By the time Arthur made it to what was left of his chambers, he was exhausted. All day, running on a madness of belief, of needing to believe for the sake of his people. All day nothing but bloodshed and ruin; the throne regained, but at what cost?
Merlin was telling him the cost – in lives and goods, in stones and mortar – but there was one name he never mentioned.
Arthur tuned out the woeful litany, watching as Gwen gathered limp flower stalks and placed them in an ewer. The vase they'd previously occupied was shattered into dozens of pieces across the floor, glittering in the sunlight. As Gwen knelt to sweep them up, Arthur saw that she'd pinched off one of the wilted white blossoms, was crushing it between thumb and forefinger, her face the very picture of misery.
"Would you like a pretty flower too, Guinevere?"
The words flew up at him from the well of memory, sudden and overloud in his tired brain. Where had he been? In the meadow just past the eastern wall… No. Up a tree, that was it, by that pond in the forest. Rough bark and cool green leaves against his skin, peering down at his companions from a height, bemoaning the way the day had unfolded, yet secretly content.
A lifetime ago, then. Back when Morgana had not been too proud to change her mind, deciding that if everyone else was getting a flower, she'd have one as well. But she'd given hers to Gwen. Arthur had seen her. She'd tucked it behind Gwen's ear as Gwen helped her wring water from her dress, the pair of them whispering and laughing and casting glances over to where Merlin was fussing over the splinter in Arthur's palm.
Even then, Arthur thought. He watched as Gwen dropped the crushed blossom and reached for the whiskbroom.
Even then Morgana's heart had not been his. Nor Gwen's. And even then Merlin had been hiding things from him. But they'd all been happy.
"Sire, are you even listening? Leon asks how many men can be spared to rebuild – Arthur."
Arthur's focus snapped back to Merlin. He was peering up from a scrap of parchment, eyes red-rimmed – whether from sorrow or lack of sleep, Arthur didn't know. Nor did he possess the energy to mock him for it.
"What is it?" Merlin said quietly, but Arthur only shook his head and eased past him.
"Leave that," he said to Gwen, offering a hand to help her up.
She startled, looking up at him with wary eyes. After a moment's hesitation, she accepted, but Arthur noted that she dropped his hand as soon as she was on her feet.
"Do you remember the day you threw my best boar spear into a pond?"
"No, Arthur, I… What?"
"That day in the woods, when I was meant to be hunting but you and Morgana tagged along, and this one – " Arthur looked over at Merlin. " – was being worse than useless. Couldn’t even manage my crossbow. Or picking his own flowers."
"Sire." Merlin's voice held a note of warning. Arthur ignored him and turned back to Gwen. She was staring at him, brow furrowed.
"You had a magnificent throwing arm, too. That was the first I'd noted it. I'd half a mind to swap servants with Morgana and take you hunting next time instead. But – "
"Don't," Gwen said, pulling away. She shook her head. "Arthur, please. Don't do this. We can't go back."
"Why not? We were happy then. All of us. That was how it was supposed to be, wasn't it? Not this… this." Arthur flung an arm out, turning, gesturing at the wreckage of furniture and draperies, the broken glass, burst pillows and dented helms. He'd been told Morgana had been using his rooms; the presence of the flowers had only confirmed it. In defeat, her magic had lashed out, wreaking havoc all over the castle, but especially in here.
He thought of her sleeping in his bed, curled up with a belly full of rage. Had she even slept? Or had she merely lain in the near-dark, as he had done on many a sleepless night, strangling a pillow and waiting for the terrible dawn?
"I'm going to enjoy killing you, Arthur Pendragon."
"What happened?" he said, hearing the childish anger in his voice, but past caring, at least with these two. All day he'd been the king. All day. The smoke from the biers was still trapped in his lungs. And the look on Tristan's face, soul bled out, nothing but shadows where his eyes had been…
"Why couldn't we save her?" he demanded, looking from Gwen to Merlin.
"I - I – " Merlin stammered, eyes going wide. "She – "
"She never wanted saving," Gwen cut in, slamming the whiskbroom down on a table. Merlin started, dropping the scrap of parchment. "Surely you must know that, Arthur. She wanted many things, but never that."
"What then?" Arthur said. His words seemed to echo off the bare walls. "I loved her, Gwen. I didn’t always listen to her, but I loved her. I know you did too, and time was I was worried Merlin here would get himself locked up for all his inappropriate floral advances."
"Hey! I told you. Those weren't – " Merlin began, but Arthur shut him up with a look.
"Why wasn't it enough?"
Gwen shook her head, crossing her arms over her chest. "I don't know. Maybe she wanted the power more, or…" Arthur saw that there were tears in her eyes, threatening to spill. She wiped them away angrily. "With any one of us, it was only ever going to be sharing, wasn't it? I think she needed something – someone – of her own."
"But – "
"I can sympathise, actually." Gwen gave him a thin smile. "You have the throne, Arthur, and men bound to you by true loyalty. Your people love you, and Merlin is… Well, clearly if that horrible dragon is to be believed, he's more powerful."
Merlin cleared his throat. "Destined to stand at your side, sire, as we create one of the greatest kingdoms of all time."
Arthur rolled his eyes so only Gwen could see, which earned him a fuller smile, if not a happy one.
"Exactly," she said. "And how do you think that made Morgana feel, when she'd spent just as long – longer – having to hide her magic, using it to save your, um…"
"Royal arse?" Merlin muttered.
"Merlin." Arthur shot him another look, absurdly grateful for the attempt at their usual banter, but thinking they'd need to have some choice words before he gained an official voice in the council chamber.
Then the last of Gwen's speech sank in. "What do you mean, she saved me? Gwen? Guinevere?" Gwen covered her face with her hands. "Merlin?"
"Don't look at me." Merlin raised his hands, backing up until an overturned chair halted his progress. "I can't keep track of how many times I've done it, let alone everybody else. But you did manage to survive until I arrived in Camelot. Given your knack for provoking assassins and magical… troubles, I'd say it makes perfect sense."
