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A Bright Blade In A Shielded Sky

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ooOOoo

With his feet pounding the ground hard enough to raise a puff of dirt with every slap of boot-sole on soil, Lancelot runs as he’s never run in his life. Chest heaving, he pulls the cool autumn into his lungs with increasing effort. His arms are pumping up and down in rhythm with his legs, powering him forward. Desperation fuels him, fear for his lover lending him a speed he’s never achieved before in all his years of physical endeavor.

He can hear them ahead of him but he can’t see them through the dense woods. Luckily they are sticking to an established game trail. He’d have been hard pressed to catch up to them had he needed to plunge through the thick underbrush that blankets the King’s Forest.

He isn’t sure how much of a head start they have on him. The dart had only grazed him but the sedative that coated the tip of the projectile had been potent enough to leave him disoriented for several precious minutes. He’d been just aware enough to know they were taking Merlin but he’d been too weak…too dazed, to stop them.

Lancelot thanks all the gods above that the men--men, right --that have Merlin are strangers to Camelot. They are moving more cautiously than he, less sure of the path that they’re taking. They have to find their way to some specific destination, he only has to find his way to them.

Gaining on them, he can catch glimpses of them here and there as he dashes madly down the trail. They are only a few hundred yards ahead of him. Reaching down for reserves he never knew he had, he manages another burst of speed. He will catch them, he will not let them take Merlin from him. They’re not far away now, he will have them soon.

Lancelot bursts from the trees in the lee of a tall hill, the only one around for miles. They are just ahead, and Lancelot can see Merlin, hanging limply over the shoulder of one of his abductors. Almost upon them, he can feel the magic a split second before he sees it. A gaping hole opens in the air before the mass of milling figures. They plunge inside, taking Merlin with them. The opening starts to shrink as soon as the last of them is through.

He leaps for the portal even as the glow is fading…

oOo

Lancelot finds himself in the center of a small meadow, which is blanketed in snow and surrounded by bare frozen trees. Icicles hung in lacy sprays from barren black branches, gleaming in the dim, hazy, seemingly sourceless light. The air smelled strange, sweet and cloying. It was deeply unnatural given the frozen nature of the landscape that surrounded him. He shivers with more than just cold, but still he pulls his cloak close about him. It was a gift from Merlin and as such it is a comforting touch among all this strangeness.

In all the tales he’d heard of Ælfheim, Lancelot had heard it described as a land of perpetual summer, therefore this frozen forest is most unexpected. He comforts himself with the thought that Merlin’s abductors should be easier to track in the snow than they would be across green and mossy ground. He casts about for a trail only to be confounded by smooth, unbroken expanses of white in every direction he looks.

“What the…?”

There is nothing. No boot prints, no hoof tracks, not even so much as a scrape mars the unnatural glitter of the sinister frost. How is this possible? He’d seen the rogue creatures drag Merlin through the same portal that Lancelot passed through only moments after and yet, there isn’t the slightest trace of their passing. The snow itself is but a thin coating but more than enough that there should be some evidence of the presence of so large a party. He toes the frost flaking the ground and hears the distinctive crunch of old snow under his boot. Clearly, the snow isn’t newly fallen, so how are there no tracks?

To his eyes, it’s clear that no one’s entered this glade in quite some time, maybe even weeks. It seems a bit suspicious that he can’t even observe any animal tracks. Surely there have to be woodland creatures of some sort, even in this magical land. However, there is no evidence of any creature in the clearing save he.

Speaking aloud for courage in the unnatural stillness, Lancelot chivvies himself into action.

“Well, I’m not going to find him if I just stand here and gawk.”

He looks about, picks a direction at random and begins to walk, the snow crunching beneath his boots.

“This way seems as good as any and a great deal better than some others,” he opines as he looks over his shoulder. He concedes, if only to himself, that his direction doesn’t feel random, it feels right. However, it feels more as if his instincts are guiding him away from something more than they are guiding him toward anything in particular.

Once under the trees, the dim light that lights the meadow is muffled, further rendering the wood to a twilight that seems to neither wax nor wane. Strange, gelatinous moisture drips down some of the trees in a milky slide forming small pools at their bases. Something tells Lancelot to be wary of these puddles and he gives them as wide a berth as he can.

He is cautious where he puts his feet, and is mindful of the swing of his arms and the passage of his body. Avoiding contact with everything in the forest is impossible, it is too overgrown to allow him unhindered passage. He tries to limit his contact to plants that seem familiar, trees free of the odd…sap and the leafless underbrush. Shying away from unshriveled ferns that glow with a sickly yellow light, he detours around oddly twisted bushes whose bright purple flowers and broad green leaves are as vibrant as if they thrive in summer sun instead of winter twilight. There are entire groves of trees that sing and shriek to themselves and hollows that whisper to him in a strange and menacing tongue.

So many strange curiosities surround him, some beautiful, some clearly deadly, but Lancelot shuns them all for the comforting normalcy of the stripped and skeletal deciduous trees and the pointed evergreens heavy with fat, rounded cones. The forest continues to be silent, apart from the occasional shrieking, singing or whispering patch. The only sounds Lancelot can hear are the crunch of the snow beneath his feet, the swishing movement of his clothing as he swings his arms and legs and the soft pass of air in and out of his lungs. He wonders if this place is truly devoid of wild things or if they are merely frozen, hiding, wary of this stranger among them.

When the low, hazy light suddenly disappears, Lancelot startles to a stop. There had been no gradual dimming of the light to indicate the coming of night; the light was simply there one moment and gone the next. It remains impossible to calculate the passage of time here, so he is uncertain as to whether this is a natural feature in the cycle of this place’s day and night or if something more sinister is afoot.

Sensing no immediate threat, Lancelot feels his way to the last “normal” tree he’d spotted and slid down it’s rough surface until he rested on the ground, the tree a comforting shield for his back. He sighs and mentally bemoans the lack of a comforting fire, but gods know he has slept in more uncomfortable surroundings than these and lived to tell the tale. So, like the hardened soldier he is, he crosses his arms over his chest, ignores the hunger gnawing at his belly and slumps into a marginal and wary sleep.

He dreams of Merlin...of the first time they met. He relives his consternation with the King that he should bring such a young, untried mage straight up to the front ranks of a brutal battlefield. Once again, Lancelot endures the horror of seeing the sixteen year old sorcerer take an arrow to the chest. He drowns in the agonizing terror he feels as the young man writhes and pants out his pain in Lancelot’s arms. But he’s ripped from the dream before he can manage to drag the boy to a healer who can save him.

Lancelot startles awake, clutching the air and searching the ground around him for several frantic moments, his hands seeking Merlin’s broken body. It’s only a few moments before the reality of his current situation reasserts itself on his consciousness, but those few moments are a hell of panic and fear. As he settles back into himself, he hears a quiet giggle. Jumping to his feet, he draws his sword. In the dim light of what he assumes to be morning, he casts around for the source of the laughter. His actions seem to provoke even more mirth in his invisible watcher as the giggles escalate into full-blown laughter. It’s not a friendly sound.

Eventually, he pinpoints the sound and his eyes make out a twisted spriggan crouching beneath one of the glowing ferns. It’s an ugly creature, small and dark, warped of feature and stooped in posture. It’s eyes glow with the same sickly yellow light as the plant it shelters beneath. He can’t help but contrast the unhealthy colour of its eyes with the glorious gold that glows in Merlin’s eyes whenever the King’s Shield loosens his magic.

“Who are you? What do you want with me?”

He is bold in his challenge even as his heart pounds in his chest and his palms sweat with nerves. He can see the little thing’s bold, leering sneer and it makes him uneasy. A foreboding comes over him as he spies that expression; the small, dark figure is possessed of no good intent.

“I simply smelled your fear and came to feast,“ says the foul little creature. “Such lovely agony, little mortal...you suffer most deliciously!”

Lancelot feels sick as he remembers the terror of his dreams. This creature could sense it? Could smell his dream-induced fear and came to…consume it? Or was he here to consume Lancelot entirely, not just feed off his negative emotions? Taking no chances, he hardens his heart as if for battle. He seals away his fear and his worries, slamming a lid down on the phantasmagoria that has plagued even his waking mind. He ceases thinking of Merlin while this malevolent thing can use his lover to weaken him.

“Begone! I shall provide no further fodder for your bloated appetite.”

The thing tilts its head and examines him closely before opening a wide mouth full of twisted, blackened teeth and letting loose a hideous cackling sound.

“Indeed, pretty mortal! I can see I shall feast no more upon you this morning. However, I think I’ll stick close. It won’t be long before you give me more of what I want. You cannot help but to fear in this place, mortal as you are!”

It gives forth that ugly laughter once again before it melts from his sight and he is left standing at nothing more than the glowing fern. Lancelot glances around warily but the wight makes no further appearance. As he’s casting about at his feet for another sighting, he spies a tangle of vines at the base of one of the mundane looking trees. Now that the adrenalin that fired him into wakefulness is receding, Lancelot is beginning to feel the stiffness that comes with spending the night on frozen ground without the warmth of fire to keep the body pliable. The vines give him an idea for improving his comfort come nightfall.

He hefts them and finds they are suitably tough and flexible. Hoping with all his heart that he is not about to start anything he can’t finish by offending the spirits of the forest, he makes a tentative cut at one of the vines. When nothing untoward happens, he makes another, then another until he holds in his hands the means to weave a crude carrying bag.

He walks as he works. The weaving is a simple thing and after a few hours, he holds in his hands the means to carry wood for a fire. He gathers naturally downed twigs, branches and small logs as he walks and when the night closes in on him with as little warning as the one before, he is better prepared to endure the cold darkness.

The fire makes little difference to his dreams. Once again, he dreams of Merlin. This time it’s the last time they made love and the quarrel that came after. He relives the delicious ecstasy only briefly while the anger and resentment seem to linger forever in his mind. The venom between them is ugly whenever they fight. After such an intense and uneasy courtship, they know only too well how to hurt each other when they are feeling wounded themselves. They never fight well but they always make up for it later when they forgive each other and offer and receive solace and forgiveness. They forgive the unforgivable because they know they are loved. They know it to the depths of their souls and while the fighting is ugly, the accord they always reach in the aftermath is all the sweeter for the battle between them.

However, his dream is cruel, and this time with this fight, there is no following accord. There is no forgiveness for Merlin is taken from him before they can mend their quarrel. He is taken by his brother’s men and dragged away to the realm in which he was born, Ælfheim. Lancelot follows as swiftly as he can, but he catches up with the otherworldly brigands only in time to see them disappear beneath a barrow. Merlin is shouting Lancelot’s name and flinging out a hand in his direction even as he is dragged into the hill.

Lancelot wakes up, drenched in sweat and calling for Merlin. He hears the same loathsome giggling as he did the morning before but this time he ignores it. He hasn’t the energy to waste on the mischievous spriggan. He’s found no sustenance since he arrived in this place, and while the days here don’t seem as long as they do back home, he has no way of knowing for certain just how long it’s been since he arrived. It’s been long enough to weaken him and for the last of his water to be consumed the evening (afternoon?) before.

He drags his heavy body upright and trudges off into the forest once more. Sooner or later he must find a track of some kind…surely he must. However as the hours pass, his feet grow heavier with each step he takes. The horrible cackling laughter of the dark little creature that has haunted him for two days sounds out in the forest from time to time, reminding him that he hasn’t shaken the tiny parasite. When the giggles and the chortles change pitch and direction, coming at him from all sides, he tells himself it is some trick of the senses. There just can’t be more than one of the things, surely there isn’t enough of him to feed an entire band of the soul-sucking wights.

Gathering what wood he can find and staggering with fatigue and the weakness of hunger, Lancelot carries on with dogged determination. He knows he’s lost but he can’t stop. Stopping means giving in and he knows if he gives in now, he’ll never leave these woods alive.

Later, much later, in what passes for a day in this world Lancelot loses his footing and staggers sideways through a shimmering fog landing hard on the other side of what turns out to be a wall of mist. He’s avoided other such obvious magical oddities until now, sticking to the solid reassurance of the familiar and avoiding the clearly supernatural. He looks up from his knees and finds himself on the shore of a lake; a lake surrounded by mountains that should have been clearly visible to him, even in the thick depths of the forest he has apparently left behind.

At the sight of the water, Lancelot’s thirst surges to the fore. He eyes the lake with caution for a moment but knows that whatever dangers might lurk under the surface are worth the risk. He dare not waste this chance to slake his thirst. This is the first source of water he’s come across in three days. Who knows when he might find another?

He kneels at the water’s edge and using his hand, dips up a palmful of the cool, clear liquid. It smells clean so he takes a sip, then another and another until he is gulping it down as fast as he can bring it to his mouth. Finally, his terrible thirst abates enough for him to pause in his frantic drinking and reach for the water-skin he carries at his belt. The act of filling the vessel finally affords him a moment to look around and he’s amazed to see that he’s not only stumbled onto another landscape but also into another season!

The trees that surround him are green with leaves and he can see fruit and flowers among the bushes that cluster thickly around the lake’s edge. The water is cold, but he realizes that the air around him is not. Insects buzz round the place and he can detect the rustling sounds of small animals in the underbrush. Though there is still no proper sun to speak of, the light here is brighter than the wood he’s left behind.

He looks back at the shining curtain he’s stumbled through with some trepidation. For a moment, he contemplates returning through it. Behind him lies the land to which Merlin was taken. Is this place part of the same realm or has he strayed into yet another strange world? Lancelot takes in the forest around him, lush and teeming with life, so wildly different from the dull and frozen land he’s been wandering in for days. If nothing else at least, it’s warmer on this side of the fog and he’s been making no measurable progress for all his wanderings so far.

Eyes narrowing as he scans his new surroundings, Lancelot resolves to explore and forage for food before he makes the decision whether or not to return beyond the curtain. When he rises to his feet, he is startled to see a disturbance on the lake’s surface. The water begins to swirl and churn, ripples fan out in an ever widening circle. A spout appears in the center and he watches with wide-eyed amazement as a figure begins to emerge from below.

The figure slowly takes on definition and after a few, drawn out moments, Lancelot can make out the shape of a woman. At first she shimmers translucently, clearly formed from the waters of the lake. Then her hair dries and darkens, her skin firms and flushes with colour. Her eyes light, and her mouth curves into a welcoming smile. The water streaming from her shoulders slows, solidifies and forms a flowing gown of blue silk. She glides forward and comes ashore with a graceful step.

Her eyes are as dark as her hair though her skin is pale. Fine features and delicately pointed ears mark her as an elf. She raises a hand to his face and strokes her fingertips across the arch of a cheekbone before trailing over the rounded shell of his all-too human ear. She frowns a moment, her deep eyes clouding in confusion before her mouth falls in disappointment.

“You are not he.”

“I am sorry, My Lady. I am not who?”

She shakes her head and murmurs, “You look like him, you even sound like him but…you can’t be…you are mortal, a man.”

“I am that, Lady.”

She peers at him closely.

“Who are you?”

“I am Lancelot, my Lady. Sword and First Knight to King Arthur of Camelot.”

Her lips curve upward slowly as she takes in his earnest expression.

“Well, Lancelot, Sword and First Knight, what brings you to my lake?”

“I…I just stumbled upon it, my lady. I did not mean to trespass. I came through there.”

He turns to point at the misty curtain that had formed his passage to the lake only to find it gone. He frowns in consternation before turning back to the lake-lady.

“I’m sorry, it was right there, some kind of fog or clouded curtain. It afforded me passage here from a frozen forest.”

She simply nods at him and gestures him to her side.

“Walk with me, Sir Lancelot, and tell me how a mortal knight has come to be here in Ælfheim.”

Willingly falling in step with the gentle-seeming lady, Lancelot tells her of Merlin.

“I am but one side of a coin; I came here seeking the other. As I am the King’s Sword, so Merlin is the King’s Shield. We are bonded, two halves of a whole. But he was taken from me by knights of this realm. It would seem he is brother to your High King, Emrys. Merlin’s brother sent emissaries to my king’s court asking Merlin to return here to the place of his birth. Merlin had no prior knowledge of his origins, having been raised as a foundling, and he was shocked and, if I might be frank, a bit dismayed by such a summons. You see, my Lady, in the legends of our land there is a prophecy…”

Lancelot tells her that when Merlin came to court at the age of sixteen, the most powerful Seer in the land proclaimed his coming had been foretold. The priest said that the keepers of the Goddess’s wisdom had been waiting for him for hundreds of years. He was the Shield. For Merlin, it wasn’t just a title. He was the reason there was a King’s Shield to begin with. Though the office had existed for centuries, it had been created with Merlin in mind. All those who came before him were but placeholders. Merlin was the only true Shield. That same Seer had then turned to Lancelot and proclaimed that as Merlin was the one true Shield, so Lancelot was the one true Sword. They were destined for each other and for Arthur. Through them, he would become the Once and Future King. He would unite all the lands of Albion under his rule and a golden age of peace and prosperity for all would stretch out from his line and reign for a millennia.

“Of course, I didn’t believe it at first. Merlin was no figure of legend. He was a boy and a reckless one at that.”

She nods encouragement and he continues. He tells her how they first met on the battlefield and how Merlin had been shot down before the end of that first day. He goes on to tell her of their struggle to come together. Merlin, believing they were destined for each other, had doggedly pursued Lancelot but the knight had rebuffed him time and time again. He’d felt the warlock, a decade his junior, was too young for such a relationship. Lancelot had felt his honour would forever be stained were he to take advantage of a youth beguiled by the dubious promise of a cryptic prophecy.

Tinkling laughter rings out from his companion.

“I imagine your young warlock wasn’t best pleased by your resistance. I must applaud you though, if he looks as his brother does, he’d have been a most comely youth indeed.”

Lancelot blushes.

“He was and still is the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen. But, he was so very young, I could not in good conscience take what he so freely offered. I didn’t think a boy so young could know his own mind well enough to make such a choice. It took him several years to persuade me I was mistaken.”

“Please, do continue your tale, good Sir Knight.”

For him, the prophecy had been hard to accept. He couldn’t see how he and Merlin were expected to bring about peace when most of the kingdoms of Albion had been at war for most of his life. A teenaged warlock and a cynical soldier were meant to assist a careworn king to unite all of Albion under one rule? True, if ever there was a charismatic leader of men, it was Arthur. He had an unparalleled interest in the protection and care of his people and every one of his subjects adored him. If it were down to the common man, Lancelot could easily see his King in such a role. However, Kings were made through warfare, crowned by knights and nobles. Lancelot couldn’t imagine the perpetually corrupt elite of the land ever coming to an accord long enough to support a single ruler over all.

It had been Merlin that persuaded him that it could be done. He believed. Merlin believed in Arthur, he believed in destiny and more importantly, he believed in them. After more than two years of resisting what he wanted, Lancelot finally yielded to Merlin’s persistent attentions. He realized that if the young man’s affections hadn’t wavered in so long a time, that they must be genuine after all.

“And were they? Did your Merlin prove true?”

“He did indeed, my Lady. In fact, well, the first time we…um…joined, our souls bonded. I’ve never felt anything like it. It was as if I was whole for the first time in my life, though I’d never realized I wasn’t complete until that moment. It was like healing from an injury so old I’d forgotten it existed until the pain was gone. I could feel way our spirits fit together, formed a perfect joint. Together as one, we are more than we ever were simply standing side by side.”

Lancelot can’t help but smile and the lady returns it, her eyes sparkling.

“So, your bond with the young Shield convinced you of the veracity of this prophecy?”

“Indeed it did, My Lady. I finally felt the rightness of it, the truth of it. I could never have done that without him. The bond we shared, it is forged of his magic but not of his will. It was a spontaneous thing that formed between us. It was not our will but the will of something greater than we are. A wise man once told me that no one can choose their destiny and no one can escape it. I must admit, I fought against it but now, I’d have it no other way.”

In the privacy of his own thoughts, Lancelot muses how he’d had many an opportunity to appreciate his bond with Merlin in a much more concrete manner as well. Once the bond had formed, Lancelot had a constant awareness of Merlin as a presence in the back of his mind. It wasn’t so much a mind-to-mind link as it was a heart-to-heart connection. He could feel what Merlin felt and vice-versa. In a functional sense, this allowed them each to know if the other was in danger when they could not be together. This awareness had saved both their lives on more than one occasion. To his distress, his sense of Merlin seems to have deserted him since his arrival in Ælfheim.

“Will you tell me of this bond?”

Her careful tone tells him she senses his anxiety but he does not feel comfortable discussing the intimate mindlink he shares with Merlin. It’s loss is too disturbing to him at present. Instead, he chooses to tell her of another effect of the bonding.

He describes how Merlin’s magic recognizes Lancelot as an extension of the mage, as if they do indeed share one soul in two bodies. What that means in purely practical terms is that Merlin’s magic affects Lancelot in exactly the same manner it does Merlin. The first time Merlin had employed a self-enchantment (an aging spell so as to disguise himself while he spied among an enemy court) the effects had also manifested in Lancelot. Novel as the experience had been, the King’s Sword was far more appreciative of the way he was immune to the effects of most of Merlin’s enchantments. It meant that they could always fight side-by-side or back-to-back no matter what kind of destructive forces Merlin brought to bear upon their enemies. No one else could stand by the warlock when his power raged and for that, Lancelot was eternally grateful.

The lady’s soft voice brings him out of his reverie.

“So, did Ambrosius eventually overcome the dismay he felt over his brother’s summons?”

Lancelot startles a bit at the sound of what the elves had claimed was Merlin’s true name. He shakes his head in negation and opens his mouth to speak only to be forestalled by the loud rumbling of his belly. Blushing furiously, he stammers an apology.

“It has been several days since last I broke my fast.”

“No, it is I who should apologize, Sir Lancelot. I’ve been consumed by curiosity and failed in my duty as your hostess to provide you with sustenance. Please, come, sit. I shall bring you something to eat.”

She disappears among the trees, returning minutes later with a basket of what appears to be freshly picked fruit. He doesn’t inquire as to how she came to have a basket, nor how she’d obtained three types of berries, some strange peach-coloured apples and two types of melon in less than ten minutes.

“Here, this should provide you with a good start. Would some fish be welcome as well?”

He nods eagerly and watches her stride to the lake’s edge as he bites into one of the apples. It is the most heavenly thing he’s ever tasted, sweet and tart, the flesh firm and crisp. The lady raises a hand over the water and three large fish fling themselves upon the shore. She keeps her back to him as she handles her catch and when she turns back to him, he can see that the fish are all gutted and filleted, ready to be roasted.

Summoning fire seems as effortless for her as it is for his Merlin and soon she has all three fish wrapped in long, flat leaves she takes from the water weeds. She nestles the small, neat packages atop the small fire and watches as smoke begins to rise from the wet, roasting leaves.

“Will you not join me, My Lady?”

Lancelot holds out a wedge of melon he’s pared with his dagger.

“No, thank you, good sir. I’ve no need of such viands.”

He raises a curious eyebrow but doesn’t question her directly. He simply continues to eat while he watches her prepare the fish. She serves him in silence but the lull in conversation isn’t an awkward thing. Lancelot eats his fill and thanks her as graciously as he knows how. She has settled beside him on a log, about halfway between forest and lake and together they look out over the water in a moment of companionable quiet.

“You said Merlin had been taken by knights of this realm.”

Gazing at her pensive expression, he eventually nods.

“Were they of the Dark Host or the Light?”

“I-I do not know, My Lady. They claimed to be emissaries from Merlin’s brother, the High King Emrys. But, I must confess, I do not know if they spoke the truth. I can say their behavior was far from honourable since they abducted Merlin after he refused to come with them.”

Her smile is rueful.

“Well, while the dark ones are terrible, I cannot say that the light-elves are always much better. Tell me, what did they look like?”

“They were beautiful, with golden hair and ivory skin. Their ears were pointed, like yours, My Lady and they were tall and slender like Merlin.”

“Ah, then they were from Emrys’s court. Dark-elves are, as their names imply, dark of skin and black of hair and eye.”

Lancelot can’t help but notice that while the lady beside him has skin as pale as the light-elves, she has dark hair and eyes. So, what does that make her? She doesn’t volunteer any information about herself but it would be rude in the extreme if he were to importune her on matters she has no wish to speak of. So, Lancelot swallows his curiosity and remains silent.

“Tell me how they managed to take your Shield. Is he not formidable in his power? His brother most certainly is.”

“They took him by cunning, rather than by force, My Lady. We were out hunting when we found ourselves the prey. They darted both of us. Luckily enough, the projectile meant for me went astray and only grazed my neck. It was enough to stun me awhile but not enough to knock me out entirely. Merlin was not so fortunate or I highly doubt they could have taken him. Even without his magic, Merlin is far from helpless.”

He grins remembering the countless hours he’d spent drilling Merlin in sword-work during the young man’s early years as Shield. While his magical education had been most thorough, Merlin had barely known one end of a blade from the other when first he took his place in their king’s service. Lancelot had been insistent that the training occur and then merciless in his teaching. At first, he’d been harsh in order to put the boy off him, figuring no infatuation could withstand the whip of a weapons’ master. Later though, when he’d begun to care for Merlin, he’d continued in his relentless instruction so that Merlin would be able to defend himself with a sword as well as he could with a spell.

“When I was able to shake loose my stupor, I followed our attackers immediately. I was just in time to see them drag Merlin under a hill. I was only minutes behind them but when I arrived here, there was no sign of them anywhere.”

Nodding back to the spot where he’d come through the misty portal, Lancelot says,

“I can’t for the life of me understand it, My Lady. It is winter beyond that veil, the forest floor is blanketed in snow and yet there was nothing to indicate anyone had passed that way. Do you think they used magic to obscure their tracks? And yet, I was certain they were unaware of my pursuit.”

The lady reaches out a hand and strokes his cheek gently.

“No, I doubt they did, Sir Lancelot. What you must understand is that time itself does not run evenly between our two worlds. While minutes pass in your realm, weeks may pass in ours. There was likely no sign of their passing simply because you arrived here too late to observe it. Emrys called for the snows two weeks ago.”

“He called for them?”

Nodding, she explains,

“Indeed. Our seasons come at the behest of our king. The elements answer to his whim. Usually, the more temperate seasons are given dominion, as you see in my valley. However, Emrys makes ready to go to war with the Dark Host and they are quite susceptible to the cold…much more so than are the light-elves.”

“Wait, you said two weeks ago? So that means, I am weeks behind in my pursuit?”

“Very likely, yes.”

Hanging his head in disappointment, Lancelot knows a moment of despair. If they are weeks ahead of him, how will he ever find Merlin?

“I still don’t understand why they took him. Why does the king want him badly enough to order his abduction? You said he has great power of his own…”

She sighs and looks away for a moment. Returning her gaze to his, her eyes seem troubled.

