Arthur’s eyes snapped open. He sat up in bed, swinging his legs over the side towards the floor.
“Merlin,” he said, trying to croak the sleep from his voice. “Light a candle.”
A minute later light flared in one of the wall sconces.
“You’re back,” Arthur said stupidly.
It had only been three days.
Merlin slid to the floor, eyes almost shutting as he sat down. Arthur reached blindly for some of the covers on his bed and wrapped them around himself as he went to sit by Merlin.
“It’s what we thought,” said Merlin simply.
He looked as grey as the walls.
“Good,” said Arthur, trying not to show any concern, “Because Morgana and I have an intricate plan that involves turning Nimueh’s trial into the selection process for the court sorcerer, handily killing two birds with one stone.”
“We’re still going ahead with the sorcerer thing?” Merlin asked tiredly.
“Might as well,” said Arthur. “It’s hardly as if we can put the fires in the courtyard back into a box and hope people will forget about magic entirely while we put a new plan together for bringing you into court.”
Merlin nodded. His head drooped pathetically.
“When was the last time you slept?” Arthur asked.
“Before I left,” Merlin said.
When Arthur brought his face closer to look at Merlin more carefully, he could see that Merlin’s eyes both looked as if someone had punched him. The shadow stretched across his nose, even to his temples.
“Come. You can tell me the rest tomorrow,” Arthur said, motioning for Merlin to fetch his pallet.
Merlin shook his head wearily.
“No. I’ll tell you everything now,” he said, but he walked into the next room and dragged the pallet in obediently.
He kicked his boots off and flopped down to sit on the rickety frame. He did not lie down. Arthur sat on the bed, facing him.
“So if you can find a way to put magic in the heart of the castle, the fires in the courtyard will fade?” Arthur confirmed.
He would not entertain the thought that anyone other than Merlin would be the one to do it.
“If our intention is genuine, apparently, yes,” said Merlin. “Have you found the rest of it yet? Kilgharra—that’s the dragon—said that he thought it would all happen simultaneously. It’s apparently easier to cast one large spell together.”
Arthur nodded. They had found out this much here, too.
“Tristan has found the drought. Three villages’ crops turned to dust, and all the hills around them. It seems to be spreading. Near Carmarthen. No news on the ice or the flood, yet, but then very few of our riders have returned. I asked Leon and Gawain and Lancelot to cut the number of men they sent out even further, in the end. I was nervous about the city being unprotected.”
“That makes sense,” said Merlin. “Kilgharra said some nonsense about detecting no ill-will in Nimueh’s magic. I don’t know how starving people near Carmarthen and terrifying everyone in Camelot counts as good will, but that’s apparently what we’re to believe.”
He sounded angry. Arthur wondered how much the dragon had known of this before it had happened, and whether Merlin felt betrayed after his kindness.
Arthur could not help but think of Nimueh, and of the haunted, lonely look in her eyes as she had spoken about Arthur’s father.
“Did he know what was powering the spell?” Arthur asked. “That woman from Ector’s household—well, I suppose she’s not strictly of his household, but she apparently has been Cai’s tutor for some years—says that spells cast by individuals before they die need another source of power to be maintained after their death, because the caster’s power isn’t available to draw from anymore.”
“Cai,” said Merlin softly.
His voice sounded amused, and he smiled.
“In all the excitement, I’d forgotten about Ector’s secret daughter.”
Arthur hunched his shoulders, frustrated.
“I wish I could have forgotten about her. You’d think nothing was going on outside the castle walls: Ector and Lionel and Caradoc and that other one, Clodrus’ son—”
“Persant,” said Merlin helpfully.
“Persant,” said Arthur. “They’ve been hounding Morgana and Gaius and Geraint for more information, though of course we barred their access to the petition chambers until you came back.”
Do you remember when Uther was looking for a new horse that time? Morgana had asked him the day before yesterday, as they had sat with their backs to Arthur’s door and listened to the hum of people speaking just beyond the threshold, And all the men in the land were so eager to give him the keys to their stables, they were practically tripping over themselves at the door?
Yes, Arthur had remembered. He had told her so.
This is that all over again, she had said, Except their magic-users are the horse. They know you prefer Merlin, and they were intimidated by his show of power, by Nimueh’s respect of him. They’re wanting to make sure their horses are still in the running, too.
