William and Gwen sneaked down side streets and alleyways, trying to avoid the townspeople. Gwen was chattering nervously – she couldn’t seem to stop.
“Will we be married on Sunday? That’s what you promised, married on Sunday…” she paused and frowned in confusion. “But that was weeks ago…”
William looked at her, worried. How damaged was she from her time in the darkness of the madhouse? He embraced her tightly. “Kiss me,” he whispered.
Mrs. Howden and Arthur prowled through the bakehouse, Arthur holding up a lantern.
“Evan!” Mrs. Howden called softly. “Where are you, love?”
“Evan!” repeated Arthur. “Where are you, lad?”
“Nothing’s gonna harm you, Evan, not while I’m around…Remember?”
“Evan!” Arthur opened the trapdoor and peered down into the gloom. “Evan!”
“Where are you hiding? Nothing’s gonna hurt you, darling.”
“Nothing to be afraid of, boy,” called Arthur, concealing Excalibur behind his back.
Outside, the beggar man shuffled towards the pie shop. “Drustan!” he cried creakily. “Drustan! No good hiding, I saw you! Are you in there still Drustan? Drustan! She’s a wicked one, she’ll deceive you with her fancy gowns and her fancy airs and -” he began to shriek suddenly – “Mischief! Mischief! Devil’s work!” Then he was quietly calling again. “Drustan, where are you, Drustan…” He shuffled into the pie shop.
William and Gwen slid into Arthur’s room, Gwen disguised in a sailor’s uniform.
“Mr. De Rege ?” called William warily. There was no answer.
“There’s no one here,” whispered Gwen. “Where is this Mr. De Rege ?”
“No matter,” William smiled, “He’ll be back in a minute. I trust him as I trust my right arm. Wait for him here – I’ll return with horses and supplies in less than half an hour.”
“But they may know I’m gone – what if they trace us here? William, please let me come with you.”
William shook his head regretfully. “There is no safety for you on the street.”
“But I’m disguised, no one will know -”
“The risk is too great,” William told her. Gwen turned away, frowning.
“Ah, miss,” he said gently, “Look at me. Soon we’ll be gone and sailing the seas, and happily wed in Gallia. And we’ll sail the world and see its wonders.”
Gwen looked back at him and smiled. “And then come home to Camelot,” she added. “Some day.”
William smiled and kissed her gently. “I’ll be back before those lips have time to lose that smile,” he told her, and hurried out.
Alone, Gwen paced the room. Something about it seemed familiar to her. Had she been here before? There was no way of telling – it was too dark to see the house clearly from the outside, and she hadn’t been in the town for so long she no longer knew her way around. Everything seemed different. But this room…she couldn’t shake the feeling that she knew it.
She brushed her fingers across the chair, thinking about how beautifully made it was. Then she heard a voice echoing up the stairs.
“Drustan! Oh, Drustan! Where are you?”
Gwen looked round wildly. Someone was coming, she had to hide! She spotted the chest and ran to it, climbing inside and shutting the lid just as the door creaked open.
The beggar man shuffled in and looked around. “Drustan, Drustan…” he whispered vacantly. He hobbled around the room, stroking the walls and the chair, and muttering nonsense to himself. Gwen waited, terrified that she was going to be discovered.
Suddenly the door crashed open, and Arthur stood there, Excalibur in his hand.
“You!” he shouted at the now cowering beggar man. “What are you doing here?”
The beggar man clutched his arm desperately. “Evil is here, sir,” he shrieked, “The stink of evil, from below, from her! Drustan, Drustan!”
Arthur looked out of the window anxiously. Agravaine would be here any minute. “Out of here!”
The beggar man only shouted louder. “She’s the devil’s wife! Beware her! She with no pity in her heart!”
“Out I said!”
The beggar man stilled suddenly and peered dimly at Arthur. “Hey, don’t I know you mister?” he whispered, the same as when Arthur had first arrived in Camelot all those weeks ago.
“Mr. De Rege !” Agravaine’s voice came from outside, loud and angry. “Mr. De Rege !