"Bears," Gwen muttered. "No magic. No assassins. Just bears. She had one of her visions. That's why she insisted we tag along that day. That's why I threw your spear in the pond."
"What?" Arthur said.
"What?" Merlin echoed. "Really?"
Gwen sighed and dropped her hands from her face. She gazed round at the ruined chambers. "Yes. To save you from – look, am I to be banished again once we get the castle cleaned up?"
"No," Arthur said firmly. He hadn't said he'd forgiven her – there hadn’t been time – and he expected the betrayal would always sting, no matter Merlin's explanation. But Arthur knew in his heart that he'd be a very miserable, ill-advised king if he banished everyone who'd deceived him at one time or another with no hope of forgiveness.
"Never again, Guinevere. I would not lose you – nor you, Merlin, much though it pains me to say it."
"No worries, my lord." Merlin offered up his first genuine smile of the day and bent to right the mangled chair carcass he'd nearly tripped over. "I won't hold you to it on the morrow."
"Good." Arthur nodded. "Now then, Gwen, what's this about bears?"
Gwen sighed and pressed a hand to her forehead. "Merlin, do you know if the Southrons left any wine?"
* ^ * ^ * ^ *
She'd also dreamed of them – well, one, actually. An immense beast, taller than the trees and pale like the clouds, who'd made a habit of crashing in on her winter dreamwalks since she'd ceased to be a cub. It never said a word, never gave a hint of its business other than the hazy visions that shimmered in the bluish smoke as it disappeared: Castle turrets with green pennants flying; two cloaked figures with dark hair streaming in the wind.
After a great deal of teasing and dire warnings from her kin, she'd ceased to speak of these dreams, putting them down to boredom or too many rowan berries. She'd halfway started to believe it, too, until the day when the creature itself appeared on one of her solitary rambles through the forest, swooping down from the sky to interrupt the scratching – at last! – of a persistent itch on a convenient pine snag.
"You!" she bellowed, clacking her teeth in alarm. By its pale colouring and blue-eyed stare, there was no doubt this was her dragon, but it looked nothing like it had in her dreams. For one thing, it was tiny.
She dropped to all fours, huffing. "Why, you're no more than a cub. How can that be?"
For a long moment it just watched her, same as it did in her dreams, wings jerking and fluttering as if it wasn't sure whether it was coming or going – or hadn’t yet worked out the knack of folding them up.
Well, she thought with annoyance, what did you expect? The dragon had never spoken to her before. She didn’t know how to explain the size though. Perhaps it was just one of those perverse things dragons did, made themselves seem much grander in the dreamwalk than they were in the forest.
Bear tried again. "What do you want?" she said in the tone she normally reserved for her brother. It was rude of her, but then so was startling a bear in her own territory.
The dragon tilted its head, blinked, and opened its mouth. Before Bear could think to move out of the way, a warm, shimmering mist wafted across her snout, making her face tingle.
"What – " Bear began, but the dragon emitted a squawk, followed by a chirruping sound that Bear heard in her mind as, "Siriol."
The tingling sensation rippled across her broad shoulders and down her back, making her fur stand on end. "You know my den name?"
"I know all of your names. But the others take too long to pronounce, and we don't have much time. Do you mind?" The dragon tilted its head back the other way, wings once more stretching and re-folding.
Bear was somewhat taken aback by the dragon's forwardness, but she grunted her assent. "I suppose you may greet me as kin, given we've met in the dreamwalk, er…?"
"Aithusa." The dragon bowed its head, pausing to allow Bear to consider the name, give it a proper sniff – so it did know some forest manners – then went on, "I've come to ask for your help."
"What aid can a bear give to a dragon?"
"On this day, great aid indeed. Not far from here my mistress lies wounded. I've healed her as best I can, but she must rest, and there is a party of men approaching. Evil men, cutthroats and slavers who serve a terrible king. I cannot defeat them alone."
Bear growled. She despised slavers same as the next beast, but what the dragon was suggesting was highly improper. Bears only attacked humans when provoked. Or starving. Or suddenly startled while going about their business in the forest.
Aithusa shuffled back a pace, but plunged on with a nervous trill. "I'm not asking you to eat anyone. A thorough mauling should do it. Then if you'd help carry my mistress to safety?"
"If I refuse?" Bear said, eyeing the wisps of blue-grey smoke leaking from the dragon's nostrils.
"She will be captured." The dragon seemed to get even smaller, wings and tail held tight to its body, trembling. "The worst of our destinies will come to pass. All will be lost."
"All?" Bear sat back on her haunches, huffing. "You think very highly of this human. Who is she, the queen?"
Aithusa turned the full force of its wide, weepy eyes on Bear. "Yes… and no. Not any longer. Maybe never again. But you should not dismiss her. She saved your life once, Siriol. You owe her a great debt."
"Forgive me, but are you certain you've got the right bear?" Apart from wandering too near men's camps on occasion and falling off slippery logs – and learning the hard way that her mother was right about avoiding the red ants, no matter how tasty – Bear's cubhood had been a happy one. "Unless your mistress is a red cloak or a woodcutter, I don't think we've met."
"Of course you've never met! The Lady Morgana is a witch, a great seer. She foresaw your family being slaughtered by knights. She went to great lengths to prevent this destiny from coming to pass."
"Knights?" Bear thought of the red cloaks, sniffing the air, remembering the scents of their horses and cooking fires. "Men from the castle?"
"Yes. The king's men."
"They do not trouble us overmuch," Bear said dismissively.
"They would have if you'd eaten the Once and Future King."
This explanation begat more questions than answers, but Aithusa was clearly agitated now, tail flicking back and forth and a steady stream of smoke seeping from its nostrils. It unfolded its wings, fanning the smoke across Bear's snout. "Come now, Siriol. Please, if you will help, it is time we were on our way."
