Gawain knows Morgan, of course - or, at least, knows of her. She’s like his aunt or something, for all that she’s only in her twenties. Even compared to Gawain’s sixth form seventeen, it seems like she should be older. But he’s met her, once or twice, and exchanged “hellos” and a few “fine, thanks” on the phone, from time to time.
His Mum doesn’t seem too pleased to see her, but Gawain can’t tell if that’s because Morgan disapproves of what she’s been up to lately – as evidenced by the long, whispered, then shouting phone calls Gawain’s heard snatches of over the last week. Gawain’s on his aunt’s side for that one, anyway. Dad’s been dead less than a year, and she’s already carrying on with someone else. Gawain wouldn’t even know that much, except Morgan isn’t the only person he’s heard his mother whispering to on the phone, late at night. When Gawain meets the guy, he’s going to have words.
But then, maybe Mum’s just pissed because her sister doesn’t even come into the flat, just asks for Gawain. Asks him to take a walk with her.
Gawain glances back at where his Mum is slumped back on the sofa again after the effort of opening the door – staring at the TV, watching Jeremy Kyle humiliate someone with caring, pretending she’s not listening. Gareth’s in the doorway to his bedroom, school uniform on, tie crooked, rucksack on his shoulder, eyebrows raised. Gawain knows it’ll piss him off beyond the telling, stuck in school all day, wondering what his big brother’s getting into with their aunt. He thinks, briefly, about the classes he has that morning. About how he was supposed to meet Lamorak in the canteen before first period. About the essay he hasn’t written.
Then he turns and looks into Morgan’s deep blue eyes, and forgets about all of them.
Morgan takes him down the road to the castle that sits on the border between the village and the outside. It’s nothing more than crumbling stone ruins now, of course, without even a local legend to explain what it’s doing there. It’s just always been, part of the fabric of the island.
“Do you know who built this castle?” Morgan asks, rather than, say, explaining what she’s doing there.
Gawain shrugs. “Didn’t reckon anybody did. Back in the dark ages, or something, wasn’t it?”
Morgan’s eyes are far away and staring at the broken-down stones as if she sees something more there than Gawain can. “Not quite so long ago, and yet, longer.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Gawain points out, shoving his hands deep into his pockets. There’s a cold wind coming in off the sea, not enough miles away not to smell the brine in the breeze. “Go on, then. Who built it?”
She gives him a half smile at that, as if pleased he’s asking the right questions. Gawain just figured it was the obvious one. “This one was King Lot. Built for your mother. Morgause liked to watch the waves in the distance from the ramparts.”
Funny thing is, Mum never mentioned that her younger sister was stark staring mad. Gawain tries to remember how you’re supposed to deal with loonies, and decides it’s probably like handling frightened, dangerous animals. “Is that right,” he says as mildly as he can manage. “Well. Who’d have thought?”
“You don’t believe me,” Morgan says, her eyes sharp and hurt. Gawain stares at the ruins and doesn’t answer, because of course he doesn’t believe her. But he can’t help but believe that she does.
He takes his crazy aunt to the cafe, just across the road, an old-fashioned type of tea house that serves them fruit scones slathered in butter. Morgan picks every last piece of fruit out of hers, swallowing them down without visibly chewing. Then she shreds the rest of the scone to crumbs.
Gawain just watches, trying to find the right words. Eventually, he asks, “Why are you here? You didn’t come all this way to tell me a story about a castle.” He feels mildly proud for having edited the words ‘wacko,’ ‘crazy,’ and ‘lunatic’ from his sentences.
“You’re not the oldest this time, are you?” Morgan says, nonsensically and apropos of nothing. Then she tips her head to one side, eyes wide. She looks about twelve. “Maybe I did. Maybe I want you to come with me. So I can prove it to you.”
Gawain feels his mouth tighten, but he doesn’t question her again. Instead, he drains his coffee and makes his goodbyes, mind swimming with images of pennants flying from castle ramparts.
