I am of a race older than Time herself. Older than humans, of course, these prolific rodents who churn out children at such an alarming rate. Older even than the Mother Serpent, Tiamadd, who was slain so long ago. I am so old that I no longer see Time pass in myself, only in others. Sometimes it seems as though I blink and those that I witnessed the birth of are dead.
Time passes thus for me because I wish it to. This age is an evil one, conceited and vain and in love with itself. I do not wish to linger in it longer than necessary. The people scurry back and forth and never look forward or ahead. They are consumed in the moment, never for once taking a time to sit and think about their actions before rushing off again on some ludicrous frivolous errand.
This hurry was not always a fault. I remember a time-it seems not long ago-such that when one rushed off, it was for grander and greater ideals like honor and valor and love. It is these days for which I long, the days when honor and truth and right ruled the land, before the land descended into anarchy and the priests burned the last Groves and magic was destroyed in the incarceration of black cats and old hermit-women. Forgotten are the days when valiant knights rode forth on bedecked steeds to seek quests of great renown.
The small pixie alighting on my shoulder is pulling my hair, reminding me that that is not exactly how it was.
So I exaggerate. But what of it, when the age that I long for to come again might be compared as day to this age's dark endless night? And in the time I long for, the visions that ruled the minds of the powerful were good and just and kind.
I remember those days with longing and lost love, those days up until that fated day two of my sisters and I were called forth from our isle home.
Two of my sisters and I had already decided that meddling with the affairs of humans was a fruitless waste of time and energy. Humans had never heeded us, so why should we continue to use up valuable energy on their petty wars? We were older, wiser, stronger, and infinitely above them. We retired to our island home among the mists, filling our time with what our kind has always done, which is not any concern of mortals. Gradually, we forgot about the outside world, only remembering the humans who fought with disdain or, as it occasionally was in my case, with the remorse of love lost.
Our fourth and last sister, Morgan, did not agree with our isolationist views. A hopeless idealist, she went to great lengths to aid the human king, a mere boy named Arthwys. She even went so far as to unite with this human male and bear a child to him, a son she named Medraut.
It is not easy for our kind to reproduce, and Morgan's hasty union with Arthwys proved dangerous and ill advised. Arthwys regretted what he had done. Morgan, desperate to not be scorned, forgot about the child in her womb and spent all her time convincing Arthwys that the child would be human and his union with her was not evil. Medraut came, perfect in body and feature but evil and twisted in mind. He grew more quickly than humans, a trait from Morgan, but had all the cunning and evil intelligence of his father's kind. I, in one last half-hearted attempt at changing the destiny of humans, tried to convince Morgan to kill Medraut, tried to her show the evil and hate he hid behind his perfect face. Morgan, blinded by a mother's love, a trait she had acquired from the humans, did not see Medraut's hate towards her and Arthwys. I, before brightened with Morgan's idealism, now sank into the resigned forbearance and reserve that I keep still.
Then one day Morgan returned to our island home after a long absence, begging my two sisters and me to help her attend the dying Arthwys. Her tears were those of a mother as well as a lover, for Medraut had been the cause of his father's death. Out of pity for our mourning sister, we agreed.
As the boat glided across the still water of our lake I realized that I understood Morgan's pain. I, too, had loved a mortal, against all my better judgment. Myrddin had been Arthwys's staunchest supporter and advisor during the years. But he was not entirely human, his spirit that of a tree itself, and eventually, he had to return to the tree from which he had emerged to die. I would have retreated from the world of humans forever at that time, had I not feared for Morgan's safety in her role as the unsuccessful peace broker between Arthwys and Medraut.
When the boat rode slowly up onto the sandy beach, the mists parted enough that I could see the shore. Morgan covered her face in a dark veil and stepped out of the boat, moving to the king, lying on the beach. Two figures attended the dying man, a dark knight and a weeping lady. The dark knight had come from a harsh battle, I judged by his numerous minor wounds and the exhausted way he supported himself on an enormous broad sword. The weeping lady wore black, and on her head rested a gold crown that added to her despair and noble bearing.
Morgan and our two sisters rushed to Arthwys's side, leaving me with the knight and lady. The knight looked up as I approached, but the lady did not cease her weeping nor did her countenance change to show that she had seen me.
"O Queen," the knight said, dropping on his knees before me, "can you and your angelic sisters save him, the great king?"
