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Confirmations

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The triple goddess speaks….

Transitions run their course. As Destiny’s servants, they move beings toward Life’s next stage. Much like the river, they float on the currents from source to larger body and their parts in something greater. Even when others block their way, their tide wears down any barrier and eventually breaks through.

Such is Emrys’ situation. Now free of Camelot, he can start the next stage of his journey. With support of a new kingdom, friends and a growing acceptance of sorcery, he can finally stop hiding his true face. He can stand beside a woman who loves him. He can prepare for the challenges ahead.

And challenges do lie ahead but that’s for another day.

At last Emrys assumes his place. And this is how it happened….

Chapter Text

Chapter 1 [Camelot]

Clouds pressed in from the northwest. Sol fought through them in her inevitable flight toward Noon. His fire blazed crimson, gold and orange against heavy clouds. Still Storm threatened his latest barrage of rain and perhaps sleet for the kingdom’s capital.

Ironic indeed considering the mess going on inside at the moment…..

 

****

 

[Royal Chambers]

Arthur stared out the window. Lament and Betrayal reddened his eyes and stabbed at his heart. He exhaled deeply. Tears left dried salty trails down his cheeks. Regret weighed on him. Nature’s irony was not lost on him. He noticed how Sol fought through the clouds to get into the sky. He saw the elements conspiring against the coming of the new day. He mused over how many of his former friends and courtiers were confused in their thinking by Deceit’s storm.

I trusted Rodor and Mithian. I actually trusted them! I should have known they were Morgana’s puppets! Insane! She can’t have Camelot so she takes another throne. She’s just working her plan from there. We stopped her. Yet she and this bloody blasted goddess of hers are ruining everything! Father and I had matters in hand. We drove the Old Religion from this kingdom. People were happy and content. He shook his head. I should have known those witches were lurking and waiting. Their spells confound everything! As if we should care about superstition? Well Merlin does.

Merlin….

He curled his lip. I can’t believe he’s really a sorcerer and a Dragon Lord! Father would have burnt him at the stake for that. He lied to me all of those years! HE LIED! Of all of the people, I never suspected him to be a sorcerer! Now he’s turned Gwen too.

Gwen…

He threw the empty goblet against the wall. Frustration welled up inside of himself. He rubbed his forehead. How could she walk away? Doesn’t she know how much Camelot needs her? That I need her? He sniffed. Even Merlin told her as much although he probably was lying to her about that as well. Well she went off with them! She even was talking to Morgana! MORGANA! He narrowed his eyes.

A knock came from the door.

“Enter.” Arthur straightened himself. He cleared his throat. If nothing else, he would act like a King. He turned to face the door.

Prince Bors walked in. “Sire.” He bowed to Arthur. “The knights wait at the Round Table for you. We have our meeting about the southern provinces?”

Arthur nodded. “We do. Bors?”

“Sire?”

“Why didn’t you tell me about your father’s documents? I should have known before we reached Gedref,” Arthur declared. Anger blazed in his eyes.

Bors met the King’s glance with an even one of his own. “Father issued those as a contingency plan. He had hoped that they would not be necessary.” He set his jaw. His mind could clearly see the argument’s outcome. “The law is clear…..”

“Law?” Arthur coughed. “I follow the law! I’m the King! I make sure you all are taken care of. I look after my subjects. Do you think I fight those battles because I like them?” He shook his head. “And I suppose you know what the other rulers are thinking?”

“I can’t speak for the other rulers. As Prince, I can only tell you certain things. I said them in Gedref. I advised you honestly, Arthur. You claim to know the law. Still you deny it? Have you confirmed my statements with Lord Geoffrey?” Bors continued.

“I have. He agrees with you.” Arthur shook his head. “I wish my court would come to me with matters rather than run around behind my back.”

“If I may speak frankly, Queen Guinevere tried. Princess Mithian and King Rodor tried. Even Gawain ranted as much in your face when Merlin and he left with the Nemeth knights. As I said before, you have a double standard when it comes to Merlin. It has proven costly indeed. You allow your father’s situation to wreck everything we’re trying to do now,” Bors pressed.

“I thought you more intelligent than that, Bors.” Arthur sat back down in his chair. “You actually acknowledge the validity of that superstition?”

“The proof was right in front of us, Sire,” Bors insisted.

Arthur rolled his eyes. “All I saw were a few beasts and turncoats. Morgana and Rodor play their games. You serve as your father’s lackey more than my knight. Can I trust you, Bors?”

“Pardon me?” Bors stared at Arthur. Disbelief froze him in place. He bit back his initial response. “I can’t believe you said that! Aye I serve you. I am still Prince of Gaul. Sir Accolon serves Queen Morgana and my father. As long as we respect each other, what is the concern?”

“Bors, while you’re here, your interests are with Camelot! You still should have let me know about your father’s concerns. He went along with Nemeth on their deception. So did the other rulers,” Arthur told him. “You just showed I can’t trust you. I would hope for an apology and a promise from you.”

“What kind of promise? That I’m supposed to allow double standards? That I stand by and allow you to hunt down innocent people? That I allow you to willfully disregard the law when it suits your agenda? I came here because Father wanted me to learn from you. He wanted me to see how a great King rules. A great King earns the respect of his nobles. A great King doesn’t create issues simply for some grudge,” Bors lectured.

Arthur narrowed his eyes. “Grudge? How can you say that?”

Oui, Arthur. What Princess Mithian said about magic taking your parents from you, I am sorry for that. Still genocide based on one or two mistakes isn’t the way. Grief and Vengeance burn in this land. Just stop. Please! Just co-exist! Bless the marriage as it is legal! Make peace with the Queen. She wants to come back. Show her you’ve seen a way past the hate. It can be right again,” Bors clarified.

Arthur exhaled sharply. “Not for the old guard. We don’t need the Old Religion. I wish the Queen would understand the harm her stance causes. We can’t be dominated by that goddess or her followers. Camelot will decide its own fate. Still the question of your loyalty remains, Bors. How can I trust you? Are you going to choose sides against me one day? If you are going to be like this, how can I have you fighting with me? You just said that you won’t follow me if you don’t agree. On most things, I’d respect that. But on this matter---on magic, nay. I cannot. Besides you do realize what you did is treason? You cannot just overthrow my authority out of the blue because of your father’s say so. This is Camelot not Gaul! I could have you arrested!” He shook his head. “I won’t. You have a choice. Swear you’ll follow me no matter what or leave Camelot.”

“Even against my father?” Bors stiffened.

Even against your father if need be,” Arthur insisted. “Here I’m your King. You’re my liege man. There’s room for discussion. Still I can’t have you doing what you did. You’re no longer my First Knight in either case.”

“And who else is going to be? With due respect, Sire, they’re not experienced!” Bors protested.

“But they’ll follow orders! Bors, I can’t trust you! Now let’s go. We have a meeting,” Arthur pointed out.

Bors shook his head. Then he slowly undid his belt. He took off his sur coat and sword. For a dozen heartbeats, he held the former in the air. Regret dampened his spirits. Conscience made his choice clear. He set the items down on Arthur’s table. “You have a meeting. I am sorry for my role in the recent situation, Arthur. I will leave by sunset. “

Arthur stared at Bors. Ultimatum’s sting worked both ways. “I appreciate the apology. That’s all I wanted. I want you to stay. I…”

“You want me to stay as your man.” Bors nodded. “There are things one can agree to disagree with. Your current mindset is not. I believe Sir Gawain put it best when he resigned. Arthur, you’re isolating yourself. You placate one or two of your father’s allies. At what cost? You alienate your fellow rulers? You drive your best knights away? You would hurt Queen Guinevere? You force me to do what I did at Gedref?”

“Bors, you did that to me not for me,” Arthur reminded him. “Don’t put that on me.”

“Again it comes down to loyalty. You’re right. No knight especially the First Knight should have to do what I did at Gedref. Accolon at least could let Queen Morgana know Father’s intention before the situation happened. Given what happened downstairs, I hoped it would not be necessary. Still I should have told you. Hence I have the responsibility for that deception. I am doing this because I am a man of my word, Arthur.” Bors bowed. “Be careful. You are vulnerable. Meleagant will pick your weakest moment and strike. Count Edgar cannot be trusted. He has quite the reputation on the Continent. Those allies would be a match for Camelot even at full strength. The Holy Roman Emperor Doun is not to be trifled with. Constantinople’s Emperor Alys cannot be trusted to serve anyone but himself. Meleagant would ally himself with them because it suits his purposes. So you see? Camelot may be strong but not so strong as to stand on her own. Please, Arthur, as your friend, I ask you to reconsider. I head west. I just need time to pack my things. Then I will go. My retinue and I will be out soon. Be well and blessed, Arthur.” With that he left the chamber.

Arthur shook his head. What is he talking about? We’re dealing with Britannia. We’re not the Roman Empire! He curled his lip. Still a nagging feeling picked at him. He shook his head and left the area. No matter what, he had to deal with his own domestic matters first.

Warnings or not, that would be true…..

Chapter Text

Chapter 2 [Whitgate]

The conditions lashed Nemeth’s capital as well. Fog swallowed up the skyline and surrounding woodlands. Chill stabbed through any traveler along Whitgate’s cobblestone byways. Drizzle magnified the others’ effectiveness.

Truly not an auspicious omen for that particular day’s grand events….

 

****

 

[Gwen’s Chamber]

Gwen clenched her shawl around her shoulders. She shivered. She turned her back on Heat’s balm to her ills. Her eyes searched the cloying fog. Her heart tugged toward the east….

…toward Camelot and Arthur….

Lament sagged her mood. She frowned. A deep sigh escaped her lips. She sulked at the window. Despite everything, she still wanted to be with her King. She felt attracted by him and yet repulsed by his hate simultaneously. She wanted to be in a great mood. She owed it to Merlin to support him. If anyone understood his triumph, she did.

Granted it wasn’t the marriage…not yet….but close enough….

Rodor’s going to crown Merlin. He’s going to do it! Gwen smiled into the mirror. She studied her reflection. She admired the exquisite purple gown peeking through under the wool’s warmth. Her hair lay brushed and curled against her shoulders. She didn’t really miss not having any jewels since she wasn’t the set royalty. She really didn’t care. Arthur should be here to witness this moment! If anyone should be, it’s him. Why are you so difficult, Arthur? Why?? She bit her lip. Instinct advised of something very deeply wrong with her King. She deduced the pressure from certain nobles around the countryside. Despite his attempts not to show it, the defections unsettled Arthur. We can recruit. We can find new people. You just need to bend a little. Why is it so hard to admit that magic isn’t evil? Why?

A knocking at the door jarred her back to the there and then.

She raised an eyebrow. “Who would?” She opened the door to discover the Prince himself waiting for her. “Merlin?” She curtseyed.

“Gwen.” He cleared his throat. “I actually should be bowing to you, I believe?” Sauciness prompted a spark in his eye and a smirk.

“Merlin, I gave up my title when I walked away from Arthur. You know that. Besides you’re Prince,” she disagreed.

He raised an eyebrow. Exaggeration forced a demonstrative squint of the eyes and curling of the lip. “Mmmm….well…I didn’t see an abdication. Besides I’m not Prince yet.”

“Merlin, stop! You…you…” She coughed. Despite Melancholy’s hold on her, she snickered. Her ribs quaked.

“Yes it’s me. Clumsy oaf and all!” He made a grand gesture of grinning and spreading his hands. “Or is that idiot? I don’t know.”

She shook her head. “Today’s your special day, Merlin. You’re about to become Prince. The last barrier between Mithian and you will be lifted. Your mother will be made noble. It’s wonderful! If anyone deserves it, it’s you.” She embraced him.

“It’s the day before the day actually. Still to see Mother ennobled will make this day special.” He shrugged. “The Crown’s great but it’s the Princess and the subjects which make it even more so.” He squeezed her hands. “Mithian and I want you there. I know you’re not feeling up to it. I know you miss the Prat. So do I. But we have our friends and family here. You are a part of that. You’re one of our greatest supporters.”

“Really? I know I said something. Like how great?” Gwen sassed. Mood started to stir. Its load lightened with his teasing.

“Oh…mmm…like a ways down the list. I don’t know.” He shrugged. Impishness widened that smirk all the more.

“All right! Be like that!” She playfully slapped at his arm. “Of course I was going to be there! Still you’ve got so much going on with this coronation. With everyone here, I can’t believe that you’re up here goofing around of all things!”

“What good’s being Prince or Head of Household or whatever if you can’t look after your friends, Gwen? You’re in the household. That makes you our responsibility. Mithian agrees with me. Who do you think sent me?”

“She sent you? Why…I….” Then she saw him laugh. She shook her head. “Why you!”

“Got you, didn’t I? Come on. Everyone’s waiting. Besides it wouldn’t be a coronation without you,” he told her.

“Merlin, whatever are we going to do with you?” Gwen asked.

“Mmm…I’ll think of something. Let’s get you some fun.” He led her by the arm toward the granite stairs. Objective accomplished! She’s in a great mood! he noted through the Link.

Always thinking of others! That’s why you’re going to be a great ruler one day. Maybe she still missed Arthur but at least she felt better. She felt included.

 

****

 

[Mithian’s Chamber].

Mithian frowned at her appearance in the mirror. She’d gone through several gown choices. Her hair never seemed to set right. Even her mother’s necklace seemed not to catch the candlelight right for once. Anxiety ground up her insides as if she’d swallowed glass. Tension made her jumpy. Why do I feel this way?

“Princess, hold still! Please! You’re going to mess up your hair,” Sarah reminded her. “You owe it to our Prince to look radiant. Now please.”

Mithian sniffed. “Lady Britomart told you to remind me. Didn’t she?” She coughed. “That is so like her.” She smiled. “Thank you, Sarah. I needed that.”

“I’m glad to be of service, my Lady.” Sarah brushed out Mithian’s green gown. “There! Now you look splendid!”

Objective accomplished! She’s in a great mood! Merlin interjected over the Link.

Well done, my Prince. Now just get to the Throne Chamber. I hear Sir Gawain’s waiting to ambush you by the casks, she gibed.

That would be tomorrow. He wanted to throw some sort of party for me. Yeah well…whatever… he assured her.

I don’t want you dealing with ale’s after effects tomorrow, Merlin. I’ll see to it that Sir Gawain behaves, she informed him. A pleased smirk spread across her lips.

So Britomart’s going to lock him in his chamber again? he supposed.

Somehow she didn’t laugh or break her focus. If I told her what was going on, she’d slip the goldenseal into his ale again.

That’s dirty. If you recall, it took three days to get the floors clean back in Camelot. You do know who had to scrub the floors? Right? he reminded her.

She winced. Oh. Merlin, I’m sorry. I gave Arthur a reason to…

I have your back, Mithian. It’s all right, he assured her.

Mithian nodded. She turned back to Sarah. “I see Peter’s use of words has rubbed off as well?”

“Being married to the Court Poet has its perks, my Lady.” Sarah grinned. Her eyes sparkled. “He composes for me. I don’t know how he knows but every time I have a challenging day, he’s waiting with a masterpiece for me. For me! I don’t know what I do to deserve those works. I….”

“You’re you. You love him. You inspire him. Same way our Prince inspires…that is if he makes it to his own coronation,” she assured her maid.

I heard that! he informed her; Mirth lighting up his tone with each word and syllable.

Oh did I say that? Just because a certain Warlock does like to wander and find trouble? I suppose I can trust Gwen to get you there in one piece. Can I? Certain of us are waiting to see you. Can’t imagine who they are, she teased.

Fine. Be that way. I guess we just have to start the *Passable Princess* era now. Don’t we? he countered.

Recognizing her own joke lobbed back at her, she coughed. Nice to see I’m somewhat of a role model for you.

Still can’t belch like you can though.

She snorted. She grabbed for her goblet and sipped some water. She tried to make it seem like a cough. You’re going to expose us yet, my Prince. Sarah is in here with me. See you there?

I was thinking of taking Gwen for an ale first…maybe…Bring you something back? he proposed; Mischief pressing that latest jab into her ears.

Maybe work on getting yourself crowned. Then we’ll have our celebration. And Merlin? she told him.

Aye?

I love you. This is your day. Enjoy it. QUIT WORRYING FOR ONCE! she instructed.

I love you. It’s our day. We all enjoy it. Then we’ll really enjoy tomorrow. See you there, he corrected her before going quiet.

He just can’t stop. He always has to be helping someone or something in distress. And you love him for that. Mithian sighed almost like a teenaged girl might swoon over some handsome bard or minstrel….

…well he was a handsome Prince and her Prince…

…take that, Marriage Market…Prince in Petticoats indeed!

One more day. Tomorrow Father and I will have that time we’ve waited for. And it will be with my Dream Prince. Mithian shook her head.

“Thinking of our Prince are we?” Sarah supposed.

“Hmm? I’m nervous about his coronation. There are other details as well. His mother’s ennoblement. There are other considerations as well. Father’s working on them so he won’t tell me. Guess we’ll all get surprised?” Mithian informed her mostly-truthfully. She really did know but kept everything to herself. “You know I was thinking of him?”

“You have that look, my Lady. I’m told I have it when Peter’s on my mind. I’m fortunate because I get to serve someone like you, Princess. You’re so nice. You gave Peter his opportunity and our life together. Because of you, I get my poems and the Poet who scribes them. Dreams are wonderful. Aren’t they?” Sarah supposed.

“Indeed.” Mithian smiled. “I am glad for you. You are by far the best save for Britomart we’ve ever had on the household staff. The King and I both appreciate you. Now shall we go to the Throne Chamber?”

“We shall.” Sarah opened the door and followed her mistress into the passage. The duo headed toward the staircase in question and Destiny itself.

Chapter Text

Chapter 3 [Throne Chamber—A Sixth of an Hourglass’ Turn Later]

In its previous iterations, Nemeth’s crowning ceremony stirred minor diplomatic interest. The kingdom’s lords and ladies dutifully heeded their monarch’s summons. Other than the royal reeves’ land surveys every decade or so, they ran their estates and tended their own affairs. When they came to Whitgate, Expectation’s bar always found itself set low. Camelot and Tintagel would declare truces with Nemeth. Their rulers would show up with minimal retinue to support their neighbor. Occasionally other kingdoms would heed the invitations for their own ends. (The courtiers still talked of Odin’s and Meleagant’s respective visits and persistent demands for Mithian’s hand despite Rodor’s forceful denials.) They’d do their duty, catch up on each other’s affairs and then head back to their manors.

Reality, however, presented them with a much different picture at that point. A very different portrait indeed…..

Whereas a few monarchs provided the previous token presence, the present company threatened to overflow the chamber. Percival and Blancheflor had journeyed from Mercia. Elena and Matilda represented the Amazons. Annis came from Caerleon just a day previous. Morgana had come that morning from Tintagel with the priestesses’ aid. Gwen represented Camelot. Leon and King Bors represented Gaul. Cligés stood for his Greek brethren. Josiane represented Egypt despite Circumstances’ status; her golden chain mail glinting Sol’s light like Zeus’ statue had at Olympia centuries before. Soredamors, as Dowager Empress and former Sultana, stood in for both. Fenice offered representation for both Constantinople and the Holy Roman Empire. Despite this gathering’s august nature, Arthur’s absence sang out in volumes.

Strife sang out its refrain in shrill notes.

Behind them, Pride swelled the Nemeth knights’ hearts. Ywain, Tristan, Isolde, Britomart and Galahad awaited their friend’s ascension. Gawain practically jumped up and down. Excitement and Triumph (not to mention the excuse for the obligatory celebratory drink—or six—afterwards) sent warm feelings up and down his spine.

Off to the left of the dais, Lord Brumenwald and Peter waited for the events to proceed. By their side, Sarah glanced around. Anxiety ate at her because of Mithian’s insistence on a nice dress and her being out of place.

With Rodor’s promised protection, the Old Religion was well represented as well. Freya, Nimue and Thessala talked with Nemeth’s king by the dais. Aithusa poked her head in the open window. Malodius sat by Hunith’s side.

Then came the aforementioned nobles….well enough said about them for now….

Truly a global affair (at least by western medieval standards)…..

 

****

 

[Side Antechamber]

Merlin paced about the area. With his escort duties for Gwen fulfilled, Distraction had run its course. Now he fretted about the bigger affair. His hands shook. His knees quivered. He kept glancing toward the door. “I can’t believe this is really happening.”

Lancelot exchanged looks with Mithian. Then he advised, “You earned a chance at this a long time ago, Merlin. It just took a lady with a discerning eye to see your true worth.” He bowed to her.

“Try getting our Warlock to understand that,” she noted. “Thank you though, Lancelot. I’ve heard the tales of your exploits as well.”

“Exploits?” Lancelot shrugged off the compliment. “Princess, I just did my duty. I wouldn’t have had my previous rank if not for a certain sorcerer.”

“Lancelot, you would have achieved it on your own. I just well got creative,” Merlin rebutted.

“Oh?” She met her fiancé’s look with her own. “I definitely need to hear this.”

“Lancelot didn’t have a title or property to get him into Uther’s tournament. So…I…created him a noble background,” Merlin explained. “From there, he followed Princess Josiane’s experience at the tournament and afterwards. Uther disavowed him. Arthur kept him in mind despite that. When we needed help, I called.”

“And I came, my Friend, as did Percival.” Lancelot lifted his goblet in salute. “I would go through fire and torture for you.”

She nodded. Pride swelled in her chest once more for her Prince’s effect on people. For Merlin, helping people comes naturally. How I wish he would take the hint! “As would we all, Good Knight.”

“I am nobody’s knight…at least not at the moment.” Lancelot glanced. He maintained Dignity’s mask tightly across his face. His eyes betrayed the slightest of glances. Despite spending the previous two days in the Physicians’ Chamber to keep him under wraps, he’d peered out the door and down the hall toward the guest chambers. His eyes kept alighting on one door in particular.

“We’ll deal with that shortly,” she assured him. “You have a number of the sitting Kings out there who recommend you without qualification. And then there’s this other person. He couldn’t stop supporting you when Father asked him about you. I wonder who that is?” She smirked at Merlin.

“I know. The same one that’s always looking out for everyone and never wants anything in return. Well today and tomorrow will be a celebration for me. Princess, all I require is that Merlin has his happiness…even if he needs to be dragged to it kicking and screaming,” Lancelot clarified.

“Don’t I know it?” She added a healthy snort for emphasis. He certainly knows you, my Warlock.

I’m not that bad, Merlin disagreed.

Oh? I could disagree. Still we’ll have time enough to discuss such things. She inspected Merlin with a careful eye. “You look the part.”

At that moment, Regius stuck his head into the chamber. “Pardon me, Princess?” He bowed.

She nodded. “It’s time. Father awaits me.” She walked over to Merlin. “Remember, Merlin, no doubts. You’re worthy.” She squeezed his hands in hers. “I love you.”

He smiled. His eyes twinkled. “I love you, my Princess.” He leaned in. His lips brushed across hers. /

“Now and forever, my Prince.” She exhaled. Then with another bow of the head to them both, she walked from the chamber. And I will be watching over the Link. NO FRETTING!

Yes, Dear, Merlin retorted.

Best you remember that.

Not that you won’t let me, he teased.

No I won’t. I’m sure you won’t let me forget either. Confidence, Merlin, she concluded before going silent.

Lancelot nodded. “She’s good for you, Merlin.”

“She spoils me,” Merlin declared.

“So she does. Enjoy it. You’ve earned it if I know you,” Lancelot advised. “Enjoy the moment.”

“Lancelot…”

“I mean it, Merlin. Everyone’s here to see your big moments today and tomorrow. We’re here for you. If anyone deserves this good fortune, it’s you. All right? You and this kingdom will be good for each other. She and you will be great together,” Lancelot assessed.

“If I can keep Gawain out of trouble?” Merlin coughed.

“Now that will take some doing. It might take all of your magic. Right?” Lancelot jabbed. He sought a laugh from his friend.

Merlin chuckled. He grinned. “Thanks.”

“That’s better. Don’t mention it.” Lancelot regarded his friend well. “It won’t be long now.” His eyes drifted toward the door again.

“She could use a friend,” Merlin reminded him. “I know it’s not easy to think about her.”

Lancelot nodded. “The priestesses filled me in. If Gwen will accept me as much, you know I’ll do what I can.”

At that moment, the trumpets cut off any further discussion.

“That’s about right. Ready?” Merlin supposed.

“For you to get your due, always.” Lancelot rubbed his friend’s shoulder.

With that, Patience asserted an uneasy presence in that place. A very uneasy presence indeed….

Chapter Text

Chapter 4

Regius strode out onto the dais. He strode toward its center making sure not to make eye contact with anyone in the audience. Once in front of the three thrones, he cleared his throat. “GOOD MORNING, REGAL MONARCHS AND DIGNITARIES! WELCOME TO NEMETH AND OUR ESTEEMED CASTLE! AND NOW, YOUR HOSTS, KING RODOR AND PRINCESS MITHIAN! Sire?” He retreated back toward the side of the platform as quickly yet gracefully as he could manage.

The assembly rose to its feet at the pronouncement. Conversations ended. Their eyes turned toward the front.

Mithian entered from the side. Giddiness and Excitement pulled at her simultaneously. Somehow she kept the Mask of State firmly draped across her features. Please let us get through this without a crisis. I can just see Arthur trying something.

Now who’s fretting? Merlin baited.

You must be rubbing off on me, Merlin. Wonder how that happened? she retorted without giving an inch. She stood in front of the throne furthest to the left.

Must be the snorting and belching, he teased.

Somehow she kept from rolling her eyes at that assessment. Instead she turned toward the door and waited for Rodor.

After the trumpet sounded again, Rodor strode across the stage. He looked out across the audience. Satisfaction warmed his heart over his counterparts’ attendance. Their numbers assuaged Disappointment’s sting over Arthur’s absence. He could almost feel Mithian’s nerves churning from across the expanse. Reassurance’s smile sent soothing waves in her direction. His eye caught the empty right throne. Soon you’ll have a Prince sitting upon you once again. How I wish you hadn’t been vacant for so long. That will be taken care of shortly. He took the last stride and stopped in front of his own place. With practiced regality, he faced the assembled masses.

The audience responded accordingly. The royals nodded. The males of lesser status bowed. The ladies curtseyed. Respect guided them in such ways.

