Seryl 7, 1013
“Mordred!” Rosette gasped, running for him when the door opened. “Oh, Mordred, thank the Lord you’re here!”
Mordred embraced her, pulling her further and deeper into his arms. His chin rested just on her shoulder. “You need me. Our children need me. Where else would I be?”
With Dindrane, replied the traitorous voice in Rosette’s head. With her children.
But she would not say that out loud. She even pushed the voice to the side. Why should she even wonder if Mordred would be here? She came first in his heart. Did she need any more proof of that? Why shouldn’t he help her and their children? Dindrane doubtless already knew just what to say to her children — indeed, she already had said it, or else they wouldn’t be in this mess, this can of words that Mordred’s eldest daughter had opened up on the playground the day before.
And Rosette had never seen it coming. She had in fact at first thought nothing of the note from Sister Margery that Melehan had shamefacedly handed her yesterday. At least, what she had thought had been more along the lines of, Oh, no, what have they done now? Her boys were little mischief machines. She saw nothing worse coming from that note than a great deal of embarrassment, a lot of scolding of the boys, and a heavy probability of their being sent to bed early, without dessert and the good parts of supper. That was the worst she had been steeling herself for.
And then she had opened the note …
“I think … I think they’re scared, Mordred,” Rosette mumbled into Mordred’s hair. “I may have …”
“May have?” Mordred asked.
“I was — you can’t imagine how shocked I was when I got that note!”
“On the contrary, I’m quite sure I can. I do believe that Sister Margery sent precisely the same note to me.” He sighed explosively. “Which I, unfortunately, was not able to read until quite late last night, else I would have been here sooner.”
“I hardly expected you to come until today …”
“That is because you are too sweet.” Mordred kissed her, a brief peck on the lips, before he pulled away. “Now — what precisely did you tell them?”
“I told the boys …”
“Just the boys? Good.”
Rosette swallowed. “Mordred … I think … I think it would be best if you talked to Aimée, too. When you talk to the boys.”
Mordred blinked. “She’s only three!”
“She’ll be four in two months. And going to school. With the boys, and with …” Rosette gulped. “Your … other children.”
“You can say their names, Rosette; it’s not like I’ve never heard them before.”
“N-Nimue and Gawaine, then.” And Gareth, too, someday.
Mordred sighed, tilting his head back. “It will be difficult enough to explain to the boys in terms they can understand …”
“M-Mordred, Nimue couldn’t keep a secret like that from her brothers. And girls tend to be much more mature than boys.”
Mordred raised an eyebrow at her.
“At that age, yes! Believe me, Mordred — don’t you remember, when you were in school? Who tended to be most mature in the classroom? Who was in trouble the least? The girls or the boys?”
“… Perhaps you have a point.”
“So — so you agree that there is no chance that the boys will keep this quiet? Even for just two months?”
Mordred’s lips twitched back and forth. He glanced at the stairs, and Rosette could see his mind following his gaze, going up and up and up, to where the children were sitting. And then they went further up, to where the children were sleeping. “No,” he finally sighed. “No, they would not keep it quiet. And … perhaps it would be wrong to keep this a secret in the household. Very well.” He turned back to Rosette. “So what have you told them so far?”
Rosette swallowed. “I — I said that what Nimue told them was true. That you are her father as well as theirs. And that … that you were …” She glanced at Mordred’s wedding ring. “… Are still married to Nimue’s mother, but that you were never married to me.”
Mordred looked at his own wedding ring. “I trust,” he sighed, “that there will come a day when we can explain to them … but never mind.” He shook his head. “And what else?”
“I … I didn’t think there was much else that needed to be said …”
“And yet you sent to me to talk to them?” Mordred asked with a sideways smile and a faint quirk of his brows.
“Mordred!” Rosette flushed. “You — I –”
“I’m sorry. That was the wrong moment for a tease, wasn’t it? Of course there were things that you couldn’t explain.” He kissed her forehead. “Where are they?”
“Upstairs. In the sitting room.”
“All of them?”
“All of them.”