I was speechless before him. I was no queen, much less a doctor. But I knew a dying man when I saw one by the gray aura he exuded from every pore. The man lying on the beach would soon depart from this life. Humans are frail, their powers of rejuvenation weak. They live lives short and brief, flaming brightly and passionately and then ending as brilliantly as they come.
"I do not know," I replied. "Let me attend my sisters and see what news there is."
He bowed again, and I walked over and knelt in the sand next to Morgan, who was frantically trying to staunch the flow of blood from a great gaping wound in his side. "Is there any hope?" I asked her gently.
She shut her eyes, tears still trickling out from under her clenched lids. "No," she whispered, then gave a heaving sob.
"What happened?" I whispered to her.
"I-I finally understood Medraut's evil intentions, and tried to convince Arthwys to kill his son. He would not, and in desperation I took the scabbard that could have kept him alive." She opened her eyes, and they were clouded with torment. "Ironic, is it not, that when Medraut forced him into battle he was without the scabbard." She reached over and grabbed my hand. "Nimue, you must get the sword. It was not meant to fall into the hands of mortals." She closed her eyes again. "It was a mistake to give it to him in the first place."
I stood and returned to the knight and lady. Their sorrow was so great that I could not bear to tell them their king would die. "We are taking him to our Isle, where he may be further cared for," I told them. "But you must give me the sword. It was not meant to handled by mortals." The knight tightened his grip on the handle of the sword. I could see this would not be easy, and so I tried to give them some measure of hope. "He will return, eventually." To my mind it was a lie. The wound was fatal, and even this age's modern medicine would have been useless. No hope remained in my heart.
The knight frowned and went over to the dying king. He knelt by his side and asked him, "My lord, they want the sword. Should it not go to your heir until you can claim it again?"
From where I stood I could see Arthwys raise dying eyes to Morgan's face, taught and worried. She gave the barest shake of her head.
The king coughed up blood. "Give it to her."
The knight persisted. "But, my lord, Caladvwlch is a symbol of your power. It must stay in the world of men!" He cast a fearful glance at my sisters.
I could see Arthwys gathering his strength. "My last command is that you give it to them, Bedwyr!" Dying, he still had regal power and authority in his voice.
Bedwyr, the dark knight, last of the Knights of the Round Table and of Camelot, rose and handed Caladvwlch, hilt first, to me. It was heavy, but my race has greater strength than humans do. He bowed respectfully to me and backed away slowly.
"We must get him into the barge," I heard Morgan say urgently.
Bedwyr helped Morgan lift him into the boat as I turned the sword over in my hands, marveling at its workmanship and wondering again at its origins, still a mystery to me.
The weeping lady swept over to me in a rustle of black skirts. "He will die," she said to me, a statement, and not a question.
I could not lie to another woman, even a human one. "Yes." But what had Myrddin told me about Arthwys, many, many years ago? "But he will return one day." No, it was a lie. It was the same lie I had told minutes before, trying to wrest the sword from Bedwyr. I told myself again that it was a lie.
Bedwyr approached us and led the woman away. "Come, Gwenhwyfar," he said. "They will tend him, and he will be back soon."
Gwenhwyfar looked over her shoulder at me as if to ask, 'How can he die and return?'
I could not answer her unspoken question.
Those many days after passed by with either the swiftness of charging cavalry or the tediousness of a lady's palfrey. I missed Morgan, who in her grief left our Isle soon after Arthwys was buried.
When I felt the necessity to leave our Isle and again make my way into the world of human mortals, I chose to make my home in Cornwall, a place that I remembered from Arthwys's time and that still retained some semblance of mystery and magic in this frantic age. The world had changed drastically, horses replaced by automobiles and swords by firearms and atomic bombs, yet the small village in which I lived held on to its Celtic ancestry. Here, I set up a small shop, selling jewelry and charms worked in silver to the rare tourist. The village regarded me as somewhat of a hermit, a crazy lady who did not attend church or attempt to befriend any townsfolk beyond what polite custom demanded. I chose to take the name Catherine, a normal name that would attract no attention and was so overused that it held no magic of its own. I could hardly go around using my true name, as it was unusual and would give the villagers powerful magic over me. Very few people know it, only my sisters and several other mortals I have told over the years.
One morning, I awoke to find an oak bough on my back doorstep. The pixies living in my yard had been asleep all night and could not tell me who had left it, nor could the tree nymph who inhabited my modest garden.
It could have been a mistake. Or a practical joke, encouraging the popular belief that I was Druid or Wicca. But the aura that surrounded the branch was familiar, though I could not place it.
