"Mr. Gaius, I will not have you filling the child's head with such dangerous fantasies."
Morgana lay wide awake in the narrow bunk, staring at the planks that made up the walls of the ship's cabin. She hadn't slept most of the nights since they set sail, but it was better to lie quietly and pretend than to face Mr. Gaius' questions about her health, or her new guardian's concern.
"She will have to learn of these things eventually, sir."
"Why should she? For ten years now, these waters have been safe from – I have made this passage safe, and I will not have you filling the girl's head with things she doesn't need to concern herself –"
"– but someday, surely, she will have to know about her mother."
Morgana held her breath unwittingly. She had no real memories of her mother, and no one would speak of her. She thought sometimes that she recalled a sense of warmth, of light, of a soft touch, but it could have been the memory of one of her nursemaids, or simply the work of wishful thinking, for all she knew.
"Her mother was not a – it does not matter. Morgana will grow up far from such things, it need not bring – it will be different, for the child."
"I do not mean – it was only some of the old tales. Fairy tales for children. If it can take her mind off –" Gaius' voice broke off as one of the boards creaked at a footstep outside the cabin. Their conversation paused while one of the crew walked past the closed door. Morgana forced herself to lie perfectly still, her chest rising and falling in the slow, steady rhythm of sleep, until they resumed their hushed tones.
"No, Gaius, that is my final word," Uther was saying. "I will not have you telling her any more stories of – of pirates or shipwrecks or monsters – nothing that might disturb her, you understand?"
She heard one of come closer, and shut her eyes quickly. A hand – Uther's, she thought – brushed a tangle of curls back from her forehead.
"She will be safe, in Port Royal," he said, almost to himself.
Governor Pendragon had visited their home in England only a few weeks before, still flush with the news of his promotion.
"We will bring order to the region at last. There has been too much resistance to the authority of the Crown, too much willingness to turn an indulgent eye upon some of the cruder local customs..."
Morgana had risen late that morning, feeling ill and unsettled from a troubled sleep, and almost missed the hunting party as they mustered before the house. By the time she found them, Uther and her father were mounted, conversing as they waited for the word that all was ready.
Morgana looked up at her father, sitting tall and splendid on his horse, and a snatch of dream – falling, rain, waves, shipwreck – made her blurt out,
"Couldn't you wait till tomorrow to hunt?" she asked him, catching hold of his bridle. "I think it's going to rain today."
Her father laughed, glancing up; the sky overhead was a clear and cloudless blue. He leaned down to cup Morgana's cheek in his gloved hand – the leather was worn down and smooth against her skin – and smiled with affectionate disbelief.
"Nothing but fair winds, I promise you," he said, then he was sitting back, wheeling around to take his place at head of the hunt.
The party rode off in a haze of dust, leaving a scattered collection of servants, groomsmen and stablehands in its wake. As they drifted off, Morgana noticed there was someone else waiting to watch the last of the hunting party disappear. It was one of the noblemen's sons, a boy not much older than herself and, she noted with satisfaction, even a little shorter than she was. She drew herself up unconsciously to her fullest height.
It was obvious that he hadn't seen her yet. He was still staring into the distance, ignoring the wisps of pale hair that blew into his eyes. His mouth was fixed into an enormous, childish pout. The sight cheered Morgana immeasurably.
"Arthur Pendragon," she said sweetly, "still too young to join the hunt, I see."
Arthur startled at her approach, then scowled when he recognized her. "Morgana," he said, curtly.
"It's too bad, really," Morgana said with mock sympathy. "Don't worry, though, I'm sure you'll be old enough to ride out yourself in a few years."
Arthur glared. "I'm quite old enough to ride out now. I'll be fourteen in a few months. Besides, I've hunted with my father at home, I don't see why it should be any different here."
Morgana pretended to consider this. "He must be concerned about the noise and confusion of such a large party, then. I had heard your constitution was delicate."
"I'm not delicate!" Arthur spluttered.
"Hmmm... in that case, perhaps he's afraid you won't be able to catch anything? It wouldn't do to have you embarrass yourself in front of strangers, after all." Morgana brushed an imaginary speck of dust off of her sleeve.
Much to Morgana's delight, Arthur positively growled. "I can catch anything I like."
"Oh really?" Morgana took a few steps back, glancing over her shoulder to gauge their relative distance to the corner of the house. "I bet you can't catch me," she said, and bolted off towards the gravel path, not waiting to see if he would follow her.
He caught up with her at the edge of the flower gardens, grabbing her arm with an, "Aha!"
