Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Voices Beneath: Chapter Three--Gawain

A little late this time, but here is chapter three! In this one Mordred starts his squirely duties and we are also introduced to my version of Lancelot. Hope you like him, and as a warning, he is not traditional at all ;)

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chapter three

I was woken before the sun came up the next morning by a servant who brought me water to wash and a clean change of clothing that was not dirty from my travels. I had slept better than I expected to, most likely from mental exhaustion more than anything else, but I had slept the entire time in my dusty traveling clothes and I was glad of the chance to wash and change.
            I had been given instructions the night before to report to the barracks where I would be staying from then on, to help Sir Gawain ready himself for the morning. I was unsure of whether I should bring him breakfast, but decided it best to ask him when I got there as I knew nothing of his habits or what he liked to eat.
            I found his room and came upon him while he was sitting on the side of his bed, yawning and stretching, but he still spared me a grin as I came in. “Ah, young Mordred. I hope you are well rested after your travels. I am sorry that you are not yet a knight as you had hoped, but I will be glad to have you as my squire.”
            “It is all right,” I told him, trying a smile back, rather unable to help myself in the presence of his contagious grin, but I was so out of practice. I had not smiled in years. “What shall I do for you first, sir?”
            “First, you can call me Gawain or Sir Gawain in polite company, but nothing else,” he said with a grimace and I blushed slightly. “Second, you can fetch me a bowl of water to wash and find me something for breakfast. After that it’s out to the lists.”
            I did as he asked and once he had eaten, insisting I eat with him, I helped him on with his armor and we headed out to the lists in a field outside the castle grounds where other knights could already be seen clanging away at each other with their swords, quarterstaffs, maces and flails, and all manor of weaponry. Some had their horses and were tilting against targets, while others were teaching their mounts maneuvers for battle.
            My task, I found, was very simple, I was to stay on the sidelines with Sir Gawain’s various weaponry and wait until he called for a specific type. I watched him fight with the other knights, all of them laughing and jesting amongst each other in a happy brotherhood that I envied deeply. Not only that, but they were excellent fighters, and I saw easily why Sir Gawain was one of Arthur’s closest and most trusted companions. He fought with a grace that belied his size and seemed adequate in all forms of fighting and weaponry. It was a joy to watch him and the others fight, for while I knew a little of swordplay, which Lady Morgan had taught me from her vast knowledge, I had never seen men fight who really knew what they were doing. I found myself hoping, rather childishly, that Gawain would consider teaching me some of his skills.
            At that moment he was fighting a man even bigger than himself, though younger, and I thought that it was possible he was even a student himself, though he could certainly fight me into the ground any day. Just watching the power behind the blows he and Gawain swung at each other—and this only practice—both frightened me and inspired awe.
            By midmorning, Sir Gawain and his fighting partner called a draw and walked off the field, hardly even breathing heavily, and came over to me where I stood on the sidelines with a bucket of water for them to refresh themselves.
            “This is my new squire Mordred,” Gawain presented me to his companion as he pulled the dipper out of the bucket and drank deeply. “Mordred, this is Sir Percival, another of Arthur’s circle.” I took that to mean they belonged to the rumored ‘Round Table’ which, according to what I had heard, was one of Arthur’s revolutionary ideas that he created to show that no one man was greater than another, for no one, not even the king, can sit at the head of a round table. I was curious to see this round table for myself.
            “He’s a bit thin,” Sir Percival said, sounded almost worried for my welfare, and I supposed he would think so as he was a bear of a man, though likely only six years my senior at the most.
            “We’ll build him up,” Gawain said, slapping my back so hard I was nearly thrown to my knees, though I tried hard to stay upright to prove Sir Percival wrong; that I was indeed strong despite my slender appearance. Gawain smiled a bit pityingly at me and patted my shoulder more gently as if to make up for his nearly sending me onto my face. “I shall begin your training this afternoon, Mordred. You shall learn swordplay and other knightly skills so that you will be ready when Arthur sees fit to knight you.”

