Nel never felt easy around the woods to the west of her village.
As a small girl, when she accompanied her mother and siblings in the fields bordering the forest, Nel would avoid looking at the tangle of undergrowth and deep shadows beneath the trees. She always imagined that dark nameless things hid there, and that if she wandered close, they would dart out and grab her. She was almost grateful when she became old enough to be given small tasks like chasing the crows from the newly planted seeds or getting rid of weeds. It gave her something to do that would keep her from contemplating the woods.
In Nel’s twelfth winter, the Smoke Man appeared.
Her cousin, Thomas, was the first to spot him. Thomas regularly ventured into the shadowed maze of roots and fallen logs to collect mushrooms and snare the occasional coney. He had been checking his traps, he said, when he got the strong sense of being watched.
“My hair was standing all up on end,” Thomas explained one night in the public house while a small crowd, Nel included, listened with interest. “And my neck was prickling. I look around me, but nothing.”
Thomas took a long swig from his tankard, and people around Nel shifted with impatience.
“Then,” Thomas continued. “I look off to my right and, oh, about where Killian is standing,”—Thomas nodded to a boy standing several paces away— “I see this man. Almost a boy still. But blimey, the palest man I’ve ever seen, with dark circles around his eyes and tattered up clothes. And then I start to smell something.” Thomas tapped his nose. “Smoke. Thick, strong smoke as if there’s a fire burning right in front of me. But I see only this man.”
“Maybe you were smelling whatever it is you’ve been stuffing into your pipe,” someone called out.
“Come on now, don’t tease,” Thomas frowned. “Anyhow. I called out to this man, asking him after his business, for it was clear he wasn’t from here. The man, he didn’t say a word. Just tilted his head a little, then turned and walked away. Now I wasn’t about to follow him. But mark me, he wasn’t normal. Something funny about him, ‘specially because as soon as he disappeared from view, the smoke smell left too.”
The crowd murmured slightly.
“Maybe a magic man,” Eya suggested. “A sorcerer. Or one of the druid.”
“Or a hunter,” Javal offered. “Or a traveler.”
“Maybe,” Thomas said darkly. He took another swig from his tankard. “Or maybe something less human.”
Nel’s courage left her, then. She turned and hurried outside to sit on the front steps and wrap her arms around herself. She stared into the dark and wondered if the faceless beasts of her imaginings had become real after all.
As the weeks passed, more people reported seeing the pale man who smelled like smoke. They all had similar stories: the man would appear without warning, bring a smell of fire with him, then leave just as quietly. He never spoke. He never attacked. He just…existed. Explanations for the man circulated. He was a ghost, a forest spirit, a small god. He was trouble, he was good luck, he was not one nor the other.
Nel had less and less attention to give to the stories of the Smoke Man when her mother fell violently ill in mid-winter. It was the sort of illness that gave the sufferer horrible hacking coughs and no appetite to speak of. Nel and her three siblings took turns tending to their mother, but the nights dragged on and their mother got no better. The village began to give small gifts and favors to the household as if Nel’s mother had already died, and it made Nel heartsick.
One morning she was turning the hogs out on the fallow field. She happened to glance in the wrong direction and glimpse a blur of pale among the wood’s gray trunks. Nel’s eyes fixed on the young man.
He was tall and lithe, and his clothes looked simple if worn. She could see a kerchief around his neck. As Nel stared, a bird fluttered down from the trees and alighted on the man’s shoulder. The man glanced at the bird then looked straight to Nel. She inhaled sharply and took a step back. She stumbled over a clod of dirt and had to look down to find her footing again. When she lifted her head, the line of trees was undisturbed. No sign of anyone.
Nel moved through the rest of the day in a distracted haze. It was only that night when she bedded down with her sister on front of the fireplace that Nel finally figured out what had bothered her. The man had not looked threatening or angry, like Nel would have expected with a ghost or spirit. He’d looked unbearably sad.
This idea simmered in Nel’s head for another several days, and although she had little idea of what to do with it, she was reluctant to let it go. Her mother, meanwhile, woke less and less often. And the gloom and mourning that hung over Nel’s home only made her think harder about the grief that she’d seen hanging over the man in the woods.
At last, one damp night, her mother seemed to have reached the end of her strength. Nel’s siblings gathered around their mother’s bed to say goodbye, all except Nel herself. She had a great, strange, howling voice inside her that told her not to waste time kneeling by her mother and weeping. Instead, Nel snatched from the kitchen a simple loaf of seedy bread and, without saying a word to her family, darted out the door and into the evening.
She clutched at the bread with both hands and stumbled her way to where she knew the woods began. She didn’t dare think about how foolish the act was, only that she needed to try for the sake of her mother. When Nel entered the forest, she nearly tripped and lost the bread. Still she ran, searching for a glint of a pale face or the smell of smoke.
“Smoke Man!” she called. “Please, come, I need something!”
She didn’t see him appear, only knew that one moment she was stumbling over roots and leaf drift, and the next moment she nearly ran into a dark figure. She took several steps back and gazed up at the Smoke Man. This close up, she could see how human he was despite his paleness. He had lines around his eyes and mouth that made her think he used to laugh and smile quite a lot. That, somehow, made his sadness harder to bear.
“Please,” she panted. “Please, I need help. My mother needs help. She’s sick and close to dying and I don’t have much to offer…” She trailed off and lifted the small, sad loaf of seedy bread. The man’s blue eyes drifted from Nel to the bread. Something in his countenance shifted.
He lifted a hand and gently pushed the loaf away. Nel’s heart sank, but then the man took the same hand and laid it on Nel’s head. She started; his hand seemed so cold that it burned. But it was solid and gentle, and she didn’t try to move.
Nel realized then that she couldn’t smell smoke. Or, she smelled something, but it was like spring rain and brisk breezes. Somewhere above her, the man spoke a word. Nel didn’t understand it, but she felt the word settle over her like a gossamer spider web or a thin rivulet of clean snowmelt. The man pulled away his hand. When Nel lifted her head, he had gone.
Nel swayed for a long moment, the bread loosely held in one hand. She turned without real thought and began to hike her way back to the village. She felt the man’s word clinging to her hair and face, dripping to her clothes. It was cool and brisk in a way that felt alive.
When Nel reached her cottage door, she knew that she was not too late, though she was very close. Her mother’s chest barely shifted in the wavering candlelight, and her siblings gazed at her with numb sorrow. Nel passed them all and leaned over her mother. She bent down and kissed her mother’s clammy cheek. When Nel pulled away, her mother’s eyes were already peeling open, and they were tired, but they were alert.
Six months earlier
“The real question here,” Merlin said. “Is why Uther needs to invite so many people to celebrate the Mabon festival in the first place.” Merlin’s knees cracked as he leaned forward to set down one silver goblet and picking up another identical to it. He readjusted his rag and started polishing hard enough to make his arm ache. “I mean,” he continued. “Why not a close gathering of a few family and friends? Much cozier atmosphere, and he’d cut on costs a tremendous amount.”
Perched on a crate beside him, Gwen chuffed and shook her head. “Merlin, I don’t think that the king worries about things like cost,” she said.
“He ought to, if you ask me.” Merlin turned to Gwen. “Because if he did, I wouldn’t be breaking my fingers on these bloody cups.”
“We’re almost there,” Gwen said, glancing at the crate of goblets at their feet.
The castle’s stewardess, Madame Dena, had intercepted the both of them during a routine morning laundry run, handed them the crate, and ordered that the goblets therein all be clean and ready for that the next evening’s Mabon feast. Merlin and Gwen had hauled the crate into one of the back pantries so they could work away from the stewardess’s sharp eyes and give themselves a chance to sit, after several days of being roped into helping to clean halls and prepare bedrooms for the many expected guests. But while Merlin’s feet appreciated the reprieve, his fingers were starting to burn and ache.
“They’ll discover us here,” Merlin announced, holding up the goblet to check his progress and sparing a thought for the rate at which he’d be getting this done if he could use his magic. “Our poor withered bodies slumped over and goblets held in broken fingers. We’ll be a warning to all overworked servants who come after.”
Gwen shook her head, still smiling. “I’d be sad if Uther stopped throwing festivals for Mabon,” she said. “The autumn equinox is like our last hurrah before winter sets in. I’ve always enjoyed it.”
“Stop being so optimistic, Gwen, you’re ruining my mood.”
Gwen set her polished goblet into its crate and let her rag drop into her lap as she stretched her arms over her head. The sunlight edging through the single, slit window caught on her fingers, lighting them up ochre.
“I thought you’d enjoy a chance to get away from Arthur for a bit,” she said.
Merlin buffed at his goblet, his tongue slipping out from between his lips. “Not all it’s cracked up to be, turns out.”
At that moment, the pantry’s door swung open and a chamber maid with a bright blue kerchief and a dusty skirt edged into the small room.
“There y’are,” she breathed, slapping at her apron. “I’ve been searching like nothing else trying to ferret you two out. What’re you doin’ cozied up back here?”
“Polishing, Beata, that’s all,” Gwen said kindly. Merlin admired her calm. Beata held the dubious honor of being one of the biggest gears in the castle’s wide-reaching rumor machine, and it was pittance knowledge among the castle staff to knock before entering the back pantry, just in case someone was busy in there. The fact that Beata had burst in told Merlin plenty.
“Well then,” Beata said, eyes roving over the crate of goblets. “Merlin, you’d better head up to the royal chambers. The prince has been interrogating the staff about your whereabouts, and it’s making Madame Dena snippy to the rest of us.”
“Right.” Merlin gave Beata a short nod. “Thanks, then. I’ll be there in a second.”
Beata gave the pair of them one last, long look before wending back through the crates and disappearing through the door.
“She thinks we’re taking a roll back here,” Merlin said in a bland voice. Gwen’s lips pressed together and she plucked up a new goblet.
“Beata thinks everyone’s taking a roll with everyone else,” she said. “Which, to be fair, is half accurate.” She glanced at Merlin. “You’d best go, Merlin.”
“Arthur can take care of himself for another few minutes,” Merlin said, but stood nonetheless. He winced as the pins and needles pricked at his feet. “Sorry to abandon you.”
“I’ll try and recruit in the next poor soul who wanders in here,” Gwen said. She tapped at his calf. “Go on, I don’t want to have to visit you in the stockade again.”
“No, I think you secretly enjoy watching me get pelted with vegetables,” Merlin called over his shoulder as he left the pantry. He could hear Gwen laughing even as the door shut behind him.
“Well, he lives,” Arthur announced from his desk when Merlin appeared in his chambers. “That’s a relief, Merlin. I was afraid I’d have mount an expedition for you.”
“My apologies, sire,” Merlin said, hovering at the chamber doors and taking stock. It didn’t look as if Arthur had so much as considered tidying up on his own. “I was gang pressed into Mabon preparations.”
“Glad you fought your way back out,” Arthur said. He stuck his quill back in its inkwell. “I’ll need you to catch up on your usual chores this afternoon, of course. But before you start on that, I have news.”
Merlin raised his eyebrows. Arthur gestured for Merlin to approach, and began to dig through the papers on his desk.
“Here we are,” Arthur said when Merlin drew near to his desk. He held up a piece of parchment that looked good quality, with neat, looping handwriting. “You know of Lord Carados?”
“Really? I’d have though even you would hear of him. His lands border Essetir,” Arthur said, setting the letter back on his desk. “He is my cousin a few times removed. A powerful man, owns some of the best cropland in Camelot. He is not one to often grace our halls, but this equinox he has decided to accept my father’s invitations; he and his son both.
“This morning, we received this message from him saying that his company was attacked by bandits on their way here. No deaths, but his manservant was grievously wounded and will be of little use for several weeks.”
“Wait,” Merlin cut in. “You’re not—“
“My father.” Arthur paused to give Merlin a pointed look. “Has ordered that you attend to Lord Carados’ needs as long as he is staying in the castle. Carados comes from an old and wealthy family and is a great friend to my father. So if you have the urge to do something foolish, perhaps withhold it until he’s gone back home.”
“You know I hate being lent out like a pack mule,” Merlin snapped. “These nobles always expect me to know them as well as their own manservants, and it’s annoying as hell.”
“Believe me, I’m hardly thrilled about it.” Merlin opened his mouth to argue again, but Arthur spoke over him. “However, my father insists, and I can’t protest him, and you certainly can’t protest.”
“I’m protesting now,” Merlin shot back. “I don’t like it and I won’t enjoy it. So there.”
“I see.” Merlin thought he saw a hint of a smile flash across Arthur’s face, but then Arthur turned back to his desk. “Well, I will take a note of your protest and bring it before the council. In the meantime, you should start with tidying this place up.”
Merlin sucked his teeth, then turned and plucked a stray shirt from the floor.
“Wanker,” Merlin muttered.
“I heard that.”
“Lord Carados?” Gaius made a sound of disbelief as he clacked two wooden bowls of stew on the table. “My stars, didn’t think we’d be seeing him around here anytime soon. He must be getting on in years by now.”
“Wonderful, then,” Merlin groused, picking up his spoon and swirling it through the soup. “The old men are always the ones who drink too much and then fall right asleep and then have to be dragged back to their chambers.”
“Mm.” Gaius frowned at the other end of the table, where he had piles of books from his latest stint of research. “I think I’d keep my wits about me with him, Merlin. Carados has got...something of a reputation.”
“Reputation?” Merlin’s spoon paused. “What sort of reputation?”
“Rumors. Servant rumors.” Gaius waved a hand. “To the nobles he’s as proper and respectable as any, if a tad tended toward isolation.”
Gaius lips thinned into a slash. “The last time he visited the castle was a Beltane festival, many years ago. I still remember that on the last day of the festival, one of the kitchen maids was found with a broken neck at the base of the northern tower. Jumped, they said. But servants talk, and some swore that they had seen her with Carados on that same tower. Others claimed that the poor girl had finger-like bruises on her throat.”
“He strangled her?” Merlin gaped.
“Again, servant rumors.” Gaius’s craggy eyebrows lowered. “I only…I’d like for you to be aware. That’s all.”
Merlin leaned back and blinked into the steam rising from his soup. He felt a knot settle into his stomach.
“That should do it,” Gwen said, stepping back and admiring her handiwork on Morgana’s hair. She had used one of the old braid patterns her mother had once taught her, reworked for Morgana’s long, thin hair.
“You’re a marvel, Gwen.” Morgana angled her head so that the sunlight flooded over black hair wound around her head in a braided crown. “It’s beautiful.”
“I think you ought to put in the green hair pins,” Gwen chirped, bustling over to the small cabinet where Morgana kept her ornaments. “It’ll bring out your eyes and the colors in your dress.”
“Mm,” Morgana hummed in agreement, still examining her reflection. She let her hands fall away from her hair and half turned to Gwen. “Any guests arrived yet?”
“Ah, Lady Falan arrived late last night, and Ivan from the stables says that Lord Kinsey’s horses and carriage have shown up this morning.” Gwen approached with a handsome cherry wood box in her calloused hands. Morgana faced forward to allow Gwen to pluck four fern-green pins from the box one by one and slide them into the braids.
“I’ve heard that the old recluse, Lord Carados will be showing up at long last,” Morgana said. “Last time I saw him I must have been no more than six.”
“And he has a son.” Gwen exchanged a significant look with Morgana through the mirror. “I expect that Uther was especially happy to hear that he is coming.”
“Ecstatic,” Morgana said in a wry voice. “I’m sure he’s starting to plan the wedding feast already.”
“He might be a very decent sort,” Gwen said, putting in the final pin and clacking shut the cherry wood box.
“That’s nice of you to think so,” Morgana said. She scanned her reflection one more time and was interrupted by Gwen wrapping one arm around her shoulder and pecking her on the cheek.
“No need to look that forlorn,” Gwen said, voice light. “Look on the bright side; maybe you’ll scare the young Carados off and it’ll be another few years before Uther finds another decent candidate.”
Morgana laughed and leaned back into Gwen a little. “You’re underestimating Uther, but I’ll do my best to be intimidating.”
Morgana swept to a stand and checked herself one more time in the mirror. Satisfied that she was prepared for a full day of greeting guests, Morgana told Gwen to take her time tidying up the chambers and made her way down to the main hall.
The castle spent the day in a mild uproar as servants scurried through the halls after a thousand and one errands, and the Pendragon family greeted more and more guests by the hour in the throne room. Until Lord Carados showed up, Merlin’s job was to maintain a steady supply of watered wine for Arthur and to listen to him complain whenever they had a still moment.
“My cheeks have gone numb from all the smiling,” Arthur muttered to Merlin deep into the afternoon. “Well and truly numb. I don’t think it’s they’re there anymore.”
“You haven’t lost them,” Merlin promised, shifting to try and bring some relief to aching soles. “Just as round and rosy as a milkmaid’s in the sum—.”
“The Lord and Lady of Fenifew,” the crier announced. “And their three daughters.”
Arthur whipped his head around for a fresh smile while Merlin scrutinized the enormous hats perched on the three Fenifew ladies’ heads. He glanced over to Gwen, who stood across the dais behind Morgana’s chair. She cut her eyes to him only a second later, and Merlin watched her lips tighten and her eyes turn up at their edges. He waggled his eyebrows for emphasis, and heard the tiny squeak escape Gwen’s mouth. She turned forward again with an expression that was meant to be a frown but failed halfway through.
And so the day dragged past, until Merlin had no idea anymore who was the lord of what land nor, to be frank, why he should care.
“Diplomacy clearly isn’t your calling in life, Merlin,” Arthur said when Merlin voiced this around early evening. “Just stick to the servant business.”
“Right.” Merlin rolled his shoulder to alleviate some stiffness. “Speaking of servant business, where’s this Lord Carados supposed to be? Is he being fashionably late?”
Arthur shot a look at Uther, though the king was speaking to the castle steward and didn’t seem to have heard Merlin. “Don’t be so flippant,” Arthur ordered in a mutter. “He’ll arrive when he arrives.”
“Well are we going to stand about until he does?” Merlin muttered back. “Because as for me, I can’t feel my feet.”
“It means you’re building character,” Arthur said, and the way he said it made Merlin wonder whether Arthur was repeating what he’d been told every time something hurt while growing up.
“No, you’re right. We need to prepare for tonight still,” Uther said to the castle steward standing at his elbow, interrupting Merlin’s train of thought. “Have the remaining guests taken care of as they come.”
The steward repeated Uther’s orders, and the room of advisors and courtiers murmured their assent. Arthur released a groan of relief as he stood and the room broke into chatter.
“I can’t feel my ass either,” Arthur announced, stepping off the dais.
“Wonderful, Arthur, we all desperately needed to hear that,” Morgana told him, sliding into a stand. “Please, tell us more of your troubles. Does your head hurt as well from all the thinking you’ve been doing today?”
“You know, Morgana, I don’t believe you’re nearly as witty as you think you are,” Arthur replied.
The four of them trailed after Uther, Merlin and Gwen a few steps behind so they could exchange looks behind Arthur and Morgana.
“I disagree, sire,” Merlin spoke up. “I think you could write a proper ballad about all the wittiness Lady Morgana expresses.”
“Thank you, Merlin.” Morgana graced him with a wide, mischievous smile.
“Wittiness practically spills from her ears,” Merlin continued. “Her being is alight with witty thoughts. If you want the very personification of wittiness then—“
“Good god, Merlin, shut up.” Arthur gave him a withering look while Gwen and Morgana didn’t bother to hold back laughter. “You’d better not give Lord Carados that kind of lip, otherwise it’ll be worse than the stocks for you.”
Merlin knew, theoretically, that Arthur was talking as he always did, and that “worse than the stocks” translated to something unpleasant though mundane such as “clean all the stables of manure.” But Gaius’ words from the night before leapt into Merlin’s head, and he found that he had a hard time shaking them away. Enough so that he lost track of the conversation, and followed Arthur up to his chambers in relative silence. He kept it up as he helped Arthur out of his day clothes and into his outfit for that evening.
“Merlin.” Merlin jerked his eyes up in the middle of tugging Arthur’s tunic over his head. It took him another second to realize that it was backwards.
“Sorry,” Merlin murmured, tugged it off again. Arthur scrutinized Merlin, lips pinched.
“Well,” Arthur said in a tad too loud a voice. “Go on and say it.”
“Whatever it is that’s sent your head into the clouds. Might as well get it out before you blurt it to Lord Carados in a fit of indiscretion.”
Merlin’s lips twitched despite himself. He always found vague humor in watching Arthur try to be kind and haughty at the same time. It was like watching a cat scrambling after its own tail.
“I was thinking about the same Carados,” Merlin said. He tugged the tunic down to settle on Arthur’s shoulders, then went to the bed to fetch the handsome red jacket that Arthur favored for these kinds of feasts. “You seem to be convinced I’m going to do something stupid, which makes me wonder why you’re so worried about him being displeased.”
Arthur sighed hard as he shrugged on the jacket and started buttoning it up on his own. Merlin let his hands fall back to his sides and remained where he was, just behind Arthur. From here, he could see the soft hairs running down the back of Arthur’s neck.
“Diplomacy and politics, Merlin,” Arthur said in a voice that sounded much like the one that appeared around campfires during patrols, or late at night. “It’s…well, it’s hard to explain. A lot of it wouldn’t make sense unless you live among it every day.”
“And what do you think I do?” Merlin asked. “Running around after you all day?”
A small, surprised laugh tumbled from Arthur. He fastened the last button and turned enough to glance Merlin. “So you’re doing more than dozing off at those meetings?” he asked, his mouth curled up at its edge.
“Oh don’t get me wrong,” Merlin said breezily. “I get some good daydreaming done, but even I can get tired of my own imaginings.”
“Right.” Arthur placed his hands on his hips, small smile still in place. He studied Merlin, then seemed to come to some internal decision. “I know that the staff likes to gossip,” he started.
“Lips are sealed tight,” Merlin jumped in.
“Mm,” Arthur grunted, but continued. “You remember that Carados has a son?”
“I know that it’s my father’s wish that Morgana marry him. It makes sense; Carados was one of my father’s finest generals, and his family is an old one. Very proper match for a daughter of Gorlois.” Arthur pointed to Merlin, ignoring the way his eyes had widened. “Offering the prince’s servant as a replacement carries diplomatic weight. It signals that Uther thinks highly of Carados, because it is an honor for the prince to offer his manservant—though if said manservant messes up spectacularly, then it can upset the whole proceedings.”
“Thanks, I got that part. Wait, so Uther’s going to make Morgana marry the son?”
“If Carados agrees, which I don’t see how he’d refuse.”
“What, because of the wealth?”
“Carados is already wealthy, so probably for the political leverage,” Arthur said, striding to the cabinet and grabbing his best boots. Merlin followed like an irate goose.
“And where does that leave Morgana?” Merlin jabbed at the air. “Thrown around like a carrot on a stick for the benefit of some old man’s loyalties.”
“Merlin,” Arthur started.
“Well don’t tell me you don’t see it,” Merlin scowled.
“It’s the reality for Morgana, just as it is the reality for any of high birth.” Arthur tugged on his boots. His mouth had settled into a straight line. “We all have our duties and sacrifices to make. We all learn to accept them.”
“Right,” Merlin said, shoulders dropping. “Duties and sacrifices.” Something in his voice made Arthur glance up, but at that moment a sharp rap echoed from the hall door.
In sluggish movements, Merlin turned and crossed the room to swing the door open. One of the castle messengers stood straight-backed on the other side.
“Here to announce the arrival of Lord Carados,” the messenger said. “Merlin, your presence is requested.”
“Right, I…” Merlin turned slightly, and Arthur stood and waved a hand at him.
“I can dress myself the rest of the way,” Arthur said. Merlin saw him hesitate before adding, “You’ll be fine, just keep your wits about you.”
Merlin had to fight not to gape; it was practically a declaration of undying loyalty. If the messenger hadn’t been standing there, Merlin might have been tempted to see what else he could ferret out of Arthur while he was in this oddly charitable, open mood.
Instead Merlin nodded once, then turned and followed the messenger out the door.
In the chambers, Arthur stared at the closed door for several long moments, his fingers worrying at the edges of his jacket sleeves.
In the castle’s entrance hall stood a man with handsome silver hair and a thick, forest-green cloak that Merlin—having spent the last two years navigating a prince’s wardrobe—recognized as high quality. Beside Carados stood a young man in just as fine clothing. He had his head turned enough for Merlin to see a firm jawline, a wide nose, and a shock of chestnut hair. The younger Carados, Merlin assumed. Well, if Morgana ended up being forced to marry him, she wouldn’t lose out as far as appearances.
The son caught sight of Merlin hurrying toward them, and said something to his father. The elder man turned to reveal a face much like the younger’s except bearded and more advanced in years, and thus draped in a certain dignity. But where the son had wide, dark brown eyes that gave him a bovine, kindly expression, the Lord Carados’ eyes were narrow, deep-set and startlingly light blue. Merlin thought that he had only ever seen such a pale shade of blue in certain precious stones stored in the castle treasury.
“My lords,” Merlin said when he and the messenger got near enough. He bowed as deep as he dared. When he straightened, he found himself pinned beneath Carados’ gaze. The pale blue eyes roved up and down Merlin.
“You are the replacement?” Lord Carados asked. He had a deep, rolling voice; it was the kind of voice that Uther sometimes adopted when he needed to make a speech to a group of dignitaries.
“Yes, sire,” Merlin straightened.
“Then first thing I need is to have someone get my manservant to the physician,” Carados said. He jerked his head behind him. “He waits outside with the horses, and that wound in his gut isn’t getting better.”
“Right.” Merlin glanced to the messenger still hovering behind him. The boy nodded once in understanding, then darted to the great doors. Merlin nearly smiled; it was nice to have someone listen to his directions for once.
“Your rooms are prepared,” Merlin said to the two men, and tangentially to the attendants waiting behind them. “If you would follow me.”
Soon, Merlin was leading a small train of two noblemen and four servants hauling trunks. People they passed paused and watched Lord Carados with sharp eyes, Servants and nobles both, Merlin noted. Between what Gaius and Arthur had told him, it seemed fair to say that Lord Carados had a heavy reputation trailing behind him.
They reached the Carados’ assigned adjoining chambers. Carados’ son took two of the servants with him into his room while Merlin accompanied Carados and the third servant into the other.
“I bet on my sword,” Carados said as soon as the door had swung shut. “That we shall not see my son again for several hours while he primps.”
Merlin stared and furiously tried to decide whether Carados had been thinking aloud or actually wanted Merlin to answer with a blithe, “Ah yes, very good sir, that son of yours.”
“Tonight of all nights is a decent one for Garrick to fuss about appearances,” the other servant spoke up. Merlin turned to see the servant set his trunk on the ground. The man was tall, a good half head above Merlin, with cropped yellow-brown hair and a sword strapped to his side. Merlin could see the outline of muscles even through the fabric of his sleeves. Ah; a personal guard, then. Not uncommon for a nobleman to keep one close, especially when crossing long distances.
Carados sniffed, unconvinced. “I certainly didn’t have time to moon about love and flowers at that age. You know what I was busy doing? Fending off enemy soldiers, that’s what. Not dying keeps you plenty busy.”
“Indeed, my liege,” the guard dipped his head. His eyes flicked in Merlin’s direction. Something in his expression made Merlin guess that Carados had expressed these sentiments yesterday, and would express them again tomorrow, much as Arthur loved to go on about Merlin’s incompetence.
“You don't spend entire afternoons lounging about writing love poems, do you, boy?” Carados continued, and this time Merlin recognized that the nobleman was talking to him. It threw him off; all nobles except Morgana and Arthur tended to talk at Merlin like he was a piece of furniture. They didn’t talk to him, and they certainly didn’t do it so casually.
“Er.” Merlin coughed. “No, I don’t.”
“You don’t,” Carados confirmed with a nod. “Because I’m sure you’re busy getting things done and making a livelihood for yourself. You look like the sort.”
The surreal conversation was broken off with a broad knock on the door, which the guard went to answer. Uther stood on the other side, which just injected a fresh strangeness to this scene, as far as Merlin was concerned.
“Why Uther Pendragon!” Carados exclaimed, striding forward with a swirl of his rich, green cloak. “You old devil, you look as hale as you did all those years ago.”
“Same to you, my old friend,” Uther laughed—actually laughed!—and embraced Carados with several thumps to his back. Merlin gaped for several seconds, remembered himself, then ducked to pick uselessly at the trunk’s lock, if only to make it look like he was busy doing something.
“You’ll need the key, I think,” said a voice. Merlin looked up and found the guard standing over him, pulling a ring of keys from his satchel.
“Yes,” Merlin agreed, scrambling back to a stand. “That would help.”
He thought he saw the guard’s shoulders bounce a few times with a laugh, but his face was turned toward the trunk, so Merlin couldn’t be sure. Behind him, Uther and Carados were saying something about “how much Arthur and the Lady Morgana have grown.” That made Merlin’s teeth grind together.
“Here we are.” The guard stood and tipped open the chest’s lid to reveal several rich fabrics neatly folded together. “My master didn’t pack too much; it shouldn’t be hard to keep everything organized.”
“Thank you,” Merlin said. He thrust out a hand suddenly. “I’m Merlin.”
“Beval,” the guard accepted his hand. His grip was like a vise. “Personal guard to Lord Carados. We’ll be seeing plenty of one another, I expect.”
“I expect,” Merlin echoed. He found himself distracted, though he had no idea why. Something niggled at the base of his mind, some sense fainter than an echo. Merlin blinked into Beval’s narrow, brown face and tried to catch the sensation, but it slipped away with less than a whisper.
“And until your own man is well, I have taken the liberty of assigning my son’s personal manservant to attend your needs,” Uther said in a loud voice. “I trust you will be satisfied with your service.”
Merlin knew a cue when he heard one and let go of Beval’s hand so he could turn to the two other men and execute a deep bow. And still, he tried to catch the wisp of a sense. He failed completely.
“My thanks, Uther,” Carados said, his eyes on Merlin. “Your generosity has no bounds.”
Merlin flicked his eyes away from Carados’ pale blue ones. He was hit with the strange urge to cross his arms over himself. Instead, he nodded once, then went back to taking stock of the trunk.
Another few words between Uther and Carados, a final promise that they would see one another at the feast, and a click when Uther left them. As Merlin began to hang up a row of tunics, Beval said something to his master in words too low to hear. Another click of the door, and Merlin turned to see that the bodyguard had left as well. Merlin quickly turned back to the wardrobe and stared blankly at the row of tunics.
“Finest quality from Essetir’s seamstresses,” a voice said. Merlin jumped before he could help himself; he hadn’t heard Carados approach. He turned around and found Carados standing a half-arm’s length from him, holding a fine black jerkin. “Camelot has its boons,” Carados continued. “But I have no doubt that Essetir makes superior clothes.” He smiled with a twitch of his moustache. “Don’t share that with Uther; I have no interest in either of us getting sent away.”
“No,” Merlin said. He hesitantly put out his hands, wondering if Carados wanted him to take the jerkin. Carados’ eyes dropped to the proffered hands. He passed over the clothing, then in one smooth motion, curled his fingers around Merlin’s wrist.
It wasn’t a harsh grip, was the thing. Merlin had no doubt that he could have torn loose with a modest yank. Except he didn’t. Instead he stood, frozen, while Carados slid a rough thumb across the sensitive skin of Merlin’s inner wrist, over blue veins that twined like rivers across pale skin. Merlin thought he might be trembling, but he thought it in a distant way, like he was merely watching himself and not completely there.
“Uther is a good host,” Carados muttered, eyes still on Merlin’s veins and his thumb gliding over them. “He knows my tastes.”
