A fortnight had passed since Nimueh was stopped. Merlyn's mother made a full recovery, not even spot scars to mar her beautiful face, and she left after three days despite Merlyn begging her to stay.
“I don’t belong here,” Hunith said, cradling Merlyn's cheeks. They were the same height now; castle food having been good for Merlyn's development.
“You could belong here,” she argued, pouting like a child a third her age. She knew it was unbecoming but her mother was a safe harbour in a recently wild storm. Arthur was still different, rude and snappish, having gone so far as to dismiss Merlyn for two days before ordering her back to work with new conditions. He had forced her to move out of Gaius’ spare room and into the windowless servant’s chamber attached to his bedchambers. When she asked why he snapped at her for challenging his authority and threatened to throw her in the stocks. His temper was intense and Merlyn's composure frayed under his scrutiny, unused to his ire. He glared at her with his once kind eyes, hissed at her with lips that had once kissed her, turned away when she tried to appease him. She had thought it was pain, at first, but he no longer had a sling and he was soon to be returning to light training, so it wasn’t that. And not knowing felt as if she was treading over unstable ground, always unsure if the next movement would trigger an explosion.
“I would not be happy here, my flower,” said her mother, drawing her back to the present. “I do not thrive in a city as you do. I long for pastures and a small neighbourhood.”
Merlyn sighed, dropping her gaze, knowing and despondent at that truth. “Be safe,” she mumbled, falling into her mother’s comforting embrace and burying her face in her neck.
“You also, my heart,” Hunith whispered, stroking her daughter’s hair.
Lancelot guided her back to Ealdor while Gwen stayed behind to return to her duties. Morgana was understanding of the maid’s recent absences, believing still that Gwen was grieving her father, but the relief of her return was clear. Morgana had been suffering particularly terrible nightmares recently, visions of creatures made of stone flying above the city and three-eyed ravens. It made Merlyn nervous since if what Morgana was seeing was the future, then something dangerous was coming. In light of this, she had been spending every free moment practicing spells that dealt with stone in some way, to prepare as much as possible.
Presently, Arthur, herself, Sir Leon and Sir Pellinor were in the courtyard, about to go on a hunt; Merlyn's first for a long time. His previous concerns about her reputation seemed to have disappeared and, in addition, he refused to let her leave the city without a guide. Sunstrider had suffered the training yards for many days so his eagerness to venture beyond the walls had him chomping at the bit.
“Control your horse,” Arthur snapped when her golden steed danced on the spot, waiting for the prince to mount his own horse.
Merlyn bit her lip at his tone but obliged, giving Sunstrider a bit of leg to move his hindquarters then checking his prance until he stood quiet but impatient. Previously, Arthur had never cared about Sunstrider's excitement or slight misbehaviours, in fact, enjoying the spirit the palomino stallion brought out in his own mount. But that was Before.
Now, she couldn’t even seem to breathe without aggravating him. It was starting to chip away at her confidence in their friendship, and against her will, a knot formed in her throat. Being his servant had never been so hard.
“Come on,” Arthur said as he swung onto Hengroen. Pellinor followed dutifully as the prince rode out but Leon shot Merlyn a troubled glance before falling into line – which meant he had noticed the tension between prince and servant. Even as embarrassing as it was to have another see her humiliation, it was nice to know it wasn’t all in her head; Arthur truly had changed his behaviour and others were noticing.
“Keep up, Merlyn, if you know what is good for you,” snapped the prince and she swallowed before nudging Sunstrider into the end of the line. Best to keep her head down until she could find a reason and fix it; no need to aggravate his aggravation.
Still… it chafed at her to take his criticisms without retort. She was not one to roll over and show her belly naturally and she didn’t enjoy doing it now. A bully was a bully, whether they were once her friend or not.
“Are you a halfwit, Merlyn?” Arthur demanded, storming over to where she had tumbled into the entrance to his chambers, now covered in the prince’s dinner. She’d tripped over the hem of her dress, having bent to pick up his heavy tray after opening the door, and consequently, dropped everything as she fell, including his favourite teacup. The ceramic shards were imbedded in her left palm where she had landed on it and she pushed herself onto her knees gingerly, cradling the bleeding limb. Hot stew was burning her arms where it had splashed but she ignored it in favour of picking out the slivers and wrapping her hand in a clean part of her dress to try to stem the bleeding.
She was jolted from her focus when Arthur slid the messy tray out of the way with his boot. “Get up, Merlyn,” he ordered. “And get me another meal. I’m hungry.”
“I hurt my hand, sire,” she said, showing him the cuts on her palm. More blood welled up when she stopped applying pressure but Arthur scoffed. She looked up in surprise and saw a deep scowl on his face.
