December 1905, Glastonbury
Freya tried to appear dignified.
Her feet were wet and freezing, because the snow on the road had soaked through the leather of her shoes, and now it was even wicking up the hems of her dress and coat. Everything beneath her knees felt like it might drop off at any moment. The people who passed her on the street gave her various sorts of looks. She imagined that they all wondered what she was doing there, but in actuality they probably did not care. Yule was only a week out, and Christmas a little further, and everyone was busy, attending to their own packages.
A few of the shops on this little street had even seen fit to hang some holly about their doorways, and the baker on the corner had actually tied a twig of mistletoe to the sign above his shop. Everyone who had to be out in this weather bustled along with their shawls and coats pulled close, hurrying to the hearth of home or work. She, too, should join them, should take herself straight back to the orphanage where there would no doubt be a fight to break up and someone's skinned knee to kiss. Little Susanna's cough wasn't going away, either; Freya really ought to pick up her packages and go.
And yet, here she stood. Waiting.
"Mrs. Lake." A tradesman tipped his hat as he passed. She fumbled for his name. He helped fix the orphanage roof last year. Not Donald, the other one. What was it, what was it?
But he was already gone. Freya watched his back as he ambled down the street. He had probably thought her cold, unfriendly.
She huffed, letting out a little cloud of warm air in front of her face, exasperated with herself and with the world. There was absolutely no call to be here. She was going to drop this ridiculous endeavor and go home. She bent her knees and swept up her packages: the fabric for the older girls' dresses, the medicine for Susanna, the paper for classwork, the thread to darn socks. She had it all. It was all there. Nothing missing. Freya was leaving now, really she was.
"Mrs. Lake!" Amos Harding, the town shoemaker, said in surprise at finding her in front of his shop. "My dear lady, have you been here long? You look chilled to the bone!" He pressed thick fingers into his pockets, searching for the key.
"Here, Mr. Harding," came a voice behind him. "Allow me." Elyan, the shoemaker’s apprentice, stepped in front of Amos, holding out the key in a mittened hand and stepping near to Freya in the process. "Mrs. Lake," he greeted her, lowly, dipping his head in the customary little bow he performed whenever he saw her. His round cheeks and nose were tinged pink from the cold, and a tendril of his dark, curly hair had escaped his cap to lie against his forehead. Elyan looked up at her from under his eyelashes and smiled his shy, perfect smile.
A sigh escaped her.
"Unlock the door, boy, hurry; let the lady in," Amos said.
"Of course, of course." They swept her inside and directed her to a chair, which she accepted with relief. Elyan went to restart the fire, and Amos puttered around, remembering belatedly to order Elyan to light the fire that he was already working on. A few hot coals still lingered in the hearth, and the wood caught easily. Freya stretched her toes toward it gratefully, watching the back of Elyan's neck and willing him to look at her.
"Now, Mrs. Lake, how can we help you? Little ones putting more holes in their soles?"
"I-- I wanted to check on the order I put it last week, the four pair for the new children?"
Elyan spoke up. "I'm afraid that's not finished, madam. It will take us another week to do it."
There was a thread loose on his collar; Freya’s fingers twitched to weave it back in with magic. She couldn’t, though. Elyan was not Kin, was not even a little bit magical, and Freya was bound by a centuries-old code of silence. The witch trials and inquisitions in the three centuries before this one had nearly wiped them all out. One did not break such a silence lightly. Still. None of it stopped Freya from fantasizing day in and day out about pressing magic-tender hands against Elyan’s cheeks until he quivered with it.
"Ah. Well, then. I'll be on my way."
"All right." Amos looked mystified. "Good day to you, then."
"And a good day to you, Amos. Elyan."
She gathered up her things and shuffled out the door, pausing for a moment to shake her head in self-disgust. She’d known, of course, that the shoes wouldn’t be ready yet. But she had been walking down this street, and it had been too good to pass up: the chance to see Elyan, however briefly. She rolled her eyes at her own self-indulgence and turned left to shuffle down the street.
Elyan. Ever since Freya had met him, two years back, she had been unable to stay away. He had been a puzzle, at first, a person that Freya stared at and attempted to figure out. Glastonbury was so small, after all, that anyone new was subject to scrutiny, but Elyan was. Well, lovely. And gentlemanly. And seemed to be rather more educated than a shoemaker’s apprentice ought to be. His accent was smooth and elegant—not upper class, exactly—but Freya often wondered if he had not come from a wealthy merchant’s family, someone who could afford to send their children to school for a few years. Perhaps Elyan was the youngest in a large family, and he had had to leave home to make his own way. Freya had a million such theories about Elyan and his mysterious past; it had become something of a hobby of hers, to think up far-fetched stories about his origins.
Freya had also long suspected that Elyan might be…well, might have…a pair of breasts under his shirt. His shoulders weren’t very broad, and he never seemed to grow even a hint of whiskers. Was Elyan a girl, Freya had wondered, dressing up so that she might have the freedom to pursue shoemaking? Was he a boy, with perhaps some medical anomalies? There were all sorts of bodies in the world, Freya knew. But the longer she stared, and the more she came by the shop, the less that particular detail seemed to matter. Elyan was…sunshine. He was kind and beautiful and the highlight of Freya’s day every time she saw him.
She was only halfway down the street when she heard, "Mrs. Lake!"
She whirled around. "Elyan!" He ran up, graceful, strong, holding a pair of shoes.
"I had forgotten— here." He held out the tiny little canvas pair with a significant look. "We had already finished the first pair. I thought perhaps you might like to take them. The child will surely be glad to have them early."
"Yes!" Freya had no control over the smile overtaking her face. "Yes, I believe she will. She's new to us, and her own shoes were nearly worn through. Get soaked through every time she goes outside. These will be the nicest shoes she's ever had." Freya pressed her lips together to stop babbling.
"Well." Elyan smiled back, his bottom lip caught between his teeth, his sloping shoulders pulled back with pride. Freya had originally thought it strange that someone like Elyan would choose to be a codswainer. So many people were buying shoes ready-made, now, even in their own little town, that shoemakers like Amos and Elyan were struggling to get by. But that mystery was quickly solved. Elyan transparently loved what he did. He crafted shoes the way artists sculpted marble.
They stood there, smiling at each other like fools, until Elyan dipped his chin. "I must return to the shop. I'll be hard at work making those other shoes.” He dipped his head again, that little bow of his happening once more. Freya bit her lip and lifted her hand in a silly little wave that she abruptly stopped when she realized what she was doing.
Freya didn’t even turn around before she reached into the little shoe. Her fingers touched something small and loose, and she brought it out slowly, wanting to savor it. It was a flower, this time, painstakingly cut out of leather with blue stitches ringing the edges of the petals. She looked up, and Elyan was looking back over his shoulder at her. When she met his eyes, he ducked his head, smiling, and fled. Freya pressed the flower to her nose, breathed in the leather for a beat before tucking it under the collar of her dress. It fell down between her breasts, a warm, scratchy presence against her chest for the rest of the day.
Freya awoke with a start, and it was Mary, her fellow teacher, bending down to shake her.
“Mrs. Lake, you have to wake. There’s someone at the door. Please.” She was out of breath, and her eyes were wide.
“She says her name is Morgan Le Fay.”
Freya stared, but Mary wasn’t joking.
“Can’t you feel it?” Mary whispered. And all of a sudden, she could. The wards. The wards were humming hot. There was new snow on the ground outside, but the entire house was sweltering. This woman at the door almost certainly was not Morgan Le Fay—couldn’t be, what an absurd name to claim for oneself—but she was undoubtedly powerful. Powerful enough and full of enough ill intent to set off the wards. Only dark magic—recent, potent, and clinging like tar to the spellcaster—could set off the wards like this.
Freya threw off the bedclothes and dressed as efficiently as possible, leaving off a corset in lieu of her most well-fitted dress. Her mind raced, and she gave orders as soon as she thought of them.
“Wake up the children: oldest first, tell them to help you get the little ones up. Everybody needs to be clothed and ready to evacuate through the tunnels in the next quarter hour. I won’t be able to hold off whomever it is for longer than that, if they mean us ill. Wait for my signal; I’ll send up—wait, no, just go ahead and get everyone in the first stretch of the tunnel, and wait for the wards. If they get suddenly hotter at any point, you’re all to run. Tell the Council what happened—” Freya nearly tripped over the hem of her skirt hurrying down the steps, but Mary caught her arm as they reached the landing of the second floor.
“I’ll take care of it, just you be careful.”
Freya nodded. “Hurry.” Mary turned down the hallway to wake up the eldest children, and Freya hurried down the rest of the stairs.
She faltered when she came to the door. Freya could see her: the blurry outline of a woman with a tall, feathered hat through the window next to the door. She closed her eyes briefly, tapped a protection spell against her belly, breathed in her awareness of the elements. Be aware, be aware, her uncle always said. You do not need great facility with battle magicks if you are aware. There were great piles of snow on the ground tonight, and she could feel every wet inch of it. All right. Open the door, Freya. Open it, be aware, open it, be aware.
Freya opened the door.
The woman in front of her looked like a painting of a Spanish noblewoman. Her skin matched the snow, and her dress was a deep, liquid shade of jewel blue, under a matching, even darker blue coat. She had tufts of shiny black hair that artfully billowed out from under her hat. She looked impossible: rich and exotic and entirely out of place in the sleepy end of Glastonbury.
She looked bored.
Freya found her voice. "My name is Freya Lake, and I am the headmistress of this orphanage. May I ask the purpose of your visit?"
The woman swept her eyes up and down Freya in a measuring look and breathed out a huff of surprise.
"Well of course he did," she muttered, before raising her chin and her voice. "My name is Morgan Le Fay. I am here to see Emrys."
Calling herself ‘Morgan’ was one thing, but this. This was. "Excuse me?" Freya got out, her heart thundering.
"My name," the woman enunciated slowly, "is Morgan Le Fay. Or Morgana Pendragon, if you prefer. I am here to see Emrys. Go find him in whatever corner he’s sulking in and bring him out to face me.”
This woman is insane, Freya thought, even while some part of her wondered if perhaps, perhaps…. It did not matter, though. The wards were hot like fire at Freya's shoulders; this woman could not be anything but dangerous.
"Mrs. Le Fay—if that is your name—you are obviously Kin, so let us be frank with each other.” The woman raised an eyebrow in response to this. “There is no one named Emrys inside this orphanage. But even if there were, I would not bring him out to you, and I would not let you enter into this house. If you attempt to enter by force, you will have to kill me to do it."
The woman smiled, a little red upturn of lips that was anything but friendly. "You don't think I can? You don’t think I can break through these wards without even trying?"
Freya's hands shook, and she pressed them flat against the folds of her dress. "I think you can. But I think I can hold you off for at least a quarter hour." Freya was overwhelmingly, painfully aware of every frozen cup of snow on the ground around her, and the snow—all of it, every crystal from here to the center of town—was aware of Freya. If she called it, the snow would come. She was sure of this. "I think I can hurt you badly. And by the time you get past me, everyone in this orphanage will be gone, and every able adult sorcerer in Glastonbury will be on their way to this spot."
This speech only made the woman's little smile break into a full-on grin. Strangely enough, it looked entirely genuine.
"I believe you," the woman said, dipping her chin and making the feathers on her hat flutter in Freya’s direction. "I won't press you, in that case. Just relate a message for me, if you will."
"I told you that there is no Emrys here."
"I think you'll find that there is," she said sweetly. Her easy smile faded then. "Tell him that it's happening. Soon. And tell him that he cannot hide from me forever.”
Freya opened her mouth to protest, but the woman disappeared. The jerk of the magic as it dropped out of the space made Freya’s stomach heave, and she curled over, nearly losing her dinner on the front steps. The amount of power it took to do such a trick was immense. Unimaginable.
“Oh gods,” Freya breathed.
She straightened up, stumbled into the house, slammed the door, and locked it. And then she recast the wards.
She went through the entire first floor, and then the second, and then the third floor, which only contained Mary's and Freya's rooms. The wards were cool now, back to normal, but she didn’t trust them, so she recast them all.
It was impossible. It had to be.
Sure enough, after she carefully peeled back all of the protection spells, she opened the tunnel door to find thirty-three frightened faces.
"Hello everyone. All is well. Come out and into the dining hall, if you please." She accompanied this with a smile and a welcoming flourish of her hand.
But nobody moved.
“What was that magic?” piped a little voice from the back.
“What magic?” Freya asked, looking around and finding Mary’s eyes.
“We felt a great pull, Mrs. Lake,” she explained. “The children were worried you might have been injured.”
“Ah. It was only a spell that our visitor cast to leave for the train station: very clumsily done, I must say. That’s why it felt so strong. But I am well, as you can all see.” Freya smiled sunnily. Mary, to her credit, kept a blank face where the children could see. She knew that Freya would tell her everything later. “Come along, everyone, into the dining hall.”
They all stamped past her, the oldest ones already asking questions--"I'll tell you everything in the dining room"-- and a couple of the smallest ones reaching out to touch her skirt.
She patted the heads of little Galen and Eliza as they passed, and tweaked the ear of Susanna, whose face was hidden in Mary's shoulder.
When she entered the dining room, the last to do so, the mutters had turned into a noisy ruckus.
"LIGHTS!" she called out. It took a moment, but eventually, every child, from three-year-old Susanna to fifteen-year-old Robert, had his or her pointer finger lifted in the air, a twinge of colored light glowing weakly at the tip. There were sea blues, deep reds, yellow-oranges, and other colors, according to the child's choice. It took concentration for some just to keep a white light aglow, and for the older ones, concentration to keep the color steady. It had always served as Freya's favorite means of gaining their attention. At the moment it served the additional purpose of creating a familiar light in the dark dining hall, while Mary began to build a fire.