“Fellow rulers! Assembled members of the court! Friends and Other Guests! It is my honor to greet you. Welcome to Nemeth and our castle! It is my hope you’re comfortable in all regards.” He exhaled deeply allowing a calming breath to soothe his own mood. “Today is truly special for our kingdom. We have our Prince’s coronation of course. In addition we have three other ennoblements to perform. We have knighthoods to bestow. Then shall come the coronation. First for the bestowing of noble status, I call Peter of Nemeth, Sarah of Nemeth and Hunith of Ealdor up here. Please stand and come forward,” Rodor told them.

Surprise and Shock unsteadied Sarah. Me? What did I do? I’m a servant. How am I worthy? She noticed Support coming from Britomart and Mithian alike at that point. They supported me? This is why she had me change my dress! Her eyes went wide.

Peter smiled. He took his wife’s hand. He guided her toward the dais. For her sake and his own, he maintained his resolve. Still his own butterflies threatened to fly off with him; their wings gliding upon Nerves’ breeze.

Hunith stared at the King and Princess. Granted Mithian had told her repeatedly that she would be ennobled at this stage. Still Disbelief seemed to distort Rodor’s assurances in that regard. She froze for a heartbeat. Then her mind snapped back to normal. She walked at a steady if not slow pace toward the front. As she reached that point, she apologized, “Pardon me, Your Majesty. I cannot thank you enough for this kindness.” She curtseyed before the two royals.

Peter and Sarah bowed and curtseyed respectively once more.

“You’re welcome, Hunith. It is an honor you’ve been long due. As Sir Balinor’s partner and the mother of his son, you are worthy. For the way you raised Merlin and served as your village’s leader, I would maintain you proved yourself once more,” Rodor assured her. He drew his sword from its scabbard. Then he gently tapped her on each shoulder. “I raise you to the status of noblewoman of Nemeth and a member of the royal household. Congratulations, Lady Hunith.”

Warmth and Welcome shone in Mithian’s eyes for her soon-to-be Mother-in-Law. She’d reassured Hunith several times both in Ealdor and afterwards of her place. Now her father had made it official. We have more family! Maybe now certain other people will believe?

I heard that! Merlin noted.

Did you? So you do hear when we tell you to believe? It is going to happen, Mithian assured him.

Hunith trembled. “Thank you, Sire.” She curtseyed again not sure of what else to do.

Rodor nodded to her. Then he moved on to Peter and Sarah. “And now we have our inspiring couple. Since your discovery in the palace garden, Master Poet, you have been nothing short of exemplary in your service. Mistress, the Princess and Lady Britomart both speak to your abilities in our household and in support of our service. I deem you both worthy. Therefore I raise you both to the status of nobleman and noblewoman of Nemeth.” He tapped each of their shoulders in turn. “Congratulations, Lord Peter and Lady Sarah.”

“Thank you, Sire,” they expressed with another bow and curtsey apiece.

“You’re all welcome. Thank you for your service. You may return to your places,” Rodor dismissed. As they did so, he offered Mithian a smile. Then he turned back to the assembled onlookers. “Next. We have those to add to our knights’ numbers. Each of these warriors has proven himself or herself on the battlefield. They all have overcome adversity. They serve the Greater Good. They sacrifice readily for others. Between my own observations in addition to those of you in attendance, I believe they will bring honor to Nemeth and Britannia on the whole.”

Mithian looked to her father and nodded. Are you ready, Merlin?

Is it time? Merlin pushed down a round of butterflies.

It is. We await Lancelot and you, she bade.

Rodor cleared his throat. “Can Merlin of Ealdor and Lancelot please come out?”

The assembled royals and guests stared at him. While Surprise overwhelmed Annis (and maybe one or two others) over Merlin’s summons, they weren’t sure what to make out of his calling for Lancelot. Eyebrows raised. Frowns curled the sides of their mouths. Wonder pushed their minds in all sorts of directions.

Gwen gasped. Her eyes went wide. She of course remembered him being dead. She watched fire consume his corpse on the funeral pyre. Her mind instantly recalled how he reappeared to come between Arthur and her. Ironically by doing so, he’d set this whole sequence of events in motion. She took several deep breaths to try and compose herself. How can he be here? He’s dead. Is he revived again? If so, I have to let them know. Still her heart skipped a beat betraying its purpose. Temptation tugged at her again. Old Love stirred in her chest. Even if he is alive, you’re committed to Arthur! You can’t.

Gawain scrunched his eyes. What the blimey Hell? Lance is dead! He sacrificed himself! He saw Percival and Leon both look back in his direction. Obviously both had the same conclusion. He shook his head.

The trumpets sounded once again.

Merlin and Lancelot stepped into view. Each looked at the other. Then they considered the audience. Clearly they could see Shock etched into many of the onlookers’ faces.

“You always did make that kind of impression,” Merlin supposed.

Lancelot frowned. “I didn’t want it to be like this, Merlin. I….” His heart stopped his speech. His eyes drifted inevitably toward their left and through the audience. Instinct guided his brain toward her…toward his maid turned Queen….

…toward Gwen….

Lancelot’s eyes narrowed when he saw her by herself. Where’s Arthur? What’s going on? He should be here! He’d noticed that Merlin and the others had avoided mentions of Camelot’s King to him…peculiarly so. His heart beat ever faster. Temptation whispered to him of Opportunity’s opening.

Gwen gaped. She trembled. Joy filled her eyes with tears running down her cheeks. Her breath rasped in short bursts. Despite of (and perhaps because of) her current state of affairs, her mind snapped back to that particular place and time instead of drifting toward Camelot. “Lancelot?”

Morgana blinked. He was sent back after my spell was broken. She quirked an eyebrow and frowned.

“LANCE! You’re alive!” Gawain exclaimed. Forgetting his place and the event involved, he rushed up to the dais and tackled his friend. Relief and Joy flooded through himself.

“Aye, Gawain. I don’t know what happened. The priestesses do however,” Lancelot informed him while returning the embrace. “I should’ve known you’d watch out for Merlin.”

“Like any of us are going to let anything happen to him? Although he’s got some explaining to do if he knew you were here.” Gawain turned to everyone. “It’s him! IT’S REALLY HIM!”

“Priestess Freya, can you explain?” Lancelot requested. He turned toward Rodor. “I’m sorry, Sire. We should have….”

“It’s all right. I’d rather have a disruption for these reasons than for negative ones. Perhaps though we might….” Rodor noticed Gwen drifting toward the dais. “Queen Guinevere?”

The crowd turned their eyes toward her and the front.

Morgana sighed. She just can’t help herself. I almost wish Arthur was here to see this. A naughty smirk crossed her face at that thought.

“Gwen, are you unwell? You look so pale and drawn,” Lancelot observed. Of course he’d watched her in the passage. When he couldn’t call out to her (because of this surprise), Denial’s dagger stabbed through his heart over and over again. Concern and Amor surveyed her features and took in her pain.

“It’s been a hard…time, Lancelot. I’m sorry. Is it you? Is it really you?” Gwen insisted.

Lancelot smiled. His eyes sparkled akin to Sol dancing on a meandering stream in primeval woods. “I was brought back. It’s really me this time.” Without another word, he seized onto her pulling her into a tight embrace.

Gwen returned the gesture. She held him as tightly as she could manage against herself. Relief flooded through her as well. “It really is you!” Her own smile widened.

“Aye, Gwen. It’s me. It’s good to see you again.” Lancelot cleared his throat. Instinct and Amor directed him to take advantage of the situation. Still Chivalry and Loyalty to Arthur made him break off the embrace. “We should speak on this later. I have many questions.”

“Of course! We….” Gwen looked toward Rodor and Mithian. She grimaced. “I…I…”

“As I said before, I’d rather have a heartfelt point like this than a negative one, Queen Guinevere. It’s all right. Perhaps we might complete our ceremony? Then we will have ample time for explanations and celebrations galore. Speaking of which, Lancelot, perhaps we might want to give you one more reason to celebrate?” Rodor assured.

“Aye! Of course! Thank you, Sire.” Lancelot looked again to Gwen.

“Go. It’s all right.” Her eyes sparkled into his. She motioned toward the dais. Then she returned to her place in the assembly.

Mithian looked at her father. As much as she wanted to say something more, she knew he’d want to get on with the matter at hand. You’re going to have to tell me what’s going on between Lancelot and Gwen, Merlin.

It’s a long story. We’ll have to do it later. Your father needs me. Sorry, Merlin noted.

Later it is. She nodded to him sending assurances in that regard.

Rodor cleared his throat. “Well it seems we have another reason to celebrate. The return of a long lost friend is truly a joy to everyone! We have two miracles here. One, our revived friend came back to serve anew. The other, a servant turned into something more….a knight, a Prince and Joy itself. Merlin and Lancelot, kneel in front of me.”

Merlin and Lancelot caught their breath. Celebration’s spontaneous outburst had frazzled Tradition’s ritual knocking it clearly off course. They looked at each other and then stepped toward Rodor. They kneeled and looked up toward him.

Rodor nodded. “Do you swear to protect this realm? Will you place it before your own life and concerns? Will you look out for each other and your fellow knights? Will you protect our royal personages? Will you protect the people of Nemeth?”

“I shall,” Lancelot vowed.

“I will protect our land, people and you both with every inch of my being, Sire,” Merlin promised. And you, my Princess and Heart.

Mithian’s eyes watered. She grinned. Joy and Elation sent her heart soaring. Granted the final vows weren’t until the next day. Still he had pretty much said as much right then and there.

Merlin’s was Nemeth’s and hers….his words to her ears….his mind to hers….

Rodor nodded in understanding toward his daughter. Despite not having her sensitivity, he could still see Merlin’s impact on her. He allowed them their three or four heartbeats. Then he turned back toward the two kneeling men. “I hold your vows. Thank you both. Rise as knights, Sir Merlin and Sir Lancelot.”

The assembled royals broke into a round of applause for their friends. Granted they had questions about what had happened. Still they could wait for those answers. Right now they wanted to share in Glory’s exuberance. After heartbreak, Celebration beckoned beyond the next stage.

The two newest knights stood slowly. They shared a warm hug soaking in Friendship’s shared moment.

Lancelot bowed to Rodor. “Thank you, Sire. Before I disrupt things further, this is Merlin’s time and yours. Thank you.”

“Indeed so, Sir Lancelot. Stand with your new companions. I am overjoyed to hear of your return. Welcome to my service,” Rodor concurred. Then he turned to Merlin. “I suppose you know what happens next?”

“I think so, Sire.” Merlin bowed his head. Insecurity threatened to sap Resolve’s strength all the more.

“There are the final two stages. In the first one you will bind yourself to this kingdom’s service. Do you understand?” Rodor informed him.

“I do. I am ready to serve our land, people, you and the triple goddess,” Merlin informed him.

“Splendid.” Rodor exchanged nods with Freya before pressing on. “As the rulers in this chamber know, our dynastic households require continuity to survive.” He sucked in a deep breath. “We require an heir to sit on the throne to provide continuity and stability. It is fortunate indeed that Princess Mithian strongly stands for us and her subjects in many virtuous ways. Through her, our royal blood will flow forth. It is also a great stroke of fortune that you, Sir Merlin, have arisen from the shadows to prove your own virtue to our royal eye. You overcame great injury and prejudice to do so. And not by coincidence, the Princess has chosen you for her intended.”

Hunith trembled. Her eye met those around herself. Pride swelled through her over her son’s budding accomplishment.

Merlin inhaled deeply. “Sire, I just did my duty for you, Nemeth and Princess Mithian.” He smiled warmly at his beloved for an instant before riveting his eyes back to the floor.

Mithian blushed. Her heart skipped a beat at his affirmation of duty to herself and everything she held dear.

Rodor beamed warmly. “I appreciate your love for her and this royal house, Sir Merlin. Do not be troubled by such displays. You realize what the burden is you are about to take on?”

“I do, Sire,” Merlin asserted.

“Do you swear to serve Nemeth before your own needs? Will you serve your King and people with justice and fairness?” Rodor queried.

“I will, Sire.”

“Do you swear to uphold the laws of Nemeth before all others? Even if it means your death, will you protect our land?” Rodor proposed.

“I will continue to do so, Sire. I can do no less,” Merlin promised earnestly.

“I thank you for your troth and pledge, Sir Merlin.” Rodor walked with dignity and measured steps toward the smaller throne to his right. There he picked up a round golden crown with a few rubies and garnets encrusted around its circumference. “As you have sworn, so I remind you to keep to your oaths. While we lead, we also serve our subjects. They are entrusted to our care.” He returned to the kneeling sorcerer and stood before him. He held the crown over his ebon hair. “As I know you shall….” He lowered the crown onto the waiting head allowing it to rest gently on the dark strands underneath. “Prince Merlin. Please rise a true member of my house.”

Merlin gulped. As with Hunith, his chest threatened to seize up from the anxiety. He felt the other eyes watching him both in support and derision. Still he only cared in that moment about a certain pair of watering eyes and a big grin looming in front of himself.

All for him…from his Princess Fair….

He slowly rose to his feet. His mind spun. He seemed to have it all in that heartbeat. Duty balanced itself between the secular and sacred. Position fixed itself as firmly as the Prince’s crown on his head. Familia and Security eased any concern. The one thing seemingly missing was that final bond. He glanced again toward her.

Technicalities, Merlin. You swore yourself to me today. And I made you a promise. Remember? Tomorrow I fulfill it. I will only stand before Father with you, my Prince. Let us enjoy this time with our friends. We have work enough ahead. I love you. Remember that too.

Just don’t belch at the feast please. I don’t think your father can deal with it, Merlin jabbed.

She somehow kept her eyes from rolling. I do know how to behave despite what some people think. She stepped down from her position to his side. “My Prince. Now I can call you that.” She curtseyed to him.

Merlin stifled his response. Objection blazed through himself over the gesture. Granted he understood Tradition’s role. Still Mithian was his equal, his partner and love. As far as he was concerned, she’d curtsey to no man save her father. “My Princess.” He raised her hand. His lips whispered Amor’s sweet nothings across her knuckles and the soft white skin there.

Mithian’s eyes twinkled. She smirked at him. Well now! You do know a few things. Will wonders never cease?

Must be the role model. Somebody maybe at the Rising Sun? I don’t know, Merlin teased.

Mithian coughed. You’re impossible, Merlin. Just wait until tomorrow. It’ll be so worth it.

Merlin somehow kept his own expression straight. “Then until tomorrow.” He bowed to her. Then he slowly made his feet move one in front of the other. He stumbled nearly losing his balance. Still he straightened himself and made his way to Rodor’s right and the waiting throne.

The Prince’s throne….His throne.

Wow. He took his place in that spot. His eyes looked over everyone concerned. Granted he still felt out of sorts. Inferiority besieged Security’s walls in futile effort…

…especially when Mithian’s warm vibes broke that siege easily….

“HEY! HOW ABOUT PRINCE MERLIN!” Gawain yelled out. “WE’RE BEING TOO BLOODY QUIET!” He turned toward his friend. Pride, Admiration and Congratulations all shone in his eyes. (Granted Merlin would still owe him at least three rounds later for not telling him about Lancelot.) Still he couldn’t help himself either. He got down on one knee. “LONG LIVE THE PRINCE!”

“LONG LIVE PRINCE MERLIN!” Mithian echoed.

The other knights and Nemeth’s court kneeled as well. Given how extraordinary these events had been, they would be forgiven for not acknowledging their new Prince.

“LONG LIVE THE PRINCE! LONG LIVE THE PRINCE!” the entire assembly cheered.

Merlin soaked it in. He’d done it. He was now there. Still he knew the real reason…Belief’s source…the extraordinary woman standing to her father’s left.

Sometimes it took just such things to make it all work…..

Chapter Text

Chapter 5 [Forest—Ten Leagues from Camelot—A Turn of the Hourglass Later]

Prince Bors pulled up on the reins. He turned back toward the citadel. Regret burdened his heart. Doubt burned his mind. He shook his head. Query would not stop its nagging. A heavy sigh escaped his lips.

Logic had deserted Camelot or so it seemed…..

Recent events left him scratching his head. His father regaled him with tales. Legend lurked around every page. Glory waited at the end of each journey. Light and Love shone down on the fabled city. Reason overwhelmed Superstition and Ignorance. Equality served as rule. Justice was the Pendragons’ handmaiden.

Veritas, however, crushed Illusion and Fantasia under its boot…..

How can Father appreciate such heavy handed maneuvers? Granted they’re not of the Old Religion. Still did Father know how Uther crushed them? Did he know of how Uther intimidated the other rulers around himself? Now it all comes crashing down. Now Arthur is stuck with the fallout. Bors shook his head. Bile left a bad taste in his mouth. The very structure he depends on tears his base asunder. The knights are due their advancement and rewards for excellent service. Even his best servant, Merlin, could no longer be denied his rightful due. And magic? I don’t understand how magic is so loathed. Master Chretien has shown how it can be used for good or ill like any other weapon. He exhaled. Inheritance has soured Arthur’s outlook. Meleagant and Edgar of Hampton expose Arthur’s weaknesses. The woman exile will attract still more opponents. Queen Guinevere’s departure raises still more doubts for Arthur. He ground his teeth. As if he needs any more problems with the ones he has? Perhaps I can visit with Father in Nemeth before he returns to Gaul? I can hope so.

Five other knights dressed in light blue rode up behind him. Their eyes looked about the area. With the issues at Camelot’s court, they didn’t trust Security’s grip upon their path. Instead they remained on guard for their Prince’s safety.

“My Prince, shall we ride ahead?” A blonde haired rider bowed as best as could manage in the saddle.

“I think not, Pierre. No telling what might befall any man, woman or beast riding alone in these woods. The Hamptonians threatened two women leaving the city just a fortnight ago. How might they value us? Ransom may be the only thing commanding attention out here. Stay alert. We have a day and a morning’s ride ahead of us,” Bors assessed.

Chill suddenly weighed down upon them. Stench irritated his nostrils. Silence muffled the forest’s sounds. Static raised the hairs on the backs of their heads.

The horses neighed and whinnied. Their hooves pitter-pattered on the cool soft dirt. Skittishness jolted their movements. Clearly they wanted to be any place but there.

The knights drew their swords. They stiffened. Ambush felt close at hand. They felt its hot breath down their backs.

Bors shook his head. A dark frown curled his lips. “Linger here no longer! MOVE!” He turned back toward the road. He spurred his horse forward down the path. Responsibility urged him not to take his knights’ safety for granted. He pressed on.

Overhead, Sol climbed past the first quarter of his day. Before long, he’d reach his high point. Soon after that, he’d race toward his rest in West’s comfort.

With that in mind, the Gallic contingent wasted no further time. They drove their horses as quickly as they dared. The road seemed to drag on.

But still better Whitgate than there. Irony, it seemed, was not in short demand those days……

 

****

 

[Several Heartbeats Later]

Instinct had merit after all.

As soon as the last hoof beats faded into the distance, the cloaked woman stepped into view. Her eyes burned scarlet from under the concealing hood. “How right you are, Young Prince. Pity the Pendragon lacks your insight.” She pointed and whispered a chant in some forgotten dialect. Then he added, “Seng! Seng!”

Once more her eyes glowed albeit in a canary color,

A florescent sparkling trail streamed down the aforementioned path. It seemed that someone was leaving a path be it accidentally or not.

“Aye. Do run to your safe haven. It will not be so for long.” She glanced back toward Camelot. She coughed. Then she raised her hands and vanished in a dark flash of light.

Challenge lurked everywhere on that morning……

Chapter Text

Chapter 6 [Whitgate]

Coronation Day busted forward with activity. Hands waited to be shaken. Greetings exchanged. Smiles and pleasant expression given (even if one felt otherwise). Meetings (and still more meetings) droned on. Invitations to visit offered.

And for some, Expectation suffocated Capability…..

 

****

 

Merlin sipped from a goblet of water. His left hand felt strange bearing the vessel’s weight. Given that his right hand and arm seemed like porridge more than an actual appendage, Discretion bade him to try something new in that regard as well. He leaned back against the wall. His eyes scanned the assembled rulers and well-wishers. How does Arthur do this all day? Can I do this? He spied his friends enjoying themselves. I wish I could do this like they do.

Do what, my Prince? Mithian interjected over the Link.

He arched his brow. He found her off to the chamber’s northeast corner. He noticed that she was talking with Queen Annis over something or other. Just be polished and smooth as you are. My arm feels like it’s ready to fall off. They’re talking over my head. I understand some of it from listening to Arthur and Gwen back in Camelot.

You need practice, Merlin. Nobody expects you to be polished in just one day. Just part of those rough edges I was speaking of, Mithian assured him. She finished her conversation with Annis. Then, after a smile and a handshake, she walked toward him.

He found a servant’s water pitcher. Habit guided him to refill the goblet. Amor brushed aside Fatigue. Duty aided his offering to her.

“And a goblet of water too?” She nodded. Her eyes twinkled at him. “I’m parched. Thank you.” She accepted it and took a hearty draught from it. “Better.” She handed it back to him. “What’s going on? Are you all right?”

“I feel…” He shrugged. “I don’t know…overwhelmed. Have to say it looks a lot easier from the side.”

She nodded. “It is. Still Confidence and Skill accompany Repetition in these interactions. You’ve engaged the other rulers. You’re trying to make small talk. Just don’t make any promises. If anyone tries to make you commit, refer them to Father. Keep it simple. You weren’t the greatest servant right away. Were you?”

He rolled his eyes. “At first, I could barely keep Arthur’s goblet filled right. I couldn’t remember how he liked his food and at what time. There’s a way he likes his sheets and…you get the idea.”

She smiled. “But you learned all of that over time. You’ll do this too. I know it.” She rubbed his arm. “I have every bit of confidence in you, Merlin. You need to have it in yourself.” Impishness sparkled in her eyes and twisted her mouth into a smirk.

“What?” He considered her oddly for a heartbeat or two.

You learned quickly enough under the mistletoe, Merlin. She snorted.

Embarrassment flushed his cheeks with its crimson streaks. He looked around to see if anybody could have “overheard” that. That’s different. That was…well….

Between us? Merlin, we both relaxed and let it happen. We got in the moment. For us both, it was the first time. We were equals in a wonderful place. That’s how you have to look at it. You’re now their equal. You’re royalty. Just keep being mindful of everything. Work on skill and polish. Father and I are watching. She looked at him again. What?

Mithian, we’re lucky you didn’t get pregnant. That would’ve been a scandal, he fretted.

Aye. It would’ve been. She sipped on the shared goblet. Still, Merlin, it would’ve been on me and not you. You were my valet. I ordered you to be your true self. I fed you. If anyone had asked, I would’ve told them that I seduced you.

I wouldn’t let you take the blame. You have a kingdom and your reputation. It’s easier for me to just…. He shook his head not wanting to even consider her impugning herself.

Easier for what? For you to be executed? Maybe Arthur might have made you into a eunuch? Nay. Father and I would have gone to him, stated our case and demanded your freedom. It would’ve ruffled feathers but it would’ve worked out. Besides bearing our child one day will be my greatest joy. If it meant giving this up, I’d do it. We’d have gone to Ealdor and had our family there. It wouldn’t have been an easy life. Still one’s familia means more than all of the riches and power in the world. That means you, my Soon to Be Husband. Aye we have our mantles to consider. But we have ourselves as well. That balance defines who we are, she explained.

I wouldn’t have let you do that. You’re too important to the Greater Good to throw yourself away. Arthur’s a prat but I can’t believe he’d push it that far. He’s already hurt you once, he noted.

Politics and Ego drive rulers to do strange things, Merlin. Certainly you’ve seen Arthur already acting out of character over our situation. Still you’re showing instincts. That’s why Father has confidence in you, she observed.

And you?

She shrugged and smirked. I might be persuaded that your rough edges are worthwhile.

He sighed. His mind bounced down toward the Physician’s Chamber downstairs. “I wonder how Gaius is doing? I haven’t checked on him all day.”

“We’re about finished in here. Let’s check on him. Come,” she agreed. She took his hand and led him toward the door.

Seemed a break was opportune….

Chapter Text

Chapter 7 [Physician’s Chambers—A Quarter Turn of the Hourglass Later]
[A/N: Major hanky alert! You’ve been advised!]

In contrast to Extravagance’s hustle and bustle, the main chamber lingered in repose. Silence stifled most sounds. Hopelessness saturated the air like Humidity on a hot summer day. Sol hid behind his cloud cover not wishing to spotlight the downward spiral within.

Death lingered on the periphery. She waited for her cue…..

 

****

 

Gaius wheezed and rasped on the mattress. Numbness had claimed his arms and legs. His lungs burned. Breaths whispered forth with great effort. Sweat dripped from his forehead. His chest ached. He narrowed his eyes. He fought against the inevitable tide. With assistance, he could take sips of water or broth.

Ninane fussed over him. Worry nagged at her. She frowned knowing that the inevitable would happen no matter what she did. She also knew the goddess’ intentions. She wiped his brow with a damp rag infused with numbing herbal remedies. Milady, it will not be long. I cannot heal him.

Your efforts are appreciated, Child. No matter the patient, service is your aim. You do not judge. That is for me, the goddess replied.

He is in great pain. I would have given him nightshade or hemlock to end it sooner, Ninane assessed.

Gaius is to feel that. As he sat back and let others feel pain, so too shall he feel the same. Emrys and Mithian will arrive soon. I wish for them to see him before the end comes, the goddess declared.

On cue, a knocking came from the door. It eased open.

“Priestess Ninane?” Mithian called.

“I am here. Please come in, Princess. Is Merlin with you?” Ninane set the rag down on the worn wooden table beside the suffering physician.

“Aye. How’s Gaius? Any improvement?” Merlin asked. He hustled into the room. Concern blanked out just about every other thought from his mind. He leaned over his former mentor. “Gaius? Gaius, it’s Merlin.”

Gaius coughed. His eyes flickered open. He moved his lips. Disease robbed him of words.

Merlin supported Gaius’ head. His trained eye sized up the elder’s prognosis. His fingers recoiled at Gaius’ clammy complexion. Despair and Grief washed away Celebration’s previous high. He held a wooden cup to Gaius’ mouth. “Sip. It’s all right.”

Gaius’ head moved ever so slightly. The water passed through his mouth and into his throat. He coughed.

Merlin probed Gaius’ wrist. He only discerned the slightest pulse. He frowned. I wish I’d known. I would’ve skipped the reception.

Father would have understood. Mithian squeezed his arm. Her eyes looked over the patient. “How much longer does he have?”

