Fantasy Historical arthurian polyamory LBGQT characters Camelot Matter of Britain

The Pretender

By Stephen Dedman
Oct 13, 2019 · 6,054 words · 23 minutes

Photo by Casper Johansson via Unsplash.

From the author: An Arthurian tale first published in Realms of Fantasy (with wonderful Alan Lee artwork!), and my contribution to Pride Month here in Perth. Many thanks to Phyllis Ann Karr for her invaluable THE KING ARTHUR COMPANION.


THE PRETENDER

 

by Stephen Dedman

 

 

                The knight stood before the King and Queen, still in his armour.  His face was flushed, except where it was scarred, and his close-cropped black hair glistened with sweat in the lamplight.  Despite his youth, the scars were plentiful - it had been the custom of the court in less peaceful times that no knight without a face wound was permitted to sit at the King's table - and his face would not have been beautiful even without them.  But his body was muscular and powerful, and even in armour he moved with the grace of some mythical beast, part cat, part dragon.  He had been the Queen's lover for four years, and was also dearly loved by the King.  He drew a deep breath, feeling as out of place in their chamber as a dead rat on a banquet table.

                "We were on our way to Mass, and we saw an old priest praying at a great tomb outside the chapel," he said.  "He greeted us, calling us the two most unfortunate knights who ever lived.  We were unarmoured and afoot, with only our swords and daggers, and I thought he meant we'd walked into a trap."

                "Did he know who you were?" asked the Queen.

                The knight nodded.  "Mordred asked him why we were so unfortunate, and the priest told him that," he hesitated, "that he was the son of the greatest king England would ever know, and that he would destroy him."

                "How did Mordred take this?" asked the king, softly.

                "He laughed; he told the priest his father was the late King Lot and that he'd had no hand in his destruction, and the priest laughed back.  He said Mordred was no more Lot's son than water was dry; he named you as Mordred's father."  He resisted the urge to stare down at the fresh rushes on the floor, and looked the King squarely in the face.  "He then said that you'd had all the baby boys born that May-day cast out to sea in a boat that sank, drowning all but him."

                There was a long silence in the small chamber, and then the Queen asked, "And what did the priest say to you, Lance?"

                "Nothing," replied the knight.  "Mordred was standing nearer the old man than I was, and he drew his sword and slew him before I could prevent it.  I wish now that I'd killed him there and -"

                "No," said the King, his face grey.  He tried to smile, but only succeeded in grimacing.  "Nothing else the old man said was true; why should the prediction that Mordred would destroy me be different?"  He stared at the horn window, watching it grow dark, then reached for the Queen's hand.

                "Mordred does not favour Lot." said Guenever, quietly.  "It has often been remarked on -"

                "Neither do Agravaine or Gareth," replied the King, wearily.  "I wouldn't swear that any of them are Lot's sons, except perhaps Gawaine; Margawse has long had a passion for young knights.  Apart from their other obvious attractions, it kept them loyal to her rather than to Lot."  He shook his head.  "I don't know who Mordred's father may have been, but it wasn't I.  I've never lain with a woman in my life, Gwen; you must believe that."

                "And the story about the boat?" asked Lancelot.

                "That may be true; I've heard it before," replied the King.  "But it was none of my doing; even had I wanted to, my arm wasn't so long as to reach to Lothian and Orkney, not with Lot and Margawse still alive.  Lot might have done it, or it might simply be a slander."

                "What would you have me do, sire?"

                "Nothing."

                "But if Mordred believes these tales -"

                Arthur shrugged his mighty shoulders.  "Mordred is an intelligent young man, and I have no other heir..."

                Guenever stared.  "Arthur!"

                "You may go, Lance," said the King, his voice betraying his weariness.  "If you would, watch Mordred for me, and tell me who else he tells about this, and see that he comes to no harm."

                Lancelot bowed his scarred head.  "Yes, my liege."  They watched him walk out and close the door, then Guenever said softly, "Mordred was born on May-day?"

                "Or the night before.  It's difficult, now, to find anyone who was there and might remember.  Why?"

                Guenever's lips moved slightly as she calculated.  "So he was begotten the summer before.  Was that during her time as ambassador from Lot's court?"

                "Yes," replied Arthur.  "Lot must have known that the child wasn't his, but that doesn't make him mine.  Margawse had her own knights there to protect her, and there were many others at court who she could have seduced easily enough.  Oh, she wiggled her eyelids and chest at me while she was here, but only succeeded in making herself look foolish.  Neither of us knew then that she was my sister; Merlin did not tell us who my father was until much later."  He sighed.  "I wish he were still here."

