The woman, dressed in black, stumbled through the forest. She reeled from pain all over her body, particularly from her abdomen. She pressed her hand there, not quite staunching the flow of blood. And she had no way to heal it; her scant magic was used up when she’d transported herself outside the citadel. It rose up behind her, as if mocking her failed achievement. She set her face away from it and kept up her slow trudge through the trees.
The thoughts running through her mind kept her going. How had they done this? They had nearly no one; I had a strong army. How had he taken her magic? When? Why did he help someone who would just as soon kill him? Why do I never win for long? Why? Who had caused the ceiling to come down on her? No one had been there!
All too soon her thoughts were overwhelmed by the pain. The pain finally overrode her mind and she collapsed to her knees then to her side. She lay there, knowing she breathed her last few breaths. She’d never be queen. She’d never have her revenge. All her great power had come to naught. When had her life become so . . .
Her eyes closed. The haze of pain caused her not to hear a curious flutter of wings and the landing of clawed feet. She didn’t hear the little creature’s squeak of curiosity or hear its wings flutter again. The small dragon flew again briefly it sat down closer to the woman. He tilted his head as his senses told him what his eyes didn’t—this was a fellow creature of magic and she was dying.
Instinct prompted him to aid her. With that in mind, he opened his tiny mouth to breathe healing instead of flames.
The woman felt energy flowing. Something was happening to her. Images appeared in her mind—warmth and comforting darkness. A magical voice, bringing courage and strength to break through that darkness, to see what was out there. Laughing from two sources, two powerful beings of magic stared down at her. One, big, old and wise—Kilgharrah, mentor, friend. The other, smaller, but strong—master, father, lord. Blue eyes set in a face she knew looked down at her. Oh, she knew him all right. But how? Why? When?
When the little dragon felt that she’d healed enough to survive, he closed his mouth. He watched as the woman opened her eyes that fixed on him in wonder. Life, good, he thought, and prepared to take off again. She interested him enough that he’d find her later, to make sure of her recovery. He sensed something in her, something good that he could perhaps encourage. He’d left her with enough to think about; things that could change her path in life if she would simply let them.
Aithusa took off, spiraling upward, out over the trees and back to his mentor. He wouldn’t tell Kilgharrah or his lord about the woman. Something told him to keep what he’d done for her a secret, until the time was right. It would be hard, but it would be worth it. That same feeling also told him that it wouldn't be for long.
Morgana laid there and watched the little white dragon fly away. Dragon? Weren’t they supposed to be extinct? The tiny creature had done something to her. Something that had caused her to feel warmth and see . . . things. Were those the little dragon’s memories? She’d been looking up at the other dragon and him. She shook her head; she didn’t want to think about him right now.
The witch rolled onto her back to assess her wounds. Her side—she pressed her hand to her right side and pulled it away; there was no blood. She pressed her hand back to her side and gently prodded at the spot, only to feel no pain. Twisting her neck a bit, she looked down to the tear in her dress. She widened it a bit and saw only the thinnest scar she’d ever seen. It looked like she had been healed for months.
She slowly flexed the muscles of her arms, back, abdomen, and legs. Nothing hurt. Then she sat up to visually inspect her arms and legs, which had been thoroughly bruised from her collision with the wall. And the chunks of ceiling. No bruises marked her limbs now.
The little white dragon had healed her every wound, and had left her with its memories. Why? Did it not know who she was? What she stood for? She wished the little dragon would come back so she could thank it. She owed the creature her life.
Now to decide where to go. She couldn’t go back to her hovel, not to live anyway. He knew where it was. And Emrys knew where it was. Fine. She’d go back to collect supplies and then destroy it. Maybe Morgause’s small, hidden castle was empty still . . . Okay. It was time to get going. To start all over again from nothing. How many times could she do this? And would she repeat this cycle for the rest of her life? Plot, plan, gather allies, build an army, invade, attack, oust, rule, be counterattacked, watch her allies die, get driven out, and end up with nothing.
“WHAT?!” Where had that thought come from?
Talking to herself was getting her nowhere, so she picked herself up and started walking. To keep herself from thinking, she recited stories Morgause had told her. Stories about magic’s origin, early practitioners, magical creatures and more. Before she knew it, she was at her hovel.
