There came a time when Arthur became king in Camelot, upon the death of Uther Pendragon who had been his father. There came a time after that, when, by diplomacy and by force, Arthur united all of Albion south of Vallum Aelium in his name. But north of Vallum Aelium there were none of Arthur's people. That land, where the forgotten arts were remembered, belonged still to the Druids, and there was no love lost between the Druids and the Pendragon clan. So, between Arthur's kingdom and the Druids, there would be war.
One day the man who was now styled King of Albion called Merlin to his private chambers so that he might give Merlin a private order. Merlin received many private orders, being the only man left in the south who still practiced magic openly. The war was not going as well as it might have been.
Arthur said "I need to ask you a favor, Merlin." Before Gaius had died, Merlin had joked with his uncle that this expression, the one on Arthur's face right now, was the one that he adopted when he knew he was about to change his mind and so would not hear a word that might cause him to.
"My lord," Merlin said. "I have served you well since we both were young."
"Yes." Arthur smiled, sadly. "Since before I knew you did. And this... favor, that I want to ask you. It's the hardest thing I have ever asked you to do."
But, to protect Arthur, Merlin had killed the last of the dragons with his own hands. "Serving you is my destiny," he said.
"What if it wasn't? What if I was just another man?"
But he had asked the question a thousand times. "You are my friend," he said.
"Yes, and this is a horrible thing to ask a friend. And a horrible thing to order. And... God, Merlin, you know I'm not good at this introspection thing."
Merlin smiled. "You are a man of action, my lord."
"Yes. And now it is time to act."
It was not like Arthur to dally round a subject, refusing to touch it. Merlin asked "How, my lord?"
"Mordred is keeping council with Morgana, these days. His armies are strengthened by her presence."
Merlin remembered the only time he ever met the boy-king. It had been the first time Merlin had suspected that King Arthur might be as poor as Prince Arthur. "Yes, my lord."
"Her abilities... three of my best Dukes have been defeated in the open field in as many months, by that army." Arthur grimaced. "Has anyone ever done that before?"
You did that, once. But he did not say it.
"Merlin," said Arthur, "I need you to kill her."
Kill Morgana. She was nearly Arthur's sister, and certainly she was the most righteous and most courageous person that either Merlin or Arthur had ever known. But he could do it.
Merlin could feel exactly what his destiny told him to say. Would you prefer if the earth swallowed her whole or if she were eaten by snakes? But he turned away from the king instead. He was not supposed to do that, he realized. But he did not turn back.
"Please, Merlin," said Arthur. "I have tried everything I can think of to end this war quickly, and Morgana stands in the way."
This also was true, but Merlin did not turn his head. Morgana he remembered. She was pale and beautiful and good. If he turned to Arthur, he would have to see the empty space where that goodness could have been.
"Merlin, this is a horrible business, but sometimes we make hard decisions-"
"Ask something else," said Merlin.
"My lord," said Merlin, "find some other way-"
"What other way, Merlin?"
Merlin found himself staring at the floor. Wood panelling, expensive, from Uther's reign. Merlin remembered the king's loggers when he was a very small child, not far from his home. He steeled his features and forced himself to meet Arthur's eyes. "I serve an Arthur who is better than this. An Arthur who would never ask this of me."
And then, finally, Arthur was standing. The action was so sudden that that plain wooden chair that he preferred skittered backward two feet, then three, before it even finished toppling. His hand struck down on the little writing desk he'd inherited, so hard that Merlin winced for the new cracks that were sure to be there. Then Arthur paused, realizing himself, and collected himself. "She was as my sister, Merlin. I do not ask lightly."
"Do not ask at all."
"Find me something else to do!"
Merlin shrugged. "Kill the boy, then."
Arthur did not have to say it was a stupid idea. They had already looked into it before. The Druid elders had built a powerful magical shield to guard Mordred from it.
"Fine," Merlin said. "Wait, and concentrate your forces. I've seen the numbers."
"We can't afford that kind of battle, Merlin. You know we can't, not with Albion so young."
Merlin sighed. He knew even Arthur had limits. But he had to say it. "Your Albion is worth nothing if you have to murder her."
"Merlin-" and for a moment, where Arthur stood, there was only Uther. "If I must, I will order you."
Suddenly free, Merlin became, and his mouth became a cruel smile. "You've never been able to order me to do anything, Arthur. Of every one of your men I am the only one who ever wanted to serve you. I want you to remember that forever, Arthur. All these people around you - but you're alone now."
Merlin went to the door then. The guards crossed their axes in front of him, by instinct or training having known that the King's only friend was no longer at all a friend. But Arthur said "Let him go." After the axes had been raised and after Merlin had begun to stalk from the room, he caught the explanation: "You wouldn't be able to stop him anyway."
He knew where he was going but he did not go directly; Ealdor was barely a dozen leagues west off of his trail, and if he pressed he could make it before daybreak. And he did make it, though he was dozing by the time the horse reached old John Bailey's fields. Two dozen years earlier the old man had told Merlin the first stories he had ever heard of the old times. This day he came out of his tiny home and saw Merlin, and had he not Merlin might have been halfway to the sea before he woke.
Instead he found himself being dragged from the horse as tenderly as one could be - not very tenderly at all.
"Mister Bailey," Merlin said. He struggled to put his weight under his own control.
"Dear lord, Merlin," said old John Bailey. "What are you doing here?"
The boyish grin Merlin thought long discarded returned to his face. Half-laughing, he said "I thought I'd see my mother."
