He woke in the darkness to find himself alone. He had grown used to restless nights, sleeping less as he'd aged, and sighed at the memory of a long past youth when sleepless nights had been a treasure he'd shared with his love, not the burden they were now, fifty years later… such magic they'd weaved, defying the nay-sayers who'd warned against relationships between men and immortals, and warned of the sad ends that await those foolish enough to take an elfen lover. But they had made it work, and for his part he regretted nothing. How she felt he could not say, for recently she had grown distant… which thought made him wonder where she was, and he rose, dressed and waving various waiting servants away - did they never sleep? - he walked the castle until he found her where she was often to be found, on the battlements under the cold stars.
She did not turn or say anything as he came up to her, but remained standing, looking out across the city towards the harbour; a tall figure cloaked in darkness. He stood behind her and took her in his arms. She was quiet for a minute and then said in a sad small voice "It is time, my love."
He understood what she meant, and the night chill seeped into him, a presentiment of death. The time he had feared, the time he had lived most of his life dreading, had arrived. He had still hoped it would somehow pass him by, he could not have lived otherwise, not without believing that the gods would decree an exception, that the fates would look the other way. But had always known they would not. As she had often said, this world was cruel.
"You…" his voice faltered. An old man's voice. He hated it, and the querulous tone, and started again. "You are sure? You must… leave?"
"Yes." She paused, then continued. "But not just me. This age of the world is ending. The time of the Elves is over, now it is the time of Men… we cannot stay, our purpose is fulfilled. It would be harmful for us to remain… you must find your own path. And there are no more dragons left to slay, as you well know" She chuckled and he knew they were both remembering their first meeting and her rescue… she continued after a beat. "The Dwarves have already gone, now the fair-folk must leave and pass into myth. Few still remain, and the last ship is leaving tonight. It will take us back to our homeland, far away across strange seas. I must leave with it."
She turned, and lowered her hood, and he was struck dumb. He was wearing the body of an old man, while she had only aged slightly… but seeing her in the lamplight he realised even that slight ageing must have been artifice, which she was no longer employing, for she now looked exactly as she had fifty years ago. Heartbreakingly beautiful.
"I wanted you to remember me like this" she said. "As I am… as I will always be…"
And before he could find any words, she was gone.
How long he stood there before he came back to his senses he did not know, but dawn was breaking. He summoned guards and made his way down to the courtyard, where he shouted until a carriage appeared and raced him to the harbour… he was in luck, a strange sailless Elfin ship was still berthed, waiting on the tide.
Although in theory he owned the harbour and everything in it, it was unwise to annoy a race as magical as the elves, so rather than simply board the ship a standoff developed between his party and the Elven crew, which was only resolved when she appeared and walked down the gangplank. She spoke to the captain in Elvish, and he laughed, replied in the same musical tongue, shrugged and went back about the ship.
"What did he say?"
"You do not want to know." She said.
"I rather think I do"
"Well, it could be translated as..." she paused, "It's your pet, you can bring it if you want"
"I told you you didn't want to know." She sighed. "But, okay… here's the deal. We're going on a long voyage, which will take many years, but for us little time will pass. You have a lot to learn before I can explain that… but our, um, magics can restore your youth, and for a barbarian you are pretty bright. And you would see wonders… and maybe one day we'll return to this world and see how mankind turns out. There are rules; we can only point you in the right direction, you see, after that it's up to you. We must not interfere too much… but, anyway, you have to decide, there's no turning back. If you come along you'll never see your kingdom again, it'll be long gone"
He thought for but a moment.
"Fuck the kingdom"
As he started up the gangplank he realised he was still wearing his crown, and stopped. He removed it and held the circle of gold. It seemed to weighed less than it ever had.
"Guess I won't be needing this" he said, turned and caught the eye of the captain of his guards. Making sure he had his attention he said "Catch!" and threw him the crown, then turned back.
"Sire!" He heard, but didn't respond. "Sire! What do I do with it? Who is to be king?"
"Round up everyone in the castle who wants to be king, then ignore them and give it to someone better qualified."