Bear sneezed. As the smoke sank into her fur, she caught a glimmer of a vision: Aithusa and a woman wrapped around one another at the bottom of a deep pit. The dragon was no longer cub-sized, but still nothing compared to the majestic creature of Bear's dreams. They were sickly, wounded, the woman paler even than the dragon. Yet she was staring up in defiance – staring up with terrible, light-starved eyes.
As the vision dissolved, Bear let out a long, low moan of sympathy. "Your mistress?"
Bear wasn't sure she entirely trusted the dragon, but she hated the thought of any creature trapped in a pit, and slavers were a scourge on the land. Plus if what Aithusa said was true… Well, a proper bear always repaid her debts.
Bear launched herself onto all fours, flexing her muscles, preparing to run. "Lead on then, little one."
Aithusa crowed and, spitting a lick of blue flame, rose up into the sky.
* ^ * ^ * ^ *
That first night back in the castle they'd drunk deep from a barrel Merlin had found in one of Cook's hidey-holes; the next morning Arthur hadn't recalled much other than the fact that he'd laughed as he hadn’t in ages – that they'd all laughed, before they'd come full circle and returned to their grieving – sitting on makeshift piles of cushions and rugs before a fire fuelled by splintered chairs.
Slowly, things in Camelot were returning to normal, being repaired or forged anew. Two weeks on, Arthur had come down into the lower town to see for himself, and he and Merlin had been invited to share an impromptu lunch at Gwen's cottage.
Her neighbours had welcomed her home with whatever they could gather or spare – bulging baskets of blueberries and wild greens, planks of smoked fish. These were hardly Arthur's favourites, but declining wasn't an option, especially not once Merlin had practically hurled himself face-first at the repast with one of his idiotic grins.
Arthur nudged what was left of his greens – most of them, to be honest – under a crust of bread and added, "Not to boast, but I've been tracking animals in the forest since I could walk, and I'm an excellent stalker. If there had been bears about, I would have known."
"I think you're missing the point, sire," Merlin said, cheeks bulging with half-masticated fish.
Merlin swallowed hastily, wincing. "That she had a vision of you being eaten by bears and didn’t just say 'Ho hum, very well then,' and go back to sleep."
Arthur felt, given the way Merlin was looking at him, that the addendum, "Like I’d have been tempted to do," was very much implied.
"It was very early, as I recall." Gwen poured a cup of water and nudged it across the table towards Merlin. "She came here, to the cottage. Woke me up."
Merlin snickered. "Maybe she just wanted to catch a glimpse of you in your nightdress."
"Merlin!" Blushing, Gwen thumped the jug down on the table.
Arthur cleared his throat. "All I'm saying is, you can't claim someone's been saved when there's absolutely no proof they were in any danger to start with."
Muttering, Merlin took a slug of water, then popped a handful of blueberries in his mouth and gave them a vicious chew.
"What was that?" Arthur said. "No, really, Merlin. Out with it."
"Would you have preferred she wait until your head was in a bear's mouth?"
"Don’t be silly, Merlin. My head wouldn’t fit in a bear's mouth."
"Don’t I know it, sire."
"Just because I promised you wouldn’t be executed for sorcery doesn't mean – " Arthur checked himself at the sound of Gwen's heavy sigh. He realised he'd been gesticulating with his knife, had nearly embedded the tip in her table. He set the knife down, giving her a stiff nod.
"Yes, well. If there were a pack of bloodthirsty bears waiting for me that day – and though I am certain that I would have been able to handle myself… myself – I am grateful for your concern. That was very brave of you both."
Gwen shook her head. "You know, I wish I had been braver back then. Told someone. Found her some help. Forced Gaius to explain…"
"And what then?" Arthur said, curious. He'd had similar thoughts, but had found no good solution. "Magic was still outlawed. She could not have lived openly at court, and to aid her was to risk death."
"Which Merlin was already doing." Gwen shot Merlin a frustrated look. "Sorry, Merlin, but I don't understand why you couldn’t have told her…well, something. That she wasn't mad, wasn't alone – that there was hope."
Merlin looked as if he'd been slapped, cheeks burning, eyebrows caught in a worried huddle. He pulled his hand away from the berry bowl. "I had to protect Arthur," he said, staring down at the table. His voice was far from steady. "I'm sorry. I couldn't risk it. The future of Albion…if she'd... Gwen, believe me, I never meant for – "
"I've been thinking," Arthur said, cutting across Gwen's quiet, "Oh, Merlin."
He reached for Merlin's shoulder with one hand, and across the table for Gwen's hand with the other. She stared. Merlin sniffed, looking away. The realisation that he wasn't going to chime in with a jaunty eyebrow and something along the lines of "Sound the warning bell" was disconcerting, but it leant a weight to the moment, gave Arthur the courage to voice what he'd been wrestling with night after night.
"I think we all have things we wish we'd done differently. Perhaps that's a weakness, or perhaps it's simply the cost of drawing breath. I don't know. But I do know…" Arthur paused, frowning. "That is to say, I'd like to think that it's true for Morgana as well."
Gwen bit her lip. "As do I, but I fear… Arthur, she's not well. You should have heard her when we fought. She was raving. If Merlin hadn't – "
"Mad or no, she'll never forgive me," Merlin broke in, shaking his head. "Not once she learns who I am."
Arthur gave Merlin's shoulder a thump and Gwen's hand a squeeze, then pushed himself up from the table. "Still," he said, reaching for his cloak, "I'd like to think it."
"That is why you are a good man," Gwen said softly.
Merlin sniffed again, the pair of them staring at one another with damp, worried eyes until Arthur was forced to rap his knuckles on the table.
"Come along, Merlin," he said. "I'm sure Guinevere has better things to do than watch you weep over her blueberries."
* ^ * ^ * ^ *
"You cannot make a den with a witch and a dragon."
"Enter the dreamwalk with a human? Have you gone mad?"
"Someone's bound to get eaten. Or burnt alive."
"It's far too early for talk of den-making, Siriol. You'll miss out on the ripest berries and the plumpest dormice."
