:: Sunday, August 07, 2005 ::
"Come," Brother Llyad said, sticking his head into Gareth's chamber. "They are gathering, and Estren is telling them our tale."
It was midafternoon now, and Sir Baigent decided that he had enough strength to rise again and join the companions. "We should be there," he said. He walked with Gwyn down to a gathering of the Finders, all of whom were clustered around Gareth and Jonn. A heated debate appeared to be taking place. As they arrived at the gathering they found Estren in the middle of the group, completing his version thus far of his journey with the Welcomer.
"A Bard of Prydein is speaking of you," Sir Baigent whispered to Gwyn. She blushed.
"Well spoken, harper," Gareth said. "You honor us with your words." The Finders signaled their agreement with nods of assent, and Gareth continued. "And here she is, the woman who has been chosen by the Goddess to bring King Arthur back from Avalon." She beckoned to Gwyn, who stepped past all the pairs of eyes focused upon her to join Gareth, Jonn and Estren. She was certain that she was no one's idea of what the Welcomer should be, but that of course mattered little.
"I have made this decision," Gareth said. "This woman bears the Queen's name, and she carries the blood of the Fair Folk within her. There can be no question that she is the Welcomer. She must be taken to the Giants' Dance, and I will go with her -- as will Matt and Calloch."
"What--?" Matt said. Clearly he had not been told before this. His was not the only voice of concern. Many, actually, were raised.
"You can't leave us!" someone shouted.
"What will we do?"
"We cannot wait here for your return!"
Gareth raised her walking stick, silencing the crowd with her fierce gaze. "These questions are easily answered," she said. "I have thought of little else since this morning when Jonn returned and brought these people with him into our midst, and in the end I can only conclude that there is one thing -- and only one thing -- for us to do. There is only one path for us to follow, but as so often happens when there is only one path, the struggle was actually in realizing that there were no other paths to take."
Gwyn nodded slowly.
Gareth went on. "Jonn will still be with you. And you will not be staying here. You, too, will go to the Giants' Dance."
Now there were even more voices of dissent, shock, and in a few cases anger. Gareth held her walking stick up again, but this time silence did not come. Jonn began to shout for quiet, and eventually the crowd settled again.
"Gareth," Matt said. "How can you send us there? What are we to do when we arrive?"
"We will join King Arthur when he arrives," Gareth said. "We will be his army."
Now there was total silence.
"Yes," Gareth went on. "We will be his army -- or part of it, at the beginning. As King, he will need an army if he is to take the throne that is his by right. And we will fight with him, alongside him, and for him."
"The Finders have never fought for anyone before," someone said.
"But we have," Gareth replied. "We fight for Seren Goleuad, the forgotten son of our Goddess. We have always fought for him. This is part of that struggle, and we cannot turn away now."
"Gareth." It was Jonn. "You are saying that by going to King Arthur, we may find Seren Goleuad?"
Gareth leaned on her walking stick and sighed. "Remember the legend," she said. "Those who would seek the child of the Sun and Moon will first heed the sign of history, that the child may live again. And now the Welcomer has come into our midst, with the King to return tomorrow by our reckoning! The chance is here, and it is now. We cannot ignore it." She went silent for a minute, as the look on her face changed. "I know that I have not been as strong as Willam. I know that my hand of leadership is not as strong as his. You have followed me through deeds that some would consider folly -- not the least of which is our war against Maxen." She paused to look from face to face in the crowd. "But I tell you this: Willam was my husband, and though he was taken from me before I could learn from him all that I needed to lead, it is still true that everything I know is because of him. He would see the wisdom of this. He would insist on it -- and you would all follow, to the last child."
"You are asking us to do this for Willam," Jonn said. "After you've asked us to do so much for him already."
"No, Jonn." Gareth had gained control of her voice again. "I do not ask this of you for Willam's sake. I ask it of you for mine. So much history has been written, so many deeds done and sung of by men and women like this Bard here -- but none of it says anything about us, the Finders. It is as if we are outside history -- like rocks beside a stream, unable to shape its flow as do the rocks within it. This is our chance to join in the greatest tale of our time, and if we can find just the smallest part of the answer that we have sought for so long then it will be worth everything we risk." She paused to let that sink in. "And consider this: one day, long from now, your children will speak of the decision we made this day, when we knew that the Promised King was returning and that we had the chance to join him and take our place in the annals of Prydein. They will speak of the decision we made this day, when the chance was ours to guarantee that in some far off time when a cleric -- on Tintagel, perhaps -- writes a new Book of Kingly Tales, there would be a page devoted to the Finders and their quest. That day will come, my friends. It will come and we will be judged on that day for what we do now, and in all the days from this day to that."
Gareth stopped speaking then and allowed the silence to settle heavily over the hundred people before her. Convoluted words, Gwyn thought. But such conviction. The wind stirred, moving the leafless branches of the trees, and somewhere in the distance a thrush knocked. Gwyn turned to gaze at the waters of the small lake, and she wondered if they would soon be freezing over -- in the midst of summer.