As she skidded to a stop, Morgana's momentum sent her tumbling to the ground. Arthur stood over her laughing until she untangled herself from her stupid, cumbersome skirts. Then he stopped laughing, because she had knocked him over into a flowerbed.
"Morgana!" he protested. He brushed a handful of soil off his trousers, flicking some at Morgana in the process. Her eyes narrowed.
They were interrupted several minutes later by Mr. Gaius, no doubt summoned by one of the gardeners. He loomed over them disapprovingly until they both struggled to their feet, trying their best not to look as if they had been wrestling each other childishly a moment before.
Morgana was just thinking that it was worth the coming lecture – Arthur's hair had looked truly ridiculous smeared with dirt and grass – when a servant ran up and pulled Gaius away from them, speaking in hushed and hurried tones.
A few of their words carried back to Morgana "bad fall – can't – hurry" and then Gaius was rushing off with the servant and Morgana tried to pretend she didn't know, couldn't know yet what the look he had given her, guilty and pitying, had to mean.
Morgana wasn't aware that she had drifted into a light sleep until she was startled back into wakefulness. There were shouts coming from above, a flurry of activity, and then it faded into a lull in which the only sound was the creaking of the ship itself.
There was a pale, grey light coming in at the small cabin window, dimmer than the morning should have been. Morgana slipped out of bed to peer out, and found only nothingness. There was no sign of the horizon, or of anything beyond a blank haze of mist. She shivered, and turned away to dress.
When she emerged onto the deck, she found herself standing in a nearly solid blanket of fog.
"Hello?" she called out, stepping cautiously, each foot feeling along for the invisible deck below.
"—pirates attacking a merchant ship," she heard one of the crew say, so close behind her that she jumped as she turned to look for the source of the voice, only to find it nearly hidden by the fog. A pair of shadowy figures were just visible, leaning together and talking in hushed voices.
"There's no more pirates in these waters," one of them was saying, and the other, "that's not what I heard. There's something happening out there." "Nonsense. You listen to too many tales." "Who else could have been shooting in this fog? They say there's ships in these waters piloted by sorcerers, guided by magic alone..." His companion hushed him furiously, hissing, "there's someone there," and Morgana backed away, retreating farther into the white mist.
She fetched up against a rail of the ship and clutched onto the smooth wood, the first solid thing she had encountered since coming above deck. More voices of the crew, muffled and multiplied by the fog, seemed to be coming from all around her.
A sudden splash, and Morgana looked down to find she could see through the edge of the cloud – as if it were hovering entirely around the deck of their ship –
"There's a bo—" she had been about to say "body," but then the head turned upon the raft and groaned "—there's a boy in the water!" Morgana cried, trying to make her voice pierce through the fog. There was a strange moment of silence, and she wondered if she were the only one left on board, if all the others had vanished.
Then suddenly there were people pressing forward all around her, a rope being lowered over the side; the boy was being hauled aboard, coughing weakly.
Another series of shouts drew the sailors away toward the bow of the ship; the fog was lifting away at last, revealing a burning wreck that had drifted almost straight into their path. All hands rushed to steer the ship a safe distance from the wreck, leaving Morgana alone with its survivor.
The boy was still gasping, his breath rattling through the sea water he had inhaled.
"Here, let me –" Morgana reached for his collar, trying to open his shirt enough to let him breathe more freely, but as he realized what she was doing, he jerked it away from her.
"All right, I won't." Morgana made a great display of folding her hands in her lap. "What's your name?"
"Gw – Gwyn," he said, stumbling a bit over the name.
"It's all right, Gwyn," she murmured. "You can rest now, you're safe."
Gwyn shook his head. "I can't," he said, even as his eyes began to drift shut, "I have to find my father."
Her birthday celebrations should have been the main event of the day – or even of the entire week – but Arthur had chosen the most inconvenient time possible to be promoted. She had no doubt whatsoever that he had done it to spite her, since she had insisted on celebrating her birthday early two years ago purposely to interefere with the announcement of his captain's commission.
When she had hinted at the obvious sabotage to Uther, however, he had merely said, "Ah, such a propitious day, for both of you," and cast a broadly significant glance between the two of them that stopped just short of winking. Morgana shuddered at the thought.
Uther had also seemed untowardly pleased that Morgana had insisted on being dressed to the height of London fashion for the occasion.
It was that last decision she was regretting now, as she made her way down to meet the others.
The only person she found waiting in the entry hall was Gwyn, who smiled as she approached.
