The Mists of Avalon: Avalon Book 7 | Chapter 43 of 81

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

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17

Even before she rose from her bed, Gwenhwyfar could feel the bright sunlight through the bed-curtains—Summer is here. And then, Beltane. The very fullness of pagandom—she was sure that many of her serving-men and women would be slipping away from the court tonight, when the Beltane fires were lighted on Dragon Island in honor of their Goddess, there to lie in the fields . . . some of them, no doubt, to come home again with their wombs quickened with the child of the God . . . and I, a Christian wife, cannot bear a son to my own dear lord. . . .

She turned over in bed and lay watching Arthur’s sleep. Oh, yes, he was her dear lord, and she loved him well. He had taken her as part of a dowry and sight unseen; yet he had loved her, cherished her, honored her—it was not her fault that she could not do the first duty of a queen and bear him a son for his kingdom.

Lancelet—no, she had sworn to herself, when last he went from court, she would think no more of him. She still hungered for him, heart and soul and body, but she had vowed that she would be a loyal and a faithful wife to Arthur; never again should Lancelet have from her even these games and toyings which made them both ache for more . . . it was playing at sin, even if there was nothing worse.

Beltane. Well, perhaps, as a Christian woman and queen of a Christian court, it was her duty to make such feastings and play this day as all the people of the court should enjoy without harm to their souls. She knew that Arthur had sent out word of games and arms practice to be held for prizes, at Pentecost—as he had done each year since the court came here to Camelot; but there were enough of his people here that some sport could be had this day too—she would offer a silver cup. And there should be harping and dancing, too, and she would do for the women what sometimes they did in play, offer a ribbon for the woman who could spin the most yarn in an hour, or work the largest piece of tapestry—yes, there should be innocent sport so that none of her people should regret the forbidden play on Dragon Island. She sat up and began to dress herself; she must go and talk to Cai.

But, although she busied herself all the morning, and Arthur when she spoke of it was pleased, thinking it the best of devices, so that he and Cai spent the morning in talking of the prizes they would offer for the best sword play and horsemanship, yes, and there should be a prize, perhaps a cloak, for the best among the boys—still, inside her heart, the thought gnawed. It is the day on which the ancient Gods demand that we honor fertility, and I, I am still barren. And so, an hour before high noon, at which hour the trumpets would be blown to gather men before the arms field to begin their sport, Gwenhwyfar sought out Morgaine, yet not quite certain what she would say to her.

Morgaine had taken charge of the dyeing room for the wool they spun, and was also in charge of the Queen’s brew-women—she knew how to keep ale from spoiling when it was brewed, and how to distill strong spirit for medicines, and make perfumes of flower petals which were finer than those brought from over the seas and more costly than gold. There were some women in the castle who believed this was magic art, but Morgaine said no, it was only that she had been taught about the properties of plants and grains and flowers. Any woman, Morgaine said, could do what she did, if she was neat-handed and willing to take the time and trouble to see to it.

Gwenhwyfar found her with her holiday gown tied up and her hair covered with a cloth, sniffing at a batch of beer which had spoilt in the vats. “Throw it away,” she said. “The barm must have got cold, and it has soured. We can start with another batch tomorrow—there is plenty for this day, even with the Queen’s feasting, whatever put it into her head.”

Gwenhwyfar asked, “Have you no mind to feasting, sister?”

Morgaine turned. “Not truly,” she said, “but I marvel that you have, Gwen—I thought on Beltane you would be all for pious fasting and prayer, if only to show you were not one of those who made merry in honor of the Goddess of the crops and fields.”

Gwenhwyfar colored—she never knew if Morgaine was making fun of her. “Perhaps God has ordained it, that people shall make merry in honor of the coming of the summer, and there is no need to speak of the Goddess . . . oh, I know not what I think—believe you that the Goddess gives life to crops and fields and the wombs of ewes and heifers and women?”