"And what of Maxen?" Jonn finally asked. "We know that he is on the move."
"He has probably gone to rejoin his King," Gareth said. "If he is even still in command of his men. And that depends on how bad a wound this man-of-arms here gave him last night."
Sir Baigent shook his head. "It's hard to know," he said. "I took his hand, but I've seen men suffer worse and live, and I've seen men suffer less and die. Either way, I cannot believe he has strength yet to command. I would expect that Fflud is now leading them, and he is not a man who will follow some vengeance quest."
"You should take a direct route, through Walding Wood," Jonn said. "You will be less likely to be spotted by any scouts Maxen or Fflud have about. We will come around the edge of the wood, on the eastern side and be only a few hours behind you."
Gwyn watched as Gareth laid a hand on her old friend's shoulder and slowly nodded.
"Dona be with us all," Gareth said.
Gwyn was utterly amazed at the speed with which the Finders broke their camp. In less than an hour all that remained were the empty husks of the buildings as everyone gathered their belongings, stowed them in the bags and the three wagons that they owned, and prepared to ride. The companions were given new horses to replace the ones that had been left behind at Maxen's camp, and Gwyn was exceedingly grateful to have her own horse again, a strong and genial beast called Dimnur. She had had quite enough of riding double, whether with Brother Llyad or Jonn. Their supplies were replenished, and Sir Baigent's strength appeared to be back to normal after just a few hours' rest, owing to the Finders' surprising power when it came to healing. Finally, after a very brief exchange of farewells, the company set out again.
Thus it was that the party of four became seven, as they struck out again for the road north into the last hills and wood before the Giants' Dance.
The Finders were not the only ones breaking camp that morning. Just a few hours' ride to the west, the long-empty fortress of the Scarlet King became empty once again as a Captain of King Cwerith's southern flank led his men out of their burned and gutted camp, down the rock-strewn hillside, and onto the road that led to the north and east. Not a single man in that company failed to notice the change that had come over their Captain, and not just in the tightly-bandaged stump which was all that remained of his left wrist. There was a darkness in his eye that made even the most loutish brute in that small army turn away in fear when he caught the Captain's gaze. Even Fflud could not escape the feeling that something had shifted in his Captain's soul. He now saw there a hatred that seemed to have smoldered in forgotten corners of his heart but which now blazed with the brightness of the fires which had reduced so much of their camp to ash.
The Captain had awoken in the middle of the night, after being unconscious since the searing of his wound. He had risen, clothed himself, bound the wound himself, and taken a horse alone down to the side of the river where he passed the rest of the evening alone. Not one man would speak aloud of his thoughts -- or fears -- of what the Captain had found there. Some things were not discussed.
When he had returned he had simply ordered the breaking of camp and the preparation for march. The thought never occurred to a single man to challenge his right to command, for in some way he looked stronger, more willing to do what was necessary even if that meant his own death.
When Fflud asked if they were going to rejoin the main bulk of the King's army, which was now swinging toward Bedwyn for the last leg of the march, the Captain had said no. There was another task for them to do, another battle to be won, that would take place far away from Bedwyn and might not ever be known by the King but might well be the battle that shaped his destiny. Fflud asked him what that battle was, but the Captain said nothing except that they were going to the Giants' Dance. No member of his company questioned him. None dared do so, even though to an outsider it might appear that they had cause. No outsider could possibly understand. No outsider would know the look in their Captain's eye, nor would any outsider know that by all rights this man should be dead of his wound instead of leading them on this day.
They don't know the things I know, the Captain thought as the Scarlet King's hilltop fortress receded behind him. They haven't seen the things I was made to see; they haven't been made to look into the heart of Power as I have. They had not heard the wolves who sang for me.
Some of them, though, had heard the wolves -- and those who had would never admit to even their closest friends the nightmares they had experienced after hearing them.
Of some things one should not speak.
The day was growing long as the seven companions rode northward through the last of the hill country before Walding Wood. The weather had gone damp, with a sometimes steady rain now slackening to a miserable, cold drizzle that soaked everything. They spoke rarely, except for when Sir Baigent would confer quietly with Gareth or Matt, both of whom knew the lay of the land quite well. Calloch, Gwyn quickly discovered, had as little sense of reckoning as she had ever seen. Even Brother Llyad, with all his awkward foppishness, could find his way around, but Calloch -- while a skilled rider and fighter -- was as like as not to ride all day in a single, great circle and not realize it until he saw the same landmarks for the fourth time. It was an odd quality to find in one of the Finders, given their wandering nature, but Gwyn supposed it was less odd than in a former scholar and cleric becoming Lord of Camyrdin, or a female Adept being both a passing good archer and the Welcomer of the Promised King.
The rain and drizzle finally tapered off as they crested a particularly high hill. Before them lay the outskirts of the wood, only partly visible through patches of thickening fog. Here they stopped as Sir Baigent studied the path before them, which was really no path at all and little more than even a trail.
