Le Morte D'Avalon
Seeing as No Other
Morgan ambled down a crag above the tossing sea. Behind her rose Tintagel, its walls blazing with the last light of day. The stone battlements looked like teeth against the sky, and in the keep, a candle burned in Morgan's window.
She was supposed to be there, reading her lessons, but a voice had interrupted them: A great evil is coming, Morgan. Flee to the caves. Follow the veins of the earth and save yourself. Morgan had not hesitated, going to the window where a convenient trellis descended to the garden. She waited until the guards met in the corner bartizan and shimmied down. Beneath the rose bowers ran a pathway that Morgan herself had cleareda thorny tunnel to the postern gate. It led beyond the wall to a switchback footpath amid a grove of alder, and it in turn to caves beneath the peninsula. One of them emerged in woods on the mainland, and freedom.
Morgan paused, pulling the candle and tinder box from her nightgown. The cave below her was black and ragged, and it roared with the sea. She was afraid of that dark beast, but even more so of King Uther.
He was the evil who was coming.
Uther had laid siege to Castle Terrabil, and for nine months, Father had been trapped. Scouts said that the siege was turning against him. Uther's forces were already advancing past Castle Terrabil, and if Father did not sally forth to take the offensive, King Uther would capture Tintagel as well.
Morgan tucked up her nightgown and stepped down into the toothy cave. Her hand trembled as she lit the candle and lifted it high. A cold wind breathed up from the darkness. Squinting, Morgan made out a stomach of stone and three separate passages that diverged from it. Only one would lead to escape.
Flee to the caves, the voice had said.
But Father had said, Take care of your mother.
High above, a signal horn sounded. The waves argued to drown out the sound, but the melody was clear. "Father?" The candle fell from Morgan's hand and guttered among black stones. She climbed away.
If Father had returned, everything would be all right. He would defend them and save them. He would know which cave led to freedom. Scampering along the rocks, Morgan edged around the coastline. She reached the ragged cleft between Tintagel and the mainland and stared up breathlessly.
The drawbridge was rattling down across that gap, and the trumpet sounded its call again.
Grinning, Morgan climbed. It had been hard to run the castle without him, even for a six-year-old. For the first time in nine months, the terrible burdens of war lifted from her.
Rocks bit into her feet, but she didn't care. She wouldwash off the blood and put on slippers so he wouldn't see. A quick robe, fingers through her hair, a splash of water across her face, and she would run to him. He would see her and catch her up in his arms and hold her ... .
Horseshoes pounded the drawbridge, sharp and savage like Saxon drums, and three men rode by overhead. One bore Father's standard, holly and berry, and it flashed in the failing sunset. All three galloped through the main gate.
Hands and feet scrabbled the stone, lifting her higher. Morgan would have to wash her hands too, and her eyes, but soon she would be with Father and would once again be a little girl.
The ragged animal that had clung above the sea was gone now. Morgan had washed in the bird fountain, plaited lily of the valley into her hair, and plastered her wounds with kitchen ash. She had hoped for a robe to wear, but it would be sweeter to be in her nightshirt when she felt his strong arms around her ... .
Morgan ran. Her feet slapped the flagstones as she entered the courtyard, and nearby horses startled. They reared beneath the sickle moon and whickered as stable hands dragged them back down.
Ahead, Chamberlain Jordanus walked toward the tower stairs.
"Chamberlain! Is it true? Is Father home?"
The chamberlain slipped at the base of the stair and crashed to the ground. He must have been exhausted from his ride. Coppery hair and beard twisted around his leathery face, and he struggled against his armor. He looked drunk. That meant very good news, or very bad.
Morgan ran up to him. She reached out to help him up, but he didn't take her hand. "Where is he? Where's Father?"
Jordanus smiled vapidly. He patted her shoulder, and his hand felt heavy and limp. "Morgause, you good girl."
"Morgause?" He was drunk. "Morgause is still in Lothian. I'm Morgan."
"Of course you are."
Jordanus shifted, and there came a small crackling. "It's bedtime for little girls."
