Trerhys Nimbletongue, Court Bard
“How're you faring?”
Geoffrey of Monmouth was a monumental bore, and nosy to boot, but at least he kept the bookshelves open to anyone who wanted their use. Trerhys placed his bedraggled quill in its well and pulled a face.
“I'd rather dress up in motley and try swallowing fire than sing a ballad about the last month.”
“That bad? I've heard snatches of the new tavern favourites – hardly appropriate for court.”
Trerhys had heard them too. Morgana LeFay, the wonderful lay, or so I heard from the Pendragons. She liked getting stuffed with familial love, and on that note please raise your flagons.
Perhaps he'd better stick to something relatively innocuous, like the weather.
“Kings rarely have wards, is that right?”
Geoffrey nodded, taking the question as his cue to sit down opposite Trerhys.
“It's not that they don't have the resources,” he said. “There are more empty rooms than filled in most castles in Albion, I'd wager.” Geoffrey ran his fat fingers over the chain that denoted his office. Rumour had it that the rubies were from mines in the North, given to the Pendragons to welcome their ascent to the throne. “And even discounting bastards, war makes for plenty of orphans with noble blood.”
“And plenty without.”
Geoffrey hmmed in the back of his throat. The noise of the rain was all that could be heard for a few minutes, but Trerhys knew better than to rush him to an answer. To be perceived to slight a man with all the knowledge of the kingdom at his fingertips was more dangerous than entering the melée unarmed.
“Even before the Pendragon rebellion – and that's over twenty-five years ago, now” Lord Geoffrey said, “Camelot's rulers had a tradition of taking care of its orphans.”
“The high-born ones.”
Trerhys watched him carefully. He was just a minstrel, and he knew better than anyone that words were as fickle as the breeze, but he'd heard tell that Monmouth's own ancestry wasn't as distinguished as the record books would have everyone believe. Monmouth did not even seem to hear him. If he hadn't been born into the privileged elite, he'd certainly adapted well.
“They're given food, money, education. But they're not given a room in the castle. A king cannot be seen to favour one family over another – he doesn't want fighting amongst his supporters. And as we have seen with the Lady Morgana,” said Geoffrey, heaving a great sigh, “wards are, like heirs themselves, weaknesses waiting to be exploited.”
“You can say what you like about Uther Pendragon,” said Trerhys. If you don't care whether your tongue stays inside your mouth. “But he always knew how to exploit a weakness. Why do you think he took—”
“It is not for me to speculate on such things,” said Geoffrey. He leaned forward. “My work lies in facts, Nimbletongue, but I must admit that Morgana was clearly not just any orphan to him. Regardless of whether he knew her true parentage, Gorlois was his closest friend, before he even had thoughts of the throne. He had to have felt responsible for her, especially after her mother's passing.”
“Kings and revolutionaries need to choose their friends carefully, and Uther was both,” said Trerhys slowly. There was so much material here, but he couldn't sing this tale inside the Citadel's walls. He'd stick with the rains, and drop in allusions to the recent turmoil here and there.
“If I was a betting man,” Monmouth said,“I'd put my last gold piece on us not seeing another ward of Camelot for a great many generations to come.”
“A betting man I am,” said Trerhys, “but immortal I am not.”
This was still Camelot. The king's ward had disappeared in the rubble, along with her heavily-cloaked and possibly dead sister-who-was-not, whilst the king himself was narrow-faced and trembling. The knights' code was no more. Despite all that had happened, though, some things about the kingdom never changed.
The court sat, then, bemused and itching to gossip, along battered tables in the hall. They didn't seem to know what was most interesting: first, they noticed the ragged holes where the stained glass had stood only a week ago. They pointed fingers, gasping and giving little exaggerated shivers. Next, their eyes were drawn to the details – the absence of the king, the presence of new knights, the serving girl only recognisable as such from the court's own memories of the enchantment scandal a matter of months before. The gaze of the female members of the court slid from the prince to the new (and handsome and possibly single, not to mention probably rich) knights.
Trerhys rolled his eyes. As a minstrel named Nimbletongue, he knew all about playing up to expectations, but the court really was extraordinarily predictable. It thrilled and quivered to the slightest hint of gossip, riding the conflicts of Camelot like froth on a wave. They didn't care who was in the throne, as long as they still had velvet dresses and a rich supply of swan.
It had used to shock him that knights – who seemed as loyal as the court did fickle – could spring from such a fallow field. From his position beside the royal table, it was easy for him to spare a glance for the regent. Prince Arthur was, to hear the kinder tavern songs, by nature and despite nurture noble and loyal to a fault. Trerhys had been four when the revolution had happened; he remembered little of it, but in the years afterwards an old song about revolutions always coming round again had had something of a revival in dark corners and the safety of homes. Perhaps if power had changed hands more often during his lifetime Trerhys might be more suspicious of the prince. Even with the sad folk song ringing in his head, though, he had high hopes for a Camelot with Arthur at its head.
Jonathyn elbowed him.
Sure enough, goblets were being thumped onto oak, sending mead spraying; fists were slammed into tables; and voices were raised in a rowdy cry.
“Song! Song! Song!”
Tyerhys picked up his lute, and ran through the lyrics once more in his head. He was thankful that, for once, the entertainments were before the main meal. He'd been told it had something to do with getting the food up from the kitchens – though in the week since Prince Arthur's return they'd cleared the rubble, they'd been unable to do much else, and reportedly some of the passageways to the serving quarters below were blocked. Whatever the reason for the change, hopefully it would mean the guests would be too busy thinking about the roasts and toasts that were to come to pay attention to his lamentable rhymes.
The dragon roared. Sheep in nearby fields toppled onto their sides from the force of the noise. Birds rose from forests in great panicked clouds. The ground beneath Merlin's feet trembled as though it were about to collapse beneath him.
Merlin rolled his eyes.
“Kilgarrah,” he said.
A human's lungs can power about eight seconds' worth of full-volume, rip-your-hair-out screaming. According to one of Gaius' books, a man's lungs are less than one-hundredth the capacity of a dragon's. The roar seemed to grow louder the longer it continued.
The castle was only a few hours' horse-ride away – a matter of minutes on a dragon's back – and Merlin could imagine the candles being lit all over Camelot as a kingdom's sleep was disturbed.
He couldn't help it; every time he used his power as a dragonlord to bring the beast to heel, a thrill ran through him. He schooled his expression.
“Yes, young warlock?”
The dragon was already standing higher on the peak than Merlin, and arched his neck in such a way as to emphasise the difference in their stature. It didn't help matters that his pebbled snout created a gutter for the rain, drenching Merlin with bucket-sized spatters.
“You're not the great wise authority I thought you were,” Merlin said. Kilgarrah might be angry, but he was angrier. “I thought your judgement was supreme, but you're a slaughterer of innocents.”
“Innocents complicit in Uther's regime,” said the dragon. “I am right in this. It is written—”
“It was written that Gwen would be a princess of Mercia, and that I would be a good hundred years older than Arthur. The beauty of stories,” he said, “is that they can be rewritten. Everything I tried to do to stop Morgana changing just pushed her further away. If I'd acted on impulse – if I'd done what I thought was right – things might have been different.”
The great dragon shifted its weight, and bowed its head still further, almost looking Merlin in the eye.
“You should be thankful for the floods,” he said.
Merlin balked. Harvests were being ruined. People were losing their homes and coming in their hundreds to the citadel, which was in the centre of the highest plateau. He shuddered to think what it might be like outside of the kingdom; Camelot was on relatively high ground.
“You have followed your heart with Mordred before,” reminded Kilgarrah. “And what did that do? It deepened Morgana's sympathy for the druids. It enhanced her resentment of the king.”
“It created bonds between Morgana and Arthur, bonds between Morgana and myself, and forged hope of a Camelot that would be friendlier to druids!”
Merlin pushed his sopping hair away from his forehead. He wasn't getting anywhere with arguing over the past.
“Regardless,” he said, “you were wrong to use your dragon's call to summon me here. I am a dragonlord, and I summon you. I will not kill Mordred and the druids.”
Kilgarrah looked as if he had half a mind to spit fire at Merlin, but he didn't.
“They're isolated on one of the Old Mounds,” he said. “You needn't do anything but wait.”
“Now that I know about them, to do nothing would be to kill them. I will not leave Mordred and the druids to die as you had hoped.”
The dragon scoffed.
“Listen to yourself,” said Merlin. “You criticised others for standing by – you incinerated them, I mean – even though they were trapped by their poverty and powerlessness. I have the power and the resources to save them, all of them.”
In a strange, abstract sort of moment he saw himself reflected in the dragon's canines, earnest and angry. He looked down at his boots, illuminated by the light of the moon, and chose his words carefully.
“I know you have the interests of Albion at heart,” he said, “but your advice has brought me nothing but trouble. I am going to save the druids. I am going to save Mordred.”
“Then do not, Merlin,” sighed Kilgarrah, “come crying to me when he kills your precious king.”
With those parting words, the dragon raised his head and drew back his wings before pushing himself into the air.
“Don't believe everything you read!” Merlin shouted over the flapping wings and the thundering rain, wondering how on earth he was going to get back home.
Merlin felt as though he'd been drinking all night, rather than descending a craggy mountain in a cold downpour. It had taken him a good hour before he'd figured out how to transport himself places, like Morgana, and even then he'd inexplicably ended up on the roof of the stables. Merlin raised a heavy arm, grunted, and pushed himself upright.
“Wharr' time is it?”
“Time for breakfast,” said Gaius.
Arthur would have his head. Still, there was no point rushing his porridge – he was already late, and the inevitable complaining couldn't get much worse. Merlin peppered his tale of the night before, from the call of the dragon to his decision to help the druids, with as few sneezes as he could.
“The Great Dragon has been right before,” Gaius said solemnly.
From nowhere, a burning sort of anger rose in Merlin. Both Gaius and the dragon thought they could excuse killing others or, as they'd put it, just letting them die, for some sort of noble goal. Merlin had killed before – Edwin, Nimueh, Sophia – and he blamed himself for a lot more – Mary Collins, Hengist, Morgana, even Will – but if he knew about a preventable event, well, he'd do his level best to prevent it. Which was sort of the reason he ended up landed with being Arthur's manservant anyway.
Gaius, though, was different. Merlin didn't know too much about the Purges, hadn't really asked, perhaps for fear of what he might hear, perhaps because it would be odd to drop into conversation with Gaius and damn near treasonous to mention to anyone else. He did know, though, that Uther had known of Gaius' magic and employed him anyway. He knew that Edwin's parents, Gaius' friends, had been burned to death, and that Gaius had done nothing.
Merlin had drawn his own conclusions.
“I think of you as a father,” Merlin said, and it was true. “But I need to get to work.”
He stood to leave. Gaius had, in the time Merlin had known him, never once acted in a way that was self-serving or greedy, and so perhaps there were things about the past that Merlin did not yet know.
“If you bring a druid boy to the castle again,” said Gaius, with a resigned look upon his face, “you'll need to be careful.”
“It'd be helpful if you'd pack for me,” said Merlin, grinning.
“Don't push it.”
As he approached the door, he could hear muffled grunting and cursing. He tried to guess who else was there from the rhythm of the noises, but in all honesty it could have been anyone. He knocked, and after a couple of seconds, during which what sounded like the large antique vase shattered on the ground, pushed open the door tentatively.
“Hello,” said Merlin, dodging the arc of Sir Leon's sword as it came down near his head.
“There you are,” said Arthur, sheathing his sword. “Fancy explaining why you didn't wake me and help me with my armour? I had to get Morris to do it, and god knows he--”
“I'm ill,” Merlin said hastily.
He surveyed the scene. It wasn't too bad, he supposed. Arthur had been using this room for over a week now, and though there were a lot fewer ornaments, the curtains remained intact (though the hanging on the four-poster hadn't).
“You can't go hunting, or have proper drill, or, well, anything,” he continued. “You don't need—”
“That's no excuse not to attend to me,” said Arthur. Sir Leon made to leave, but he raised a hand. “Stay. Merlin won't be long, will you, Merlin?”
Arthur wasn't always like this. His bad mood had started the moment that the other knights had mutinied and refused to train outdoors. Arthur didn't care about the fact that the masons, instead of busily repairing the castle walls, were now digging gutters horse-deep into the slopes of the citadel to try and get rid of the standing water in both the Upper and Lower towns. Arthur didn't care that thirteen people, in the last week alone, had to be tugged out of the mud by impressive contraptions involving boatloads of rope, logs, and planks. He wanted to train with his knights, and he could hardly do that in the Great Hall.
“You're going crazy, locked up in here,” Merlin said.
Arthur had spent a great deal of time lamenting the fact that the round table knights would not be able to bond with the old knights. Merlin privately thought that, since the only buildings open in Camelot proper were the taverns and the brothels, the knights were probably bonding very well.
“So what if I am?” Arthur asked, clearing pieces of wood off the bed and sitting on it. “I can hardly go for a hunt with the weather like this.”
“Flood relief mission,” Merlin said, with the air of someone pulling a sheet off of a statue.
“No,” said Leon and, a fraction of a second later, so did Arthur.
“I can't leave with the king in the state he's in,” said Arthur. “You don't understand, Merlin. The kingdom would be vulnerable to attack.”
“Um,” said Leon. “None of our neighbours can attack with the weather like this. Half of Camelot is submerged, and everyone near us is practically a valley.”
A half-hopeful expression stole across Arthur's face.
“What's your objection, then?” he asked.
Sir Leon looked stricken, and suddenly Merlin knew what he was going to say.
“Well, these rains … they're hardly natural.”
Arthur pulled a face – Merlin knew he'd been thinking it too, because they all had. Everyone was waiting for the magical attack of doom.
“I know you've got people arriving here every day, some from the edges of Essex, even. The kingdom can't sustain this many people.” Merlin paused for breath and noticed the way Arthur's fists clenched. “I know you know that,” he continued, “but surely that's why we have to go to the edges of our kingdom to see how bad the flooding gets, if it's drained off in the rivers of Mercia, if it's affecting Cenred's old kingdom.”
Arthur looked at Leon, who shrugged.
“I was down in the library yesterday,” said Merlin, “And I read a book that said that we've had these sort of floods before. It could be natural.”
Both Leon and Arthur frowned at him.
“So I'm lying,” he said. “But if you do something, the people at the edge of the kingdom will be grateful for you pointing them in the right direction, and the people in the Upper and Lower Towns will think you know what to do. It's not as though there are big tax disputes you need to solve right now; you just need to make sure everyone's fed.”
“Speaking of making sure everyone's fed,” said Arthur, standing up. “How about some breakfast?”
When Merlin came back, Sir Leon had disappeared. Arthur informed him that, after thinking on it for a while, he'd decided that he was going to go with his knights on a flood relief mission.
“You're not coming,” he said lightly, picking up some cold ham and leaving the room. “Next door,” he ordered.
Merlin nearly dropped the breakfast platter. Lately, it seemed as though everyone was under the impression they could tell him what to do. When they were in Arthur's quarters, he carefully placed the tray down on the writing desk before whirling on Arthur.
“Why not?” he said. “I'm not needed here.”
With a certain amount of pleasure, Arthur told him that “my men are quite capable of saving those in the valleys. I doubt you can even swim.”
Apparently, then, Arthur still showed no signs of remembering that particular near-death experience.
“How are you going to survive without someone to act upon your every whim?” asked Merlin.
“I managed perfectly well this morning.”
Merlin made a face, and Arthur laughed. He walked past him and picked up his bowl of porridge; even the wealthy were on rations of some sort.
“You can't go, Merlin, and that's final. I need you to help around here.”
Sometimes Merlin wondered why Arthur put up with him. To his mind, he must be this bumbling, irritating man who refused to behave the way he was supposed to and was a truly incompetent servant to boot. Arthur didn't know about all the times he'd saved his life, so Merlin suspected he must be kept around for his stunning looks and searing wit.
It was sometimes hard for Merlin to convince Arthur of a plan without resorting to the truth. The words 'look, I have magic, okay?' were tripping at his tongue as Arthur led him out of the room and up the stairs, still eating.
“Help with what?” he tried. “Everything's going just fine,” he said, pushing the power struggles in court and the raving ex-king from his mind.
Arthur took a sudden turn as they reached the next floor, crossing the castle through the narrowest of corridors, and it was then that Merlin had a hunch about their destination; Arthur took more ridiculous routes there every time.
“I come from a tiny village outside of Camelot,” he said. “Most of your knights have never left these walls except to kill bandits or to supply meat for our banquets.”
“So you bring a certain peasant expertise, is that it?”
Arthur led him upwards again, taking the steps two at a time. Merlin was getting out of breath, but managed to keep up. He could feel his nails digging into his palms.
“You always go on about how useless I am. Surely the kingdom won't miss me for a week or –”
“You can go,” Arthur said. “If getting back to your manure-drenched roots is so important to you.”
Merlin always climbed stairs with his eyes on the ground; in his teenage years his feet had grown in spurts and it had become habit to check that he was not tripping over himself. It was for this reason that it was only when they reached the seventh floor that Merlin noticed Arthur's expectant look.
“Well?” Arthur prodded.
“Thank you, oh kind and generous king,” said Merlin.
“And don't you forget it.”
Merlin raised his eyebrows in a question, but Arthur shook his head solemnly, and handed him the empty porridge bowl. Nodding, Merlin turned to make his way down the stairs. Now that Uther didn't know who or where he was, there was even less that Merlin could possibly talk to him about anyway.
To say Morgana was getting rather frantic was like saying that Arthur was the littlest bit testy when he was woken earlier than necessary. She cursed aloud for thinking of him, and focused once more on her task. As the walls had begun to collapse with the weight of her fury, Morgana had seized her sister and escaped. She didn't know how she'd done it, just like she didn't know how she'd managed to rip apart half the castle.
And now she didn't know where they were. She'd been thinking of the forest to which Morgause had taken her, over a year ago, but it was clear that this was not it. The place in which she'd learned so much had a water supply, not to mention plenty of paths and shelter. This place was all bracken and thorns, which admittedly she hadn't cared about when she'd arrived. She'd collapsed and slept almost immediately.
Now, she hoped for water. In her time away from home – not home, her cell, her prison – there was a stream running through their clearing. She wished she were there. Her throat felt like a desert but she needed to move. Morgause – her sister, her one trustworthy relation – was lying beside her, dying, and it was all her fault. If Morgana hadn't failed, then her breathing wouldn't be stuttering.
Morgana brushed tears from her cheeks. No use crying. Her magic must have protected both her and her sister during the night, for they were not cold: they were both trembling, however, each for different reasons. She placed a hand to her sister's brow, which was burning. Suddenly the winds started up, whipping her hair in front of her face and causing Morgause's cloak to ripple like a flag. They died down as soon as they had started, and in their absence she felt terribly alone.
How was she supposed to carry Morgause along? She willed her magic to work. Time passed. Birds sang. She looked around her and from the sky guessed it was past noon. Morgana remembered what worked last time, and thought of her father. She thought of the secrets he held from her. She thought of the hate he held – still held – for her magic. She thought of Morgause, stroking her hair in their canvas tent, whispering words about Arthur, the favoured one, the one of which Uther was proud enough to admit ownership. The one who would be – had been – warped by Uther into his clone, a magic-hating tyrant who would hurt his people.
Morgause floated into the air, her hair hanging down in a matted mess. Morgana couldn't smile at the result; it felt like she hasn't smiled properly in years. After a year away from the suffocating walls of Camelot, she thought that she would have learned some control by now. Morgana started to walk.
After hours of tramping through thick undergrowth – in a formal gown, no less, with the burden of her unconscious sister weighing heavily on her mind if not her body – the light grew warmer, darker. She still had not drunk.
When she found the cave, her first impulse was to check for water. Drops fell from the roof, resulting in long lethal spikes which grew more dense towards the back of the cave. There was a small tunnel to the left, which she hoped had been worn by some sort of spring. She felt the edges of the hole – they were slimy and gelatinous to the touch. However thirsty she was, she refused to scrape whatever that was off the walls, let alone put it anywhere near her mouth.
Morgana didn't let herself think of cave beasts. She knew Wildren lived in warren-like structures, but she'd heard so many stories, seen so many wounds, that it was better to push every possible predator from her mind and hope that her magic would protect them both.
There were, however, more pressing issues. Morgause was fading fast. She had not woken since her fall, and if Morgana had stopped to inspect her injuries she would have noticed a large lump on the base of her skull. Although she had not examined her thoroughly, Morgana could tell from her shallow breaths and waxen pallor that they didn't have long.
Even if she could get Morgause back to strength, for all Morgana knew, they could still be in Camelot. A party of knights or bandits could discover her at any second. Arthur, perhaps, on a hunting trip. No. Surely even her idiot brother wouldn't be so stupid as to leave his castle when its leadership wasn't certain. The knights, then. Not the new ones – they'd be training. Maybe a hunting party with a leader who was loyal to Arthur, but whose role in a training session was not that of a learner: Sir Leon. She'd probably be stabbed like a boar. Perhaps she was even the quarry of this hypothetical hunting trip. Images filled her head like they were from a vision. She knew they were not real because she doubted that even King Uther would order her roasted and served at a victory banquet. Burned and discarded was more his style.
She tripped on a root and swore; earlier, she'd tried to shorten her dress with her magic, but nothing had happened.
“Marvellous,” she muttered, continuing her trek downwards, searching for water. “Magic that without command can destroy buildings and transport bodies, but that doesn't alter hemlines.”
Gwen would have giggled.
The fading light filtered through the trees, showering her surroundings with a golden glow, and Morgana was struck by the thought that if she weren't in hiding from an entire kingdom with her dying sister to whom she wasn't actually related, that she would find the woods rather tranquil. As it was, she snarled at the beauty of it all and kicked a tree.
Hobbling onwards, all her ill-will towards the landscape evaporated as she heard the sounds of flowing water.
Morgana thanked the stars that her magic had co-operated for once, and poured water from her conjured pitcher into a conjured bowl, in the dark of the cave. Her powers didn't seem inclined towards goblets or even simple glasses, not to mention candles, but she wouldn't nitpick. Besides, the setting sun sent a shaft of light into the cave, and she could easily discern the absence of cave beasts.
“Morgause,” she whispered urgently. “Sister, you must wake up. You have to drink or you will die.”
Morgana stretched out a trembling hand to the unconscious cheek of her protector, and brushed back the hair that was covering her face. She had eventually mustered up the strength to rip the hem of her skirt by hand, and, dipping it in water, had provided a compress for Morgause's wound. Now she was lying down and covered in a cloak that had thankfully appeared, her breathing had steadied. Her pulse was strong, and but for her skin, which was the colour of sour milk, one might think she was merely sleeping.
“You're all I have,” she said, voice breaking.
She thought back to the last few months and stood, the remnants of her skirt giving a bedraggled sort of billow as she turned to face the cave entrance. Why can't I heal? she thought angrily. The druids heal. Country witches heal. I can't even do parlour tricks – all I'm good for is destruction and useless visions.
