The Mists of Avalon: Avalon Book 7 | Chapter 70 of 81

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

Please hit next button if you encounter an empty page

14

For many years, Gwenhwyfar had felt that when the Companions of the Round Table were present, Arthur belonged not to her but to them. She had resented their intrusion into her life, their presence at Camelot; often she had felt that if Arthur were not surrounded by the court, perhaps they might have had a life happier than the one they led as King and Queen of Camelot.

And yet in this year of the Grail quest, she began to realize that she had been fortunate after all, for Camelot was like a village of ghosts with all the Companions departed, and Arthur the ghost who haunted Camelot, moving silently through the deserted castle.

It was not that she took no pleasure in Arthur’s company when at last it was entirely hers. It was only that now she came to understand how much of his very being he had poured into his legions and the building of Camelot. He showed her ungrudging courtesy and kindness, and she had more of his company than ever she had had in all the long years of war or the years of peace that followed them. But it was as if some part of him was absent with his Companions, wherever they might be, and only a small fraction of the man himself was here with her. She loved Arthur the man no less than Arthur the King, but she realized now how much less was the man without the business of kingship into which he had put so much of his life. And she was ashamed that she could notice it.

They never spoke of those who were absent. In that year of the Grail quest, they lived quietly and in peace from day to day, speaking only of everyday things, of bread and meat, of fruits from the orchard or wine from the cellars, of a new cloak or the clasp of a shoe. And once, looking around the empty chamber of the Round Table, he said, “Should we have it put away until they return, my love? Even in this great chamber, there is small room to move, and now when it is all empty—”

“No,” she said quickly, “no, my dear, leave it. This great room was built for the Round Table, and without it, it would be like an empty barn. Leave it. You and I and the household folk can dine in the smaller chamber.” He smiled at her, and she knew he was glad she had said that.

“And when the knights return from the quest, we can once again make a great feast there,” he said, but then fell silent, and she knew he was wondering how many would ever return.

Cai was with them, and old Lucan, and two or three of the Companions who were old or infirm or nursing old wounds. And Gwydion—Mordred as he was now called—was always with them, like a grown son; often Gwenhwyfar looked on him and thought, This is the son I might have borne to Lancelet, and heat went scalding and flooding through her whole body, leaving her broken into a hot sweat as she thought of that night when Arthur himself had thrust her into Lancelet’s arms. And indeed this heat came often now and went, so that she never knew whether a room was hot or cold, or whether it was this strange sudden heat from within. Gwydion was gentle and deferential to her, calling her always lady or, sometimes, shyly, Aunt; the very shyness with which he used this term of family closeness warmed her and made him dear to her. He was like to Lancelet, too, but more silent and less light of heart; where Lancelet had ever been ready with a jest or play on words, Gwydion smiled and was always ready with some wit like a blow or the thrust of a needle. His wit was wicked, but she could not but laugh when he made some cruel jest.

One night when their shrunken company was at dinner, Arthur said, “Until Lancelet comes back to us, nephew, I would have you take his post and be my captain of horse.”

Gwydion chuckled. “Light enough will that duty be, my uncle and my lord—there are few horses in that stable now. The finest horses in your stables went with your knights and Companions, and who knows, indeed, whether or no some horse will be the one to find that Grail they seek!”

“Oh, hush,” Gwenhwyfar said. “You must not make fun of their quest.”

“Why not, Aunt? Again and again the priests tell us that we are the sheep of our Lord’s pasture, and if a sheep may seek a spiritual presence, why, I have always thought a horse a nobler beast than any sheep. So who’s to say whether or no the nobler beast may achieve the quest? Even some scarred old war horse may come at last to seek spiritual repose, as they say the lion shall one day lie down beside the lamb and never think it dinnertime.”