“Then …” Mordred rolled his shoulders and shook his head. “Forgive my way of phrasing this — but we might as well get this over with.”
As little as she might like the words themselves, Rosette could only wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment. She waved Mordred before her, and followed him as he took the stairs with an uncharacteristically heavy tread.
At least his slowness gave Rosette a little bit of time to compose herself, to take her deep breaths, smooth her skirts and her hair and her ruffled spirits. So when Mordred opened the door to the sitting room, Rosette could call out in a tone that was something like her normal cheerfulness, “Look, children! Papa’s here!”
“Papa!” Aimée called, holding her little arms out for a big hug. Melehan and Melou did not say a word.
“Aren’t you happy to see me?” Mordred pretended to gasp, being sure to keep the pretense obvious enough that the boys would pick up on it.
“I am, Papa!” shouted Aimée.
“Oh, I know you are, Aimée-my-angel; you are always happy to see Papa.” Mordred kissed her first, then both the boys. “It’s your brothers I have to wonder about.”
“Hello, Papa,” Melou muttered.
Melehan, however, got straight to the point. “Papa, are we in trouble?”
Mordred’s eyebrows arched upwards. “And why would you be in trouble, Melehan?”
“‘Cause of what happened at school yesterday.”
“Well! I am glad that you said ‘yesterday,’ and not ‘today,’ else I would have to wonder what you were doing with your time when you were supposed to be getting an education.” Mordred softened that with a wink while he grabbed the chair from Rosette’s sewing table and turned it to face the boys. “But tell me, lads. What could you have done yesterday that would lead you to be in trouble?”
Rosette, meanwhile, edged to the coffee table and sat on it. She usually chased the children away from it, but today … today the chair was just too far away. She had to be able to see what her children were saying, what they were thinking.
Melehan and Melou looked at each other. Melehan was the first one to speak. “Well … we did get Nimue mad …”
“And how did you get her mad? Did you pull her hair? Get mud all over her dress?”
“No!” Melou huffed. “We don’t do that sort of thing to Nimue!”
“Aye, Papa! The last time we tried, she grabbed our hair and pulled it! And it hurt!”
Mordred closed his eyes and leaned his head back. Rosette was fairly certain she was the only one who could see the smile twitching at the corner of his lips.
When he looked back at the children, his face was again grave. “No, boys. You are not in trouble. I wanted to talk to you about what Nimue … your sister, that is to say. I wanted to discuss with you what she said, and what it means, and make sure you understand everything.”
The boys exchanged glances over Aimée’s puzzled head. “… Oh,” they murmured in unison.
“So, to begin …” Mordred hesitated for a moment. “What, exactly, did Nimue say?”
The boys looked at each other and shared a shrug.
“She said we couldn’t be wizard-knights,” Melou finally replied. “‘Cause …” He shot a quick glance at Rosette, shamefaced. “‘Cause Mama and you aren’t married.”
“Huh?” asked Aimée, looking from one brother to the other, and finally to her father.
“That is quite right,” Mordred answered, nodding. “That is to say, that your mother and I are not married.” He smiled at Aimée. “However, it is not right what Nimue said — that you could not be wizard-knights. You will certainly be wizards someday. That has nothing to do with your mother and I, and everything to do with who you are and who you will become someday.”
“But …” Melehan asked. “But Papa, what about knights?” He added to his brother, “I think she was more mad about us getting to be knights.”
“Ah. Knights.” Mordred pursed his lips together. “That … is something rather different. However, before I explain that, I think I had best go back a bit.” He took a deep breath. “Have … have you ever wondered why it is that your mother and I are not married?”
“Why not?” asked Aimée, not giving her brothers so much as a chance to shake their heads.
“Thank you, Aimée. The reason why your mother and I are not married is simple. She …” He hesitated. “It was my father’s desire that I marry someone else — the Lady Dindrane. She is … was … a young woman of noble blood, and her family was very important in Albion at the time.”
Rosette tilted her head to the side. Was? Weren’t they still? Lord Pellinore was still Chief Justiciar, wasn’t he? And his son was a knight — married to Mordred’s own sister! How were they no longer important?