"I brought Arthur's sword," Gwyn said, gesturing to a long box that stood empty on a side table. "And I have something for you," he added in a rush, taking out smaller box from the other. He proferred it awkwardly. "Happy birthday, Morgana."
"Thank you." Morgana took the box without looking at it, watching Gwyn bite his lip.
"It's not –" Gwyn worried at his lower lip further. "It's not really from me. Arthur – I mean, Captain – Commodore Pendragon commissioned it for your birthday." He handed it to her awkwardly and added softly, "I hope you like it."
It was a long chain with links shaped like tiny flowers; a medallion shaped like a daisy hung on the end. It wasn't really like Arthur's taste at all and Morgana doubted he had contributed much, if anything, to its design.
"I – made the rose." Gwyn said it with a shy kind of pride.
"It's lovely," said Morgana.
"You'll look lovely wearing it," Gwyn said. "That is, not that you need a necklace, you look lovely now. You look lovely without wearing anything – I mean, not that I've ever seen you not wearing anything, that wouldn't be appropriate, I just meant – " he trailed off in mortified confusion.
Morgana smiled. "Help me put it on?"
Gwyn's hands didn't fumble on the chain, but they did tremble slightly as they lifted the curls off the back of Morgana's neck to let the necklace slide into place.
"Haven't you got a maid to do that job?" Uther asked, startling both of them, looking somewhat askance at their position.
Gwyn drew back immediately and Morgana just hoped that the fluttering warmth she had felt at the touch of Gwyn's fingers wouldn't make itself obvious.
"Isn't it lovely? It's a gift from Arthur," Morgana said, hoping to distract him. It seemed to work, as Uther smiled knowingly.
"Ah yes, excellent. Speaking of Arthur, where is –"
A loud clang resounded through the hall, followed a moment later by the appearance of Arthur's first lieutenant, Merlin.
"Erm," Merlin said, "Sorry about that, does it, uh –"
He was holding up a piece of wall sconce and looking rather baffled by it.
"Arthur's just, um –" he waved a hand back in the direction of Arthur's rooms. "He's almost ready. Hi, Gwyn!" Merlin seemed to notice who he was talking to for the first time. "And Morgana, that's a lovely –"
"Lady Morgana," Arthur said pointedly as he joined them. "Father. Shall we?"
He took the bit of wall sconce away from Merlin, handing it off to Morgana on his way out the door. Morgana glared after Arthur and shoved the thing at Uther, who had been trying to lift a hand to rub at his temple only to find it filled with sconce at the last moment. Uther looked at it as if he were weighing it against the sufferings of Job, then passed it to Gwyn as he followed the rest with a weary sigh. Gwyn set it down neatly in a corner, and sighed.
"You know, Morgana," Arthur's face swam into view above her, "if you didn't want to marry me, there are easier ways to say it than jumping off a cliff."
The last thing she could remember, she had been too busy trying to breathe through a torture device known as corsetry to listen to Arthur's speech about the "social obligations" of marriage. They had been standing at the edge of the fort, overlooking the cliffs...
"It worked, didn't it?" she croaked, struggling to sit up while still coughing and spluttering a little through the water that had been caught in her throat. Aside from being very cold and wet, she couldn't help noticing that she was finding it much easier to breathe, which was, overall, an improvement. Even if it meant she was sitting on the docks in her underwear. She located the corset not far off and thought, "good riddance."
"For now, maybe," Arthur said as he moved to help her up. "What will you do if there's no ocean handy to fling yourself into?"
"Well, that's one advantage of living in this godforsaken port," Morgana said, brushing off his assistance to stand on her own. "I have better options than you everywhere I look."
A man with dark hair, who looked as miserably wet as she was, waited off to the side looking somewhat bewildered by the exchange.
"I suppose I have you to thank for the fact that I am not currently suffering a fate better than Arthur?" she asked him.
His bewilderment only seemed to increase, but he bowed deeply, saying, "My lady...?"
"I seem to have survived fainting, falling off a cliff, and nearly drowning. No thanks to the latest London fashion," Morgana said, gesturing to the remains of her new dress. "I assume you were the one who saved me from the perils of my corset?"
"I only did what was necessary," the stranger said. "I've seen many ladies suffer from the same complaint."
"Still, you saved me from dying in a somewhat embarrassing way. Is there anything I can do to thank you?"
"If I may ask – it may sound strange – but that necklace you're wearing. Where did you get it?"
