by Amy Clare Fontaine
Arthur dreamed an endless dream.
He dreamed of sumptuous banquets with his comrades by his side, roast pheasants and bards and fire jugglers. Feasts where the wine and the laughter never ran dry, and the great hall rang with stories and songs all through the night. The hearth warmed his bones and the company warmed his heart…
He dreamed of dancing with Guinevere in the courtyard in the moonlight, the fragrance of the flowers in her hair…
He dreamed of chasing his falcon through the woods on a warm summer day, racing through the trees and laughing into the wind…
He dreamed of jousting with Lancelot again, a friendly practice duel. The snorts of their horses in the dusty yard, the stomping of hooves as they circled each other, the cheers of the crowd, the way his heart raced as he charged at last with his lance held high…
He dreamed of Guinevere dancing around the maypole with the village children in the spring, twirling colorful ribbons…
He dreamed of Camelot, the castle’s towers tall and strong in the first light of dawn, her banners flapping proudly in the wind.
Arthur smiled, floating along on the river of his dreams. His heart leapt at the thought of his kingdom. Camelot, his crown jewel, his pride and joy, the bastion of chivalry and culture and magic that he had worked so hard to build all his life.
Arthur’s brow furrowed as a dark memory intruded on his pleasant dreams.
* * *
He knelt upon the ashen ground, stabbed through the heart by an enemy sword. Blood leaked out of his chest. He coughed and sputtered, crawling across the earth on his knees.
“Lancelot,” he whispered hoarsely. “Lancelot.”
The noise of the battle raging around him echoed distantly in his head, as if all of it—the thundering hooves, the clashing swords, the triumphant shouts and pained cries of men—were no longer real to him. He fell back onto the ground, wheezing wetly, his eyes closing.
That shout brought Arthur back from the brink, just barely. Lancelot knelt beside him, his armor dented and dirty. The normally strong and valiant knight now looked at him like a brokenhearted boy. Arthur reached towards him.
Arthur coughed violently, and his hand dropped to his side. Lancelot wiped the blood from his brow, his fingers as gentle as a nursemaid’s.
“Shh, Arthur, be still.”
For the first time, Arthur saw fear in Lancelot’s eyes. Arthur choked on his words. “Tell… Guinevere… tell her I…”
Arthur erupted in another coughing fit that wracked his whole body. Then he fell still upon the earth. He felt Lancelot’s hand upon his brow once more. The knight smiled sadly down at him.
“She knows, Arthur. She knows.”
Arthur smiled back and closed his eyes.
When he opened them, silvery fingers were lifting his body. He was flying through the air, wind rushing all around him. His chest still burned and bled…and yet…
He sailed above his green, jolly, wooded, wild England, through a billowing veil of mist. He closed his eyes…
And when he opened them once more, he lay on his back on a dais, Excalibur at his side, in the center of a temple whose walls did not reach the ceiling, leaving the room exposed to the elements. It was misty beyond the temple, wet and wild and cold. His pain was gone. Vines seeped in through the gaps between the walls and the ceiling, and he heard a strange bird cry out from somewhere far away. He also heard…was that a monkey…?
Arthur felt those silvery fingers that had carried him through the skies caress his skin, heard the melodic chanting of women as they danced around him. A fog rolled through his mind. Someone planted a kiss upon his brow.
“Sleep, Arthur,” she said.
* * *
Arthur had been sleeping for such a long time, but he had not been aware that he was asleep—until now. Now a great rumbling shook the earth beneath him, and he awoke. He no longer wore his chainmail and his suit of armor, though Excalibur still lay at his side. He felt light as a cloud. He looked around him at the temple, which rumbled and moved like an animal, sending him and his sword flying across the dais. Squawking in alarm, he took to the air before he could think and flew through the damp, vine-laden jungle around the temple, which crumbled to dust as he passed. He sailed through a silvery void, and the moisture clung to his feathers like dew. He heard the haunting, beautiful female voice echo sadly in his mind.
* * *
Arthur emerged from the mist into a very different world. The sun beat down on his black feathers from overhead. The land below him was still shrouded in a blanket of fog, but as he dove closer, its features slowly began to take shape. He shrieked in terror and anger.
His green, jolly, wooded, wild England was no more. Strange roads as black as night roiled through the countryside like snakes, like scars. Along the roads glided fierce metal beasts, which moved like ghosts but were much noisier. They belched smoke into the air that stung Arthur’s lungs. Still flapping in midair, he screamed.
England had been overrun by demons!
Arthur flew and flew over the sorry country, his brain still lingering in a wounded daze. Beside a great river, he spied monstrous spires which he was sure belonged to the fortresses of the demons.
“The demon stronghold.” Arthur clacked his beak. Folding his wings against his sides, he dove through the air, landing smack in the middle of one of the hellish roads between the huge, menacing towers. He looked around. A metal demon squealed toward him. He stood his ground, puffing out his feathers.
“I am King Arthur of Camelot. Stop terrorizing my kingdom, foul beast!”
The demon emitted a strange honking sound that rattled Arthur’s bones, continuing to roll towards him.
“Idiot bird!” cried a voice. “Get out of the way!”
Startled, Arthur fluttered into the air—just in time, as the demon barreled over the spot he had just vacated. He perched upon the roof of a carriage parked beside the road and looked for the source of the voice. He found it quickly. A golden horse attached to the carriage was rolling her eyes at him.
“You’re not from around here, are you, bird?”
Arthur bristled, ruffling his feathers.
“I am not a bird!” snapped Arthur, preening indignantly. “That is no way to address your king!”
The horse laughed, a gentle, flowing whinny that somehow reminded him of Guinevere.
“You’re a bird, honey. Take a look at yourself.” The horse inclined her head towards a puddle in the street. Jumping down from the top of the carriage, Arthur hopped over to the puddle and looked down at his reflection. A crow cocked his head jauntily back at him.