Merlin knew he was trembling now. He knew that his heart was bruising itself against his ribs, that his lungs were starting to bellow, but also that no sound came from him and that his muscles were locked in a terrible sort of rigor mortis. For a wild moment he wondered whether Carados was placing a spell on him, but a deeper part of Merlin knew that this was simply his own body betraying him. That, somehow, seemed far more awful.
Carados made a small, dismissive sound, like he’d come to an internal decision, then dropped Merlin’s wrist and brought the same hand up to pat him twice on the cheek.
“Set out the white tunic and the dark red cloak,” Carados ordered. “And after that, fetch me a basin of water so I might wash the road dust from my face.”
Carados turned around, not bothering to look at the expression on Merlin’s face.
The echoes bouncing around the great hall swelled as more and more nobles filed in. Gwen had been assigned to show people to their seats—carefully chosen seats, Gwen was assured, and if she accidentally sat the Lady of This next to the Duke of That, then she’d be in Big Trouble. Gwen was used to these social rules by now, having attended to Morgana for many years. But she still double-checked herself every time she smiled graciously at a guest and pulled out their seat for them.
Right before the royal family was due to make their entrance, Gwen ushered a small, bird-like young woman to a chair at the very end of one of the far tables. The woman had just barely sat when a horn brayed across the hall, and the hall clattered with the sound of several chairs being pushed back. The young woman tripped to a stand, hands fluttering at her plaited russet hair in what looked like a nervous gesture. Everyone in the hall dropped their eyes to the ground as was proper, including Gwen. Except then she realized that the woman was watching Uther, Arthur, and Morgana with bright eyes, as bold as you please.
Gwen tapped the woman’s side. The woman turned, and Gwen widened her eyes and raised her eyebrows. The woman stared, glanced around, seemed to register everyone’s downcast eyes, released a squeak, then tucked her chin to her chest and stared unblinkingly at the ground. Gwen nearly smiled despite herself.
When the royal family had made their way to the high table, the guests again took their seats. Gwen turned to attend to her duties, then was stopped by a hand on her arm. She looked down to find the wide, gray eyes of the woman. She looked downright doll-like from this angle, with her delicate nose and small, pink lips.
“Thank you,” the woman breathed. “I’m so, terribly foolish. I’ve never been to a royal event; I forgot myself completely.”
Gwen wasn’t surprised to hear that. Based on her seating, she must have been a very low-ranking lady, or even the daughter or wife of a wealthy merchant. She didn’t seem to have anyone accompanying her, though, and that tugged a bloom of sympathy from Gwen. She smiled at the woman.
“Don’t worry about it,” she soothed. “I doubt anyone noticed.”
“You’re kind to say that,” the woman said. She shook her head. “I told my brother, I didn’t want to come down here by myself and make a fool of myself. But he was going on about how we hadn’t traveled all the way here for nothing, and that fevers aside, someone needed to represent the family and—oh, dear, I think I’m rambling again.” The woman peered fretfully up at Gwen.
“Is your brother ill?” Gwen ventured. “We have a fine physician who can tend to him.”
“Just chills from the journey,” the woman waved a hand. “He gets them easily; he shall be all right after a night beside the fire.”
Up on the high table, Uther had stood and raised a goblet. At the same moment, Gwen spotted Merlin sliding into the great hall through a side door.
“Well you’re very brave for coming out here by yourself,” Gwen told the woman in a low voice. “Just smile a lot—you have a lovely smile, you know that?—and I suspect you’ll get along all right.” The woman’s mouth turned up slowly, and Gwen squeezed her arm. Then, with a murmur that she needed to go, Gwen slipped along the wall and left the woman looking nervous yet bolstered.
A flurry of “Long live the King!” echoed across the room as Uther proclaimed the Mabon feast officially begun. Gwen had to snake her way through regiments of servants bearing steaming trays to reach Merlin leaning against the opposite wall.
“Well you’re a clever one, aren’t you?” Gwen jostled his shoulder as she approached. “Showing up late to slither out of assignments.”
“You know me,” Merlin said. “Master slitherer.” His grin only tugged at his mouth and didn’t reach his eyes at all.
“Are you all right?” Gwen asked.
“Sure.” Merlin briefly rubbed at his face. “Just distracted. Come on, I think we’re meant to be attending the high table.” Merlin moved past Gwen without meeting her eyes. She followed him after a moment of hesitation.
Gwen could overlook one odd moment on Merlin’s part, but then he proved to be evasive all that evening. Where usually they kept one another amused during these long feasts, tonight Merlin constantly managed to avoid her glance or be too busy to talk. Well after midnight, when the true carousing had begun and the servants were starting to clear away all the leftover food, Merlin disappeared entirely. After fruitlessly searching for him in the kitchens, Gwen went ahead and prepared a small platter of food and, slipping away from the hot, loud main halls, carried it down to Gaius’ chambers.
“Yes, yes, come in,” Gaius called out when Gwen rapped on the familiar old door. She squeaked it open to find Gaius bent over a small, boiling cauldron on his workbench. Beside him, an unfamiliar man slept on the cot. Gwen could see the sweat beaded on his pale forehead.
“Ah, Gwen,” Gaius said, straightening as she came into the chambers. “What brings you here? Is there someone upstairs who needs tonic to accompany all their wine?”
“Not quite yet,” Gwen laughed. She approached his bench and set down the plate. “I thought you might like some dinner. The cooks have completely outdone themselves this year.”
“I believe it, with the way the kitchens have been smelling the last few days. Thank you, Gwen.”
“No trouble.” Gwen fiddled with her apron and peered around the chambers. “Is Merlin here?” she asked. “I seem to have lost him and I wanted to…talk, I guess.”
“Mm? No, I’m afraid it’s just been me and this poor man the whole evening.” Gaius gestured to the pale, sweating patient. “He’s the reason I haven’t joined the festivities. I’m afraid that if I leave, I shall return to find a corpse.”
“Is he that bad off?” Gwen asked, scrutinizing the man.
“Indeed. You should have seen the state of his wound when he was brought in here. Pus-filled and inflamed; another day and he’d have been beyond help.” Gaius sniffed. “I don’t think he was properly bandaged. Really, you’d think that a man as wealthy as Carados could treat his personal manservant a bit better.”
“You’d think,” Gwen echoed. She bit at her bottom lip. “Well,” she said. “I still have duties tonight. If Merlin comes here, tell him I was looking for him.”
Gaius promised that he would, and Gwen found herself giving Carados’ manservant one last, long look before she slipped out the door.
The first proper day of the Mabon festival always proved to be Morgana’s favorite. She and Gwen had made it a long-standing tradition to spend as much of the daylight hours as they could in the market, taking advantage of the many merchants who had traveled to the city from all over Camelot for the holiday. They were doing their initial round of the market, their arms hooked together and their pace leisurely. They passed men and women of all levels of society, milling around tents dyed a rainbow of colors and stalls selling anything from livestock to glass beads to hot food.
“Oh, look, the man with the trained dogs is back this year,” Gwen said, pointing. The man in question played his audience with jokes and exclamations while at his feet, a brown mongrel rolled along a small barrel with its front paws.
“I could train one of my hounds to do that within a day,” a voice spoke up, and the women turned to see Arthur approaching them. A burst of applause broke out; the brown mongrel had climbed atop the barrel completely, and now trotted atop it while the barrel rolled backwards.
“Ah, but can your hounds do that, Arthur?” Gwen asked, cocking her head.
Arthur raised his eyebrows at Gwen, but his tone was amused when he said, “A dog has no need to dance on barrels when hunting a stag, I think.”
“Well you ought to consider it,” Morgana said. “It would make your excursions much more interesting.”
Arthur shook his head and, instead of coming back with a quip, asked, “Have either of you seen Merlin?”
Morgana had to give thought to that one. She knew she’d seen Merlin attending both Arthur and Carados last evening, but at some point the wine had reached her head, and the rest of the night was mostly blurry memories of Garrick, Carados’ son, trying to ply her with conversation and smelling strongly of some perfume. “I haven’t,” Morgana concluded, shaking her head. “Not since last night.”
“He went off somewhere around midnight,” Gwen added. Her voice sounded grimmer, and Morgana turned to find Gwen’s brows lowered. “I think something’s wrong; he was acting strange all night.”
“I thought he was being less impertinent than usual,” Arthur said lightly. He shrugged and squinted at the dog trainer again. “He might be sulking. He wasn’t pleased with having been assigned to Carados.” They watched Arthur shift on his feet, like he had too much energy and didn’t know what to do with it. He turned back to them with an abrupt wave of his hand. “I’m going to try to find him.”
Morgana and Gwen both nodded as Arthur moved past them and disappeared into a narrow gap between tents. Morgana slid her attention over and found Gwen watching the space where Arthur had just been. Her brown, freckled nose was slightly wrinkled and her lips were rolled in.
“What are you thinking?” Morgana asked.
“Arthur is a little funny sometimes,” Gwen explained, almost uncertainly. She dragged her eyes back to Morgana. “I know he likes Merlin, but you’d only ever guess it if you paid attention at the right times.”
“Arthur doesn’t know what friendship means,” Morgana shrugged. “So he does the best he can with Merlin. We’re just lucky that Merlin is as long-suffering as he is.”
“Do you think he’s in trouble?” Gwen asked, and Morgana could see distress in her expression. “He was completely odd last night, he really was.”
“We’ll have to see if we can find him today, if Arthur can’t manage it.” Morgana frowned slightly as they started walking again. She didn’t like the notion of a Merlin who was in trouble; it made something cold rise inside her.
They continued down the lane of tents and stalls, then turned a corner at a cheese stall.
“Oh.” Morgana stopped so suddenly that Gwen made a small squeak when she whipped forward and back.
“What?” Gwen let go of Morgana’s arm. “What’s wrong—oh.” The two women ducked back behind the cheese stall in unison, then peered cautiously at the finely dressed figure standing five tents down, examining rapiers.
“I hoped he’d be spending all day sleeping,” Morgana said despairingly. “Look at him! He drank twice wine as much as Arthur and he looks…” Morgana shook a hand trying to find the word.
“Gorgeous?” Gwen offered, then grinned only a little sheepishly at the expression Morgana gave her. “Well don’t try to tell me he’s ugly, Morgana. We both have eyes.”
“I wish he was ugly,” Morgana huffed. “Then he probably wouldn’t think he’s so wonderful or put on so many airs. Look at that.”
Gwen and Morgana studied Garrick, son of Carados, twirl a rapier lazily with one hand. He suddenly thrust it at a pile of grain sacks with a flourish of his cloak. A few people nearby clapped, and he gave them a deep bow.
“It’s like Arthur but worse,” Morgana said. “I mean, you heard him last night, right? He didn’t let me get in a word edgewise.”
“Yes, I know,” Gwen sighed. She straightened and brushed dust from her dress. “Well. No one has mentioned marriage yet, so we may as well forget about Garrick and focus on enjoying today.”
“No one’s mentioned it, but everyone’s thinking it.” Morgana straightened as well, eyes still on Garrick. Gwen exhaled hard and slid an arm around Morgana’s waist.
“Listen, you’re as clever as they come,” Gwen said. “If anyone can think of a way—“
Gwen and Morgana startled and turned around. Just a few paces behind them stood a thin, birdish young woman with russet hair draped loose over her shoulders. She clutched a basket and grinned so wide at Gwen that Morgana thought that her cheeks had to hurt.
“Hello to you,” Gwen’s features flowed into a returning grin, and she dropped her arm from Morgana’s waist. “I didn’t expect to meet you again so soon.”
“Well I wasn’t going to come out,” the woman said a little breathlessly. “But once again my brother insisted, though this time I had a much easier time following his advice.”
“And how is he?”
“Much better. By tonight he ought to be up and about as usual.” The woman seemed to have a hard time focusing on anything, her gray eyes flicking from one thing to another. But Morgana did see the moment that the woman’s gaze found her, stuck, and then widened exponentially. “Oh my,” the woman breathed.
“Ah. Yes.” Gwen straightened. “Lady Morgana, this is…”
“Letha Faintree,” the woman said breathlessly. “I—oh.” She flushed and executed a deep curtsey. “It is a pleasure to meet you, my Lady,” she said to the ground.
Morgana realized that she had started smiling, and peeked at Gwen to see what she thought. Gwen tilted her head ever so slightly and gave Morgana a look at seemed to say, She’s adorable; be nice.
“Well, Miss Faintree,” Morgana said. “Are you one of our guests for Mabon? I’m afraid I do not recall greeting you or your brother yesterday.”
“Oh, no, we only arrived right before the feast,” Letha explained, straightening and batting distractedly at her skirt. “Miss…” Letha flushed and turned to Gwen.
“Guinevere,” Gwen supplied. “Gwen for short.”
“Yes. Gwen can tell you, I was probably the last one to be seated.” Letha’s head bobbed. “But I’m so excited to be here. I’ve never been to the castle, and I’ve been wanting to visit for years now.”
“And where are you from?” Morgana asked.
“Far northern Camelot; a town called Morrowbend.”
“I know Morrowbend,” Morgana nodded. “It’s where the hunting parties go for the really big boars for feasts.”
“We’re famous for our boar sounders,” Letha agreed. “Lord Carados’ favorite activity is boar hunting, so he’s always sure to keep the population thriving.”
“Lord—“ Morgana tilted her head. “So you know the Carados family.”
Letha flushed again, this time to such an extent that her pale face turned outright pink. “Lands, yes,” Letha nodded, while Morgana tried to fathom the woman’s reaction. “My brother — he’s a merchant — he does business with Lord Carados often, and Garrick can usually be found somewhere about town. In fact.” Letha glanced around her. “Have you seen him at all? I know that he’s come as well; I saw him last night at the high table. He looked as if he was having a fine conversation with you, Lady Morgana.”
“Conversation may not be the word,” Morgana said, and Gwen coughed suddenly.
“We saw him just over there, actually,” Gwen said, pointing down the lane. She peered behind her. “Yes, he’s still examining rapiers.”
“Oh, I should like go speak to him,” Letha clutched at her basket. She glanced at Gwen and Morgana. “Don’t worry, our families are quite friendly, and we’ve talked plenty. It wouldn’t be an impertinence of me to approach him.”
“The thought never crossed my mind,” Morgana said breezily. She studied the pink still splashed across Letha’s face, the way she fidgeted like a child and couldn’t seem to fight back a bright, wide smile. Slowly, something clicked into place in Morgana’s mind, and it made her reach down and tug at Gwen’s sleeve. “In fact,” Morgana continued. “Let’s all go down and say hello. If you don’t mind us tagging after you.”
“Not at all,” Letha chirped.
“Morgana,” Gwen muttered as the three of them rounded the cheese stall and maneuvered through an old woman’s flock of geese. “What are you doing?”
“Being clever,” Morgana muttered back. “I just need to see something.”
Garrick seemed to have found a rapier to his liking, and was handing the swordsmith a small bag of coins while one of the apprentices wrapped the rapier in oilcloth.
“Garrick!” Letha called out, raising one hand. Garrick whipped his head up, and his already handsome face blew into a delighted expression that struck Morgana as almost obscenely attractive.
“Why Miss Letha,” Garrick exclaimed, abandoning the swordsmith and rushing forward to grasp at Letha’s hands. The two of them, in that moment, looked like something from a tapestry, or one of the old ballads about young lovers in the springtime. Morgana and Gwen kept a respectable distance, as if they sensed they’d be intruding on something. Morgana glanced slyly over at Gwen, who watched them with her mouth slightly open. Morgana nudged her arm with her elbow, and Gwen shook her head without looking over.
“Morgana Pendragon,” Gwen whispered. “You are tricksy. But also brilliant.”
“I have no idea what you mean,” Morgana muttered back. Gwen shook her head again, though this time her lips had started to braid into a slight grin. “Think of it this way,” Morgana added. “If we play this the right way, then everyone will end up with exactly what they want.”
“Except for Uther and Carados,” Gwen reminded her. She’d gone back to watching Garrick and Letha, who seemed to have forgotten that anything existed in the world besides one another. Morgana didn’t think that they’d even started talking yet; they looked too busy smiling at one another.
“Honestly,” Morgana muttered. “Uther and Carados can go stick their heads in the pig slop.”
“Ah, the rose-like Lady Morgana,” Garrick suddenly said. He and Letha had turned to her and Gwen, though their hands remained lightly entwined. Garrick bowed, and Morgana caught a thick whiff of the perfume he seemed to favor. “A pleasure to encounter you so soon.”
“The same,” Morgana returned a brief curtsey. “I see you’ve found a new weapon.”
“A magnificent one,” Garrick said, turning to accept the oilcloth package from the apprentice. “You would not believe the balance. This man,” Garrick nodded at the swordsmith. “Is a genius of his craft.” The swordsmith bent his head and rubbed his forehead with his knuckle. “We all ought to explore the rest of the market together,” Garrick continued, grinning around at the group. “I’m thinking I’d like to find a good horse to go with this rapier.”
“I’d love to but—“
“And I’ve seen many gorgeous jewelry stalls,” Garrick ran over Morgana’s words. “Which I’m sure would look lovely on all of you.” His eyes flicked over to Letha as he said it; she seemed to have noticed because she went into a fresh round of blushes.
“Wherever you’d like to go, I’ll be happy,” Letha all but sighed, and Morgana cleared her throat.
“Well then,” Garrick announced. “Shall we?”
Smiles plastered on, Morgana and Gwen fell in behind Garrick and Letha, who insisted on walking so close together that their shoulders kept bumping.
“How about you get a horrible headache in about five minutes?” Gwen whispered as the four of them dodged an oxcart piled high with someone’s grain. “And then we get you in less notable clothes, wrap up your hair in a kerchief, and go watch the trained dogs and find that woman who sells the candied apples.”
“Brilliant,” Morgana whispered back. “Gwen, I do believe that I love you.”
Gwen flicked a glance at her, then looked ahead with a studied expression. Morgana could still see the russet coloring Gwen’s brown cheeks, and that sent a little thrill of pleasure through her chest.
Arthur found Merlin in precisely the last place he’d have expected to find him. That is to say, one of the places Merlin should ideally have been: in the wash chamber scrubbing what looked like Lord Carados’ forest-green cloak.
“Merlin?” Arthur blurted when he spotted the lone, lanky figure with his sleeves rolled up to his elbows and his forearms buried in the wash bin. Merlin whipped around, and for an instant Arthur was struck by how drawn Merlin’s face looked. Then Merlin’s expression relaxed, and he pulled his arms from the wash bin and wiped his forehead with a soapy wrist.
“Oh, hello,” he said. “Did you need something?”
That was a good question, and not something Arthur felt like answering with any honesty. “You’d disappeared, that’s all,” Arthur said instead as he strode through the chamber to Merlin’s washtub. “Gwen was worried and asked me to look for you.”
“Okay.” Arthur didn’t like the wry way that Merlin looked at him. He’d never liked that look, actually. It always left him feeling exposed, like Merlin saw something that no one else—perhaps not even Arthur—could glimpse. “Well, tell Gwen I’m fine,” Merlin said. “Just wet.”
“Indeed.” Arthur toed at a pile of clothing. “I’ll have to ask Lord Carados his secret; you never seem to find this much initiative to wash my clothes.”
Merlin dropped his head suddenly and bent over to grab the cloak swirling in the wash water. “I thought it might please him,” he said. “Not interested in ruining all the diplomacy and politics happening right now.”
“Merlin…” Arthur trailed off, and Merlin glanced up. Arthur shrugged one shoulder. “I just said that to…come on, you can leave it if Carados didn’t specifically ask for it. Did you not want to see the market?”
“Sure, but.” Merlin blinked and straightened again. “Hang on, is this you giving me a day off?”
“No.” Arthur squared his shoulders. “This is me telling you that your orders for the day are to come with me to the market, find Gwen and Morgana so they can stop worrying and, I don’t know, make sure the peace is kept.”
“The peace,” Merlin raised his eyebrows. “I see.”
“Well all my knights are given today off,” Arthur explained. “So you’re the best I have, I’m afraid.”
“Ah.” Merlin nodded solemnly. “Well then in that case, you ought to get me one of those nice cloaks they get to wear. I’ve always liked them.”
“Cheeky,” Arthur said, and abruptly threw an arm over Merlin’s neck, putting him into a half headlock. He ruffled at Merlin’s hair while Merlin squirmed and protested through a laugh. Something that had been wound tight inside Arthur suddenly relaxed with the sound of that laugh, and it made Arthur want to do something silly like hug Merlin or, perhaps, kiss him.
He didn’t, of course.
(But he wanted to.)
That evening, Merlin climbed the stairs to Carados’ floor at a slow shuffle. He had followed Arthur’s lead and allowed himself a good several hours wandering the marketplace. It was enough to let Merlin nearly forget. But he’d also excused himself a bit early so he could return to the washing chamber and finish Lord Carados’ clothes. He didn’t know what he thought would come of the extra work. Maybe that if he performed above and beyond as a servant, then Carados wouldn’t…and Merlin didn’t know how to think of that. His mind seemed to veer from the idea every time Merlin approached it.
No matter how slow Merlin moved, he did finally reach Carados’ chambers. Beval stood in his usual place beside the chamber door. He leaned against the wall peeling an apple with a pocketknife. He had a languid look to him, like a cat perched on a wall watching everything around him while pretending that he didn’t care about any of it. He lifted his head when Merlin’s boots scuffed against the flagstone.
“Hello,” Beval greeted. He nodded at the door. “He’s ready in there.”
“Thanks.” Merlin hesitated, scrutinizing Beval. He wondered how loyal Beval was to his master, whether he’d do anything if Merlin told him that he was deeply, sickeningly frightened to enter those chambers. Beval paused in his apple peeling and looked up again.
“Did you forget something?” Beval asked.
“No,” Merlin said. He rolled his shoulders and, with Beval still watching, approached to knock on the door.
“Enter,” came the muffled response. Merlin did, glancing one more time at Beval. The guard’s expression was inscrutable.
Carados sat at the wide desk in the room’s corner, reading what looked like a letter. Merlin approached, and Carados folded it up and tucked it in one of the desk’s cubbyholes.
“I shall wear the blue shirt tonight,” Carados said, remaining seated and not looking up as he shuffled through more papers on his desk. “But before that, fetch a brush, clippers, and a mirror. I’ll need to trim my beard.” Merlin nodded, and turned back around. He hadn’t spoken a word.
Merlin took his time to fetch the items requested, then once he returned, did his best to trim the silver-gray beard. It wasn’t too hard, just a matter of clipping away stray hairs, and Carados seemed satisfied with the results. Merlin dressed him for the second night’s feast, presented him with the buffed and polished boots he’d been asked to attend to that day, and informed Carados that his travel clothes were cleaned and hanging out to dry.
“Really?” Carados examined Merlin. “Well then. Excellent work.”
And with that, Carados dismissed Merlin. Merlin tried not to dart from the room, but he could feel the relief crashing over him. Perhaps, then, it had been one strange event. Perhaps if Merlin performed well enough, Carados would leave him alone.
Merlin passed Beval without looking at him this time and disappeared down the hall hurriedly, like he had somewhere important to be. The bodyguard watched Merlin go, still like a cat, still seeing everything and not bothering to hint at what he thought of it.
The feast that night was smaller and more relaxed. They still had four more nights to go until the actual autumnal equinox, and that night would be a true excursion of festivities. For now, the guests were content with relatively simple fare, enough to satisfy them and to accompany their wines and meads. The servants took advantage of the more casual atmosphere by allowing themselves time to relax in the kitchens between table runs. Even Madame Dena didn’t scold nearly as much as she could have.
Merlin and Gwen had secured themselves nearly twenty minutes away from the high table with Uther’s assignment to fetch another chicken. The next batch was still being roasted on the spit, so the two of them decided to grab food of their own while they waited.
“I’m hearing rumors that we’re to have dancing tonight after we clean up,” Gwen was saying around bites of bread sopped in gravy. She sat cross-legged on a sealed barrel, her plate in her lap. “Billy is going to bring out his lute and Rosie her psaltery, and I think the visiting servants have some instruments among them.” She waved a chunk of bread. “We haven’t had a good dance for too long.”
Merlin hummed his agreement, heels kicking against his barrel’s side. Around them, the kitchen hummed with activity, but instead of frantic, it felt warm and purposeful. It felt safe down here.
Merlin looked up, then smiled slightly.
“You have some gravy…” Merlin reached over and wiped at the stray gravy on Gwen’s chin with his thumb.
“Thank you,” Gwen ducked her head slightly, but then lifted it again and scrutinized Merlin. “You sure you’re alright, though?” she asked. “I know you said that earlier, but if it was just for Arthur’s sake—“
“Arthur’s sake?” Merlin echoed around a laugh.
“Come on, he worries all the time,” Gwen rolled her eyes. “You should have seen him earlier, asking after you like a lost duckling.”
“He wasn’t!” Merlin protested, though his belly still did a small flip.
“He’d never admit it in a million years, but ask Morgana.” Gwen shrugged. “I just need to make sure. You’re fine?”
“I’m fine,” Merlin nodded. “I um…” he paused. “I’ve been worrying about Morgana.”
“About this business with Garrick. Arthur says Uther wants them to marry, and I’m certain she’s not thrilled about that.”
“Well, no.” Gwen’s eyes darted around the kitchen, and she leaned forward, her black curls tickling Merlin’s cheek and temple. “But,” she whispered. “I think we have a plan.”
“What kind of plan?” Merlin asked, intrigued.
“I’m not at liberty to say,” Gwen said. She looked bursting with mischievous energy, and Merlin felt a great rush of warmth toward her all of a sudden.
“Gwen, come one,” he wheedled. “You can trust me. Who would I tell, Gaius? He doesn’t care about gossip.”
“Well.” Gwen grinned slyly. “Did you notice a new seating arrangement tonight?”
“Er.” Merlin squinted across the kitchen, at the baker pulling out a fresh tray of breads, and tried to recall who had been sitting near whom.
“Garrick,” Gwen helped him. “He was seated at the far end of the high table, and a certain young woman was placed at the top of the adjoining table. Not ideal, actually. Morgana could only get a merchant and his sister so high up before people really started making a stink.”
Gwen sighed indulgently. “Today we’ve discovered that Garrick is already in love with a merchant-class woman, and she is smitten with him, and no doubt they are forbidden to court thanks to their social statuses. So, we have decided that it’s our duty to help them escape the bars of society and be with one another happily ever after, the end.” Gwen rocked back slightly and raised her eyebrows.
“And…oh, so then Morgana gets away scot free.” Merlin nodded thoughtfully. “That’s downright devious.”
“It’s sweet, actually,” Gwen said, picking up a sliver of meat from her plate. “Like in the stories of forbidden love and all that.”
“Let me know if I can help,” Merlin said. “I’ve never undermined a political marriage before.”
“Ugh, don’t mention that part,” Gwen wrinkled her nose. “If Uther or Carados get wind of this, the uproar will be a nasty one.”
“Yeah.” Merlin looked down at his plate, suddenly frowning. “It will at that.”
It seemed that Billy, Rosie, and the other musically inclined couldn’t wait until after clean up to start tuning their instruments and fiddling out familiar country ditties. By the time Merlin swung by the kitchen later that evening for another pitcher of mead, people had already cleared away the big central tables and several couples were dancing a traditional reel. Merlin lingered at the edge of the room, pitcher of mead still in his hands, while he watched the men spin the women around them with a flash of thick skirts dusted with flour.
Merlin often thought that he had some luck with his position in the castle, that he could watch the antics of the nobles up close and then slip away to the servant quarters where people spoke more freely and tended to treat Merlin with something bordering on respect. Merlin, after all, served the crown prince and future king. Everyone knew it, and it often made things easier when Merlin was trying to procure the prince’s supper or call in a favor. Sometimes, it could make up for the days when being the crown prince’s manservant meant acting as the moving arrow target during training.
“I haven’t missed the festivities, it seems,” said a voice, and Merlin turned to see Gaius approaching him with his hands tucked into his sleeves and his hair somehow more askew than usual.
“Nice to see you about,” Merlin greeted him. “How are things back in your chambers?”
“Calmed down finally,” Gaius sighed. “The two vomiting cases have finally felt well enough to leave, and Carados’ servant seems to be stabilizing. I’m happy to report that he woke up today and drank some broth.”
“How much longer do you think until he’s up and about?”
“Oof,” Gaius shook his head. “Don’t think so far ahead yet, my boy. He’s lingering in that fever, and his wound is still stitching itself together. I’m afraid you’ll be doubled up on your assignments for a matter of weeks yet, depending on how long Carados chooses to stay after Mabon.”
“After…?” The pitcher of mead sagged slightly in Merlin’s hands. He should have considered that. Nobles didn’t tend to visit for a few days; they usually lingered for weeks or even months.
Gaius eyed Merlin’s face, his lips thinning. “How are things going with that?” Gaius asked.
Merlin parted his lips, closed them again, then said, “They’re fine.”
Gaius, Merlin considered, was often too shrewd for his own good. Merlin shrugged. “He’s talkative, but that’s all. Nothing unusual.” Merlin lifted the pitcher slightly. “I need to get this to the high table,” he said.
“Of course, of course.” Gaius waved a hand, and Merlin ducked away.
When he reached the high table, Uther and Carados were still engaged in some slurred reminiscence of a bygone battle they had fought together. Garrick and the merchant girl, Letha, had eyes only for each other. Morgana chatted with Gwen while looking pleased as a cat who had gotten into the milk pail. Arthur looked bored.
“Oh thank the gods,” Arthur said when Merlin plunked the pitcher down. He reached over to grab the pitcher and refilled his goblet a little unsteadily. “Merlin, stop going away, I need someone to distract me from…” Arthur waved with the pitcher to the table in general. “This.”
“Gwen and Morgana are right there,” Merlin pointed out.
“We’re not interesting enough for the prince,” Morgana called over.
“You’re talking about dress fabrics,” Arthur protested back. “What the hell would I have to contribute to a conversation on dress fabrics?”
“You might be surprised, sire,” Gwen said. Arthur made a face and took a deep draught of his mead.
“If you’re so bored, I think dancing’s started in the kitchen,” Merlin offered. “Oh, no, hang on, do you know what a kitchen is? It’s the place where I magically get your food and—“
“You need to stop assuming you’re so funny,” Arthur told him sourly.
“No, I disagree,” Morgana said. “I think you could write a proper ballad about all the wittiness our Merlin expresses.” She snuck a sly grin at Merlin, and he had to duck his head in response. Arthur looked faintly disgusted.
“Moreover,” Morgana continued, sliding to a stand. “I’d love to dance. Arthur?”
Arthur pursed his lips, took stock once again of his dinner company, then shrugged and drained the goblet in one go.
“Why not?” he mumbled.
If anyone minded the prince and the king’s ward mingling among the servants, no one voiced it. Gwen suspected that everyone was too buzzed with wine to care. Everyone seemed softer at their edges, readier to laugh, and quicker to accept any missteps, of which there were many. Even Gaius looked as if he was enjoying it, and after much prodding on Morgana and Merlin’s parts, even danced a round with Madame Dena.
Gwen and Merlin danced together for the first few songs while Morgana and Arthur conducted themselves with much more grace a short ways away. If Gwen weren’t busy she’d have watched them. Unlike their usual interactions, Morgana and Arthur always danced like they understood exactly where the other would go next, and knew how to react so that the whole performance came off as effortless. Gwen suspected that that was what happened when two people had grown up being given formal dancing instructions together.
Gwen and Merlin, however, had discovered several months ago that their dancing was an exercise in reconciling Merlin’s gangling height with Gwen’s smaller frame and more demure movements. But when they managed it, Gwen fancied that they looked quite good together, hopping across the floor in a blur of feet, his red kerchief, and her blue skirt. She like them immensely like this, when it seemed that they were having a whole conversation in the back and forth of their bodies and the way they naturally took turns leading each other. The natural brightness Merlin carried in him seemed to shine more brilliantly than ever in these moments, and Gwen was always reminded of why she’d carried such a torch for this boy when he’d first arrived in Camelot.
