Chapter Forty-Three

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The sky was dull and grey over Camalann. Though it was now well into Junius, the wind coming ashore off the water was bitter cold. Riona pulled the shawl about her shoulders tighter. Aidan stood beside her, silent and still. Every soul that remained had gathered here on the edge of the grey cliffs overlooking the sea. An enormous pyre had been erected; the dead from the battle lined it. Tristan and Palamedes stood before it, holding torches. Myrddin, Ser Luc, and the king stood somberly to one side.

Artor took a step forward, his voice echoing over the hushed crowd. "The morning has brought with it a grim reminder of who we are and how perilously we, the Britons, walk among civilization. Though we were outnumbered, each of you fought worth three of the Saxon Horde that sought to take what is ours."

The crowd was still as if it had been carved from stone. Each face was focused intently on the king. Occasionally the sound of weeping would drift over the breeze.

"We send our brothers into the next life, remembering that all of us must come to an end, and it must be in our hearts to perish so bravely, leaving this world better and brighter than we found it."

At these words, Tristan and Palamedes lowered their torches and set the pyre ablaze. Riona covered her mouth and nose with the shawl. The unmistakable smell of burning flesh permeated the air. Dark thick smoke rose ominously into the pale sky.

"Where we have lost many, we gained a worthy few," Artor continued, "we have found new brothers in arms. Gawain and Lamorak, please step forward."

The two men moved slowly toward Artor and knelt before their king. Riona felt her heart swell as Artorious drew his sword from its sheath. It was the first she had seen of the legendary sword drawn from the king's stone. It seemed to shine with an almost otherworldly gleam.

"Caledfwlch," she heard Aidan say the weapon's name beneath their breath.

Artorious lowered the flat of the blade upon Lamorak's right and then left shoulders and mimicked the movement with Gawain.

"Rise, brothers, and claim your titles. Ser Gawain and Ser Lamorak, Knights of the Alt Clut."

As Gawain stood, Riona felt her lips part in a smile. Somewhere in the crowd, applause began, and soon everyone was cheering joyfully for the new knights. Gawain was trying very hard to look stoic, biting the inside of his cheeks to keep from smiling. Ser Luc moved toward them, leaning heavily upon a crutch. He clasped each of them in a warm embrace. Riona found Gawain's brothers in the crowd. Gareth was cheering wildly, his small face alight with excitement. Gaheris was smiling through tears, trying his best to wipe them away with his shirtsleeve, while Agravain simply beamed. A voice sprang into song. The sound swelled until the hills were echoing with over a hundred voices.

"This ae nighte, this ae nighte,

If ivver thoo gav o' thy siller an' gowd,

At t' Brig o' Dreead thoo'll finnd foothod,

Bud if siller an' gowd thoo nivver gav nean,

Thoo'll doan, doon tum'le towards hell fleames"

Riona joined in with her own voice and felt her heartbeat loudly in her chest. The flames of the pyre were so hot she could feel them even from a distance on her skin. She closed her eyes and thought of Lot and Morgause, imagining their familiar forms upon the pyre. Tears slipped from beneath her lashes and down her cheek, hot and tasting of salt as they pooled on her lips. Riona wished she could reach past the veil of death for a moment and feel their embrace one last time. The smoke from the fire was thick now, and the ash clogged her nostrils. Thin fingers laced their way through her empty hand. Riona's eyes opened quickly and glanced aside. Aidan was staring forward at the pyre, but their fingertips traced her knuckles gently.

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