Magic, in the heat of battle, is less of an advantage than might be imagined. Spellcasting requires a level of stillness and a deal of concentration, both in short supply on the battlefield. Trying to work what magic I could in secret whilst in full view of Arthur and a battalion of his knights didn't make it any easier – I couldn't rely on the chaos of the battlefield to conceal me. Oh, yes, and being shit-scared probably didn't help, either. I'd managed a few small magics – sent up a spray of dirt and pebbles in our opponents' faces to blind them, snapped a couple of tree branches in strategic places, managed to change the trajectory of a spearshot so that it went wide of its mark, not that I thought Sir Evan would be much loss and nor would he ever thank me even if he knew – but, really, I'd done very little other than get in the way. I knew I was in the way, because Arthur yelled "Get out of the bloody way, Merlin!" at least twice, only the second time he didn't say 'bloody'. In the end I'd snatched up a sword from a fallen knight and used it as a conduit for my powers, which turned out to work quite well, well enough that it at least looked as though I were doing some small share of the fighting, and, furthermore, discreetly. I still hadn't exactly covered myself with glory, but I'd at least been, if not an asset, then not a complete liability.
It was long past twilight by the time we came in view of Camelot, and I was drooping in my saddle. A couple of years of high living are no match for a lifetime of habit. In Ealdor we had done as country people have done throughout the ages, risen at cockcrow and gone to bed with the setting of the sun; candles were a luxury, and luxuries were scarce. Nonexistent, actually. But in Camelot, flambeaux blaze deep into the night. The townsfolk keep a strict curfew, but the castle itself never sleeps, not really. It's how the gentry live, and who are we poor serving folk to argue with our lords and masters?
I woke up when we stopped – well, I say 'woke up'; the jolt tipped me off-balance and I fell off my horse. I fall off my horse a lot, not being born to the saddle like some people I could mention, and I'm pretty used to it now. So, speaking of lords and masters, is Arthur. He used to be quite sarcastic about it at first, and not above helping me to my feet with a none-too-gentle boot to the arse, but these days he just rolls his eyes, and sighs, and waits. I scrambled to my feet, mustered up the brightest smile possible under the circumstances, and followed him, lead rein in hand, to the stables. Behind us was the clatter and chink of the knights as they, too, halted, dismounted, mostly far more gracefully than I had, and went their own way to stable and hall.
I am no great friend of horses. They are huge, great, clumsy, stupid creatures, with enormous, heavy feet – which I can attest to personally, my own feet having been stepped on by giant hooves more times than I can number – and yet, for all their size, they are ridiculously delicate and have to be tended as carefully as a fractious baby in case they throw out a splint or a spavin or whatever the word is. The sorriest nag in Uther's stables is worth a good fifty times what I am, and that's estimating myself with more than generosity, so tending and cosseting they receive in good measure. Arthur takes care of his own horses, grooming them and checking their feed and tucking them in cosily for the night. My own horse's reins were snatched rudely from my hands as I crossed the threshold – horse and groom alike throwing me glances of identical contempt – and I was left to busy myself with whatever lowly tasks could be entrusted to me, namely sweeping up horse dung, until such time as Arthur was satisfied all was in order.
And then I trailed him back to his rooms. It's lucky I know the way with my eyes shut, because I was just about dead on my feet by that time, but there was still a long, long way to go before I'd be able to sleep. Now it was Arthur's turn to be tended: undressed and bathed and fed and bedded down, all of which involves at least as much care and effort as caring for one of his spoilt thoroughbreds. Maybe more, since the horses may champ and stamp and toss their heads, but at least they don't talk back.
We had a little tussle over the bath – let me rephrase that: we had an argument. Not that I argue with Arthur, him being a prince and all and me a humble serving boy, but sometimes I can make him see my point of view, and the more often I can, the closer he gets to becoming a decent human being. "I won't have a bath," he decided, standing there shirtless in the middle of his big, luxurious, overheated room. "It's too late, I'm tired. I'll just go to bed."
I just said, "M'm."
"What?!" he demanded, as I'd known he would. He hates it when he gets any answer but the expected, 'Yes, Sire'.
"Oh," I said, "Nothing." And I picked up the towel – a big, soft, fluffy thing, finer than any garment I'd ever possessed – and draped it over my arm, bent down to take up the cans of water. "I'll just take these away again, shall I? Down all those stairs, back to the scullery."
He looked at me and folded his arms. "I know you're trying to make a point, Merlin, so why don't you just spit it out, and then we can all get on with our lives?"
I shrugged. "It's just that someone had to bring those cans up all the stairs, that's all. And heat the water first. And pump it before that. Here – " I thrust one of the cans in his direction, and he grabbed it automatically; some of the water sloshed out onto his foot, and he swore. "Heavy, aren't they?" I said, and he glared. "It was probably one of the maids. Maybe even – " I let my voice drop. "Maybe even Gwen. All for your comfort – Sire. But if you don't want it …" I shrugged again, and reached to take the can back from him.
He glared some more, then turned deliberately away from me, upended the can over the tub, and let it pour. "I. Will. Take. My. Bath," he said, snarling out one word at a time, "And I. Will. Be. Grateful." I could feel his gaze all but scorching my ear as I came up to empty the second can after the first. "There! Happy now?"
