In Mrs. Howden’s pie shop, Evan was munching his way through his fourth pie. Mrs. Howden eyed him nervously. He was going to eat her out of house and home if she wasn’t careful. Plus he’d get ill, eating so many awful pies. Not that the taste seemed to be putting him off, the rate he was going.
“Maybe you should run along, dear.”
“Oh no, ma’am,” he replied nervously, “I daren’t budge till he calls for me.”
Mrs. Howden frowned. Evan was obviously scared of his master, and she hated to see children mistreated. But the boy had to go sometime.
“I’ll pop up and see what Mr. De Rege says,” she told him, and climbed the stairs to Arthur’s room.
Arthur was standing with his back to the door, calmly cleaning his sword. Mrs. Howden sat down heavily on the chest. “Me poor knees is not what they was,” she mumbled, “How long till the foreigner gets back?”
Arthur continued cleaning the sword impassively. “He won’t
Mrs. Howden’s head shot up, instantly suspicious. “Now Mr. D, you didn’t!”
Arthur turned and nodded to the chest, and Mrs. Howden leapt up. She stared at it for a moment, gingerly lifted the lid, and then slammed it back down, spinning to face Arthur.
“You’re crazy!” she cried. “Killing a man what done you no harm! And what about the boy downstairs?”
“He recognised me from the old days,” replied Arthur, barely blinking an eye. “He tried to blackmail me. Half my earnings forever.”
Mrs. Howden breathed a sigh of relief. “Oh well, that’s a different matter!” she said matter-of-factly. “What a relief, dear! For a moment I thought you’d lost your marbles!” She smiled wanly at him, and then turned to peer into the chest again.
“Ooh!” she gasped. “All that blood! Enough to make you come over all gooseflesh, ain’t it. Poor bugger.” She paused, and then reached inside and pulled out Adamoli’s purse.
“Three gold pieces! Well, waste not, want not,” she said airily to Arthur, and put the purse in her pocket. Then she shut the lid again and sat on it, quite composed.
“Now, dear, we’ve got to think. First there’s the lad.”
Arthur went back to cleaning his sword. “Send him up here.”
“Him, too?” gasped Mrs. Howden, “Now surely one’s enough for today. Shouldn’t indulge yourself, you know. And he’s already half unconscious with gin.”
Heavy footsteps were heard coming up the stairs, and Arthur sprang to life, running to the window and looking out.
“Providence is kind!” he breathed.
“Who is it?”
Arthur turned, a manic grin on his face.
“Him?!” Mrs. Howden gasped, “Him? The king? It can’t be! It -”
Arthur cut her off swiftly. “Leave me.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Leave me, I said!” he shouted, and she ran out the door and down the stairs, curtseying to Agravaine on the way.
“Excuse me, your majesty,” Arthur heard her say, and then his uncle was in the room. Arthur held his breath, his back to the other man. This was it. When he turned, Agravaine would either pull out his sword and run him through, or not notice that his nephew stood before him. He turned around and faced his enemy.
“Mr. De Rege ?”
Arthur stared at him, hardly able to breathe as he bowed low. Agravaine had not recognised him! Part of him was offended; had he been forgotten so quickly? Had he been so insignificant? But the rest of him was excited. This was him, the man whom he had trusted, and who then had ruined his life. The man he hated more than anyone else in the world. This was it. Soon, the false king would be dead, and Arthur would have his vengeance. He didn’t want his throne back, nothing like that. He wanted no more to do with the city that had promised loyalty, and then spat him out like bad meat. All he wanted was justice.
“At your service, sire,” he replied, fighting to keep the excited smile off his face, “It is an honour to receive your patronage.”
Agravaine looked around lazily as he pulled off his leather gloves. “These premises are hardly prepossessing,” he droned, “and yet Drustan tells me you are the most accomplished of all the swordsmen in the city.”
Arthur allowed himself a controlled smile. “That is most gracious of him, sire. And please excuse the modesty of my establishment. It’s only a few days ago that I set up quarters here and some necessities are yet to come.” He gestured to the chair. “Sit, if you please sire.”