There was a thin space between the chamberlain and the first stair, and Morgan sprang through. One elbow made the space wide enough. She climbed. The stairs spiraled upward into darkness, toward her mother's chambers. That's where Father would be. Occasional lamps lit the wall and shot arrows of soot up to the ceiling. Behind Morgan, Jordanus rumbled like a bear and clattered after her. She laughed. He couldn't had caught her when sober, and certainly not with Father waiting above.
Morgan reached the head of the stair, latched onto the knob, and flung back her mother's door. It spilled light and perfume into that dark, dank place. "Father! Are you here?"
They were, Mother and Father both. Their faces rose from among mounded blankets and the footboard of her bed. Their eyes gleamed with mischief, and their cheeks were pink and bright. Both were bareadults are not supposed to be barebut the way mother's hair was piled on her head, it was as if she'd meant to receive him this way.
Before they could respond, the chamberlain staggered upbehind Morgan. "Forgive me, Duke, Duchess! I didn't want her to see this"
"Get her out of here," Father said. The voice was his, but the words weren't. Father was disjointed like the chamberlain, but not drunk. It was as if someone else had crawled into his skin.
I will come back and catch you up in my arms and hold you, Father had said.
A great evil is coming, the voice had said.
Spiders of fear ambled down Morgan's spine. "What've you done with my father?"
"Shut up, girl, and get to bed," he growled.
Those words shattered the enchantment: He was another man, his hairy arms wrapped around Mother. He had a body like a bear and a peppery beard and eyes as black as coal. "You're not Father. You're a devil!"
"Get her out! Out!" the man shouted.
Jordanus grabbed Morgan's shoulder. His hands were puffy, as if he were wearing gloves.
"Mother! They're devils! You have to get away!"
"You have to get away," slurred the man who was not Jordanus, and he shoved her out of the room and back down the stairs.
Morgan slipped. The ash had failed in the cuts on her feet, and her soles were slick. She slid and tumbled down the black spiral. Edges of stone pounded her arms and back, but she didn't cry out. She could only think of the monsters that had come to Tintagel. The voices were always right.
Below the first curve, Morgan caught herself. Her fingers clung to the cold stone, and she sat on one tread and rocked in pain. She wouldn't cry. Her chance to be a little girl in herfather's arms was gone, perhaps forever. She had to be grown up now. No one else could hear the voices or see the visions, so only she knew what was really happening. Only Morgan could defend the castle.
"I'll kill him," she told herself.
The man in the bed had no armor or weapons, and she could simply stab him until he was dead. It wouldn't take much of a blade, just one long enough to reach a man's heart.
At the head of the stair, the two devils were shouting at each other. A crash followed, and a clamor of steel on stone as Jordanus tumbled down the stairs.
Morgan stood and hurried downward. She didn't want to have Jordanus roll over her, and with luck, he'd be knocked unconscious. Then the way would be open to the other one. Morgan reached the bottom of the stair and charged out into the nighttime courtyard.
Overhead, the sky reeled with stars, and the Milky Way made a ragged road. Cold air wrapped Morgan. She felt lost in an enormous world.
Devil or man, the thing in Mother's bed was not Father, and he must die.
Morgan ran across the courtyard, leaving wan footprints in the starlight. No one remained. The three horses had been led from the bailey to the long, low stable at one end. From its doorway, golden lantern light spilled across new straw. Tails of hair lashed in the darkness, and a young man brushed the side of a horse. He wore a knife at his belt.
Morgan headed for that knife. She didn't know the young man, but he would know her, and he would obey. Morgan ran until straw poked the soles of her feet. She slowed, entered the doorway, and approached the mare. She was breathing hard, and the young man looked to her.
Surprise lit his face. "Mistress Morgan, you're bleeding."
"Give me your knife."
He set down the brush, and his hand slipped to his belt, but he didn't draw the blade. "What for?"
"Give it!" she demanded.
Though he was twice her age, he slipped the strap from the sheath, drew the knife, and flipped it in his hand. He caught the tip and held the handle toward Morgan. "It ain't my place to ask, but what do you want it for?"
Morgan took the blade. "There's a war on." She began to turn, but he caught her shoulder.
"You're not supposed to fight," the young man said. His eyes were concerned beneath sticky brown hair. "Let me fight for you."