It’s not worth going in to college by this point, he decides. Instead, he heads home, jacket slung over his shoulder in the unexpected heat of the early autumn day. Usually by this time of year, this far north, the warmth and sun have faded, and he’s layered up again in jumpers and perhaps one of the hideous scarves his Gran sends every year at Christmastime.
He’s contemplating swapping his long-sleeved top for a T-shirt as he climbs the stairs to the flat. Wondering if it’s still warm enough for ice cream, as he pushes open the door. Thinking about the excuses he’ll make at college tomorrow as he steps in, tossing his jacket towards the coat rack with no real hope of landing it on a hook.
“I’m back,” he calls, eyes turning to the sofa where he left his mother luxuriating in daytime telly.
He stops. He blinks. He stares. He turns away.
Lamorak is still pulling on his shirt as he chases Gawain into the stairwell. “Mate. Look. Stop. You don’t...”
“If you finish that sentence with ‘understand,’ I’m throwing you down these stairs.” Gawain wants to run, wants to ignore the sight that just burned itself into his eyes. But more than that, he wants to demand answers from his supposed best friend. He wants to be told that it’s not what it looked like. That he misunderstood. That it’s a joke. A prank.
A mistake. “Tell me... tell me...” He can’t get the rest of the words out. Breathless, brainless, Gawain sinks against the wall, waiting for Lamorak to read his thoughts and finish his sentence, the way he’s always done since they were kids.
“I can’t... I just...” Lamorak leans beside him, apparently as short of words as Gawain is. “I didn’t mean for it to happen.”
“You accidentally fucked my Mum?” Gawain puts as much disbelief into his voice as he can manage. It’s less than he’d like, because the image of them, naked and writhing on the horrid paisley of the sofa cushions, Tricia still yammering on the TV in the background, is far, far too present in his mind.
“I didn’t mean to fall in love with her,” Lamorak says softly, and Gawain’s world falls apart.
Gareth finds Gawain down by the shore, after returning from school to find the flat door wide open and Mum in her dressing gown and tears on the sofa. She manages to gasp a few words, and it’s enough for Gareth to figure out what’s happened.
He really thought they’d have more sense, after he walked in on them kissing last week. All right, maybe not Mum, but he’d always thought Lamorak had half a brain. He’d told them they had to stop with the stupid. Warned them what would happen.
Apparently, they didn’t listen.
Still, Gareth knows his brother, knows that when things are bad, he comes here, to stare out at the sea that stole their father.
“Kinda obvious place to brood,” Gareth says, sinking down beside him on the wet grass of the cliff. “Looking out at the killer sea and all that.”
“It wasn’t the sea that killed our father,” Gawain says, eyes still focussed on the grey of the water.
Gareth winces. He should have seen this coming. “I thought we’d all agreed that it wasn’t Lamorak’s fault? That it was an accident?”
“That was before.” Gawain’s face is stony, and all Gareth can think is Thank God Gaheris isn’t here. Their eldest brother never really bought into the ‘accident at sea – could have happened to anyone’ philosophy that the rest of them adopted towards Lamorak after their father’s death. After all, Lamorak is a friend; Gawain’s best mate since nursery. They all know that he isn’t capable of murder, no matter how odd the circumstances.
Although, given the current circumstances... Gareth shakes his head to blow away thoughts of motive and means. But if even he is thinking them, what sort of mental state must his brother be in? Gaheris, Gareth knows, wouldn’t bother with the thinking, or the brooding. He’d just act, pure and simple, drawing on rage rather than reason. Gareth suppresses a shudder at the thought of what might be left of Lamorak by now if Gaheris wasn’t away, safely at uni in London. Gareth knows Gaheris’s temper, intimately. If he’d seen what Gawain had apparently walked in on... he’d have wanted to punish people. Maybe even Mum...
