:: Sunday, October 16, 2005 ::
The sun had only been rising in the place she had left, but here in the place she now entered it was setting. The air was warm, but with the definite crisp of autumn. The tree the crowned the hill before her was in full leaf, but its leaves were red and gold, and they shone in the long light of the closing day such that the tree looked as though it were ablaze against the blue sky. She walked up the rise until she stood directly under its boughs, looking down the other side of the shallow hill on a wide field that ended about six miles distant in a line of wood beyond which stretched the sea. And out there, on the very horizon, she could just make out an island -- enough to see that it was there, but she could discern none of its features. She knelt in the grass beneath the tree as several of the tree's leaves broke free from their branches and fluttered down about her to the ground. Thus did Gwynwhyfar pass from the central plain of Prydein to -- wherever this was.
She looked down at the sword in her hands. She knew nothing about swords, in a practical sense, having only held one a handful of times in her life; but even so, she could tell that there was something very special about this particular blade. First, there was the way it perfectly balanced in her hand, despite its considerable heft and the fact that her hand was unaccustomed to the holding of blades in the first place. And when she removed it from its scabbard, the blade reflected the sunlight no matter which way she moved it, so brilliantly that it was as if she held a shaft of the sun itself in her hand. More even than that, though, was the way the weapon felt...alive in her hand. There was power in this weapon, ancient and elemental power, power akin to that which flowed through the Giants' Dance and which she had felt when she had entered the grove of the Fair Folk with Nimue at her side. For some time she gazed at the fine etchings of tracery along the blade, and she even tested the edge on her finger. The cut it made was so fine that she barely felt it, and the droplet of blood it left on the sword rolled off again, dripping away without leaving any trace at all.
"Who is it?"
Gwyn spun, startled by the voice even though it sounded like a little girl's voice, because there had been no one there before. But a little girl's voice it was. Probably eight years old, she stood before Gwyn with her twin brother -- such he could only be -- at her side. Both wore robes of red, and both had long hair that was strangely white. Gwyn had never seen white hair on a child before, nor had she ever seen eyes that stunningly black. These were the strangest children Gwyn had ever seen.
"It is a woman," the boy said, in a voice that was indistinguishable from the girl's. "And she comes wielding a sword."
"How strange," said the girl. "First that she is here at all, so far from home and walking a path so long untrodden by anyone from the mortal world, and second, that she comes with a sword when it is clear that her skill is with a bow."
"Indeed," said the boy. "It is ever thus with mortals: what they do is rarely equal to what they are able."
Gwyn's furrowed her brow. She had heard those words before, and might have even been able to place them in the Oracles, had she been anywhere but this strange place, talking to these strange children.
"To see a sword again is very welcome," the boy went on. "It has been a long time since war came here. In fact, when last these fields were bloodied by fallen warriors, it was that sword that did much of the watering."
"Yes," the girl replied. "The blood ran deep that day, and never more than when that very blade, wielded by the father, cut down the son even as the son's blade found its own mark."
"Such horrible fate," the boy said. "A dolorous day, indeed. But then, all days of battle are dolorous, are they not?"
"Surely not," the girl said. "Men make war too easily, 'tis true, but there are times when war is just and when the land can only live again through the bloody death of its sons."
The white-haired boy and girl went on like this for a while, talking back and forth to one another even as they gazed, unmoving and unwavering, upon Gwyn. They did not even seem to be conversing so much as reciting proscribed lines, as in Becham's Dialogues. Gwyn looked up at the sky, to mark the progress of the sun, and she was surprised to see that it had not even moved despite the fact that she had been standing here listening to the two children for a long enough time that it should have shifted even a small, but noticeable, amount. Did time not exist here? or only beneath this tree?
"I'm sorry," Gwyn finally said, interrupting the two children who were not children. "I have lost my way."
"She has lost her way," the boy said.
"Impossible," the girl replied. "One cannot lose what one has never had. Her way is not known to her, so how can she have lost it?"
