moaning, she could not bear, now, to wait any longer. . . .

It seemed he was not yet ready, though she was all alive to him, her body flowing with the pulse of life and desire in her. She moved against him, hungry, her mouth avid, entreating. She whispered his name, begging now, almost afraid. He went on kissing her gently, his hands moving to stroke and soothe her, but she did not want to be soothed now, her body was crying out for completion, it was starvation, agony. She tried to speak, to beg him, but it came out a sobbing whimper.

He held her gently against him, still stroking her. “Hush, no, hush, Morgaine, wait, no more now—I do not want to hurt or dishonor you, never think that—here, lie here by me, let me hold you, I will content you . . .” and in despair and confusion she let him do what he would, but even while her body cried out for the pleasure he gave her, a curious anger was growing. What of the flow of life between their two bodies, male and female, the tides of the Goddess rising and compelling them? Somehow it seemed to her that he was stemming that tide, that he was making her love for him a mockery and a game, a pretense. And he did not seem to mind, it seemed to him that this was the way it should be, so that they were both pleasured . . . as if nothing mattered but their bodies, that there was no greater joining with all of life. To the priestess, reared in Avalon and attuned to the greater tides of life and eternity, this careful, sensuous, deliberate lovemaking seemed almost blasphemy, a refusal to give themselves up to the will of the Goddess.

And then, in the depths of mingled pleasure and humiliation she began to excuse him. He had not been reared as she was in Avalon, but thrown about from fosterage to court to military camp; he had been a soldier almost as long as he had been old enough to lift a sword, his life had been spent in the field, perhaps he did not know, or perhaps he was accustomed only to such women as would give him no more than a moment’s ease for his body, or such women as wanted to toy with lovemaking and give nothing . . . he had said, I do not want to hurt or dishonor you, as if he truly believed there could be something wrong or dishonorable in this coming together. Spent, now, he was turned a little away from her, but he was still touching her, toying with her, drawing his fingers through the fine hair at her thighs, kissing her neck and breasts. She closed her eyes, holding herself to him, angry and desolate—well, well, perhaps it was no more than she deserved, she had played the harlot in coming to him like this, perhaps it was no more than her due that he should treat her as one . . . and she was so besotted that she had let him take her like this, she would have let him do whatever he would, knowing that if she asked for more she would lose even this, and she longed for him, she still hungered for him with an intolerable ache that would never be wholly slaked. And he wanted her not at all . . . still in his heart he hungered for Gwenhwyfar, or for some woman he could have without giving more of himself than this empty touching of skins . . . a woman who could be content to give herself and ask nothing more of him than pleasure. Through the ache and hunger of her love, a faint strain of contempt was threading, and it was the greatest agony of all—that she loved him no less, that she knew she would love him always, no less than at this moment of hunger and despair.

She sat up, drawing her gown toward her, fastening it over her shoulders with shaking fingers. He sat silent, watching her, stretching out his hands to help her adjust it. After a long time he said sorrowfully, “We have done wrong, my Morgaine, you and I. Are you angry with me?”

She could not speak; her throat was too tight with pain. At last she said, straining her voice to form the words, “No, not angry,” and she knew that she should raise her voice and scream at him, demand what he could not give her—nor any woman, perhaps.

“You are my cousin, my kinswoman—but there is no harm done—” he said, and his voice was shaking. “At least I have not that to blame myself—that I could bring you to dishonor before all the court—I would not do so for the world—believe me, cousin, I love you well—”

She could not keep back her sobs now. “Lancelet, I beg you, in the name of the Goddess, speak not so—what harm is done? It was in the way of the Goddess, what we both desired—”

He made a gesture of distress. “You speak so, of the Goddess and such heathen things. . . . Almost you frighten me, kinswoman, when I would keep myself from sin, and yet I have looked on you with lust and wickedness, knowing it was wrong.” He drew on his clothes with trembling hands. At last he said, almost choking, “The sin seems to me more deadly, I suppose, than it is—I would you were not so like to my mother, Morgaine—”

It was like a blow in the face, like a cruel and treacherous blow. For a moment she could not speak. Then, for an instant, it seemed that the full rage of the Goddess angered possessed her and she felt herself rising, towering, she knew it was the glamour of the Goddess coming upon her as it had done in the Avalon barge; she felt herself, small and insignificant as she was, looming over him, and saw the powerful knight, the captain of the King’s horse, shrink away small and frightened, as all men are small in the sight of the Goddess.

“You are—you are a contemptible fool, Lancelet,” she said. “You are not even worth cursing!” She turned and fled from him, leaving him sitting there with his breeches half-fastened, staring after her in astonishment and shame. She felt her heart pounding. Half of her had wanted to scream at him, shrewish as a skua gull; the other half wanted to break down and weep in agony, in despair, begging for the deeper love he had denied her and rejected, refusing the Goddess in her. . . . Fragments of thought flickered in her mind, an old tale of the Goddess surprised and refused by a man and how the Goddess had had him torn to shreds by the hounds who ran hunting with her . . . and there was sorrow that she had what she had dreamed of all these long years and it was dust and ashes to her.

A priest would say this was the wages of sin. I heard such, often enough, from Igraine’s house priest before I went to be fostered in Avalon. At heart am I more of a Christian than I know? And again it seemed to her that her heart must break from the wreck and disaster of her love.

In Avalon this could never have come to pass—those who came to the Goddess in this way would never have so refused her power. . . . She paced up and down, a raging fire unslaked in her veins, knowing that no one could possibly understand how she felt except for another priestess of the Goddess. Viviane, she thought with longing, Viviane would understand, or Raven, or any of us reared in the House of Maidens . . . what have I been doing all these long years, away from my Goddess?

Morgaine speaks . . .

         

Three days later I got leave from Arthur to depart from his court and ride to Avalon; I said only that I was homesick for the Isle and for Viviane, my foster-mother. And in those days I had no speech with Lancelet save for the small courtesies of every day when we could not avoid meeting. Even in those I marked that he would not meet my eyes, and I felt angry and shamed, and went out of my way that I might not come face to face with him at all.

So I took horse, and rode eastward through the hills; nor did I return to Caerleon for many years, nor knew I anything of what befell in Arthur’s court . . . but that is a tale for another time.

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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