“Intriguing,” said Arthur wonderingly. “Merlin must have thought this form would help me defeat the demons somehow.” Arthur clacked his beak and flew back to the top of the carriage. Perching there, he looked around. People marched tiredly along the grimy street, as if they were sleepwalking. A gray fog hung over everything. Demonic screeches split the morning in two. None of the people said hello to each other. They just marched like ants toward their destinations, bundled in jackets to keep out the misty cold. Some of them entered the demons, which were hollow inside, and rode around in their bellies. Even the people outside the demons coordinated their activities around the movements of the demons, only walking where the demons permitted them to walk. Arthur shuddered. The humans were their slaves.
“Demons?” asked the horse.
With a full body shake that ruffled all his feathers, Arthur flew onto the back of the horse and perched there.
“Let us ride,” commanded Arthur. “Bring me to my sword.”
The horse bucked him off. He fluttered into the air, huffing.
“You’re crazy, bird! Leave me alone!”
Arthur kept trying to perch on the horse’s back, but she kept shaking him off. He clicked his beak angrily.
“You don’t understand! They have brainwashed you all! You cannot even see your own enslavement!”
Alighting on the plush bench in the carriage, Arthur pointed his wing at the nearest demon. “Do you see that?” he hissed at the horse.
The horse looked from the demon to the crow, unimpressed. “Yes, I see it. That’s a car.”
Arthur laughed hysterically, a grating, cawing sound. The horse winced.
“Acar?” Arthur said. “You know your demons by name?”
The horse snorted and shook her head, her mane whipping around her. “Cars aren’t demons. They’re machines. Humans made them. They use them to travel.”
Arthur stared at the nearest passing car with his beady eyes. “How long was I asleep?” he murmured. When the horse said nothing, he flew around the carriage and landed in front of her. He looked boldly up into her eyes, despite the fact that she towered over him. “What century after the death of Christ is this?” he demanded.
The horse swished her tail, shifting her weight from hoof to hoof. “The twenty-first,” she said. “And I hope my master comes back with those carrots before it’s the twenty-second.”
Arthur fluffed his feathers and blinked. He alighted upon the roof of the carriage once more. He looked around at the wild, fast-paced, rushing world around him—the racing cars, the din in the streets, the sheer lack of sparkle to it all. His mind reeled. His heart sank, and he shivered.
“Guinevere,” he murmured, closing his beady eyes for a moment.
“Oy, Penny! I’m here!”
A man had arrived and was patting the horse and feeding her carrots as she chuffed with contentment. Next the man gave her a bucket of water, which she eagerly began to drink. As the man leaned against the side of the carriage, looking around at the goings-on in the street with a distant, distracted air, Arthur hopped up and down on the top of the carriage and flapped his wings, trying to catch the man’s attention.
“Excuse me, good man, can you tell me, are there any great ills plaguing England at present? Are there battles to be won, or dragons to be slain? Damsels in need of a good knight’s assistance?”
The man just stared into space, looking right through Arthur. Glancing up from her bucket, the horse flared her nostrils at the bird.
“Quit your screeching, crow. It’s quite dreadful.”
Arthur’s narrow head darted from side to side, assessing the flurry of motion and noise in the street. As the horse’s man accepted money from a young couple and ushered them into the carriage, Arthur hopped on the horse’s back again. She jerked her hindquarters and sent him flying into the air.
“I told you, stupid bird, go away!”
Hearing the horse’s agitated whinny, the man went to the horse’s side and patted her gently. “Easy, Penny. It’s all right.”
Arthur stood before the horse, Penny, and looked up at her pleadingly with an open-beaked gape.
“Please, I’m lost and alone in a strange place at a strange time, and no one here seems to know me. I need to at least get back to Avalon and find Excalibur. I seem to have left her behind there. Do you know where Avalon is?”
With direction from her master, Penny began to pull the carriage, her master, and the two passengers into the noisy street and the traffic. “I do know where Avalon is,” the horse said softly as she trotted away.
“What?” squawked Arthur. Determined, he hurried to the roof of the carriage, clinging to it for dear life as it jostled through the streets.
“Yes,” Penny said. “It’s not too far from London, as the crow flies. Pardon the expression. I was born there. I miss it.” Penny sighed wistfully, clopping through the dirty streets. Fog lay over everything like a death shroud, and austere brick buildings pressed in on the street from all sides. Cars screamed and lights blared.
“With… all… due… respect…” gasped Arthur as he bounced atop the carriage. Suddenly, the car in front of Penny and the lines of cars around her came to a stop, and she stopped too. Arthur caught his breath, found his bearings, and continued. “With all due respect, Lady Penny, this seems like no place for a noble steed from Avalon.”
Penny grimaced. “It isn’t.” Nickering softly, she shifted her weight from hoof to hoof, waiting for the car in front of her to start moving again. Arthur hopped from foot to clawed foot, and suddenly an idea flickered through his bird brain.
“Would you like to return to Avalon?” asked Arthur. “With me?”
The light changed. The cars started moving forward through the intersection, and so did Penny. “Can’t,” Penny said.
Arthur flapped his wings frantically to stabilize his body and stay in one place. His stomach churned. He was really not enjoying this ride as much as the humans were. Launching his body into the air, he started flying alongside Penny instead.
“Why not?” asked Arthur.
Penny shot him a sidelong glance. “I have a job now, and a master who feeds me carrots. I have responsibilities. I can’t just leave.”
“What’s this bird doing, squawking about?” muttered the coachman. He waved a hand at Arthur to shoo him away. “Go on. Get!”
“I am sorry to have disturbed you, good man,” said Arthur politely. He flew a little higher, high enough to avoid the man’s line of sight but low enough to still talk to Penny.
“He can’t understand us, can he?” asked Arthur.
“Nope,” said Penny. “Men don’t understand naught but themselves.”
Arthur glanced down at the coachman. “That’s a pity,” said Arthur. “My teacher, Merlin, understood the languages of all the birds and beasts, and even plants and stones. And stars.”
“That’s nice,” said Penny, turning left at the next intersection.