“Courtiers,” said Merlin, with what would have been a sneer if he hadn’t yawned and ruined the effect.
“Yes,” agreed Arthur. “So—did the dragon say? About what could be powering the spell?”
Merlin laughed a low, humourless laugh.
“Have you ever admired someone, even when they were doing something terrible? Even, perhaps, when you hated them?” he asked.
Arthur tilted his head in response to the seemingly unrelated topic, but said, “Yes.”
Merlin laughed again, still bitterly.
“When Kilgharra told me what was powering the spell, I felt that way. To have thought of something like that, to have tied your success with your people to your possible failure in this pointless ‘test’ so deeply. It was clever.”
“You’re not making any sense, Merlin,” Arthur said snappishly.
Merlin might be more tired than he was, but it wasn’t as if Arthur had been lounging about in his rooms for three days. He wanted answers, and then he wanted sleep.
“The spell, Arthur,” said Merlin, smiling sadly at him. “You want to know what’s keeping it going? It’s powered by hope. By your people’s hope in you. The more they trust you, the more they believe you will deliver them… the brighter the fires will burn, and the more land the drought will devour. So when you find a way to bring magic to the heart of the castle, the fires will die, yes—but as people begin to believe you will find a solution to the other problems, as they foster more hope that you will rescue them from what ails them, they will be providing the very energy that will make their situation worse before it can be improved. The only way to make the spell stop, apart from on Nimueh’s terms, is to quash your people’s faith in your goodness. I can’t think that’s the path we want to take.
I’m sure, however, that that was also part of her test.”
His eyes fluttered shut, and his head jerked sharply as he abruptly fell asleep and forced himself awake again.
“Sleep now,” said Arthur, feeling supremely uncomfortable at this proof of Merlin’s devotion. “You’ve told me everything I need to know, and you need to rest.”
Arthur had never ridden for three days straight. He had never had cause to, he supposed, but he did not know if he could have done it, even with cause.
“Catch me arguing,” said Merlin, curling into a tight ball on his pallet without delay. “Don’t we have to be up in five hours?”
“Three,” said Arthur.
Some part of him wished that were not the case. The rest of him was too exhausted to wish for anything.
He stood up to douse the thick wick that Merlin had lit in the sconce. By the time he got back to the bed, Merlin’s breath was even with sleep.
The large crowd that gathered in the courtyard the next morning was expectant, and obviously more than slightly frightened. They had arranged themselves in wide arcs around the pyres, looking fixedly at Arthur on the steps, not letting their eyes wander to the fires around them.
He wished that they had been able to find some other place for him to make the announcement in, but the hall wasn’t large enough, and he could have hardly asked the entire city to migrate to the east fields for the occasion. There were townspeople as far back as the drawbridges already, and more were waiting behind them, ready to run to other parts of the city to spread the news once the spectacle was over.
They all knew why they were gathered there. Gwen and Lancelot said the talk in the city was of hope in the trials, in the relief that they might bring from the never-ending smoke of the pyres. Arthur had ridden to the market yesterday morning, and called a council in the afternoon, to reassure every man and woman that a solution was almost within their grasp. The lies had not felt heavy in his mouth; they were necessary.
“All who wish to participate in the trials may therefore step forward,” he said now, coming to the purpose of the meeting after giving only a brief introduction, once more overlaid heavily with reassurances.
He wished to be quick, to spare people the suffering of having to sit in the ghostly glow of the courtyard, but when people immediately began shuffling, he held up a hand to forestall them from moving forward straight away.
“I remind you that it will be the man or woman who can put a stop to this—” He did not have to say what this was— “who will be judged most worthy of being an advisor to this court in the coming years.”
He and Morgana had spent a few hours fretting over the fact that the new circumstances left them little leeway to help guarantee Merlin’s success, but Nimueh’s interference had rendered that concern secondary. The fires must be put out in order to put out the fear in the city; the drought needed to be quelled before the surplus grain wasn’t enough to give each child near Carmarthen something to eat.
Arthur had faith in Merlin’s abilities, though he did not speak this faith out loud. When he thought about the possibility of Merlin’s skill being inferior to someone else’s, he comforted himself with the thought that Merlin would always be there, underfoot and making a nuisance of himself, whatever his title might be.
He did not think about the fact that Merlin might be harmed as a result of all this. He simply did not have the energy to spare for it.
