Summer never ended in Avalon. The apple trees bore fruit, shining red and heavy, then flowered again. Over and over in an endless circle, with no seasons to mark the passage of time. No winter, to make bones creak and breath fog in the crisp air. No autumn, to paint the leaves scarlet and gold. The hills of the island were always green, fragrant, and timeless.
Summer in Avalon, like her Children, was eternal.
After forty unending summers on Avalon, Katharine could almost forget the winters of the Scottish coast. The evenings when it was ice as well as stone that rained down from the castle ramparts as the gargoyle clan awakened. The mornings when the water in the basin was a sheet of solid ice that she would have to break with the silver handle of her hairbrush before she could wash her face. The days when she wrapped herself in wool and fur to try to keep shivers from wracking her small frame, even when the fires in her rooms and the great hall blazed high.
After forty unending summers, Katharine felt old. She'd never felt old until the Archmage's attacks. She knew her dark hair had gone grey. She saw the lines in her reflection in the glass. But she'd never felt old.
Tom's breath was warm against her neck as she slipped out of their bed, Boudicca padding to her side. She rested her hand on the faithful gargoyle beast's head, and something like a purr rumbled in her chest.
She and Tom had fallen into a heavy slumber after dawn, and she looked down at his face, relaxed in sleep, and smiled fondly. She'd watched him grow from boy to man. Lived with him as wife since their tenth summer on Avalon. His blond hair had darkened to brown, then lightened again to grey as the years went by. But she saw him always as the strapping young man who had first kissed her beneath fragrant apple blossoms.
With the memory of those days in Wyvern still a tight knot in her throat, she pulled on a light cloak and left the castle, nodding to members of Oberon's family as she passed them on her way to the Sleeping King's barrow.
The sun was high in the sky, and all of her foster children slept peacefully on the castle walls. If it weren't for the low voices of Oberon's Children carried on the summer breeze, she might have imagined all was as it had been for two score years.
Only the ache in her chest told her with every breath that it was forever changed.
Weary from the climb up what seemed to be more stairs with each passing day, Katharine sat on the cool marble at the foot of the Magus' side and settled her skirts around her legs. She could hear Boudicca near the mouth of the cave, the stones echoing her yips and growls as the beast worried a flock of birds.
Taking a sip of water from the skin she'd brought with her, Katharine began telling the Magus about her night.
It was a habit she had fallen into in the first few weeks after the Archmage's defeat, and one she knew she would keep until the end of her time upon this earth. As always there was no smell of decay, no sign that his life had been snuffed out, and the Magus lay upon the stone slab peacefully, as if only sleeping.
Tom and the Eggs had wanted to bury him in the apple orchard, a way she knew of saying a final farewell. But Katharine had been adamant. He would be entombed where he had fallen, as Arthur had been before him. She never questioned why—she had just known it in her bones. That he deserved to be laid to rest in this magnificent place, where a hero out of legend had slept for fifteen centuries.
The Magus had been a hero. But more than that, he had been her friend. The rock upon which her second life as foster mother to the Eggs had been built. She could not truly remember a time when he had not been at her side. He had come to Wyvern when she was still a child, the strange quiet boy with hair as white as hers was dark, and blue eyes that always seemed too old for his face.
She had known him only as the Archmage's dogsbody, at first. Then his apprentice. Her father, Prince Malcolm, had never told her from whence the boy had come. Only that someday he would advise her husband as the Archmage had sat at Malcolm's right hand.
That was long before the Archmage's treachery had become apparent. After he'd tried to usurp her father's throne using magic, the captain of the guard had suggested the boy with no name be sent from Wyvern, a party to the plot. But Katharine had begged the prince to allow him to stay.
It was Katharine's hand that had stayed her father's, and after the Magus had used his grimoire to heal her father, it won him the loyalty of her father's men. There was never any talk of sending him away after that. He was Wyvern's Magus in more than name, then.
But Katharine had won his loyalty simply by not sending him away. He had stayed at her side ever since. For the ten years before the fall of Wyvern to Hakon, he had been her constant.
In their time on Avalon, he had become more than that. But never more than a friend. She'd known, as she grew from childhood to womanhood, that the way he looked at her was not the way a vassel looks at his liege. Or even the way a man looked at a friend. But she'd never been able to acknowledge that side of his devotion. And though it could have made things uncomfortable between them once she and Tom married, she had no memory now of any strife.
Only a sharp, aching need that had pierced her heart when she'd fallen across his chest and crying, begged him to stay with her.
With his last breath, he'd promised never to leave her. She'd only heard her name on his lips once in her life.
It hadn't been enough. It could never be enough.
So she came, not every day but often, to sit at his side, and tell him about her nights. Tell him how the Eggs were growing into their chosen role of Guardians of Avalon. How Angela fared, across the waters in that new world, where the warrior Elisa Maza had come from.
