"I canít believe all the history that man is holding inside of him," I remarked. Of all my discoveries about the Serpent Isle, the people and their history seemed distant. Shaminoís involvement pulled them that much closer to me, a very exciting feeling.
            "Iíve never felt that Iíve truly known him," Iolo said. Which I could believe quite easily.
            "Heís a quiet guy," I threw a glance back over my shoulder. The gate was obscured by mountain now. We walked slowly. The sea whispered all around us, omnipresent.
            "Even so, Iíve known him for thousands of years and heís still a mystery."
            "Thousands of years," I echoed. "It doesnít seem like it."
            "Oh sure it does. I canít even remember the first day I spent on Britannia, it was that long ago," he said. I laughed.
            "Donít tell me youíre senile," I teased. He snorted.
            "You mean to tell me youíre not?" I grinned at his comeback. And there, around the next curve of rock the Golden Ankh mocked us both from dry ground.
 
 
 
 

            Breathing hard, I fell onto my haunches, shocked at how we both panted now that the wood had been gathered. The cold grass licked in between my boots and robe, sending chills down my spine. Iolo sat next to me. I watched a flame from our little fire lick high into the blue horizon. It glowed eerily on the sunless sky.
            "How long should it take him?" I asked.
            "I donít know, hon. He might be looking for food, or working on making sure the portcullis canít be shut again."
            "I canít help but worry. Heís already hurt, and we need him to get out of here." The cold sky seemed to darken by the second. It felt thick and stormy in the breeze of salt.
            "Heís fine, Gwenno," Iolo said absently. His face stared out to the same horizon. The same bleakness.
            "And we will make it home, right?" I asked with only a touch of sarcasm. I could feel Iolo smiling next to me. I think it must have been the pure exhaustion that allowed me to sense it but there it was, shining in the dark.
            "If we got here we can make it back," he reached over the fire to warm his hands. The sun and its trails of light had all but disappeared.
            "That makes sense," I sighed. It did not feel like we were very close to getting back. The ĎAnkhís dinosaur of a hull looked down at us. The same exhaustion that let me feel Ioloís smile let me see the ship do the same, but this grin didnít shine. It leered at me, laughing from the side of its face like a devil. Too much ground and not enough water supported it, lifted the masts too tall at a steady, crooked angle.
            I waited for Iolo to answer me somehow, to speak again. He turned his hands slowly over the orange flames. They did not shake. Thank the virtues they did not shake. I often look to my own hands, afraid to see any sign of aging. And now to his. He did look older since I had last seen him. But beautiful. Still beautiful. He must have felt me staring. His hands fell to his lap and he turned to me.
            "Weíll find a way. When have we failed before?" I stiffened, trying hard to resist the shiver rolling down my spine.
            "Never," I whispered. He scooted closer and pulled me to him with one strong, thin arm.
            "I donít know where the Avatar is, but sheís not dead, Gwen. I know sheís not." His arm squeezed in rhythm to his words. Everything he said becomes song sometimes. I lay into him and hoped it would continue.
            "I believe you," I said quietly. The sea echoed me with its violent whispers. My stomach rolled and growled.
            "I didnít get that feeling from when she disappeared," his voice took on that tone, the storytelling tone. I settled in, my stomach protesting in hunger. "We were in the great temple, in front of the most amazing stone serpent yet. We had seen other serpent statues in the underground dimension of the Ophidians, but this one shone as if it had been hewn from obsidian only days ago. . ." tears rose under my eyelids. The pulse of his voice made it feel like I was lying in a bed of fine silk, safe and warm. " ... Of course she had no fear at all, she raised the sword. Iíd never seen such a fine sword, sharp and curved like a kryss . . ." a tear rolled down my cheek, very cold. The wind sucked to that spot on my face. I fought to pay attention to his words. "The statue crumbled, just like thatóand Iíd never seen a more stable piece of rock . . ." my stomach growled again. I couldnít do it anymore. Another tear and more wind. I didnít worry about themóthey were definitely happy tears. But relaxing would be hopeless. His voice faded a little, he had to cough it back alive.
            "Iolo," I whispered.
            " . . . Shamino fell so hard! I fell to the ground and covered my head with my hands, afraid the whole temple would collapse in on us."
            "Iolo," I sat up too fast, my head spun.
            "I hear it too," he stood. I didnít even realize that that was why I wanted him to stop. Suddenly I just felt in danger. My arms perked into gooseflesh.
            "Shamino!?" I called out, struggling to my feet. Iolo grunted behind me. A figure loomed in the dark, limping so badly I could barely believe heíd made it this far. I ran into the dark, into his weak reply.
