Arthur had expected the council chamber to be chaos, with the courtiers screaming in the manner of travelling performers in order to ensure that they would be seen or heard. The utter silence that greeted him upon entering unnerved him, but he walked quickly to his chair, feeling the whisper of Merlin shadowing him at his right flank.
He looked around the room. Morgana was sitting with the Lady Enid and with Ragnelle, and Geraint was near them, sitting amidst a loose half-circle of Arthur’s knights. Colgrevance sat in the corner, his face betraying his displeasure, and when Caradoc turned to him with a smug smile on his face, no-one batted an eyelid.
Lionel was sitting on the opposite end of the table from Colgrevance, and behind him stood four young men. Three Arthur recognised: Lionel’s sons. The fourth man was tow-headed and had a pleasant face, and his relaxed stance betrayed his complete lack of concern at being in court for the first time. Arthur let his eyes rest on him for a moment, weighing Merlin’s competition.
Colgrevance’s face as he looked at Lionel, who had clearly made an effort to distance himself from the other man, was sour.
Arthur looked at the tight huddles of nobles around Lionel and Caradoc and Geraint, and at the small group of individuals who had arranged themselves around Colgrevance. The difference in numbers was staggering: the tide had changed in court already, then.
“I wish I could have the pleasure of announcing why I have called you here today,” Arthur began, “But I see my envoys have been far more efficient than I ever would have hoped in spreading the news I asked them to relay to you.”
Morgana pressed her lips together to fight a smile at Arthur’s shameless appropriation of the very actions he had been despairing over an hour ago. Colgrevance had the good grace to sit up straighter in his seat, at least, indicating some embarrassment.
Good. Arthur had hoped Colgrevance would recognise the king’s reproach when he heard it.
“I am happy to hear any dissenting voices against the proposal that a set of magical trials be instituted in order to select a suitable magical advisor for this court, as we head into this period of strengthening and growth for Camelot,” Arthur said. “It is my understanding from my many conversations with you that few oppose the measures I have suggested, however.”
Arthur had spoken to no-one, of course, but he saw the courtiers glancing at each other discreetly, wondering whom the king had graced with a consultation.
No-one spoke, and Arthur continued.
“I take your silence to mean that none wish to make known any grievance on this matter.”
Arthur looked directly at Colgrevance, so that the man would not have grounds to say later that he had not been consulted at the time of the decision.
When Colgrevance looked away uncomfortably, acknowledging him, Arthur said,
“Good. The question then becomes how these trials will be implemented, when, and what they will involve. I have concrete thoughts on this matter and I will announce the specifics of what will take place as soon as we have ascertained the answers to some initial questions here today.”
Arthur had no bloody idea what the hell he was going to ask anyone to do, and he could only hope that Merlin and Morgana and the others could read the order implicit in Arthur’s speech: Start thinking.
It wouldn’t be very fair, he supposed, to have Merlin design some of the tasks that would measure others against him. But Merlin had true integrity of spirit, and Arthur knew he could trust him to choose only trials that would test him and the others equally. And if Merlin had the advantage of knowing what they were some days before the others… Well, nothing in court was ever fully fair, and Arthur was not foolish enough to strip his chosen hound's edge, if Merlin could get it.
“The first thing to establish,” Arthur continued, trying to focus on the faces of the courtiers around him, “Is who wishes to be considered for participation in the trials. I know that despite our recent history, very few among you have forgotten the traditions of your youth, or abandoned them fully.”
An admonishment for their disloyalty, if they were willing to accept it. It was apparent from the many flushed faces and from Caradoc’s lowered eyes that they were.
It reassured Arthur, this indication that these people had not deceived his father without some sense of guilt, at least.
“I therefore suspect that we will have many more potential candidates than perhaps even most of you imagine. In order to expedite the trials, whose purpose is, after all, to reveal the individual who is most skilled among you, I have decided to set one condition for anyone who wishes to participate. Every individual who wishes to take part in the trials must prove his or her ability to summon water before the selection process begins. Only then can they proceed to the trials themselves.”
He looked around carefully, trying to make it look as if he were thinking. Already he could see more than a few disappointed faces. He hoped he would remember to thank Merlin later for the apparent wisdom of his suggestion.
“That is all I have to say, for now. I will gladly answer your questions or hear your concerns.”
For a long moment, no-one said anything. Arthur wondered whether they might be afraid, perhaps thinking that he would punish those who revealed too much knowledge of magic, too soon. He was, after all, his father’s son: it would be extremely imprudent of them to believe that that had no impact on how he saw the world.
“Your Majesty,” he heard finally.