She came, and talked, her frail, reedy voice filling the stone chamber. Sometimes, it even rang with the bell of her laughter. But more often, she left feeling sorrow but resignation.
She had chosen Tom, after all. The Magus had chosen her, but she had chosen Tom.
"...I'd been worried at first, that he would be lost without Angela. But Gabriel and Ophelia seem to be getting along better. You did well, when you named her, old friend. She has been a huge help to me, since you... since the Archmage. We may have to petition Lord Oberon to build a rookery. Och, I never thought I'd see the day when our Eggs might be having wee eggs of their own."
Boudicca came bounding through the door, her whine high-pitched but without a growl at its heart, and Katharine turned toward the entrance to see one of the Children of Oberon.
She had long white hair, and a shimmering blue-white gown that flowed around her as she floated down the stairs and crossed the long bridge. Katharine scrambled to her feet, her heart suddenly in her throat. But as the woman approached, Katharine saw her eyes were purple as heather, not the cold, cruel blue of the Sisters.
"Be at peace, daughter of Scotland. I did not mean to interrupt your vigil. Only return to the place where I, too, sat vigil for so long."
"You... you knew Arthur?"
"Since he was a child, though he knew me not as I am now. Only as I was, then. But I was the one who brought him to this sanctuary, when he fell alongside Mordred on the blood-soaked fields of Eifionydd, on the shores of the River Cam."
"You must think we profane this place with our presence."
"Do not judge us all for the actions of the Sisters. This hill was home to a man as human as you are for far longer than they stood sentinel on Avalon's shores. Arthur was laid to rest here with Oberon's blessing. There can be no profanity in mortal grief."
Katharine blinked back sudden tears. "Thank you," she said without thinking, but the fairy woman did not seem offended by her words. Instead she laid a careful hand on Katharine's shoulder, soft and comforting as a mother's would have been.
"You must not lose hope, Princess. Hope is precious."
"But... there is no hope. The battle with the Sisters killed him. He is dead."
"As was Arthur, when he was brought to the shores of this isle. But death is a door, daughter of Scotland, that can be opened from either side by need."
"I do not understand."
"Your Magus died because Avalon's magic flowed through him, like a fire in his blood. Human blood was never meant to burn so hot. Human bodies are not made of the same stern stuff as Oberon's Children. But Arthur, too, was human. Arthur was enchanted to rise when the need for him was so great that he would rise again. So it was, and so it came to be. "
"T'was not Britain's need that woke King Arthur from his slumber, but ours."
"That is true. Your need was great," she said gravely, and then cocked her head to one side, studying Katharine intently. "And now? How great is your need?"
Katharine shook her head, her grey hair falling over her shoulder. "I am too old for riddles, Lady. Nor can I undertake a knight's quest. This hand was meant to rule, and was turned to raising children. Never to lift a sword."
"Not all quests involve slaying dragons. Our doubts and fears are dragon enough, do you not agree?"
"I... I do not know that I am strong enough for hope." The admission cost her. She hadn't thought she had anything left to lose. How foolish. There was always something left to be taken away.
"Who am I, to kill hope? Hope is eternal." She gave Katharine's shoulder a squeeze. "The Magus sleeps."
With that, she rose, the whisper of silk as she moved too loud in the cavernous space, and left Katharine alone to her vigil.
That morning, when Katharine shed her gown and cloak and crawled into their bed, it was with a heavy heart. Tom's arms opened to accept her into their warmth and love, but she felt suddenly as if she was not deserving of his devotion. Not when she was plagued by the fairy woman's words.
The Magus sleeps, she had said, as she left Katharine to her grief.
"You were quiet today, my love." Tom, as always, knew her moods too well to hide anything from him. "What troubles you?"
"Tis nothing, Tom. Just... regrets."
His eyes widened slightly, and she saw in his face the boy he had been "What have you to regret?"
"More than you know," she wished to say, but did not. Her sleep was fretful, but as the weeks went by, it grew less so.
Katharine devoted herself to her role as foster mother, even as the Eggs seemed to need her less and less. The battle with the Archmage had forced them all abruptly out of childhood, and they took their responsibilities as Avalon's Honour Guard very seriously. But there were still moments—as Uriel helped her tend the vegetable patch where they grew their food, or Lailah used tail and claw to work the shuttles of the loom on which they wove their cloth—where her children needed their mother to end petty squabbles, or answer the endless questions children had even when they were trying to be as grown-up as they could.
She still visited the Magus in his hollow hill, but the Child of Oberon who had never given Katharine a name to be called by never reappeared. This was not wholly unusual, as Oberon's Children gave the Avalon clan of gargoyles a wide berth, despite the king and queen's blessing to remain on the island's shores. But Katharine wished she would return. She had so many questions still.
