Actions

Work Header

Garden

Chapter Text

Prologue

The triple goddess observes….

Hope sows her prime seeds across Britannia’s barren soil. Chance releases its gentle rain. Opportunity shines down warmly on them. My priestesses caress the field on behalf of the Greater Good awaiting the blessed plants’ first shoots poking forth. Weeds snake forth seeking to choke Life’s grace from them. We watch for those threats and pull them before their self-entitled goal is fulfilled.

Such as it is in any garden. Such is the current state of Albion’s Garden…..

Arrogance played Uther Pendragon well. It prodded him with Pain’s fire. Like a dark plague of locusts, he swept across Britannia devouring all my good works. His handmaiden, Death, claimed my most loyal followers be they priest, dragon or common person. His ideas of ‘progress’, Secularism and Boyish Games, turned the people’s attention away from Priority and toward Distraction. His weeds festered gorging off my lands. The fertility sucked dry by Vengeance and Vanity.

Still I am immortal. I contented myself to wait. Aye I stewed. Still I guided those who’d leave to safer fields away from Repression’s yoke. Balinor realized this and ran for Future’s promise. He diverted attention from his lost beloved in far flung hamlet. Others close by could not follow for Duty’s sake. I mourn their sacrifice and offer their loved ones any grace possible.

After a generation’s passage, Fortuna’s wheel has finally turned against Arrogance and Pride. It creaks back ever so gradually towards the Light. The people tire of endless Purges. Nature seeks balance. As in the night sky, the stars sparkle. It is not for naught that Wishes are granted. It is true that my special star, Polaris, guides weary travelers toward Love and Hope while Despair’s Lackeys sleep in Gluttony’s embrace.

As my crop’s first shoots sprout forth, the priestesses stand watch. As opposed to Camelot’s systematic oppression, Nemeth leads my resurgence. Mithian grows in her role. With a little prompting and kindness, she mends the previous damage, forges new alliances and promotes the balance. Whereas Arthur Pendragon is Repression’s agent, she weaves Light’s tapestry. One by one, she and her sire, Rodor, establish bonds with the surrounding rulers. She befriends my agents be they Priestess or dragon. She balances Credence with Amor’s call in terms of Emrys raising him up beyond Camelot’s limitations.

However with any of Season’s changes, lightning flares. Rains pour down. Emotions flare. We have seen some of this. Still, even as Nemeth prepares to host its first gala in two generations’ time, a showdown looms. Change demands Emrys take his rightful place. Repression wants to yoke his skills to Deceit’s and Self-Entitlement’s ways.

How these things go will determine much….

 

 

Chapter 1 [Campsite—Morning After “Rubicon”]

A gentle breeze rustled leaves. Drizzle spat briefly dampening ground and blankets but not those under warm covers. Sol slid through the clouds warming all underneath. A few birds warbled gentle notes to the aforementioned souls. A few fires smoldered.

And certain Warlocks struggled with status or did they?

 

****

 

Merlin rubbed his hands together. His mind processed his surroundings. Adjustment sent his senses spinning. As his eyes had opened on that morning, he’d blinked. He’d sworn that Morpheus had played tricks on him with a most serene dream. As if Nemeth knights were really escorting him back to Whitgate? As if Mithian would really be waiting with welcome embrace and kiss for her Prince?

Fortunately it was no dream. The transition was underway.

His eyes looked all around. With the exception of Ywain who was currently on guard duty, most still slept in the early twilit morning. His ears lurched from Gawain’s not so gentle snoring from across the clearing. He could see Josiane praying somberly on the camp’s far southern edge. And Mithian still slept peacefully; Satisfaction painted a wide smile and content mood onto her.

Wish we were alone. He sighed at the memory of their Solstice night together. His mouth watered at the remembered taste of their wonderful meal and the mistletoe’s magic thereafter. Slyness pulled a smirk at the sides of his mouth. He’d exact his own surprise…his own method of payback. He stirred the embers reviving the flames of the nearly dead fire. He set two sticks over it; each holding half of a skinned and cleaned rabbit he’d taken during the night.

And he did have some help. Nimue, perhaps impressed by his scheming ability and the effort at moving on from Camelot, brought him some Roman oil and rosemary from Barium. She showed him how to marinade the rabbit. Not so helpful was the barb about Desire’s frustrations where a certain Princess was concerned however.

Everyone’s a critic. He rolled his eyes. He scraped together the last of the previous night’s sweet golden mush and put enough on a couple of plates. Then he checked on the skewers. He turned the meat allowing it to brown evenly on the other side as well. “Not long now.” He saw Britomart watching him. “Hi. Something wrong?”

“The Princess is going to have a fit. You do know that even if King Arthur’s been told otherwise, you are not a servant here. Right?” she reminded him.

“So I’ve been told.” He inspected the browning rabbit. “Yeah that’s coming along really well.”

“So why are you making breakfast? I was going to get something for you and her,” she told him.

He smiled. His eyes sparkled at the sleeping Mithian. “I’m making breakfast for her and me. Add in a few touches and well….” He held out his hand. His eyes glowed yellow. “Flora.”

In his outstretched palm, lilacs and violets appeared.

“As I recall, those were in her garden?” He set the blossoms down beside himself. Then he poured some water into each goblet.

“They are indeed.” She blushed. “I am sorry, my Prince, for lecturing you.”

“I’m not Prince yet, Britomart.” He exhaled sharply. Dread chilled his heart. “Arthur could….”

“King Arthur may still be your liege lord, Merlin. Still if he obeys the law, he has to release you.” She glanced over at Mithian. “She won’t allow him to take you back.” She inspected his efforts. “And especially not after this.” She smiled. “You’re the first suitor who’s done this for her. You do know that?”

“I hope to be the only one,” he retorted. He touched the two mush portions. “Blàthaich suas.”

“If Milady has her way, you will be.” She helped him take the meat off of each skewer and set it on a plate. Then she carried the two goblets over to her mistress’ side.

“Thanks,” he whispered.

She bowed to him before returning to the fire for further warmth.

I hope she likes this! He rubbed her on the arm. “Mithian?”

She stirred. “Mmm…Merlin? What? I….” Her eyes flittered open. Her hands flew to her mouth. “What’s this?”

“A good morning.” His lips brushed Amor’s strokes across her forehead. “I wanted to serve you breakfast. You surprised me with that wonderful dinner. I figured I could do the same.”

She nodded. Her eyes twinkled at him. “You did, did you?” She slowly sat up. Her nose sniffed deeply of the rabbit’s roasting smell and gentle spices. “Where’d you get the rabbit?”

“Fruits of my hunt. It’s not as big of a deal as the deer but….” he started.

She stopped that reply cold. She embraced him. Her lips pressed gently onto his strangling the put down in its tracks. Then she released him three heartbeats later. “It’s the effort, Merlin. Thank you. I do hope that second plate is for you?”

“I wanted to make my first official meal in your kingdom special and….” He saw her eyebrow rise at his comment. “What did I say?”

“You did eat when you were with us before, Merlin.” She rubbed his arm. “And it’s our kingdom. Please understand that. This is your home now. I appreciate that you want to respect Arthur. And well you should. Still Father and I both are going to make it clear to Arthur that your service has been fulfilled to Camelot.” She snorted. “For someone who doesn’t like hunting, you certainly did well.”

“The rabbit had a chance to run,” he pointed out.

“Even if you can use your magic?” She rolled her eyes. “Didn’t someone once tell me it wasn’t very sporting when the animals couldn’t fight on even terms?” She grinned at him.

“Yeah, yeah. As long as you’re happy.” He looked deeply into her eyes.

“With a morning surprise like this, how could I not be?” She sighed. “I am truly lucky….”

“Thanks.”

“…even if you still have some rough edges.” She grinned at him. Mischief twinkled in her eye. “That does make you a Passable Prince, Merlin.” She kissed him again on the cheek. “Let’s see what you came up with.” She picked up the meat with her fingers. “I won’t tell if you won’t.”

He coughed. “My lips are sealed.”

She snorted. Then she savored a bite of his offering to her. She chewed it for as long as she could relishing his emotions infused into the meat. After she had swallowed it, she had some water and nodded. “I should have you give our cooks lessons. You have yet another skill I didn’t know about.”

“I aim to please,” he quipped.

“Aye. I do believe you do.” She bit into the meat again.

A wonderful start to a first full day…..

Chapter Text

Chapter 2 [Whitgate—A Few Hours Later]

As the air warmed, the walled capital came to life. The townspeople bustled about in various tasks. Merchants traded their wares. Craftsmen honed their art. Blacksmiths worked their forges. A few people lugged wagons from the countryside. In addition other residents joined peasants brought in from the surrounding manors. Per Rodor’s order, they cleaned the area around the courtyard and castle. They hung streamers along posts and building corners. They placed large bunches of flowers along the route at strategic points. Once done with that, they themselves camped out along that way.

In similar fashion, the palace buzzed with activity. Castellans ran about in a controlled chaos. Under Sarah’s watchful eye, she and the other maids polished the surfaces to a gleaming shine. The royal bedchambers had fresh linens and wares. As Lord Brumenwald finished in the treasury, Peter sat in his chamber composing fresh poems for his present fellow servant and soon to be Prince. Minstrels tuned instruments. Singers practiced their songs. Bards rehearsed tales. Cooks simmered their meats and side dishes.

All of this seemed like overkill on the surface but was much more. While some might ask ‘Why all of this for a mere visiting servant?’, others knew better. They understood that the day was for someone to whom they owed much. They valued Merlin’s friendship as much he did theirs. They knew he’d operated for far too long in Shadow’s obscurity. He was in truth much more than his appearance. Now he would begin the halting steps back into light.

 

****

 

[Council Chamber]

Rodor sipped from a cup of ginger tea. He considered the four gray haired men sitting around the square table with him. He noted Mithian’s empty seat off to his left; her absence, although more than justified, weighed on him. His emotions remained mixed. Diligence pushed through the day’s work. Anticipation for an ally’s (and a future son-in-law’s) return to the city. Satisfaction warmed his heart knowing that Mithian’s and Balinor’s desires would be met soon after. We can make each other happy with such small things.

“Your Highness?” the man to his right, one with a closely trimmed beard and a royal blue dyed robe, called to him.

“Hmm? Aye, Master Wyngate?” The King turned to his court physician. “Was there something else?”

“No, Sire. Everything seems well. I am hoping Gaius sent word with Merlin,” Wyngate replied. “I did request some answers on medical practices.”

“You may ask Merlin at his convenience. He and the others have had a long journey from Camelot. I know he has not been assisting Master Gaius of late however. King Arthur had him on…other duties,” Rodor agreed albeit with conditions. A frown curled up on his face.

“Other duties?” a well-muscled man snorted. “The boy thinks himself a nobleman.”

“The boy, as you put it, Lord Aethelwald, has earned noble status. In addition his father served with my father and me in several battles. Merlin contents himself to serve others,” Rodor clarified allowing an edge to his voice. “The process will be set in motion soon enough.”

Aethelwald coughed. “So Merlin is here for more than just gardening? Is King Arthur aware of this?”

“He is aware of what he needs to be,” Rodor declared. “He has refused to accord Merlin his proper due in the past. We seek to give Merlin the opportunity. The law is clear. King Arthur knows this as well as the other rulers.”

Aethelwald simply nodded. He exchanged glances with the other advisors. Who does this boy think he is? Who was his father that the boy would’ve served in Camelot without an earlier claim?

“We shall talk further. For now, go about your affairs. We shall speak with him later. You may go,” Rodor concluded. He watched as his council members slowly stood and left the chamber. He discerned Doubt and Distaste in their posture. They judge what’s on the surface not Merlin’s true worth. Uther’s old prejudice still stains our thinking. Mithian won’t give up though. I cannot either. There is much to risk here. Still it isn’t about titles and privilege. It’s about friendship and bonds of fealty. We have to care for each other. I’ve never seen Mithian care like this. We will have to take care. He finished his own goblet off. Then he set it down on the table. He walked out of the chamber. He headed down the passage. He rubbed his chin. He’d definitely need to speak with Merlin upon the latter’s arrival. He stopped in front of the guest chamber.

“Sire?” Sarah stopped her preparations. She set a half-plumped pillow on the blanket. She turned and curtseyed before him. “Forgive me. I didn’t see you.”

“I appreciate your consideration. Everything appears to be as it should.” He considered her noting Anxiety’s jitters on her brow. “Is something troubling you?”

“I fear that this chamber will not meet with your approval, my Lord. I want it to be perfect. The household staff only wishes to serve,” she admitted.

“As you are doing. Thank you.” He smiled. “Carry on.” With that, he left that chamber and pressed on down the passage. His eyes passed from castellan to castellan scurrying about. He noted decorations and other final touches along the walls and such. Then, as he reached the empty courtyard, he stopped. He noticed Peter looking at the bare chilled earth and those branches awaiting Spring’s buds. He saw the latter nod blankly. Then his hand would scratch out something on a scrap parchment piece. “Curious.” He took a few steps closer. His foot inadvertently stepped on a branch snapping it.

Peter jumped. Surprise jarred him. He turned to find his sovereign watching him. “Oh, Sire!” He bowed.

“That’s fine,” Rodor reassured him. “There’s nothing out here though. What are you looking at?”

Peter stiffened. “I’m visualizing, Sire.”

Rodor raised an eyebrow. Curiosity and Intrigue beckoned him toward the next question. “Interesting. Please continue.”

“Sire?” Peter took a step back not sure what the other man meant.

“This visualization. What is it that you’re visualizing? I’m intrigued, Peter. Please regale me.” Rodor sat down on the wooden bench. Expectation sparked in his eyes.

Peter gulped. He quivered slightly. “With due respect, Sire, it isn’t what’s here now, it’s what has been here and what will be. Yes gardeners till the soil, plant and tend the beauties here. Still Dream rules in this place. Before Princess Mithian found me that day, this had long since been my sanctuary. Aye, people can get ugly outside. They can tear, rip and make fun of my poems. They spit on me because they think me a churl and little else. Still here that doesn’t matter. Amidst the Princess’ wonders, I’m free. I could purge that darkness. I could compose and dream of Sarah. When I see all of those flowers and plants, I’m amazed at nature, King Rodor. Each has its own beauty but when they’re together, it’s magnificent! Dreams live here. Hope lives here. I see that apple tree over there with her blossoms. And wait until that mountain laurel comes out in full glory. The roses, lavender and violets all have their contributions. Princess Mithian has such an eye for that if I may offer her a compliment. I look forward to see what Master Merlin has to offer.” He smiled. “Beauty’s field under Spring’s warm sun.” He spread his arms wide and took a deep sniff from that dream. “Ahh!!!!!” He sucked in a deep breath.

Rodor nodded. He wiped a stray tear from his eye. Appreciation lightened his heart of the burden from the council chamber. Without knowing, Peter had answered Doubt’s attack on Merlin’s legitimacy in the advisors’ eyes.

“Terrific. I’ve upset you. I’m sorry. I carry on,” Peter misinterpreted breaking into an apology.

“What?” Rodor snapped out of his reverie. He cleared his throat. “Whatever are you talking about, Peter?”

“I offended you,” Peter presumed. His teeth clattered. He bowed again.

“You did no such thing! In fact, I’d say you did quite the opposite. That, my Boy, was beautiful. Please, Peter, relax. It’s good to be mindful of others’ feelings and surroundings. Still we have to respect you as well.” Rodor nodded. “That is quite the talent you have. As long as you can balance it against your current situation, I’d say it’s vital.”

“I strive to do so. Thank you for the advice,” Peter expressed.

“We all have dreams, Peter. Do you think I don’t? Aye. I have to be practical. I have to rule this kingdom and think of you all. I’m not just King. I’m the Paterfamilias as well. Still I have dreams as well. I want to see the blood lust, fear and hate of the last generation gone. I want our kingdoms to co-exist peacefully here on Britannia and with those across the sea. I want old debts unjustly shoved aside to be settled amicably. And I want Princess Mithian to have the inspiration to share this beauty with the world. It seems a certain young man from Camelot is that,” Rodor assured him. “Perhaps you might speak with Merlin at some point? I’m sure he’d welcome your input.”

“He was so nice to me in Camelot. I’d just like to be his friend.” Peter exhaled sharply. Now it was his turn to wipe a tear away. “That inspiration you just spoke of, Sire. It…nudged the Princess to speak with you on my behalf. For what it’s worth, whatever the Princess is feeling is a good thing. It’s given Sarah and me our happiness. I can’t thank the Princess and you enough.”

“I rest my case.” Rodor rubbed the younger man’s arm. A gentle smile warmed the mood. “You’re welcome. I just spoke with Sarah. She is working hard upstairs. She shares your dreams, Master Poet.”

Shyness and Amor combined to blush Peter’s cheeks in crimson shades. He nodded. “Sarah is Inspiration itself. I appreciate that, Your Highness.” He glanced at his notes. “I am working at something. I just hope it measures up.”

“Knowing your talent, I’m sure it will shine like the North Star in the night sky. As long as Lord Brumenwald doesn’t need you, take what time you need. I await the fruits of your labors. I’m sure the Princess and Merlin will enjoy what you have as well,” Rodor declared. “Listen for the heralds’ trumpets. After their journey, I’d like Nemeth’s best and brightest to welcome them back.”

Peter nodded. “I will be there without fail. Thank you, Sire. You are most kind with your words and heart. I pray we all are allowed Hope’s graces.” He bowed once again.

“Indeed. You and me both. See you in a few hours then.” With that, Rodor walked out of the garden and into the passage.

Peter settled back onto the bench. Elation and Joy sent his spirits soaring. “We can do this!” He looked to the sky. Then he murmured a quick prayer. Finally he scratched out still more observations from his summer view.

A page, it seemed, was being turned…..

Chapter Text

Chapter 3 [Just Inside of the Nemeth Border—Two Leagues from Whitgate]

Sol sat halfway between noon and its evening rest. The clouds built up in the northwest once more. The breeze picked up. The chill air cut through the riding party’s cloaks and dimpled their skin. The air felt heavy and damp.

Seemed that Jack Frost laid an ambush dead ahead at some point…..

 

****

 

Mithian raised her hand stopping the progress. Admittedly she’d pressed the company to ride hard through Gedref. Her eyes had watched the skies overhead. She’d bunched her cloak around herself. The horses were tired. She felt Hunger assaulting her stomach and knew it was doing the same to everyone else. She wanted to stop and take a break.

Still the solid dark line forming in the northern sky clearly disagreed with that notion.

Father wants his progress into Whitgate. The people are working to prepare a welcome. Is it right to deny them that? The weather turns against us. She looked back at her comrades. Still we need to stop. Yet we are so close. She bit her lip knowing that food and shelter awaited them in her father’s castle. I wish I could have Freya teleport us into the courtyard. Still that would cause more grief than the saved time would be worth. She rolled her eyes. Once again, Uther Pendragon’s malice hurts everyone. I wish Arthur would understand that!

“What’s wrong?” Merlin looked her over. As with her, he’d noted the conditions. Unlike her, he wanted to press on for Whitgate. “Are you all right?”

“Of course. I’m torn. We’ve come a long way. Still we’ve taxed the horses to get this far. We should take a break. The horses could use a rest. I don’t want people hungry or thirsty,” Mithian observed.

“The weather though.” Merlin glanced up at the sky. “That storm is coming. And then there are the others. We don’t have enough cloaks for everyone.” He grabbed at his own thin coat.

She narrowed her eyes. “I offered mine to you.”

“And I won’t have you cold either.” He picked her hand up and kissed the back of it. “I love you too. Deal with it.”

She snorted. “You are stubborn.”

“Takes one to know one,” Merlin gibed back. He stiffened so as not to give away his shivering in that wind.

You forget, Merlin. I can feel your discomfort as you can feel mine. You not helping, Mithian reminded him telepathically. She exhaled sharply. She knew that most opinions remained favorable about magic among their numbers. Still she had no idea how Josiane would react.

She knows about me. I think she’ll understand. Maybe we can use it as a shortcut? Merlin suggested. He could see the exiled Princess bowing her head. She bunched a borrowed robe more suited for summer over her chain mail.

A worthy compromise. Mithian coughed. That is what will make you a passable Prince one day. She rubbed his hand. Even if you’re still getting a heavy cloak whether you like it or not.

Merlin shrugged. I’d rather see one of the people get it first.

Mithian knew she wasn’t about to win that one. Granted she loved his big heart and self-sacrifice. Still she wasn’t about to let him die because of it either. Freya? I am sorry to trouble you.

The weather. Aye. Just be ready. I wish to meet this new ally, the foreign Princess, the High Priestess replied.

We’ll be here. The Princess bunched her cloak around herself. “Princess Josiane?”

Josiane stiffened. She’d remained in the back so as to keep watch. Other than a few words with Britomart and Merlin that morning, she’d kept to herself. She guided Whisper up toward Mithian and Merlin. “Princess Mithian, what may I do for you?”

“First of all, when we’re not in front of my father, you can call me Mithian. You’re a Princess just like I am. I’m not pretentious or into titles like that. What are your feelings about Avalon?” Mithian replied.

Josiane scratched her head. “I know they’re high ranking in your island’s faith. As Merlin knows, I’ve seen sorcerers before. Several have been my allies. Can they help us?”

“They can. One’s on her way right now,” Merlin noted. “Wish we had a cloak for you.”

“I thank you for your concern, Merlin. I will be fine,” Josiane reassured him. Then she saw the wisps of mist covering the road in front of them. “What is that?” She pulled her scimitar.

“Our assistance. It will be fine,” Mithian rode forward toward the obscuring cloud.

“Princess, please. Take care!” Britomart called from the back.

My thoughts exactly, Merlin concurred. Please be careful.

I am not made of glass. Mithian countered. She ground her teeth. Granted she knew they cared about her welfare. Still she didn’t want to feel coddled either. She exhaled a deep breath of frozen air.

“Merlin is only looking for you.” Freya stepped into view from the misty backdrop. “Greetings, everyone. I trust the trip has been a good one so far?”

“We’ve made good time from the Severn on this day, Sister Freya,” Ywain noted with a nod of the head. ‘Though I believe we have some wet on the way?”

“We do indeed.” Freya looked to Josiane. “You are Princess Josiane, are you not?”

“I am indeed. I do not know you, I fear. Forgive me though,” Josiane apologized.

“There is nothing to forgive. I am Freya, High Priestess of Avalon. On behalf of my sisters and the triple goddess, welcome. You are a fine example of inter-faith collaboration, Princess Josiane,” Freya introduced herself. She added a nod of the head as well.

“I only wish to co-exist with others. Sadly Sir Boeve is not here. He would very much like confirmation that your order is real. He honored you,” Josiane affirmed.

“So the goddess has told me. We shall speak further at some other point, I’m sure.” Freya stepped to the left allowing access to the mists covering the road. “The storm, I fear, will only intensify. This will put you just inside the forest’s edge. From there you will have ready access to your city. Will that suit you, Princess Mithian?”

“It will indeed. You have my thanks as always, Freya.” Mithian nodded to her.

“I just had a favor to ask,” Freya requested.

“If I can grant it,” Mithian replied. Curiosity left questions in her mind.

Freya smirked at Merlin. Then she cleared her throat. “Do make sure that a certain Warlock-servant stays out of trouble? I hear he does wander into such things.”

“Do you really?” Mithian coughed. She glanced over toward her Warlock. “She seems to know that troublesome streak in you.”

“It’s not like I try to find trouble.” He shook his head. Embarrassment reddened his cheeks faster than the chill conditions did. “Thanks, Freya, for the help even if I can’t help but get into trouble.”

“It’s one of those traits, Merlin. You can’t help it. Perhaps Sir Gawain is too good of a mentor in that regard?” Freya supposed.

“So I show Merlin a good time every so often? Hey! He and I like to hang out. Keeps us out of Arthur’s hair,” Gawain argued.

“Seems you let your hair down too often, Good Knight,” Britomart snarked.

“And who started the fight in the passage without any back up?’ Gawain cleared his throat. “Some red haired maid trying to strut her stuff. Right? Uh yeah.”

‘You owed me that, Lord Windbag,” she jabbed back. She turned away from him and looked toward the front of their party. “Will someone please teach this one about responsibility?” She grimaced and bowed her head.

“It seems you do have a way with the ladies, Sir Gawain,” Ywain noted; Sarcasm dripping heavily from his tone. He made a clucking noise with his tongue.

‘It’s a gift…especially with that one,” Gawain insisted. “For the record, she started this not me. Whatever!”

From the front, Freya motioned toward the mist bank. “I believe everyone is ready for a change of scenery. Let me help.” She motioned with her hands. Her eyes glowed.

The mists enveloped the group sweeping them away from that place.

“Now what?” Ywain asked.

“By all that’s holy, what is this, Sister?” Josiane queried. She shivered from the mists’ chill. She felt unsteady from the movement even if they were all standing still.

“It’s all right. She’s done this before,” Merlin assured her and the others.

Freya raised an eyebrow. Spoil sport. The great Emrys can’t allow someone to have a trick of their own? Really?

Mithian snorted. Somehow she didn’t offer a quip or some rash reply to give away the deeper secret at hand. Still she let her eyes twinkle at her Prince.

They were worried. All right? I was backing you up, Merlin offered.

I know. Freya nodded and waved her hands again.

Around the group, the mists dissipated. The trees, grass and dirt trail underfoot came back into view. The breeze once again chilled them. The humidity dampened their skin anew.

“And there we are.” Freya glanced over her shoulder. “I do believe that would be Whitgate a half league down there, Good Knights and Royals?” She curtseyed per both Respect’s and Mischief’s respective directives. “You do take care. We will see each other again soon.” She disappeared in another puff of mist.

Josiane looked around. Queries taxed her brain. Comprehension eluded her at that moment. She noticed that the trees and surroundings were the same type as before. The grass seemed the same. Everything was of the same type…and yet different…. Seriously everything had changed. And somehow she saw the towers of some citadel in the distance where there’d only been twisting roads into the forest before? “Where did she place us?”

Mithian replied, “We’re just outside of Whitgate. My chamber is actually in the left tower there. She pointed for effect toward the tower in question.

“She teleported us?” Josiane began to understand what had just happened. “And you know how, Merlin?”

“I know there’s a spell. No I don’t know it. I trust Freya though with my life,” Merlin declared. He glanced up at the sky. “Maybe though we should be heading toward the palace? I’m sure that weather isn’t going to wait for answers.”

“Most assuredly not,” Mithian concurred. She turned to Malodius. “Please announce our arrival, my Friend?”

Malodius bowed his head. Then he sprinted down the path clearing the remainder of the trees and flora within several heartbeats. At the lip of the clearing, he released a tremendous roar and pressed on for the drawbridge.

“I believe that’s our cue. Princess Mithian?” Ywain supposed.

“Indeed. King Rodor will be waiting,” Mithian agreed. “Josiane, whatever happened before, you’re safe now. I can’t see my father saying different.”

“I can hope.” As soon as the words left her mouth, the exile bowed her head. “Forgive me. The experience at Camelot still hurts. I should not tar every place in Britannia with that same brush.”

“I have experienced the same hurt. We can help each other now,” Mithian assured her. She held her hand out. “Speaking of which, Merlin, it’s time.”

“Time?” Merlin blinked while trying to grasp her meaning.

“It’s time to see our home. Welcome home, my Prince.” Mithian glanced over her shoulder. “That welcome goes for you as well, Sir Gawain.”

“Thanks, Mith. I appreciate it.” Gawain offered a nod to her.

“Now we can go home.” Mithian spurred her horse onward. She led them through the last of the woods and toward the clearing.

And the journey wound down toward its end…and the next stage….

Chapter Text

Chapter 4
[Palace]

Anticipation burned brightly within the castle proper. Patience frayed much as with children before a Solstice celebration. Having long since finished their preparations, the castellans busied themselves with small tasks. They kept their minds busy hoping that Time would hustle by them all the quicker.

If anything the sands seemed to run akin to pitch from glass to glass….

 

****

 

Rodor stood on the balcony. His eyes scanned the area between himself and the trees beyond. While he knew that it would be a few hours yet, he hoped for an early arrival. Anxiety ate at him. Uncharacteristically he tapped his fingers on the overhand’s stone lip. His eyes drifted toward the square.

On the cobbles below, the townspeople still waited for the company’s appearance. Beside them, heralds watched the cobbled way toward the lower town. All eyes watched the arch over that hairpin turn for any sign.

I should send some bread or soup out to them. They linger in wait for Mithian and Merlin. Perhaps in another chime, I will. His eyes glanced up into the darkening skies overhead. If it’s much longer, the weather will disperse them. Mithian would not want them waiting in the rain for her.

Then a loud booming roar shattered the stillness.

Twin trumpets sang from the outer gates’ towers.

Malodius! Only our magical friend could roar like that! At last! Rodor signaled to the heralds. “ATTENTION, GOOD PEOPLE! YOUR WAIT IS ABOUT TO BE REWARDED! HERALDS, SOUND THE TRUMPETS!”

On cue, the heralds raised their trumpets to their lips. They blew Celebration’s notes loudly into the air.

The people stirred. They stood from where they’d sat and huddled to stay warm. Their eyes looked in the same direction as their King’s.

Everyone wanted a sign…..

 

****

 

[Top of the Clearing]

Merlin stopped Windchaser abruptly at the forest’s edge. Butterflies jarred around in his stomach. He swallowed hard. He narrowed his eyes. “I can’t believe this.”

Windchaser grunted back at him.

“Easy for you to say. You’re already accepted. I have a job to do.” Merlin patted the area in front of the saddle. “Thanks for the support.”

“You’re too wound up, Merlin. Lighten up. You’re not on crap duty anymore,” Gawain assured him. “We’ve got your back.”

“And who’s got yours? Knight without a rank or master at the moment.” Even as he sassed his friend, Merlin moped. Guilt weighed heavily on him. “I just feel like we’re sneaking around.”

“Sneaking?” Mithian overheard. “You’re not sneaking anywhere. You’re here with Gwen’s permission. She knows what the stakes are. Let Arthur believe this is simply a mission *for now*.”

“He’s going to hit the roof. Just wait,” Merlin predicted.

“So let him. He can deal with it. You and I have both sacrificed to please his father and him. You’ve followed the rules, Merlin. And there are no lies involved. You are working on the garden and helping to prepare for our meeting.” Mithian shrugged. “It just happens you are the reason for the meeting.” She squeezed his hand. “Just relax. There’s no pressure. Father likes you. Just be yourself…rough edges and all.”

“Rough edges and all. I guess,” Merlin agreed.

“We’re all human, Merlin. If I may say so, you prove yourself just through your daily actions. What the Princess is saying is be yourself. Let Destiny act as she will. The people will respect you,” Ywain assured him.

“Nobility comes through one’s actions not in some empty title. As a warrior and former Princess, I’ve seen as much,” Josiane chimed in. “Merlin, you already grow toward your future role. You’re already more virtuous than most knights. You care for others. Take pride in that.”

“Take pride. Right,” Merlin noted. He let out a giant sigh. Then he looked down toward the city. He could see that the guards had lowered the drawbridge. He noted Malodius waiting on them. “I guess that’s our sign?”

“It is if a certain Prince didn’t have cold feet,” Mithian jabbed half-seriously. Her eyes twinkled into his. “Our people are waiting, Merlin.”

Our people. Merlin nodded. He forced Anxiety’s issues down. Reassurance beckoned through his Princess’ eyes. “For them and you.” He gently touched the reins to Windchaser’s neck. “Take us home.”

Windchaser grunted. He took off at a rapid gallop. His horseshoes glittered even in the building gloom overhead.

“For them and us indeed.” Mithian smiled. Her heart skipped a beat. Josiane’s words had struck just the right chord with the Warlock it seemed. And you prove yourself a friend as well. “Forward!” She spurred her own horse and took off in pursuit of her beloved. Her heart warmed a degree with each horse length closed in distance between the city and herself. Our dreams! Instinct told her she was almost there….

….that is if her Warlock’s fretting didn’t do so in its own right….

She rolled her eyes. Her lip curled on itself in a deep frown. Please, Merlin! Believe! Believe in yourself!

I do. I…well… Merlin hesitated. He reached Malodius. Sorry to keep you waiting.

You are in a state of transition, Balinor’s Son. Such things are natural. Just have confidence, the lion declared. He motioned with his head toward the woods. And we are not alone. We are part of a greater group. Have pride and confidence in your standing.

