This time Morgan le Fay arrived in a snowstorm. Sir Kay, of course, had the gates opened and a room prepared for her. Elaine watched the servants scurry back and forth from her window and wondered how long it would be before she was expected to descend.
Soon enough, there was a knock at the door. “Enter!” Elaine called, pitching her voice to be imperious and unbothered, but she needn’t have worried because it was Linet who stuck her head around the door.
“Have you heard?” she asked. “She’s back.”
No need to ask who “she” was. “I saw.” Elaine nodded toward the window. “Servants aplenty. Does she think she’s moving in for good?”
“She could be.” Linet settled on the edge of Elaine’s bed, pulling the fur coverlet around her shoulders. “For goodness sake, Elaine, do you have to keep this room at Ice Queen temperature? Every time I come here I run the risk of freezing bits off that I would very much miss. Gareth too, for that matter.”
“I don’t mind the cold,” said Elaine. “And you’re too young to be saying things like that.”
“I’m a married woman,” said Linet. She scooted up the bed and crossed her legs, pulling her gown down over her briefly exposed knees. “I can say what I want.”
“I’m old enough to be your mother.”
“No, you’re not.”
“My son and your husband are contemporaries.”
“Yes, but,” said Linet, shaking her finger back and forth as if Elaine were the naughty school child, “Galahad’s the boy wonder. Everyone knows that. And Gareth got a late start after that ridiculous stint in the kitchens.” She sniffed. “I’m glad I didn’t know him then.”
Elaine had known him then. She had been lately arrived at Camelot herself, knowing no one and with Galahad in tow, in search of Lancelot. He wasn’t there. “He’s gone,” Sir Kay told her brusquely, and ordered the steward to find her a room. Hours later, unpacked and with Galahad asleep, Elaine left her room to try and find someone who might have more information. She had barely gone ten feet before a tall, looming person badly whistling a jaunty tune barreled around the corner and reversed a mug of chocolate down the front of her gown. After profuse apologies he fetched a replacement gown and waited outside while Elaine changed, like a great, loyal dog. It was then that he introduced himself as Beaumains from the kitchens. “Surely that’s not your name,” said Elaine. “No,” said Gareth, for it was indeed he, “but Sir Kay calls me that because I won’t tell him my real name.” He paused. “I heard you were looking for Sir Lancelot. I was bringing that chocolate to you.”
It transpired that Beaumains had come to Camelot to find Sir Lancelot also, but for reasons slightly different. He wanted to be a knight, but first he wanted to prove himself. “There are plenty of knights here,” Elaine began, but Gareth quickly interrupted her: “It had to be the best.” Elaine tried again. “What about Sir Gawain?” Gareth shook his head. “Sir Gawain won’t work.”
Gareth became a knight without Lancelot’s help, without Gawain’s help, and without the king’s help. When he revealed who he had been all along, Elaine thought that it made a kind of sense. No one else at Camelot shared her opinion. They couldn’t understand why a young man from a noble family (the parents were unfortunate, but the title remained) would debase himself by working in the kitchens and wresting his knighthood from the grip of circumstance. Perhaps those same people would have difficulty reconciling the Gareth they thought they know with the one Elaine had seen helping Galahad with his sword craft when both thought no one was watching.
“Maybe,” said Elaine, now, to Linet. “Maybe you would have been surprised.”
Linet wrinkled her nose. “Maybe,” she conceded, then pulled the fur coverlet tighter and lowered her voice. “But Morgan. What do we think?”
“Lady Morgan,” corrected Elaine automatically. “I don’t know. Perhaps she just fancied a visit.”
“To what, though? The court’s deserted with everyone off on the stupid Grail quest.”
“It’s not stupid.”
Linet was visibly annoyed. “Are you going to let me say anything today, or would I be better off having this conversation with the queen?”
“Of course not,” said Elaine, keeping her voice level.
“Not that she would listen anyway,” Linet began, and then stopped abruptly. “Why is it,” she mused, “that no one can speak of the queen any more without it seeming as if you have a double meaning?”
“Linet,” said Elaine, in what she hoped was a warning tone.
“Very well.” Linet held up her hands in surrender. “I know how much you hate it when anyone speaks ill of the queen.”
Elaine sighed. That was not it at all and Linet knew it, but she refused to be so easily drawn into this conversation. “Everyone says Lady Morgan is all-knowing and all-seeing,” Elaine said. “Surely she would know that her son and her brother rode out months ago with Gareth and Galahad and the others.”
Linet shrugged. “I was talking to Sir Bors. The last time Morgan—Lady Morgan—was here she was younger and prettier. And she didn’t have any children. Sir Bors said that it was all King Arthur could do to keep his knights away from his sister.” She stopped, then scrunched up her face, lowered her voice, and adopted a midlands accent similar to that of Sir Bors. “‘Most beautiful girl I ever did see. Canny, too. Like she could see right through you. Arthur never let her out of his sight.’”
“Maybe she could see right through you,” Elaine muttered before she could stop the thought.