"Delirious," I said, and tried to look away whilst pretending I wasn't looking away. He'd stepped out of his breeches and into the bathtub, and there was a lot more pale flesh and blond hair on show than I'm entirely comfortable with. Being Arthur's servant wasn't what I'd bargained for when I first came to Camelot; I wasn't expecting to be faced with so unwelcome, not to mention disturbing, a degree of intimacy. Nor had I expected to react to that intimacy in quite so unwelcome, not to say disturbing a way. I had thought that having to hide my magic was burden enough. This – this whatever-you-would-call-it, and I know what the gossips would say about it right enough – this was more than I had bargained for.
Strange, then, that, despite its hopelessness and its danger, I would give up my magic before I gave up what I feel for Arthur.
For all that he can be a complete prat, Arthur has that effect on a great many people. Whether it had been Gwen who'd prepared his bathwater or not, it had certainly been some silly girl – or boy – who cared more about him than he deserved; they'd dumped a handful of dried lavender into one of the cans, and rose water into the other, along with a hint of something more elusive and exotic, and it smelled absolutely heavenly. It was working its magic (so to speak) on Arthur, too; I could see him relaxing, the knots working out of his shoulders, his head drooping back to rest on the edge of the bath.
"I shan't need you any more tonight, Merlin," he said. He sounded a little slurred, and I wondered whether it was safe to leave him. If anyone could drown in six inches of water, it would be Arthur.
"I could scrub your back?" I offered brightly, and against my own better instincts.
That woke him up. He lifted his head and gave me a look.
"No," he said, very firmly. "Thank you very much, Merlin."
I hovered. "Anything else I can get you? Wine, candles … toy boat?"
"No," he said again, crossly. "Just – go and do whatever it is you do when you're not bothering me, Merlin. I don't want to see you again until tomorrow."
"It almost is tomorrow," I pointed out. The steeple bells had tolled the eleventh hour not that long ago.
"I'm going," I said hastily, "I'm going." And I gathered up all I had to take away – for my night was still not nearly over: I had his armour and his battle sword to clean, his boots to polish, a bundle of his clothing for the laundry – and turned toward the door.
"Merlin," he said again, his voice different now; awkward, almost, if the cocky, swaggering Prince of Camelot could ever be awkward.
I turned back. "Yes, Sire?" He does like it so when I call him 'Sire'; it reassures him that all's well with the world.
"You did well today," he said; awkwardly, yes, but I could tell he meant it. And so did I, when I said, in turn, "Thank you, Sire."
He tried to make a joke of it: "We'll make a soldier of you yet, Merlin!"
I suppressed a shudder. "I don't think so, Sire," I said. "Maybe we should all stick with what we're good at." I hefted my bundle. "I'll go clean your boots, shall I?"
He didn't answer. I heard the splash as he flopped back in the bath as I closed the door behind me.
Gaius. Gods, where would I be without Gaius? Dead, for one thing, so the question wouldn't arise, but without him hovering and clucking around me like a hen with one chick my life in Camelot would be so much the worse. When I look back to that first day and see myself striding through the castle gates, green as a willow shoot and brimful of untapped magic, my heart lurches with the realisation of how narrowly I'd avoided disaster. He was still awake when I finally – finally! – got back to our chambers, sitting at the table reading, trying to pretend that he wasn't waiting up for me. He looked up at me – he wasn't wearing his spectacles, but Gaius always looks as though he's peering over the rims of his spectacles – wrinkled his nose and sniffed.
"See what the dog dragged in," he observed, then, more kindly, "You look exhausted, Merlin. Sit down before you fall down. Not too close," he added, flapping his hands to ward me off as I came toward the table.
"I had to help in the stables," I said defensively, slumping onto the little wooden three-legged stool that we use to risk our necks reaching up to the higher shelves.
"So I see," Gaius said. "Or smell, rather. Did you really have to bring the stables back with you?"
I crossed one leg over my knee, then the other, to inspect the soles of my boots. Whatever stable detritus may have attached itself to them had detached itself again somewhere between there and here – outside, I hoped, rather than on the floor of Arthur's bedroom – but nonetheless there was absolutely no doubt that a stable floor had featured prominently in their recent history.
"Arthur didn't complain," I said, and set my feet back on the floor before I ended a long, hard day flat on my back with my legs in the air, and not in any sort of enjoyable way either.
Gaius gave another sniff, then instantly seemed to regret it. "Arthur was born in a stable," he said, "And he's ridden a horse every day of his life. He's developed a natural resistance to the more odorous aspects."
"While you, on the other hand, being the sensitive blossom you are …"
He tossed a pen at my head. (It missed.) "Any more of that from you, young Merlin, and it'll be bed with no supper for you."
My stomach growled. "Supper?" I said longingly.
There was food. I fell on it, with no regard for niceties. Gaius tutted, and suggested that I might prefer to chew rather than inhale, but I paid him no mind. Breakfast was so far away it was practically yesterday, and I was starving.
I was halfway through the plate before I thought to ask, as I always do ask, "Did you eat earlier?" Gaius, as Uther's pensioner, is entitled to a daily ration of meat and cheese and bread and ale, but sometimes the kitchen forgets that there are two of us now. 'Sometimes'; most of the time, really. I'm not much loved below stairs, upstart and favourite that I am. Of course, I'm not much loved above stairs, either. It's a tough life sometimes.
Gaius waved the question away, but I saw a plate teetering on the edge of his desk, judged, by the breadcrumbs and gravy smears, that tonight we'd been lucky, and returned my attention to my own plate – now, sadly, nearly empty; I could have eaten twice as much and still had room for more.
My mother would have scolded me, and told me there were plenty of poor children who had to make do with far, far less. Of course, a lot of the time, I was one of those poor children, but apparently there were others even worse off. I felt sorry for them. Which was, after all, Mother's intention. My mother had a singular talent for making me feel guilty, even when I'd done nothing wrong. I believe, from what I've heard since, that all mothers share that knack.