He turned, trying to locate the voice. It came from a young red-headed man, the son of one of the eastern thanes, if he wasn’t mistaken. Sir Clodrus’ son. What in the hell was his name again? Morgana was mouthing something, but Arthur had never been any good at reading lips. Hadn’t she figured that out after twenty years of him always failing to figure out what she meant?
He could call on the man without using his name, but that would make a statement of his ignorance. He did not wish to do that.
“Psat,” Merlin coughed behind him.
Arthur made an inquisitive nose, trying not to move his mouth.
“She’s saying Persant,” he heard clearly, whispered into his left ear.
He fought not to start. He glanced discreetly to his left, hoping to chastise Merlin with his eyes for so overtly making it clear that Arthur had no idea what the man’s name was, but when he turned, he saw only the wall at the opposite end of the room.
“I’m still standing behind you, Arthur,” he heard. “Not that I don’t appreciate the subtlety of that last glare’s delivery.”
Even whispering, it was clear that Merlin was laughing at him. Arthur smiled pleasantly at the room at large, trying hard to give the impression that he wasn’t hearing voices and grinning inanely, when what he was supposed to be doing was presiding over a royal council.
“Yes, Persant,” said Arthur finally, making a note to thank Merlin for this later too, preferably in some clever way that caused him acute discomfort for abusing his magic to startle Arthur, but still expressed gratitude. “Go ahead.”
The man’s mouth quirked up in pleasure at being recognised by name.
“The trials, your Majesty,” he said. “Will they be accessible to all?”
“To all,” Arthur confirmed, happy that someone had brought it up. “Those who are members of court households and those who are not.”
Persant nodded, looking dissatisfied. Arthur was immediately willing to wager that Persant would put his own name forward, when the time came; the news that his nobility would not give him an advantage over any other participants had clearly disappointed him.
There was another long stretch of silence.
“Anything else?” Arthur asked.
This eerie consensus unsettled him. He fought the urge to panic at what it might mean; he was sure they would all be at each other’s throats soon enough. They simply wanted Arthur to give them an avenue to do so overtly by declaring the trials open.
“If there are no further issues to discuss, then I will kindly request that all those who believe they might wish to enter their names for the trials express that desire now. Not speaking now does not preclude you from choosing to participate later. I will be making an announcement to the townsfolk this afternoon, and will request official candidacies at that time. For now, I simply wish to know who amongst the courtiers or those of their households will be offering their knowledge. Court matters are best understood by those who have been part of the greater royal household for many years, and I will be grateful to have men and women who have that experience at the trials. Please keep in mind the one requirement I have stated before you speak, however.”
This had been Morgana’s idea. Suggest to them that you favour them, regardless of what the truth is, she had said, And get them to give you information in exchange.
A low murmur swept the room as people conferred, and finally Lionel spoke in a formal voice.
“I wish to submit Feran, son of Willsn, your Majesty,” he said. “He has been a member of my household since his birth, and I have fostered him alongside my sons all these years.”
“But never acknowledged doing so before now. How honourable,” came the voice at Arthur’s ear, unexpectedly.
Arthur gripped the arms of his chair. It was not that he did not see how this skill of Merlin’s could be very useful in the future, but he didn’t think he’d be getting over the shock of it any time soon, and for now, he needed to concentrate. He wished Merlin would stop.
“Sorry,” he heard. “I’ll stop. Oh. I guess I shouldn’t not stop doing it in order to tell you I’m going to stop doing it. Sorry.”
Arthur took a deep breath, focusing on the faces of those at the table.
“Thank you, Lionel,” he said in response, coolly.
The man’s duplicity during his father’s reign boded ill for the years to come, and Arthur wanted Lionel to know that Arthur knew that. That said, he did not intend to judge the boy based on the fickleness of his master. He smiled at Feran.
“I hope to participate as well, your Majesty,” came Persant’s voice, and Arthur dipped his head in acknowledgment.
“I wish to put forward Ganieda, my lord,” said Caradoc, “A faithful member of my household since I was a young man.”
No surprises there.
“Thank you, Caradoc,” said Arthur, glancing briefly at the older woman that stood silently behind Caradoc’s chair.
Her face was wide and pleasant, and she had the doughty build of someone who had done a difficult job for many years. She reminded Arthur of a midwife. Her eyes were a light, unfathomable grey.
“Anyone else?” asked Arthur smoothly.
A couple of individuals shifted in their seats, still looking unhappy. People who had not met Merlin’s requirement, Arthur guessed again.
“Your Majesty,” he heard from the back of the room, and he glanced up, trying to see around the individuals standing next to the table.
There was a shuffle of people, and finally Arthur had a clear view of Ector, who was standing near the wall. He had a determined look on his face; when Arthur looked more closely, however, he could also see fear.
