Arthur was smiling, and so, for that matter, was Lancelot, but Lancelot knew his king and best friend well enough to know that there was no true joy behind either of their expressions.
The landscape bobbed in time with Charrette’s slow walk. Part of the reason for their smiles, Lancelot knew, was necessary reaction to the fact that it was a bright fair day and they were outside and not within doors. He wished he could say that they were enjoying it, but how could they truly enjoy this day? The oppressiveness of their mission hung over Lancelot’s shoulders, kept him from letting Charrette canter or gallop as he knew the horse wanted to. He knew Arthur was in no hurry to get to his destination, and neither, for that matter, was Lancelot.
They were riding through the wooded borderlands between Glasonland and Albion. They were inspecting the fortifications, the storehouses, the great wall and guarded checkpoints that made the official border.
They were, in other words, preparing for war.
The worst part of it, though, was that war might not come soon. It might be years in the future. Decades, even. Or Vortigern might die tomorrow, Vortimer be crowned next week, and his uncles could mount an invasion of Reme by way of Albion in a fortnight. It was all so up in the air, so nebulous — impossible to predict.
Lancelot shifted in his saddle. He had a hard enough time predicting political events when they were predictable, never mind when they depended on just how long a very sick old man wanted to cling to life, and who might grab power in the political brouhaha that was almost certain to follow.
But if Lancelot was good with one thing, it was his sword. And his horse. And a shield. Maybe he was good with three things. But they all tended toward one direction: fighting. Yet Lancelot was praying that it would not come to a fight, for he feared very greatly what might happen to this sweet little land if the might of Glasonland and Reme were to meet atop it. It would take more than his sword, more than all the swords Arthur had or could reasonably muster, to keep Albion safe if Glasonland and Reme decided to argue over it like two wolves arguing over a bone.
“Penny for your thoughts, Lance?”
“You seem pensive.”
Lancelot sighed. “I am pensive.”
“I take it that action is not proving a sufficient … antidote to thought today?”
“With all due respect, Arthur … riding at a walk on a lovely spring day in order to inspect a tower that was already inspected this year does not strike me much as ‘action.'”
“You’d prefer to rush into Glasonland, sword swinging and raring to join the first bastard’s army you found?”
“Twenty years ago, I would have,” Lancelot agreed. “Of course, that bastard would have been you.”
Arthur gave an odd sound that struck Lancelot as being somewhere between a chuckle and a snort.
“Just wondering how often a man can call his king and best friend a bastard, and have it be an expression of profoundest loyalty.”
“Not often, I would imagine.” If a chuckle and a sigh could mate, its offspring would be Lancelot’s exhale.
“So what has changed in twenty years?” Arthur asked. “That you are no longer willing to rush off and join the first bastard’s army you see.”
“I suppose I have much more to lose.”
“You had quite a bit to lose as Lord Ban’s son and heir, and a new father.”
Lancelot shook his head. “I didn’t see it that way, then. Even if I died fighting in your army — even if I was executed as a traitor — it would have been glorious, for I would have seen it as dying for my country.”
“And Albion is not your country?”
“Oh, it is,” Lancelot reassured Arthur as they rode into sight of the watchtower, their destination on this afternoon’s ride. “It is just as much as my country as Glasonland was.”
“Then what has changed?”
“I am no longer young enough to think dying for one’s country, and leaving wife and children and Wright knows how many defenseless others behind, is glorious.”
“We must be growing old, Lance.”
“If all goes well, we shall be grandsires within the next … three years, let us say?”
“You know you are my best friend, and I know that your boy will treat my Jessie well … but I am still not quite resigned to the idea of grandchildren.”
“Mutual grandchildren, you mean?”
“I mean grandchildren by way of my daughter, who I swear was blinking up at me from her cradle last week.”
“Well, perhaps within three years, your son and Lady Gwendolyn will have started on their family, and … Galahad will have greatly shocked us all!”
