Arthur sat down at his desk, his customary place for brain-work, and set the book down on the desk in front of him with a thump.
In the last few days, Merlin had got a good grasp of the basic idea of scrying, and Arthur was more than satisfied. The second time he had tried, he had succeeded in finding both Gaius - and then Guinevere, to Arthur’s delight. She had been in the market, and Arthur had insisted on a moment-by-moment description, until Merlin grew tired and lost his focus. The third day, he’d successfully picked out Sir Leon , as he rode on patrol about five miles away.
Now Arthur wanted to see what other uses his new trick could be put to.
He resolved to read one of the bigger, more intimidating volumes hidden in his linen chest. It was time he expanded his knowledge a little bit; knowledge that he could distill, and pass to Merlin.
The beneficiary of his reading was just beyond the archway. It was Monday, floor-wash-day, and Merlin was on his hands and knees, pushing a large brush back and forth across the stones. Swush, swush, swush, went the brush on the stones, driving a little wave of soap lather to either side as he went.
Arthur looked the book over. It book had been bound in black leather, and embossed with an odd pattern of cherubs, oak-leaves, and malevolently staring eyes. He opened it, and the heavy cover fell open with a solid clack. The front page had been gloriously illuminated in red and black ink, still as glossy as the day it was painted.
“What are you reading, Sire?” Merlin asked, from his hands and knees.
“Another book on scrying,” he said, without looking up from the page. What strange illustrations this book had! Then again, most of the books in Cabinet 55 had been rather strange.
“I thought you found all you needed in the other one?”
“Well, now I’m reading a different one.”
For some reason, this writer included a whole lot of stuff about magic. Arthur wasn’t interested in reading about magic. He wanted to read about scrying, not magic.
He began turning the pages of the book, skimming through it. Shape-shifting, spells, curses, love-potions, strange beasts – and Gods, he didn’t even know what that picture was. Halfway through the book, he found the right section.
The writer began with a lengthy description of what could be done with scrying – chiefly finding lost children, it seemed – and went on to describe how difficult and time-consuming it was to learn to scry. It could take years of dedicated application and practice.
Well, nuts to that, Arthur thought. Merlin had picked up this ‘art difficult to learn’ in about three quarters of an hour, and he was becoming better at it every day. Merlin wasn’t an idiot, but he wasn’t exactly Aristotle, either. Either scrying was much easier than it was said to be, or Merlin possessed a single, blinding, and utterly unexpected talent; an isolated little island of ability.
He was like the man Arthur had seen once, unable to speak or look after himself, with the mind of a child, but able to play the lute with incredible skill. Such a wonderful talent, in such an unexpected place.
No. More than just a talent.
The breath whooshed out of Arthur’s body, and he stared at the lettering without seeing it, struck cold. “Merlin!” he said, without thinking.
Merlin looked up at him. “Sire?”
Arthur gaped at him, shocked at having spoken aloud. “Nothing.”
Merlin gazed up at him, dubiously. One brow rose. “Ri-ight,” he agreed, drily, and bent over his brush again.
With Merlin’s head down, Arthur was free to stare at him again.
No, Merlin didn’t have a quaint little skill at all. He didn’t have an isolated little island of ability.
What Merlin had was magic.
It was as if his perception had suddenly shifted; as if he had been looking at only one piece of a great stained-glass window without understanding the image it was part of, and only now had stood back to take in all of it.
No, it was as if he’d stepped too far back, entirely too far, and tumbled head over heels over the stone balustrade to the floor below.
Merlin could scry. Therefore, Merlin had magic.
He wished suddenly that he hadn’t understood, hadn’t put two and two together, but the obvious, now seen, was too huge to be denied. How could he not have seen it before.
He stared at Merlin, who was still on his hands and knees, head down. Swush, swush, swush. He could not possibly have noticed Arthur’s lightning strike of revelation. He had no way of knowing the cold that ran over Arthur’s skin, the roaring of his blood in his ears.
Arthur tried to work his logic back again, hoping he was wrong, but knowing that he was not.
Scrying was an esoteric art, Geoffrey had said, unsuitable for the open shelves. Books on scrying were hidden away in Cabinet 55, along with the books on magic. This book lumped scrying together with magic, right between transmogrification and magical healing spells. Therefore, scrying was a form of magic.
Merlin could scry. Therefore, Merlin had magic.
That young man over there, with the funny ears, and the engaging grin, and the desperately-shabby dress sense – he had magic. The servant who put Arthur to bed, and dressed him, and fed him, and did a thousand other things that Arthur usually barely noticed – he had magic.
And, oh God, it was Arthur’s fault! Merlin had never displayed the least ability at magic before. It might never had happened at all, if it had not been for Arthur’s insistence. It was Arthur’s fault! He found himself clutching at his hair in horror, and forced himself to stop, in case Merlin looked up and wondered at his expression.
He wanted to curse his own stupidity. He remembered pushing the bowl at Merlin, and Merlin’s reluctance. “You know those times when I tell you something is a bad idea, and you ignore me and go ahead anyway, and it turns out I was right?” It was Arthur’s fault, and Merlin might pay the ultimate price for it if he got caught. Arthur had started it, had encouraged him to learn. It was Arthur’s fault. “Just trust me”, he’d said, and Merlin had, and now look what had happened. Merlin had developed magic, just like Morgana.
Cold dread ran across his skin again.
Merlin must not find out. If he found out that what they were doing was magic – real magic, and not just a random talent – he would panic. Magic was evil, and he had it! He would be terrified! He would flee – and he would have every right to. He had magic, and if he was caught he would pay for it with his life.
Arthur found himself gripping the edge of his desk with white knuckles.
He would flee Camelot, as thousands of other had fled, as Morgana had fled. And if he did not flee … he would run the risk of being noticed, and Arthur would have to watch him die. And either way, fled or dead, Arthur would lose him.
He looked at the slim back, still pushing the brush rhythmically, quite unaware of the momentous decisions being made just behind him.
He should send Merlin away, immediately, right now, for his own good. He should.
He should send Merlin to find Morgana. She had known him for as long as Arthur had. Whatever was going on between Morgana and himself, she at least knew Merlin’s good qualities, and would take him in as one of her own.
He knew that he was being desperately, despicably selfish. He was being selfish, but in spite of it his mind was already made up.
His father’s hate of magic had cost him Morgana. He could not bear to lose the friendly face that accompanied him through all his days, from waking to sleeping. How could he do without Merlin? Merlin, who knew the truth of his feelings for Guinevere. Merlin, who knew the truth of his single-handed quest. Merlin, who had seen the same vision of his mother that Morgause had shown him. Merlin, who knew that along with the donkey’s ears and donkey’s bray had been a donkey’s tail. Merlin, who knew all his secrets, all his failures, but still smiled at the sight of him.
He hadn’t realized how much he’d come to rely on Merlin, ever since that fateful day when the stranger with the wide grin and the jug-ears had popped up and chirped, “All right, my friend, you’ve had your fun…”
No, he could not give up Merlin.
He would have to come up with a plan, to keep Merlin safe, and teach him at the same time.
Horses, after all, were naturally afraid of loud noises, but they could be taught, by gradual stages, that there was nothing to fear, so that they would gallop into battle without hesitation. Surely he could teach Merlin the same way, very gently, very subtly, so that he did not realize that there was anything different about himself, and panic.
After all, Morgana had learned to conceal herself. So had Gaius. So could Merlin.
But he would have to be careful about it. No-one could find out, not even Merlin. Somehow, he had to be taught to control himself, to conceal himself – as Morgana had, as Gaius had – without being alerted to what was happening to him, without teaching him the bitterness that had twisted Morgana.
He had caused this catastrophe to happen to his friend, but he vowed silently to Merlin, there on the floor, that he would ensure that no harm ever came to Merlin because of it. What had befallen Morgana would not happen to Merlin – he, Arthur Pendragon, would make sure of it.
He could not lose Merlin.
// // // // // //
Dinner these days was a gloomy affair, without the presence of either Morgana or Guinevere. Arthur and his father were alone in the council chamber, waited on only by Merlin, and the place opposite Arthur where Morgana had once sat was too empty. Her absence sucked their conversation away.
They had eaten well tonight, taking a roast chicken to pieces between them, and they were sitting back in their chairs, sipping wine to settle their digestions, while Merlin cleared their dishes away.
“So, tell me, Arthur,” his father said, lowering his goblet from his lips. “I’ve noticed you hiding yourself away with your servant these last few afternoons. What have you two been up to, in there?”
“Ah,” Arthur said. He took a sip of wine to cover the deep chill that had suddenly congealed his dinner in his belly.
Out of his father’s line of sight, Merlin had gone still and stiff as a statue. He was holding a tray, loaded with dishes, and his hands were gripping it as if an invisible force was trying to rip it away. His eyes were fixed on Arthur’s.
“Well,” Arthur said, “It’s a little bit of a private matter between myself and Merlin. He’s been a trusted and loyal servant to me, and I thought I would add a little bit to his education, as a mark of gratitude.”
Merlin’s eyes went wider, and he began shaking his head. No, no, no, he mouthed, out of Uther’s sight.
Arthur smiled at him, trying to reassure him without words. He had no intention of blurting out their secret to his father.
“His education?” Uther shifted in his chair, amused hugely by the idea of educating a servant. As far as Arthur knew, his father’s manservant couldn’t even read. What on earth would a servant need to read for?
No, no, no, Merlin shook his head more vigorously, over the King’s shoulder. His eyes were wild.
“Yes, well, I thought it might be something to do this winter.” Over his father’s shoulder, Merlin stepped closer to the table, hefting the tray, his eyes wild. “These last few days, I’ve been teaching Merlin to –.”
Merlin raised the tray in his hands, and let go.
Crash! The tray seemed to explode on the floor. Dishes shattered, cutlery sang on the flagstones and bounced away.
Arthur’s father leaped in shock, and jerked angrily to face Merlin.
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” Merlin chanted, and went down on his knees on the other side of the table from Arthur. “I’m sorry, I’ll clean it up, I’m sorry!” Arthur could see the top of Merlin’s dark head over the edge of the table. The movements of his hair and the scraping movements told him Merlin was busily brushing up bits of broken pottery with his dishcloth.
“I’ll take those broken dishes out of your hide, you nincompoop!”
“It’s all right, Father, I’ll take it out of his wages. It’s my fault for employing a clumsy servant.”
“You’re damned right you will.” His father drowned his irritation by draining his goblet dry. “Clean that mess up, immediately!” he told Merlin.
“And you were saying you wanted to add to his education, Arthur?”
“Yes, Father. Since he’s Gaius’s apprentice.” He saw Merlin’s head pop up over the edge of the table and stare at him accusingly. His eyes were as wide as saucers, accentuated by the fact that they were all Arthur could see of him over the table. He spoke to the eyes, as much as to his father. “I’ve been giving Merlin lessons in Latin.”
“Latin?” His father’s mood had switched from anger to amusement. “Latin? Him?” He set the goblet down, and pointed one hand at the figure on the floor. “You’re going to teach Latin to this?” He slapped his hand on the table in mirth. He shifted to Latin. “You’re going to have a lot of work ahead of you with this one.”
‘This’ was still staring at Arthur over the edge of the table. The eyes blinked, twice, as if astonished, and then disappeared under the table without a word.
Arthur didn’t trust his Latin tenses or his vocabulary to reply off-the-cuff in Latin, so he replied in English. “It will be an interesting diversion for the long winter nights, Father. We’re doing it in private, just avoid the distractions of an audience.”