I took the bough inside my cottage with me and kept it on the small kitchen table while I went into town to tend my shop.
Only a few tourists ventured into my shop that day, and my sales were minimal, though this did not bother me. Money, of whatever currency, is such a vapid form of wealth that with very little magic I can produce as much as I want using minimum energy. I do not like to do that though; it makes curious villagers ask questions.
A week passed by and I forgot about the oak bough, though it did not leave my kitchen table. It became as much a part of my cottage as my bed or the table on which it rested. Its aura, still familiar but unfamiliar, made me at ease and more peaceful than I had been in years. Then a startling awakening made me wonder again about the being that had left the branch on my doorstep.
Once again on my back doorstep was left a piece of rough oak bark, on it roughly hewn figures. It took me a few moments to recognize them as the letters of a long-dead tree alphabet. No mortal alive knew that alphabet. Its intended purpose was to record prophecy, and because what was written on the bark was not prophecy it took me several minutes to puzzle out its message. Finally, I uncovered the shocking news the oak was to tell me, reminding me again of when my sisters and I took Arthwys to our Isle to die.
We cast the barge off from the shore, I watching Bedwyr and Gwenhwyfar as they dwindled in size until finally they were lost in the mists.
Arthwys, still a king even on his deathbed, was speaking to Morgan. "Did I do right? I killed him, I killed my son, but he would have done the same to me..."
Morgan held Arthwys's head cradled in her lap. "Shh, shh, don't, please, don't try to speak," She was pleading with him, knowing what pain the words cost him.
"The sword must be protected," he said in a hoarse whisper. "For those to come."
Morgan looked at me, at Caladvwlch that I still held in my hands. She looked back at Arthwys, who for the first time had shut his eyes. That was when she realized he no longer drew breath.
She said nothing, only took his battered crown from his head, and, pulling the thin shroud over his face, laid the crown on his chest. Still not looking up, she spoke to me. "Nimue, you must keep the sword. It must be protected. Cast it into our lake if you must, but do not let it fall into the hands of those who would use it for evil."
I nodded, pessimistically sure no one would even remember Arthwys or his sword Caladvwlch after three seasons. The mists parted and we had arrived at our Isle.
I had left the Isle soon after casting Caladvwlch into the lake as Morgan had suggested. The sword was a thing of legend, of an age that had died with Arthwys, and there was no need for it to be in circulation among mortals. It was too powerful, and with such power came a great temptation to use it for personal greed.
The small, seemingly insignificant piece of bark told me that the sword had been stolen from its watery resting-place.
It also told me where to go if I had any hopes of helping to recover it. Who I would be helping, it did not say. I knew the quoit, an ancient stone monolith erected during what humans term the Stone Age, where it directed me, and decided to first go as Catherine, my mortal alter ego, to scope out the quoit and make sure no traps lay in wait for me. Try as I might, I could not decipher the writer of the bark message, despite its familiar aura that matched that on the oak bough. Curiosity if nothing else made me go to the quoit on the night of the dark moon to meet its sender.
There was no moon, and part of me said that I should be frightened. But what have I to fear from any mortal? True, there are those creatures that lurk in shadows, immortal like myself but not with any morals or good intentions. I do not fear them. They prey upon humans, not upon those of my race.
I approached the quoit carefully, painfully aware of my jeans and sneakers. I had never felt right approaching a place of ancient magic and mystery in modern garb. Still, sneakers were better for fleeing from a foe than dancing slippers.
The quoit loomed above me in the darkness, three dark stones supporting one enormous slab of roughly hewn rock. In ancient times it had been used as a marker or burial ground, but now stood in the middle of a cow field, with a forest nearby.
The rustle of leaves made me jump. I whirled to see a man emerge from behind an oak tree next to the quoit. I had never noticed the oak tree next to the quoit before.
"Hello?" I said, not having to add a tremor to my voice. It was quite enough to scare me, seeing a strange man emerge from behind an oak tree at the dark moon next to a quoit, even for all my powers and strength.
"Hello," said the man, speaking in an accent I had not heard for centuries. Not since before Arthwys had died, I realized. He saw me, and I could tell there was disappointment in his voice. "I'm afraid you're not who I was waiting for. What is your name?" he asked politely, stepping forward so that even in the dark I could see his face.
I knew that face.
"Catherine," I bit out, visibly trembling. To have him of all people not recognize nor remember me-
He stepped closer. "What are you doing out in the middle of the night by an ancient tomb, Catherine?"
