:: Sunday, December 18, 2005 ::
The rush of wind died away, and the air was finally still. She turned toward the beach where the waves lapped the shore. He was standing there, as she had known he would be. As she approached, he turned and faced her. How old he looked, and how tired. Still, he smiled as she drew near, and he lifted his hand to touch her cheek. His flesh was still rough and callused from years of work in the fields and at sea, but his touch was still warm.
"You are so beautiful," said her father. "I see so much of your mother in you. I think she would be proud of what you have done."
"Are you?" she asked.
He smiled. "Oh, little sparrow," he said. "How I wish I could have seen it." He touched her hair and looked around at the cottage and the sea. "This place will always be a part of you," he said. "And so will I. But you cannot return."
"I know," she said. She'd known it all along. There would be many dreams, but none more of her father and the place where he had always sought solace in the waters that had given him his life and his love. He leaned forward and kissed her cheek, and then he turned and walked away, up the beach until he disappeared into the haze. Then Gwynwhyfar of Lyonesse herself left that place, and never again did she see it -- neither within her dreams nor without.
Gwyn stirred, and she heard someone nearby say, "She awakes!" and rush off. Turning toward the nearby source of warmth, she opened her eyes and found that she was in a camp with the Druids and the refugees from Caer Camyrdin. But it was not the camp beside the Giants' Dance: they were surrounded by sparse trees, and the land was hillier. They had left the plain. She looked at the fire beside her -- small, and one of many -- as the Druid who had been sitting beside her came back, with Brother Llyad and Gareth.
"You are looking better," Gareth said. "I feared for you, but Brother Llyad insisted you were stronger than that. I see he was correct."
Brother Llyad handed her a bowl of herb-scented soup, which she drank gratefully even though its flavor was ghastly.
"Where are we?" Gwyn asked.
"We are just past Walding Wood, to the south and west," Gareth said. "It was not safe for us to remain at the Dance."
Gwyn nodded. "What news of Bedwyn?"
Brother Llyad shook his head. "Nothing yet, My Lady," he said. "That's where the King went, isn't it?"
Gwyn nodded. "But that gate is now closed."
Gareth shrugged. "We Finders are used to moving on foot," she said.
"As are we Druids," said Horius, who had just joined them. "My scouts have report that what survived of Maxen's company fled north. That is why we have moved south, toward Bedwyn -- and west, into the hills, in the event that there is another army moving north."
"How long?" Gwyn asked.
"Three days, perhaps four," Horius said. "Provided that we do not encounter any other dangers along the way. But we are prepared. You will be safe." He smiled, and Gwyn nodded and sipped again at the tea. "Was he there, Welcomer?" Horius asked after a moment. "Did you find him?"
"Oh, yes," Gwyn said. "He has returned."
Horius breathed a sigh of reverence. "Dona bless us all," he said.
Gwyn drank the remainder of her soup, allowing the warmth to spread through her body. "How long has it been?" she asked.
"One full day," said Brother Llyad. "We found you at the center of the Dance, and you have slumbered all that time since."
Gwyn thought back to the sensation of falling through darkness…and of Nimue calling out for Amairgen...had he caught her? Had he brought her back? She put her empty bowl aside and drew her knees up close to her chest. "I suppose I shall soon return to Tintagel and complete my training," she said.
"Nonsense," said Gareth. Gwyn looked up at her, and Gareth laughed. "Don't look so surprised," she went on. "Go back to being a cleric, after the things you have seen and done? Absurd."
"My task as Welcomer is done," Gwyn said. "The Promised King has returned."
"None of us knows what tasks the Goddess may place before us, My Lady," said Brother Llyad. "But I cannot believe yours will ever involve translating books in Tintagel's library."
Gwyn sighed. They were right, of course. Whatever place she had now, whatever role was hers to play, it would not be as a cleric. True, she had spent her entire life until just a week ago as an Adept in service to Dona's priesthood; but Fair Folk blood still ran in her veins. She had been the Welcomer, and not only had she been chosen for it -- she had been brought into the world for it. There would be a place for her, Gwyn realized -- even in this time of war and darkness that was descending on Prydein, and even as the light of hope began to shine upon it. What truly frightened her, Gwyn suddenly realized, was not if she would have a place, but rather what that place would be.
They talked a while more, of nothing in particular -- when suddenly there was a bird's call -- repeated three times, very quickly. Gareth jumped up. "Matt and Calloch return! That is their signal!"
The entire camp roused as the returning riders entered the camp after not being seen for hours. And with them were two other riders who both wore the device of Bedwyn, and Gwyn recognized the one with the long hair and sardonic grin.