"It's taboo. Or would be, I'm certain, if any bear had ever contemplated such a thing before."
"Mother is terribly worried."
Bear, who'd been busy watching for the flash of trout in her favourite stream, bore the disapproving mutters and tongue clicks as long as she could. Then she raised herself up to her full height, letting out a battle cry that echoed off the nearby rocks and startled birds from the trees.
"If you're not here to help, brethren, then kindly go away. I'm fishing for three."
Her brother and half-siblings, once they'd got over their shock, lowed in submission and slowly began to move away, shaking their shaggy heads. Her sister, however, backed up only so far as the opposite bank. There she sat heavily, leaning against a fallen tree trunk.
"Why are you doing this, really? Do you not want to find a good mate this year?"
Bear pulled a threat-face and lowered herself as if she might charge, but her heart wasn't in it and her sister clearly knew it.
"Go away, Carys."
"Not until you explain."
Bear crashed a paw into the stream, sending a spray of glistening droplets into the air. All the trout had fled, no doubt. She wasn't going to get any more fishing done today.
"In my own way, I'm trying to be a proper bear," she said, snout held high. "Like Mother taught us." She waited to see if her sister would laugh. When she didn't – merely grunting for her to go on – Bear waded over to where her sister sat and plopped down beside her.
"Do you remember the day when we were cubs, when a man surprised us at our forage and Mother killed him, then we ate him?"
Bear's sister wrinkled her snout. "No."
"And do you remember being hunted down by the red cloaks, brought to bay with dogs at your heels and boar spears bristling from your hide?"
"No! Siriol – "
"Exactly," Bear said with a grunt. "This witch, she saved our family from this fate. I'm repaying a debt, sister. Proper bears always repay their debts."
"But surely the debt was paid when you saved her from being captured?"
Bear shifted, digging idly in the soft ground, as if for grubs. This part was harder for her to explain, the responsibility she had felt for this human after carrying her for days on her back, criss-crossing her territory until the stench of the slavers' blood was no more than a memory and Aithusa had proclaimed them safe.
The witch was clearly lost inside her own mind, even by human standards, and everyone knew they were a mad bunch. But when she had clung to Bear, shivering, or cried out in her sleep, Bear had felt…
Well. Though she'd had a few mates, Bear was yet to be a mother, but she imagined this feeling was very like that felt towards one's cubs. Aithusa might mutter of shifting destinies, of sorcerers and kings, but all Bear knew was that this woman clearly needed shelter, a full belly, and a winter's worth of guided sleep to heal her pain. And with the dragon's help – at least with getting the witch into Bear's dreamwalk, if not with the fishing – these were things she could give.
Bear pushed up onto all fours and waded back into the stream. "She is not yet saved," she said gruffly, glancing back over her shoulder. "The debt has not been paid."
"And what will you do when it is? She cannot stay in the forest forever."
Bear sighed. This was the other difficult part. "I know. When she is well, I will return her to her own kind."
Bear's sister gave a soft grunt. "And will you then return to yours?"
To that Bear had no answer.
* ^ * ^ * ^ *
Certainly not Gwaine, who'd returned from his mission flush with game, if not the news Arthur sought.
"Fat rabbits," Gwaine said, licking the grease from his fingers. He nodded at the empty platter being whisked away by a servant. "Watch out, sire. Means it's going to be a rough winter."
"In Ealdor, we used to watch the pigs," Merlin said. "They were the best at predicting the weather."
Smiling, Arthur set down his goblet. "Oh? How's that? Do you speak pig, Merlin, or did they start packing in barrels of cider and spinning themselves little cloaks?"
Merlin gasped, feigning shock. "How did you know?" By now the entire table was laughing.
Arthur had been afraid things would change between them. He knew that they might have to, in future, but for now this was their comfort, their peace: the king and his loyal servant – and, at times, his loyal fool. Arthur could always count on Merlin to rally the court when he could not, or to roust him from his moods.
"How do you know though?" Leon said, scratching his beard. "Can't say I've ever paid much attention to pigs prior to eating them."
"They start pushing up the straw," Gwen explained. "Gathering in leaves and whatever else they can find to bed down in, to keep out the chill."
Just then the wind shifted, sending raindrops rattling against the windows like a shower of pebbles. Even Percival jumped a little, frowning.
"I heard a queer tale down at the tavern," he said. "A woodcutter claims he saw a bear the other week, foraging in the Darkling Woods."
Leon chuckled. Arthur could see Elyan trying to hide his smile behind his goblet.
"And what's so odd about a bear foraging in the woods, my friend?" Gwaine said.
"It had a bag strapped across its chest, like so." Percival gestured. "It was putting the food in the bag. Can you believe it?"
Gwaine's eyebrows lifted, his smile spreading. "I think he was pulling your leg, mate."
"Else that was no bear," Elyan added.
Percival shook his head. "No, the tinker saw it too, up on Bruta's Tor. He said it's a grim sign indeed, if a bear doesn’t trust its own coat to see it through winter."
There was another wave of laughter. Percival looked round the table with a troubled expression, seemingly unaware of the joke. His gaze came to rest on Arthur.
As the laughter died out, Arthur felt Gwen's foot nudge his gently under the table. "Well," he said, giving Merlin's foot a much firmer prod with his own, "harsh winter or no, we are safe within these walls – well-fed for now, and in good company. So let us give thanks and speak no more of ill omens."
"Hear! Hear!" said Gwen, beaming. Leon and the knights all took up the cry, lifting their goblets, and Merlin made a trio of spark-dragons gambol around the table, wheeling and diving and blowing on food that had gone cold.
Later that night, Merlin found Arthur pacing the gallery above the throne room.
"There has been no word?" he said, falling into step beside him.
Arthur glanced over, startled. Merlin had sworn he couldn't read minds, that even if he could he had no wish to go mucking about in Arthur's, but there were times when his insight was uncanny.
"No. We await word from Nemeth still, but there's no news of her to the north or east, and Gwaine's just come from Elena's court. Wherever Morgana disappeared to, it wasn't through Godwyn lands."
