The day dawned red and saturated with potency; it lay over the tranquility of the spring like a frozen shroud. The full green of the tournament field shimmered with miniscule water droplets; a lone horse grazed in the stables of the inner courtyard, softly gnashing hay between his flat teeth. Mist lolled about the drawbridge, obscuring a lone rider coming into the city.
To the east, a hawk's warning cry drifted above the gray turrets of Camelot. The thumping of hooves upon the damp wood of the bridge was muffled and the messenger seemed to lay in wait, head bowed. His black mare was covered in a dirty foam of sweat as she pawed at the elaborate gate. A sleepy guardsman came to the new drawbridge lever and slowly tugged on its protesting rope. The door swung down gently, as if it floated upon a cloud. The rider raised his head and smiled: charming, seductive.
"My mother has sent for me," he said sympathetically. "I am sorry to wake you."
The old guardsman smiled toothlessly. "Prince Mordred," he bowed, "I am always at your service, as I am at the service of your father."
The handsome young man smiled again. "Will you take my horse?" And then he swung down lightly and handed over the wet reins. His purple cloak was soaked, his black hair laid upon his head with moisture. The mare stood, still gasping, as Mordred ran into the Great Hall of the castle. His every movement was like that of a cat: lithe and flowing, silent, like a hunter.
Up the narrow twisted stairs, somehow descending with every step upwards, Mordred came to the heavy wooden doors. His mother stood before them, her violet eyes smoky in the half-daylight as she sought to see beyond their concealment. Her loyal servants, the pale half-faeries that worshipped her as a goddess, gathered about her tightly. She looked at him, her thoughts veiled behind that purple façade. "Finally," she said, her voice like a coiled snake, striking upon the final syllable. "I thought you would never come." She looked calm, but her haunting entourage glared at him. "The time has come."
Mordred looked to the doors, carved ornately and possessing gold knobs and hinges. "They lie beyond? Together?"
She answered with a flicker of her extensive eyelashes. "Go seek your father." She spat the last word with the same venom.
The world seemed barren, coated in the robes of winter. Everywhere, the tents of the soldiers clogged the land, their fires sending ashy smoke into the already sharp air. His eyes burned fiercely in the night as he listened to the screams of the wounded. They lay everywhere, scattered on makeshift beds in the freezing darkness, their blood tainting the white snow. He sat beside a boy, clutching his hand tightly. This child would surely die in the night, and he was certain that he would as well. The grief and agony of war pressed around him as he stared in morbid attention at the shiny pearl of the boy's intestines as they slipped from ragged flesh. In the darkness a war cry was heard, floating like a ghost through the pollution. Then another, and another, and suddenly the camp was beset with flames. He leapt to his feet, spilling the boy's viscera into the dirt where the pearl became muddy crimson. He stared at them, still captivated, as the flames began to devour his men.
He awoke then, covered in sweat. He held his hand up to the window and watched as it nervously shook before slowly lowering it into the fine blankets. His nightmares seemed to come with every moonrise now, past battles and dead children plaguing him whenever he closed his eyes.
He looked at the place beside him where she had once slept and ran a hand through his graying blond hair. He glanced out the window, at the springtime dawn. Standing, he dipped his hands, callused from many years clutching a sword, into a bowl of cold water. He rubbed his face slowly.
He wondered where she was.
He left the opulence of his chambers and came down into the Great Hall. The table sat half empty and forgotten, its lofty ideals vanquished by time's violently changing sea. He sat on his throne and gazed into the emptiness of the room.
He knew where she was.
Only futility would be born of inner denial; yet he condoned their forbidden love, as he had so many years before when he had first seen it. He loved her, and his best friend too, the Patroklus to his Achilles. He looked at the table again, at the worn chair were Lancelot always seemed to perch, his whole face moving expressively in excitement as he recounted the latest adventure of the knights. Then he looked to the throne beside his, where she would regally sit, her head held high and her eyes focused only on her knight. His remembrances of the past swept over him, washing away the Great Hall, carrying him to the days when the three of them would sit together during feast days and laugh as they ate. They had been so young, so lost in their own importance and supposed greatness that the entire world had seemed theirs for the conquering. And in the blackest recesses of his soul he still bitterly thought of himself as great. He still angrily thought of the three of them as being the only true friends in the world.
The court came in slowly, and townspeople entered, bringing their causes before their revered king. He heard them all, with kindness and justice. Nothing was below his judgement. Suddenly the doors were dramatically flung open, and Mordred entered, a flowing red cape thrust back from his shoulders. His every move was calculated to be at maximum grace and charisma, the product of his mother's vengeance. Every eye spun to him, like those of horses frightened by lightning. He struck once, his words echoing like thunder.
