PRW Runner-up Tour: The Gift of Avalon by Megan Wilson
An upside-down world, where the trees grew from the lake’s surface and the flowers bloomed on long stalks that drifted through the water. Even when above the world was stormy and dark, below, there was always silvery light, glistening and shimmering. Floating castles made of glowing rock, much more delicate and intricate than those of medieval men, drifted through the water. An endless song, the sounds of nature and delicate voices.
Nimue glided through the water and watched the myriad of creatures around her as they went about their own business. A shoal of fish dashed past her left, scales glinting, and a selkie bowed its head to her as it passed. As she drifted an image flashed in her mind of a man clad in shining armour accompanied by another who glowed with magic stood on the shore. They looked upon the lake, waiting. She could sense they wished to speak with her and smiled to herself as she approached her attendants in their flowing, white dresses. “There is one in the above world who wishes to consult with us,” she told them.
The ladies turned their full attention on her, for it was no often people sought for them at the lake. “What do they want from us?” One asked.
Nimue focused her mind, visualising the men on the bank, and felt her mind fill with their wishes and desires. She opened her eyes. “A sword. A weapon worthy of a great king. A blade to defend a kingdom.”
Murmurs arose, a chorus repeating one word – Excalibur.
Nimue held up a hand to silence them. “We shall go to them, now. One of you retrieve the sword from its keeping place.”
Once the attendant returned the Lady commanded her to go first, rising to the surface and holding the weapon above the surface of the water. Nimue followed, breaking through the barrier between worlds and coming to stand on the surface of the lake. The contrast of the touch of water and the touch of air was not lost on her, despite having experienced it before. The wind made no ruffle in her white dress, yet the green embroidery swirled and moved across the surface of the fabric as she walked towards the bank. The water was cool beneath her bare feet and yet she was completely dry, as if she had not been underwater at all.
Ancient trees surrounded the lake, twisting branches rising to a sky that was clouded, with only hints of blue to see. Their leaves were green with summer and the grass was rich in colour also. Stood upon the bank were the two men. The King who called himself dragon. The wise wizard who accompanies him. What they did not know was that Nimue could hear their words even from so far away, for her hearing was much superior to that of humans.
“Who is this woman?” Arthur Pendragon asked, watching her approach. “For she is more beautiful than any woman I have ever set eyes upon before. There is something about her, something distant and unreal.” His silver armour shone brightly in the light of the sun and his red cloak billowed out behind him in the warm breeze.
“She is Nimue, Lady of the Lake,” Merlin told him, subconsciously straightening his greying beard. “The sword I told you of is hers, and you must ask her for it kindly. If she believes you worthy, it shall be yours.”
Nimue stopped a few feet away from the back and pretended she had not heard their conversation. “Well met, young King.”
Arthur lowered himself to one knee. She had to refrain from breaking into a smile. “My Lady,” he began, “I have come to see you to ask for the sword yonder, held aloft by that pale hand in the centre of the lake. I believe it is yours, and I should not ask for it if I did not hope it would benefit my kingdom. If you would grant it to me, I would be eternally grateful.”
Nimue gazed upon his young face, upon the hand clasped to his breast. There would be no harm in playing a small game, giving a small test, to him. Of course, she already knew what her decision would be anyway. “And what makes you think you are worthy of such a gift?”
The King considered this. “My own words cannot express if I am worthy, for how can you know if mine lips would speak the truth, or would simply craft some poetry to please you. I can only prove whether I am worthy with mine future actions,” Arthur responded. “If by these future actions you discover I am not indeed worthy then you may do as you wish, be that take the sword or even my life. I strive to do the best I can for my kingdom.”
Nimue considered his words and looked to the wizard Merlin. Power radiated from him. If the king was not worthy, she did not think Merlin would bring him to her. Besides, she thought she ought to give him a chance to prove himself. “Rise. I shall grant you this gift. There is kindness and greatness in your heart.” She raised a hand and pointed towards a wooden boat that floated by the edge of the water.
Arthur rose and nodded before the two men stepped into the boat and rowed into the centre of the lake. She followed, gliding alongside them. As they did so, she reached out to the young king unbeknown to him, and felt his fear, longing for peace, anxiety for the future, burning love. Satisfied, she withdrew from his mind.
Once they had reached the spot where the attendant waited he held out his hand to take the sword but hesitated. Nimue nodded for him to continue and he grasped the hilt of the sword, taking it and its scabbard from the hand, which instantly disappeared into the water. The King held it gingerly.
