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Settling carefully into his Memory Walk, Arthur was now a much younger man. He was boyish in appearance, as though untouched by the decades of bitter experience that had etched the faces of all other survivors of the Breaking of the World.
The year he now Walked burned in his memory like a signal fire in the night sky. For it was then that he was struck by a powerful idea. A thought that would change the world profoundly, more deeply than anything else had in the years since the Breaking of the World.
He had stormed out of the last frustrating meeting with his Sword Brothers. He loved them deeply, he told himself. But as the years passed, his two brothers were adding weight to his mind as heavily as Sigurd was adding weight to his belly. So much anger over meaningless insults and an abundance of pride could doom them all.
They shared rulership of the Realms, all their people rotating through the habitable land with the turning of the seasons. They could have led easy, semi-nomadic lives, this way. However, that was not to be. Sigurd refused to budge, insisting that his turn to rule come during the dead of winter, and his court play the Winter Court for the three Realms. Midgard was miserably cold, and dangerously Storm-torn this time of year.
Sigurd loved to see his Sword Brothers and their people shiver and suffer in the high mountain fortress that he had the arrogance to call his capital. The main castle didn’t even have plumbing, at least none that he nor his retinue could find. Yes, the steampools were delightful in the winter, and yes, there was no lack of amusement, for the Vikings had invented many games and indoor sports to keep from losing their minds during the endless nights. However, winter in Midgard was torture for their other brother and his Tuatha Dé Danann, who seemed to droop as the seasons progressed from bad to worse.
Winter in Midgard was even more difficult than summer in Arthur’s Realm, and it would have been ridiculous for him to insist on holding the court at that time. No, he was wise enough—or at least, sane enough—to defer to the counsel that spending summer within the tree-lined and protected city of the Tuatha Dé Danann was a much more enjoyable experience then sweating through an oppressive season in Camlann.
The powerful idea came on one of those days when Arthur would rather have been anywhere but Midgard, surrounded by anyone other than Vikings. To be honest, he wasn’t the first to have an idea that could change the world; however, he was among the few in a position to bring the idea into reality. It was so obvious, so simple. And a little bit mad.
He was exhilarated. He felt like a child who had received a wonderful gift. He searched through his corner of the frozen fortress for Gwen, but couldn’t find her anywhere. He ran from room to room, searching everywhere for anyone to talk to, as he wanted to share this moment.
The fortress seemed more deserted than normal. However, that didn’t stop him from running through several groups of petitioners, guards, assorted platters of meat, and multiple kegs of some unknown liquid being brought to the dining hall. They all seemed quite annoyed as he jostled, pushed and upset them, and Arthur heard his name cursed more times than any decent king should ever hear it, especially in his presence. Exhausted, he finally stood before the doors to the Great Hall, where he knew Sigurd was holding court.
Ignoring decorum, he burst through the heavy wooden doors and ran into the crowded throne room. They stared at him, the King of All Britons who ran by with a half-smile toward the throne. There, seated in an enormous wooden chair (in those days, it lacked the dragon head mounted on top) at the head of the great stone room, sat Sigurd. He loomed over them all with his shock of bright red hair. His tremendous bulk creaked forward on the chair. He cleared his throat, about to speak as Arthur ran to the foot of the throne.
There was a fold in the carpet just there, which Arthur failed to see as he came up the steps to the dais. He tripped with a loud crash, his peace-bonded, gold-embossed sheath clattering on the stone.
Sigurd laughed, a thunderous roar that beat on Arthur in waves as he tried to untangle himself. The king of the Vikings threw himself forward and grabbed Arthur by the shoulders, turning him upright in midair and setting him on his feet. It was like being caught in the grip of a hurricane.
“Brother! So good to see you standing up like a man,” said Sigurd with a craggy smile. “No need to worship at my feet, you know! You idolized your big brothers when we were younger, but…”
About to spill forth his idea, Arthur’s jaw twitched in annoyance. His face was already red, and now Sigurd was distracting him with nonsense.
