Darid 26, 1013
Father Hugh shuffled down the cold hall of the monastery. The older he got, the more the wind seemed to whip and whistle through every crack in the stone walls. The fact that these particular walls faced the sheltered courtyard or else the interior of this wing of the abbey didn’t matter at all. He was still chilly.
Or — what was rather more likely — he was feeling the force of his reception ahead of time. For he knew what was awaiting him in the library. The weight of his sleeve, and the missive within it, practically weighed him down. It was from Father Peter, abbot of the whole Order of St. Pascal. It came with two identical (Father Hugh assumed) missives, one for Sir Mordred, the other for Lady Dindrane. That could only mean one thing.
Father Peter had finally given his judgment, his final judgment, on the subject of Sir Mordred and Lady Dindrane’s marriage.
This should have come as a relief to Father Hugh — finally, the saga, the stress, could all be over. But it wasn’t over yet, not for him. He would have to tell both sides what Father Peter had decided. Worst of all, Father Hugh himself didn’t know yet what it would be — he would only open his missive in front of them — so he didn’t even know how he would break the news, whatever it was, to them. No matter which way things went, somewhere deep his bones, he knew that his work was only just beginning.
With that thought, he came to the library door, gulped, and pushed it open.
Battle lines had already been drawn, he saw — well, when hadn’t they been drawn? Lady Dindrane and her father sat on one side of the table, Sir Mordred and Prince Kay on the other. Prince Kay was the only one to smile at Father Hugh when he came in. Father Hugh wondered — was the Prince here as an ally and moral support for Sir Mordred? Or only as a representative of the royal family? King Arthur would doubtless want someone on the spot, to know what the decision was. It wasn’t every day that a marital alliance between two of the most powerful families in the kingdom disintegrated. And this would be the perfect duty for a younger son just home from Camford.
Or maybe, Father Hugh realized, it could be both.
After greeting everyone politely and being greeted in turn, Father Hugh walked to the head of the table. He briefly considered opening the meeting with a prayer, but rejected the idea as quickly as it came to him. Everyone’s nerves were already wound to the breaking point as it was. Adding a prayer to the mix would only prolong the agony. Besides, the Lord Wright heard all prayers, not just the ones spoken aloud — and if there was anyone in this room who wasn’t praying, it was probably Prince Kay.
“Well,” Father Hugh said simply, resting one hand on his forearm, “I suppose we all know why we’re here.”
“What is Father Peter’s decision?” Sir Mordred asked.
Yes, one could trust Sir Mordred to leap feet-first into the chase. At least Father Hugh had an honest answer. “I have not read it — yet. You know it is customary in these cases for all parties to see the letters in question before the seals are broken.”
“Indeed,” answered Lord Pellinore. “Quite right. That is the procedure.”
Father Hugh could not help glancing sidelong at Sir Mordred and Prince Kay, one former (for all intents and purpose, whatever the letters said) and the other a future son-in-law of Lord Pellinore. The future son-in-law looked curious, painstakingly respectful. The former son-in-law rolled his eyes.
“Then let’s see the letters,” Sir Mordred snapped.
Father Hugh might have had a sharp word for him, but Lady Dindrane was nodding, too. And there was no point in drawing out the suspense still further. “Of course. I have them right here.” Father Hugh fished them out of his sleeve and laid them on the table, atop a sheet of cloth that had been used to wrap all three letters.
Both Sir Mordred and Lady Dindrane stared at the letters. Lady Dindrane’s hand reached out for one of them — the one that bore her name — then drew back. Sir Mordred merely stared at them, eating them with his eyes.
Father Hugh picked up his letter, drew a penknife from his sleeve and flicked the seal off. “If you all don’t mind,” he said, “I shall read mine first? Then we shall discuss the findings.”
“Of course not, Father,” Prince Kay replied, which quite handily shut down any protests Sir Mordred or Lady Dindrane might have made. “Here, I’ll get you a chair,” added the Prince, rising and carrying one of the unoccupied chairs to the head of the table.
“Oh — thank you, son.” Father Hugh had to hand it to the Queen. He remembered what the Princes (and Princess!) had been like as children — rambunctious, questioning, ready to bounce off the walls at the first opportunity. Yet they were polite and polished adults now, perhaps more polite and polished than was necessary. Never had Father Hugh imagined he would see the day when royalty fetched a chair for him and saw that he sat in it.
Still, none of that was here or there. Father Hugh took the proffered chair, unrolled the letter, and began to make his way through the laborious Church Old Simlish.