“I was so taught in Avalon, Gwen. Why do you ask this now?” Morgaine took off the headcloth with which she had covered her hair, and Gwenhwyfar thought suddenly that Morgaine was beautiful. Morgaine was older than Gwenhwyfar—she must be past thirty; but she looked no older than when Gwenhwyfar had first seen her . . . it was no wonder all men thought her a sorceress! She wore a fine-spun gown of dark blue wool, very plain, but colored ribbons were braided into her dark hair, which was looped about her ears and fastened with a gold pin. Next to her, Gwenhwyfar felt dull as a hen, a simple homekeeping woman, even though she was High Queen of Britain and Morgaine only a heathen duchess.

Morgaine knew so much, and she herself was so unlearned—she could do no more than write her name and read a little in her Gospel book. While Morgaine was skilled in all the clerkly arts, she could read and write, and yes, she knew the housewifely arts too—she could spin and weave and do fine embroideries, and dyeing and brewing, yes, and herb lore and magic as well. At last Gwenhwyfar faltered, “My sister—they have said it as a jest, but is it—is it true, that you know—all manner of charms and spells for fertility? I—I cannot live with it any longer, that every lady at court watches every morsel I eat to see if I am breeding, or takes note of how tight I tie my girdle! Morgaine, if indeed you know these charms they say you know—my sister, I beg you—will you use those arts for me?”

Moved and troubled, Morgaine laid a hand on Gwenhwyfar’s arm. “In Avalon, it is true, it is said that such and such things can help if a woman does not bear when she should—but Gwenhwyfar—” She hesitated, and Gwenhwyfar felt her face flooding with shame. At last Morgaine went on. “I am not the Goddess. It may be that it is her will that you and Arthur should have no children. Would you really try to turn the will of God with spells and charms?”

Gwenhwyfar said violently, “Even Christ in the garden prayed, ‘If it be thy will, let this cup pass from me—’ “

“But he said also, Gwen—‘Not my will, Lord, be done, but thine,’ ” Morgaine reminded her.

“I wonder that you know such things—”

“I dwelt in Igraine’s household for eleven years, Gwenhwyfar, and I heard the gospel preached as often as you.”

“Yet I cannot see how it should be God’s will that the kingdom be torn again by chaos if Arthur should die,” Gwenhwyfar said and heard her own voice rise, sharp and angry. “All these years I have been faithful—yes, I know you do not believe it, I suppose you think what all the women in the court think, that I have betrayed my lord for the love of Lancelet—but it is not so, Morgaine, I swear it is not so—”

“Gwenhwyfar, Gwenhwyfar! I am not your confessor! I have not accused you!”

“But you would if you could, and I think you are jealous,” Gwenhwyfar retorted at white heat, and then cried out in contrition, “Oh, no! No, I do not want to quarrel with you, Morgaine, my sister—oh, no, I came to beg you for your help—” She felt the tears break from her eyes. “I have done no wrong, I have been a good and loyal wife, I have kept my lord’s house and strove to bring honor to his court, I have prayed for him and tried to do the will of God, I have failed no whit of my duty, and yet—and yet—for all of my loyalty and duty—I have not even had my part of the bargain. Every whore in the streets, every soldier’s camp follower, they go about flaunting their big bellies and their fruitfulness, and I—I have had nothing, nothing—” She was sobbing wildly, her hands over her face.

Morgaine’s voice sounded puzzled but tender, and she put out her arms and drew Gwenhwyfar to her. “Don’t cry, don’t cry—Gwenhwyfar, look at me, is it so much a sorrow to you that you have no child?”

Gwenhwyfar struggled to control her weeping. She said, “I can think of nothing else, day and night—”

After a long time, Morgaine said, “Aye, I can see it is hard for you.” It seemed she could actually hear Gwenhwyfar’s thoughts:

If I had a child, I would not think night and day of this love which tempts my honor, for all my thoughts would be given to Arthur’s son.