            "Yeah. . . Gwen," There were no kegs this time. A grimace twisted the poor manís face. His frozen, wet clothes clung to him hard. Another step forward almost brought him crashing down to the ground.
            "Virtues, Shamino," I tried to get under his arm but he shook his head and waved me off.
            "Iím all right," he panted. Iolo came up behind us.
            "Come on and dry off, are you sure youíre okay?" Iolo rasped. Shamino limped on, ignoring our concerns.
            "Iíve got food and a bit of water," he said instead. At the fireís edge, he crumbled to the ground, legs slowly going out from under him, muscles shaking so that we could see it. I knelt on the ground beside him, Iolo stood behind me. Shamino sat there, staring into the fire and panting, gasping for his breath. His pack sagged on his back, very full. I reached behind us, into my own bag and found my canteen again.
            "Thank the Virtues youíre all right," Iolo said quietly. Shamino stared at my outstretched canteen, breathing like a wild animal. I nudged it toward him and he reached his hand up. It quivered in the firelight. His brown fingers closed on it, but it wasnít enough. The whole thing shook like crazy. He lifted his other hand up and clutched it. This exhaustionómy heart wanted to stop. He sloppily lifted the bottle to his lips and swallowed it, slowly.
            "Iím sorry, you must be starving," he gasped, and shook the pack from his back. His armsn quivered, I didnít think heíd be able to hold himself up much longer. Iolo helped him lift his arm up and free the leather straps. I couldnít tell if he shook from the cold or from exhaustion, but it didnít matter. Either way it made me sick.
            "Shamino, you have to get out of those wet clothes," I told him. Iolo opened the pack.
            "I donít have any other clothes."
            The wind breezed by to accent my concern. "Shamino, youíre exhausted, if you stay in those clothes youíll freeze to death." I looked around. Iolo and I only had the clothes on our backs. I stood and untied my robe. "Here, wear this. Iíve got stuff underneath, and Iolo can keep me warm. Come on, take it off," I smiled weakly. Shamino looked to my husband with gigantic eyes. Iolo shrugged.
            "Sheíll be fine," he said absently. He counted what Shamino brought back: ale, water, and food.
            "So will I," he panted.
            "Come on, we canít afford you getting sick or worse," I let the robe fall right off my back. Underneath I wore a thin shirt and soft brown leather leggings. More than enough. Shamino looked up at me with a goofy smile.
            "You donít have to," he reached up to undo his belt, hands shaking. He couldnít even pull his own clothes off. He sunk all the way onto the ground and let breath out. In the grass he rolled, pulling his tunic up his body. Underneath, tanned flesh was exposed. He wrestled it up to his armpits and then rested again, this time he closed his eyes.
            "Thank you so much, Shamino," Iolo said. "This is enough for at least a few days."
            Shamino grunted from his gut, trying to make some kind of spoken words. He started struggling his clothes off again, his fingers closed around his tunic and he lifted up. It didnít make it past his chin. My guts squirmed. Now this was scaryóso exhausted he couldnít even pull a tunic off. I couldnít take it. I knelt next to him. He stiffened, eyes opened. I grabbed his shirt and started pulling it up and off, as gently as I could. He helped weakly, turning red. Embarrassed. Next were his pants. He pushed up on his arms, wanting to do it himself, but muscles shook and withered. He lay back and closed his eyes and let me take his pants off. I unbuttoned the fly, it wasnít easy to get a grip on the slimy wet leather.
            "Did you eat, Shamino?" Iolo asked. Heíd picked out some bread and cheese for us now.
            "Yes," he said. I yanked the bottom of the pant legs and wet leather slowly gave to me. He squirmed appropriately, sluggishly, and we did it. I lay the leggings out in the grass close enough to the fire to dry them by morning. Now he had to at least cover up with my tiny robe. I grabbed it, stopped dead when I saw the cause of his limping. Half of his thigh was covered in a ripe bruise. It reached from mid-thigh, under his undershorts and up over his buttocks. I didnít say anything, just knelt back down. Iolo came over to help hold him up. The robe was obviously way too small, his arms jutted out of it like long thin twigs. He fell back and closed his eyes. I tied it gently, all the time watching his steady face, his closed eyes.
            I sat on my haunches and surveyed our camp. My heart slowed a little, calmer now that Shamino had warm clothes. My stomach growledóready for that bread. First I found our only bedroll among our things. I unrolled it opposite from Shaminoófor us-- and took the blanket. Shamino was already asleepóa matter of seconds had passed. I covered him and sat down next to Iolo.
            "Youíre wonderful," he said through a mouthful of cheese.
            "Yeah, well, so are you," I helped myself to a hunk of bread. The dry smell of the food was almost orgasmic. I dug in and resolved to ignore everything else, at least for now.
 
