Actions

Work Header

Truce

Chapter Text

Chapter 1 [Physicians’ Chamber, Whitgate—Hours After “Confirmations”]

Merlin climbed the granite stairs with surprising effort. Lament weighed down on his shoulders. Indecision muddled his pace. He sighed. He shuffled across the last few steps between him and the oak door. He exhaled deeply.

The oak door ahead seemed all the more imposing with each passing heartbeat.

What Mithian and I have is right. I know that. Still why did everyone have to turn it into a war? Maybe it could have been avoided? He reached the door. Surprisingly Rodor had left it unguarded especially given whose body was inside. Still he wasn’t about to challenge his father-in-law on that front especially with everything else going on at that point. He pushed the door open with a loud lengthy creaking noise.

“Hey! Who goes there?”

Merlin cracked a grin. Relief sparkled in his eye. Realization lightened his steps. He noted that everything had been tidied up. The used sheets and cloths had been taken away. Best of all, he saw Lancelot and Gawain with hands on their swords. Meantime Elaine and Britomart were washing Gaius’ body. Gwen wiped down a desk in the corner. “I should have known.”

“What?” Gawain shrugged. “You really didn’t think we’d leave Gaius with an unlocked door? Right?”

“And yet you’re here,” Merlin jabbed.

“He has a point,” Lancelot teased. He grinned at his comrade and then at the Prince. “We do have our expedition. Gaius deserves our best.”

“He does indeed.” Merlin looked to Gwen. “Gwen, you shouldn’t be doing that. We have maids who can dust and clean.”

“And what do I do, Merlin? I’m not a Queen here. I might as well help Mithian and you. You’re my friends,” Gwen countered. She held up a rag. “And don’t tell me I can’t do that. You’re not the best example in that regard.”

Merlin smiled. “No. I’m not. We’re not exactly what we’re supposed to be. Are we?”

“It works. Why knock it?” Gawain swatted at the air effectively batting the idea aside much like a gnat or a black fly.

“Even if you still need a bath, my Lord Windbag?” Britomart supposed.

“You could take one too. Give me one reason why I should,” Gawain fired back.

“Her feet don’t stink. Yours have a most unique aroma,” Gwen pointed out.

“I’ll tend to Master Gaius, Lady Britomart. You can help Sir Gawain,” Elaine suggested.

“I could make it an order,” Merlin told them.

“Yeah you could. You won’t. Brit’s got a bee in her armor. I’ll worry about it later,” Gawain retorted.

Merlin’s eyes glowed. He motioned toward a vat of suds where several linens soaked. Then he coughed. “I think the King will agree on this.”

The vat slid across the stones like a predatory snake. Stealth glided it behind Irreverence’s chief agent with nary a sound.

The others bent lower over their tasks. They choked back any laugh or betraying sound.

“What?” Gawain looked about. Instinct whispered that something was going on.

As he did so, Merlin guided the vat away from his glance. A left look meant a right move. A right look dictated the vat move in the other direction. His smirk only widened. He pointed at Gawain.

“Oh bloody hell no! We got to leave in a few hours! I….” Gawain protested before he floated off of the stones. “MERLIN!”

“Aye? Who’s the Prince here?” Merlin asked.

Gawain started to argue. Then he pursed his lips and rolled his eyes. “You.”

“Aye. That’s what they tell me. Princess Mithian says I should have more confidence in certain things. I’m confident you need a bath,” Merlin declared. Satisfaction glittered in his eyes. He folded his arms across his chest.

That’s one way to be confident, my Prince, his Princess interjected over their Link. I approve.

Glad you do. I figured you’d like how I supported Britomart. Merlin waved his hand dropping the floating spell.

Gawain dropped into the soapy water. His clothes clung to his skin….

…that is until they vanished as well….

“HEY! WHAT THE BLOODY HELL?” Gawain protested. He sank lower into the suds to cover himself.

“So Discretion does have your acquaintance, Sir Knight?” Britomart walked over toward the vat and her fiancé. Triumph raised her confidence. “You’re going to be clean for our expedition.”

