:: Sunday, September 18, 2005 ::
Hugydd set a brisk pace as he led the company out of Walding Wood and onto that last plain where less than half a day's ride away stood the Giants' Dance. Gwyn found little relief in leaving the forest. As the trees around them thinned and then disappeared entirely, a new feeling of dread settled over her. Just a few leagues now separated her from the destiny she rode now to claim. How easily she had accepted it all, even as she learned of her parentage and her place within the world, even as she stood face-to-face with dark powers not of this world, even as she was thrust into the center of events that would decide the fate of Prydein forever. How easy it had all been, until this very hour when her destiny was almost at hand, and she realized just how unprepared she was for whatever was about to be asked of her -- no, what she had been chosen for, appointed for. As the plain sped away beneath Dimnur's hooves, Gwyn found all of her certainty vanishing utterly, to be replaced with fear and raw doubt.
The company stopped only once to water the horses, at a brackish stream that was nearly dry. "First the freezing of the land," Hugydd said. "And now the earth refuses to give its water. I tell you, the land itself is dying." He shook his head and led his beast to the stream.
"Things will return to their rightful order once the Promised King returns," Sir Baigent said. "At least, so we are told."
"That is as we hope," Hugydd replied. "Though I fear it will take more than that. King Arthur's return is only the beginning of what we face, not the end."
The company fell silent. Gwyn gazed absently at the near-frozen grassland that surrounded them. It looked like the right kind of land on which giants might dance.
"Hugydd," Sir Baigent said, "you have not yet asked about Camyrdin."
"Tidings travel quickly for the Druids as well," Hugydd said. He ran his hand along his horse's neck as the beast drank. "Though I am certain you believe otherwise, I am grateful that you were not there. That you and Lord Matholyn still live somewhat softens the blow." He looked into the knight's eyes. "I know you, Sir Baigent. If you are in any measure the man I knew before I found this new path, then I would wager that since you learned of Caer Camyrdin's fate you have blamed yourself for not being there."
"You do remember me well, Hugydd." Sir Baigent chuckled and flexed his hands. "Knowing that I was spared when so many others were not has been a heavy burden. But it seems that the goddess knew that her Welcomer would need a Champion." He smiled at Gwyn, and she returned the smile.
"Ah, yes," Hugydd said. "This man of Cwerith's whom you maimed. You struck the first blow of retribution in Camyrdin's name that night."
"Would that it had been a fatal blow," Sir Baigent said.
"Perhaps it was," Hugydd said. "Such wounds often are. And in any event, it is perhaps fitting, as the blow to Camyrdin that Cwerith intended to be fatal was not entirely so."
Sir Baigent looked hard at his former knight. "Are you saying--"
"There are others," Hugydd said, nodding. "More than a hundred, who managed to slip away through one of the secret gates in Caer Camyrdin's walls."
Sir Baigent drew a deep breath and let it out. He had often wodnered why Lord Matholyn had never sealed the secret gates that were not secret to him at all, and now he knew. "More than a hundred survivors? A hundred...out of fifteen thousand...."
"A hundred more than you had thought at first," Hugydd said. "Most are women and children, and several others whom you may know. When the time comes to rebuild Caer Camyrdin there will be citizens who remember it as it was."
Sir Baigent considered that for a moment, and then he cleared his throat and brushed what appeared to be a single tear from his eye. "We should ride again," he said.
The day was ending, and the sky was darkening swiftly, but the riding was easy now as they followed a road that was as flat as the land around it. As night fell around them, tiny points of flickering yellow light appeared on the horizon before them. The closer they rode, the brighter and more numerous they became. The fires of the Druid camp.
And behind them, Gwyn knew, the Giants' Dance.
Maxen lifted the flask to his lips and took a deep draught of the liquor inside. The taste was awful -- Maxen hated such swill -- but it deadened the pain of the bandaged stump of his left wrist. Despite that, he pressed on the bandage with his right hand, savoring the bit of pain that flashed through his arm as he did so. He needed the liquor to make the pain bearable, but he did not want to lose the pain entirely.
He had known other men who had lost limbs. He knew that in time the pain would vanish, although there would be times, when he was alone and in the dark, when he would feel the itching of the hand he had lost and when he would try to flex muscles that were no longer there and grasp with fingers long rotted to dust on some distant hilltop already littered with bones. That was not enough, though. Not for Maxen. He didn't want some small reminder of his maiming, once in a while in the middle of the night. He needed more than a sporadic reminder of what had happened and what had spoken to him from beyond the flames and with the voice of wolves. No, he could not be without the pain. He could lessen it, to be sure, but he could not bear to be without it. It was a part of him now. He would hold onto it and never let it go.