“Agravaine!” growled Arthur. “I have no time!” Quickly, he ran the beggar man through with Excalibur and pulled the lever, shoving his body down the chute just before the door swung open to reveal Agravaine.
“Where is she?” he cried.
“Below, your majesty,” Arthur said quickly. “In the care of my neighbour, Mrs. Howden. Thank heavens the sailor did not molest her. Thank heavens too, she has seen the error of her ways.”
Agravaine looked at him sharply. “She has?” he said, a gleam in his eye.
“Oh yes,” smirked Arthur, “Your lesson was well learned, sire. She
speaks only of you, longing for forgiveness.”
Agravaine beamed. “And she shall have it! She’ll be here soon, you say?”
“I think I hear her now!” Arthur lied.
“Excellent, my friend!”
“Is that her dainty footstep on the stair?”
Agravaine listened hopefully. “I hear nothing!”
“Is that her shadow on the wall?”
Agravaine swung round, looking, beginning to get wound up.
“Primping,” Arthur continued in a hypnotic voice, “making herself even prettier than usual…”
“Even prettier…” echoed Agravaine dreamily.
“Ahh, pretty women!” exclaimed Agravaine, shivering with excitement.
Arthur gestured towards the chair. “Sit while you wait, sire, sit.”
Agravaine sat, and Arthur stood behind him, picking up Excalibur when he wasn’t looking. “Guinevere, Guinevere…” murmured Agravaine.
“What we do for pretty women!” remarked Arthur.
Agravaine laughed joyfully. “How seldom it is, De Rege , that one meets a fellow spirit!”
“With fellow tastes,” Arthur added, smiling down at him maliciously, “in women, at least.”
“What? What’s that?”
Arthur moved to stand in front of his uncle, holding Excalibur behind him. His heart was thumping. This was it.
“No doubt the years have changed me,” he snarled viciously, “but still...I would’ve thought the face of your nephew, the face of the king you betrayed, would be a particularly memorable one!”
Agravaine’s jaw dropped, his whole face slack with horrified realisation.
“Arthur Pendragon…” he whispered, in a voice Arthur could hardly hear.
Arthur grinned so wide he thought his face would split open, his teeth bared in ecstasy. He leaned close, his face almost touching Agravaine’s.
“Hello, Uncle,” he hissed, and slashed the treacherous king’s throat.
Silence fell in the room. Arthur crouched next to the chair and the body, exhaling deeply. He had done it. The moment he had dreamt about for twenty years had finally happened. Justice had been delivered. So why did he feel so like something was wrong? He shook the feeling off. All he wanted to feel now was the exaltation, the high of killing the man who had ruined his life and killed his best friend.
Merlin, he thought, your death is avenged, my friend.
He pulled the lever on the chair, and watched Agravaine’s body tumble away. Then he knelt down, and placed Excalibur on the floor gently, looking at the blood that dripped off it. “Rest now, my friend,” he whispered, “Rest now forever. Your job is done. Sleep the untroubled sleep of angels…”
Arthur’s head snapped up as he remembered. The boy! He and Mrs. Howden had still not found him. He needed to be dealt with. He got to his feet, leaving Excalibur on the floor, and ran out.
As soon as he was gone, Gwen climbed out of the chest, heart pumping in fear. The sound had been muffled inside the chest and she hadn’t been able to hear what was being said, but she was sure she had just heard this Mr. De Rege committing two murders. Whatever William said about him, he was clearly a madman. She had to get out before he returned and realised that she was a loose end.
On the stairs, Arthur cursed as he realised he had left Excalibur in the room, and turned to go back for it.
Gwen jumped as the door burst open, and swung around to face the man she knew was a murderer.
Husband and wife stared at each other, face to face for the first time in twenty years.
“Who are you?” Arthur spat, breaking the silence. “What are you doing here? Speak!”
Madness and bloodlust tainted his vision, and all he saw was a young sailor. Fear tainted Gwen’s, and she did not recognise her husband.
“Please,” she gasped desperately, “I didn’t -”
“When did you come in?” Arthur yelled. “When?”
