Once upon a time, there was a prince who was sent away from home. This was probably for the best, as his father was a tyrant and a madman, and he hated all things magical, which given that this is a story about magic immediately makes him into a villain. The prince was sent away because after the sixth enchanted princess fell in love with him and tried to get him to marry her and ensure a successful future for magicians throughout the kingdom, the magic users realised that this tactic was failing and employed more drastic measures to get their own way.
Now, lest you think that the princess-marrying gambit failed because the Prince was ugly, think again. There are many ridiculously good-looking people in this world, but you can rest assured that this prince was somewhere in the top ten. He wasn’t near to the bottom of the top ten, either, because he had blue eyes and blond hair and a firm jaw, and everyone likes a firm jaw on royalty. He wasn’t near to the top of the top ten because sadly he was a horrible, horrible prat, and that sort of thing shows in one’s blue eyes and the twist of one’s lips; it is the difference between a smile and a sneer, and — as the princess-enchanting magicians had found out — even idiots know which is which.
Well, most idiots know which is which.
It so happened that a rather ordinary boy, on a rather ordinary day, had done something really rather extraordinary and had saved the life of the prince, kept a particularly stunning secret, and exposed a witch’s plot. It was all very exciting, but the upshot of it was this: 1) the prince was sent from his home in Camelot to hide in the country until he came of age, because presumably magical threats do not exist in the country, and 2) the rather ordinary boy (who was rather extra-ordinary if you looked at him in the right light and ignored his clumsiness and inability to see beyond the immediate future) was told he was to be the prince’s manservant. Given that the boy had nowhere else to go, and the prince was really ridiculously good-looking, he went along with the party.
Time passed. They lived in a little kinglet’s domain, with a little castle and a little moat the size of a stream, and a few knights so that the prince didn’t get bored and a few dozen chores so that the boy didn’t get bored and for a while, they were happy. Occasionally, the prince threw things at the boy because he was lazy and slow, and occasionally, the boy used his extraordinary ability that no-one knew about to trip the prince and help him remember to be humble, because no-one likes being a human target. If we were keeping a tally, then the prince and the boy were probably about even. But we’re not keeping a tally, because somewhere between the shouts of “idiot” and “prat”, the prince stopped throwing things and the boy stopped tripping him up, and they both realised something quite unexpected; they were in love.
Life became easier after that, and the things that were thrown were clothing in their haste to undress, and the things that were shouted were decidedly nicer, but the boy still kept his secrets and the prince was still a horrible prat some of the time. You can’t expect a person to totally change when they fall in love; that is not why you fall in love with them. You fall in love with them because of who they are now, not who they could be.
And they lived together in the little castle with the knights, and if the prince was happier than he had ever been, it showed in his face, significantly bumping him up in that list of the top ten lookers in the land. For his part, he felt that the boy had a sharp, fey handsomeness, something that could not be tamed by man, and he called him Merlin after the wild falcons that sometimes stole their hunt, and Merlin called the prince by his first name, Arthur, when he wasn’t calling him prat. The prince didn’t mind being called prat by Merlin, because secretly he knew that whenever Merlin said prat, or clotpole, or dollop-head, he meant love.
And so it went.
Arthur’s mad father didn’t stop existing, though, just because he was far from the little idyll in the forest. It would be nice if people simply stopped existing when they went away to live somewhere else (rather like pets do when one is a child), but let’s face it — this would be a very boring story if it started with “and then they all lived happily ever after”.
Arthur’s mad father got wind of the somewhat extraordinary things that the boy did (and we’re not talking about the extraordinary things that the boy did with the prince in the privacy of their chambers, we’re talking about the magic, to be clear) and sent out a witchfinder to watch the prince and the boy, seeking out things that seemed unusual, or strange. When Arthur got word, he knew what he needed to do, and when the witchfinder arrived, the boy and the prince were never left alone.
“Go away,” Arthur said, the next time the boy tried to curl up beside him as they watched the fire. And then, he didn’t share his breakfast (as they always did). And he threw things again, and every time he saw the hurt, betrayed look in the boy’s eyes, his own heart ached.
“Tell me,” the boy said, one night. “I’m not, as you seem so fond of believing, a total idiot. Do you love me?”
“I did,” said the prince, and the boy smiled, shining like the sun.
“And what can I do to make you happy again?”
“You need—“ said Arthur, and then he had an idea. It was not a brilliant idea. But it was an idea that would change everything.
“You need to go out into the world,” he said, because then his boy would be away from witchfinders.
“Like a quest? What will I be looking for?”
“Maturity,” said Arthur. “Some common sense. Skill with a sword.”
“I don’t know how to find those things,” said the boy, his voice soft and sad.
“Well, I won’t love you until you do,” said Arthur.
“I’ve got no choice then,” said the boy. “I’ll go on a quest.”
And he did.
The days dragged without Merlin there in the little castle, and Arthur tired of things that had once made him happy. Merlin sent letters once a month, but they were pored over by the Witchfinder before Arthur ever got to look at them. Lonely years passed, and Arthur grew more and more handsome, his blue eyes reflecting the growth of his character most marvellously.
Until Merlin died.
The Witchfinder, who had always suspected Merlin of being in league with witches (the simple fact that he had bewitched the Prince into loving him, because no prince could ever love a servant, was a dead giveaway) gleefully came to Arthur one morning and told him the terrible news.
“Your boy was captured by the Dread Wizard Emrys,” he said, most evilly. “There were no survivors.”
“You’re lying,” said Arthur, but the boy had been rather clumsy, and oh, Arthur had told him to go and learn how to use a sword. But everyone knew swords and sorcery didn’t mix.
“You will come of age in a few weeks,” said the Witchfinder. “Don’t you think you’d better get over this silly infatuation with a dead servant and work out what you’re going to do when you take your father’s place on the throne?”
“No,” said Arthur. “And anyway, I’ll be middle-aged by the time I have to worry about that. He shows no signs of shuffling off this mortal coil anytime soon.”
A few weeks passed, as weeks tend to do, and there was no letter from Merlin. And it was that when Arthur attended the coming of age ceremony, he was the loveliest creature in all the land, for his blue eyes held a heart of sadness, and his noble features had only been refined by the grief that tore inside him.
“I will never love again,” he swore that night, wracked with guilt by the fact that if he had never told his Merlin to go on a stupid quest, he would never have placed Merlin in the position of being attacked by the Dread Wizard Emrys.
Now, it might seem to the reader who is unfamiliar with the generic tropes of romance fiction that this will not be a particularly fulfilling story, and indeed it wouldn’t if we left it there; one hero dead and the other hero emoting on the castle battlements in his nightshirt. But there were dealings afoot in Camelot, the kingdom of Arthur’s mad father, and thus the story continues.
Two women met under the cover of darkness; the King’s ward, and another woman. The King’s ward had been allowed to stay with him, because he had a totally non-pervy love of her affectionate nature and plunging necklines, and besides, no sorcerers had ever tried to attack her. In retrospect, the King probably should have considered this a little more critically, as the woman she was meeting with was her sister, and together, these sisters were a magical force to be reckoned with.
“So,” said the sister (her name was Morgause). “Have you ever wondered why the mad King took you in and not me? Given that we’re both sisters?”
“No, sister,” said the ward. “I’ve never wondered that. How strange. How shall we attempt to kill him this week?”
“That wily old Gaius is on to us,” said Morgause. “I suggest we simply incapacitate him.”
“But I can’t act as Regent unless I have a legitimate claim upon the throne. Also, I’m a woman, and this is supposed to be Medieval England. It’s some time before Elizabeth I, and I’d have to dye my hair ginger if I wanted to do that,” said the ward, who was called Morgana. She sighed. “The first in line to the throne is Prince Arthur, followed by one of his inbred cousins who have too few teeth and too many fingers. I’m not marrying one of those.”
“We could turn you into a man, sister,” Morgause suggested.
“I like my tits,” said Morgana. “They’re perky. If I were a man, I’d just have moobs.”
“Then we’ll have to think of something else,” said Morgause. “I’ll meet you tomorrow night, sister, when the brinded cat hath mewed thrice and the harpier is crying ’tis time.”
Sadly, once the cat had mewed and the hedgepig whined and the harpier had been kicked by his wife for disturbing her sleep, neither of them had any more ideas. Morgause got out her crystal ball to check on what the first in line to the throne was up to, hoping to find a few pointers in the glass.
“I’ll never love again,” he was saying, his nightshirt enticingly unlaced and blowing a little in the breeze as he stared out from the battlements of his castle and over the lonely plains.
“How convenient! That gives me an idea,” said Morgause. “Let’s construct a needlessly complex plot where he is forced to marry a serving girl that I just happen to need married off. Then we can be the shadowy figures who pull the strings in the background.”
“I don’t understand how this helps me get the throne,” said Morgana. “And if you have a spare serving girl, can I have her instead? My one ran away in mysterious circumstances.”
“You don’t want to marry him, do you?” asked Morgause.
“I don’t know, those thighs are quite impressive,” said Morgana, as Arthur’s nightshirt flapped around his well-built nether regions, each thigh dusted with light golden hair that caught the moonlight in gleaming curls.
“Yes, but he’s a horrible prat,” said Morgause. “It would be much easier to just marry him off to a servant and then use her as a puppet to get our way. If he’s getting enough sex, we’ll be able to pull the strings and run the kingdom how we like.”
“No it wouldn’t—“ Morgana began, but Morgause gave her a sad look, sadder than a hundred puppies in a hundred pet store windows.
“I really don’t want to have to return those “favourite sister” pendants I bought,” sighed Morgause.
“Oh no, you don’t have to do that!” said Morgana, clutching her sister’s arm. “I’ll sort something out. Sister. Oh sister, I’ll work out what to do.”
In the somewhat static-fuzzed picture in the crystal ball, Arthur manfully wiped at his eyes.
“Farewell, my love,” he said, to the wind, and then, just in case the universe hadn’t caught it the first time, he repeated: “I will never love again.”
Hunting was one of Arthur’s favourite pastimes, and, seeing his noble features touched with grief, his favourite knight decided to take him out for a nice mid-morning hunt not long after the Prince had accepted the death of Merlin.
“Look at this, Sire,” said Sir Leon. “Isn’t this exactly what should happen to a rabbit when it grows up?”
Arthur regarded the headless rabbit with a listless look. “I suppose,” he said. “I mean. I’m as fond of a dead animal as the next man, but I’m still just feeling so sad. I think I’ll go and ride in the loneliest, most dangerous part of the forest to cheer myself up.”
“But won’t that be lonely and dangerous?” asked Sir Leon.
“I like lonely danger,” said Arthur, in his best princely tone. It didn’t stop Leon from trying to follow him, but he turned back at the first hint of a rodent of unusual size, whereas Arthur kept going into the dark heart of the forest, where he was promptly captured by a man in black leather, a giant, and a short, attractively-proportioned swordsman. His horse was conveniently eaten by a passing questing beast, and as Arthur watched it crunch up the bridle, the leather-clad man twisted his arm behind him and captured Arthur quite soundly.
“I suppose you weren’t expecting to be kidnapped on your morning ride,” said the man, and Arthur shrugged.
“I sort of was. You see, I don’t want to live anymore, because I’ve lost my love.”
“Well, you’ll have a new love soon enough,” said the leather man.
“The giant?” asked Arthur hopefully.
“No, we’re to take you to Escetia and kill you on the border. But before that, you’re going to fall in love with a serving girl and abandon the throne. Your father won’t know whether to avenge your passing or be glad that you’re not watering down the gene pool with common blood.”
“This feels awkwardly like you’re trying to mash two stories together to create something coherent,” said Arthur, as the giant gave him an appraising look.
“He’s pretty,” the giant rumbled.
“Shut up,” said the man in leather. “And tie him up.”
To Arthur’s disappointment, it was the attractively-proportioned swordsman who tied him up, but the giant did sling him over one giant shoulder so that Arthur had an uninterrupted view of a giant gluteus maximus for the duration of a short walk down to the shore, where a small boat awaited them. He struggled a bit, but not too much, because although he was broken-hearted, he could still appreciate a nice strong grip when someone had him in it.
“All right. Rig the boat, you filthy slobs,” said the leather man.
“We’d be clean if we had cleaner jobs,” replied the swordsman, whom we may as well call Lancelot.