He looked around at the men of his company. None of them returned his gaze directly; none had since that night -- not even Fflud -- and he knew why. By rights, he should be dead or, failing that, fevered and weak with death lingering. One could not suffer a wound such as his and be stronger for it. The men in his company were simple men, and they had fears about such things.
He waited patiently for Fflud to return from questioning the peasant they had found on the road. It wouldn't take long, and indeed it did not as Fflud soon came riding back to where Maxen stood.
"What did you learn?" Maxen asked, wondering as he spoke if the rasp that had entered his voice after that night would ever go away.
"Nothing terribly important or surprising," Fflud said. "He is a sickly fool, and will probably be dead in a matter of weeks anyhow. Besides, he soiled himself at the sight of my blade and--"
"What did you learn?" Maxen repeated, cutting him off.
Fflud blinked. "Your reckoning is correct," he said. "We are on the southern edge of the Central Plain, but the valley of the River Test is still a day's march away. We have taken too long, and we should have gone south around the wood. Now we will not arrive at Bedwyn until well after the siege has begun. The city may even lay in ashes before we can get there and join our King."
Maxen gazed upon the wide plain that stretched away before them. The purpose set before him was so clear now. He would never again be a mere Captain of some small part of the High King's army. He had been chosen for something important….how proud his men would be, when afterwards they finally learned what they had done. He pressed at his wound again and drew a deep breath, savoring anew the fresh stab of pain. Fflud shifted uncomfortably in his saddle.
"Do we march, Captain?" Fflud asked.
"Oh, yes," Maxen said. "But not to Bedwyn. A different battle awaits us. We march east, to the Giants' Dance."
The man he had been would have noted Fflud's expression. The Maxen of before, the Maxen of two hands, would have seen how his second had paled and hesitated before nodding. The Maxen of before would have been swift to anger and would have called Fflud a coward for his hesitation.
But he was not the Maxen of before, and the Maxen of now -- Maxen the one-handed, Maxen the chosen -- took no notice at all of Fflud's reaction. The fears of little men were of no concern to him, and he gave them little thought as he led his army toward its own greatest battle.
A thousand people gathered in that place for Midsummer Night. Hugydd led the companions through the encampment, past refugees of other towns in Cwerith's path who had not been able to flee all the way to Bedwyn; past survivors of Caer Camyrdin who looked upon Sir Baigent and cheered; past the Druids who stood and bowed with reverence as the Welcomer came through their midst. Gwyn actually saw few of these people. Their faces blurred as she rode past. Her gaze was focused instead on the Giants' Dance itself, whose great stones loomed before her at last, after so much travel and hardship.
She had never imagined that the stones would be this big. Surely living in the rock-hewn halls of Tintagel -- always so near the vast, gray sea and the great cliffs which rose beside them -- would have prepared her for the sheer majesty of these stones, but not so. Their size was stupefying. They towered above her, above everyone, even from this distance. The boundary of the Dance was a ring of titanic standing stones that were crowned by equally huge stones lying prone, and Gwyn realized that the Giants' Dance not a mere collection of standing stones but a single thing, impossibly ancient, that had stood here across stretches of time as vast as that great gray sea. Here dwelt a power older than anything except the Goddess and her Dark Brother and the Wyrm of the World itself.
Ceremonial fires burned at equal points around the Dance, with the largest of the fires blazing at each of the four points of the compass; these fires, combined with the hundreds of smaller cookfires that burned throughout the wide encampment, cast a yellow glow into the twilight sky, and yet with all that firelight nothing at all could be seen of the inside of the Giants' Dance. It was as though a cloud had settled within, and no light could penetrate it. Gwyn's heart quickened, for it was into that very darkness that she would soon go.
They rode through the encampment, led by Hugydd...somewhere.
"Where are we going?" Matt asked.
"I'm sure the Druids have a Lord," Gareth replied. "We are no doubt going to see him."
"True enough," Hugydd said, having overheard them. "But we do not call him a Lord. He is our Chieftain."
Calloch was glancing around at the camp, and a strange look passed over him. "The refugees have tents, but the Druids do not. How do you survive the night?"
Hugydd smiled mysteriously. "We draw our warmth from the earth."
"I would prefer to draw warmth from a good fire," said Matt. Gwyn glanced at Brother Llyad, who shook his head.
"Hugydd is having a joke," he whispered. "The Druids use tents as does anyone else. But they only use them when the elements are harsh enough to warrant them. Otherwise, what he said is true." He looked around at the Druid camp, into which they now passed. If he was trying to suppress his joy, he was not entirely successful. This, for him, was as much a homecoming as had been his return to Tintagel. Perhaps more.