Pride and confidence. Got it, Merlin replied (even if it wasn’t sinking in all of the way at that point). He peered back over his shoulder to see the others racing toward them. He looked up to find the guards sizing him up as well. So how do I acknowledge them? This isn’t Camelot.

We should be grateful for small favors, Merlin, Mithian interjected. I think you’re about to be surprised, She smirked.

What’s going on? Merlin narrowed his eyes. He smelled a plot of some kind.

I suppose you’ll have to ride in and see, my Warlock? Mischief danced in her eyes. A playful smirk spread across her face. Come along now. Malodius?

Follow me, Princess. Malodius loped across the wooden drawbridge and onto the cobbles. He pressed on following the route through the lower town and up toward the castle.

It will be all right, Merlin. Mithian rubbed his hand. I’d hold hands with you but we should maintain appearances.

I know. Merlin’s spirits sank just a bit. I am tired of the games.

As am I, my Warlock. Take heart that it won’t be much longer, Mithian assured him.

We do have that dream place. Maybe we could meet there later? Merlin supposed.

Mithian coughed well imagining his intention. Why, Merlin! I see smudges on that white armor of yours! Whatever have you done with it?

You’ve created a monster. Now deal with that, Merlin sassed back.

Mithian snorted. It seems I have. Her eyes twinkled. I suppose you’ll just have to *impress* me with your artistic flair. Now won’t you?

Sure. No pressure. You do have high standards. I remember how you love your picnic spots, Merlin rebutted.

Arthur was the one moving you around. I stepped in as you might recall, Mithian reminded him. The view was fine. The servant made the meal even if he did make his King belch like a tavern drunk.

Sure. I do take care of my friends. That was then. This is now. He gazed back at her. Now you’re it.

Why, Merlin! Whatever would Arthur say? I’m the Most Important Royal in your Life? Mithian teased. Her heart leapt at his words. Her eyes watered. As you are in mine.

I’m not….

You’re a noble. You’re my Intended. That makes you so in all but official crowning. Arthur is being a Prat. Even he will see the light at some point. Gwen won’t give him a choice, Mithian informed him. She ground her teeth. Patience (barely) restrained the lecture she wanted to give him. Ride on and see what I mean.

Ride on? Merlin raised an eyebrow. Now he could almost feel the plot brewing in her head.

She sniffed. “Follow me then.” She set her horse into a canter and led them into the city proper.

Merlin nodded and did the same. His eyes skittered about this way and that. He noted a few citizens sweeping their thresholds with straw brooms before rushing off somewhere. He shook his head. Now I know you’re up to something.

Am I now? Whatever would I be doing, Merlin? Mithian retorted; Mirth accenting every syllable in that retort.

Merlin sighed knowing better than to fall into that particular verbal pitch. He glanced back toward the others seeking out any sign…any glance betraying the plot he knew was coming.

To their credit, nobody acted out of the ordinary. In fact, they seemed as if they were on a normal progress through a city. Only Josiane seemed out of sorts as it was her first time in Whitgate. Gawain seemed almost too nonchalant. Britomart took the rear drawing her hood over her face.

Still all seemed way too quiet for a kingdom’s capital even if they moved in on sunset. He assumed the residents would be scurrying about before the approaching storm. Still everything seemed too quiet. As they ascended the hill toward the upper town, a few residents skittered into view. He saw them bow and curtsey. The numbers increased as the route moved toward the upper town.

Just before the granite arch, he heard a few trumpets’ brash notes serenading the air.

Now what? Merlin noticed that Mithian didn’t seem to react one way or the other. Much as she would have on any other progress, she simply kept her horse moving ahead. He saw her pass under the arch. He could almost feel Anticipation hanging in the air. He glanced back toward the others again.

Gawain shrugged. He coughed. He motioned toward the way ahead with his head. (Of course he hoped for a big reception with ale attached…)

You would push us forward. Merlin passed under the arch now. He rounded the corner into the square. There his heart almost stopped.

A throng of townspeople lined the area. Streamers hung from buildings. White flower petals littered the stones. In front of the castle, knights and other members of the nobility awaited them. Members of the royal household waited just behind their aristocratic brethren.

Ywain broke off from the entourage. He dropped back and around the party’s flank. Then he rode up to where his fellow knights waited. He nodded to Rodor and then clasped Galahad’s hand. “I believe Merlin has been duly surprised.”

“I would hope he understands his value now,” Galahad agreed. He bowed. “Princess Mithian, welcome.”

“Thank you, Sir Galahad,” Mithian expressed. She grinned. “THANK YOU, PEOPLE OF NEMETH! SUCH A WELCOME WARMS MY HEART! HERE ARE OUR FRIENDS FROM ABROAD! WELCOME THEM AS OUR OWN!!” She put her hands to her mouth and blew them all a heartfelt kiss.

The crowd clapped. Applause echoed off of the cobbles and walls.

Merlin smiled and waved anxiously. Embarrassment and Shyness streaked his cheeks crimson. He stiffened. His motions slowed. It’s great that you’re so well received. You deserve it!

These people are here for us, Merlin. This is a special event after all. Mithian’s eyes sparkled. Seeing her father descend the granite stairs, she dismounted and motioned for him to do the same.

For us all? Merlin scratched his head.

Aye. Remember when you welcomed me to Camelot? Now it’s my turn to arrange such a reception for you. As if I’d let you be mistreated? Never! Now eyes front. Mithian hustled toward Rodor. As much as she wanted to seize him in an embrace, she contained her emotions. Even if Triumph sounded an initial salvo, she’d keep to ritual. She nodded politely. “Good Afternoon, Sire.”

Rodor nodded. “Good Afternoon, my Daughter. Was the trip a good one?”

“Aye. We made excellent time. The group from Camelot arrived barely a turn of the hourglass after us in Gedref. There are other matters to discuss later. Still we do have our guests, Sir Gawain, Princess Josiane and, of course, Merlin,” Mithian assured him.

Rodor nodded. He’d prepared for Merlin. He halfway expected Gawain to escort the aforementioned Warlock there in person. Still he wondered about Josiane. He also glanced at Britomart adding a slight furrow of the brow.

Britomart nodded knowing that a lecture would be forthcoming for her covert appearance at the tournament.

“What now?” Gawain asked.

“It’s a matter between the King and me, Sir Gawain. Leave it at that,” Britomart told him frankly. She turned to Josiane. “The Princess bids you welcome as well, my Lady.”

“I am sure. Still after Camelot, I am cautious,” Josiane noted carefully. “Be on guard, Whisper.” She patted her horse’s flank and waited her turn.

“A Princess? Truly you do make wondrous friends, Daughter.” Rodor strode toward the newest friend. “Welcome. I am King Rodor. I am sure Princess Mithian welcomed you. Let me add my regards to hers.”

“Thank you, King Rodor. I do appreciate your tidings and hospitality on behalf of Whisper and myself,” Josiane accepted. She nodded and offered a slight bow. “Your kindness provides a bounty to assuage my heart and soul. May you be blessed.”

“Thank you, Princess. I am honored by your good wishes. May our hospitality be worthy.” Rodor offered her a royal nod. Then he pressed on to Merlin. “Welcome back, Merlin. I am glad to see you well and under better circumstances.”

“King Rodor, it’s an honor, Your Majesty.” Merlin bowed. Somehow he just managed to keep himself from tripping over his own feet in the process. “I’m not sure how tending a garden merits such a display. I….”

“Merlin, I appreciate your humility. Your dedication and purpose to Camelot and Nemeth is well noted. Please rise. I welcome you as a guest. We shall speak on our other affairs at leisure. For now, King Arthur and I both thank you for your loyalty. I am sure you will craft an exquisite masterpiece in our garden. If it is acceptable, Peter has asked if he can assist. He would like inspiration for his poems,” Rodor assured him.

Merlin rose slowly to his feet. Inferiority continued to burden his self-esteem. Still he felt glad to be so appreciated especially after being consigned to reduced duties over the previous few months. He recalled well Peter’s marvelous poem from the Samhain celebration. “Maybe Peter and I can speak at some point? I don’t want to take him away from his scribing duties or poems.”

“That will be arranged. For now, Merlin, you and everyone else should head up to your chambers before dinner. Afterwards we shall dine.” Rodor clapped his hands.

“Thank you, Your Majesty. I can get Princess Mithian’s things and….” Merlin started.

You will NOT! There are others for such things, Merlin. Even if things aren’t official, you are a guest. As such, others can wait on you for a change, Mithian corrected him rather pointedly.

Merlin turned. He quaked at her raised eyebrow and squinted stare.

Rodor coughed. “Again I appreciate your dedication, Merlin. Still, as I’m sure Princess Mithian will tell you, guests are not treated like baggage here. Come along. We will dine shortly.” He turned to the throng. “My People, thank you! You see? Our hope for new things! What will start in our palace garden will spread throughout our fair land. Our friend, Merlin, has a great deal to offer! We shall see that unfold over the next fortnight. Thank you!” He smiled, waved and then walked back up the stairs.
“You heard the King, Merlin. It’s time you were treated as you deserve,” Mithian told him. She squeezed his hand in hers making no secret of her true intentions. Then she led him into the palace in her father’s wake. “Princess Josiane, Sir Gawain, please follow us! Your chambers will be made ready presently.”

“Wonder what Mith’s got up her sleeve?” Gawain supposed. He glanced at Britomart. “Maybe you can show us the highlights?”

“Perhaps. I will have to see how Sarah is faring with the household. At some point, we will see the town. Of course we will stick to higher class establishments respecting Princess Josiane’s faith,” Britomart accepted with a twist.

“Higher class…? What?” Gawain stared at the exiled Princess.

“I am not permitted to drink alcohol. Unless perhaps they have mead? Sir Boeve kept some on hand for me,” Josiane pointed out. “Hence my Lady Britomart has agreed that we should not be subjected to such temptations on our tour. Certainly Chivalry would not allow you, Sir Gawain, to subject me to such a sight? Would it?”

Ywain coughed. “Aye. Such a sacrifice would go a long way toward proving one’s worth in becoming a knight of Nemeth.”

Gawain rolled his eyes. “Look, Y-Whine, I’ve already proven whatever you want to see. Ol’ Rodor’s got to see that. Course Merlin’s got his inside track but….” A sharp elbow in the ribs stopped him. “What was that for?”

“Perhaps you might not make allusions to the Princess and our future Prince in that way, Lord Windbag? We should show respect especially for our friends. Now should we not?” Britomart suggested rather directly. She headed inside.

“I did not mean to start anything, Sir Gawain,” Josiane apologized.

“That’s Brit being Brit, Josie. Don’t worry about it. Meantime want some help with your carpet? Can’t be seen getting in trouble. Now can I?” Gawain offered with an edge to his voice.

“I appreciate it. Thank you.” Josiane led him down toward Whisper.

See? I can help. Not so smart. Are you? Gawain shook his head. He walked toward Josiane and Whisper both to prove a point and genuinely to help a new friend.

Motivations did work in strange ways after all…..

Chapter Text

Chapter 5 [An Hour Later]
[Merlin’s Chamber]

Merlin paced about his bedchamber. Awe numbed his brain. Splendor overwhelmed his senses. Disbelief cowed him. His eyes beheld an area perhaps a hair smaller than Arthur’s bedchamber back in Camelot. The varnished wooden floor gleamed even in the overcast filtered light. The four post bed was three times as wide as the narrow bed in his old room. A carpet lay on the floor in front of the bed. A goose down quilt and plumped-up pillows rested on the bed. An oak desk sat in the corner. A tapestry depicted a crimson unicorn scene with gold leaf.

This was beyond belief to say the least….

This can’t be just a guest room. He remembered the last guest chamber during his convalescence. That one was only half of the current one’s size. Those furnishings frankly made him feel spoiled. Still his current bed and comforts far outshone those. I’m here to do the garden. I know we’re working on formalizing things. Still Mithian and her father can’t risk making too big of a display. Can they? He bit his lip and paced the floor. Whose room is this?

It was my brother’s chamber, Merlin.

He rubbed his forehead. Mithian, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean any disrespect. I….

It’s all right. I have to apologize as well. Meet me in that other place? There we can talk without being interrupted, she told him.

He nodded. She heard me. Of course she did. Now she’ll think I’m being rude. He trudged over toward the bed. After kicking off his boots, he laid down on it and closed his eyes. He turned his focus toward her.

As he did so, a white light dazzled his senses. It swept him away…..

 

****

 

[Dreamscape]

A warm breeze tickled Merlin’s nose. He twitched his fingers. He slowly flexed his arms. His eyes blinked open. He gazed up into a royal blue sky. The grass underneath cushioned him from the hard ground. He sat up and rubbed his eyes. Mithian?

“To your left.”

He turned toward a nearby tree. There he saw her sitting against its trunk. She drank from a wooden cup. For some reason, she was still in her riding clothes rather than the court gown. “Everything all right?”

“That’s my question for you actually.” She wished for a second cup to appear in her hand. “Some water? I can offer wine if you’d prefer.”

“Water’s great. Thanks.” He stood and walked over. “Mind if I join you?”

She snorted. “Like I’d say no?”

“I was just being courteous,” he explained.

She smiled. “I know. I love that about you.” She patted the ground beside herself. “Please.”

He sat down beside her. As he did, he tuned into her aura on deeper levels. Much as she had with him, he fixed in on her empathically. She smelled of lavender for some reason. Her eyes glittered in Sol’s light. Her skin almost seemed to take on a gentle glow akin to Faerie. Her breathing relaxed him and yet made his heart beat faster as well. Arousal caught his breath in his throat.

“I have your attention, do I?” She chuckled.

“That’s not fair. I wish I understood this. I….” He noticed the pink in her cheeks. “And I have yours.”

“You are so observant, my Prince.” She washed that point down with a gulp of water. “I just wish you’d be as kind to yourself.”

“I just wish I knew how I deserved that chamber.” He ran his hands through his hair. “It’s so much.”

“It’s a royal chamber. You’re going to be a Prince. That chamber is like Arthur’s. I’m sure Gwen had one like it. I stayed in her old chamber during my first stay in Camelot. That’s a little smaller than this chamber.” She shrugged. “Father put you in there. He wants you to adjust to our life together.”

“Mithian, it isn’t official yet. That whole reception was great today. Still I saw some people weren’t happy with me.” He exhaled sharply. “It was great. I loved it. Still I don’t want anything screwing it up. I’m afraid that Arthur’s going to hear and pull me back to Camelot. Worse my being here is going to start a revolt or worse get your father and you deposed.” He looked at her. “I’d die before I’d let that happen.”

“I know you would.” She embraced him. “And you wonder why he lavishes such attention on you? You’re just making his case. Your concern just endears you more to me. Thank you.” She kissed his forehead. “I’m sorry I’m smothering you. I…I just see the way you’re treated in Camelot. I can’t stand it. You deserve better, Merlin.”

“So do you, Mithian. I just want to measure up to your standard.” Worry weighed on him. He bit his lip.

“Merlin.” She shook her head. “I understand you want to keep appearances. It’s great that you noticed those reactions and relayed them to me. Still I want to make this clear right now. You are worthy! You proved yourself by the laws of Camelot and Nemeth. Perhaps we can get Percival to add a feat you did for him so that would satisfy Mercia’s laws too? And then there’s your own heritage. The only reason your mother and you were peasants because Balinor wanted you to be safe. Well you wouldn’t have been safe in Ealdor forever. Now it’s a moot point.”

“Moot point?” Merlin’s eyes went wide. “What happened? Is Mother all right?”

“Of course she is. I know that she is being watched. Freya keeps an eye on that village. Besides you do know there’s a chamber for your mother as well here. I won’t have her wasting away back there. Hunith deserves better.” She put her hands up defensively. “I know. She’s like you. She’s used to humble surroundings and such. Still she is your mother. She will be my mother-in-law. As such, she will be a member of this court. Father insists on her being here. Both of you are nobility, Merlin. By now, most of the other rulers in Britannia know it.” She smirked. “That’s why Father’s organizing this meeting. He’s garnering support from the other rulers. Arthur likes to bully you and everyone else into accepting the way things are? Well we can play that game as well. There’s no way he can say no. If he does, well….” She hesitated not really caring to finish that sentence.

“Mithian, I don’t want to be the reason for a civil war,” he told her.

“I don’t either. Still he will not take you from me! Merlin, I’ve waited my whole life for a special man like you. We’ve been patient. You proved yourself. Now this lineage has come back to light. Your friends and allies are now in power. Percival, Bors, Elena, Morgana, Father and Gwen all support our relationship. He can’t deny it without being called a hypocrite. If he truly believes in what he says about equality, he can’t stop us,” she insisted.

“He’ll try.” He remembered how Arthur, despite knighting everyone else during Morgause and Morgana’s usurpation of Camelot, kept him as a servant. That being despite the service he’d rendered.

“Because you let him. You saw what Sir Gawain did. Britomart and Sir Ywain told me he literally threw everything at Arthur’s feet and left with you all for here. You’ve earned the same privilege, Merlin,” she countered.

“Gawain’s a free man. I’m a servus,” Merlin stated.

“Law says you’re free. Arthur’s ignoring it. Time to make him see it. If there’s a war, he’ll start it not you. Besides there is something else.” She snorted.

“And that is?”

She sighed. “Gwen won’t stand for you being treated as you are. Merlin, she understands better than anyone. She won’t tolerate Arthur acting like his father. Father won’t tolerate Arthur being another Uther.”

“Britannia can’t take another Uther,” he noted.

“Most assuredly not. As I said, Father won’t allow that. The other rulers can’t either. Besides other sorcerers and followers of the Old Religion are counting on you, Merlin. They need you to succeed. I need you to succeed. I love you,” she affirmed. She embraced him. “You have no idea how complete I’ve felt since that night in the passage. I had no idea how much that second chance would mean.”

“I know. As I said, I’m sorry I hurt you. I was defending Gwen’s place. It wasn’t you. I….” he apologized (again).

“I know that. Merlin, you were just being you. You’re so loyal and strong as a friend. I admire that. Once I figured that out, I couldn’t help but being intrigued. Your kindness ensnared my heart. You aren’t just some pawn in a royal game. I see a wonderful man. I want to be the woman and partner you need too, Merlin. I want to grow into what you need,” she assured him.

“What Nemeth needs. I….” Merlin bowed his head.

“There! You see? You’re already thinking of service and the balance! How can you say you’re not qualified, Merlin? I say you’re the best person for the throne and me!” she asserted. She put her forehead against his.

Warmth washed away Doubt’s hold on him. He inhaled a deep breath. “I know I’m ruining a special moment but….”

“…but what? Merlin, please don’t knock yourself down. I….”

“No. No, I wasn’t going to say that.” He looked her in the eye. His cheeks flushed neon red. “I don’t want to cheapen it. I just….” He squirmed.

She narrowed her eyes. “Cheapen it? I…. What is it? Whatever it is, just ask.”

He swallowed hard. “I’m feeling the same way I was feeling at Solstice, Mithian. I want you. I wish we didn’t have to wait three more weeks or whatever it is. I just don’t want trouble. I can deal with whatever comes. You don’t deserve it.”

She grinned at him. “I deserve the privilege of making you happy, Merlin. Aye you’re right. Our first priority is Nemeth. After that though, you are my priority. Father knows of course about our special meal together. He doesn’t know about our lovemaking afterwards. Gwen and Britomart aren’t going to tell him.” She shrugged. “I appreciate that you’re willing to hold back for my sake. I burn for you as well. Still Father wouldn’t appreciate us sleeping together.”

“He wants us to be properly married. I don’t blame him. Mithian, I won’t shame you,” he declared.

“I know you would never do any such thing. Nor will I do that to you, Merlin.” She smiled. “I wish we could know for sure.” She looked around.

“Know about what?”

“Maybe we can find out about this place? I wonder if we could sleep together here and not risk a pregnancy?” She sighed. “I feel like one of those tavern maids. You must think me wicked and….”

“Why? We love each other. We’re about to be married. If Arthur would just quit being a prat, your father could marry us. We’re loyal to each other. We just need to be patient even if it is hard,” he noted. “We could spend time here to make time go faster.”

“We shall indeed, my Prince.” She looked around as if noticing something in the distance. “I think we’re almost set for dinner. I’ll see you soon.”

“Right. I love you,” he replied.

“And I you,” she agreed.

With that, the white light swept them back toward the waking world once more…..

Chapter Text

Chapter 6 [A Quarter Turn of the Hourglass Later]

Merlin smoothed his shirt and breeches. He straightened his neckerchief. He checked his hair to make sure it was combed and in place. Then he wiped the dust off of his jacket. He pulled that on and inspected himself in the mirror once more.

Despite the glass’ slight distortions around the edges, it showed his layers. Reputation, Status and Dress obscured his true worth behind servile veneer. Still his eyes held the light firmly. His manner seemed strong and forthright. His muscles had filled out from Toil’s duties over the years. His hands looked bigger than they’d been. Still Insecurity poked through that strength as well.

Which was he? The peasant? The royal servant? The Prince? Emrys, the greatest of Druid sorcerers? The answers weren’t forthcoming.

Why isn’t it ever easy? He frowned. His mind spun with Implication’s route and its potential forks. He hoped that Desire and Want didn’t overwhelm Need and Common Sense. He bit his lip.

A knock came from the door.

“Now who?” His feet shuffled ever so slightly. His breathing seemed labored. His hand slowly turned the latch. He pulled the door open to find Peter waiting. “Peter?”

“Good Evening, my Prince.” Peter bowed to him.

Merlin sighed. “I’m not a Prince yet, Peter. At this point, you are a court official. I am but a guest and servant. So I should be bowing to you.”

Peter nodded. “For now. It is but a scratch of the quill from happening. The laws are on your side. Besides you are responsible for my fortune.”

“I…am?” Merlin considered the visitor. He checked his chamber one more time. Then he secured the door. “How’s that? I remember Princess Mithian telling me that she found you in the garden last summer. She read your poem. She and King Rodor arranged for your position and marriage to Sarah. What does that have to do with me?”

“My lord, if I may say so, her bond with you inspired her to help us. She would have before of course. Still she seems happier than I had seen her before. So thank you.” Peter bowed again. “King Rodor has asked me to guide you to the banquet hall for dinner.”

I inspire her? Really? Merlin pondered.

Yes, Merlin. You do. Imagine that, my Prince? Mithian noted with a teasing barb.

Peter was telling me about what you did for him. Mithian, that was you not me, Merlin doubted.

By example, you had a role. I keep telling you how your heart inspires. Can you please believe in yourself for a turn of the hourglass? Please? I will see you at dinner, my Love. With that, she went silent.

Consideration forced him to face that fact. I need to give myself a chance. He turned toward Peter. “I appreciated your poem at Samhain.”

“I did my best. I have another for tonight. I hope you will like that,” Peter told him.

“I’m sure I will. Please show the way,” Merlin assured him while following him down the passage.

 

****

[Gawain’s Chamber]

Gawain rolled his eyes at his reflection. He frankly hated the fine robes. He scratched under the collar. Their stiffness stifled him. He felt as if he was choking. “So tell me why do I have to wear this?”

“You have to look respectable for the King, Princess and Prince Merlin. Besides you have to make a good impression on the Royal Council and other knights. You must appear to be respectable,” Britomart explained (for the third time).

As with the other two times, he frowned. He narrowed his eyes before rolling them. “That lot will never look at me that way. I let my sword do the talking. Now, Merlin and Mith’, they know what I can do. They can talk to the King for me. If the knights want to talk, I’ll take ‘em for a drink. If they want to spar, we’ll go and spar on the field down below. Ywain and Galahad have seen me fight.”

“They’ve also had to get you out of trouble at your favorite past time,” she reminded him. She smoothed the gown. “For once, you even look halfway sophisticated.”

He coughed. “I feel like a stallion being paraded around before market.”

“You do have something there. I was thinking of perhaps a cow but….” she teased.

“How come you don’t have to dress up?” He looked over her outfit. She’d returned to her white blouse and a long skirt.

“This is actually a new outfit from the Princess for tonight. I can look nice. So should you,” she informed him. She grinned at how her new outfit looked and felt so fresh.

“At Camelot, we just show up. This starched stuff isn’t necessary. Merlin’s in his regular stuff,” he pointed out.

“This isn’t Camelot. Thankfully. I’ve had enough of that place for my liking especially certain louts.” She raised an eyebrow. “Please, Sir Gawain, do try and make a good impression.”

“Yeah because you can’t live without me. Face it, Brit. Now let’s go and see Rodor.” He wheeled around and marched out the door.

That oaf! HONESTLY! She ground her teeth. She didn’t know what was worse: his behavior, his attitude or the fact that he was right about her. Her heart soared even as her brain felt positively naked by his assessment. Worse still, her mind worried about how she’d deal with her ‘debt’ to him later that night. I want him. Would it be so bad? Still my Lady has her standards. I can’t. Why can’t he understand? Can’t he be a gentleman for a turn of the hourglass? She shook her head and stormed after him.

Amor does love her stormy voyages or so it seemed…..

 

****

 

[Josiane’s Chamber]

Josiane inspected the fine borrowed dress. Mithian, it seemed, had picked the best possible gown for her. The turquoise shade was her favorite. The dress fit well almost as if it had been made for her specifically. It even had a higher neckline than most of the dresses she’d seen other ladies wearing around the castle. Still she pulled a scarf over her head and bound it there. She considered her reflection. “It is not perfect but Modesty can still be served. I pray King Rodor will understand.”

A knock came from the door.

She answered it to find a brown haired teenage boy waiting for her. His courtier's emerald gown hung down perilously close to his shoes. He kept his eyes averted. “Princess Josiane, I am here to guide you to dinner.” He bit his lip.

“Did I say or do something, my Young Friend?” she wondered.

“No, Princess.”

“Then why do you not look at me?” She folded her arms across her chest. “I do not care about class differences here. I am an exile. Your King honors me.”

He raised his eyes to see her looking right at him. “You are still deserving of respect, Good Lady. I would not shame you.”

“As I would not do to you, my Friend.” She nodded while seeing a question forming in his eyes. “You have something you would ask?”

“May I say your scarf is nice?” he asked. Fear shot tremors through him.

“You may and thank you. It is one of a few things left to me from my homeland.” She smiled. Her eyes sparkled. “And I thank you for your kindness. What is your name?”

“Samuel, Princess.”

“Master Samuel, I thank you for your courtesy and humility. You could teach some so-called nobles a few things in that regard. Please. Shall we join your King?” she expressed.

“We should.” He bowed again. He grinned in spite of his being on duty. Respect lightened his heart.

It seemed that not all nobles looked down at servants as dirt after all…..

Chapter Text

Chapter 7
[Main Hall]

For this occasion, the serving staff had outdone themselves. The hall practically sparkled and shone in the late afternoon light. Three medium-length tables sat in a U-pattern in the room’s center. On them, platters of pork, capon and beef heaped. Some fruits sat in bowls between them. Flagons of wine sat at predetermined points around the seating area. Brass plates, matching prongs and goblets awaited each participant. Minstrels tuned their instruments in the northern most corners. Servants waited just off of the main room to take care of their masters and mistresses.

Around the tables, a select cross-section of Nemethian society sat. Rodor had planned well and summoned those he considered to be vital in these affairs. Galahad, Ywain and Belvidere represented the knights. Two royal counselors sat to the immediate right of the high table. Lord Brumenwald and Peter sat to their right. The other nobles sat elbow to elbow beside each other. Merlin was seated at the high table’s immediate left. Gawain and Josiane sat to his left. Admittedly Tension bubbled under the surface. Still Merriment floated on the former’s choppy surface.

Such as it was…..

 

****

 

Merlin leaned back in his seat. He tapped on the table much as a kid might at the family’s first holiday feast. He felt everyone’s eyes fixed on him. Disapproval flared at him through several aristocrats’ eyes. He noted more muted tones from everyone else around the area. He did receive greetings from the knights in attendance. He looked at the two empty chairs at the high table. Then he considered his own position.

Inches from his goal yet it might as well be a hundred leagues as far as he was concerned.

We don’t have Arthur’s approval. Why is King Rodor doing this? Merlin sighed. He noticed Britomart standing behind him with a pitcher. “Sorry. I was in my own world.”

“It’s all right. I imagine it’s hard. Put your cup out please. I’ll get you some water,” Britomart assured him. She filled the cup with the clear liquid. “And you’re not alone. I’d say more but well…you understand more than anyone else.”

He nodded. He understood the risk she was taking in just talking to him at that point. “Thank you.” He smiled in support.

She nodded and moved on. She drifted around the front of the table pouring water to go beside the wine goblets for where the King and Princess would sit. Then she headed toward the other side.

“Strange.” Gawain frowned. “Brit’s got an edge to her tonight. Wonder what’s with her?”

“Why would you say that, Sir Gawain? She has many people to serve. At least she offered me water,” Josiane replied. She sipped from the cup.

“Water? Sppt! Please! This is a feast.” Gawain took the table’s flagon and filled his own goblet. “Cheers!” He toasted his companion and gulped down a goodly portion of it.

“Some of us can’t have wine, remember?” Josiane reminded him curtly. She saw Samuel return with a small green bottle and a goblet. “What is that, Master Samuel?”

“Princess Mithian instructed me to serve you with this, Princess.” Samuel set the goblet on the table. Then he poured out the liquid in it. “It’s from our northern most allies.”

“Truly?” Josiane sipped on it. “This is mead.”

“It is indeed. If you would like more, please let me know.” Samuel bowed to her. He turned to the brunette to Josiane’s left. He noticed how sad she seemed. “Are you unwell, my Lady? Can I get you something?”

“Nay.” The woman in question turned to Samuel. “Forgive me. You are doing an excellent job. I am just unsettled.” She rubbed her forehead.

“Perhaps you should lie down?” Josiane suggested.

“Father wants me here. I don’t want to ruin it,” the woman murmured.

“Yeah right.” Gawain tapped Merlin on the arm. “Merlin, take a look at her. She needs a physician.”

Merlin looked about the chamber. Strangely, unlike the other counselors, Gaius’ friend and former companion was not anywhere to be seen. He got up out of his seat and hustled to the suffering woman’s side. “My Lady, I can help. I’ve been trained as a physician.”

“It’s just so hot in here. I….I…” The woman slumped in her chair.

Merlin saw a rash on her face and along her neck. He checked her hands. Under her nail, he saw a green discharge. He knew the signs well. “I need to get her to the Physicians’ Chambers. Does someone have the key to them?”

“Britomart will accompany you, Master Merlin,” Lord Brumenwald agreed. “I will let King Rodor and Princess Mithian know.” He signaled for the maid and placed the metallic key in her hand.

“Aye, my lord. I will do my duty.” Britomart set her pitcher aside. She hustled to where Merlin, Gawain and Josiane were helping the afflicted woman. “Follow me. I’ll guide you all there. Perhaps Sir Gawain might stay here and let our lord and lady know?”

The group considered their options. People’s eyes turned toward them. They’d need to take of the situation and quickly…..

Chapter Text

Chapter 8

“What? Hey! You all are….” Gawain saw the assembled eyes turning toward him. “Fine! I’ll hold the line. You just help her.”

“Thanks.” Merlin nodded. Mithian?

Merlin, Lord Brumenwald’s talking with Father right now. What happened?

This woman fainted. Someone overdosed her with ruesbottom mushrooms. It will kill her if we don’t help her quickly. Britomart, Josiane and I are helping her upstairs. Please apologize to your father. Your physician isn’t here, he explained.

Father will understand under the circumstances. Go and help her, Merlin. As always, my Prince, you make me proud. I love you, she noted.

And I you. Merlin picked up the woman’s shoulders. Josiane took the feet. With Britomart’s holding up the woman’s middle, they scurried out of the chamber and down the hall.

Several courtiers cast weird looks as the unannounced yet well-known Guest of Honor seemed to be running away from his own banquet. They shook their heads as they finished their journey toward the chamber in question.

Merlin really could have cared less. He noted the woman’s increasing clammy complexion. “I just hope your healer has what we need, Britomart.”

“I’ve never seen anything like this, Merlin. Do you know what it is?” Britomart looked the patient over. Alarm and Panic raised her voice.

“I do. We need to get her out of sight. I doubt your healer would have anything. I know where we can get it,” he told them.

“What is it that we need, Merlin?” Josiane asked.

