The Legend – always said with such emphasis; the only legend to truly matter in all of Albion – still flows free among the Druid camps. It changes still, though not as much as it used to in the time of the Usurper’s Purging, and now the changes mostly bend with how long the years will stretch before the Legend reaches its violent end.
(“The Invaders will land on the shores and ally themselves to the Lost One; to the Druid Boy who forgets the love that binds us all together. They will come to eat at the land with a lust that spreads like rot across a festering wound.)
So yes, the Legend changes under the inescapable weight of Magic’s will, but what has happened will never change, and so of the past there is only one story that will ever matter.
(“It begins with a man who was once a king who ruled with love, until fear and sorrow bent his love into hatred.”
“A king? I thought him the Usurper.”
“Not always. Once, he knelt at the feet of the Old Religion and pledged life and limb to steward the land with honour. He was not a usurper then.”)
Sometimes it is told with a bitter edge, an edge tempered in the years of terror that have since passed, and sometimes – when spread by those young enough to unlearn their old fear – it is told with the romantic sadness born of a story’s age.
(“The wending of the stars through the skies have has long shown us the destined path of the Witch, known to us in ages past as Morgan LeFay and in the timeless stretch of legend as the Betrayer. Always she would force a bend in the path of Camelot’s future, and always at the cost of the life she lived.”
“Could it have been different, then?”
“In so many ways, it could have been different. For her, it could even have been worse. But under the choke-hold of the Usurper, Uther Pendragon of Camelot’s bloody years, and held back by her own love for the King’s Sorcerer, she forced a twist that brought us all out from under the dark shadow of a long destruction.”)
Of Emrys, though. Of Emrys they only ever speak with reverence, in the soft voices of wonder and childlike idolatry.
(“But didn’t he – I thought he – Granddad says Emrys killed my father.”
“Oh, Bran. He was Uther’s bloodied bastard sword for so long, but at the same time, Emrys was always ours.”
“Then if he was always ours, then why did he kill us close to dead?”
“Because for a long time, the part of him that belongs to us was hidden deep under his own fear – of the Usurper who broke him; of himself; of what would happen if he failed the Crown. It was the Witch who kept the spark of our Emrys glowing bright with goodness, and it was the Witch who sacrificed herself that Emrys might bring an end to the Usurper’s reign for her sake.”)
But the story of the Seer Witch and her Warlock, of her death and his destruction, is not what the Druids love most about their Legend. No, it is only once completed – a story of the Trio; of Courage and Strength as well as Magic – that the words begin to resonate through them until it sets into their bones, a part of them forever.
(“But if he hated Camelot so much, how did the Once and Future King and the one they call Strength ever stop him from burning it all to the ground?”
“It was never Camelot that Emrys hated, Bran. Just her king and – so he convinced himself – the king’s son. As for the rest... come here, come sit, and let me tell you a story.”)
Smoke billows from the distant peaks of Camelot that poke just above the horizon, black and heavy and thick enough to pull dark shadows over the stonework. Too long – he has taken too long to return. Steam curls up from the flank of his horse and when Arthur soothes him with a few murmured words and calming strokes down his greasy coat, his hand comes away covered in foamy sweat.
“Come,” Arthur says. “Emrys has two days on us already. I won’t let him have another.”
Beside Arthur, Sir Pellinore shifts atop his horse, face unwrinkled and bleak; pale and hopeless.
“We cannot get much further before the sun sets, sire,” he says, eyes dropping to Arthur’s horse, which froths a thick sweat at the neck and breathes heavy.
“We’re not half a league from a messenger’s stable,” Arthur says. “It’s doubtful they will have many, but if we can take one or two fresh horses, at least some of us will be able to make Camelot before the night is too long.”
But Camelot has burned already; might be dying, even now, and Arthur could be set out to find nothing more than a ruined mass that was once his home. Emrys holds all the power of the old magics in his fist, after all. That had been his father’s pride, that such power knelt before Camelot’s throne – before the Pendragon line – and pledged allegiance for all time. A dark edge in Arthur’s mind thinks, and this is what my father has done; this is the madness he has fostered in his favourite slave, as he looks through the orange haze of smoke and twilight to Camelot’s towers, black and lit with a deep red glow.
