“Oof!” Melou grunted, lifting the ball from the holder. “It’s heavy, Papa!”
“Well, it’s a bowling ball, lad,” Mordred chuckled. “Were you expecting it to be light as a feather?” Melehan giggled and Mordred winked at him.
He leaned his head back and forced himself to exhale. He needed this, this day, this break. Visiting Rosette was always as restful to his spirit as a month in bed was to his body, but Rosette was an adult. Even if she knew better than to press him for information about his mother — even though she understood that when he came to her, he wanted an escape from all the pressures of life, especially that one — she still knew precisely what was going on. He could see the questions crowding in her eyes whenever she looked at him. What had actually happened with his mother? Would she be all right? How was he bearing up? It was enough to almost make him wish she would ask and get it over with already.
Indeed, the only thing keeping him from wishing it outright, or — worse — bringing up the subject himself was the knowledge that he could not lie to Rosette in answer to those questions. He could not lie because it would be hard enough to determine the truth when she asked, let alone come up with a plausible falsehood to cover it. It was all he could do to keep from discovering the truth of those questions on his own. Hence taking the boys out.
Mordred smiled a little as Melou lumbered bowlegged to the starting position, and debated calling to him, helping him improve his posture and stance. He forebore. Let’s see what the lad comes up with.
What he came up with was probably the silliest bowling stance Mordred had ever seen.
“Papa, is he doing that right?” Melehan asked, frowning a little.
“Er …” Mordred murmured. “Melou, perhaps you might –”
Too late — Melou swung his arms back, then forward — let go —
“MELOU!” Mordred yelped when Melou went belly-first to the floor, treating Mordred to the image of his feet and boots waggling in the air.
Melou didn’t cry out — didn’t gasp or sob — Mordred would have well and truly panicked had Melou’s head not jerked up instantly, the angle of his curls indicating that he was watching the ball.
The ball, however, had already rolled into the gutter and sedately made its way to the end of the track, missing all of the pins.
Melou’s body went limp and Mordred panicked again. He was half out of his seat when Melou made his shaky way to his feet. Melou did not face them until he had well dusted himself. Mordred had to smile. His boys were nothing if not conscientious, even at so young an age.
Then Melou turned around. His lip was quivering, and before Mordred could check his face for damage, he burst into tears.
“Melou!” Mordred and Melehan both leapt to their feet. “What hurts? What’s wrong?”
“N-n-nothing!” he sobbed. “I just — it didn’t h-h-h-hit any of the p-pins!”
Mordred slumped back onto the bench.
Melehan had other thoughts. “Melou! Don’t be such a crybaby. It’s just a game!”
“You say that when you get a — get a –”
“Gutterball,” Mordred filled in, and winced. That was all he needed to do, give the lad encouragement —
“It’s got a name?” Melou gasped. “Am I the worst bowler ever, Papa?”
“No, no, of course you’re not, Melou.” No one sensible would call a four-year-old who had never bowled before the world’s worst bowler. At least, Mordred didn’t think they would. He scrambled for something to point out to calm the lad down. After all, if he couldn’t convince a four-year-old that all was well, how would he —
Don’t go there.
He didn’t go there. “Son, if it has a name, that means you’re not the only one to have done it.”
Melou looked up, tears still standing in his eyes and something that looked suspiciously like snot hanging from the corner of his nose. “That’s … true.”
“Aye. So why don’t you get another ball and see what happens?”
Melou’s eyes lit up, but the lighting only lasted as long as he faced Mordred. Mordred could only imagine with what expression he addressed the ball.
Melehan hopped back onto the bench. “D’you think he’ll do better this time, Papa?” he asked.
Mordred smiled. This was why he liked going out with his boys. Not only were they his boys and the finest of their kind in the kingdom, they always had a question or a comment for him. And questions and comments kept him alert, on his feet, thinking — thinking how to answer, not anything else that might be troubling him. “I’m almost certain he will.”
“Well, because Sims very rarely make the same mistake …”
Mordred trailed off, watching Melou about to complete the through-the-legs shot again. “Melou! Wait a moment!”