"That is true," the boy said. "Although we should perhaps try to help her still, since finding one's way is of the highest importance, whether one has had it before and lost it or if one has never had it."
Gwyn blinked. Not even Father Damogan at his most cryptic spoke like this. "I have come for the Promised King," she offered.
The two children turned and looked at one another, as if in some form of communion; then they looked back at Gwyn.
"A King is a strange thing to promise," said the girl. "One's heart, or one's fortune, perhaps; but to promise a King is something odd."
"Do you know where I can find him?" Gwyn asked.
"We know where many things are," said the boy. "The graves of Kings who died young and those who were of great age at their passing. The barrows of where the Thirteen Treasures forever reside are known to us, as is the cavern of crystal wherein Merlyn forever sleeps. Why would you ask for this King, of all the Kings who sup in Arawn's meadhall?"
Gwyn thought for a moment. There were so many reasons that she could have given, but what she said was, "Because I have his sword." She held up the weapon again for them to see. "It is time for him to wield it again."
The children bowed their heads. "Then the sadness begins again," the girl said. "His duty is never complete, never done; his pain, never over."
"But perhaps the cycle ends with this one's coming," said the boy. "That is the place you seek."
The children lifted their arms and pointed to the sea and the misty isle on the horizon. Gwyn stepped forward, away from the children, to get a better look at the isle.
"Go there," said the girl behind her. "That is where the King sleeps."
"It is a long way to travel," Gwyn said. "How shall I get there, and how shall I cross the sea?"
But there was no reply from the children, and when she turned round again, the children were no longer there. In their place stood a tall, white horse that bowed its head as soon as Gwyn met its eye. The animal bent its knee, allowing her to mount. It wore no saddle, but with its first step Gwyn could tell that its footing was solid and true, and she knew that come what may she would not be thrown by this horse. It bore her down the hill, leaving the tree of autumn behind and past two white-stoned cairns that looked only large enough to contain…a child. Gwyn shivered, and not from the breeze.
The horse trotted down from the hill and out onto the field, heading for the distant wood and the sea beyond. The field was a lovely one, its grasses waving in the gentle breeze and the last wildflowers of autumn dotting the verdant landscape with points of white. Several times Gwyn closed her eyes to savor the warmth -- even the crispness of autumn felt warm to her after so much unending winter -- and the scent of those flowers in the air. She realized suddenly how accustomed she had become to cold and ice, to the scents of earth and dampness. The pent-up spirit within her welled up and burst forth, and she suddenly laughed aloud as the horse trotted across the field.
She opened her mouth to sing, but before she could utter a word the horse suddenly slowed to a walk as if its footing had become uncertain. Gwyn looked down at the ground to see what was the matter, but to her eyes it seemed no less smooth and passable than before. She could see no reason why the horse would now be favoring its steps. A shadow fell over her, and she looked up to see that a bank of clouds had moved over the sun; a cold breeze stirred then, a breeze that smelled strongly of the sea. More clouds came, clouds had not been in the sky before. And there were sounds, too, as faint as the waves of the nearby sea had sounded when Gwyn had slept in her home as a girl. They were the sounds of battle: the shout of a warrior on the attack; the clash of swords upon swords; the scream of a soldier being run through. The sounds were intermittent, scattered all around her -- some from far to her left, some from the right, some from behind her. Her head snapped in each direction as she heard each new sound, but she never saw anything other than waving grasses, wildflowers, and the occasional rock. Then there came a new sound, much louder, and directly in front of her: the piercing shriek of a man dying and dying horribly. Gwyn gasped and nearly dropped the sword, but the horse merely sidestepped the dying man who wasn't there.