 
 
 

            Sea wind made me cross my arms tighter across my chest. I wished for the warm breezes of Britannia, not this arctic land. Iíd been standing here for virtues know how long, watching the stain of darkness on the horizon creep toward us from the north. If this storm broke, it could be very good for us. Enough wind and waves might give us the extra feet we needed to get that ship into the water.
            "Shaminoís clothes are dry now," Iolo pushed through the sand behind me. He didnít sound so well again.
            "I donít want to wake him yet." Last night, Ioloíd almost kept me too warm with his fever. I didnít say anything. I just clutched into him and tried to sleep. He took his medicine as Harnna told him to. Now he looped an arm over my shoulders and rubbed my arm to warm me.
            "Weíve got to get going if we want to get out of here before that storm."
            "Well then lets go to Monitor and get a keg," I offered. "We could each take an end. I donít think Shamino should be running around. Did you see that bruise?"
            "Yeah, itís bad. He definitely shouldnít work too hard." I faced my husband. The light was flat and made him look flat, too. Very pale. "I suppose we could grab another keg before he wakes. That way weíll be ready to start." Our eyes met. Iolo smiled kindly, pulling wrinkles out around his eyes. "But I donít want you to be too cold."
            I felt myself blushing. "Iíll be fine." He smiled, beautiful. I fell against his chest with my arms around his waist. He was very hot under that robe. He rubbed my bare arms with his callused hands and kissed me on the top of the head. The seaís whisper became a low roar at my back. I didnít want to move. I breathed him in deeplyówanting to taste him. The thick warm man smell of him tasted dirty and old as I breathed it through the mouth.
            "I know. But I still worry over you. Look, your arms are covered in goose bumps," he rubbed some more. I closed my eyes on the rough cloth of his robes.
            "Once we get walking Iíll warm up. How are you feeling?" I looked to his face. It was very pale, framed by even whiter hair.
            "Not my best, but Iíll make it," he bent forward and kissed me now on the forehead. He was right. Electricity cracked in the air, it was full of expectation with the building storm. It could be all right for us. But I didnít want to pull away to find out. "We better get moving," his words crushed me. I chuckled to myself and squeezed him.
            "All right, lets go. You donít think Shamino will wake up and wonder where we are?"
            "No, no. He was so exhausted last night I could hardly believe it," we started down the beach now.
            "I hope heís all right. Iíve never seen someone too tired to undress himself. Itís a miracle he made it all the way back."
            "I wonder what the hell he went through to get into the city." Iolo sighed. He still sounded rough.
            "I suppose weíll find out."
            "Are you armed?" He asked, serious.
            "No, Iím not."
            "Well, I only have my crossbow."
            "Iím not worried, I trust you to protect me," I did. You could see the wall and the city now, and the portcullis looked open from here. Iolo pulled his bow from his belt. It was one of his; he mustíve brought it with him. I recognized this one. The man had gone through many, and each outdid the other. He had wrapped the end of the stock in thick leather and carved some ornate ankhs into it. Now the leather was so oiled and worn, it was a part of the bow, hardly discernable from the rest of the wood.
            "Who will protect me?" he smiled and shook that thing in my face. Only Iolo, my master bowyer could keep a bow working perfectly for hundreds of years. This one looked close to death though.
            "If it comes down to it, dear, Iíll put the moves on the goblins." He laughedóI hadnít heard him laugh in the longest time. It made me feel even better. More confident. Weíd definitely be okay. But as we did come up under the open portcullis, a chill zipped down my arms, raising the hair up good.
            "Ghost town," Iolo said matter-of-factly. We stopped in the street along the south wall of the crematorium. That thing in there with its fire growled low and sinister.
            "Should we look around for more clothes or anything?" I only asked because it might be awkward to take things from the victims of the banes. Even if it had been Dupre who had killed this town. Iolo shook his head.