“And he is Gaius’s apprentice, after all.” His father looked at Merlin, sternly. “Gaius has been making noises about packing him off to Salerno. Well, whatever amuses you, Arthur. I would not have the patience.”
“It’s a small step from teaching farmboys to fight, to teaching them to speak Latin, Father.”
The King turned to Merlin again. “So let us hear some of what you know, boy. Let’s hear some farmboy Latin.”
Merlin’s face appeared over the edge of the table, frowning in concentration.
Oh, bugger, Arthur thought. He hadn’t expected his father to ask for a demonstration.
Merlin pursed his lips, thinking, and then after a moment came out with, “Amo. Amas. Amat. I love, you love, he loves.” He thought again. “Ama … mus. Ama... um. Tis? ”
“Ama-um-tis?” Arthur demanded, feeling slightly light-headed. “Is that all that’s stuck in your head, Merlin? Ama-um-tis?”
But his father seemed satisfied, at least. “You have a long way to go, Arthur. In fact, I’m not sure you aren’t wasting your time.”
“We’ll see how it turns out in the spring, Father.”
“Now, if we’re both done, I think we are finished here.” His father rose to his feet, and Arthur stood up respectfully. “Good evening, Arthur.”
“Good evening, Father,” Arthur said, lowering his head, and waited as his father stepped around Merlin, still on the floor, and strode out of the room.
Merlin rose above the level of the table top again, not so much resembling a rabbit emerging from a hole this time, as a troll emerging from under a bridge. “What the hell was that for?” he demanded, in a trembling voice.
“What do you mean, what was that for?” He dropped himself back into his chair, and propped his knee against the edge of the table. “You have just witnessed my tactical brilliance in action, and all you can say is What the hell was that for? We now have a perfect excuse to spend as much time as we need to practice our little game! If he accepts it, no-one else will say a word against it.”
Merlin got to his feet. “Couldn’t you have warned me? I nearly had a heart attack!”
“Oh, come now! Surely you don’t think I’d be so stupid as to blurt it all out in front of my father, of all people?”
Merlin visibly ground his teeth. He stooped and picked up the tray.
“Oh, you do think I’m that stupid?” Arthur barked at him, snapping upright in the chair. “Don’t you trust me?”
“I didn’t say that!” He turned and began to leave the room, with the tray of broken crockery held in front of him.
“No, you wait a bit.” Arthur sprang up, and went after him. He reached Merlin before he had got as far as the door. Merlin stopped when he found Arthur blocking his way. “You think I’d blurt out your secret in front of my father – as if it was just nothing? ”
Merlin’s eyes had gone very narrow. “You did blurt it out in front of the knights just the other day, Arthur. Merlin can see things – hurray! What was I supposed to think this time?”
He planted his hand on Merlin’s chest, pushing him. “That was before I knew you wanted it kept a secret! I gave you my word that I would tell no-one about it. I gave you my word, Merlin, and a knight’s word is his bond! How dare you think I would just bleat it out over the dinner table!” He stepped back from Merlin, and folded his arms across his chest. “I came up with a story to keep your secret safe!”
Merlin looked down at the tray, held between them as if it was a metallic buffer state. He gulped. “If he finds out …!” He didn’t need to finish the sentence.
“He won’t find out! I swore to keep your secret, and I keep my oaths, Merlin!”
“I know you do!” Merlin started off sounding angry, and then something seemed to stick in his throat. He raised his eyes, to look at Arthur, and his tone changed. “I know you do, Arthur.”
“There you go!” Some of his anger at being doubted so easily faded away. It wasn’t a slur on his honour, but a mark of Merlin’s fear of being accused of magic. He remembered Merlin’s fright around the Almost-Circular Table. And after all, it was Arthur’s fault Merlin was in this predicament.
Arthur pushed his face into a smile. “Trust me, Merlin! I won’t let any harm come to you. Besides – as far as anyone knows, I’m just teaching you Latin. That’s all we’re doing – Latin!”
“Nothing wrong with Latin,” Arthur said. “And it’s a perfectly understandable thing for a physician’s apprentice to learn.”
Merlin smiled wryly, but he nodded. “Latin it is, then.”
“What a nice master you have, taking his own time to teach it to you. Amo, amas, amat, and all that. The rest – is just between the two of us.”
// // // // // //
Arthur’s life settled around its new pattern.
Every afternoon, usually between three and four o’clock, he spent an hour with Merlin, practicing their ‘Latin lessons.’
Every night, Merlin readied Arthur’s bed, was dismissed, and departed for his own little cubbyhole to sleep. Every night, after he was gone, Arthur retrieved one of the stash of banned books in his linen chest, and read it by the light of a single candle.
Arthur had taken back to Geoffrey the books on scrying, and had taken instead a bunch of books on magic in general from Cabinet 55. It seemed like a good idea to get an grasp of what he was going to have to deal with. The finer points of scrying could wait until Merlin was past the point of setting his own chamber on fire in his sleep. Geoffrey had raised his brows at the books, but he had said nothing.
Reading about sorcery, from the point of view of the sorcerers themselves, was an experience unlike any other – particularly with the image of Merlin lodged in the back of his mind. The information in those books was so very different to any other books he had ever come across before, as if they had been written by people with a completely different history and understanding of the world to his own.
It was no wonder these books were all banned! His father would have a shrieking fit if he found out what he was doing! But he pressed on, late into the night.
Arthur came across a simple little rhyme in one of the books, and taught it to Merlin the next day. He told Merlin it was a mnemomic chant to focus his mind for scrying. Merlin did not need to know that it was in fact a four-hundred-year-old chant to help a sorcerer rein in power that was trying to escape in an uncontrolled burst. If the need came for it, it was there. Merlin need not set anyone’s chambers on fire in the middle of the night.
Merlin’s strength at scrying grew by leaps and bounds. In a week his eyes could roam the whole of Camelot, indoors and outdoors, not only scrying people but particular places, too.
Merlin’s accuracy grew too, and his attachment to what he was seeing grew more firm, so that he could tell Arthur what he saw without losing his focus on what he was seeing. His vision soon ranged over the borders, seeing into the neighbouring kingdoms, and Arthur took to keeping a sheet of paper, to make notes of what Merlin saw.
The day Merlin caught sight of Morgana for the first time was one which Arthur would not forget.
He was sitting at his desk, occupied in reading the report from one of the patrols that had returned that morning. Merlin was sitting at the table, head down, his gaze absorbed by the buttery glow of the candle.
“I’ve got her!” Merlin announced suddenly, breaking the silence. “Arthur, I’ve got her!”
For a moment, Arthur didn’t know who ‘her’ was. Then he leaped to his feet and charged over. “Where is she? How is she? What is she doing?”
Merlin didn’t raise his gaze from the wax. “Shut up!” he said, and pointed imperiously to the opposite chair without looking up. “Sit there! Let me concentrate.”
Arthur sat, and laced his fingers impatiently. After a while Merlin spoke again. “She’s too far away. It’s difficult to see her clearly.”
“Where is she?”
“Shut up, Sire, let me concentrate!” A few minutes more. “I think she’s outside, but I don’t understand. She’s going round and round.”
“Round and round?”
“For God’s sake, Arthur, shut up! Round and round. Round and round. What is she doing?” He was glaring at the candle, his eyes so intense they seemed to be burning. “Round and round. It’s too far, I can’t see … I don’t know what is behind her…”
A few minutes passed. Arthur chewed his lip, and held back his need to demand more, to insist that Merlin look harder.
“She’s on her feet. She’s outside. She doesn’t seem to be in any … hardship or … compulsion. I don’t understand, she’s going round and round. Turning on the spot. She’s…”
He lapsed into a long silence. Arthur waited, listening to Merlin’s hard breathing. His eyes were drilling at the candle, as if they were trying to blaze a hole through the wax itself.
At last, Merlin let out a sudden spasmodic cry. “Ah!” He broke his gaze on the candle, thrusting himself back with a jerk. “I’ve got it!”
“What? What is she doing?”
“She’s lungeing a horse.” Merlin grinned, and seemed about to burst into giggles. “How ordinary is that? She’s going round and round on the spot, because she’s lungeing a horse. I couldn’t see the horse, it’s too far away, so I didn’t understand.”
Morgana was lungeing a horse, right now, even as he sat here in Camelot. His heart contracted, at the memory of how often he’d seen Morgana lungeing a horse. In the long, dark winters, when it was too cold and icy to ride out, they had exercised their horses together on the lunge rein. For a moment, it was as if he could see her too, with her cheeks bright, and her eyes shining, and her breath and her horse’s mingling in brief clouds on the frosty night air.
She was lungeing a horse. That was hardly the action of someone held under duress. If she wanted to come back, she could simply leap onto the horse’s back, couldn’t she? But no, she was outdoors, calmly exercising a horse, round and round on a lunge-rein.
Well, at least she was alive, and well.
That was what he had wanted to know, wasn’t it? He’d wanted Merlin to find Morgana, and he had. It wasn’t Merlin’s fault that finding it out had incurred such a dreadful price. Arthur had insisted.
Now, he had to deal with the unintended consequences. He’d made a tactical error, now he would have to fix it.
// // // // // //
Most days, he found an excuse to go up to his chambers for a few minutes before lunch. Most days, and as if by sheer coincidence, Guinevere happened to be in his chambers, cleaning the fireplace. Most days, Merlin took over the fireplace, cleaning the ash and coals out, refilling the scuttle, laying a new fire for the evening, while Arthur and Guinevere had a few quiet minutes together, to hold each other and to talk.
Getting his fireplace cleaned had become the highlight of Arthur’s day, but today, he was running a little late.
Guinevere could not dawdle around in his chamber indefinitely, without one of the guards noticing and becoming suspicious. He would have to hurry, if he wanted to see her at all today, let alone put his arms around her.
With Merlin scurrying on his heels, carrying a large bowl of the last of the summer apples, he climbed the steep winding staircase that gave a more private route to his chamber. He took the stairs two at a time.
It had to happen sooner or later, he thought later.
He heard and felt Merlin stumble. Merlin’s weight crashed into the back of his legs, driving him forward in a mad stagger. He might still have saved himself, caught himself on hands and knees, if Merlin hadn’t grabbed the back of his cloak for balance, and dragged them both down instead.
“Ooof!” he grunted, as the impact with the stairs drove the breath out of him.
They fell together in a tangle of limbs, Merlin on top of him, the sharp edges of the steps slamming into his body. The bowl clanged, and bounced away - boing, boing, boing…
Merlin rolled off him – he’d had something soft to land on, the bastard – pushed himself up on his arms, and yelled, “No!” down the staircase.
The clanging stopped.
Arthur lay for a moment, until he was sure he wasn’t dead. Then he dragged himself up into a sitting position, and twisted to see what had happened below them.
The staircase was a tight spiral, as castle staircases usually were, with steep, triangular steps around a central pillar. It was designed to twist tightly around itself, so that anything dropped down it would be guided all the way down, to block the entrance at the bottom – as the bowl of fruit had been trying to do.
It wasn’t doing so now.
Arthur felt his eyes widen, as he took in the fruit. The apples were frozen in position. Some of them were even hovering above the stairs, visibly caught mid-bounce.
There was no mistaking what he was looking at. Nobody could mistake what he was looking at!
He twisted his head, to glare at Merlin, still lying propped up on his elbows alongside him. Merlin’s eyes were wide, and his teeth were bared in a panicky grin. “Uh-h-hm…”
“Merlin!” he barked, and clenched his fist into the front of the brown jacket to yank the other man towards him. “Undo what you just did! Right now!” he grated, directly into Merlin’s face.