                "Your father?"

                "No, Merlin.  He warned me about Mordred before he was born - he even said it would be better if he died as young as possible, though he never suggested a massacre of boy-babies.  If I'd done that so soon after being crowned, it would surely have destroyed me; no knight would have sworn allegiance to a murderer of children."  He closed his eyes.  Merlin had also advised him not to marry Guenever, warning him that she would fall in love with Lancelot, but he'd ignored his counsel.  Though he was fond of Guenever, their marriage had been politically motivated.  Guenever's father Leodegrance had been a staunch ally of Uther Pendragon's and Arthur had badly wanted his support.  Unfortunately, Leodegrance had also shared the Pendragon's hatred of sodomites - and he was offering a dowry of a hundred knights and the great round table, the wheel of a giant's chariot that Uther had given him.

                The Queen had remained virgin until her thirtieth year, when Lancelot had come to Camelot.  Like Arthur, she had soon fallen in love with the young man, and the King had appointed him her champion and bodyguard as a gift to both of them.  Occasionally, Lancelot's conscience would trouble him, and he would leave Camelot on quests, but always returned to Guenever.  His King he loved without desire, just as Arthur had come to love Gwen, and none of the ill that Merlin had predicted had come to pass.

                "Mordred is your sister's son; you can't acknowledge him as your own."

                "No," replied Arthur.  "But I need an heir, Gwen, or all we've achieved will melt away like snow as soon as I'm dead.  You don't remember what Britain was like between my father's dying and my becoming King, with no-one to unite the baronies and lesser kingdoms, and Cerdic and Claudas and...  If you were to marry Lance after I die, then it might gain us a few more years, but even he would need a successor eventually."

                "And what about Mordred?"

                "If he should ask any of us, we can tell him the truth; what more can we do?"

 

*     *     *

 

                Sir Dinadan lay across Arthur's bed and mused.  "Finding the father of a child of Margawse's would be like going on a quest for all the splinters of the true cross."

                Arthur snorted, and removed his crown - a thin circlet of gold, designed to be worn inside a helmet, but which somehow felt heavier than his jousting armour.  Dinadan, better known as a satirist than a fighter, had been his friend for many years, and his lover since Camelot had been built.  "Don't say that in front of her sons, for Jesu's sake."

                Dinadan looked up innocently.  "So she had a passion for young men, and indulged it when she could; where's the harm in that?  And what did they think that fool Lamorak was doing in her chamber every night?  Who do you think Mordred's father was?"

                "I don't know.  I think she actually wanted a child who would give her power; she tried hard enough to seduce me," Dinadan laughed aloud, and the King grudgingly smiled.  "I could ill afford to be amused at the time, I'm afraid; Leodegrance was still alive and very influential, and I was terrified of being unmasked - we all believe Lot had sent her down here as a spy.  But Margawse never used that against me," he said, as though it had just occurred to him.

                "Probably too upset that anyone could resist her."

                "Perhaps, but it gave her a weapon, one that neither she nor Lot ever used..."  He shrugged, collapsed onto the bed next to Dinadan, then turned on his side and kissed him.  "Who was the second most powerful man in court twenty-three years ago?"

                "Merlin.  Not exactly a youngster, but he always liked pretty women.  So has Kay; pity few of them return the liking.  I think it's his tongue, myself; too sharp, and he likes using it too much, it could do someone a lot of damage..."  Dinadan looked Arthur up and down.  "Kay was young then, too, and as seneschal and your brother, he might have enough influence to interest Margawse.  But Mordred doesn't exactly look like any of you."

                "No."  Mordred was tall and handsome, and his hair was golden, as Arthur's had been in his youth - but there the resemblance ended.  He didn't resemble Margawse, either; she'd been tall, wide-hipped and full-breasted, with green eyes, a powerful laugh and long hair the colour of fresh blood.  Sir Kay was brown-eyed and running to fat, and his thinning hair was brown; Mordred, though well-muscled, gave an impression of slightness, of hunger.  Partly it was his narrow face, and his dark eyes - deep and intense, like those of his grandfather Gorlois, or his Aunt Morgan.

                "Perhaps he doesn't believe it...  and even if he does, why should he love you less for thinking you're his father?"