He was too close to me after having been so far so long. I turned and fled to the forest, tears flowing freely from my eyes.
I have to go back to the tree. The tree that bore me. I have to return to it to die.
He had told me he had to die. He had told me that he had to return to the tree from which he was born to die.
"Catherine-!" he shouted, and after my fake name yelled words of power, words that would have stopped me in my tracks had Catherine been my real name.
When I did not cease running he realized something was amiss and pursued me. Frantic in my panic, I did not notice the log across my path and tripped and fell. I tried to get up but he was already there, grabbing me by the shoulders and shaking me. "Who are you?"
I tried to brush him aside, but my heart was not in it. "You said you were dying!" I screamed in rage, throwing his hands off of me, my tears sliding salty into my mouth. "You said you had to go back to your oak to die."
We stood before each other as I tried to stop trembling and he began to remember me. He looked in the prime of his life, as he had when we had first met at Arthwys's court centuries ago. His hand reached out, touched my tears and lingered over my hair. His eyes were clouded as his mind strove to recollect. "You're Nimue," he said slowly.
"Yes," I snapped. "And you're Myrddin. And when Arthwys still ruled we loved each other. But then you had to die, and so you left." My anger and hostility towards him were irrational, but it beyond my wildest fantasies to ever see him alive again and that frightened me.
"I-I knew that someone of your race lived in the village, and so I left the oak bough and the note in hopes of seeking their-your-help to find Caladvwlch. I never thought to find you," he said.
"Well, now you have," I said, softening.
His head dropped. "Nimue, I need to tell you this now. I only have a limited time to find Caladvwlch before I must return to the tree...For you see, I did die. I am dead now. I was returned here by whatever gods there are to find the sword. Without it safe, the world is out of balance." He looked me straight in the eye again. "Will you help me?"
How could I refuse?
There was a full moon the night he met me again. He could only come out of his oak at night and in the morning he returned to its prison.
"Are you ready?" he asked me.
"For what?" I responded.
"I've felt Caladvwlch's force. I know where it is, where it's being held."
He led me through Cornwall's rugged hills, over the Bodmin Moor and north to Camelford, where once Camelot had stood in all its glory. In the first frivolous use of my powers in years, I flew us through the star-crossed sky over dotted fields and farms and the odd village.
"Stop," he whispered in my ear. He held my hand as he led me across a small field.
It had changed over the centuries, but I recognized where we were. "No," I said, stopping. "I'm not going there. If the sword is there, it's safe there, because no one who knows its power would ever risk going where it lies."
"We must," Myrddin said. "I am sorry, but there is something else involved. I do not know what, but someone did risk going in there."
"Too much died there," I whispered, terror seizing up my throat. I had lived in Cornwall for years, had crisscrossed its peninsula again and again, and yet there was one place that I had never dared to go. Slaughterbridge, the site of the Battle of Camlann, where Arthwys and his forces were defeated by Medraut.
"It's all right," Myrddin coaxed. "We'll take Caladvwlch and go." He led me out onto the field where an age of glory had died.
It was a cowfield, holding no obvious magic or power. I almost laughed, wondering how long I had feared this place when all it threatened was a foot soiled in cow manure. We walked across the field and hopped the barbed wire fence to stand on the sixteenth Century Bridge. It had not been there when the Battle of Camlann had been fought.
A pixie landed on my shoulder, chattering gibberish. I could understand the basis of her alarm though: a powerful spell was being worked in the woods on the other side of the bridge. Myrddin smelled the magic as well and together we crept towards its origin.
The magic's scent grew stronger as we drew closer. Underlying it was the scent of its maker, a scent I did not recognize at first. Under even that scent was the metallic smell of Caladvwlch, and that of a mortal human male.
"...the time comes, you will take the sword from the stone and hold it above your head. Then will you be the King, once and forever."
Myrddin and I exchanged glances through the darkness as we snuck closer to the voice. We both recognized it now, realized what the thief wanted with Caladvwlch.
Finally we were in sight of the voice's owner. A woman, garbed in flowing white robes, held Caladvwlch in her hands, speaking excitedly to a young man, hardly more than a boy. In between them a small fire burned brightly, shedding eerie shadows on the trees surrounding them.
"The likeness is uncanny," Myrddin whispered to me, "but it is not him."
The woman looked up sharply at his words. "Who's there?" she called wildly, almost shrieking. The boy looked around in a panic, hands fidgeting over his unfamiliar clothes that would have looked in place in Arthwys's time but not this age of rayon and denim. "Come out!" the woman cried.