Merlin twisted his head to stare down the steps, and immediately Arthur heard the tapping sound of the falling apples resume, followed by the resumption of the rhythmic ‘boing, boing, boing, clang, boing, ’ of the metal bowl, springing merrily from step to step all the way to the bottom.
They stared into each other’s eyes, while the sound faded into the distance, and terminated in the sound of the bowl spinning to a stop around itself on the floor.
Arthur hissed between his teeth. “You had better pray nobody saw that, Merlin!” He shoved himself to his hands and knees, and from there to his feet. He seemed to be all right, although he could feel that he had collected a few interesting stair-shaped bruises on his body.
He headed down the stairs with Merlin, close behind him. Round and round the stairs, one hand trailing on the central pillar, tracking his progress, and he was stepping over apples every few steps. He went down two circuits, and the staircase opened out into one of the corridors.
He found himself face to face with a knight, who was standing at the doorway that let out into the corridor.
“Ah,” he said. “Sir Lancelot.”
Lancelot’s face broke up into a smile when he saw Arthur, and Merlin behind him spilling into the corridor on his heels. “Oh, it’s you! You won’t believe what I just saw.”
“Oh, I’ll bet we will,” Arthur ground out. He was going to have to shut Lancelot up, somehow, before he blurted what he’d seen in front of everyone.
“I can explain,” Merlin said from over Arthur’s shoulder. “Lancelot, it was just me.”
“Well, I might have guessed.” Lancelot bent and scooped an apple from the floor.
“No, Merlin, it was not just you!” Arthur interrupted. “Lancelot, whatever you think you just saw, you’re mistaken. There’s a perfectly innocent explanation.”
Merlin shook his head. “Arthur, it’s all right, he…”
A voice echoed, behind Arthur, and he turned on his heel in time to see his father turn the corner. All three of them froze into silence.
The King came sweeping along, head down, in conversation with Sir Leon. He stopped when he saw Arthur, Sir Lancelot and Merlin clustered at the staircase.
“Father,” Arthur greeted, lowering his head respectfully, his mind racing.
“I need to speak with you later about this latest Druid sighting.” His eyes dropped as he saw the apples on the floor. “What’s all this?”
“Merlin,” Arthur explained. “He dropped them.” He folded his arm over Merlin’s shoulder, and gave him an affectionate shake. “Stupid duffer is as clumsy as ever.” He looked at Merlin, and gave him a grin. “He never thinks before he acts.”
“Hah,” his father grunted. “I would not have the patience to put up with him. Sir Lancelot, attend on me, please.” He stepped forward. With the habit of decades, he did not step around the men in front of him, but forward. He was King, and they would always give way to him.
Sir Lancelot grinned at Merlin as if at some private joke, flipped the apple up and caught it again, and followed the King and Sir Leon down the corridor.
Arthur and Merlin were left alone again, looking at each other. Merlin let out a breath. “That … was close,” Merlin groaned.
“That was too close,” Arthur hissed at him. “Another five seconds, that’s all it would have taken … I’m going after Sir Lancelot.”
“Arthur, about that…”
“It’s all right, Merlin. I’m going to remind him that he has already sworn an oath to say nothing about it. You, go upstairs and let Guinevere know that I won’t be able to help her clean the fireplace. Tell her I’m sorry.”
He left Merlin, there at the base of the staircase, and began marching after his father. He turned around, walking backwards for a few steps. “And pick up those apples before they bruise!” he shouted at Merlin.
He turned his back on Merlin’s indignant expression and broke into a trot to catch up with his father.
As it happened, it was nearly two hours before he had any time to talk to Lancelot in private. His father had held Lancelot for an hour, to help him decide whether the latest diplomatic message from the Duke of Anjou was mistranslated, or a deliberately-subtle slur. Lancelot’s command of French was becoming very useful.
And then the King dismissed Lancelot, but kept Arthur behind to discuss the repairs to the castle’s wall, the granary situation, the diplomatic mission to Goteborg, and most importantly in his father’s eyes, the reported sightings of a group of Druids crossing the border, heading in the direction of the Darkling Wood.
Arthur tried to suggest that the woodcutters had been mistaken, but his father overruled him. Arthur must reroute a patrol through there, in order to flush the Druids out. They were a clear threat to the safety of Camelot. They would stop at nothing to destroy Camelot – “At nothing, Arthur!” – and their presence could not be tolerated so close to the already-ravaged city.
Arthur had fidgeted over his patrol rosters, trying to make it seem as if it still mattered to him whether Tuesday’s patrol to Northstream Village went by the east road or the west, but his mind was on Lancelot. He wondered where he was, and more importantly who he was speaking to.
At last he was able to escape, and ask around after Lancelot. He tracked Lancelot down to the archery butts outside the castle walls.
News of the Prince’s arrival travelled fast, and he saw a few heads turn in his direction, but his presence here was frequent enough that he was soon ignored. He could stand for a few minutes, and survey the scene.
There were two ranks of butts – straw-stuffed targets, tightly covered with sackcloth to hold them together – set at different distances. Lines of men stood with their bows, practicing. It was not law in Camelot for every able-bodied man to practice his archery, as it was in some kingdoms, but the archery butts were well used anyway, by knights, peasants and townspeople alike. It seemed to be deeply satisfying to a commoner, to know that he could knock a prissy aristocrat off his horse from three hundred yards, if he really wanted to.
He was pleased to see that even without his presence, some of the archers had formed themselves into teams, and were competing against each other as units.
His careful teaching was paying off.
It didn’t help Camelot for its army to be a mob of warriors who all fought as individuals. The Romans had taught the world, again and again, that a disciplined corps, fighting as a single unit with a single tactical aim, would win against any howling horde. Arthur had learned from their example, and had done his best to teach the idea to his knights, and they, in turn, were spreading the idea.
He saw Sir Lancelot at the far end, practicing long-range shots, and strolled along behind the line of archers, nodding a greeting to the Master of the Archers as he went.
“Sir Lancelot,” he greeted.
Lancelot turned. “Sire,” he greeted in return, and turned back to his bow.
“Have you spoken to Merlin yet?”
“No, have you?”
“I don’t need to speak to him.”
He watched Lancelot nock an arrow, draw it back to his cheek, and loose it. There was a thunk, and the arrow appeared in the target. “Nice shot, but you’re a bit stiff in your left fingers,” he pointed out. “You’re grabbing at the bow. Loosen your hand a little.”
In his next shot, Lancelot took his advice. The arrow thunked into the target, better this time, but that was the last of his arrows. He lowered the bow, waiting for the Master of the Archers to open the range.
“Listen,” Lancelot said, “There’s no point in telling me I didn’t see what I saw earlier.”
“I didn’t come here to tell you you didn’t see it. We both know what you saw.”
The Master of the Archers opened the range, and Lancelot walked forward to retrieve his arrows from the targets.
Arthur followed him. “What you saw …” Arthur drew in a deep breath. “You remember, a few weeks ago, when Merlin said that he could see Morgause watching us? In the chamber of the Circular Table? Do you remember that we all swore that we would say nothing about it?”
“That was just the beginning. We’ve found that Merlin can look back, and watch Morgause in turn. But it’s had side-effects. Unintended consequences… What you saw with the apples is a direct consequence of that. Lancelot – Merlin has magic.”
Despite himself, his voice dropped to a secretive whisper, as if he was a child sharing a secret in the classroom. It was the first time he’d said it out loud, to anyone, and the shock of it took his breath away. He glanced around, to ensure that the archer nearest them was out of earshot.
“Merlin has magic,” Lancelot agreed. He began pulling his arrows free with short, economical yanks, collecting them in his left hand.
“Lancelot, you swore, as we all did, that we would say nothing about Merlin’s abilities. You gave your word of honour as a Knight of Camelot to keep Merlin’s secret as if it were your own.”
Lancelot turned to face Arthur, and met his eye, with the forthright expression that had so appealed to Arthur when they had first met. His face was disapproving. “Arthur!” he said. “Merlin is my friend! You’ve no need to invoke the Knights’ Code to stop me denouncing my own friend!”
“I’m glad to hear that. You have no idea how glad.” Arthur sighed. “I meant no offense, and I apologise if I caused any. My only concern is for Merlin’s safety.”
“I’m not from around here, Arthur, in case you had forgotten, and I’m not as fussy about these things as some of you Camelot fellows are.” He turned back to the target, and pulled out the last of his arrows. “You have nothing to fear. As far as I’m concerned, this is a matter between you, me, and Merlin. It concerns nobody else.” He turned away to walk back to the shooting lines.
“No, no, no!” Arthur followed him, shaking his head, and gripped Lancelot’s arm at the elbow to turn him back. “It’s just a matter between you and me. Merlin does not need to know. He must not know, not yet.”
Lancelot frowned. “But surely he already knows?”
“No, he does not. He doesn’t understand what’s going on.”
The rest of the archers were all waiting for them to move out of the way, but Arthur ignored them. Damnit, what was the point of royal privilege, if he couldn’t occasionally use it? They could all wait – Merlin’s fate was more important.
Lancelot frowned doubtfully. “Arthur, I don’t know if this has occurred to you yet, but if Merlin has magic now, then surely he must have had it all along?”
“No. He might have been born with it, but it’s my fault it’s come to the surface. I started it. I encouraged him to scry, I let the genie out of the bottle. It’s my fault, so it’s my duty to deal with it.”
“When you say ‘deal with it’...?”
“I know it’s going to be difficult, and I know I’ll be breaking about a hundred laws, but there has to be a way to ease him into it, without upsetting or scaring him. He can’t find out until he’s ready, otherwise he’ll panic.”
Lancelot stared at him, and then stared closer with an wild expression, as if he’d just noticed something weird walking on Arthur’s face, and didn’t know if he should point it out. “Arthur…”
“I have to find a way to teach him to look after himself, without letting him notice that there’s anything wrong with him.”
Lancelot’s wild expression relaxed. “Let me see if I’ve got this straight,” he said, beginning to grin. “You want to teach Merlin to use magic – without letting him notice that he’s using magic?”
“He must not find out. If he finds out he has magic, he’ll – why are you laughing? This is no laughing matter, Lancelot!”
Lancelot had doubled over, to laugh at the grass. Now he straightened up, with a snort. “No, no. Of course. You’re right. Merlin has magic, so, naturally, it’s all your fault.” Lancelot’s eyes were still alight with mirth. “Have you ever heard of Post hoc, ergo propter hoc?”
“I don’t know what you think is so funny about all this, Lancelot,” he snapped, pulling himself up to his full height.
“You wouldn’t understand. It’s … it’s … it’s a French thing. Ahem.”
“Well, be that as it may, it’s not funny. I’ve seen what finding out about magic did to Morgana, and I’m damned if I’ll see Merlin suffer the same.”
That sobered Lancelot up. “I don’t think Merlin could turn into Morgana, even if he wanted to. He’s got a good heart.”
Arthur couldn’t deny that. “All I’m asking is that you don’t tell him that what you saw was real magic.”
“He’s my friend, too, Arthur,” Lancelot said. “His secret is safe with me. All his secrets.”
“He thinks it’s just a side-effect of the scrying. It’s not his fault. He really doesn’t deserve what’s happening to him. He’s still just a simple peasant at heart, you know, Lancelot.”
“Oh, believe me, he’s not the only one around here who’s simple.”
Lancelot looked very satisfied about something. Arthur still couldn’t fathom what was so funny – his plan made perfect sense to him. But Lancelot had agreed to keep the secret, and that was all that mattered.
// // // // // //
It was only later that night, much later, that either of them mentioned what had happened in the staircase.