He rose and walked up to Melou. “Like this.” He put his son’s fingers into the holes. “Only one hand, you see?”
“But Papa, it’s heavy.”
“I know it is, but if you use only one hand … the way it’s meant to be used … you’ll be able to aim better, and perhaps hit a few more pins, and that’s what you want, isn’t it?”
Melou wrinkled his nose and looked at the ball. “Aye,” he said with the grim determination of a warrior at least thirty years his senior.
Mordred chuckled and tousled the boy’s hair. “That’s what I thought. Now, practice a swing. Here, I’ll guide you.”
The guided practice swing went fine. The unguided one would have led to a smashed kneecap on the part of Mordred had he not jumped out of the way. Melou didn’t even notice, but a glance over his shoulder told Mordred that Melehan had seen, and understood, and was staring at them both with a gaping mouth. Mordred elected to sit after that, but Melehan jumped up as soon as Melou decided he had enough of practicing and loosed the ball.
“Come on, come on –” Melou called. Then the ball crashed against one, two, three — six pins went down. “Whoo!” Melou called, and cocked an eyebrow at his brother. “Bet you weren’t expecting that.”
“Good job, Melou. Is it my turn? Is it? Is it, Papa?” Melehan demanded, jumping from foot to foot.
“Aye, lad, it’s your turn,” Mordred chuckled, then outright laughed as Melehan clapped his hand and ran up to the ball holder. “But wait for the servants to set the pins back up!”
Melehan hopped from foot to foot — no mean feat with a ball in hand — as the servants scrambled to right the pins. “Wait,” Mordred commanded. “Don’t even think about going until I say you can.”
Melou, however, meandered to one of the chair and hopped onto it. “Betcha I’ll do better than Melehan.”
Mordred hesitated. The boys would never get anywhere without ambition and a competitive spirit, but … But they’re only four, protested Mordred’s voice of reason.
So Mordred leaned back, rested his head on his hands, and shrugged. “I’m sure he’ll do fine. As you did.”
“But I think I’ll do better.”
“Melou –” Mordred’s lazy gaze drifted back to Melehan. He sat up, his boots slamming into the floor. “Melehan! No, no, not that way! The way I showed your brother!”
“No, let me try it this way, Papa!” Melehan protested.
“But …” Mordred sighed and leaned back against the bench. Melou hadn’t been hurt when he fell. Melehan might not even fall. He was always a bit better balanced than his brother.
Except, or so it seemed, when it came to the throwing of bowling balls.
Mordred smacked his forehead, but Melehan didn’t shout or cry — well, unless one cared to count a surprised, “Whoa!” as he fell forward, which Mordred didn’t. And like his brother, Melehan’s first act after falling flat onto his face was to look up.
Unlike his brother, though, Melehan did not have to watch his ball meander into the gutter and into oblivion. No, he got to watch his rolls straight down the center aisle, hitting the centermost pin. One fell, then two, then three, then four …
“Wow, Papa!” Melehan gasped from his position leaning on his elbows. “Did you see that? Did you see that?”
“Aye, I saw that.”
“Six pins!” Melehan shouted, jumping to his feet.
“Exactly the same as me!” Melou replied.
“But I get another try!”
Melou’s eyes went wide. “Is that true, Papa?”
“Aye, it’s true.”
Melou pouted and leaned back.
Melehan, on the other hand, danced back to the ball holder even as the bowling lanes’ servants scrambled to remove the fallen pins. Melehan grabbed another ball and passed it between his legs.
“Melehan …” Mordred started, then stopped. Why protest? The first time had worked out well for the lad — well, other than the part where he fell onto his stomach. But he hadn’t seemed to mind. “Careful, Melehan,” he said instead.
Melehan’s second throw was very much like his first, except for two things. The first was that he managed, despite his unorthodox style, to remain upright. That was the good thing. The second, bad thing was that he knocked over no pins — not a surprise, as this ball followed the same trajectory as the first.