Agravaine sat, and Arthur sat opposite him on the chest, leaning forward in anticipation.
“And what may I do for you, sire?”
Agravaine smiled enigmatically and leaned back, staring out of the window.
“You see before you, De Rege , a man infatuate with love – her ardent and eager slave.”
Arthur frowned slightly. Who could Agravaine be in love with? “Oh?” he replied casually.
“I plan to woo her,” continued Agravaine, “By competing in
a duel. A swordfight. When she sees me win, she will realise her love for me. I
am sure of it.”
“An admirable plan, sire.”
“There is a small problem,” Agravaine said hesitantly, “I’m afraid I do not…excel in swordfighting. And that is why I am here. I am offering you employment. You will spread your reputation as the best swordfighter in Camelot, whilst secretly devising a carefully constructed fake fight with me.”
Arthur watched his uncle silently as he began to realise what he was being asked.
“In a month, I will challenge you to a duel. You will accept. We will fight, and it will look to the townspeople and to my love that I have beaten you, forcing you to declare me the best swordfighter in Camelot. Do we have a deal?”
Arthur almost laughed bitterly, but managed to keep a straight face. He could barely believe Agravaine’s arrogance and pride. The idea that his people had chosen this sneaky coward over him to save their own skins made his blood boil.
Agravaine took his silence for reluctance. “You will be paid handsomely, of course,” he added, trying not to look anxious.
This was his chance. He could kill Agravaine, and soon. He smiled. “Of course, sire. Whatever you wish.”
Agravaine beamed, and drew his sword. “Splendid! We will begin right away!”
“But wait!” Arthur put on an exaggerated frown and took Agravaine's sword from him, examining it carefully. “I am afraid, sire, that your sword needs tending to immediately.”
“It does?” Agravaine was looking anxious again.
“Yes,” Arthur lied, “It must be re shaped, and sharpened, and then cleaned. This sword is not fit for a king!”
Agravaine frowned and hummed a little. “The boy whose duty it is to look after my sword will be disciplined!”
Arthur felt a twinge of guilt. The sword, of course, needed
none of those things, and he could picture a boy who looked a lot like his best
friend being put in the stocks. But then he remembered that if he had his way,
Agravaine would not be returning to the castle, and smiled.
“I can do all of these things for you, sire. Please, sit while you wait.” He gestured to the chair and Agravaine sat. “Who, may I ask, is your intended?”
Agravaine smiled and leant back. “My ward.”
Arthur’s heart stopped. Hadn’t Mrs. Howden said…he had adopted Gwen as his ward? He couldn’t mean…
“Guinevere. As pretty as a rosebud.”
Arthur nearly choked. Agravaine wanted to marry his wife! A red mist filled his vision, but he held himself back. He would kill Agravaine, today, but not yet. He had to bide his time.
Arthur went to the corner of the room and fiddled around with Agravaine’s sword casually, but his thoughts were racing. Was Agravaine forcing her to marry him? He had to be. He refused to believe she loved him. And what about William? Did Gwen love William? He knew the answers to none of his questions, but it all kept coming back to one thing. He had to kill his uncle. Today.
Arthur whistled nonchalantly, distracting himself from the anger and despair in his mind.
“You’re in a merry mood today, Mr. De Rege ,” Agravaine commented.
Arthur gritted his teeth and forced a smiled over his shoulder. “It is your happiness, sire, catching from one man to the next like fire.”
Agravaine laughed. “It’s true, Mr. De Rege . Love can still inspire the heart to pound. What more can man require than love?”
“I know something, sire.”
Agravaine laughed again and leant back, closing his eyes dreamily. “Ah, yes. Women.”
“Pretty women,” growled Arthur under his breath. The thought of Agravaine lusting after Gwen made him want to be sick.
He messed around with the sword for a while longer, and then glanced over his shoulder again. Agravaine was completely relaxed, eyes closed. Nearly asleep.
Arthur’s excitement rose and he quietly picked up Excalibur. Now then, my friend, he thought, now to your purpose.
He advanced on the sleeping Agravaine, raising his sword.
