Apr. 17th, 2007

The island is rocky and bare of vegetation; the castle that sits atop of it begrimed and smeared.

(The isle was once green, and the castle once shone. Arthur says this, and Paul knows it to be true, but it has little to do with the present.)

There are no guards. Soulmonger had been guard enough.

Loren and Matt go one way; Paul goes another, with Arthur and Diarmuid and Diarmuid's forty men, though he does not know what his role will be in this particular battle. It is very cold in the castle. Even Paul feels it - it is the cold of death, and Mornir cannot protect him from it here.

Even Diarmuid seems subdued.

They have come to a branching in the corridor when they see the svart alfar. It has time to see them, and time to open its mouth, but nothing else - six arrows stop the scream before it can burgeon, and Paul dives to catch the flask he had been carrying before it can hit the ground and sound the alarm.

His reflexes, honed by basketball in another world, are quick enough; he catches it, and hands it to Diarmuid, who opens it. It turns out to be South Keep wine. Diarmuid, predictably, takes a drink. Equally predictably, no one else does, but they all feel their spirits lift.

It lasts them until they reach the opening out onto the huge lower chamber, and they see the Cauldron - black, green, coated with grime.

The cauldron, and the hundreds of svart alfar behind it.

Svart alfar, lending their strength to Metran the mage. Dying as they are drained - and, with the cauldron, being brought, again and again, to life.

Paul looks at the mage who had made the winter that Kevin had died to end, and tries to keep control, in the face of the strongest loathing he has ever felt in his life.

And behind him, he hears Diarmuid snarl, "We can't do it."




Loren told the men his plan when they were still on Prydwen. To break the Cauldron, they must force Metran to lower the shield he set around it. The plan was for the South Keep men to attack the svarts in Metran's company, and convince him to use the power of the shield as a weapon against the men, while Loren and Matt slipped nearer to the Cauldron.

Unfortunately, the svarts -- every one of them -- are behind Metran's shield. The men of Brennin have no leverage at all. Unless, that is, someone tempting offers himself up as bait for Metran to attack.

Arthur, crouched on the floor outside the hall with Paul and Diarmuid, raises himself a little on his arms. "I think this may be what Kim brought me for, he whispers. "I never see the end, in any case." He slides himself closer to the great, scarred gray dog, scratches the dog's neck. "I know you would come with me," says Arthur, his voice almost too low to hear, "but you will be needed yet in Fionavar, great heart. There may yet come a day when we need not part."

Arthur touches Diarmuid's shoulder, then Paul's. "Weaver grant you rest," whispers Diarmuid, and turns his face away, blinking, but Paul gives Arthur his hands to clasp.

"What shall I say?" Paul asks. "If I have the chance?"

Arthur knows what Paul is asking, of course. Guinevere, who is called Jennifer in this world and time. He shakes his head. "She knows already everything that could be told."

Paul nods. Arthur releases his hands, draws his sword in the corridor and steps alone into the hall.

Metran and the svarts don't even look up from their work until Arthur cries out, "Slave of the Dark, hear me!"

Behind the safety of his shield, Metran looks up, unafraid. "I intend to hear you," he says tranquilly. "Before you die you will tell me who you are and how you came here."

"Speak not lightly of dying in this place," says Arthur. "You are among the great of all the worlds here, and they can be awakened. As for my name, know that I am Arthur Pendragon, son of Uther, King of Britain. I am the Warrior Condemned, summoned here to battle you, and I cannot die." All of this is true, except for the last claim, which is true enough in its own way; Arthur may die, but he will be reawakened again, over and over and over. It is part of the curse laid on him.

The svart alfar gibber in panic, but Metran says, "Our books of lore tell a different tale."

"Doubtless," replies Arthur. "But before you run to them, know this: I command you now to quit this place, or I shall go down and wake the dead to drive you into the sea!"

Metran's eyes begin to waver, and he comes slowly from behind the high table. (He is still, of course, behind his shield.) "It is told that you can be killed. Over and over, you have been killed. I will offer your head before the throne in Starkadh!" He raises his hand.

Arthur waits, proud and silent, for the blow to come.

It never comes. Metran laughs, brutally, and calls out to Loren, who, with Matt, has just crept into the hall.




This is what I need, he had told them, and without complaint, every one of the men who had sailed to Cader Sedat had prepared to give up their lives, just to give him the chance to stop Metran.

None of them had, in the end. None of
them
had.

Loren Silvercloak kneels on the stone beside the lifeless body of Matt Soren, amid the outflung fragments of the Cauldron-- a thousand, thousand fragments, shattered like a heart.

Like his heart, come to that.

He hadn't wanted to risk it, at first. Even though they had come so far and done so much, Loren hadn't thought it would be possible to break Metran's shield, backed by all the power stolen from the Cauldron of Khath Meigol-- much less the Cauldron itself, and the winter with it. It had been Matt who had stopped him, urgently insisting that if they did not at least try then it would be worse than if they had never sailed at all.

For what have we lived, if not for this? Stand by me, as I have by you, and together there is nothing that can prevail against us.

He can still feel the weight of the Whitebranch in his hand -- the staff of Amairgen, first of the mages. He can still feel the sweet, dizzying song of the power as it poured through him, the pure, wild, glorious joy in the knowledge that allowed him to direct it, even in such cause.

And it hadn't been enough. Not until Matt, with all the strength of his indomitable will, had commanded, had demanded, and Loren had done. He had reached deep into his friend, his source, for the uttermost, killing strength that had pierced the shield and destroyed the Cauldron-- and in so doing, consumed Matt's life.

Now, still kneeling beside him, Loren looks down upon the face of his oldest and dearest friend, and there sees something almost unimaginable-- a smile, true and bright and peaceful, the smile of one who has at last found his heart's desire.

Of all those in the world, he is the only one who knows why it is there, the only one left who both remembers and understands, and Loren -- Silvercloak still, even if no longer a mage now, not without Matt -- he finds that this, finally, is too much. Loren casts his cloak over his face, hiding himself from the sight of the others, and grieves silently, alone.

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