“Just get to it, you stupid goat.”
“If he keeps this up, I’ll slit his throat,” the giant rumbled, and Lancelot made an appreciative noise.
“That was a good one, Percival my friend,” he said.
“Shut up,” said the leather man.
“I always get there in the end,” said the giant, or Percival, as Arthur had come to realise. He was set down on a pile of sacking, and he watched them trim the rigging until it was yare, and they set sail.
“I didn’t realise Escetia had a sea border,” said Arthur, as the men worked the ropes.
“That’s because you’re an idiot,” said the leather man. “I am Cenred, ruler of Escetia, and the sea-border is one of my favourite bits. I’ve even got a labyrinth on the edge of the beach, guarded by a creepy old man.”
“Right,” said Arthur. “I didn’t think that was in Escetia.”
“Most people don’t. Because they’re idiots.”
“So do I get to see the labyrinth?”
“I can’t think of anything to rhyme with labyrinth,” said Lancelot, with a sigh.
“You don’t need to think of anything to rhyme with anything,” Cenred said. “You are not being paid to make rhymes. You are being paid to capture and kill this man.”
“But we’ll rhyme while we do it, if we can,” said Percival, and Cenred threw a dagger at him. It missed, which says something about Cenred’s aim (and who the hell can’t hit a giant at close quarters, really?), and splashed into the water, where it was promptly eaten by a sea-beast.
“So I gather that you three were the cheapest thugs available. Either that, or whoever hired you really didn’t know the market,” said Arthur.
“Shut up,” said Cenred.
“That’s not a very effective threat,” said Arthur.
“It’s the best one he’s got,” said Lancelot.
“Like it or not,” Percival added, and then winced. “Sorry, Lancelot.”
“It’s all right. You’re still learning.”
The day passed in the creaking of timbers and ropes, and the soft slap of the sea on the sides of the schooner, and other such alliteratively attractive sounds. It was almost enough to allow Arthur to forget that he was a prisoner, being taken towards marriage and death; he spent the day gently twisting his wrists to try to get them free of the ropes that cuffed his hands behind his back. The moon rose over the water, illuminating a path to the horizon, and on the port side of the boat, the lighthouse on the top of the Cliffs of Insanity.
“Oh Merlin,” Arthur sighed, most romantically. “I wish you were here with me. But untied. So that you could untie us both.”
“Is Merlin the name of your lost love?” asked Lancelot.
“Yes,” said Arthur. “It is.”
“I lost my love too,” said Lancelot. “She was stolen from me by a scheming witch.” He frowned. “You’re blond. And are those breasts? Are you secretly a witch?”
“They’re moobs!” said Arthur. “And it’s not my fault that when I work out I fill out.”
“The woman I seek is blonde, and has magic,” said Lancelot.
“As witches often do,” said Arthur, pretending to be wise in the ways of womenfolk. Truth was, he’d only seen a few women in his life, (other than the enchanted princesses who started this whole mess) and he tended to regard them as either sainted matrons or horrifying whores.
Lancelot continued regardless. “And when I find her, I am going to say to her Hello. My name is Lancelot du Lac. You stole my love from me. Prepare to die.”
“Wouldn’t it make more sense to find out where your love was, first?” asked Arthur. “And how did she steal your love; was it a hot lesbian affair?”
“You ask too many questions,” said Lancelot.
“My apologies,” said Arthur, and went back to trying to slip the ropes that held him. To his utter surprise, he was finally able to get a hand free, and while Lancelot looked at the moon and muttered about blonde women with magic, Arthur surreptitiously unbound his legs, and then made a rather ill-considered jump for the water.
He hit the water with a mighty splash, and thankfully knocked out the sea beast that he landed upon, but there was the splashing and grunting of the other beasts under the waves. Cenred leaned over the side of the ship.
“For fuck’s sake. What do you think you’re doing?”
“I’m going to… swim,” said Arthur, with more bravery than he felt. A sea beast nudged his shoe.
“You hear that grunting? That’s a sea beast. They’re like the questing beasts we get on land, but they’re under the water. And they grunt when they’re looking forward to eating nice tasty princesses.”
“Look, I know I’m in the girl’s part, but I’m not a princess!” Arthur said, kicking another sea-beast in the snout. “I’m going to swim to the Cliffs of Insanity and fuck you if you think you’re following me.”
It was at that point that the sea beast that Arthur had kicked grabbed his foot and dragged him under the water. Choking and spluttering, he watched the moonlight recede as his lungs filled with water. His last thought was, oh my god, this is my last thought! before the darkness threatened to take hold of him.
And then something magical happened. A huge bubble, like a soap bubble but in the sea and impervious to sea beasts, enfolded Arthur and started raising towards the surface. He coughed and gasped for air, and the great bubble raised itself higher, breaking the surface and depositing Arthur back on the decks just in time to be sick.
“What the shit was that?” asked Cenred, as the bubble burst and Arthur threw up copious amounts of seawater.
“Salt water, and I think some of his lunch,” said Lancelot, as Arthur wheezed.
“The bubble! Which one of you made the bubble?!”
“Maybe whoever’s in that ship with the friendly black sail?” asked Percival. “It’s got a star on it, too. Hello, upside-down five pointed star.”
“That’s the Dread Wizard Emrys’s sigil!” said Cenred. “What does he want from us?”
“He killed my love,” said Arthur, as he wiped his mouth. “Maybe he’s after me, too.”
Cenred looked at the soggy prince, and sighed. “Unlikely,” he said. “But there’s no bloody way he’s going to catch us up to find out. Come on.”
The Dread Wizard Emrys, in Arthur’s estimation, was a dreadful sorcerer. He didn’t seem to make much of a thaumoturgical attempt to catch up to the ship that Cenred was steering towards the stupidly high Cliffs of Insanity. Surely, if he were such a great sorcerer, he would be able to just catch up?
“I can climb, you know,” he said, when they reached the cliffs.
“I’m sure you can,” said Cenred. “But you’re going to stay tied up for now.”
“Dammit,” Arthur swore, because he’d been hoping to artfully trick Cenred into giving him his hands free. Instead, he had to be tied to Percival’s shoulder. Once the initial novelty of being carried around by a good-looking giant had worn off (and what novelty it was: big hands, big feet, presumably big...something else...), the climb itself was frankly terrifying. The rope he’d been trussed with was creaky and rotten, and the cliff was taller than the tallest tower in the biggest castle on the highest mountain that Arthur could think of. He wished that the Dread Wizard Emrys had got him before the vertigo did, closing his eyes and thinking of his Merlin.
“We’ll be together soon,” he said.
“You talk to yourself a lot,” Percival replied. “Do you think that’s healthy?”
“I’m talking to my dead boyfriend,” said Arthur.
“Do you think that’s healthy?” repeated Percival.
“It’s romantic. You wouldn’t know romance if it bit you in the arse.”
“Ouch,” said Percival.
“Sorry,” said Arthur, with a sigh.
“No, ouch, the man in black that is following us just threw a rock at me.”
“The what?” asked Arthur, but the sea was still spinning in his vision as his vertigo refused to clear. Percival heaved them both onto the top of the cliff.
“We’re being followed,” he announced. “There’s a man in black over there.”
“Over where?” Cenred had climbed up on his own, his leather creaking and squeaking as he did so.
“Over the edge of the cliff,” said Percival. “Look!”
The three evildoers peered over the edge of the cliff, leaving Arthur sitting on the feet of a great statue outside the ruins of some sort of old building or other. The rest of the statue had long gone, and Arthur blinked to clear his vision, wondering if he could use a sharp marble toenail to cut the ropes that bound him. Clearly the statue had once stood where it could survey from horizon to horizon, but now it was broken-down and forgotten. It was probably some sort of metaphor.
“He’s climbing the cliff,” said Lancelot. “Wow, kind of like a spider monkey.”
“And his black hood looks real funky,” said Percival.
“Better, but not the correct idiom,” said Lancelot. Arthur wriggled surreptitiously towards the toe.
“We’ll strike a happy medium sometime.”
“Now you’re getting better at rhythm and rhyme.”
“Shut up.” Cenred turned, raised his eyebrows, and then dragged on the ropes binding Arthur, drawing him closer, well out of reach of any nice sharp rocks.
“You keep telling us to shut up,” said Lancelot. “I don’t think we share a common definition of that word.”
“Gods, you can’t even quote correctly,” said Cenred. “Look. You. Stay here and fight the man in black. Giant. You come with me. We have to introduce Arthur to his new bride, make him elope, and then kill him on the border. Wait. We have to kill Arthur, and then he’ll elope with—we have to elope with Arthur, and then he’ll kill…nevermind.”
“Oh my god, you don’t even know what your own plan is,” said Arthur.
“Isn’t saying god anachronistic? I thought it was gods, or avoiding blasphemy altogether,” asked Percival, who, speaking of anachronistic behaviour, had a six-pack of beer at the bottom of his bag as well as a six-pack of muscles in his abdomen.
“Isn’t your face anachronistic?” asked Arthur, master of the fully sick burn.
“Lancelot,” said Cenred. “You will stay here and kill the man in black. Percival, you will blindfold and carry the prisoner. We can lose the man in black in the labyrinth.”
“Oh, it’s a labyrinth!” said Arthur, looking at the crumbling building. “I was wondering. Won’t we get lost too?”
“Actually, all that one needs to do in order to safely exit a labyrinth is to keep a hand on the wall at all times,” said Percival. Cenred raised an eyebrow. “Right. Shut up.”
Lancelot stood precariously balanced on the edge of the cliff, half-watching the man in black, the other half of him watching the receding figure of his boss, his only friend, and that blonde blindfolded prat. He threw a vine to the man when he got near enough to the top, because Lancelot was desperately noble at heart, and he didn’t really want to fight someone who was exhausted from climbing a cliff.
“Nice view,” said the man in black. “Shame you’re wearing a shirt.”
“I…could suggestively loosen the laces,” Lancelot offered. “You may as well see my chest as the last vision of the mortal world to grace your eyes.”
“Oh, we’re going to have a duel,” said the man in black. “Right. Got it. I thought you were waiting around to distract me from my pursuit of Arthur in a totally different way.”
“Would it work?”
“I prefer blonds,” said the man in black. “Actually, one blond in particular. Have you seen him? About six foot tall, has a backside you could bounce on should you be that way inclined, horrible prat when he’s frightened or hungry or feeling stupid?”
“So you’re not here to kill the prince,” said Lancelot, drawing his sword. “Shall we?”
“I’m not here to kill him,” said the man in black. “I’m here to show him a few things.”
“My common sense,” said the man, drawing a fine silver blade. “My skill with a sword.” Lancelot thrust, and the man parried. “My maturity.”
“Is that what they’re calling it nowadays?” asked Lancelot, and it was indeed true that the man in black had a very impressive bulge in his black pants. The man thrust, and Lancelot felt thrilled with a fight in the way that he hadn’t since he was a young man. “Tell me, stranger, are you certain that you’re a man?”
“Last time I checked,” said the man, jumping onto a rock to gain the advantage of the ground. “Just because I like cock doesn’t make me a lady, you know.”
“No, no, it’s not that,” said Lancelot. “I am searching for a woman. She stole my love from me.”
“Like, ‘a kinky affair’ stole your love, or ‘stole your best china’ stole your love?”
“‘Imprisoned in a tower’ stole,” said Lancelot. “Her magic mirror kept insisting I was the fairest in all the land. It vexed her.”
“That’s about as likely as not at all,” said the man in black. “Are you certain that’s the real story?”
“Well, it was either that, or the fact that I’m a filthy peasant and her sister fell in unrequited love with me,” said Lancelot.
“Try again,” said the man in black, pressing the advantage.
“Oh, all right,” said Lancelot, striking back. “It didn’t have anything to do with me. My Guinevere’s father was a talented smith, and he was put to death by that mad bastard Uther. Before he died, he made a mighty sword — one that only the true king of the land could wield. With his last breath, he struck the sword through his own anvil, and because there is a certain magic in death, the sword went in, and it got stuck there. The woman thinks that my love knows how to remove the sword and fool the people into thinking that she is the once and future king.”
“How do you fit in?” asked the man in black.
