The Mists of Avalon: Avalon Book 7 | Chapter 73 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

17

Clinging to Lancelet’s back, her gown pulled up above her knees and her bare legs hanging down, Gwenhwyfar closed her eyes as they rode hard through the night. She had no idea where they were going. Lancelet was a stranger, a hard-faced warrior, a man she had never known. There was a time, she thought, when I would have been terrified, out like this under the open sky, at night . . . but she felt excited, exhilarated. At the back of her mind was pain too, mourning for the gentle Gareth who had been like a son to Arthur and deserved better of life than to be struck down so—she wondered if Lancelet even knew whom he had killed! And there was grief for the end of her years with Arthur, and all they had shared for so long. But from what had happened this night there could be no going back. She had to lean forward to hear Lancelet over the rushing of wind. “We must stop somewhere soon, the horse must rest—and if we ride in daylight, my face and yours are known all through this countryside.”

She nodded; she had not breath enough to speak. After a time they came within a little wood, and there he pulled to a stop and lifted her gently from the horse’s back. He led the horse to water, then spread his cloak on the ground for her to sit. He stared at the sword by his side. “I still have Gawaine’s sword. When I was a boy—I heard tales of the fighting madness, but I knew not that it was within our blood—” and sighed heavily. “There is blood on the sword. Whom did I kill, Gwen?”

She could not bear to see his sorrow and guilt. “There was more than one—”

“I know I struck Gwydion—Mordred, damn him. I know I wounded him, I could still act with my own will then. I don’t suppose"—his voice hardened—"that I had the luck to kill him?”

Silently she shook her head.

“Then who?” She did not speak; he leaned over and took her shoulders so roughly that for a moment she was afraid of the warrior as she had never been of the lover. “Gwen, tell me! In God’s name—did I kill my cousin Gawaine?”

This she could answer without hesitation, glad it was Gawaine he had named. “No. I swear it, not Gawaine.”

“It could have been anyone,” he said, staring at the sword and suddenly shuddering. “I swear it to you, Gwen, I knew not even that I had a sword in my hand. I struck Gwydion as if he had been a dog, and then I remember no more until we were riding—” and he knelt before her, trembling. He whispered, “I am mad again, I think, as once I was mad—”

She reached out, caught him against her in a passion of wild tenderness. “No, no,” she whispered, “ah, no, my love—I have brought all this on you, disgrace and exile—”

“You say that,” he whispered, “when I have brought them on you, taken you away from everything that meant anything to you—”

Reckless, she pressed herself to him and said, “Would to God that you had done it before!”

“Ah, it is not too late—I am young again, with you beside me, and you—you have never been more beautiful, my own dear love—” He pushed her back on the cloak, suddenly laughing in abandon. “Ah, now there’s none to come between us, none to interrupt us, my own—ah, Gwen, Gwen—”

As she came into his arms, she remembered the rising sun and a room in Meleagrant’s castle. It was like that now; and she clung to him, as if there were nothing else in the world, nothing more for either of them, not ever.

They slept a little, curled together in the cloak, and wakened still in each other’s arms, the sun searching for them through the green branches overhead. He smiled, touching her face.

“Do you know—never before have I wakened in your arms without fear. Yet now I am happy, in spite of all . . .” and he laughed at her, a note of wildness coming into the laughter. There were leaves in his white hair, and leaves caught in his beard, and his tunic was rumpled; she put up her hands and felt grass and leaves in her own hair, which was coming down. She had no way to comb it, but she caught it in handfuls and parted it to braid, then bound the end of the single braid with a scrap ripped from the edge of her torn skirt. She said, her voice catching with laughter, “What a pair of wild ragamuffins we are! Who would know the High Queen and the brave Lancelet?”

“Does it matter to you?”

“No, my love. Not in the least.”

He brushed leaves and grass out of his hair and beard. “I must get up and catch the horse,” he said, “and perhaps there will be a farm nearby where we can find you some bread or a drink of ale—I have not a single coin with me, nor anything worth money, save my sword, and this—” He touched a little gold pin on his tunic. “For the moment, at least, we are beggars, though if we could reach Pellinore’s castle, I still have a house there, where I lived with Elaine, and servants—and gold, too, to pay our passage overseas. Will you come with me to Less Britain, Gwenhwyfar?”