“So this is Emrys’ doing?” Owain’s voice is hesitant.
“I’m sure of it,” Arthur says.
“But he was the king’s,” Owain says. “Absolutely, he belonged to the king. Since he came to court when he was a boy, Emrys has been the king’s most loyal – “
“Slave,” Arthur cuts in. “He is – was – a slave. That’s a strained loyalty at best.” Arthur swallows, wincing at the dry cling of his tongue to the back of his throat. He leans over, scrabbling at the buckles of his saddlebag. The metal clasps burn cold against his fingers, but the water in the skin had warmed horribly in the heat his horse has been throwing off. “And he didn’t arrive as a boy. My father stole him from his home as a babe, not but a year old. That’s where his loyalty came from. Habit.”
“And we all know habit can be rewritten,” Pellinore says, and despite themselves, the knights all laugh. Even Arthur allows himself a smile, remembering the weeks he had spent with Pellinore on the field, hacking at his exposed ribs with the dull practice blades until Pellinore learned the dangers of exaggeration.
“Yes, well, for a while there I wasn’t too sure about yours, Pellinore,” Arthur says. “How long did it take for me to beat your over-reaching out of you?”
“Not too sure, milord. Long enough that I still carry the bruises deep in my bones.”
Arthur smiles, but lets the moment pass. He can’t think of anything more to say, anything to stretch this fought-for bit of peaceful levity out, even just a little bit longer. The sun throws spears of twilight across the hills. In another hour, it’ll slip below the lip of the horizon, and after that, dark will follow swiftly. Arthur rubs at his eyes and tries to press his headache aside.
“Come then,” he says. “We shall have to lead the horses for a while.”
They walk, Prince Arthur – whose aching heart tells him he is now king, though he didn’t think his heart would hurt as much as it does when it happened – and his knights, horses champing along beside them.
There is an extra horse that walks beside them, with no rider to guide her along. A fine blooded palfrey with a rich brown coat, now ground in with grit and sweat and exhaustion. There is this extra horse that was left to Arthur’s men, abandoned by her rider; by Emrys, who had vanished in a flap of wind and fury. This extra horse that balks when they try to strap her with a bridle and that throws her head when they try to slip a rope around her neck, though still she follows them in the shadow by the side of the road simply because they are headed to the same place and the same person. She is just on the far side of wild, though when she had been gifted to King Uther’s favourite pet, she had been tamed and broken in by the royal stablemaster himself.
Arthur’s knights eye the horse with unease.
Sir Lamorak tightens his grip on his horse’s reins and turns to Arthur; says, “What... sire, what has happened?”
Somehow, Arthur is often considered the one among them who might actually understand Emrys, Camelot’s pet sorcerer and King Uther’s favourite weapon in his war against all magic. Somehow, Arthur had begun to think himself that he understood Emrys almost as much as the Seer Witch did.
But here, on the road back to Camelot without the dragon egg they were sent to look for, seeing the citadel burn before their eyes and knowing it was Emrys who made it happen, Arthur feels like he never knew Emrys at all. Like as soon as Emrys shuddered and screamed, throwing out a hand to knock Arthur and the knights from their horses – but not killing them, and that has to count for something, that he couldn’t kill those that thought him an ally – and ripping open a hole in the air that lead to Camelot, Arthur was shown just how much he never got the knife edge that Emrys had walked for so long.
“He snapped,” Arthur says, and if he weren’t now king in all but official decree, his next words would be treason. “He snapped, because that’s what caged things do. King or not, you can only push a person so far. He snapped.”
Arthur’s fist tightens around his horse’s reins and his jaw aches from clenching.
“We must reach Camelot. She’s burning, and we will not risk another wasted night.” Arthur’s voice pales but it carries far enough. “For the love of Camelot, we must get there, and we must get there soon.”
Not one of them wonders aloud what good they can do once they do get there. But they all do wonder, silently.
He is cold and he is wet when they find him. Rain patters softly from the tops of the trees and green light filters down to rest on his face. Smoke clings to his clothes and nothing he has done has washed it off, though he isn’t sure he will ever want to wash it off. It is the smell of her, his witch, and it is the smell of the destruction he wrought in her name.