Morgana's hand flew up to touch the medallion around her neck. "I'm sorry," she said sharply, "it was a gift. I couldn't give it away."
She had dozens of other ornaments; it didn't matter. Gwyn had made this one.
"I didn't mean –" the man started to say.
Arthur peered at the medallion as if noticing it for the first time. "Who did give you that?" he asked.
Merlin let out a loud and significant cough and, when that didn't seem to work, muttered, "You did," out the side of his mouth.
Arthur looked at him in bewilderment. "No I didn't."
"Yes, you did," said Merlin.
Arthur still seemed confused. "I did?"
Morgana rolled her eyes.
"You did," Merlin repeated, making a complicated gesture that seemed to make sense to Arthur if to no one else.
"Oh!" Arthur exclaimed. "I did, yes."
"If I may –" Her rescuer was watching them all with increasingly bewilderment.
"Morgana!" Uther exclaimed, pushing through the small crowd that had gathered around on the docks. "Thank the heavens you're safe!"
He drew her into a relieved embrace, then seemed to notice that she was standing there, somewhat cold, wet, and shivering, in her underthings.
"What on earth happened?" he demanded.
"He saved her from drowning!" Merlin exclaimed, pointing at the stranger, who was doing his best to edge unobtrusively away. Morgana couldn't blame him; Merlin had a remarkable ability to bring disaster down on people with the best of intentions.
One of the bystanders piped up, "We thought she was dead, but he did something to make her come back to life!"
"That's not true!" Merlin protested, "all he did was take her clothes off!"
Arthur elbowed him, hard, in the side. "Stop helping," he muttered.
"Took her clothes off," Uther repeated with deadly emphasis. "Like magic."
"No wait, that's not what I..." said Merlin.
Morgana counted down in her head the moments until Uther called out –
"Guards! Seize that man!"
On the other end of the docks, a young man was directing a very winning smile at the port authorities while explaining how the documents containing details of his identity had been most unfortunately drenched in sea water, mistaken for ballast and thrown overboard during a storm, only to be devoured by a passing sea serpent. He had just finished elaborating, for the benefit of the unimpressed harbourmaster, on the indigestion he hoped the beast had suffered as a consequence, when he heard the cry of "Guards!" ring out and took it as a hint that the docks were about to become an extremely unfriendly place. The harbour guards, who hadn't been feeling too friendly to begin with, took his flight about as well as could be expected. Their boots rang out close behind him on the cobblestones as he made first one turn, then another, entirely at random. The sounds of pursuit had just begun to fade nicely into the distance when the street he was on took a sudden turn and he found himself colliding, hard, with a figure moving in the opposite direction, but in equal haste.
"I beg your pardon," said the other, as they disentangled themselves.
"Sorry to bump into you and run," the young man said, and then, after looking over the man he had collided with, whose wet and dishevelled clothing outlined a rather appealing physique, added, "very sorry to have to run, but," and he waved a hand illustratively in the direction he had come from, "bit of trouble with, you know–" the foosteps that had faded were beginning to sound uncomfortably close again "–guards!" He pushed past the stranger, ready to sprint onwards on his original course.
A hand caught hold of his arm, which he attempted to shove off impatiently, but it was firm.
"There are guards that way."
"No, no, it was the other way, they were following–"
"–me," the man insisted, and as he said it the tramp of boots became clear, a little farther off, but just as ominously, from the opposite direction.
The two exchanged a panicked look before diving, as one, for the only door that stood open in that part of the street. They had no sooner tumbled through it and pushed it closed again behind them than the two sets of approaching footsteps met each other with a series of shouts just outside.
"Ho there!" called one voice, and another, "He went that way!"
"You let him get past you!" one of the guards complained, while someone objected, "We were right on his heels," and someone else exclaimed, "the alley onto Main Street!"
There was another volley of shouts, then the boots moved off in collective pursuit and the two men waiting behind the door slumped back and let out twin sighs of relief.
The young man who had been so unwilling to introduce himself to the port authorities smiled and held out a ready hand to his unexpected partner in flight.
"William," he introduced himself, "Will to my friends."
"Lancelot," said the other man, grasping his hand firmly. Will felt the rasp of sword calluses against his own.
"So," Will asked, "what's a nice-looking fellow like you doing running away from guards?"
"I believe there was a misunderstanding about my intentions towards a young lady who had fallen into the harbour..." Lancelot said.
Will waggled an eyebrow at him and he flushed.
"Not that I would ever – I was merely concerned that she had stopped breathing, and so I removed her corset..."
