The evening sky was beginning to slide into dusk, the faint glow of the moon rising just over the hills and a single star dogging behind it like a devoted servant. An apt description, Nimueh thought, for Merlin and Uther's boorish fool of a son. The peasant and his Prince.
Naïve little Merlin. Using the power of the Old Religion without the slightest knowledge of what he had and what he could be. Elemental, powerful, raw and yet all he could do was hide his true self from Uther's cruel vengeance and use his considerable talents to keep that idiot Prince of his out of trouble. What a waste.
But that was about to change.
As she walked through the village, satisfied that she was on the proper path, that her determination to bring magic back into its rightful place in the world would end in triumph, she let herself enjoy the quiet of falling night.
It wasn't often that she could relax and just feel the music of earth and sky. Here, trees whispering in the wind and the soft grunts of pigs hunting for scraps were the only sounds: no harsh jangle of armour and sword-steel, no pleas for a mercy that would never come, no crackle of cooking meat, no screams of agony while Camelot's butcher, Uther Pendragon, watched Nimueh's friends burn alive.
Instead there was the whispered scent of herbs on the wind and the sharp smell of pig offal. She smiled at the earthy reminder. Peasants indeed but she couldn't really fault them for it. At least here, the people were honest.
She could see how a boy without magic might easily live his life among these simple folk, ignorant of the greater world but happy enough to remain.
But a child of magic would be all but wasted here. Of course, Merlin was wasted in Camelot, too, but soon he would be a part of something grander, something to shake the world to its core.
Her destination was a small stone house near the edge of Ealdor. Simple linens hung out to dry; there was a smattering of greenery in front and a thin line of smoke above the house that spoke of activity within. Merlin's home and the place where his true destiny was about to begin.
Nimueh gathered her velvet cloak in tight and raised a hand to knock on the rough-hewn door.
Someone inside must have heard her coming. The door opened abruptly and a worn, tired-looking older woman peered out. Homespun kirtle, a kerchief wrapped around her head, a smear of dirt on her cheek, she seemed curiously unafraid of the stranger at her door.
Poor fool. How little she knew of the world and her place in it.
The woman straightened, brushed at her face with reddened hands, and then as she looked at Nimueh, took in her fine clothes and regal bearing, she said quickly, "My lady? I… do you need help? Are you lost?"
Nimueh shook her head, smiled her most disarming smile. "No, although I thank you for your concern. You are Hunith, are you not? Merlin's mother?"
Blinking back surprise, Hunith stuttered, "Yes… I… do you know Merlin?" She leaned out further into the evening gloom, glancing around at the dirt tracks and pig sties and the poverty, obviously looking for someone, and said eagerly, "Is he here?"
Nimueh's smile grew wider, more gracious, as if she were a lady about to bestow a precious treasure on someone who had no idea of the price. This would be easier than she thought. "May I talk with you, Hunith? I have news of him, recent news. For your ears alone."
"Of course, my lady. Come in." Hunith stepped back, and ushered her in with a wave of her hand. "I haven't heard from Merlin in some time. News would be most welcome."
The inside of the hovel was large, surprisingly so but the rest was poor comfort. A dirt floor sorely in need of rushes, stone walls with meagre chinking to keep out the cold, a solid enough door but the window coverings were gone. The faded cloth hung next to the platform bed would likely give Hunith privacy and to cut down on drafts; there was a fire pit of glowing coals in the middle of the floor and a covered pot sitting precariously to one side. Nimueh watched as smoke rose through a hole in the thatched ceiling.
Hunith was living in squalor while her son lived in a castle. It did not speak well of the boy. At the very least, he should have conjured up a grander home or money enough for his mother to live on. Not this.
It was almost humbling to watch Hunith bustle about, trying to create a space worthy of a lady amongst the ashes of poverty but Nimueh had bigger issues. Sitting down on the small bench, letting her cloak of velvet and fur settle around her, she smiled at Merlin's mother and patted the space beside her. "Come, Hunith, sit here."
Nimueh sent her a smile and it was enough to pull the woman down onto the bench. She could almost admire Hunith's simple dignity and the obvious love she had for her son.
For a moment, she toyed with the idea of abandoning her plan and leaving this woman to her foolish hopes, toyed with finding another way to capture Merlin and persuade him to join her in the quest to bring magic back to Camelot.
But she discarded that thought almost immediately. Merlin could be stubborn beyond imagining and he had a natural raw talent. Inexperience might prove a problem for lesser men but his instinctive use of magic and innate selflessness would drive him protect the people he loved, even at the cost of his own future - especially for his mother - and that was a weakness Nimueh could not afford to ignore.
Ignoring the small pang of pity deep in her breast, Nimueh said simply, "Merlin is well at the moment but I fear for his safety."
The woman looked at her with alarm. "Is he alright? He… he didn't…." And she stuttered to a stop, clearly trying not to ask about Merlin's secret.
Shrugging, Nimueh gave her a slight smile. "No, no one knows about his gift, not yet."
For a moment, there was shocked silence.
"Gift? I don't know what you are talking about." Hunith seemed to be struggling to keep her face blank, to appear as if she had no idea of what Nimueh was saying.
She could almost pity her. Almost.
"Come now, let us not pretend. We both know that Merlin is talented."
Growing more and more agitated, her hands fisted in her kirtle, her eyes black with distress, Hunith looked worried, hunted. "I…."
A lesser woman might have enjoyed the growing fear but Nimueh only said lightly, "He has quite a gift for sorcery."
"You have no right to spread such lies." Hunith's voice was shrill, filling the hut with panic. "Merlin doesn't know anything about sorcery or gifts or anything else like that." She stood abruptly, and gestured toward the door. "Get out."
"Hunith, I know the truth." She paused a moment, looking at Merlin's mother with studied indifference; the woman was protective enough but it was irrelevant. "Surely you must see that Merlin shouldn't be hiding, practicing sorcery behind closed doors, waiting for the axe to fall with the first slip of a tongue. His gifts are special, unique and we…."
Standing up and letting the whispered fall of her cloak add to the dramatic tension in the air, she shrugged, then flicked her fingertips in the air, leaving a slight trail of spell-light between them. "We want Merlin to join us."
Trapped, Hunith could only stand there, blinking furiously. Hardly above a whisper, she said softly, "We?"
"With Merlin's help, we will be able to stop the destruction, stop Uther from killing hundreds more in Camelot and bring peace and magic back into the world." As Nimueh took a step toward her, the older woman stumbled back, trying to keep the distance between them. As if Hunith had any say in the matter. "But we need to get Merlin away from there first. He is in grave danger. You must see this."
"No, I don't even know who you are." Shaking her head, Hunith refused to be drawn in. "Why should I believe anything you say?"
"Because I am like him. We are both… gifted and there is much I can teach him." Nimueh smiled, sharp and sure. "If he lives."
The woman paled, looking as if she'd been struck. "He's safe in Camelot."
"Safe? With a paranoid dictator who murders innocents without a single ounce of remorse?" She could feel her hatred of the man bleeding through and for a moment, she savoured the feeling.
Hunith's mouth flattened, her face peasant-stubborn. "He's a good king."
