William watched Arthur as the tale came to an end, fascinated by the story he was being told – the edited story, in which Arthur carefully left out that he was the king mentioned.
Arthur stared off at the town, trying gather his thoughts and compose himself. It was the first time in years he had allowed himself to think about that night in such detail, and the pain in his heart was unbearable.
“And the queen, and the sorcerer, sir?” William whispered, his face rapt, “What happened to them?”
Arthur turned back to him, an unemotional mask fixed firmly on his face.
“Oh, that was many years ago,” he replied airily, “I doubt if anyone would know.”
He bent and picked up his bag, determined to stop thinking about the past.
“Now, leave me, William. There is somewhere I must go, something I must...find out. Now, and alone.”
He had to find out, whatever he had just said to William. He had to know what had become of his family.
“But surely we will meet again before I am off to Camulodunum?”
Arthur paused, and thought about Merlin’s house, where he had moved when Gaius died, saying that he couldn’t stay in the physician’s chambers.
That was where he was going. If he remembered correctly, there was a kindly but slightly eccentric woman living on the bottom floor who owned a pie shop, and she might know something.
“You might find me,” he told William, “around Sowers Street, I wouldn’t wonder.”
“Until then, my friend,” the sailor replied, and they shook hands. Then Arthur turned sharply and strode away. William stood for a moment, disturbed by his friend’s mysterious past, before turning and going his own way.
Arthur walked quickly
along the street, his head bowed, avoiding eye contact. The emotions roiling
around in him finally seeped out in a dark mutter, the things he had ranted at William
being repeated in a obsessive mantra:
“There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit, and it’s filled with the people who are filled with the devil himself, and the vermin of the world inhabit it...”
And on and on, as thunder started to crash above him.
Arthur came to a stop outside the house, where ‘Mrs. Howden’s Meat Pies’ was written above the shop front. It looked desolate and grimy, and the sight of Merlin’s home in such a state saddened Arthur’s heart.
He looked to the room above, where Merlin had lived. Through the window he could see that the room was dark, but that didn’t mean that no one was living there now. He could hardly bear think of someone else in Merlin’s house.
But now he had to be strong. He had to go into the shop, that held so many memories for him, and he had to talk to Mrs. Howden – ask her if she knew what had happened after he was sent away, maybe even where Merlin and Gwen were.
There was always a chance that she would recognise him, and Arthur wasn’t entirely sure what he would do if that happened. But twenty years had passed, and he was sure that he had changed enough for this. He was older, sadder. More bitter.
The ex-king straightened his shoulders, and marched into the shop.
Mrs. Howden was standing behind the counter with her back to him. She was viciously chopping some rank looking meat, her greasy hair hanging around her face.
As soon as the bell on the door rang, her head snapped up with a gasp, and she spun round to fix her eyes on Arthur like a bird of prey.
“A customer!” she cried, as though it was a rare occurence – although looking at that meat, Arthur thought, he wouldn’t be surprised if that were the case.
He saw her eyes suddenly widen, and he panicked. This was a bad idea. If she recognised him – and she probably would – even if he got away, she would tell Agravaine, and if he still had Gwen, and Merlin, he would kill them.
He started to back towards the door, excuses forming on his tongue, but Mrs. Howden rushed forward and grabbed his arm.
“Wait!” she cried, “What’s your rush, what’s your hurry? You gave me such a fright, I thought you was a ghost!”
Arthur narrowed his eyes. Did that mean she’d recognised him?
“Half a minute,” she was still talking, “Can’t you stay? Sit yourself down, sit!”
She forced him into a chair, and Arthur obliged, not wanting to seem suspicous.
“All I meant is, I haven’t seen a customer for weeks!” she explained breathlessly. Arthur relaxed slightly. That explained her surprise on seeing him.
“Did you come here for a pie, sir?”
Mrs. Howden didn’t wait for an answer, and slammed a greasy pie down on the table in front of him.
“Please forgive me if me head’s a little vague,” she smiled, in a way that would’ve been welcoming had her teeth not been so revolting.
