“And how is Gwynyvar?” Gerraint asked.
“Good. Fine. Gray and inclined to spend most of her time in prayer these days,” Arthur said.
Gerraint nodded. “Enid much the same. But she rides and gets about better than I do, truth be told.” Arthur looked long at his friend. In many ways Gerraint was like his first real friend, after Percival who was something like a younger brother. He turned, then, and looked at his own hands, as if seeking some insight into his future.
“I used to have a grip,” he said. “With Excalibur in my hands I used to think I was invincible. Now, I imagine I can barely lift Caliburn, the sword I used as a squire and young man, like that George of yours.” Arthur more or less pointed to the door. “And that would probably come loose in my hand soon enough.”
“With me, it’s my eyes.” Gerraint admitted. “I used to be able to count the feathers on an eagle’s wings and now I am doing good to know who the person is across the room. And my hair, quite obviously.”
Arthur grinned. “And what are we old men supposed to do now?”
“About what?” Gerraint wondered.
“About Lancelot, damn him.” Arthur said, a touch of the old fire in his voice. “He and Bohort and Lionel have taken the flower of our youth and squandered it across the sea in Amorica. They say the sons of Claudus made peace with the Franks and the Franks promptly swallowed them and then pushed them until King Howel was backed up to one city and a small strip of coast. They slaughtered whole villages; I am told. The natives, the survivors, were reduced to refugees before Lancelot came.”
“I understand why Lancelot and the others would want to help. It was the land where they were born,” Gerraint said.
“Yes, damn it, but he did not have to take half the kingdom to do it!” Arthur clearly sounded upset. “Worse, they repopulated the land with Britons loyal to the old ways. They took advantage of the churches being burned, not that the church made much headway in Amorica.” Arthur punched the table. “I should be grateful they took so many druids from our shores, but Bohort, Lionel and Lancelot were good Christian men, especially Lancelot.”
Gerraint chose to change the tone a little. “I still remember when old King Hoel, Howel’s father asked for our help against Claudus. Claudus and his Romans had already killed Bran and Bohort the elder by then.”
“Yes, but we got there in time to stop Claudus in his tracks,” Arthur said.
“Yes, and you killed Claudus himself, or Bedwyr did.”
“I thought it was you.” Arthur looked up. “Or Pelenor. I’m not sure.”
Gerraint shrugged. “Even so, I can understand why Lancelot would not be fond of the sons of Claudus, and the Franks. Claudus killed his mother and father Bran, and now the Franks are pushing Claudus’ sons to finish the job.”
“Oh, I understand,” Arthur said. “And now that Howel has died without an heir I understand all the more. Bohort has been proclaimed king, and out of deference to the people, he has decided they don’t want anything to do with Rome, or even anything associated with Rome”
“I thought Howel had a daughter,” Gerraint said.
“Belinda.” Arthur nodded. “But that unhappy affair with Tristam.”
“Oh, yes. I had forgotten.”
“The point is, I did not expect Lancelot to take the flower of Britain with him, and he has decimated Wales as well.” Arthur said. “Many have even taken their families and peasants with them. Whole villages have crossed the channel to help repopulate Amorica.
“You know they are calling it Little Britain now.” Gerraint interrupted.
Arthur nodded. “And I understand that after twelve years you can hardly get along in the countryside there unless you speak Welsh, or British.” Arthur added, then he looked cross. “But you are getting off the point.”
Gerraint was not yet sure what the point was. “But look,” he said. “I thought Medrawt was at least working on holding Wales together.”
Arthur rolled his eyes and let out a few soft invectives. “Medrawt has kept some of the Lords in Wales by granting them the land of those who left. He has no authority to grant land and I see civil war if those Lords ever do decide to come home.” Arthur grew in steam again. “The land was not his to give! Those chiefs who are with Lancelot are losing their land without knowing it.” Arthur stood and turned to the wall where Excalibur hung for seventeen years, since Badon.
Gerraint also stood because his knees needed it. “Surely it can’t be as bad as all that.” Gerraint spoke hopefully.