Another month passed before Katharine found the strength to speak of her strange experience in the cave with her husband.
They sat in the soft green grass of the orchard, gathering fallen fruit in reed baskets. It was a chore that had fallen to the Eggs when they were smaller, but which Katharine had accepted once they grew to adulthood and stood sentinel on the walls of Oberon's castle.
"Tom, are we truly married in the eyes of God, do you think?"
"Of course we are."
"But there was no priest."
"There need not be a priest to witness, only two people to pledge their troth."
Katharine set down the small knife she had been using to strip the leaves from the branches she had gathered, and looked at him with wonder. "Who told you that?"
"He did," Tom said, and there was no need to name the name. They both knew. "When, I asked him for your hand, he told me such."
There was a long silence, as she folded what she had learnt into what she had already known. "I never knew you'd asked him. Why?"
"I knew, from the stories, that it was a thing men once did. He was the closest thing I had to a father."
"I never thought of it that way."
"Aye, you wouldn't. Though he was not that much older than you were, his wisdom made him ancient to me, when I was a boy."
She smiled ruefully. "Now I feel as if I stole you from the cradle."
Tom laughed. "You make too much of a small thing. What is seven years, truly?"
"Once, it seemed a chasm I could never cross. And yet, then it was like stepping from one path to another, easy as breathing."
"There, you see?" He dropped down to the grass beside her, brushing leaves form his tunic before he pulled her against his side in a half an embrace. "Now, what makes you ask such a thing now, after so many years together?"
"T'was something. I've known you too long, Katharine of Wyvern, not to notice your moods. If we are as husband and wife, then we must be partners in all things. And I hate to see you suffer alone, if I can share the burden or even lift it from your shoulders. So tell me, why is your heart so heavy?"
Tears pricked her eyes, and she blinked rapidly to clear them. "Do you think women were made to love only one man?"
"Do you doubt my love for you? You know there has never been anyone else for me, not since I was a boy."
"No! No." She took his face in her hands, and pressed a kiss to his mouth. "Oh my Tom, I could never doubt you, please don't think that's what I'm saying!"
"Then what are you saying?"
"I was just... The three of us, together—we were more than a family, but still not a family. Not joined by blood. And sometimes I wonder if... if I am truly faithful to you and you alone, in my heart. If I do not betray our marriage when I grieve him and wonder what might have been."
Tom reached up to take her hands, strong brown fingers curling lightly around her wrists.
"Oh, my love, never. I have always known how the Magus cared for you, and you for him. It was never any betrayal. I swear it on my life and my heart."
"You... you knew?" The world seemed to shift beneath them, even as the birds continued to sing in the trees. "And you do not hate me for caring for another man who was not my husband?"
"How could I hate you? You are my heart just as surely as you were his heart."
"But how can I love you, and love him? How?"
"You think too much of the world we came from, and not enough of the world we live in now. I may have been born in the human world, but like the Eggs, I grew to adulthood here. Here, where the rules of time and magic and propriety are so very different from the land where I was born. The human heart can love so many, and in so many different ways. I would never ask you to turn your back on love."
"What are you saying?"
"That the vows we made each other should never forbid you from loving whom you love. He loved you, all the days of his life. I always knew that."
"Why did you never speak of it?"
"It was not mine to speak of. It was his. And as he never spoke his heart, he never bid me keep mine from yours. And though it pained him, he cared only for your joy. He only ever wanted you to be happy, Katharine. He would not wish to see you grieve loving him."
She let the tears fall, and let her husband pulled her against his chest, his hand stroking her hair as her father once had when she was a child.
"I never thought to grieve him. I thought like this land, that somehow we would be eternal. I was such a fool."
"Loved makes us foolish, but it does not truly make us fools. Only trying to deny something as precious as love when it find us can do that."
"Had things been different... Had he not fallen to the Sisters... You would not have cast me aside?"
"I am saying that you need not cast me aside, if you want him. I am not so jealous a husband, that I would ever deny you your heart. How could I love you, and deny you happiness?"
"It is only an idle thought."
"Not so idle, I think. Not when it has troubled you for so long. But lay your fears on this count to rest. It costs you nothing, truly. You cannot ever lose me. Not from love."
When Katharine came back to the sleeping king's hollow hill, nothing had changed.
The roar of the waterfall was still a distant hum as her soft-soled shoes whispered across the marble steps.
Boudicca sat at one end of the bridge, her stubby tail sweeping back and forth as Katharine crossed the bridge Elisa had called "a leap of faith".
The Magus was still laid out on the altar, his robes crisp and smelling faintly of apples.
Katharine climbed the steps, her hands trembling, until she stilled them by laying them on either side of his shoulders.
"Magus... Oh, my love. My dear, steadfast love." She kissed his cool lips, and then his brow. "You are needed."