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art by Tais Teng

A is for Arthur

Tim Pratt's stories have appeared in The Best American Short Stories, The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, and other nice places. He's won a Hugo for his short fiction (and lost Sturgeon, Stoker, World Fantasy, and Nebula Awards). He lives in Berkeley CA with his wife and son. Find him online at timpratt.org

Jenn Reese lives in Los Angeles and is currently writing a middle-grade adventure series for Candlewick Press. Her stories have appeared in Strange Horizons and the World Fantasy Award-winning anthology Paper Cities, among others. Follow her adventures at jennreese.com.

Heather Shaw is a writer, editor, gardener and aikidoka living in Berkeley, California with her husband and son. She's had fiction in Strange Horizons, Polyphony, The Year's Best Fantasy, Escape Pod and other nice places. She just finished her first middle-grade novel, "Keaton T., Junior Gene Hacker" and is looking for representation. For more, visit heathershaw.org

Greg van Eekhout's fiction for adults and children includes the novels Norse Code and Kid vs. Squid and stories published in Asimov's, Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, and other places. He lives in San Diego, CA. For more information, visit writingandsnacks.com.

Will stood on the riverbank and lifted a sheaf of papers to the moon. "Here is Arthur," he thundered in the remains of his stage-seasoned voice, "the tragedy of the world's mightiest king, penned by John Shakespeare's boy, a humble Stratford mummer." Bowing deeply, he laughed at his own theatricality. Then he coughed until his breaths came in a ragged whistle.
A twig snapped and Will spun, unsheathing the dagger on his belt. Less than two yards away stood a tall man cloaked in black.
"You call that a Stratford welcome?" said the stranger, his eyes shining like blue flame.
"It was a welcome learned in London," Will panted. The man's hands were large and calloused, but with gracefully tapered fingers.
"You think me a devil," said the stranger. "You believe in such things."
"True," said Will. He considered calling for the constable but doubted it'd do him much good. He'd already shouted his lungs raw at the moon and attracted no notice. Old Dogberry was probably fast asleep in the guild hall doorway.
Without threatening, Will turned the knife to make the blade wink in the moonlight. "Tell me your business or take your leave."
Nodding, the stranger stroked his beard. "Who I am is who I've always been, and what I want is your play."
Will allowed his face no change in expression, but his heart kicked a hammering rhythm. He'd spent his last year at home as a nocturnal creature, ostensibly reading and attending to his business affairs while, in truth, he'd been writing as though his life depended upon it. No one knew about the play. Not even Anne. He was supposed to be retired for good, and if Anne had known he planned to leave again for London…
He studied the stranger's expectant gaze, considered what he ought to do, decided, bolted up the river bank with all the speed he could muster. "Constable!" he managed to shout, his feet struggling for purchase in the mud. "Thieves!"
He surmounted the slope and froze. The stranger had somehow beaten him to the top and now towered over him.
"You were right about the constable, Will. He is asleep. He'll be asleep for a very long time." The stranger reached out, his long fingers uncurling like serpents. "Now. Your play."
With one hand, Will held the papers tighter. With the other, he leveled the knife blade at the stranger's fiery eyes.
"Go on, then," he said. "Take it."
The stranger showed his teeth in a thin smile, light shining behind his blue eyes.
And then Will was elsewhere.
She awakes from a dream and finds herself in the tomb with Romeo. He pants such ridiculous, over-the-top poetry while he makes love to her. And she adores every syllable of it. She sees how his lips tremble, feels his hot breath against her neck.
And then Romeo grows still.
And then Romeo grows cold.
His body lies sprawled over hers, stiff fingers clutching her hair. His flesh looks waxy. He does not breathe. Dry vomit cakes his lips shut.
And still, she cannot bring herself to push him away, for even this repulsive contact is better than no contact at all.
Will falls from that stage to the others.
He awakens in a fairy glade with his body grafted to the head of an ass and finds his once brilliant mind dull beyond reckoning.
With a pumice stone, he scrubs damned spots of blood from his hands but still can't cleanse away the ugly stain of regicide.
On and on he plummets through his own works, from King Henry V ordering the execution of his boyhood friend, to doddering old Lear unable to hold his own bladder. He dies a hundred times, loses a hundred loves, suffers a hundred shames, and dies a hundred times more.
And then, when it's all over, he find himself once more in the cold tomb, the knife in her hand.
The descent begins anew.
"Had enough?"
Will sat with his head between his knees. He felt as if every particle of his being had been ripped asunder and put back together by an inexpert hand.
"Yes," he croaked at last. "Enough."
"I took you very far away, poet."
"What do you mean 'took' me?"
Crossing his arms and arching his eyebrows, the stranger sneered down at Will. "Do you think I have time to spare explaining myself to you, little man? I haven't come all this way to chat, poet."
Will smiled. Something loose rattled in his lungs. "Of course you've come to chat, Merlin. That's what you do. You thunder and roar and carry on, and all the while you're craving to tell anyone who'll listen how clever and important you are. I've read the stories about you. I've even written one myself. So, please, stop playing your games. I want to know what you did to me."