"He's a monster!" Nimueh hissed out and then taking a deep breath, she said more gently, "And yet you sent Merlin into a snake-pit, away from everything he'd ever known."
She nodded toward the open window, the moonlight streaming through it, softening the lines of stone and poverty. There was a hint of rosemary in the evening breeze. So plain a life for those of the soil, so straightforward and warm, the people of Ealdor relying on each other for support and comfort - and yet Hunith had sent away her only son.
Shaking her head, Nimueh asked, "Did you think it too dangerous here? That simple minds and pig-farmer suspicions would be his end? How foolish you are."
Taking a step closer, Nimueh watched Hunith's anxious face, knew that she needed to unsettle the woman enough into mistakes. "Merlin is poised on the knife-edge of destruction. One word, one whisper in the wind, and Uther Pendragon will tear him apart."
"No, I don't believe you. Gaius would…."
"Gaius… Gaius?" Her laughter was scalded amusement, bitterness and memory and loss burning her throat. "Gaius watched while people screamed, watched the flames eating into their skin, watched while women and children and old men died, their heads rolling, their life-blood pouring onto the straw below." The sharp shards of grief sliced into her heart, made her cruel. "Gaius? He'd sooner save his own neck than Merlin's."
"You're wrong. He'd never…."
"Never is such an overused word, don't you think?" Nimueh said simply, almost as if she were discussing the weather or how often the pigs got loose, not talking about death and the loss of everything and everyone she'd ever loved. "Gaius helped Uther hunt down my family, kill the ones I loved without a single breath of remorse. Do you really think it would be any different with Merlin?"
"I don't believe you." Desperation in the set of her mouth and the white-knuckled hands.
"It doesn't matter if you believe Gaius capable or not. I have but to send word and Merlin will be Uther's next victim, that boyish head you love so well rolling in the dirt." She didn't think it was possible for the woman to grow paler but Hunith ghosted into moon-white, seemingly frozen with apprehension. "Can you take the chance? Will you?"
"Prince Arthur will protect him," she insisted.
Nimueh tried not to laugh at the absurdity of it all. "Arthur? Oh my dear Hunith, Arthur will kill him without a moment's thought. He is, after all, Uther's son." She straightened, stared at her with steadfast eyes, voice flat with certainty. "Arthur stood by and watched young and old, mothers and sons be burned, watched peace-loving Druids as their heads were cut off. Did nothing to stop it. What makes you think the Prince of Camelot would do anything to save the life of a mere servant?"
"It's not like that. He's an honourable man," she whispered.
Nimueh shrugged, conceding the point. "Perhaps. But are you willing to bet Merlin's life on it?"
"You…." Hunith stood there, all peasant-stubborn ferocity. "I won't let you hurt my boy!"
"Then do as I ask." Nimueh tried not to gloat, instead settled into satisfaction. This trembling old woman, so fierce, so determined to protect her son. "Tell him to come home and I'll not inform Uther about his magic." She stepped closer, her voice soft. "And then Merlin and I will have a talk about his future."
Halting, unsure, her face lined in misery, Hunith said, "He'll never agree to it."
"I think he will." Avoiding the shaft of moonlight that was cutting a trail across the dirt floor, she glanced out the window.
There, above her head was the faithful Dog Star forever chasing the oblivious moon. Watching it, her eyes hidden in shadow, her mouth curved in triumph, she murmured, "Just tell him that Nimueh is waiting for him."
Merlin showed up a few days later. He must have been hell-bent on worry, must have ridden fast and furious to arrive so quickly.
Nimueh had almost expected an entourage of nobility, of a Princely oaf and his boot-licker cronies. It had been within the realm of possibility that Merlin would have told his royal master the truth about his gifts - not likely but still it had been something she had had to consider.
But Merlin was alone. Obviously, he had told no one of his plight. Fear had driven him into her grasp and that made it all the easier.
Watching from the house, she let him fall into his mother's arms first, let them talk, she assumed, about options and safety and all the other things she would have questioned with her own family, were they still alive and in need of her protection.
She could see Hunith gesturing, shaking her head and trying not to glance in her direction. But Merlin soon shook her off and started walking, striding toward the hut, his mother trailing behind.
As the door closed behind them, even as he made sure his mother was out of reach, he was already snarling his fury at her. "You threatened my mother. So I'm here." Eyes flashing blue fire, he said sharply, "Going to have another go at trying to kill me? Poisoning wasn't enough?"
Nimueh ignored the sudden intake of startled breath and the way the woman was wringing her hands. Obviously, he hadn't told Hunith about the attempts on his life. More secrets to keep; the boy was full of surprises.
"I did not threaten your mother, Merlin."
Satisfaction and the merest hint of malice in her eyes, she smiled toward Hunith. She knew it would goad him into mistakes. The boy was so protective, so very inexperienced. He had no idea of the horrors Nimueh had borne during the Great Purge, of her unwavering resolve to destroy Uther and his kind or, more importantly, of her ruthlessness in using Merlin to achieve that end. He had no idea.
Or perhaps he did. Despite her reassurance, the boy moved to block her, to keep himself between Nimueh and his mother. As if his body were a barrier that she could not breach. She tried not to smile.
"Whatever you want, you will leave her alone," he snarled back.
With a careless shrug, ignoring the woman, she stared straight at Merlin. "Hunith was but a means to an end. Nothing more."
"Don't even speak her name. She's worth a thousand of you." Ah, the impetuousness of youth. He had not yet learned to control his temper and his voice was thick with anger. "You will leave her alone."
"Of course." She was growing weary of his foolishness. If he were not so talented, she might have thought again about using this child. But the magic writhing under his skin called to her. His power was too formidable to ignore. "Come. We must talk."
His anger went scowling across his face, gathering battle strength. She watched him struggle with decisions, weighing the possibilities. For a single breathless moment, she thought he might be idiotic enough to attack her, the brave young fool. But then his shoulders slumped, signalling defeat.
Still keeping his mother hidden behind him, his gaze steady on Nimueh, he whispered, low and fierce, "Mother, stay here. You'll be safe enough and when…" There was contempt hard in his eyes. "when this lady and I are done, I'll come back for you."
Hunith started to protest, tried to come around to face him, "No, Merlin, I…."
But the boy flung out his hand and stopped the woman, pushing her back. "Mother, please. It's too dangerous." Nimueh could see how much effort it took him to keep the fear out of his voice, to sound strong enough for them both. "Please, she might try to hurt you to get to me."
With that, the older woman stilled. Nimueh could see the terror in her eyes, could see the urge to protect her son at all costs. But Merlin wasn't the only one whose shoulders slumped in defeat.
"I've ruined everything." Stepping back, Hunith said, "I should never have sent you that message."
"It's not your fault, Mother. If you hadn't, she would have found some other way to get my attention." He stepped forward, glaring at Nimueh, daring her to speak. "Wouldn't you?"
"Of course. I would have found some other way." She nodded, satisfaction and contempt in her gaze. "But now I believe Merlin and I have things to discuss."
Another sharp glare and he waved a hand toward the door. "This way."
Nimueh nodded, sweeping out of the house with a flourish of velvet and fur. She did not bother to glance at the old woman and her foolish son as she passed them both.
