And Merlin locked his hand in hers and said:
"O did ye never lie upon the shore,
And watch the curled white of the coming wave
Glassed in the slippery sand before it breaks?
Even such a wave, but not so pleasurable,
Dark in the glass of some presageful mood,
Had I for three days seen, ready to fall.
And then I rose and fled from Arthur's court
To break the mood. You followed me unasked;
And when I looked, and saw you following still,
My mind involved yourself the nearest thing
In that mind-mist: for shall I tell you truth?
You seemed that wave about to break upon me
And sweep me from my hold upon the world.”
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Idylls of the King
Two hours after Bess is born, her mother dies.
There is no one to blame – her mother had been weak and often ill, and though the midwife is a stranger to the village with odd manners and cold eyes, no one doubts the woman’s skill. The midwife holds Bess’ mother’s hand as she dies, and there is such sorrow and anger and black memory in the midwife’s pale face that the other women step back, away from the bed.
“I did everything I could,” the midwife says to Bess’ father. She does not say, I’m sorry.
Bess’ father is a good, quiet man, who loved his wife in a good, quiet way. He holds his daughter closely. “Thank you,” he says.
There is no confusion in the midwife’s cold blue eyes, but she frowns. “Your wife is dead, and you thank me.”
Bess’ father touches one calloused fingertip to his daughter’s forehead, to the delicate skin on the bridge of her nose. “Because I am grateful,” he says. He looks up at the midwife, meets the old eyes set within the young, flawless face. “I would like to give her your name.”
Nimueh raises the hood of her cloak. “That will not be necessary,” she says, and walks out the cottage door and into the night.
Bess inherits her mother’s round sweet face, but not her wit. She is simple and slow, understands little and says less. The other children in the village taunt her, call her unkind names and say unkind things – the casual cruelties of children. When she is seven years old they knock her to the ground, pin her down and rub clods of dirt into her clean clothes.
It makes Bess laugh, the sound wordless and bubbling and clear, and the other children draw back when they realise she thinks it is a game, that they’ve finally included her in their fun. She smiles at them, sweetly, and they run off into the forest, feet throwing dust into the sunny afternoon air. Bess sits up, rubbing the fresh bruises on her arms. It’s like wolf pups playing, she thinks. They pounced me, and now I’m meant to pounce back.
But her ribs hurt, making each breath come sharp, and she goes home to her father instead.
People confuse Bess. Animals do not.
Horses like her easy calm and the little apples she hides in her pockets. Dogs like the unerring scritch of her fingers in the flea-bitten places. Cows like her gentle, steady hands.
Sheep don’t seem to care much one way or the other – but then, that’s sheep for you.
Bess likes spiders best, sometimes. She isn’t foolish enough to touch them, knowing they would find it impertinent, but she watches them, the silk from their bodies and the glint of their many eyes. When she is nine years old she tries to make her own web from a spare length of string, and begins to cry when it knots in her hair and tangles her fingers and holds her fast.
Her father uses his hunting knife to cut her free, brushing her tears away with his thumbs. She sees in his eyes that he is trying not to laugh, and starts to laugh herself. She must look so silly, a little girl trying to be a spider. She tips her forehead against his, giggling. “Suppose I don’t have enough eyes,” she says.
“Or enough legs.” He cuts the last knot. “Thank goodness.”
When Bess is thirteen years old a terrible drought strikes the kingdom. The food rots and the well fills with sand, and the village is forced to slaughter and eat the cattle it can no longer afford to keep. The men of the village ask Bess to calm each cow before it is killed, to place her small plump hand on its head and smile.
“Hush,” she whispers into each twitching ear. “I won’t let anything hurt you.”
When the blow falls, she can see the gratitude in the cow’s solemn brown eyes.
Bess is simple, but she understands this.
When Bess is fourteen years old, she is hit by lightning.
She is walking alone in the forest at dusk, and above the green canopy of the trees the sky is grey and clear. She whistles a little, tunelessly, and stumbles over a rotten tree stump.
“Oh, bother,” she says, and bends down to poke at the sudden stab of pain in her ankle. She’s twisted it again.
Overhead the clouds grow black, coiling together like the body of a long serpent. Light gathers at its heart, shuddering through the darkness.
Bess sniffs the air, smelling something unfamiliar, something like the scent of a flame just before it is lit. She looks up from her twisted ankle and frowns. “That’s silly,” she says. “You can’t smell a fire before it starts to burn.”
The bolt of lightning sizzles past trees and shrubs and the rotted stump and strikes the crown of Bess’ dark head.
Her body makes a soft sound as it hits the forest floor. The flames die out quickly.
After a moment, it begins to rain.
Many miles away, the same rain falls on the Isle of the Blessed.
“What did you do?” the old man says, his voice faint. The stone altar is hard against his back, and he’s fairly certain he’s meant to be dead. In fact, he’s fairly certain that, until a moment ago, he was.
“Nimueh’s dead,” the boy says. He does not say, I have killed her.
There’s nothing like regret in his smile.
When Bess wakes, she has leaves in her hair and her ankle is swollen. She sits up and rubs at her eyes.
The sky is bright and morning pale, and her father will be frantic. She staggers to her feet, her stomach knotted with guilt. This isn’t the first time she’s spent the night alone in the forest, but he worries and she’s all he has.
She remembers her father, younger and taller, standing with an infant in his arms. His beard is still dark and neat, and his eyes are fixed on the infant’s face. “Because I am grateful,” he says, and the memory makes her angry, makes her wish that he would shout and scream and threaten terrible things, because his child lives and his wife is dead and it is her fault, her cursed magic and her cursed promises, and when he is done he will see her suffer. He will see her burn.
Witch, a voice hisses, and Bess’ knees buckle. She falls into a puddle, and the mud feels cool against her skin.
“I’m pretty sure I’m not a witch,” she says to the quiet forest. “At least, I’ve never been one before.”
The sun is high overhead by the time she finds her way home. Her father holds her close, and he does not see the coldness in her eyes.
After that, Bess spends more time alone in the forest.
There is a lot to remember, and a lot to think about. Some memories make her frown, and some make her laugh. Many make her burn with an anger that brings her close to tears, but she is determined to go through them all. She thinks she must have them for a reason, and when she’s reached the end she understands.
She leans back against the trunk of an old elm tree and sighs. “That’s what comes of arrogance,” she says. “Murdered by a stupid little boy and his magical tantrum.” She scratches her knee. “Serves me right.”
She pushes herself to her feet and walks back to the village. She finds her father chopping wood outside their cottage. “I’m going to Camelot after the harvest,” she says. “If you don’t mind.”
Her father stops and stares at her. A bead of sweat travels down his forehead and into his eyes. “What?”
“I should probably learn to read before I go,” she says. “It’s very awkward, being illiterate.” She pulls a rag from her dress pocket and gently wipes the sweat from his brow. “Do we have any books?”
That afternoon Bess teaches herself to read with a book about animal husbandry she borrows from the village clerk. She makes faces at the pictures and after an hour or so starts to correct the author’s grammar with a piece of chalk.
Her father watches her from the across the kitchen table, his mouth a thin line.
The night before Bess leaves for Camelot her father comes and sits on the edge of her bed, just before she falls asleep.
“You could wait a few years,” he says. “Go when you’re older.” His fingers are knotted in the quilt, straining the seams.
Bess covers his hand with her own. “I feel sort of old already,” she says. She smiles at him, and if her eyes are a little colder, her smile is the same. “I might be too old to go, not too young.”
Bess’ father touches one calloused fingertip to his daughter’s forehead, to the freckled skin on the bridge of her nose. “Wherever you go,” he says, “I want you to be happy.”
Bess isn’t sure she ought to be happy, isn’t sure that’s the sort of life she deserves. But if her father wants it, it must be all right. She nods. “I’ll do my best,” she says, and kisses his cheek.
When he hugs her goodbye the next morning his arms are a stiff circle around her, keeping her close but careful not to hold her too tightly. It makes her throat ache and her eyes burn, and she knows she should say, I’ll come back. Should say, I will, I promise.
When Bess first sees the towers of Camelot, it’s early morning. The sky is sharp autumn blue, the light is pure, and the city is beautiful. As beautiful as the city in her memory.
She hates it.
She has to stop walking, rage coiling in the pit of her stomach like a sickness. She wraps her arms around herself and shudders. She remembers the smoke that darkened the sky, the smoke that stained the white walls of Camelot with ash. She remembers the damp stone floor of the dungeon, and her king standing tall above her, his face in shadow.
You’ll be the last, he says. I want you to watch.
Uther is in that city, right now. There’s nothing they could do to stop her.
Bess pinches her own leg, hard through the layers of her skirts. “Yes, yes, revenge,” she mutters under her breath. “Because that worked out so well for you last time.”
She walks the rest of the road quickly, her eyes fixed on the path in front of her. She ducks her head as she passes through the quiet of the lower village (the poisoned well had taken so many, and those that are left speak softly, if at all) and continues until she reaches the castle courtyard. A servant woman with authority in the set of her thick shoulders is arguing with a stable boy.
“It’s sheer laziness, that’s what it is, and I haven’t the time—” The woman stops, noticing Bess’ stare. “And what do you want?”
“A job,” Bess says. “Please.”
The woman raises a wooly eyebrow. “Really,” she says.
Bess has never done magic before, but she is quite certain that she could make this woman agree to whatever she wished. It wouldn’t even take a proper spell – just the push of a strong mind against a weaker one. Instead she raises her chin and says, “I’m good with animals.”
The woman sets her hands on her ample hips and gives Bess a crooked smile. “Wonderful,” she says. “How do you feel about geese?”
Geese are horrible.
They seem to hate Bess for the same reasons other animals adore her, snapping at her gentle fingers and hissing at the soft sound of her voice. They are fat and dirty and loud and she hates them as much as they hate her, and one day the largest, meanest gander chases her into the pond, white wings outstretched, his sharp beak reaching for her face.
She lands on her arse in the muddy water and starts to laugh.
The gander stops mid-attack, confused.
Bess clutches her stomach, laughing so hard she can barely speak. In between giggles she manages to say something that sounds like, all-powerful sorceress and feared by an entire kingdom and defeated by a Christmas goose.
The gander ruffles his feathers. It’s not polite to mention Christmas around a goose.
“Sorry,” she says, wiping her eyes. She stands, and then starts to giggle again when her skirts make a slurping sound as they leave the pond. When she gets her laughter under control she holds out her hand, a solemn offering of peace. “Friends?”
The gander waddles away with the put upon air of someone who has much more important things to do, thank you.
“I could turn you into a toad,” she shouts after him. “Or worse, a duck!”
All told, she’s had far more unpleasant jobs in Camelot than royal goose girl.
Bess is in Camelot for two months before the Dragon wakes her in the middle of the night.
The room she shares with two serving girls and a milkmaid is quiet, the air thick with sleep, and she creeps carefully out of her bed and into her clothes and shoes. She walks through the castle, along corridors she has never seen before, until she finds herself in the deepest part of Uther’s dungeon. The guards are playing dice and gossiping like old women, and Bess walks up to them, watching their game from over their shoulders.
They can’t see her.
It’s an old spell, cast so many times in the last year that it lingers still in the stone and the air. It smells like ozone, like fire just before it burns, and Bess rubs a hand over her tired eyes. “You’d think Gaius would teach the boy a little subtlety,” she says, shaking her head, and then she walks the long tunnel to the Dragon’s prison.
“Oh dear,” the Dragon says with a toothy grin. “What have you done to yourself?” His tone is light and mocking, as if she’s simply been the victim of an unfortunate haircut, and Bess rolls her eyes.
“I died,” she says. She shrugs. “Happens to the best of us.”
The Dragon raises a claw. “But there are measures, Sister, which one must take to prevent such a misstep from becoming a permanent misfortune.” His grin widens. “You seem to have botched yours.”
Part of Bess is fascinated by the Great Dragon, fascinated and terrified and a little bit in love. The rest of her – the part that remembers watching him swallow a cow whole and smelled his belch afterward – is just annoyed.
“Also, you cheat at cards,” she says, and if the Dragon is confused by the non sequitur, he doesn’t show it.
“What went wrong, do you think?” he asks, folding one enormous clawed foot over the other. His chains clink, and the sound echoes through the cavern. “Was it Merlin’s curse? Some sort of impurity in the original spell casting?” He pauses, delicately. “A flaw in your choice of surrogate body?”
Bess clenches her fists. “I am not a surrogate body.”
The Dragon blinks. “I suppose that answers my question.”
“Get stuffed,” Bess says, and stomps back up the winding path to the dungeon.
“Two souls at war will never find peace in the same heart,” the Dragon calls after her, because of course he has to have the last word, the more ominous and incomprehensible the better.
“Overgrown lizard,” Bess mutters, and goes back to bed.
Bess meets Gwen in the castle laundry.
Outside the city walls the December wind blows cold, but the crowded laundry is a midday nightmare of heat and steam and raised voices. Bess thinks that hell must smell like this, like women’s sweat and harsh soaps that burn the inside of your nose. She darts in, drops her linens in the nearest basket, and then hurries to the nearest door, hoping no one’s noticed her.
“Oi!” A tall scullery maid with ginger braids shoves Bess aside, knocking her into a pile of dirty clothes. “Watch where you’re walking, you little freak.”
“I’m not little,” Bess says. She doesn’t say, You’re just terrifyingly tall.
The tall maid grins. It’s not a pleasant expression. “But you are a freak.”
“Well, yes,” Bess says. “But not a little one.”
Bess isn’t sure of the tall maid’s name – in her head she calls her Gargantua, which admittedly isn’t very nice – but she’s been dodging the girl for months, ducking around corners and hiding behind tapestries whenever she walks by. Bullies have always loved Bess; she thinks there must be something about her face. Perhaps a tattoo on her forehead that reads, Weakest sheep in the flock. Get your mutton here.
Like all experienced bullies, Gargantua travels with a pack. They gather around Bess now, blocking out the rest of the bustling room and trapping her in the pile of dirty laundry.
“You still haven’t apologised for bumping me,” Gargantua says.
“I am very, very sorry.” Bess pauses, considering, and then adds, “Very.”
She isn’t sure which very alerts Gargantua to her insincerity, and the question becomes somewhat academic when the tall girl bends down until her nose is inches away and says, “You’re ugly, you smell like goose shit, and you don’t belong here.”
Bess smiles, leaning forward until their noses touch. “You have eyes as wise as a hen’s, a face as delicate as a sow’s, and breath like the depths of a donkey’s bottom.”
The tall girl’s face turns a bright, steam kettle red.
“I’m sorry,” Bess says. “I thought we were being honest.”
Gargantua lifts one large, damp hand and slaps Bess hard across the mouth.
Before the lightning strike in the forest that day, Bess hadn’t really been capable of anger. Frustration and bitterness, yes, and many other foul moods besides, but never anger toward another person. Never anything like this.
She can taste her own blood in her mouth and it makes her grin, something cold and rain-soaked and ancient rising inside her, pricking the tips of her fingers. The words are like honey at the back of her throat, and if she gives them voice the tall girl’s life will be clay in her hands – a delicate thread, ready to snap.
