Perhaps there was something to this dark-haired bastard-child after all. Most certainly, he was no stranger to a man's touch, nor was he the hesitant flower I had halfway expected; at the same time, he was not all venom and fire as so many young men had a tendency to be. Rather, Mordred of Orkney had in him a certain finesse in the way he'd drawn me into his bed: he was careful to let the High King's seneschal take the lead, my being the more senior of the two, but not once did he pretend that he was not the seducer. I appreciated this honesty in him, and if I'm being frank, it made him all the more enticing to me.
Young Mordred was not popular among the older Companions, most of them pious and aware that his birth was damning to him. He had earned his place at the Table Round, no man doubted this or called it into question, but the idea that maybe he was after something more than simply meting out the King's justice was a popular one. Many lesser knights had their own names for Arthur's illegitimate, "dragonspawn" and "serpent" not the least of them, and I myself had taken to calling the boy Bellevoix – "pretty voice" – for his silver-tongued eloquence. It had been intended originally as a gibe, no better than dragonspawn, but as I came to know the young knight more personally, the moniker had taken on a more sincere aspect. As it was, scarcely did anyone but the King, the Queen, and the Orkney brood ever call Mordred by his name, and even among the lattermost it was rare, for they often preferred to call him by his childhood nickname, "Corbie", which I understand to be the way of calling a raven in the Orkney dialect. Whether or not it was a friendly name, Mordred's reactions and words never betrayed, but I assumed it was something he would have preferred not to answer to.
By and by, we passed the night together, and when the cock's crowing heralded the morning we found ourselves still abed – he lying on his stomach, I on my back, stark naked with the sweat still drying on our skin. Flushed as he was, with his black hair tousled and sticking to him, he was startlingly lovely. His grey eyes were half-lidded, his lips swollen with kisses I had only just dared to give, and he had a look of sated drowsiness about him of which I'd never have thought him capable before knowing him so intimately. He had one arm pillowed beneath his head, the other stretched out to rest across my torso as if to keep me from rising. The fingers of this hand toyed delicately with the hair on my chest, occasionally gliding over one nipple or the other. It was a lazy, comfortable sort of romantic gesture on his part, I think: his way of saying, I enjoyed you last night; I would keep you with me a little longer. Of course, I was in no hurry to get anywhere, for today was Sunday and even I liked to sleep in occasionally on the Lord's Day. Never mind that I was quite awake.
There was silence between us, not counting Mordred's distracted, tuneless humming as his fingers continued their absent caresses. His indolent eyes were fixed upon me, his mouth quirked upward into the barest of smiles. It was as happy as I'd ever seen him, in the seven years he'd been here. There was much about him that was guarded and hidden away from prying eyes; what was left was all caustic wit and irreverent behavior that did little to endear him to his comrades. I suppose, given what he'd come from, he had a right to be this way, but it was pleasant to see this softer side of the inscrutable Sir Mordred. It was doubly pleasant to know that I was likely the only one who had ever seen him this way, that this was one thing I had achieved that Lancelot or Gawaine had never done.
"Do you mean to write out your thoughts plainly on your face, Sir Seneschal?" The delicate, half-whispered words startled me and drew me out from my wandering thoughts. The smile upon Mordred's face had twisted into a wry smirk – a far more usual expression for Mordred Bellevoix than his erstwhile look of contentment. So much for that, I thought to myself, throwing off the young man's arm from my body none too gently. I scowled down at him, and he simpered back up at me, but I thought that I saw a passing hurt in those eyes of his – only a moment's worth, for it was gone when I blinked. To my surprise (and dismay), that hurt translated into the harsh, bitter words that came next, "It's always a contest for you, is it not? Trying to best my brother and that poppycock Lancelot, all of you vying to be the best in my father's sight as if he were some sort of god. I suppose that this was simply another victory for you, Sir Kay. Bed the King's bastard, earn his trust before the others. Very good, my lord Seneschal. I applaud your prowess." Baring his teeth at me like some sort of feral beast, Mordred stood and dressed with a quickness borne of anger. I felt embarrassed and ashamed that he'd seen so clearly into my soul; perhaps it was shreds of that uncanny ability to see what ought not be seen that was so prized by Queen Morgause. It would not surprise me if she'd bred such a thing into her own son, damning him even further than by his cursed birth alone. Now fully clothed, Mordred stood glaring at me, as if he were daring me to respond, to say something to make him stay. Well – who was I to deny him his row?