As if on cue, the voices started.
“Guinevere!” a man exclaimed. Not Arthur.
Morgana knew she should ignore it, block it out, but the word bounced around the cave and buried itself in her head. Suddenly she thought that she was only now truly exhausted. This wasn't her power in action – this was sleep deprivation taken to its limits. Absurd thoughts that if she were to choose a hallucination she'd prefer one involving half the war council and very little clothing floated below the surface of her mind, making her dizzy. She turned back to where Morgause was lying, propped up against a rock, her teeth bared in some sort of grin.
“Oh, I'm sorry, I – uh – I didn't mean to – I'll just –”
Morgana's steps faltered like Gwen's speech as she made her way to the bowl, which was showing her one of the corridors in the castle. Gwen – that traitor, that bitch – was backing away from Lancelot, who, knowing Arthur, would have been made a 'Sir' by now, and was avoiding his gaze.
“Are you supposed to be doing that?” Lancelot said, gesturing to the bundle of sheets Gwen was carrying. “I mean,” he continued quickly, “now that Morgana's – er – gone, and that you and Arthur are engaged.”
“Engaged?” Morgana and Gwen echoed simultaneously.
“Uh,” responded Lancelot. “Gwaine said – ”
“You'll learn not to listen to anything he says soon enough,” Gwen said, sidestepping Lancelot and walking briskly onwards. “And don't listen to the court either,” she called over her shoulder. “They all think I'm a witch!”
The water shimmered and the picture dissolved, until nothing but Morgana's pale face was reflected back at her. She frowned. Why was her magic showing her this? Was she supposed to exploit the spark that existed between Gwen and Lancelot? What benefit would that bring? Was that even a vision? It certainly didn't feel like it: it wasn't a cryptic mess of symbols. If it were real, it was probably not a vision of the future but a vision of the now.
Had she been in the castle, she'd have started plotting instantly. Instead, she started to cry. Morgana brushed the tears from her face with her sleeve – she never cried. Suddenly hating her body for disobeying her, just like her magic disobeyed her, she straightened up and glared at the damp walls of the cave.
She was sure that at this point she should be working out how to regain the throne, but without Morgause at her side, guiding her, the effort seemed both pointless and futile. Morgause was her only friend, her only family, and her only honest companion. And now, thanks to Morgana's failure to stop insurgency in Camelot, Morgause was dying.
Morgana could just make out her face, reflected – glimmering and distorted - in the dark, dank corner of the cave.
“Heal her, you idiot,” she snarled.
There is a land, far to the north, that they call Conorgia. It is a barren land, for the most part, though spindly thin trees rise to the top of the sky in some areas. It is cold, hostile, and for such a lifeless place it rains a great deal. Conorgia is a flat place, but the rivers carve deep scars in the land, great canyons of death.
Morgana had only ever heard of Conorgia, but it was there that she stood. The winds – unimpeded by hills or by walls – buffeted her like the shields of an attacking army; she looked down to discover she was in rags, barefoot.
She could see for miles around her. It's been a while since she'd had a proper dream. The very thought made her uneasy. Of her memories of normal dreams, she couldn't remember ever realising she was dreaming whilst in one.
Regardless. She sat down on the damp black soil and plunged her fingers into the earth. Conorgia might not be a meadow, but it should serve as a quiet place in which she could think.
Arthur thinks like this, said Uther's voice, and she jumped. She turned to see where the voice was coming from, and frowned at the large brown rock that now sat innocently behind her. The stone was the size of a small building, and it looked like one of the vertebrae of some massive animal.
I think by walking around, but Arthur thinks by pacing back and forth, ploughing furrows in the pavestones.
Why would she dream of Uther? Must he torment her even when she was asleep? Morgana pushed herself upright and padded over to the stone. She placed her hands in its grooves, and began to climb.
Morgana doesn't pace. Perhaps she worries, or wrings her hands – Morgana's mind was filled with pictures of herself gazing moodily out of windows, or pursing her lips in distress, or appealing to the compassion of the king (never likely to succeed) – but she's a woman of action, really.
“You got that right, at least,” she panted, emerging over the ridge of the rock.
She'd come and rail at her father – her guardian – or convince Arthur to do her bidding, or – in her youth – refuse to eat until she had her way.
King Uther looked most bizarre, sitting cross-legged on the rock adorned with torn clothes and a crown. When he saw her scramble onto the ledge, it looked like he'd taken a blow to the head.
I said she was a woman of action, and here she is invading my dreams.
Morgana wished she'd stayed on the ground and listened. If Uther was to be believed, she'd somehow made her way into his sleeping visions. She didn't think he was real, though: what king dreams himself in rags?
“I'm sorry,” he said, and Morgana knew this was her dream.
“You son-of-a-bitch.” Saying it didn't make her feel much better. She stood up and looked over the edge. “I have to wake up,” she said, and jumped.
When she woke up, it was raining.
The further they moved from Camelot proper, the soggier the ground became. The horses began to slow, dragging their hooves out of the mud with every step. Two days passed and, on the third, they couldn't find anywhere dry in which to make camp.
Lancelot had nearly had the others, Leon included, declaring his insanity when he'd suggested stringing the tent canopies into the trees to make ceilings, and tying the thicker canvas bases into odd swing-like constructions, but it appeared to work. A slight problem had been caused by the fact that there were more than enough of the thin sheepskin canopies for ceilings, but only enough of the tough, weight-bearing floors to create one between two.
The reason these 'amoks', as Lancelot called them, had never caught on was because they were too damn enclosed. Even if Leon had been alone in one he would have felt as though he were in a coffin, the canvas closing up around him and squeezing the life from his lungs. Now, though, he was doing his level best not to breathe in.
Even when dealing with matters of chance Prince Arthur was a lucky bastard – he'd been landed with Merlin, who could probably fit into a grain barrel, he was so waifish. The prince probably didn't even notice his presence.
Leon tried to convince himself that Sir Percival's meaty calves were a pillow, and resolved never to let anything be decided by dice again.
On the fourth day, they reached the valleys. It came as a shock to most to discover that instead of walking on the drenched, saturated basins as they had thought, they were actually treading the ridges of the valleys. They'd given about fifty peasants so far the seal of Camelot, pointing them towards the citadel and promising that they would bury their friends.
The landscape truly was nightmarish. The water was not clear, as in a lake: it was filled with timber, leaves and mud to form a hungry, high swamp. It wasn't just the organic soup, though – Leon knew there were bodies bloating slowly in its depths (and Gwaine swore blind he saw a sheep swimming around further in). Entire villages littered the bed of this new ocean; they'd have been flattened by the weight of the water. He had never seen anything like it before. Yes, he'd been swimming in the lake and in rivers, but there the water was finite: your world was bigger than its. Now, Leon felt dwarfed by the stuff. The water was no longer fluid; rather, it had become a menacing wall which bore down upon him from all sides. The noise of the rain on the trees had not stopped for all of their journey, and Leon had begun to wonder just how many people the citadel of Camelot could support, even with their gutters dug down the slopes.
He may have been a town boy, but even he knew that water flowed downwards – it was a wonder no one had thought of using ground gutters before. As he watched the lakes grow bigger all around him, he wondered why the water didn't just go to the seas and lakes as it should. Did it have nowhere to go? Was Camelot one of an increasingly small number of havens in a massive ocean trying to claim the land?
They all surveyed the scene warily. It was true that the valley ridges did extend out in a thin sort of lattice, but if the weather continued as it had been they might find themselves without a route back.
“The area around Ealdor is filled with mountains,” said Arthur suddenly, gazing at the peaks to their left.
Leon shot a glance to Gwaine, who shrugged. He'd held a bizarre sort of hope that the floods would come to an end at the kingdom's boundaries. Everyone was in agreement – though they never talked about it – that the floods were a gift from the departed Queen. Though the rains had lasted weeks, he didn't think that this volume of water could possibly have fallen in that amount of time. Leon looked out at the dirty ocean before him, and it was now apparent that there was no end in sight. Either Morgana was more powerful than they'd imagined, or they were facing a much bigger enemy.
“We'll go to the edges of the kingdom,” Prince Arthur continued. “Cenred is no more, and if the rains are everywhere I doubt Escetia will have been seized. Either way, there will be people who are helpless – people who we can help without causing a diplomatic incident.”
They rode on.
Leon didn't know what would be easier to bear: a murderous ward, a vengeful god or the dispassionate forces of nature. Leon was a warrior. The feelings he felt that day reminded him of when he looked down the dragon's gullet and saw a spark. Leon knew he lived in a land of myth and a time of magic, but most beasts or enemies could still be defeated with enough men and enough weapons. You can't behead a flood. You can't ambush it or take it prisoner. There was nothing a knight or a king could do when faced with a disaster such as this.
Leon had utter confidence in Arthur, as king, knight, warrior or friend, but he knew no man could defend an entire people against the weather. They were doing their best, though, and Sir Leon knew that with this scale of devastation Arthur would not rest until they had saved all that they could. The web of soggy ridges upon which they were walking, however, was becoming steadily weaker, the paths becoming narrower as the water rose. The horses were becoming jumpy, and they would have to turn back soon if they wished to survive. He scanned the horizon once more, searching for any land other than the north-eastern peaks.
“Hey! Halt! The Old Mound!”
The druids were lucky that the mound which their ancestors had built had a very high peak. The water was rising, slowly but inexorably, covering the grasping trees which marked the edge of the circle. Around five or six figures were clustered round the peak but, as they watched, a man was swept away from the only visible branches and dragged down into the water by his cloaks.
He glanced at the knights; Arthur had already dismounted, and was busy divesting himself of the little armour he was wearing.
“It looks like there are currents,” he said, rolling up his sleeves. “Should be tricky.”
“We can't swim to them!” Merlin cried, swinging himself off his horse and landing in the mud with an ominous squelch.
“No one said anything,” Arthur remarked, as the other knights followed his lead, “about you swimming.”
“Oh, come on. Your 'mighty knight strength' is going to be absolutely no use to us here,” said Merlin desperately, stalling as he tried to think of some way to save the men without conjuring a boat from thin air. “How about I tie a rope to one of you and we reel you in after you get them?”
Arthur paused and glanced at the men. They'd only brought a small party – just those that had been at the round table, really. In total, there were seven of them. Arthur pursed his lips and said the words that Merlin had already realised.
“There's seven of us, but you're all but useless since you can't act as an anchor for any of us or make headway in the currents. So that's six – or three anchor pairs – assuming we could pair it up so that one could reel in another plus a drenched druid. Even with three pairs working at once there's no way we could save all of them in time.”
As Arthur was speaking, he kicked off his boots. Merlin threw his hands up and turned away, catching sight of the forests they'd come through earlier.
“Fine then,” he continued, “you lot go and risk your necks whilst I stay and look after the horses.”
“Don't worry, Merlin. You won't be widowed by the end of today.”
Merlin turned away, exasperated. A matter of seconds later, three large spruce trees floated by, tangled together by their branches. A few good-sized boughs – oak, possibly – were travelling in its wake.
No beheading for me today. He dived into the water.
“Merlin!” Lancelot shouted, shrugging off his chainmail and searching the water for his form.
“Grab the branches!” Merlin sputtered, surfacing next to the mass of trees and scrabbling for purchase on a trunk.
“Have you gone completely mad?” This from Arthur, who was, like the other knights, gathered at the very edge of the ridge.
Merlin didn't answer, as he was pushing himself onto the tree platform. “Everyone to me!” he shouted in what he hoped was a commanding tone.
Finally, someone cottoned on. “Rafting!” yelled Percival happily, launching himself into the water.
“Ah,” said Lancelot. “Rafting.”
“What's rafting?” asked Leon and Arthur, but the other knights were already in the water, Percy on the platform and reaching out for the branches, and Lancelot in the water picking up some of his own.
“It's like a big flat boat!” Merlin bellowed. “Just hurry up and get on it before we get swept away!”
“You're utterly mad, you know that?” shouted Arthur, before launching himself in the general direction of the trees.
by nane0. Leave feedback here!
It turned out that steering a raft held together by nothing other than a tangle of branches was a rather complicated task. Merlin did what he could, with a few flares of magic here and there, but he didn't really know what he was doing. At one point he tried to steer the contraption a little to the left, but he ended up turning the bloody thing on itself.
There wasn't a lot of time for talking on the raft – there weren't so much waves in the water as swells. Arthur had, however, managed to curse Merlin for being such a bloody fool.
“The difference between you and knights,” he said, “is that knights actually think about a situation before diving into it.”
“Thanks to me,” Merlin said, “you've not drowned.”
“There's still time,” muttered Elyan, the last to board the raft. He was looking rather unwell.
Elyan was almost right. It didn't take them that long to reach the Mound, though it felt like an age, but it was at the moment that they drew up against the slope that the raft decided to disintegrate. It was sheer luck that they'd all moved off the tree closest to the mound in order to allow others on. Even so, the shock of the branches shredding themselves against each other caused Leon to jump and steady himself.
The druids – apart from Mordred, Merlin recognised none of them – watched the tree sail away with remarkable calm.
“Take Mordred,” said one.
Arthur protested, suggesting that he and the other knights swim behind the raft on its way back, making room for all the druids in the process.
“We'll not risk Avalon for the sake of our skins,” said another.
Merlin's head snapped to him. What did he mean by that? Did he mean Mordred's Avalon, the one that was written? Should Merlin have listened to Kilgarrah? If there were one thing Merlin knew it was that the words of a dying man were rarely untrue or insincere.
“Can't you just magic yourself out of danger?” asked Arthur, echoing Merlin's thoughts.
“There are many misconceptions about magic,” said one sagely, and if it weren't a suicidal druid telling Arthur this, Merlin was sure a fight would have broken out.
Are you going to protect me this time, Emrys? said a familiar voice.
“Get him on,” Merlin muttered to Lancelot, “And then we can try and save the others from themselves.”
Mordred hated everything. He found it helped if you started small, and then the thoughts became larger and larger but they were still real, still manageable. If you woke up and didn't know where to start with your hate, it could all explode at halfway to noon.
But if you managed it, if you built it, you created spinning discs, one on top of the other, so it grew and became a solid construction that remained relatively stable until you had a plan. A right little fortress of hate.
So Mordred started small. He couldn't hear the rain, and he hated that, because that meant he was inside. And Mordred hated being inside, because it generally equated to being kept. And Mordred hated being kept.
He hated the bed, too – it was too soft, too deep. It felt like he was sinking into the ground. He remembered the druids – they always die, don't they; they take him and they feed him and then they bloody well die for him – and he hated them for being so predictable. There might be different factions, but every stupid druid believes that he's something worth dying for.
He lifted the covers and saw that someone has changed him. It's not just the clothes he hated (he looked like a girl – who wore a dress to sleep?) but he also hated the fact that someone – a faceless someone, perhaps a nosy someone, perhaps someone who could tell what he was from his limbs alone – had changed his clothes.
Mordred groaned, dry, warm, and none the happier for it, and tried to get back to sleep.
“We can't keep him, you know.”
“He's not some little lost bird,” Merlin said, fetching a stool so he could reach the top of the four-poster and fix the hanging.
It had been an extraordinarily silent trip back to Camelot. After they'd abandoned the other druids – at their insistence, leaving them with nothing but a promise that they would look after Mordred – they'd had to ride fast: the land under their feet was rapidly disappearing. There was no hope of getting to the other kingdoms.
Arthur had told him, again, that Ealdor lay close to the mountains. It was nice of Arthur to point that out, as though Merlin hadn't spent the first eighteen years of his life waking up at the feet of the damn things, but even so there were still so many things that could have killed them.
“He might as well be,” said Arthur, “for the way you all dote over him.”
Merlin forced a laugh. “You sound jealous. He hasn't even woken up yet!”
For one thing, the villagers they had met had talked about the ground being fine for days and then, suddenly, it was saturated and their valleys began to fill like baths, faster than they could climb. Merlin hoped a similar fate had not befallen Ealdor, but for the life of him he couldn't remember the type of soil where he'd grown up. He couldn't remember ever bothering to find out; Merlin was not, and had never been, the farming type. Was it a hard granite? Was it limestone? He remembered tales about massive caverns under the ground in areas of limestone, and hoped for something else.
He supposed it helped that the basin in which Ealdor was situated was a wide one, and that there was a path that led a third of the way up the first peak. Still, Merlin thought of Hunith – she wasn't getting any younger, and she'd worked in the fields for years – and of Old Jim with his limp, and he hoped they had moved quickly. He hoped there was food in the mountains.
“Merlin. Oi, Merlin.”
He pivoted on the stool and shot a glare at Arthur.
“Are you listening to a word I'm saying?” he asked, raising his hands to the air. “Remember who's actually employing you to bring them the best bits from the kitchens.”
Merlin had had plenty of time to worry on the way back. They had not discussed Mordred. He'd been asleep for the entire trip – obviously something was wrong with him, as he'd gone limp the moment they'd got him on the back of a horse – but even so no one had known where to begin. This boy was a druid, a warlock, and King Arthur was knowingly bringing him back to the castle.
Get your head on straight, Merlin. Arthur, he remembered, was far better at this than him, at folding other problems into his head until they could be dealt with, whilst concentrating on the issues at hand.
“Is that a threat?” Merlin asked, pasting on another smile and managing to fall off the stool in the process of turning so that he could better converse with Arthur.
“I doubt,” said Arthur, padding over to where he now sat, crumpled, on the floor, “anyone really needs to threaten you. It's a wonder you haven't gotten yourself killed already.”
“What's this I hear about you bringing Mordred back to the castle?”
“What's this I hear about you still doing laundry?”
“I wanted to work at the forge,” shrugged Gwen, “But we're not fighting anyone, or hunting anything, so demand is non-existent.”
She took his arm and marched him into an empty room.
“But really: Mordred? We know how that ended last time.”
“He's just a boy,” said Merlin. “What would you have me do, let him die? That's what everyone else seems to want.”
That wasn't entirely true, he reminded himself. The knights had dived into the flooded valley without a second thought.
“No,” said Gwen, perching on a rare empty bed. They'd started housing refugees in the castle itself now, so rooms were filling up fast. She patted the mattress. “Sit down. I've hardly seen you since Morgana.”
It wasn't hard for Merlin to admit that he'd missed this. Gwen's no-nonsense chatter had been a comforting presence since he came to Camelot. As of late, though, he'd neglected her company, and he wasn't quite sure why.
“It must be a relief not being a spy any more,” he said. “All that pretence and confusion – I know I couldn't handle it. What have you been up to then, since all that? I'd have thought you'd be at Arthur's side constantly. He kissed you in front of the whole courtyard, you know. It was very romantic.”
She pushed at his shoulder.
“Stop it,” she said, smiling. “There's lots to do.”
She pointed to the bundle of sheets which she'd laid down on a chair near the door.
“There are more people arriving every day, and if they don't need armed they do need their beds made. I know how to cook and I'm all right at reassuring people, so I'm doing my bit.” She pushed her hair back from her face, and whilst Merlin admired her, he really did, for doing all this, well—
“But – I mean, are you even allowed to do that? Aren't there all sorts of rules, as king's consort, things you have to—”
“Am I the king's consort?” she asked, a certain hardness entering her expression. “Last I checked Uther was still alive, and even if I was betrothed or whatever to Arthur, I'm still going to help people if I want.”
“Good,” said Merlin. He was vaguely aware that he was treading on eggshells, but something in him burned to know. “Have you seen Arthur at all, really, since Morgana?”
Gwen stared him down like he was an insolent colt. After a few seconds she shook her head, smiling.
“I knew it. I knew that the moment we talked it would be interrogation, talk-about-your-feelings time. You're awful, you are,” she said, but she still had a smile on her face. “Can't we just have a simple little chat about the weather?”
“If you haven't noticed it's raining by now—”
“All right! All right, then.”
She folded her hands in her lap nervously, so he gave her a little nudge.
“You're the one that started off by asking me about Mordred and dragging me into a secret corner of the castle, anyway.”
“It's my super spy skills,” she said, pushing herself back further on the bed and drawing up her legs until she was sitting cross-legged. “I can't help it.”
“To be honest, I don't know if it's a great idea,” he said, because she didn't seem particularly inclined to share. “He's got magic, and that does make him dangerous, but he's a child. I mean, Percy's a big, mean, killing machine, and he was a mercenary before he became a knight, but he's still allowed to fight alongside Arthur. Why can't a child sleep in the same castle as him?”
“But from what I remember the druids seem to think he's important. And he had a special connection with Morgana – she adored him.”
“She empathised with him, I think,” Merlin said. He knew the feeling. Settling in for the long haul, he joined her on the middle of the bed. Cleaning Arthur's armour could wait; it wasn't as though he was planning a hunt or anything and was in urgent need of a shiny breastplate.
“I just can't believe she was his daughter,” said Gwen. “I mean, obviously, that's not the only thing I can't believe,” she added, taking a shaky breath. “I've been thinking. She can't have been lost for a year; she must have left voluntarily. She must have set up that day in the forest so her and Uther would see us – she tried to have me killed, Merlin. And if she'd been crazy I wouldn't have minded because it wouldn't have been her, you know? And then she gave me a lifeline when the citadel was compromised.”
Her voice was shaking.
“She saved me, Merlin, and I don't know why. She fired on innocents she used to disobey her father to protect. I don't understand.”
Gwen looked almost as shocked at the appearance of tears as Merlin was, and he hugged her suddenly and fiercely, pulling back to look her in the eye.
“I think …” he began. “I think a lot of it – not all of it, I can't understand all of it, but she was gone for a year, away from Camelot – a lot of it was down to her visions and her magic. Think about it: she's terrified of who she is, of what she is, and her ward denounces magic and she thinks he wouldn't hesitate to have her killed. We all—” Merlin looked down at the flagstones and steadied himself. “We all – me especially – reassured her it was nothing: Gaius prescribed her 'treatments' and I knew they would do nothing. She must have thought she was going mad. She must have thought her friends wouldn't support her.”
“I would have supported her!” Gwen said angrily. “How could she not have known that? I sat beside her bed night after night, ready with a cold compress and words of comfort! She and I have gone to great lengths to protect each other – the Wilderen – Lancelot – everything!”
Gwen trailed off, gazing towards the narrow window. For someone who'd just been freed from execution at the hands of her former friend, and who had the love of a prince, she looked extremely troubled.
“Keeping secrets from the ones you love can make you think that love is false,” Merlin said in what he hoped was a sage way. “She didn't trust anyone, not even herself.”
“Where do you think she is now?”
“Hopefully somewhere dry,” said Merlin. Perhaps it was selfish to hope she was all right; he felt so responsible for turning her. She was a massive threat to the kingdom, especially as she was now, but he remembered the Morgana who'd come to Ealdor with him and fended off barbarians, the Morgana who'd helped stop Sophia. He of all people could have reached out, but instead he had tried to poison her.
