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Extract from The Endless Knot

 

Afire rages in Albion. A strange, hidden fire, dark-flamed, invisible to the eye. Seething and churning, it burns, gathering flames of darkness into its hot, black heart. Unseen and unknown, it burns. These flames of darkness are insatiable; they grow, greedy in their spreading, consuming all, destroying all. Though the flames cannot be seen, the heat scorches and singes, searing flesh and bone alike; it saps the strength and withers the will. It blisters virtue, corrodes courage; it turns love and honor to hard, dark embers.

The dark fire is an evil and ancient enemy, older than the Earth. It has no face; no body, limbs, or members to be engaged and fought, much less quenched and conquered. Only flames, insidious tongues, and hidden dark sparks that blow and scatter, blow and scatter on every fretful wind.

And nothing can endure the dark fire. Nothing can stand against the relentless, scathing corruption of the unseen flames. It will not be extinguished until all that exists in this worlds-realm is dead cold ash.

 

  The oxhide at the door rippled as Tegid Tathal stepped into the hut. His quick eyes searched the darkness; he could see again. His blindness had been healed, or at least transmuted somehow into vision by the renewing waters of the lake. For he saw me sitting in the straw on the floor, and he asked, “What are you doing?”

“Thinking,” I replied, flexing the fingers of my silver hand one by one. That hand! Beauty made tangible in fine, flawless silver. A treasure of value beyond imagining. A gift to me—a warrior’s compensation, perhaps—from a deity with a most peculiar sense of humor. Most peculiar.

Tegid assures me that it is the gift of Dagda Samildanac, the Swift Sure Hand himself. He says it is the fulfillment of a promise made by the lord of the grove. The Swift Sure Hand, by his messenger, granted Tegid his inner sight and gave me my silver hand.

Tegid observed me curiously while my thoughts drifted. “And what are you thinking about?” he said at last.

“About this”—I raised my metal hand—“and fire,” I told him. “Dark fire.”

He accepted this without question. “They are waiting for you outside. Your people want to see their king.”

The sound of merrymaking was loud outside; the victory celebration would continue for days. The Great Hound Meldron was finally defeated, and his followers brought to justice; the long drought was broken, and the land restored. The survivors’ happiness knew no bounds.

I did not share their happiness, however. For the very thing that secured their safety and gave wings to their joy meant that my sojourn in Albion had come to an end. My task was finished and I must leave—though every nerve and sinew in me cried against leaving.

Tegid moved nearer and, so that he would not be speaking down to me, knelt. “What is wrong?”

Before I could answer, the oxhide lifted once again and Professor Nettleton entered. He acknowledged Tegid gravely and turned to me. “It is time to go,” he said simply.

When I made no reply, he continued, “Llew, we have discussed this.We agreed. It must be done—and the sooner the better.Waiting will only make it worse.”

Tegid, regarding the small man closely, said, “He is our king. As Aird Righ of Albion it is his right—”

“Please, Tegid.” Nettleton shook his head slowly, his mouth pressed into a firm line. He stepped nearer and stared down at me. “It is permitted no man to stay in the Otherworld. You know that. You came to find Simon and take him back, and you have done that. Your work is finished here. It is time to go home.”

He was right; I knew it. Still, the thought of leaving cut me to the heart. I could not go. Back there I was nothing; I had no life. A mediocre foreign student, a graduate scholar woefully deficient in almost every human essential, lacking the companionship of men and the love of a woman; a perpetual academic with no purpose in life save to scrounge the next grant and hold off the day of reckoning, to elude life beyond the cocooning walls of Oxford’s cloisters.

The only real life I had ever known was here in Albion. To leave it would be to die, and I could not face that.

“But I have something more to do here,” I countered, almost desperately. “I must have—otherwise, why give me this?” I lifted my silver hand; the cold metal appendage gleamed dully in the darkness of the hut, the intricate tracery of its finely wrought surface glowing gold against the soft white of silver.

“Come,” the professor said, reaching down to pull me up. “Do not make it more difficult than it already is. Let us go now, and quietly.”