“When the woman took my Guin, she beat me black and blue with her magic. I swore then that I would not suffer such humiliation — that I would save my love and regain my dignity.”
“So why are you working as a mercenary?” asked the man in black, lazily flicking a sharp stab away.
“I, uh, met a man in a bar,” said Lancelot. “He had fabulous hair, and a bewitching smile, and the next thing I knew it was six months later, I was somewhere in Belgium, and my backside was very sore. I’ve been trying to get the cash to return to Camelot ever since.”
“I’ve met that man too,” said the man in black. “Nice fellow. All right, it’s been fun. Yield.”
The man in black’s sword quivered at Lancelot’s throat, and Lancelot swallowed.
“I have to tell you something,” said Lancelot, switching hands. “I…am not left-handed.”
He pushed forwards, and the man in black was surprised, losing some ground before laughing and throwing up his sword with an altogether far-too-fancy motion, catching it in his right hand and adjusting his stance.
“I have to tell you something as well,” said the man in black. “I am also not left-handed. And I’m a sorcerer.” He made a complex hand-gesture, and Lancelot’s sword jerked out of his hand and into the hand of the sorcerer.
“Oh,” said Lancelot, and then, “Shit.”
“It’s in the name,” said the man apologetically. “Dread Wizard Emrys? Bit of a giveaway.”
“It is, I guess,” said Lancelot.
“Look, I have to say that your stories of how you lost your love were very convincing,” said the Dread Wizard Emrys. “I almost believed a few of them.”
“Can you at least knock me out, so it looks credible?” asked Lancelot. The Dread Wizard Emrys smiled.
“Of course,” he said, and he magically let a rock drop onto Lancelot’s head. “And now, to seek out Arthur.”
Percival hadn’t enjoyed being left behind. People were always leaving him places; when his mother had realised that she’d been going to give birth to a giant, she’d said oh hell no am I pushing that thing out and had a caesarian and then left him in a ditch (caesarians were not anachronistic, Percival always insisted, because Caesar had had one. They were unnatural according to Shakespeare, but thankfully this story happened some years before Shakespeare was tooling around London writing ill-omened tragedies.). He’d tracked her down some years later, but she had little to say to him.
He’d been sold to Cenred as a slave, and he’d met Lancelot not long after. Percival loved Lancelot, because Lancelot didn’t beat him when he was slow, or call him a stupid giant, and he played the rhyming game and didn’t smack Percival when he got a rhyme wrong. Cenred had thought that he was getting a thug for hire when he bought Percival, but he had failed to take into account the secondary stereotype that a man with huge muscles can play into; the gentle giant. Instead of being an ugly, angry thug, Percival was sweet and shy and more likely to run from a punch than to swing back.
All of which made him a stupid choice to guard the path. Well, I never said that Cenred was very bright.
“Hello, man in black,” said Percival, guarding the exit to the labyrinth. “Did you make your way through the maze by putting one hand to the wall?”
“No,” said the man in black. “I made my way through by using magic.”
Percival looked past him, and lo, there was indeed a straight path cut clean through the high walls of the labyrinth, totally ignoring the twisting and turning corridors of the maze. Parts of it were still on fire.
“Are you here to stop me from getting to Arthur?” asked the man in black.
“Er. Yes,” said Percival. “Did you hurt Lancelot?”
“I knocked him out,” said the man in black. “He should be along in a few hours.”
“Good,” said Percival. “Did you also know that there’s a unicorn following in your wake?”
“I do,” said the man. “I wear this mask for a reason, you know.”
“Really? What’s the reason?”
“This,” said the man, and he took off his mask. The unicorn that had followed him through the maze swooned, and Percival swooned with it. You see, it was not only Arthur who had been climbing up the list of the hot men of Albion. And this was indeed Merlin, Arthur’s fey boy, but he was now a man — his skin creamy pale because he’d been wearing a mask for the last few years and not really getting enough sun, his dark eyes wild from his time in the forests and hidden places of this world, his jaw strong and ears large of scale. His dark hair shone like a raven’s wing, and black was really his colour. And then he smiled, and Percival knew no more.
“Sit down on that rock,” said Merlin, and Percival complied. “Very good. Unicorn, you join him. I think he needs a friend.”
He pulled his hood back on, and tied his mask carefully before waving a hand in front of Percival’s face. Percival didn’t even blink.
“I’m sorry I had to do that to you, my friend,” he said. “But I really must get to Arthur before something terrible happens to him.”
He did not look back — he had to go forward, because he needed to save his love. He’d been really rather pissed off when he got back to the little castle that they’d shared to find Arthur gone, seemingly fled on his horse. He’d tracked them to the forest, and then, because tracking was boring, used his magic to work out where Arthur was, and then made his erratic way after Arthur. His magic was…unreliable, at best. Sometimes, he could do amazingly badass magic that made everyone who saw it oooh and aaah, and sometimes he was as pathetic as a limp wand. So he’d been unable to catch up to the captors in the ship, but now that he was on land, things were better.
Especially because Cenred seemed to be sitting at a table by the sea-cliffs, a bound and blindfolded Arthur by his side, and the table set up with a pair of goblets and a nice white cloth.
“Impressive,” said Merlin, cunningly disguising his voice so that Arthur wouldn’t know it was him. “How do you keep the tablecloth so nice in your pack?”
“I borrowed it from the creepy old man who tends the labyrinth. Borrowed his poison, too.”
Merlin sniffed the goblet that was sitting in front of him. “That’s not poison. It’s a sleeping draught,” he said, pulling out a vial from his pocket. “This is poison.”
“It’s a what?” asked Cenred.
“Was it really so much to ask to be kidnapped by competent people?” asked Arthur.
“I propose a game,” said Merlin.
“I’m supposed to be doing all the propositions,” said Cenred.
“Yes, well, get on with it,” said Merlin. “I want to capture Arthur from you and whisk him away to my sorcerer-pirate ship and ravish him.”
“You sound almost…familiar,” said Arthur.
“You must be mistaken,” said Merlin. “The game is a battle of wits; it is common amongst sorcerers. This poison is iocaine powder. Odourless, tasteless, dissolves instantly in any drink you care to mention.”
“Sounds like your mum,” said Cenred, and Merlin raised his eyebrows, the effect of which was completely lost, as he was wearing a mask.
“Deadly,” he said. “It will kill you instantly. Also like my mum.”
“Snap,” said Arthur.
“I accept,” said Cenred.
“Turn your back,” said Merlin, and Cenred did so. “Now turn back, and choose your destiny.”
“How do you choose destiny? I thought the whole point was that it was predetermined,” said Cenred, his hand hovering over the cup nearest to him.
“You’ll have fun finding out,” said Merlin, sitting back.
“You’re a sorcerer, and they’re all thieves and liars so you have probably lied about which goblet the poison is in,” said Cenred.
“I haven’t told you which goblet the poison is in,” said Merlin.
“Yes, but you compared the poison to your mum, and no man is so depraved as to drink his mum.”
“Ew,” said Arthur. “I think I preferred it when your internal monologue was non-diegetic.”
“But you are the Dread Wizard Emrys, who is known across all of the lands for his horrid depravity,” said Cenred.
“I am,” said Merlin.
“So you would put your mum in the cup in front of you.”
“Can we please stop talking about drinking people’s mums?” asked Arthur. “I have unresolved mother issues and this discussion is grossing me out.”
“Of course,” said Merlin. “I am simply waiting for the imbecile who has you tied up to hurry up and drink the poison.”
“Oh no,” said Cenred. “We both drink at once.”
“All right,” said Merlin.
Cenred pointed past his shoulder. “Look, a unicorn!”
“Not again,” Merlin said, looking for the hapless beast. “I keep telling you, I’m not a virgin. Stop hanging around me, you’re bad for my reputation!”
“You’d prefer to be known as a slut?” asked Arthur, as Merlin looked back to the table just in time to not see Cenred switch their goblets around.
“Are you slut shaming?” asked Merlin. “I saw the way you looked at that giant.”
“I have eyes!” said Arthur. “And besides, my true love is dead. I’m allowed to look and think wistfully of how I swore to never love again.”
“Your true love is dead?” asked Merlin. “A man like you doesn’t know anything about love. You think it’s all show and trinkets and toned gigantic asses.”
“Ahem,” said Cenred. “I have made my decision.”
“All right, which one?” asked Merlin. “And I must say, it’s a bit suspicious that you think you saw a unicorn and the stupid animal hasn’t come lolloping up yet. You should have seen it when I set sail; have you ever seen a horse try to doggy paddle? And we won’t even talk about the Cliffs of Insanity.”
“Just drink the glass in front of you,” said Cenred, picking up his own. They clinked goblets and then swallowed the contents like a pair of seventeen year olds at a frat party, and then stared at one another. “I fooled you.”
“No, you didn’t,” said Merlin.
“I did. When I pretended to see the unicorn, I switched our goblets,” said Cenred, and he began a happy little song. “I am so smart! I am so smart!”
And he got no further than that before he keeled over. Merlin shook his head.
“Did you anticipate him switching the cups?” asked Arthur, when he felt Cenred’s grip on the rope go slack.
“Yes. But,” said the man in black. “Both cups were poisoned. I have spent several years building up an immunity to iocaine powder.”
Sadly, the man in black had forgotten that the cup in front of him contained a sleeping draught as well as the iocaine powder, and he crumpled just as he was smugly revelling in his own intellect. Arthur heard the noise of his forehead hitting the table, and the sound of the cup falling from his fingers and hitting the stony ground.
“Seems like you weren’t immune enough,” he said, industriously feeling about at Cenred’s clothing until he found Cenred’s favourite dagger and used it to cut away the ropes binding him. Arthur pulled off the blindfold, and then looked around him. The man in black was snoring lightly, and Cenred had gone blue about the lips, and there was sea on one side of them, and forest on the other. Arthur didn’t much fancy himself as a swimmer, so he decided to try for the forest.
“I would gaze upon the features of the man that killed my love, but I don’t think I could bear the sight,” said Arthur, standing over the body of the man in black, and leaving his mask on in a stroke of idiocy inspired by narrative convenience. And thusly, he continued into the forest, completely and stupidly oblivious to the fact that he was walking away from the only man he had ever loved — and indeed, would ever love — and instead making his way further and further into danger.
Meanwhile, in a castle far, far away, two sisters were plotting evil things, because as we already established, all women in this universe are evil, stupid, or mothers. Or evil stupid mothers, like Percival’s. Morgause had decided to keep an eye on things using her friend Nimueh’s fount-for- seeing-stuff-that-is-far-away and she was not pleased with what she saw. Firstly, Nimueh had met her end at the hands of the Dread Wizard Emrys some years ago, and it displeased Morgause to discover that apparently the Dread Wizard was real. She’d always thought the name had been a euphemism for some gynecological unpleasantness. Secondly, Arthur appeared to be wandering around, completely unsupervised, and not getting any closer to Camelot and his forced marriage. Thirdly, Cenred was dead, and she’d been looking forward to doing that herself; he’d been a complete creep the night she’d stayed in his castle, and it was only because she needed a patsy that she hadn’t stuck a dagger through his spleen then and there.
“If you want something done properly,” she said with a sigh. “Morgana, I’m going to make the serving girl your servant again. See if you can get her to work out how to get the sword out of the anvil, sister.”
“What sword?” asked Morgana. “What anvil? And what again?”
“Ah,” said Morgause, because she was a far more scheming and conniving bitch than anyone else had given her credit for, and although she didn’t believe in the power of a magical sword to confer kingship, she also didn’t like to keep her eggs in one basket. “My favourite sword got stuck in an anvil, sister. I’d dearly love to get it back.”
“Oh, certainly, sister,” said Morgana. “And this serving girl knows how to remove the sword from the anvil?”
“She hasn’t so far,” said Morgause. “You may need to get creative.”
“And she’s going to fall in love with Arthur. And we’re going to rule.”
“Pretty much,” said Morgause. “And I’m going to ride out and fetch Arthur, because everyone else in this kingdom appears to be an idiot.”
Meanwhile meanwhile, in the forest, the man in black was tracking Arthur. It didn’t take much effort; Arthur had managed to make his way to the top of a high hill, and he stuck out rather, being the only thing in a red cloak for miles. The man in black sighed, and ran to catch up with him, only to find Arthur emoting on a rock.