She had won the first round; she planned to win all the rest.
They didn't speak as Merlin led her away from the hut, away from the grunting pigs and the prying whispers of peasants eager for gossip, away from his mother. Watching the boy walk stiff-necked and determined through the tall grasses and planted fields, Nimueh tried not to gloat. It wasn't as if she were going to destroy him utterly. She was merely going to turn his life from one direction into another. A better direction and one full of power.
But perhaps he didn't know that just yet.
They finally stopped at a quiet, half-hidden place, a tree-lined hillock overlooking the village. The place was alive with the smell of green things and the living music of leaves rustling in the wind. A beautiful spot, almost restful and one Nimueh might have savoured in other times.
For now, it was a place of coming battles.
They were just beyond the first line of trees when Merlin wheeled on her. "What do you want, Nimueh? You have to know that I'll never help you."
Standing there, imperious, strong and certain of success, she said, "Merlin, it is clear to me that the royal court of Camelot does not know of your gifts."
"That is none of your business." He looked livid, fear and loathing warring with the beginnings of curiosity. "You tried to kill me. Why?"
Shrugging, she said, "You were helping the butcher of Camelot, you and that weak-willed physician of his. What was I to think but that you were one of Uther Pendragon's puppets?"
"I'm no one's puppet," he snapped. "I was just trying to keep people from dying, people you killed with your magic."
"They helped him slaughter my family, my kin, all those who practiced sorcery." Shattering grief, memories of red-agony screams and the smell of burning meat clawed at her. She stepped toward him, spitting hatred and loss. "He and those gutless citizens of Camelot destroyed them with fire and axe, jets of blood soaking the straw, skin ablaze with heat so intense they begged for death. Did you think I'd stand aside and do nothing?"
His face paled and he looked almost ashamed.
Pushing the anger aside, knowing it would not help her cause, she forced herself to relax. She sent a small, half-apologetic smile toward him. "But the past is past. Had I known that you were hiding your gifts from him, I might have chosen a different course with you. "
"Then say what you have to say and go."
Gathering up her magic, she sent just the smallest of enchantments toward him, trying to make him more malleable to her plans. False innocence in the way she gazed at him, she stood there, watching to see if the magic would take hold. But he was stronger than he looked. He shook off the glamour almost before she'd finished weaving the spell.
"Enough of your tricks," He said, flatly.
She nodded. He was not as idiotic as she'd heard. Perhaps he would be worthy of her after all. Shrugging back her cloak, she lifted her hands toward him in supplication. "Merlin, for you to remain in Camelot is a waste of your gifts and dangerous, too."
His face tightened but he said nothing. At least he did not protest what was obvious.
"Sooner or later, Uther Pendragon will discover your secret and you will have to flee the kingdom. And if you are caught…, well you know as well as I do what would happen next." He only stared at her, impassive. "But it would be more than your own life."
Frowning, he shook his head, as if denying what they both knew to be true. Foolish boy.
"Do you think that butcher would stop with you? Everyone you know would be questioned, maybe tortured. Gaius would be suspect, even though he's been Uther's boot-licker for years. That servant girl, Gwen. Lady Morgana. Every person you'd spoken with or shared a joke or smiled at will be at risk."
Shaking her head, she said flatly, "And since you've been Prince Arthur's manservant these last months, you've been privy to some of the kingdom's secrets. And that is too dangerous to be ignored, especially for Uther Pendragon." She leaned forward, daring him to contradict her. "He will not rest until he has your head. Even borders will not stop him."
Nimueh nodded her head toward Ealdor and Hunith's meagre hut. "And if it takes too long to find you, if you hide too well, he will come for your mother. He will use her to get to you and then he will cut off your head and likely hers, too."
"You are just trying to twist things around." Fear warring with denial as he snapped, "No one has noticed my magic and I've been at Camelot for months."
"And how much longer will it last?" She could not keep the contempt from colouring her voice. "Even now, Arthur grows suspicious. The whirlwind against Kanen? Arthur's foes mysteriously killed? At the moment, the prince might think it luck but one false move and all is lost to you. Can you take that chance?"
A sudden flicker of uncertainty before turning peasant-stubborn, he said sharply, "If I must."
"And while you wait to be destroyed, will you remain untrained? Fumbling in the dark, unable to use magic as it was meant to be used?" Beneath his anger and the well-deserved mistrust of her motives, she could feel his wild yearning to know about sorcery's power, a heart-deep longing to be properly trained in the arts. She knew that Gaius-the-fool was too afraid of discovery to teach Merlin. She would use that to her advantage.
First the threat and now, softly spoken, she offered a honey-sweet seduction - an apprenticeship under her guidance.
"Or will you come with me and learn how to use your gifts? I would teach you all you need to know, more than that pitiful book of yours, more than the few crumbs Gaius can give you."
The hunger for knowledge flared in his eyes. It was clear that he was at war with himself, this barely-trained, raw-talented sorcerer. He was probably seeing what she had had once upon a time - a shining place where sorcerers didn't have to hide in shadows.
Her voice was husky with memory as she said, "Think about it, Merlin. The world at your feet. You could use magic to right all the wrongs of Camelot. Make sure those you love are safe. Use magic freely as it was meant to be used."
He had been leaning forward, mouth half-open, when something must have jarred him loose from the lovely fantasy she'd been weaving. "And how freely do you use it, Nimueh? You hide in dark corners, using magic to kill, not to use it for good." He straightened, and stared at her hard. "What could you possibly teach me that I'd want to know?"
He might have raw magical talent but he was still a frustrating dirt farmer and ignorant of subtlety. Her patience was running thin. "Magic is a tool, nothing more. Your choices determine whether it would be used for good or ill. But first you need to know how to harness it."
"And you want to teach me? The man you tried to kill?" His disbelief was miles deep.
She shrugged off his anger, ignored his questions. He needed to hear hard truths and she was willing to push him as far as necessary to achieve her ends. "All you do now is flail about, hoping to stumble across the right spells in time. You have been lucky thus far but how long before you fail? How long, Merlin?"
There was a flash of guilt in his eyes. Turning away, shaking his head, he refused to answer. But his hands curled into white-knuckled shame and he would not meet her gaze.
"Training would bring certainty to your gifts. You would know what to do," she said flatly.
Flinching, he snarled back, "I know enough."
"You know nothing! You have it within you to become one of the greatest warlocks the world has ever known and all you can do is act like a petulant child. You want to help your friends. I'm offering you a way to do just that." Nimueh looked at him with polite disdain. "You would be a fool to ignore it."
Something must have gotten through to the idiot because he opened his mouth, then closed it again with a snap. He looked off, into the distance, not towards the hut where his mother lived but further, gazing at the mountains and the place beyond them - Camelot.
"And the price?" His voice was wary but at least he was listening.
Of course, she could not tell him the real price – the utter destruction of Uther Pendragon and his ilk. But knowing his loyalties, what he would have to give up would be hard enough. "You will have to leave Camelot and come with me to the Isle of the Blessed, the centre of power of the Old Religion. And there you will remain until your training is complete."