Merlin stroked his long silver beard. "Very well. Very well. I suppose I owe you that, at least. Think of the places I took you as islands to your mainland universe. The seas are so treacherous that your ships can never go there, and the journey would drive your cartographers insane. Only human thought, only human imagination holds their firmament together. I could tell you more, but then we'd be getting into matters best left to wizards like myself and physics priests of the next milennia."
Will nodded. He thought he'd understood part of what Merlin had said. "I see. Dream shadows brought into motion by the dreamer's will. These islands are of your crafting, Merlin?"
Merlin smiled his smile. "Not of my crafting, poet. Of yours. Each of your stories rises as an island in the multiversal sea. Not as a shadow, but as a solid piece of land, with grass and muck and birds and gnats. And long after you've lifted your pen from the page, long after the actors have fled the stage and wiped clean their make-up, do your dreams perpetuate."
Will put a hand to his chest. Was he now to suppose he was more than a creator of plays, but a creator of worlds? Of human beings? Was he to give credence to the blasphemous proposal that he was a god? A gnawing voice in his head told him to do so.
He rose wobbly to his feet. "What happens to these islands after I'm dead?"
"Your worlds will live on."
"The king of Denmark is destroyed eternally at his brother's hands?"
"Juliet must always die?"
"Yes. And I'll take the new play now."
Will looked down at his hand. Through all this, he hadn't released his hold on the sheaf. Just as he couldn't let go of the notion that he was merely a writer, better than most, but still a writer and nothing more.
"Why do you want my Arthur?"
Merlin glanced down and took a breath. "He's wounded," he said, his voice gone unexpectedly soft. "And he needs to rest. No one has managed to disturb his slumber so far. Not the Celtic bards, not the French, not your own country's Mallory." He locked his blazing eyes with Will's. "But your own play, poet ... If you release your play, and it touches the minds of men, then Arthur will be forever consigned to one of your islands. He'll be damned to lay his sister and build his kingdom and suffer betrayals and watch Eden fall and die at the hands of his own son. Again and again and again. Forever."
Merlin was almost inaudible now. "Look around you, poet, and what do you see? A nice church, nice cottages and farms, orchards, a pretty bridge over a pretty river. A much nicer place than most parts of the world. But Camelot..." He smiled and looked even older. "Camelot was something other, poet. You don't know. You just don't know."
"I can imagine," said Will.
Merlin offered him a look that was almost friendly. "I suppose you of all people could. So you understand why Arthur must be allowed to sleep. Why you must let him heal." Merlin spread his arms in a sweeping gesture that encompassed Stratford and beyond. "This land depends on it."
Will turned and faced away. The moon was high overhead now, casting the church in silver fire. A breeze carried the heart-breakingly autumnal scent of apples ripe on the trees. Below, the river flowed endlessly on.
"I worked myself to the verge of death on this play, you know. I'm an old man now with thousands of stories left to tell but no time left to tell them. Do you have any idea what you're asking of me, wizard?"
"I do, wizard."
Will almost laughed but coughed instead. "Leave me, Merlin. I'll do this alone."
He turned again, and Merlin was gone.
Will held the play out in front of him, feeling the satisfying weight of the sheaf. I made this, he thought, knowing that the making wasn't enough. There had to be the sound of actor's voices. There had to be the gasps and applause of the audience.
Often, to see how a performance was going, he'd sneak in among the groundlings. An unruly bunch they were for sure, but sometimes, during the play's strongest parts, they'd fall mute, and their eyes would shine with the wonder of children.
Will's Arthur deserved such an honor. And, by God, such an honor he would have, and Will would take him to London and put him on the stage and it would be great and everyone would bloody love it and so what if there would never be another Camelot?
Then, slowly, page by page, he cast the manuscript in the river, watching the pages float downstream only a short distance before vanishing below the dark water. Writing the play had taken a year of long, solitary nights, squinting in dim light with fatigued eyes, missing the comfort of Anne's bed.
To destroy the play took less than a minute.
He was trudging up the path back to the graveyard when he saw a light through the corner of his eye. A stone near his foot glowed soft green. More stones lit up as he walked on, and soon the wildflowers and bushes and trees along his route bathed him in a brilliant glow that warmed his skin. The wind played beautiful harmonies through the leaves, and overhead, the stars danced in the sky like fireflies.
Will turned toward the sound of clashing blade metal and saw two men in silver armor at combat. Though weighted in plate mail, they moved swiftly, powerfully, and each time their swords met, the earth shuddered ever so slightly. As they fought, their voices rose above the din, voices raised not in venom and anger, but in the laughter of friendship. And in the distance, looming in silken mists, stood a castle, a white castle that seemed to radiate its own sunlight, and Will wept to see it, and his belly felt warm and full, and for a brief moment, he was young and powerful and capable of anything, and so was the world around him, and it would last forever, and he would write forever.
And then the miracle ended.
So that's what it was like, he thought. Something other.
He nodded his thanks to the old stranger and continued on to bed.
And there he spent his final two weeks, dreaming, but not writing, of once and future worlds.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, January 5th, 2011
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