Hello everyone! Welcome to the last chapter before the end. I can hardly believe it, ahh!
To my reviewer Kate, thank you for your kind words! I'm just sorry I made you lose so much sleep! :)
So there's not really much else to say, I'll just let you get to the reading!
"I always knew that you'd come back to get me. You always knew that it wouldn't be easy to go back to the start, to see where it all began, or end up at the bottom to watch how it all ends. You tried to lie and say I was everything. I remember when I said I'm nothing without you. I'm nothing without you. Somehow I found a way to get lost in you. Let me inside. Let me get close to you. Change your mind. I'll get lost if you want me to. Somehow I found a way to get lot in you."-Three Days Grace
In my dream, I was fighting the Saxon leader once again. Everything proceeded as it had the first time, except I didn't black out after he shoved the dagger through my forearm. I was paralyzed as Aderyn attacked him with all the ferocity of a rampaging bear, lunging at him again and again. It still wasn't enough, and he soon disarmed her and forced her to her knees. Grabbing her by her hair, the Saxon forced me to watch while he cut her throat.
Waking in a cold sweat, I moved to sit up. Two small hands were placed on my chest, forcing me back down. Aderyn's face was hidden in shadow, but I knew without a doubt it was her next to me. Perched on the edge of my bed by my legs hugging her knees, she seemed especially small.
"Don't sit up," she ordered in a whisper. "You might rip your stitches. Everything is alright. You're in the infirmary."
"What happened?" I demanded.
"Like I told you, we won," she replied. "Arthur killed the Saxon leader. You've got a row of stitches in your right underarm, some in the back of your head, a few stab wounds in your abdomen area, and you'll have trouble with your right hand for awhile. The dagger might have ruined some of your nerves. The healers said you should gain full mobility back though."
"All a bit worse for wear, but alive," she said. The tightness of her voice was impossible to miss. Something was wrong.
She took a deep, shuddering breath, and whimpered, "Elaine is dead."
"How?" I asked, running my fingers over her leg. She grabbed the hand, and held it in her lap.
"She was helping the healers, and she saw the Saxon with the bald head we fought on the lake about to shoot Lancelot. So she ran to push him out of the way, but she put herself in the path of the bolt. It struck her in the heart, there was nothing they could do. Naveen found out a few hours ago when the evacuees were brought back, and she hasn't spoken to anyone since. She's locked up in Gawain's room."
I forced myself to move upright, ignoring Aderyn's protests and slapping her hands away when she tried to force me back down. Once I was up, I tugged her towards me, and she gave up her struggles once I had my arms around her. She rested her forehead against my shoulder and started to shake with silent sobs. I just held her, unable to formulate any sympathetic words.
After several long minutes, she calmed back down and shifted to press her lips to my shoulder.
"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I never should have forced that ultimatum on you. I was so very wrong."
"Doesn't matter anymore," I murmured.
"Does this mean you'll take me back?" I could hear the smile in her voice.
"I'd like to see you try and get away again," I growled.
She laughed, but stopped quickly, clutching her side. In answer to my questioning glance, she said, "Broken ribs. Hurts to laugh."
"Then why are you up? You should be resting."
"I wanted to make sure you were okay. But now that I am certain you're not going to die, I think I will try to sleep."
Aderyn unfolded herself from me, slowly shifting to lay her head on my pillow. I laid down behind her, wrapping an arm around her waist and tugging her until her back was pressed into my chest. She hummed in contentment, nestling into a more comfortable position, and with her next to me, it was easy to fall into a dreamless, restful sleep.
As days went by, the body count rose steadily higher. A group of Wall citizens were found in a gory mess of body parts around the side of the Keep, Medea among them. Apparently they didn't want to evacuate, thinking they could just wait out the attack, but some Saxons managed to slip into the city and slaughter them before being killed themselves. Severina was shot by a Saxon and died the day after the battle. Thankfully no one else I knew personally was killed, but that didn't mean that the losses didn't weigh heavily on my mind.
On the day after the battle, pyres were erected on Badon Hill, and the dead Saxons were piled on top of them to burn the bodies. No one stayed to pay them their vigil, but the scent of so much burning flesh could be smelled all the way in the infirmary. The day after that, the Woad soldiers were buried in a mass grave deep in the forest. I left Tristan to attend the ceremony, as it was customary for commanders and their seconds to send off their soldiers with words of peace. No people other than the relatives of the dead and the leaders were allowed to attend, but Arthur was there, standing next to Merlin in respectful silence. There was something going on between the leader of the Woads and the Roman commander, but he had yet to tell us what.