"Gwen is certain she lives. And if she lives, she will have found shelter by now."
"How can she be certain?"
"I don’t know." Merlin shrugged, waving a hand in the air. "She can just… you know. Women. Feelings."
Arthur paused. "Is this anything like your funny feelings, Merlin?"
"No! Well, maybe, yes – a bit. But I agree with her, regardless. If she were dead, I think we'd know by now. We'd have heard something from the Druids… or Kilgharrah. I'd hear him laughing in my sleep, no doubt. He never liked her."
"The dragon – " Arthur snapped his fingers. "That's it, Merlin! Surely he could find her for us?"
Merlin shook his head. "I'm not sure he could. Or would. Now that magic has been restored to the land, he claims his shift is done. He's headed to the far south, and I… Well, I sort of promised I wouldn’t call him again unless one of us was mortally wounded."
"Useless," Arthur said, sighing. "Utterly useless." He looked Merlin up and down. "Dragonlord and world's most powerful sorcerer my eye."
"Ah, but I do nice party tricks." Merlin gave a mock bow, then held out his hand. "Also, I've conjured up a nice hot bath and a flagon of spiced mead. They await you in your rooms, sire. And after, Gwen's challenged you to dice. She told that new maid of hers she means to take you for all the grapes."
Arthur chuckled. "Is this your pathetic attempt to distract me from worrying?"
"Hm. Would we call it pathetic?"
"Yes." Arthur crossed to the railing and leaned on it, looking down at the throne room. It was deserted now. The rain had passed and moonlight was streaming through the windows. It struck him that this is where he'd been when he'd first learnt the truth about Morgana, all the truths, piling swift and terrible on top of one another as he'd watched his – no, their – father forced to his knees.
"I will be there shortly," Arthur said. When, after some long moments, he'd still not heard Merlin's retreating footsteps, he glanced over his shoulder. "Is it wrong that I miss her, even after all she has done?"
"No," came the eventual reply. Then, "I would worry more if you did not, sire."
Merlin moved out from the deeper shadows, hands clasped before him, until he was standing at Arthur's side. "For then I'd know you were not yourself," he explained. "That someone had stolen away our king, left an imposter in his stead."
"Ah." Arthur looked down at the hall once more, at the three thrones that now sat at its head. The flanking pair were never used, but Arthur had insisted on their presence as a reminder that, bachelor though he may be, no king ruled alone. And if they also reminded him of more innocent times – he and Morgana sparring with nothing but eyes and gestures across a king very determined not to notice – then no one had to know.
"Thank you, Merlin," he said softly. "You and Gwen both, for your faith in me."
For a long moment they stood shoulder to shoulder. Then, with a heavy sigh, Merlin pulled away.
"I miss her too, Arthur. But I fear her more. I fear what her return would mean for Camelot."
* ^ * ^ * ^ *
"Kindly allow me to distract you with this baby rabbit," Bear would say. Or, "I've upset a great number of bees for this, my lady, so you'd best eat up."
Morgana gave no sign of understanding Bear's words, but Bear spoke to her anyway, using plenty of simple grunts and gestures as well. In time, her responses to the latter began to approach that of a proper cub, and when Bear teased her she'd get a glare or a swat on the nose, rather than a vacant stare. She still preferred to sleep alone or curled up with the dragon though, declaring Bear to be stiflingly warm.
"Just you wait until winter," Bear said.
When the days began to shorten and Bear felt sufficiently fat and splendid, she began to hunt for a suitable den site. She knew it as soon as she saw it, as soon as she smelled it – the great shaggy-barked yew set on a leaning hump of hill. Its branches had long ago rooted then re-emerged, twining together to make a massive trunk with a natural hollow at its heart.
It represented everything bears held sacred – the circle of time, individuals woven into the whole, the welcome darkness needed to sustain life. For days, Bear dug on and off, careful not to upset the roots of the ancient tree. She carved out a passage beyond the natural entryway and a grand chamber below, big enough to house them all. She lined it with sweet-smelling herbs and soft moss, then stocked it with the tubers, nuts and horrid dragon-smoked fish Aithusa claimed Morgana would need to survive the winter.
Bear's sister came once more to see her. She complimented Bear on the den, but was clearly preoccupied with her multiple mates and territorial squabbles with their brother. She only stayed long enough to repeat her misgivings, and when Bear would not be dissuaded, to wish her a good winter's sleep.
"To you as well, Carys," Bear replied. "And blessings on your own den. Tell our kin… I will see them in the dreamwalk one day, if never again in the forest."
At last all was ready. Bear set off on one long, final ramble through her territory, scenting who had been through recently, leaving all the necessary messages. When she caught the first real whiff of winter – far off still, but coming on steady – she returned to the cave.
"It is time," she said, laying down the lovely bit of carrion she'd found up on Bruta's Tor. "Let us feast together one last time, then I will take you to our den."
Aithusa perked up at the sight of the meat, but kept a respectful distance. "Any trouble?"
Bear shook her head. "Only the usual men have been through. The owls will keep watch for us along the paths, and I've left word with them for the ravens and the wolves. If need be, they will keep the humans away. Please, eat."
Aithusa uncurled its tail and pounced, tearing into the meat with relish – this time, Bear noted with pride, without even searing it first.
"That's revolting," Morgana said. She looked back at Bear, eyeing the bulging sling pouch she wore across her chest. Morgana had fashioned it of strips torn from her skirts. "Please tell me there's berries as well?"
Laughing, Bear sat back on her haunches, holding her paws out wide. "Come and see for yourself, my lady."
Morgana sidled close, idly running her fingers through Bear's fur for a moment before plunging a hand into the pouch.
"Ugh. Dormice. Again."
"You are very rude," Bear murmured fondly, nosing at Morgana's dark hair. "I wonder, will you be any better behaved once you are well?"
The dragon looked up, smacking its lips, and gave an amused trill. "Oh no. This one has fire in her belly, in all the destinies I've seen. It's why I chose her."