Her fingers twitch.
“Penny Goodfoot,” a new voice says, “what do you think you’re doing?”
Another girl has stepped into the circle. She’s older than all of them, with dark curls and a simple yellow dress, and when she speaks she doesn’t raise her voice. She just stands there with her arms crossed, her expression unamused and yet not at all unkind. Bess loves her at once, the way weeds love the sun.
Gargantua – or Penny, apparently – wilts under the new girl’s gaze. “She bumped me, Gwen. I was just letting her apologise.”
Gwen nods. “Apologising is very important,” she says, and gives Penny a pointed look.
Penny sighs, grabs Bess’ arm, and pulls her out of the laundry pile. “Sorry,” Penny says, as if the word hurts her teeth. “Won’t happen again.”
“No, it probably will,” Bess says brightly. “Next time I’ll try harder to run away.”
Penny and her gang shuffle off with dark, sullen looks on their faces, and when they’ve gone Gwen shakes her head. “She really doesn’t like you. I mean, she doesn’t like anyone, but she really doesn’t like you.” She stops, her pretty face suddenly anxious. “Not that that’s a bad thing. Because she’s awful, isn’t she, and no one wants awful people to like them.”
Bess still isn’t sure she’s not an awful person herself; she nods mutely, not sure what to say.
Gwen’s expression softens into a smile and she reaches out to touch Bess’ split lip. It stings, and Bess winces. “Come on,” Gwen says, taking her hand. “Let’s get that patched up.”
Gwen leads Bess out of the laundry, tugging her through busy corridors and telling a peculiar story about the awful Penny and an old tomcat that used to sleep in the castle kitchens. She’s trying to cheer Bess up, trying to distract her from the pain in her lip and dark bruise spreading across her cheek, and Bess nods too much and keeps laughing at the wrong parts of the story. Gwen doesn’t seem to mind; she laughs too, and Bess is just beginning to think that maybe this talking to people lark might not be so bad when Gwen leads her past a small wooden sign that says Court Physician.
“Almost there,” Gwen says, and Bess panics. She reaches out and grabs for the wall, refusing to take another step.
“No, no,” she says. “No need to bother him. Waste of his time, court physician and all. Very busy, I would think. All that science.” Gwen stares at her, and Bess swallows hard.
“He’s a friend,” Gwen says slowly, gently, and oh, of course he bloody is. “He’ll be happy to help.” And then, before Bess can argue or, you know, run away, Gwen calls out, “Gaius! I have a patient for you.”
“Bugger,” Bess says.
A door opens at the top of the stairs and an old man with white hair steps out. “Hello, Gwen. Nothing too serious, I hope.”
Gwen says something in reply, but Bess doesn’t hear it. She can’t hear anything above the rush of blood in her ears, the hot press of her pulse high in her throat. Gaius meets her eyes and the rage is so complete it’s like a living thing, something dark and clawed crouched inside her, livid and eager and waiting.
Coward, the rage purrs, its long claws unfurled. Traitor.
“Thank you, Gwen,” Gaius says quickly, interrupting the girl’s explanation. “You’d best return to your duties.”
“Of course,” Gwen says, looking a little uncertain. She squeezes Bess’ hand and hurries away.
Bess and Gaius stare at each other, the staircase between them.
Gaius is the first to break the silence. “That’s a nasty lip.”
“Got slapped in the face by a giant scullery maid.”
“You’re lucky you escaped with nothing more than a split lip. That tomcat’s never been the same.” Gaius leans against the doorframe, his face unreadable. “Merlin isn’t here.”
“I’m not looking for him,” she says. “I wasn’t looking for you, either.”
One of Gaius’ eyebrows wobbles high above the other. “Oh?”
“I’ve been here for months. Working.” She blushes and hates herself a little for it. “I’m the new goose girl.”
Gaius frowns. “The simple one who hides behind tapestries?”
“Most people just call me Bess,” Bess says. “It’s shorter.”
Gaius stares at her, utterly uncharmed, and somehow she’d forgotten that he was like this, sharp and prickly and always two steps ahead of her, always three steps ahead of everyone else. It had been so frustrating and so strange, not being the cleverest person in the room, not if he was in it. It made his good opinion that much more precious, his censure that much more heartbreaking. She’d forgotten that.
Gaius watches her face, his expression guarded, careful. After a moment, he seems to come to a decision. “You’d better come in, then. Do you still take sugar with your tea?”
His workroom is the same, long tables cluttered with open books and bundles of herbs and vials of strangely coloured liquids. Of all the familiar places in the castle this one is the least touched by time; the half-eaten bowl of porridge by the window could easily be her own, abandoned years ago in a sudden fit of inspiration or a summons to attend her queen.
But the porridge is Merlin’s, as are the muddy footprints on the floor and the thick residue of magic, hanging in the air like smoke. Bess shudders a little, folding her arms across her chest.
“You don’t seem very surprised to see me,” she says.
Gaius fusses with the kettle, putting the water on to boil. “There are many methods – most rather unsavory – by which a sorcerer of your abilities might unnaturally extend her life. It was only a question of which method you would choose.” He turns his head and gives her a hard, piercing look. “You stole that child’s life.”
“Not exactly,” Bess says.
Gaius doesn’t reply – he simply gestures to an empty spot on the nearest table. Bess hops up and perches at the table’s edge, her eyes on the door. Gaius dips a cloth into a bowl of water, rings it out, and passes it to her. “Hold that against your lip. It’s swelling.”
The cloth is cold against her mouth, and it feels wonderful. She’s thirsty and feverish, her head throbbing with each beat of her heart, and when Gaius steps close with a jar of salve in one hand and clean cloth in the other, she flinches back, dizzy and overwhelmed by memory.
She sees Gaius years ago, his face less lined, his hair grey and cropped short. Younger hands move quickly as they unscrew the lid of the jar, and he scowls at her, his expression fond beneath its veneer of irritation. “Next time you decide to attempt unstable magics without the necessary precautions, I hope you’ll remember this moment.” His fingers are gentle against her singed face and cool with salve. The corner of his mouth quirks up in half a smile. “You look quite silly without eyebrows, you know.”
In the present, Gaius watches her warily, the jar unopened in his hand. “What did you see just now? Where did you go?”
“I don’t—” She stops, swallowing around the thickness in her throat, and looks away. “Forget it. It’s not important.”
Gaius slams the jar down on the table. “Nimueh—”
Her head snaps up, something fierce in her round, sweet face. “That is not my name.”
Gaius’ eyes widen, lighting with comprehension. He takes a step back. “You’re the little girl.”
“I’m both,” Bess says. “And I’m not little.”
Gaius picks up the jar of salve, his eyes never leaving hers. “No,” he says slowly. “No, of course not.” He cleans and treats her lip, rubs ointment into her bruised cheek with steady fingers. When he is done he wipes his hands on a clean cloth and says, “Bess, why did you come to Camelot?”
She raises her chin. “I didn’t come to kill anyone, if that’s what you mean. ”
Gaius folds his hands in front of him, the patient teacher. “But you have not forgiven Uther.”
The name alone is like flames licking her skin, like the hiss of a falling axe. Bess closes her eyes. “No,” she says. “I haven’t.”
“And have you forgiven me?”
When Bess opens her eyes, she can see Gaius’ regret, and his guilt. So many died as he stood beside his king, and he has not forgotten a single face. They live on in his dreams, in his nightmares. He watches them burn. Good, she thinks. So do I.
The kettle whistles; the water is ready. Gaius crosses the room and lifts it from the flame.
“I don’t want your forgiveness,” Bess says, “and I doubt you want mine, either.”
He shrugs. “Probably not,” he says.
“We both did what we thought right.”
Gaius pauses, his hand over the teapot. He turns back to her. “And what do you think now?”
She’d really hoped he wouldn’t ask that. She looks down at her feet and sighs. “Now I think we were both fools.”
Gaius nods once, and then stands very still, his head bowed. Bess slips gracelessly down from the table, her shoes loud against the stone floor. She’s almost to the door when Gaius turns and takes a step toward her, a cautious advance. She hesitates.
Uther had been her friend and her king, and twenty years later his betrayal burns her still. But Gaius – Gaius had been her teacher. She’d been so powerful, so arrogant and quick to anger, and Gaius had never feared her. He’d been patient, and taught her control. Been kind, and taught her compassion.
Gaius had been her family, and he’d watched silently as Uther’s men bound her to the stake and left her there to burn.
“I have biscuits for the tea,” he says, twenty years and a lifetime later. “If you’d like one.”
Bess looks to the door. Gaius is a traitor and a coward, and she will never forgive what he’s done, not if she lives for a thousand years. Not if she lives forever.
Still, though, she thinks. Biscuits.
“I still hate you, you know,” Bess says around a mouthful of biscuit.
“Believe me,” Gaius says, “the feeling is perfectly mutual.” He smiles. “More tea?”
That winter she dreams of a lake.
Not the muddy little duck pond where she spends each day with her geese – a faraway, snow-fed wilderness, huge and mirror still beneath the pale sky and paler mountains. The air is bitter cold, but the lake does not freeze. In her dreams Bess stands at the shore, pebbles hard beneath her bare feet, and looks down into the water.
Two faces look back at her, haloed by the green reflection of winter trees and the grey sky above. They are both her own.
Not yet, the lake says. But soon.
“You’ve been avoiding Merlin,” Gaius says one wet afternoon. They’re playing cards, a fast game with a complex set of rules that was all the rage at Uther’s court two decades before and is now entirely out of fashion. Gaius is winning.
“I’m not avoiding anyone,” Bess says. She squints at her cards. “Stop trying to distract me.”
“You distract yourself well enough without my help,” Gaius says. He takes a sip from his mug of tea. “Well, if you’re not avoiding him, it’s a strange coincidence indeed that you’ve lived in the same castle for months and never met.”
“We’ve met,” Bess says. She plays two cards, somewhat hesitantly. “He spilled a bucket of water on me, once.”
“Not exactly a formal introduction. Nor, I suppose, an unusual one, given Merlin’s typical grace and poise.” Gaius lays his cards down on the table with a smile. “I win. Again.”
Bess glares at him. “Cheater.”
Gaius gathers up the cards and begins to shuffle. “You think everyone cheats. To a mind like your own, it is the only acceptable explanation for why you’ve lost.”
Twenty years ago, Bess would have stormed out of the workroom in a fury. Now she just shrugs. “Losing sucks.”
“Yes,” Gaius agrees, his voice dry. “Well said.” He deals two new hands in silence, and they listen to the rain against the windows. For long minutes, the room is quiet.
“I would have thought,” Bess says carefully, “that you’d want me to avoid Merlin.”
Gaius raises an eyebrow. “Were you planning on telling him who you are?”
“I didn’t plan on telling you.”
“You hardly needed to. I’d recognise your pretty scowl anywhere.” He sits back in his chair, his cards abandoned on the table. He scratches his chin. “You’re right. I do want you to avoid him.”
“Because you think he’ll recognise me.”
“On the contrary – I want you to stay away because I am sure he will not.” Gaius smiles, but there is little happiness in it. “He only knew Nimueh in her last years, Bess. He saw the monster she became, not the woman she was.”
Monster, he says, like he’s never done wrong. Like his hands are clean. Bess bites into a biscuit, trying to hide her flash of rage. Gaius sees anyway, of course.
He sighs, his eyes tired. “So many died in the name of her revenge, Bess. You know I’m right.”
“I do,” Bess says through her teeth. “That’s why I’m angry.”
Gaius reaches across the table and touches her clenched fist, his fingers light against the white skin of her knuckles. Neither speaks, and slowly her hand opens, fingers loosening until her palm rests against the wood of the table.
“Guilt is a selfish emotion,” Gaius says softly. “It does nothing for those we’ve harmed.” He’s silent for a moment, his fingers warm against hers. “Still. Better to be selfish than to forget.”
They play three more games, and Gaius wins every hand. After the third game Bess finishes her tea and slips out the door, a few biscuits tucked safely in her pockets.
Merlin hurries in minutes later, babbling about dents in the prince’s armour. He never notices the deck of cards still sitting on the table.
On the night before Bess’ fifteenth birthday, the Great Dragon calls to her again.
“Feeling a little lonely?” she asks, settling on the edge of the precipice. She pulls her blanket close about her shoulders and lets her legs swing in the air. “Or did you just want to wish me happy birthday?”
“Happy birthday,” the Dragon says, smirking. “I hope you don’t expect me to sing.”
“That depends,” Bess says. “Do you have cake?”
The Dragon sighs. “I did summon you for a reason, Sister. But if you’d rather make foolish jokes—”
“I would,” she says. “Definitely. If I get a choice, put me down for foolish jokes over pompous mumbo jumbo any day of the week.”
The Dragon grins, showing his many teeth. “Funny. You once put great store in my so-called pompous mumbo jumbo.”
Bess rolls her eyes. “I also used to tie feathers to my head and call it a hairstyle. I was obviously not at my best.”
“You were the most powerful sorcerer this land had ever seen.”
Bess notes his use of the past tense. Oh, Merlin, she thinks. What have you been getting up to? “Powerful or not,” she says, “that still doesn’t excuse the pseudo-dreadlocks.” She pauses. “Or the killing people.”
“Casualties of war,” the Dragon says carelessly, and Bess wonders how such a beautiful creature can suddenly look so ugly.
“Not my war,” Bess says, her voice like iron. “Not ever again.”
The Dragon’s long neck stretches across the chasm between them until his face is a few short feet from hers. “You have forgotten the Old Magic, Sister, but the Old Magic has not forgotten you. Do not think to escape your destiny – you will fail, and all the suffering of your long life will seem a blessing in comparison to what will follow.”
“Wow,” Bess says, her eyes wide. “Your breath is terrible. Like, really, really bad.”
“I’ll give you terrible breath,” the Dragon rumbles, and Bess only just makes it out of the cavern before the fire scorches the edge of her blanket.
That spring Bess falls in love with Prince Arthur’s horse.
He’s a steady, unexceptional looking bay roan with a taste for sour apples and the curly ends of Bess’ hair – a strange horse for a prince, Bess thinks. In her experience princes prefer fire and height and speed in their mounts, not sure feet and keen, intelligent eyes. It makes her wonder.
Bess offers the roan another apple, cupping it in the palm of her hand. He lips the sleeve of her dress instead, as if chiding her for thinking ill of his rider.
“I was making a generalization,” Bess tells the roan. “There’s no need to get huffy.”
“He does that,” a voice says from behind her. “He’s very sensitive, for a horse.”
Arthur Pendragon stands in the open door of the stables, his pale hair lit from behind by the early morning sun. He’s dressed for riding in trousers and a simple shirt, a long brown coat thrown over one arm, and he still looks a little sleepy about the eyes. Bess drops into an awkward curtsy.
“Sire,” she says.
He smiles. “Sorry to startle you. I didn’t expect anyone to be here this early.”
“I was just—” She stops, grasping feebly for an explanation. Oh dear, she thinks. Were his eyes always that shade of blue? “I was just saying hello. To your horse.” She turns and waves to the roan. “Hello!”
