“Well!” Bors chuckled. “Look what the cat dragged in!”
“Meow?” asked his visitor.
“The servants will be shocked to see you here, old man — it’ll completely upset all of their ideas.”
“Well, that the Princess is knocking at death’s door, for one.”
Lancelot laughed nervously. “She’s not that bad. Just a bit bruised. And there’s the concussion, too.”
“Concussion?” Bors shuddered. “My sympathies. Still …”
“Bors, please don’t start.”
“Well, it’s another reason — as if we needed more! — why ladies have no business being involved with capturing dangerous … well, I shan’t call Lady Morgause a criminal, not yet, anyway, but she’s certainly dangerous when she sets her mind to be.”
“She was certainly dangerous — but Bors, had you hit a tree as hard as the Princess did, you’d be concussed too. Maybe worse. Lady Morgan mentioned that sometimes magical folk don’t get as badly injured as … as the rest of us.”
Magical folk. Bors snorted, but he knew better than to argue that with his cousin. Lancelot insisted on seeing everyone as good and true until it was proven otherwise. Besides that, he was fond of his daughter-in-law, willful though she may be. That must have been the reason why Lancelot had permitted her to join in on this mad witch-hunt, even if the girl’s husband had been besotted enough to give into his wife on this occasion.
Still, all of that was water under the bridge, and maybe there had even been lessons learned. In the meantime, he had a guest. “So, Lance,” he asked, climbing out from behind the desk, “what’ll be your pleasure?”
“I didn’t intend to stay very long, if it would be an imposition …”
“Bah, Lance, you’re never an imposition! Besides, perhaps something to wet my whistle will get me through this damned paperwork faster.” As Lancelot chucked, Bors bent to see what hid in the bottom half of the tantalus. “I’ve some good Carbonek wine here.”
“Ah! Let’s have it, then!” Lancelot laughed.
Bors wrestled the dusty bottle out and poured them both a measure. He raised his glass in toast. “To friendship and kinship!”
“To friendship and kinship,” Lancelot agreed. It had been their toast since they were boys and only allowed small ale in their little cups. They clinked their mugs and both took a sip.
“How do you get this good stuff so often?” Lancelot wondered aloud, as he so often did. Bors only shrugged. A man, or so he thought, was allowed his little luxuries.
“So!” Bors asked. “What brings you to this corner of the kingdom?”
“Well … I was in the neighborhood …” Lancelot started. Bors raised his eyebrows. “I was with the King,” he sighed.
“Did you see my Gwendolyn?” Bors asked, only partially to draw Lancelot’s mind to more cheerful topics.
“You’ve certainly seen her recently?” Lancelot asked in some alarm.
“Of course — but not today.”
“Ah!” Lancelot laughed.
“So how is she looking?”
“Blooming. Good color, good carriage … but St. Robert, she made me feel old. I could scarcely look at her without thinking of Cl–of Gwen she was expecting Will.”
“Guinevere, eh?” Bors murmured. It was a waste of such good wine, to pour it straight down the throat with scarcely a taste, but he needed it at that moment. “I never saw much resemblance between Gwendolyn and Guinevere.”
“Well, they’re both blonde, for one thing. And … well, Gwendolyn’s finally coming into her own, you know? She’s so bright and lively these days. And looking very well.”
“Looking well,” Bors replied. “They say that when a woman’s carrying a son, her beauty increases.”
“There are more important things in life than sons — grandsons, in your case!”
“More things important than family?”
“Than sons and grandsons,” Lancelot repeated. “I’d hope for a healthy babe and a safe delivery before I started pestering the Lord Wright about whether the babe was a boy or a girl.”
Thinking of Claire, how her mind and body had both wasted away under the burden of carrying the twins, Bors took another long swallow. “Aye,” he agreed. “Aye. A man needs heirs — but some prices are too high for them.”
Bors took another gulp. “So. You saw the King today. Did he summon you?”
“Not in so many words, but he summoned Will, and I thought I’d come along to keep him company.”
“Well, Will on the journey too,” Lancelot chuckled, “and the King, I suppose, while they were waiting for everyone to get there. Lord Pellinore and Sir Mordred, I mean.”
Lord Pellinore and Sir Mordred and young William? “He really means to try her, then?” asked Bors.
There was no need to ask which “her” Bors had in mind. “Aye,” Lancelot replied. And gulped.
