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The Scent of Apples
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The Scent of Apples
By Morgan Stuart

Originally published in Glyph: The Journal of Fantasy and Legend
No. 8 (Spring 2002).
Copyright 2002 by Morgan Stuart.

The waters rocked me with a gentleness like warm life in the womb. The mist shrouded me so I was blind to my own hand before my face. The almost unbearable thrill I had carried with me from the island fell away in that fog and left only peace behind. This day was as natural as breath, and it seemed to me that the very elements moved in concert to escort me onward.


I trusted the currents to deliver my little craft to shore, the mist to reveal the hillside at the appointed hour. My sisters had left the isle in earlier days, each according to her purpose, and they had painted this world for me in the bold colors of faith and lust and passion. I offered myself up to it without reservation. The cycle, the story, the very world was ready to revolve again in its knotted circle, unending and unyielding, and I was woven into its delicate inevitability.


The veil of mist split before me all at once.


I knew the battle of Camlann from visions and prophesies and songs yet unsung, glorious promises of the defeat of death and the new age of Albion. I had relished the fact I would step onto its stage to perform my duty. I had fantasized of this day and the chaos I would midwife into order here.


Yet I had not once imagined the truth of war. The hillside bled out in garish red rivulets running down to the lake. Twisted bodies, or portions of bodies, lay frozen in death, tangled in final combat. The air stank of blood and torn earth and flesh burning in ceremonial fires.


I did not feel the boat shudder as it ran aground. I was simply there, a part of the shore and the scene, astounded by the ruin I had encountered.


Above me, to my left, a lone knight appeared on a soft swell of ground. He stood under his own power, but I gathered from the rigid awkwardness with which he held himself that some of the blood he wore was his own. He gripped a sword in both hands. The blade was the work of my island and I knew it at a glance. My instincts told me I was needed in this solemn act, that the lady of the lake should accept Excalibur here, in the waters, to complete the movement and fulfill the prophecy. But instead I sat frozen, captive to the terrible grief this picture presented, able only to watch as he launched the sword over the lake. The blade soared, end over end, flashing like shards of shattered glass, then sank heavily into the deep.


The knight cried out like a wounded animal and I shivered at the sound.


I had anticipated change, like the budding of leaves after winter frost, a new life borne of death, sober yet inherently beautiful. I had not foreseen the raw agony of the hour.


The knight buckled at the knees and remained there. I looked away, but I could offer him no privacy. All around us the blank and rheumy eyes of the dead stared, unblinking, unashamed at their intrusion on the living. I could feel their gazes devouring me from every direction. I reached for my thin veil and freed it from its circlet. I pulled it down before my face to ease the stench.


And to save me from those eyes.


When the first call penetrated my shock I started, sure that one of the corpses was awake and asking for me. Then I realized that there were live men among the dead, though they looked little better than their lost compatriots. A bedraggled party of three stood before me. They stooped in deference to injuries and exhaustion, yet they all attempted a low bow before me. I nodded without speaking and they rose gracelessly.


I had always planned to walk among the mortals just this once and savor my solitary venture from the island. But faced with the pitiful dregs of an army, men who had funeral pyres to build and hopes to bury, I could not force myself to rise from my boat. I wrenched an alien voice from my throat and said, “Bring him, good sir knights.” The mention of the King sent them up the knoll with more speed than I would have thought possible. Loyalty, it seemed, was the last to die at Camlann.


Soon they appeared over the rise, a grim and mute procession. I gripped the wooden sides of my craft in the effort to anchor myself against my sea of emotion. In the careful arms of his liegemen came my love, the one I had never known but always adored. I was born to cherish him, to save him, and though I’d not once seen him I believed I knew him like no other ever could. Prophesy had promised and fate had sealed this moment between us both. If I was meant for him in this hour then in a way he, too, was now for me. My sisters be damned; Morgaine might have slept with him, and Morgause plotted with him, and Viviane granted him his sword, but none of them could heal him as I could.


The knights slipped and stumbled on the upturned and bloodied ground but the King remained secure, high atop their shoulders on a litter fashioned from their battle shields. I wanted nothing more than to remove him from this place. The knights looked to me as they progressed toward my canoe and I straightened in silent salute.