“Arthur,” he said, folding his arms.
“Go away,” said Arthur. “I’m experiencing delayed shock from being kidnapped.”
“Not from the death of your love?” asked the man in black. “Seriously, how long did it take you before you ended up on the rebound?”
“It’s not a rebound relationship if you’re only using it to fill the huge gaping hole in your—“ Arthur began, and the man slapped him. “Life, I was going to say life!”
“Sorry, I thought you were hysterical,” said the man in black.
“I think you’re a bully,” said Arthur.
The man laughed. “Really. You see, I remember a boy who pleaded with me for his life, and he told me such a tale that I killed him from pity, so that he would not have to suffer any more time drawing breath. A sorcerer himself, who had fled from his home and kept his secret, and he loved a prince.”
“That sounds like Merlin,” said Arthur. “I mean, I always pretended I didn’t know about the magic, but I worked it out pretty quickly when every creature that tried to kill me always exploded mysteriously.”
“Did you tell him this?” asked the man in black. “No, the boy I met did not think so. You threw things at him, and deliberately got yourself captured so that he would have to use his magic. Then, when a Witchfinder came, you sent him away. He wanted to prove himself so badly, Arthur; his true love for you, his dedication, his loyalty beyond measure.”
Now, you or I would have worked out by this stage that the man in black was indeed Merlin, but as we covered before, Arthur is none too bright. He stood, all delayed shock forgotten, replaced by anger that coursed through him to his very bones.
“I loved him,” he said. “I sent him away for his own safety!”
“And look at where it got him!” said the man in black. “Don’t you think you would have been safer together?”
“If I could go back, then I would!” said Arthur. “But I can’t, and you’re a stupid sorcerer and you killed him! Why did you even send word of his death back? How weird is that? Do you get off on telling people you killed their loved ones?”
“I didn’t send word,” said Merlin, which was the truth. “But what did you do when you got word of that death? You didn’t even retrieve the body; you just left it to rot along with all of the others—“
He was interrupted when Arthur launched himself, swinging a wild punch that didn’t connect. The shoulder charge did connect, however, knocking the man over and setting him tumbling head over heels down the side of the ridge.
“—You stupid prat!” howled the man in black as he clumsily rolled down the ridge, and Arthur felt his breath seize in his chest. Merlin had been magical; Merlin had been horribly clumsy; Merlin had called him—oh god, what had he done?
“Merlin!” Arthur called, bolting down the hillside after him. “Merlin!” He lost his footing, and rolled after Merlin, both of them ending up muddy and bruised at the bottom of the hill.
“You clotpole,” said Merlin. “You complete waxhead! You utter—“
This time, he was stopped because Arthur kissed him. Since the invention of the kiss, there have been five kisses rated the most passionate, the most pure. This one was not one of them, because it was full of needy hands, muddy cheeks, and far too much tongue for a G rating.
“Merlin,” said Arthur, when they parted. “Oh my Merlin. Why did you let me believe you were dead?”
“Why did you let me believe you didn’t love me anymore?” asked Merlin, stealing another wet kiss. “I cried, you beast.”
“I cried when I thought you were dead,” said Arthur. “Manful tears.”
“A single tear, that worked its way down your cheek?” asked Merlin, and Arthur nodded.
“The very same,” he said. “All for the love of you.”
Any enthusiastic woodland sex was put on hold, however, as a well-aimed bolt of magic roiled down the hillside.
“Oi, you could have hit us!” said Arthur, looking up. There, at the top of the hill, was a blonde woman. A blonde woman with magic.
He had a very bad feeling about this.
“I have a strategy for when people are after me with magic,” said Merlin, conversationally.
“Yes?” asked Arthur.
“Run,” said Merlin, grabbing Arthur’s hand and setting off into the Perilous Lands ahead of them. The camera filter changed to a red wash, and Arthur struggled to keep up.
“But Merlin, what about the Rodents of Unusual Size? And the Questing Beast? And the many other magical creatures who conveniently confine themselves to the Perilous Lands?”
“Did I forget to mention I’m a Dragonlord now?” asked Merlin, as they skirted around the edge of some quicksand.
“I’m relatively certain that ROUSes aren’t dragons,” said Arthur, as an ROUS ran past them on the path and was snapped up by a Questing Beast.
“Oh for the love of…” said Merlin, running into a clearing and beginning to sink. He looked around. “Arthur, throw me a vine.”
“You’re mad, you’re much too heavy for a vine to hold,” Arthur protested.
“Give me your hand or something, will you?” asked Merlin.
“Can’t you just magic yourself out?”
Merlin didn’t really want to admit that his somewhat unreliable magic had receded down to healing spells and the odd sparkly prestidigitation. Arthur sighed, found some vines, and threw them to Merlin. He kicked the one ROUS that was stupid enough to wander nearby to where he was effecting a daring rescue. Strangely, it seemed to be wearing a fez, but he had no time for that. He dragged Merlin free of the quicksand, and then kissed him until he stopped coughing.
“Let’s live in the Perilous Lands forever,” said Arthur.
“No,” Merlin replied. “We need to go to Camelot.”
“But my father lives in Camelot!” said Arthur. “He’ll— Well, for a start, you’re a sorcerer.”
“I am so glad that was the first thing you went for,” Merlin muttered.
“Oh, he’ll be fine with the gay thing. I suspect he and Geoffrey have—“ Arthur whistled, as if to convey things of a sexy nature, but ended up merely attracting more inquisitive ROUSes. “Oh, all right. Let’s go.”
Aside from the red filter, occasional questing beast and the curious, blind ROUSes, the Perilous Lands were a bit of a snap.
“I wasn’t really expecting there to be a path,” said Merlin, as a wyvern circled overhead. “Get lost, wyvern!” It did so. Arthur took the opportunity to walk along with his hand shoved down the back of Merlin’s trousers.
“All the better to hunt you on,” said a voice, and the men looked up to see a most unwelcome sight. Morgause and the armies of Escatia. Each man was thick of neck and lumpy of brain, and each looked at Merlin and Arthur both with an appraising gleam in his eye. “Guards, seize the idiot. I’ll take care of the sorcerer!”
“Hey!” said Arthur, but he had already been seized. For his part Merlin appeared to have a significant head wound from where Morgause had attacked him. Not that either Arthur or Merlin knew that the dishwater blonde with the really impressive army was called Morgause. Not that Merlin really knew anything, as Morgause had taken advantage of the brief period in which the narrative focus was on her army and not on her to crack him over the head with one well-aimed rock.
“Take him to the Citadel,” she said. “I’ve got a surprise for him.”
“Yes, mistress,” said a minion. “And the sorcerer?”
“Oh,” she said. “I’ve got plans for him, too. Alert my sister that when Arthur is returned, she is to enact plan V.”
“Plan V,” Morgause affirmed. “I have a sorcerer to take care of.”
And so it was that the only ones who wondered how Morgause had made it around the Perilous Lands so quickly were the ROUSes, and they soon forgot it anyhow, because they were giant rats that lived in a red-filtered death-hole. They had far more important things to worry about. For his part, Arthur struggled a bit, but then Plan V was enacted. And he forgot Merlin, forgot his destiny — forgot himself. Because there’s powerful, and then there’s Plan V, the most insidious plan created since the decision to put Jar-Jar Binks in a Star Wars film.
Merlin woke up in the lower level of some sort of huge building. He knew this, because he could hear footsteps on the roof above him. His face hurt, and he prodded it a few times to check; it seemed he had a split lip, a sore patch around his eye, and a cut on his cheek. He’d probably end up with a rather fetching scar, but for now he suspected he would not be able to charm anyone with his good looks, as he had so often before.
Strange, he thought. Morgause hadn’t been charmed. Maybe he was losing his touch.
“Where am I?” he mumbled to himself, as he dragged his aching self to his feet.
Thankfully, there was a handy graphic on the wall with a You Are Here sign. He looked. Blinked. Looked again.
Zoo of Death, read the lettering above the map in Comic Sans. Merlin threw up a little in his mouth, and then blinked to clear his vision.
“I’m certain I don’t remember this from the film,” he muttered.
“Of course you don’t,” said a caged Goldman. “It’s from the book. There’s a big freaky-ass Zoo of Death. Far more interesting than just a machine.”
“I’m sure this will all make sense someday,” said Merlin. “So which level has the exit?”
“I don’t know, man. Read the map.”
Meanwhile, Arthur woke in a plush four-poster bed, spooning another warm body. The arm tucked underneath said body had gone numb, and Arthur was starting to wonder if he’d have to cut it off in order to be free of the spoon. He didn’t remember spooning anyone on his way to sleep. He didn’t actually remember spooning anyone ever; Merlin had liked being the big spoon, even though he was shaped more like a fork.
Arthur would really like a fork from Merlin right now.
Instead, he had a little spoon that was numbing his arm and whiffling a bit in her sleep. Her sleep. Right. He looked at her, decided that there was no way she was a gender-swapped Merlin, and he had a little panic. During his panic, the little spoon woke up, and shoved him away from herself as fast as she could.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“I don’t know! Who are you?” he replied.
“How can you not know who you are?”
“I meant I don’t know who you are! I’m Arthur!”
“I’m Guin,” she said. “It’s spelled differently to how it sounds.”
“Why am I going to need to know how to spell your name?” asked Arthur. “And why are we in bed together?”
“Oh hell,” said Guin, sitting up. “I know why.”
“Did you—?” asked Arthur. “Did you drug me and make me sleep and then…”
“No, shut up,” she said. “There’s this witch, you see, and—“
And then, through the air, came an unearthly sound. It was high and piercing, and Arthur’s first instinct was to cover his ears. Guin’s eyes opened wide.
“Don’t listen!” she said. “It’ll do terrible things!” She put her hands over her ears. “LALALALALALA!”
“What?” asked Arthur, but he sensibly put his hands over his ears. The sound didn’t stop; it grew louder and louder, until his eyes watered and it vibrated in the bones of his chest. It was sweet, now, and he felt his eyes grow heavy. Violins, he thought, it sounded like violins. His hands slid free from his ears, and he looked up to meet Guin’s eyes, losing himself in their depths.
“Oh,” she said, as the sound got to her as well. “Oh, Arthur. Arthur, I’m so sorry.”
“I understand,” he said, as her hands left her ears. She was the most beautiful creature that he’d ever seen in his life. He leaned forward and then
Back in the Zoo of Death, Merlin was being tortured. He was bearing it stoically, but still. Torture. Morgause had gone with magical jewelery that sapped Merlin’s strength and his magic, and he was rolling around on the floor being stoic as his magic was stripped from him.
“You’re nothing without your magic,” she said.
“No shit,” Merlin replied. “But Arthur will still love me.”
“Really,” she said. “Are you familiar with a charm called Vitula?”
“I am,” said Merlin, his breath gone out of him. “You wouldn’t. You wouldn’t use it on him…you’re not that evil…”
“I have done it already,” said Morgause. “I know that charm of old.”
And Merlin had no ability to counter that charm. It was powerful, and of the old magic. It was the magic that powered the Romeo and Juliet Overture, and many other love songs besides. It was the magic of a little stringed instrument of yore, made of gut of cat (or sheep, if you want to get technical) and bodied of wood. The violin.
Merlin’s voice was hoarse when he spoke. “But true love’s kiss can break it,” he said.
“You think I’m going to let you live?” she asked. “Really? Loose ends are so messy, and I hate mess.”
Merlin writhed a little bit more, and then Morgause shot him in the shoulder with a hand crossbow.
“You’re a terrible shot,” he said. “What exactly are you hoping to prove here?”
“I’m planning to use the magic that is bleeding into that rather fetching collar and cuffs,” she said. “And then I’m planning to kill you.”
“Oh,” said Merlin. “Goody.”
He slumped back, because having the bolt from a hand crossbow in his shoulder really hurt, and he was getting a migraine from not having access to his magic. He wondered at his chances of Arthur dashing in and effecting another daring rescue, and then decided that he needed to organise to rescue himself if Morgause had really charmed Arthur with the dangerously powerful Vitula spell. Only— his head hurt, and Morgause was standing over him, her fingers worrying at the fletchings of the dart that had so nimbly penetrated the flesh of Merlin’s shoulder. Merlin went to protest, but everything faded to black, and an awkward segue ensued.