They finally arrived at a wide open area, as close to the Giants' Dance as they would come this night. The Dance was still a quarter of a mile away, Gwyn thought, but it felt close enough to touch. Something within it called to her; she felt something stirring within her soul, a deep and powerful yearning to break from the company and ride full-gallop to the Dance and over its threshold. She had to almost physically tear her attention away from the Dance to look upon the group of Druids that now approached them, led by the man who was undoubtedly the Chieftain, so unmistakable was his authority. Gwyn realized that this man looked familiar to her somehow, though she could not place him in her memory; beside her, Sir Baigent stiffened. Hugydd gestured for them to halt.
"Here we dismount," he declared. Gareth, Matt and Calloch all looked askance at this, and Hugydd smiled. "You cannot think to remain on horseback," he said. "The horses will never fit into your tents, to name the smallest concern. Fear not. Your beasts will be well cared-for."
One by one the companions dismounted, and young Druids -- their equivalent of pages -- came forth to see the horses away. Hugydd beckoned the companions to stand and bow before the Chieftain, which they did. Sir Baigent, Gwyn realized, was standing very rigidly; and to her right, Brother Llyad stood with a tear running down his cheek.
"Are these the Druids you knew from Mona?" she asked.
Brother Llyad nodded, once. "And I know this one very well," he said.
The Chieftain came forward and gazed into Gwyn's eyes with the deepest, wisest stare she had ever before seen. His hair and beard were all silver, and his eyes were lined with age. His face was a face of wisdom, and yet his hands -- which he held clasped in front of him -- were hands of toil, large and strong. This was a man who had worked the earth even as he worshipped the Goddess. He stared into Gwyn's eyes for a long moment, and then he finally spoke.
"The Welcomer," he said in a deep voice that reminded her of Father Damogan. "So many Druid Chieftains have labored, for so many centuries, to keep alive the lore of the Emrys. So many have both feared and awaited the day when you would come unto us here, in this place. That such a responsibility has come unto me is a burden I had thought myself equipped to carry -- until now. I see today that it was foolish of me, as it would be foolish of anyone, to wish for such times, but though I must count myself a fool at least in part, I still thank the Goddess for my part in what is to be done this night." He bowed before adding, "I would have your name, if it pleases you to offer it."
"Gwynwhyfar," she said, returning his bow.
"Gwynwhyfar," he repeated, as if the name were the answer to a riddle that had vexed him since childhood. "That name is not new to the tale of the Promised King. I wonder what role you will have to play in the days to come." He turned to face Sir Baigent. "This man I know," he said. "Our meeting this time is a happier one, Sir Baigent of Camyrdin, for we are met with a common purpose. It pleases me that you did not share the fate of your countrymen, because when we last met, in a wood far from here, even then I took you for a man of honor and valor."
"A price was exacted," Sir Baigent said. Gwyn realized now that this very Druid was the same one that Sir Baigent had met in the wood, when he had left one man dead and another sick and taken into the Druids' care. And she remembered, from the knight's tale, this Chieftain's name: Horius.
"We each paid a price, I recall," Horius replied. "Two died that night, victims of ignorance. But you were only required to pay the price once, because you showed wisdom. A more foolish man would have paid a price more dear."
"Perhaps," Sir Baigent said. Horius stepped back and looked at Brother Llyad, who was now weeping openly as he bowed before the Druid Chieftain.
"It honors me to be in your presence again, Llyad of Tintagel," Horius said.
"And I am doubly honored," Brother Llyad replied. His voice was near to cracking.
"You did what you said you would, when spring came," Horius said. "You said you would go to Tintagel and find the Welcomer. I prayed for calm seas for you, though I doubt you had them."
"We did not," Brother Llyad said.
"You did not make the trek alone, did you? Who went with you?"
Brother Llyad hung his head. "It was Llawann," he said.
"Llawann!" Horius exclaimed. His eyes went wide. "But I told him to remain on Mona. Why would he leave, against my wishes?" Horius's tone, Gwyn noticed, was no longer that of a Chieftain. It was more like the concern of a father for his son--
And Gwyn's heart suddenly lodged in her throat. Oh, Llawann…
"We waited for spring, which never came," Brother Llyad said. "We waited for the calmer seas, and yet each day they were as storm-tossed as the day before. We finally realized we had waited almost too long, and that we had to go. Llawann saw the peril, and he would allow the task to no other. Without his skill at sea, I would surely have been lost. And without him, the Welcomer and I would surely have been...." He trailed off, and he looked up at Horius. "He saved us."
Horius lowered his eyes. "He is gone," he said. It was not a question.
"His barrow is beside the lake where the Fair Folk came to Gwynwhyfar," Brother Llyad said. "He accepted the task willingly, with peace and love of the Goddess in his heart. He could not have done a more noble thing."
Horius lifted his head and gave a single nod. "Then in time pride will come to my heart with the sadness fades," he said with a sigh. Then he gestured to the other companions. "A Bard of Prydein, I presume?"