Arthur tried to perch on the outer rail of the carriage, but the young couple shooed him away. The carriage went around several city blocks, past the towering spires of cathedrals and a huge clock tower, along a river that sparkled only weakly in the gray half-light. At last the carriage parked beside the curb at the place where Arthur had first found it. The coachman helped the couple out of the carriage. He patted Penny’s head and fed her another carrot.
“Good girl,” said Penny’s master. “I’m going to go get you more carrots. And water.”
The man walked off along the sidewalk, whistling a tune Arthur had never heard before. Arthur perched atop a phone booth beside the horse.
“So this is your life,” Arthur said slowly. “You walk around the blocks and come back to where you started. Every day.”
Penny sighed and looked up at him. “Why are you following me, crow?”
Arthur warbled and stretched out his wings. Suddenly, the fog covering the sky parted, and a ray of light shafted down upon the crow, making him look like more than a mere bird. Like an angel, even. Penny squinted at him. His black eyes blazed with righteous fire.
“My dear Lady Penny, where is your spirit of adventure? You don’t have to be a mere carriage horse for the rest of your life!”
Penny shook her head. “What else can I do?”
The crow leapt into the air, soaring around Penny in excited circles. “You could be a hero!” he cried. “A legend! Noble steed of the king! You could go on quests to distant lands, see marvels you’ve never even dreamed of, far beyond this city’s fog! We shall return to your green homeland of Avalon, and then…and then… who knows?”
Penny tossed her head. “I would like to go back to Avalon.” Her coat twitched some flies away. “Will there be carrots?”
Arthur clacked his beak and bobbed his head. “My dear Lady Penny, once Camelot is restored to its former glory, I will see to it that we find you the finest carrots in all the land. As many as you can eat!”
Penny tossed her head and laughed, that surprisingly musical whinny that sent pangs through Arthur’s heart as he thought, inexplicably, of Guinevere.
“I’ve gone nuts here in London! Why am I making deals with a crow who’s spouting nonsense?”
Arthur flew down and perched on Penny’s back. To his surprise, this time, she didn’t shake him off.
“Because your heart yearns for greener pastures. For freedom. For adventure. For Avalon.”
Penny blinked slowly at Arthur. “All right,” she said. “Can that clever beak of yours get me out of this silly harness?”
The crow cawed with delight. When Penny’s master returned, whistling, to his carriage, with an armful of carrots and a full bucket of water in tow, he found only a carriage, with no horse attached.
* * *
Penny trotted down the sidewalks of London, with Arthur the crow riding on her back. She had gotten so accustomed to human traffic by now that she knew how to obey the language of the signals, the lights. Arthur asked Penny an infinitude of questions and then listened, rapt, as she filled him in on all the major changes, events, upheavals, and advances in technology in England that she could think of, onward from the time period when Arthur imagined he had been put to sleep by the priestesses of Avalon.
“You are a very erudite horse,” Arthur observed. “The brightest I have ever met.”
Penny swished her tail bashfully. “Thank you.”
They walked on the sidewalk on a bridge over the river. Cars streaked by beside them. All around them on the sidewalk, humans rushed past, but they all made adequate space for Penny as she moved through the crowd. One or two passersby gawked at the sight of a riderless horse with a crow on its back, but the vast majority paid no attention whatsoever. The skies, while still mostly cloudy, were now partly blue.
“Where did you learn so much about human history, Lady Penny?” asked Arthur.
Penny trotted across a crosswalk, past a cart Arthur now knew to be a burger stand.
“My master…well, now my former master, I suppose…anyway, he has a great fondness for history, especially the history of London. That is why he was giving visitors tours of the city in that carriage, to show them the sights and tell them stories about the history behind them.”
Arthur shifted around on Penny’s back. He hadn’t been sure he could get accustomed to riding bareback on a horse in his new form, yet by now, after many hours of practice, he found himself managing quite well.
“And so much history there has been,” Arthur mused. “You have told me so much about the events that have transpired in our great Mother England during the past few centuries. But tell me, why no mention of King Arthur and Camelot in your history lesson? Are the people of England not aware of what became of them?”
Penny laughed. “King Arthur? Camelot?” She laughed harder and harder, a wild whinny that caused nearby pedestrians to stop and stare. Arthur screeched.
“How dare you insult my honor, miscreant?”
Reluctantly, Penny stopped laughing. “Sorry. It’s just—King Arthur and Camelot are legends. They’re not real. Most everyone knows that. Except you, I guess. Sorry.”
Arthur croaked sadly and fluttered his wings. “It is a shame that the great kingdom of Camelot has passed into legend, however this grievous error occurred.” Arthur looked up at the sun overhead, and then around him at the people passing by. “But it will be all right. I will set things right again, reclaim my throne, and bring the spirit of chivalry and the wonders of Camelot back to the people of England, and the world.”
Penny walked more slowly after hearing these words. “Uh… huh,” she said, hesitantly.
The crow shook himself furiously.
“The world is out of balance without Camelot as its guiding light. But I will make things right again. I will stand for chivalry and justice and goodness as king. I will not allow madmen like this monster you mentioned—Hitler, was that his name?—I will not allow men like that to rise to power ever again. Peace will reign once more. I’ll make sure of it.”
The horse snorted. “Oh? Tell me, how exactly do you plan to do that? In case you haven’t noticed, you’re a crow.”
Arthur chortled. “Wait until we get to Avalon and I retrieve Excalibur. I will make this work somehow. You’ll see.”
* * *
“Here we are!” said Penny.
Arthur’s beak gaped open in dismay.
They had wandered all the way through the city of London and its suburbs, foraging in dumpsters for produce and other scraps along the way to keep up their strength. They eventually escaped from the brick and concrete jungle into a countryside that looked at least somewhat more familiar to Arthur, albeit more marred by roads and houses than it had been when last he’d seen it. “So England’s still alive,” Arthur had murmured as they passed over green, rolling hills and dales, past farms and mills and fields and sparkling rivers, stone castles and quaint villages with thatched roofs. Penny had smiled and nodded at this comment, whinnying with contentment, clearly relieved to be back in the country at last.