I stepped out from behind the tree. "Morgan!" I called to my sister.
Morgan stood up in her white robes and clutched Caladvwlch by the hilt as though to defend herself against me. The boy stood, frightened and out of place.
Myrddin now stood next to me. "Morgan, please. Surely you know that this is not Arthwys!"
"He is Arthwys!" shrieked Morgan, and I saw how mad my sister really was. "He was dead, but he has returned, just as you said, Myrddin! He will give me a child, and we will rule together in Britain forever!"
"Boy," I asked the frightened lad. "Are you Arthwys?"
"M-my name is Arthur," he stammered, and I could see he told the truth about his name, at least.
"Are you the King?" I asked, pressing my point.
"She said I was," he responded quickly, pointing to Morgan accusingly.
Myrddin moved over to his side and grabbed him by the collar. "Go," he said harshly. "And tell no one what you saw here tonight or repeat what she told you." He referred to Morgan.
The boy named Arthur nodded and fled into the dark woods.
"NO!" screeched Morgan. Her knuckles went white on Caladvwlch's hilt. "He is the king! Nimue, you fool, you and your oak-man have frightened off the king!"
"Morgan, listen to me. That was not the king. King Arthwys is dead." Myrddin did not remind her that Medraut had killed him.
Morgan did not respond, only watched us with fury.
"Why did you come here, Morgan?" I asked calmly, thinking of one way to cure her madness. "Why come here to do your magic?"
I could see her mind teetering on the edge of insanity trying to answer me. I had never seen one of my kind in this state before and it frightened me.
"Why here?" I persisted. "What happened here that made you wish to do your magic in this place?"
Her breathing was hard, but she was beginning to remember. "A-a battle," she said wildly. "A battle."
"What happened at the battle?" I asked, wishing I did not have to force my sister to relive her time of greatest pain. "Who died at that battle?" I twisted the knife in her emotional wound.
She cast her eyes downward. "My son." A single tear trickled down her cheek.
"And?" I probed, hating myself for doing this.
Morgan sank to her knees, Caladvwlch clattering to the mossy ground in front of her. "Arthwys," she whispered, crying openly now.
Myrddin looked at me in astonishment, amazed at my success.
"Get the sword," I told him. He crossed the clearing and scooped it up then quickly backed away from Morgan.
Morgan lay in a sobbing heap and I moved to her side. I had not seen her since soon after Arthwys died, when she had fled our island in grief. Since then, she had searched for Caladvwlch, and then for a man she could convince-as well as convince herself-was Arthwys, the king alive again. But that boy was not Arthwys, and Morgan had deluded herself.
"Shh, shh," I whispered to her, holding her close. But even I, her sister, could offer her no comfort.
She looked up at me with wide tear-stained eyes. "He never will return, will he?"
I looked at Myrddin, but neither of us could answer.
I returned Morgan to our two sisters to care for her. She had inflicted much damage upon herself and needed time to heal. It would take a long time, even for one such as she, but what is time to my kind anyway?
After leaving her in safety, I returned to Cornwall.
I had to say goodbye again.
Myrddin was waiting by the oak tree next to the quoit. His oak tree, the one he had to return to in order to die. He held Caladvwlch, and I wondered what he wanted to do with it now that we had recovered it.
At first we did not speak.
"I told you before, Nimue," he reminded me gently. "I am dead, have been dead. I just came back to recover this," he hefted the sword, "and now I must leave again."
"What's it like?" I asked, hardly able to bear this pain again. "What's it like being dead?" In a minute of cruelty, I wanted him to feel the pain I thought I was alone in feeling. I should have known he felt it too.
He didn't answer my question. "I need you to keep this. You need to protect it, to keep it safe so that someone like Morgan doesn't try to use it again." He handed me Caladvwlch, but I looked at it dully.
"Keep it for what, Myrddin?" I asked imploringly. "What I did to Morgan not only convinced her that Arthwys was dead, it convinced me as well. Arthwys is gone. No mortal can be raised from the dead."
"And yet I am here," he said. He kissed me once then drew away. "I love you, Nimue. I will return, so keep your love for me. And he," Myrddin was being drawn into the oak and I struggled not to cry out, "will return, so keep the sword for him."
And with that he was gone, drawn by inexplicable forces back into his oak, gone from me again. But I remembered what he said, about him returning. About Arthwys returning. I have Caladvwlch with me, waiting for that day.
I wait still.
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