“It is called Excalibur,” Nimue told them. “Treat it well, for it shall serve you well in times to come.” She felt a certain attachment for the blade as she saw him hold it, but knew it would be of more use to him than it would ever be to her. It was made to protect and defend. In her heart she had always known someone would come to claim it one day.
Arthur ran his hand along the scabbard, which was gold and decorated with precious gems which caught the sunlight. “Thank you, Lady of the Lake.”
Nimue nodded and sunk into the water from whence she came. She did not, however, go to her attendants, but lingered at the surface of the lake to hear what next transpired. Above her, the boat began to move across the water back towards the bank, a dark shadow moving across the shifting mirage of the surface.
“Do you prefer the sword or the scabbard?” Merlin asked as they rowed.
“The sword,” Arthur replied, without much consideration, “it shall protect my kingdom. The scabbard is merely a decorative container.”
Nimue could sense the disappointment in Merlin’s voice when he next spoke. “That is unwise, my dear boy, for the scabbard has the power of protection. Look after it.”
Arthur did not reply, and she could not see his expression from under the water to know his reaction to his wise friend’s words. She only hoped he would heed them. They reached the shore and Nimue rose to the surface, her head and shoulders emerging above the water, so that she could watch them walk away into the trees.
Many a year passed for Arthur in his kingdom above, but for Lady and her people time was a fleeting thing. As Nimue was floating in the lake, staring up at the moon peering down at her through the water, she felt a tug. Something was amiss. There could only be one explanation, she knew, something had happened to the bearer of Excalibur. She twisted and turned in the water, waiting for him to come to her, as she knew he would. For a time, she felt he would not come, as much time passed. She would have thought perhaps it was too late, if not for the connection she still felt.
Finally, Nimue could feel the sword drawing closer. She rose and watched the king being helped out of the trees by one of his knights. She saw him gently lay down Arthur before raising the sword aloft and throwing it out over the water. Nimue broke her arm through the surface and caught Excalibur out of the air. She shook it three times before she brought her hand back into the lake. She called to her attendants and they readied a boat that was carved from the ancient wood of the sea trees. Once they were inside, the boat rose and broke the surface, sending sprays of water up around it. Nimue guided it to the shore, where one of Arthur’s knights was helping him to the edge.
Carefully, they drew him into the boat. His armour hung from him and blood ran in rivulets from his body. His face was pale as he looked up at Nimue with eyes wide, their colour already fading. His chest heaved as he gulped in air. “Shush,” she whispered gently as she touched his cheek with her slender fingers. “All shall be well. You must rest now, and let us take care of you.”
As the boat returned to the centre of the lake, she gave one last look to the stunned knight on the bank before they descended into the water. It carved its way through the lake, going deeper and deeper into darkness as the sun’s rays faltered. The bottom of the lake rose to meet them and in the blink of an eye they were no longer there.
The boat floated across an endless sea towards the island of Avalon. It was covered in lush forest, the trees every one of them individual, with their own colours and shapes. Waterfalls cascaded from the sides of the towering rock, thundering to the sea in a harmonious whisper. The water reflected the perfectly blue sky that was completely cloudless. The boat drifted through a small arch in the rock and into a round pool, at the end of which was a jetty.
Carefully, they stopped the boat and lifted Arthur from the boat to carry him up the winding natural stairs, around and around the centre of the island until they reached the top. The invisible sun winked at them, light reflecting off the glistening stones. They followed a winding path and eventually came upon their destination.
Natural stone rose from the ground in several arcs, forming a towering space, like that of a cathedral, with gaps through which sunlight streamed, creating patterns on the ground. Parts of the stone gleamed pink, as quartz wrapped around the grey rocks. Moss and other plant life grew between the stone slabs they walked on as they carried Arthur to a round stone table in the centre of the room. Water flowed through crevices in the slabs and created a shallow ring of water around the table.
Nimue stood at the head of the table and placed her hands on either side of the king’s head, his skin cold beneath them. His blood spread out and began to trickle onto the stone as the Lady’s attendants gathered around him. For two days and two nights they stood their vigil, concentrating, using all their power and pouring it onto the body before them. Nimue could sense him fading and clung onto the remaining strings of his soul, tethering him to the earth.
It was not enough. His breathing stopped and all was still. Nimue cried out in frustration and with one final exertion of energy emptied all her feeling, all her power, towards him in a blinding flash of light. Nimue gripped the edge of the stone, utterly exhausted. Nobody spoke. Nobody moved. Arthur’s chest rose, and fell, rose, and fell, rose.
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