I rose to my feet and followed him out of the hut. Tegid followed, saying nothing. Before us the celebration fire blazed, the flames leaping high in the gathering dusk. All around the fire people rejoiced; snatches of song reached us amid the happy tumult. We had not taken two steps when we were met by Goewyn carrying a jar in one hand and a cup in the other. Behind her a maid carried a plate with bread and meat.

“I thought you might be hungry and thirsty,” she explained quickly and began pouring the ale into the cup. She handed the cup to me, saying, “I am sorry, but this is all I was able to save for you. It is the last.” “Thank you,” I said. As I took the cup, I allowed my fingers to linger upon her hand. Goewyn smiled, and I knew I could not leave without telling her what was in my heart.

“Goewyn, I must tell you—” I began. But before I could finish, a pack of jubilant warriors swarmed in, clamoring for me to come and join them in the celebration. Goewyn and the maid were pushed aside. “Llew! Llew!” the warriors cried. “Hail, Silver Hand!” One of them held a haunch of meat, which he offered to me and would not desist until I had taken a healthy bite from it. Another saw my cup in my hand and poured ale from his own cup into mine. “Sláinte, Silver Hand!” they cried, and we drank.

The warriors seemed intent on carrying me away with them, but Tegid intervened, explaining that I wished to walk among the people to enjoy the festivity. He asked them to guard the king’s peace by removing any who would disturb me, beginning with themselves. As the warriors went their noisy way, Cynan appeared. “Llew!” he cried, clapping a big hand upon my shoulder. “At last! I have been looking for you, brother. Here! Drink with me!” He raised his bowl high, “We drink to your kingship. May your reign be long and glorious!” With that he poured ale from his bowl into my already full cup. “And may our cups always overflow!” I added, as mine was spilling over my hand at that moment. Cynan laughed. We drank, and before he could replenish my cup, I passed it quickly to Tegid. “I thought we had long since run out of ale,” I said. “I had no idea we had so much left.”

“This is the last,” Cynan remarked, peering into his bowl. “And when it is gone, we will have long to wait for fields to be tilled and grain to grow. But this day”—he laughed again—“this day, we have everything we need!” Cynan, with his fiery red hair and blue eyes agleam with delight and the contents of his cup, was so full of life— and so happy to be that way after the terrible events of the last days— that I laughed out loud with him. I laughed, even though my heart felt like a stone in my chest.

“Better than that, brother,” I told him, “we are free men and alive!” “So we are!” Cynan cried. He threw his arm around my neck and pulled me to him in a sweaty embrace. We clung to one another, and I breathed a silent, sad farewell to my swordbrother. Bran and several Ravens came upon us then, saluted me, and hailed me king, pledging their undying loyalty. And while they were about it, the two kings, Calbha and Cynfarch, approached. “I give you good greeting,” said Calbha. “May your reign ever continue as it has begun.” “May you prosper through all things,” Cynfarch added, “and may victory crown your every battle.”

I thanked them and, as I excused myself from their presence, I glimpsed Goewyn moving off. Calbha saw my eyes straying after her, and said, “Go to her, Llew. She is waiting for you. Go.” I stepped quickly away. “Tegid, you and Nettles ready a boat. I will join you in a moment.”

Professor Nettleton glanced at the darkening sky and said, “Go if you must, but hurry, Llew! The time-between-times will not wait.” I caught Goewyn as she passed between two houses. “Come with me,” I said quickly. “I must talk to you.”

She made no reply, but put down the jar and extended her hand. I took it and led her between the cluster of huts to the perimeter of the crannog. We slipped through the shadows along the timber wall of the fortress and out through the untended gates.

Goewyn remained silent while I fumbled after the words I wanted to say. Now that I had her attention, I did not know where to begin. She watched me, her eyes large and dark in the fading light, her flaxen hair glimmering like spun silver, her skin pale as ivory. The slender torc shone like a circle of light at her throat. Truly, she was the most beautiful woman I had ever known.

“What is the matter?” she asked after a moment. “If there is anything that makes you unhappy, then change it. You are the king now. It is for you to say what will be.”