“We need to get her a mix of Roman oil, rosemary, flax and telsore berries. I can make a tincture out of them,” he explained.

Britomart unlocked the chamber in question. She shoved the door open. “Get her inside! I know Master Wyngate has the first three ingredients in here. The berries I’ve never heard of.”

“I’ve seen them once in Alexandria’s market. Bright orange and so small they look like peppercorns. I can’t forget them.” Josiane glanced toward the door. “My Friends, can you keep a secret for me? If so, I may be able to help.”

“What? Of course!” Britomart agreed. She went for a wooden bowl and pestle. “My Prince?”

“You know about me. I can’t do anything less.” He pointed toward the door. “Dùin!”

With a loud crash, the heavy door swung shut on its own accord. The bolt slid into place.

“There! Now you won’t be seen! Do what you’re going to do.” Merlin scrambled to look at Wyngate’s shelves. He found the oil, rosemary and flax right away. “We need those berries! Princess, help Britomart find them please!” He poured the oil into the bowl along with a bit of flax and several pinches of rosemary.

“No need to look.” Josiane grabbed a jar of peppercorns. She grabbed a handful of them. She inhaled sharply. She focused on the peppercorns. A lavender glow enveloped her.

The peppercorns shifted color from black to orange. They gained small leafy tufts.

“Here! Do we need to peel or anything?” Josiane pressed.

“No. Throw them in!” He stared at her. “How did you...? You have magic?”

“Aye but this doesn’t involve it. I’ll explain later. Just save her,” Josiane insisted. She tossed them into the bowl with the other ingredients.

He nodded and ground the items together with his pestle. “This is going to be close.” His eyes glowed. His finger touched the medicinal mixture making it glow with a white hue. “Hold her mouth open. We’ll have to pour this down her throat.” He brought the bowl. “I made it more liquid and strengthened it.”

The two women propped the unconscious patient up. They supported her as he poured the remedy down her throat. Then they set her back down on the table.

“Now we hope it worked.” He inhaled deeply and rubbed his forehead. “And here I thought the Purge was behind us.”

“Purge?” Josiane queried.

“Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon, tried to exterminate the Old Religion and magic from Britannia. Some people still follow his ways.” Britomart frowned. The bile soured her stomach and sent a taste into her mouth. She shook her head. “If she was taking those mushrooms, someone was trying to suppress her magic.”

“Truly?” Josiane spat in disgust. “Such hideousness!”

“Yeah.” Merlin nodded. “My father was a hermit in a cave when Arthur and I found him. Uther drove him to that point. I guess I should be grateful that I had a place in his court. Still he cost me my father’s presence in my life. I don’t know what to think.”

“Merlin, you’re a hero. Sir Balinor is proud of you. I’m sure of it,” Britomart assured him. “At least you held it together. You care unlike a certain other man-child we won’t refer to. He lets tragedy drive him into the pint.” She checked over the patient’s fingers and face. “Color’s returning to her cheeks. Her nails are losing the green sickly look.”

“We’ll need to watch her.” He brushed the unconscious woman’s hair out of her eyes. “And by the way, Britomart, Gawain cares. He just doesn’t always know how to say it. He’s a good friend.”

“Wish he wouldn’t look at me like a piece of meat.” Britomart bowed her head. “He supported me when we dealt with the Count’s men back in Camelot. Sir Gawain’s been…well hinting that….” She grimaced. “He wants me. He’s insisting I sleep with him because he helped me.”

“That doesn’t sound like him. Granted he….” He started and then stopped knowing how Britomart would react to that nugget of information.

“I’ll talk to him. If there’s a debt in that to be paid, I’ll do it. You challenged them for me, Britomart. I’ll settle it,” Josiane interjected.

“Neither of you are going to do it. All right? We’ll deal with it. Right now, let’s worry about our friend here,” he closed off the debate. He found the water pitcher and soaked a rag in it. Then he wiped the woman’s brow with it. He placed his hand on her arm. His eyes glowed. He sent healing magic into her arm. “Let’s hope that’s enough.” He set the rag beside the used bowl and pestle. “Princess, how did you get those berries?”

“I made them in a manner of speaking.” Josiane considered the rag. “Watch.” She looked at it. Again the lavender glow enveloped her.

The rough cloth had transformed into silk.

“How did you do that?” Britomart gasped.

Merlin nodded. “Gaius told me about certain people with special abilities. They’re elementals. You’re one such person. You change things from one thing to another?”

“Aye. I change things. I can also transmute their state from solid to liquid and gas. I don’t show that to many people. The only reason I did it for you is to save her life. Merlin, thank you for allowing me to do that and believing in me,” Josiane explained.

“People gave me a chance. You should have your chance. In any case, I’ll speak with Princess Mithian and King Rodor. You won’t have to wander any longer. I’m sure they’ll give you a place here. If this works out, I want competent warriors and friends at my side.” He looked at them. “That goes for both of you. Are we clear?’

“You are quite the man, Merlin. The Princess has selected well,” Josiane realized. “Sir Boeve would have been proud to call you friend and brother.”

“I’d have called him the same.” He saw the patient grimace. “Let’s get some more water. She’s starting to wake up.”

“Mmmm…..where? Where am I?” The patient winced. She opened her eyes. Seeing the large granite chamber with the potions and books, she stiffened. “Not this! Not again!”

“Not again what? It’s all right. We just cured your mushroom poisoning. It’s going to take a day or two to get it completely out of your system. You just need to rest,” Merlin assured her.

“What do you mean not again? You’ve been here before?” Britomart asked.

“Aye. I have. Father brought me here when the strange things started happening with me. He made Master Wyngate give me the mushrooms. He didn’t want me to be a monster like my mother. He…he thought he could hide me.” The woman curled up. She sobbed and wailed before lapsing back into unconsciousness again.

“Monster?” Josiane looked to her companions.

“Meaning her father wanted to suppress her magic.” Merlin rolled his eyes. “Your court physician went along with it.” He shook his head. “Gaius cautioned me about being careful. He did those things. He….” Then it hit him. Hypocrisy silenced him. “He poisoned Morgana to keep her quiet. I shouldn’t talk either.” He bowed his head.

“You?” Josiane gasped.

“Aye. Me. I was young and scared. Gaius prepared it and told me to give it to her. He was scared she’d go to Uther. We’d already dealt with a Witch Finder. We couldn’t take a chance.” He slapped the bench. “We all hide what we are.” Shame paled his face and labored his exhaled breath.

Britomart stared at Merlin. “I just…you?”

“I listened to those I shouldn’t have. It drove Morgana toward her sister, Morgause. She turned against everything after that. We all have things to be ashamed of. I just wish…” He bowed his head.

“And yet you didn’t let it turn you as it did Lady Morgana. Rest assured of that.” Josiane nodded to him. “You know what you did. You seek to make amends now. That’s what matters, Merlin. You are helping her.”

“It doesn’t make it easier though.” He turned back to the patient. Conscience consumed him. It throbbed in his temples. It threatened to tear a hole in his heart. His vision blurred.

For a few heartbeats, the unconscious woman appeared as someone else….

…as Morgana…not as the vengeful priestess or repentant Queen. No…as the scared young woman.

HELP ME! HELP ME PLEASE! her voice echoed to him.

His eyes watered. He staggered.

“Merlin? Merlin, sit down!” Britomart barked at him. She eased him into a chair. Milady, why aren’t you here? He needs you. She frowned.

Merlin? Merlin! Where are you? What’s going on? Mithian insisted through the Link.

He grimaced. His hands twitched. He screamed and slumped against the chair.

“Merlin? MERLIN!!” Britomart panicked. She shook him. “Help me get him into Master Wyngate’s bed. I don’t want him falling over.”

“We need more help. I don’t understand,” Josiane told her. She helped her bring him across the chamber. On the other side of the bookcases, a large bed awaited them. She lowered his head onto the pillows. “Get his boots.”

“Right.” Britomart yanked his boots off. “I wish I understood what’s going on. I….” She heard a creaking noise and turned around. “Priestess Freya?”

Freya examined the sleeping woman. “Aye, Britomart. Merlin did good work. So did you, Princess Josiane, to get the berries as you did. Nicely done.”

“I tried to help. What happened to Merlin though?” Josiane asked. “Is there anything we can do?”

Freya bit her lip. Anxiety and Fear burned through her. “His guilt overwhelmed him. Seeing your friend there must’ve reminded him of something traumatic.” She sucked in a deep breath. “He needs love and support. I can prepare the remedy and offer my caring. Still it is for someone else to do that.” She shook her head. “I can’t believe she’s going to be a part of this. The goddess must know what she’s doing.”

At that moment, a pounding came from the door.

“MERLIN! MERLIN! ARE YOU IN THERE? HEY, BRIT! MITH AND I ARE OUT HERE!” Gawain yelled through the door.

Freya smiled. “Ask and I shall receive.” She pointed toward the door. Her eyes flashed canary yellow.

The door unbolted and swung open allowing Gawain and Mithian into the room.

“Merlin!” Mithian rushed to his side. “What happened? Freya, what?”

“He had a crisis of faith while he was healing that young woman. Her trial reminded him of Morgana’s and how he failed her,” Freya observed. “He needs help to overcome this. I had hoped to get him out of Camelot before it got to this point.”

“Morgana did it to herself. Yeah he might’ve done something but she did a lot more!” Gawain argued.

“That’s not helping Merlin right now. He needs support right now. So does his patient.” Freya looked at the sleeping woman again. “She looks familiar. I feel like I should know her.”

“She’s Elaine of Astolat, Lady of Shalott. Her father, Bernard, is the Count of Shalott. Her mother was executed years ago for sorcery.” Mithian sighed. “Will Uther’s legacy never end?”

“It is for you to do so, Princess Mithian. It is also your love that will heal Merlin. You are his One. I….” Freya started to pronounce.

“No, Freya. I want to be his Queen and One. Still you love him too. I trust you to do your duty. I know you’ll honor my bond to him. I need you as a friend and sister,” Mithian disagreed. She embraced the High Priestess. “I know you are a priestess but you’re part of our familia. I’m making you that.”

Freya trembled. Tears streaked down her cheeks. She seized onto Mithian returning the embrace. “Thank you.”

“No, Freya. Thank you.” Mithian released the hug. She turned to Elaine. “Did you all manage to help Lady Elaine?”

“Merlin diagnosed her with mushroom poisoning. Someone overdosed her with them to suppress her magic he said, Milady,” Britomart indicated.

“Count Bernard will pay for that. Father will want him brought before the court. Bad enough he allowed Uther to burn his wife at the stake. Now his fear causes this,” Mithian told them.

“Fortunately she will be all right. She requires rest now. Strange though, the cure requires a certain rare fruit,” Freya assured them all.

“Princess Josiane had some from her time in the east,” Britomart jumped in.

“Merlin said the dried fruit worked,” Josiane fibbed.

“Normally it wouldn’t. The goddess must’ve granted an exception,” Freya guessed. “Britomart, can you and Josiane stay here with Lady Elaine? The rest of us can help Merlin.”

“Right. Umm….” Gawain glanced at Britomart. He wanted to say something. The words hung heavily in his mouth. They weighed down his tongue. He tried to get them out. “Brit, I….”

“When this is finished, Sir Gawain. Help Merlin first. Then we can speak truthfully,” Britomart told him.

“Truthfully…yeah that.” Gawain picked up Merlin’s feet. “Someone get his head and shoulders?”

“I can. If I can drag a fully grown stag from the woods, I can do that for my Prince.” Mithian hefted Merlin’s shoulders up.

“And I can speed us on our way toward our next place.” Freya tilted her ear to the sky. “Yes. She has agreed to help us. Just be open and allow Forgiveness her rule on things.” She enveloped the group in the mists teleporting them from the scene.

“Truly wondrous this all is!” Josiane declared.

“That it is.” Britomart considered her patient again. Then she looked at the last dissipating wisp of mist.

Gawain being truthful…now that would be wondrous indeed….

Chapter Text

Chapter 9 [Merlin’s Mindscape]

Merlin grimaced. Chill reddened and dimpled his skin. Wet stuck his clothes to his skin. Pain burned in his chest. His eyes snapped open. He recoiled as sharp pinpricks stuck at his skin. He slowly forced himself to stand. Under him, dead grass swayed in the frigid wind. Cold rain just above freezing pelted down from the blood red clouds above. He rubbed his arms while trying to keep the blood flowing in his arms. Anxiety and Survival urged him to find shelter…any shelter.

The landscape however held little in terms of sanctuary. The trees lay bare. The grass had little substance left beyond that of hay. The wood would be damp and of little use for fire. The landscape had no hills or mountains to stop that wind. No buildings or walls appeared anywhere.

He staggered into the bare woods. He shuffled through a few halting steps. Then he leaned against a tree to rest for a heartbeat and take some shelter from the wind before trying again. From tree to tree, he efforted his way forward. Is there no end to this?

Not until you press on, Emrys. Come. Keep coming, a familiar voice challenged.

He perked his ear. He shook his head. Then he resumed his path once again. Where are you?

I am here. I am there. I am in front of you. I am behind you. Until you face me, Emrys, I am everywhere, the voice challenged.

If I knew where you are, I’d find you. Right now, I’d like any shelter. He looked around again. He wiped his face off again. He took another look around.

As he did so, a rippling light appeared on the ground. It formed into an opening.

Come down and find me.

Is there any other way to do this? he wondered.

Only if you wish to stay where you are, the voice insisted.

Merlin exhaled sharply. He glanced around. He saw no other way out. He had to move forward to get out. He gulped. Slowly his front foot stepped out into the abyss. It lingered there for several heartbeats. Then his sole pressed down. Then the other. And the first one again. One stair at a time. One breath at a time. Slowly he continued down the granite stairs. The cave walls literally leeched blood from the walls. Grief and Lament saturated the air. He hunched over. Still he pushed through it all. At the bottom of the stairs, he found another opening in the cave’s granite face.

Screeches cut through his ears.

He covered his ears and staggered on into the opening. He took two more steps. What he saw threatened to make his heart stop.

The cavern walls, steps and floor disappeared. In their place, a garden went on in all directions. Trees shaded areas. Flower blossoms unfolded in various shades and colors. Birds flew overhead. It would’ve been nice. Everything seemed relative….

…except that it was all dead….

He stooped over to touch a lilac bush. His fingers brushed up against the blossoms. As they did, they ripped through it turning it into ash. His eyes beheld the withered apples hanging from the trees. He saw ravens cawing from their branches. Vultures circled overhead.

“This is sick.” Nausea beset his stomach. He put his hand in front of his mouth.

Do you like my garden, Emrys? After all, you did have a hand in it. You allowed the Pendragons to remain in power. YOU’RE A TRAITOR!!!

“COME OUT!” he challenged. “I’M HERE! SHOW YOURSELF!”

So you are. Very well. From behind the tree closest to him, a cloaked figure clad in crimson slipped into view. It shuffled ever so slightly favoring her left side. Then it stopped and pulled back the hood allowing blonde hair to spill over shoulders. Her face still bore the sunken features on its right side.

His eyes went wide. He immediately remembered. “Morgause?”

“Very good, Emrys! You were always so astute at such things. Now weren’t you? You’re good at planning and scheming toward an end behind others’ backs. You did push my sister to me after all. You did outmaneuver Arthur when it came to helping Uther that last time. Oh wait. That didn’t go so well. Did it? And now you’re back in Nemeth supposedly to do a job. You’re really plotting against your King for your freedom,” Morgause recounted. “Such a trustworthy servant. I wonder what dear sweet Mithian would think of that?”

“I wish I didn’t have to do such things,” he admitted.

She snorted. “A child wishes they could take the past back! You make a mess! Look at what your next garden will breed!” She held out her hands to encompass the whole garden. “Your treason and complicity with Gaius led to this!”

“It had a role in it! So did you! Yes I should have helped Morgana. You, Morgause, pushed her into necromancy. You taught her that. You had her spying. Aye I found the Cup. You used it. I sent your undead forces back. Morgana killed Uther by a charm. I was only trying to help him. And now…now…I’m following the law. I’ve proven myself. I am working with the goddess and your fellow priestesses. I am helping to build a bigger coalition of kingdoms. I am building a trust and bond with an incredible woman. Arthur could recognize that. He could do his role and set me free without a fight. Still he won’t. I can’t control that,” he countered.

She narrowed her eyes at him. “You sounded like you wanted to take accountability. How typical of you to quail back in the shadows and hide under their robes, Emrys.”

“I’m the one fighting to get free of those robes, Morgause. You’re the one still stuck between realms. Did the Calleach leave you here? You can’t see what you’ve done? Why do you think the goddess stripped Morgana of her magic? We both set her on that road. Aye we’re both reacting to Uther and Arthur. I won’t argue with that.” He grimaced. Pain shot through him dropping him to his knees. “Do you know what you did when you left that portal open? My friend had to sacrifice himself. Lancelot died. Morgana brought him back. Gwen suffered. Arthur moved forward and…” He shook his head and smiled.

“What?” She could almost feel his mood picking up.

“Morgana brought Mithian to Camelot. I had the chance to meet her because Morgana set that up….because you set her up…. I guess….” He grabbed his chest as another hot needle stabbed through it.

“SHUT UP!”

“You have…a hand in this. All of it too, Morgause.” He pursed his lips. Breath got harder to come by. Still he persevered. He looked up at the sky. Give me strength. He called out, “MORGANA, LANCELOT, I’M SORRY FOR WHAT I’VE DONE TO YOU! I BEG YOUR FORGIVENESS AND HELP TO ATONE!”

Morgause sniggered. “You disappoint me. Do you really think my sister will forgive you? After everything you’ve done against her and our kind? You are NOTHING! You…” She sensed another distortion.

He turned as well to find Morgana watching them both. She wore a long flowing white robe with no further adornments of any kind. “Morgana?”

“Hello, Merlin.” Morgana smiled. Her eyes shone warmly much as they might have early in his Camelot tenure. “Sister, I understand why you’re angry. He has done much. Still his desire to atone is genuine. He now admits his fault. He spared my life. He has offered friendship. He endures pain and humiliation at Arthur’s hand. He sees my dear Brother’s true self emerge. He begins to understand how Harmony should be his guide.”

“How can you believe this, Morgana?” Morgause insisted.

“My own redemption process offers such things. While I am a Queen, I also seek to regain my priestess role. Still we should not seek to do so for power. We learn the value of service. I seek to become better at that. I want to find peace. Maybe you should before it’s too late?” Morgana offered. She strode through the dead flowers ignoring the piles of ash around herself.

As she stepped though, each broken plant budded. A live shoot emerged from that place.

“The goddess and the other priestesses will never believe….! You can’t!” Morgause spat.

“They’re helping me to do this, Morgause! Please, Sister! Go into the Light! As you lecture Merlin, so you should find your own redemption! I can’t bear to see you like this!” Morgana pleaded.

“And you will fail without the goddess’ help, Sister. You turn on her as well,” Morgause pronounced.

“No. I am doing what she has ordered me to do, Morgause. I am moving beyond Vengeance’s blindness. I seek to be Stewardess rather than Empress. Love rather than Fear.” She glanced toward Merlin. “Forgiveness instead of Grudge.” She reached out to him. “It’s all right, Merlin. Take my hands.”

He grasped her hands and gazed into her eyes. He nodded. “I meant that.”

“I know you did. I have waited so long for those words. Now they aren’t for Satisfaction’s sake. Instead I am glad for us both. It’s another step toward our rediscovering that lost friendship and building trust again.” She pulled him into an embrace. “As we build in our service, so shall we endure.”

“In service to her, we will endure,” he agreed.

As they vowed those sentiments, marvels unfolded around them. Gale winds raced through the area overpowering the birds and blowing them out of sight. Ash scattered throughout. The fruit plopped to the ground and melted away into it. Then the trees budded. More shoots came up and formed into budding flowers. The sky turned back into a normal blue backdrop.

“And so we stand on the cusp of Spring instead of the Winter, Sister. We can move forward,” Morgana advised. She motioned toward it all. “Look at that, Merlin. Potential’s grace looms in front of us. We just have to nurture it.”

“If only Arthur lets us,” Merlin worried.

“Arthur can work with us or be left behind. It is the triple goddess’ will. She will make him aware of that soon enough. His next test is not far ahead,” Morgana rebutted. “Still you have other things to consider. I may be here but I am not alone in my support. Everyone else is waiting.”

“Everyone?” Merlin asked.

“Aye, Merlin.” Morgana smirked. Impetuousness sparkled in her eyes. “I guess you’ll have to come back with me and see. Now won’t you?”

A smile slowly spread across his face. “I guess I will. Thank you.”

“My pleasure.” Morgana sighed as she glanced at Morgause standing against the last withered tree in the place. Then she turned away and guided Merlin toward a pillar of light floating behind them. As they stepped into it, all disappeared in a flash…..

Chapter Text

Chapter 10 [Merlin’s Bedchamber]

Mithian gazed down upon her Warlock’s face. Worry gripped her in its vice. Consternation pinched at her heart. She strained to keep her breathing in check. He has to be all right. Why did this have to happen now? Why?

“Hey. We got to him. He’s going to be okay,” Gawain told her. “We’re helping him. He’s not alone. Neither are you.”

“I know. Still thank you, Sir Gawain. I appreciate that.” Mithian turned her gaze toward their guide through the mists. Due to her own sensitivity, she could feel Freya’s concern as well. I wish I could be so focused. She sucked in a ragged breath. Her eyes lingered ahead for a heartbeat. Then they inevitably drifted back toward their source.

In what seemed like an eternity but was only a dozen heartbeats or so, Freya cleared away the mists. With a wave of her hands, she motioned to the bed. “Put him there please. Fortunately he made it.”

“He what? Lady, what the bloody Hell are you…?” he demanded.

“All will be explained. I….” Freya touched her forehead. Milady?

Morgana Pendragon comes. Admit her if you would. She has played her part. So has Emrys. Now they must speak. You all should be part of that, the triple goddess bade.

On cue, a knocking came from the door.

“We just got here! Now what?” he pressed.

“I’ll see who it is.” Mithian stalked over to the door. She opened it to find Morgana and Nimue standing there. “Queen Morgana? Priestess Nimue?”

“We were summoned, Princess Mithian,” Nimue explained. She offered a slight nod. Then she ushered her companion into the room.

“Merlin hasn’t awakened yet?” Morgana asked. Concern creased her features.

“Sure you haven’t done anything? Look. I don’t trust you! You….” Gawain started.

“Sir Gawain, Queen Morgana isn’t the cause. In fact she was brought in to help,” Freya clarified. She looked to Nimue. “What happened? What did Merlin do?”

“He blundered into a parallel dream dimension of some kind. Something or someone awaited him there,” Nimue told them.

“It was Morgause,” Morgana interjected. “She drew Merlin into that side realm. It was awful.” She cringed.

“Wait. Why were you there?” Mithian wondered. Her eyes flashed into the latest visitor’s. Granted she’d felt Merlin’s pain. Still she couldn’t intervene.

“I was bidden there by Merlin’s guilt.” Morgana bowed her head. “He asked for my forgiveness. Years ago, Gaius and he plotted to keep his secret safe. Merlin listened when he shouldn’t have. Gaius made a poison. Merlin delivered it to me and told me it was a sleeping potion.”

“Merlin would never…!” Mithian insisted.

He studied Morgana’s face. He knew when she was scheming. He saw none of that in her current expression. “I can’t believe he’d do that! Merlin’s no murderer!”

“Not on his own. Still Emrys did listen to the wrong sources. Some saw the future or parts of it. They knew you’d be a source of evil, Morgana. They didn’t know that their own actions would drive you toward Morgause and that evil,” Nimue clarified. “I was around them and you in those days. He was listening to something besides Gaius. A voice other than what’s here.”

That would be me, Witch. Take care of what you speak of. You have done your share as well! Kilgarrah revealed in their heads.

I should have known. Nimue narrowed her eyes. Seeing Morgana’s confusion, she introduced, You are hearing Kilgarrah, the Great Dragon. You might say Emrys’ less than stellar guide in certain matters.

And you would have been? I tried to preserve the Greater Good, the Great Dragon insisted.

By attacking Camelot? I do remember that, Morgana noted sharply. Dragon? Then you know where Aithusa is?

She is here with me. I am guiding her now, Kilgarrah declared.

As you guided Merlin to hurt me? Morgana allowed a healthy snort for that sentiment.

I am a dragon after all. Your so-called ‘care’ resulted in her abuse, Kilgarrah retorted.

You both made mistakes. You both care. Stop arguing! Aithusa butted in.

“I’ll agree…with that.” Merlin blinked and slowly opened his eyes. “Stop arguing. It’s giving me a headache.”

“Merlin!” Mithian embraced him. “I’m just glad you’re all right. Why did you try to deal with that alone?”

“Deal with what? Britomart and Josiane went with me to help that woman. As for what happened in that other place, Morgause ambushed me.” Merlin looked at Morgana. “Thanks for your help and understanding, Morgana.”

Morgana nodded. “I’ve waited years for that, Merlin. Still it isn’t a gloating thing now. I’m genuinely glad that we’ve both admitted what we need to. Now we can grow beyond it?”

“I hope we can.” Merlin held out a hand. “For the sake of our kingdoms old and new? That is if I can actually get to be Prince?”

Morgana sniffed. “Arthur can deal with himself, Merlin. You have my support. You understand if I’d like to negotiate for an alliance afterwards?”

“If it works for my father and us. That is King Rodor’s decision,” Mithian told Morgana. “Not that I’m saying no out of hand, you understand.”

“Of course. I appreciate that you’re both as open minded as you are about it. I’m willing to work with you if you can work with me,” Morgana expressed.

Merlin sat up. “So where’s the patient? How is she?”

“Lady Elaine needs rest. You treated her in time, Merlin. You need rest as well,” Freya told him.

“I can later. I have to….” Merlin started.

“You have to rest. Britomart is with Lady Elaine. Besides we have two priestesses and another capable person to help.” Mithian insisted. She put her hands on his shoulders firmly and pushed him back onto the pillows. “Please for once, take care of yourself.”

“Mithian, please. I….” Merlin protested before it stopped short. He frowned and rolled his eyes. “I’m not helpless. I have come back from worse.” He looked to Morgana. “You know that.”

Morgana shrugged. “Maybe but I agree with Princess Mithian. Rest up and stay put.” Triumph spread a smirk across her face.

“Gawain,” Merlin called.

“Hey! You’re surrounded. I’m not getting into it with them. I…yeah.” Gawain slipped out the chamber door and back down the passage.

“Some knight he is.” Merlin ground his teeth. “This is stupid.”

“It’s also a royal order. Since I’m the Princess, I’m ordering you to stay put. I’m also staying here to make sure you do. I know you’ll sneak off if left alone,” Mithian notified him in no uncertain terms. “Besides, as your fiancée, that makes it my prerogative.” She kissed his forehead. “Go to sleep, Merlin.”

Freya’s eyes glowed. “Cadal.”

He felt the spell’s effects. “Freya, you…don’t….” He slumped against the pillow.

“He should be all right. I can watch from Avalon. Meantime we do need to be getting you back to Tintagel, Queen Morgana,” Freya told them.

“I can explain what’s going on to King Rodor. Perhaps we can get to the bottom of your physician’s absence?” Morgana offered. “That would free Princess Mithian to stay with Merlin.”

“I’d like that.” Mithian shook her head. “Father’s feast and welcome for Merlin is a total wreck. What a shame. You should get yourself something to eat, Queen Morgana. Thank you for your help.”

“I appreciate that people let me. At least now everyone’s on the goddess’ side. Uther’s insanity is finally being put where it deserves to be,” Morgana replied. “Thank you for bringing me, Freya.”

“You’re welcome. I’ll be back to return you to your kingdom, Queen Morgana.” Freya nodded to them both. Then she vanished into the mists.

“Do you want anything brought up for him or you?” Morgana asked.

Mithian sighed. “Perhaps a plate for me? Merlin will sleep for a while yet. Thank you, Morgana. I do appreciate that.” She pulled a cushioned chair over and sat down.

Morgana nodded and walked out into the chamber. She closed the door behind herself.

At least we have friends. That is nice! Mithian leaned over and kissed Merlin’s cheek. “You will sleep, my Prince. We need you at full strength. I won’t have you getting sick on me. Count on that!”

Sometimes, even the hero gets outnumbered……

Chapter Text

Chapter 11 [Later that Evening—Merlin’s Chamber]

Mithian watched Merlin intently from his bedside. Worry ate at her. She’d smooth his hair as it became the least bit disheveled. Her eye scanned for the slightest issue. Several times she walked about the chamber to stretch her legs. While she’d felt tempted to talk with Rodor, she frankly didn’t want to leave Merlin’s side. I wanted to be in love. And now I worry. Not that it’s a bad thing. She sighed and smiled.

A knock came from the door.

“My Lady?” Britomart announced before coming in. She held a covered plate in her hands. “Any change?”

“Nay. He still sleeps. I wish he’d wake up. I know Priestess Freya put him under a sleeping spell. Still I’d like to see him with his eyes open,” Mithian reported. She bit her lip.

“He might for a while yet. Lady Elaine at least is awake. She returned to her own chamber to rest and recover. Merlin’s cure worked.” Britomart set the plate on the desk and removed the cover. She had brought up some capon, beef and potatoes. “You should eat, Princess.”

“Have you eaten?” Mithian asked.

“The King had food brought up to the Physician’s Chambers. I had your favorites set aside for you,” the Maid replied.

“Of course you did. You do look out for me,” the Princess supposed.

“As you look out for our Prince, my Lady.” Britomart refilled the goblet on the nightstand with water from the chamber’s pitcher. “I’ll need to get this refilled.”

“It’s all right. You should get your rest. I’ll be here with Merlin,” Mithian noted. “Has Sir Gawain talked with you?”

“He’s assisting the knights with some exercise.” Britomart shook her head. “I wish I knew what he wanted to say. He makes it so difficult!”

“Maybe he wants to say it but doesn’t know how. Let him say it. Don’t force it,” Mithian advised. “I certainly have to be patient with my resident sorcerer here.” She smiled.

“It is worth it. Isn’t it?” Britomart wondered.

“I’d say so. He and I have something. Aye I’m tearing myself up inside right now. Then he makes me feel absolutely wonderful. I felt human and alive.” Mithian sighed deeply. “Just like when he brought us that platter of food in Camelot.”

“When Sir Galahad was ready to run him and the Cabbage Head through,” Britomart recalled. She allowed herself a smile. Her cheeks betrayed a slight rosiness in the cheeks.

“They care in their own ways. Men are men. Who can figure them out?” Mithian supposed.

“We’d say…the same of you,” Merlin muttered. His eyes cracked open. “Are you still here?”

“Am I here? Where else would I be?” Mithian slapped his arm albeit playfully. “I know you wanted to get out of that big feast. Really though, Merlin?”

“I’m not Prince yet. Don’t want to jinx us. Don’t want to give the Prat any chance,” he declared.

“Even if he did know, he can’t. Father won’t let him this time,” Mithian assured him. “Britomart brought us some food. Feel like eating?”

“I’m starved. Besides this is better. I’d rather just have a private meal for the two of us,” he replied.

She snorted. “You’re trying to make me feel better for scaring me to death, my Prince.”

“Blame Morgause not me. Besides I was trying to help someone in need back in the banquet hall. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?” he defended himself.

“Aye. Many forget that though for their own purposes. Still we aren’t supposed to try and kill ourselves in the process,” Mithian retorted adding the admonishment at the end.

“I guess I have issues.” He sat up. Seeing her stiffen, he added, “I’m just going to sit at the desk while we eat. And you are eating something too.”

“He’s right, my Lady.” Britomart crossed her arms and motioned toward the platter.

Mithian snorted. She raised an eyebrow. “You’re siding with him? Britomart!”

“He cares. So do I. You’re as bad as he is if I may say so,” Britomart informed her.

“Got you.” He kissed her forehead. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Now we are eating.” She led him toward the desk. After pulling another chair over toward it, she joined him there. “We’ll be fine, Britomart. Thank you.”

“I’ll be by to check on you both. Be well, Merlin,” Britomart wished.

“You too. Thanks!” he expressed.

Britomart bowed to them. Then she slid out of the chamber closing the door behind herself.

He gazed out the window. His eye beheld the last streaks of Dusk’s crimson and burnt orange hues. “Now this is how it should be.”

