Civilians believe that Midwinter is the longest night of the year. As December deepens, dark comes earlier and earlier while dawn sleeps later and later until there’s practically no day at all and only night. The superstitious dance and pray for the sun to come back. Ha! It’s all just an astronomical trick. Merlin showed me why the nights were longer, using an apple for the sun and a crabapple for the earth.
Any soldier who’s ever fought could tell you the truth: the longest night is the one before a battle. When the fires of the Saxons outnumber yours by two or three to one. Their howls of bloodlust from just beyond your embankment banish any hope of rest. Then dawn isn’t sleeping in, she’s terrified to show her face. Which would be fine if morning never came, but of course it always does and then it’s time to stand and die. Or perhaps live if the Fates allow. But the Fates are such fickle bitches, they make Morgan seem predictable.
Thinking of Merlin made me wonder what he would have thought of this idiocy. The stories made him out to be the ultimate fool for love, knowing that loving Nimue would be the death of him but spitting in the eye of destiny and doing it anyway. Morgan said that tale wasn’t even true. Nimue had loved Merlin as fiercely as he had loved her, had even broken her vows to have his child. And now she was mated to a man from the future who was notable in his resemblance to Merlin and shared his mathematical skills.
Nobody knew for sure how old Merlin was, but he was rumored to be well over a hundred winters, sometimes as much as three hundred. Was it possible he had never experienced love in all those years? Made my four decades of lonely lovelessness seem trifling by comparison.
Well, no matter what the truth had been, I was sure Merlin would have approved. Hey, maybe he was aware of what was going on. Morgan had said that Vivian and Nimue had put him into a suspended state to keep him from dying. Perhaps he sensed the great battle going on in my own head and was smiling with approval.
I would definitely have died for Merlin’s approval.
Oswald had the best suggestion for not dying. “Name me as your champion, Sire. Count Maleagans will believe it to be an act of utter cowardice to save your own life at the cost of mine. No way will he take me seriously as a fighter until it’s too late.”
Funny thing is, it would probably work. Not that there was any way in any hell, the Hades guarded by Cerberus or the Netherworld of Gilgamesh or the fiery pit of brimstone described so lovingly by Ignatius, that I was going to let him try it. He was as close to a son as I was likely to have, and a 1% chance of his dying was too much.
Which was about the same chance I had of surviving.
It was long past midnight. Oswald was sharpening my sword for the nineteenth time. I hoped Elaine, knowing nothing of what morning would bring, was sleeping peacefully, dreaming of our restrained kisses and our unrestrained words. Although it wasn’t beyond Maleagans’ spite to have awakened her and given her the news. As for the count, was he resting easily in his confidence at our relative martial skills? Or did some itch in the back of his mind that I was playing some trick trouble his dreams?
Whichever the case, I doubted that Maleagans feared for his life. If it came to that, once he yielded, I was unlikely to kill him. It was his ace in the hole.
I had no such reassurance. All I had was Morgan’s amulet, which I was holding and staring at as if it contained the secrets of the universe, rather than merely the remote possibility of my survival.
I remembered her words exactly, as if they had been burned into my brain like the name on the Siege Perilous. “Perhaps I’m greedy and vengeful and would rather you die than belong to someone else. But you’re a smart guy. You’ll figure it out.”
Except being smart didn’t really help here. What was called for was an understanding of Morgan’s mind, the ultimate in feminine mystique. I wouldn’t have that if I’d studied with Merlin for seventy years instead of just seven.
The sachet was a finely-woven cloth bag. I worried at the drawstring until I finally managed to open it, then carefully poured the contents onto a cloth.
– A bone, old enough to have turned yellow-brown, possibly a human finger bone.
– A silver coin with the bust of Constantine.
– A sprig of mistletoe.
– A stalk of a plant I didn’t recognize holding a dozen dried tiny white flowers.
– A fleck of amber.
– A lock of brownish hair streaked through with gray.
The hair definitely wasn’t Morgan’s. Rubbing it through my fingers, I realized it might have come from my own head.
“Oswald!” I summoned him from his endless honing. “Is this hair mine?”
He held it up next to mine, then nodded. I hadn’t realized how gray I’d become.
But Morgan had dug the sachet out of a chest. Which meant that she’d prepared it, including taking a lock of my hair, before I’d gotten there. Which meant . . . I had no idea what that meant.
The one person who could have given me the best answer was Gawain. Of all the men in Britain, he knew the most about women. Plus he’d known Morgan well enough to father her child. I could send Oswald riding hell-bent to Camelot to get an answer. Of course, by the time he got back, I’d already know the answer.
Morgan’s haunting words rang in my skull. ‘Even Gawain, the one man I’ve ever truly loved before.’ The only man she’d truly loved before she loved me. Would she rather see me dead than happily wed to her sister?
All of a sudden, I knew she was watching me. Undoubtedly amused by my indecision.
I turned my face up so my lips would be easier to read. “Hello, Morgan.” Oswald glanced up but didn’t speak.
I didn’t expect to hear an answer, and I didn’t. But I could feel her amusement across the ethereal space. “I’m certainly glad I could bring you a little merriment to brighten your dull labors with Agravain. Least I could do.”
I held up the lock of hair to my own head, smiling and gesturing to show that I’d figured it out. Then I stuffed everything back in the bag, tying it up tightly. Wouldn’t want a fingerbone to fall out at a critical juncture in the battle, would we? I hung the thong around my neck.
Getting up, I pantomimed a big stretch and a yawn. Then I took the amulet off and tossed it on the floor beside the bed. Paced in a small circle for a minute, then recovered the amulet and put it back on. A few more laps around the circle before throwing it on the floor again.
“What are you doing, Sire?”
“Morgan is watching us, Oswald.” It occurred to me that he’d have a reasonably good guess about whether I should wear the amulet or not, but I wasn’t going to ask him.
“Well, Squire. I suppose I should at least try to get some rest. You, too. You can sleep here tonight. Would you get the lamp?”
I left the amulet on the floor and crawled onto the bed.