Arthur laughed uneasily. “Will we need our horses again for war? Since Mount Badon, God be praised, we have had peace in the land—”

“Save for Lucius,” Gwydion said, “and if I have learned one thing in my life, it is that peace is something which cannot last. Wild Northmen in dragon ships are landing on the coast, and when men cry out for Arthur’s legions to defend them, the answer comes only that Arthur’s Companions have ridden away to seek their souls’ peace. And so they seek for help from the Saxon kings in the South. But no doubt when this quest is done, they will look once more to Arthur and to Camelot—and it seems to me that war horses might be in short supply when that day comes. Lancelet is so busy with the Grail and his other deeds that he has had little time to see to the King’s stables.”

“Well, I have told you I wished you to fill that place,” said Arthur, and it struck Gwenhwyfar that his tone sounded peevish, and old, without the strength it once held. “As captain of horse you have authority to send for horses in my name. Lancelet used to deal with traders from somewhere to the south, beyond Brittany—”

“As I shall do also, then,” said Gwydion. “There were no horses like the horses from Spain, but now, my uncle and my lord, the best horses come from further still. The Spaniards themselves buy horses from Africa, from a desert country there. Now these Saracens are beginning to overrun Spain itself—this I heard from yonder Saracen knight Palomides, who journeyed here and was guested for a time, then rode away to see what adventure there might be among the Saxons. He is not a Christian, and it seemed strange to him that all these knights should ride away after the Grail when there was war in the land.”

“I spoke to Palomides,” said Arthur. “He had a sword from that southern country of Spanish steel—I would gladly have had one like to it, though I think it is no finer than Excalibur. No sword in our country will hold such an edge, like a razor. I am glad I never had to face such a sword in the lists. The Northmen have great axes and clubs, but their weapons are not so good even as the Saxon weapons.”

“They are fiercer fighters, though,” said Gwydion. “They go into a madness of fighting, as sometimes the Tribesmen of Lothian used to do, casting away their shields in battle. . . . No, my king, we may have had peace for a goodly time, but even as the Saracens are beginning to overrun Spain, so the wild Northmen are on our coasts, and the wild Irishmen. In the end, no doubt, the Saracens will be good for Spain even as the Saxons have been good for this land—”

“Good for this land?” Arthur looked at the younger man in astonishment. “What do I hear you say, nephew?”

“When the Romans left us, my lord Arthur, we were isolated at the end of the world, alone with the half-savage Tribes. The war with the Saxons forced us to reach beyond ourselves,” he said. “We had trade with Less Britain and with Spain and the countries to the south, we had to barter for weapons and horses, we built new cities—why, here’s your own Camelot, sir, to show that. I do not even speak of the movement of the priests, who now have come among the Saxons and made them no longer wild Tribesmen with hair on their faces, worshipping their own barbarian Gods, but civilized men with cities and trade of their own, and their own civilized kings who are subject to you. For what else has this whole land been waiting? Now, even, they have monasteries and learned men writing books, and much more . . . without the wars against the Saxons, my lord Arthur, Uther’s old kingdom would have been forgotten like that of Maximus.”

Arthur said with a glimmer of amusement, “Then, no doubt, you think these twenty years and more of peace have endangered Camelot, and we need more wars and fighting to bring us into the world again? It is easy to see you are not a warrior, young man. I have no such romantic view of war as that!”

Gwydion smiled back. “What makes you think I am not a warrior, my lord? I fought among your men against Lucius who would have been emperor, and I had ample time to make up my own mind about wars and their worth. Without wars, you would be more forgotten than the least of those kings in Wales and in Eire—who now can call the roll of the kings of Tara?”

“And you think one day it may be so with Camelot, my boy?”

“Ah, my uncle and my king, would you have the wisdom of a Druid or the flattery of a courtier?”

Arthur said, laughing, “Let us have the crafty counsel of a Mordred.”

“The courtier would say, my lord, that the reign of Arthur will live forever and his memory be forever green in the world. And the Druid would say that all men perish, and one day they will be, with all of their wisdom and their glories, like unto Atlantis, sunken beneath the waves. The Gods alone endure.”

“And what would my nephew and my friend say, then?”

“Your nephew“—he put just enough emphasis on the word that Gwenhwyfar could hear that it should have been your son—"would say, my uncle and my lord, that we are living for this day, and not for what history may say of us a thousand years hence. And so your nephew would advise that your stables should once again reflect the noble days when Arthur’s horses and his fighting men were known and fearful to all. No man should be able to say, the King grows old and with all his knights on quest, cares nothing to keep his men and horses in fighting trim.”