Arthur gave a great barking laugh. “You always know how to make a man feel better, Lance!” He clapped him on the shoulder, and Lancelot grinned a real grin. Then Arthur spurred Passelande to complete those last few feet of the journey faster, and Lancelot had no choice but to do the same for Charrette.
Still, though Arthur was the first to the hitching post, it was Lancelot who first dismounted and made his way to the tower door. He managed a small laugh. “I believe, my liege, you truly are growing old.”
“Did I mention I caught sight of three new gray hairs in your mane on the way down?” Arthur replied.
“Oh, bloody hell. That makes five this week.”
“Who found the other two?”
“Do I want to know why it was ‘natural’ that she found those gray hairs?”
“… Probably not,” Lancelot admitted.
“Didn’t think so.”
“My liege!” came a voice that nearly sent Lancelot out of his skin — until he realized that it was the guard at the top of the tower, five stories above them.
Arthur waved to the man. “At ease, soldier!”
“My liege, is aught amiss?” the guard called.
“We’ll find out once we get inside!” Arthur joked. The Council had decided that it would do no good to frighten the populace with what everyone on it fervently prayed, if not dared to hope, were rumors that would never come to pass, so Arthur did his best to act cheerful among the common folk. If the situation worsened — from Albion’s perspective — in Glasonland, that would change; but for now cheer was the order of the day. “Well, Lance!” Arthur asked his friend, “Shall we find out if this good guard has a reason to be worried?” And with that depressing faux cheerfulness, Arthur marched into the tower, leaving Lancelot but to follow behind him.
Luckily, it was not a disaster they found. The bottom floor of the watchtower served as a storeroom for weapons, supplies and food for the men who were stationed out here to watch the border. To Lancelot’s eyes, all seemed in order. More than that, he could not say, for it was Ambrosius and young Aglovale who had ridden around the border and done the complicated inventories at the beginning of the year. “After all,” Arthur had been known to mock-growl, “what are stewards and squires for, if not for doing boring clerkly work for their elders and employers?”
For some reason, though, seeing the careful order and abundance of the supplies made Arthur sigh. “Arthur?”
“Look at this, Lance,” he murmured. “All Lord Septimus’s army would have to do is break the door down, and he would have weapons and meat to bring …”
“To feed about five men for a week. Arthur, the guardsmen need to eat.”
“The tower isn’t defensible — at least the first floor isn’t –”
“Then have the men take the supplies up to an upper story, and — I don’t know — move something else down here. Look at those stairs,” Lancelot gestured to the winding stone stairs, the only way up the tower. “One man could hold them against a squadron without breaking into a sweat.”
“You could defend them against a squadron without breaking into a sweat.”
“Nay, Arthur. I would sweat a bit.”
Arthur snorted. “But Lance — these guards are not all you. If they stayed here, they would be signing their own death warrants — unless Septimus’s army bypassed the tower entirely, which I do not think likely.”
“… You have a point, my liege.”
“Thought so. Shall we go up?” And without waiting for his reply, Arthur mounted the steps two at a time, as if they were both young men again, and as if they had not just been picking apart the defensibility of those very steps just moments before.
“At ease,” Arthur said to the soldiers seated around the table in their dining room. Lancelot saw their gaping jaws for only a few moments before he turned the corner of the stairs and saw them no more.
Why were they so surprised? Surely the guard at the top of the tower had announced their presence? Or perhaps the men were just surprised to see the King walking by their breakfast, lunch and dinner table, as easy and carefree as if he walked past tables such as these every day. Which Lancelot supposed he did; after all, other than the length and quality of materials and workmanship, what was the real difference between a King’s lunch table and a poor soldier’s?
The food on top, replied a voice in his head that sounded very like Gwen’s. Lancelot bit back a smile as he and Arthur continued to climb.
Arthur was nearer to fifty than forty, and though Lancelot was nearer to forty than fifty, both men were practically panting by the time they reached the top. “We’re getting old, Lance,” Arthur murmured as they mounted the final steps.