In the early hours of the third morning, I stood in a room in the back of the Keep, empty except for a single bed. It was used to prepare the dead before their burial. Dagonet had lain here, and so had Severina, before their respective burials. And now Elaine's was the body on the bed, her eyes peacefully closed, her arms crossed over her chest. Naveen was already here last night to wrap her, but had become too emotional and couldn't finish her torso. I was here to finish the job, but my hands were shaking so terribly I'd only gotten to her shoulders before I couldn't continue any longer.
How could, of all people, sweet, innocent Elaine, be dead? So impossible, but here she lay, proof that she wouldn't come walking through the door at any moment with a soft smile and a song on her lips. How many times had she warned me to be careful? Hundreds, and yet she was the one who ran across an active battlefield. In an aesthetic way, I understood why she'd done it. Hadn't I done the very same thing to get to Tristan when I saw him losing the fight with the Saxon leader? The only difference was that I was armed and had combat experience. That didn't mean I wouldn't have done the very same thing I had the first time even if I was untrained like Elaine was. So I could recognize her reasoning, but I was still so angry at her for doing something so foolish. My time was spent conflicting over these two emotions as I leaned against the wall trying to gain back the determination to continue her wrappings.
When the door opened, I jumped, startled, but it was only Lancelot that edged into the room. He walked right over to the side of the table she laid on, and stood there with his head bowed. He looked exhausted, the worst I'd ever seen him. By my guess, I'd say he hadn't slept much these last few nights.
"She could sing," I spoke up, making the knight start and whirl around to face me. "And bake. She was always too nervous to stand up for herself, but she slapped Medea in the face once for calling me a whore."
Lancelot looked down, pulling a necklace from his pocket. I recognized it as something Elaine used to wear a lot. "She gave this to me," he said quietly. "She said she wanted me to be reminded of her when I was in Sarmatia." He laid the necklace on her chest. "She has a lovely face... You know, I never even knew her name."
"It was Elaine," I revealed, "and she was in love with you."
"How?" he inquired, shaking his head slightly when I came to stand next to him. "I only spoke to her a few times."
"I don't really know. She saw something in you that was…irreproachable."
"Elaine," he repeated the name to himself. "She saved my life."
"To her, that was worth dying for."
He cleared his throat brusquely, mumbling, "She should be buried with that. She said it was her grandmother's."
"No," I disagreed, handing the amulet back to him. "I know her, she would have wanted you to keep it. She gave it to you in the first place." When he looked like he might argue, I curled his fingers over the necklace, pushing him away. "Take it, and go. I have to finish this. They'll be coming for her body shortly."
Lancelot turned on his heel to walk out, but I called his name before he closed the door behind him, and he paused to hear me say, "Any quarrels between us are over. It's idiotic and petty of me to continue this any longer. I forgive you, for everything."
"I'm glad to hear it," he responded without turning.
After he was gone, I picked up the cloth to begin wrapping her up again, catching a last glimpse of my friend's face before it disappeared forever.
Elaine was buried next to her parents in the cemetery for citizens of the fort. Gawain attended but had to lean heavily on a crutch to keep himself upright. He was still weak after being shot in the chest by a Saxon during the battle. Naveen stood between him and I, her eyes bloodshot and hollow. I held her hand and allowed her to lean her head on my shoulder. Clamping down on my sadness, I didn't allow a single tear to escape my eyes. I couldn't fall apart when Naveen was relying on me to be the strong one. Galahad stood on my other side, allowing me to squeeze his hand as tight as I needed to to keep myself in check.
Other than the four of us, the only other attendees were Naveen's parents, a gaunt Desiderius, Vanora, and Lancelot, who stood far back from the rest of us, watching the proceedings with an expression he kept careful control over. After the last shovelful of dirt was patted down on the grave, he turned and walked away as fast as his legs would carry him.
Naveen's parents came to speak with her and Gawain, and Galahad and I began to make our way back to the city to give them some privacy. I was still limping from the pain of the wound the Saxon leader had dealt to my leg, which never ceased to aggravate me. Galahad slowed to match my pace, one hand on my arm to keep me steady, considering I walked as slow and unstably as an old crone.