“I cannot ensure that the path that any who choose to participate will walk will be without danger,” Arthur continued firmly, “And I urge you to think carefully before putting yourself forward. Previously I had spoken of a requirement for participation; I waive that now, with the hope that each of you will understand that the stakes are now much greater than any requirement could have made them. There is no value in bravery when it is not accompanied by forethought,” he said, looking carefully at the younger men and women in the crowd.
“I will begin with the members of the court.”
“Sire,” he heard Ector say immediately, trying to speak before the others could, and he acknowledged him,
“I ask that you accept my daughter, the Lady Cai, as a participant.”
“I do,” said Arthur, and Cai stepped forward.
Arthur smiled at her.
“Your Majesty,” said Lionel, eager to be next.
“I hope you will recognise Feran, son of Willsn and a member of my household, sire.”
“I will,” said Arthur.
Persant introduced himself, as Clodrus had died some years before; Caradoc submitted Ganieda.
“My liege,” said Morgana quietly, once the rest of the men and women had stepped forward.
“Lady Morgana,” said Arthur evenly, looking in her direction.
“I ask that you acknowledge Merlin, son of Hunith and a member of the royal household since the reign of your father, King Uther, as a candidate.”
“I do,” said Arthur seriously.
Merlin stepped forward. There weren’t many in the courtyard who had not been there when Nimueh’s spell had first taken root, and so there were no exclamations of surprise as Merlin joined the line of candidates. Lionel shot him a hateful look, however, and Persant slanted his eyes towards him, calculating.
“If these are all the candidates the court has to offer, I now ask any of the townspeople who wish to participate to put themselves forward, or to be put forward by the heads of their households,” Arthur said.
Lancelot and Guinevere had prepared him for what would happen amongst the common folk, too, and Arthur was not surprised when two men stepped forward. One was a peddler of wares in the market, an older man named Anbidian. He had a weathered countenance and a shock of silver hair that extended comically from behind his ears. He was accompanied by a younger man from the outlying villages, a fisherman called Hrypa. The fisherman was young, and the muscles in his arms were compact and defined. Next to him, all of the courtiers and their servants, including Merlin, looked as if they had never stepped a foot in the real world in their lives.
Arthur acknowledged their intent to participate, and encouraged them to join the line beside Merlin. Merlin smiled widely at them both.
“If these are all—”
“Your Majesty,” a voice interrupted from the back of the crowd.
Arthur waited patiently as people shifted, their movement oddly reminiscent of the moment when Ector had spoken from the back of the council chamber and stepped forward with Cai. Eventually a tall man came to the front of the gathering, and stepped away from the crowd and towards Arthur. He was dressed in a long blue-green cloak.
“Druids,” someone whispered, awed and a little fearful.
“Your name?” asked Arthur impassively, looking at the man’s deep-set eyes and ignoring the muttering of the crowd.
“Alvarr, my lord,” answered the man.
“Alvarr—do you wish to enter your name alongside the others?”
“No, your Majesty,” Alvarr said.
His bearing was proud and he stood like a warrior, with his weight balanced; Arthur liked him on sight.
“We come in the hopes that you will accept Eurolwyn, of the clan of Mallt, as a candidate.”
He gestured, and a slight girl with very dark hair stepped forward. She couldn’t have been more than sixteen.
“Your candidate is very young,” said Arthur mildly, eager not to give offence.
“But powerful,” came another voice, this one younger.
Arthur turned. A young man stood beside Alvarr. He looked at Arthur with his chin held high, almost as if he were issuing a challenge.
“And you are?” asked Arthur.
“My name is Mordred, your Majesty.”
Behind Arthur, Guinevere gasped, and Arthur saw Merlin’s shoulders tense. When Arthur looked more closely, he recognised Mordred’s pale eyes and his serious, pensive face, but he would not have recognised the child he had once known in this young man’s features without aid. He acknowledged Mordred with a grave nod.
“Very well, then, Mordred, Alvarr. Eurolwyn, if you believe you fully understand the dangers of doing so, you are welcome to participate alongside the others.”
“I do, my liege,” said the girl, and Arthur fought not to wince at the sound of her high, clear voice.
She was a child. Arthur only hoped the Druids would withdraw her from harm’s way if Nimueh’s magic proved to be less well intentioned than the dragon claimed.