Now Gwyn saw in the grass the gleam of metal, tarnished but still a bit shiny. There was another, a few paces away; and another, and another. They were shards of armor, pieces of broken blade, shattered helms littering the place once sullied by battle. The bits of metal became more numerous as the horse moved along, and then there were other things in the grass, smooth and white: bleached bones, the bones of the warriors fallen here. The bones were here and there, much as the pieces of metal had been, in pieces themselves, and now Gwyn could see that the horse was carefully choosing its path so as to not step on them. Just as there had been more of the metal fragments, there were more bones, and they were more often together and sometimes still joined together. Gwyn swallowed when she saw her first complete skeleton, still wearing the rusted and rotting armor that in the end had failed to protect its wearer from whatever had struck him down. No longer was Gwyn riding across an ancient battlefield. It was a recent battlefield, and with each step it was becoming more recent: she was riding through the very memories of this place, and the death that had been doled out in such horrible quantity here was now hers and hers alone to behold. She held her head high, always facing forward, trying not to turn her gaze on the remains that littered the ground about her, but it was so difficult -- especially as she realized that the wood was still at least half a mile distant.
The sounds of battle and dying men around her horse were constant now, never fading, but somehow never becoming quite real even as the bleached skeletons became less bleached, and the bones began to bear flesh once again, and the rusting armor rusted less and bore the markings of heraldic devices once again. On she rode, as the battlefield took shape as it had been on the day when the King had passed from the world of men into the world of Promise. When at last the trees drew near and their eaves reached out to welcome her, Gwyn rode across a field covered with fallen men who were either waiting to die or dead already.
There was no path, but the horse did not hesitate at all. Into the wood it walked. Gwyn had not traveled through many woods, but this one was still very different from any she had seen before. The trees were perfectly spaced at even distances apart, with almost no underbrush to speak of, so much so that Gwyn decided that this wood had been deliberately planted this way. Even odder was the fact that the trees before her were in full, verdant leaf, but as she approached them their colors shifted to the reds and golds of autumn, and when she looked back she saw the leafless trees of winter with their leaves now blanketing the ground. The wood passed in time as she rode through it, as the battlefield had reversed.
The ground rose sharply then, which was strange in itself because Gwyn had seen no sign of a hill at all -- in fact, when before she had first surveyed the land from beneath the autumn tree, it had seemed that the ground dipped slowly and steadily toward the sea. She remembered nothing in the lay of the land suggesting a sharp rise in the midst of this strange wood. Nevertheless, a rise there was, and the horse carried Gwyn straight up its side, and as she rode on Gwyn now heard the sound of metal on metal. The sound of combat.
The horse brought Gwyn onto the hilltop. Here they stopped beside a pavilion of red cloth and another horse of gray that lazily munched at a pile of hay that was not there, even though the horse's mouth made the crunching sounds as though it was. That would have been strange enough, if not for the duel taking place in the field on the hilltop, which was without any doubt the strangest thing Gwyn had ever seen.
There was only one combatant, a towering knight in armor painted green, and he was dueling no one. His opponent was the empty air -- and yet his lunging attacks were parried by something. The knight's sword rang against another sword, but there was no other sword, and the knight dodged attacks from -- the air? Gwyn nearly laughed at the sight, but the green knight was putting every bit of his strength into this weird battle. He launched another attack of almost savage brutality, which missed terribly. The knight in green was not just dueling nothing; he was being pushed back by nothing, and for a moment it seemed as though he might be defeated by...nothing. But then he parried a low attack and returned with a devastating slash of his own. There was a sickening crunch as the knight in green's sword made contact with...nothing, which was followed by a thud as the knight's invisible opponent fell to the ground. Then there was another thud as something landed on the ground very close to where Gwyn stood and rolled to a stop. Gwyn felt her flesh go cold as she realized what the unseeable object had to be. The knight in green turned and approached Gwyn and her horse, stopping several paces away. There he planted the tip of his sword in the ground and stood, silent, waiting.
Gwyn had no idea what to do. The knight in green made a gesture that seemed both to beckon her forward and warn her away, and she shook her head. The knight repeated the gesture, and again Gwyn shook her head. The horse snorted.
"He demands a question," someone said nearby. Gwyn glanced down at the source of the words, which was a treestump -- or rather, the head that sat on the treestump. She gasped.
"A question?" Gwyn asked.