 

*     *     *

 

                There were seats for a hundred and forty-one knights at the Round Table, several of them never used except by the palace cats.  Margawse's sons watched silently as the name of Tristram magically appeared in gold letters on the seat that had previously belonged to Sir Marhaus.

                "They say that Lancelot was barely able to defeat him," murmured Mordred to Gawaine a few hours later, when the feast had ended and the brothers had retired to Mordred's chambers.  It had been two years since his encounter with the priest near Peningues, though he had never mentioned the incident.  "Do you remember that Merlin predicted that the two greatest knights and best lovers would fight beside Colombe's tomb?"  Gawaine merely grunted from behind his cup of wine.  "Strange, when we consider how many ladies you and Gaheris have loved...  Everyone knows that Tristram is loved by Mark's wife, La Beale Isoud, but who do you suppose Lancelot's lady might be?"

                "I neither know nor care," replied Gawaine, quietly.

                "Fitting, though, that he has taken the seat of a man he killed."  He glanced at Agravaine and Gaheris, then into his cup before saying, "I wonder whose seats ours were, before we came to sit in them.  Do you remember, Gawaine?"  No answer.  "Weren't you once the second greatest of Arthur's knights, or was that Lamorak?"

                "Hold your tongue," replied Gawaine, as the aging Agravaine's once-beautiful face turned pale.  "The King already has a fool, he doesn't need another."

                "And the fool he has, he loves dearly," said Mordred.  "Gods, but we are a sad and sorry lot."

                "If ye're talking about our father, now -" said Gaheris, unsteadily getting to his feet and reaching for his belt knife.

                "Your father," snapped Mordred.  Gaheris froze, then fell back down on his stool, almost upsetting it.  The others stared in silence, and then Gawaine said, "So that's it."

                "Yes."  Mordred turned to Gareth.  "Get out of here, keep your pretty hands clean."  Gareth turned to Gawaine, who nodded, then walked unsteadily out of the room.

                "You knew?" asked Mordred.

                His eldest brother shrugged.  "I was old enough when ye were born to count the months, even if they weren't.  Gareth was the only one still at home; I don't know what he may have heard.  Who told ye?"

                "A priest, near Peningues.  He's dead now."

                "Did he say who your father was?"

                "Arthur."

                Gawaine snorted.  "That's ridiculous."

                "Why?  Because he's a sodomite?  Our mother could have seduced a coil of rope."

                "You dare!" snapped Gaheris.  Gawaine, moving with surprising speed and precision for a man so obviously drunk, grabbed Gaheris's right wrist and twisted it, forcing him to drop his knife.  "Hear him out."

                "You know it's true."  Mordred sneered at Gaheris.  "You murdered her, not for lying with your father's killer, but out of jealousy because she wouldn't lie with you.  You would have murdered Lamorak, too, but even naked and unarmed and half-asleep he was too quick for you, so you let us think he'd murdered her."

                Gawaine let go Gaheris's arm as though it were something indescribably foul.  "Is this true?"  Gaheris glared at him, but said nothing, and Gawaine slapped him across the face with all his strength.

                "Oh, excellent," said Agravaine, the colour slowly seeping back into his face.  "How's he going to talk with a broken neck?"

                Mordred laughed bitterly.  "Well, that's Lothian justice for you, isn't it?"

                "I didn't mean to kill her," said Gaheris, sullenly.  "It was Lamorak I wanted dead, not her; anyway, it was Agravaine's idea, but he didn't have the courage.  You've killed women who were trying to save their men, Gawaine, you must understand..."

                "Then you have what you wanted," said Mordred.  "Strange how everyone wants something.  Pretty Gareth wants to be Lancelot in battle, pretty Agravaine wants to be Lancelot in bed...  it seems almost everyone wants to be Lancelot, except Arthur, who'd rather be pretty Guenever.  I wonder what it is that Lancelot wants?  To be King, perhaps?"

                "And that's what ye want, isn't it?"  growled Gawaine.

                "I'm the King's son; who better?"

                "You're no son of Arthur's, boyo," said Gawaine, advancing on his youngest brother like a great tree slowly falling.  "I don't know who or what your father was, but it -"

                "I am his son," said Mordred, thumping his chest and staring into Gawaine's blazing blue eyes.  "I feel it.  I know it, in here."

                Gawaine spat precisely into his wine cup.  "Ye'll feel the point of my spear in there, come morning.  I may not be the greatest knight in court any more, but I can still -"

                "Kill your own brother?"

