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The passage was well-hidden in a niche behind a massive pillar in the corridor outside Arthur’s sleeping quarters. It was so narrow it was almost invisible unless you knew it was there. Or unless someone with the curiosity and razor-sharp senses of a Cait Sith happened by.
The couple made their way into the dark and twisting tunnels, which traversed the space between walls and floors in dusty nooks and crannies dimly lit by tiny cracks between stones. They passed through the outer keep and around a bailey, over the kitchens and between barbicans to the inner keep. It was very cold in the passage, and snowflakes drifted in through the eyeslits to settle softly here and there on the stone floor.
Sigurd’s chambers were only slightly warmer. The heap of burning logs in the enormous fireplace was balanced by the great window thrown open to the frosty weather. Grey and orange light glinted on the gold-tasseled pillows on the bed and the silver-handled knife collection laid out on a richly carved ebony table.
Sigurd burst up from a leather chair by the fireplace, a huge axe in his hand. His eyes were wild, and he let out an inarticulate roar of surprise. When he saw who it was, however, he laughed. “My Dvergar architects won’t be happy you found that. You have an interesting idea of the laws of hospitality, my brother.” He kept the axe raised.
Gwen grinned sharply and proffered her furry hand in a graceful gesture. “Sorry about that, Sigurd. We needed your full attention, in private.”
Sigurd glanced at the fireplace and sank back into the sagging leather chair with a heavy sigh. “Alright, if you must. Have a drink, it’s all that’s left of my new brew.” He waved them over to the chairs nearby.
Handing the Cait Sith a mug of steaming-hot beer, Sigurd eyed Arthur thoughtfully. There was an edge to his voice now, unrelated to the heavy drinking he had somehow already managed to accomplish. “So tell me, brother. What is so important that Gwen had to disrupt my court today?”
“Come now, Siggy. You know damn well you had no more interest in holding court today than you ever do. Gwen did you a favor. You had some excitement, knocked over your chair on purpose, and now you intend to drink yourself blind for the rest of the night,” Arthur replied, as he sipped the hot drink from his silver goblet. The mulled beer wasn’t half bad; a mix of cinnamon and cloves, with other spices underneath, made it strong and bittersweet. It was a nice change from Sigurd’s usual attempts to come up with new combinations of ingredients to make his brothers violently ill.
The king of the Vikings drew his thick red eyebrows together, his mouth set in a hard line. “Never call me that, little brother. Makes me sound like one of your dogs in the kennel.”
“Little?” Gwen took a full swig of mulled beer. “We may be in your frozen wasteland, but that is not how you refer to this king.”
Sigurd’s brows drew closer together. He growled like a big cat himself. “It’s a term of endearment. Besides, he is little, compared to me.”
“At the rate you are going, brother, so will a second-stager,” said Arthur, referring to a mature Golem of his Realm. “You really need to cut back on your indulgences a little.”
“Indulgences,” roared Sigurd, “Are you mothering me? Do you need that title in addition to king, wise man, and creator of the Edicts? What next, I wonder? The once and future king of the world?”
“Oh, stop it, Sigurd,” said Arthur, “You know damned well that I had nothing to do with that silly myth. I have no interest in ending the Grand Bargain. Besides, that is what I came here to discuss.”
Nodding in acknowledgement of Arthur’s deference to the kingship that the three brother-kings shared over the land, Sigurd relaxed in his favorite chair with a thunderous “Harrumph.” Arthur smiled inwardly at that noise, because for all of Sigurd’s bluster, that sound and the manner that his brother sat in the chair resembled nothing so much as one of his great hounds after a long day. Sigurd continued,“Yes, brother, I’ve gotten heavier over the last few decades…but that’s because I have to spend so much of my time at the damn court instead of the Stormlands, doing what I do best: killing abominations. So tell me, brother. What is your latest scheme?”
Arthur placed his now-empty goblet on the table next to him and glanced at Gwen for strength. He took a deep breath. “We are running out of arable land faster than we expected, and our Realms are growing ever-larger, now that folk no longer die of age or disease. The people need somewhere to go, and they need it tomorrow, not next year, and certainly not in decades. You cannot deny the truth of this.”
“Bah! It is you and our other brother who needs the arable land. My Realm’s population is nearly stable, and we reclaim all the land we need to grow,” said Sigurd.
“That is because many of your people live underground or in the high mountains, and run around doing all manner of fatal things, just to prove their bravery,” said Arthur, “You know damned well that the children of Danu cannot live there, and neither can many of my Realm. Stop acting like you don’t understand, brother. I know you do.”