But then Old John Bailey's tone changed. His face adopted a confused frown. "Merlin, your mother's been gone two months." His mother? Dead? "Taken," old John Bailey continued. "Taken away by the Pretender's men. We thought they meant to hold her hostage against you."
Merlin had heard nothing of this. He turned back to the horse to hide his face, pretending to busy himself by fiddling with the saddle and reins.
"We sent word to the court," said old John Bailey.
Kidnapping was not Morgana's way, but of the boy-king Mordred he could not be sure. There had been a hardness to him even when he had been so very small. Why had Arthur said nothing?
Old John Bailey circled to stand beside the horse, so he could see the wizard's face. "Merlin?"
"I suppose I'll have to rescue her."
The people of Ealdor had given up trying to dissuade Merlin of doing the right thing. Instead, old John Bailey said "Tonight. After you've slept and eaten."
Merlin nodded. If she had survived two months, she would survive a day, and he was very tired. He ate gruel that old John Bailey couldn't spare and slept the day on old John Bailey's only straw mattress. When the sun came down old John Bailey came back from the fields. To the noise of his entrance Merlin woke again. He stood, still drowsy but rested for the first time in months.
"I suppose you'll be going, then," said old John Bailey.
Merlin nodded, and said his thanks, and left. Riding away from the fields, Merlin asked the clouds to provide enough water for old John Bailey's fields and not too much. Perhaps there would be a good harvest for old John Bailey, a childless widower who had never blamed anybody for the evils he had received.
He checked his mother's cottage, to be sure, but it was indeed empty, and Ceridwen Griffith, who had been seven years old when Merlin had left, confirmed what old John Bailey had said.
"I suppose I'll have to rescue her," said Merlin, and Ceridwen Griffith just nodded. So he rode north.
By afternoon Merlin would be dozing again, but he was still within Old Camelot and there would be inns about. As the sun began to fall, he stopped at one such. He paid the proprietor twice the price of a room because he had money to spare, and had to convince him that he did not require the services of the man's daughter. Arthur had insisted on a salary, and the money had just piled up. Most of it had probably become Arthur's again already.
He woke again in the middle of the night and knew he would press onward this time until dusk. This time, riding, he looked at the sun and wondered about it. All these people in all these villages, working all these fields, all lived their lives by it. Somehow Merlin had come to feel himself separated from the day, not avoiding it and not seeking it.
He was not one of these people who were not like him. The people who were like him had his mother, if the story was true, and had hoped to use her against them. How could he be one of them, either?
That was the second day going north from Ealdor. Eighteen leagues covered, that day. There was another inn at the end of that second day and there was another innkeeper paid double, but no innkeeper's daughter, that time.
The day after that Merlin was waylaid by brigands. Outside of old Camelot, they were about, Merlin knew. Arthur had been dealing with them when Mordred reappeared, but then he had had bigger things to deal with. Merlin had bigger things to deal with, too. He said "Look, if you go now I'll leave you alone."
But the leader of the brigands was a tall man with a big frame on a black horse and he only laughed. "Three of us and one of you, pal."
"Look," Merlin tried. "Maybe you've heard of me. I'm Merlin."
But the leader of the brigands only laughed. "Third Merlin this month," he said. "The last two coughed up their money."
"Okay," Merlin said. He put out his hand and it took only a thought to cloud the horse's vision with images of fire. It neighed and reared up suddenly and the man was thrown from the horse. The others looked back at their leader and then looked at Merlin. He said "I'm Merlin, and you won't be able to take me."
They took their leader and fled.
At the end of the third day from Ealdor he found the war, if not the armies. To a point almost sixty leagues north of Camelot Merlin had come, and he knew it would not be far from here that the boy king led his army. But that would be tomorrow. There was another inn; the prices were lower here and so Merlin paid triple instead of double and got a dash of spice in his evening meal for it, and the latest news on the location of what was called The Pretender's army even here.
He slept restlessly that night. It had been easier to be calm when his mother and Morgana and the boy-king had been far away and his anger had been fresh, but now the people who haunted him were near and the memory of Arthur brought only sadness. He looked so much like his father, these days.
The next morning Merlin rode out the way Mordred's army had gone, wondering what he would do when he caught up with it. He pressed Bucephalus onward until he caught the trail of trampled earth and then he slowed the horse to a walk. In the evening the watchmen spotted him. Merlin showed them his empty hands.
He was escorted to the largest tent in the camp. Inside, there was what passed, for an army on the move, as a large table, and there were five men around it - three of them quite old, and two of them much younger than Merlin, all facing away from him, obscuring his vision forward. Two guards were stationed at the entrance, another two at the far corners.
The five men parted as they turned to face him, clearing his line of sight and showing him the man they tried to counsel. It was the boy-king, Mordred, with the same proud look he had worn even wounded and hiding from the city guard of Camelot. Beside him was Morgana, and - well, army life had obviously put its strain on her complexion. But she looked no less beautiful than she had before. Surprise showed on Morgana's face, and on Mordred's.
"Merlin," breathed Morgana.
"Emrys," said Mordred, schooling his face into implacability. "You are either very brave or very foolish to come before us."
"I'm told it's both," Merlin said. He caught a flash of a smile from Morgana.
Mordred said "You saved our life, many years ago. But you have also fought us. What are we to think of you?"
"Whatever you will."
"We have no stomach for games, Emrys." Mordred's face had hardly changed, but there was threat there. Once Arthur had been Mordred's age, but they were not the same.
