For all her seventeen years she had lived between nine crumbling columns at the pinnacle of a low hill. Spreading around her like a living moat was a ring of apple trees.
She crouches now over the earth beside the column she calls “Between All Things,” mixing a potion for the Queen of Faerie’s son, who is plagued by nightmares. There is no sun here; it is always morning or evening and only the color of the sky suggests which. Now the wide sky is purple tinged, and she knows that soon it will be dusk-time and her herbs will have to wait.
Through the false gate between the “Never-going” column and the one named “Forever-falling,” the wizard appears. He wears the leather armor of men, an iron sword hanging at his hip. “Morgen,” he says, and the apple trees whisper her name back to him.
Without glancing the wizard’s way, she tips over the clay pot mixed with crushed lavender and valerian and skullcap. Like tea leaves, they whirl against the cracked stone floor as though swept by eddies of water, then fall into a pattern. She stares for a moment and then as she stands said, “Yes,” and sweeps her bare feet through the divination. “Whatever you have come for, the answer is yes.”
They face each other across the grove of stone; one lithe and young, her fingers stained blue and her braids as tangled as lake weeds, the other like a piece of driftwood too heavy to be swayed by the current.
“Your loyalty does you honor, child,” the wizard says, holding out a hand.
Thinking of her divination, she goes to him. Better for the wizard to think she makes her decision for love.
The first words from the boy-king’s mouth when she enters his hall spit with anger. “I will not, Cai, I will not stay here.” His hand slams onto the long table, rattling cups down the line.
“Sir,” a warrior pushes back his seat, a great bulk of a man with thick braids the color of tallow. “Here is the best place to keep the wolves from our door.” The gathered warriors bang their thick clay cups in agreement, drowning out the boy’s protests. By their bracelets and sword hilts and rings, Morgen knows them for lords.
The king says, voice strained with calm, “The fields here are over-eaten, and if we continue to force ourselves upon this valley, they will welcome the Saxons, Bedwyr.”
The wizard strides over the straw-strewn floor and bows. “Arthur.”
“Myrddin! Tell them we cannot stay here. They will not listen to me, because my words are meaningless to such warmongers and idiots.” The boy throws up his arms.
From the doorway, caught between the warmth of the hall and the early Spring chill at her back, Morgen hides a smile behind her fingers. She has heard stories in the wind and chatter from the pixies about this new king. That on the battlefield he is unrecognizable in his wrath, but his mercy gathers men and loyalty at an uncommon rate. Mostly, though, she has heard that the land loves him, too.
“We have wintered here,” the wizard says, “and should move on so that the fields may be replanted.”
Clamor rises from the gathered lords, and as they argue, Morgen watches the king. He is younger than she expected, and he observes the cacophony with his mouth turned down in a furious pout. A twisted iron and copper ring sits heavily about his neck. Tilting his head, he stares up at the low roof beams, at a pair of morning doves huddled in the shadows beside the smoke hole. Just as Morgen thinks, perhaps, the stories have exaggerated his command, he stomps up onto his chair and from there onto the table itself, planting his boots so hard chunks of dirt fall off the heels and skitter across the wood.
Silence cuts through the hall. The boy-king says quietly, so they have to listen, “I am leaving, and taking my court with me. I will not ruin this valley. We will find a better place to camp until the summer warring.”
Without waiting for an answer, he hops off the table, landing with his knees bent and balanced. Flicking his hand at the wizard, he strides toward Morgen. She steps aside, but the wizard says, “Arthur.”
The king stops, and notices her. “Who is this?”
“Morgen, Arthur. She’s come to help with the table.”
“The faerie?” Arthur walks the final space between them and peers at her, hair to toes. “You don’t have shoes.”
“You don’t have a beard,” she says.
His scowl opens up and he laughs. “Welcome to my court, Morgen the Faerie.”
Traveling with Arthur is slower than traveling with the wind, but soon they arrive at the fort where the table will be forged.
A great wooden hall rises from behind an ancient ring of earth, and Morgen can smell the sea. It was a fort belonging to a lost tribe, Myrddin tells her, used by the Romans to corral cattle, and re-built by Arthur’s father’s father. From the cliffs they can see in all directions, but the ground is fertile and the place will do well for their magics. Earth and sea and sky, coming together.
She closes her eyes and digs her toes into the grass. It is as the wizard says. Here she can built a hearth for the deepest magic.
They begin with a slab of stone cut from the cliff side and worn smooth by a thousand crashing salt waves. All the lords and Arthur himself hold the ropes that drag it over rolling logs up and up and up from the beach. “This will be a symbol of our rule, of the wholeness and greatness of our island,” he declares over a feast, with torches licking the shadows away and fat popping in a dozen bonfires.
Morgen is given a gown of smooth red wool and a girdle of linked mother-of-pearl, but even as she walks the halls of the king, she refuses shoes. In the great hall, where the round slab is raised up by squat oaken pillars, she crawls over and beneath it, etching tiny words around and around and around again, while the wizard cuts the thick spiral where the iron will be laid.
She kneels beneath the slab in the morning when the young sun spills in through the doors at just an angle to light the underside so she can work. A shadow flashes over her runes and she glances at the boots pacing slowly around the table: scuffed leather and chunks of mud trailing in their wake.