“Patience,” he hissed to himself, a manic grin fixed on his face, “Enjoy it. Revenge can’t be taken in haste -”
Agravaine’s eyes snapped open. “Are you finished?” he snapped quickly, apparently embarrassed at having fallen asleep. He narrowed his eyes. “What are you doing?”
Arthur had let the sword fall to his side as soon as Agravaine's eyes had opened. “I was just…comparing the balance of your sword and mine,” he ground out, his frustration rising.
Agravaine relaxed. “If we wed, you’ll be commended,” he said.
Arthur bowed. “My lord.”
He turned back to Agravaine's sword.
“Pretty women,” his uncle said behind him, continuing their
earlier conversation, “They’re fascinating.”
Arthur summoned a small noise of agreement, but managed to drown out whatever else he was saying. Instead, he thought of Gwen. Back when they were happy, when everything was good. He saw her in his mind, the way she used to be.
Gwen, sipping her wine at banquets, and turning to give him a smile. Gwen, blowing out candles in their room before they went to bed. Gwen, combing out her long black hair in the mornings. Wandering around the forest. Writing letters. Picking flowers. Sitting on the windowsill. Watching the sun rise from their balcony.
A memory came to his mind of Merlin and Gwen, dancing together and messing around, falling over each other, making him laugh. Merlin ended up lying on the floor, and Gwaine had come running in and tripped over him. Then Gwaine hit Merlin for tripping him, and Merlin hit Gwaine, and they had rolled around on the floor fighting, and he and Gwen had stood together and laughed until tears streamed down their faces.
Then Arthur came back to reality with a jolt. He touched his face. He hadn’t realised he’d been crying.
Agravaine was still talking. “Pretty women are a wonder.
Something in them cheers the air. Even when they leave you and vanish, they
still are there.” He laughed jovially. “How they make a man sing! They’re proof
of heaven. They stay with you forever.”
Forever. It resonated within Arthur. Gwen, and Merlin, and Gwaine, and Leon, and everyone who had died. They would all stay with him forever. He grabbed Excalibur, and swung round, sword raised in his hand.
The door burst open.
“She says she’ll marry me on Sunday, everything’s set, we leave tonight!”
William screeched to a halt as he saw Agravaine.
“You!” snarled Agravaine, jumping out of the chair.
“There is indeed a higher power to warn me in time!”
William turned to run, but Agravaine grabbed him by the arm. “Guinevere? Elope with you?” He barked an angry laugh. “I’ll lock her up in some obscure place where neither you nor any other vile, corrupting man will ever lay eyes on her again!”
William shook himself free. “But, sire, I beg of you -”
Agravaine turned to Arthur, who was standing frozen in place, sword raised.
“And as for you, De Rege ,” he spat, “It is all too clear what company you keep. Service them well and hold their custom – for you will have none of mine!”
He strode out of the door and down the stairs. Excalibur dropped from Arthur’s hand a clattered to the floor, echoing in the silence that now filled the room.
“Mr. De Rege ,” William started, his tone pleading, but Arthur cut him off.
“Out,” he breathed, his voice dangerously quiet.
“Sir, please -”
“Out! Out, I said!” Arthur roared. William bolted out the door and clattered down the stairs. Arthur stood motionless, in shock.
The door burst open again and Mrs. Howden rushed in. “All this running and shouting!” she cried, “What is it now?”
“I had him…” Arthur whispered.
“The sailor burst in, and then I saw them both running down the street, and I said to myself, ‘The fat’s in the fire for sure –‘”
“I had him!” Arthur screamed. “His throat was bare in front of me!”
“There, there, Mr. De Rege , don’t fret -” Mrs. Howden tried, alarmed, but nothing could reach Arthur where he was now.
“No! I had him! He was right there and now he’ll never come again!”
“Easy, now, hush love. I keep telling you -”
“There’s no rush -”
“Wait! Why did I wait?” Arthur yelled violently, “You told me to wait! Now he’ll never come again!”
Mrs. Howden stood back and watched in horror as Arthur’s sanity finally crumbled.