“Did the king’s emissaries explain that Emrys and Ambrosius are half-human?”

Lancelot nods.

“Their mother was a mortal sorceress. She was a powerful mage but she did not survive their birth, few human females live through the birthing of our offspring. Something happens when our blood mingles, and while this mingling often results in strong, powerful children, it usually spells death for a mortal mother. Elven women usually fare better. I think their father, King Arawn thought their mother’s magic would protect her, but it did not. She died within hours of Ambrosius’s birth.”

“You speak with great knowledge, My Lady. Did you know them?”

“Oh no, my time was long past before theirs dawned.”

He gives her a quizzical glance but again, she does not elaborate on her own past but continues with her story.

“So, when Elwen died, Arawn was beside himself. He blamed Ambrosius for her death, insisted she would have survived the birth of one child but that the second had been too much. However, when he sent Ambrosius to your realm, he insisted his fosterage there was the fulfillment of a debt and a promise, rather than the exile of an innocent child. Who can say for certain what his motivations truly were? It seemed a cruel thing to me, depriving the children of each other when they’d already lost their mother. Still, it made the succession a certainty. Emrys was unchallenged in his role as Crown Prince as he might not have been had Ambrosius stayed for the children did not inherit their parents’ power equally.”

Lancelot looks at her in astonishment.

“How can you know that? How can any of you know that? Merlin has spent the last twenty-five years in another realm!”

Her smile is gentle and indulgent, as if his question is that of a precocious child.

“It has been twenty-five years in your realm, Lancelot. It has been nearly two hundred and fifty in this one.”

His jaw drops and his eyes widen.

“Merlin is over two hundred years old?”

“No, he is twenty-five. Emrys is over two hundred years old and he has watched his brother in secret for most of that time…as have many of us who have the power.”

“And they…their magic, you said…their power…they are not equal in their abilities?”

“Sadly, no. While Emrys is the older, it seems that Ambrosius, your Merlin, inherited his power from both his human mother and elven father. And he received his mother’s human magic in far greater measure than Emrys did. Our king has only elven magics at his command, though he is very powerful, even by our standards.”

“And yet, Merlin is more so?”

“Yes. That’s why Emrys needs him. War is coming and he cannot hope to win it without his brother’s aid.”

“Who is he at war with? I thought he was the High King of Ælfheim?”

“He is but he is being challenged for his position. A powerful lord of the Dark Host has risen up against him, claiming he will not bow to a king who is only half elf. He has rallied much support for his cause as the dark-elves are fiercely proud creatures, haughty and arrogant. They are enough of a threat on their own but they have won the support of most of the lesser inhabitants of Ælfheim. All the wights and the spriggans, the nixies and the Wila, the imps and the gremlins…pretty much all of the creatures who hate Man. They are small creatures of low ability but in large enough numbers…”

“...Like anything else, they become a danger when enough of them gather.”

“Exactly. Emrys’ men are loyal to him and they have lesser allies of their own but it’s a hard truth that the enemies of man outnumber the allies in this realm.”

“So he needs Merlin to help him win his war.”

“He needs Merlin and he needs the dragons that Merlin can command.”

“Dragons? But…there are no more dragons.”

The lady giggles at his expression.

“You have dragons?”

“Yes, we have dragons. They came as refugees from your wars many years ago but none here can command them.”

“Merlin can.”

He knows Merlin can command dragons for while there are no true dragons left in Albion, there are still Wyverns. Wyverns are lesser cousins of the dragons and they aren’t all that rare in Albion. Merlin can command them like dogs. He doesn’t care for them but he has been known to use them in battle. There is little Merlin won’t do in service to their king.

“So that’s why Emrys wants him. The dragons.”

It’s not a question, but she answers him nonetheless.

“I would suspect that’s the reason he forced the issue, yes.”

Lancelot nods. It makes sense now. Emrys hadn’t inherited the power to command the dragons and he needed them to win the coming battle. He shakes his head. Merlin is a stubborn man. He will not be easily bullied by his brother. Lancelot wonders if Emrys has figured that out yet.

ooOOoo

Merlin wakes slowly, much more slowly than he is usually wont to do, though he’s not aware enough to notice. The first thing he does become aware of is his solitude. Lancelot isn’t there. It’s not an unusual thing to wake up alone, but Merlin has a definite preference for waking in the older man’s arms. As is his habit, Merlin rolls over to feel the other side of the bed for the other man’s warmth. If the sheets are still warm, he’ll call out and bring Lance back to bed, knowing he’s only just left it. If the sheets are cold, Merlin knows it’s time for him to get up.

Today, the sheets are cold. They are cold and they are…wrong? Heavy lids lift just enough to let him peer at the bed beside him. It’s blue when it should be red, the sheets strangely slick where they should be fluffy soft, and the empty spot beside him is far, far too wide. He rolls up to a seated position and tries to make sense of what he sees when he forces his reluctant eyes to open. Where in the world is he? His thoughts are uncharacteristically slow to clear and he stares around in a dumbfounded stupor for several moments before he begins to remember the chain of events that led to his waking alone in this strange room.

He’d gone hunting with Lancelot. They had yet to sight any game but the morning was warm and pleasant and he’d felt the need to escape Camelot for a few hours. The strange emissaries from Ælfheim had unsettled him greatly with their claims and demands. They claimed he was a prince from their realm, claimed he was only half-human and that his father had recently died. They claimed his brother, newly crowned and beset by enemies, needed his help. They demanded he abandon his life accompany them “home”. They demanded he leave his king and take up service to theirs at once.

Naturally he’d refused, but their wildly unlikely tale left him shaken. He’d never known exactly where he’d come from. His mother, Hunith, had said she found him abandoned in a basket at the edge of the forest. She claimed she’d felt an instant connection to the tiny infant, and though she was unmarried, she had taken him home to her solitary cottage at the edge of the village and raised him as her own. His mother had never lied to him about his origins as a foundling but had always emphasized that she chose to take him home, she chose to love him and that she never once regretted her choice though they’d never had an easy life. She had no family to speak of and Merlin was more precious to her than all the gold in the world.

Merlin thought he’d made peace with the mystery that was his birth, but now with the arrival of these strange creatures (elves! For gods’ sake, they were ELVES!), the possibility of solving that mystery was before him. He’d known for a long time that his power was unlike any seen before in the land of Albion, but he’d never once considered that its origin might be otherworldly, had never once considered that he might not be entirely human. Merlin had believed whole-heartedly in the destiny the Druids had told him was his, but if these strangers were telling the truth, how could he be the fulfillment of a human prophecy?

These thoughts had preyed on his mind as he and Lancelot wandered the forest. Merlin knew that Lancelot was there for him, knew that the hunting trip had been proposed to give him this time away from court. Lancelot was the rarest of men: a strong and honourable man, a valiant and courageous warrior, a thoughtful and loving companion. Merlin knew in his heart that he was the luckiest creature in the world to have him for a partner. Together, they were fated to make this world a better place. How could anyone expect him to walk away from such a life? And yet…

He couldn’t deny that he was a bit tempted to at least visit the court at Ælfheim. Much as Merlin was loathe to admit it, he had always wondered why his real parents had abandoned him. He had always thought that it was likely due to poverty or other dire circumstances. It wasn’t that uncommon for an overburdened family to sacrifice a new child for the sake of their elder siblings, nor was it unheard of for an unwed mother to abandon her baby rather than deal with the difficulties of raising a child alone. These were scenarios he could understand, explanations he could accept-at least with his mind, even if not with his heart. However, what reason could royalty have for casting out one of their own…and only one, but not the other? It was incomprehensible to him...and therefore more than a bit suspect.

He knew very little of elvenkind, had never heard of them outside legend and myth. Had you asked Merlin a week ago if elves really existed, he’d have laughed and said they were merely the stuff children’s tales were made of. The stories were wondrous and terrible in equal measure but he had no need of such things for he lived in the real world. There was already wonder and terror enough for him every day without conjuring more from a make-believe land.

No, this tale of long-lost brothers and royal births was just too far-fetched for him to accept. Merlin thought it more likely that this “Emrys” had need of a powerful warlock and was angling to gain his services through subterfuge. He’d been right to refuse the man’s…elf’s envoys. He would not be so easily lured into indenture to a foreign king. He snorted, Foreign! Not just foreign but otherworldly! They don’t just want me to travel to another country but to another world entirely! And once there? Who was to say what could befall him in such alien environs?

Feeling better about his decision to refuse the elven dignitaries, Merlin had turned to Lancelot to suggest pursuing the hunt with more intent when he’d felt a stinging pain in his neck. He’d reached up to swat at the annoyance and then…darkness. Everything after that is a blank.

He looks around the unfamiliar room and tries not to panic. Perhaps he simply passed out and was…not brought back to his own room in the palace? Where the hell is he?

Casting the bedcovers aside, Merlin is dismayed to find himself dressed only in a flimsy nightshirt. He can find no immediate sign of his clothing. Sliding out of the sumptuous bed he intends to make for one of the wardrobes, only to find that his knees refuse to support him. Now face down on the floor, his head swimming, he observes that the carpets in this place are quite cushiony and comfortable and wonders if perhaps another nap is in order.

When he wakes again, Merlin finds that someone must have come and gone, since he is back in the bed once again. Able to think more coherently, Merlin takes a good look around the room he finds himself in. It’s one of the more sumptuously appointed rooms he’s seen in his life, though the rich ornamentation is of an unfamiliar design. Curving lines and light, airy forms prevail. Delicate chairs and a graceful table look as if they were grown from vines rather than carved of wood. The contours of the heavier bed and wardrobes still manage to capture something of that same organic quality, as if they too were grown to purpose rather than fashioned from something so mundane as lumber. It’s all very beautiful...if somewhat strange.

Throwing his legs over the side of the bed, he waits a moment to determine if his senses will cooperate with his will. This time, his attempts to leave the smoothly plush comfort of his horizontal prison meet with more success. His knees hold and his head merely spins as he staggers across the room, catching himself on the table that resides halfway between the bed and the wardrobe. He rests a moment before stumbling the rest of the way to his goal. Once there, he searches through an overabundance of elaborate clothing but fails to locate his own, more humble, garb. A thorough search of the room’s second wardrobe is no more successful. In the end, rather than stomp about in a semi-transparent nightshirt, Merlin opts to borrow the simplest garments he can find.

The green leather breeches fit suspiciously well, but while the sinfully soft shirt is appropriately loose, the fleecy tunic and embroidered jerkin both strain across the muscles of his chest and back. Whoever these garments were made for is similar in length of arm and leg, but is undoubtedly less bulky in the torso. Merlin grimaces a bit to realize that his unknown benefactor must be of an eerily similar build below the waist because the leather of the breeches is cut exactly to his own lower proportions, clinging close to bottom, hips and thighs without actually constricting anything.

“Nice trick, that,” he muses aloud. “Whoever tailored these should give lessons in Camelot. Never have I ever found one that could make leather trousers a comfortable prospect.”

However, even stranger than the breeches are the boots. They fit his oddly shaped feet perfectly. He has been told by countless cobblers that his ridiculously high-arched feet are uncommonly narrow for their length. He has never once been able to comfortably swap shoes with another person in his life. He tries on several pairs with the same results. Each pair could have been expressly made for Merlin’s feet. Odd.

As he dresses, Merlin begins to feel better. His head stops spinning and his legs firm up and cease that annoying wobble. The strangely accurate fit of the clothing has his mind wandering back to the delegation from Ælfheim. He looks around at the strange chamber and wonders if he’s even in Albion anymore. He remembers the sting in his neck just before everything went black. A tranquilizer, perhaps? Had they darted him like an animal and brought him to the elven realm while he slept?

If that were so, then according to the elf-king’s representatives, he bears some resemblance to this “Emrys”. With his ears and his build, Merlin doesn’t think it’s too much of a stretch to find a likeness to the elves in general. The handful that he’s seen so far all have the same tall, lean build. Like Merlin, they tend toward delicate facial features and long, slender limbs. Even the warriors are rangy and wiry rather than broad and bulky like most of the human fighters he knows.

However, even if he does have a passing resemblance to these creatures, that doesn’t mean he is one. There are the ears for one thing. Yes, he has large flaring ears like the elves, but unlike the elves, Merlin’s ears are clearly rounded while all the elves have definitively pointed ears. Then there is his colouring. All the elves he’s seen have been blond. He hasn’t seen a single one yet that deviated from that hair colour. Granted, he’s only seen a grand total of maybe nine elves, but each of them had long, silky flaxen hair.

He goes and stands before the large glass mirror in the corner of the room. Staring at himself in the mirror, he has to concede that if you discount the rounded tips of his ears and the inky hue of his hair, he does possess more than a passing resemblance to these creatures. However, that still doesn’t make him some long-lost royal son. For one, how on earth…or how in Aelfheim could they misplace a prince? Generally speaking, people do tend to keep track of the children of royalty, and he can’t see the elves being so very different from men in that respect.

Finally tired of conjecture, and attired as well as he can be in borrowed clothing, Merlin decides it’s time to go find some real answers. Still feeling a bit tender, he cautiously makes his way to one of the room’s two doors. It opens to reveal a very strange room indeed. A small waterfall appears to flow from an opening near the ceiling and disappears into a small drain in the floor. Several feet away is a low ledge formed of natural stone. Merlin shuffles closer and is surprised to find what appears to be a hot-spring sunk right into the floor of the chamber. It would appear that it’s some type of bathing room.

Impressed, “Nice,” is all he can think.

He tries the other door and finds this one opens onto a wide, breezy corridor of fragile columns and lacy arches open to the outside. At least, Merlin assumes that it’s outdoors as he spies a view of water and open air framed by the delicate arches. However, before he can investigate, he is accosted by a gentle voice and he glances away from the view to behold a tall, stately man. No, not a man but an elf; the ears really are a dead giveaway.

“Your Highness? If you would accompany me, please?”

Startled at being addressed thus, Merlin just barely refrains from looking over his shoulder for the prince in question. An elf? Your Highness? A sick suspicion curls in his stomach as he follows the willowy creature along the portico, his gaze returning to assess the view. The landscape without is a completely unfamiliar one. He can see water and mist straight ahead, a sheer wall of rock to his right and a thick forest below his position to the left. There is no definitive sunlight but instead there is a diffuse illumination like that of a thickly clouded day…but there are no clouds visible in the empty gray sky.

The directionless light makes it impossible for Merlin to determine the time of day and he has no idea how long he’s been asleep. He supposes he could query his companion but the deferential tone by which he was addressed coupled with the elf’s brusque, impersonal manner of escort doesn’t encourage Merlin to question him. Before he can even think of a way to overcome his reluctance, the elf in question stops before an elaborate door and sweeps it open, gesturing Merlin inside.

Looking up and down the colonnade, Merlin realizes he has spent so much time looking out over the strange landscape to his left that he failed to notice the half dozen doors he passed on the right. Each one appears different in design and he wonders if that will be a help or a hindrance in getting around this place.

Nodding to his escort, Merlin slips through the open door and finds himself in what looks like a private audience chamber. Despite the presence of more of the strangely carved furniture, the room is similar enough in design to those back in Camelot that Merlin is readily able to recognize the chamber’s function.
Seated at the head of a long crystalline table is the sole occupant of the room. It’s one of the elves who appeared before Arthur’s court. Caution and confusion are replaced by a raging anger at the sight of the elven courtier.

“I see your lord must needs stoop to abduction in place of persuasion. No wonder he finds himself short of allies!”

“Please, Lord Ambrosius, calm yourself.”

“My name is Merlin! Always has been, always will be.”

Lips thinning in obvious contempt, the elven lord replies,

“That may be what your human keepers called you but I assure you, your proper parents named you Ambrosius.”

Merlin felt his eyes bug in outrage. He glares down the length of the room at the haughty elf.

“My human keepers?

He’s aware of the shrill note in his voice but he’s beyond controlling it.

“My proper parents? You mean the ones who abandoned me to die in another world?”

“My Lord, there is much you do not understand about your own heritage. I’ll thank you to remain civil and not cast aspersions upon people you’ve never known, nor make judgments about situations you have no knowledge of.”

“And whose fault is it that I have no such knowledge? It certainly isn’t mine.”

The elf (Brochwel, Merlin finally remembers) studies him through narrowed eyes.

“You are little more than a child by our standards, Lord Ambrosius, but I imagined you were old enough to refrain from displaying this fact with every word that falls from your lips. Please don’t prove me wrong. Now, as I was saying…”

Merlin cuts him off, practically spitting with rage.

“You weren’t saying anything of much use, Lord Brochwel, you were too busy casting aspersions on people you’ve never known, not hesitating to make judgments about situations you have no knowledge of.”

Brochwel abruptly stands, drawing back his shoulders, he opens his mouth to speak but is forestalled by a voice that resonates quietly through the room,

“That is quite enough, Brochwel. You may go.”

Merlin spins around to confront the newcomer...only to pull up short in shocked surprise. Were Merlin’s ears pointed, he could have been gazing on his own doppelganger. Even as the thought occurs to him, he gives himself a mental kick in the pants. There is only one person this can be, the High King, Emrys...his brother…his twin brother. Merlin grits his teeth. Lord Brochwel and his delegation failed to mention this little fact to him. They had said brother, they never said anything about a twin.

“Emrys, I presume?”

Merlin is rather proud that there’s little hint of the shock he’s feeling evident in his voice. He knows he’s staring but he’s not quite capable of stopping himself. He’s finding the simple act of drawing air into his lungs is becoming a bit difficult as his throat tightens up on him.

Emrys dips his head regally in acknowledgment but remains quiet, eyeing Merlin with almost the same intensity with which he is being examined. Emyrs’ hair is much longer than Merlin’s; it spills over his shoulders and halfway down his back but it’s every bit as thick and wavy as Merlin’s is and the color is just as black. His cheekbones are just as sharp and prominent and his chin equally stubborn. Merlin thinks his own eyes might be a shade darker, but it could just be the lighting. He wonders if his own lips are really that full and pink. It’s so startling to see another person who looks so much like him.

As he watches Emrys slowly walk toward him, he muses that it’s nothing at all like looking in a mirror. The image seen in a glass is familiar, it breathes when you do, it moves as you move, every eye blink is synchronized, every twitch the same. The vision in front of him is another entity entirely. No matter how closely he resembles Merlin, he is not Merlin. Exacting scrutiny reveals other small discrepancies between them. He notes that Emrys has a small scar that runs from the corner of his jaw up under his right ear and a small mole just above his left collarbone. Then of course, there are the ears...Emrys’ are a close approximation in size but they are most definitely every bit as pointed as the other elves Merlin has encountered.

Faced with Emrys in the flesh, Merlin can no longer deny that this is indeed his brother. As he can detect no glamour, he cannot refute the evidence of his own eyes. As acceptance settles over him, Merlin sees a light ignite in his brother’s eyes and a smile tugs at his generous lips.

“You did not believe them, did you? Not until you saw me.”

He feels an answering smile pulling one corner of his own mouth upward.

“No, I can’t really say that I did. You must admit, it’s a bit far-fetched...the orphan peasant-boy grows up to find that he’s actually some sort of long-lost prince of a faraway realm? That’s just a tiny bit fairy-tale for real life.”

Face pinching with distaste, Emrys replies, “Ugh! Fairies! Do not so much as mention those vile creatures in my court, Brother. Have you yet had the pleasure of dealing with them? Most of them are foul little miscreants and the remainder do not care to actually be called ‘fairy’. So…yes, best not to refer to them at all.”

Distracted by curiosity, Merlin can’t help asking, “Really? Do they also dwell in this realm? I was under the impression they came from a completely different world.”

Emrys snorts.

“Yes they do, but some of their territory overlaps ours. In fact, it is territory common to all the realms. Tell me, have you ever heard of the lake of Avalon?”

“In legends, supposedly mortals can only glimpse it a few moments before they meet death.”

“Strictly speaking, that is not entirely accurate. The lake and its environs exist in all the realms but it is not as accessible in some places as it is in others. It very much depends on the inclination of each keeper. You see, Brother, in each world, the lake has a guardian of sorts, whose job it is to decide who may and may not enter. Some of the Ladies are more generous in granting access than others. Ours for example, is a rather benevolent Lady and she allows fairly open access to the lake here. I understand some of the others are not so hospitable.”

Tucking the information away for future use, Merlin turns his attention back to the matters at hand.

“Very interesting. Now, can you please explain to me why you thought it necessary to have me abducted from my home and forcibly brought to yours?”

“I instructed my men to ask nicely.”

“They did. I declined. Apparently that wasn’t an acceptable response?”

“Ambrosius-“

“Merlin. As I pointed out just a few minutes ago to Lord Brochwel, my name is Merlin, not Ambrosius.”

Emrys’ mouth tightens but he nods.

“Indeed, Merlin, you must understand-“

As Emrys begins to speak, a thought suddenly occurs to Merlin and he mentally curses himself for not having considered it before. He interrupts the king without hesitation.

“And what did they do to Lancelot? Because there is no way on earth he would have allowed them to just take me!”

“Peace, Brother! I assume you refer to your hunting companion?”

At Merlin’s furious nod, he continues.

“They sedated him in much the same manner as they did you.”

“You mean they darted him and left him for dead?”

“Actually, they reported to me that the sedative did not seem to affect him as it did you. Apparently, he followed the party and almost caught up to them before they passed through the portal to Ælfheim. So, no, your friend is alive and well.”

“He’s not just my friend, you pompous prat! He’s my soul bonded life-mate!”

Emrys’ face goes hard.

“You are not allowed to speak to me like that, brother or no. I am your king and you willtreat me with the respect I deserve!”

Never one for blind obedience toward authority, Emrys’ abrupt turn for the autocratic just serves to deepen Merlin’s anger. Stepping forward, he brings his face close to the elven king’s.

“You aren’t my king and I’ll treat you with respect when you earn it. I don’t owe you a thing. If anything, you owe me for the way you and your people have treated me from the moment they stalked into my king’s court and demanded that I abandon my duties without so much as a ‘please’ or ‘thank you’!”

Blue eyes narrowed, lips thinned in aggravation, Emrys doesn’t back down by so much as an inch.

“You are my brother. You were born to this realm, you are of elven blood and that makes me your king. You have a duty and an obligation to your blood and, by the gods, you shall honour that obligation!”

Merlin crowds in even closer.

“The hell I will! I have no obligation to the blood, to the family that abandoned me to die as in infant!”

Merlin takes half a step back when Emrys nearly hits him as he throws both hands up in frustration.

“You were not abandoned to die! A debt was owed and you were the payment. The last two hundred and fifty years has seen that debt paid. It is time for you to return to where you belong, where you’ve always belonged. I will no longer suffer my kin to act as hostage to some petty mortal who fancies himself a figure of legend.”

Merlin’s so outraged by the slur on his king that he nearly spits, “Arthur doesn’t fancy himself anything, he--” And then the rest of Emrys’ words register. ”Wait...two hundred and fifty years? What are you talking about?”

“Two and a half centuries have passed since you were taken from us, Merlin. We’ve lent you to the world of men long enough.”

“Are you mad? I’ve only seen twenty five summers, twenty six at the most.”

Pursing his lips, Emrys huffs out a harsh breath.

“Ambros--” he started, but then caught himself, “Merlin, time does not run the same in the two realms. Years go by in Ælfheim while only months pass in your Albion. Here, it has been more than two and a half centuries since we were born. The lives of elves are long, but that is still more time than you should have spent away from your home.”

Merlin takes several moments to adjust to Emrys’ words as well as the emotion thrumming in his voice. There’s something in his tone…something that sounds almost…wounded.

“Did…did you know about me?” Merlin asks hesitantly. “I mean, did you know you had a brother that you’d never known…never been allowed to know?”

Breaking eye contact, Emrys goes quiet for a moment before walking to one of the room’s heavily curtained windows. He doesn’t look at Merlin as he speaks.

“I did. For as long as I can remember, I knew you were gone. For as long as I can remember I have felt your absence…the void of you missing from my side. I have always yearned for you, little brother. Did you not ever feel as if someone or something was missing from your life as well?”

“I…I’m sorry, but no, not really. I mean, I always wondered why I was abandoned, but beyond that? No, I didn’t miss what I never knew I had. My mother, Hunith, she raised me with so much love that I never felt a lack of anything.”

Emrys turns back to him, looking appalled.

“But…you were so poor! You grew up in a hovel instead of a palace! How could you not feel that lack?”

Suddenly, Merlin’s smile is serenely amused. They might be brothers but their childhoods couldn’t have been more different. He’s not ashamed of his humble upbringing.

“I didn’t know any different until I was sixteen when I was brought to live in a palace. The castle at Camelot may not be as grand as this place, but it’s still more luxury than I could ever want.”

“You were brought to that court as a servant!

His brother may have looked in on him from time to time but it’s clear to Merlin that Emrys hasn’t even a basic understanding of what his life in Camelot is like.

“No, I was brought there as a sorcerer. The King’s Shield is the most powerful sorcerer in all the land. I had more status at sixteen than anyone not born to royalty could ever achieve in a lifetime. I have lacked for nothing from that day forward.”

His brother shakes his head, refusing to concede the point.

“But you were born to royalty! You are second in line to a throne more exalted than any that exists in the entirety of that petty little realm.”

Annoyed with Emrys’ dismissive attitude toward his home, Merlin finds himself stalking up to his brother once again.

“You’re wrong about that,Brother, I am part of something greater than that. In Albion, I have a reason for being…a purpose and a mission, an important one. There is a great need for me there. What need could you possibly have for me here?”

All traces of irritation are wiped from Emrys’ face.

“I have great need of you, Brother.”

He looks around as if only just realizing where they’ve been for the entire length of the conversation.

“There is much to tell. Come, let us retire someplace where we can speak in comfort. Are you hungry? Shall I call for refreshments?”

Disconcerted by the abrupt cessation of hostilities, it takes Merlin a moment to register the question. When he does, he realizes that he isn’t just hungry, he’s famished. He nods to Emrys and gives him a small, tight smile.

“I could do with a bite, yes.”

Following Emrys back out into the colonnade, Merlin isn’t terribly surprised to see the same elf that had brought him to the audience chamber hovering outside.

“Ilar, would you see to it that a full luncheon is prepared and delivered to my study as soon as possible?’’

The servant bows low in acknowledgment, murmuring respectfully. Merlin catches the elf’s eye and winks at him as Emrys sweeps away and Merlin turns to follow him. Lips twitching, he fights back a grin at the startled look he gets in return. Do none of the elves have a sense of humour? Or is it just that the elves in his brother’s court are particularly humourless?