"A question which he cannot answer," the head replied. Its voice was awkward, high-pitched, and raspy.
Gwyn glanced at the knight in green, who nodded.
"He wants me to ask a question?" she said.
"Indeed," said the head on the stump. "The knight in green is tortured by his inability to speak. His soul can be at peace only by being asked a question which would not vex the tongue he does not have by his inability to speak its answer."
A riddle, Gwyn realized. Her heart quickened, and not for the first time she wished she had never accepted the mantle of Welcomer -- except that it had not been a thing either for her acceptance or denial.
"Three chances shall be yours," said the head on the stump. "You may ask three times. Choose wisely."
"What if he can answer them all?" she asked, and then she bit her tongue, suddenly praying that this had not been one of her three questions.
"Then your head shall join mine on this stump," the head said cheerfully. "That prospect does appeal to me, My Lady. I would like to have a lovely thing to gaze upon for all my days."
For a brief second Gwyn considered turning the horse around and galloping away -- surely this knight in green could not outpace a running horse -- but she had little doubt it would be futile, if it were even possible. She forced herself to think back to her days at Tintagel. She had encountered riddles before, in come of the ancient tales, but she had always found them to be irritating, wordy poems that turned on verbal trickery, an opinion which had annoyed Brother Malcolm, who loved them. She tried to recall one of those riddles now, any of them.
"He awaits," said the head.
Gwyn thought again, searching her memory, and then she had a riddle, or part of one. She hoped it would be enough.
"What is it," she asked, "that shines with light not its own?"
The knight in green stood still for a moment that, to Gwyn, was horribly long. She waited for the knight's answer, and she was about to sigh in relief that he did not know it...when he lifted his gauntleted right hand and pointed to the sky.
"He says, the moon," said the head on the stump. "Another, please."
The answer was correct. Fool! Gwyn cursed herself. You got that one right yourself, the first time you heard it! Of course the knight would get it as well!
Again she thought back to the places she had read riddles in the books and the Oracles in the Tintagel library. She could almost recall a few of them -- a line here, a phrase there. Almost....
"I am the river that never floods,
I am the road that never turns,
I am the King whose edict is always final,
Against me no man can rebel,
Nor can he refuse to march by my side."
The knight in green made no motion at all, for a longer period than after the first riddle. He only stood there, unmoving, and again Gwyn thought that perhaps she had met the challenge; but then the knight made some gesture Gwyn could not possibly understand but which the head on the stump interpreted: "Time."
Gwyn's heart sank.
"Ask your final riddle, Lady." The head on the stump sounded cheerful, as though this were the most normal thing in all the world.
The knight in green stood, waiting. Every riddle she could remember, few as they were and then only in part, had easy answers that would little trouble her voiceless opponent.
"Ask, Lady," again said the head. "Ask a question which cannot be answered, and go forth from this place."
A question which could not be answered. Gwyn struggled to think of just such a question. Did the head mean a question that could not be answered because no one could have the knowledge to answer it, or did the head mean a question that had no answer? Either way, Gwyn could not think of one.
She could hear the exasperated voice of Brother Malcolm, as she so often did -- both in reality and in her dreams -- when she could not summon the knowledge that should have easily come. Did this mean that she should be equal to this task?
You are the Welcomer! You must be equal to this, because it is part of who you are! You KNOW what to ask!
The voice was both Brother Malcolm's and her own. There was something she was supposed to know, something she had been given to remember, for this moment alone. Something in her deepest memory, something she could almost recall….
"Ask, Lady," said the head. "Ask now, or go to dwell forever in Annwn, Land of the Dead."
Gwyn remembered a dream then, in which a burial mound had opened and the dead had come forth -- and the Lord of the Dead himself had spoken to her. She tried to recall the things he had said...and then, at last, she had it. She lifted her head and, in a clear and even voice, asked her question.
"Knight in green, what will be the last word in the Song of the Dead?"
The knight in green did not hesitate, not even to consider the question. Instead, he dropped to one knee and bowed his head in reverence.