A whisper of skin on stone tells her Arthur runs his fingers along the edge of the table as he walks around it. She holds herself still, uncertain if he came here to be alone, until the king releases a sigh full of sorrow.
“Why does my table make you sad?” she says.
“Morgen?” Arthur crouches, resting his forearms on his knees with his head tilted so he can peer under. “What are you doing down there?”
Before she can crawl out, the king crawls in. He fits perfectly beneath it when sitting with his legs crossed, and when he lifts his face his nose is a breath away from the smooth stone. “It smells like old things.”
“It is old.”
“Not like us.”
“We feel old,” she says, imagining her finger tracing the arc of his nose the way he’s traced her table. “Is that what makes you sad? All the weight of kinghood?”
He meets her eyes, and in this shadowed privacy, whispers, “I am sad I must resort to this.”
She knows he means her table.
“I want to inspire and unite on my own merits.”
“Why am I creating it, then?”
Another long sigh blows his breath against her cheek. “Because when the Romans retreated they left a void here, and everyone has raced to take it apart and destroy any good they had done. We had roads and trading and communication, and now the roads crumble, we have pirates instead of merchants and without their force, no one listens. This island needs an emperor again.”
“You have done so much in just a little time. Why are you impatient?”
“I had stories on my side, wild tales of a boy and his faerie sword, I had cavalry when no one else did. But stories are good for conquering, not for finding peace, and at every battle my enemies learn from me. I need something to hold my rule together, here, at home. To bind the others to me.”
“There are better ways. Ways you know well.”
“How can I risk them, with what is at stake?”
“How can you not, with what is at stake?”
He remains quiet, and she moves closer. The king kisses her.
In the forge, where sparks and ruby coals tumbled over the ground, she picks her careful way, hair braided back, sleeves and skirts tied up, to hammer magic into the metal. The smoke reeks of stringent herbs and none but she can breathe.
It is a marvelous, terrifying production when the metal is ready. They build the largest forge fire ever seen, on logs of yew and mistletoe bundles, to heat the spiral in one piece and it is carried hot and glowing by nine men to the table and set in at once for the magic to quicken properly. Yelling and curses crack through cool dawn as they scramble from forge to the hole knocked into the wall so the door is large enough.
The spiral scrapes harshly over the stone, and Morgen and the wizard together shove it into place with oak wands. It locks down, sending up a ring that reverberates in the ears of all.
Morgen raises her eyes, wiping sweaty hair from her face, and finds the boy-king watching her. He smiles, sorrow melting away.
The wizard leads her into the empty hall in the hours before dawn, when everyone sleeps. She is weary, but the spiral table invigorates her, calling to her skin so that she immediately presses her palms down. Where stone should be cool, this is as warm as a man.
“It is beautifully done,” the wizard says, standing behind her. “As I would expect from the Faerie Queen’s ironsmith.”
Bending at the waist, she leans her entire body against it, ear to the iron, and closes her eyes. The song it sings is of roots and rivers and currents of wind, living ropes tying the men who touch it together. It is earth and fire, air and water, and she has drawn them together.
The iron screams, and she jerks away.
The wizard’s dagger grinds into stone, sparks blinking and gone.
She stands back, staring at him, only able to wonder at his purpose.
“You’d made that so easy.” He slides the edge of the blade against his finger, drawing blood.
“Why?” She is so unbelieving, she finds it impossible to be afraid.
The wizard points the dagger at her. “It is the final magic. Your sacrifice, to the table.”
“But it is complete. It needs no such thing.”
“I have seen him watching you. You with your bare feet and ocean eyes, you have become the spirit of the island to him, Morgen. He would sacrifice himself to you, Apple-keeper, healer, wind-whisperer.”
She draws back her shoulders, but the wizard gives her no chance to speak. He lunges, and Morgen falls back with a yell, kicking out her feet. They crash down, and she swings her arm at his face. The iron ring around her wrist hits his cheek, and in his moment of surprise, she claws at his hand, takes the dagger and runs.
The king sleeps in a heavy tent, out among his warriors. Morgen tears back the flap and darts inside. A banked fire casts no light, but the moon is bright enough to glow through the cloth. Arthur sleeps as he walks; sprawling and loud.
Her breath bursts in an uneven rhythm as she flings about in her mind for something to tell him. Some truth that he will understand, before the wizard comes.
That she is bound to him, not by magic, but by love.
That he is bound to the earth, not by magic, but by spilled blood.
That the wizard is bound only to himself, and the trees themselves will one day devour him.
She kneels at his head, leans to kiss him, and pauses, lips hovering over his.
“The witch is trying to murder the king!”
The wizards yell is just outside, and as the tent is again torn open, Arthur opens his eyes to see her crouched over him with dagger in hand.
“No,” she whispers.
His eyes look past her to the wizard’s towering figure, blocking the firelight outside.
Love at his bedside, and power at the door.
The boy-king grips her wrist, tightening until she cries out and released the dagger. “You will never trust love,” she says, wrenching free of him. She means it mournfully, but the words twist and churn into a curse before they reach his ears.
Standing back, she claps her hands together, and the sound is echoed by thunder and the crashing of waves. Wind gusts in to the tent, yanking it up from the ground in great flapping chaos. The king ducks and covers his head as stakes are flung in the air. The wizard cries out and all the waking warriors cower.
When the maelstrom lays itself down again, the girl, too, has gone.
image by wokka, flickr Creative Commons