"Quicker to go through than around, you say?" he asked.
Gareth shrugged. "Quicker for our purposes, and certainly less dangerous. Fflud would be foolish to attempt to bring his men through this wood."
"Assuming that he is coming in this direction at all," Sir Baigent said. "We really don't know where Cwerith's army is just now, do we? Perhaps they have swung north again, or have even cut south before the Test River valley."
"Does any of that matter?" Estren asked.
"No," Sir Baigent said. "But the last time I entered a wood that looked like this one, I did not leave with my entire party intact."
He could have left that last thought unsaid, Gwyn thought.
They rode toward the edge of the wood and stopped again at the spot where the trail entered the trees. At this point, beside the trail, was a Druid standing stone. It was about half the height of a horse, and its spiral carvings were still visible, despite being quite weathered. This stone was very old.
"There were thousands of such stones once, all over Prydein," Brother Llyad said. "They were built by the very first Druids to emerge from the Cataclysm, and no one knows why -- not even the Druids of Mona. Perhaps they had some ritual purpose, perhaps they were spots of particular power on the earth, or perhaps they were mere markers for those first Druids in a land covered by vast forests. Now they are vanishingly rare. High King Prystyl ordered them destroyed. This must be one that was missed."
They rode again, moving slowly into the confines of the forest. Gwyn watched the standing stone as she rode past it, wondering what hand had shaped it and what mind had conceived its pattern and selected the spot for its placing. Then she rode beneath the low-hanging branches of a large elm, passing into Walding Wood.
Although the trees were leafless, their branches still formed enough of a dense canopy above them to obscure the sky. Gwyn had to strain to see all of her companions before her -- except Calloch and Estren, who rode behind -- and though she expected to hear the normal sounds of a forest, there were none. No animals crying out, no birds calling, no rustling and knocking of branches as they moved in the breeze against one another. The air was completely still, and the wood was utterly silent, except for the movement of their horses.
Gwyn lost track of time as they followed what at times seemed to be no trail at all. She wondered how Sir Baigent could possibly keep his reckoning in this place, but his every decision of direction was made quickly and with confidence. The sky was beginning to darken -- inasmuch as they could tell that it was darkening at all -- when they emerged into a circular grove, at the center of which stood another standing stone, similar to the one they had seen at the edge of the forest. Another path, shrouded in black darkness, opened in the trees directly opposite the path from which they had just come. The grass in the grove had recently been trodden, the ground at the grove's edge looked like it had been turned recently, and there was a fire-ring exactly like the one they had found at the side of the Veryn Wash. Sir Baigent slid down from his saddle and tied his steed to one of four small pines that stood at equal points from the standing stone, and motioned for the others to do the same.
"I suppose the Druids will not object to our making camp here tonight," he said as he began to unpack his saddlebag. As Matthew and Calloch tended the horses, Gwyn helped Gareth in the task of setting camp. Sir Baigent found a small pile of well-seasoned wood near one of the pines, and he used this to build a small but welcome fire that burned brightly in the misty, damp night now settling over the wood. The companions dined on a meal of bread, cheese, and wine from a skin Gareth had provided. A brisk wind began to whistle through the wood, and the air became filled with the creaking sound of swaying trees -- precisely one of the sounds that Gwyn had missed when they had ridden in silence through the outskirts of the wood just hours before.
"You are certain that we can reach the Giants' Dance by nightfall tomorrow?" Sir Baigent asked.
"Dead certain," Matt said as he packed some leaf into a wooden pipe and lit it for smoking. "A few more hills, a river to be forded, and then we're onto the plain. Easily done." He puffed at his pipe several times. "I only hope that the Druids are actually there."
"They will be there," Brother Llyad said.
"You believe in the Druids very strongly," Gareth said. "May Dona will that your faith in them is not misplaced."
An awkward silence descended then, which was broken by Estren. "I have been wondering: what is in those fire-globes of yours?"
Gareth, Matt and Calloch all laughed. "Would you believe me," Gareth said, "if I told you that in truth I do not know? We were traveling in Caledonia last autumn -- the Western Shore, out away from King Duncan's fortress -- when we came upon a hermit living near the side of the sea. He gave to us the burning powder that we put inside the globes. In exchange, we hunted for him and provided him with enough meat to last the winter. Or so he hoped...I have often wondered what became of that hermit."
"Was he a sorcerer?" Gwyn asked.
"He may have been," Gareth replied. "Although, had he been a sorcerer I wonder why he would have needed our aid in gathering food. And with something so powerful in his possession, I also wonder why he was a hermit at all. He could have sold the powder to some Lord, or perhaps even to King Duncan, and made himself a rich man."
"And so could you," Brother Llyad said. "Not all kinds of riches apply to all."
"Some of us," Matt said, "believe that the burning powder is actually an invention of the Ancients, or perhaps a product of the fires of the Cataclysm."