He seemed surprised. The young fool probably thought she'd want a blood sacrifice or a dozen unicorn horns. Or maybe Uther's head on a plate. "I can't leave Camelot. Arthur needs me."
"It is your destiny to become something more than Pendragon's servant." She couldn't keep the exasperation out of her voice, even though she knew it wasn't the wisest of statements.
Shaking his head, looking at her with stubborn intensity, he said, "My destiny is to protect Arthur."
She wanted to laugh at his wilful blindness to magic's possibilities but she couldn't let him escape, not now. "Your destiny is to become the greatest warlock of all time."
She stepped closer, watching him struggle with all that she had offered, knowing that they were on a knife-edge, that he might still refuse. "Don't be a fool. Once fully trained, there will be no limit to your power. The world will be at your feet."
The boy was hesitating. She could see it in the way he fidgeted, his hands curling and uncurling, how he kept looking off into the distance, toward Camelot and then back at her again.
"Come with me, Merlin. It is the only way," she said softly.
And then he sealed his fate. Straightening, he turned toward her, clear decision in his eyes. "I'm sorry. I can't. I won't leave Arthur."
"Merlin, Merlin, strong-willed and ever stubborn, I see." She let out a long, annoyed sigh. She'd tried to be accommodating, even gentle but he was too stupid or too loyal to know when he had no choice. Nimueh would have preferred a willing student but either way, willing or not, Merlin was already lost. "I'd hoped you would be intelligent about this but I can see now that I was mistaken."
Perhaps he could sense how close he was to knowing how true power was wielded. His body tensed, almost waiting for an attack, but then he blinked, eyes widening as he looked past her toward the mountains.
It was the oldest trick in the book but Nimueh could feel that his was a genuine surprise. Turning, her gaze swept outward and from the edge of the woods, she could see a lone rider approaching the village.
Chain-mailed, blond, tall, a warrior.
She did not need to see the man's face to know that Arthur Pendragon had arrived.
Joy flashed across the pale skin and expressive eyes, Merlin's grin widening as he looked off into the distance toward the prince. In a way, it was rather endearing that the boy could feel such friendship for an oafish boor like Arthur Pendragon but it would make no difference in the end. No matter how much Merlin might fight his fate, Nimueh would be the victor.
However, she thought that the timing could have been better. After all, things could become complicated if Pendragon decided to intervene.
"Ah, your destiny approaches." Merlin scowled in her direction, was about to reply when she said, "I would have thought you'd have kept this meeting a secret. Do you trust him so much?"
"I trust him with my life."
She had never met anyone who could wear their heart on their sleeve with such intensity before. She'd have to train it out of him, of course; emotion without restraint could be destructive and she'd learned the hard way just how gutting the loss of control could be. If she had kept a cooler head in those first few days after Uther went grief-mad, she might have been able to save more of her kin. But it had all been too late, too late and now all she had left was ash and memories. And revenge.
But she had to admire Merlin's doggedness. Blue eyes flashing, the flush of guilt on his face, he managed to look both furious and incredibly worried, and yet beneath it all, there ran an undercurrent of quiet pride.
The bond between Merlin and Arthur - she could see it was a deep and abiding one. She could use it, exploit it if she had to.
"You trust him with your life." She repeated flatly, then stepped closer, lowering her voice into threat. "But not with the knowledge of your gifts."
Merlin may have been a simple farmer but months at the court must have taught him a few things about the subtlety of coercion. He looked back toward the prince, then turned toward her again. Hands curling and uncurling at his side, face openly distraught, he stumbled over his words, almost pleading with her, "You… you won't tell him…."
"No, I won't." Nimueh smiled, saying lightly, "Because you are going to send him away." He looked as if he were going to object. But just in case he was foolish enough to think he had any choice in the matter, she made it crystal clear. "Before he gets… hurt."
His reaction was instantaneous. "I won't let you."
Arching one eyebrow, Nimueh said nothing for a moment, instead glanced back down into the valley, toward Hunith's hut. Prince Arthur was standing there, talking to Merlin's mother, looking around as if he were trying to see past her, hunting for Merlin. The woman kept shaking her head as the man grew more and more agitated. An argument, it would seem. Nimueh had to wonder who would prevail, the oafish prince or Hunith protecting her child.
When she looked back at Merlin, he was hungrily watching the tableau of mother and prince; longing and fear and utter determination were writ large on the warlock's face.
"If you cooperate, the prince will be unharmed but if you don't…." Merlin's gaze shifted back to her, his eyes flat with hatred but it only solidified her resolve. Nodding toward the prince, keeping her gaze steadily focused on Merlin , she said matter-of-factly, "Uther Pendragon killed my family. I have no qualms with returning the favour."
"I will stop you."
"You will try." Nimueh fought to keep the laughter out of her voice. He was such a child, posturing as if he thought he could best her when he had no idea of depth and breadth of her abilities. A few successes against minor warlocks and magical creatures and he thought to threaten her. Foolish boy. "You may have raw talent but I have knowledge and the power to use it."
She could see movement in the valley below. Apparently, Arthur had discovered their whereabouts and was steadfastly coming up the hill, sword in hand. He looked grim, determined, utterly unlike the boor she'd seen in past encounters and more like a shining prince about to attempt a rescue of his friends. It was almost a refreshing change – almost.
It was time to hurry things along.
"Are you willing to sacrifice him so easily?" Nimueh began to gather bright energy in her hand, a roiling ball of flame that hissed and spat and sent sparks into the shivering leaves above her head. Juggling it in her hands, letting the fireball swirl around her fingers, tossing it back and forth as if playing with a child's toy, she said flatly, "Send him away. Any excuse will do."
The blaze was alive in her hands, growing more intense with every heartbeat. "Or I swear I'll destroy him before your eyes."
Merlin's gaze kept flicking between the inferno caught between her fingertips and the prince still doggedly coming toward them. Hands clenched tight in worry, a pained frown on his face, he seemed to tremble with indecision. "I'll die before I let you hurt him."
"Would you like to see just how far I'm willing to go?" The fireball flared up, impossibly bright. Within its depths, there seemed a storm of fire demons and dragons blazing and creatures hell-bent on destruction, screaming for release. It was terrifying and exhilarating and deeply profane. It was also powerful enough to obliterate a foolish prince into nothingness and they both knew it.
Merlin's bluster collapsed into defeat. Eyes liquid with fear, he said, "Please, I… I'll get him to leave. Just… don't hurt him."
Letting the fireball dissipate slowly into the wind, letting it paint her hands for a moment as she released the magic she'd gathered so easily, Nimueh said, smiling, triumphant, "As you wish."
She slid back behind a tree, watching a conquered Merlin shuffle down to meet the prince. Nimueh was cloaked in a glamour of near invisibility; it was a way of diverting the eye from seeing reality, a way to camouflage her whereabouts. It had been useful in the past. She'd visited Uther in his own chambers and tricked Merlin into thinking herself a young handmaiden with magic such as this. Foolish mortals that would see only what they wished to see. Now she was using it to spy on her newly-won pawn.