Ector motioned someone forward with his arm. He was wearing a fine doublet in deep blue, and it contrasted deeply with the dress of those around him, which was much more casual. Arthur scanned the area next to him carefully, careful not to crane his neck in an attempt to see whom Ector was calling forward.
Two young women eventually came to stand beside him. One had deep chestnut hair combed into a neat braid and clear blue eyes. The other was blond, and her brown eyes seemed old and wise. They were set in a beautiful face.
“My lord,” Ector said carefully. “I wish to present my daughter, the Lady Cai.”
The girl with the brown hair curtsied deeply, and a curious murmur swept outwards from where she was standing.
Since when does Ector have a daughter? Arthur asked Morgana with his eyes.
Since now, apparently, she shrugged, clearly off-balance herself.
“Go ahead, my dear,” said Ector more quietly, turning his face to his daughter.
She looked at him, and then looked at the woman standing beside her.
“Morgause?” she asked, so quietly that Arthur barely heard.
The blond woman smiled, nodding her forward.
“Go ahead, Cai. This is where you are meant to be.”
Her voice was deep, and oddly captivating. Arthur heard Merlin shift behind him, an uneasy sound.
“Your Majesty,” said Cai, looking at Arthur directly. “I wish to participate in the trials as well.”
“Thank you, Cai,” said Arthur kindly, hoping to put the girl at ease.
His eyes, however, were on Ector’s. The man’s face looked fit to burst with pride as he looked at his daughter, and Arthur saw Gaius looking at Ector appraisingly, too, now that the mystery of his strange investment in the entire affair was solved.
Arthur looked between Ector and Cai and Gaius a final time, trying to make sense of the three of them. The family resemblance between Cai and Ector was clear, but Ector’s wife had passed some years ago. Gaius’ eyes were assessing as he looked at Ector’s daughter; like Arthur, he seemed to be wondering who the blond woman was.
“Very well,” Arthur said. “If that is the last of the candidacies from the table, then I—”
There was a tremendous crash outside the doors, and the sound of raised voices. Arthur and the rest of the people in the room turned towards the racket as one.
“A royal council is in process!” and officious voice was saying.
Arthur did not know who was speaking, but whoever it was, he sounded agitated and angry.
“I need to see his Majesty the king immediately,” said a voice, this one low and menacing.
Arthur recognised it at once, and he flicked his eyes towards Merlin, then the door.
Merlin walked quickly to the door in a smooth movement, opening and calling loudly,
“Sir Lancelot. King Arthur asks that you enter.”
Lancelot strode in the minute Merlin called, and Arthur’s eyes widened at the sight of him. His face was smeared with soot, and his white tunic was ripped all the way up one sleeve.
Guinevere, he thought desperately, and he heard Morgana inhale sharply in alarm as she thought the same thing. They both relaxed as Gwen followed Lancelot into the room a second later. She was already holding Merlin’s hand, and she looked equally dishevelled.
“Your Majesty,” said Lancelot, his voice ragged and cracked. “I think perhaps you should come outside to the courtyard as soon as you can.”
In the long years that Arthur had known Lancelot, both before his departure and after his return, he had always been a quiet, soft-spoken man. Arthur trusted him to offer a sensible and logical view of the world even when others were panicking; that was his way.
If Lancelot was saying, As soon as you can, he meant, Run, Arthur. Now.
Arthur stood up quickly, trying not to alarm the others. Merlin let go of Gwen’s hand and preceded Arthur out the door; he began running flat-out the instant he was in the corridor. Arthur walked behind him quickly, motioning for Lancelot to join him. He heard the tread of dozens of feet behind him. It didn’t sound as if a single person had remained in the council room. A minute later Merlin ducked out of a side arch, intercepting Lancelot and Arthur. In his hands were Arthur’s sword and shield. Arthur took the sword, and Merlin tucked in behind him, keeping the shield within reach.
Lancelot had yet to say anything, but clearly Merlin had heard the same thing Arthur had. Whatever it was that Lancelot wanted Arthur to see, it involved something dangerous.
“What is it?” Arthur asked quietly, and Lancelot shook his head disbelievingly.
“Lancelot,” Arthur said warningly.
Now was not the time for Lancelot’s usual careful deliberation—not when the entire court would burst out the door an instant after Arthur did.
“I am not trying to be unhelpful, sire,” Lancelot said tersely. “I merely believe this is truly something you need to see for yourself. There is fire… Fire in the courtyard.”
Arthur had time to look at Lancelot one last time before the door came into sight, and he all but sprinted towards it, emerging from the castle and into the light of a blazing autumn sunset.