To our Brother Hugh, Abbot of Camelot Monastery, Peter, called Venerable, Abbot of the Order of St. Pascal, sends greetings in Wright. We hope this letter finds you in as good or better health, bodily and spiritual, than it leaves us at present …
Yes, yes, thought Father Hugh, skipping over the greeting and the usual polite detritus that littered the beginnings of letters. He could read that later. What he wanted to know — what everyone at this table wanted to know — was what Father Peter’s reply to their petition would be.
I have prayed long and hard over your petition, and the petitions of Sir Mordred and Lady Dindrane, on the matter of their marriage. Without regret I must deny …
Father Hugh blinked.
“Father Hugh?” asked Lady Dindrane. “Is there something amiss?”
Drat — his surprise and dismay must have shown on his face. “No, no — at least — let me finish reading, daughter.” Without another word he turned back to the letter. Perhaps he had misread.
He had not.
Father Peter had denied the petition.
Father Hugh sat back in his chair, entirely unable to keep his jaw from falling.
“Father Hugh? What is it?” asked Sir Mordred. He would not be put off as easily as Lady Dindrane. And indeed, he should not.
“My son … my daughter …” Father Hugh looked again at the letter, wondering how best to put this. Certainly more gently than Father Peter had. They could read his words for themselves later, after the worst of the shock had worn off. “It appears that though he has prayed long and hard over the matter, Father Peter could not find enough grounds to accept your — our petition for the annulment of your marriage. I regret to inform you that he has denied it.”
Father Hugh held his breath while he waited for the reaction to come. He did not have to hold it long.
“What?!” Sir Mordred yelped. Lady Dindrane let out a short cry of pain, like an animal in distress that was nonetheless afraid to broadcast its location to predators.
“What the hell is the meaning of this?” demanded Sir Mordred.
“Sir Mordred!” Father Hugh snapped. “This is holy ground! You will show some respect!”
Sir Mordred’s eyes narrowed, his brows furrowed, his nostrils flared — but he did not protest outright. “My question still stands,” was his only reply. It was the best Father Hugh was going to get out of him; that was certain.
So Father Hugh pushed SIr Mordred’s scroll in his direction. “Here. Take it, sir. Perhaps it would be best for all of us to take a day or so to digest this news, then reconvene after we all have had a chance –”
“No,” said Lady Dindrane. Her lip quivered, but there was steel in her flame-blue eyes. “I want to know now. I will not spend the next three hours trying to untangle the Abbot’s Old Simlish.” She shot an unreadable glance at Sir Mordred. “I have children to whom I must explain this decision.”
“So do I,” snarled Sir Mordred. Father Hugh would have bet the church, were it his to bet, that they were not talking about the same children.
“I …” Father Hugh drew the letter closer to him. How best to explain this to them — without letting them in on Father Peter’s scathing commentary? They could read that for themselves.
“Well, to begin — there only a few commonly accepted reasons for dissolving a marriage. Unfortunately, none of them apply in this case,” Father Hugh replied.
“And they are?” Sir Mordred snarled.
Father Hugh sighed. “Impotence, lack of or forced consent, one or both parties being too young to wed, one or both parties being already married …” Father Hugh hesitated — was there a possibility … No, don’t be a fool. If there was the slightest hope that Sir Mordred entered into a marriage with his mistress before this all started, then he would have mentioned it. Or the Gwynedds would have.
He cast a glance at the fuming Sir Mordred and sighed again. Even if there hadn’t been much of a chance of Sir Mordred having married his mistress secretly and prior to his marriage to Lady Dindrane, he surely would have said it would have happened if he had thought of it and thought he could get away with it.
He cleared his throat and continued. “There are also reasons of consanguinity and affinity …” Those, Father Hugh had been sure, would have been Sir Mordred and Lady Dindrane’s best bet for ending their marriage. The first concerned close kinship by blood, the second by marriage. Most of the nobility was so intermarried that their marriages violated the laws against consanguinity or affinity anyway — but perhaps it would not be so for the Gwynedds and the Orkneys. Both families were rather new to large amounts of power and influence, and the lower down the social ladder you went, the less intermarried everyone was. Besides, if it had been so, Sir Mordred or Lord Pellinore would have surely dug up the evidence and presented it to Father Peter. It was the best way to end the marriage while saving face.
“And lastly,” Father Hugh continued, “there is …” He winced. “True adultery …”
Lady Dindrane’s head snapped up. “True adultery.”
“My lady, please do not become upset –”
“So you mean to say that he can dally with every maid and milksop in this kingdom, and I cannot become free of this marriage, but if I were to have one — indiscretion! — he would be free to cast me off?”