“Wow,” said Arthur, miles away from Merlin in the citadel of Camelot. “That was a remarkably effective fade out.”
“Oh god,” said Guin, making sure her corsets were laced tightly. “Please tell me we didn’t—“
“There was no dub-con warning,” Arthur replied. “I think we’re good.”
“Excellent,” said Guin, “because while I do agree that you’re ridiculously good-looking, and power is definitely an aphrodisiac, I’m in love with another man.”
“Convenient,” Arthur murmured. “So am I.”
“Double wedding?” asked Guin.
“We’ve got to escape first,” Arthur said. “I think we have an advantage in that they don’t seem to know what their own plot is. Last time I saw Morgana, she was just bitchy, not outright evil.”
“I used to be her maid,” said Guin, going off into her own little world for a few seconds. “Then Morgause discovered the truth about my father, and I wasn’t allowed to go near Morgana any more.”
“Morgause,” said Arthur. “Was she the blonde woman with magic?”
“Well, she’s blonde and she’s a witch,” said Guin. “Why?”
“Do you know a man named Lancelot?” Arthur asked.
“Lancelot? He’s alive?” Guin asked. “Oh my god.”
“He’s searching for you,” said Arthur, mentally patting himself on the back for doing a good deed today.
“Oh my god,” said Guin. “I had no hope he was alive. He’s — oh.” She clasped her hands to her bosom. “He’s alive.”
“He is kind of dishy,” Arthur said, generously. “If I weren’t madly in love with a fey magical boy from the boondocks, I’d totally go there.”
“Right,” said Guin, mentally girding her loins. “We’re going to get out of this mess, and we’re going to do it without fucking each other to the sweet sound of violins.”
“I wouldn’t even know where to put my cock,” Arthur said.
“I’d believe that,” said Guin.
Arthur ignored her. “Come on, let’s get up and see how we can get out of the castle.”
Merlin didn’t wake after the torture that Morgause subjected him to, but luckily for him, two vagabonds in the lower town were awake when some decidedly shifty men decided to boast most unsubtly about the sorcerer and the other guy they’d helped Morgause to capture. And then sent to the Zoo of Death, while the gorgeous blond prince had been sent to the castle.
“I think that’s the Dread Wizard Emrys they’re talking about,” said Percival, and the unicorn that had taken to following him around pricked up its ears and clattered a bit with its hooves.
“He was kind to both of us,” said Lancelot, as Percival lay a calming hand on the unicorn’s neck. “Do you think we should do something about it?”
“We could ask to join his sorcerer-pirate crew,” said Percival. “He didn’t seem to have much of one when he was chasing us.”
“He was chasing us because he’s in love with that blond prince,” said Lancelot, and he got shiny-eyed for a few seconds. “Percival, do you know what it feels like to be in love?”
“No,” said Percival, a little sadly, for he had a deeply troubled past that his two-minutes-of-canon-screentime-to-date had failed to capitalise upon properly. “But I imagine it’s like the way I felt when the Dread Wizard Emrys looked at me.”
“It’s the most wonderful feeling in the world,” said Lancelot. “Let’s help him, and see if we can join his pirate crew, and then we can go looking for my Guin.”
“That seems needlessly complicated. We could always just cut out the middleman and go looking for your Guin together anyway,” said Percival.
“No,” said Lancelot. “We’re secondary characters. We can’t do anything unless the primary characters instruct us to do it. You’ll learn, Percy.”
“Lord have mercy,” said Percival, because he rather thought he was the hero of his own story. Lancelot clapped him on the shoulder.
“That’s the spirit!” he said. “Now, to get into this Zoo…”
“We can break in tonight,” said Percival.
“I think I have a better idea,” said Lancelot, and the unicorn looked at him trustingly with big, dopey unicorn eyes.
“No!” Percival folded his arms. “That’s my unicorn. Besides, I think he can track the Dread Wizard Emrys.”
“Horses aren’t tracking animals,” said Lancelot.
“This is a unicorn. They’re magical.” Percival patted the unicorn. “You think you can find the Wizard, boy?” The unicorn affectionately gored Percival’s arm a little, and Percival chuckled as he wiped away the blood. “I think he can.”
Morgana strode past two men and a unicorn who were passing through the crowded marketplace with little spectacle, her long cloak trailing behind her, somehow magically not getting trodden on by anyone else, or getting any horse shit on it from the cobbled streets. Uther had been delighted to discover that Arthur was bringing a girl home for a visit and was planning to marry the two of them off quite quickly. He’d long since given up hope of an heir, and besides, Morgause had put a poppet under his bed so that she could control his behaviour — and Morgause was determined to ensure that no-one realised that Arthur didn’t love the girl until after the wedding.
She made her way back to the castle and up to Arthur’s rooms, and held her breath before knocking. It had been some time since she’d seen Arthur, and she wondered if he was as pretty as he’d been in the crystal ball. Luckily, he wasn’t really her brother, so if she wanted to go there (as it were), there were no problems. Well. Maybe not. She knocked, and then tried the door. Locked. Of course. She used the key from her belt to open the door and went inside, dropping the key in surprise when she recognised the girl who was helping Arthur to construct a sturdy rope from the bedsheets.
“Morgana?” asked Guinevere. “Oh my goodness!”
“Guin?” asked Morgana, and she felt her heart lift. Okay, so maybe she hadn’t listened too carefully to Morgause’s plans, and this actually came as a surprise to her. “You ran away!”
“I did nothing of the sort!” said Guin. “I was kidnapped!”
“Okay, that door is open,” Arthur announced. “I vote we leave by it and continue this conversation somewhere where we’re not being bewitched into loving each other.”
“Oh my god,” said Morgana. “You’re the girl in love with Arthur?”
“I’m not in love with Arthur!” said Guin. “I mean. I’d go there, I’m not blind. But I’m in love with L—“
Arthur was sneaking out. Morgana whirled around on her heel. “Arthur!”
This was brilliant. Guinevere had been Morgana’s favourite servant; they’d spent hours together just talking and being best friends (admittedly, with a power differential), and she’d missed Guin when she’d vanished. Morgana didn’t really have friends. If Guin and Arthur got married, then they could snark at feasts together again, and do ladylike things, such as a Camelot stitch and bitch.
“Wait a minute,” said Arthur. “We’ve been captured, and we’re being—“
Morgana waved her hand, and her eyes flashed amber and the violins began again. Like a clockwork toy, Arthur turned to Guin, smiling sweetly.
“What were you saying?” asked Morgana, as Guin smiled vacantly.
“I…don’t know,” said Arthur. “My love. Shall I introduce you to my father?”
“Nothing would please me more,” said Guinevere, and Arthur drew her close for a sweet kiss, his eyes blank and dead as he did so. Morgana felt her heart constrict, but it was pain, not pleasure; she wasn’t outright evil, and the dullness in Arthur’s usually bright eyes pierced into her soul (and why did he have his eyes open during a kiss? Creepy.) She turned her face away, but didn’t stop the violins. She was in this now; she had to see it through.
The Zoo of Death was surprisingly easy to get into if you had to deliver a trained unicorn and handler (unicorns need handlers, as most people are no longer qualified to handle them once they’re over the age of twenty-seven. If you know what I mean.). The unicorn gave every impression of being a tracking animal (even though it wasn’t) as they made their way through improbable gardens of beasts and quite more probable corridors that smelled strongly of tiger crap. Everything got out of the way of the unicorn, though; as wiser people than me have pointed out, a horse with a whacking great horn in its forehead is a formidable enemy.
The unicorn snuffled its way along the corridors, leading down, down, down into the bowels of the building, past a roving pack of ROUSes (Lancelot kicked them), a few wyverns (Percival ran one through with his sword), a chimera (the unicorn got that one) and a couple of dead ordinary guards who were, incidentally, zombies. Thankfully they were the slow sort of zombies, and such a great swordsman as Lancelot was able to dispatch them easily.
They found the Dread Wizard Emrys in a cage at the bottom of the zoo, curled in a little ball on the floor. The unicorn gave a concerned whinny, as this was not the beautiful creature that it had fallen in love with; this man was barely even breathing. Percival rolled him onto his back, and tsked at the magical burns that scarred into the man’s wrists and neck, and then gently lifted him in his arms.
“Is he dead?” asked Lancelot.
“He will be soon,” said Percival, too concerned about the man in black to even force an awkward rhyme. “Who do you think did this?”
“Those decidedly shifty men from the pub?” asked Lancelot.
“No, there has to be a mastermind,” said Percival. “Men like that don’t own zoos. Do you know how much even the cheapest henchman costs these days?”
“Well, it doesn’t matter,” said Lancelot, as the man in black moaned in his slumber. “We’ve got to get this man medical help.”
“I think I saw a cage full of leeches back there,” said Percival. “We could just tip him in and see if they work.”
“Proper medical help,” said Lancelot, as the unicorn nosed at the man’s limp shoulder. “You can carry him. We’ll have to sneak him out.”
“I don’t think we’re built for sneaking,” said Percival. “And he can ride on the unicorn. I need my arms free to do things with my sword.”
Lancelot ignored the obvious double entendre, and let Percival place the limp form of the Dread Wizard onto the back of the unicorn, who clattered and whinneyed in delight until the Dread Wizard bled onto its fur, and then whinneyed in concern (there is a subtle difference). They made it past the leech cage and the ROUSes, and the remaining wyverns gave them a wide berth, but it was a questing beast — or more properly, a caged beast, as questing is impossible inside a zoo — that came after them.
“Shit,” said Lancelot, as the beast snapped up a convenient rodent snack. “I think we need to run. Is there at least some deranged person who owns the zoo watching all this and making a trite comment about the greatest game animal being man?”
“I think we need to fight,” said Percival, and the unicorn stamped its foot in agreement.
“It’s the size of a house! What are you going to do, run between its legs and hope it doesn’t chomp you?” asked Lancelot.
The beast was pawing at the ground, sides heaving as it prepared to charge.
“Oh lord, we’re dead,” said Lancelot, and then something extraordinary happened. The dread wizard sat up, eyes blank gold, and he drew the last shreds of magic that he owned around him, and blasted the beast with a huge fireball, which conveniently knocked a hole in the wall at the same time. The ROUSes rejoiced and waddled out into the town, where they made a huge nest in the cellars of a local tavern, earning their keep by eating the RONSes (Rodents of Normal Size) that infested the place, and providing entertainment for the ROUS betting ring. But I digress. The great gaping hole in the wall was covered in beast guts and smouldering slightly as the Dread Wizard slumped again, looking (if it were possible) even more grey and pale than he had before.
“Or we could just leave by the hole in the wall,” said Percival. Lancelot nodded.
“Seems logical,” he said.
They left by the hole in the wall, the unicorn picking its way over the rubble as the dread wizard exhaled a very shaky breath. Merlin was dying; he needed his magic to keep him alive, and the burnt flesh around his wrists and neck showed just how cruelly that magic had been bled from him. There was a squeal as a wyvern squeezed its way out of the hole, and Percival, Lancelot and the unicorn hoofed it down the street and away from the Zoo and in towards the castle, where Things were afoot.
The tyrannical King got drunk after dinner that night, as wine flowed into the glasses on the table as freely as the tender music of violins flowed through the air. Morgana, in a desperate attempt to make conversation, as Arthur and Guin were looking particularly vacant, started asking questions about her father. And her mother.
“You remind me of your mother,” said the King, addressing her cleavage. “Especially that time I slept with her and sired a bastard daughter who I then took in when her parents were killed.”
“Is a bastard daughter really a Thing?” asked Morgana.
“What would you call yourself, then?”
“Unavailable,” she replied, leaning forward all the same. “So what you’re saying to me is that I am your bastard daughter.”
“Yes,” said the King, as Arthur tried to eat his napkin. Guin dragged it away from him, but she was faring little better; she’d taken four bites from a piece of wax fruit from the table centrepiece before Morgana had smacked her wrist. The vitula charm clearly didn’t just affect the victim’s ability to love, but at such a strong power level (Arthur and Guin had been strangely resistant to being in love), it affected their ability to think, too.
“So I am, in fact, second in line to the throne,” Morgana said, as there was an unfortunate waxy crunch. “But I’m a woman.”
“’S’ok. I’ll change the laws. I’m King, you know.”