"We are part of the same tradition, the Druids and the Bards. I am glad to see our paths become one." Horius turned then to Gareth. "I do not know you," he said.
Gareth held his gaze. "Does the Druid lore speak of Seren Goleuad?" she asked.
"Ah," Horius said. "Finders. I have heard of your traditions. Many things are told of in our lore, but I fear nothing is said of the union of the Sun and Moon. Nevertheless, you are welcome here." He returned to his original position, in front of all the companions. There he spread his arms in a gesture of ceremonial welcome. "This is the Night of Midsummer, when the boundaries between the worlds are lowered and many things are allowed to pass between, some dark and some light -- and none so light as what we seek to bring back tonight. Here, in this place of power built by the Emrys himself, the Welcomer will step through those boundaries and bring Arthur Pendragon back from his long rest in Avalon. The Rites will begin at night's darkest hour, when light is most distant. Come, Welcomer. You must be prepared."
Gwyn swallowed. Her companions had achieved their mission, and their work was done; now she was in the care of the Druids. Two women stepped forward and took her gently by the arms. She glanced back at her companions -- at Estren, whose words had brought cheer on the journey; at Brother Llyad, whose act of rashness had started it all but who since then had been utterly unwavering in his devotion; at Gareth and her mysterious Finders, who had saved them purely by chance; and finally at--
"Where is he?" a voice suddenly shouted.
Gwyn whirled in the direction from which the shout had come. Someone was pushing their way through the crowd of Druids, but Gwyn could not see who it was. Not yet.
"Move aside, you fools! I will see him now!" the person shouted again. A low, sharp voice, but definitely feminine. Beside Gwyn, someone made a gasping sound. To her surprise, it was Sir Baigent.
"Blessed Goddess," he said, and then, turning to Hugydd, "Is it--"
Hugydd smiled broadly. "A surprise to bring warmth to your heart after so cold a journey," he said.
"Move, you damnable dogs!" the person shouted one last time as the crowd of Druids, most of them laughing, parted to allow her through. The woman was short -- fully a head shorter than Gwyn -- but her body was tough and wiry, her face hard, and her walk severe. Her white hair was tightly curled, her lips were set in a frown that looked unbreakable, and she wore simple clothes of leather and homespun. On her back she carried a bow and quiver.
"Murron!" Sir Baigent shouted as he jumped forward to embrace the Chief Archer of Caer Camyrdin. Murron of the Arrows returned his embrace, but followed it with an angry glare -- or at least a glare that appeared angry.
"They said it was you," she snapped. "I didn't believe them. 'Not possible,' said I. 'Inconceivable that my seneschal would involve himself in business like this, and even more inconceivable that he would be so late in arriving.' But it's him, they said. And he brought the Welcomer, they said. 'I'm sure he did,' I told them. 'And I'll wager he grew out his hair and took up archery too.'" She reached up and ran a hand through Sir Baigent's hair, which had grown a bit in the last week although it was still quite short. "I see I was right on one such score, at least."
"I haven't been gone long enough for my hair to have grown much," Sir Baigent said with a laugh. "As for archery, I'm afraid I've failed you again. Despite all your best efforts, the sword is still my weapon."
"Swords," Murron said, and she spat on the ground. "The weapon of brutes and louts. No elegance at all. No beauty, just two witless lugs pounding at each other with edged strips of metal. Pagh!"
Sir Baigent laughed. Clearly this was by no means a new topic of conversation.
"If that is your view of swords," the knight said, "then I shudder to think of what you would say of clubwielders, lancers and pikemen. But perhaps it would please you to know that the Welcomer is an archer herself."
Gwyn blushed as Murron turned to look at her. "So this is the one we've all been waiting for, eh?" She looked Gwyn over, studying her features and finally nodding. "I suppose I can see why. You have that 'fairy' look to you. Well, it stands to reason that you'd be an archer; the Goddess is wise, and archers are the wisest of warriors."
"Thank you," Gwyn said. "But I am hardly a warrior."
"Of course not," Murron said. "You are a pretty thing, but you have the look of a cleric, and thus I do not doubt that your archery consists largely of shooting at piles of hay, the sides of wooden buildings, and small animals to bring back to the pot. Well, do you have a name, girl? or should I call you, 'Mistress Archer'?"
Gwyn bowed lightly. "I am Gwynwhyfar of Tintagel, and before that, Lyonesse. It is an honor to meet you. Sir Baigent has spoken highly of you."
Murron scowled. "I can imagine what might pass for high praise coming from him," she said.
"I know what you mean," Gwyn said, casting a sidelong glance at Sir Baigent, who rolled his eyes. She felt an odd stirring inside her that she hadn't felt in a long time. It was the stirring of mischief. "But now," she said casually, "meeting you after meeting Lord Matholyn and journeying with Sir Baigent, I begin to see what marks the people of Caer Camyrdin."