“It is. Unfortunately court life is rarely like this.” She giggled and sipped on her water.

“What?”

“You could use your magic once in a while to make something like this happen,” she suggested. Naughtiness lit up in her eyes, elicited a smirk and a cough.

“Oh really? And here I thought you were supposed to be the example of courtly behavior?” he teased.

“Me?” She stared at him. “Really?” She gulped down the rest of her water.

“Here it comes.” He put his hand on his forehead.

She grinned waiting for the right moment. She let it go four…no…five heartbeats. Then she put her head back and belched long, loud and proud. “How’s that for your example, Merlin?” She smirked at him.

‘That beat your picnic belch by a furlong, I believe,” he assessed with a straight face.

“You think so, do you? Are you a master judge of such things?” she supposed.

“I spend time with Gawain at the Rising Sun to keep him out of trouble. What do you think?” he cracked.

She coughed. “That would probably make anyone an expert.” She shook her head. “He’s going to kill Britomart. I swear.” She shook her head.

“He needs to figure out that life doesn’t wait for any of us. I know that now,” he declared.

“Oh? And how did you figure that out?” she asked looking for that specific answer.

“It was something Mother told me, I think. And then…well…who was that other person? Aye. I’m trying to think….” He snapped his fingers to make a bigger show of it. “Someone who likes to worry too much and chase animals until they die of fright. I wonder who that is?”

“Maybe it’s because a certain Warlock/Prince to Be puts her to the point of dying of fright? You think?” she countered with a bit of an edge. She knew he was teasing. Still she wanted him to know how much his close call had scared her.

“Again I was ambushed. I am sorry that the banquet was ruined. I….” he started to apologize.

“That’s Count Bernard’s fault not yours, Merlin. I guess part of you being who you are makes you a target?” she told him.

“It always has. Just like you being royal makes you a target by the male courtiers? I saw how those counselors frown when you walk by. They think they’re hiding that,” he informed her.

“They can think it. I saw them. They disapprove of me because I’m a woman. Let them. I’m not going to sit in the corner and sew. You and I will rule together one day. Let them deal with that,” she pointed out.

“I like that, Partner,” he affirmed.

“Partner.” She savored the sound on her tongue. “I like that.”

“You should. I can say it and mean it. Arthur could never do that…even if he’d try to delegate everything to you,” he jabbed.

“You and I would be running Camelot instead of Nemeth at that point. Still we do have to respect Father. We have to be careful of being overheard even joking about such things,” she reminded him.

“I know. Court politics and all. Still being partners with you would be nice.” He kissed her hand.

“Is nice. Everything is coming together. Patience will see the day won,” she anticipated.

Everything seemed to be in their corner. They hoped as much…..

Chapter Text

Chapter 12 [Next Morning]
[Royal Council Chambers]

Mithian strolled into the council chambers feeling refreshed. She’d left Merlin a turn of the hourglass after they’d finished dining to get some much needed sleep. Her spirits felt lighter with his recovery. Having left him in the courtyard where the garden would be, she’d turned her attention toward the kingdom’s business. There is the tax levy. Will Father be able to get the surveys done? And will the advisors support Count Bernard’s summons? She frowned knowing how much the greybeards still favored Uther’s way of doing things.

Even if it soured her stomach to be honest…and maybe because of that.

They need to wake up! She walked into the chamber to find Rodor waiting by himself. “Good Morrow, Father. Where are the others? Weren’t we supposed to meet?”

“We were. Most curious. Did the councilors say anything to you about it?” he told her.

“Not a word. They seemed most out of sorts with the banquet. Perhaps it is why Master Wyngate wasn’t present. Perhaps the knights on watch yesterday might have seen something?” she observed.

“That is an idea. I will speak presently with Sir Galahad. It isn’t like them though to depart so suddenly and without warning in this way.” He drank from his goblet. “Since they are not here, we will go ahead with the summons.”

“Father, they might protest,” she worried.

“We are summoning Bernard here not trying him in absentia, Daughter. They are allies with him. I have to hope that they wouldn’t warn him in such ways. Still we must move forward. They had their chance to speak with us. We wouldn’t try him without them. You know how I believe in the process,” he assured her.

“I know. I appreciate that.” She frowned. “I just wish they were here.”

“They aren’t. Perhaps though you might spend some more time with Merlin? How is he this morning?” he suggested.

“Much better. I left him in the courtyard. He’s plotting some surprise for that garden, I’m sure.” She sipped from her own goblet.

He nodded. “Once again, I wish I had known about his lineage sooner. Mithian, that young man is good for you. He’s a fine choice.”

“Merlin’s good for both of us, Father, and our people. He always thinks of others before himself. I just can’t believe I have someone like him.” Pride lifted her spirits. Contentment radiated a warm smile.

“Then don’t keep him waiting. Go on. Perhaps you might have Lady Elaine and that princess…Josiane? Perhaps they might join you both there? Peter’s supposed to be there as well,” he urged.

“I will indeed. Thank you.” She nodded to him. Then she departed for the garden area.

He leaned back in his seat. He marveled at Mithian’s astuteness. He knew she sensed Trouble brewing on the horizon. You’re too young to worry over such things. Still life puts us in such places. He shook his head. Then he stood and walked out himself.

Lord Brumenwald had a summons to write up. Then he’d see it delivered.

Even if certain people wanted to try and stonewall, business was still business…

Chapter Text

Chapter 13 [Courtyard/Garden Area—A Quarter Turn of the Hourglass Earlier]

Merlin paced out the cobblestoned walkways in the castle’s open air courtyard. His eye inspected the bare trees dotting the bare dirt areas. He tried to recall the distinct plants in their full glory. He knew the perennials would bounce back with some assistance. The annuals on the other hand would require replanting. Then again, he wanted to add some suggestions of his own.

Memoria flashed the image from his other-dimensional trial. It displayed the latter one for him—the one of budding trees and flowers. Hope’s own beauty lay in wait beneath Potential’s veneer. So much to be shared. Not enough time before Rodor’s island-wide meeting now a week and a half away.

He frowned. He craved to bring this place to life. Despite the early time of year, he wanted Natura’s blessing. He could bring this place to life with his magic. Still he didn’t want a rogue mood from Jack Frost to kill the plants. He sighed.

“You see it as well?”

Merlin turned to find Peter and Josiane watching him from the passage entrance. “I can visualize several possibilities. I just want this to be perfect. King Rodor and Princess Mithian offer so much. They deserve to be rewarded by our efforts.”

“You would offer her the world, Merlin. Princess Mithian knows that. Still the effort involved might provoke reactions. You do understand what I mean?” Her eye swept over the entire courtyard. Then she gazed up to the sky taking in the ramparts. She nodded. “I wonder how many of the leaders though have been here before?”

“I am sorry, Mistress. What does that have to do with our effort?” Peter scratched his head.

“I am suggesting something that my father put together back in our homeland, Master Peter.” She smiled. Her eyes twinkled. “Perhaps the priestesses and a bit of magic can help?”

“Magic?” Peter looked at her. Curiosity lit in his eyes. “Not that I’m opposed to the idea but what would it be needed for?”

“A glass dome with a metal frame. Even the quality from your native craftsmen would offer enough sunlight in while sheltering the plants from the weather, my Good Poet,” she proposed.

“But the assembly is in eleven days! Pardon me, Mistress, but it cannot be done in that time. Even if we could work night and day, such a project would take a summer season to erect in itself. Then the garden would need planting and time to grow. Even with magic, I don’t know,” Peter doubted.

“I’ve seen more miraculous things,” Merlin disagreed. “With help, it can be done. The question is how will people react to it? Magic still brings out divided feelings. Many still oppose its use.” He shook his head.

“Still the time is coming. Perhaps if it was used for such good?” she put forward.

“Even so, remember what happened to Lady Elaine’s mother. She helped people with her magic. Uther had her burnt at the stake for that,” Merlin reminded them. “We need to be careful. That’s why you asked about how many had been here before, Princess?”

“Indeed. If those who would oppose magic have never seen this place, how would they know? And those who favor it or be so inclined wouldn’t be bothered by it. In fact, they would enjoy the oasis we’d create,” she insisted.

“Most of the younger rulers wouldn’t have a problem,” Merlin assumed. “We should ask King Rodor and Princess Mithian. Maybe they might know more. Other than King Arthur and King Meleagant of Cawdor, I don’t think anyone would oppose the use of magic here. I don’t know how King Bors of Gaul or Queen Annis would react. Still if they haven’t been here recently….”

“My point exactly.” She visualized how a flexible material could be put up. Then she’d use her talents to turn it into a metal framework and the air itself into glass. “If someone could…use magic…to lift some wood or something else into place, the rest would fall into place.”

Merlin rubbed his chin. He understood her plan. He knew they and the Priestesses could do it and create the garden in more than enough time. Still Doubt nagged him over the surrounding reaction toward such sorcery and its use there. He well imagined Arthur storming out of the meeting and pulling him back to Camelot.

He wondered if the ensuing fight would be worth the display frankly…..

On the other hand, the dome and garden would represent an early wedding present of sorts. They would be a monument to his Princess. Hope itself would be well represented.

Two points of view holding up a wonder of the world. Quite the quandary…..

“Forgive me for doubting you both. I just don’t want King Rodor or Princess Mithian to have trouble,” Peter apologized.

“Caution’s always a good thing,” Merlin assured him. He eyed the sky again.

“Cautious about what?” Mithian strolled out onto the courtyard’s stones. “I see we have a council meeting out here. Pity you all weren’t inside.”

“Why? Didn’t you have a meeting?’ Merlin assumed.

“Father and I spoke in the council chamber. The counselors were not there.” Mithian shook her head. ‘Master Wyngate’s never missed a meeting. Lords Aethelred and Tringelstan were seen leaving the city early this morning by our knights.”

Josiane narrowed her eyes. She recalled such actions before her father’s deposition. “We need to speak with King Rodor, Princess Mithian. This is treason.”

Merlin shook his head. “Can you call the knights together, Princess? We have to stop them.”

“We can send knights to bring Count Bernard here. Perhaps the counselors are there?” Mithian proposed.

Merlin swallowed hard. “There’s another thing too. Perhaps Master Wyngate went to Camelot? He could tell Arthur about our plans.”

“He wouldn’t! I….” Her eyes went wide. “Merlin, we….”

“It matters little about law at this point, my Friends. Those men garner support for their opposition. Even if they are wrong, they do not care,” Josiane insisted.

Mithian swallowed hard. She grabbed onto Merlin not caring if anyone saw them. “After everything? Why?”

Merlin held her. “You heard Princess Josiane. They don’t care. They want their way no matter what. Let’s see the King. Then we can pursue them.”

“Pursue? Merlin, they have such a big head start!” Mithian argued. Doubt crushed Resolve’s previous high.

“If we have King Rodor’s support, we can still get this under control.” Merlin took her hand. “I won’t let you down.” At that moment, the project at hand was forgotten. He had bigger things to consider.

The future and love hung in the balance. Who knew what would happen next?

Chapter Text

Chapter 14 [Somewhere Else]

Events progressed haphazardly. Intention ran amok. Agenda crashed upon Opposition’s shoals. Resistance and Inertia slowed even the best of well laid plans.

And a pair of eyes watched…..

 

****

 

Freya threw her hands up. She understood Duty’s and Sacrifice’s respective calls. Still her heart ached on her adopted familia’s behalf. She wanted to step in, cast a few well-crafted and placed spells and place matters back on course. “What is this? They did everything by law and tradition!” She heard a cough. “What?”

Nimue cast a knowing look at her. “Do you really expect those boys to work by rules and laws? They do what they wish. To expect otherwise is naïve. Look at your former life. Was it right for Pendragon to allow that bounty hunter to deal with you in that way? Of course not. It comes down to money and power. Wherever they’re invested directs them. No more, no less.” She wiggled her fingers. Her eyes glowed. She clenched her hand making a carrot appear therein. “Just like an animal. They need a treat to be led.”

Freya shook her head. “And so the world comes apart? Is that it?”

“Free will. It can be such a complication. Isn’t it?” Nimue rolled her eyes. How did she become High Priestess? At least Morgana Pendragon understood such things! She’d learned a long time before about such rashness. Worse Trust kills when misplaced.

A lesson taught well by the Pendragons and even Merlin himself.

“Arguing isn’t helping,” Ninane advised. Her eyes opened. She’d sought to relax and cleanse her mind through meditation. “The strands tangle upon themselves. Discord dominates enough out there. Don’t allow it over our threshold, Sisters. Please.” She rubbed her forehead.

Wise counsel, both of you, the triple goddess advised. She appeared in a flash of light.

“Milady, we did not….” Freya started to apologize while curtseying.

Discussion is vital. Perspective aids our sight. Still Bitterness should not hinder our view of Potential, Nimue. The mistakes of past men may or may not affect what happens now or in the future. Opportunity, on the other hand, offers a new path or perhaps a reemergence of an old one. It depends upon the individuals involved. The goddess waved her hand over the view portal making the images shift in front of their eyes.

Events played one after the other. Nemeth’s advisors rode hard and quickly to Astolat. Master Wyngate pressed on through a last stand of trees and the road to Camelot. From the south, a company of knights wearing Hampton colors bore down on Uther’s former capital. Arthur and Gwen argued about something in their chambers. Gaius ambled with effort through his chamber. Rodor spoke with his High Chancellor. The latter rushed out of the chamber. Josiane wore her chain mail. For some reason, she was looking at her carpet. Merlin debated with himself or so it seemed. Mithian rushed throughout the castle gathering knights and sending them to find their comrades. Then she ran down the passage in the other direction.

Nemeth’s future and that of Albion will be determined by how such deliberations go. How will they proceed? Each has a part to play in this drama. What they do and how well they do it will go a long way in determining the result. The decision is theirs, the goddess continued.

“So we sit here and not get involved? This is for our future as well, Milady,” Ninane put forward.

Aye but you are servants of a greater will. I have allowed them free will. They will do this or not. The time is not yet reached us when intervention is warranted. When that comes, I am ready, the goddess told her youngest priestess.

“They will do what they will. Some of us have tried to intervene and made matters worse,” Nimue told her. “I’ve been guilty of that. So has Emrys. We do not do so unless needed.” Even if she’d wanted to do the exact opposite, the lessons of her previous lifetime still weighed on her shoulders. Their sting still resonated with her. “They do have to clean up after themselves after all.”

With mixed results. Still you are learning as well, Nimue. Consider that while you cast judgment, the goddess told her. Then she turned her gaze back on the unfolding scenes.

The funny thing about life…sometimes it happens while one plans for something else…..

Chapter Text

Chapter 15 [Camelot]

Master Wyngate pulled up on the reins beside the castle’s stable. After the previous morning’s meeting, he and the other royal counselors couldn’t deal with Rodor’s intentions. Bad enough to tarnish the proceedings with that announcement but to have a banquet in a servant’s honor? He frowned. He recalled the exiled Dragon Lord, Sir Balinor.

That one was bad enough. Now they learn that he had a son too?

He looked around the stables. The stalls seemed unkempt. The hay lay limp and stank from manure. Nobody seemed to be working there. Pity. The stable boy should be here instead of playing Prince. This is a travesty. He tied his horse’s reins to a post and headed toward the castle. There he saw two different knights than the ones who’d run into Rodor and Mithian during the Samhain feast. “Good morrow, Good Knights. My name is Master Wyngate of Nemeth. I am here to see Gaius. Might I be let in?”

The two knights looked to each other. Neither the King nor Physician had told them to expect anyone on that day. Still if the visitor was a ranking official from another court, didn’t he deserve to be let in? For several heartbeats, they hesitated.

Finally the one on the right cleared his throat. “King Arthur has an audience with Count Edgar of Hampton. Gaius will be expected to attend. Perhaps you might get some time before the events start?”

“Given my sudden appearance, that would be suitable. Thank you, Sir…?” Wyngate expressed.

“Sir Longmont, Master Wyngate. Sir Vostrang, can you watch things here? I will guide our visitor to the Physicians’ quarters,” Longmont noted. Getting a nod from his comrade, he led the elderly man through the portal and toward the stairs.

So many unexpected visitors. Curious! Vostrang turned his view back toward the courtyard. Couldn’t tell where the next threat could come from after all…..

 

****

 

[Physicians’ Chambers]

Gaius sighed deeply. He ambled around the chamber with a deliberate gait. Piles of books weighed his work bench. Used cups and wooden bowls sat needing a good cleaning. The chamber hadn’t been swept in a week. Between the latest epidemic and Arthur’s court matters, he was so far behind in basic housekeeping.

The latest assistant, a young blonde girl named Aeflyth, had lasted only two days. She kept putting his medical tomes back in the wrong places. She broke four wooden cups. (How she managed that escaped him.) She accidentally spilled some wine on Arthur’s robe the previous day. She couldn’t do basic chores.

And so the fourth potential assistant in three weeks walked out the door.

He sat down. “How I can make tinctures and remedies without help is beyond me. You’d think young people would appreciate an opportunity to better their situations. Most curious.” He sipped from his chipped wooden cup. He sniffed at that statement. Irony needled him.

Merlin’s situation weighed heavily on him. Silence echoed in the chamber instead of the younger man’s conversation. His company whether in treating their patients, talking over their bread and soup or while basic housekeeping had given him purpose. Still their interactions had changed since Arthur’s failed engagement. Merlin had become positively clandestine. He’d occasionally sit and daydream rather than focus on his work. His relationship with Arthur had completely fallen apart. (A matter provoked by the King mind you.) And that was before what happened with Nimue and Mithian….

He ground his teeth. He’d thought the former High Priestess dead and gone following their last encounter on the Isle of the Blessed. He couldn’t believe that she had the audacity to push her weight around in the castle. He’d tried to go to Arthur several times only to have her spell paralyze him body and speech. An indignant attitude burned at him over her accusations of his past affairs.

Mithian befuddled him. During her initial visit, she played the part of the prim and proper Princess. She seemed to have a good head on her shoulders. She knew and respected the social structure. Better yet, she knew how to treat her own servants properly. While a lesser woman would’ve thrown the Gedref back in Arthur’s face and started a war over his affront, she kept the peace. Still, given all of that, she pressed on about Merlin. Rather than just a token friendship much as Merlin shared with Gwen or Arthur while respecting class differences, she considered him an equal. She’d constructed a case to take to her father and Arthur. And now she had discovered the link with Merlin’s father.

She’ll expose Merlin as a sorcerer. Then what? Does she think everyone will just throw flowers at him? Even so the nobles will never accept him. She should know that Merlin has the best situation for himself here in Camelot. Or rather he did. He frowned. Arthur would’ve gotten over his mood eventually. Given this latest fiasco, Gwen would’ve made sure Merlin would be back here. Merlin should appreciate what he has. Especially with the knights departing, Arthur will need protection more than ever.

A knock came from the door. “Enter.”

“Gaius? Pardon me.” Longmont stuck his head in. “There is a Master Wyngate to see you?”

“Master Wyngate? Please show him in. Can you let one of the staff know to bring something for him? He’s had a long ride from Whitgate, I’m sure,” Gaius requested.

“At once.” Longmont bowed and ushered the visiting physician into the chamber. Then he closed the door behind himself allowing the two men privacy.

Gaius took a deep breath. Wyngate’s presence only underscored the earlier concerns. Suspicion and Dread filled his mind. Now what? He set his jaw. Given that Merlin had departed with the knights for Whitgate a few days prior, a bad feeling sat in his gut. Still he determined to greet his old friend properly. “Wyngate? This is certainly a surprise! What brings so far? I wish you’d sent word. King Arthur would’ve had a chamber properly prepared for your stay.”

“I’m sure you would have, Gaius. It is good to see you, my Friend,” Wyngate replied. He embraced his fellow physician. “I apologize about just showing up like this. You know I wouldn’t normally do that.”

“I understand.” Embarrassment reddened Gaius’ cheeks. He wished that the chamber had been cleaner. “It has been a busy time. Forgive the mess.”

“Considering that your assistant isn’t where he should be? The stable is filthy. There are no stable hands in there to speak of. And now I see you struggling where you should have an apprentice or an assistant of some kind. Certainly King Arthur should spare some resources?” Wyngate detailed. “The boy is ambitious. I’ll give him that.”

“Ambitious? I don’t follow your meaning,” Gaius replied. Hearing a knock at the door, he ambled toward it. He opened it to find a young maid with a piece of bread, a small piece of white cheese and a goblet on it. “Thank you. I appreciate it.”

She curtseyed and hustled back off.

“At least someone knows how to do a job,” Wyngate huffed. “Thank you for getting the meal, Gaius. I am sorry about my tone. It seems Propriety disappears when it’s needed most.” He broke off a piece of bread and cheese. “King Uther would’ve settled this matter.”

“Settled what matter? Is Merlin all right?” Gaius worried. The Eyebrow raised a few inches.

“For now. If Princess Mithian and King Rodor pursue this absurd course, he’ll hang in Whitgate’s courtyard. We thought that Merlin was there to help the Princess prepare a garden. Now we find out that he’s being named as Crown Prince and engaged to the Princess! Absurd!” Wyngate bit off a piece of rye bread and chased it with a draught of red wine. “The King had a banquet for him last night. I wasn’t about to sit through that. So I slipped away from there before noon. Other than a few hours’ rest by the Severn, I’ve ridden straight through.”

Gaius nodded. “Merlin has earned that privilege. I agree it isn’t the most popular choice. Still Princess Mithian hasn’t found a match with other rulers.”

“If she’d act like a woman, she would have. I understood when she was growing up. We indulged her. Still now she tells the King what to do. She insists on having a place at the council table. She hunts instead of proper things. And now this? Maybe in Camelot but….” Wyngate continued.

“Queen Guinevere is doing a fine job as King Arthur’s wife and, when needed, regent. Nobility is in the person. I would caution you about taking this tact with the King. He won’t take it well.” He shook his head. “Still Merlin deceived him.” Gaius shook his head. He understood that in the current situation, Arthur might pursue Merlin to make a case and an example.

“Merlin is still King Arthur’s man and a servant? Then that is grounds for treason! Gaius, we have to speak with the King at once!” Wyngate insisted. He grabbed Gaius’ arm. “This is threatening to undo all of the good of the past reign!”

Gaius shook his head. He could clearly see both sides. Still he frowned at how hastily the matter was being pushed down the Nemeth court’s collective throat. Certainly King Rodor would have a better sense of easing such matters onto his court! What could Merlin have said? He nodded. “If you’d speak, I’ll accompany you.”

“Gaius, certainly King Arthur will listen to you! What is with you?” Wyngate looked Gaius over. He clearly saw Hesitation and Fear in the other’s eyes. “The boy threatened you, didn’t he? And you let him?”

“Most assuredly not!” Gaius narrowed his eyes. “But I can’t. I can’t say anything about it to the King or Court.”

“What madness is that? You’re protecting him then? Gaius! This is about our kingdoms! There are more important things at stake!” Wyngate slapped the table.

“I know that! I certainly don’t need you to remind me! I wanted to do that before. I can’t.” Gaius frowned. “I’ve been enchanted. Merlin knows nothing of that. I don’t want him to either.”

“A sorceress did that? I knew there had to be magic at work! That’s the only way that King Rodor and Princess Mithian would accept Merlin in that role!” Wyngate deduced. “Madness! Sheer madness! We have to help you.”

“I’m surviving. As I said, Merlin had nothing to do with it. It seems the Old Religion rises up once more to renew its claim to the land,” Gaius pointed out.

“And by putting the boy forward, he’s their pawn. Unreal. You rest here, Gaius. I will let your King know of this. And I’m sorry.” Wyngate rubbed his friend’s shoulder. Then he left the chamber.

Not as sorry as I am! Merlin, what are you doing? Gaius ate from the bread himself and wondered if all sense had left the world.

Chapter Text

Chapter 16 [Throne Room]

Arthur leaned back against the throne. He frowned. His eyes looked over the collected courtiers. He’d rather be anywhere but there frankly. Several cases had burdened his conscience. He’d resolved three boundary disputes between estates. A matter of personal honor was dismissed. He’d authorized a new survey of the southeastern quarter of the kingdom. Tax levies waited to be carried out. With the court, he and Gwen reviewed Nemeth’s invitation for the upcoming meeting.

Needless to say, Impatience permeated the air.

Arthur tapped his finger on the polished armrest. He frowned. He’d allowed Princess Mithian diplomatic status. He gave her full access. Guilt weighed on him for what had happened. Regret weighed on him. He’d wanted to make up for his rejection of her. Gratitude had motivated him to work closer with Nemeth than it might have. He knew they owed being there due to her and Nemeth’s knights. As long as she and King Rodor interacted with them in Camelot, he was all right with it.

And that wasn’t counting on her increasingly close relationship with Merlin. It was a curious thing really. In a relatively short amount of time, they’d gone from not being able to stand each other to being close allies. They’d become friendlier of all things.

Too friendly for his liking….

Merlin just humiliated me. Mithian defends him. Gwen looks to her. Gawain’s whipped by Mithian’s maid? What is going on? His frown deepened. He was not used to be summoned to another ruler’s kingdom. He knew Nemeth didn’t have Camelot’s resources. Still his best followers were leaving for their own futures elsewhere. Threats were rising in places he hadn’t considered. And his closest friend was playing with plants.

Playing with plants? Acting like a girl?

Really?

Gwen cleared her throat.

Arthur still however remained in his reverie.

She reached across and tapped him on the arm. “Excuse me?”

“Huh? Oh! Yes!” Arthur collected himself. “I was considering the deeper implications of that last measure.” He noticed a long-absent member of his nobility watching him by the door. “Count Edgar of Hampton? It’s been too long. I was under the impression that you were on the Continent.”

“I was recalled.” A tall, broad shouldered and dark haired man strode forward. Cynicism shone through in his eyes. Disrespect twisted his mouth into a frown. He coughed. “It seems you allowed my retainers to be abused. I was under the impression that you’re supposed to look after my interests?”

“I have. Your retainers should keep a more careful eye on your goods and coats of arms. There are no issues between us, Count Edgar,” Arthur noted evenly.

“Are you certain? You had a certain woman in your custody. She was mine to deal with! MINE! It is a matter within the household,” Edgar disagreed. “The so-called ‘Princess’ is a threat.”

“Not hardly,” Gwen interjected. “You would have taken everything from Princess Josiane. Then she’d either be dead or sold into slavery. Your retainers tried to kidnap a member of Nemeth’s court for the same purpose. Considering that they faced her and our former knight, Gawain, your men were very fortunate.”

“Sire, are you going to let her speak? This is between us….” Edgar started again.

“Queen Guinevere is to be respected as am I, Edgar. You might be surprised as to what she knows,” Arthur cut him off. “Perhaps such matters are in your household. Still the matter took place in my tournament in my city. As your feudal lord, my justice takes precedence. I did return the goods to your men. Still they couldn’t hold onto them. Is that my fault? Josiane was exiled per Camelot law. If you wish to push the matter farther, you might speak with King Rodor of Nemeth.”

“Aye.” Edgar coughed. “You speak of our tiny neighbor who slowly erodes all of our assets. You gave them the Gedref. You allow that Tom Boy Princess to be an ‘ambassador.’ I hear Sir Gawain quit to be with the Fire Hair. And I don’t see your Favorite Bootlicker. Quite odd. I never thought he’d leave since you two were so attached.”

“Merlin’s doing a project. He will return shortly. The Queen thought it’d be good diplomacy,” Arthur noted.

“Diplomacy. Aye you would believe that, Sire.” Edgar coughed. He peered deeply into Arthur’s eyes. “And is the Queen sure that’s all it is?”

“It is, Count Edgar. Have I wronged you?” Gwen answered.

“Perhaps, Your Highness. You allowed that bitch to leave with her horse and goods. She claims that Boeve is the lawful Count! He never was! I am! She can cause me damage especially with asylum in Nemeth,” Edgar retorted. Venom spewed through his words and tone.

“Hold your tongue, Edgar. I am still your liege. As I said before, I pronounced judgment. She left Camelot. That’s as far as we can take the matter. After hearing the other side of the story however, I’ve reconsidered. Boeve, as I recall, is your elder half-brother. That would give him the better claim than you to that title you carry around. Best hope he didn’t survive,” Arthur declared.

“Is this how a King treats his nobles? Your father would never have allowed her to leave!” Edgar challenged.

“King Uther would’ve heard her fairly as I did. I found on your behalf. Still we are bound by law. I would not kill an exile to suit your whims. You are my man. And now that you’re back, you can serve me more often. Expect a summons for military service soon,” Arthur continued.

“I will, Sire. Thank you.” Edgar’s eyes burned into Arthur’s. Even now, that servant-Queen clouds his judgment. That chamber servant of his is around here somewhere. He can’t make a decision without them. He bowed and turned toward the door. As he walked toward it, he saw Sir Longmont and Master Wyngate walk in. He stopped and slipped into the crowd. Judging from the look on the other’s face, he hoped it was something of interest.

Arthur sucked in a deep breath. He rubbed his chin. He looked toward Bors.

Prince Bors nodded fully understanding Arthur’s intent. While he didn’t budge, he stood ready in case Edgar directly challenged the King or Queen. He glanced at his own men. He could see that most of the other knights lacked experience or frankly age to adequately support him if the Count brought his own knights into a fray. What I wouldn’t give for the old Round Table right now! He kept his silence choosing to weigh the situation instead.

Around the gallery, the courtiers and attending nobles looked at the Count. Then they turned to the throne. Curiosity and Doubt raised more than their share of eyebrows. They looked for a response to the challenges by the impertinent Edgar.

“Perhaps we might adjourn?” Gwen suggested.

Arthur was about to give the order. Then he saw Longmont and Wyngate waiting for an audience. Eager for a chance to change the subject, he called, “Master Wyngate? This is a surprise!”

“Forgive me for barging in on your court, King Arthur and Queen Guinevere.” Wyngate bowed to them. “I come on a matter of great importance of my own. It is related to your count’s recent concern, I fear.”

“Truly? Then you’ve seen her?” Edgar demanded without leave.

“Count Edgar, I will ask the questions. Please. You spoke of my father. He’d have put you in the dungeon for contempt of his court by now.” Arthur exhaled sharply. “One more outburst and you’ll go there.”

Edgar narrowed his eyes. Much like a whipped dog, he went silent. Still Hate smoldered in his eyes. He glared at the visiting physician.

“I apologize, Master Wyngate. Now what can we do for you?” Arthur apologized.

“I appreciate being able to speak. We have a dire matter relating to both of our kingdoms, I fear. Do you know what your servant, Merlin, is up to, King Arthur?” Wyngate posed.

“As I said to Count Edgar, Merlin assists your King and Princess with their palace garden. I know he has behaved rather boorishly here of late. Still Merlin can be helpful. He enjoys working with you all. The Queen suggested we send him. So we did. Why?” Arthur informed him.

Wyngate cleared his throat. He sighed. “I believe Merlin is in the middle of a plot to take the throne for himself. Your physician, Gaius, has been enchanted by a sorceress. Who’s to say that Merlin isn’t in league with her? Queen Morgana seems to have done well for herself since her ouster here. Maybe she’s part of this? I wonder if they’ve enchanted King Rodor and Princess Mithian to accept him in that role, Sire.”

Gwen coughed. “Master Wyngate, from what Gaius tells me, you’re an excellent physician. Still you should have your facts straight. Morgana is no longer a sorceress. She inherited her father’s throne. Her nobles invited her to assume it. We will look into Gaius’ situation. As for Merlin, why would he wish harm on King Rodor or Princess Mithian? They respect him for who he is.”

“He’ll be returning with us following King Rodor’s meeting,” Arthur insisted.

“If he’s still your man at that point, Sire. Merlin plots to take his freedom. My King and Princess are planning to push you on this point,” Wyngate insisted.

A few coughs escaped the gallery members’ mouths. A few of the nobles stiffened. Some shook their heads. Their opinion of Merlin remained split to say the least. So was the sentiment there.

Shock smacked Arthur senseless. He’d put Merlin in his place certainly. But it wasn’t any different than the other times. He’d made sure that the clumsy servant still had a room and a bed. He had food to eat. “Merlin’s too big of an idiot to plot like that. Besides he doesn’t have a case.” He turned to Gwen. Irritation burned in his face although he struggled to keep his tone even. “And what do you mean they respect him for what he is? I certainly treat him well enough!”