Will nodded sagely. "It's terrible how people misconstrue things. Like this one time when I had to hide in a lady's bedchamber and she automatically assumed that I was there for a different reason altogether. I almost couldn't get away from her after that. She was faster than the guards."
Lancelot frowned. "Do you make a habit out of running away from guards?" he asked.
"Only because they make a habit of running after me," Will assured him. "I think it's very rude."
"And this time...?" Lancelot looked a bit as if he wasn't sure he wanted to know the answer.
"Bit of a misunderstanding with the harbourmaster over my business in Port Royal," Will said, "which I'm sure he'd have seen reason about eventually, you know, after a nice night or two in the local gaol."
"That's too bad," said a voice out of the shadows, "because you'll be lucky if you live that long after assaulting the Lady Morgana."
Will's hand flew to his sword, and from the corner of his eye he saw Lancelot's do the same. A moment later he almost laughed when the figure to match the voice came forward: it was a fresh-faced youth, dark-complexioned, his cheeks still as round as a boy's. He held a sword out, wavering between the two of them.
Will grinned. "You should be careful where you point that thing. You might hurt yourself."
The boy's eyes narrowed as he focussed on Will. "You," he said, "you're the one the guards were chasing. You used magic to attack Lady Morgana."
Will raised an eyebrow, but didn't trouble to correct him. "Did I? That must make me extremely dangerous." He drew his own sword and waved it flashily before him. "Are you sure you want to be meddling in this, all on your own?"
"If I could explain the situation –" Lancelot began, but Will cut him off.
"Think about it. Two of us, one of you. Do you really think you can take us both on?"
"I don't have to," the boy said. "The guards are searching all the shops along this street now. All I have to do is wait for them to arrive."
"And what about in the meantime? Aren't you at least a little frightened?" Will knocked lazily at the boy's sword, trying to make him flinch or step back, but he held firm.
"All right," he said, "then I guess it is a good thing it's two against one." He glanced over at Lancelot. "Shall we rush him on the count of three?"
Lancelot shook his head. "I will have to ask you to lower your sword."
There was a long pause, and Will found them both staring at him expectantly.
"What?" he said, "if the boy won't put down his sword I can't make him."
They both looked pointedly at Will's own sword in his hand.
"But I'm on your side!" Will exclaimed in disbelief.
"Exactly," said Lancelot. "I might honourably take both of you on in combat, but it would be wrong for the two of us to fight together against one man."
Will lowered his weapon grudgingly and watched the two of them measure off against each other, before Lancelot darted forward and in a flash his opponent's sword went flying across the room. Lancelot bowed courteously and re-opened the door behind them.
"I must apologize for making an abrupt exit," Lancelot said, "but I do have a purpose in Port Royal that I cannot allow to be deterred. It has been a pleasure to make your acquaintance," he added, to Will, before slipping back out to the street.
Will grinned after him. "Sorry to run off, but I have a purpose that involves not getting locked up and especially not hanged. So if you will excuse me –"
He sketched a mocking bow in the boy's direction, and the next thing he knew he was lying flat on his back, looking up at the business end of a broom.
"You tripped me!" he exclaimed indignantly and, if he were to be honest, a little admiringly as well.
The guards banged on the door and shouted "in the name of the King!" a lot before they managed to find a door handle. Once they did, the broom was replaced by half a dozen sword points aimed at his throat.
Will looked wistfully at the open back door to the shop as he was hauled to his feet and shoved out toward the main street. He was accompanied to the gaol by a phalanx of guards so thick he couldn't see the street beyond them. It might have been funnier to be mistaken for a powerful sorcerer if he'd had room to breathe. As it was, it just seemed that much more offensive when they tossed him into the bare stone cell and left him with only a single guard outside.
"I'm not saying I need an army to hold me in," he complained to his lone companion. "It's just it would be nice to pretend I have some chance of breaking out of here."
The dog woofed at him hopefully.
"Sorry," said Will, "if I had any bones to spare, I'd try to bribe my way out, but as it is I'm using them all right now."
After a while, the dog gave up and trotted off to guard a dish of water instead.
Will sighed and settled back to wait.
It wasn't difficult to discover where Arthur Pendragon was to be found, since the streets of Port Royal were abuzz with the story of how he had single-handedly saved the Lady Morgana from an evil sorcerer who had tried to carry her off, turn her into a fish, or make an assault upon her virtue, depending on which version one told. Lancelot kept out of sight as far as he could, hoping not to encounter anyone who might recognize him from the scene down on the docks. His good fortune held though, perhaps because he looked more like a weary and bedraggled sailor than a powerful sorcerer.