“I care not from some petty scratches. I have been working drills with the knights all afternoon and I am famished. Get me food. Deal with your sores in your own time.”
She gaped at him, speared by his callousness, but he turned away, uncaring as he spread mess over the floor with his boot. “And clean this up quickly,” he added, turning back for a moment. “I’ll not have my chambers a disgrace through your incompetence.” He pointed to the spilled food then moved to his writing desk, picking up an unbound scroll.
Merlyn was stunned for a moment, utterly flabbergasted by his heartlessness. That was… that… she couldn’t believe he would act like that.
Slowly, she scraped the worst of the food chunks from her stained dress then climbed to her feet and moved over to the broom cupboard to find rags. Her hand stung as she cleaned but she ignored it until she could tend to it privately. Wouldn’t do for Arthur to use it as an excuse to throw her in the stocks.
Merlyn was glad of Gwen’s wedding preparations, as her friend’s excitement fed her own and allowed her to smother the persistent urge to cry or shout. Their conversations were caught in snippets between work since Arthur didn’t let her wander far or for long, but they managed some viable discussions during dinners between the royal family and Morgana. They stood in the shadows of the pillars while the nobles chatted and quietly bounced ideas between them, only separating to refill goblets.
At any rate, it was much better than dealing with Arthur alone, with all his insults and snide remarks. No longer was there jesting and light-heartedness; his words were aimed to sting – and sting they did.
“Can you be any more useless, Merlyn?”
“Merlyn, are you talented in anything?”
“Why, in any sane opinion, did you think that was a good idea, Merlyn?”
“Get out of my sight, Merlyn, you are making me lose my appetite.”
“I’ll start calling you ‘simpleton’ shall I, Merlyn?”
“How about imbecile? Moron? Dunderhead? Dimwit? Though, I suppose, ‘Merlyn’ encompasses all those adequately, doesn’t it?”
She had never hated her name so much. Or felt so terrible waking up each morning.
Merlyn was playing with the slop in her bowl, not even knowing what it was: some sort of soup-slash-stew with heavy seasoning. It was dinner time and she had survived another day. Arthur hadn’t wanted her to leave his chambers once he had settled for the night but Merlyn had begged to eat dinner with Gaius, not having seen her guardian for more than fleeting moments for almost two weeks. To her great relief, the prince had conceded, though he gave her a time limit and promised to send guards if she hadn’t returned in an hour. An hour was hardly enough time to eat and catch up but she didn’t particularly want to spend the night in the dungeon.
And it seemed, now she was with Gaius, she had nothing to say.
“The King has been in discussion with Geoffrey of Monmouth these past two days,” Gaius shared, his wooden spoon scraping the bowl with a dry rasp. “Geoffrey has discovered ancient tomes that speak of untold treasures hidden deep beneath the castle. Uther is contemplating starting a search.”
Merlyn blinked, glancing up at the old physician. “What kind of untold treasures are we talking about?” she asked, knowing that not all treasures were gold.
“It does not say,” Gaius said slowly. “But the script tells of riches worthy of the True King of Camelot. Understandably, it has caught Uther’s attention.”
“Understandably,” she muttered. Of course, the King would want the riches of a true sovereign, if only to proclaim himself such. She sighed, scooping up a lump of vegetables and broth and slurping it into her mouth. Flavour burst across her tongue and her stomach growled in appreciation, causing her to realise it was aching with hollowness. When was the last time she had eaten?
Gaius pushed over a loaf of bread as she chowed down and Merlyn tore a chunk from it to soak up some of the liquid, humming in gratitude. “‘s good,” she said through her mouthful of food, feeling savage but not wanting to stop for politeness.
The old man watched her passively; he must have missed her as much as she missed him if he wasn’t scolding her for ill-manners. She felt suddenly melancholy and her appetite died as quickly as it had sprung. She put down her spoon and forcefully swallowed the bread in her mouth. She stared at him sadly.
“I miss how it used to be,” she said softly, and his craggy face pinched in similar wistfulness. “I miss you… I miss Arthur.”
“It will get better,” he promised, reaching over to take her hand. “He must be feeling the pressure of his duties and he’s taking it out on the one person he knows will not leave him. Only a couple more years and he’ll be venturing on his Quest to earn his right as heir to the throne. His father may be pressuring him to find a wife and produce an heir.”
Merlyn shook her head. “He’s barely interacted with his father beyond standard council meetings – and I know because he refuses to allow me to leave his side. Do you know,” she added, staring at Gaius incredulously; “That he almost banned me from going to the loo – and suddenly he cares not for propriety since he has me joining them on hunts and patrols! He’s acting like I cannot be trusted away from his eyes.”