“Brit, Gaius has been waiting. I….” Gawain argued.

“Gaius would tell you to pipe down and clean up already.” Gwen picked up a brush.

“Gwen, you’re not going to do that. What would Arthur say?” Gawain frowned even more so.

“He’d agree with Merlin. Just scrub down or we’ll do it for you,” Gwen told him. “Here.”

“I’ll deal with his feet.” Britomart intercepted the brush. She scrubbed for several heartbeats over his feet and wiped between his toes. She took care of his chest, armpits and back. Then she took several handfuls of the bathwater and dumped them over his hair.

“Aw…!” Gawain winced. Soap stung his eyes. He spat out the offending water from his mouth. “You missed a spot.”

“We aren’t married yet. Deal with that on your own,” Britomart informed him. “Besides your feet are tolerable. Wish I could say the same for what passes for a brain between those clogged ears.” She dipped a cloth in the water. Then she rummaged the soapy rag through his hair. Finally she dunked him back under again.

Gawain surfaced. He spat out a terse mouthful of water. “Some warning next time!”

“It works better that way.” Britomart noticed a young page standing in the doorway. “Aye?”

The group turned toward the young blonde haired youth. Expectation clearly held their attention fast.

“Prince Merlin and Lady Elaine.” The page bowed to him. “The King wishes to see you immediately. Can you follow me?”

“What did I do?” Elaine worried.

What’s this about? Merlin glimpsed to the others. Then he looked toward Gaius. I won’t even get a heartbeat much less more with him before we go. Wish it could be so. He nodded. Then he turned toward the courtier. “I’m sure we’re all right, Elaine. Let’s see what he needs from us.”

“Thank you, my Prince.” The boy bowed and then led Merlin from the chamber.

“What was that about?” Lancelot looked to Gwen and then the others.

“Has the Prince displeased King Rodor?” Elaine worried.

Gwen shrugged. “It’s Merlin’s first expedition as Prince. I suppose Rodor will have some things to say. Meantime we can all get ready to depart.”

“Including getting someone his armor before he scares the castle out of its wits,” Britomart snarked.

“Yeah well…lots of women have been happy that way,” Gawain sassed. He shook his head.

Change it seemed was in the air on that day….

Chapter Text

Chapter 2 [Council Chamber—A Quarter of an Hourglass Turn Later]

Mithian sipped on a goblet of water. Her mind still burned over the messed up rubble from her wedding day. If that sorceress can appear and disappear at will, are we safe? She wondered about relations with Tintagel. Despite Accolon’s assurances, she knew their southern neighbors might use Morgana’s death as leverage against Camelot or them. Irony was not lost on her. The island could erupt in war. Especially with so many rulers traveling, it could offer opportunities for chaos. She tapped her fingers on the table. Merlin, we do need to talk.

Lady Elaine and I are almost there. Sorry. We had an important mission, Merlin noted.

Mithian rolled her eyes. She glanced toward her father. She discerned Impatience’s creases even in his usually indelible poker face. I know Master Gaius was important to you. Father knows that as well. Still we are waiting for you. She looked up to see Lord Brumenwald, Peter, Josiane, Cligés, Galahad and Ywain waiting for Rodor’s next command.

I wasn’t expecting the others to be in the chamber. I just wish…things hadn’t gone with Gaius as they did, Merlin lamented.

I know that. So does Master Gaius. It will be all right. Mithian saw Merlin and Elaine hustle into the chamber. “Pardon me, Father. He’s here.”

Rodor nodded and tinked on his goblet. “The Prince!”

Everyone stood. Galahad, Ywain and Brumenwald bowed. The resident royals nodded to him.

You are the life of the gathering, Merlin. Mithian smirked at him. She nodded and motioned toward the empty seat to Rodor’s right.

“Sorry, Everyone. Lady Elaine and I were tending to Gaius before our journey,” Merlin apologized. He bowed to Rodor. “I didn’t mean to keep you waiting.”