“You don’t believe in that, though, do you?” Linet asked. “You’ve told me before,” and she adopted another accent, this one, it began to dawn on Elaine, meant to be her own. “‘It’s unfair to call the woman a witch just because she surrounds herself with mystery.”
“Did I really say that?” Elaine asked, deeply irritated to find herself blushing. “That’s awful.”
“Only because it’s so prim,” said Linet, but soon they were both smiling, and then laughing, and then Elaine was fetching the Brandywine.
“I guess,” said Linet much, much later, from where she hand landed on the floor, still clutching the coverlet and now leaning against the wall, “I guess what I hate most about being here is I miss my sister. I miss my sister and how she would tell me to, you know.”
“Focus,” said Elaine helpfully.
“No, not to focus. To, to stop being me sometimes.”
“No, I was telling you to focus. But you’ve done it on your own.”
“Too right I have,” said Linet, hoisting the bottle high. “Half the time Gareth’s off being a knight. Have to make do somehow.”
“No, that’s not what I—”
“What about you?” exclaimed Linet, rounding on Elaine. “What do you do for comfort? I never asked. When Lancelot is away or…what do you do?”
Linet must be more sober than she seems, Elaine mused, to have caught herself like that. She deserved an answer and, lucky for her, Elaine was just tipsy enough to give her one. “Nothing.”
Linet’s jaw dropped comically. “Nothing?”
“Nothing. I don’t need much. Nothing.”
Linet shook her head. “It boggles the mind.”
“No, it’s just…” Elaine heard herself speak rather than deciding to. “I used to want it, of course, all the time, but. I just. Stopped.”
Linet squinted as if she hadn’t heard right. “You’ve been bewitched, maybe.”
“No,” said Elaine. “I decided.”
“You did not,” said Linet, moving unsteadily to her feet. “You did not. You can’t decide something like that. It’s not…” She stopped, held on to the edge of the bed for a moment, and then her gaze lit on the door. “Why not ask someone who knows,” she said, half under her breath, and took off surprisingly quickly.
By the time Elaine realized what Linet must have been thinking and whom she must be going to find, she was gone and the door was swinging shut behind her. Elaine got up only a little more steadily and hurried after her, but Linet was, yes, younger, and obviously more accustomed to the heady combination of Brandywine and hasty movement.
It didn’t take long to find her, but by then it was too late. Elaine heard the raised voices before she rounded the corner of the stone corridor and came up against a slightly open door. Behind the door she could hear Linet’s excited voice meeting another, mellower one and so Elaine took a moment to gather herself before pulling the door open and going inside.
“Lady Elaine,” said Morgan le Fay. “It’s been too long. I take it this is not a social call.”
Morgan was wearing green traveling robes. Elaine’s brain formed the judgmental thought before she had even fully registered the outfit, and quelled it just as quickly. The robes were long and costly and, now, caked with mud where slush had dried. She had not changed, or bathed, since her arrival several hours earlier. What had she been doing?
“Lady Morgan,” said Elaine. “You’ve met Linet, I see.”
“My nephew Gareth’s lovely wife, yes, briefly, once before today.” Morgan fixed her clear stare on Linet and Elaine took advantage of the break in her own surveillance. “She’s been saying some very interesting things.”
Yes, most likely, Elaine reflected. It would be just like Linet to burst into a room uninvited and announce to all and sundry that someone was cursed and in need of sexual intervention. “And your thoughts?”
Morgan shrugged. “Do you want my thoughts?”
“Not particularly,” said Elaine, the Brandywine probably at fault.
“Good,” said Morgan. “It doesn’t matter to me, particularly. I’ll just say that I don’t believe you’re cursed. How is Galahad? Mordred writes of him very fondly.”
It was one of the great bemusements of Elaine’s life that her son and Morgan’s should be such good friends. At least half of the court presumably felt as she did, as it was universally acknowledged that Mordred had an oily sheen about him and Galahad the vague outlines of an angelic halo. Elaine knew it wasn’t as simple as that, and that Galahad was no more an angel than she was cursed, but she did wonder at their friendship. What on earth did they find to talk about? Gareth struck her as a more suitable friend for Galahad; he was open and cheery and obviously good-hearted. But there was the difference in their ages, and that did tend to matter more to the young.
“They are both away,” said Elaine. “Questing after the Grail. Galahad and Mordred. And the King. Didn’t you know?”
“Oh, are they?” said Morgan vaguely. “I do remember, now, hearing something about it. I did wonder why the castle was so quiet.”
“Sir Kay didn’t mention it?” Linet asked, obviously irritated at having been so quickly forgotten. “When he let you in?”
Morgan grinned, all teeth, and Elaine fought down a chill. “Sir Kay is a man of few words.
“Really?” said Linet. “That is his reputation, but he has always been very nice to me, at least.”
“Linet,” said Elaine.
“No, no,” said Morgan, holding out a calming hand. “Lady Linet is right. In this case it may have to with our history and it’s lack of…” She paused, as if searching for the right words, but Elaine could see that the words were there and what she was really searching for was the right delivery. “…warmth.”