            "Shaminoís clothes are dry now. I donít think we need anything except to get out of here." He fished the keys out from his robes. The key was in my memory, small and gold with no markings or jewels. Three prongs. He let me find it as we slipped into the cracks in the mountain, the hidden cave.
            "Gwenno run!" Iolo shouted, pushing me behind him. Sudden. My heart leapt into my chest as I fell down the wall. He held up his old hunk of leather and wood. A horde of green awakened in front of us. They had been waiting. An ambush of goblins.
            "Iolo," he fired. I scrambled to my feet, pain exploding in my shoulder. The goblins rushed forward over their falling comrade, Iolo fired. I clutched the shoulders of his robes, gathering them under my fingers.
            "Run, Gwen, get armed," he growled, firing automatically, fast. I was frozen to act. One two three four goblins. Lots of bolts, blue and white. The front one fell forward. Iolo fired, stepping back. I snapped out of it, the surge of green right on us, trampling on top of their dying partners. I scanned the cave, picked up a rock, and leaned around Iolo.
            Two left. And I threw it. The goblins threw spears. My rock struck home, in the head of the one more forward. Iolo yelled. Had he been speared? Oh gods, it went fast. The last goblin brandished his spear, screeching loud, vile things coming from its ugly face. And then a shaft, blue and white feathered appeared in its face right between its eyes. It collapsed forward, hands and spear splayed on the floor. So fast.
            Five, not four dead goblins lay in their own blood on the cavern floor. I shivered, suddenly very cold. My shoulder throbbed warmly in the middle of it.
            "Are you all right?" He asked gruffly. I reached up to rub my arm where Iíd hit the wall. Just a bruise.
            "Yeah," I swallowed my shaky word, fighting to be calm. Iolo set his old bow against the cavern wall and turned to me. He did not speak as he untied his robe slowly. Blood shone red on his arm, but that was just a scratch. He looked down at himself, pale. I couldnít tell if it was just his sickness or something very bad. I had to be calm.
            "Did you get hit?" I asked. He nodded and let his robe fall away from his hands. Now I saw blood. Now I knew fear. My guts clenched. I lifted his undershirt up very carefully. A two-inch slit opened his side right beneath the southern ridge of his ribs.
            "If you hadnít thrown that rock, Iíd be run through," he said. I laughed, a dead sound. It could be deepóit could have hit his vital organs. "Seriously," he said. "You bought me some time." He put his own shaky hands around the wound and sucked in air through his teeth.
            "It could be deep," I knelt down to look, the air around us sharp as glass. His fear was palpable.
            "Your arm is hurt," he said.
            "I know," I used his shirt to dab the cut off. Well, the spear wasnít still in there, which was a sign. He stiffened and let me pull his flesh apart enough to see, thank the Virtues, that it was only a flesh wound. I laughed from sheer relief. "Youíre okay, itís not deep, but it is bleeding." I straightened up. Color began to seep into his face.
            "What a relief," he crumbled into me, hugging me too hard. I wrapped my arms around his shaky body. "I didnít expect that."
            "Me either. Iím glad I could use my moves to help after all."
            "Really, Gwen, you did good. But your arm is hurt," he pulled my shirt down by the collar to expose my purple, scratched shoulder.
            "Just a bruise," I sighed.
            "Iím sorry. I pushed you too hard."
            "Itís fine, Iolo. Iím fine."
            "Thank the gods," he let me go and regained his crossbow. "Now I want you to grab one of those spears." He stepped gingerly over the first body, bow ready for any littlen aftershocks. I bent down and picked up the closest spear, the one that must have ripped the two-inch-long hole in his side. I still held the keys clutched in my non-throwing hand.
            "You need to stop that bleeding," I carefully passed by the dead ones, afraid of the stench of death beginning to wisp around them now.
            "In a minute."
            "Hereís the key," I handed it over to him. He opened the door fast, afraid another surprise would greet us, but none did. Our stockpile of kegs remained the same. We silently walked to the first one. I took the top and tipped it toward myself. He guided it. He rolled his arms around it and we lifted. One two three.
 