Gaius didn’t have an answer for her, shrugging helplessly. Merlyn grumbled to herself as she pushed the half-empty bowl away and stood. “I’d better head back before Prince Prat decides to send guards after me. Don’t want to spend another night in the dungeons for being a minute late.”
She rolled her eyes and moved around the table, kissing Gaius’ brow before heading for the door, her weathered blue cloak hanging by the exit. Autumn had taken over the kingdom and the nights were starting to bite. She hated that she had to tromp through the cold corridors back to her chilly, dark little room beside Arthur's lavish bedchamber. He may have gifted her with a thick blanket to battle the cold but the lack of even a slim window to the outside world had her feeling very isolated within its walls. Just as isolated she felt when in Arthur's presence.
She kicked a tiny pebble that had snuck into the outer corridors and hoped Arthur's cruel phase passed quickly. His attitude dragged her down, even when he wasn’t around, and she hated feeling this way. She liked being happy and she wanted to enjoy life. Why wasn’t he letting her breathe? What was he punishing her for?
A week passed and nothing changed. Merlyn ended up in the stocks after dropping a full teacup all over Arthur's lap, her hands shaking as they tended to do now when he glared her way. She’d apologised profusely, trying to dab up the damage but Arthur shoved her away and called the guards, having her escorted to the stocks for the day. As it was only breakfast, Merlyn had a nightmare of a sore back by the evening – and stunk terribly from all the rotten fruit thrown her way.
There was no comedy to be found in this punishment; no silver lining. Usually she could find some humour; the cheering children scoring a hit, or the actions that led to her being punished in the first place (usually ridiculous and Arthur's fault), but this time, the sour expression on Arthur's face as he watched her be led away and the disparity to the last time hot tea had been spilled on him, where they had played a silly game of catch, was like night and day. The contrast had her new reality settling coldly onto her shoulders and she found herself miserable for most of the day.
The two stock guards were very gentle as they eased her from the contraption, recognising that her behaviour was much bluer than usual, and handed her off to Gwen with care. The curly-haired maid wrapped an arm around her back despite her stained and stinky appearance, and led her to her house. She said nothing as Merlyn wiped away the occasional tear.
Inside the sturdy abode, a wooden bathtub stood proudly past the curtain partition, already steaming with hot water. Merlyn let out a shaky breath at the sight of it and turned to her friend. “Where did this come from?” she asked quietly, emotions running high with the care she was being shown.
“Morgana thought you might like some privacy after the stocks. We all need a little love and care every now and again, and I doubt Arthur has been providing any with the temper he’s possessed lately. Morgana would be here but she’s required to dine with the King tonight.”
Merlyn's chest felt tight and she whispered, “Thank you.”
Gwen only smiled tightly and helped the black-haired girl undress.
Merlyn climbed into the heated tub and sunk down with a delighted groan. “You are an angel, Gwen,” she said, closing her eyes and letting the steam empty her head.
The curly-haired maid dipped a rag into the hot water and set about cleaning Merlyn's face. The younger girl tilted her head up and let Gwen work, her care soothing some of Merlyn's rawness.
“Perhaps you should resign,” Gwen suggested quietly, still cleaning her skin.
Merlyn opened her eyes, shocked. “I cannot do that,” she denied, the very idea offensive. “I am his servant.”
“And so was Morris, and Edward, and Sean, and countless others before you came here. If they did not quit, they were soon replaced, and the cycle was unbroken. Until you.” Gwen looked down, focusing on the rag as she cleaned in it the water. “You lasted longer than any other I can remember, save his nurse when he was young, but you are not happy any longer, Merlyn. I barely see you smile when before, it rarely left your face. He keeps you to his side, yet insults you with every breath – and you allow it.” Gwen looked up and Merlyn dropped her gaze, unable to bear her own shame. “You never allowed it before, and I do not know what has changed for you to give him the authority to tear you down as he has been, but it is not right. It does not matter that he is the prince,” she added when the black-haired girl opened her mouth. “It does not matter what status he has. He does not have the right do bring you to tears and feel no guilt. No one does.”
“Well,” Merlyn jested, unable to handle the heavy atmosphere. “I think the King might.”
“Merlyn,” said the maid reproachfully and her forced grin dropped. She sighed, feeling that rawness rise once more, and reached up to play with the Camelot medallion around her neck. Its metal was an undefined blend that didn’t tarnish easily with age or moisture, so it never left her body, even when bathing.
“We were set to build a better future,” she said, staring absently at the ripples she was creating in the bathwater. “A place where equality reigned and we were at peace. Arthur was learning to see with clear eyes, free of his father’s bias, but,” she shook her head, letting the medallion fall to her chest. “But now, all he is, is prejudiced and hateful. I know not what went wrong, but I’m unable to fix it.” she looked back at Gwen, a sad frown on her face. “I do not know how to fix him.”