            “I would be most honored,” I said sincerely, and I found I was rather excited to have the chance of real training from a skilled knight. I also thought Sir Gawain would prove a good instructor, for he seemed to have unending patience and I didn’t think I would feel bad showing off my poor skills to him.
            “We shall have a bit of lunch and then I want you to saddle my horse so I can practice for the upcoming tourney,” Gawain told me, handing back his shield and mace he had been using last. “Come then.”
            We went back to barracks and ate in the common room with all the other knights and their squires. When I had finished, I left Gawain to finish his own meal and went out to the stables to start saddling his horse.
            His mount was a lovely roan mare named Fenna and I couldn’t resist giving her the last bite of the apple I had brought with me from my midday meal. She seemed to take it as an offering of friendship, for she gave me no trouble when I pulled her out of the stall and saddled her up.
            I was just finishing checking the girth to make sure she had not blown herself up like my horse tended to do sometimes, when a shadow darkened the doorway, and I turned, expecting to see Gawain, but finding instead, that three other knights had come into the stables. I was about to go back to my work, but they were staring at me and one, seeming to be the leader of the trio, gave me a sniff and curled his lip.
            “Ah, what have we here? Sir Gawain’s new whelp? Surprised Arthur even let you in, boy, you’re so thin you look as if you could blow away.” He shoved me hard in the chest and I couldn’t stop myself from stumbling back a step, my back hitting a stall behind me.
            The man paced around in from of me, like a great lord, or at least an actor impersonating one. He practically exuded self-importance, and his well-dressed manor as well as his dark, well-groomed hair and beard made it quite clear he was some sort of noble. Not of character, but by birth.
            “He lets in strays and whelps who would become knights, but he casts away his best men under paltry accusations by foolish women who do not know any better, and couldn’t tell the truth if their lives depended upon it.” Had I know at that moment he had been referring to Queen Guinevere, I would have taken a shovel to him right then and there and been done with it, but I was not to learn the story of this man, who was to become my enemy, until later. However, I did not like to be pushed around, and I straightened my back and tugged my tunic down to unrumple it as I faced the strutting man.
            “If you are indeed a knight, perhaps it would more become you to fight men, and not stray whelps,” I informed him cuttingly.
            His companions glanced at each other as the man stopped his strutting and turned to face me, anger clouding his face and making him look even darker. “What did you say to me?” he asked quietly.
            I was not stupid enough to repeat my accusation but I allowed a small thin-lipped smile to appear on my face. “You heard me, sir.”
            “You would call me a coward?” the man said slowly, coming towards me in a threatening manor, his hand reaching out to grab a shovel that was leaning up against the wall. “I will teach you a lesson, boy, and I’ll use this to do it. No need to sully my sword on a yapping pup.”
            He kicked me down into the hay and kept his boot pressed into my chest none-too-gently as he raised the shovel to beat me. I grabbed a handful of hay. I had learned little bits of magic from Lady Morgan before she had turned on me, and one of those things was how to start a fire. I might be able to distract him if I could concentrate enough to light the handful of hay. However, before I could do anything or he could start my ‘lesson’, a hand shot out and grabbed the haft of the shovel to stop it from descending on my prone form. I looked up with relief and not a little boyish adoration to see Sir Gawain standing there.
            “That’s my squire, Lancelot, and if you hurt him, I swear I will ask Arthur to put you in the stocks naked for a day and see how your pride and misdirected dignity holds out then.”
            The man, Lancelot, sneered but lowered the shovel, though that might have been mostly Gawain forcing it down. He continued to glare at the dark man—It was not often Gawain got angry, but when it happened, I had to admit it was a frightening sight—and Lancelot grudgingly took his boot off my chest, though not before grinding it against my ribs painfully. As soon as he was off me, Gawain shoved him backwards and reached down a hand to help me up, dusting hay off my hair and back for me.
            “Are you all right, Mordred?” he asked.
            “Yes,” I replied. I was mostly embarrassed. I had not even been able to defend myself against a man with a shovel. I had endured Morgan la Fay’s torments for so many years in silence and resignation, it appalled me to think that I hardly knew what it was to fight back anymore. I would have to re-learn those instincts from Gawain.
            “You were lucky this time,” Gawain growled, turning back to Lancelot. “If there had been so much as one mark on the lad, I would have had to give you back as good and more. Now get out of here!” He instigated the final order with a kick to Lancelot’s backside that had him fuming but unable to refuse. His companions followed silently as always and Gawain turned back to me.
            “Well, now you’ve met Sir Lancelot. He’s a sore fellow if ever there was one. Granted, he wasn’t any better before Arthur banned him from his circle, but he’s even more insufferable now.”
            “What happened?” I asked. “Why was he banned?”
            “Lancelot isn’t exactly what you’d call ‘knightly material’ apart from the fact that he’s by blood a noble, therefore he can’t be called a knave. That doesn’t stop him from having knavish qualities, however. About a month ago or so, he starting showing interest in the Queen, unwanted attention, and when Guinevere finally told Arthur, fearing she wouldn’t be able to keep him away, Arthur was so angry—with good reason—that he took away Lancelot’s privilege of sitting at the round table. He had made it there in the first place because of his skill with a sword, but Arthur knows that is no useful quality without a heart to match. Lancelot doesn’t know how lucky he was. King Uther would have had him executed, but Arthur just shut the door on him. Now that he’s only a low ranking knight, he likes to make trouble. Be careful around him, Mordred, because he has skill with a blade, as well as with a crop, and he will be more than happy to beat you given half the chance. No one lower than him is safe; he likes to take his anger at Arthur out on them.”
            I nodded. “I will be.”
            He smiled. “Ah well, but enough of that. You’ll learn soon enough your way around and who to avoid. I will train at the tilt for a while and then we can start on your own training.”
            I followed him back out to the lists and watched him tilt on Fenna, hitting the target dead center every time and never getting knocked by the sandbags on their way round.
            I enjoyed my training with him that afternoon, learning much more than I ever knew there was to learn about swordplay, and after a hearty supper, I fell gladly into my cot in the small room off of Gawain’s, pleasantly sore from the workout and bruises I had sustained, but feeling good for my day’s work.
            However, I did not forget the darkness that hung over me, nor could I stop the ache that started in my heart as I was alone in the darkness, listening to Gawain’s soft snores from the next room. I felt the tears prick in my eyes again, knowing it was foolish of me to find any pleasure here, and to make friends, for I would only lose them all in the most cruel way in the end. But I again vowed to myself that I would fight Lady Morgan’s will, no matter what happened. But a tear escaped nonetheless and I squeezed my eyes tightly before I once again suffered the shame of crying myself to sleep.