“I respect reverence. Master Gaius was like a second father to you. There’s nothing to forgive,” Rodor assured him. “Please join us.”

“Thank you.” Merlin took his seat. No lecture? No *what you’re being a girl or being stupid*?

Father isn’t Arthur, Merlin. Certainly you should know that by now, Mithian reminded him.

Merlin nodded. It was at that moment that Realization swamped him. He’d considered Arthur to be a good role model in political affairs. He’d watched his former King negotiate with other monarchs, sign treaties and lead. He’d admired most things that he’d seen Arthur (and later Gwen) do. He’d learned from watching Mithian’s resolve and diplomacy as well. Still Insecurity washed over him. He slid silently into his chair.

Rodor cleared his throat. “Thank you all for coming. I realize we are about to set out for Camelot. Still there is the matter of the royal council. Tradition dictates that we rule with the lords’ advice. Given the looming challenges, I have made my decisions. Lord Brumenwald, Sir Galahad and Lady Elaine, you will serve on this body. Prince Merlin and Princess Mithian will advise as well. Prince Cligés and Princess Josiane, I would welcome your advice for as long as you’re with us. Master Peter, please step forward.”

“Sire?” Peter stumbled forward. Anxiety gnawed at him. He bowed to the royal trio.

“I am making you our new High Chancellor. You will begin training with Lord Brumenwald effective immediately. He will be an excellent teacher for you,” Rodor informed him.

“Me?” Peter glanced at Brumenwald. “This is an honor to follow you in the role.”

“You will do fine, Peter. I have confidence in you,” Brumenwald assured him. “I will be sharing responsibilities during the transition. Besides, with King Rodor’s permission, I can answer questions about protocol afterwards.”

“You indeed have that permission,” Rodor agreed without hesitation. “Thank you, Master Peter. Sir Ywain?”

“Aye, Sire.” Ywain stood and bowed as well.

“I wish for you to become our First Knight. Sir Galahad is an excellent commander. Still I would rather he remain back here. Sir Ywain, you have demonstrated the qualities that we desire in a commander. I wish for you to take this honor,” Rodor told him.

“I accept, Sire. I will seek to lead to the best of my abilities,” Ywain agreed.

“Splendid. Upon our return from Camelot, we shall speak to certain matters ahead of us. We have magic to consider. A new land survey should be discussed. Think on anything else you’d like to bring to this body. We have our expedition. Meet with the other knights in two turns of the hourglass. That will be all,” Rodor concluded.

The newly appointed counselors and the others stood. They filed toward the door.

“Daughter, a word with Prince Merlin and you,” Rodor requested. “If you can get the door?”

“I have it.” Merlin hustled over and closed it. He rejoined them at the table. His mind filled with questions.

“What’s on your mind, Father?” she asked.

Rodor took a draught from his goblet. “I have given this matter a great deal of thought. First of all, I am glad that you are both well. I am glad you both are now married. Still the attack in the bedchamber brought the matter to my mind again.”

“And what matter is that, Sire?” Merlin wondered.

“Two things, Merlin. First of all, I understand that Lady Hunith taught you to keep your magic under wraps. Given Uther’s mindset, I can see why you misdirect and even lied to protect Camelot. Still I am not a Pendragon. This isn’t Camelot. I need you to be more straight forward. You don’t have to sneak around me. We will lift the ban on magic. Still I will need Lady Elaine and you to be the examples for others. So please communicate with me. I want to hear your concerns. Mithian, I have given you that consideration too. Have I not?”

“You have, Father. I regret having to deal in half-truths where Arthur was concerned. I still want to repair our relations with him. We should be friends. If he would have followed his own laws, none of that ordeal would have been necessary. Merlin should’ve been knighted at least a winter ago,” she affirmed. She shook her head. “He was trying to do the right thing.”

“That’s all I want to do. I don’t like to sneak around. Still if I want to keep my head on my shoulders, I’ve had to,” Merlin added.