On the trail that lead through the graves, I caught sight of Desiderius standing next to a different grave, a fresh one that had to be his mother's.
"Galahad, I'm going to go talk to Desiderius," I said.
"Alright," he allowed hesitantly. "But hurry up and get back, or Tristan will kill me for letting you go around on your own when you're all banged up."
We went our separate ways, and I prepared myself mentally for what was sure to be an awkward exchange. Once Desiderius heard me approaching, he turned and then hurriedly began to wipe away his tears.
"What are you doing here?" he asked dully.
"I never had a chance to extend my condolences," I said softly. "I really am so sorry about your mother. I wanted to come to her burial, but-"
"It's best that you didn't," he interrupted.
I placed a comforting hand on his arm. "I'm concerned about you. How are you handling all of this?"
He drew in a shuddering breath, shaking his hair back out of his face. "I don't really know. Hard to even believe all of this is real, honestly. I'm the head healer, now. Which is nice…or it would be if not for the circumstances. At least all of the work keeps my mind from wandering off. I keep remembering when I was little and I would come home crying when the other boys wouldn't let me join in their games, and she would always say I was just too advanced for them. 'They can't understand the educated, Desi. Don't listen to them. You're special, and someday everyone will realize it.' That woman. She was a mean old bat towards the end, but she was still my mother and I loved her."
"Of course you did. You can't be blamed for missing her. Gods, I spent the better part of ten winters grieving for my family, so allowing yourself this time isn't anything to be ashamed of."
He nodded, stuffing his hands in his pockets, shifting an edgy glance to me. "I am sorry about what happened between us before. I knew you were still in love with him, I shouldn't have pushed you like that. Even if you don't feel the same way, I still want to be your friend. It would be absolutely iniquitous of me to deny you as a companion just because I'm embarrassed."
"Oh Desiderius," I chuckled, "did you think I'd stopped considering you one of my dearest friends just because of that? No way. I'll always be there for you, you should know that. Unless you do something truly heinous, of course. Like…kicking a puppy."
"Only you could make me laugh at a time like this," he chuckled. "Ever the cheerer you are."
"I have a feeling I'll become ever the legless soon if I don't get back to the infirmary," I winced. "My calf is killing me."
"Oh, you should have reminded me!" he scolded. "Come on, let's get you back to the fort! You lunatic, wandering around on an injury like that! Wait, you have broken ribs too, don't you? Don't you?!"
I laughed as he put an arm around me, taking most of my weight on himself as we began to trek back down the path to the fort. "There's the Desiderius I adore, forever the mother hen."
"I'm not a mother hen!"
A week after Elaine's funeral, Tristan and I were both being officially dismissed from the infirmary on the same day. He was still having trouble getting his hand to work just the way he wanted, but since that wasn't anything life-threatening, Desiderius was letting him go.
Gawain was also let go today, the only other knight who'd spent any extended time in the infirmary. Naveen had finally emerged from Gawain's room for the occasion, and had fussed over the state of her knight's health while he batted her away like a bothersome fly until the two of them left an hour ago. I was glad to see them together after all this time, especially since he was taking her mind off all the tragedy around us as of late.
"Gods these things itch," I told Tristan, fidgeting so I wouldn't scratch the area on my side where I had some stitching.
"You're about to get them out," he reminded me, testing out the mobility in his wrist again.
"Can't you ever just let me complain without being rational about things?" I grumbled.
"Great help you are. Maybe I should have chosen a man more on the genial side. Like…Galahad."
Not having realized the aforementioned knight had just arrived in the room, I groaned when he spoke up from behind me, "Now that's what I like to hear! I'm available any time you'd like to make that switch." Tristan withdrew a dagger from under his pillow, stabbing it into the bedside table threateningly. The younger knight just chuckled. "Calm down, Tristan. I'm only joking."
"Better be," he muttered dangerously, withdrawing his blade and hiding it away again.
"Alright," Desiderius said, coming towards me with a dagger in his hand. "Let's see those stitches."
I laid on my side and lifted up my shirt so he could start taking them out. As the tugging sensation in my skin began, I glowered at Galahad when I caught him staring at my exposed abdomen with a tiny smirk on his lips. "Galahad! Stop it!"
"Well, since I'm here I might as well enjoy the view!"
"Why are you here? Just to be a pest?"