“Not long.” He bowed his head. Despite Strife’s and Disagreement’s recent erosion of their relationship, Merlin loved Gaius like a second father or uncle. He’d learned so many lessons. He’d benefited from the experience. Structure and Life had come to him from Gaius’ keen mind and wit. They saved each other from dangers both internal and external to Camelot. They’d made mistakes but learned as they could. His eyes watered.

Priestess Freya? Mithian called.

Aye, Princess? Freya responded.

Master Gaius nears his end. Can you guide those who knew him here? Mithian requested.

I will do so. Thank you, Freya assured her. Then she went silent turning to the task at hand.

Mithian nodded. Despite not knowing Gaius that well, Pain and Sadness crashed into her psyche through the Link. She placed her hand on his shoulder. “I’m here.”

“I know. I….” Merlin’s voice broke with each word. Lament threatened to shut him down. Still he pressed on. “I wish he could say something.”

“He loves you, Merlin. You know that.” Mithian reassured him. She heard a loud knocking at the door. “I’ll be right back.” She hustled over and opened it.

Gwen, Hunith, Gawain, Lancelot and Percival waited in the passage.

“Princess, is it true? Is Gaius…?” Lancelot inquired.

“He’s almost gone.” Mithian motioned toward the sick bed. “If you have any last thoughts, now would be the time.” She led the quintet into the chamber. Somberly she closed the door behind them.

“Merlin?” Hunith embraced him.

“Mother, there’s got to be something we can do. I tried a couple of healing spells. They didn’t work.” Merlin’s eyes watered. His voice cracked in a whisper akin to Autumn’s leaves crackling on the dry and cold ground. “Why won’t they work? WHY?”

“I wish I knew. Oh, Merlin, I’m sorry. I know you want to help everyone,” Hunith apologized.

“And knowing you, Merlin, you’ve done everything possible,” Lancelot assured him.

“You’ve got that right, Lance.” Gawain agreed. “Wish there was more we could say or do.”

“We’re here, Gawain. We can support Gaius in his last moments,” Gwen told him. “At least we can do that much.” She wiped the dying man’s brow with the cloth. She heard the other’s breath hissing barely above a whisper. She bit her lip. She glanced back at Ninane who’d retreated to the back wall to give them space.

“He wants it that way. We may disagree over what…what’s going on. But we love him. He’s…family,” Merlin asserted. His breathing rasped. His eyes blurred from the tears. He held the frail hand in his own. “That’s what we all learned at Camelot. Wasn’t it? Even if we’re in different places now, we…we’re still family.”

Gaius forced his eyes open. Through narrow slits, Warmth’s last sparkle showed for his former charge. A smile flashed across his face. He tried to speak but no sound would come.

Merlin hugged Gaius. Frustration, Grief, Sadness and Melancholy all flooded through him. He whispered four more spells. He tried valiantly to hold Death back.

Gaius slumped in his arms. His spirit left his body. He lingered for a few heartbeats. Then another force pulled him from the chamber and into the next world.

Merlin sobbed. Tears ran down his face. He quivered and shuddered. Still he managed to set Gaius back on the cot. Reverence guided him to pull the blanket up as if his former mentor was sleeping.

“Merlin, it’ll be all right. He’s not in pain any longer,” Gwen assured him.

“I know. I just wish…I could’ve helped him.” Merlin gasped. He checked the pillow to make sure it was straight under Gaius’ head. He turned to Ninane. “Do we know where Alice is buried?”

“Alice?” Confusion clouded Percival’s expression.

“The love of his life,” Merlin clarified. “He’d want to be buried beside her.” He stepped back.

“We’ll find her,” Mithian affirmed. She embraced him. “I’m here, Merlin. I’m so sorry about him. Whatever you need, we’ll make sure it’s done.”

“Let’s make sure he’s all right.” Numbness enveloped Merlin. “Maybe Britomart can help me…?”

“She and I can take care of this, Merlin,” Gwen volunteered. “Princess, maybe Hunith and you can…”

“I want to take care of this, Gwen. I owe him that much,” Merlin disagreed.

“Come on, Merlin. There are others who can….” Gawain started.

“I have this!” Merlin almost snapped. He gently eased the blanket over Gaius’ head. “We need to find that place.”

“And we’ll do that,” Hunith told him. “You don’t need to see him like this. It’ll be all right.” She turned back to Ninane. “Can you find her?”

“Nimue would know. She knew him at that point. Emrys…Merlin, I’m sorry. I….” Ninane answered adding an apology in the process. Her throat and mouth refused to complete the sentence. She couldn’t tell him that the spells were blocked. She couldn’t reveal the source of that judgment….

…even if it was painfully obvious….

Before anyone could say anything more, she vanished in a puff of mist.

“Merlin, please. Let Gwen and Britomart take care of Gaius,” Hunith implored. “I know you want to take charge.”

“Mother, I have to.” Merlin shook off her advisory.

“Merlin, listen to your Mom and Mith. They’ve got it. I’ll get Brit. You know her. She’ll practically obsess over everything. Just…go. Mith, maybe you might want to tell your Dad? Percy, can you stay with Gwen?” Gawain told his friend.

“Gawain, I…I…” Merlin shuddered. He began to cry.

Within a heartbeat, Mithian embraced him again. Please, my Prince. Please come with Mother and me. We will see him buried. It will be all right. Father can delay the ceremony.

Merlin shook his head. I need you, Mithian. He looked up into her eyes. Just stay with me.

As if you need to ask? Mithian took his hand. We can come back later.

I can’t deal with the reception. And Mithian, we can’t risk getting caught doing…you know, Merlin disagreed.

You’re amazing. You’re grieving and suffering. And yet you think of my situation before your own, Mithian complimented. It will be all right. Come on. With that she led him from the chamber.

“He would’ve wanted to see Merlin married,” Gwen noted.

“Merlin took it better than I thought,” Percival presumed.

Hunith shook her head. “He’s keeping it inside. Just make sure you take care of Gaius. All right? I’ll catch up to them.”

“On it!” Gawain rushed from the chamber. He practically ran toward the stairs and the reception chamber.

Tragedy could strike at any time even at Celebration’s triumph…..

Chapter Text

Chapter 8 [Reception—A Sixth Turn of the Hourglass Later]

Gawain slipped back into the reception chamber. He disregarded the thinning crowd of royalty. Frankly he’d rather have been back at the Rising Sun or even the Half Moon on the other side of Whitgate. There at least he’d be able to slam a few pints with townspeople and knights. Folks that he could relate to instead of the windbags. It must be nice. They sign a few decrees. They hear a few people whine about this and that. Too bad none of them would hear my situation. Too bad none of them would stand up to Big Red or his bloody uncle. Cowards!

Indignation swamped his sensibilities. Outrage burned through his brain.

That stupid load of garbage has to stop! His eyes found Britomart across the room. She seems just as bored. Wish she’d been downstairs earlier. Aw give her a break. She was up here playing the new knight and supporting Mith. Not like she can be in two places at once. He waved to her and motioned toward the door.

She narrowed her eyes. A pointed shrug with her hands betrayed her lack of understanding.

Get moving! What is her problem? He rolled his eyes. We really need to get our signals straight! Aw Hell! Rodor. Where is he? He scanned the crowd again before finding his new King….

…and as luck would have it, he was speaking with Morgana….

Great. Why her? Talk about the reason for being here! He sucked in a composing breath. Merlin and Gaius. Get Rodor downstairs. Then you can get as far from her as possible! He stalked over toward the duo. Fortunately he didn’t have to weave and bob through a chamber full of Gossip’s and Intrigue’s mindless babblings.

That would really have driven him toward the cask…mission or not….

How did Merlin do it? Now that he knew the truth, Gawain wondered how the supposed “Idiot” could spin the stories and serve Deception as well as he did them. He had to do it to survive. Well now you have to do it. He pressed on finally stopping about two or three steps from the royals in question. He cleared his throat.

Morgana pointedly ignored him drawing Rodor into another vein of discussion.

Gawain received and pointedly ignored that message. “Pardon me, Your Worship. We’ve got a problem.”

Rodor sighed. He remembered Mithian telling him about Gawain’s irreverence. “I’m sorry, Queen Morgana.”

“I understand considering the source,” Morgana accepted Rodor’s apology. She added a sharp glare for the knight in question.

Gawain coughed. He so wanted to snark her back right there and then. Still he could feel Britomart’s eyes watching the whole deal. (No comeback, however good it was, was worth that one’s lecture afterwards.) He also understood Probation’s requirements for sticking around. Grace pushed him into a halfway decent bow (for Rodor’s sake and certainly not hers). “You would know, Your Queenship. I have a big message for King Rodor. It’s about Gaius.”

“Gaius?” Rodor turned to Gawain. The elderly physician’s name completely held him riveted to the knight’s next word or facial expression. “He’s improved? I hope so! Then he can come tomorrow.”

Gawain shook his head. He frowned. “Sorry. He’s dead. Gwen, Lance and Percy are down there with him.”

Morgana suppressed Vengeance’s glee and happiness. Somehow she maintained a poker face. “Does Prince Merlin know?”

“Priestess Freya guided him, Princess Mithian and a few others down there. They left some time ago. I imagine Merlin would have gone right down there,” Rodor supposed.

“He was at Gaius’ side at the end. Prince Merlin really kept it together not that I’m surprised of course. M…Princess Mithian got him out of there after it happened. Hunith followed them. I ran right up here to get Britomart and you,” Gawain informed them.

Rodor nodded. Lament and Disappointment brought his mood down considerably. He’d genuinely hoped that Gaius would have recovered enough to witness the royal marriage. If not, he prayed that the elderly physician would’ve hung in for an extra day for Ceremony’s sake.

Now Mood’s countenance would be somber to say the least.

Still Rodor saw a silver lining. Not that he was surprised of course given how Merlin had persevered in Duty’s service following the injury at Samhain and Humiliation’s now infamous scene during that time. Still Merlin’s ability to maintain Discretion’s course and keep the Mask of State in place spoke volumes about the new Prince. Pride warmed his heart. Still he knew he had to see the situation for himself. “Queen Morgana, I’m sorry. We will finish our negotiations.”

“I understand. I should accompany you down there,” Morgana accepted.

“Yeah well, I’m going to tell Britomart. We’ll meet you down there,” Gawain noted fighting to keep Distaste’s frown off of his face. He bowed again and then crossed the room toward his fiancée.

Morgana placed the goblet on a table. Irony hammered its point home. She definitely saw that even Irreverence’s most dedicated servant could be relied on in such times. My lady? Is it true?

Aye. Gaius has passed on. I wish for you to accompany Rodor of Nemeth to that place, the goddess instructed.

As you wish. She noticed Rodor looking at her. “Pardon me. I was dealing with my inner thoughts. He and I were close once upon a time.”

“Of course.” Rodor sensed that there was more than just that to it. Still he allowed her space especially at that juncture. “The guests are taken care of. Shall we?”

“Thank you.” Morgana led the way toward the door and passage beyond. As she progressed, she shook her head at Gawain who was arguing over some point or another with Britomart. Leave that for later! Show some of that urgency!

 

****

 

[A Twelfth Turn of the Hourglass Earlier]

Britomart watched the passage door. She understood Merlin’s need to check on Gaius. She knew Mithian would accompany him. She simply tipped her goblet to Duty and let her Prince and Princess go about their business.

Still as the chimes sounded twice…then Freya fetched certain guests related to Camelot…and no further word came.

Acknowledgement morphed past Curiosity and into Concern.

Is he all right? They’ve been gone so long. Britomart set her goblet on the table. Habit goaded her to take it herself. Still Priority nagged at her about the missing guests.

Around her, the other guests thinned out. Discourse had run its course. Drowsiness pulled them toward their chambers. Entreaties perhaps beckoned to them.

Still she had other things to consider. Where did they all go? Is Master Gaius recovering? If not, why didn’t they come for me? She frowned.

At that point, Gawain hustled into the chamber. With a nod to her, he headed toward Rodor and Morgana. Panic and Sorrow had clearly left their marks on him. With barely a bow and a ‘pardon me’, he burst in on the two royals’ conversation.

What is he doing? She rolled her eyes. He’ll end up in the stocks for sure one day! Then she saw her wayward knight rush toward her. “Sir Gawain! What are you doing?”

“Brit, not now.” Gawain huffed a couple of breaths. “Gaius is dead.”

She stiffened. “He’s dead? Now?”

“That is what I just said. Right?” Gawain supposed; Sarcasm dripping from his words. “And it’s not like the big whatever cares about galas, parties or whatever! Come on!” He tugged on her sleeve.

Rationales pulled her mind in fifty different directions. She noticed Rodor’s departure. “This will change everything.”

“Yeah where Merlin’s concerned, it’s a big deal. For us too.” He took her by the hand and led her from the area. Frankly he was more concerned about his friends than their big party. (Okay he liked the feasting and drinking as we’ve already seen elsewhere. Still his friends did come first.)

Even if it meant ignoring Cask’s siren song at that juncture….

Chapter Text

Chapter 9 [Physician’s Chamber]

Gwen dabbed Gaius’ face. Her mind wondered over how Gaius’ death changed things. Merlin’s going through enough. Will Rodor allow him time to grieve? She set the cloth down. Her mind mulled over the aspects of being royalty. Sacrifice dictated that the kingdom and subjects come first. She’d seen the best and worst of that in Uther and Arthur. They could either reward or punish according to Politics’ whim. The coronation oath had sworn Merlin to such a course.

Not that Merlin wasn’t familiar with such things. On the contrary, he was very practiced at such things. He was routinely practiced at them. Too much so. …

She hesitated for a couple of heartbeats. She recalled how at times Merlin would deviate from his usual happy-go-lucky demeanor. Service demanded more than usual (if that was possible). His focus narrowed to a greater degree than normal (which was already considerable). He would go quiet. He’d come up with plans deviating from everyone else’s. Trust’s membership would narrow to a select circle even narrower than most. Whatever it took to protect his loved ones. Whatever it took to keep them from Danger’s burn.

Mithian, at least, genuinely loved and cared for Merlin. She’d risked and sacrificed more than expected. She’d put aside her feelings or minimized them. She’d tried to work with Arthur and Camelot where Merlin and the Greater Good were concerned. She risked Love and Desire for them all. She’d extinguished War’s cauldron and prevented the second attempt at relighting it.

Now the Princess walked Privilege’s path along with Merlin. She supported him. She nudged him on (at times more forcefully than others). While she wanted Merlin bound to her, she wouldn’t force him in that or any direction. Perhaps it was they shared that lifelong journey. They’d been born to it. They’d been raised in it. Their decisions revolved around it.

Arthur sacrificed as well. He’d put his own feelings…even her…aside. Still Hesitation held him back. This scenario started because he’d trusted the wrong people. He went against a political aim for his heart. He let Loyalty dictate his aims. Still he struggled with Balance’s demands. He wouldn’t let Reality harm his friends. He denied Change’s terms. He governed with his heart instead of his head.

All of those factors led to where they all were at the moment.

It would be easy to blame Mithian or Rodor. Still they negotiated in good faith. They didn’t target me purposefully. They were only trying to negotiate for a state marriage. Merlin did the right thing again. I did cheat with Lancelot. I….

“Gwen, please don’t blame yourself,” Lancelot implored. He set a fresh cup of water at her side.

“If we hadn’t….If I’d been more faithful, we might not be here right now.” Lament burdened her heart. Her eyes watered.

“It’s not that simple, Gwen. You’re human. You love and care for everyone. That’s just your nature. We can’t defy who we are. Even if you are meant to be with Arthur, we’ll always have feelings for each other. I didn’t have a choice. Morgana manipulated me. She manipulated you. Arthur did what he had to do for Camelot’s honor. Merlin’s loyalty nearly started trouble on several occasions. If it hadn’t been that instance, something else would’ve led us here. Morgana didn’t put all of these things together. She just set it in motion. It’s like trying to start a campfire in the woods at midsummer. No rain for a while. Wind from the south. Dried out grass and pine needles. One spark or ember hits that. Forest fire. Perhaps two rocks strike each other causing sparks. Perhaps one of those storm blasts strikes the ground and starts it. Anything could start that. Anything could have led us here. Merlin was meant to come to Nemeth. We’re meant to play our parts in that,” Lancelot explained.

She sighed. She gently pulled the cover over Gaius’ face once more. “People have suffered and died.”

Percival cleared his throat. “True. But the situation has made others happy. Blancheflor and I are back together. We’re bringing prosperity back to Mercia. From what I understand, Morgana lost her magic but has her head back on straight. She’s found her purpose. Gawain’s engaged. Merlin has found his place here. Hunith and he are finally able to be mother and son again. Merlin knows his father and heritage.” Seeing her stiffen, he put his hands up. “I don’t want any of you hurt. I’m not saying that one thing justifies another. As Lancelot said, it’s the nature of the world. No more, no less.”

“I know. It’s just…I just see unhappiness.” She wiped her eyes dry. “Arthur and I can’t ever get a moment’s peace. Merlin can’t be happy. When he is, something like this just yanks the rug out from under his feet. You can’t rest, Lancelot. I just wish we’d have peace!”

“It’ll happen. I’m back here because of the goddess’ plan, Gwen. I don’t know what that is. I know that putting things right between Arthur and you is part of it. Still there’s more for me to do beyond that. I don’t know what ‘that’ is. I just know I have some purpose. Until then, I’ll serve Nemeth and all of you as best I can,” Lancelot declared.

The door opened allowing Rodor and Morgana to enter the chamber.

Lancelot bowed while Gwen and Percival nodded to them.

“Sir Gawain just informed us of Master Gaius’ situation. I wanted to see for myself,” Rodor explained. “Especially given our situation, I hoped he’d be able to help us.”

Morgana chose to stay back. She knew her words could and would make matters worse. The goddess intended for this to happen. I thought she wanted Gaius to see her triumph before his death?

I did, Daughter. While this is my intention, it was not yet time. Much as you accelerated Uther Pendragon’s death to suit your ends, so has someone else done so to Gaius. This is unfortunate, the goddess concurred.

A new dark priestess? Not Morgause! She’s still in that nightmare realm I thought, Morgana supposed.

Nay. Your sister is still trapped by Anger and Hate. This one seems far worse than that. As you did, she lacks patience for my process. She tries to force a resolution. She was watching Emrys, Freya and Mithian in Ealdor. She murdered two Nemethian knights. Now she has more blood on her hands. I do know she is connected to the Red Knight of Cawdor. Look to him and you’ll find her close by, the goddess explained.

And Freya? She’s not here, Morgana realized.

She returned to report on these events. She also told me of this new threat. Be watchful, Morgana Pendragon. In part, this will be your burden to bear. Be ready, the goddess concluded before going silent.

Morgana nodded. This is what I put others through. My hate did things like this. She frowned. She still didn’t doubt her purpose or focus. She still loathed Uther and everything Camelot stood for. She still considered Arthur only a watered-down version of their father. She burned over the repression of the Old Religion. She still remembered Gaius’ trying to poison her to protect himself and Merlin. Yet Memoria also reminded her of Morgause’s situation…of a woman trapped between worlds…snared by Ambition, Vengeance and Hate.

Morgana looked at the covered up corpse once again. For a few heartbeats, she could well imagine how Arthur and the older Emrys staged their own drama over the deceased Uther. She could imagine the Prince’s hate toward the old man. That was a hate that still burned. Could it really ever burn out?

If we can bring Change about, is this necessary? Morgana mused.

Is it, Daughter? That is up to you and your fellow monarchs to decide. Malice is a bitter hand servant. Is it not? Look on its aftereffects. That is what your abuse brought on. Perhaps you might think of ways to accomplish my ends peacefully? How you do so will tell all. For now, Repentance is a powerful guide. You are discovering it on your own. You are genuine unlike Gaius. Still you have much growing to do. You have many things to discover. Work with Emrys and the others now, the goddess observed.

Morgana exhaled. She approached the bedside carefully. Her eyes considered the people surrounding the bed. She noted Rodor, Gwen, Percival, Lancelot and Britomart all talking and sharing memories. She wished she could jump in and share her own. If only she could….

“Now the ex-witch stalks out her victims. Is it?”

Morgana rolled her eyes. “I paid the price for my stupidity. When do you pay for yours?” She wheeled around to find Gawain watching her in turn. “You do like making a scene. Don’t you?”

Gawain shrugged. “Imagine it’s got something to do with the company. You tried to murder us at certain occasions.”

“As Gaius did me. I bet you didn’t know that. Did you?” Morgana smirked at him. “Aye. He tried to have me poisoned. I survived that.”

“Gaius wouldn’t….” Gwen started. She considered her former mistress. “Why?”

“Queen Morgana, you don’t have to answer that. I….” Rodor tried to intercede.

“It’s all right.” Morgana faced the group. She sucked in a deep breath. “Gwen, my abilities were just manifesting themselves. I asked him for help. Gaius kept giving me sleeping draughts to suppress my magic much as your former physician here did to Lady Elaine. He decided to eliminate me. He thought I would expose him…and Merlin…to Uther if I knew the truth.” She bowed her head. “I would have kept their secret! Gaius was so bound to protect Merlin that he ended up going too far. I did the same thing. You glorify him and would burn me at the stake? He drove me straight into Morgause’s arms.”

“He knew about your magic and….?” Gwen considered the covered body and then the other Queen again. She sighed. “Why didn’t you share that with me? I would have kept it between us.”

“And risk Uther having you burnt at the stake? Gwen, you’d already lost your father! That witch finder had threatened us all. I didn’t understand what was going on. Everyone hated what I was. Like Merlin, I had to lie about myself and my views to survive. I wasn’t about to admit that to anyone.” Morgana shook her head. “If you indict me, indict him as well. At least I can speak about it. At least I can talk about it. I am paying for what I did. Gaius did try to be kind. Still he has a dark legacy against our own kind.”

“Your own kind?” Percival stared at her.

“Aye. Gaius was a sorcerer. He was with Lancelot and Merlin in that chamber when they tipped the Cup of Life over. He helped to kill my sister. Some justice that was!” Morgana spat.

“She ambushed us. It was either kill or be killed,” Lancelot retorted. “Merlin and I did what we were supposed to do. I was unconscious. When I came to, Merlin had the Cup. The blood was spilled. The threat was neutralized.”

“And my sister suffered a long agonizing death. We can go back and forth, Lancelot. I know my mistress sent you back here. For what it is worth, I am sorry about disturbing your rest before. I am glad that Merlin could set things right. I don’t expect you to accept that but….” Morgana pointed out before shifting into an apology.

Lancelot nodded. Contemplation mulled over her explanation and apology. “That is not something one forgets, Queen Morgana. Nor is the pain you caused Gwen in the process. Nor is how you used my feelings for her in that way. Still, as the goddess reminded me, Forgiveness can guide us. You showed us all something at the Severn. You helped to prevent bloodshed there. You’re trying to heal here. Merlin told me how you both are trying. He believes in your effort. If he does then I can as well. Promise me something?”

“Sir Lancelot, that’s not for….” Rodor lectured.

Morgana declined again. “I appreciate that, King Rodor. Let’s hear what he has to say first.”

“Thank you, Lady.” Lancelot bowed. Then he continued, “All I was going to request that if you have a problem then get help. Obviously you’re trying whether because of your past, future or this current state of affairs. You’re not going to succeed if you stay alone as you were. Merlin’s learning that. So are we all. Look at King Percival. He’s learning to be a companion and King. Merlin’s learning to be a Prince. We all look to our King here. Perhaps he might make a great neighbor?”

“Very well put, Sir Lancelot,” Rodor accepted. “Queen Morgana, if you ever have need, you have an ally here. We’ve invested in you and our belief in you. Please help it to prosper.” He glanced at the covered corpse. “Covering truths and forcing others to a certain way of thinking benefits no one.”

“Yeah. Someone needs to tell Arthur that,” Gawain interjected. “So what do we do with Gaius? He deserves a burial.”

“We were wondering where he was from. Nobody knows. In any event, he should be returned to Camelot,” Gwen noted. “That way he can receive a proper burial.”

Rodor nodded. “He should have that much at least. We will organize an honor guard to do so. Sir Lancelot? Can you?”

“I would be honored, Sire. Perhaps Sir Gawain, Lady Britomart and Sir Galahad would accompany me?” Lancelot accepted.

“Count me in, Lance. Wish we could take Prince Merlin. He should be leading the procession,” Gawain agreed.

“I will go as well,” Percival spoke up. “I agree that Merlin should be leading us in this. We can’t be afraid of Arthur. I can’t imagine him being like that.”

“I can,” Morgana disagreed. “You didn’t see him at the Severn when Merlin revealed his true nature. My brother’s hatred for magic spilled out. We made a united stand then. We should now. King Rodor, perhaps we can delay the ceremony for a few hours tomorrow?”

“The round trip to Camelot would be three days at least. We can do it after the ceremony. Then Merlin will be fully part of my house. Very well. We will make plans accordingly. Perhaps Priestess Freya can assist us? I will ask Prince Merlin if he can find that out for us.” Rodor sighed. “It is a shame that Gaius could not have lived a day longer. He could have seen Merlin and Mithian happy together.” He walked toward the door. “You might wish to prepare tonight. I go to check on Prince Merlin. Thank you, everyone.”

“Sire,” Lancelot concluded with a bow for effect.

After the others had left, Gwen frowned. “I can’t believe Arthur would refuse us passage! Especially with Gaius’ body for burial.”

“Arthur’s not acting right in the head, Gwen. He’s ticked at Merlin. He’s not getting a shot at Josie or Boeve. I want them staying here. No telling what Hampton Eddie will try.” Gawain’s eyes narrowed. “I’m all for peace. I just want to be careful.”

“For once, you’re actually thinking ahead. For once,” Britomart jabbed. “Maybe you might be learning something?”

“Maybe. I’m thinking about everyone. You watch yourself too,” Gawain insisted. “I’m going to tell Galahad. Lance, Percy, you coming?”

“I have to tell Blancheflor about this. Lancelot, I’ll see you in the morning. Gwen, I’m sorry for everything. Perhaps it will work out,” Percival declined. He nodded to her and then departed.

“I’ll watch things here. Britomart, you should talk with the others. Then maybe you can take over?” Gwen offered.

“I’ll do that. Thank you.” Britomart yanked on Gawain’s sleeve. “Come along. We do have our conference of sorts to attend.”

“Now you’re taking credit for my idea? Yeah right. Whatever, Brit.” Gawain smirked at her as he tugged her out the door.

