|Sat, 8 Jul 2000|
The Logres Cycle: Between Salt and Stone [Endless, PG-13]
This story marks several firsts for me. It's my first piece of Endless fanfiction. It's the first story I've written that's part of a projected series rather than a stand-alone work. Most importantly, however, it's the first story I've had a beta-reader for. I'd like to thank queenB very much for all her help and encouragement. Enjoy.
Disclaimer #1 - Certain things in this story were created by Neil Gaiman. Certain others belong to . . . well, the collectivity of Western Culture, I suppose. So to all of us; including me.
Disclaimer #2 - There's some swearing and non-graphic sex in this story, but seriously, there was a lot more in the actual comic book. No dancing goddesses here. Promise.
The Logres Cycle: Between Salt and Stone
If a book opens in a garden unfixed in time and space, and no-one observes it, does it truly open? Does it exist?
There was no doubt about the existence of this particular Book, of course, since there was always someone to see it. Then again: is Destiny an observer, or is he the thing observed, the Book itself? When no-one watches, do Book and Book-Keeper melt along their chain, dissolving the false division?
We will never know. Or we do not want to.
Let us say, for the sake of argument, that Destiny is a distinct entity, and that he opened the Book to a particular page. That he paused in his seemingly random pacing (which was not random at all, since the Book recorded each step as precisely as the black feet on a diagram outline the contortions of a foxtrot) and read. This might have gone on for minutes or years, depending on your perspective, while the garden remained still around him. The only movement was that of Destiny's vaporous servants, going about their business among the perfect grass, static fruit trees and bizarre statuary. Without the sound of birds or even the buzz of an insect to disturb the quiet, a watcher might have heard the rustle of the pages, like soft waves on a far shore. They might have seen Destiny pause over one passage for a long time, a frown touching the corners of his mouth, until he closed the Book with a snap that cut the silence.
A moment later, there were two figures dressed in brown robes of a monkish cast standing in the garden, and one of them had a heart beat. There were other things that separated the true Destiny from his shadow self. The avatar carried a staff where the creator bore the Book. It also had eyes and eyelashes and hair and elbows and a full compliment of organs and muscles that his progenitor had never felt the need for.
"I have . . ." he said, pausing when he discovered his vocal chords and lungs.
"You have all the usual equipment" Destiny said shortly, perhaps discomforted by the presence of his double, reminded of reality storms past and future.
The avatar looked at the Book and frowned for the second time in minutes. At least, it felt to him like the second time, although the knowledge was already fading slightly. The most recent pages had said . . . There was enough information left in his considerably reduced memory to make a heavy weight on his new shoulders.
"Things will fall as the must," he said at last, calm resignation reinstated.
"As they must," the eldest of the Endless repeated his echo.
After that, there seemed little to say. The avatar took his staff and turned away from Destiny, walking his own way along the paths of the garden with firm and certain steps. The Book Keeper watched him go, until the tiny sounds of the live body were gone and the silence was restored.
Desire, it has been written, is always cruel and ever happy in its cruelty. It has driven mortals to swim oceans, to move mountains, to travel to the stars or the depths of Hell, to tear their own children to pieces. It has enjoyed every single hot, sweet, eternal moment of it. There is little it likes better than making whole kingdoms fall with a stab in the heart of a single man.
It had been quite a while since the Trojan war, but Desire still remembered Helen with a buzz of pleasure on the back of its tongue. There were no epic campaigns like that any more, fought over the face of a woman who made ten thousand graves; the world wasn't big and bright enough. But Desire found plenty of diversions, plenty of games played between men and women that spilled over into matters of state, of life and death.
Recently, it had turned its attention to Britain. The king had fallen deeply in lust with the wife of one of his liegemen, and when the duke had refused to hand her over, a bloody civil war had broken out. This had amused Desire, but it felt that there was more juice to be squeezed from the situation.
Currently, it was standing outside Castle Tintagel, a spike of stone and mortar that thrust out of the ocean near Cornwall like a drowning man's arm. At high tide, it was cut off from the mainland, and it was here that the Duke had chosen to store his wife while he fought the King for her hand. Desire was there, garbed like a nobleman, to play its master stroke - through frustrated longing for itself, it would make Duchess Igraine throw herself into the ocean. Hopefully, both her admirer and her husband would be driven mad when they realised that neither could have her.
If the laws of narrative convention had been dictating the weather, it would have been a dark and stormy night. In fact, however, the keep, courtyard and outbuildings were disturbingly still, wreathed in a dense fog that had driven everyone inside. Moisture collected on the cobble stones, turning them slick and dark. The only sound was that of the sea, working slowly (in mortal terms, at least) to cut the castle down and tumble it into the ocean.