When the song finished with a flourish of notes, Gwen and Merlin slipped to the benches set up along the far wall and collapsed into them with wide smiles and heavy breathes.
“Ugh,” Gwen groaned, stretching her legs. “My feet are hurting now.”
“Dancing too fast for you?” Merlin teased, poking Gwen’s arm.
“You wish, country boy,” Gwen proclaimed. “We city girls can hold our own in any reel.”
“Gwen!” Morgana was hurrying toward them with a flushed face and Arthur almost jogging to keep up. “Gwen, Gwen, Gwen,” Morgana panted, plopping next to Gwen and giggling abruptly.
“She found the hard stuff,” Arthur supplied. Gwen noted that he didn’t look entirely steady on his feet either.
“Shhh,” Morgana scowled. “Gwen.” She clasped one of Gwen’s hands between her own. “I have had a…a marvelous plan, and we should execute it um…forthwith.”
“Oh?” Gwen exchanged a look with Merlin.
“It’s to do with our secret stratagem,” Morgana nodded earnestly. “Now Gwen, what you will do is go out into the grand hall and tell our sweet, darling Letha that she is needed urgently somewhere, and you will bring her here.” Morgana lifted a finger. “And then, a bit later, I will go ask Garrick the Won’t-Shut-Up to accompany me somewhere, and naturally Uther and Carados will about piss themselves with pleasure at the idea that we might be starting to get along.”
“And…you’ll bring him here too?” Gwen guessed.
“Exactly!” Morgana grinned. “Gwen, you’re as smart as you are pretty. Yes, we’ll give them their very own secret forbidden night of dancing. That’s very romantic, right?”
“Stunningly romantic,” Gwen laughed. “Very well, I’ll go start. You…” Gwen glanced to Merlin and Arthur. “You two make sure she doesn’t drink anymore.”
“Don’t worry,” Arthur bobbed his head. “The hard stuff is gone.” Gwen’s eyes lingered over Arthur suspiciously before she gently peeled Morgana’s hands from her and went to engage in political sabotage.
It was easier than one would have expected. Everyone out in the hall was about as far gone as those in the kitchen, so Gwen didn’t even attract much attention when she slipped up to Letha, spoke briefly, and then led her down the table and out of the room. Garrick watched them go with a morose expression, and Letha kept glancing back with limpid eyes.
“How urgent, though?” Letha asked. “Has a message come for me? Has something horrible happened at home?”
“No,” Gwen promised. She took Letha’s hand and led her down the hall and to the kitchen. Letha gasped softly at the sight of a whole crowd of people dancing around the kitchen while the musicians played a tune that made one’s feet beg to start moving in rhythm. Gwen nudged her along the wall until they reached the bench where she had left the other three. Only Arthur remained, his arms crossed and his eyes lidded. He looked up when Gwen and Letha arrived.
“I did my best,” Arthur reported. “But Merlin and Morgana decided they absolutely needed to dance.” He nodded to the crowd, and after craning her neck, Gwen spotted two heads of black hair. Morgana, she noted, handled Merlin differently than Gwen ever could. Something in their movements looked more controlled, more forceful, and the way they navigated one another seemed to crackle with untapped power.
“You’re Prince Arthur,” Letha announced a little too loudly. “I was sitting…” she paused. “Four chairs from you. Three chairs from King Uther. That’s something, isn’t it? I’d never have thought I’d be sitting three chairs from the king.” She must have been getting used to royalty, because she didn’t blush or curtsey this time. That or she had been mellowed by the wine.
“Yes, I saw you,” Arthur nodded. “Letha, is it? I’ve been hearing an inordinate amount about you.”
“I—you have?” Letha looked around to Gwen. “Gwen, what’s happening?”
“A plan,” Gwen told her. She pressed her hand to Letha’s shoulder and had her sit on the bench beside Arthur. “We’ll wait here a bit, and soon Morgana will come back with a certain someone.”
“A certain…” Letha trailed off, looked at Arthur again as if to be sure he really was there, examined the floor of dancers, then swung back to Gwen with wide eyes. “Is it Garrick…can you tell?”
“Tell that you and Garrick are madly in love?” Gwen asked, taking a seat on Letha’s other side. “Yes, I believe I can.”
“I’m not sure how anyone might miss it,” Arthur breathed, and Gwen shot him a glare.
“And now you and Morgana are helping us?” Letha’s gray eyes became sparkling with unshed tears. “Oh Gwen.” Gwen made low hurk when Letha threw her arms around Gwen’s neck and buried her face in her shoulder. Gwen wrapped her arms around Letha and patted her back. Arthur gave her a wry look; Gwen shushed silently at him.
“But why?” Letha asked when she pulled away from Gwen. “I’m just…just a merchant’s daughter; I know that. Garrick and I have talked about it to such lengths. He’s still convinced that he can bring his father around and that one day we can marry…” Letha brought a hand to her lips and shook her head. “But I can’t think about that, because I know it won’t happen. The Carados family is prestigious; they have legacy as well as their wealth. And as for the Faintrees, we all know that we’re just farmers and swineherds who got especially clever with managing money. No amount of love declarations or poetry changes that.”
“I don’t know,” Arthur spoke up. Gwen and Letha both turned to him. He was watching the dancing, his arms still crossed. “I believe that marrying for love has a lot more value than some people like to give it.” He glanced to Letha. “Marrying someone you hate or are indifferent to would only sow resent and discord for the years to come, and that ultimately hurts the family, hurts the land, hurts the people who rely on you. Finding those who you care for most, surrounding yourself with them, that’s what leads to peace and prosperity. No matter how advantageous other options might initially seem.” He shrugged, and Gwen thought that for a split second his blue eyes darted in her direction
“Oh,” Letha breathed. “That’s a beautiful sentiment.” She sniffed and grinned shyly. “You know, I’d heard stories that you had a great amount of wisdom for your age. I’m glad they were true.”
“I…no, I.” Arthur uncrossed his arms and rubbed the back of his neck. “No, honestly, that’s something that a…someone close to me once said.” He shrugged and then went back to gazing at the dancing. Gwen’s attention lingered over him a bit longer.
“And there goes Morgana,” Arthur said a second later. Gwen turned her head just in time to catch sight of Morgana’s dark red gown disappear through the kitchen’s entryway. “Let’s hope she stays upright the whole time.”
“How much did she drink exactly?” Gwen asked suspiciously.
“More than me,” Arthur said, quirking a grin over at her.
“But you never answered my question,” Letha pressed. “Why help me?”
Gwen shrugged. “Because Morgana and I both like you and want you to be happy,” she said. “And because it’s quite fun to help two people in love be together.” And that was all true, Gwen told herself firmly. So Arthur could wipe that look right off his face.
Morgana returned quickly enough with a baffled Garrick in tow. She hauled him over to the benches and all but deposited him in Letha’s lap.
“And there we are,” Morgana proclaimed. “My good work for the night is done. Now excuse me, but I left Merlin in the care of that Beata woman, and I’m starting to think now that wasn’t the best idea.” Before any of them could speak, Morgana had already churned away with a flick of her long, black hair.
“Well.” Garrick peered around, looking foggy but pleased. “This is nice, isn’t it? Hello, Arthur. And hello…Morgana’s lovely maid.” Gwen smiled politely back.
“Garrick,” Letha said, scooting his legs that were half splayed over hers. “Would you like to ask me to dance?” Garrick’s expression suggested that this was the finest idea he’d heard all week. He tripped to a stand and, bowing, extended one hand.
“Lady Faintree,” he said. “Would you do me the honor?”
Letha accepted his hand and, with a bright look to Gwen, stood and let Garrick lead her to the middle of the dance space. Gwen leaned forward with her forearms on her knees and watched the two of them start on a slow sway that completely belied the quick jig surrounding them. Gwen decided it was very sweet.
“I hope you and Morgana know what you’re doing,” Arthur said. Gwen exhaled heavily.
“Me too,” she admitted. She kept gazing at the young lord and the merchant’s daughter, and found that she honestly did hope that they one day would be able to marry. They looked as if they’d make a good home together.
A light tap at Gwen’s shoulder made her look up and realize that Arthur now stood before her with one hand behind his back and the other extended. She’d seen the position numerous times, but always from the corner of the room, and never directed to her.
“Oh,” Gwen’s face heated. “No, I can’t.”
“Why not?” Arthur asked, his voice amused.
“It’s not proper,” Gwen said before she could think. Arthur guffawed.
“I’m sorry, but I just witnessed you conspire to bring together a lord and a commoner; you have no room to talk, Guinevere.”
“We’re a prince and a servant,” Gwen protested.
“And over there dance a king’s ward and a servant ten times more incompetent than you on your worst days,” Arthur nodded to the floor. “And no one has come in to arrest them.” He tilted his head. “Just one dance, and then I won’t ask anything so horrible ever again.”
“I never said it was horrible,” Gwen muttered, but she took Arthur’s hand with a smile pushing through her tight lips. Arthur led her to the dance floor’s center, then bowed like she was the daughter of a duke rather than that of a smith. Gwen giggled and curtseyed back, then took his hands and fell into the familiar peasant jig. Arthur appeared to know the steps, and must have caught Gwen’s surprised expression.
“I didn’t spend all my youth in the castle and swinging swords about,” Arthur confided in a low voice. “I’ve spent my time among the common folk.”
“Well,” Gwen grinned. “It’s useful for impressing common girls, I’ll give you that much.” Arthur’s laugh was loud and rich.
Looking back months later, Gwen would come to see that night as a last golden moment before a long stretch of storms. In that moment, everyone allowed themselves to be loudly, unabashedly happy. Even Arthur.
And especially Merlin.
The next morning did not much exist for Merlin, as he slept through the majority of it. He woke up with a start from a dream that somehow involved Uther doing a waltz with a horse. Sunlight poured across his bed at an angle that suggested a sun well into the sky, and it would have prompted Merlin to leap out of bed had his head not also been pounding like a hammer. Instead, Merlin managed a half flail and slow oozing from his bed.
“Good morning,” Gaius called out when Merlin emerged from his room. The physician was seated beside the cot containing Carados’ manservant, his fingers on the man’s wrist. “Or perhaps it is afternoon now,” Gaius added, placing the manservant’s arm back at his side.
“I need…” Merlin swayed slightly and lost track of his thoughts.
“You need to sit down before you’re sick all over my floors,” Gaius told him, standing and bustling to a small cauldron bubbling on his workbench. “I already had the pleasure of cleaning up after the prince.”
“Arthur?” Merlin asked, bringing up one hand to gingerly probe at his temple. He hissed and felt a fresh wave of nausea wash over him.
“What did I say?” Gaius darted over—shockingly spry for a man his age—and manhandled Merlin into the nearest stool. “Yes, Arthur was the one who brought you here last night. Well. Carried you here, I think is a better description.”
“Carried…” Merlin groaned and hid his face in his hands. “I’m going to hear about that one now.”
“Possibly not; Arthur seemed about as inebriated as you. I think you might get lucky and he won’t recall it at all.” Gaius went back to his cauldron, spooned out enough to fill a small cup, and returned to Merlin. “Drink,” he ordered, shoving the cup into Merlin’s hands. A waft of the cup’s contents drifted into Merlin’s face and he had to work hard to suppress the gag. “None of that,” Gaius scolded him. “It’s this or a whole day of feeling as you do now.”
Merlin gave Gaius a pitiable expression, but the physician remained unmoved. Finally, Merlin pinched his nose and swallowed the concoction in one go. He gasped at the taste and fumbled the cup back into Gaius’ hands.
“I need…” Merlin picked up on his earlier thought. “I need to go see to Carados.”
“Don’t bother; I’d bet you anything that he’s still sleeping off last night,” Gaius said, placing the cup back on the table. “No one has come asking for you, so I assume you’re safe. Wait until the nausea subsides.”
Gaius’ potion did its job. Within an hour, Merlin felt stable enough to gnaw on a heel of bread at the table, idly watching as Gaius took the manservant’s pulse yet again.
“You know,” Merlin said around a mouthful of bread. “I don’t think I’ve seen him awake yet.”
“He’s awoken here and there,” Gaius said. He muttered something inaudible to himself and straightened. “Though I’ll admit, less than I’d have liked.”
“I bet he’s taking advantage of being able to sleep all day,” Merlin offered. “If I were in his situation, that’s what I’d be doing.”
“You’d best hope not to get in this man’s situation,” Gaius muttered. His tone was so forbidding that Merlin nibbled at the rest of his bread without any more comment.
Figuring that he felt as decent as would that day, Merlin hauled himself from his stool and set off to be a little bit productive.
First he fetched Carados’ dried clothes from the clothesline and took an inordinate amount of time folding them nicely. The stack of clothes held to his chest, Merlin made his way up the steps and realized that Arthur’s chambers lay along the way to Carados’. So Merlin gave into impulse and creaked the doors open. A rolling snore told Merlin plenty about the current state of the crown prince. Merlin closed the door behind him with a barely suppressed snort.
He was feeling almost cheerful as he approached Carados’ chambers. Perhaps, Merlin thought, Carados would also be asleep, in which case Merlin thought he might take advantage of some opportune freedom. Maybe he could find a nice quiet place to practice magic; it had been far too long. He’d gotten much better about keeping his magic under control, but he still missed it, the way one missed the sun in the middle of an overcast winter.
Merlin rapped three times on the chamber doors while he glanced to his right, where Garrick was staying. He wondered what had become of him and Letha last night, then decided that he’d probably hear all the gory details the next time he saw Morgana or Gwen.
The door clattered open. Carados stood before him in leather breeches and a loose, casual shirt. Merlin executed a short bow.
“My apologies, my lord,” he said, keeping his eyes to the ground. “I promise not to be so late again.” Carados grunted, and Merlin watched him take gloves tucked into his belt and start to tug them on.
“I should hope not,” Carados said. “Come on, put those clothes away. I am to join the hunting party in a short while and you will accompany me.”
Merlin bit back a groan as he followed Carados into the room. He hated hunting. Or, more specifically, he hated carrying all the tools and dead animals and being scolded for making too much noise.
“A short trip,” Carados added, striding to the chair where a jacket lay. He swung it on and glanced at Merlin. “Uther apparently has a good herd of deer that he intends to thin out.”
“Indeed, my lord.”
Merlin heard more than saw Carados turn toward him.
“Do you hunt, boy?” he asked. Merlin smoothed out the shirt atop the stack before creaking the cabinet door to a close.
“No,” he replied. “I’m afraid my talents lie elsewhere.”
Merlin dragged his head over to Carados’ direction. Any other noble, and Merlin would have enjoyed someone treating him like a person, someone taking time to look at him. But here, Merlin received the attention the same way a rabbit might regard the attention of a hawk.
“I’m not sure, sir,” Merlin answered. He had some honesty in that reply. Magic, yes. But voicing that was no option, and what other talents did Merlin offer? “I suppose I am a decent enough servant, as the prince hasn’t replaced me yet,” Merlin added. It was a cavalier thing to say.
“I see.” Carados started to tug on his boots. “My horse is the roan in the back of the stables,” he said. “Saddle him for me and have him and yourself ready in the back courtyard.”
A half hour later, Merlin milled about with the other servants and attendants, waiting for the nobles to arrive. It seemed to be a small group, only Uther and a select few companions. Garrick had also been invited, as had one of the lords that Merlin recognized as a frequent visitor to the castle. When the party finally set out, they rode into the familiar woods to the north, where the gamekeepers kept a good stock of deer and hare for outings such as this.
The hounds sniffed out the deer easily enough, and Merlin suspected that Uther had someone herding them into a convenient field where the party could shoot at them without the hindrance of trees. Garrick felled one doe in the field, then the group followed the herd for another several hours across streams and over hills. The deer never ran too far ahead, and sure enough, Merlin glimpsed the gamekeeper and his attendants a few times, scaring the deer back toward the hunting party. The whole event felt cruel, but Merlin had learned by now to keep his mouth shut about these things. And maybe a few arrows fell inexplicably short, and maybe the deer sprang away a few seconds before the hunting party gained on them, but Merlin wouldn’t have known anything about that.
The party still had three deer to their name by late afternoon, one of them a handsome buck with a many-pointed rack, so the mood remained high when they finally turned back toward the castle. Merlin, thank the gods, didn’t have to help haul the carcasses back or manage the hounds; he only had to worry about keeping track of spears and crossbows and arrows.
About a half hour from the castle, Uther proposed that they stop to let the horses rest and drink from a shallow stream. The men took the idea gladly, and soon were continuing their discussion of the next day’s tournament beneath a wide, shading ash.
Merlin took the opportunity to stride into the woods and find a place to relieve himself. When he’d finished, he took his time wandering back. He needed to take advantage of snatches of quiet like this; his life was otherwise a frenzy of thwarted assassination plots and cleaning up after Arthur.
He reached the stream again and could just hear the rest of the party around the bend. They didn’t sound as if they were going anywhere, so Merlin sat himself down, peeled off his boots, and stuck his feet into the chill of the water. He leaned back on his hands, closed his eyes, and let his mind grow quiet and blank.
He didn’t hear the crunch of boots in leaves until they were nearly on top of him. He opened his eyes and looked over and was met by a pair of buckled boots. Carados. Merlin scrambled to a stand.
“Are we leaving?” he babbled. “My apologies, I only—“
“Everyone is enjoying their time out of the saddle; we’ll be here for a bit longer,” Carados said in a level voice. He kept watching Merlin without moving, without showing indication of whether he was annoyed or frustrated or benign. Merlin heard only the trickle of the stream and his own breathing.
“You know,” Carados said apropos of nothing. “To hear the gossip, you’re rather a special apple.”
Merlin’s shoulders curled in. “Sir?”
“The prince apparently has a history of discarding servants,” Carados continued. “Uther was telling me that it got to be quite a hassle trying to find someone the prince would tolerate for longer than a month. But you, it seems, have something the rest didn’t.” Carados tilted his head. “I have to admit that makes me interested. Though I’m still trying to figure out what this wonderful trait is. It’s not your serving skills; I’m afraid you were mistaken about that earlier.”
Merlin was breathing harder now. “If I have not performed as—“ he started.
“No, if that was my issue I would have complained to Uther already and had you replaced.” Carados took a step forward, and Merlin retreated automatically. His back bumped against a tree trunk. “I’d like to keep you a bit longer,” Carados continued. “Tease you out. I like puzzles.”
“Shush,” Carados ordered, and placed a single finger not even on Merlin’s mouth, but on his cheek. Merlin clapped his mouth shut and felt the rough edges of bark digging through his thin clothes. Carados was close, so close now, and his eyes burned blue.
“Kneel down,” Carados said. He said it the same way one said, “pass the bread” or “give me a hand.” Like the notion of protest was foreign to him.
The tears had already started and Merlin hadn’t noticed it. He felt them without warning; hot heaviness on his lower lashes. Carados watched him, face impassive.
“Please,” Merlin managed. “Please, don’t—“
“As if you haven’t done this before,” Carados cut him off. Then he gripped Merlin’s shoulder with one large, strong hand and pushed. Merlin’s knees were already shaky enough that he went down. Sticks and pebbles slammed into his knees and shins. He released a muffled sound.
“I’ve never had a prince’s servant,” Carados told him, gazing down. “It’s almost exciting.”
Merlin parted his lips for one last plea, one last try, but no sound came out, and Merlin knew that his body was betraying him yet again. Frozen when he should have been shouting for help. He kept retreating further and further from himself as Carados pulled down his leggings, just enough.
“So,” Carados said.
Merlin stared and shook his head minutely. His body had gone numb. Carados sighed, short and hard, then grabbed Merlin by his hair and yanked.
Merlin departed from himself without a sound.
The days of the Mabon festival passed Arthur in a pleasant blur, as they always did. A good portion of Arthur’s time was taken up by the obligatory tournament spanning the last three days. A friendly and causal affair compared to most that Arthur participated in. He’d only heard of one person ever dying in the Mabon tournament, and that had been attributed to the unfortunate’s already weak heart.
Arthur won the tournament in the end, as was perhaps to be expected, but he’d nearly been bested by a young nobleman from the west, so Arthur considered the win to be a fair one. He still sometimes suspected that his opponents, especially local knights, held back out of fear of injuring the crown prince.
The thought flew into Arthur’s mind when he stood in the center of the jousting circle, accepting the token of the champion from his father: a handsome pin inlain with precious stones. On the heels of that thought came an echo of Merlin’s words, from when Arthur had once broached the topic during a winter border survey that had been even more grueling than usual.
Merlin, hunched over his horse’s neck with his cloak over his head and his nose dripping, had said, “Well then, screw up a few times if you’re so guilt-ridden over it. Drop your sword. Trip. Something like that.”
It had been a ridiculous suggestion. A Merlin sort of suggestion. Arthur had rolled his eyes and told Merlin that tripping wasn’t becoming for a prince, and Merlin had snapped that if Arthur didn’t want his opinion then he shouldn’t have asked for it in the first place, and when were they going to stop because Merlin’s fingers had just about frozen off and this was all Arthur’s fault.
Arthur had no idea why that memory came to him just then, with Uther beaming right in front of him. Arthur dipped his head, then scanned the crowds. He spotted Gwen and Morgana in the front rows of the audience, cheering and clapping. Several lords and ladies from across the land, nobles, honored guests. But no flash of worn red kerchief. No elfin face ready to shoot Arthur a ridiculous expression like Merlin hoped to distract Arthur from the all the pomp surrounding them. Arthur’s eyes flicked back to the two women. Morgana raised her eyebrows in a silent congratulations, and probably a reminder that in the privacy of the back field, she could still beat him half the time when they crossed swords for sparring. Gwen beamed at him, bright and sweet as ever. Arthur nodded in their direction.
The ceremony ended. People began to filter from the stands to prepare for that night’s final feast, where the autumnal equinox would be recognized and honored. The steward had hired entertainers and the kitchens were about exploding with activity. It promised to be a good night.
Arthur kept scanning the crowds, but soon he resigned himself to the fact that Merlin had scarpered off somewhere without bothering to stay and watch the tournament. He’d been present this morning, helping Arthur into his armor with movements fluid with several years of practice. But as soon as Arthur had been ready, Merlin had mumbled something about having chores to finish for Gaius and disappeared. Arthur hadn’t even had time to toss out a quip.
Now, Arthur trudged up to his room and undressed himself, leaving his armor on the table. He splashed cold water leftover from that morning over his face to substitute for a bath. He slipped into casual clothes and made a trip to Gaius’ chambers.
He entered to find Gaius holding up a small clay cup for a man slouched in the cot. It took Arthur a moment to recognize him as Carados’ manservant.
“A moment,” Gaius said without looking up. Then, to his patient, “Come now, all of it. You’ll be thanking me later.” The manservant tilted his head back with a low grunt. “There now,” Gaius said, pulling the cup away. “Don’t act so glum, boy, it’s only water.”
Arthur waited as Gaius tugged the blankets over the manservant’s lap and bustled over to his workbench. “Well?” Gaius called out. “Did you need something?”
“No,” Arthur admitted. “Only looking for Merlin.”
“Ach.” Gaius thumped down a glass jar he had been examining. “You and every other man and woman in this castle.”
“Out of bed before I woke, and I haven’t seen hide nor hair of the boy all day, though everyone seems to assume that I have a direct line to him.” Gaius shook his head. “Same story as yesterday, and the day before that. I just have to hope he’s not getting himself in trouble somewhere.”
“I see.” Arthur placed his hands on his hips, and his eyes strayed to Carados’ manservant again. He was a stringy, angular man with a sallow face and a hunched back. The manservant’s eyes flicked up to Arthur before landing back on his blankets.
“Hello,” Arthur said, striding forward to offer a hand. “I’m Arthur. It’s good to see that you’re improving.”
The man flinched, fast as a heartbeat, and kept his eyes glued on his blanket. He rubbed at his forehead with his knuckle and ignored Arthur’s hand.
“Yes sire,” the manservant said in a mumble. “Thank ye sire.”
Arthur shot a look at Gaius, who angled his mouth.
“And what is your name?” Arthur asked the manservant.
“Gilbert, sire.” The man’s voice had dropped even lower in volume. Arthur dropped his hand at last and crossed his arms.
“Well, Gilbert,” Arthur said. “Be sure to let us know if you’re in need of anything. I’m sure Lord Carados will be eager to see you returned to his service.”
Another fluttering flinch, like the man couldn’t help himself. He nodded once.
“Thank you, sire,” he said.
Feeling that he perhaps had put the man through enough torment already, Arthur turned back to Gaius, who had been watching the exchange with a sharp eye.
“Tell Merlin I’ve been looking for him,” Arthur said. “But he’d come to the feast tonight, wouldn’t he?”
“I should think,” Gaius said in a vague voice. His attention was still fixed on the hunch-backed Gilbert.
Merlin did not appear for the final feast of Mabon. Instead, one of the general serving boys appeared at Arthur’s elbow and informed him that he’d be taking over for that evening. Arthur remembered the boy; he had done a three-month stint as Arthur’s manservant several years ago, before he’d been late in waking Arthur one too many times and been informed that he could go. The boy had seemed only too glad at the demotion back to general staff. He could still pour wine and fetch platters well enough, though. He did his job with all silence and efficiency, just as a servant ought to do everything. It was…different.
Arthur glanced over at Lord Carados’ place a few times, but he never caught sight of Merlin over there either. Just a dour man who usually worked in the kitchens. Arthur gnawed on a hunk of bread and tried to distract himself with listening to the dinner conversation surrounding him. He relented halfway through the night.
“Tell me,” Arthur said to his servant. “Did Merlin ask you to work his job tonight?”
“He did, sire,” the servant replied while staring at the other side of the room. Arthur had forgotten how disconcerting it was to try to talk to someone who didn’t look at him.
“And…did he say why he’d be gone?”
“Right.” Arthur scanned the room one last time then stood and stuffed several apples into his pockets.
“Sire?” the servant inquired.
“Arthur, where are you going?” Uther asked at the same moment.
“I’ve remembered something,” Arthur threw out. He added a few small loaves of bread to his pockets. “Sorry, I’ll be back.” Probably not, but it placated Uther enough for Arthur to walk away unhindered. As for the servant, well, Arthur had just given the man the night off, so he didn’t feel any guilt there.
When Arthur passed Gwen, he touched at her elbow. She turned, half a laugh still on her lips.
“Merlin’s missing,” Arthur said in a low voice. “I’m going to find him.” The laugh fell from her lips, and Gwen’s eyes widened.
“I thought he was picking herbs earlier today,” she said in a whisper. “Is he in danger?”
“Probably not.” Arthur saw Morgana turn to watch them. “I just want to be sure. I’ll let you know if there’s trouble.”
Gwen sucked at her bottom lip, but nodded. Arthur caught Morgana’s eye, then slid the rest of the way down the table, past the now inseparable Garrick and Letha, and out a small side door into a servant hall.
He tried to make his search methodical. He started in the lower levels of the castle, rooting through every small closet and cranny where a man might go to be by himself. He moved through each wing, up the levels of floors. When Arthur had only the towers to search, he began to entertain the idea that Merlin was out in the woods somewhere, or in town. He’d have to go there next.
Except when Arthur neared the south tower, he spotted a figure silhouetted against the waxing moon and thick clusters of stars. The ears alone told Arthur who it was, and, amidst his rush of relief, Arthur planned to tease Merlin about it. Arthur began to climb the narrow, rough-hewn steps. When he got close enough for his footsteps to echo, Merlin flinched with an audible inhale and whirled around.
“Who’s there?” Merlin barked. His voice sounded thin and fluttering. Any notion of teasing fled Arthur’s mind.
“Me,” Arthur called back. He advanced a few more steps, enough to see Merlin sitting on the parapet. The white moonlight made Merlin look ethereal. Or sickly. Perhaps both.
“What are you doing here?” Merlin asked when Arthur slid into view. His voice had lost some of the fluttering, though it hadn’t disappeared. Arthur stopped at the top of the steps and eyed how Merlin’s back curled up.
“Did your need to brood become so strong you had to call in a substitute?” Arthur asked.
Merlin flushed. He looked at his feet, which just skimmed the flagstones. Arthur strode across the small space and sat on the parapet near Merlin. The wall was thick, so they weren’t in real danger of falling unless they leaned completely back and didn’t grab hold of anything. Still, a thick, seeping nervousness in Arthur’s gut wanted him to ease Merlin away from the edge. Maybe because Merlin didn’t look as if he was capable to supporting himself; he sat crooked and tired.
“What do you want?” Merlin asked. He hadn’t looked up from his shoes yet.
“To get away from the festivities tonight,” Arthur lied. “And searching for you was as good an excuse as any.” Merlin ticked his head in Arthur’s direction; Arthur spotted the shift in his lips that described the start of a smile. “And here,” Arthur added. He pulled out the apples and bread. “You ought to eat something.”
Merlin coughed, and Arthur realized it was a laugh.
“Sorry, did you bring me food?” Merlin asked. “What is this? Who are you and where’s the real Arthur?”
“Hah.” Arthur dumped an apple and two small loaves of bread in Merlin’s lap. Merlin blinked down at the food like he’d forgotten what to make of them. Then he picked up the bread and took a small bite. Arthur relaxed a little.
“I’m sorry,” Merlin said when he’d swallowed. “I couldn’t…didn’t have the energy to be there tonight.” He turned the bread, examining the dark, seedy crust.
Arthur didn’t think that standing around and filling a goblet all night took up too much energy, but he found himself unwilling to press Merlin. He saw the stark lines of Merlin’s cheekbones and the edges of his sockets.
They passed several minutes in silence. Far below, they could hear the festivities from the town. Bonfires dotted the streets and the smell of roast apples—the fruit of the Mabon festival—drifted to them with the smoke.
“Arthur?” Merlin said. He shifted, set aside the food, and brought his knees up so he could wrap his arms around his shins. Arthur had to restrain himself from placing a hand on Merlin’s back to be certain he couldn’t lean back. “Why doyou keep me as your manservant?”
“Why do I—what kind of question is that?” Arthur eyed the single bite taken from the bread with frustration.
“I’ve put this much effort into training you; no reason to start over,” he said. Arthur glanced up at Merlin’s face; Merlin stared back with that drawn expression.
“Fine,” Arthur sighed. “You’re mediocre servant-wise but…” Arthur kicked his heels twice against the parapet wall. “The first time we met you tried to fight me and a few hours later you saved my life, so that wasn’t a combination I could ignore.”
“That’s it then?” Merlin asked. “I still have a job because I beat you in a fight?”
“You beat me?” Arthur cocked his eyebrow in Merlin’s direction. “Careful there. Or I’ll have to dismiss you and waste all those years of work.”
“Of course,” Merlin said, and Arthur could hear a glimmer of his usual sly humor. It warmed him despite the chilly air.
“How long were you planning on being out here?” Arthur asked.
“As long as I could,” Merlin said. He shrugged. “Unless you’re going to manhandle me back downstairs.”
Arthur pretended to consider this. “No,” he said. “It’s a holiday. I suppose I’ll let you get away with your behavior for tonight.”
“Oh good,” Merlin said. “For that, I’ll let you stay here a bit longer.”
“It’s my castle, Merlin.”
“Not yet. Don’t be getting too big for your britches, Prince.”
“Cocky tonight, aren’t we?” But Arthur said it with a grin almost too wide, and Merlin grinning back felt like a triumph worthy of ten tournaments.
The Mabon festival passed as it always did, and the guests began to filter away in their carriages. Morgana was watching a line of them depart from the castle when a knock came from the door.