“I would that I could help you, sister—but I am unwilling to have doings with charms and magic. We are taught in Avalon that simple folk may need such things, but the wise meddle not with them, but bear the lot the Gods have sent them.” And as she spoke she felt herself a hypocrite; she was remembering the morning when she had gone out to find roots and herbs for a potion which would keep her from bearing Arthur’s child. That had not been surrendering herself to the will of the Goddess!

But in the end she had not done it, either—

And then Morgaine wondered, in sudden weariness: I who did not want a child, and who came near to death in bearing it, I bore my child; Gwenhwyfar, who longs night and day for one, goes with empty womb and empty arms. Is this the goodness of the will of the Gods?

Yet she felt compelled to say, “Gwenhwyfar, I would have you bear this in mind—charms often work as you would not that they would do. What makes you believe the Goddess I serve can send you a son when your God, who is supposed to be greater than all the other Gods, cannot?”

It sounded like blasphemy, and Gwenhwyfar was ashamed of herself. Yet she found herself thinking, and saying aloud in a voice that choked as she spoke, “I think perhaps God cares nothing for women—all his priests are men, and again and again the Scriptures tell us that women are the temptress and evil—it may be that is why he does not hear me. And for this I would go to the Goddess—God does not care—” And then she was weeping stormily again. “Morgaine,” she cried, “if you cannot help me, I swear I will go tonight to Dragon Island in the boat, I shall bribe my serving-man to take me there, and when the fires are lighted I too shall entreat the Goddess to give me the gift of a child . . . I swear it, Morgaine, that I will do this. . . .” And she saw herself in the light of the fires, circling the flames, going apart in the grip of a strange and faceless man, lying in his arms—the thought made her whole body cramp tight with pain and a half-shamed pleasure.

Morgaine listened in growing horror. She would never do it, she would lose her courage at the last moment . . . I was frightened, even I, and I had always known my maidenhead was for the God. But then, hearing the utter despair in her sister-in-law’s voice, she thought, Aye, but she might; and if she did, she would hate herself all her life long.

There was no sound in the room but Gwenhwyfar’s sobbing. Morgaine waited until it quieted a little, then said, “Sister, I will do for you what I can. Arthur can give you a child, you need not go to the Beltane fire, or seek one elsewhere. You must never say aloud that I have told you this, promise me that, and ask me no questions. But Arthur has indeed sired a child.”

Gwenhwyfar stared at her. “He told me he had no children—”

“It may be that he does not know. But I have seen the child myself. He is being fostered at Morgause’s court.”

“Why, then, he has already a son and if I do not bear him one—”

“No!” said Morgaine quickly, and her voice was harsh. “I have told you—you must never speak of this, the child is not such a one as he could acknowledge. If you give him no child, then must the kingdom go to Gawaine. Gwenhwyfar, ask me no more, for I will not tell you more than this—if you do not bear, it is not Arthur’s fault.”

“I have not even conceived since last harvesttime—and only three times in all these years—” Gwenhwyfar swallowed, wiping her face on her veil. “If I offer myself to the Goddess—she will be merciful to me—”

Morgaine sighed. “It might be so. You must not go to Dragon Island. You can conceive, I know—perhaps a charm could help you to carry a child to birth. But I warn you again, Gwenhwyfar: charms do not their magic as men and women would have it, but by their own laws, and those laws are as strange as the running of time in the fairy country. Do not seek to blame me, Gwenhwyfar, if the charm acts other than you think it should.”

“If it gives me even a slight chance of a child by my lord—”

“That it should do,” Morgaine said, and turned, Gwenhwyfar following after her like a child being led by her mother. What would the charm be, Gwenhwyfar wondered and what would it do, and why did Morgaine look so strange and solemn—as if she were that Great Goddess herself? But, she told herself, taking a deep breath, she would accept whatever came, if it might give her what she desired most.

An hour later, when the trumpets were blown and Morgaine and Gwenhwyfar were sitting side by side at the edge of the field, Elaine leaned over to them and said, “Look! Who is that riding into the field at Gawaine’s side?”