Lancelot had known the reputation of Port Royal as one of the towns where the laws against magic were most strictly and harshly enforced, but it was a different matter altogether to observe the effects of it on the street. It didn't take long to notice that although the citizens gossiped eagerly enough about the afternoon's strange events, their conversations hushed or came to a halt altogether whenever a guard came too near. Even the soldiers seemed nervous, glancing constantly about as if expecting imminent attack, and there were enough of them on the streets to halt an invading army.
The fort, in contrast, was nearly empty when he reached it, and Lancelot guessed that the entire garrison must have been sent into the town during the search. Among the few who were left, it was easy to spot Commodore Pendragon and his Lieutenant, standing atop the battlements. Lancelot had just gotten close enough to determine that he was saying something about a wall around the clifftop before Pendragon noticed his approach. A moment later, Lancelot was standing with a sword levelled at his throat.
"I was told they had arrested you," Pendragon said. "What did you do, magic your way out of the cell and past an army of guards?"
Lancelot shook his head. "The man they arrested was someone who had the misfortune to cross my path during my flight. He was entirely innocent in the matter," Lancelot added, suspecting that it would be stretching the truth to say Will was altogether innocent.
"Um..." Pendragon's Lieutenant was hovering off to the side, looking indecisive. "I don't suppose it would help to point out that this man is actually innocent too? I saw what he did on the docks, and it was nothing magical. Besides, even if it had been – he saved Morgana's life."
Pendragon stared at him for a minute, face expressionless, before he finally nodded and lowered his sword. He did not return it to its sheath.
"I fear Port Royal will not be a forgiving place, if you try to stay. If you wait until it grows a little darker –" He paused, and looked at Merlin, who was nodding along encouragingly. "I can arrange safe conduct to the harbour, and you can take the ship of your choosing...."
Lancelot realized that he had begun to shake his head without intending it. Pendragon frowned at him.
"It really won't be safe," Merlin chimed in, "not now that Uther thinks you're some kind of a sorcerer."
"There is a task I must complete," said Lancelot. "I cannot leave Port Royal until it is done. You said you were the one who gave the Lady Morgana that necklace?"
Pendragon nodded slowly.
"Then I must ask you, where did you find that chain? It was made by a master blacksmith, and to my certain knowledge it is the only one of its kind."
Arthur stared. "Merlin, what have you done now?"
"Nothing, I swear!" Merlin said. "Gwyn was the one who picked it out."
"Did you say Gwen?" Lancelot asked, hardly believing his ears. "It was given to you by Guinevere?"
Merlin looked at him a bit oddly. "Gwyn, the town blacksmith. In all but name, since his master never does any of the work."
"I met him," Lancelot said slowly, puzzling over the coincidence, "but the person I'm looking for..."
"I thought you were looking for a necklace –"
"For the person it belongs to," Lancelot corrected. "Her name was Guinevere. She was the blacksmith's daughter."
"But that's – Gwyn's father was a smith, but – what do you want with her if you find her?"
"I carry a message for her, from her father."
"But he died!" Merlin exclaimed.
"If so, then I serve a ghost," Lancelot said. "Please, if there is any chance it is the same person, I must go back to the smith's shop. Will you let me?"
"If you do, I'm coming with you," Merlin said. "Gwyn's my best friend. If there's any chance his father – if Gwyn's dad is alive, I have to be there."
Lancelot looked expectantly at Pendragon, but he shook his head.
"Merlin, I'll meet you aboard the Camelot at sunset. I have some arrangements to make."
Will had adepted the skill of napping on a wide range of gaol cell furnishings, including the current straw-covered-floor variety.
"–arresting the wrong man," someone was saying as the doors to the gaol burst open. An officer of the navy – a Commodore, no less – strode in.
"That simply isn't possible!" The guard who followed him was flustered and red in the face. "We pursued him right to the door of the smithy!"
"You mean you followed him up and down every street in the town until he could have been anywhere, and then arrested the next person you found?
"Do you have the keys or must I open this cell myself?"
The guard fumbled in a panic with a key ring, his hands slipping over each key until he found the right one and jammed it into the lock.
Will stretched himself leisurely while he waited for the door to swing open.
"And if you do catch the right person next time," the officer went on, "I expect to find every man at his post, rather than cowering outside."
The door opened at last and Will sauntered out, giving the officer a grateful clap on the shoulder as he passed.