"Go in peace, Welcomer," said the head on the stump.
The horse began to walk, and Gwyn rode past the knight in green, across the combat field, and into the wood on the other side. This part of the wood was not laid out in as regular a fashion as the first, but now there was a path that led straight through, finally to the side of the sea.
The water sparkled in the sunlight of late afternoon, and the air was clear and cool. Nevertheless, the distant isle was still shrouded, and only the top of whatever lay there -- Gwyn could not tell if it was a sharp outcropping of rock atop a mountain or a spire atop a fortress of some kind -- was visible above the shifting mists. The horse rode down to the side of the water where it kneeled, allowing Gwyn to dismount, the sword still in her hands. She glanced at the horse, which bowed its head to she who had ridden it; and then she turned to face the water where even now a boat was emerging from the mists enshrouding the isle. The boat was white, its prow worked in the shape of a swan and its sails made of shimmering samite, the same as Gwyn's gown. She glanced back and was not surprised to see that the horse was gone. Thus she waited alone for the boat to come to her.
When it neared the shore, it turned and slid up to the bank on which Gwyn stood. She stepped into the boat and stood in its flat bottom for there were no seats. Then the breeze freshened, filling the sail and pushing the craft out to sea. Somehow the tiller moved even though there was no hand guiding it, and the boat swung about and moved across the calm, golden sea toward the misty isle.
As the boat drew nearer the isle, Gwyn became aware of voices raised in song -- three voices, those of women. She tried to attend to the words they were singing, but she could not tell what they were or even if they were words at all. There was happiness in that song, though; happiness and gratitude.
As the boat came to the first tendrils of mist, the cloud suddenly began to recede as if recoiling from the boat's very touch. Quickly, then, all of the mist enshrouding the isle vanished completely, revealing its features for the first time.
The boat was approaching a pier of stone, which was marked by a statue of alabaster in the shape of a woman in a long gown, one hand lifted in a gesture of welcome and the other in a gesture of warning. A path lined with blue flagstones led away from the pier and then followed a spiraling path, all the way around the isle, up to a squat stone building at the isle's highest point. The building's roof was raised toward a great spire, also of alabaster, that gleamed orange in the falling sunlight. The building was circular, and though Gwyn had never seen a building like this before she intuitively knew that it was a sanctuary or temple of some kind. The boat slowed and came to a stop alongside the pier, and Gwyn stepped out. Still holding the sword, she walked up the pier onto the flagstone path.
The stones were cool under her feet, and as she walked across them she realized that they did not feel like stones at all -- more like glass, perhaps, or something similarly smooth. The path's spiraling track took her all around the isle, and yet when she reached a height where she could look back to sea, she could no longer see the mainland from which she had come. As far as she could tell, the isle now rose above a totally empty and featureless sea. She followed the smooth path, up to the sanctuary gate, and despite the fact that it was utterly black inside, she entered without hesitation. And when she passed beneath the gate, the world seemed to shift again as it had when she had entered the Giants' Dance, and her next footfall came down not on stone but on grass.
She was on a wide, clear path that wound through a lush, green wood where the trees were in full, verdant leaf and air was warm and smelled of wildflowers. A pair of butterflies, one black and one white, fluttered past her ear and down the path in front of her. This wood was larger, by far, than the building she had thought herself to be entering, and there was no sign at all of the endless sea.
She followed the path as it looped into the center of the wood where at last she emerged into a grassy grove where a pool fed a babbling stream. Beside the pool, three women in gowns of white samite identical to Gwyn's knelt in the grass beside a blanket on which lay a man garbed in chain armor. It was these women who were singing, but they fell silent as Gwyn entered the grove, and one by one they stood, cast back their veils and faced the Welcomer. They shared the same face but at different ages: the woman on the left was young, a girl barely on the cusp of womanhood; the woman on the right was old, wrinkled and near the end of her days; and the woman in the center was in the fullest flower of her years. They stepped forward, and the woman in the center spoke first.