“Eurolwyn and Hrypa, Anbidian and Merlin, Persant and Ganieda, Feran and Cai,” Arthur said, looking at them each in turn. “Your first task is to find the manner in which magic can be brought to the heart of the castle, so that the fires in the courtyard may be put out. You are welcome to use any means at your disposal, as long as they are scrupulous. You may work together, if you so wish; do so apart if you prefer. I am afraid that whoever quells these fires will only begin the work for the rest of you: once they have stopped burning, we will have to look immediately to the drought in the west. I wish you all luck, and I thank you for volunteering in aid of your people.”
He turned back towards the castle, not intending to go in just yet, but hoping to indicate to the gathered crowd that they could disperse at will. The small line of candidates broke up quickly; the Druid girl returned to her companions, and Merlin came to stand beside Arthur once again. Morgause approached Cai and walked in the direction of the castle doors with her, and Arthur approached them slowly as they talked together. Morgana and Merlin trailed him discreetly.
“Lady Morgause,” Arthur said quietly, and she turned to him, smiling.
“Forgive me, Cai,” Arthur continued, inclining his head towards her in apology, “I hope I will not insult you by asking your tutor why she herself has not entered her name as a candidate. From our conversations, my lady,” he said, turning his attention to Morgause, “I understood that you were skilled in magic, and well versed in magical lore.”
She looked at him. The look in her eyes was kind, and oddly comforting.
“Your Majesty is correct,” she said softly, “But I am afraid that at this time my path lies elsewhere. I must go with Alvarr and Mordred when they return to Awstin and Mallt.”
“They are leaving the girl here alone?” Arthur asked, momentarily distracted.
“As I said,” came a voice from behind him, startling him, “She is powerful. She has family in Camelot, and they will look after her. She will be well.”
The three Druids joined their circle, and Arthur turned slightly to include them in the conversation.
“I am certain you speak the truth, Mordred,” he said.
He still felt supremely uneasy at the sight of the young Druid girl, but it was clear that speaking further on the matter would have no effect. He watched as Mordred turned his pale eyes towards Merlin, then Morgana.
“My Lady,” he said when he looked at her, and Morgana graced him with a wide smile.
“Mordred. Are you well?”
“I am, my Lady. The Lady Mallt sends her greetings.”
“Tell her I wish for the light of love and devotion to shine brightly on her heart, and on the hearts of her people,” Morgana said formally, as if Mordred had brought her tidings from some well loved royal cousin, and she were returning them.
Arthur had not pressed her when she had revealed her knowledge of the Druid leader on that first night, which now seemed like a decade ago, but she would not escape questioning a second time.
“Shall we go, Morgause?” asked Alvarr, interrupting Arthur’s thoughts, and Morgause nodded.
She turned to Cai.
“Remember everything you have learned, Cai,” she said, “And do yourself proud, dear one.”
Cai nodded seriously, though her lower lip trembled ever so slightly as she looked at her teacher. She bit it to stop the movement, and Morgause turned to Arthur.
“I hope to return to see your kingdom prospering, your Majesty. I cannot stay to watch it do so now, for as I said, my way lies with Mordred and Alvarr at this time.
Elsewhere in your land, there are many wounds to attend to: the land from which magic has been leeched remembers the injury, and it must be healed before Albion can take root in it. But things are well in hand here.”
She turned to look solemnly at Cai and at Eurolwyn, and finally at Merlin. Then she turned back towards Arthur.
“There was another path for you once, Arthur,” she said.
In her soft voice, the name sounded warm and affectionate, and not like the presumption that it was. She stepped closer to him, and looked carefully into his eyes.
“That was your way until the day you asked your sister what she dreamt of, when she screamed at night, and when you listened to her answer.”
Arthur looked abruptly at Morgana, then back at Morgause.
“We are glad to not have met you on that old path, Arthur Pendragon,” she said.
She looked to Mordred, whom she seemed to be including in this statement, and he looked at Arthur with his steadfast gaze.
“We are glad for that, and we look to your future with hope,” she said.
She shot a look at the pyres, still burning brightly, and said ruefully,
“Though we shall do our best not to fan the flames of our hope, in these coming weeks.”
She turned and went forward to drop a soft kiss on Cai’s head, and then turned to Mordred and Alvarr.
“Let’s go,” she said, and the three of them ducked down the steps and into the crowd, quickly fading from Arthur’s sight.