“Lady Dindrane, please do not –” Father Hugh started.
But he never finished. “According to the most ancient laws, I would also have the right to slay you,” Sir Mordred replied, grinning rather ferally.
“Not my father’s law!” Prince Kay cried. Father Hugh had no idea whether he was right — but he hoped so.
“Indeed! Indeed!” gasped Lord Pellinore, laying a hand on his daughter’s shoulder. “We shall have none of that barbarism!”
However, neither Sir Mordred nor Lady Dindrane paid either of them the least attention. Lady Dindrane stared at Sir Mordred unblinkingly. “Somehow I doubt that having or not having the right to kill me would ever stop you if you truly wanted me dead,” she replied. “Still, it is perhaps luck I’ve never found the man who would entice me to …” She glanced sidelong at Father Hugh and smirked. “Fall so deeply into sin.”
Sir Mordred snorted. “A cold fish like you ought to worry more about finding a man you could entice to fall so deeply into sin.”
“Sir Mordred!” Father Hugh snapped. “That is enough! And you too, Lady Dindrane!”
But Lady Dindrane was not done yet. “And the fear I hav–had for my safety?” Lady Dindrane asked. Father Hugh thought he saw the flame-blue eyes dart to her father, who, despite her attempt to correct her course, seemed to know exactly what she thought. His face was ashen. “Tell me, does Father Peter not consider that to be valid grounds for ending a marriage?”
“I should hope he doesn’t, since such fears are entirely groundless,” Sir Mordred snarled.
“As for … that …” Father Hugh drew the letter nearer to himself. Father Peter had addressed that specifically …
But he had not accorded it the weight it deserved — well, at least according to Father Hugh. “Father Peter points out that it is for the state to protect its citizens from violence … the Church has the higher purpose of protecting its children’s souls.”
Father Peter had also pointed out that the protections of King Arthur, especially given his speed in granting the legal separation of the parties and the way the documents of the separation seemed to favor Lady Dindrane, were doubtless sufficient to protect Lady Dindrane. Unsaid but implied was that he might have been moved if King Arthur had seemed less alert to the danger.
“Does it, now?” Sir Mordred snarled. “If that is the case … then tell me, Father Hugh, what is the date of the letter?”
Father Hugh turned to him with a frown. “Eh?”
“The date. Of the letter.” Sir Mordred sat back, his hands folded behind his head. “Go on, now. Let’s hear it.”
Father Hugh glared, not liking Sir Mordred’s tone — but it is was a legitimate question, albeit a strange one. He glanced at the top of the letter. “The twenty-second of Darid. Only three days to get here. That’s not –”
“Three weeks,” mused Sir Mordred. “Well, give or take a day or so. The chapter house of the Order of St. Pascal is in Camford, is it not?”
“Yes, but I fail to see –”
“About how far is it from the chapter house of the Order of St. Robert?”
Father Hugh blinked. “I’m sorry? I don’t understand why you’re asking this.”
“Roughly. How far away are the two monasteries? A day’s journey? Two days’? Three?”
“They’re both within the city!”
“So within a day?”
Sir Mordred said nothing; only raising an eyebrow at Lord Pellinore.
Lord Pellinore blanched, again. “Sir Mordred, surely you are not suggesting …”
“The most obvious explanation? Of course I’m suggesting the most obvious explanation. It is most often correct.” Lady Dindrane bit her lip, but Sir Mordred seemed not to notice. “On the second of Darid, the envoys of the Order of St. Robert serve our King a steaming pile of horse manure masquerading as an argument for keeping the refugees from Glasonland under their fat thumbs. Our King rightly calls them on this, and threatens to sequester half of their income. In fact, considering that the rest of their income must travel through a land reft by civil war, with ports closed, etc., he’s effectively sequestered all of their income. They leave the next day. Let’s give them five days for travel. Doubtless they’ll get over the border without too much trouble, but still, one cannot be too generous with Holy Mother Church. So that brings us to the eighth of Darid. Now, let’s give them a week — a week! — to decide what to do, dig up what dirt they can. They call for Father Peter to determine, since he of all the churchmen has the closet contacts in Albion, to find out how best to squeeze us. And — lo and behold! He has a request for an annulment sitting on his desk, straight from Albion! Well, the dear brethren of the Order of St. Robert cannot be having with that. They give Father Peter his marching orders. And a week later, he writes a letter, denying our petition for an annulment. Don’t you think, my lord, that the timing of this works out rather too well to be a coincidence?”