The maid touched Merlyn's hair, knotted and sticky from rotted food, and said sadly, “Sometimes, a person can only fix themselves. No matter the advice they are given, the paths they are led upon, only they can decide what to think and how to feel. You have guided Arthur honestly and kindly. He has become a better man from your presence. But you can lead him only so far. It is now that he must decide for himself what to be: a compassionate ruler, or a feared one.”
Once, Merlyn would have been certain which he would pick. Now… she could only hope.
“I cannot give up on him,” she whispered, staring at Gwen and hoping she would understand. Her decision may be naïve but she could not turn away just yet without hating herself. “Not just yet.”
Gwen smiled at her forlornly, brows pinched in worry. “I know,” she murmured, tugging on a dirty strand of hair. “I would have been surprised if you had.”
Merlyn huffed a weak laugh and the maid looked away before reaching for a soft bar of soap. “Alright,” Gwen said in a forced cheery tone. “Let’s clean you up.”
Merlyn was on her bed, wrapped in her warm blanket with her thin pillow over her head, trying, vainly, to block out the sound of pickaxes beneath the castle.
“Merlyn!” called Arthur from within his chambers and the black-haired girl groaned, dragging herself from her bed and edging through the door with the blanket still wrapped around her frame.
“Yes, sire?” she asked before yawning, tiredness pulling at her eyelids like lead weights. She didn’t even notice the prince was out of his bed with only trousers to keep his modesty.
“Are you deaf?” he demanded and she internally sighed. It appeared he had prepared himself for a session of insults and braced herself to bear them, despite it being the middle of the night.
“No, sire,” she said as neutrally as she could. He always seemed to anger when she showed her hurt, like his words shouldn’t pierce her as they did.
“I want you to go down there and tell them to stop,” he commanded, pointing to the floor where the axes could still be heard, picking away at stone. Merlyn blinked in surprise; so he’d actually had a point with his slur then. That was new.
Still… she swallowed nervously. “They’re working under the King’s order,” she pointed out, in case he had overlooked that fact.
“Yes?” he retorted, in a tone that suggested she was an idiot. A familiar one these days. “And you are working under mine.”
She sighed, dropping her shoulders. “Yes, sire,” she mumbled, shivering as she shed her blanket and bared herself to the cooler air, though the chambers were warmer than the corridor would be since the fire was still burning strongly. She grabbed her cloak from the hook beside the door and wrapped it tightly around her frame, glad her hair was now long enough to warm her ears and neck. Her neckerchief was always around her throat these days, as she didn’t want to expose her scar to Arthur's cold glare lest he target it in his jibes. She didn’t think she could tolerate an attack on those memories with her composure intact.
The workers had discovered the hidden treasury, which turned out to be a tomb for an ancient, unknown noble. A booby-trapped tomb, as an unfortunate one of the workers learned firsthand. Merlyn saved Gaius from the same setup before Arthur and Uther arrived to examine the loot. Uther raised an eyebrow at her as she picked up the dented platter by his feet and she shot him a sheepish smile. Behind him, she saw Arthur rolling his eyes and he grabbed her arm as the King passed.
“Were you born clumsy or do you work at it?” he hissed then cut her off when she opened her mouth to reply; “Stand by the door and touch nothing.”
She gritted her teeth but ducked her head and obeyed, she avoided the glance Gaius shot her as Arthur moved away. Him treating her like dirt ached like a constant bruise, but when he did so in front of people she respected and cared for, it flared sharply and coloured her cheeks with shame.
Two days later, Merlyn was being used as a footstep for Arthur to mount Hengroen when the saddle slipped and the prince went toppling backwards, his steed startled enough to canter away. Merlyn stared after the stallion with a perplexed frown on her face.
“Merlyn!” Arthur snarled, climbing to his feet and probably embarrassed by the incident. She winced at having ruined his semi-good mood.
“I don’t understand,” she implored, and Arthur snorted, eyes wide in incredulity.
“Well, there’s a surprise!” he mocked, and she scowled at the ground.
“I did that girth up myself,” she defended. It shouldn’t have been so loose; Hengroen wasn’t the type of horse to hold his breath.
“I think that might have been the problem,” he snapped and moved off, more than likely, to recapture his steed. His movements halted when an unfamiliar peasant appeared, leading Hengroen back over.
He called to the prince, “Would you like me to fit the girth properly for you, sire?”
His mild inflection on the word properly had Merlyn's hackles rising. What happened to commoner solidarity?