“And so my father and her father thought that it would be a very fine match. Now, at this time, I loved — as I still do love — your mother very deeply. But I wanted to be a good son, so I had to do as my father said. So, I married Lady Dindrane.”
“But, Papa!” interrupted Melou. “How come you couldn’t tell your papa that you wanted to marry Mama?”
“Melou –” Rosette began, then her eyes went to Mordred.
Mordred’s eyebrows rose, but he nodded for her to go on.
“Because … because your papa is a nobleman, Melou, and I’m not.”
Aimée giggled. “Mama, we know you’re not a man!”
“Goodness, I should hope not!” Mordred laughed. The boys were snickering, and even Rosette had to smile. “But what your mama means, Aimée, is that my father was a lord — like me. But your Grandpapa Edmond, Mama’s papa, is not a lord. Isn’t that right?”
Aimée digested that, and she slowly nodded. So did the boys.
“Now, it is the rule that lords’ sons must marry lords’ daughters, and peasants’ sons ought to marry peasants’ daughters. So if I had asked my father if I could marry your mother, he would have told me no, that that was against the rules. And do you know what he would have told me next?”
All three of the children shook their heads. And Rosette’s heart leapt into her throat. What would Lord Lot have said if he had known about them?
“He would have pointed out to me — quite rightly — that I had another option. The option, in fact, that I took,” Mordred continued. “The option of loving your mother, and taking good care of her, and just having her live somewhere that wasn’t with me. Being just about married to her, you see, except for some little pesky details that aren’t very important anyway.”
The boys looked at each other, then at Rosette. Aimée shot a puzzled frown at Mordred. “Then how come you couldn’t just get married?” she asked.
“Because, like I said earlier, I had to marry Lady Dindrane. Because of a lot of grown-up reasons that would probably be very boring to you,” Mordred added. He sighed, or pretended to sigh. “To be honest …” He winked at the boys. “They’re boring to me, too.”
“So … did you marry Lady Dindrane?” asked Melehan.
“Yes, yes, I did. And we had — have — three children together. We have Nimue and Gawaine, whom you know, and Gareth, whom you haven’t met yet.”
“Why not?” asked Melou.
“Because he’s very little,” Rosette answered for him — with another quick glance at Mordred to see if she did right. He nodded her on. “He doesn’t go to school yet. Why, he’s littler than Aimée!”
Aimée gasped. “I’m not the littlest?”
“That’s right!” Mordred laughed. “When you both get a little bigger, and get to meet Gareth, why, then you can boss him around like Nimue bosses around Gawaine and Gareth.”
“I can be the boss?” Aimée gasped.
“You most certainly can!”
“Mama, Mama! Did you hear that? I get to be the boss!”
Rosette had to chuckle. “Yes, Aimée. I heard.”
“Papa …” Melou asked. “Since we’re older than Nimue and Gawaine, do we get to boss them around?”
The smile left Mordred’s face. It closed in on itself, became grave. “That … that is a very different matter. Because you see …” Mordred stroked his chin. “You must understand something, boys. And that something is very simple. The laws of this land are made by old men. Old men like Lord Pellinore. Do you know who he is?”
All three of the children shook their heads.
“He is the Chief Justiciar, which means he is the very head of all the judges in the land. All of them! And more importantly, he is also Lady Dindrane’s father, which means that he is Nimue and Gawaine and Gareth’s grandfather. Do you understand that so far?”
Melou and Melehan looked at each other over Aimée’s head, but afterward, they nodded.
“Now, it is because of old men like Lord Pellinore that there is another rule in Albion. And that rule is this: the only person who can be a lord after a lord like me has died is that lord’s eldest son with his wife. That, obviously, is Gawaine. Not you two.”
The boys still looked puzzled, but they nodded.