Worry and Paranoia, it seemed, would ride alongside Charity on that next day….

Chapter Text

Chapter 10 [Merlin’s Bedchamber]

Merlin staggered down the passage. Despite the short walks from the chamber to the stairwell and from the stairwell to his chamber door, Numbness had claimed his legs and feet. Mourning and Sorrow disoriented him. Tears blurred his vision. Consequently each step felt as if he were stepping through deep wet mud or cool pitch. Effort guided each step one after the other.

Still Appearances dictated a normal pace. From his time as Arthur’s servant, he knew well that any castle’s walls had eyes and ears. Gossip and Rumor would blow up and churn out half-baked stories. Agenda would prompt people to regard them as serious or not depending on one’s point of view. He tried to seem like everything was all right.

Given that Hunith and Mithian escorted him down the hall and practically watched his every step, not an easy thing.

“I’ll be all right,” he insisted. He put his hand against the granite wall. “Just need to rest.”

“Merlin, you are human,” Hunith pointed out.

“Mother, the King’s counting on me,” he insisted between rasps. He shook and trembled. “It shouldn’t be much farther.”

“It isn’t. Merlin, Father will understand. Gaius was like a parent to you. You need time,” Mithian implored. Frustration burned inside of her. “You aren’t letting anyone down! It’s not like you’re getting cold feet.” She opened his chamber door. “Let’s get him inside, Mother.”

“Come on, Merlin. We’re almost there. Meantime you’re going to listen to us. You can be so stubborn!” Hunith urged/chided.

“I wonder where I got that from?” he retorted half-seriously. He slumped into a chair. Exhaustion huffed out several deep breaths. His brain finally caught up to what he’d just said. “Mother, I’m sorry. I….”

“It’s all right. You’re hurting. I know that. So does Mithian. So do your friends and family. Listen to your fiancée. She’s right. You need time to mourn and heal. That is acceptable,” Hunith declared. She hugged him. “Just let us bear some of that load for you.”

“For once,” Mithian chimed in. She squatted in front of him. “I was going to call for some tea. Would you like some?”

“That…that would be great,” he agreed. The ladies’ caring and lectures finally started cutting through Mourning’s interference in his thinking. “I can’t believe he’s gone. I knew he was sick. I just wish….” He bowed his head. He lapsed into a sullen silence for a couple of heartbeats.

“Merlin, it isn’t your fault that Master Gaius pushed you away. You didn’t make Master Wyngate commit treason. Besides Britomart and Freya did everything possible to try and help him. You cast spells to help. Sometimes the spirit gets tired. It’s just our time. Master Gaius wouldn’t want you to stop everything just because he passed on. Aye take time for yourself. Aye process it. Then, after some time, we can start anew,” Mithian advised.

“I know. Having you here with me is worth a lot.” He seized onto them in a tight hug.

They returned the gesture letting him know that they were indeed there for him. No matter how invincible Merlin thought he was, they weren’t going anywhere.

“I’ll see to that tea. Yell if you need help, Mithian,” Hunith noted. She looked at her son once more. Then she headed out the door and closed it to insure their privacy.

“You…see?” he asked.

“I see what?” Mithian straightened his hair. She pulled his boots off. “Why you’re so stubborn? Oh I do. We’re going to have to work on you both.”

“Can’t take service out of us,” he retorted trying to make a joke.

“You haven’t had me around full time yet. Just wait until after we’re married. I’ll get you to take some help yet,” she retorted.

“Now I wish I had Gawain do that party. Might have been what we all need,” he whispered.

She frowned. “I would’ve understood. Your mother would have. Father and the rest of the castle? They would disapprove. It’s like you were saying before, we have to keep appearances. We can postpone the wedding if we need to.”

“Mithian, no!” His head snapped up. “That’s all I have to look forward to. Just tell King Rodor that we’ll do what the others suggested. We get married. Then we take Gaius back to Camelot. I want to go as your husband and Prince officially.”

“You’re my Prince officially now. As for husband, it’s just a formality. You swore as much to me this morning in front of everyone. The goddess linked us. We don’t need a ceremony,” she affirmed.

“I know. Again though your father and the nobles will want that.” He coughed. “Now I’m glad I had Nimue save the sheets.”

“Sheets? Sheets from what?” Mithian wondered. Then her eyes went wide. “You didn’t save the bloody sheets! Merlin!”

“They’re going to want proof that we consummated the marriage. I thought of everything.” He coughed. “Including how to snare the hunter in her own trap.”

“And here I thought I was the only one plotting on that night. You are devious, my Warlock. You also know our nobles’ minds too well,” she realized.

“Besides they’ll know I was the first man you were with. I will be the only man you’re with,” he added.

“And I will be the only woman you’ll be with.” Her lips brushed Warmth’s brush strokes across his forehead. “We will find another physician.”

“Gaius would want Master Wyngate to do it. Maybe he should. Can your father exile him? Then he can come with us? Let him live and serve Camelot since he wants to side with Uther’s agenda,” he proposed.

“That’s a splendid idea! I’ll suggest that to Father. He and I were trying to decide on his punishment. He didn’t want to send Master Wyngate to the block or the noose. The only problem I can see is that he knows our defenses,” she agreed.

“Then we add a few new wrinkles.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Can’t believe I just thought of those things.”

“See what happens when you let someone love you?” She playfully slapped at his arm. “Silly Warlock! Shutting people out is for braggarts and fools.”

“I just wish we could….” He looked toward his bed.

She sighed. “Tomorrow night if all goes well.” She pursed her lips. “Although….”

“Although what? We do have business at your father’s side tomorrow,” he reminded her.

“Somehow I think the other rulers will understand. Maybe the priestesses can assist us? Maybe Josiane and the Dragons could help? We don’t have to take a day and a half each way,” she suggested. “Still Father could say we have state business. We adjourn up here and we’ll work on that healing. Then we can give Father your sheets as proof.” She shook her head.

“Mithian, if I didn’t hide them, one of the maids would’ve found them in the wash. I had to protect your good name. All right? Besides I wanted to be ready when you were.” He sucked in a deep breath. “This way you’re an honest woman. You’re my Princess even if I feel like rot right now.”

“Merlin, feeling that way goes with losing a parent. I lost my mother and brother. I understand. Besides you’re always half-best where I’m concerned,” she gibed.

He raised an eyebrow. “Half-best?”

“You do have those rough edges, my Prince. Still they’re for me to work out.” She planted her lips on his.

“Just remember, Dear, the prey can trap the hunter too.” Suggestion prompted a cough and tarnished yet another place on his formerly white armor.

“Dear, I like that. Maybe you could tell Sir Gawain he might call Britomart that?” she mentioned. And I’m looking forward to seeing how creative you get, Merlin. Her eyes sparkled into his. A smirk spread across her face.

“Somehow I don’t see Gawain calling her that.” He shrugged. “Let him figure it out.” He glanced at her. His soul lightened like the ground as Sol melted the snow off of it inch by inch. “Thanks. I’m starting to feel better.”

“That’s what I do, Merlin.” Admiration picked up her own spirits up along with Merlin’s.

Just then Hunith opened the door. She led a chambermaid with a cart into the chamber. “Oh I’m sorry. I….”

“Mother, it’s all right. We were just…talking.” He sighed. Not that I wanted to stop with that.

I’m sure. “I think he’s going to be all right.” Mithian stood and walked over to the tea service.

The maid poured Mithian a cup. Her hands admittedly shook. Her skin seemed as pale as her light blonde hair. She spilt some of the liquid. “I’m sorry. I’ll clean that up, Princess. I…”

Mithian smiled. “It’s all right. Are you the new chambermaid?”

“Aye, my Lady. I know the Prince has enough with what the elder healer’s passing.” The girl curtseyed.

“I appreciate that. Still I also know what it means to be a new servant in a household.” Faced with the new maid’s situation, his mind pushed aside Grief’s burden momentarily. “Just relax. Someone was just telling me the same thing.”

“Aye she was indeed.” Mithian allowed herself a ‘gotcha’ smile. Then she turned back to the maid. “What’s your name?”

“Jocelyn, my Lady.” The girl bowed her head. Anxiety quivered within her.

“Well, Mistress Jocelyn, we will need to get to know each other,” Mithian told her.

“Besides…” He shrugged. “You know I’m kind of new to being Prince. Well maybe if it’s all right with Princess Mithian, you can ask me questions. I’ve been her valet in the past when she visited Camelot. I’ll let you know what she likes.”

Mithian chuckled. Her eyes sparkled. “In private, I would absolutely agree with that. Mistress Jocelyn, you have a very good role model here in Prince Merlin. He can tell you a great deal.”

Just very good? he asked.

Rough edges, my Prince. Nobody’s perfect.

You have some edges of your own that I get to work on then. He smirked. *Dear*

She raised an eyebrow and then turned back to Jocelyn.

“I’d like that. With Sarah and Britomart no longer in the household, some of us are figuring out the routines,” Jocelyn accepted.

“We’ll have to speak to the King. Still I think he’ll help you in being the best you can be,” he assured her.

Then a knock came from the door.

Hunith stirred. Their conversation had held her attention. Consequently she’d let everything else go. She turned and opened it. There she found Rodor waiting. “King Rodor.” She curtseyed.

“Lady Hunith, thank you.” Rodor entered the chamber. His eyes confirmed what he had heard in the passage. “Prince Merlin, you seem to be better.”

“Give me a chance to help others and it helps me, Sire.” Merlin bowed to his liege. “I was just speaking to our newest chambermaid, Mistress Jocelyn.”
“Sire, it is an honor.” Jocelyn curtseyed to Rodor.

Rodor considered the maid. He noted the barest traces of Bewilderment and Inferiority in her face and posture. “Thank you. How long have you been with us?”

“Two days, Sire. I was just telling the Prince and Princess that I’ll enjoy serving you,” Jocelyn declared.

“I’m sure you will. Perhaps you might attend to the guest chambers down the passage?” Rodor suggested.

Jocelyn curtseyed. “I shall. Thank you, Sire. Have a good night.” With that, she departed.

“I apologize, King Rodor. She helped me brew some tea for Merlin,” Hunith apologized. “Would you like some? We were just pouring some for ourselves.”

“No thank you although the offer is appreciated.” Her explanation forced Rodor to reconsider his previous assumption. A glance at the tea service offered a white cloth with brown stains on it. “So she was working?”

“Aye, Father. Jocelyn was extremely nervous. Merlin reassured her. He advised her that she didn’t need to be perfect at first. She just needed to do the job. I wish he’d take his own advice,” Mithian explained.

“When this is over, it gave me an idea for a project. I know I should be focusing on learning my new role. Still with Sarah and Britomart as noble ladies of the court, perhaps I might train these new maids on proper servant duties? I know Nemeth’s different than Camelot. Maybe Britomart and Sarah can help?”

“It is a matter that I’ll need to consider. Still, Merlin, Detail is an important part of rule. I appreciate that you noticed this problem and brought it to my attention rather than just acting on it. I am glad you’re feeling better,” Rodor told him.

“When you’re Prince, you can’t really have any down time. I miss Gaius. Still I have to keep going. You all are counting on me. So are our subjects. It’s our familia. It’s something I learned years ago in Camelot. After Priestess Freya died before, I wanted to leave there. I felt hurt, betrayed and lost. I didn’t care. Somehow I kept myself going. Some instinct…work ethic…whatever…made me excel. I don’t remember much about that time. You might ask Gwen or Morgana. But I won’t fail you,” Merlin explained.

“Once again you make my point, Merlin. That is an astounding observation. Still you need to remember that you are human. You are a member of my house. Tomorrow when you and Princess Mithian marry, you will be my son. Princess Mithian will be Lady Hunith’s daughter-in-law. We aren’t just familia. We’re family as well. Don’t be so dedicated that you kill yourself. Talk to me. We’ll figure things out,” Rodor coached.

“And you make my point to him very well, Father. Thank you,” Mithian noted.

“And as your mother, Merlin, I will say something to you…in private of course,” Hunith chimed in.

“With that distinction, I agree, Lady Hunith. Thank you. Speaking of caring for oneself, Merlin, will you be all right to proceed tomorrow?” Rodor continued.

“Aye, Sire. I want the wedding to proceed as scheduled. We discussed taking Gaius’ body back to Camelot for burial. I wanted to be part of that group. I owe Gaius that much. Besides it might be a solution to an issue of ours,” Merlin proposed.

“And that is?” Rodor wondered.

“Father, Merlin suggested that Gaius’ death leaves Camelot without a physician. Perhaps instead of executing Master Wyngate, we might bring him with us? Perhaps Arthur might benefit from his expertise? He can’t be here. So maybe he can be there?” Mithian suggested.

“We would need to change our defenses slightly since he knows them. Still it seems like a winning situation for everyone,” Merlin added.

Rodor nodded. “It does indeed! Still we will have to wait a day. Tomorrow we have our banquet following the ceremony. If you can handle such, I will need you, Merlin and Mithian, with me. Once that’s done then we should move ahead in that direction.”

“We can do that, Father,” Mithian agreed.

“Besides the household servants will need to move Princess Mithian’s possessions in here. After the ceremony and tomorrow’s affairs, you two will share this chamber,” Rodor told them. “On that note, Mithian, you should say good night. I understand you can be trusted. Still it is just for tonight.”

“Aye, Father.” Somehow Disappointment did not leak into Mithian’s tone. She turned to Merlin. “Until tomorrow then, my Prince.”

“Until tomorrow, Princess.” Merlin raised her hand. His lips brushed Amor’s strokes across her knuckles. “Sleep well. Thank you for checking on me.”

“Always.” Her eyes sparkled into his.

“Good night, Merlin. Thank you for your courtesy, strength and fortitude. You demonstrate the qualities that a good ruler should have. As I said earlier, Instinct provides a good base. Experience and Instruction will refine that. Have a good night,” Rodor concluded before leading Mithian from the chamber.

“I can stay with you if you’d like, Merlin,” Hunith offered.

“It’s okay, Mother. I just need to sleep. Tomorrow we need to focus on the bigger picture. After that, we can take care of Gaius,” Merlin assured her. He kissed her cheek. “Good night.”

“Good night,” Hunith concluded before departing from the area.

Merlin closed the door. He shook his head. This can work! I actually have ideas King Rodor likes? He reclined on the bed. Before he could even think another thought, his eyes sagged shut. Sleep overtook him.

And so ended another day…and yet the last day as a single man…..

Chapter Text

Chapter 11 [Gedref—Twenty Leagues Beyond the Severn—Midnight]

Luna rose over the darkling woods. The stars twinkled high overhead in their dark backdrop. Chill rustled the branches and pushed the knights closer to their fire. Their horses grazed on the dead grass along the roadside hoping to discover a few shoots of new green for their palates.

Prince Bors walked about the perimeter. His eyes watched the dimly lit terrain carefully. Foreboding stood his hair on end. Paranoia kept him on edge. Since the rendezvous outside of Camelot, Ill At Ease nagged at him. He felt as if they were being watched.

The horses had raced down the path. They’d made the best time between the capitals (at least to this point) he’d ever seen. Within three more hours perhaps, they’d be riding into Whitgate. At that point, they’d rest in the castle’s stables with well-deserved hay, water and rest.

Well-deserved indeed….

Given how fast we’re going, how can whatever it is keep up with us? Could it be a witch? Prince Bors recalled the dueling stories between Arthur on the one hand and Merlin on the other. As Nemeth says, magic is like a sword, it can be used for good or ill. Wish we had someone for good around. Maybe one of those priestesses? Maybe Merlin or those dragons he commands? I….

Blood curdling screams pierced the night. His men’s screams.

The flickering firelight snuffed out like a candle.

Now only Luna’s dim light provided some clarity for Prince Bors. He drew his sword. “I AM PRINCE BORS OF GAUL! COME OUT!” He padded akin to a wolf stalking some unsuspecting prey. Shadow provided him with refuges in various spots. He slipped behind trees using them for cover. Moving from trunk to trunk, he came closer and closer to camp.

Silence greeted his ears. No animal, bird or bug made a sound. The eeriness made his skin crawl. Not even the wind seemed to rustle branches any longer.

He slipped into the camp. Sulfur clogged his nostrils. Unsettled ash irritated his eyes. “Pierre? Denis? Michel?”

Again no answer came from the area.

He frowned. The odor hinted at a necromancer’s presence. Morgana Pendragon couldn’t have been that person. She lost her magic. So who? Their coven knows Father and I are at peace with them. So who would be doing this? He gazed all around himself. His eyes never ceased in scanning the place.

Ashen piles with bits of bone lay strewn about the still burning fire.

Bors kneeled beside one of the ash piles. He fingered a medallion on it. Realization struck him hard. Ice seemed to run through his veins.

Mocking laughter cut at his ears.

He slowly stood and drew his blade. He turned to find the cloaked sorceress watching in turn. “Identify yourself!”

“And why should I?” a voice like Autumn’s hiss across fallen leaves scratched out. “I am but a traveler like yourself. Let that suffice.”

“Traveler?” He frowned. He saw no weapons in her gloved hands. Still, given the state of his companions, he deduced that she didn’t need them.

“Aye. A traveler from a northern land.” Her eyes glowed faint green from under the hood. Crimson sparks danced across her fingertips. “Put that away.” She pointed and then swiped at the air in front of herself.

Bors lost his grip on the sword’s hilt. It flew through the air and stuck hard into an adjacent tree.

“Now be a good boy and run along now. Wouldn’t want you to cut yourself on that. Tell Whitgate what happened here. Do that and you live…for now.” The cloaked woman vanished into the darkness.

A sudden strong wind scattered the ashen remains. Most of the acrid powder spread over the forest itself.

Bors yanked his sword from the tree. He sheathed it. Anger burned through him. He wanted answers. “I will not forget you, mes Ami. That I promise you.” He got back on his horse and spurred it back on down the trail.

 

****

 

The cloaked stranger however had not gone far. She stepped back into view. “Aye. Run to your father like a good boy. Do tell him of what happened here. I want Emrys and the others to know!” With that, she vanished in a dark puff of smoke.

And another gauntlet flew in Whitgate’s direction…..

Chapter Text

Chapter 12 [Dawn—The Big Day]

Sol rose early on that morning. Perhaps Anticipation brightened his outlook. Festive shades of reds, yellows and oranges streaked the skies. Intensity burned away Shadow’s murky backdrop. Celebration swept away Malice’s handiwork.

Around Whitgate, Preparation kicked into high gear. The residents hustled about their daily affairs. They cleaned their shops and forges. Some would place flowers around the castle’s square later that day. Elation motivated their best efforts.

Custom shepherded the poor toward the castle on that morning. For it was on that morning that one last ritual would come into play…..

 

****

[Mithian’s Bedchamber]

Mithian inspected her surroundings. While she’d accepted Hospitality’s bliss while visiting other royals, she’d never overindulged herself. Despite Suggestion’s contrarian pleas, she maintained Minimalism’s standards.

Most Princesses filled wardrobes with gowns. They loaded down jewelry boxes with Gold, Pearl and Emerald’s gleams. Grace guided their every move whether in a dance or at court. Precision maneuvered cross stitches and tapestries’ craft. Gentility maintained that they should be seen and not heard.

Mithian, however, rolled her eyes at Convention’s restraints. She only owned two necklaces and the one set of earrings. Three simple gowns, the ill-fated yellow one, a green one and the turquoise one (which she’d gladly lent to Josiane on the previous evening), had hung in the wardrobe. She spoke her mind at court and on the council. She hunted, belched (as we know when she thought nobody was watching), drank with and could shoot a crossbow as well as any man. She refused to practice traditional crafts. She didn’t accept the traditional marital arrangements. (Or was it that they didn’t accept her? Maybe both?)

Well, on that day, she’d get the last laugh. Charity would start her day. Commitment would set her course by noon. Amor would round things out that night. Her possessions awaited their move to the new bedchamber.

She considered a simple dress standing out in stark contrast to the others. She fingered the rough burlap fabric. Her eye gleaned the rough stitches in its sides. A simple length of rope lay coiled at its hem. Memoria recalled how she crafted that garment in anticipation of this day. Admiration beamed from her eyes at it. Pride warmed her heart.

Ritual demanded Service from every Nemethian Princess. Most considered it drudgery. She embraced it.

Today I will make my subjects happy. Then Father will make Merlin and me happy. She sighed. Patience is a virtue after all! She smiled. Her eyes sparkled. How many other women have chances like this?

Then a knock came from the door.

I still have a half of a chime. So who? She walked over to the chamber door and opened it.

“Good morning, my Lady.” Jocelyn curtseyed to her. She held a wrapped bundle.

“Good morning to you, Jocelyn. And what is this?” Mithian accepted the brown cloth-wrapped package. It felt soft to her touch.

“Prince Merlin sends it to you. He bade me tell you that you won’t have to wear the yellow dress again. He wanted you to have something for good memories,” Jocelyn reported.

“He commissioned a new dress for me? Father hasn’t seen it. So...” Mithian frowned. He knows I hate surprises! Worse that I have to wait? She frowned.

Patience is a virtue. Good morning, Merlin chimed in.

And good morning to you, my Warlock. Feeling better, are we? Mithian considered her package. Why can’t I open it?

Not until the ritual’s done. And by the way, I’ll see you out there, he advised.

Merlin, we’re not allowed to see each other until the wedding! Besides that’s for Princesses not Princes! Mithian fussed.

So we break ritual. We’ve already done that. Peasant in last stages of becoming royalty reminding you of that, he retorted; Mirth dripping from his tone.

I want to see you too. Still…

Still what? We both want to serve the people. What’s the big deal? He sighed feeling Frustration bubbling up inside of himself. Then Inspiration hit him. What if I go first? You have a little while. Right? I’ll go now. Then I’ll be done before you get there. Sorry I just….

You want to help our subjects. Do you think I’d challenge you on that? Leave it to you to find a way to meet Ritual, Service and Obligation on their terms. I might peek at this, Mithian complimented adding a teasing barb at the end.

Mithian, please! That’s a wedding present to you. I want it to be a surprise. I woke your father early. I wanted him to see it. He approves. So get ready for your turn. See you at noon, he concluded.

She nodded. Warmth spread a smile further across her face. He’s supposed to be dealing with Master Gaius’ death. I can feel his pain. Still he’s thinking of everyone else!

“Something wonderful, Princess?” Jocelyn asked.

“Hmmm? Sorry. I was just thinking of Prince Merlin. He is so considerate,” Mithian explained. “Thank you for bringing this to me. I need to prepare for meeting with the people.”

Curiosity sparked in Jocelyn’s eye. As with the Princess, she marveled that a Prince would volunteer in that way. “It is wonderful indeed, my Lady. We appreciate it. Would you like something before you go?”

“Aye. Perhaps some tea and breakfast? Thank you.” Mithian smiled to her servant.

Jocelyn curtseyed. “I will prepare that for you, Princess.” With that, she hustled off.

Mithian laid the sackcloth out. “I am very fortunate indeed.” She exhaled and allowed herself a heartbeat to relax.

Chapter Text

Chapter 13 [Palace Stairs—About a Quarter Turn of the Hourglass Later]

The peasants huddled at the base of the stairs. As was the case with each royal wedding, they’d come from all corners of the kingdom. Hunger focused their eyes, burned in their stomachs and tensed their legs. Their mouths watered.

Galahad lined the knights up along each side of the granite staircase. Ywain, Britomart and Lancelot flanked the stairs’ left side. Gawain, Josiane and Boeve stood on the right side. Malodius sat three steps behind the new Prince. The First Knight watched the crowd carefully for Weapon’s glint or Agitation’s turmoil. Seeing none, he motioned behind him.

Merlin lugged an enormous wicker basket (almost as big as he was) into view. The burlap sackcloth cinched with the rope around his waist chafed his skin. Chill reddened his forearms and face. Still his heart broke at the people’s state in front of himself. He sighed deeply. Then Resolve summoned itself within his chest. “People of Nemeth! Good morning! Thank you for being here! I know support isn’t just given. It has to be earned. I promise to do my best to earn everyone’s respect and keep it! The best way to start is through feeding you. So here goes! Thank you all!” He pulled the cover off. From the basket, he pulled a round loaf of fresh bread. He ripped it in half. Then he threw the pieces into the crowd. Again he ripped and tossed a loaf. And then another. And another. Over and over again, he repeated these steps.

Desperation snatched the bread from the air. Relief dimmed Hunger a bit. Gratitude took its place. Smiles dotted a few faces.

For almost a twelfth of an hourglass, Merlin kept it up. Then he pulled the last loaf from the basket. As he went to tear it, his eye spied a heartbreaking sight ahead.

As the crowd surged forward, a crippled small girl fell further and further away. Her slow shuffling could not match the ravenous pace around her. She frowned. Failure and Hunger watered in her eyes. Tears ran down her drawn face.

“People! Order! We must have order!” Merlin begged the throng. “There will be more bread! There are other baskets! PLEASE!” He stepped forward.

“Prince Merlin, what is it?” Lancelot called.

“There’s a little girl in there! She can’t get up here!” Merlin declared. He leaned over the basket concealing his face from the crowd. Then he whispered, “Aran!”

And just like that, the basket refilled itself.

Lancelot spied the besieged child. “I see her!” He stepped forward. Slowly he wove his way through the mass of humanity in his path. “People, the Prince has more bread! Please step back! There’s a little girl here needing help!”

“So do we, you Lout!” an elderly man snapped at him.

“Hey, Jeeves, you heard Lance! He said the Prince has more. Knowing Prince Merlin, he emptied out the whole bins and bakery for you guys,” Gawain insisted. He moved to Merlin’s side. He leaned close. “You can make more, right?” he whispered.

“Already done,” Merlin noted. He motioned to the refilled basket.

“Nice!” Gawain motioned to Josiane to stand at Merlin’s side. Then he followed Lancelot into the crowd. “Hey, Lance! Where are you?”

“I’m here!” Lancelot called back. He tried to edge through the last few rows of people. “Good People! Please! You will not lose your places! Just…”

“Just get out of the way already,” Gawain translated. Impatience propelled him forward. He edged past Lancelot through the human tidal wave and into its undertow. He shoved through Obstinancy’s wall. There he found several people literally stepping over the crying and bruised girl. “I SAID BACK OFF!”

Lancelot managed to clear his way through the remaining throng. He scooped the child up in his arms. “I have you now. Gawain, let’s go.”