 
 
 

            "Iolo, Iolo, letís put it here for now," I panted. I could see the mast of the Golden Ankh rising over the stubby mountains.
            "All right, slowly," together we sunk to the dewy ground. I raised up, back protesting a bit. "You okay?" he asked.
            "Fine," I rubbed my arms. My bruised shoulder ached in the distance. The sun was coming up the sky, but the wind had picked up as well. "I wonder if Shaminoís up yet."
            "One way to find out," Iolo pulled his arm around me. Oh, the heat from his body all but canceled out the chilly wind. What a day for him to be sick. Our companion looked comfortable, at least. Shamino, arms growing from my little robe like misfit roots, lay next to the dying fire.
            "The stormíll be upon us too soon," Iolo said. "Shamino!" His bardís voice rattled me. Damn he could be loud. But Shamino didnít hear. I felt sick.
            "Heís all right, right?" My stomach felt like it had been left outside in the frozen north. I knelt next to him. He didnít twitch a muscle. The wind took that opportunity to blow my hair across my face.
            "Heís fine, we just have to wake him up," Iolo said, unsure. I raised my hand, ready to put it in front of Shaminoís mouth. His chest, virtues help us, didnít seem to be moving. My heart jumped to my throat.
            "Aah!" His whole body twitched together, shooting me up, startled. I came to my senses a second later and he sighed. Iolo chuckled.
            "Iím sorry," I breathed. "Sorry. Are you all right?"
            "I donít know," he moaned and turned slowly onto his side, groaning. I suppose the last thing he wanted was my undivided attention if he felt as crappy as he looked.
            "We have to get going, Shamino. I donít want to hurry you, but--"
            "We gotta hurry," Iolo cut in. "Thereís a storm coming." Shamino groaned louder and rolled back on to his back. He didnít look good. His body lay there under the filtered light but Shamino was nowhere near.
            "This will be our best chance, Shamino, if the waves pick upóand I really think they will." I said. He blinked his dull eyes.
            "Good," he moaned. I worried.
            "Shamino," Iolo threw his dried clothes right on his stomach, drawing him up into a ball. He sat, sheltering his clothes with his top half, maybe too tired to sit up. I rubbed his back once, twice.
            "Are you all right?" He better be. A glance over my shoulder told me the storm would be here very soon. He sat himself up, grunting.
            "Iíll live," Shamino said. He shook his head slowly side to side and went faster until his hair flew back and forth all crazy. I hadnít noticed until now but his hatóthe old red one he seemed to never go without for the past few hundred yearsówas missing.
            "Gwenno," Iolo grabbed me by the hand and yanked on me to follow. "Letís get that keg now," he purred.
            "Youíre going to get a keg?" Shamino insisted, alarmed.
            "We already have one, itís just around the bend there," I explained. "Why?"
            "Nothing, nevermind," he said, yanking my robe from his shoulders. Life had reentered him, thank the virtues.
            "Whatís the hurry?" I asked Iolo as he dragged me around the peak.
            "NothingóI just want to get this keg in place."
            "Donít be nervous, Iolo. If we donít get out of here today we have hundreds of years to keep trying."
            "You shouldnít say that," he stopped walking to face me. "I donít want to be here for hundreds of years."
            "Neither do I, but we do what we have to. Come on," I bent over to lift the keg, wishing already that I had spent more time working out and less time on scholarly pursuits.
            Iolo didnít move. He looked back over his shoulder, around the bend of mountain.
            "Come on," I huffed. The wind picked up in a sharp accent.
            "Donít ask him about what happened last night," Iolo said. I sputtered.
            "Why ever not?"
            "Just trust me on that," he stated. I shivered. We lifted the barrel. Somehow in the past ten minutes it had gained about 50 stones to its bulk.
 