Emrys leads Merlin deeper into the palace and he’s struck by the lack of people in the corridors. Arthur’s castle is always humming with courtiers, guards, bureaucrats, tradesfolk and servants. There are quiet halls and disused chambers in Camelot’s castle but the area surrounding the throne room, council chambers and audience rooms is almost always a bustle. Emrys’s palace seems damn near deserted by comparison. Merlin catches only a glimpse or two of other living souls and each time, the soul in question ghosts out of sight almost instantly. He sees a flash of pale skin, a swatch of rich cloth and a swish of flaxen hair and then…nothing.

A few minutes and several twisting corridors later, Emrys pauses before another elaborately crafted door, pulls it open and then gestures for Merlin to precede him into the room. The chamber Merlin enters is decorated with the same swirling organic motifs he’s seen everywhere so far, though the colour scheme is something of a departure here. Instead of pale colours and an ethereal openness, here it’s all is dark earth tones and a feeling of enclosure, as of a hollow deep in a dense wood. The furniture is stained dark and upholstered in mossy greens, muddied reds and rusty ochers. Matching draperies hide the windows and tint what light manages to filter through them. Small globes of soft orange light gleam here and there in the weirdly welcoming gloom.

Emrys sinks down into the plush embrace of a well-padded sofa and nods Merlin over to the adjoining chair. Once Merlin is seated, he lifts his eyes to meet his brother’s speculative gaze. They eye each other intently for a long, long moment. Emrys steeples long fingers under his chin as his focus seems to turn inward. Merlin continues to watch him but settles deeper into the lush comfort of the elven armchair. If nothing else, he has to give their craftsmen credit for their work. He’s never lounged in such luxury before.

Finally, those deep blue eyes center on him again, and Emrys begins to speak.

“Our father died over six months ago. I was crowned the High-King of Ælfheim just three weeks ago.”

Merlin tries to hide his startled response but doesn’t think he succeeds. He had no idea their father had passed away so recently.

So close, so close! I just missed…just a few months ago…I could have met him…could have asked him…

Emrys’ eyes darkens and his mouth tightens. Merlin can see that Emrys has read him like a book.

“I am sorry Am-Merlin. He would not hear of bringing you home in his lifetime.”

Merlin nods at him to continue, his own questions can keep for now. He wants to hear what his brother has to say to him. Emrys shifts in his seat, as if greatly discomfited about his next words.

“My coronation was not without…opposition.”

He pauses and Merlin can feel one eyebrow inching upward in a silent query. Emrys doesn’t miss it and grimaces just a bit before continuing.

“You see, though our father hailed from an ancient line that was unbroken for thousands of years, and though he himself ruled Ælfheim for over a thousand years, there are a great many of our people who felt he tainted his bloodline when he married our mother.”

Scowling, Merlin can’t help interjecting, “What? Tainted? Why? Why would they think that? Who was our mother?”

“She was a human sorceress, a very powerful one, and she proved a great friend and ally to the elven people. However…”

Merlin finds himself interrupting yet again.

“Wait, woah. Our mother was human? So I’m not really an elf then, am I? But some sort of…hybrid? A half-breed? How did that even work?”

Emrys lets out an inarticulate bark of impatience and practically snaps his head off.

Never refer to us as half-breeds again, you utter imbecile!”

Spreading both hands in a conciliatory gesture, Merlin immediately backs off.

“Sorry! Sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you. I’m gathering there’s some sort of stigma attached to our parentage?”

“Among the ignorant and narrow minded, yes, there is!”

“I’m sorry if I caused offense. It wasn’t my intention. I was just surprised…very surprised but it really makes a lot of sense now that I think of it.”

As Merlin speaks, the tension eases from Emrys’ posture. Shoulders straighten from their hunch, the clenched line of his jaw smooths out, his pinched mouth relaxes and he leans into the plush cushions of his couch once again. He nods in agreement with Merlin’s last words.

“It is why you can command dragons and why you can command the elements of our mother’s realm with such effortless ease. It is why the magic of battle comes so naturally to you. Lightning and fire are scarce in Ælfheim. I have seen that they abound in Albion but the volatile elements are no longer common here, though it is said that they once were, millions of years ago. Precipitation is not a naturally occurring phenomenon, only magic can compel moisture to form and fall through the air. Only the most powerful mages among us can conjure even the weakest of windstorms and no one can truly control them.”

There’s no hiding his shock at these words for Merlin has been able to command the wind to blow and clouds to rain since he was in the cradle. He first called lightning to him at the age of six and fire has ever been his friend. Surely it was the same for Emrys?

“And you, Brother? Surely you also command the elements?”

Emrys gives him a tight smile, his eyes unreadable in the dim light.

“Only a little, and I have no gift for communing with dragons…but I have seen that you do possess that talent.”

Merlin snorts.

“There are no dragons anymore, at least not in Albion. Do they still thrive here in Ælfheim?”

“They were never native here but there is a small group of them living in the Hwítloc Heahmor, a range of mountains that lay some two hundred leagues west of Eldamar.”

Something Emrys said just a few moments ago finally registers. He can feel his eyes narrowing in suspicion.

“Wait…you said you’ve seen that I can command dragons. What did you mean? How can you have seen that?”

Emrys arches an eyebrow in a manner that reminds Merlin of one of his first magic instructors, an acerbic old man called Gaius.

“I have powers of my own, Merlin. One of them is the ability to scry between worlds. I told you that you have been missed. Did you imagine you were completely lost to us? How do you think I knew where to find you?”

“I don’t…I didn’t…I mean…how long?”

“How long…?”

“How long have you been watching me? Have others been spying on me as well? What about our father? Our mother?”

Taking on a haunted look, Emrys’ voice drops to a hushed murmur.

“Merlin…our mother died only minutes after you were born and with her last breath she gave you the name you disdain to use.”

“You never knew her either?”

“No. I have never known any kind of mother. Our father refused to marry again once she was lost to him.”

“Well, I suppose we’re even for I’ve never known any father.”

Emrys nods and falls silent.

“So…did he? Did our father also watch me from afar? Did anyone else?”

His brother looks pained.

“I do not know. He refused to speak of you to me. However, I would suspect he did not. There would have been others with the Sight who would have been tasked to watch over you, but I know not who. I have never had a reason to speak of it with anyone.”

“And you’ve always watched me?”

“Well, not every waking moment or anything but yes, I have looked in on you from time to time for as long as I can remember.”

“That’s how you knew about my powers and the dragons.”

“Indeed.”

Merlin can’t help feeling a bit violated, though to be fair, he doubts he’d have done any differently. Had he known he had a twin brother who lived in another world, would he have been able to resist the temptation to watch him from afar? He’s honest enough to admit that it’s not likely.

A loud knock jerks him from his reverie and he looks up to see the servant, Ilar enter with a heavily laden tray. A flaxen-haired female follows with a second tray and another follows him bearing a large pitcher. Merlin realizes the two serving girls are the first elven maids he’s yet seen. They follow the same pattern as their male counterparts in that they are tall, slim, fine-boned and very blond. He’s yet to see a single elf with brown, black or even red hair. Merlin glances at his brother’s inky black mane and wonders if they inherited their colouring from their mother.

He waits until the silent servants finish laying out the meal and leave before he asks about it. Emrys smiles somewhat grimly as he answers.

“Yes. According to Father, we are the very image of her: hair, eyes, nose, mouth, chin and cheekbones. He claimed she was also as tall and slender as any elf…he sometimes speculated that she might have had some elven blood of her own, attenuated of course.”

Emrys’ face hardens once again.

“In part, it is our resemblance to her that has caused strife and unrest in the realm.”

Unable to hold off his hunger any longer, Merlin begins to assemble a plate from the food arrayed before him. He jerks his chin at Emrys to indicate he continue to speak whilst Merlin eats.

“My irregular appearance is a constant reminder to everyone that I am only partially of elven descent. Despite how powerful our mother was and all that she did for Ælfheim, there are those who view all humans as inferior creatures. It is mostly the dark-elves but I believe a few of the light feel that way as well. This is where the opposition to my reign originates and it is the reason why I need your help.”

“Dark-elves? Light? I’m afraid I don’t quite understand…”

“There are two races of elves. So far, you have met only the light-elves. They are quite easy to tell apart. As you have no doubt noted, the light-elves are fair of hair and eyes and skin. They are almost without variation, as are the dark-elves. They possess hair as black as yours and mine. They’ve skin of a dark ashen hue, and when you look into their eyes, you can discern no pupil, so dark is the iris. They dwell deep in mountain caves and in caverns underground. They cannot abide the touch of day’s light so they are abroad only after darkfall.

“They are a proud and haughty people, malevolent by nature and they despise humans to the very root of their souls. No one seems to know why but it is an irrefutable fact of their existence. As I am half human, they are refusing to accept me as their king. Not only are they refusing to accept my rule but they rally behind one of their own high lords. According to my sources, Lord Ælmyrca is gathering an army and means to march against me. He intends to make himself High King in my place.”

As he speaks, Emrys’ mouth pinches tighter and his brows lower further and further. His voice drops in pitch and roughens. Merlin can see his eyes go hard and icy. He looks every inch the ruthless monarch. Riveted by his brother’s words, Merlin listens quietly and methodically eats his way through the meal before him.

“For thousands of years, the dark-elves have submitted to the equitable rule of Light. Now they rise up against us and would see darkness fall over all the land. I will not allow that to happen.”

Catching his gaze, Emrys’ eyes seem to drill into Merlin’s.

“Do you understand, Brother? Do you understand what we face? What is at stake here?”

Pursing his lips, Merlin shakes his head.

“Not as such, no. When you say they would see ‘darkness fall over all the land’, what exactly do you mean by that?”

“It means that they would see the light snuffed from the sky. It means they will extinguish day and instigate an endless night. It means an end to anything and everything that dwells in the day, that thrives by light. We share the sky with them, half day and half night. They seek to unmake this balance.”

Merlin knows he’s gaping.

“Can they do that? I mean, really do that? How do you unmake day? How do you separate it and strip it from night? Are the two not interdependent on one another? How can there be dark if there is no light?”

“You cast a shroud over the sky and block out the day. They cannot truly destroy it but they can make it so that light can no longer reach the world.”

Running a hand over his face, Merlin considers the implications of his brother’s words.

“So, it’s not just you they are out to destroy, they want to destroy everyone and everything that isn’t like them?”

“You do see.”

He saw but the mental picture his brother drew is so surreal it’s hard to truly process.

“Heeelll…that’s…that’s insane!”

“Evil is rarely ever rational.”

“This takes irrational to a whole new level.”

“This is why I called you home, Ambrosius. It is past time you returned to your real duties here. There has been more than enough of you slaving for some petty king of men. You have a higher calling here amongst your own kind!”

Merlin scowls at the proprietary note in Emrys’ voice and the assumption that he has any duty to anyone in this world. However, it’s clear from his tone that Emrys is done making nice, the elven High-King is in ascendance. Merlin, however, has never been one to respond well to authoritarian demands and it’s his natural inclination to snap back with calculated insolence.

“While I see the difficulties you face, Brother, your problems aren’t mine. This is not my world, it’s yours. I wasn’t raised here, I don’t belong here and I’m sure as hell not beholden to anyone who lives here. Our father cast me out as an infant and you said it yourself, he would not have me back whilst he lived. I’d say that pretty much frees me from any familial obligations.”

“Whatever our father may have done, you are still my brother, and by the gods’ decree, that makes me your king as well as your kin! You will do as I command!”

“I am already commanded by a king and you’re not him! I pledged him my fealty years ago and he is the only ruler I will ever serve. If I’d been meant to serve at your side then I’d already have been there. You said our father used me to pay a debt? I say that payment still stands, and you cannot revoke it on a whim.”

“Ambrosius, by all-“

“My name is Merlin. If you want anything from me you can start by using it. I am not Ambrosius, never have been, never will be. Look at me! I don’t even look like an elf! If you want proof of where I belong...look!”

He flicks the rounded tip of one ear at his brother.

“Clearly I got Mum’s ears and a pass back to her homeworld along with them! Guess what? I’m going back to it and you can’t stop me.”

“Those aren’t your ears, Ambrosius. You were mutilated shortly after you were born. Father butchered you so you could pass for human.”

“I-what?”

“Father severed the tips of your ears when you were born. He knew you would never be accepted in our mother’s world with the ears of an elf. You weren’t born that way, he made you that way.”

Merlin runs his fingers over the shells of his ears searching for proof of Emrys’ words but he can find no scar, no seam, no irregularity. His ears are as smoothly rounded as any human’s.

“You’re lying. There’s not a mark on me.”

“He did not do it with a knife, you idiot! He used magic. He could not leave you with any marks if your identity was to be truly hidden!”

Feeling a bit foolish that he hadn’t thought of such an obvious reason for the lack of scarring, Merlin snaps his jaw tight and grinds his teeth in frustration.

“Who was paid?”

“What?”

“You said he owed a debt. Who was he obligated to? What was I the payment for?”

“He said it was not his debt but our mother’s. He never said any more about it.”

“Strange way to pay a debt. I was just abandoned in the woods. Did he tell you that?”

Emrys shifts in his chair, looking uncomfortable.

“No. He did not.”

“Yeah, my mother…my real mother, found me in a basket. By the gods, a ruddy basket in the middle of the woods! How is that paying a debt? I wasn’t delivered to anyone. I was raised by a single peasant woman and everyone assumed I was some cast-off bastard child! How in the name of all that’s sacred can anyone consider that payment on a debt?”

Taking on a long suffering air, Emrys rises from his seat and paces across the room.

“Not everything is so cut and dry, Merlin. Our father had compelling reasons for leaving you there; I know it. He would never have just abandoned you without knowing your fate. He was not a careless parent. Nor was he possessed of a generous nature, he did not lightly share what was his. He wouldd not have given away a son without there being a vital need.”

“Perhaps he knew of the prophecy…”

That catches Emrys’ attention, more than anything else Merlin has said so far.

“What is this prophecy you speak of?”

His eyes are sharp on Merlin as he answers.

“When I first came to court, I was sixteen. I’d been in training for the King’s service for years but I hadn’t actually set foot in the capital until my education was complete. When I finally arrived, I was hailed by a Druid seer. He told me that my arrival had been prophesized centuries before and that I was destined to play a vital role in the future of Albion. You said our father wouldn’t have given me away without there being a vital need…I have to wonder if he knew about that prophecy…”

“I very much doubt our father would have been concerned enough with the affairs of your world to aid the prophecies of men to his own detriment.”

The more he thinks about it, the more convinced Merlin becomes about his theory.

“What about our mother? He told you the debt was hers. If that is the debt he spoke of then it’s far from paid yet.”

“It does not matter! I do not care about Albion or your king or his prophecies! You belong here and you are needed here!”

Frustrated, Merlin rises and crosses the room to his brother’s side.

“What possible need can you have of me?”

“I need your powers to win this war, damn it!”

“What? Why? Don’t you have the same powers?”

“No, damn you! No!”

Rocking back on his heels, Merlin stares in dumbfounded shock at his brother’s outburst. He doesn’t have the same powers? But…we’re twins! How can that be…

Emrys takes advantage of Merlin’s silence and gathers his dignity once more. He clears his throat and he sounds less a petulant adolescent and more the powerful king when next he speaks.

“We were not equally gifted, Am-Merlin. I do not have the dragon’s tongue and your command of the volatile elements. Do you not see what that means? It means I was not meant to rule alone. It means you were always meant to take a place at my side. Your mage-gift evens out the placement of our birth. I was meant to rule the realm; you were meant to protect it.

“Or perhaps I was given a greater measure of our mother’s powers because I wasn’t meant for this world at all. I was meant to live in her world, fulfill my destiny there, not here.

His brother glares at him, clearly refusing to accept this logic. Face hard and voice contemptuous, he counters Merlin’s reasoning with royal prerogative.

“The reason for the division of our powers is a moot point, Ambrosius. The fact of the matter is that I cannot win this war without you. I need you, and you will serve me.

Mouth tight, Merlin studies the stiff lines of Emrys’ posture. Arrogance screams from the tensing of every muscle. He’s faced now not with a brother, but with the High-King of Ælfheim. Appealing to Merlin’s sense of family and duty has failed so now the King is shifting to outright command.

“I may not be too familiar with the ways of elves, Emrys, but men generally don’t find that abduction and demands win them many points when asking for a favour.”

“I am not asking a favour. I am requiring you to do your duty.”

“And I’m telling you that I feel no sense of duty toward you or your realm and that isn’t something you can ever force me to feel.”

“What is wrong with you? Do men set so little store by their honour?”

Merlin shrugs with calculated indifference.

“Some do, some don’t. I’m afraid it’s your misfortune that I don’t feel aiding you is vital to keeping my honour intact. I already serve a king, I have since I was a child. I’m sorry that you aren’t that king. Look, whatever his reasons may have been, our father sent me to live in another world. As a result, my life, my honour and my duty lie in Albion, not Ælfheim.”

Emrys glares at him in frustrated rage. Merlin wonders if his brother is even aware that he’s gripping the hilt of the dagger at his hip so tightly that his knuckles are bone white.

“You will do this for me or you will regret it to your dying day, Brother!

Merlin recognizes that the last resort of the desperate is always the threat.

“You can’t make me fight for you, Emrys.”

His brother invades his space then, crowding him against the wall nearby. Emrys’ face is flushed with fury and he’s practically spitting as he speaks.

“No, but I can keep you here against your will. I control the portals between Ælfheim and that little world you are so attached to. You fight for me or, by the gods, you shall never see that place or your beloved Sword again. Oh yes, I know all about your lover and that pathetic bond of yours. You either help me, or I make it so you spend the rest of your very long life in a deep, dark hole bereft of everything you have ever loved…because that is what awaits me should I lose this war.”

Calmly placing a hand on his brother’s chest, Merlin pushes him back several inches. He realizes Emrys is on the edge, cornered and feeling threatened enough to lose control. That he’s resorted to coercion and intimidation tactics to get what he needs is telling.

He studies the man before him and finds that despite his anger with his brother’s high-handed tactics and frantic threats, he does have some sympathy for his plight. The menace he’s described to Merlin is a daunting one. He tries to look at it from Emrys’ perspective for it’s too theoretical a threat to really hit home for Merlin.

There is a formidable army of malevolent intent that seeks not only personally destroy you but also the very world around you. Snuffing out daylight forever…it sounds horrifically melodramatic and surreal to Merlin but it’s clear that Emrys believes in the threat. It’s not an abstract for him, it’s a very real danger. What would he do if Albion were so threatened?

What wouldn’t I do is a better question. Would I stoop to kindapping and threats of violence? Yes, yes I would.

Merlin’s forced to concede, if only to himself, that he’d do a damn sight worse if this was his home, his people, his world. He looks Emrys in the eye, a stubborn sky clashing with stormy seas.

“I’ll help you, but there’s a condition.”

“What are your terms?”

“You must promise me that you’ll let me return to Albion when the threat is over.”

Emrys hesitates for several heartbeats, he can see his brother’s desperation clashing with the possessive loneliness that Merlin had glimpsed earlier. Finally, Emrys jerks his head in grudging assent.

“All right, when the Dark Host is defeated, I will allow you to return to Albion.”

Merlin doesn’t miss the absence of binding words in Emrys’ accedence.

“Swear it!”

Mouth tightening and nostrils flaring, Emrys bites out, “I swear you will be allowed to return to your world when the Dark Host has been vanquished.”

“All right then, you have my pledge. I will stand with you and do everything in my power to see your enemies are defeated.”

Emrys gives a sharp, short nod and spins away, giving Merlin his freedom once again.

“I want you to call the dragons to our cause.”

“I won’t compel them.”

“You are a Dragonlord! They are yours to command.”

“They aren’t unreasoning beasts, Emrys. I’ll not treat them as if they are. They are sentient creatures and rare beings of vast wisdom and power. I won’t order them about as if they were my slaves.”

Emrys opens his mouth, but Merlin cuts him off before he can start spouting more furious demands.

“But! I will speak with them and I will do my best to try and win them to our cause.”

“What if they refuse?”

“Then they refuse. I will not coerce them, Brother.”

Mouth pinched, Emrys considers him for several long moments.

“Please, Merlin, I need them. I need every ally I can gather and every bit of power I can wring from those allies. The Dark Host has more numbers at its disposal than we can ever hope to bring to bear. The dragons could be the making or breaking of us. I need them.”

It’s the first “please” Merlin’s heard from his brother and he can’t help the grin that stretches across his face in response.

“Then I shall have to be extra persuasive, won’t I?”

Emrys snorts a little, an answering smile tugging at the grim line of his mouth. He shakes his head with an air of puzzled amusement.

“I have seen what you can accomplish when you choose to turn on the charm, Brother. I think I might almost feel sorry for the mighty dragons. No doubt they shall soon be brought down by the power of your smile alone.”

Merlin laughs.

“You’ve the same smile, Brother. Perhaps I’ll be able to teach you to use it before I return to Albion.”

 

ooOOoo

When Lancelot next awakens, he has no idea how long he’s been asleep but he feels fully rested for the first time since his arrival in Ælfheim. As elsewhere in the elven realm, the daylight here is unchanging and Lancelot rolls to his back and contemplates the empty sky above for several long moments. He can see nothing over the landscape but clear air. No sun is visible, nor any stars, no moon, no clouds…there is nothing above him but the subdued gray glow of the arching firmament. He finds the emptiness to be disorienting as well as disconcerting. The inability to gauge the passing of time has greatly disturbed his equilibrium.

Shaking off the persistent feeling of wrongness that continues to nag at the edges of his consciousness, Lancelot sits up and takes stock of his surroundings. The smouldering remains of the fire remind him of the hours spent in conversation with the lake’s Lady once the light had gone for the day.

She had seemed fascinated by his account of life in Albion. Indefatigable but not unkind in her questioning, she must have drawn him out on every possible aspect of his life. When at last her inquiry drew to an end, she bade him sleep and he lay by the warm fire gratefully, listening to the quiet slap of waves hitting the lakeshore. Before losing consciousness entirely, he’d heard the soft shuffle of her feet across the pebbled beach and he’d blinked his eyes open in time to see her glide into the water and disappear into its depths.

Knowing that the Lady had retired to her watery home before he’d fallen asleep, Lancelot is surprised to spy breakfast waiting beside the fire for him. His nameless benefactress is nowhere to be seen, so Lancelot digs into the meal without any ceremony and finishes it off in minutes. Afterward, he manages to take a hasty bath in the icy water and when he is finished, the Lady has still to make an appearance.

He frowns as he scans his environs, wishing he knew of a way to summon the elf. As idyllic as her home may be, Lancelot cannot afford to tarry very long. He has to find Merlin. With their soul-bond seemingly extinguished, he has no way of knowing how his lover has fared since his capture by the elven king’s men. Merlin could be in terrible danger and he’d never know. Lancelot has lived with an awareness of his other half for so long that the loss of Merlin’s presence in the back of his mind is a constant, nagging pain. He imagines it is something akin to losing a limb. It’s gone but it still hurts.

Lancelot needs to leave, but his conscience will not allow him to go without thanking his hostess for her hospitality...especially as it is the only succor he has received on his journey. Just as he begins to become agitated, the Lady appears from the trees, a large, unwieldy package in her arms. Lancelot hastens forward to relieve her of the burden. It clanks softly as he takes it from her.

“Thank you kindly, Sir Lancelot. You are a true gentleman and for that, I bless you.”

Her smile is kindly and beatific and Lancelot feels somehow humbled by her gentle regard. Bowing his head, he thanks her quietly. To his surprise, she reaches out and ghosts a hand over his face, caressing each feature in turn.

“You are so very like him. Same eyes, same lips, same jaw,” her hand drifts to his chest and settles there. “Same heart.”

Startled, his eyes fly up to meet hers.

“Like who, My Lady?”

“Sit, Sir Lancelot and I shall tell you.”

“My Lady, you’ve been very kind but I-“

“You need to be on your way, yes, I know. But trust me, you have a little time yet and that which I shall gift you with will be more than worth that time. Please, sit.”

She takes a seat on a log and he settles himself at her feet after gently placing his clinking burden on the ground beside them. Her smile fades as she begins to speak.

“I once had a son.”

He nods in acknowledgement when the pause draws out.

“He was a youth of surpassing beauty and virtue, skilled with sword and spell alike. My Maelwas had one of the most loving and noble hearts I’d ever encountered and indeed, his honour remains unsurpassed to this day. Now, I know that sounds like the conceit of all mothers but my son was truly possessed of a special spirit. Delivered after his father’s death in battle, he was the delight of my heart.”

The palpable sorrow in her voice touches Lancelot deeply and he cannot help but lay a comforting hand upon hers. It is the first time he has dared to touch the Lady and he is surprised to find her hand not just cool to the touch but positively icy under his. However, he doesn’t flinch; he simply offers her his own warmth. She smiles faintly at the gesture but her eyes remain veiled in melancholy.

“As I had lost his father to the ruthless jaws of war, I was determined I would not so lose my Maelwas. I once commanded great powers of enchantment and I employed that power to create the mightiest of arms and armour for my son. With such protection as I gave him, coupled with his own great skill, he was nigh on invincible in battle. He fought many campaigns and he always returned to me as hale and hearty as he’d left. My happiness knew no bounds.”

Her faint smile turns pensive.

“When Maelwas had safely passed the trials of his youth, his thoughts naturally turned to the gentler pursuits of home and hearth. As you know, even the mightiest of warriors is not content with only the triumphs of the field. And so, he fell in love with a lovely maid called Gweneal. She was the daughter of a powerful lord, one of the King’s most trusted advisors and commander of his legions. He was beyond thrilled with the match for not only was Gweneal as beautiful as the dawn, but she also seemed possessed of an unusually mild and agreeable disposition. Her family connections were not to be overlooked but they were truly of little consideration as far as Maelwas was concerned. He loved her and she requited his love. That was all that mattered to him. As he was happy, it was all that mattered to me as well.”

She pauses again and her expression darkens before she continues.

“She took him from me.”

The pause is longer this time, so long that Lancelot grows concerned.

“My Lady? My Lady, please, if this is too difficult for you…”

Her eyes are dry but she swipes at them as if weeping.

“No, no, I want you to know….I want someone to know.”

He nods and waits patiently while she regains her composure.

“She took him from me. Not in the way that maids usually steal men from their mothers but as perfidious enchantresses take men from the world. He was young and in love and she was her father’s creature through and through. You see, her father had witnessed Maelwas’s prowess on the battlefield and felt threatened by him. Maelwas was young, well-born and blessed in battle. His father had been the commander of the King’s legions before Einion was appointed the job and it was clear that the King was beginning to groom Maelwas to someday assume his father’s former position. However, a marriage between my son and Gweneal would likely have been enough to keep Maelwas from overtaking Einion’s position but there was something else Gweneal’s father wanted.