"I'll say this much for Port Royal," he told the guards who were still collected outside, "the accommodations are average, but you have better wait times than most."
It took him a minute to find his bearings again, but when he did he headed back down to the harbour. He had a boat to steal.
The forge was running when they arrived, Gwyn pumping the bellows alone, work laid out ready on the table. Merlin had been here dozens of times – more – while his friend worked. He wouldn't have called it relaxing – it was too loud and hot for that – but there was something reassuring about watching Gwyn's body sway into the work in a steady rhythm. The fire seemed to breathe spirit into the metal and it bent and turned under Gwyn's hands like a living creature trying to take form.
It was no different now. Gwyn hadn't seen them yet, and there was a part of Merlin that wanted to sneak away and leave everything as it was and had been. Gwyn had been his rock ever since his arrival in Port Royal, his first friend and the best. Gwyn had taught him to survive the vicissitudes of the Pendragon clan...
Lancelot stepped forward. "My Lady Guinevere?"
The bellows came shuddering to a halt and Gwyn turned, looking alarmed.
"Who do you – you! You were here today!" Gwyn grabbed the nearest object to hand, which happened to be a poker from the furnace.
"Wait, wait, Gwyn –" Merlin interposed himself between Lancelot and the hot poker, not at all sure it was somewhere it wanted to be. "It's all right, there's just something he needs to tell you. Um. Please put that down?"
Gwyn lowered it, but watched Lancelot suspiciously over Merlin's shoulder.
"My lady," Lancelot began again.
"Why do you call me that?" Gwyn demanded. "I'm not a lady."
"Forgive me, but there is a lady I have been trying for almost two years to locate. She was the daughter of a Captain Tom, who I have the honour to serve aboard the Grâce de lion, although he was once a blacksmith in Antigua."
Gwyn sat down heavily on a chair by the forge, setting the poker back absentmindedly in its place.
Lancelot carried on as if reciting a speech, or a story that had been repeated over and over again. "The two of them had bartered passage aboard a merchant ship bound for the Spanish Main, but they were beset by storms, driving them off course and into a strange fog where they lost all sense of direction. Before they knew what was happening, a pirate ship had come alongside, boarded her and killed most of her crew, looted and set it ablaze. There was little of the wreckage that wasn't aflame–"
"Please, stop –" Gwyn's voice was choked. "That's enough, I remember it without – there was a net for the cargo, and he lowered me over the side while the deck he was standing on started to burn..." Gwyn stopped, breathing raggedly. "But they never found – there were so many bodies in the water – they found no one left alive."
"He survived," Lancelot said quietly. "Captured, but alive. He joined their crew until he could find a ship of his own; he keeps a space in it for you. He can tell you the rest, if you'll come with me to meet him?"
"Of– of course." Gwyn got up a little shakily. "Where do we–?"
"Just out of sight of the harbour," Lancelot said. "We'll need a boat."
They had barely left the forge when Morgana came rushing along the street to meet them.
"Arthur says you're running off to be a pirate!" she gasped.
"Morgana, what –" Gwen stared at her. It looked as though she had thrown a cloak on over a nightgown. She was wearing Gwen's necklace over both.
"Uther thinks I'm in bed with pneumonia, Arthur told me some story about my necklace and your family background, and didn't you pull me out of the harbour this morning?" She addressed the last part to Lancelot. "That's the problem with this port, the social circles are depressingly small."
"What are you doing, Morgana?" Gwen asked her.
Morgana looked at her like she was an idiot. "Running away with you, of course," Morgana said, glaring at Gwen like she dared her to disagree.
"But – why?" Gwen couldn't help feeling there was a step or two of the conversation that she'd missed.
"Because I've been in love with you for eight years, more or less, and according to Arthur you gave me the only thing you had left of your father, so I think you might love me too, and because I think being a pirate might be an interesting change of pace. Is that good enough for you?" Morgana leaned in and pressed a hard, quick kiss against Gwen's lips, leaving them tingling in her wake.
Gwen's head was reeling. "Did Arthur mention the bit about me being a girl?"
"Yes, yes, I know all about that, I think it's marvellous." Morgana waved her hand dismissively. "Don't we have to find a ship or something? Can we steal the Camelot? I can just imagine the look on Arthur's face..."
Lancelot said, "We have a ship. All we have to do is get out of the harbour."