“It sounds awful, but I miss her. I even miss just being her maidservant,” said Gwen. “Baroness Thursack spent ten minutes talking to me about curtains, of all things, today.”
“Oh, the hard, hard life of a princess-in-waiting!”
“You think you're sneaky, getting on to the subject like that, but you're not.” Gwen pursed her lips and frowned sternly at him. “You'll never make a master spy.”
“I'm utterly guileless,” said Merlin, holding up his hands. “I am but a simple manservant.”
“Simple's right enough.”
“Arthur's a bad influence on you. Speaking of which …”
“Okay,” Gwen said. “So.”
She lay back on the bed with a flump, and spoke to the ceiling.
“You may have noticed, even though you're but a simple manservant --”
“I'm not above throwing a pillow at you.”
Gwen launched one at him. “You'd need to be at the right end of the bed for that, simpleton. Anyway, you're right. I haven't really seen Arthur since the whole Morgana thing.”
“It's just odd, you know? What's a serving girl doing with the Prince? And what are the rules for this sort of thing? Shouldn't he, I don't know, summon me or something?”
Incredulous, he shuffled down the bed so he was peering down at her.
“You're awaiting instructions? That doesn't sound much like you.”
“Yes. I mean no, it doesn't, and no, I'm not.” Gwen sighed. “But … you know, this 'serving girl and the prince' thing. I'm sure it sounds really romantic and everything – that's what everyone's been saying – but maybe everyone thinks it's more romantic than it is. Like, I stand up to Arthur once or twice, and in what, a week, he's swept off his feet? I'll admit I – you know, he's a prince, you're flattered, and it's not like he's hideous or dishonourable or anything, there's nothing wrong with him, but I--”
“You're not madly in love with him?”
Merlin felt like he was standing on the ramparts of the North Tower during a gale. It was terrible to watch Lancelot mope around the place, even if he did do it in a gallant sort of way, but Arthur would be crushed.
“I don't even know that he's madly in love with me,” said Gwen.
Merlin considered it for a moment.
“He hasn't written any sonnets, or anything, but perhaps that's for the best. He took you on a picnic, though. Kissed you for all to see. And you know Arthur: displaying emotion is something he's really rubbish at.”
“Yeah. But I get the feeling that I was just – you know, girl stands up to boy, boy rarely gets told he's an arrogant pig, boy finds that intriguing, boy pursues girl.”
“I tell him he's an arrogant pig all the time, and he's never pursued me,” said Merlin, chuckling weakly.
Gwen sat up.
“But he did employ you. Even when we were on our little picnic, he went on about taking you away to raise chickens or something.”
“That's bizarre,” said Merlin, immediately resolving to taunt Arthur about it later.
“If you think about it,” Gwen said, “Arthur disagrees with a lot of what the king wanted for him – strategic alliances, arranged marriages – so falling in love with me was a mini-rebellion, maybe. After growing up with Uther,” she sighed, “it's not surprising he's attracted to those brave enough to stand up to him.”
It was tempting to think that Arthur wasn't really in love with Gwen, but Merlin knew better. He'd seen the way he looked at her, and he'd heard the way he talked about her, with such reverence. Gwen was going to break his heart, and then Merlin would have to try and stay friends with both of them.
“And you don't reciprocate whatever feelings he has?”
“I—I like him,” said Gwen, eyes firmly on the ceiling. “I think maybe—maybe with Lancelot gone,” Ah, thought Merlin. Here we go. “maybe I thought—”
“You'd settle for the prince?”
“Don't,” she said.
“I'm not judging you,” said Merlin.
“He's terribly good at comforting people,” she said, her tone oddly light. “Again, it sounds horrible, but he's a warm pair of arms, you know? He's still a bit of an ass, but he's noble and honourable and really rather lovely, and there's no reason why I shouldn't be in love with him. I—”
Gwen's eyes had filled with tears. No matter what Merlin thought about how Arthur might react, he couldn't sit there and watch her punish herself for not falling at his feet like some grateful damsel. He lay down beside her, placed an arm around her waist, and squeezed.
“I'm just not,” she whispered.
Morgana felt like she hadn't rested properly in years. She hadn't had a real dream since she was about eight; everything she'd seen in the nights after that had come true in some shape or form. She barely remembered what it was like, to be in a foreign landscape doing strange things, or even to dream about a normal day in the Upper Town.
These dreams about her father were anything but restful. Why must everything – her kingdom, her friends, her family, her own mind – betray her? Every time she realised that she was in Conorgia, she had to find some way of killing herself before she heard his voice or saw his figure.
She trickled more of the rainwater past Morgause's cracked lips, and blinked away the tiredness.
It had been a few weeks now, scraping the days into the wall with a sharp rock that she'd found at the cave entrance, but she'd not made any attempt to go somewhere else. Morgause had shown no signs of, well, anything, really. She merely lay there, her hair grown thin and lank, her cloaks enveloping her wasted frame in a premature shroud.
Morgana was staring death in the face, and she had nothing with which she could bargain for her sister's life. Some days she could hardly believe it. She'd had a kingdom, her own kingdom, and an upstart manservant and her idiot brother had taken it from her in a matter of minutes. A bump on the head had reduced her brilliant sister to a skeleton.
When Morgause had first told her that she was powerful, that she was dangerous, that her magic was a blessing, not a curse, she'd felt like nothing could ever harm her again. I have magic, she'd thought. I can see the future. I can move things with my mind. I can kill people with a word. Well, I can learn to move things with my mind and kill people with a word. I am invincible.
But time after time her plans had been thwarted, and now here she was, a hermit. A starving hermit, at that. The stream she'd found on the first day had flooded, and in fact the water was rising swiftly. The deer she'd worked so hard to learn how to catch (the artificial birdsong, the dampening of her footsteps, the pinch of a vein in their necks) had fled to higher plateaus.
She'd clambered upwards, once, to see where she could go if the water didn't stop. The mountain was steep-sloped and almost brittle: piles of scree lined every edge. She hadn't been able to find any caves large enough for them both, but hoped that there were at least a few. At the moment, she was less than a quarter of the way up the peak, so there must be somewhere else to rest as it became taller.
At the moment she wasn't sure whether she should bother making the climb at all. They said drowning was a peaceful death, if you relaxed. She wasn't quite sure how 'they' knew, but was increasingly willing to test their word.
by nane0. Leave feedback here!
In every breath that she took, Morgana reminded me of her mother.
Blast. Despite all her best efforts, she must have fallen asleep. She whirled in her rags, looking for a steep slope, a sharp-looking tree, a poisonous plant, anything to wake her up.
I told Gaius she'd been lonely in Gorlois' absence. She hadn't – she'd been bored.
“I do not need to hear this,” she muttered. To her utter dismay, Morgana appeared to have turned up in the most barren part of all Conorgia: no massive rocks, no pointy scenery. There were no obvious death-traps anywhere in sight. In fact, she could see nothing but black soil stretching away in every direction.
Vivienne had lured me back to her chambers, and damned if I hadn't wanted to be lured, hadn't dreamt of that moment even with Ygraine asleep by my side.
Unfortunately, even without the king in sight he was very much in mind. She'd tried plugging her ears. She'd tried screaming and, when that wore her voice out, singing loudly, but nothing worked.
I thought I'd seen her eyes flash purple in the throes of passion, again and then again and then again, and nothing had been more exciting to me.
Morgana was becoming increasingly convinced that she was somehow dreamwalking her way into the mind of her father. Images flooded her mind and she shuddered in disgust. Either that, or she was a great deal more disturbed than even she had thought.
I knew afterwards, of course, that it was a trick of the light, and damned myself repeatedly for such a fantasy. It was just that she looked so like Nimueh – that was it.
“Who thinks like they're writing a diary?” Morgana asked the still air. “Why would you do that?”
She cast a glance at the warm soil that was damp under her feet, and considered its likelihood of being poisonous. It was either that or try and slit her throat with her fingernails, and she'd resolved not to do that again; it was time-consuming and messy.
“You,” she had whispered on the third night, when Gorlois had returned injured and was lying in Gaius' quarters. “You, Uther Pendragon, shall give me the son Gorlois has not.”
“He'd better have your hair,” I told her. “Can't have an oak-haired son when the parents are both raven.”
“He'll have the blackest hair you've ever seen.”
He sickened her. He'd made her a bastard, and worse, she'd never known.
Vivienne had been right about most of it. But everyone had known, regardless of the hair. Gorlois, my battle-partner, my fellow revolutionary, my friend, he'd known. I saw it in his too-bright smiles and the way her hands gripped his shoulder at court, even before Morgana was out of the womb. The court … well, of course the court had known. The court knew everything. They were the rats in Camelot's walls and underneath the beds, spreading disease everywhere they went.
The court. The court had known, and she had not. Had Arthur known? Had he been laughing at her, unacknowledged and unloved, all this time?
And then a girl, and Gorlois had laughed and played with her as if she were his own.
Tears welled in Morgana's eyes. Memories she only half-remembered were played out in vivid colour before her, but they were now cast with a sour hue. Every time he'd gathered her up into his arms and called her 'my darling', he'd lied. She was nothing but a reminder that he'd been cuckolded by his best friend. He must have loathed her.
Vivienne, of course, had ignored me from the moment her womb began to swell, and did so until the day she died, a fever just a year after the birth.
Morgana fancied she heard a bellow somewhere from over her left shoulder, a wide, anguished yell, like Uther'd just been stabbed. If I ever see him again, thought Morgana, I'm going to spear him like a boar.
I loved Ygraine, but she had not given me a son, no son, and how could I hope to keep the kingdom I'd taken if I could not produce a son? The Court were gibbering about my performance in dark corridors and alcoves. Ygraine was growing pale and frustrated. I'd tried everything. Gaius had done what he could, and even the druids, tentatively happy with a ruler who was taxing them in kind and not in coin, had tried their best. Then Nimueh arrived with ropes for hair and the sky for eyes, and she'd assured me with a smirk that a son would come.
Gaius warned me; I didn't listen.
Grotesque pictures seared through Morgana's mind: Ygraine, pale, bloodless, dying; Nimueh, who lied, who never warned him; Gorlois, her father, his right hand man, borne back from battle bloody, on a bier; Gaius, sad and sighing; Arthur receiving his circlet; herself, snarling, with a crown; and a parade of faces that she didn't even recognise from portraits, some charred, some still burning. Some slashed to ribbons, some underwater. These were people Uther had burned, beheaded, drowned and maimed. People he had sworn to protect when taking the throne.
A final image materialised: the king of Camelot looking up at the cloudless pale sky, lying on his back in the middle of Conorgia. Tears fell freely and made their way to his ears. She heard her father think of all the times he'd seen her appear here only to run as quickly as she could. He didn't think the tears would ever stop.
She turned to face where the shout had come.
“You will never have my pity!” she screamed. “Let alone my forgiveness!”
She didn't think he heard her, but it didn't matter. Gloomily, she examined her fingernails. Scratching her veins open was never any fun.
Morgana flinched where she lay, and her hands clenched into white fists. The morning light had not yet reached the interior of the cave – the entrance was west-facing, so only really became illuminated when she was growing tired, which was useful for staving off sleep – but she could see the water that she'd trailed into the entrance glimmer with the sun.
She'd had plans, of course. After a hasty relocation to Cenred's kingdom, where she'd first learned how to wield power, she would nurse Morgause back to health and then occupy the main castle, ruling over the land and mustering enough of a force to take Camelot again. When she'd fled her mind had been brimming with schemes. The rains (coupled with her sub-standard navigational skills) had scuppered them all.
Morgana was thrown from her memories and back into the ugly, dirty present. She looked around, sitting upright – everything was silent save for the rumble of the rains and the shallow breathing of her sister. Another vision. Perhaps a hallucination, by this point. How long had she gone without food?
“Morgana Pendragon,” she said into the emptiness.
“Still Morgana,” said the voice. “Can you see me yet?”
For the first few days, the downpour had put people off going to the taverns, but now they were busier than ever. Throughout the five kingdoms, it seemed like people never got tired of talking about the weather. Even the knights couldn't resist swapping theories.
Elyan, like most of the other patrons of the tavern, thought it was all Morgana's fault. Leon wasn't sure whether he agreed with them. At first, it had seemed obvious: magical madwoman gets cast out of Camelot, unnatural rains flood Camelot – the two couldn't be a coincidence. But Leon knew her style; he'd seen it first hand. Morgana liked a plan to which she could affix a signature. Even when she'd been undercover her schemes, in hindsight, had been bold and daring.
Leon rather thought that if Morgana had been controlling the weather, some serious smiting would have occurred by now. Perhaps, though, she wasn't deliberately orchestrating it. Rumour had it that her magic was barely controlled, that she'd grown up with it nearly controlling her. He found it far easier to believe that this was a subconscious attack.
Gwaine, ever the optimist, was less interested in the origin of than the solution to the situation.
“Druids,” he'd said, quaffing his mead enthusiastically.
You know you've made it, thought Sir Leon, when half the alcohol you buy ends up on the floor and you don't care.
“What about them?” he asked.
“You ever fucked a druid?”
He seemed to be asking everyone at the bar; his eyes certainly weren't focused on anything or anyone in particular. No one answered. The regulars down at the end glanced at each other warily, wondering where this treasonous talk was going. They were no doubt worried it was an elaborate trap of some sort.
“Magical. It's magical! Thorns turn to down, bracken turns to silk. Flowers bloom, birds sing, sun shines.”
“I'm really happy for you,” Percy said, “but why--”
“Elementary, my dear Percival,” said Gwaine. “Elementary.”
He laughed madly for a good few seconds, before tossing his hair back from his face and assuming an expression of utmost seriousness.
“Elements. They can manipulate the elements, you know: earth, air, wind, fire,”
“Surprise,” added Lancelot, leaning forward. “I think I see where you're going with this, but the boy hasn't stayed awake for more than ten minutes at a time. He's useless.”
“Uther's still king,” said Elyan. “Prince Arthur has no choice but to obey his laws. Magic's not an option.”
“We haven't got many options, have we?” said Gwaine, at least having the good sense to keep his voice down. “Maybe the druids know something about where this rain's coming from. Maybe, even if he can't stop it, he'll know how to stop it, how to bring the world back from the brink.”
Lancelot clapped him on the shoulder. “Maybe,” he said thoughtfully. “Maybe.”
Leon stared at his reflection warping around what was once a full glass of ale, and thought to himself that he knew someone who was rather good at bringing things back from the brink.
When Leon entered the physician's rooms, Gaius was brewing potions as though there were no tomorrow. He'd always admired the work that healers did, all that knowledge and effort with so little reward. It stood to reason, he thought, that physicians would want to do all they could to combat the forces of both nature and magic.
When he'd woken up to find his skin unadorned with a waxy web of scars, his first thought was to wonder why he hadn't realised before.
“Good morning, Gaius,” he said.
“Are you looking for Merlin?” asked the sorcerer, not looking up from what really was an exceptionally small cauldron. More of a beaker, really; it wasn't even round, and it was see-through. Perhaps a proper cauldron would have given the game away. That was probably the reason why there weren't any green dribbly candles anywhere – everyone knew they were extremely occult. No doubt Gaius kept them in a cupboard along with the top hat and the pack of cards (Leon had heard they were important somehow, but couldn't remember why).
“No, I actually, er, I actually came to see you.”
How old was Gaius, anyway? Leon couldn't remember him ever looking any younger; perhaps he was immortal. The healer turned his piercing gaze on him, and asked what seemed to be the problem.
“I just wanted to thank you for healing me, you know, after the dragon incident.”
An eyebrow was raised.
“You were hardly burned,” Gaius said, waving a hand dismissively. “I was merely doing my job.”
“Don't be so modest,” he tried. Sir Leon had never been very good at subtle, but he gave it his best shot. “You're a strong and mighty, uh, healer, and what you did was borderline miraculous. Dousing the effects of fire like that – why, I'd wager you could even step forth and banish the rain!”
“If only I could, Sir,” said Gaius mildly. “If only I could.”
“You seem to have the most knowledge about anything strange or unusual that happens in Camelot,” Leon pressed on. “Goblins, trolls, curses, spells – you always know what to do,”
Slowly, Gaius lowered the conical flask back onto the tripod off which he'd lifted it just moments before. Finally, thought Leon, I've got through to him at last.
Gaius stared at him for a long moment before he finally spoke.
“I have many books,” he said, gesturing to his shelves, “some of which are filled with knowledge found in very few places. But,” he sighed, seeming to wither before Leon's eyes, his stoop becoming more pronounced, the lines in his face growing deeper, “some knowledge remains beyond me.”
“Knowledge of the elements? Knowledge of –” he hesitated, nearly choking on his words. “of the elementary magics? Of the Old Religion?”
Gaius sighed again, looking down at his worn old work table, and when his gaze returned to Leon his eyes were glowing gold.
“I am doing what I can,” he said wearily, “but I am old.”
Hope all but extinguished, Sir Leon thanked him and left. If this mighty immortal sorcerer could not fix the floods, who could?
Perhaps he should have let him die. Although Merlin had seen him eat and drink, and no one could say he wasn't in possession of his mental faculties when awake, the boy was clearly fading. He slept nearly constantly, and was running a fever.
“I don't know why I'm so weak,” said Mordred, making Merlin jump.
The boy opened his eyes and fixed Merlin with a stare.
“I feel drained. Empty.”
“I'll fetch you some food,” he said, standing from his position by Mordred's bed.
“No. Empty.” Mordred tried to push himself up in the bed and failed, slumping back into the mattress. “Like I couldn't levitate a feather without collapsing.”
That didn't bode particularly well for Gaius' plan of 'ask Mordred if he can do anything about the rain'. When he'd told Merlin that Sir Leon thought he was a powerful sorcerer the like of which the world had never seen, Merlin had managed to stop laughing long enough for Gaius to tell him that this elemental business might actually hold some water.
“There's only a few beings that can manipulate elemental magic like that,” he'd said. “It comes more easily to druids than it would to you or I, but anyone with magic can do it to some extent. The amount of power needed for something like this, though – it's too immense.”
“Your money's on something else?”
“I'll raid my books, but in the meantime you should probably talk to the boy.”
When he did, though, Mordred was furious.
“If I knew, or if the druids knew, what was doing this, do you think we'd all have been dying at the Old Mound?”
“Well, no, of course not, but—”
“I know what you did to Morgana, though,” said Mordred, and it was so out of the blue that Merlin froze where he sat, arms still half-raised in the beginnings of a placatory gesture. “The poison, the lies.”
“She knows, now.” An icy chill filled Merlin's gut. “She knows what you are. I told her.”
The boy's frenzied whispering was obviously wearing him out, but that wasn't why Merlin stood to go. He couldn't attempt to explain the inexplicable, and Mordred would never absolve him of the unforgivable.
He was halfway to the door when Mordred told him to wait.
“One of the elders, Teires, I think, said that it felt like something the Four would do. I don't know what that means.”
Despite it all, Merlin had to thank him. He had a lead, and he knew Morgana was alive. Probably baying for his blood even more than she had been before, but she was alive.
That night, Merlin got drunk with Arthur. It wasn't planned: Arthur always took wine with his evening meal, but if Merlin did eat his dinner in the room with him he never took a drink – too much to carry up to his room on one tray.
“This tastes of summer,” Arthur had said in wonder, lifting the goblet to his nose and giving it a sniff.
Merlin looked up from his bread and soup, and grimaced.
“I don't really like wine.”
“Try this,” he ordered. “You've obviously never drunk real wine before.”
“I'd love to,” Merlin lied, “But I don't have a cup. Besides,” he said, “I always thought wine was a bit of a girly drink.”
“Oh, for heaven's sake—just drink it, Merlin,” he said, pushing the goblet over the table towards him. Some of the red liquid spilled over the rim and ran down the jewels on the side.
“It tastes like fruit,” he said, surprised.
“What were you expecting, horse piss?” Arthur caught Merlin's eye and shook his head. “No. Don't answer that. Try some of the cheese,” he said, pointing to one of his own plates. “Cheese and wine go well together.”
He was loath to say it had become a habit, but it really had. Arthur didn't like eating in the hall, on show, unless it was a banquet and he had to, and eating in the family dining room was rather lonely with just him there, alone, at one end of the table, so Arthur had taken to eating in his room. Of course, Merlin had to stay and make sure his cup was full, but Arthur had kept trying to force steak and venison upon him so eventually Merlin had started to bring his own dinner along.
“I don't like cheese,” said Merlin. “Makes me come out in a rash.”
Arthur gave him a disdainful look which indicated that he thought a man who disliked cheese was an inexcusable failure. He went back to his main meal, and Merlin could tell from the meticulous way he was cutting his meat that Merlin was going to have some force-fed to him later.
It was a little embarrassing, really. Merlin couldn't help feeling that, even though she didn't love him and so on, Gwen should definitely be the one Arthur was trying to interest in gourmet food.
“Merlin, do you—” he said carefully.
Merlin jumped. “What?”
“Well, if you let me finish! It's … well, you spout such a sheer volume of nonsense, that at least some of it must be useful now and then. Stands to reason.”
Arthur ran a hand through his hair, and Merlin took pity on him.
“What issue is it, sire, on which you wished to hear my expert opinion?”
“Everything,” Arthur said; Merlin hadn't seen him look so defeated in a long while. “Everyone – look: the place is a mess; even the guttered ground is becoming saturated and we can't support the people; we'll be out of grain within a month and that's generous; you say I have to be a king, at least until the king is better, but I don't know where to start.”
“Um,” Merlin supplied helpfully.
Arthur looked at him.
“Perhaps we could make a list?” Merlin said, gesturing to the heavy writing table at which they were sitting.
Arthur's eyes narrowed, as if to indicate that he'd heard some ridiculous things from him, but that this idea not only took the biscuit but possibly the entire roast too.
“We're not going shopping for herbs, Merlin. This is the future of Camelot we're solving here.”
Merlin took another swig from the goblet. “Break things into pieces – that's what my mother used to say.”
“Savour it, Merlin! Don't just down the stuff.” Arthur snatched it back. “Look, you've almost finished it,” he said, before drinking the rest himself. As he refilled the cup, he asked Merlin if he had Hunith to blame for him constantly smashing the crockery.
“One time. It was one time,” Merlin said, walking round him to get a quill, ink, and parchment.
“Who made you the scribe?”
“Arthur, I've known you for four years. If you can get out of doing the dirty work, you will.”
Arthur made a noise which suggested that was a fair point, and for a few minutes silence fell.
“You know,” he said, as Merlin continued his laboured but neat scrawl, “I've changed my mind. Strategy can wait.”
When Merlin didn't stop, he snatched the parchment away. “Hey!”
“I have good food, excellent wine, and tolerable company. You're going to help me finish this jug.”
“Oh, and is that an order?”
“The thing is,” said Arthur, some time later. “The thing is, is, that being a prince is really hard.”
“Are you sure?” asked Merlin. “Because I know a few peasants who'd swap with you in a heartbeat. Ba-dum,” he added, for clarity's sake.