Having disposed of the guards - who would have some rather interesting things to explain to their wives the next day - Desire was about to enter the courtyard when two figures on fine black horses came crashing down the causeway at breakneck speed, smashing the silence of the night with jingling harness, splashing, swearing and shouting.
"Make way for Duke Gorlois!" called one, his mount's hooves tossing up mud onto Desire's tights. Desire knew that it was honour bound to do highly unpleasant things to the rider in return for this slight. It also knew that Gorlois was not at Tintagel, but at a siege at his other seaside fortress Terebil, where he was locked in battle with the king. In addition, it recognised an illusion when it saw one, and could see that it was King Uther Pendragon who had evidently come under the cover of a spell to ravish Igraine.
Desire frowned. This was definitely not in the game plan.
It was considering various ways of salvaging the situation (and various ways of revenging itself for the mud) when it felt its skin start to crawl, with a kind of magic far removed from the glamours that covered the mortal riders. Allowing them to pass, it paused, suddenly puzzled and unnerved. Another figure, also on a black horse, but riding at a far more sedate pace, had emerged from the fog on the causeway. He was wearing a familiar grey-brown robe, and Desire felt its puzzlement solidify into surprise.
"More or less," replied the figure in a soft, level voice.
As he drew closer, Desire saw that it was not her brother at all. Or, not precisely. In the flickering shadows she could see that there was a face under his hood, and that he was carrying a heavy staff where the Book should have been.
"Oh. You're one of *those*."
"So, what brought this on? The last time you went out of the house, I seem to recall, it was an inter-plane war," it said, cockiness almost fully restored.
"I am here to assist Uther Pendragon in the fulfillment of his Destiny. This night he is to father a son upon the Duchess Igraine."
The avatar climbed down from his horse, which stood obediently still, steaming and panting in the cold air, making an extra contribution to the fog. Desire looked nonplussed.
"Isn't that a bit . . ." it searched for a word, and found nothing adequate, "unusual, for you?" The avatar made no reply.
Recovering again, Desire began to see the humor of the situation.
"I thought that you didn't toy with mortal lives," it said, "what happened to things being as they must?" Desire considered expressing an honest opinion on Destiny's non-interference policy, but (rather uncharacteristically) thought better of it.
"Things *are* as they must be, brother-sister. Sometimes it is necessary to - how shall I put it? - give them a hand. You may no longer interfere with Igraine and Uther." He turned away to the gate, dismissing his sibling without another word or glance.
Desire felt rage run through it like molten metal. This was just like the Elder Three - claiming to do only their duty, when they interfered with mortals just as much as their younger siblings, and then having the gall to lecture others about it.
"I put months of work into arranging the politics of an entire country to my satisfaction, and you come in at the last moment and tell me that I 'can't interfere'? What gives *you* the right to dictate *my* actions?"
Behaving as if he had anticipated just this reaction (which, all things considered, he probably had) the avatar, without sounding irritated, contrived to suggest that Desire was a recalcitrant seven-year-old in need of an improving lecture.
"I do not have 'rights.' I do as need dictates. This is by no means 'the last moment.' these events will take years to unfold in their full - extremely delicate - complexity. Fate is not a game made to amuse you, sibling."
"Well you can fucking well go and happen somewhere else!" Desire said.
But under its breath. He was its oldest brother, after all. It put on a sulky face. Had anyone even slightly susceptible to its charms been there to see it, they would have crawled to Timbuktu to stop Desire pouting in that particularly attractive way. Over broken glass. Naked.
"A baby, you say?" it asked its brother's shade, becoming alert to the possibilities. A baby was a thing filled with potential. A thing that could go many ways, and provide many years of amusement. Or an especially tasty type of revenge.
"Indeed," the avatar paused, as if uncertain of weather to tell Desire more. If Destiny could ever be uncertain about anything. "He will be a great king."
"I'm sure he will be. As Destiny dictates," said Desire, taking the reigns of the panting horse. The avatar did not try to stop it.
"Don't be a stranger then, brother dear. I know I won't be."
It swung its legs over its new acquisition with a twist that would have left most entities in sore need of a cold shower.
"Oh, and Des? If you're going to give yourself eyes, it might be better if they, y'know, blended in. Yellow's really more my colour, anyway."
The robed figure said nothing at all as it walked towards the black pillar of the keep.
Inside the keep, trapped in the highest room like many a princess before her, the Duchess Igraine sat with her three daughters. The elder two Morgaine and Morgause were playing knuckle bones in front of the fire, while the youngest, Elaine, dozed in her lap.