“Not here.” Gwen shook her head. While she wanted to say something right then and there, she abstained.

“With due respect, why not, Queen Guinevere? The boy is ungrateful! He thinks the world owes him! He leaves Gaius in a squalid state!” Wyngate challenged.

“Gaius chose to push Merlin away. I know how disappointed Merlin was about that,” Gwen disagreed. “We’ve tried to find Gaius a suitable new apprentice. None have worked out so far. King Arthur and I need to speak more in private.”

“Do you really think Merlin is a noble? Truly?” Wyngate pressed.

“According to the Culpability Laws, he measures up here, in Nemeth and Mercia to be so.” Gwen leaned close to Arthur. “There’s something else to be mentioned in private. If we agree, you will all know.”

Arthur snorted. “Merlin? Measure up to being a noble? Guinevere….”

Gwen sighed. “Since you both insist, we’ll talk about this now. Aye. Merlin’s measured up for years. You just want him in the household as your servant. Well you’re not even doing that any more. You put him in the stables. You allowed him to be abused by Meleagant. It isn’t right, Arthur! When you knighted Elyan, Gawain and Lancelot, you should’ve given him the same! He went through the same trials! He stood up to Morgause and Morgana! If Lancelot was still alive, he’d tell you that. He nearly died against the Calleach! He’s sacrificed himself for us on so many occasions. I could be here for hours detailing Merlin’s accomplishments.” Gwen shook her head. “Master Wyngate, as you know, I’ve been at your court. I’ve talked with Princess Mithian about Merlin. I know she genuinely loves him. And you know why? Because he respects her. He appreciates her as a woman not an object. She doesn’t see him as a slave but as a man.”

“Gwen, he can’t….He’s a…..” Arthur started.

“He’s a what? A servant? Arthur, I was a servant. You raised me up after I proved myself. And that was in spite of Uther’s wishes,” Gwen pointed out. “Do the same for Merlin. He’s earned that much.” She saw Wyngate bow his head. “You disagree, Master Physician?”

“Queen Guinevere, we have no other heir. He’d be…” Wyngate started to disagree.

“Guinevere, Master Wyngate has a point. Merlin, despite his feats, isn’t a noble. He has no blood or lineage,” Arthur denied trying to sweep Merlin’s claim back under the rug.

“You met his claim.” Seeing Arthur stiffen, she shrugged. “His father.”

“You mean Balinor, that old hermit? He wasn’t anything! He….” Arthur’s eyes went wide. “Wait. Are you saying Balinor was a knight?”

“Master Wyngate? You know the answer to that as well as I,” Gwen insisted.

Wyngate exhaled. Frustration conceded the argument. “King Rodor’s father knighted Balinor. He saved our King and that lion in a battle. He fought in several campaigns before Uther put him in his place. Filthy Dragon Lord!” He spat.

The courtiers turned toward the elderly visitor. Incredulity and Disbelief showed in their faces.

“Dragon lord? He….” Arthur stopped cold for a second time. “Gwen, that’s rubbish! Merlin’s ….”

Gwen shrugged. She didn’t want to say any more in front of the entire court especially with Count Edgar and several other nobles who didn’t care much for Merlin or the Old Religion for that matter sitting there. “I don’t know, Arthur. I just know Merlin has more than just a case. He’s been qualified for years. He’s so loyal to us. What’s the difference between what Gawain, Elyan, Percival and Leon have done as opposed to this? There isn’t any. We want to reward loyalty? We want to reward service? Then we should do so equally.”

“Queen Guinevere, you can’t be serious!” Edgar scoffed. “King Arthur, please tell the Queen….”

Arthur set his jaw. “Tell her what, Count Edgar? I’m not going to insult the Queen in front of this body. She is making a case for Merlin. As hard as it is to believe for that idiot to qualify for noble status, she believes he is. Besides if this is what Princess Mithian wants…..” He rubbed his forehead.

“It is,” Gwen stated. Resolve never allowed her voice to waiver.

Prince Bors cleared his throat. “Sire, Queen Guinevere, might I speak?”

“Of course, Bors. Still you haven’t known Merlin that long,” Arthur relented.

“The other knights speak of his bravery on the battlefield. I’ll admit I’ve never seen a servant react to battle as Merlin does. I have seen him protecting your flank and back in past battles. It is a wonderful thing to have someone so fiercely loyal. Consider the network of alliances you have, Sire. You have built alliances with Mercia, my father’s kingdom and several other kingdoms through our brethren going elsewhere. Perhaps freeing Merlin and supporting him would solidify Nemeth as an ally? Sire, you might get a few of those other leaders to the negotiating table if you do this. I say this with all due respect,” Bors observed.

Arthur shook his head. In his mind, it seemed as if the world had turned upside down and inside out. He understood what Gwen and Bors were saying. Still he’d come to rely on Merlin for so much. Even if Merlin was proven, he’d pressured the latter into remaining where he was. “I can’t believe I’m going to say this.”

“King Arthur, please don’t! Please!” Wyngate begged.

“Queen Guinevere and Prince Bors have a valid argument. Besides I did make a promise to Princess Mithian that I would help her be with this mystery suitor of hers. I can’t believe she’d fall for a Prat like Merlin. Still a promise is a promise.” Arthur looked to Gwen. “And you’re sure? You’re absolutely sure?”

“I am. We need to free him. It is long past the time for it. I want him to stay and serve us too. Still can’t he serve us best as an ally and good neighbor? He can still be there in battle when we need him. You just don’t want to deal with George,” she insisted.

“You’re not helping, Guinevere,” Arthur told her not wanting to hear about the silver-polishing substitute for Merlin’s chamberlain services.

“I know. Still it is true. We speak of equality. We have to have it for everyone. That means everyone. Merlin earned it. He should have it,” she declared.

“Aye. It is for everyone.” Arthur squeezed her hand. “For everyone.” He looked to his High Chancellor. “Lord Geoffrey?”

Geoffrey of Monmouth stood. “Aye, Sire?”

Arthur sighed. He tapped his fingers across the armrest. His mind wrestled with the issue. As he had in the past, he wanted to come up with some double standard. He wished to come up with some way to convince Merlin to maintain the status quo. As he had in the past, he wanted to push his royal weight around.

Still this time, there was more than just Merlin to consider. He had Mithian and Rodor to think about. Hell, he had potentially a very tangled diplomatic web to deal with. And all because of a bumbling servant granted with a big heart but a bumbler nonetheless? Well…he did make those promises too.

“I would give up my kingdom to be so loved,” Memoria reminded him of Mithian’s words from that heart wrenching departure in the courtyard below.

He bowed his head remembering how she’d left so angry and sad. He could have started a war…a war that could have enveloped Britannia and her environs. Still he didn’t. And ironically, it was because of a considerate spark that lit a romantic pyre. Much as he had with Gwen, Merlin had reached across the aisle for his own love. He looked to Gwen hesitating on the precipice.

Rather than shove him across, she smiled. Her eyes spoke volumes but in truth, reiterated the message from before. “Equality for all. It’s time, Arthur.”

He nodded. He was ready. He cleared his throat and instructed Geoffrey, “Write up the manumission for Merlin. Prince Bors, gather a company of knights and prepare to ride out. Longmont, you and Master Wyngate, fetch Gaius. We’re going to Nemeth.”

Bors smiled. He could almost Relief’s collective exhale coming from the various capitals throughout the region. The last thing he would’ve wanted was a potential island-wide (and further extending) feud. Nobody save Meleagant who seemed to bathe and drink blood for his own twisted pleasure would benefit from it. Now maybe we can all find some peace. At least until the bigger question arises. He bowed. “At once, Sire.”

“At once, Sire. Come on, Master Wyngate,” Longmont concurred. After a bow of his own, he helped the elderly visitor from the chamber.

“This is….!” Edgar started to disagree eliciting several other nods and “Ayes!” in the process.

“It’s decided. The discussion’s over,” Gwen insisted.

Arthur stood along with her. “Thank you, everyone! Safe journey back to your estates.” He watched as the nobles all departed with various reactions. “They’re having problems with it. I can’t believe we’re doing it.”

“We are, Arthur. We’re not losing a friend. We’re just seeing him move into a more appropriate role. Just like you helped me, you can help him too,” she insisted.

“You are wise. You know that?” Arthur supposed.

She smirked at him. “I do try. Now let’s get that parchment signed and sealed. I want to be on the road.” She practically tugged him from the throne room.

Bors’ smile broadened. Granted he didn’t know Merlin all that well. Still Reputation told of the Warlock’s bravery in battle and his skill in various ways. Justice will help us, Sire. We just have to believe!

With that, he headed off for the knights’ barracks…..

Chapter Text

Chapter 17 [Physicians’ Chambers]
[A/N: I know we’ve been away from our favorite Warlock and Princess for a while. I wanted to set up the rest of the story here….]

Gaius wiped the last of his cups clean. Accomplishment lifted his spirits. He noted the recently used books sticking out of the wrong spots. He did some spot sweeping where it looked really needed. He set that wooden cup on the table. He allowed himself a deep breath. He leaned against a table. Arthritis locked his knees in place. His fingers moved but with great effort. Finally he surrendered to the waiting bench. His eyes drifted across the chamber and toward the back room.

There the door remained open. A blanket and a worn sheet sat atop the bed. The pillow accompanied them. All remained on watch. Hope kept them all on guard.

All awaiting Merlin’s return…

“What are you thinking, Merlin?” Gaius rubbed his reddened eyes. Lament’s tears streaked his cheeks. Frustration boiled over in his chest. He peered into the empty room. He sighed and dried his face with the cloth. Despite resting, he still dealt with his weakness. I should be feeling better. Perhaps I should have Master Wyngate look me over? He considered that option for a heartbeat in time.

Then a knock at the door stirred him from his reverie.

“Gaius?” Wyngate called as he opened the door.

“I’m here. I’ll be up shortly.” The resident physician sucked in two efforted breaths. He stood slowly. “Did the King speak with you?”

“He did.” Wyngate frowned. “Gaius, it’s been decided. We’re going to Nemeth.”

“So we’re going to bring Merlin home.” Emotion tore at Gaius. On the one hand, Joy and Relief exulted to have his former charge back. On the other hand, he knew how Merlin would react. He didn’t look forward to consoling the younger man over this latest setback. Either way it would be mean that things wouldn’t be as they had been.

“Nay. My Prince is home. Gaius, the mood had already been set. The result is just even if we don’t agree with it. I am not willing to destroy everything to stop it,” Wyngate reported.

“Your…Prince?” Gaius coughed. His eyes went wide. “They’re freeing him? How did Arthur allow that? I never….” He slumped. “Gwen. She did this.”

“She did. So did my Princess. After so many failures, she has a match. Merlin is Sir Balinor’s son. After so many years, he does have a right to his heritage. You know that as well as I do, Gaius.” Wyngate saw Gaius huffing with effort. “What is this?”

“I tried to do too much. They can’t find me another apprentice. I’ve kept myself going as best as I can, Wyngate. I apologize. I…” Gaius admitted.

“You stay there.” Wyngate shook his head. “You’re coming back with me. Camelot can find itself another healer. Gaius, you can barely stand up.”

“Patients need me. I can’t….” Gaius argued.

“And as your friend and fellow physician, I cannot let you continue, Gaius.” Wyngate inspected the chamber. He made sure everything was off and in good working order. “Perhaps you may wish to pack a few things? As of now, you’re under my care. I’m sure Merlin would agree?”

“Hrumph! He would keep me under lock and key.” Gaius frowned. Stubbornness sparked in his eyes.

Wyngate coughed. “He’d receive no argument from me.” Even as he said the words, he realized that there might be more in common than he previously had considered. “Sir Longmont, perhaps you might help him?”

“I have a few things. Let me do this.” Gaius hobbled over to the wooden chest in the chamber’s far northwestern corner.

Seemed that a few transitions were in place after all…..

Chapter Text

Chapter 18 [Whitgate]

While most activity seemed to go on as usual, Panic’s undercurrent stirred things under the surface. The garden and preparation activities had been shelved. Whereas attention had been set for a showdown in the castle, now the focus shifted eastward. While Peace hoped for a chance to sway minds, War loomed on the horizon.

Prepare for the worst. Hope for the best and a miracle…..

 

****

 

[Throne Chamber]

Rodor looked over the hastily assembled group. He saw the bulk of his knights. Behind them, the few remaining courtiers waited for his next word. Lord Brumenwald and Peter stood ready with quills, gall and parchment for the court’s archive. Off to their side, he saw Gawain, Britomart, Josiane and Merlin watching him in turn. “Is it time then?”

“Aye, Sire.” Mithian composed herself. She wouldn’t allow Anxiety or Fear to show before the assembled host. She’d be strong for her father’s sake. She’d be a rock for her beloved Warlock. “The counselors are not here. We can presume they’ve gone to stir up opposition?”

“I cannot believe Master Wyngate would do this. The others perhaps. Still he has been loyal for more years than I can remember,” Rodor protested. “This is a sight. The world turned upside down. Nobles run. Peasants and outcasts stand up. Remarkable.” His eyes sparkled. He stood. “My People, thank you for coming. We face a test. Our counselors have deserted the city. We can presume the worst. Given that the context concerned Count Bernard of Astolat, I wish for some of your number to ride to the Isle of Shalott. Secure Count Bernard and return him here. If you find the missing counselors, you are to bring them here as well.”

“Pardon me, Sire?” a young knight with long dark curls running through his hair asked. Respect pushed him into a deep bow.

“Aye, Sir Marcus. What do you have for us?” Rodor recognized him.

“Sire, Princess, I saw Master Wyngate cross the Severn night before last. He was on the Camelot road,” Marcus reported. “He was alone save for his horse.”

“He goes to tell Arthur of our plans,” Mithian confirmed.

“We should still strive for a peaceful resolution, Daughter,” Rodor reminded her. “We have done nothing wrong by our law or Camelot’s. Arthur will see reason. If not, the blood is on his hands not ours.”

Merlin bowed his head. I can’t believe this is happening. Why isn’t it easier? Depression swamped him. He wanted to be with Mithian. Still he wasn’t willing to watch friend wound and kill friend to get that. I could go back. It would stop all of this. I….

No it wouldn’t, Merlin. DON’T YOU EVEN THINK THAT WAY! Mithian snapped over the Link. Her eyes sparked at him before returning to the bulk of the audience.

Merlin gulped. Granted he was Emrys. He had magic. He could control dragons. He talked with other sorcerers. He’d saved kingdoms and people….

…but she was Mithian, Princess of Nemeth, fellow empath and the Queen of his Heart….

…Argument disallowed….PERIOD….

Gawain shook his head at his friend. He rubbed the other’s shoulder. He’d about had enough of Arthur and Camelot.

Merlin smiled getting the other’s meaning. He inhaled deeply. He got it.

These people stood assembled there. They were there for the same reason that the courtiers greeted him upon arrival. They liked him. They supported him.

They were willing to fight and die for loyalty…for his and Mithian’s dream...their combined dream….

“Sire?” Galahad stepped forward. “Might I suggest a strategy? We can send Sir Berthold, Sir Reginald, Sir Revis and Sir Lothwein to Astolat. They would be under the orders you suggested. Apprehend first. Do not engage unless absolutely necessary. The rest of us will watch the Camelot road. We should pray that cooler heads prevail.”

“Aye. We should indeed. Thank you, Sir Galahad.” Rodor exhaled sharply. “In such times, worthiness should be recognized. Sir Gawain, would you step forward?”

Gawain looked once more to his friends. Then he marched forward. “What’s going on, King Rodor?”

Mithian coughed. She raised an eyebrow at him. Can’t we do anything for him?

Sorry. He’s him. Merlin shrugged. He saw Britomart grimace.

Rodor narrowed his eyes. “Are you ready to serve? I know I am putting you in a difficult position. However I have need of your sword and possibly your head in this situation.”

Several coughs echoed throughout the chamber from that comment.

Gawain frowned at the gallery members. Then he turned back toward the dais. “I’m loyal. Arthur knows why I left. He’s wrong. Let him deal with it. I’m your guy. There’s one condition.”

“You’re setting conditions now?” Rodor stiffened. He narrowed his eyes.

“Yeah. It’s not that big of a deal. Well maybe it could be. You knight me. I want you to knight someone else. She deserves it even if she can’t stay quiet. I’d like to know how you do it….” Gawain requested.

Britomart stared. Her ears couldn’t believe what they’d just heard.

Mithian sniffed. She smirked in spite of Irreverence’s display.

“Am I missing something, Mithian?” Rodor wondered.

“Gawain, you’re speaking of Britomart. Aren’t you?” Mithian looked to her friend. Then she turned back to her father. “Sire, we have spoken of this in the past. Lady Isolde has set the precedent. I’d welcome both Britomart and Princess Josiane in this effort.”

Rodor begrudgingly nodded. “Aye she has done that indeed. Very well. Britomart, would you step forward?”

“Me?” Britomart dropped her jaw. Disbelief clouded her mind. She trembled. Her face paled.

“He called you,” Merlin reminded her.

“I…I know that! I just….” She took a halting step. Then another. And another. In such slow ways, she shuffled across the stones. Somehow, after years of waiting, she’d been called to her dream job. She’d been put forward by her Nightmare Oaf. (Perhaps I’d say “Dream Man” but Britomart’s not going to give that point up in this context….) She stood next to Gawain and looked up to the two royals. “I’m here, Sire.” She put her hand on Gawain’s arm. “Thank you.”

“Yeah well. Don’t let it…” Gawain started before Mithian’s throat clearing killed Snark’s rejoinder in midstream. He frowned. “You’re welcome. Just…well…don’t go anywhere.” He ground his teeth. “Do you need me to talk about her? I can go on but….”

Now Britomart’s eyebrow stopped that attempt.

Merlin coughed. Somehow he managed not to laugh. (Maybe he was just as hesitant to test his Princess as Gawain was.)

“Aye. Please do tell of her accomplishments. I’m sure you have much to say,” Rodor agreed.

Gawain cleared his throat. “Yeah I do. Even if she won’t stop nagging a guy. Well there was the time she got into Camelot, helped me out and kept things going until Blood Lion over there busted in the wall. Then she really took it to the Mercians at Ealdor. She bailed me out against the Cawdorians as Y-Whine…Ywain…will tell you there. Then she tried to singlehandedly deal with Hampton Eddie’s goon squad by herself for Josie’s honor and stuff. Gave me a chance to bail her out.”

“For a change,” Britomart muttered to herself.

“Yeah well. We all have our times. Maybe if you weren’t so distracting….” Gawain groused forgetting where he was for a split heartbeat or three.

“Will you behave? We’re in front of the King!” Britomart lectured. Embarrassment’s liberal brushstrokes turned her cheeks deep red. Then she returned her gaze to the front. “Forgive him, Sire. He sometimes loses his head.”

“So I have seen. Still I value his sword. I add his details about you to the others already noted. Have you noted that, Lord Brumenwald?” Rodor assessed.

“I have. I will strike the…ahem…extra words….with your indulgence,” the High Chancellor noted.

“Please do. Unless anyone objects, I believe we are ready. Britomart and Gawain, by deeds past and the promise future, I grant unto both of you the rank of lord and lady of Nemeth. When this situation has passed, we shall determine a suitable estate for each of you,” Rodor declared. He touched each one’s shoulders with his sword’s point. “It is done. Now, as for the other matter, will you both defend this city and kingdom giving your lives if needed? Will you be loyal to Princess Mithian and me as needed?”

“Aye, Sire. I will not fail you or my Lady,” Britomart vowed. Her head swam. Her heart soared. She bowed her head.

“Aye. I’ve got your back, King Rodor. And everyone else’s. And Brit’s…even if she won’t admit it.” Gawain started. “And most of all, I’ve got PRINCE MERLIN’S!!” He looked up into Rodor’s eyes. “Hope you don’t mind swearing to him as well?”

Rodor exchanged warm looks with Mithian. Then he returned his gaze to the two people in front of himself. “And why would I mind that? That is why we’re here. Rise a knight, Sir Gawain and Lady Britomart. Now is there anything else?”

“Yeah. Actually….there’s one more thing.” Gawain exhaled sharply. “I…”

“Sir Gawain, we have a mission. Everyone’s waiting. What is it? Can’t it wait?” Britomart reminded him.

“NO! It bloody well can’t! I….” Gawain fought to compose himself. “All of this stuff must be getting to me. We’re doing this. It makes everything fall in order. And well….Britomart, maid, new lady and kick arse fighter even if she has to get the last word in, I need something.” He bowed his head. “Bloody hell. I never thought this would happen.”

“Aye, Sir Gawain?” Britomart asked.

Gawain took out a brass ring. “This was my mother’s. It’s the last thing I have from her. They let me keep it when we buried her.” His eyes watered. “It goes with…what I want to ask. She wanted…me to give it. I….” He held it out in front of her. “I can’t believe I need to marry someone. But you’re the one I want. That’s why I pulled you up here with me. I want you with me on the battlefield. I want you around at home…just not nagging me so much. Maybe sometimes at the tavern but not all of the time.” He rolled his eyes. “Marry me, Brit?”

Merlin put his arms up in the air. Triumph beamed across his face. He did it! He asked her. You will say aye and let her. Someone needs to keep him in check.

As if? Mithian snorted. “Father, I believe that is a question.”

“So I heard.” Rodor watched the transfixed Britomart staring at Gawain. She had her hands covering her mouth. Shock numbed her from the gob struck stare on her face. He’d never seen his former maid react like that before. “I believe, Lady Britomart, that is your cue.”

“I…I know, Sire. I apologize. I never…never expected him to make such a display of it. I’m sorry. I…” Britomart apologized.

“Answer his question,” Mithian told her. She motioned toward the kneeling knight. “Put him out of his misery already.”

That detail elicited another round of coughs and chuckles echoing off of the stones in spite of the circumstances.

“Anyone else?” Gawain muttered. He bit his lip. He exhaled deeply. Then he looked around at the assembly.

“Just me, Lord Windbag. Sire?” She turned to Rodor. “If you could make sure those estates border each other? I will have two estates to run while my good Lout here is running about…cough, cough….inspecting the taverns.” She held out her hand.

“What kind of an answer is that?” Gawain inquired pointedly.

“An answer worthy of that meandering wandering question, Sir Knight.” She sighed. “Fine. Aye, Sir Gawain, you incorrigible man child. Aye I will take your hand. I will do my best to be there with you. I will do my best to keep you out of trouble. Perhaps though the goddess might grant me a favor or a thousand in that regard?” She cleared her throat and wiggled the outstretched hand. “We do have our mission. Unless you wish an expedition to seek Prester John himself, slide it on and we can serve our lord, lady and new Prince.”

“Yeah. Let this get to your head.” Gawain cracked. He slid the ring on her hand. Then he gently closed it. His lips brushed Amor’s affixing strokes onto her knuckles.

“I believe we shall speak of such things when you return. Meantime you have chain mail to be fitted for. Let’s hope we will not have need of such gear. Congratulations to you both. Now, everyone, see to your own weapons and armor. We shall march within two turns of the hourglass. That is all,” Rodor concluded. With a nod, he dismissed the group.

“Thank you, Sire and my Lady, for your indulgence. I didn’t know Sir Gawain would do this. I…” Britomart apologized.

“You’re the right one. Stop already,” Gawain assured her. “Thanks for letting me do that. I’ve been waiting. We need something to inspire. If someone wants to stand firm against Arthur?” He looked right at Merlin.

“I’m here. I’m fighting. I’m hoping it won’t be necessary,” Merlin insisted.

“I know you are. Just stand with me please,” Mithian requested.

“I’m not going anywhere. I just don’t want to be a source of war,” Merlin told her.

“You two haven’t done anything wrong,” Rodor repeated himself. “You all had best get to your matters. I want you all downstairs with the others.”

The quartet bowed to him. Then they departed.

“Princess Josiane, your assistance isn’t required. It would be welcome however. Given this Edgar’s attitude, I’d rather you stay back here,” Rodor declared.

“I am with them, Good King. Sir Boeve wouldn’t run from this fray. I will not either.” Josiane bowed to him. “Merlin has been a true friend. I can be no less for him, your daughter or you.”

“Then I am honored by your presence and aid.” Rodor in turned nodded to her. “Show us your mettle when we’re on the field.”

“Let us hope that doesn’t come. If it does, I pray Edgar of Hampton is there. He and I have a debt to account for.” Josiane nodded to him again. Then she departed from the chamber.

As she said, may we prepare for nothing save peace and good will! Rodor left the area heading for the armory.

It was time or almost so….

Chapter Text

Chapter 19 [Hall of Heroes—A Quarter Turn of the Hourglass Later]

Merlin shuffled his feet down the passage. He knew that he should have been heading for the armory. He wanted to believe that Arthur would see reason. He needed to believe that everything would be all right. Gwen will talk to him. Arthur won’t want a war. Rodor and Mithian won’t back down. He has to know that. At some point, he has to let me do something. I know he’s King but what I want to do is legal! I can’t just keep knuckling under to him. I can still serve him as an ally. He rubbed his head. Why can’t I just use my talents? Mithian believes in me. Why can’t Arthur?

Sometimes, Merlin, we cannot control those people around us. You have to have faith, a familiar voice advised.

“Who?” Merlin looked around himself. He peered up and down the passage. He spied nobody else. “Hello? Please! Come out!”

I’m closer than you think. Do you see the door? The one to your right?

He narrowed his eyes. “Where are you? I see the door but….”

The door. Walk through it. See what’s there, the Voice told him.

“I have to get to the Armory. The battle….” Merlin disagreed.

What’s in that room will be all you need. King Rodor and Princess Mithian know about you. They know about me, the Voice bade. The others know about me. Walk through that door, Merlin.

Merlin hesitated. He could’ve sworn that he knew the speaker. The Voice resonated with him. He’d heard it before. It wasn’t from Camelot. He knew somehow that it wasn’t from Ealdor. “Who are you?”

You don’t remember from the cave? Arthur and you met me there. You claimed your talent at the moment of my death. You wondered who I am. The answer is in the Hall of Heroes, the Voice instructed.

“Talents…I.” Merlin’s eyes went wide. “Father?” He looked around. The corridor still remained empty. “The Hall of Heroes? What?” He took a step backward. He saw the door in question and moved toward it.

As he did, the latch came undone. The door swung open as if on its own accord.

Merlin, you need to claim my role. Please. You have questions. The answers lie in that room, Balinor directed.

Merlin nodded numbly. Caution guided him warily through the open portal. He looked about the room in question. His eye swept across the historical artifacts and relics from the kingdom’s history. “I haven’t seen this before.”

Princess Mithian and King Rodor haven’t had time to show you. The case in the corner. Under glass, you’ll see my armor. It is yours now, Balinor noted.

Merlin nodded. Excitement and Dread echoed through his head. Can we check with someone? Malodius? Kilgarrah? Can you hear me?

Merlin, you know I can hear you. I have detected something curious and…. Kilgarrah started.

Balinor! Is that you? Malodius realized.

It is me, Friends. I wanted Merlin to have my armor and sword. They are his to claim and use. The last Dragon Lord should ride once more, Balinor declared.

Kilgarrah thinks he’s too good for that, Father, Merlin snarked.

He will bear you into battle, Merlin. Won’t you, Dragon? Malodius pushed.

Hrumph! Get the armor. Perhaps your new friend could fly you there instead, Merlin? She seems to have the most interesting possessions, Kilgarrah retorted. Open the case. Claim your armor.

Merlin rolled his eyes. I don’t know what you two mean but first things first. He saw the case in question standing next to a tapestry. He took in the sewn depiction of a great battle with several armies, many soldiers and six dragons flying overhead.

The Battle of Etralburg. Rodor and I fought there. He was the Crown Prince then. It was right before Princess Mithian’s birth, Balinor recalled. I’m sorry if I can’t allow you to linger, Merlin. Time is precious. We need to go. Kilgarrah, can you and the Young Dragon come? I wish for Camelot to see a united front.

Are you sure that’s wise? I would not risk Aithusa. You, Dragon, should lead, Malodius doubted.

As opposed to you, Great One? I’m sure you can tear the bratling army to shreds on your own, Kilgarrah responded. I will come for my brethren. As I am summoned, so shall I come. With that, he went silent.

No pressure. He considered the chain mail, sur coat and rusted sword there. Still the latter’s gilt hilt glittered at him in the dim torchlight. He pointed at the lock. “Fuasgladh doras!”

The spell took care of the lock. The case swung open.

Merlin guardedly reached into the display. He ran his fingers along the worn sur coat’s edges. His eye caught the sparkle of the old chain mail and helmet. The sword beckoned to him.

Merlin, we have to go, Balinor reminded him (again).

Merlin nodded. He pulled the chain mail on. Then the sur coat went on over it. He pulled the hood up and put the helmet on top of his head. The sword and belt strapped around his waist….

…or rather they would have if they didn’t hang off of him three sizes too large….

Merlin’s eyes glinted. “Fur armachd!”

The armor instantly resized itself.

“Mar ùr!” he commanded.

The armor sparled and shone in the torchlight. The fabric of the sur coat worked itself back together; the fraying all but disappearing. The chain mail sparkled as if it had been recently forged. The sword’s blade was sharp and the rust gone. Even the rounded shield with the metallic center seemed repainted and ready to go. “This is my father’s. I….”

“Merlin?”

He turned toward the source of the voice. Behind him, he saw nothing in the hallway. “Now I’m really not in the mood for surprises.” He focused. “Princess?”

“Yes, Merlin. Look up.”

“Look up? Why? I….” His eyes went wide. He blinked while trying to digest the sight in front of himself.

Josiane descended from the ceiling’s shadows. Her golden chain mail glittered in the torchlight. As he had seen at the tournament, her sheathed scimitar sat strapped on her back. A shield rested against her left arm. She sat on the rug she’d brought from Camelot. Her eyes met his. “It seems you have still more secrets.”

“So do you. How are you doing that?” he wondered.

She giggled. “The carpet is enchanted. It flies. It has been in my family for generations along with my blade. It is a part of my advantage in battle.”

“Quite the advantage,” he agreed. “Elemental abilities, flying carpet, hand to hand mastery and sword.”

“Scimitar, Merlin. As you saw at the tournament, it can break your European swords like melee weapons,” she corrected. “Now you see why that pig, Edgar, wanted my possessions.”

“Yeah I can see why.” He smiled. “Glad we got them back for you. So can anyone fly on it? Or…”

“It responds to me or those I choose. That is for its protection and mine. I do not want it turned on you or our friends,” she informed him.

“Great spell lock,” he quipped. Kilgarrah?

We are almost to the castle, Merlin. Where shall we meet? Kilgarrah reported.

Hover please. I’ll call in a heartbeat. I want to make a point to everyone, Merlin instructed.

Hrumph! I’m not a pet to be whistled for! Kilgarrah stewed.

Still it serves your ego well, Dragon, Malodius jabbed.

Mind your business, Great One. I shall manage my own, Kilgarrah insisted.

Merlin closed the case display. “I’m set. I can meet you down there.”

“I can get us there faster.” She alighted on the polished wooden floor. “Step on.” When he had done so, she focused.

The carpet lifted off of the ground and streaked through the less-traversed halls toward the meeting place.

“This is really great! Never seen anything like this before!” he complimented.

“Says the sorcerer/Dragon Lord, Merlin.” She shrugged. “As you said, we need every advantage.”

“Cool heads, Princess. We’re still trying for peace. I don’t want friends fighting friends,” he stressed.

“Let’s hope you get your wish, Merlin. We can hope for diplomacy. But given what I’ve seen of King Arthur and the others, pardon my doubts,” she told him.

“All I want is peace, a garden and marriage. That’s it,” he informed her. Arthur, let’s keep our heads.

Sometimes it wasn’t easy. It should have been. Still people made it harder than it had to be…..

Chapter Text

Chapter 20 [Square]

Mithian stood at the top of the palace stairs. Perhaps due to a desire for peace, her quiver and bow weighed more heavily upon her than normal. Her frown became more pronounced. She looked over the assembled knights. She saw almost all was set. Is it too late to stop this? Can we?

Rodor walked grimly out of the palace. His own chain mail and sword glistened in Sol’s light. He too surveyed the backdrop. His brow raised. “Where are Merlin and Princess Josiane?”