"I don't mean to play games. I only mean that I am long since finished being anyone but myself."
"No?" Mordred smiled. "The fight's gone out of Pendragon's pet wizard?"
"I no longer serve King Arthur."
Though the old men had burst into a clamor, all Merlin noticed was Morgana's eyes widening. He saw her not take the half-step back that she wanted to take. He saw her not turn her attention to the chatter of the war council.
She stared at him, wondering. She wondered, Merlin knew, if the same thing that had happened to her had happened to him. Had it?
"Hush!" called Mordred. The boy had the voice of a commander, for all these older men shut their mouths at his word. "This would be interesting news, if we believed it. But this is more likely a trick."
"Ask your seer. I'm the worst liar you'll ever meet."
Morgana smiled again at that, in time for Mordred to see it and know the truth. He says "And what have you come here for?"
"I am told that you have taken my mother hostage."
Morgana's eyebrows creased in confusion. The other men leaned forward, but Mordred put his hand up for silence. "And if we had? What would you ask of us?"
"I suppose you thought this would convince me not to fight you. But I have already left Arthur's service. Keeping her hostage will serve no purpose for you."
"Very clever," said Mordred. To one of the guards at the door, the boy-king said "Send for Hunith." He turned back to Merlin. "This would have been a very compelling argument. We would have been very inclined to negotiate with you. But you made a mistake."
Merlin did not understand.
"Hunith is not a hostage with us, Emrys. She is our guest, and she is free to leave whenever she likes."
"It's true, Merlin," said Morgana. "She sent word to me personally, asking for help."
Then Hunith herself was walking through the entrance to the tent, and when her eyes met those of her son's they lit up. She had him wrapped in a hug before the guards could possibly have reacted, and Merlin was returning it before he even knew what he was doing.
Once he had felt so deeply, and it was a relief to know those feelings were still there, that he had been worried, even if he had not felt it before.
"Mother," he said. "You're safe."
"Thanks to Morgana," she said, as if she had known what conversation she was walking into.
Mordred picked up the thread: "The way it was told to us, Hunith had come under threat from one of Pendragon's lords, who sought to control you just as you thought we intended to. Word passed between servants and reached Hunith. Not knowing who she could trust in Arthur's court, she appealed to us instead."
"They've kept me safe," said Hunith.
Merlin turned back to Mordred. "I apologize."
"Don't," said Mordred. "I considered doing exactly what you suspected me of. If Morgana had not convinced me, I would have done it."
But you listened. Maybe in Mordred there was another hope. Maybe Mordred could be what Arthur had not. Maybe that was what Morgana had seen, that he had refused to hear. "If you'd allow it," Merlin offered, "I would like to stay here, with my mother. Your... guest, I guess."
Mordred laughed. "Guest? You could deliver us victory or defeat and you want to sit on the sideline with your mother?"
Merlin's legs were growing tired. A long day had passed and he had not been offered a seat. "I-" He closed his eyes. "I won't fight Arthur. You can't make me."
Mordred seemed to growl. "I should cast you out from this camp. I should let it be known to all my people that you are a traitor who will not help your own kind. I should have your head-"
"My lord," interrupted Morgana.
Merlin was startled at the way Mordred's face changed. A single moment after he had been threatening Merlin's life, his expression was half the chagrin of a man and half the guilt of a boy. Mordred bent to listen to what Morgana whispered in his ear, and after a while he gave a reluctant nod.
"You will not help us?"
"I will not fight Arthur." Merlin knew that part, at least. Whatever Arthur had done, he was still bloody Arthur.
"But you won't fight us?"
"Then you may make camp with us, and ride with us when we move."
"You trust me?" Merlin could not help but be surprised.
"Morgana trusts you. That will do." Mordred paused. "If you intend to remain in our camp, Emrys, you would be advised to address us by our correct title."
Merlin offered a wry smile in response. Someone would have to explain to Mordred that the ancestral claims would not stop the thrust of a sword. Then he turned back to his mother, who still bore that grateful, relieved smile. Merlin hugged her again, warmly, and they were dismissed together. Hunith was being boarded in a private tent of her own - a lavish dwelling in an army where most slept under the sky - and though she had to remain with the army, there was more than enough space for Merlin as well.
Someone saw to it that Merlin ate well the next morning, though he had not asked. Today they did not march. Merlin amused himself with his own memories until he was interrupted by Morgana. She pulled up the flap of his tent, stooping over to see inside. She smiled at him when he saw her, and he beckoned her inside. Hunith had gone; Merlin gathered that she had met a nice Druid man and preferred to spend her days with him.
Merlin indicated a mat on the ground, and Morgana took it gratefully. She said "After so many days on a horse you start to get uncomfortable whenever you're upright and there's nothing between your legs."
For only a moment Merlin managed to hold it in, and then he erupted into guffaws.
Morgana abruptly went red. "I didn't mean it like that!" But she could not help but be laughing too. In between snorts, she said "You have a sick mind, Merlin."
"You're the one who said it," he protested. Then he burst into fresh peals of laughter, and she began laughing harder in response.
Finally, after they both had calmed, she said "It's good to have a friend here."
"I didn't have many friends in Camelot after you left." Morgana laughed, and Merlin had to explain. "It's just... with Gaius gone and what happened to Gwen... I'm just the court wizard."
"You know no one else?"