 
 
 

            Three barrels now sat at the middle of the ship on the sand, only a couple feet from the lick of the rising waves. Iolo lay up against the mountains, on the hard grey rocks. I felt distant from everything, I couldnít touch the world, after the work we had done, I couldnít convince my body to go on.
            In the boat, Shaminoís milling around made plenty of noise. He insisted that he could do at least a decent job of sailing the thing, as thunder challenged him. I watched carefully, so he couldnít tell. His instincts seemed too dulled by sleeplessness to notice how I stared at him. Iolo pegged me too right. I could feel him watching me, sure. He knew I wanted nothing more than to ask about the city. Where in hell was Harnna? It did no good to wonder, as he limped across the deck, shirt abandoned long ago. His unruly hair blew right in his face. He ignored it. Iolo cleared his throat, but who cares? Shamino still didnít see me. I stood right in plain sight, keeping no secrets. If it bothered him, heíd look over here.
            The way he worked was just madness to me. Madness, arms flailing, going too fast to really know what he was doing, or so it seemed. Thunder made me jump. Iolo chuckled from his rest area.
            I walked over, everything moaned. The storm had gained on us, but so slowly it was hardn to gauge time. I pat my robe as I walked, looking for the pocketwatch I knew I didnít have with me. The thing smelled like sweat, dry Shamino sweat.
            "Sit down for a minute, at least. If you think that was hardó"
            "Iolo, I have a feeling this isnít going to work," I didnít feel it until the words crossed my lips, with a chill. The storm, moving like a snail before had thrust off its shell and gained legs. It charged us.
            "We have to do it now," Shamino called from the deck. He leaned over the side of the ship, panting. The kegs sat in place, half buried in sand. Iolo was to shoot a bolt lit on fire back to the line of mountains where our trail of powder started and then we were all to hit the deck, quite literally. The kegs, by our crude estimation would blow the sand from beneath us with enough force to push us out a few feet, and as soon as he could, Shamino assured us he could grab control so the sails would catch the wind from the Northwest and use it to surpass the point of the isle until we were deep enough to anchor and sustain the ship until the storm passed, but not so deep that if something went wrong we couldnít make it to shore. This plan passed through my head as my feet clapped on the gangplank.
            Oh, it sounded all right to me in theory. But it felt like a snowballís chance in Furnace.
            "All right," Iolo sighed. The trail of gunpowder looked like it was blowing away.
 