Arthur, he'd decided, was a very whiny drunk. Because Merlin was apparently a drunk with no sense of self-preservation, he told him this.
“I'm not whining!” said Arthur petulantly. “I know there are lots of good things about being a prince, like, y'know, feasts, and hunting trips, and protecting the kingdom, but there are bad things too. Having to enter every tourney and do really really well so no one tries to have you ruled out of succession, having to marry some stuck-up princess, never knowing who to trust. It's quite lonely.”
For a moment, then, with Arthur's features lit gold by the guttering candles, Merlin felt a sort of madness pressing in against the edges of his vision. Hell, Arthur probably wouldn't even remember all this in the morning. Merlin dug the heels of his palms into his thighs. There were some rules he wouldn't let himself break.
“But I can trust you,” Arthur said, his mood changing instantly. “Can't I, Merlin? Good ol' Merlin. You're a bit of an idiot, but sometimes you're not.”
With that ringing endorsement, Arthur swung an arm round to clap Merlin on the shoulder. He nearly knocked the wind out of him in the process.
He reached for the goblet, but Arthur stopped him with a raised hand.
“Reciprobily,” he said. “I mean, recibrobiddy. That. This is where you say how nice I am to work for.”
“Good old Arthur,” said Merlin. “He's a bit of a prat, but sometimes he's not.”
Arthur rolled his eyes, but passed him the cup all the same.
Next thing Merlin knew, he was ploughing his way through the standing water, and trying to avoid the four-foot deep puddles, to get to the forge. He had a couple of detours, mostly into walls, but he got there eventually.
“Arthur'd behead me,” he said, without any respect for things like volume or pitch. He knocked on the door wildly, beating out what he considered to be a nice little rhythm.
Gwen opened the door, her hair curling everywhere and her eyes bleary with sleep.
“He'd absolutely bloody kill me,” he said excitedly. He uncurled a fist, showing her the fire dancing about in his palm.
“Look,” he said. “Isn't it cool?” An owl hooted over the noise of the rain. “Ahahaha,” he said. “It's funny 'cause it's a flame,” he informed her. “And they're hot.”
“Get inside, quick,” said Gwen.
by nane0. Leave feedback here!
When Merlin woke up he was lying in Gwen's bed, clothed in worn flannel pajamas. Oh god, he thought. Yet another thing I need to conceal from Arthur if I'm fond of my head being attached to my spine.
“Good,” boomed Gwen's voice. “You're up. Arthur's probably looking for you.”
Merlin tried to scramble out of bed, but succeeded only in falling onto the floor in an undignified heap. He remembered that Arthur was drinking too, and was most likely in much the same state, but when he tried to inform Gwen of this it came out as “Arrhur drintoo”.
Suddenly, he started remembering other things. Such as the fact he revealed himself as a sorcerer outside the blacksmith's door, and once inside began levitating various items of weaponry in order to demonstrate further until Gwen had grown tired of sharp blades flying around the room and had dragged him off to bed. He didn't remember her undressing him, which he supposed was a blessing. Still, he must have visibly paled or something, because Gwen took pity on him and patted his head affectionately.
“Don't worry, wizard wonder. You're not getting executed on my watch.”
She kept being nice and friendly – she even made him porridge – until he appeared to have regained his mental faculties, at which point she turned on him like a wild dog.
“Why didn't you tell me?” she said.
Merlin shrugged helplessly.
“The more people that know, the more careful I have to be.”
“Yeah, last night you were really bloody careful,” she said. “Who else knows?”
“Er,” he said. He began to list them off on his fingers. “Gaius, my mum, most of Ealdor, Lancelot, the dragon … the druids all seem to know, I don't know how.”
Merlin racked his brains to try and remember if he'd accidentally refilled the wine jug by magic or something the previous night. This, he reminded himself, is why sorcerers don't drink. Thinking back on it, it looked like he made it out without condemning himself. He remembered lolling about on the royal bed at some point, though. Oh, yes, I remember now, I was giving Arthur a rendition of my current favourite 'why I shouldn't have to do your donkey work' speech.
“Round table, Arthur. Equality!” he'd begun. “What's yours is mine. No class boundaries, no shackles of slavery, no …”
It was a good speech, and he was quite proud of it. He just wished he hadn't decided to go for it whilst lying boneless and giggling in the middle of Arthur's bed.
“Hahahahaha,” Arthur had said, looming over him. “I trust you, Merlin, but I'm hardly going to let you take my bed. Where would I sleep?”
Oh god. He'd almost drunkenly tried to—oh, god—but on the word trust had skipped out of the room to reveal his magic to Gwen. He kneaded his knuckles into his head. Perhaps Arthur was oblivious, as always. Perhaps Arthur, when he'd climbed on the foot of the bed, had just intended to wrestle Merlin out of the bed and go to sleep.
This, Merlin thought, is why people with secrets shouldn't drink.
“Wait,” said Gwen, holding up a hand to stop his list, which had trailed off anyway. “Lancelot knows? You told Lancelot before me?”
“I helped him kill a griffin,” said Merlin. “It was unavoidable.”
She wasn't listening, though; she'd already moved on.
“The dragon? The dragon's still alive?”
“Er,” Merlin said again.
“It's a nice room, isn't it?”
“I quite liked my tents in the woods, myself,” Mordred said pointedly.
Arthur winced. Mordred took no small amount of pleasure in noting that the prince looked terrible. His hair stuck up around his head, and his eyes were bloodshot and unfocused. An odd sort of halo of stubble was on his cheeks, catching the weak morning light.
“Merlin's already been in to ask what I know about the rain,” he said, hoping to head him off.
He pondered revealing Merlin as a sorcerer, but it only took him a fraction of a second to decide that it wouldn't really help matters to have Arthur hate and resent the man who was pleading his and the druids' cases. Besides, he'd already told Morgana. She was powerful. That would be punishment enough.
“What do you know about the rain?” asked Arthur.
They were so predictable, all of them. He was only eleven, and yet here they were, treating him like he was some sort of oracle. You had one of them, he thought, and you sent her mad.
“It's wet” he said, through a yawn.
Mordred supposed he should really get out of bed at some point, but he just couldn't seem to muster the energy to co-ordinate his limbs to do so. He saw Arthur suppress a matching yawn.
“It's quite warm outside,” said the prince. “Even with the rain.”
“Do you really have nothing better to do than give me a report on the weather?” he asked. “Because, not that I don't appreciate it, but I'd far rather be asleep.”
He was getting rather good at the old world-weary air. He noted with satisfaction that Arthur was visibly trying to control his temper. Evidently, he failed.
“Look. I just came to apologise for the way we – well, for the way the king – treated you when you were here. You were just a small boy.”
His knuckles were white.
“Thank you,” said Mordred. He waited a beat. “That's so nice of you. It totally makes up for the number of druids – the number of my people – who he burned or exiled. Really, it means a lot.”
Arthur stood and slammed his way out, but Mordred was too bone-tired to take proper delight in it.
“What do you know about nymphs?”
“What do you?” Merlin fired back as he staggered in. He'd decided to write off today as a bad job, and was heading to bed – his own, this time – to sleep everything off. He hoped Arthur felt the same muscle-weary tiredness as he did, partly because he wanted someone else to be enduring the same horrors, and partly in the hope he wouldn't notice that Merlin wasn't being a proper manservant.
Gaius pointed to a frayed parchment page of a battered tome. His face was grim. “I told you this elemental idea of Sir Leon's might have some merit. We're not just dealing with an angry sorcerer, or a wild animal.”
“What are we dealing with?” asked Merlin, his stomach turning in a way he didn't think he could wholly attribute to the wine.
He had seen Gaius look this worried before, but that was hardly reassuring. Judging from the slant of his brows, they were hovering at approximately 'we're all going to die, Merlin' on the Magical Disaster Scale.
“We're at war.”
So, naiads were real. Next thing he knew, Bacchus would probably turn up and make Arthur wear a dress. Or something. Merlin's grasp of Greek mythology was hazy to say the least – he was a peasant, not a scholar, and there were too many tangible fairytales to deal with in his own time.
“All the books say that the nymphs are weak, that something happened and now they can't do anything like this any more. But there's nothing else that it could be, Merlin. They have mastery of the four elements; they're what that druid Mordred mentioned was talking about. Somehow they've got their power back, and they're using it to end the world.”
Merlin let himself be dragged through the corridor by the large hunting dogs. He'd never actually seen them on a hunt, a gripe which he'd raised with Arthur when he'd ordered him to exercise them again (“You never wake me up in the mornings like you're supposed to, but you're still my manservant”).
Perhaps he should go and live at Gwen's house. She'd never spring the news of a magical war on him, and then shoo him off to find the prince. Merlin rarely had to exercise the dogs, and if he did it was normally with Arthur. Merlin had a sneaking suspicion that members of the royal family weren't allowed pets, and so Arthur had had to disguise them as hunters. He hadn't done a very good job of it; the dogs – all five of them – were the most undisciplined bunch of animals Merlin had ever seen. They'd hurtle along the flagstones for a good ten metres or so, before stopping suddenly and sending Merlin, who was clutching their leashes, flying through the air.
It was as he was lying dazed on the floor, waiting to be savaged, that he discovered that they were more likely to try and lick their quarry to death than shake it between their teeth.
The only thing worse than trying to control five enormous dogs, each the size of a small pony, would have been to actually go through discussing strategy with Arthur. Gaius' hangover cure, which he'd administered midway through a lecture on the many different groups of nymph and the wildly varying reasons they wanted all humans dead, had not taken effect, and Merlin's head felt like it was being squeezed between two boulders.
A laugh bounced off the castle walls. Merlin tried to sit up, and had a warm paw the size of his head pin him back down to the stone. Evidently he was expected to remain still whilst he was licked to the bone.
“Help me!” he sputtered.
“Can't you get up yourself, Merlin?”
Wonderful. It stood to reason that Arthur would follow him to laugh. Arthur had greeted him bright, breezy, and more than a little irked that Merlin hadn't got out of bed to dress him and fetch him breakfast. And lunch.
“On the plus side,” Merlin had said, “I missed arbitration.”
Arbitration was tedious on a good day, and on a bad day it made Merlin want to throw himself from the North Tower. Why did people have to be so petty? Who cares whether some starving eight year old stole an apple? It certainly wasn't worth a claim of three sheep.
“It's getting worse,” Arthur had said, grimacing. “I've made sure rations are being shared equally, but if you were a peasant in the lower town would you believe that the Prince and Court were on porridge and smoked ham, same as you?”
They needed a solution soon. The people of Camelot were starting to fight amongst themselves, the inhabitants of the Upper and Lower Town pitted against the rural refugees. Food was growing scarcer, the streets dirtier, the rooms more crowded.
The good news was that Merlin had a solution. The bad news was that it involved large quantities of highly visible magic.
There'd been no shortage of magical attacks on the castle, to be sure, but usually Gaius would discover the source of the magical attack – and how to defeat it – by reading his extremely illegal magic books, and everything would be sorted within a matter of days. No one ever questioned Gaius' seemingly inexhaustible knowledge of the Old Religion. More often than not the aggressor could be defeated in a thoroughly unmagical way, and if magic had to be used it was a small incantation or potion, something hardly noticeable.
So, whilst Arthur would probably be able to get his head round 'a whole other form of intelligent life exists, and it hates us', he'd more than likely have trouble with 'they're sapping magical energy to affect the weather, and I need to group together all the sorcerers – by the way, I am one – and together complete an arcane, archaic, and possibly fucking apocryphal elemental ritual so we can stop the entire country from drowning'.
It didn't help that the ritual was so bloody dramatic. Whoever had written the book, hundreds of years ago, had thought it useful to provide illustrations, and even they were full of swirling apparitions and something that looked a lot like blood spatter, though Merlin hoped that was just artistic license. Arthur might be totally oblivious to his magic at the moment, but Merlin doubted he'd miss him trooping off to the nearest stone circle with Mordred, Gaius, and all the hedge witches he could find.
A dirty yellow blob appeared in front of his eyes. Merlin blinked and tried to focus.
“'S'not fair,” groaned Merlin. “How're you fine, when I feel like death?”
“Because you're a weakling, Merlin.”
A great pressure lifted from his chest as one of the dogs bounded to Arthur, bowling him over. His head hit the ground with a smack. Merlin thought about telling him that was not very kingly behaviour (what if a baron walked by and saw them?) but was distracted by another dog licking his ear.
“Urgh.” He squirmed, trying to push himself away from the long pink tongue slavering all over his face. He was hindered somewhat by the dog lying on his legs. Two on me, two on Arthur. Either there was a dog behind him, waiting to pounce, or one had run loose in the rest of the castle. Merlin blinked and concentrated on making the world swim back into focus.
Arthur laughed, again, and the brown dog attacking Merlin's face halted at the noise, turned, and padded over to him. It considered Arthur for a moment, and then licked a stripe up his face.
Merlin couldn't breathe. Laughter rendered him immobile (well, that and about three tonnes of dog). Arthur was flushed, his hair sticking up in spears as he tried to fend off the doggy doom bearing down upon him. A stranger wouldn't have pegged him as a Pendragon, let alone a prince.
“Save me! You're my manservant,” Arthur said, through laughs. “It's the least you could do.”
Merlin was actually quite comfortable under this blanket of animal. It was certainly warmer than the flimsy, scratchy sheets in his room. His eyelashes felt heavy, his limbs numb. Details once again dissolved into hazy blobs, and Merlin felt himself drifting to sleep. If he ever got out from under those beasts, he realised, Arthur was going to kill him.
“Go on without me,” he mumbled. “Save y'rself.”
by nane0. Leave feedback here!
Morgana hugged her knees to her chest, and tried to calm her breathing. This is what comes of being brought up at court. Ears in the walls. Her heart thudded through her weakened frame and she laughed without quite knowing why.
The rain blocked out almost all other noise, and she found herself straining for any other sound. The thought struck her that she wouldn't be able to hear an attacker approaching until it was too late. “Nonsense,” she said firmly. “I have my weapons. I have my training. I have my magic.”
Morgana was beginning to suspect, though, that she also had madness. Even in the day, her thoughts kept returning to Conorgia, to the dead land in which Uther sat and wept. Having to kill herself every night was taking its toll too; just because it was a dream didn't mean it wasn't painful. She forgot about hunting, instead spending long hours just staring at Morgause, who didn't even twitch in her sleep any more.
And now … now she couldn't shake the feeling she was being watched. Call it magic, call it madness: something was tapping its fingers up her spine and grasping at her throat. There was an odd feeling in her skull, an insistent pressure. If it weren't already torrential outside the cave, she would have said that there was a storm coming.
“Go away,” Morgana said, and she pressed the heels of her hands into her eyes.
Faces crowded around her, unblinking. Arthur, with his stupid thin crown, looking down on her as always. He'd be wondering why she hadn't at least tried to take back the kingdom yet. Perhaps I can try and take credit for the rains. Gwen, offering wordless, useless, ignorant help. I don't need you. Merlin, forever judging her. Why couldn't she just be a submissive little sorcerer like he was?
“I stand up for what I believe in,” she spat, eyes still closed.
Morgause advanced on her. She did not speak, but her eyes accused her. Do you? they said. Do you really? You're slow, slow to act and slow to thought. Camelot – the Pendragons – they've done nothing but lie to you and hurt you, laugh at you, even, and still you were reluctant to do anything. 'Let's not kill the king just yet; let's send him mad!' Your plans were so unsuccessful, sister, that one might think you weren't even trying.
“You're my family. My only family. I tried – I succeeded. We ruled together,” Morgana protested, backing away from a vision before her that was suddenly all too real.
Morgause's lips didn't move, but Morgana heard her voice clear as a shriek. And look at us now, sister. Dying together.
She vanished in a whirl of green fabric and smoke, leaving Morgana with a pale, emaciated version of Morgause lying on the floor. She had to do something. This would be a sorry end indeed to Morgana and Morgause: magical revolutionaries.
“Think of the ballads,” she snorted.
High pitched, feverish laughter rang round the cave, rebounding back at her louder and louder. She tapped her fingers on her knees, and rocked forwards on her haunches until her face was directly above her sister's. Morgana was actively trying to stay awake, and yet it was Morgause who looked as though she had not slept in days.
“This is not a natural sleep,” she informed Morgause's skull solemnly. She couldn't control much of her magic – any, really – but it had started in her dreams, with prophetic visions. Now she was having these dreams with Uther, and she always ended up in his head, no matter when she slept, so either her mind was slowly rotting, feeding her recurring dreams, or he was in some sort of magical coma too.
If I can enter my father's dreams, I can enter my sister's. Morgana eased herself onto the ground, and wrapped herself around Morgause's bones. She thought of collecting berries with the druids, of the first time she repeated an incantation and it worked, of the first time Morgause had brushed her hair for her. Sister, she thought. Sister, sister, sister.
Morgana wasn't sure which piece of scenery she was more sick of: the cave overlooking the rapidly-filling valleys, or the black soils and blue skies of Conorgia.
She didn't even bother calling for Morgause; she'd appeared nose-to-nose with Uther Pendragon. He entreated her to listen, but she sneered up at him and stalked off towards the horizon. The nearest boulder was a hundred feet or so away, and when she reached it she immediately began searching the soil around it.
It didn't take long. The large variations between temperature in the morning and the night caused the rocks to flex as moisture froze, expanded, and cracked them into fragments. Some of the boulders, the ones with ribbons of colour running through them, had entire shelves broken off, and she suspected that it was something to do with the layers. This rock had shed small mountains of shards, and she bent to pick up a particularly long one.
“No, wait!” Uther was staggering along behind her, again. “Don't do it! Please, stop killing yourself!”
Under the ribs, up through the lungs, or directly into the heart? She knew that convincing Uther to allow a girl to receive weapons training would turn out to be useful. Morgana pulled back the stake, and turned so her father could see her plunge it into her body.
When she awoke, all she could see was blue. It was calming, for a second, until she remembered that in the real world she couldn't remember the last time there'd been a blue sky. Her breath caught in her throat, and she pushed the fingers of her right hand into the soil, slowly.
She was still in Conorgia. Trapped.
“You didn't vanish,” said Uther, and she turned her head, wildly trying to seek him out. He was sitting behind her, too close, holding a dripping scrap of cloth. Though they were in the shadow of the boulder, where she'd stuck the improvised dagger into her heart, things had changed. A pool of water had appeared beside them, and Morgana's head had been resting on what seemed to be the remnants of Uther's shirt, pillowed-up.
Morgana paused midway through her scrambling escape, and Uther followed her gaze.
“You can control it, if you stay here long enough.” He raised a hand, and a flower began to sprout from the soil in front of her. A snowdrop.
A hollow feeling filled her, like someone had scooped out her chest, and her fingers crept to where her wound had been. Her skin was unbroken, but her rags were stained a muddy brown.
“So that's what you dream about, then? Doing magic?”
Morgana sank back to the ground, and wasn't sure whether she wanted to laugh or cry, since dying apparently wasn't an option. Uther picked the snowdrop and held it out for her, and it was as familiar as all the other times he'd done it. The same way he held the flower, stem pinched between the forefinger and thumb of his right hand. The same half-smile on his face.
“It's not my birthday,” she said, and he laid it on the ground.
The rains stopped in the early hours of the morning, and woke everyone up. Leon could only compare the feeling to when the dragon had stopped roaring and started breathing in, slow and deliberate, instead. For the rain to have stopped, something extremely powerful must have intervened, and power went hand in hand with danger. Gaius had said even a man of his power couldn't stop the rains, and Leon worried about what had.
He peered out of his window, and watched the candles being lit all over the citadel.
The customers of the night all paused their drinking, singing, fucking. For the first time in weeks, silence reigned. A few minutes passed like that, with Leon sticking his arm out into the still, early dawn air, and tavern-goers assembled in the streets. Someone whooped happily, and the moment was gone. A group of drunkards started attempting to compose a sonnet for the occasion. There wasn't a bard between them, but they were enthusiastic enough not to care about things like rhythm or rhyme. People who moments ago had been asleep stepped outside in their nightclothes, hands raised to the heavens as though they expected the rain to start falling again any second.
Leon was worried, he was. But, with half the town partying below him, he couldn't help but let out a shout of joy himself. It was finally, finally dry.
Later, Leon found out that Merlin had collapsed during the night, and that it was an hour after that that the rains had stopped. Guilt stabbed at him. Not only had he cheered the end of the rain, but he'd actually pleaded that Gaius do something.
He, Sir Leon, was responsible for this. He was responsible for what Gaius had done to Merlin. He had to fix this; he couldn't let a sorcerer (no matter how well-intentioned) use the life force of innocent, bumbling manservants to change the world. First it was Merlin, but who knew where the old man would stop?
Perhaps, mused Leon, that was how he stayed immortal. Leon couldn't remember Gaius looking any younger than he did now; he looked forever old, but was probably ancient, older than the old religion itself. He couldn't go to Arthur. The Prince would never believe that Gaius, such a trusted member of the royal servants, could have magic, let alone be so powerful.
He went for a walk in the morning sunshine, and his feet took him to the forge.
Gwen was there, and was beating her carpets against the wall. Enveloped in a puff of dust, Leon doubled over and tried not to hack up a lung.
“Hi, Leon,” she said, smiling. “Isn't it wonderful? I know it's still a sea out there, but the floods'll melt away, I'm sure of it.”
The words “Merlin is dying” caught in his throat, along with what was possibly a hairball, and instead he forced a grin. “Back to normal, then?”
“As much as possible. Of course, it's no maidservant for me now that … well,” She bundled up the carpet and tossed it inside. “but I'm going to make new swords for all the knights, try to stamp my authority on things. Simeon from Altrecia was thinking about setting up shop here – his village is under water right now, and a city's more lucrative for a blacksmith, you know, not just horseshoes and nails – so I need to stay one step ahead.”
Rumours had been flying around that Gwen had been rejected by Prince Arthur. He'd heard one particular group of linen-carriers say that he'd swapped her for the daughter of Baroness Blanche, which he doubted, not least because it was the worst-kept secret in court that Catherine Blanche preferred her own maidservant to any of the men in the castle.
Leon studied Gwen for a few seconds, wordlessly following her as she invited him in. She didn't look particularly rejected. He'd known her since they were little, and when her brother left had become an expert at cheering her up. There were none of the usual tells: she wasn't flustered; she didn't avoid his gaze; and most of all there was no let-up to her chatter. Gwen, he concluded, with no small amount of bemusement, was utterly fine.
It was a shame to have to break the news about Merlin and spoil her day.
“I know what stopped the rains.”
Her head snapped to him. Her expression was all but inscrutable, though Leon thought he detected a flash of worry in her features.
“It was Gaius.” She opened her mouth, but Leon held up a hand. “Hear me out. Did you ever wonder how Camelot defeated the drought, or Cedric? Did you ever wonder how I survived unscathed after being roasted by a dragon, by the Great Dragon? Gaius is the only explanation.”