©Copyright 2013 by Hazel B West

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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Voices Beneath: Chapter Two--Arthur

Here's chapter two, in which Mordred first gets to meet Arthur face to face. If you're just joining us, please read the Introduction and the previous chapter first!

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chapter two

To a boy who had grown up in a fishing village and later in a mountain cabin far from any civilization, Camelot was something unfathomable in its majesty and vastness and I found myself staring slack-jawed when I arrived at the gate, nearly forgetting my bloody mission with my awe. The town was sprawling and lively, with rich woman shopping for fabrics in so many bright colors they hurt my eyes, and men bartering with tradesmen for the best prices on goods and horses. The children I saw were happy, and even the beggars looked fat compared to the ones I had grown up with. It seemed that what everyone said was true; that this was indeed a golden age for the kingdom, and Camelot was flourishing under Arthur’s rule. A cold feeling entered my gut, and all awe and excitement washed out of me like a sigh as I was reminded of my mission. I knew in my heart that a king whose kingdom looked like this could not be an evil tyrant. I had hoped—a small part of me had hoped—that I would be able to hate Arthur Pendragon—anything to make this horrible charge easier, but I knew it was not to be. I knew then, and I would only be more convinced later when I had actually met Arthur himself.
            I did not go to the castle first off, for it was evening when I arrived, and I wanted to make a start of it in the morning. So I found an inn to stay at for the night and enquired about how best to approach the king as a knight.
            Most men looked at me skeptically, and I knew well I was no real knight, but they didn’t say me nay. Perhaps it was my dark desperate look, for I had become a bit of a hard looking young man for my suffering at Lady Morgan’s hands and perhaps, despite my young age and willowy figure, they were willing to give me the benefit of a doubt.
            One man, a trader, was very kind to me. “I am going to the castle myself tomorrow with a shipment of cloth for the Queen’s wardrobe. You may travel with me if you wish.”
            “I would be glad to,” I replied and also allowed him to buy me an ale that night.
            I slept poorly, my stomach churning, tossing mercilessly on the rough cot, with the thought of meeting Arthur the next day—if he were not too busy to see me. I wished, oh how I wished, I could have run with any hope that Lady Morgan would never find me, but I knew it was not to be. I feared her powers with magic, not knowing how much she really possessed and not wanting to take the chance. Perhaps I should have just let her kill me and be done with it, but I knew she would not have done that, ever. She needed me for some insane reason, and I knew she would make me do it all one way or another before she ever killed me. The only other option was to plunge a knife into my own breast, but I blanched at the thought. It was not that I was too much of a coward to do it; it was that I thought the action too cowardly in itself. If I killed myself, I would never be able to beat her, and thus she would have won, and that thought tormented me more than anything.
            So I went to the castle the next morning with the trader and left him in the courtyard to go and speak to a knight who was standing to one side, talking to a groom and stroking his horse fondly. He was a kind looking fellow, like one of those carefree men who was always ready to laugh and make for easy friends. He looked the least likely person to be cruel to a boy, so I chose to ask him.
            “Your Mercy,” I said respectably and he turned around, a big, broad man with wild blond hair, and I could not help but notice that he was the complete opposite of me: confident, sure, and visibly merry.
            “Can I help you, lad?” he asked, fondling his horse’s forelock as the beast whickered against his shoulder affectionately.
            “I came seeking service,” I told him. “I wish to serve as a knight for the king.”
            The man laughed but not unkindly. “Not to mean offense, lad, but you have neither device nor spurs on your boots; are you indeed a knight?”
            “I would like to be one,” I said, trying to sound hopeful, half torn between playing a charade, and hating the thought of lying to good, just men.
            He grinned again. “Well, then, I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to try your luck. The king is always looking for young gallants to build up his knightly circle when his current ones fall or become too old to wield a sword. I’m Gawain,” he added, reaching out a hand.
            “My name is Mordred,” I told him and clasped his forearm, feeling the iron muscles hidden under his tabard.
            “Well, then, Mordred, you had best come with me. Owen!” He called the groom over again and the man took care of his mount as Sir Gawain led me inside the castle. “I don’t think His Majesty is up to much right now—probably wants a break from signing useless documents, so he should be happy to see you right away.”
            I was half shocked at his easy, and nearly disrespectful speech toward the king and the kingdom’s affairs, as if he were speaking more of a brother. I figured he must be a very good comrade of Arthur’s to be able to speak so and loudly enough for all to hear, and that both heartened and saddened me.
            The palace was the most beautiful place I had ever seen. I would have thought it the halls of Faery if I didn’t know better. I truly felt the naive boy as I stepped through the stone halls, warmed by colorful tapestries and populated by servants bustling to and fro. Sir Gawain led me up a flight of stairs and down a hall to a room I would later learn was called a solar, where King Arthur was apparently seeing to his business.
            The knight did no more than knock on the door before opening it, poking his head in casually.
            “Arthur, there’s a lad here who wishes to speak with you about terms of service.”
            “Send him in, please, Gawain, I’m nearly done here.”
            Sir Gawain took my shoulder and pushed me through the door before closing it behind me. I glanced back, feeling a bit deserted, and uncomfortable to be left alone, but then remembered where I was and who I was in the company of, and I turned respectfully to the man sitting at the desk and fell to one knee, bowing my head before I had seen him properly.
            “No need for all the groveling, lad. Come, tell me your name and where you hail from.” I looked up finally to see the famed King Arthur and as his soft blue eyes met mine, I knew in my heart that I could never kill this man or be in any way responsible for his death.
            He just sat there at his desk, no crown, no royal robes, dressed simply in a loose shirt rolled up to his elbows and ink on his fingers. There was nothing in his overall appearance that looked kingly, but his face and bearing held a majesty that told of an instinctive dignity; one that came from character, and not status although he was one of the few men who blessed with both.
            “Speak up, boy,” another voice said, and made me realize with a guilty start that I was staring. My attention was instantly turned to a man lounging in a window seat behind the king with a small smile on his lips. He was tall and thin, with dark brown hair and odd eyes that somehow managed to look both sad, deep, and mischievous at the same time. He looked how I had always pictured elven princes, and I never did find out whether the great sorcerer Merlin shared Fae blood—no one ever knew for sure where he came from, and he would never tell—but I would come to know him to be both a good, loyal man, and one never to be crossed.

