The wind blew like fingers sifting through the prisoner’s hair. He could hear birds singing and feel the River Camel moving beneath the skiff as the two knights rowed him toward the pink dawn. I’m alive, he thought. The Battle of Camlann had ended—he’d killed Arthur and left Camelot in ruins.
But he was alive.
He had not planned for that. A smile spread, unbidden across his face and burst of laughter escaped his lips.
“Quiet,” Sir Bedivere grumbled, scowling. He grunted as he rowed. The prisoner had spent the whole night listening to his rhythmic grunting; and he showed no signs of tiring. This one will be trouble, he noted.
The prisoner wore iron manacles on his wrists and a matching pair about his ankles. He recalled only a fraction of the events that led to his fettering.
The Battle of Camlann had ended, and he was still shaking from the kinslaying when Arthur’s knights rushed him over a bridge, two miles south toward Tintagel. Sir Bedivere led the procession of survivors. He had worn two swordbelts. One to sheath his own, and the other for Arthur’s sword, Excalibur.
He did not remember arriving at Tintagel, nor being how long he was left in that. At some point he was bundled into a traveler’s cloak and shoved into the bottom of a skiff.
“Mongrel,” the prisoner said, presently, addressing Sir Bedivere, “if you’ll strike off these chains, I promise to spare you upon our arrival at Orkney.”
Bedivere scowled. “You’ll wear your chains to Orkney, murderer.”
“Do you plan to row us the whole way, mongrel?”
Bedivere fixed him with a stare. “My name is Sir Bedivere. Not mongrel.”
“My name is Sir Mordred. Not murderer.”
“Do you deny that you killed King Arthur?”
“No. But you’re just as guilty as I am.” Mordred measured the look the mongrel gave him. He preferred to keep steel away from his throat. “Look at you, mongrel. You must be such a strong man to have rowed for so long. And with such strength do you deny that you could have saved Arthur? Or maybe that’s not it. Maybe you’re not as loyal as you seem.”
The mongrel’s oar shot up from the water, sudden as a volley of arrows. He reached for the dirk at his thigh, but, and then paused. He exhaled, releasing his grip and returning his hand to the oar. “We swore a vow to Arthur,” he said. “We promised on his life. We can’t kill him here.”
“Don’t kill him anywhere,” Mordred said.
They’d all done a great deal of vowing back in Tintagel. By the time they fetched him, he would’ve sworn any vow for the promise of water. It wasn’t a fair oath, Mordred thought. Then again, I’ve never heard of a fair oath anyway.
His mother, Morgause, had agreed to fealty upon the safe return of her son. Mordred had learned this as he stared down the point of Excalibur. He’d swore an oath staring down the point of Excalibur that he would hold his mother to her word.
Bedivere jerked back to his oar with such sudden fury that Mordred was driven from his own thoughts. He eyed the mongrel and his two swordbelts.
“You have a beautiful longsword,” Mordred said. “And Excalibur, besides. But can you use them? Come, give me Excalibur show me how worthy you truly were to your King.”
“My King commanded me to deliver you safe to your mother at Orkney, not to bandy words with you. Be silent.”
“I’ve had a bellyful of silence.”
“I have no words for monsters.”
Mordred hooted, twisting in his fetters. “Are there monsters hereabouts? I don’t see any. Are they hiding beneath the water, perhaps? Busy eating the Lady of the Lake? And to think—I’m without my sword!” He grinned. “I’ll need a sword, mongrel. Excalibur will do.”
“My name is Bedivere, not mongrel.”
“Why should you care what monsters call you?”
“My name is Bedivere,” he repeated. You will not speak so roughly. We have far to go and should not quarrel amongst ourselves.”
“You haven’t seen me quarrel. I quarrel with steel. I’d love to do so, if you would be kind enough to free me of these fetters—”
Bedivere’s boot hit Mordred’s ribs, driving his breath from him. “One word, and I’ll kick you again.”
Mordred squinted downriver, over Bedivere’s shoulders. “Smoke.”
A thin grey finger crooked them on. It was rising from the south bank several miles on.
Mordred was the first to spy the inn. The main building hugged the south shore where the River Camel bent. “No lights in the windows,” he observed.
“There may still be people,” Bedivere suggested. “Or corpses.”
“Don’t tell me you’re frightened of corpses, mongrel. After Camlann—”
He glared at him. “My name is—”
“—Bedivere, yes. Wouldn’t you like to sleep in a bed, Bedivere? We’d be safer there, and it’d be honorable to find what’s happened here.”
He gave no answer, but after a moment he pushed at the tiller to angle the skiff in toward the weathered wooden dock.
Mordred rose in the skiff, his movements made awkward by his chains. He lunged for the dock and then struggled to swing his legs over the edge.
The mongrel sat in the boat, scowling at him.
“A little help?” Mordred asked, but the mongrel said nothing. He fought down the threats rising up in his throat and hauled himself onto the deck. He was welcomed by the smell of horse shit as the seawater scent faded.
He blinked the smoke-tears out of his eyes and glanced back at the mongrel, just now climbing up. Not yet, he told himself. Bide your time. Your chance will come.
Then he heard horses whinny. That would work, he thought. He stumbled to his feet. “Well, if there aren’t people in there, at least there’s food. Anyone hungry for horsemeat?” He japed, and then made a break for the door.
“Mordred, wait!” the mongrel shouted.
“What? Scared of innkeepers and horses? Is that what you call a knight’s bravery?” I will not have a chance like this again. He threw his shoulder against the door and it flew open—
—And Mordred was staring down a crossbow bolt. He braced himself against the door and sighed so heavily he felt he might deflate. God’s bones, he thought. Of all the blasted luck! He fought back tears. It’s just the smoke, he told himself. It’s just the smoke, it’s just the smoke.