"I would have thought," said I to him in the scathing tones I was so infamous for, "That you would at least be grateful for my attention. After all, it's not as if anyone else would risk their mortal souls to lie with such a one as you, Sir Mordred, be they man or woman." There it was again: that fleeting wounded look, masked by a cool, sardonic carelessness. I saw now, like an epiphany from God Himself, the reason behind the boy's sarcastic nature. It was all an act, every last bit of it, but an act so well-played that no one – not even the King – was the wiser. Underneath this calculated exterior, he was just a boy, little more than a cast-off of his brothers. If he behaved with entitlement, it was because he was trying to prove to himself that he deserved what he had. My view of him softened again, but Arthur's bastard would have none of it.
"Pity now, Sir Kay? Truly, you must think very little of me. Did you think I came to you as a cry for help? That I wanted the companionship of someone who was as easily dismissed by my father as I? Or perhaps that was your motive. Using me as a challenge was only an added bonus; you just wanted proof that you were not the only one among us whom the King could do without." I would have risen to this challenge, ready to come to blows, but Mordred sneered, spat on the floor, and went out, leaving me alone with my frustration. Not three hours later, I went to the King, my foster-brother, to beg of him a quest. Needless to say, he was shocked, for I alone of all the Companions never went out of my way to go on long journeys if I could help it. My place as Seneschal was in Camelot, overseeing the household and ensuring that everything was functioning as it ought. However, because I never asked and I must have appeared to him earnest, Arthur granted me my quest, with the stipulation that I not go alone. (This chafed me, for it was proof he thought me weak and incapable, but I deferred. How could I not? He was King, and I his servant.) I was ready to take my leave of the hall immediately in order to seek out a traveling companion or two, but my departure was stayed when a familiar voice snaked its way into my ears. A shudder rippled down my spine.
"Sire, if it pleases, I wish to accompany Sir Kay on his quest," said Mordred in the demure, courtly manner he used when addressing the King. It was, like so much of his damnable self, merely a façade – but it was a convincing one. Arthur nodded, seemingly pleased that someone would come forth and volunteer to chaperone his weakling foster-brother. I tried to hide my scowl; to rebuff Mordred's offer in public would be a blow to my own flimsy honor. So I simply bowed my head and murmured my thanks. Arthur dismissed us, saying that we could depart immediately after breaking our fast. I deigned to skip the morning meal altogether, instead retreating to my quarters to gather my things. Once packed, I relegated the keeping of the household to the staff, stressing how imperative it was that everyone keep to their own duties. I was beginning to feel the sickness of regret deep in my stomach, but it was too late to turn round now: if I changed my mind and remained at home, it would clinch my reputation as a coward forever. Of course, when I went to the stables to fetch my horse, he was there waiting for me. Self-righteous smirk firmly in place, he sat astride a dramatically stark-black Frisian mare and watched me mount my much more humble bay.
"Shall we begin, Sir Seneschal?" Oh, how his tone infuriated me! It was difficult to believe that this devil-tongued prat of a knight was the beautiful, drowsy-eyed boy I'd woken to at dawning. Had I not been a Christian, I would have sworn sorcery. He pressed his heels into his mare's sides and took off at an easy canter; I had no choice but to follow. There was no speech between us for the first few miles, but at length, Mordred turned his glance upon me. He did not wear the sarcastic smirk from before, nor did he look particularly upset. In fact, it was hard to name any emotion at all that I could see.