The roan definitely does not roll his eyes at her. No, definitely not.
“How very friendly of you,” the prince says, and though she can tell from his voice that he’s laughing at her, she can also tell that he’s trying not to be mean about it. He walks over and smoothes his hand down the soft hair of the roan’s nose. The roan whuffs into his palm. “How’s it going, mate?” the prince says softly. “Why the long face?”
The roan presses his huge head against the prince’s chest and shoves him away. The prince laughs, delighted.
“You deserved that,” Bess says.
The prince rests his elbows on the top railing of the stall door and grins. “Well, I can see where your loyalties lie.” He shakes his head, watching as the roan presses his nose to the curve of Bess’ neck, sniffing for more apples. “He’s an incorrigible flirt, you know. A girl in every stable. He’ll break your heart.”
The prince winks at her, and Bess fixes her eyes on the roan’s forelock, fighting a blush. “What’s his name?”
“He doesn’t have one.” The prince swings the stall door open and steps inside. “Could never find one that suited him.”
The roan’s eyes are large and dark and delicately lashed – he tilts his head and stares at Bess as the prince takes a brush from the wall and cleans his back and girth with long, sure strokes. Sunlight streams through the open door, chasing away the morning chill, and Bess can see specks of straw and dust floating in the air. They glow gold in the light.
The roan’s breath is warm against Bess’ cheek. “He should have a name,” she says.
The prince returns the brush to its hook on the wall. “Names are important. I don’t want to give one lightly.” He lifts the saddle onto the roan’s back. “Anyway, there’s still time. He’s young yet.”
The corner of the prince’s mouth rises in a small, elliptical smile, and Bess is sure that he is thinking of the years to come, of the crown and the weight he will bear. Arthur is young yet, but he knows how swiftly time passes – one day the young prince will be an old king, and his horse will still be without a name.
Arthur ducks his head, straightening the leather straps of the saddle, and the strange smile is gone as quickly as it had come.
“You’re so like your mother,” Bess says.
Arthur’s hands go still.
Bess covers her mouth, mortified. “Sire, I’m sorry, I didn’t—”
He turns to her, his back ramrod straight and his face carefully blank. “I don’t see how you could possibly be in a position to know. The queen died twenty years ago, and you’re – what?” He gives her a hard look. “Twelve years old? Thirteen?”
“I’m fifteen,” Bess says quietly.
“You don’t look it,” Arthur says, as if he means it to hurt. It does, a little. “Either way, you’re too old for foolish lies.”
“I wasn’t lying,” she says. “I – my mother, when she was young, she was a handmaiden here at court. She told me stories.”
Some of the horrible blankness leaves Arthur’s face. “Stories about my mother?”
“Yes. She was very fond of her.” Bess knots her fingers together behind her back, the lie sour and strange on her tongue. “I mean, they were friends. In a servant and her mistress sort of way.”
Arthur nods, as if this makes perfect sense; Bess is pretty sure it doesn’t. He turns back to the saddle, tugging at straps and stubborn buckles. “What sort of stories did she tell you?”
His tone is careless, conversational; Bess swallows and looks away, trying not to see the poorly hidden want in his face.
“Happy ones, mostly,” she says, her voice a little hoarse. “Feasts and dancing and tournaments. Lots of hairdressing. That sort of thing.”
“Oh,” he says.
Bess closes her eyes at the undisguised disappointment in his voice. She tries not to remember the pained blue of Igraine’s eyes, her iron grip as she held Nimueh’s hand to her swollen belly and said, You’ll help him, won’t you? You’ll keep him safe?
Yes, she’d said. I will. I promise.
Bess opens her eyes. “The queen set the Great Hall on fire, once.”
Arthur’s head jerks up. “What?”
“It was meant to be a joke. Her friend – not my mother, someone else – invented these…well, they were little bags filled with herbs and such, and when you lit the bag on fire it set off sparks and released this awful smell.” She pauses, her nose wrinkling. “It was disgusting, really. Particularly in enclosed spaces. Don’t know what she was thinking.” She shakes her head. “Anyway, the queen hid them under the tables in the Hall before a feast, and then she set them off just as everyone started to eat.”
Arthur stares at her. “My mother set off stink bombs during a royal feast.”
“It would have been funny, but one of the tapestries caught fire. There was a lot of smoke and screaming and running about.” She purses her lips. “It was still a bit funny.”
“I don’t believe you.” He does, though – Bess can see it in his face. In the eager set of his jaw. He abandons the half-buckled saddle and leans against the stall door. “My father would have been furious.”
Bess dismisses that with a wave of her hand. “Oh, he was in on it from the beginning. That was their arrangement – she could pull whatever pranks she wanted as long as she let him in on the joke ahead of time.”
“Got his permission, you mean.”
Bess laughs. “Your mother never asked anyone’s permission for anything. She did exactly as she liked.”
Arthur frowns. “And she liked to set the castle on fire.”
“Only on special occasions,” Bess says. Arthur’s frown deepens, his forehead creasing, and Bess feels something twist in her stomach. She holds tight to the stall door, and the rough wood grinds into her palms. “No, it wasn’t like that. The fire was an accident and she felt terrible about it. Most of her pranks worked out quite well.”
Arthur rubs his hand over his face. “It’s just…” His jaw tightens. “It’s hard to imagine. I always pictured her – different, somehow.”
Bess’ only memory of her mother is watching her die. Bess cannot imagine her otherwise, cannot see her face without its sheen of sweat or hear her voice unless it is rough with pain. Arthur has nothing to remember, and all that remains of his mother is a reverent silence, cold and untouchable.
“You thought she was perfect,” Bess says, and Arthur flinches.
Bess reaches across the stall door to touch his sleeve. “She wasn’t. She was vain about the size of her nose and composed awful limericks when she was bored – which, to be honest, was most of time. She was proud and stubborn and sarcastic, and she set off stink bombs and put salt in the sugar bowl because she wanted people to laugh at themselves. Wanted them to remember that they were small and human and silly, and no different from those who lived in the city below.” Bess smiles a little, a sad quirk at the corner of her mouth. “She wasn’t perfect, wasn’t even always good, but her responsibilities as queen, her duty to Camelot and its people – nothing was more important.” She pauses. “Nothing except you, of course.”
Arthur stands very still, watching her face with bright eyes. Then he steps back, the fabric of his sleeve slipping out from under her fingers. “Your mother told you this.”
“Yes,” Bess says. “She was very specific. Detail-oriented. You know.”
“I see.” Arthur lays one hand against the roan’s neck, and the horse leans into his touch. They stand quietly for a moment. “Thank you,” he says. “For saying I was like her.”
“I meant it. And not just because you have her nose.”
Arthur’s eyes narrow. “There is nothing wrong with my nose.”
“Never said there was, sire.” Bess glances at the stable door. “Well, would you look at the sun. I’d better get to work. Those geese won’t herd themselves.”
“You’re very odd,” Arthur says.
“Thank you, sire.” Bess curtseys. “Enjoy your ride.”
Arthur waves her off. “Enjoy your…whatever it is you do. Try not to get into too much trouble.”
“I think you’re confusing me with someone else,” Bess says. She tosses Arthur the last of the sour apples from her pockets. “Here. Hengroen likes them.”
“Hengroen?” Arthur turns to the roan, and the horse delicately snatches the apple from his fingers.
“It means old skin,” Bess says. “An old name for a young horse.”
“Hengroen,” Arthur says again, his brow furrowing as he watches the roan chew. Bess slips out the stable door and into the sunlight.
As she leaves she hears Arthur say, “You know, Hengroen, I don’t think I even know how to make a stink bomb.”
Which is probably for the best, really.
One day Bess looks down into the rushes by the bank of the duck pond and sees a boy in the water.
The summer sun is hot overhead, the sky a clear, brutal blue, but in her reflection she sees clouds, dark trees, and a boy’s face where her own should be. He has pale, delicate features and night black hair, and though he can’t be much more than ten years old, something in his unblinking stare grips her like a chill, like a sudden submersion in ice-cold waters. An invisible hand seizes her throat and she falls to the ground, choking, her fingers clutching at the empty air.
The boy smiles and disappears.
Bess collapses back against the grass of the bank, breathing hard. The heat of the day returns, seeping into her clothing and skin, and she closes her eyes against the sunlight.
A shadow falls across her face, and a goose nips at the collar of her dress. Bess lifts her head to complain and gets a mouthful of feathers. She coughs, dragging her hand over her mouth. “What are you trying to do – finish me off?”
The goose gives her an imperious look and waddles away.
Bess sits up and touches the bruises forming at her throat. Perfect. Gaius is going to have questions, and she’ll have to make up a story about a homicidal goose or scullery maid assassins with garrote wire. She certainly won’t tell him the truth.
The boy knew her – knew precisely what she was and that she would not fight back – but she did not know him. The Druids are powerful, true enough, and the boy’s touch reeked of their magic, but there was something else. Something she cannot give a name to. Something familiar.
Her hands are still shaking.
Bess hears a shout from across the duck pond, and she looks up to see the largest, meanest gander in the flock standing beneath the old willow tree at the water’s edge. The gander is staring up into the branches of the willow, his long neck poised to strike – a fat feathered tiger stalking his prey. Bess sighs and pushes herself to her feet.
The gander hisses at her as she approaches, and she rolls her eyes at him. “Yes, yes,” she says, “I’m terrified. I tremble at your feet.” She tilts back her head and looks up into the branches, expecting to see a trapped stable boy or one of the more mischievous girls from the kitchens.
“Uh, hello,” Merlin says from his perch on a tree limb. “Are you quite sure that’s a normal goose?”
Bess folds her arms over her chest. “As opposed to?”
He grins sheepishly. “Some sort of murderous mythical beast disguised as a goose?”
Bess looks down at the gander and considers this. “Well, it would explain a lot.”
The gander unfurls his wings and lunges for her knees, but Bess dodges and scrambles up into the tree, the gander snapping at her ankles. She sits on one of the wider branches, letting her legs swing in the air. The leafy canopy above shelters them from the sun and it’s a little like being underwater, green and dark and cool. Merlin stares at her, and she stares back.
He looks less like a boy and more like a man than she remembers. A gawky, awkward sort of man, but a man nonetheless. She looks at him and feels nothing – not hatred or anger or even annoyance. She looks at the man who killed her, and if she feels anything at all, it’s gratitude.
“You’re Gaius’ niece,” Merlin says. “The goose girl.”
“Grandniece,” Bess says. “His sister was my grandmother.”
It’s a lie Gaius had insisted on, though Bess had thought it perfectly ridiculous and a little awkward. “If you are to continue to visit me here,” he’d said, “we will need a reason. This court loves gossip as much as it ever did.”
Twenty years ago Gaius and his young apprentice had been the subject of some rather shocking rumours; Bess had blushed a little at the memory. “Yes,” she’d said, “but back then you were only twice my age. Now you’re at least…” She’d frowned, working through the arithmetic. “Hold on. I’ve almost got it.”
Gaius had sighed and said, “Fetch the chalkboard. It’s time we reviewed your multiplication tables.”
Bess shifts uneasily on her tree branch. “That makes him my great uncle,” she adds.
Merlin’s expression is wary, and maybe a little jealous. “I don’t see much of a family resemblance.”
Bess raises one eyebrow.
“Okay,” Merlin says. “That’s disturbing.” He hooks one arm around the trunk of the tree and offers her his other hand. “I’m Merlin.”
She gives his hand a firm, brief shake. “Bess.”
He grins, and it’s almost impossible not to grin back. “I knew a cow named Bess once.”
“Whatever, Merlin.” She smirks. “Bird brain.”
“Oh, so you’ve heard of me, then.”
“I’ve heard the bards sing your praises, yes.”
“And by bards, you mean—”
“The children who wait by the stocks all day hoping to throw rotten fruit at your head.”
He covers his heart with his hand and sighs. “Ah, my adoring public.”
Bess peers down at the gander, who flaps his useless wings and hisses viciously at them. “And I suppose he just wants your autograph.”
“No,” Merlin says, “I’m pretty sure he wants to eat my liver.” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a single goose feather of the purest white. “I don’t really blame him.”
Bess’ eyes go wide. “And what on earth do you plan to do with that?” She can think of a dozen spells that require a white goose feather, and half of them are love charms. The thought of a warlock with Merlin’s lack of discipline mucking about with the magics of lust and love is perfectly horrifying. And a little amusing, she thinks, but that’s not the nicer part of her nature shining through.
Merlin looks away and stuffs the feather back into his pocket. The tips of his ears go pink. “It’s for Gaius,” he says quickly. “Medicine stuff.”
It might be the stupidest lie she’s ever heard – if Gaius wanted a goose feather, why not ask his fake grandniece the goose girl – but she can hardly accuse him of sorcery, not without incriminating herself. Bess has never and will never practice magic, and so has little to fear from Uther and his purges – unless, of course, she were to be recognised. And for all his goodness and idiot heroism, Bess knows that Merlin would happily watch her burn if he knew the truth. He’s smiling at her now, eyes brilliant blue and somewhat anxious, but she can still remember his face, just before his magic consumed her. He had been so eager for her death.
Merlin hates her, and he has every right to that hatred. She is the villain, the wicked witch, the shadow waiting in the dark. She nearly took his mother’s life.
Bess drops out of the tree and lands on her feet. The gander charges, and she steps aside, giving him a light kick on the backside as he passes. “You can come down now,” she says, not looking up at the man in the tree. “Gaius is probably waiting on that feather.”
She walks back to the duck pond, the sun hot on her back. She doesn’t turn when Merlin calls after her.
Gaius was right. It’s better for her to stay away.
“A Druid boy,” the Great Dragon murmurs, his eyes yellow and half-lidded. “Really. Do go on.”
“I don’t know why I bothered to tell you,” Bess says. “I knew you wouldn’t be any help.”
The Dragon lifts his head. “You are frightened, Sister, and I do not blame you. Your rejection of the Old Magic has left you vulnerable to those who would be your allies. It has made you weak.” He pauses, studying her. “You have never been tolerant of weakness, in others or in yourself.”
“Well, that’s where you’re wrong,” Bess says. “I love being weak and boring and useless. It’s delightful. I get to have a lie in on festival days and alternate weekends and no one tries to assassinate me in my sleep.”
“Except little Druid boys hiding among the cattails,” the Dragon says.
Bess frowns, touching the bruises at her throat. “I don’t think he wanted me dead,” she says. “I think he just wanted me to see.”
The Dragon tips his head curiously to one side, about to ask a question when he suddenly stops, swishing his tail back and forth in the air like a housecat about to pounce on a bit of string. “Oh dear,” he says. “How awkward.”
“Awkward?” Bess says, and then Merlin comes hurtling out of the entrance to the cavern and slams into her back. She falls, skidding across the rock, and then slips off the cliff edge into the abyss.
Merlin’s magic catches her by the shoulders, and the smell makes her nose itch. He lifts her gently until she’s on solid ground again, her skirts tangled around her legs. Merlin stares down at her, slack jawed with confusion and horror. “I am so, so sorry,” he stutters. “I didn’t mean to—”
The Dragon gives a wheezing laugh. “I believe some introductions are in order. Bess, this is the young warlock Merlin. Merlin, this is Bess.” He laughs again, and smoke curls from his nostrils. “Thank Merlin for saving your life, Bess.”