Gawain glared at those unmerciful souls in the crowd before himself. “Lucky for you.” He retreated covering Lancelot and his burden. “Hey, Brit! This girl needs a healer!”

“Please, Sirrah. I am not….worth it,” the girl begged Gawain.

Lancelot frowned. Cruelty had left its brand and scars on that girl’s psyche. “You most certainly are. Just relax. You’re safe now.” He carried the young one back to the stairs.

Britomart grimaced at the sight of the young victim. She spied several purpling bruises. Her good arm lay limp at the girl’s side. A stain blemished the torn tunic. “Maybe you can follow me to the Physician’s Chamber? Prince Merlin, with your leave?”

Merlin took a whole loaf and another piece besides from the refilled basket. He handed it to Britomart. “Make sure she eats her fill. I’ll want to check on her later.”

“Prin…ce cares?” the girl whispered. Surprise widened her face.

“I’ve been where you are. I know. It’s all right.” Merlin rubbed the girl’s shoulder. “I’ll be by to check on you later. All right? Can you rest for me?”

“I’ll do that. Thank you, Sire.” The girl closed her eyes and relaxed.

“Prince Merlin, should we continue?” Josiane asked. She noticed the crowd still surging. Hands reached further and further forward.

“We should. I will want to speak to the King about this though,” Merlin insisted. He emptied that basket too within a sixth of an hourglass. “People! That’s all I have!”

A collective groan escaped from the throng.

“Princess Mithian will be out soon. Please! I have given you everything I brought with me! Be patient! Thank you for being here!” Merlin concluded. With that, he lugged the empty basket toward the top of the stairs.

“Is it wise to bring Princess Mithian out if they’re being unruly, Prince Merlin?” Galahad wondered.

“We have our duty to the people. They’re hungry, Sir Galahad.” Merlin looked over the crowd again. “I know you’ll do so but….”

“We’ll keep Princess Mithian safe of course, my Prince.” Galahad bowed to Merlin.

“Thank you. I have our new friend to check on.” With that, Merlin headed up the stairs and back into the palace. Mithian?

Aye, my Prince? What’s going on down there? I felt your emotions, Mithian replied back.

We had a little girl nearly get crushed by the rest of the crowd. I had Britomart take her to the Physicians’ Chamber. I’m going there now. Be careful please, Merlin explained.

Is that concern for my well-being, Merlin? she teased.

Mithian, I’m serious. I just gave out two full baskets of bread. They’re snapping at it. I don’t want anything to happen to the people, knights or you. All right? he insisted.

I’ll just have to bring my wits with me. Now won’t I? she supposed. Thank you, Merlin, for caring. I love you. Just a few hours more.

I love you too. Looking forward to it. Merlin nodded to Gawain and the other knights. Then he hustled up the stairs and back into the palace proper. He avoided the passage from the kitchens knowing that would be Mithian’s path (as it had been his earlier). Instead he followed the path up the opposite stairs and toward the healer’s place.

So as it was….

Chapter Text

Chapter 14 [Physicians’ Chamber—Sometime Later]

Britomart inspected the little girl. She’d splinted the broken right arm. She’d wrapped her patient’s midsection. She cleaned and treated the other wounds. She’d fed some of the bread to her patient. Who could treat a child like this? Certainly the others could have let her have some bread! She sighed.

Realism slapped her with its cold truth. It’s survival of the fittest at that point. When everyone’s hungry and starving, they don’t care.

The nobles gorge themselves while the people starve. She knew Rodor’s kindness to her had been an exception rather than the rule. I could have been like Gawain and his family. She recalled the troubles when his sister and her children arrived at Whitgate. And all because of a noble with no need for ‘useless’ people. She sniffed.

“Pretty lady?” the little girl croaked.

“Aye?” Britomart broke off her introspection. She held up a wooden cup. “Can you take some more?” Getting a nod, she guided the cup to the other’s mouth. After a few gulps went down, she eased her patient back into a lying position. “What is your name?”

“Anna.” Anna exhaled. Defeat hung her head. “Now I’m going to get it.”

“What? Why would that be so? You did nothing. You were trying to get something to eat. We knights chose to help you,” Britomart pointed out.

Anna’s eyes narrowed. “How could a lady be a knight?”

“Since our King and Princess are forward looking. Prince Merlin was a peasant himself.” Britomart rubbed her patient’s arm. “So you see? Anything’s possible.”

“Anything’s possible.” Anna gasped. Her mind struggled with Progress’ promise. “Too bad I can’t have what I want.”

“And what’s that?” Britomart queried.

“A family. My Mum and Da died two winters ago. I’ve been getting by. Still it’s getting harder to walk. I work when someone has something. My stupid leg keeps me from doing stuff. In woods, I can stay away.” Anna sulked. “I’m useless!”

“No you are not! STOP THAT!” Britomart chided. “Anna, you’re pretty and tough. You survive. You want to work. You want to help. King Rodor will find you a home. There are people who’d love to have a daughter like you.”

“Yeah.” Anna sighed not exactly convinced. “I shouldn’t have come out of the woods. Least there I can fish.”

“And you can feed yourself. By the way, my parents died in a fire when I was three winters old. The King gave me a home. I worked hard. I was a maid. I pulled my weight. So can you,” Britomart asserted.

A knock came from the door.

Merlin stuck his head in. “Lady Britomart?”

“My Prince.” Britomart bowed to him. “Anna and I were just talking. She’s quite the little girl.”

Merlin nodded. “Is that so?” His eyes twinkled. He smiled at the patient. “I am so sorry for what happened out there. Are you feeling better?”

Anna nodded. “Don’t hurt as much. Bread’s good. Good not to be hungry.” She bowed her head. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome. I understand how you feel.” Merlin straightened Anna’s hair. “I was hungry back in my village too sometimes. Well we can feed you for a little while. Then maybe we can find you something else. All right?”

“As long as it isn’t an alley. All right,” Anna retorted. She stared at the ceiling.

“You won’t be in an alley. Let me talk to King Rodor. We’ll see what we can do,” Merlin assured her. “Just rest now. I have a big event today. Then we’ll talk again tomorrow.”

“Okay. Thank you, Prince Merlin.”

“You’re welcome.” Merlin resolved to speak with his father-in-law as soon as possible about the situation. He turned to Britomart. “How’s our other patient?”

“Lady Elaine’s in her chamber. She seemed better yesterday when I looked in on her,” she assessed. “She is depressed though. I wish we could find her father.”

Merlin sighed. “I do too. We can worry about that tomorrow.”

“And you can worry about later, my Prince?” she supposed.

“I just want it to be perfect for her! The Princess deserves it,” Merlin insisted.

“Between the King and you, it will be. Have faith,” Britomart affirmed. “Meantime we’re getting close to that time.”

Anxiety’s butterflies hit up against the sides of his stomach. His hands twitched. Sweat dripped ever so slightly from his forehead. “We are. Can’t believe it.”

“I can. I know you’ll make her happy.” She bowed to him. “My Prince.”

“Thanks.” With that, he left.

If only Gawain can do the same for me! She checked on the tinctures and bottles one more time. She knew Margie would be there shortly. After that she could change into her own gown. Then she’d reassure Mithian about her own doubts.

Such was one’s service to Duty and Friendship.

Chapter Text

Chapter 15 [Mithian’s Chamber—A Half of an Hourglass Turn Later]

Mithian stalked into her chamber. Frustration reddened her features. Despite the feeding’s short duration, Exhaustion weighed on her arms and shoulders. She couldn’t believe the people’s moods. Is it really that bad? She sighed and shut her door. She regarded the sackcloth dress. I wonder if I should save it. It’s not like I’ll ever wear it again. Then again, it might be a good reminder to be humble. She sat in her chair. Solitude calmed her. She sipped on a waiting glass of wine.

Jocelyn, it seemed, was already learning the routine. She’d left the Princess’ favorite wine. The four post bed had been stripped, changed and made. The mysterious bundle sat on the end table to the right of her.

What is that? Mithian considered the package once again. She knew that she should be getting into her wedding dress. Hesitation dogged her. Embarrassment returned to her over Arthur’s rejection. Still she remembered too that the ill-fated dark cloud in the chamber had its silver lining….

…a lining she’d be embracing within the next two hours….

Because of that, you have Merlin. Arthur’s mess is his own. We have tried to help him. He refuses to change his thinking. Feel badly for Gwen because she doesn’t deserve this. Still there is little else we can do. She got up and walked across the room. She considered the yellow dress anew.

You want to wear that? Merlin gibed.

It is my wedding dress, Merlin. She raised an eyebrow. You do know it’s bad luck to look in on the bride?

Maybe. You could wear that….or…. he suggested leaving the end hanging.

…or what? Merlin, I don’t have another dress. She frowned. She regarded the yellow dress again. This is the dress I wore when we met. I’m reminding myself of that.

There is another choice. Open your package. And do me a favor? Can you wear your mother’s necklace? I’ll see you there, he noted before going silent.

She hung the yellow dress up again. “What did you do, Merlin?” Intrigue and Curiosity drew her back across the chamber like a moth to a flame. She regarded the soft package again. “Now I know he’s up to something.” She undid the twine holding the package together. Then she undid the crimson cloth over whatever it was. As its contents dropped onto the table, her eyes went wide.

She beheld an exquisite white gown. The lightweight material refracted Sol’s light and slid effortlessly through her fingers. Three elegant gemstones matching the one in her mother’s necklace flanked each side of her neckline. Golden strips adorned the cuffs and skirt’s hem.

Beside it a matching veil of equal quality sat where it had unceremoniously fallen to the desk.

“How did he…?” She shuddered. Tears welled in her eyes. Joy’s sob escaped her lips. Awe and Wonder numbed her brain. She’d seen her Prince dealing with his own issues. She thought him overwhelmed with his own neuroses surrounding Arthur, the throne, pleasing her father and measuring up to Expectation’s high bar.

And he’d given her Paradise’s garden worthy of the Nazarene Eden….

…then it was topped off by a dress worthy of the triple goddess herself….

All for her, his Princess above all Others…his Mithian….

“Oh, Merlin. I…I know I didn’t want to wear the yellow dress but…you…I…” Mithian stammered. Then she heard a knock at the door. “Aye?”

“Milady?” Britomart called. She stuck her head in. “Might I come in?”

“Of course! Shut the door behind you. I won’t have to wear that dress again,” Mithian agreed. She waved her in.

Britomart closed the door. She smoothed her sur coat and chain mail. “It feels strange to be wearing this to a wedding. What do you mean you won’t wear the gold dress? Milady, there’s nothing else.”

“Thanks to our Prince, there is.” Mithian showed her friend the fine gown. “I…I….”

As with her superior, Britomart’s jaw dropped. Her eyes stared. “Amazing! What is that fabric?”

“I’ve never seen it in Britannia or Gaul. This must be something our new friends helped with. I just can’t believe how fine this fabric is. I’m afraid to wear it.” Worry creased her features.

“Perhaps you might change into another dress for the dinner? Still for the ceremony, our Prince has sent you a message, my Lady. He loves you. He wants you to outshine everyone else. This is your day.” Britomart suggested. “Still I wish I could be surprised he’d do something like this. Does the King know?”

“He does. He approved it.” Mithian shook her head again. “Merlin asked me to wear Mother’s necklace.”

“It will match the neckline. I can’t wait to see you in the chamber downstairs. It’ll take their breath away,” Britomart predicted.

“That’s my hope as well,” Mithian agreed. She admired the dress in the mirror in front of herself.

Today she would indeed shine…..

Chapter Text

Chapter 16
[At the Edge of the Woods—That Very Heartbeat]

Prince Bors pressed his horse down the trail. Every so often, his eyes would glance back. Fear stabbed at his heart. Lament weighed on his mind for his deceased companions. Worry bugged him about what over threats lurked just out of sight. As the trees flashed past him, he only wanted to get to Whitgate more and more.

His father, King Rodor and Merlin would need to know about this threat. Perhaps they and the other monarchs might know what to do.

Bors ground his teeth. He recalled Merlin telling him that magic was like any other weapon. He’d seen it used for good. Now he’d seen it take lives. How does one regulate such things? That goddess took Queen Morgana’s abilities. Still is there a way that one might control it? He urged his tired mount onward. “Just a bit further. Then you can rest all you want, mes Ami.”

The horse whinnied. He huffed and puffed. Still he kept going. He slowed his gallop a bit but kept a reasonable effort. He cleared the drawbridge without stopping. Then he pressed up to the cobblestones and under the arch.

Bors pulled up on the reins. Hesitation slowed his progress for a heartbeat. Despite the situation, he wished that he didn’t have to bring this matter to Nemeth’s attention at that point. Still Duty to his men and hosts meant otherwise.

“Good Day, Sir Knight! Identify yourself!” one of the guards instructed.

“Good Day.” Bors dismounted. “I am Prince Bors of Gaul and recently from Camelot. We have a situation to discuss of vital importance.”

The two knights looked at each other. Their orders were not to allow anyone to disturb them. Given that morning’s situation, they knew Galahad would be doubly vigilant. Still this was a Prince. His father was already one of the guests. They remembered him as an ally at Severn.

“I am Sir William, Prince Bors.” William bowed to the visiting royal. “Sir Ernest will take your steed to the stable.”

“Aye! Right away!” Ernest bowed as well. Then he accepted the reins from Bors and led the horse toward the stable.

Ywain emerged from the passage. “Prince Bors?” He bowed to his comrade. “This is a surprise! You’re just in time.”

“So the wedding is today then?” Bors supposed.

“Within the next turn and a half of the hourglass.” Ywain looked about the area. “Where is your escort? Surely you didn’t come from Camelot alone?”

“Nay I did not. A mysterious woman showed up in the woods. She used magic to reduce my companions to ash. There wasn’t even enough to bury. I was telling the two knights here that I have business with King Rodor and my father,” Bors explained.

“Very well. Please come in. Of course there’s always room for an ally such as yourself,” Ywain bade. He nodded to William and added a smile. Then he escorted Bors back into the castle.

Another threat? Can’t the Prince and Princess get married at least? William swallowed hard. He looked toward the stable hoping that Ernest would return soon.

 

****

 

[Rodor’s Chamber—A Sixth Turn of the Hourglass Later]

Rodor considered himself in the mirror. The tailors had adjusted his father’s wedding robes well. Still Anxiety stifled his movements. Anticipation spurred on his heartbeat. Much as a child on Solstice Eve, he wanted Tempus to run ever faster. He’d thought to reassure Mithian about wearing the wedding dress from Camelot once again. He’d hoped to frankly scrape up enough resources to give his daughter the celebration she so rightfully deserved.

And then Merlin rode to the rescue with their new friends. In so many ways, he’d proven himself. And yet he still didn’t believe his own self-worth.

Balinor, he is your son. Truly so! He gives so much and asks only to make others happy. Rodor shook his head. Mithian might just faint at the sight of that gown. It is without equal. And he doubted that I would approve? If there was one worthy to ascend, it is Merlin. Well the final piece will be put into place soon. Then we can take Gaius back to Camelot. He considered the deceased physician as well as his own former healer in the dungeon below. Even if it’s been as long as it has, I still can’t believe Master Wyngate did that. At least I can hope Arthur will take him in. He needs a physician. Wyngate needs a home. We need to find another such person.

A knock at the door interrupted his thoughts.

“Is it time already?” Rodor raised an eyebrow. He turned toward the door. “Enter!”

Ywain opened the door. He bowed before his liege. “Sire, pardon me. Prince Bors of Gaul has just arrived from Camelot with dire tidings.” He stepped aside allowing the Gallic Prince to stride into the chamber.

“I see.” Rodor exchanged royal nods with the Prince. “Prince Bors. You have arrived just in time. Please accept my hospitality for you and your retinue. Your father should be in the throne chamber within a chime or so.”

“That is most gracious, King Rodor. Thank you. Alas I am alone. My retinue did not survive the journey.” Bors cleared his throat. “A mysterious sorceress attacked us. I was fortunate to escape.”

“My condolences. I am sure they were brave and noble knights. Have you news on King Arthur?” Rodor expressed.

“It is not pleasant, I fear, Sire. I do not wish to spoil the mood further.” Bors cleared his throat. “I pray the Prince and Princess have a splendid affair.”

“As do I, Prince Bors. I appreciate your insight and consideration. I will need to consult with Prince Merlin and the priestesses on this matter. As for King Arthur, we shall discuss the state of Camelot shortly. For now, we have a lineage to affirm and Mithian’s wish to secure,” Rodor noted.

“Indeed we do, Sire. I will leave you to your preparations.” Bors offered the royal nod once more. “I look forward to a truly marvelous affair. Until later then, Good King.” With that, he departed from the area.

Rodor exhaled. Concern pricked at his brain. A rouge sorceress now? Perhaps Merlin can offer further insight. For now, let him and Mithian have their day. I can trust my knights to watch for now. He set his crown firmly on his head. With that, he left for the throne chamber.

In the face of everything else, Hope awaited Affirmation’s grace…..

Chapter Text

Chapter 17 [Side Room to Royal Throne Chamber—A Quarter Turn of the Hourglass Later]

Merlin sat in the chamber’s far corner. He frowned. He wrung his hands. Paranoia ran through his mind. Imagination bugged him with several potential threats both real and fantastical to the ceremony. Meleagant could sweep down from the north. Edgar could prove a pest. And then there was that mysterious presence he’d felt in Ealdor weeks before. “And I thought it was going to get easier.”

“It never does, Merlin. You should know that by now.” Gwen rubbed his shoulder. “Besides you’re worried Mithian won’t show up. Aren’t you?”

“I know it’s silly. Arthur would say I’m being stupid for even thinking it. Gwen, what if something happens? I….” He started and stopped his rant.

“Every man, I suppose, thinks such things. Arthur, I’m sure, did too. You probably saw how nervous he seemed before I came in? I wouldn’t have done such a thing,” she told him. “Just relax, Merlin. Everything will work out. Good luck.” She embraced him and added a kiss on the cheek. “You’ll be fine.”

“Gwen, I’m sorry once again about Arthur,” he apologized.

She sighed. “Merlin, that was hardly your fault. Arthur’s set in his ways. I love him. Still I can’t deal with his repression of people because of his father’s views. Arthur and I are supposed to change that. Camelot should be for everyone. He doesn’t see that. It’s almost as if he’s enchanted. Still he has only to co-exist with everyone not necessarily agree with them. If he can do that, I’ll run back to him.”

“And I’d arrange for that to be in a heartbeat. Gwen, you should be with him. He needs you,” he reminded her.

“Let him make that decision. Meantime you worry about Mithian and making this day the best for her,” she admonished.

“I just sprang a surprise present on her.” Mischief pulled his mouth into a smirk.

“I know that look. Merlin, you’ve done something. You’ve enchanted her. Haven’t you?” she supposed.

“Nope. She won’t be as everyone expects though.” He sighed.

“What did you do? You will tell me,” she insisted.

“Everyone can figure it out. It’s my surprise.” He grinned.

She coughed. “All right. We’ll let you have your surprise for now.” She smirked back at him. “You just enjoy yourself as well.”

“I will. It should be Arthur up there with me. Just thought you’d want me to say that,” he replied.

“You’re right. Lancelot will be a great stand in. He was the first of us other than Gaius to know about your magic. He believed in you. You believed in him. Just keep that up.” She rubbed his shoulder.

Just then Hunith slipped into the room. “They’re coming into the chamber. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people in one place.”

“It’s a royal wedding, Mother. Gwen and I have been through a few. I just can’t believe I’m the one to be doing it now,” he pointed out.

“It is a bit much to take in.” Hunith shut the door behind herself. “Still Mithian picked you. You’ve proven yourself. Your father’s standing affirmed it. Let’s hope nothing else happens to ruin it.”

“Have faith. It will be all right.” Gwen motioned toward the door. “Hunith, we should be getting to our places. Merlin, it’s not much longer.”

“I’m so proud, Merlin. Just take it in stride.” Hunith kissed him on the cheek. Her eyes sparkled into his. Then she followed Gwen out of the room.

Just take it in stride. That’ll be the day! He sucked in a breath. He looked at the mirror. I’m a Prince. Soon I’ll be a husband too. I’m in a land where magic’s tolerated. My friends know about me. I’m dreaming.

This is what you should have, Merlin. There is enough ahead of you to do. The least we can do is stand by you and offer our support, Kilgarrah declared. You understand however we will have to remind you of your shortcomings from time to time of course.

Of course. Merlin frowned. You’re all heart.

I’m just doing my duty, Merlin. No more, no less. I believe it is time, Kilgarrah informed him.

I hope so. The wait’s killing me, Merlin retorted. I can’t wait to see Mithian in her gown.

The way you’ve been fretting about it, Merlin, I suppose we all want to see it. Aithusa and I are right outside, Kilgarrah concluded and then went silent.

Merlin nodded. He fixed his crown so that it was straight. He smoothed his clothes. He frowned. I wish I could look better.

A knock came from the door.

“Aye?”

“Prince Merlin, it’s Paulus.” A servant with coal dark hair peered into the chamber. “It’s time, my lord.” He bowed.

“It’s time.” Merlin sucked in one more deep breath. Then he headed for the door.

Time for all good things to come…even if certain folks didn’t want to wait….

Chapter Text

Chapter 18 [Royal Throne Chamber—A Sixth of an Hourglass Earlier]

Excitement buzzed about the throne chamber. The visiting dignitaries stood in front of Nemeth’s knights and nobles. Kilgarrah and Aithusa poked their heads through the open windows under Rodor’s explicit protection. Malodius reclined beside Ywain. And toward the front, the priestesses congregated to the left of the three thrones dominated that part of the chamber.

A process long awaited was about to reach its fruition. Achievement sang of splendor indeed.

Regius watched the assembled crowd. He allowed them to have their conversations. He exchanged a few glances with Freya. He peered back into the passage. There he noticed Merlin waiting for his cue. He saw Jocelyn’s signal that Rodor and Mithian waited further down the hall and behind the Prince. He walked over to Freya. “Pardon me, Priestess Freya. I believe we are ready. Are you all prepared for me to begin?”

“We are indeed,” Freya told him. “Please proceed.”

Regius nodded to them. He walked back toward the center of the dais. He cleared his throat. “GOOD MORNING, HONORED GUESTS AND ESTEEMED SUBJECTS! WELCOME ONCE AGAIN TO NEMETH! TODAY OUR KINGDOM CELEBRATES THE MARRIAGE OF OUR ESTEEMED PRINCE AND PRINCESS! SIR GALAHAD?”

Galahad turned to his fellow knights. “KNIGHTS! ASSUME POSITIONS!”

To the left, Gawain, Ywain and Britomart stood alongside a number of their cohorts.

To the right, Josiane, Boeve, Cligés and several other Nemethian warriors formed the honor guard’s other side.

“DRAW SWORDS!” Galahad commanded.

The knights drew their blades and held them overhead forming a tunnel of sorts.

“PRESENTING HIS ROYAL HIGHNESS, PRINCE MERLIN!” Regius announced.

Merlin looked about the hallway. Although he couldn’t see anyone, he almost felt as if he was being watched. His heart beat faster and faster. Sweat beaded on his forehead. Just remember they’re here for Mithian and you. This is our day. I can do this.

Aye. You can do this, my Prince. Now put one foot in front of the other, Mithian noted; Mirth flavoring her tone.

Yes, Dear, he cracked.

What was that? she rebutted.

He rolled his eyes. Oh nothing. He cleared his throat. He moved his feet slowly. Somehow they didn’t feel as heavy as they had a couple of heartbeats earlier. He advanced into the chamber and through the sword tunnel.

Along the way, his friends and comrades exuded Support’s boost. Their eyes sparkled warmly. Smiles sprouted up along the way.

Thank you, everyone. Merlin exhaled again. He continued onward. His eye met those of his current royal counterparts in the audience. He beheld a range of reactions among them. Some refused to acknowledge him. Ambivalence exuded from others. Approval came from most. He kept his pace down the aisle between the groups of assembled onlookers. He slowly ascended the dais and stood before his designated throne. Then he turned to face the audience.

“AND NOW OUR ROYAL SOVEREIGN AND PRINCESS, KING RODOR AND PRINCESS MITHIAN!” Regius announced.

Rodor led Mithian around the corner and down the hallway. From when Merlin had first shown him the exquisite gown and veil, the King knew she’d be a sight to behold in that attire.

Even prepared as such, she blew away any and all expectations.

She pursed her lips together. Somehow, in spite of her teasing Merlin, Anxiety struck hard at her as well. She trembled ever so slightly. Insecurity ate at her. She trembled.

“Are you all right?” Rodor whispered.

“I’m overwhelmed,” she retorted low. She bowed her head. “I would tell Merlin to be more secure. Now I hesitate.”

“That’s completely normal. You’re experiencing what every other person in your situation has. Just breathe. It will be all right,” Rodor assured her.

She inspected herself. Despite the fine gown and her mother’s necklace, Inferiority still nagged at her. “I just can’t believe this is happening. Father, it’s like a dream.”

“It is. You’re a vision to behold, Mithian. There’s a special young man in there waiting for you. Take confidence in that. No longer are you the pawn or the spurned one. I am about to escort you to your fondest desire,” he continued. “Just have faith.”

She nodded. “All right.”

“Very good.” Rodor guided her down the last bit of hallway and into the chamber. They passed through the honor guard’s gauntlet.

Around them, the guests responded accordingly. The royals nodded. The others bowed or curtseyed. They stared at her. Admiration, Shock and Awe lit up in their eyes. They tried to guess at the nature of the dress’ material. They wondered how Rodor could afford such a gown for her frankly.

Mithian sucked in another deep breath. Unlike Merlin, her eyes didn’t drift left or right. While she could feel everyone’s glances and probing eyes, she kept her attention locked straight ahead toward the dais and her waiting Prince. She managed to keep walking. Her feet meandered slightly. Still she wouldn’t allow herself to lose nerve or hesitate. She was so close to her heart’s desire.

Rodor patted her hand and led her onward. He maintained the Mask of State. He felt glad that the veil covered her face. He led her up to the dais. There he nodded to Merlin. “Prince Merlin.”

“Sire, thank you.” Merlin nodded in response. Gratitude warmed his heart. A smile formed across his lips. I’m a lucky man. He allowed himself a minute to collect his thoughts and to quell his own inner butterflies. And thank you, my Princess. You look great!

I can’t believe you did this, Merlin. I just wish I had something right now to give you, Mithian lamented.