“It seems to me,” I told her sadly, “that there are some things even a king cannot change.”

“What is the matter, Llew?” she asked again. I hesitated. She leaned nearer, waiting for my answer. I looked at her, lovely in the fading light.

“I love you, Goewyn,” I said.

She smiled, her eyes sparkling with laughter. “And it is this that makes you so unhappy?” she said lightly and leaned closer, raising her arms and lacing her fingers behind my head. “I love you too. There. Now we can be miserable together.”

I felt her warm breath on my face. I wanted to take her in my arms and kiss her. I burned with the urge. Instead, I turned my face aside. “Goewyn, I would ask you to be my queen.”

“And if you asked,” she said, speaking softly and low, “I would agree—as I have agreed in my heart a thousand times already.”

Her voice . . . I could live within that voice. I could exist on it alone, lose myself completely, content to know nothing but the beauty of that voice.

My mouth went dry, and I fought to swallow the clot of sand that suddenly clogged my throat. “Goewyn . . . I—”

“Llew?” She had caught the despair in my tone.

“Goewyn, I cannot . . . I cannot be king. I cannot ask you to be my queen.”

She straightened and pulled away. “What do you mean?”

“I mean that I cannot stay in Albion. I must leave. I must go back to my own world.”

“I do not understand.”

“I do not belong here,” I began—badly, it is true, but once begun, I was afraid to stop. “This is not my world, Goewyn. I am an intruder; I have no right to be here. It is true. I only came here because of Simon. He—”

“Simon?” she asked, the name strange on her tongue.

“Siawn Hy,” I explained. “His name in our world is Simon. He came here, and I came after him. I came to take him back—and now that is done, and I have to leave. Now, tonight. I will not see you anymore after—”

Goewyn did not speak; but I could see that she did not understand a word I was saying. I drew a deep breath and blundered on. “All the trouble, everything that has happened here in Albion—all the death and destruction, the slaughter of the bards, the wars, Prydain’s desolation . . . all the terrible things that have happened here—it is all Simon’s fault.”

“All of these things are Siawn Hy’s doing?” she wondered, incredulously. “I am not explaining very well,” I admitted. “But it is true. Ask Tegid; he will tell you the same. Siawn Hy brought ideas with him— ideas of such cunning and wickedness that he poisoned all Albion with them. Meldron believed in Siawn’s ideas, and look what happened.” “I do not know about that. But I know that Albion was not destroyed. And it was not destroyed,” Goewyn pointed out, “because you were here to stop it. But for you, Siawn Hy and Meldron would have reigned over Albion’s destruction.”

“Then you see why I cannot let it happen again.”

“I see,” she stated firmly, “that you must stay to prevent it from happening again.”

She saw me hesitate and pressed her argument further. “Yes, stay. As king it is your right and duty.” She paused and smiled. “Stay here and reign over Albion’s healing.”

She knew the words I wanted to hear most in all the world, and she said them. Yes, I could stay in Albion, I thought. I could be king and reign with Goewyn as my queen. Professor Nettleton was wrong, surely; and Goewyn was right: as king it was my duty to make certain that the healing of Albion continued as it had begun. I could stay! Goewyn tilted her head to one side. “What say you, my love?”

“Goewyn, I will stay. If there is a way, I will stay forever. Be my queen. Reign with me.”

She came into my arms then in a rush, and her lips were on mine, warm and soft. The fragrance of her hair filled my lungs and made me light-headed. I held her tight and kissed her; I kissed her ivory throat, her silken eyelids, her warm, moist lips that tasted of honey and wildflowers. And she kissed me.

I had dreamed of this moment countless times, yearned for it, longed for it. Truly, I wanted nothing more than to make love to Goewyn. I held the yielding warmth of her flesh against me and knew that I would stay—as if there had ever been any doubt.

“Wait for me,” I said, breaking off the embrace and stepping quickly away.

“Where are you going?” she called after me.

“Nettles is leaving. He is waiting for me,” I answered. “I must bid him farewell.”