Camelot burns against the sky behind him. Great spires shoot into the sky like giant candles, shedding stone and mortar and blood like wax, and steaming in the rain. Smoke and steam lie upon Camelot in a horrible shroud, and Emrys thinks this is enough even though it is not, can never be enough.
Emrys clutches his satchel closer to him and shivers; curls tighter and rubs a shaking palm against the soft leather, feeling the jagged bumps where the Witch’s bones jut. Her ash had mingled too much with the ash of the pyre’s wood but her charred bones he had salvaged, gathered close in his arms before placing them (gently, softly) in a warm leather bag.
Uther’s outraged screaming rings in his ears. The remembered crack of Uther’s throat under his shaking hands comforts him; the quiet in the castle, as he sent it into a long sleep, highlighting each sound Uther made in the great hall. The rip of the thin tablecloth as Uther’s fingers tightened around it in a death grip; the scrabble of Uther’s nails against the expensive wood of the high table.
Berries stain Emrys’ fingers a deep and dark purple.
Emrys smiles a shivery smile, as April’s wet chill sucks his warmth away. The underbrush around him rustles softly, the sound muffled by the weight of the rain and then gives way for a young doe; a wiry wolf flanked by yipping pups; and a white hare. They lie down along his side, throwing off heat and pressing solemn noses to his neck, his feet, and laying their heads over his hand where it lies upon his satchel.
“Thank you,” he says. The shrieks of a dozen wheeling hawks strangle his words, so he presses them out into their minds. Thank you, thank you.
Shadow falls over him as birds alight on boughs too weak to hold them all, the weight of dozens of hawks and falcons and silent sparrows bending young spring branches until they trip against the forest floor.
That is how they find him, warmed by predator and prey, guarded by vigilant hawks and curiously still pigeons.
“Emrys,” they say, and he can feel the tears in their wavering voices. “Emrys, you have come, you have come for us.”
“No,” he says, face still pressed into the leather satchel. A bruise already blooms on his cheekbone from the hard press of his witch’s crumbling femur. “No, but I have come to burn your enemy into the ground.”
Something within the druids balks at the anger burning in his eyes – destruction’s child still, but orphaned from creation.
“And the king?” they ask, the druids who still see a golden age in the stars. “What of the Once and Future King?”
The wolves that huddle along Emrys’ side lift their lips in silent snarls.
“I will spread him so thin upon his newly-defiled courtyard that they will not be able to scrape together even enough to fill an urn for his burial.”
Emrys – their Emrys, his soul shattered deep and scattered wide – smiles with a mouth lined in ash and soil. The doe leaning into his side lifts her lip and a shadow of blood drips from her teeth.
“The Pendragon line is a dead thing still walking,” he continues. “It burned to ashes the minute they set her pyre alight. I am only putting it to rest.”
(And this, this was never seen in the stars; never a part of the legend that kept them hoping through the long years of the purge. In the years they spent trying fruitlessly to hide from the Seer Witch and running from Emrys as he hunted them. They had dreamt of Emrys breaking away from the Tyrant King’s greedy hold, but this?
Ceridwen turns to Idwal and knows from the smile on his face that he at least does not find this promise as unsettling as she.)
Emrys’ fingers, skin beneath the dark crush of berries gone yellowed and bloodless in the cold, spasm and curl until they hold to the leather so tight they shake with the effort. Vines slither up from the ground, spiny and hideously gnarled, to curl over his shoulder and hug around his arms.
A small, pale flower unfurls by his cheek; Emrys smiles, briefly, absently, and beckons it closer to twine around the bronze clasp of his cloak.
The gold in his eyes flickers out, fades as he nods his head and slips his eyes shut. The druids take this as permission and hurry to his side, the ranks of the wild parting for them, though not bowing their heads as they had for him.
“Come, Aida, Bran, gather his things. Mordred, send word back to the camp – we have Emrys and we’re taking him home.”
“Not home,” Emrys whispers, hanging on to the edge of the waking world even as his dreams seek to steal him away. “I’m not going to find her there.”
“No,” Bran says, young and eager, and yet somehow wise for it. “But you will find a home without her.”
The young Pendragon is still out there, after all, and their destinies are bound together in the stars themselves. Emrys will find his home again, Bran thinks. He must.