The prince had slowed when he saw Merlin coming toward him but then sped up again, doggedly climbing the hill toward his servant. Surprisingly, it would appear that Arthur had been worried about Merlin. The frown on the prince's face had lightened into softness when the warlock had first stepped out of the shadows and then tangled back into a scowl. It should be an interesting encounter – if Merlin didn't turn fool and tell the prince the truth about his powers.
Finally, Merlin stopped a short way from the tree line. He gave one quick glance back toward her location and the turned to face the prince. Shoulders hunched and head bowed, Merlin looked like a sacrifice, even from a distance. But Arthur didn't seem to notice.
"What is wrong with you? Going off like that without a word!"
Face flushed, the prince seemed hell-bent on berating Merlin, yelling at him as he continued up the hill. It looked as though Arthur were furious with his manservant, one gloved hand waving wildly in the air, the other gripping the sword and pointing it straight at Merlin. Even so, she could still hear the undertone of worry in his voice.
"I left you a note. It's not like I just snuck away," Merlin snapped back. He sounded guilty and sullen and not at all contrite but the little glances he kept sending back toward her were full of fear.
Arthur seemed to bristle at Merlin's reply, growing more agitated by the moment. "You idiot, you couldn't wait for me to come back from patrol, explain the situation? Everyone was worried sick. Morgana wouldn't shut up about it."
"I didn't think I needed permission to go home."
Finally reaching Merlin's position, Arthur stopped and glared at him. Jaw forward, eyes bright with anger, the prince put one hand on his hip and straightened up, puffing out his chest in some kind of grand gesture that would have terrified lesser mortals. "Well, you do. I can't be having my manservant just running off like that without my consent. It makes me look bad." He had been gesturing, too, with his sword but now kept stabbing the tip into the soft earth as he said, "Besides, there are bandits. You know this. You should have taken some of the guards with you."
"I can take care of myself." Merlin sounded almost insulted at the implication.
Most royals would have had their servants in the stocks or worse for talking back like that and yet it seemed to calm the prince. Even the sword had stilled.
Arthur gave a soft snort and only shook his head. "Take care of…. you trip over your own feet walking my dogs. Last time, you ended up in the well. Concussed."
"They hate me." Merlin glared at him.
"Merlin, don't be ridiculous. They are perfectly trained, unlike you."
He reached out and cuffed Merlin across the top of his head, making it look more of an affectionate gesture of friendship than any kind of punishment, and then gave him a gentle shove back. The warlock stumbled a bit, then caught himself, watching Arthur as the prince began to wave the sword around, using the blade to emphasize his words. It was almost comical but Merlin didn't seem to mind, just stood there, listening to the fellow berate him.
"And how were you going to defend yourself against bandits? You're pathetic with a sword. Even Morgana is better than you and she's a girl. I'm surprised you haven't cut your own head off by now."
Merlin turned away, head down, face white as death but even Nimueh could hear him mutter, "No, I'll leave that to the king."
"What!" Arthur stopped short, looking at the warlock as if he'd lost his mind.
"Ummm, I said not for want of trying." Merlin shrugged, looking miserable.
"That makes no sense at all." Arthur didn't look as if he believed the answer but didn't press for clarification. Instead he insulted Merlin again. "You really do have some kind of grave mental affliction."
Nimueh saw then that it was clearly a game between them, one they'd long perfected, affectionate teasing and an irreverent cheek that seemed to bind them together.
But Merlin was not in a position for games and he knew it. Sending a quick, frightened glance up toward her, he said sharply, "Why are you here?"
"I told you. Morgana was worried about you." Arthur looked puzzled, almost shocked, as if Merlin's refusal to mock him back was a concern. He stopped that absurd swordplay, instead looked at the boy and said carefully, "Kept nagging me. Said that my idiot manservant was in trouble and I'd have to go rescue him… again."
When Merlin didn't object to the insult or the idea of being rescued, just stood there still and silent, Arthur stepped closer to him, frowning. His voice was biting, rising sharply as Merlin refused to fight back. "I really don't have time to be dropping everything and running after you like some damn fool. I'm the Crown Prince, not some bloody nursemaid."
"Then don't." Merlin folded his arms around his chest, stood taller, looking as if he was done with conversation and wanted the prince to go. Nimueh knew it was just a façade; she could almost taste his dread. But he only said flatly, "Look, Arthur, you've seen me. I'm fine. You can go back to the Lady Morgana and tell her not to worry."
"Who says I'm done yelling at you?"
The prince was clearly growing alarmed and Merlin must have realized it because there was a near panic in his voice. "You are done. I want you to go home."
"You can't speak to me like that. I'm your prince." Scowling, he drew his shoulders back, straightening, putting one hand on his hip again as if to make himself as large and intimidating as possible. Clearly a warning.
Merlin was having none of it. "I can and I am. Go back to Camelot."
"What is wrong with you?" Worry and heat and swelling anger flushed across the prince's face, agitation, too, in the way he began to pace, sword in hand.
"Go back to Camelot, Arthur. You're not wanted here." Merlin was half-shouting at the Pendragon boy, desperation darkening his eyes as he sent a fleeting glance toward Nimueh.
It was difficult not to laugh. The sheer look of disbelief, as if the prince had been punched in the gut. Apparently, no one had ever told him no; the royal prerogative of being adored must be such a terrible burden to those who were born to the privilege. Spoiled, pampered boy.
But Arthur seemed to be made of stronger stuff. And more intelligent than she'd thought. He was staring at Merlin as if seeing him for the first time, as if his servant were a puzzle to solve. And as Arthur stood there, Nimueh could almost see the pieces beginning to fall into place before him. He knew something was wrong.
"You always were a terrible liar. What is going on?" Arthur looked around, his eyes seeming to be everywhere at once, a hunter's gaze, alert and steady. He was searching for danger.
"Nothing. I don't need a spoiled prat around insulting me all the time. Go home." The underlying shrill in Merlin's voice would have set off warning bells in the most idiotic of princes and Arthur, much as she might think otherwise, wasn't that dim-witted.
"You are in trouble, aren't you?" He began to circle Merlin, an act of intimidation. He was trying to make him talk and Nimueh knew the warlock would crack soon enough.
"No! Look Arthur, just go. I'll be fine." The boy reached over, stopping Arthur, moving him in such a way to block his view of her location. Tried to smile and shrug into the lack-witted loose ramble of an idiot manservant trying to please his master. "Next time I see you, we'll talk all about it and we'll laugh and I'll even let you insult me some more if you like."
"Who is threatening you?" The prince wasn't falling for it. He looked worried, angry, seemingly ready to rush after those who would threaten his friend and turn them into bloody meat. "Raiders? Have Kanen's men come back?"
"Arthur, please. Go home."
Merlin was all but begging him to leave. But Arthur looked as immovable as stone. "I've never run from danger, Merlin. Just tell me and we'll face it together."
She'd had enough. She'd wasted enough time with princes and pig farmer mentalities. Merlin was hers. She'd thought to give him time to come to grips with his destiny, to realize that his gifts must be trained into perfection, not found in a traitor's book, but it would seem that warlocks, even ones with his raw talent, could be idiots at times.
It was up to her to take action.
"Prince Arthur, you wanted to know of the threat to Merlin's existence."
It was amusing to watch him twist and turn, his body going into battle alert, his eyes darting around looking for the source of her words. But only for a moment.