But now…now that they had reached their destination, it wasn’t quite what Arthur had been expecting.
There were acres of rolling pastures, flanked at their far edge by an old wood. A red barn stood in the center of the yard, along with a stable and a farmhouse. “Avalon Estate and Stables,” read the wooden sign that swung cheerfully above the gate that opened to the part of the dirt road that led over to the farmhouse. Penny turned to Arthur, swishing her tail with relish.
“We made it!” cried Penny. “Isn’t it wonderful?”
Arthur blinked his beady eyes and said nothing. The horse huffed at him.
“It…it is wonderful,” Arthur said slowly. “But I’m afraid it is not the Avalon I am looking for.”
“Oh?” Penny’s face fell. Arthur sighed, turning his beak toward the paved road on which they had come.
“I am sorry, Lady Penny, but I must be on my way. Thank you for your good company, and the history lessons.”
Arthur started flying back in the direction of the paved road.
“Where will you go?”
He heard her voice call softly after him, and the note of sadness in it. He stopped flying away and flapped in place in midair instead.
“To find Avalon,” he said. “My Avalon. I have to retrieve my sword. I’m not sure where it is anymore, but I’m hoping my heart will lead the way.”
He swiveled around in the air and looked at Penny. She pawed shyly at the ground. “Well, I wish you the best of luck, little crow. It’s been fun to listen to your stories. You may be a little crazy, but I like you. I will miss you.”
The crow’s wingbeats stuttered in midair. He was surprised to hear this from the horse who had wanted nothing to do with him when they first met. He looked toward the farm, and the wood beyond it, which seemed to glow in the bright light of sunset. The sight stirred a memory. He closed his eyes…
* * *
He pictured his old friend Merlin the last time they had met. It had been sunset, and Merlin had had that twinkle of stardust in his eye. The wizard had been kneeling on the ground in an open field on the edge of the wood where he and Arthur had met, twirling a stick in his wizened fingers, looking at the twig as if it were the Holy Grail itself. Arthur strode up to Merlin wearing his full suit of armor and a serious frown.
“I’ll be riding out soon, Merlin. We are heading to war.”
“I know,” said Merlin softly. Smiling like a child, he started drawing lines in the dirt with the stick, his blue robes billowing out from him on the ground like a lady’s skirts.
Arthur looked down at the wizard’s drawings. “Is that a spell?”
The wizard shook his head, not looking up from his task. Arthur stood beside Merlin, clasping his hands behind his back. “Won’t you come with us, Merlin? You could help us win this fight.”
Merlin shook his head. “You know I don’t like fighting, Arthur.”
“I don’t, either.” Arthur sighed. Merlin continued to draw lines in the dirt without looking up.
“It’s the little things,” Merlin said quietly.
Arthur blinked. “I’m sorry?”
Merlin continued to draw. The branches of the trees on the edge of the wood swayed in the evening breeze.
“Arthur, I know your men may love adventures, and quests, and great battles. But these are not the things we live for. We live for the little things. The sunset shining on this glade. A cool breeze. A friend’s laugh. Music. A fire in the hearth. A good book. Waking up in the morning with someone you love. Drawing lines in the dirt for no reason at all. These are the things that make life worth living.”
Arthur frowned as the breeze stirred around them. It didn’t even touch him through his thick armor.
“But Merlin, we cannot continue to have the things of which you speak unless we ensure that our world remains a peaceful one. And we can only do that through quests and battles to keep the peace, to protect the things we hold dear.”
Merlin put his stick down and stood, putting a hand on Arthur’s shoulder. “Arthur, come down here and look at this.” The old man knelt on the ground once more, gesturing for Arthur to do the same. Awkwardly, Arthur knelt beside Merlin in the dirt in his bulky armor. Merlin smiled and pointed. “Look, Arthur,” he said in a reverent whisper, like a man in church. “Look there.”
Arthur squinted at the spot Merlin had indicated. A fuzzy green caterpillar was crawling across the dirt. Arthur laughed out loud. “Stuff and nonsense! What’s so special about that, Merlin?”
Merlin fixed Arthur with a steady gaze. “Don’t you remember your boyhood lessons, when we changed into animals together, Wart?”
Arthur winced at the mention of his childhood nickname and continued to watch the caterpillar. Merlin went on, “There is much to be learned from even the simplest creatures. Being a king isn’t just about glory and armies and swords and quests, you know. Remember?”
“Yes, I do remember,” Arthur mumbled. “Sorry, Merlin.” He got down on his belly and stared intently at the caterpillar. The caterpillar had made its way to a velvety fallen leaf and begun to gnaw at its edges.
“Remember this, Arthur. Remember that on the best quests, you often find what you were looking for where you least expect it. The wonder of stars in a caterpillar. Gold on the underside of a leaf.”
Arthur nodded. “I will remember.”
Merlin beamed. “That’s my favorite pupil.” Standing, Merlin turned and began to walk towards the woods. Arthur stood and watched the long shadow his friend cast across the glade, which was brilliant in the light of the setting sun. Pausing for a moment, Merlin turned on his heel and looked back at Arthur one last time. Arthur saw his tall blue form silhouetted in sharp contrast to the orange sky overhead and the dark outlines of the trees beyond. Merlin grinned at Arthur, and even from this distance, Arthur could see a knowing twinkle in the wizard’s bright blue eyes.
“Oh, Arthur? One last thing. Go to the farm with the horse. She is your caterpillar.”
* * *
Arthur awoke from his flashback. He was not in a suit of armor, talking to a wizard. He was a crow, flapping in place in the air and looking over at a golden horse who was trotting dejectedly towards stables that had once been familiar to her, alone.
“Penny, wait!” he croaked, flapping towards her.
Penny looked up and blinked. “Crow?”
Arthur smiled, alighting on the post of the gate she was about to pass through. “Please,” he said. “Call me Arthur.”