Murron raised an eyebrow. "Oh?"
"Bluntness," Gwyn said.
Gareth was first to laugh, followed by Sir Baigent and everyone else. Murron did not laugh, but instead gave a satisfied smile that Gwyn suspected was as close to a laugh as she ever came.
"Mirth is ever welcome," Horius said as he stepped forward. "Even in these dark days. But now is the time to prepare for what is to come. The moment approaches."
The Druid attendants again stepped to Gwyn's side. "Come," one of them said.
Again Gwyn glanced at her companions, and then she turned and followed the Druid women to the tent where she would prepare for what she had come to do.
As Hugydd led the companions out of the Walsing Wood and onto the plain, Jonn led the Finders around the easternmost tip of the same forest and then to the northwest, where someplace before them stood the Giants' Dance. During a stop for water, Jonn studied the only map they had of this region. It was, of course, woefully inadequate. Only the wood was clearly marked, and the map gave little indication of the distances involved. He only knew the general direction in which they were to go, and he prayed that was enough.
"Come on!" he shouted. "I don't want to tarry here any longer than we need to fill our skins and water the horses."
"Pushing us hard enough, eh?" It was Gavidd, his oldest -- and gruffest -- friend, one of the oldest Finders.
"Not nearly," Jonn replied. "Midsummer Night is tonight, and we must be there to greet -- whoever it is who that girl brings back from wherever it is she's going."
Gavidd snorted. "Well, putting it like that, how could any of us possibly doubt the urgency of the matter?" He bent over to fill a waterskin. "You don't believe this business, do you?"
Jonn shrugged. "I follow Gareth, wherever she may decide to go. Such is my oath, and the way of the Finders."
"That's a fine statement of purpose," Gavidd said. "But it doesn't answer the question asked."
"And as a Finder, you should be accustomed to having questions going unanswered." He said it perhaps a bit more harshly than he intended, but Gavidd only frowned. Far harsher words had been exchanged between the two of them over the years, and still they were friends. Jonn stepped back from the stream and looked over the Finders, the entire ragtag band of them. Here they were, going into what would be the greatest war in Prydein's history, when just days before they had been content to live in their camp, safe and unconcerned with such matters. But then, how safe had they really been? How safe had they ever been? There was no doubting and no denying it: they had chosen a side in this war. Their die had been thrown and now they had to play the number rolled. "Gaspar hasn't returned yet," Jonn said.
"He will," Gavidd replied. Gaspar was Gavidd's son, and he was their fastest and most skilled rider. Jonn had sent him alone to see if there were any signs of Maxen's approaching army, which would certainly be coming this way as they circled the wood on their route to rejoin King Cwerith. The worst possible thing that could happen, in Jonn's view, would be for the Finders to be forced into open battle with Maxen and his men. There was a reason they had struck quickly and at night. Fighting in the open would not at all be like a handful of masked riders lobbing fireglobes in the midst of darkness.
Finally they had rested long enough, or as long as Jonn dared allow them to rest. "Come!" he called. "Time to ride!"
His command was met with groans and protests, but the entire company was ready to ride in minutes, a display of efficiency that would have deeply impressed any commander in any army. Barely a quarter of an hour passed between the time Jonn gave his command and the time when the last of the Finders left the stream.
"How much farther, do you think?" Gavidd asked.
"Half a day," Jonn replied. "Perhaps more, perhaps less. If we--"
"A rider!" someone called out. Jonn glanced sharply to the west, where indeed a single rider could be seen approaching at great speed. Behind that rider was the dark line of the distant wood. Gavidd laughed.
"Here's my son!" he said. "I told you he would return."
"I never doubted that," Jonn said, though in truth he had begun to do just that.
"Greetings," Gaspar said when he arrived. He and his horse were both winded. "Forgive my tardiness. I rode a farther distance than I had planned."
"Why so far?" Jonn asked. "You were not to get so close to them that they would see you."
"And I did not," Gaspar replied. "That was what took me so long -- I had to find them first. It turned out that Maxen's company does not cleave to the edge of Walding Wood, as we expected. They are in the open, marching across the plain."
"What?" Gavidd said. "Are their brains addled? They are late to the war, and they have time to recover if they wish to fight alongside their brothers at Bedwyn -- time they won't make up if they venture too far north."
Gaspar shook his head. "That is what I saw," he said. "I had to ride twice the distance I planned, just to catch a glimpse of them. Nearly killed my poor beast here, getting back in time to tell you." He patted his horse's neck.
Gavidd shook his head in disbelief. "Then those men are truly led by a fool," he said. "Perhaps that Knight did manage to kill Maxen, and that lout Fflud's sense of reckoning is poorer than we thought."