Freya conjured a few glowing balls of purple light and let them float out toward the rafters so that they were not plunged into darkness once the children lowered their arms.
"All right. Lights down. I will tell you what happened, and why you've been called out of your beds so late at night. After I do, I will answer any questions you still have. But not before." She added this last when Robert waved a hand at her from the back of the room.
"A woman came to the door tonight, activating the wards that alert us to the presence of dark magic. I asked Mary to assemble all of you in the tunnels in case she should prove to be dangerous. Fortunately, she did not attack us nor try to force her way in. She was looking for someone whom she believed to be in the orphanage. I told her the person she sought was not here, and she left. That is all." Freya spoke calmly and slowly, looking about the room so that the children could see that she was not afraid. She would have rather not told them the next part, but once she reported to the Council, it would be all over town anyway.
"She introduced herself as Morgan Le Fay. I have no reason to believe that this woman was truly the High Priestess from our legends. But I intend to report the matter tomorrow to the Council. In the meantime, I believe us all to be perfectly safe and sound. Our protective wards worked exactly as they were meant to. They protected us. And they will go on protecting us. Now. Are there any questions?"
The room erupted. "LIGHTS." The glow went up again, and silence returned, but she could see a couple of children bouncing in their seats, impatient. "Lights down. Put your light back up if you have a question."
Freya pointed at the green flicker near the windows. “Robert.”
“Was she a dark witch?”
“Our wards are set to detect the recent use of particular kinds of spells, so yes, she must have done some at some point. She did not use any tonight, however. Jane.” Freya pointed at a white light glimmering over another outstretched hand.
“Is bad things going to happen? Like the seers said?”
Freya couldn’t find it in herself to correct the grammar. Nor for a question like that. “No. No, I do not believe so.”
The seers had been producing never-ending awful prophecies for the past five years. War. Death. Sickness. The convergence of magicks. There was a new one every week. Kinsfolk exchanged the prophecies in hushed whispers in the market, and helped each other cast protective wards on their houses and lands and livestock.
Freya answered questions for another half an hour, but they were all basically the same question. Are bad things going to happen? No, Freya lied, over and over again.
Freya arrived early in the Council room, hoping to get her report put high on the agenda so that she would not have to wait through hours of proceedings. The chairs were already arranged as per usual around the long room, forming a distended oval. There was a chair for every adult sorcerer in Glastonbury, brought from his or her own house, chairs in all shapes and sizes and ages, from little stools to upholstered armchairs to gilded, high-backed thrones. Home ground was important, when sorcerers came together, and everyone brought their own chairs to ensure that they each had some small piece of home with them. Young Robert would get to bring his own chair next year, when he turned sixteen. Freya had found him a sturdy oak chair that had formerly belonged to a dining set several years ago, and he’d been sitting on it ever since, making it his own.
At the far end of the long hall were displayed some historical chairs which supposedly belonged to great sorcerers of old. Freya did not believe all of the stories attributed to these chairs. (Shakespeare was not Kin, thank you, but even if he was, Freya could not see how the Glastonbury Council could have got hold of his chair.) But some of the other chairs spoke for themselves, radiating warm, ancient power that echoed after ancient high priestesses and seers. A couple of the chairs were so raw with old, hot magic that no one could even get close enough to dust them. All these chairs stood on a dais at one end of the room, serving, perhaps indecorously, as a source of heat for the cold, airy room.
Freya’s own chair was a little wooden thing with fraying green fabric on the seat and a spindle back. It was something only fit for a schoolteacher’s writing desk, but it was hers, and like most sorcerers, she felt a strong attachment to it.
Kinsfolk were drifting in slowly for the meeting, finding their chairs and conducting low conversations that echoed off the walls. Freya made a beeline for the Secretary, seated near the warmth of the old chairs. He didn’t even blink when Freya reported that she had an emergency and needed a chance to speak.
“Certainly, certainly,” he said serenely, taking up his pen to add her name in swirling letters to the written agenda. “An emergency, how exciting. And how are you doing today, Mrs. Lake? Otherwise well, I hope.”
“Yes.” The man was completely impenetrable. If Freya had run up to him stark naked and screaming, he’d have probably said, And how are you doing today, Mrs. Lake? Not too cold, are you?
“And your uncle, I hope he’s well. Will we be seeing him today in Council?”
Freya managed not to roll her eyes. “No,” she said shortly. Her uncle had never attended a single Council meeting; he didn’t even have a chair here. She’d asked him about it once, and he had said that he had a terrible tendency to laugh anytime one of the Council Leaders spoke.
Freya always frowned when he said such things, but he wasn’t wrong. Council meetings were generally exercises in patience.
Freya suddenly spied Ann, their wizened and world-weary local priestess, walk out into the center of the room, and Freya joined everyone else in finding their chairs. She dropped into her chair just as Ann lifted her hands and started the blessing: a lengthy entreaty to the triple-goddess and their assorted brethren that they bless this gathering and its Leaders. Ann, who in addition to being their priestess was also a seamstress, was a very practical person and had once suggested they shorten the blessing to a few brief words. The Leaders had been scandalized, of course, so Ann had just shrugged and gone back to the quarter-hour version of the blessing. It always made Freya feel sleepy, listening to Ann’s warm voice intoning the familiar lilts and hisses of the Old Tongue.
The Leaders looked on with paternal solemnity. They were a group of ten men who really ought to be indistinguishable from one other based on how similarly they all dressed and behaved, except that everyone here had known them forever. Freya had arrived in Glastonbury more recently, though, and always had to think twice before addressing one of them, lest she call one by the wrong name.
“I see we have a matter of some urgency to begin with today.” Freya startled, realizing the Leaders had moved on to business. The one who had spoken scanned the room for her. “Mrs. Lake?”
Freya stood and breathed in deep when several heads turned her way. “Last night, the wards at the orphanage were activated. We nearly had to evacuate the children.” And now she had everyone’s attention, all of the Leaders sitting up straight, ready to do their sacred duty. Protect the women and children, by the gods. One would never know that the Druids had once been matriarchal.
“You were attacked?” asked one of the Leaders.
“No. A woman came to the door; her mere presence activated the wards. I arranged for the children to wait in the tunnel, just in case. I spoke to her.” Freya did not want to tell them the rest, because they were almost sure to overreact, but it was important that the seers had all the facts. “She claimed that her name was Morgan Le Fay. She believed that we were harboring someone named ‘Emrys’ in the orphanage and asked me to bring him out. I told her I did not know such a person. Then she left.”
There was a momentary silence while everyone took this in before several Leaders took to speaking at once. It annoyed Freya deeply that she could not yell “Lights!” at them. They questioned her about everything the woman had said and did, and Freya was forced even to describe what she had been wearing.
There ensued at least two separate debates: one about whether this was indeed Morgan Le Fay, something Freya believed they had no way of knowing, and one about what this portended, which they also had no way of knowing. Most of the Kinspeople assembled looked appropriately frightened. Ann looked at her skeptically, as if disappointed that Freya would bring such an outlandish story for the men to fixate on.
“This is indeed a grave sign of things to come,” announced the oldest of the seers.
“Magic is out of balance!” shouted another.
“I have said that such things would come to pass,” replied the first seer imperiously.
“You have not!” A laborer retorted. “You only said ‘great powers would interact’; it’s about the vaguest prophecy I ever heard!”
“Have respect for your elders!”
And then there was a good deal of shouting for another half hour.
Eventually, one Leader who had not spoken yet—a reserved old man named Matthew with cunning eyes, a man whom Freya had always respected a good deal more than the others—held up a hand. “You said that you told the lady that you did not know Emrys. Do you?”
“What an absurd question, Matthew,” interrupted a Leader. “As if one of the orphans could be Emrys. I have met all of the youngsters personally, and not a one of them shows that sort of power.”
But Matthew did not look away from Freya. “Mrs. Lake, if you would answer my question.”
Freya’s heart beat fast. “No,” she says. “No, I do not know Emrys.”
The other Leaders resumed their argument, but Matthew held Freya’s gaze for a long moment before looking away. Freya nearly slumped in relief and held onto the edges of her little chair while the Leaders carried on the debate until mid-afternoon.
“Your uncle is here, Mrs. Lake,” Mary said when Freya passed her in the hallway. “He saw to Susanna, cast some kind of spell to heal her cough. He’s up in your sitting room, now.” Mary looked positively adoring as she said this. Susanna was one of Mary’s favorites, Freya knew, and it was wonderful to see someone in good spirits.
But inwardly, she sighed. She had hoped to have a good night’s rest, or at least a cup of tea, before this conversation. She trudged up the stairs.
“Uncle Ambrose,” she greeted him when she opened the door.
He rose with a smile to kiss her cheek. “Freya.” He looked exactly as he always did, with his unfashionably long beard and hair, his cunning blue eyes, his cheeks like apples.
“I hear that you have caused a big ado with the council today,” he said, grinning. “I do hope there was shouting. And some talk of the end times, surely?”
“They were certainly pessimistic.” Freya unwrapped her shawl from her head and unbuttoned her coat, turning her back on him to arrange them near the fire to dry.
“Ha. I’m glad. They’re such pretentious know-it-alls, the lot of them. I hope they all went home in a huff and ended up fainting on their respective parlor floors.”
Freya watched the fire crackle for a moment longer. She didn’t have to turn to know that he was grinning that silly grin of his, hoping to make her laugh. She didn’t turn around, though, and she listened to him shuffle up beside her and waited as he examined her profile in the firelight. At the edge of her vision, she saw him grimace.
“Don’t tell me they’ve infected you with their silly prophecies. I’ve told you, it’s all nonsense.”
“Yes, you’ve always said,” she said with just a little accusation in her voice. She shook her head. “Did you hear about what I told them?”
He shrugged. “Something about a visitor. I came to check on you, and the wards are as strong as always. Couldn’t have been dangerous.”
"I assure you she was. The wards were almost burning hot.”
“Even if they were.” Ambrose waved a hand. “She didn’t seem to mean you any harm. And she left.”
“She left by translocation spell. Right from our front doorstep. She didn’t even encant anything; she just disappeared.” Freya turned to him and stared him in the face, daring him to argue.
Ambrose was beginning to look as grave as Freya felt, even if he seemed more miffed that she was pushing the issue than anything else.
“You are mistaken.”
“I am not,” she spit out. “Uncle, I felt it; it was like all the air rushed out. It was the strongest magic I’ve ever felt. I think there is a chance that she really was Morgan Le Fey.”
Ambrose’ nose wrinkled up in the way it sometimes did when he was annoyed. He sniffed petulantly. But Freya had had enough of this. She remembered the day he came to take her from the orphanage—the very same one in which she now worked—a kind and loving uncle of whom nobody had ever heard.
“No,” she said. “More than a chance. I think it was Morgan Le Fey. And I think you know it. Because I think,” and here she faltered, because this was really something she had never expected to say aloud. And she couldn’t.
“What do you think?” he asked gently. He looked equal parts nervous and soothing, and it only made her angrier that he was trying to make her feel better whilst refusing to tell her anything.
“I think you know more about it than you say.” Freya shook her head sadly. “And I wish you would trust me enough to tell me.”
“Freya! Of course I trust you.” He put an arm around her waist and pulled her in close to kiss her temple. His beard rustled scratchily against her cheek. “But you must also trust me, my dear. I promised I would take care of you. That I would protect you.”
It was not the first time he had said it. Sleep, dearest, he would whisper when she woke up from childhood nightmares, I will protect you. It had always reassured her, knowing he was sitting next to her bed. As feeble as he sometimes seemed, he had always been a giant—a formidable, immovable force—when she was feeling lonely or afraid.
For the first time ever, she found herself wondering what he was protecting her from.
Meanwhile, the seers in Glastonbury kept predicting war. It was not a comforting prediction, and it was making it’s way through the rumor mill. As hard as Freya tried, she could not keep the children from finding out. They were both nervous and energetic, constantly picking fights with each other. And between the seers theories and her own, Freya constantly found herself staring off into space.
Freya was so distracted, in fact, that she did not notice for several minutes when her students left their seats to gather at the windows.
“What on earth are you all doing?”
“There’s summat on fire,” piped Galen, his nose pressed to the glass.
And there was, a great black smoke cloud rising ominously near the edge of town, where the Tor rolled up to a grassy point out of the plain. Freya crossed the room to the windows. Down on the street there were several people come out of their homes to see it. Ann the priestess stood on the corner of the street, arms crossed. A carriage came barreling down the street, a man on top calling out to people. The carriage paused, and several men jumped aboard. Freya recognized a Council Leader or two, as well as multiple other Kinsmen. It paused again at the corner where Ann stood, and a Council Leader jumped down, swept his arm around her, and helped her up in the carriage.
“Are they going to help put out the fire, do you think?” said Robert at her side.
“But why would they take the priestess?”
Why, indeed. Ann had no skill in elemental magics; she could hardly start a fire in her own hearth. What Ann could do, better than anyone in Somerset, was communicate: with spirits, with magical creatures, with those beyond the veil of the worlds. That was why Ann was here, where the great hill of the Tor held one of the only entrances to Avalon in Britain, as opposed to some bigger city with a larger number of Kinsfolk. She was adept at understanding the complex dynamics when different magical entities came together. It did not bear contemplating, why they would need Ann for something as simple as a barn fire.