“I -” Gwen's jaw worked.
“I know,” he said. “I was shocked too, when I first realised.”
“I – uh, it – it makes sense,” she said, eventually.
“Yeah, but listen. Mordred is exhausted, and we all thought it was from the lack of food, and from the journey from the Old Mounds, but it's worse than that. Gaius is using Mordred's energy to stop the rain.”
Gwen frowned. “You don't –”
“It seems far fetched, I know, but listen: Merlin couldn't be woken this morning, and his heart's hardly beating. Gaius is using the life force of innocent people to change the weather.”
“You're wrong,” said Gwen, standing from across the table. The certainty in her voice threw him. It wasn't just a denial, but a statement, and the ease with which she said it knocked him off balance. “I need to go.”
She reached for her sheepskin hood before remembering the weather and leaving it on the hook by the door. She turned and spared Leon, who was utterly lost, a smile.
“It must be something else,” she said. “Gaius wouldn't – he couldn't – do that. I need to see Merlin.”
The door shut behind her with a bang. Poor Gwen, he thought. Always willing to see the best in people. Always disappointed. First Morgana, then Arthur, and now the court physician.
Leon wasn't one for spying, and he wasn't much of a fan of subtlety either. He was a knight, and knights fight. Despite that, threatening an old man with violence wasn't something he thought he could get behind, even if the man was an immortal and super-charged sorcerer. That left him with persuasion.
He tried to run through some openers, but he wasn't much of a strategist either.
Thank the gods he could fight, or he'd be just another brainless baron.
“Can I see Merlin?” he heard Gwen's voice ask, just before he rounded the corner.
“He's been moved to Mordred's room.”
“Sir Leon –” there was a pause, and when she spoke again her voice was far quieter. “Sir Leon thinks you've done this. That you're a sorcerer.”
“A sorcerer?” said Gaius, equally quietly. “That's ridiculous: a sorcerer would be mad to come into court.”
Or a genius. It's the last place they'd look.
“I know it's not you,” Gwen said. “It's Merlin, and he's close to killed himself stopping the rain. May I come in?”
“Hi, Lance. Enjoying the sun?”
Not much of an opener, but Lancelot smiled and patted the haybale. Leon took a seat beside him and examined his surroundings. The stables had been freshly cleaned, and the horses were frisky, eager to get out into the sun. The bright afternoon light filtered through the specks of dust and hay floating in the air, but Leon could take no pleasure in the warmth.
“Gwen tells me she's starting up the forge again,” he said.
“Yes. You don't look too surprised – did she mention it to you?”
Lancelot scratched the back of his neck. “We don't – we haven't really, er, spoken, much. Not since … not since I came back.”
What Sir Leon did next went against every instinct in his body. He knew how much Arthur cared for Gwen – he'd seen the way he kissed her after his return. He also knew that Lancelot had saved her from the Wilderen, that she'd been complicit in trying to make him a knight the first time he'd come to Camelot. The morning alone had demonstrated that he was likely to put one and one together to make five, but even he knew that was one situation he should stay out of.
But hell, Leon was never going to stop jumping to conclusions. He'd been half right, sort of. And he remembered the first time Lancelot had been here – he'd killed a griffin, for crying out loud. A griffin that Camelot's best knights couldn't touch. Lancelot was good, in drill, but he wasn't that good.
“Not speaking, eh? What have you been doing?”
Gwaine could have carried that off, he thought ruefully. As it was, Lancelot just stared at him.
“I mean, you and her – aren't you, you know—”
Leon waved his hands in the air in a vague sort of way.
“Look at the time!” Lancelot gestured to the shafts of sunlight and started to stumble his way out. “I have to go and, uh, do a thing, now, so …”
“So, Merlin's a sorcerer.”
Lancelot's forced laugh was a fraction of a second too late. Feint with a cross, then shove with the shield; it was easy,when he thought about it like that. This was one of Gwaine's tricks: he had a habit of eliciting the truth from others by dragging the conversation in an uncomfortable or confusing direction before springing a statement on them and watching for their reaction. He'd been caught out by it himself, a few times ('So, let's say the swan is carrying a dagger in its beak as it advances, right, and – oh, by the way, did you tup Mandy last night?' 'Uh, what? I – no! Mandy stokes my fire, that's all!' 'Oh, I'd wager she did stoke your fire, Leon').
“You knew,” Leon said.
“What? No, I didn't know – I mean, Merlin's not a sorcerer. That's a treasonous accusation.”
“I'm not accusing anyone,” said Sir Leon, standing so he was at eye level with the other knight. “You know, Gwen knows, and I'd wager Gaius knows too. Who else, Lance? Because we need to find some way of bringing Merlin back from his trance or whatever, before he kills himself trying to keep Camelot sunny.”
Lancelot opened his mouth, decided that whatever he was about to say was pointless, and shook his head. “Gwen doesn't know.”
“She does now.”
“She does? She can't have been happy when she found out he hadn't told her.” Leon would bet his last gold piece that, even though by all accounts they hadn't exchanged many words, there'd be a conversation between the two soon about Merlin. “Hm. Prince Arthur still doesn't know, though. He'd probably not kill Merlin, but he'd definitely kill someone if he found out.”
“Especially after Morgana.” A horse whickered, and Leon realised they'd been whispering. “He saved me, you know.” Lancelot's frown, present since the beginning of their conversation, deepened considerably. “From the dragon. I had a full blast of fire – can't have been much more than charred meat and bones – but I woke up a week later right as, well, right as rain.”
“He is powerful.” Lancelot tilted his head. “We need to speak to Guinivere and Gaius. Together.”
Never again, thought Merlin, will I try to master a whole field of magic in a day.
Scrying wasn't even that useful, anyway. All he'd got was a fuzzy picture of Morgana and her dead sister. The fact that Morgana had been attempting to drip water between Morgause's frozen lips did not bode well for her sanity. In this case, the benefit of knowing Morgana was alive was all but outweighed by the burden: he appeared to be in some sort of magical coma.
So much for 'you're the most powerful sorcerer ever, Merlin', and 'you have great power, Merlin'. He could hear the dragon's taunts in his head: "it is not wise to run before one can crawl, young warlock". Okay, maybe he shouldn't have started scrying at the end of a long day of chores, a day that he'd started hungover, but he'd thought having a nap under some bloodhounds would have refreshed him.
Perhaps he was ill; he'd been tired all week. He'd hardly noticed, as the rain had disturbed his sleep since it began.
At least in this place it wasn't raining.
He appeared to have had the good sense to dream up somewhere warm. Merlin sat up and yanked off his neckerchief, using it to wipe his face. There was no wind, and the sun was fat and low in the cloudless sky. His skin felt prickly and sore, as though it was being roasted over fire.
He stood, as though the difference in height would allow him to see further into the distance, as though that would help him locate a scrap of shade. It was no use: all the shadows, even those under the massive boulders peppering the landscape, had been burned away by the sun, and Merlin felt a twinge of unease. If this was the temperature when the sun was disappearing, what would the heat be like when it was at its zenith?
One of the advantages of being a scrawny, weak youth – especially one whose mother believed he needed hiding from the outside world – was a lot of free time. For Merlin, unlike most peasants, that meant time to read; Hunith was a literate peasant, and would be damned if she didn't bring her son up the same. The place he was in now looked like somewhere the Romans had conquered – Alexandria, maybe. He'd give anything to dive into an Egyptian river right now, alligators or not.
Merlin sat there for a few minutes, marinating gently in his own sweat (he half expected to be sizzling) before he remembered that everyone, magic or otherwise, could conjure things in dreams. He shifted around in the sand until he was comfortable under the oak tree, and took a sip of his iced water. He should exhaust his magical resources more often.
It was cold at night, though. The sand itched where he lay, rubbing away at his exposed skin to leave him red and raw. His throat was parched. Still, Merlin was used to scratchy bedding and cold drafts.
He conjured some blankets and settled down, placing one underneath him to try and separate himself from the sand, though by that point it was a futile exercise.
For the first few hours, his mind had been racing: he knew not to exaggerate his importance in Arthur's decision-making process, but Merlin was sure that if this coma lasted too long, and the rain continued indefinitely, Arthur would be driven to desperate choices. Merlin needed to heal, and fast. He needed to fight the nymphs and stop the rain before all of Albion was drowned, Arthur's reaction be damned.
Despite his dire situation, despite everything, Merlin found himself drifting off. He wondered absently if it was possible to fall asleep whilst asleep – was it possible to have a dream within a dream? - when the lights started.
They were dim and distant at first, mere smudges in the sky, but they soon dominated his vision. Mostly green and blue, they swirled and undulated with increasing speed, not unlike the winter lights that Merlin used to gaze at from the mountains of Ealdor. However, the similarities ended there; these lights grew ever closer, washing nearer to him each time the centre of the sky pulsed silently. They moved faster and faster, and Merlin couldn't blink or look away. Colours Merlin had never seen before began to flicker in the sea of light, growing brighter and more terrifying by the second.
He took a deep breath, and the lights crashed down on him like a wave.
When he came to, Merlin found himself somewhere completely different. Somewhere where the soil was black and the leaves were blue. Where there were hardly any trees. Where the air was moist and warm. And where rivers carved the earth like twine wrapped around meat.
Merlin didn't know his imagination could be so bleak. He felt exposed on the flat plains, but he curled up to sleep anyway. He was shattered, even though he was dreaming, which he thought was rather unfair. He screwed up his eyes and tried to think, but he couldn't muster the energy to sit back up. This tiredness – this utter draining of energy – was the same marrow-deep drain that had washed over him when he was awake. It wasn't natural.
He wasn't in a coma because he tried to spy on Morgana. He had conquered entire disciplines of magic before now, without any knowledge of theory or incantations. To lose consciousness now, when Mordred was rarely waking even though to Merlin's knowledge he hadn't used magic once since he'd been saved, when the Dragon hadn't answered his last call … it wasn't coincidence.
Merlin's world had come under magical attack, and there was no one magical there to defend it.
He lost his struggle against sleep, and made it two hours into his nap before Morgana's voice rent the air.
Mordred was a boy. Yes, he was a highly powerful druid boy with a terrible destiny, but even so, he had only lived eleven years of that destiny. From druid group to druid group, he'd been passed around like a disease. And, like a disease, it was all-too likely that he'd kill the people with whom he was brought into contact. He'd killed instinctively, and he'd been brought into contact with Emrys and Kilgarrah accidentally, at first. Sometimes, Mordred thought that he was less a person and more a nebula of magic held together with skin and sinew.
When his own magic was so unstable, he supposed it was inevitable that he'd end up in some fairly unbelievable situations. The time he'd turned the camp into a beach; the apple harvest incident; and the rains. Although he didn't think that the rains were anything to do with him, no doubt he'd be proved wrong at some point.
He could feel his skin start to blister.
Mordred wrapped his magic around his body, trying to think of it as armour. The pain lessened, but the heat was still oppressive and unrelenting, as though he'd been pushed into a kiln. Every breath burned his lungs. Soon his skin would start to bubble and burst – or would it crack and peel? Mordred had never seen a burning before. Either way, soon he'd be a blackened, dusty husk.
But this was no ordinary execution. He was bathed in flames and could see nothing through the wall of fire. Sweat rolled down his nose and dropped onto the ground before him: there was no ground. Mordred was standing on red coals, and they were eating into his feet like rot into fruit. Bone shone through at his ankle with a sinister glint. He tried to force his magic through his veins, down to his soles, but all he could do was slow the decay.
But for the pain, Mordred would say he was dreaming.
Darkness. Fire. His burning flesh. Nothing about the situation screamed 'reality'.
Mordred was damned if he would wait around to see if death here meant death in real life. He steeled himself – you have a destiny, Mordred; you can't die now – and gathered his magic to his core, stretching it out to search for life, any life.
He was expecting the pain that came from abandoning his efforts to save his skin. What he wasn't expecting, though, was the rush of blood to the head. Mordred swayed and all but fell into the flames. He would have tumbled, were it not for a cool wind pushing him back onto the remnants of his feet.
“Hello, Mordred,” said the girl. “I've heard great things about you.”
Her large mouth stretched into a smile, and if Mordred had been able to move he would have recoiled. He focused his energy on numbing the pain, but every muscle was strained and tired. Every breath was an effort, and speech was almost impossible.
“Y'have me … at a disadvantage.”
The girl laughed delightedly, stepping through the flames so that Mordred could see more than just her smiling face.
“My name is Caliadne, and you have a chance to be part of a new world order. Our new world order, built on the pillars of the Four.”
From what Mordred understood, the more powerful the sorcerer, the more a person's magic was linked to their emotions. Mordred was little more than a boy, still, though a very magical one, and so the slightest spark of anger usually caused something to break. With those words, though, Caliadne had broken a dam. Magical energy – more than he'd ever felt before, even in the presence of Emrys – suffused him, and he felt it crackling at his fingertips, dying to be let loose on this woman.
“No thank you,” he gritted out, not from pain but restraint. The girl, who was a head or so taller than him, frowned falsely, as if he were a petulant toddler to be placated. As if he were a child.
“Do you know,” he said, “just how many people have tried to recruit me for their destinies? The first I knew of it was when Nimueh whisked me away at the age of four. She abducted me from my family and took me to the Isle of the Blessed so that she could raise me in her art. The druids stole me back, and that's when I learned that people have had plans for me since before I was born. And then there was Merlin, who kept on trying to save me, to turn me into a pushover with no loyalty to his own kind. Morgana, who wanted me as her pet, or son, or both. The dragon that wants me dead so the predictions favourable to him come to pass.”
“I'm not a person,” said Caliadne, but she looked a lot less certain than she had just moments before.
“Well, I am,” said Mordred. He sent magic spiralling out of every pore, golden and dazzling. The flames guttered and disappeared. The woman's hair fell in clumps. A violent wind tore at him as he made his way to consciousness, the screams of the burning girl ringing in his ears.
When he woke up he found himself demoted to a chaise longue near his former bed, on which Merlin now lay, pasty and shallow-breathing. Emrys must, he thought, be trapped somewhere equally horrific. Something like what he'd experienced must be happening to everyone with magic, some affected more than others.
The silence hit him like a rock. No rain.
He extended his feelers, knowing that it would cost him later if not immediately. As in his dream, he searched for a spark, for the slightest glimmer of magic. He felt for Morgana's distinctive tangled print, but could not find it; he could no longer feel it in the mountains to the north-east, even though Morgause's was still there, unchanged. Morgause's print – a tarnished gold cloud – must be held in place by something, probably by Morgana, assuming she was alive, but even as Mordred observed it her lustre dimmed.
There would be no help from the lady who had saved him before, then. No help from his only friend in Camelot.
Mordred snapped back his senses, and picked Gaius out from the hum of low-level magic in the citadel.
Gaius' presence flared with a blue burst Mordred could only assume is shock. The voice that he heard in reply is faint and tinny, so Mordred amplified it. It was lucky he was already lying down; otherwise the effort would have floored him.
“Mordred? I had heard … you looked all but dead, when I was last--”
“I don't care.” Quite frankly, he marvelled at the man's stupidity. If Gaius was talking to Mordred, then he was clearly alive. “Tell me what's happening.”
“I – er—” A pause, during which Mordred had to restrain himself from a nasty comment along the lines of 'how many thoughts do you have to gather, anyway?'.
Eventually, Gaius spoke:
“My magical talents are limited, and I use them sparingly. Despite that, even I can feel it being drained. I tried to lift the Sanguine Grimoire by magic, on a hunch, and now I'm sure: Morgana, Merlin, the Dragon – their magic is innate. It is so tied up in what and who they are, whether it be by design or lack of training, that if their magic is sapped so are they.”
Perhaps Morgana is dead.
“You too, but you are young. Your magic is still growing, still unformed, and I think it can to some extent evade the naiads. Regenerate, partly.”
Mordred would rather have been told he were immeasurably strong.
“Naiads? I think – no, I'm sure – one came to me when I was asleep. She – it – tried to get me to join them. I refused.”
Mordred supposed he should feel insulted at Gaius' surprised silence. Instead, he began to wonder why exactly he did refuse them. Albion had brought him nothing but pain, and he wanted to save it? Sometimes, Mordred wanted nothing more than to watch the world drown. She had given him that opportunity, and he had turned it down.
Perhaps if she'd said please. Perhaps if she hadn't talked about 'great plans' and fate, and other things that sounded special but meant imprisonment.
“Don't use your magic, boy,” said Gaius gruffly. “We don't want you dying.”
This didn't reassure Mordred much, and so in defence he refused to believe the old man. Gaius said something about variables and risk, but Prince Arthur walked in and Mordred cut off their connection.
Mordred doubted Arthur would have noticed if he was riding a unicorn around his side of the room; the man's attention was focused solely on Emrys. He sank into a leather chair to Merlin's left, and Mordred was struck by the realisation that Arthur had probably come in like this many times when he was asleep.
As Mordred watched, Arthur smoothed down Merlin's pillow. Even from a distance, it was easy to see that his hands were shaking.
The amount of concern in his eyes – not to mention the lost look he had, like someone had stolen his puppy – was quite frankly disgusting. Mordred's stomach turned; he had to make it stop.
“Why is Merlin in my room? If the rain has stopped, can't people start going back to their villages and freeing up rooms?”
Arthur looked at him, but appeared too exhausted to express surprise that he was awake. There were dark smudges under his eyes, and his hair was sticking out everywhere.
“The rain has stopped, but the water hasn't drained, not even a little.”
Well, that was ominous.
“It's not natural,” Arthur added.
Mordred considered a number of responses: “If you haven't worked that out by now, you're never going to make a good king. Sire.”; “Magic is natural”; “Why is he in my room, though?”.
“It's the naiads,” he ended up saying.
“That's what Gaius – how do you—”
“Druid know-how,” he said. “I'd all but forgotten. Came to me in a dream.”
“Did they stop the rain? Most people – even the knights – seem to think a benevolent sorcerer did it.”
Arthur's hands tightened on Merlin's sheets. Emrys looked close to death: of all the magical people Mordred knew, he was the most likely to try something so abominably stupid. And the most likely to succeed. Still…
“I doubt it,” he said. “Magic is being drained from sorcerers and sorceresses all over Albion. From what I know of nymphs, I mean, that'll be what's happening. Sorcerers will be too busy trying to save their own skins to sacrifice themselves for a world that has largely rejected them.”
Arthur looked at him sharply. “Sacrifice themselves?”
“If any sorcerers even realise what's happening, that is. Everyone's heard stories of rains like these in the past. Most won't connect the rains – or the floods – with them feeling a little poorly.”
“Tell me everything you know about naiads,” said Arthur. He leaned back in his chair, but his gaze was no less intense.
“I don't know much – just that they're elemental creatures,” Mordred guessed. In truth, he knew nothing at all about naiads, bar the fact they were sometimes referred to as nymphs. Druids hadn't spent nearly as much time educating him as they'd spent protecting him, and all they ever wanted to talk about was his destiny. “They're fairly powerful, but their main talent is that they can steal the energy of others. Magical energy.”
Arthur exhaled loudly. “Nothing new there,” he said.
Mordred felt absurdly disappointed. For some reason, he wanted to prove himself useful – worth more than a few parchment words written centuries before he was born. Part of him protested that he could be useful without helping the son of a genocidal maniac, but he silenced it. Mordred wasn't helping Arthur; they just had a common interest in the survival of humanity.
“I don't know what they plan on doing next: they could leave us at the mercy of starvation and disease, or they could massacre us.”
“Thank you for that ray of sunshine, Mordred.”
He sat up, ignoring the spinning sensation in his head. “What's wrong with Merlin?” he asked, while he gathered his thoughts.
“He--” That lost look was back in Arthur's eyes. “He fell asleep and won't wake up. Gaius thinks it could be an abnormality in the brain.”
“Ah,” said Mordred.
It was quick thinking on the physician's part; he'd give him that. Either way, Emrys would probably die, leaving another destiny unfulfilled. Even so, something about the lie jarred with him. In a couple of days, at most, Merlin would be dead. He was as much of a magical being as the dragon; when his magic was gone, there wouldn't be anything left. Merlin would die unrecognised and unknown.
Although Emrys was a traitor to his own kind, although he'd spent years protecting the very people who ordered executions of healers and hedgewitches, Mordred felt a jab of pity for him.
He was brought back to the present by Arthur standing up, nearly sending the chair flying.
“Can you do something? Can you heal him? With magic, I mean – can you …”
Mordred shook his head and wished he could say yes. Even if it had been a physical problem, he didn't know if he could solve it. His magic use was instinctive, unbound by incantations but also untrained and imprecise. Mordred would have as much chance of causing a brain abnormality than fixing one. As it was, spending magic on Merlin would only leave him drained.
The best he could do, if he did want to save him (he told himself that he was still in debt to Emrys, that it had nothing to do with making Arthur Pendragon feel better, because if it did he'd be just as traitorous as Merlin himself) was to defeat the nymphs and stop the drain. And for that, he'd need Gaius.
Gaius, who rushed through the door like a man of twenty, a sack of books over one shoulder. In the chaos that followed – the wheezing and the panting, the clatter of books to the ground – it was easy for Mordred to pretend he hadn't noticed Arthur scrubbing at his eyes with his sleeve.
“The degree of starvation – his magical drain – I thought Mordred would awaken today.”
Arthur frowned but said nothing.
“I have a number of ideas,” said Gaius, in between deep breaths. “Healing draughts and poultices. You remember when Morgana fell.”
Arthur didn't even start at her name. “Yes, that's right,” he said, standing. He smoothed down the sheets he'd been twisting between his fingers, and pushed back his chair, turning back to Merlin and away, then back. “You remember what I said: Merlin is your top priority. There are healers aplenty in the Upper and Lower Towns, both legal and otherwise. My people are adequately protected without your help, so your every effort must be to save Merlin's life. Do I make myself clear?”
Privately, Mordred thought that Prince Arthur – king in all but name – would do a better job at the whole 'commanding leader' thing if his voice didn't keep cracking all the time. He was prevented from pointing this out by Morgana's maidservant, or whatever she was now, rushing in to the room.
“If I've told you once I've told you a thousand times, Arthur: it's Gwen.”
“This isn't really—” Arthur gestured to his surroundings. “It isn't a great time.”
“I can't believe you,” she said. “You think I'm here to wail that you've been avoiding me? To insist you give me jewels or lavish attention on me?”
Guinivere – Gwen – shook her head.
“I don't know why he puts up with you. Whatever we are to each other, whatever happens when the floods are gone, you should remember that whenever you're not here I am, sitting beside him and hoping he'll wake up. Merlin's my friend too.”
“I know,” said Arthur, looking humbled.
Of course, Mordred was above the social circles of magic-haters and their servants, but he'd admit he was a little intrigued. By his reckoning, Gwen was a former flame who had been snubbed by Arthur when his time had come to lead. An affair with a commoner: interesting.