“So what? Yes, I know my people are stronger. I forged this land and its people, as you forged your own,” replied Sigurd, “Is it my fault your people are weaker than mine? Why should they suffer for your mistakes?”
Gwen put her goblet down on the table with a sharp clink. Her hazel eyes had changed to a piercing yellow as she leveled her gaze at Sigurd. “Arthur’s mistakes? You bloated, bearded, ball of a man! Our people are anything but weak, and you know it. How many times have we come to your aid? How many battles did we fight where you and your damned horde would rush into battle like mice to cheese? Just listen to what he has to say!”
“Bloated?” roared Sigurd, “Bloated? I’ll run circles around you before I split you in two!”
“By the looks of you, brother, the only running you’ve been doing lately is to the brewers and the butchers!” said Arthur, rising to his feet. His hand dropped down, perilously close to drawing the sword Excalibur from its sheath. Gwen was already tense, her claws clenched on the arm of her chair.
“I will have at you now, little brother,” said Sigurd with a voice like ice, rising to his full height. He loomed over them like a red-haired mountain.
“Boys! Stop that nonsense right now,” said a familiar voice. It was Brynhildr, Valkyrie and wife to Sigurd. The two brothers froze, and the hackles that had risen on Gwen’s neck relaxed slightly. However, there was something in Brynhildr’s tone that reduced the two Storm-brothers to looking like two young boys who had been caught with their hands in the proverbial cookie jar.
She stood almost as tall as Sigurd as she entered the room at a slow, regal pace. Her wings shimmered, raised to their full glory, and she did not look pleased. She nodded to Gwen and turned her dark eyes on Arthur. “Tell me of your grand plan, also.”
Arthur took a deep breath, and forced himself not to glance at Gwen. He could feel her eyes on him, willing him to speak. “Remember, brother, the land that sank beneath the seas. It was good land, fertile, and not tainted by the Veilstorms. I can take a third of my working stabilizers and use them immediately.”
There was a long pause.
“To do what?” roared Sigurd, “Make more fertile land on the bottom of the ocean?”
“No. I must speak with my Council of the Wise, but I believe that if we put certain stabilizers underwater, they will be drawn to other stabilizers on the surface. It’s a matter of aligning them properly and pouring power into them. There would be some sacrifice involved.”
“Now this gets interesting! Who do we get to kill?” said Sigurd.
“Yes Arthur, do tell. Who will pay the price for this new adventure?” said Brynhild warily.
“I will pay the price,” said Arthur.
Gwen sat up stiffly. She wasn’t prepared for this. “No, you will not,” said Gwen firmly, “Our people will stand firm on that. They will willingly give their lives to save yours. Besides, I will not permit it.”
“There is nothing to be concerned about, my love,” said Arthur smiling, “The sacrifice is a small one, and one I can make easily. I am the youngest of my brothers and it is my duty.”
“It’s bold, Arthur,” said Brynhildr at last.
Gwen said loudly, “Daring, as befits a Storm-brother and king.”
“Arthur,” said Brynhild, “How do you know this will work? And if it does, what comes after that? I know you king of the Britons, brother to the best man in the world. You play a deeper game than you’ve shown.”
“If my brothers choose to join me, we will then raise additional land to share between us. And, in the center of this risen land, we will build the greatest city in the world,” said Arthur, his words filled with conviction and his eyes gleaming with madness or faith…or possibly both.
Sigurd grunted, and collapsed back into his chair, which shuddered and nearly collapsed. “You ask me to give up my stabilizers to raise new land that my people do not need? To build a city that I do not want? Why? This is not bold, it is insanity!”
Brynhildr raised a wingtip toward her husband, who leaned back as though in fear she would strike him. “This world lost its sanity a long time ago. But,” she added, this time aiming a wingtip at Arthur, “Would Sigurd be expected to sacrifice some of himself as well?”
“There is no denying that sacrifice is required,” said Arthur, “Again, I will consult my Council, but once we raise a third of the land, the sacrifice required will be greatly lessened. For the final third, almost no sacrifice will be required.”
“Hah! You think that you are better than me, and want to play the role of the noble King Arthur who saves us all,” said Sigurd, “Sacrificing more of yourself to raise the land, so you can tell your people of your great deed.”
“No, not at all!” said Arthur.
“Playing at the once and future king, eh? I thought you had enough of that!”
“Sigurd, all I was…”
“You think me dumb because I am strong, that you can trick me?”
“…trying to do was…”
“That I am some fool.”
“…save you some years because I am the youngest and…
“A catspaw for your Gwen, perhaps!”
“I love you and my other brother dearly!”