“Anywhere,” she whispered, her voice breaking, and at that moment she meant it absolutely—to Less Britain, or to Rome, or to the country beyond the world’s end, only that she might be with him forever. She pulled him down to her again and forgot everything in his arms.

But when, hours later, he lifted her on the horse and they went on at a soberer pace, she fell silent, troubled. Yes, no doubt they could make their way overseas. Yet when this night’s work was talked from one end of the world to the other, shame and scorn would come down on Arthur, so that for his own honor he must seek them out wherever they fled. And soon or late, Lancelet must know that he had slain the friend who was dearest to him in all the world save only Arthur’s self. He had done it in madness, but she knew how grief and guilt would consume him and in time he would remember, when he looked on her, not that she was his love, but that he had killed his friend, unknowing, for her sake; and that he had betrayed Arthur for her sake. If he must make war on Arthur for her sake, he would hate her. . . .

No. He would love her still, but he would never forget by whose blood he had come to possess her. Never would one or the other—love or hate—take power over him, but he would live with them both, tearing doubly at his heart, and one day they would tear his mind to bits and he would go mad again. She clung close to the warmth of his body, leaning her head against his back, and wept. She knew, for the first time, that she was stronger than he, and it cut at her heart with a deathly sword.

And so when they paused again, she was dry-eyed, though she knew that the weeping had moved inward to her heart and never would she cease to mourn. “I will not go overseas with you, Lancelet, nor will I bring strife among all the old Companions of the Round Table. When—when Mordred has his way, they will all be at odds,” she said, “and a day will come when Arthur will need all his friends. I will not be like that lady of old time—was her name Helen, that fair one in the saga you used to tell to me?—who had all the kings and knights of her day at strife over her in Troy.”

“But what will you do?” She tried not to hear that even through the bewilderment and grief in his voice, there was a thread of relief.

“You will take me to the Isle of Glastonbury,” she said. “There is a nunnery there where I was schooled. There I will go, and I will tell them only that evil tongues made a quarrel between you and Arthur for my sake. When some time has passed, I will send word to Arthur so that he knows where I am, and knows that I am not with you. And then he can with honor make his peace with you.”

He protested, “No! No, I cannot let you go—” but she knew, with a sinking at her heart, that she would have no difficulty persuading him. Perhaps, against all odds, she had hoped that he would fight for her, that he would carry her off to Less Britain with the sheer force of his will and passion. But that was not Lancelet’s way. He was as he was, and whatever he was, so and no other way he had been when first she loved him, and so he was now, and so she would love him for the rest of her life. And at last he strove no more with her, but set the horse’s head on the road toward Glastonbury.

         

         

The long shadow of the church lay across the waters when they set foot at last on the boat that would bring them to the island, and the church bells were ringing out the Angelus. Gwenhwyfar bent her head and whispered a word of prayer.

Mary, God’s Holy Mother, have pity on me, a sinful woman . . . and then for a moment it seemed to her that she stood beneath a great light, as she had stood on that day when the Grail passed through the hall. Lancelet sat in the prow of the ferry, his head lowered. He had not touched her from the moment she had told him what she had decided, and she was glad; a single touch of his hand would have worn away her resolve. Mist lay on the Lake, and for an instant it seemed to her that she saw a shadow, like the shadow of their own boat, a barge draped in black, with a dark figure at the prow—but no. It was only a shadow, a shadow. . . .

The boat scraped on the shore. He helped her from it. “Gwenhwyfar—are you certain?”

“I am certain,” she said, trying to sound surer than she felt.

“Then I will escort you to the doors of the convent,” he said, and it suddenly struck her that this took, for him, more courage than all the killing he had done for her sake.

The old abbess recognized the High Queen, and was awed and amazed that she should return, but Gwenhwyfar told the tale she had decided on—that evil tongues had wrought a quarrel between Arthur and Lancelet for her sake, and she had chosen to take refuge here so they might amend their quarrel.

The old woman patted her cheek as if she were the little Gwenhwyfar who had been lessoned here when she was a child. “You are welcome to stay as long as you wish it, my daughter. Forever, if that is your will. In God’s house we turn no one away. But here you will not be a queen,” she warned, “only one of our sisters.”