Merlin grinned, but this one was mean; it was a smile he had never known when he had come to Uther's court. "The other lords are all Uther's men. They have to deal with me because Arthur says so, but-"
"They don't have to like you."
He could only offer the response of a dismissive hand. No matter how loyal Arthur was, he and Arthur had been comrades only, not friends.
Morgana understood. "I have no friends here, either. Mordred values my advice and the others... they can hardly turn a seer out. But I am the child of Uther's closest friend. His ward. Nearly Arthur's sister."
"They call him Pendragon here."
"Yes, well, they call Mordred the Pretender in Camelot."
There was silence then.
Morgana said "But you and I never did what we did to make friends."
"No," said Merlin. "But it would have been nice to have them anyway."
At that Morgana laughed again. "So... you came all the way up here just because you wanted to meet a friend?"
"I thought my mother was kidnapped." He had already been on his way there when he had thought that, but it was an easy half-truth.
"Of course," she said. "But now you're staying."
To that Merlin said nothing. He shut his eyes for a moment, to get his expression under control. He knew she had seen it, though, by the way her expression softened. Softened was the wrong word, for it seemed to grow angry, but in such a way that he knew he was not her target.
"What happened?" she asked.
"Something must have happened between you and Arthur. Something horrible."
He did not answer. He tried closing his eyes again to school his features, but he knew he could not keep some grief from showing on his face.
It would be impossible to withstand Morgana, who was so formidable when her temper was up. She asked "What happened?" again.
"I don't think-"
"Merlin, for God's sake, what was-"
"He asked me to kill you." As soon as he realized he has said it he turned away. He actually scrambled to his feet so that he could retreat to a corner of the tent.
"Oh, God," Morgana said. Then, more quietly, she whispered "Arthur?"
Merlin turned back to her. He fidgeted with his hands. "I don't- I don't know what to say. He's... harder now. Callous."
"He was always callous. We just didn't want to see it."
"We thought he was the one."
Morgana took a deep breath. "He has to be taken from the throne, Merlin. You must see that."
Merlin shook his head. "I'm here for... sanctuary, I guess, Morgana. I'm not here to join the fight." He's still Arthur.
"As long as Arthur is on the throne, we can't be free. You know it's that simple."
"God damn you, Morgana, he's Arthur!" That had to explain everything.
"Do you think I like this?" she shouted. Only then did she finally rise to her feet to see him, and she took a single step to corner him. She asked "Do you think I like this?"
"I won't kill you and I won't kill him."
"God, Merlin-" Morgana broke off. Not daring actually to touch him, she reached out a hand to him, held it near his hand. "I wouldn't ask you to kill. How... You're not a killer."
Merlin looked at her. He had learned as a scared boy how, without any magic at all, to seem to shrink into a wall. Then he rushed into her arms abruptly, wrapping his own around her.
This is what Arthur does to us. Morgana took as much comfort from Merlin as he from her, in that hug.
At last, she said "I need you to talk to Mordred."
He pulled away. "What?"
"I know you won't fight Arthur, but... at least you can offer counsel for Mordred." Morgana frowned. "He's being too cautious. Staying north while Camelot waits in the south."
"War counsel, you mean." Merlin paused. "Because I know Arthur's strategy."
"Do you know it?"
Merlin snorted meanly. "I don't think Arthur knows Arthur's strategy."
"But you know him better than he knows himself, don't you?"
That was how Merlin came to stand before the boy-king Mordred in the war council. It was still just a tent, but it was big enough to hold twelve people comfortably and that was something in and of itself. He said to Mordred, "First he tried to swat you away like a bug. He sent his dukes with their armies to quash you so that he could keep his attention in Camelot."
"We destroyed those armies," said Mordred.
"Yes you did," said Merlin. "But those armies are a fraction of Camelot's strength, when Arthur bothers to call on all Albion for reinforcements. You haven't a hope against that kind of army."
Mordred curled his fingers into a fist, then uncurled them. His voice calm and sharp, he said "Surely many people told you that many things were impossible, many times. Did you listen?"
Such foolishness. "It's not impossible to win, but that doesn't make it inevitable. You still have to fight this war right."
"And you would have us attack? Just like that?"
Merlin thought. He had considered it before this moment, but when put like that it seemed foolish. Still, for all his thought he could find no way around it. "Yes. Now. He will concentrate his forces at Camelot. Your only hope is to get there before most of his armies do."
"And we'll win? If we do as you say?"
"I'm no seer," said Merlin. His eyes flickered to Morgana, who stood beside him, though her customary place was next to the boy-king.
Mordred's pointed look at her was less subtle. In response, she shrugged.
The pause that followed was entirely too long for anyone's comfort. One of the Druid elders broke it by saying "My lord, you can't possibly be considering this plan."
The boy-king gave the white-haired man a sharp look but no condemnation. The elder seemed to take it as a prompt to continue.
"You know it must be a trap, my lord. Are we supposed to believe that Pendragon's most trusted advisor suddenly had a change of heart and has come here to help us defeat him?"
Mordred frowned. When he spoke again to Merlin, his voice was cold. He said "If we do as you say we should, will you fight against the army of Camelot yourself?"
"No." Merlin looked at Morgana, wondering if he felt betrayed at what she had asked of him. "No, I'm surprised I'm helping you at all."
"You must see, my lord," said the man who had spoken before. "He wants us to fight but he will not fight himself."