As the tempers and temperature in the room continued to rise, Brynhildr walked to one side, motioning that Gwen should move with her, and Gwen complied reluctantly. As the Storm-brothers continued to yell, Brynhildr, wife of Sigurd, mother of the Valkyries, Queen of the Vikings, raised her wings to full extension. She began chanting and her wings glowed white. As great power flowed through her wings, the room’s temperature dropped. Two white spheres appeared by her hands. She hurled these orbs at the two kings…
Who were struck by two old-fashioned snowballs, right in their glowing red faces. Dismayed and angry, the men turned towards Brynhildr, their eyes glowing dangerously. Unfazed, Brynhildr unleashed another volley at them. Gwen, retaining her poise and dignity as a proper Cait Sith should, remained regal and silent. However, her tail was another matter. She made a snowball herself, and hurled it at Brynhildr.
As the snowballs started to fly, raucous laughter was heard by the room’s attendants, who had, as usual, been listening in on the conversation. The troop of men they had secretly summoned in case of bloodshed relaxed and went back to their barracks.
Hours and some wet clothes later, the conversation resumed.
“I’m not saying it can’t be done,” Sigurd growled still a little grumpy. “But even those beyond the Veil would call this madness. Even if I went along with you, and sacrificed our greatest treasures to raise a new land from beneath the ocean, what then? We fight over who gets to live in the city?”
“A fight we would win,” Gwen muttered, unhelpfully.
“Is that what you seek Arthur? Another war?” asked Brynhildr, but she already knew the answer.
Arthur’s eyes burned with a passion that even Gwen had rarely seen. The deamhan in his blood was pushing him onward. “No, never. I want the city to belong to all of us. To my brothers, their Realms and mine. Our people will work together to build this city and it will be the seat of power for all of us. In that city, we will put a table that is round, with none of us at its head. That city will be called Camelot and it will be the One True City in the world. Moreover, as brothers we will rule from the city together until eternity ends or our final rest begins.”
Before Sigurd could rise to that comment, Arthur continued, “There are more and more people to support on the land that remains. We are, for the first year in eons, truly running out of time.”
Sigurd snorted. “No, you are running out my patience. My…”
“Husband,” said Brynhildr softly, “Wait. Please, for me, be silent for one moment.”
Sigurd was taken aback by his wife’s soft words. It was utterly unlike the fierce warrior-woman he married. He was silent.
“Arthur,” said Brynhildr, “How do you know this will work? And if it does, what comes after that? You are Sigurd’s brother, and should know the insult you have given.”
“I truly do not know for certain if it will work. It should work. Must work. However, I don’t know the outcome. I can promise you this: I will risk my people’s land first,” said Arthur, “Regardless of what my brothers choose to do, I will take the stabilizers from my lands and have them placed deep within the ocean.”
Gwen hushed Sigurd before he could answer, whispering, “Arthur speaks with Myrddin’s voice. The voice of prophecy.”
“Be forewarned,” Brynhildr added sternly. My support of your plan has a cost to you, Storm-brother. You must swear an oath that you intend no treachery, no matter how well concealed, or how well-meaning, towards this new land and city. That every word you spoke today is true and that you will not seek to control this new city of yours, once it is built.”
Gwen’s already impressive hackles were raised even more by Brynhildr’s choice of words, but she said nothing. She would not forget.
“Easily done,” said Arthur, quickly drawing Excalibur dropping to one knee. He held the tip of his beloved sword a short distance above the ground.
“I swear by the sword Excalibur, as King of all Britons, and as Storm-brother, that everything I said today is true. I further swear that I will not seek to rule these new lands and the One True City.”
“While they stand,” added Brynhildr.
“While they stand,” Arthur repeated. He put the palm of his left hand under the sword. He then pierced his own hand, and blood flowed freely from the narrow but deep wound, spilling onto the flagstones.
“I swear this all by blood, power, and soul!” he said, and with those words the blood on the ground glowed brightly as Arthur’s own power and soul flowed into it. The blood pooled and puddled into the shape of a small puzzle with interconnected pieces.
“So it is done,” said Arthur, picking up the hardened puzzle and handing it to Brynhildr.
Brynhildr accepted the OathSign, bowed slightly, and folded her wings. “It would be a new life, Arthur. One we do not yet know.”
“Hm. Indeed.” Sigurd rubbed his chin and locked eyes with his brother. “But the Vikings have never feared the unknown.” At long last, he nodded.
Arthur leaned back in his creaking leather chair, exhausted. If this was what it took to bring Sigurd along with him, how in the name of god was he going to convince his other brother?
Seek for the answer in Tales of The One True City part 4!
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