Gareth pushes his musings aside, ready to deal with the brother who is here, rather than fearing the one who isn’t. “Look,” he says, trying to sound both reasonable and cross at the same time, a mix he thinks Gawain might appreciate. “I’m no happier about Mum’s latest stunt than you are—”
“Stunt?” Gawain looks up, eyes wide. “Is that what you think this is?”
Gareth shrugs. “Isn’t it?” Because, really, all Morgause seems to have done since their Dad died is indulge in desperate cries for attention. Most of which they have managed to ignore.
But this... “He’s in love with her,” Gawain says, and Gareth winces, his hands reflexively grabbing handfuls of the sea grass, burnt still from the summer.
“Then he’s crazy.”
“Never said that he wasn’t.” It’s almost a joke, but Gawain isn’t smiling.
“Gaheris is going to kill him.” Gareth lets go of the grass, feeling the sharp, dry edges retreating from his skin. There’ll be cuts, or at least scratches, he’s sure. But he can’t feel them right now.
“He might have to wait in line,” Gawain says, but Gareth knows it isn’t true. If his middle brother was going to murder his best friend, he’d have done it already. He’s only brooding because he knows he can’t.
“Is this why Aunt Morgan arrived this morning, do you think?” Gareth asks, remembering the too-bright eyes in the unlined face at the door, and the way Mum had thrown the remote at Jeremy Kyle when Gawain left with her.
Gawain leans back, looking at the sky for a change, even though it’s the same colour as the sea, today. “I don’t think she knows why she came,” he says. “I think she might be crazy.”
“Pretty crazy,” Gareth agrees, leaning forward to watch a tiny figure at the base of the cliff, about to embark on the steep, rocky – and downright dangerous – cliff path up to where they’re sitting. The brothers have been climbing it for years; they know the tricks. No one else has ever been stupid enough to try and learn, except Lamorak. And now, apparently, Aunt Morgan. “Do you think we should try and stop her?”
Gawain’s dark hair brushes against Gareth’s cheek as he leans forward, staring down over his brother’s shoulder. “She’ll figure it out soon enough and turn back.”
“Clearly you don’t know your aunt very well.” The voice behind them makes them both jump, as if they’re the ones who’ve been caught doing something they shouldn’t today. Lamorak at least has the good grace to look ashamed, Gareth realises. He’s hanging back, a decent distance from the edge of the cliff, waiting for a signal that it’s safe to come forward.
Gareth waits too; Lamorak is Gawain’s best friend. It’s Gawain’s decision.
“Were you already here?” Gawain asks, cool eyes already turned back to the figure on the cliff path. “Or did you come up the back road?”
Apparently that’s sign enough for Lamorak. He steps forward and joins them on the edge of the cliff, although Gareth can’t help but notice that Lamorak keeps him between himself and Gawain. “Back way. I was looking for you.”
“I cannot imagine why.” Gawain’s words are like drumbeats, hard and resonant, even in the breeze of the cliff.
Lamorak sighs. “She’s halfway up, now.” The words are an observation only, a throwaway, something-to-say comment. But Gareth looks down and sees that it’s true. And he could have sworn she was still puttering around the bottom rocks moments before.
He resolves to keep a closer eye on his Aunt Morgan.
“Do you know what she wants?” Gawain asks, still not looking at his supposed best friend.
“I think she wants things to be different, this time,” is all Lamorak says.
Gareth is starting to get the impression that he’s missing something in this conversation.
“Don’t we all,” Gawain says, his tone wistful as he gets to his feet. “Come on. She’s here.”
And she is. Impossibly soon, Morgan’s head appears over the edge of the cliff, and Gareth reaches out a hand to pull her up.
It’s then that he starts remembering. Starts wondering how he ever could have forgotten.
They’re sitting at the top of the cliff – three men, still boys, really. Not the ones she remembers, not quite, but close enough for her purposes.