                "Half-brother."  He glowered down at Mordred, then shook his head.  "Arthur would pardon me."

                "Arthur pardons everyone," replied Mordred.  "He's pardoned more murders than you could count; he'd pardon Lancelot and Guenever for adultery if anyone ever had the guts to accuse them - but there's one person the King can't pardon."

                "And who's that?"

                "Himself.  If the people and the priests knew about his lust for the great Lancelot -"

                "What a man wants isn't a sin," snapped Gawaine.  "Anyway, ye have no proof."

                "How he and Dinadan amuse each other, then."

                "And what good would that do ye?  Ye don't remember what the land was like before Arthur's day:  I do.  He's been the best King we've ever had."

                "I agree," said Mordred, calmly.  "I have no wish to usurp Arthur, merely to succeed him.  Swear that you will not hinder me, Gawaine, and I'll accuse no-one of anything."

                Gawaine considered this, then drew his dagger from his belt.  "You will swear to this, too?"  he asked.

                "Of course," replied Mordred.

                That was remembered as the year that Arthur defeated Claudas; that Brumant l'Orgilleus was consumed by flames while sitting in the Siege Perilous; and that Lancelot first saw his bastard son Galahad, and went mad.

 

*     *     *

 

                Galahad was sixteen when his name appeared on the Siege Perilous, the seat reserved for the greatest knight in the world; he was also the most beautiful young man anyone had seen since the arrival of Gareth Beaumains more than twenty years before.  He was loved, and hated, as his father had been, and by the same people.

                He had a gracelessness about him, the result of a cloistered upbringing, and soon acquired a reputation for churlish manners.  He declined all offers of love, courtly and otherwise - even those of Guenever - as politely as he knew how.  Dinadan may have been the first to recognise that the young knight was in love with his King - or it may have been Mordred, but Mordred spoke to few people in court, and never to Galahad.

                That was the year of the quest for the Grail, and so it was that the young knight and the grey-bearded satirist were riding together through the South March.  "The King and Queen love my father well, don't they?"

                "In their own ways, yes," replied Dinadan.  "And your father loves them as he can.  He loves the King, but does not desire him; he both loves and desires Guenever.  The Queen loves your father, but she needs to possess what she loves; she believes he betrayed her by lying with your mother all those years ago, and may never forgive him.  Almost everyone loves the King and your father - except for Sir Agravaine, who desires Guenever but loves only himself.  Sir Kay loves no-one but Arthur and Guenever, not even himself - and I love gossip, and have already filled your ears with too much of it.  Who do you love, young sir?"

                Galahad blushed.  "The King is a great man."

                "That he is - but he is also the King, and his kingdom is more to him than his own happiness, which is why he may not always do as he pleases, no matter how much he may love you.  He fears that if you were to become his heir after being his lover, you might find it difficult to keep the allegiance of many of his knights."

                Galahad considered this.  "Me, his heir?  Is this one of your famous jokes?"

                Dinadan smiled; it was well known that Galahad lacked a sense of humour.  "Arthur may seem eternal, but he's as mortal as any man, and has already seen some sixty summers.  When he dies, he expects your father to marry Queen Guenever and become King - and you, being your father's only son, will be next in line for the throne."

                The two knights rode along in silence until sunset, when they set up their pavilions.  Mordred and Agravaine found them there an hour before dawn, and slew them both in their sleep.

 

*     *     *

 

                Lancelot returned to Camelot a year and a day after setting out on his quest for the Grail, and found the King alone, staring north-west over the battlements.  It seemed to Lancelot that Arthur had aged a decade or more since Galahad had come to court; there was now more silver in his hair and beard than gold, and he moved without his old vigour.  "I'm glad you're back," he said, softly, without turning around.  "It seems the best of my knights have gone, and many may never return.  There's been no word of Galahad in three months.  Your cousin Bors said he dreamed that Galahad found the Grail and has been taken bodily to heaven, but I suppose I'm the only one who's dreamed of Dinadan.  Old fool should have stayed here.  How did you fare?"

                "I was found unworthy," replied Lancelot, as quietly.  "Where is Bors?"

                "He went searching for Galahad and Percivale.  I wish him every success."

                Lancelot nodded.  "How is the Queen?"