The fire crackled.
“Would you care to sit?” asked Morgan.
As they took their seats by the fire, Elaine wondered again at Morgan’s travel-stained clothing and whatever had kept her from her washtub since her arrival at Camelot. “It must feel good to be back,” said Elaine.
“Yes,” said Morgan. “It is, thank you.”
Linet sat not quite to attention in her chair. She declined Morgan’s offer of more Brandywine. “What brings you here, Lady Morgan?” she asked, ever subtle, after a moment or two of strained silence.
“I was passing,” said Morgan in reply, although her eyes were leveled at Elaine.
She knows I don’t trust her, Elaine thought with a brief stab of panic, but then she felt like laughing at herself. No one trusts her. I am no different than Sir Kay. Less taciturn, maybe.
They talked of inconsequential things. Once or twice Elaine caught herself enjoying the conversation, mainly when their sons were the focus. It had been a long time since she had had a chance to talk with someone who understood the gut-wrenching feeling that accompanied watching your child level a long, heavy stick at another trained warrior and kick their horse into a gallop.
Somewhere along the way Linet fell asleep. They continued to talk. Darkness fell and wordless servants brought candles. Eventually—Elaine was unsure of how much time had passed—Morgan put down her glass. “Have you considered, Elaine, that we are spokes on the same wheel?”
“Oh?” said Elaine. “What wheel is this?”
Morgan raised an eyebrow. “Better to ask who is at the center of the wheel.”
“I have a feeling I know.”
It was Morgan who looked momentarily taken aback, but she quickly recovered. “Really?”
“Yes,” said Elaine. “It is the same person you rode all this way to see.”
Morgan’s face was a mask in the firelight. “What do you mean by that?”
“I mean,” said Elaine, “that you arrived in a blizzard. Anyone else would change first. Maybe take a bath. Not you. What you have to say wouldn’t wait.”
Morgan smiled. Elaine thought she could feel genuine warmth. “Very good. So who was it I was so keen to speak with, then?”
“That I don’t know,” Elaine admitted. “Not for sure, but the choices are limited.”
“What if I were to give you a hint?” asked Morgan, her voice dipping almost too low to make out. “There is one person in the world we would both be better off without.”
Elaine was grateful for Linet’s presence in the room. Even asleep, she brought to mind a world where the worst thing that could happen to a person was a loss of passion. If only everything were that simple. “I can’t,” said Elaine.
“You know who I mean.”
“I know who I think you mean,” said Elaine, “and I think we should stop this now.”
“Tell me you haven’t thought about it,” said Morgan, leaning forward in her chair, still whispering. “Without her—”
Elaine stood. “I don’t think like that.”
“Not even when your husband—”
Elaine brought her hand up and across Morgan’s face. There was a moment of shocked silence that echoed the sound of the slap and then Linet was up with a jolt. “What, what, what?” She wiped sleep from her eyes and looked from one to the other of them wildly. “What time is it?”
Morgan did not stand and Elaine did not turn to Linet. “It’s time for us to go, Linet. We’ve outstayed our welcome.”
Linet hopped up, blushing bright red. “Of course. I’m so, so sorry. How rude. I can’t believe I fell asleep.”
“Not to worry,” said Morgan cheerily, standing and smoothing her dress and turning to Linet. “You’re always welcome here, dear. You are family after all.”
Elaine was already in the hall before Linet disengaged herself fully. Elaine could hear her footsteps struggling to catch up as Elaine made her way back down the corridor. Finally, “Wait!” Linet called, “Wait!” and Elaine couldn’t very well keep going.
“So did you solve the mystery?” Linet asked. “Why was Lady Morgan here? And why,” Linet wrinkled her nose, “was she wearing that awful dress?”
“She came to speak to the queen,” said Elaine dully.
“What about?” asked Linet. “And why now?”
Elaine turned abruptly and Linet, to her credit, said nothing and followed. Once they were a safe distance away, down some stairs and through a disused reception room, Linet took her arm. Her voice, when she spoke, was more serious than it had ever been before. “What should we do?”
Several possibilities presented themselves, and Elaine dismissed them each in turn. A messenger sent to the king might prove unnecessary, and would, in any event, take too long to find him. She could go to Sir Kay and present everything to him, but what would he do. He could not very well lay hands on the king’s sister for arriving at an odd time of year and telling the truth.
“Something is about to happen,” said Elaine to Linet. “Something involving Lancelot and the king and the queen. And Morgan, even though I’m not entirely sure how she fits in.”
“And Mordred and Galahad,” said Linet, and Elaine thought, yes, that might be part of it, yes, maybe the shape of something wheel-shaped was suggesting itself.
“And you and Gareth and his brothers and everyone, yes. We have to keep our eyes open.”
“And what?” asked Linet, still in this new voice of hers that, Elaine supposed, had been there all along on a shelf, unneeded. Maybe Gareth had caught a glimpse of it.
“And wait,” said Elaine.