“But now we are much older and wiser,” Sigurd added disarmingly, “And you are Arthur, King of all the Britons, wisest among us.”
“I don’t know if I am the wisest, my brother,” said Arthur, “But I am the clumsiest.”
The court snickered. Sigurd grabbed his brother again and engulfed him in a bear hug, rolls of fat and muscle rippling as he guffawed. A few of Arthur’s followers in the crowd couldn’t help grinning at their king. The children of Danu at the court were more guarded, and merely nodded. In contrast, the Vikings roared in approval of their own king’s jest and Arthur’s willing humor. Even a few Valkyries in the crowd chuckled.
Among the group of his own friends, there was one who did not grin at Arthur. She simply looked at him and shook her head in disapproval. The graceful female wore a long shawl over her head, and was wrapped in silks and tassels, but could not hide her distinctively lithe figure nor her regal bearing. She was Gwenhwyfar, Queen of the Britons, adoring wife to Arthur and his fiercest protector. No one else, not even Arthur’s Stormriders, were as devoted to him as Gwen.
Sigurd cleared his throat, holding a fist the size of a grapefruit in front of his mouth. “Whatever you need so urgently, my wise and clumsy brother, it will have to wait. I am holding court today, and there are many folk before you who need me.”
Sighing, he couldn’t help but agree. If Sigurd spent a little less time in the feasting room and more time in his throne room, his Realm would run much smoother. Arthur made his apologies to the court for his rude entrance, and stood beside Gwen. As ever, she carried herself aloof, proudly apart from the Furless who stood nearby. All the Cait Sith were proud, but she stood out even among her own kind, an otherworldly beauty that moved with dangerous grace. Her bright gaze met his brown eyes with an enigmatic look.
“You should never let them see you like this, my love.” said Gwen softly, twitching her whiskers. “It demeans you and it also demeans us. This is the court. They will think us weak and vulnerable.”
“Nobody who has ever fought our Realm has survived long enough to think so, my lady,” Arthur answered with a wry smile. “You should know, battling by my side for so many years.”
“Times change, Arthur, and you should know that!” said Gwen harshly. Then she let out a sigh. “I will always fight by your side, now and forever, but you could make it easier on us.”
“I know Gwen, but not everyone is like the Cait Sith,” said Arthur, “For some of us, laughing at ourselves is important.”
“I prefer to laugh at others, Arthur,” Gwen responded icily. “I also prefer to kill those who laugh in my face. Though you have tried hard to dissuade me.”
“Tried?” said Arthur jokingly for he knew the truth behind her words.
“Yes, tried and succeeded,” said Gwen. As Arthur smiled ever so slightly at her admission she added, “But I could always suffer a re… re… What is that human word for it?”
“A relapse?” said Arthur.
“Yes, that is the word, a relapse,” said Gwen.
“I’ll do my best to save your honor, my love,” said Arthur.
“See that you do that,” said Gwen. The tip of her tail flicked away from him. “I shall go and sharpen my weapons. Say hello to Sigurd for me.”
“Now? The Winter Court is full of petitioners. There are many folk Sigurd must hear before he hears me. Perhaps it will be best if I have some time to think on this in any case, to find a way to make him listen…” Arthur chewed his lip meditatively, watching the glittering court come and go at Sigurd’s feet. The big man looked bored, and spoke in a low, firm voice before waving another mail-armored soldier away impatiently.
“But we’re royalty!” Gwen made a frustrated snort and twitched her whiskers in annoyance. “Arthur, must I do everything?”
Arthur frowned. “Alright, Gwen. You think I’m being weak because I’m willing to wait my turn? Don’t be ridiculous.”
Gwen squared her shoulders and turned toward him with anger in her hazel eyes. She leaned forward to whisper in his face, ignoring the glances from the courtiers all around. “Must I repeat myself? This is the court. I understand how it works better than you do. Beyond that, I know you, Arthur. I know your moods and your mistakes. I can smell the deamhan in your blood at this moment; I know this can save us all, though I know not the danger.”