He stopped as soon as he reached the top of the stairs, keeping his sword in his hand only by virtue of long practice. The light wasn’t the blaze of a sunset at all—Lancelot’s words in the corridors and Arthur’s own sense of time should have told him that. It was still early afternoon, and the sky was pale, overcast. The red light was coming from a set of large fires: fires that were lit in the courtyard, just as Lancelot had described.
He heard someone scream behind him, and other voices raising in alarm. Merlin was pressed so tightly into his side that he was practically looking over Arthur’s shoulder.
“They’re pyres,” came a voice to his left.
He turned to see the blond woman that had come with Ector. Morgause, Cai had called her.
Arthur looked towards the courtyard again. She was right. The blazes were pyres, with wide bases tapering towards a centre where the flames were burning hottest, flickering blue. A vague shape was visible at the centre of each—arms bound back, a head hanging.
My god, why has no-one put these out? Arthur thought desperately.
He started forward, but Merlin held on to his belt discreetly.
“There’s no-one on them, Arthur,” he whispered, and when Arthur looked again he saw that Merlin spoke the truth.
The twelve pillars of fire hinted at the shapes of people, but no-one was truly burning on them.
“I need to look at them more closely,” Merlin said again, and Arthur almost turned to ask angrily why Merlin felt the need to share his thoughts before doing something, only realising at the last moment that Merlin was inviting Arthur to go first.
It would be comforting for the people to see him walk towards these things without fear. Arthur only wished he truly felt that level of wherewithal now. It had been so long since anything like this had happened in Camelot, so long since his father had seemingly won the fight against magic through terror and punishment. So long since there had been a fire in the castle courtyard, so long since the entire stone enclosure had smelled of ash and fear.
How ironic that now that Arthur sought to change the course that his father had put their kingdom on, it was also fear that might thwart his efforts. For the people around him were afraid: he could hear the terrified mutters of the court behind him. At the other end of the courtyard, facing Arthur and the courtiers like an army across a burning trench, an enormous number of townspeople were gathered, looking equally fearful.
“The fires were not here when Guinevere and I brought them,” Lancelot muttered lowly, looking towards the men and women gathered on the other end of the square.
The three of them, he and Lancelot and Merlin, were slowly making their way down the steps. In his peripheral vision, Arthur saw Merlin hand Arthur’s shield to Lancelot, who gripped it firmly with both hands. Behind them Arthur could hear Gawain and Leon, covering him from behind.
“Magic,” Arthur said, turning to Merlin.
It was not a question, and Merlin nodded absently.
Arthur tensed. He did not know what he expected would happen—the fires to burst out of control, perhaps, as he had sometimes seen them do as a young man in his father’s court, when magical beasts had rained fire from the sky, setting carts and animals aflame.
But the fires remained stationery, flickering ominously, terrible beacons set on the stone.
“Hello, King Arthur.”
For an instant it seemed as if the fire of the centre pyre had a voice. But as Arthur looked through the smoke and the shimmer of the heat in the air he saw a woman walking amongst the flames, smiling as she moved towards where Arthur and Merlin and Lancelot stood.
Her face was familiar.
Arthur looked carefully at her simple red dress, at the dark fall of her hair, at the fullness of her lips.
Beside him, Merlin… Arthur wasn’t sure how to describe the sound that Merlin was making. It trembled low in Merlin’s throat, full of menace and hatred.
“Don’t come any closer to him,” Merlin hissed.
His hand was extended, and when Arthur looked at him from the corner of his eyes, unwilling to look away from the woman, he saw that Merlin’s eyes were glowing as hotly as the fires in front of them.
The woman laughed. She held both hands up in a gesture of amity and said,
“I mean no harm, Merlin.”
“If you expect me to believe you, Nimueh—”
Merlin trailed off as she came closer. His stance changed: he shifted his weight so that he was firmly planted on both feet, and he stepped to stand in front of Arthur.
Nimueh. Yes. That was her name.
“Merlin, Merlin, Merlin,” she said chidingly, teasingly twirling in place. “Look again.”
As Arthur watched, the red of her dress merged into the flames behind her, fading from sight. For a moment there was nothing other than the hint of a shape where she stood, flames flickering around a shadow. Then the bright red of her dress and the pallor of her skin came into sight again.
“An illusion. A memory.”
It was Morgause again. She had come to stand next to Lancelot, and she was looking at the woman in the flames with interest, unafraid.
“And only a memory,” confirmed Nimueh, lifting one hand and letting it fade into smoke and flame again before bringing it back into sight. “You know that better than anyone, Merlin.”
Merlin did not seem to take any comfort from her words. He was still standing between her and Arthur, and Arthur could see gold light gathering in his palms.
“What are you doing here, Nimueh?” came a voice from behind Arthur.