"It could be anything," Gareth said. "We made the globes out of clay and filled them with the powder. It is hard to believe such a small thing could hold so much power, but power it has...perhaps too much. Too much that I have squandered in fighting against Maxen." She shook her head. "It was a harsh time for us. Dona forgive me."
"What happened?" Sir Baigent asked.
"We were in Gwynedd, while King Cwerith was massing his army for the march. He has been preparing for this for a long, long time; did you realize that?" She shook her head. "In any event, we were attacked by a cadre of Cwerith's men, led by Maxen. It seems that in Gwynedd they are not overfond of Finders."
"Or Bards," Estren said.
"It is worse for Finders," Gareth said. "Our search for Seren Goleuad is seen as the worst of foolishness there, and we are hated for our refusal to settle and follow any one Lord. We were ripe for the picking, and nearly half of us lay dead before we were able to flee into the mountains. One of the dead was Willam, my husband. We could only leave his body there in the middle of the field that we fled across. I wanted to use the fire-globes against Maxen then, but Willam was our leader and he chose otherwise. He did not want to use them merely as a weapon, to strike back against a weak-minded enemy. I suppose his bones are still there."
"So when you learned that Maxen had made camp so near to you, you took on the role of marauding bandits and attacked him?" Sir Baigent asked.
Gareth shrugged. "My wisdom has been short in recent months. I am not certain that I was meant to lead our people. I am not certain that it was Dona's will being fulfilled when Willam fell...or whether it was another's."
An uneasy silence fell over the companions. Finally Sir Baigent said, "Perhaps we should be to sleep now. Tomorrow's journey will be the most important yet."
And that served as the last word; conversation died as the members of this small company relaxed on the ground. Gwyn wrapped herself in her blanket and rolled about, trying to become comfortable on this hard, cold earth -- something which eluded all of the companions. None could fall asleep. As the firelight waned until all that could be seen was the glowing embers, each of them was still awake.
"Perhaps a tale might soothe our spirits," Estren finally said. "My tales are not usually offered as a soporific, but to every tale a purpose in the telling." He thought for a moment, selecting his tale, and then he spoke.
"Pwyll was a King, the son of Pryderi,
and he had no Queen at his side.
He ruled in the West with peace and calm,
So much peace that his heart and hands
were oft turned to the thrill of the Hunt.
He lived with abandon, this Western King,
but Fate waited like a sleeping beast
and struck on the night of King Pwyll's
great summer feast.
All his nobles came, one thousand and one,
a hundred stags and a hundred boars
they consumed, and five hundred casks of ale.
Games there were, and King Pwyll won them all,
save a single wager on the dice.
"Name a deed for me," said Pwyll,
"for I have lost, and now must atone."
"Go, King," said the victor, "stand upon yonder mound
and see if the dead might come from the ground."
"Done!" said Pwyll, and he climbed the high hill
of which it was said that a man who there stood,
above the sleeping dead, would soon join them,
or else see a wonder.
A wonder then, Pwyll hoped, and a wonder he saw:
a horse bearing a maiden came.
"My name is Rhiannon," she said with a voice
that filled Pwyll with love.
"I am your wife, and you my husband," said
she. "Now let us quit this hill of the dead."
His heart and loins afire, his loneliness past,
Pwyll took Rhiannon home, a Queen for him at last.
He staged a new feast, to present his Queen,
and the bell tolled for Rhiannon of the Birds
whose beauty lies beyond telling
even to the Bards with all their words.
Came then to court a man who laid claim
to beg favor of Pwyll, who put down his game.
"Are you friend?" asked the King.
"If so you shall stay. If not, you shall go
or feel the point of my sword."
"Friend am I, King," said the man,
"and I swear by the Moon
that I only come to ask of thee a boon."
"A boon, then," said Pwyll. "Yours shall it be
if it lie within my power."
"No, My Lord!" cried fair Rhiannon of the Birds,
but the strange man laughed.
"Your wife I would have," said he, "for the boon
that you vow!"
Pale went the King, and his poor wife swooned.
Powerless was King Pwyll, and he could but watch
as the stranger took away his beloved, his
Rhiannon of the Birds.
The stranger took her to his keep
and thus she was made
to live there in sadness, an unkind fate
for one so lovely as she.
But a man came to that dark keep,
a year and a day hence:
an old man in rags, with no blade held in defense.
The Lord of the Keep turned him away,
but the old man said, "Will you wager today?"
The offer of wager interested the Lord,
who despite his fair Queen was rather bored.
"What wager, old man?" said he, and the old
man held up a bag of leather, no gold
inside, only sand. The bag was as big as his
hand, and yet this as his wager:
"My Lord, step into this bag. If it closes
over your head, your woman I shall take.
If not, then never shall I trouble you again."
The Lord laughed long, certain that he had never heard
so foolish a task named as this.
Still laughing the Lord took then the bag
and placed it over his head.
But when he pulled down it opened wide,
and just like that he was trapped then inside.
