Merciless

I wrote this story in college, entered a contest, and received an award! It's a pro-Modred story. I have written elsewhere about why I prefer Modred to Launcelot. This story basically explores those reasons from Modred's point of view.

The story is historically accurate (as far as historical accuracy goes in Arthurian fiction). That is, it is less 13th-century Malory and more 500 C.E.Romano-Britain. It is not 500 C.E. Druid/New Age/Feminist silliness. Modred is just this guy, ya know, who goes on reconnoitering missions.

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Arthur assigned Modred’s troop a reconnoitering mission east of the Hill amongst the old, Roman villas. They left in the early morning during a bout of dry, cloudless weather. Soldiers, passing from barracks to the hall, stopped to watch as Modred’s troops clattered across the level field to the first of the earth ramparts. Modred glanced back at the gate and saw Arthur raise his hand, a gesture of goodwill. Ever hopeful.

"I can choose my own men," Modred had told Arthur the night before.

"Next time. These are good boys. Not experienced but intelligent and surely, your own brother--"

Modred's brother, Geraint, was part of the problem. Geraint had complained about the assignment more than Modred.

"I need soldiers who will respond to my orders," Modred told Arthur.

Aedan overheard. He patted Modred's shoulder. "Command is a heavy responsibility for a boy your age," all condescension.

A boy his age; he was seventeen years old, not tall like Aedan–the slim gentleman–or large like Gawain, but he was fit, every muscle toned, he could fight like the best of them, but still he had to listen to Aedan call him "boy."

Better not to argue. Better just to go.

"No combat," Gawain said while the horses snorted in the brisk, chill breeze. "We don’t need deaths right now, just information. Find out if the Invaders have returned to the woods beyond the River."

So Modred led his boys steadily north, and the heavy, tangled wood gathered them in, soaking them with its massive silence. The predicted arguments flared and dwindled. Some days, they hardly spoke at all.

They crossed the Great River two days after they left the Hill. They met no Invaders, only remnants: fires hurriedly abandoned, wide, flattened campsites.

"Running like rabbits," Cerdig or Geraint would scoff, kicking at the ashes, but Modred read the signs differently.

Large numbers had camped close to the Hill and recently. The Invaders would return and in greater numbers.

We are dwindling; we need more troops, more weapons, more horses. Another onslaught might cripple us forever.

Modred said nothing aloud. His boys need the reassurance of, even, a temporary victory, and he did not want to provoke Geraint. Geraint believed in heroism, absolute deeds with absolute consequences. Fight and win and triumph. Never fight and fight and lose. Geraint was like Arthur. Modred refused to argue with either of them. He sent Galadir and Geraint ahead to scout the road, following behind with Cerdig and Pedvyr.

His troop was four in number: Cerdig, fresh-faced, given to making loud comments: "So, what's our fearless leader going to do this time?"--that type; Pedvyr, dark and lanky, who laughed at Cerdig's jokes and whispered his own that Modred suspected were funnier.

Galadir, Aedan's son. Modred had thought Aedan would argue the assignment, but when Arthur had said, "And Galadir, too," Aedan had only raised his hands, the picture of acquiescence. Galadir followed orders. He avoided Modred's eyes and flinched when Modred addressed him.

He knows what I think of his father.

Modred sighed and pulled ahead of Cerdig and Pedvyr, pushing his horse to a canter.

He rounded the corner of the rough-stoned road and found Geraint--dismounted and furious--standing alone in the courtyard of a villa.

"There's a man in there. Galadir went to have a look, and the man caught him. He won't let Galadir go."

Modred studied the villa. The south half had crumbled; most of the main hall was still intact barring occasional holes. A thin stream of smoke curled from an opening in the roof.

"Who's the man?"

"I don't know."

"Haven't you spoken to him?"

"He wants to talk to you."

Modred crossed the courtyard and stepped through the remains of the doorway. It was late afternoon, the sky was gray, hinting at rain. Inside, the villa was all black shadows. A small fire burned in the hearth in the center of the floor. Modred paused, blinking rapidly, encouraging his eyes to adjust.

Opposite the door, a woman leaned against a slab of wall that was partially crumbled to either side. Beyond the hearth, a man knelt, his arm across Galadir's shoulder and chest, his knife barely touching Galadir's neck.

"You are Modred?" the man asked.

"Yes."

"I won't hurt him," the man said.

He was tall, taller than Gawain probably. Even kneeling, he held himself like a soldier.

"Who are you?"

"A man."

Geraint entered the hall. Modred heard him stumbled over the debris and swear. Geraint edged forward slowly and sat beside Modred.

"This is my brother," Modred said.

"There are more of you?"

"Yes. Pedvyr and Cerdig."

"They're watching the horses," Geraint said. "Yours too," accusingly to the man. "What if we kill your horses, hmm?"