“Wright help us all,” Bors murmured, making the sign of the plumbbob over himself. “What’s this world coming to?”
“Who would do such a thing to a child?” Lancelot asked in the tone of a man believing himself to be agreeing with his neighbor.
“If she did it.”
“Aye, that’s true. It’s not been proven yet. Well, legally proven.”
“And even if she did …” Bors sighed. “Well, it’s a good thing for the lad that he’s all right, but … he’s a gypsy boy. Whoever heard of a noblewoman being tried for kidnapping a gypsy boy? The son of an acknowledged whore, no less?”
“I can’t imagine it happens too often, but I can’t imagine many noblewomen kidnap young gypsy boys. Or girls. Never mind to … well … I’ve heard the accusations from Lady Dindrane’s own father’s lips. I can’t think many women, many mothers! would do such a thing.”
“Maybe Lady Dindrane made it up.”
“Why would she do something like that?” Lancelot gasped.
“I don’t know. I don’t know. It makes about as much sense as anything else. Women gossip, women make up stories –”
“Bors, you can’t be comparing those kinds of accusations with simple gossip!”
“It …” Bors sighed. “Well, it makes as much sense as any other explanation I can come up with.”
“Including that everybody — barring Lady Morgause — is telling the truth?”
“Absolutely,” Bors shuddered. “The world’s turned upside-down, Lance. I never thought I’d say this — but in the past year … I’ve gotten old, friend.”
“Hmm,” Lancelot murmured. Before Bors could feel hurt that that his friend wasn’t defending his youth or reassuring him that he still had many good years left in him, Lancelot continued, “Well … you will be a grandsire in a few short months.”
Bors laughed. “In other words it’s about damn time I started feeling old?”
“Something like that!”
Bors smiled before he sighed. “It’s one thing to know you’re soon to be a grandsire, Lance — it’s quite another thing to feel it. To … look, I hear myself thinking, every time one of the servants gossips about this mess or Elyan brings home some crackpot theory he heard in school or while he was training, this wouldn’t have happened while we were young. Think about it. Thirty years ago, who would have heard the like?”
“Maybe it’s not so much time,” Lancelot took a sip, “as … well … Arthur.”
“You can’t tell me that he wants put his own sister on trial for her life.”
“I’d never say that,” Lancelot whispered. “No. No, he doesn’t want this. But …”
“Well … what other choice does he have?”
“In Glasonland …”
“This isn’t Glasonland, Bors. In Glasonland, aye, Arthur wouldn’t be prosecuting. He wouldn’t dare. But …”
“Well, just because something wouldn’t happen in Glasonland doesn’t mean it’s wrong that it happens here. Lord, Bors, don’t you remember that campaign?”
“That campaign” could only mean one thing for those men who had lived through it. King Vortigern’s — Prince Vortigern, as he was then — scheme to conquer Reme and place his brother-in-law on its throne.
Bors was about to protest his wish not to be reminded, but Lancelot would have none of that. “You remember the bodies. The peasant bodies, just — left to rot in the sun. The stench of them while our generals and their generals negotiated ransoms for the noblemen who had been captured.Talking about money, so cold and callous, as if they couldn’t see or hear or smell … you remember Arthur’s rant about that, after it happened?”
“That’s not something a man forgets.”
“He swore it wouldn’t happen again. Not if he was in charge. Peasant blood is just as red as noble blood, he said, and we’ve no more right to spill it than we’ve a right to spill a nobleman’s blood. And if there is something so important that we have to spill a poor man’s blood for it … then we ought to be just as willing to spill a rich man’s blood for it, if the occasion calls for it.” Lancelot bit his lip. “Well, that’s what Arthur swore. And … and you can’t make oaths like that and not expect the Lord Wright to call you on them. So … we have this.”
“Is that what Arthur thinks?” Bors gasped.
“No-o, or at least, if he does, he hasn’t said so. That’s what I think. Which means,” Lancelot laughed mirthlessly, “it’s probably wrong! But it’s what I think.”
Bors swished his wine in his glass, a churning sea in miniature. “Lance?”
“Don’t let men tell you that you’re a fool. That’s the wisest thing I’ve heard in … in … a very long time,” Bors finished, cursing his lack of words.