“Now, of course, since you are big boys and clever boys, you understand that. You also, I think, understand that not being a lord like me is not so bad. You will get to do whatever you like, while Gawaine has to do what I did. You will also have plenty of money to help you start out, and who knows? If you are both very strong and very clever, you might do some service for King Arthur or Prince Thomas — or even little Prince Arthur! — and he might make you knights or lords someday.”
“So we can be wizard-knights!” Melehan cried out, grinning at his brother. “Nimue was wrong!”
“Yes, she certainly was. But what you must understand is …” Mordred stroked his chin. “Men like Lord Pellinore … they tend to be … jealous. Yes, jealous. And then they tend to get afraid, and they try to hurt the people who are making them afraid. You see, if you were to attempt to boss around Nimue or Gawaine … Lord Pellinore might think that you are trying to become my heirs, at the expense of his grandson. That would make him very angry.”
“But we’re not!” Melou protested. “You said, Papa, that we’re better off if we’re not!”
Mordred only smiled, the slow, satisfied smile of a cat. It was gone almost before Rosette could blink. “That is quite right — but I do not expect that Lord Pellinore would understand that. Instead, he would try to make life very difficult for all of us. So, if I were you, boys, I should try very hard to simply stay away from Gawaine. You may attempt to boss Nimue around as much as you like, though,” Mordred chuckled, “I am not altogether certain how far you will get.”
“Nimue does a better job of bossing us around,” Melehan sighed.
“She is a girl,” Mordred shrugged. “They tend to know just how to get men dancing to their tunes. Now, boys — and Aimée — do you have any questions?”
“Just one, Papa,” Melehan replied.
Mordred turned his head to him.
“Is … is it bad that you and Mama aren’t married?”
Mordred did not answer immediately. First, he looked to Rosette.
And when he finally did speak, his tone made it absolutely clear that his judgement was final. “No. It is not bad. I am a great lord — it is perfectly all right for me to take care of your mama and all of you as well. There is nothing wrong with what I have done. There is nothing wrong with what your mama has done. And there is certainly nothing wrong with you! If anybody has done wrong … if anybody has done wrong …”
Mordred looked to his lap, and Rosette prayed she was the only one who could see how black his expression turned. “If anyone has done wrong, it is Lady Dindrane.”
“Well! I think that went rather well, don’t you?”
They had just finished speaking with the children, and Rosette and Mordred had hurried into the hall to conference. Rosette passed a hand over her eyes.
Had that gone well? The children seemed to accept it. And Mordred had done his best to dispel any thought that they might be at all at fault for … for anything. Rosette wondered how long that would last, once the other children in their school became old enough to understand the word “bastard” and to fling it about.
“You don’t think that went well,” Mordred said.
“Mordred …” Rosette sighed. “I … they’re going to have a hard road to walk, once they get a little bigger. Was … was it really the best thing, to … to not give them any idea that it was coming.”
“Absolutely. After all, this is but the first of many conversations, is it not?” he asked, eyebrows rising. “Once they get older, then we can explain to them that … that perhaps other people may seek to hold their heritage against them. And we can teach them how to deal with that. Though, honestly, I expect that such problems will evaporate once they get old enough to use their magic.”
“You — you do? Why?”
“My dear, would you insult a man who you knew full well had the power to turn you into a toad?”
Rosette laughed. “That’s true! I suppose … I suppose I’m just worrying too much when I don’t have to.” She smiled. “And … and on that note, would you like to stay for dinner?”
Mordred’s smile vanished.
“Although … if you’re busy …” Rosette murmured.
“No — no. Not really. I …” It was Mordred’s turn to pass a hand over his eyes. “I had another … visit to make …”
“Well, if you have another appointment, of course–”
“No. It’s hardly an appointment. Just an … errand I must run. And the more I think of it …” Something glittering, and hard, and angry lit in Mordred’s eyes, and vanished in the space of a blink. “Yes. It will be much better to put that off until the morrow. I would love to stay for dinner. And the night, if you’ll have me.”
“Mordred! What a question–”
She never finished — he cut her off with a kiss. It was, Rosette thought, the best way to be interrupted.
And it never occurred to her to wonder just what other appointment Mordred was putting off in order to be with her.