Arthur gave him a friendly clap on the shoulder. “So let it be, dear boy. I trust your judgment. Send to Spain, or to Africa if you will, for horses such as best suit the reputation of Arthur’s legion, and see to their training.”

“I shall have to find Saxons for that,” said Gwydion, “and the Saxons know little of our secrets of fighting a-horse—you have always said they should not. Is it your will that since the Saxons are our allies now, they should be trained in our fighting skills?”

Arthur looked troubled. “I fear I must leave that, too, in your hands.”

“I shall try to do my best for you,” Gwydion said, “and now, my lord, we have sat overlong in this talk, and wearied the ladies—forgive me, madam,” he added, inclining his head to Gwenhwyfar with that winning smile. “Shall we have music? The lady Niniane, I am certain, would be happy to bring her harp and sing to you, my lord and my king.”

“I am always happy to hear my kinswoman’s music,” said Arthur gravely, “if it is pleasing to my lady.”

Gwenhwyfar nodded to Niniane, who fetched her harp and sat before them, singing, and Gwenhwyfar listened with pleasure to the music—Niniane played beautifully, and her voice was sweet, though not so pure or strong as Morgaine’s. But as she watched Gwydion, his eyes on Taliesin’s daughter, she thought, Why is it that we, a Christian court, must always have here one of those damsels of the Lady of the Lake? It worried her, although Gwydion seemed as good a Christian as anyone else at court, coming always to mass on Sunday, as did Niniane herself. For that matter she could not remember how Niniane had come to be one of her ladies, save that Gwydion had brought her to court and asked the Queen to extend her hospitality as a kinswoman of Arthur and as Taliesin’s daughter. Gwenhwyfar had only the kindest memories of Taliesin, and had been pleased to welcome his daughter, but somehow it seemed now that, without ever putting herself forward, Niniane had assumed the place of the first among her ladies. Arthur always treated her with favor and often called to her to sing, and there were times when Gwenhwyfar, watching them, wondered if he looked on her as more than kinswoman.

But no, surely not. If Niniane had a paramour here at court it was more than likely to be Gwydion himself. She had seen him look at her . . . and yet her heart grew sore within her; this woman was fair, fair as she herself had been, and she was but an aging woman with her hair fading, the color gone from her cheeks, her body sagging. . . . And so when Niniane had put up her harp and withdrawn, she frowned as Arthur came to escort her from the hall.

“You look weary, my wife, what ails you?”

“Gwydion said you were old—”

“My own dear wife, I have sat on that throne of Britain for one-and-thirty years, with you at my side. Do you think there is anyone in this kingdom who can still call us young? Most of our subjects were not yet born when we came to the throne. Though indeed, my dear, I know not how it is that you look ever so young.”

“Oh, my husband, I was not seeking to be praised,” she said impatiently.

“You should be flattered, my Gwen, that Gwydion does not deal in empty flattery to an aging king, cozening me with lying words. He speaks honestly and I value him for it. I wish—”

“I know what you wish,” she interrupted him, her voice angry. “You wish you could acknowledge him your son, so that he and not Galahad might have your throne after you—”

He colored. “Gwenhwyfar, must we always be so sharp with each other on this subject? The priests would not have him for King, and there’s an end of it.”

“I cannot but remember whose son he is—”

“I cannot but remember that he is my son,” said Arthur gently.

“I trust not Morgaine, and you yourself have found that she—”

His face grew hard and she knew that he would not hear her on this one subject. “Gwenhwyfar, my son was fostered by the Queen of Lothian, and her sons have been the support and stay of my kingdom. What would I have done without Gareth and Gawaine? And now Gwydion stands fair to be like them, kindest and best of friends and Companions. It will not make me think the less of Gwydion that he stood beside me when all my other Companions forsook me for this quest.”

Gwenhwyfar did not want to quarrel with him. She said now, sliding her hand into his, “Believe me, my lord, I love you beyond all else on this earth.”