Maelwas was formidably skilled in the arts of war but he had an edge no one could overcome-the arms and armour I had made for him. Einion coveted these so greatly that he schemed to take them from Maelwas and he sought to employ Gweneal to do it.”

The lady drew a deep, ragged breath before continuing.

“They were wed and they retired to Gweneal’s family home where they intended to spend the first few months of their marriage. Less than three weeks later Maelwas was dead. He collapsed in the midst of a feast and fell down dead at Einion’s feet. It appeared that he had died of an apoplexy. Such an affliction is unusual in one so young but it’s not unheard of either. Sometimes, the young and vigorous, the most healthful of youths can be struck down in an instant and there is no time to bring them back. Death is swift and merciless.

I was grieved but I suspected nothing until I came to reclaim Maelwas’s sword and armour and found Einion unwilling to give them up. At first, I simply ascribed this desire to greed but I was unwilling to part with the gift I’d fashioned for Maelwas and demanded its return. He continued to refuse and his cold intractability coupled with the sudden nature of Maelwas’s death soon drew my suspicion. I went to the King and demanded an investigation. It took only a little persuasion for the King had been great friends with my husband and had developed a decided fondness for Maelwas in his own right.”

Another sad smile graced her lips as she spoke of her king.

“It didn’t prove a terribly difficult plot to unravel. Gweneal, who happened to be a skilled healer, had poisoned Maelwas at the feast using a rare herb that causes apoplexy. It induces a very natural looking death and had I not been so sentimental over the gift I’d made for my son, I might never have known why he died. His murderers would have succeeded in their plan and not only gone unpunished but would have been rewarded for the slaying of my child.”

Her whole body shudders and Lancelot moves once again to take her hand. Though she is trembling in every limb she still does not cry. At the touch of his hand, she raises her eyes to his and attempts a tremulous smile.

“No doubt you wonder why I’ve told you all this?”

Lancelot inclines his head slightly in agreement but leaves her to speak. Her smile firms and widens.

“You remind me of him, so, so very much.”

As she had before, she reaches out and traces the contours of his face with long, slender fingers.

“You have the same look he had but for your human ears and the dusk of your skin.”

Trailing soft fingertips over the shell of one ear she continues the motion up over his hair, softly stroking the thick, rumpled waves.

“It was your face that drew me from the water. I saw you and for a moment, I thought my Maelwas had returned to me…”

“Lady, I’m sorry to have caused you such pain..”

“No!” she cuts across his apology. “No, you have not caused me pain...quite the opposite, Sir Lancelot. You are not my son but, in a way, you’ve brought a piece of him back to me.”

She came down to kneel beside him in the grass and took both his hands in hers.

“You don’t just look like my son, you love like him as well. Yes, I came to see you because you resemble him but then I looked past your face and beheld your heart. Good sir, you have the same noble spirit, the same pure, loving core that made my Maelwas so special. I’ve not seen his like in all the long years since his death. No elf has ever matched his virtue and grace as you do.”

Lancelot can feel himself blush under her intense regard. Her eyes glow with reverent awe and he can only squirm inwardly, feeling his unworthiness keenly.

“Lady…I feel you pay me too great a compliment. I can claim no special virtue. Indeed, my hands have been soaked with blood for far too long. I am not worthy of such regard.”

A joyful laugh escapes her lovely lips. Her smile is wide and radiant.

“Of course, you would think that. Your humility is a great part of what makes you worthy! My son was much the same and to see that same modesty in you gladdens my heart more than I can say.”

At a loss to respond to such effusive praise, Lancelot merely bows his head and says nothing. She lifts his chin with a gentle hand.

“I would have you accept a boon from me. Will you?”

“Of course, My Lady. I am glad of any aid you can render me.”

She reaches for the bundle that she’d carried from the woods and begins to draw away the wrappings. He glimpses the glint of metal and a swirl of blue and green before she draws a fantastically wrought cuirass from concealment. Gorget, pauldrons, rerebraces, couters, vambraces and gauntlets swiftly follow and Lancelot gapes at the artistry that went into making each piece. As he stares he realizes that the swirling curves of blue and green are beautifully stylized waves. The colour seems to almost move over the surface of the metal confusing the eye the way churning water does. He sees that it’s not only beautiful but deadly for the constantly shifting colour would baffle an opponent’s gaze as he tried to aim a blow at the wearer of such cleverly crafted armour.

Smiling with a slightly smug air, the Lady produces cuisses, greaves and poleyns before laying the most magnificent helm Lancelot has ever seen on the ground between them. All of it has been crafted with the same swirling edges and shifting water-colours. He knows he is gawping like a country bumpkin but he’s unable to stop himself. He simply cannot affect a sophisticated, worldly air when faced with such wonders.

“My Lady?”

“These were his. This is the armour I made to keep Maelwas safe. I’ve been holding on to it for so long. I always wanted it to go to a worthy recipient but until now, I’d never found one. Lancelot, I want you to have it.”

“My Lady! No! I couldn’t!”

“It would greatly please me.”

“I…I’m unworthy of such an incredible gift, Lady. Won’t you hold it yourself? You are young, you might yet have another son..”

“Oh, Lancelot, you dear, sweet man. I died centuries ago.”

His heart lurches in his chest as her words penetrate his confusion. She is a revenant? He remembers the coolness of her skin and he shivers a bit. He does not fear though, had she meant to do him harm she would already have done so. Hers is a most benevolent spirit indeed.

“I tied my spirit to this lake so that I might stay to guard my son’s legacy until I found one who could measure up to my Maelwas. Finally, I’ve found you. Please, don’t refuse my gift; I do not bestow it lightly. Mayhap it will make the difference between success and failure in your quest to recover your beloved.”

Her gaze is knowing; she has discovered his greatest weakness: his love for Merlin.

“Then I accept, Lady, for I will do anything I must in order to find him again. Nothing short of death will stop me. Even then, I fear I would continue to strive so that I might gain his side once more.”

She nods in clear satisfaction and reaches for the small pile of cloth beside her once more. She draws forth a sheathed sword and lays it across his knees.

“This is Caledfwlch. It was forged from the finest elvensteel and is stronger than any blade in existence save three. Two of those three are now lost to time and legend but the third remains in the possession of the High-King, Emrys, himself. Caledfwlch will cut through other weapons and armour as a knife passes through warm butter.”

Smiling she nods at him and he carefully draws the sword from its scabbard only to gasp as the blade flares and pulses with a bright light.

“Its light will blind your opponents in battle be it night or day and the scabbard has a value all its own. Whoever wears it will not bleed from any wound and any injury sustained will heal within minutes no matter how dire. Additionally, anyone whose hand touches the scabbard will cease to bleed from any wounds they may suffer and their healing will be similarly accelerated.”

Lancelot’s throat closes over and his eyes fill with tears. He cannot understand what has driven the Lady before him to shower him with such munificence, but he will be eternally grateful for her gifts.

“My Lady, I am not deserving of such gifts, but I shall strive to be worthy in the future. I swear, I will not waste the precious favour you’ve bestowed upon me.”

“Thank you, Sir Lancelot. I could wish for no better promise from you. Your Merlin sounds a remarkable man and a love such as you share between you is to be preserved at any cost. Your soul bond is proof of this.”

Aching again now that she has reminded him of the bond, Lancelot feels all his fear and anxiety fall on him at once. The last several days have been a grim slog for survival but his struggles up to now have effectively kept his worry at bay. With nothing more to distract him, Lancelot knows a moment of despair.

“What is it, dear Lancelot? What so distresses you?”

The soft concern in her voice nearly unmans him. He fights to keep his tears from falling.

“Please, tell me.”

A single tear escapes his control.

“I can’t feel it anymore. Since we bonded, I have always felt him as a presence in my mind, as a warmth in my heart. Always. But from the moment I came to Ælfheim, I have been unable to sense him at all. I don’t know if that means he has perished or if something else is interfering with our bond but…My Lady…I am frightened.”

“You find the bond you share has diminished?”

“Not just diminished, but has disappeared altogether!”

She smooths a cool hand over the back of one of his own.

“Please, do not be distressed, Sir Lancelot. I believe this loss is but a temporary thing. It is because your bond with him is anchored in his human side and the elven blood in his veins has ascendency while he bides here in Ælfheim. When you return to your realm, your bond will return to its former strength.”

Hope flaring in his heart, he searches her gaze and finds only sincerity there.

“Thank you, My Lady. That does much to ease my fears.”

Rising, she offers him her hand. Feeling that he should be the one assisting her to stand, he nonetheless takes the hand she holds out to him, rising smoothly to his feet.

“Will you let me fit your new armour?”

He smiles, nods, and begins to shed his mail. A few minutes later she assists him into the magical elven armour. He stands patiently as she adjusts straps and ties off laces, every move expert and assured. This is not the first time she has dressed a warrior for battle. When everything is adjusted to her satisfaction, she steps back and examines him. Tears fill her eyes as he pulls the helm on.

“Oh! I swear, did I not know who you were, I would swear my Maelwas was returned to me!”

Quickly drawing the helm back off, he cries, “My Lady! I am causing you grief. Forgive me!”

“I am happy Sir Lancelot. You are so like him; it can be no accident. You were meant for this and I was meant to wait here for you. This moment was fated Lancelot, and it brings me so much joy to stand here and behold it.”

He drops to one knee before her.

“My Lady, ask anything of me and if it be in my power to give it to you, I will.”

Grinning, she takes one gauntleted hand in hers and tugs him to his feet.

“I would give you one more gift then.”

“My Lady! You have given me too much as it is!”

“Ah ah! You said you’d give me whatever I ask, and I ask that you accept one last boon.”

From he knows not where, she produces a small flask of intricately wrought crystal that glows faintly in her small hand. She presses it into his palm.

“It holds a few drops of water from my lake. There is another such lake, twin to this one, which lies at the heart of the king’s city. If he has indeed taken your beloved, he will be there. The water from this lake will lead you to that one. When you face the proper direction it will glow brightest blue. When you face back this way it will gleam with green light. Good luck to you, Bright Blade. May you soon be reunited with your Shield.”

She kisses his cheek before drawing away to return to her lake. She never looks back; she simply walks into the water and disappears beneath the dark surface. He gazes at the water for a long moment before looking down at the small vessel in his hand. He turns on his heel and watches for the light to change colour. When it does, he lifts his head and makes to leave. As he moves forward, he stumbles over a bulging leather pack that was most certainly not there a moment before.

Bending down, he loosens the tightly cinched opening and discovers a large quantity of food including hearty bread, dried meat and a good many apples. It’s enough to last him for quite some time to come and he can’t help but grin when he realizes the Lady has managed to slip him yet another gift. Hefting the pack, he finds several full waterskins strapped to the outside. His last thought as he leaves the shore of her lake is of how deeply she must have loved her son.

ooOOoo

Merlin looks up and takes in the stretch of windswept rock before him. According to his guides, another half-day of climbing should bring them within sight of their goal, a glacial valley high in the mountains west of Emrys’ capital city. They’ve already been climbing for eight days and never has Merlin been happier that the days in Ælfheim are shorter than the days in Albion. His long, slender build is well suited to movement on flat plains and gentle slopes but his long limbs seem to be more hindrance than help when scaling steep slopes and clambering up the bare face of rock walls.

It hasn’t escaped his notice that the elves who live in the Hwítloc Heahmor tend to be shorter and more compact than their plains-dwelling cousins. Merlin may not have quite as attenuated a build as some of the elven aristocracy he’d met, but he is still far too rangy to make climbing anything other than a chore.

Once they reach the main vale, Merlin will leave the others behind in order to seek out the small hanging valley where the dragons are presumed to presently dwell. Emrys’ elves could only offer their best guess as to where the magical beings were currently making their home because, for creatures of such enormous size, they were surprisingly shy and elusive. Merlin knew that, in theory, he could call the dragons and force them to attend him wherever he chose, but he had no intention of antagonizing such mighty entities.

Emrys had described the three dragons as “irritable”. Merlin suspected that their irritability was a symptom of their captivity rather than a feature of their natural disposition. They’d been lured to Ælfheim and even after nearly five centuries of dwelling here, they weren’t likely to have forgotten that fact.

Irritable or justifiably angry, Merlin wasn’t about to add to their burden. He would try to persuade them to his brother’s cause but he would not pressure them in any way. It didn’t seem wise to force something that intelligent and powerful to serve against their wills. There would always be loopholes in any command he might give and he didn’t want to give them the motivation to find them. He might very well find himself roasted to ash alongside his adversaries were he to do so.

Not for the first time since they’d left Eldamar, Merlin curses his brother’s “tactical weather”. It might be his human blood but it certainly seems to him that he’s feeling the cold more than his companions. He’s outfitted for the cold with warm clothing and thick, sturdy boots but his exposed face and ears feel in danger of freezing solid. Fine ice particles seem to make their way under the overlapping edges of sleeve and glove, pant leg and boot, not to mention the way the cold and damp slide down the back of his neck, rendering his scarf that much less effective.

The compact, blond elves seem unconcerned with the cold and press on without complaint. Merlin curses their inherent hardiness and grits his teeth against his discomfort. Had he not been warned to avoid using his magic for anything short of life-threatening circumstances, Merlin could have cast a charm over himself to seal out the cold or at the least, trap his own warmth inside his clothes. However, Emrys had stressed to him how vulnerable this small party would be to an attack by his enemies. The dragons dwelled just past the border of the lands that the dark-elves had claimed as their own. They had powerful sorcery of their own, were he to use his powers while inside their wards, they would be able to sense his magic and track it back to their party.

For all the snow and ice, the elven party makes good time on the way to their destination. Inured as they are to the cold and damp, his companions also seem unhindered by the deep snow and slick stretches of ice they encounter along the way. For Merlin, however, this trip is a stint in a freezing, white hell of pain and endurance.

He hears nothing but the howl of wind and sees little beyond the swirl of snow for the final leg of the journey as a storm blows across the craggy peak they are ascending. No one is inclined toward conversation. The rhythmic slog onward and upward is everything and each footstep seems harder than the last.

Finally, with less than an hour remaining until darkfall, they gain the valley. They stagger into the relative shelter provided by the steep walls rising close to both east and west. The wind, traveling out of the south, cuts across the mouth of the vale but sends only small gusts skittering inside.

Merlin is desperately relieved and happy to help set up camp. Two hours later, he’s curled around a coal brazier in his tent with a full belly and warm toes. He drowsily admits to his tent-mate (Merlin thinks he’s called Gwalchmai) that he’d been a bit concerned about his toes those last few hours of the climb. They’d gone alarmingly numb at the end…

When he wakes the next morning, the first thing Merlin notes is the silence in the tent. Gwalchmai is gone and so is the howling of the wind that has so conspicuously marked the journey thus far. Dressing quickly, he slips outside. When he sees only a few of his companions gathered around the central fire, he relaxes knowing that the day can’t be too far advanced. Clearly, Gwalchmai is an early riser.

He joins the small circle and takes the proffered breakfast. He gulps it down as he is wont to do while on military expedition. Technically this may be a diplomatic mission to gather allies, but, to Merlin, it still feels like he is approaching battle. Diplomacy has never really been his strong suit, he’s always rather left that up to his other half. Lancelot has all the skills Merlin lacks when it comes to the gentle arts of persuasion. He can’t help but long for the man even more as he tries to martial his thoughts for the coming encounter. What would Lance say? What would he do? One thing he’s certain of, Lancelot is wonderfully gifted at finding just the right words for every situation. Merlin is far less politic.

Still, he had to try. He’d given Emrys his word to help him win this war and the dragons could be an immeasurable help in making that happen sooner rather than later. With that goal accomplished, Merlin could return home to Albion with his duty discharged and his conscience clean. Lancelot and their shared destiny awaited his return and he was eager to take up his purpose once again.

After breakfast, Merlin makes the final preparations for his solo journey. He hopes his errand will not take long, but he honestly has no idea how difficult the dragons might prove to win over. He might be a Dragonlord, but he’s never actually dealt with true dragons.

Wyrms and wyverns didn’t really count as they had little intelligence to speak of. The wyrms were about on par with your average housecat and the wyverns, well, he privately thought of them as retarded baby dragons. There was no reasoning with them at all, they possessed no understanding of anything beyond eat! And anything that moved was food to a wyvern. Both creatures were easy to control with simple commands but…true dragons? They were a different story altogether.

Once Merlin’s preparations are complete, he speaks to the expedition’s leader.

“Right then, so give me two days. If I’ve neither contacted you nor returned by then, I’d appreciate it if you could send out a rescue party.”

He grins to show them what he thinks of the likelihood of such a scenario but years of experience of war and conflict have taught Merlin that no man is invincible. Not even the most powerful sorcerer in two realms.

Several hours of brisk hiking bring Merlin to the base of yet another craggy wall of rock. He sighs as he begins to climb. At least this one seems to have plenty of hand and foot holds which is good considering this time there will be no one to arrest his fall should he slip.

Merlin’s not sure how many hours pass before he slumps down on a small outcropping to rest. His arms are screaming with fatigue and his legs are more than just a bit wobbly. He snorts in disgust, reflecting on the irony of dying alone on a rock wall in a foreign world when he has survived nearly a decade of continual war and intrigue back home. Lancelot’s face hovers in his mind’s eye and he swears aloud. He’ll be damned if a giant lump of rock in a frozen landscape is going to prevent him from returning to the man he loves.

Energy renewed by determination, Merlin returns to the grim ascent.

A lifetime passes and he runs through every profanity he can think of in every language he knows before he finally makes it to the top of the cliff. Collapsing right on the edge, he trembles all over as his muscles spasm from the monumental effort of the climb. His fingers and toes cramp and his limbs twitch. The ache reaches right down to his bones and he wants nothing so much as to draw the warmth of a spell over his body and sleep for several days. Bearing his brother’s warnings in mind though, he dare not, especially now that he’s alone. Powerful he may be, but he doesn’t make the mistake of thinking himself omnipotent.

Groaning, he rolls over and forces himself to rise. He pitches his tiny tent and unfolds the clever little braziers the elves use for keeping warm. Small, concentrated discs of fuel feed the fire and he huddles inside his bedroll and waits for the warmth to penetrate his aching body. He notes the abrupt arrival of night just before he drops into a deep, dreamless sleep.

Slipping outside the tent the following morning, Merlin takes in the small valley that supposedly holds the last three dragons in existence. Too exhausted to register anything beyond trees the evening before, he finds himself in a pretty little glen populated by the frosted cones of blue-pines and the delicately spiraled forms of some unfamiliar native evergreens. The snow cover is deep but a thick crust supports Merlin’s weight fairly well. His motions dent the snow beneath him as he walks but he doesn’t break through.

Gwalchmai had mentioned that a wide stream runs through this valley, ending in a waterfall that cascades down into the main valley below. Merlin is fairly certain he can hear the splash of falling water and he sets off to discover whether or not he’s mistaken.

Just a few minutes of brisk walking sees him to the bank of the stream. From here, it’s more certain that he can indeed hear the tinkling splash of falling water. He fills his waterskin and returns to make breakfast and pack up his minimal camp. Once he’s finished, he heads deeper into the valley to see if he can discover some signs of dragon occupation.

Not sure what to look for, he looks at everything: trees, rocks, dirt patches and scree slopes. He pokes around the banks of the stream and the limp grey weeds poking out of the water itself. Slowly making his way around the slope, he explores tiny caves cut into the shoulder of the valley itself. He finds no opening large enough to accommodate a creature that can grow to upwards of thirty feet in length. Even if the dragons dwelling here are of the smaller species, these shallow dents in the earth are still too small to house even one.
Merlin estimates that he’s covered about half the valley before he spots something interesting halfway up a large talus pile. It appears to be an isolated scorch mark on the barren rock. Closer investigation confirms it. Continuing to make his way along the rocky slope he sees more scorching as well as tellingly thick patches of random ice, places where it looks as if the snow melted rapidly before refreezing into a glassy mass. The openings in the rock wall become fewer and farther apart but they increase in size and depth the farther into the valley he explored.

Eventually, he came not to a cave but what appeared to be a huge fissure in the earth. Around the mouth of the opening he could see piles of glassy looking stones. He’d seen such rocks before in and around wyrm dens. The creatures would breathe on the rocks to heat them and then use them as nesting material. Repeated firings left the stones with a glassy appearance. Eventually, the continual heating would cause the rocks to split and the wyrm’s would discard them in favour of larger, smoother rocks.

Reckoning he’s found the dragons’ den, Merlin sets his pack aside and stands before the opening. He’d no sooner stroll into a dragon’s den uninvited than he would invade a neighboring king’s palace. It was simply rude. Instead, he cleared his throat and closed his eyes. He’d never attempted to deliberately call a draconic creature to him. Relying on the instinct that has always guided this ability, he tilts his head back and wills the right words to come.

“Oh, Dragons! I am Merlin, Dragonlord, and I entreat you to come hold congress with me. I have need of you and humbly come to beg for your aid.”

Not sure what to expect, Merlin mentally prepares for a wait before his summons is answered. However, just seconds later he is nearly knocked from his feet as three dragons of varying size all boil up at once from that crack in the earth.

They land in a rough circle around him and the wind from their wings buffets him back and forth until the settle and fold the appendages away. Merlin had thought he was prepared for this, but he gapes from one to the other boggled by their sheer size. The smallest of the three is a white dragon that must be at least fifteen feet long if it’s an inch. The largest is variegated shades of bronze and green and stretches at least thirty feet from snout to tail. Somewhere in between the two extremes is a glorious creature whose hide ripples with bands of dark ruby, deep crimson and shimmering scarlet with an underbelly of pure, pale gold.

It is the red dragon who speaks first, voice high and distinctly feminine.

“Young warlock, we’ve been awaiting your arrival for a very long time. You cannot know how we’ve dreamed of this day.”

The huge bronze dragon leans in and cuts her off.

“How very small you are, for such a great destiny.”

“Kilgharrah! Don’t be rude!”

Pulling his head back, the dragon called Kilgharrah shrugs.

“He is small, even you must admit that, Rúadhnait.”

“How long has it been since you’ve seen a human? They’re all small, you fool!”

The white dragon pipes up, “I think he’s adorable!”

“You would,” chorus the other two.

The little white dragon swishes her tail in obvious pique and takes down several trees in the process. Kilgharrah huffs impatiently and smoke billows from his nostrils. The red dragon, Rúadhnait, turns back to Merlin with an apologetic air.

“You must forgive Aithusa; she’s still young and impressionable. She hasn’t seen a human since she was a wee thing. And pay no mind to Kilgharrah, he’s always been a cranky sod and now he’s old enough to think that being rude is a privilege he’s earned simply by surviving for so long.”

Merlin can’t seem to close his mouth. Whatever he’d been expecting, it hadn’t been this! He’d heard so much about the wisdom and nobility of the dragons that he’d always assumed they’d be more…well, more…more stately and well…more dignified than this! The way Kilgharrah and Rúadhnait are carrying on reminds him of nothing so much as an old couple bickering and the bouncy little white dragon like a teenage girl than a creature that must be at least three hundred years old.

“Rúadhnait, I’ll thank you not to undermine me in front of the first Dragonlord any of has seen in over three hundred years. What will the young man think?”

“You undermine yourself every time you open your mouth, Kilgharrah. I’m sure Ambrosius doesn’t mind, do you?”

Two pairs of huge golden eyes regard Merlin closely and all he can think to say is, “Merlin, my name is Merlin.”

Kilgharrah throws back his head and laughs and…it’s hard to tell, but Rúadhnait almost appears…sheepish?

“Of course, please forgive me, Lord Merlin. Your place in prophecy flickers between both names. It’s never been entirely clear which was your true name and which was the affectation of prognostication.”

Stunned by the dragon’s change in tone, Merlin only manages to stammer, “Uh, that’s all right. We’ve only just met, haven’t we?”

She chuckles.

“Indeed, young warlock, we have. However, we have been waiting for you for so long that to us, it seems as if we are simply greeting an old friend after a long separation. But of course, it is not the same for you.”

“I’m sorry, but you are correct. I’ve never even seen a dragon until now. There aren’t any left in Camelot. They say…they say that there are none left in all the lands of Albion.”

Kilgharrah sighs at Merlin’s words and Rúadhnait seems to slump a bit but Aithusa rears up on her back legs, wings flapping in what looks to Merlin like distress.

“None? There are none of us left? No dragons at all?

“Calm yourself, Aithusa. We always knew it was a possibility, indeed, that was the reason we allowed ourselves to be drawn into this realm in the first place.”

Aithusa curls up on the ground at Kilgharrah’s feet, whimpering softly as he speaks. Tears of liquid fire slide down her face and drip onto the ground, the rocks below her sizzling and smoking as the magma scorches then melts the stone. Alarmed, Merlin backs away several paces.

“I’m so sorry to be the bearer of such terrible news. Our former King was a bit mad when it came to magical creatures and he…”

“Uther Pendragon was a scourge on the land, young warlock. I knew him well. It was he who drove us into exile here.”

Cursing himself for forgetting about the disparity of time between the two realms, Merlin realizes that three hundred years in Ælfheim is probably closer to thirty in Albion. He is beginning to see a pattern; it seems for every one year in Albion, ten must pass in here Ælfheim. A hazy childhood memory surfaces and he gropes after it for some meaning.

“You…you three, I think, I think I’ve heard tales about you. It’s said that the last Dragonlord known at the time rescued three dragons from a cavern beneath Uther’s castle and somehow managed to disappear with them. That was you, was it not?”

Rúadhnait nods, posture conveying her sorrow.

“It was indeed, young warlock, only it wasn’t a Dragonlord who led us to safety but a Dragonlady. Elwen, she was called.”

Something about the way she says the name seems significant to Merlin. He glances around and sees that all three of the dragons are watching him closely. He can feel the hairs on the back of his neck rise in anxiety.

“Elwen?”

“Yes, child, your mother.”

Dumbfounded, he gapes at them.

“Is that how she came to be here? She was hiding from Uther?

Rúadhnait sighs softly, the heated puff of air rushes over Merlin, warming his body even as he feels an ugly chill inside.

“I’m afraid so, young warlock. The mad king hunted her kind as fervently as he did ours.”

Aithusa lifted her head at that and regarded Merlin out of huge, sad eyes.

“She was beautiful, too. You look like her.”

Merlin feels his knees begin to buckle and as he sinks to the ground, one hand searches blindly for a solid place to land. As his palm settles on the rock beneath him, he folds his legs, and slides down into a heap.

“I didn’t know. My brother…he didn’t tell me that.”

Kilgharrah’s voice is soft as he speaks.

“I doubt the young king is aware of this, Merlin. He did not inherit her gifts as you have. He has never sought us out; I doubt he even knows of the connection. It has not been necessary for him as it is for you.”

Merlin looks up sharply at this.

