The spiders come and go. They bring me the bricks with which I build the castle. From the silk litter they leave behind on the grass, I knit a dragon. So far, all I’ve got of the castle is a shin-high parapet sketching out the footprint of the walls-to-be. And of the dragon: no more than one clawed and gnarled foreleg. By the time the castle’s finished and furnished, I hope to have the beast complete as well, a giant balloon-skin. I plan to hold it over a bonfire on top of one of the towers I’m envisioning, let the silk swell with hot air and blood-colored light.
With any luck, I’ll have all this completed before the king comes back. I suppose I’m some sort of default regent in the meantime, but my only subjects are the butterflies who shudder in the air around the flowers I’ve walled in. I try to be a good ruler, wise and even-handed, but I have to give the spiders something for all their trouble, don’t I?
The dragon will be a sign so he’ll know which hilltop to head for, when he comes up out of the lake fog. With all the castles and ruins of castles in this part of the country — sometimes two or three huddled together in a single slump of ruins — I figure he’ll need some kind of sign.
There he’ll be, healthy and young, not even a limp, with that noble flicker in his eyes and apples on his breath. And here I’ll be, back twisted by years of DIY masonry, skin creased by years of sun, my own breath ripe with goat cheese and yogurt. These days, my best attempt at yogurt isn’t much more than vaguely curdled goat milk, but I should have the knack by the time the castle’s up. And who knows how much longer I’ll have, once the building is done, to perfect the domestic arts?
The timetable never was that clear. I was surprised enough at my own return, to tell you the truth. Uther and I have gone over this; he had much the same reaction. We’re not the ones people are interested in, just forerunners, footnotes before the fact.
“Low kings,” I quipped, “that’s us,” and we had a few drinks, perhaps a few too many, and Uther started breaking things, the way he does, the way he’s always done, and when I got up the next morning, I found he’d kicked down a good half a dozen paces worth of wall. Left an apologetic note, said he’d keep to himself down in the valleys. Left me feeling a bit morose for the rest of the week. If the two of us aren’t doing any better this time than last, is there any hope for him either? In the end, he was as much a failure as any of us, a more glorious failure, certainly, but a failure nonetheless.
On top of that, the weather has me worried. Every night, cold air from the mountains mingles with moist air from the valleys and breeds dragons of mist, which I’m sure will snuff my bonfire before I can get it lit, and render my own dragon moot. That’s the bonfire I’m going to build, with wood from trees that probably aren’t even seeds yet, up there on the tower that I imagine will someday crown the castle that currently isn’t much more than a walled garden, in spite of all the days I’ve devoted to the building of it. The king may come back, riding out from his hill or sailing back from his island, only to wander the land, a gaggle of knights clattering after him, grumbling. If you can’t make it home to the place where your story begins, even the simplest quest will languish unfinished, and all the stories that might have been told will amount to no more than dry silence in the mouths of bards.
I don’t know what’s going to happen. I lay brick upon brick, hoping it will all accumulate, sooner or eventually, into something grander than I expect, something worthy of stories. Or of sequels, anyway.
Meanwhile, the kid I’ve hired to keep an eye on the goats, he isn’t worried. He keeps the goats out of the flowers and the butterflies out of the webs. Fanciful child, lives mostly in his imagination.
“I’m a fish,” he said when we met, “yesterday I was an ant, and tomorrow I’ll be a hunting falcon.”
He has faith that the castle will rise, gleaming, that the dragon will blaze crimson above the tallest tower, and that Arthur will come riding up the slope, Kay and Gawain and Lancelot and the rest laughing, and shouting songs behind him. The kid believes, with a child’s easy faith, that it will all end differently this time. The castle won’t fall, and neither will the king. There’s a light in the kid’s eyes when he tells me this, a glint that might be magic.
He says he’s seen it all in a dream.