"A man is worth more than a horse, especially these days. You’re cavalry, then?"

"Yes. Reconnoitering company for Arthur."

"Arthur? General Arthur of King Aurelianus' army?"

"Yes," Modred said.

The man laughed. "Should you really tell me all this?" he said. "I might be an Invader or a spy."

Modred studied the corners of the villa. The black shadows filled every crack of the hall, masking the debris.

Modred said, "You're Drustan--Drustanus--the son of King Marcus of Dumnoia."

"Oh?"

"If I thought you were a spy, you would be dead by now."

Drustan's voice edged: "Remember, I hold one of your men hostage."

Modred touched the back of Geraint's neck. Geraint nodded, the movement barely perceptible even to Modred's fingers.

"I have two armed men, outside," Modred said to Drustan. "And you don't know where they are."

Drustan swiveled, but he was too late. Pedvyr and Cerdig had circled the villa while Modred was talking. They knelt now on either side of the woman. Pedvyr reached easily through the gaps in the wall to grab her shoulders. Cerdig had already pinned her arms; he held his sword to her neck.

"I'll let your man go," Drustan said.

"You'll give up your knife and your sword and let us stay here tonight and tell us why you're here instead of in Dumnoia."

Drustan nodded curtly. Geraint's mouth dropped.

"Ask for more," he said, but Modred shook his head.

He knew why Drustan had agreed so quickly. He saw the way Drustan looked at the woman-–as if his own neck lay under Cerdig’s sword. He would be easy to handle.

"Let Galadir go," Modred said. "Let him go."

Drustan loosed Galadir carefully. Modred glanced at Pedvyr and Cerdig. They released the woman's arms. Cerdig slid his sword through his belt, and Pedvyr--slightly embarrassed--brushed off the woman's dress. She glanced at him, bemused, and chuckled softly.

Drustan embraced her, bending his face into her hair.

"I'm sorry," he muttered. "That was stupid. I should have thought."

His eyes danced to Modred.

"You forgot to take my sword," he said.

Geraint groaned. Modred shrugged. He hadn't forgotten.

Drustan unfastened the sword and handed it over the hearth. Modred rested it on his knees. Geraint leaned against him, cooing appreciatively over the hilt of engraved suns and stars.

"How do you know me?" Drustan asked.

"Modred is magic," Cerdig stepped into the hall. "He knows your thoughts before you think them."

Modred grimaced. "Arthur has been expecting you."

"Not as we are," Drustan said and smiled at the woman. She turned her head, her long braid catching the firelight as it swung.

"I am Iseult," she said to Modred, her smile friendly.

"Iseult," Modred said, and disgust hit him so hard he closed his eyes. He swung towards Cerdig and Pedvyr.

"We'll need wood for the hearth," he said.

They sighed and went out. Modred also rose, holding Drustan's sword.

"I'll see to the horses," he said and stalked into the courtyard, angry, the sword heavy in his hand, a weight. Drustan was just like Aedan, just like.

Geraint caught up.

"It's a beautiful sword."

Modred handed it to him. "Here."

He didn't want it near his skin. Just another Aedan. Wasn't one enough?

They ate rabbit that Cerdig and Pedvyr had caught that afternoon. Modred faced Drustan who lay on his side, one arm curved around Iseult's waist.

"Why is Arthur expecting you?" Geraint said, dividing the question between Modred and Drustan.

Drustan answered:

"We’ve exchanged letters. I’ve heard much of his battles. The great general against the Invaders. He’s greatly admired. But you know that, you’re his men."

They laughed, clamoring: "Yes, we are. That's right, Arthur’s men." Cerdig and Geraint gave the deep-throated bellow of the cavalry.

"We've pushed the Invaders back over the River--"

"We're Arthur’s reconnoitering company--"

"Cavalry division--"

"Will you come with us?" Geraint asked Drustan. "We're going back soon."

"No," Modred said.

Geraint swung on his heel, hissing angrily in surprise.

"I won't allow it," Modred said.

Geraint howled his words: "Modred, you are such an idiot."

It was insubordination: Modred struck Geraint full across the face. The boy sprawled, breathing deep, his body tense, but he didn't move. He collapsed into the dust. "Modred, why?" plaintive as a baby.

"My men," Modred said to Drustan. "My responsibility. You think I would risk their reputations for you, for you and this woman?"

Drustan said, "My relationship with Iseult disturbs you? My morals are any of your business?"

"Not generally."

"You're--?" Cerdig gestured at Drustan and Iseult, uncertain, slightly embarrassed.

"She's his father's wife," Modred said.

Cerdig gaped.

"His second wife," Drustan said, amused. "I protested the marriage before we met. A good son does not criticize his father, but their match was never a wholesome thing." He looked at Modred. "Why do you care?"