The old man tossed aside his clothes;
King Pwyll was he, disguised in rags
and with his hunting boot he kicked the bag.
"My Queen she is, and yours not ever,
My love, Rhiannon, now and forever."
And the King took his Queen back to his realm,
and peace was theirs in the Kingdom. Never
again did Pwyll take a wager from one unknown,
nor did he ever again walk upon that mound.
And the man in the bag? He is in there still.
Some say his screams still can be heard,
And it may be so, though of his fate after that
There was never a word.
After Estren's voice died away, the members of the company finally slipped into sleep. Gwyn's last thought was to reflect on what a strange story that had been.
"Awaken and rise, Gwynwhyfar!"
The voice called out to her, from some distant place beyond the mist and the earth.
"Awaken, Welcomer! Come to me!"
Gwyn rose from the place where she rested, her companions still slumbering beside her. The voice echoed in the cold night air, but only Gwyn had heard it. It was a woman's voice, and it was at once the voice of youth and of age. Filled with song, the song of things both new and of things long past into the farthest memories of time, it was a voice Gwyn had never heard before and a voice she knew as well as her own.
"Arise and come, Gwynwhyfar!"
The voice was calling from the dark path that wound into the heart of the wood. Rising, Gwyn found that she now wore a gown of white samite that glowed with the light of the full moon that shone down on the grove from directly above. Had the moon been full when Gwyn had gone to sleep? She could not recall… And the grass itself on which Gwyn stood -- it was green! The Earth was alive! The tress were in leaf, and the moon shared a cloudless sky with a sea of glittering stars. This was not her waking world, but a Prydein unspoiled by the unending winter, where the land still breathed and gave rise to all things living.
She followed the path into the wood, tracing a spiraling track toward the bottom of a deep valley, and soon it opened up beside a narrow pool that was fed by a stream of black water. Gwyn knelt and peered into the pool. A great salmon emerged from the deep, blinked at her, and then turned and swam back down into the depths. Had she seen that salmon before?
"You have come," the feminine voice said. Now it was very close by. "I have wished for so long to behold you. Everything in my being has led me to this day."
As Gwyn gazed into the pool, a light appeared in the depths: a silvery shimmering that was at first like a candle seen through an old window whose glass has warped with age, and then became brighter and closer until it took on form. The light spread across the surface of the water until the pool looked as if it were a part of the moon itself. Then a figure rose from the water and came to stand upon its surface.
It was a woman, tall and beautiful. She was clad in a flowing gown of white samite, much like the one Gwyn now wore, that fell from her shoulders to the water, but it did not look wet. Her long, silver hair fell to her waist and also appeared dry; a pendant of shining diamond, cut in the shape of the crescent moon, hung from a silver chain about her neck. And most strange was the pale light which surrounded her, ss if no matter where she stood she bathed in the light of the full moon. In her eyes lay the weight of years, many years, years beyond count. There was sadness there, the quiet gaze of one who had seen more than any other. And yet she was neither crone nor maiden. She seemed to exist outside of Time.
The woman lifted a hand, beckoning. "Walk with me, Gwynwhyfar," she said, "Your journey truly begins this night."
"I am dreaming," Gwyn said.
The woman stepped forward, moving closer to Gwyn. A sad smile was on her lips. "And know you not the true nature of your dreams, my child? You are a daughter of the Fair Folk. Through your dreams, you see our realm -- which is partly yours." She drew near to Gwyn. She smelled of roses and spring rain. "Do not set your dreams aside so lightly, for in the end it will be your vision that makes possible the Finest Deed."
Gwyn nodded. "I know you, Lady," she whispered, "though I don't know how."
"Most simply call me Lady of the Lake, for though my name has ever been known to few, now it is known to none -- save you, Gwynwhyfar. My name, like his, resides in your deepest soul."
And, searching her memories for a name she had never spoken, Gwyn found that it was true. "Nimue," she breathed.
The Lady of the Lake nodded. "My name is Nimue," she said. "This night you shall walk with me, down an ancient path to a place visited by no Mortal since the Emrys. It is time for you to learn what has gone before, that such knowledge may illuminate the road that is to come before you." She lifted her arm and offered Gwyn a slender hand, and when Gwyn accepted that hand, the sensation that flowed through her was unlike any she had before felt in her life. It was the power of the world, the power that fed the Wyrm of the World; it was the life of the lake, and the magic of all the waters in all the world. The Lady of the Lake was a Lady of power, timeless power that existed formless before the Beginning of the World; that power moved through Gwyn, and she felt something change within her soul. Old uncertainties slid away into the recesses of time, and where once had been doubt there was now vision.
This was who she was! At last she knew her deepest self: I am Gwynwyfar of the Fair Folk! "Truths can come in dreams; forsake their lessons at your own peril." Those words, spoken by Father Damogan in the distant days when she had first come to Tintagel, were now clear to her for the first time.