            “I-I’m sorry, my lord,” I stammered, and to my surprise, Arthur stood from his desk and came over to me, reaching down to grab my shoulders and pulling me upright.
            “Don’t be. But there is no need to be so in awe. I am only a man as other men are, but one who has the misfortune to be a king. And don’t you mind my companion; he is not as dodgy as he looks. Now, let me know your name, my young gallant.”
            “Mordred, my lord,” I told him.
            “Do you have a family?” Arthur asked. “What is your surname?”
            I drew in a breath, wary of the other man sitting in the room. Even though he seemed not to be paying any attention, I somehow knew he was listening to every word. I took a deep breath and met the king’s eyes. “My lord, the subject of my family is a delicate matter; I would speak to you privately.”
            Arthur seemed to find that amusing. “Ah, I see. I will assure you that Merlin is my most trusted advisor as well as my dearest friend, and anything you say here will not leave this room. But if you wish…”
            “I should leave anyway,” Merlin said, rising languidly from the seat and striding from the room. “Call out if he tries to murder you, dear friend.”
            My heart jolted at his words, but the man was smirking and Arthur shook his head with a longsuffering expression. The door closed behind the strange man, and I was left alone with the king. He motioned me to a chair.
            “Make yourself comfortable, Mordred. I wish to hear what you have to say.”
            “I’m your son,” I blurted, deciding it was better to get it out, and would have more conviction that way than if I gave him some long backstory first.
            That stopped him. The smile slid from his face as he froze, looking at me with wide eyes, scrutinizing, seeming to search for something, perhaps a likeness, maybe trying to see if I was lying. But I had had my feelings scrambled around so much by Lady Morgan with her torments that I felt little discomfort with lies and I knew it would not show on my face. However, there were a few moments of bated breath for me as Arthur looked me over, then he slumped, turning to sink into his chair as if all his energy had been spent. And it was then that I knew he had believed my lie by some miracle and I allowed myself to breathe again.
            “I never thought…” he began, then shook his head and tried again, “I regret that my youth was a bit cavalier, but…Oh, by the saints!” His face was buried in his hands. I stood by awkwardly, waiting for him to re-emerge from his tormented thoughts that weren’t even true. Finally he raised his head and faced me again.
            “What of your mother, Mordred, who was she?”
            “I never knew her name, for she died at my birth,” I told him, continuing the story Lady Morgan had created for me. “But I was left at an orphanage with a note telling the truth. I do not mean to grieve you over this revelation, my lord. Truly, you must believe that it is the last thing I would wish.”
            “There is no way for me to know whether this is actually the truth?” Arthur asked.
            I shook my head. “I am afraid not, my lord. You do not have to believe me, and I would understand if you did not want me here. Know that I did not come here to seek your charity; I want it not, for I have been poor all my life and would never know what to do with any wealth at all. I simply had nowhere else to go. I do not want special treatment, I want only to be a knight and serve you as a knight serves his king. You need never mention that I am your son again; I just thought it best you knew the truth.”
            He was silent again, running a hand through his blond hair. “I appreciate that, Mordred,” he said. “I do. Honesty is a noble thing in a man,” my heart lurched again; pained for the lies I had told him. “But you do understand that this can never be known by anyone but you or I. I cannot let this get out, not for worry of my own sake, mind, but for Queen Guinevere’s.  It would be shame and gossip upon her even though your conception was long before her marriage to me.” He smiled again, sadly. “Ah, I curse my youth, but, oh, Mordred, you must never think that I wish you had not been born.” He took me by the shoulders and smiled upon me as if he were a proud father indeed. “I like you very much already, and I will be happy to get to know you better.”
            “Thank you, my lord,” I replied quietly.
            “Come now!” he said, clapping my shoulders before he released me. “It is a great and exciting thing for me to have a long lost child of my blood pop up out of the blue. I would love to fulfill your desire to become a knight, but I cannot do it rightly without cause, you’ll understand. For I know nothing about you, nor your skills, and I cannot in good conscious elevate you to such a position right off. It would not go well for you with some of the other men. I will have to have you squire for another for at least a year, or until you have distinguished yourself in some way, and fear not, you shall have opportunity aplenty. Tell me, young Mordred, what thought you of Sir Gawain?”
            “I thought him a good and kind man, my lord,” I replied truthfully. “Though I only just met him.”