Arthur turned to see Lionel coming down the stairs, Feran at his side. Feran mimicked each of his master’s steps, and Arthur could see a faint blue glow at his fingertips as he walked.
“Lionel!” said Nimueh, smiling as if she were greeting an old friend over a shared goblet. “How are you?”
“Are you here for the trials?” he asked suspiciously, ignoring her question entirely. “The king has not declared them open yet.”
Merlin scoffed in exasperation. Arthur did not allow himself to do the same, but he couldn’t agree more. Lionel’s pettiness and his small-mindedness were infuriating. Arthur almost wished the man’s robes would catch on fire, if only for the satisfaction of the sight.
“The trials?” asked Nimueh curiously.
She extended one hand towards Lionel, and Lionel’s gaze went hazy and unfocused for a moment.
“Oh,” she said, delightedly, like a child. “The trials. I see.”
Lionel was shaking his head, as if trying to regain the clarity of his thoughts. Beside him, Feran was looking malevolently at Nimueh.
“No, Lionel,” said Nimueh. “I am not here for the trials that the king has yet to announce. And yet… I am here for a trial, of a sort.”
She turned her gaze to Arthur, and Merlin sidestepped so that he was fully between them.
“I already said that I meant him no harm, Merlin,” she said, as if she were speaking to a recalcitrant toddler.
“And I already said I don’t believe a word from your lips, Nimueh.”
“You will not allow me to see him, then?” she asked, craning her neck to see over Merlin’s shoulder. “Your king? The prince you had such faith in, all those years ago?”
She stepped forward, and Merlin did the same.
She smiled and stepped back quickly, fading into the smoke of the fire again.
“No matter,” she said, tossing her head.
The tips of her hair glinted with flame.
“I do not need to see him. I can already tell that your faith in him burns as fiercely as it ever did in your heart, and that is really all that matters to me. And the good news for you, Merlin, is that that means you don’t have anything to worry about.”
“Unless your faith is misplaced, of course,” she said thoughtfully. “For your sake, I hope it is not.”
She looked weary, and suddenly old despite the youthfulness of her face.
“It is a terrible thing, to put one’s faith in the wrong man.”
Her eyes drifted, as if she were remembering something.
“What do you want, Nimueh?” asked Arthur harshly, finally finding his voice.
He hated when people did not spit out what they had obviously come to say. It was tedious and aggravating. Merlin looked over his shoulder in surprise, looking almost betrayed that Arthur had spoken.
“Ahh… He speaks,” she said mischievously. “Not so happy to stay hidden behind his guard dog, after all.”
Arthur stepped to the side, looking directly at her, and beyond her to the people gathered on the other side of the courtyard. He tried to reassure them with the steadiness of his stance, his voice.
Nimueh opened her mouth to speak again, but instead of sound, a stream of smoke and fire emerged from it, and licked about her lips. Her eyes widened.
“Oh. It seems I do not have the time I thought I would,” she said, letting her head drop to one shoulder. “So I shall have to be quicker than I wish. A pity, since I had hoped to speak to you longer.”
Arthur did not answer, waiting her out. He would not give her the satisfaction of a response when she had yet to say anything of use.
“As I was saying, Lionel,” she called loudly, turning her eyes to the space behind Arthur, “I am here for a trial. How fortuitous that your new king has scheduled his own set of tests, and that we have coincided so happily in our purposes.”
She looked straight back at Arthur. Her gaze was burning; it had nothing to do with the flames around her.
“I loved your father,” she said, and Arthur tensed. “And I trusted him. I find that even now, after all these years, I cannot help but be grieved at his passing.”
She seemed sincere, and Arthur did not know what to make of this.
“But once before I made the mistake of leaving this kingdom in the hands of a man who seemed as if he deserved my devotion. He rewarded my faith and loyalty with cruelty, with persecution. He sought to make this kingdom what it was not.
It took many years for me to overcome my sense of betrayal, Arthur, and yet more to build up enough anger inside myself to choose to stand against him. It took so long. But eventually I did grow to desire to see him suffer, to wish that he would know loss as I had known loss. You remember this, Arthur, I am sure.”
She smiled warmly at him as if she were recalling some pleasant thing that the two of them had done together, and not her attempts on his life and on the lives of his people.
“Imagine my surprise when I went to make him pay the greatest price of all and discovered that those I would have thought would be my allies were standing in my way,” she said.
Her eyes flicked towards Merlin.
“I believed he was mistaken about you,” she said, still talking to Arthur but keeping her gaze on Merlin. “Even when he spoke of your virtue at length, to me and to those we both knew. How could he have grown to love you, I thought, after all that I had seen between you? You seemed to me as arrogant and blind as your father was. He couldn’t begin to imagine how he could ever be who he was around you. It wouldn’t take much to sway him, I thought, once I showed him the truth of who you were and the error of his own ways.