Igraine did not at first glance in such a cosy domestic setting, look like the sort of woman likely to provoke wars, or even duels to the death. She was dark haired and dark eyed like all her people, fine boned and fae like her eldest daughter. Yet there was something in her voice, in her graceful movement when she walked, something far back in her eyes, that had inflamed the hearts of dukes and kings. Igraine had accepted Uther's lust for her, and the events that followed from it, with the same equilibrium that had served her well throughout her marriage. She found the siege both peaceful and worrying; peaceful because she was alone and mistress of her own castle for the first time, worrying because the peace was bound to be broken unpleasantly sooner or later.
Elaine was sickly again; her natural delicacy made worse through early weaning, her wet-nurse had been left behind with the other extraneous servants when the siege began. Aside from that difficulty, Igraine found that she hardly noticed the reduced staff, the minor inconvenience outweighed by the relief of being without the menfolk; her loud, demanding raucous husband in particular. She had enjoyed teaching the older girls stories and songs, even the beginnings of spinning and sewing, over the last two months. Confined within closed quarters from birth, they had hardly noticed their captivity. She was glad, perhaps for the first time, that she had only given Gorlois daughters, who could stay at her side.
But tonight she heard the horses on the causeway, and the scurrying of servants, and her husband's raised voice downstairs. Morgause shifted closer to her mother, hiding in her skirts nervously. Eight weeks was a long time when you were only half a dozen winters old, and the children had never seen much of Gorlois that was kind or gentle. Nor, for that matter, had Igraine.
The door swung open, and there stood her husband, dripping wet and wild-eyed. He looked at the Duchess with a hunger that surprised her - surely he had plenty of camp followers to keep him amused on campaign? - an expression that she had seen before but couldn't place. He stood still in the doorway, staring at the children in surprise, as if he had forgotten them altogether and hadn't included them in his mental picture of how this impromptu family reunion would proceed. Igraine looked at her eldest daughter, sitting frozen on the rushes, the knuckle bones clutched too tightly in her hand.
"Take the baby and go downstairs, Morgaine. Your father and I want to be alone."
Handing the baby to her tiny older sister Igraine was struck by the awful vulnerability of her small brood, and suddenly felt exposed under Gorlois' ravaging eyes.
She put out all the candles.
As the duke tore the clothes from her body, threw her onto the bed, and slobbered over the breasts that had never nourished her children, Igraine tried to work out what was odd about his manner. He hadn't said anything beyond a grunt or two, but he'd never been one for small talk, and was hardly likely to discuss his wars with a woman. As usual, he was savage and brief, but instead of rolling over and falling asleep, he got somewhat unsteadily to his feet and hunted around for his clothes and still soaking cloak and boots. Igraine looked at him cautiously from under the furs she had gathered around herself in the chilly room.
"I have to go," he said shortly.
"Of course, my husband. May I ask how the campaign is progressing?"
"It is . . . complete," he said, some unfamiliar emotion coloring his voice.
She wondered if that meant that he was going to lose. And what would she do then, when the King of England knocked down her door down to ravish her?
Outside the chamber, Ulfin sat - disguised as Gorlois's leigeman, drinking Gorlois's wine, as his master ravished Gorlois's wife - and felt embarrassed. It wasn't as if his duties while in Uther's service hadn't included procuring women before, but this whole affair seemed slightly sinister as well as sordid, especially given the involvement of the mage.
No doubt, thought Ulfin, this night would add to his already legendary status. People said that it was through his curses that King Vortigern, the man who first brought the damned Saxons into Britain, had been defeated. People said that it was his advice, magic and machinations that had made Ambrose king, and his brother Uther after him. They said that he had brought the stone circle that stood on Salisbury Plane over from Ireland by hauling the stones through the air, although even Ulfin could see *that* was daft. Any fool could tell that the stones had been there a thousand years, and the mage surely wasn't so old. People also called him the Devil's son, and he had done nothing to discourage this rumour. He had never admitted to having any parents at all, at least in Ulfin's hearing, although he had mentioned siblings once or twice. The name he usually answered to was Merlin.
Ulfin was a young but experienced soldier with more than one dirty war under his belt, which had given him the jaded cynicism of a much older man. Uther had taken to keeping him close, perhaps because he knew when to keep his mouth shut and his eyes and ears open, a talent that the king himself often lacked. In the course of his royal association, Ulfin had met the mage often, and lost some of the awe that surrounded this apparently ordinary, rather monkish man. He'd long ago given up calling Merlin "my lord" or "sir," since the mage paid no attention to distinctions of address himself, and he was unsure of the proper form of protocol with the sons of devils in any case.