            “Good! You shall squire for him, then. He shall be glad of it, and he will be good to you. He’ll make you work hard, have no doubt, but he will not be a cruel master and will be a good instructor in all things knightly. You shall start with him first thing tomorrow. Now I really do regret it, but I must get back to my work. Why don’t you find your way down to the kitchen? If you have problems, just ask any of the servants. You can have something to eat there. I will have a room readied for you as well.”
            “Thank you, my lord,” I told him and bowed again before I left the room, so many mixed feelings rushing through me that I knew nothing of what I should think or feel at that moment. I was startled to hear a voice coming from the shadows of an alcove I had just passed on my way down the hall.
            “Allow me to help you wend your way through the castle, young Mordred.” I looked up and saw the strange man, Merlin, looking at me with his faery eyes and odd smile. I didn’t know what to reply, but he put a hand on my shoulder and pushed me forward so I walked with him, having little choice.
            “There’s something hanging over you,” he said musingly. “A sadness, a darkness. I don’t know if I like it or not.” I didn’t say anything. What could I reply to that? This man scared me.
            “But fate has many different paths, and I feel you have yet to choose your true one, young Mordred.” He smiled, a genuine one now and rested a hand more kindly on my shoulder. “In any case, I shall be keeping an eye on you. Both for your own safety and that of my friend the king.”
            “What do you do here?” I asked. I felt, even as I let the words leave my lips, that I was being somewhat rude, but I couldn’t help it. He had flustered me, and I thought it was only right to be able to pay that back a little.
            He grinned. “What do I not do? I advise for the king, I act as ambassador, among other things, and do most of everything of import around here.” He laughed at my shocked expression. “But no, Mordred. I know I must seem odd to you, but you will get to know, in time, my role here.” And with a smirk he snapped his fingers and a flame appeared in the palm of his hand. I jumped back slightly, but then finally realized who was standing next to me with no small amount of fear and awe.
            “You’re the great sorcerer Merlin,” I said, finally recalling the name for what it was, for everyone had heard tales of Merlin and indeed, he held a role in Camelot second only to the king. I was frightened that such a man was taking so much notice of me, and feared that he saw through my fa├žade. Knew it, almost, but for some reason I also trusted him not to tell anyone. Perhaps he understood my uncertainty; later, I would think his belief in me, however cynical it might have seemed at the time, helped my ultimate decision. He was always a strange man in my mind, but I also came to know him as a great one, and even as a friend, but that would not come until later.
            He seemed amused by the excitement my own revelation had caused me. “Yes, so it appears. Or so people like to think. You may think what you like, it makes no difference to me.” He pointed me down a hall. “The kitchen is that way, and I must be off on business. I do wish you good fortune, Mordred.” And then he was gone, slipping away so quickly that I half wondered whether he had magicked himself away. It was only then I realized that he had somehow known I was going to the kitchen, and the only way he could have known that was if he had heard my conversation with the king. And then I knew he had heard it all and I wondered what that could mean, if it meant anything at all.
            I ate a good meal in the kitchen, and spent the rest of the day looking around the castle with nothing better to do, feeling a bit lost and much out of place in this world that was so unlike any I had ever known. In the evening, I begged a bit of supper from the kitchen again and then was accosted by a maid who was instructed to show me to the room that had been made up for me for the night.
            I suspected I would be staying in the barracks once I had been fully established as Sir Gawain’s squire, but it seemed for that night I would be staying in the small cozy room with the warm fire and the soft bed. My few belongings were there and I only took my boots off before I curled up on top of the bed, still fully clothed. My mind was in turmoil, and I hated Lady Morgan even more at that moment, if it were possible. I cursed her viciously. I cursed and cursed, until I felt a slight pang in my chest as if she knew I did so and was threatening me with her tortures.
            But I had come to the conclusion I knew I would and I was half glad and half resigned. I would not kill Arthur Pendragon, and I would simply stay here and live the new life given to me until Lady Morgan la Fay came to find me herself, because she held no power over me that I cared to admit, and I would not be her puppet, for King Arthur’s eyes had been so kind when they had looked on me, even when thinking I was his illegitimate son, and how could anyone kill a man like that?
            I curled up tight, feeling very alone, and to my shame, fell asleep weeping.