When I'd finally, regretfully, come to the conclusion that a second helping would not be springing magically from thin air – sadly, this is another of the many areas in which actual magic is of no use whatever – I set my plate aside. Gaius had returned to his reading, but he looked up from his book and asked me, mildly enquiring, how the day had gone.
I drew breath. I'd almost managed to banish the images of the day from my mind, but his query brought them streaming back. I had so hoped he wouldn't ask. "Well," I said, as convincingly as I could manage. "It went well. We tracked down the bandits. Arthur and his men … dealt with them."
He peered over his nonexistent spectacles again. "Does that bother you?"
Not so convincing, perhaps. "No …" I said, then, more definitely, "No. No. If ever men deserved hanging, they did. If you'd seen what they did – the trail they left behind. Death, destruction … worse." Some of those villages had been no bigger than my own; those torched and looted cottages could have been mine, those twisted, mutilated bodies my mother, my neighbours, myself. Wolves, the reports had said; we'd thought we were hunting wolves. Wolves would have been kinder. Wolves would have been more human.
And worse than that – no, not worse, but the thing that troubled me even more than their atrocities – had been the look in their leader's eyes; the smile on his scarred face as they placed the noose around his neck, the slight nod he'd given me as though he recognised me, as though something in me called out to him …
That was what I couldn't drive from my mind. I've seen death; I've seen plenty of it since I came to Camelot, much of it dealt by what we are given to believe are the good guys. But I've stood apart from it; I thought I was better than a killer.
Now a killer had smiled at me as he would a brother, and with all my heart I wished I'd never looked him in the eye.
I didn't say any of this to Gaius. I just levered myself to my feet, creakily, like a man three times my age, and headed for my room. My bed was calling to me, and I felt it would be rude to keep it waiting a moment longer. But a cough from Gaius stopped me in my tracks.
"And where do you think you're going?"
I pointed at the door. "Bed?" I said hopefully.
"In that state? I hardly think so, Merlin!" He, in turn, pointed to a door: the door to the hallway. "You know where the pump is."
I did. It was along the corridor, down several flights of stairs, past the guards, outside, and then a ten-minute trek through a dark and, frankly, spooky courtyard. All to splash about in freezing cold water in the dead of night. And that was the preferable option. The alternative was to face the kitchen night staff who, if possible, dislike me even more than their daytime colleagues. It isn't my fault if Arthur sometimes gets peckish in the middle of the night.
"Gaius!" I said pleadingly, but he was having none of it and, with a sigh, I shrugged my jacket on and trudged to the door –
– then gasped and reeled back as I came face to face with …
… with Gwen, who was gasping and reeling every bit as much as I was – understandably; given some of the things we've seen in Camelot, you can never be too sure what might be waiting around the next corner – her eyes wide, her hand to her heart.
"Merlin!" she said, and laughed shakily. "You scared me. I wasn't expecting you – "
"I live here!" I said, sounding plaintive even to my own ears. She laughed again then, a real laugh this time, and stepped inside. I waited. I had a feeling I'd be needed. Gwen should have long gone to her own home at this time of night. Morgana – I'm sorry, the Lady Morgana – must have found some excuse to keep her late.
I was right. Gwen was holding out a vial. "Morgana can't sleep," she said, gently apologetic – I don't know why we feel compelled to apologise for our lords and ladies; I apologise for Arthur all the time. Somebody has to. "May we have some more of her sleeping potion, Gaius?"
"I'll make some up for you right away," Gaius promised her, and pulled out a chair for her. "Sit here and wait – it won't take long." Then he turned to me. "Merlin – "
I was there already, dragging the stool across to the shelf where we store the herbs, reaching up to pull down first this jar, then that one. And then another, which seemed uncommonly light. I stepped down, opened the lid, and took a look inside.
"Gaius, there's not much left of this," I told him, and held out the jar. "Will it be enough?"
He came over to me, peered into the jar, took it from me and weighed it in his hands. "I think – just enough, for now," he said. "Just for this one dose. But we'll need more, Merlin." He looked up at me, his head tilted to one side. I didn't like where I could see this was going.
"What is it?" I asked. Not something we use often enough for me to be familiar with, whatever it was, and I've long since given up trying to read the writing on Gaius's labels.
"Moon mallow," Gaius said, tipped out the dusty remnants of the herb into his alembic, and passed the empty jar back to me.
"Moon mallow," I repeated, then groaned aloud.
"What's so bad about that?" Gwen asked from the chair, where she was resting with her head tipped back and her eyes closed, her feet tucked under her. It was probably the first time she'd been off them all day.
"Moon mallow has to be picked by the light of the moon," Gaius told her, "No more than three days before, or three days after its fullness."
Gwen opened one eye, her brow creased. "And it was full …?"
"Two days ago," I sighed. "If we don't go out and harvest it tonight, we'll have to wait another month."
"And by 'we'," Gwen said astutely, "I take it you mean – "
"Me," I confirmed, then looked hopeful. "You don't suppose Morgana might sleep through the night for the next few weeks, do you?"
She shook her head. "I wouldn't risk my neck on it."
Camelot being Camelot, Uther being Uther and Morgana being Morgana, she probably meant that literally.
"Me either," I said. I meant it literally too. "All right. I'll go. I'll probably just freeze to death, and then you'll be sorry!"
I sounded pretty pathetic even to my own ears, but Gwen just smiled, and Gaius shooed me away. "And remember to wash on the way back!" he called after me.