Arthur smiled at Eurolwyn and Cai in farewell, then turned back to the castle, this time with the intention of actually heading back to his chambers, where he hoped Gwen and Lancelot would meet him and Merlin and Morgana.
“Your Majesty,” he heard, before he was able to take more than a few steps, and he turned, trying not to let his frustration show on his face.
It was Colgrevance who had spoken. He was standing with Lionel and Caradoc, and Arthur cocked his head at them in surprise. He had thought Lionel was well on his way to distancing himself from Colgrevance permanently, and there had never been any love lost between Colgrevance and Caradoc. Arthur wondered what Colgrevance was up to.
“Yes, Sir Colgrevance?” he asked him.
Colgrevance smiled at him, a sharp expression full of a strange, oily eagerness.
“Your Majesty, we simply wished to enquire,” he began fawningly, flicking a hand back to suggest that Lionel and Caradoc were part of his question, “Whether the candidates could begin their search for a solution immediately.”
“Absolutely,” said Arthur. “The sooner the better, Colgrevance; there is hardly any time to waste, is there?”
“No, your Majesty, of course,” he said, still with a calculating look in his eyes.
Arthur was wary when Colgrevance spoke again.
“And your manservant—he too can begin his search?”
“Merlin is a candidate like any other, Sir Colgrevance,” said Arthur. “He is, of course, subject to the same rules and worthy of the same privileges as all the others.”
He immediately regretted speaking when a sharp spark of triumph lit in Colgrevance’s eyes at his words.
“I see, your Majesty.”
Colgrevance bowed his head, mock-respectfully. Arthur did not know what the other man intended, but he could sense him moving in for the kill, whatever it might be, and he waited uneasily in expectation of what Colgrevance might say next.
“Your Majesty,” he asked politely, “Could you tell me who it is that shall be responsible for eventually deciding what man or woman will take the role of your advisor in the court?”
“My first priority is having these fires fade from the courtyard, Colgrevance,” Arthur said coldly. “Then I will turn my attention to the drought in Carmarthen. Once the ice and the flood are found, we will address those. Only then will I choose who shall stand beside me as advisor, and you can rest assured that that individual’s commitment to easing the suffering of the people of Camelot, and not anything else, will be the deciding factor.”
“Of course, your Majesty,” said Colgrevance. “But of course. I simply wished to ascertain— You will be the one to appoint an advisor, is that correct?”
“I will,” said Arthur. “Though I intend to ask for the Lady Morgana’s council, and for the council of others in the court, of course.”
“And you will ensure that all candidates are given a fair attempt at the trials, with none holding any advantages over the others?” asked Colgrevance. “That is to say, no-one will have more of an opportunity to impress his Majesty than the others?”
Arthur clenched a fist, but kept his face expressionless. He now saw exactly where Colgrevance was going with this.
“Are you suggesting I should be the one to greet petitioners in my antechamber, Colgrevance, only to follow them in a second later to hear their request in my reception room?” he asked, trying to keep his tone light.
It would not do to give away how much this bothered him.
“What do you imagine I would do without a manservant for the duration of the trials, if you please?”
Colgrevance laughed heartily, as if Arthur had told some joke.
“But of course I am not suggesting your Majesty should do without a servant for any amount of time,” he said, his tone syrupy with mirth. “That would be ridiculous, of course. But I would very happily provide a member of my own household—one of my own sons, if your Majesty wished—to serve you during this time, in order to allow the boy Merlin to concentrate fully on the task ahead.”
“I, too, would be happy to offer the same, my liege,” interjected Lionel eagerly, speaking for the first time.
Arthur clenched his jaw, but not firmly enough for it to show. He hoped.
“And I,” said Caradoc as Arthur seethed.
To Caradoc's credit, he managed to keep his tone marginally less sycophantic than the other two.
Arthur battled not to show his displeasure. He saw little chance of arguing his way out of this. They, after all, were right: it was hardly fair for Merlin to have access to Arthur night and day when he was competing with others in a set of trials to be judged by Arthur himself.
“That’s very generous,” he began carefully, trying to at least manoeuvre himself out of having a disloyal idiot from a courtier’s household foisted upon him.
“—but Sir Lancelot will be looking after the king’s needs for the relevant period,” interjected Morgana smoothly.
Lionel’s face fell. Colgrevance and Caradoc were more circumspect about their disappointment, but only slightly. Arthur smiled at the three of them.