"As a matter of fact, this visit is purely business," he objected. "Arthur has called a meeting in the Fortress Hall."
"Well, go on then," I said. "Tristan was just waiting for me anyway."
Galahad shook his head. "No, not just him. I'm supposed to bring you back too."
He shrugged. "I don't know. Arthur just told me to gather you two for the meeting, I didn't ask why."
"Done!" Desiderius announced. "Remember to come back next week to get the ones out of your leg."
"Like I could forget that," I scoffed, sitting up and pulling my shirt back down. "Ready to go then?"
I bid Desiderius goodbye, and then followed Galahad to go to the meeting. I wondered why I was summoned along with the knights. Honestly I was just hoping it was nothing bad. The citizens of the Wall were struggling to pick themselves back up now that the Romans were gone. We had no goods coming in, no established trade, no guards on the Wall, and barely any business for the merchants and businesses because of how poor everyone was. We were trapped in a vicious cycle, one that no one was taking any steps to solve.
In the Fortress Hall, the other four knights and Arthur were there, along with Merlin and Guinevere on either side of Arthur. Jols and Ganis were there too, taking up two seats in the gap between Lancelot and Galahad's seats. Tristan and Galahad went to their established places, but I remained near the door.
"Galahad said you called for me?" I queried.
"Yes, I did," Arthur reiterated. "Please, take a seat. There is an announcement to be made."
I shuffled over to the spot on Tristan's right and sat down, leaving only one chair between Gawain and I. Thankfully everyone in the room looked just as puzzled as I did, the only exceptions being Merlin and Guinevere.
"As you know," Merlin began, "Rome has finally left Briton. The purpose my people have fought for has finally been realized. Though we could not be more overjoyed to have our freedom again, we find ourselves without a leader."
"What about you?" Ganis asked. The man seemed to have a penchant for blurting out the question everyone in the room was thinking but didn't feel right actually voicing.
"I lead the Woads in our time of crisis, yes, but I am no monarch. Guiding the true king is my foretold purpose."
"And who do you say this 'true king' is?" inquired Lancelot.
"Arthur," he answered, as if it were so simple that he couldn't even believe he had to spell it out for us.
A stunned silence enveloped the pause after his response as everyone let that sink in, exchanging meaningful glances.
"And…you agree with this, my lord?" asked Jols.
Arthur rubbed the back of his neck a bit sheepishly. "This land has been my home my whole life. I spent so many years dreaming of how perfect Rome would be when I finally reached it that I didn't see what I had right in front of me the entire time. Now that I have had the blinders removed from my eyes, I know that this is where I belong, and since there is no one else stepping up, I will."
"So, what?" Galahad scoffed. "You're just going to forget everything you've waited fifteen years for to become King of the Woads?"
"No," Guinevere objected. "Arthur will be King of Briton. Now that the Roman menace is gone, there is no need to distinguish between the Woads and the others from this land. We are all just Britons now."
"Does that mean you're going to stop painting yourselves blue too?"
Gawain smacked Galahad in the back of the head, and I shot him a dark look. "What?" he asked innocently. "I just don't see how this is going to work. Do you plan to just start calling yourself King Arthur and hoping everyone goes along with it?"
"Once I have declared Arthur king, the complicated parts start," Merlin clarified. "For him to be acknowledged as king, we must reach out to our neighbors around the country to spread the word. We will offer resources and protection in exchange for allegiance and use of their armies."
"What do you plan to do when diplomacy fails?" Bors asked, one eyebrow arched. "Because it will at some point, even if you get lucky with the first couple of provinces."
"I've found that subtle threats always get the point across," Merlin answered breezily. "If they refuse, we can simply remind them that our military recently defeated the biggest Saxon horde ever seen on this side of the sea."
"Of course, that will always be saved as a last resort," Arthur spoke up hastily. "I would like to start my reign with as little bloodshed as possible."
When Arthur spoke of his reign, it all sounded more real, and was surprisingly easy to picture. The half-Roman was a good man and an even better leader. At first, this sounded rather insane, but when I really thought about it, he was a perfect candidate for king. He was just and loyal, and I had no doubt the people would love him. I'd never met a man better at rallying a crowd. His silver tongue could surely sway people to his side.
"I think it's a good idea," I spoke up, breaking the contemplative quiet that had fallen over the room. "When you think about it, it's better than having a bunch of incompetent men start dividing the country up for themselves. We know Arthur, and we know his values. Who better for the job?"