“Why, I believe you, my love,” he said. “The Saxons have a saying—that man is blessed who has a good friend, a good wife, and a good sword. And all those have I had, my Gwenhwyfar.”

“Oh, the Saxons,” she said, laughing. “All those years you fought against them, and now you quote their sayings of wisdom—”

“Well, what is the good of war—as Gwydion says—if we cannot learn wisdom from our enemies? Long ago, someone—Gawaine, perhaps—said something about the Saxons and the learned men in their monasteries. He said it is like to a woman who is raped, and yet, after the invaders have left our coasts, bears a good son—is it better to have had only the evil, or, when the evil is done and there’s no mending it, to take what good may come from that evil?”

Gwenhwyfar frowned and said, “Only a man, I think, could make such a jest as that!”

“No, I meant not to bring up old sorrows, dear heart,” he protested, “but the harm was done for me and Morgaine years ago.” She realized that for once he spoke his sister’s name without that cold tightening in his face. “Would it be better that no good of any kind should come from the sin I did with Morgaine—for you will have it that it was sin—or should I be grateful that, since the sin was done and there’s no going back to innocence, God has given me a good son in return for that evil? Morgaine and I parted not as friends, and I know not where she is or what has befallen her, nor do I suppose I will ever again look upon her face this side of the day of judgment. But her son is now the very stay of my throne. Should I mistrust him because of the mother who gave him birth?”

Gwenhwyfar would have said, I do not trust him because he was reared in Avalon, but she had no wish to, so she held her peace. But when, at her door, Arthur held her hand and asked softly, “Is it your will that I join you this night, lady?” she avoided his eyes and said, “No—no, I am tired.” She tried not to see the look of relief in his eyes. She wondered if it were Niniane or some other who shared his bed these days; she would not stoop to question his chamberlain. If it is not I, why should I care who it might be?

The year moved on into the darkness of winter, and on toward spring. One day Gwenhwyfar said fiercely, “I wish this quest were done and the knights returned, Grail or no Grail!”

“Hush, my dear, they are sworn,” said Arthur, but later that day, indeed, a knight rode up the track to Camelot, and they saw that it was Gawaine.

“Is it you, cousin?” Arthur embraced him and kissed him on either cheek. “I had no hope of seeing you till a year was done—did you not swear to follow the Grail for a year and a day?”

“I did so,” said Gawaine, “but I am not false to my oath, Lord, and yonder priest need not look at me as if I were forsworn. For I last saw the Grail here in this very castle, Arthur, and I am just as like to see it here again as in this corner or that of the world. I rode up and down, hither and thither, and never did I hear word of it more, and one day it came to me that I might as well seek it where I had seen it already, at Camelot and in the presence of my king, even if I must look for it every Sunday on the altar at mass, and nowhere else.”

Arthur smiled and embraced him, and Gwenhwyfar saw that his eyes were wet. “Come in, cousin,” he said simply. “Welcome home.”

And some days later, Gareth too came home. “I had a vision indeed, and I think it may have come from God,” he said as they sat at supper in the hall. “I dreamed I saw the Grail uncovered and fair before me, and then a voice spoke to me from the light around the Grail and said, ‘Gareth, Companion of Arthur, this is all you will ever see of that Grail in this life. Why seek further for visions and glories, when your king has need of you in Camelot? You may serve God when you reach Heaven, but while you live here on earth, return to Camelot and serve your king.’ And when I woke, I remembered that even Christ had said that they should render unto Caesar those things which belonged to Caesar, and so I came home this way, and I met with Lancelet as I rode, and I bade him do the same.”

“Do you think, then, that you truly found the Grail?” Gwydion asked.

Gareth laughed. “Perhaps the Grail itself is only a dream. And when I dreamed of the Grail, it bade me do my duty to my lord and king.”

“I suppose we shall look to see Lancelet here among us soon, then?”

“I hope he can find it in his heart to come,” said Gawaine, “for indeed we need him here. But Easter will be upon us soon, and then we can look to have them all come home.”