Emrys clutches his satchel even in his sleep. They bear him silently back to their skittering camp, flanked by the wild on all sides and in the sky as well. His arm that isn’t clutching at his leather bag falls to hang awkwardly to the side, sliding against the underbrush as they walk. In the wake of his passing fingers, dozens of hanging flowers spring.
None of them notice the dragon that swoops through the sky, so far away that he looks no bigger than an eagle, but Kilgharrah watches them, tracks them, waits for Emrys to call him in again. And even though the young warlock Emrys has yet to find his Dragonvoice, Kilgharrah would follow Emrys to his last request. Fire and bloodshed, fueled by a lust for vengeance – what Kilgharrah craves and what Emrys offers to him freely.
Silence darkens the courtyard by the time Arthur and Owain clatter under the raised portcullis. An eerie matte red paints the stonework, stealing the moonlight from the air and sucking it all to dark dark black. Arthur pats at the flank of his borrowed rouncey – a beast clearly untrained for warfare and unused to bloodshed – as it shies and nickers beneath him. They had parted at the messenger’s stable, Arthur and Owain with the rest of the knights. Only two horses were kept there, fresh enough to bear them swift to Camelot. Pellinore had looked like he wished to protest Arthur reaching Camelot first, but Arthur knew – somehow, a feeling tight and strong in his gut – that the worst of it was over, anyway.
The castle courtyard closes in around them like a tomb, the cloy of death a heavy pallor. Quiet, so very quiet.
“Sire.” Owain’s voice, though quiet, shatters the stillness. “Sire, it is far too calm. Why would it be so calm?”
“Perhaps there are none left to make noise,” Arthur says.
The blood on the ground spreads out thin from the necks of a dozen headless guards, as it runs together and funnels towards the courtyard’s centre, where the remains of an executioner’s pyre still smokes, warm at its burnt heart. The pyre would have been massive for so much ash and ember to remain.
Arthur dismounts hastily and his horse skitters away, nostrils flared and eyes wide with nervous fear. It backs into the open gateway and huddles against the wall; tosses its head and turns to run through to the lower town. Arthur stares after it a moment, closes his eyes and breathes through his mouth (the tang of iron thick against the back of his throat, smoke tickling him into a cough), before he turns back to the courtyard.
“Owain. Were there any sorcerers locked in the holding cells before we left? Scheduled for execution two, maybe three days after we had left?”
Owain frowns. The wind ruffles his curls, scraping greasy fingers through his hair. Rot weighs down the air, sinks heavily into their skin and sits uncomfortably in their lungs.
“No, milord. But perhaps – ”
Arthur is already moving, thick heels of his riding boots clicking as they lift away from the tack of drying blood. There is a glint in the embers that stands out in the grey of the ash and the dull red glow of the wood that burns still. He bends close to the ash, smelling burnt hair and the sharp bitter of shattered magic that leeches slowly through the air, sliding against his skin like mercury. A necklace adorned with the Pendragon crest tangles in his fingers as he drags them through silty ash.
The Pendragon crest. A pretty mark for a treasured slave. The Seer Witch had worn it tight against her throat for all the years she had lived in Camelot.
Arthur’s head snaps back up. The necklace dangles from his fingers, shining in the dim moonlight. Owain grimaces, and they both begin to understand. All of the court had known, after all, the way the sorcerer Emrys and the Witch had curled so tightly ‘round each other, twining their power with what Uther called their animal lust.
Arthur scowls. “How mad must my father be,” he starts, loud and angry and brash, before cutting himself off, eyes widening with remembrance. “Have been,” he continues, “How mad must he have been. How could he not have seen...?”
Arthur’s voice trails, swallowed by the wide emptiness of the courtyard. He is surprised by the unexpected thickening of his throat. Uther, tyrant king and father both, is dead; Arthur is sure of it. And why does it hurt this much?
“So he is dead, then?” Owain swallows. His eyes widen – Uther had pulled Camelot together with the force of his will and his steel, and had ruled for nearly three decades, but now everything has changed from under his feet. “King Uther is dead? Emrys has killed him? But how can you know?”
“He is,” Arthur says. “I just know he is,” he says, even softer. “But I don’t... how he could have let this happen? He saw, he often said himself – Emrys’ bond to the Seer Witch was tying him even more tight to Camelot, his home because it was hers. So how could he not see this happening?”