“Perhaps one of the cows has died, and they want her to bless it.”
Robert raised skeptical eyebrows at her, and Freya clapped her hands.
“Everyone back to work. I’m sure they will have the fire well under control in no time.”
“I’m going to find out what’s happened,” she told Mary while pulling on her gloves.
“Do we really want to know?” Mary asked wearily. Freya shrugged, inelegant, and squeezed Mary’s shoulder in passing.
“I’ll be back soon.”
Ann lived only a few doors down from the orphanage. Freya walked quickly, her shoes crunching snow, and knocked on the door.
Freya pushed inside. Ann’s little house was small and warm; the hearth seemed to take up half the room and cast an orange glow on the sewing machine, the rows of bobbins, and bolts of fabric. Ann herself had what looked to be a shirt turned inside out, seams exposed to the rhythmic beat of the sewing machine’s needle.
“Oh, it’s you,” said Ann, not looking up from the line of stitches. “Suppose you’re here to ask me about the fire?”
“Yes.” Ann didn’t respond, and Freya cast around for something else to say. “I wanted to find out what happened…to reassure the children.”
Ann snorted. “I don’t have any reassuring stories to tell you, I’m afraid.” She looked up at Freya, and her face softened. The steady movement of the sewing machine ceased. “I feel I should apologize for not believing you, about the woman who said she was Morgan le Fay.”
Freya took an involuntary step forward, heart beating fast. “Did you see her?”
“No. But I saw….” Ann’s hands stilled on the fabric. She closed her eyes briefly, as if in memory, and then shook her head. “The fire. It was not magic that caused the fire, not directly. I think perhaps the force of the magic knocked over a lantern, and that’s what started the fire. But the magic itself? It was…a hole, you might say. A spot where the world was being undone.”
“I don’t understand.”
Ann smoothed her hands over the fabric in front of her. Her mouth quirked. “If the world was a shirtfront, then the gods were unbuttoning it. There was a hole. A place where the world ought to be joined but was not. It was tearing up both the land and air themselves.”
“Yes. Yes, it was.” Ann’s mouth settled back into a frown, and she cocked her head, thinking. “It was as if all the magics had decided they could live with each other no more, as if the powers have been slipping out of balance for a long while. I fear that it is becoming dangerous for all of us, living so near the Tor.”
“Ought we to evacuate?”
“I do not think so. If we all left, there would be no one to control these…spasms, or whatever you want to call them. It has happened before, you know.” Ann gestured at the street. “Remember when James’ anvil cracked last year, and we all said it was little Hannah, playing about with movement spells? I never believed it. I sent a letter to the Disir, a few months ago, but they have not written back. I do not know what to do.”
Ann placed her foot back on the pedal and started up her sewing machine again. Freya watched her finish up a seam and detach it deftly from the needle. She trimmed the thread and folded it into a neat little rectangle. The fire lit it a dull orange color, and Freya could not tell what color it would be in daylight.
“The Leaders are saying that the gods are against us, but that is not it,” Ann said finally. “I think the gods are frustrated. I think something was meant to happen that has not happened yet. I told the men so, earlier today, and of course all the seers and Council Leaders are off declaring that this or that is the reason for our troubles. But I do not know. I really do not.”
They sat in silence for a moment.
“Thank you, Ann,” Freya said for lack of anything better to say. She rose and adjusted her gloves.
“What are you going to tell the children?” Ann asked when Freya reached for the doorknob.
“I am going to tell them to be aware.”
That made Ann smile, and she nodded approvingly. Freya stepped out into the cold.
Friday brought with it another foray into town for supplies and the opportunity to stop in at the shoemaker’s to pick up the other three pair of children’s shoes.
Elyan was alone in the shop that day. They smiled nervously at each other, but Freya could think of nothing to say to him, no stories to tell, no questions to ask. If was as if she had left her entire head out in the cold, and she was nothing but the shivering, empty body of a woman standing in the shoemaker’s.
“Are you well today?” he asked as he handed over the shoes. It sounded so different than when the Secretary had asked. Elyan’s eyes searched her face, looking for the answer.
“Yes,” she said, half-smiling at him. And then they stared at one another for a beat, and as much as Freya wanted to stay and lay down all her cares at Elyan’s feet, she couldn’t.
So she left. She bid him a nervous goodnight and fled. She strode halfway down the block before she paused to stamp her foot, throw back her head, and sigh at the sky. What a ridiculous mess. Of all the people in the world, why did she have to go and fall in love with Elyan? Kinsfolk married outside the Kin all the time; they’d have died out if they hadn’t, but that didn’t mean it was easy. Or accepted. She could only imagine the uproar amongst the Leaders if she were to be publicly courted by Elyan.
She fumbled with the shoes in her hands and searched the insides of each pair. There was another little token in the smallest pair, an exquisitely woven bracelet of leather. She looked at it in the faint moonlight, fitted snugly in her palm, and she wanted, so badly, something better than this endless stretch of the unknown. There was too much in Freya’s life that was comprised of questions.
Freya turned on her heel and walked back to the shop. Elyan could be seen through the front window, working away by lamplight.
She knocked. His face when he opened the door was confused, and pleasantly surprised, and so, so very dear. He waved her in again with a “Did you forget something?”
Freya had no plan whatsoever. They were of a height, and looking straight into Elyan’s concerned eyes did nothing to help her think of one. There was no telling what sort of desperate expression was on Freya’s face.
“I have never been married” was what came out of her mouth.
“What?” Elyan said, not shocked, but at a loss.
“I have never been married,” she repeated. “I was brought up in the Glastonbury Orphanage, until the age of nine, and my surname while I was there was Goodwin. My uncle came and took me away to be raised in Bath, and he changed my name to Lake. There was no reason for it, really. He just said it was more fitting. And when I came back to Glastonbury, to work at the orphanage, I called myself Mrs. Lake instead of Miss Lake, because no one would ever treat me with the same respect, if I were unmarried. Unmarried women are always subjected to so much more scrutiny and unreasonable expectations than are married women…and widows. So I always wore blacks and greys, and whenever anyone asked about the late Mr. Lake, I always affected a depressed expression, and they would ask no more.”
Elyan had taken on a guarded expression, and Freya searched for the words to make herself clear. “So you see…” She gestured, uselessly. “So you see, Elyan, I know why a…person might lie about her, or his name. I understand, or at least, I do not…”
Elyan’s eyes narrowed, and his jaw set, but Freya could not be deterred.
“Elyan, I do not care who you are according to other people. I only know that I have admired you for a very long time.”
Elyan’s shoulders drooped, and his chin dropped to his chest momentarily.
“I admire you, too,” he said, voice soft.
Freya nearly laughed aloud. It was strange, how different it was, to hear the words out loud, even when she had already known it. A pleased little noise escaped her, and Elyan looked up, eyes catching on her face, and smiled. He took an aborted step forward, but then paused, his fists clenching at his sides. He looked away.
“My name is Gwen,” he said eventually. “I took my brother’s name when I moved here. I wanted to make things, with my hands, and I could not do that when I was…named Gwen.”
When I was a girl, is what Freya heard, but she didn’t care, didn’t care, didn’t care. She nodded eagerly, trying to telegraph her acceptance. “Gwen,” she repeated, trying out the name on her tongue. She liked it.
“It’s a pretty name. But I would call you the name that makes you happiest.”
His face twisted against some emotion. “I like Gwen. I would like you to call me that, when we are alone, at least.”
“Yes. I will, then.”
The corners of Gwen’s mouth turned up humorlessly. “It can be odd, to be called your own brother’s name. Especially by someone that one…likes.”
“I will call you Gwen,” Freya assured him. His whole body was curled into a forlorn shape, though, and Freya didn’t know what to say, to explain her feelings. But she did feel bold, almost rash. “Gwen. I’ve wanted to know you better for a long time. I’ve all the little tokens you gave me lined up on my writing desk. I think of you everyday.”
Gwen’s eyes snapped to her, hopeful but still wary. “But you understand what I am telling you, don’t you? I’m….” Gwen appeared to cast around for words. “I’m a woman. Well. I’m a woman who… I don’t just wear these clothes in order to hide. I like them. I am a woman, but I am also…inside me, I fell that I am partly a man. I am not normal, Mrs. Lake.”
“Freya,” she corrected immediately. Freya wanted to hear him—or her—call her by name. She wanted to hear Gwen call her by name.
“Freya,” Gwen echoed with a little smile. Freya loved the way he pronounced it: soft, affectionate.
“I don’t care about what is normal,” Freya said. The gods knew that Freya wasn’t. She still had no idea whether or when she would be able to tell Gwen about the magic, and some small part of her froze with the fear that Gwen might call her a heathen or a heretic, but the greater part of her pushed that worry away. “I care about you.”
Gwen shook her head. “I never dared hope that you would still…when you knew the truth.”
Freya couldn’t help herself, she took three steps forward to arrive toe-to-toe with Gwen. “May I—”
But her question was cut off by Gwen’s fervent “yes” and the press of Gwen’s lips against her mouth. The kiss was warm and soft and despite that, electrifying, like a bolt of current down Freya’s spine. She lifted her hands to grip at Gwen’s arms, and Gwen responded by twining her own arms round Freya’s middle.
Their noses bumped. Freya apologized embarrassedly, but Gwen only laughed, and they resettled themselves, pressing their lips together into sweet, chaste kisses. At some point, Freya’s mouth slipped open, her tongue accidentally brushing against Gwen’s lower lip, and Gwen let out a rough little moan into Freya’s mouth.
Freya stilled and pulled back to inhale.
“Am I being too forward?” Gwen asked quietly. Gwen’s palm fit warm and flat against her lower back, and Freya wanted it to stay there forever.
“No. No.” Freya bit her lip. “Maybe we are being too forward together. I don’t know.” She laughed again, full of exhilarating nervous energy.
Gwen’s lips quirked. “Why don’t we sit next to the fire, then?”
So they did. Gwen directed Freya into the only chair and pulled up a stool next to it. Freya fiddled with her skirt while Gwen reached for the poker and stoked the fire briefly. When he’d finished, he put it back in its place, and they both gazed at each other in bashful silence.
“So…if you had your own way, to be known as you wished…”
“Are we constructing ideal worlds here?” Gwen asked, a bit sardonic. The firelight cast strange shadows over Gwen’s face, and Freya wondered if she was imagining the sudden bitterness she glimpsed there.
“Yes.” Freya shrugged awkwardly. “I think I would be known as Miss Lake, and not lie to anybody…about anything. And no one would offer to find me a husband, and no one would doubt my ability to run an orphanage on my own.” Freya felt not a little two-faced, talking about honesty when she was withholding something so fundamental about herself, but when Gwen’s cheeks tucked back into a small smile, she could not bring herself to regret it.
“Perhaps in this ideal world, I could be your friend. I could be Gwen Smith, a woman who wears trousers and vests. A woman who is in-between. And I could be a renowned codswainer, and people would come from miles around to have expensive, experimental shoes made.”
“That sounds lovely.”
“Do you think so?” Gwen’s eyes were focused on his—or her—hands, fingers threading together over trouser fabric.
Freya chanced a question: “What would you have me…. I mean, not that I would discuss our affairs with other people, I only meant—. What would you like me to call you?”
Gwen looked confused. “I told you my name is Gwen.”
Freya felt like a fool; she had no idea how to ask this question. “Yes! Yes, of course, I just. I’ve been thinking of you in my mind as a boy, so I would think, ‘thank goodness I get to see Elyan today; he’s always so kind when I’m having a bad day.’” Freya paused to blush from that unintended bit of honesty, and Gwen’s lips twitched in amusement. “I was just wondering…how you would like me to…” She trailed off.
“Oh,” Gwen whispered. “Well, I suppose you could think of me as a girl in boy’s clothes. That’s how I think of myself. As a woman, only…different.” She smiled down at her lap, but she still would not look up at Freya, no doubt remembering of all the obstacles that stood between them.
“Perhaps we could be more than friends, in this ideal world,” Freya whispered back, a tinge of desperation edging into her voice.
Gwen looked up at her from underneath her short, curly fringe. “Perhaps.” She looked…apologetic, and Freya could not bear it, that defeated sag to Gwen’s shoulders. She jerked, reaching out to take Gwen’s hand in hers. Gwen squeezed her hand, and they sat there, silent, for several long moments.
Eventually, Gwen started to tell a long story about Amos and a pair of shoes that he could never get right. She related how she had finished the shoes herself, leaving them out for Amos to find, and convincing him that he had finished them himself in a bout of productive drunkenness. Freya knew that she was being distracted, comforted even, because she had used the same tactic many times with the children. But Gwen was an entertaining storyteller, her eyes lighting up as her hands moved, and Freya couldn’t help but laugh, when Gwen mimicked Amos’ heavy drawl and expansive hand movements.
Freya could feel herself growing more and more protective as Gwen spoke. What if something happened to Gwen? What if one of these destructive holes should crop up in the middle of the shoemaker’s workshop? As the fire in the hearth began to settle down into embers and Gwen’s story came to a close, Freya made a decision.
“Listen. There are…” Freya paused, trying to find the words. “You know the mill that burned down yesterday?”
“It was not an accident. There are things going on, in Glastonbury. Dangerous things.”
“What is it?” Gwen asked, sitting up straight and her eyebrows pulling down into a point.
“I cannot tell you. Or I should not. I only tell you so that you will be careful. Stay near the shop. Don’t speak to strangers. Be aware. Or wary. Be wary.”