“I understand. I’m telling you that it’s no longer necessary. Still you’re now the Crown Prince. I can’t have you doing that. This isn’t a lecture. I just want an understanding. I imagine you saw how Uther reacted when Arthur acted in such ways. Did you not?” Rodor pointed out.

“I did.” Merlin in fact remembered Uther’s anger at Arthur over the latter’s sneaking off and breaking with protocol. He could still hear the Elder King’s protests ringing in his ears. He recalled Uther trying to restrain Arthur often needing to lock the latter in his chamber in the process. He also remembered Morgana arguing with Uther on that front.

Now interestingly, he was in the same situation…..

“The attack in your chamber only makes my point again. Work with us, Merlin,” Rodor instructed.

“Aye, Sire.” Merlin nodded. He’d have to talk with Mithian later about how to work with Rodor’s request. It felt strange to now be in Arthur’s and Morgana’s situation from days long gone. Lament’s ache cut through his heart at the deceased Queen’s name. Now he’d need to deal with the restraints for himself.”

“And that gets me to the second point. I trust you both noticed how I put Sir Ywain into the role as First Knight? It isn’t because of any lack of faith in Sir Galahad’s abilities. On the contrary, he is an excellent commander. Still I need to err on the side of caution. I do not want him taking unnecessary chances on the battlefield. I want you both to take greater care as well,” Rodor continued.

“Father, we aren’t made of crystal. We can hold our own,” she argued.

“I know. Still if anything happened to you both, there’s no continuity. For stability’s sake, we have to have it. How would matters be affected if one of the dragons died? Would the priestesses recover if something happened to them? What might have happened, Mithian, if that boar had killed you?” Rodor rebutted. “Again if it’s possible, I don’t want you unduly risking yourselves. The kingdom’s counting on you.”

“Aye, Father.” She chafed over his order. Still she knew he’d brook no further argument. Not after what had happened to Morgana and them.

“We can talk upon our return. Meantime you both should get ready,” Rodor concluded.

“Thank you.” Merlin gave his father-in-law a respectful nod. Then he walked with her out of the chamber.

Rodor rubbed his chin. Much as the compliant answers had come out on the surface, he knew there’d be resistance from them. Still he had to get them both to understand.

Some matters had to come first after all….

Chapter Text

Chapter 3 [In Front of the Citadel—Two Turns of the Hourglass Later]

Gwen walked out of the front door. She watched as Ywain and Malodius oversaw the gathering knights. She noted Soredamors speaking with Josiane and Cligés. She saw Master Wyngate waiting on a white steed with a somber expression. Beside them an empty wagon sat waiting for its precious cargo.

From where he talked with Rodor and Mithian, Merlin nodded to her. Support and Empathy shone warmly in his eyes.

Gwen in turn smiled. As always, Merlin picked her spirits up before the most grim of expeditions. For a heartbeat, her eye perused the group anew. Instinct pushed her to look for Arthur.

Still her King was not there. Then again would he truly be in Camelot for that matter? She frowned. In her mind, she parsed certain facts together. She understood that Arthur was under tremendous pressure. She knew that Crisis dogged Camelot. Uther’s former cronies pushed for their way. Others wanted the return of the Old Ways. Adversaries circled about like vultures. Even so, she’d detected something different. Her Arthur would never have caved like that to Edgar and his men so easily. Would he? He’d never make deals or compromise. Would he?

Then Memoria reminded her of Uther’s hesitation where Hunith and Ealdor were concerned.

Uther wouldn’t go because of Cedric. Still Arthur shouldn’t fear Edgar or Hampton. Would he? She narrowed her eyes. He’d dig in and press on. I just can’t believe he’d act like this!

“Gwen?”

She turned to find Lancelot and Gawain bearing Gaius’ wrapped body behind herself. “Oh. Pardon me! I was just thinking.”

The two knights exchanged knowing looks.

Lancelot frowned. I thought my sacrifice would have made everything easier. Arthur and Gwen still can’t resolve their issues. What does the goddess have against them? He worked with Gawain to carry Gaius down the stairs and toward the waiting wagon.