The Lady of the Lake led Gwynwhyfar downt he path beside the stream. The moon's pale light fell upon the grassy track, and there were lights twinkling along the path. Perhaps they were fireflies, or the tiniest of the faeries. The path sloped downward, curving around one ancient oak, and then another, and then still another. Moss covered the trunks of these venerable trees, which the Druids named the Kings of the Wood. The air was filled with the scent of earth and flowers and water. As they walked, Gwynwhyfar found herself glancing more than once at the Lady of the Lake; such age in a face so young, such sadness in a face so beautiful. On they walked, hand in hand, toward the hidden glen at the center of the wood.
Here the stream splashed over a short waterfall and into a crystalline pool that fed another stream which rushed away from them over a bed of mossy stones. The pool was ringed by flickering candles set in wooden holders, and the water shimmered with silver moonlight and golden candlelight. Gwynwhyfar caught her breath. Never had she seen more beautiful a place, neither within her dreams nor without.
"Now come the people of your lineage," Nimue said.
A line of people then entered the glen, who looked much as Nimue looked: garbed in simple robes of samite, and their skin also seemed to glow with the glimmer of the moon. They chanted a long melody as they filed into the glen, with words Gwyn had never before heard in a language older than any language ever known.
"They are so beautiful," Gwynwhyfar said. "Father Damogan said that I would not see them. He said that they do not reveal themselves, even to those who share their blood."
"I know of Damogan," answered the Lady. "He is wise, but even his knowledge is limited by his mortal perception of the world."
The Fair Folk fell silent as they formed a circle around the pool. Then, one of them began to sing in a strong and clear voice that was deeper and more textured even than Estren's. This, Gwynwhyfar realized, was the ideal to which the Bards aspired.
This man looked of impossible age, older by far than the Lady of the Lake. His white hair hung past his shoulders, and his snowy beard fell to his waist. His words were of equal age, and Gwynwhyfar did not understand them. But she knew that it was the song of things long past, of things forgotten by all the world, even by the Bards. It was the song of the wood and of the sea; it was the song of the air and of the earth. His words were the words that had been spoken only when the world was young, and in those words could be felt the magic of the world. It stirred Gwynwhyfar's soul.
As he sang, the Fair Folk who stood in the circle stepped forward, one by one, until they were all standing on the surface of the pool. Finally, the ancient one completed his song, and likewise stepped forward onto the surface of the pool. Then, at last, he turned to face Gwynwhyfar and the Lady of the Lake.
"Long has it been since your feet walked the path to our geln, Nimue," he said. "We have not been graced by your presence since you yielded the Blade and the Scabbard to that young King in this place."
"And it is that King whose return I now herald, Amairgen Lord of the Fair," she replied. "The end of our days in Prydein is at hand."
The Lord of the Fair Folk, whose name was Amairgen, turned his gaze from the Lady of the Lake to focus on Gwynwhyfar. His gaze frightened her, for in his eyes she felt as though she could see into the eldest depths of time. He came across the pool and stepped onto the ground before Gwyn, and then he lifted an ancient hand to touch her auburn hair. After a minute, during which he looked as though he was trying to recall some distant memory, he lowered his hand and stepped back to face the Lady of the Lake.
"You choose your own path, as always, Nimue," he said to her, a tone of reproach entering his voice. "Not since the world was young have we endured the presence of a Mortal at our gathering."
"The times in which we live dictate a setting aside of old ways, Amairgen." Her voice was calm, but sad. "The legacy of the Sons of Dona will live in Gwynwhyfar even after we are gone."
"Aye, that it may," replied Amairgen. "But I am still uneasy. You have ever walked a different path than I and the others, and through your mortal union you have introduced randomness into that which I would see remain inviolate. And now, dark days lie ahead for us. Have you not heard the call? The call that summons us back to the sea, and the Golden Ships that hold anchor, waiting to take us home? Have you not heard the hounds of Culdarra, riding at the Hunt once again?"
"I have heard the call, Amairgen. I know that the ships will soon lift their anchors and sail once more, and I know that Culdarra has been freed to hunt again. But my fate is tied to this land, and I will not quit this place."
"To remain would mark your passing!" His voice filled with force, although he spoke no louder now than before. "The boundaries between the worlds are falling. The Gates of the Dead are being forced open, and the Dark Brother will be able to touch the Earth for the first time in uncounted ages. These events will mark the end of Dona's power over men, for their destiny must be carved by their own hands. You cannot remain a part of their affairs, Nimue. It is not written in the stars to be so."
"You speak truth, Amairgen. I have long known that my passing was swiftly drawing near, and that a place at Arawn's table is already being made for me. But I have a part yet to play, and I will not abandon those who have awaited my work. This is my path, and I will follow it, no matter where it may lead."
Amairgen turned to Gwynwhyfar, a comforting look in his eye. "You do not understand these matters, do you?"
Gwynwhyfar shook her head. "I know that my mother was one of you."
Amairgen glanced at Nimue. "Those were happier days," he said.