Gwen shook her head. “Why can you not tell me? Has someone threatened you?” Gwen didn’t look scared at all, but ready, ready to take up her hammer and leather knife and defend Freya to the death. It made Freya smile despite herself.
“No. You must trust me, for a little while. I will tell you, eventually, I swear.” And she would. She knew it now. Once she found the words…
Gwen regarded her in the flickering light. “I do trust you.” She worried her bottom lip, clearly frustrated by Freya’s reticence. “Will you come see me tomorrow, then? So that I know you’re safe.”
“I cannot tomorrow, but perhaps the day after? I’ll try. I promise.”
Gwen squeezed her hand in response, the hand that Freya had forgotten was still clutched in Gwen’s, and she could hear the echo of her uncle in her own promise. I promise I will take care of you. I will protect you. She understood, now. It wasn’t something they said about about a specific threat. It was all threats. Anything and everything.
They parted, reluctantly. Gwen kissed her goodnight at the door—a short, exhilarating touch of lips—and Freya floated all the way back to the orphanage.
Jane's little voice penetrated Freya's good mood. "He's casting spells at me!"
"Eric, is that true?" Mary replied.
"No! I haven't done anything! She's making things up!"
"He's making my plate move!"
"No, I'm not!"
"See, look! It's moving!"
"Eric, stand up." Mary's voice was cold, urgent. "Everyone back away from the table."
Freya stood up. "Mary?"
Freya stumbled up and hurried down the line of long tables. Everyone had shushed now, the children at the other tables standing up on the benches and craning their necks to see. It wasn’t just Jane's plate. It was the table itself. It was...twisting, humming, as if it were shivering in the cold.
"I'm not doing that, I swear," Eric whispered.
The wood started to splinter, creaking against itself, but it was hard to see because the air seemed smokier all of a sudden. Freya cast a worried eye at the fireplace, but elsewhere in the room, the air was clear. She looked back at the table. Now that she was looking for it, it was obvious. It was not just the table that was twisting; it was the air above it. The sides of the table seemed to stretch and fold upwards, and the table legs on the far sides came up off the floor.
"Everyone out," Freya ordered. "Everyone out onto the street. Go."
It took a full minute to get all of the children mobilized and moving out the door; so many of them were transfixed by the twisting, creaking table.
Mary appeared at Freya’s shoulder. "Freya?"
"Go with the children. Send up the alert on the way out." The creaking of the wood was sharp and loud; it was going to break any second.
Mary's brow furrowed rebelliously, but she went, gathering up Susanna into her arms and herding the last of the children out the door.
Crack. One side of the giant table broke off, shards of wood flying into the air, but the majority of the broken piece floated, ludicrously, in the air. The rest of the table bent strangely, impossibly, around the smoky thatch of air in the center: a sinking swirl into which the rest of the room was drawn.
If the world was a shirtfront, the gods were unbuttoning it.
Freya wished fervently that she had asked Ann what had stopped the spasm at the mill. Could she just wait it out? Make sure it didn't knock over any lamps? As soon as she had that thought, she recited a spell to extinguish the fire and all the lamps, plunging the room into darkness. The moonlight at the windows was bright, though, and so Freya not only heard but saw when the rafters over the circling air gave a great, wooden sigh and split.
Before she had even paused to think about what she was doing and whether it was a good idea, she reached straight up with both hands and shouted a spell to knit the the ceiling back together. There was no bloody way this thing was going to take apart her children's home.
It hurt. It hurt like hell actually. It felt like she'd tried to yank an iron out of the fire with her bare hands.
"Ah--" She almost screamed but in the next second it felt like all the air was knocked out of her.
Freya's back hit the floor. Distantly, she heard someone shouting, heard the rafters creaking, the air howling, but all Freya could focus on was her straining lungs and the air that just wouldn’t come. She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t breathe.
BANG. Somewhere worryingly near her head, the table hit the floor again, and all of the roaring wind sounds dropped away. Freya’s lungs burned and contracted in her chest, and she would have screamed for the pain of it if she could get any air. As such, she didn’t hear the footsteps approaching her, didn’t even know there was someone else in the room until a hand came down hard on her breastbone.
“Breathe,” someone hissed in the Old Tongue. The reaction was automatic; air rushed down Freya’s throat as if the magic itself was pushing it down. Maybe it was. Freya swallowed down breath after breath of cold, burning air, choking and coughing on it for a long, painful minute.
The woman who had called herself Morgan le Fey looked down at her seriously, her hand still pressed to Freya’s chest.
“Is it gone?” Freya managed to gasp.
“I’ve rebalanced the magics for now, but it will not hold forever.”
Freya struggled up to her elbows, and then to a sitting position, catching herself against a bench when her vision swam. She looked around. The table was split into three large pieces and innumerable sharp splinters of varying sizes. There was a piece next to Freya’s thigh as long as her arm. Gods. She might have died.
“Thank you,” she said, still panting. She fumbled for what to call her, this woman who may or may not be a legendary sorceress. “It’s…Mrs. Le Fay, isn’t it?”
The woman smiled tightly at her. “Morgana. We might as well get to know each other.” She held out a hand, which Freya took, and heaved her up and onto her feet. “Come,” she said, supporting Freya’s elbow and leading her toward the door.
“Is it safe for us all to sleep here tonight?” Freya wondered out loud. Perhaps they really ought to evacuate, as she had suggested to Ann.
“Yes, it's safe.”
Freya looked sharply at her. “You’re sure?”
“I’m sure.” They navigated around a large piece of the table. Morgana regarded her out of the corner of her eye. “I think it’s time you take me to him.”
Freya could only nod. There was absolutely no use pretending that she didn’t know whom Morgana meant.
They were just opening the front door when Uncle Ambrose came running up, taking the steps two at a time in a way a man his age really oughtn’t be able to do.
“Freya!” But he stopped in his tracks, halfway up the stairs, when Morgana emerged at Freya’s side.
His jaw clenched, and he looked at Freya, at Morgana, and up at the house.
“You closed up the hole,” he said to Morgana.
“Yes,” she said silkily. “With a little help. Freya here managed to get it half-closed before it knocked her back. What’s the matter, Merlin, were you asleep? Did you not feel the magics undoing themselves in your darling girl’s own house?”
Morgana stepped forward, and with Ambrose several steps down, they were eye to eye. “If I had not felt it and come myself, she could be dead, torn apart by the results of your own folly. The Lady of the Lake could be dead, Merlin, and it would be your fault. There is only so much longer that I can wait on you.”
Freya could hear the children’s voices and the shouts of adults from further down the street. The Leaders would soon be here, along with the seers and Ann to inspect the damage.
“Perhaps we should have this conversation somewhere less public?” Freya said. She wanted answers desperately, but she would not get them with other Kinsfolk around.
“There is no need,” Morgana said, and side-stepped Ambrose to amble down the stairs. “He knows exactly what he must do. See if you can’t knock some sense into him, Freya dear.”
She disappeared around the corner just as the first Leader ran up to the house.
“Mrs. Lake! Anyone injured?”
“No, no,” she managed, not taking her eyes off of Ambrose lest he disappear. He was not going anywhere. He was going to explain everything. Tonight. “We only had a broken table before it closed itself back up. It’s in the dining room; you can go see.”
Freya stayed rooted to the spot as other Leaders streamed past her, tried to question her. She refused to speak, though, just stared steadily at her Uncle Ambrose. He stared back, still two steps down from her, with one hand on the railing. Merlin. Emrys. The man who’d raised her, kissed her scrapes and read her bedtimes stories. She’d known, in her heart of hearts, that he was…something, but it was different, hearing him called so by the highest priestess of them all.
“Mrs. Lake is in shock,” one of the Leaders pronounced. “My dear lady, let us take you inside. We’ll see that the children are taken care of.”
“She’s fine,” said Ann, appearing at Freya’s side. She cast a discerning gaze at both Ambrose and Freya. “Mrs. Lake is quite well, I assure you. Her uncle will see that she’s taken care of.”
The Leader looked skeptically over at Ambrose, who had not bothered to retake his habitual hunched stance. His hair and beard were flapping in the wind, making him look a little wild.
Freya was forced to speak up, eventually, when the Leaders attempted to declare the orphanage unsafe, wanting to send the children to magical households all over Glastonbury. Freya put her foot down, though, and Ambrose—or Merlin, or whoever the hell he was—supported her. Ann backed them up, and soon the children were crowding back up the stairs, talking loudly, one or two sniffling for fear.
With the help of Ambrose and Mary, Freya put them all to bed, leaving the lamps to burn overnight. They could spare the oil for one night, if it the children feel safer. When she was sure every child was in bed, and when Galen was at last persuaded to let go of her hand, Freya cast a pointed look at Ambrose across the room and headed upstairs to her room, Ambrose following close behind.
“Sorry,” Ambrose said behind her. “Didn’t mean to startle you.”
Her mind clicked when it hit one detail.
She turned around. “No. Ambrose. Short for Ambrosius. It means “immortal” in Latin. How could I have—” She shook her head at her own miserable blindness.
“One does get attached to one’s own name,” Ambrose said ruefully.
“But not attached enough to tell me.”
“No. Just stop. I will ask questions, and you will answer.”
“You are Merlin. Emrys. The Father of British Magic.”
He scowled. “I hate it when they call me that. Magic existed long before…,” but he trailed off when he took in her expression. “Yes. Yes I am.”
“And you’ve been alive this entire time. Since the time of King Arthur.”
“Which makes you more than a thousand years old.”
Freya breathed in and out. “I’ve always known…I’ve always known you were different, that you were not exactly who you seemed, but this…”
“Really?” He sounded surprised, absurdly. But Freya did not have time for this. She moved on to the next matter.
“That woman—she really is Morgan le Fay?”
“Yes. I know her as Morgana.”
“Morgana, then. She said you knew what you needed to do. What did she mean?”
Ambrose regarded his own feet for a long moment before shuffling stiffly over to his customary armchair and sitting down in it. Freya nearly repeated the question when he spoke up.
“I can fix it, the imbalance in the magics.”
“The holes that are appearing everywhere.”
Freya gaped. She lifted empty, desperate hands. “Then why—”
“The balance of magic in the world, or at least in Albion, has always been tied to Arthur Pendragon. And to me, consequently. We…we are the balance of magic in Albion. That’s us. That’s our…” His mouth opened and closed on a shape or two, searching for the right word, and ultimately grimacing. “…purpose. Altering the balance of magic necessarily affects Arthur. And me. If I fix the balance, I might bring him back out of Avalon, into the world.”
“And what, is that bad? I thought he was a good man.”
“He is. Was. He was the best man I ever knew.” Ambrose’s mouth set into an unhappy line, partially obscured by his whiskers.
“But it might also keep him in Avalon. I could be sending him back there for another thousand years, or forever, and I have no way of controlling that. And I…”
He looked up into her eyes.
“Freya, I do not know if I could bear that.” He breathed open-mouthed, slumped in his chair, hands flexing on the armrests. He looked…frightened, and it scared Freya, sent a chill up her back. She had never, not once in her life, seen him look afraid before.
“But I know now that I do not have a choice,” he said. He set his jaw, and a measure of sympathy crept in on her. Freya almost went over to him, but the memory of Jane and Eric arguing over that moving plate—reaching little hands out over the table that would soon fling splinters everywhere—curbed the desire. She felt weary, all over, too tired to be properly angry any more, but too stubborn to comfort him.
These warring feelings must have been apparent on her face, because she heard Ambrose whisper, “I’m sorry. I am so, so sorry, dear one.”
“Uncle, I…,” she paused, feeling bewildered. “I don’t even know what to call you. What do you want me to call you?”
“I want you to call me ‘Uncle,’” he said quietly, despairing.
“I don’t have an uncle,” she retorted, and he flinched. “You and I both have always known that. I know we’ve joked about that. I know you always meant me to believe you were just a kind old man who wanted to help me and give me a home.” Ambrose opened his mouth.
“And,” she rushed to add, “obviously that’s partly true. I’ve never doubted your care for me. But you—” She grit her teeth. “What name do you want to be known by?”
His eyes were sad. “My mother named me Merlin,” he offered. “I tend to prefer that name.”
“Merlin, then. I will call you that.” The similarity to her conversation with Gwen just a few hours ago struck her, and she sighed out a little laugh at the strangeness of it all.
She sank into her chair and let her head hang down. It felt good to stretch her neck; her back was fully sore, where she had hit the ground. She would probably sleep on her stomach tonight. She looked back up at Ambrose. Merlin. “I’ve always known you were different.”
“How did you know?” he asked quietly, curiously.
She shook her head, at a loss to describe how she knew this, how she’s known it for years without really articulating it to herself. “You would stand up straight sometimes like you forgot that you were old. And you’ve always been interested in old-fashioned, archaic things. I know you’d say you were just eccentric—and I think perhaps you are—but you also…You sometimes forgot about the limits of magic. You talked about summoning rain once in a dry part of the summer, and I laughed because I thought it was a joke, and then you pretended it was a joke, but it wasn’t. You were perfectly serious, you had just forgotten that there is no one alive who can change the weather.”
But she was on a roll. “You conjured me strawberries once, do you remember? I was six years old, and it was my birthday, and you opened up your hands, and there were just strawberries there, out of nowhere. I mentioned it years later, to a friend, wishing that someone would conjure me some berries, and she laughed at me. Even if someone could create the form of a berry, she said, it wouldn’t be edible. Fruit come from plants, and plants are living things. One cannot make life out of nothing, she said. But I remember those strawberries, the way they tasted. They were sweet and ripe like at the height of summer.”