Later Gareth asked that Gwydion would bring his harp and sing for them. “For,” he said, “I have not heard even such rough music as I would hear at the court of the Saxons, and you who sit here at home have surely had time to perfect your songs, Gwydion.”

Gwenhwyfar would not have been surprised had he stood aside for Niniane, but instead he brought out a harp Gwenhwyfar recognized.

“Is that not Morgaine’s harp?”

“It is so. She left it at Camelot when she went from here, and if she wants it she can send for it, or come and take it from me. And until that day, well, it is surely mine, and I doubt she would begrudge me this when she has given me nothing else.”

“Save only your life,” said Arthur in a tone of mild reproof, and Gwydion turned on him a look of such bitterness that Gwenhwyfar was sorely distressed. His savage tone could not be heard four feet away. “Should I then be grateful for that, my lord and my king?” Before Arthur could speak, he set his fingers to the strings and began to play. But the song he sang shocked Gwenhwyfar.

He sang the ballad of the Fisher King, who dwelt in a castle at the middle of a great wasteland; and as the king grew ancient and his powers waned, so did the land fade and put forth no crops, till some younger man should come and strike the stroke of mercy which would pour out the blood of the ancient king upon the land. Then the land would grow young again with the new king, and bloom with his youth.

“Say you so?” demanded Arthur uneasily. “That the land where an old king rules can only be a land which fades?”

“Not so, my lord. What would we do without the wisdom of your many years? Yet in the ancient days of the Tribes it was even so, where the Goddess of the Land alone endures, and the king rules while he shall please her. And when the King Stag grew old, another would come from the herd and throw him down . . . but this is a Christian court, and you have no such heathen ways as that, my king. I think perhaps that ballad of the Fisher King is but a symbol of the grass which, even as it says in your Scriptures, is like to man’s flesh, enduring but a season, and the king of the wasteland but a symbol of the world which yearly dies with the grass and is renewed with spring, as all religions tell . . . even Christ withered like the Fisher King when he died the death of the cross and returns again with Easter, ever new . . .” and he touched the strings and sang softly:

“For lo, all the days of man are as a leaf that is fallen and as the grass that withereth.

Thou too shalt be forgotten, like the flower that falleth on the grass, like the wine that is poured out and soaks into the earth.

And yet even as the spring returns, so blooms the land and so blooms life which will come again . . .”

Gwenhwyfar asked, “Is that Scripture, Gwydion? A verse perhaps of a psalm?”

Gwydion shook his head. “It is an ancient hymn of the Druids, and there are those who say it is older than that, brought perhaps from those lands which now lie beneath the sea. But each religion has some such hymn as that. Perhaps indeed all religion is One . . .”

Arthur asked him quietly, “Are you a Christian, my lad?”

Gwydion did not answer for a moment. At last he said, “I was reared a Druid and I do not break the oaths I have sworn. My name is not Kevin, my king. But you do not know all the vows I have made.” Quietly he rose from his place and went forth from the hall. Arthur, staring after him, did not speak even to reprove his lack of courtesy, but Gawaine was scowling.

“Will you let him take leave with so little of ceremony, lord?”

“Oh, leave it, leave it,” Arthur said. “We are all kinsmen here, I ask not that he should treat me always as if I were on the throne! He knows well that he is my son, and so does every man in this room! Would you have him always the courtier?”

But Gareth was frowning after him. He said softly, “I wish with all my heart that Galahad would return to court. God grant him some such vision as mine, for you need him more here than you need me, Arthur, and if he comes not soon, I shall go forth myself to seek him.”

         

         

It was only a few days before Pentecost when Lancelet finally came home.

They had seen the approaching procession—men, ladies, horses and pack animals—and Gareth, at the gates, had summoned all men to welcome them, but Gwenhwyfar, standing at Arthur’s side, paid little heed to Queen Morgause, except to wonder why the Queen of Lothian had come. Lancelet knelt before Arthur with his sorrowful news, and Gwenhwyfar too felt the pain in his eyes . . . always, always it had been like this, that what smote his heart was like a lash laid to her own. Arthur bent and raised Lancelet to his feet and embraced him, and his own eyes were wet.

