There are two people in a garden, a man and a woman, and beside them is an apple tree, picked out in green and red. It was a charming piece of embroidery, and Elaine had always liked it. She used to imagine stories: a loyal knight and his tender lady; a courting couple; an adulterous affair; the brave knight whose only thought was for the lady of the apples, waiting for his return. And now she was herself as fair as any knight could wish, and her father had gardens aplenty, with every sort of tree. Only the knight was missing. Which was quite unreasonable, considering her looks and her father's lands, but it turned out dashing knights were less interested in their lady's service than the tales let on, and also they had minds of their own, and often gave what loyalty they did possess to quite unsuitable women. Still, she had not lost hope, and it could not be said her days were filled with hardship waiting.
It is a lovely garden, stylised and timeless: there is a knight, but there will be no battle; there is a lady, but no children. The little birds are silent too: you may admire their brilliant colours, blue and gold and purple thread, but you will never hear them sing. Outside the garden, in the real world, things move and change and break, and no joy outlasts its moment. A man who was alive is dead, his blood sinking into the soil; a child who played with little wooden toys is vanished; lands that once belonged to one man, had one heir, belong now to another, and somewhere some other child plays with a wooden sword, practicing the skills to hold the lands that will be his. In this world, disaster treads always on the heel of victory, and no happiness can be secure. But the birds still sing.
There is a garden within the castle walls, and in that garden the flowers of spring and the fruits of autumn combine. There is no other garden like it in all the world – it is a picture made real. Or almost real, for it is as much a work of artifice as any embroidery, strands of enchantment woven to create a marvel, a tiny paradise amid a barren wasteland. Sometimes, when she is tired of the desolation that surrounds her castle, tired of the empty, echoing corridors, cold and unlit, that are her home, Elaine will visit her garden, altering it to her pleasure: a warmer glow to the sunlight, a more pleasing arrangement of flowers, a new form for herself (often for her own amusement, occasionally for the power it gives her over others, to seem to them however she pleases). Nothing comes into her private demesne she does not have the power to change, to alter, and only those things she likes are permitted to remain constant.
It was a cherished gift; it was a cruel mockery. How could she bear to look at it, look at them embracing, happy and safe, when Miles was dead? She wanted to throw it in the midden, burn it, destroy it utterly, so she would never have to see it again. She couldn't bear to let it out of her sight, didn't want any harm to come to it, when it was the first gift he gave her, and the only one that remained. No one told you, when they made pretty pictures of lovers and gardens, when they sang charming songs of courting couples, no one told you that grief was as sharp as knives, that all that was good could die and you live on.
The first likeness they made of her was for her grave: cold marble and solemn words, committing her to the hereafter. Then there was a portrait, not from life, made to comfort her father in his sorrow. Then there were other portraits, sold to those who visited the tomb, or illustrating stories of Arthur's heroism as he killed the giant who had ravished her. (She was still dead of course, but certainly he had been very brave, avenging her.) Then those stories bred other stories, lighter in style, and other pictures. And from those were taken decorative patterns, for tapestries, and embroideries, and decorative work of all kind. Those who had known her would not have recognised her in them, and she herself would not have seen a likeness, but still, it could be said her memory lived on in fading echoes. Somewhere a young girl admired a pretty lady, depicted in a peaceful garden; somewhere a woman listened entranced to a romantic tale, and in the distance, far behind them and long ago, was a wild mountain side, and a monstrous giant, and a hero who came too late. But who is to say that was the original truth? After all, before the grave, before the death, there was a living woman, who may have laughed in an apple orchard, or thrown her favour to a handsome knight.
Elaine of Garlot
She measured the threads with careful eye, cutting them short just at the right point. Her sisters preferred other tasks, preferred to spin the thread or put it to use in fine weavings, delicate embroideries. She thought of them often and with affection, Morgause and Morgana, always busy with their designs, eager to show her what they had created, but their life was not for her. Sometimes they would visit her in her quiet castle, and beg her to visit them in turn, beg her to take an interest in the world, to live in it like they did: they never saw, as she did, that all lives were the same. Dye a thread red, and it was blood, or roses, or apples on a tree. Dye it white and it was a high-born lady's gown, a shroud, a pair of doves. But it was always the same thread. Sitting here alone, quite out of the world, she could run the thread through her fingers and read in it a thousand lives, live every colour of experience – see too its end and utmost limits. Why choose one life, commit yourself to one death, when you could taste them all and continue on unchanged?