“Why? What do you mean?”

“Your gifts, Merlin. There is a reason they were given to you and not to your brother.”

Can there really be an explanation for the disparity in their powers? Emrys seems so frustrated by the differences between them and though he is loathe to admit to his brother, Merlin burns with curiosity as well.

“So there is a reason?”

“Oh, yes. The two of you may have begun life as one, but from the beginning of time you were always meant to travel down different paths. Emrys’ destiny lies here in Ælfheim, whereas you…you were never meant for this world at all.”

“Lancelot…Arthur?”

“Indeed, young warlock. Sword and Shield are destined to forge the way for the Once and Future King. Together you will unite the land of Albion and bring about a time that’s been dreamt of for several thousand years; a golden age of unity and peace, with prosperity and justice a gift for all men. By now, you should have already set your feet upon that path and joined with your other half. Is it not so?”

Merlin actually chuckles a bit, thinking how hard it had been to convince Lancelot of their shared destiny. Aithusa peers at him inquisitively.

“What’s so funny, Merlin?”

“Nothing, nothing. It’s just that, yes, Lancelot and I were joined several years ago but it was not so easy a thing as Kilgharrah makes it sound. Lancelot, well, he took a lot of convincing. In fact, it took me years to persuade him that we were meant to be together.”

Kilgharrah scoffs, “It can’t have been that many years, young warlock. You don’t have all that many of them.”

Merlin grins, not offended in the least.

“True, but it seems to me I spent half of them working on him. He can be a very stubborn man!”

Regarding him shrewdly, Rúadhnait says, “I suspect it’s a trait both sides of the coin share.”

“Pardon?”

“Ah, it’s an expression, young Merlin. Destiny joins two halves to form a whole: two sides of a coin, as it were. And somehow I don’t think your Lancelot is the more intractable half.”

Grinning with a manic sort of glee, happy just thinking of Lance, Merlin makes no attempt to deny Rúadhnait’s words.

“True, My Lady, he is not. That’s why, in the end, I prevailed and turned his heart and head my way.”

Now it was Kilgharrah’s turn to gently mock him.

“And I suspect you rarely have difficulty turning any heart your way, do you, young warlock?”

Merlin shakes his head and all three dragon’s laugh.

“Your mother was just so.”

Looking to Rúadhnait as she speaks, Merlin’s grin softens to a wistful smile.“I wish I could have known her. There are so many things she could have taught me.”

“Indeed, young warlock, she was a remarkable woman. I can see her kindness in you. She would have been proud.”

Blushing, Merlin ducks his head. He has no way to respond, but he feels the warmth of her approval curl pleasantly inside him.

Clearing his throat, Kilgharrah takes control of the conversation. “So, young warlock, I believe you called on us to ask our aid in some endeavor?”

Sobering, Merlin squares his shoulders and attempts to assemble his thoughts. Kilgharrah is right; he’s not here to reminisce about friends and family. He’s here on a mission.

“Indeed, I am. My brother faces a threat to both his realm and his rule. He has asked for my help and I have promised it. I’m here to ask for your help as well.”

He feels the weight of each of their gazes and he tries not to bow under the pressure. Reminding himself that he is a Dragonlord, he stiffens his spine and waits patiently.

“You know you could compel our cooperation, Lord Merlin. Why is it that you ask for our assistance? Why do you not simply command our obedience?”

Looking Kilgharrah right in his giant golden eye, Merlin is honest in his reply, “You aren’t some mindless beast to be harnessed and yoked at a whim. You are highly intelligent, discriminating beings of immense cunning and might. Forcing you to my will would reduce you to slavery and I am many things, but a slaver is not one of them.”

Merlin clears his throat slightly and continues in a slightly less formal tone, “Also, moral issues aside...I just don’t think it’s wise to have such a powerful and clever ally unwilling at my back. You are each smart enough to figure out where the loopholes lie in any command I might issue. I’d just as soon not have you spending your time and energy trying to figure out how to exploit those weaknesses so you can use them against me. Better to not have your help at all than to command you come to me against your will.”

A long, drawn out moment of silence follows this speech and Merlin wonders if perhaps he was a bit too honest. He’s drawing a deep breath, readying himself to apologize for offending them when Aithusa laughs. Kilgharrah and Rúadhnait begin to chuckle as well and Merlin feels himself sagging with relief.

“You are a clever thing, aren’t you?” Aithusa cries out with apparent glee.

“Indeed, Lord Merlin, you display great wisdom for one so young.”

Rúadhnait is full of approval. Merlin looks to Kilgharrah to see if he agrees with the others. He’s regarding Merlin intently, his laughter having already faded.

“You display uncommon insight, young warlock. We shall come when you call us but the help we give is not unconditional.”

Rúadhnait nods in agreement and Aithusa stares at him with unblinking intensity.

“What would you have of me?“

Kilgharrah’s glowing eyes seem to burn into Merlin’s soul.

“You must free us. We wish to return to Albion. Uther is dead and we have grown anxious for home.”

Rúadhnait chimes in, “But as we are not of this world, we cannot find our way back. We cannot see the portals, only a creature native to Ælfheim can find them. You are of both worlds, Lord Merlin. You can find a portal and guide us home.”

Merlin laughs aloud.

“Done! You can come with me when I go home. My brother has agreed that I have his leave to depart as soon as his enemies have been vanquished.”

All three dragons smile at him.

“Call us when you have need, and we shall answer you.”

ooOOoo

Constantly adjusting his course to keep the crystal compass glowing blue turns out to be a far more arduous task than Lancelot had anticipated. It had been a simple enough thing while he was still within the boundaries of the lady’s territory. However, once he steps through the curtain at its edge--formed of swirling smoke this time--he returns to the treacherously shifting environs of the frozen woods he’d traveled before reaching that summery haven.

Here, the forest refuses to be still. Watching the crystal as he moves, Lancelot sees the light remain blue as he walks, so he lets his hand fall to his side. He proceeds forward in the same direction only to find several minutes later that the crystal has turned green! Every time he takes his eyes off the little magical compass, the same thing happens.

It would seem a simple thing to keep an eye on the crystal but he finds it awkward and tiring as the forest does its best to trip him with tree roots and random rocks. Looking down to avoid such obstacles seems to invite the trees’ branches to reach out for him instead, slapping him in the face and snagging in his armour. Once, he’s even knocked off his feet by a thick limb that catches him across the chest after he tries to quicken his pace.

Still, he perseveres. Merlin is out there, and the likelihood of ever seeing him again grows smaller with every passing moment.

He travels through a grove of trees where the saplings tear themselves from the ground and shuffle away on their roots as he approaches. And in another, the members of a strange species of dark purple conifer hurl their sharp needles at him as he passes by. He’s pelted with pinecones, twigs and acorns. In every clearing, the ground bucks and heaves as he attempts to cross it. He learns to be careful when ascending any incline for the ground may suddenly decide to fall away and send him tumbling downhill quite abruptly. Inevitably there are sharp rocks wherever he lands at the bottom. There are many moments he has cause to be thankful of his gifted armour.

It takes him eight days to traverse the shifting woods. Two days are spent slogging through a frozen marsh where the slushy mud sucks at his feet and churns restlessly around his legs. Every step is a battle all its own. He runs afoul of a whole nest of spriggans that guard the ruins of an old temple where he stops to take shelter one night. They yank at his hair and scrabble for his pack in an attempt to steal his supplies but they run away screaming in terror the moment he draws Caledfwlch from its sheath. The bright light from the blade has them cringing away and clutching at their eyes as if the brilliance burns them. They do not return.

Eventually the trees begin to thin and when they peter out entirely, Lancelot finds himself on the edge of a snow covered plain. The crystal compass indicates the he must cross the great, frozen emptiness and he steps out upon it with a cautious foot. However, the ground here holds steady even if the wind increases in ferocity. Rocks no longer rise from the earth to trip him and there are no sudden changes in the elevation of the land he walks across. It would seem that only the forest was enchanted to foul his journey.

He finds that he can take his eyes off the lady’s crystal and the light will remain blue if he doesn’t deliberately change direction. The snow is crusted hard and holds his weight and he’s sure he’s making better time, despite having to travel directly into the path of the punishing wind. For three days he walks across the unchanging landscape and for three nights, he camps unmolested beneath the vast blackness of the starless sky.

The fourth day finally provides him with a break in the monotony of his surroundings, but unfortunately, it’s not a welcome one. A wide river divides the flat plain from the gentle rise of rolling hills. It’s a fast flowing torrent of icy water and Lancelot can see no immediate way to cross it. He spends another day walking along the bank in search of a natural ford or an elf-made bridge.

When he does eventually come across a low point in the river, he’s startled to see a solitary horse standing at the river’s edge. It’s got its head down and it’s drinking from the water. It doesn’t spook at his approach and coming closer, he can see a hackamore on its head. It’s a beautiful animal, with a glossy black coat and its tail and mane are both long and luxurious. Oddly, both are dripping wet though the rest of the horse appears dry.

Before he can close the distance between them, the stallion raises his head and looks directly at him. Lancelot freezes, not wishing to frighten the animal off. The hackamore tells him that the horse isn’t a wild creature; he must have known the hand of an owner at some point. However, Lancelot knows how skittish even trained horses can sometimes be and he lets caution guide his movements.

Lancelot is rewarded when the stallion comes to him. He’s a friendly thing, nudging the knight’s chest and lipping at his armour. There’s no saddle but the horse stands perfectly still when Lancelot makes to mount him. Settling his weight on the stallion’s back, Lancelot knows a moment of pure, pleasant satisfaction. He can travel so much faster ahorse than he can on foot.

His satisfaction is fleeting for only seconds after he’s on the creature’s back it plunges straight into the river and dives for the bottom. To his horror, Lancelot finds that the very hide of the horse has become adhesive. His armoured legs and one of his hands are stuck fast. The icy water drives through every crevice of his armour, soaking him in moments. The cold steals the breath from his lungs, and pain lances everywhere at once.

Scrabbling at his belt, he manages to draw his hunting knife. He slashes and stabs at the creature but cannot penetrate its hide. Throwing the useless weapon away, he struggles to unsheathe Caledfwlch. His sword-hand is stuck fast and his posture hinders his efforts but eventually, he frees the remarkable blade. Lancelot raises his hand as high as he can before plunging the sword deep into the monster’s side. Even underwater he can hear its scream. It feels a lifetime but can only be a moment before the thing goes limp and Lancelot is freed from its clinging hide.

He drives for the surface and breaks through with a sputtering gasp. Filling his lungs with precious air, he flounders for a moment before his body remembers how to swim. Several minutes later, he heaves himself onto the riverbank and collapses. It takes him a little while to become aware of his shivering.

Fire. I need a fire. Wood?

Looking around he almost cries in relief. By some miracle he’s managed to find his way to the far side of the river. He can see a stand of trees nearby and he forces himself to move toward them.

Somehow wood is gathered, a fire is built and his body is warmed. The outside of his pack is soaked but he’s delighted to find the inside is completely dry. It’s only then that he realizes that his armour should have weighed him down in the water…but it didn’t. Once again, the lady’s gift has proven itself invaluable to him and as he lies down to sleep, there is a blessing for her on his lips.

Two days of uneventful travel through rolling hills brings Lancelot within sight of a massive city. It’s still miles away but he can see from here that it’s the largest metropolis he’s ever laid eyes on. This must be Eldamar, the capital of Ælfheim, home to the High-King’s palace and the goal he’s fought so hard to reach. Somewhere in that sprawling city, his Merlin is being held captive. He can only hope that his lover knows that Lancelot is coming for him.

Lancelot estimates that he’s covered about half the distance to the city when he sees the gates open and an army march through them. It takes the better part of a day for the endless parade of knights and soldiers to clear the city and by then, Lancelot has managed to cover the rest of the distance there. The lady warned him that Emrys was going to war. The elven king needed Merlin to win that war and Lancelot was willing to bet his life that Merlin was somewhere among the host that streamed from the city. He’d never let Merlin go to war without him before; he wasn’t about to let him do it now. He watched the army’s supply train disappear into the distance and thought, I need a horse.

ooOOoo

Merlin is no stranger to war. In fact, he’s been knee deep in the battles of men since he was sixteen. However, in almost a decade of near continuous warfare, he’s never seen anything on this scale. He stands high on a steep, sharp hill at his brother’s side and sees the enemy they must face arrayed on the rolling plains before them. They are a menacing host, to be sure. They’ve gathered a black fog to shroud their encampment, a gloom so thick Merlin can only pierce it with his magic, his eyes helpless to penetrate the darkness.

What he Sees with his mind’s eye is formidable. The Dark horde stretches all the way to the horizon, the last ranks lost to his vision over the curvature of the land. He extends his senses and finds with small relief that it is only the last ranks so hidden. The land behind them has been laid to waste but is blessedly empty. Still, their numbers are vast, too many for even his true comprehension.

Emrys stands before his men, but makes no long and rousing speech. He simply thanks them all for their loyalty and devotion to his father, to his brother and to him as they face the foe that would see them thrown down. Light must hold Shadow in the balance lest it snuff them out to the last man. For while Light will allow Dark, the reverse cannot be said.

Merlin can’t help but contrast his brother’s simple words with Arthur’s brilliantly inspired speeches. He knows his King doesn’t rehearse those addresses. Yet, he is always strangely eloquent in his impassioned way, never failing to move the hearts of his followers. Each and every one of Arthur’s men would willingly, even gladly die for their sovereign. He can see determination and resolve in the eyes of Emrys’ elven host, but he cannot see the same devotion that marks the men of Camelot. He can only hope that determination and resolve are enough to carry the day.

Holding the high ground as they do, it makes tactical sense to wait for the enemy to come to them. Impatience moves his brother’s elves to try to goad the opposing forces into making a move. They sound their horns and scream taunts and insults at the dark hoard until the undisciplined portion of the throng breaks rank and charge up the steep hill. These are lesser creatures than the dark elves whom they follow: wights, spriggans, imps, and gremlins, all the small, twisted things that hate the daylight world. The shadow Knights stand firm and do not yield to the petty haranguing of Merlin’s allies. However, those elite warriors are in the minority and he can only imagine their dismay as the bulk of their force hurl themselves recklessly on and up toward the waiting weapons of the Dawn’s Host.

Merlin’s mare stands steady beneath him. Ærten has been bred for conflict but he still wishes for his own destrier, Cayne. Almost as seasoned a veteran as Merlin himself, she was used not only to the clamour of battle but also to the strange energies her master would call to disturb the air around them. He could only hope this elven steed would not spook in the face of his magic.

A call sounds,

“Fire!”

Arrows rain down upon the attackers in a hail so thick it casts a shadow over the land, felling almost half their attackers before they can attain the summit. The remainder break like the ocean on the ends of their lances, the first wave cut down like wheat before the scythe. But then the second wave washes over them and Merlin finds himself in the thick of the fight, his newly attained sword singing death in his hand while he cries out in the ancient tongue of the dragons, calling his allies to him.

Ærten fulfills the promise of her training and yields effortlessly to his will. She is calm and efficient as she dips and wheels at his command. He wields steel in his right hand and summons lightning to his left.

“Rúmaþ þone winstrene!”

The spell to clear his left flank comes effortlessly to his lips and his allies are swept clear of the range of his power. His enemies rush to fill the void, eager to press a seeming advantage. They soon recognize the trap as the white-hot energy slices through the bunched up forces that have poured into the clearing he’s made. They turn on each other in their desperation to break free from the searing argent death cleaving the air.

The dragons do not appear.

A shadow washes over him as another volley from their archers sails overhead and cuts into the stream of attackers still surging up the hill. Another follows in swift succession and the flow of the enemy slows to a trickle as hesitation ripples through their ranks. Merlin’s sword flashes out and an enemy falls, ichorous blood spurting from a slashed throat. He hears the sizzles and screams as his power strikes to the left. He hasn’t a glance to spare that direction and can only hope his allies have continued to keep clear the half circle of destruction flashing from Merlin’s sinister appendage.

As the searing power pours from him in unfettered waves, he continues to cut through the wights clamouring to his right. The hilt of his elf-forged blade grows slick in his hand as the foul green-black blood of the unsǣlig creatures coats his arm to the elbow. There seems to be no end to the number of foes that hurl themselves at his vulnerable flank. Later, he will contemplate with grim amusement how it is just this situation that his Lancelot would claim as reason for him to hide among the rear echelons in battle. However, at this moment he has no room for thought, it is the muscle-memory borne from years of training and endless warfare that carries him now. His power pours forth without conscious effort and with minimal control, his sword arm flexes and contracts and his mind is focused squarely on the next opponent, the most immediate threat to life and limb.

He cannot tell if eons pass or only minutes but sometime later a strange, hissing-droning sound shivers over Merlin’s eardrums and vibrates across his skin. It reverberates inside his skull, growing louder and louder until it begins to drown out the battle noises still rending the air around him. When his latest opponent slides off the darkened tip of his blade, he is surprised there isn’t another to take its place. The ground to his left is charred and empty. He absorbs the energies crackling across the blackened space back into his hand.

Looking up, he sees that the dark host is withdrawing. Some of his brother’s forces have begun to cheer but Merlin senses their triumph is premature. The Dark Host are too many to give up so easily and that strange, ominous sound is growing louder. He searches through the shrouding gloom below with his mind, trying to find the source of the noise. At first, all he can See are the forces reassembling at the foot of the hill. There is nothing new there…

Then, suddenly, he Sees them. They are creatures of nightmare, legs and claws and teeth and savage, gaping mouths. There’s little else to them save hunger. It pours off them in waves, their insatiable hunger for flesh. The unsǣlig forces split down the middle, giving the creatures ample room to storm forward. Merlin sees what happens to the few who are not quick enough to clear the path and he feels his stomach churn beneath his pounding heart as they are consumed in seconds. The hideous beasts barely break stride as they feed. He knows he must stop them before the beasts reach their front lines or they will be overrun before any of them can fathom what’s come upon them.

He spurs Ærten forward and she obediently shoulders her way to the front line. He breaks through but stops less than a horse length out. There’s no need to expose himself further, he’s not exactly eager to die for his brother’s cause. First he sends a wind that by all rights should knock the fell creatures off their long, narrow feet but the things are not affected in the least. They continue to lope forward in an inexorable wave of snapping teeth and slavering tongues. He sends lightning forth from his upraised palm and it lashes at the creatures but, again, it shows no effect. The energy passes right through the creatures which show no signs of slowing down.

So focused is he on the abominations galloping up the ridge toward them that he fails to notice the spell hurled at him from the enemy host. As his personal shields are in place, so ingrained he doesn’t need to think about them, he is unharmed by the wave of energy that washes over him. However, having failed to physically brace himself for the impact, Merlin finds himself flat on the ground, the impact of the spell having knocked him from the saddle. Ærten has been knocked from her feet as well, and lies a few feet away. She’s attempting to heave herself upright but the mare appears dazed and disoriented as she struggles to stand. Merlin rolls away from her flailing hooves and finds himself sliding down the ridge toward the nightmare surging upward.

Regaining his feet, he backs toward the line of elves above but doesn’t take his eyes off the creatures that have broken free of the black fog and are now visibly pouring up the slope. Faster than even elfin-bred steeds, they will devastate the forces massed above if he can’t stop them. In desperation, he slows time in a sweeping curve before him. Finally, there is a noticeable effect on the previously impervious creatures. They might be immune to his magic, but few beings can escape the boundaries of time itself. However, time runs differently in Ælfheim and his mastery of it here is imperfect. The wave of vicious wights has slowed but it hasn’t stopped.

He scrambles back up the ridge hoping to gain the top before the horde can overtake him. He spares a thought to be grateful for the light, flexible elven armour he’s wearing. Camelot boasts some of the finest armourers in Albion but nothing they produce is as unencumbering as what he’s wearing now.

Merlin makes it to the summit of the hill only moments before the black beasts do. Spinning around he brings his sword down on the first of thousands of the things as they surge over his position. To his surprise, his steel is far more effective than his magic was and the creature shrieks as he cleaves it in twain. Their slick, coal dark flesh parts as easily as any other animal’s and he’s splattered with a hot fountain of thick, dark blood. The clinging stuff scorches any exposed skin it finds but he has no time to scrape it off. As soon as one creature falls, another takes its place, lunging for Merlin’s throat, claws scraping and scrabbling against his armour.

Unaffected by his own magic, Merlin isn’t slowed by his bending of time but the same cannot be said for the remainder of his brother’s army. He hears the strange, slow screams that creep from their throats as the tide of teeth and claws washes over them in a flood of death. He doesn’t drop the spell for though it is doing little to help his allies, it is still helping him. His survival instinct, already screaming at him for his exposed position away from the rest of the troops, keeps him fueling the spell as he cuts his way through the slavering horde, one creature at a time. There seems no end to the things. As one drops, another appears and after only a few minutes, Merlin has a formidable pile of carcasses forming around him. Still, they come.

Once again, the singular timelessness of battle seizes his brain and he’s not sure if minutes or hours pass before he feels a shockingly familiar presence at his back. He drops his guard for a split-second to confirm that the presence really is who he thinks it is. Even as his magic confirms what his soul already knows, that Lancelot is somehow with him, fighting at his back as he has through countless other battles, Merlin hears the scrape and snag of teeth on the rings of his coif. He thrusts his sword up and through the body of his attacker. The geysering blood splashes across his face and he howls as the caustic stuff scalds him. He doubles over and Lancelot manages to take the head off the next creature that lunges for him.

Merlin paws at his face, the leather of his gloves sliding in the ichor clinging to his skin. He is grateful for the respite Lancelot provides even as his mind boggles at the other man’s presence. How? How can Lancelot be here? His brain finally kicks into gear and he scours his face clean with magic before snapping upright again, narrowly avoiding the slash of Lancelot’s blade as it takes down another of their attackers.

“Lancelot?”

“Yes!”

“You came!”

“Did you doubt I would?”

“No. I didn’t think...how?”

Lancelot grunts with effort and another carcass hits the ground, splattering the snow around them with steaming sprays of black.

“I’ll. Explain. Later.”

Merlin cuts down another monster, his blood thrumming with the joy of having his partner at his back. He feels whole and alive in a way that he hasn’t since he woke up in his brother’s palace. They fight back-to-back as they have countless times before. Sword and Shield strive as one, effortlessly harmonious. They were born for this, for each other.

However, even while Merlin’s blood sings, battle-bright and strong with Lancelot’s bracing energy coursing through the bond they share, he knows it’s not enough to beat back the onslaught. They are holding their own but making no progress and there seems to be no end to the number of foes they face. He’s growing desperate. He glances over his shoulder and sees Lance is faring no better than he. The Sword catches his eye for a split second.

“Any brilliant ideas, Love?”

Merlin’s about deliver a flippant response when he hears a roar from above. He flings his gaze heavenward in time to see the scaled underbelly of a dragon swoop by, close overhead. He can see the dull gleam of bronzy-green scales. It’s Kilgharrah; they’ve come at last. The dragons have come to honour their agreement with Merlin. Another roar sounds and Merlin sees the golden-red glow of dragon-fire. He feels a heated rush of air sweep over him and the hissing shriek from numberless throats as the dread beasts fall before the dragon’s attack.

He sees a flash of red out of the corner of his eye as Rúadhnait soars in to his left. She growls fiercely and pulls her head back before releasing a steady stream of flame upon the writhing mass below. More sibilant screeching rises from the ghastly multitude. Glancing downhill, Merlin finally sees a break in the swarm of hell-black beasts. They are breaking off, wheeling left and right, snapping at their fellows in a desperate attempt to escape the heated death raining down from above.

Dainty Aithusa skims in from the right and adds her fire to the fray. They are herding the beasts, penning them in and forcing them to turn and run directly back toward the Dark Host that released them. Merlin continues to cut down the monstrosities mindlessly hurling themselves at him in hungry fury but there’s finally an end in sight. The dragons have turned the tide and no more of the creatures make it to the top of the ridge. It’s now a matter of cleaning up what remains.

Merlin fells at least another dozen of the creatures before there are no more to kill. He droops a little with exhaustion as he turns to behold Lancelot dispatching his final opponent. He can scarcely believe his eyes. Had they not shared an unmistakable magical bond, Merlin might never have recognized his love. Lancelot is dressed head to toe in the most elaborate armour he’s ever seen. A strange sword glows blinding bright in his hand and Merlin has to shield his eyes from the brilliance of the blade. Seeing this, Lancelot hurriedly lowers his weapon and Merlin drops the hand from his face. The knight opens his mouth to speak but instead of the joyous greeting Merlin expects, Lancelot blurts out,

“Do not betray me to your brother’s men!”

The apprehension in his voice catches at Merlin’s heart.

“I would never betray you!”

“I mean, you mustn’t let them know who I am. They must not know I am your mortal companion!”

Confused, Merlin still nods in agreement and is relieved to see Lancelot’s posture relax ever so slightly.

“I will explain it all to you when I can, but be assured, Merlin, I have good reason for my request.”

“Well, then you’d better stop calling me Merlin. No one in this place will use my given name.”

Though his face is partially obscured by his helmet, Merlin can see Lancelot’s unmistakable smile. The sight of that beloved grin curls through his chest and warms his belly.

“Indeed, Your Highness, tales of the illustrious Ambrosius have traveled far and wide!”

Merlin makes a face but doesn’t contradict him. Merlin may not like it but it’s no less than the truth. Rather than comment on the obvious, Merlin turns to survey first his brother’s troops, then take stock of the situation below. The Light Host has been hard hit by the attack; countless elves lie dead or injured among the smoking black carcasses of the enemy’s beastly horde. Those who remain hale clearly have the situation in hand as there are few of them still engaged in battle. There are more than enough of the light-elves left to finish the job so Merlin turns his attention back to the unsǣlig forces spread out on the plain below the ridge.

He smiles grimly as he watches the three dragons skimming over the black cloud. They are magnificent as they dart through the air, swooping low over the Dark Host and attacking in concert. Kilgharrah blasts away at the dark fog. Wherever he directs his flame, the dense black smudge in the air is burned away. Rúadhnait follows behind and sprays the exposed troops with her fire while Aithusa wheels around the edges of the smog roasting anything that tries to flee the flimsy canopy of night.

The immediate crisis may have been averted and the enemy repulsed but the fight isn’t over yet. The Dark Host still outnumbers the Light though their numerical advantage has more or less been neutralized by the presence of the dragons. His winged friends are dealing with the front ranks, the lesser wights and the fell black beasts. But the disciplined, cunning dark-elves still remain and unlike the light-elves, they are fresh for the fight. He seeks them out and Sees their knights begin to move up the side of the embattled front ranks. They are careful not to break cover lest Aithusa pick them off but they avoid the central battle where Kilgharrah and Rúadhnait continue to decimate the main force of their army of spriggans.