“I have it,” Gwen called out and, pillows under her arm, went to open the door.
Letha stood on the other side, dressed in the pale yellow dress that she seemed to favor. She had pinker cheeks and brighter eyes these past few days, and Morgana looked on these traits in the same way a gardener delighted in the first blossoms of a favorite flowering plant.
“Letha, hello,” Gwen said, wrapping her free arm around Letha’s shoulder. “Are you come to say goodbye?”
“The opposite,” Letha said with an even wider grin. She looked across the room to Morgana. “Lady Morgana, I took your advice, and I asked my brother if I could stay in Camelot a few more weeks. Well, at first he was hesitant, but when he heard that you had invited me as your personal guest, he was quite all right with it.”
“Wonderful,” Morgana enthused, crossing the room so she could clasp Letha’s hands and beam at her. “I’m so glad that you chose to take my advice, you have no idea.”
“Indeed, I had no idea either,” Gwen breathed, returning to the bed with her pillows. Morgana pouted at her briefly, and Gwen flicked her hair back with a slight smile.
“Garrick is happy to hear it too,” Letha continued. “Camelot is such a beautiful place, Lady Morgana, and I’m glad we’ll have more time to explore it together.”
“I’ll show you my favorite riding and walking paths,” Morgana promised. “And you can make day trips together. Pack a picnic, perhaps! The cooks will be glad to give you the leftovers from Mabon.”
Letha accepted the idea without question, and soon the women had plans arranged to explore the land around the castle the next day. Letha excused herself soon enough, saying that she had promised to walk with Garrick in the royal gardens that afternoon. She left in a swirl of yellow fabric and a bright wave.
“I predict a marriage proposal in two weeks, tops,” Morgana told Gwen when she’d closed the door behind Letha.
“Mm,” Gwen replied. She shook out the comforter with several sharp snaps of fabric. Morgana sighed and went to lean on the bedpost. “Gwen, do you believe me when I say that I do like Letha?”
“You can like someone and still use them,” Gwen replied. She settled the comforter on the bed and exhaled hard, brushing curls from her flushed face. “I don’t know, Morgana. This seemed like a nice idea in the beginning but now that it’s going somewhere…I can’t stop thinking about what will happen when Garrick and Letha announce an engagement. Maybe we haven’t thought this through.”
“They might elope,” Morgana said. “Then Uther can’t say anything.”
“And what kind of life is that?” Gwen asked, hands on her hips. “Exiled from family and friends?”
Morgana lifted her head and tossed back her hair. “I’d not mind being exiled,” she said. “If I could be exiled with people I love and care for.”
I wouldn’t mind being exiled with you. The thought flitted across Morgana’s mind before she could suppress it.
“Still,” Gwen said. “It’s not my first option for anyone. I just don’t want to…to do anything that I might regret later, that’s all.”
Morgana dug her thumbnail into the wooden post of her bed and rolled in her lips.
“All right,” she said at length. “All right, I’ll stop encouraging them. I’ll let them figure this out on their own.”
Gwen didn’t reply; she just adjusted the comforter with sharp, ungraceful movements.
Morgana stood on the balcony overlooking the central courtyard. She could see a pile of kindling in the center of the courtyard, and a buzzing crowd surrounding it at a respectful distance. The sky hung brilliant blue above her, with a sun that washed everything out in painful white. Morgana’s clothes felt heavy on her, like they suffocated her pores and her breathing. She foggily became aware of a presence standing at her elbow. She had trouble moving her head to see who it was; her muscles felt stiff and lead-like.
A roar from below. Morgana squinted through the hard light and saw a washed-out pair of guards marching a slight, slender figure toward the kindling. The figure did not struggle, but walked in long, steady strides. The crowd’s volume rippled when the guards led the figure to the pole rising from the kindling and tied hands and feet together. Morgana tried to see the figure’s face, but the features blurred and paled. She had to grind her eyes shut from the sunlight; it struck her eyes in spears.
Someone spoke now, the sonorous call of a herald. Morgana heard “magic” and “betrayer” and “sorcerer.” Her eyes flew open again with a sharp inhale. She just caught sight of the masked man setting the pile of kindling on fire, the frothing roar of the people. The fire leaped onto the kindling like a living thing, and now Morgana could see that the figure was Merlin.
He watched the fire approach him with a smooth expression. Morgana’s chest exploded with panic, with fury, and she leaned over the balcony’s edge to scream his name though she couldn’t hear her own voice. Someone grabbed her elbow, and at last she could turn.
Arthur’s eyes were glassy with unshed tears. Beyond him, Uther stood stiff-backed and stern. He didn’t stray his eyes from the courtyard.
“Merlin,” Morgana gasped. “He’s—we need to—“
“There’s nothing to be done,” Arthur said.
“Liar!” Morgana screeched, then yanked her elbow from his hand. “Coward! Filthy rotten cowards!” She sped away from the balcony, down a narrow flight of steps, and ignored Arthur’s shouts. Too soon and too slowly, she emerged in the courtyard and shoved through townsfolk. She could see the fire leaping well above her head, and when several guards advanced on her, she ignored them in favor or craning her neck to see Merlin.
He’d disappeared. Instead, Morgana saw rich gowns and long black hair. Her own green eyes stared back at her, wide and alien, and Morgana opened her mouth and she screamed.
Morgana woke up sobbing.
“Morgana, Morgana,” Gwen chanted, setting her candle on the bedside table and wrapping her arms around Morgana’s shoulders. Still shaking, Morgana buried her face in Gwen’s shoulder and couldn’t seem to stop the way her chest heaved, couldn’t stop the ugly hiccoughing sounds.
“Shh,” Gwen soothed. “Just a dream, love, I promise. Shh.” Morgana felt lips in her hair and didn’t know how to tell Gwen that this wasn’t a usual nightmare, that this had the sick edge of truth to it. Instead she heaved another sob and clutched at Gwen’s nightgown.
Gwen, bless her, bless her, understood and pulled away just enough to tug back the blankets. She slipped into the bed, blew out the candle, and pulled Morgana toward her. Morgana clutched to Gwen like a child, and she cried, and she didn’t know how explain the horror of the lick of flames over Merlin’s pale, steady face; over her own gown and black hair.
Mabon, and the weeks after it, were a strange time for Merlin. He did his chores as usual. He had a routine now, split between Arthur and…and him. Merlin washed clothes, polished armor, tidied rooms. He did all of it quietly and efficiently, enough so that Arthur commented on it with a tone that implied it confused him more than anything else. Arthur knew something was wrong. Gwen, Morgana, and Gaius too. But Merlin kept himself just normal enough that no one of them could pin him down for it. Merlin had nearly been caught on Mabon, when Arthur had caught him perched on that tower thinking about the maid who’d been found with bruises around her neck. Merlin had been imagining what it would be like to fall from such a height, what the last second would feel like.
Merlin took more care after that night. He didn’t ask other servants to substitute for him anymore. He did his job at the high table and accepted Carados’ looks, the way he slid his hands across Merlin’s wrists and waist in the shadows of his cloak and the underside of the table. The sliding hands turned into more in the privacy of Carados’ chambers, or the dusty, sweet-smelling empty stalls in the barn, or the quiet woods where Carados sometimes went for long rides. Anywhere Carados could corral him, really. Merlin never remembered these times with proper focus; they turned into a long chain of missing moments, when his mind became a white, snowy landscape without landmark. It was disorienting, and it made him dumb and sluggish the rest of the day. He tried to hide it, along with the red marks and the scratches and the bruises. Carados helped with that; he never put them in obvious places like Merlin’s face or hands. Always tucked into convenient crannies of Merlin’s body: along the length of his ribs, on his back, hidden beneath his collarbone.
Beval knew. Merlin noted how the guard always slipped out of the room at the right times, never met Merlin’s eyes anymore. Yes Merlin noted, but he didn’t know how much he cared. Most days, he spent too much time focused on arranging his body and his face in the right way, so that he could slip through his tasks without anyone disrupting the careful, fragile scaffold he’d built for himself. He had to keep it upright, he knew. He’d collapse otherwise.
The wounded manservant, Gilbert, made his slow recovery. Two weeks after Mabon, Gaius proclaimed him well enough to move about and do easy tasks. Carados requested that Merlin stay to fill in the work Gilbert couldn’t manage, and Uther allowed it. So it continued. On for three weeks, then a month, Merlin lived the life he could between landscapes of pure white overhung with two pale blue eyes.
Merlin didn’t know how long this would have gone if it hadn’t been for the stranger who arrived in mid-early winter.
The cool but pleasant days of autumn had left, and the castle began to grow damp and chilled in all but the kitchen. Merlin and Gwen took to spending their free evenings sitting with other servants in front of the massive fireplace that the kitchen staff kept burning. At night, the staff shared gossip and sweet breads, laughing at bawdy jokes and plunking out music and a few dances when someone felt up to it. Oftentimes Gwen convinced Merlin to dance a reel or two with her, and Merlin found he could leave the painful whiteness behind him in exchange for the exertions of his muscles and the swirl of Gwen’s body. Oftentimes, Letha and Garrick would join in these kitchen dances. The story of their star-crossed love had spread among the servants, and several were charmed enough to offer their help. Gwen and Morgana were barely needed now for Letha and Garrick to find convenient ways to spend time together away from prying eyes.
On the quieter nights, when they remained by the fireplace, Gwen started getting in the habit of resting her head on Merlin’s shoulder, and he would lay his cheek atop her curling black hair and smell her dusty, warm, lilac scent. He knew people like Beata noticed this and interpreted it how they liked, but he let them. Beata’s wagging tongue felt like a small trouble, and Gwen was always warm and soft.
Morgana joined them when she could, though her social obligations kept her busy. She looked flatter and whiter with the winter, Merlin thought, and her sharp tongue seemed to have flagged. Some days, Merlin caught her staring at him with red-rimmed eyes, and he always wanted to ask her what had happened, why she looked so drawn.
“She’s having nightmares again,” Gwen whispered to Merlin once when he asked about it. “She sees some awful things, I think.”
“And Gaius hasn’t—“
“She doesn’t want to tell him that his potions aren’t helping.”
After that, Merlin started to collect small, round stones from the courtyard and the woods. He’d keep them in his pocket and siphon little calming and gladness spells into them when he had the strength and the will. After enough days and enough spells, he’d wrap the stones and certain dried herbs in a kerchief, seal the whole thing with one last whispered charm, sneak into Morgana’s chambers, and tuck the bundle beneath her mattress. He didn’t know how much it helped, but he liked to imagine that some of the heaviness lifted from her eyes and shoulders.
The only nights as good as kitchen nights with Gwen and Morgana were the ones Merlin spent in Arthur’s chambers. Arthur often claimed that he needed someone to keep his fireplace going while he worked on papers and reports. Merlin obliged by tossing logs into the fire once an hour and otherwise spending his time across the table from Arthur, polishing armor or mending clothes or listening to Arthur complain about whatever new decision the council had made.
It was on one such night when the stranger arrived. Merlin had a whole mess of boots he needed to polish while Arthur worked on a report of that season’s military expenses.
“I just know that the council’s going to be snippy about the extra ironwork I had to order,” Arthur complained. “But what was I going to do, let the guards roam around without spears and swords?”
“They’d lose some their air of superiority without long, pointy things to wave about,” Merlin agreed. Arthur snorted.
“I’m just trying to figure out where the weapons all go,” Arthur said, scribbling something out on his roll of parchment. “I know that things get confusing in fights, but that’s a lot of weaponry just…what? Sitting around? Maybe there’s a black market and they’re getting sold somewhere. But that’s impossible; the royal crest is on everything. We’d have spotted castle-distributed swords around town.”
“Maybe,” Merlin said vaguely, scrubbing at a persistent stain at the toe of a boot.
“Unless they’re getting rid of the crests,” Arthur continued, leaning back. “Could be a whole market scheme. Someone buying the guards’ iron weapons on the sly, melting them down.” Merlin glanced up; Arthur looked ready to leap up and go root out these scheming people, whoever they were.
“Sounds devious,” Merlin commented as he drew himself to a stand and went to attend to the waning fire.
“I’m going to set some informants out,” Arthur proclaimed. “See what they can dig up.”
“Shit,” Merlin sighed, toeing at the wicker basket usually filled with logs. “We’re out of fuel.”
“I’ll have Wendall in charge of that,” Arthur said, unheeding. “He’s trustworthy.”
“Be right back,” Merlin said. He paused, then added, “And Morgana’s a better swordfighter than you.”
“I’m listening to you. And only sometimes,” Arthur shot back, glancing over his shoulder. “Get some logs from that white ash they felled last week; that burns hottest.”
“The hickory, got it,” Merlin said. He saw Arthur roll his eyes as he slipped out the door.
Merlin’s peaceful mood was broken not a minute later when he saw Beval coming up the hall. The guard didn’t ignore Merlin, but made straight for him. Merlin froze and, for a split second, considered turning around and darting back to Arthur’s rooms.
“You’re needed,” Beval called out. Even now he didn’t look Merlin in the eye, training his gaze on a space just above Merlin’s head.
“I was getting fuel for—“
“It’s urgent.” Beval’s jaw ticked.
Merlin slumped, and he could already feel that white place advancing at the edges of his mind. He lifted his head and followed Beval to Carados’ chambers. Beval took up his usual position on the opposite wall from the door, hands landing loosely on his sword hilt. Merlin sank a little deeper into the white space and entered the room.
The two men seated at the table cut off their conversation as soon as the door’s hinges squealed. Merlin paused and looked between Carados and the newcomer: a short, stocky man with no hair and a cloak that still had wet mud on its hem. The man was leaning forward with his hands up, like he was trying to explain something in great detail.
“Merlin,” Carados said. He said Merlin’s name differently these days, always with something akin to fondness. “I need you to fetch my guest some food; whatever the kitchen still has warm.”
Merlin bobbed once and left the room. He hurried downstairs and managed to snag half a chicken and a small block of cheese. When he reentered the room, the stranger didn’t bother cutting off his words.
“—and you know how Benet gets when his investments start to go sour in the least bit. No staying power at all. So what I’m saying is that we need to make sure his special interests are maintained, because without Benet, the whole venture will get that much more difficult for us.”
“I hear you, I hear you,” Carados waved a hand as Merlin slid the tray of food on the table. “And his interests will be maintained, they’ll just be secondary to the larger goal.” Carados’ blue eyes shot to Merlin, who was pouring spiced wine into two goblets.
“Fine then,” the stranger grunted, pulling his chair up to the table and scooting the plate of chicken closer. “If you’re so certain, I suppose I’ll have to trust you.”
“You will,” Carados agreed. He accepted the goblet that Merlin handed him.
“What’s the word on that promised wedding, then?” the stranger asked around a mouthful of chicken. “I’m fair sure that’s what convinced Benet to get involved at all.”
“Well, it won’t happen on its own, I can see that much now.” Carados swirled his goblet and frowned into its burgundy contents. “That common-blooded girl has wended her way up here. She’s made great friends with the ward, ironically enough. She and that moon calf son of mine have probably gotten engaged by now.”
Merlin froze, the pitcher of wine still hovering over the table. Carados’ beard twitched, and Merlin set the pitcher down with a light thump.
The stranger paused, a drumstick in hand. “Is that a problem?” he asked.
“What? No, it means nothing. Garrick knows he’s marrying the Lady Morgana; if he feels like breaking this girl’s heart beforehand, well, that’s his burden.” Carados chuffed. “No, Uther and I are already quite agreed. We’re going to wait until spring for the wedding. The merchant girl can be taken care of by then.”
Merlin tightened his fist until the fingernails digging into the palm of his hand made the skin pinch and burn. He couldn’t decide what was worse: how carelessly Carados discussed Morgana, Garrick, and Letha’s futures or how he kept flicking his eyes in Merlin’s direction. Like he was just saying all this to get Merlin riled up.
It was working, was the worst part. The white blankness rolled back enough to reveal a tinge of red anger. For the first time, Merlin felt the tang of magic rise to the back of his throat instead of retreat deep inside him.
“Come, Randolf,” Carados said. “We can let go of the business talk for tonight.” He set down his goblet and reached up to brush his fingers against Merlin’s hip. “Uther’s been lending me his son’s serving boy.”
Merlin flinched away before he could help himself. The stranger, Randolf, looked up from his meal and ran his eyes along Merlin’s length. He grunted.
“No wonder, lips and eyes like that,” Randolf said. He leaned back and wiped a forearm across his mouth. His wrist came away glistening with a thin sheen of grease.
Carados slipped his sword-calloused hand up to Merlin’s shoulder and pressed down once, very gentle. Merlin didn’t move. He kept his eyes trained on the far wall, had to keep his breathing even and the magic from streaming up to his skin. A low rumble swelled through the room, and Merlin only recognized it as Carados’ laughing after several moments.
“I’ve upset him now,” Carados told Randolf, his hand still perched on Merlin’s shoulder. “He’s jealous over the Lady Morgana.” Randolf made a noncommittal sound and bent over his food again.
“Pig,” Merlin muttered. He shrugged away Carados’ hand and took a step back. Randolf paused and looked up with raised eyebrows. Carados leaned back in his chair, clasped his hands, and studied Merlin with those too-blue eyes. Merlin stared back at Carados with his clenched hands pressed into his hips.
“Do you hate me, Merlin?” Carados asked. He asked it in a pleasant voice, a friend-like voice. Merlin didn’t answer.
“Come on, Carados,” Randolf spoke up. “If you’re offering, then stop playing. I hate when you’re always playing with them.”
Carados ignored him. “Merlin,” he said, eyes pinning Merlin down. “Would you like to strike me?” A pause. “I bet you would.”
Merlin could feel the magic trembling in his nerves and muscles, like lightning building and building and flushing him with the sheer energy. But he’d spent almost twenty years learning to bind down his magic, so that its suppression was second nature to him. Instead of unleashing a thunderbolt into the room, Merlin dropped his eyes. Carados made a sound as if he was going to say something else, but Merlin turned and started for the door. He heard his name but focused on the door, on keeping his legs moving forward, on ignoring the nausea of magic pounding against his skin and not being allowed to escape.
Then, Carados said another word that was not Merlin’s name but seemed to grab his attention in a similar way. It garbled through Merlin’s mind and lodged there like a dagger. In an instant, the white blankness thundered back, so sudden and deep that Merlin thought he’d passed out. Without any conscious prompting, Merlin’s legs did a little jerk, spun him around, and began to carry him back to the table.
This was not like his previous experiences. Those blank spaces had come slowly and from within; they were gentle drifts of snow that blew in over time. This. This was a blizzard and an avalanche at once, thundering over Merlin and carrying him far, far away from himself. Merlin sensed what his body was doing from a distance, so that he could only understand the most general of actions. It was enough. And he knew that he could sink into the white completely and escape the whole ordeal. He’d wake up in time. With soreness and fresh bruises, yes. But alive, probably.
A distant pain. It knocked Merlin askew, drew his attention to the events of his body. Something…something was tearing him open and it made him want to turn back around and hide in the blankness still roiling at the perimeter of his mind.
Voices. Shuffles. A loud thump. His name, captured in the voice of someone who didn’t care to treat it with any kindness. Merlin felt hands close around his throat and mouth. Half in fury, half in blind fear, he broke the levees and let his magic roar over the hands, the person behind them, as far as he could reach.
The pain and the hands withdrew, and Merlin gasped a ragged breath. He had to remember to force open his eyes, and once he did, nothing in his world made sense for several seconds. When he did manage to focus, he witnessed something that resembled a human face but not by much. Human faces didn’t peel like that. Human faces had eyes.
Merlin gaped at the thing and almost didn’t notice the boots clattering across the floor and away from him. A beat of silence, then the dagger-like word from before shot toward him. It hit Merlin, but this time it felt sludgy and sticky. Merlin dipped under the suffocating white for a moment, then with a surge of annoyance raked the word from his mind and flicked its remains away. He sat up despite the dissolving order that he remain lying face-down on the floor.
Carados had sequestered himself in the far corner of the room. Merlin had just enough time to catch hold of his expression—Merlin saw fear; he definitely saw fear, and that pleased him—before the door crashed open and Beval thundered in.
Merlin swung up an unsteady arm and started to scrape up a word of magic, but then Beval barked out a spell. Thick, iron-like ropes sprang out of nowhere and wound themselves around Merlin’s arms and legs. Merlin cursed and crashed to the floor, jarring his shoulder and elbow. Beval was on him in an instant, and Merlin felt something thin, cold, and hard snap around his wrists.
Merlin knew. He knew what Beval had placed one him, but he still gasped the word for fire, his most dependent and comfortable spell. Nothing. Just cold hands and throbbing pain.
“What the hell?” Beval’s voice demanded. “What the ever loving—“ A shuffle, a wet thump. “Well, wonderful. That one’s dead. What the hell?”
More heavy breathing. A few muttered words that Merlin couldn’t pick out. Then a low, rolling sound. Carados laughing. Merlin’s hate swelled in him, enough to make him try to shoot out his magic again. Nothing, of course, just an unpleasant shock in the places where the thin chains on his wrist met bare skin.
“I don’t see why this is so funny,” Beval snapped. “Now we’ve got no messenger and a dead body to dump.”
“Magic,” Carados gasped. He sounded on the verge of hysterics. “A magic boy in Uther’s court. Serving his son.”
Merlin wriggled around trying to see either of the men, but all he got was the flayed, burnt face that had belonged to Randolf. Merlin winced. A hand suddenly grabbed the back of Merlin’s shirt and dragged him a short way across the floor, as far as the fireplace. It was at that point that Merlin recognized his pants were dragging around his ankles.
“A powerful one,” Beval said, his face appearing above Merlin. “He shouldn’t have been able to throw off that spell.”
“Are you sure you didn’t just craft it poorly?” Carados asked.
Beval gave a low grunt. “I spent months building that,” he snapped. “It’s held for everyone until now. He’s just…” Another grunt.
“He’s exceptional,” Carados supplied. A thump of approaching footsteps, then a boot landed on Merlin’s shoulder and pressed down ever so slightly. Merlin twisted his head around to give Carados as poisonous an expression as he could manage. Above him, the firelight caught on Carados’ silver beard and the sheen of his eyes. The rest of his expression was lost to shadow.
“Who do you work for?” Carados asked. “Essetir’s king? Some independent sorcerer usurper? No, wait, is this the druids?”
“I serve Arthur Pendragon,” Merlin spat. “And I serve Albion and I serve myself. No one else.” Carados laughed again and rolled Merlin’s shoulder beneath his boot.
“No, no, don’t lie,” Carados tutted. “Boy, you have no trace of a reason to serve the Pendragons. You’d be dead if Uther had an inkling of your abilities.” Carados smiled, warping his beard and moustache. “I have to admit, I am in great admiration right now. You must have a few tricks up your sleeve to have escaped the executioner. And now you have your pick of the moment to strike on the royal family. Very nice.” He knelt beside Merlin, just far enough away that Merlin couldn’t hope to reach him. “I think if you share your purpose here, you might find that I have similar goals. This might have been a thing of great fortune, us meeting.”
Merlin collected a gob of phlegm and spat it at Carados’ boots. Carados glanced at the shiny patch in front of his boots then shrugged. He straightened and nodded to Beval.
Merlin glared at Beval as the guard approached and bent down to place three fingers on Merlin’s forehead. A clear, shining force thrust straight into Merlin’s skull, and he shouted despite himself.
“Again,” Carados said as Beval kept his fingers on Merlin’s forehead. “Whom do you serve?”
Merlin’s jaw worked, but eventually he had to blurt, “Arthur Pendragon and the future of Albion.”
Carados’ head jerked to Beval. Beval squinted, and Merlin felt the shining thing wriggle deeper into his mind.
“He’s clean,” Beval said aloud. He sounded marginally awed. “That’s his truth.”
Carados didn’t speak immediately. Then he asked, in a much slower voice, “What is your purpose in serving Arthur?”
Merlin clenched his teeth. “To protect him. To ensure that he is made king.”
“When Arthur unites Albion, then magic will return to the land and peace will reign.”
“You believe this?”
“With all my heart.”
“Does Arthur know about your magic?”
“And who is helping you in this?”
“I work alone.”
That had been a half truth, but enough to slip past Beval’s spell. The dragon was out of the picture these days, and Gaius did more helping from the sideline. Merlin was able to twist it enough.
Carados remained silent. He waved a hand at Beval, who withdrew his fingers and the shining thing from Merlin’s mind. Carados sat heavily in a chair, rested his elbows on his knees, and watched Merlin as he stroked his beard. The three of them remained silent for several minutes while the remains of Randolf cooled a short ways away.
“This is…unforeseen,” Carados said at length. Beval snorted. Carados ignored him and turned to Merlin. “You see, now I have two options. To kill you or to try and turn this mess into something useful.” Merlin forced his face to show no expression. “The magic is double-edged for you and me. It makes you more dangerous for me to handle. Yet, now all I have to do is so much as suggest to Uther that I saw you use magic, and you will be arrested. A simple test provided by Beval, and we will be able to prove your guilt. An elegant setup.”
“I’ll kill you before you so much as lay a hand on Arthur,” Merlin burst out. Carados leaned back and crossed his arms.
“Did you get the impression that I wanted the Pendragons assassinated?” Carados asked. He cocked his head. “No, murdering Uther and his son is the way of heavy-handed revolutionaries, people with no foresight. What would that do? Create a mad scramble for the throne in which many will die through underhanded poisonings and sly daggers into ribs. A load of court theater.” Carados grunted, like the very thought disappointed him. “No, Uther had the right mind when he made himself king through war and conquest. That’s the only way to properly take rule, by being on top during wartimes and then riding the peoples’ devotion into peace. I can admire that about the man.”
“Yet you don’t seem to be the loyal servant,” Merlin said. Carados eyed Merlin, then huffed.
“If you want my thoughts, just ask,” he said. “No, I don’t approve of how Uther has handled his reign. Magic is the biggest divider. Did you know that back in the wars, sorcerers featured quite prominently in his army? Uther was never very fond of using them, but he wasn’t stupid either. They were good soldiers; they helped us win many of our victories.” Carados heaved a sigh. “But then that bad luck with Ygraine and the priestess, and here we are, Uther too swamped in emotions to see how foolish he’s been in banning magic. Does he not realize that our neighbors all have thriving magical communities? And that he has created a whole population of people who now hate him?” Carados tapped his hand against the table in brief thought. “I have given my council and I have been ignored, and I know for a fact that Essetir looks at out vast woods and green valleys with envy. Their attack will come in a matter of years, and our armies will fall under Essetir’s sorcerers. So I and a group of like-minded people have decided to act, to arrange it so Camelot attacks Essetir first, on its own terms. And if Uther and his son both happen to fall in battle, well, such is the way of things.”
“You’re a war monger, basically,” Merlin said.
“Boy, wars are the tides of change,” Carados growled. “War is what will clean away Uther and sop up his deranged ideals.” He screwed up his face and shook his head. “I can’t understand your delusion in thinking that protecting the Pendragons will help you. You ought to see, this is how magic will return to the land. Not in some fairy tale of a united Albion, but in the hard, honest bite of a steel blade.”
“People will die.” Merlin struggled to get to a sit, but failed. “Villages will be destroyed and crops burnt and—“
“And we will rebuild, as people always do,” Carados interrupted. “Come on, I’m not here to argue philosophies about war. You know what I want, and I know what you want, and between us we’ll have to find some arrangement.”
“What, like you killing me?” Merlin asked mutinously.
“No,” Carados said. “No, I think you’re too perfectly placed for me not to take advantage.”
“Sir,” Beval started.
“And that’s my decision.” Carados glanced at him. Beval fell silent. Carados rolled his shoulders before speaking again. “Beval, how fast would your skills allow you to keep this one under some control?”
Beval shot Merlin a glance. “A basic control spell within a few minutes, easy,” he said. “I could seal his mouth against certain words. Cloud his mind if he tries anything funny against you. Anything more complicated will take a day or two.”
“Good enough,” Carados nodded. A beat of silence in which Beval didn’t move, and then he took a few reluctant steps toward a small chest sitting in the corner of the room.
Merlin watched, mind racing, as Beval pulled out herbs and stones, small glass jars and pouches of powder. He began to concoct something in a small clay bowl while Carados watched. Far too soon, Beval stood and carried the bowl to Merlin. He murmured a word, and Merlin’s body became stiff as wood. Beval knelt down and dipped his fingers into the pale brown paste held in the clay bowl. He smeared the paste across Merlin’s forehead, in a cross over his lips, dabs on each of his eyelids, and finally a glob over his heart. Beval murmured quick incantations as he did this, and Merlin felt the spell weave itself around him in tight, neat patterns. It resembled a net: not heavy or painful, but Merlin could see that if he moved too fast or in the wrong direction, it would tangle him up.
“There,” Beval said at last, pulling his hand away from Merlin’s heart. The stiffness in Merlin’s joints loosened. “He should be held for month or two.”
“Should be held,” Carados echoed. “But we have already seen what the little hawk does with your ‘should be’s.”
Beval scowled. “As if I didn’t triple reinforce it?” he said. The guard stood and clapped the clay bowl onto the table. “Don’t act as if I’m a total idiot.”
“Mm,” Carados grunted. He strode over to Merlin and crouched beside him.
“Here is my proposal,” Carados said. “First, since you’ve killed my man it’s only is fair that you pay me back. Nothing extravagant; I have some messages that need delivering and perhaps some papers I’ll have you retrieve. We’ll discuss it soon enough. You do this to my satisfaction, then Uther and Arthur will never hear of what has happened in this room and you get to live. Agreed?”
Unconcerned, Carados withdrew a small silver key from his chest pocket and unlocked the cuffs. Merlin’s magic roared back to life; it left him dizzy and expansive. And he felt the net just waiting to tangle him, he knew it was brash, but Merlin still had to extend his magic to pluck Beval’s dagger from his belt and send it speeding to Carados’ heart. Halfway there, a blast of cold energy blew across Merlin’s mind, reminiscent of the awful blankness from before. Here, it numbed Merlin just enough for him to lose track of the dagger and let it clatter to the ground.
“Very nice,” Carados said, bending down to scoop up the dagger. “All right, Beval, I’ll believe you.”
Unbowed, Merlin tugged the dagger from Carados’ hand, whipped it past his face, and dug it into the tapestry behind him. Just to prove a point.
Carados turned to examine the dagger, then grunted.
“You’re an interesting one, boy,” Carados said as he tugged the dagger out of the tapestry and handed it over to a sour-faced Beval. “And here I took you for just a nice mouth.”
Merlin wanted so badly to slam Carados against the stone wall, break his head open like a ripe melon. He wanted it badly enough that almost, for an instant, he felt Beval’s spell waver and ripple. But Beval clearly knew what he’d been doing, and his work held.
But it couldn’t hold forever, Merlin thought. It wouldn’t.
Gwen had spent her entire adult life as a serving maid, so she liked to think that she knew how to handle the stresses. But once in a while she had those days that left her frazzled and snappish and contemplating quitting her job to go become a cow herder in some quiet valley.
“No, Gwen, you must be mistaken,” the head laundress said brusquely, snapping out linens in time with her words. “You never gave me a blue dress. I know Lady Morgana’s dresses, and I haven’t seen one all week.”
“No, I did though,” Gwen insisted, one hand coming up to clutch desperately at her hair. “Good god, Millicent, if you’ve lost it just tell me.”
“I ain’t lost anything,” Millicent replied, her voice edging with annoyance. “No dress of the Lady Morgana, blue or otherwise, has crossed my tubs. That’s all there is to say about it. I’m sure she has many other nice dresses to wear.”