“It is,” Arthur said calmly. “We have been at peace too long. A whole generation, the young generation has abandoned Britain and the half of Wales to fight across the sea and search for adventures. Meanwhile, there is blond hair as high as York. Gerraint.” Arthur whipped around, grabbed his friend by the wrist and looked up into his eyes. “When I die, what will stop the Saxons from overrunning the whole of it? There is nothing left but old men and defenseless villages.”
“If Britain falls, Cornwall might not be far behind.” Gerraint confirmed. “But Wales, too?”
“Oh, Medrawt may hold Wales for a time,” Arthur said in echo of Gerraint’s own thoughts. “He can have the Welsh, but the rest cannot stand.”
“But still.” Gerraint held back just a little. “Can it be that bad?” He wondered. He knew he stayed out of touch, in his own little realm on the edge of the world, but still.
“It is!” Arthur fairly shouted. “Gwalchemi says the Scotts have concluded a peace and you know they will be looking south. Gawain says there have been renewed landings along the Norwegian shore, hard against the Midlands. And in the south, in East Anglia there is much stirring, and the Saxon Shore is even worse. Don’t you understand? Don’t you see? It might have been different if my son, if Gwynyvar’s and my son, Llacheu had lived, but Kai lost him for me so long ago. Now, when I die, there will be no one to fill the gap. What good is life if on my death everything unravels? I will have wasted my days. Everything will have been for nothing.” Arthur had to pause then to catch his breath. Gerraint thought Arthur’s grip seemed just fine, and he extracted his wrist carefully from Arthur’s clutches. Arthur went on more softly.
“We have been at peace too long. Lancelot must come home. I will make him Pendragon before I go and he will hold the realm together.”
Gerraint thought long about that. Lancelot was not young, himself. He turned maybe fifty-two or fifty-three. Gerraint guessed. But the people would listen to him. They had already. And they would accept him in the role. And he would have the strength to tell Medrawt and his Welsh supporters to stick it. It might work. Still, he had to ask.
“What of your nephews?”
Arthur’s look turned sour and then softened. “My sister Morgana’s sons have little in the way of leadership skills. Gawain does well watching the Norwegian Shore, but that is about his limit. The only other choice there is Garth, and I will have to ask him to take over for Bedwyr. Gwalchemi, in the North has no leadership skills to speak of. And Medrawt.” Arthur paused for a few chosen words before he explained. “Medrawt is only interested in Medrawt. He says what he thinks people want to hear, and makes a great show, but his only real interest is to steal from people to benefit himself. He would be the death of the realm, that devil’s son.” Arthur shook his head and once more reached for Gerraint’s hand. “Lancelot must come home.” He emphasized his words with his touch.
“But why me?” Gerraint got short with his words, but Arthur understood what he asked.
“Because he respects you. He may come home if you ask him,” Arthur said.
“And you haven’t asked?” Gerraint was just getting things straight.
“Of course,” Arthur said, once more getting hot. “I’ve told. I’ve ordered. I’ve asked. Gerraint, I’ve done everything except beg.”
“And so, I intend to bring together what loyal men are left to me and go and, by God, make him come back,” he said. Gerraint felt dubious, but he held his tongue. “You have some time,” Arthur explained. “I don’t plan to sail until August. I will be counting heavily on the men of Cornwall.”
Gerraint nodded. “Uwaine will raise the men,” he said. “And I will write letters to Gwillim and some others. What of Ogryvan and the north of Wales?”
“Can’t be counted on,” Arthur admitted. “But Uwaine?”
“He will do it,” Gerraint assured Arthur. “I have another duty to attend.”
“Is my husband being morbid?” A woman’s voice came from the doorway.
“Gwynyvar,” Gerraint responded.
“My dear.” Arthur acknowledged his wife.
“Pay him no mind, Gerraint dear.” She stepped up and they kissed cheeks. “He speaks of dying all too often these days.”
“Don’t we all?” Gerraint asked.