“If that is all, gentlemen,” he said, turning back towards the castle doors for what he hoped would be the final time, “I have much to attend to in my chambers.”
What a bloody nuisance it was turning out to be, having to deal with the insignificant when there were so many important things looming on the horizon, and darkening their doorstep already.
“Your Majesty,” came Colgrevance’s voice again as Arthur began to walk away.
“Yes, Sir Colgrevance,” said Arthur, unable to keep the frustration from his voice as he turned.
Colgrevance said nothing. His eyes, however, flickered between Merlin and Arthur meaningfully.
Arthur breathed deeply. A little flame of discomfort sparked in his chest, almost as if it had been transferred from the pyres burning around them.
Surely they couldn’t mean— Now? Without even the chance to complain about the entire affair to Merlin, without the chance to quickly establish how they would deal with Colgrevance’s meddling so that it would have minimum impact on all they had to do?
He hoped he was not giving any of what he was thinking away.
“Of course,” he said simply, lifting his palms in gracious acquiescence. “Merlin, you are released from your duties immediately. Sir Lancelot will inform you if he requires anything.”
“Yes, sire,” he said.
When shall I come to your rooms? his eyes asked as he ducked his head.
As soon as you can, answered Arthur, flaring his nostrils. And if you can throw Colgrevance in a well while you’re at it, do.
“Thank you very much for addressing our concerns so fully, your Majesty,” Colgrevance was saying, utterly unaware that Arthur was currently engaged in a conversation elsewhere. “I am certain you understand how this has eased the worries of those who have members of their households participating in the trials.”
“It is very… generous of you to have spoken on their behalf, Colgrevance,” said Arthur tightly, looking pointedly at Caradoc and Lionel.
“Oh, but it was my pleasure, your Majesty,” said Colgrevance, flexing his knees slightly. “As you know, unlike Lionel or Caradoc, none of the members of my household have any magical skill. I therefore see an opportunity to act as a neutral observer—as a facilitator, if you will. In light of this, I have taken the liberty of asking different members of my household to assist each of the participants in their efforts, if they so require it. Norvel, here—”
He motioned impatiently with his hand, and a gangly boy came forward.
“Norvel has kindly volunteered to be of assistance to Merlin, should Merlin need it, and to run any messages to you or the Lady Morgana that your manservant might require him to. All of the participants will have need of contacting the royal household, I’m sure, and I have asked some of my stablehands to be of service to them in this, particularly if the participants have need to travel from Camelot. Norvel has generously agreed to stay with Merlin, for example, in order to assist him with whatever he might need, at either day or night. I am sure the two will be fast companions soon enough.”
The small flame of discomfort in Arthur’s chest blazed into a dull panic, but he kept the bland smile on his face, looking for Morgana in the periphery of his vision.
She was looking hatefully at Colgrevance; Arthur hoped she would have some suggestion of how to deal with this.
“That is most thoughtful, Sir Colgrevance,” said Arthur tightly. “Though I am certain there will be no need to tax your household so heavily. We will assess in a few days how often the participants require a messenger. I thank you for your service and foresight,” he finished mildly.
It would not be long before they could be rid of Colgrevance’s watchdogs—he and Morgana would make certain of that. But for now, Arthur would simply have to bear it.
Merlin’s presence in a room had always made that room into a place where Arthur could be himself, without any expectations or responsibilities (other than those he had to Merlin, he supposed; but they had never seemed like much of a burden). He would be the first to admit that he had taken advantage of that privilege heavily since his father’s death. But Merlin could hardly be expected to be there at every difficult juncture in Arthur’s life, and Camelot’s king could hardly be expected to need his manservant around for company at every treacherous pass.
They would have to bear it, the both of them: for this might the first time, but it would not be the last.
“I will see you in the morning,” said Arthur to Colgrevance and the others, his mind already on what he had to say to Morgana. “I thank you again.
Merlin, please inform Lancelot that I shall have need of him immediately.”
Arthur looked up at Merlin, expecting to see him nodding at the request, but Merlin was frozen in place, staring at Arthur fixedly. His face gave everything away: his mouth was turned down in displeasure, and there was a pallor to his cheeks that betrayed his anger. His jaw was clenched; his eyebrows were drawn. And his eyes—
His eyes were empty, fathomless. They looked the way they had come to look, once upon a time, when Arthur had taken four months to think on something.