Bear thought of this again when they were settled in the new den, a rainstorm lashing at the tree above, she and Aithusa curled up on either side of Morgana. Despite her protests that she wasn't tired, the witch had been the first to go under, aided by the dragon's breath and promises of regaining her power.
She'd still been plotting revenge as she'd drifted off, which Bear found worrisome. "This king she speaks of, the one I am meant to have eaten, this is whom she would see dead?"
"Her brother. Yes. And to do that she must get rid of Emrys, He Who Called Me Forth, a quest which would seal her doom."
"And this is the fate you hope to avoid?"
"One of them." Aithusa blew out another puff of warm smoke. "Sleep now, Siriol. We will find you when we can."
Bear yawned. Brothers could indeed be troublesome, but she'd never imagined actually killing hers – talk about taboo. Then she thought of something else. "Will I see you as you are, or as you appeared before?"
Aithusa blinked. "How did I appear before?"
"Larger. Very large. Bigger even than the boulders on Bruta's Tor. You did not know?"
The dragon lifted its head, letting out a low, thrumming laugh. "No. Was I really that grand?"
"Yes. You crushed an entire herd of goats once." Bear yawned again. "Dream-goats, so they were fine after you'd left, but still."
"Ha! Well, that is good news, very good news indeed."
"Is it? Why?"
"In our better destinies, my mistress and her lady queen allow me to cull the royal flocks as needed, and subjects are allowed to pay their tax in rats. I grow to a great size and am much admired."
Bear tried, but she could not make heads or tails of this information. She told the dragon as much. "Your smoke has made me very sleepy," she added in her own defence.
"As it should." Aithusa's eyes gleamed brightly in the gloom. "Do not trouble yourself, Siriol. This is a sign we are on a good path, much better than last time. I expect all will become clear in the dreamwalk."
"Oh. Well… " Bear let her lids droop, thinking that it was a bit rich for the dragon to be speaking of clarity when all it did was talk in time-shifting riddles. "Splendid. I think I shall sleep now. Good winter's night."
* ^ * ^ * ^ *
Some nights, it was said, a woman could be heard screaming, out where no woman should be. Brave souls who went in search of her found themselves harried by clouds of ravens or beset by great northern wolves.
The upside was that the weather kept Camelot's enemies in their beds. The downside was that Arthur felt as if he were ageing a year for every week he spent cooped up indoors, poring over the same maps and treaties, getting pulled into all the petty, toothless dramas of court until he thought he might put a fist through a window for the sharp, simple pleasure of it.
When the bedraggled envoy from Nemeth turned up – a month overdue and long feared lost – he was fêted as if he were a foreign prince. Along with final terms for the transfer of Gedref, he brought fresh news. There was no word of Morgana, but Rodor was ailing, and had all but ceded the throne to his daughter. The storms were keeping the Saxons at bay and Sarrum, missing for some six months now, had been officially declared dead, along with a dozen of his men. His many bastard sons were holed up for winter, but come spring they'd be at one another's throats.
"I believe Princess Mithian sees an opportunity," the man said when questioned in private. "The people of Sarrum's land have long suffered under his rule."
"She means to make war on Amata?" Arthur set down his own goblet, surprised. "That is bold."
"She was ever so, from what I've heard," Gwen murmured.
Merlin snorted. Arthur nudged his foot under the table as a warning, saying, "Still. Nemeth's forces will be spread thin, what with overseeing the new lands. I would not think she would go looking for trouble."
The man shook his head. "She hopes it will not come to that. She is much like you, sire, seeking alliances with those lords who value peace, and who would feed Amata's people before their own coffers." He took a sip of his mead, his eyes sliding towards Merlin, who was working through a large pile of socks with an enchanted darning needle. "She has even welcomed magic into our court."
"Has she now?" Merlin said, looking up. The needle paused mid-air. "And what of a court sorcerer? Because, destiny be damned, just say the word and Bossy Boots here can find himself a new – ow!"
"He jests." Arthur swiftly withdrew his foot, smiling at the bewildered envoy. "When you return, you must tell the princess she will have Camelot's support, should she need it. We could all use more friendly faces along the coast. The weather will not keep the Saxons away forever."
The envoy stayed on for several weeks more, taking his leave after the feast of Imbolc. Winter, however, stubbornly remained. After a brief thaw, another great storm blew in from the north; Arthur went back to his prisons of ink and parchment, watching his own restlessness mirrored in his men's faces but helpless to do anything about it.
At the first sign of spring – or rather, when he first overheard two chambermaids discussing the fact that Branwen the baker's wife's eldest daughter had spotted some snowdrops while trysting with the farrier's son – Arthur chucked his quill on the floor, ground it under his boot, and called for Merlin.
"Send word to the stables and pack our bags. We're going hunting."
Merlin laughed as if he'd made a grand joke. Then, when Arthur held his gaze, arching a brow, he gawped. "You’re not – there is still snow outside, sire. The woods are full of it."
"So? According to court gossip, the baker's daughter and her beau managed just fine."
Merlin clucked his tongue. "I'll admit, the fact that you are listening to court gossip is worrisome, and it would be good to get out, but there's nothing to hunt just yet."
"Nonsense, Merlin. There's always something to hunt."
"Anything that's out and about at this time of year is probably stringy and half-starved," Merlin snapped, banging the wardrobe door open.
Arthur knew as much, but he'd never admit it. He glared at Merlin's back. "What do you suggest then, a picnic?"
"A pic– " Merlin paused, looking over his shoulder. "Are you mad?"
"I will be if I don’t get out of this castle." Arthur must have looked as desperate as he felt, for after studying him for a moment Merlin nodded.
"Very well then. We can get out for a ride at least, and we can split the difference."
Merlin turned back to the wardrobe. "Meaning I'll bring my lunch, and you can try and catch yours."
* ^ * ^ * ^ *
And when they finally all managed to meet in the dreamwalk – well, no one was eaten or burnt alive, but it was a near thing.