Morgan starts up the cliff path, wondering which of them will remember first. Perhaps Lamorak. He always was a perceptive sort. Or maybe Gareth; being slain by a man you considered a second father does tend to stick with you, she’s found.
Gawain will be last, though, she’s sure. There hadn’t even been a flicker of recognition in his eyes that morning. Not for her, not for the castle, not even for the subtle magics she’d sent his way in the cafe. No, Gawain will take some convincing.
The path is steep and treacherous. Morgan doesn’t even try to maintain the illusion that she’s climbing it naturally. After all, they’re all family here, in a way. No more secrets.
It’s Gareth that helps her up the last step, and when Morgan looks up to thank him she sees the knowledge flooding back into his eyes, as inexorable as the tide behind her. No going back, now.
He slips backwards, even as Morgan finds her footing and stands over them. She suppresses a smile as Gareth tumbles onto his backside, wide eyes staring up at her as if she’s death and the devil combined come to take his soul.
She supposes that, from where he’s sitting, she might be.
“You remember then?” she asks, as Lamorak reaches down to help up the younger boy sit up again. As Gareth gives a very small nod, Lamorak looks up at her with darkened eyes and says, “I can’t believe we ever forgot. Was that your doing?”
Ah. The inevitable blame. “Not me,” she says, sweeping her coat around her as she sits on the grass beside them. “You did that yourself. All of you.”
Gawain is blinking at her. “What the hell are we talking about?”
Morgan is formulating a suitably sharp response when Gareth manages to splutter out, “Us. Who we were. History.”
“Missing history,” Morgan corrects. “And not just yours. Everyone’s.”
“History doesn’t go missing,” Gawain says, tone scathing. Gareth and Lamorak, however, are just watching her, waiting for an explanation.
She sighs, and gathers her thoughts, her words and her magics within her. This, she imagines, is the breaking point. Where she wins or loses them forever. She wishes she could remember how this went every other time, but fifteen hundred years is a long time to remember anything, and the periods between reincarnations have been much longer than any of the reigns of Camelot. She remembers a lot, but so far it’s never been enough.
“It starts with the legends,” she says, remembering Geoffrey of Monmouth mangling the truth of their tragedy, passing it on to another generation to adopt as their own. “It becomes not quite history, but stories. And then others add their own tales to the tree and it grows...”
“And the truth gets lost,” Gareth says, his voice small. Morgan wonders how much he remembers, of which time, which incarnation of his own sorry story.
She nods. “Until it’s time for it to come again.”
“Again?” Gawain sits up a little straighter. “Is this a whole history repeating itself thing? Like gold models of spaceships in Inca temples?”
Not exactly how Morgan would have put it. “The warriors of our story became chivalrous knights, and the story was told again, with new embellishments—”
“And the same ending,” Lamorak finishes.
Morgan nods. “Then we were Victorians, scared of the power we women had over weak, fickle men. Film stars, bringing the golden age of chivalry to the silver screen. Names change, sometimes, and roles, occasionally. But it’s the same story. And always, always, the same tragedy.”
“Then why don’t we remember?” Gawain asks, apparently not realising that he’s the only one who doesn’t.
“It’s time for the cycle to start again,” she says. “The legends and the myths fade away, out of the collective consciousness, ready for the story to be told anew.”
“So what about now?” Gareth asks. He doesn’t sound very hopeful.
With a wide, wide smile, Morgan reveals the essence of her plan. “This time, we change the ending. Starting here.”
“Do not think this means I’ve forgiven you,” Gawain says, pushing past Lamorak as they head down the gentler back path, heading for the village.
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Lamorak replies, as Gareth brushes past him too, looking to catch up to his brother.
“When did you remember?” Morgan asks, just behind his left shoulder, and Lamorak slows his pace to allow her to match his step.
“I didn’t,” Lamorak says, thinking of flashes of memory that hit him every time he touched Morgause’s skin. He’d thought they were just guilt. “Not all at once. More just... images. Then I climbed that hill, saw you coming up the other path, and it just... hit.”