“Six pins!” Melou cried out when Melehan’s ball rolled past the remaining pins. “The same as me!”
“Aye,” Melehan agreed, swinging himself onto the second chair. Something very much like hurt twinged in Mordred’s heart — hurt that his own son hadn’t wanted to sit by him — but he smothered it. “Papa, is it your turn?”
Mordred hesitated. “Would you — both — like it to be?”
“Oh, aye!” Melehan called out, and Melou nodded.
Anything his twins agreed on had to be right. “Well, then, if you both insist …” Mordred winked, grabbed a ball, and proceeded to line up his shot.
In the end they played two games, both of which Mordred had to somehow contrive to lose, to the point where he had to use a spell or two to ensure a gutterball when necessary. Oh, he got a couple strikes and a spare or two over the course of the games, just to show the lads how it was done, and to ensure that they would listen when he tried to give them pointers … or just try to get them to toss the ball in a way that wasn’t likely to end up with a chipped tooth he would somehow have to explain to Rosette. But too soon the games were over, Melou having the first victory and Melehan the second, and his boys were clamoring for a meal.
Well, they were growing lads. And there was a food stand just outside the lanes. It was nothing to herd the boys to it.
Really, the hardest part of the exercise was keeping himself from smiling when his twins, who so often wanted everyone to know just how different they were, both ordered the same thing.
“So, my lads,” he asked as the vendor turned to her cooking, “how has school been going?”
“Good!” Melehan grinned. “We’re learning our sums now!”
“Oh, really?” Mordred asked. He glanced sidelong at Melou, somewhat surprised that the lad wasn’t watching the cooking with wide eyes. On those rare occasions when his father had brought him to a place like this, he’d always gasped to see the food going from stray bits of meat and vegetables to a fully-cooked meal.
Then again … these boys saw Rosette cooking for them every night. It probably wasn’t as much of a novelty for them.
Mordred cleared his throat. “So — my lads. If you’re so good with your sums, tell me … what’s the sum of 1,549 and 6,318?”
Melehan stared at him, eyes wide even as his hair flopped into them. “That’s … that’s a big number.”
The vendor half-flung Mordred’s plate in front of him and Mordred winced. Didn’t she know it would be better to feed the boys first and let the father wait? To distract them from his food, he turned to Melou. “Melou? Do you know?”
Melou had his eyes squeezed shut, but eventually he sighed. “I can’t count that high.”
“What, not enough fingers? Haven’t your teachers taught you to use your toes yet?”
“Papa!” Melehan laughed. “Nobody has that many toes!”
“Aye …” Melou said slowly, watching his father. “I’ve seen my toes, and Melehan’s toes, and Mama’s toes, and even the baby’s toes. Did you know she likes to eat them, Papa?”
“She doesn’t eat them, she just sucks on them,” Melehan interjected.
“How do you know that?” Melou challenged.
“Because they’re still there next time she goes to suck on them, stupid!”
“Boys,” Mordred murmured. “You know that’s not a nice word.”
“Sorry, Papa,” Melehan pouted. “But they are. Still there, I mean. And if she tried to bite them, wouldn’t she cry? That would hurt!”
The vendor put Melehan and Melou’s plates before them, and Mordred tucked into his own food with a will born only of hunger, but even that wasn’t enough to stave off the argument. “She barely has teeth yet, dummy,” Melou retorted.
“What? I didn’t say ‘stupid’!”
“But you did now!” Melehan crowed.
“It doesn’t count if you’re just saying it to — to –”
Mordred turned to Melou, eyebrows upraised and frankly wondering how the boy intended to talk his way out of this one.
“To just say the word,” Melou finally forced out. “I mean. It’s not bad if you’re not calling someone stupid — dummy,” he added and stuck his tongue out.
Mordred leaned his head back and stared into the thatch above his head. “Melou,” he asked after a long moment wondering whether a quick swat to the bottom would get the point across more loudly and clearly than all the logic in the world — and deciding to try the logical anyway — “what’s the functional difference between ‘dummy’ and ‘stupid,’ when both are used as a name to call a Sim?”