Mithian furrowed her brow. She’d involved herself so deeply in Preparation’s intricacies that she hadn’t really paid attention. She noted where Gawain and Britomart sat on their respective horses. She could see Ywain and Malodius awaiting their command as did Galahad and the other warriors. Still she didn’t see her fiancé and Josiane. Now what? Merlin?

Sorry. I got sidetracked. Princess Josiane and I had to get some things, Merlin apologized.

Sidetracked? Merlin, you never made it to the armory! Father’s ready for us to march! Mithian protested.

It’s okay. I found something that works. You might say Father guided me to it. Malodius knows. I think you’ll like it. Wait until you see what she has! Merlin explained.

Something that works he says. Mithian turned to Malodius. Great Lion, whatever is Merlin up to? I do hope he’s been preparing for our march.

He has indeed, Princess. Hasn’t he, Dragon? Malodius responded.

He has. I do not like waiting around in such ways however, Kilgarrah brooded.

Galahad pointed. His eyes had drifted toward the citadel. “Sire? Princess? What’s that coming out of the castle and…. By the goddess!”

The assembled host stared. Incredulity dropped several jaws.

“What?” Rodor turned. “How is she…?”

“Now that’s what I’m talking about!” Gawain cheered.

“That’s why those ingrates wanted those things,” Britomart realized.

Josiane guided her carpet to the waiting stones. “And as promised, Merlin, here we are.” She bowed to the two rulers. “Pardon us. We needed to collect our possessions.”

“So I see.” Rodor inspected Merlin. “We did not see you at the armory, Merlin. That looks like Sir Balinor’s armor but it’s brand new.”

“It’s been restored and resized for me, Your Highness.” Merlin revealed. He drew the sword and held it straight up. He watched as it glinted in the air catching Sol’s dust laden beams on its edges. “As has his blade.” He sheathed it. “My father called me to it.”

“Your father?” Rodor considered the point for a heartbeat. Realization cleared away Confusion’s fog from his mind. “Ah! So it is time. Truly so.”

“So you approve?” Hope and Insecurity threatened to undermine Merlin’s self-esteem at that point. Anxiety flared within his heart and stomach.

Mithian smirked. Arousal shot its darts into her mind. Pride and Amor warmed her heart. It’s a good look on you, Merlin. It might turn a Princess’ head. Which one I won’t say but well….

I’m glad you like it, Merlin expressed.

One day soon, I’ll get to show you how much so, my Prince. Mithian’s eyebrow raised. Sauciness glinted in her eye. A knowing clearing of the throat left little doubt as to her mindset at that point.

Oh yeah. That. His mind recalled well the night under the mistletoe. Despite being with her in their dreamscape, he’d admittedly craved more.

Business first. We have to secure your freedom. Then we get married. And then…there’s THAT as you put it. Greedy Boy, Mithian reminded him. “Where’s your horse, Merlin?”

“I’m a Dragon Lord. In this case, I’m not using one. He’s coming,” Merlin informed them.

“He’s coming?” Rodor turned to Mithian. “Whatever is he talking about?”

“Merlin isn’t just using his father’s armor. He’s announcing his legacy,” Mithian told him. Kilgarrah?

I am here. Are you ready, Milady? the Great Dragon supposed.

We are. Merlin’s announcing his grand plan, Mithian informed him.

I have to explain why you’re here. Right? Merlin interjected.

Indeed. We will be there shortly. With that, Kilgarrah went silent.

“Actually, Father, there will be two friends coming,” Mithian clarified. “Everyone, remain calm!”

Even before they were seen below, the flapping of wings alerted the assembled knights. Uncertainty shook the majority of the assembly. They slowly turned their eyes skyward.

Kilgarrah swooped down through the clouds. His eyes narrowed at the assembled knights. Experience dampened Trust’s light. Still Merlin had summoned him. Mithian had reassured him. It was time to make a stand. Come along.

I’m coming since the Nice Princess asked, Aithusa informed him curtly. She dove into view alighting on the stones just behind the assembled knights. Fear stiffened her. Is it all right? They’re scared.

It will be all right. Thank you, Aithusa, Merlin assured her. He crossed the stones. “Thank you both for coming, Brother and Sister.”

“Let him pass,” Rodor instructed.

The assembled knights parted ways. They formed a gauntlet of sorts allowing their prospective Prince to walk toward the two dragons. Still they watched warily.

You’re welcome, Merlin. I appreciate the sentiment, Kilgarrah expressed.

You are welcome here, Dragon. You fight with us today, Malodius declared. As I told the Young One before, you’ve earned such consideration.

Thank you, Malodius, Aithusa noted. Warmth and Belonging eased her mood. She bowed to Mithian. And who is this? I sense your reverence, Princess.

He is my father, King Rodor. He appreciates your presence, Aithusa, Mithian assured her. “Father, these are the last two dragons, Kilgarrah and Aithusa.”

“Such a wondrous sight. I am sure that Sir Balinor would approve. I still do not wish a war. We will not threaten King Arthur or Camelot. Am I clear?” Rodor declared.

“Understood, Your Highness,” Merlin agreed.

“As you command, Father,” Mithian added with a royal nod. Malodius, come with me. She beckoned the lion in her direction.

Malodius followed his lady. He noted her intent. It is time for all magical beings to unite and be recognized. He stood beside the two dragons. Then he turned toward his King and bowed his mane toward Rodor.

Rodor nodded. “It is a day for all! It is a truly beautiful day indeed! Knights and other allies! We have a matter before us. We could have a potential crisis. While we ride to Camelot, we are not at war. We seek our friends who have gone missing. We will not spark a conflict. Am I clear?”

The dozen knights nodded. While some had mixed feelings, others looked to their magical companions with Acceptance and even dare they say Friendship. Relief eased the overall mood.

“I will be with you,” Merlin advised his friends—magical and nonmagical alike. He patted Kilgarrah’s side.

I am not a pet, Merlin, Kilgarrah groused.

He is trying to respect you. Accept that, Dragon. He is your master after all, Malodius reprimanded.

I do appreciate this, Kilgarrah. Merlin climbed up on the Great Dragon’s back. Thank you.

Princess Mithian, would you like to ride with me? Aithusa offered.

Mithian weighed the options. On the one hand, she knew Rodor would prefer her to remain on the ground with him and the patrol. On the other, she would be part of Unity’s company. Can you bear my weight? I would not want to hurt you, Aithusa.

She can, Mithian. Still Arthur of Camelot will not take such a view of us. We all remember the past. He will try to attack, Kilgarrah told her.

He can deal with it. Merlin sighed. We just want help finding the missing counselors. No more, no less. He looked to the King. “Sire?”

Rodor mounted his horse. “Daughter? Are you ready?”

Mithian rushed over to her own horse. “Please take her back to the stable after this,” she told the waiting retainer. She took her bow from the saddle. Then she walked back over to Aithusa’s side. Ready?

I am, Princess.

Thank you. Mithian climbed up onto the White Dragon’s back. She smiled to Aithusa and then to Merlin. “We are now.”

“Then forward! March!” Rodor commanded. “Stay with us, you both!”

Kilgarrah nodded and took off into the skies overhead. Come along.

I’m coming! Aithusa flapped her wings and followed. Much to her surprise, she bore Mithian’s weight with little effort.

And so the company progressed toward Destiny’s boundary. There they’d see a Rubicon awaiting them….

Chapter Text

Chapter 21 [Astolat Manor, Isle of Shalott—Two Turns of the Hourglass Later]

Fog hung low over the island even at noon. A bitter chill numbed plants and animals alike on the isle and the surrounding bends in the river. Despite the breeze whistling across the countryside, nothing seemed to move. Not even a ripple moved the calm river’s waters.

Nor did the manor seem any better. A few serfs tended the fields. Some rooted about for berries or other things to subsist on in the woods. Most however huddled around small fires in their poor homes. A reeve kept as careful an eye as he could manage over the whole matter. He shook his head at the squalid numbers knowing that the estate should have produced better. A maid rushed about the house trying to keep everything as tidy as possible.

Still something seemed off.

 

****

 

Berthold stepped onto the damp ground from the wooden boat. Ill At Ease unnerved him. The hairs rose up on the back of his neck. His eyes skittered about this way and that. He drew his sword in a single rapid motion. Tension wound his limbs tightly like a snake ready to strike at prey.

“Anything, Berthold?” Lothwein emerged onto the island next. He squinted. “This bloody fog. Tis na’ anywhere but ‘ere!”

“Stop it. I ain’t in the mood for your ghost stories, Lothwein,” Reginald cut that thought off.

“People have seen her since the burning, Reginald. Look at this blasted manor! Does this look normal to you?” Lothwein spat.

“Don’t know. It’s just weird how this place is like this.” Revis bunched his cloak around himself. “Let’s just get Count Bernard and leave. We do that. We ride back to Whitgate. No muss. No fuss. And Lothwein, you buy the first round for your whining.”

“I’m not whining. Be that way. I’m just careful,” Lothwein affirmed.

“I’d rather be careful and not see anything, Lads,” Berthold agreed (at least in part). “I also agree with Revis. Let’s do the job and bring the Count back. After that, we do what Revis said. And no, we all buy. I don’t fault a man for care or preparedness.”

“How about paranoia and half-baked superstition?” Reginald scoffed. He shook his head. “Follow me. Let’s get this over with.” He sniffed and stalked through the mists. A dozen steps later, he stood at the front door. “Even with this blasted fog, there should be people about. Piss and bother!” He banged on the door with his fist.

“How about letting us get to you? Be alert!” Berthold groused. “Bernard’s retinue could ambush us.”

“So we’re ready. We’re just on King Rodor’s business. He can deal with that.” Reginald knocked on the door again.

The door creaked open. A man clad in rather threadbare clothes stuck his head out. Hunger had left his face and hands drawn and gaunt. Age’s snow streaked through his crimson hair. “Aye? Knights here?” He bowed slowly. “Greetings. I fear that the master is not here.”

“I see. When do you expect him back? We are prepared to wait,” Berthold replied. “We are King Rodor’s knights. We seek his missing counselors and Count Bernard. And you are?”

“Raldgalf, Sirrah. Missing counselors, you say?” Raldgalf replied.

“Aye. Have you seen anyone?” Revis insisted.

“Indeed I have. Two men crossed the river late yesterday. Ran up here they did. The Master heard them. He grabbed his cloak and left in a big rush. Never seen nothin’ like it. He didn’t tell us where he was going. The others went with him back to the river. They crossed it again. We haven’t seen him since,” Raldgalf reported.

“Two men.” Berthold looked to his compatriots. “The King’s missing men. At least we know they’re true fugitives now.” His eyes scanned the vicinity trying to cut through the fog. “Where’s the reeve? He be about?”

“Nay. Trevold bolted two days ago. Queer things about. You might take care.” Raldgalf opened the door wider. “Can I invite you in? Perhaps you’d like some warmth from the fire or a bit of food before your return journey?”

“Nay. Still thank you for your kindness, Raldgalf.” Berthold spied the empty front room and the unkempt conditions within the house.

“Pardon me. What do you mean by ‘queer things’?” Lothwein interjected.

“The old Lady of the House. She still walks the ground. I’ve seen ‘er a few times. Other than ‘er, the fog thinned for a brief time yesterday. I swore I saw this cloaked figure through the mist. When my lord and those two reached the other shore, the robed person waved a hand. The mists closed and I saw no more,” Raldgalf clarified.

“Old Lady? Really?” Reginald rolled his eyes.

“She’s still here, Sir Knight. Take care not to make light of the dead. You….” Raldgalf’s eyes went wide. “THERE! Forgive me, Sirrahs! Come inside or stay out there!”

“What now?” Reginald scoffed. Doubt slowed his reflexes. Skepticism held Instinct back. A rude noise came from his mouth.

A hooded figure stepped out of the fog. A long gray cloak obscured the person’s garb. The baggy hood concealed his or her features. “You should listen to your elders, Boy.”

“Greetings, Good Lady. I am Sir Berthold of Nemeth. My companions and I are King Rodor’s knights! Who are you? We mean you no harm. We seek Count Bertrand and Rodor’s missing council members. Would you know of their whereabouts?” Berthold introduced himself.

She coughed. “A long ways from here. I can assure you of that.” Her eyes glinted yellow. “Tiene Infrinn!” She pointed at the quartet.

Jet black and cobalt flames jumped from her hands. They struck the knights despite efforts to evade or shield themselves. Their touch chilled the quartet threatening to stop their hearts. They shivered as if they lay outside on the coldest of nights. Their legs collapsed leaving them writhing on the ground. Agony and Frostbite stung at them.

After three heartbeats, she ceased the assault. “Scurry back to your master like the craven mice you are! Tell Rodor that his men are long gone.” She went silent for a heartbeat before continuing, “Tell Emrys I am waiting for him.” She started to raise her hands again. Then she stopped. “I almost forgot.” She reached under her robe. From it, a gnarled hand produced a worn rouge handkerchief. “My ally gave this to me. He says that the Beggar Boy will know what it means.” She tossed the cloth at Berthold. “Do be good lads and tell them those things. Will you now? At least you three.” She glared at Reginald. “You’re the message.” Her eyes glinted again. She pointed at him.

Another blast disintegrated him. With a final scream, Reginald vaporized into a bit of ash and nothing more.

“Now unless you wish to join him, do deliver my tidings. Thank you for your courtesy, Sir Berthold. That has saved you and the others on this day.” The cloaked woman vanished back into the fog.

In her wake, a shriek akin to the ancient Banshee unsettled Emotion and Resolve in its wake.

“I told you, Sirrahs! I told you!” Raldgalf insisted. He slammed the door shut.

Lothwein grimaced. He flexed his fingers. Slowly the feeling returned to his arms and legs. “Berthold? Revis?”

“Aye.” Berthold grunted. He pulled himself into a sitting position. “So blasted cold!” He shivered. “Where’d she go?”

“Never mind that. A bloody witch she is!” Revis argued. “And what’s that about Emrys and the Beggar Boy? Who are they?”

Berthold shook his head. He forced himself to his feet. Then he helped his companions to do the same. “There’s more going on than we thought, Lads.” He stooped and gathered what little remained of Reginald’s ashes. He dropped them in a small cloth bag on his belt. Then he considered the cloth again. “Whoever this Beggar Boy is, I don’t want to be in his boots. Come. We return to Whitgate.”

“Berthold, what is this place?” Lothwein wondered.

“Tis the place of the damned. Reginald paid the price. Bloody spat!” Berthold helped Revis up and toward the waiting barge. He occasionally looked over his shoulder to make sure Lothwein was still following them.

It seemed something else was indeed afoot indeed……

Chapter Text

Chapter 22 [Arthur’s Camp—Next Day]

Arthur awoke well before dawn on that morning. He walked about the camp; his eye taking in every nuance and action about himself. Campfires burned. Sparks floated on the breeze into the night air. A few knights sharpened their blades. Others slept on for another hour’s time. It must be nice.

Normally the ride from Camelot toward the border proved beneficial. The everyday business related to ruling burdened his mind and soul. Negotiations tired him. Financial matters made him more eager to hear that prat, George, go on about silver polishing. And the court matters? He wished people could resolve their own matters amicably. Instead Approval’s security dictated their actions.

That ride, however, didn’t serve its purpose. He brooded about the recent scenes with Meleagant and Edgar of Hampton at Camelot. The whole succession mess with the County of Hampton for that matter showed how Uther had left him a mess to deal with. Lament burdened his heart about Gawain’s sudden resignation and departure. He stewed about the arguments with Gwen. Dealing with the new knights proved a difficult adjustment especially when he was used to the former veterans. And then there was Merlin.

What is it with him? Why would he want his freedom? I take care of him. I give him work and a purpose. I let him get away with things Father never would have. It’s not like he’s smart enough to use magic. Arthur snorted at that particular notion which had popped into his head for some reason. Merlin a sorcerer? Ridiculous! The idiot can barely keep from tripping over his own fat feet. I definitely need to find out who this servant wench is. Maybe Rodor can let her come back with us? I’ll find a place for her in the household and put Merlin back in my service. That’ll put a stop to these rides. Mithian must be fit to be tied. It must be that fire haired maid of hers. That’s why Mithian puts up with Merlin being in her service. He shook his head.

“Arthur?” Gwen called.

“I’m over here.” He turned to see his Queen walking toward him. “Just trying to clear my head.” He sighed.

“There’s been a lot to think about,” she agreed. “Arthur, are you all right?”

“Of course. Why do you ask?” He studied her face. In the flickering firelight, he saw Curiosity and Concern clearly there.

“You seem out of sorts. We all have to adjust to changes. We’ve seen a lot of them lately,” she observed.

“And we’ve dealt with them. The new knights will learn. The staff will deal with the household. We do need to find a new physician.” He shook his head. “I know Gaius trained Merlin but….”

“But what? Arthur, have you watched Merlin? He’s a skilled healer in his own right.” She frowned. “Still I think it might be too late for that.”

“What? Gwen, too late? Too late for what?” He narrowed his eyes at her trying to get at her meaning.

She shook her head. “Merlin’s going to leave eventually. He’s grown beyond Camelot. And….”

He scoffed. “Rubbish! Merlin’s completely satisfied there! Right now he’s stewing over his punishment. Still, when he gets back, I’m putting him back in his old position. He’ll like it again. I have to get his mind off of this girl in Nemeth. I’m trying to think of an apology to Princess Mithian. Merlin’s been a royal pain to her and her father. Bothering them and such!”

She bit back the brewing response. She really couldn’t believe how much he took Merlin for granted. Worse still, he was still trying to come between Merlin and Nemeth. “Arthur, maybe you might want to reconsider Merlin’s placement?”

“Reconsider? What? Gwen, Merlin belongs as a servant. Are you all right?” He shook his head. “And what else might we do with him?”

“I don’t know. Make him noble. Make him a knight. He should be on the royal council. He’s wasting his time as a servant. We’re wasting his talents that way,” she told him.

“Merlin? A knight?” Arthur laughed. “The idiot can barely hold a sword up the right way! And do you think I really trust any advice he gives me? I let him think he knows something.”

“Why can’t you admit it?” she pressed.

“Admit what? Gwen, are you feeling all right? Maybe Gaius can look at you….” he started.

“I’m fine, Arthur! It’s Merlin that isn’t fine! He’ll do what you ask because he cares. He does his duty. Still we need to give him that room to grow! Merlin can do so much more than just make beds and do laundry. We have other staff for that. We’ve relied on him for the past ten years! TEN YEARS, ARTHUR!” She shook her head. “Why do you think King Rodor’s called us to Nemeth next week?”

“I don’t know. I suppose it’s about the border.” He looked around. “We could use a presence out here. Some traveler’s going to get waylaid and….”

She huffed curtly. Exasperation turned her face beet-red. “No, Arthur. It’s about Merlin. He wants to leave. You don’t want to face that. That girl, as you put it, and he want a life there.”

“Merlin can’t leave. He’ll get over her.” Denial clouded his thinking.

“No he isn’t going to get over her. King Rodor and her lord have agreed to let her be with Merlin. Please, Arthur! Let him be happy!” she begged.

“Merlin’s happy playing with his flowers and being in the tavern.” He coughed. “If you insist, Gwen, we could make him our court gardener. That way he can play all he wants.”

“Arthur, I…” She rubbed her forehead. “I’m sorry.” She bowed her head. “It’s between Gaius being so ill and Merlin looking elsewhere, I….”

“I know. I’ve already starting looking for a new Court Physician. We haven’t found anyone but that could change,” he told her.

“Haven’t found anyone. Imagine that?” she muttered to herself. He misses the one person right under his nose! “I’ll get myself packed. I know we have to start out soon. How far to the Severn?”

“I’d say four more hours at our pace. Why? Gwen, you’re acting very strange. Is there something wrong?” He looked at her once again.

“Nothing that a few more hours won’t allow for. I’ll see you at the horses,” she concluded. She turned and walked away.

Weird! What’s with her anyway? We have bigger issues than Merlin! He can deal with himself! Arthur stalked off toward the far end of camp.

His thoughts still brooded…..

Chapter Text

Chapter 23
[Nemeth Camp—Ten Miles from the Severn]

On the Gedref’s eastern edge, Merlin sat back against a tree. His eyes scanned Nocturne’s dark backdrop overhead. His mind puzzled over the stars twinkling down at them.

So many…just like the directions in his life….

He shook his head. Duty pulled him both toward Camelot and Nemeth. Agenda and its myriad directions smothered him. Those stars can just shine. They don’t have anything to worry about. It’s not like they have anything to take care of.

Ah but they do, Emrys, the goddess advised.

He jumped to his feet. His mind snapped to attention. What’s going on? Is there something wrong?

Not yet but there could be. Mithian, can you hear me? the goddess told him.

Aye. What is it? Merlin? Mithian responded. Panic froze her. For a heartbeat, she imagined that Arthur had taken Merlin back to Camelot and away from her.

I’m here. She wants to speak with us, he reassured her.

Mithian tip toed past the sleeping knights and Rodor. She eased her way across the camp. Malodius, the goddess….

So she has allowed me to hear, Princess. Do your duty and be safe. I will be here if you need me, Malodius noted.

Mithian nodded. She made her way over the last few steps to Merlin’s side. What is it?

An understanding of sorts, the goddess informed them. She allowed the mists to form and congeal to their left. Step through. You will find yourself in my realm.

The duo looked at each other. For a heartbeat, they considered whether or not to step across. Then they vanished into the fog and toward the message within…..

 

****

 

[Somewhere Else]

As the mists thinned, Merlin and Mithian looked about at their destination. Almost like a temple of old, Doric pillars spouted from marble base to support a ceiling of like substance. Whitewashed walls held no detail save for a few colored strands of cloth running about its circumference. In the place’s center, several steps led to a basin. Water sparkled in that basin’s bowl.

“Where are we?” she wondered.

“This must be her place,” he guessed. He felt familiar vibes around themselves. “Who’s there?”

“One of them, Merlin.” Freya informed them. She led Nimue and Ninane into view. “It’s all right. She’s called all of us.”

“Now what have you done, Merlin?” Nimue glared at him.

“Peace, Sister. Our lady will tell us,” Ninane presumed.

Indeed I will, Ninane. Thank you. The goddess appeared in a flash of white light. I have asked one other to join us. Morgana?

“Morgana?” he wondered.

She will benefit from what I have to say as well, Emrys. Even as she has lost her role as priestess and her magic, she still bears responsibilities in your world. You can learn much from each other. While you have learned to help each other, there is much you both still need to understand, the goddess pointed out.

“There are other people from Camelot who do heed such things, Merlin. Our loyalty, however, has never wavered though,” Morgana jabbed. She narrowed her eyes at him. “Sometimes I have to wonder.”

“I’m loyal. I’ve always known where my priorities are. I’m supposed to protect Arthur. I serve Camelot. What else is there? I’m here trying to help the Greater Good,” he asserted.

And you do that, Emrys, in a fashion. Still there is a saying you mortals have. ‘The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.’ Consider that. Aye. You have all tried to help others in your own ways. You have saved and preserved what you hold dear. But at what cost? There is an order to things. Individual will drives one on. Wind can fill one’s sails propelling a ship forward. Too much and it will devastate everything in its path, the goddess observed. She waved her hand in front of the mists floating before them.

An image of the nighttime sky appeared in front of them.

How the stars shine. They seem without a care. Don’t they? At first glance, they seem at peace just blinking away. To the casual observer they seem as such. Don’t they, Emrys?

He grimaced. His cheeks blushed red.

That’s all right. To a mortal gazing up at the sky, it can seem as much. Let’s look closer. Shall we? She ran her hand over the image. Each star however has its own familia. Her finger touched one star at random magnifying that part of the image.

The small star ballooned up into a red giant star. Three planets orbited around it at differing degrees.

Much as with your world, this star warms those three bodies. Everything is a balance. The second and third worlds support life. The first one does not because it is too close to its star. The others’ lives differ from each other because of their respective distances away from the star. They developed as much. Barring a change from divine will, they should stay as much. Each planet has its own inhabitants. Each inhabitant raises food. Each creature moves through its own affairs. Still they must do so within a certain order. An animal is part of its pack. You are part of your respective families but also greater bodies. There is a hierarchy. Step outside of that and risk chaos, my Children. Accordingly, even he or she who oversees such affairs must care for those lower in the order. Responsibility is but the bride of Grace. If the Head oversteps Power’s boundaries…If the Head falls to Sloth, Vanity, Pride, Anger or Greed, ah…then they will be Anarchy’s slave. Such was Uther Pendragon’s fate. Such unfortunately will be his son’s fate, the goddess continued.

Suddenly the star flared. Its corona turned blood crimson. Solar flares shot out from its surface. Then it expanded consuming all before it. When its fuel was consumed, it retreated back to a smaller pinpoint of light before finally going out altogether.

Such is the way of things. Still you see what happens when a leader takes too much? It jeopardizes the whole. I do not need to remind you of how such things endanger the Greater Good. Uther Pendragon thought himself above my order. He sought to extinguish my presence and usurp my power for his own ends. Fool that he was. He only held power the way that one you met at Samhain, Meleagant, holds power. His servants are Fear and Brutality. Pain swept across the domain. And, like that star, he overstepped his bounds. Did he not, Nimue and Morgana?

“Indeed he did, Milady. Uther did so on several occasions. Some were worse than others,” Nimue concurred. Her face curled into a scowl.

“Given everything that man did, what are you reacting to, Priestess Nimue?” Mithian asked. She stiffened. Dread hung over her almost like a cloying fog.

“Uther took another’s wife for his own. Igraine was infertile by that point. He demanded a male heir. I cast the spell after warning him of the consequences.” Nimue shook her head. “I delivered Arthur myself into the world. Then we watched as Igraine died. The order insisted…a death to balance for a life. Uther went mad. He banished me from Camelot. He turned on us destroying all in his path. He bathed in blood and harkened to his victims’ dying screams.”

“Arthur? Arthur is a being of magic as well?” Mithian stared at the others.

Arthur Pendragon does not care. He only knows Pain’s searing embrace. He thinks that magic took his parents not knowing that the individuals not the greater order were to blame, the goddess noted. What a bitter harvest does the House of Pendragon achieve! No matter how magnificent a star may seem, eventually it flares and then dies. The cycle will start anew. Prepare for the new order is coming. It will be for you all to guide. Put aside your past differences and heal the wounds. Britannia and moreover, those lands surrounding the former Roman sea will depend upon you and the connections you cultivate. The goddess waved her hand making the image vanish from view. Now this day will be crucial. You all stand on the razor’s edge. The Severn cannot run red with blood. Diplomacy not Swords must rule the field.

“We ride for Camelot. Hopefully Arthur will see that we’re no threat,” he indicated.

“All we want is Merlin’s freedom. He’s legally earned it. He’s a nobleman by birth and right. He’s a Dragon Lord and Emrys. What else is there?” Mithian insisted.

Morgana shook her head. “You’re forgetting, Mithian, this is Arthur we’re speaking of. On the battlefield, he is incredibly loyal. He has vision for things unfolding around himself and his knights. In all other matters, his mind turns to mush. Haven’t you noticed how he delegates? He dislikes governance. In fact he’d be a better First Knight than King.”

“And he has Gwen to do such things. You know what a capable administrator she is,” he pointed out.

“True. Still a King must rule and remain strong on all fronts, Merlin. That is something I’m learning. It is something you both will need to learn,” Morgana continued. “Hopefully King Rodor will be in good health and strong for many seasons yet. Knowing you, Merlin, you will need a lengthy apprenticeship.” Satisfaction and perhaps a bit of Smugness spread a smirk across her face.

“All things in due time, Morgana.” Mithian rubbed his arm. “We will get through this crisis. Then Father will help Merlin get to that point. Patience not Haste is the key.”

Well spoken, Mithian of Nemeth. Morgana, what is the state of your preparations? the goddess asked.

“My patrol and knights will reach the Severn within an hourglass’ turn, Lady,” Morgana reported.

“Knights?” He looked to Morgana. “We just said we don’t want to start a war!”

“Relax, Merlin. Just like with Rodor’s knights and the dragons, we are there for support only.” Morgana shrugged. “Remember he has sworn to kill you, Merlin.”

“What?” Mithian gasped. Panic flared through her mind.

“He wants the old wizard, Emrys, dead for killing Uther or so he thinks. Right, Morgana?” he explained.

“A miscalculation.” Morgana shrugged. “Not all of my schemes had unfortunate consequences for you, Merlin.”

“Name one that didn’t,” he challenged.

Morgana motioned toward Mithian. “I told Agravaine to negotiate with King Rodor for Mithian’s hand. Now perhaps you might want to let me have that one, Merlin?” She grinned at him.

“Perhaps. The matter still harmed Gwen and our friends,” Mithian noted. She rubbed up against Merlin’s arm. “I do acknowledge how Fortune wrought some good from all of that.”

And so shall it progress if given a chance. Day comes. Remember we cannot have conflict, the goddess advised. Go now….

With that, a white flash dazzled their senses and swept them back…..

 

****

 

[Nemeth Campsite]

Britomart frowned. She rubbed Mithian’s arm trying to wake her up. “My Lady? Princess?”

Gawain shook his head. “They’re out of it.”

She snorted. “How observant you are! It’s a wonder you didn’t serve as scout and knight for Camelot.” She ground her teeth and bowed her head. “Gawain, I….”

“Yeah you’re worried like I am. I got it.” He nudged Merlin but got no response. “Breathing’s low. Wonder if some witch whammied ‘em?”

“Whammied?” She arched an eyebrow. “Are you actually trying to sound halfway articulate, Sir Knight?”

“I don’t know. Is it working, Mistress Knight?” He shook his head.

She snorted loudly. “Only you would make light now.” Still she appreciated the attempt to set her at ease and keep his head (granted in his own off the wall way). “Still it seems that you may have something. Even you, I suppose, can hit the broadside of an outhouse once in a while.”

“And you still can’t figure out when a guy’s trying to be nice.” He playfully tapped her arm.

“You two, not so loud! All right?” Merlin complained. He grimaced.

“We’re awake at least, Merlin.” Mithian pointed out.

“My lady, you need to rest. You….” Britomart started.

“Thanks but we’re fine.” Mithian helped Merlin to his feet. “We need to see the King immediately. We’re about to have company.”

“Company? What the…?” Gawain turned to see Galahad riding his horse in hard from the southwest. “Now what?”

“Queen Morgana’s coming. She has a patrol with her.” Seeing the other couple stiffen, Merlin held his hands up in reassurance. “It’s all right. She’s working with us.”

“Your head must be cracked, Mate. I could’ve sworn you said Morgana’s working with us,” Gawain doubted.

“He did. Pay attention,” Britomart insisted. “Come on!”

Gawain shook his head. Facing down Arthur and Camelot alongside dragons and Morgana?

The world was turning upside down……

Chapter Text

Chapter 24 [Two Hours Later—River Severn]

Day brightened the woods. The breeze had lessened to a hair ruffling puff. Sol played hide and seek with the various cloud formations. Birds sang or did so before flying off in a hurry.

At the border, the Severn flowed gently following its course from source to the bigger water beyond. Its currents frothing with swelled water flows from recent melt offs. It had no idea of the groups about to take stands on both sides.

No idea at all…..

 

****

 

[Camelot Side]

Gaius hobbled slowly over to the river’s edge. Against Master Wyngate’s better judgment, the elderly physician had stretched his legs. Numbness stole feeling from his fingers, his forehead and the tips of his toes. Fire burned in his chest. He gasped for air. Despite the most cheerful outlooks, both he and his counterpart knew what was coming….

Death herself stalked him….

He rubbed his chest. He’d hoped the tincture of fish oil, garlic and flax seed would improve his blood flow. For several months, his productivity returned to normal. Thankfully he could cure several plague victims and keep other issues from Arthur’s doorstep. He still worried about how Camelot seemed to be losing its best and brightest minds and swords all at once. In particular one mind bothered him. Merlin. What are you doing? He dipped his hands in the cold rushing waters. With a single motion, he splashed his face; the chilled liquid fully snapping his senses to alert.

Across the rushing waters, he saw Gedref seeming so green and peaceful. Its budding trees awaited a few days’ warmth. The people, he understood, would welcome a sorcerer or at least tolerate that person. Whitgate, while smaller, did offer some of the same services. While not on Camelot’s scale (or even close), Tolerance and Amor sang at that point.