“Because they were slaves, sire.” Owain shakes his head and hesitates before saying, “And because we all thought the sorcerer was his as surely as I am yours.”
Arthur did not say, Emrys was also as human as you have ever been. Something that maybe once, Owain, brash and sure of himself and his own hasty judgement, might have scoffed at. But maybe he sees now, standing in the ash and blood of the courtyard, watching the Witch’s necklace sway in Arthur’s fingers. Maybe now he understands how human Emrys is.
The courtyard echoes still with misery and pain; vibrates silently in their ears and quivers down their spines. The sorcerer wrote his hurt into the bones of the castle and wove it through the air.
“He loved her,” Owain says. “That’s what you think His Majesty should have seen.”
“Of course he didn’t love her,” Arthur says, voice dark and bitter, trying to remember how many times his father had said this to him. “They were no better than animals, those slaves. How could they know love?” Words his father had often said when anyone had pointed out to him the bond reeling the Seer Witch and Emrys tight together; words that echoed just how blind his father had been.
Owain tilts his head towards Arthur, a wry look in his eyes. “Yes, exactly that, my Lord. And here’s the proof right here.” A sigh, and that’s that.
They both fall silent as they climb up the steps into the castle itself. Shadows sprawl from underneath the great stone arches and Arthur feels for the first time like the castle is looming over him, unsteady on its feet and falling to swallow him whole. Arthur pauses just before the threshold and looks up. The towers glow a dull red where fire, now flickered into nothing, had warmed them.
Sir Owain slides his sword from his scabbard and nods when Arthur tilts his head in question.
The silence of the castle chills the smoky air and the only sound is the clack of their boots through the corridor. Empty. Arthur is too late, couldn’t ride back fast enough, in his chase after the sorcerer who had ripped a hole in the air and jumped through to Camelot. Some small part of Arthur hurts that he had been wrong, before, when he had looked at Emrys (tall and proud, eyes sharp and smiling at the bird he was feeding at his shoulder) and thought Father is wrong. He has to be wrong.
The corridors are empty. Torchlight flickers long down the corridor, sweeping through small alcoves and catching in ragged hanging tapestries, some smoldering and others burnt to ghostly skeletons, crumbling at the slightest errant breeze. The stone wall is warm to Arthur’s touch but cooling. His hand comes away gritty with soot.
“He burned them,” Owain says.
Arthur says nothing. The first door he pushes at, worn wood fibres shedding into his palm, opens with an easy creak. A small storage room, littered with linens and people who sprawl indelicately over them.
“Are they...” Arthur cuts himself off, rushing to pat clumsily at the nearest cheek. They carry the flush of life in their skin, so he hopes, he hopes that perhaps Emrys still kept with him in his madness a shred of the compassion Arthur knew – he knew – that he saw, as Emrys flamed the gold in his eyes and summoned apples, rich and red, to offer to a starving child they were passing on the road.
“I have a heartbeat,” Arthur calls out, voice too loud in the silence. The heartbeat is strong, as is the breath warm against the back of his hand.
“I as well, sire.”
Arthur frowns. “They’re sleeping.” He pats the woman’s cheek and jostles her shoulder, but she sleeps on, breath gusting quiet from her mouth, and heavy.
“But comfortable enough, milord. Shall we continue?”
They work quietly through the castle, passing through pockets of misting cold and gaps of searing heat, where mortar spills from the masonry, lit by the fire of what Arthur knows must be magic. Through each room they pass, the floors are spread heavily with people whose hearts beat with steady pulses, asleep and impossible to awaken, though they try. Asleep, not dead. Every servant, lord, or lady they pass lies asleep when they could just as easily lie dead.
And what does that say about Emrys? Is it a contradiction, the result of pure chance that the spell Emrys wove didn’t slay anyone at all, or is this proof of the depth of his honour?
The air chills in front of the entrance to the Great Hall. Arthur’s fingers catch against the door, clumsy for the stiffness in his cold bones. Ice cracks from the hinges as the door shudders in its frame, swings to bang against the wall.
“Father,” Arthur cries. Uther’s corpse – skin waxy yellow in his face, prickling with purple-pooled blood along the bottom of his hands and neck where they rest, yes, he is dead, he is dead – sprawls over the high table, arms spread wide, mouth overflowing with cheeses and breads and fruits so rare as to be a treat even for the Crown Prince (but never for his father).