Sometimes Bear managed to speak with Morgana directly; other times they could only communicate via the dragon, who had a bad habit of revealing some great mystery – "He who made me is the same who would unmake you, my lady, but only for the harm you'd do his king" – only to subsequently vanish. Most distressing were the times Morgana fell into a waking sleep within the dreamwalk, leaking her memories and visions like poisoned sap into Bear's own dreamscape.
Bear tried to guide her as her own elders had done, encouraging her towards the memories that held joy or knowledge, but Morgana's experiences of knowledge were so tangled up in her pain, and the things that brought her joy were, at first, utterly foreign. Most she-bears sought peace and solitude in between raising a few litters of cubs. They fought or mated when they had to, but not for the thrill of it.
Morgana though, she took joy in sparring, in flirting, in meddling, just like a dragon. Memories of solitude held no peace for her, for she hated to be left alone, and the only young she showed any interest in was an uncanny runt of a man-cub who could knock a grown man off a horse with a flash of his eyes.
As the winter wore on, however, Bear began to find her way with the witch – to see beyond pity and frustration. She grew to admire her, as Aithusa did, for her great spirit, and to resent those who had twisted her playful, open heart into such a bitter shape. All the secrets. All the lies. A thousand tiny betrayals pricking at her sense of self and kin. It was no wonder she'd lost her way.
When at last Bear staggered out into the first scents of spring, she was heartsick, reeling from all the suffering she had seen and despairing of having done enough to ease it. She was also ravenous.
"Perhaps my family should have eaten Arthur after all," she said when she heard Aithusa's groggy chirrup behind her. "Perhaps I might still. Or better yet, that nasty Emrys. He has a lot to answer for."
"Now Siriol," Aithusa began, but they were startled by the most unusual sound. It came from beneath the earth, then erupted into the open air as Morgana crawled from the den.
She was laughing, her eyes flashing gold as she blinked up at the sky. It was not the thin, mad laughter of autumn either, but something rich and grounded, more akin to the laugh of the young woman who had once clashed wooden swords with her brother and plaited flowers into her maidservant's hair.
Bear's heart lifted at the sound. "My lady?" she said. Morgana looked her directly in the eyes, and for the first time Bear knew that she understood the words, as well as the meaning. Stretching, she came to stand between them, stroking Aithusa's head and laying her cheek on Bear's shoulder.
"You'll get a chance soon enough, darling Siriol, but I don't recommend it. Merlin's stringy at the best of times, and he'll be more so this time of year."
Aithusa gave a nervous trill, smoke curling from its nostrils. "Mistress, I thought… Head south, as I've shown you. To Nemeth, where your other half – "
"Calm yourself, little one," Morgana cut in, holding up a hand. She conjured a small wind, and Bear watched the delight on her face as it whirled the dragon's smoke away. "I know what you've shown me. But my Sight is back, and I've had a vision as well: Those two fools are headed this way. I think it would only be polite to say goodbye, don’t you?"
Bear hummed her approval and butted her face against Morgana's shoulder, proud as any mother bear.
* ^ * ^ * ^ *
The fire was still burning merrily on the bank. Merlin, however, was halfway up a tree, all four of his limbs wrapped around the trunk and the bark beneath him crackling with a golden glow. There was something oddly familiar about the scene, but Arthur couldn’t place it.
"What exactly are you – " Arthur began, but then he heard the growl, saw the great shaggy head rearing up from the undergrowth.
Arthur tossed down the brace of scrawny rabbits and reached for his hunting knife. He had only that and his crossbow on him; he'd left sword and spears with the horses. The trick with bears, he knew, was to appear very large – and to not show fear. He leapt up onto a nearby tree stump and, puffing out his chest, held his weapons aloft.
"Bear!" he shouted. "Rah! Bear, over here!"
Merry laughter rang out behind him. "There's no need for that, Arthur Pendragon. No harm will come to your dogsbody… not much, anyway. But it's hardly Bear's fault if he's given himself splinters."
Arthur whirled round to see an old woman edging out from the trees, her dress in tatters and her hair hanging in matted clumps. Her eyes, however, were clear and bright.
"Who are you?" he said, keeping one eye on the bear. Despite the woman's assurances, it was now circling beneath Merlin's tree, eyeing his scrawny backside with far too keen an interest for Arthur's liking.
The woman spread her palms. "Hilda, my lord. Just an old herb woman about her business in the forest."
The bear looked over its shoulder, letting out a rapid string of grunts and huffs. The woman smiled.
"A cold, hungry old herb woman about her business in the forest. Tell me, may my bear-mother and I share your fire?"
"She's a witch, Arthur," Merlin called down from the tree.
"Really? I would never have guessed." Arthur gave the woman a pained smile, sheathing his knife and lowering his crossbow. "He's a bit simple."
Hilda – and the bear, if Arthur wasn't much mistaken – laughed. The woman drew closer. "Well, if you wish to be rid of him, then only say the word and it is done."
"Don't listen to her!" Merlin cried.
Giving the bear a wide berth, Arthur marched over to the tree and peered up.
"You're a witch, Merlin, and I listen to you. Now come down from there and help skin these rabbits."
To Hilda he said, "We'll let him live, if you don't mind. He does have his uses. Please, make yourself comfortable by the fire."
"I'm a warlock," Merlin grumbled. With a harsh whisper and a flash of his eyes whatever spell he'd worked on the bark was ended, the hot sparks reabsorbed like water into a cloth. Slowly, he began to inch his way down the tree. "There's a difference, you know."
"Not from where I'm standing," Hilda called out gaily.
Arthur stifled a laugh and, when Merlin's shoulders were within reach, plucked him bodily off the tree, whispering, "You’re the one who insisted I welcome magic-users into the kingdom, Merlin, so… Go be welcoming. Find out what she wants with us."
"I know exactly what she wants with us," Merlin hissed. "Her bear was going to eat me!"