"Look lively, Regidan!" Sir Jules said to his younger companion as he approached Gwyn and bowed before her. "Here she is: the Welcomer." Gwyn smiled at both men, and she nearly laughed at the expression of near terror on Sir Regidan's face. If he was older than she, it was not by more than a matter of months. "I'm glad to have found you, My Lady," Jules went on. "King Arthur dispatched a number of us to seek you out after the battle -- which we won -- and he will be grateful to learn of your safety. So will a great many others, I expect. People are already asking about the Welcomer." He bowed again, and then he grinned as he leaned forward and said so that only she could hear, "No one will be happier to learn of your safety than Sir Baigent -- although I think he will also be angry that I found you before he did."
Gwyn felt herself blush.
Dana nocked the arrow, drew back the string, and let the arrow fly. It struck the target nowhere near the center, but she was improving. She had sunk four consecutive arrows into the target, her best result yet. Won't Gwyn be surprised! she thought as she went to recover her arrows. Then she saw Father Damogan walking out to join her, and she hastily dropped the bow.
"Did you send for me, Father?" she asked quickly. "I am sorry, I--"
"All is well, child," Father Damogan said, laughing and holding up a hand as he came near. "I did not send for you, and your tasks have been done well. No, I come to ask you to accompany me to the bridge. A rider comes, from the east. I think we are to have news."
"What news?" Dana asked as she gathered her arrows and bow to accompany Father Damogan to the bridge. She had long since learned not to ask just how it was that he could know a rider approached, before any was even seen on the horizon.
"News of Gwynwhyfar," he said. He stopped then, and seemed to sniff the air. "Tell me, Dana -- how long since we felt a southern breeze?"
Dana considered that. It had been a long time indeed.
Here ends Book One of The Promised King.
The days after the Battle of Bedwyn were full days indeed. King Arthur Pendragon was presented to the people, and word was sent to all Prydein that the Promised King had returned. But along with those good tidings went calls for war, for the Traitor Kings still lived, and even now King Cwerith was marching to join his ally, King Duncan; and as for King Arthur, he too was planning to march northward, to the Vale of Cul Calladan and a final reckoning with those Traitor Kings. There would be more battle and more death, but for now, there was also hope for the people of Prydein, starting with the people of Bedwyn. The peaceful days of Irlaris's reign were over, and Londia was gone; but there was again a King, even if he would have to fight to forge the realm anew. Though the days were still cold, somehow they felt a bit warmer.
A procession was held for the Welcomer and her companions on the morning she at last came to Bedwyn. Gwyn rode with Sir Baigent at her side, and behind them came Estren and Brother Llyad, Lord Matholyn and Gareth, and others; leading the procession were Father Terryn and Brother Malcolm. Gwyn gazed down upon the lean and weary, but also hopeful, faces that were turned upward to see the Welcomer. So many who would have died had she not succeeded -- and so many who might still die, when war came again.
The procession reached the Keep, where it was joined by King Arthur and Duke Cunaddyr. Then the procession moved again through the city, out through the Widow's Gate and up to the great mound where slept the bravest of Bedwyn's souls through the ages. There had not been room here to inter all those who had fallen in the fields of this most recent battle -- new mounds now rose on those very fields -- but this was where they gathered to pay tribute to them all. Here the King's procession was met by another, this one consisting of Druids and led by Horius; and when both processions stopped, Estren and Drudwas came forward to sing the work they had composed together, for voice and harp and pipes: the Coming of King Arthur and the Acts of the Welcomer.
During the singing of the new work, Gwyn looked on each of her companions: Brother Llyad, whose faith had been so unwavering; Gareth, who had been the ally needed so desperately at the journey's darkest hour; Lord Matholyn, whose fiery nobility was now tempered by deep sorrow; Estren, whose words had been of such comfort; Brother Malcolm, to whose wisdom she had always turned, and whose eyes were now haunted by the horrors of war he could never have imagined just a short while ago that he would see. Finally she looked at her Champion, Sir Baigent. Perhaps there would be such time in days to come for her to express adequately her gratitude for all that he had done, but for now she waited until his gaze met hers, and then she smiled. He smiled back, and she listened again to the words of the two Bards, wondering if future Adepts would struggle at their learning as she herself had struggled to learn the words of the Bards who had gone before.
As she stood in the southern breeze, not felt in so very long in Prydein, Gwynwhyfar wondered many things.
The tale concludes in Book Two, The Finest Deed.
::..permanent link to this chapter..::