“Thank you, Daddy,” she said, brightly. “You’ve made me the happiest girl in the world!”
“And what about you, Arthur?” asked the King. “I’m sorry I never told you. There just never seemed to be the right time to point out that I’d been unfaithful to your mother within a year of her death.”
“I’m as happy as can be,” said Arthur, looking rather like he’d swallowed a spider. “I have never been more ecstatic than this.”
Morgana did feel badly, then; not only for Arthur’s disturbingly horrified gaze held in an otherwise blank expression, but also because Guin was pushing a potato around her plate listlessly instead of eating it. And because if Uther was right, then Morgana had something more to call family than a mysterious witch who’d shown up with a BFF pendant and a story about being Morgana’s sister. She had a brother. Well, a half-brother. And he was very pretty, and actually quite noble, and she was condemning him to a horrible life of violins and high tea, and being ever so happy without being happy at all.
You may have noticed earlier in the piece that I am a liar. And I would be a liar if I said all of the women in this story were stupid, or evil, or stupid and evil, because a little bit of Morgana’s heart started to thaw and crack, and the violins got softer, even if they didn’t entirely go away. She resolved to meet with Morgause and sort out all of the dimensions of their frankly ridiculous plan, and maybe check a few things, like whether Morgause was in fact telling the truth about their relationship or if Morgana had been more gullible than a pensioner faced with the 419 scam and the promise of a million quid.
“Good,” said Uther, looking at Arthur, who seemed to have cut into his own finger instead of his steak. “If this is a satisfactory and unmagical match, then maybe we can have you back here in the castle.”
Arthur seemed to stir a little. “Could you send for my men?” he asked. “I’d like to have them here, if that’s the case. Don’t bring the witchfinder. He’s an ass.”
“I’ll have it done tomorrow,” said Uther, and Arthur smiled, a genuine smile this time, tangling his fingers with Guin’s before looking away.
The town was much as Lancelot had remembered it last time he’d visited, and besides, all medieval villages have the same layout, much like all houses in mainstream fiction do. There were handy placards and boards up advertising different shops and taverns, and he looked around until he saw one that was a sure-fire place to get some medieval medical attention: GAIUS THE GREAT.
“The great what?” Percival wondered aloud, but Lancelot was already knocking on the door.
“Good grief, do you know what time it is?” The woman who answered the door didn’t look particularly like a Gaius.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” said Lancelot. “But we have a desperately ill friend and—“
“I’m not having a unicorn in the house,” said the woman. “And what’s wrong with your friend?”
“Alice,” she corrected, not unkindly.
“Alice, he’s a sorcerer, and he’s had his magic bled out of him,” said Lancelot. Alice grabbed him and shoved him into the house.
“Don’t you talk openly about magic, not here in Camelot! You’ll get us all killed!” said Alice, as Percival ducked his head to get in the doorway. “Gaius!”
“Sorry, we’re not from around here,” said Percival, as the door swung shut behind them. Alice pointed them to a table, where he set down the body of the man in black. In the time they’d been traveling, the man’s condition had not improved even slightly, even though contact with strong manly arms and snuggling against someone’s chest in a bridal-style carry are clinically proven to aid in 80% of cases of magically-caused injury.
“Gaius!” said Alice. “There’s a man and a giant out here with an unconscious sorcerer.”
An elderly man entered the room. He was clearly already in his dressing-gown and slippers.
“Ye gods, why do people come to me when they’ve managed to completely fail at the most elementary of natural acts?” asked the man, who was, presumably, Gaius. He poked at Merlin with a bony finger, examining the burns on his wrists from the magical cuffs. “What did you do, chain him up for a bit of fun and then the giant got stuck?”
“We didn’t have sex with him,” said Lancelot, scandalised. “We rescued him from that big creepy Zoo of Death so that he could go and rescue his true love.”
“Frankly, I think you’d be more use at a rescue right now than he is,” said Gaius. “That man’s not unconscious. He’s dead.”
“No he’s not,” said Alice. “You’ve just made your tea and you don’t want to treat him. He’s still breathing.”
“Did you say Zoo of Death?” Gaius asked. “I remember when that was built. The Lady Morgause had it done on her own lands, and for some reason, Uther let her.”
“Well, she’s Gorlois’s other daughter, en’t she?” asked Alice.
“Other daughter?” asked Lancelot.
“Do you even know who Gorlois is?” asked Percival.
“I was making conversation!” said Lancelot.
“Gorlois was good friends with Uther before his death,” said Gaius. “Very good friends, if you catch my drift.”
“Uther is dead?” asked Lancelot.
“Shut up,” said Gaius, and both men got a rather nasty prickle of déjà vu caused by a flippant joke used to hide a major plot hole. “Now, your sorcerer. I’m not sure I can save him. He’s almost out of magic.”
“And that’s a bad thing, right?” asked Lancelot.
“For a sorcerer, it’s deadly,” said Gaius. “Why did you say you were reviving him?”
“His true love needs him,” said Lancelot. “He was kidnapped and imprisoned, and the dread wizard is going to go and save him.”
“And what part did you play in all of this?”
“Kidnapping the dread wizard’s true love,” Percival supplied. Gaius sighed.
“Just so we’re clear,” he said. “Fetch me those bellows. We’ve got a job to do.”
Morgana waited for Morgause for an hour before she gave up and looked into the magical seeing-water. As luck would have it, it tuned in straight away, and Morgause was conveniently mid-monologue about her scheming to attain control of Camelot. She seemed to be in the dungeons of Camelot itself (Camelot was the only castle Morgana knew of with white walls) and she was stalking around an anvil, which had a whacking great sword sticking out of it.
“Whomsoever shall lift this sword from the anvil shall be the rightful King of England!” Morgause read, in a manner that was not at all contrived.
“Where’s England?” Morgana wondered aloud. “And is that the magic anvil? And what’s my sister doing in the castle when I didn’t invite her?”
“All I need is for that stupid Morgana to really believe that she’ll be Queen, and I can feed suggestions into her ear like no-one’s business,” said Morgause to another person. Oh no. Guinevere.
“You’re really fucking crazy,” said Guin. “I can’t tell you how to lift that sword. It was sealed into the anvil with the last of my father’s lifeblood, and really, really honestly, you actually need to be the rightful King to get it out of there.”
“So if I kill everyone in between me and the throne….”
“Then you’d be a psychopath,” said Guin. “Or possibly a sociopath. I can never tell the difference.”
“I would need to kill Morgana, of course,” said Morgause, and Morgana wondered for a few seconds if Morgause was serious. Guin pressed her lips together into a thin line.
“Morgana is my friend,” she said. “If you kill her, I’ll never help you.”
Morgana covered her mouth with her hand, and her concentration broke, so the seeing water stopped showing her what she needed to see. Guinevere was still loyal to her, despite having mysteriously vanished in strange circumstances some time ago. Morgana was second in line for the throne (and honestly, she had seen what the ruler of a kingdom needed to do, and how much paperwork it involved, and she’d been having second thoughts for a while). She decided to go down to the dungeons and see if she could find Guinevere and Morgause, even if it took her all damn night.
It did take her all night, but only because she started looking at 1am and dawn was early in the warmer months. In actuality, it took only a few hours, and she found Guin alone in the room with the anvil, fast asleep (presumably under the influence of magic). She shook Guin awake, and Guin made a few mumbly protestations about being cold, so Morgana summoned a few knights to come and help her move Guin, as the first rays of new light hit the horizon.
Meanwhile, in Gaius’s house, everyone had fallen asleep except for Gaius, who grumbled a lot about being a doctor, not a babysitter for giants, sorcerers and unicorns, but did his duty anyway, because he really did love to help people. Plus, even in repose and with a black eye and healing head wound the boy was oddly charming; Gaius just wanted to look after him, and ensure that the elfin young man was happy and comfortable. He wondered whether the young man’s looks would have some sort of magical force when he was conscious, injuries or no injuries. Then he didn’t have to wonder, because the boy woke, and immediately tensed up, like a cat ready to spring.
“It’s all right,” said Gaius. “You’re in Camelot.”
“Ca-camelot?” asked the boy. “Arthur—“
“No, I’m Gaius,” said Gaius. “Unless you’re called Arthur?”
“Merlin,” said Merlin, weakly. “My name’s Merlin.”
“Merlin?” asked Gaius. “I knew a Merlin, once. Huinith’s boy.”
“From Ealdor,” Merlin said. He wet his lips. “Gaius?”
“Good grief, I didn’t recognise you all banged up like that.”
“Banged up?” asked Merlin, his eyes going wide as he made it from “groggy” to “sitting bolt upright”. “But there was no warning on the story—!”
“It’s an older idiom,” Gaius explained hastily. “Although, as a magic user, I should warn you that there’s a 50% chance that you could get pregnant. And a 70% chance that you’ll end up with wings or cat ears some time in the next few years.”
“Would I get a tail with the ears?” asked Merlin, collapsing back onto the pillows. “I’d like a tail. I could stick it in—“
“That’s quite enough,” Gaius said, folding his arms. “What’s this about true love I’m hearing?”
“It’s—“ said Merlin. “His name’s Arthur, and he’s a horrible arse quite a lot of the time, but I adore him.”
“Prince Arthur?” asked Gaius. “You bagged a prince?”
“I did,” said Merlin. “And I intend to keep him.”
What Merlin didn’t realise at this point (and give him a break; he’d been off learning to be a sorcerer-pirate for quite some time) was that Arthur was no longer a horrible arse quite a lot of the time. It may have been cruel to keep this little detail hidden from Merlin, but it added to the suspense surrounding their next meeting, so Merlin stayed in the dark. In truth, Arthur didn’t throw things at anyone anymore, even if they were a bit of an asshole and richly deserved it. Outwardly, he’d become a much nicer person. The kind of person -- as every snowflake knows -- that he'd always been, deep down.
In the castle, Arthur slept, feeling like a heavy weight was pressing on his chest. He was going to have to marry Guin; he was going to stand up there in the throne room and marry her in the sight of his father, and Morgana, and…there was a blonde woman in his dream that he didn’t recognise. And he turned to see his knights, and they were all there with shiny breastplates and red cloaks, but as he passed, Leon grabbed his arm.
“Arthur,” he said earnestly. “Look at your wife. Look at your choices.”
Arthur looked, and Guin turned to look at him and Arthur felt his heart sink right through his chest to his very base. Because this wasn’t his choice. This was…he couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t breathe, he—
—woke up with someone’s hand over his mouth and nose. He batted her away, and she released him. She was sitting on the edge of his sumptuous bed, her dark hair cascading over her shoulders.
“Sorry,” she said. “I’ve never had to wake someone up before.”
“Are you mental?” asked Arthur. “That’s how to kill someone.”
“Oh,” she said. “Right. So.”
“Morgana,” said Arthur, because he recognised her from their childhood. “Were you trying to kill me so that you could take the throne?”
“I—“ she said. “Well. If I’d wanted to kill you, I’ve got plenty of better ways to do it.”
“So what are you doing?” Arthur asked, his head clear for the first time in ages. “And why am I in the castle?”
“I don’t know,” said Morgana, and she gave him a troubled look. “Do you remember what Uther said at the feast last night?”
“Wait, no, why the fuck am I in the castle?” asked Arthur. “Where the hell is Merlin? Where’s that awful woman with the ratty blonde hair? Why are you here? Why don’t I remember anything clearly?”
He got up, and she stayed on his bed. “Don’t you want to hear what I have to say?”
“Talk while I dress,” said Arthur. “I have to find Merlin. And where’s Guin?”
“She’s still in her room before the wedding. I’ve already talked to her, after I went and fetched her out of peril, and we’ve come up with a plan,” said Morgana. “But look, you might want to sit down for this— I’m your sister.”
“You’re my what?” asked Arthur, his chainmail clinking when he dropped it. He scrabbled for it. “Since when?”
“Uther told us last night!” said Morgana. “You were there! Don’t you remember?”
“No!” It didn’t feel like a surprise, but Arthur’s memories of the feast were very fuzzy. “But you’re— we— we don’t even look like each other!”
“I know!” she said. “And I’m very suspicious about the motivations of my sister…”
“Wait, we have another sister?”
“My sister,” said Morgana. “And if you make a ‘your mum’ joke, I will stab you in the crotch.”