“There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit and it’s filled with vermin – but not for long.” He turned to Mrs. Howden, his eyes burning with a ferocious madness. “They all deserve to die!” he spat, “I’ll tell you why, Mrs. Howden.”
He took a menacing step forward. “Because in all of the human race, there are two kinds of men. There are the ones staying in their proper place in the world, and the ones with their foot in the other ones face! Look at me, Mrs. Howden, look at you!”
Mrs. Howden pressed herself against the wall as Arthur lashed out blindly with the sword, and she realised that he probably wasn’t seeing her any more.
“We all deserve to die!” he bellowed, “The lives of the wicked should be made short and for the rest of us, death would be a relief!”
He collapsed to his knees suddenly, his yelling changing to a desperate cry. Mrs. Howden swore it was the saddest sound she had ever heard. “And I’ll never see Guinevere, I’ll never hold my wife to me -”
His head snapped up, and the rage was back. “All right, I’m finished!” he shouted at the ceiling. “You sir!” He stood and brandished his sword at the empty chair.
“How about some swordplay?” He slashed Excalibur through the air with a manic laugh, his eyes following whatever nightmare only he could see.
“Come and visit your good friend Mr. De Rege ! You too, sir! Welcome to the grave! I will have vengeance! I will find salvation! You, sir? No one’s in the chair, come on, come on! I’m waiting! Anybody! Don’t be shy!”
He abruptly stopped his random lurching around, and his eyes, though still unfocused, gained intensity. “Not one man,” he hissed, “Nor ten men, nor a hundred can assuage me – I will have you!”
Suddenly he was back in the room again, and his gaze fixed on Mrs. Howden. She opened her mouth to attempt to pacify him, and then changed her mind. He was too far gone.
“And I will get him, even as he gloats over his victory, and in the meantime I’ll practice on less honourable throats -”
He crumpled to the ground again, keening like an animal. “And Merlin lies in ashes,” he cried, “And I’ll never see him again. But the work waits!” He pulled himself to his feet and raised Excalibur high in the air, exalted, making a promise to the heavens. “I’m alive at last! And I’m full of joy!”
Arthur collapsed in the chair, panting. Mrs. Howden took a hesitant step forward, and very gently pulled the sword from his grip. “That’s all…very…well,” she started carefully, “But what are we going to do about him?” She pointed to the chest, where Adamoli’s body lay. Arthur stayed motionless. Mrs. Howden peered at him.
“Listen! Do you hear me? Get control of yourself!” She slapped his cheek gently, and after a long pause he looked at her, still in a half-dream.
Mrs. Howden nodded, satisfied. “What are we going to do about him?” she repeated. “And there’s the lad downstairs, sound asleep in the parlour!” She thought for a moment. “He’s simple as a lamb,” she decided, “Later I can fob him off with a story, easy. But him! What are we going to do with him?”
Arthur finally spoke, with great effort and very little interest. “Later on, when it’s dark, we’ll take him to the forest and bury him.”
Mrs. Howden paused. “Well, of course, we could do that…” she started, “And I don’t suppose there’s any relatives going to come poking around looking for him…”
She paused again as a thought slowly took form in her brain. “You know me.,” she said conversationally, “Sometimes ideas just pop into my head, and I just think…” A large grin made its way across her face. “It seems a downright…shame….”
“Shame?” Arthur grunted, still staring at the floor.
“It just seems an awful waste…Such a nice, plump frame what’s-his-name had…” Her eyes began to glint. “Has! And it can’t be traced…”
Arthur said nothing. She tried again.
“Business needs a lift…There are debts to be erased….Think of it as being resourceful, as a gift, if you get my drift?”
“No?” Mrs. Howden sighed heavily. “It seems an awful waste,” she said again meaningfully, “I mean, with the price of meat what it is, when you get it – if you get it?”
Arthur’s head raised slowly, and an amazed smile spread across his face as he looked at Mrs. Howden in a new light.
