We all held our breaths as he turned the knob, every one of us, me most of all. It turned with a faint scrape and screech that we all heard as if it was a roll of thunder, and with a push from Juarez the door swung open.
Over the hammering of my heart, I heard a voice intone a Muslim prayer. Juarez shouted something in Pashto before the first burst of automatic weapons fire cracked the air wide open. Shielding ourselves with the thin walls and the doorframe, Juarez and I strafed the room, almost blind, until the shrill screams of wounded men cried out for us to pour into the room, scattering, firing, eyes wide open and darting, the adrenaline surging so fast through our veins we could feel it pulsing in our foreheads and throats and arms.
I was yelling, screaming, in English I think, for the wounded to throw their weapons down. Then I felt a hand grab me by the elbow and heard the soft voice of Juarez in my ear and for the first time smelled the sharp tang of gunpowder and the sweet brine of blood and then, only then, I began to feel the sting of the wounds in my shoulder and side.
I remember falling to my knees in that third-floor apartment. Beyond that I heard and felt and saw nothing until I woke, I didn’t know how long after. But Arthur was with me when I did. Or I was with him, in a dark room, on a lumpy bed, furs piled over my body, a single dim and smoky candle making a shadowy orange sphere that held out the darkness all around us.
“Am I dead?” I asked him.
He grinned. “Nay. I said you’d live. What good would I be if you didn’t?”
“Then, where am I?”
He looked around him, seemingly able to see beyond the circle of light that encased us. I could not.
“This is where I wait, where I live when I’m not in the world of the living. It’s in the land of my birth-—not far from the place where I died. We called it Invalayn.
“Inva..?” I struggled with the guttural tongue.
He laughed. "Invalayn. Isle of the Allan."
"The Allan? You mean the river? But that's in Scotland."
"Aye." He reached into the darkness, his hand passing through our circle of light as if it were a curtain. Then, nodding to someone he pulled his hand back into the space we shared and offered me a cup.
I moved for the first time, trying to sit up, bracing myself for the ache of a healing wound, and realized as I did that I was naked beneath the furs. Naked and without pain, and when I looked, found myself to be without a wound.
“I thought you said I wasn’t dead,” I whispered.
“Not dead. Just waiting.”
“Waiting for what?”
“Drink,” he said again, and pressed the cup into my hand.
It trembled there.
“Waiting for what?” I asked again, choking on the words as I searched his face and found nothing to reassure me.
“I imagine you must have a thousand questions for me,” he said. “Your grandfather told me you might. About Merlin, Guenevere, Lancelot. You must want to know if I ever really found the Holy Grail. Or how I managed to pull the sword from the stone. . .”
Of course I had a thousand questions. A thousand of my own and a thousand for Gramps. Apparently he had already had his opportunity. But I needed answers of another kind just now.
"Why am I here?" I asked.
He ignored me and looked away, and his voice rose in rapidity and volume. "My father's name is Aidan, you know. Aidan MacGabran. Not Uther. And my mother was a Briton--the daughter of a Roman garrison officer. I met Myrddin once, but never sought advice from him. My wife..."
Louder. "My wife, she was a daughter of Urien. She'd have been my queen had I lived long enough to..."
At last he fell silent, and those proud golden eyes stared balefully into mine.
"I just want to know why I'm here," I said.
Arthur sighed, took the cup from me and drank it himself. One long draw that left him wincing and wiping his sleeve slowly across his mouth. He sighed again.
"You're the last," he said. "And bringing you here...it's the only way I can keep my oath."
"Last of the sons of Medraut."
"But...that can't be. There must be hundreds... my brothers... and there must be..."
"And some of them are here with me. But the rest, I can't touch them," he said. "Not until their lives are in danger. And none of them will be until the end. But I won't be needed then, will I? My oath will be fulfilled and..."
"Your grandfather told you. I'm bound until the Chr—"
"The Christ—-" I choked on the words, sobbed out what few I could. "Soon?"
"Only the Christ knows the hour of His coming," he said, his voice solemn, reverent. "But soon."
"She'll see it, Josh. She'll watch it on that lightbox contraption with the rest of the world. She's a good woman. She'll be lifted up with the Saints."
"My men. I should be with them—-"
But he was shaking his head. "You can't," he whispered. "You can't. If you leave this place you'll die before it happens. Die in the fighting. And my oath—"
"Damn your oath! I release you from your oath! Let me leave!"
"Don't say that!"
"My men! You'll keep me here, in this wh-wherever it is while my men die without me? Do you take me for a coward? Do you take me for a child who needs your protection? Let me go!"
"Let me go!"
Arthur stood, towering over me, the great muscles of his warrior's arms twitching. "There's nothing you can do for them, boy! They'll die in what's to come. With or without you."
I did not shrink from him, from his golden eyes, from his kingly power. But I knew him. I had always known him. I knew where his weakness lay.
"And if it were you? If it were your men? Your brothers? Could anything keep you from dying with them?"
He hung his head and sank to my bed. "No," he said.
"Let me go."
"Then I'll find my own way."
Grasping a handful of furs to wrap around me, I scrambled to my feet. I was going back even if it meant walking out the door into sixth century Scotland and flying across the millennia to my own time. I didn't know what I would find once I stepped through that bubble of light, but nothing would stop me from doing it.
With a grinding jaw, I took one reaching step into the blackness and fell, not into Scotland, not onto the stone floor of Camelot, but into myself, into an aching and wounded body and Juarez looking down on me, his fingers pressed to my jugular. Back into that room in Afghanistan. Into the last days of the world.
There it is.
It was an adventure to write it, but I've learned so much since then and my writing has become so much cleaner, crisper, more economical. I'm certainly proud of this story, but prouder of some of my more recent works--some of which are out in the market looking for a home as we speak.