"If I had to choose between her and the army, I would give her up."

"I don't know yet if I'll have to make that choice," Drustan said. "I hope I won't."

"You won't have to make that choice." Modred paused and gazed at Galadir. He said, "Your father and Arthur’s wife are lovers, Galadir."

Galadir's arms clasped his knees; he rocked forward, his face and hair flecked by firelight. "Yes," he said. "I know."

Modred stood over him, looked from him to the others, to Geraint climbing clumsily to his knees.

They knew.

He said, "You fraking hypocrites."

His boys. It broke his heart.

"We need Aedan," Geraint said.

"We can't trust him, Geraint. A man like that, his loyalty only lasts as long as his dick--" Geraint protested. Modred shouted him down. "They left Dumnoia--" Modred pointed at Drustan and Iseult. "What's to stop Aedan and Gwrtheyrn from leaving Aurelianus’ kingdom, abandoning our cause, the army?"

Beyond Geraint, he saw Drustan wince.

"Aedan's a great leader," Geraint said to Drustan. "The army needs him."

"It's not as if I approve," Galadir said suddenly, swiveling to look up at Modred. "It's not as if I don't care, but it's not our business. It’s God's business," he said.

Modred said, "Your father has blackmailed us into lies, Galadir. Nobody says a thing, everyone keeps their mouth shut. If Aedan were exposed, it would destroy Arthur, destroy the cavalry. Aurelianus is the last stronghold left against the Invaders. The Northern kingdoms don’t care. Dumnoia doesn’t care--" another shot at Drustan. "Arthur is Aurelianus’ best captain. Without Arthur, everything goes under. That’s what Aedan risks."

"Not on purpose," Cerdig said. "He doesn't do it on purpose."

Drustan said steadily, "I’m not my father, Modred. I do care. That’s why I came. Let us accompany you to the Hill. I won’t ask you to champion us."

Another Aedan, another disease for the army to deal with. The fate of Briton in the hands of men like that. What use was compassion if all it was used for was to tolerate the corrupt?

"You would leave us to mercy of real marauders?" Iseult said, her voice the sound of the sea under waves.

Modred glanced at his boys: Cerdig, face alight, ready to argue, but then Cerdig liked to argue; Pedvry, dark and tense and watchful; Galadir, their man of God, motionless, head bowed; Geraint, frowning, his hands pressed to the earth, also ready to argue, except that Geraint hated to argue, would shout his accusations with panicked abandon, sure before he began that he was going to lose.

They would be angry if Modred refused Drustan. They would do as Modred ordered, but they would sulk and quarrel, and Geraint would say bitter, resentful things that later regretted like always.

"Just to the Hill," Geraint said. "Please, Modred."

I’ll tell the cavalry if Drustan doesn’t. I’ll tell the army about him and Iseult, Gwrtheyrn and Aedan, everything I know of Aedan’s lies. I’m so tired of subterfuge, so weary of silence.

"Yes," Modred said. "We’re going back. Not to the Hill. Arthur is at the Tor now. Would you like to come with us?"

"Thank you," said Drustan.

"Thank you," said Iseult.

They reached the Tor nine days later, clattering into the stone yard. Arthur waited there, shading his eyes against the falling sun.

Modred shouted, "Halt" and dismounted.

He crossed to Arthur.

"You brought them back alive."

Modred laughed, felt the shock of it grapple with the tension in his chest. Arthur slipped an arm over Modred's shoulders.

"Good to see you," he said, and he meant it, Modred knew that.

"You have friends," Arthur said.

Drustan and Iseult had dismounted. They stood side by side. Arthur beckoned to them.

"Iseult of Cornouia," Arthur said. "And Drustanus of Dumnoia. Your father is here, Drustanus."

Iseult flinched, jerking backwards. Drustan took her hand. Arthur's face wrinkled.

"Come," he said gently. "You'll have to talk to him sooner or later. He waits in the hall."

He motioned them up the steps. They obeyed slowly, dazedly. What did you expect? Modred wanted to ask them. Did you think he would turn his back and walk away? Did you think he was like me?

Drustan's father, Marcus Cunomorus, was the first person Modred saw when he and his boys entered the hall. Marcus was tall and lean, his hawk-like face topped by a flourish of white hair. He looked fierce and unnatural.

Modred led his boys to a bench near the door. He saw Gawain further down the wall and raised his hand. Gawain waved back.

"Modred," Geraint whispered.

Modred looked where Geraint pointed to the man sitting by the hearth in the center of the hall: their King, Ambrosius Aurelianus.

Ambrosius Aurelianus had fought battles before Modred was even born, pushing the Saxon tribes out of the West. Ambrosius hunched in his chair, heavy and dark. He looked strong and rough, but two soldiers stood by to lift him. His eyes flickered towards Modred, and Modred felt the old man's fury even at that distance. Aurelianus was dying, and there was no one left to lead but men like Aedan and Drustan. Arthur was too gentle, too merciful, too inclined towards diplomacy.