“No, no, this dress was a gift from the Nemeth ambassador himself. She has to wear it tonight otherwise he’ll be greatly insulted.”
“Oh goose eggs.” Millicent swung up her empty basket and started walking away. “Don’t go blaming me for your forgetfulness. Maybe if you didn’t spend so much time canoodling with the prince’s man.”
“I don’t canoodle!” Gwen shouted. She then had to duck her head to hide from the other servants in the washing room. Muttering, Gwen turned and speed walked from the room and all the way up to Morgana’s room.
“Go ahead and dismiss me,” Gwen shouted as she banged the door open. “I’ve gone and lost the ambassador’s dress and Millicent thinks I canoodle too much with Merlin.”
Gwen stopped short at the sight of Letha, Garrick, and Morgana standing in a tight circle by the fireplace. They turned in unison, Garrick and Letha swaying toward one another.
“Oh.” Gwen reached out blindly and grabbed the door handle. “I’m sorry, I can—“
“We were just leaving,” Letha spoke up. She smiled, but it lacked the usual brightness. Gwen would have called it nervous.
Garrick nodded in agreement and made for the door, tugging Letha after him with their entwined hands. His expression was downright grim. Gwen stepped aside to let them through, and when the door clacked shut, looked across the room to Morgana. She had her hands hidden in her thick, draping sleeves and was staring into the low fire. The flames cast a strange light on Morgana’s dark hair.
“What happened?” Gwen asked, taking a few steps forward.
Morgana inhaled loudly before she spoke. “They were asking for my blessing in their elopement.”
Gwen’s heart gave an extra, heavy thump. She waited for Morgana to say something. When the room echoed only with the fire’s logs shifting, Gwen spoke. “Is that not a good thing? What you wanted?”
Morgana made a humorless sound that resembled a laugh. She looked worn thin, Gwen thought for the hundredth time that month. The purple bags under her eyes had become a constant, and all of Morgana’s dresses had to be tucked to make up for the weight she’d lost. Gwen had taken to sleeping in Morgana’s chambers because the nightmares had burst into frightening frequency. Three or four nights a week. Morgana never gave much detail of the nightmares, only brief mentions of scenes and people. But it was clear as anything that they terrified her.
“Morgana?” Gwen tried when Morgana didn’t answer.
“It was a good thing a few weeks ago,” Morgana said. “And now I think I’ve been the biggest…” She finally looked up, and Gwen’s heart thumped hard again when she saw the streaks of moisture shining on Morgana’s cheeks. “I saw them dead,” Morgana said in a cracking voice. “In my dream, they were both dead. Letha was burned at the stake and Garrick poisoned by his own hand and it was my fault, Gwen, because they wouldn’t have…if I…”
“Dreams,” Gwen said, rushing forward. “Dreams, Morgana, it’s all just dreams.” Morgana didn’t react as Gwen grabbed her hands and squeezed them as hard as she could. “This is real,” Gwen pleaded. “Not whatever it is you saw.”
Morgana looked down at Gwen, and her mouth twitched. “Maybe,” she said. “Maybe you’re right.” She sounded unconvinced.
Gwen ran a thumb over Morgana’s knuckles. “So they’re really going to elope,” she said. “I thought they wouldn’t have the nerve.”
“Letha needs to go home,” Morgana said. “And Garrick will pretend to escort her there. I suppose they’ll travel into Essetir and see what they can manage there.”
“I hope they make it,” Gwen said honestly, giving Morgana’s hand another squeeze.
“Yes.” Morgana exhaled hard and tossed her hair from her eyes. “But it’s not our concern right now. The dance tonight, yes? You can’t find the ambassador’s dress, you say?”
Gwen hesitated, watching Morgana draw herself straighter and tuck away the weariness. “I’m afraid I’ve lost it,” Gwen said slowly.
“No matter, it was ugly as sin,” Morgana said lightly. She tugged her hand from Gwen’s to stride to her wardrobe and swing it open. “I’m sure I have other gifts from that man. Or here.” Morgana pulled out a dress a few shades lighter blue than the ambassador’s. “You really think he’ll remember what that dress looked like? This will do just as well.”
“It’s a little big,” Gwen said, frowning.
“A few tucks and stitches, it’ll be fine,” Morgana said.
“All right,” Gwen relented, coming forward and taking the dress from Morgana. She examined the fabric, skimming her fingertips over the thin material. “I don’t have good thread for this in my kit, but I can do a search for some.”
“Thank you.” A hand landed on the small of Gwen’s back, and she looked up to find Morgana’s sad, tired face startlingly close. For a split second Gwen wondered whether Morgana was about to lean in for a…but no, that wasn’t…
“I’ll start now,” Gwen said, handing Morgana the dress and sidestepping toward the door. Gwen didn’t bother breathing again until she was halfway down the hall.
By the time Gwen swung by Uther’s chambers, she was getting desperate. The seamstress had mentioned that she’d lent a light blue thread to the king’s manservant to mend a torn cloak, and that it must be in his chambers still. Except Uther and the manservant wouldn’t be back from a survey of the southern towns until this afternoon, which left Gwen with the dubious option of slipping into Uther’s chambers and searching for the thread herself.
It wasn’t as if her intentions were devious, Gwen tried to tell herself as she walked down the hall that would lead to Uther’s chambers. If anyone walked in on her, she could tell them the truth. Still, when Gwen reached the doors to Uther’s chambers, she cast a furtive look around her first. She pushed the doors open and heard a loud clatter.
Gwen froze, mouth open, at the sight of Merlin hunched over the King’s desk. One of the top drawers hung open and a loose pile of parchments hung from Merlin’s hands. At the sight of her, Merlin released a high-pitched yelp and lost his grip on the parchments. They fluttered to the floor in a small avalanche.
“Merlin—?” Gwen took an uncertain step forward, and Merlin jerked back.
“Go,” Merlin barked hoarsely, squatting down to scoop the parchments back up. “Go, Gwen.”
“What are you—did Arthur ask you for fetch papers?” Gwen took another step forward. “Merlin, Arthur asked you to get papers, right?”
Merlin half stood again, his arms wrapped around the parchments. His eyes had grown wide and damp.
“Gwen, I—“ he stopped and made a deep, horrific choking sound. He started to tilt like a felled tree, and Gwen just managed to leap forward and catch him before he crashed into the flagstones.
“Merlin,” she panted, voice high. “Merlin, are you all right?”
In her arms, Merlin grunted and blinked hard. He focused on Gwen with what looked like some difficulty. His face had turned pale.
“Can’t…” he twisted his eyes shut and pulled away into an unsteady stand. “Come on.”
Gwen hesitated, but she did relent and allow Merlin to close the open drawer before following his long-legged stride for the door. Merlin didn’t speak as he led her up several back stairwells, until they emerged in the chilly air atop one of the towers. The pile of parchments clutched to his chest, Merlin walked to the parapet, then slumped against it with his knees drawn up to his chest. He stared up at Gwen like a cornered animal.
“First,” he said in a low, steady voice. “Please swear you won’t tell anyone.”
“What were you—“
“Please, Gwen, swear on it.” Merlin’s voice took a tinge of wild desperation. Gwen crossed her arms against the winter wind, squinted against it.
“All right,” she said at length. “I swear.”
“I swear that I won’t tell anyone what I just saw.”
Merlin’s shoulders relaxed and he let the back of his head thump against the wall. Neither of them spoke for nearly a minute, before Gwen crossed the space between them and sat beside Merlin. Their sides lined up like they did when they sat together in the kitchens. But this time Merlin didn’t lean into her; he remained stiff and shivering.
“What’s happening?” Gwen asked. Merlin shook his head.
“I can’t….not able to…say.”
Gwen shifted to look closely at Merlin’s profile. “Why not?” she asked. Merlin shook his head.
“I…” he gagged a little, though this time his expression remained alert. He paused. “Danger,” he finally said. “Danger if not…” he nodded down to the pile of papers. He thought, then added. “If I tell you anything concrete, you’ll be in terrible danger too.”
A notion struck Gwen and made her stomach twist. “Are you being forced to do this?” she asked. Merlin stared straight ahead, but his head made the tiniest of nods. Gwen shifted to place a hand on the crook of he elbow. “You can’t speak? Because you’ve been threatened?” A tiny nod. Gwen thought of the way he had tilted to the ground. She swallowed. “Is magic making you do this?” Merlin’s nod came smaller and slower, and his expression had screwed up into one of pain.
Gwen inhaled and leaned closer to Merlin. “Merlin,” she said. “Is there any way you can tell me who it is? How I can stop them?” Merlin tilted his face in her direction; his expression was so lost and wide-eyed. “Well then can I tell Arthur? Morgana?” Gwen asked.
“No!” Merlin burst out, and started to say something else before he doubled over and started to gag.
“Don’t!” Gwen shouted. “Merlin, you’ll pass out.”
Merlin whipped his head up and stared at her. He looked down at the parchments in his arms. Then, his eyes glazed, he opened his mouth and started speaking again. His gagging became worse, until a blank expression swept over him. This time Gwen could ease him to the ground, and as she did his limp arms let the parchments slither out onto the flagstones. Gwen hesitated, looking between Merlin’s twitching body and the parchments, then leaned over and pulled one toward her.
It took her a moment to understand the diagram, but soon she recognized labels referring to parts of the castle and the surrounding town. Tilting her head, Gwen saw neat notes attached to several sectors. Military notes. It was an outline of how the castle and town were to be defended in case of battle. Methods. Weapons. Division. Her breathing picking up, Gwen shuffled through more of the parchments and found a long document describing the number of soldiers on service and the weapons distributed to them. Another parchment held strategic places to hold a battle in the kingdom’s western regions. On and on, parchment after parchment detailing Camelot’s military strengths and weaknesses, its main strategies and backup plans, its resources and its infrastructure.
When Gwen looked up from the parchments at last, Merlin was on his side and still huddled against the wall. Gwen reached out and brushed his arm. Merlin’s eyes snapped open and trained on Gwen. Without a word, Merlin sat up. He leaned forward and collected the parchments in slow, methodical movements. Gwen remained where she was, watching. When he had them all tucked under his arm, Merlin stood and started to walk to the small door that led back into the castle.
Gwen stood. “Merlin!” she called. Merlin paused halfway through the door. “I’ll find a way to help you,” Gwen said. “I will.” Merlin didn’t move for a second before he closed the door behind him.
Gwen forced herself to wait before she rushed forward and wrenched the door open. She could just hear Merlin’s boots echoing against the walls, and she darted after them with her skirts in her hands so they couldn’t rustle so much.
Gwen kept Merlin’s head just in sight for several minutes as she followed him through the castle. When he started to veer toward the bedrooms, her heart rate galloped forward. At last, Merlin paused in front of a grand set of doors for one of the nicer guest rooms.
Lord Carados’ rooms.
Gwen stayed at the far end of the hall where it turned and could hide her from view. She watched as Merlin entered the chambers and let the doors close behind him with a bang. Gwen remained half crouched, her mind and heart both racing. She’d never thought much of Lord Carados past a power-hungry noble who wanted his son married to Morgana. But if he was using Merlin…and those military documents…
Gwen waited for five minutes, then ten minutes. Once, she thought she heard a sharp, guttural shout, but it was cut off before she could determine whether it belonged to Merlin.
Finally, twenty minutes after he’d entered, the doors swung open again and Merlin half stumbled out. His arms were now empty. Right behind him came Carados’ guard, Beval. His eyes swept the corridor, and Gwen ducked behind the corner again. She breathed in gusts now, and her heart hammered against her ribs. She heard sharp, heavy footsteps coming in her direction, and she had to go against the desire to make sure Merlin was all right to turn and sprint down the hall. She didn’t bother to slow down or check behind her until she’d reached the lower levels, until she darted into the controlled chaos of the kitchens. She weaved through busy servants and at last ducked into a back pantry.
The door firmly shut behind her, Gwen braced her hands on her knees and stared at the crates at her feet as she caught her breath. She didn’t even realize she’d started crying until a few drops spattered onto the rough wood.
Beval came back into the chambers to find Carados seated at his desk rifling through the parchments Merlin had brought.
“And?” Carados asked without looking up.
“Someone was there,” Beval said. “I couldn’t catch sight of them, but we’ll have to assume it’s the same person who saw him stealing the documents.”
“But you’re certain that’s what you read in Merlin’s memories?”
“He managed to hide the person’s identity,” Beval said sourly. “But he couldn’t keep away the fact that he’d been caught. I’m afraid it means we’ve been compromised.”
Silence as Carados tapped the parchments in order and stood to cross the room. He knelt beside his trunk and pressed at its side. A previously hidden drawer slid silently into view.
“Pity,” Carados said, sliding the parchment into the drawer. He pushed the drawer shut, and it became indistinguishable again. “We could have used Merlin for much more.” He stood. “Still, those documents are invaluable. So this whole mess hasn’t been a total waste.” Carados turned to Beval. “Take care of Merlin as planned. And more importantly, try to figure out whom he’s protecting. They’re now our biggest worry.”
“Of course,” Beval bobbed his head.
Winters were an ideal time to train knights, as the weather kept them from overheating in their armor. Arthur was running them through basic sparring today, having them practice a series of blocks on one another. He was rather proud of this group and how quickly they were learning. He hoped to have most of them ready by spring.
Halfway through the training session, while blocking a young man’s sloppy strike, Arthur noticed a head of dark, curling hair and a familiar lavender skirt. Gwen stood at the edge of the field, a thick cloak over her shoulders and her hands hidden in its folds. She watched the sparring with an unreadable expression. When she caught Arthur’s eye, she lifted her head slightly.
Arthur called for a break several minutes later, and as pages rushed forward to bring the knights waterskins, he sheathed his sword and headed for Gwen. He realized with a start that she had red, puffy eyes.
“Gwen?” he said, picking up his pace. When he reached her, he placed his hands on her shoulders without thinking. He didn’t see any sign of injury, but that didn’t quell the way his heart rattled. “Gwen, what happened?”
Gwen’s eyes darted over Arthur’s shoulder before landing on him. “When you’re done training, you need to come to Gaius’ chambers,” she said.
“What? Why?” Arthur leaned forward to peer into Gwen’s eyes, as if to find answers there. “What’s happened?”
“Please, I’d rather not talk about it now,” Gwen said. She lightly shrugged out of Arthur’s grasp. “Just come. Will you?” Arthur considered pressing for more information, but Gwen looked both wearied and coldly determined. Instead he nodded once. “Thank you,” Gwen said, and with a light swirl of her cloak, turned to hike back toward the castle. Arthur wanted to call after her, but he found that he didn’t have any idea what he should say.
Arthur went through the rest of training distracted to a fault, enough to be beaten by a young man who was a mediocre fighter at best. When Leon started giving him strange looks, Arthur called off the training early and headed for the castle before anyone could question him about it.
Arthur burst into Gaius’ chambers several minutes later with his armor still on and his breath coming in short pants. At the clatter of the door, three heads turned toward him: Gaius, Morgana, and Gwen.
“Finally,” Gaius said, gesturing Arthur over. “Come on.”
“What’s this?” Arthur approached them, sweeping his gaze across the room as if to find the trouble for himself.
“A meeting,” Gwen said, standing. “Merlin’s in trouble.”
“Merlin?” Arthur stopped short. “What’s Merlin—what sort of trouble?”
“She was explaining it,” Morgana said, gesturing to Arthur to sit down. Arthur ignored Morgana and turned to Gwen expectantly, who had bunches of her skirt caught up in her skirt in her old nervous habit.
“First of all, Arthur, I need you to listen to everything I have to say before you go running off,” Gwen said. “Swear to me you’ll listen.”
“Of course I’ll listen,” Arthur said blankly.
Gwen pressed her lips together. “A few hours ago,” she said. “I caught Merlin in Uther’s chambers, going through his desk.”
Arthur stilled. He studied Gwen’s face, but she only looked at him with determination.
“What was he doing there?” Arthur asked. Somewhere in the back of his mind, something started to buzz with old, stale fear.
“I didn’t know at first,” Gwen said. “But he reacted…strangely.”
Arthur sank into a chair and leaned forward as Gwen explained how Merlin had choked and toppled over, how his words were sporadic, the chase to the parapet and how Merlin had begun to talk and passed out.
“And I think he did it on purpose,” Gwen explained, starting to pace. “I really think he was hoping for me to read the papers he’d taken.”
“And what were they?” Morgana asked.
“Military documents,” Gwen said bleakly. “Strategies and plans in case of a battle. Resources. All the data that an enemy would love to have, I’m sure.”
“I know those documents,” Arthur said. His voice sounded far away, hidden behind the swelling, buzzing dread. “Do you know where in Uther’s desk Merlin found them?”
“The top right drawer was hanging open,” Gwen offered.
Arthur squeezed his eyes shut and leaned back in his chair. “Yes, that’s the one. But it’s usually locked, and the only key stays on my father the whole time. He’d have noticed if it was missing.”
“Merlin must have picked the lock,” Gaius murmured.
“But it’s not Merlin, don’t you see?” Gwen said, voice high. “He was being controlled somehow. If he’d told me any more than he did, he’d be punished or worse.”
“And who was controlling him?” Morgana asked. Her voice had become flat.
Gwen pinched at the bridge of her nose. “I followed him,” she said. “Again, I think he knew but he wanted to show me. He took the parchments to Lord Carados’ chambers.”
The buzzing hit a wall and fell silent. Arthur leaned forward, hands clutching at his knees.
“You’re suggesting…that’s impossible.” He looked around to Gaius and Morgana. “Carados is my father’s greatest ally. He’d never…and if you’re implying he’s using magic to…” Arthur shook his head. “I can’t fathom that.”
“I don’t give a rat’s ass what you can or can’t fathom,” Gwen snapped. “Merlin walked in there with the documents. I heard someone shout, and when he emerged he had no parchment and looked…I don’t know, disoriented. Carados did something to him. Is doing something to him.”
“Well did you talk to him?” Arthur demanded.
“I couldn’t, Beval was right there and I ran before he could catch me,” Gwen said. “I’ve been trying to find Merlin for hours, but he’s disappeared.”
Arthur brought up a hand to wipe down his face. Gaius looked nervous and Morgana had a flintiness to her expression that, Arthur realized, had been absent for several weeks.
“The rat,” Morgana muttered. “Arthur, you’re wrong to assume that just because Carados was a help in the war that he’s still Uther’s ally. He’s obviously changed.”
“We don’t know for sure,” Arthur started, but Gaius spoke next.
“Listen, I’ve heard things about Carados for years,” he said. “Nothing provable, but things.”
“What kinds of things?” Gwen asked.
“His sympathy toward magic. His arguments with Uther.” Gaius clasped his hands. “How he treats his servants.”
Arthur stared. “How does he treat his servants?” he asked.
Gaius shook his head. “I warned Merlin before Mabon. I should have…but it’s happened that Carados has come here and afterward a few servants have stories about things he offered them or ordered them to do. And then there’s the winter that they said he killed a maid. Pushed her off a tower.”
“I’ve heard that,” Gwen said, her voice soft and horrified. “But I thought it was Lowell trying to get a rise…oh my god.”
“I believe it,” Morgana said. “The way he treats my and Garrick’s imminent wedding. He’s doesn’t care about anything except what he wants.”
“Fine,” Arthur said, battling against a horrible queasiness growing in his stomach. “Fine, but there’s a leap between murder and treason against the king.”
“Is there?” Morgana demanded.
“Of course there is!” Arthur shot back at her. “Treason is a death sentence, no question. Not to even mention the magic. Why would Carados risk it?”
“What’s the alternative here?” Gwen snapped. “Don’t tell me you really think Merlin is stealing military documents for himself. That he’d willingly betray Camelot.”
“No!” Arthur protested, but he could feel something inside him waver. He buried a fist in his hair. “Gods, I don’t know. I don’t know what to think!”
“It means we need to confront Carados,” Morgana said, standing. “We need to search his chambers for the documents, then we’ll know for sure whether he’s guilty. If I go now I’ll catch Uther before dinner and we can—”
“He won’t believe you,” Arthur said flatly.
“Well I’ll make him believe me,” Morgana said, squaring her shoulders.
“I’m afraid Arthur has a point,” Gaius said. “Morgana, let me go with you. Two of us may convince him to at least look at Carados’ chambers.”
“I’m going to keep looking for Merlin,” Gwen said. “He might still be in the castle.”
Arthur didn’t say anything. The buzzing had returned.
Merlin had climbed into the old loft during early afternoon and hadn’t moved since. He could hear the bustle of the lower town outside the shattered window, starting to quiet now as shop owners put away their wares and people went home to families and suppers. Merlin curled up on himself at the thought of going back to the castle. He’d endangered Gwen, betrayed Arthur. If Beval’s spells permitted him, Merlin would have long ago run away or turned himself in. But instead the spells kept Merlin in a hellish limbo, not quite forcing him to commit quiet acts of treason but punishing him if he didn’t carry them out soon enough. Beval knew what he was doing with his magic, and Merlin could have admired the man’s skill if he didn’t also hate him. As it was, the best Merlin could do was hide outside the castle walls for a few hours. The empty house on the poorest edge of the lower town was as far as he could safely get. It didn’t matter, anyhow. He was just waiting now for the spell to drive him back to Carados’ chambers for the next orders.
It had started innocuously enough, with a few eavesdropped conversations and important meetings where Arthur was present, and thus Merlin had an excuse to stand in the corner. Then messages and small packages delivered to men with their faces hidden in thick cowels. Merlin did it with clenched teeth and decreasing attempts to throw off the spell. It only sapped his strength to struggle too hard against the spell’s tight mesh. And then this morning, Carados had apparently gained enough confidence to start using Merlin for rifling through the king’s chambers.
Then Gwen had walked in. Of all people, it had to be Gwen. Merlin’s stomach had dropped when he’d recognized her, and he’d almost tried to throw out a stunning spell to keep her from seeing any more. Something had stopped him, though. Some horrible, desperate hope that this could be his crack to freedom. Gwen was smart; she could help.
It had been a selfish thing to do, and Merlin tried to make up for it later when he strode into Carados’ chambers and delivered the documents. Perhaps he’d given something away when he assured Carados that no one had seen him. Perhaps Carados had been planning it all along. But after Carados flipped through the parchment, he’d told Beval to make certain Merlin was telling the truth.
Merlin had never been able to get used to Beval’s sharp, cold mind-searching spells. But he had gotten familiar with them, enough to trick them. He hadn’t had the skills to completely rework the memory of Gwen coming into Uther’s chambers. But he was able to blur her face and his own jerk of horror. He was able to turn the chase to the tower into a vague, long trip back to Carados’ chambers.
Merlin knew he’d succeeded when Beval withdrew from his mind with a disgusted snort and a kick to his shoulder and an announcement that Merlin had baffled himself. After some murmured discussion that Merlin hadn’t been able to focus on, Beval had refreshed the binding spell, and Carados had dismissed him. Merlin had been too head-sick to see whether Gwen was still there. He’d hoped she wasn’t. He’d hoped she could forgive him for dragging her into this mess.
A cart rattled below the broken window, and Merlin shifted his head enough to see that the light was already growing dim. Dinner soon, and he’d be expected to be at the high table tonight for some small feast Uther was throwing for an ambassador. Merlin’s muscles were sluggish and his head still felt cold and pounding, but he forced himself onto one elbow. He preferred to arrive on his own volition.
Merlin climbed down the creaking ladder to the abandoned house’s lower floor, then pushed open the door enough to peer up and down the street. No guards, no one from the castle. Merlin strode into the darkening night.
Morgana arrived to the feast barely on time and looking ready to set something on fire. Not that anyone could tell; she still walked in with all the grace of a king’s ward.
“There you are,” Arthur said when she strode, steely faced, toward him. “The ambassador’s been bugging me about seeing you.”
“To hell with the ambassador,” Morgana hissed. She craned her neck to glare at Uther standing across the room. “You want to know his response to what I had to say about Carados?” she demanded.
“He told me not to be dramatic just because I didn’t want to marry Garrick! I swear, the sheer arrogance—and then Gaius tried to put in a word but Uther wouldn’t hear it. Not his faithful friend Carados.”
“I told you it was a hard concept to swallow,” Arthur murmured. Morgana’s braid flew as she whipped her head to direct her glare at him.
“Listen, if you don’t believe Gwen or you really think Merlin has it in him to betray Camelot, then spit it out.”
“Morgana, don’t,” Arthur said wearily.
“You heard Gaius,” Morgana continued. “Carados has killed servants! You really think he isn’t above using Merlin? Doing who-knows-what else to him?”
Arthur’s stomach heaved. “Morgana,” he repeated. He clenched and unclenched his fist. “It’s just hard for me to see my father’s friend as someone who would use magic to betray him.”
“Well you’re being foolish,” Morgana said. “You need to decide who you’re more ready to trust.” Arthur glanced at her, and Morgana gave him a steady look.
A scream echoed through the room.
Arthur instinctively grabbed for a sword that wasn’t there as he and Morgana whipped around to find a growing commotion near the main entrance. People were scattering, nearly tripping over robes and skirts. From the panic stepped an unfamiliar woman dressed in simple servant’s clothing, her hair hidden beneath a kerchief. Her hands and forearms pulsed with unearthly red light.
The woman’s eyes swept across the room until they found Arthur and fixed on him. The world seemed to sink into slow motion as she raised her hands. Morgana shouted something that seemed to come from a distance. Beyond that, Arthur heard Uther’s roaring voice. The woman ignored all of them and released a red lightning bolt that dove directly for Arthur’s chest.
Arthur leapt aside, but the next second his vision turned white and the world disappeared for a few seconds. When he came around again, he was on the floor and something hot and pounding drove like a stake into his shoulder. He gaped at the ceiling and forgot he could move, forgot that any part of his body existed save for the part that had caught on fire and would surely kill him.
Voices and footsteps came from beyond the white haze of pain. The only halfway clear thing was the woman, striding forward with a quiet rustle of her skirt. Arthur’s head lolled toward her on its own accord. She grinned at him and raised her hand again.
Arthur saw the arcing thread of red and let his lids slide shut, because he didn’t want this woman to be the last thing he saw. A heartbeat passed. Two heartbeats. The pain in Arthur’s shoulder kept pounding at him. He dragged his eyes back open.
In front of him were braced a familiar pair of boots. They were bathed in a strange light, but not red. Arthur shifted his head, then blinked at a curved wall of shimmering, pale blue. Red veined through it like marble. Merlin stood behind the wall with Arthur, and his hands were raised and leaning against it. No. The blue was streaming from Merlin’s fingers. Merlin glanced down at Arthur.
His eyes pulsed gold.
When Morgana saw Arthur thrown back by the force of the woman’s red lightning, a scream ripped from her mouth and it was only Gwen’s strong hand that kept Morgana from diving forward and tackling the woman to the ground. When Merlin pushed past Morgana and threw out his hands, when pale blue light burst from his fingers and coalesced in front of Arthur, Morgana blanched and stumbled back a few steps with Gwen. Morgana watched Merlin’s wall absorb the red lightning, some part of her aware of what this meant but the rest of her unable or unwilling to turn it into a real, coherent thought.
Instead she stood rooted to the floor, her hand crushing Gwen’s and vice versa, and they watched the pale blue wall grow and froth almost like a living thing. The woman didn’t have any visible reaction to the wall’s appearance. She studied it, glanced around at the people staring at her from the edges of the room, then raised one hand. A final bolt of lightning appeared out of nowhere, large enough to force Morgana to squeeze her eyes shut. When she looked up again, the woman had disappeared. Merlin and his pale blue wall remained.
For three precious seconds, the room remained stunned into silence. Then a low groan came from Arthur, and commotion overtook once more. Morgana and Gwen ran forward as the wall collapsed on itself and disappeared in a froth of light. It revealed Arthur sprawled on the ground and beside him, Merlin with two hands over Arthur’s right shoulder.
Morgana slid to her knees beside Arthur, across from Merlin, then realized with a sick lurch of her stomach that Merlin’s eyes glowed a soft gold. He muttered something in quick, sibilant words that Morgana couldn’t catch. When Morgana dropped her gaze, she saw that the fabric around Arthur’s shoulder had been charred or burnt away. Around the wound and Merlin’s hands hung a faint white mist. Without thinking, Morgana reached out and let the tips of her fingers brush through it. It felt cool, like the mist that hung over the pond in the early morning, or like a healer’s hand in the midst of a fever. The action mad Merlin lift his head and stared, unblinking at the two of them. He didn’t look real.
“I can’t heal all of it,” Merlin said in a faint, rasping voice.
“It’s fine,” Gwen said, her voice high. “It’s fine Merlin, you just…” her eyes drifted to something over Merlin’s shoulder. “Merlin,” she said again. She sounded ready to cry.
The guards reached them. Merlin was abruptly jerked backwards and to a stand, two guards grabbing his arms and forcing them into painful angles behind his back. Morgana watched the gold filter out of Merlin’s eyes, and when she glanced down, the last of the white mist was disappearing into Arthur’s shoulder.
A clatter of boot steps, and Uther was there. He dissipated the mist entirely as he ripped apart the fabric to expose what remained of Arthur’s shoulder. Morgana swallowed and Gwen inhaled sharply. Too much of the skin looked charred and black, with ugly threads of red splayed from the edge of the burn.
A thin groan escaped from Arthur’s lips, and Morgana realized that his eyes were open enough to be slits.
“He’s alive,” Uther breathed, then looked up to the remaining guards. “We need to get him to Gaius,” he snapped. “Come on! He’s still alive, come on!”
“And him?” one of the guards asked, jerking his thumb to the slumping, wide-eyed figure practically held up by the guards flanking him.
“Put him away for now,” Uther said. He pinned Merlin under such an ugly expression that Morgana nearly flinched back.
Morgana scrambled to a stand as guards moved forward to fashion a makeshift sling out of someone’s cloak. Arthur bit back a groan when they shifted him. Merlin’s shoulders flinched; he flicked his eyes up to Morgana and Gwen.
“Wait!” Morgana blurted. She looked to Uther. “Why?” she asked. “He saved Arthur! You saw it as well as I, didn’t you? Merlin saved him!”
“Morgana,” Uther hissed, his voice like a knife. “Morgana, for once in your life, hold your tongue.”
Morgana stepped back as the guards lifted Arthur into the air and hustled him from the room. She didn’t break eye contact with Uther.
“Why?” Morgana demanded. She could feel Gwen’s cautionary hand on her elbow. Morgana looked around to those in the room, to the nobles and the servants all staring at her. “You all have eyes, don’t you?” she asked in a loud voice. “What did we all see? That sorceress attacked the Prince and Merlin stopped her.” She glared at Uther. “Last time Merlin saved Arthur’s life, you didn’t toss him in the dungeon, you made him a manservant.”
“Obviously a grave mistake on my part,” Uther rumbled. “And one I will not forgive myself for.”
“The grave mistake here is acting as if Merlin is any danger!” Morgana shouted, stabbing a finger toward Arthur. “Merlin didn’t give him that burn; this sorceress did! Have your men search for her instead of wasting your hate on the one person in this entire circus who you ought to be thanking!”
“Seeing is not always the truth with magic,” Uther said. “Which is something you’d know if you didn’t cling to your foolish sympathies.” His voice remained terrifyingly calm. His eyes flicked between Morgana’s. “You’ve always been prone to their lies, haven’t you?” he continued. “Always a lover of the magic folk. And now I can see it’s taken you completely.”
Morgana threw back her hair and scoffed. “Mad King Uther,” she proclaimed. “You make up stories instead of believe what was right in front of you.”
Uther’s hand shot out to grip at Morgana’s upper arm, and she flinched back and let out a small, involuntary shout. Uther leaned forward, and Morgana could see the vein pulsing in his temple. Morgana felt Gwen’s hand slide down to grip hers.