“Huh?” Melou asked.
“How is calling your brother a ‘dummy’ different from calling him ‘stupid’?”
“Mama doesn’t yell as loud if you say ‘dummy’?” Melehan guessed.
Mordred closed his eyes. “Not … quite the difference I was going for, however true it may be.”
“Teacher doesn’t yell as loudly?” Melou hazarded.
“Not that either.”
Silence — well, silence and chewing. He did have a pair of growing boys who weren’t going to neglect their lunches just to try to figure out what it was their inscrutable father was trying to teach them now. And he would expect no less of them.
Finally, though, when both of the boys’ lunches were half-gone, Melou ventured to speak again. “I don’t know, Papa.”
“Precisely,” Mordred replied. “There is very little difference. Therefore, if you shouldn’t call someone ‘stupid,’ do you think you should call him a ‘dummy’?”
“… No,” Melou admitted.
“But, but, if it’s all right to call people ‘dummy’ –” Melehan started. A swift glance from Mordred ended that. The boys wolfed down the rest of their meal in silence.
And no sooner had Mordred settled the bill than Melehan was tugging on his shirt sleeve. “Papa, Papa! The maze! Can we try the maze? Can we, please?”
Mordred considered this for about a second, then shrugged. “Certainly, why not?” Rosette wouldn’t expect them back until sometime before dinner. They had plenty of time, and it wasn’t that complicated a maze anyway.
He barely had a chance to say that before Melou tore off between the birch trees, Melehan calling, “Melou! Melou! Wait for me!”
Mordred chuckled and followed them.
He hesitated a moment in the entrance, listening for the footsteps as they receded into the distance. And, of course, the shouts. The bushes dulled the noise, but they could not kill it.
He cast a quick spell to determine who else might be in the maze. There was no one. Mordred waited long enough for the boys to get themselves good and lost — in other words, lost enough that they wouldn’t come back to him for help. That he would not give. It would do the boys good to get a taste of independence, to have to figure things out for themselves. It would also do them good to be forced to work together, though Mordred wouldn’t have bet anything important — like money — on them doing that.
He set off through the close-grown hedges.
No sooner did the voices of his sons fail to fill his ears, no quicker than their welfare and enjoyment became not his first and only care, than all the other cares and troubles come rushing into his mind. Mordred sighed.
They struggled for ascendency and dominance, and Mordred could only bow under the assault. Finally the most troubling asserted itself in his mind. His meeting yesterday morning with his father-in-law.
Talking to Pellinore, who had been appointed judge over Morgause, was bad enough. Mordred could not hope to approve of Arthur handing that duty off to — to — anyone other than Arthur himself. Arthur swore it would be more fair this way; Mordred failed to see how appointing the father of one of the principle witnesses against Morgause as the judge could be fair.
Those thoughts carried him as far as the center of the maze, and it was with a sigh that he seated himself on the conveniently-placed bench. He stroked the familiar wood with a sigh. It was on this very bench that he had first convinced Rosette to let him slip a hand inside her dress …
Thoughts of Rosette, however, only brought Mordred back to thoughts of Pellinore. And no wonder — for once, Pellinore had not wanted to talk about the upcoming trial, to wrangle about jury members or accepted questions or other procedures. No. He wanted to talk about Dindrane. Specifically, he wanted to arrange for an interview between Mordred and Dindrane, at which Pellinore himself would be present.
Mordred sighed and rested his head in his hands, remembering how that had gone.
Dindrane was pregnant.
Once again, he cursed his wife’s timing. Why now, of all times, would she have to be carrying his child? For Mordred could not even hope to delude himself that the child wasn’t his. They had started trying for a spare after Gawaine’s first birthday. And though Dindrane had a legion of faults, unfaithfulness was not one of them. He could no sooner imagine her laying with another man than he could imagine her giggling like a schoolgirl.