She blinked. He was strong enough, but he wouldn't see through the disguise. "You can't fight this fight, and I can. Thanks for the knife." Her hand tightened on the hilt of the dagger, and she stalked away.
He stared at her as if she were mad, and maybe she was. The knife handle slipped in her sweating hand. Could she kill a man, especially one who looked like Father? If she didn't kill him, what would happen to Mother?
Setting her jaw, Morgan approached the tower stairs. The man who had pretended to be Jordanus was gone, and none of the Tintagel guards were nearby. Morgan started up the stairway, her feet silent on the stone. It would be all too easy. Morgan switched the knife to her other hand, wiped the sweat from her palm, and switched it back.
She had seen a cook cut the head from a chicken, and the thing's body flailed in terror. Would it be like that? She had watched archers shoot down a rabid dog, and it had had six shafts in it before it stopped running. Would she have to stabhim six times? Or seven? Or ten? Once an escaped prisoner had jumped from the wall and fallen to the rocks, and his bones had cracked like green wood.
It would be horrible, but it had to be done.
At the top of the stairs, Morgan paused. She set her hand on the doorknob and gently turned it. Metal grated quietly, the latch cleared its well, and the door eased slowly open. Light and sound spilled through the narrow gap, and Morgan peered through.
Mother lay on the bed on her back, her hands gripping the headboard, and her knees pointing toward the ceiling. Between them was the man, and he was not Father. His back was meaty, mantled in black hair. He leaned above her, fists ramming into the linens on either side of Mother. He lunged repeatedly at her, but she didn't seem fearful or even sad. A trembling smile filled her face, and she made sounds of pleasure.
Morgan set the tip of the dagger in the doorpost and carved a small sliver from it. This man wasn't Father, and he was doing something to Mother, something that Father never would have done. She opened the door wider ... .
The man looked different, slender and strong, with blond hair. He looked just like Father, but still he did this thing. Mother rolled him over, straddling his waist. She bent down to kiss his face and his neck.
What if it was him? What if Morgan killed her own father?
She backed away, watching the man and woman wrestle. Between door and post, the gap narrowed. The metal latch slid into its wood groove, leaving Morgan in darkness.
Numbly, she turned, descended the first few steps, andsat down. The knife was hot in her sweating hands, and the blade dangled between her knees. She couldn't breathe.
Once a wild bitch showed up outside the castle walls, and the bailey dogs went crazy trying to get her. When a servant took rubbish to the midden, the dogs escaped. They ran down the bitch and climbed on her back and fought over her until at last they tore her apart. She and three other dogs died that day, and the men shot two more. That had been Morgan's worst memory, until now.
She stood up and walked listlessly down the stairs. It didn't matter if she got caught. Nothing mattered now. The world had changed around her, too big and strange to understand. Morgan could only float through the bewildering air.
Whatever that unspeakable thing was that they did, it somehow explained all of this: Father, Mother, Uther, Morgan ... . She was staring at the key but was too fearful to turn it and open the door.
Morgan stumbled out of the archway. The stars scolded her. They saw everythingthe imposters, the adult flesh, the wrestling, the daggerand they disapproved of Morgan. She could hardly bear to walk beneath that piercing host.
They outlined the shadow of a young man, standing in the courtyard. The stable hand had followed her. "Is your battle done?"
Morgan shook her head darkly. She turned the knife in her hand and offered it, handle first, to him. "No, it's just beginning."
Morgan woke up vomiting. She knelt on her bed, the acid remnants of dinner falling from her lips.
She'd had a nightmare. In it, she was Mother, and a man climbed all over her and wrestled her until she couldn't move. She didn't know who this man was, a shadow that was Noman and Everyman. He was inescapable, and he did whatever he wished. Morgan couldn't escape or fight, but she could vomit, rejecting it all and breaking the spell of sleep.
On her knees, she awoke. Her fists were braced on the linens. It was done. The world spun nauseously around her, but she was still.
Father had knelt this way when he had died. The soldiers of Uther had put their swords in his back, and he had fallen on his face and lain in the mud, unable to move. This was no nightmare, but a vision, and now Morgan wished she had never awakened.
Say it, Morgan. You know it is true.
"Father is dead."
Copyright © 2003 by J. Robert King