“I'm here because Geoffrey of Monmouth sent me. He says it's urgent.”
The plot thickens. Mordred could feel his brows lowering as he studied the woman. Gwen might be many things, but she was not a good liar. Even Arthur, who'd kept the most powerful sorcerer alive as a manservant for years without suspecting a thing, noticed the act. Again, he said nothing, simply cocking his head to the side and studying her for a moment before he followed her out of the room.
Gaius waited until the door had thudded closed behind them before he hefted the bag of books over to Mordred's chaise lounge.
“There is only one way,” he said. “And you're not going to like it.”
“You have energy that can evade the naiads,” Gaius said, before Mordred could even ask, “partly because you're so powerful, partly because you're so young – you're still growing. Perhaps you have a natural resistance to control.”
Mordred liked the sound of that, but remained uneasy.
“There's no one else in your position, with your power. Right now, you're the most powerful sorcerer alive.”
“Flattery gets you nowhere, traitor,” he said, but his heart wasn't really in it. Mordred wanted to defeat the nymphs, and the idea of being the one with the power to do that was especially enticing when he considered that he had control over how it could be done. He was the weaver at Camelot's loom, and he could cut whatever threads he wished to on a whim.
“You need to give your power to Merlin," said Gaius, ignoring the frown which settled over Mordred's face like a cloud. "You're an extraordinarily powerful young sorcerer, but Merlin is almost completely magic. It's so … innate, with him. We don't have time for theory, but there are two types of magic in the world: magic of the soul, like in you and I and every other sorcerer and sorceress, and magic of the body, like a dragon or a sidhe or a goblin. Merlin appears to have both.”
Mordred didn't care about all the things Merlin had.
“You aren't seriously expecting me to give my power to Merlin? He's Emrys! That man there is my destined foe, and I'm supposed to destroy everything he cares about and everything he loves.”
Gaius leaned forward, looming over him like a disapproving mop.
“You must,” he said. Mordred bristled. “You must wake him. If you wake him up, if you bring his mind back to his body, Merlin can use the magic stored in his bones to complete the banishing ritual. The magic in his body, never mind his soul, is far greater than the depleted energy of druids and low-grade healers all over the land. We need Merlin – we need you.”
“So I wake him up. I use up the little magic I have left to help him. Maybe I can shield him from the nymphs long enough for him to get a coven together and defeat the lot of them. What's to stop him from simply letting me die?”
“I wouldn't worry about that. Merlin has a talent for saving people he shouldn't.”
Mordred wasn't sure if it was Gaius' words or the memory of Arthur Pendragon's tears that made him reach for the guttering flame of magic inside him and extend it towards Merlin's sleeping form.
Morgana's voice was usually a gentle, melodic thing, even when she was shouting at Uther. Even when she was commanding an army of the undead. When it woke Merlin up, however, it was a ragged, broken yell.
"You don't! You never did! Why else would you forsake me? Why else would you refuse to acknowledge me? Even if you had I'd be ashamed to be your daughter!"
Something about the words – or perhaps the way they were screamed – spoke of familiarity, as though even this fake version of Morgana was growing tired of Merlin's guilt-ridden dreams. Merlin pulled himself into a sitting position, and was surprised to see Uther facing off against her in the distance: surely Merlin hadn't wronged him as well?
A gust of wind buffeted him, nearly knocking him over. Its strength awoke Merlin to the fact that he was – well, that he was awake: he could think properly; he had control of his muscles; he could feel the heat of whatever strange land he was in. This was no ordinary dream.
If this isn't a proper dream, he thought, and the nymphs have drained Morgana too, then this could be very bad news indeed.
Uther was backed up against the weather-worn side of the boulder upon which Merlin had woken, and Morgana advanced upon him with her filthy hands raised like claws.
"Ah, hello," said Morgana, lowering her hands and extending one to Uther, who'd shrunk into a crouch on the ground. "The traitor awakes. Come, father. Emrys and I have much to discuss."
Merlin blinked, and Morgana loomed above him. He quailed away, but she didn't attack him, choosing instead to smooth her torn skirts and sit opposite him.
"Hurry up, father!" she shouted to the ground. "Torturing warlocks is your speciality, after all!"
"I'll have no part in it!" the king called, "You've grown up so much like your dear old dad that I'm sure you can handle it yourself. Back in the days of the Purge I used to kill six impossible things before breakfast; can you—"
Morgana gave Merlin tight-lipped, apologetic smile, and inclined her head his way.
"Do excuse me," she said, before leaning over the edge of the rock – so far she nearly toppled off – and screaming at Uther. "Get up here, father, or I swear by the gods that the next time I kill you will be the slowest, most painful—"
There was a slow, sickening creak-crunch of splintered bone as Uther appeared, standing directly on top of Merlin's ankle. The pain was intense, but through it Merlin heard Uther say, "Ah, sorry about that," step off his injured leg, and heal it with a wave of his hand.
"I know," said Morgana, reaching over and patting his knee, a sympathetic expression on her face. "This place is full of surprises. Speaking of which, Merlin, you sly dog! When were you going to mention your world-ending magical powers? Or did they simply slip your mind?"
"Mordred told me," she said. The too-bright smiles were cracking at the edges, and she looked half-ready to kill him right then and there. "Emrys, hmm? It's got a ring to it, I must admit. And you have quite a life ahead of you, if the prophecies are to be believed. Uther takes the kingdom, I break it, and you remake it. Only it's not all like they said it would be, you know," she continued, tone conversational. "Mordred was supposed to be our child: can you imagine? Gwen was supposed to be a princess, not my servant, and she certainly wasn't supposed to be my friend."
"Morgana, I'm sorry I never told you, but I have to get out of here. It's important. Camelot is in danger, and I'm the only one who—"
"There you go again," said Morgana, baring her teeth. Uther's head snapped from Merlin to Morgana, hands fidgeting in his lap. He looked twitchy, like an animal ready to run. "Is your destiny so important that we can barely carry on a conversation? Honestly, Merlin, you're a guest in my home. Have some manners."
"It was my home first," said Uther, his voice little more than a whisper. Morgana slapped his face and watched him reel backwards.
"And it's my home now," she spat. "Anyway, Merlin – sorry for the interruption – I have a few questions for you, after which you can focus all your attention on returning to your precious Camelot, not that it'll do you any good."
Merlin scrambled away from her.
"I should have talked to you," he said. "My heart said I could stop you, but the prophecies said otherwise. I didn't have faith in you, Morgana, and I didn't trust you. I'm sorry."
Her expression did not change, and she made no move to stop him as he made his way to the edge of the boulder.
"Everything I did, I did for Camelot," he said, "and I need to get back to it. The rains, they were from naiads – nymphs – and they will destroy all five kingdoms unless I do something."
"For Camelot?" Morgana echoed. "Everything you did, you did to protect Camelot – to protect people like Uther and their legacies of death and oppression. Are you proud of that, Merlin?"
Merlin wanted to argue with her. He wanted to point out that Arthur was a good man, and that Merlin had to help him become an even better king. He wanted to remind Morgana of the horrors she'd committed in pursuit of power, and the ones Merlin had helped prevent. There was no time for that, though; he had a kingdom to save.
"I'm proud of who I am," he said, and jumped.
When he woke up, Uther was tied to a tree, staring at him with an unreadable look in his eyes. The remnants of his clothes, which were made from dark brown burlap, bunched together in stiff folds around the rope, swamping his skeletal frame. Morgana sat to his right, a shard of stone in her hand.
"Dying means nothing here," she said, "but pain has a place anywhere."
Merlin moistened cracked lips with his tongue, and gestured to Uther.
"Won't he want to join in the fun?"
"Oh, father's become boring over the past few months. He swears he likes a clean death now; after experiencing all the pain he's inflicted on others, multiplied tenfold, I can understand why he's lost his appetite for torture."
Merlin glanced over at Uther, and his eye was once again drawn to the odd way in which his clothes wrinkled under the ropes, as though they weren't soft at all. As he studied him, he noticed the dirty grey patches on Uther's shirt that revealed its original colour.
"You're a monster," he told Morgana, who flinched.
"They've been fair fights," she said, gesturing to her own clothes, which were also cracked with blood. "Half the time, I think he's letting me win. Anyway, that's enough about us. It's time for me to pick your brain."
"Did you ever wonder why you're here?" said Merlin, making no effort to move away. No matter their powers in reality, here they were evenly matched. Here, even Uther had magical powers. "Everyone with a sliver of magic is having it drained, and you're powerful enough to have it affect you significantly. You're in a coma, and so am I, and for some reason we're trapped in Uther Pendragon's mind."
"If you're proud of who you are," said Morgana, ignoring him, "then why have you never revealed yourself to Arthur? If you're so sure he's a better man than Uther, then you have nothing to be afraid of."
"I don't have time for this. I have to get back. There's a ritual I need to complete, and it's a last-ditch attempt to save the five kingdoms from everything the naiads will throw at them. Every second you keep me here is a second closer to the deaths of everyone you used to care about."
Morgana shook her head, Merlin's words seeming to roll off her like water off a dragon's wings.
"Arthur," he said. "Gwen, Mordred, Morgause, Gaius—"
"That old fool," she said, but her fingers had tightened on her skirts.
"Stop it," said Uther. "Morgana isn't keeping you here. You said it yourself; you're trapped. You may be a powerful wizard, and you may have evaded my notice, but you're still a fool. Is Camelot truly in danger?"
No, thought Merlin, this is all an extremely hilarious jape.
His incredulity must have been clear in his expression, because Uther swallowed and continued:
"And my son? Did you place Arthur under an enchantment?"
"No," said Morgana, answering for him. "Although he hasn't told him of his magic, Merlin trusts the idiot far more than anyone's ever trusted me. Isn't that right, Merlin?"
Again, the answer must have been clear in his eyes, because her mouth twisted bitterly.
"I knew a Hunith, once," said Uther. Of all the bizarre things that had happened that day, Merlin found it hardest to believe that the king was trying to engage him in small talk. "Her husband helped me capture the last dragon. Was that Hunith – the beautiful woman who smiled at my lies – was she the haggard old crone that came to beg for my aid? Are you the son of Balinor?"
With that, Merlin saw red. The ground began to shake and crack beneath them, and the sky, which had been a deep, clear blue mere seconds before, blackened and began to rumble. The last thing he saw before he disappeared was Morgana's grasping hand reaching for his legs.
Her blood was up; she wanted to kill something, and for real this time, not the pathetic half-homicide that was all this place afforded her. She'd had him, angry and defiant, but captive, and now he was free and she was still trapped. Uther seemed more composed, as he should be; he'd merely been relieved of a predator, rather than robbed of a victim.
"Hunith is perfectly lovely," she said, to irritate him.
Morgana focused on her surroundings, and began to heal the cracks in the landscape. Above her, the clouds blurred into blue. Although this was her prison, she couldn't deny the satisfaction which suffused her; her powers in this world were extremely well-controlled. There, she thought. Everything's back to normal.
And everything was, until Uther cleared his throat and told her that he had to go back home.
"I have to go back home," he repeated. "If what Arthur's manservant said was true—"
Nothing Merlin ever said was true.
"—if he's right, then my people are in danger. I don't have magic," he said, as the ropes tying him to the tree dissolved, "not there, anyway. There might be nothing I can do, but I should at least be there."
He wanted to leave? Morgana thought she would have gotten used to feeling betrayed by now, but the shock of it was like a dagger to the chest. Granted, killing him every other day hadn't exactly created the friendliest atmosphere, but he'd seemed to appreciate it.
"You're listening to the sorcerer? To some lying little toad whose family you broke? He hates you and everything you stand for – he's just better at hiding it than I was!"
A crevasse opened up between them, and Morgana found herself teetering on its edge. She couldn't see the bottom of it, and for a second she was reminded of the time Gorlois had taken her into the woods and they'd taken turns dropping coins into the old well.
"How do you know it's not a trap?" she tried. "How do you know I didn't conjure him up to trick you?"
The crevasse widened, dragging Uther further away from her.
"I'm still sorry," he said, as the ground crumpled beneath her feet.
It was so long since she had been in weather like this that she shivered involuntarily. Morgana drew her cloaks around her, and stared into the distance for an unforgivable time before she remembered Morgause.
In the dream, or the coma, or whatever she should call it, she had needed neither nourishment nor sleep. Here, she was weak and frail, and Morgause was worse. Her sister had never been as pale as her, but now they both looked positively bloodless. Morgause had been a fighter, and now her skin was stretched tight over her bones, her muscles withered away to nothing.
The water had cut Camelot off from the rest of the world, and it was the only citadel that remained open to peasants and nobles alike. Mercia, for instance, was gone; the king and his closest men were trapped atop the one mountain in their kingdom, hoping the water ran out before their meagre supplies did. As such, Camelot was the naiads' biggest target, and their biggest threat.
Morgana blinked. They'd always told her she had an overactive imagination, and she repeated the lie to herself. Visions meant nothing, anyway; the future could always be changed.
She trailed her fingers down one of Morgause's cheekbones, which was as cold as a blade and nearly as sharp. Morgana could feel her sister's shallow breaths puffing against her palm, and found herself shocked to realise that she was still alive. Perhaps her magic wasn't entirely useless.
They tortured Mordred until his feet were charred and weeping lumps, but still he would not betray the city she'd forsaken. Their first path a dead end, the naiads regrouped, and amassed their powers like they were gathering kindling.
Merlin tried to stop them, but he was too small, too alone, too weak. He perished before he could see Arthur's chest ablaze, and flames stroking the walls of the castle into a white-hot glaze.
Morgana wondered whether the Merlin in Conorgia was real. She wondered whether Mordred had been telling the truth when he spoke to her in the cave, or indeed whether he had been any more than a fevered dream. If Merlin truly were Emrys, why had Morgana never had a vision of him saving the day? For if he were a sorcerer, the sorcerer, then it had to have been him at Ealdor, with the wind, and him who saved Arthur from Sophia, and the Court from Mary Collins' vengeance.
If Merlin had magic, and very powerful magic at that, why would he waste it saving the spawn of a Pendragon? Morgana loved Arthur – had loved Arthur – but when Merlin had first arrived in Camelot Arthur'd been nothing more than an arrogant young man with a birth-right steeped in slaughter. If Arthur had started having dreams which came true, Morgana knew that Merlin would not have let him think he was going mad. He would not have poisoned him.
There was no time for burials, and the stink of the dead formed a foul cloud over Camelot. Merlin's body was laid out atop the tower where it had fallen, despite Arthur's instructions. There was no time for mourning; those that were alive were spending their time tending to the living. Arthur himself lived for longer than anyone thought he would, but eventually he succumbed to his injuries.
The nymphs, though female themselves, underestimated the power of women. Mordred and Gaius had been targeted along with the knights of the Round Table, but Gwen had survived unscathed. Gwen had been many things: blacksmith, handmaiden, spy, princess-in-waiting, fighter, and friend. As she waited out her days, she drew on the years she'd spent holding Morgana's nightmares at bay. As she waited for the naiads to make their final move, Gwen became a queen. She gave what comfort she could and she rallied what people there remained.
She died, too.
Morgana screwed her eyes shut tight until the images disappeared, and when they had she opened them and looked at Morgause.
Innocent people, all of them. Dead.
The nymph from Mordred's ordeal, Caliadne, ran across the water that covered the kingdoms, her oversized mouth a large laughing crater in her face. She came across some corpses and used them like stepping stones.
Morgause, too, would be dead in a matter of days, and Morgana after that.
Merlin said that all he'd done, he'd done for Camelot, but to listen to him one would think they'd had the same end in sight. Even in the years before she'd learned of her powers or her parentage, Morgana had only wanted justice for Camelot's subjects. With a right to rule, she had the opportunity to protect them and to forge a better future. What's more, if there were anything she'd learned from her father it was that a king could conquer and rule. Merlin, meanwhile, had knowingly come to a kingdom that outlawed magic, and had worked for years in the service of the prince and his bigoted king. Merlin had made the choice to come to Camelot, and even if he had changed Arthur for the better he'd made no practical difference.
Law should be the great leveller, but in this world the duty fell to death and time.
Months passed, and the corpses bloated and hardened in the water. The nymphs frolicked and laughed.
Morgana told herself that she needed to go back because she could only save Morgause if the naiads were stopped. If the nymphs were stopped, she reasoned, then the kingdom would merely be vulnerable and shaken, wide open for her rule, but if they weren't then there would be no throne to steal.
In reality, though, she wasn't focused that far ahead. Merlin's words had hit home, and they sat like an anchor in her stomach. If she'd tried to take the kingdom so that she could make a new, better Camelot, one where its people weren't persecuted for their magic, then why would she be content to sit here and wait for everyone to be killed?
Gwen entered the room with a clatter, half-dragging Arthur in with her.
“Where's Geoffrey?” she asked him, eyes wide and more than a little frantic. “You know, for that really urgent thing he was talking about.”
"You know, he looked really worried. He said it was very important. Leon?"
Arthur removed his hand from hers, and placed one on her shoulder.
“Guinevere. Gwen. Why would Lord Monmouth come to you and Sir Leon, when he could come directly to me?”
Gwen expression faltered, but she rearranged it quickly.
“Lord Monmouth knows better than to interrupt—”
Arthur, apparently, did not know as well as Lord Monmouth.
“I'm not an idiot, you know,” he said. He walked to the narrow window and stared out at the water, expression inscrutable. “Gaius has enlisted your aid to remove me from the room, so that he can talk to Mordred about using magic to defeat the nymphs.”
Gwen shot Leon a look; he shrugged. This was not in the plan. In the silence, Arthur managed a weak chuckle.
“I'm more perceptive than you think,” he said.
If Sir Leon knew anything about anything, he knew that was his cue.
“Then,” he began, “you'll know that Merl—ow!”
As he fought the urge to hop about on one foot and curse, Gwen glared at him.
“And what do you think about that?” Gwen asked, walking up behind Arthur and nudging him over so that she could look out of the window as well. “Is using magic something you're prepared to allow?”
“I can't see that I have a choice,” said Arthur. “Magic is a weapon, and weapons are dangerous, but they're not evil. I've seen magic used for good before.”
Arthur rubbed a hand across his face, and, not for the first time that week, Sir Leon wondered how much sleep he'd had.
“I've only got a few minutes until Council,” he said, and made to leave. “I should probably – my father—”
“Your father is not going to wake up any time soon,” said Gwen, “and there's something I've been thinking we should talk about for a while.”
Arthur turned on his heel and gave her a look that Leon couldn't define. Whatever his expression, it made Leon want to disappear. Sir Leon had a clear idea of his relationship to Arthur: he was his knight, not his friend, and even a friend shouldn't be hovering in the background whilst Arthur got his heart broken.
“Do we really need to?”
“I'll just, uh,” said Leon, almost diving for the door, but Arthur took a step forward and effectively barred his exit.
Over Arthur's shoulder, Leon could see Gwen's expression soften.
“Look, I'd better go,” said Arthur, sighing. “It's a big meeting today. Sir Leon?” he asked, and turned towards him.
Prince Arthur was halfway down the corridor, Leon following at a respectful distance, before Gwen hurtled after them and caught up.
“Wait! Um, do I – that is, Lancelot, I—”
“You don't need my blessing, Gwen,” said Arthur, and his voice was fond.
Leon wasn't quite sure what he'd just witnessed, but he had the feeling that it wasn't any of his business anyway.
From the moment he walked into the Council meeting, Arthur changed. The tense line of his shoulders became the commanding posture of a leader. Gone was the man who'd been red around the eyes over Merlin. Gone was the man who didn't know how to defeat their seemingly all-powerful enemy. In his place was a king.
“I wish to hold an amnesty,” he said, sweeping a map of the five kingdoms from the table and crumpling it in his fists. “Your sons – my knights – cannot help us. This is not a traditional war, and I have no use for your stratagems or plots.”
Baron Stoke, who had been poring over the map before it had been torn away, straightened to his full height.
“Now is the perfect time to seize the resources of other kingdoms,” he said. “The other kingdoms are powerless, and if we act now—”
“The other kingdoms are submerged! Are you really so dim, Baron Stoke, as to prioritise territory over lives? One can as soon own a slice of ocean as trap sound in a jar,” said Arthur. Baron Stoke was a gaunt, elderly man who looked as though he had spent time on the rack. Somehow, Prince Arthur succeeded in looking down his nose at him regardless. “I have manservants more intelligent than you,” he said.
Arthur tossed the map into the empty hearth, before turning to the rest of council. Since the Round Table, Arthur made a point of including his knights in council meetings, so that decisions were not made by the prince and Court alone. It also meant that the barons, who had held office since long before Uther had taken the throne, would be outnumbered by knights and nobles who were loyal to Prince Arthur, something Leon only comprehended at that moment.
“As I was saying, I propose an amnesty. My knights and I cannot fight this battle alone. Everyone who has the skills to help others – builders, healers, sorcerers, farmers, smiths – will be instructed to report to the throne room on the morrow.”
“Sorcerers? You are no king,” spat a noble whose name Leon did not know.
“He bloody well is,” said Gwaine. “Who d'you think's been running this place since we won it back from Morgana?”
“I'm making the decisions that I have to,” said Arthur, ignoring the interruption, “and the decisions that I know are right.”
He'd been pacing round the table, but he paused for a second and surveyed the council.
“I said this isn't a traditional war, and I meant it. Wars tend to be fought for thrones, so you noblemen can ride the tide with little worry, so long as you declare your banners for the winning side. Even then, your neck is likely to be spared by whoever conquers your kingdom. We're not fighting insurgents or pretenders; we're fighting naiads. Naiads believe that we are a stain upon the earth, and wish to use the other elements to cleanse us from it. They don't care about the lands you hold or the benefits you could offer them. Your future is as perilous as mine.”
“Well, that was uplifting. What the king is trying to say,” said Gwaine, rising from his seat and clapping Arthur on the back, “is that your talents, such as they are, are not required. We need druids, healers, and artisans, magical or no. We have to fight fire with fire, and we have to make the city believe that the naiads – whatever the hell they are – can be beaten. They can be beaten, right, Arthur?”
“Of course they can,” said Arthur, plastering on something that passed for a smile. “If you all follow my lead.”
“I will,” said Elyan, pushing his seat back and standing.
“And I,” said Lancelot.
The rest of the Round Table knights followed, and a few who had not sworn their allegiance at that table. Sir Bor, Baron Stoke's son, was among them.
“Then it is settled,” said Arthur, “and you are dismissed. I have a speech to make. Elyan, Percy— alert the citadel and have all who are able gather in the courtyard.”
He did not wait for an acknowledgement, and left, his boots echoing on the flagstones. Leon followed him out soon after, unwilling to wait around and hear the grumbles of the noblemen, his father no doubt included.