Morgana went inside and started gathering all the food she had. She put this into a bag and started scanning her shelves of supplies. Very few of these would travel well. She rolled her blankets into a bedroll, she scanned the room for anything else she might need. After adding a pot and a wooden spoon to her bag, she looked around the room again, trying to find any fond memories of it. Nothing. No happy bits of nostalgia.
She stomped outside and up the small hill that looked down onto the hovel. She would not miss this place. She held up her hand and said, “Tófiel!” The hovel collapsed in on itself, crushing everything inside. Nature would reclaim it in time.
Satisfied, she turned her back on the demolished hovel and walked away.
Merlin yawned. This had to be the longest council meeting in the history of council meetings. And he’d gotten little sleep the night before,. He should be helping to right the citadel and damage to the Lower Town, using his talent when he could. But no, the King of All Prats had insisted he be here so he could offer insight into the day’s events and fetch things. He rubbed his face for the twentieth time and sighed. It wouldn’t be so bad if he got to sit at the round table. He could sleep with his eyes open while sitting.
Arthur was understandably excited. Gwen was his fiancée again, and he wanted to get to the part of the meeting where he could tell everyone about it. Then, they could plan their immediate wedding and her coronation. Considering what had happened last time, they wanted to do it as soon as was reasonably possible. But the welfare of the rest of the people was more important than his personal life, and Gwen, being who she was, agreed.
Various knights had given their reports. Gwaine and Elyan had gone first; they wanted to get Gaius helped as soon as possible. The old physician wasn’t here now because he’d been taken to his chambers and made comfortable. A couple of the servants who’d assisted him from time to time were there with him, seeing to his needs and to others who needed help.
That’s another place I should be, Merlin thought.
Amazingly enough, the castle’s infrastructure wasn’t damaged much. Helios had been a firm leader who’d kept a tight leash on his men. Pillaging and plundering had been mostly confined to the lower town. The vaults hadn’t even been broken into. Apparently they’d thought there would be enough time to enjoy the treasure later.
The Lower Town would be recovering for some time. Many merchants had had their goods, their livelihoods, ripped away from them. When they resisted, things were destroyed. Many women had been . . . violated. And if they protested, they were severely beaten. Out of everything, that atrocity angered the King and Merlin the most. If most hadn’t already been dead or dying right now, he’d probably have found a way to make the mercenaries suffer a bit more for that. Reparations for those atrocities were being calculated now, even though they’d never make up for what those women had lost.
Merlin let his mind wander away again. Back to an old ache—Morgana. What had happened to her? She had been fighting Gwen, and the future queen had been losing. Then he’d crept up behind her and had dropped the ceiling without a word. She’d flown back so hard that part of the ceiling had collapsed on her. But when he’d stepped forward to capture her, she was gone. Had she gotten enough magic back to transport away? Where did she go? And was she still alive? It looked like she’d already been hurt—she’d been clutching her side. But how?
He tried to shake these questions out of his mind, only to have them replaced by the oddest urge. Suddenly he wanted to slink out of there and go find Morgana. But that was stupid. If she was dying then he should just let her die. Everyone in Camelot would agree and greatly benefit from her death. He could just go confirm she’s dead—wait, why? That was stupid too. If she wasn’t, she’d just try to kill him. And if she was, what would he do? Besides, she couldn’t go far in her current condition, and she didn’t have enough magic to heal herself. They could always ride out in the morning. Plenty of time to find her, if they felt so inclined. Which Arthur probably wasn’t. He’d get through this tedious talk and his head would be in the clouds after that. Terrific.
Suddenly, the use of his name drew him out of his introspection. “Merlin! You idiot! I’ve said your name three times now! Get over here!” the King’s voice called out. Mentally rolling his eyes, the servant in question walked slowly over to his master, to cater to his newest whim.
Morgana walked until nightfall, then found a small cave to shelter her for the night. She made a small fire and brought out some of her food and her bedroll. She’d be warm enough here. Morgause’s small castle was less than a day’s walk from here. It was hidden so well that she’d be untraceable and could be hidden for as long as she chose.
After she’d eaten a bit of her dried food, she laid out her bedroll and crawled under her blankets. She just wanted to forget her very long day. She checked to make sure her bracelet was on her arm then rolled over and closed her eyes.