That, I was mistaken about. But the question of whether his loyalty was warranted became immaterial, I suppose, when he proved too worthy an opponent.”
Behind Arthur, Lionel made a surprised sound. Arthur was sure that if he turned around, Lionel would be turning assessing eyes on Merlin. Feran too, perhaps.
A tongue of fire lit in Nimueh’s stomach, and a second later the bottom half of her body was in flames, as if her legs were made of dry kindling.
Arthur fought his instinctive horror. She was not hurt; that much was clear from her face. And yet it was a terrible sight.
“I could not convince him then, Arthur,” Nimueh said, her voice betraying some exertion as she fought the pull of the flames, “But neither could he convince me.”
Merlin looked at her impassively; when she looked back, her face was almost wistful.
“Unfortunately,” she continued, almost panting with effort now, “I am no longer here to be convinced that his faith is not misplaced. But he remains, and your people remain. They can still stand witness for me, to determine whether your intentions are truly pure.”
Arthur looked at the frightened faces of the townspeople, and turned his gaze to the courtiers, who were standing equally still.
“My last gift to you, Merlin,” said Nimueh, on a breath of smoke and ash, “Is the chance to know whether you are making a mistake before it is too late.”
She raised both arms to the sky, and flames licked up her pale skin, obscuring everything but her face and fingertips.
She looked like the birds of flame in children’s stories, and Arthur couldn’t help but watch, enthralled, as she began to speak in a low, resonating voice.
“Fire, quelled by magic in the heart of the castle;
Drought, eased by magic in the heart of the kingdom;
Ice, thawed by magic in the heart of people;
Flood, driven back by magic in the heart of the king.”
The fire crept up her neck, framing her face. Her hair looked like coils of flame, like red and golden snakes.
“A trial for you, King Arthur,” she said, still in that odd, rhythmic voice. “For the boy king. For the son.”
She looked directly at Arthur, then at Merlin. A small, melancholy smile curved her lips.
“A single trial for you, Arthur, so that your people will have to face none. For all your sakes, I hope you are not found wanting.”
And with that, she vanished, leaving behind nothing but a tendril of smoke.
The twelve pyres blazed on.
“I don’t understand,” said Gaius lowly, shaking his head dejectedly.
“I don’t think there is that much to understand, quite frankly,” Merlin retorted with a sigh.
He was sitting at the small table in Arthur’s reception room, sprawled inelegantly in his chair. His left sleeve was singed all the way up to the elbow.
“Merlin, I’m sorry to say that I very much beg to differ,” said Gawain from where he was leaning against the door.
Gawain was the only one of them who still seemed to be able to summon forth any sort of frustration. Gwen and Morgana were both stooped where they sat on a chest, and Gaius and Merlin might as well have had their heads in their hands, for all the hope they seemed to harbour as they gazed at the table. Lancelot and Leon were sitting on the floor, looking resolute but so soot-stained and weary that it was difficult to imagine they might ever be able to get up again.
Arthur looked at them, the entire raggedy bunch of them, and tried to inject some authority into his voice. He wanted to reassure them, and it angered him that he did not know how to begin.
“Merlin,” he said, turning to the easiest point to focus his frustration on, “Explain.”
Merlin looked up from where he appeared to be tracing the grain of the table’s wood with one fingertip. His eyes were not on Arthur’s as he said,
“Well, I think she meant what she said. She wants—or wanted, when she cast the spell…”
He made an inarticulate sound of frustration.
“You know, I can’t even begin to think about that aspect of it. She’s supposed to be dead. I’m fairly sure she is dead. I was there.”
He looked set to sink into his own head again, and Arthur said, sharply,
Merlin brought his eyes up again. He focused them on Arthur’s this time.
“Right. Anyway. I believe that she was speaking the truth. This—” he waved his hands towards the window, where the smoke and the red glow of the pyres were visible— “Is her way of testing you. Testing… whether your commitment to returning magic to the kingdom is genuine, I imagine. That sounds to me like something she would have wanted.”
He looked towards Gaius, and Gaius nodded slowly.
“I cannot begin to fathom what she might have been thinking,” he said, “But if I had to hazard a guess, that would be it.”
“So… I think the fires out there will burn until you find some way to prove that there is magic in the heart of your castle. The drought—I don’t know if that’ll come after, or if it has appeared already, somewhere we can’t see—will stay until you prove there is magic at the heart of your kingdom. The ice—”
“I think we can see where this is going, Merlin,” Morgana said wearily.
Merlin nodded again, rubbing his nose with his soot-stained sleeve.
“Right. So—” He tapped his fingers against the tabletop in a frustrated rhythm.