Jonn nodded slowly. He was inclined to agree. There was no reason to leave the wood behind, if they were trying to circle it before turning south. No reason at all. Except--
And Jonn's blood went to ice.
"He is not marching to Bedwyn at all," Jonn said. He glanced up at the darkening sky. Soon they would have to stop for the night. He couldn't march his people in darkness -- but Maxen could, and he would. There was no doubting it.
Gavidd was still confused. "But if he's not going to Bedwyn, then where can he be going?"
He saw the look on Jonn's face before he even finished asking the question, and so he had his answer.
The Druid priestesses helped Gwyn to prepare for this last part of her journey by sitting with her in the calm of the tent, giving her cups of strangely fragrant herbal tea, and providing her with a set of Druid robes which felt terribly strange after long days of dirty riding clothes. They also sang Druidic chants and hymns to which Gwyn knew neither the words nor the melodies. Finally they simply left her alone. Even though the tent's walls were thin, fashioned of some kind of animal skin, the din of outside was completely shut out. The silence was no doubt meant to be soothing, and Gwyn knew that she was supposed to find solace and succor in it, but in truth she found neither. She found her heart racing ever faster, her flesh cold, and her muscles trembling. For how could a task such as this be entrusted to one such as her?
Absurd! she thought. Completely absurd! Such a task should fall to someone with the wisdom and power of a Lord Priest, or perhaps a great Lord of some fine realm should be here. It should be Father Damogan here, or maybe Lord Matholyn -- certainly not an Adept who should have been at home, studying for her Trials. A farmgirl from Lyonesse, remade as the Welcomer? Absurd!
And yet, it had to be so, did it not? How could she say otherwise? Who was she to deny the Goddess herself, and say that it had all been for naught -- the hardships endured, the enmities made, the wounds suffered and the sacrifices made? How could she ever face Sir Baigent or Brother Llyad -- or anyone -- if she came back from the Giants' Dance with no one beside her, or worse, never went in at all?
"Malcolm, I wish you were here!" Gwyn said aloud.
But even as she said it she knew that had he actually been here, Malcolm probably would have been little real help. More likely he would offer one of his less-than-clear remarks that were nonetheless oddly satisfying when he uttered them. She even knew what he might say: "It does little good to pine for the road that you wish to travel, for in the end you must still walk the road that you are on." That was her answer, the only one possible, and it calmed her as it had so many times in the past. With those words in her heart she knelt upon the floor of the tent and began to recite the Five Holy Paths as written by Lennynder of Old. She had reached the Third Path when the tent flap swung open, and Horius entered.
"Come, Welcomer," he said. "We begin."
Gwyn rose to her feet, straightened her robes, swallowed several times, and followed Horius outside.
A straight path led from the tent's entry to the edge of the Giants' Dance, and the way was lined on each side by Druids holding candles of yellow beeswax. Behind the lines of Druids were the hundreds of others who had gathered here, some seeking the Welcomer and some seeking refuge from war. At the opposite end of the path, just before the Dance itself, blazed the East bonfire. She would therefore enter the Dance from the East, so that when she returned -- with King Arthur -- he would be coming out of the West, as he had in the time before. Behind it all, the stones of the Dance loomed even larger than they had before.
"This place has been shunned by all who live in Prydein, through all the centuries since the Cataclysm," Horius said, his voice sounding small and distant. The power of the Giants' Dance has forever been reserved for the oldest of Dona's servants, the Druids -- but even we have never dared to venture within the boundary marked by the stones that were set standing here by Merlyn Emrys, so long ago."
"What lies inside?" Gwyn asked.
"The Dance lay dormant through the days of the Ancients, and its purpose was lost to them," Horius replied. "They followed other powers, and the old ways faded into memory. The Dance fell into disrepair and was ignored. Some of its stones toppled, and the Ancients would even chip away pieces of the stones themselves as keepsakes.
"But after the Cataclysm, when the Wyrm of the World rose from his slumber and plunged the world back into fire, the Dance was restored. Its stones were lifted again and returned to their places, and a new power was known here, one that would never falter as it had before. Since then, none have dared venture within the boundary of the Giants' Dance, for fear and respect of what once had been and was now again."
"And now I must enter," Gwyn said.
"You must enter," Horius agreed. "In and through, to whatever awaits inside."
He walked with Gwyn toward the last gathering place. When they reached the point halfway from the tent to the East Bonfire, the line of Druids to Gwyn's left parted, allowing her companions to step through. One by one they came forward to kneel before her. Gwyn was taken aback by such a tribute, and as Gareth fell to one knee before her she shook her head.
"No," she said. "Not this. I am not worthy of such--"
"It is as much for the Goddess as it is for you," Horius said. "Perhaps more. Allow it."