Arthur ground his teeth. “Well…I suppose you are right. I need to speak to my brother, but I cannot simply walk up and demand that he see me before all of these people…”
Although she didn’t relax, Gwen smiled, showing a few needle-pointed teeth. “I can make that easier. But you’ll owe me.”
“Owe you what?” Arthur asked distractedly, watching Sigurd wave his meaty hands as he made another judgment.
“It’s a small wager,” Gwen whispered, gathering his eyes back to hers, “But if I can clear the court and let you speak your mind to Sigurd, you will brush my fur and read the Edicts to me tonight.”
Arthur’s eyes widened, and he glanced around to make sure no one had heard the cat’s soft request as he held her close. “Are you certain that’s what you want? You must have heard them dozens of times by now.”
“And each time I hear them, I see the deep wisdom in them. They serve me to find contentment in this strange and cold place. Besides, it is more enjoyable than those scalding pools of water that your brother and his people adore. A proper bathing should last only as long as is necessary to clean one’s body. Not serve as an excuse to get drunk and lose control.”
“That is agreeable,” said Arthur, “And what will you wager in return?”
“I will let you feed me by hand,” said Gwen.
Over the decades that they had been together, there were only a few occasions where Gwen would place that heavy of a wager on a bet. For a Cait Sith, being fed by hand was the ultimate in submission. Arthur could only remember three other times where she was willing to place such a bounty on a bet.
He knew this meant she must be quite confident about the outcome of the bet, just as she had been the other three times. Knowing that this meant that he would lose again, he thought about it for a second or two. He looked deep into her sea-green eyes, studying every angle of her face for a clue, but he knew that he would find none. Of all the races in their Realm, it was said that only a Cait Sith could ever learn to truly understand a Cait Sith. He debated summoning some power to help him read her thoughts but he knew he would never do that to her. That would be a personal betrayal that even she might not forgive him for, and he would rather sacrifice his own life than lose her love and trust. Decision made, he simply smiled at her and nodded. No matter the outcome, he thought to himself, he knew that it was going to be an interesting afternoon at the court.
“Now watch while I do what you cannot,” Gwen said as she smiled at him knowingly, looking back along her perfect memory. He was often right, in a way; but so slow, and so unconscious of the need for smoke and mirrors, the strutting and flourishes vital to success at court.
Gwen swept her eyes across the room, checking the faces she recognized. She saw Midir, Lancelot, Andvari…and then she stopped cold. As fate would have it, he was here…the one who hated her. The rich, soft-skinned merchant of Arthur’s court who refused to believe that she and her kind had earned the right to be Arthur’s true friends and protectors. Ever since she had come to live with Arthur, this man had plagued her. He would never go far enough to raise Arthur’s wrath, yet he was very clever. His opposition to including the Cait Sith was always grounded in a veneer of objectivity, at least publicly. Privately, it was an entirely different matter and Gwen knew it. The only reason the man still breathed was because his connections at court made him more useful alive…plus, he hadn’t yet gone too far with his objections. It was an unpleasant, but necessary facet of court existence than sometimes, the bigger rats had to be left alive, so a ruler always knew where they were.
Gwen surveyed her surroundings with the keen senses of a true predator. Time slowed down for her. She could see peoples’ movements as part of a slowly moving dance. One by one, her mind formed her own movements, clicking in like gears in a well-oiled machine. After a few seconds, she began her own dance.
The first step in her dance involved a young female Hamadryad child, who clearly was uncomfortable here at court. Gwen could tell her age by both her lack of proper tail control and lack of the strong musk (Arthur’s Wisdoms had a word for it, ferranomes or something like that) that elders of that race were gifted with. She could see that the young one was barely in control of herself, probably nervous surrounded by so many powerful adults. Say what they would about the Winter Court, but at least it attracted far more warriors than merchants.
As much as Gwen hated to admit it, Sigurd knew how to act the part of a proper king better than her Arthur, at times. Her love for Arthur was as deep as The Depths, but sometimes, just sometimes, her feline instincts warned her that he showed too much weakness. With someone like Sigurd, that was a foolish thing.