©Copyright 2013 by Hazel B West

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Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Voices Beneath: Chapter One--Mordred

Author's Note: And here is the first chapter! Please read the Introduction before starting to find out more about the story. From now on, each new chapter will be easily accessable by clicking on the poster for the story to the right --> And you can also access the entire table of contents under the "Stories" tab above. Let me know what you think!

Story Info:
Genre: Retelling, fantasy, historical
Rating: PG-13 (violence, angst)

chapter one

I had no recollection where I had come from, except that my name was Mordred, and that my parents had died in a fire when I was only a babe. No one knew
their names, and I suspect that the one I carry was not the name given to me at birth. But it mattered little, when all was said and done, for it would be the name of Mordred that would be remembered. But it would be a long time before that would happen, and many things must be explained before the telling of those events.
            I had lived on the streets for as long as I could remember. I don’t recall who had cared for me as a babe and small child after the death of my parents, but they obviously cared little, for even my earliest recollections held no kindly adults looking after me, but only squalor of streets, other filthy children I was grouped with begging there, mostly invisible to the passers by, and starving for want of nothing more in life than a simple crust of bread.
            Until she came.
            I still remember that day with the utmost vividness and will until I am on my deathbed, partly with the awe I felt on that day, but mostly with a shudder that I knew to adopt later once I had discovered the full meaning of our fated meeting.
            She was always the kind of person who can take charge of a room, or any place she decides to go—I will have to always admit that to her favor. Her presence was mesmerizing, and her smile was the same, but could so easily turn chilling when she chose. Or when you knew what lay behind it. But her presence was why she caught my attention that day when I was begging in the market. She carried herself like a lady as I suppose in her own right, she was, and there were few ladies who came to the small fishing village I lived in. I was about five or six at the time, though my real age was never truly determined, and I remember wondering what had brought her there. How strange and horrifying it would have been to the filthy child I was to know then that it had been me who brought her there.