“I have no idea how we do it. But if we can manage to prove to Nimueh, or to her spell, at least, that there is magic, and acceptance of magic, I imagine, at the heart of… everything, I guess, then these pyres will go away. I think.”
Arthur saw Gwen shudder. He sympathised, and he knew the vast majority of the people who had been in the courtyard, common and noble alike, did as well. The flickering fires, with their hint of humanity under the blaze, were sinister.
“Oh, brilliant,” said Gawain mock-cheerfully.
Arthur glanced at him balefully.
“That’s not helping, Gawain.”
Gawain looked abashed. Arthur took a deep breath.
“We start by trying to control the damage these fires are doing. Leon, Lancelot, have it spread that we already know how to stop them. I don’t know how you give the impression that we have any idea what we’re doing when we don’t, but do it. Station knights at the drawbridge and deny entrance to all those who are not on official business. But don’t have them obscure the sight of the courtyard—we don’t want the people to think we’re hiding something from them.”
Leon and Lancelot both nodded.
“Then have the riders that you’re already sending out look for more problems before they catch us by surprise. Drought, ice, flood. Have them ride back immediately if they see any signs of any of these things.”
“What if there are people who need help, sire?” asked Leon.
“Then come get them help,” said Arthur, “And return to them as soon as you can. Ride as quickly and as far as you can, and do it with fewer men than you’d planned. I want a garrison stationed in Camelot at all times.”
“Arthur,” Merlin interrupted.
His voice was more animated than it had been at any point in the last two hours, and Arthur looked at him sharply. Merlin did look oddly alert; his shoulders, however, were hunched as if he were heading towards something incredibly unpleasant. When he looked up, his eyes were guilty and… full of dread?
“Merlin?” Arthur parroted.
“I need to speak to you,” Merlin said, looking around awkwardly. “About something related to this,” he added. “But it would be helpful to speak to you first, before sharing it with the others.”
He looked around apologetically, and though the rest of the room raised curious eyes to his, no-one objected.
“Very well. Morgana, Gwen, excuse me,” Arthur said.
He strode out of the reception room and towards the bedchamber. Merlin followed, dragging his feet.
Once Merlin shut the door Arthur walked towards the window, looking out towards the privy garden behind the glass. He was grateful that his father’s rooms did not face the blazing courtyard.
“What is it?” Arthur asked tersely, not looking at Merlin.
“First you have to promise—”
“I don’t have to promise anything,” said Arthur savagely.
The strain of the morning, of the afternoon, of the two days before that and the week that had preceded them all felt like a leaden weight on his shoulders, and when there was no-one but Merlin around to see, the weight felt almost unmanageable.
He sighed wearily.
“That’s true,” said Merlin cautiously. “But it would make me feel better if you did.”
He approached Arthur, and sat carefully against the window ledge. Arthur looked at him, but did not answer.
“I think I know someone who can help,” said Merlin.
“Who?” asked Arthur, perking up.
This was the first hopeful news he had heard all afternoon.
Merlin looked at him. His gaze was oddly intent as his eyes roved over Arthur’s features, almost as if he were looking for something.
“Merlin, get on with it,” Arthur said impatiently.
Merlin’s breathing was fast. Arthur looked at him curiously.
“I think,” Merlin said finally, in a voice only a little louder than a whisper, “That the dragon can help.”
“The dragon,” said Arthur flatly.
Abruptly he was so angry that he could barely see straight.
“Yes,” Merlin confirmed. “The dragon, whom I allowed to escape after I extracted a promise from him not to ever hurt you or yours or Camelot again. The dragon, whom we have heard nothing from in four years. The dragon, who has kept his promise.”
He said the last part defensively, as if trying to convince Arthur that he had made the right choice. Arthur could barely hear him through the rushing sound in his ears.
He breathed evenly, trying to marshal his thoughts. He closed his eyes. This was all too much. Too much, every instant since his father’s eyes had shut a final time. Had his father known this despair? Had he felt this way? Every day? Was this what he had been trying to prepare Arthur for, with each impossible thing he had asked of him?
Arthur did not answer. Almost a full minute passed. Then Merlin spoke again.
“Do not do this to me again,” he said.
Arthur opened his eyes. Merlin looked angry and defiant. Underneath that thin veneer was a desperation that Arthur had only ever seen in condemned men’s eyes.
“I did what I thought was right,” Merlin was saying. “I struck the best bargain I could, without knowing whether I could defeat him. That bargain has proved sound.”
“Yes,” said Arthur.
At the sound of his voice all the fight seemed to go out of Merlin. Only a pervasive, thirsty-looking relief remained.
