The Mists of Avalon: Avalon Book 7 | Chapter 57 of 81

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

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Book Four

The Prisoner in the Oak

1

In the far hills of North Wales, rain had been falling day after day, and the castle of King Uriens seemed to swim in fog and damp. The roads were ankle-deep mud, the fords swollen as rivers rushed down in spate from the mountains, and damp chill gripped the countryside. Morgaine, wrapped in cloak and heavy shawl, felt her fingers stiffening and slowing on the shuttle as she sent it through the loom; suddenly she started upright, the shuttle falling from her cold hands.

“What is it, Mother?” Maline asked, blinking at the sharp sound in the quiet hall.

“There is a rider on the road,” Morgaine said. “We must make ready to welcome him.” And then, observing her daughter-in-law’s troubled look, she cursed herself; again she had let herself slip into the half-trance which women’s work always brought upon her nowadays. She had long ago ceased to spin, but weaving, which she enjoyed, had seemed safe if she kept her wits about her and didn’t succumb to the drowsy trancelike monotony of it.

And Maline was looking at her in the half-wary, half-exasperated way which Morgaine’s unexpected seeings always evoked. Not that Maline believed there was anything wicked or even magical about them—it was just her mother-in-law’s queer way. But Maline would speak of them to the priest, and he would come again and try to be subtle about asking her whence they came, and she would have to put on a meek-woman face and pretend she didn’t know what he was talking about. Someday she would be too weary or too unguarded to care, and she would speak her mind to the priest. Then he would really have something to talk about. . . .

Well, done was done, and could not be helped now. She got along well enough with Father Eian, who had been Uwaine’s tutor—he was an educated man for a priest. “Tell the Father that his pupil will be here at dinnertime,” Morgaine said, and once again realized that her tongue had slipped; she had known Maline had been thinking of the priest and had responded to Maline’s thought, not her words. She went out of the room leaving the younger woman staring.

All the winter, which had been heavy with rain and snow and repeated storms, not a single traveller had come. She dared not spin; it opened the gates too quickly to trance. Now, weaving was likely to do the same. She sewed industriously at making clothes for all the folk of the household, from Uriens down to Maline’s newest baby, but it was hard on her eyes to do fine needlework; in the winter she had no access to fresh herbs and plants, and could do little with brewing simples and medicines. She had no companion—her waiting-women were the wives of Uriens’ men-at-arms and duller than Maline; not one of them could spell out so much as a verse in the Bible and were shocked that Morgaine could read and write and knew some Latin and Greek. And she could not sit always at her harp. So she had spent the winter in a frenzy of boredom and impatience . . .

. . . the worse, she thought, because the temptation was always there to sit and spin and dream, letting her mind slide away, to follow Arthur at Camelot, or Accolon on quest—it had come to her, three years ago, that Accolon should spend enough time at court that Arthur should know him well and trust him. Accolon bore the serpents of Avalon, and that might prove a valuable bond with Arthur. She missed Accolon like a constant ache; in his presence she was what he always saw her—high priestess, confident of her goals and herself. But that was secret between them. In the long, lonely seasons, Morgaine experienced recurrent doubts and dreads; was she then no more than Uriens thought her, a solitary queen growing old, body and mind and soul drying and withering?

Still, she kept her hand firmly on this household, over countryfolk and castlefolk alike, so that all should turn to her for counsel and wisdom. They said in the country around: The queen is wise. Even the king does nothing without her consent. The Tribesmen and the Old Ones, she knew, came near to worshipping her; though she dared not appear too often at the ancient worship.

Now in the kitchen house she made arrangements for a festal dinner—or as near to it as they could come at the end of a long winter when the roads were closed. Morgaine gave from the locked cupboards some of her hoarded store of raisins and dried fruits, and a few spices for cooking the last of the bacon. Maline would tell Father Eian that Uwaine was expected at the hall for dinner. She herself should bear the tidings to Uriens.

She went up to his chamber, where he was lazily playing at dice with one of his men-at-arms; the room smelled frowsty and unaired, stale and old. At least his long siege with the lung fever this winter has meant I need not be expected to share his bed. It has been just as well, Morgaine thought dispassionately, that Accolon has spent this winter in Camelot with Arthur; we might have taken dangerous chances and been discovered.

Uriens set down the dice cup and looked up at her. He was thinner, wasted by his long struggle with the fever. There had been a few days when Morgaine thought he could not live, and she had fought hard for his life; partly because, in spite of everything, she was fond of him and did not want to see him die, partly because Avalloch would have succeeded to his throne the moment he died.

“I have not seen you all day. I have been lonely, Morgaine,” Uriens said, with a fretful note of reproach. “Huw, here, is not half so good to look at.”