            She did not seek me out straight away, though her eyes did meet mine as she passed and she offered a smile to the poor orphan who stood, filthy and half frozen on the street. It was not until the next day that she came back to speak to me. I was startled, for no one, especially ladies, ever spoke to the street rabble. If they wanted to be kind they would toss a scrap of food or a farthing, but never would they stop to speak, but this lady did.
            “What is your name?” she asked me.
            It took me a moment to reply to the uncommon question and find my voice. “I am called Mordred, my lady.”
            She smiled at that. “My name is Morgan la Fay,” she told me in return. “Do you have anyone to care for you, Mordred?”
            I shook my head. “No, my lady.”
            “I’m in need of an apprentice. I like the looks of you. Would you like a home, a bed and food?”
            I didn’t know what to say. Of course I did, but the fact a lady was offering it to me…I should have taken caution, but I was only a child, and I was hungry and cold, and she was uncommonly beautiful to the eyes of a naive boy, so I simply nodded. She smiled again and took my hand.
            And with that one gesture, she changed my life in so many ways, both for good and for bad, and sometimes for the most horrid reasons, but even now, I have to think back on it and a part of me, however grudgingly, has to thank her. For even though she brought me the most utter torment of all, she also brought me my life and my family and though it was not in her plans, I was grateful for that, and also happy that I had been able to spite her for the rest of her life. But as I have already said, that all must come later.
            At first, it was not bad at all, in fact, it was the happiest time I had had up to that point, which wasn’t saying much since I had lived on the street, begging, for the short time I had been on the earth. I had been only slightly disappointed to find that my lady was not in possession of a castle, but a simple cabin in the mountains, far away from most everyone, except the occasional traveler or tinker. She was quite alone there except for me and the horse, but I never raised the question of why that was and she never gave me an explanation. As far as I could tell, she practiced with herbs, and also incantations, and other strange magics that I had never seen performed before, but like everyone else had heard tales of the great sorcerers and was enraptured by my guardian’s skills. The first five years I spent with her were all good. She taught me about herbs, and I even learned simple magics that could be used for every day things. There was nothing—at least nothing apparent to a young boy—that gave indication of the cruelty to come, but later I came to realize that had probably all been in the plan. In any case, after the five years passed, and I was now in what I guessed to be my tenth year, news came to us that changed everything in an instant.
            We did get news from passing travelers, and sometimes Lady Morgan and I would ride into one of the nearby towns to fetch supplies we couldn’t hunt for ourselves, and it was that year that we heard about the death of Uther Pendragon and the inevitable crowning of his son, Arthur.
            This news changed Lady Morgan instantly. She darkened, her raven hair making her face look darker still, and her green eyes roiling like a stormy sea. When I asked her what was wrong, and why she was not happy at the news, or at the very least indifferent, she yelled at me for the first time and I was so frightened, I fell over backwards and scurried into a corner. I half expected her to apologize, but she did not, and that confused me all the more. She had been so kind to me up to that point, and I was to find that this was the end to her kindness, her little charade that she had put on to gain my trust until it was too late for me to run from her, already devoted and wanting to gain her favor in any way I could. But the mask came off that night, and I was finally able to see the evil that hid under it. An evil I had never known could possibly exist in a human being.
            I cowered in my bed that night, listening to her rage while she incanted vicious spells that I didn’t know, and didn’t want to. I was scared, not knowing what was happening, or what would happen in the future. I did not understand why the news of Arthur Pendragon’s coronation would have caused such rage in my guardian. The next morning, she told me of her own accord.