They continued on into the water until they could lower him into my little craft. I opened my arms and closed my eyes as they did so. Even now I remember the first thrill of warmth as they settled him before me, his shoulders upon my lap and his head against my bosom. Only the mild splashing of wounded men in shallow water disturbed the silence of the moment. I kept my eyes closed until I could feel them grow still and expectant around me. Then I looked at each of them in turn, nodded thanks for their final act of obedience to our shared destiny, and asked them to push me off into the lake.


Then the mist returned and there was no more Camlann with its grotesque landscape of carnage, no broken warriors with dying dreams of the Round Table. There was only the King.


Finally, I looked at him.


He appeared older than I had imagined he would. The thought was ludicrous, of course, but it struck me all the same. Gray had invaded his curls, his beard, and vanquished much of its vivid dark mahogany. The dull brown of dried blood tracked from the corner of his lips to his neck. I followed the trail until it met the wicked scar of his wound, a jagged tear from shoulder to breast. His men had stripped him of armor and left him in simple cloth garments to expose his injury. I gathered the folds of my cloak and pressed them against the spot where bright red blood still ran.


At my touch, he trembled.


I began a tuneless, instinctual hum as I brushed the fingers of my free hand against his hair. The coolness of the air I once had found comforting now chilled me as the mud and gore from the fallen King seeped through my skirts and down my bare legs. I dared not shiver and add to his pain.


His eyes, when they opened, were not the cornflower blue I had heard described so many times. Instead they were the fathomless gray of the sky before a storm, pregnant with power but quiet for now. He looked straight ahead into the mist.


I wondered what he saw there. Or who.


He had, after all, no lover to conjure. His woman was another man’s, or perhaps God’s by now — I had paid little heed to the stories of Guinevere’s fate. His only child lay slain by his father’s hand, but not before dealing the King this terrible blow. His friends were piled high on funeral pyres, their bodies oily smoke climbing to the heavens. His advisor was gone, disappeared into the woods, the victim of the very sorcery he once had wielded so well.


As I listed the King’s losses to myself, I began to marvel at how truly alone this man was. Apart from the ragged handful of survivors I had encountered lakeside, I was all he had. And though I knew the story of his deeds, the detail of his every campaign, I was, to him, a total stranger.


A legendary life spent in service to others, to ideas, and to justice, and now, helpless, he depended for his very survival on the care of those he did not know. It was prophecy, of course, and he knew it. The thought made me unutterably sad. Suddenly my compassion overwhelmed my passion, and I saw him as a man rather than a king.


And I loved him more deeply than I had ever dreamed possible.


I could find no words to say to him so I just held him as we rocked on the patient waters. After a time he stiffened, and I felt his breath catch as he fought to brace himself against new torment. Jaw clenched, air hissing between teeth, he tried valiantly to endure in silence. As I watched his knuckles go white against the floor of the boat I wondered how long he could survive. Without me and my healing mysteries, his suffering would soon end forever.


It was a strange notion, quite unexpected. Before, sheltered on my island with only the foolish dreams of a naive girl for company, I had not imagined Arthur’s life as one of suffering. He was a ruler and a beloved one at that, a legend in his own lifetime. When I had envisioned that King, however, he had not been filthy and agonized, bereft of all he had known and loved. Only now did I see that Arthur had spent himself for his subjects and land. He had given every loved thing away and denied himself comfort. The healing I promised was not the restoration of a man, it was the renewal of a monarch. I was to save Arthur so he could offer himself up to the next cycle, the next story, as fate demanded. It would happen all over again, and I was to be the agent of his self-sacrifice.


He saved me from my bleak thoughts then as he eased back against me with a sigh. The spasm was over, or perhaps he had drifted beyond all pain now. He turned his head, sending curls to tickle my nose, and encountered my heavy sleeve. Like a child or small pup, he nuzzled against the fabric, burying his face in its cloth. Then he rocked back against me limply.


“Apples,” he whispered with a brittle voice like dry leaves in autumn.


Avalon had taken its name from the fruit that grows there, and I suppose I carried its scent on every thread of my dress. I had been told that the Britons believe the apples are enchanted. Of course there was magic, all about us; the women used it to enter men’s hearts, the men used it to enter women’s skirts, and the chosen used it to usher prophecy to life. But the apples were natural. Reports that they remained red and ripe year-round were folktales, hyperbole expanded over generations. We sisters had little to do between our meetings with destiny, and thus had time and talent to develop our farming arts. It was as simple as that.