"One person's days of happiness are another's days of sorrow," Nimue replied.
Amairgen nodded. "But not so now, I think. I shall tell you, Gwynwhyfar, something of your ancestors. I cannot tell it all, for I have neither the time nor the skill of tongue to do so. Taliesin, Father of Poets could tell it, but he is lost to us.
"There was a time when this island was ruled not by your people, nor even by the Ancients. This was a brutal place, where only the tiniest scraps of society could survive, by standing defiant in the face of the fury that came from the Western Sea. In those days there was a great Empire that ruled on the Continent, but even they could not tame the place called Prydein. Their day passed, and the time of Arthur came. But we were here before all of that.
"Across the Western Sea rose a fair land, more fair than any in the world today. There we lived out our days, in splendor not known since. We served Dona, and we sang her praises, from our Isle of Apples. But it is a tale that has been shared by every people to walk the earth: a tale of jealousy amongst those whom we seek to serve. Dona's dark brother envied her for the Fair Folk who did her bidding on the world below.
"Great was his jealousy, and he sought to bend the savages of the earth to his bidding. This he did under a thousand different names, names now which are all but forgotten. But Dona's people, the Chosen ones, the Fair Folk, lived in peace on the Isle of Apples, doing her bidding and receiving her grace. No success that the Dark Brother had on the earth could calm the hatred in his heart for the Fair Folk, and he hungered for our destruction; but we lived under the unsleeping protection of the Wyrm of the World. As long as the Wyrm remained awake, Dona's Dark Brother could do nothing. For a thousand years and more he waited and watched.
"Then the day he had long hoped for dawned at last. The Great Wyrm, parent of Dona, the Dark Brother, and all the other Gods, went to sleep. The Wyrm's unsleeping eye had long stayed the Dark Brother's hand, but now its eye was closed. Seeing his chance, the Dark Brother made promises to other powers long forgotten, and he gained, for one day only, dominion over the Sea itself. On this day, he unleashed its full power. The great waves rose from the depths, driven by his hate, and in their path lay the Isle of Apples.
"Dona watched in horror as the Sea rushed forward to claim her Chosen ones, the Fair Folk. She tried desperately to stay her brother's hand, but she had been caught unawares and could do nothing to assuage his rage or even turn aside the storm that now raged toward the Isle of Apples with all of the rage once contained in her Dark Brother's heart. The only way to save the Fair was to awaken the Great Wyrm itself, but so deep had its slumber become that not even her greatest screams could stir it. And still the waves came.
"Dona's hope was lost. She knew that the Isle of Apples would be destroyed, taken to the bottom of the Sea. But still one power remained to her, a power even her brother could not usurp: the power to warn her people. This she did, and in the mere hours before the waters came, the Fair climbed aboard the Golden Ships and set sail, for there was one Sea Power who still loved Dona. And so, with their sails filled with the breath of the Western Wind, the Golden Ships left the Isle of Apples even as the waves arrived, carrying that fairest place -- our home -- at last into the deep.
"With all her might Dona and the Western Wind protected the Golden Ships, but the Dark Brother was mighty, and one by one he destroyed them, either taking them beneath the waters or breaking them upon great rocks. It was then that the Western Wind summoned up its greatest power. It created a new storm, a tempest which completely engulfed the three remaining ships. So violent was this storm that the Dark Brother believed it to be one of his own, and thus he turned away, believing his deed complete. But the Western Wind created a spot of calm in the center of the tempest, and in this way he carried the last three Golden Ships to safety. In the dark of night, while Dona's Dark Brother celebrated his victory, those three Ships came to rest on the shores of that place now named Lyonesse. Thus did we, the last survivors of that doomed realm, come to Prydein. Our tale is known to none, but snatches of it have become part of Mortal lore, and to this day they search for the lost land under the Sea."
Gwynwhyfar drew a long breath. She remembered another dream, from the night that Brother Llyad had returned to Tintagel -- a dream in which she had been a bird and flown over an island that smelled of apples. There had been a storm…and she had seen three golden shapes somewhere in the haze before her. She had seen it....she looked up at Amairgen. "Now you are leaving?" she asked.
Amairgen nodded. "We must. The Dark Brother knows of our survival, and he is now expending his power to destroy us. He seeks to complete that task he began in that time lost to history. His power has grown over the ages, and he has worked to weaken the Boundaries between the worlds, so he can wreak his power over the Earth once again, which was forbidden him long ago."
"The winter that never ends!" Gwynwhyfar exclaimed in dark realization, even though she had already suspected it.
"His doing," the Lady of the Lake answered. "And as the boundaries fall, one by one, he will be able to wreak things on Earth far worse than an unending winter. He may even be able to set foot on the world himself." Gwynwhyfar shuddered to think what form he might take. The Lady of the Lake continued. "Dona and the Dark Brother, and all the ancient Powers, were forgotten by the Mortals. They turned to other gods, other powers for their worship. But Dona waited and watched, while her Brother still worked to force the world to his bidding. He tainted the hearts of the Ancients, and drove them toward feats of darkness and war; he gave to them the ability to destroy all, and he marshaled his powers to drive them toward one final conflagration that would leave them all dead except for the few that he would pick off at his leisure. He might have succeeded, but for a chance happening: for the briefest of moments, the Great Wyrm awoke."