Gwyn still felt that this was too much. Nevertheless, she nodded.
"I never dreamed something like this was possible," Gareth said. "It has been my greatest honor to be even the smallest part of this. Perhaps it will serve as my atonement for…for losing the Finders' Way, seeking revenge instead of seeking the Son."
Gwyn blinked. Clearly she was supposed to say something now, something wise. All she could manage was, "Thank you for saving us." Nevertheless, Gareth smiled as if it had been enough. As she turned away, Horius whispered into Gwyn's ear.
"Part of this night's meaning is atonement -- that of the land for its Goddess. That is why the people who brought you here are voicing their own wishes for atonement before you enter the Dance, because you are Dona's surrogate."
Dona's surrogate. Gwyn nearly laughed at the words.
Next came Estren. Kneeling, he said: "Of all the Bards, to witness this night has fallen to me. I will sing of it as best I can, though my words are hardly the equal of the great masters who have gone before me."
Gwyn laid a hand on his shoulder. "Your words brought light on dark nights -- once in fact as well as in spirit. For that I thank you." The words came easier now.
Then it was Brother Llyad's turn. It did not surprise Gwyn that he was weeping. "My Lady," he began, "I wish I had not handled myself so poorly on Tintagel. I should have trusted your wisdom, that you would see what had to be done. I shall live with that regret the rest of my days."
"Oh, Llyad," Gwyn said. "You did what had to be done, though you are correct in that it could have been done another way. The Goddess is forgiving of poor actions, if they are done by a good heart and they do not come to ill." That last was a quote from some book in the Tintagel library, but as Brother Malcolm had so often told her: "The wisdom contained in those pages was not meant to be contained in the pages of some book to remain on a shelf, unopened, through decades of disuse, but to be lived and used as any such wisdom."
Brother Llyad stepped away, the tears still streaming down his cheeks such that Gwyn feared they would never stop. And then Sir Baigent stepped forward, although he did not kneel. Instead he looked around at the scene: the candle flames, the light of the bonfire, the gathering of the Druids and the displaced, and looming above it all the ancient sightless stones of the Giants' Dance.
"So this is why we did it all," he said.
A smile tugged at the corners of Gwyn's lips. "Is it what you expected?" she asked.
He looked around. "I suppose it is," he said. "And I suppose it's not. I'm just a man of arms, My Lady. I don't know about such things."
Gwyn shook her head. "Once again, you mark yourself less than what you are. Wisdom is not the sole property of clerics and Bards."
"Would you have admitted that several days ago?" he asked.
"Would you have claimed wisdom for your own?" she returned.
"Then you have changed something in the soul of a 'sword-carrying brute' after all," he said with a joking smile.
"And you have helped this 'sheltered, cloistered cleric' to see wisdom on the edge of a blade."
"Well," Sir Baigent said with an extravagant wave of his hand, "in what other way could I possibly have been of service to My Lady?"
Gwyn laughed, he smiled, and then he drew his sword and planted the tip in the ground. Gripping the cross of the hilt, he knelt before her. "My Lady, I regret that you must do this thing alone. That I am your Champion no longer."
Now Gwyn's eyes filled with tears. "Oh, Knight of Camyrdin," she said, "it is I who regret that on this last road I shall not walk with your strength beside me." The words came from some part of her heart and her soul to which she rarely gave voice. "But if I cannot have your strength beside me, I will at least carry it inside me. I could not have asked the Goddess for a finer Champion, nor could she have granted me one." She leaned forward, toward Sir Baigent's upturned face, and kissed him upon the cheek. Then, still close, she whispered such that only he could hear: "I owe you everything."
Gwyn straightened, and Sir Baigent rose and returned his blade to its scabbard. "Walk with the light of Dona," he said. And then Horius was back at her side, and Sir Baigent of Camyrdin, the Welcomer's Champion, joined the other companions beyond the line of Druids.
Gwyn took Horius's arm again, and they walked the rest of the way to the East Bonfire. When they reached it, the Druids behind them shifted to form a half-circle around the blazing fire. Horius reached out to one of the Druids, who handed him a black wooden staff. Holding this staff aloft, he began to chant in the ancient tongue of the Oak Brothers -- softly at first, then louder and louder. Unsure of what, if anything, to do, Gwyn stood silently beside him. Behind her, the other Druids began to hum a wordless melody that soon filled the night with Horius's voice rising above them all.