 
 
 

            "Is the Avatar dead?" He asked, showing no emotion. He must not let it show, not in front of us, in front of Geoffrey or Nystul, or the young chambermaid pretending not to hear in the far corner of the tomblike throne room.
            "We do not know," Shamino said with an equal amount of fight to contain any hint of fear, remorseóanything.
            "Xenka told us the Guardianís hand reached into the void and took her. That is all we know," my husband added calmly.
            "Xenka? Who is this Xenka again?" He pressed his lips together tightly, becoming frustrated.
            "She is a prophet who was cursed with the ability to see the future. She foretold our coming, guided us until the end, and then came to tell us the Avatarís fate."
            "If she was the one who guided you to this end, how can you be sure she isnít a pawn of the Guardian?" We looked at each other back and forth for a moment, questioning. British pushed his hand across his face, rubbing his eyes. I would bet Iolo that he hadnít slept much. He looked much older than the last time I was in Britannia, aged much harder than Iolo or Shamino.
            "I suppose you might have a point there, but the serpent spirits that hold the isle together seemed to side with her in guiding the Avatar," Iolo said.
            "Also, Batlin died as a result of Xenkaís followersí guidance. We really have no reason to suspect her of siding with Guardian, since she wanted to see the Avatar stop the storms and restore balance too," Shamino added.
            "These serpents," British began, "What kind of creatures were they? Surely you never heard of such beings, Shamino?" I felt a shock. At what I didnít know, but the world seemed to proceed very slowly as I looked to King Shamino for his answer.
            "No, Milord. I knew of the strange ruins, but not of the religion behind them."
            "Could they be evil?" He asked in all seriousness. I shuddered.
            "I donít think so, Lord British," I said softly. "In all my studies it seemed that yes, the serpents of Chaos and Order were constantly causing fighting between the ancient serpent people, but the serpent guiding the Avataróthe Balance serpentóhe was seeking peace between order and chaos, between everyone." I explained. Lord British looked to me intently, too hard. I felt myself shrink slowly.
            "And Dupre spoke to us after being assimilated into the Chaos serpent. He would have warned us not to proceed if he detected any evil on the part of the serpents," Iolo helped.
            British shook his head slowly, deep in thought. Geoffrey looked to his boss, then to us, then back to our liege who nodded to himself.
            "All right. There is much I do not understand about the Serpent Isle and what happened there. Please excuse me, my friends, I need time to think. You can stay in the castle as long as youíd like. In fact, Iíd appreciate it if you would stay for at least a couple more days, in case I think of something to ask," he smiled sadly. We all agreed.
            "Thank you, my liege," Iolo said.
            "No, thank you three. It took a great effort to get back here, I can tell. And all the sacrifices youíve made to help the Avatar and her causeóall of Britannia, and especially me, I appreciate it." He stood, robes of silk and fur, expensive materials and extensive labor making him look cheap and worn. Like wrapping a rough garage sale toy in gold leaf wrapping paper. Iolo put his hand on my back to guide me, stop me from staring at our king. I felt the blush of embarrassment start to pour in to my face as the three of us paraded out of the throne room. The eyes of the attendants and the guard shot needles into my back.
 
 
 
 