“Hmm. Well, don’t tell Arthur I said it. The last thing he needs to be thinking right now is that this is somehow all his fault.”
Bors grunted — not his normal, ill-tempered grunt, but a simple sound of acknowledgement that did not quite rise to the level of a word. Still, Lancelot would know it for what it was. “So,” he asked, “when’s the trial to be?”
“Sir Mordred asked for time to prepare, so not for a month or more.”
“Did Sir Mordred say what the defense would be?” Bors asked.
“Not to me! And not to Arthur, I don’t think, or Lord Pellinore. Certainly not to Will.”
“If there was some kind of reasonable explanation, you’d think Sir Mordred would come out with it immediately, and spare us the trouble and scandal.”
“Hmm,” Lancelot grunted. “I shouldn’t say that. Sir Mordred’s not the nicest fellow — and whether Lady Morgause is guilty or not, she’s not the nicest woman. If their blood was up, I wouldn’t put it past them to save their reasonable explanation until the trial, if only to make us all look like fo — what’s that?” he asked, suddenly breaking off.
“What’s –” Bors started, and then he heard it too. A strange clumping noise, with a definite rhythm, but a jerky one, as if —
Bors laughed. “Ah, Lance! It’s been too long, hasn’t it, since you –”
The door flew open and a small body came running in.
“–heard the pitter-patter of little feet, isn’t it?”
“Pap–!” Lionel was calling as he trotted in. But he froze when he saw Lancelot — or at least, parts of him froze. The rest of him had to catch up, and the resulting unbalance sent his rear to the floor with the thump.
“–a …” Lionel finished, his wide dark eyes drinking Lancelot in.
And Bors’s heart smote him. He could not remember it very well, but he thought — he thought — that Gwendolyn and Clarice used to look like that whenever they faced a man or woman they knew not well. Now when he looked into his daughter’s wide eyes, he could only rarely read an emotion. He was glad — he really was — that they had grown into such exemplary young ladies, but … sometimes he wished he had paid more attention, been more active when they were little. He’d left them to their nurses and mother, as he thought was proper, but he had missed so much.
If there was one silver lining to the cloud of Claire’s illness and obstinacy, it was this: he now knew what he was missing. He would not make the mistake of missing it with Lionel and Evette.
Lancelot crouched down to tousle the lad’s hair. “Well, Lionel! Don’t look at me like that. It’s Uncle Lance! Don’t you remember me?”
Lancelot had missed nothing. If Bors had ever thought he might have, he thought so no longer when he saw how instantly calm and at ease he was with Lionel. He used to think Lancelot somewhat weak and womanish for all the time and attention he’d lavished on his children when they were little, but now, he knew better. Lancelot had seemed to realize implicitly that these times were fleeting and were best seized when they could be seized. There would always be hunts, and tournaments, and tenants’ issues to settle. But one’s children would not be little forever.
Lionel did seem to remember Lancelot, though, for after a moment he smiled. That was all the encouragement Lancelot needed to scoop the boy up in his arms and hold him at an arm’s length. “Well, hello again, Lionel! Let’s see how you enjoy the weather up here!”
Before he’d had children, Bors had thought that nothing could be as annoying as the high-pitched squeals the littlest of them called laughter. He’d been pleasantly surprised, when his first brood was still little, to find the sound as not unpleasant and as relaxing as it was. And now? Now it was music to his ears. Particularly if the laughing child was his own.
“Perhaps you’d like to go high-er?” Lancelot asked, moving his arms down just a little — Bors knew what that meant —
“No, don’t!” he called out — too soon! Damn it, why did he have to say that?
Lancelot froze, though, and Lionel turned the surprised and panicked glance he always turned to Bors when Bors’s voice was raised. “What’s the matter?”
“It — it –” Bors felt himself grow uncomfortably warm. “Elyan tried tossing him in the air — it — it scared him.”
“Oh!” Lancelot replied. Bors hung his head. Bors waited for Lancelot to express the shock and horror that had thrilled through him when he himself realized that his son was not yet two and showing signs of cowardice.
He certainly didn’t expect Lancelot to turn to Lionel and say, “Well, then I guess I’ll just have to tickle him!” — but that was what he did.
Lionel squealed and tried to dodge the tickling fingers, but through it all his laugh rose like a burbling brook. It was the laugh that chased all of Bors’s worries about the type of man his son was growing into away, as it always did.