But Dindrane had no timing. Mordred was not sure which aspect of it was worse — the fact that he would have to tread softly when he questioned her at the trial, for fear of looking like he was browbeating a pregnant woman? His own wife, nonetheless? The fact that someone in the Gwynedd household had refused to let them have that interview alone, implying that Mordred was not to be trusted alone with Dindrane even when she carried a child? The difficulty this would make if he decided —
“Papa? Are you all right?”
Mordred looked up. “Melehan.”
“You seem sad, Papa,” Melehan said, thumping onto the seat without waiting for an invitation.
“Oh … I’m just tired.”
Melehan knit his brows. “Mama says the same thing sometimes.”
What? Rosette looked sad? No, no, she must have only been tired. Or if she was sad — her family had barely anything to do with her — that would make any woman sad, would it not?
Please, dear Lord, let that be all it is — I can’t — I can’t even think about —
“But I guess Mama has a lot of reason to be tired,” Melehan continued, grinning. “With me and Melou running her ragged, and Aimée.”
“Melou and I,” Mordred corrected, or tried to correct, barely listening.
“Melou and I,” Melehan repeated. ” … Papa?”
“Can I ask you something?”
Mordred looked up, and into a pair of jade-green eyes he could not more have refused than he could have walked across the surface of the sun. “Of course.”
“… Your last name is Orkney, right?”
It was all Mordred could do to hold back a gasp. What had the lad heard? “Yes …”
“Then …” But the questions Mordred was bracing himself for — why were the boys and Aimée surnamed FitzOrk, why did Rosette have a different last name altogether, was it true that he was married and had other children — never came.
Instead, along came something worse.
“Is, is Lady Morgause Orkney in your family, then?”
Mordred’s jaw fell. And before he could think of a suitable lie, or deny the relationship altogether, his traitorous lips answered, “Yes. She is my mother.”
“Oh,” Melehan murmured.
“Why do you ask?” Mordred asked cautiously.
“Lad?” Mordred asked, putting his arm around Melehan and tugging him closer. He needed something to hold onto, and his son’s warm, breathing four-year-old body —
He would not think of that.
Melehan was only too happy to snuggle next to him, setting off all sorts of unpleasant associations that only the fact that this was his son, and nobody’s half-forgotten nephew, could dispel. Then, burying his head in Mordred’s chest, Melehan murmured, “The — the boys at school say she did something bad.”
“Something bad?” How was his voice so flat and unaffected? “Such as?”
“They said she … she killed a little boy. Like me or Melou.”
“First of all … you and Melou are big boys,” Mordred replied. He was in enough control that only someone who knew him very well — Rosette or Morgause herself — could hope to hear the tremor in his voice. Melehan relaxed to hear the control and calmness. “And secondly, she did not kill any boys, little or otherwise.”
“Oh,” Melehan sighed in relief. Then he tensed again. “But the boys at school said she was arrested! Doesn’t that only happen to bad people?”
“Sometimes … sometimes it happens to good people as well,” Mordred finally replied. “But it was a mistake. And I am doing everything I can to make sure that mistake is fixed.”
“It was a mistake?”
“Aye.” And they have no idea how big of a mistake that was.
“All right. Should I tell the boys at school that?”
“Tell the boys at school what?”
Mordred looked up. “That Melehan beat you to the maze’s center.”
“Oh, I figured that out a long time ago,” Melou dismissed. “I just wanted to see what else was in the maze.”
“And what did you find?” Mordred asked.
Mordred chuckled, and in so chuckling, he only barely noticed the quick glance Melou cast at Melehan, and the way Melehan winked in reply.
As it was, though, Melou was balancing back and forth on the balls of his feet. “Papa?”
“I’m tired. Can we go home soon?”
Melehan untangled himself from Mordred, leaving Mordred to face this question alone.
At least it was an easy one. “Aye, we can go home.” Melehan hopped up to lead the way, and Mordred only stopped to pull Melou into a hug. “If you’re tired, that is. Because to be honest …”
He sighed into his boy’s hair and did his best not to frown. “Papa’s tired, too.”