"Nonsense. You're hardly a mouthful to a creature that size, plus… You'd have thought of something, Merlin. What good is this magic of yours if you can't best a bear in single combat, hm?"
Merlin made an exasperated sound, twisting his head to look at Arthur over his shoulder. "I don't want to best her, you great brute. Plus, she's not just any bear. Look at her."
Arthur looked round, watching as the bear ambled nearer the fire and settled itself behind its mistress. It began combing her hair with its claws, keeping up a steady stream of little grunts and tongue clicks that reminded Arthur uncannily of Merlin's running commentary during council meetings.
It was, Arthur granted, a handsome bear – a dark glossy brown with a light patch on its snout, bright of eye and broad of shoulder. Even seated, it was the height of a horse.
"The horses… " Arthur said, turning Merlin loose. He looked around in a panic, but his stallion and Merlin's roan mare were grazing where they'd been tied up, seemingly oblivious to the bear's presence.
"She said something to them," Merlin whispered as they retrieved Arthur's catch. "The witch. Hilda. Whispered something in their ears and patted their necks, and they went from stamping bloody murder to gentle as lambs."
"Really? That's… odd."
Merlin paused, a carcass in each hand. "You think that's odd," he said, raising an eyebrow, "but not a bear playing nursemaid to a crone?"
"Come now," Hilda called out, "if you are sharing secrets, then I will share one too."
Still puzzling over a complete stranger's ability to tame his stallion – but trusting her that much more because of it – Arthur left Merlin to finish skinning and spitting the rabbits. He joined Hilda by the fire, still keeping a wary eye on the bear. "I'd wager that you have many secrets, my good woman."
Hilda gave him a sly grin. "It is true, my lord, and many that you would care to know. But first, tell me, what of the Lady Guinevere? Is she well? Does she not hunt with you today?"
"No." Arthur did his best to mask his surprise at the question. "That is to say, she is well, but she is not much for hunting."
"Ah, just so," Hilda said, nodding, shifting her gaze to the fire. "I recall that now. Very sensible of her."
After a moment's pause, in which all that could be heard was the purr and hiss of the fire and the bear's soft grunts, Arthur said, "Do you know the lady, then?"
Hilda startled, her eyes going wide, and the bear blew out a sudden, forceful breath. "I did," she said quietly. She returned to staring at the flames. "Yes, I believe I did. Long ago."
Merlin came crashing in with the spitted rabbits, breaking the spell. The three of them – four, if the bear's vocalizing was to be counted – made awkward small talk as one of the rabbits was roasted and the other, as per Hilda's request, was offered raw to her companion.
"It's barbaric," she said by way of explanation, chuckling. "To her. Roasting flesh. She thinks we've no manners at all." The bear growled and tore into its lunch.
When nothing was left but the grease on her fingers, Hilda rose, sniffing at the sky. The bear joined her.
"Yes," Hilda murmured. "I know. It is time we were on our way."
To Arthur she said, "It seems another feast awaits us. But first, in thanks for sharing yours, the secret I promised." She beckoned him closer, and he went. When Merlin made to follow, however, she hissed, "No, not you, boy! You stay where you are."
"What?" Merlin paused, mouth hanging open. "He'll tell me anyway, you know."
"Oh, will I?" Arthur said.
Merlin shrugged. "Eventually."
"Be that as it may," Hilda said, glaring. "For now this is not for your ears, considerable though they may be. Shoo."
The expression on Merlin's face was priceless, so much so Arthur thought he might be forgiven for chuckling as he bent his head towards Hilda's.
"Well, what is it, my good woman?" Arthur thought he saw her eyes flash as she lifted her lips to his ear. He felt the bear's looming presence and hoped he had not been a fool.
"News of your sister, Arthur Pendragon. She lives, but she will not, I think, trouble you in future. Unless you mean to make war on Nemeth."
Arthur wasn't entirely clear on what happened next. He grasped at Hilda's sleeve only to catch a fistful of air. For a moment he saw her on the opposite side of the fire, its flames licking up high into the coming dusk. Then, with a nod, she and the bear ambled off between the trees, and they were left alone.
"Arthur? What is it?"
Arthur shook his head, turning towards Merlin. He could have sworn that they'd paused to look back at him. He could have sworn that, when they had, he'd heard a "Goodbye" gusting across the back of his neck like a hot breath.
* ^ * ^ * ^ *
Morgana sighed, scanning the sky for sight of Aithusa. "No. I suppose not. Not now."
Bear studied her. She'd not dropped her enchantment, though to what purpose – or lack thereof – Bear couldn’t say. But even in an old woman's skin Morgana seemed far happier than she had when they'd first met.
Bear grunted in satisfaction and settled back on her haunch, joining Morgana in her sky gazing. "Then I am glad I did not eat him," she said, because it was the simple truth. "That Emrys though… "
Morgana laughed then, the full and hearty one that Bear had only heard once before, but for which she already thought she might happily sacrifice much. Morgana laughed so hard her eyes leaked tears, and she sagged against Bear's shoulder.
"Please," she said, rubbing her withered cheek against Bear's coat, "say you'll come with us? I know this forest is your home, but – "
"Of course, my lady," Bear cut in, turning her face towards Morgana's, touching her nose to the witch's hair. It smelled of smoke and horses, and Arthur.
"You cannot make a den with a witch and a dragon."
That's what her sister had said, all those months ago. That's what her brother and half-siblings had been trying to tell her, in their limited ways – that, for proper bears, to make a den was to make a family, to forge bonds of kinship that weren't easily broken.
And Bear was nothing if not proper.
"I would not leave you for any mate," she said, giving in to the urge to groom, to lick the horrible scents away, "nor any patch of ground."
"Ugh," Morgana said. "Your breath smells of raw rabbit." But she remained where she was.
* ^ * ^ * ^ *
Several miles away, back at the castle, Gwen put her hand in her sleeve for a handkerchief and drew out instead, to her great astonishment, a single white flower, creamy and dew-speckled and smelling of spring.