“Thanks ever so,” she says, and sneezes into the crook of her elbow. She sniffs. “Of course, if he’d been looking where he was going—”
That seems to snap Merlin out of his shock. “I didn’t exactly expect him to have guests!”
Bess stands, her knees still a little shaky. “And why not? You’re down here every five minutes, aren’t you?” She pitches her voice into a ridiculous falsetto. “Oh Great Dragon, some terrible sorceress has given Prince Arthur a hang nail. Whatever shall I do?”
“I do not sound like that,” Merlin says. He appeals to the Dragon. “Tell her I don’t sound like that.”
Bess holds her hand to her forehead in a dramatic pose. “And the state of his cuticles, Great Dragon! However will Camelot survive?”
The Dragon seems to be fighting a grin. “That’s enough, Sister. There’s no need to be rude.”
“Sister?” Merlin’s eyes go wide and he raises a finger to point at Bess. “You’re a witch!”
Bess scowls. “I’m a goose girl.”
The Dragon leans forward until his face looms above them. “Bess has knowledge, young warlock, but lacks ability. Her power is stunted, and she is incapable of true sorcery.” Bess glares at him, and he grins. “She is not a witch, but a scholar.”
Merlin looks her up and down, his expression sceptical. “Aren’t you, like, twelve years old?”
“I’m fifteen,” Bess says through gritted teeth. “And I am not a scholar.”
The Dragon taps a claw against the stone beneath him. “Weak though she may be, Bess is the weapon you now seek. It is her counsel you must rely upon, young warlock, not my own.” He pauses for dramatic effect. “The arrow strikes the killing blow, but it would not fly truly if not for the steady hand of the archer.”
Bess covers her face with her hands. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“Wait,” Merlin says, frowning. “I’m the arrow and she’s the archer? Or is it the other way round?”
“You’re going senile, aren’t you?” Bess gives the Dragon a gentle, mocking smile. “You can tell us, you know. We won’t judge.”
The Dragon opens his wings and stretches to his full height, and Bess suddenly feels very small. His teeth glint sharply in the torchlight, and when he speaks she can feel his voice echo in her bones. “I have been patient with you, old friend, but the time draws near and that patience runs thin. It is your destiny to aid Merlin and the young Pendragon, and no man can escape his destiny – nor, for that matter, can annoying little girls.”
Merlin glances between them, his eyes darting from the ancient creature of enormous power to the plump girl with clenched fists and dirt smudged across her cheek. “Okay,” he says. “Maybe we should all just take a moment and—”
“My destiny,” Bess says, “can bite me.” She smoothes her skirts and releases a puff of dust into the air. “Now if you don’t mind, I have chamber pots to clean.”
She turns on her heel and walks away, leaving Merlin and the Dragon to stare after her.
Two nights later Bess is deep in sleep and dreaming when Merlin casts the spell.
His magic is like fireworks behind her eyes, a fierce series of explosions that burn her mouth and nose and crackle through her sinuses like flame devouring tinder and Bess falls out of her bed, gasping.
Her eyes water and sting, and in the darkness she almost doesn’t see the smoke curling under the door of her room, a pale mist flowing across the floor to the four small beds along the wall. Bess watches in frozen horror as the mist rises, looming over a sleeping scullery maid like a lover, caressing her cheek and slithering past her open lips. It comes to each of the girls in turn, embracing their still bodies and lingering against their skin, but when the mist touches Bess it shudders and turns away, repulsed.
Bess cannot remember the last time she was truly frightened by magic; when she can breathe again she gasps into her fingers, her hands still clamped over her mouth. The mist drifts away, slipping out of the room as silently as it had come. Bess staggers to her feet and follows it, opening the door to the thick summer night.
The mist has swallowed the castle, has blocked out the sky and dimmed the light of the stars. It’s everywhere.
Bess runs barefoot through the sleeping castle, her nightclothes clinging to her back in the heat. When she reaches Gaius’ workroom she slams through the door, breathless. Gaius stirs on his cot, but he does not wake. The mist swirls in the air over his face, over his mouth half open in sleep, and Bess is about to do something, anything to stop it (anything but magic, the power seething ruthless inside her) but then the mist shudders, twisting away from Gaius as it had from her. She runs past him and up the stairs, into Merlin’s tiny room.
A book lies open on the unmade bed, along with a bowl of milk, a lock of fair hair, and a goose feather of the purest white. Merlin lies unconscious on the floor.
“You idiot, what have you done,” she gasps, falling to her knees at his side and giving him a vicious shake. He doesn’t stir, so Bess pours the water from a nearby basin over his head.
He jerks up, sputtering. “I’m up, I’m up, for heaven’s sake, Arthur, I’m—” He stops, clutching his stomach, and his eyes bulge. “I think I’m going to be sick.”
“No time,” she says, pulling him to his feet. “What did you do?”
He sags against her, shaking his head. “Nothing. I mean, it was just a charm, an experiment, it shouldn’t have taken any power at all, but when I finished—” His face goes white as chalk, and he sits abruptly on the bed. “Basin.”
“Give me the basin before I—”
She presses it into his hands just before he starts to gag, but he can’t do more than dry heave, his thin frame curling in on itself as he convulses. Bess pats his shoulder awkwardly.
“There, there,” she says. “Um. Poor thing.”
The mist slips through the crack in the window, rolls under the door and through the keyhole. It fills the room, curling around their ankles and then trembling away when it comes too close to their skin.
“This shouldn’t be happening,” Merlin rasps. “I don’t understand.”
Bess grabs the book from the bed, and then nearly drops it again when she recognises the handwriting – once it had been her own, and she’d spent hours bent over books like this one, writing by candlelight.
She clutches the book with shaking hands. “Merlin, where did you get this?”
He looks uncertain for a moment, then wipes his mouth on his sleeve and says, “Gaius gave it to me.”
“But—” Her voice fails her. She swallows hard. “But they were burned. All of them.”
Merlin watches her, something quiet and unexpectedly wise in his eyes. “Gaius saved this one,” he says. “He’s never said why.”
Bess forces herself to focus on the words on the page, to push aside the rush of memory. “Well, this can’t be the spell you used. It’s just a preventative charm, something to protect against love spells. Purity of heart and casting away illusion and all that nonsense.”
Merlin clutches the basin in his arms, his knuckles turning white. “I don’t understand what went wrong. I cast the charm exactly as it’s written, I swear I did, but when it was done—” He frowns, his forehead furrowing. “I’ve never felt anything like it before. It was like something reached inside my chest and pulled the power out of me.”
Bess raises an eyebrow. “And then you fainted.”
“I will be sick on you,” he says. “Don’t think I won’t.”
Bess sits down on the bed beside him. They’re silent for a long moment, both staring at the open book in her hands. “I don’t know what’s happening,” she says. “I should, but I don’t.”
“Some scholar you are.”
She picks up the lock of hair. “Whose is this, anyway?”
Merlin’s expression turns mulish. “Arthur’s. There’s a delegation from Mercia at court this summer, and I don’t like the look of the princess.”
Bess fights a smirk. “You think Lady Elaine of Mercia is a secret sorceress with designs on Arthur’s virtue?”
“Wouldn’t be the first time,” he says. He shakes his head, scattering drops of water across the room. “Maybe if we’re lucky, the charm will simply make everyone in Camelot immune to love spells.”
Bess wipes the water from her cheek with the back of her hand. “Are you usually lucky when it comes to these things?”
He grins. “Not really, no.”
Bess stands and moves away, still cradling the book. “The mist went inside them, Merlin. The girls I room with, they—” She stops, closing her eyes briefly at the memory. “It didn’t want me, or Gaius, or you. It won’t even touch us. But what about everyone else?”
Merlin sets the basin aside, his jaw tense. “Do you think they’ve been possessed?”
“By what? A goose feather? A lock of the Prince’s hair?” Her eyes go wide. “Oh.”
Merlin stands. “Oh?”
Bess feels like she might be sick herself; she hugs the book closer to her chest. “We need to wake up Gaius,” she says. “Now.”
“When I accuse you of a lack of decorum, this is the sort of thing I mean,” Gaius says. He gives Bess a severe look. “In case you were wondering.”
Bess looks down at herself. “Because I’m not wearing shoes?”
“Because you’re barely wearing clothes,” Gaius says, which is hardly fair. She’s wearing her nightdress and while it is, granted, a bit worn in places, it’s not exactly indecent. She’s about to make this very argument when she glances across the room and sees Merlin looking.
She crosses her arms over her chest. “Fine. Give me the shawl.” Gaius throws it over her shoulders and she glowers at him. “Just the thing for a boiling hot summer night.”
Merlin clears his throat, blushing slightly in the candlelight. “If this lovely bit of family theatre is complete—”
Gaius gives Bess’ arm an absent pat. “Yes, quite.” He folds his hands in front of him. “Now. This elusive ‘mist’ you two are so worked up about.”
The mist had dispersed a few minutes before they’d got Gaius out of bed, and though he’d claimed to have every confidence in their story, he seems more annoyed by the early hour than worried about Merlin’s spell and its repercussions.
Bess twists the wool shawl between her fingers. “I can’t believe you didn’t feel the casting, Gaius. It was like being punched in the face with a firecracker.”
Merlin steps closer, frowning. “Why should Gaius have felt it?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Bess says. “Maybe because he’s spent the better part of a century studying magic and isn’t a complete idiot?”
Merlin’s about to snap back at her when Gaius stops him with a hand on his shoulder. Gaius sighs and sits in a nearby chair. “It left me, Bess. All of it. I can no more hope to sense magic than you and Merlin can hope to ignore it.”
Bess almost doesn’t believe him; Gaius had never been particularly powerful, but his skill had been great. She wonders if her magic will abandon her too, in time. She wonders if that thought should frighten her as much as it does.
“Hold on,” Merlin says, turning to Bess. “The Dragon said your power was stunted. How could you feel the spell?”
Gaius’ eyebrows knit together in a truly terrifying configuration. “You’ve been visiting the Great Dragon? Both of you?”
“Not together,” Bess says.
Merlin holds up a finger. “Except that one time.”
“But that was an accident.”
“I almost knocked her into a chasm.”
“My dress got really dirty.”
“But at least she was wearing one.” Bess kicks him in the ankle. “Ow.”
Bess pulls the shawl tighter around her shoulders. “Merlin used a lock of Arthur’s hair in the spell, Gaius. Whatever happens next, he’s going to be at the center of it.”
Gaius nods. “Assuming anything happens at all.”
“It will,” Lady Morgana says from the open door. “In fact, it’s already started.”
They turn and stare at her, mouths agape.
“Sorry about the dramatic entrance,” she says. “I was eavesdropping and couldn’t resist.”
Lady Morgana’s gossamer dressing gown doesn’t leave much to the imagination, but Gaius seems suddenly unconcerned by issues of modesty. He stands. “My lady, if you have overheard anything that troubles you—” His gaze flits to Merlin, his face etched with worry.
Morgana sweeps into the room and closes the door behind her. “I am troubled by many things, Gaius, but Merlin’s sorcery certainly isn’t one of them.”
Merlin jerks forward in surprise and nearly stumbles into the table. “You know?”
Morgana’s eyes are bruised and dark, but her smile is warm enough. “I’m not an idiot, Merlin.” She sinks gracefully into a chair. “And apparently I can see the future, though I suspect that might be considered cheating.”
Gaius sits again, his features shadowed by a fatigue that has little to do with lack of sleep. “How long?”
“Six months since I stopped taking your sleeping draughts. Five since I understood what I was seeing.” Morgana reaches across the table and touches his wrinkled hand. “I know you were trying to protect me.” She doesn’t say, I wish you hadn’t.
Bess steps up behind Gaius and rests her hands on the back of his chair. “My lady, you said, ‘It’s already started.’ What has?”
Morgana looks up at Bess and a brief expression of dislike flickers across her pale face. “You were right. Whatever happens next, Arthur’s in danger – or he is the danger.” She frowns. “It was sort of hard to tell.”
“There was nothing dangerous about that spell,” Merlin says. “I’m sure of it.”
Morgana sits back in her chair with an easy air of command. “It’s nearly dawn. Merlin, you should go to Arthur straight away. Don’t let him out of your sight, but try not to let on that something’s amiss. If we can fix this before anyone notices—”
“Some of us might make it another week in Camelot without being publicly set on fire,” Bess finishes. Morgana’s eyes narrow into a glare.
“The king prefers beheadings these days,” Gaius says. “Mostly.”
“How humane,” Bess says, and matches Morgana’s glare with one of her own.
Merlin looks from Bess to Morgana to Bess again, his expression thoughtful. “Have you two met before?”
“Of course not,” Morgana says breezily. “Now, Merlin, Arthur has early training with the knights this morning, so—”
“Manservant Merlin, reporting for duty,” he says, and gives Morgana a careless sort of salute before disappearing out the door.
The candles have burned low; the dawn light filtering in through the windows is thin, casting grey shadows across the warm, airless workroom. Bess and Morgana stare across the table at each other, each refusing to be the first to look away.
Between them, Gaius clears his throat. “Well,” he says. “I suppose we’ll be needing some books. For research.” When he receives no reply, he stands and gestures to the farthest bookshelf. “I’ll be over there if I’m needed.” As he walks away, he mutters, “Not that I suspect I will be.”
Bess folds her arms on the back of Gaius’ abandoned chair. “So,” she says. “You can see the future.”
Morgana’s nod is annoyingly regal. “In my dreams, yes.”
“I can’t imagine,” Bess says, “that in the future I’ll have done anything sufficiently interesting to make you look at me like that.”
Morgana smirks. “Don’t sell yourself short.”
“Let me rephrase.” Bess’ posture changes, her spine straightening and her shoulders easing back until she holds herself with atypical height and grace. “I do not intend to be interesting. Not ever again.”
“I don’t think we get much of a choice in these things,” Morgana says. She looks down at the worn tabletop, traces a stain with the tip of her finger. “I don’t know what your secret is, Bess. I only know that you have one, and that one day it will hurt us all.”
Bess’ shoulders soften and she feels like herself again, small and round and weak. “That’s the last thing I want,” she says. “To hurt anyone.”
Morgana looks up and gives her a faint smile. “I don’t think we have a choice in that, either.”
The sun rises over a perfectly normal morning in Camelot.
Bess and Morgana leave Gaius to his books, splitting up to search the castle for the ill effects of Merlin’s spell. Morgana leaves to breakfast with the king and observe the court, while Bess wanders the servants’ quarters, the stables and the kitchens.
Everything is exactly as it should be.
Except – and Bess thinks this might be her imagination, or perhaps some sort of latent paranoia – everyone she passes seems distracted, preoccupied, as if every servant in Camelot is struggling to remember the punch line to a favourite joke or whether they’d left the oven on. They snap out of it quickly enough when she speaks to them, answer her questions just as they always would, but the moment she walks away the absent expression returns, precisely as it had been before.
