A Passing Fair Lady
by Debra A. Kemp
Arthur left the audience room exhausted from the endless parade of petitioners. He walked the torch-lit corridor to his chamber, enjoying the solitude.
Wanting the peace to continue, the young Pendragon dismissed his servant upon entering, confident that the boy had already done his job in preparing the room.
"Rest you well, my lord."
"And you," Arthur said, sinking into his chair near the glowing brazier. He pulled off his boots, wriggling his toes in the thick fur of the bear skin covering the stone floor. This must be the best part of any man's day, he thought, freeing one's feet. Who can ask for more? As the last part of his ritual, he poured out a cup of wine and stared at the blood-red coals, ignoring the temptation of his bed.
The vision of a lone woman, clad in the dark garb of mourning, shimmered before him. Queen Morgause of Orkney had arrived in Caerleon that very morning to sue for mercy after the death of her husband, King Lot. Arthur had assured her that his quarrel was not with a widow and mother of four young sons. But the woman had insisted that Arthur accept her oldest son, Gawain, as a measure to ensure peace. Ulfius, Arthur's chief advisor, had cautioned that the sons might harbour thoughts of revenge for their father and suggested taking in all the boys.
Outraged, Arthur refused. Mercy would temper his reign. His enmity with Lot and Orkney had died on the field of battle. Gawain was well come to remain in Caerleon to hone his skills at arms, but the others were too young to leave their mother. A simple matter. The woman left for her chamber within the palace. The day continued. But Arthur could not get the widow of his recently defeated enemy from his mind. Her blue-black hair, bound with a simple fillet of gold, had cascaded in long waves around her face. Her eyes sparkled like green gems. Her . . .
Saints preserve me, he thought, but Morgause is a lovely creature.
He refilled his cup.
She's also a matron. A mother. And Gawain is but a few years younger than me.
What would she want with an inexperienced boy?
Arthur twirled the cup between his palms, grinning with the memory of his shy and clumsy encounter with one of the maids serving his foster-mother about a year ago.
Embarrassed, he had not been able to muster the courage to try anything like it again.
A quiet tap on his door drew him back to the present.
Arthur rose, and was surprised to find himself unsteady on his feet.
Strong wine, he thought.
His visitor knocked again.
"My lord? May I speak with you?"
Arthur's hand trembled as he reached for the latch. He had heard only a few words uttered by that tongue. By the stars, did he possess the power to conjure?
But he dismissed the thought and opened the door. It would be highly discourteous to make her wait.
The Queen of Orkney had exchanged her frock of mourning for garments more suitable for bed than wandering the corridors of Caerleon. She clutched a thin wrapper at her breast, but it had slipped off one of her shoulders, leaving the pale skin bare.
She followed his gaze.
"What a sight I must be," she said, pushing the fallen material back into place.
"A passing fair sight I must admit, my lady," Arthur said, ushering his guest inside. "But well come. What has disturbed your rest and how might I help?"
Morgause declined the wine he offered.
"But you are enjoying my gift, my lord?" she said, settling into the chair Arthur had recently occupied.
"You sent it? Then I enjoy it all the more for its source." Arthur would never admit that it was stronger than he preferred. He would simply make this cup his last one for the night.
"I wanted to thank you for your compassion and generosity, my lord. But when you sent no word of acknowledgment, I feared I might have angered you. I tossed and turned in my bed wondering what I could do."
"I assure you, my lady, had I known, I would have come myself to acknowledge your gift."
"I'm glad that humble gift pleases my lord."
"Are you certain you will have none? I feel rude."
Arthur delighted in the music of her laughter.
"I am certain, my lord," she said, smoothing her gown against her leg.
Arthur leaned against the wall, facing his guest, uncertain what to do next.
"Why did you wish to thank me, my lady? It is I who owe you gratitude for your wise and brave gesture of peace."
"My husband led an army against you, my lord. I feared your wrath. I have been a spoil of war once before. I didn't want it again."
Arthur struggled constantly with the legacy of his often cruel father. He knew Morgause's sad story. Forced to marry a man who took her far from her home and family. His heart ached from the injustice. He wanted to right the wrong.
"I promise you, my lady, it shall not." Arthur wasn't sure how he would keep that vow. His advisors would certainly press for him to find Morgause another husband.
"My debt to you is mounting, my lord. I know not how I can ever repay you."
"Perhaps I'll be required to chain you in debtor's prison," Arthur said over the rim of his cup and regretted the stupid remark immediately. His intent had been playful, but he felt cornered and at a loss of what to do, say, next.
Seventeen and I have more experience in battle than with the opposite gender.