So along the corridor it was, down several flights of stairs, past the guards, who glanced up at me but clearly didn't consider me worth challenging – the guards have seen me in the dungeons and in the pillory often enough to hold me of no account, even had they been inclined to show respect to a mere servant in the first place – outside, then a trek through a dark and, frankly, spooky courtyard, into the lower town, through the gates, and out into the countryside. In the dead of night. The moon still shone bright enough to show me my way, but it was cold, the ground was damp, there was a low mist rising, and it was also by now so late that by the time I got back home again there would be no point in going to bed, and I was feeling thoroughly fed-up and put upon. Which is, truth to tell, rather my natural state, and, after all, why not? I am put upon. Grievously so.
The mallows grow in a marshy hollow near the bend of the river, perhaps a mile or two from the castle walls; I'd been there many times before on other, better planned, excursions such as this, and I made good time. There was a fine crop ready for me, too, and I crouched down and began to gather them.
They're a small flower, moon mallow, white and fragile-looking, but their stems are tough. To cut them with a knife destroys their virtue, and within a very few minutes my fingers were red and sore. But I persevered, reasoning to myself that the more I gathered now, the longer they would last and perhaps I could be spared this task come the next full moon. And just as I was gathering my last handful, stoppering the jar and tucking it into my jacket for safety, I heard a sound: a twig snapping, a brush of grass or leaves that told me I was not alone.
Not all animals sleep at night. It could have been any number of things. But I knew – I knew, I felt it in my bones, in the thrum of blood in my ears – that it was no harmless thing.
And then: the clearing of a throat. And a voice.
"It's late," it said, "Boy. Late to be out and so far from home."
I knew that voice. I'd heard it only this afternoon. I'd heard it shouting threats, defiance, heard it cursing. Heard its dying gasp as the rope cut off its breath.
He stepped out into the moonlight then, and I saw him clearly: a short man, solidly built but not fat, his dark hair cropped close to his head, a wicked scar puckering the flesh both above and below his right eye. The man we had hanged that very day.
Then more rustling, and to his left and his right stepped the other two men, the great brutish giant and the crazy-eyed one with the tattooed skin. I stood, slowly, warily; turned so that I had all three of them in my vision.
"You died," I said. My voice almost didn't shake at all. "I saw you die. You were hanged, and you were buried. All three of you. This isn't real. This is some dream I'm having."
The big one laughed, then, and the leader smiled his twisted smile. The third man's expression didn't change. It had never changed from the time we'd run them to ground to the moment the breath left his body.
"They all say that," said the giant. "'Oh!'" he mimicked in a high-pitched falsetto, "'Oh, this can't be real, I must be dreaming!' Dream of the likes of us often, do you, boy?"
"We're real," the leader said softly. "We're the realest thing you'll ever know, boy. Did you think somebody like you could make us go away? You and your little prince?"
"He's not my prince," I said, completely stupidly. I don't even know why I said it. It made them laugh, all three of them. It wasn't a nice sound.
"That's not what we hear," the big man said. "We hear that you and he are – "
"Close," the third man said. He smiled then, for the first time, and I wished that he hadn't.
"I'm his servant," I said. "That's all." I was trying to back away stealthily, hoping that they wouldn't notice, hoping that I could put enough space between me and them that I could turn and run. Foolish, hopeless hope. They saw what I was doing. Of course they did. The leader was moving as I did, narrowing the distance between us even as I tried to increase it, and the other two were circling, closing on my left and my right. I stopped still then, and they stopped too; waiting, I think, to see what I would do.
I closed my eyes, tried to calm my mind, and I whispered one word in the Old Tongue, familiar to me now as everyday speech: "Fog!" And fog there was, the ground mist rising, thickening, roiling around me, a dense grey blanket that hid me from their sight and muffled sound into silence. And then I turned and ran. I ran all the way back to Camelot, through the gates, through the town, into the castle, past the guards and up the stairs, and tumbled into Arthur's bedchamber, only stopping short when the tip of his sword touched the hollow of my throat.
Yes, Arthur really does sleep with a sword beside him. A sword beside him, and a dagger beneath his pillow. Both of them have seen use. It's just one of many reasons why I don't envy him his life.
He blinked away sleep, and said, "Merlin?" He lowered his sword and shook his head dazedly. "Merlin, what are you doing here?"
"They're not dead!" My voice was a croak as I battled for breath. I gasped, and said it again. "Arthur, the men we hanged today – they're not dead!"
Of course he didn't believe me. For all that Arthur has seen as many wondrous and dreadful things as anyone, still he stubbornly refuses to believe in anything out of the ordinary until he's looking it in the eye. Sometimes not even then.
"You've been dreaming, Merlin," was all he'd say, and, although I protested that I hadn't even been to bed yet, that was all I could get from him. I was summarily dismissed from Arthur's exalted presence and sent packing with a royal flea in my ear. Gaius, though, was readier to give me the benefit of the doubt.
"There are stories," he was saying, fumbling through his books, pulling first one then another from the shelf then thrusting them back, haphazard. "Tales – myths, of men who cannot die."
"Gods?" I guessed, but he shook his head.
"Not gods, no. Not demons, either, or not as we mean the word. Simply what I said. Men – immortal men. They live in secrecy, even from themselves, but through all the ages there have been whispers – rumours …" He threw up his hands in frustration. "The book I want isn't here. I know I saw it only recently – "
Gaius forgets how old he is. When he says 'recently', he can mean as much as thirty years ago.
"The library," I said. "Will Geoffrey have a copy?"