Quickly snapping back to her main objective, she once again set her sights on her prey. She moved through the crowd towards the young Hamadryad as deftly she would hunt an Abomination, silent and confident. When she reached the child, she whispered something into the young ones ear. The Hamadryad’s face turned beet red, and her tail whipped around to strike at Gwen. The tail’s mouth opened to bite her, but Gwen was expecting the attack, and gracefully turned aside. The tail’s snapping jaw missed her completely.
What it didn’t miss was a Viking guard who had his back to them. The tail struck him firmly in the buttocks, and the guard let out a yell so loud an angry troll would have been proud of it. The guard turned, embarrassed and furious at the assault. In truth, the tail of the young Hamadryad had not even broken through his armor, but that didn’t stop him for calling out for the other guards.
Gwen, not wanting to see the young Hamadryad punished for the action she herself started, tapped the guard on the shoulder with her own tail just as the other guards were running to their companion’s aid. The guard turned towards Gwen, who bowed and ran back in Arthur’s direction before ranks of Tuatha closed around the Hamadryad.
As Gwen ran, she shouted “Protect the brothers! There’s an assassin in our midst!”
Then the chaos really started. The Viking guards near the throne then surrounded Sigurd while Arthur’s associates surrounded him. A trio of Stormriders drew their weapons and began summoning magic, their jeweled foreheads sparkling brightly. The guards who were running to the aid of their companion stopped short in alarm.
Gwen concluded her dance; her tail whipped around the man nearest to her, the hated merchant whose attention was focused firmly on one of the more attractive Viking guards. The merchant lost his balance, and fell forward right into the first of the slowing guards, who then fell like a series of bottles on an archery practice wall. As he fell, Gwen yelled again, this time deepening her voice to sound more masculine, shouting “He’s trying to escape. Grab him!”
Which the guards did, once they untangled themselves. Served that merchant right, Gwen figured.
The entire gathering had descended into pandemonium, as the Winter Court often did. Sigurd rose to his full seven feet, roaring furiously, “Who dares disturb my court thus?” His heavy movement knocked the massive log chair flying with a crash. With a gesture of frustration, Sigurd stormed off, leaving his armored guards confused and trying to calm everyone down. They formed a shield-wall and guarded his exit, watching for assassins with hard eyes. Gwen smiled, amused; she thought it quite an abrupt exit.
Arthur stood back from the fray, trying to watch Gwen weaving in and out of the crowd, and chuckled softly. His Stormriders were already at his side, doling out stern glances to any brawlers that came too close. Clearly, Gwen had accomplished part of her intention; no more official business would be completed in the throne room today. Sigurd would likely make his way to his private chambers, there to relax with a warm drink. He would probably lock his doors, and refuse to see anyone else.
Arthur left the hall, mulling over what he would say to Sigurd as the Stormriders fell in behind him. With barely a whisper of her wraps, Gwen appeared at his side with a satisfied smile on her face. “That’s how you manage the courts, dear.”
Arthur cleared his throat, half-smiling back. “The courts, maybe. Sigurd, on the other hand, is going to be very difficult to reach now.”
Gwen’s ears twitched as she looked up into his eyes. Her voice was a ticklish whisper in his ears. “Did you really think so little of me? That I did not think ahead to how the deamhan in your blood would burn if you could not share it with your brother today? I am not such a fool. Two nights ago, I found a passage through the castle walls. It leads up into Sigurd’s chambers.”
Arthur’s eyes grew wide. “That is impressive. The Dvergar built this castle with great mastery, and no one else has found Sigurd’s secret passages. Or the indoor plumbing, for that matter. Well done! I shall go and speak with him right this moment.”
As the Stormriders silently bowed and took their leave, Gwen grabbed his arm. “This way. And for your information, I’m coming with you.”
“What? This is a matter for—”
“For all of us,” said Gwen with decision, “Kings and queens both.”
Arthur sighed. He might need her help, in any case. “Very well.”
Find the next step of the story in Part 3!
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