                "Not happy.  She spends most of her days beating Kay at chess.  I'm glad you're back," he repeated.  "We all are.  This is as much of my realm as I've seen in more than a year, and there are people who need to see me, but I haven't dared leave Gwen with no-one to defend her.  Even Gawaine is gone, doing penance for killing Yvonet in a friendly joust."  He shrugged.  "I've made Gareth king of Lothian and Orkney; Gawaine was pleased to let him have it, and his other brothers made no protest, but it means I'm losing yet another good knight."

                "When are you going?"

                "In a few days.  London, then Oxford, Caerleon, Cardiff, and back again before it begins to snow.  Go and see Gwen; she's missed you as sorely as I have." 

 

*     *     *

 

                Lancelot was asleep in Guenever's bed when Mordred and thirteen knights, armed and armoured as for battle, came to the door.  "Traitor knight, Sir Lancelot of the Lake!" called Agravaine, loudly enough for his voice to be heard throughout the castle.  "Come out of the queen's chamber, for know you well, you shall not escape."

                "Who is it?" whispered Guenever.

                "It sounds like Agravaine," Lancelot replied softly, "but smells more like Mordred."  He looked around the dark room.  "Is there anything in here I might use as a weapon or shield?"

                Guenever shook her head.  "How many of them do you think there are?"

                "Ten, at least."  He glanced at the furniture, finding nothing that would make a dent in armour or hold against a sword for more than a few buffets, then reached for his robe and began winding it around his right arm and hand.

                "Traitor knight, come out and fight!" yelled Agravaine.

                "They're going to kill us, aren't they?"

                "Me, yes.  They may want you alive."

                "Why?"

                "Because you're the Queen, and you have a better claim to the kingdom than -"  He stopped.

                "Arthur's dead, isn't he?"

                "I don't know.  If he is, Mordred can't very well accuse us of adultery...  but Mordred will have to convince people of his death before he can claim the throne.  He'd have a far better claim if you were to marry him than he would as Arthur's bastard, and I suspect that's the choice he'll offer you."  He bit his lip.  "If I'm killed, pray for my soul, and my kin will come to save you."  Before she could speak, he padded over to the door.  "Fair lords, leave your noise, and I shall open this door and admit you."

                There was a moment's silence, and then Agravaine replied, "A wise choice.  You could never defeat us all."

                "First, I will have your word that the queen is not to be harmed."

                "You have it."

                "I must hear it from Sir Mordred."  Silence.  "Or is he such a coward that he has sent you to do what he dares not?"

                "The Queen shall not be harmed," replied Mordred, his voice barely audible through the solid door.

                "I can't hear you!"

                "The Queen shall not be harmed, and you shall both be brought alive before the King."

                "Before Arthur."

                "Before Arthur.  I swear it."

                Lancelot smiled slightly, then opened the door, just wide enough for one man to enter.  Sir Colgrevance charged in, and Lancelot slammed the door shut behind him and barred it, plunging the room back into darkness, and hit the knight across the face so hard that his helm was knocked askew.  He caught the blade of Colgrevance's sword in his right hand, wrenched the weapon from his grasp, and thrust it through his visor.  As quickly as possible, he and Guenever stripped him of his armour, which Lancelot then donned.  There came a sound of splintering wood from the corridor outside.

                "Someone's thought to fetch an axe, at last," muttered Lancelot, picking up Colgrevance's shield.

                "Can't you take me with you?"

                Lancelot shook his head.  "I would need more knights to protect you, and a horse for you to ride.  Bar the door when I'm gone; stay in here as long as you can."  He kissed her, then donned his helmet and strode towards the door.

                "Traitor knight, come out and -"  Agravaine fell silent as the door opened and he saw a knight in full armour before him; before he could speak again, Lancelot brought his sword down between his neck and his shoulder, cleaving through his chest.

                He heard the door slam shut and the bar slide home behind him, and held his ground, so that his foes had to climb over their fallen allies to reach him.  The corridor was narrow, so that only two knights could meet him at a time, and he quickly mowed his way through them:  Sir Gingalin and Sir Astamore, Sir Mador de la Porte and Sir Gromer Somir Joure, Sir Petiphase of Winchelsea and Sir Galleron of Galway, Sir Florence and Sir Lovel, Sir Meliot and Sir Melion.

                When only Sir Curselaine and a barricade of dead knights remained between himself and Lancelot, Sir Mordred turned and fled.  Curselaine fell a moment later, his helmet and skull in two pieces, and Lancelot clambered over the pile of armoured corpses to give chase.  He saw Mordred banging on the door of a chamber, and dash in as soon as it was opened.  Lancelot hesitated outside for a moment, then ran to the stables.