"Come in peace, Welcomer," she said. Her voice, though she spoke alone, was the voice of all three. "We are the Queens of Avalon."
"Some have named us Faith, Hope and Charity," said the young one, the one on the left, also with the voices of her sisters added to her own. "Other names we have had, so many that even we have forgotten our true names."
"There are those," the crone said, "who would consider it a sadness that our names are lost to us. But it is the strange belief of men that names capture our truest selves."
"It was we," spoke the younger, "who came to the shores of Prydein, called Britain in those days and still so known to this man, to bear away the dying King from the place called Camlann."
"Here we healed him," said the crone. "Here we made him whole again, and here we have held him for the time of his return."
"But be warned, Welcomer," spoke the woman. "You must not bind this man's soul again to Prydein if the cause is not just, for we were granted one intercession only. When he leaves this place, it will be to never return. Come what may if he returns to the world of men, he cannot come again to Avalon."
Gwyn looked at the sleeping warrior and then at the sword she still held in her hands. What the Queens of Avalon had just said was true, and she knew it: for good or ill, she was bringing this man back to Prydein to die.
"He must come," she finally said. "He cannot remain here. You speak of me binding his soul to Prydein, but his soul has ever been bound thus. Avalon is not his place, and he can remain here no longer."
The three Queens each nodded. "So it is said," said the youngest, "and so it shall be." They stepped aside, allowing Gwyn to approach. Gwyn could tell, even though he lay in the grass, that King Arthur Pendragon was a tall man. His long hair, brown but streaked with gray, hung loosely about his shoulders, and his beard and mustache were also flecked with gray. He did not look particularly old, but still his eyes were lined and his hands, folded over his chest, were rough and callused -- calluses formed wielding the very sword Gwyn now held. She knelt by his side, and he awoke at that moment and beheld her with eyes of deeper brown than she had ever seen.
"You are not one of them," said the Promised King. His voice was surprisingly soft, and not as deep as she had expected. He pushed himself up so he was sitting in the grass before Gwyn.
"I am the Welcomer," Gwyn said, bowing her head. "I have come to bring you back."
He sighed. "I feared it was so," he said. "I have been here for so long, and yet it feels as if I have only just arrived. I do not wish to return."
"You must," Gwyn said. "The country is at war, the boundaries between the worlds are falling, and the land itself is dying. Into such a time a King was promised to come, and you are that King. Things must be put right, and you are the one who must do so."
"Merlyn spoke as you do," said King Arthur. "What is your name, My Lady?"
It was the question Gwyn had dreaded. Nevertheless, she answered it. "Gwynwhyfar of Lyonesse," she said.
King Arthur recoiled as if she had slapped him. How many years it had been, how much time had passed, and yet for him the pain was still fresh. Some wounds, Gwyn was learning, never truly healed, no matter how much time passed after the wounding. King Arthur rose to his feet and stood silently for what seemed to Gwyn a very long time. All she could do was wait.
"Gwynwhyfar of Lyonesse," King Arthur said at last. "Gwynwhyfar." He faced her then, and studied her features. "You do not have her appearance. She was the most beautiful girl in the entire land, with hair like the sun in spring...and eyes that...." He sighed heavily. "When Leodegrance brought her to me it was as if I had never known beauty before. I loved her so...but it was all for naught. Even then the seeds of my fall had already been sown."
Gwyn said nothing.
"In the end, we destroyed ourselves, all of us. Some at the Table blamed the Gods and the Goddesses, some blamed Lance, some blamed her. Some even blamed me, and I blamed my ill-gotten son. And now you wish me to return to that place." He turned to face her again. "I do not want to go back, My Lady. It is too much to ask of me, of anyone."
"I feared you would feel so," Gwyn said as she rose to her feet herself, the better to address the Promised King even though he was still a full head taller than she. "Much of your tale has been lost to us in my time, but we know it for a story of terrible sorrow, when a realm of such glory was undone by many dark deeds, some intended as such and some now, but all dark nonetheless. But the things that were true then, Arthur Pendragon, are true now. You are the Promised King and you must return to Prydein with me."