"Is any of what he says wrong?" asked Mordred. He gave a pause, as if he really did want an answer from this council. They gave him none. To the white-haired man, he said "When you asked us to take back the claim our grandfather allowed to lapse, you assured us that we would find popular support throughout Albion. But these people do not recognize us. They will not recognize us until we sit on the throne of Camelot."
"There have been difficulties, my lord, but this-"
"The nobles support the Pendragon dynasty. If we are to defeat the king, we must prevent their forces from uniting with his."
The white-haired man knew when he was lost. A dark-haired man who shared Mordred's arrogant look said "We could pursue the dukes instead. They are weak alone."
"There's no time," conceded the white-haired man.
Apparently the decision was made. Mordred turned back to Merlin and said, smiling, "You have your way. Understand that we will see you killed personally if this is a trap."
That night, in his tent - Hunith was gone again - Merlin asked Morgana what she saw of this. iDo I survive helping you?/i She said "Nothing useful, Merlin. I can't control what I see."
"If - if you do, would you tell me?"
She smiled at his hesitance. "Of course, Merlin. You're my friend."
They spoke for a while longer, and then she left and he went to sleep. He woke again in the middle of the night and went outside. Immediately, he noticed that one of the guards was stationed to watch his tent and not the perimeter. He gave the man a disarming wave, and got one in return, and then he went to breathe in the native air.
He felt rested in a way the longest sleep in the finest beds in Camelot had never done. He felt free.
There, sitting on a great boulder in a thin robe, was Morgana. Breathtaking Morgana. As he watched, she shivered in the cold, and he had an urge then to use his magic to make her warm. It was an urge he recognized from the old days in Camelot.
Instead Merlin walked up to her, taking care to make enough noise that she heard him before he surprised her. She turned to him, looking as if she knew what he was doing, and perhaps she did. She had always been better at the little games than he.
"What are you doing out here?" he asked.
Morgana smiled. "You know, I could ask you the same question."
Smiling back, he said "Yes, you could." Then he waited.
"Half an hour ago I dreamt that I was sitting here. So-" She paused, shrugging awkwardly. Her movements were conservative in that robe and the cold. "I thought I'd come see what the fuss was about."
"But not me."
"I never see you, Merlin. There's something about you... you change the things I see. You make them happen differently, sometimes. As if I see the world the way it would be without you." She shrugged. "I don't know anything about how this works, Merlin, but there's something strange about you, Merlin. Your magic isn't like any magic that the Druids practice. It's - " she stopped, but it was the same word she had already said that still hung at the tip of her tongue. Strange.
"Well." Merlin showed the edges of a smile. "It's not like I was getting longing looks from all the ladies before they knew I was a wizard anyway, so..."
"More than you think," Morgana said, easily.
On a sudden impulse borne from his new, old feeling of freedom, Merlin leaned down and kissed her on the lips.
He pulled back just a few inches to see her reaction, but all he saw was surprise. Then Morgana took his hand with hers and smiled softly.
"That was nice," she said.
"Nice?" Merlin prompted.
"Very much so."
Then there was a breeze, and Morgana shivered again. "Come on," Merlin said. He tugged on her hand.
Morgana allowed herself to be pulled to her feet.
By the hand, Merlin led her back to his tent. "You can sleep with me tonight."
"You work quickly," Morgana observed with a straight face, and then she laughed at how quickly Merlin's face turned red.
"Oh, God. I didn't- oh." He took a breath to calm his nerves. "I just meant, for company."
She laughed again, but eventually she agreed. The next morning Hunith found them curled about each other. She said nothing when Morgana awoke and saw her, though Morgana blushed redder even than she had ever seen Merlin do.
"It's all right," Hunith said warmly. "You're both very lonely people. I know what that feels like."
Morgana disentangled herself from Merlin, who grumbled in his sleep at the disturbance. She stood, subtly showing Hunith that she was still decently clothed. Then she stretched as well as she could in the meager accommodations. Merlin might have been raised on these straw mattresses, but Morgana had slept in the finest beds in the civilized world nearly every day of her life.
Hunith offered "It seems as though you really like each other."
"I-" Morgana's instinct to dismiss the question, but glancing automatically back at Merlin, she frowned. "It's as if-" But she could not find the words to say what she thought of him.
"It's like he always wants to do the right thing, and he never even considers taking anything for himself. Like he's a good person without having to try."
"That's it exactly," said Morgana.
"It's what he said about you," said Hunith.
Morgana did not have anything to say to that. She stared at Merlin while Hunith smiled at her.
Finally Hunith said "You'd best wake him up. The king's ordered we march today. We're moving south."
The king meant Mordred, of course. They all had to remind themselves of that from time to time.
The boy-king did lecture them on their relationship, though he waited days longer than Merlin had thought he would. An army moved slower than a lone man on horseback, and it took the better part of a week for their great force to near Camelot. It was at that time, in the evening, when Mordred invited Merlin to his council.
When Merlin arrived, the council was much thinned from the great circle that had been there before. Indeed, the white-haired man, whose name was Myrddin, and the young man who had spoken out of turn in the old council, who was Mordred's brother Gawain, were the only Druids who remained. Morgana, beside the boy-king, smiled warmly as Merlin entered.
"Emrys," said Mordred.
Merlin said nothing. Saying "Mordred" would have been too rude, and he would not pledge to the Druid allegiance he did not feel.
Mordred scowled. "Pendragon's uprooted his whole force from Camelot and marched west on Dunoding."
"That's interesting," said Merlin, because it was.