Arthur raised his eyebrows in surprise at the stranger and said, “Thank you.”
The man bowed. “It is an honour to be of service to the Prince,” he said, sugary sweet, and Merlyn grimaced at his grovelling. What a bootlicker.
The blonde knight turned to her, smug and haughty. “An honour,” he repeated pointedly. “Do you hear that, Merlyn?”
The stranger approached the prince and said, “Allow me the honour of brushing your clothes down.”
Arthur raised an eyebrow at Merlyn a satisfied smirk on his face as he whispered, “The honour.”
Merlyn glowered at him as the bootlicker asked, “Anything else I can do for you, sir?”
“Well,” said Arthur, turning away from her at last. “You can give Merlyn here a kick up the backside.”
The stranger chuckled and she scowled, daring him to try. “I wouldn’t wish to deprive you of the pleasure, sir,” he refused gracefully; much too smooth not to be slimy – though Arthur seemed to like him. Soon enough, the bootlicker was joining them on their hunt and he appeared too smug about that fact. Merlyn glared at his back the entire way down the main thoroughfare, forced to walk behind Hengroen as if she was Arthur's slave. Meanwhile, the toerag was strutting alongside the prince while the blonde knight chatted with Sir Leon, like he had earned the right to be there.
Merlyn saved Arthur's life; Cedric got the credit. That lying, conniving little toad.
“All I wish for is a position in the royal household,” she mocked to herself in a high voice as she stomped up the stairs to Gaius’ chambers. She was supposed to be fetching the water boys for Arthur's bath, but the arrogant twat could wait a minute; she needed to rant, and Gwen was occupied with poor Morgana, who had suffered a particularly nasty night terror with images that made Merlyn's magic itch in nervousness.
“I found this inscription on the sceptre,” Gaius said when he saw who had entered and Merlyn pushed her anger aside to join him. She could rant later, he looked like he had found something interesting. He was sitting at the table, an old tome open in front of him and a scrap of parchment littered with strange writing.
“What language is that?” she asked, unable to make head or tails of it.
“I know not,” admitted Gaius. “Sigan would have known many languages.”
“Sigan?” she asked, tilting her head at the ominous tone he was using. She moved from behind his shoulder to across the table, seating herself to stare at her guardian.
“It is his tomb,” the old man shared but Merlyn was no less enlightened.
“Who is he?” she pressed only to have Gaius stare at her in shock.
“Merlyn,” he sighed, shaking his head. “He was the most powerful sorcerer to have lived.”
Her intrigue spiked immediately and Gaius elaborated; “You didn't grow up in Camelot, but for those of us that did, Cornelius Sigan was a figure of nightmare.”
“Nightmare?” she parroted with a frown. “Why?”
“Sigan’s powers. He could change day into night, turn the tides, and legend has it, his spells helped build Camelot itself.”
She shook her head, still confused. “But if he helped forge the city then why was he feared?”
“He grew too powerful,” Gaius said. “The king at the time ordered his execution.”
She gulped at the old man’s words. Magic was a study, but it was not only for evil; building Camelot was clearly a good thing. She internally sighed. Fear, once again, caused hate and betrayal.
“If he is dead,” she said shortly. “Why are you so worried?”
Gaius shot her a glance, eyebrow raised with unease. “Sigan couldn't bear the thought that his wealth and power would die with him, so he became obsessed with finding a way to defeat death itself.”
“But that’s impossible,” she argued. “That would disrupt the balance of the Old Religion. It would have caused catastrophic results.”
“Then let us hope that he did not succeed,” Gaius murmured, eyeing the foreign script with pursed lips. Merlyn snorted, pushing away from the table.
“When has hope ever aided us?” she grumbled then realised just how sullen she sounded. Gaius looked up at her, startled, and she swallowed. “Sorry,” she mumbled.
His brow furrowed and he peered at her. “Are you alright, Merlyn?” he asked, concern lacing his tone.
She looked down, surliness growing. “I saved Arthur's life today,” she muttered. “And his new bootlicker, Cedric, took the credit.” Her hands clenched as her words reignited the anger. “He forces me to walk behind his horse like I’m his slave, Gaius!” she burst out and the old man blinked at her, eyebrow rising. “He has me sleep in this cold, little, windowless room beside his own grand bedchamber and belittles everything I do.” She threw up her hands, hating how her eyes burned. She was not going to cry! “I do not know why I still try!” she admitted then added quietly. “Gwen said I should quit.”
The words felt blasphemous slipping from her lips but with it verbalised, Merlyn wondered if it wasn’t, perhaps, a smart idea. She could still protect Arthur from a distance, use her Emrys disguise. At least then, she wouldn’t be ridiculed and insulted.