“It is Lancelet,” said Gwenhwyfar breathlessly. “He has come home.”

He was handsomer than ever. Somewhere he had gotten a red slash on his cheek, which should have been ugly, but it gave him the fierce beauty of a wild cat. He rode as if he were part of the horse’s self, and Gwenhwyfar listened to Elaine’s chatter, not really hearing, her eyes fixed on the man.

Bitter, bitter, the irony of this. Why now, when I am resolved and pledged to think no more of him but to do my sworn duty by my lord and king . . . Round her neck, beneath the golden torque Arthur had given her when they had been wedded a full five years, she could feel the weight of Morgaine’s charm, sewn into a little bag between her breasts. She did not know, had not wanted to know, what Morgaine had put into it.

Why now? I had hoped that when he came home for Pentecost, I should be already bearing my lord’s child, and he would look no more on me, since it was so clear I was resolved to honor my marriage.

Yet against her will, she remembered Arthur’s words: Should you bear me a child, I would not question . . . do you know what I am saying to you? Gwenhwyfar had known what he meant all too well. Lancelet’s son could be heir to the kingdom. Was this new temptation offered her, now, because she had already fallen into grievous sin by meddling with Morgaine’s sorcery, and making wild and unchaste threats, hoping to force Morgaine into helping her . . . ?

I do not care, if so be it I can bear my king a son . . . if a God would damn me for that, what have I to do with him? She was frightened at her own blasphemy, yet it had been blasphemy, too, to think of going to the lighted Beltane fires. . . .

“Look, Gawaine is down, even he could not stand against Lancelet’s riding,” Elaine said eagerly. “And Cai, too! How could Lancelet strike down a lame man?”

“Don’t be more of a fool than you must, Elaine,” said Morgaine. “Do you think Cai would thank Lancelet for sparing him? If Cai went into these games, surely he is able to risk whatever hurt he could take! No one bade him compete.”

It had been foreordained from the moment Lancelet took the field who would win the prize. There was some good-natured grumbling among the Companions when they saw it. “There is no use in any of us entering the lists at all, while Lancelet is here,” Gawaine said, laughing, his arm around his cousin. “Couldn’t you have stayed away another day or so, Lance?”

Lancelet was laughing too, a high color in his face. He took the golden cup and tossed it in the air. “Your mother, too, besought me to stay in her court for Beltane. I came not here to defraud you of the prize—I have no need of prizes. Gwenhwyfar, my lady,” he cried, “take this, and give me instead the ribbon you wear about your neck. The cup may go to the altar or to the Queen’s high table!”

Embarrassed, Gwenhwyfar’s hand flew to her throat and the ribbon on which she had tied Morgaine’s charm. “This I may not give you, my friend—” But she fumbled at the sleeve which she had embroidered with small pearls. “Take this for a kindness to my champion. As for the prize—well, I will give prizes to all of you—” She gestured to Gawaine and Gareth, who had come in after Lancelet in the riding.

“Graciously done,” Arthur said, rising in his place, while Lancelet took the embroidered silk and kissed it, then fastened it around his helm. “But my most valiant fighter must still be honored. You will sit with us at the high table, Lancelet, and tell us all that has befallen you since you left my court.”

Gwenhwyfar excused herself with her ladies, the better to prepare for the feast. Elaine and Meleas were chattering about Lancelet’s valor, his riding, his generosity in giving up all claim to the prize. Gwenhwyfar could think only of the look he had given her when he begged her for the ribbon about her throat. She looked up and met Morgaine’s dark, enigmatic smile. I cannot even pray for peace of mind. I have forfeited the right to pray.

For the first hour of the feast she was moving about, making sure that all of the guests were properly seated and served. By the time she took her seat at the high table they were drunk, most of them, and it was very dark outside. The servants brought lamps and torches, fastening them into the wall, and Arthur said jovially, “See, my lady, we are lighting our own Beltane fire within walls.”