Arthur trips against his own leg as he stumbles almost blindly across the threshold into the hall. Owain’s, “Arthur, wait...” is snapped short by the ringing of a bell, clear as it ever is before the morning’s watch begins, shattering through their ears, shaking the ground beneath them.
His father’s skin is so cold, limbs stiff with death as Arthur pulls at him, lays him out on the floor, folding his hands together and scrabbling at the food in his father’s mouth with shaking hands.
It isn’t until Sir Leon (a distant part of Arthur thinking, Thank the gods, he is well, he is safe and alive) stills him by holding him by the wrists that he realises that the people have awoken.
Arthur looks up through blurred eyes. Leon holds himself stiffly, not looking at the king, mouth in a tight line. He pulls up an edge of his Camelot-red cloak (the colour Arthur once thought he himself would look so fine in, but he never had learned how to wear it like Leon) and wipes Arthur’s fingers through it, rubbing off the cheese and fruit and spit and ash.
“Leon.” Arthur’s voice scrapes through the air on brittle wings. “My father. See to the king.”
“Of course, sire. Of course, Arthur.”
Leon kneels beside Arthur and gently wipes Uther’s face clean; closes his grotesquely gaping mouth and though he tries to close Uther’s bloodshot eyes, they keep sliding back open.
Buzzing thickens in the hall but the people dare not approach Arthur where he sits, hands clasped atop his father’s.
“Arthur,” Leon says, voice hushed but pointed, almost lost in the din of panic filling the hall. “Sire. He must have fled. Emrys. We need to prepare, and the people need a king who can save them from the mad sorcerer. You need to be crowned and we need to do it now.”
“Yes, of course,” Arthur says, voice so very far away. “But first we will carry my father to his bier.”
Arthur once spent the hours in which he was confined to dusty rooms with doddering tutors imagining this moment. How he would stride confidently – how he would know he was kind and just, the rightful king of his adoring citizens – between two columns of proud knights, their red capes rippling with the force of their cheering, decorum forgotten for the sake of excitement. How he would kneel before the throne he was born to sit on and though his knees would be sore against the stone steps, he wouldn’t feel it, so strong would be his focus. The crown would slip onto his head as he spoke the sacred words, and he would welcome the strain on his neck from the weight of the solid gold because (and this his father’s voice said in his mind every time, exactly as he had when Arthur had toddled around on stubby legs, eagerly grabbing for the shiny crown that sparkled on his father’s head) that is the weight of your responsibility, Arthur. Bear it with pride, honour and strength, and always with love for Camelot.
As a boy not yet tall enough to sit in his chair without dangling his legs above the ground, Arthur had dreamed of the sun and how it would stream brightly through the window, a portent of the bright future of Camelot under Arthur’s rule. All the proper stories of great men had portents and though his could never be properly foretold by the druids – for they are evil, Arthur, and they are heathen – the portents would still appear, and Arthur would be terribly clever and figure them out for himself.
His father had always been there in his old imaginings. Arthur had never been able to think of a future without him and had never tried, though he had known from his studies that kings died before princes could ascend. That was how it always happened in the histories. But as a child, Uther was the exception, immortal and imposing; a future without him, unfathomable.
Uther was always proud and smiling in his dream. The older Arthur grew, the more ridiculous that notion seemed but it never quite became impossible, and how he couldn’t help but love his father for that.
On the morning of Arthur’s coronation, the dawn shines bright through the windows but smoke lingers in the castle and filters it into a dull orange haze. His knights – those that still live – line the Great Hall but they are silent, mourning. His father is dead and the air smells like bone and ash and fear, and Arthur grieves for a future he had once thought possible.
The feel of the crown on his head is the same though. It pulls on his neck exactly as he had always known it would, stretching muscle and flaring tendons. Almost how his battle helm weighs on him, but not quite, and not at all. Arthur is quite unused to feeling this, the weight of a thousand years of Britton and a dozen splintered lines of dead kings, melded onto the shine of the crown’s gold.
Arthur looks at the throne that now belongs to him and sees a father (smiling, eyes shining) crowning a little boy too young to carry the weight.