“I have lost a son, no less than you, dear friend. He will be sorely missed.” And Gwenhwyfar could bear it no more, and stepped forward to give Lancelet her hand before them all and say, her voice trembling, “I had longed for you to return to us, Lancelet, but I am sorry that you must come with such sad news.”

Arthur said quietly to his men, “Let him be taken to the chapel where he was made knight. There let him lie, and tomorrow he shall be buried as befits my son and heir.” As he turned away, he staggered a little, and Gwydion was quick to put his hand beneath his arm and support him.

Gwenhwyfar did not often weep now, but she felt she must weep at Lancelet’s face, so marred and stricken. What had befallen him in this year when he followed the Grail? Long sickness, long fasting, weariness, wounds? Never had she seen him so sorrowful, even when he came to speak with her of his marriage to Elaine. Watching Arthur leaning heavily on Gwydion’s arm, she sighed, and Lancelet pressed her hand and said softly, “I can even be glad now that Arthur came to know his own son and to value him. It will soften his grief.”

Gwenhwyfar shook her head, not wanting to think of what this would mean for Gwydion and for Arthur. Morgaine’s son! Morgaine’s son, to follow after Arthur—no, there was no help for it now!

Gareth came and bowed before her and said, “Madam, my mother is here—” and Gwenhwyfar recalled that she was not free to stay among the men, that her place was with the ladies, that she could not speak a word of comfort to Arthur or even to Lancelet. She said coldly, “I am happy to welcome you, Queen Morgause,” and it came to her mind, Must I confess this then as a sin, that I lie to the queen? Would it somehow be more virtuous if I said to her, I welcome you as duty demands, Queen Morgause, but I am not glad to see you and I wish you had stayed in Lothian, or in hell for all I care! She saw that Niniane was at Arthur’s side, that Arthur was between her and Gwydion, and she frowned.

“Lady Niniane,” she said coolly, “I think that the women will withdraw now. Find a guest room for the Queen of Lothian, and see that everything is made ready for her.”

Gwydion looked angry, but there was nothing to be said, and Gwenhwyfar reflected, as she and her ladies left the courtyard, that there were advantages to being a queen.

         

         

All that day, the Companions and knights of the Round Table were riding back toward Arthur’s court, and Gwenhwyfar was busy with the preparations for the feast on the morrow, which would be the funeral. On the day of Pentecost, such of Arthur’s men as had returned from this quest would be reunited. She recognized many faces, but some, she knew, would never return: Perceval, and Bors, and Lamorak—she turned a gentler face on Morgause, who, she knew, sincerely mourned for Lamorak. She had felt that the older woman had made a fool of herself with her young lover, but grief was grief, and when at the funeral mass for Galahad the priest spoke of all those others who had fallen on this quest, she saw Morgause hiding tears behind her veil, and her face was red and blotched after the mass.

The night before, Lancelet had watched by his son’s body in the chapel, and she had had no chance for private words with him. Now, after the funeral mass, she bade him sit beside her and Arthur at dinner, and when she filled his cup, she hoped that he would drink himself drunk and be past mourning. She grieved over his lined face, so drawn with pain and privation, and over the curls around his face, so white now. And she who loved him best, she could not even embrace him and weep with him in public. For many years she had felt it like a deep pain that she would never have any right to turn to him before other men, but must sit at his side and be only a kinswoman and his queen. And now it seemed to her more dreadful than ever, but he did not turn to her, he did not even meet her eyes.

Standing, Arthur drank to the knights who would never return from the quest. “Here before you all, I swear that none of their wives or children shall ever know want while I live and Camelot stands with one stone upon another,” he said. “I share your sorrow. The heir to my throne died in the quest of the Grail.” He turned, and held out his hand to Gwydion, who came slowly to his side. He looked younger than he was, in a plain white tunic, his dark hair caught in a golden band.