Merlin also Sees their mages firing off spell after spell in a futile attempt to bring down the mighty creatures flying above. A sly grin crosses his face as he realizes that the dragons have not only neutralized the main army of the Dark Host but also tied up their most gifted magic users as well. It will make things much easier on him.

“Merlin? I know that look, what is it? What do you See?”

“I think I see a way to take out their infantry, the fools. The cavalry is advancing and leaving the infantry in reserve. I believe we should deprive them of that reserve, don’t you?”

He turns to Lancelot who in return says, “It sounds like a fine idea. So, what’s the plan?”

“The plan is to get to my brother and then convince him to split his forces.”

“You mean you’re going to…?”

Merlin’s sly smile morphs into a cunning grin.

“Yes, I am going to.”

Lancelot nods in satisfaction, knowing without being told, exactly what Merlin intends to do. He’s used this tactic before with Arthur’s troops to great success. With all the power at his command, it is possible for Merlin to teleport entire companies of cavalry-horses--armour and all--over great distances. No other warlock in Albion has such power and he suspects that few, if any, mages abide here in Ælfheim who could match him for magical strength, either. Emrys certainly seems convinced no such beings exist.

Sword and Shield fall into step, side-by-side, and make their way through the troops just beginning to regroup after the punishing attack they recently endured. Merlin takes the time to study Lancelot’s newly acquired armour. It’s magnificent stuff, curving plate, engraved and enameled in blue and green so as to mimic rippling waves of water. He has sheathed his bright sword but the hilt still gleams faintly against the dark leather of the belt on which it rides. Lancelot notices the direction of his gaze and smiles at him once again.

“A gift from the most benevolent Lady I have ever had the privilege of meeting in the entirety of my life.”

Merlin felt his eyebrows rise at this. A gift? From a Lady?” It was clear that Lancelot’s arms are elven-forged. Craftsmen capable of this degree of workmanship simply don’t exist in Albion, nor anywhere else in their world, he is sure. So, where in Ælfheim did Lancelot find such a benefactress?

However, Merlin realizes his queries will have to wait when he hears his brother’s voice hailing him. Lancelot melts away from him as Emrys approaches. Camelot’s First Knight loses himself among the milling elven troops with surprising ease. Focusing on the High King, lest he unwittingly betray Lancelot’s presence to him, Merlin smiles in greeting.

“Ambrosius! Your tame dragons seem to have won us the day!”

It’s clear Emrys has joined in the fighting as his previously pristine armour is liberally smeared with thick black blood.

“I regret to be the one to inform you, Brother, but the day is not yet over. The bulk of the enemy forces may be occupied by my friends but the dark-elves themselves remain undefeated and their knights advance as we speak.”

Emrys pauses to look out over the still clouded plain below and Merlin can see his eyes flare gold as he employs his Sight to penetrate the swirling fog that continues to obscure the Dark Host from their mundane vision. When Emrys stiffens, Merlin is certain he has spotted the stealthy movement of the dark knights.

“Right, we shall make ready to meet them.”

“Ah, Brother? If I may?”

The High-King bestows a speculative gaze upon Merlin but he says nothing. Instead, he simply nods permission for his brother to speak. Merlin launches into a detailed explanation of his course for action. Emrys is receptive and they immediately begin to implement Merlin’s plan. A runner is sent off to prepare the troops to be transported. It will be some time before all the needed arrangements can be made. In the meantime, Merlin slumps down to rest at his brother’s side and wait.

ooOOoo

Lancelot watches from the place he’s made for himself among knights of the Light Host. He’s seen Merlin pull off this strategy before and he has yet to see it fail. He sections out his brother’s rearguard, which makes up approximately a third of his legions, all mounted cavalry. Then, he has them separated into five smaller divisions. When the knights are disposed according to his directions he makes his way back to them.

He smiles at them reassuringly and mindspeaks to each of them directly. Lancelot smiles behind the faceplate of his helm when he sees thousands of simultaneous expressions of shock. These may be a people who live closely with magic but even they have never experienced anything like Merlin before. He knows that Merlin is explaining the plan to each man with the same words but each of them hear his message as if it is spoken only to them.

Lance can’t help but wonder how well these warriors will cope with what’s to come. At least Arthur’s men had some advance training before Merlin had ever used this tactic in battle. These elven knights were going in cold and the experience could be a bit disorienting. He could only hope that their familiarity with the vagaries of sorcery will stand them in good stead this day.

There is a visible moment of confirmation when thousands of heads nod in concert and Lance watches as each section of men vanishes into thin air. The knights around him have not been privy to the private speech nor are they familiar with Merlin’s magic so when their brethren begin to disappear, they are noticeably startled. Almost to an elf, they swing their shocked gaze to their ruler. Emrys remains steadfast and rock steady and his men settle as they take in his lack of concern.

When the last of the rearguard is gone, Emrys turns back to his men and motions them forward. Trumpeters sound the call to form ranks and the light-elves turn their attention back to the roiling black clouds below. Much of the gloom has been burned away by the dragons, who have remained busy while Merlin put his plans into motion.

The knights of the Dark Host ride out from the rapidly disintegrating shield of darkness and ride hell bent for leather, insistent on making the ridge and engaging Emrys’ army before the dragons can engage them. The High-King waves them forward and his mounted troops take the forward position, the archers and infantry falling back. Lancelot knows the moment that Emrys’ men see just where Merlin has sent their compatriots.

Lancelot manages to corral a riderless horse and he forces his way forward to the front of the line as the cheer goes up. He knows he’ll find Merlin at the fore, as he always is when battle rages. He locates his soul-bonded with little difficulty. As he’d expected, Merlin is at the High-King’s side, sword ready in one hand, electricity crackling in his left. The knights of the Light Host have learned their lesson and are giving the mage’s left flank a wide berth.

They wait for the dark-elves to come to them and then they ride forward to crush them. A third of their number rides at the rear of the Dark Host and they box the enemy in between them. The trap closes successfully and while it’s a hard-fought battle to the end, the conclusion is almost assured from the moment they engage in the fight. Several hours later, the dark knights that remain alive flee the field, conceding the battle to the forces of Light.

Managing to stay close to Merlin throughout the fighting, Lancelot forces himself to back off when it’s over. He dare not come too close for fear of attracting the High-King’s notice. He knows he cannot trust Emrys even though Merlin appears to be unharmed and well…himself. Lancelot had been worried he might find Merlin under some sort of compulsion. However, if Emrys has been employing coercive magic on his younger sibling, Lancelot can see no sign of it. Merlin is in a battle-ready state but it’s one that’s familiar to him. So far, he can detect no anomaly in his beloved’s behavior.

oOo

Following the battle, Lancelot is swept away from the royal party as he goes along with the elven knights, never letting on that he isn’t one of them. For their part, the light-elves seem far too excited over their victory to take much notice of his modest behavior. After all, he isn’t alone in his quiet; they may have won the day but they still sustained losses and there are those among them who grieve.

He manages to stay hidden among them throughout the two day journey back to the High-King’s city of Eldamar. Quietly including himself among a group of knights assigned to guard duty at the palace, Lancelot works his way closer to Merlin and hopefully a way to safely get him away from his brother.

It isn’t long before Lancelot begins to wonder if there aren’t enchantments on his armour that the Lady failed to mention to him. First, there’s the lack of smell. As he dares not strip off in front of the elven knights for the certainty of being discovered, he ought to be rank with sweat and stink, yet he is not. Nor is he itchy in the manner that comes from failing to bathe after battle. The plate itself is strangely free of stain despite the fountaining blood from the many foes he slew in battle. No, he is far, far too clean for there not to be magic involved.

The second oddity he’s noticed is that everyone he meets seems to know him. Oh, they don’t know him for his true self, they don’t even all recognize him as the same elf, but in incident after incident, the other elven warriors hale him by name. Even holding fairly involved discourses with them doesn’t seem to disabuse them of their delusions. He doesn’t want to question his good fortune, but it does make him wonder…

Luckily, so far, each case of mistaken identity seems to be favourable to his scheme, and he continues to hold a place amongst the palace guard. It’s a confusing place, but after getting lost several times, he manages to locate the private section of the palace that houses the royal family and the highest ranking nobles. He also learns the location of the throne room, council chambers and audience halls. He goes strangely unnoticed when he needs to and he becomes certain his bizarre luck isn’t any sort of luck at all. It must be the result of some unidentified magic the Lady laid upon him. It’s no wonder to him why her son never fell in battle; she imbued his armour with every kind of protection conceivable.

He sees Merlin from time to time, though he’s never certain if Merlin sees him. He never acknowledges Lancelot’s presence, but he had sworn not to reveal him to Emrys’ men. It’s frustrating to Lancelot, because he has no way of knowing if he’s being carefully ignored or if the Lady’s enchantments have rendered him as invisible to his partner as they have to the rest of the denizens of the palace.

Somehow, Lancelot is on duty “guarding” the door to one of the private audience chambers during a meeting between Merlin and his brother. Shamelessly eavesdropping, he can hear Emrys marveling at the form Merlin’s magic takes, but in his typical fashion, Merlin is shrugging off the praise.

“From the time I was ten, I was raised to be my Lord’s Shield, his protector. It has shaped my magic as well as my will. “

Lancelot can’t help smiling; his Merlin has always been modest about the extent of his powers and his skillful usage of them.

“Would you not rather serve your own will instead? I would have you at my side, have you as my protector. You are my brother, I would value you far more than any simple king of men ever could.”

It doesn’t surprise Lancelot, but it does dismay him to hear the wheedling tone in Emrys’ voice. He had suspected the High-King would try to persuade Merlin to stay with him...and he was right.

“Emrys, I can’t. I have a destiny to fulfill, an end of strife to bring about, a beginning of peace to nurture. I have a vital role to play in the realm which raised me. You have no real need of me here, and while I am flattered that you want me, I would go where I am needed most, where I can do the most good.”

The king doesn’t comment on Merlin’s words but instead changes the subject.

“I wonder at our father’s choice to keep me as his heir, for while I might be the elder, you are richer in strength and power. He told me once that he feared you might one day return to try to usurp me. He couldn’t have been further from the truth in his assessment of your nature, could he?”

Lancelot could easily imagine Merlin’s shrug. “Who’s to say? Had I been raised beside you as a prince, I’d likely be a different man. Who can say that I might not have grown to resent you, that I might not have coveted your crown for my own had I been brought up by your side?”

Lancelot can feel his skin crawl at the unctuous tone of Emrys’ voice when he answers Merlin.

“Oh no, I just can’t see it, Brother. You inherited our mother’s kindness. According to everyone who knew her, her great power was surpassed only by her great compassion. I can’t see any sort of world where you would ever seek power just for power’s sake. It’s just not in your nature, Merlin.”

The remainder of their conversation follows the same course. Emrys flatters and Merlin demurs but when they both part ways, Merlin still reminds his brother of his intent to return to Albion ere the week is out.

Meals are easy enough to snag from the soldiers mess, but sleeping accommodations are more tricky, since he doesn’t dare take his helm off in front of anyone. The knights haven’t noticed the small oddities in his behavior thus far, but they are bound to notice if he attempts to sleep among them without removing his armour. So, instead of bedding down in the barracks, Lancelot finds himself a disused antechamber off one of the minor council rooms in which to spend the night. He broods for several hours on the best way to get Merlin away from this place before eventually falling into a light and fitful doze. Deeper sleep eludes him.

The following morning, Lancelot has further cause to bless his nameless magical benefactor. Managing to secure guard duty inside the main council chamber, he is present when Emrys meets with one of his chief advisors. Lord Brochwel proves a deeply unpleasant individual, but Emrys seems to set great store by the noble’s advice.

“Your majesty, do not give in to your brother’s delusions. You must not allow him to return to that pathetic kingdom he holds so dear. His place is here, serving you , his own flesh and blood, not some petty king of men. You cannot afford to lose the advantage his power gives you over your enemies. Not to mention the invaluable alliance with the dragons! You cannot squander this opportunity to harness their power to your rule.”

“Lord Brochwel, I do not wish to lose Ambrosius, but he is determined to leave. How can I retain him when he will not be kept?”

“You have dominion over this realm. He cannot leave if you don’t allow it.”

Emrys eyes the elven lord with grave intent.

“He won’t serve me if I make him a hostage. He’s far too stubborn.”

Anyone can be broken, Your Majesty...given enough time. I’ve no doubt he’ll eventually come around if you can but prevent him from leaving. He’ll soon see sense when there is no other option for him.”

“He’s powerful, Brochwel. More than a match for any of us. I believe it would not be wise to antagonize so powerful a mage.”

“He may be a match for any of us but he is not a match for all of us.”

Emrys pauses and considers Brochwel’s words. Eventually, he nods his head slowly in grudging accord.

“To keep him, I’ll have to seal off all the portals. No one with so much as a drop of elven blood will be able to leave. It’s the only way I can keep someone that powerful against his will. Are there any creatures from his realm still residing in Ælfheim?”

“A few pets, easily gotten rid of…and of course, the dragons.”

“I’m charging you with this, Brochwel. We need the dragons, but you make sure there is nothing else from Albion alive in my realm. It would take just one man to release him. Hell, a single horse from his world could do it, so be sure to cleanse the stables.”

“Sire, I don’t quite see the need…”

“No, you wouldn’t!” Emrys hisses at his advisor. “You never did bother to learn how the portals work, did you?”

“My Lord, please forgive…”

“Oh, shut up and listen! I have dominion over the portals on this side of them. I can seal them off and keep all of my subjects from ever passing through them, but I cannot keep any creature who is not of this world from passing back into their own. This wouldn’t be a problem except that there’s a loophole to the magic and Ambrosius is clever enough to find it. If he can find a willing guide from his world, there can be a life exchange. All he has to do is follow a creature from Albion through the gate and he will be able to pass.”

Lancelot’s heart leaps with the knowledge. He can guide Merlin back!

“You said there was a life exchange; what does that mean?”

“Ah, well you see, that’s the loophole. The guide will die as soon as Ambrosius reaches the other side. It’s the Balance you see. The guide essentially gives his life over, gives up his rightful place in Albion and passes it on to the traveler. They exchange lives.”

For a moment, Lancelot’s heart stops and the rise and fall of his lungs is arrested. I have to die. I have to die. I have to die. The words reverberate in his head, getting louder and louder until they drown out every other sound.I have to die. I have to die. I have to die. In order for Merlin to go free, for him to return to Albion and fulfill their destiny, Lancelot had to die.

There was no question in his heart that he would do it. It didn’t even occur to him to demur. He’d known for years that he’d do anything for Merlin, would willingly die a thousand times over to keep him safe. However, giving up one’s life in theory as opposed to reality are two completely different things.

Lancelot had always thought that if it came down to laying down his life for Merlin’s, it would be a quick and dire thing. A moment on the battlefield, a flash of an assassin’s blade, the flare of an enemy spell…he never thought it would be this slow and deliberate act of sacrifice. And while he is more than willing to do it, it’s a strange thing on the face of it. The shock of what he faces is nearly overwhelming.

Instinctively, he realizes that Merlin cannot know. His lover would never allow it were he given advance warning of Lancelot’s intent. He narrows his focus to Merlin. He takes a deep breath, holds it, releases it and he knows…he can do this. For him, he can do this. He can do anything for Merlin, including face his own death with equanimity.

Albion can never be if Merlin doesn’t return. Arthur will never unite the land. War will rage until it reduces the world to ash and Albion will be no more. Without Merlin, there’s no hope for the world. He must return. I can do this, I can make the way. Maybe this was always meant to be my role, my fate. I’ve little enough to recommend me to destiny anyhow. I’m good with a sword, hardly the stuff of legend. Not like Merlin…

Resolved, Lancelot feels the return to his body. His heart is still beating, his lungs rise and fall and blood thrums through his veins. He has a purpose and a destiny and it’s all for Merlin. Becoming aware of a low drone in the room, Lancelot raises his eyes from where they’ve fallen to the floor. The High-King is chanting, his eyes glowing bright yellow.

It hits him all at once, Emrys’ resemblance to Merlin. He hadn’t consciously realized he was doing it, but until now, Lancelot has avoided looking at the elven High-King directly. A swish of long black hair and the pointed edge of a flaring ear are all he has permitted himself to see…until now.

How many times has he rubbed his thumb over the arch of those same cheekbones? Stared into the ocean blue of those wide eyes? Kissed those sweet, succulent lips? Chucked that stubborn chin? Stroked his hand in wonder over the smooth ivory of that skin? He knows he’s nuzzled the long length of that neck and threaded his fingers into silken hair of that same inky hue a thousand times. He’s had those long, elegant legs wrapped around his waist and gripped those slinky, narrow hips in his hands both dreaming and waking.

He’d known they were twins, the Lady had told him that, but somehow, it hadn’t really registered what that meant. They aren’t just related, aren’t just brothers, they are identical. They’d started life as one being…would Merlin really want to leave? Emrys seemed convinced of it but…what if he was wrong? What if all of them were? Could the tie he shared with Merlin really overcome this?

Swallowing hard, he knows he has to find out. If Merlin wants to stay, Lancelot won’t try to stop him. But if he wants to return to Albion…Lancelot will give his life to make it happen.

oOo

After all is said and done, it doesn’t prove terribly difficult to find Merlin. He loiters near the council chambers and throne room for the rest of day in hopes of catching him either coming or going and he’s pleased when Merlin makes an appearance several hours after Emrys concludes his meeting with Lord Brochwel.

He doesn’t follow Merlin into the throne room. Instead, he waits impatiently outside the door until the warlock leaves a short time later. Whatever Merlin’s business with Emrys, it is concluded quickly, and from the look on his lover’s face, it’s gone poorly. Merlin storms down the hall, sparks crackling from his fingertips. Lancelot follows, knowing better than to get too close to Merlin when he’s in this kind of a mood. He keeps a careful distance, but follows as diligently as a hound on the scent. His journey ends at a door in what the guards have dubbed “the family wing”, though the King has no family to speak of, save Merlin.

The door slams shut behind Merlin violently, and Lancelot deems it prudent to wait a few minutes before knocking on it. When he finally does, it swings open of his own accord and a snappish Merlin growls, “Come!”

Slipping inside, Lancelot swiftly shuts the door behind him.

“Lancelot? Is that…that is you, isn’t it?”

He pulls off his helm and grins. “Aye, it’s me.”

Before Lancelot knows what’s happening, Merlin launches himself at him and lands with arms and legs wrapped around Lancelot’s upper body. He laughs with joy as he leans back and enfolds Merlin in a tight embrace. “I guess this means you’ve missed me?”

Merlin huffs a breath in his ear and nuzzles the line of his jaw. “Gods, so much! I can’t even say.”

“You don’t have to, Love. I’ve missed you just as much.”

As if he still can’t quite believe Lancelot is there, Merlin babbles, “You didn’t come back after the battle. You didn’t come back. You said you would and then you didn’t and I…”

“Shh…shhh…I’m sorry, Love. I couldn’t. I’ve been here but…I didn’t dare approach you until now.”

Merlin eases his hold on Lancelot and lowers his feet to the floor. He takes a step back and Lancelot lets him go.

“Are you all right? You weren’t wounded?”

Lancelot can hear the fear still thrumming in Merlin’s voice as his lover’s gaze darts all over him, looking for signs of damage. “Merlin, I’m all right, I swe-“

His reassurances are cut off by full lips that consume his mouth in a hard, hungry kiss. He presses back with equal fervor and soon finds reason to curse the all-enveloping nature of his armour when the only point of contact he can make is mouth-to-mouth and cheek-to-cheek.

When Merlin finally lets him up for air, he wastes no time voicing his frustration. “Damned armour! It may have proved its worth a thousand times over these last weeks, but right now I’d happily consign it to perdition.”

Merlin eyes him speculatively. “Yes, the mysterious gift you didn’t finish telling me about.”

“Can we please sit? Honestly, I’ve been standing all day.”

They settle at the table and Merlin starts pelting him with questions as soon as his bottom connects with the seat.

“There’s so much to tell, I’m not sure where I should start…really though, the most urgent among all of it, Merlin, is about your brother.”

That earns him a sharp look. “What is it?”

“First…I need to know…do you wish to stay here in Ælfheim?”

Merlin physically recoils and Lancelot lets out a breath he didn’t even realize he was holding.

“Gods, no! Why would I want to do that? My life is with you! My life is in Albion. I only agreed to help my brother win his war because he vowed to allow me to return to Albion when it was done. Now that you’re here and the dark-elves are defeated, it’s time for us to go home.”

“I think your brother has other ideas.”

Mouth thinning and eyes narrowing, Merlin leans intently over the table. “Oh, really? Do tell.”

So Lancelot tells him. When he’s done relating the tale of Emrys’ treachery, Merlin looks as if he might spontaneously combust.

“That snake! That two-faced lying creep! Back-stabbing, power mongering, lily-livered, hypocritical…”

He continues on in that vein for a while and Lancelot just sits back and lets him rant, knowing full well that Merlin will eventually run out of invectives and get back to the matter at hand. It seems clear, however, that Merlin has learned a few new insults since coming to Ælfheim.

Finally, Merlin calms down and that’s when they begin to plan...

oOo

They leave on foot, since no one requisitions horses after darkfall. Once free of the city walls, Merlin summons a small magelight that serves them far better than the blinding light from Caledfwlch. The warlock carries all their supplies in a small enchanted bag flung carelessly over one shoulder. Lancelot is ever appreciative of the small ways Merlin’s magic makes their lives easier.

“Can you summon horses?”

“No, not without breaking my brother’s wards and instantly alerting him to my absence.”

“Right, so then we leg it. It took me almost three weeks to make it to Eldamar from the portal. Granted, I did take the scenic route part of the way.”

Lancelot grimaces thinking about the shifting, treacherous winter wood surrounding the lake of Avalon.

“Think you could find your way back?”

Merlin’s tone is glib but Lancelot knows him well enough to detect the serious note beneath. He reaches under his gorget he fishes the tiny crystal phial from under his cuirass. He turns about until it glows with an emerald light.

“This will guide us to the Lady’s lake. The portal we came through isn’t far from there. I believe that the Lady who rendered me aid before might well do so again. If not, I’m sure we’ll find it on our own.”

Reaching out to touch the small vessel with long, slender fingers, Merlin’s expression is thoughtful.

“I wonder…”

He trails off and doesn’t finish, apparently lost in thought. Lancelot nudges him.

“You wonder…?”

“It was Avalon...you are sure of it? The lake where this Lady dwelled?”

“She named the place only once, but yes, I’m sure of it.”

“Emrys mentioned it, weeks ago, when I first arrived. He said that Avalon exists in every the realm, that all the realms share that territory in common. He said that the guardians, the Ladies who dwell there each control access to the territory. If I understood him correctly, it sounded as if were possible to pass between the realms if one had the fortune to come across an accommodating guardian. I wonder if we might find passage back to Albion through the grace of your Lady.”

Lancelot smiles and reaches out to smooth an unruly lock of hair back from Merlin’s forehead. “The sooner we get there, the sooner we’ll find out, eh? Come on, let’s get going.”

They know traveling at night in Ælfheim isn’t without risks, especially so soon after the Dark Host’s defeat. The dark-elves and their allies are still scattered around the area and their existent grudge against the children of day can only have worsened. The elves themselves are a serious danger but the smaller creatures can still cause them trouble, proving a distracting nuisance when they can least afford the time to deal with such things. Still, it is better to take their chances and hopefully avoid Emrys’ notice for as long as they can by traveling in the dark.

The coming of day is an interesting phenomenon in Ælfheim. This is the first time Lancelot is awake to actually witness it and he’s startled by the suddenness of its appearance. There is no slow dawning on the horizon, no transition creeping gradually across the sky. Much like darkfall, day comes all at once. He’s not actually aware of the moment it happens; he doesn’t recognize the exact moment his eyes register the change. It just…is. One moment it’s night and the next, it’s not. The same dim, joyless gray light is everywhere and there is no more to mark its coming in the morning than there is to mark its passing in the evening.

However, once they do register that day has come, they know it’s time to find a place to hole up until darkness falls once more. The barren, winter-blighted plains that surround Eldamar offer little in the way of cover though, and in the end they are forced to improvise. Merlin dares a small burst of magic to scoop a depression in the side of a small swell in the land. The cave is cramped but Lancelot doesn’t mind.

Wrapping his arms around Merlin, he sighs in contentment. It’s the first time he’s been able to properly hold his beloved since he was taken from him. Merlin nuzzles at his neck and settles his weight against Lancelot’s chest.

“Missed you. Gods, how I’ve missed you!”

“And I you.”

Lancelot closes his eyes and rests his chin against the top Merlin’s head. “Are we safe here, Love? Can you hide us from your brother’s Sight?”

Merlin shrugs in his embrace and makes a small noise. “Meh.”

“And what exactly does, ‘meh’ mean?”

Warm breath puffs against his face as Merlin murmurs his answer against his jaw. ”It means yes and no. I can baffle his magic, but I can’t thwart it entirely. This is hisrealm. He won’t be able to see us and I don’t think he’ll be able to pinpoint our exact location but he’ll be able to locate the general vicinity we are in.”

“So he can follow us but he can’t find us?”

“More or less.”

“All right. Is it safe for us to sleep?”

“Yes, Love. It’s safe to sleep.”

A kiss is pressed to Lancelot’s mouth and he can’t help but chase Merlin’s lips as they slip away. Instead of finding their lush softness, he finds the tip of a finger pressed against his mouth.

“Sleep, Love. There’s a long night coming.”

When Lancelot wakes, night has yet to fall. His arms are empty. Worried, he quickly rolls out of the small hollow only to come face to face with a smiling Merlin.

“Good morning, sleepyhead. Well, I suppose it’s not morning but I think night will soon be upon us. Breakfast?”

He holds out a small bowl and Lancelot takes it from him, peering with interest at the contents.

“Porridge?”

At Merlin’s nod, he grimaces a bit.

“I didn’t even know the elves ate such a thing.”

“Oh stop your moaning, it’s good for you.”

“So is kale, but I still hate eating it.”

Merlin just chuckles and bustles around the small fire he‘s summoned. It consumes no fuel and leaves no mark on the sere grass that covers the dreary plain. Lancelot nods to the flames.

“Is that safe? I mean, using your magic like that?”

“He’s got to know I’m gone by now and while I do seem to have inherited more than my fair share of the magical power in the family, he’s certainly going to do his best to track me. Like I said this morning, I’m shielding us as best I can. The small spells won’t harm us. He can already track my aura.”

“How do you know that?”

Merlin snorts. “He took great pleasure in telling me as much. It would seem there are some perks that come with the crown. That’s one of them.”

“Can he track anyone? Or just you?”