“Ouch, all right,” said Arthur. “So there’s another sister and you’re my sister and I have no idea why I’m here in this castle and where the hell my poor dead Merlin who isn’t really dead is.”
“That’s probably the size of it,” said Morgana. “Are you angry?”
Arthur pulled on his jerkin. “No,” he said. “I’m confused, but I’m not angry, sister.”
“Sister?” Morgana repeated.
“Brother. I’m a man.”
“No, I was just—“ said Morgana. Arthur didn’t know it, but he’d hit her one vulnerable, weak place with just that word. She swallowed, emotion welling up from inside her chest. She had to tell him. “Brother, I think I’ve done something terrible.”
Arthur sat down beside her. “Tell me about it,” he said. “Especially if it’s going to help me save Merlin.”
Arthur’s wedding was to be held in the great hall, and as the nobles of Camelot only had one key outfit each (so that the near-sighted and rather elderly Geoffery of Monmouth didn’t get them mixed up too often in his already somewhat muddled chronicles), it was a rather plain-clothes affair. Leon was there, but to Arthur’s chagrin, he didn’t grip Arthur’s sleeve dramatically or anything like that. He seemed rather bemused by the whole thing, but his sense of propriety was too strong to stop the wedding. The blonde woman wasn’t there, but Arthur had a nasty feeling that she’d probably show up sometime.
“Dearly beloved,” quavered Geoffrey. “We shall begin by reading the lineage of Arthur Pendragon, who is the son of Uther Pendragon, who is the son of Constantine the Second, who is the son of Dionitus—“
“Oh god, not this,” said Uther, under his breath. “And where are those violins coming from? They sound more…discordant…than before.”
It was true. The violins had gone into a sort of tremolo, anticipating something going terribly, horrible wrong. Arthur, for his part, was hoping that the distraction that Morgana had organised would come through on time, and not just her creepy and unsettling violins. Thankfully, he’d got so used to Merlin’s magic that Morgana’s was hardly a surprise, but they’d both agreed not to tell Father. Uther had threatened to banish Arthur if he managed to have another bewitched princess fall in love with him, and so Arthur had agreed to go through with this as a marriage of convenience at worst, or a dramatically interrupted marriage that he didn’t have to go through with at best.
“— Who was the son of Ug the neanderthal, who was the son of Og, who was the son of a furry chimpanzee-type thing —“
And of course, there was the hope that Merlin would come bursting in to save him. Arthur’s heart hurt when he thought of Merlin, but going through with this charade would mean he was free to spend his honeymoon looking for his lost love, and if he and Guin had separate bedrooms, who was going to notice? These were people who didn’t notice a whacking great Zoo of Death on the outskirts of the lower town. A political marriage between the leaders of the country would probably go unnoticed.
“— Who was split off from the outer cellular layer from a small amoeba found in the primordial ooze of—“
“Isn’t that anachronistic?” hissed Guin.
“I think he makes most of it up on the spot,” Arthur replied. “Just smile and look like you’re having fun.”
At that precise moment, the doors were thrown open and a magnificent distraction appeared. You see, Percival and Lancelot had been busy while Arthur’s wedding was being organised, and because even the narrator hadn’t covered Arthur and Morgana’s plan, there was simply no way for them to know of it.
The unicorn had sat stupidly and allowed Percival to paint it with red splotches that looked like blood, and it was this that had caused the guards to spill in from the corridor as Percival, in a black pointy hat and waving a sword, rode around the courtyard hollering unintelligibly about being the Dread Wizard Emrys.
The actual Dread Wizard Emrys was being dragged in via the back door by Lancelot. Merlin was still extremely poorly; Gaius had puffed up his chest with the bellows, and put a soothing magical poultice on his brow, but there’s very little that one can do for a sorcerer with his magic gone. Alice had packed them sandwiches and told them to have fun storming the castle, which sort of took the whole epic gloss off the thing, as did a dread wizard who kept passing out whenever they had to do stairs.
“Where to?” asked Lancelot, as a small group of guards ran past, heading downstairs and promptly tripping on one another’s cloaks.
“We need to find Arthur’s room,” said Merlin, concentrating. “Okay, up the stairs.”
Hobbling together like men in a three-legged race, they made it upstairs and Merlin guided them to the room that Arthur had been staying in (he knew which one it was because Arthur had helpfully left his things on the floor). Lancelot helped him into a chair, and tried to arrange Merlin so that he looked more like an immensely powerful sorcerer, and less like an animated corpse.
“It’s not very convincing,” Lancelot said. “Wait, I’ll pin your cloak back so that it looks impressively windswept.”
“Hurry up!” said Merlin, and Lancelot went to the dressing table to get a pin, and then cried out in surprised.
“Shit!” said Lancelot. “That’s Guin’s brooch!”
“Guin?” asked Merlin.
“My lost love!” Lancelot said, going all shiny-eyed. He looked out the window, and Percival seemed to be having a marvellous time riding around in the courtyard with the guards and the escaped animals from the Zoo of Death. “Do you think— do you think anyone would mind if I went to find her?”
“Go,” said Merlin, pretending he was a lot better than he actually was, because Merlin is self-sacrificing like that. “And tell Percy there’s such a thing as milking it.”
Lancelot left, and Merlin leaned back into the chair. He’d missed being the prince’s man — he’d had chores, certainly, but at night he’d snuggled up under fine sheets, and Arthur had always saved him something nice at dinner. It was going to be good to get back with Arthur.
The door opened, and Arthur thundered in. “Dammit, dammit, dammit! He wasn’t even the real dread wizard!” he grumbled. “Just a fool with a unicorn.”
“I thought you didn’t mind fools,” said Merlin. “And put that sword down; there is a shortage of perfect chests in Camelot. It would be a pity to damage yours.”
This, you must understand, was a bald-faced lie and Merlin knew it, because he’d seen both Lancelot and Percival and there was no shortage of perfect chests in Camelot. But Arthur turned around, his expression one of pure joy.
“I wasn’t going to stab myself with it!” he said. “I was just taking it off so I could get a decent one. This one’s made of shiny silver; it’s pretty, but useless for cutting anything more robust than a pat of butter.”
“Good,” said Merlin. “I’d hate to come all this way and find you about to turn yourself into a kebab.”
Arthur’s smile was sweet and soft. “Merlin,” said Arthur. “You came for me.”
“That sounds like the opening to a really dirty joke,” said Merlin, but he didn’t get any further because Arthur kissed him, and kissed him soundly. “Ow, ow, careful.”
“Careful? I’m planning to drag you off to bed like a fucking caveman and screw you through the mattress!”
“Since when have cavemen had—“ Merlin’s sentence was muffled when Arthur kissed him again, and he decided to just go with it. Arthur swept him up into his arms in triumphant glee, out of the chair and onto the bed, uncaring that technically he shared this room with Guin. Merlin was not too tired for kisses, and he was indeed pressed firmly into the mattress, Arthur’s dress mail being quite heavy when Arthur was in it, and he carded his fingers through Arthur’s hair with great affection. Eventually the effort became too much, and he let his hand drop.
“What’s wrong?” asked Arthur. “I’m pretty good at kissing you senseless, but you never usually go limp and dead.”
“I. Uh,” said Merlin. “There was a slight complication, and a blonde woman managed to steal my magic. I think she’s planning to use it to get a sword out of a stone.”
“That’s a moronic thing to use magic for,” said Arthur, kissing Merlin’s jaw, just under his ear. “Can we get it back?”
“I hope so,” said Merlin. “I’m really rather in a lot of pain without it. Just give me a minute.”
But alack, they did not have a minute — a rather pissed off looking blonde woman burst in through the door a mere 15 seconds later, and put her hands on her hips.
“Right,” she said. “Whose idea was it to put a giant on the back of a unicorn as a distraction?”
Arthur rolled off Merlin, and tried to look nonchalant. “It worked,” he said. “It’s pretty damn distracting.”
“Quiet, you,” said Morgause, as Merlin sat up. “And you’re coming with me.”
“No he isn’t,” said Merlin. “He’s staying here with me. I was promised that I’d be fucked through the mattress.”
“Leaving aside how the hell are you still alive, no,” said Morgause. “Not on. I need him to see if he can get this bloody sword out of an anvil, so that I can lead the people with the divine permission of the king.’
Merlin smiled, and Arthur felt he was doing a good job of it, given that he’d practically collapsed moments before Morgause had entered the room. She was wearing a rather fetching collar and cuffs ensemble, and they were glowing rather fetchingly as well.
“So I see you took the risk,” said Merlin, as nonchalant as could be.
“Risk?” asked Morgause, raising her hands. “I’ve bled you dry of your magic, you twit. What threat do you pose to me?”
“I wouldn’t use my magic against me, if I were you,” said Merlin. “It knows me. You think my magic will let you hurt me with it?”
“I control it now.”
“No,” said Merlin, getting to his feet with nary a wobble. “You do not.” He stepped towards Morgause. “And it will rebel. You might think you have it now, but it will rebel, and you will suffer. It will bleed your body dry trying to escape from you: first, your skin will rot where the magic touches it, and then as it sinks further into your bones, even those will rot from under you. Every step will be agony on your ruined skeleton; your eyes will sink in their sockets, you’ll be unable to even eat for the pain.”
“Lies,” said Morgause. “I will be the owner of it, once you are dead; it will not kill me.”
“Kill you?” asked Merlin. “When did I say that it would kill you? No, my lady. My magic will not kill you. It will keep you alive. This is the curse of rebellious magic; as it destroys you, it will sustain your mind, so that you walk as an agonised shell, and all around you people speak, and parents tell their children to avoid you, lest the witch’s poison infect them too.”
“It has never done this to you,” said Morgause.
“I have never tried to restrain it,” said Merlin, leaving out the bit where it was totally unreliable and more likely to skip out for the afternoon than to help him achieve some epic feat. He’d always anthropomorphised his magic a bit, but he was mostly bluffing. Nonetheless, the magic around Morgause’s neck seemed to be fluttering excitedly. Perhaps it liked the thought of killing someone?
“You’re lying,” she said, but she took a few steps back from him.
“The closer you get to me, the more my magic will try to escape,” said Merlin. “I suggest you run.”
She ran. Arthur, who had been frozen during the entire exchange (partly in awe of Merlin, and partly in lust when he imagined Merlin using that commanding voice in bed) exhaled.
“She’s getting away with your magic!” Arthur pointed out. Merlin collapsed onto the bed.
“It’ll come back once it’s sick of her,” he said. “It knows I love it best out of all my limbs, features, and supernatural powers.”
The little bit of Merlin’s magic that was still curled up in his chest (right next to his heart, if you must know), purred at that. But the big bit of Merlin that had spent most of the day being tortured and revived was exhausted and needed a sleep, or the replacement of the magic that Morgause had just run off with. He closed his eyes, and Arthur tenderly brushed Merlin’s hair from his forehead.
“I’m going to go and get your magic back,” said Arthur.
“You don’t have to do that,” Merlin replied. “I’m meant to be the protective and awesome one in this relationship. That’s what it means when you’re a dreaded sorcerer and an all-round BAMF. You have to do everything on your own.”
Arthur kissed him. “You do realise that we can be an awesome team? And that princes are supposed to be pretty damn awesome on their own, anyway?” he asked. “We protect each other. And I’m going to go and get your magic back.”
Morgana had been most insistent that she take care of the lunatic and the unicorn, and Uther had let her, because he was just so horrified that yet another of Arthur’s weddings had been interrupted by magic, and had to go have a lie-down. Leon had followed her, and so when Lancelot came across them, they were all three washing down the unicorn and plotting.
“…I thought it was weird that Arthur was getting it on with a girl,” said Leon, as the unicorn nickered. “I mean, given that he’s only ever had eyes for Merlin.”
“Wait, a girl?” asked Lancelot, and the others turned to look at him. “Is she…beautiful?”
“Lancelot!” said Percival. “How did you go storming the castle?”
“I got him up to what seemed to be Arthur’s rooms, but then I found this,” said Lancelot, holding out a brooch in his palm. “It’s Guinevere’s. I gave it to her when we decided to go steady.”
“Oh my gods,” said Morgana, and she said gods because she was a witch. “Really? Guinevere?”
“You know her?” asked Lancelot, because logically there could not be more than one Guinevere in Camelot.