Arthur said, “A king cannot, like other men, indulge in long mourning, my Companions. Here I ask you to mourn with me for my lost nephew and adopted son, who now will never reign at my side. But even though our mourning is still green, I ask you to accept Gwydion—sir Mordred—the son of my only sister, Morgaine of Avalon, as my heir. Gwydion is young, but he has become one of my wise councillors.” He raised his cup and drank. “I drink to you, my son, and to your reign when mine is done.”

Gwydion came and knelt before Arthur. “May your reign be long, my father.” It seemed to Gwenhwyfar that he was blinking back tears, and she liked him better for it. The Companions drank, and then, led by Gareth, broke out in cheering.

But Gwenhwyfar sat silent. She had known this must come, but she had not expected it to happen at Galahad’s very funeral feast! Now she turned to Lancelet and whispered, “I wish he had waited! I wish he had consulted with his councillors!”

“Knew you not he intended this?” Lancelet asked. He reached out and took her hand, pressing it softly and holding on to it, stroking her fingers beneath the rings she wore. Her fingers seemed now so thin and bony, not young and soft as they had been; she felt abashed and would have drawn her hand away, but he would not let her. He said, still stroking her hand, “Arthur should not have done that to you without warning—”

“God knows, I have no right to complain, who could not give him a son, so he must make do with Morgaine’s—”

“Still, he should have warned you,” Lancelet said. It was the first time, Gwenhwyfar thought distantly, that he had ever, even for a moment, seemed to criticize Arthur. He raised her hand gently to his lips, then let it go as Arthur approached them with Gwydion. Stewards were bringing smoking platters of meat, trays of fresh fruits and hot breads, setting sweetmeats every few places along the table. Gwenhwyfar let her steward help her to some meat and fruits, but she barely touched her plate. She saw, with a smile, that it had been arranged that she shared her plate with Lancelet, as so often she had done at other Pentecost feasts; and that Niniane, on Arthur’s other side, was eating from his dish. Once he called her daughter, which relieved Gwenhwyfar’s mind somewhat—perhaps he accepted her already as his son’s potential wife. To her surprise Lancelet seemed to follow her thought.

“Will the next festival at court be a wedding? I would have thought the kinship too close—”

“Would that matter in Avalon?” Gwenhwyfar asked, her voice harsher than she intended; the old pain was still there.

Lancelet shrugged. “I know not—in Avalon as a boy I heard of a country far to the south of here, where the royal house married always their own sister and brother that the royal blood might not be diluted by that of the common people, and that dynasty lasted for a thousand years.”

“Heathen men,” said Gwenhwyfar. “They knew nothing of God, and knew not that they sinned. . . .”

Yet Gwydion seemed not to have suffered from the sin of his mother and his father; why should he, Taliesin’s grandson—no, his great-grandson—hesitate to wed with Taliesin’s daughter?

God will punish Camelot for that sin, she thought suddenly. For Arthur’s sin and for mine . . . and Lancelet’s . . .

Beyond her she heard Arthur say to Gwydion, “You said once in my hearing that Galahad looked not like one who would live to his crowning.”

“And you remember too, my father and my lord,” said Gwydion quietly, “that I swore to you I would have no part in his death, but that he would die honorably for the cross he worshipped, and it was so.”

“What more do you foresee, my son?”

“Ask me not, lord Arthur. The Gods are kind when they say that no man may know his own end. Even if I knew—and I say not that I know—I would tell you nothing.”

Perhaps, thought Gwenhwyfar, with a sudden shiver, God has punished us enough for our sin when he sent us this Mordred . . . and then, looking at the young man, she was dismayed. How can I think so of the one who has been to Arthur as a son indeed? He is not to blame for his fathering!

She said to Lancelet, “Arthur should not have done this before Galahad was cold in his grave!”

“Not so, my lady. Arthur knows well the duties of a king. Do you think it would matter to Galahad, where he has gone, who sits on the throne he never wished for? I would have done better to make my son a priest, Gwenhwyfar.”

She looked at Lancelet, brooding, a thousand leagues away from her, gone into himself where she could never follow, and she said, awkwardly, reaching for him in the best way she could, “And did you, then, fail to find the Grail?”