“It’ll be okay, Lance.” Gawain shrugged.

“I hope so, Gawain.” Lancelot released a long sigh. He helped Gawain to set the body into the wagon. Then he trudged toward his horse. As he reached it, he found Elaine standing there. “Lady Elaine?”

Elaine blushed. She bit her lip. Warmth cascaded over her heart. She quivered for a heartbeat before regaining her resolve. “You look as though you could use a friend, Sir Lancelot.” She held the reins out to him.

Lancelot smiled. “Aye. The gesture is most appreciated.” He accepted the reins. “Thank you.”

“Thank you for not laughing at me.” Elaine averted her eyes.

“Why? You’re most kind in every regard. I am honored by your gesture, Good Lady.” Lancelot raised the back of her hand. His lips whispered across her knuckles. For some reason, seeing her softened his Lament where a certain Queen was concerned. “We shall speak again.”

“Upon your return?” Elaine supposed.

“Aye. We shall indeed.” Lancelot mounted the horse. “Take good care, Lady Elaine.”

“And you, Sir Lancelot. May the goddess watch over you,” Elaine wished. She retreated back toward the massed courtiers at the stairs and their edge.

Lancelot urged his horse into formation alongside his colleagues. His thoughts were suddenly torn. His heart split its attention between lingering loyalty and newly discovered affection. He raised an eyebrow. What is this? I just met Lady Elaine. And now these feelings are coming over me? I know she is kind but….

Before he could continue his thoughts, Rodor broke in, “Before we depart, I would remind everyone that we are not at war with Camelot. Despite what happened at the Severn, I wish to reaffirm peaceful relations with King Arthur and his court. Perhaps we may have that opportunity. I wish to speed us toward our destination. Priestess Freya?”

From beside the royal trio, Freya curtseyed to them. “King Rodor, it is the goddess’ will to aid you in this endeavor.” She waved her hands. Her eyes glowed canary yellow.

In front of them, the mist portal opened.

“Step through and find yourself a league from Camelot. Pardon my not bringing you closer. Given King Arthur’s feelings toward magic, best not to stir the pot unduly,” Freya declared.

“A very diplomatic solution indeed. My thanks to you and the triple goddess.” Rodor turned to the patrol. “Forward!” He disappeared into the mists.

Merlin swallowed hard. Here we go. I hope Arthur will be reasonable this time. I don’t…

Merlin, it will be all right. You are a Prince now. What’s past is past, Mithian assured him.

Merlin nodded numbly. He followed his Princess’ lead into the mists.

Malodius loped into the fog next.

Ywain motioned the last of the traveling party including the wagon into the mists.

“Let this be swift and without incident.” Freya waved her hands again allowing the portal to vanish. She glanced toward Elaine, Galahad and Peter. She nodded and then disappeared in another puff of smoke.

“I’ll never get used to that,” Galahad marveled. He marched back into the palace.

Elaine shook her head. While she’d worked to suppress her own magic, Wonder overwhelmed her at the teleportation spell. I wish I knew how to do that. Worry hit her in that heartbeat as well. Her mind remained fixed on Lancelot. Maybe he might like me? I’d settle on his friendship. That’s all I’m worth anyhow. She trudged up the stairs. Lancelot, be safe!

Transition, it seemed, was under way for all…..

Chapter Text

Chapter 4 [Camelot—Three Hours Prior]

Broken clouds obscured some of the blue sky overhead. Wind ushered Chill down from the north. A few birds sang in the budding trees outside of the city’s walls. Trade still came and went within the city. Hammers beat tools into shape. Water cooled hot metal still.

Insecurity and Uncertainty hung in the air however. For the first time in two generations, Inexperience burdened the knights. Dissent simmered in the countryside. Bad weather hindered the planting efforts.

Nothing was easy or so it seemed….