It’s a little eerie.
When she reaches the training yard at midmorning, she finds she isn’t the only one who’s noticed.
“What is wrong with you lot today?” Arthur shouts, throwing down his helmet and helping the knight he’d just knocked over back to his feet. The knight staggers, leaning against his prince for balance, and Arthur holds him steady. “This isn’t a child’s nursery, and I am not your nursemaid – if you cannot do this, if you cannot focus, it is not a game you’ll lose, but your life.” Arthur’s face hardens. “Or the lives of your fellow knights.”
The assembled knights wear matching expressions – not of chagrin, as they would during any other lecture, nor of the strange preoccupation Bess had seen in the castle servants. The knights watch their prince with looks of complete, uncomprehending fascination, and Bess shivers.
Arthur grunts in annoyance and leads the unsteady knight to a nearby bench. “Caradoc, you’re next,” he calls to an older knight. “Let’s see if you can do better.”
Bess picks her way through the crowd of observers to find Merlin watching from the sidelines, a jug of water tucked under his arm and a puzzled frown on his face.
“I’m guessing this isn’t how these practices usually go,” she says, and he starts at the sound of her voice. She reaches up and steadies the jug before it spills.
“Thanks,” he says, his voice low. “Just a bit jumpy at the moment.”
She follows Merlin’s gaze and finds that he isn’t watching the knights, but rather the intent faces of the crowd. She isn’t sure why until she realises that the eyes of every man, woman, and child are fixed solely on the prince. On Arthur, who is stalking toward Merlin and Bess with murder in his eyes.
“I swear, Merlin, if I didn’t know better I’d say your idiocy has become plague and infected the entire kingdom.” Arthur wipes the sweat from his face with a clean cloth and holds out his hand for the jug. “Before I die of thirst, if you don’t mind.”
Merlin passes him the water, but his attention is obviously elsewhere.
Arthur takes a long drink from the jug and shoves it back into Merlin’s hands. “Figures we’d draw a crowd on the worst day of training we’ve had all summer. It’s like the entire castle has gone mad with the heat.” His mouth twists and the colour rises in his cheeks, as if he’s remembering some earlier embarrassment, and Merlin turns to Bess to explain.
“This morning I found a flock of starlings roosting in the drapes over his bed. I managed to scare them out the window, but they shat all over the room.” He gives Bess a significant look. “He says they wouldn’t stop staring at him.”
“Merlin!” Arthur hisses, but Merlin just shrugs.
“It’s okay,” he says. “This is Bess. She’s a friend.”
I most certainly am not, Bess wants to say, but instead she lowers her eyes and curtseys. “Sire.”
Arthur frowns for a moment, as if trying to place her, and then his face brightens. “You! I remember you.” He claps Merlin on the shoulder. “Of course you two know each other. You’re both members of some sort of Impertinent Servants Club, aren’t you?”
Bess is fairly certain that Arthur had only pretended not to recognise her, though she can’t imagine why; she smiles at him and says, “We are, actually. I’m only the treasurer, but Merlin is club president.”
Arthur laughs. “Oh, I like her. Perhaps she’ll be a good influence on you, Merlin.” He walks back to the cluster of knights, grinning over his shoulder at Merlin’s sour expression.
Merlin gives Bess a dark look. “I can’t imagine you being a good influence on anyone.”
Bess sticks her tongue out at him.
On the training yard Arthur picks up his helmet and shoves it over his sweat-soaked hair. “All right, Caradoc. Your turn.” He pulls a practice sword from the rack. “Let’s have it.”
Sir Caradoc is ten years Arthur’s senior and one of the few knights at court who can match the prince with a sword. He has the advantage in height and reach, but Arthur has the benefit of speed and – far more dangerous, and even more surprising – patience. Arthur lets his opponents come to him, gives ground and blocks and defends until he sees his opening.
The fight rarely lasts long after that.
But today Caradoc refuses to advance, and the two men circle each other warily, neither risking the first blow. For long minutes nothing much happens at all. The crowd stands silent, breathless.
“Oh, very well,” Arthur says, and strikes.
Caradoc blocks, of course, and Bess expects that the fight will begin in earnest now, but Caradoc simply parries blow after blow, retreating each time. Arthur begins to offer him openings – out of sheer frustration, Bess thinks – and each one makes him more vulnerable than the last, but still Caradoc refuses to strike.
Arthur throws off his helmet again, his face red with exertion and anger. “All right, what the hell is going on?” He drops his sword and shoves Caradoc in the chest. “Why won’t you fight back?”
Caradoc pulls off his own helmet, and his vague expression looks strange on his usually sensible face. “I’m sorry, sire. I didn’t wish to harm you.”
Arthur jaw twitches worryingly. “Harm me? You didn’t wish to—” He runs his hand through his hair, almost incoherent with fury. “I’m wearing armour, you dunce! When I was sixteen you dislocated my shoulder during a fight and afterward you laughed and said, ‘Well, sire, at least now one of your arms has a longer reach,’ and now you won’t even wave your bloody sword in my bloody direction because you don’t wish to harm me?”
Caradoc thinks this over for a moment. “Doesn’t really sound like me, does it?”
“No, it certainly does not!”
Caradoc shrugs. “Sorry, sire. Don’t know why, but I don’t think I can fight you today.” He scratches the back of his neck. “I could let you win, if you like.”
Whenever Igraine had tried to control her temper she’d closed her eyes and taken deep breaths in through her nose and out through her teeth – which made a hissing sound not unlike a snake about to strike and served as a convenient warning to whomever had incurred her displeasure. Arthur seems to have adopted a similar tactic, but it works a little better for him; his face returns to its normal colour and he bends down to pick up his sword.
“Knights of Camelot,” he says through clenched teeth, “you are dismissed for the day.” He strides off the training yard, and as he passes he says, “Merlin, fetch some armour. I’d like to spar with someone who at least wants to bash my head in, even if he doesn’t have the slightest hope of doing so.”
Merlin pales. “You’re joking.”
“I’m really not,” Arthur says, and the crowd turns as one to watch as he walks away.
When Bess meets Merlin outside the kitchens that afternoon, she looks him up and down and says, “Did he push you off a cliff?”
Merlin brushes the grass out of his hair. “Very funny.”
“No, seriously,” she says. “I didn’t even know there was one nearby.” She sticks her finger through a tear in his sleeve and wiggles it at him. “Or did you fall out of a tree? ‘Cause there are quite a few of those about.”
Merlin leans back against the corridor wall and sighs. “Arthur’s in a bit of a mood.”
“A bit of a mood?” Bess says. “You’re lucky you still have all your teeth.”
A small smile curves his lips. “You sound worried about me.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” She pushes a bundle of bread and meat into his hands. “Lunch. I figured we’d check in with Gaius while we ate.”
He nods and pushes off the wall. “Have you spoken to—”
Bess shushes him, raising a finger. For a moment, the corridor is silent, and she frowns. “I thought I heard—”
And sure enough, there it is again – the sound of familiar footsteps, approaching fast from around the corner. Bess grabs Merlin’s sleeve and pulls him behind the nearest tapestry.
Merlin says, “You know, some people might find your insanity endearing, but I’m not one of them,” and Bess elbows him hard in the stomach.
“Shut up,” she hisses. “They’re coming.”
Penny Goodfoot and her gang of maiden delinquents turn the corner a moment later, and from their hiding place Bess and Merlin hear one of the gang say, “You can’t call a man beautiful. S’not dignified.”
Penny sniffs. “I can call him anything I like, and I say he’s beautiful.” She pauses mid-step, and her cronies pause with her. Penny clears her throat and says, “He’s like a flower, or a baby animal, or something else that’s like in a poem.”
The gang murmurs their agreement.
“He’s like a sunrise,” another girl says, her voice timid. “All gold and warm and new.”
“Don’t be stupid, Elise,” Penny says. “He’s a baby animal, like what I said.”
“Yeah, but Penny,” a girl says, “I’ve seen baby animals – they come out all covered in blood and goo and such, and I’ve never seen Prince Arthur look like that.”
“I’ve seen him covered in blood,” Elise says.
“Shut up, Elise,” Penny says.
Merlin leans down until his mouth is near Bess’ ear. “Is this normal?”
It’s dark and airless and close behind the tapestry; Merlin’s arm presses against her shoulder. He smells like the inside of the armoury on a hot day, like leather and iron and sweat, and she wrinkles her nose. “How am I supposed to know? They don’t exactly invite me to the slumber parties.”
“There are slumber parties?” Merlin says.
“You know, it’s funny,” Penny says. “Ever since I woke up this morning, he’s all I can think about. His hair, his face, the way his voice sometimes gets all squeaky when he shouts. I mean, I know he’s shorter than me, and I don’t even fancy blokes, really, but I think I might be in love with him.”
“Me too,” says a girl.
“Me as well,” says another.
“Maybe that’s why you’ve got so much misdirected anger,” Elise says. “The not-fancying-blokes thing.”
“Shut up, Elise,” the girls say in chorus.
“Enough chin-wagging,” Penny says. “Let’s go stand outside his door and daydream about the way sunlight reflects off his golden hair, yeah?”
The girls depart in a flurry of oh, yes, let’s do and I love sunlight and his hair is a pretty shade, isn’t it? Bess rubs her hand over her eyes and listens to the fading sound of their footsteps.
“I can’t imagine anything more awful than having Penny Goodfoot in love with me,” she says. “The poor prince.” She turns her head to look at Merlin. “Where is Arthur, anyway?”
“Crap,” Merlin says.
“So let me get this straight,” Arthur says, resting his feet on the table and sitting back in his chair with a smirk. “Everyone in Camelot has fallen in love with me.”
“Because of a spell,” Merlin says again. “A horrible, horrible spell.”
“Doesn’t sound so horrible,” Arthur says. “After all, I’m sure most of them were in love with me to start with.”
Merlin has done an impressive job cleaning the bird droppings from the prince’s chambers – using magic, no doubt – but the feathers are another matter. A grey bit of down floats across the room and lands in Arthur’s hair.
“The starlings, sire,” Bess says.
Arthur frowns, probably wondering what she’s doing in his rooms. “What about them?”
“Well,” she says, “their behaviour this morning wasn’t exactly typical, was it?”
Arthur stares. “You think the birds are in love with me.”
It’s Merlin’s turn to smirk; he folds his arms across his chest and leans against the table, looking down at Arthur. “You did say they were staring.”
Arthur scowls at him. “Yes, all right, it was strange – but they were just watching me with their beady little eyes, not reciting poetry or bringing me flowers or trying to grope my backside.”
Merlin blinks. “You have a very odd idea of romance,” he says.
The doors open and Morgana strides in. The crowd outside the prince’s chamber has doubled in the few minutes since Bess and Merlin fought the masses to get to Arthur’s door, and when the assembled throng catches a glimpse of Prince Arthur lounging in his chair with his shirt half undone, their sigh creates a breeze strong enough to ruffle Bess’ hair. Morgana closes the doors behind her and leans back against them.
“I’m in hell,” she says, looking a little crazy about the eyes. “I’ve died, and I’m in hell.”
Arthur drops his feet to the floor. “Morgana—”
“I always thought it was funny, all the rumours about our shocking, vaguely incestuous love affair. Ah well, I thought, better that than what they say about me and Uther. But now—” Her fingers curve like unfurled claws, like she doesn’t know whether she wants to throttle her victim or rip his eyes out. “Now if one more person asks me about the touch of your pillow-soft lips or the joy of your throbbing manhood I will throw myself from the top of the tallest tower and by god I will take you with me!”
Arthur scratches his chin. “You think it’d be vaguely incestuous? Really?”
“I hate you,” Morgana says, and drops into the nearest chair.
Arthur grins. “You heard her, Merlin – she hates me. So much for this love spell of yours, eh?”
Morgana flips her hair over her shoulder. “I’m immune. So are Gaius and Merlin and Bess. We’re not sure why.”
Bess knows, or at least she has a theory. Merlin cast the spell and Arthur is its focus, so the cause of their immunity is obvious, but the only thing Gaius, Morgana, and Bess have in common is magic. The spell didn’t want them, wouldn’t even touch them – it wasn’t meant to ensnare those with magic in their blood.
“And it’s getting worse,” Bess murmurs to herself, pacing a little. “But how? A spell of this magnitude and complexity can’t be an accident, no matter how much raw power is involved.” She rubs her hand over her eyes. “There has to be something else. Something we’re not seeing.”
“I told you,” Merlin says. “You just didn’t listen.”
Arthur looks at each of their faces in turn, his eyes wide. “Wait, you’re serious? This isn’t just one of those ridiculous things Merlin comes up with when he wants to get out of mucking the stables?”
Morgana gives him a withering look. “Are you following along now, Arthur, or would you like another moment to catch up with the rest of us?”
Arthur’s back straightens. “All of Camelot is under a spell.”
“Except for us,” Merlin says.
“Except for you.”
“Thank heaven for that.” Arthur sighs and looks down, his mouth a thin line. “Do we know who’s done this?”
Merlin shakes his head. “We don’t even know why.”
Arthur chuckles, somewhat bitterly. “Don’t be a fool, Merlin. Of course we know why. Today’s training was a disaster, and if Bess is right, if things are only going to get worse, Camelot will soon descend into chaos. We’ll be completely unable to defend ourselves.”
Merlin snaps his fingers. “Mercia. If there’s a sorcerer here at court, it’s probably somebody new, like one of the Mercians. They cast the spell, keep everyone busy with thoughts of your sunlit hair, and seize the kingdom. A bloodless victory.”
“Bloodless?” Morgana says. “Not if love is involved.”
Arthur seems unconvinced. “We’ve suspected Bayard before, and we were wrong.”
“There are rumours,” Morgana says. She hesitates, but after a moment she continues. “Some say that his son Urien has formed an allegiance with the Druids against Bayard’s wishes. They say that when he takes the throne he intends to overthrow Uther with their help.”
Arthur sits back in his chair, considering this. “Since her arrival, the Lady Elaine has persuaded my father otherwise. She says her brother finds more pleasure in his books than in battle.” He shakes his head. “No. After the last disastrous Mercian delegation to Camelot, we can’t risk offending them again. I can’t accuse them of anything unless we’re certain.”
“Which we aren’t,” Bess says.
Merlin folds his arms across his chest. “I’m not hearing any better ideas.”
Arthur stands and walks over to the empty hearth. He rests one hand against the mantel and leans, staring down into the ashes. “What about the sorceress who tried to assassinate me?”
Merlin grins. “You’ll have to be a bit more specific, sire.”
Arthur’s jaw clenches. “The one who poisoned you in my stead and refused to kill me when I was at her mercy. The one with blue eyes.”
“Nimueh,” Merlin says, and his mouth twists like the name itself is poisoned. “She called herself Nimueh.” He doesn’t bother to keep the hatred from his voice.
Bess’ fingers curl into fists, her knuckles turning white as bone. Only Morgana sees.
Arthur nods. “She framed Bayard for the attempt on my life, no doubt in the hope that it would lead to war. Perhaps she’s decided to try again.”
“It can’t be Nimueh,” Merlin says. “She’s dead.”