“What did you tell Lancelot, this afternoon?” Merlin asked, very casually, with his back turned to where Arthur sat in front of his fire.
Arthur had been sitting with his feet up, his head propped up in one hand, gazing into the flames. Merlin was bustling around in the room behind him, settling all to rights before bedtime. It had been a long day since the Apple Incident. He had begun to think neither of them was going to mention it, ever again.
“Lancelot?” He hurriedly composed his thoughts. “I took him aside, and spoke to him in confidence. I told him that I knew what it looked like, but what he’d seen was related to your Latin lessons, and reminded him that he’d already sworn not to mention that to anyone.”
“What did he say?”
“Oh, he agreed, very readily.” In fact, Lancelot had briefly fallen about laughing about it; a puzzling reaction, that. “Lancelot is going to be all right.” He raised his head, to look at where Merlin sat, working at his table with his back turned to Arthur.
“We’re very lucky that Lancelot was the one who saw it, and no-one else,” Merlin said quietly. He had still not turned around, but his hands, that had been polishing diligently at a silver goblet, had stilled.
“Very lucky. He said he wasn’t as paranoid about that sort of thing as we are. Anyone else might have ... jumped to conclusions. But the secret is safe with Lancelot.”
“And you?” Merlin asked. “What do you think?” He still hadn’t turned around.
Oh, dear, here it was. It had to happen. Merlin had noticed that he had done something, somehow, that shouldn’t have been possible, and now the questions were going to start.
What’s happening, Arthur? What is this, Arthur? What am I, Arthur? Help me, Arthur…
He found that he could not answer, immediately. “I think I feel like a night-cap tonight, Merlin. Pour me some of that nice red?”
Merlin turned in his chair, and gave him a blank look for a moment, but then he nodded. “As you wish, Sire.” He pushed his chair back, got up, and crossed the room toward Arthur’s cupboard.
“Pour yourself a glass,” he instructed Merlin, as his servant took out the bottle and a goblet.
Merlin paused by the cupboard, and peeped at him curiously around the open door, his face lit warmly by the firelight. “Really?”
“Yes, really. Pour yourself a glass. Come here, and drink it with me.”
“Hmm,” Merlin said. He reached into the cupboard, and brought out another glass. He carried bottle and goblets to the table, pulled the cork from the bottle, and poured a measure into each goblet.
He brought the goblet to Arthur, and put it into Arthur’s hand. Arthur lifted it in an informal salute to him, and took a sip. The wine was rich and fruity; just the thing for a winter’s night.
Merlin hesitated, briefly, and then sipped. “It’s nice.”
“Sit down, man,” Arthur told him. “Take your time.”
“I have to take the warming pan out of your bed,” Merlin said.
“It can wait. Sit!” he pointed to the chair at the other end of the table.
Merlin sat down in the other chair, facing the fire. He turned the goblet in his hands.
“Look,” Arthur said, eventually. “What happened today with the apples…”
“Well, it happens sometimes, to people who are learning, um, Latin.”
“Oh, yes. You don’t need to worry. I read up on this, and the books mentioned it might happen. It’s just a side effect of the Latin. Completely harmless and nothing to worry about.”
Merlin stared at him for a long moment, the firelight sparkling in his eyes, and the tense expression on his face relaxed. He no longer looked worried – in fact he looked like he wanted to laugh. It was relief, probably, Arthur thought.
“I can’t help wondering what kind of books you’ve been reading, Arthur,” he observed, with a sort of delight.
“Books on Latin,” Arthur lied, glibly.
“I wouldn’t have thought there would be so many.”
“Oh, there are lots and lots. But the books are very clear, Merlin. It’s just a side effect of the intensity you get up in order to scry. A little bit of that intensity pops out, and then funny things happen. As you get more practice at your Latin, you’ll learn to control it, and it will stop.”
Only the very inexperienced sorcerers had magic that popped out beyond their control. That must have been what had happened, the night Morgana’s chambers had caught fire. With practice, however, magic could be reined in. That was clearly what Gaius had learned, and that was what Merlin would have to learn.
It might be a little bit startling, at first, to both of them, but with time and a bit of patience, he would get used to it.
Merlin sipped his wine, and said, “I didn’t intend to do anything, Arthur. I just saw the fruit falling, and I thought, ‘Aaaah, they’re going to bruise! ’ and then it just happened.”
“Has this sort of thing happened before?”
Merlin hesitated. “Um. A few times. Now and then. Here and there.”
“Has anyone else seen it?”
“No. Just Lancelot.”
The fire crackled to itself for a few minutes.
Gods above, Arthur thought, he was being irredeemably selfish. Maybe Merlin had a right to know. Maybe he should just own up and confess what a mess he, Arthur, had landed him in. He was a rotten friend.
But if Merlin found out too soon, he would panic. Maybe Arthur was protecting him from rashly throwing away his life in Camelot? Maybe he had a duty to shield him from the truth until he was ready? He was a prince; he had a duty to protect those who depended on him. He had a duty to coax Merlin into the truth, gently, so that he thought he had come to the discovery all on his own.
Merlin spoke. “Arthur? You don’t mind? You aren’t … upset about it?”
“Why ever would I mind, Merlin? Didn’t I just tell you it sometimes happens? There’s absolutely nothing for you to worry about.”
“I can’t tell you how glad I am to hear that.”
“Besides, it would be a trifle rich for me to blame you for the consequences of what I asked you to learn.”
Merlin spoke rapidly, his words tumbling out. “It’s just that I know exactly what it looked like, and it didn’t look very good. It looked like...”
“I know what it looked like,” he interrupted. “So you must be extra careful. If someone saw that, without knowing what we know, they’ll jump to all the wrong conclusions, and we could get into trouble. So you must learn to hold it in.”
“Right. Hold it in,” Merlin agreed.
“You remember that little rhyme I taught you last week, to steady your eye for… Latin lessons? Well, next time you feel something about to pop out, like today, you just recite that little rhyme, and it will help you keep the Latin in.”
Something seemed to be amusing Merlin because he was suddenly smiling sweetly at his glass. “I’ll try that, Arthur. Thank you.”
Arthur drained his glass. “Now, I think it’s time for bed.”
“Yes, Sire.” Merlin drained his glass. “I’ll go take out the warming pans.”
// // // // // //
Arthur sat at his desk, waiting for the required number of buckets of water to be sloshed into his bathtub by Merlin.
Arthur liked his baths. Other knights might be content with sponging themselves with soap and warm water, but not him. Arthur may have been a knight, but he was also a prince. He had every intention of enjoying his royal privileges to the full, and that included sitting in hot water as often as he liked.
That was what servants were there for, weren’t they? Specifically, that was what Merlin was there for, wasn’t he?
While he waited for Merlin, who had turned up for work this morning later than usual, Arthur read a few more pages in yet another big book on magic. He was beginning to find himself growing mesmerised by the subject for its own sake.
It was a whole world that was utterly unknown to him, and utterly forbidden, and therefore he found it irresistably interesting. The more he read, the more he understood, and the more he realized that he did not know.
Rather more distressing was the fact that the more he learned, the more he recognized must have been deliberately hidden from him.
He had not known, for example, what the Cup of Life actually did. Now that he did know, he shuddered at the power he had unwittingly played with. The balance of the world – well, that was a novel concept, and one that none of his tutors had mentioned.
He had not known that the Druids were benign by comparison to the High Priestesses of the Old Religion, and often opposed to them.
He had not even known that the Priestesses, the Druids, and the rebel sorcerers led by Alvarr were, in fact, not the same people, but different groups, with different goals. It seemed there was politics in the magical world, just as there was in the secular world, and he would have to negotiate a path for Camelot through that world too.
There were other discoveries, just as great – and just as secret. There was so much that he had not been taught! There had been so much withheld from him! The more he read about it, the more he realized how his father had filtered his education. He had never been allowed to even speak to a Druid, before he was old enough to go about hunting them.
He was beginning to wonder why.
He turned the page. This book had a more bleating about the Once and Future King. He had been predicted as coming any minute now for the last five hundred years.
When he did show up, he was going to be appalled at how much was expected of him. Unite Albion? If Arthur was in his shoes, the first thing he’d do would be jump in the sea and swim for France as fast as he could. Poor dumb bastard.
He smirked to himself at the idea, turned the next page, and came across a picture of something he knew.
The drawing was of a crystal, drawn in blue ink to indicate its sharpness and clarity, the flawless straight lines a tell-tale that the long-dead scribe had drawn it with a ruler. Each segment had been drawn to scale, with painstaking precision.
It was the Crystal of Neahtid.
The subject of this drawing lay right here in Camelot’s royal vault, under his feet, where for some unknown reason Morgana and Morgause had left it.
He lifted the opposite page, and read it closely.
The text was tiny, crabbed, and written in a hand that was clearly not that of a professional scribe. It took some time to decipher it, but when he had he sat back in his chair. The book claimed that the Crystal held the power of time itself – whatever the hell that meant – and then it went on to describe the long list of old fossils who had used it, and more importantly, what they had seen in it.
The Crystal of Neahtid was a scrying-stone!
“No wonder we couldn’t find it in any books on weaponry!” he said aloud.
“Sire?” Merlin said. He had paused, in the process of upturning a bucket of water into the bathtub.
“Nothing, I was just thinking aloud.”
“You want to watch that,” Merlin informed the water, as he poured it. “Next thing you know, you’ll turn into Old Henry, and argue with yourself.”
Arthur ignored the warning. He bent over the page again.
They had all assumed the Crystal was some sort of weapon. Certainly it had played a role in a great many wars, and it had passed through the hands of a great many powerful princes - he himself was probably the least noteworthy of the lot. But it wasn’t a weapon at all! It was a tool for communicating! No wonder none of Geoffrey’s searches through the histories of magical weapons had turned it up.
Hadn’t old Antoninus of Camulodunum said that some scryers were able to use crystals as their instruments? The Crystal of Neahtid was clearly one of those, then. But this one was so powerful that sorcerers were willing to give their lives for the chance of possessing it.
It was strange that Morgana and Morgause hadn’t taken it. Perhaps they hadn’t known what it was either?
The door clunked shut behind Merlin, as he departed with an empty bucket in each hand. Arthur knew that down in the Citadel’s huge kitchens, a great pot of water was being heated over a fire by the kitchenmaids, waiting for Merlin to come back with the two empty buckets.
Merlin could scry. Perhaps Merlin could use the Crystal?
It would be worth his while to find out. It would be a simple matter for him to take the Crystal out of the vault this afternoon – he had a perfectly good key, and every right to go in there without being questioned, and his father would never notice the thing was gone. They could try out the Crystal tonight, and if it didn’t work he could just take it back to the vault again tomorrow.
It seemed very soon before Merlin clumped back into the room with a bucket of water in each hand again. He set each one down on the floor next to the bathtub, and groaned, stretching his back. “That’s the last of it,” he said. “Bathtime, my lord.”
“It’s about time, too,” Arthur grumbled.
He went behind his dressing-screen to strip, listening to Merlin filling the bathtub with the last of the water.
He pulled his shirt over his head, peeled off his socks, dropped his trousers on the floor, and wrapped a clean white towel around his waist. The air was chilly on his bare skin – winter was on its way – but he would be immersed in hot water soon enough. He tucked the top fold of the towel in against his hip to hold it up, and walked out around the dressing screen. “Ready, Merlin?”
“Not – quite. ” Merlin said, and he gave a quick little bow, with a mischievous grin beginning to sneak up the corners of his mouth. “I want to show you something. Check the temperature?” he invited, waving a hand to the water, like an auctioneer.
He strode to the tub, and stared at the water. No steam was rising from the surface.