"He might," Gaius allowed. "But whether he'd let you lay hands on it …"
"Write me a note," I said. "Let him know I've got your permission. Now, Gaius, please!"
He looked at me doubtfully. "You've had no sleep, Merlin. Don't you think you might be able to think more clearly once you've had some rest?"
"I am thinking clearly," I said. It was true, like Camelot itself I hadn't slept that night, but my encounter out by the marshes had shocked me awake, more awake than I had ever been. "I need to know, Gaius!"
He nodded, found a scrap of paper and a quill and scribbled a few words, while I ran into my room and scrambled into my other set of clothes. The pump and its ice water would have to wait; this would have to do.
What had slipped my mind was how early it was, not even dawn yet, and everyone in Camelot didn't have my reason for waking. The library was dark, deserted, no sign of Geoffrey or any of his clerks. Somehow, though, I felt sure I was not alone in there, although I couldn't tell you why … and yes: now that I looked again, I saw a flicker of light over in a far corner. I went toward it.
A man sat reading at a secluded desk. As I came up behind him I couldn't tell who he was, but he lifted his head and turned to face me and I saw that it was Piers, one of the poor scholars who, in Geoffrey's words, infest his library and (in my opinion) do all his drudge work for him. I guessed that he was taking some time from translating worm-eaten parchments and instead reading something of actual interest. The library was a treasure trove of ancient and rare manuscripts that Uther was too stupid to appreciate and Geoffrey too miserly to share.
I'd spoken to Piers a few times in the past; he was one of the few people in Camelot who didn't seem to think I was a waste of space. Maybe that was because few people thought much, if anything, of him – a young/old man, pale and prematurely stooped, so thin that his robes could have wrapped around him twice, his eyes hidden by small, wire-rimmed spectacles. Whatever the reason: he was friendly, and I – I need all the friends I can get.
He smiled now, and said my name. "What brings you here so early?"
And the words came spilling out. I couldn't have kept them to myself if I had magicked my mouth closed.
"Do you believe in life after death?" I asked him.
He blinked – few people anticipate random philosophy so early in the morning – but gave the question consideration.
"I'm no expert," he said slowly, "But I believe that just about every religion incorporates some level of afterlife, be it Heaven, Valhalla, the Elysian Fields, or Tír na nÓg. Whether that's merely wishful thinking or whether the ancients knew something that's been lost to us I wouldn't care to guess, but I think it would be foolish not to side with the majority. Don't you?"
Which was all very interesting, but I hadn't come here for a theological debate. "Not the afterlife," I said. "Dead men, dead men who rise up and walk."
"Merlin," he said gently, "Hush." I realised that I'd been shouting, and that I was standing far too close to him, almost in his face, and stepped back. Not before I noticed, though, that the eyes behind those carefully concealing glasses were young and bright and lively, and blazing with intelligence. "Well," he went on, "Again, there are legends of the not-dead, the undead. Ghouls, vampyres – I take it you don't mean ghosts?"
"No, nothing like that. At least – " I hesitated. I hadn't thought of ghosts. I supposed that would have been most people's first thought. Why hadn't it been mine? "They seemed real. They … they had substance. They made sound when they moved, and they spoke to me. They knew me, they remembered me, and they spoke to me in the present, not in a memory, as a ghost might. They were real," I said again, and now I was certain of it. "They died, and then they were alive again."
"Are you sure they were dead?" he asked. His voice was very calm, very gentle; I felt myself calming in return, beginning to pull threads of reason from my earlier panic.
"I saw them hanged," I said. "I heard their necks snap." I shuddered at the memory. That was a sound that would stay with me for a very long time. "And I helped bury them." We had scraped out a grave, tumbled the three bodies in all anyhow, and thrown the earth back over them. These were not souls that the church would miss.
H'm," Piers said. He sat back in his chair and looked up at me. "You should have raised a cairn over them."
"To honour them? I don't think so!"
"No," he said. "Not to honour them. But it might have slowed them down." He rose then and came around the desk, stepped over to the archive shelves, reached up, parting cobwebs with his hand, and brought out a scroll. Afterward I would remember that he had gone to it unerringly, as though he'd known exactly where it was, had perhaps taken it down many times before. But now, as he passed it to me, all I could think was that here, maybe, was my answer.
"This is what you need," he told me. "Make of it what you will."
I didn't quite snatch it away from him, and I did, to my credit, remember to thank him. And then I was gone, racing back to share my spoils with Gaius.
That, at least, was my intention but, as so often happens, my best-laid plans were thwarted by Arthur. He and Gaius were sharing an uncomfortable silence as I tumbled through the door – it's not as if they have much in common to chat about, after all – and, for once, both of them seemed quite glad to see me. At least, they both said "Merlin!" in identical bracing tones.
"I'll just … carry on, Sire," Gaius said, and bustled away on some made-up business of his own, while Arthur clapped me on the shoulder and said my name again, just in case he hadn't got my attention the first time.
"I've been thinking," he said, which is never a good start to a sentence, and which always makes me bite my tongue. "This – this dream you had – "
"It wasn't a dream," I said, and added a hasty, "Sire," as answering back is just one of the many things that can land one in the pillory around here.
He looked annoyed. "Well, if it wasn't a dream, it was a hallucination, and in either case, we'll have an end of it. You and I will ride out today, we'll go and look at the grave, you'll see that all is well, and there'll be no more dead men walking. Is that understood?"
"Perfectly, Sire," I said. There was no point in arguing. He'd see for himself when we got there.