“Merlyn,” said Gaius, reaching for one of her balled fists with his own, papery hand. “You mustn’t think like that. I know it is hard, but you cannot simply leave as the going gets tough. That is when you must dig in your heels and remind the world of why you were chosen for this task. You must focus on the future where all your suffering and hard work will have paid off, and you – and everyone like you – will be accepted. One day, Arthur will look at you and see what you are. And he will accept you, magic and all.”
“I wish that day were now,” she muttered, staring down at their joined hands, squeezing Gaius’ weathered fingers gently. “I wish he didn’t hate me.”
“He does not hate you, my girl,” Gaius refuted gently. “I see he watches you with confliction. I know not what has caused it but there is no hate in his gaze.”
Merlyn met her guardian’s pale blue orbs. “Do you speak truly?” she asked, a faint little ember sparking to life where once there had only been ash. If he was conflicted then perhaps Merlyn was only an outlet for a greater issue, perhaps Gaius’ suggestion of outside pressure was closer to the truth than she had believed.
“Merlyn,” Gaius said softly. “Arthur couldn’t hate you if he tried.”
The next morning, despite sending Merlyn down to fetch his breakfast, she returned to find Cedric had laid out a feast and Arthur was eating it with gusto. She gritted her teeth and said as calmly as she could; “Is there anything else that you need doing, sire?”
“No,” Arthur said dismissively. “I think Cedric has it all covered.”
She looked to the slimeball and he quirked a self-satisfied smile. “Oh,” he said, as if he had just forgotten. “I regret, sire, there is one thing I failed to do. Uh… muck out your horses.”
Her jaw clenched as she recognised his tactics. Arthur, it seemed, was oblivious. Or, perhaps, uncaring.
“Off you go,” he said, raising his eyebrows as if daring her to argue. She stared at the vindictiveness in his expression and pressed her lips together. He was enjoying this.
Merlyn bowed stiffly and Cedric’s unwanted voice said, ever so helpfully, “I’ll get the door for you.”
She took several steps but stopped before she moved over the threshold, turning back to her usurper and saying loudly enough for Arthur to hear, “Be careful in how much you feed him, Cedric, for he will grow fat quickly on meals like that. Like a pig being prepared for slaughter.”
She spun from the room before either man could reply and kept her head high as she marched along the corridors. Gaius’ words the previous night had stuck firmly in her brain. Despite how harshly the prince was treating her, she was Arthur's servant, not the jumped up little lickspittle scraping at his feet right now. Arthur was hers to care for and protect, and Cedric could leave willingly, or she would make him leave. Turn him as toady as his personality.
Merlyn snorted to herself, imagining the weasel-looking peasant as a warty, brown toad, as wet and slimy as his attitude. Of course, she would never do such a thing, but it was nice to picture.
Merlyn was cuddling Sunstrider when the head-spins hit, and she barely had a moment to lift a hand to her forehead before her consciousness was swept away. She didn’t feel herself fall to the straw-covered floor, or hear Sunstrider’s uneasy neighs – or his sharp squeal as he lunged for Cedric, who tried to untie his rope alongside the other royal steeds. Cedric yelped as his forearm was bitten but managed to dart away before the bone was broken beneath a forceful jaw. He abandoned the golden stallion and shooed the other beasts from the stable, sending them running down the street.
Sunstrider staggered as the powerful gas affected his large bulk but his master was unmoving in the straw. He nudged her with his nose, whickering in urgency as the scent of smoke called on all his instincts to flee. But he was tethered by more than rope and his master wasn’t waking.
Finally, dizziness overcame Sunstrider’s six hundred kilos of muscle and he dropped to his knees, folding his legs beneath him with an exhausted groan. He didn’t quite pass out, but his awareness drifted, and he didn’t notice the reappearance of Cedric as the wastrel removed the smoking bag of evidence then hid in the shadows to watch the show.
Merlyn awoke to the sound of Sunstrider clambering to his feet and she opened her eyes only to wince as the sunlight from the windows pierced her skull.
“Ow,” she moaned, sitting up only to sense the presence of another person. She looked up to see Arthur, hands on his hips and face absolutely unamused.
“S-sire!” she said, climbing to her feet and using Sunstrider as a balance when her own failed.
“What are you doing?” the prince asked, his tone deceptively light. That was when Merlyn knew he was building up to something bad. He only ever started calmly when he was at his most irritated.
“Nothing,” she said quickly, hoping to waylay his temper. She rubbed her temple, head pounding like she had a hangover, though she hadn’t been drinking.
“I can see that,” Arthur agreed, a little hostility building in his tone. She winced.
“I was… I was…”
“… Yes?” he urged expectantly.