“Old and slow and sluggish.”
“You sound like you’ve been reading some of Gwen’s romances.”
“Reading them? Arthur, I don’t read them. I’m terrified I’ll see myself in one of them. But she talks like that, and it’s … contagious.”
Arthur chuckled, and it was his chuckle that alerted the guard at the top of the tower to their presence — or rather, that it was King Arthur and Sir Lancelot at the top of the steps, and not one of his fellow guards. “Majesty!” the poor man managed to croak out — apparently the King five yards away was far more intimidating than the King five stories down.
Lancelot could not see Arthur’s, but he could hear from his friend’s timbre that he was smiling. “At ease, my good man. If it is all right with you, my friend and I would like to take your watch for the space of a quarter-hour.”
“M-my liege, I’m n-not sure …”
“Your superior officer could hardly find fault with you for running downstairs to fetch a snack if the King himself approved,” Arthur chuckled. “And I give you my word of honor, if we see anything untoward, Sir Lancelot and I will alert the proper authorities at once.”
The man laughed, but then he bowed and scurried down the steps. Arthur and Lancelot took that opportunity to march to the edge of the tower, just behind the crenellations.
They looked over the battlements, across the wide wall that separated Glasonland from Albion proper — the wall that had been built two hundred years ago, when this land was still contested between Glasonland and Reme — into their mother kingdom, the sight of their greatest fears.
Lancelot saw mainly trees. This was good timber land, good hunting land, owned mainly by the Brandegoris family if Lancelot’s memory served him correctly. Birch and elm and oak trees grew in a glorious confusion, providing homes for bird and beast and bug. Beyond the woodlands, Lancelot could see fields of wheat and barley and the warm yellow of thatch roofs; beyond that, a hint of silver shine from the River Carbonek.
“It all looks so peaceful,” Lancelot murmured.
“The people there,” Arthur gestured, “are not our enemies.”
“And yet we seek to turn their lives upside-down to save our skins.”
Arthur sighed. “I know, Lance.”
I know. Lancelot forced the shiver that wanted to climb up his spine to stay where it was.
“But war between Glasonland and Reme will not help them either, Lance. You know what happened the last time Glasonland and Reme went at it.”
Lancelot nodded. He and his father had gone along on that campaign, even though he was but thirteen, because Arthur had begged and pleaded with his father to let him go, and Uther, against his better judgment, had let him. So Uther had asked Lord Ban to join the young men’s campaign, to keep Arthur from getting killed, whether by hostile or “friendly” fire. It was there that he had been introduced to war, there that he had truly learned to fight, there that he had begun to make his name for himself.
And it was there that Lancelot had first seen men left on bloody fields as feasts for ravens and wolves. It was there that he had seen a man delirious, imagining he saw his wife and little ones before him as a fever from an infected sword-stroke slowly took his life. It was there that he and Arthur had crouched, in the confused fear of boys who were not yet men and trying so hard to be, on the floor of his father’s tent while they listened to the screams of men, women and children being put to the sword not a mile away. In his nightmares, Lancelot could still hear their screams, could still see his father shouting at Vortigern’s back as he led them on a “victory raid” before he hustled the boys into his tent and his own men back to their tents.
“Arthur, will a civil war in Glasonland really be any better for them?”
“Probably not,” Arthur sighed. “But I refuse to take all the responsibility for it, Lance. If Vortigern had minded his affairs better, he wouldn’t be facing chaos at the end of his reign.”
“Your father faced chaos at the end of his reign …”
“But he managed to see a way out of it. And here we are.”
“Here we are,” Lancelot sighed. “Though it isn’t exactly Vortigern’s fault,” Lancelot couldn’t help but add, “that Vortimer fell from his horse and hit his head while hunting. He looked to be a likely lad when we were still in Glasonland, Arthur. If the people knew he would rule in truth, they would not even consider backing one of the bastards.”