“Arthur.” The horse rolled the word around on her tongue. “Arthur, don’t you have to find your Avalon? And your…um, your sword?”
The crow bobbed his head. “A wise man once told me that we often find what we are looking for where we least expect it.”
Penny’s mouth twitched into a smile. “Are you coming to Avalon with me, then?”
Arthur nodded. Penny neighed with delight. “Great! I can’t wait to show you around!”
The horse trotted through the gate and along the dirt path toward the stables. The crow looked toward the edge of the forest, a forest which looked miraculously familiar. He thought he spied a flash of blue between the trees.
* * *
“Hey, hey! Is the gang still here?”
Penny trotted down the aisle between the rows of stalls, peering in at the horses who were residents. They looked at her without any indication that they knew who she was. In fact, they seemed rather miffed that she was trotting around like she owned the place while they were cooped up in stalls. As it became clear that she didn’t know any of these horses, Penny’s face fell.
“Hmm. I guess my brothers and sisters and my mother and father were all sold long ago,” she murmured to Arthur.
A dun mare peered out at Penny and Arthur suspiciously. “What are you doing here, strange horse? Why on Earth did you bring this bird with you?”
Arthur puffed out his feathered chest. “I am no mere bird. I am King Arthur of Camelot, on a quest to restore my kingdom and reclaim my throne!”
The dun horse guffawed with laughter. “You…what?”
Penny glared at the strange horse. “That is no way to treat my friend. He’s a little not right in the head, but that doesn’t mean he deserves your rudeness. Shame on you. I thought the horses of Avalon had better manners than this.”
The horse stopped laughing and leveled a cool gaze at Penny. “The noble horses of Avalon do not affiliate with riffraff.”
Arthur clacked his beak and swooped through the air. “I do not appreciate your tone, Lady Horse. Let us abandon this meanness of spirit and instead exchange pleasant introductions.”
The horse’s nostrils flared. “I am Winifred,” she said stiffly, turning pointedly away.
“What are you doing out there? Huh? Huh? Who are you? Where did you come from?” piped a fast, excited, high-pitched voice from the opposite row of stalls. Turning, Penny and Arthur saw a young Shetland pony, jumping excitedly up and down to get a better look at the two newcomers. Winifred snorted. Penny walked up to the pony’s stall and looked down at her with a friendly smile.
“I’m Penny, and the bird is my friend, Arthur. We came from London. What’s your name?”
The pony squealed in delight, still bouncing up and down.
“I’m Dreamy Moon Pie! But you can just call me Dreamy!”
Penny chortled at this. The pony continued, as bright and bubbly as before, apparently unfazed by Penny’s laughter.
“Those purebred studbook names, yeah, they’re pretty funny, aren’t they?” Now Dreamy giggled, too. Arthur stayed respectfully silent.
Penny stopped laughing and nodded. “Yeah, my studbook name’s pretty embarrassing, too.” Penny grinned sheepishly, swishing her tail.
Dreamy grinned back at her. “Hey, do you want to go play or something? We could go frolic in the meadow. The humans aren’t around right now. It would be the perfect time to get away!”
Penny looked at the pony. “Won’t you get in trouble?”
Dreamy shrugged. “I’m always up for an adventure, whatever happens!”
Penny looked around at Winifred and the other horses in their stalls. “Do you want to come with us? We could all spend time together, munch some grass, get to know each other.”
Winifred turned her head away. “As I said before, we will not associate with riffraff.”
Penny narrowed her eyes. “I’m just as high-bred as you. I’m from Avalon. This is my home. You have no right to…”
“Yippee!” Dreamy cried as Arthur opened the gate to her stall. She pranced up and down the aisle like a child hyped up on too much candy, and then she rushed out the double doors on the other side of the stable.
“If you change your mind later, you are welcome to join us,” Arthur said to Winifred pleasantly. Then he flew after Dreamy, and Penny followed him out into the sunshine.
Evening dappled the fields before the forest with a rich orange glow. Dreamy raced across the grass, her mane whipping in the breeze. “Yay! This is so much fun! So, so fun! You’re the best thing that’s happened to me here! Thank you! Thank you!”
To Arthur’s surprise, the pony got down on the grass and started rolling around on it like a dog. He had to laugh at the ridiculous scene. Feeling the wind in her mane, Penny started running, too—at first, with more restraint than the youthful pony, but eventually she gave in to the freedom and the joy in her heart at being out in an open space once more, and she danced across the field, a golden horse against the orange light of sunset, laughing into the breeze. Arthur flew in circles over the two equines, relishing the feeling of the cool breeze on his feathers. He felt a pang in his heart at Penny’s laugh, as it reminded him of Guinevere. But they were all dancing and enjoying the moment. No need to think of a past that was gone, that had crumbled to dust somehow and he wasn’t sure why…
Arthur landed on the grass and stood there, staring at nothing. Penny stopped her prancing and looked at him. “Arthur?” she asked, trotting up to him. “Are you all right?”
Dreamy still raced about the field crying, “Whee!”
Arthur looked towards the wood. Without a word to the worried horse, he took off for the forest.
* * *
Arthur flew through the tangled wood. Briars scratched him, but still he pressed on. He dodged around clawing, cloying branches, going ever deeper into the darkness.
He wasn’t sure whether he was flying toward something or fleeing something else. Despite Merlin’s advice all those centuries ago, he felt incomplete simply hanging around this estate with a bunch of equines. He felt like he should be doing something more.
He was so lost in his tangled web of restless thoughts that he almost flew smack into a gnarled oak tree. He paused for a moment, peering into the deep hole at the base of its trunk. It was so dark and wide that it looked like a cave. Suddenly understanding smacked him in the face like a stone wall.
He knew this tree. Merlin had been imprisoned here, lifetimes ago.
Descending to the forest floor, Arthur began hopping around the base of the tree. His beady eyes scanned the shadows, searching for something, though he wasn’t sure what.