Merlin, for goodness’ sake, of course we’ll find a way around this in a few days, Arthur wanted to say. But Colgrevance was looking between Merlin’s horrified face and Arthur’s composed one carefully, and he would miss nothing if Arthur tried to catch Merlin’s eye.
There was a sly, pleased smile on the nobleman’s face that he made no real effort to disguise. Arthur’s dislike for the man intensified a hundredfold in that moment, as Colgrevance looked upon Merlin’s unhappiness with pleasure.
He looked between Colgrevance’s smug countenance and Merlin’s tightly clenched fists, wishing there was something he could do. Lionel and Caradoc were watching carefully, though, and Arthur, feeling helpless and furious, made himself turn to go inside.
King Uther’s Reign, Year the Thirty-First
“Kilgharra. It’s me,” she said softly, emerging silently from the slim opening in the wall that she had crafted, many years ago now, so that she could visit him at will.
It had once been a way for her to feel close to the court—and to Uther and his son—again, he knew.
That was all it had been, at first.
Then it had become a way to watch anxiously over the young prince, to hope for some change in the noblemen’s regard of Uther. That had lasted some years.
Eventually, though, as Uther’s fist had tightened and the days had darkened, she had come to think of it as a back entrance to a forbidden fortress: a secret means to plot against Uther and against Camelot, and—when her rage and her impotence had become too much for her to bear—even against the prince.
Kilgharra had begun denying her entrance, then.
“I come to you peacefully,” she said jestingly, as she came into the shaft of light where Kilgharra was lying.
A smile graced her striking features as Kilgharra turned his eyes toward her. She was still beautiful, still young. The Isle was the last place that any sane woman would retreat to plot vengeance, but her tainted intentions had not stopped her from benefiting from the place’s magic, it seemed.
She walked to him gingerly, placing one foot carefully in front of the other, and perched on a large rock in front of him.
“You sent the boy to me,” she said, not as accusingly as he might have expected. “You told him where to find me. He came, and I gave him what he asked me for; now he comes to find me again, intent on getting what he wants.”
Kilgharra did not reply. He had pinned his hopes on the boy, and thought Merlin had understood that protecting Arthur would require constant sacrifice, partly because the path that Arthur was destined to walk was something greater than the rest of them. For this reason—for its greatness, for its potential—it would always be at risk.
Perhaps Arthur’s path was not necessarily greater than the boy’s own, not truly: but Merlin’s way lay twinned with the prince’s, and sacrifices were required to ensure that the two paths wound on unbroken.
Kilgharra had not expected that the boy would value another life as highly as he did Arthur’s. He had thought the boy might even be aware of what would be asked of him, and that he perhaps went to the Isle to make his sacrifice knowingly. Kilgharra had certainly not expected Merlin to seek to return to the Isle once Arthur had been healed with the intent of harming Nimueh—but then again, Kilgharra reasoned, Nimueh had taken a risk when she had harmed the boy first, when she had suggested that the boy surrender his mother. She had knowingly taken the chance that she would anger him; Kilgharra could not be held responsible for that.
“I do not blame you for giving him the way to me in the first place,” Nimueh said, shrugging her thin shoulders in the gloom as if she could hear Kilgharra’s thoughts. “After all, I know better than anyone how you have suffered.”
He growled, deep in his throat, and sat back on his haunches to look down at her.
“You know nothing, witch,” he said cruelly, misnaming her with the hopes that it would wound her. “Nothing. I remember when you used to come to me in the beginning, when you used to speak to me about how endless the days felt in the forest, in solitude among the shadows of the trees.
Do you know what the years feel like in a cave, Nimueh? In the darkness?”
She shook her head, looking down at her bare feet.
“You’re right, of course,” she said. “And we both know, after all, who it was that coaxed you underground. But now you send the boy to me—you have your revenge.”
“That was not my intention,” he said, ashamed.
It truly had not been.
“I know, Kilgharra,” she said, her voice affectionate, forgiving. “But I am afraid that intentions can hardly change things now. Gaius rides towards me even as we speak, I think. I will have the privilege of making him pay for his own treachery first, perhaps, to make him see his faithlessness clearly before the end. But I will not get to savour the pleasure of that long before Merlin comes for me.”
“No,” said Kilgharra.
He had seen it too.
“I’m sorry for that,” he said, and meant it.
She shrugged again, even more delicately than the first time.