Arthur turns away from the hearth and looks him evenly in the eye. “And how, Merlin, would you know that?”
Bess watches Merlin’s face carefully, sees the stubborn jut of his chin and the pursed line of his mouth and realises that Merlin wants to tell Arthur, that if he could he would tell the prince everything. Merlin has never been ashamed of his magic and has never regretted its use, and Bess envies him that.
She’s also fairly certain that it will be the death of him.
Morgana stands. “Arthur, what about tonight’s feast? You can’t possibly go.”
Arthur frowns at her. “I don’t see how I can get out of it. The feast is in Lady Elaine’s honour, and I doubt my absence will go unnoticed.”
“Your absence might be an insult, but your presence could incite a riot.” Morgana sighs, pressing her fingers against her temple. “Arthur, since this began Camelot has been content to love chastely, and from afar. We don’t know how long that will last.”
Arthur swallows. “You don’t think—”
“You need to attend the feast,” Bess says, and they all turn to stare at her, surprised. “It’ll almost certainly end in disaster, but it’s our best chance to find out what’s going on.”
The others exchange a worried look. “Almost certainly?” Merlin says.
“Don’t worry,” Bess says, and smiles. “I have a plan.”
Bess hasn’t been inside the Great Hall since she returned to Camelot.
In some ways it is much as it was before – long, heavy tables and the hazy glow of torchlight, the thick smells of rich food and too many bodies too close together. She’d loved feasts, before, had loved the pageantry, the gossip and the crowd. In those days Camelot had been a young city, bright and fierce and loud, and Uther’s court had been one of revels and wine, poets and song.
Now the Hall is silent. Bess stands behind Morgana’s chair at the high table, wine jug gripped tight in her hands. Uther sits less than six feet away.
It’s curious, how much and yet how little she feels, standing there staring at the back of his grey head. He looks old and hollow, nothing like the man of her memories or the ghoul of her nightmares, and she finds that she pities him. He is so much less than he was.
The king’s face is blank, his stern features slack and still. Like every one of the two hundred some lords, ladies, knights, servants, and villagers crammed into the Great Hall that night, he stares at the open door and waits for Arthur.
Bess and Merlin stand against the wall, fighting to keep their dismay from showing on their faces.
“This,” Merlin says under his breath, “is an awful plan.”
“You only think that because I came up with it and you didn’t.” She pokes his side. “Try to look a little more lovesick and a little less like you’re about to vomit.”
“Maybe that’s just how I look when I’m in love,” Merlin says. “And stop poking me.”
A goose girl has no place at a royal feast, even as a servant, and Bess had been at a loss for an excuse to attend. But with Gwen home sick—
(“She sent me a note this morning,” Morgana had told them, pale with anger. “In ten years of service she’s missed exactly one day of work, and that was when her father was murdered.” Merlin’s face had gone pinched with worry, and Arthur – well, Arthur had looked a bit like he was going to vomit, which makes Bess wonder.)
—Morgana would need someone to serve her at the feast, so she’d temporarily promoted Bess to the lofty position of handmaiden. As it turned out, she needn’t have bothered; the Hall is thick with people who don’t belong, scullery maids and dirty-faced village children and castle guards who are meant to be on duty. They stand silent and perfectly still, food and wine forgotten, and wait for their prince.
There are a few exceptions. Bess spots a jolly, red-faced lord seated at one of the lower tables who’s too deep in his cups to notice anything’s amiss. After a bit of squinting and a lot of imagination she matches a name to the face. It’s Lord Urry – older, fatter, and drunker, but undoubtedly the same man. He’d been a great wit in his prime, and a minor warlock. Once Bess had taught him how to unlock doors with a word, and later had reason to regret it.
Bess nudges Merlin and sends a meaningful glance in Urry’s direction. Merlin’s eyes go wide. “Lord Urry? Really?”
She gives him a small half-shrug. “Nowhere near powerful enough to do this, and I can’t imagine why he would. He picked the winning side during the early days of the Purge, and it’s treated him well.” She scans the rest of the crowd. “See anyone else?”
Merlin worries his lip with his teeth. After a moment he asks, “Why are you so sure the sorcerer will be here?”
Bess smiles grimly. “Because whoever they are, they like spectacle. Using your spell as a diversion, channeling your power, the mist, the scale of it all – they put a lot of effort into this show, and they’ll need to be close enough to enjoy the end result. They have to be here; they don’t have a choice.”
Merlin is quiet, and they stand side by side in silence, watching the crowd. “You know a lot about this.”
“I read a lot,” Bess says, and then the doors open and Arthur enters the Hall.
He does look very handsome, if still a bit nauseous, and he hesitates just inside the doors as every head in the Great Hall turns as one to take him in. Torchlight shines golden on his pale hair and the strong line of his jaw, and the Hall gasps, a single stunned breath rattling through two hundred throats. The sound is like thunder.
“Erm,” Arthur says, shifting uneasily from one foot to the other. “Sorry I’m late?”
The Great Hall smiles at him. It is the same smile on every face, on every child and lady and knight, and each mouth moves in time with the others, a slow spread of lips to reveal teeth. Despite Morgana’s worries, there is no lust or want in that smile – only helpless, mindless adoration.
Bess swallows hard. “You were right,” she says. “This is an awful plan.”
Arthur crosses the Hall to sit beside the king, and every chair and bench creaks as their occupants slowly shift in their seats, following Arthur with their eyes. “Father,” Arthur murmurs, looking down at his empty plate. “Morgana.”
“Arthur,” Uther says, the happiness in his voice as fixed and strange as his smile. “I am glad you are here.”
“Thank you,” Arthur says.
“For a while,” Uther says, “you were not here, and that was unpleasant.”
“Yes,” Arthur says. “Um. Sorry about that.” He turns to the woman sitting to his right and says, “Enjoying the feast, Lady Elaine?”
Lady Elaine is a handsome auburn-haired woman with an aristocratic nose and arched eyebrows, and her sharp face is ill suited for smiling. She beams at Arthur and says, “Now that you are here, my lord.”
“Yes,” the Hall choruses as one. “Now that you are here, my lord.”
Arthur goes pale. “Thanks,” he says faintly. “That’s…very kind.”
Merlin pushes away from the wall and leans over Arthur’s shoulder. “Would you like me to fill your cup, sire?”
“God, yes,” Arthur says, and Merlin does. Afterward he does not move away, but stays at Arthur’s side, the knuckles of his left hand almost touching Arthur’s arm. Merlin glances back at Bess, giving her a wide-eyed look that says, What next? Bess shrugs.
No clue, she mouths. Improvise.
Morgana clears her throat and turns to Uther. “My lord, there is no food.”
“Food?” Uther says.
“Arthur might be hungry,” Morgana says, and the smile falls from Uther’s face, from every face in sight.
“Arthur,” Uther says in the wounded voice of a bewildered child, “are you hungry?”
“No,” Arthur says immediately, “I’m fine,” but the prince has had an active sort of day, what with the whacking at people with swords and the plotting against sorcerers, and his stomach betrays him. It growls, and the sound rings impossibly loud in the worshipful silence of the Hall.
“You there,” Uther calls to the nearest person who looks like she might know something about kitchens and the food that isn’t on their plates. A frizzy-haired scullery maid steps forward and curtseys.
“Yes, sire?” she says, and Bess knows her voice – it’s the much-abused Elise of Penny’s gang of kitchen miscreants. Her eyes are locked on Arthur, and she looks as if she’s about to faint.
“Arthur is hungry,” Uther says. “Where is the food?”
Elise’s bottom lip trembles. “There is no food,” she says. “We were so looking forward to the feast that we forgot to prepare any.”
Arthur snorts. “Well, that doesn’t make much sense, does it?” Merlin kicks his chair. “What?” Arthur says, twisting in his seat to glare at Merlin. “It doesn’t.”
Elise gives a tiny hiccup of a sob and stutters, “I-I-I’m sorry,” before bursting into tears.
The entire Hall bursts into tears with her.
Uther and his lords, the knights and the ladies of the court, the servants and the villagers and the stern-faced ambassadors from Mercia – they weep together and in perfect unison, choking out the same shameless, violent sobs, and it is as if the castle itself is weeping, as if the cries come not from many voices but from a single throat, something deep and forgotten beneath the stones.
All of Camelot weeps but for old Lord Urry, snoring into his doublet, three terrified serving girls about to bolt for the doors, and the Lady Elaine of Mercia, who turns genteelly in her chair and grins at Merlin like a cat who’s spotted a bird with a crippled wing.
“I knew it!” Merlin says, punching the air. “I knew it was you!”
Arthur stands. “Now, hold on—”
“No, no,” Lady Elaine says, “he’s quite right. I’m a sorceress.” She stands, sweeping her skirts out behind her. “It’s sort of predictable, if you think about it.”
“I’ve suspected you all along,” Merlin says. “Haven’t I, Bess?”
He has, and now that she’s looking, Bess can see why. Lady Elaine plays her part perfectly, from the practiced note of feminine sweetness in her voice to the elegant turn of her wrist, but there is something feral in her eyes, something she can’t quite hide. It makes Bess press back against the wall behind her, her fingers gripping stone. “Merlin,” she says, “we should, we should really—”
“And who is this little thing?” Lady Elaine says, peering past Merlin to see Bess’ face. “Your simple-minded sidekick? Kid sister? Team mascot?”
Arthur steps forward, placing himself between Merlin and Lady Elaine. “She is none of your concern.”
“And she’s not little,” Merlin says from over Arthur’s shoulder.
Arthur elbows Merlin in the chest, pushing him further back. “What have you done to these people? What is your purpose here?”
Lady Elaine taps a delicate finger against her chin. “Well, my lord, since you’ve asked so nicely, I’ll tell you: I’ve come to Camelot to enchant your subjects, murder your father, and seize your kingdom – on behalf of my brother, actually, which is rather tedious, but I do enjoy any excuse to get out of that shithole we call a castle.” She pauses, considering. “Also, I enjoy travel on general principle.”
Merlin and Arthur gape at her.
Morgana steps forward, a sword she’d nicked from one of the weeping knights hidden behind her back. “You will undo this spell, Elaine.”
“My Lady Morgana.” Lady Elaine grins at her, showing teeth. “You look tired, my dear. Something keeping you awake at night?” She moves to Arthur, resting her pale hand on his arm. “You know, my lord, your servant wasn’t the only one with suspicions. Dear Morgana’s been having me followed since my first week here.” She tilts her head, and her grin turns sharp. “Funny that she neglected to mention it. Still, I’m sure there’s a perfectly innocent explanation.”
Arthur pulls away. “That’s enough.”
Lady Elaine sighs. “Yes, I suppose it is.” She lifts her hand and fire blossoms in her palm like a rose – glowing red, then violet, and finally blue-white with heat. She raises her arm. “This was a nice conversation. It makes me sad that we won’t have another.”
“Merlin, now!” Bess shouts, and Merlin murmurs the words under his breath. For a terrible moment nothing happens, and then forty well-hidden stink bombs fizzle and explode, filling the Great Hall with a thick, wretched-smelling smoke.
Lady Elaine shrieks in frustration, and her fireball slices through the smoke as a shadow that could be Arthur knocks into a shadow that could be Merlin and they both tumble to the floor, the fire sizzling through the space where’s Merlin’s head had been, scorching the wall behind them.
“How annoying,” Lady Elaine says, and another fireball sparks to life in the haze of smoke.
Morgana’s bony hand grabs Bess by the wrist and pulls her down to where the smoke is thickest, and Bess scrabbles over the stone floor until she finds Merlin’s arm. She hooks her fingers into his sleeve and Merlin reaches for Arthur as Arthur reaches for the king, and then the prince leads them all stumbling out of the Great Hall, hidden by the smoke and the smell and the love-lost fools of Camelot still sobbing the broken syllables of Arthur’s name, their hands held over their hearts.
Arthur drags them through winding corridors and down steep staircases until they reach an alcove not far above the dungeons. Only then do they release each other’s hands and slump against the cool stone walls, breathing hard. Arthur tries to keep his father on his feet but Uther crumples, his face hidden in his hands as he weeps.
Arthur kneels beside him. “Please,” he says. “Please stop. Look, I’m right here. I’m fine.”
“I cannot bear it,” Uther says, but it is not his voice alone. They hear its echo from the dungeons below, from all those in the castle above. Uther gives a wrenching sob, turning away from his son and pressing his face into the stone of the wall. “I cannot bear it. It is too much. I cannot, I cannot…” His voice fades to a murmur, and he mouths the same words, over and over again: I cannot bear it. I cannot, I cannot.
Morgana touches Arthur’s shoulder. “Arthur, being near you – I think it’s making him worse.”
“No,” Arthur says, shaking her off. “He said it was better when I was here, when I was with him. He said—”
“You should have left him behind,” Bess says, and when the other three turn to stare at her, it is somehow Merlin who looks the most betrayed.
“He’s helpless, Bess,” Merlin says. “Elaine would have killed him.”
“And now he’ll live long enough for the spell to drive him mad.” Bess folds her arms over her chest, fingernails digging into her own skin. “Arthur, you’re hurting him. Move away.”
Uther lifts his head, his eyes red and swollen and unseeing. “That voice,” he rasps. “I know that voice.”
Arthur stumbles to his feet, away from the king. “All those people – we just left them there.” His hand moves to the hilt of his sword. “I’m going back.”
“Yes,” Merlin says, “because that’s exactly what this day needs – you getting set on fire by a crazed sorceress.”
“Do shut up, Merlin,” Arthur says, and Merlin is about to retort when an explosion rocks the castle, shaking the stones beneath their feet. Bess falls back, out of the shelter of the alcove, and she watches as the tapestries at the top of the staircase above burst into flame. Merlin tugs her to her feet, and she holds tight to his arm and pulls him close.
“Merlin, she needed your power for a reason,” Bess whispers. “She could never have cast a spell like this without it. You’re stronger than she is. You can stop this.”
“I can’t,” Merlin says, looking back at Arthur, at Uther huddled against the wall. “You know I can’t.”
There’s another explosion, closer still. “Come out, come out, wherever you are,” Lady Elaine sing songs, the words echoing in the corridor above. “Hiding, are we? I like a bit of a game, my pets, but I should warn you – I do tend to cheat.”
Morgana pulls Bess and Merlin back into the alcove, her face flushed with heat from the fires. “Arthur, the hidden passage through the dungeon. Do you remember the way?”
“Of course,” Arthur says, unsheathing his sword. “You take them to safety, and I’ll buy you the time you need.”
“Please, Merlin,” Bess says. “You know I’m right.”
Merlin’s mouth thins into a stubborn line and he steps in front of Arthur, blocking his path. “Sire.”
“There’s no time to argue, Merlin,” Arthur says, and he steps forward, expecting Merlin to move out of his way. He doesn’t.
“You’re right,” Merlin says. “There’s no time.” He takes a deep breath. “Arthur, do you trust me?”
For a moment Arthur looks as if he’s about to shove Merlin aside, but then he deflates, his shoulders slumping, his young face tired and dirty and frightened. “Yes,” he says. “Yes, of course I do.”