“Take the Lady Morgana to her chambers,” Uther said to the guard standing at his elbow. He kept his glare fixed on Morgana. “She and her maid. Make sure they don’t leave.”
Gwen squeezed her hand. Morgana glanced at her, and Gwen looked back with wide eyes. Then, with a light voice, Gwen said, “We are better in the chambers than the dungeons.”
Morgana blinked. She looked back to Uther’s steely expression. Then she jerked her arm from Uther’s arm and took a step back. When she looked over the room, she saw dozens of pairs of eyes fixed on her. But it seemed that only two mattered; Gwen’s steely resolve and Merlin’s unsteady staring.
The stare was interrupted a moment later when Uther jerked his head and the guards started to half-drag, half-carry Merlin from the room.
Beval found Carados at the edge of the main hall while guests and servants milled about and tried to decide whether they were supposed to salvage the evening. The King had left nearly half an hour ago and hadn’t made any sign of reappearing.
Carados shifted as Beval leaned on the wall beside him.
“You only half succeeded, for all your masks and theatre.” Carados murmured. “You damaged the colt.”
“He squirmed,” Beval murmured back, eying the crowd. “He’ll recover.”
“But he won’t be able to handle the war plains now,” Carados replied. “Only training grounds and fallow fields.”
Beval grunted and picked at his teeth. “But the hawk is taken care of,” he pointed out. “And turned a pariah to boot.”
“The girl still champions for him, though. We’ll have to watch out for that.” Carados nodded to Beval’s hands. “Wear gloves for a few days until that goes away.”
Carados pushed away from the wall and strode for a side stairway. Beval turned up his palms and scowled before clenching them shut. But for a moment the candlelight caught the burgundy scars branching across his skin like lightning.
Merlin had magic.
Gwen tossed a bracelet into one of the drawers on Morgana’s vanity and slammed it shut
He had magic.
Gwen snatched up several pillows on a chair and all but threw them into the bed.
Strong magic. Enough to stop lightning and heal a burn and—
Gwen set down the lacquered box in her hand and stare at her pale, clenched knuckles. Merlin had possessed magic. Cheerful, clumsy, sweet Merlin who chatted with her late into the night and made faces at events they both had to attend.
And now Uther would have him executed.
Gwen turned around and buried a hand into her hair.
“He could have escaped,” Gwen said; she failed to stop her voice from cracking. Morgana, sitting beside the fire, looked up slowly. “Merlin has magic,” Gwen said. That combination of words sounded foreign when it finally came off of her tongue. “He could have escaped from those guards and he didn’t.” Gwen inhaled sharply. “Why didn’t he escape?”
Morgana blinked once. The proud, loud woman from earlier had was still there, in the way Morgana held her shoulders and how her eyes shone. But she also had tiredness etching into the sides of her mouth, the slump of her back.
“I don’t know,” Morgana said. A long beat. “Maybe he didn’t have the will.”
Gwen strode across the room, and Morgana scooted across her bench to make room. Gwen sat and braced her elbows on her thighs and stared into the fire. For a long, long while, neither of them tried to speak.
“You know,” Gwen said, eyes still on the fire. “When I was a girl, how my family lived on Leon’s family’s land?”
Morgana murmured a yes.
“Sometimes my mother brought me with her to work, and I was able to run about the manor,” Gwen continued. “And I remember, one of my favorite people was an old man who worked in the stables. He had a wonderful way with the horses. And sometimes, he’d make lights for me to chase. Little glowing lights of color. They were so lovely.” Gwen shook her head. “It didn’t even enter my mind until years later that he had magic.”
“We’ve been taught that magic is cold and cruel, haven’t we?” Morgana said. Gwen half laughed.
“Yes, we have,” she admitted. “I suppose I never think on magic too much, because it’s forbidden and what good is there in dwelling on it? And when it has entered my life, it’s seemed to mostly bring strife.” Silence; Gwen shifted on the bench. “But. There was the stable man who made beautiful lights just to make some servant’s girl happy. And Merlin…” Gwen licked chapped lips. “He was using it to protect Arthur.” Gwen looked to Morgana. “I can’t….Morgana, it’s not foolish of me to think that Merlin is still…good?”
Morgana looked at her, and Gwen realized with a start that Morgana’s eyes were damp.
“I have to believe it,” Morgana said.
Gwen hugged herself and nodded once. Morgana extended an arm around Gwen’s shoulders. Gwen took it as invitation to lean her head against Morgana’s shoulder. She felt a pair of warm lips press into her hair, and she shivered.
“But it’s hard too,” Gwen murmured. “I feel like…do we even know Merlin?”
“I think we don’t know everything about him,” Morgana replied, voice low. “But I think that the Merlin we love; that’s real.”
Gwen stared into the fire and listening to Morgana’s breathing. She found that she believed Morgana, and that it somehow coexisted with the part of her that wanted to be angry with Merlin, that wanted to go find him just so she could tell him…what, exactly? How he should have trusted her? How she felt like she’d just lost a friend and met a stranger? How he shouldn’t have been magical in the first place and brought all this down on his head?
Gwen was struck with a mental image of Merlin above a pile of burning brush, and her stomach heaved. She yanked her head away from Morgana’s shoulder and looked at her properly.
“How are we supposed to save him?” she asked.
“I’ve been trying to think on it,” Morgana said matter-of-factly. She nodded toward the window. “I think that’s our best bet for getting out of this room. But Merlin’s cell will be trickier.”
“It’ll be doubly protected,” Gwen realized out loud. She felt a great, sweeping weariness at the mere thought.
Morgana opened her mouth so say something, but was interrupted by the clatter of the door opening. They both looked up to find a guard coming into the room, followed by Beata carrying a tureen on a tray. Morgana and Gwen both stood as the guard waited by the door and Beata came forward to place the soup on the big table. She met Gwen’s eye as she started to unload the tureen and two bowls. Gwen could only guess how the servant rumor mill was churning tonight.
Beata left without a word, probably by order, and the door clanged shut again.
“Well,” Gwen said with forced cheerfulness, striding for the table. “Uther’s not trying to starve you, at least.”
“I’m not hungry,” Morgana said, and for a moment Gwen could hear the mulish girl she had first met several years ago.
“If we’re going to try a daring escape, we need some strength,” Gwen said, lifting the lid of the tureen. “Look, Morgana, it’s beef stew. You like that.”
Morgana stirred slowly, but she did eventually go to the table and accept the bowl Gwen handed her. They sat at the table and ate silently, each caught up in their own thoughts. Gwen did her best to brainstorm plans for breaking someone out of a dungeon cell, but with Arthur out of commission and she and Morgana supposedly locked in their room, it’d be a difficult job.
“The cooks must be experimenting,” Morgana murmured, setting aside her empty bowl. “That tasted different from their usual stew.”
“Maybe they ran out of some spice,” Gwen said idly. She could feel the sleepiness that came with a good meal settling over her, and she had to stifle back a yawn. Across the table, Morgana had rested her elbows on the table and perched her chin on one hand.
“What if we split up, and one of us rings the alarm bell on the high tower?” she suggested.
“That would take care of some of the guards,” Gwen allowed. “But not all of them.” She pressed the back of her hand against her mouth for another yawn. “We need help; someone who can approach the dungeons without being suspicious.”
“He’s busy with Arthur.” They fell silent. “Will he be all right?” Gwen asked.
“I think he’ll live,” Morgana said slowly, her words slurring at their edges. “But I don’t know if he’ll—“ she cut herself off with a jaw-cracking yawn. Gwen watched blearily as Morgana mumbled something and dug the heels of her hands into her eyes. “I think I need to lay down for a bit,” she murmured.
Gwen watched, her lids heavy as lead, as Morgana stood, swayed for a moment, then shuffled to the bed. She sprawled across it, her dress and hair disheveled. Gwen would have liked to join her, but the idea of standing up seemed like a feat with how sluggish her muscles felt.
Somewhere in the back of her mind, something lifted its head and hissed that this was wrong. A good meal did not leave anyone this bone-deep tired, and that Gwen had been full of nervous energy just half an hour ago.
Gwen turned her eye to the tureen. The stew even smelled a little different, something that left a bitter residue on the back of her palate.
Gwen’s heart dropped.
“Morgana,” she said in a low, rough voice. She turned to the bed, where Morgana’s chest rose and fell in a steady rhythm. “M’rgana.” Gwen tried to stand, but the floor tilted beneath her feet. Gwen managed three stumbling steps before the floor rushed up to meet her. Gwen felt a jarring pain in her wrists and knees, then nothing at all.
It was a little surreal, really. For all the years Merlin had feared Uther, for all the ways Merlin had imagined he could get caught, it somehow wasn’t the same as actually being here, in this cell, watching the pyre being built through a narrow, barred window.
Uther wasn’t wasting his time with a trial, and why would he? He’d seen enough with his own eyes for a final judgment. Merlin supposed that a straightforward death was merciful, considering. Merlin wouldn’t have been surprised if Uther had done worse.
Still, he could have let Merlin finish attending to Arthur’s wound. The thought of the remains of the shoulder made Merlin’s hand clench. He should have acted faster when the woman first appeared. He’d been a little down the hall when the shouting started, and by the time he’d sprinted into the room, he’d been just in time to see the first arc of lightning throw Arthur backward. Stupid.
One of the workmen outside shouted something, making Merlin glance through the window again. The central pole had been erected; it caught the morning sunlight. Something lodged in Merlin’s throat, and he had to duck his head, bring his knees up to his chest.
He’d had dreams of being burned alive. He never knew whether the pain he imagined was realistic. But he didn’t think so much of the flames as he did the people watching. Gaius would have to put on a blank face and pretend that he hadn’t known all along, that he hadn’t worked so hard to prevent this very thing from happening. And the others…Morgana seemed ready to defend him, but maybe she would change her mind by this afternoon. Maybe Merlin would have to go out there knowing that three of the people he loved most in the world hated him now and would delight in watching him die. But worse, maybe they would be grieving them. And Merlin would have to spend his last moments knowing that his stupidity had hurt them.
And, even though he hated himself for it, Merlin wondered about Carados. Whether he’d be disappointed to see his mole die or if this had been part of his plan all along. Merlin half suspected that Carados was involved in the woman’s appearance, but he couldn’t prove it and it didn’t really matter, did it? Probably better this way, really. Merlin would be gone and Carados would have to find some other way to conduct his treachery. Merlin only hoped, yet again, that Gwen escaped Carados’ attention. He was caught with a brief mental image of her toppling over the tower’s edge and had to slap the idea away. No, Morgana and Arthur would protect her. He had to believe that.
The day passed. Merlin remained curled up in a corner of the room staring at the guards milling around outside his cell. It was a strange thing, knowing he would die soon. It made everything seem silent and distant.
The guards opened the cell in late afternoon. For a moment, Merlin remained motionless. They he pulled himself to a stand before they could come and force him up. He could see the fear in the guards’ faces as they clamped chains on his wrists and ankles; they expected him to use magic and escape. Merlin would have told them that escaping wasn’t in his willpower right now.
They handled him roughly as they walked him down the hall and up a narrow set of stairs. They brought him into a small room with one other door. Merlin turned when the guards left him, filing out of the room the way they had come. Then, as the last of the guards left, a man with long robes, a silver beard, and pale, pale eyes emerged.
Merlin’s entire body stiffened, and Carados raised a hand as Beval entered the room behind him.
“Just a word,” Carados said. When Merlin didn’t answer, Carados shrugged and placed his hands behind his back. “This isn’t my preferred outcome,” he said. “You could have been a valuable part of our efforts.” He shrugged again. “But your unpredictability makes you more dangerous than you’re worth. Beval would argue otherwise, but I think you’d have eventually found a way to make Uther suspicious of me, and that isn’t acceptable.” Carados tilted his head. “I fear, in fact, that you’ve already thrown our work in jeopardy.” With a jerk of his head, Carados had Beval step forward.
Merlin’s heart thundered against his ribs. He tried to take a step back, but the chains kept him from going far. Beval wasted no time; he spoke his spell and the white, sharp thing dove into Merlin’s mind. But this time it didn’t bother with finesse. Merlin roared and fell to his knees as his mind was flayed open. Perhaps Beval didn’t see any point in keeping things intact for a dead man; he tossed through Merlin’s memories with a frightening amount of carelessness. Scrambling, Merlin tried to shrink down, to take the memories of Gwen and shield them with what energy he had.
Beval’s spell hammered against him, and Merlin could feel himself cracking under the pressure. With a last, desperate shout, Merlin threw out a wave of sheer magic. The pounding stopped.
Merlin cracked open his eyes and saw a skewed image of Beval leaning against the wall and clutching his head.
“He threw me out,” Beval hissed to Carados. “He—fucking hell.”
“But do you know who it was that saw him?” Carados insisted.
“I got glimpses,” Beval gasped. “It was a woman, and someone he cares about. Dark hair, dark eyes, but that’s it.”
Carados huffed. “It’s enough,” he said, glancing at Merlin sprawled on the floor. “Come on.” Merlin squeezed his eyes shut again as Carados and Beval left and slammed the door shut behind them. Tears escaped the corners of his eyes because he’d failed. He’d failed Arthur, and he’d failed Morgana and he’d failed Gaius and now he’d failed Gwen as well.
Merlin barely noticed when the guards reappeared and hauled him to his feet, when they had to drag him to the second door that let to bright sunlight and a churning crowd and a pile of dry kindling surrounding a tall pole.
Morgana woke up and for once couldn’t remember her dream at all. Instead she was aware of a firm hand on her shoulder. She squinted up then inhaled sharply at the sight of Uther standing over her. He backed away when Morgana shot to a sit and blinked at the bright daylight streaming through her window. Then she caught sight of Gwen sprawled on the floor, and her heart leapt into her mouth.
“She’s not dead,” Uther said as Morgana scrambled from the bed and went crouched over Gwen. He was right; Gwen’s face was soft and slack with sleep. Morgana struggled to even her breathing and looked to Uther again.
“Something…what happened?” she asked. Her memories were fuzzy and out of order. She’d been here, discussing escape plans with Gwen when…when something.
“Gwen!” Morgana clutched her shoulder as Gwen’s eyes flutter open.
Gwen frowned up at Morgana for a long moment before her eyes widened and she blurted, “We’ve been drugged!” Morgana leaned back to let Gwen struggle to a sit, jabbing frantically at the tureen of cold soup. “Something tasted strange, and it was…we were drugged.”
“Lightly,” Uther said from his place by the bed. Slowly, the two women turned to him.
“You…” Morgana blinked hard and shook her head. “What?”
“Because their lies make people do all sorts of things to save magic,” Uther said. “I needed to keep you under control until we can eradicate the source of this poison.”
“Eradicate—he’s dead?” Gwen’s voice was small.
“Not yet,” Uther said. He looked to Morgana. “I need you to watch the warlock burn. It may be the best way to cure you.”
“There’s no cure,” Morgana breathed, moving to a stand. “There’s no sickness.”
“They are taking the boy to the stake now,” Uther said. He held up an arm. “This is not something I will discuss, Morgana.”
They had failed. Merlin was about to die, and Morgana had been fooled by drugged stew. She turned desperately to Gwen. Gwen stared back then murmured, “We should be there for him.”
Morgana’s chest seized. This was where they stood, then. Nothing to do except watch their friend die.
“Morgana,” Uther repeated.
She inhaled shakily. “Let me change my dress,” she said.
Morgana wore black.
Arthur wondered who exactly she was mourning. The man being tied to the stake right now or the other man, the one they all thought they’d known. Arthur had no idea who he was mourning. The entire world felt numb. The only real thing was his shoulder, which had become a dull background roar of pain. Gaius hadn’t wanted him to move from his cot, but Uther had been insistent and Arthur had wanted it. Again, Arthur couldn’t say why. He couldn’t say what he felt as the herald proclaimed the criminal’s guilt as a sorcerer. He only knew that he should be here. He forgot why.
Gwen stood at the edge of the balcony, on the opposite side from the royal family. She could still see Merlin from here, and she told herself she would watch. Because if Merlin looked up, she needed him to see a friendly face. She needed him to know that she’d remember him.
A movement behind her, and Gwen turned slightly to see that Carados had arrived to stand a little behind Uther. The men bowed their heads together to speak. As Gwen watched, Carados’ eyes slid up and landed on her.
Gwen suppressed a shudder and turned back to the stake. The masked man with the flaming torch was approaching the kindling pile.
Morgana had seen this in her dream.
And she wanted to dart away and down the steps to reach Merlin, but guards stood at her elbows and she knew that if she moved, they would grab hold of her. So Morgana stared unblinking at the fire as it caught at the kindling and she resolved not to weep and she tried not to think about the part of her dream that involved long black hair and gowns catching fire.
The pain was bad, but only for a time. Merlin screamed, but then he had no lungs or throat left, and he could gaze up at the sky instead. It was peaceful, the low crackle of the fire. He couldn’t feel it at all anymore, or he felt it but there was no point in it being painful.
He could see them. High, high above him. Arthur’s golden hair, Morgana’s pale face, Gwen’s dark eyes, Gaius’ simple robes. He had great love for them in that moment, though he wished he could move closer to say goodbye.
He took a step forward and realized that, of course, the fire had eaten away the ropes. He took several more steps and found himself bounding up to familiar faces. They were all directed down to the bonfire roaring in the center of the square. Merlin could have told them that he was no longer there, but speaking seemed a distant and foreign action right now. Instead he walked among them briefly, letting his fingers brush the edge of a skirt, the fold of a shirt.
But then there was the sky, a crisp winter blue, and Merlin needed to go see it. He bound upward again. Up, and up, and up, until Merlin had forgotten completely about the fire’s pain, or the faces gazing down at him, or the idea that there was a him at all.
He bounded for the sky instead.
Doran hated cleaning up after public executions, especially a damn burning. Beheadings were unpleasant but manageable. Grab the body, grab the head, toss it all in a cart and go dump it outside the town for wolves to pick at. But a burning included heaps of ash that had to be shoveled into the cart, and that took much more time and energy than a simple body haul. And then Doran had to ignore the fact that all this ash had people bits in it. You could usually tell, too. The stuff was greasier and reeked like burnt meat. Worst of all was when Doran unearthed a bit of charred bone or the poor bastard’s half-burnt hand. Doran could have nightmares over that.
“Not sure why Uther needs to burn these bloody sorcerers,” Doran complained, thrusting his spade into the ash and swinging the haul into the cart. “It’s just more dramatic, isn’t it?”
“Nah, nah,” Josef called out from the other side of the pile. “These magical folk need to have the evil burnt out of them. And ‘sides, if their body’s all scattered ashes they can’t do their necromancy and come back, eh?” Josef paused to wipe at his forehead. “A sorcerer don’t care if his head’s chopped off, see. Just a quick spell and pop it on again and back to mischief.”
Doran had to admit that this made sense. He’d seen plenty of chickens darting about with no heads. If a chicken could manage it, then a beheading would seem like a holiday to a sorcerer.
“Still,” Doran grunted, swinging another spade of ashes. “If we find his head, I’m not dealing with it.”
“Oh come now,” Josef called back. “There’s a market for a dead man’s bones. Especially a sorcerer’s bones, and a skull is prime material. You ought to take advantage of the situation like I do.”
“That’s disgusting, Josef, and I don’t need to hear about it,” Doran snapped.
Josef shrugged. “This fire burnt too hot anyhow,” he replied. “Not a single damn thing remaining, not even a few ribs.”
Doran looked down at the ash piling around his feet. Josef had a point. This ash didn’t seem nearly as greasy or reeking as the usual fare. In fact, Doran mused, it could have been clean, simple wood ash.
He paused, then slowly looked over at Josef, who was ill-naturedly poking at the ash in hopes of hearing a clink. Doran wanted to ask whether, perhaps, a sorcerer could escape before the fire got to him. But Doran had never heard of that before, and he suspected it was dangerous to even suggest the idea.
He went back to shoveling ash.
Four months later
The Rising Sun tavern always kept steady business during the winter. The short days and bitter cold made people more prone to gathering together in the evenings, and if the gathering could be accompanied by a spot of ale, then all the better. On this particular evening, on the tail end of winter, The Rising Sun hummed with talk, and the tavern keeper’s two daughters maintained brisk walks to keep up with orders. When the door opened briefly to admit a young man swamped in a thick cloak, no one paid him too much mind.
The young man shuffled across the room and sat himself at the bar. For a long moment, he hunched over and blew into his stiff hands.
“Get you anything?” the tavern keeper asked as he wiped down a mug.
“Something hot,” the young man said, tossing back the cowl of his hood to reveal an angular jawline and thick, wavy dark hair. As the tavern keeper went to fetch the order, he decided that he had never seen this man about town before.
“Passing through?” the tavern keeper asked when he returned, sliding a flagon of hot, spiced wine across the bar.
“Not so much.” The man accepted the flagon and took a long draught. “Newly arrived, and hoping to stay.”
“And do what, if you’ll pardon my asking.”
The man half grinned, almost shy. “I hope to be a knight one day,” he said. “So I come to be trained under the prince, for I’ve heard the tales about his skill.”
“Ah,” the tavern keeper grunted, stroking his thick, red beard. “Ah,” he said again.
The man’s half grin became a light frown. “What?” he asked. He rushed to add, “My father is Lord Ren; I am his third son, Galahad. I can prove my noble blood.”
“No, that’s not it, my boy,” said a wizened old man on Galahad’s right. “I’m afraid you’re about a month too late to be trained by Prince Arthur.”
“Why?” Galahad turned to him. “Has something happened?”
“Sure something has happened,” the tavern keeper said. “Lord Ren’s son, you say? Aye, I know him. Lives way out in the south. No wonder that you didn’t hear of it yet.”
“Hear of what?”
The tavern keeper and the old man exchanged a look.
“A few months ago,” the tavern keeper started. “The prince was attacked by a rogue sorceress.”
“My cousin works in the castle,” the old man jumped in. “She said this sorceress called down red lightning.” Galahad’s eyes widened.
“And she wounded the prince badly,” the tavern keeper continued. “A horrible burn all across his shoulder.”
“Oh,” Galahad nodded once in solemn understanding. “Will he recover? How bad was the burn?”
“Ah, and there’s the tricky part,” the old man said. “My cousin, she claims that the burn is a nasty one, no doubt, but it hasn’t left Arthur bedridden. He can walk about, even if it’s difficult for him to wield a sword.”
“See, everyone expected him to go out to his knights and continue training them as best he could,” the tavern keeper said. “Arthur is devoted to his men. He’s been injured before, and he’s always returned to the training field to at least oversee their work.”
“But no one has seen hide nor hair of the prince,” the old man said. “Unless you’re out on the grounds at the right time of morning or evening.”
“What’s he doing out there?” Galahad asked.
“Ach, who can say?” the tavern keeper shrugged. “Wandering. Talking to himself sometimes. But the talk is that he’s still under some spell.”
“From the sorceress?”
“Maybe. But my money’s on the warlock who had been disguised as Arthur’s manservant for these last few years”
“Disguised?” Galahad raised his eyebrows. “How did that happen?”
“Magic folk are tricksy,” the old man said, taking a sip from his pint. “My cousin, she knew this manservant. Said he was a strange one.”
“The night the sorceress attacked, he revealed his magic,” the tavern keeper said. “The two were probably in cahoots. She escaped, but they managed to capture the boy. And so Uther had him burned, as is proper. But think about it; this warlock accompanied the prince everywhere for several years. No doubt he’s laid some thick, strong spell on Arthur that’s made him act like this. Like he no longer cares for his duties.”
“I hear a different story,” a new voice said. The three men turned and saw a woman with black, curling hair sitting on Galahad’s other side. She gazed at them, her brown fingers rat-tat-tatting against the bar. “I hear that the manservant was using magic to protect the prince,” she said.
A long silence, punctuated only by the general buzz of conversation.
“Sure,” the tavern keeper said eventually. “I’ve heard that too.”
“Who says that?” Galahad asked, shifting his body to face the woman. She studied him for a moment.
“People who were there that night and saw the events with their own eyes,” she said. “And who then had the strength of character not to be persuaded by a load of gossip and speculation.” Her dark eyes flashed to the old man, who glared back.
“I know you,” the old man said, pointing with a gnarled finger. “Beata’s told me. You’re the Lady Morgana’s maid. Girl, you’re as liable to be screwed in the head as the prince. You were rolling around with that worm.”
“Yes, I’m sure Beata thinks she’s got it all figured out,” the woman said coolly.
“Magic-addled bitch,” the old man spat.
“No need for that,” Galahad jumped in. “If you need to stoop to vulgar language, you can leave this conversation.”
The old man glared foully at Galahad. He snatched his tankard and stumped a short way down the bar. The tavern keeper, his face red beneath his beard, mumbled something about another customer calling for his attention, and slid away as well. Galahad suddenly found himself with only the woman for company.
“Thank you,” she said. He turned to see her more clearly, and thought that her tone of voice and expression suggested embarrassment more than anything else.
“No thanks needed,” he replied, and took a perfunctory sip from his spiced wine. He thought a moment, then added, “You know, I’d heard that magic was unpopular in the city. But I hadn’t realized the extent of it.”
“I suppose you wouldn’t,” the woman said. “Living as far out in the country as you do.” Her body stiffened. “No disrespect…I mean not to imply…”
“I am a bit ignorant,” Galahad told her with a self-deprecating laugh. “Where I’m from…well, we’re a bit on our own, you see. The city’s too far away to ask for real assistance, so we often deal with our problems as best we can. It’s why the common folks in our area are more willing to cast a few minor spells, to ask assistance from the small gods and spirits of the land.”
“Really?” The woman sounded intrigued now. “I can’t imagine that. I’ve lived here all my life, and even making offerings is seen as suspicious.”
“Oh, offerings are daily chores, just like milking the cow and gathering eggs,” Galahad told her. “And the folk are always finding new powers to appeal to. I think the latest is some apparition in the western woods. I’ve been hearing stories of a…I don’t know, some spirit who smells like smoke and speaks to the beasts and plants. They say if you go to him for help, he can bless your crops and heal your children. That sort of thing.”
“Hm.” The woman tapped at the bar again, though this time it sounded less agitated and more thoughtful. Somewhere in the distance, a tolling bell sounded out the hour. “I’d best be going,” the woman said, sliding to a stand. She tossed a few coins on the bar, swung her cloak over her shoulders, and glanced at Galahad. “Sir Leon is training the knights now, by the way,” she said. “He’s a good man; you’ll learn as much with him as you would with Arthur.”
Galahad nodded this thanks. The woman edged her way through the crowd and disappeared through the door.
Gwen walked home at a brisk pace, her arms tightly folded beneath her cloak. She shouldn’t have been so brash, but it was getting harder and harder for her to hold her tongue when she heard people gossiping.
The door to Gwen’s house creaked when she pushed it open. The fireplace had settled down to its embers, allowing winter chill to steal into the room. Gwen tightened her cloak around her shoulders and hurried across the room to toss another log on the embers and stoke the flames back into existence. She rested on her heels and watched a single flame lick its way across the log and start to make the bark smoke. She cut her eyes away and glanced around the room.
Gwen didn’t return to this house very often, not since her father’s death. It held too many memories, too many faces now gone. It was better to stay in the castle most nights. Though, that place had become haunted too, with a pale, black-haired boy who broke into easy grins.
A low knock thumped against the door.
Gwen paused then grabbed the poker and slid to a stand. She padded silently across the worn floor and stopped just beside the front door.
“Gwen,” hissed a voice. “Gwen, it’s me.”
“Oh,” Gwen said aloud and reached out to unclasp the door. Morgana emerged from the gloom, her face nearly lost in the thick fur of her cloak.
“Oh gods,” Morgana hissed, closing the door behind her. She tossed back her cloak’s hood and ran her hands through her hair briefly. “This must be the coldest—“ She stopped, her eyes squinted. Gwen remembered the poker and lowered it, letting its tip drag on the ground.
“I wasn’t sure,” she said.
Morgana’s expression grew sober. “Yes, I suppose that’s smart of you,” she said. “Did you see anyone follow you?”
“Not that I could tell,” Gwen said, leading the way back to the fireplace. She pulled out the stout oak bench her father had made years ago, and the two women settled onto it as close to one another as they could. “But that doesn’t mean anything.”
Morgana sighed and braced her elbows on her thighs. Her black hair sprawled across her shoulders in a messy spider web. She was silent for so long that Gwen blurted out of nervousness, “So you do believe me?”
Morgana turned to face Gwen, and ropes of hair slipped from her shoulders. “Gwen, why would I not believe you?” she said.
“It’s so paranoid,” Gwen said despairingly. “Why would a Lord’s guard be following me, after all? I’m just a maid.”
“You’re just nothing,” Morgana said in a hard voice. “Gwen, it makes perfect sense. Somehow, Carados knows you learned his secret from Merlin, and now he’s scared of you. Of what you’ll do with the information.”
“Nothing, is the answer,” Gwen muttered, glaring into the fire. “Carados still here and Merlin…he should leave me alone; it’s clear Merlin risked his life for the wrong person.”
“Gwen,” Morgana soothed, placing an arm around her shoulder. She pressed her lips against Gwen’s temple. “No, don’t think like that. You’ll go mad if you do. We know the truth; soon we will be able to make things right.”
“When?” Gwen demanded, pulling away to look at Morgana. “I hate this, Morgana. Arthur barely able to speak to us, Gaius barely speaking, Carados lording around the castle, still pretending to be such a friend to the Pendragons. It sickens me.”
“I know,” Morgana murmured. She gently guided Gwen’s head to rest on her shoulder. “I know,” she said again.
Gwen stared into the growing fire and let the sight of the flames and the sound of the log crackling overtake her senses for a time. Morgana was warm, the town remained silent with winter, and it was as peaceful as Gwen could be these days.
“Not that I don’t enjoy your company,” Gwen said after a time. “But is there a reason for this visit?”
“Unfortunately,” Morgana murmured. “But we don’t have to talk about it.”
“What?” Gwen shifted her head to peer up at Morgana; something about her voice had become heavy.
Morgana rolled in her lips briefly. “It’s Garrick and Letha,” she said. “Carados and Uther have finally figured out that they never arrived in Morrowbend.”
Gwen shut her eyes and let out a sharp exhale.
“See?” Morgana said. “You don’t need this kind of news. We won’t discuss this further.”
“No, get it out now,” Gwen said. “Do they suspect they eloped?”
“Yes,” Morgana said. Her hand came up and began to stroke Gwen’s hair. “Carados already knew of their liking for each other. It was hardly a leap.”
“Have they send out search parties already?”
“Naturally,” Morgana said. “Garrick and Letha might get a few more weeks extra if they followed their original plan and went into Essetir. The search party might not think to look there at first.”
“But they eventually will,” Gwen murmured. “And Garrick and Letha are both dear but they…”
“They will make a mistake eventually,” Morgana said, her voice bleak. “And it will have been my fault.”
“You can’t say that.”
“Please,” Morgana said. Her hand stopped its stroking. “You warned me, and I kept with it just because I wanted so badly to keep my freedom.”
“That’s not an ignoble motivation,” Gwen said, shifting a little and lifting her head from Morgana’s shoulder. “And you were also right; Garrick and Letha made each other…brilliantly happy. Maybe they would have ended up doing something like this anyway.” A pause as Gwen watched the firelight dance across Morgana’s pinched face. “Besides, do you remember when you said you wouldn’t mind exile with someone you loved?” Gwen asked.
Morgana turned her head slightly, and her eyes when they landed on Gwen were still weighed down, but Gwen thought she saw some old spark of gladness in them too.
“Yes,” Morgana said, her voice low.