“Yes,” Arthur repeated. “I suppose you did. And I’ve got enough on my plate without your revelations about dragons, so we’ll deal with this at a more appropriate time.”
His mention of deferring the issue seemed to make Merlin nervous again, but he nodded.
“Do you think you can find it? Him?” Arthur asked, referring to the dragon as Merlin had.
“Yes,” said Merlin. “I have no idea where, but yes. Can you keep people from panicking here until we know more?”
Arthur gave him a flat look.
“All right, all right,” said Merlin placatingly.
He stood up from the window ledge and headed towards the small room at the front of Arthur’s bedchamber. There was a rustling sound and a few loud clatters, and Merlin emerged in a travelling cloak, clutching a small satchel.
“Be as fast as you can possibly be,” Arthur said, willing to accept that he did not know how long he could stall.
“I will,” said Merlin.
Merlin shouldered his small pack and turned towards the door. As he walked away, Arthur fought an irrational urge to ask him to come back, even though Merlin was still in the room.
Go, Arthur had said, as if it were that simple. But what if Merlin didn’t come back? What if something happened before he could come back, and his coming back made no difference to anyone here?
When he reached the door, though, Merlin suddenly stopped walking. His hand was flat on the wood, ready to push it outwards, but he did not do so. His entire body was curved, almost as if he were a stooping old man.
“Merlin,” Arthur called, and Merlin spun on his heel to look at him.
Arthur walked towards him, and placed his hands on Merlin’s shoulders. Merlin knelt immediately, knowing what Arthur wanted before Arthur did.
Arthur placed his hand on Merlin’s head, letting it rest in his hair, which was flecked with ash and dust. He had seen his father do this many times, and it was fitting that he himself would do it for the first time with Merlin.
“Go, Merlin, son of Hunith,” he said, “With the power of this court behind you. May no misfortune befall you, and if any man should block your way, say only that you travel in the name of Pendragon, and ask for the right to pass.”
“Yes, your Majesty,” he said.
Something knotted in Arthur’s stomach. He knew what he wanted to say, and also that he should not say it. As it always seemed to, with Merlin, impropriety won out.
“Don’t call me that,” he whispered hoarsely. “Not when we are alone.”
Merlin stood. He looked at Arthur in the eye, and nodded again.
“Whatever you want, Arthur.”
“Go,” said Arthur, feeling wretched and having no real idea why. “And for the love of Camelot, be safe.”
He turned his face away. Merlin went.
Uther had not wanted a boat or a pyre.
He had not wanted a boat on the river, or a boat in the ground; he had not wanted a pyre in the fields or on the lake.
“I do not want water. I do not want fire,” he had whispered to them all in a cracked voice.
It had been difficult to know whether it was a true wish or the result of the fever’s hold on him, but Arthur had not wanted to risk ignoring the request.
Uther had not said what he had wanted, but Arthur had done what he could while honouring his father’s restrictions. He had had a tomb fashioned from stone, and he had had it placed in a room in the bowels of the castle. He had had a heavy stone face carved with the date and with a simple phrase: Here lies Uther, King of Camelot. They had fixed the dark slab atop the solid base, and put out the candles in the dark chamber as they walked out.
Morgana placed her cheek against the cool stone of the tomb, laying her palm flat on the floor beside her. Her skirts were pooled about her legs.
You make it almost impossible for Arthur to follow you, she thought.
She knew, rationally, that Uther had had no hand in the chaos of the last few days. She and Arthur had felt so ready, so flawlessly prepared; she now felt like a child, stumbling, though she had not confided this in Arthur for fear of taking away his last certainty.
She was sure he knew, anyway.
I hate you, she thought, feeling the cold press of the stone at her temple.
A tear made its way down her cheek, and she raised her hand to rest next to her face.
I love you.
She did not know if it would ever fade, this grief, this vast well of emptiness made so much worse by the fact that the web that kept it suspended in her chest was fashioned from anger, and disappointment, and fear.
Uther had been a complicated man. Her father, whom she remembered only as a giant of a man who had had nothing but smiles and warm embraces for the daughter he adored, had been simple.
Simple, perhaps, because she had never had to live with him after childhood. That was what fatherhood truly was, maybe: that clash, that desperate mix of affection and frustration that she and Uther had felt for each other.
I miss you, she thought, But I’m glad you’re gone.
There was a sound in the doorway.
Knowing him, he had already been there for some time, watching Morgana, before closing his own eyes slowly in the peaceful and terrible darkness of this hidden chamber.
Morgana did not turn to him. She pressed her cheek more tightly against the stone, and gritted her teeth against her sobs. She was determined to mourn Uther silently. A tear dripped off her chin, and she let it.
She and Arthur sat there, in silence, and listened to each other grieve.