“Yes! My evil half-sister suggested her as a good choice for a sickening marriage of convenience with Arthur,” said Morgana. “Apparently she knows how to get a magic sword out of a magic anvil.”
“Uther is really, really bad at keeping magic out of Camelot, isn’t he?” asked Percival, and the unicorn snuggled against him.
“That unicorn really likes you,” said Leon, and Morgana turned, giving Percival an appraising look. She’d just worked out why that unicorn really liked Percival.
Lancelot hopped from foot to foot. “Do you know where Guin went after the wedding?”
“I…think I saw one of the ladies of the court leading her off. She was blonde,” Leon offered.
“With magic?” asked Lancelot, despairingly.
“Well, she was a woman,” said Leon. “Aren’t most women witches?”
Morgana smacked him. Hard.
“Shit and damnation,” said Lancelot. “Where would I find this anvil?”
Arthur, for his part, had left his decent sword up in the room with Merlin, because he sure as shit wasn’t leaving Merlin without means to defend himself against unicorn-riding lunatics and blonde women with magic collars, and he’d quite rightly guessed that Merlin’s magic was almost all gone. So he was heading to the armoury when he saw a bright, unearthly light emanating from a forgotten downstairs room.
Because it is the natural instinct of all humans to investigate bright, unearthly lights without calling for backup of any kind, Arthur investigated. The room was old, but the anvil in the middle of it was not. There were footprints in the dust on the flagstones — someone had paced up and down here, right next to the anvil. It was a rather random thing to find, especially as it had a sword in the middle of it, stuck as firmly as if someone had welded it in there.
“Nice looking sword, though,” Arthur said, and he wrapped his fingers around the hilt, giving it an experimental tug. With a heavenly swish of steel on steel, and the sound of a ghostly choir, the sword came free. “Well. That wasn’t hard.”
There should have been more pomp and circumstance, especially because the residents of Camelot were suspicious and stupid by nature, so no-one would believe that Arthur had really taken the sword from the stone, but it mattered not to him, as his heart was pure and his confidence that he could prove to the populace why he should rule was unshakable. Plus, his father was still alive, and he wasn’t about to kill off Uther just so that he could become king.
“Well,” said a voice from the doorway. “I was going to try to get it out by forcing a dragon that I know to heat the anvil, but I suppose that I can just take it from your dead body.”
Arthur whirled around, his cloak flapping magnificently. “You!” he said.
“Me,” said the blonde woman, raising her hands in a distinct sign of magical aggression.
“Okay,” said Arthur. “You’re not getting this sword.”
Lancelot bolted into the room, and Arthur stepped backwards lest the agitated swordsman collide with him. “Arthur!”
“Who are—“ Arthur began. “Wait, you’re the man who kidnapped me! Guin’s friend.”
“No!” said Lancelot. “I mean, yes! But I was being paid to then! Now I’m helping Merlin to find you and win you back from the evil sorceress who separated you in the first place!”
“Evil?” asked Morgause. “I hardly think I’m evil.”
“You stole Merlin’s magic! You had Arthur kidnapped! You’ve been killing goodness-knows-how-many-people in your zoo of death!” Lancelot said. “And you nicked my fiancée!”
“It was all a misunderstanding!” said Morgause. “Why don’t you give me that sword, Arthur? It’s cursed with a very evil spell, and it will bring you nothing but trouble.”
“This?” asked Arthur. “Some git had left it sitting around in an anvil with lots of holy runes carved into it and a legend about the wielder being once and future king. Are you certain it’s cursed?”
“Shit,” said Morgause. “But— it can’t be you! You’re a bimbo!”
“I’m not as stupid as everyone seems to think I am, including the damn narrator,” said Arthur, with a sigh. “Really. Half of what I say is for dramatic effect. Of course the sword stuck in the whacking great anvil is going to be magical in some way. Why wouldn’t I take it?”
“And you’re going to sully it with my blood?” asked Morgause.
“Not quite,” said Arthur, and he swung for her throat. Before she could react, or get her hands in the way, the sword hit the collar with a resounding clang, and the collar shattered, the cuffs coming undone and dropping off Morgause’s wrists. Arthur withdrew, and Morgause stumbled back, tripping on her dress.
“What have you done?” she asked, as a lovely orange glow-y thing coalesced out of the remains of the collar.
“I have no idea,” said Arthur, as the glow lifted from the ground and surrounded him.
Lancelot adjusted his stance, not quite knowing how he’d attack magic if he had to. “Oh gods, does it hurt?”
“It tickles,” said Arthur, as the magic purred and hummed. “I think it likes me!”
“Because that’s not cliché at all,” muttered Morgause, getting to her feet.
Arthur made a surprised face as the magic went exploring. “I think it really likes me,” he said.
Arthur was lost in his own little world when Morgause lunged for him, reaching out with a dagger to slash at his pretty skin. It was Lancelot who sprang to Arthur’s defence, pushing Morgause back and drawing his sword.
“Oh get lost,” she said. “Who the hell are you, anyway?”
“My name is Lancelot du Lac,” said Lancelot. “You stole my love from me. Prepare to die.”
“Not bloody likely,” said Morgause, and like Eteocles and Polynices of old, they struck and landed their blows at once. Arthur watched the glowy magic flee the scene as he came back to himself and separated Lancelot and Morgause, letting Morgause fall to the dusty flagstones and holding Lancelot in his arms.
“You brave idiot,” said Arthur. “I would have such bravery in my knights, you know.”
“Thanks,” said Lancelot, holding his fingers over the gaping wound in his side. “Did I kill her?”
“She’s not moving,” said Arthur, as there was a commotion from the corridor.
“Lancelot?” It was Guin’s voice.
“In here!” called Arthur.
“Arthur?” called Merlin.
“Also in here!” called Arthur. He looked up at the doorway and saw a most welcome sight indeed — Merlin and Guin, both of them looking relatively unharmed. Guin ran to Arthur’s side, kneeling beside him to take Lancelot from him.
“Oh my love,” she said. “I’m here now.”
“I’m just so happy that I can see you again before I die,” said Lancelot, raising bloodied fingers to brush against her cheek.
“My magic came back to me,” said Merlin, and his magic scampered happily through his veins. “I feel more alive than ever!”
“I don’t,” said Lancelot, as Guin kissed him. Now, it can be said that true love’s kiss has an immense power to heal, and that is true — but what has an even greater power to heal is a true love’s kiss that is supplemented by a jolt from a juiced-up sorcerer who just so happens to be fully in control of his magic for the first time in his life. Lancelot sat up, and there was a good deal of snogging as Arthur turned to Merlin, and then looked at the body of Morgause.
“She died remarkably quickly,” said Arthur, quietly so as not to interrupt the reunion kisses.
“She’s probably storing her soul somewhere else,” said Merlin. “Evil Wizarding 101. The original Dread Wizard Emrys taught me that one. You store your soul in an eggshell that you bury in the forest, and then you can always come back and be evil, even if you’ve been killed.”
“The original?” asked Arthur, as Merlin helped him to his feet.
“When I was kidnapped by him, I did beg for my life,” said Merlin. “And he told me the secret of the Dread Wizard; that once you hit your fifties, it’s hard to fit into a sorcerer-pirate costume, and you just can’t run a pirate ship when you get seasickness and gout. So they pass on the title. It’s inherited.”
“Oh,” said Arthur. “That sounds logical. Almost like…a king.”
“Almost,” said Merlin, and Arthur put a hand to Merlin’s cheek. Merlin turned his head to kiss Arthur’s palm. “But I already have someone I owe allegiance to, my liege.”
Morgause’s body, unseen by any of them, began to dissolve. Which was a good thing, as Morgana ran into the room, followed by a rumpled-looking Percival and a bemused-looking Leon.
“What on earth happened here?” asked Morgana, as she took in the scene.
“Hang on,” said Arthur. “I need to do something right now, and then we can tie up the loose ends off-screen.”
He took Merlin’s face in both hands and pressed their lips together, feeling Merlin melt into the kiss body and magical soul, Merlin’s magic swirling around Arthur and purring its happiness as Merlin dragged Arthur closer and into a warm, loving embrace.
While that kiss in the Perilous Lands earlier was not particularly pure, because it was fired by relief and lust, this kiss was fired by all-consuming love, a love that is once and future, and once and forever. And although both Merlin and Arthur were extremely attractive, and had been climbing their way up the ladder of the best-looking men in Albion for some time, the whole was indeed greater than the sum of its parts; together, they were a thing of great beauty indeed.
So. Without further ado.
Since the invention of the kiss there have been five kisses that were rated the most passionate, the most pure. This one left them all behind.
Our heroes — sans Arthur — all sat around in Arthur’s room waiting for him to return from the inevitable audience with his father, during which he was explaining that there would be no more bewitched princesses, because Arthur was in love with a boy. The unicorn had been stabled, and everyone had forgiven Morgana for being momentarily evil, and they’d decided that Lancelot and Percival could stay, because they were both honourable men.
Incidentally, Uther took it all remarkably well, probably because he was just so relieved that no-one else would be coming down with a severe case of bewitchment while Arthur was doting on Merlin, and because the author couldn’t be bothered developing his character from “plot device” to “functioning human”.
“The sword is an instrument of destiny,” said Morgana, musing. “Whoever wields it shall be the rightful king. You don’t have to be a genius to know what that means for Arthur.”
“Stuff destiny,” said Merlin. “I have a Sorcerer-Pirate ship. We can go and meet the people of the realm and then come back and do being regal when we’re older.”
“We don’t have a crew,” said Gwen.
Percival cleared his throat. “We don’t have a quest now that Lancelot has found his love,” he said. “And I look fantastic in cut-off trousers and an eyepatch.”
“Can I have a cutlass?” asked Morgana.
“As long as you’re certain you’re not evil,” said Merlin.
Arthur swept into the room, and everyone shut up. The sword from the anvil was sitting at his hip, and his armour was shiny, and he looked every inch the king. Every inch, Merlin thought, as he allowed his gaze to rake over Arthur’s firm chest and down to his impressive codpiece.
“What?” asked Arthur. “You’re all plotting something.”
“No,” said Morgana, about as convincingly as not at all.
“Shall I tell you my plan, then?” Arthur asked. “I was thinking. Uther is still king, and unless I want to kill him off — which I don’t; he’s an ass, but he’s my father — I will remain crown prince until then. And we’re seizing control of Escatia now that Cenred and Morgause are gone.”
“We are? Can I have a duchy?” asked Morgana.
“As long as you’re certain you’re not evil,” said Arthur, and he was puzzled by Guin and Lancelot going awwww, but cheered by the fondness in Merlin’s gaze. “We could stay in Camelot and morbidly wait for my father to die, but it occurs to me that a future king should know his lands. All of his lands. Even the Perilous ones, and the ones where there’s interesting places to quest in, and the ones where there’s adventure and magic. I’m not going to get any magic here in Camelot.”
Arthur had quite enjoyed being felt up by Merlin’s magic, and he’d enjoyed it even more when Merlin had given him a repeat performance in their bedchamber, the magic hot and fizzy on Arthur’s bare skin.
“It’s only logical,” said Lancelot. “And the people could get to know their ruler.”
“My brother and I are proficient smiths,” said Guin. “We can mend armour.”
“Wait, you have a brother?” said Lancelot.
“Yes. His name’s Elyan,” said Guin. “I never mention him, and we never see each other, but he always shows up when it’s convenient for him to do so. Last I’d heard he’d run off with a hot young thing from the continent with glorious hair. I’m sure they’re both lovely men who’d make a fine addition to our crew.”
“I used to play with Elyan when we were younger,” said Leon. He looked at a circle of shocked faces. “What? I’m allowed to have back-story.”
Arthur coughed, and Leon blinked innocently. “Moving right along,” Arthur said. “How about it, knights?”
“I’m not a knight!” said Guin.
“Or me!” said Percival.
“I’m not either,” said Merlin.
“You could be. I want my knights to have to have courage. Common sense. Skill with a sword. So you could be,” said Arthur, but he had eyes only for Merlin. Their gazes met for a long moment, and Merlin smiled. Arthur looked around, realising he was being rude. He cleared his throat. “You could all be. Knights, I mean.”
And so they were, and they did, as he wished.