At last, a stray sunbeam glanced off the object of his search. It rested on a bed of fallen leaves against a thick root. Arthur carefully picked up the multifaceted sapphire jewel in his beak. It had an ancient inscription on it, etched faintly in silver. Arthur recognized the small, crazy handwriting.
“When the time comes,” read the inscription, “you will find the words you need.”
Arthur held the jewel in his beak, comforted by the feeling of Merlin’s presence and the reassuring message. Even when a fierce wind whooshed through the branches overhead, causing the chance sunbeam to disappear and casting the forest in shadow once more, peace still washed through him. He didn’t have all the answers yet. But when he needed to know what to do, he would find a way.
Arthur bowed his head and closed his eyes, saying a silent prayer of thanks.
“Oy! You! What you doin’ in our wood?”
Startled, Arthur squawked a muffled squawk around the jewel in his beak and took to the air in a flurry of feathers. Wheeling around the tree, he spied a fox, a badger, and a polecat, standing together and looking at him suspiciously. They were larger than him, and what big teeth they had!
Arthur shifted the jewel into his talons and flapped in place in midair, staring down at the three carnivores.
“Hello, good comrades! I apologize. I did not mean to trespass, nor to disturb you. I was looking for something. A gift from a friend.”
Just then, the fox spied the jewel in Arthur’s talons. Instantly, his expression softened, his ears airplaning to the sides in a gesture of relief, his mouth open in an excited squeal.
“Oy, it’s him! The gent Merlin told us to wait for!” The fox wagged his bushy tail. “You’re a king, ain’t ye?”
Arthur landed on a mossy stump near the base of the oak tree, still clutching the blue jewel.
“I was a king,” Arthur replied, his heart sinking. “I’m not sure what I am now.”
The polecat waddled towards him. “Bah! Once a king, always a king, eh?” she said cheerfully. She circled Arthur’s stump, sniffing him in a friendly, curious manner. “You still smell like a king,” she said, with a smile and a flick of her long tail.
“The once and future king,” the badger agreed in a gravelly voice, with a solemn nod.
Just then, Arthur heard two worried equine voices calling his name. “Arthur! Arthur!” With the jewel in his grasp, he took to the air.
“It was good to meet you all, my fine forest folk. Did Merlin give you a message for me?”
The fox nodded. “Yes. When the time comes, we’ll be here, waiting for you.”
Arthur nodded, and the warmth and peace from the jewel washed over him again. Even though they were apart, his friend was still looking out for him.
“Thank you,” said Arthur. “I will remember that.”
And with that, Arthur flew back through the forest. Back toward Penny and Dreamy. Back toward his new Avalon.
* * *
Arthur had arrived at Avalon Estate and Stables at the ripe end of summer. He spent the next several months there. At first, he rested on the hazy edge between contentment and restlessness. He still felt like he should be doing something more with his life. After all, the priestesses of the real Avalon—no, he corrected himself, the first Avalon, the Avalon where he had begun his new life—the priestesses had whispered to him amid his fevered dreams that when the time came, when the world needed him, he would awaken to reclaim his throne, to restore honor to the world. Hopping around some farm as a crow—without his title, his kingdom, or even his sword—seemed like a far cry from saving the world.
Yet he heeded his old friend Merlin’s advice from so long ago, and gradually, he learned to see the noble in the ordinary, the adventurous in the mundane. He learned this largely from watching Penny. The horse found joy in the simplest things. To her, running through the pasture seemed just as good as the grandest of quests, and a sweet apple on a crisp fall day was just as good as a sumptuous feast. When Arthur told her stories as she grazed in the sun, she listened. And it meant the world to him.
“Do you believe me?” he asked her one day, as she stood at the water trough at the edge of the pasture, taking a drink.
Penny looked up at him and smiled. “About what, Arthur?”
Arthur perched on a fencepost and looked down at her, fluttering his wings anxiously.
“About my stories. That Camelot existed. That I’m really King Arthur. That I’ve done all the things I say I’ve done.”
Penny gazed thoughtfully into the distance. The breeze stirred her golden mane, which shone in the sun.
“They’re lovely stories,” Penny said evasively.
Arthur clacked his beak and hopped from foot to foot. Penny turned back to him and met his gaze.
“Listen, Arthur. I like you for who you are now, not whoever you were. You inspire me to be kind to everyone, even stuffy horses like Winifred who are mean to me sometimes. You inspire me to be brave, to take chances and explore new places, like that waterfall we found in the wood the other day. You make me feel like, even though I’m just a horse, I could also be a fine lady.”
“You are a fine lady,” Arthur said firmly.
Penny whinnied with laughter and tossed her head. “See, that’s what I love about you, Arthur. You believe in what could be, the noble potential in everything and everyone. And that’s what matters most.”
Soon enough, Arthur stopped feeling restless. He came to love flying over the sun-dappled fields, racing through the air above Penny and Dreamy as they ran. He loved watching the family who owned Avalon Estate and Stables saying grace through one of the wide windows of the farmhouse before they dined. He loved watching the leaves of the wood change color as summer turned gracefully into fall. He loved following Penny as she gave horseback rides through the woods to humans embarking on simple little quests of their own. He loved trying to make Winifred laugh by hopping along the rail of her stall and croaking and clacking at her; at first, she was resistant to his “nonsense,” but one day in October he got her to crack a smile. He even learned to love being a crow: croaking and cawing in a strangled symphony, scavenging in the wood and finding new things every day, sailing above the trees and pastures spreading his black wings wide against the sky and seeing England from the air.
Excalibur was not gone, he realized now. Camelot was not gone. Guinevere and his knights were not gone, nor was Merlin. He carried them all in his heart, and he knew he was still a king on the inside, no matter what anyone else saw or said. He kept the blue jewel tucked away in the rafters of the stable, and he watched fall turn to winter and the woods and fields get blanketed with pure white snow, and he waited patiently for his time to come.