He certainly could not be doing wrong by his son to enjoy this time while it lasted, for now, after raising four children most of the way to adulthood, he knew it would not last long. Bors tousled Lionel’s hair, and Lionel looked up at him with a smile.
“You’ve a gift with the young ones, haven’t you, Lance? I can’t believe I never noticed it before,” Bors murmured.
“Eh, I don’t see how any man who’s raised three himself can not have a gift,” Lancelot shrugged.
“You must be positively looking forward to becoming a grandsire.”
“As opposed to dreading it?” Lancelot laughed. “Eh, it’ll be nice to have little ones to spoil again.” He tickled Lionel again. “And then hand them back to their parents!”
“You must be wishing your young William and the Princess would get on with it already.”
“Perhaps, but Gwen would have my head if I said anything,” Lancelot replied — with a chuckle. As if it was only something to laugh about, not a shocking display of boldness on his wife’s part!
Then again … Guinevere was nothing if not bold. Perhaps it was just as well that Lancelot was used to it, and didn’t seem to mind it. Lancelot was not the man to beat boldness out of a woman, which was what it would take to chastise Guinevere into meekness, and yet even Guinevere was not so bold as to deserve beatings.
“And besides, knowing Will — and knowing Jessie, too — they’ve already gotten on with it, and … well, things are just taking a bit longer than we’d like them too. And in that case there’s nothing to do but be patient. The Lord will bless them with children — and more importantly, Gwen and me with grandchildren — in His own good time.”
“Patience,” Bors murmured. “I should have known you’d say that. You are quite patient, aren’t you?”
“Er … thank you?”
“But I’m not,” Bors heard himself start to say.
“… Eh?” Lancelot asked, stopping his tickling.
“The lad’s timid,” Bors heard himself spit out.
“This lad?” Lancelot asked, bouncing Lionel up and down.
“Aye. Aye! I told you — I told you how he didn’t like to be thrown up in the air and caught again?”
“Bors, Bors, not all children like all games!”
“It’s not just that. He doesn’t like strangers. I’m shocked he warmed up to you as quickly as he did.”
“Well, I’m hardly a stranger, am I, Lionel?” Lancelot bounced Lionel again and tickled him. “I’m Uncle Lance! Your favorite!”
“Lance, he was — he was nervous around Clarice. And Gwendolyn! His own sisters!”
Lancelot stared at Bors for a long moment. Then, without a word, he handed Lionel back to Bors. Bors started to fear the worst.
Then Lancelot started to speak. “Bors, do you remember when Will was little?”
“Er … yes?”
“Do you remember what he was like at this age? Shy?”
“He was fine with women — most women — all right, most of the women of our acquaintance, who were with his mother and thus him day and night — but he was so shy around men! He was used to Pater and I, but do you remember how he’d never let you hold him? And he only barely tolerated Arthur!”
After a slow minute, Bors nodded. Yes — yes, he did remember how oddly shy and … yes, timid, young William had been.
“And look at Will now!” Lancelot concluded with a smile. “Prosecuting his first case! Won the heart of a Princess! Not half a bad hand with a sword, either!”
“He’s still awfully quiet in company …”
“Well, unfortunately for Will, he was scarcely two when the twins — er — my twins were born. Galahad and Leona. I could scarcely fit in a word edgewise after that momentous event. Will, I think Will stopped trying.”
“And besides, even if he’s not so talkative — well, so what? It takes all types. We need listeners as much as we need talkers. If not more so.”
“Bors. Stop worrying. If for no other reason than that Lionel’s not even two yet. See what type of boy he turns out to be before you fret about the man he’ll become.”
“But he’ll be a man before I know it.”
“Then enjoy the boy he is while you still can,” Lancelot said, as he patted Bors’s shoulder and shuffled out of the room.
Leaving Bors alone with his son.
“He has a point. You’re scarcely a boy yet, aren’t you, Lionel?”
“Big boy!” Lionel replied.
Not that big, yet. And hopefully not for a while yet. But no man could have raised four children most of the way to adulthood without learning, by the time the fifth came along, that it was better to let the little boys think they were big — it was the big boys you had to worry about, getting too big for their britches.
“And you’re a fine one,” Bors murmured, mostly to himself. “And most importantly, my lad …
“You’re my boy.”