“Sir, I beg of you,” Gwen cried, “Whatever I have seen, no man shall ever know. I swear it. Please, please…”
Arthur picked up Excalibur and took a step towards her, brandishing his sword threateningly. Gwen backed up against the wall, her eyes filling with tears. He raised the sword and Gwen shut her eyes, bracing herself for the final blow.
A long, horrible scream echoed from below, from the bakehouse. Arthur hesitated, and Gwen took the opportunity to sprint out the door. He lunged after her, but she was gone. He started to consider going after her, but another scream changed his mind, and he ran down to the bakehouse.
“Die! Die! God in heaven, die!” Mrs. Howden screeched. A barely alive Agravaine clutched at her skirt, and she stamped his fingers away in horror. His fingers relaxed their grip as he died, and she breathed a sigh of relief…until she noticed the beggar man for the first time.
“You!” she gasped in shock. It couldn’t be, it couldn’t be…had Arthur killed him? Guilt and horror rose up inside her. “All the demons of Hell have come to torment me…” she moaned. What was she going to do? She looked over her shoulder and spotted the huge fiery oven. “Into the oven with him,” she muttered, and began to drag the beggar man towards it.
The door crashed open. “Why did you scream?” demanded Arthur. “Is Agravaine still alive?”
Mrs. Howden jumped, dropping the beggar man and trying to look nonchalant. “He was clutching, holding onto my skirt,” she stammered breathlessly, “but now…now he’s finished.” She picked up the beggar man again and began to drag him.
“Leave them to me,” Arthur said impatiently, dropping the sword, and strode over to shove her towards the oven. “Open the doors.”
Mrs. Howden clutched desperately at the beggar man’s wrists. “No!” she shrieked, “Don’t touch him!”
“What is the matter with you?” Arthur snarled, and shoved her again as he picked the body up. Mrs. Howden stumbled away and pulled open the doors to the oven. “It’s just some miserable old beggar man -”
Arthur stopped talking abruptly as the light from the flames illuminated the beggar man’s face. With the light, and without the twisted madness that had been there in life, the old man’s face had changed…
Arthur started to shake. “Oh no…” he whispered, his voice trembling. “Oh God…” He lifted a shaking hand to touch the beggar man’s face. “‘Don’t I know you?’ he said…he told me…” Arthur looked up at Mrs. Howden, hate and anger all over his face.
“You knew he lived,” he hissed, his eyes filling with tears. “You knew Merlin lived!”
Mrs. Howden backed away, more afraid than she had ever been in her life. “I was only thinking of you…” she tried, but Arthur wasn’t looking at her anymore.
“Merlin…” he whispered again, gently stroking his friend’s face. His mind was stuck. He couldn’t think. Merlin Merlin Merlin Merlin….
“Your Merlin!” Mrs. Howden was babbling quickly, “A madman picking bones and rotten vegetables off the street! Would you have wanted to know that was how he turned out?”
Arthur looked up slowly, eyes burning with grief. “You lied to me,” he snarled.
Mrs. Howden shook her head desperately. “No, no, not lied at all,” she gabbled.
“Merlin…” Arthur’s attention was back on his friend, and Mrs. Howden’s excuses fell on dear ears.
“I said he took the poison, he did, I never said that he died! Poor thing, he lived -”
“I’ve come home,” Arthur whispered. I’m back with you, Merlin, you need to come back so we can be like we were, two sides of the same coin, remember?
“- but it left him weak in the head, all he did for months was just lie there -”
“- should’ve seen the physician, but Agravaine wouldn’t let him near, he ended up on the streets -”
“Oh my God…” Arthur moaned as reality set in. Merlin was never coming back, he could’ve saved him, been with him, if he’d known…
“Yes, I lied,” Mrs. Howden was shouting now, “Because I love you!”
“I wanted you to move on, I’d be twice the wife Gwen was, I love you!”