“It is my time,” she said. “And his power is greater than mine. I know both of those things, and I accept them. Perhaps I will try to convince him otherwise, before the end, though I know that it will not change anything. I accept that, too: my powerlessness. There is only one thing left to me now.”
“Vengeance?” he asked mockingly, impatient with her stubbornness.
This was all he had heard from her, for years, despite his many attempts to reason with her: What is left to me, Kilgharra, but vengeance?
“Oh, no,” she said, laughing as if he had said something absurd. “We’re well past that, I should think. Gaius is almost there, and Merlin rides only hours behind him. He has a faster horse, and he will shorten the gap between them even further, as they approach the Isle. No.”
She shook her head, looking at him.
“The only thing that is left for me now is legacy, Kilgharra.”
“Legacy?” he asked, bemused.
What could one so young possibly know of legacy? Humans had hardly finished crafting the telling of one legend before they had shifted their eyes to the next tale, to the next bridge that they hoped to cross. They had little sense of permanence, and an even lesser understanding of continuity—of the very things that were at the heart of legacy.
“Legacy,” she confirmed, as if she knew precisely what the word meant.
“I am still thinking on it. A test, perhaps. A test of character, of good faith. But not for Merlin, no—for Arthur.”
Kilgharra rose onto his hind legs, suddenly alert.
“I have told you many times before that I will not allow you to harm him,” he said.
The boy may not know what was good for him or others yet, but Kilgharra had time to convince him. That much he knew. With humans, there was always time. It seemed as if there wasn’t, because their lives were so fleeting. But there was always time, always possibility, precisely because their fleeting existences allowed their hearts to be so ever-changing.
Kilgharra would change the shape of the boy’s heart. In the meantime, however, the prince must be protected.
“Harm him?” Nimueh asked, incredulous, as if she had not plotted to do that very thing a dozen times, sometimes sitting in the same place where she sat now. “I don’t intend to harm him, Kilgharra. I’m not sure that would even be possible, if I was gone. Would it?” she asked.
Surely she knew better than to think he would answer her. Her newfound mercy for Arthur was not born of compassion, he saw: she simply knew that her time, and her options, were limited now. Had Kilgharra given her a means to give durability to her hatred, she would no doubt have returned to it quickly.
“Yes… I think a test will do,” she said, lightly.
It was as if she were speaking to herself; in the last few years, that had been more and more common. Once or twice Kilgharra had wondered if she might be going mad, so far removed from those she had once loved so fiercely, and for so long.
“Yes. A trial, to test how worthy he is of the faith that the boy trumpets so ferociously,” she said, standing.
She looked at Kilgharra, and smiled again.
“I apologise; I did not mean to talk so long. I really came here only to thank you, old friend. And to say goodbye.”
She looked young and innocent, almost as she had when the two of them had first met, so many years ago, under the silver light of a waxing moon. As he looked at her Kilgharra remembered the fierce affection he had once had for her, and the memory made emotion flicker to life briefly in his chest.
“Goodbye, Nimueh,” he said kindly. “I shall miss you.”
He meant this, too, and she seemed to know it.
“Goodbye, Kilgharra,” she said. “I wish you the best of fortune. I sense it will not be long before you see the light again, and I am happy for you.”
“I wish we could have seen the light together,” he said suddenly, impulsively.
For an instant she looked deeply sad, aged and weary.
“So do I, my friend,” she said. “But that path is no longer mine. My path is much shorter, and lies clearly ahead. There are no winds or twists left open to me.”
She stood there, looking at him for a long moment. Kilgharra gazed back, trying to give her some comfort, some assurance. He did not know if he could.
“I better go,” she said finally.
Her eyes sparkled; she smiled at him.
“Gaius is almost at the lake, and I don’t want to be late.”
Part II(a) up soon.
My desperate desire to get this up quickly, however, has resulted in a marked lack of non-fandom work on my part the last thirty hours. I must therefore turn my attention back to the less appealing grind of work for a few days, if I wish to get back to the more appealing grind of editing this massive, hulking thing before the end of the week.
I hope to have all of the second section up by the end of the weekend, but I do not want to promise that I will. Certainly I will not have any more up before Thursday, when most of my current flood of work is due; I apologise for the slight slow-down in upload rate.
I've never felt the urge to say this about a story before, but if you're sticking with me, massively complex exposition and all, thank you. This has been seen only by my own eyes for so long; having others read it finally is a great joy.