Dropping the glamour that had hidden her from view, she stepped out from behind the leafy barrier. "The only danger to Merlin is… you."
Of course, Arthur couldn't let the insult pass. It was almost comical to watch the oaf protesting, his voice full of bluster, his face indignant, looking as if she'd questioned his honour – which perhaps she had. "That's…."
Then he must have realized who she was. In an instant, he changed from being a slightly ridiculous fool to a golden-haired warrior, growing taller, straighter, every inch a future king. She could see the influences of Uther in him and the endless training, the growing power, the potential for greatness beyond his father's own prowess. All protection and blazing fury, with one hand, he reached out and shoved Merlin behind him; in the other, his sword was pointed straight at her heart. "You!"
"Still alive, I see." Nodding, Nimueh looked him over slowly, haughty distaste in her reply. "Pity."
Merlin was fighting to get past him - clumsily she might add, and Arthur kept pushing him back. It was clear that the prince was getting more frustrated by the moment. He was obviously trying to protect him but Merlin wasn't having any of it.
Finally, the prince gave a fierce shove, and as Merlin slipped a little on the wet grass and finally regained his footing only after a moment's struggle, Arthur snapped, "You idiot! Stay behind me. She's a sorceress. She's the one that left me to die in the caves."
There was a frantic desperation in the way he berated Merlin, protective, fierce, and there was terror lurking under it for all his bluster. She could see that Merlin meant more to him than she'd ever realized, certainly more than was apparent the few times she'd been to Camelot. Arthur had hidden it well from the gossips of the court.
And from the way Merlin was reacting, he'd hidden it too well. The boy was standing there, mouth half-open, blinking in surprise. Then shaking his head, breathless and clearly unhappy, he whispered, "Arthur, you have to leave before it's too late."
Tilting her head, she watched them both. So protective, so concerned about the other. A friendship like that was rare, especially among royals. No wonder Arthur had come after Merlin, was willing to face danger to keep his servant from harm. It could make things difficult unless, of course, she used their bond to her own advantage.
"Merlin, why don't you tell him why I'm here?" It was a soft invitation to share confidences, said matter-of-factly, as if they were friends sharing tea and memories.
The warlock was having none of it. "You promised! You promised not to hurt him."
"And as we can all see, I haven't as yet." She lifted her hands in mock protest, whispered, breathed, "Fýrgnást." Her fingertips fluttered in the breeze, leaving a line of crimson sparks that faded quickly.
"Enough of your tricks!" Arthur was still watching Nimueh, eyes full of loathing, his body alert and battle ready, the sword steady in his hand. "Merlin, what is she talking about? What promise?"
"Arthur, just go. She said she'll leave you alone if I agree to go with her." Looking at the prince for a moment and then turning away as if ashamed, Merlin began to shrink inward, hunching down into misery.
"And you said yes?" The prince was livid. The blade wavered as his gaze flicked to the warlock, before snapping back to Nimueh. A trained warrior, Arthur wasn't fool enough to ignore her or the threat she posed but his fury was almost tangible.
Merlin flinched, blinking at the anger in the prince's voice. "I had to. She promised…."
"Are you completely mental? You can't believe anything a sorcerer says." It would seem that Arthur had learned his father's lessons well. Not waiting for a reply, he stepped forward, his voice thickened with decision. "I'll take care of this."
"Your threats are nothing to me, Pendragon." Such a young fool; he had no idea of her power. "Really, Merlin, you chose him over what I had to offer?"
Sending another scurry of sparks into the air, she let them whirl and dance on the breeze before flying over the prince's head and then disappearing. She could see the effort Arthur made, to stay focused on her rather than watch for treachery in simple tricks and nonsense. But she had to admit that it was amusing to bait him, more amusement than she'd had in years.
"And what did you offer him, witch?" Apparently, princes don't have a sense of humour. He looked livid.
But Nimueh wasn't about to argue with him; instead watched the despair on Merlin's face as she reminded him, "You saved his life, again and again, and he never caught on, did he?" Arthur started to protest but she ignored him. It was time for a few truths. "Well, never let it be said that the Pendragons are not wilfully blind."
"You will not speak such lies about my family." It would appear that the Pendragon pride ran deep, deeper even than blindness but she wasn't done just yet.
"And how many lies did you have to spin, Merlin? To keep Arthur from finding out your secret?"
Merlin turned death-white; he seemed to hollow out, translucent fear in peasant tunics and muddied boots, a phantasm of his former self.
"You've been lying to me?" Arthur finally glanced in Merlin's direction, blinking disbelief and the beginnings of anger. "Merlin?"
Flinching back, looking for all the world as if he would collapse into dust with a single touch, Merlin refused to meet Arthur's gaze. Instead, with halting voice and defeat, his eyes filled with pain, his face haunted, he said, "I meant to tell you … when the time was right. Everything. I thought you'd forgive me when you knew." Nimueh could see him struggling to breathe, struggling to get it all out before he'd lost whatever courage he had left. "All the things we'd shared. All the times I'd saved your life. But I was too much of a coward to risk it. I couldn't…."
He stumbled to a stop, would not look at the prince as he hunched down, waited for the final blow that would destroy him.
Nimueh knew that destruction would bring its own beginning, knew that Merlin's fate rested with her, not with the Pendragons. If it took the truth to bring about that end, then so be it.
"And so now you understand, my Merlin. Uther and his kin will never accept sorcerers into their midst, no matter how many times you save their lives."
When she stopped speaking, she had expected some kind of protest. The prince was a man of action, after all, and she had just insulted his father. But instead, there was only silence - a deafening, pain-filled nothingness, a breathless stillness, as if time had crystallized into a final, infinite moment without sound or motion or hope.
Then a single horrified word. "Sorcerer?"
It was almost startling to see the prince standing there, still as stone, staring at Merlin. Arthur's face was so bloodless, so absolutely ice-cold that she expected to see the air frosted with snow.
It was only then that she realized he hadn't known what Merlin had been trying to confess, that the warlock's bumbling explanations could have been about any secret, that Arthur had been upset with the lies, not the magic. But this was so much more. So much more.
"You are one of them." His voice was soft at first, questioning what he'd heard, but as Nimueh watched, she could see him realize just what it meant - utter betrayal from the one person he thought he could trust. Edging into steel, Arthur hissed, "A sorcerer."
There was so much grief in Merlin's eyes that it was a wonder the earth didn't tremble with it. "I can do magic, yes but Arthur, please, let me explain. I…."
Shaking his head, revulsion in his eyes, the prince looked hard first at Merlin and then at Nimueh. She could almost see the wheels turning in the fool's head as he gazed at them both, taking in all that had been said, all that was still unspoken.
But it was easy enough to lead him into error, almost too easy. Smiling at the warlock, she nodded toward Pendragon. "My friend, we both know Arthur will never understand about magic. It is beyond him."
"I'm not your friend!" Merlin was all but shouting at her.