Merlin exhales. “Then you’ll take Morgana and Bess—”
Morgana raises her sword and delicately clears her throat.
“Then you’ll take Bess to Gaius and help them find a way to stop the spell.” Arthur opens his mouth to object, but Merlin grabs his arm, fingers closing tight above his elbow. “You said you trusted me. Was that a lie?”
Arthur steps back, shaking his head, and pulls his arm from Merlin’s grasp. “Merlin, my father—”
“I cannot,” Uther murmurs, heartbroken. “I cannot bear it.”
“I’ll protect him,” Merlin says. “You have my word.”
“Olly olly oxen free,” Lady Elaine calls out, her voice high and mad and all too close, and Bess slips her fingers into Arthur’s hand.
“We should probably run,” she says, and they do.
The hidden passage through the dungeon isn’t so much hidden as half-collapsed, and though Bess has an easy enough time of it, Arthur keeps knocking his head against the ceiling.
“This was considerably less painful when I was a few inches shorter,” he says, rubbing his forehead. He tightens his grip on her hand, and she can’t help but be grateful – the darkness makes her uneasy, and it is as if his voice and sweat-damp hand are the only links between her and the world above. The world that presses down on her now, stone and earth and distant sky.
“How far underground are we?” she asks, and then fervently wishes she hadn’t.
“Far,” Arthur says, guiding her around a pile of rubble. “We need to move faster.”
Bess squeezes his hand. “Merlin will be all right. I’m sure of it.”
Just before they’d escaped into the dungeon they’d heard Elaine’s shout of discovery and the spell that followed. Merlin had shouted back, and not even someone with Arthur’s knack for willful ignorance could mistake his words for anything but magic.
Arthur grunts. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Right,” Bess says. “Good. Me either.” She pauses. “Not that I know anything about it. Whatever ‘it’ may be. I haven’t a clue what we’re not talking about, actually, and I’d ask, only you said you didn’t want to talk about it.”
There’s a sudden drop in the path ahead of them; Arthur jumps down, then turns to guide Bess’ jump, his hands on her waist. “Let me guess,” he says when her feet are on the ground again. “You don’t deal well with enclosed spaces.”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Bess says.
Bess waits for the passage to climb toward the surface, but it never does – they travel deeper and deeper into the tunnels and caverns hidden beneath the castle, and as her panic rises Bess fights to keep her breath slow and even, focusing on the gentle rise and fall of her chest and thinking calm thoughts.
“Stop panting like that,” Arthur says. “It’s annoying.”
“I’m not,” Bess says, “you’re imagining things,” but now that she’s listening she hears it too – soft, gasping breaths and the sharp sounds of a creature in pain. She stops walking. “That’s not me.”
He tugs on her hand. “There’s no shame in being frightened, Bess, and certainly no point in lying about it. We’re all scared of something, you know. Even I—”
Something small and furry brushes against her ankle, and Bess is about to shriek when Arthur gasps and drops her hand, leaving Bess alone in the dark.
“It’s just a rat,” she says. “Please, Arthur. I can’t see you. I can’t see anything.”
“Like the starlings,” Arthur says, his voice shaking, and Bess realises that the small sounds have grown louder, that the breaths have multiplied by the hundreds, by the thousands, and now she can smell them, the sour stink of their twitching, furred bodies, the skitter and scrape of their feet against stone. She wonders if Arthur can feel their eyes on him, their devotion and their heartbreak. She reaches for him in the darkness.
“Please, Arthur. We have to help Merlin.”
A hand seizes hers, and she holds it tightly. “Sorry I let go,” he says after a moment. “I didn’t mean to.”
“I was fine,” Bess lies. “Just worried about you, sire.”
“Such loyalty,” Arthur says wryly, his hand clammy in hers.
They take a few hesitant steps and the path clears before them, the rats cringing away from Arthur the way a moth once burned shudders from flame. Arthur’s steps grow quicker, less cautious, and after that they run through the passage in silence, scraping their palms bloody when they fall and running still, and Bess knows they’re nearly to the surface when they hear the weeping again, the cries of Camelot above.
“It is too much,” the voices say, and the words echo through the tunnel, shaking the stones. “I cannot bear it, I cannot, I cannot.”
“You said it would get worse,” Arthur says. “What could be worse than this?”
Bess is glad he can’t see her face. “I think I see a light,” she says. She pulls him forward. “Is that a door?”
The door is locked, warped with age and rot. Arthur opens it with one good slam of his shoulder, and they stumble into the empty, moonlit courtyard.
Bess takes a deep breath of clear night air and looks up at the sky. “I’m so happy I could cry.”
“Please don’t,” Arthur says, sounding pained, and then they’re running again, back into the castle and up the stairs and into Gaius’ workroom, where the tables are boiling with experiments and stacked high with books and Gaius crouches on the floor, cradling a weeping Gwen in his arms.
“Guinevere,” Arthur breathes, and takes a halting step forward.
Gwen lifts her tear-stained face, her eyes shining in the candlelight. “No,” she whispers. “Please, no.” Her body shakes, not simply with tears, but something more – tremors that rattle her teeth and jerk back her head. Gaius shakes with her, struggling to hold her steady.
“Impossible,” Bess murmurs. “She’s fighting the spell.”
“At great risk to her health,” Gaius says, breathless, and Bess hurries over to relieve him, pulling Gwen into her arms. Her skin is hot to the touch, beyond any fever Bess has seen, and Bess knows death well enough to know this – Gwen has little time left.
Gaius stands, supporting himself on a nearby chair. “Gwen came to warn me, sire. It seems she’s been resisting the enchantment since she first felt its effects this morning.” He pauses. “She knows what’s coming next.”
“Arthur,” Gwen says in a voice like broken glass. She clutches Bess’ arm, her eyes red-rimmed and unseeing. “You have to tell him.”
“I’m here,” Arthur says, gripping the doorframe, afraid to come closer. “Am I – Gwen, am I hurting you?”
“Yes,” she gasps, reaching for him with one trembling hand. “But no, don’t leave, please don’t—”
“Hush,” Bess says. “He’s here.” She smoothes the tangled hair from Gwen’s sweat-soaked face, and beckons Arthur closer with a tip of her head. He takes a few hesitant steps toward them.
Gwen looks sightlessly into Bess’ eyes, and when she speaks Bess can hear the effort in it, the battle for every word. “When it’s done, you have to tell him. You have to make him understand. They hurt so much and so terribly and they can’t stop, they can’t ever stop.” She laughs, a harsh, pained sound from the back of her throat. “How can they, when it feels like he’s all we have left? Like he’s all we ever were?”
Arthur kneels beside them, and his fingers hover over Gwen’s shaking hands. “Guinevere, I—”
“Don’t you dare,” Gwen says, suddenly furious. She struggles free of Bess’ arms and shoves Arthur in the chest. “Don’t you dare apologise to me, Arthur Pendragon. Don’t you dare feel guilty. If I love you it will be because I damned well want to, and not because any stupid spell tricks me into it. That is my final word on the matter.” She sags against him, her head hanging low. “Sorry,” she murmurs into his shoulder. “That was rude.”
Arthur looks up, his eyes bright. “Gaius—”
Gaius rubs his hand over his mouth. “There’s nothing I can do for her. I do not know how to break the spell, and that is her only cure.”
The castle shakes with a distant explosion. Bess meets Gaius’ eyes and sees the question there. “He’ll be fine,” she says. “Morgana is with him.”
“Morgana,” Gwen groans into Arthur’s shirt. “Morgana will be so angry.”
Arthur raises an uncertain hand to the back of her head, his fingers brushing the skin of her neck. “Morgana is always angry. It would frighten me more if she weren’t.”
Gwen smiles up into his face, her eyes luminous with tears. “Arthur,” she says. “Arthur, you have to know. It wasn’t your fault.”
There is a sharp sound from the window, and something dark strikes the glass. Bess stands, walks over to the window and opens it. The night air is thick and hot and still, and it carries the cries from the castle around them. Bess looks down at the courtyard below. “I don’t see anything,” she says.
It happens again at another window, and then another. A small dark snap against the glass that disappears as quickly as it comes, again and again and again until something flies through the open window, brushing past Bess’ face and slamming into the stone wall at the other side of the room. It makes a soft, sickening sound as it hits, then slides to the floor. Bess crosses the room slowly, bends down and gently lifts the dead bird in her cupped hands.
“It’s a starling,” she says. “Its neck is broken.”
Gaius slams the window closed, and a heartbeat later the windows are dark with feathers, the sound of snapping bone like hailstones against the glass, like any other summer storm.
“It is too much,” Gwen says. “I cannot bear it.” She touches Arthur’s face with one finger, tracing the curve of his shaking mouth. “I cannot.”
Bess cradles the broken bird in her hands and watches as Arthur holds Gwen in his arms, as Gaius listens helplessly for the next explosion from a distant battle. She steps back, her breath coming fast, and hears the storm outside, the single voice speaking through the people of Camelot.
I cannot, I cannot.
She steps back into a table and knocks the book of magic onto the floor. It falls open to a page covered in her old handwriting, the sharp, spiking script that distinguishes her words from those of all the others who have owned the book in its time. She kneels on the floor and turns to the page with the charm to protect against love spells.
At the bottom of the page she finds note crammed into the margin, an aside written in a cramped, almost illegible hand; Nimueh had written: Largely ineffectual, like most charms of this nature, and easily broken. A waste of time and milk, really – destroy the token (lock of hair, toenail clipping, intimate item of clothing, etc.) and you destroy the spell. Don’t know why I bothered.
“No,” Bess says, dropping the book. “It can’t be that simple.”
“Bess?” Gaius says, but Bess is already throwing herself up the stairs to Merlin’s room. The lock of hair is still on the bed where they’d left it, and Bess’ hand shakes as she plucks it from the sheets and staggers back down the stairs.
“Bess,” Gaius says, “what are you—”
She holds up her hand. “I don’t know,” she says. “Just give me a candle.”
He does, and she holds the hair to the flame.
The world goes suddenly, horribly silent.
On the floor, Gwen wrinkles her nose. “What’s that awful smell? Is someone’s hair on fire?”
Arthur stares at Gwen, wide-eyed with shock, and she stares back.
“Arthur,” she says, her hands fluttering over her mouth. “Sire. My lord.”
Arthur jerks his arms away, releasing her from his embrace. “I’m sorry, I didn’t—”
“You have snot on your collar,” she says.
Arthur looks down. “So I do,” he says, and his grin, as Elise the scullery maid would say, is like a sunrise – gold and warm and new.
Gaius takes the candle from Bess’ hand and gives her shoulder a pat. “Well done,” he says. “Though it would’ve been nice if you’d thought of it sooner.”
Arthur helps Gwen to her feet. “Gaius,” she says, “where’s Merlin?”
Bess and Gaius exchange an anxious look. “Well,” Bess says, and then she stops. She smells something more than burnt hair, something like the scent of a flame just before it is lit, and she stumbles away from the windows, fear and memory rising in her throat like bile.
The night sky crackles with light, an unnatural, blinding fire that pierces the darkness in the courtyard below. It fades, and the room shakes a little in the thunder that follows.
Arthur frowns. “Was that lightning?”
“No,” Gaius says, and with a single, hard look at Bess, he walks out the door.
Bess almost doesn’t follow.
She waits at the top of the staircase, listening to the echo of their footsteps against stone. The castle is so quiet now, almost funereal in its silence, and Bess thinks about simply walking away, retreating to empty corridors and the small bed that awaits her in the servant’s hall. She thinks about walking past the hall and continuing to the castle gates, passing into the hills and the forests and a life where Camelot is just a memory, a white blur on the horizon.
Gaius’ hands are clenched into fists, hidden in the bells of his sleeves, and behind him Arthur takes Gwen’s arm as he helps her down the stairs, his fingers covering hers. In a moment they will be gone, will disappear around the corner and leave Bess standing alone. They will forget she was ever there.
“Bugger that,” Bess says, and trips down the steps after them.
The stones of the courtyard are pale in the moonlight, the sky clear above. Gaius grabs Bess’ arm, and she follows his gaze – Merlin and Morgana stagger toward them from the castle gates, looking as if they’d just fought a duel to the death and won by a very narrow margin indeed. They are bruised and limping and a little singed, but they are undoubtedly alive.
Morgana’s dress is in tatters, and she drags a broken sword behind her, its tip scraping against stone. “I can’t believe she got away,” she says, and kicks sullenly at a rock in her path. It’s only Merlin’s hand on her elbow that stops her from toppling over.
Merlin nods, wiping at the blood dripping from his nose, which is almost certainly broken. “Yeb,” he says. “Bery annoying. But at beast be bidn’t bie.”
Morgana frowns at him. “What?”
“At beast be bidn’t—”
“At least we didn’t die,” Arthur translates. “Yes. Congratulations on that, by the way.”
Morgana looks right past Arthur and squeals Gwen’s name at the top of her lungs, tackling her handmaiden with her arms outstretched. Gwen is already much recovered, but Morgana’s weight seems to be a bit much for her; she gives Gaius a pleading look.
“Concussion, I bink,” Merlin says. “Baking her boopy.”
“Making her loopy,” Arthur corrects quickly, and Gaius’ eyebrow returns to its normal latitude. He takes Morgana’s arm and gently disentangles her from Gwen.
“There, there, my dear. Let me see your pupils.”
Bess steps forward to inspect Merlin’s nose. She pokes at it with one finger, and he yelps. “Yep,” she says. “Definitely broken.” She pulls a handkerchief from her dress pocket and holds it carefully to his nose, soaking up the blood.
“Bhat bid you bo?” he asks.
“It was the lock of hair. I burned it, and the spell ended.” She shrugs. “It was pure luck.”
Merlin smiles. “I boubt bat.”
“As do I,” Lady Elaine says, appearing in swirl of flame behind him. She sits astride a great dark horse, her cloak flowing long behind her. “You spoiled my fun, little girl. I won’t forget it.”
“All right, that’s enough,” Bess says. “I’m of average height for my age. How many times am I going to have to say it?”
“Ignore her, Bess,” Morgana says, lifting her chin. “She knows when she’s been beaten.”
Elaine turns to Morgana, her lips curved into something like a smile. “You and the servant still breathe, my lady, because the child made me swear I would not kill you. A life for a life, or some nonsense like that.” The horse moves restlessly beneath her, and she rolls her eyes. “Boys, you know. So sentimental.”
“Mordred,” Arthur says softly, almost too softly to be heard, and Bess shudders. There is something about that name. Something that she’s forgotten.
Elaine grins. “Well, I hate to terrorize and run, but I’ve got people to see, dissent to sow.” She blows Merlin a kiss. “See you later, Ears. Give Uther my best.” She spurs the horse into a gallop, and as she rides through the gates of Camelot fire curls through her outstretched hand, curving into a bow. For a terrible moment Bess knows what is coming but cannot react, cannot move, and then Elaine draws back her arm and fires the flaming arrow at Arthur’s heart.
It stops, sizzling in the air just in front of his chest. The arrow hovers there, unnatural and unmoving, and Arthur takes a single, deliberate step to one side. He clears his throat. “Merlin.”