You gave me confidence and self-worth, Mithian. Stand proud and…. Merlin started.

And what? she wondered.

And let me have the last word for once, he gibed.

Somehow Mithian restrained her snort at his off-the-cuff comment. You’re incorrigible!

Can’t be changed. Nope. Not me. Uh uh, he assessed quarter-seriously.

And once again, my Prince, you exceed your own expectations. Just stand tall and we will get through this ceremony, Mithian advised.

I will if you will, Merlin rebutted.

Once again, she was glad the veil covered her face particularly her rolling eyes at that juncture. She sighed and made her way to the left hand throne. There she turned to face the audience as Merlin did on his side. She held herself straight. Purpose numbed Bewilderment’s assault on her sensibilities. She stole a look across the dais.

In response, Merlin did the same. Attraction pulled at him. He wanted to just embrace her. His mouth longed to touch her lips. Even if they were actually joined already, he wanted to clear the last hurdle already.

Rodor observed all of this of course. He allowed the couple their heartbeat or so. Then he cleared his throat. “Greetings, Fellow Rulers, Good Knights and Subjects! I appreciate you all joining us at this juncture. Today is a special day for us. As the rulers in this chamber know, our dynastic households require continuity to survive.” He sucked in a deep breath. “It is fortunate indeed that Princess Mithian strongly stands for us and her subjects in many virtuous ways. Through her, our royal blood will flow forth. It is also a great stroke of fortune that a man has arisen from the shadows to prove his own virtue to our royal eye. His father’s virtue and his own only add to his worth. He overcame great injury and prejudice to do so. And not by coincidence, the Princess has chosen him for her intended.”

Hunith beamed. Pride swelled her chest and heart over Rodor’s praise.

Merlin inhaled deeply. He smiled warmly at his veiled beloved for an instant once more.

Mithian blushed under the veil. Her heart skipped a beat at his affirmation of duty to herself and everything she held dear. Somehow she managed to restrain Giddiness’ and Pride’s respective onslaughts in the process.

As if they needed encouragement, the assembled onlookers applauded spontaneously. Their hands clapped in loud unison. Their eyes sparkled. Together, they all had seen the Princess’ and the newly minted Prince’s worth and value….

“And now, Prince Merlin, I believe you are ready for the crown jewel of our house.” Rodor turned and extended his hand toward his daughter.

Mithian somehow maintained her regal bearing. She trembled at the realization that all of her hopes and dreams were about to be realized….

…that her father had just opened the long disputed door and motioned her toward her beloved Sorcerer-Prince….

She smirked sarcastically at the nobles skulking along the chamber’s back wall. We are not going to go away, you Old Wretches! Merlin and I love each other! DEAL WITH THAT!!! With satisfaction, she accepted the regal hand allowing her father to assist her to the designated spot.

Rodor placed her hands in Merlin’s. Then he implored earnestly, “Love and protect each other. Serve the Kingdom and our allies together. Remember our subjects.”

“All of them are my greatest honor, King Rodor,” Merlin agreed while trying to keep his voice even and stately-sounding.

“I live to serve, Sire,” Mithian concurred while gazing through the veil. Merlin, never doubt that we are here for each other.

I won’t ever again, my Princess! he vowed over the link.

Rodor tacitly nodded accepting their vows. He then stepped back. “To consecrate the union, the High Priestess Freya of Avalon will now step forth if she would?”

Freya strode from the middle of the crowd toward the awaiting couple. As she did so, her heart felt a momentary twinge. You know the goddess holds your love and vow. Mithian will love Merlin as he deserves as he will her. It is your duty to see him happy and to bless them both.

But we are indeed fortunate to be loved by such a worthy friend and ally, Mithian assured her telepathically.

Your devotion to the goddess and Avalon are to be praised, Freya. Thank you for being here, Merlin added.

It is my duty and honor, my Friends. Freya stepped up to her position between the couple. She inhaled deeply allowing the goddess’ presence to fill her. “Thank you, King Rodor. Honored Rulers of Other Lands, Citizens of Nemeth and Other Realms, on behalf of the triple goddess and the Hidden Isle, I am here to confirm the bond between two very unique servants to the goddess, Prince Merlin and Princess Mithian of Nemeth. Marriage can serve as a political tool for lands, dynastic claims and titles. Those things, as with the bond itself and the privilege of being with one’s true love, comes to us through the goddess in her own time and design.” She reached into the pocket of her robe to produce two cloth strips dyed green with red Celtic inlays across them. “Are you both of one mind? Do you wish to proceed?”

Both participants nodded in affirmation.

“Very well. Then hold up your clasped hands,” Freya instructed. When the couple had done so, she bound each joined set of hands with a strip and secured it with a slip knot. Afterwards she continued,

“Now you are bound one to the other
With a tie not easy to break.
Take the time of binding
Before the final vows are made
To learn what you need to know -
To grow in wisdom and love.
That your marriage will be strong
That your love will last
In this life and beyond.”

Merlin without hesitation nodded to his former love. He squeezed his bride’s hands affectionately.

Mithian nodded and returned the gesture. “We are for each other, Priestess Freya.”

“Very well then. It is time for you both to exchange your final vows. Prince Merlin, will you proceed?” Freya pointed out.

He nodded earnestly. He looked deeply through the sheer veil into Mithian’s eyes. His heart danced with nervous energy. Then he began, “I, Merlin, with the blessing of the triple goddess and the universe, do give myself to you, Mithian. I will love and cherish you above all others. May we walk the road together; our love carrying us on from age to age from lifetime to lifetime. May we be blessed in our love and bless others as well.”

Mithian sighed contentedly. He did it. He vowed himself to me. I can do no less now!

“Thank you, Prince Merlin. Princess Mithian, will you proceed?” Freya requested.

Mithian nodded demonstratively. She returned the poignant look from him with one of her own into his dark pools. At that point, she vowed, “I, Mithian, with the blessing of the triple goddess and the universe, do give myself to you, Merlin. I will love and cherish you above all others. May we walk the road together; our love carrying us on from age to age from lifetime to lifetime. May we be blessed in our love and bless others as well.” I seal that bond with our love across our link so that everyone in our order may know.

As do I, Merlin concurred.

Freya smiled in affirmation giving both participants a nod before proceeding. “As the bond has been tied and the vows made, now I ask the goddess to bless this union. May she provide you, her servants, with the pleasures of hearth and home, a friendly path on which to stride and welcome allies to aid and assist that way. May she grant you both the compassion to look out for your subjects as your extended familia. May she make you fruitful with healthy children to serve her as well. This I, Freya, her High Priestess and humble servant, do request for you both on this day and forever more.”

“As do we,” the couple murmured together reverently. Then over the link, they added, We give thanks to you, the triple goddess, for this boon and gift. We serve you eagerly.

And I thank you, my children, the goddess expressed. Please continue, my High Priestess….

Freya nodded reverently. She untied the cloths freeing the couple’s still clasped hands. “Then my office is done except to request one more thing from you, Prince Merlin.” She motioned toward Mithian. “You may lift the veil and kiss your wife.”

Merlin stood numbly; his mind swimming in disbelief.

After all of the fighting and struggle, it was finished? Really?

Mithian’s eyes watered behind the veil. She wanted to embrace him tightly allowing for the moment’s full emotion to crash over them both. Still she maintained her regality. Merlin?

His nerves crashed about loudly; the butterflies creating static through the link.

Merlin, you heard her. Right? Lift my bloody veil please!

Huh? He jarred himself back to his sense at her reminder. Oh yes! I’m sorry.

I thought we weren’t going to keep me waiting? She offered a telepathic snort yet also an affectionate twinkle in her eyes as well.

He sighed deeply while reaching for the sheer veil. He slowly pulled it up allowing her face and then glittering eyes (not to mention an arched eyebrow) for his consideration and pleasure. “Thank you. I love you.”

“And I you. Forever,” Mithian concurred. She embraced him tightly. Her lips defied tradition and pressed tightly onto his, yearning to seal their bond so to speak. She flooded his sensibilities with her energy as her head swam with joy and pleasure.

Just as enthusiastically, his lips matched her effort with their own. His heart floated to the highest peaks possible. He felt as if he was flying.

Around the couple, a crimson and white streaked aura shone brightly dazzling the audience. For generations thereafter, chroniclers and bards would marvel at the display attributing it to many things. The onlookers would point to the groom’s magic….

…in truth it was their love on display….

Rodor nodded and stepped back into view. “I thank you and the goddess, Priestess Freya.”

“It is my pleasure to perform my duty, King Rodor. For my goddess and friends, it is my joy,” Freya bowed her head and stepped back allowing him the central position once more.

“Then may I congratulate you both.” Rodor embraced his daughter affectionately. “My Precious One, may you be happy always.”

“I will be, Father. Thank you for helping to make this day possible,” she expressed with a tear in her eye.

Rodor smiled and kissed her forehead. Then he stepped over to Merlin. “Now you are my son in fact as well as in my heart, Merlin.” He embraced his new son-in-law. “As I said, no more doubts.”

Merlin grinned at his wife and let his eyes sparkle. “No more doubts.”

“Excellent!” Rodor faced the crowd allowing the Prince and Princess to turn and do the same. “It is done!”

No sooner did he say it then the whole hall exploded with celebratory applause and well wishes. Another thunderous round of clapping threatened to deafen the onlookers. Affectionate whistles and cheers filled the air.

For Merlin, only his Princess mattered. He could finally lose himself in her eyes. He stole another kiss off of her pouting lips eagerly.

“That’s more like it,” she declared with relish. “May we, Sire?” She motioned toward the onlookers.

“You may.” Rodor treasured the moment as the couple stepped toward their friends and allies. He enjoyed watching them accept the hearty congratulations and well wishes.

“It is something special. Is it not?” Freya queried.

“It is indeed.” Rodor looked earnestly to her. “As they have said, my kingdom is open to you, Freya of Avalon. I value your friendship and that of your order. Please stay and take refreshment.”

“I shall indeed. If you will excuse me, I believe I shall join in the festivities,” she concurred with a bow before heading into the frenzy for her own exchange of personal blessings.

It is truly amazing what they have created. May you both see the greatest fruits of our kingdom, Merlin and Mithian. You deserve to be happy. Rodor eyed the now empty seats and the open doors in the back of the room. He knew of the brewing fight to come with his nobles. Still he didn’t care at that moment.

For now, they had their achievement. The couple had their love and union.

And for everyone, that’s all that mattered……

Chapter Text

Chapter 19 [Two Turns of the Hourglass Later]

Jubilation buzzed throughout the castle and town. Guests and servants buzzed about in the passages and corridors. Gossip seemed to buzz about frankly louder than usual. Alacrity urged on the later banquet’s preparations.

So it was at a wedding….

….for those except certain individuals….

 

****

 

Merlin circulated about the chamber. Even if everyone savored their goblets of fine wine, he drank from a goblet of water. Disappointment admittedly weighed on him. He’d had hopes of whisking Mithian off to their new chamber and some well-deserved time together.

Duty, alas, had other ideas…..

He played Politics’ game. He maintained a pleasant smile. He shook more hands than could easily be counted. When meeting a new dignitary, he stuck to small talk. If he spoke with an old acquaintance or a close friend, he let his guard down a bit. Still if anyone tried to take advantage of him, he’d simply thank them for their confidence in him and direct him or her to Rodor.

Seemed that the time around Camelot’s court paid dividends yet again….

And magic? Merlin deflected that subject and any mention of dragons or Dragon Lords as far away as possible. He understood Agendas’ hidden purposes. The other royals’ scrutinizing eyes were bad enough. Worse still, he knew someone might try to pry some hidden nugget of information from him. He also needed to keep Kilgarrah and Aithusa safe. Most importantly he wouldn’t screw up his hard earned place in the hierarchy.

Welcome to political life, Merlin. Now would come the proving ground….

How do they do this all day? He sighed and sipped on his goblet.

“They do like to prance around all day. Don’t they?”

He turned to see Queen Elena watching him. “It seems to be their reason for being, Your Highness.” He offered her the perfunctory nod.

She smiled. “Even a crown and a marriage haven’t changed you. Don’t ever change, Merlin. Your manner will win several conflicts before they’re even fought. You’re a breath of fresh air.”

He blushed. Shyness shaded his cheeks with crimson shades. “As are you. I swear these people try to get anything and everything out of you.”

She nodded. “They seek an advantage. Be ever watchful of them. And I don’t just say that as an Amazon looking at men. The Queens can be just as cunning and ruthless. Be selective in what you say and who you say it to.” She regarded him again. “Just as you always are.”

He coughed. “I wish I was better at it though.”

“Practice will sharpen your acumen, Merlin. Patience will hone your wits,” she presumed. “I’m grateful that King Rodor signed our treaty. It will offer each side a great deal.”

“I’m glad he did. We can help each other.” He saw Morgana and Accolon approach. “Maybe I see another alliance for you?”

Elena exhaled sharply. Skepticism weighed on her mind. Doubt restrained her. She heard that Morgana had made efforts to change. Rumor spoke of her role in preventing a Camelot-Nemeth standoff at the Severn just weeks earlier. She knew other rulers trusted Tintagel’s Queen. Still she kept her expression neutral.

Meantime he greeted, “Queen Morgana, I trust you’re having a good time.” He nodded to her. “And I don’t think I’ve been formally introduced to your companion. Sir Accolon, correct?”

“Aye, Prince Merlin.” Accolon bowed to him. “And the robes do fit you well.”

“Thanks. I’m getting used to them,” Merlin accepted. “This is Queen Elena of the Amazons. Queen Elena, Queen Morgana and Sir Accolon of Tintagel.”

“I’ve heard a great deal about your people, Elena. It is an honor,” Morgana praised. “King Rodor just told me of your new treaty. Congratulations. Perhaps we might talk at some point?”

“Perhaps. I see great potential in Tintagel and you as allies, Morgana. I would be open to conversation and negotiations. Perhaps we might come to an understanding that benefits both of us,” Elena declared.

“Tintagel’s doors are open to the Amazons and you, Elena. I’m sure King Rodor would allow us a chamber to negotiate in. With my dear brother’s recent behavior, we have to be sure to mind ourselves,” Morgana invited.

“Arthur of Camelot’s behavior has been most peculiar over the past two seasons. While his father had extreme policies, I had hopes that the Younger Pendragon would be different,” Elena declared.

“Good luck on that. Arthur hates magic and the Old Religion,” Morgana pointed out.

Merlin squirmed. “Maybe he just needs to see something different?”

“Merlin, this is Arthur we’re speaking of. Or have you forgotten what he said to you at the Severn?” Morgana reminded him. “Or how he spoke about Kilgarrah and Aithusa?”

“I know.” Merlin sighed and bowed his head. Lament burdened his heart. “I still think he can change. For Gwen’s sake, I have to hope for that. For what it’s worth, I know what he is and what he believes. Still I have to try.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “And there’s the strategic side too.”

“Strategic side? Really?” Elena raised an eyebrow.

Morgana smirked. “You’re talking strategy openly? This should be something.”

“I do know strategy,” Merlin retorted. Annoyance sharpened his tone.

“Oh I know you do. It’s different hearing it from you rather than getting it in the back for a change,” Morgana agreed with an edge of her own.

“Now that we’re on the same scroll, I will.” Merlin sighed. “Camelot’s important. Arthur’s isolated. I’m hoping that King Rodor will let us support him.”

“And you don’t want to?” Elena asked looking for Confirmation’s finality in that regard.

“King Rodor is in charge. I’m not going to make promises without his approval,” Merlin noted as much for any overhearing ears as for the two Queens.

“Well said, Prince Merlin,” Accolon noted.

“Safely said.” Morgana coughed. “Aye. That was most impressive. And for what it’s worth, I have no wish to see Arthur be overrun. Perhaps I might speak to Rodor about possible ways to work with him. I have no reason to undermine your position, Merlin either.” She tipped her goblet to him. “Once again, congratulations on your wedding.”

“Thank you. I appreciate that,” Merlin expressed. “Once again, Sir Accolon, it was good to meet you. Have a great time tonight.”

“We are indeed, Prince Merlin.” Accolon bowed to him. Then he followed Morgana across the chamber.

Elena leaned close to him. “You see what I was talking about?”

Merlin nodded. “I do indeed.” He grimaced at Accumen’s lesson in that regard.

Despite Success’ grace, he would have to keep his guard up at all times. That was a fact….

Chapter Text

Chapter 20 [Across the Chamber]

Mithian sipped from her gilded goblet. Her eyes scanned the entire chamber. Curiosity pushed her mind this way and that. Caution kept her alert. Agendas lurked like a predator in the brush. As such, when she spoke with the dignitaries, she remained mindful of their aims and goals as well as her own.

Still Memoria put the image of her close call with the boar before her eyes once again.

My own rashness nearly did me in. If not for my Prince, who knows? She sighed thinking of how she’d put Merlin at risk for discovery to save her. We’re fortunate he wasn’t seen. Given how Arthur reacted at the Severn, how might he have treated Merlin had he found out then? She took another anxious gulp. She moved through the throng. Occasionally she’d stop to accept a congratulations or well wishes. Then her dress would evoke another rush of Compliment’s grace. I still can’t believe Merlin found this gown! Magic or not, it’s beyond belief. She grimaced at the cost he must’ve put himself through.

Still she knew he’d repay whoever or whatever gladly for her sake.

Merlin would spoil me. Unreal! She rolled her eyes. She spied Gwen lingering alone on the room’s far side. Why isn’t there anyone talking with her? She sighed. Hospitality lent speed to her steps. Within four heartbeats, she’d reached Gwen. “Are you all right?”

Gwen stiffened. She turned. “I’m sorry, Mithian. I guess my mind’s not on the reception. I hope the banquet is lovely.”

“Knowing Michael’s cooking, it will be. Why aren’t you speaking with anyone? Surely there are some of our friends in the crowd?” Mithian supposed.

“There are. I should put up a better front being a Queen or former Queen…” Gwen drank from her goblet. “Water. I didn’t feel like wine.” Depression weighed her mouth down into a frown. “I should be happier. Merlin’s finally with someone special. Lancelot’s alive and well for real this time. You look absolutely radiant in that gown, Mithian. Still I just can’t get myself in the spirit. I’m sorry.”

“Arthur should have been here to support Merlin today. I wish he had been. Still, Gwen, he made his choice. If he wants help, we can offer it. Otherwise he is King over Camelot. We need to respect that,” Mithian declared.

“And I made my choice to come here. To be honest, I hoped Arthur would have broken down and apologized at that point. He needs to understand.” Gwen furrowed her brow and folded her arms across her chest.

“Politics push us in different ways. Meleagant and Edgar are pushing him in different directions. You know how Camelot’s nobles can be. Arthur’s finding out what it means to be King without an assistant. Agravaine did do some good in addition to his scheming,” Mithian pointed out.

“That’s debatable. I know Merlin suspected him from the beginning. He tried to tell Arthur to watch his back. Once again, Merlin was right.” Gwen coughed. “His instincts are something else.”

“Aye. They are. So are yours, Gwen. We aren’t giving up on Arthur. As if I could make Merlin do that even if I wanted to? I don’t think Father could make him do that,” Mithian assured her.

Gwen smiled. “Thank you for that. Arthur wants to change so many things. I wish he could do the same for magic.”

“Bad experience and Uther’s attitudes have a lot to do with it. Then there are the old nobles. Such things take time to change.” Mithian shook her head. Frustration ate at her. “I want to ride into Camelot and slap him. Merlin’s done so much for him and Camelot.”

“Arthur knows that, Mithian. We all do. Arthur just feels so…well…overwhelmed. He’s trying to govern without a viceroy. Then there are all of the knights moving on to other places. He supports it of course. Still he needs support. We all do,” Gwen clarified. “Especially being up against Uther’s old guard.”

“We have some of them as well here.” Mithian glanced across the chamber toward a group of older men standing apart from everyone else.

“Your missing counselors?” Gwen supposed.

“Aye. Them. They object to Merlin. Never mind that he’s just as entitled to his place as they are theirs.” Mithian shook her head. “The two counselors are still unaccounted for.” She exhaled sharply. “But enough of that. Are you sure that I can’t do something to make you feel better?”

Gwen nodded. “You already have. You never give up on anyone.”

“With Merlin as my Prince? He’d never let me hear the end of it. Not that I’d want him any different,” Mithian insisted. She noticed Josiane, Boeve, Gawain, Britomart and Soredamors not far away. “Now as the bride, I insist you join the rest of us. Or do I have to get Merlin to talk to you?”

Gwen rolled her eyes. “He’d never stop trying to get me to join you all. Lead on.”

“Much better.” Mithian ushered Gwen over to where their friends congregated.

In that sense, Mood seemed to brighten just a bit…..

Chapter Text

Chapter 21
[Passage Outside of Physicians’ Chamber]

Lancelot haunted the largely vacant passages around the castle. Melancholy weighed down his outlook. Longing ate at his heart. Loyalty though ran up against them. He needed space to walk and think. His mind struggled to clear itself.

Benefit raised his spirits. A new lease on life gladdened him. While he only had the barest of relationships with Rodor, he’d gladly serve Merlin. On that note, he enjoyed that his friend had finally achieved his due. From what he’d learned of Mithian, she would be good for the Warlock-Prince. That is in addition to not having to keep secrets. In addition he and his fellow knights knew of Merlin’s capabilities.

Lament however weighed on him as well. He worried about Arthur’s mindset. He fumed over the nobles’ efforts to sabotage their advances. He wondered about Anna’s condition. Distraction would be a good thing especially if it kept him away from the big issue in the chamber downstairs.

Gwen….

He frowned. Disbelief soured his outlook. Hadn’t he sacrificed enough? Why was Arthur behaving like twice the idiot that he claimed Merlin to be? She loves him. Still his hate drove her here. How can he not see how she wants to be with him? He bowed his head. Jealousy tore its dagger through his heart. Rejection burned at him. Still he bit back Spite’s attitude. Think of her feelings and needs. Think of Anna’s needs.

He headed toward the door.

 

****

[Physician’s Chambers]

Elaine dipped a rag into cool rose water. Then she wrung it out. Concern blocked out all other buzzing about the court from her ears. She could’ve cared less in any event to be honest. Gratitude lightened potential malice where Rodor was concerned. Appreciation blossomed in response to Mithian’s support and friendship.

Still Memoria haunted her with her mother’s execution.

She choked back a few sobs. Service provided the necessary distraction. She exhaled deeply and wrung out the rag again. Father would consort with those hateful men. Magic can be beautiful. Why do they hate us so? Why?

“L…lady?”

Elaine slumped her shoulders. I engage in such self-pity. I should be caring for Anna instead. I have my health and home at least. She has nothing. Poor child. She turned back toward the little girl. “And how are you?”

“Still hot. Arm’s not hurting anymore,” Anna responded half-honestly. She coughed. She slowly raised the wooden cup to her mouth. Her lips sucked the last bit of water from the vessel. “Could use some more water please.”

“Of course.” Elaine took the pitcher. From it, she refilled the wooden cup. “I’m sorry. You’re thirsty. I’m not paying attention.”

“You’re so good. T’anks.” Anna accepted the cooler water. Then she closed her eyes and dozed back to sleep.

Not as good as I’d like to be! Elaine wiped the girl’s forehead. She wished to forget the past for a few heartbeats. She didn’t want to deal with the officials’ horrible treatment of her mother, people with magic and herself. She reviled that horrid Uther Pendragon. She could well imagine how his son, Arthur, treated others with magic. Is everyone fated to be hunted down like that? Perhaps King Rodor can make for a better place here in Nemeth. We can hope!

Then a knock came from the door.

She walked toward it. Caution urged her to take care. “Aye?”

“It’s Sir Lancelot. Might I come in?” Lancelot called through the door.

Lancelot? Elaine’s cheeks blushed. Giddiness shook her slightly. Her heart did flip flops at the notion of the handsome knight. She opened the door and curtseyed before him. “Forgive me. I would’ve thought you downstairs with everyone else.”

“I was. I wanted to see Anna. Besides I didn’t see you down there,” he pointed out. He noted her appearance. Unlike the other female courtiers, she disregarded Appearance’s manner. He could see the wrinkles (and flat out rumples) in her dress. Her hair (rather than the perfect plaiting) ran in a ponytail down her back. Admiration warmed his heart. “You seem to be doing wonders.”

“I don’t know about that,” Elaine deflected. “I can’t make Anna well.”

“She needs rest, nourishment and some stability, Milady. You do wonders as it is,” he assured her. A smile crossed his lips. “Take some comfort in that.”

“She’s kind. I told ‘er….” Anna muttered.

“Indeed she is.” He looked the patient over. He noted the slight color in Anna’s cheeks. Her skin gleamed in Sol’s light. Her hair seemed straighter. “I’m glad you’re feeling better.”

“Just hungry. Soup’s good. Maybe some bread?” Anna requested. She forced herself into a sitting position.

“You should lie back down,” Elaine directed.

“She needs her appetite too.” He smiled at Elaine. “Your kindness does you credit.” His heart skipped a beat for some reason. His mind didn’t revolve around Gwen for a few heartbeats. Instead he thought only of Shalott’s mistress.

For some reason, Amor failed to protest that notion. Desire instead drew him to her much as an unsuspecting animal might fall into a snare.

“Oh? You’re very kind to say that. If you can watch her, I can….” Elaine started.

“Maybe we can both watch her? Let me see if we can find a dress for Anna,” he offered.

“Sir Knight, I can’t!” Anna protested.

“You let us worry about that, Little One.” He rubbed her shoulder. His eyes shone warmly into hers. “Tonight you feast.” He looked at Elaine. “You as well.”

“Me?” Elaine grimaced. “Those ladies don’t like me. Who will I talk to? What will I say?”

“You can talk with Anna and me, Lady Elaine. You have more friends than you might suspect.” He lifted her hand. His lips brushed the back of her knuckles. “Let me see if I can find the tailor.” With that, he left.

Elaine looked at her hand. For some reason, it tingled. A deep dreamy sigh escaped her lips.

Seemed that there were other things to consider after all…

Chapter Text

Chapter 22 [Newlyweds’ Chamber]

Merlin tapped his fingers against the polished oaken desk. His mind spun over the realities of his new situation. He was now Crown Prince and married. Legitimacy had branded him. Concern no longer burdened him.

Well almost didn’t burden him. He did have one concern left….

Can I make Mithian happy? I… He sucked in an anxious breath.