Yes, that right there was a noticeable lack of steam. “Merlin,” he said. “That water is cold.”
“Yes! Yes, it is!”
“If you think I’m going to have a bath in cold water, Merlin, I can assure you the stocks are always ready for you.”
“No, no, no! Wait. Watch this.” Merlin turned his back on Arthur, and bent over the tub. He stretched one hand over the surface of the water, and muttered something under his breath.
Steam obediently lifted itself from the water, and curled away into the air.
Merlin twirled around. “Ta-dah! ” he said, and gave a happy little bow, complete with a flourish of both hands. “Hot water!”
Arthur realized his mouth was hanging open, and clicked it shut. “Merlin…”
“I heated it with Latin.” That grin was back, making his eyes twinkle with the glee of accomplishment. He’d grinned much the same way, on the night he’d first succeeded at scrying. He’d grinned much the same way when they had driven off the dragon together. “Test it – it’s the right temperature.”
Arthur stared at Merlin, and stared at the water. The now hot water. The now magically-heated hot water.
Merlin might not be aware of what he’d just done, but Arthur knew all too well. He’d used magic – deliberately, consciously, intentionally used magic, right in front of Arthur. Not only that: the trick had worked on the very first attempt. It would have been impressive, if Arthur had not been so appalled.
That water had been heated with magic. Magic-touched water - and now, oh Gods above, Arthur was going to have to drop this towel, and sit in it.
Merlin was still waiting for his reaction.
He could not let his horror show. He could not let Merlin know that his blood had turned to ice. If he did, Merlin would realize that there was something to be horrified about, and he would realize that something was very wrong with what he had just done.
No, Arthur would have to act as if everything was all right. He would have to project a confident air he did not feel, as if he was trying to convince a shying horse that there was nothing there to shy about.
Well, he’d faced down gryphons and dragons and wyverns; his courage was up to dealing with hot water.
“Right,” Arthur said. “Hot water.” He unwrapped the towel, and let it drop to the floor. He picked up one foot, and lowered it into the water, trying not to show that he was gritting his teeth.
The water was the perfect temperature, just the way he liked it; hot enough to sting but not hot enough to hurt. He put his other foot in, and slowly, regally - with all the dignity he could muster while naked – sat down.
Merlin was a good servant, in his own idiosyncratic way. Many servants might know their master’s weight, but he was willing to bet that very few knew their master’s displacement. The level of the water in Arthur’s bath, once Arthur was immersed in it, was always exactly deep enough to reach the top of the bathtub without slopping over onto the floor. Arthur leaned his back against the back of the bathtub.
Merlin, as usual, had turned his back, as soon as Arthur’s towel dropped away.
He always avoided looking at Arthur naked. Arthur had long since given up on teasing him about his shyness – he would only go red in the face, and start stammering. It was less painful for both of them just to let him be shy.
But now Merlin turned around again. “What do you think?” he asked, with a sort of jittery eagerness.
“Well, it’s the right temperature,” Arthur conceded. He dipped his hands in the water, and rubbed the warmth of it over his shoulders. Magically-heated water, but at least it was warm. He felt his muscles relaxing, in spite of himself.
“How did you do that?” he asked, although he already knew.
Merlin bent over to pick up the towel, and retreated out of sight behind Arthur. “Um. I used a bit of … um, Latin. I asked the water to get hot, and it did. It was the same thing as asking the apples to stop falling. It was easy, really; no trouble at all.”
“How did you know it would work?”
“Oh, I’ve done it before.” He heard the stool scrape on the floor slightly, and knew that Merlin had perched on it; probably facing away from Arthur, as usual. “I tested it out last night. Arthur …? You don’t mind?”
“I don’t mind you using Latin to warm the water. It’s just right.”
“Oh, good. I’ll do it again from now on. It’s easier to heat it all up at once, than one kettle at a time.”
“However, I do mind you practising it where people might see you. I don’t mind you doing it for me, but I don’t want you to try it for anyone else.”
“No, no, of course not,” Merlin said, behind him. “You’re the only person whose bathwater I draw, anyway.”
“That’s not what I meant.” He sat forward in the tub, to twist around from the waist and stare at Merlin sternly. “Listen to me. I don’t want you practising Latin on your own. I want you to practice it here, where it’s safe, and where I can keep an eye on you.”
“I did it in my rooms, Sire. Nobody saw me.”
“Listen to me! I’m trying to keep you safe, you idiot! I don’t want you to practice it, unless I’m right here in the room. Do you understand me?”
“Yes, Sire,” Merlin agreed, reluctantly.
“I know it’s just a bit of a trick with your Latin lessons, and quite harmless, but anyone else might see it, and they might jump to the wrong conclusions. You could get into a lot of trouble.”
“I know. You don’t need to remind me,” Merlin said. “Latin lessons,” he added, cryptically, with a sigh in his voice.
Arthur settled back in the hot water with his arms arranged around the rim of the tub. The warmth was soaking into his muscles, and he could feel himself starting to get drowsy. He would have to stand up, and soap himself, but the air up there was going to be cold, and for the moment he was only too happy to sit and savour the pleasure of warmth. He leaned his head back against the edge of the tub, and closed his eyes.
There was a long silence.
“I can do other things with the Latin,” Merlin said after a while. “I’ve learned how to move things around with it, as well. I just look at what I want to move, and tell it to move, and it does.”
“Show me,” Arthur said, opening his eyes.
There was a brief silence, behind him, and the chair across the room scraped across the floor, all by itself.
“Now, that’s impressive,” Arthur said.
“Really?” Merlin sounded quite pleased with himself.
“I think, the more you get to know what you can and can’t do, the more control you will have over what you don’t want to do, and when you do it. Or don’t do it. Control comes with practice. After a bit, little accidents like the Apple Incident will stop altogether.”
Merlin sighed. “Right.”
“But don’t practice anywhere but here. You can move all the furniture you want, as long as you do it in here.”
There was another long silence of non-compliance, and Arthur sighed.
“Just don’t get caught, that’s all I ask. We might know that it’s just a little bit of your Latin lessons popping out, but other people might over-react.”
“I’ll take care, I promise.”
// // // // // //
Arthur decided to put his little experiment into practice after his usual after-dinner meeting around That Circular Table. He’d visited the vault that afternoon, on a pretext, and quietly pocketed the Crystal as he left. No-one but himself and his father had a key to go down there, and his father wasn’t due to go there until next week. It would be easy to slip the Crystal back again before then.
He led Merlin to his chambers.
“I have something a little different in mind tonight, Merlin,” he said, pushing his door open, striding in, and leaving Merlin to close it behind him. “Come here, and look at this,” he said, and walked over to the table.
On the table was the small leather bag he had fetched from the Citadel’s vault that afternoon. He sat down at the head of the table, the bag in front of him, and waited for Merlin to follow him.
Merlin started towards him, with his usual gangling willingness, but he didn’t get there.
He stopped dead, his arms flying out. His whole body rocked with the impact. It was as if something slammed into him, an invisible club to the chest. “Arthur!” he croaked.
“Merlin!” Arthur demanded, startled. “What’s wrong with you?”
Merlin had whipped his head back, and he was staring at the bag on the table wildly. “I know what that is!” he whispered.
“It’s the Crystal of Neahtid,” Arthur said to him.
“I know!” Merlin’s voice was suddenly hoarse, with a sort of breathless dread.
Arthur picked up the bag, and dropped the Crystal into his palm. It was heavy and cold in his hand. It glittered in the firelight, as if it held the fire inside itself. “I thought we might try scrying with this, instead of the candle, tonight. Consider it an experiment.”
“Arthur!” Merlin said again. He was still frozen, his arms spread, as if he could not step closer. His face had gone pale, his eyebrows scrunched and his lips bared, as if in a grimace of pain.
“It’s all right, Merlin. Come here and sit down.” Arthur sat down in his usual chair, the stone in his hand. Merlin didn’t budge.
Arthur sighed. “Come here, Merlin. If it doesn’t work, I’ll take it back to the vault tomorrow.”
Merlin shook his head, but his eyes were glued to the Crystal. “I would rather you took it back to the vault tonight. I don’t want anything to do with that thing.”
“Come on, you know you want to. It’s just a new trick to learn. You like new tricks.” Arthur put the Crystal down, stood up, and walked over to Merlin. He wrapped his arm around Merlin’s shoulder and tried to coax him to the table, closer to the Crystal, but Merlin bucked back against him with sudden strength, refusing to be budged an inch closer.
“No, no, no…” he insisted, each word emphasised with a shake of his head. His eyes were locked on the Crystal, with the intensity of a hawk. “I know what that thing is.”
“It’s just a scrying crystal, Merlin, that’s all.”
Merlin shuddered, the violence of it communicating through Arthur’s arm where it rested over his shoulder.
“You’re not scared of it, are you?” Arthur asked, drawing a teasing note into his voice.
“Scared of it?” For the first time since his strange reaction began, Merlin looked at him, deeply into his eyes. “Arthur, I’m terrified of it. That thing holds more power than I can handle.”
He looked on the verge of bolting from the room.
“Listen, you’re perfectly safe,” Arthur said. “There’s nothing to worry about. I won’t let any harm come to you.”
He turned himself to face Merlin, so that his back was to the Crystal, blocking Merlin’s view of it. He shifted his hand to Merlin’s neck, kneading the tight muscle there reassuringly.
Merlin just squeezed his eyes shut, and shook his head, wordlessly.
It wasn’t going to work. If Merlin was already open about the fact that he was scared, he couldn’t be mocked into trying. He couldn’t very well force him to use it, either. He would have to try something else.
“All right,” he relented. “I can’t force you.”
That got a result. Merlin opened one eye, just a crack, and looked at him suspiciously. “Really?”
“Yes, really. I can’t make you learn Latin, if you don’t want to. Latin doesn’t work that way.”
Merlin opened both eyes, and stared at him.
“Really,” Arthur said. “Leave it. I’ll take it back to the vault tomorrow.” He stepped back from Merlin, and deliberately walked away.
He went over to the window behind his desk, and stood staring out at the night.
“How did you know what it was?” he asked casually, resting his elbow against the wall and his head against the heel of his hand.
“I can feel the power in it. It reaches out,” Merlin said. He could dimly see Merlin’s reflection in the small glass panes. He hadn’t moved from where he stood, facing the table.
“What does it feel like?”
“Um. Like – you know when someone pinches that nerve on the top of your shoulder and it hurts? Only – different. Less painful and more…um…” Merlin’s voice trailed out. “More like really clashing music.”
Arthur realized he was trying to find words to describe something that could not be described, as if he was describing colour to a blind person. Colours that were bright and glorious to Merlin, but to which he, Arthur, would forever be blind. For the first time in his life, he felt a twinge of regret.
In the dark counter-world of the glass, he saw Merlin’s reflection take a step closer to the table. Slowly, his hand came up, his fingers stroking the air, feeling something that Arthur could not see. Arthur kept quiet, not daring to speak lest Merlin back away again.
“Do you know what it does, Arthur?” Merlin asked.
“It’s a kind of scrying stone, that’s all. A special scrying stone. It probably gets a better distance, or clarity, or something.”
“I think it’s a bit more than a scrying stone.”
Arthur nodded. “It must be good for something, or so many people wouldn’t have died trying to keep it. It’s had a bit of a bloody history.
He was watching Merlin closely in the reflection. Merlin shifted one leg, taking another tiny step closer to the table. His trembling fingers were reaching very slowly towards the Crystal.
He would keep talking. And he would pretend he was not watching. He would let Merlin make up his mind on his own time, without pressure or coaxing. Curiosity was the trick. He let his mouth run on.