"My lord," and here he bowed, all of the allure of his voice placed into those words, "I would speak with you privately." He raised his glorious blue eyes- the eyes that were his father's- and innocently whispered, "The matter is of the utmost importance."
Arthur stood, wearily, and stepped down from his throne. "The court has ended for today," he said softly, his voice worried. He walked distractedly to his chambers, his heavy footfalls followed by his son's faint ones. They entered, and he shut the door behind them gently before standing, his fingers tracing the golden pommel of Excalibur. "Mordred?" he asked quietly.
Mordred caught Arthur's hand in his own. "Father," he whispered, "Mother?" His voice trailed off as he stood upon the cliff. He could never return if the fateful words fell from his tongue. Rather, he would watch Arthur tumble from that cliff. He looked intensely into his father's blue eyes, made worldly by the pains of his life, and saw the kindness within.
"Morgan?" Arthur prompted, a faint smile creasing the corners of his mouth sharply. There was no joy in that upturning of lips.
Mordred nodded distractedly. "She wishes to speak to you. Let me lead you to her."
They walked down the darkened corridors. Outside, a streak of lightning ripped jagged holes in the gray sky. Arthur ran his fingers down the scabbard absent-mindedly, his thoughts dwelling on what new betrayal his sister had concocted. He could not bring himself to exile her for her misdeeds in the past, for he believed that all people were inherently good, and therefore could return to this predisposition. Every time that she did something treacherous he would lose his trust in her; yet it would soon return, only to be broken again.
Then Mordred stopped, and Arthur looked up, nearly running into him. The tableau before him engendered a piercing intake of breath; for there was a disheveled but still regal Guinevere, clutching her gown; some of Arthur's greatest knights were gathered around her. She held her head high until she saw him; then her face fell into abject shame and she closed her eyes so that tears pressed out and flowed in twin rivulets down her cheeks. Then Morgan materialized from behind the knights, her eyes shaded and a pout upon her lips.
"Is this not evidence enough?" she asked, her voice overflowing with false sorrow. "I have warned you of her infidelity."
Arthur did not hear her triumphant words. He looked at Guinevere's rose petal eyes, making her see him. Mordred turned to slowly look at his father. The broken heart laid before him seemed so infinitely shattered that he spun to his mother and snapped, "Carry this out yourself! I will be your pawn no longer!" He stalked from the room, Morgan's eyes following him with a casual fury.
Gawain looked at Arthur mournfully. "We all saw Lancelot escaping. Something must be done about this."
Bors nodded sadly. "It is a dishonor to you, lord."
Arthur continued to look at her, fallen so far and lost so thoroughly. "Why?" he whispered, knowing it was hopeless.
Here Morgan stepped forward, her voice rising and falling silkily. "It is the law that adulteresses must be burned at the stake. You made that law. As king, are you higher than it?"
He shook his head. "No," he whispered, an ironic smile glimmering briefly. "The king is not above the law." He finally took his eyes away from Guinevere. "Nor is the queen. She will be burned when the storm subsides." He spun away.
Morgan came into the tower, her voice husky from cold. "Bring me the goat." One of her faeries brought forth the bleating offering and she flung her head to the heavens and called upon the storm to halt as she swept her hand down, a glinting knife held loosely in it. The bleating ended as the final staccato of thunder faded and the sun swept from the clouds.
The stake was made ready, like a crucifix, with heaped hay coiled around its base. Guinevere was bound to it, her white dress billowing in the wind; her proud gaze not daring to focus for fear that she would see her husband.
He sat in his chambers, his head in his hands. His finest blue cloak
-he had worn it at their wedding feast-
hid him from the spectacle outside. He had signed the edict with shaking hand not an hour before, thinking that he would see his wife again, for the storm had seemed likely to never clear. Then the clouds had been swept away, seemingly by the hand of God.
He heard the crackle of flames as the hay caught, and he clenched his fists and waited for the screams to begin. He heard them, but there were far too many, eating at him. He stood, hands clutching for the windowsill as he lurched forward and nearly fell. Then he looked down, expecting horror but seeing brief salvation. Lancelot had swept through on a white steed, rescuing Guinevere. Arthur knew that he would be forced to seek them out, forced to carry the grisly drama to its certainly tragic end. He straightened, seeing not the fallen and trampled Gawain in the field. He saw the future, endless and painful. He knew that the glory had come to its end, and he walked slowly from the window. The sky tinted a bloody red over the towers of Camelot, dripping into the gray sea.