Get there we did, after a few hours of hard riding, Arthur lecturing me on foolishness and gullibility and superstition all the way, except for the half-hour or so that he spent haranguing me about my lack of a sword – he had given me the sword I'd used yesterday, but I hadn't understood his intention and had carefully cleaned it and placed it back in the armoury – and when we got there, there was the grave: an open scar in the ground, dirt tumbled in mounds all about the place and, in the fresh-turned earth, three pairs of footprints.
It was hardly worth saying, but I said it anyhow. "Now do you believe me?"
Arthur was regarding the scene with a slightly fish-like, open-mouthed gaze, but then he snapped his mouth shut, straightened his back, and said, "Grave robbers. A plague on them!"
"Grave robbers," I said, not bothering to hide what I thought of that theory. "And the bodies are - where, exactly?"
He turned on me. "It's either grave robbers or the walking dead, Merlin, and which story do you think is the more likely?"
He did have a point. Only … I'd seen them. He hadn't. When he saw them, he would believe.
I hoped he would never see them.
Hope is a futile and fickle thing.
We turned our horses' heads for home, and set a good pace, only to pull up short as a figure stumbled across our path: a man, ragged and bloody, one arm cradled in the other and his face streaked with the remnants of tears. He ran to us, and clutched at Arthur's bridle.
Arthur reined in, threw his leg over the saddle and slid down to catch the man by the shoulders.
"What, man? What is it, what's happened?"
"Our village …" The man's voice was rough, weak and thready. "Burned, all burned – I've seen nothing like it, Sire, like the wrath of the gods. They're all dead – everyone, my wife, my children, my friends – "
"And yet you live?" Arthur's voice held an edge now; warning, dangerous. "How did you escape, if all others were slain?"
"We let him go," a new voice said, and the scarred man stepped out of the bushes. He had a sword now, I couldn't help but notice; he was holding it loosely in his hand, in such a way that it seemed less a weapon and more an extension of his arm. But also still very much, oh, yes, very much a weapon. He grinned, like the wolf he was in his heart. "A moving target would be more sporting, it's true, but we do not hunt for sport, my brothers and I."
All my instincts told me that I should turn my horse's head to home and flee. I was worse than useless in a fight, hadn't I proved that many times already, and maybe, just maybe, I'd be able to bring back help in time for it to do some good.
I scrambled down and went to stand beside Arthur. "I told you they weren't dead!" I hissed.
"And I told you you should have brought your sword!" he hissed back.
It's a blur after that. The other two were there, too, both of them equally well-armed with sword and axe, and they were upon us before we had time to breathe. I did what little I could with such magic as I could quickly summon, raising up the dust at our feet into a whirlwind that only served to blind us all, summoning voices from the wind in the hopes that they'd believe we had an army at our back and retreat, twisting the axe from the big man's hand and sending it narrowly close to his brother's tattooed face, all the while trying to gather enough power to blast them back, but it was useless. I saw Arthur fall, and shouted out loud in rage and despair. There was nothing in my mind at that moment but vengeance, nothing in my eyes but a burning mist and the face of my enemy as he stared me down, laughing. I should have called down fire from heaven, harnessed lightning with my hands – who was there, now, to see and bear witness against me? – but reason had left me, and nothing remained but the sheer animal urge to attack, bare-handed, to feel his flesh beneath my fists. I lowered my head and charged the scarred man, but he stepped aside lightly, reached back and grabbed my collar and pulled me to him, wrapped me tightly in his arms in a mockery of an embrace, and punched me in the stomach. That is – I thought he'd punched me until I looked down and saw the scarlet spreading swiftly across my tunic.
Then nothing. Blackness, silence. Nothing.
And then – then somehow I was awake again. It was dark; I must have been unconscious for hours. (Unconscious? I had thought I was dead.) The strange thing was, I felt fine. My head didn't ache, I seemed unbruised, unbroken. It was cold, though, and damp, so that I shivered and wished for my jacket, and I was plagued by the nagging sensation that something – something other than the obvious – was wrong.
A faint brightness some little distance away might have been a campfire. I lay still for a moment, listening, then, sensing myself alone, lifted my head.
Arthur was there. He lay quite still, flung down on the ground like a rag. I drew myself up to my hands and knees and crawled over to him; touched my hand to his throat. He was breathing; he lived, and I sat back on my ankles and sent a prayer of thanksgiving to whatever gods would hear me. Then I set myself down beside him, and lifted his head into my lap.
He groaned, shuddered, opened his eyes. "Merlin?"
"I'm here," I said, low-voiced. "I'm fine. We're both fine." I don't know what had become of the villager. Nothing good, I think we can be sure of that.
Arthur grimaced. "For now." Then he turned his head, lifted his hand to touch my tunic. "What's all this blood?"
I was wondering that myself. There was a rent in my clothing, but when I lifted my tunic and touched the skin underneath it was whole, unmarked, unscarred. "It's yours," I told him quickly, and touched his temple. "Here. You've got a head wound, and you know how they bleed." I pulled the kerchief from my neck, and knotted it around his head.
"Touching," said a voice I was coming to know and loathe, and the scarred man stepped into view. "Maybe those rumours are true after all, young Merlin."
I didn't wonder that he knew my name. Once a man's risen from the dead, little else can surprise you. And I was distracted: partly by a sudden jagged pain in my skull and a strange tingling sensation, like the aftermath of a bee sting, throughout my body, and partly by simple, screaming terror.
Arthur turned his head to look at me. "'Rumours'?" he mouthed. I shrugged. He pushed himself away from me then, struggling to sit up. I didn't like the way he swayed, and moved to kneel behind him, ready to catch him should he fall. He raised his chin defiantly. "What do you want with us, fellow?"