"Myrddin urges us to take Camelot while it is undefended," Mordred said, and Merlin frowned. Mordred must have seen it, for he asked "You would have us chase after Pendragon's army."
Merlin shrugged easily; perhaps he shrugged too easily. "Arthur's your enemy, not Camelot." He could see that Mordred did not understand, though Morgana did. He understood then that Morgana had been trying to convince the boy-king of this point for some time before Merlin had arrived. "What happens after you take Camelot? As long as Arthur is out there, he will have the loyalty of the nobles. Where do - If you set yourself up as king in the castle of Camelot, you can probably sit there for months - I don't know, maybe years, unchallenged. But you'll have to fight Arthur sometime."
"Why now? Why not later?"
Merlin shrugged. "Some of the noble armies are still further from Arthur than we are. We can still get to him."
Mordred frowned. "Morgana thinks the same, Emrys." He paused. "We must wonder why it is that you hate Pendragon so much."
"I don't hate Arthur," said Merlin instantly.
"You don't?" Mordred smiled. "You must know we intend to see him dead."
"I hope you don't do that," said Merlin.
The boy-king's eldest, closest brother, Gawain, intervened out of his place again. He said "Pendragon has committed treason!"
"Arthur is not Uther," said Merlin sharply. "All he's ever done is rule over the kingdom he inherited. He deserves to be removed, not to die."
Mordred looked speculative. Myrddin did as well. "Perhaps we will discuss it later. For now, there are more... pressing matters."
Recognizing some cue that Merlin did not, Morgana stiffened and stepped away from Mordred.
"It's come to our attention that you have cultivated a relationship with Morgana."
Cultivated? Right. I watered it and made sure it got enough sun and everything. "We are... together..."
"We are told she has slept in your tent every night the past several nights."
"That's true," said Merlin.
"You knew there was a watch on your tent. You made no attempt to hide this from us."
"Did you expect our approval?"
"I wasn't thinking about your opinion, really."
Mordred did not sigh, because he was too noble for such things, but he managed to convey the impression of having sighed nonetheless."You and she, you saved my life once."
"So did Arthur." At that Morgana smiled. It was the closest thing to a fond memory that they all might still share.
Mordred, on the other hand, was staring at Merlin with the most intrigued expression. Eventually he looked at Myrddin, who was on the same trail of thought. The boy-king said "I shouldn't trust him."
"No," said Myrddin.
Mordred turned back to Merlin. "When this war is over, and House Pendragon is crushed, will you kneel to us then?"
"I hadn't thought that far ahead," said Merlin cheekily. He wondered to himself why he was not taking his situation more seriously. But he had already devoted himself to one king, and freed himself of that.
"I shouldn't trust you, Emrys," said Mordred. "But I think if this were a trap you'd at least pretend to like me."
"We are not pleased at your relationship with Morgana, but we lack cause to stop it. Give us that cause, and we will end it."
Merlin smiled at what Mordred did not see: the sudden stiffening of Morgana's spine; the familiar creases above the bridge of her nose.
"You are dismissed," said Mordred. "Both of you."
They were scarcely out of the king's tent when Morgana was kissing him passionately.
"Didn't he just say," Merlin said.
But Morgana said "To hell with him." How much of this new lust was actually anger at Mordred, Merlin wasn't sure. But trying to stop her now would be futile, and it was hardly as if he did not want it.
Which was why their first time together was in the woods, just after sunset, against a remarkably uncomfortable tree. But after a while Morgana was able to forget her anger and it was fun, too, and after they were both laughing.
They helped each other arrange their clothes properly, and then went back to the camp together. The next day the army marched west.
The next day was a misty day, and the day after. In that afternoon the army came abruptly to a river, across which could be heard the sound of thousands of men in idleness. Merlin smelled the sea. He rode up to the place at the front where Mordred, on horseback, conferred with his advisers.
The boy-king saw Merlin and raised his eyebrows.
He said "These men counsel us to wait the night. Would you press us onward?"
"No," said Merlin. "Wait the night."
"Why?" asked Mordred. "Pendragon's army is across that river. They're not yet prepared."
The one who responded was not Merlin - he was on the other side of the boy-king, and a small, scholarly man. He was another of Mordred's brothers; this one was named Gareth. "By the time you find a ford and get across there will be an hour left to fight before the dark comes, and in this mist we'll be blind before then anyway."
Mordred stared across the river for a long time, but he nodded. "Have the army make camp. Post scouts on the river." He turned back and saw Merlin still waiting. "What?"
"If you ask Arthur to discuss peace, he'll consider it."
"Peace?" asked Gawain, rounding on Merlin at Mordred's other side. "Isn't it a bit late for that?"
"No," said Merlin firmly. "It is not a bit late for that."
Mordred stared at the wizard, his eyes narrowed. He was not convinced.
"Mordred," Merlin tried, "I think you need to decide why you're doing this. If you're just doing this because you hate Arthur, go ahead. He's right across that river." He waved for effect at the mist. "If you want to kill him, go do it. Go cross that river and kill him. Put a spear in his guts," he spat, "and when he's dead you can make a trophy of his heart." He could finally feel his blood stirring. This, finally, he cared about. iGlorious/i. "But thousands of your people will die in that fight and thousands of his. You know war - they won't be pretty deaths. So maybe you need to take a second and think if those people matter to you."
The king's advisers looked uncomfortable - many, shocked. Gawain's hand had moved openly to the sword at his side, and it may have been that all that stayed his hand was the knowledge that he was far outclassed. But the boy-king himself had turned away from Merlin again, and stared across the mist.