“Why,” Morgaine said, tuning her voice to the broad jesting Uriens liked, “I have left you purposely alone, thinking that in your old age you had taken a taste for handsome young men . . . if you do not want him, husband, does that mean that I can have him?”

Uriens chuckled. “You are making the poor man blush,” he said, smiling with broad good nature. “But if you leave me alone all day, why, what am I to do but moon and make sheep’s eyes at him, or at the dog.”

“Well, I have come to give you good news. You shall be carried down to the hall for dinner tonight—Uwaine is riding hither and will be here before suppertime.”

“Now God be thanked,” Uriens said. “I thought this winter that I should die without seeing either of my sons again.”

“I suppose Accolon will return for the Midsummer festivals.” In her body Morgaine felt a stab of hunger so great that it was pain as she thought of the Beltane fires, now only two months away.

“Father Eian has been at me again to forbid the rites,” Uriens said peevishly. “I am tired of hearing his complaints. He has it in mind that if we cut down the grove, then the folk would be content with his blessing of the fields, and not turn away to the Beltane fires. It is true that there seems more and more of the old worship every year—I had thought that as the old folk died off, year by year, it would grow ever less. I was willing to let it die out with the Old People who could not accustom themselves to new ways. But if the young people now are turning back to heathen ways, then we must do something—perhaps, even, cut down the grove.”

If you do, I shall do murder, Morgaine thought, but schooled her voice to gentleness and reason. “That would be wrong. The oaks give pig food and food for the country people—even here we have had to use acorn flour in a bad season. And the grove has been there for hundreds of years—the trees are sacred—”

“You sound too much a pagan yourself, Morgaine.”

“Can you say the oak grove is not the work of God?” she retorted. “Why should we punish the harmless trees because foolish men make a use of them that Father Eian does not like? I thought you loved your land.”

“Well, and so I do,” said Uriens fretfully, “but Avalloch, too, says I should cut it down, so that the pagans should have no place of resort. We might build a church or chapel there.”

“But the Old Ones are your subjects too,” Morgaine said, “and in your youth you made the Great Marriage with the land. Would you deprive the Old People of the grove that is their food and shelter, and their own chapel built by the very hands of God and not of man? Would you then condemn them to die or starve as they have done in some of the cleared lands?”

Uriens looked down at his gnarled old wrists. The blue tattoos there had almost faded and were no more than pale stains. “Well are you called Morgaine of the Fairies—the Old People could have no better advocate. Since you plead for their shelter, my lady, I will spare the grove while I live, but after me, Avalloch must do as he will. Will you fetch me my shoes and robe, so that I may dine in hall like a king, and not an old dodderer in bedgown and slippers?”

“To be sure,” said Morgaine, “but I cannot lift you now. Huw will have to dress you.”

But when the man had finished his work, she combed Uriens’ hair and summoned the other man-at-arms who awaited the king’s call. The two men lifted him, making a chair between their arms, and carried him into the hall, where Morgaine placed cushions about his high seat and watched as the thin old body was deposited there.

By that time she could hear servants bustling about, and riders in the courtyard . . . Uwaine, she thought, hardly raising her eyes as the young man was escorted into the hall.

It was hard to bear in mind that this tall young knight, with broad shoulders and a battle scar along one cheek, was the scrawny little boy who had come to her, like a wild animal tamed, in her first lonely, desperate year at Uriens’ court. Uwaine kissed his father’s hand, then bent before Morgaine.

“My father. Dear mother—”

“It’s good to see you home again, lad,” said Uriens, but Morgaine’s eyes were on the other man who followed him into the hall. For a moment she did not believe it, it was like seeing a ghost—surely if he were really here I would have seen him with the Sight . . . and then she understood. I have been trying so hard not to think of Accolon, lest I go mad . . .

Accolon was slenderer than his brother, and not quite so tall. His eyes darted to Morgaine, one swift furtive look as he knelt before his father, but his voice was wholly correct when he turned to her. “It is good to be home again, lady—”

“It is good to have you here,” she said steadily, “both of you. Uwaine, tell us how you got that dreadful scar on your cheek. Since the defeat of Emperor Lucius, I thought all men had pledged to Arthur to make no further trouble!”

“The usual,” said Uwaine lightly. “Some bandit who moved into a deserted fort and amused himself by preying on the countryside and calling himself a king. Lot’s son Gawaine went with me and we made short work of him, and Gawaine got himself a wife out of it—the lady is a widow with rich lands. As for this—” He touched the scar lightly. “While Gawaine fought the master I took the man—an ugly bastard who fought left-handed and got through my guard. Clumsy, too—I’d rather fight a good swordsman than a bad, any day! If you’d been there, Mother, I wouldn’t have quite such a scar—the surgeon who stitched it up for me had hands like cabbages! Has it spoilt my looks as much as that?”