            "Gwenno, did you think Lord British was acting strangely?" Iolo pulled out a chair for himself.
            "Oh, I donít know, all things considered, I would expect him to act shocked."
            "But he looked more than shocked to me. Like he hasnít slept in years."
            "You noticed that too?"
            "Seriously? You thought so? The Avatar mentioned something to us about seeing him in the dream world in Gorlab swamp. She said he was nervous, that the castle was burning around him, that there had been earthquakes, that the guards were all dead. If thatís truly what he dreams, we canít blame him for not sleeping," said Iolo.
            "Aye, we canít." I pulled out a heavy oaken chair to sit next to him at the table. We sat in silence for a while. I watched the candles distort Ioloís shadow along the wall in their drafty flickering. He drew a map for himself on the table with his finger, tracing virtues-know-what.
            "Could Xenka have been evil do you think?" Iolo asked quietly.
            "She was certainly a disagreeable woman, but she didnít strike me as being evil," I replied. But then again, I knew her for only a short time, half of that in which I was crazy.
            "But do you think she was in cahoots with Guardian?"
            "I donít think so. That would mean the serpents were too. And that the Ophidians believed in myths, in nothing."
            "Maybe the serpents are, though. Maybe Guardian knew them even back then."
            "I find that hard to believe. Especially since the Serpent Isle people of today died. Wouldnít Guardian want to preserve them if he was in charge? They hated Lord British. Guardian wouldnít have allowed the banes to kill off his potential allies."
            "He would if his true goal was to get the Avatar," he smiled. "Iím just trying to play devilís advocate here. I donít really think the serpents would allow Guardian to let Avatar bind them together. The only one of them that wanted balance was the balance serpent."
            "You and the Avatar did your best, dear," but he wasnít done explaining it all to himself. "I keep thinking about Harnna. She was right about us: we brought nothing but grief to the people of the Serpent Isle. We started with the aim of finding Batlin and stopping the magical curse the storms wereóand finding you, of course, that was what was on my mind. Dupre just wanted Batlinís bloodósuch a fighter he was. Oh, Gwenno. All we did for the Serpent isle, if you look at it objectively, is empty out the towns. We killed it."
            I didnít know what to say, he talked too fast. And too much.
            "We killed everyone but," he held up fingers, "Harnna, thatís one. The Woman in Fawn and her guard, three. The two boys and Fedabiblio, six, and the mad mage plus two of his servants, one half-dead anyway. Nine. Then there was the son of that innkeeper. I count ten. Can you think of others?"
            "The monks," I said, shocked. "I canít believe you forgot them."
            "Ha, me either," he laughed. "But they donít count."
            "Sure they donít. I get your point, though," he looked at his hands and picked some dirt from under his fingernails. "Iolo, what happened in Fawn isnít your fault at all." He looked up at me.
            "I know that. I know it but I donít really feel it."
            "Iolo," I warned. I didnít want him to feel like he had done wrong.
            "I didnít feel it until Dupre flung himself into the fire. That hurt, Gwenno. I think before that, I let finding you occupy my mind."
            "We stopped the storms, Iolo. Thatís what really counts. And the gargoyles all woke up, thereís that."
            "Oh, I donít question our good intentions, Gwen. If Xenka was working for the Guardian, though, that changes everything."
            "There isnít any evidence that she was working for him, except that he took the Avatar, and she didnít give me any reason to think she wanted the Avatar to go into the void. In fact, Xenka was about to let Zenith dieóshe had the short straw, right?"
            "You have a point there," he sighed. "But I donít like British having his doubts. Heís the last person who should be questioning what we did. For virtuesí sake, he sent us."
            "Heís just upset the Avatar is missing. Heíll get over the initial shock."
            "I hope so."
            "Once we get home and start living our normal lives again, youíll feel better too," I said, hoping it was true. He stopped playing with his fingernails, all of them clean now, and stood up. "Where are you going?"
            "I havenít been in Britain in what seems like forever. I want to make some rounds."
            "Already? You arenít tired?"
            "Aye I am, but I feel like I could use a little walk," he said simply, hanging on the open door. Probably go see how Coop was doing running Ioloís Bows.
            "Would you like me to come with?"
            "Aye, dear. Coop will be glad to see you, and we can arrange for a carriage to get us home in a couple days." I stood up and looked down at the ragged robe that Shamino had slept in and my nose wrinkled itself.
            "Lets stop at the tailorís. I need a good change of clothes."
            "Anything you want, Gwenno," he snaked his arm around me. Strong and comfortable. I smiled in spite of myself, for his arm and for the prospect of walking the streets of my Britannia once again.
 
 
 
 
 

Previous Part

Back to the Library 1