Arthur noticed, as December wore on, that the heads of the estate put up a glittering Christmas tree in the window, that they strung twinkling lights all over the outside of the farmhouse and the stables. And then, one snowy day, Christmas arrived. Arthur felt it in his heart. The humans were celebrating in their bright, merry house, exchanging gifts and pleasantries, while the horses still stood in the dark, musty stable, which looked rather glum in comparison.
Arthur had an idea. “Will you let me ride you in a little while?” Arthur whispered to Dreamy. “For a show, of sorts?”
The pony giggled. “Oh boy! Sounds fun!”
With a clack of his beak, Arthur took off for the back door of the human kitchen. Slipping discreetly inside, Arthur spied two props that would serve his purpose perfectly: a metal strainer and a wooden ladle. He brought each object back to the stable over the course of two separate trips, for he lacked the strength to carry both items in his claws at once. With his nimble beak, Arthur released Dreamy from her stall. She trotted out into the aisle with an excited squeal. Placing the strainer on his head like a helmet and the ladle in his claws like a sword, Arthur rode Dreamy from one end of the stable to the other, crying, “Hear ye, hear ye, good horses of Avalon! It is I, King Arthur of Camelot, and my trusty sword Excalibur!” Arthur brandished the wooden ladle. Dreamy whinnied, rearing dramatically for emphasis.
“I have a Christmas pageant for you all today, to bring cheer to your hearts on this dark winter’s day! For a child was born today who brought light into our world. He was a far greater king than I, but others have told his story far better than I ever could. Today, I would like to simply tell you the stories that are mine to tell: stories of the great kingdom of Camelot.”
Penny and the other horses waited, listening. With a deep breath, Arthur began. Astride his trusty steed, Dreamy, Arthur told his stories, acting out scenes from his quests and adventures. He spoke of fair maidens rescued and great monsters vanquished. He told tales of each knight from his court, where each man came from, how he rose to greatness, his finest deeds as well as sweet, personal moments of friendship. In his croaking crow’s voice, Arthur spoke of Merlin and Lancelot and Guinevere. He spoke of the peace and prosperity and leadership that was so hard-won and unexpected from a little boy named Wart who had been teased all his life, a boy who happened to be in the right place at the right time and pull a legendary sword from a stone.
“But it was never about the sword,” Arthur said. “Not really. Nor about any of the other external trappings of being a king. Not greatness and luxuries, nor fine achievements and battles. Camelot was about…” Arthur choked on his words. “About who we were inside. What we believed in. Peace, prosperity, chivalry, beauty, courage, justice. Goodness. These virtues are what we stood for. They are…” Arthur croaked. “They are what we died for. My time as a king may have passed, but these dreams shall never pass from the world. Camelot is still in my heart, and I know how to see it even here, if I know where to look.” Arthur bowed, with his wings spread wide. “Thank you all for your time.”
Dreamy clopped her hooves as if in applause. “Yay!” she cried. “Bravo! Bravo!” The horses stood staring at Arthur for a long time in silence. Penny’s eyes burned with tears, but there was a proud smile on her face.
Finally, the silence was broken by a derisive snort. Arthur turned and looked at Winifred.
“Nonsense,” she scoffed. “Utter nonsense! You are not a king! You are merely a deranged crow! What are you still doing here? Shoo!”
The other horses, except for Penny, started laughing at him. Arthur clucked meekly and shrank into himself, hiding his head with his wing.
Perhaps Winifred was right. Perhaps he was merely a deranged crow. What proof did he have, after all? Arthur shivered at the cold winter air, a twisting feeling in his gut. All he had were his memories, and those had begun to fade around the edges like dreams.
Arthur closed his eyes and wished to die.
Suddenly, he heard a stall door bang and squeak. He startled and opened his eyes, his feathers ruffling in alarm. Penny stood beside him and Dreamy. Her stall door hung open on only one hinge. She had kicked it open with her hooves. Penny glared at the other horses, her mane tossing around her head in fury like an angry lion’s.
“Don’t listen to them, King Arthur. They may not believe in Camelot, but I do.”
Arthur’s heart swelled with pride. He saw a blue light glowing in the rafters. He flew up to the jewel, grabbed it in his beak, and descended back down to perch on Dreamy’s back. The blue light enveloped him, and Dreamy, and Penny…
And suddenly the three of them stood in the wood at the base of the oak tree, snow falling around them almost silently, like moth wings. Arthur still stood on Dreamy’s back, with the metal strainer on his head, the wooden ladle in his claws, and the jewel in his beak. The equines and the crow all shivered in the cold.
“Where are we?” whined Dreamy.
“At last,” said a voice.
Penny, Dreamy, and Arthur turned to look. A fox, a polecat, and a badger stood beside the oak tree, watching them expectantly.
“Are you ready to go?” asked the fox.
Penny and Dreamy looked at Arthur, confused. Arthur nodded at the fox, with such self-assurance and regal bearing for a crow that Penny and Dreamy’s fear and confusion lessened. The fox grinned a toothy grin. “Good,” he said. He nodded to the polecat and the badger. Together, the three animals ran in complicated circles around the tree, as if tying Celtic knots around its trunk with their movements. A soft blue glow lit the opening in the tree with a flash, and then it vanished. The fox, the polecat, and the badger stopped moving and turned as one to face Arthur, standing in a line beside the oak tree.
“The way is opened,” said the badger. “We will follow behind you.”
Arthur nodded. Penny gazed at him. “Do you know what’s going on, Arthur? Do you know where we’re going?” she asked him quietly.
Arthur fluttered. “Not entirely. But I trust my heart. I trust Camelot.” He cocked his head at Penny. “Do you?”
Penny stared back at him for a long time. Finally, she nodded. “I do.”
“Oh boy!” giggled Dreamy, quivering with excitement beneath the crow. “An adventure!”
Arthur nodded, smiling. “Indeed.” He nodded to the fox, polecat, and badger. “Thank you,” he said. The animals nodded back. Arthur led Dreamy into the wide opening at the base of the oak’s trunk, and the wood disappeared in a flash of blue light.