But even as he protested, Arthur was already taking the bait. The blade was stark in his hand, deadly steel glinting in the sun, trembling oh so slightly as he stared at Merlin. The balance was changing, friendship morphing into revulsion, love into loathing, the war of it clear on Arthur's face. One final breath and he fell into the trap, roaring, "You're in league with her, aren't you? All a fake - your stupid grin, your clumsiness, your ridiculous attempts at appearing the idiot. And how easily I fell for it. How damn easily!"
"No, it's not what you think! I'm not with her. She's…." Merlin looked undone, the misery stark in his eyes.
"Sorcerers are not to be trusted. My father taught me that. I should have listened." Arthur was growing more and more frenzied with every breath. "What a damn fool I was."
Merlin began to back away, kept shaking his head, mouthing denials and pleas for Arthur to listen, reminding him of all the time he'd saved his life, all the things they'd shared. But it did no good.
"You were lying to me from the very beginning!"
And then Arthur Pendragon exploded into absolute fury. He wheeled on Merlin, sword raised, all the power of his training harsh with steel and sinew. His eyes were blazing, hellish scowl cutting across his skin and he looked for all the world as if he was about to take Merlin's head off.
As Merlin raised his arms, covering his head with elbows and hands and desperation, Nimueh reacted instantly, drew power from the air.
"Clíewen wælfýres." And a fireball flew toward Arthur's feet, blasted dirt and grass into the air. Enough to stop him in his tracks.
She had a moment to feel sorry for Merlin; as she glanced at him, she could see him standing there, swaying slightly, ghost-white, looking as if Arthur had already cut out his heart. Perhaps he had.
"You see, Merlin, when it comes down to essentials, the Pendragons revert back to type."
"Liar!" Wild rage in the way the sword swung in her direction, Arthur spat, "You hold your tongue, witch."
"But I haven't lied." She slowly walked over to Merlin, put one hand delicately on his arm, following the line of muscle upward until it rested on his shoulder, squeezed him there in sympathy. It was enough to let her know that the boy was still in shock, still reeling from Arthur's attack. He'd have never let her touch him otherwise.
"Instead, you are the one who has forced Merlin to see how things truly are." The warlock shivered under her hand. Mourning, grief-stricken, he didn't look at her, just kept staring at Arthur in disbelief. "That he'll never be safe in Camelot, that his trust in you was nothing against the fear you refused to question. You have made his choice easier for him than I ever could and I thank you for it."
Arthur's was a harsh, hoarse whisper, like steel scraping across rock. "All this time. I trusted you. Believed in you and you played me for a fool."
"Please…." Jostling out from her grip, Merlin stretched out his hands, pleading for Arthur to listen to reason. "I didn't want this to happen. I didn't want my magic to come between us. I thought you would understand. I thought…. "
But he was beyond reason. "You used me!" Then Arthur seemed to gather himself together, took a long, ragged breath and said, "You are under arrest for sorcery, both of you."
This was just too amusing. Nimueh gave a delighted chuckle, watching Pendragon's mouth tighten in fury at the insult. "Yes, I'm sure we are." Then, deliberately turning away, ignoring Arthur as if he were of no consequence at all, she smiled at her prize. "Say your farewells, Merlin. It is time to go."
"I'm taking you both back to Camelot for trial."
There was boiling anger in his eyes, his mouth twisted into a snarl. It would seem that he was holding in his temper by the barest of threads.
Pathetic, really. He'd been a bully too long, his tantrums legendary in the kingdom, with little to commend him until Merlin had come along. There had been whispers that the prince had grown wiser over the last few months. But she could not see it. There was no reason here, only royal obsession and a zealot's determination to destroy.
"Alone? With nothing but a sword in your hand?" A genuine laugh and she shook her head. "And you call Merlin an idiot."
"I'm not letting you get away with this." He stepped forward, his sword sharp with fury's promise.
Suddenly, she'd had quite enough of Pendragons. "Just try and stop me, young fool."
Ignoring Arthur's furious scowl, Nimueh reached out, pushing Merlin a little, trying to start him down toward the hut and their horses. The warlock moved as if he were encased in mud, feet dragging, white as a shroud but with eyes still fixed on Arthur, begging him for forgiveness.
With the lightning-fast movement of a battle-trained warrior, Arthur's sword cut across her path. "You tried to kill me, tried to poison my…." She could hear his ragged breath and see the sweat on his face. He looked like he was on the cliff-edge of reason. "You can go back to Camelot, alive as my prisoners or I can drag your corpses there. It is up to you but I promise that I won't ask again."
He was too close. He'd have time to swing that damnable sword of his before she could speak the words. She needed distance and to keep her idiot warlock out of the way.
But she had to make a show of it. Letting distaste sneer across her face, she looked at him, dragging her gaze across his warrior body, looked at his sword. Then glancing at Merlin, she dropped her shoulders, as if in defeat. "Take us, then, back to your Camelot. Little good will it do you."
There was a brief flare of surprise. He looked like he wanted to argue, wanted to slice her into ribbons and now had no excuse for it. Or perhaps he didn't believe her. For one breathless moment, she thought she'd gone too far, that he could see through her lies but then he gestured down toward Hunith's hut. "There are horses below. As my prisoners, you will be treated with honour. But if you try to escape, I will not hesitate…" Arthur's eyes were a miserable blue that hardened back into stone when he said, "to kill you both."
Nodding, she gathered up her skirts, waited for Pendragon to lift up the sword and away so that she could walk toward the hut. But Merlin was still in shock, looking absolutely wretched, looking as if his heart was shattering into a million pieces, and refused to move.
"Arthur?" he whispered, "Arthur?"
There was the merest hint of uncertainty in the prince's face. The blade wavered and she could hear the creak of leather, almost feel the strain of steel and muscle as he struggled to remain impassive. Then shaking his head, Arthur straightened, grew more rigid. "I will not hesitate."
Merlin turned away, hunching inward, nodded. He looked gutted.
Stepping back, the prince finally, finally waved his sword away from her and pointed toward the village again. She grasped Merlin's arm, trying to get him to move. It was difficult; he was stumbling over his own feet, and she had to keep tugging him along. But eventually he was walking, snail-slow, but enough to let her grasp loosen and she began to drift away.
Pendragon was still close behind but Merlin, clumsy fool that he is, created the perfect moment. His foot slipped, and he floundered back, knocking her out of his way. She used the momentum to angle off, far enough that Arthur couldn't use his sword on them both at once.
The prince stepped forward, blade swinging to one side out of the way, his other hand reaching out, looking as if he were going to help Merlin regain his footing. A friend's gesture, instinctual and incredibly stupid.
Nimueh turned, fingertips pointing, shouting, "Tóbirste."
Arthur's sword shattered into bits, the shards flying, slicing through skin and air. There was a grunt of pain and then another, as blood blossomed on Arthur's face, a long cut. Beside her, Merlin was babbling and moving up to help him but she was having none of that.
One hand out, she pointed to Merlin, "Beweren." And he was flung back, away from the prince and lay there on the grass, dazed.
But Arthur was already in motion. He'd taken out his knife and was rushing toward her. Gathering up her power, she shouted again, sending fireballs toward him but he was faster than she'd thought, twisting and weaving around the flames, his clothes smoking but still no direct hit, no burning wounds on his body. He was gaining ground quickly, murder in his eyes.