Recalling the difficulty a generation earlier, he sighed deeply. Pushing Alice away (even for her own safety) proved almost impossible for him. He’d barely kept from following her knowing that Uther would’ve pursued them both. Yet he’d followed Duty all of the way…

Duty, it’s a heavy proposition. Why do I feel empty? He shivered. “What in…?”

“Perhaps because you delude yourself, Gaius?” Nimue strutted into view. Malice and Venom spark in her eyes. Sarcasm curled her mouth into a cold smile. “What you did was treason not duty! And your payment is just about due.”

“You have blood on your hands…as well.” He rasped and coughed. The breath caught in his throat. “I had Camelot…to consider.”

“You mean you were afraid of Uther! You stood by and watched our people die! You watched our order wither and be ground under the boot! Well I can assure you. Merlin will know better.” Her smile widened. Satisfaction lit up her entire face.

The Eyebrow efforted its way up toward his hairline. “Mer…Merlin, what have you…done?”

“I haven’t done anything, Gaius. I haven’t had to do anything. It seems the boy’s own sense of justice has finally discovered its true calling. The goddess has opened his eyes. Kilgarrah and I can speak to past experiences. Merlin is coming into his own. He will rule beside Mithian one day. The Old Religion will return despite the Pendragons’ hatred.” She flexed her hands. “Oh how’d I love to make an example of you right now!”

Nimue, the time is not yet. I wish for Gaius to see what is to come, the goddess instructed.

I understand, Nimue relented.

“I hear but….?” Gaius looked about the clearing.

I am in your mind, Gaius. You should remember me. I am your scorned mistress. I am the one you allowed to be dishonored in so many ways. I do have a mind of old accounts. You saved your own skin. YOU STOOD BY! AND YOU CALL THAT DUTY? HOW DARE YOU? the goddess clarified. Anger raised her tone to a thunderous crescendo in his brain. She appeared in a flash of light beside Nimue.

“What good would that have done? I would have died too,” he whispered.

Nay. Even if you poisoned Emrys’ mind against me, you kept him safe. You taught him to survive. I have had to correct his mindset though. He learns how Arthur truly thinks of him. He discovers his true allegiance. You’d have him crawl in the shadows. He has a DESTINY! The goddess glared at him.

“His destiny…protect Arthur,” he protested. He grabbed harder at his chest.

And he still can protect the Young Pendragon. Still can’t he better do so as a fellow ruler? As a sorcerer? As the first of a reborn order of Dragon Lords? I’d say he can do much better than as a servant. It is time for him to be free of Ignorance’s chains. Responsibility beckons now. Unlike you, Gaius, Emrys heeds the call. As of today, it is over. The goddess sniffed. I won’t even bother to make you kneel. Even if you did, you would only do so for Appearance’s sake. Nay. Soon your façade will come apart. Soon your self-serving agenda will fail. You will meet your reward. She turned to Nimue. Leave him. It is almost time. I do not wish for Arthur’s knights to see or have a chance to capture you, Nimue.

“As you wish, Milady.” Nimue curtseyed to her. She glared once more at him. Then she disappeared in a dark flash of light.

He braced himself against a tree. His eyes went wide at the congregating parties across the river. “We…we’re here for…peace. Why is Rodor marching with knights?”

Given the Pendragon insolence, should you ask, Gaius? You’ve seen Arthur deny Emrys over and over again. This time it will not happen! Go on. Let Arthur Pendragon know. It seems others know his lack of honor in certain regards as well. The goddess noted the rustling in the brush. It seems we have company.

“There you are, Gaius! Where…?” Master Wyngate stopped short. He stared at her. “Who are you?”

I am the triple goddess, you pathetic mortal! I am aware of your treason as well. I will allow your King to deal with you. He and your fellow castellans wait on the other shore. Tell Arthur Pendragon to keep his word and follow his own laws. If he does so, all will be well. If not…if he tries to take the boy back, I cannot stop what will come next. It is time for the farce to end. Her eyes glowed at the newcomer. KNEEL BEFORE ME!!!

Wyngate felt his knees buckle. He fell face first into the mud.

And so you both are in your proper state. I remember and will repay both of you. Pray for peace. With that, she disappeared into the morning’s brightening light.

“The goddess? As in the Old Religion?” Wyngate gasped. He spat mud and wiped his face. He ignored the burning in his legs to stand. “I told you not to get up.” He shook his head.

“Had to. We have to let Arthur know.” Gaius considered the building presence on the river’s far side. “They’re treating this like war.”

Wyngate shook his head. “Come.” He helped Gaius back toward the camp.

 

****

 

Gwen bit her lip. She paced about the area. Excitement bubbled up in her. She couldn’t wait to see Arthur free Merlin from his service. Then she could watch Rodor ennoble Merlin. She imagined that Rodor would order his staff to prepare an immediate feast to celebrate. She so wanted to see Mithian’s expression.

Instinct however whispered a different notion in her ear. Dread for some reason chilled her heart.

She glanced toward the saddlebag. She knew the vital rolled parchment sat there. She glanced toward the west. Another day’s ride past the rushing river, their surprise should pick a city’s mood up. She saw her King come from meeting with his knights. “Arthur! How much longer?”

He smiled. “Gwen, you are so impatient. Why the excitement? It’s almost like you’re trying to get rid of Merlin. So?”

She looked strangely at him. “Arthur, you know that’s not it. I’m looking forward to seeing him ennobled and free. I can’t wait to see what he wants to do in Nemeth.”

“In Nemeth? Gwen, Merlin’s still coming back to Camelot. Even if he is a noble, I am tying him to my service,” Arthur told her. “I’ll more than reimburse that servant girl’s master for her. They can both come back to Camelot.”

“Arthur, you can’t do that! Please!” She rubbed her forehead. “How is it you can do that for the other knights? Merlin has served you better than them and longer. But you can’t treat him equally?”

“Guinevere, are you all right? Merlin can play with his flowers, be a girl and carouse the taverns all day if he wants. Would that make you happy?” he wondered.

“NO! That’s not what Merlin wants! That’s what you want, Arthur!” she insisted.

Just then, Wyngate helped Gaius through the brush and into the camp. They huffed and puffed from the effort despite the relatively short distance.

“Master Wyngate? Gaius? What happened?” she inquired.

“King Rodor…brought an armed patrol with him. They…wait across the Severn in Gedref,” Gaius gasped. He fell to his knees. He rasped and sucked in deep breaths.

“Rodor brought knights with him?” Incredulity blew all thought from Arthur’s mind. Confusion muddled his thinking.

“Perhaps he and Mithian have figured out your intentions, Arthur.” She shot another look at the saddlebag. “You almost caused a war over me. Are you willing to do so over Merlin? Think about that.” She turned toward Gaius. “What happened to you?”

“Nimue…she’s back.” Gaius gasped. “The triple goddess herself warned me.”

“Triple goddess?” Arthur scoffed. “The Old Religion’s dead, Gaius. She has no authority in Camelot.” He sniffed. “For Merlin’s sake, he’d best not be allying himself with sorcerers and their kind!” He shook his head and stalked back toward the camp. While he had no interest in a battle, he’d tell the others to prepare just in case.

“I hope you’re proud of yourself, Master Wyngate. Your treason could start a war,” she admonished. Then she helped Gaius back toward a good place to lie down.

Wyngate exhaled sharply. Princess, Your Highness, please see sense!

Obviously Mithian didn’t agree……

Chapter Text

Chapter 25
[Downstream—Just Inside of Tintagel’s Shared Border with Camelot and Nemeth]

Morgana slowed her horse’s pace. She could hear the river’s rushing current just beyond the next stand of trees. She tapped her gloved fingers on her saddle. She stewed. Arthur, you just have to start trouble. Don’t you? Why can’t you just follow the law? Uther would tell you to just let Rodor have Merlin and be done with it. She coughed.

“Anything, my Lady?” A blonde knight in Gallic blue rode up beside her. In the midst of the clashing Tintagel sur coats, his stood out rather abruptly.

She shook her head. “I don’t hear anything. I hope King Arthur just follows his own laws, Sir Accolon.”

Accolon nodded. King Bors had sent him to Tintagel as an observer. He’d spoken to Prince Bors during the overland part of the trip about his hostess. While Suspicion continued to keep his guard raised, he did see Morgana’s earnestness. He could tell that she genuinely cared about her new subjects. Her agenda and energy in pursuing the kingdom’s improvement impressed him. Her diplomatic initiatives were exemplary. He saw someone trying to make up for her dark past. Granted she still wanted to return the Old Religion. Still he observed a kinder method of pursuing her agenda. Consequently he’d pitched in where he could. When she needed a First Knight to train the knights in new fighting techniques, he received Prince Bors’ blessing and then that of their King in Gaul. “I hope so as well. Prince Bors and I have no wish of being drawn into a war.”

“That’s why we’re here.” She sighed. “The only person holding back the law is King Arthur. Everyone else understands the diplomatic delicacy in this matter.”

“We are a potential threat,” he pointed out.

She rolled her eyes. Memoria reminded her of how Morgause might’ve treated Cedric if he’d challenged her in that way. She knew how she’d have put him in his place not long before. “I know. My brother will see me that way. If the knights are at my back, he’ll definitely charge our position. We are here to insure that he goes through with Merlin’s manumission. Per the goddess’ orders, we are in a supportive position only.” She peered over her shoulder once more. “I will not have unnecessary bloodshed.”

Even if he didn’t quite see it that way, he bowed to her assessment. Despite her words, he knew an ill-conceived charge could ruin her initial efforts. “May she make it so, Good Queen.”

“Indeed. Let all go well. Then we may join in a celebratory feast in Whitgate. Until then, we watch and wait. If Arthur plays the prat, any blood or damage is on his head not on Whitgate’s, Gaul’s or ours. I am looking out for King Bors as well, Sir Accolon.”

“On behalf of my liege, I appreciate that, Queen Morgana. Thank you.” He nodded once again.

May you be looking out for us all instead of your own selfish needs, Arthur. Just let Merlin go! She frowned and waited.

 

****

 

[Former Nemeth Campsite from Previous Evening]

Merlin sulked. Impatience ground at him. He frowned and gazed at the sky. He noted Sol’s higher position than it had been two hours earlier. “This is really unnecessary.”

“Tell Mith’ that,” Gawain reminded him. “She’s not taking any chances.”

“She’ll start a war this time,” Merlin complained.

“Maybe. She did order a siege of Camelot to save your neck the last time. She doesn’t trust Arthur. Can’t say I blame her.” Gawain shrugged. He sat on a rock. He swiped his sword across a sharpening stone.

“He’s not that bad….” Merlin started.

Josiane coughed from where she sat at Kilgarrah’s side. “You’re too forgiving, Merlin. When he learns of your true nature, Pendragon will have you killed.”

I agree with them, Merlin. Arthur cannot be trusted to be rational where you are concerned. He is too dependent upon you to release you. Perhaps he would raise you to freed status or ennoble you. Still he will seek to bind you to himself. Nobody else wants a conflict. Everyone knows you have earned this legally. Still to act against their interests even when their own laws say otherwise is not the Pendragon way. And there is the fact that Uther did what he did to my kind and yours, Dragon Lord, Kilgarrah chimed in.

“If the Princess wanted to be straight with you, Merlin, he’d have knighted you along with everyone else before we dealt with the Cup of Life. Lance and Percy agreed with me. We all know that you went with Lance. You’re always in the middle of every scrap. You sacrificed yourself for him again against the Cailleach! And still he treats you like that?” Gawain looked in the river’s direction and made a rude noise.

“I know of his quality. Princess Mithian speaks of Merlin’s accomplishments. Are there enough in Camelot’s service to justify his elevation?” Josiane interjected.

“Pete had better get ready. I want one of those epic poems about our soon-to-be Prince here. He’s done enough to have that,” Gawain insisted.

“Gawain, stop! I just do my part,” Merlin insisted. He flushed bright red.

“I’d say you do more than that, Merlin.” She rubbed his shoulder. “Have faith, my Friend. Your goddess and my god will see to that.”

We can hope. Merlin looked to the sky and then toward the border. Be safe. Everyone use your heads please!

 

****

 

[Nemeth’s Encampment—A Dozen Paces from the Riverbank]

Mithian bowed her head. Lament burdened her heart. Disillusionment seared at Hope. She shook her head. Once more she mulled over how Merlin and she had followed Procedure’s path to the letter. She knew that the upcoming convocation of rulers was to be the time where her father would press Arthur to do what was right.

Arthur….

Why can’t he let go? WHY? She clenched her fists. Frustration shook her akin to hot gas and magma building up inside of a volcano. He wouldn’t accept me as his wife and Queen. Now he wants to keep me from my Prince? She swiped away the stinging tears. How I hate all of this misdirection and the lies! After what Gwen and he went through, Arthur should understand how Merlin and I feel about each other. He needs to see how much like Uther he’s being.

“My Lady?”

Mithian rolled her eyes. Even after her promotion, she won’t stop serving. Arthur’s right. She and Merlin are a pair in that regard at least. She turned to find Britomart watching her in turn. “Not training with Sirs Ywain and Galahad?”

“I wanted to check on you. Sarah said you’d gone off to think,” Britomart explained. “I guess old habits die hard. I….”

“I appreciate your concern. I wish everyone was as loyal.” She inspected her friend. “The armor suits you.”

“As your bow and quiver do you, Princess.” The former maid shook her head. “We should hope for resolution. Perhaps there can still be peace?”

“That’s up to King Arthur. He can do the right thing. We can celebrate. You can start fitting Sir Gawain for his wedding garb,” Mithian declared.

“And you can watch our Prince be crowned at your father’s hand. Milady, you are so kind to mention my dreams when yours hang precariously in the balance,” Britomart noted. She smiled wistfully.

“What are dreams? We should share them. Perhaps we are Princess and servant. Still we both have dreams. We are both human. We’ve respect rank and tradition. Yet we’ve always been friends. Your dreams are just as valid as mine, Britomart. Remember that. Sir Gawain needs closure. Princess Josiane needs support and redress for her grief. And Merlin? Merlin needs someone to shove back against Arthur’s blinders.” Mithian huffed. Anger swelled inside of herself.

“Calm yourself, Milady. You must keep your resolve. The King…” Britomart turned to see Rodor watching them in turn. She bowed to him. “Pardon me. He wishes to speak with you.” She bowed to her as well. Then she hustled away.

“Father?” Mithian called. Once again she went back to watching the now empty opposite shore. “How go the preparations?”

He coughed. “Which preparations do you mean, Daughter? How is your state of mind this morning?”

She turned to face him. Her eyes welled up with tears. “I try and prepare for more sacrifice. I know our people don’t need a war. Still I just can’t understand. Why can’t Arthur do what’s right? WHY? He’s so noble as a warrior and commander. Why can’t that trait flow into the other parts of his reign? Why is he denying us?” She caught her breath. “Sorry. I meant Merlin and me.”

“Actually your apology is unnecessary. Arthur is being difficult. He would start a war. You’re trying to be measured in your response. He just assumes we’ll go along with whatever he desires. He should try being a King as you’re trying to be a Princess. We are all stewards to our people first, Mithian. Still we do have a right to be human as well,” he assured her.

“We have priorities though. Merlin obsesses on them.” She rolled her eyes. “I’ll bet he’s worrying about them now.”

“I’m sure he is. He still cares about Arthur in spite of recent events. He loves you though. He tries to balance our kingdoms,” he agreed.

I feel your worrying, my Prince. You can’t stop, she called out through the Link.

Can you? I don’t want anyone getting hurt. I also want people to be happy, Merlin insisted.

Blame Arthur. She somehow kept the scene between Gaius and the goddess to herself. Then she turned back to her father. “It seems the bigger forces are getting involved. Keep this between us?”

“Of course.” That insight grabbed his attention. “What do you mean by ‘bigger forces’?”

She frowned. “Gaius was confronted by the triple goddess and Priestess Nimue over on the opposite bank.” She pointed across the river toward Camelot’s side. “That’s also why Morgana and her forces are with us, I believe.”

“So you think the priestesses are directing us? They would bring us to war to return the Old Religion?” he worried.

“What? No! That would be only a last resort. They want what we want. What everyone save Master Gaius and Arthur want. That is what we’ve been talking about. You and I want those things,” she disagreed. “We all want co-existence!”

“Aye. I desire justice for everyone as well.” His eyes followed hers across the river. “Come. We have some time yet. I hope Merlin’s ready.”

“He will be.” She glanced once more across the waters. Then she followed his lead back toward the camp.

And Tension built in that spot…..

Chapter Text

Chapter 26 [A Half Turn of the Hourglass Later]

Arthur straightened his chain mail. He had to admit that it felt strange to have someone besides Merlin help him with it. Truth be told, he set his jaw. Duty had given him a heavy burden. He looked over toward Gaius. He could see how much effort it was for the old man to hang onto the saddle. He nodded toward Master Wyngate who supported his colleague. Then he pressed on toward his own horse. I do wish you were here, Father. As much as I don’t agree with you on some things, there are others that we can agree on. You rebuilt Camelot as a source of strength. That can’t be allowed to vanish. He mounted his steed. Then he turned to the knights and company. “Everyone! We’re about to cross into Nemeth. I have heard that they are armed and prepared for an incursion. I do not know why this is. We are on a peaceful endeavor to grant Merlin his freedom. All we expect is for him to serve Camelot as he always has. My father would say that sorcerers are behind this plotting. The Old Religion would divide us. From what I’ve heard this morning, I’d agree. We will proceed carefully across the river. If we encounter Nemeth’s knights, we will not provoke violence. Still we will defend ourselves if necessary. Remember we are not at war with Nemeth yet.”

Just with Mithian and Rodor. Arthur, stop! Gwen hung her head. She frowned and sighed. She glanced at the sky. I tried.

Consternation and Confusion unsettled the knights. They glanced at each other. Uncertainty weighed on them. Weren’t Rodor and Mithian just standing with them? Didn’t they help deal with Meleagant? So why would they object to their allies’ presence? And why would they care if Merlin came back with them?

“Sire, might I speak?” Prince Bors requested.

“Of course. Speak your mind, Bors,” Arthur agreed.

Bors looked to Gwen. Then he cleared his throat. “King Arthur, you know that we agree on a great many things. I agree that Merlin has earned his freedom. Still your conditions will provoke the very war you seek to avoid.”

Arthur raised his brow. “My conditions…Bors, as a Prince, you do understand that our subjects do owe us fealty?”

“Aye, Sire. I do. I also understand that you have set a precedent. You speak of all men as equals. That is to your credit. That reputation is why I am in your service. However, as a Prince, I also understand the dangers that double standards possess. You have also set that precedent as well.” Bors sighed.

“Excuse me? And what precedent is that, Bors?” Arthur tensed.

“He means what happened with Mithian and me,” Gwen interjected.

“That again?” Arthur sniffed. Indignation rolled his eyes. “Princess Mithian will get over it! She’s been so calm. I’ve promised to help her with this suitor of hers. We recompensed King Rodor with this very domain! He can get over this stupid joke of making Merlin a Prince.”

Bors cleared his throat. “Sire…” He shook his head not grasping why Arthur hadn’t put the facts together.

“Bors, I appreciate your candor. Still Merlin owes me obedience. He likes what he does. Frankly he’ll deal with it.” Arthur pointed toward the river. “Cross with care.” He urged his horse forward.

If only you can deal with it, Arthur, Gwen complained to herself.

One by one, Arthur’s horse’s hooves stepped into the water. They strode forward with a couple of strides. Then they climbed up on the opposite side.

The rest of his knights followed him. They didn’t see any potential danger. (Of course they were indeed being watched from the west and south.) They crept across the rushing Severn hoping to displace as little water as possible. Unlike their King, Security didn’t coddle them with false promises. Their hair felt like standing on end.

Bors hung close to Gwen. He understood that she had little to do with the pretext. Still he hoped to avoid a conflict. Even as he prepared to cross into Nemeth, his eyes kept skirting to the south and over the border with Tintagel. He watched one of the parties stray for a couple of heartbeats into that area before correcting their route. Even if Morgana wouldn’t anticipate such a crossing, he knew Accolon wouldn’t be so sloppy not to at least have an eye on such movements. He wanted no part of crossing swords with his friend or commanding a crisis of conflicting feudal ties.

And then there were his father’s own orders to him…to do what it took to insure the peace (short of killing anyone that is). That particular parchment sat heavily in his saddlebag. An accompanying sealed parchment rested beside it in case Arthur needed any other persuasion.

If anything, I’d say Arthur was the one enchanted by a dark witch. If his sister hadn’t lost her magic, I’d put Morgana behind this. Bors set his jaw. He guided Gwen’s horse across the water along with his own. “Stay close, Queen Guinevere.” He glanced about once more as they stepped onto the opposite shore. He noted that the last knights were right behind them.

Her frown deepened. A few more creases and lines could be seen on her face. Instinct relayed the same message to her as well. “Why are you looking south? Nemeth’s forces would be to the west.”

“Morgana knows we’re coming. She has to.” Bors saw a flash of reflected light off of something through the trees. “Bloody blazes!” He grimaced. He stopped them. “I should take you back across, my Lady. This is not safe. We’re….”

At that moment, several knights wearing Tintagel colors rode up behind them. They quickly cut off any chance of the Camelot contingent’s escape. Per their orders, however, they did not draw a sword or do anything save surround Arthur and his subjects.

“We’re in Nemeth! You have no authority here. I should have known Morgana….” Arthur started.

“You should have known what, Dear Brother?” Morgana rode into view. “That I wouldn’t be here to greet you when you passed across my border as well as into Rodor’s realm?” She sighed. “You strayed a few meters too far south, Arthur. How careless of you!”

The jig, it seemed, was indeed up so to speak…….

Chapter Text

Chapter 27

“We’re in Nemeth, Morgana. You have no authority here!” Arthur reminded her.

“Now we’re in Nemeth. However….” Morgana cantered her horse to where the group had crossed the river. “A couple of your men did stray into my domain armed and on some purpose.” She pointed down at where her horse stood. “I’m in my territory right now. I can play these games all day, Arthur. Still it is an interesting turn of events.” She took her water skin out. “Fortunately for you, I know what your purpose is.”

“You do. Then why are you acting like this? We’re on our way to Whitgate. I have good news for Merlin,” Arthur explained. “This is between him and me.”

“Freedom with large strings attached? Oh, Arthur! You do confound things. You see. I did something you never do. Care to guess what that is? Hmm?” Sarcasm lit in Morgana’s eyes.

“Queen Morgana, with due respect….” Accolon started. He exchanged a look with her and then with his own Prince.

“No, Sir Accolon, I wish to make a point. We’re here with permission. They are not. Fortunately for all concerned, neither Nemeth nor we want a war. Allow me though a brief time, however, to enjoy this. We’re just going to ride together to King Rodor’s camp. Nobody will draw a sword or brandish a weapon,” Morgana clarified.

“So we’re your prisoners then? This is war, Morgana,” Arthur presumed.

“Prisoners? Who said anything about taking you prisoner? Arthur, you wound me!” Morgana gasped. “Believe it or not, we’re here as your friends.”

“Friends? You have a strange way of showing it,” Arthur complained.

“You still have your weapons. You’re still on horseback. Nobody’s bound or had to surrender officially. That doesn’t sound like we’re capturing you. More likely, we’re keeping you from being an idiot and causing an incident,” Morgana corrected him. “Now do come along. We don’t want to keep King Rodor waiting. Do we?”

“No weapons? You’re serious?” Arthur put forward seeking Confirmation’s assurance.

“As long as your people don’t use weapons, neither will we. Just come along with us,” Morgana repeated herself allowing a smidgen of Annoyance’s barb into her tone.

“We can meet in Whitgate. Why here?” Arthur prompted.

“Rodor was on his way to Camelot. He could ask you the same thing,” Morgana retorted. She looked toward Gaius. “Gaius is getting weak. Perhaps Master Wyngate and Lady Britomart can help him when we reach the encampment? We shouldn’t delay. Now should we?” Her eyes narrowed. “Move out!”

With that both parties began the short ride down the path. Within two dozen heartbeats’ expanse, they stopped in the midst of the emerald reception committee.

Rodor stepped forward. He reminded Mithian with a glance to hold her position. Then he instructed, “As we agreed, no aggression! We are not at war.”

“That’s the second time we’ve heard that. What is the meaning of this?” Arthur demanded. “We’re on our way to Whitgate to see you both.”

“And we were on our way to Camelot to see you. When we heard of your progress, we decided to wait here for your arrival. Perhaps you’d care to dismount? We can discuss what we need to…” Rodor offered.

Arthur dismounted. His eyes glared into Rodor’s. “We are here on a mission of peace, King Rodor! I seek answers. Your counselor, Master Wyngate, told us of certain developments. I need to know if they’re true.”

Mithian stiffened but Rodor shook his head.

“Before I answer that question, I have one of my own for you. You remember that you’ve made certain promises to Princess Mithian? Daughter, can you remind King Arthur of those promises?” Rodor replied firmly. His eyes held Arthur’s firmly returning the aforementioned look with a steely glance of his own.

“You said that if I brought Guinevere back to Camelot, you’d owe me a favor. In addition you promised to do whatever it took to reunite my suitor and me. Did you not?” Mithian reminded him. She raised an eyebrow at him much as an impatient school teacher might to a child.

“I remember. I did say as much before my nobles. Still…” Arthur started.

“Still what? Did you or did you not promise me those things? Yes or No?” Mithian pressed not giving Arthur any room to wriggle out of it.

“I will not bargain with my subjects’ fortunes. Now I want to know….” Arthur started.

“That was not part of your vow, King Arthur. Father, he says he remembers,” she pointed out.

“So he has. Now, King Arthur, what has our wayward physician told you?” Rodor asked.

Arthur coughed. “He said that you’re considering Merlin as your Crown Prince.” He laughed. “Now I know you wouldn’t do that….”

“That actually is why we were coming to Camelot. We were preparing to inform you of our intent,” Rodor noted.

“Merlin is my servant. Then again why anyone would think to use such a stupid….” Arthur started.

“Merlin isn’t stupid! Stop that!” Mithian interceded.

“According to the Culpability Laws, Merlin has earned his ennoblement. Furthermore you and Queen Guinevere have promised to allow Princess Mithian to be with him,” Rodor added.

“Gwen? What?” Arthur shook his head. He turned toward his Queen. “Gwen?”

“Arthur, I promised to help Princess Mithian and Merlin to be together if that’s what Merlin wanted. It is. I’ve tried to tell you that several times,” Gwen replied.

“As have we all, Sire,” Prince Bors interjected.

Gwen reached into Arthur’s saddlebag. She grabbed the parchment in question and put it firmly in her husband’s hand. “Do the right thing.” Her expression shouted “I mean it” in bold tones.

Arthur squirmed. “Bors, watch yourself. You’re still my man.”

“Perhaps. I am still Prince of Gaul as well. I am under my father’s orders as is Sir Accolon.” Bors took out his own sealed documents. “King Bors sends you both his regards.” He handed one apiece to each of the Kings. Then he stepped back.

“What is this, Prince Bors?” Rodor inquired.

“My father’s statement on the matter. Read it, King Rodor, please.” Bors exchanged looks with Accolon.

Arthur broke the seal. “What did he….?” He coughed. “He can’t tell me this!”

Rodor read his parchment copy. “If it’s what he said here, he has:

To Rodor of Nemeth, Fellow Monarch and Brother in Arms,

Greetings to you on this august day. It pains me to hear of the continuing dispute concerning Arthur’s servant, Merlin. Prince Bors, Lord Leon and Priestess Freya have informed me of Arthur of Camelot’s willful disregard for Merlin’s social standing. When he knighted others, he held Merlin back. Merlin has given his life on several occasions for Camelot. While he would never ask for a reward, his freedom is a small price to pay for such nobility.

I am pleased beyond words that Princess Mithian has finally found such a match. My heartiest congratulations to you as well. My support as well as that of my son and knight, Sir Accolon, is with you. May Arthur of Camelot show you like regard.

I look forward to attending the wedding. May the goddess bless you.

Best Always,

Bors, Ruler of Gaul
Written this Day, 29th March 586 AD

 

Arthur bowed his head. “He’s threatening war.” He almost pushed the document at Gwen.

Gwen read it over. Her eyes went wide. “Arthur! We don’t have a choice!

To Arthur of Camelot, Fellow Ruler and Brother in Arms,

Greetings to you. It pains me to hear of your breaches in trust with your servant, Merlin. Arthur, you know how important the standard of the law is for a King to follow. If we do not, how can we expect our subjects to respect our laws and decisions? Loyalty is to be duly rewarded. Again if we do not, we open ourselves to anarchy, rebellion or far worse.

It pains me to have to make demands of you. We have known each other for decades. We trained together. We fought in the melee, at your father’s tournaments and had each other’s backs in battle. Your hospitality for Prince Bors is invaluable. Appreciation has me express as much.

Still Duty to the Greater Good demands more. I also have other commitments. As with Rodor of Nemeth, Sir Balinor the Dragon Lord did save my father’s life at the Battle of Tours. Elena of the Amazons, Percival of Mercia and I have forged alliances. They explained Merlin’s situation and stipulated my support for his ennoblement and complete manumission from your service. Rodor of Nemeth and I have our own alliance. I will support him in this endeavor. I am giving my blessing to the marriage between Merlin and Princess Mithian. You should do the same especially after what you have put her through.

It shocks and surprises me, Arthur, that you above all would act this way. Please do the right thing. If not, you will force the other kingdoms to declare war. It would be a most unfortunate thing because I would be there with them.

Please, Brother, do the right thing. Don’t force us down that dark road.

Best Always,

Bors, Ruler of Gaul
Written this Day, 29th March 586 AD

 

Arthur glared at Mithian. “You tricked me!”

Mithian stiffened. Anger flushed her face crimson.

Rodor stepped between them. “Calm yourselves! Let us conduct ourselves as nobility!”

“I apologize, Father. I cannot believe he would accuse me in such a manner,” Mithian apologized. “If anything, I know what it means to be tricked.”

“And yet you took this land,” Arthur pointed out (yet again).

“Because of Merlin! All right! I knew if there was a battle, he’d be with you. I couldn’t bear him getting hurt! ALL RIGHT?” Mithian snapped. “You would deny me again? You keep Merlin like a caged bird to do your bidding. For what?”

Arthur threw his hands up in the air. “I’ve never denied you, Mithian. Stop it! You were more than….”

“Then perhaps we should tell Guinevere to hand you back her crown and then stay here?” Rodor supposed. He put a hand up requesting Gwen to give him time to explain. Then he pressed on, “We would not. We could have. She had joined a village under our jurisdiction. She accepted Blancheflor’s hospitality. Technically she was our subject. We could have traded Guinevere for Merlin, servant for servant, if we’d so wished. If we’d known you’d be like this and that you would’ve treated Merlin in the way you have recently, we would have.”

“And how did I mistreat him? I had him doing what I needed him to do!” Arthur insisted.

“Demoting him to stable hand from head of your chambers? Oh yes. I’m sure that was required. Ridiculing him in front of us? Allowing him to be seriously injured without getting physically involved? Do remind me of how that falls under taking care of one’s subjects? Actually I believe it is a gross failure to do so. He spent three weeks recovering here even with additional sorcery to care for him,” Rodor pressed on.

“You allowed sorcery?” Arthur stiffened. His back arched like an angry cat. His eyes flared.

“Aye. It was either that or to watch Merlin die, Arthur. Unlike you, I don’t have some blind prejudice to something completely natural. You would deny your subjects because of your father’s hate? Truly?” Rodor declared.

“He believes that magic is responsible for his parents’ deaths, Father. It wasn’t the sorcerers. Rather it was the people who put the circumstances into play. Now wasn’t it?” Mithian added.

“The sorcerers delude us into thinking they’re right! They want to entice us into their trust! That old sorcerer killed my father with his inadequate bumbling. My mother died because of Nimue’s scheming against my father!” Arthur retorted. Ferocity blazed in his eyes.

“Arthur, that sorcerer did do the best he could have. Agravaine placed a charm on Uther’s neck that reversed and increased any healing spell a hundred fold. Such was my anger against him! So stop blaming Emrys for that!” Morgana clarified.

“You? Morgana, why?” Arthur took two steps toward her. He drew his sword.

Accolon stepped between them. “King Arthur, lower your sword. Please.”