Morgaine had come to sit close to Lancelet. Gwenhwyfar’s face throbbed with heat and with the wine she had drunk; she turned away so that she might not see them. Lancelet said, with a great yawn, “Why, it is Beltane indeed—I had forgotten.”

“And Gwenhwyfar had it that we must have a feast so that none of our folk would be tempted to slip away into the old rites,” Arthur said. “There are more ways to skin a wolf than chasing him out of his fur—if I forbade the fires, then would I be a tyrant—”

“And,” Morgaine said, in her low voice, “faithless to Avalon, my brother.”

“But if my lady makes it more pleasant for my people here to sit at our feast instead of going out into the fields to dance by the fires, then is our purpose achieved more simply!”

Morgaine shrugged. To Gwenhwyfar it seemed that she was secretly amused. She had drunk but little—perhaps she was the only wholly sober person at the King’s table. “You have been travelling in Lothian, Lancelet—do they keep the Beltane rites there?”

“So says the Queen,” Lancelet said, “but for all I know, she may have been jesting with me—I saw nothing to suggest that Queen Morgause is not the most Christian of ladies.” But it seemed to Gwenhwyfar that he glanced uneasily at Gawaine as he spoke. “Mark what I say, Gawaine, I said nothing against the lady of Lothian, I have no quarrel with you or yours. . . .”

But only a soft snore answered him, and Morgaine’s laughter was brittle. “Look, yonder lies Gawaine asleep with his head on the table! I too would ask news of Lothian, Lancelet . . . I do not think anyone reared there could so quickly forget the Beltane fires. The sun tides run in the blood of anyone reared on Avalon, like me, like Queen Morgause—is it not so, Lancelet? Arthur, do you remember the kingmaking on Dragon Island? How many years ago—nine, ten—”

Arthur looked displeased, though he spoke gently enough. “That is many years past and gone, as you say, sister, and the world changes with every season. I think the time for such things is past, save, perhaps, for those who live with fields and crops and must call on the Goddess for their blessing—Taliesin would say so, and I will not gainsay it. But I think those old rites have little to do with such as we who dwell in castles and cities and have heard the word of Christ.” He raised his wine cup, emptied it, and spoke with drunken emphasis. “God will give us all we desire—all that is right for us to have—without need to call upon the old Gods, is it not so, Lance?”

Gwenhwyfar felt Lancelet’s eyes on her for a moment before he said, “Which of us has all things he may desire, my king? No king, and no God, can grant that.”

“But I want my—my subjects to have all they need,” repeated Arthur thickly. “And so does my queen, giving us our own Bel-Beltane fires here—”

“Arthur,” said Morgaine gently, “you are drunk.”

“Well, and why not?” he asked her belligerently. “At my own feast and my own—own fire, and what else did I fight the Saxons for, all those years? Sit here at my own Round Table and enjoy the—the peace—good ale and wine, and good music—where is Kevin the Harper? Am I to have no music at my feast?”

Lancelet said, laughing, “I have no doubt he has gone to worship the Goddess at her fires, and to play his harp there, on Dragon Island.”

“Why, this is treason,” said Arthur thickly. “And another reason to forbid the Beltane fires, so I may have music—”

Morgaine laughed and said lightheartedly, “You cannot command the conscience of another, my brother. Kevin is a Druid and has the right to offer his music to his own Gods if he will.” She leaned her chin on her hands, and Gwenhwyfar thought she looked like a cat licking cream from her whiskers. “But I think he has already kept Beltane in his own way—no doubt he has gone to his bed, for all the company here is too drunken to tell the difference between his harping and mine and Gawaine’s howling pipes! Even as he sleeps he plays the music of Lothian,” she added, as a particularly raucous snore from the sleeping Gawaine cut the silence, and she gestured to one of the chamberlains, who went and persuaded Gawaine to his feet. He bowed groggily to Arthur and staggered from the hall.