"No," King Arthur said.
"You must," Gwyn said, pitching her voice higher and harder. "Even now the fields of Prydein are being turned from fields of grain to blood-soaked fields of war, and those fields not seeing battle are still as dead as the unending winter can make them. There are priests at work who serve the darkness, and they are using the blood of the innocent in the rites. Ill powers are at work in the world. That is why I have come here, Your Highness -- that is why so many people have suffered to see me here. And it is why I have been given this sword, so that once again it might be wielded by your hand in the name of Prydein."
She held up the blade, still in its scabbard. King Arthur's eyes widened and his cheeks whitened at the sight of it, and almost involuntarily he reached out to take it. His hand hesitated, though, and he curled it into a fist.
"No," he said through clenched teeth.
"This is your sword, Arthur Pendragon," Gwyn said, pressing forward. "Its hilt was meant for your hand, and here it is again. Deny this and you deny not only Prydein. You deny yourself." She thrust the sword toward him, and again he hesitated.
"What if I fail again?" he asked. "How many more people will I watch die for me and for a dream that is doomed to failure?"
"We can only serve the Goddess in the way most fitting who we are," said Gwyn. "You were not carried to this place so you could live in unending sadness over what was lost. You were brought here to await the time when you could return and build it anew. Take the sword, Arthur, and become King Arthur once more." Again, she held out the sword. He closed his eyes and bowed his head.
"You say I am to return, but the land I knew is long dead," said Arthur. "I would not be returning. I would be coming to a place less familiar than new. Oh Merlyn! the seeds of deception you planted at Tintagel are still bearing fruit." He lifted his face and met Gwyn's eyes. Then he reached out and took he sword into his hands. Holding the hilt in his right hand, he removed the scabbard with his left and then held the weapon up so that its blade once more reflected the sunlight. The sword was blinding, and Gwyn shielded her eyes with her hands. "It feels as though it has never left my grip," he said in a voice thick with wonder. "Bedevere did true, when he threw it back to the Lady of the Lake." He resheathed it.
Gwyn thought of beautiful and ancient Nimue, and again she wondered how deep the Lady of the Lake's part in all this was woven. "Does the sword have a name?" she asked.
"Caliburn," King Arthur replied. "I was the only one who could claim it, and was thus made King."
"And now you are King again," Gwyn said.
"Not so," King Arthur said. "There will be battles to be fought before that comes to pass. It was thus before; even though Caliburn was meant for my hand alone, I still had to wield it in many wars before the realm was mine to build. And, first: we must return."
The three Queens of Avalon stepped forward then.
"And go you will," said the younger Queen. "Return you shall, Arthur ap Uther, Pendragon, High King of Prydein." In her hands she carried Arthur's great helm, and beside her the crone held his cloak and the woman held a small, wooden box ornately carved.
"Long did we wait to bring you here," said the crone. "Long also did we wait beside you, and now, long will we sleep."
"Take these gifts in memory of Avalon," said the woman. The crone placed the cloak on Arthur's shoulders, and the woman opened the box to reveal a silver brooch with a single blue gem. With this brooch she fastened the cloak, and then the younger handed him the helm, which he took under his arm.
"Thank you," Arthur said. "For so much more than this."
"It is the task for which you were ordained," the woman said. "Now go, Arthur Pendragon. Go, and complete your task on earth."
"I would have the Welcomer gird Caliburn to my side," King Arthur said. "It was done by Guinivere before, and it should be so again."
Gwyn nodded and knelt before the Promised King to do as he asked. She could see his strength as clearly as anything, but she could also sense a gentleness in him. Strong and gentle -- like Sir Baigent, and like her memories of her father. When she was done fastening the sword to his belt, she rose to her feet again. "Take me back," he said.
