I Will Rule This Town
Arthur was drowning. He could feel the blood pounding in his ears and the breath beating its way out of his chest. He knew that he needed to fight his need for air and he knew that in a moment he would be able to resist it no longer. Dirty water would fill his lungs. He would sink to the rusted floor. Even the location of his body would be forgotten. He fought all of it, thrashing desperately against the water and the hands holding him down…
“Art? You dreamin’ again?”
He opened his eyes. The corrugated iron of the sheriff’s house loomed over him. The hole in the corner where the rust had worn it down and the light seeped in was a comfort. As was Lancelot’s hand on his shoulder. Gwen mumbled something in her sleep and curled closer against him as if unconsciously sensing his discomfort.
“The Lady?” Lancelot asked. He was leaning on one elbow and staring at Arthur in that intense way he paid attention to anything. Arthur turned to look at him. He gave a wry smile.
“How did you guess?”
Lance twitched his lips, and kissed Arthur on the forehead.
“Go back to sleep, Art. You ain’t going to drown in this bed, s’long as Gwen don’t crush you in her sleep. And that ain’t no bad way to go.” Arthur raised his eyebrows, then raised his lips for another kiss.
“That’s as may be. I’m going to go get some air anyways.”
Thirty years ago, a younger Arthur nearly drowned. He was running in the dark. The dark water was pulling at his legs until suddenly the floor disappeared beneath him and he fell. It was a small gap. His flailing arms scraped against the other side before his head had completely sunk beneath the surface. He scrabbled, tore the flesh from one side of his arm but managed to haul himself up to collapse onto his side on solid ground. He had been underwater for all of maybe five seconds. The dreams would haunt him for the rest of his life.
The shouts and splashing water quickly reminded him that he could not rest long. He had killed several of her gang. Enough remained. Arthur hauled himself to his exhausted feet and continued. Behind him he heard a muffled scream cut short. Perhaps someone else had fallen for his own near death. He grinned to himself, a macabre joke.
And on he ran. In the complete darkness he navigated by the current of the water and the noises of his pursuers. He would circle round, cut one bandit off as he searched blindly and reduce their numbers bit by bit. Sometimes he came stalked their torchlight or raised campfires. He would shoot down as many as he could before they could pinpoint his muzzle flash then run. It is not possible to run silently in thigh-deep water so he ran far and fast. For three months, he did not stop running.
In the days when he was nothing but a journeying sellgun he used to pass through Camelot when he could. His distant upbringing stopped anyone from knowing him as his father’s son. There was good work to be had in Camelot, even if you refused to work for the Stones. Arthur never took work too close lest they attempt to recruit him. He was not yet ready to move against them.
There was something else which drew him strangely to Camelot. He knew his father’s thoughts towards the Hanged Man and at first he had gone to see him out of curiosity. Fashions changed, and the Hanged Man was little more than a curiosity nowadays, though he had been a sight and would become one again. Before Arthur gained his gun and met his loves and took his town he had the Hanged Man to himself. He would sit beneath him. The town of Camelot stretched out before his eyes and he would talk.
“Someone needs to break the Lady of the Lake’s hold on the water,” he said. He spoke mostly to himself, but loud enough that the Hanged Man could hear. “Without water, the Stones can’t last long. With water, I could persuade most people over to my cause.”
“I’d be cautious,” said the Hanged Man. “Nimue has a weapon the likes of which you’ve never seen. A relic, the last remaining military-grade piece on the Station. It will kill you before you can see her. She’s currently beyond even your desperate optimism.”
“A relic weapon?” said Arthur. His brow furrowed in thought. “If I could claim that of her…”
No one knew how many bandits the Lady had gathered to her. They seemed to swell in number as Arthur killed them. Perhaps the Lady was giving away more of her precious water to overcome this threat. Maybe Arthur had underestimated her power. He could be trapped down here, waging an eternal war in the dark until he died to a bullet or the rust or old age. He began to yearn for food seared delicious on a fire. He thought of Ygraine and wondered if she was bearing his child.
Time and light became as legendary to him as company and the Light Beyond. He slept when he was exhausted and woke at every slight noise. For a long time he did not find the Lady, or the Lady did not find him. Or he was not allowed to find her. After some time he no longer let it concern him.
But slowly, but surely, he began to gain on her. Suddenly he began to spend entire waking days without seeing another soul. Arthur knew that the Lady was getting closer. He could almost see her.
Then the Lady’s railgun shattered the ground behind his feet. The water absorbed the splinters of metal and rust but the shock sound wave tore at his ears anyway. Arthur threw himself down into the water. He had not even heard the Lady’s approach. She must have been waiting for him here, where the water was freshest and some light filtered vaguely through the bulkheads.
Arthur twisted in the water. Only his face was exposed to the air. He breathed slowly. He allowed as few ripples as possible to betray his presence. Finally he heard the shuffle of movement and the faint splashing of water as someone moved away.
They still call it a morning routine. Gwen exercises. Lance watches her stretching and balancing on the porch overlooking Main Street. He makes tea, boiling stale leaves in water to make it taste ever so slightly of something other than dust. Arthur disassembles the railgun on the table. Impenetrable ammunition rack here. User serviceable magnetics there. The gunslinger has figured out most of its workings over the years. The last thing he does every morning is to rattle the boxy ammunition rack. There were days when it had felt full, days when it had seemed to be emptying too fast, and nowadays it seemed never to change.
Lance saw that he had finished and put the cup of tea in front of him. “You’re more gentle with that gun than you ever are with me,” he said.
“If you want to play less rough anytime, you just say,” Arthur replied.
She had thought him dead, and that was her death. He did not pull the same trick as she had, knowing that she would be on her guard against her own deceptions. Instead Arthur stalked her. He took each step more slowly than the last. The drips of water which fell from him echoed no louder than the condensation which dripped down the walls. And he listened closely. Finally, a week later, he heard the Lady. She was singing softly to herself, under her breath. Arthur recognised the tune.
He let her finish the tune before he shot her. Three months at her mercy in the flooded sector had taught him not to take chances. She fell with a soft splash. Then there were no sounds to be heard but the water dripping down the walls and the creaking of the hull.
The Lady’s body lay just below the surface. The cloth of her duster floated in the ripples on the surface. In her hand she still clutched the .x-calibre railgun tightly. Arthur took it. He cast aside his own pistol and slotted it into his holster. It fitted, but awkwardly. He would need to make some new way of carrying it. The Lady seemed to have simply carried it in her hands at all times.
On the Station, water was worth more than bullets or even meat. Now Arthur was master of more water than could be found anywhere else. He could threaten, cajole or bribe near anyone. He left the reservoir without looking back, his precious relic held at his waist. His hands did not leave its guard.