Lancelet raised the cup in his hand and drained it. “I too have had enough of music and feasting, I think—I have ridden since before daylight, since I would come to your games this day, and soon, I think, I will beg leave to be away to my bed, Arthur.” Gwenhwyfar gauged his drunkenness by that offhanded Arthur; in public he was always very careful to speak formally to Arthur as “my lord,” or “my king,” and only when they were alone did he say “cousin” or “Arthur.”

But indeed, so late in the feast, there were few sober enough to notice—they might as well have been alone together. Arthur did not even answer Lancelet; he had slipped down a little in his high seat, and his eyes were half closed. Well, Gwenhwyfar thought, he had said it himself—it was his own feast and his own fireside, and if a man could not be drunken in his own house, why had he fought so many years to make their feasts safe and secure?

And if Arthur should be too drunk tonight to welcome her to his bed, after all . . . she could feel the ribbon about her neck, where the charm hung, and its weight heavy and hot between her breasts. 'Tis Beltane; could he not keep sober for that? Had he been bidden to one of those old pagan feasts, he would have remembered, she thought, and her cheeks burned with the immodesty of the thought. I must be drunk too! She looked angrily at Morgaine, cool and sober, toying with the ribbons of her harp. Why should Morgaine smile like that?

Lancelet leaned toward her and said, “I think our lord and king has had enough of feasting and wine, my queen. Will you dismiss the servants and Companions, madam, and I’ll find Arthur’s chamberlain to help him to his bed.”

Lancelet rose. Gwenhwyfar could tell he was drunk, too, but he carried it well, moving with only a little more carefulness than usual. As she began to pass among the guests to bid them good night, she felt her own head swim and her steps unsteady. Seeing Morgaine’s enigmatic smile, she could still hear the words of the damnable sorceress: Do not seek to blame me, Gwenhwyfar, if the charm acts other than you think it should. . . .

Lancelet came back through the guests streaming out of the hall. “I can’t find my lord’s body servant—someone in the kitchens said they were all away to Dragon Island for the fires . . . is Gawaine still here, or Balan? They are the only ones big and strong enough to carry our lord and king to his bed. . . .”

“Gawaine was too drunk to carry himself,” Gwenhwyfar said, “and I saw not Balan at all. And for sure you cannot carry him, for he is taller and heavier than you—”

“Still, I’ll have at it,” said Lancelet, laughing, and bent beside Arthur.

“Come, cousin—Gwydion! There’s none to carry you to bed—I’ll give you my arm. Here, come up, there’s my brave fellow,” he said, as if he spoke to a child, and Arthur opened his eyes and staggered to his feet. Lancelet’s steps were none too steady, either, thought Gwenhwyfar as she followed the men, nor for that matter were her own . . . a fine sight they must look, if any servants were sober enough to notice, High King and High Queen and the King’s captain of horse all staggering to bed on Beltane-eve too drunk for their feet to carry them. . . .

But Arthur sobered a little when Lancelet hauled him over the threshold of their room; he went to a ewer of water in the corner, splashed some on his face, and drank more.

“Thank you, cousin,” he said, his voice still slow and drunken. “My lady and I have much for which to thank you, that is certain, and I know you love us both well—”

“God is my witness to that,” said Lancelet, but he looked at Gwenhwyfar with something like despair. “Shall I go and find one of your servants, cousin?”

“No, stay a moment,” Arthur said. “There is something I would say to you, and if I find not the courage for it now in drink, I shall never say it sober. Gwen, can you manage without your women? I have no mind that this should be carried beyond this chamber by idle tongues. Lancelet, come here and sit by me,” and sitting on the edge of the bed, he stretched out his hand to his friend. “You too, sweeting—now listen to me, both. Gwenhwyfar has no child—and do you think I have not seen how you two look at each other? I spoke of this once to Gwen, but she is so modest and pious, she would not hear me. Yet now at Beltane, when all life on this earth seems to cry out with breeding and fertility . . . how can I say this? There is an old saying among the Saxons, a friend is one to whom you will lend your favorite wife and your favorite sword. . . .”

