They made camp at the edge of the woods, having decided – not without some reluctance – that whatever threat awaited them inside was better dealt with in daylight, after a good night’s sleep.
“Take the buckets and fetch us some water,” Arthur ordered Merlin, swinging down from his saddle. “Gareth, Gaheris, go find some firewood. The rest of us will lay out the bedrolls and prepare the meat.”
There was a stream not far away; Merlin could hear it burbling through the trees. He picked up the buckets and headed in that direction, picking his way carefully through the tangled undergrowth. Several times he almost tripped over his own feet; he wished he dared summon a mage-light for guidance, but with Arthur and his knights only a few feet away it was too much of a risk. The last thing he needed was for one of them to come and investigate.
At last, he stumbled upon a game trail leading down to the bank. The trees were thinner there, giving way to a grassy slope some distance from the water’s edge, and in the fading light Merlin could just make out the twisting path of the brook where it cut its way between the rocky banks.
There was already someone standing by the river.
She was tall for a woman, wearing a delicately embroidered white gown that clung to the outline of her slender body. Her hair was long, a rippling golden curtain that fell to her waist, her skin the colour of pale milk. She had been crouching beside the water, where she appeared to have been washing something; when she turned her face towards him, it was obvious that she had been crying.
“Er, hello,” Merlin said, when he had recovered from his shock. “Are you all right?”
“My son is dead,” the woman answered, her voice hollow. “I am washing the clothes that he will wear to his grave.”
“I’m so sorry.” Stepping closer, Merlin crouched down on the bank beside her, dropping the buckets into the mud. “Here, let me help you.”
She allowed him to take the shirt from her hands. It was a fine garment, expertly made, and roughly similar in size to the ones that Arthur usually wore. Merlin frowned. The fabric was too rich for a poor village family, and besides, he would have thought the woman too young to have a grown-up son.
“How did he die?” he asked, turning towards her. She was seated on a rock by the side of the stream now, though he couldn't recall seeing her move. Her dark eyes held such an aching sorrow that the expression almost stole his breath, and there was something oddly familiar about her, though Merlin was certain he would have remembered if he had seen her before. “Your son. Was he sick?”
“He will fall in battle,” she said, and the hair on the back of Merlin’s neck prickled sharply at the change in tense. “All that he could have been will be lost.”
“I don’t understand. I thought you said he was dead.”
“He is.” She got gracefully to her feet, and bent to press a chaste kiss to his cheek. The brush of her lips was like ice. “You are kind, Emrys. There are not many would have offered to wash the grave-clothes of a dead man. But you cannot save him.”
A chill spread through Merlin’s veins, starting from the point where her lips had touched him, but before he could demand answers the woman disappeared. The shirt Merlin had been clutching vanished too, dissolving into dust and slipping through his hands like air.
He was alone.
Arthur looked up when Merlin stumbled back into camp, his brows drawing together immediately when he saw that Merlin wasn’t carrying any water.
“Really, Merlin, you’re one of the worst servants I’ve ever— ” He stopped, peering into Merlin’s face. “Are you all right? You’re white as a sheet.”
“I…” Merlin opened his mouth to explain, but found he didn’t know what to say. His gaze caught on Arthur’s face in the firelight: the straight, autocratic brows, the fine golden hair. He wasn’t wearing a white shirt, but the resemblance was unmistakeable. “I’m not exactly sure. There was…I saw…”
He trailed off. He couldn’t exactly confess to having seen the prince’s mother down by the stream; at best, Arthur would think him mad, at worst, he’d suspect sorcery. But if it had truly been Queen Ygraine who had appeared to him, then Arthur could be in danger. Surely it was Merlin's duty to warn him if he could?
The prince raised his eyebrows expectantly, clearly impatient. “You saw…?” he prompted, when Merlin didn’t speak. Merlin swallowed.
“I thought…I thought I saw a bear,” he said lamely, feeling like a coward. Arthur stared at him incredulously for a moment, then broke into a loud laugh and clapped his hand on Merlin's shoulder.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he said, shaking his head. “It was probably your own shadow. Honestly, you’re as jumpy as a feral cat, sometimes.”
Merlin smiled weakly, unable to help glancing over his shoulder towards the stream. A cold breeze was blowing through the campsite: it might have been his imagination, but he thought he could hear the sound of a woman crying.
“You know me, sire,” he said, shivering a little. “Always jumping at shadows.”
Arthur cut a sidelong glance at him, then, sharp and assessing, and for a moment Merlin wondered if he could hear it too.
“Bors, go down to the stream and get that water, will you?” Arthur said, tugging Merlin closer to the fire. “I trust you, at least, won’t be frightened off by imaginary wildlife.”
Merlin watched him go, curling up next to Arthur as Gareth handed him some meat. If he pressed a little closer to the prince than was strictly necessary, well. It was a cold night, and he knew none of the others would blame him.