Merlin breathed out an abbreviated laugh and smiled timorously at her. She regarded him for a long moment.
“Would you make me some? Now?”
His little smile spread out into his cheeks, the lines multiplying in his face, and his put his hands together, rubbed them a bit. He inhaled, and she thought he would speak a spell, but instead he only closed and opened his eyes, breathing out as he did so, and his eyes lit, like the flare of a match when it first catches aflame. Freya could feel the magic converge in his hands, even across the room, and it felt like a warm little spark between her shoulder blades.
“Oh,” she said. He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, and opened up his hands. A cluster of deep red wild strawberries were fitted into the hollows of his palms.
Freya could not tear her eyes away. It was one thing to remember it, to carry the memory of a grand paternal feat under the hazy spell of childhood memories. It was another thing to see it done in front of her as an adult, to know who he was, and to understand exactly how impossible it was for him to be cradling berries in his hands.
Freya stood and crossed the room to sink onto the stool near his chair.
“Have some,” he said. She picked the biggest berry from the center of the bunch, tugged off the stem and leaves, and popped it into her mouth. The first bite sent sweet juice rushing against her tongue, and she closed her eyes on a sigh.
Freya ate every single berry in his hands with meticulous care, while Merlin looked on with cautious hope. When she finished the last one, she wiped her stained fingers on the edge of her dress, not caring in the least whether the stains came out in the wash. She looked up again at Merlin and watched him dispose of the stems and leaves into the fireplace. Afterward he noticed a leaf in his beard and set himself to picking it out.
She shifted on the stool, wincing.
“Are you in pain?” he asked suddenly. “I thought you weren’t injured.”
“I’ll be fine.” Probably. Freya just needed to sleep for a while, to lay flat on her back in her bed. She hurt still, all up and down her spine and lingering in her chest whenever she breathed in.
“Why didn’t you—” and then, without even bothering to finish his question, he reached out with both hands and placed them on her ribs. Warm magic flowed through her skin and to her core without even words to direct it. She’d have pushed him away, but it was too much of a relief, all the hurt falling away like it had never been there. Freya’s eyelids drooped on a heavy sigh. When she opened her eyes again, Merlin was staring wistfully at her. She cocked her head at him.
“Morgana called me the Lady of the Lake,” she remembered abruptly.
“Yes,” Merlin shifted uncomfortably. “That is not precisely accurate.”
“Not precisely. How is it even a little accurate?”
“You were the Lady of the Lake. In another life.”
If Freya were staring any harder at him, Ambrose would burst into flame.
“What does that even mean?”
“It means that, over a thousand years ago, during the reign of Uther Pendragon, you were born into the world. You were born to a Druidic family and grew up into the woman who would become known as the Lady of the Lake.” He shrugged jerkily. “And you died, back then. And you lived in Avalon for many years, and then you were born into the world again.”
Freya repeated this slowly to make sure that is actually what he means. “I was born into the world again.”
“Yes. And I found you.” He smiled. “You do not know what I felt, when I saw you playing outside the orphanage. I recognized you immediately. It was like I was given another chance, another chance to take care of you and to give you the life you deserved, the first time around.”
“I thought the Lady of the Lake was your enemy, that she locked you in a tree.”
“Nonsense.” Merlin flapped his hands dismissively. “So much of the legends are manufactured. They took out all the interesting parts and replaced them with violence and scandal.”
“Then what was she actually like?”
“She was like you. Brave. Kind.” The corners of his mouth quirked up. “Slow to trust. She lived a very hard life. And once she was in Avalon…she did nothing but help me. The bit in the legends about the Lady lifting the sword out of the water? That part is true. And she came to get Arthur from me, when he was dying. She took him to Avalon.” He breathed hard. “I was glad, that it was her. That there was someone like her, taking care of Arthur.”
His voice was rough, hollow when he spoke this, as if something painful were caught in his throat. Freya did not ask him whether he had been in love with her, as so many of the legends said. Or in love with Arthur. “In love” seemed too small a phrase to describe someone who’d waited a thousand years. But still.
“You did not suspect that something was amiss? When the person who was supposed to be taking care of King Arthur was suddenly out in the world again?” Freya’s tone was perhaps accusatory, but it seemed she had hit the nail upon the head when Merlin ducked his chin in response.
“I tried not to think on it,” he said shortly.
They sat there for a long, tense moment, the fire crackling next to them. Abruptly Merlin stood. “It is late, and you need your rest. I will come back tomorrow, and we will continue this discussion then.”
Freya was too tired to argue. “All right.”
Freya followed him down the stairs and out onto the front steps, and when he stepped down onto the first step, he twisted toward her. They regarded one another solemnly, the moment still present in Freya’s mind when he had come running up the steps, too late to save anyone. Their breaths rose up cloudy in the cold air.
“Sleep well, little one,” he said. It was his customary goodnight phrase, what he had always said before he kissed her forehead and went to his own rest.
“Goodnight, Merlin,” she replied, something sharp in her voice when she pronounced his name. He flinched, then turned and went.
Freya waited until he had gone all the way down the deserted street and turned the corner before she left herself slump against the outside door. There was snow falling, just beginning to accumulate in the crevices of the stone road.
Freya closed her eyes.
She let herself settle and spread and sink into awareness. She opened herself up to each frozen little snowflake; she felt their lilting, spinning, downward dances. Her anger, her frustration, and her fear welled up within her, clarifying her awareness and lending a sharp edge to the control that buzzed at her fingertips.
Lady of the Lake, was she?
Freya squared her shoulders and stood up straight. She breathed in cold air that prickled in her lungs, stretched out her fingertips at her sides, and curled her fingers ever-so-slowly into fists.
She opened her eyes. Every snowflake had paused. Stopped. The snow looked like a lace curtain, a motionless snowy screen against the sky and the houses and the trees and the Tor, off in the distance. Her fists were hot and prickling; the movement of every snowflake captured temporarily in her hands.
Gods above. Freya could feel panic beginning to bubble up in her chest, so she slowly, slowly uncurled her fingers, letting the snow fall little by little out of her hands. When she was left with just her thumbs and forefingers pressed together in two pinches, though, she felt more in control, and a touch of mischief struck her. Freya lifted her hands, and brought the two pinches close together. In front of her, the air seemed to swirl as hundreds of snowflakes swam to gather together. She pressed her fingers together, rubbing and circling, and a perfect little snowball formed in front of her face.
Freya laughed, delighted.
She heard a gasp.
The snowball dropped, splattering at Freya’s feet. Gwen stood at the bottom of the stairs, clearly out of breath, her cap in her hand.
“Gwen.” Freya reached out without thinking about it, as if she could prevent Gwen from leaving. Gwen stood stock still for a moment, gaping up at her.
“Are you all right?” Gwen said.
“What?” Freya said stupidly. Had Gwen not seen? What did she believe had happened?
“I just heard there was a disturbance at the orphanage, and I came as fast as I could, even though everyone said it was fine. Are you all right?”
“Yes.” Freya felt some hope. Perhaps she had not seen. “Yes, I’m fine.”
“Good. Good. I was worried, after everything you said earlier tonight.”
“Ah.” Freya nodded and nodded, stopping herself when she realized she was over-doing it. Gwen nodded back, and they stared at one another in awkward silence.
“I don’t suppose you’re an illusionist,” Gwen ventured, lifting a hand to gesture at the air.
Oh. Freya swallowed. “No.”
“This is what you could not tell me, then?”
She didn’t bother to lie. “Yes.” And oh, Gwen did not even know the half of what “this” was. “Yes. If you’ll just…if you’ll come inside, let me explain—”
“I don’t care.”
Even as cold as it was, Freya blanched.
But Gwen shook her head. “Whatever it is, I don’t care. If you are a devil or a pagan witch, I don’t care. I rather suspect that the priests would call me a devil, if they knew about,” she gestured at her body and started to make her way up the steps. When she reached the top, standing level with Freya, she proffered her hand, smiling. “I do not care what other people say you are; I only know that I admire you completely.”
There was only one possible response to that.
Freya darted forward and into Gwen’s arms, which twined around her immediately. Freya’s head dropped of its own accord into the curve of Gwen’s neck, and she breathed out in hopeless, weightless relief.
“I cannot begin to tell you the day I have had,” she whispered against Gwen’s shoulder.
“I’m glad you’re well,” Gwen said. Freya felt the press of her lips against her hair, and Freya straightened, taking in her large, dark eyes before leaning forward for a kiss.
Gwen opened her mouth against Freya’s without warning, and Freya only quivered and let it happen, let Gwen slip her tongue into Freya’s mouth and lick slow, obscene shapes against her tongue. They only parted, jerking with surprise, when the town clock tolled midnight.
Gwen’s cheeks and nose were red with the cold, and Freya let herself stare for a moment, reaching up to touch Gwen’s sharp jaw, her hair. She caught Gwen’s eye.
“To be clear, I am a pagan witch.”
Gwen blinked. “All right. That’s…” She shrugged and let out a short laugh. “That’s no worse than a woman-boy-person, I suppose.”
Freya pecked her lips. “I like women-boy-people.” She paused, struggling to build up her courage. After everything that happened today, it did not seem such a leap to say, “Come upstairs?” Despite her intentions, it comes out as a question.
Gwen smiled mischievously, and not a little nervously, and stepped around Freya to sweep open the door and wave her through with a theatrical wrist flick.
When they finally arrived in Freya’s sitting room, Gwen insisted on building up the fire again, and Freya set about putting a pot of water over the fire to boil. She was trying not to blush, but it was difficult, having a…suitor in her rooms, at night. But she also felt, contrarily, entitled to this connection, after everything that had happened.
She sat down in her armchair to wait for the water to boil, Gwen sitting across from her, and Freya could not help but feel comfortable, wonderful, as the heat of the fire built and spread out into the room and up Freya’s legs like hot, soothing fingers. Freya sighed happily, discreetly tilting her head from side to side to stretch her neck.
“Why don’t you rest for a minute?” she heard Gwen say distantly.
“Will you check the water for me?” Freya replied softly, letting her head rest against the backrest. She would just close her eyes for a moment.
When she woke up, Gwen was staring into the fire. It had obviously gone down and been built back up another time.
“How long did I sleep?” she asked, mortified.
“Only a few hours.”
“I’m so sorry. Have you been awake all that time?”
“Yes. You looked so peaceful.” Gwen’s smile was slyly adoring, and Freya felt herself flush.
“Oh.” She looked down at her hands in her lap.
“I never asked what the disturbance was that happened earlier? Was it related to the things you warned me of earlier?”
“Yes, it was.” Freya didn’t really want to talk about it. “Do you mind if I tell you tomorrow? I’m not trying to hide things from you anymore; I’m only weary of thinking of it.”
Gwen arose to stoke the fire again, and Freya rose with her, stepping close until Gwen abandoned the fire poker and took Freya in her arms.
They embraced for a lengthy while, the warmth of the fire licking up their sides and with only the tick of the clock for company. Gwen’s soft breath blew steadily over her ear, and she relaxed against her chest, feeling safe and fully calm for the first time in many hours.
“I always wanted to ask…”
“Yes?” Freya leaned back to see Gwen’s face.
“Tell me if I’m being presumptuous, but I always wanted to ask: why it was you started getting the children’s shoes custom made?” Freya’s mouth opened in surprise, and Gwen laughed, hands flexing on Freya’s back. “It’s just so expensive, for an orphanage, at least. They grow out of them so quickly. You could get ready-made shoes at a third of the price.”
Freya looked down in a flush. “You want me to admit it was because of you?”
“I’m not trying to embarrass you. I had only wondered. I had hoped.”
“It was because of you. My…” she faltered. “My uncle donated the money. He didn’t know about you; he just wanted to help.”
“Ah.” Gwen ran her hands up Freya’s arms, her eyes tracing the path of her hands and then flickering up to Freya’s mouth. “Would it be too forward to kiss you again?” she asked quietly.
Freya’s heart pounded. “No.”
Their kisses this time were leisurely, but tinged with a new, carefully withheld urgency. Freya found herself clutching at Gwen’s shoulder blades, and she could feel Gwen’s answering grip at her hips as their tongues touched. When Gwen’s hand slipped upwards to skim over her ribs, Freya gasped.
“Too much?” Gwen said into her mouth.
No. Freya didn’t think it was too much.
Freya wanted to explain, to give Gwen books upon books about Druids and the old days and about some of the fairly obscene rituals that were her heritage and about how there were actual stories of priestesses falling in love with one another, but she couldn’t, it was too much. And too little. Even if those things had once been true, the Kinsfolk of today were far more Christian than they liked to admit. And yet—
“No,” she whispered. “Don’t stop.”
But Gwen just swallowed, her hand curling more firmly around Freya’s side, just under her breast. “You’re sure this isn’t…”
“I wouldn’t have you do anything you don’t want, but Gwen—”
The world is coming apart, she wanted to say. I am a legend among men, and who is there to stop me? Stop us?
Something of her wildness must have shown on her face, for Gwen’s lips parted, and her eyes dropped down, watched as her own hand drifted up, over Freya’s breast, pressing the lines of her corset into the skin.
“Yes,” she said. And then, well, things moved rather quickly after that, their teeth clicking together in too-aggressive kisses, Gwen’s fingers digging underneath the neckline of Freya’s dress and corset, and Freya pulling at the braces on Gwen’s shoulders. Before Freya could properly understand what had happened, they had migrated to her bedroom, and the back of her knees hit her bed.
Freya thrust a hand between them, grasping, and nearly jumped in surprise, because. There was something there.