He soon became just another red cloak in the sea of peasants that had saturated the castle; no matter where Leon went, he always seemed to be moving against the flow. The corridors were messy and smelly, but no one gave him a second glance. Earlier, for instance, when Gwen had been speaking to him and Prince Arthur, none of them had batted an eyelid, let alone tried to listen in, which is more than could be said for the usual occupants of the castle.
Navigating the crowds took no small effort, and it had become almost calming – something to do rather than think. On his way back to Mordred's room, though, Leon was startled by a crash from behind a door. One hand on his sword, he reached for the handle. The castle was cramped and everyone was in close quarters, on low rations; fights were not unheard of.
All that sword-training in the empty rooms might finally be put to some use, he thought, but did not draw his weapon before entering. The room was all-but empty, but nevertheless Leon wished he had something with which to defend himself. Morgana stood, as dirty as the makeshift bedding which covered every surface, and, graceful as a reed, swayed on the spot.
“Sir Leon,” she said, and of all things, he had not expected her to know his name.
He drew his sword.
When Merlin woke up, it felt as though he hadn't slept for days. His eyelids drifted closed if he stopped putting effort into remaining conscious, and although he was covered in quilts – goosefeather-stuffed, no less, if he was any judge – chills ran from the nape of his neck to the back of his spine.
His eyelids fell shut as he tried to organise his thoughts. Merlin didn't know how he escaped from Uther and Morgana, or why, or if his dream was even real. A sick sense of horror dripped through his mind, like blood from a wound, as he realised he could no longer open his eyes or move.
Perhaps he was dead.
The instant of panic that thought gave him was enough to shock him into waking up properly. Blinking rapidly, he became aware of a low rumble of sound washing over him, and shrank away from it.
“—fast asleep, so obviously that was a dead end. I don't know if we can win, Merlin: in the past the dragons and the, you know, fairies or whatever kept them at bay, but my father put paid to that line of defence. Gaius says that the naiads appear to be far stronger than at any time in the past. Maybe it's because they have a greater power over water than fire or wind, or maybe they have a larger magical reservoir to feed off of, but I … I don't think we're going to make it.”
Arthur sat straight, as a king should, but his hands were shredding a square of red silk into individual threads, and he stared at the wall opposite with unseeing eyes.
“Gwaine was right, though. People need to think we can do it,” he said, “or it'll be anarchy. I'm trying to get things together, and I have a few ideas, but they might be horseshit for all I know. No one's criticised them, but then I am the acting king, and everyone knows that kings execute anyone who dares disagree with them.”
Arthur paused and looked at the mess of fabric in his hands.
“I call you an idiot, but if you are then at least you're an honest one. Damn it, Merlin,” said Arthur, somehow remaining completely oblivious to the fact that Merlin was both awake and listening, “I miss you, and—”
“Uh,” said Merlin, deciding that the potentially amazing blackmail material did not outweigh the sheer embarrassment of hearing Arthur prattle on about how amazing he was, “Hi?”
Arthur nearly fell off his chair, and once he'd steadied himself he sent it screeching backwards along the stone, rising to his feet as it toppled over behind him. It took a supreme effort of will for Merlin to sit up, and even then everything was groggy and distant, as though he were under water.
“Merlin. Merlin, are you okay? Stupid question, of course you're not.”
A warm hand came down upon his shoulder and pulled him forwards. Vaguely, Merlin was aware of pillows being plumped behind him. I could get used to this, Merlin thought.
“Lie down. Sit back, I mean. Here,” said Arthur, eventually realising that in order for Merlin to obey him he was going to have to let go of his shoulder. Merlin fell back onto the pillows and had the air knocked out of his lungs. He felt dizzy and nauseous, and Arthur's face was far too large in his vision as he leaned forwards and said, “I'll fetch Gaius. Stay there.”
Merlin tried to deliver one of the five retorts that sprang to mind upon hearing that instruction, but his body seemed unwilling to obey, and Arthur was running out of the room as though he were being chased by a griffin. Good. Arthur was a distraction, anyway. Merlin dug his nails into his palms – he had to stay awake, no matter what – and tried to work out what had happened.
All limbs were present and correct, and nothing hurt. He was wearing nice nightclothes: palatial, and definitely not his own. The last Merlin could remember was falling asleep under the hounds after attempting to scry for Morgana the night before.
So the nymphs had sucked too much of his power, and he'd ended up gods-knew-where with Morgana and the king; that seemed to be the only explanation available, but if it were true, then why had he woken? Had his rage at the mention of Balinor propelled him from that strange desert land, or had he been plucked from Morgana's clutches by some unseen force?
Gaius arrived, trailing behind Arthur and carrying a basket full of clinking potions. Both of them were out of breath, chests heaving; instead of simply speaking to him Gaius appeared to be attempting to communicate with him through eyebrow movement alone.
“You look terrible,” Gaius said, eventually, and placed his basket on the bed. Peering at its contents, he selected a bottle filled with a particularly swampy-looking substance, and uncorked it carefully. A pungent smell filled the room, and Merlin began to cough.
“Nice to see you too,” he managed, beating his chest.
“He needs food,” Gaius told Arthur, who made to rush off again. Merlin caught his eye, and though he couldn't manage another sentence if he wanted to, Arthur understood him anyway, and smirked.
“Don't get used to it,” said Arthur, “You have a lot of work to do. It's the end of the world, you know, and my chambers are filthy.”
He sounded terribly cheery about it, though; Gaius looked Merlin in the eye and smiled.
“There may be hope yet, sire,” he said.
“Uther—I was speaking to Uther, and Morgana. We were—”
Gaius's brows furrowed, but he waved a hand to dismiss the revelation.
“We don't have time for that,” he said. “Mordred brought you back, because his power grows enough to elude the naiads – for a short while, at any rate. You're living on borrowed time, Merlin.”
Merlin couldn't imagine Mordred wanting to save him, let alone doing it. Still, he lay on the couch near them, bone-white and trembling. It isn't supposed to happen like this, Merlin thought. Was he supposed to derive some satisfaction from the fact Mordred didn't die killing Arthur? Was he supposed to be grateful that Mordred was sacrificing himself for whatever destiny they might salvage from the floods?
“I'm living on his time,” said Merlin, and Gaius didn't deny it. “He'll die if I don't complete the ritual soon.”
Again, Gaius did not tell him otherwise. His lips were pressed together tightly, and he watched Merlin with solemn eyes.
“How long have I got?”
“We're treading ground no one's ever explored before, Merlin,” said Gaius. He sighed heavily. “I can't tell for sure, but given the rate of his deterioration, I'd say a day or so. Maybe less.”
Merlin looked about him. He'd lain in the bed for so long that he almost couldn't remember what it was like to stand. He felt adrift in a sea of pillows and quilts. Though his strength was returning with every minute he spent awake, he was still weak; there would be no sneaking off to attempt the ritual alone.
In fact, he realised, as Arthur strode in with a platter of food, there was only one thing he could do. It would cost him Arthur, and possibly his head, but Merlin knew that paled in comparison to what the kingdom faced. If Mordred thought Albion was something worth dying for, then Merlin was damn sure that he felt the same.
“Sire,” he said, suddenly giddy and off-balance.
“What is it? You're not going to collapse on me again, are you?”
“He's fine,” said Gaius, nodding at them both and taking his leave.
Merlin had told Morgana that he trusted Arthur, but he'd lied. Every time he'd thought about Arthur discovering his magic, he'd never been able to engineer a mental scenario in which Arthur did not hate him – either for the magic itself, or for hiding it for years.
There was no use preparing a script; time was running out, so Merlin had better do what he'd done on the flood relief mission, and simply jump straight in.
“Mordred healed me,” he said, trying to gauge Arthur's reaction.
“And do you know why?”
If Mordred had already made clear that Merlin was vital in the fight against the druids, then—
“Because I asked him to,” said Arthur, as though it were obvious.
“You think Mordred is spending all his strength on keeping me alive just because you wanted your manservant back? Arthur, I—”
The words stuck in his throat, and in the silence that followed Arthur looked from Mordred to Merlin with a frown.
“Oh, don't look so stricken. Mordred isn't still healing you, you idiot. You were ill, he healed you, and then he fell into a long sleep again—because he's ill too.”
“Um,” said Merlin. “Actually, Arthur – and this is going to sound ridiculous, so don't laugh or, you know, execute me, but—”
Arthur placed the platter on Merlin's lap.
“Eat something,” he said, “and I'll continue to humour you.”
Merlin wanted to laugh. He'd miss this. He wasn't a complete fool; Merlin doubted that Arthur would truly order him executed, but a life in exile was one to which Merlin was not looking forward.
“What is it?” Arthur asked, his tone impatient. Merlin had clearly gone too long without responding or eating something. “Merlin, Are you all right?”
Merlin could not explain or offer excuses for who he was or why he'd hidden. Wordless, he raised a fist, palm-upwards, and slowly began to uncurl his fingers. Arthur's face still registered nothing but confusion, and Merlin watched it with a sick sort of fascination, waiting for the moment that bemusement would turn to shock.
“Merlin's our only hope!” cried Morgana, throwing open the door and brandishing a sword.
Well, that would do it, Merlin supposed.
Mordred had worried that, when he surrendered his power to Merlin, he'd end up trapped at the whim of the naiads. He was glad to find that his body was unharmed.
In fact, he was hardly dreaming at all. Mordred could feel his limbs resting on the couch, but he could not move them. Heavy with more than mere sleep, they sat immobile like boulders; it was almost as though they were not a part of him. All he was was his power, and that was deserting him in waves.
His vision, he thought, was black and empty, but as he concentrated he realised that was not the case. In fact, his sight spanned a greater horizon than it ever had before. Magical signatures were sprinkled like stars upon his mind: Mordred recognised the familiar silver pinpricks of the brownies, and the more unsettling ribbons of blue light that represented the sidhe. As the water had risen, and Camelot's lake had burst its bounds and mingled with rivers and ponds to form a new sea, the sidhe had spread like a fungus, and now they permeated Mordred's consciousness.
The longer he looked, the clearer the imprints became. Mordred half-believed he was staring at the whole of Camelot, if not the five kingdoms themselves: nebulas of people, most possessed of no magic bar the drop that gave them life, were sparse blue-gold sparks in the blackness, with the occasional tongue of purple or white for a half-decent witch or a mere hedge-wizard. Eventually, he came to see the emptiness as solid: there were the mountains to the north, and there was the peak in which Morgana had tended to her sister. Both their signatures had been erased, and in the midst of such massive loss of life, Mordred still managed to feel a pang for their fate.
As he reeled his consciousness back in, though, focusing on the vibrance of Camelot itself – which as a bonfire to the other humans' candles must surely stick in the craw of the nymphs – he noticed Morgana's familiar imprint, a snarled mess of different-coloured threads, practically on top of the warm gold blossom that was Merlin's.
Was all lost, then? Was his choice for nothing?
If he concentrated, Mordred could hear crashes and shouts, but the very effort sent pain shattering through him, so he stopped trying. If he got too nosy, he would perish, and then his decision most certainly would be worthless.
Mordred rested, and let his mind wander.
Kilgarrah, the Great Dragon, the last dragon, flew above all of them. He soared above the sinister turquoise of the nymphs, untouchable. Kilgarrah was a red and gold explosion that should have looked painful and ugly, but didn't. The dragon veered from place to place, and though Mordred had no sense of time like this he'd guess that Kilgarrah had been flying for hours, searching for a place to land.
As he watched, Mordred realised that although the dragon was almost wholly made of magic, he was not, as Mordred had assumed, invincible. The dragon's signature had faded since Mordred had noticed it, and the pulses of the nymphs' had only grown stronger. If Kilgarrah didn't find land soon, he would die.
Mordred didn't see it as a good deed; it was just something he had to do, given the massive destruction the nymphs had already wrought. He was fed up of death. He reached out, communicating in the same way as he had talked to Morgana, and Merlin before her, and pointed it towards the mountains in Escetia.
Help us, Kilgarrah, he tried, but the dragon was already winging its way towards sleep and rest, and did not respond.
Merlin acted on instinct. The sword Morgana was hefting was far too big for her waifish frame, and looked like it belonged to one of the knights. Her hate for him in his dream had been all too real, and now she had come back to try to seize the throne whilst Camelot was under attack.
He didn't have time to think about any of those things, though; he simply held out his hand and flung the sword to the ground with a thought.
Arthur took a step away from him, knocking the platter of food to the ground in his haste, but Merlin could not regret it: better a living enemy than a dead friend.
“I could pick that up and send it through your neck, sorcerer,” she spat. “I learned control in Conorgia, if nothing else.”
Merlin didn't have time to marvel at the fact that Uther and Morgana had apparently found time to sit down and name their hellish dreamscape. Instead, he leapt to his feet and hoped that no one would notice the way he swayed upon them.
“You can't hurt him,” he said, “I won't let you.”
“Oh, so there are some people you're willing to risk your neck for, then?” she growled, before visibly reasserting control over her emotions. Breathing out heavily, she lowered the sword until the tip of the blade was inches from the ground.
Merlin was in between the two of them, so he couldn't see Arthur's expression. He didn't particularly want to, either, but Arthur surprised him by taking a step forward so they faced her together. Arthur's face was frozen in a way that Merlin had seen before, when he'd found out about Morgana. Frankly, he looked like he'd been blindsided by a wild boar; his eyes were unfocused and blank.
“I hate to interrupt this … whatever this is,” said Morgana, sneering at the pair of them, “but I'm not here to take your throne – though to do so would seem remarkably easy, given your lamentable security. The place is overflowing with commoners, did you know? Father won't like that one bit, when he wakes up.”
Morgana paused for a beat in the same way she'd done in their shared dream – in Conorgia, or whatever she'd called it – as though she expected acknowledgement or agreement. When none came, she sighed and continued.
“Look,” Morgana said, “I know you won't believe me – especially since I, ah, incapacitated Sir Leon – but I'm here to help. Unlike some people,” she said, glaring at them (subtle wasn't a word Merlin thought he'd ever associate with Morgana, no matter what their destiny would turn out to be), “I can't sit back and let innocent people die.”
Between the three of them, silence reigned. Merlin, by force of habit, caught Arthur's eye, but he looked away. Morgana, unlike Merlin, was not waiting for a reaction.
“Uther should be waking up any moment now,” she said, and exited the room as quickly as she'd entered it.
"We,” said Arthur, still looking at the door as though he expected Morgana to slam her way back in any second, “We are going to talk. You aren't to leave this castle, am I clear?”
“Where do you think I'd go? It's not exactly perfect weather for a hunt, in case you hadn't noticed. Do you think I could swim off to Ealdor?”
Arthur turned to him, and though they were almost equal in height he managed to dwarf Merlin by dint of sheer rage.
“Oh, I don't know, sorcerer, perhaps you could have other methods of escaping?”
Sorcerer. That's all he was now: a lawbreaker. Something must have broken in Merlin's expression, because Arthur closed his eyes for a moment and breathed out loudly.
“Merlin,” he said. “Merlin, I mean. Look, I'd better—she'll probably stab my father if left alone with him for a second, and I—”
“You're more right than you know. I know you don't want to look at me, let alone talk to me, and you probably won't ever again, but this is important. Morgana and Uther and I were somehow in the same dream, I don't know why, but I didn't get there because of an abnormality in the brain. The nymphs – naiads, they're the ones who've been causing the weather—”
“And Mordred is wasting his magic to keep me awake so that I can attempt the ritual to stop them. So I have to—”
“Mordred is keeping you awake? Does this mean Gaius knows?”
“Did you miss the part about the magical ritual, and the fact that Mordred over here is slowly dying because of me? Whether or not somebody knows about my magic isn't important!”
“Of course it's important! How many times have you used magic in Camelot? Ealdor – that wasn't Will at all, was it? All this time, you've been courting death because—because what?”
Arthur grabbed Merlin's shoulders, but didn't shake him. Instead, he gripped them tightly as though he were trying to prevent him from magicking himself away. He's not going to kill me, thought Merlin, though his heart rate said otherwise, He remembered Will's name.
“Did you get tired of safe old Ealdor, and fancy moving to a place where magic was banned? You're literally the most irresponsible, stupid, idiotic person I have ever—”
The door opened again, and Arthur practically growled, whipping his head round and staring daggers at Sir Leon, who ducked his head in confusion.
“Did you know?”
“Know what?” asked Sir Leon. The miserable expression on Merlin's face must have tipped him off, because Leon's eyes widened and he glanced from one of them to the other. “Uh, no, I didn't. I mean, I don't think I did know that thing that, uh, I don't know about.”
“You told Sir Leon and you didn't tell me?”
“I didn't tell him! Gaius has known since I arrived, and Lancelot since I helped him with the griffin. I only told Gwen a few days ago, really.”
Arthur had far more control than Merlin gave him credit for. Not only had he refrained from breaking something upon discovering Merlin's powers, but he had also stayed silent for his list of other people who already knew about them. He did, however, appear more mutinous by the second, face slowly growing puce as he forgot to breathe.
“Lancelot?” he said, voice barely a whisper.
“Griffin,” Merlin countered. “It was reveal myself or let him die, and I'm not going to apologise for those priorities.”
Arthur had hardly seemed to hear the explanation, and was off again, brow furrowed. He removed a hand from Merlin's shoulder, and waved it in the air to make his point.
“It's not just them though, is it?” he said. “Because Morgana knew, somehow, and Mordred has to know about the ritual, so—”
“Are you angry because I didn't tell you, or because after all this is over you're going to have to behead me?”
"I'm angry because you're an idiot,” said Arthur.
Merlin considered a number of responses, but most of them would open up whole new cans of worms; Leon was already trying to shuffle out of the room as it was, and hadn't Arthur said something about going to protect Uther from Morgana?
Arthur showed no signs of remembering that any time soon. Instead, he used the hand that was still on Merlin's shoulder to steer him over to the bed and sit him down.
“You're ill,” he said, righting the chair he'd knocked over when Morgana came in. He sat down upon it and gestured for Sir Leon to come in. Merlin noted with relief that although Morgana had said she'd incapacitated him, he was not injured. “Why does it have to be you who defeats the nymphs?”
“Well, me and everyone, really – and even then we might not succeed. I'm … you could say that I'm quite talented.”
“Somehow I doubt that, Merlin,” said Arthur, the words seeming to come before he'd even had time to think about them. Suddenly, everything was a little less scary and strange.
"You don't know how many times I've saved your princely arse, sire.”
Arthur ran a hand through his hair, and managed to conjure a wan-looking smile.
“Well,” he said, “now you're going to have to do it again. After that, Merlin, you've got a lot of explaining to do.”
Explaining. Merlin could do explaining. Of all the 'ex's, explaining was by far the best. Of course, explaining could lead to execution or exile, but the way Arthur was acting made Merlin regret that he hadn't got it over with sooner. Then again, perhaps it took a supernatural force bent on the destruction of the earth to put other things into perspective; certainly, if he'd been revealed whilst Uther was still reigning king, he'd have been burned alive no matter what Arthur would have had to say.
Now that he'd filed the revelation of Merlin's magic into a box labelled 'After (assuming there is one)', Arthur changed. His expression grew determined and stony, and, picking up the chair that had been knocked to the floor, he asked Merlin what he needed for the ritual. Arthur always was good at adapting to the situation.
“Some fresh clothes, for a start,” said Merlin.
Arthur took a step forwards and changed again. He'd gone from angry to kingly in a fraction of a second, and now he was something different. Arthur frowned and reached forwards to do up a button on Merlin's nightclothes.
“That can be arranged,” Arthur said, smoothing down Merlin's nightshirt. Until Arthur turned to Leon and nodded at him, it seemed as though Arthur had forgotten his presence. “Get something that looks official,” Arthur said.
Leon left, looking extremely grateful to escape.
“So,” said Arthur, lowering himself back onto the righted chair, “I have a magician for a manservant.”
“The polite term is sorcerer,” said Merlin.
Arthur snorted, but didn't catch his eye.
“So you aren't as useless as you seem?”
Here we go, Merlin thought. There was an unsettled feeling in the pit of his stomach. He was cripplingly anxious, but not that Arthur would order him killed. Merlin trusted him that much, at least.
“You remember Sophia? The one you tried to elope with?”
“Yes,” said Arthur, as though he would rather not be reminded.
“Well, she was a sidhe.”
“Well, I know that.”
“No,” said Merlin. “A fairy. The sidhe. Her father was one too. They wanted to sacrifice you so that they could return to Avalon, so she enchanted you.”
Whatever Arthur had been expecting, it clearly wasn't that.
“What? So she was trying to kill me, and you—”
“I stopped her.”
“Well, clearly,” said Arthur. “and then you let me think I was an idiot.”
“Would you rather I hadn't saved you, and left your dignity intact? Arthur, the number of times I've killed others to save your skin—”
“You killed her?” Arthur said, narrowing his eyes and examining Merlin as though he'd be able to see the evidence of it on his face.
“Well, clearly,” Merlin echoed. “Were you under the impression I pulled her aside and made her see the error of her ways?” Arthur opened his mouth to speak, and then closed it again. Merlin was almost irritated: Arthur wasn't appalled by the act of killing, but rather by the fact that it had been Merlin who did it.
“Remember Edwin, the physician? He was taking his revenge out on Uther, who had burned his parents to death, by killing you. I sent an axe into his brain,” said Merlin, “and that was that. And I would do it again in a heartbeat.”
Arthur simply looked at him. Both of them knew that, in the weeks after Edwin had left the castle, Merlin had grown pale and clumsy. He'd slept less than an hour each night, and had twitched at loud noises. Both of them also knew that Merlin wasn't lying when he said he'd do it again if it meant saving Arthur.
“You don't have any more secrets, then?” said Arthur. “You're not an elf, or something?”
“No,” said Merlin, and couldn't help his disapproving expression. “Everyone knows elves aren't real.”
Arthur started laughing, but stopped when Merlin began to speak.
“I suppose—I am a dragonlord.”
“Please tell me that doesn't mean what I think it means.”
“I can control dragons,” said Merlin. “Look, we really don't have time for all this right now. Morgana—”
“When the dragon attacked Camelot, it was you who got rid of it,” said Arthur flatly. “And you let me take the credit.”
Of course. Of course that would be the detail with which Arthur took issue.
“You can hold a parade for me later,” said Merlin. “We have to save the day again first.”
“Why did you protect us? You've saved my father too, I'll bet, with the troll.”
Merlin considered hiding behind destiny, but the idea was fleeting. He'd made it this far being honest, and he'd continue that way.
“You're not as big of a prat as I first thought,” said Merlin.
“I'm reserving judgement on whether you're an idiot,” said Arthur, which, all things considered, was far better than could be expected.
Despite everything, despite the fact they were breaking new ground, and that if they survived Arthur would surely interrogate him more thoroughly, Merlin smiled and tried to sit up. Arthur reached out to push him back onto the pillows, but Leon knocked at the door so Arthur helped Merlin out of the bed instead.
“It's time to put on your armour,” said Arthur. Leon dropped a pile of hideous gold-embroidered clothing onto the bed, and Merlin groaned.