It wasn’t long before she’d descended into the dream phase of sleep. Only instead of prophetic dreams or her nightmares of Emrys, she dreamed the little dragon’s memories. They were hazy around the edges, but clear enough to see and hear everything going on around her.
When the big, wise dragon, Kilgharrah spoke, she turned her head toward his voice. “A white dragon is, indeed, a rare thing . . . and fitting. For in the dragon tongue, you named him after the light of the sun. No dragon birth is without meaning.” The little dragon, Aithusa, she remembered, cooed and kept pecking away at his shell until all of it had fallen to the grass. Kilgharrah continued, “Sometimes the meaning is hard to see, but this time I believe it is clear. The white dragon bodes well for Albion, for you and Arthur, and for the land that you will build together.”
He hadn’t been speaking to Aithusa; he’d been speaking to him, to Merlin. But she couldn’t summon her hatred, her sense of betrayal while in Aithusa’s memories. The little dragon preened and flared his wings before taking off on a short flight to his . . . Dragon Lord? Yes, Merlin was his Dragonlord. He’d hatched Aithusa, who was now on his shoulder. He wiped the tears off his face and laughed, then opened his arms for Aithusa to jump into. “My little Aithusa,” he said and cuddled the little dragon close to his chest.
She could feel the attachment Aithusa had to his Lord. Warm feelings of protectiveness, hope, peace, and . . . love. And she felt those emotions radiated right back from Merlin. The feelings were amazing. She could also smell everything surrounding Aithusa. Leather, herbs, clean linen, fresh grass, and the clear night air. It left her feeling utter contentment, like she could stay in this moment forever.
Kilgharrah’s voice broke in, “Come, little one. We must go. Our Dragonlord needs his rest.”
Aithusa cooed in disappointment, but turned in Merlin’s arms, preparing for flight.
“Do not worry, little one. We shall see Merlin again soon.”
Aithusa felt them communicate silently.
“Goodbye, Aithusa,” he said. “Be well, and listen to Kilgharrah.”
Aithusa cooed again and took off into the air, feeling joy at being able to use his wings freely. He waited for the bigger dragon to launch himself into the air, then followed him into the night.
Morgana woke with a start. The little dragon’s memories had come to her again. But she’d been healed many hours ago—shouldn’t the effect have worn off by now? Even more disturbing, she had been feeling warm feelings about Merlin?! Of all people, why did he have to have a connection to her little white savior?
But at least a few things made sense now. The dragon that had burned the men she’d sent after Arthur, Merlin must have commanded it to do that. He’s a dragonlord. Great. That was just one more thing he had over her. As if poisoning her, driving her from Camelot twice and hurting Morgause weren’t bad enough . . . but, the way he’d cared for newborn Aithusa . . . NO! She still despised him, didn’t she?
Frustrated, she rolled back into her blanket and lay down to sleep again. No cute and cuddly dream about her nemesis would make her feel any differently about him. Ever. She gladly settled back into sleep’s peaceful arms.
In the morning, Morgana woke feeling greatly refreshed. She’d had no more dreams or memory flashes or whatever those images from the little dragon were. After she’d stretched a bit and ate, she packed up her things and started walking again. There was still no pain from yesterday’s injuries, and she thanked her goddess for that.
She walked most of the day, stopping to rest and eat as she needed to. In the late afternoon she finally reached the little lake and waterfall that hid Morgause’s castle from the world. She reached for her magic and found it there, still somewhat diminished from whatever Emrys had done to her. But it was sufficient to help her across the lake. “Stánas forestæppunga, áríseaþ!” she called.
A low rumbling sound, followed by a bubbling, started in the lake. Circular stones rose up out of the water, making a path across the lake to the waterfall. Morgana moved forward, crossing the lake. When she reached the waterfall, she yelled, “Sencaþ!” and watched the stones submerge themselves.
Turning, she walked through the waterfall and the small tunnel behind it. A few more steps and she would see it: Morgause’s castle. Or hers now, actually. After Morgause had rescued her from Camelot, they’d stayed here off and on. It may be worse for wear with the tumbledown walls, but it was as close to a home as she had these days.
Her heart swelled as she walked up to the entrance and inside. She walked throughout the castle, noting its condition. Some repairs were needed, and a bit of cleaning. A few spells would take care of that. She sat her pack down in the main bedroom then cast a spell for cleaning. Calling it good, at least for the night, she sat down at the lone table and ate some of her remaining food. Tomorrow she’d check the vegetable garden and acquire some meat. It was time to rest again.