“The Romans wrote about it first. They said that the Britons had a magical crystal that was so powerful that Caligula changed his mind about invading Albion when he heard about it.”
Merlin’s reflection picked up the Crystal, very gingerly. Arthur swallowed, and kept talking, his eyes on Merlin.
“But then, many years later, after the invasion, the Crystal fell into Roman hands. They say Agricola was the only Roman able to use it, and that’s why he was such a successful general. He defeated many armies, and the Crystal helped him do it. That’s what Tacitus says, and he should know. Agricola was his father-in-law.”
Merlin was standing frozen, head down, staring at the Crystal in his hands. Arthur could not make out his expression, but his body had gone rigid. He dared not turn around. He could not let his excitement leak into his voice. He kept talking.
“Anyway, after Agricola died, it disappeared. No-one knows where it went to. Definitely none of Agricola’s successors used it, or they would kept going North and stomped all over the Scots, too. I suppose the Britons probably stole it back again and hid it. But one way or another, it’s mine now, whatever it is.”
Arthur was across the room, and kneeling over him, almost before he knew that he was moving. “Merlin?”
He gripped Merlin’ shoulders and heaved him over onto his back with strength made rough with panic. Merlin’s eyes were closed, and his face was bleached pale.
“Merlin?” he asked, and slapped at the white cheek. “Wake up, Merlin, you’re scaring me!” he begged, but Merlin didn’t move.
He got up, to rush to his washstand and throw water on his face, but before he could take a step, Merlin began to move.
He began to shudder, his limbs jumping.
This was no faint!
Arthur turned on his heel, opened his mouth, and roared “Guaaaards!” with all the strength left in his terrified lungs. He fell back down to his knees, alongside Merlin. “Guaaards!”
Oh, Gods, what had he done?
Merlin’s muscles were twitching – not just his arms and legs but his face and neck as well, twisting the familiar face into a horribly stiff rictus. His head had to be drumming painfully against the floor. Arthur shoved his hand under the dark head, wincing at the pounding, but glad to take the punishment on his palm rather Merlin’s poor skull.
The door banged open, and an armed guard lurched in, his sword drawn.
“Sire?” the man blared, his eyes darting left and right in search of attackers.
“Call the Royal Physician!” Arthur shouted at him. “Go!”
He heard the guard departing, but his attention was all on Merlin. His left thigh was thudding against the leg of the chair, and Arthur reached down across his body to shove the chair away.
Another guard arrived. “Sire?” he demanded. “Are you harmed?”
“I’m not harmed! Merlin’s having a fit! Is the Physician coming?”
“Malcolm went to fetch him…”
“Go after Malcolm!” Arthur turned on his haunches, to snarl over his shoulder at the guard. “Bloody well carry him here if you have to!”
Merlin was having a fit! A fit, of all things, and what if this was just the beginning? What if the Crystal had done something to him – broken him – poisoned him?
He saw the glint of ice, just by Merlin’s arm, and he snatched it up, filled by rage at the horrible thing, and dashed it across the room with all his strength. He heard it slam against something and bounce away into the corners of the room, but his eyes were on Merlin.
“Merlin, it’s all right, it’s all right, it’s all right…” This was his fault, his fault, his fault. He was Arthur, world’s stupidest prince, and he’d caused this to happen.
“Merlin, it’s all right, it’s all right, it’s all right,” and he wanted Merlin to wake up so that he could apologise, explain, make it all right, ease the horrible band of guilt around his heart. Merlin’s arms were as rigid as wooden lances, and he wrapped his hands around the narrow wrists, stroking them, trying to warm them.
“It’s all right, Merlin, it’s all right, it’s all right,” and he realized he was repeating the words over and over like a stupid chant; and then Gaius arrived.
“Arthur?” the old man said, “Are you ill?”
“It’s not me!” he called, raising his head. “It’s Merlin!”
“Merlin?” Gaius asked, striding over as swiftly as he was able, his robes brushing the floor like an oncoming wave. He went down on his knees next to Merlin, creakily, one joint at a time. “What happened?”
“I don’t know. He just collapsed.”
Merlin’s fit was easing. His movement was slowing, becoming more rhythmic, as if a blanket of calm was being laid over him. Perhaps it was over.
“Merlin?” he asked, leaning over the still face and cupping Merlin’s cheeks in his palms. He saw to his horror that Merlin was going beyond pallor, to a near blue colour. He was gasping. “Gaius, he’s going blue!”
“He’s still breathing.” Experienced hands were running over Merlin, taking his pulse, feeling his brow, peeling back an eyelid, opening his lips with professional roughness and running a thumb over his teeth. “How long did it go on for?” Gaius asked.
“I don’t know. A few minutes? You arrived fast.”
“I was with your father. Has this happened before?”
“No.” Merlin was beginning to breathe again in deep sobbing breaths, as if he was weeping in his fit. The movement had stopped, and he lay limp between them.
“Did he eat or drink anything out of the ordinary beforehand?”
He meant, had Merlin taken in anything harmful that had been intended for Arthur? The band of guilt tightened further. “No. Nothing.”
“He needs a pillow.”
“I’ll fetch one,” Arthur said. He climbed to his feet, and for the first time noticed the guards who were hanging back around the doorway like a Greek chorus. “That will be all,” he told them. “Return to your posts.” They departed, clumping out reluctantly, and he went to the bed to fetch one of his own pillows.
He brought it to Gaius, who raised Merlin’s head, and slipped it in underneath.
“Right,” Gaius said, “Now let’s roll him onto his side, to make him more comfortable, shall we? He’ll breathe better on his side, and if he throws up he won’t choke.” He directed Arthur, and together they got Merlin rolled onto his side, as if he was sleeping, with his head pillowed. Arthur found that under Gaius’s calm directions, his own wildly beating heart slowed, and his trembling hands began to move more steady.
“You can put a blanket over him, if it makes you feel better,” Gaius added, and Arthur dragged the coverlet off his bed, and draped it over Merlin’s unmoving body. It did make him feel a bit better. He still felt as helpless as a kitten, but at least he could keep Merlin warm. He could not do much else, right now.
“Is he going to be all right?” he asked.
“It depends,” Gaius said. He picked up Merlin’s wrist, and felt his pulse. “He should sleep it off, and wake on his own time. If not, we’ll look at a different diagnosis. Now, what were you doing, before this happened?” Gaius asked.
Gaius gave him a piercing look, one eyebrow up, the other drawn down. His chin drew down into his chest. “Nothing,” he repeated, sourly.
“Well, he fell, and then he started to shake, and I shouted for the guards.”
Gaius’s chin lowered even further. “Thank you, Sire. Now, tell me what you were doing before he had the fit?”
Gaius’s eyes could not get any more blue or any more rheumy, or any more disapproving. Gaius stared at him, and then, as if settling in for a long wait, folded his arms. “There was a time when you thought twice about lying to me, Prince Arthur.”
It was the closest a mere physician could come to calling a crown prince a liar, and for a moment Arthur felt like he was ten years old again.
He looked down at Merlin, still lying between them with his eyes closed. He was breathing deeply now, but he wasn’t moving, and his face was white. He looked as fragile as a cut flower on a table; limp, drained, and helpless.
“Can he hear us?” he asked.
“No,” Gaius said. “He is completely unconscious. He will remember nothing. Tell me, Sire.”
He drew in a breath. “You are a physician, Gaius.” He looked up, and into the severe blue eyes.
“That I am, Sire.”
“If I remember correctly, you swore some sort of oath not to repeat anything you hear as a physician, about your patients?”
Gaius nodded, but his expression did not soften. “I swore to keep anything that I hear in my practice a secret, and never to reveal it.”
He himself had sworn an oath to Merlin never to reveal Merlin’s secret, but Merlin might be seriously ill. Was it better to keep his oath, or to do whatever he could to help him?
No, that was no question at all.
And who else could he trust more than Gaius? He had known Gaius since the hour of his birth, but he knew that Gaius had never looked at him with the same love that he gave to Merlin. Merlin’s secret would be safe with Gaius.
“I swore an oath, too,” he said, softly, “But I’ll break that oath in a heartbeat, rather than see him harmed.”
“What were you doing?”
He drew in a deep breath. “When he collapsed, he was looking at the Crystal of Neahtid. He was trying to scry in it. He looked at it for a moment, and then he collapsed.”
“The Crystal of Neahtid?” Gaius rocked backwards, appalled. “The Crystal of Neahtid is not a plaything, Sire!” he said, as if in despair. “It is a very powerful instrument of magic.”
“I know that,” Arthur said. “I thought Merlin might be able to use it, because Merlin … has very powerful magic.”
There was a long silence. Gaius regarded him quietly, but the old lined face was utterly inscrutable, neither approving nor disapproving of the information.
“We found out by accident that he can tell when he’s being scried,” Arthur explained. “I thought he might be able to learn to scry himself, so we sat down one night, and I showed him how. And he could do it! He picked it up really quickly!” He found himself feeling very proud of Merlin. “He doesn’t just have magic – he has lots of magic. He has a real aptitude for it. I thought, if he was so good at scrying, perhaps he might learn to use the Crystal of Neahtid, too.”
“You toy with objects of such power at your peril, Sire,” Gauis warned.
“I know that! As soon as he looked at it, he collapsed! It was too much for him.” Merlin had said himself that the Crystal was too powerful for him, and Arthur had not listened. It was his fault. He looked down at the sleeping face. “Will he be all right, Gaius?”
Gaius felt Merlin’s wrist and waited silently, obviously counting in his head, and then put his arm down again. He sighed. “I believe he will be, in time, but the Crystal may have given him a deep shock. He will recover, but you might have to be patient with him for a while.”
Arthur looked down at Merlin’s face again. “I can look after him. It doesn’t matter how long it takes. All that has happened to him is my fault, anyway. Teaching him to scry was not a good idea. It brought out his magic.”
“You didn’t bring it out of him, Arthur. Sorcerers are born, not made. He was born with it, just as you were born with your title.”
Arthur shook his head. “No, this is my fault. He might have been born this way, but it was dormant in him, and I kicked it awake. And I swore no harm would come to him because of it.” He looked hard at Gaius. “Gaius, what I just told you must be kept a secret. You must not tell Merlin.”
“That you blame yourself for his magic?”
“No. That he has magic at all. He doesn’t know yet that he’s a sorcerer. I told him that scrying is just a talent some people had in the Old Days, and he believes me. I’ve been teaching him, bit by bit, but he doesn’t yet understand that he’s different.”
“You’ve been teaching him? ” Gaius asked, as if the thought of Arthur teaching Merlin anything was strange to him.
“Yes. Very subtly, so that he doesn’t come on the knowledge all at once. I think he’ll accept it a bit more easily if he thinks it’s all his own idea. I don’t want him to get the same shock that Morgana got.”
Gaius shook his head. “Sire, you must not think that. Merlin will never be like Morgana.”
“No, because Merlin is not alone. He has us to teach him. Morgana had only Morg– .”
Merlin jerked. He spasmed violently under the blanket, flinging himself over onto his face. He thrashed wildly, his arms and legs lashing the flagstones. “No!” burst from him.
“Merlin?” Arthur said, reaching down for him, but Merln scrabbled at the floor and writhed away from his hands.
“Arthur!” Merlin wailed. He pushed himself up on his arms like a seal, his legs scooting for purchase on the flagstones. “Arthur!” He tried to force himself up onto his hands and knees, but collapsed again onto his face.
Arthur went after him, on his hands and knees. “It’s all right!” he said, and put both hands on Merlin’s back.