Gwenhwyfar sighed with utter relief. She had not known till this moment how heavy it was, the weight of being a queen. “I must say farewell to my knight, and wish him well, and bid him amend the quarrel with my husband.”

The abbess nodded gravely. “In these days, our good King Arthur cannot spare a single one of his knights, and surely not the good sir Lancelet.”

Gwenhwyfar went out into the anteroom of the convent. Lancelet was there, wandering restlessly. He took her hands. “I cannot bear to say farewell to you here, Gwenhwyfar—ah, my lady, my love, must it be this way?”

“It must be so,” she said pitilessly, but knowing that for the first time she acted without thought of herself. “Your heart was always with Arthur, my dearest. I often think the only sin we did was not that we loved, but that I came between the love you had for each other.” If it could always have been among us three as it was on that Beltane night with Morgaine’s love charm, she thought, there would have been less of sin. The sin was not that we lay together, but that there was strife, and less of love therefore. “I send you back to Arthur with all my heart, dearest. Tell him for me that I loved him never the less.”

His face was almost transfigured. “I know that now,” he said. “And I know, too, that I loved him never the less, and I felt always that I wronged you by loving him. . . .” He would have kissed her, but it was not suitable here. Instead he bent over her hand. “While you are in God’s house, pray for me, lady.”

My love for you is a prayer, she thought. Love is the only prayer I know. She thought she had never loved him so much as at this moment, when she heard the convent door close, hard and final, and felt the walls shutting her in.

So safe, so protected, those walls had made her feel, in that day long past. Now she knew that she would walk between them all the rest of her life. When I had freedom, she thought, I desired it not, and feared it. And now, when I have learned to love it and long for it, I am renouncing it in the name of my love. Dimly she felt that this was right—the acceptable gift and sacrifice to bring before God. But as she walked through the nuns’ cloister, she looked at the walls closing her in, trapping her.

For my love. And for the love of God, she thought, and felt a small seed of comfort stealing through her. Lancelet would go to the church where Galahad had died, and there he would pray. Perhaps he would remember a day when the mists of Avalon had opened, and she and he and Morgaine had stood together, lost, knee-deep in the waters of the Lake. She thought of Morgaine too, with a sudden passion of love and tenderness. Mary, Holy Mother of God, be with her too, and bring her to you one day. . . .

The walls, the walls, they would drive her mad, closing her in, she would never be free again. . . . No. For her love, and for the love of God, she would even learn to love them again one day. Folding her hands in prayer, Gwenhwyfar walked down the cloister to the sisters’ enclosure, and went inside forever.

         

Morgaine speaks . . .

         

I thought I was beyond the Sight; Viviane, still younger than I, had renounced it, chosen another to be Lady in her place. But there was none to sit in the shrine of the Lady after me, and none to approach the Goddess. I saw it, helpless, when Niniane died, and I could not stretch forth my hand.

I had loosed this monster upon the world, and I had acquiesced in that move which should send him to throw down the King Stag. And I saw it from afar when, on Dragon Island, the shrine was thrown down and the deer hunted in the forest, without love, without challenge, without appeal to her who was giver of the deer; only arrows from afar and the edge of the spear, and her people hunted down like her deer. The tides of the world were changing. There were times when I saw Camelot too, drifting in the mist, and the wars raging up and down the land again, the Northmen who were the new foe plundering and burning . . . a new world, and new Gods.

Truly the Goddess had departed, even from Avalon, and I, mortal as I was, remained there alone. . . .

And yet, one night, some dream, some vision, some fragment of the Sight, drove me, at the hour of the dark moon, to the mirror.

At first I saw only the wars raging up and down the land. I never knew what came between Arthur and Gwydion, although, after Lancelet fled with Gwenhwyfar, there was enmity among the old Companions, blood feud declared between Lancelet and Gawaine. Later, when Gawaine lay dying, that great-hearted man begged Arthur, with his last breath, to make his peace with Lancelet and summon him to Camelot once more. But it was too late; not even Lancelet could rally Arthur’s legion again, not when so many followed Gwydion, who now led half of Arthur’s own men and most of the Saxons and even a few of the renegade Northmen against him. And in that hour before dawn, the mirror cleared, and in the unearthly light I saw the face of my son at last with a sword in his hand, circling slowly, in the darkness, seeking . . .