It had been something of a relief, in fact. An excuse, an explanation. He’d had no choice but to fall in love with his best friend’s mother.
It wasn’t his fault.
“Does... does she remember?” he asks, not sure he really wants to know the answer.
“My sisters and I always remember,” Morgan says. “That’s part of the problem.”
Lamorak remembers the head of the woman he loves flying across the room, her son standing over her, bloody sword in hand. “You were behind the bursary Gaheris got, weren’t you. The one that meant he could go to university.”
“I told you,” Morgan says, speeding up towards the brothers. “We’re going to make it different this time.”
Lamorak can only hope that’s true.
It’s a strange afternoon, all told. Lamorak expects Morgan to take them back to the flat, and is so busy rehearsing what he’s going to say to Morgause in his head that it takes him a while to realise they’re actually at the ruins on the edge of town.
He stares at it, wondering if he’ll ever get used to the strange overlapping of what he knows is there, what has been there all his life, and the ghostly images of things that have been, over and over again, hovering before his eyes.
“You remember it?” Morgan asks, and he nods. “Good. Then go and tell him about it.” She points a sharp fingernail towards the hunk of rock where Gawain is sitting, continuing his epic brood of sulkiness. “He needs something to jog his memory.”
Lamorak makes to move forward, then stops himself. “What happens next?” he asks, still watching his best friend toss tiny pebbles down the hill into the moat. “When he remembers? What do we do next?”
“We go and find the others,” Morgan says. “We start changing history.”
It takes courage, Lamorak decides, to sit down beside the man who, in previous lives, has murdered him for exactly what he caught him doing today, and try to reason with him. Not that he doesn’t think he could take Gawain if it came down to it, but he doesn’t want to fight his best friend. Just another of Morgan’s little changes, he reckons.
“I don’t want to talk to you,” Gawain says, predictably.
“I know.” Lamorak settles down beside him anyway. “But your aunt wants you to remember.”
“Did you betray me like this last time? Is that why she’s here now?” Gawain’s eyes are bright as he looks up. Lamorak supposes that this must have been a pretty confusing day for his friend.
It’s confused the hell out of him, anyway.
“Last time, we weren’t friends,” he says, wondering how he can keep from making this worse. “We had... bad blood between us.”
Gawain’s gaze snaps down to the moat again. “This is all crazy.”
It’s the first time he’s said that, Lamorak realises. “You believe it, though,” he says. “Don’t you? You remember something, I reckon. You’d have pushed me off the cliff otherwise.”
“I don’t remember anything,” Gawain insists, mulishly.
Lamorak lets him lie. “We were supposed to be brother knights. Upholding all that was good. But we let personal feelings get between us, and a lot of people died.” Morgause’s head, rolling across the stone floor. Gawain’s sword running him through in the forest. Lamorak tries to blink the images away, but they always, always stay.
He wants to run to Morgause. Wants to see her with his own eyes, to know that she’s okay.
But he has to fix Gawain, first.
“So you’re saying I have to forgive you, for the good of the planet?” Gawain asks, disbelievingly.
“For Britain, at least,” Lamorak says, trying to imagine how differently things might have ended, if Guinevere hadn’t loved Lancelot. If Mordred hadn’t... “There’s no Mordred, this time,” he says, the realisation filling his whole body. If there were, he’d have been Gawain’s younger brother, wouldn’t he? And where was Arthur? Where were all the others?
So many questions for Morgan. But he knows she won’t answer them until Gawain remembers.
“You really don’t remember anything?” Lamorak asks, and Gawain looks up into his eyes, his face stony.
“The only thing I remember is hating you.”
Lamorak sighs. He supposes it’s as good a place to start as any. “Don’t worry,” he says. “I hated you too.”
But not this time, he promises himself. Not this time.