            “Arthur Pendragon is my half brother,” she said, and I was still trying to digest that information when she carried on. “I was the illegitimate daughter of Uther Pendragon, and thus could never show my face in my rightful place. Oh yes, Uther made sure I was provided for, brought up by a good family, but that was not enough. I should have been a princess of Camelot, should have stood there at his side with Arthur, but that was not to be. He was ashamed of me, and would not claim me as his own even though everyone knew. I could have stood that derision if he had only claimed me. But Arthur got all the glory and honor as his only legitimate child, and now he is king and I mean to take that place from him. I did not get the chance to ruin Uther, but I will ruin his son. And you are going to help me, Mordred.”
            I was shocked, and frightened. I had never met Arthur, and I had never been to Camelot, though I had heard much about it, as had everyone. I found I could not share Lady Morgan’s hatred without knowing more about the situation, and the thought of helping plot treason, murder, or whatever she had in mind was not something I wanted to do at all, nor had I ever expected her to consider something of the sort.
            “I…I don’t know what you want me to do,” I said miserably, and she was on her feet and in my face, frightening me with that same flashing look as the night before.
            “You will do what I want you to, Mordred.” And before I could say anything in reply, I felt a blinding pain grip my heart and I fell out of the chair, gasping for breath I couldn’t breathe and wreathing in the agony of the unexpected pain that held me. It stopped as suddenly as it had started, and I gasped, curling into a ball and sobbing in fright. My whole world had been turned upside-down in the course of a single day and I didn’t know what to do with it, or with this new version of Morgan la Fay that I had never known existed, and never wanted to.
            “Get up, you pathetic whelp,” she snarled at me and kicked me until I sat up. “I’ve spent long enough giving you a soft life, now it’s time to repay me for my kindness. You and I are going to work on a plan, and at the end of it, you will kill Arthur Pendragon.”
            And thus, the next six years of my life were spent. Not calm and gentle like the first five, but hard, painful, and horrible years which tore me apart and made me so low, I sometimes missed my life as a street urchin. She used those years to bend me, both mind and body, to her plan, one where I would go to Camelot to become a knight, gain Arthur’s trust, and murder him. The plan was as cruel as Lady Morgan herself, for I was to play a part, an unfailing card to get me into Arthur’s court. I was to masquerade as his illegitimate son, and use Arthur’s apparent kindness as a way into the castle and his confidence. It was well known by then after six years, that Queen Guinevere was barren and Lady Morgan thought that perhaps if an unknown son were to pop up, illegitimate or not, Arthur would take him in as an heir. I utterly hated this plan, but every time I protested, or fought against it, against Lady Morgan, she would hurt me, sometimes so badly I wouldn’t be able to move for several days without pain. Perhaps I was a coward to give into her for just my own safety and wellbeing—for she had no one else to hurt, no other body to torment but my own—but I was a
boy, and the pain she inflicted upon me, both mentally and physically were too much to bear and six years of continued torment had made me into a shell of the happy boy I had been when I first lived with her. I had fallen into the mindset of a slave who had no hope of escape from a cruel master. But there was still some fight left in me, and though I knew—as much as I hated myself for it—that I would do what she wanted of me in the end, I made sure that she knew I was not happy about it, and I did not approve in the least.
            And that was how, on the eve of my sixteenth birthday, I took the horse, and a set of armor and a sword she had given me, and set out on my journey to Camelot and King Arthur, with a resignation that I hated to find in my heart. Little did I know then, that as much as my heart hurt at that moment, its torment was far from over.

©Copyright 2013 by Hazel B West

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