Seeking, as Arthur in his day had sought, to challenge the King Stag. I had forgotten what a small man Gwydion was, like Lancelet. Elf-arrow, the Saxons had called Lancelet; small, dark, and deadly. Arthur would have towered more than a head above him.

Ah, in the days of the Goddess, man went against King Stag to seek his kingship! Arthur had been content to await his father’s death, but now a new thing was coming upon this land—father and son enemies, and sons to challenge fathers for a crown . . . it seemed to me that I could see a land that ran red with blood, where sons were not content to await their crowning day. And now, in the circling dark, it seemed that I could see Arthur too, tall and fair and alone, cut off from his men . . . and Excalibur naked in his hand.

But through and around the prowling figures I could see Arthur in his tent, restlessly asleep, Lancelet guarding him as he slept; and somewhere, too, I knew Gwydion slept among his own armies. Yet some part of them prowled restless on the shores of the Lake, seeking in the darkness, swords naked, against one another.

“Arthur! Arthur, stand to the challenge, or do you fear me too much?”

“No man can say that I ever ran from a challenge.” Arthur turned as Gwydion came from the wood. “So,” he said, “it is you, Mordred. I never more than half believed that you had turned against me till now when I see it with my own eyes. I thought those who told me so sought to undermine my courage by telling me the worst that could befall. What have I done? Why have you become my enemy? Why, my son?”

“Do you truly believe that I was ever anything else, my father?” He spoke the word with the greatest bitterness. “For what else was I begotten and born, but for this moment when I challenge you for a cause that is no longer within the borders of this world? I no longer even know why I am to challenge you—only that there is nothing else left in my life but for this hatred.”

Arthur said quietly, “I knew Morgaine hated me, but I did not know she hated me as much as this. Must you do her will even in this, Gwydion?”

“Do you think I do her will, you fool?” Gwydion snarled. “If anything could bid me spare you, it is that—that I do Morgaine’s will, that she wishes you overthrown, and I know not whether I hate more her or you . . .”

And then, stepping forth into their dream or vision or whatever it might be, I knew that I stood on the shores of the Lake where they challenged each other, stood between them clad in the robes of a priestess.

“Must this be? I call upon you both, in the name of the Goddess, to amend your quarrel. I sinned against you, Arthur, and against you, Gwydion, but your hate is for me, not for each other, and in the name of the Goddess I beg of you—”

“What is the Goddess to me?” Arthur tightened his fist on the hilt of Excalibur. “I saw her always in your face, but you turned away from me, and when the Goddess rejected me, I sought another God. . . .”

And Gwydion said, looking on me with contempt, “I needed not the Goddess, but the woman who mothered me, and you put me into the hands of one who had no fear of any Goddess or any God.”

I tried to cry out, “I had no choice! I did not choose—” but they came at each other with their swords, rushing through me as if I were made of air, and it seemed that their swords met in my body . . . and then I was in Avalon again, staring in horror at the mirror where I could see nothing, nothing but the widening stain of blood in the sacred waters of the Well. My mouth was dry and my heart pounding as if it would beat a hole in the walls of my chest, and the taste of ruin and death was bitter on my lips.

I had failed, failed, failed! I was false to the Goddess, if indeed there was any Goddess except for myself; false to Avalon, false to Arthur, false to brother and son and lover . . . and all I had sought was in ruin. In the sky was a pale and reddening flush where, sometime soon, the sun would rise; and beyond the mists of Avalon, cold in the sky, I knew that somewhere Arthur and Gwydion would meet, this day, for the last time.

As I went to the shore to summon the barge, it seemed to me that the little dark people were all around me and that I walked among them as the priestess I had been. I stood in the barge alone, and yet I knew there were others standing there with me, robed and crowned, Morgaine the Maiden, who had summoned Arthur to the running of the deer and the challenge of the King Stag, and Morgaine the Mother who had been torn asunder when Gwydion was born, and the Queen of North Wales, summoning the eclipse to send Accolon raging against Arthur, and the Dark Queen of Fairy . . . or was it the Death-crone who stood at my side? And as the barge neared the shore, I heard the last of his followers cry, “Look—look, there, the barge with the four fair queens in the sunrise, the fairy barge of Avalon. . . .”