As Gwyn and the Promised King walked away from that place, the three women began to sing once more, their voices shaping a phrase that was lament and farewell. Gwyn and King Arthur came to the thickness of trees, and before passing through the King stopped to look back one final time at the place where he had rested for all these years. The three Queens stood about that spot, their hands joined and their heads raised up, offering their voices to the heavens and sky. A tear rolled down Gwyn's cheek, and she saw King Arthur wipe one away from his own eye. As they watched, the summer trees around his resting place shifted and turned before their eyes to the gold and red leaves of autumn, with those leaves dropping and fluttering to the ground. And as King Arthur turned away, never to look on that place again, autumn came at last to Avalon.
Gwyn and King Arthur walked through the trees and emerged again outside the stone sanctuary, whose walls were now crumbling and covered in moss. Then they followed the spiraling path back down to the dock. The boat was still there, its swan-shaped prow now pointing back to the mainland.
"I remember this boat," said the King. "When last it carried me over these waters, I was dying." He stepped into the boat and, offering his hand, helped Gwyn in as well. Then the boat slipped, easily and gently, out to sea. The mists again formed about the Isle of Avalon, first at its summit and then gradually shrouding all of its features until the Isle entire was gone from view such that there might not have been an Isle there at all.
Finally the boat came back to the mainland, and there it slowed and stopped. King Arthur and Gwyn stepped out onto the ground and stood in silence as the boat floated away until it too disappeared into the mists that covered the sea.
Turning then, they found awaiting them the same horse that Gwyn had ridden before, although now it bore the finest saddle Gwyn had ever seen. The horse lowered its head as King Arthur approached, and he fondly scratched the animal's ears and patted its neck.
"Do you know this animal?" Gwyn asked.
"I seem to," he said. "There were many horses then. Come."
He and Gwyn mounted the horse, and it carried them back through the wood -- but this time there was no silent knight in green to demand riddles -- and back onto the wide, sloping field. Here there were no more sounds of battle, no dying men as before; only a warm field that was quickly turning colder. King Arthur looked around with an expression of deep, deep sorrow.
"This is the place of my last battle," King Arthur said. "Here is where my realm ended. We called it Camlann. And there"--he pointed to the tree on the rise, which they now approached--"there is the place where I last faced my traitorous son. I slew him there, even as he struck me down. That was the wound that could only be healed in Avalon."
They cantered up the crest of the hill, beneath the eaves of the tree, and down the other side. Now the air began to feel colder and colder with each step, and mists -- more mists, but darker and grayer, less a veil than a thick blanket -- formed before and around them, completely removing the world from view. For a moment Gwyn felt as though they were not riding over ground but through air, and then there was ground beneath them again: the stony soil of Prydein. Her gown of white samite was also gone, replaced by her Druid robes of before. A cold wind blew, and there was a very sudden and very brilliant light about them, dispelling the mists entirely and momentarily blinding them. The light faded, or dimmed at least to that of the sun; Gwyn smelled smoke on the air and as she saw the great stones about her once more her ears were met by the sound of steel upon steel, of wood against bone, of men shouting and of men dying. Somewhere in the distance there were horns sounding a call that filled Gwyn's heart with fear.
"So it begins," King Arthur said with a heavy sigh. "Find cover, My Lady. Those robes will not turn aside anything more than a blunt dagger." He helped Gwyn down from the horse, and then he rode forward, beneath the great stones and onto the central plain of Prydein. Gwyn moved forward, hiding behind one of the stones for cover but so that she could see. A company of mounted men was charging, directly toward King Arthur; and she recognized the device they wore: the device of Gwynedd. This, she knew, was Maxen's company. Gwyn had told King Arthur that he would be returning to war, but she had not thought that it would be thus.
And as the men of Gwynedd charged the man who had just returned to claim his kingdom, King Arthur Pendragon turned slowly to face them and pulled Caliburn from its scabbard. The Sword of Prydein blazed with the reflection of the morning sun, and King Arthur lowered his head and rode forward to meet the charge alone.
Thus returned the Promised King to the land of Prydein.
::..permanent link to this chapter..::