"Is it to prove your worth, Sir Kay, that you've struck out this fine summer's morning? Or was it to escape me?" Like his face, his tone was bland, as if he did not care about the answer at all. For all I know, I could have told him that I sought the Holy Grail, and he would have taken it the same as if I'd given an honest answer, so I shrugged one shoulder and kept my quiet. I wasn't in the frame of mind to argue with him any more. He didn't pursue any response, which was as well. Again, the only sound between us was the hollow clomping of our horses' hooves against the road, and it lulled me down into a deep place of thought where the King's son couldn't harangue me if even he chose. I liked this place, though I so rarely indulged myself with a visit: people didn't think of me as a very good thinker, and it wasn't my job to sit about and ruminate. My job was to make sure everything went as it ought, and that often required sharp words more than well-made thoughts. The sun was climbing the sky, well on its way into the day, when I emerged from my mental solitude. I had kept pace with Mordred (or he with me; I'd no way of telling which) and he didn't seemed at all perturbed by my silence. In fact, he was blithely humming a tune I couldn't place, and was, as far as I could see, taking in the sights of the land.
"I never figured you for much of a bard, Sir Mordred," I put in after a few moments of watching him. He stopped his nonchalant humming and looked over at me. He blinked owlishly a time or two and shrugged one shoulder – mocking me, I knew. "It suits you, with your pretty face, to have a pretty voice. 'Mordred Bellevoix' indeed. You should have set yourself to the harp rather than the sword." There it was again, that smirk.
"Just as you've set yourself to the hearth? Thank you, no. I had my chance at the harp, mind, but my fingers didn't like the strings. A bowstring is much more to their taste." He flashed his teeth, pretty and white – an oddity among soldiers, but he was known to be a vain creature – and spurred his mount on. I was obliged to do likewise, so that he did not get the last word.
I replied in my favorite scathing tone, "Thank God for that, else you might have achieved your infamous destiny by playing in the King's presence." This was my victory blow, for I watched the shades of his features change from surprise, to consternation, to rage. He stopped his mare dead, and by habit, I did also. Before I could goad him again, he'd thrust out an arm to grab my shirt and pull me down from my horse. I only avoided landing on my head and he followed me down, tackling me to the ground before I could get my feet beneath me. The horses wandered off to graze, careless of our scuffle as we rolled and wrestled in the grass. Surprisingly, Mordred didn't throw any punches; we only tumbled about like squires. We ended up going arse-over-tit down a hill, and our angry tussle became play – by the time it ended, we were both panting and laughing at our own foolishness.
I reached out to pluck a few blades of grass from Mordred's hair, smoothing it down without even thinking. I surprised myself with the tenderness of the gesture, and the King's bastard seemed equally so, for when he turned his face toward me, his brow was knit in confusion. It wasn't for long, as he quickly rolled over to press his mouth to mine. The act was so sudden that I only lay still and compliant for a moment, but I met him and rose to it when my mind was able to process what was happening. Unlike the night before, we kissed and groped with abandon – half out of mad desperation to outdo each other, and half, I daresay, out of some sort of half-formed affection. His shirt was off and mine torn at the neck when we stopped to breathe, shoulders heaving and lips bruised. We watched one another cautiously, each at once a trapped animal and a wary hunter coaxing his quarry. What was happening was nothing that could be undone, and he knew it as well as I, if not better. Hoarsely, he said to me, "You – if we do this thing, I'll not be taken for a fool. Mark me, Sir Seneschal. If you play the game you played at dawning, I swear to your god and mine, you will regret it sorely."
There was a fierce honesty in his face, and it was jarring for me to realize that I was gazing at Mordred completely stripped down of his carefully-cultivated acrimony. He wasn't taunting me or coaxing me to bicker, but imploring. He was a boy who simply did not wish to be hurt, who was afraid to trust but longed to do nonetheless. My reply was a hand through his hair, trailing down his back to guide him carefully against my chest. I heard his breath hitch when I tucked his head beneath my chin, but he exhaled and relaxed against me after a brief space.
"You're a puzzle wrapped up in a riddle, boy," I murmured against the crown of his head. He hummed a wordless response, and I sensed that he was at the edge of sleep. "But I can't say that you're so terrible." No reply this time, except for the deep, even breathing of slumber. I couldn't help but chuckle a little.
For once, I'd gotten the last word.