Father Hugh would give Lord Pellinore this: he said the right thing. “It — it is not for us to question the wisdom of Holy Mother Church,” Lord Pellinore whispered, licking his seemingly dry lips.
Father Hugh could tell he didn’t believe a word of what he had just said. And he could not blame the earl. Father Hugh wouldn’t have believed those words either, in his shoes.
But that did not change the fact that Lord Pellinore, and Sir Mordred, were both wrong.
“No,” Father Hugh replied. “The timing is pure coincidence. Father Peter –”
“Damn it, Father, don’t you dare lie to me!” Sir Mordred shouted, springing to his feet.
In spite of himself, Father Hugh jumped. So did all the other men around the table. The only one not to jump was Lady Dindrane, and she only watched her husband with wide — but utterly unsurprised — eyes.
“If there is one thing — one thing! — I cannot stand, it is sanctimonious, pompous old windbags playing hell with my life and my family’s — and then claiming they are right!” He shouted. “You — you and your whole Church — you think you can do whatever the hell you want and claim that the mantel of the Lord protects you and makes everything right! It does not! It does not! And know this, Father Hugh — if you and the Church insist on holding my life hostage to your whims, then you will make an enemy of the Orkneys forever! I swear it by the blood my mother, by the blood of my sister, and by the blood of my daughter!”
Father Hugh cocked his head to the side; he’d never heard an oath like that before. But he could see Prince Kay staring ashen-faced at Sir Mordred’s back.
But he had more important things to worry about than that.
“We are right, Sir Mordred!” Father Hugh bellowed back. “And you are wrong!”
“The Lord will not –”
“I am not talking about the Lord! Hear me! If what you accused the Church — of Father Peter! — of was true, then you would be right! It would be a grave fault, and the Lord would not protect us for making it! But that is not what happened here!” Father Hugh slammed his palm on the table. “And I know this not from what Father Peter said, but how he said it. If it had happened as you said, then Father Peter would have denied the petition with as little explanation as possible. But instead, he scolds me — me! — and you, and Lady Dindrane as well! — for sending the petition! But mostly, he scolds me for being on your side and Lady Dindrane’s!”
“Perhaps he only means to scold you for presiding over a kingdom and a King who sees the nonsense you and the rest of the Church pull and will not stand for it!” shouted Sir Mordred.
“Ha!” Father Hugh laughed. “If Father Peter meant to do that, he would have done it directly — believe me.”
Sir Mordred’s brows furrowed. “Fine. Draw the mantel of the Lord over you and your sancitimonious brethren, if that’s the way you want it. Pretend your motives are pure and you’re only doing what’s,” he snorted, “right. But I warn you — you’ll find it moth-eaten and full of holes ere long. Mark my words, Father Hugh. If you truly want to make this right — then fix this, and get me out of this marriage soon, or, Lord help me, I will find my own way!” Without another word, he kicked his chair aside and stomped out of the room.
Father Hugh’s eyes went inexorably to Lady Dindrane. So did Prince Kay’s. And her father’s.
“My lady,” Prince Kay was the first to speak, “if you think you need any extra protection –”
“Indeed, Dindrane, maybe you should stay with us,” Lord Pellinore worried.
Lady Dindrane did not answer them. At least, not directly. Instead, she turned to Prince Kay. “What did that oath mean?”
“You knew what he meant — with his oath. I saw you go pale. What does that oath mean?”
Prince Kay gulped, but he answered. “It’s — it’s a powerful wizard’s oath. Well, more a witch’s oath, I guess, but wizards use it, too. It’s — it’s the most powerful one they’ve got. Sir Mordred has bound himself by the oath in … in the past, the present, and the future.” As everyone stared at him openmouthed, Prince Kay added, “Jess told me about it. She’s never used it, but — well, that isn’t important. What’s important is, Lady Dindrane, what help do you need?”
Lady Dindrane looked at them all, eyebrows arching as if she could not believe what she was seeing. “You think he’d harm me — now? No, he wouldn’t. He wouldn’t dare. If he killed me now — he’d be admitting that you were right, Father. That our marriage was until death do us part. I’m,” she laughed, bitterly, “I’m the safest I’ve been in years! It’s the rest of you I’d worry about!”
And then, all of a sudden, her courage seemed to rush out of her, and the lily-white neck bent like a flower stalk for whom the weight of the flower had grown too much. “And so — if you don’t mind — I’d like to go home. Nimue and Gawaine will be back from school in an hour or two. I’d like to be composed before they arrive.”
“My lady –” Father Hugh started.
“Please,” Lady Dindrane whispered. “Please, Father. For the love of all that’s good and holy. Just let me go home.”