He came in out of the foggy darkness at last, somehow dry. Merlin had not precisely disguised himself with the glamours that covered Uther and Ulfin, but the servant's eyes seemed to slide away from him, as if he were a rather uninteresting bit of wall. It was a trick Ulfin had seen the mage use many times, and it explained his knack of seeming to appear out of thin air when he had in fact been standing by your side.
"The king is almost finished," he said. Ulfin didn't bother to ask how Merlin knew this.
"The glamour worked," he said instead, "but Uther's not much of an actor. Not that anyone seemed *surprised* that he didn't know the servants' names and shouted a lot."
Merlin didn't reply to that, but glanced towards the stairs, where a moment later the door flew open to reveal Uther, still clad as Gorlois, re-arranging his cloak and lacing his shirt.
He didn't look in Ulfin's direction as he tramped down the stairs, and the soldier refrained from asking if Igraine had been all he'd hoped for. He looked like a child who'd got all their Midwinter gifts at once, only to realise that what they actually wanted wasn't there. Ulfin glanced at Merlin, but the mage's expression was unchanged. His eyes were fixed on Igraine's daughters, waiting across the hall with watchful eyes, probably wondering if it was safe to return to their mother's room.
"Wine!" Uther called as he reached the foot of the stairs. A serving boy scurried to find an unopened amphora.
As Uther passed by, Merlin stretched out a hand, fingers outspread, to stop the king. He spoke softly, in a voice objectively no different to his soft, near expressionless, everyday tones, but it was the voice of a prophet even so.
"Remember our bargain, Uther Pendragon. A child will be born of your union this night, and he will belong to me."
Uther paused, seemingly offended.
"I don't care if you tear out the whelp's entrails and offer them up to your devil father," he growled, "I have had what I came for."
Taking the wine from the boy, he drank out of the mouth of the jar before tossing it back, whereupon it was badly caught and half-spilled. Ulfin grimaced. Still, better that Uther waste the wine of his enemies than that of his subjects.
"Let us leave this God forsaken rock and ride to the battle," said the king.
"That would be wise," said Merlin, "for the tide will turn soon, and the next rider will arrive before then."
Ulfin refrained from asking the obvious question until after they had gone outside into the courtyard.
"Other rider?" he said to Merlin at last, as Uther mounted his horse. Ulfin noticed that there were only two now standing in the courtyard, although he was almost certain that the mage had arrived on one. He prayed that he wouldn't have to walk.
"A messenger will shortly arrive here to say that Duke Gorlois was killed in battle at Castle Terebil this evening. Naturally, this will arouse some suspicion in the minds of those who have just seen him. You take the horse."
Ulfin blinked at the non-sequitur, wondering for the thousandth time if the mage was a mind reader. Without questioning, however, he took the one horse's bridle as Uther started out of the gate at a steady trot.
He walked the horse more slowly, keeping pace with Merlin's long strides.
"Will they suspect Uther?"
"Perhaps, especially given my . . . reputation. Perhaps they will say it was the Devil," a small smile twisted the corner of Merlin's mouth, "since that appears to be humanity's currently favoured explanation for things it does not understand."
The pair reached the causeway, which was narrowing slowly but steadily as the water rose. "Uther didn't seem too pleased with his prize, after all the trouble he went to," he said.
"The ways of Desire are subtle, but perhaps less so than the ways of fate."
Ulfin sighed and wondered why he bothered to make conversation with the mage at all, since all he usually heard in reply were oracular pronouncements that managed to be simultaneously blunt and obscure.
"Are you sure I can take the horse? You'll never make it across walking with the tide coming in."
He glanced up ahead to where Uther had switched to a brisk canter, to see another horseman coming out of the fog the other way. The two narrowly avoided a collision, startling both of the horses. This would be the messenger, no doubt.
"I have adequate transportation, and other business tonight," said Merlin. With that, he quite calmly stepped off the causeway and *on to* the water. Ulfin gaped in stark amazement, for all his experience of Merlin's small magics he had never seen that trick before. He resisted the urge to make the sign of the cross over his heart.
"Erm . . . well then. I suppose I'll see you later."
Merlin turned back towards him and looked at him carefully, frowning.
"Hmmm. Yes . . . yes. We will see each other later," he said, after some consideration. With that, he turned and walked away, the same firm, long strides carrying him over the waves as easily as they had carried him over the stones. Ulfin rounded his horse and followed Uther, passing the messenger on his way.
In the keep behind him, Igraine cradled her daughters close, little feeling the spark that lit itself in her womb.