She looked down suddenly at a bug of some kind that was scuttling across the counter, and slammed her hand down on it.
“What was that?” she muttered, before turning her attention back to Arthur, while kneading dough.
“But you’d think we had the plague,” she continued, “the way that people keep avoid - ” she broke off again to kill a cockroach, with a shout of “No you don’t!”, and Arthur began to consider not eating his pie. Then she was back on Arthur and her dough.
“Heaven knows, I try, sir! But no one comes in, even to sniff at them. Right you are sir, would you like a drop of ale?”
She walked over to Arthur’s table and poured out his drink for him, and her slightly manic way of talking that meant he hadn’t been able to get a word in edgeways seemed to relax a little as she slumped in the chair next to him.
“Mind you,” she sighed, “I can hardly blame them. These are probably the worst pies in Camelot!”
She chuckled to herself humourlessly.
“I know why nobody buys them,” she told Arthur, “I should know, I make them!” She sighed again. “The worst pies in Camelot. Even that’s polite.”
Arthur wondered if he should contradict her, and say that they were lovely, but he hadn’t actually eaten any yet. He didn’t dare. Mrs. Howden looked up suddenly.
“If you doubt it, take a bite!” she cried.
Arthur did, and immediately wished he hadn’t.
“Is that just disgusting?”
she smirked, “You’ve got to agree. It’s barely anything but crusting. Here,”
she handed him the bottle of ale, “drink this. You’ll need it.”
Arthur swigged out of the bottle, desparately trying to rid the taste of the pie from his mouth.
Mrs. Howden stood up again and wandered over to the counter.
“It’s no wonder, really, with the price of meat what it is, when you get it - if you get it! Never thought I’d live to see the day. I mean, you’d think it was a treat finding poor animals what are dying on the roads!”
Arthur nearly threw up. What had he just eaten?
Mrs. Howden remained
oblivious. “Mrs Mooney has her pie
shop,” she said conspiratorially, “She does her business and all, but I noticed
something odd. Lately, all her neighbours’ cats have disappeared!”
She roared with laughter, while Arthur made a mental note never to go to Mrs Mooney’s pie shop, whoever she was.
“Well, you’ve got to hand it to her!” Mrs. Howden was saying, “It’s a clever enterprise – popping pussies into pies!” She laughed again, and then suddenly sobered.
“Wouldn’t do in my shop, mind. Just the thought of it’s enough to make you sick!”
Arthur faintly heard her mutter to herself, “And them cats are bloody fast!”
“Well, there’s no denying that times is hard sir,” sighed the weary woman, leaning on the counter. “Even harder than my pies!”
Arthur suddenly felt self conscious about not eating the pie, and cautiously took another bite.
“Only lard, and nothing more. Isn’t it revolting? All greasy and gritty. It looks like it’s moulting, and tastes like - ” she broke off, and smiled sadly.
“Well, it’s a pity, is all I’m saying. Evoric, my late husband that is, he used to be so proud of this shop. And now what’s become of it? A woman alone, with the worst pies in Camelot!”
She sighed heavily. “Oh sir. Times is hard, times is hard!”
She looked over and noticed Arthur still struggling with his mouthful of pie. “Oh, just spit it out, love,” she remarked tiredly, “there’s worse than that on the floor.”
Arthur hesitated, and then did so, privately thinking that it didn’t change the appearance of the place.
“Isn’t that a room above the shop?,” he asked Mrs. Howden carefully. “If times are so hard, why don’t you rent it out?”
Mrs. Howden looked up at the ceiling, and then back at Arthur, a strange look in her eyes.
“Oh, up there?” Her casual tone clashed with her intense and slightly probing gaze. “No one’ll go near it.” She paused. “People think it’s haunted.”
Ice shot through Arthur. “...Haunted?” That didn’t mean that Merlin was...did it?
Mrs. Howden held his stare. “And who’s to say they’re wrong?” she whispered dramatically. “You see, years ago, something happened up there. Something not very nice.”
Arthur stared at her, trying not to let his fear show on his face. The flames from the oven cast a flickering glow on her face as she began her tale.