 

*     *     *

 

                "Is Arthur dead, then?"

                Mordred stared sullenly through the rain at the empty road, until Gaheris repeated the question.  "I don't know.  Aunt Morgan sent me a message to say she saw a vision of him killed on Salisbury Plain, but that may be to come, or she may be lying."

                Gaheris nodded.  "What will you do if he returns?"

                Mordred scowled at him, but there was a knock on the chamber door before he could speak.  "Yes?"

                "Sir, the Queen would speak with Sir Kay."

                "Then she will speak with me," replied Mordred.  "Tell her I shall attend her presently."

                "Do you want me along?"

                "No.  Keep an eye on the road, and be sure that if Gawaine or Gareth return that they speak only to us.  Tell them Lancelot has slain Agravaine, Lovel and Florence, no more."  He stood.

                "Not that you hid in a lady's chamber while Lancelot was killing him?"

                "Not unless you want Gareth to know who murdered our mother," replied Mordred, "and who let Lancelot ride out unchallenged."

                "He was wearing Colgrevance's armour, and Colgrevance -"

                "Lies dead in Guenever's chamber.  I'll call you if I need help bringing him out."

 

*     *     *

 

                "Where is Sir Kay?"  asked Guenever.  She had dressed in her best robe; several others were strewn over the dead knight near the doorway.  Four of her ladies, including Mordred's lover Landoine, attended her.

                "In his chamber," replied Mordred, smoothly, "awaiting punishment for the foul crime of sodomy.  What would you with him?"

                "He is seneschal of this castle; he, not you, rules in Arthur's absence."  She did not refute the charge; the portly Kay loved beautiful men as well as women (he'd been one of the many men lured into Margawse's bed during her visits to Camelot), and it was well known that his sarcastic tongue-lashing of young knights was often the spite of a scorned or abandoned lover.  She wondered who they'd used to entrap him.

                "Do you expect my knights would follow such a man - such a sinner?"

                It was an obvious trap, one that Guenever avoided easily.  "And your claim to the throne, Mordred?  Arthur has other nephews."

                "But no other sons."

                "He has no sons," Guenever responded.  "I don't know who your father was, Mordred.  Have you asked your aunt Morgan?  I'm sure she knows."

                Mordred bristled.  He had asked Morgan le Fay, and he was sure she'd used her magic to look back to his conception - though he was also aware of the rumours that Queen Margawse had often enjoyed three or four lovers in a night.  "I do not need Dame Morgan to tell me what I already know."

                "Then perhaps you will believe the Lady of the Lake.  Arthur told me he would visit her, and ask her, when he came to Caerleon."

                If this rocked Mordred, he contrived not to show it.  "And if he does not return, Lady?"

                "Do you believe he will not?"

                Mordred opened his mouth to answer, then glanced at the Queen's attendants.  "Lady, I would speak with you alone."

                Guenever hesitated, then nodded.  "Don't shut the door," she warned Landoine.  "I would not wish to be accused of entertaining knights in my chamber."

                "If Arthur is dead, my Lady, would it not be better for the kingdom if we were to marry?"

                "For the kingdom?"

                "The land must have a King; marrying you would strengthen my claim greatly."

                "I am already married," said Guenever, softly.  "To marry another while the King lives would be treason."

                "I could have you burnt for treason tomorrow," Mordred snarled.

                "If the King were dead," continued Guenever, "Lancelot's presence here would not be treason.  But I am prepared to wait for Arthur to return."

                "How long will you wait?"

                Guenever smiled sweetly.  "Have you heard the bards sing of Odysseus and Penelope, Mordred?  I've always admired Penelope."

                Suddenly, there was a shout from the corridor outside.  He turned around to see a page, breathless, holding onto the door frame.  "My lord, Sir Gaheris sent me to tell you your brother Sir Gareth has returned."

                Mordred glared at him, then turned back to Guenever without his expression changing.  "You have fifteen days," he whispered.  "On the morning of that fifteenth day, if Arthur has not returned, you will be burnt or married."  And he hurried out of her room.

 

*     *     *

 

                The stake was set up in the square outside St Stephen's Church, and Guenever was led towards it clad only in her smock, while Mordred watched from the safety of a balcony.  "Lancelot will rescue her," murmured Gareth, behind him.