“Oh,” Merlin says, and the arrow slams harmlessly into the door behind them. Gwen gapes, but Morgana, Gaius, and Bess watch Arthur, the hard line of his mouth and the tightness around his eyes. None of them breathe.
“Huh,” Arthur says, and brushes a bit of ash from his shirt. “Lucky she was such a rotten shot.”
Merlin grins, sagging with relief. “Yeb,” he says. “Bery lucky.”
Arthur wraps his arm around Merlin’s shoulders. “You really should stop talking, Merlin. You sound like an idiot.” He pauses. “More so than usual, I mean.”
“Merlin,” Gwen says, her voice breaking. “Merlin, you’re—”
“About to collapse, I should think,” Gaius says. “Merlin, Morgana – I’d like to attend to your injuries immediately. You, Gwen, should be resting.” He shakes his head and turns with a sigh to climb the stairs again. “Bess, you know where I keep the salves for mild burns. I’ll need that, an anti-inflammatory for Merlin’s nose, and a number of bandages of various dimensions and thicknesses…” He disappears into the castle, still giving orders. Bess and the others stay in the courtyard, standing in a quiet circle.
“We drew Elaine away from Uther as quickly as we could,” Morgana says. “He should be by the dungeons.”
“I should find him,” Arthur says. He doesn’t move. For a long moment no one speaks.
Gwen looks again at the arrow embedded in the door, her face expressionless and still in the faint light. “It was you, wasn’t it, Merlin? You cured my father of that plague, and when they accused me of sorcery you tried to confess. You saved his life.” She turns back to him. “How many times have you saved us all?”
“Ib’s nob thab thimble,” Merlin says, anguished, and Arthur gently cuffs the back of his head.
“For pity’s sake, Merlin, just say you’re welcome and be done with it.”
Merlin looks down at his feet, his arms folded across his thin chest and Bess’ bloody handkerchief crushed in his hand. “You’re belcome.”
Gwen steps forward and kisses his swollen cheek, her eyes bright, and Bess remembers the taste of the plague that had almost killed Gwen’s father, that had killed so many in so little time. She’d shaped it with her own hands, had smiled at still bodies beneath white sheets and the terror of a city she now calls home, and while it was Uther’s hatred that took Gwen’s father in the end, Bess’ revenge nearly claimed him first.
Bess moves back, drawing away from the circle, but before she can disappear into the night Morgana takes her hand. Her fingers are cold and surprisingly strong, and she pulls Bess back to the others. “No, I don’t think so,” she says softly, into Bess’ ear. “It’s too late for that.”
Bess watches Merlin smile and knows she’s right.
Three days later the heat breaks, and it begins to rain.
The geese shelter beneath the willow at the pond’s edge, shaking the warm damp from their feathers and picking resentfully at the grass growing between the tree’s heavy roots. Bess climbs up, past the willow’s lower limbs and higher than she’s dared to venture before. The branches are strong enough to hold her but they move with the wind, swaying her from side to side. She closes her eyes and lets herself be carried, listening to the wind in the leaves. It sounds like water, like waves against the shore; Bess holds her hand over her heart and feels its beat, warm and steady against her palm.
A goose honks, and Bess hears a muttered curse from below. She closes her eyes tighter, holds her breath and keeps perfectly still, like when she was small and thought that if she wanted it hard enough she could make herself disappear.
It hadn’t worked then, either.
“Oh, hello,” Merlin says, panting a little as he climbs. “Fancy meeting you here.”
Bess opens her eyes. “So you’re not executed, then.”
“Not yet,” Merlin says, and heaves himself up onto a nearby branch. It creaks ominously, and his adam’s apple bobs as he swallows. “You’d know that if you hadn’t spent the last few days hiding up here like an antisocial tree sloth.”
“I’m not hiding,” Bess says, though she is. She watches as Merlin settles onto his branch, one skinny long leg swinging on either side. He’s soaked to the skin, his hair plastered to his head and dripping. He leans back against the trunk and chews meditatively on his thumbnail, apparently in no hurry to break the silence. Bess scowls down at him. “Well?”
“Well, why aren’t you executed? You and Elaine weren’t exactly subtle, you know.”
Merlin shrugs. “Seems the only bit the king really remembers about that night was Elaine’s little speech about murdering him and seizing the crown for her brother. I think he’s too worked up about that to worry about much else.” He tips his head back, his hair dark against the wood. “He threw the rest of the Mercian delegation into the dungeons. Arthur’s with him right now, trying to talk him out of executing them for sorcery.”
“They’re probably innocent.”
“Yes,” Merlin says dryly, “because Uther usually cares about that.”
“It’d be a declaration of war, Merlin. A war we really can’t afford to fight.”
“I know,” he says. “I’ve already had this conversation three times today – once with Gaius and twice more with Arthur. War with Mercia would be a disaster.” He tries to rub his hand over his face, but flinches when his fingers brush his swollen nose. “Ow.”
“It looks better,” Bess says. “Not quite so purple. Did you use magic?”
Merlin shakes his head. “No. I don’t know many healing spells.” He pauses. “Do you?”
Bess sighs. “Merlin—”
He sits up, his expression earnest. “I know you don’t want to talk about it, Bess, and I understand, I do, but the Great Dragon said—”
“The Great Dragon is a great pain in my arse,” Bess says, “and if you haven’t learnt by now that he can’t be trusted, then you’re even slower than you look.”
Merlin’s face darkens. “I don’t trust him. I haven’t since he sent me to Nimueh and expected me to bargain my mother’s life for his freedom.”
Bess’ fingernails sink into the bark of the branch beneath her. “The Dragon needs Arthur to live long enough to become king, Merlin. So do we, come to that.”
“He lied to me.”
“And you lied to Arthur. Now Arthur will lie to the king and keep your secret.” She raises an eyebrow. “How’s he taking that, by the way?”
“I think he’s decided to pretend he knew all along. Mostly, we’re not talking about it.”
“An excellent plan,” Bess says. “We should follow his example.”
Merlin draws his legs up onto the branch and hugs his knees to his chest. “You know, I asked Gaius about you. About your magic.”
Bess looks away. “Well,” she says through the sudden tightness in her throat, “I bet that was a short conversation.”
“It was. He told me your parents died when you were small and that you were raised by his sister, who was a powerful sorceress. He said she taught you everything she knew about magic, even though you had no talent for it.” He pauses. “He said she died last autumn, and that’s why you came to Camelot.”
Bess is fairly certain Gaius has never had a sister; she hangs her head and tries to look appropriately tragic. She wonders if she should attempt a sniffle.
Merlin watches her face. “You must miss her.”
“Oh, I do,” Bess says. “Terribly.”
“What was her name?”
Bess’ mind goes blank. “Um,” she says.
Merlin nods and sits back against the willow’s trunk. He doesn’t look angry, exactly, but he doesn’t look pleased either. He folds his arms across his chest. “Arthur, on the other hand, seems to be under the impression that your mother was a handmaiden here at court. He says that over the years she’s told you all sorts of hilarious bedtime stories about Uther’s court and his queen’s nutty high jinks. Which is pretty impressive when you consider that according to Gaius your mother’s been dead since you were an infant.”
“Er,” Bess says.
“And, of course, if you look in the steward’s staff registry it says that you come from a small village called Three Trees Crossing, where your only living family is your father, who is neither a sorceress nor a former handmaiden, but a fairly prosperous barley farmer.” Merlin watches her carefully, his eyes hard. “Bess, the Dragon called you old friend.”
Bess looks down at the branches below, the rain-heavy leaves and the dizzying distance to the ground. She bites her bottom lip. “I don’t know what you want me to say.”
“The truth would make a nice change.”
“Ah yes,” she says. “The truth.” She looks up. “Who was your father, Merlin?”
He flinches. “I don’t see what that has to do with—”
“It doesn’t. It’s a question I have no business asking, and you have no reason to answer it.” She smiles at him, a little sadly. “We have a right to our secrets, Merlin.”
Merlin nods once, his expression unreadable in the murky grey-green light. “All right,” he says.
She frowns. “All right?”
Merlin reaches up and pulls himself onto her branch. He sits beside her, his knee bumping hers. “Yeah. I mean, I don’t like that you lied to Arthur, and I don’t like that Gaius lied to me, but—” He shrugs. “I trust you.”
They are such simple words when heard from his lips, and she wonders if they mean so little to him, wonders that he says them so easily. A man like Merlin cannot afford to give his trust cheaply, and yet she can see it in his eyes – the simple, unerring certainty that even if she is not what she seems, she is worthy of his faith. Merlin trusts her, and it’s terrifying.
“You shouldn’t,” Bess says, her heart in her throat. “Merlin, I—”
He slides closer on the branch, and she feels the heat of his shoulder, his shirt damp with rain. “Tell me how to fix my nose.”
Bess shakes her head. “I don’t know.”
“I think you do.”
“I think you’re an ass.”
“Bess,” Merlin says, and he doesn’t say anything more, just lets the sound of her name fill the silence. The wind moves through the trees.
Bess takes a deep, steadying breath. “Ágíeme,” she says, careful to keep the power from her voice. “Focus on the proper shape of the nose, the knitting of the bone. The cartilage. Focus, inhale, and—”
“Ágíeme,” Merlin says, and his eyes flash gold. His nose makes a strange popping sound, and he groans. “Okay, that really hurt.”
“Don’t be such a baby,” Bess says. She pokes gently at the swelling around his nose. “I think it worked. The bruises are already starting to fade.” She smiles. “Not bad for your first try.”
He grins, a quick flash of teeth. “What can I say? I’m a quick study.”
“Sure you are,” she says, sliding away on the branch, putting a little much needed space between them. “I’m surprised Gaius hasn’t taught you that one. I can’t imagine he doesn’t know it.”
Merlin shrugs and looks down at his hands. “Maybe he’s forgotten.”
“Maybe,” Bess says. They sit quietly for a moment.
Merlin runs a hand through his rain-wet hair, and his fringe sticks up absurdly. “Gaius thinks the more I know about my magic the more I’ll be tempted to use it. He thinks I’m not as cautious as I should be, and he’s right.”
Bess scowls. “Oh, and so keeping you ignorant and untrained is safer?”
He stiffens. “I’m not ignorant.”
“You really are.” She sighs, feeling old. “You don’t understand, Merlin – it’s dangerous. You have so much power, and you have no idea how to control it. Elaine took advantage of that, and I promise you she won’t be the last. You need to learn that there’s more to magic than frying evil sorceresses and polishing Arthur’s armour.”
“Fine,” Merlin says. “Then why don’t you teach me?”
Bess blinks. “I walked right into that, didn’t I?”
“You really did,” Merlin says, and grins.
There’s a loud honk from below, and Bess hears someone say, “I’d reconsider the wisdom of that, if I were you. I’m quite close with the castle butcher.” There’s a silence, and then Gaius adds, “I thought not.”
Merlin rolls his eyes and calls, “We’re up here, Gaius.”
A moment later Gaius shuffles into view, his head tilted back and his arms folded over his chest. Bess covers her mouth to stifle a laugh. “Nice hat, Gaius.”
He adjusts the brim of his rather feminine peaked hat. “Thank you, Bess. I find it very practical in this weather.” He turns a glare on the still dripping Merlin. “And if you catch cold, sir, you won’t get any sympathy from me. I told you to wait until a break in the rain.”
Merlin’s face is the picture of innocence. “I had to tell her about the Mercians, didn’t I?”
Gaius looks entirely unconvinced. “In that matter you’re both somewhat behind on recent events. Uther has sent the delegation from Mercia home unharmed. They are to inform King Bayard that his daughter has been revealed as a sorceress and an enemy of the crown.”
“That should go over well,” Merlin mutters.
“What about Prince Urien?” Bess says. “Elaine claimed he was behind the whole thing.”
“There is no proof of that,” Gaius says, “and there won’t be. Urien is far too clever. We have only Lady Elaine’s accusation as evidence, and as the Mercians pointed out, Elaine is quite clearly mad.”
Merlin frowns. “So what do we do?”
Gaius smiles, his eyes tired. “We wait, Merlin. We wait and see.” He reaches up and straightens his hat. “Now. Are you two going to spend all evening in that tree or are you coming in for supper?”
Merlin’s eyes light up with something considerably more gluttonous than magic. “Supper,” he says rapturously, already clambering down from one branch to the next. “I’m starving.”
“Imagine my surprise,” Gaius says.
Bess doesn’t move, and before Merlin is halfway to the ground he stops and looks up at her. “Aren’t you coming?”
Bess meets Gaius’ eyes through the branches and leaves between them. He could have handed her over to Uther the moment he recognised her for what she was; instead he’d given her tea and acceptance and something very like family, and the only thing he’d asked of her in return was that she stay away from Merlin. He’s trying to protect them both, protect them from Bess’ past and Merlin’s power, and what would he say if he knew Bess has all but agreed to teach Merlin the magics he will not?
“Of course she’s coming,” Gaius says, holding Bess’ gaze. “Hurry along, Bess. If Merlin beats us back, by the time we arrive there won’t be food left to feed a dormouse.”
“That is a slanderous lie,” Merlin says. “Just because I have a healthy appetite—”
“A healthy appetite for a horse, maybe,” Bess says, and Gaius chuckles at Merlin’s outraged squawk. Bess begins to climb down quickly after him, nearly snagging her skirts on a broken branch. Her feet hit the ground a moment before Merlin comes tumbling down after her. She grabs his arm to steady him, but her eyes are on Gaius. “Are you sure you want me to come?”
Gaius gives her a severe look. “I thought I’d made it perfectly clear that you were always welcome to join us. You are not a guest, Bess; I did not think you would require special invitation.”
She looks down to hide her smile. “Sorry, Gaius.”
“Yes. Well.” The corner of Gaius’ mouth twitches. “Perhaps you can make it up to me by teaching Merlin how to enchant a broom without first setting it on fire. I’ve had to replace three in the last month; the castle steward has begun to look at me rather oddly.” He turns and begins the walk back to the castle, rain rolling off the brim of his strange peaked hat. Bess thinks she can hear him whistle.
“I don’t set the brooms on fire,” Merlin says from behind her. “I only singe them a little.”
Bess turns to him. “If I agree to teach you, you have to do exactly as I say. Even if I am younger than you.”
“And a girl,” Merlin adds.
“I’ll tell Morgana you said that.”
“I’ll tell Arthur you stare at his arse.”
Bess narrows her eyes at him. “Oaf.”
Merlin grins. “Goose girl.”
Bess grits her teeth and holds out her hand. “So? Do you agree to my terms?”
“With all my heart,” Merlin says, and shakes her hand. Before she can pull it away again, he bends down and presses a sloppy kiss to her knuckles.
She pulls a face and wipes her hand on her dress. “You’re disgusting, you know that? Absolutely disgusting.”
Merlin laughs, stumbling out from under the protection of the willow’s branches, and for an airless, frozen moment he seems a shadow cast upon the walls of the castle, a dark silhouette against cloud-pale stone. Then she blinks, and it’s only Merlin – standing in the rain, waiting for her to follow him home.