“Sir Accolon, get out of the way or I will deal with you!” Arthur hissed.

“I wish you no malice. Still, as her First Knight, I will protect Queen Morgana. My King opposes you in this matter, King Arthur,” Accolon clarified. “Perhaps you might explain further, my Lady?”

“Let her do so. I would hear it,” Prince Bors interjected.

Morgana shook her head. “Aye, Arthur. Uther smothered me like some crystal vase or some such trinket. In truth, he denied who I am! He murdered my people, Arthur, and so do you! Merlin has to deny who he is! Would you make him like me? Father made me what I am! Deny Merlin this and you will break him. You didn’t see him in Camelot following Meleagant’s attack. He went dark. I helped to stop him. You allowed that! Who’s the bigger monster, Arthur? Me or you?”

“Arthur, stop this!” Gwen pleaded. “Just free him. You’ve agreed to do so. Do it but without conditions.”

“Gwen, please. I won’t be dictated to!” Arthur insisted. “Or would they let Morgana get away with Father’s death?”

“Morgana lost her magic because of such things. She’s paying for it,” Mithian disagreed.

“Not enough in my estimation. I…” Arthur insisted.

Then a dark shadow passed over them for a heartbeat. It circled over the scene.

“DRAGONS!” one of Arthur’s knights bellowed.

Several of the knights raised bows and prepared to loose shafts.

“YOU WILL STAND DOWN NOW! THE DRAGONS AND THEIR LORD ARE HERE AT OUR INVITATION!” Rodor chastised. “As are those who accompany them.”

“Those who…?” Arthur stared at the sight overhead. His eyes went wide.

Kilgarrah and Aithusa circled overhead. In the center of said formation, Josiane and Gawain floated in place on her carpet.

Silence smothered any potential responses among both Camelot’s and Tintagel’s forces.

I thought you were going to wait for my call, Merlin, Mithian lectured him.

I had enough of listening to Arthur carrying on. I’m making a point, Merlin asserted. He motioned to Kilgarrah to land.

The Great Dragon alighted beside the alarmed knights. He shook his head.

“Stop arguing about this. Sire, please!” Merlin insisted from Kilgarrah’s back.

Arthur stared. His jaw dropped. “Merlin, get down! That Dragon Lord’s using you!”

“He’s me, Arthur. I’m your Dragon Lord. If we want to talk about wrong doing, perhaps you’d like to explain how Uther murdered all of the dragons except for Kilgarrah? Kilgarrah was imprisoned under Camelot for twenty years! I stopped him from destroying the city! Now if Uther was entitled to kill all sorcerers and destroy the Old Religion, shouldn’t I have allowed Kilgarrah to destroy Camelot? Nay. I couldn’t. You aren’t entitled to kill any more sorcerers either.” Merlin slid down Kilgarrah’s back. Thank you for the ride. I appreciate it.

You’re quite welcome, Merlin, Kilgarrah replied. He squinted at the assembled knights.

Merlin shook his head. He hustled over to Mithian and Rodor. “If you’re taking a stand then I am with you. You may want me safe, Princess. I appreciate that but I won’t leave you either.” He considered the elder King. “Nor you, Sire.”

Rodor nodded to Merlin. “We are family, Merlin.” Then he turned back to Arthur. “What is it to be, Arthur?”

“I’ll trade Merlin for Wyngate,” Arthur offered. “You keep his beasts. They should be grateful I don’t just kill them.”

“And they could kill you without a second thought if I allowed it,” Merlin disagreed. “It’s over, Arthur. Keep your word. Set me free.” He exhaled a pained breath. Desperation planted a thought in his mind. He had a way to end the stalemate…the Late Antique equivalent of a Hail Mary play….

It could work or get him killed. Either way Merlin didn’t care.

“You’re telling me it’s over?” Arthur laughed. “Merlin, what are you going to do? Trip over me? Beat me with your chain mail sleeve?” He held up his sword. “I have this. What are you going to do?” He turned to Morgana. “I suppose you know what he can do?”

“Oh I do. Arthur, you’re the real idiot here.” Morgana shook her head. “As much as I want to see him prove the point, what’s it going to accomplish?”

“Prove what point? How? Morgana, Merlin can’t tie his boots straight! He can’t do magic. He’s too stupid. He….” Arthur felt something tugging at his sword. “What is this? What? How?” He lost his grip on its hilt.

The dragon’s breath sword zipped into the sky. It flipped a couple of times end over end. Then it settled into its new place…

…right in the hand of the one who commissioned it in the first place….

“Like that, Arthur.” Merlin considered the blade. “Since you don’t believe in the Old Religion and hate sorcerers not to mention dragons, you don’t get to use the sword. Or its hilt.” His eyes glowed again.

Arthur’s belt shook. The buckle came open. The hilt slid from its place and flew across the expanse as well.

Still Camelot’s King blinked. His mind numbed. Horror and Betrayal seized him. “You! I can’t believe this! Father trusted you, Merlin! You have magic?

“Aye, Arthur. I have magic. I’m tired of denying that. I’m tired of turning my back while my kind is hunted by your hatred.” Merlin turned to Morgana. “Once again, Queen Morgana, I am sorry I didn’t help you when you needed it. I stood against you later because….”

Morgana smiled. Pain still stung her heart from the previous betrayals and setbacks. “You fought to contain my extremes, Merlin. You repent for denying our kind and our needs. You’re moving toward a better place. Who am I not to try as well?” She embraced him. “For our kingdoms and ourselves.”

“For our kingdoms and ourselves,” Merlin concurred while returning the embrace. In that heartbeat, all of Darkness’ and Evil’s pitch lost its stickiness on them both. “And I’d say the same of you as well. If you can take a compliment?”

“If I can…?” Morgana laughed. Her eyes filled with Joy’s tears. “I never thought I’d see you like this again.”

I never thought I’d see this day either for that matter, Kilgarrah snarked.

Oh lighten up! Aithusa stomped ahead. She stopped short of Morgana and Merlin. Then she leaned closer. My Lady!

“Aithusa! It’s good to see you!” Morgana embraced the White Dragon’s chest (or as much as she could at that point). “You’re bigger and healed.”

The goddess did that for me. I’m glad you’re feeling better. Maybe I can visit you? Aithusa requested.

“Of course!” Morgana positively beamed. “Don’t wake me if this is a dream, Merlin. Please don’t.”

“It isn’t. For me though, it could still turn into a nightmare.” Merlin watched Arthur. Caution pushed him to maintain distance. He slid the scabbard onto his belt.

“Give me back my sword, Merlin! You’re a thief, a murderer and a sorcerer!” Arthur spat. Disgust and Anger shook him and narrowed his eyes. He glared at Gwen who admired the developing scene. “You knew, didn’t you, Gwen?”

“In a way, Arthur, I’ve always known,” Gwen admitted. “Still this is Merlin! He’s saved our lives more times with his magic than we can count!”

Arthur stopped her with a shake of his head. “And you lied to me. You, Gwen and Merlin, the two I trusted more than anything. You lied about this! You led me to believe you were with me in driving out this evil!”

“And what are you going to do, Arthur? Exile me again? Maybe try and kill me? I’m Queen not your concubine as some of your hangers on refer to me! I am my own person! Maybe I do know what I’m talking about! Uther’s hatred led to my father’s death! He tried to have me burned at the stake! He inflicted that Witch Finder on us! He had the Great Dragon imprisoned! He drove Merlin’s father away from him! He forced Merlin to hide who he was! I love you, Arthur, but that doesn’t mean I always have to agree with you!” Gwen stormed away.

“Gwen, what?” Arthur rushed toward her. He seized onto her arm. “Stop this! They’re enchanting you! This isn’t like you!”

“Arthur, they aren’t doing anything. I’m tired of standing by! I will grant you that some abuse sorcery in the same way some kill with swords or arrows in cold blood! Still I won’t accuse everyone just because they have magic! WAKE UP! Let me go!” Gwen protested. “Kilgarrah? I’m sorry!”

Apology appreciated. I thank you, Guinevere Pendragon, Kilgarrah accepted. He walked toward the struggling couple.

Kilgarrah, no! We can’t…. Mithian begged.

I have no intentions of hurting him as much as he deserves it. I will not ruin this moment. The Great Dragon lowered his snout until his eye met Arthur’s. You aren’t worth my trouble, Arthur Pendragon.

Arthur’s eyes went wide. “I heard him in my mind! He’s….”

“He’s talking to you, Arthur.” Gwen pulled herself from his grip. She looked up to the Great Dragon. “Thank you as well. I know it’s not enough but it’s a start.”

It is indeed. Now if you can convince *him* of that. Kilgarrah narrowed his eyes at Arthur. A King has to rule for all, Arthur Pendragon. You leave a lot to be desired.

“A monster accusing me? My friends…?” Arthur stormed over to his saddle bag. He took out the manumission order. “I would have taken care of you, Merlin. You were like my brother. You would have been my Chief Advisor. Now you have nothing.” His eyes watered.

“Arthur, stop! Why are you like this? When will it stop?” Merlin demanded.

“It’ll stop when you renounce magic. It’ll stop when you give up and just accept your duty to Camelot and my rule,” Arthur insisted. “It’s my way or exile!”

“I have to give up magic and Mithian to be your ally? Are those your terms?” Merlin challenged.

“Merlin! Don’t! Please! We need peace!” Mithian tried to intercede.

“He’s right, Mithian,” Rodor disagreed. “Merlin is doing what he has to.”

“I’m glad you think so, Rodor.” Arthur tossed the manumission order on the ground. “It means nothing now. Shelter him. Just keep Merlin and these monsters out of Camelot!”

“He will be loved and learn to rule well, Arthur! He will rule for all! I’ll make sure he isn’t you or your father!” Mithian vowed. Her eyes stung with bitter tears.

“They aren’t monsters, Arthur. You’re being the monster!” Gwen lectured. “I can’t believe this! Camelot is for everyone, isn’t it? Why can’t they be included too?”

“Magic is evil, Guinevere. We can’t allow it to….” Arthur started.

Gwen turned before he could finish the sentence. She walked away from him. Her head bowed. Her heart ached. Disappointment and Disillusionment fought with Amor and Loyalty at that point. She motioned to Mithian and pointed toward where Merlin and Morgana were standing. Then she walked the rest of the way toward the duo.

“Guinevere, you come back here! I’m ordering you!” Arthur insisted. He stalked toward his wife intent on restraining her. Then he found Gawain standing in his way. “Gawain, step aside.”

“Try and make me, Princess. Gwen’s had enough. Maybe give her some space?” Gawain coughed. “You just need to stop. You’re Camelot’s King. This isn’t Camelot. We’re on the other side of the river. You’re a guest. I’m one of King Rodor’s knights. With due respect, play nice.” He motioned toward the knights. “Be a leader for the boys out there! Maybe teach them all to shave before they cut themselves on their swords? They’re the only ones you’ll inspire.”

“Sir Gawain.” Mithian cleared her throat. “You’ve made your point. Arthur, you’ve said everything you need to as well. We’ll care for Master Gaius.”

“I’m not done. I’m….” Arthur started before Prince Bors shook his head. “Bors, don’t.”

“With due respect, we can accomplish nothing more here, Sire. We should leave and preserve the balance.” Bors walked over to Accolon. “Thank you for your restraint, Sir Accolon. King Bors will appreciate it.”

“As he will your leadership, my Prince. Thank you for allowing Dignity to reign here to some degree. Be well,” Accolon concurred. He bowed to his liege.

“Thank you.” Bors nodded to Rodor. “Be well, King Rodor. Thank you. I apologize about….”

“I appreciate your effort as your father’s ambassador and an attempted peacemaker, Prince Bors. You are welcome here any time,” Rodor expressed. “Please take King Arthur and your fellow knights with you now however. As Princess Mithian said, we’ll tend to Master Gaius and take care of Merlin.” He stooped down and picked up the muddied manumission order. “I’ll take this and have a fresh copy made. Today should be a celebration. Instead we have to deal with this divide.” He turned to Gwen. “Queen Guinevere, I’m sorry but if….”

“I know. I’m sorry, King Rodor. I will try to change his mind,” Gwen apologized.

“Gwen, don’t say that! Please!” Arthur insisted.

“Arthur.” Gwen swallowed hard. She looked to Morgana. Then she turned to Mithian, Merlin and her other friends. Gawain and Britomart stood alongside of Nemeth’s supportive emerald wave. “Arthur, I’m sorry. I can’t go back with you.” Her eyes watered. “As long as you feel like this…as long as you hate like this, I can’t be with you.”

“Gwen, you can’t! The people need you!” Merlin declared.

“The people need someone to stand up to the old hate too, Merlin. Uther’s hate has to stop,” Gwen retorted. She sobbed grabbing at her stomach. She collapsed to her knees.

“No, Merlin. The people don’t need a sympathizer. I’m sorry too.” Arthur looked at his wife for several heartbeats. Then he rushed away. Before Amor could make him turn back, he jumped on his horse and galloped toward the river.

“Queen Guinevere, I’m sorry,” Bors apologized. “My Lady.” He nodded to her. Then he motioned to the knights. “Mount up and follow the King! FORWARD!”

As one, the Knights of Camelot followed his command. Instead of the smooth coordinated motion of the veteran order, this order stumbled onto their mounts. Haphazardly they rode away drifting toward the Severn with their tails tucked firmly between their legs.

Merlin trembled. He watched Bors leading the knights toward the east. Far ahead and barely still in sight before the river, he could see that Arthur had stopped. He noticed that his former King turned ever so slightly back toward them. Come back. Apologize, you Prat! We can move on! Gwen needs you.

Disgust and Lament smacked him in the proverbial senses in response.

Arthur disappeared between the trees and from view.

“Are you all right, my Prince?” Mithian inquired. She hugged him. “I know it hurts. I’m sorry.”

“It does. Having you here helps.” Merlin kissed her on the forehead. “Not that I mean to be distant. Gwen needs us right now. I’m going to go and help her.”

Mithian nodded. “You do that. Just know we’ll all be here.” She motioned him toward the kneeling Queen.

Merlin made his way toward Gwen. He noticed that Morgana was sitting close to her. While they weren’t really talking, hugging or interacting much for that matter, at least they were in proximity to each other. He reached the two Queens. “Room for one more?”

“Gwen?” Morgana tried to touch her former friend’s arm. When Gwen pulled back, she didn’t push the point. She sighed. “I deserve that given everything.” Despair’s tears welled up in them. “Uther never stops hurting people.”

“All we can do is start over and work with what we have. I don’t know about you all. First thing I’m doing when we get back to Whitgate is finish that garden. I’m putting some magic into it too. Maybe it’s pushing things but Mithian’s going to have her paradise for our special day. It’ll be for all of us,” he insisted. “Speaking of special touches, Gwen, I could use a talented partner out there. Mithian would love it if you’d come back with us.”

“I don’t want to bother you all. I’ll make my way out of here. Maybe I’ll head north and stay with Percival and Blancheflor in Mercia,” Gwen declined in almost a whisper.

“After everything you’ve done for us, you think you’re bothering us? Gwen, please stop! I’d worry about you if you weren’t there. Besides Mother will be living at the palace too. I’m not hearing any argument from her. I won’t from you either,” he retorted firmly.

Gwen grabbed onto him. “I can always count on you, Merlin. Thank you.”

“That’s what friends are for. You’ll see what Mithian and I will work out with King Rodor. You’ll be a great part too,” he assured her.

“I know. Mithian’s a lucky woman to have you. I’m glad you’re finally going to be happy,” Gwen expressed.

“I’m the lucky one. We’ll look in on Gaius and get him better too. One thing at a time. Let’s just get back to Whitgate,” he told her. He stood and helped Gwen to her feet.

“Morgana, thank you. I know…you’re trying. I just…well….” Gwen frowned.

“I understand. It will take time. The goddess told me that. I have to earn your trust again if I ever can. Just know I’m here if you decide to ask,” Morgana replied. Even if Rejection’s barbs stung at her, she continued to put her best foot forward. “Let’s get you back to the others.”

Gwen nodded. Numbness shut down her emotions. Grief overwhelmed her. Still she could stagger forward. Somehow Instinct recognized the coalescing community around her.

And given what Arthur had done, it was a beginning of something new…What remained to be seen. Still it was a greater good none the less…..

Chapter Text

Chapter 28

Following the standoff, Nemeth and its allies reassembled Resolve’s shattered pieces. Words were exchanged. Embraces were freely given and accepted. Bread and a bit of wine not shared in years changed hands. Questions prompted answers, insights and further places for future exploration.

Most importantly, Friendship established a beachhead in those woods.

Tempus, as always, flew by in its haste. Obligation pulled the company in different directions. Priority aligned respective tasks into unique combinations. Promise, however, bound them to reunite for the upcoming celebrations and untold events later still.

Having solved those things for some and needing to work out matters for others, Rodor assembled the knights and companions. He ensured that they stowed their gear on horseback. Then, as a group, he led them back down the gritty trail toward the waiting capital.

 

****

 

[Later that Afternoon—Whitgate]

Gwen sulked. Despair wailed in her heart. Her eyes constantly looked back toward the east. Her mind pulled back toward the Severn and Camelot beyond. She wanted to be heading back that way. She knew that she should have been.

Arthur dictated this course of action though. He hid behind Uther’s walls. Ultimatums pushed them all away.

Seems he’s Uther’s son after all. Is this the course we’re all set on? Gwen mulled over that particular train of thought. Her eye caught the gate as the group cantered into the city proper. She watched the people so like their counterparts in Camelot and yet not. She recognized their activities. It seems so much the same.

Yet Arthur wasn’t there. No, her Arthur wasn’t there. He wasn’t in Camelot either.

I need to at least put on a positive face for the others. They’re being good to me. They don’t have to do this. She mulled over how the last time she’d come up this way. She recalled Hope’s summons to better things. She followed Amor’s siren tune toward her own Prince.

A hand on her shoulder made her jump. She looked in that direction to find Mithian considering her.

“Forgive me. I don’t mean to spoil the mood,” Gwen apologized.

Mithian shrugged. “Actually I was going to compliment you on how well you’re carrying yourself. All things considered, you’re doing very well.”

“Thank you.” Gwen sighed. “I suppose you know better than anyone what it means to be brushed aside by Pendragon hatred?”

“To fight through it? You just saw that. Merlin’s worth it though.” Mithian glanced ahead toward her Warlock. She smiled but kept the response to just that. “For what it’s worth, he’s hurting right now too.”

“I know. I don’t know how he deals with the hate and prejudice from people when they find out.” Gwen frowned. Lament ripped at her.

“He’s stronger than he looks. Of course he buries himself in his work or us. My job is to kick him into the light. I intend to do just that. I could use some help. And for the record, you have a place here for as long as you’d like. Especially with the Royal Council’s desertions, Father will need experienced people to advise him. I’d say with Princess Josiane, you and me, we women will have a voice. I’m putting your name before Father at the first opportunity,” Mithian offered.

“Really? Princess, I’m flattered. Still I’m not….” Gwen started. She noted the procession stopping short of the citadel. “What’s going on?”

“I don’t know. We’ll finish this conversation later,” Mithian told her. She spurred her horse onward heading toward the front of the procession.

Now what? Gwen wondered.

 

****

[A Sixth of the Hourglass Turn Earlier]

Berthold grimaced. The spasms in his arms and legs hadn’t subsided. At least he could sit up in the saddle. He could manage a slow pace on horseback in that condition. When he tried to go faster, the sharp movements provoked Pain’s hot needles and Chill’s shivers. He’d needed to stop every two hours to catch his breath and allow himself to rest. He kept Reginald’s ashes and the mysterious kerchief safe.

At least he could sit up. He groaned through a sideways turn. Duty pushed him to Endurance’s limits. He trembled. His hand pressed down hard on the saddle’s side for support to keep himself upright. His eye reminded him again.

Lothwein leaned forward on his saddle. With Berthold’s assistance, he’d tied himself to the saddle’s front in order to ride. Numbness chilled every inch of his body. He grunted and groaned with each horse length but wouldn’t stop.

Revis lay sideways across his saddle. While he’d ridden away with help from Astolat, he’d succumbed to the spell’s malice during the previous night. A blanket covered his prone form.

Forgive me, my Friends. I wish we’d been better prepared. Berthold coughed. Relief strengthened him from their arrival. He pulled up on the reins stopping their progress. “L…Lothwein?”

“I hear you.” Lothwein gave a sharp quick tug of the reins. “Wh…whoa!”

The two knights guarding the citadel rushed down the granite stairs. Surprise and Dismay lit up their faces. “Sir Berthold! Sir Lothwein! What mischief is this?”

“We need to see the King.” Berthold ground his teeth. He spasmed. Somehow he grabbed onto the saddle’s front and kept himself from falling to the stones below. “Trouble at Shalott.”

“Trouble?” one of the guards asked.

“A…witch,” Lothwein whispered. He shivered. “Help…me down? Please?”

The two knights did exactly that. They assisted each of their comrades in their respective dismounts. Then they guided each man to the stairs to allow them to sit and catch proper breath. Finally they tied the horses’ reins to the hitching post.

“Sirs Reginald and Revis are dead,” Berthold gasped. He ground his teeth before shivering again. “Master Wyngate?”

“He’s not here either, Sir Berthold. Neither is Lady Britomart,” the other guard informed him.

At that moment, the heralds’ trumpets sounded from the walls.

“Seems he’s returned. Hang on, Friends. I’m sure King Rodor will give you a word,” the first guard assured them. He removed his cape and rolled it up into a pillow. “Perhaps you might rest? Sorry I cannot offer more.”

“It is…appreciated,” Lothwein expressed. He eased himself onto the hard granite step as best as he could manage.

“I’ll stand. Thank you.” Berthold forced himself to his feet. His ears registered the horses’ approach on the cobblestones. He leaned against the raised stone edges of the staircase. He quaked again. His nostrils blocked up for no reason.

Galahad and Ywain flanked Rodor at the front of the procession. Malodius accompanied Merlin next in line. Then Gwen, Josiane and Mithian followed. The rest of the knights and hangers on closed out the traveling party.

Merlin felt the residue of the mysterious woman’s spell before they’d even reached that point. He turned to Malodius. Did you feel that?

Aye, Merlin. I did. The lion broke with protocol. He rushed ahead of King and companions. Reaching the stricken knights, he touched each one with his left front paw.

The remaining magic dissipated. Dark smoke stinking of burning peat and rotting food fouled the air. The two knights improved. They both stood and bowed before their King, Princess and Prince-to-Be.

“Whatever you did, Lion. Thank you,” Berthold expressed.

Lothwein nodded silently. Still Suspicion ruined any attempt at gratitude where he was concerned.

That’s not right! Merlin chided.

I followed Duty’s call, Merlin. I don’t seek reward more than that. Sir Berthold thanked me. I appreciate that, Malodius pointed out.

“I see you haven’t returned with the missing counselors, Sirs Berthold and Lothwein,” Rodor observed. “What happened that we found you in this condition?”

“Sire, we apologize!” Berthold kneeled before the old King. “We reached Astolat and inquired after Bernard. He had already left with the counselors before we arrived. A mysterious woman appeared from nowhere. She had magic. She burned us with dark fire. It froze rather than burned! She incinerated Reginald. Revis lies under the blanket on his horse.”

“She left us with our lives…barely,” Lothwein added. “We have a message to deliver as well.” He trembled. “Berthold?”

Berthold nodded. “Aye.” He produced the handkerchief. “I was told to give this to a Beggar Boy whoever that is. He…he would know what it means.”

Rodor raised an eyebrow. “Beggar Boy. That could be anyone.” He considered the crimson cloth. Despite the wear, it had a stitched figure 8 design with dots in the top and bottom spaces. A white stain with pinkish discoloration marred the lower left corner.

As the cloth came into view, Reaction however struck out like a cobra.

Gawain stared. His eyes narrowed. “That wench meant me! She knows Big Red! He had to give her that!” He spat on the stones at his own feet. He stormed toward Rodor.

Josiane’s jaw dropped. She trembled. A tear streaked her right cheek.

“Princess Josiane?” Mithian wondered.

“Sir Gawain, what are you doing?” Britomart asked. “Please show respect!”

“It isn’t King Rodor I’m yelling at! All right? I’m…I’m….” Gawain stopped three steps shy of the King. “This is just like at that bloody banquet! King Rodor, I’m sorry. I…that handkerchief…”

Rodor nodded. “Then you know who this belongs to then, Sir Gawain?”

“Yeah I do.” Gawain saw it. “It belonged to my sister. Her name was….” He reached toward the handkerchief.

“Soredamors!”

The group stopped. Shock held everyone in its vice. Confusion clouded their thinking.

“Who said that? I….” Gawain turned to find Josiane staggering toward him. “Josie?”

“Aye, Sir Gawain. I know that as well.” Josiane held up her right arm. Just above the elbow, a slight scar marred her skin. “When I was two, a palace ingrate tried to murder me. She wiped my arm with that handkerchief. That’s why it is discolored.” She sighed.

“You knew her then?” Gawain pushed her. “Sorry but I got to know.”

“I did.” Josiane smiled. “She was my mother. Despite her previous state, she was the most kind and beautiful woman. Her hair was like the setting sun. Her eyes sparkled blue. It’s been so long. I’m sorry, Sir Gawain, I….” She bowed her head. “I shouldn’t be….”

“Shouldn’t be what? Talking great about her? You talk about her all you want! Just one thing you got to do first,” Gawain agreed.

“And that is what?” Josiane wondered.

“Give your uncle a hug already. Will you? And no more talk about being alone. Got it?” Gawain directed. He seized onto her. “I can’t believe it. After not knowing.” Joy’s tears sparkled in his eyes.

“I prayed for news. When I arrived at Camelot, if I had claimed the tournament, I would have demanded Arthur’s assistance in finding my family. Edgar would have stopped me. I should have known my god would provide!” Josiane embraced him as well. She didn’t care about the scene or the fact that his beard tickled her cheek. “Maybe Aunt Britomart might like to join us?”

“I wanted you to have your time. Now I have help with this oaf,” Britomart explained. She embraced her friend (and soon to be niece).

“Josie, don’t encourage her. I…” Gawain started before Britomart stopped him with a deep kiss.

Josiane simply stepped back. She treasured the moments between the two knights (even if the bantering puzzled her like everyone else). Despite the slight directed at her mother, her heart warmed.

“It seems I have one more thing to consider?” Rodor interjected to Josiane.

“It seems so, Your Majesty. Thank you.” Josiane turned and nodded to him. She beamed at the others’ smiles and nonverbal congratulations. Even if she couldn’t be with Boeve, she felt a little more at ease. “I appreciate your assistance in allowing us this.”

“With all of the difficulties today, Princess, it is my heartfelt pleasure to do so. Congratulations,” Rodor expressed before stepping back toward Merlin and Mithian who simply watched with everyone else.

“Hey, Josie! Who said you could leave? Back over here!” Gawain chided (albeit with a playful tone).

“I am coming.” Josiane practically pounced on them both. Her arms squeezed. Her heart practically soared.

Challenge would await. Honor would need to be avenged. Slight required an answer.

Still the family moment warmed that point in time. Sometimes that is all that is needed to be said…..

Chapter Text

Conclusion [Three Days Later]

Despite Calamity’s near miss along Gedref’s eastern frontier, the world kept going. Sol rose and set. The birds sang. The wind rustled grass and budding trees. The Severn and its tributaries flowed from sources to the sea. Travelers rolled along slowly over drying roads.

And from all perspectives, Life ambled on….

 

****

 

[Somewhere Else]

The triple goddess watched events progress through her view portal. Her attention practically gravitated toward Britannia and a certain group of royals, royals-in-transition and former royals. Uther’s weeds rot before Truth’s light, do they? Well now, it seems his tyranny might have finally met its match. She watched intently.

In Tintagel, Morgana met with her ministers. Despite the recent emergency, she hadn’t seemed to miss a step in her court affairs. On the contrary, everything seemed to run smoothly.

In Camelot, on the other hand, Arthur argued with his counselors. His eyes kept looking to the empty seats wishing for Gaius’ and Gwen’s respective presences. Still he stiffened. Pride insisted that he press on. He called for his cup. When George brought it, he grimaced but accepted it.

In Paris, King Bors entertained two knights, a brunette woman and an elderly matron with red and white streaked hair.

In Whitgate, Merlin oversaw a group effort in the courtyard. In the midst of his loved ones, friends and most treasured advisors, he coordinated the entire area. He stole glances toward his Princess now not having to care if others noticed. He watched over Gawain’s collaboration with Josiane. All of this came in between visits to the Physician’s Chambers where Britomart tended to Gaius’ needs. “Everything goes as it should, Milady?” Freya wondered.

As well as you mortals can manage affairs, my Child. Emrys and Morgana Pendragon seem to be making the best of their situations. Arthur Pendragon, on the other hand, withers. His pride will be his downfall, the goddess assessed.

“King Uther clouded his mind. He made my life difficult. Fortunately Merlin was there at the end. I am grateful that you gave me a second chance. Perhaps King Arthur will as well? I will pray for him,” Freya declared.

Compassion is always a good thing. It is a credit to you. You can help Nimue to get over her own vengeance. I hope you can all move forward. Soon we will need to recruit. While you three are capable, more priests and priestesses will be needed.

“We shall serve.” Freya perked her ear. She smiled. “Hunith is ready for her trip to Whitgate. May I assist her?”

Of course. Hunith will be a good role model for that community. Emrys should look after her as well. They can be a family at last. As the Princess Josiane had found one part of her family, so too should others have theirs. Go and see to that, Child, the goddess agreed. After Freya disappeared into the mists, she nodded. A family at last.

 

****

 

[Ealdor—Hunith’s Hut]

Hunith hefted her burlap sack over the structure’s threshold. She set it to the left of the doorway. Disbelief (and perhaps Dismay) ruled her thinking at that particularly heartbeat in time. She had spent the previous few hours bidding her neighbors and friends farewell. She’d only brought the most basic of needs. She bunched her shawl about herself to stay warm. She peered back inside one last time.

The peasant dwelling looked as it always had. The candle on the worn table was out. No fire burned in the fireplace. Otherwise everything else waited in the aforementioned sack.

“Merlin’s really doing it. I can’t believe it,” she declared to the empty chamber.

“Doing what, Mother?”

She jumped and turned. Instinct arched her brow and narrowed her eyes. “Merlin, you should know better than to sneak up on me like that.” She smiled.

“He can’t help it, Mother. We’re both excited,” Mithian assured her. “King Percival and Queen Blancheflor send their best by the way. And then Priestess Freya’s speeding our progress along.”

“Tonight we start taking care of you,” he told his mother. He hugged her.

“I can’t believe we all get to spend time together. Mithian, your father is so gracious. I….” Hunith doubted.

“Father is overjoyed to have you at court. We’re all happy. And wait until you hear the rest of the good news,” Mithian assured her.

“Other good news?” Hunith perked up. “Nothing too exciting I hope.” She looked to Freya. “Are you all right? You seem so quiet.”

“It’s nothing. Pardon me. I was allowing you this time. I….” Freya stopped her apology abruptly. She shivered. “Merlin?”

He nodded. “Get Mother and Mithian back to Whitgate, Freya.” He stiffened. The air chilled. His nose detected the same noxious odor as from the returned knights from Astolat.

You feel my presence. Don’t you? the mysterious voice taunted.

The quartet all saw a cloaked woman step into view from across the common. They took a step back defensively.

“Freya, you heard me,” he repeated.

“Merlin, you’re not facing her alone,” Mithian denied.

“And we’re leaving now.” Freya enveloped them in the mists sweeping them away from the scene. Anxiety ate at her. Doubt confounded her. Why didn’t the goddess sense her? Curious!

Either way, there was going to be a question and further investigation on her deity’s part to be sure…..

 

****

 

The cloaked sorceress shook her head. “The great Emrys runs, does he? Perhaps he isn’t the threat after all.” She sniffed. Then she waved her hands and vanished into the dust laden sunbeams.

Despite Promise’s potential, storms still pressed upon Horizon’s bounds. Threats loomed large. And to the north, Meleagant still waited.

But that would be a story for another day. For now, Celebration harkened in Whitgate. Friends would flood in to greet the couples.

Surprise, Joy and perhaps a bit of Reconsideration all rode with the baggage.

But then Merlin’s life was never dull. Now was it?

 

THE END (for now)