“Perhaps you were looking for something?” he suggested.
“Yes,” she said, leaping on it gratefully, but Arthur's ire blazed truly, his eyes sparking and nostrils flaring in much the same manner as a displeased horse.
“Perhaps we are looking for the same thing,” he continued and Merlyn frowned at him, confused. He growled when she didn’t clue in and snarled, “The horses!”
“The…” she glanced around to see all the royal steeds vanished from sight. She gulped. “Oh,” she mumbled, realisation settling coldly over her body.
“Oh,” Arthur hissed. “I do not know what is wrong with you today but your incompetence has increased tenfold. I would like for it to stop.”
“I do not know what happened,” she defended herself, face heating under his scowl. “I was fine, and then-then I was dizzy…” she shook her head, glancing at the empty stalls and trying to make sense of it all.
“Sire,” interjected Cedric’s unwanted voice and she watched as he stepped delicately into the stables. “Please, sire, don't be too hard on her. She is probably a good servant; she just… she is tired.”
“I am not!” she argued, incensed that this sycophant would dare presume her state of mind.
“Maybe,” suggested Cedric, his hesitation speaking of his slimy intentions. “Maybe if she had the evening off…”
“I am not tired!” she shouted. “I did not fall asleep!”
“A good night’s rest…” he shrugged. “I am more than willing to take over her duties for the night.”
Arthur was eyeing her narrowly and she stared at him incredulously, unable to believe that he was falling for such blatant tactics. “Perhaps you are right,” he murmured and Merlyn threw up her hands.
“Can you not see what he is trying to do?” she demanded. “He's trying to be rid of me, and if you weren't such a clotpole, you would see that!”
“A what?” Arthur asked in a dangerously low tone. Merlyn swallowed, realising that she may have crossed a line.
“Clotpole,” said Cedric, ever so helpfully. “She, she said clotpole.” He ducked his head, as if ashamed to repeat the word but Merlyn saw him pressing his lips together, hiding a smile.
“You!” she snapped, jabbing a finger at him. “You little toad –”
“Merlyn!” shouted Arthur and her mouth snapped shut, wide, wary eyes locking onto his own. “Cedric’s right. He can look after me tonight. I think you need time to cool off your temper and relearn how to speak before your prince.”
“Arthur,” she beseeched softly but the prince’s eyes were as hard as sapphires. She ducked her head, mortified at being humiliated in front of Cedric.
“You will return to your chambers and remain there for the rest of the night, to think on the hazards of what you are doing and how you may go about correcting them,” Arthur said. Merlyn cocked her head, confused at his wording but he said sharply, “Go!” and she scurried off like a dog with her tail between her legs.
Despite Merlyn's previous comment on rich meals, Cedric had brought another veritable feast to Arthur's table for dinner. The prince accepted it unreservedly, though he silently agreed with Merlyn's assessment that too much too often and he would struggle to buckle his belt. However, it was a nice indulgence for a little while – much like he was indulging his pettiness by keeping Cedric on. Let Merlyn feel a little uncertainty for once, for all the worry and fear Arthur, himself, was suffering at her hand.
“Fairly unusual, sire, to have a girl as your personal servant,” Cedric said nonchalantly, hands cradling the wine flagon as he stood adjacent to the prince, like the perfect servant.
Arthur hummed. “My father mistook her for a boy after she saved my life and appointed her,” he explained, mind still caught on the black-haired girl and what to do about her habit. Keeping her right by his side would only work for so long before she managed to slip away and practice some dark craft. “Only later was his error realised but by then, Merlyn had already been trained and I loathed to search for yet another servant.”
“Oh, well I’m sure your father’s misassumption was perfectly innocent,” Cedric agreed. “I mean, with the shorter hair and slender form in those boy’s clothes she often wears, anyone could do the same. I’m sure she wasn’t deliberately trying to trick herself into the royal household.”
Arthur frowned at his comment, but his tone was light and not accusatory. He probably didn’t realise the danger of his words. “No,” he replied, just as casual yet with a flash of warning in his eyes. “It would have been no easy feat to manipulate a grieving sorceress to take on the persona of our finest singer in order to assassinate me only to save me at great risk to herself, all for a position in my father’s household.”
“Of course, sire,” the servant agreed, suitably chastised as he bowed apologetically. “Forgive me; I didn’t mean for it to sound uncomplimentary.”
“Of course not,” agreed Arthur, his eyes sliding over to the door hidden in the corner where Merlyn no doubt slept, hungry and dirty, in punishment of her actions and words. “But do not utter them again.”
Cedric bowed again and that was the end of that.