“Merlin... What have I done?” Arthur cried. I killed him, I killed Merlin, I killed my best friend, it’s all my fault, all my fault, oh God, oh God, oh God… It went round and round in his head, echoing endlessly. He couldn’t think of anything else. He knew now. He had been too blind with hate, too obsessed with vengeance, to realise what he was doing….He looked at his hands. They dripped with the blood of the innocent. All those people….Merlin would’ve hated him. He had become what Merlin had fought, ever since Arthur had known him. Merlin had always done the right thing, what was good, no matter what it was, and look what Arthur had become….
“Could Merlin have cared for you like I did?” Mrs. Howden’s voice broke into Arthur’s subconscious, and he realised. Mrs. Howden. If she had told him the truth, maybe he could’ve revived Merlin, taken him to a physician, helped him…he was dead for no reason.
He rose from the floor, smiling softly at her. She stepped back in panic.
“Mrs. Howden,” he smiled maliciously, “You’re a bloody wonder, didn’t I say so? Eminently practical, and yet appropriate, as always! As you’ve said repeatedly,” he snarled, “there’s little point in dwelling on the past! So come here, my love!”
“Do you mean it?” Mrs. Howden whispered, hardly daring to hope. Was he forgiving her? “Everything I did, I swear I thought was only for the best, believe me! Can we still be…married?”
“There’s nothing to fear, my love,” Arthur smiled at her the way a serpent smiles at a bird. “What’s dead is dead!”
He put his arms around her, and waltzed her around the room. “The story of life, my love, is learn to forgiveness and try to forget.”
“Leave it all to me, Mr. De Rege , I’ll get everything sorted out, by the sea, Mr. De Rege, like I said, we’ll be so happy, there’s no one nosy, asking questions…” Mrs. Howden gabbled, trying to appease him.
Arthur smiled benignly. “And life is for the alive, my dear!” He waltzed her closer to the oven, and his voice rose in his anger. “So let’s keep living it, really living it -” With a final roar, he threw her with all his might into the oven and slammed the door shut.
Mrs. Howden screamed as she burned to death, long and horrible. Arthur stood watching through the glass window, impassive, the flames flickering in his eyes.
When it was over, he sank to his knees, breathing heavily. Then he crawled back to Merlin, and cradled his friend in his arms, finally allowing the tears to fall.
“There once was a king and a sorcerer,” he whispered gently to Merlin. “and they were brothers, not in blood, but in bond. The sorcerer was the king’s reason and his life. The sorcerer was kind and virtuous, but the king was…foolish. And blind.”
He began to sob, rocking backwards and forwards, bent over his dead friend’s body.
Behind him, the trapdoor slowly rose up, and Evan climbed out, his eyes mad and staring.
“Pat a cake, pat a cake, bakers man,” he sang to himself, “Bake me a cake…no! Bake me a pie…” He trailed off as he spotted Arthur.
“Mr. De Rege .”
He saw the body cradled in Arthur's arms. “It’s the old man,” he continued, but without surprise. His mind was too addled with fear and madness for surprise. “You’ve hurt him too, have you? You shouldn’t, you know. You shouldn’t hurt nobody.”
Arthur was completely unaware of anything around him. He was locked in his own private hell, too far in for anyone to reach him ever again. Evan spotted Excalibur lying on the ground nearby, and wandered over to pick it up.
He traced the ancient writing along it, gazing at it wonderingly. Then he walked over to stand behind Arthur again. “Pat him and prick him and mark him with B,” he sang quietly, “And put him in the oven for baby and me…” He reached over and slit Arthur’s throat. Arthur gave a sigh of relief as he died, and flopped over Merlin’s body.
Evan dropped the sword and went to the meat grinder, turning it like Mrs. Howden had taught him, wondering vaguely when she’d be back.
The door burst open. Gwen and William, both disguised, and two guards stood in shock at the top of the stairs, staring at the carnage below.
Evan looked up and smiled politely. “Pardon me, gentlemen, but you may not enter here. My mistress doesn’t let anyone enter here, for there’s work to be done, you see. So much work. Smoothly, smoothly, smoothly…”
And Evan kept turning the empty meat grinder as his audience looked on in horror, humming to himself and smiling. He was doing Mrs. Howden’s work, and he would keep going till she told him to stop.