“I, oh,” Gwen said. “I…it’s for—” She unlaced her trousers and let them fall open.
It was, unmistakeably, a cock. A leather cock, meticulously sewn and stuffed and polished, made to droop realistically against a set of equally perfect leather bullocks, sewn onto a leather girdle, or belt. Freya could barely discern where the seams were, it was so flawlessly constructed, and she involuntarily stretched out her hand to draw a fingertip up the side of it. Gwen jerked as if Freya had touched her own skin.
“I’m sorry. Sorry,” Freya said.
“No, no.” Gwen said breathlessly. “I made it to wear, so that I would not get caught out as easily. You’ve no idea how much time men spend, noticing each other’s—” She cut herself off with an embarrassed laugh. “Sorry.”
“It’s all right.” Freya’s chest contracted with a wave of fondness.
Gwen reached down absently and adjusted it, a gesture Freya saw little boys and working men do on the street eight times a day, and she found it so enchantingly dear, that little gesture. She could not help it; she leaned in to touch her lips to Gwen’s again, smiling into the kiss. “May I touch it?” she said, hushed, against Gwen’s lips.
“It’s beautiful,” Freya couldn’t help but say as she ran her fingers down the little length of it. “Men notice each other cocks?” she asked quietly, forcing herself to say the word aloud.
“Yes. And grab at each other sometimes. It’s not respectable, but oh—”
Freya had pressed her fingers hard against the leather bullocks, pressing the girdle into the flesh behind it.
“I wish I could make mine hard for you,” Gwen dared to say. “I…I could make another.” Freya could imagine it instantly, Gwen laboring away, shaping and sewing the leather, humming to herself while she made a cock—a long, stiff leather cock—to put inside Freya.
“Gods above.” And then they were kissing again, Gwen’s hands in Freya’s hair, the pins slipping out and locks of her hair falling against her neck.
She wanted that, so badly, wanted some erect version of Gwen’s beautiful leather cock inside her, that she almost forgot—
“I can do that,” she realized, breaking away from Gwen’s insistent lips. “I can make it hard.” She palmed Gwen’s cock and looked into her eyes, willing her to understand what she was asking.
“Oh! You mean with your…” Gwen waggled her fingers.
Gwen blinked, her brow furrowing, considering it.
“Oh, and I can put it back,” Freya reassured her. Of course Gwen, the skillful craftsman, would worry over her creation. “I can put it back the way it was.” Or at least, she was almost certain she could.
“Do it,” Gwen said, a pink flush coming into her cheeks.
She didn’t know exactly what it was supposed to look like, but she sat down on the bed and let the magic guide her, placed her hand over the cock and let the spell that fell from her lips act as it would.
“Oh! It’s warm!” Gwen gasped.
Freya looked down, moving her hand away. The leather cock was long and smooth and a bit bulbous at the end. Freya tensed her thighs, looking at it, felt them rub against each other, and felt an answering pulse between her legs.
“It’s beautiful,” Gwen said, looking down at it.
Freya couldn’t wait; she dragged herself backwards on the bed, her knees going up and out in an indecent sprawl. Gwen followed her, crawling up and over her. They looked at each and swallowed in tandem, which made Gwen exhale a short laugh.
Freya reached down to ruck up her skirts, and Gwen tucked her knees in carefully between Freya legs, running an admiring hand up Freya’s bare thigh. It made Freya shudder, and for half-second, she worried that they were moving too fast, that they ought to take off their clothes and touch each other’s skin and admire each other’s bodies.
But then the leather cock bumped against her cunt, and she felt her entire womb contract, and no.
“Please,” she whined, and reached out to put her hands on Gwen’s arse and drag her forward.
The first press of it into her body stung and stretched her, before it slipped out. Gwen reached down to reposition it and pressed just the tip of it inside.
“Is that all right?” she asked, her mouth hanging open around harsh breaths.
“Yes. Yes.” Freya lifted her legs to wrap around Gwen’s waist and pushed herself further onto the cock. It warmed when it was inside her, whether with the heat of her body or with magic, Freya did not know, but it didn’t seem to matter. Gwen rocked against her, and the drag of it inside her was awe-inspiring.
And then, Gwen touched her fingers right above where the cock moved in and out—Freya had never touched herself there before, surely she would have remembered such a sensation. It was like the feeling sometimes when she crossed her legs and got that obscene little spark, the one that had always made her uncross her legs and blush. But now, Freya felt lit up all along her back and breasts, and the only thing she could possibly compare it to, the only thing that came close to this feeling, this deep bodily ache growing at the base of her spine, was magic.
She opened her eyes—when had she closed them?—and Gwen was staring down at her in abandoned affection. She was holding herself up with one arm, and her shoulder bunched under her shirt with each thrust of her hips. Her eyes swept over Freya’s face and down her neck and her breasts where they almost spilled out of her corset, and she smiled, lovingly.
Freya could feel the warmth, the pull between her legs growing with each flick of Gwen’s fingers over that spot, and she wanted nothing more than to share it, to give back the pleasure that Gwen was giving to her. So she reached up, hands on Gwen’s collarbones, and asked,
“May I, may I…”
“Anything.” And Freya let her awareness stretch out and out, fixed her eyes on the wet shine of Gwen’s bottom lip, and, without any clear idea of what she was doing, slipped in.
“Jesus,” Gwen cursed, bucking out of rhythm. “Oh god, oh god.” Her fingers faltered against Freya’s cunt, and Freya resorted to thrusting her hips up against the cock, up against Gwen’s wet knuckles curled between them.
Gwen’s eyes clenched shut. “Freya.”
Freya kissed her. She held their lips together until Gwen groaned loud into her mouth and all the urgent tension between her legs dissolved into waves of bliss.
She had made love to the shoemaker’s apprentice.
Her uncle was a legendary sorcerer.
And so, apparently, was she. Right.
Freya threw back the blankets and dressed quickly. She was going to cancel classes today. Consulting with Uncle…Merlin could not wait; it was imperative that he carry out this re-balancing of the magics as soon as possible. And as much as she loved him, she remembered the look on his face when had said he could not bear the thought of remaining separated from the King. She could not be certain that he would enact the spell himself.
Gwen stirred behind her. Freya lifted one knee onto the bed and bent to kiss her.
“Hello,” she said against her lips.
“Hello,” Gwen whispered back.
“I am going to my Uncle’s house to see what can be done about the…the troubles we have been having. If you walk with me, I can tell you about it on the way?” She nearly shook with the anticipation of how Gwen would react, but it had to be done.
Freya lent back so that Gwen could sit up and re-clothe herself. “Perhaps you had better go down the back stairs when you leave?” she suggested.
Gwen grinned. “I think I had better. I’ll meet you at the street corner?”
Freya rushed through all of the administrative tasks that need doing. It was not kind, to leave Mary alone with the children today, but it was another thing that could not be helped.
“Do what you must,” was all that Mary said, though, and soon Freya was wrapping her shawl round her head, cautiously navigating the snowy front stairs.
Gwen was waiting for her at the corner, as promised, bouncing on her heels and breathing hot air into her cupped hands.
Explaining the history of magic and their current predicament in a quarter hour was no small feat, but Freya gave it her best shot. Gwen was a patient listener, only asking questions every now and again to clarify. She gasped aloud when Freya revealed the parts about Merlin and the Lady of the Lake, looking over at Freya with awe. Freya could not believe that Gwen believed her so easily. It seemed impossible that Gwen would trust her so completely. And yet she did. She accepted everything Freya said with the delighted air of someone who has just found the last jigsaw piece to fit into a puzzle.
When she reached a stopping point to her story, they were nearly to Merlin’s house. Gwen walked beside her with a look of wonder on her face. Freya had forgotten that Merlin, King Arthur, and the Lady were famous even to Christians; she spent so much of her time with other Kin that even their most famous legends seemed to belong only themselves.
“Wait, so is it true? The legend about the Tor being the Isle of Avalon, back when the valley was flooded?”
“Not exactly. There is a doorway, up there, near where St. Michael’s Tower is, an invisible doorway that only magical creatures and highly magical persons can pass through.”
They came to a halt in front of Merlin’s door, a ramshackle house that people tended to pass by. Gwen looked up at it with wide eyes.
“So…,” Freya could not help but ask. “You believe me?”
“Yes! Yes, of course. It is a lot to take in at once, but….” She tilted her head back to blow a steamy huff of laughter at the sky. “It explains so much. There’s always been strange things happening in the town. Do you remember the anvil last year that just cracked down the middle? And lord, I’ve always wondered what those old men get up to at the Society of Antiques. And you…” She looked back at Freya. “You always seemed otherworldly to me.”
Freya nearly drifted in for a kiss, right there on the sidewalk, but the door next to them opened. “Freya!”
Freya spun, feeling like a teenager again, sneaking extra cakes where she thought her uncle wouldn’t see her. She nearly greeted him as “Uncle,” but caught herself and said, “Good morning.”
“Good morning.” Merlin looked tired, and a bit desperate, in the grey morning light, his eyes taking her in from head to toe. And then he leaned sideways, catching sight of Gwen.
His mouth dropped open.
Gwen went stock still like he had slapped her. Freya gazed wearily at him. Was this one of his mystical powers? To know someone's true name on sight? Gwen shot Freya a disturbed look. Apparently she thought the same thing.
"Come in, come in, both of you," he said, motioning. His stare at Gwen had taken on a rapturous sparkle. Gods only knew what that meant.
When they had entered, and Merlin shut the door behind them, Freya turned to him. "I would introduce you, but apparently you already know my friend's name."
"No, no, I'm sorry. Please," he gestured with long-fingered hands. "My name is--"
"I've already told her," Freya said shortly. "That you are Merlin."
"Really? You told her so quickly?" Merlin seemed extremely pleased by this.
"Well, then." He turned to Gwen and held out his hand. Gwen accepted it in a handshake. "I am Merlin, known in this town as Ambrose, and you are..."
"Gwen. Just as you said." Gwen looked back and forth between Freya and Merlin. "Known in this town as Elyan. I’m the shoemaker’s apprentice."
"Elyan," Merlin repeated, breaking into an outright grin. “You’re a shoemaker’s apprentice?” He looked her up-and-down, appraising.
"Yes," she said warily. "Elyan was my brother's name."
"Wonderful. Just wonderful. A shoemaker’s apprentice.” Merlin smiled and smiled at her. “It’s amazing I’ve never met you before!”
Freya didn’t think it was amazing. He had hardly left his house in the five years since they’d moved here.
“I suppose so,” Gwen said, eyes wide.
“And it seems we all have special hidden names. How coincidental!" Merlin looked as if might start clapping his hands.
"Indeed," said Freya, frowning at him. "You seem much improved in spirits."
"Yes! I was reading last night, looking into the prophecies, and such, and I think may have...well. I thought I might have a better chance. Of bringing him back."
"Do you?" Despite herself, Freya was interested.
"No. Well, I thought I didn’t; the idea fell through, but then here the two of you are!” Merlin turned to Gwen again, a smile overtaking his face. “It's...granted, it's not much better than the original spell, but I think we might have a chance. Come look!"
“What do you mean, the two of us?”
But Merlin only waved them both into the sitting room. Gwen gasped when they entered, and Freya remembered belatedly that it was rather odd looking, for someone who wasn't Kin. Carved wooden runes hung from the ceiling in every corner, and scientific and apothecarial instruments were strewn upon every table, atop every stack of books. The stacks of books covered most of the floor, with narrow walkways opening up between them. Uncle had always been fiddling with something or other, and Freya suddenly wondered how many of his little "projects" he had lied to her about.
Uncle—no, Merlin—was flipping through a truly ancient book balanced precariously atop a central pile of books.
"How did you know my name, Mr…Merlin?" Gwen asked. "Magic?"
"No. Well, yes. But no." Merlin looked her up and down, measuring her up. He glanced over at Freya. "What exactly have you told her?"
"Everything," Freya said honestly, and she didn't miss the warm look Gwen sent her way.
"Then you understand the idea of rebirth?" he asked Gwen.
"I think so. I know that Freya was reborn. That she was once the Lady of the Lake."
"Exactly. I didn't know that your current name was Gwen. I called you that because once, a long time ago, you were also named Gwen."
Gwen’s eyebrows shot up. "Was I?"
"Short for Guinevere, isn't it?"
"I...." Gwen's mouth hung open.
"The Guinevere?” Freya asked. “Queen Guinevere?"
"The very same. Ah, here it is."
"No, wait," Gwen said. "This is...this is mad. I cannot possibly be..."
Merlin shrugged. "You're the spitting image of her, is all I can say. Here, Freya, take a look." He thrust the book into Freya’s hands, but she didn't look down at it.
"Guinevere?" she said. "Are you sure?"
"Pretty sure. As you so aptly pointed out, Freya, it does make one wonder, when the people who are supposed to be taking care of him all turn up in one spot." He grinned again. "Don't you see?"
Gwen was still looking back and forth between the two of them with wide, shocked eyes. "I can't be Guinevere. I'm not magical or a pagan or whatever it is you lot are."
"Neither was she!" Merlin said happily. "She was an ordinary girl, and she married a king!"
"But she was a princess!"
"Ha. Another lie perpetrated by Monmouth. And Malory, gods, I hated that man. No, Guinevere was as much royalty as you or I. She was a blacksmith's daughter."
Gwen gaped. She held up her hands in a gesture of resignation and let them drop. Freya looked on concernedly. The Queen. It was too much. Too coincidental, as Merlin said. She looked back at him, and he raised his eyebrows and sent a pointed look at the book in her hands.