The scarred man raised an eyebrow, which did nothing to improve his looks. "'Fellow'? You might care to keep a civil tongue in your head – Sire – for so long as you have a tongue at all. You have something we want," he continued. "Something that we've desired for a very long time."
Arthur frowned. "Camelot?" he hazarded.
The man laughed. "Camelot? Little prince, I've seen kingdoms, I've seen palaces, I've seen wonders. I saw the Hanging Gardens when Babylon was great; I've seen kings like gods on their barges on the Nile. I've seen men tear jewels from the raw earth and die for them, I've walked with beasts that you know only as legends. What's Camelot to me?" He snapped his fingers. "No more than that. No, you have something far more precious to me – something I've sought for more than a hundred years."
Arthur gulped. "A hundred …?" He swayed suddenly, then, and fell back into my waiting arms. I held him against me, and looked up at the man who stood watching us, at his mocking smile.
"So?" I asked. "What is this thing that you want? There must be some reason you haven't just killed us?"
His lip curled at that. "What pleasure is there in a swift death?" he said. "Some things should be savoured. Your prince showed us no mercy, after all. Why should we not follow his example?"
That wasn't it. I don't know how I knew, but I did. "You're trying to frighten me," I told him flatly. "You're wasting your time. I'm already so frightened there's no room for any more. Why don't you just come right out and tell me what it is you want?"
He laughed then, a different kind of laugh, as if he actually meant it, and sat himself down on a nearby boulder. Somehow he made it seem like a throne.
"Clever boy," he said, with approval. "I knew from the moment I laid eyes on you that you were special. Very special." He settled more comfortably, one foot crossed over the other knee. "That was a fine trick you played on us yesterday."
I tried to look guileless, an expression I have practised countless times in front of whatever mirrored surfaces may be available but have never succeeded in progressing past half-witted. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Anger sparked in his face. "Do you think me a fool, boy?!" Then he breathed deeply, and was all charm again. "We are alike, Merlin, you and I. You know that, don't you?"
"No," I said, flatter than ever. "I don't, and we're not. You don't know a thing about me, and I know nothing about you. Nor do I want to."
"Oh," he said softly. "But I do. I know that you live solitary, secret, despised by others. I know that there's something that sets you ever apart. I know that you walk this world as a stranger, that you see the petty lives around you and ask yourself, what have the likes of these to do with me? I know that you were raised fatherless, motherless, unloved – "
"I was not!" I was glad to be able to deny it. Some of what he'd said had come unpleasantly near to the truth. "I know my mother, and she loves me. And my father – " What lay between my father and me was none of this man's business. "I knew him, too." And I had his heritage. I raised my head, thinking to summon dragons from the sky, and realised what else was wrong, the thing that had been itching at the very edge of my awareness.
I had no magic. I was empty.
Shocked, I sat back on the ground, bringing Arthur into my lap again. The scarred man was paying me no heed.
"So, so, so," he said carelessly. "The world's a gentler, kinder place these days, and there's many a barren woman will take in a foundling and raise it as her own. Not so when I was young, nor my brothers either. You should ask your mother, should you ever happen to see her again – ask her the truth."
I would, I thought. I knew that what she told me would prove this man a liar. I knew. It had to be so.
"But there's this," he said. "You're not as other men, and in your heart you've always known it. And others know it too, and they hate you and they fear you. Look at you now – " He gestured toward me. "Look at you – this man's servant, when you should be a king among men. As we were once," he said softly. "As we shall be again."
I said nothing. Too much of what he had said had struck home. I had never thought that I desired power. All I'd ever wanted was to learn magic, and to use it to do whatever good I might. But my life in Camelot had opened my eyes to the world and its injustices: how good people are oppressed by the cruel and greedy, how a tyrant can make his slightest whim law, uncaring of the suffering it may bring. And yes, I had thought, sometimes, that if things were different – if I were the heir to Camelot …
But I wasn't. That was all, and that was that.
"I still don't know what you want," I finally, flatly said. "I don't know who you are, or what you are, or why you're even alive. If you're going to kill us, then kill us, don't bore me to death with your endless talk. If you're not, then – what?"
To my surprise, he flung back his head and laughed. "Want?" he finally said. "Why, Merlin: you. We want you." He came forward then, sliding easily, gracefully from his rock to the ground to kneel before me. His hand reached out to touch my face. I flinched; the touch stung. "You have no idea," he said softly, "What a treasure you are. Immortality and magic – both, both together in you. So precious, and so rare." He stood as suddenly as he had knelt, and walked away. "Nor do you know how lucky you are, either," he said, all gentleness gone. "Time was, had I met such as you I would have had their head and taken their power with not a word spoken nor a regret in my heart. But now – "
"It's a kinder, gentler time, as I said."
"Is it?" I said. "Are you? Kinder? Gentler?"
"Indeed, boy, I am. Had you known me in the old days – " His mouth twisted. "Ah, we were mighty once. You'd not have spoken to me then as you've done today." He settled himself on his boulder again. "Truth?" he said. "You're young, boy, and your power's still unformed. I would see you grow: see what you become."
"And then – what was it? – have my head and take my power?"
He laughed again. "Ah, Merlin, Merlin, what a wonder you are! Perhaps." He leaned forward, hands on his knees. "And perhaps not. Perhaps I'd find you a treasure worth the keeping."
"Hah," I said. I suddenly realised I was shivering – whether through fear or cold, I don't know. Both, probably. "And what if I don't want to be kept?"
He sat back and looked me in the eye. His own eyes were grey, cold, bleak, like nothing human. But then – was he human?