There was a long line of skiffs strung out along the quay, bobbing in the ripples of shallow water. Will had been strolling up and down for more than an hour, and although the guards obligingly passed out of sight every few minutes, every time Will meandered too close to the dock itself, the harbourmaster shot him a sharp, suspicious glare.
Will returned another long, piercing look with a friendly wave, and at last the harbourmaster gathered his ledger and purse protectively to his bosom and stalked off with them, leaving the dock fortuitously empty. Will wandered as casually as he could towards a sloop that was moored off the end of the pier and set to work at cutting her loose. He had almost finished when he felt the point of a sword against his back. He sighed.
He wondered if they would give him the same cell at the gaol this time.
"Get up, don't make any noise," a gruff, but strangely familiar, voice said into his ear.
"Do I –" Will started.
"I said don't talk," his captor repeated peevishly, and in its more normal tones he could recognize it.
"Merlin?" he asked incredulously, "is that you?"
The sword point was withdrawn and Merlin's voice, unmistakable, asked, "Will?"
Will turned and grabbed Merlin into a hug.
"What are you doing here?" Merlin asked. "You're a long way from home."
"So are you," Will pointed out. "I could ask you the same question. Do you still write home to your mother?"
"Of course I do!" Merlin sounded affronted. "And it's one of the perils of the navy life that you can end up anywhere around the globe these days. What's your excuse?"
"Perils of the alternative navy life. The navy makes it difficult to stay in one place."
Merlin goggled at him. "You're a pirate now? Why is everyone I know suddenly turning out to be a pirate while I'm stuck in the navy?"
"I never said I was a pirate," Will corrected. "It's not piracy if you have a letter of marque – it's not my fault if I happened to misplace it."
Merlin laughed. "How long ago was that?"
"A few years ago." Will waved a hand vaguely. "It doesn't really matter though, they got my name wrong anyway."
"How did they write it?"
There was a polite cough from the other end of the dock.
"Oh, right," said Merlin, "I don't suppose you'd mind taking my friends just around the bend from the harbour? We were going to steal your boat, but that would seem rude now."
Will shrugged. "Not at all, I was just liberating it from its previous owner when you interrupted me."
At a motion from Merlin, a small group emerged from the far end of the pier and came to join them swiftly. Will was pleasantly surprised to recognize Lancelot among them, although find the boy who had tried to arrest them both alongside him. There was a woman as well, barely dressed beneath her cloak – Will assumed this was the lady whose virtue Lancelot had accidentally compromised. She didn't seem to miss it; she was smiling happily and leaning into the blacksmith's boy.
He'd just finished helping the others aboard when the harbourmaster reappeared, gesturing furiously as he pointed out their activites to a handful of guards.
"Er, Merlin, couldn't you do something –" Will wiggled his fingers around mysteriously "– to help us get going?"
"What, here?" Merlin asked incredulously, glancing back at the small troupe headed their way.
"What harm can it do? They probably already think we're a bunch of rotten sorcerous pirates."
Merlin gave him a long-suffering sigh, but a moment later there was a stiff breeze that drove the sloop along with impossible momentum.
By the time the guards reached the end of the pier, the only suspicious person in sight was the Commodore's First Lieutenant, looking haplessly befuddled by wily pirates who had escaped his grasp.
Just beyond the harbour walls, a tiny boat capsized under the push of too strong a wind, and its four passengers were forced to swim the rest of the way to the waiting Grâce de lion.
"You know, I never knew my father," Merlin said. "What if he was a pirate too? I could have been a pirate all this time and I didn't know it."
Arthur rolled his eyes. "Merlin, you're not a pirate. You're in His Majesty's Royal Navy."
"I could be a secret pirate."
"You couldn't be any kind of a pirate."
"You don't know that! I could be a marvellous pirate someday."
"You'd make a terrible pirate. You make a terrible sailor."
"Didn't stop you making me your right-hand man."
"Only because if I let you out of my sight you'd sink the entire fleet!"
"That was only one boat –"
"– ship! –"
"– and they found it eventually!"
Arthur groaned in dismay.
"Hang on," said Merlin, "aren't we going the wrong way?"
"Our mission is to make these regions safe for the passage of all His Majesty's vessels, merchantmen, traders..."
"You're afraid your father's going to blame you for Morgana running off to become a pirate, aren't you?"
"I have duties as the Commandant of the Fleet."
"It's not like it's your fault she'd rather jump off a cliff."
"Or marry a blacksmith."
"It's not like she was ever going to marry you anyway."
"This is going to be a six-week cruise around the Caribbean. There are a lot of deserted islands where I could drop you off along the way."