                Mordred flushed.  Sir Kay had escaped the night before he was to be burnt, and he suspected that Gareth - though never a friend of Kay's - had been involved.  He could ill afford another embarrassment; too many knights had already ridden out of Camelot, supposedly to search for Lancelot or Arthur or Gawaine, leaving him barely enough to maintain a guard.  He had yet to appoint a seneschal to replace Kay, and the castle stank.  The only good news was that no-one had - as yet - risen to challenge him.  "He may try," he growled.  "I want you and Gaheris waiting by the gate."

                "I won't fight him," replied Gareth.

                "Then go unarmed, and hope he doesn't fight you, but stop him!"  He turned to Gaheris.  "You may arm yourself, or not, as it please you, but go with him."  His half-brothers stared at him coldly, but obeyed.  Mordred watched as Guenever was tied to the stake, and then a horn sounded from the castle's tallest tower; four blasts, signifying four riders. 

                The rescue was swift, but bloody; twenty knights were slain by Lancelot and his three kinsmen, and many more fled from them, before Lancelot slashed through the ropes holding Guenever to the stake.  He handed the Queen a gown and kirtle before lifting her onto his horse, then rode at full speed towards the gate.  Gareth stepped aside to let him pass; Gaheris did not, but was knocked senseless with a buffet from Lancelot's shield.  Mordred, watching in rage from the balcony, drew his sword and ran towards the gate.

                An unknown defender of the Queen's had ensured that the bundles of wood at the base of the stake were green and damp, producing little flame but much smoke.  In the confusion, no-one saw Mordred murder Gareth and Gaheris - and their deaths, like the others, were blamed on Lancelot.

               

*     *     *

 

                Arthur walked across the battlefield at Camlaun, his horse having been slain beneath him hours before.  Gawaine's ghost had appeared to him the night before, warning him to delay the fighting until Lancelot had arrived, but an argument between two of his young knights and two of Mordred's Saxon allies - supposedly someone had drawn a sword to slay an adder spotted in the grass - had escalated into a battle which killed thousands.

                Gawaine had gone to France to avenge his brothers, and had died there from wounds received in a duel with Lancelot; his last action had been to write a letter begging Lancelot to return to Britain to fight at the King's side.  Arthur scanned the field looking for movement, and saw a man standing near the body of Sir Kay's unmistakable blood-red horse.  As fast as his armour and his wounds would allow, Arthur ran across the plain towards him.

                "Kay!"

                The man turned, revealing a black shield with a silver bend.  Mordred's shield.  Arthur continued to charge towards him, drawing Excalibur as he ran.

                "Father!" yelled Mordred, mockingly.  He walked delicately between the bodies, his own sword drawn.  "Why have you forsaken me?"

                Arthur stopped a scant ten paces from him.  "Do you want to know who your father was, Mordred?  I asked the Lady of the Lake, and she told me.  I warn you, you may not be pleased by the answer."

                Mordred took a step towards him.  "Tell me, then.  Who do you blame for my begetting, and your downfall?"

                "Agravaine," said Arthur.  "Your pretty brother.  Your mother may have the excuse of having been drunk, but he wasn't.  I didn't believe it, either, until the Lady showed me their images in her crystal."

                Mordred staggered slightly, and the blood drained away from his face.  "You lie.  I know I'm your son; the first time I saw you, I knew it, I felt it here."  He thumped his breastplate with the pommel of his sword.  "I could not have loved you as I did had you not been my father -"

                "If you loved me, it wasn't because you wanted me as a father," replied Arthur, grimly.  "But you couldn't admit that, even to yourself; you've never had that sort of courage."

                Mordred advanced slowly, his face contorted by hatred.  "You lie," he repeated.  "I've had women, nearly as many as Agravaine or Gaheris, I have sons, I don't love you and I am nothing like you!"  He rushed at Arthur, and swung his sword with all his strength.  The king parried with Excalibur, and the inferior blade shattered, one fragment piercing Arthur's helm and skull.  Arthur thrust once, piercing Mordred's shield, left arm, breastplate and chest, and both men collapsed onto the bloody plain.

               

*     *     *

 

                Some say that Arthur died and was buried, with Guenever, in the Isle of Avalon.  Others say that he sleeps with his favourite knights in a hidden cave, waiting for a champion to awaken him.  No-one knows what befell the bodies of his enemies, nor praises the wisdom or courage of the pretender.

 

This story originally appeared in Realms of Fantasy.