It was a boy who held the crossbow. “Lion or eagle?” he demanded. Lion or eagle. Father’s sigil or mine? The lad wants to know who I serve.
“Lion or eagle?” The lad shrieked.
“We were hoping to try the capon.” Mordred heard his companions behind him. “Put down the crossbow, boy. Don’t be a coward.”
“This coward will put a bolt through your heart, sir.”
“Perhaps. But before you can wind it again the mongrel will put steel in your belly.”
“Don’t scare the kid,” Bedivere said. “We mean no harm. And we have coin to pay for food and drink.” He dug a silver piece from his pouch.
The boy eyed the coin, and then Mordred’s manacles. “Why’s this one fettered?”
“Got caught killing some crossbowmen,” said Mordred. “Do you have wine?”
“Yes.” The boy lowered the crossbow an inch. “Lay down your steel and mayhaps we’ll feed you.
Bedivere undid the clasp on both his belts and let them clatter to the floor.
A fat man, pale and round as though he’d been carved from dough ushered them inside. “We’ve got enough horsemeat for three.”
“Horsemeat?” Bedivere echoed.
Mordred grinned. “I like an honest brigand. Most innkeeps don’t own up to serving shit.”
The man scowled. “I buried the innkeep out back.”
“Did you kill him?” Sir Bedivere asked.
“Would I tell you if I did?” The man spat. “Likely it was a few of the bastard’s men that done it. I found him dead.”
“The King’s son. Mordred’s men. Though his are no worse than any others’.”
“That’s the King’s peace for you,” Mordred muttered.
Bedivere rammed his elbow into his ribs, and the turned to the man. He tossed his coin to the innkeep who wasn’t an innkeep, who caught it in the air, bit it, and tucked it away.
“He’s got more,” the boy with the crossbow announced.
“Then go find them more food.”
The lad raised the crossbow over his shoulder and vanished into the cellar.
“Your son?” Bedivere asked.
“Just a boy I took in. I had two sons, but the King’s men killed one and the bastard’s the other.”
Mordred stirred at the man’s words. I will not be known as the bastard, he fumed, inwardly. I am the rightful heir! The clink of his chains accompanied his every movement. An irritating sound. Bedivere put his hand on Mordred’s wrist and held them down to the table. Before this is done, I’ll wrap these chains around the mongrel’s throat, see how he likes them then.
The three ate, and after a time, Bedivere told the man, “We need horses. I heard some in the stable.”
“Aye.” said the man, “Three of them, as it happens.”
The stables hadn’t been mucked out in a long while, from the smell of them. Dozens of fat black flies swarmed amongst the stable straw; buzzing and crawling over the mounds of horse dung that lay everywhere.
There were only the two horses to be seen: a lumbering brown plow horse, and ancient white gelding blind in one eye.
Mordred spied the bloodstains on the saddle. “Well, their owners won’t be coming to claim them anytime soon.” He examined their legs, counted their teeth. “Give him a gold piece for the palfrey, if he’ll include the saddle,” he advised Bedivere. “Though he ought to pay us for taking the gelding off his hands.”
“You speak ill or your horse.” The mongrel grinned, opened his purse and took out three golden coins. “A gold piece for each.”
“Two gold pieces?” the man asked.
“So much for an honest brigand,” Mordred muttered.
“I’ll want provisions too,” Bedivere told their host, ignoring Mordred. “Whatever you have that you can spare.”
The man scooped the gold pieces from his and jingled them in his fist. “You’ll be wanting to stay the night, too?”
“We have promises to keep,” Mordred stepped in, “and long leagues before us. We should ride on. But unless you mean to throw me over the back of that palfrey, someone had best do something about these irons. It’s difficult to ride with your ankles chained together.”
Sir Bedivere frowned at the chain. The innkeep rubbed his jaw. “There’s a smithy round back of the stable.”
“Show me,” Bedivere said, and when he did, he split the ankle chain in the center with a half-dozen sharp blows from a hammer and chisel.
The boy came out to watch them leave. He stood silent, his crossbow under his arm. “Take up the spear or halberd,” Mordred told him, “they’ll serve you better. Trust me.”
The boy stared at him distrustfully.
They were riding past a trampled wheatfield and a low stone wall when Mordred heard a soft thrum from behind, as if a dozen birds had taken flight. “Down!” he shouted, throwing himself against the neck of his horse. The gelding screamed and reared as an arrow took him in the rump. Other shafts went hissing past. He vaulted off the gelding as it crumpled and rolled with the impact.
He turned and saw Bedivere pull his sword and wheel in a circle. He was racing across the wheatfield, throwing up clouds of chaff.
A few arrows sped harmlessly past; then the bowmen broke and ran. Bedivere reined up at the wall, dismounted.
By the time Mordred reached him, they had all melted into the wood twenty yards away. “Lost your taste for battle?”
“They were running.”
“That’s the best time to kill them—when they’ve no walls to hide behind.”
“You dishonor your father,” Bedivere said. “You dishonor the Knights of the Round Table! Is it any wonder such times have come? That Camelot is dying?”
“You all died with Lancelot,” Mordred said. “Your King could not take being cuckolded by his wife, so he left his kingdom for the sake of one man. There was no Round Table after that.”
“That King was your father—”
“Not. Mine!” Mordred hissed. “Morgause and Lot raised me, whilst Arthur tried to kill me while I was a babe at the breast. You have the nerve to name him my father? I tried to rule in his stead. What right did he have to take the throne from me?”
“The only right. He was still King.”
“The King of a shattered order. A King who abandoned the country for the sake of his lady love. By what right have I been judged? I was a knight, same as you. I tried to rule when Arthur was too blind to notice the Table cracking around him—he wouldn’t listen! What is it I am guilty of, mongrel, aside from being a bastard?”