Merlyn left early the next morning to work Sunstrider in the round arena, even knowing the young stallion was straining against his restrictions. He hadn’t been into the forest for a run in several weeks now and he was not enjoying it one iota. Merlyn understood his behaviour, for she too, felt like running around the yards, kicking and bucking and ignoring all orders. But, alas, she had no such releases.
She left him in the long yard beside Hengroen and watched as the two stallions chased each other up and down the fence, ears back and snapping. She shook her head; they liked to pretend they hated each other but she knew they were friends. They were simply too proud to accept it.
She was heading back up to the castle when Gaius found her and shared his translation of the foreign inscription on the sceptre. “He who breaks my heart, completes my work.”
“So, if the stone is removed from its setting, then the heart is broken and the soul released,” she interpreted, dread rising in her chest.
Gaius confirmed it with his words: “That is what I fear.”
“We are in grave peril,” she said. “I must warn Arthur!”
The warning bell sounded as she spoke and she looked to Gaius before they both rushed off to the castle.
The gate was undamaged; unlocked instead of broken, and the blue heart sceptre atop the coffin was now drained of any colour. Sigan had been freed. And she knew exactly by whom.
“Cedric is possessed by an evil spirit,” she told Arthur, bursting into his chambers as he filed a report on the break-in.
Arthur paused then, slowly, put down his quill. He folded his hands together then met her agitated gaze. “What?” he asked, eyebrow raised.
She put her hands on the desk and leant forward, trying to impress upon him the urgency of the matter. “He tried to steal the jewel, but it wasn't a jewel, it was a soul of an ancient sorcerer, Sigan.” She shook her head, hearing how mad she sounded. She closed her eyes, rephrasing herself; “The sceptre atop the coffin wasn’t a jewel, it was the soul of Cornelius Sigan, captured by the will of the sorcerer upon his death and enchanted to possess the body who took it to complete his work.” She opened her eyes and met Arthur's frown. “He was put to death for his powers,” she explained, lest he not remember the tale that, apparently, every child in Camelot was told. “But he vowed to return and lay waste to Camelot. Arthur. He has returned. In Cedric.”
“Why should I believe you?” he demanded and Merlyn was taken aback at the unexpected question, her mouth open as she tried to comprehend his query.
“I… I am your faithful servant,” she said, hurt he would question her like this. “I would not lie to you, Arthur. Camelot is in mortal danger.”
The prince clenched his teeth, his hands scrunching into fists on the desk. Merlyn stared at them, alarmed at his aggressive reaction. He appeared to be biting back words, jaw working hard to stop them spilling free. She straightened up, wary.
Eventually, he let out a long breath and said without glancing at her, “Leave me.”
“I said leave!”
She backed out of the room, bewildered.
That night, Camelot was besieged by gargoyle-like creatures. There were dozens of them, swooping down and attacking people, laying them low in one fell blow. Weapons were useless on them, which revealed them as beasts of sorcery. And Merlyn had learned quickly in her time at Camelot that only magic could defeat magic.
She clasped her red cloak about her throat and threw up the hood, brushing her hand over her face to darken the shadows and conceal her identity. She rushed out of the physician’s chambers and scurried down the stairs, arriving in the courtyard in time to blast a gargoyle that was diving towards a cluster of townsfolk with its claws extended and teeth bared. Two women screamed as it exploded and rubble rained on them but Merlyn yelled, “To the citadel!”
They obeyed with fear on their faces and she charged over the drawbridge to find more. They were easy to spot, loud and destructive as they were. And it seemed her appearance called a silent challenge, for three landed before her with bold roars. She blasted them into dust without fanfare and shouted to the sky, “Show yourself, Sigan! Or are you coward?”
There was a clatter on the drawbridge behind her and she turned to find Arthur, Lancelot and several knights armed and in formation. Their weapons didn’t lower in the face of her presence. “Is this your doing, sorcerer?” demanded Arthur, scowl heavy. Lancelot shifted behind him but said nothing, thankfully.
“The one you seek is Cornelius Sigan, Prince Arthur,” she said, deepening her voice as she realised she had forgotten to magically alter it. “It is he who lays waste to your city. But I will stop him.”
“According to legend, he is the most powerful sorcerer to ever live,” Arthur snapped. “What is your legend, magician?”
She tucked her chin, but didn’t lower her eyes, though the prince would not be able to see beneath her hood. “Mine is still being written, Prince. I am not a relic of times long past, I am a creature of the future, as are you.”
“We have nothing in common!” Arthur snarled but they were distracted as more gargoyles swept down to engage them.
Merlyn bested two before a third caught her by surprise and sent her flying with a snap of a wing to her back. She hit the stone border bracketing the drawbridge and consciousness fled immediately.