"Read," he said.
And so she did. It was an old text, not in the Old Tongue, but in the new. Still, the antiquated handwriting gave her trouble, and she struggled to puzzle it out.
"Who wrote this? A seer?"
"Several seers. They wrote it down in...the twelfth century? Thirteenth? I forget; it was a few years back. We were not on friendly terms at that time. I forgot I even had this book of theirs, but it was on the top of one of my stacks last night. I think Morgana must have put it there."
A few years back. Freya felt nearly overwhelmed, all over again, with the fact that her uncle was immortal. But she concentrated on the words on the page again.
“The King will come forth out of his home, and take his second steps into the world.” Freya looked up. “I’ve heard that before.”
“Yes. This particular prophecy was copied and distributed many times over. They use it as part of the blessing, now. Many people have supposed that it means Camelot, which, as you know, is not in Glastonbury. Others have supposed it means Avalon, which some people have associated with Glastonbury, but is not actually in the same place. There’s a doorway to Avalon here, but not one accessible by human beings. But I think it means something different.”
Gwen had shaken herself out of her reverie and was listening now. “What does it mean?”
“This text was written by Druids, you know, some of the same Druids who formed the first secret meetings. Their sense of ‘home’ was not an immutable place, because they had to be always on the move, lest they be caught. Their homes were the homes they brought with them.”
Freya’s head snapped up.
Merlin smiled at her. “You’re catching on, I see.”
“The chairs,” Freya breathed.
“The chairs,” he confirmed.
“What?” Gwen asked.
“It’s a tradition we have,” Freya explained. “One always brings a chair with one when people of different clans meet together. It’s a symbol of sorts.”
“But more than a symbol,” Merlin said. “A piece of home brings with it actual magical power.”
Gwen nodded. “But. How on earth would we find a chair belonging to Arthur Pendragon?”
Merlin smiled brightly, looking pleased that she understood. “That’s just it! We can’t.”
Freya nearly stamped her foot. “Then what—”
“No, no, this is the important bit,” Merlin said. “What can you use if you don’t have someone’s chair? What have you got, if you haven’t even got a chair?”
Freya narrowed her eyes at him. She felt like a child again, having to guess at the right answer while her uncle waited patiently. She blew out a noisy, frustrated breath. “Whatever bit of earth you’re standing on?” she guessed.
“Maybe. But it’s not yours. The ancient Druids didn’t consider themselves to own the land. It didn’t belong to them. Gwen, you know. What’s left? What’ve you got when you have no proper home?”
Gwen cocked her head to the left, her cap shifting perilously atop her short curls. A smile grew slowly across her face.
“Your shoes,” she said.
Shoes. Yes, that made magical sense, but. Freya looked back and forth between Gwen and Merlin.
"And you have a thousand year old pair of King Arthur's shoes?" Freya asked incredulously.
"No!" Merlin said, eyes still fixed on Gwen. Gwen took in his expression and shifted nervously when he didn't look away.
"We've got a shoemaker,” he said. “A shoemaker who is the reborn spirit of his wife!"
Gwen's face fell. "But I'm not...now. I'm not his wife. Oh god, I don't have to marry him, do I?"
"No, no, no. 'Course not," Merlin said as if this were perfectly apparent. "No, there's nothing to worry about. I'm going to get my coat, and we can go make those shoes!"
He twirled and skittered off through the doorway.
Gwen turned to Freya.
"I'm just as confused as you are," Freya told her.
Freya reached out and took her hand. "I won't let anything happen to you, I promise."
Gwen smiled tightly. "Just a short while ago, I was promising you that."
"Yes, they usually are, during the day."
"What do you people say to each other? God save the Queen?"
"They usually say hello," Gwen said.
"It's a King, now," Freya added, feeling safe on the familiar ground.
"Oh no! Did Victoria die?"
"Several years ago, Uncle, I told you this."
"And I was just starting to get used to her.” He glanced over at Freya mischievously, and she knew he was trying to lift the mood, to make her laugh. She realized that she had just called him “Uncle.”
"What are we going to do about Amos?" Gwen asked. "Are we going to explain everything to him?"
"Who is Amos?" Merlin asked at the same time as Freya said, "No, of course not."
"He's the shoemaker," Freya added on when Merlin look confused. "It's his shop and materials we'll be stealing. How do you plan to get him out of the way?"
"Oh, is that all?" Merlin said. "I can...where does he live?"
"Over the shop," Gwen answered. Freya described its location to him, and Merlin nodded, tipped his head back to the sky, and whispered a spell.
"What did you just do?"
"Nothing untoward! I just put him to sleep."
"You put him to sleep," Gwen said incredulously.
"From here?" Freya asked.
Merlin's eyes sparkled with mirth. "Did I impress you?" He darted in to kiss her temple, and Freya let him, drawing some little piece of comfort from the familiar scratch of his beard.
The three of them turned a corner, and a passing merchant called out, “Elyan!” He wanted to ask about a pair of shoes that Gwen was apparently re-soling for him, and they had to wait while Gwen spoke with him. Merlin’s feet shifted impatiently.
"This spell with the shoes—will it work?" Freya whispered to Merlin.
"It will work. You were right. It is a sign, the three of us together like this. The people who are meant to be taking care of him." His eyes flitted around nervously, belying his confident words. "It will work."
That done, they both turned to look at Gwen, who looked hesitant.
“You understand that it takes several days to make a pair of shoes properly. The leather has to be soaked for a long time to make it more flexible.”
“Oh, we can help with that,” Merlin reassured her.
Gwen looked extremely skeptical, but squared her shoulders. “Usually, the first thing is to measure the feet, but since we don’t have those, I suppose we should just look at the lasts and guess,” she said, waving Merlin over to what appeared to be a wall of wooden feet. “A last is like a mold for the shoe. I suppose you know the size of the King’s feet?”
Merlin made an interested noise and went to stand in front of the shelves. There must have been about two dozen pair of the wooden molds, lined up from smallest to largest. He reached out and picked up one mold, turning it round and round. “This one,” he said finally.
Gwen raised her eyebrows, but only took the mold and its match and set them out on the workbench. “Do we have any preferences as to type of shoe? Leather color?”
“None at all,” Merlin said cheerfully. “I think it’s best if you choose.”
“Right then,” she said. And then her face went into a blank mask of concentration, and she was off.
Freya had glimpsed Gwen working before, making a cut, sewing a stitch, but she had never before seen the entire process. Once Gwen selected a stretch of leather and laid it out atop her table, her movements sped up almost imperceptibly as she pressed the last down on to the leather, produced a knife and cut, with smooth, even strokes, the shape of a sole around the edge of the mold. That done, the mold was turned upside down in Gwen’s lap, and she hammered tiny straight nails through the leather, attaching it to the mold.
She worked on and on, appearing to Freya to move with efficient precision, cutting and carving like a sculptor. She nearly startled when Gwen spoke up.
“At this point, I usually put the leather to soak in water for a day. To make it soft?”
Merlin sat up where he had been drifting off in his chair. “Ah. How wet do you need it?”
Gwen rose and pulled a pot away from the edge of the bench. “These are some pieces that were to be ready today. It should be about like this.” She fished a piece out of the pot and held it out to Merlin.
“No, give it to Freya. She can do it.”
“What?” Freya shook her head. “I don’t know a spell for that.”
“You don’t need a spell for that, little one. Be aware.”
Freya rolled her eyes. Gwen shuffled over and held out the wet piece in one hand and the dry pieces in her other. “Okay.”
Freya sighed and lifted her hands, putting one hand over each of Gwen’s hands, touching down lightly over wet leather and dry. Right. Be aware. She perceived the many little drops tucked inside of the wet leather, felt the way the water permeated the piece lushly. She breathed in, breathed out, flexed the hand over the dry leather, and…
“Oh!” Gwen whispered.
Freya opened her eyes and smiled. Gwen’s two handfuls looked identical now, both dark and soaked-through. Freya pressed tentative fingers over each piece, and they felt the same.
“That was wonderful,” Gwen said quietly.
“Thanks,” Freya said. She smiled a besotted, proud smile up at Gwen, but Gwen’s answering smile was…tight. Wrong, somehow.
Freya was about to ask her what was wrong, but Gwen had already gone back to work.
Freya could understand that. It was a lot to take in, in one morning: the history of magic as well as the identity of Queen Guinevere. There was a cold, hard knot in Freya’s stomach, though: a worry that it was all too much. That Gwen would throw up her hands at any moment, declare them both mad heathens and leave.
Merlin did not seem aware of Gwen’s discontent, though. After a quarter hour of staring at Gwen with a half-smile on his face, he suddenly said:
“It really is wonderful to see you again.”
Gwen sighed and shook her head. “Don’t say that.”
“What? Does it make you uncomfortable, the idea of rebirth?”
“You’ll forgive me if I am not overjoyed at being…reborn or descended or or in any way related to Britain’s most famous cuckold.”
Merlin sighed grandly. “Monmouth. I really ought to have burned every word he wrote.”
Freya blinked. “So the Queen wasn’t a cuckold?”
“It…was complicated. But the short version is no, Gwen would never even have considered it.”
Freya watched as Gwen worked steadily on. She wondered if she was imagining that Gwen was punching the holes a little more aggressively. Freya felt a bolt of guilt, suddenly. She had been shocked, of course, when Merlin told her she was the reborn spirit of a legendary woman, but then Freya was a sorceress. She performed magic on a daily basis. She had been raised on stories of impossible feats and the intimate connection of past and present. It must have been far greater a shock for Gwen.
“It’s a pity,” Freya said. “That this story of betrayal has become her legacy.”
“Yes,” Merlin agreed. “I always regretted the way she was portrayed. And the way you were portrayed. I tried to stay away from the stories, but they became so pervasive after the fourteenth century.”
“There aren’t any expectations of me, then? Being reborn?”
“Nobody is going to make you wear skirts or anything,” Merlin said, waving a dismissive hand at Gwen’s attire.
Gwen spun on her stool to face him, her mouth set in a stony line. “No expectations at all? I don’t mind making a pair of shoes, but am I expected to help King Arthur throughout the future? Is he not going to…want anything of me when he looks at me and sees the face of his wife?”
“No! No, no. Of course not.” Merlin appeared to realize he had mis-stepped. “He’s not like that. He’s a good man. We will have work to do, if he comes back. When he comes back. But if you do not want to help in that work, you do not have to. You’re a free woman. Man. Person.” He shifted uncomfortably on his chair. “Arthur will want you to be happy, above all. I promise you.”
Gwen didn’t answer that, just nodded jerkily and turned back to her bench, setting her knife to the leather again.
Merlin stared at the back of her head unhappily. Freya searched for words, some way to apologize for dragging Gwen into all of this. She would not be here at all, if not for Freya.
“Do you want to know a secret, about Queen Guinevere?” Merlin said suddenly. “Something that isn’t in the stories?”
Gwen didn’t pause in her work, her knife making fast, precise little cuts.
“She was a damn fine smithy. She could make a sword as well as any blacksmith in the kingdom.”
Gwen’s knife stilled momentarily.“Is that true?”
“’Course. She learned from her father.”
“Hmm.” Gwen seemed to take that in.
“Do you want to know another secret?” Merlin asked, a hopeful note in his voice.
Gwen quirked an eyebrow: Merlin couldn’t see it, sitting behind her, but Freya did. “Go on, then.”
“Excalibur was made by your father. Guinevere’s father, that is.”
Freya leaned forward. “Really? I thought you found in a rock.”
“No, no. Well, yes. But I put it there. We couldn’t just use any sword. Excalibur was made by a man who wanted to make the best sword he could, to protect his daughter. And I took that sword and enchanted it and gave it to another man who wanted to protect the same woman. It makes a difference, where a thing comes from and whom it is intended for.”
Gwen breathed in deep, stopping her steady work once more. She turned toward Merlin again, holding a scrap of leather in one hand and her knife in the other; she lifted both of them in frustration. “How can I intend the shoes for him? I don’t even know him.”
“You don’t know Arthur, obviously, but you’re still making these shoes. You don’t know me, either, an old man who comes into your shop and is rude to you,” he said with an apologetic dip of his chin. “You didn’t have to make these shoes at all, but you are. You’re doing it out of goodness. Out of friendship. Out of love. It makes a difference.”
Freya could feel her face go red, but then Gwen looked over at her, almost involuntarily, and their eyes caught across the room.
Gwen set her jaw in a determined line, but her eyes were soft on Freya. “Good then. I’ll need a couple more hours.”
Morgana le Fay stood conspicuously in the front room, eyeing the tapestries with an expression of disdain. Freya didn’t recognize the dark-haired young man beside Morgana, but then he turned. “Freya!”
She took in his eyes, his cheeks, his hands reached out to her. “Uncle?” It was undoubtedly him, but he looked decades younger: straight-backed, broad-shouldered, and clean-shaven. Freya couldn’t stop her mouth from dropping open
“It’s me.” He shifted his feet. It was unbelievably strange, her uncle looking so handsome and youthful. His dark hair was cropped close, and without his beard to cover it, his jaw was sharp under hollowed-out cheeks. “Sorry. It must be odd, seeing me look so different.”
Freya inclined her head in agreement. “Yes.” She lifted a hand and touched his brow, and his eyes fluttered closed for the briefest instance. When his eyes opened again, his expression turned longing. “But your eyes are the same,” she said. He smiled a warm, troubled smile at her.
“Why did you change to a younger form? Were you worried about being recognized by the Council?” she asked.