“See, and I agree,” Gwen said. “I wouldn’t mind leaving my home if I could bring those I love with me. Because then, I wouldn’t really be leaving home at all. So maybe that’s what we have to think about with Garrick and Letha. That they were willing to risk so much to keep their home. It’s not something you nor I nor any king can control.”
Morgana’s entire countenance softened. “Gwen,” she all but sighed. “I do love you, dear Gwen.”
When Morgana haltingly leaned forward and captured Gwen’s lower lip between her own, it felt to Gwen like the most natural thing, like this was the only course of action possible for them. Gwen returned the kiss around a long exhale, and brought her hand up to bury in Morgana’s mane of dark hair.
The fire crackled on.
Some days, the pain threatened to swallow Arthur whole.
He could never figure out the rhythm of the bad days versus the good. He only knew that some mornings he would open his eyes and could almost imagine that it was Before. That he’d have to roll out of bed to prepare for training soon, that a familiar, warm voice would call for him to get up in just a few minutes.
This wasn’t one of those mornings. Today, Arthur woke sweating and yelling, and the voice that responded wasn’t…
“Sire,” said the servant who had appeared at his bedside. “Sire, shall I fetch Gaius?”
Arthur panted through painfully clenched teeth and shook his head just enough to be understood.
“Go,” he croaked, and the servant only hesitated a moment before obeying. He didn’t stay to fuss over Arthur’s covers and call him an idiot.
Arthur fixed his eyes on the canopy over his bed and tried to block out everything except the pattern of the fabric. It worked, a little. His shoulder’s burning withdrew incrementally. After a few minutes, Arthur grunted and swung his legs over the side of the bed. He ground his bare feet into the cold flagstone and let the throb from his shoulder sweep through him in waves.
Dressing himself was slow and painful, but Arthur bulled through it. He often found that if he moved forward in the mornings despite everything, he could build enough momentum to get through the rest of the day. Granted, he didn’t do much of substance these days, but the alternative was staying in bed with nothing to distract him.
The servant was digging something out of his teeth when Arthur emerged from his chambers wrapped in a cloak. His expression when he caught sight of Arthur and dropped his hand from his mouth was enough to make Arthur’s lips twitch.
“You’re dismissed for the day,” Arthur told him. “You can come back at night fall.” The servant bobbed his head and scampered down the hall. It was the settlement Arthur and Uther had found. Uther wanted an attendant for his son at all hours, but Arthur wouldn’t have it. Instead, Arthur agreed to have someone sleep in his chambers in case the shoulder flared up in an especially ugly way. It was grating, but Arthur knew better than to resist his father on the matter.
When Arthur passed one of the windows, he saw that the sky was still dim and dusted with a few sparse stars. Good; the cold would numb his shoulder.
Arthur slid into the grounds via a servant door. In the distance, he could hear the voices and clanking of the knights gathering for training. Some part of him ached to climb the small hill and join them, but another, louder part kept him moving forward.
He walked along a strip of grass that ran between the castle’s inner and outer wall. Above him, the towers made dark cutouts against the pale gray sky. He pulled his eyes from them. The cold was doing its job. His shoulder sank into a brooding, pulsing ache that, while unpleasant, felt manageable. Arthur tugged his cloak tighter around himself and glanced around him. No one.
Arthur trudged forward another few silent minutes before he chanced a second glance. And there, just a few paces in front of him. The black hair, the worn shirt, the sharp angles of the cheekbones. Arthur came to an abrupt stop and gazed at the image, awash in a strange combination of loathing and longing. Mad Prince Arthur, they would say. Seeing ghosts and illusions.
“Go,” Arthur croaked. He shut his eyes; it didn’t stop the prick of smoke in his nose. When he opened them, the grass was smooth and undisturbed. It took him several minutes to start moving again.
Arthur completed his circuit of the castle and was contemplating a second when he caught a dart of movement in the corner of his eye. He turned, still as a deer, his breath vapor curling in front of him.
Arthur’s shoulders slumped. The figure took one uncertain step forward, and Arthur saw the heap of dark hair and familiar winter cloak. “Hello, Morgana,” he said.
“Hello.” A long pause. “I didn’t mean to startle you. I was in the lower town, with Gwen.”
“Oh.” Arthur looked closer and saw how Morgana’s hair was flat and mussed. She’d slept there, then. Some subtle idea, some old guess that had never gotten proof, rose in Arthur’s mind. He tilted his head at Morgana but refrained from asking questions. She stared back at him, all uncertainty. It sent a pang through Arthur, and he tried to remember the last time he’d really talked to Morgana or Gwen.
“Want to join me?” he asked, offering an arm. Morgana smiled carefully and approached, taking his arm in the proper courtly way. They started a slow ramble, along the path Arthur had walked before. Yes, Arthur could smell Gwen’s house on Morgana now. It was the slightly sweet, lavender scent of cooking and dried flowers. And then something else, something fresh and warm, that was all Gwen’s own. Morgana’s familiar, crisp scent lay alongside it, and Arthur found it a comforting combination. He nearly dipped his head to bury his nose in Morgana’s hair and seek it out.
“How have you been?” Arthur asked. It was a silly, hollow question.
“Fine,” Morgana replied in just as hollow an answer. She seemed to recognize it because she added, “No, sorry, not fine at all. Of course not. We — Gwen and me — we’re worried about you, Arthur.” Morgana coughed out a laugh. “Gods, worried isn’t the word, is it? Anxious. Frightened.”
Frightened enough to spend the night together, Arthur thought, then felt shame-faced for his own bitterness. What did he expect, secreting himself away like he had? Of course Gwen and Morgana would fall together; they always had in the past. He just didn’t realize he’d feel so agitated about it. As if he was going to be left behind.
“I’m sorry,” Arthur murmured. He rolled his shoulder when it began to surge with pain again. “I’ve been…lost.” That seemed a small word for the fog of the last month, but it was the best Arthur could do.
“Yes,” Morgana said, her face turned toward the dewy grass that bent under their feet. “I think I know the feeling.” She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear and peered up at Arthur. “I’m afraid of this sounding trite, but you know we’re both...we want to help you.”
Arthur didn’t reply. The sun was sifting into view; it lent fresh color to the castle walls, the grass, Morgana’s face and hair. Arthur could see her concern properly now; it made her look a little angry, like she wished she could fight whatever it was that hurt him. The familiarity made his heart drop.
“I have no idea how you’re supposed to help me,” he said. “You or Gwen. I have no idea…nothing feels real or graspable, some days.”
Morgana sniffed, and the fighting expression grew stronger. “What, you think I want to swoop in and solve all your problems? I’m not so arrogant, Arthur. I’m asking that you and Gwen let us do something. Talk to us, tell us the most stupid of your troubles, and we can try to help.”
“What does that do?” Arthur demanded.
“It makes things a little easier,” Morgana insisted. Arthur pursed his lips and looked away. “Just pick something,” Morgana said. “I don’t care what.”
“Fine,” Arthur grunted. “Uther keeps pestering me to start on my duties again. He’s ordered me to start attending the public hearings, later today.”
“And you don’t want to go?”
“More than anything, I don’t want to go. But I also know I ought to start being the prince again. And maybe if you were there…” He stopped and bit his lip. Morgana’s fingers dug into his arm.
“Yes,” she said. “Yes, of course. I’ll be there.” The dread filled Arthur’s chest almost immediately.
In the old days, the public hearings were at worst a source of annoyance. It was the day when the common folk from all over the kingdom could appear before the throne and air their grievances or ask for help. Their needs and complaints were often petty, but once in a while the furthest villages had a real crisis that needed the throne’s attention. Like when Hunith had come to seek help for Ealdor. And then they had—
“I can’t,” Arthur said, coming to such an abrupt halt that he gave Morgana mild whiplash. She turned to him, and he didn’t see a trace of mocking in her expression. That frightened him.
“You can,” she said, voice low and hissing. Before them, the throne room was already filling with the standard staff of advisors, scribes and announcers. Arthur saw more than a few eyes slide in his direction, and some lingered unabashedly. Arthur knew that his absence from the castle’s daily life had grown conspicuous. It was partially why Uther had been so adamant that Arthur restart his duties. Public hearings should have been the simplest of first steps. Yet here Arthur stood, frozen to the spot and clutching Morgana’s arm.
“What frightens you?” Morgana asked, shifting herself so that she stood between Arthur and the room of staring eyes. “Do you fear being attacked again?”
“No,” Arthur said without thinking. His shoulder twinged at him, and he lifted a hand to rub lightly at it. He scanned the crowd, but he saw no kerchief or bright blue eyes. He took a deep breath. “I don’t know what I fear,” he lied.
Morgana bit at her bottom lip and then tugged at his elbow. “Come on,” she said. “I’ll be here, and Gwen is on her way.”
Arthur looked to Morgana and felt an abrupt sweep of despair at how gently she handled him. This wasn’t right. She was supposed to aggravate him, challenge him, say brash things into his face that would push him so far and hard that he’d have to push back, and in that way they would come to their own equilibrium.
“What?” Morgana asked. Arthur blinked; he must have been making some expression.
“Nothing,” Arthur said. And, gripping Morgana’s arm, he took a step into the throne room. He paused, faltered, then took another. The room seemed to grow hushed as the prince approached the dais. Arthur kept his eyes fixed on the throne and his senses focused on Morgana. Her strides remained sure and long where his faltered and shuffled.
At long, long last they made it to the dais. Morgana’s hand lingered on his arm as Arthur sank into his seat. From the other end of the room, the door opened to admit Uther and Carados, their heads bent together. Morgana gave Arthur one last squeeze and turned to her own seat. He had to swallow back words asking her to stay.
When Uther neared the dais, Arthur saw his expression shift from moodiness to surprised pleasure. Carados was unreadable. Arthur straightened and pretended that it didn’t feel as if something was eating a hole through the flesh and bone of his right shoulder.
“Arthur,” Uther greeted when he neared. Behind him, Carados joined the room of advisors and staff who pretended not to be paying attention. “I am very pleased to see you here,” Uther said, taking a seat in his throne.
“Yes,” Arthur started, then fell silent, because he didn’t know what else he was supposed to say. The main doors to the throne room were beginning to creak open, and Uther patted Arthur’s good shoulder. Arthur studied the side of his father’s face and thought he looked especially drawn and heavy-eyed today. Perhaps the news of Garrick and Letha was affecting him more than Arthur would have expected.
The herald stepped forward to announce the first speaker: a stout butcher from the lower town. Arthur recognized him; he came in often to complain about theft in his part of the city.
As the butcher began his speech, Arthur spotted a dart of movement from a side door. Gwen appeared in a flurry of blue skirt. She scooted discretely to her usual place just behind Morgana’s chair. As Arthur watched, Morgana leaned her head back, her lips slightly parted and her eyes bright. For a split second, Arthur thought they might kiss. But instead, Morgana and Gwen exchanged a few low words, and Gwen nodded once before moving silently across the dais to stand behind Arthur.
“Hello, Guinevere,” he murmured under his breath. “Have you come to make sure I don’t fall out of my chair?”
“Something like that,” Gwen muttered back, folding her hands in her skirt. “Sire,” she added like an afterthought. Arthur chuffed. She had such a way of saying that word, ‘sire.’ She said it with light respect, almost as a way of being polite. But she never said it with fear or wallowing or reverence like most of the servants and courtiers. She never said it with brash, disrespectful flippancy either, that had always been…had been…
Arthur’s hands gripped at the chair’s arms and he fixed his eyes on the butcher, who was still speaking. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair that a skinny, clumsy manservant could make Arthur feel…and then had hidden his…
Arthur’s shoulder bloomed into a fresh bought. He ground his teeth together and shut his eyes and waited. When he opened his eyes again, Merlin stood at the base of the dais. A half strangled shout tumbled from Arthur’s throat.
“No,” he said hoarsely, pressing himself back against the chair as if to escape the silent, accusing visage. The thick taste of smoke was already gathering on Arthur’s palate. “No,” Arthur tried again. He wanted to shut his eyes, but Merlin’s cold, dead-eyed gaze prohibited him. “I’m sorry, Merlin; I didn’t know,” Arthur babbled. “It was your fault, not mine. Stop it, Merlin, stop it, I’m sorry, it’s my fault.” Hands and voices surrounded him, but somehow Arthur still saw Merlin, still smelled the smoke like a fire burned under his own feet.
“Arthur!” The voice was clear, and rang through Arthur’s head like a bell. He inhaled too hard and started to cough, and he could feel the soot and ash collect in his throat and lungs. “Arthur, please!”
Abruptly, Merlin’s pale, blank expression disappeared, and Arthur realized that he was staring at Gwen. Her expression was frantic and her hands framed Arthur’s face. “Arthur,” she chanted. “Arthur, Arthur, come back, please.” Arthur choked on nothing and brought up one hand and clasped Gwen’s wrist. He let his eyes slide shut and took a stuttering breath.
Slowly, as if filtered through a long tunnel, Arthur heard many voices, some of them angry, some confused. Uther’s echoed from close by, and Morgana answered. Then two sets of hands gripped Arthur’s arms and maneuvered him to a stand. Arthur swayed, found Morgana on one side of him and Gwen on the other. Before him, Uther’s face had grown red as a beet.
“You mortify me,” Uther hissed then turned away. Arthur tried to open his mouth, but his tongue was lolling and numb. Morgana and Gwen began to walk, and he had no choice but to follow their lead. As they maneuvered their way down the dais, Arthur caught sight of the staring courtiers and advisors and visitors. Merlin was nowhere to be seen.
“Don’t mind him,” Morgana said at his right, fierce and proud. “He’s a bitter, hateful old man. He doesn’t understand.”
“The people will forgive you,” Gwen murmured at his left, soft and sure. “They know you were attacked cruelly. They can have patience.” Arthur shuffled, mostly held up by the two women, and said nothing as he watched his boots trip over the flagstones.
As the three of them hurried down the corridor away from the throne room, it seemed as if the smoke and ash began to dissipate. Arthur could take deep breathes without wanting to choke, and as he did this, his mind grew less blurred and dizzy.
By the time they reached the bottom of the stairs that would lead to Gaius’ chambers — for where else would they be going? — Arthur had a clear enough mind to be angry. No doubt news of his outburst would spread through the castle within the hour, and after that, the town and kingdom. Soon everyone would know that their prince had gone mad. Arthur was angry at his father for pushing him to attend the public hearings, and he was angry at Morgana for enabling him, and he was angry at Gwen for treating him so carefully. And above all that, Arthur harbored a deep, tangled, desperate resentment toward Merlin. It almost didn’t matter whether Arthur thought of Merlin the illusion, Merlin the warlock, or, though it was most painful, Merlin the friend-manservant-something-else. It all made him want to grasp a sword and hack at the nearest enemy.
When the three of them pushed through the door to Gaius’ chambers, they found the physician bent over a book with a monocle. He looked up at the disturbance, blinking heavily. “What’s happened?” he asked.
“Nothing,” Arthur cut in before Gwen or Morgana could speak. He shrugged off their arms. “Just another—“
“You were seeing something,” Morgana turned to him, her expression stormy. “Gods, Arthur, you were shouting his name.” The chambers fell deathly silent.
“Arthur,” Gaius said after a moment. “What did you see?”
Arthur tensed as if about to turn around and escape through the door, but his shoulder had begun roaring back to life and he didn’t trust himself to make it more than a few paces.
“Nothing,” he repeated, this time with pitiful amounts of confidence.
“Arthur.” Gaius tilted his head, his voice steady. “Did you see Merlin?”
Arthur’s expression must have given him away because Gaius sighed and set down his monocle. “I’m not overly surprised. Echoes are common when a warlock dies,” he said.
“Echo—is this a ghost?” Morgana asked.
“No, no. It’s the residual magic a warlock can leave behind. Sometimes, for certain people, it becomes something visible.” Gaius peered at Arthur thoughtfully, as if they discussed nothing more complicated than a poultice for sore joints. “What do you see, exactly, Arthur?”
Arthur pressed his lips together. “I see him,” he muttered. “And I smell the smoke.” Gwen inhaled hard.
Gaius nodded. “It makes sense. Merlin’s last magical acts involved protecting and healing you. You have some of his magic in your veins, still giving off aftershocks.”
Arthur took a step back, and the shoulder pulsed. “He wasn’t protecting me, and he wasn’t healing me,” Arthur croaked. “He lied to us. He was a warlock.”
“Arthur,” Morgana hissed, but Gaius only looked complacent. Arthur spun around and slammed the door open, taking staggering, hard steps down the corridor.
Murderer, traitor, liar, his shoulder seemed to beat out. Murderer, traitor, liar. Arthur had no idea who it meant.
After his outbreak in the throne room, Arthur disappeared completely. Gwen knew he was still in the castle because his servant claimed it to be so, but she hadn’t caught so much as a glimpse of him for weeks. Morgana reported that Uther viewed his son’s disappearance as preferable to Arthur shouting at a dead warlock in front of half the castle.
And hadn’t that story buzzed around the castle for days on end. Gwen kept hearing more and more embellished tales, until some insisted that Merlin had come back from the dead to inflict punishment on the whole kingdom. Gwen had to work hard to bite her tongue; she still remembered what Beata’s ornery cousin at the Rising Sun had said, and she knew most of the servants viewed her with suspicion. It meant that sometimes, Gwen had to grab her work and leave the room before she rounded on someone and got into a shouting match.
She did this on a Thursday evening when she was supposed to be washing Morgana’s bed sheets. A scullery maid started talking loudly about how the warlock (hardly anyone called Merlin by his name anymore) would start causing plague and illness. Gwen twisted the water from a blanket with such vigor that she heard a few stiches pop, then ill-temperedly dumped the damp blanket in a basket by her feet, swooped it up, and started for the door. She passed through the doorway and nearly plowed into a tall, solid figure.
“Sorry!” Gwen gasped, taking a step backwards. She looked up and felt her heart palpitate at the sight of Beval. He gave a half bow and murmured something that she couldn’t decipher. Gwen moved past him and jogged down the corridor. When she chanced a glance behind her, he was nowhere to be seen.
Now thoroughly rattled and off-center, Gwen aimed for the steps that would take her to the castle’s lower levels. She arrived at Gaius’ chambers soon enough, and burst in without knocking. It was empty. Gwen stood at the doorway feeling a little stupid and fairly lost and mostly tired. She let the basket clatter to the floor and took a few steps forward. “Hello?” she called out. No answer. Gaius was probably out running errands.
Still, Gwen’s feet carried her through the chamber’s crowded collection of tables and benches until she stood, swaying, in front of the door to Merlin’s room. She raised a hand and brushed a finger along the doorway’s frame. Then she turned the knob and stepped inside.
It smelled like him. Faintly, for it had been months now, but she could smell him. The bed still looked rumpled and his belongings remained scattered across the floor and table. Gwen drifted to Merlin’s bed and, slowly, sank into it. The blankets were scratchy and a little musty, but she still curled up on them and buried her nose in the fabric. He seemed very close now, and Gwen imagined that in a moment, Merlin’s hand would land on her shoulder and he’d say something teasing and kind. Gwen heaved a shaky sigh and clutched at the blanket tighter. The afternoon light shifted across Gwen’s skirt, and the bustle of the city made a comforting murmur outside, and Gwen let herself drift into a doze.
She came back to herself some time later when she heard the bedroom door squeak. She snapped her eyes open just in time to see the door shut again. Gwen lurched to a sit and brushed wayward hair from her eyes as she stumbled for the door. When she pushed it open, she saw Gaius setting a basket of herbs on the table.
“Hello,” he greeted her with a small smile. “Sorry to have woken you. I was going to put on tea.”
Gwen swayed a little on the bedroom’s threshold. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I shouldn’t have—“
“I’m glad someone’s finally going in there to disturb the dust a bit,” Gaius cut her off. “Come on, sit down. You look only half awake.”
Gwen felt only half awake as she trudged to the worn, old table where she’d taken a few meals with Gaius and Merlin in the past. She slumped onto a stool and watched Gaius set his kettle over the smoldering fire. He had some heaviness to his actions. He’d always been an old man in Gwen’s memory, but only in recent months had he started to really actlike it.
“Should be ready in a bit,” Gaius said as he lowered himself in a stool across from Gwen. He reached out and pulled the basket of herbs closer. “Look here,” he said. “I managed to find some aether flowers.” He pulled out a single, snow-white flower with a dusky gray center. “They grow at the very end of winter,” he said. “It’s a bit of a chore finding them.” He paused. “Merlin had a knack for it.”
The air in the room seemed to grow heavier. Gwen bit her bottom lip. “Gaius,” she said. “How do you do it?”
“Accept that he’s gone. You seem…” she fell silent, unsure of what she was trying to say.
Gaius sighed and twirled the white blossom in his gnarled fingers. “Perhaps I have seen too many friends die in similar ways, and now I’ve gotten numb to it.”
Gwen lifted her chin, her eyes narrowed. “How do you mean?” she asked.
Gaius shrugged. “Back in the purge, so many died every month that you had to heap all the memories and the sorrow in the back of your mind, because if you grieved too openly you were in danger. I wasn’t able to properly grieve the loss of my friends under years later. I worry now that I never gave them the mourning they deserved.”
“Did you…did you know many magical people?” Gwen asked carefully.
“Everyone knew magical people,” Gaius said, his smile soft. “In my childhood, you went to the local witch for a healing spell, to the warlock up the road for a horse-calming charm. Everyone lost someone important to them, Gwen. We got very good at pretending like we appreciated what Uther was doing.”
Gwen grew still then reached across the table to grasp Gaius’ hand. He squeezed her hand once in return then stood to attend to the squealing kettle. When he returned, he set a cup of hot, strong tea before Gwen. “It’s chamomile,” he said. “Good relaxant.” She took the cup and let the heat leach into her palms. The steam condensed on her face.
“Gaius,” she said, eyes on the dark mirror that was her tea. “What you told Arthur. About him seeing echoes of Merlin’s magic. Is that common?”
“It’s not highly unusual,” Gaius said. “Especially not for someone with Merlin’s power.”
“And would echoes of Merlin appear many days’ travel away?” Gwen pressed. “Could it happen?”
Gaius looked Gwen over carefully, his eyebrows lowering. “It depends on the person seeing it,” he said. “Usually, the echoes happen to people steeped in someone’s magic.”
“So someone who never knew Merlin shouldn’t see anything,” Gwen said.
“No. Gwen, what’s this about?”
“I have no idea,” Gwen admitted. She ran her finger along the rim of the cup. “Just a notion, I think.”
Notion it might have been, but it drove Gwen to take a trip to the training fields the next morning. The knights’ armor caught the morning sunlight as they sparred, and Gwen might have called the sight beautiful. She sank into the dry grass and thought of other times, when she or Merlin or Morgana would show up at the training sessions. Arthur would pretend not to notice them or he’d send them sly, small expressions of gladness. Now, it was Leon who spotted her and gave her a puzzled though pleased expression. He waved at her, and she waved back without getting up.
It took her some time to find him. She’d only spoken to him for a handful of minutes, and he’d been blotchy from the cold. But when she caught sight of his jawline and the expression on his face, she knew she’d found the man from the Rising Sun. He was practicing parries with another trainee, his expression set in concentration. Gwen watched him for the rest of the training session, picking at grass blades and pressing her hand into frozen earth.
When the trainees were dismissed around mid-morning, Gwen rose and approached the line of men as they returned to the castle. The man from the tavern was sheathing his sword when she stopped in front of him. She watched as he registered her presence, frowned, then lifted his chin in recognition.
“You were at the tavern,” he told her a little blankly.
“I was,” she said, giving a perfunctory curtsey. “I never introduced myself. I’m Guinevere. Gwen for short.”
“Gwen,” the man echoed. He glanced around the training field as if to find any more familiar strangers, then focused on Gwen again. “I am Galahad,” he said. “Pleased to make your acquaintance. Properly, I mean.”
“Yes.” Gwen fiddled with the edge of her cloak. “Galahad, I have some questions. And I hope you have time and patience to help me.”
“Of course.” Galahad adjusted his stance. “Yes, of course, however I can.” Gwen nodded and looked up in time to see Leon eyeing them.
“It’s about the spirit you mentioned at the tavern,” she said, drawing herself to her full height. “The one you said the local people go to for help. The one that, um. It smells like smoke.”
Galahad rubbed absently at the pommel of his sword. “I don’t know much about it,” he told her.
“But what do the stories say?” Gwen pressed. “When did it appear?”
Galahad’s eyes shifted to Leon, who was hovering over a pile of practice lances. He held up an arm. “Might I trouble you for a walk, Lady Gwen?” he asked.
“I’m no lady,” Gwen said, flushing as she took his arm. They began to stroll away from the training grounds, and the sunlight glimmered off of the dented surface of Galahad’s armor. “Only a lady’s maid.”
“You don’t carry yourself like a maid,” Galahad said, his voice thoughtful. He looked behind him, and when he began speaking again, his voice was lower. “I’m sorry. I’ve been finding out just how suspicious city folk are of any mention of magic. I don’t suspect that the attack on the prince helped any.”
“Not at all,” Gwen admitted, lifting her skirts to avoid a muddy patch that was softening in the sunlight.
“So,” Galahad said. “The Smoke Man. What did you need to know?”
Galahad hummed and rubbed at his bearded chin. “Everything, eh?” he said. “Well. I suppose I started hearing the stories several months ago. They said some girl in a local village had gone to the man and asked for his help. To heal some family member, I think. But people had been seeing this fellow since late autumn, I think.”
“He healed someone?” Gwen asked.
“So they say,” Galahad shrugged. “I don’t know, Gwen. You hear stories like this every so often. I’m not sure how much stock you want to put into them.”
“Do you know what he looks like?” Gwen asked, undeterred.
“I always hear tall and pale, with dark hair.”
Galahad eyed Gwen oddly. “One fellow says he has a kerchief, yes.” A pause. “You seem to already know something of this.”
“I don’t know,” Gwen breathed. She felt a little floating, like her feet weren’t quite meeting the ground. “I might. What else do the stories say?”
Well into midday, Gwen walked with her hands clutching Galahad’s arm as he pulled out all the stories he knew of the Smoke Man. How he wasn’t easy to find, how he seemed to appear more readily to children and the weak, how everyone noted his gentleness, how he never seemed to want payment, how the beasts and plants seemed to understand and obey him. And always, the smoke. A thick, charring scent that clung to clothes and filled the air, until the Smoke Man began to speak. When he spoke, the smoke scent always disappeared as quietly as it had appeared.
Gwen lapped up Galahad’s words, and not once could she bring herself to tell him she had heard enough.
Merlin was staring. He did it a lot, when he appeared. It used to be that Arthur would ignore him and will him away, and eventually Merlin always did disappear. But recently, Arthur would chance looks over to him. And he could tell, if he paid enough attention, that this wasn’t the Merlin he knew. This Merlin had too blank a face, and he was always so still that Arthur doubted he was breathing. That made sense, didn’t it? If this thing was made of magic. But it still stared, and it still made Arthur’s skin crawl, so he never paid it more than a few cursory glances.
It was easiest to ignore the false Merlin on the castle towers. There, Arthur could watch the business of the people below him. Sometimes, he could pretend that it was the old times, and he and Merlin were sitting in each other’s company and not saying a word because they didn’t have to. Sometimes.
On this day, the sun was well toward noon and the dusting of green across the land told Arthur that spring would come. Already, the wind was growing warmer. The Imbolc festival would arrive, and the kingdom would celebrate new beginnings. Arthur would be…
Arthur rearranged his position on the wall. When he tried to think about his future, the days felt like gray slate. He couldn’t fathom a pattern to them, couldn’t decide whether he fit into the future at all. He imagined himself becoming transparent, passing out of sight and turning into a half legend that servants told one another. The prince who simply faded away.
Something clattered behind him, and Arthur turned in time to see Carados emerge from the small door. Arthur’s body tensed without him meaning to. Carados’ eyes landed immediately on Arthur, and his expression, perhaps, was not quite as surprised as it should have been.
“My apologies,” he said without moving. “I hadn’t realized you were here.”
Arthur dithered for a moment on how to answer then settled with a slow nod. Carados smiled and took a few circuitous steps, not quite toward Arthur but not away from him either.
“With all due respect, I’m actually glad I found you,” he said, placing his hands behind his back. “You’ve been missed, Arthur.”
A twinge of something disturbed Arthur’s mind. It made him automatically look to his right, where the not-Merlin had been sitting. And it was still sitting there, but now Arthur felt his heart quicken when he realized that, for the first time, it didn’t have a blank face. It was glaring at Carados. As if it had sensed his attention, the not-Merlin turned its head to look directly at Arthur.
It opened its mouth, and in a voice that sounded tinny and distant, said, “Don’t trust him.”
Arthur twitched and dragged his eyes up to Carados. He had gotten closer, somehow, without Arthur noticing. Carados looked over Arthur’s face.
“Sire,” he said. “May I be frank?”
“I suppose,” Arthur said.
“You are an ill man; anyone can see it. And I don’t just mean the shoulder.”
“Don’t trust him,” not-Merlin said.
“If you’ll forgive me for saying so, you need help. Camelot still needs a prince.”
“Don’t trust him.”
“Did my father put you up to this?” Arthur asked, keeping his eyes trained on Carados.
“Not at all,” Carados said, lowering his eyebrows. “I’m merely a concerned friend of the family.”
Arthur, oddly enough, felt his mouth twitch with a suppressed grin. “Then that’s very generous of you,” he said. “Did you have a cure in mind for Mad Prince Arthur?”
Carados cocked his head then gave a low laugh. “Perhaps,” he said. “I have a man who has skill in treating ills such as yours. He could help.”
“Arthur.” Arthur flinched and looked to his right in time to see that Merlin — no, not-Merlin — had stood up. The smell of smoke swelled, and Arthur almost thought he could hear the crackle of flames. “Don’t trust him,” not-Merlin said, and his voice was an echo in a long cave. “Don’t trust him. Don’t trust him. He’d betray you. He’d betray you.”
Then, like a collapsing log in a fire, Merlin fell apart. Arthur watched the sunlight sift through smoke and ash. Arthur knew he was staring at the spot for too long and that Carados had noticed, but then again, the man had seen Arthur shouting at nothing already, so this was mild by comparison.
Slowly, Arthur turned to look at Carados again. The pale blue eyes were sharp and attentive, flicking between Arthur and the empty space.
“I thank you for the offer,” Arthur heard himself say. “I’ll think on it.”
Carados bowed briefly, and for no discernable reason, Arthur remembered what Gaius had said about the servant girl found at the base of the tower with the finger marks on her neck. When Carados straightened and apologized for disturbing Arthur, Arthur only smiled thinly and said it was no trouble, and didn’t quite relax until Carados disappeared back through the tower door.
Morgana was nearly asleep when the chamber doors opened and Gwen slipped in with a flickering candle lighting up her face. Morgana pushed herself upright, and Gwen shushed at her to lay back down.
“I was helping in the kitchens tonight,” Gwen murmured as she set the candle on the bedside table and began to unpin her hair. She smelled like spices and baking bread. “They were short on people tonight.”
“Planting season is starting,” Morgana murmured back, her head propped on one hand. “Everyone’s families wants them home to help.”
Gwen hummed her agreement as she fetched one of her nightgowns from the bottom shelf of Morgana’s wardrobe. Morgana had told her many times to just take one of her old ones, but Gwen had always given her a strange, sideways smile and told her that she preferred her own. Now, Morgana watched as Gwen undressed in the yellow light of the candle and the white light of a waxing moon. The curves of her body lit up in brushstrokes, and Morgana’s breath caught. Gwen turned her head a little, like she had heard, and she lingered bare skinned In front of the window. Morgana’s eyes followed the sweep of Gwen’s breasts, the slope of her shoulders, the cascade of her hair. Then Gwen shook out her nightgown and pulled it over her head. Morgana sighed.