He lay there, his hair matted with blood, my Gwydion, my lover, my son . . . and at his feet Gwydion lay dead, my son, the child I had never known. I bent and covered his face with my own veil. And I knew that it was the end of an age. In the days past, the young stag had thrown down the King Stag, and become King Stag in his turn; but the deer had been slaughtered, and the King Stag had killed the young stag and there would be none after him . . .

And the King Stag must die in his turn.

I knelt at his side. “The sword, Arthur. Excalibur. Take it in your hand. Take it, and fling it from you, into the waters of the Lake.”

The Sacred Regalia were gone out of this world forever, and the last of them, the sword Excalibur, must go with them. But he whispered, protesting, holding it tight, “No—it must be kept for those who come after—to rally their cause, the sword of Arthur—” and looked up into the eyes of Lancelet. “Take it, Galahad—hear you not the trumpets from Camelot, calling to Arthur’s legion? Take it—for the Companions—”

“No,” I told him quietly. “That day is past. None after you must pretend or claim to bear the sword of Arthur.” I loosed his fingers gently from the hilt. “Take it, Lancelet,” I said softly, “but fling it from you far into the waters of the Lake. Let the mists of Avalon swallow it forever.”

Lancelet went quietly to do my bidding. I know not if he saw me, or who he thought I was. And I cradled Arthur against my breast. His life was fading fast; I knew it, but I was beyond tears.

“Morgaine,” he whispered. His eyes were bewildered and full of pain. “Morgaine, was it all for nothing then, what we did, and all that we tried to do? Why did we fail?”

It was my own question, and I had no answer; but from somewhere, the answer came. “You did not fail, my brother, my love, my child. You held this land in peace for many years, so that the Saxons did not destroy it. You held back the darkness for a whole generation, until they were civilized men, with learning and music and faith in God, who will fight to save something of the beauty of the times that are past. If this land had fallen to the Saxons when Uther died, then would all that was beautiful or good have perished forever from Britain. And so you did not fail, my love. None of us knows how she will do her will—only that it will be done.”

And I knew not, even then, whether what I spoke was truth, or whether I spoke to comfort him, in love, as with the little child Igraine had put into my arms when I was but a child myself; Morgaine, she had told me, take care of your little brother, and so I had always done, so I would always do, now and beyond life . . . or was it the Goddess herself who had put Arthur into my arms?

He pressed his failing fingers over the great cut at his breast. “If I had but—the scabbard you fashioned for me, Morgaine—I should not lie here now with my life slowly bleeding forth from me. . . . Morgaine, I dreamed—and in my dream I cried out for you, but I could not hold you—”

I held him close. In the first light of the rising sun I saw Lancelet raise Excalibur in his hand, then fling it as hard as he could. It flew through the air end over end, the sun glinting as if on the wing of a white bird; then it fell, twisting, and I saw no more; my eyes were misted with tears and the growing light.

Then I heard Lancelet: “I saw a hand rising from the Lake—a hand that took the sword, and brandished it three times in the air, and then drew it beneath the water . . .”

I had seen nothing, only the glimmer of light on a fish that broke the surface of the Lake; but I doubt not that he saw what he said he saw.

“Morgaine,” Arthur whispered, “is it really you? I cannot see you, Morgaine, it is so dark here—is the sun setting? Morgaine, take me to Avalon, where you can heal me of this wound—take me home, Morgaine—”

His head was heavy on my breast, heavy as the child in my own childish arms, heavy as the King Stag who had come to me in triumph. Morgaine, my mother had called impatiently, take care of the baby . . . and all my life I had borne him with me. I held him close and wiped away his tears with my veil, and he reached up and caught at my hand with his own.

“But it is really you,” he murmured, “it is you, Morgaine . . . you have come back to me . . . and you are so young and fair . . . I will always see the Goddess with your face . . . Morgaine, you will not leave me again, will you?”

“I will never leave you again, my brother, my baby, my love,” I whispered to him, and I kissed his eyes. And he died, just as the mists rose and the sun shone full over the shores of Avalon.

<< < 70 71 72 73 74 75 76 > >>

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