“He wants to look his best,” Morgana whispered loudly. Merlin rolled his eyes heavenward at that, but shrugged self-deprecatingly.
“I wanted to be recognizable,” he said, not without chagrin. And then he made a show of pretending to see Gwen for the first time. “Ah, Gwen. Are the shoes ready? Oh, lovely.” He ran a hand down the tops of the shoes that Gwen proffered. Meanwhile, Gwen scrutinized his face, seemingly deciding whether it truly was the same man.
“Do we approve of each other’s handiwork, then?” Merlin asked her with apparent seriousness.
Gwen leaned back a tad and shrugged a shoulder, still a little wide-eyed over his transformation. “I suppose so.”
“Good then.” Merlin looked around at each of them in turn. “Shall we give the Council Leaders a good shock, then?”
“The Council Leaders?”
But Merlin and Morgana were already striding up the stairs to the second floor.
Freya and Gwen hurried after them, catching them just as Merlin shoved open the doors to the Council chamber with a theatrical bang. They were in full session today, nearly all of the chairs full to discuss the dangerous magicks going on, and Freya felt herself color a little when everyone turned to look at them.
“Mrs. Lake?” asked one Leader, probably hoping that she would explain them all, but soon everyone’s eyes locked on Merlin as walked purposefully toward the center of the room.
“Leaders, I have come to petition this Council,” he said.
“You are unknown to us, young man,” objected one Leader.
“How do we know you are Kin?” asked another.
“I am Kin,” Merlin asserted.
“Be that as it may, you have no chair here, sir, and therefore no right to speak. If you wish to apply for a visitor’s chair, you must fill out the proper forms!”
“Mrs. Lake, if you would take your guests out of here,” suggested another Leader. “The shoemaker’s apprentice has no place here.”
“Oh for the gods’ sake,” Merlin turned on his heel and strode toward the end of the room.
“Sir!” A Kinsperson or two rose to stop him, but Merlin just dodged under their arms and around them, and sprung lightly up on the dais where the historical chairs stood.
“How dare you—” a Leader started, already raising a hand to cast a spell against him, but stopped, when Merlin strode right up to the center chair, one of two or three dusty, ancient chairs that nobody had ever been able to touch, and touched it.
In fact, he leaned over and put a hand under the backrest and turned around to drag the thing, all the way off the dais and all the way to the center of the floor with a sustained, wince-inducing scrape. Everyone watched him, opened mouth. Merlin swung the chair around in front of the Leader and dropped down into it gracelessly.
“Leaders, I have come to petition this Council,” Merlin said again.
Several Leaders opened their mouths to speak, but old Matthew beat them to it. “We will hear your petition, young man. Please tell us your name.”
“My name is Merlin. Others call me Emrys. And for the last fifty years or so, I have gone by the name Ambrose.”
A low roar of voices broke out at that, and it took Matthew another minute or so to quiet the talking down to excited whispers. People were pointing at Morgana, Freya, and Gwen too.
“I am afraid we will need some proof, sir. Such names cannot be claimed lightly.”
Merlin looked back over his shoulder and met Freya’s eyes. “Didn’t you say, Freya, that there is no one alive who can change the weather?”
Everyone’s eyes turned to her.
Merlin looked back at Matthew. “And would you consider such a feat sufficient to demonstrate my claim, Leader?”
“I would,” Matthew replied mildly. Freya had always liked him.
“What will it be, then, Freya?” he asked, turning back towards her. His hands were curled into fists at his sides, and he looked hopeful. He was also so over-the-top in his apologies
She couldn’t help it. One corner of her mouth quirked up. “Sunshine.”
He grinned, and he spun toward the wall of open windows, raising his hands. Freya didn’t actually hear the spell, because one of Leaders chose that moment to yell, “Now just a minute—”, but she certainly saw when the clouds not only parted, but dissolved, leaving the clearest, brightest winter sun that Freya had ever seen. The sudden rays of sun seemed almost to cut through the windows, throwing up long shadows and reflecting bright patterns off the gilded frames of the paintings on the walls.
“Show-off,” Morgana muttered beside her.
Freya had expected a tumult to ensue, but there were only a few quiet exclamations to break the shocked silence of the Glastonbury Kin.
“Sufficient?” Merlin asked of the Council.
Matthew was not smiling, but his rapt expression and the hand over his heart spoke volumes. “Yes. Yes, I believe so. Speak, Emrys.”
This time when Merlin spoke, there were no more interruptions. “I and my friends have come to petition the Council. You see here Morgana Pendragon, also called Morgana le Fey, Freya Lake, the reborn spirit of the Lady of the Lake, and Elyan Smith—”
Freya very nearly shouted to get him to stop so that he would expose Gwen to the censure of the townspeople.
“—who is not Kin, it is true, but who is the reborn spirit of a Knight of the Round Table. We believe that we have been brought together in this place and this time for a reason. We’ve come to petition the Council—not just the Leaders, but all the town’s Kinfolk—to assist us in righting the imbalance of magics in Albion and in therefore granting King Arthur Pendragon entrance again into this world.”
“How?” Matthew asked immediately, and Freya noticed that, for once, all the Leaders, seers, and Kinspeople were all paying rapt attention to one speaker. She should have forced her uncle to attend Council far sooner.
Merlin smiled at that. “I will tell you.”
Silence fell quickly, and Morgana raised her voice.
“My friends. You are here to welcome Arthur Pendragon back into the world. It is your presence, more than your participation, that is required. The prophecies, as many of you know, say that his coming will be witnessed, and not only witnessed, but witnessed completely. You are here to see it, and to complete our circle.”
She turned in a small circle of her own, taking in the crowd around them with an expression equal parts threatening and serene. Morgana nodded, satisfied, and glided over to take her place beside Gwen.
Merlin stood alone in front of the chair he had pulled out, the shoes Gwen made clutched in one hand.
“Why the chair?” Freya dared to whisper to Morgana.
“It’s Merlin’s chair. From the Round Table. But magic has always seen Merlin and Arthur as one entity. We’re hoping it will help. Another piece of home.” For the first time since Freya had met her, Morgana sounded nervous.
Merlin still stood there, tense and still as a statue. After a moment, he bent to set the shoes in front of the chair and stood back, and it looked for all the world like a still life: somebody’s favorite chair near the window, shoes waiting for their owner. Merlin shifted from foot to foot, finally kneeling in front of his own chair.
He lifted his hands, but then dropped them just as soon, breathing hard.
Someone in the crowd cleared his throat. There was the shift of a chair, and the rustle of a skirt, but no one spoke.
He lifted his hands again, holding them aloft for a strange moment during which everyone seemed to hold their collective breath. And then he dropped them again, his chin dipping at the same time and his chest heaving. There were murmurs around the room.
Morgana sighed on Gwen’s other side. “He’s scared.”
They all watched as Merlin gazed helplessly at the floor and his hands balled into fists against his thighs. Freya didn’t know what to do. The spell to be performed was beyond anyone but him, and she was afraid to break his concentration. But he wasn’t moving, wasn’t encanting, and Freya had no idea what to do.
There was a touch against the back of Freya’s hand where it wrapped around Galen’s, and she turned to see Gwen step forward, walking out into the middle of the circle and kneeling next to Merlin.
“Hello,” she said. “Everything is going to fine.”
Merlin looked up at her, surprised and bewildered. “What?”
“I know I’ve just met you and that I know nothing at all about witchcraft, but it seems to me that hard tasks are best done when one has a friend beside them.”
Merlin stared. Freya almost didn’t catch the words when he breathed out, “Gods, I’ve missed you.” He smiled large then, and hooked an arm through Gwen’s. “You always had the good ideas.” Gwen smiled back at him, confident and comforting, as if she really did have the ability to ensure the outcome of this spell, and Freya could easily picture, in that moment, how people had bowed low before that smile in another life.
He reached back with his other hand—”Freya,” he said—and Freya dropped the children’s hands, hurried forward to kneel next to him and take his hand. He brought it to his lips and kissed it briefly before looking up again at the empty chair. He squeezed his eyes shut and squeezed Freya’s hand. “Right then.”
He took a deep breath, let it out.
And the world exploded.
For a long, long moment, it was if Freya was lost in snow. All around was white, like fog only thicker, but then feelings began to prick holes through the whiteness, and Freya felt her knees on the floor, and Merlin’s hand through hers. And then, belatedly, she could feel her ribs expanding in her chest with each breath, and the sound of her own heartbeat broke through the silence, followed by other sounds. A voice: “Hello?” And someone’s breath in her ear. Finally came sight again. The floor. And a shoe.
“Odd shoes. They fit well, though.”
Freya looked up. A man was sitting in Merlin’s chair, one ankle crossed over his knee so that he could examine the shoe on his foot. He rotated his ankle this way and that, taking in his new shoe with a bemused expression.
He looked up. “Hello, Freya.”
She took in his face, his eyes, his hair. “Arthur,” she heard herself respond.
And then there was a sound like a rush of water, and the whiteness, the snowy curtain that had lingered thus far seemed as if it were yanked back. The sun poured in, and suddenly they were back in the Council chambers, surrounded by people and children and chairs. People were talking, instantly, but it was all murmurs in the background.
Merlin panted heavily next to her, his head bowed low.
“Uncle?” she whispered, worried.
“Merlin?” A hand reached out to touch Merlin’s head. Freya looked up to see the King leaning low in his chair, hands extended to Merlin. “Is he all right? What happened?”
“Gods,” Merlin choked out without looking up, and Arthur slid right out of his chair to kneel on the floor in front of him.
“Honestly, Merlin. Breathe.” Arthur leant his forehead against Merlin’s and laughed softly. “Air goes in, and air comes out. It’s not that hard.”
Merlin made a noise like a sob, and Arthur lowered his voice to murmur, “You idiot. Didn’t I promise you I’d come back?” And then he cradled the back of Merlin’s head in one hand and pitched his voice even lower, whispering a string of other insults that sounded suspiciously like endearments.
Freya leaned away, blushing, knowing that it wasn’t meant for her ears, and looked around to scan the room. Everyone had crowded in to make a tight ring around them, and Morgana stood close behind Freya, a hand pressed to her mouth. Freya did a double-take. Yes, those were actual tears glistening in Morgana’s eyes.
Freya met Gwen’s eyes over Merlin’s hunched figure, exhilaration bubbling up in her chest.
“Hi,” she said, lips twitching around some emotion.
“Hi,” Freya said. Gwen rose and knee-walked over to Freya, settling against Freya’s side.
Around them the Kinsfolk of Glastonbury gathered close, craning their necks to catch sight of Arthur.
“Is that the King?” someone shouted from the back.
“Yes, it’s him,” someone else called out. Freya thought she recognized Ann’s voice.“Give him a moment, for the gods’ sake.”
Arthur, perhaps noticing that he had an audience, wrapped a hand around the back of Merlin’s neck and sat up straight, pulling Merlin’s face against his shoulder. He froze a bit when he looked up and saw Morgana.
“Morgana,” he said warily.
“It’s all right, Arthur,” Merlin mumbled into Arthur’s old-fashioned shirt, making no move to detach himself. “She’s fine. She helped me.”
“We have much to discuss,” Morgana said. Arthur regarded her for a moment and then gave a curt nod, a hopeful light coming into his eyes.
“I look forward to it.”
He looked at Freya, smiled, and then grinned outright when he caught sight of Gwen. Freya worried, suddenly, that he would call her by name and expose her, but Gwen spoke up first.
“Your majesty. I understand we knew each other in a former life. I am called Elyan.”
Arthur’s eyebrows rose high at that, but to his credit, he only looked round about them at the nearby crowd and nodded. “I see. That is a noble name indeed; the name of one of my finest knights. We shall have to catch up. You can tell me all about your current life.” He smiled wryly. Freya doubted he understood what was going on; he likely thought Gwen was in disguise for some reason. Gwen might have to speak with him later, but at least she was safe for now.
His eyes took in Gwen’s clothes, from her shoes to her cap. “I like your trousers,” he commented.
“So do I,” she shot back, learning further into Freya. Arthur looked between Arthur and Gwen for a moment, and then his eyes flickered up to Morgana again, before taking in the crowd around them once more.
“It is a strange new world. At least you’ve brought good company with you, Merlin.” His fingers tapped in a little rhythm against the back of Merlin’s neck.
“Are you going to be in charge of us now?” came Jane’s little voice near Freya’s shoulder.
Arthur shrugged. “No idea.”
And then the dam broke, and everyone was asking questions, crowding in close to get a glimpse of the King and to listen to his answers.
At some point, Arthur began to seem embarrassed that he was still holding his wizard in his arms. He bent to speak in Merlin’s ear, but Freya heard him say, “Merlin, perhaps we ought to continue this later?”
Merlin leaned back, but reached out again, almost involuntarily, to run a hand down Arthur’s chest. “They’re Druids, Arthur. They’re not going cast aspersions on us."
Which seemed an excellent point. Freya looked down at Gwen’s dark head against her shoulder; she was breathing relieved breaths against Freya’s collarbone. “Okay?”
“Yes. Yes. I don’t know what I thought would happen.”
“You thought he would kidnap you and force you to be his queen?”
“Possibly.” She laughed at herself and straightened up to smile.
“I wouldn’t have let him,” Freya whispered.
“I know.” Gwen kissed her quick and chaste on the cheek, and Freya raised an eyebrow at her.
“We are legends; I think we can permit ourselves a kiss in public.”
Gwen smiled her world-saving smile and looked over at Arthur and Merlin, who were apparently under the same impression. “Yes, yes I think so.”