"Thank you, Aderyn," Arthur said humbly.
"I've always said you're too noble for your own good," Lancelot jested, smirking.
"'King Arthur' does have a bit of a ring to it, doesn't it?" Gawain added.
"Gods, are we all about to agree that Arturius Castus should be King of Briton?" Bors laughed. "This day is certainly taking a turn I didn't expect!"
"So how are you going to start this out?" Lancelot questioned. "Just walk up on the Wall and make a speech?"
"Before we get to that, I have something I must ask all of you," Arthur began, tone suggesting he felt uncomfortable with the question. "The real reason I gathered the eight of you here was to ask who among you plan to leave this land. It is understandable if you still crave your homeland, and I will not attempt to stop you if you walk away."
"Well, you already know I'm not going nowhere," Bors pointed out.
"I'm staying as well," Gawain spoke up. "I reckon I wouldn't even know what do with myself without my axe in my hand. Might as well stick to what I know at this age."
"I'm with Arthur," Ganis said decidedly.
"Well, where do you really think I'd go?" Jols said sarcastically. "Been here all my ruddy life anyway."
I turned to Tristan, using my eyes to silently ask him what he wanted to do. He traced some scratches in the arm of his chair with his forefinger, staring back at me thoughtfully. I wanted to stay, but if Tristan was still dead set on leaving, I would go. By his expression, I assumed he knew that.
"I will stay," he finally declared, just loud enough for the others to catch his words.
I smiled at him as I announced, "Me as well."
"Galahad…Lancelot?" Arthur asked, looking between the two men who remained silent on the issue. Lancelot was staring fixedly at one spot on the table, his eyebrows stitched together like he was thinking very hard. Galahad, however, was looking around at the rest of us. I knew the youngest knight wanted so badly to see his homeland, but now that almost everyone had decided to stay in Briton, he was having second thoughts. Lancelot was as impossible to decipher as usual, so I didn't even attempt to guess what was going on in his head.
"If you need time to make a decision, you may have it," Arthur told them. "I do not want to force your hand either way."
"No," Lancelot said, shaking his head, "I don't need time. I know what I wish to do."
"And what is that?"
"All of these years, we have been by each other's side. You have been a friend to me more than any man on this earth. That is why I will stay."
Arthur might have said he was impartial to the knights' decision, but it was hard for him to stop from beaming when Lancelot said he'd stay. He bit back his happiness as best as he could, and turned to Galahad.
"Do you wish for a night to think over your decision?" he asked.
Galahad rubbed his hands over his face, leaned back in his chair, and shook his head. "Can't really go now that everyone's staying, can I?"
"Of course you can," Arthur disagreed. "This is your choice, don't let anyone else's decide your fate."
"Oh, shut up, your majesty!" Galahad said, beginning to smirk. "We're brothers in arms, did you forget? We stick together, through sweat and blood."
Bors cheered for that, banging his fists on the table. Arthur smiled and dipped his head in agreement. "Very well then. Tomorrow morning, during market, I will make the announcement to the people."
"We will be there to back you up," Lancelot promised.
"Good," Merlin replied. "Tell no one else of this. Word must not reach the people before we make the announcement. You are dismissed."
The knights seemed less than thrilled about being told when to go by the former Woad, but began to stand up nonetheless. Tristan and I veered off from the group and headed towards the stables instead of the tavern.
On an unspoken agreement, we both saddled up our horses, and rode out through the front gates. We passed the blackened patch of land that was Badon Hill, scorched beyond recognition by the fires. The blood was finally washed away by rain, but we would be forced to wait for spring before the area would return to the lush green we were used to.
Grinning, I looked over to Tristan and winked when he caught my eye, digging both knees into Egryn to spur him ahead. Tristan attempted to keep up with me, but Egryn blazed over the ground almost like he was flying. I let out a breathless laugh, wishing things could always be like this.
Dagonet, Elaine, and Severina were gone, and right now my entire country was on unstable ground. But in that moment, those thoughts just faded away, and I was able to look forward to my future.
I'm surprised that a lot of you didn't realize that Elaine was going to die. Only one or two of you caught "The Lady of Shallot" reference, lol. I loved her character, but that's how the legend goes, my friend.
Next Thursday will be the epilogue! Until then, review to tell me what you think!