The fruit was delicious, I admit. The thought of it made my mouth water.


I nodded my response to him, though his eyes were closed again and he could not see me. He had confirmed what I had surmised, that he knew of me and our destination. Perhaps, I mused, he thought of the reputed magic in the apples, and then considered the magic I would soon perform on him to repair his mortal wound and restore him to his kingdom. Or perhaps — it was a far more chilling thought — he knew the fruit possessed no magic, that every season we performed the same gritty tasks to coax apples from the limbs. Life works in circles, I thought. Could I truly return this man to his, knowing how it would end?


He was willing, of course. He curled in my canoe like a lamb en route to slaughter. No, he was not like a lamb, innocent and unaware. He knew the rise and fall of kingdoms, the tragic descent that was his fate. He knew and yet he was willing. Or resigned. Somehow that made it more horrible.


I wondered at the path brave men like Arthur and foolish children like me follow. After this bloody morning, I understood that it led to Camlann, and to death. And why did we follow it? We trusted in prophecy, in the elegance of the cycle and the justice of the preordained. Blaise and Taliesin and Merlin and others foretold and we marched into their visions without a backward glance. We did not choose the path. In fact, we had never once made a choice. Arthur and I, we were both offered up on the altar, given to destinies we had never questioned. Puppets had pushed the kingdom down into the muddy field of Camlann.


Camelot fell, I realized, because we let it fall.


All at once I grew angry. How pathetic it was that I had discovered my will here, on the lake, with the dying King in my arms. I might have made a difference at Camlann. I might have turned the tide for Arthur. I might have spared fair Albion the waste of such bloodshed and destruction. But instead I had remained on my island, obedient and unimaginative, able only to play the part others had written for me.         


Arthur shifted slightly and sagged against me. I reached for my veil and lifted it back to the crown of my head so I could look at him with naked eyes. I loved this man so, but I had never really known him. And he, I supposed, had never really known himself. I wondered what he would change if he knew he could.


We had been on the lake for some time, cocooned in the fog without sound or sight. The island had to be drawing near. As I realized our hours alone were short, a thought attacked me with sudden urgency. I was meant to mend him and send him back to begin the cycle anew. I was meant to allow him to think only of others, not himself. I was meant to return him to heartbreak and treachery and grievous pain.


I was meant to, but I did not have to. The choice was mine to make.


Mercy can take many forms. I trusted my fledgling sense of discernment and made my decision.


I eased Arthur back against my left shoulder. He gasped but allowed the move. As his weight shifted I drew my right leg to my chest and found the small dagger strapped at my ankle. My hand was familiar with the blade and I unsheathed it with one swift move. A moment later, its edge pressed against Arthur’s throat.


His curls touched my cheek, and I turned and kissed them. His eyes opened then and found mine. Those eyes were a bright blue, clear and lucid. I saw surprise in them, then understanding. I saw no fear. I pressed the blade more harshly against his skin, indicating that he, too, had a choice.


Blue eyes closed. Trembling with weakness, he raised a hand and wrapped it around mine on the hilt of the weapon.


I held my breath and waited for him to push me aside.


Instead, he drew the steel closer to his neck and broke skin.


Cracked lips turned up in the promise of a smile.


I drew the dagger ear to ear with all my strength. Arthur’s body jerked once in my arms and stilled. The gurgling blood drenched and warmed me even as his limbs grew cool. For a time I rocked him as a mother would a child, cradling him in his first moments of freedom. I did not weep. If I had healed him, then I would have wept.


When my reason returned, I realized that my sisters could perform the rites I knew and give life when there was none. If they ever found him, or me, they would return us to the cycle we had escaped. I had to move quickly.


The craft halted at my command. I stood in the little boat and drew Arthur up with me, summoning magic to supply strength when my arms failed. I embraced him with all my power, my palms against his shoulders, my head at his bosom. We would have fit together perfectly, my love and I, had we met under different skies.


The words came to my lips, incantations that would allow us to sink to the bottom of the lake as Excalibur had, alone and undisturbed, invisible to those who would hunt us. My voice echoed back to me, angling off the heavy wall of mist that protected us. When the words ran dry, I drew the blade against my own wrist and mingled our blood together.



The circle is broken.


I grow weary now. I crave sleep in the arms of my King.


The boat rocks, and I lean us both back into the inviting waters.