 

****

 

Percival pulled up on his reins. Habit had guided him and his companions to the citadel’s gates. He looked around. As he and the others rode that path, something had seemed different. He saw many of the same buildings. The faces seemed the same. The activity continued on. He shook his head. He’d been surprised by the lack of sentries on the walls. Nobody had emerged from the castle thus far. The townspeople who’d known him gave him short shrift. He narrowed his eyes.

“Friendly place,” Queen Elena assessed. She recalled her predecessor’s accounts of the city during her reign. She’d wanted to at least give her Amazon sisters shelter and food. Still she didn’t trust Arthur to be hospitable in that regard.

“It is normally,” Prince Bors pointed out. “There’s a great deal of insecurity.”

“Arthur’s recent troubles reflect on Camelot as a whole,” King Bors deduced. He got down off of his horse. “Strange that there is no one guarding the doors.”

“That’s what I thought as well,” Percival agreed. He climbed the stairs. Strangely enough, he still didn’t see any knights coming to ask him. No guards? He beat on the door with his fist. He glanced back at the others. “I don’t believe this. Arthur’s not usually this careless.”

“Nay. He isn’t,” Prince Bors confirmed. He glared around the entire area. “Where is everyone?”

At that point, the door eased open. A slender boy with red curls alighting on his shoulders peered out. “King Percival? Prince Bors? And you’re the Amazon Queen. Pardon me.” He swung the door open. He bowed to them.

“Marcus, where is everyone?” Percival asked. “Why is the door unguarded?”

“King Arthur is training with the knights. Reginald and Petrus will be back within a turn of the hourglass,” Marcus reported. He squirmed.

“Bors, keep watch,” King Bors instructed his son. “The rest of us can get to the bottom of this.”

“Aye, Father.” Prince Bors tied the horses’ reins to the post off to the side. Then he returned to the door. “I will call if need arises.”

“Do so,” King Bors told him. “Now, Percival, perhaps you can lead the way?”

“Follow me.” Percival led them past the anxious Marcus. His feet remembered the way almost instinctively. He guided the other royals down the appropriate passages toward the training yard within.

…toward that yard and answers…..

 

****

 

[Training Field]

Arthur clenched his jaw. Frustration flared within his chest. He narrowed his eyes. He paced back and forth like some cat who’d been cheated out of a mouse. He shook his head and assessed the gathering with him. From the setbacks at Severn and along the northern borders, he had to change some things.

Before him, the knights stood at attention. Their polished armor gleamed in Sol’s light. Their sur coats had but the smallest of tears and imperfections in them. Their swords hid in sheaths. Shields sat at their sides. Still the men at arms quivered ever so slightly. Their heads bowed. Shame dampened resolve. Inadequacy weighed on their minds. Failure ate at them.

Arthur sighed. He’d prepared a gauntlet of sorts for them. Still he knew training and technique in themselves would do little good. Rather Confidence and Mindset had to be in sync. He recalled training the peasants in Ealdor. Memoria reminded of the drills on the village common. He’d drilled Merlin’s neighbors on defense and fighting moves. Still Hesitation dogged the peasants on the practice field and later against Kanen’s forces….

…much as it did his current army….

If it hadn’t been for magic, would he be there? If it hadn’t been for Merlin, would he be there?

Magic… Savior? Murderer? What?

He sighed. Indecision ate at him. He knew that sorcery had cost him his mother’s life. It had turned his sister and servant against him. It had threatened Camelot at so many turns. Still, where Fortune had seemed to always pull a victory out of nothing for him, he saw nothing of the kind. Merlin’s magic couldn’t have done that much!

“Sire?” One of the knights cleared his throat. He bowed slightly.