There's me, Modred thought. There is me.

"May I go?" Galadir asked Modred.

Modred nodded. Galadir walked the length of the hall to stand beside Aedan. Aedan squeezed Galadir's shoulder.

Drustan and Iseult stood alone by the door.

"Drustanus of Dumnoia," Aurelianus said. "Iseult of Cornouia, welcome to the tiny, ill-placed kingdom of Ambrosius Aurelianus. This is my general"--Aurelianus indicated Arthur. "These unfortunate men--" Aurelianus waved a hand at the walls--"are my counselors and my commanders. We are pleased to see you though you arrive under rather undesirable circumstances."

For the first time, Modred saw anger in Iseult's face.

"I have never heard myself described as an undesirable circumstance, my lord," she said.

"What should he call you, Iseult?" said Marcus Cunomorus. "A slut?"

A rustle of dismay crept along the walls.

"Marcus, Marcus," Aurelianus said. "There are youngsters present."

Marcus shut his mouth. His lips formed a tight line.

Iseult said, "I was never a slut until I entered your house, Marcus Cunomorus."

Someone laughed.

"My house!"

"I am not a toy, Marcus. I am not a pet or a slave"--she spat the last word--"to be traded from house to house or man to man. I choose my lover."

Marcus spat in the dirt and stalked away.

Aurelianus stretched and said, "Now that you're here, Drustanus, what do we do with you?"

"I wish to pledge myself to you and your cause. I want to join the cavalry. I have some experience with horses."

Marcus snorted.

"I want to fight the Invaders," Drustan told his father. "I want to free the West."

"Seems you want everything."

"No."

"Did you really love me so much, Marcus Cunomorus?" Iseult said.

"We have a small problem, Drustanus," Aurelianus said. "King Marcus has agreed to supply our army with men and weapons. You, Drustanus could lead those men. Under Arthur's direction."

"Yes," Drustan said.

"And they would follow you more readily than they would follow one of my commanders."

"Yes."

"But Drustanus of Dumnoia, I cannot--out of respect for your father--allow you to enter our ranks with your father’s bride as your lover."

"Then I refuse."

"Marcus has not asked that she return to Dumnoia," Aurelianus said. "She may remain here, but you must end your relationship with her."

"No."

"Drustan," Gawain said. "Drustan, we need you."

The murmur slipped along the walls, men nodding, agreeing. Modred listened to the murmur, to the message behind it: Be like Aedan, lie, say you will give her up but don't. We will keep silent.

Drustan faced them all.

"No," he said. "She is my love. I will not abandon her to hushed speculation or to any cold hearth. If I sin, let me be honest in my sin and perhaps, God will bless me at least for that."

Galadir sobbed. He pulled away from Aedan and stumbled to Modred. Modred grasped his shoulders as Galadir bent his head to Modred's chest. Aedan, abandoned so abruptly, held out of his hands in bewilderment while down the walls, men avoided his gaze and whispered together.

Victory burned Modred.

I won him, Aedan, because you are a liar even if no one will say it aloud. All men will remember this day, Aedan; they will remember that Galadir left his liar father because of Drustan who won't lie and for me because I never lie.

And so it ended. Drustan and Iseult left Aurelianus’ kingdom, heading north to Rheghed and Cumbria where Drustan would use his influence to enlist the help of the northern chieftains.

Marcus Cunomorus departed early one morning, gone without a word to Aurelianus, leaving half his soldiers behind. They responded awkwardly, unhappily to Gawain's orders. Modred, watching, knew, I could control them. But he kept silent. Waited.

Aedan fluttered around Galadir, begging forgiveness. Aedan would get what he wanted. Galadir was too kind, too forgiving. So Modred got his orders, damn quick, and took his boys out into the woods again.

He talked to Arthur before he left.

"When we come back," Modred said, "they'll be ready to enter the main cavalry."

"And yourself?" Arthur said.

He and Modred appraised each other silently. Modred had already decided he would command when he returned. He would be ready when Aedan scampered.

"I'll be ready too," Modred said.

Arthur laughed, but Modred saw fear in Arthur's eyes and pain. He could guess why. Arthur knew Modred planned to destroy Aedan and anyone else who threatened Aurelianus's kingdom--even Drustan if Drustan tried to return. And Arthur--who poured out sympathy to the least mortal--could not understand.

Modred did not explain, except, "There’ll be no treaties with the Invaders," he said, echoing Aurelianus’ speech from that morning. Or anyone.

Aurelianus' kingdom would fall. When it fell, Modred hardly cared. Only how. When the only thing left of a thing was yourself, negotiation was not possible. Finally, in the end, there was no compromise.