“No, no, no!” Merlin wailed again. He jerked himself up again, and hooked back his elbow to throw off Arthur’s hands. He forced himself up again, and his arm latched onto the nearest chair. He used the seat to lever himself up into a sitting position. “Arthur!” he wailed again, his head turning this way and that as if he was blind.
“I’m here!” Arthur called at him, gripping Merlin’s shoulders with his hands to support him. “It’s all right, I’m here!”
Merlin’s face turned to him, white and crumpled with horror. Merlin reached out to him, but his strength seemed to fail him and he collapsed again. Arthur caught him against his chest before he could reach the floor, and folded his arms around him.
“Arthur! No, Arthur!” Merlin howled against Arthur’s chest, as if Arthur was many miles away and lost to him. Gaius was here, trying to look into Merlin’s eyes, trying to feel his pulse, but Merlin didn’t even seem to notice him.
“I’m here! It’s me. Look at me, Merlin.” He put his hand around Merlin’s jaw, and directed his face firmly upwards to look at him. “Look at me, Merlin. I’m here!”
For a moment Merlin stared blankly at him, then his eyes filled with recognition. “Arthur! The snake!” His wiry arms wrapped around Arthur, as if he would never let him go, his fingers knotting like roots into the back of his jacket.
“What?” Arthur said. “There is no snake, Merlin.”
“Don’t let them draw their swords! One of them will draw their sword to kill the snake, and you mustn’t let them! It’s the end! You mustn’t let them draw their swords!” His eyes were filled with horror. His hands clenched into fists, shaking at Arthur’s jacket with his urgency.
He was delirious. “All right! I won’t let them draw their swords. I promise.”
“I saw it all, Arthur! I saw you! I saw the battle! But where am I? I’m not there! I’m not there, Arthur! I don’t know where I am! You’re there, but I’m not! Where am I? I tried to see but I couldn’t! I couldn’t!” His words were rushing out, falling over each other in garbled urgency. It was the frenzied anxiety of delirium. It was nonsense.
“You’re in Camelot, Merlin,” he soothed. “You’re in my chambers. Everything is all right. You’ve had a fit.”
“No, no, no, no!” Merlin insisted, shaking his head. “You don’t understand! Where am I? Why aren’t I with you?” He seemed to be running out of strength. “If I’m there, I can do something, but I’m not there. I tried to see, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t see. I don’t know where I am. Where am I?” His movements were growing weaker, less panicked.
“You are with me,” Arthur said. He put his hand up, and stroked his fingers through Merlin’s hair. “There, there. You’re all right.”
Merlin was subsiding, sagging slowly against Arthur’s chest. “Arthur,” he protested. “I should be there. I would never leave you! Where am I?”
“You’re safe,” Arthur promised. “You’re in my chambers, and Gaius is here, and you’re safe. I’ve got you.”
“Oh, no,” Merlin sighed. He was going limp, sliding down in Arthur’s arms as if he was falling asleep. “It’s all wrong. I should be there with you. I wouldn’t leave you, I love you too much.” His head came down to lie on Arthur’s shoulder.
“There’s no battle. Lie still.”
“It’s all wrong,” Merlin sighed. “I love you too much. I wouldn’t have left,” and then he was still. He was still breathing in Arthur’s arms, but his fingers unknotted themselves and fell limply to the floor.
Arthur was on his knees, his arms full of unconscious Merlin, leaning back to support Merlin’s weight. He met Gaius’s eyes over the top of Merlin’s dark head. “What …” he hissed under his breath, “was that?”
Gaius shook his head. “The Crystal of Neahtid holds more powerful magic than you or I will ever understand,” he whispered back. “Some say that it does not only show things that are, but also things that are still to come, and things that have passed already.”
“The power of time itself,” he breathed, understanding at last. “Do you think he saw the future?”
He saw Gaius nod. “I don’t think he will wake up soon, after that,” Gauis said. “Can you carry him?”
“Of course,” Arthur whispered. “He’s as light as a feather.”
“I would rather have him in my tower, where I have the tools to look after him.”
Arthur looked down at the sleeping face crumpled against his chest. Part of him wanted to wrap Merlin up in his own bed and keep him right where he could watch over him all night; the larger, more rational part knew that he would be better off under the eye of the physician. “Of course.”
// // // // // //
Arthur woke up, and stretched. He lay in his bed for a few minutes, snug and warm, until he realized that this morning would probably not be like other mornings.
His morning procedure was always the same. Every morning, a kitchen maid would be let into his bedroom with his breakfast. She would tiptoe into his bedroom, put his plate down, and tiptoe out again without saying anything. Arthur always ignored the arrival of breakfast.
He always ignored Merlin, too, for as long as possible, when Merlin banged his way in and bumbled around the room. Arthur was Officially Still Asleep until Merlin made his loud declaration that the day had begun, with, “Up and at ‘em, lazy daisy,” or something equally inappropriate and murderously cheerful for that time of day.
But Merlin could not be expected to show up, marginally late and hideously perky, the morning after having a seizure.
Arthur wondered if he would be able to find himself clothes, or if he should just pick up yesterday’s cast-offs. He was probably already very late.
Last night, Arthur had carried the unconscious Merlin all the way to Gaius’s tower, settled him into his bed, and tucked him up in his blankets. They had left the door open so that they could hear if Merlin made any noises, and then Arthur had told Gaius everything that had happened in the last few weeks. He’d told Gaius about the scrying, about Morgana, about the books that he was borrowing from Geoffrey, and all the strange and worrying things he was learning from them. Finally, he told Gaius about the Crystal of Neahtid.
And then, Gaius had voiced his opinion on what Arthur and Merlin had been ‘playing at’ - at considerable length.
But at least Gaius wasn’t going to rush off and inform the King. His disapproval could be borne, as long as he kept their secret.
He became aware, suddenly, that someone was on the other side of the curtain.
He sat up with a jerk. “Who’s there?” he barked.
The bed-curtains were drawn, all around, but he was sure he had heard someone behind them, against the window, trying very hard to breathe without making a sound.
He tossed the covers off, ready to whip out the sword that was always ready in a hidden scabbard by the headboard.
“It’s only me, Sire,” a voice said.
“Merlin?” Arthur demanded. He sat up on his knees, grabbed the curtain, and opened it. He leaned out.
Merlin was on his hands and knees by the side of the bed. He looked up, with a guilty expression.
Arthur glared at him. “What … are you doing … down there? ” he asked, slowly and carefully.
“I … um … I was looking for that thing we were playing with last night.”
“That thing? The Crystal?”
“Did it fall on the floor?” Merlin asked. “It must have. Because I’ve searched everywhere else. I went through your pockets and the cupboard, and I can’t find it. I thought maybe I dropped it … somewhere.” He leaned down again, raised the hanging blankets, and looked under the bed.
“Get up off your knees, Merlin.” It was far too early to deal with Merlin. Really, when he was King he was going to pass a law that said that the day did not begin until ten o’clock.
“Did you see where it went to?” Merlin said. “The thing? ”
“It’s in my strongbox,” Arthur said. He got out of bed. The day had begun, apparently. “Merlin, what are you doing here?”
“I come here every morning, Sire,” Merlin said, in a tone that wondered if his master had forgotten his conditions of employment.
“Are you well enough?” He stood waiting, ready for Merlin to bring out the day’s clothing.
“Oh, I’m fine. I’m a bit bruised, but I’m absolutely fine.” Merlin abandoned the search, and got up off the floor.
“Are you sure? I would have thought Gaius would have kept you in?” He remembered his lecture from Gaius last night, after settling the unconscious Merlin into his own bed, and tucking him up in his blankets. The main theme of the lecture had been ‘Magic is not a toy! but there had also been a recurring motif of ‘Do not break my apprentice!’ It was surprising that Merlin had been allowed out at all, this morning.
“Gaius doesn’t know I’m here. I sneaked out. I came to see if I could find the thing. I’m sorry if I woke you, Sire, I thought I could get it and be out before you woke up. Can I get it out of your strongbox?”
“Why do you want it?”
Merlin was opening cupboards and taking out clothing, ready to dress Arthur. “I wanted to try and look at it again,” he said, without looking at Arthur.
Arthur straightened up, wide awake suddenly. “Are you mad? It gave you a fit once, now you want to have another go?”
“Well,” Merlin addressed the inside of the cupboard, “I think I know what I did wrong. I want to try again, and see if I’m right. Did you undress yourself last night? Where is your belt?”
Last night he’d been terrified of it, but now suddenly he wanted to play with it? “Listen to me, Merlin. You can’t look at that thing again.”
Merlin turned, and stared at him. “I think I’ve got the trick of it. I wanted to see more, and I went deeper, and I got pulled in. I think if I just skim the surface from facet to facet I can manage to see what I need to see without getting stuck in it.”
“It’s out of the question, Merlin. You said yourself it would be too much for you, and it was. You were out cold on the floor! Don’t you remember? You had a seizure! And now you want to try again?”
“I have to know more about what I saw last night.” Merlin said, obstinately. He turned back to the cupboard.
“No, Merlin, it’s not happening. The Crystal is going straight back into the vault.” That had been Gaius’s suggestion last night, and Arthur had agreed willingly.
“Sire,” Merlin said. He abandoned his attempt to find a jacket and shirt that matched. He put one arm against the cupboard, and leaned on it, gazing into the cupboard so that his face was hidden by the carved wooden door. “What I saw last night … I have to know more. I have to know what happened so that I can stop it.”
“What did you see last night that was so awful?”
Merlin lowered his head. “I think I saw you die.”
“Die? Me?” That was rather startling. In fact it was dizzying.
Merlin nodded, or rather the top of his head – all Arthur could see of his face – nodded against the shelter of the cupboard. It was as if he was the one whose death had been seen.
“How does it happen?” Arthur asked, creepily fascinated. How many people got the chance to ask that question?
“In battle. You get hit in the head.”
“Oh, that’s not so bad. That’s a good way to go.” If he died in battle he would be a posthumous hero, felled in his prime, how tragic. Songs would be sung about him. He found the idea cheered him up. It was better than dying old and dribbling in your bed, forgetful and forgotten. “How old was I?”
Merlin spoke against the cupboard. “Older. You’ve got grey in your beard.”
“Well, that’s a relief.” He’d been facing the prospect of dying in battle since he was sixteen, and the idea did not worry him. “So I die a warrior’s death, and not for a long time. Who – how do I put this? – who finally bests me in battle?”
“I don’t know. That’s what I couldn’t see. I could see the battle, but not who was in it. I was trying to get deeper, to see more of the joining bits, more of why, but I couldn’t.”
“And then you collapsed,” Arthur finished for him.
“And then I collapsed.” Merlin turned around and faced him. “Please, I need to have another try at it. I need to know.”
“No, Merlin. It’s completely out of the question. You are not yet strong enough to handle it. Grey in my beard, you said? Then I have years and years before I have to worry about it. There is plenty of time. It can wait.”
“Merlin, there is no ‘but.’” He sat down on the edge of the bed. “You’re new to this scrying thing. The Crystal is still too strong for you, now. We can practice, build up your skills, and when you’re a bit stronger, a bit better – then we’ll try again.”
Merlin was glaring at him, stubbornly. “I would rather try now. Arthur, I had just a taste of it. I can see more! I can see what’s going to happen!”
“You’ve no idea how scared I was for you, last night. You had a seizure, on the floor. I thought you were dying! I’m not willing to risk hurting you again. I’m sorry, but this is for your own good.”
Merlin sighed. He walked over to the bed, and sat down next to Arthur. “I could use it only when you’re around.”