“Did you like that?” Gwen asked when she approached the bed. She said it with a touch of nerves but mostly with coy playfulness. Morgana laughed and tugged Gwen down by the collar of her nightgown to press their lips together.
“You’re a tease,” Morgana said when they parted, and Gwen blew out the candle so Morgana couldn’t see her expression. Gwen peeled back the covers and slid beside Morgana, and after they had rearranged themselves around one another, Gwen sought out Morgana’s mouth again.
This ritual was only a few weeks old, yet sometimes Morgana felt as if they’d been performing it for years. Gwen felt utterly familiar under her hands, and at the same time she bloomed with new facets that Morgana had never seen before. It was, on a whole, dreamlike.
“I have something to tell you,” Gwen said between kisses, before their hands started to wander.
“What?” Morgana asked, a little stupidly. She could taste Gwen on the edges of her lips.
“I’m not even sure,” Gwen sighed. She played with a strand of Morgana’s hair. “I don’t know whether I’m chasing mirages.”
“Gwen, what is it?” Morgana tried to sit up, but Gwen rushed forward and captured Morgana’s mouth again.
“Please,” Gwen breathed into Morgana. “Let me…” She finished the thought with a hand that tugged at the skirt of Morgana’s nightgown, and Morgana sank into the pillows with a hard exhale.
Morgana thought that Gwen had fallen asleep.
She did that sometimes, after they’d both finished and ended up in a sprawling heap atop the covers. Morgana liked to trace Gwen’s face with a single finger and revel in the fact that she could do it. But tonight, when Morgana’s thumb outlined Gwen’s chin, Gwen’s eyes fluttered open.
“It’s about Merlin,” she said, apropos of nothing. Morgana’s hand fell away.
“What about him?” she asked. Gwen rolled in her lips and shifted under the covers, flipping to her back and folding her hands under her chin.
“A few weeks ago, I met a man in the Rising Sun. His name is Galahad. And he mentioned…something. A spirit in the woods near where he lives. People are calling it the Smoke Man.”
“The smoke….” Morgana’s eyes narrowed. “What are you saying?”
“I don’t know,” Gwen said, the despair seeping into her voice. “I talked to Galahad again a few days ago, and I feel as if…” Gwen rubbed at her eye with one hand. “Galahad has heard a story that this spirit is pale and tall and has dark hair and has a kerchief. He heals people when they ask him for help. He—“ Gwen cut herself. “I don’t know what I’m saying, Morgana. I don’t know, I don’t.” Gwen rolled forward and fell into Morgana’s arms. Morgana could feel her heart slamming against the base of her throat. “I’m going mad,” Gwen breathed into Morgana’s collarbone. “But Arthur said that he saw Merlin, and he smelled smoke, and everyone agrees that this spirit smells like smoke, but I don’t know how it could be...”
“Listen, Gwen,” Morgana whispered into her hair. “Gwen, you remember what Gaius told us, don’t you? Merlin was powerful. Maybe it’s possible. Maybe; we don’t know.”
Gwen shook her head. At what, Morgana didn’t know. She tightened her grip on Gwen and closed her eyes and didn’t know how to handle the sprig of hope pushing through her, like a sprout emerging from winter soil.
For the first time since the execution, Morgana dreamed of Merlin. And she wasn’t in the main square, and there were no piles of kindling.
But there were trees.
the first and last thing to understand was the way leaves decayed at the roots and buds pushed through the branches and once you understood that everything else followed
the people who came didn’t understand this half the time they always stomp stomp stomped across everything and sometimes you had to drift into a stream to avoid them and sometimes you had to curl up inside a tree and in that way they didn’t know you existed only the birds, sometimes, knew because the birds liked you best and made it their business to know where you were
the trees always knew, and the soil always knew, and the water always knew, but that was to be expected because they were old, old vast things and they had seen enough not to be surprised by your presence but the birds, the birds spent so many daylights being affronted on your behalf and half curious and half mortified and they spoke to you in chattering reams and told all their relations about your presence and the other beasts of course learned about you from the birds because that is how anyone gets their news and in that early time they all came to visit you and see you for themselves and made polite remarks
they asked what you were and you did not know and they asked where you had come from and you did not know and they asked what your meaning was and you did not know
plants were never so outright and they did not ask questions because plants don’t know how to ask anything only how to answer in long slow phrases and you found that you knew how to love seeping into their roots and listening to the water pump through their tissue and once you spent days and days as a holly bush and it was something like being happy though you weren’t sure if happy was something you’d known or was a nice idea you’d picked up somewhere
the birds said you looked like a two-legger but that it must have been wrong because nothing else about you was two-legger you were more like wind and more like seedlings and somewhere inside you they saw fire and the fire was what made them all respect you because everyone knew that fire killed but that life always followed right on its tail and that explained the part of you that was all new grass and tender buds and because of this the trees felt appropriate to answer the question you had never asked and told you that the first and last thing to understand was the way leaves decayed at the roots and buds pushed through the branches
and once you understood that everything else followed
Morgana woke with a quiet start. Beneath her arm, Gwen stirred a little. Morgana’s breath came hard, and her eyes were blurry. She realized she was crying when a tear ran across the bridge of her nose and disappeared into the pillow. Gwen shifted again, and when Morgana looked down at her, Gwen’s eyes were glittering dark slits. “Dream?” Gwen asked muzzily. “Just a dream,” Morgana said. She kissed Gwen’s eyelids shut, and Gwen let her, sighing as she melted back into Morgana chest. Morgana tucked her chin into Gwen’s hair and watched the sun come up.
The first buds were coming in on the trees. Somehow, when Letha saw this, it made her want to trust it as a good omen.
“What are you smiling at, my bird?”
Letha turned a little to find Garrick climbing back into the carriage. Behind him, she could see the farmer he had been talking to urging his horses back into a brisk trot.
“Spring is coming,” she explained. “What did the farmer say? Are we close to Ironglen?”
“Another hour’s ride,” Garrick told her, sliding in beside her. The carriage lurched to a start again, and the driver restarted his singing. He’d been transporting them for all yesterday and today, and he spoke little but liked to sing in his thick Essetir accent. Letha had been loathe at first to rent carriages, for fear that someone would recognize her or Garrick. But it had been many weeks since they’d fled their home, and still no one had found them. Letha was starting to think, hope, that they had made it.
“Spring, eh?” Garrick wrapped an arm around Letha’s shoulders. “They’ll start planting soon, won’t they? You know, I’ve always fancied that I’d make a good farmer.”
Letha laughed and leaned her head against Garrick’s shoulder. “Garrick, dear,” she said. “I don’t know if I can see it.” She looked closer into Garrick’s eyes. “But I also think that you must be able to do anything you set your mind to.”
“Mm,” Garrick hummed, leaning down to capture Letha’s lips in a kiss. She marveled at how many times they could do this, and she still felt flushed with elation, like she was about to float away. “I think,” Garrick murmured, “that I have already set my mind to it.”
“Oh?” Letha asked. She was going to say more, but they fell into another kiss.
“Absolutely,” Garrick murmured. “I shall invest in a good plot of land. And I shall grow the finest wheat and barley in this kingdom, or any other kingdom.”
“Go on.” Letha was giggling now.
“And you shall be the most beautiful farmwife,” Garrick said. “And I will buy you lovely dresses for when you go out to milk the cows.”
“And I suppose you will wear fine clothes to harvest?” Letha asked.
“I think you’re teasing me,” Garrick said.
“I might be—“ Letha was cut off when the carriage lurched to a halt. She tumbled into Garrick and realized that outside their driver was shouting to someone. Letha immediately thought of bandits.
“Stay here,” Garrick whispered, his voice hard. He grabbed his sword where it sat on the opposite seat and slid out of the carriage. Letha crumpled her skirt in fists and scooted forward to peer through the window. She did see a group of men on the road, but they were not roughly dressed. They looked like a group of guards, maybe from a local lord. Garrick approached them, gesturing widely. As Letha watched, one of the men stepped forward and replied. She couldn’t hear them, and so squeaked the door open.
“—just a routine inspection, sir, nothing to worry about,” the man on the road was saying. “If you could just tell us your name and business.”
“I shall do nothing of the sort,” Garrick said, his shoulders squared. “Not until you tell me who you represent. This is a public road; we are not trespassing. And I see no sign that you represent the crown.”
“We represent someone with certain interests,” the man said. Letha saw him tilt his head at Garrick, then his eyes flicked to her. She shrank back.
“Who?” Garrick demanded.
The man raised his sword in a blur and bashed the pommel into Garrick’s temple. Letha clapped her hands to her mouth and screamed through her fingers.
A twitch of the man’s head, and two of the men behind him came forward to grab hold of Garrick’s arms and drag him to the ground. The man who had been talking to Garrick strode toward the carriage. Sobbing, Letha scrambled backward and felt for the carriage’s opposite door.
“No,” she breathed when the man swung open the carriage door. “No, no, no.”
“Ma’am,” the man said, all courtesy, as if he were asking her to have a good day. “Please come with me.”
Letha’s hands finally found the door’s handle, and she tumbled onto the dirt road with an impact that forced the air from her lungs. She scrambled to a stand and, unthinking, made several shambling steps to where the men were now tying Garrick’s hands behind his back. He lifted his head, they made eye contact, and then two meaty hands wrapped around Letha’s arms and she was screaming.
Arthur was a little outside of the castle grounds when he saw the party of riders emerge from the forest. He’d been…well, not quite going through basic sword forms, but he’d had his sword in his hand and was trying to find a way to make his shoulder do what he wanted without it burning up. He was starting to wonder if he’d have to learn how to be a left-handed sword fighter.
The main road was a few hundred paces from the clearing where he stood, so he saw the party from a distance. He registered several men and one woman; perhaps a lady an her escort. He returned his attention to his sword, attempting to raise it above his head and failing with a hiss through clenched teeth.
He glanced over to the road again, then frowned when he realized that the woman’s skirts were tattered. No lady, then. Perhaps a prisoner.
At that moment, the woman turned her face in Arthur’s direction, and his heart hit the bottom of his shoes when he recognized the russet hair and birdlike face and the thin wrists bound with thick rope. Letha looked dirty and blotchy, but her eyes were blank. Arthur scanned the rest of the party, and yes, there sat Garrick. He had also been bound, and he looked exhausted.
Arthur stood there like a dolt and watched the line of riders pass, and the only thought on his mind was that Letha looked like someone walking to meet executioner.
(For a split second, he thought he smelled smoke.)
As soon as the group disappeared in a bend of the road, Arthur sheathed his sword and began to run.
When Arthur reached the main hall, he grabbed the wrist of the first guard that he saw.
“Carados’ son,” Arthur said to the stiff, wide-eyed young man. “Where were they taking him?”
“What direction were they going?”
“Toward the council chambers. But I don’t—“ Arthur abandoned him and flew down the hall, scattering servants and nobles alike. They looked at him with a mixture of shock and curiosity, and because of this no one stepped forward and tried to stop Arthur. When he reached the council rooms, the guards were too taken aback to stop him, and he slammed the doors open in time to catch the tail end of someone’s sentence.
“—most shocking display of—what on earth?”
Carados, Uther and a collection of council members stood around the main table. Before them were two men: Garrick and one of the riders from the party that had brought him in. Letha was nowhere to be seen.
“Arthur…” Uther half stood, his expression growing stormy.
Arthur turned his attention to Garrick. The normally handsome man looked haggard and stricken in a way that, oddly, reminded Arthur of…someone. He couldn’t say whom. Garrick was saying something, or at least his lips were moving.
“Take him out,” Uther told the guards, and they advanced, if a little warily.
“They’re going to execute her,” Garrick burst out, and his voice echoed sloppily against the stonework. “Arthur, please, Arthur, they’re going to kill her, please don’t let them—“
Garrick grunted when the man who had brought him drove a fist deep into his gut. Arthur was breathing hard now, and he barely noted the guards when they ushered him out the door. At the last minute, Arthur looked to the table again. His father looked disgusted. Carados, calculating. Then the door slammed shut, and the guards stepped back from Arthur looking mildly embarrassed, like they rather not have to acknowledge what had just happened. Arthur stared at them, and his shoulder roared back to life, and nothing at all felt understandable.
“Sire.” He twitched his head in the voice’s direction, but everything was so dim and muddled, and he thought he saw Merlin out of the corner of his eye, and he smelled the smoke.
He ran, avoiding servants and ducking around corners. He didn’t have any notion of where he was going until he arrived at the back pantry. It was an old hiding spot, the sort of place he’d used as a child to escape lessons with his tutor. He barreled inside, slammed the door shut behind him, and slid to the floor. Across the room from him, among the dried goods and crates, Merlin sat on the steps, caught in a bar of sunlight. Arthur watched as Merlin tilted his head up and let the sun wash over his face.
“Glad you’re starting to feel something again,” Merlin said. His voice was a little less tinny; a little more real.
“You shouldn’t talk,” Arthur told him.
“And why not?” Merlin asked, stretching his arms over his head.
“You’re not real,” Arthur tried.
“Of course not, clot pole. Don’t think anyone tried to claim that.”
“Then why are you here?” Arthur asked, his voice rising. “Why are you talking to me?”
“Probably because you’re finally waking up,” Merlin shrugged. “Gods, Arthur, you’ve been sleepwalking for months, haven’t you? What, you think if you numb yourself enough you won’t have to think about it?”
“Shut up,” Arthur said flatly. “You’re just magic. Lying magic from a lying warlock.”
“That’s what you’ve been telling yourself, isn’t it? You watched him burn in front of you,” Merlin grinned, and he had far, far too many teeth. “The first real friend you managed in years, the person who brought you to Gwen and Morgana, and you practically killed him. What sort of person does that?”
“I mean, if he was such a awful thing, how come he always made you feel so—?”
Arthur lunged forward and swung his fist into Merlin. He disappeared in a blur of air and a slight odor of smoke. Arthur’s knees slammed into the flagstones.
“I know who Garrick looked like,” Merlin said from somewhere behind him. “Like Gaius and Gwen and Morgana. On that day. Almost exactly the same.” Arthur’s fingers curled into fists. He didn’t reply; he stared into the stone and felt his breaths grow bigger and bigger until they threatened to wrack his entire body.
A knock came from the door. Arthur looked behind him; the pantry was empty.
Arthur sat up. “Gwen?” he called back a little plaintively. The door swung open, and Gwen stood there haloed in dusty sunlight. Arthur couldn’t quite see her expression, but he could guess that it was sympathetic. Without speaking, Gwen came forward and helped Arthur to his feet. She directed him to a nearby barrel and gently pushed him into a sit. She bent over and examined him, her lips slightly caught between her teeth. Then she cupped his face and kissed him on the brow.
“You’ve been gone,” she breathed. “Gods, Arthur, I haven’t seen you for weeks.”
“’m sorry,” Arthur mumbled, then leaned forward until his head bumped against Gwen’s waist. She wrapped his head in her arms and bent down to press her nose into his hair. “How did you find me?”
“Arthur, everyone saw you run in this direction.”
“Oh.” A pause. “Gwen, they have Letha and Garrick.”
“I heard.” Gwen’s voice turned heavy.
"I think Carados is going to make sure Letha is executed.”
Gwen pulled away to look Arthur in the face. Her face had turned ashen. “How do you know?” she asked.
“I went into the council rooms. Garrick said it. Shouted it.”
Gwen kept her hands on Arthur’s arms, and he could feel her grip tighten incrementally. “It makes sense, doesn’t it?” she said slowly. “It would teach a lesson. Send a message. Morgana—“ She fell silent, and Arthur’s innards grew cold. He could see the next few months laid before him like a landscape: an execution in a few days, a wedding in a few months, Morgana either exploding or withering away.
“Arthur,” Gwen said, and the fresh steel in her voice told Arthur that she had just seen the same thing. “I don’t know what your thoughts toward Carados are, but—“
“Yes,” Arthur said, the words almost tripping off his tongue on their own. “Yes, I know; we need to help them.”
Morgana was strangely unreactive when she entered Gwen’s home and found Arthur sitting in front of the fire with a blanket wrapped around his shoulders. He turned when he heard the door open, and at the small cooking fire, Gwen’s spoon clacking against the pot’s sides also slowed. Morgana stood at the open doorway, studying Arthur like he was a face she was trying to remember the name to. Arthur half stood, and Morgana moved forward in a whirl of her cloak.
The first thing she did was to smack him on the cheek and the second thing was to fling her arms around his neck and guide his head to rest on her shoulder.
“I hate you,” she said, voice high, and Arthur almost laughed.
Gwen wisely remained where she was until Morgana had cursed and hugged as much as she needed, and when she approached, she bore two bowls of the stew that had been simmering above the cook fire. The three of them crammed together on the bench, and Arthur felt a little dizzy with the sensation of warm food and a fire and the two bodies beside him. Even his shoulder had subsided to a low pulse.
They talked well into the night and edging into the morning. When Arthur was having trouble keeping his eyes open, Morgana ordered him to take one of the beds. He protested, though not very well, and in a few minutes found himself herded into one of the beds. The last thing he saw before he fell into deep sleep was Morgana and Gwen still on the bench, their heads leaned together in talk. At their feet, not-Merlin sat before the fire. As if he felt Arthur’s attention, not-Merlin turned his head, stared at him, then disappeared in a crack of logs and a spray of embers.
If the trees were still in bud outside, Letha didn’t know or care. She had been placed in this dim, dusty space and since then time had moved either too sluggishly or too quickly, so now the guards could have told Letha it was the pit of winter again and she’d have believed them.
She curled up beneath a thin blanket that had been left under a pile of straw. She wondered whether it was left there for prisoners or if it had been left behind by someone else and no one had found it until now. She had to abandon that line of thought, though, because she didn’t want to contemplate the fate of the blanket’s previous owner. She tried to tell herself that not everyone who went into the castle’s dungeons was executed; sometimes they were banished or sent home with a fee. Except she couldn’t go home now; she had destroyed her family’s business. Lord Carados would see to it that no one of any standing would deal with her family again. Letha squeezed her eyes shut and curled up tighter into her ragged blanket.
Her cell had no window, so when the door clacked open and a guard’s voice announced, “Breakfast,” Letha was swept into confusion. She’d thought it was still afternoon.
She lifted her head, straw in her hair, and felt the blood drain from her face at the sight of Gwen standing there with a tray. She didn’t meet Letha’s eye, but strode forward and slowly placed the tray on the ground. Letha stared and wondered if she dared to speak. As Gwen straightened, her dark eyes pinned on Letha and she mouthed something. It might have been ‘red’. Then a guard stepped forward to place a hand on Gwen’s elbow, and she retreated. Letha stared after her as Gwen was led back up the stairs.
Letha’s gaze fell onto the tray. It was a simple meal; a jug of water and a small chunk of bread. Hesitantly, Letha reached out and picked up the bread. The guards were no longer looking at her, so she tore the bread apart. Something pale and stiff met her fingers, and she dug it out.
It was a tiny scroll of parchment. On it, Letha found a few scrawled words.
‘Be ready when the bell tolls.’
Letha drifted in and out of a fretful doze most of that day. Sometimes she yanked herself back into the waking world and thought, for a heart-stopping moment, that she was merely in a drafty barn, and that Garrick would be back in a few minutes.
As the little light she could glimpse turned dusky, a deep, heavy bell toll sounded over the yard. Letha tightened her grip on her robes and watched silently as the guards a few paces from her cell exchanged an alarmed expression. Shouts and a clattering of feet filtered through the air. One of the guards spoke to the other and sprinted up the steps. The remaining man glanced around him; his eyes fell briefly on Letha.
Not five minutes later, the bell still clanging, a new figure came down the stairs. It looked like a guard, but as Letha watched, it strode forward, lifted a sword, and before her guard could react, bashed its pommel into the guard’s head. The guard staggered, the newcomer advanced, and in a few sharp movements, the guard slumped to the ground. The stranger strode for Letha’s cell, and she released her breath when she saw blue eyes and a shock of yellow hair.
“Come on,” Arthur said, pulling a set of keys from his belt. “They’re going to figure it out sooner rather than later.”
For a brief moment, Arthur worried that Letha wouldn’t have the strength to make it. She looked emaciated and ragged, the bags under her eyes a dangerous purple. But when she gripped Arthur’s hand and was pulled to a stand, Arthur saw something fresh ignite in her face. When he turned to lead her down a side hall of the dungeon, she kept pace with him.
She didn’t speak until they passed the main stairway and dove down a long hall that led into near darkness.
“Where are we going?” she asked. Her voice was almost too faint.
“There’s a way out; it leads directly outside the castle walls,” Arthur explained.
“Morgana will bring him.” Hopefully. Arthur didn’t say that; he needed Letha concentrated.
When the hall descended into true darkness, Arthur retrieved the lantern hanging from his belt and ignited it, holding it high to illuminate a long corridor paved in mossy stone. He could hear water dripping somewhere nearby.
“It used to lead to the dragon,” Gaius had explained a few hours earlier, ignoring the expression Arthur had produced at these words. “There are some side corridors, long since abandoned, but I’ve used them on one or two occasions to leave the castle undetected.”
“Which occasions were those?” Arthur had asked, and then it had been Gaius’ turn to make an expression.
“Just pay attention to my directions,” Gaius had said, and started sketching out a basic floor plan in charcoal.
Now, Arthur mentally laid out Gaius’ drawing as he and Letha approached a branching of corridors. One of them had a steady stream of cool damp air, and Arthur tugged Letha in that direction. When they reached the wide, empty chamber that must have once held the dragon, Arthur paused and looked over the craggy shadows. He imagined Merlin there, talking to a dragon like in the old stories. Then he turned to the narrow path Gaius had described, Letha following silently.
When they reached the first branching of pathways, Arthur went left with only a little trepidation. The second and third went without too much guessing. But when they walked long enough that Arthur’s lantern began to sputter dangerously, he felt something heavy start to weigh in the center of his chest. On instinct, he reached behind him to grasp Letha’s hand, and her returning grip was like a vice. There should have been a corridor to the right, Gaius had said. Only there wasn’t, not for what seemed to be hours. Morgana and Garrick could only wait so long. Arthur wasn’t sure whether Letha detected something was wrong.
As the lantern sputtered yet again and the sinking feeling in Arthur threatened to swallow him up, he saw with a start some splash of paleness in the dimness of the corridor. He slowed, raising his lantern high.
He saw the shape of a person, and then he saw the underglow of gold, and his breath left him in a burst.
“Come on,” he said, his voice bouncing against the corridor walls. Letha followed without commenting on the tall, pale, dark-haired man who gestured to them to follow him down a small side corridor.
When they emerged in the cool, biting air, Letha made a small sound like a sob and spoke for the first time.
“He’s waiting with Morgana,” Arthur explained, tugging her along the grounds while snatching a glance at the high walls. No shouts from the guards followed them.
“Did Gwen ring the bell?”
“The alarm, yes.” Arthur realized that his lips had curled into a smile. “She’s covering for us until we return.”
Another few paces. “Thank you,” Letha said, her voice stronger. “We don’t deserve your kindness.”
He hesitated, then said, “It’s not all out of kindness.”
Before Letha could respond, they entered the thick woods, and two shapes emerged from the shadows. Behind them, a horse nickered. Letha made a strangled sound and darted forward, and by the time Arthur reached them, Letha and Garrick were so tightly entwined that they seemed to make one shape rather than two. His eyes found Morgana standing a few paces away from the couple; her expression was almost unreadable in the number of things Arthur saw there.
“You need to leave now,” Morgana said to the couple. “And no more carriages or staying in inns where people can recognize you, or at least remember your money. You’re going to have to blend in.”
Letha and Garrick both looked up, and Letha asked, “Do you have a dagger?” Morgana and Arthur exchanged a look before Morgana produced one from her hip. Letha took the blade, bunched up her hair in a tail, then began to saw at it. No one moved or spoke as she worked, and in a few short seconds she had a rope of her auburn hair in hand. “We’ll find some different clothes,” she said, raising her chin to Garrick. “And I shall be some youth acting as your bodyman, as far as anyone is concerned.”
Garrick nodded once, though he reached out and plucked from the rope of hair several strands. He folded the hair and tucked it into his breast pocket. Then Letha scuffed aside the leaf litter and buried the remains of her hair.
“Ride to the east,” Morgana suggested as Garrick swung onto the horse and helped Letha on behind him. “It’s more wilderness there, but that means fewer people to see your faces.” She hesitated. “We’ll try to give you time, but I don’t know—“
“This is enough,” Letha interrupted. She reached down to briefly kiss Morgana on the brow. “We can’t ever repay you, Morgana, Arthur. Tell Gwen the same.”
“We will,” Arthur said.
“Watch out for my father,” Garrick said. He hesitated, then said, “He’s not a kind man.”
Before Arthur or Morgana could respond to that, Garrick snapped the reins and the horse wheeled around. Letha’s pale face peered back at them as the horse and its riders disappeared into the brush. Arthur and Morgana didn’t move until even the echoes of hoof beats had faded away.
Wordlessly, they both turned and began to walk back to the castle. If a stray guard caught sight of them, well, Arthur had already built a good reputation of wandering at odd hours.
“Arthur,” Morgana started. She didn’t continue until her hand reached out in the dark and clasped into Arthur’s. He glanced at her, her profile outlined in moonlight. She looked almost pained.
“I wish we could have done that for Merlin,” he said, boldly, and his words hung in the air a few seconds longer than normal. Morgana turned to him, her eyes wide. Arthur ran a tongue over his lips. “We should have done that,” he said. “I should have.”
They walked another few paces in silence. “Is that why you helped tonight?” she asked. “Reparations?”
“Maybe. Also because I have no desire to see you married away to Garrick. But that too, I think.”
Morgana produced a hollow laugh. “It’s too late, but I suppose your sentiments are appreciated.”
Arthur stopped walking, and Morgana followed suite by dint of their joined hands. “Don’t,” Arthur said.
Morgana thinned her lips. “I’m not Gwen,” she said. “I’m not going to be able to forgive you for that for a while. I’m sorry Arthur, but I’m not.”
Arthur rubbed briefly at the bridge of his nose. “All right,” he said. “I know.” He stepped forward again, and Morgana leaned toward him, and her lips were cold when they landed on his. Arthur swayed back in surprise, but he did return the kiss. When they parted, Morgana watched him expectantly. He blinked back stupidly.
“You and Gwen…” Arthur tried.
“Yes,” Morgana agreed. Then she started walking again, and Arthur had no choice but to follow.
They walked up to Morgana’s chambers in silence, where Gwen would meet them and ensure that everything had gone according to plan. Arthur tried to sort out whether Morgana was going to say something about they way Arthur’s lips still tingled, or whether Gwen would already know or—
Morgana opened her chamber doors. She clapped her hand to her mouth and made a muffled gasp. Arthur dropped her hand and reached for the sword strapped to his side.
“No no,” Beval said. He adjusted his grip on the dagger that made a thin thread of red across Gwen’s neck. She lay on the floor bound in ropes. Her eyes were fever bright, and when she saw Arthur and Morgana, she bucked and made muffled cried against the rag stuffed into her mouth. Beval shook her by the grip he had on her hair, and Arthur nearly broke loose and charged forward right there.
“Close the door behind you,” Beval ordered. “And enter slowly.”
Morgana did so, her expression cold enough that it should have frozen Beval where he stood. She and Arthur stopped a few paces from Beval and Gwen.
“Weapons,” Beval said.
“Go to hell,” Morgana told him. From behind her gag, Gwen shouted something. Beval shook her again.
“Weapons,” he repeated.
Slowly, Arthur set down his sword and kicked it over. Morgana did the same with her dagger. Beval kicked them both into a dusty corner. “I’m not stupid,” he said. “Warning bell tolls? Of course my first thought is to check the dungeons. And then Garrick’s chambers. Which is where I found this little mouse.” He flicked the dagger against Gwen’s throat. Morgana made some small sound and leaned forward. “Waste of your time,” Beval continued. “As if my master won’t be able to find them.”
Gwen’s jaw worked furiously as she tried to expunge the gag; they needed to keep Beval distracted. “Then why come here?” Arthur asked. “Go toll the alarm bell if you’re so intent on sending out a search party.”
“A search party will go in good time,” Beval said. “But first you’re going to tell me where they’ve gone. Otherwise this one is finally going to stop causing trouble—“
Gwen spat out her gag just then and shouted, “He has magic!”
Beval’s expression darkened, and Arthur could see him begin the motion of dragging his dagger across Gwen’s throat. Morgana shouted something beside him as Arthur dove forward. Somehow, inexplicably, a blast of flames appeared on Beval’s shoulder. He turned to it with a startled expression, and his dagger lagged. Arthur tackled him then, just managing to rip the dagger from his hands. Beval screeched something, and the fire went out. Sudden ropes sprang out of nowhere to wrap around Arthur, and when Arthur looked up, he saw eyes flashing gold. His shoulder, which had been keeping quite most of the day, exploded into pain that made Arthur’s eyes roll back in his head.
Another distant, vague shout from Morgana, and a fresh wave of fire sprang up. This time it ate at Beval’s entire form, and his screech made another bought of shudder run through Arthur’s shoulder. He peered over, and saw Morgana with Gwen behind her. Morgana’s eyes, too, ran gold. And beside her stood another figure. More shadowed, but by now Arthur would have recognized him in any form.
“Arthur!” Gwen shouted. “Arthur!” Arthur moved as if to go to her, and then realized that the ropes were beginning to fade away into nothing but shadow and dust. He ripped his arms apart, stood then snatched at the dagger still at his feet. He lurched toward the fiery figure, caught sight of Beval’s gaping expression, and drove his dagger into what he thought must be Beval’s heart. Beval made an inhuman sound, he writhed, and then he fell. The fire extinguished as quickly as it had ignited, and Arthur blinked down at a burnt, ashy body.
Silence thundered around them for several long seconds, until Arthur had to sink to his knees from the pain in his shoulder. Gwen reached him first; Morgana followed in a daze. Her eyes were green again.
“Are you still here?” Gwen asked, voice low. Arthur nodded once.
“I saw Merlin,” Morgana said in a faint voice. Gwen and Arthur both snapped their attention to her. “He was beside me,” she murmured. “And he told me what to say to make fire.” A pause. “I…”
“He’s still here then,” Gwen said forcefully. “In some way, he’s still here. Here, and, and in Galahad’s land and…” she fell silent, though her eyes were downright hopeful. Arthur’s gaze was drawn to the burnt shape on Morgana’s floor.
“How do we explain this?” he asked. “Carados will know something odd happened. And then…he knows Gwen saw too much already.”
When Morgana spoke, it was with conviction that could have come from days of careful thought instead of a few seconds of impulse.
“We can run away,” she said. She looked at Arthur and Gwen, and Arthur thought he saw an edge of gold in her eyes still. “Think about it. It’ll distract the search from Garrick and Letha. We’ll get Gwen away from Carados.”
“You two don’t need to—“
“We’re not letting you go out there alone, Gwen,” Morgana said. “No, we all go.”
“Go where?” Arthur asked. When Morgana tilted her head, he realized that he already knew the answer.
“This Galahad has his stories about a spirit who looks like Merlin,” she said. “So. We find it. We go find Merlin.”
Arthur had plenty of logical, sound reasons for why this was a poor idea, but none of them found him just then. He looked to Gwen, and he knew she didn’t have them either. Slowly, he started to stand. Gwen moved to help him, and when they got themselves upright, the three of them stood in a close triad. Yet, Arthur noted, there was still space for a fourth.
“All right,” Arthur said at last. “We’ll have to leave tonight.”
To be continued