Merlin, too, was rising, sending a wave of fire toward her. "Forbeornan."
But she'd been prepared for his poor attempts at magic-craft. As soon as the inferno started to swell around her, she called down the heavens for rain. "Tīdrēn īs." The conflagration raged, growing higher, the heat of it beginning to burn at her skin, and threaten to light her ablaze but then the water poured down, hissing the flames into oblivion at her feet.
Quickly, knowing that fire was useless for the moment, she sent a great shove toward Arthur, throwing him high into the air. "Scúfan!"
It was beautiful to watch, his body like a puppet unstrung, limbs trying to twist into some kind of defence as he hit the ground with a solid thump and went still.
Merlin ran, faster than thought, to Arthur's side and stood there, face wet with sweat or tears or horror.
The prince lay boneless on the rough grass, one hand splayed out as if trying to fend off an attack, the other still clutching his useless knife, a rag doll clothed in red and silver. As she stared down at him, the wind began to ruffle his hair and dissipate the wisps of smoke coming from his burned shirt. Past the dirt and broken skin, blood half-hidden with the tilt of his head, a single line of crimson trickled past his ear and into his chain-mail. Laying there, his eyes closed, he looked defeated; he looked damaged; he looked terribly young.
At least Arthur was quiet. Not so her warlock. "You've killed him!"
Throwing himself down beside him, Merlin kept reaching out with one hand, touching the prince with gentle fingers as if trying to find whatever was broken and fix it, a delicate touch, clearly afraid to make things worse than they already were. The other hand kept smearing across his own face, ineffectually wiping away tears and the remnants of Arthur's blood.
Gulping back sobs, Merlin was whispering desperate, ineffectual spells, and begging Arthur to get up. It sounded as if his heart were breaking.
It brought back too many memories, of screams and pleas for help, of ash and the smell of roasting meat, of endless grief and the knowledge that her family would never return to her.
"Merlin, he's not dead." She wanted to comfort him, reassure him that all would be well. But that was the old Nimueh. Instead she said flatly, "He's unconscious but he'll come around. A few minor wounds. Nothing permanent."
"You promised you wouldn't hurt him." Merlin was blazing between fury and worry. He knelt there, shielding the prince with his body, keeping her from getting near Arthur, as if he had any power to prevent her if she wished. It was almost touching to watch. Almost.
"Don't be a fool. He was going to kill us both, no matter what his promises were." The pain of seeing Merlin so protective made her angry. It reminded her too much of her own past and the tragedy of it. She said, sharply, "Now, it's time to leave, before he wakes up."
"I'm not leaving him here, like this." He kept touching the prince reverently, as if Arthur were made of glass and one wrong move would shatter him. And under his breath, Nimueh could hear Merlin begging him to wake up.
"Pendragon was right. You are an idiot." Something caught in her throat but she shoved it away. Pity, sorrow, regret had no place here. "Very well. Carry him to your mother's house. You can put him on the bed there and I suppose you want a physician to attend?"
He snapped back, "Ealdor is too poor for that. But my mother knows enough medicine to make sure he's not injured."
"Well then, pick him up. We have to leave before he wakes up or it will just make things worse for him. I've not hurt him…. much but I'm not willing to promise more."
Hunith was waiting by the door. She must have seen the battle; indeed most of Ealdor must have seen it because they were clustered around in knots of gossip and wariness, watching them approach. But Hunith said nothing, just gestured the trio inside.
Merlin gave a grunt as he carefully lowered Arthur to the bed. The prince hadn't woken in the short walk but he was showing signs of recovery. The bleeding had stopped and he seemed to be breathing easier. He was covered in blood and sweat and smoke but he would be fine in time.
The two of them, Merlin and his mother, stood there, looking down at the prince, saying nothing. There was nothing to be said. Nimueh and Merlin had to leave before the prince woke up. And that was the end of it.
Hunith gathered up water and a cloth and sat down on the bed, began to clean the prince's face, gentle and soft and with a mother's warmth. Merlin gave a long relieved sigh and started to sit beside her but Nimueh drew him back up.
"We have to go, Merlin. Now, before he wakes." She looked down at the unconscious prince and then nodded toward Hunith. "Say your farewells. I don't know when you will return here but it will not be soon."
"Merlin?" His mother looked up at her son, her face crumbling at the realization that she might never see him again.
Sending her a watery smile, he leaned down and smoothed one old cheek. She grabbed his hand and stilled it, holding him close. "Mother, it will be alright. I'm going to go for training. Nimueh has promised that I would be safe and I can't go back to Camelot, not now. Arthur would…. " Gazing toward the prince, sorrow and regret and pain swimming in his eyes, he said softly, "Well, Arthur wouldn't want me there."
"I should never have sent that letter." She stood up, reaching for him, and then burying her face in his chest. Whispering into his heart. "I'm so sorry."
"It's not your fault. It would have happened anyway." Wrapping his arms around her, he rested one cheek on her head. His voice seemed far away, as if he couldn't get the words out for the tightening of his throat. "I want you to explain everything to Arthur. I think he will listen to you. We… we didn't really get a chance to…." He stumbled to a stop and just stood there, grief-silent.
She just hugged him tighter. "I know some day you will see Arthur again. You were always two sides of the same coin."
Nimueh remembered her own mother, screaming in Pendragon's fire. She needed to get away from this before it broke her resolve. "Merlin, we have to go. Now."
"Good-bye, mother. Just remember I will love you always." Merlin loosened his grip, pulled them apart and then leaned down to kiss his mother's forehead.
"And I you, my son. Be well." A final touch and it was done.
It's been three weeks since we returned to the Isle of the Blessed. I know it has been difficult for Merlin. For the first week, he refused to talk with anyone, refused food and drink and only relented when the others reminded him that he could go home eventually, when training was complete.
He still moves like a shadow, still mourns his old life.
He won't talk with me but it is enough that he's learning the old ways, the Old Religion. How can he not? He was born of it and we are all kin here. The others say he grows in power and soaks up the lessons like a sponge whenever his melancholy lifts.
There are good days and bad.
I do not tell him that the Lady Morgana and Merlin's friend, Gwen, left Camelot a week ago and even now are making their way to the Druids. I don't know why. My spies are silent on this but it is said that the Lady and Arthur had a terrible fight and that they took flight the next day. There were rumours of more burnings and more beheadings, of the Pendragons, Uther and Arthur both, seeking out sorcerers with even greater fury than before. The prince's temper grows short and even the knights show signs of rebellion.
But I will make no apologies for what I have done. The Pendragons are a scourge on the earth and the sooner their line dies the better.
And Merlin is destined to be the greatest sorcerer of all time and it was through my interference that he'll achieve it someday.
But sometimes, in the dead of night, when the moon is overhead and the faithful Dog Star follows across the starry sky, my heart aches and I wonder if there shouldn't have been some other way to fulfil it.
Yes, it is his destiny. But was it the right path to take?
And that is the question that haunts me still.
Fýrgnást – spark of fire
Clíewen wælfýres – sphere of deadly fire
tóbirste – shatter (a command)
Beweren – I push back, I defend
Scúfan: to push with violence
forbeornan – to burn by fire