“Hah. The way you promised to use the rest of your Latin only when I’m around? Nice try, but no. The Crystal is going back into the vault until next year.”
“Next year, we’ll try again. You have my word.”
Merlin sighed again, deeper. “Just don’t grow a grey beard until then.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t. Besides, it is my death you want to look at, Merlin, not yours. If I can wait to find out, so can you. There’s no hurry.”
“All right,” Merlin said, reluctantly. “I can wait a year, I suppose. ”
“There you go.” He patted Merlin’s knee. “Time to get me dressed, Merlin. The day’s started.”
“Yes, Sire.” Merlin didn’t sound happy. But he sounded as if he accepted Arthur’s order, for once, and not as if he was going to steal the Crystal and try again anyway.
// // // // // //
About a week later, Arthur stood on the Citadel wall, surveying the Lower Town spread out below him.
“Sire,” a voice greeted him.
He turned, to see Sir Leon at his side. “Sir Leon.”
“Sir George’s patrol has just returned, Sire. He was stopped by a hermit on the edge of the Darkling Wood, who said that there are a group of Druids camping in a cave there.”
“Druids,” Arthur mused, stroking his chin. He turned on his heel, and stared out towards the horizon, in the direction of the Darkling Wood. “I wonder if I can guess what cave they are living in?”
“I think there is only one cave large enough for a group to live in, Sire. Sir Gawain says it’s very comfortably appointed, with the very finest rocks available.”
That sounded like Gawain. Arthur smiled. “Oh, it’s fit for a prince, I can assure you.”
“What are your orders?”
“My orders?” Arthur glanced at Sir Leon, and frowned at him. “My orders are to do nothing.”
“Nothing?” Sir Leon boggled. “Sire, I can have a troop mounted and ready to ride at first light.”
Arthur turned, and stared a challenge at Sir Leon. “Are you questioning my commands, Sir Leon?” he asked through tight lips.
“No, no, Sire. Of course not.”
“You’ll do nothing, Sir Leon. Nothing at all. The Druids are not to be attacked, unless and until I see fit. Sir George’s report is to remain a secret.”
“Your father will want to know, Sire,” Sir Leon pointed out, concern rumpling his brow.
“My father does not need to know every single trifling incident in the Kingdom. He is not … he’s not well enough for that kind of worry.”
He wondered briefly if he should take Sir Leon into his confidence, but dismissed the idea. Sir Leon was a knight in the old style, and he had sworn his oaths of fealty to Arthur’s father. It would be unfair for Arthur to push a conflict of loyalty on him. Besides, he had grown up, as Arthur had, with the belief that all magic was evil. He hadn’t learned what Arthur had learned in the last few weeks, and it was too much to expect him to simply accept.
“The Druids are to be left unmolested, for now,” he ordered. “Let them think they have not been seen. They may move on of their own accord, and we have enough internal concerns without riding out and creating more. But for now, we will ignore them.”
“Yes, Sire,” Sir Leon agreed, consenting with a bow.
// // // // // //
The next day, it was time for Merlin to teach Arthur a lesson. Thou shalt not poke a sorcerer with a stick…
Knighthood was not all about chivalry. To be sure, most of it was about chivalry; there had to be something to distinguish a knight from an armed thug, and thus the insistence on oaths and codes of honour and heraldry. But, when you got right down to the nitty-gritty, what the knights were really about – really – was the last line of defence of Camelot.
In that light, he had taken to teaching his newest knights the kinds of fighting tricks that chivalrous gentlemen were not supposed to know.
For this reason, he gave the lessons hidden away, in the little meadow just outside the walls, where there were no houses and no inconvenient passersby, and where they were just far enough from the walls not to be seen clearly. There, twice a week, he met with a group of a dozen youngsters, to teach them the subtle arts of choking, kicking and gouging.
Sir Gawain had offered to help him teach, on the basis of his survival (if not always victory) in a hundred bare-fisted brawls from here to Scotland. Arthur was beginning to enjoy training in collaboration with Sir Gawain. He never lost his laughing demeanour, as if he was nursing a private joke about the whole knighthood business that no-one else knew about yet. He was scatty, easily distracted, but never predictable, and always quick. Truly, no-one else did fight quite like Gawain.
In the middle of a bout, Sir Gawain stepped back, raising his free hand to signal for a rest. His opponent stepped back, reprieved for a moment from an educational strangulation.
“Look who’s arrived, Arthur,” Sir Gawain said, and pointed with one hand over his opponent’s shoulder.
Arthur turned. The whole class turned, but Arthur was the only one who smiled at the sight.
Merlin was sitting under a tree with his back against the trunk and his long legs extended in front of him. He looked as if he had been there all morning, although Arthur knew he had not been there when the lesson started. He was, thought Arthur, playing his usual game of being as close as he could to the knights, while disdaining any suggestion that he was one of them.
“How long has he been there?” Arthur asked.
“I don’t know, but he does have a talent for turning up in places where he’s not expected, right, Arthur?” Gawain asked, cheerily.
Arthur knew Gawain was referring to the quest Arthur was supposed to have been performing unaided, in order to prove his right to rule. He knew how appalled Arthur had been at the time when he found he wasn’t alone – although privately Arthur had concluded that if his quest meant anything, it was that he needed allies to succeed. Royal mythology aside, that was simply realpolitik for you.
He looked at Merlin, raised his brows as high as they would go in a questioning expression, and put up one hand in the private signal they used to symbolise Guinevere. Merlin nodded, and gave him a thumb’s up in return.
Merlin had seen and spoken to Guinevere, and she was well. The simple information caused a moment of blissful sunny warmth to run over him.
“Five gets you ten our boy Merlin knows a few dirty tricks of his own,” Sir Gawain said, with a mischievous look at Arthur.
“I’m not letting you go over there and throttle him, if that’s what you want,” Arthur told him.
“Ah, spoilsport. Would have been an interesting experiment. You ready?” Gawain asked his young pupil, who nodded, and raised his hands in readiness. The bout went on, and ended when the knight succeeded in breaking Gawain’s hold on his throat.
The lesson finished, in due course, and the little group broke up. The young knights went off in a chatting group, nursing their bruises, and shoving and heckling each other affectionately. Sir Gawain declared that he needed a mug of ale, and went off in the other direction.
Arthur had kept two of the wooden practice swords, and he crossed them over his shoulders and walked across the grass to where Merlin lay.
Merlin had fallen asleep, his arms folded and his mouth open to the sky. Arthur wished that he had water to splash on him, but he did not, so he simply booted him in the thigh. “Wakey, wakey,” he said.
Merlin opened his eyes, smacking his lips sleepily. His eyes focused on Arthur, accusingly. “Did you really have to do that?”
“Of course I did,” Arthur said, grinning. “Come on, Merlin! On your feet!” He swung one of the swords down from his shoulder, and dropped it next to Merlin. “Time for a fencing lesson.”
“Oh, no,” Merlin moaned.
“Oh, yes. Your turn, Merlin.”
As always, it was as if yesterday’s Merlin had been replaced overnight with an identical copy who knew nothing of swordsmanship. Arthur had been teaching him swordsmanship for years, and yet he still had only enough swordsmanship to avoid getting killed long enough for Arthur to rescue him.
Why was it that he took so readily to the study of magic, but the simple concept of a feint just did not stay in his head?
After a while, Arthur let Merlin catch his breath. He put the tip of the wooden sword on the grass, and leaned on the pommel. Merlin brushed his sweaty hair back from his brow, and panted.
Arthur spoke. “That thing you did last week – pushing the chair.”
“Can you do that with something heavier?”
“How much heavier?” Merlin straightened his back, and looked at Arthur warily.
“About – say, up to two hundred pounds or so? Like me? Can you move me?”
“Oh, er, actually I’d rather not.” Merlin raised his sword, as if to change the subject by resuming the lesson.
“Yes, you can. Come on. Let’s see you try to move me.”
“Do you know what I think? I don’t think you can move me. I don’t think you can move anything heavier than a chair.”
“Yes, I can.”
“I don’t think you can. No, I think you’re a one-piece-of-furniture pony, Merlin.”
“I could move you if I wanted to!” Merlin said hotly.
“All right, let’s see it. Let’s see it, Merlin.” He pushed Merlin’s shoulder with the end of the wooden sword. “Come on, then.” Another poke with the sword.
Ooh, he didn’t like that. Arthur would do it again. He licked his lips in anticipation, and grinned. Another poke.
“Come on, push me.”
“No.” Merlin took a step back.
“You know you want to, chicken.”
He knew the second before the push happened, because he saw the intention telegraphed on Merlin’s face just before Merlin threw his hand out. Gold flamed in Merlin’s eyes, and the next thing he felt himself blasted backwards off his feet.
It was a little like being unhorsed in a joust. There was a brief, beautiful instant of swirling flight, which always lasted just long enough for him to realize that it wasn’t a good omen.
Then he impacted with the ground, hard. All the breath was slammed from his body, and he rolled helplessly, over and over.
He fetched up on his back, gasping for air, and staring up at the sky. He could taste blood in his mouth. He’d bitten the side of his tongue.
His brain seemed to be moving sluggishly. That had really not been a good idea. If he ever got the urge to tell Merlin to push him, ever again, he told himself groggily, he would have to remember this day.
He heard a voice shout, from a few thousand miles away, “Arthur!” and then Merlin loomed over him, blocking out the sunlight. “Arthur! Are you all right?”
He coughed, spasmodically, but he didn’t think he had anything damaged. “Now, that’s what I call a dirty fighting trick,” he said.
“I’m sorry, I moved you a little bit harder than I meant to!”
“I said, move me, not send me flying across the lawn like a ball!”
“Did I hurt you?”
“It’s all right, Merlin, you only killed me a little bit.” He held up his hand. “Pull me up,” he ordered, and Merlin locked his hand with his, and heaved him up to his feet.
He wobbled. He would have a nice new pattern of bruises from hitting the ground; a fitting sequel to the bruises from the tumble on the stairs. He’d have to write it off as his just deserts for causing Merlin to have his fit. This magic business was more rough-and-tumble than he had thought!
He looked around. He wasn’t sure, but he thought they had been standing over there, which meant he had been blown backwards about twenty feet.
“Are you sure you’re all right?” Merlin asked, bobbing and bending in an attempt to look into Arthur’s eyes for signs of concussion.
“I’m all right. I didn’t hit my head.” He coughed into his fist, and waved Merlin’s anxious hands away with the other. “I hope no-one saw that.”
Merlin blinked, then turned on his heel, scanning the trees. “I didn’t see anyone.”
“I think we got away with it.” Arthur turned to look up at the castle walls, but no heads showed above the battlements. “Gods above, Merlin! Remind me never to shove you again!”
“Don’t apologise, dammit! That was impressive! That was very impressive!” There was blood in his mouth, where he’d bitten his lip. “You’re not as useless as you look, Merlin!”
“Well, I can say one thing. I’ll be damned if I’ll waste any more time trying to thump swordsmanship into your thick head, if you can do that.” He leaned over and spat bloody saliva onto the grass.
“I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to…”
“Stop apologising! Next time we get into a fight, just forget about the sword and push your enemies over.” The next bunch of bandits they faced in the forest was in for a horrible shock, Arthur thought gleefully. “Actually, that will be a battle worth waiting for.”
“I’ll keep it in reserve, if it’s needed,” Merlin promised. “At least you know now I can do it, if I have to.”
“Practice is over for the day.” He reached out and punched Merlin appreciatively in the shoulder. “We’re going to follow Gawain. I need a drink to soothe the bruises you just gave me.”