Merlin smiles grimly. “Anyone with elven blood.”

“So he couldn’t track me?”

“Not by your aura. However, without me to shield you? He could most definitely find you through other means.”

As he speaks, the day winks out of existence. A small, familiar light appears in Merlin’s palm and he launches it into the air with a flick of his wrist.

“Time to get moving, Love!”

They travel unhindered for five nights, following the green light of the Lady’s crystal. Even in the dark, Lancelot can tell the route back differs from the one that took him to the capital. The plains peter out after a single night and they find themselves camping on the edge of a high bluff the next morning. The land simply falls away to the east and they can see a snow filled valley far below, a wide river running along the bottom. When they wake that evening, the crystal leads them along the cliff’s edge for a league or so before their path begins to descend a long, shallow slope.

Another night of walking sees them to the bottom of the slope and deep into a sludgy swamp. There’s no snow and the temperature seems to be rising which makes slogging through a clinging mix of half-frozen water and sticky mud all the more difficult as everything around them thaws, adding to the quagmire. The woods on the far side of the swamp are little improvement. The once-frozen ground becomes a slick slide as the air above it warms the top layers of soil, while the earth below remains hard as rock.

As rough as the terrain proves, they do manage five days of undisturbed sleep. However, when they wake after darkfall on the sixth night, Merlin sits up suddenly and clamps a hard hand around Lancelot’s arm.

“He’s here and he’s not alone.”

“Emrys.”

Merlin’s nod is short and sharp, his shadow jerking in the glow cast by his magelight. His eyes are glowing golden and Lancelot knows he’s using magic to scout the area.

“It seems my brother has brought back up. Three mages from his court…they are not without talent.”

“He really doesn’t want to let you go, does he?”

“It seems not.”

“Can you defeat all four of them?”

“In conventional combat? All at once? I don’t think so. Even if I could, I’d be useless for days.”

Lancelot cocks his head to one side and considers the grim determination on Merlin’s face. He almost feels sorry for Emrys and his mages. He’s seen that look on his beloved’s face a hundred times before...and it never bodes well for Merlin’s enemies.

“You don’t do conventional combat, Love.”

Merlin’s grin is a fearsome thing.

“No, I don’t.”

The warlock laughs and steps back several paces. He tilts his head back and begins to roar in language Lancelot has only heard him use a few times. Dragonspeak…Merlin is calling the dragons to him. He can’t understand anything Merlin shouts into the night but despite the volume employed, it sounds more like an invitation than a call to arms.

“What did you say?” he can’t help asking when Merlin is done.

“Well, it’s hard to translate exactly, but basically I asked them to come to me, said it was time for me to fulfill my vow to them.”

Lancelot arches a brow in Merlin’s direction. “Which was?”

The cheeky grin he gets in response is warming in its familiarity. “I told them I would take them back to Albion with me. I was going to wait until we actually found a portal home, but really…I see no reason why they shouldn’t join us now. Do you?”

Lancelot can’t help the laugh that bursts from his chest. Gods, how he loves this man! He hooks an arm around Merlin’s shoulders and pulls him in for a kiss.

“So, they’ll come?”

Merlin nods happily. “I should think so. They’re really eager to be rid of this place. They’ve been trapped here for a good three hundred years or more.”

“What shall we do while we wait?”

Merlin’s smile fades and he draws away from Lancelot’s embrace.

“I think it’s time I had a little chat with my brother.”

Lancelot keeps his visor lowered when they walk out to meet the elven sorcerers. Walking slowly, he lets Merlin lead. He still doesn’t know if Emrys has caught on to who and what he is yet, but he’d rather keep that ace up his sleeve for as long as he can. Eyeing the mages fanned out around the High-King, Lancelot calculates his odds of landing a blow on any of them. Human mages are notoriously vulnerable to physical attack while spell-casting. He wonders if the elves suffer from the same weakness.

The conversation is a short one. Emrys appeals to Merlin to “be reasonable” and return to Eldamar with him. Merlin declines. Two of the fungible blond elves cast a glowing net of yellow light over Merlin’s head and he shreds it without a single gesture. It crumbles to fine embers that sift softly over his shoulders to the ground.

“You really have to do better than that if you mean to take me, Brother.”

Merlin has a special way of taking the most ordinary words and twisting them into profanity. The acid curl to his tongue when he spits out the word, “brother” makes it clear it’s not a term of endearment. Emrys’ face hardens and Lancelot is struck by how dissimilar the two really are. They may have identical faces but what individual emotion does with those same features is astonishing in its divergence.

Emrys is ice and Merlin is fire. The High-King is all thin lips and hard angles while the Shield is hot eyes and flaring nostrils. Merlin’s mouth firms into a small tight pout of concentration when his irises flare molten gold. Emrys’ yellowed eyes are narrowed, brows lowering with menacing intent. Merlin’s jaw thrusts forward with effort; Emrys’ teeth grind tight.

“I don’t need to take you my dear brother, just your companion.”

Lancelot sees Merlin tense and is unsurprised by the wordless sound of outrage that breaks from his beloved’s lips. The air in front of him shimmers and Lancelot feels his feet slip as he is pushed backwards. Merlin steps in front of him protectively.

After that, there is very little to show that a magical fight is in progress. The air crackles and sparks randomly and furrows are plowed into the earth but it’s more a feeling of pressure in the air than any visible signs of struggle. Lancelot has been around magic all his life. He’s been around battling mages since he entered the King’s service in his early teens. Two decades of serving in and around dueling mages has taught him that power is seldom seen but can always be felt. It’s the tiny hairs standing on the back of his neck and the shivers that race along his skin. It compresses the eyes in their sockets and presses in on the skull.

Usually, these are subtle, fleeting sensations, barely noticeable to the inexperienced. However in this moment, Lancelot is nearly driven to his knees by the magic in the air around him. He feels his armour flex under the forces straining against him and he realizes Merlin is folding under the strain. Shielding Lancelot is second nature to him, he’d never allow a spell to touch his lover if he could prevent it.

Lancelot looks to the other mages and is unsurprised to note signs of magical strain among all of them. Their eyes glow a sickly orange. One of them is down on his knees and the other two appear strangely bowed, as if they are slowly being crushed by an unseen weight. Still, their combined power continues to batter at the Sword and Shield. Lancelot struggles to move forward. If he can take just one of them out…

A roar splits the night and suddenly Lancelot finds himself flattened to the ground. A burst of crackling yellow flame sears the air above him. It takes him a few seconds before he realizes that he wasn’t thrown to the ground by a spell but by the tall, rangy warlock he loves more than life.

“Oh thank gods! They made it!”

Merlin’s voice is boisterous with relief. “For a moment there, I really thought they’d have us.”

Lancelot looks up in time to see the four elven mages huddling under glowing orange shields. He couldn’t be sure if the colour came from their magic or from the fire that was pouring over the flimsy bubbles in successive waves. Merlin rolls off him and slumps limply to the ground at his side.

“Should we retreat?”

Merlin shakes his head and shrugs with a familiar lopsided grin. “What, and miss the show?”

He can hear the elves shouting to each other, but the roars from the three dragons drown out what they are saying. Lancelot watches in fascination as they start to chant something in unison. “Can they hurt the dragons?”

Merlin looks up, lips pursed. “I don’t know…I don’t think so. Dragons are fairly resistant to magic, being made out of the stuff and all.”

“Then what are they doing?”

“Hard to say.”

Rolling up into a seated position, Merlin watches the other mages intently. After a moment, he nods to himself and turns to Lancelot. “I think they’re trying to leave.”

“Ah. Seems sensible of them.”

However, even as the words are leaving his mouth, Lancelot hears a scream. One mage’s shield comes apart under the fiery onslaught, shattering into a thousand glittering shards as the elf inside bursts into flames. One of the dragons, the smallest of the three, gives a satisfied growl and launches itself high in the night sky only to swoop down on the remaining elves with even more force than before.

The largest of the dragons actually lands for a moment and concentrates a spray of fire solely on Emrys himself.

Merlin cries out, “Kilgharrah! Please!” but the dragon does not relent. The High-King vanishes for several moments, he and his shield completely engulfed in flame. When Kilgharrah takes to the air again, the fireball dissipates and Merlin lets out a small cry of relief. Emrys’ shield remains intact, although the surface crackles with heat.

Another scream sounds and Lancelot tears his gaze away from Merlin’s brother in time to see the third dragon roast another mage. For a moment, his screams of agony mingle with her cries of triumph. Then the mage’s voice cuts out as he falls to the ground, his body still on fire as it lands in the dry grass.

Emrys is bellowing spell after spell, his hands making throwing motions. Lancelot can feel the pressure of magic rise in the air again but the dragons seem completely unaffected.

Kilgharrah hovers above him. The dragon’s voice is thunderous, reverberating all around as he scoffs at the mage’s power. “Do not imagine that your petty magic can harm me!”

He blasts Emrys with another ball of fire. As before though, Emrys remains unscathed by the dragon’s attack. Meanwhile, the other two dragons have retreated high in the air. They circle a few times and then dive together and attack the third elven mage in concert. Another shriek and the last of Emrys’ mages goes up like a torch.

Lancelot looks back to Merlin’s brother who is chanting once again. It’s the same spell the four sorcerers were attempting to incant before they began to fall under the dragons’ onslaught. When a whirlwind begins to build under Emrys’ still glowing shield, Lancelot recognizes the enchantment. Emrys is making his bid to escape. Lancelot draws breath to ask if Emrys can leave without taking down his defenses but before he can voice a single word, the whirling intensifies and the elf king…shreds.

He’s seen Merlin do it a dozen times or more, but it’s always disconcerting to watch a body disintegrate like that. It always looks to him as if the spell rips the mage apart, although Merlin has assured him that it doesn’t hurt at all.

The king’s shield pops like a soap bubble the moment Emrys disappears and the dragons roar in fury as their quarry escapes. Lancelot can’t help but notice Merlin’s relieved slump. Furious as he may be at Emrys’ actions, it’s quite clear that Merlin doesn’t wish to see his brother dead.

Lancelot watches in fascination as the two smaller dragons touch down nearby. The glow from the burning grass illuminates them from below, giving each a somewhat sinister appearance. He knows these creatures are their allies, but he cannot quite shake the small kernel of cold fear that freezes his belly at the sight of them.

The red dragon speaks, her tone chiding, yet strangely…fond. “When you called us, young warlock, you failed to mention you were in need of our aid.”

Merlin chuckles softly. “I wasn’t sure I needed it when I called you. I was hoping I would not, but…it seemed a wise precaution to have some friends nearby, just in case.”

Kilgharrah chimed in, “Very wise, young warlock. It seems your brother intended great harm to you both. Did your alliance crumble so quickly?”

Shaking his head ruefully, Merlin’s response is characteristically dry. “My brother disagreed with my plans to return home. He thought to persuade me to stay by killing Lancelot.”

The little white dragon yips in outrage and the red dragon rumbles her disapproval. Merlin’s shoulders tense and his lips twist grimly. Lancelot follows the line of his gaze to where the remains of the three elven mages still smoulder in the grass.

“He threatened your mate, and yet you still wanted me to spare his life?”

Though his tone is questioning, Kilgharrah doesn’t sound particularly outraged or confused. He sounds almost…proud?

“I would never let him harm Lancelot, but he’s still my brother. I won’t see him dead if there’s a choice.”

Apparently satisfied, the big green dragon nods and says no more about it. However, the red dragon is not so reticent.

“He’ll be back, Merlin. You still have far to go ere you reach the portal to Albion and he’ll try again. The High-King does not give up so easily. We might all have been better off had you let Kilgharrah finish him off.”

Merlin bites his lip and Lancelot stifles the urge to snap at the enormous creature. How dare she shame Merlin for his compassion? He takes a deep breath and tries to let it go, but he can’t let it pass without at least a small challenge.

“And you would see your only kin so easily slain, My Lady?”

The enormous golden eyes swing in his direction, her gaze so focused it’s almost a tangible force. Though he holds his breath under the weight of her stare, he doesn’t back down. Finally she shakes her head and lets out a small huff, the hot air washing over him in a warm wave. She turns back to Merlin and inclines her head in a small bow.

“Forgive me, young warlock. I grow anxious for our return to Albion. Each obstacle we encounter only deepens my concern. Of course you wouldn’t want to see your brother killed.”

Smiling sadly, Merlin waves her apology away. “Nothing to forgive, Rúadhnait. I understand your anxiety. I too grow weary of this place and I’ve not abided here for a fraction of the time you have. I wonder though…”

Merlin’s gaze turns speculative. “Would you consider taking us directly to the portal? We would be assured of avoiding further conflict with my brother…”

“Would that we could, young warlock, but the nature of the borderland prevents it.”

Confused, Lancelot asks, “What do you mean?”

Kilgharrah regards him chidingly. “You traveled here from the portal on foot, did you not, Bright Blade?”

Lancelot startles at the appellation. It’s the same thing the Lady of Avalon called him as she bade him farewell. It’s odd that the dragon should also name him thus. Putting aside his confusion, he answers the creature with care.

“I did, Sir Dragon.”

“Did you not notice that the lands nearest the portal shift and change from hour to hour? Were you not confounded until the Lady of the Lake took pity on you and gave you the means to find your way to Eldamar?”

He can feel his eyes widen in shock and he mentally curses his own stupidity. Of course! No wonder he’d made no real progress through that twisted wood. The very path before his feet had been shifting and changing even as he set his feet upon it!

“What about Avalon?”

Merlin’s voice draws him out of his reverie.

“Emrys said that Avalon is common territory everywhere, that it exists in every realm. Can we not return to Albion through Avalon?”

If it was possible for a creature with a reptilian face to appear dumbfounded, then Lancelot was seeing it now as Kilgharrah pulled his head back and cocked it to one side. Rúadhnait and the as yet unnamed white dragon exchange looks, their consternation obvious from their posture.

“I do not know, young warlock. It’s true that Avalon exists everywhere but the magic of that place is unlike any other. Much depends on the will of the lake’s guardians. As this realm’s Lady has shown young Lancelot here such favour, it is possible she may be willing to grant us passage back to Albion but…I cannot say with any surety that it is even possible, let alone likely.”

“Sounds as if it’s at least worth a try, don’t you think?”

Merlin’s gaze questions each of them in turn. Lancelot finds himself nodding his agreement along with the three dragons.

“Can you take us there? I mean to Avalon, can you find it or is it also part of the shifting land?”

This time it is Rúadhnait that answers him. “It lies within the border region but it is not subject to the magic that governs the area that surrounds it. Avalon is a strange place. It exists everywhere, and yet it also exists nowhere. It is part of every place and yet it is subject only to itself.”

“But you can find it? Take us there?”

The three dragons share a look between them, almost as if they are conferring without words. To Lancelot’s surprise, it is the little white dragon who speaks next.

“We can. We can’t go now while it’s dark but once day returns, we can fly you there.”

Her tone is sweet and reassuring but Lancelot doesn’t miss the sour look on Kilgharrah’s face. Apparently Merlin doesn’t either.

“Is it a problem?”

Rúadhnait snorts and rolls her enormous golden eyes. “Kilgharrah objects to being treated as a horse. Don’t mind the crusty old goat, we are more than willing to bear you to Avalon if it gets us home faster.”

“Goat? You are calling me a crusty goat, you terrible harridan?”

He shoots a tiny puff of flame at her and she snaps at the ball of fire looking ready to retaliate in kind when the smallest dragon cuts across them.

Anyway, as I was saying before the geriatric side show started up, we have to wait until it is day before we can make for Avalon. It’s not part of the borderland but it does seem to hide itself in the night. No one is able to penetrate the lake’s perimeter in either direction during the dark hours.”

“I think Ælfheim’s Lady holds a grudge against the children of night. She allows none of them passage through her domain.”

Lancelot’s smile is unsurprised. This notion fits with the little he gleaned about the Lady while he was her guest. If ever he’d met a creature of pure intent, it was her. She’d not tolerate the malevolence of wights and imps with equanimity.

“Well, if we can’t leave now, how about breakfast?”

As ever, Merlin is the practical one.

The dragons all lay down, Rúadhnait curling her tail around the small white dragon as she settles on the ground. Merlin summons fire while Lancelot retrieves the magic bag with their supplies and they set about making a meal in an easy silence.

When morning lights the sky once again, the dragons rise, stretching and shaking like giant cats. Aithusa (Lancelot finally asked Merlin her name) lowers her neck for Merlin to mount and Rúadhnait does the same for Lancelot. Once they are settled, the three dragons launch themselves into the sky in quick succession.

It seems almost no time at all before they are circling high over Avalon. The irregular shape of the lake dominates the green space that stands out like a brand among the gray and white winter of the land that surrounds it. So little time has passed since they took to the air that Lancelot can’t help but marvel at the speed of the dragons’ flight. What took him weeks to traverse on foot, they have covered in mere hours.

The dragons are rumbling to each other in a language Lancelot can’t understand, but he suspects they are searching for a place to land. Kilgharrah’s wing span is the widest but none of them are small creatures. The only open area in Avalon appears to be the lake but Lancelot can’t help but hope they don’t intend to land there. He doesn’t particularly fancy the odds of him making it to shore wearing a full suit of plate armour. Merlin probably wouldn’t let him drown, but it’s still a grim prospect.

Just when he’s about to resign himself to a ducking in the lake, the dragons begin to descend and he finally notices what their sharper vision has already noticed: a small section of open land at the western edge of the water just wide enough to accommodate each of the dragons if they take the landings in turn.

Aithusa touches down first, folding her wings and dropping her head to the ground to allow Merlin to slide down from his perch between her shoulder blades. As soon as she discharges her passenger, she stalks closer to the trees, tucking herself out of the way so that Rúadhnait and Lancelot can land next. As exhilarating as he’s found flying to be, Lancelot can’t deny he’s happy to have solid ground beneath his feet once again. He removes his helm as he crosses to Merlin’s side, and once there he can’t resist giving him a hearty kiss.

Merlin laughs and kisses him back as Kilgharrah lands behind them with a flourish and snaps his wings shut with a loud clack. Aithusa coos at them while Rúadhnait looks on fondly. The male dragon simply rolls his eyes and surveys their new environs.

“How did you summon the Lady the last time you visited her lake, Sir Lancelot?”

“I did not summon her; she came to shore when I stopped to drink from the water.”

“Would you be so kind as to…”

Kilgharrah waves a claw in the direction of the lake and Lancelot sighs, freeing Merlin from his embrace. Merlin steps back but smiles and reaches down to twine their fingers together. He tugs Lancelot toward the water and he’s happy to follow where his warlock leads. Side by side they kneel at the water’s edge and lean out over the surface of the lake.

“This place is thrumming with power,” Merlin murmurs, “but it’s not like anything I’ve ever felt before.”

“That’s because no magic like it exists anywhere else, young Shield.”

Lancelot spins around in surprise, having expected the Lady to rise from the lake as she had the first time he’d visited her. Instead he beholds her strolling out from between the trees, a crown of summer blossoms adorning her brow. He swiftly rises to his feet only to sink down on one knee before her.

“My Lady, it gladdens my heart to see you once again.”

She raises him to his feet with a smile. As he rises, he’s aware of Merlin behind him, hovering with uncharacteristic hesitance. Her gaze flickers over his shoulder then comes back to Lancelot’s face.

“Sir Lancelot, you don’t know how happy you’ve made me by returning and bringing your beloved to me.”

Looking over his shoulder once more, she inclines her head slightly in Merlin’s direction.

“It’s an honour, Lord Merlin. I’ve heard so much about you from Sir Lancelot; it’s almost as if I already know you. Your mother would be proud of the man you’ve grown up to be.”

Merlin steps forward eagerly.

“You knew my mother?”

“I observed her from my lake, as I observe all of Ælfheim. She was the best of women, elf and human alike. You are very like her.”

Warmth and gratitude bloom in Lancelot’s chest when he beholds the genuine delight in Merlin’s grin.

“My brother did say we have her look.”

“You do, sweet boy, but you also inherited her noble spirit and unselfish heart along with her beauty and her magic.”

A blush sweeps over Merlin’s face like wildfire and Lancelot chuckles, delighted as ever with his lover’s modesty.

“My Lady, you’ll never convince him of his true worth. I have been endeavouring to do so for almost a decade with little success.”

“Then I see you are well matched indeed,” she returns genially.

Next she turns to the dragons, patiently waiting behind them. She dips a curtsey to them and they each incline their heads toward her in serene salute.

“Welcome to Avalon, my friends. Long have I watched you make your home in Hwítloc Heahmor, but I could always sense your longing for home. You must all be anxious to return to Albion at long last!”

Kilgharrah opens his mouth, no doubt to deliver some well-rehearsed words, but Rúadhnait beats him to it.

“We are, dear Lady! Most anxious indeed…we’ve held out some little hope that you might assist us in our quest for home.”

The Lady’s brow pinches and she glances back to Lancelot and Merlin with a troubled air.

“I’m afraid I know what you are going to ask and I’m sorry to say that it’s just not possible.”

Merlin bites his lip for a second but forges ahead and asks anyway.

“There is no way to reach Albion through Avalon?”

She shakes her head sorrowfully.

“Not for you, I’m afraid.”

She gestures to the dragons.

“Nor you as well, I am sad to say. I could take Lancelot through, but he only. The lake of Avalon will permit no magic but its own. It would strip the magic from the four of you and kill you all in the process.”

Appalled, Lancelot stared at the lake from which he drank so blithely when he first stumbled upon it. Had it been Merlin, would he have died from the first sip? He stared at Merlin in concern then looked back at the Lady. Lancelot could see she’d guessed his thoughts, though the frantic flickering of his eyes between the water and Merlin would probably have given the game away to anyone with eyes. She nodded her head in confirmation. The water that had sustained him all the way to Eldamar could also kill with a single drop. He reached out to tug Merlin further away from the lakeshore.

“I can tell you that the portal you seek is not far away.”

She reached out and took Merlin’s hand in hers.

“If you search with your Sight you should be able to find it easily enough.”

“How far is it, my Lady?”

“Just over a day’s journey from here.”

Lancelot began to relax, but the lady’s next words drew him tight as a bowstring once again.

“You should make haste, for the High-King is coming for you and this time he is bringing all his mages.”

Even the dragons looked appalled at this news but the lady wasn’t done.

“Do not despair; all is not yet lost. Like you, even he must travel on foot through the borderlands. They will yield more quickly to him, as he is the King. However, you have a head start and if you leave now, you may yet be able to make the portal before he can catch you.”

Merlin’s body is stiff, his face gone harsh and hard. Lancelot can feel him trembling with rage and he runs a soothing hand down his lover’s arm.

“How many? How many have to die before he gives up this madness? Will he sacrifice a hundred? A thousand? Will he give up his own life? Force me to kill him just to keep me here?”

The lady strokes a hand down his cheek, ending the motion with his jaw cupped in her hand.

“Please do not judge your brother too harshly, Lord Merlin. Your power may have set you apart from other men, but you have always been fortunate enough to have at least one person in your life who loves you for who you are, not what you are.”

She nodded significantly to Lancelot.

“Our king has never had that. Your father was a cold, austere parent. He expected so much from Emrys and gave so little in return. You think Emrys just wants to keep you for your magic, but I can see into his heart. Misguided as he is, it is his love that longs to keep you, not his lust for power.”

Merlin crumples a bit and Lancelot quickly loops a supporting arm around his shoulder. Anguished blue eyes seek the Lady’s dark gaze.

“It doesn’t matter what his motives are. He would take from me everything I care about. He would kill my love in an attempt to replace it with his own… How can I forgive that?”

The Lady sighs and murmurs an acknowledgment. There really is nothing she can say to excuse Emrys’ actions and all of them know it. His behavior is indefensible. Still, her sympathy for the king is clear and Lancelot finds her all the more admirable for her compassion.

Kilgharrah’s voice is soft, but his tone urgent when he speaks and shatters the moment.

“I feel it wise if we depart sooner rather than later. We are quite powerful, but I don’t think even we can defeat every magic user in Ælfheim.”

Merlin seems to gather himself and Lancelot lets him go. He draws the Lady aside while Merlin goes to confer quietly with the others.

“Lady, I was not certain I could return before, but I know I will not after this. Will you accept the return of the arms you gifted me with? I don’t want to deprive you of that link to your son.”

Shaking her head in negation, she leans forward and kisses him on the forehead.

“No, dear Lancelot. I gave them to you; I did not lend them to you. I want you to have them. I will be happier knowing you are well protected in your ongoing war to unite your realm under the leadership of your worthy king.”

“Thank you, My Lady. I won’t ever forget your kindness to me, not even should I live to be a hundred years old.”

“I could ask for no better repayment, my boy. Now go, you and your Shield are not yet out of danger. May your journey be swift and untroubled by the King and his men.”

She raises a hand and a mist rises before them. Lancelot recognizes the shimmering curtain he stumbled through when he first he came upon the lake. Merlin joins him and together they bow to the Lady and slip through the mist to the grim wood on the other side.

ooOoo

The moment Merlin sets foot on the other side of the clouded haze of the pass-through, the wind slams into him and nearly knocks him off his feet. Emrys is clearly using the weather in an attempt to slow them down. It’s not the first time since they fled Eldamar that he’s manipulated the climate to work against them. Last time, the King had raised the temperature to melt the very ground beneath their feet. A frozen swamp had turned to slush that clung to their legs and sucked at their boots. Beyond that, they had slipped and slid across a muddy plane, floundering their way through the dark in a nightmare of bruised bums and aching kneecaps.

Now it is a swirling blizzard howling at them from every direction. It’s bad enough that it sets even sweet, gentle Lancelot to cursing the weather with profanity so blue it could passivate steel. Even the dragons bow their heads against the force of the wind and Kilgharrah takes the lead in a chivalrous attempt to provide the rest of them with some protection from the shrieking misery.

Merlin can See where they need to go, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy route to follow. The path before them still tries to curl away in every direction but the one they need. Hummocks and hills rise sneakily under their feet and drop away just as surreptitiously as they emerge. Trees lean in to crowd them and rocks rise from nowhere to roll under their feet and send them staggering and stumbling at inconveniently random moments.

Micro fine particles of airborne ice sting Merlin’s exposed flesh and force him to narrow his eyes to slits. He looks at Lancelot encased in his elven armour and knows a moment of envy. At least Lancelot’s skin is protected from the scouring that Merlin is enduring. The dragons seem to be faring better than him as well; the ice in the air only serves to harmlessly buff their scaly hides.

Finally, it’s the reduction in visibility that has Merlin muttering a protection charm over his own body. He knows the magic will make it easier for Emrys to track them, but he’s willing to trade concealment for speed. As he’s supposed to be the one guiding them to the portal, his blind floundering is slowing the entire party to a crawl. The small spell does nothing to clear the air in front of him, but it allows him to open his eyes and actually look where he’s going. Once he stops stumbling over tree roots and smacking into low hanging branches, their pace picks up dramatically.