She saw the light of understanding come into his eyes and grinned back. “Good, you got it!” she laughed and talked faster as she warmed to her new idea. “Take for instance, Mrs. Bail and her pie shop. Her business is never better, using only pussy cats and dry bread! And a cat’s only good for six or seven at the most. And I’m sure they can’t compare as far as taste -”
Arthur cut her off and leapt to his feet, seizing her and dancing around the room.
“Mrs. Howden!” he laughed, “What a charming notion! Eminently practical and yet appropriate as always!”
“Well, it does seem a waste!”
“How I’ve lived without you all these years, I’ll never know!”
“It’s an idea!” Mrs. Howden cried breathlessly, “Think about it, there’ll be lots of men coming soon to see the greatest swordsman in Camelot, won’t there? Think of all of them – pies!”
The two of them cackled as they danced, the little voice inside Arthur telling him that this was wrong, this was all wrong, silenced by his grief and left behind with his old life.
“What’s the sound of the world, Mrs. Howden? Those
crunching noises pervading the air?”
“What, Mr. De Rege ?”
“It’s man devouring man!” Arthur yelled in ecstasy, “And who are we to deny it in here?”
They roared with laughter and clattered down the stairs to the pie shop.
“These are desperate times, Mrs. Howden,” cried Arthur, “and desperate measures are called for!”
Mrs. Howden ran suddenly to the oven and grabbed a pie, and slammed it down on the counter. Arthur looked at it.
“What is that?”
“It’s…monk!” she cried, with a giggle. “Have a monk!”
Arthur, catching on, laughed loudly.
“Is it good?” he chuckled.
“Sir, it’s too good.”
“Awful lot of fat. Haven’t you got any minstrel?”
“No,” grinned Mrs. Howden, “You see, the trouble with minstrel is how do you know it’s deceased? Try the monk!”
They both cackled, and Arthur took a bite of the ‘monk’.
“Heavenly!” he announced, “Not as hearty as bishop, but not as bland as page either.”
“And good for business, too – it always leaves you wanting more!”
“What else have you got?”
Mrs. Howden looked thoughtfully through her pies, and pulled one out.
“Sailor!” she announced, plopping it on the counter. Arthur made a face.
“You’re right,” she sighed mock-sadly, “Those taste of wherever they’ve been!”
They laughed again, excited at their shared plan. “We’ll save a lot of graves, and do a lot of relatives favours!” crowed Mrs. Howden.
“I’ll repair and make swords as well, so there should be plenty of variety in your pies,” chuckled Arthur. His dark years of exile had mostly been spent making weapons for foreign armies, and now he could put his new skills to good use.
Mrs. Howden nodded enthusiastically as she poured them both ale to celebrate, and handed Arthur another pie.
“What’s this one?”
“Money lender - peak of his career!”
Arthur poked at it. “It looks off,” he remarked.
“Well, he drank, what do you expect?” she snorted. “And the tax collector never really sold. Maybe it was old.”
Arthur sighed, beginning to look pensive again.
“Haven’t you any of that Drustan fellow?” he growled, only half joking.
“Next week, so I’m told!” Mrs. Howden replied pointedly. “Besides, Drustan isn’t bad until you smell it and notice how greasy it is – stick to monk!”
Arthur laughed, back in good spirits. “The history of the
world, my love,” he said, raising his ale in a toast, “is who gets eaten and
who gets to eat. But fortunately it’s also clear that everybody goes down well
Mrs. Howden guffawed loudly as Arthur slammed his mug back on the counter decisively.
“I’ll come again,” he roared suddenly, “When you have king on the menu!”
Mrs. Howden sighed. “True, we don’t have king – yet – but would you settle for the next best thing?”
Mrs. Howden grinned and handed him a meat clever. “Executioner!” she hissed, “After all, you are what you eat!”
Arthur roared with laughter and grabbed it. “We’ll take what we can get, Mrs. Howden,” he told her fiercely.
“Yes, Mr. D!”
“We won’t discriminate great from small. We’ll serve anyone – and to anyone – at all!”
He brandished the cleaver, and she a rolling pin, as they cackled in glee at their plan. A thought that once would’ve been in Arthur’s head was nowhere in sight – the thought that if Merlin and Gwen could see him now, what he had become, they would be horrified.