She saw him come slowly back through the long distance. “I came—nearer than any sinful man can come and live. But I was spared, to tell the men at Arthur’s court that the Grail has gone forever beyond this world.” Again he fell silent, then said across that vast distance, “I would have followed it beyond the world, but I was given no choice.”

She wondered, Did you not, then, wish to return to court for my sake? And it seemed clear to her that Lancelet was more like Arthur than she had ever known, and that she had never been anything more, to either of them, than a diversion between war and quest; that the real life of a man was lived in a world where love meant nothing. All his life he had devoted to wars at Arthur’s side, and now when there was no war he had given himself over to a great Mystery. The Grail had come between them, as Arthur had come between them, and Lancelet’s own honor.

Now even Lancelet had turned to God, and thought, no doubt, only that she had led him into grave sin. The pain was unendurable. In all of life, she had had nothing more than this, and she could not keep herself from reaching out to him, clasping his hand. “I have longed for you,” she whispered, and was shocked at the longing in her voice; he will think me no better than Morgause, flinging myself at his head. . . . He held her hand and said softly, “And I have missed you, Gwen.” And then, as if he could read her whole hungry heart, he said in a low voice, “Grail or no Grail, beloved, nothing could have brought me back to this court but the thought of you. I would have remained there, spending the rest of my life in prayers that I might see again that Mystery that was hidden from my eyes. But I am no more than a man, my beloved. . . .”

And she knew what it was that he was saying, and pressed his hand. “Shall I send away my women, then?”

He hesitated a moment, and Gwenhwyfar felt the old dread . . . how dared she be so forward, so lacking in a woman’s modesty? . . . Always, this moment was like death. Then he tightened his grip on her fingers and said, “Yes, my love.”

         

         

But as she awaited him, alone in the darkness, she wondered in bitterness if his “Yes” had been like Arthur’s, an offer made from time to time out of pity, or a wish to save her pride. Now that there was no longer the slightest hope that she would bear to Arthur a belated child, he could have stopped coming to her, but he was too kind to give her women cause to smile behind her back. Still, it was like a knife in her heart that Arthur always seemed relieved when she sent him away; there were even times when she invited him in and they talked together or she lay for a time in his arms, content to be held and comforted, but demanding no more of him. Now she wondered if Arthur felt that his embraces would be unwelcome to her, so that he seldom offered them, or whether he truly did not desire her. She wondered if he ever had desired her, or had always come to her because she was the wife he had taken and it was his duty to give her children.

All men praised my beauty and desired me, save for the husband I was given. And now, she thought, perhaps even Lancelet comes to me because he is too kind to abandon me or turn me away. She grew feverish, and it seemed that even in her light bed gown she was overheated, her whole body breaking out in drops of sweat. She rose and sponged herself with the cold water in a jar on her dressing table, touching her sagging breasts with distaste. Ah, I am old, surely it will disgust him, that this ugly old flesh is still as eager for him as if I were young and beautiful. . . .

And then she heard his step behind her; and he caught her into his arms, and she forgot her fears. But after he had gone she lay wakeful.

I should not risk this. It was different, in the old days; now we are a Christian court and the eyes of the bishop are always on me.

But I have nothing else . . . and it occurred to her suddenly, nor has Lancelet. . . . His son was dead, and his wife, and the old closeness with Arthur was gone beyond recall.

Would that I were like Morgaine, who does not need a man’s love to feel herself alive and real. . . . And yet Gwenhwyfar knew that even if she did not need this from Lancelet, it was he who needed her; and without her, he would be utterly alone. He had come to court because he needed her no less than she needed him.

And so, even if it was sin, it seemed the greater sin to leave Lancelet comfortless.

Even if we are both damned for it, she thought, never shall I turn aside from him. God is a God of love, she thought; how then could he condemn the one thing in her life that was born of love? And if he did, she thought, terrified at her blasphemy, he was not the God she had always worshipped, and she did not care what he thought!

<< < 67 68 69 70 71 72 73 > >>

Comments

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

Share your Thoughts for The Mists of Avalon: Avalon Book 7

500+ SHARES Facebook Twitter Reddit Google LinkedIn Email
Share Button
Share Button