* * *
When the piercing blue light cleared at last, Arthur, Dreamy, Penny, the fox, the badger, and the polecat all stood at the foot of a tall statue of a man on a horse, between two stone lions near the steps leading up to the statue. People bustled past them on the sidewalks. Traffic screamed around them on all sides. Arthur turned to Penny. “Are we back in London?”
Penny nodded, looking around, her tail swishing restlessly.
“Yes. This looks like Trafalgar Square.”
Dreamy trotted around for a while, taking in the sights, with Arthur riding on her back. Arthur saw the way people trudged past him through the gray, dismal fog and the snow, their hands jammed in their jacket pockets. None of them noticed him. They never even looked up. His heart hammered with fear. He was invisible. He was nothing. He was merely a deranged crow with a metal strainer on his head and a wooden ladle in his claws and a meaningless trinket in his beak, riding a silly pony. He clucked nervously. Then he shifted the blue jewel into his claws and looked at it.
“When the time comes, you will find the words you need.”
Arthur turned to his animal companions. “Can you all please do something for me? I need you to dance around the base of this statue. To imagine, as you do, that you are going around some great, magical maypole, one last party at home before an adventure to come. Can you do that for me?”
The animals nodded. Dreamy giggled. Penny smiled. “Yes, Your Majesty.”
Arthur smiled, too. Filled with strength, he flew towards the top of the statue with the strainer on his head, carrying the ladle and the jewel. He perched on the top of the statue, watching the comings and goings of the crowds and the cars. No one stopped to notice him.
“I am King Arthur of Camelot,” croaked the crow.
The people moved on through the dismal gray fog, heedless of the bird on the statue. Arthur faltered. He cleared his throat with a hesitant caw. At first, no one stopped to look at him. But as the horse, pony, fox, badger, and polecat danced around the base of the statue as if it were a maypole, their motions attracted the attention of a handful of pedestrians, and the wide eyes of some of the onlookers eventually traveled up to the top of the statue.
King Arthur wasn’t sure if they were listening to him, or if they’d understand him if they were. But regardless, he had to tell the tale in his heart that was burning to be told. So he did.
He spoke of sumptuous banquets with his comrades by his side, of roast pheasants and bards and fire jugglers, feasts where the wine and the laughter never ran dry, and the great hall rang with stories and songs all through the night, and the hearth warmed his bones and the company warmed his heart.
He spoke of dancing with Guinevere in the courtyard in the moonlight, the fragrance of the flowers in her hair…
He spoke of chasing his falcon through the woods on a warm summer day, racing through the trees and laughing into the wind…
He spoke of jousting with Lancelot, a friendly practice duel, the snorts of their horses in the dusty yard, the stomping of hooves as they circled each other, the cheers of the crowd, the way his heart raced as he charged at last with his lance held high…
He spoke of Guinevere dancing around the maypole with the village children in the spring, twirling colorful ribbons…
He spoke of Camelot, the castle’s towers tall and strong in the first light of dawn, her banners flapping proudly in the wind.
Most of all, he spoke of his dream, the dream of a better world that had guided him all those years.
And suddenly, the blue jewel glowed, and the clouds above him parted, and sunlight shafted down upon King Arthur of Camelot. He spread his black wings wide, and his feathers refracted rainbows, and suddenly the whole city of London was looking up at him and the traffic of Trafalgar Square was still and silent and everyone was dreaming of Camelot together. Strangers smiled and greeted each other. Some even embraced. A soft rainbow glow bathed the grimy streets. People saw the crow and the horse and the pony and the fox and the badger and the polecat, and they remembered that there was wild magic in everything, and everyone—even in a plain, black, ordinary bird.
King Arthur cawed and gazed down at the people of England.
“Good people of England,” said King Arthur, his wings still lit from above with a bright rainbow glow, “remember this day. Be chivalrous with each other, find nobility in the ordinary, and remember the wild spirit of this green country. Remember our stories. Remember magic. Remember… remember Camelot.”
The people nodded. The rainbow light shivered around them, like a pearlescent reflection of ocean waves. Suddenly, there was one last flash, and the rainbow was gone. The jewel was gone, too. All that remained was a crow in a metal strainer, holding a wooden ladle.
The people of London resumed their hurried bustling to nowhere. The traffic flowed on. But King Arthur still stood proudly and happily at the top of the statue, Excalibur in his grasp and Camelot in his heart.
* * *
Penny was found by her old master and started giving carriage tours around London again. She is much happier about her job now, for there are greener pastures even than the ones of Avalon in her mind. She keeps the rainbow dream of Camelot close to her heart and gives every crow she sees a second glance.
Dreamy was adopted by a traveling circus, and now she goes on many adventures of her own. She babbles excitedly about her time with King Arthur to anyone who will listen.
The fox, badger, and polecat slunk back to their wild wood. They live there still, roving through the trees, guarded by a wizard with a twinkle in his eye.
And King Arthur? Well…
King Arthur still roams London as a crow. To the rest of the world, it might seem as though England has forgotten his message, the great stories he told on that fateful day. For, on the surface, it seems as though nothing has changed. But King Arthur knows better. He has learned to see Camelot in the little things: in flowers brought to a tired cleaning lady after a long work day, in a father pushing a child on a swing set at the playground. He finds rainbow traces of Camelot everywhere he looks: even in gutters, even in his simple life as a crow. And he is happy.
Someday, while you are in London, take a second look at an ordinary black feather that has fallen on the ground on some grimy street. You may see an echo of Camelot there, a shivering rainbow light to brighten even your darkest days.
* * *
Originally published in ROAR, Volume 10
About the Author
Amy Clare Fontaine is a wildlife biologist and a wildly imaginative furry author. She has published short stories in Daily Science Fiction, Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, and the ROAR anthology series from Bad Dog Books. Her interactive novel Fox Spirit: A Two-Tailed Adventure won the Leo Literary Award for Novels. When not writing, she studies animal communication, travels the globe, draws, and makes music. She believes wholeheartedly in magic and seeks to make the world a better place. You can find her published works and blog at www.amyclarefontaine.com an