Now Amairgen spoke again. "The Wyrm is at the center of the World, and the growing influence of the Ancients colored his dreams. Finally, so dark did his dreams become, that he emerged from his slumber and he looked upon what they had built. The Ancients had stained the world, marring it as they worked it and forced it to their image; and worst of all, they had forgotten the Wyrm. Wrathful in the end, he brought about the Cataclysm, a great fire that consumed the world and all that the Ancients had built. When he was done, only a few remained to begin again. Satisfied that their follies were done, the Great Wyrm went back to sleep.
"Thus the struggle between Dona and the Dark Brother began anew. He knows that her greatest strength lies on a tiny, rock-bound Isle, long thought unimportant by those Mortals who shape the destinies of the Kingdoms that exist now. But the Dark Brother knows not of Dona's last hope: the Promised King, whom he thought slain by his own minion. The Goddess has kept Arthur these many years, for the last battle, and now he shall come again and his deeds shall shine. The Dark Brother knows this not, and it is Dona's great hope that Arthur shall at last complete the task for which he was intended. When that happens, the Dark Brother's power will be broken and the worlds will once again be bound."
"What task?" asked Gwyn.
"The Finest Deed," said the Lady of the Lake. "If Arthur succeeds, the day of the Fair on Prydein will be done. For with her Brother's power gone, Dona will be able to raise the Isle of Apples from beneath the waves, and to that place the Fair will return." A note of sadness entered her voice then, and a sudden realization came over Gwynwhyfar.
"You came from that place, didn't you?" she asked. The Lady of the Lake nodded. "You were on the Golden Ships."
"Amairgen, too, came from there. He and I are the last, although he has kept his heart pure while I have allowed myself to become part of this land." A single tear rolled down her cheek, a tear which glistened as the morning dew. "I cannot return to the Isle of Apples, even when the Golden Ships again unfurl their sails. The destiny of Prydein shall be in the hands of the Mortals, and my day shall end."
Gwynwhyfar's eyes filled with tears. "Then when this is all done, you will die."
The Lady of the Lake nodded. "I will join those with whom I sailed, in slumber at the bosom of our Mother. But I go to that place gladly, for I tire of the misdeeds of Mortals. I have earned the rest to which I go."
"And if Arthur fails?" It did not seem the right thing to say, but Gwynwhyfar could not help it.
"If Arthur fails," said Amairgen, "then all is lost. The Dark Brother will eclipse his Sister at long last, and we will pass into memory."
"What am I to do?"
"You must fulfill your duty as the Welcomer of the Promised King," said the Lady of the Lake. "Go to the Druids. They are our mortal servants, and they will know what to do. Now, return to slumber, Gwynwhyfar. Return to sleep, for you will need the rest for the road that awaits you." And she laid her hand on Gwynwhyfar's forehead. The Lady of the Lake's hand was cool and warm at the same time, and Gwynwhyfar heard the singing of the Fair Folk once again, though very distant, as she slipped back into dreamless sleep.
Gwyn felt her arm being shaken, and she groaned in a voice filled with sleep. "Oh, Malcolm, let Father Damogan fetch his own mushrooms for once...."
With minor irritation, Sir Baigent shook her arm again. "I am not Brother Malcolm, My Lady. Put away your dreams. We must be underway."
The Knight's voice brought Gwyn fully awake, although she had to rub her eyes. The sky was a dark blue, and she guessed that the sun was still an hour from rising. To her surprise, a few stray snowflakes fluttered to the ground. Estren was holding up his light-gem to illuminate the grove, and the others were packing. Gwyn began gathering her things and stuffed them into her saddlebags. There was a small amount of food for breakfast -- a bit of dried meat and a hunk of bread. It was enough for Gwyn; somehow she was not particularly hungry.
"How do you feel, Gwyn? A cold morning for riding, I fear." Brother Llyad smiled at her. She returned his smile while she packed.
"Until we can end this winter, every morning will be a cold morning for riding," she answered.
"Until we can end this winter? You must have greater powers than I."
Gwyn only shrugged. In minutes she had finished packing, and now swung up onto the horse's back. Sir Baigent glanced at her and made a face like he had seen something he couldn't place.
"Are you all right, My Lady?" he asked. "You seem...different."
Gwyn nodded. "I suppose that I am anticipating the end of our journey."
"Journeys have a way of not ending when one supposes," Sir Baigent said.
The company got underway then, vanishing down the other path, under the eaves of the ancient oaks, leaving behind an empty Druid grove with its standing stone marking the place where the Welcomer had come.
::..permanent link to this chapter..::