Gwyn had never heard voices like this, not in all her days. The singing of hymns in the Sanctuary at Tintagel had been one of her favorite things about living in that place; the way their fifty or so voices raised in song had filled that simple stone structure had always given her solace and made her feel keenly the presence of the Goddess. She had also heard and loved the songs and dances and ballads performed by the wandering troupes which had occasionally come through Lyonesse. This music of the Druids, though, was completely unlike anything she had ever heard before. A single voice was born out of the multitude of Druids who sang, a single voice in which could be heard the call of the sparrow and the roar of the wild boar and the whales beneath the waves, the wind across the plain and over the sea and through the wood, the rains of spring and the snows of winter. The voice was singing the very song of the earth -- not in its words, but in the music itself and the way the voices blended and in the way Horius's single voice both rose above the chorus and sank beneath it.
And through all that music, Gwyn stood waiting silently. At first she was keenly aware of all the eyes turned upon her, but gradually she became less aware of them and more aware of the clouds that gathered above them, obscuring the full moon and darkening a night that was already near black, and of the power stirring within the boundary described by the towering blocks of granite. She imagined that she heard -- no, she knew that she heard a new set of voices, lifted in a song of their own, unrelated to that of the Druids and yet somehow a part of it. They were the voices of the things in the Earth and above it and below it, the voices of the plain and the sky and the Giants' Dance itself. The stones whispered to one another, and she heard their words though she knew not what they said nor what tales they spoke. The words themselves were long, taking years to speak, and a single one of those words told more than all the words in all the tongues of men.
Lightning flashed in the sky above the Dance, and thunder rolled across the plain. A cold breeze stirred, and it blew with a steady force. Now Horius stopped singing, and he moved again to Gwyn's side and took her arm.
"Take now the first steps!" he cried.
Gwyn allowed him to lead her forward and then back, forward and then back, forward and back again. They walked forward until they were almost close enough to touch the stones of the Dance, but then they turned and followed the Dance's path almost all the way to the Southern Bonfire. Here they swung about and partly retraced their steps to where they had started, and then they went back again. They were tracing a Druidic spiral path on the ground, identical to the spirals Gwyn had seen on the faces of the standing stones they had passed on their journey. They were pacing out that mystic spiral, writ large on the central plain of Prydein, with the Giants' Dance at the center.
When they reached the Western Bonfire -- halfway through the spiral -- a blast of lightning ripped from the sky, touching down in the exact center of the Dance. The light was blinding, and the thunder that crashed over the plain was the most deafening sound Gwyn had ever heard. Beside her Horius flinched, but somehow Gwyn did not; instead, the power of the lightning and the thunder washed over her and soaked into her and became part of her. In the searing flash of lightning Gwyn was able to glimpse something of what waited for her within the Dance: a smaller set of standing stones, and at the center of that, a single, altar-like stone…with something embedded within…
It is time, Gwynwhyfar.
It is I, child. The way is almost complete.
I want to come inside.
You must complete the Path.
Is this what I have come here to do? to walk this Path?
This, and so much more.
Gwyn closed her eyes and, holding them closed, allowed Horius to lead her on the spiraling path as she came to the North Bonfire. The wind blew fiercer, harsher, and yet she barely felt it. The path was all that mattered. Nothing else was important, nothing else even existed -- not the wind, nor the cold, nor the heat of the fires, nor the light of the candles, nor even the passage of time. More lightning came, and more thunder, and Gwyn felt none of it. There was only herself and the Path. Gradually Horius's grasp on her arm slackened and then fell away entirely; she was walking the Path alone now, alone and unguided for she knew the way in the deepest part of her soul. More lightning blasted into the Dance, more thunder smashed the air like the hammer of a giant, more wind whipped across the plain, and still Gwyn walked. She came to the East Bonfire at last, and here she turned and walked straight toward the Dance as Nimue's voice called out to her again.
Come, child! Oh, come!
And then she passed beneath the ancient portal erected by Merlyn Emrys, and she knew calm -- utter calm. This was her place. She opened her eyes and glanced outward, out of the Dance, at the storm that whirled out there but could not be felt in here. She looked down at herself and saw that the plain Druid robes had vanished, and in their place was a gown of shimmering samite that glowed in the candle and firelight, a gown she had seen herself wearing before, but only in her dreams. She walked forward again, and entered the inner circle. A new voice spoke to her then, old and masculine.
Who comes here?
"Gwynwhyfar," she said. "The Welcomer."
At last! My work is complete, and now at last I may rest, for my part in the tale is finally done. My crystal prison now becomes my tomb, as I forever knew it would. Go with strength, Gwynwhyfar!
Gwyn opened her eyes as the voice of the Emrys faded away into the night, never to be heard again. Before her stood an altar of granite, and atop the altar lay a sword and scabbard. She picked up the weapon, and in that moment the great stones around her, and the very plain itself, vanished. Or, perhaps, they remained where they had always been, and it was she who vanished.
In that moment, Gwynwhyfar of Tintagel, the Welcomer, was taken -- someplace else.
::..permanent link to this chapter..::