You did just fine back in Camelot, Merlin. I’m sure you will do so again, Mithian assured him from behind her dressing screen. She fussed her way out of the fine gown. In its place, she changed into the yellow gown from her previous engagement.

Wish you’d keep the other dress on. Seeing you in that reminds me of what happened before, he told her.

You mean how we first met? Perhaps how you deluded me into falling in love? She snorted before emerging from the screen. “Fasten my dress?”

“Have to say I wish it was after the feast already.” Lament drew a long sigh from his lips. He secured the clasps on the back.

“I am going to have to polish that armor. Can’t have all of that dirt on it. Can we?” She smirked at him. “Let the Court have its show. We shall have ours at our leisure.”

“I can’t wait, Mithian.” He kissed her neck.

Arousal flashed through her. She bit her lip. “You’re making this so hard.”

Now it was his turn to snort at her.

She rolled her eyes. “Difficult. You’re making this difficult.” She shook her head. “Now we really need to polish that devious mind of yours.”

“If you’d like to, my Lady?” he supposed.

“Oh I will…in my own time.” Sauciness gleamed in her eye.

“I’d like to see that,” he retorted. Warmth prompted a grin in return.

She sighed. Temptation beckoned her toward the bed and a preview of the evening’s activities. Still Duty and Protocol demanded different directions. “Sometimes we just can’t do we want, Merlin. We do have a banquet to go to.”

“And here I thought you could wish up a distraction and make it work,” he gibed. “Some royals.”

She coughed. “Oh I’d like to do what you’re suggesting. Unfortunately Father would lecture us up and down for defying convention. Kind of a stuffy royal thing.” She sniffed. “And you wouldn’t be comparing me to your former master. Would you?”

“Nah. Wouldn’t go there. Nobody’s that big of a prat,” he jabbed.

“Well good. Hate to think I’d displease you or anything,” she sassed back.

He looked at her. “I’m not going there.”

“And Arthur thinks you’re an idiot? That, Merlin, was a good answer. Now come along.” She guided him from the chamber and toward their celebratory feast.

A celebration now…and another promised one later….

Chapter Text

Chapter 23 [Grand Hall—Several Hours Later]

Anticipation stalked the grand hall on that day. Minstrels played tunes on their instruments. Garlands hung along the walls. Pristine white cloths draped over the three long tables pulled into a U-formation. Torches burned along the chamber’s sides. Candles burned at measured spaces along their lengths. Platters of capon and beef made those tables bend along with vessels of vegetables and wine.

Guests sat at arranged points. Annis, King Bors, Prince Bors, Morgana, Elena and Gwen shared stories and mutual feelings. The knights sat with Soredamors, Hunith and Elaine. Anna stared at the exquisite surroundings; Awe widening her eyes and slackening her jaw. At the tables’ head, Ninane, Freya and Nimue awaited their service to goddess and mortals alike. Peter read and reread words from the parchment in his hands. Sarah reassured him that his performance would be memorable.

The buzz grew with each heartbeat.

 

****

 

Regius scanned the entire chamber. His eyes ascertained every detail. His ears discerned the conversations without eavesdropping on the rulers’ private affairs. He peered back into the hall to see his master and the two newlyweds waiting there. He glanced over toward Freya. Then he turned toward the man in fine green robes to his left.

Freya nodded tacitly. She motioned to the other priestesses who stood and turned toward the door.

The emerald courtier raised a horn to his lips. He blew out several loud notes.

Instantly the conversations ceased. All eyes turned toward the head table.

“Good evening, Honored Guests, Heads of State and Members of Nemeth’s Court! Thank you for accepting my sovereign’s generous invitation and joining us tonight. It is his hope you will enjoy the sumptuous fare and entertainment. And now, I present our host, His Eminent Highness, King Rodor.” Regis turned and bowed toward the door. “Sire?”

Rodor strode forward with a practiced gait; a practiced smile covering his face. He nodded regally while walking to his place at the high table. He surveyed the chamber. “Good evening, Everyone. Once again, thank you for joining us on this most eminent day in our kingdom’s history. Speaking as a proud father, ruler and also as a friend, I am deeply honored and excited to be here hosting this event.” He raised his goblet. “ To all of you allies, Nemeth salutes and thanks you. Enjoy with our joy and thanks.”

“HEAR! HEAR!” the guests retorted boisterously raising their goblets and cups in response before taking a healthy draught.

Rodor allowed that sentiment to flavor the air for a long few heartbeats. He cleared his throat. “It was an ironic turn of events which led us to tonight. In fact, it was of all things a failed engagement which had a silver lining. During that time, Princess Mithian discovered her feelings for a most unique individual. It surprised me to hear about her attention toward King Arthur’s former manservant, Merlin. In most cases, I would never have allowed such a match. Prince Merlin, however, as you all are aware, is a truly special individual. I do not have to belabor his good qualities. In light of his achievements in Camelot and the times he has aided Nemeth’s sovereignty, I have granted him a special circumstance comprised of the knighting, his crowning this morning and the Princess’ hand. He and Princess Mithian are our future now. As they seek to look after our people, they shall work alongside all of you, my friends. And now, may I present our special guests? Prince Merlin and Princess Mithian!”

The guests clapped enthusiastically. They cheered in wild support. They raised their cups once more beckoning the newlyweds inside to join them.

Once the herald opened the door, Mithian and Merlin walked in unison; their nerves blown away by the supportive reception they received. They squeezed their clasped hands in amorous unison. Their hearts, soaring on the heartily warmth in front of them, beat together as one.

Can you believe this?? Merlin queried incredulously through the link.

Believe it, my Warlock! They are here to celebrate with us. Our love is special! You see? Mithian reassured him with a confident smile. Come on. Let’s not keep them or Father waiting. She gently urged him forward toward the waiting Rodor.

Rodor beamed warmly as the couple bowed before him. “Good evening, my Children. Now that the day’s toils and challenges are done, may you now enjoy the pleasures of our company. This is yours now.”

“Thank you, Father,” Mithian accepted dutifully.

“Our thanks, Sire,” Merlin acknowledged gratefully.

“You’re welcome. Please rise and enjoy the evening,” Rodor replied pleasantly. He then took his seat.

Merlin nodded. An anxious tremor shot through him. He sucked in a reassuring breath for his wife’s benefit. He helped her into her seat courteously. “For you.” He raised the back of her hand; his lips brushing Amor’s gentle brush strokes across it.

Mithian blushed happily. Admittedly her mind still flashed back to the feast during her first visit to Camelot. She struggled hoping that this would be the time that would supplant that uncomfortable memory. Promise me you won’t make Arthur or me start belching, she teased telepathically.

Somehow he stifled the laugh rising within himself. He only offered a smile in response before moving onto his mother. In similar fashion, he raised her hand and kissed it as well out of love and reverence for her.

Hunith’s eyes sparkled brightly into his. Her heart overflowed with relief and joy at her boy’s change of fortune. Granted he’d found a refuge of sorts with Arthur and Camelot. However this turn represented far more than either of them really had a right to expect. She smiled reassuringly knowing of his butterflies. Be happy, Merlin. Life gives us enough misfortune! Cherish this moment of all!

Merlin grinned gratefully before sliding between her and Mithian. He nodded to Rodor offering tacit thanks to his sovereign for the great given him.

Rodor nodded back to the new Prince and added a comforting smile. He clapped his hands offering a cue to the waiting servants. “Eat and be well, my Friends!!! Music!”

On cue, the minstrels’ rebecs and wind instruments serenaded the air and the attendees’ ears with the gentle soothing tones of ancient ballads. Accompanying singers added their own well-crafted contribution displaying their knowledge of events and peoples gone by.

The servants brought out the wares for the event’s participants. Platters of roast beef, pork and capon settled onto the tables. Fresh grapes and apples heaped into bowls tempted their stomachs as well. Wine refreshed partially drained goblets.

Truly it was a change in atmosphere from the dismal and problematic to the celebratory and warmth. And that was something they could all get behind.

Chapter Text

Chapter 24 [An Hour and a Half Later]
[A/N: The poems in this chapter are my work as well.]
Merlin leaned back contentedly in his chair. His ears floated on the music. His stomach threatened to burst from the quality food. His brain remained clear thanks to his imbibing water (in addition to the prescribed half-goblet of wine). He felt content in being surrounded by friends and loved ones with nary a threat in sight. I could live like this forever!

Now that is more like it!

He turned to see Mithian smirking confidently at him. Glad you’re enjoying yourself. You’re all making it easy for me. He rubbed her hand affectionately.

That’s what we do. She let her eyes twinkle into his. Rauchon’s pork loin is something else. Is it not?

It melts in your mouth. I never knew how great food at the high table was. I served it but….

Enjoy it. She cut a piece and stuck it in her mouth saucily. She closed her eyes allowing the gentle flavors to course over and melt on her tongue.

Playing with your food now? he teased back.

She snorted gently. Not hardly. She arched the eyebrow far surpassing Gaius’ best effort in that regard. Fare like *this* is to be savored, Merlin. Obviously you have.

He rolled his eyes knowing she’d one-upped him in that debate.

I rest my case. She smiled with satisfaction and tipped her own goblet to him. Then she took a draught and set it back on the table. She glanced toward her father who was standing up. Father wants to move onto the next stage.

Next stage? He looked toward his sovereign not knowing what to expect next.

Just watch and enjoy. As if I’d let anyone insult you tonight? she supposed with a bit of mirth. She motioned with her eyes toward her father.

Rodor assessed the assembled gathering in front of himself. He’d preferred to sit back and exchange some small talk with Hunith, Mithian and Merlin. He’d listened to the minstrels’ concert and the bard singing of romantic triumphs in the face of dark despair. Now he wished to reassure his heirs of the surrounding support. He tinked his fork against his goblet to center the room’s attention back on him once again.

On cue, everyone in the room ceased their conversation and looked politely to him.

“Thank you. It gladdens my heart to see everyone enjoying this special night. I know a few have requested a word in support of the Prince and Princess. I gladly turn over the floor to you at this point. May you add to the High Priestess Freya’s beautiful blessing from this morn,” Rodor announced. “Queen Elena, are you ready?”

“I am, King Rodor. My thanks,” the Amazon Queen accepted. She stood and gazed upon the newlyweds. “Prince Merlin, Princess Mithian, you are both quality people. We all owe you a great deal. Your understanding insured my kingdom’s fortunes. As you look to lead into an age of magic’s acceptance once more, may the sun shine on you. May Artemis bless your hunts. May Demeter bless your harvests and fill your store rooms. May our fortunes and relations be fruitful. Know that the Amazon Nation stands ready to assist Nemeth.” She raised her goblet. “To the Prince, Princess and Nemeth.”

“Hear! Hear!” the group cheered.

“Thank you, Queen Elena. Queen Guinevere, are you ready?” Rodor called.

Gwen nodded. Once again she missed Arthur at that point. Still Pride warmed her heart. She stood slowly. She glanced toward the head table. “I am, King Rodor. Thank you. We’re here to celebrate two wonderful people. Princess Mithian, I would never have expected you to be so gracious. You’re loyal and strong as a friend. Merlin, there are so many things I could say. You’re so caring. You always look out for everyone before yourself. I know nobody who works harder, takes greater care or does more. I wish you both the best of everything.” She raised her goblet. “To you, Prince Merlin and Princess Mithian.”

“Hear! Hear!” the group cheered.

“Thank you, Queen Guinevere. Sir Gawain, are you ready?” Rodor asked.

Britomart turned toward her fiancé. Incredulity raised an eyebrow. Concern over Irreverence’s possible appearance at the gala worried her. Please be serious! Don’t make a joke out of this!

Gawain ignored the reaction. He rose to his feet. He offered Merlin a bow. “Yeah I’m ready. Thanks, King Rodor.” He looked to Lancelot, Gwen and Leon. Then he started in. “I’ve been all over this island. Lots of scrapes. Lots of taverns. So many places. Life was just a series of jobs. Merlin changed that. He introduced me to King Arthur and Camelot. He convinced me that I could fit in. Gwen and he were my first real friends. I could go on all day about what Merlin’s meant to everyone here. I’m sure Lance could say something too.”

“I can indeed. Still it is your toast, Gawain,” Lancelot replied.

“Yeah well I want to force him to take credit for once. I’m sure most of us would agree. And as for Princess Mithian, she made Camelot realize a lot. She stood up for what’s right against a lot of stuff. She can lead, knows how to shoot and has dignity. Talk about a great leader. And she’s getting Merlin to realize that he is great. He can be Prince. To our Prince and Princess.” Gawain raised his goblet. “Cheers!”

“Hear! Hear!” the group chimed in again.

“Lady Britomart, Knight of Nemeth, are you ready?” Rodor called.

“Aye, Sire. I am.” Britomart exchanged looks with Gawain before standing. “Thank you. Princess Mithian, your insight, warm heart and ability to see character regardless of status has always been your greatest assets. Despite the differences in standing, your friendship is a precious gift from the darkest times following my parents’ death and through to the current day. I can’t say enough of the good things you represent. Prince Merlin, your giving nature and strength of character will serve you in good stead. I can see why the Princess feels as she does for you. May your days be warm and bright. May we know peace in all regards. My love to you both.” She raised her goblet. “To you both.”

“Hear! Hear!” the group cheered.

“Thank you for that apt toast. Indeed, as we all serve, we should remember that this is a collaborative effort indeed, Lady Britomart. Lady Hunith, may I offer you the next toast?” Rodor proposed to the newest noble at court.

Hunith rose slowly and curtseyed to her new sovereign. “My thanks, Sire.” She turned to the newlyweds and smiled warmly. “To you both, the best of everything. Princess Mithian, I know you are my superior in rank but speaking as the proud mother-in-law, I couldn’t be any more delighted in you if you were my own daughter. I saw your heart and earnestness immediately. Prince Merlin, I wish I had all night to speak to your virtues. Needless to say, I couldn’t be any prouder of you in all regards. I know you both will be a credit to this kingdom and court. As with Lady Britomart, I offer my fealty and love as both subject and a mother.” She raised her goblet. “To you both, may your bond survive the seasons of change through sun and rain. May you know happiness in all regards.”

“Hear! Hear!” the group cheered again.

“Thank you, Mother,” Merlin expressed while embracing Hunith affectionately. “You deserve so much credit. I wish I had the words for you as well.”

“Merlin, please….I….” Hunith blushed with embarrassment. She looked with concern toward the King.

Rodor nodded reassuringly. “Love such as this is to be praised, Lady Hunith. Despite the difference in rank, your bond is to be appreciated.”

“Indeed.” Mithian joined in the group embrace. “You are an impressive woman in your own right. Thank you for raising such a wondrous man and for entrusting him to me. I am so glad you are here with us.” She kissed the older woman on the cheek. “Thank you.”

Hunith hugged the couple tightly. Then she sat back down knowing that there were others still waiting to speak. Still her eyes sparkled proudly at her son and his wife. May you both know the best of everything!

“Thank you, Lady Hunith. Now, Master Peter, I believe you have something for us as well?” Rodor called out.

Nemeth’s court poet fought the butterflies. Anxiety robbed him of his balance and determination. Still he wouldn’t fail his Prince and Princess. Not in this venue and special day. He cleared his throat and bowed to his sovereign and the newlyweds. “My…my thanks, Sire. Prince Merlin and Princess Mithian, my heartiest congratulations on this august day. I hope this composition meets with your approval.” Peter pulled out a parchment. Nerves pushed another gulp from his water cup. “My lords and ladies….

Inspirations
Peter of Marlsborough

Life bears down
Challenge does arise
For Laurel and Gilt Crown
Alike before Destruction’s tide

Stand strong we should
Defend we Truth and Light
Like Atlas support them we could
Protect them from Malice’s blight

Before us tonight
Emerge two examples august
Shaped under Virtue’s oversight
Our leaders just

Inspire you both do
In so many ways
Doubt you away move
With feats amaze

Of your virtue, I profess
Quality without peer
Our Prince and Princess
Drawing Hope near.

Unique you are
Diverge from Tradition you do
Still its import you won’t mar
Accord it just due.

Raise us all
You lead that way
Stand you both tall
Against Storm’s way

Thanks I confess
With Fealty and Love
To Prince and Princess
Fit together like hand in glove

Success and Happiness
May you have
May goddess your way bless
Amor your hearts keep safe….”

Humility prompted another bow from Peter. “With deepest regards, Friends and Sovereigns.”

“Thank you, Master Peter. Once more, you astound with your quill and gift. As I told you in the garden that day, you do your share as well,” Mithian noted.

“You opened Opportunity’s door, my Lady. I simply walk through,” Peter deflected.

“Well that deserves a toast!” Lancelot raised his goblet. “To Master Peter’s poem and our newlyweds! May they live long in sunshine rather than sorrow.”

“AYE!” the group cheered.

“Indeed so, Sir Lancelot. Master Peter’s poem indeed reflects our regards today. Now before the couple has their traditional thoughts to each other, I claim the last toast as the liege lord and the overjoyed father.” Rodor allowed himself a heartbeat of introspection. “To Nemeth’s new Prince, Merlin, you already show such potential. We all owe you so much. I am so privileged to have your mother and you in my family now. May you make the Princess happy and serve our people well. Continue to make me proud. And as for you, my Daughter, I am so happy for you on this night. As was the case between Arthur and Merlin, you have served as my right hand and pillar of strength. You are fair of mind and heart. Your inner strength and sage wisdom have benefited the kingdom more than once. You see people for who they are not for their rank or title. Yours is not the traditional path for a Princess or future Queen. I think to have forced you down that path would deny your potential. And now with your magic, you have the ability to make a bigger difference.” He allowed that point to linger in the air before pressing on. “You both have great power and opportunity, Mithian. Make the most of them. Remember what King Arthur said of Merlin’s penchant for service. I am struck in this moment by the advice of a Nazarene traveler in this land many years ago. Among his sermons, he told the people, ‘The last shall be the first and the first shall be the last.’ Heed that well. That will differentiate you from Morgana and her ilk. Be of the light, my Daughter and you too, Merlin. We all shall stand by you. I know your mother would add to that wish with her own, Mithian. I love you both. May you have the joy of a fruitful partnership benefiting yourselves and our fair land.” He raised his goblet.

“Hear! Hear!” the group chorused enthusiastically.

“I love you as well, Father,” Mithian assured him with an enthusiastic embrace.

“As do I. For all you have done for Mother and me…for your generosity, I…I can’t say enough,” Merlin added before adding his embrace to hers.

“Those sentiments and your continued service are all the thanks I need, my Children,” Rodor noted warmly. “And now I believe it is for you. We have said our words. Now, according to Nemethian tradition, it is for you both to exchange thoughts to one another.” With that he sat back down shifting the spotlight back to them.

Merlin admittedly felt the butterflies once again. He felt the small bit of parchment in his pocket. Once again, his insecurity welled up inside of himself. He knew how much he loved and treasured his wife. Despite the short duration of their bond, he just knew…

“It’s all right,” Mithian assured him with a gentle smile. Don’t worry about the traditions or anybody else here. They don’t matter. Speak to me. And I will speak to you and only you.

All right. I love you. I want to do you justice and I should say more.

Silly, that’s all that is important. Still if you have more, I’d love to hear it. Just don’t keep us waiting as you love to do. She offered the Smirk as a bit of levity.

He somehow didn’t roll his eyes at her. All right. “In light of the wonderful things that our friends and loved ones have said, I wish to add a few thoughts of my own.” He took her hands in his. “I don’t know how I deserve you. I hope this does you justice….” He swallowed and recited from memory.

“My Princess, My Heart
Merlin of Ealdor

Challenges loom
On Life’s bumpy road
Heavy can hang the gloom
Crusty soil resists the hoe

In that night sky
Stars do shine
From souls kind
With inspiration divine

One such star
Shot ‘cross Camelot night
From seeming afar
Seeking royal delight

Won me over
Your gentle nature did
Warmth you us cover’d
Ego you hid

I’ve come to know you
Princess of my heart
Your virtue true
In face of Crises’ darts

Warm you are
Toward court and peasant
Whether near or far
On them your time is spent

Humble you are
Ne’er down you look
On troubles in others’ heart
No prejudice will you brook

Blessed am I
To gaze upon you
O’ Apple of my eye
O’ Treasure beyond worth due

Love you I will
Serve together we’ll endeavor
You my heart does fill
Ne’er to be sever’d”

Silence pressed down on the audience. The onlookers sat amazed at Merlin’s expression of love. A few wiped mist and tears from their eyes. Much as with the magic, they had no idea he was a poet too.

Mithian sighed contentedly as she squeezed his hands gently in her own. Tears of joy ran down her cheeks but she didn’t care. She cared little what others had thought of her and her rebelliousness during her life anyhow. Still, even if she had kept a stiff upper lip for the sake of propriety, the rejections and being ignored by suitors had rent her heart….

…not of that mattered now….

…not with the incredible man standing before her….

…not when said man had declared his undying love and devotion….

…and it was to her and for her…for her alone.

Merlin picked up a napkin and gently dabbed her face. “I love you, my Princess.” His mouth formed a grin as he expressed the last word. Then his lips brushed her forehead with Amor’s gentlest brush strokes.

She blushed almost shyly. “Thank you for that. I…hope my thoughts are worthy as well.” Her eyes glittered as she held up a piece of parchment. She shrugged with a sly smile. “I have something for you as well.”

“I can see that,” he teased yet his eyes were glittering into hers.

She giggled. “Be that way! Just heed these words, my Prince….” And with that, she dove into her expression.

“My Gem in the Rough
Mithian of Nemeth

Under Nocturne’s dark
Obscurred by Overcast
Denied Lux’s mark
Lonliness held me fast

Rooted through coal
Turning stone by stone
True love, my goal
Reality gave me none

A diamond I’d fine
Sparkle nice it did
Until ‘nother it’d fine
An’ from me it hid

O’er and over
Process did repeat
Heart sinking lower
As Failure again did meet

Topaz, quartz and ruby
Pretty to mine eye
Yet inconstant they be
And in other they’d confide

In that Stygian dark
When Hope seem’d dead
Cupid hit his mark
His shaft my heart met

A servant with magic?
Incredible it seem’d
Yet in turnabout tragic
Lingered in status unfree

When we’d met ‘fore
He’d knocked Diamond away
Shaking my core
Fortuna from me he swayed

Now in crisis dire
As this isle shook
Under hooves hired
As we seem’d forsook

Merlin though
To the rescue did come
Although not alone
His will be done

It was at that time
Noticed I his treasure
A gem plain yet divine
A conundrum pleasur’d?

Scuff’d he seemed
His glow he obscured
Idiocy covered wits keen
As he lay in open dirt

Goddess mov’d
Enabling me to him have
My heart now me behoov’d
From servile fate to save

Raised each other we did
His sparkle my way lit
As Father raised him
Now on my right to sit

My constant gem
Sparkle ‘bove Others
My misery you’d end
From Pain you me cover’d

Ask nothing save Care
And that I shall you give
As you with me gladly share
For as long as we both live.”

She gazed up into his eyes. Now it was her turn to squeeze his hands in affirmation. “And I love you, my Prince, my Husband Divine. Never doubt that.” She pressed her lips against his to fix their sentiments indelibly it seemed. “The goddess has blessed us with these gifts and the friends we can share them with.”

“That she has.” Merlin’s eyes sparkled. “As you said, don’t forget our love either.”

“I won’t if you don’t keep me waiting as you’re like to do,” she cracked; a wry grin across her face. She raised her goblet again. “To you, my Prince. King of my heart. My refuge. My one, my only, my forever.”

Merlin met her goblet with his. “And to you, my Princess. Queen of my heart. My refuge. My one, my constant, my forever.”

They touched the vessels and then drank to celebrate it.

From around the chamber, supportive applause thundered down on them. Hands clapped demonstratively. Whistles and cheers of “Huzzah!” buzzed the ears and warmed souls. Eyes sparkled in delight. A few tears of joy wet cheeks.

Rodor chose to take in the moment. While he could’ve expounded on the moment for Tradition’s sake, he allowed the couple’s sentiments to rule the moment instead. His eye turned to the two empty seats left in honor of his deceased wife and son so that they might enjoy the night as well. They shall honor us all. Our love brings its harvest, Taene. May you be able to enjoy this day for it is as much yours as it is mine. We had our time. Now it is theirs.

And for a while after, the celebration continued. Kind words greeted revelers’ ears. Congratulations rained down. Wounded hearts soothed. Friendships were reaffirmed.

And wasn’t that the purpose of such celebrations? Even if Service demanded its charges’ attention, in this, he could grant a break it seemed….

Chapter Text

Chapter 25 [Two Hours Later]
The festivities ran their course. The toasts and poems encouraged Revelry’s excess. Bacchus cracked open several more casks. Fruits and treats sweetened taste buds and outlooks alike. Melody and Tale eased Attitude further still.

Respite did its work well…..

****

[Merlin and Mithian’s Bedchamber]

Merlin glanced around a corner. His eyes ran over every granite crevice. His ears listened for any sound of boot falls. Mischief gleamed in his face. His smirk spread ever wider.

“I can’t believe you talked me into this. Father will have a fit,” Mithian lectured. Granted her heart lightened over his magically-enhanced escape for them. She glanced both ways. “It’s clear, my Prince.”

“See? Not bad for the new Prince? Is it?” he supposed.

She rolled her eyes. “Nay. It isn’t.” Her lips brushed Amor’s brush strokes across his cheek. “You do have potential.”

“Potential huh?” His eyes glowed.

“Merlin, what are you…?” She found herself floating into the air. “Merlin! Put me down!”

“Husband gets to carry the wife over the threshold. Right?” he reminded her.

She sighed. “Except I’m the provider here. I should get to do that.”

“You did last Solstice back in Camelot. Now I get to return the favor.” He beckoned her closer. His lips planted a feather light kiss on hers. “And I get to kiss you more than once.”

“Oh you do. Do you?” She raised an eyebrow at him.

“Yeah I do. You can trust in that.” He kissed her forehead. I love you, Mithian.

And I love you, Merlin. Her eyes glittered into his. She blushed. Despite his naughtiness (at least where the courtiers and King were concerned), she couldn’t help but be entranced by him. Her heart skipped yet another beat. She barely kept herself from swooning over his surprises. I suppose you’re going to float me over?

I could. He shrugged. His eyes glowed again.

She descended slowly into his arms. Her inner feminist wanted to protest for a heartbeat.

But then it was a very short heartbeat at that….