Merlin looked back at Morgana, who watched the assembled council from the outside. She had admitted that she had no knowledge of military tactics, and Merlin knew it was in part a maneuver to try to avoid Mordred's attention until his anger had softened.
Mordred said "Any man I send could be executed by Pendragon for treason."
Merlin nodded. After all, it was true.
"You should go," said Mordred. "You have magic, and you know Pendragon best."
I don't know him at all. He knew he could not refuse. He was the best person for the job.
"And... Emrys?" said Mordred. He waited a beat, as if getting his words in order. "If Pendragon wants peace, he will have to come here and ask for it. You-"
But a shriek had come suddenly from where Merlin realized Morgana had been riding. They all turned and saw her, limp in the saddle, her eyes wide open, the whites showing. Then she was sliding from the saddle, still limp.
By lucky instinct Merlin's magic slowed her fall, and she landed softly. But she did not wake up. Even when they made camp and had her set down, with the best healers in the tent with her, she did not wake up. "Powerful magic," they said. "She's in the grip of some powerful spell."
"Pendragon," Mordred hissed.
But Merlin said "No."
"You said he wanted you to kill her. How do you know he hasn't hired someone else to do it?"
"Arthur doesn't trust wizards or freelancers." He wanted to blame Arthur too, but right now there was too much at stake. iHave to grow up sometime./i "And... I've never seen anything like this. Neither have any of your healers. How-"
"Fine." Mordred stared at Morgana's prone body. "Talk to Pendragon. Go now. If he has not come to ask for peace by daybreak, we will fight."
So Merlin left Morgana and went down to the river. The sun was setting, and it cast the river in an interesting color. Merlin knew a trick for walking on water, but instead he caused a raft to come into existence and rowed himself across the quiet water. At the opposite bank a sentry had spotted him and watched him warily. Merlin waved.
The sentry stared at him, confused.
When Merlin reached the bank, he stepped ashore and let the raft vanish behind him. He told the sentry "You should probably tell them I'm coming." He would not let any anger into his voice. He had been an incompetent, struggling, awestruck boy once.
The men in the camp went silent as Merlin walked through it. They stared at him; he did not stare back. Some of them he had known. Then he came to the largest tent in all the camp. Only Arthur was inside, and two guards by the flap.
Arthur was standing, waiting. Merlin saw the half-step forward that Arthur almost took, to see him, and felt the gap between them grow wider. What Arthur said was "Merlin, if you wanted to talk to me, you didn't have to bring an army."
"It's not me I want you to talk to, Arthur."
Arthur smiled at that, sadly. "So it's peace you came for."
"You sound disappointed."
"Well, I'd hoped it was friendship."
"These days I wonder if we were ever friends," said Merlin.
Arthur's eyes shut abruptly, tightly, in a familiar expression of pained regret. "You were my friend, Merlin. From the first - well, third or fourth time you called me a prat."
Merlin smiled reflexively. The distance between them remained.
"Peace?" asked Arthur. "To stop the battle tomorrow, what do I have to give up?"
"What they wanted in the first place," said Merlin.
Merlin nodded. "Freedom to practice magic. And freedom for the Druids."
"That's a lot to ask, Merlin."
There was something off in the way that Arthur wore his crown. He wore it too easily. He had never worn the crown as lightly as he did now. Abruptly, Merlin said "Morgana is taken ill."
He saw Arthur's eyes flash with concern and was gratified for that.
"Perhaps an hour ago. No more. The healers say it's powerful magic, but they don't recognize it." He paused.
Arthur said nothing.
"Mordred's advisors think you did it. I persuaded him it wasn't you."
Still Arthur said nothing.
"If he crosses that river in the morning, it will be difficult for you to defeat him. Where do you have to retreat to?"
"I can smell the sea from here. I'm not so good with geography but I think it's right behind you. Have you got a navy I never knew about?"
"No," said Arthur. "No navy. I hoped Mordred would march slower."
"Go, make peace with him. Go tell him you want this to be over."
But Arthur's eyes flashed. "Go?"
"He's right across the river."
"You want me to go over there?"
Merlin could feel his heart sinking in his chest.
"Go? He is a treasonous rebel. I should have him quartered alive. I am within my just power to have him killed in the most painful way I can find, him and all his advisors!" Arthur began to pace, then stopped and turned again to Merlin. "By the law, that would include you."
Do you think you could keep me captive long enough? "Yes, it would."
"If Mordred wants peace, he must come to me. That is the price for my forgiveness."
"He will not come," said Merlin.
"Then we will fight," said Arthur.
Merlin could feel anger boiling up inside him, righteous and strong. "Please," he said.
"I do not beg."
That was it, then. He had done his best. But the anger was still there, and it was touching his magic. He let them fill him, but he did not cast a thing. He could see Arthur's eyes widen. Don't trust me, old friend?
Merlin let the magic settle in his hands and face, feeling its pleasant fire.
Then he said "God damn both of you for your pride."
He didn't bother to walk from the camp. A flash of smoke and he was back at the riverside. In ten minutes he was back at Morgana's side.
She had not woken.
The next morning came as Merlin slept by Morgana's side. The healers had told him not to, told him they could not be sure what afflicted her would not spread, but he had stared at them until they had shut up. Merlin woke to the sound of the army of the Druids preparing for battle. He went outside the tent and saw the whole army mobilizing.