Gwenhwyfar’s face was burning; she could not look at either of the men. Arthur went on, slowly, “A son of yours, Lance, would be heir to my kingdom, and better that than it should go to Lot’s sons. . . . Oh, yes, Bishop Patricius would call it grievous sin, no doubt, as if his God were some elderly chaperone who went about at night looking to see who slept in whose bed . . . I think it greater sin to make no provision for a son to inherit my kingdom. Then should we fall into such chaos as threatened before Uther came to the throne—my friend, my cousin—what do you say?”

Gwenhwyfar saw Lancelet moisten his lips with his tongue, and she felt the dryness of her own mouth. At last he said, “I know not what to say, my king—my friend—my cousin. God knows—there is no other woman on this earth—” and his voice broke; he looked at Gwenhwyfar and it seemed she could not endure the naked longing in his eyes. For a moment she thought she would swoon away, and put out a hand to steady herself on the bed frame.

I am still drunk, she thought, I am dreaming this, I cannot have heard him say what I thought I heard. . . . and she felt an agonizing burst of shame. It seemed she could not live and let them speak of her like this.

Lancelet’s eyes had not moved from hers.

“It is for my—for my lady to say.”

Arthur held out his arms to her. He had drawn off his boots and the rich robe he had worn at the feast; in his undertunic he looked very like the boy she had wedded years ago. He said, “Come here, Gwen,” and drew her down on his knee. “You know I love you well—you and Lance, I think, are the two I love best in the world, save for—” He swallowed and stopped, and Gwenhwyfar thought suddenly, I have thought only of my own love, I have had no thought for Arthur. He took me unseen, unwanted, and he has shown me love and honored me as his queen. But I never thought that as I love Lancelet, there may well be one whom Arthur loves and cannot have . . . not without sin and betrayal. I wonder if that is why Morgaine mocks me, she knows Arthur’s secret loves . . . or his sins . . .

But Arthur went on deliberately, “I think I would never have had the courage to say this, were it not Beltane. . . . For many hundreds of years, our forefathers have done these things without shame, in the very faces of our Gods and by their will. And—listen to this, my dearest—if I am here with you, my Gwenhwyfar, then should a child come of this, then you may swear without any untruth that this child was conceived in your marriage bed, and none of us need ever know for certain—dear love, will you not consent to this?”

Gwenhwyfar could not breathe. Slowly, slowly, she reached out her hand and laid it in Lancelet’s. She felt Arthur’s touch on her hair as Lancelet leaned forward and kissed her on the mouth.

I have been married many years and I am as frightened now as any virgin, she thought, and then she remembered Morgaine’s words when she laid the charm about her neck. Beware what you ask for, Gwenhwyfar, for the Goddess may grant it to you. . . .

At the time, she had thought Morgaine meant only that if she prayed for a child, then she might well die in childbirth. Now she knew it was more subtle than that, for it had come about that she should have Lancelet, and without guilt, with her husband’s own will and permission . . . and in a flash of awareness, she thought, It was this I wanted, after all; after all these years it is certain that I am barren, I will bear no child, but I will have had this at least. . . .

With shaking hands she undid her gown. It seemed that the whole world had dwindled down to this, this perfect awareness of herself, of her own body aching with desire, a hunger she had never believed she could feel. Lancelet’s skin was so soft—she had thought all men were like Arthur, sunburnt and hairy, but his body was smooth as a child’s. Ah, but she loved them both, loved Arthur all the more that he could be generous enough to give her this . . . they were both holding her now, and she closed her eyes and put up her face to be kissed, not knowing for certain which man’s lips closed over hers. But it was Lancelet’s hand that stroked her cheek, moved down to her naked throat where the ribbon clung.

“Why, what’s this, Gwen?” he asked, his mouth against hers.

“Nothing,” she said, “nothing. Some rubbish Morgaine gave me.” She pulled it free and flung it into a corner, sinking back into her husband’s arms and her lover’s.

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

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