Just go with it, he urged. Then Hesitation locked him in place. A familiar yet unwelcome vibe strummed across his psyche…

…chill…darkness…Evil….

…the sensation from Ealdor….

Merlin, what? Mithian’s eyes went wide. That woman! She….

It took you both long enough, the Voice challenged.

The doors’ locks unsecured themselves on their own. The doors opened as if bidden by some unseen force.

“Mithian, stay behind me,” he instructed.

“Merlin!” Mithian protested.

The cloaked stranger coughed. “I’d listen to him. I’m not some mere boar. Now am I?” She sauntered across the varnished oak floor.

The couple looked at each other. Then Realization struck at them.

“You stirred up that boar knowing I was close by?” he challenged.

The intruder’s eyes glowed crimson. Her grin baited them from under her hood. “You do disappoint, Boy. Of course I arranged for that beast! Consider it a mutual benefit.”

“Mutual benefit?” Mithian challenged.

“You are familiar with the mutual nature of agendas. Aren’t you? You both get to explore your feelings for each other. Emrys is now free of that dolt-brat. Balinor is recognized as Dragon Lord and knight. Camelot totters on its last legs. Morgana Pendragon is no longer High Priestess. The others are inexperienced. Magic can come back. Everyone is happy or should be so.”

“And you don’t care about the collateral damage?” he fired back.

“Collateral….?” The stranger scoffed, “They’re beneath us!”

“We serve them not the other way around.” His eyes narrowed and glowed faintly once more.

“So this is all…?” Mithian wondered. She froze for a few heartbeats not sure of what to think.

He squeezed her hand. “What we have is real.”

“Aye,” the stranger concurred. “Your presence, Princess, did enough to stir the cauldron. I would never have anticipated you two proceeding down this road. So I watched. I waited. I allowed you your love. Perhaps I played someone’s feelings or exterminated some vermin to suit my needs. But nay. I don’t cast love spells. They sicken me.” She noted his eyes’ glow. “Have a care, Emrys. I’m still your superior.”

“You’ve said enough.” He nudged his Princess back toward the door.

Annoyance flicked the stranger’s finger. Almost like the overbearing school marm of a later age, her digit motioned.

The doors slammed shut. The locks secured.

“I decide that, Boy. Not you!” Crimson deepened in her eyes. Her hood moved slightly.

The newlyweds were held in place. Neither of them could move much less fight back.

“Merlin? What? I?” Mithian gasped. She struggled while trying to move.

“I am making a point.” The stranger’s eyes flickered once again. “Cadal!”

The ensnared royals slumped into a deep sleep.

“Sleep that off.” The stranger rolled her eyes. “The Great Emrys indeed!” Dark ebony energy flared across her finger tips. Then she looked up toward the closed door. “And now her?” She opened the doors once again.

Morgana stumbled into the chamber. She beheld the entranced couple floating in midair. She considered the stranger’s sorcerous ability in being able to cast three spells at once. “Who are you?” She tried to shake the couple back awake. “What have you done to them?”

“Just another sorceress as you were, Morgana Pendragon. You were such a useful tool.” The stranger coughed again. “And you should know a sleeping spell. Surely it hasn’t been that long? Do step aside.”

“I will not!” Morgana forced herself to stand straight and tall. She stepped between the sorceress and her victims. “And what do you mean tool? We’ve never met!”

“Perhaps not. You were a convenient pawn nonetheless. Now step aside. I will not tell you again!” the stranger commanded.

Anger flared through Morgana. “You caused everything to fail! Helios is dead because of you! And now Bors’ patrol!” She called, “GUARDS! GUARDS!” Then she took one step toward the stranger….

…one very ill advised step….

“I tried not to.” The hooded sorceress scorched Morgana with a dark fiery burst.

The former priestess turned Queen screamed. Her fingers clawed at the air. Then she collapsed to the oak underfoot in an unfeeling heap.

“Redemption has sickened you too. Pity. I could have found further uses for you as well. What a waste. As if she can direct you all?” The stranger considered Morgana once again. “How weak you are, Sister.” She cast the body aside. Then she disappeared in a flash.

Britomart and Gawain rushed into the chamber barely two dozen heartbeats later.

“What the Hell? MERLIN! MITH!” Gawain held his sword at the ready. Fear and Concern chilled him. Anger pushed him to use his sword.

“PRINCESS MITHIAN! MY LADY!” Panic seized Britomart in its vice. “WHAT HAPPENED?”

“Someone needs to ask Morgana that. Bloody hell!” He batted his hand in front of his face. Ozone clogged his nose. The stench made his eyes water. He shook his head. “Can’t believe that now after everything that someone killed her. She was genuinely trying!” He glared at his fiancée. “And Merlin finally gets everything! He….”

“STOP IT!! GAWAIN, GET YOURSELF TOGETHER!” Britomart grabbed onto her knight. She shook him by the arms. “We can’t help Queen Morgana. We can save the Prince and Princess! DEAL WITH YOURSELF!” She stuck her head into the passage. “HELP! WE NEED HELP! IT’S THE PRINCE, PRINCESS AND QUEEN MORGANA!”

Lancelot and Josiane sprinted toward them.

“What struck her?” Lancelot wondered.

“Let’s get them downstairs. We will save them. Josiane, help me with Princess Mithian. Lancelot, Gawain and you get Prince Merlin. Let’s go!” Britomart directed.

The quartet began moving the two royals.

A puzzle had just opened threatening the balance of everything…..

Chapter Text

Chapter 26 [A Turn of the Hourglass Later—Physician’s Chambers]

Merlin grimaced. His skin burned. Pain’s needles jabbed at him throughout his body, arms and legs. His head pounded. Slowly his eyes fluttered open. Everything blurred into focus. “Wh…where?”

“Merlin! You’re awake!” Hunith seized him in an embrace. Relief accented her tone.

“Mother, I….” He looked around. Mithian? He forced himself into a sitting position. Not getting an answer, Panic flared through him. He turned this way and that.

“It’s all right, Merlin. She’s over here,” Freya assured him. She wiped the unconscious Princess’ forehead with a cloth soaked in herb water. “What happened?”

“Princess Mithian and I were heading to our chamber. We were right outside the door. That’s when we found that a cloaked woman had broken in there. She threatened us. Before I could cast a spell, she overwhelmed us. Mithian and I were both unconscious. I have no idea how she got in,” Merlin reported.

“She teleported in and out.” Freya rubbed her forehead. “We had no idea she was here.”

“She was in Ealdor when we were there,” Merlin reminded him. He forced himself to his feet and stumbled across the chamber.

“Take it slowly, Prince Merlin,” Britomart lectured. “Bad enough Queen Morgana is….” She stopped herself halfway into her reply.

Merlin stopped in mid stride. He turned toward the healer-knight. “Morgana? What about her?” Seeing everyone’s heads bowing, he pressed, “What happened? Where is she?”

Gawain cleared his throat. “Merlin, Morgana’s dead. Brit and I found her scorched through. Mith and you were lying unconscious beside her. The whole chamber stank.”

“Morgana’s dead?” Merlin stared. His mind spun. Disbelief numbed his brain. He forced himself forward. Desperation shoved him toward his Princess. He checked Mithian over. Fortunately he felt her empathic signature.

“She is down the hall. Sir Accolon speaks with King Rodor and the other rulers,” Freya informed him. “This could mean war, Merlin.”

“On top of everything else? Everyone’s looking for an excuse to start something,” Merlin supposed. He felt his wife’s breathing on the back of his hand. “At least she’s alive.”

“At least you’re both alive. That stranger has considerable power. She evades our best efforts at detection. She manages multiple spells—any of which have considerable power—at once. She killed several times,” Freya reported.

Merlin shook his head. “She admitted that she manipulated things. She knew what was going on between Mithian and me. She wanted it to happen because of the chaos it’s causing.” He sighed.

“She what?” Gawain protested.

Freya nodded. “The tension divided everyone. They’re distracted. She uses that.” She rubbed his arm. “Merlin, the love between Mithian and you is real. It isn’t just some random love spell.” She motioned toward the glowing embers remaining from the fire. “Your love is like those embers, Merlin. The sparks fight for survival. They glow. They generate their own heat and flame. Whether they survive depends on the forces around them. Do they have enough fuel to set on fire? Is there sufficient wind? Is it dry enough? In your case, the goddess supports you both. So do your friends. Have heart.”

Merlin smiled. He rubbed Mithian’s hand. “I know. I told Mithian the same thing. Even that woman said she didn’t cause us to fall in love. She took credit for helping that spark ignite. She provoked the boar.”

“The goddess uses us all as she will. Remember that,” Freya advised. “Even Morgana had her purpose. Her sacrifice has not gone unnoticed.”

“Hopefully King Rodor will stop a war from happening with Tintagel,” Merlin worried. Paranoia chilled his heart.

“This person has struck at other places before this. If she was in Nemeth’s service, she wouldn’t have threatened us in Ealdor,” Freya insisted.

“Threatened? She was there?” Hunith inquired. As Merlin clammed up, she pressed, “Merlin?”

“She was. That’s why we rushed back here,” Merlin conceded. “We seemed clear. I didn’t feel anything. She just appeared out of nowhere.”

“Maybe you might tell Bors and the others that?” Gawain interjected. “If you two tell them that, they might listen.”

“A worthwhile suggestion,” Mithian interjected. She grimaced. She raised her hand with effort to rub her forehead.

“Hey! Take it easy!” Merlin lectured.

Mithian raised an eyebrow at her Prince’s protest. “I believe I can move without further injury. I’m not made of glass.” She grunted while sitting up.

“Will you listen to our Prince?” Britomart argued. She rushed toward the Princess.

“Britomart, it’s all right. We have a crisis to deal with. I can rest later.” Mithian got to her feet. She shuffled slowly toward Merlin. “Father will need us.”

Merlin looked to Britomart and then to his mother. He wanted some back up where his wife was concerned. “And if I ask her to rest, she won’t?”

“Would you?” Gawain jabbed.

Merlin glared at the knight. He wanted to look after his Princess. Instinct told him to protect her. Reality however slammed him with the truth….

…Forget that….

“Let’s get to Father and the others,” Mithian urged. She yanked Merlin’s sleeve. “Come on.”

Merlin nodded. His mind swam with the details. They had yet another rogue threat. Morgana was dead. Tintagel was without a ruler. Threats flared up across Britannia.

Yeah a conversation might be in order…..

Chapter Text

Chapter 27 [Throne Room—A Fifth Turn of the Hourglass Later]

Rodor surveyed the chamber and his guests. Consternation smothered them. Argument and Debate echoed off of the chamber’s walls. Anger threatened to boil over. He had to do something. As host of the meeting, he had to maintain Decorum’s tenuous hold over the affair.

Still options remained in short supply. The royal council could not yet meet due to a lack of new members. The wedding and Merlin’s coronation had occupied many minds. Before any measures could be taken, Crisis struck out once again. Sentiments brewed along the borders against the exiles. Murders had sprouted up throughout the kingdom. Several knights had fallen for Nemeth and Gaul. Morgana lay in state three floors below them. Merlin and Mithian still remained unconscious.

King Bors cleared his throat. “With due respect, Rodor, what can we do? This stranger has appeared throughout your kingdom and Camelot. She strikes and disappears before we can respond.”

“Even when we’re prepared, she swept aside my entire entourage within a few heartbeats. She bragged as much,” Prince Bors reported.

“She did as much at Shalott,” Berthold confirmed.

“And she did as much here,” Rodor admitted. “I wish Prince Merlin had told me about this threat. Perhaps we might have been able to meet it.”

“With due respect, King Rodor, that’s how Merlin has had to deal with threats,” Gwen reminded the group. “Uther would never have tolerated Merlin’s magic even if it was meant to help everyone.” She squirmed. “If he’d see other examples of good magic, Arthur would change that.”

“Perhaps. There is always hope, Queen Guinevere. I pray you are right,” Rodor conceded. Memoria reminded him of the scene at the Severn. He would not tolerate Arthur’s response. The situation also brought to light Merlin’s secrecy. While Discretion provided valued cover in certain places and ways, Merlin’s obscuring this discovery had blinded him to its existence. “It speaks to a need for open communication. Your father-in-law and King Arthur made Merlin paranoid. I shall speak to him of that. We also need to legalize sorcery.”

“And let those like this mystery sorcerer run about?” Annis protested.

“We have rules governing swords, diplomacy and war. Each of those can be used for good or ill. That depends upon the user’s intent. Discussion brings the matter into the open. Inclusion sweeps Desperation aside. Look at Morgana. When she felt valued and included, she worked with us. Quite the pity. Her redemption was truly inspiring,” Rodor disagreed.

“And allow those such as Merlin to bring their efforts into the open,” Percival chimed in. “Much as what happened with that cat demon, he could have just let us know what he was about to do rather than hide and lie about it. I still am uneasy about magic. Still, as you suggest, King Rodor, I am willing to be convinced. Merlin has always been a valued ally.”

“Merlin has always been that. Even when he went about behind people’s backs, he did so with their best intentions at heart. I am convinced of that. Perhaps we might not force him to choose between the larger status quo and his own nature? If we make them one and the same then he wouldn’t have to hide who he is,” Lancelot suggested. “If sorcerers feel secure, they might actually help us rather than look at us with suspicion?”

“I’d like nothing better.” Merlin entered the chamber with Mithian at his side. Behind them, Gawain, Britomart, Freya and Hunith walked slowly. “My lords and ladies.” Humility prompted him to nod and offer Rodor a bow.

Rodor allowed the mask of state to drop. He seized onto the Prince and Princess. “You’re both all right! When we found you, we didn’t know what to think!”

You should have been there. Gawain exchanged looks with the other knights in the chamber. He’d had enough run ins with Morgana prior to her forced transition. Despite his usual bravado, his mind focused—fixated actually—on his family. For once, Concern brewed through his head. Safety stilled his hand.

“Perhaps, Father, it is time to try and speak to King Arthur again?” Mithian proposed. “When we return Master Gaius to Camelot, I would suggest that.”

“We have to try, Sire,” Merlin asserted. “I can’t believe Arthur would be so hard and unfeeling.” He glanced toward Gwen.

“I agree. Still when we ride out, I want a full patrol with us,” Rodor insisted. “Perhaps you might speed our way to Camelot, Priestess Freya?”

“As I can serve, King Rodor, I shall do so.” Freya offered him a slight bow. She turned to Accolon. “Queen Morgana’s body lies in Avalon. We shall prepare her.”

“I appreciate that, Lady. The nobles will be most grateful. Even so, they will want blood for the murder. Perhaps you would be willing to speak with them? I can promise your safety,” Accolon accepted.

“If she’s accompanied by us, Sir Accolon,” Mithian chimed in. “You’ll forgive me. I would not let a member of our familia go into that place by herself.”

“Nor would the goddess allow that. Thank you however, Princess Mithian. I might add that the feelings run deeply on all sides. Prince Merlin can elaborate on that. For now, we should see Gaius to his final rest.” Freya opened a portal. “I will seek the goddess’ council ‘fore our departure. Until then, my Friends.” She offered them all a nod. Then she vanished into the mists before closing them in her wake.

“We should be mindful. Threats lurk at every turn,” Prince Bors observed.

“And yet we should not let our own defense threaten our allies. Perhaps we might allow a rider to go ahead of your patrol, Rodor?” King Bors suggested.

“A wise measure indeed. That way they will realize we are not the threat,” Rodor agreed. “I am sorry that this affair turned so dark. It was not supposed to be this way. Sir Accolon, please relay that to Tintagel’s nobles.”

“I will.” Accolon bowed to the royals. Then he departed for the stables. He braced himself for Duty’s burden. Lament and Mourning chilled his heart. He maintained Resolve’s visage as best he could. Then he felt a hand rest on his shoulder. He turned suddenly.

“Please remind them that we cared for her. Before she turned extreme, she was our valued friend and sister. That was the Morgana who served as your Queen. Please, Sir Accolon.” Merlin looked deeply into his eyes. He embraced the knight.

“I appreciate that, Prince Merlin. Queen Morgana surprised me in many ways. She wasn’t what I expected. Perhaps I failed my King and Prince in…well…letting my heart rule my head. I…” Accolon choked back a sob. “I know she was my Queen. Still….”

“It is all right. You still did your duty,” King Bors assured the grieving knight.

“And we all share your grief,” Gwen chimed in. “I wish Morgana had remained as she’d been the last few months. How different things would’ve been.”

“How different indeed,” Merlin agreed. “Remember, Sir Accolon,, I was a peasant and servant. A certain Princess saw something in me. We did it. If Queen Morgana wanted to raise you up, she could have done so. You did nothing wrong. Without Prince Bors, her and you, we might be at war right now. Take pride in that.”

“I will. Thank you.” Accolon accepted. “With your pardon.” With that, he departed the area.

“As I said, Lament usurps Joy’s festival. We should endeavor not to allow such things in the future. We have preparations to make. Thank you, Friends, for your support,” Rodor acknowledged. He nodded to his comrades. Then he departed as well.

Heaviness hung in the air. Challenge brought its gauntlet to bear.

And the cloaked stranger had dropped it in front of them all…..

Chapter Text

Conclusion
[Somewhere Else]

The triple goddess peered into her portal. She frowned at Tension’s handiwork where the assembled royals were concerned. Pity bubbled up inside of herself for Accolon’s pain. Still she could find no sign of the mystery sorceress. Who is this that can hide from my sight? Her eyes turned to Morgana who lay under a white shroud. And you did not disappoint, Morgana Pendragon. I appreciate your devotion and duty, Daughter.

Freya emerged from the mists. She bowed to her deity. “Milady?”

Very well done. The attack could have destroyed the peace. The chaos could be crippling. This entity must be stopped.

“We will do everything.” Freya curtseyed. Then she disappeared once more into the mists.

Whoever this is must be stopped indeed. The goddess turned back toward the shrouded corpse. Purpose may be met. The timing is wrong. Quite wrong indeed.

 

****

 

[Cawdor—Meleagant’s Castle]

Far to the north, Storm lashed the moors and lochs. Grasses swayed in the fierce winds. Overcast darkened the skies. Lightning flashed. Thunder boomed. A few sheep grazed despite the conditions. Most peasants huddled around their fires.

And within a certain formidable structure, Evil held sway…..

 

****

 

Meleagant sipped on a gilded goblet. His mind rifled through Chaos’ disruptions across Britannia. He relished the rifts between the kingdoms. Opportunity had eliminated a troublesome rival in Morgana. Arthur was now isolated. The sorcery question divided everyone. People still whispered about the scene at the wedding feast.

Doubt shadowed Camelot. It lapped against Nemeth’s shoals. It had all but beheaded Tintagel. It’d even had distanced the formerly trusted King Bors from his British counterparts. In the short term, the elder Bors had prevented a war at the Severn River. Still Resentment had left War’s embers glowing in that fireplace.

Patience is key. The Red Knight coughed. Desire wanted to push his army south and crush the opposition. Instinct however reminded him to let the situation play out. Patience would reward him with easier pickings if certain agents’ efforts were allowed to work….

….even the presence of certain refugees from abroad stacked the odds further in his favor…

Let Beggar Boy and the others enjoy their reunion. Others want them dead. Perhaps we might help each other. Meleagant gulped another draught of wine. He tapped his fingers on the oak desk. His agents had only reached the Continent’s shores. The other would hopefully cross the Roman lake within a season.

A season…so long yet not long enough….

He frowned. Patience it seemed was in shorter supply than hoped. Maybe his wild card would prove beneficial.

“It is colder in here than I remember.”

He stopped in mid pace. Still he didn’t turn to face the voice’s source. “And you still find your way past my guards.”

The cloaked stranger slipped into view from behind a pillar. “Even the most accomplished sorcerers and the triple goddess can’t detect me unless I wish them to. A few knights are child’s play. If they did, I’d have to incinerate them.”

“Aye. If I didn’t do that to them myself. I hate failure.” He glared at her. “My spy tells me you left our couple alive. Why?”

“They still have a purpose. I have my reasons. Leave it at that.” The stranger stayed in the shadows. “They will try and speak to Arthur in Camelot.”

“Oh? And you heard this?” he supposed.

“I was in the chamber. They can try and reason with the Brat-King. It will do little good.” The stranger shrugged. “How is your guest?”

“That one? Still lying on the cot in that trance. Why?” he reported.

“Just keep watch on that one and the other prisoners. Meantime I believe your allies seek an audience. Perhaps I might fetch them?” she noted.

“Audience? The emissaries only crossed the water yesterday. They won’t reach their destinations for weeks,” he doubted.

“They won’t. I can. Give the word and I’ll bring them here. The emperors are interested in your help, Meleagant. Just keep your guest secured,” she offered.

“And you’d do that? Like that?” He’d heard tales of such magic. Still even in the days of old, Dragon Lords didn’t cross such expanses with that speed. She’d just done it with barely an eye blink.

“It suits my purpose. As I said, say the word, Dread King.” She somehow kept the venom out of her voice.

“I will put my scribe to it. The scrolls will be ready by morning. Perhaps you can return then, Good Lady?” he proposed.

“Tomorrow then.” She disappeared in a dark flash of light.

Tomorrow. Let them have their gathering. It will do them little good. He saluted her previous spot with his goblet. With loud gulps, he sucked the remaining wine from its vessel. A sharp belch rang through the chamber. A dark grin spread across his face.

He had plans afoot after all…..

 

****

 

[Dome Garden—Whitgate]

Merlin wandered through the flora. His eyes ran along the ferns and fauna. The blooms tickled his nostrils with their scents. He marveled at how the breeze passed through the glass uninhibited. His fingers rummaged through the damp soil.

Magic at its best…..

He sighed. Lament and Disillusionment still weighed heavily on him. Disappointment burdened his heart. Mithian deserved a spectacular wedding. Gwen deserved not to be burdened with Arthur at every turn or to be put back in the triangle again. Gawain and Britomart should’ve been able to celebrate with their newly reassembled family. Cligés and Josiane needed to work on their relationship not to mention their respective unions with Fenice and Boeve. Rodor, instead of his diplomatic triumph, had to steer his own ship of state away from War’s threat. Most of all, Morgana should’ve still been alive.

All because of a rogue sorceress.

Magic at its worst….

Is it any wonder that people regard me with suspicion? He sulked. Mood sank like a stone in a pond. Will they ever truly trust me? I want to do my best for them. Will that be enough?

Merlin, stop it.

He rolled his eyes. He turned to find his Princess watching him. “Mithian, sorry. I needed to think.”

“You picked a splendid place for that. A monument to a proper use of magic,” Mithian complimented. She regarded the scene around them. Her eyes sparkled at him. “And to you working as part of a team. Kind of gives food for thought. Doesn’t it?”

He narrowed his eyes. Confusion fogged his thinking. “When people work with you, it’s great. When they don’t, it goes to Hell.”

She snorted. “That’s part of being a leader, my Prince. You have to know your subjects. The best rulers know how to maneuver them to accept their agenda.”

“That’s underhanded. I never knew you could be so manipulative.” He regarded her again.

She shrugged. “I’m not Uther, Merlin. I just understand how this drama works. If our priorities don’t match our nobles’ priorities, Discord wrecks everything. Look at the counselors’ betrayals. Consider Agravaine or Morgana. All because of different agendas.”

“And how do you bring the opponents on your side? I’ve seen Arthur win over people but not in how you’re suggesting,” he supposed.

“Arthur had several things going for him.” She started counting off reasons on her fingers. “He’s a great warrior. He’s expanded Camelot’s borders. He’s earnest and fair. He is loyal. There’s the Pendragon name. And with most of Uther’s cronies, he shares their hate of magic. When you have those things, people can overlook the shortcomings. Now, as those assets shrink or disappear, people are more apt to focus on the negative. They aren’t as forgiving. They want change. They drive their agenda. At those times, the opponents who have waited for their opportunity emerge. These sides unify into a forceful opposition. Arthur’s allies are leaving him. The new knights can barely pull a splinter from their toes much less fight. Supporters and opponents of magic press him.”

“No matter what’s happened, I’m still his friend, Mithian,” he asserted.

“Of course you are. Father and I are too. Still we have to preserve our own interests. We will make magic legal again. You, Merlin, should be able to exist as you are. We saw what keeping secrets did yesterday. Didn’t we?” she affirmed.

He frowned. “We just wanted some time to ourselves. We were looking to consummate things. The kingdom wants that. Right?”

She coughed. “Aye. Still there is an order to all things. We just have to trust in it.” She embraced him. “Father will want to talk with you at some point. Still I wanted my time.”

“I’m sorry that we didn’t get it,” he apologized.

“What do you have to apologize for? You were attacked by that woman as I was. You didn’t kill Morgana. You didn’t kill our knights or Gaul’s warriors. Stop, Merlin. You aren’t responsible for everyone using magic. Stop acting like you are.” She snorted. “That would be like Arthur claiming responsibility for everyone using a sword because he’s a great warrior. It’s ridiculous.”

“Arthur would call me an idiot for thinking that way,” he conceded.

“On that, we would agree for once. Still, Merlin, teasing or not, Arthur was being abusive to you. You aren’t that idiot. You do a lot of good. Of course you also have to stop sneaking around. Trust that Father and I have your back and best interests at heart. We know you have ours too. We do love you,” she declared.

“I’ll try harder. Hard experience,” he vowed.

“That’s all we can ask.” She squeezed his hands. “Have faith. We’ll put that system in place. Everyone can work together in our kingdom. Some don’t want cooperation. That’s why our intruder has worked hard to disrupt things. That’s why Meleagant and Count Edgar are such prats. All we can do is work for a Greater Good.” She kissed his cheek. “As you always do.”

“As you do in me,” he told her.

“Well I should hope so. Now you need to eat. Come along. Richards is working on a masterpiece,” she informed him.

“Masterpiece? I suppose venison?” he jabbed.

“Not this time. It’s a surprise,” she retorted.

“I’ll be waiting to see what you come up with,” he cracked.

“And I do have lots of ideas.” Mischief gleamed in her eyes. Besides we do have *that other matter* to attend to. Now don’t we? She smirked and took his hand.

With that, Perspective’s light broke through Malaise’s overcast. Sol shone through brightly where Merlin was concerned. Perhaps Gaius’ body needed to be escorted to Camelot. Perhaps they’d have to smooth over feelings in Tintagel.

Still those were matters that could wait at least for an hourglass turn or three.

For now, he had his Princess. That was all that mattered…..

 

THE END (for now)