It was clearer today than it had been the days before, and Merlin could see clear across the camp to where Mordred stood by the river, buckling his own sword to his side while one of the squires brought out his horse. Mordred looked back at him. His eyes were hard.
The army marched down to the river. Merlin watched them go. Then he went back into the tent to be with Morgana. Hunith joined them a few minutes later.
They sat silently for an hour, listening as the sounds of battle rose in the distance.
Then Morgana awoke suddenly, screaming. Merlin took her in his hands to calm her, but instead of calming she began to claw at him,still screaming, almost crying now. Then words became legible: "Oh God, oh God, oh God."
"Morgana," said Merlin, and she finally saw him.
"Merlin," she said. Her eyes calmed for a moment in his presence, then went wide again with horror "You have to stop them."
"Arthur and Mordred. You have to stop them fighting."
"No," Morgana said. "Do whatever you have to. Just make them stop fighting."
"Merlin," said Morgana. "There will be no winner."
What? Then he understood. "I'll stop them."
He went out of the tent. Then he gathered his magic around him and, in a flash of smoke, he vanished. He couldn't push himself into the middle of the battle, not knowing where each person was, but he could put himself at the riverside, and he did. The two armies were locked in combat. More men of Mordred's remained. Merlin lifted himself two inches above the water and crossed it. The men at the riverside saw him and stopped fighting, backing away from him.
He went through the battle, blasting aside the men who would not get out of his way, hoping to find the kings.
Then, there they were, locked against each other in combat.
Mordred had lost his shield; both had lost their horses. Their armor was damaged in many places. Just as Merlin reached them Arthur feinted a wide slash and then he placed an easy thrust directly into Mordred's gut. It was a fatal blow. Arthur knew it, too, for he turned from Mordred and locked eyes with Merlin. And then Mordred, kneeling behind Arthur, stabbed him in the back. Arthur's eyes fell from defiance to shock.
Then both kings fell.
Merlin spared only a moment to look at their bodies. Then he turned and saw Gawain, standing, looking on. The poor boy had wanted only to be Mordred's right hand man, not king himself. But Merlin had no pity left to give. He gathered his magic about him and he vanished.
He sat outside the tent for a long time. Eventually Morgana came out and saw him. Merlin looked at her and realized he had been crying. Morgana shuddered. After a moment she sat beside him on the ground.
When the sun went down the army returned from across the river. Gawain found Merlin and Morgana where they were sitting and the ground. He held, still, in his hand a bloody dagger. His sword was missing, as was his helm. He was very dirty.
He said "Arthur's men have lain down arms. Our scouts say that the nobles have concentrated and are making camp half a league from here. We haven't the men to fight them or the morale."
Gawain waited. He was just a boy, really. Merlin remembered the way that hate had burned its way down to the core of Uther's soul, but Gawain was different. For all that he wanted to fight, it was a young feeling, tempered by shock.
Merlin realized that the heir apparent had been asking for advice. "Fight, or sue for peace. You've nowhere to run."
The prince nodded heavily at that. Then he left.
Morgana finally leaned against Merlin, and when she fell asleep against his side he lifted her and carried her back to their tent. That night he fell asleep beside her.
The next morning Morgana looked as rested as Merlin felt, which was to say not at all. The army was still in the camp, though daybreak had passed. It seemed the nobles had chosen not to attack.
Gareth came to meet them while they ate breakfast. "I've convinced Gawain to go along with my idea."
"Your idea?" asked Merlin.
"Constantine has assumed leadership with the death of Arthur." Gareth may not have noticed that Merlin flinched back at that rough statement. "Constantine is the child of Igraine's sister. His claim is the strongest among the nobles, but only because the Pendragons were a small clan. It remains a weak claim."
"I am told that Constantine is a good man. A... moderate. He'd step aside if someone with a better claim were found, for the sake of the kingdom."
"It just so happens that there is one here with a better claim," said Gareth. "Uther's ward. Very nearly Arthur's sister."
Morgana said "Last night I dreamt that there was a Queen in Camelot who inherited all of Albion. She was a seer, and a strong woman, but she was tired and broken. She had lost every fight she had ever fought. By the end of her reign her kingdom and her soul were broken."
"Was it you?" asked Merlin.
"I don't know," said Morgana. "But I feel the way she must have felt."
Gareth said "If you don't accept this, the Druids will fight, or flee. It may be a thousand years before Albion is united again."
Morgana did not say anything.
Merlin said "We will take Arthur's body to Constantine. We have no more need for your protection."
That afternoon they crossed, alone, to Constantine's camp. Hunith remained behind. Constantine greeted the two with sorrow etched on his features. Staring at Arthur's body, he offered Albion to Morgana, just as Gareth had. She seemed so uncertain.
Merlin leaned close to her. "Last night I dreamt of a woman and a man in a little cottage by a small village near the woods. it was quietly known everywhere that for children struggling with wondrous abilities, in this little cottage lived a man and a woman who could help them understand what they were doing. And they lived like that for decades, together, quietly, healing."
Morgana turned to Merlin. "Was it us?"
"I don't know," said Merlin. "You tell me."
Morgana smiled. "The throne is yours, Constantine. We will escort Arthur's body to Glastonbury Abbey, and we will bury him beside Guinevere. We will do it alone. Then we will be finished with your court."
Constantine nodded at that. He was a quiet man, not given to temper, and he had learned to pick his battles. And the next day, they rode out unaccompanied and undisturbed.