"Well, that," he explained, very, very gently, "That, Merlin, is why your little prince still lives. You bind your life to ours, as I ask you, and he – he lives on."
I was glad that Arthur had remained unconscious throughout all this. This would have been his cue to leap to his feet, try to fight his way free, and get both of us killed. If I could be killed; I was still unclear how that worked. If I couldn't, I had no doubt there were plenty of alternatives all equally unpleasant.
"You really think he matters that much to me?" I asked. "You should see the way he treats me!"
He looked me up and down. "I don't have to see it, boy," he said. "I know his kind of old. And I also see that you've held him to your heart through all this time, as if you believed you had the strength to save him. I know that love," he said, softly then. "I had a brother once … A brother other than these ones you've seen. We are three, now, where we should be four. We shall be four again, and have our strength, and our name shall once more be known and feared throughout the lands."
I tried to imagine my name striking fear into anyone's heart. I couldn't. I didn't want to. But I couldn't see I had a choice – not if I were to save Arthur. I didn't know what I could do but agree, and hope that the luck would somehow turn in our favour before too much harm was done.
"What happened to your other brother?" I asked, trying to buy myself a few more moments' grace. "He can't be dead. Or can he?"
The scarred man scowled. "That," he said sharply, "Is none of your business, boy. We … argued, and then he was gone."
"And you've hunted him," I said, as parts of the puzzle fell into place. "You've looked for him for a hundred years – and now you think that I'll do instead?"
"You even have a look of him," he said, soft again, and now there was a different kind of hunger in his eyes. I looked away, down at Arthur, his closed eyes and slack mouth, and took his hand in mine.
No. I was going to tell this man no. Let him do what he would. He could force me, but he could never coerce me. To go with him willingly would be to betray all that I was.
"A hundred years," said the scarred man. "A hundred years I've waited – " And then his head snapped up, as if he'd heard something, something as familiar as the beat of his own heart, although there had been no sound. I'd felt it too, whatever it was, the rush of blood in my ears swelling, pounding until I felt giddy and sick.
"Then wait no longer."
I knew that voice. But it took me a moment to recognise the figure that stepped from shadows into the firelight. Tall, no longer stooped, clad in bronzed armour of a strange and ancient-seeming design, sword in hand, his voice deep and commanding …
"Piers?" I said, incredulous. He spared a moment to flash me a smile before he returned his attention to the scarred man.
"Greetings, brother," he said and, again, "Brothers," as the air stirred and the other two, the giant and the madman, came to stand beside their leader as he rose to his feet. "It's been too long."
"You ran from us," his – brother? – said. His voice was flat, accusing, but I saw how he looked at Piers; I saw the longing there. I knew then that I was forgotten.
Piers threw back his head and laughed. "I? Ran?" He smiled again; wolfish now, not vicious like his brothers but cunning. "No, brother. I led, and you followed. And now, see what we have come to: kicking our heels in this small, sad, grey kingdom, while across the sea the land is in strife and there's chaos enough to gladden all our hearts." His smile caught each of them in turn. "War. Pestilence. Famine." He paused, then: "Death." And he turned, his cloak sweeping around him. His voice had been so compelling, almost I followed him myself.
The scarred man took a step forward, then, "Wait," he said.
"Shit!" I thought.
Piers – who was no longer Piers, who was no longer anyone I knew, no-one of this world – looked back over his shoulder. "These two? What are they to us? In time the little prince may make of this land something worth – as you said, brother – this – " He snapped his fingers, and let his eyes rest on Arthur, who stirred restlessly, as though even unconscious he felt the conflict in the air. I let my free hand rest on his shoulder, taking what comfort I could in the touch.
"If he does," Piers said, his voice soft with promise, "When he does – then we'll be back." Then he looked at me. I looked back, trying to find anything there of the man I had known. "As for the boy … what would you have of him, brother? Would you make him one of us?"
"I – " the scarred man began. To my astonishment, he actually seemed somewhat abashed. Piers laughed again.
"Let him live," Piers said. "Let him come into his strength and make of himself something worthy of us, be it friend or foe. I have no taste for infants, brother – have you?"
"Not I," his brother said, and the tattooed one gave a sudden, shocking, high-pitched cackle. "As you will, then, my brother." He bowed low, and made a sweeping gesture with his hand. "Lead on."
And they were gone, swallowed by the night. Arthur stirred again then, very slightly; he turned his head, and muttered something. Cold, I thought he said, and I held him closer; flexed my hand, held it out, open, and willed fire to come.
A flicker: just the faintest little spark. But enough. Enough to let me know that the magic yet lived in me. Enough, as the night waned, to let me make the fire burn brighter and wrap its heat around us, to call out with my mind to any who might hear and send us help, to keep away from us whatever other small perils the darkling woods might hold.
And there we stayed, he and I, my arms close around him, giving him what poor protection I could, taking my own comfort in his nearness; stayed until I heard the clatter of hooves and the ringing of bridles and the sound of voices calling, calling one to another through the night, and knew that the search parties finally had found us and that we were safe.
If ever we could believe ourselves safe again.
There was a note on my pillow. Merlin: read the scroll. And so I did, burning down my candle far into another long, sleepless night, and when I was done I raised my head and gazed out into a world grown suddenly new and strange.
I knew what I was now. I knew what set me apart from other men. Not only the magic; that was happenstance. But I – I was Immortal.
And with that thought, my shoulders slumped. Another secret in my life. So many, many secrets.
I sighed, and rose to face another day. So many. What, after all – what's yet one more?