Morgaine reached out and gently touched her stepson’s slashed cheek. “You will always be handsome to me, my son. But perhaps I can still do something—there is festering there and swelling; before I sleep I will make you a poultice for it, so that it will heal better. It must pain you.”

“It does,” Uwaine admitted, “but I thought myself lucky not to get the lockjaw from it, which one of my men did. Ai, what a death!” He shuddered. “When the wound swelled, I thought I was for it, too, and my good friend Gawaine said, as long as I could drink wine I was in no danger—and he kept me well supplied, too. I swear I was drunk for a fortnight, Mother!” He guffawed. “I would have given all the plunder of that bandit’s castle for some of your soup—I couldn’t chew bread or dried meat, and I nearly starved to death. I did lose three teeth. . . .”

She rose and peered at the wound. “Open your mouth. Yes,” she said, and gestured to one of the servants. “Bring sir Uwaine some stew, and some stewed fruit, too,” she said. “You must not even try to chew hard food for a while. After supper, I’ll see to it.”

“I won’t say no to that, Mother. It still hurts like the devil, and besides, there’s a girl at Arthur’s court—I don’t want her to shrink away as if I were a devil face.” He chuckled. But for all the pain in his wound he ate hugely, telling tales of the court until they were all laughing. Morgaine dared not take her eyes from her stepson, but all through the meal she could feel Accolon’s eyes on her, warming her as if she were standing in sunlight after the winter’s chill.

It was a merry meal, but at last Uriens began to look weary and Morgaine summoned his body servants. “This is the first day you have left your bed, my husband—you must not weary yourself too much.”

Uwaine rose and said, “Let me carry you, Father.” He stooped and lifted the sick man as if he were a child. Morgaine, following, turned back before leaving the dining hall to say, “See to all things here, Maline—I will bandage Uwaine’s cheek before I go to rest.”

Soon Uriens was tucked into bed in his own chamber, Uwaine standing beside him while Morgaine went to the kitchens to brew a poultice for his cheek. She had to prod the cook awake and set him to heating more water over the kitchen fire . . . she should have a brazier and a cauldron in her own rooms if she was going to do this kind of work, why had she never thought of it before? She went up and sat Uwaine down so that she could poultice his cheek with the hot cloths wrung in steaming herb brew, and the young man sighed with relief as the poultice began to draw out the soreness from the festered wound.

“Oh, but that’s good, Mother—that girl at Arthur’s court wouldn’t know how to do this. When I marry her, Mother, will you teach her some of your craft? Her name is Shana, and she’s from Cornwall. She was one of Queen Isotta’s ladies—how is it that Marcus calls himself king in Cornwall, Mother? I thought Tintagel belonged to you.”

“So it does, my son, from Igraine and Duke Gorlois. I knew not that Marcus thought to reign there,” Morgaine said. “Does Marcus dare to claim Tintagel as his own?”

“No, for the last I heard he had no champion there,” Uwaine said. “Sir Drustan has gone into exile in Brittany—”

“Why? Was he one of the Emperor Lucius’ men?” asked Morgaine. This talk of the court was a breath of life in the deadness of this isolated place.

Uwaine shook his head. “No . . . there was talk that he and Queen Isotta had been overfond of each other,” he said. “One can hardly blame the poor lady . . . Cornwall is the end of the world, and Duke Marcus is old and peevish and his chamberlains say he is impotent too—hard life for the poor lady, while Drustan is handsome and a harper, and the lady fond of music.”

“Have you no gossip of court save of wickedness and other men’s wives?” demanded Uriens, scowling, and Uwaine laughed. “Well, I told the lady Shana that her father might send a messenger to you, and I hope, dear father, that when he comes you will not refuse him. Shana is not rich, but I have no great need of a dowry, I won goods enough in Brittany—I shall show you some of my plunder, and I have gifts for my mother, too.” He raised his hand to stroke Morgaine’s cheek as she bent over him, changing the poultice for a fresh one. “Well I know you are not such a woman as that lady Isotta, to turn your back on my good old father and play the harlot.”

Her cheeks stung; she bent over the kettle of steaming herbs, wrinkling her nose at the bitter scent. Uwaine thought her the best of women, and his trust was sweet to her, yet there was the bitterness of knowing it unmerited.

At least I have never made Uriens look a fool, nor yet flaunted any other lover in his face. . . .

“But you should go to Cornwall, when my father is well enough to travel,” Uwaine said seriously, flinching a little as the heat of the poultice touched a new spot on his festered cheek. “There should be a clear understanding, Mother, that Marcus cannot lay claim to what is yours. You have not shown your face in Tintagel for so long that the common people may forget they have a queen.”