The soft velvet of the curtain hung against her face, at once smothering and soothing her. She remained in the alcove, barely breathing, for a good five minutes, until she could be sure that the group of peasants had disappeared. When she came out, the corridor was empty, and it was almost like nothing had changed at all.
On the way to Uther's rooms, she had a vision of the nymphs. Caliadne, who she now knew to be the leader, danced across the ramparts, flashing gold into a large, ragged crowd. Groups of people fell to their knees, and then forwards into the grimy stone courtyard. The crowd was so tightly packed that some of those who were struck dead did not move at all, supported by the people around them.
Uther was walking down the corridor by the time she reached it. His eyes lit up when he saw her, so she laughed in his face just to see it crumple.
“I still hate you,” she informed him, as casually as she could, “but if saving my kingdom means that I have to suffer your company for a while, then so be it.”
Uther looked at her with sad eyes, but she remained indifferent and, eventually, he gave her an approximation of a smile.
“Shall we walk, then?” he said. Morgana captured his arm in hers, squeezing hard enough to bruise, and turned back the way she came.
Arthur nearly collided with them on the steps, so focused was he on reaching Uther's rooms.
“Morgana,” he said, looking so overwrought that she nearly laughed again.
“I don't have time for this,” she said. “We don't have time. My sister told me about nymphs, how they're the perfect predator, because they can only be defeated by a large magical force, yet their very existence drains magical souls. There's some sort of ritual – Gaius will know.”
For a moment, Morgana thought back to the year that Morgause had spent teaching her about magic and the world in which she lived, and missed her so fiercely that it hurt more than a hundred deaths in Conorgia. For a moment, Morgana wanted nothing more to return to her dank, empty cave with her skeletal, empty sister, and wait out the end of the world.
But if she stopped now, she might as well still be asleep.
“We need powerful sorcerers, average warlocks, anyone we can convince to help us. The people will think it's a trap, she says. Especially with you there,” she said, turning to Uther. “You should cede the throne to Arthur, so that—”
“And not to you?” Arthur said. “I thought you said the throne was yours.”
It is, thought Morgana. But she wasn't an idiot. Public opinion was so far against her that she'd be hanged before she could do so much as order a crown. Besides...
“After the kingdom's won back, will you kill Merlin, or shall I?”
“You're not killing Merlin.”
“We'll see about that,” said Morgana. Even then, with Uther trembling at her side, the memory of the ways in which she'd killed him fresh in both their minds, Morgana wondered whether she could take a blade to Merlin in reality. If she were being honest with herself, she didn't even know if she could do what he had done to her: slip her poison and wait for it to do the dirty work.
She was succumbing to weakness, but it was only momentary, and once this battle was over then she could get to work on winning the war.
That said, Arthur and Merlin had emerged from the revelation of his magic a united front, and it made Morgana sick, with worry more than jealousy. If Merlin had been accepted by Arthur, and of course he had been, the guileless, idiotic boy who had been prepared to kill rather than reveal himself or reassure her, then laws could very well change to accommodate magic. And if that happened, how could she justify pursuit of the throne?
“For us to fight over Camelot, it needs to remain in one piece,” said Morgana. She took Arthur by the arm and, flanked in shocked and angry Pendragons, made her way down the stairs and towards Gaius's rooms.
The dusk was warm and light. Bar its sea-hemmed state, Camelot was experiencing a perfect summer evening.
“The world's always beautiful right before a fight,” said Gwaine.
“That's poetic, mate. Really,” said Elyan, shoving his shoulder.
“Shut up,” whispered Percy, louder than the average man's speaking voice. He pointed up to the balcony, where Arthur and Merlin stood. Even from the ramparts, standing guard above the crowd, the knights could see Merlin's condition. He was clutching the balcony for support, and looked as though he was about to be sick.
“In a cruel, uncaring way,” said Arthur, his voice echoing through the courtyard, “the floods have brought us together. Villages have been crushed and earth has become water. You have opened your homes as I have opened mine. Farmers live with barons, and woodchoppers dine with smiths. Camelot has always been the apex of the five kingdoms, and now it is all that remains. We have been united physically, but we need to be truly united if we are to defeat our enemy. Our enemy goes by many names, but whether you call them naiads, or nymphs, or elementals, you must fight as one. Groups must come together and act as a united front: villagers and city-dwellers, Mercians and people of Camelot, those with magic, and those without.”
Morgana stepped out of the room and onto the balcony, stalking between Arthur and Merlin. She took her place like she belonged there. The crowd began to shout and point, but Arthur spoke on. The commanding tone in his words was Arthur's own, but Leon suspected that he had a little help from Merlin when it came to speaking over everyone else. His voice echoed off walls, but not hollowly. Rather, the reverberations hummed together and created an atmosphere of anticipation.
“I am showing unity! I have not forgiven Morgana her sins, but I know and need her strength. You may quarrel with your neighbour, but you must work with him. These rains were unnatural, and the floods will not disappear until the nymphs have been wiped from the earth. The nymphs believe that we will fight amongst ourselves. They believe that we will murder each other, and that we will starve, and that we will fall.”
“Arthur knows how to make a speech, that's for sure.”
This from Gwen, who had appeared on the ramparts without Leon noticing.
“What are you doing up here?” said Lancelot. “It's not safe, and you—”
“What, you think your swords'll be any use against the nymphs? You're up here for show and you know it. Besides,” she said, patting her hip, where a gleaming, newly-forged sword hung, “I can use a weapon as well as any of you.”
“We need to show the naiads,” said Arthur, “that humanity is more than that. We must show them that we can work together for the good of us all. For a magical problem such as this, we need a magical solution. I know you will be reluctant to come forwards, even with the promise of an amnesty, but every person counts, from my sister, to my manservant, to my physician.”
“Is he saying—” began Gwaine, but his voice was drowned out as Arthur continued.
“These creatures feed on magical energy, so we need to act quickly if we're to have any hope. I've done all I can to protect you, but there is no more that I can do myself. People of Camelot—no, people of Albion, I beg for your aid. The Pendragons have committed many wrongs against those of you with magic, and for that I apologise. You have my word that my father will stand trial for his crimes. Even now, he is currently being watched by my knights.
I've done all i can to protect you, and there is no more i can do. People of camelot. People of albion, i beg for your aid. The pendragons have committed many wrongs against those of you with magic, and for that i apologise. You have my word that my father will stand trial for his crimes.
You have his word, too. Uther pendragon awoke this morning and ceded the throne to me. He is currently being watched by my knights.”
Leon was sure that Elyan's suddenly panicked expression was mirrored on his own face.
“Sir Bor,” Gwen told them. “They're holed up in Gaius's chambers.”
“I beg you not only to help me save Camelot, but also to forge a new one. A better Camelot, and a better Albion. I am not asking those of you with magic to intervene to protect me. I am asking you to protect your friends and your family. Without your aid, they will surely die. They might not die today, and they might not die tomorrow, but as time passes and food dwindles, as water dirties and disease spreads, people will begin to lose their lives, and the nymphs will win. I am not exaggerating, then, when I say that the ritual that we are about to begin is our last chance.”
A yellowed, weighty book was open on the bed between them, and Arthur snapped it closed.
“You know the ritual off by heart, Merlin. We've spent so long in your cramped, untidy room that any people who might have shown up in the courtyard have probably gone back to their homes. You know what you have to do, and now you need to show me some magic, so I know that you're up to it.”
“And if I'm not up to it?” said Merlin. Dust had puffed into the air when Arthur shut the book, and Merlin was fighting the urge to cough. “Do you have a replacement waiting in the wings?”
“You'll be fine,” said Arthur, clapping him on the back and nearly sending him face-first off the bed and onto the floor. “Now show me some magic. What can you do, apart from save people?”
Arthur had apparently decided that if he pretended Merlin was fine, he would be. Merlin, for his part, was doing his best to act like he wasn't about to pass out at any second.
“Saving people is quite useful, you know—”
“You know what I mean. Show me a trick.”
Merlin glared, but Arthur stared at him impassively, and Merlin had to either humour Arthur in this, or leave the safety of his room and so Merlin lifted a fist in the air and uncurled it to let flames dance. Arthur frowned at the fire, expression rapt. He was clearly fascinated, and the sight of it sent heat curling into Merlin's abdomen. Not for the first time, Merlin wanted to—
Arthur was looking at him, and Merlin ducked his head.
“That's amazing,” said Arthur.
Arthur leaned forwards, and, giddy and terrified, Merlin thought if not now, when?
They were all going to die, and he didn't mean that in an abstract, philosophical sense. Merlin wasn't half as strong as he normally was, physically or magically, and he was worried he would drain Mordred completely. He didn't know how many people would turn up for the ritual, or even that any would.
Merlin prided himself on being an optimistic person, but he had to face facts: his mother had been killed by the floods, along with the rest of Ealdor, and Merlin had not been able to protect her. Now Camelot would be slaughtered by creatures that Merlin could not destroy.
Arthur gripped his wrist and brought him out of his gloom. Arthur's fingers, warm and dry, curled over Merlin's and balled his hand back into a fist.
“Is it from the movement?” he said. “I always thought you had to say words for spells, but you didn't with the sword, and right now—”
“Normally people have to speak,” said Merlin, “and sometimes I do too.”
Arthur didn't let go of his hand.
“I always said there was something strange about you, Merlin.”
Merlin laughed, and disengaged his hand from Arthur's. “Hope it's enough of a something to win.”
“I've got my armour, don't I?” said Merlin, gesturing to his clothes. They fit surprisingly well, and but for their colour Merlin would have said they were a manservant's uniform from days gone by. The black fabric was thick yet soft, and the gold thread painted strong, delicate hooks and curls over it.
Back in the room where he'd woken up, Merlin had fumbled with the ties on his neck for long, embarrassing seconds, before Arthur had shaken his head and said, “Honestly, Merlin. You're as bad at dressing yourself as you are at dressing me. Here, let me.”
“You've got your armour,” Arthur agreed, looking him up and down. An odd sort of silence followed, but it wasn't uncomfortable. In fact, Merlin would have been happy for that moment to go on forever, with them simply sitting on his bed, equals.
“We have a war to win,” said Merlin, as much to himself as to Arthur. “I have to go.”
Gwen was downstairs in Gaius's chambers. With her hand on her sword, she was glaring at Morgana whilst carrying on a conversation with Sir Bor. When she saw Merlin coming down the steps, her face brightened.
“Have you learned the ritual?” she called to him, leaving Bor and making her way to the steps. He nodded, and concentrated on making it down in one piece.
“They want me to stay down here with Uther and Bor,” she said, dropping her voice to a whisper, “but Gaius'll help me give them the slip. I'm going to be there when you do the ritual, Merlin, whether I'm in the room behind you or on the ramparts with the knights.”
“Thank you, Gwen. And thank you for trusting me, as well, even when you found out about my magic.”
Gwen's brows furrowed, and her hand found its way back to the handle of her sword.
“How's Arthur taking it?”
“Oh, he's fine,” said Merlin. “Well, not fine, but, you know, he won't order me killed, so that's a win. But you've always looked out for me, Gwen, right from the day you met me in the stocks. I can't—I don't say thank you enough, you know?”
“Stop it,” said Gwen angrily. “You're not going to die, so you can save the praise for later.”
Merlin hugged her.
“Even if we win,” he said, face buried in her hair, “I'm leading the charge. I have to give my all, and that probably means my life.”
“Stop it,” said Gwen, and hugged him back.
More people turned up than Merlin had expected. More people were in the courtyard than Merlin even thought had magic. From the look on Arthur's face as he finished his speech and surveyed the crowd, it was clear that he thought the same.
Merlin's fingers pressed tight against the granite balcony. The small jagged bumps in the rock scraped into his hands; he used the pain to anchor him to the present and to consciousness. Staring out into the sea of the crowd, he recognised the wide, open face of Gilli, staring up at him. Here and there, long cloaks indicated the presence of druids.
Now he came to think about it, Merlin probably had the druids to thank for the number of people there, in all honesty. All this prophecy nonsense had finally proved useful.
The crowd weren't silent, but after that speech of Arthur's they were as close to it as they could be expected to get. Pale faces were upturned towards him, and opposite, on the castle walls, he could see the red cloaks of the knights. If he squinted, he could see Gwen, clutching Lancelot's hand.
Now was his time, and he had to make it count.
“Um,” said Merlin.
Beside him, he heard a ruffle of skirts as Morgana, now dressed in the finest clothes Camelot had to offer, was pulled out of the way by Arthur, who came to his side.
“'Um'?” he said, under his breath. “Biggest moment of your life, and you choose 'um'?”
The king clapped a hand down on his shoulder, and raised his voice so everyone in the courtyard could hear, no matter whether Merlin was able to amplify his voice or not.
“People of Albion,” he roared, “those of you from Camelot's Upper and Lower towns may recognise this man as my manservant. He's also, as I've recently discovered, an extremely powerful sorcerer. He will be leading this fight. Ladies and gentlemen, seers and healers, sorcerers and sorceresses: Merlin—”
“I don't have a surname,” said Merlin.
“You don't—that's ridiculous! What sort of person doesn't have a surname?”
Arthur turned back to the crowd.
“This is Merlin Dragonlord!”
Merlin felt himself flush.
“You're laying it on a bit thick, aren't you?”
“Nonsense,” said Arthur. “Remember to speak up. We don't want someone mishearing you and accidentally turning Morgana into a frog. Ow!”
Arthur's hand at his back, Merlin began to speak.
by nane0. Leave feedback here!
The invocation itself was not long. Since the ritual could only be led by someone with magical strength beyond that which spells can provide, it relied on the ability of the caster itself; for most warlocks, the construction of a spell provided a crutch, but for Merlin it was a hindrance, more often than not.
Speed and power were of the essence: the nymphs were so tuned in to what was basically their food source that it would be a matter of seconds into the ritual before they'd realise what was happening. With the help of the crowd, Merlin had to guide the magical energy of each person into the air above them, and bring all that together into a powerful sphere. If he managed to do that without collapsing, he then had to direct it towards the nymphs.
The laws of magic were vastly different to other laws, and in many cases they provided an exception to the general rule. However, as in life, the more energy they expended, the more exhausted an individual became. For most people, the risk was that they could lose their magic permanently; for Merlin, who was nearly a creature of magic himself, the risk was far greater.
Even as he pushed his strength into the sky – a large gold sphere surrounded by a fiery corona – he felt himself weaken. Everyone copied him quickly, though: he'd expected everyone's magic to be the same colour as his, but Morgana's was purple, and Gilli's was blue. Soon the ball was larger than the scaffolds on which so many people were standing, not to be executed but to help fight for those who would hurt them. It was a giant rainbow sun; it hadn't dulled or become muddy like paints being mixed together. It was brilliant and awe-inspiring, and Merlin could sense Arthur holding his breath behind him.
“It's not enough,” said Merlin, feeling his knees buckles as he tried to put more of his energy into the sphere. “It's not nearly enough.”
The sphere pulsed and grew, and seemed grow more radiant with every passing second, undimmed even by the sudden arrival of the naiads. Vicious winds appeared from nowhere, and a nymph with red hair and an overlarge mouth sailed towards him on the current of air. Merlin ignored her.
It would be enough to stun them, certainly, but he doubted it would destroy them. Frustratingly, Merlin felt like if he'd only had a minute longer, they'd have made it. He could feel it, somehow, a great reservoir of power that was as yet untapped. Merlin coaxed more magic from himself to the fledgling weapon, and scanned the crowd, feeling for more with senses he didn't know he had possessed.
“Nice try, Emrys,” said the nymph, “but you've waited too long, and the king's killed off half of your kind already. You don't have enough there to poison us; all that ball is right now is a banquet. It was almost too easy.”
Fire's easy, Merlin thought. Oh, great. I'm going crazy. Either that or my life's flashing before my eyes.
His fingers lost their death-grip on the balcony, and began to dissolve. This is it, he thought. He saw the sphere begin to grow again, and screamed in agony and triumph. Arthur's body held him upright; Merlin was dimly aware of hands gripping him tightly.
“Merlin,” said Arthur, as though from a great distance. “You have to stop,” he said. “You're going to die.”
The rain began to fall. The water's coolness was almost pleasant on his fevered skin, and through half-shut eyes he saw a group of druids fall to their knees. They toppled forwards onto the earth, and the winds snatched the screams of those around them. Here, on the balcony, the air was an almost physical force, buffeting him backwards.
Arthur tried to grab his hand, but there was nothing to hold. Merlin's sleeves, with their elaborately-stitched designs, drooped over thin air.
Fire was easy. It was the first spell he had learned, and, like all elemental spells, was one of the simplest incantations to master. Once a sorcerer started a fire, it burned of its own accord, as the natural magic in the world bent to the caster's will.
Start a fire, Merlin knew, and it'd grow no matter how powerful the sorcerer who started it was.
“Byrne,” whispered Merlin, trying to focus on the sphere of magic. Everything was swimming before his eyes. He heard a pounding, thrashing noise, thudding repeatedly in his skull, and decided it was his own heart, beating its last.
Mordred could no longer see everyone's magic, as he was too focused on remaining alive to expend any energy scanning for magical signatures. To him, the world was a wall of black, punctuated only by the pinprick of magic that Merlin and the others had created. As he lay there, bored by the end of the world, something changed. Something was created, or transmuted, because his vision turned a terrifying, searing gold.
Merlin was surprised to wake up. He was even more surprised that it appeared to be night time, and, from the fact he was lying on the stone balcony of the castle, it appeared to be the same night time.
“Merlin, wake up. You can't die, not today.”
The crowd was completely silent, and all Merlin could hear was Arthur beside him, crying. Merlin twitched his fingers, which had reappeared, but was only slowly gaining control of his body. Arthur was too busy sobbing to see straight, though, so Merlin was going to have to do something to let him know he was alive.
“'S'not very kingly behaviour, y'know.”
Arthur stopped crying – stopped breathing, possibly. He grabbed Merlin by the shoulders and pulled him up into a rib-crushing hug. Over Arthur's shoulder, Merlin could see Morgana's eyes widen in surprise and then narrow in calculation.
“Shut up, Merlin,” he said, and kissed him.
Arthur was warm and powerful and everything Merlin thought he'd never have, but Merlin pulled away. He was conscious of the crowd below them, and Morgana behind them, unguarded.
“Not all of us,” said Arthur, looking Merlin in the eye. “Some of the crowd were targeted by the nymphs. The knights are sorting everything out.”
“I don't know,” said Arthur.
Gaius entered the room behind them, wheezing and panting. Merlin tried to stand up and go to him, but Arthur placed a hand upon his shoulder and, with no effort whatsoever, kept him where he was.
“Merlin,” he said, “do you remember when I asked you if you had any more secrets, and you said you were a dragonlord? You said you had gotten rid of the dragon when it was burning people?”
“You didn't kill the dragon, did you?”
“I—er—sorry," Merlin said, not a little confused. “What, did he turn up and save the day?”
“No, you idiot,” said Morgana, “you did. You turned the magic into fire and burned the naiads to a crisp. Kilgarrah just added to the flames.”
“I have to go,” Morgana added, talking to no one in particular.
The crowd were chanting Arthur's name, as well as 'Dragonlord'. It seemed that magic was well and truly back.
“You're not going anywhere, Morgana. You're dangerously underfed and, I believe, suffering severe physical exhaustion. What's more, you've just participated in a highly risky and challenging magical ritual. I'd be surprised if you could levitate a feather, let alone transport yourself to some hovel in the middle of nowhere."
“Don't tell me what to do,” Morgana hissed, and turned on the spot. Instead of disappearing, she nearly fell off the balcony. No matter how much she hated it, Gaius was right. “How am I supposed to get her back, then? What do you suggest I do, send the dragon off to bring her back in his mouth?”
“I suggest you rest,” said Gaius. “Look at you. You're out of breath from an argument, Morgana.”
Merlin began to speak, but was interrupted.
“Shh, rest,” said Arthur, face sickeningly concerned.
“Shut up, Arthur. You're not my mum. Morgana, listen: I could get the dragon to do that, actually.”
Morgana paused, half at the absurdity of the idea and half at the offer. “Why would you—”
“He's got a lot to atone for,” said Merlin, “and so do I.”
Trerhys Nimbletongue, Court Bard
He couldn't sing about the trials. In normal circumstances, King Arthur's position would be weak: with all his family either dead or in the dungeons, the kingdom would be ripe for revolution. Since he and Merlin had stopped the floods, though, to take his throne would be folly. The Court were too busy cleaning the stink of the peasants from their rooms to scheme, anyway, and the other kings were all dead.
In fact, if Trerhys were to wager on it, he would say that King Arthur was more likely to conquer than to be conquered. The five kingdoms needed a leader, and no one else seemed willing or able.
Nevertheless, thought Trerhys, he couldn't sing about the trials. This banquet was supposed to be a celebration, and he could not be a reminder that the next day, like the one before it, Morgana - still stubbornly clad in black, even though it had been months since Morgause's corpse was taken to the castle - would be presented in the courtyard for her trial. She'd stood, surrounded by those of the knights who had sworn their loyalty at the Round Table, and time and time again she had failed to justify what she'd done.
Uther's trial would come after Morgana's judgement and sentence, though he was so weak that he might die before he could be brought out into the courtyard and everyone could see how frail and old he had become.
The scene in the hall that night was one of youth and joy. Mordred, now the king's ward, was watching the magic show with interest. In the first weeks after the floods started to recede, Mordred had been close to death, and when he'd recovered he stayed in his room for the most part. There were whispers in the streets that he was conspiring with Morgana to overthrow the king; whilst it would be very poetic if another ward tried to betray their guardian in such a way, Trerhys doubted the rumours. He sung at nearly every banquet, and he'd seen Mordred change from a pale, sunken boy to a full-cheeked, laughing one. He'd formed something of a partnership with Sir Gwaine, which, whilst surely a recipe for disaster, wasn't something a dark sorcerer would distract himself with.
The words of the ballad which he was about to sing rustled in his mind like dead leaves. Here, now, as the sorcerers left, taking their fireballs with them, Trerhys felt the same swooping in his stomach as he did every time he was to perform a new song.
It's fine, he told himself. Everyone's so drunk that no one will mind what you sing.
Lady Guinevere was laughing at something Sir Lancelot had said; both of them looked far too wrapped up in each other to pay attention to the banquet in their honour, let alone a humble singer.
People like love songs, he thought.
King Arthur was carving boar flesh from the centrepiece of the banquet, and dumping it all on Merlin's plate. Merlin pulled a face, but the king laughed and slapped him on the back.
The hand lingered.
Everyone knew that Arthur would never marry, and everyone knew why. Still, singing about the whole tale would involve mentioning Lady Guinevere, and Trerhys did not want to cause discomfort on her wedding night.
His ballad was a love song, but only if someone listened for it. Mostly, it was a song about magic, and dragons, and leadership.
People like legends, thought Trerhys, and began to sing.