Merlin fought back the rolling of his eyes for about the tenth time that day. He’d been ordered to be the go-between of the affianced couple and the staff putting together the wedding. Due to the headache this was giving him, he decided that this service would be his wedding gift to his two best friends. He didn’t actually have the time, let alone the money, to buy them an appropriate gift.
He was currently arguing with the head cook and the baker about the wedding feast. They wanted to make it a huge affair, with all the favorite dishes of the King and future Queen. Merlin was arguing that due to the lack of guests- not many nobles or neighboring royalty could attend on such short notice -not that much food was actually needed. After a few more minutes of arguing, they found a happy medium and he was able to finally leave the kitchens.
That was just the latest debacle of his day. He’d already had to listen to the royal gardener complain about his roses and other greenery being pillaged. The man in charge of the wine cellar didn’t believe that he’d had the King’s permission to be there. And the seamstresses whined to him that a day and a half wasn’t enough time to create a wedding dress suitable for the future Queen. Fortunately they’d said nothing to her. At least Gwaine and the other knights hadn’t whined about having to hunt for suitable meat. Sir Leon was taking care of security. Now there was a headache he didn’t want, especially considering Morgana’s unknown status.
He sighed and bent his steps toward Gaius’s chambers. He needed something for his headache and wanted to see how his mentor was faring. Gaius had seemed much better that morning, but was still quite weak.
Merlin opened and closed the door quietly, just in case Gaius was asleep. But as he looked, he saw his mentor sitting up a bit and chatting with Gwen. She looked much different than yesterday—happiness was making her glow. “Hello you two,” he said as they looked over at him.
“Hello, Merlin,” Gwen said, “how are you handling with your extra duties?” She gave him a sparkling smile.
“Oh, um, it’s been . . .” he tried to think of a suitable word, “. . . interesting. But everyone’s cooperating so far and everything should be ready on time.”
“Thank you so much for doing all this! I know what it must be like . . . uh oh, speaking of the time, I’ve got to go to another dress fitting.” She rolled her eyes. “They’re making such a fuss! Please Gaius, get plenty of rest. I want you to be there tomorrow night.”
“Of course, My Lady,” Gaius replied.
“And there’ll be no more of this ‘My Lady’ nonsense out of either of you. Do you hear me?”
“Yes, My Lady,” Merlin smirked.
“Watch it, unless you want to be sent to the stocks. I can do that now,” Gwen looked severe before breaking into a grin.
“Okay, Gwen,” Merlin replied. “I’ll see you later.”
“Goodbye, Merlin, Gaius,” she said, and swept out the door.
“Shewill be a fine Queen,” Gaius commented.
“Yeah,” Merlin replied. “She’s certainly got the ordering around down.”
“Merlin, aren’t you supposed to be off discussing flowers or ribbon with someone?”
“Probably.” He winced. “I came back to get something for the headache I’ve gotten from all the ‘discussing’ I’ve already done.” He walked over to the shelves where various remedies were stored and picked up one that was an unappetizing shade of orange. He pulled off the stopper and downed it quickly. “Eugh,” he commented, and went for some water.
“No one’s giving you a hard time, are they?”
“Nothing I can’t handle.” He took a seat by Gaius and sat for a minute, just thinking.
Gaius was loathe to disturb him, but after Merlin had sat unmoving for several minutes, he decided to try it. “What are you pondering so intently?”
Merlin looked startled, but recovered quickly. “I was just thinking . . . Gaius, do you think Morgana survived?”
“Morgana? Why are you worrying about her? You’ve got this wedding to prepare. Besides, from the way you described her, it doesn’t sound like she stood much of a chance.”
“I know, but it’s weird. She should have been laying there when the dust cleared, but she was gone. I looked all around where she’d fallen and found nothing. No trace of her.”
“Why does it bother you so much?”
“I don’t really know. It shouldn’t, but it does. I just have this funny feeling . . . Never mind. She’s probably lying dead out there, somewhere. And I have a lot to do in here.”
“True. How is your headache?”
“Better. But now I really do have to go see someone about ribbon. Or garlands. Or both.” He sighed. “See you later, Gaius!”
“Good luck, Merlin.”