“I’m sure it will not come to that,” said Uriens. “But if I am well again this summer, I will ask Arthur, when I ride to Pentecost, about this matter of Morgaine’s lands.”

“And if Uwaine marries into Cornwall,” said Morgaine, “he shall keep Tintagel for me—would you like to be my castellan, Uwaine?”

“I would like nothing better,” said Uwaine, “except, perhaps, to sleep tonight without forty separate toothaches in my jaw.”

“Drink this,” said Morgaine, pouring one of her medicines from a small flask into his wine, “and I can promise you sleep.”

“I would sleep without it, I think, madam, I am so glad to be in my own home and my own bed, under my mother’s care.” Uwaine bent and embraced his father, and kissed Morgaine’s hand. “But I will take your medicines willingly.” He swallowed the medicined wine and beckoned to one of Uriens’ men-at-arms to light him to his own room. Accolon came and embraced his father, and said, “I too am for my bed . . . lady, are there pillows there, or is the room empty and bare? I have not been home in so long, I expect to find pigeons roosting in that old room where I used to sleep and Father Eian tried to beat Latin into my head through the seat of my breeches.”

“I told Maline to be sure you had everything you needed,” said Morgaine, “but I will come and see. Will you need me again this night, my lord,” she asked, turning to Uriens, “or shall I too go to my rest?”

Only a soft snore answered her, and his man Huw, settling the old man on the pillows, answered, “Go, lady Morgaine. If he wakes in the night I’ll look after him.”

As they went out, Accolon asked, “What ails my father?”

“He had the lung fever this winter,” said Morgaine, “and he is not young.”

“And you have had all the weight of caring for him,” Accolon said. “Poor Morgaine—” and he touched her hand; she bit her lip at his tender voice. Something hard and cold inside her, frozen there since the winter, was melting and she thought she would dissolve into weeping. She bent her head and did not look at him.

“And you, Morgaine—not a word or a look for me—?” He reached out and touched her, and she said between clenched teeth, “Wait.”

She called a servant to fetch fresh bolsters, a blanket or two from the store. “Had I known you were coming, I would have had the best linens and blankets, and fresh bed straw.”

He said in a whisper, “It is not fresh straw I want in my bed,” but she refused to turn her face to him while the serving-women were making the bed up, bringing hot water and light, and hanging up his armor and outer garments.

When they were all away for a moment he whispered, “Later, may I come to your room, Morgaine?”

She shook her head and whispered back, “I will come to you—I can have some excuse for being out of my chamber in the middle of the night, but since your father has been ill, often they come to fetch me—you must not be found there—” and she gave him a quick, silent pressure of her fingers. It was as if his hand burned her. Then she went with the chamberlain on the last rounds of the castle to make sure that all was locked and secure.

“God give you a good night, lady,” he said, bowing, and went away. She tiptoed through the hall where the men-at-arms slept, moving on noiseless feet; along the stairs, past the room where Avalloch slept with Maline and the younger children, the room where young Conn had slept with his tutor and his foster-brothers before the poor lad had succumbed to the lung fever. In the farther wing were Uriens’ own chamber, one she now kept for herself, another room usually allotted to guests of importance, and at the far end, the room where she had left Accolon. She stole toward his room, her mouth dry, hoping he had had the sense to keep his door ajar . . . the walls were old and thick and there would be no way he could hear her at his door.

She looked into her own room; went in, swiftly, and disarranged the bed clothing. Her own waiting-woman, Ruach, was old and deaf, and in the winter past Morgaine had cursed her for her deafness and stupidity, but now that would serve her . . . even so, she must not wake in the morning and find Morgaine’s bed untouched; even old Ruach knew that King Uriens was not well enough to share his bed with the queen.

How often have I told myself, I am not ashamed of what I do . . . yet she must not bring scandal on her name, or she could accomplish nothing here. But she hated the need for secrecy and furtiveness.

He had left the door ajar. She slipped inside, her heart pounding, and pushed the door shut; felt herself seized in a hungry embrace that waked her body into fierce life. His mouth closed on hers as if he had starved for this as much as she . . . it seemed as if the whole winter’s desolation and pain fell away and that she was like melting ice, that she would flood and overflow. . . . She pressed her body to Accolon’s and fought to keep from crying.

All her resolve that Accolon was no more to her than priest of the Goddess, that she would not allow any personal tie between them, had gone for nothing in the face of this wild hunger in her. She had felt so much scorn for Gwenhwyfar, bringing the court to scandal and her king into contempt, because he could not keep his wife in order. But now, in Accolon’s arms, all her resolve melted. She sank down in his embrace and let him carry her to his bed.

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

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