"Why do you not sit, my lord?" Morgause had allowed her wrap to fall from her shoulder again.
His mouth dry, Arthur drained his cup. Morgause refilled it when he set it on the table.
Odd for the room to feel so warm, he thought. He unloosed the laces of his tunic. "I'd rather stand, I think, my lady."
"Then I shall join you." Morgause brought his cup and placed it in his hand. "Perhaps this will help, my lord."
Morgause's thin garments left little to the imagination. Her pure white shift molded against her thin, shapely form.
Arthur inhaled her heady perfume. He watched the rise and fall of her breath and longed to touch . . .
"I don't think you should be here, dressed like this, my lady. I--"
Arthur put his hand on her shoulder, intending to draw her wrapper tightly around her.
Intending to see her to the door. Intending to call a guard to escort her to her chamber.
Morgause drew closer, pressing him back against the wall.
Sweat broke across Arthur's brow and it felt as though every drop of his blood was surging to his groin. He tried to suppress his moan.
Arthur did not resist when Morgause took his hand and led him to his bed.
* * *
"Is it always so sweet?" Arthur said as his climax subsided. "I can't uncurl my toes."
Morgause chuckled, still straddling his legs. Even bed-tumbled, she was beautiful.
He never wanted this delicious moment to end.
"A red-blooded boy like you doesn't already know?"
Arthur felt his cheeks warm.
"I was your first, my lord? An ancient woman like me?"
"Hardly ancient, my lady." His hand followed the curve of her thigh.
"My name is Morgause, my lord. I believe under the circumstances . . ."
Arthur laughed this time. "Formality is absurd, isn't it? But you must call me Arthur."
"Fair enough, Arthur. But you must think me a harlot now."
Arthur caressed her cheek. "Never, Morgause. Why say you such a thing? You mustn't belittle yourself so."
"You are most kind. But my husband has not been long in his tomb, whilst I--"
"Your marriage to Lot had been cruelly forced upon you. You're a free woman now, Morgause. What will you do?"
"Take my sons home to Orkney, I suppose."
She stroked his belly, her fingers circling ever lower. Much too slowly. Arthur guided her hand, greedy for more of the pleasures he had recently tasted. Peering into her green eyes, his body yielded to her ministrations. Now that he understood the sensations, he no longer fought them.
Surely this is heaven.
But she would be leaving Caerleon soon. The thought stabbed his heart, for he had never known a wiser, braver female in all his short seventeen years.
"Will you consider marrying again?" he said, combing his fingers through her dark tresses. "If the choice is yours to make?"
"If the right man were to offer, I might."
Inspiration struck. Why had he not thought it before? He smiled up at Morgause. She had come to his bed. Her legs still clung to his thighs in their lover's embrace. It must mean--
"Would you consider me?" he whispered.
Morgause's laughter landed harshly in Arthur's ears.
"I'm serious, Morgause," he said, wounded. "I know I'm young, but--"
Morgause placed her hands on either side of Arthur's head and leaned close to his face.
"How can I marry my own brother?" she whispered into his ear.
Arthur felt the blood drain from his face. From his genitals.
"You mean you did not know, my lord Arthur? Surely Ulfius told you whose son you are."
"He did. Uther's."
"Everyone has a mother as well."
"You never thought to ask?"
"I thought I was a bastard that shamed my father so much he hid me from the world."
"Uther? Shamed? It was our mother who hid you with Ector, to spare your life. Your father planned to smother you at birth."
Morgause swung off of him, retrieved her clothes from the floor and dressed.
Arthur clutched the bedrobes around him, his head spinning, his stomach threatening to spill its contents, fearing he already knew her answer.
"Our mother, Arthur, Igraine of the Cornovii." Morgause had reached the door and stood with her hand on the latch. "One last thing. Should your seed take root, my lord brother, what shall I name our son?"
A Passing Fair Lady; 2002 by Debra A. Kemp
Debra Kemp now resides in South Dakota with her most charming husband and nearly 500 volumes of Arthurian literature. (He knew the job was tough when he signed on.) She is a member of the Black Hills Writers Group and the International Arthurian Society. Her fiction has placed well in a variety of contests. Her first place short story--IGRAINE--was published OFFERINGS FOR THE GREEN MAN in 2001. Other work by Ms. Kemp has appeared in SAMSARA and online at inditer.com and goldport.com. When not working on her second novel or short stories, Ms. Kemp works in the coolest place on earth--a second-hand bookstore. "A PASSING FAIR LADY" made the top 10 in the 2002 Preditors and Editors Readers Poll.
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