“If he would rule in truth, I would back his claim to the throne, even if one of the bastards did rebel.”
“The bastards would not appreciate that.”
“Those who sought to rebel would not. Besides, Lance, you know I would not have rebelled against my brother, unless he gave me a very good reason to do so.”
“Which he would have, in about a fortnight.”
“It’s hardly my fault that Vortigern’s idea of sound kingship involves trying to kill potential enemies out of hand, before they even commit a crime!”
“Well, no, it isn’t — and besides, you had a family to protect.” Whether that would have been impetus for Arthur to rebel or an excellent reason not to, Lancelot was not sure — probably both. It was impetus for Arthur to keep quiet as long as he and family were not directly threatened, at least until the Pendragon blood rose up in him and he could stand it no longer. But had Vortigern made the first move against Arthur, then Arthur would have fought like an enraged bear to protect his family and his country.
A family to protect …
“Arthur?” Lancelot mused.
“Are not those other bastards your family?”
Arthur sighed. “Don’t remind me, Lance. Only one of them can win the throne — if Vortimer’s uncles and their partisans don’t take it after all — I don’t want to think of how many will be slaughtered to make way for the one.”
“But not all of your nephews can possibly want the throne — or think it worth risking their necks for.”
“What do you plan to do for those that do not want the throne?”
“Do? Lance, what can I do?”
“Well … you do have a whole country for them to settle in.” Lancelot glanced at Arthur. “It might make you feel a bit better about this whole thing. I mean, starting a civil war –”
“Which we cannot do until Richard Ferreira returns — assuming that our window of opportunity has not passed by then.”
Lancelot nodded. Even though he wasn’t quite sure how the plan was supposed to work, he knew Arthur had been upset when he found the merchant had gone on an emergency trip to Smina. That being the case, he steered the conversation back to its original channel. “But Arthur, what think of you letting some of your nephews into Albion?”
Arthur said nothing.
Lancelot gulped and turned to face his king.
His king was smiling.
“Lance, have you the slightest idea what you just suggested?”
“A way to assuage your conscience and save some of your nephews’ lives?”
“That, and a way to send a few not-so-subtle messages to the Lords Lucinius, Septimus and Antonius, as well to some of my nephews who … well, let us say, who inherited their father’s quarrelsome nature.”
“Er … what would those messages be?”
“Of course,” Arthur said, almost as if he had not heard Lancelot, “it would all depend on the men giving up all claim to the throne of Glasonland, for themselves and their heirs, in exchange for asylum. They’d have to swear on holy relics and such — in public — we could make a big to-do about it.” Then Lancelot realized Arthur had heard him, for he continued, “And once they had done so, it would effectively take them out of the race for the throne, and show the other bastards that as long as they are willing to cede their rights to a throne that is not theirs by right, they will have my protection. And it will show the Reman uncles that I back Vortimer’s claim to the throne, if I am only willing to offer asylum to those who renounce all claim to the throne.
“But it will also,” Arthur continued with a slight smile at one corner of his lip, “show the Reman uncles that I do not approve of their plan to murder my nephews in their beds, and that I am willing to stake the sacred honor of Albion to protect them.”
“Exactly. Lastly …” Arthur’s grin became almost wolfish. “It gives me an excellent excuse to double the guards on the border — to protect my nephews from assassins, of course.”
“Of course, Arthur.”
Arthur clapped his back. “Has anyone told you recently that you’re a genius, Lance?”
“Not recently,” Lancelot chuckled. “And not truthfully, either!”
Still, though, when it came time for them to complete their inspection and ride back, Lancelot could not help his grin. He had helped, all unwitting, Arthur send a message — a message that allowed him to appease both sides of the conflict, without taking either side.
As they rode toward home, a soft coo awoke Lancelot’s attention and he looked up. A small blot flew across the sun — was it his imagination, or was that a dove?
A dove. Perhaps there was hope for peace after all.