It’s not like Emrys doesn’t already know exactly where we’re going anyway, he thinks in a burst of irritation.

Merlin sincerely wishes he could have had some kind of relationship with his brother. Growing up, he’d had no family other than his mother, Hunith. They’d lived in a small tight-knit community that shunned them because of Merlin’s power and presumed bastard status. Her neighbors had warned Hunith not to take in a foundling child and they’d closed ranks against her when she’d failed to heed their advice.

Things had slowly begun to improve for them when Merlin had been discovered by the Witchfinder Aredian at age ten. Recognizing Merlin’s potential, Aredian had found him a tutor and began grooming him to one day take a position in the court of Camelot as the King’s Shield. However, even with the boon of royal patronage to smooth his path, Merlin had still been lonely; he’d still been an outsider.

What would I have given to have had a brother to grow up with? What wouldn’t I have given?

Even now, the allure of having that bond is hard to ignore. Despite what he’d said to the Lady of Avalon, he did sympathize with Emrys. He had been loved by his mother, not just loved but treasured, and he still felt the longing for more. How much worse was it for someone who’d never known any familial love? He could see how hope and longing frustrated by fate could push anyone, be he man or elf, into irrational acts of desperation. Merlin might despise Emrys for his actions, but he couldn’t say with any certainty that he wouldn’t act the same way were their positions reversed.

Shaking off his melancholy, Merlin hurried his steps as much as he could, hoping to outrun the dream-turned-into-nightmare that was the chilling reality of his blood kin. If hope too long deferred made the heart sicken, it would seem the removal of that hope killed the heart stone-dead. He wasn’t sure that his brother didn’t mean to kill him for his rejection. It didn’t really matter either way, because Emrys did mean to kill Lancelot and Merlin would destroy this whole realm before he’d let that happen.

Kilgharrah broke the path for the rest of them, but Merlin couldn’t actually follow him as he needed to guide them all along the most direct route he could manage to their goal. He can See the portal to Albion and he can See the way to reach it, but when darkfall comes, he knows there is still half a day of travel ahead of them before they reach it.

The dragons form a warm, protective circle around the two men and they settle in to wait for daybreak. Merlin is too keyed up to sleep right away but he enjoys having Lancelot close to him, even if his lover is still wrapped up in the protective shell of his armour. Lancelot, on the other hand, seems to have no difficulty sleeping and nods off soon after they curl up side by side. He’s only removed his helmet, but Merlin’s appreciative even of this small blessing. He summons a small, dim light and lazily studies Lancelot’s beloved face.

Merlin strokes a dark, silky curl back from Lancelot’s forehead and sighs a little. After weeks surrounded by icy cool blonds in all their chilly formality, the vibrancy of Lancelot’s golden skin and rich brown hair warms him like nothing in this world ever could. He’d ached for this man every moment of every day since he’d awakened here and found him gone. Merlin hadn’t allowed himself to dwell on it, but not a moment had passed when his heart hadn’t been aware of the loss. Leaning in, he breathes in deeply and fills his nose with Lancelot’s familiar scent. Snuggling close, despite the chill of Lancelot’s armour, he finally manages to drift off to the sound of his lover’s heartbeat.

Waking to the feel of Lancelot’s hand warm on his cold face, Merlin smiles and blinks sleepily at the other half of his coin. Feeling lazy and content, he watches Lancelot’s sweet lips as they move to form a familiar greeting.

“Morning, Love.”

Lancelot’s voice is low and husky with sleep. Merlin closes his eyes, stretches his hands over his head, arches his back and magically extends his senses. He sends them out several leagues in every direction. Seconds later he snaps upright in alarm. Struggling to his feet, he ignores the dragons’ startled movements and leans down to grasp Lancelot round the wrist.

“They’re close and they’re coming fast. We need to get out of here, right now!”

There’s no argument from any of them. The dragons simply shake themselves out, stamping and stretching for a few seconds while Lancelot straps on his sword and retrieves his helmet from the ground. Merlin concentrates for a moment before he Sees the portal to Albion in his mind’s eye. Striding forward purposefully, he motions the others to follow.

“This way.”

Emrys and his army of mages are close, far too close for comfort. Merlin thinks they must have traveled through the night to have made up so much of the distance between them. They’ve lost their head start and Merlin knows he will have to find a way to compensate.

The weather hasn’t let up at all, the wind still howling and tearing at them from every direction. With a growl of frustration and a reckless burst of power, Merlin splits the wind, forcing it around them. A tunnel opens up in front of him, cutting straight through the fury of the storm his brother has summoned to stop him. He plunges forward and the others follow close on his heels.

When the land tries to rise and trip him, he ruthlessly squashes it flat. Trees that come too close are roughly pushed aside and any rocks that roll themselves under his feet are crushed to dust. Speed is essential, so Merlin throws caution to the howling wind and recklessly spends his power to achieve it. Merlin’s moving as fast as he can without breaking into an outright run. They are still too far from the portal for that, but his sense of urgency doubles as he Sees his brother’s forces gaining on them.

Emrys is using his mastery of the land to his advantage. Even as Merlin fights to subdue the forest floor as it attempts to stretch away from him, he can See that Emrys is coaxing it closer to his feet as he moves forward. Cursing his brother, Merlin attempts to do the same but mastering unfamiliar magic on the run is a difficult prospect. The flow of power in Albion is as familiar to him as breathing but the rules of magic in Ælfheim are wildly unfamiliar.

He stops abruptly, nearly causing a three-dragon pile up as his companions fumble to a halt just beyond him. Merlin throws up an imperative hand to halt any questions while he concentrates on his brother. He works out the shape of the magic in seconds. Looking ahead, Merlin reaches into the elastic earth and pulls, forcing the ground to contract when it tries to expand. There’s resistance at first, as if it’s trying to fight back. The land isn’t quite sentient, but there seems to be some awareness to the magic that inhabits it. Concentrating, Merlin imposes his will on that awareness and forces it to yield.

It’s like being fired from a crossbow when the land finally snaps back under his command. They hurtle forward and even the dragons stumble a few paces before regaining their equilibrium.

“What have you done, young warlock?”

Kilgharrah sounds impressed and Merlin permits himself a small grim smile as he begins to run, pulling the land tight as he hurtles forward to meet it. The others follow swiftly.

“I learnt a new trick!” he tosses over his shoulder.

The portal is drawing closer, but so is Emrys. Merlin’s legs are pumping, feet flying and heart straining while his mind and magic are split in two directions. He focuses the greater force of it down into the earth but a small part of his concentration is still reserved for keeping their goal in Sight. The gate and the land around it shift endlessly. He understands now why the dragons have been trapped here for so long; the way home is maddeningly elusive. Merlin has to keep its location in the forefront of his mind at all times, or else it slips away and takes the path ahead with it. Each time that happens, it takes precious time they don’t have for him to find it again.

He loses the path once more and staggers to a halt. When he finds it again, he gives the land a particularly vicious tug, and the forest shrieks in protest. Merlin hurls himself forward with an answering shout and the forest settles down. It rumbles beneath his feet, but it obeys his will and stands still for their party as they desperately rush for home. They don’t make it.

Less than half a league from their destination, the first spell slams into Rúadhnait from behind. It sends up a spray of sparks and knocks her off her feet. She rips through a grove of trees and goes down in a pile of splintered lumber. Enraged, Kilgharrah turns with a roar and spews a massive wave of fire at their attackers. Merlin spins around and throws a shield around all of them. He can see the red dragon rising and shaking herself as if dazed.

“Are you all right?” He shouts to her.

“Yes. I am unharmed.”

Merlin staggers a bit as a powerfully concentrated spell slams against his shield. Emrys’ mages are working together, pooling their magic together in an attempt to overwhelm them. The spell shatters in a spray of sparks that reduce the nearby trees to smoking stumps. He hears screaming and looks back at their attackers in time to see two of them erupt into flames as Kilgharrah breaches their defenses. He returns his attention to the red dragon.

“Rúadhnait, can you keep going?”

“I’m fine. We should make haste! Kilgharrah, leave them!”

The big bronze dragon huffs and sends another wave of fire over the approaching mages. Merlin tries to assess the size of the force pursuing them. He stops counting after fifty. Meanwhile, Lancelot has drawn his sword and looks like he’s about to charge Emrys’ men by himself. Merlin grabs him and drags him back.

“Come on! We don’t have time for a fight. We have to find that gate!”

Lancelot hesitates for a moment, then nods and allows himself to be drawn away. Aithusa and Rúadhnait are already moving forward and Merlin hurries to catch up. Kilgharrah stays behind to fire one more volley at the mages before he follows. The two men are running full out while the dragons keep pace easily. The three of them take turns spewing fireballs at their pursuers but no one stops to fully engage the sorcerous horde. There are just too many of them.

Merlin manages to keep the shield around Lancelot, but has to drop it from the dragons as they wheel in and out of his circle of protection. He can’t keep an expanded shield up and keep the portal in Sight while simultaneously controlling the forest’s efforts to trip them. He hopes that the dragons’ natural resistance to magic will be enough to keep them safe.

Spells continue to pelt them as they run, sliding off his shield to burst in the treetops or just shattering on impact. The force from some of them send Merlin staggering. Lancelot wraps a hand around his upper arm to steady him as they keep moving, getting closer to their goal with every step.

Emrys’ power buzzes along the edges of Merlin’s awareness. He can Feel his brother behind him; can sense his frustration, his fear and his anger . Emrys is terrified of losing him, but his wounded fury is so great that Merlin fears his brother would rather see him dead than let him leave Ælfheim. The High-King will not be thwarted, not even by his own flesh and blood.

They burst out of the trees into a large clearing and suddenly the portal is before them. Merlin’s world contracts to that one pulsing point of magic in the ever-shifting play of power that surrounds them. The gate is finally still. The world slithers and slides around it but there in the heart of the frosty glade the portal to Albion waits for them, a beacon drawing them home.

Merlin shouts in relief and hastens toward the gate, dragging Lancelot along in his wake. Rúadhnait and Aithusa take flight and dive straight for the gate with dizzying speed.

Shaking Merlin off and waving his arms, Lancelot shouts after them, “Wait! Stop! You can’t! I need to go first! Please!”

Aithusa pulls up at the last moment, but Rúadhnait is ahead of her and she’s through the portal before the words have finished leaving Lancelot’s mouth.

Merlin grabs him, trying to reassure him. “It’s all right, Lancelot. They are creatures of Albion, they don’t need you to guide them back.”

“No! You don’t understand!” Lancelot’s voice is shrill and desperate. “I must be the first one through. It has to be me!

Merlin doesn’t understand, but he has no time to argue with his lover. Instead he keeps running, even as he waves the circling Aithusa on through the gate. Kilgharrah is still on foot behind them, blasting away at the sorcerers who fill the woods behind them, only yards away now. Magic bursts all around, shattering trees and sending up great plumes of snow and earth as spells of awesome fury tear up the ground. He shoves Lancelot along, herding him toward the portal.

He calls to last dragon, “Kilgharrah, go!”

The great bronze creature sends one last sheet of fire over the heads of the enemy before he too takes to the air and flies through the open gate. He and Lancelot sprint the last few yards. Merlin hesitates just long enough for Lancelot’s trailing foot to leave the snowy ground before he hurls himself into the glowing heart of the gate.

It feels as if all the life in Merlin’s body is being ripped from him…and he’s dying, dying…only to feel it slam right back into place a half-heartbeat later. His feet strike bare rock then stumble over grassy mounds of soil. He spins back toward the gate, staggers and goes down on his knees.

Merlin reaches for the gate with his mind, curling his power around the edges of the opening, the place where Albion and Ælfheim meld into one. Finding the seam, he slides into it like water. Expanding, he pushes the seam open forcing the fabric of the two worlds to part. He can’t destroy the portal--Merlin knows that--but he can damage it. He can warp it so that no one can pass through from either side. Pouring all his power into that tiny gap he pushes and pulls until he tears up one corner. Then he folds it back in on itself, redirecting the magic to form a Mobius. The infinite loop will allow no entry or exit now; the magic of both realms will slide against each other, touching at every point but allowing no edge, no opening. There is no longer anything to pass through.

Awareness of his surroundings returns to him. He hears someone crying…it sounds like Aithusa. He turns toward the sound, but it takes several long, agonizing seconds for him to make sense of what he sees. Rúadhnait is lying on her side, her eyes closed, with Aithusa curled around one side of the red dragon, weeping tears of fire. Kilgharrah circles above howling in outrage, filling the sky with fire. He looks back to Rúadhnait and finally he understands.

Shock takes his strength and exhaustion steals his senses. He falls face forward on the ground and passes out.

ooOOoo

Aithusa dives through the portal and Lancelot rushes after her. He has to stop them, he has to get them back.

Why didn’t they listen? He explained it to them, he told them, he told them all! He had to be the first one through the gate. Why did they ignore him?

Merlin grabs him, tries to calm him...but Merlin doesn’t understand. Merlin can’t understand. Lancelot can’t explain; it’s imperative that he not know what’s about to happen. Merlin won’t come if he knows. He would rather stay a hostage to his brother then buy his freedom with the life of another. So Lancelot says nothing, allowing Merlin to push and shove against him as they both dash for the portal.

He dives through and comes out the other side screaming for the female dragons.

“Go back! You have to go back, now! Both of you-“

Kilgharrah swoops up from the base of the hill, having come through the gate just moments before him. Lancelot is distracted for a fraction of a second. By the time he turns back to scream at Rúadhnait and Aithusa, it’s too late. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Merlin emerge from the hill, back arching, an unvoiced scream working his throat and widening his mouth.

The scream emerges from Rúadhnait’s throat instead. Her wings snap out straight and she freezes, her cry cuts off. She hangs suspended in midair for an impossibly long moment...and then she falls from the sky like a stone.

Her body slams to earth with a thunderous crash that shakes the ground beneath Lancelot’s feet.

Meanwhile, Merlin is down on his knees but his eyes are glowing and he seems unaware of his surroundings. His fingers curl strangely in the air as if shaping something only he can see.

Aithusa cries out, the sound a short sharp burst of anguish, and Kilgharrah bellows a long, drawn out, “No!”

The little white dragon floats down, alighting gracefully only to crumple to the ground seconds later and weep by Rúadhnait’s side. Great fiery tears slip from her eyes. They slide down her face and drip to the ground, sizzling and popping as they hit the rocks below. Kilgharrah rages in the air above them, emitting great bursts of flame as he roars his grief into the empty sky.

Lancelot looks on in horror.

“It should have been me,” he whispers in anguish as Aithusa curls around Rúadhnait’s body.

A hoarse and all-too-human shout resounds behind him. The shock evident on Merlin’s face freezes the heart in Lancelot’s chest. He takes a step toward Merlin, but he’s not quick enough to catch the warlock when he suddenly pitches forward in a dead faint.

Lancelot lifts Merlin from the ground and cradles him in his lap. He’s too numb with guilt and grief to cry, at least not yet.

Kilgharrah lands, and mantles protectively over the body of the fallen dragon. With another jolt of dismay, Lancelot wonders if she’d been his mate. Oh dear gods, was Rúadhnait Aithusa’s mother? As shame crawls through his belly, he realizes it doesn’t matter what the relationships are between these creatures; whatever else they are, they are a family…or they had been before Lancelot’s subterfuge destroyed them.

He begins to cry…it should have been him.

ooOOoo

Waking up in Lancelot’s arms has always been Merlin’s favourite way to come to consciousness. Now he stirs against his lover’s body and sighs contentedly, letting his mind drift. A small smile curls his lips as he nuzzles into the soft hair peeking through the open V of Lancelot’s unlaced shirt. He’s so happy his beloved Sword has finally gotten rid of the armour. He loves Lancelot with all his soul, but it hasn’t been so pleasant curling up against all that cold, hard steel each night.

Once he remembers Lancelot’s armour, other memories start crowding to the surface of his mind. Each one clamours for attention: Ælfheim, Emrys, running across a shifting land through a howling blizzard, the portal, the dragons…the dragons! Merlin stiffens as he’s assaulted with images of Kilgharrah screaming, Aithusa crying and Rúadhnait…

“No! Oh, dear gods! No!”

He sits up, apparently startling Lancelot from his own slumber as he does so. Twilight is falling and Merlin realizes he must have been asleep for hours, since the sun was still high in the sky when they returned from his brother’s realm.

“Merlin?” Lancelot asks sleepily. Merlin looks into his warm, dark eyes and feels the moisture building in his own.

“Rúadhnait…what happened? Please…what happened to her? Did Emrys...? One of the mages…did they get her as she went through? Oh, gods, I should have saved her!”

To his surprise, Lancelot draws away from him, as if Merlin’s touch is something he cannot bear. He’s shaking his head and biting his lip as he scoots away along the mossy ground.

“It’s my fault…it was supposed to be me.”

Lancelot’s words make no sense to him. He dashes the tears from his cheeks and seeks understanding.

“What are you talking about? How can it be your fault? It was Emrys!”

“Yes, it was your brother but it was also me.”

“I don’t understand, Lancelot. What are you trying to say?”

“I should have been first through the portal…I told you that. I told you all that, I was supposed to go first. Not Rúadhnait. Not Aithusa. Me.”

Merlin cuts him off impatiently.

“What does it matter who went first?”

“It mattered because…because…there was a price for passage back to Albion. I told you that Emrys barred the gate home so that no one of elven blood could pass through without a guide from Albion.”

He takes a deep, shuddering breath before continuing.

“I didn’t tell you that the guide had to die to make your passage possible.”

Now it’s Merlin’s turn to recoil. He stares at Lancelot in consternation.

“I swear to you, Merlin, I never intended anyone else to get hurt! It was supposed to me going through that gate first…I tried to stop them…I didn’t want her to die.”

“You think that makes this better?” Merlin snaps in mounting fury.

The idiot! Noble, bloody fool!

Dumbstruck, he glares at his beloved in horrified aggravation. How could he think…

“You were going to die so that I could return to Albion?”

Lancelot nods, shame colouring his every feature.

“What…how could you even...? Why would you do that?”

“Merlin, you are needed here. Arthur needs you. Camelot needs you. The future of our world depends on you. Without you, there will be no Albion.”

“That’s our destiny, Lancelot. Ours together. I can’t fulfill our destiny alone!”

“Merlin listen, what am I? Eh? I am a soldier, that’s all. Yes, I can swing a sword better than most men but in the end, I’m nothing special. You, you are the special one. For gods’ sake, Merlin! The High-King of another realm came to you to save his land and his people. I’ve always wondered why destiny paired us together…I thought perhaps…I thought that this was the reason.”

“You thought your entire reason for existing was to die so that I could come home?”

Lancelot nods, and Merlin’s fury melts away. Sadness rushes in to fill the void.

“Oh Lancelot, don’t you know that there’s no me without you? I’m half a man without you. I wouldn’t have wanted to return to Albion if you weren’t in it. What would be the point? I need you. You are so much more than just a sword. You are my world. You are my conscience, my compass, the light that leads me in the dark; you’re the only reason I know left from right and up from down. You have the purest heart of any man in twoworlds. You are just as essential to the future as I am. Without you, there can be no golden age, for I might help Arthur conquer the lands of Albion, and he might unite the people’s hearts, but it’s you who will give our new world a soul.

Face crumpled, tears running silently down his cheeks, Lancelot shakes his head in negation.

“How can you say that? I am a murderer! I might as well have speared Rúadhnait through the heart myself!”

Biting his lip, Merlin feels ashamed of the words he’s about to utter, but his shame doesn’t make them any less true.

“Lancelot, I wouldn’t have any of you die for me and…I…I’m sorry, so sorry for Rúadhnait. But…I’m not sorry it was her and not you. I’m grateful to her. So very grateful…if she’d heeded your warning…if she’d let you go first…”

He shakes his head, unable to continue. Instead, he leans closer to Lancelot and draws him into his arms. Burying his nose in the soft skin of Lancelot’s neck, he whispers into his ear. “I’m sorry she’s dead, but I can’t lose you. I can never lose you. I would sacrifice every living thing in Albion for you…I’d burn this world to ash if that’s what it took. I’d do anything to keep you safe, Lancelot. Anything.”

Arms tight around Merlin, Lancelot whispers back, “Then gods save the world, for I’d do the same for you.”

oOo

They stand on top of the hill as the sun sinks down below the horizon. The sky is painted with streamers of red, orange, purple and pink as the pale blue of day yields slowly to the inky sapphire of night. Merlin has never so appreciated the many colours in the sky that shields his world. He could never have gotten used to the dreary, unchanging, gray and black of the firmament that covered Ælfheim.

Aithusa and Kilgharrah stand together and bathe the fallen Rúadhnait in flame. They breathe over her together, united in this intimate act of farewell. Only the fire from one dragon has the power to consume the body of another. In this way, they say their farewells.

Merlin and Lancelot watch in respectful silence until it is done. When there is nothing left of the noble red dragon but a pile of burnished scales, the last two dragons in existence turn to them.

“Thank you for witnessing this ritual. Rúadhnait was our sister and it will be an emptier world without her.”

Kilgharrah’s words hold no censure but Merlin can’t help but feel guilty, even as he knows Lancelot suffers the same emotion. Dragons are a long-lived race. If it wasn’t for Merlin, Rúadhnait would have had thousands of years still to live.

Aithusa speaks next, her words far more mature than Merlin had come to expect from her.

“She would not have wanted you to feel guilt for her death. The circumstances were against all of us…it would have been foolish of us to expect to pay no price for the sanctuary we enjoyed for so long in Ælfheim. She would have been the first to volunteer to pay that price…that she did so unknowingly makes no difference.”

The white dragon looks directly at Lancelot.

“Had you told us what you intended to do, King’s Sword, she would have done it anyway. She would not have allowed you to sacrifice the future of Albion with your death. We have all waited for your coming for far too long.”

Behind her, Merlin can see Kilgharrah nodding his head in agreement.

Lancelot gasps and stares at her. Since being reunited in Emrys’ palace, Merlin and Lancelot had not had much time to speak of all that befell them whilst they were apart. Merlin hadn’t been able to share with him the dragons’ knowledge of who they were and what they were destined to do.

Aithusa’s words seem to ease the tension of guilt that has Lancelot’s shoulders drawn so tight. Merlin reaches out a hand to his lover and laces their fingers together. He is glad of her words, and the effect they have on Lancelot. And, who knows? Perhaps Aithusa is right, perhaps Rúadhnait would have chosen to die rather than let Lancelot sacrifice himself, but that does little to ease Merlin’s conscience. Ultimately, Lancelot or Rúadhnait…whoever fate decided on in the end, they still would have died for him.

The dragons make to gather the gleaming red and gold scales from the ground before making their farewells. Merlin stays them.

“Please…could you…would you let me…? I want make something for her. I want the world to know of her sacrifice. Please, may I have them?” He gestures to the scales. Kilgharrah eyes him thoughtfully before assenting with the graceful wave of a claw.

“Do her proud, young warlock.”

“I shall.”

Lancelot loops an arm around Merlin’s waist as they watch the two dragons fly away into the night. Merlin leans into his warmth, resting his head on one broad shoulder. He feels more gratitude than he can ever express to have Lancelot by his side. He’d be nothing without this man and he knows it now with more certainty than ever before.

He can’t help but compare his life with his brother’s…with the life he could have had if he’d stayed in Ælfheim. It was the life he’d been born to, the life he’d have had if his father not sent him away to grow up in his mother’s world. Merlin would have been a prince, conceivably someday even a king. He thinks the idea should appeal to him more than it does, but then…he’s seen firsthand just how empty such a life would be.

Wealth and power mean nothing if there is no purpose to them. There wasn’t anything for Merlin to accomplish in Ælfheim, no reason for him to be. He could never be anything but a spare part, an addendum to his brother existence. Whereas in Albion…he has everything; there’s a reason for his being. Merlin is part of a greater whole, a grand plan. Along with their king, he and Lancelot are the future of their world.

Merlin has known since he was little more than a child that he was half of a destined whole. He has always believed in the destiny that old Druid seer had told him was his. However, before Emrys’ intervention in his life, he’d never actually had to fight for that destiny. Now that it’s behind him, he can only be thankful for the journey his brother forced him to take.

He is aware now, in a way he never was before, of just how connected he is to Albion. Learning of his heritage has only strengthened that connection. Yes, he is of elven blood, but his human nature is just as strong; stronger, in fact. Merlin doesn’t believe it was simply by chance that he inherited more of his mother’s magic than his brother did. He was given those gifts for a reason…he was given to this world for a reason. Merlin was always meant for Albion.

His sense of purpose strengthened, he feels a renewed belief in his destiny. Together, he and Lancelot will make their world a better place. Their king will rule justly, bringing peace and prosperity to all the citizens of Albion. Arthur will live and he will die, as all men must. But he will always return when his people have need of him. Destiny…and Merlin’s magic…will make it so.

Gazing down at the shining scales that are all that remain of Rúadhnait, he contemplates what to do with them. He promised to do her proud and he intends to honour that promise. He wants a memorial that will speak not only of her life, but also what she sacrificed her life for. She had died so that Merlin and Lancelot could return to Camelot and complete the task that destiny had set before them: the dream of an Albion united under the rule of Arthur Pendragon, the Once and Future King.

Merlin extends one long-fingered hand over the earth and a column of soil rises beneath it. He fans the fingers of his other hand over the pile of red and gold dragon scales. The soil begins to billow and expand as he imposes his will on it. Writhing and twisting, rising higher and higher, he forms a three dimensional likeness of the dragon crest of their king. When the last of the soil settles into place, he hardens it into stone. Then he spreads the shining scales over the surface of the sharp, stylized dragon. Nearly twenty feet tall, it crouches with wings extended over the now inaccessible gate to Ælfheim.

Stepping back to the place where Rúadhnait fell, he digs into the scorched earth and pries out two of Aithusa’s solidified tears. He passes his fingers over them and polishes them with his magic. When he is done, two round golden stones remain. They become the eyes of the guardian statue.

She stands proudly at the crest of the hill. The last rays of sunset glint off her shining scales, making them spark and flicker like fire. Whispering a spell, Merlin sets the dragon to watching the portal. If anything changes…should his brother or his men attempt to return to Albion through this or any other portal, he will know.

As he stands back to survey his work, Lancelot takes his hand and twines their fingers together. The King’s Sword smiles softly, tilting his head inquiringly. His Shield nods in accord; they need no words to understand each other. In quiet harmony they turn as one, and together they set off down the slope. The path back to Camelot awaits them; it’s time to return to their destiny. High on the hill behind them, approval glints in the eyes of the watching dragon.