“Hmm?” Arthur snapped out of the reverie. His eyes once again focused on the untested knights in front of himself. His focus returned to the issue staring him in the face. He considered their relative inexperience. Patience reminded him of their need to grow and be seasoned. He nodded to acknowledge the knight in question. “We are knights of Camelot. We represent the greatest army in Britannia. Aye we’ve lost our veterans. We have faced adversity. Still do you think you’re the only knights to know defeat? Well you are not. Camelot has won its share of battles. Losses have also happened as well. Still what can we learn from them? I learn from every victory and defeat. I grow. I look ahead. I have to train. I maintain my weapons. I do what I must. So should you. Any noble can be a knight with skill and heart. Look at Percival, Gawain and Lancelot. They came as common men. They proved themselves through heart, courage and skill. Anyone can rise to the occasion. We can! You can!” He drew his sword and held it high overhead. “BELIEVE! BELIEVE IN CAMELOT! FOR CAMELOT!”

“FOR CAMELOT!” the group chanted albeit with some muted tones.

“COME ON! PUT SOME SPIRIT INTO IT! FOR CAMELOT!” Arthur insisted.

“FOR CAMELOT!” the group yelled louder.

“BETTER! I want you all to drill and train. We can rise to great heights. BELIEVE!” Arthur pressed. He noticed Percival watching them along with Elena and King Bors. What’s going on now? “Train now. I’ll be back soon.” He walked toward the trio. “Percival! Queen Elena! King Bors! This is quite the surprise!”

Percival nodded to Arthur. “We return to our respective lands. Pardon us not sending word first.”

Arthur grinned. “You know you’re welcome here, Percival. So are you all.” He cast a look toward King Bors. “Perhaps we might speak more in private?”

“That would be best,” Bors agreed.

“Then follow me.” Arthur led them out of the training yard and into the passage. He pondered his points to the group. He understood Perception’s needs at least in front of the knights.

In the chambers however would be a different matter…..

Chapter Text

Chapter 5 [Royal Hall—A Third of an Hourglass Turn Later]

George scurried into the chamber. Embarrassment flushed his cheeks bright red. He couldn’t believe that the table wasn’t set. Thankfully Marcus had told him about the royal guests. Accordingly he’d just pulled the white cloth over the table. He shook his head. The settings wouldn’t be good enough for the royals.

Protocol and Procedure mattered all….

He bowed again to the royal quartet at the table. Then he rushed back outside to get the finest plates and goblets. “And here we are, Highnesses!”

Percival kept his response to himself. He recalled that Merlin would have done the job. Still his nose wouldn’t be so…well…brown.

“Thank you, George. Perhaps some fruit and wine might be in order?” Arthur supposed. Such displays reminded him of why he struggled to deal with the overly stiff servant. Frankly Nausea unsettled his stomach. He squirmed.

“Of course, Sire. As soon as I get these plates in order….” George agreed.

“The plates look splendid, George. The fruit and wine now?” Arthur declined. He motioned with his eyes toward the hall.

“Of course, Sire. I only wanted everything to be just right for you.” George bowed. Annoyance bubbled up inside of himself. Still he managed to keep it under wraps. He should care more about order! We do have to make a good impression! He’d prefer that peasant’s crass excuse for service! He hustled back out He set a platter of grapes and apples on the table. Then he primly fetched the wine vessel. “I have a dry white wine for you all. I believe it is a generous gift from your vineyards, King Bors.”

“It was indeed, George. Thank you for the acknowledgment and consideration.” Bors normally would have poured his own. Still he slid the goblet over.

“I can get my own. Thank you,” Elena declined.

“Oh no! I wouldn’t do that to you.” George grabbed the goblet from her. He filled it. Then he presented it back to her. “For you.”

“Thank you.” She nodded. As with any Amazon, she preferred to do things for herself. Still she did appreciate his insistence in meeting her needs. “You are an example to others….”

“Thank you,” George accepted. Pride blossomed within his chest.

“…perhaps Merlin taught you that consideration? I’m sure he was an example to everyone,” she continued.

“Aye. He was in certain ways.” George coughed. Then he poured the remaining goblets.

Arthur rolled his eyes. “Thank you, George. That will be all.”

“Of course.” George bowed yet again. He walked back out and closed the doors behind himself.

Arthur sipped on a goblet. “George does tend to carry on. Is everything all right?”

“Matters could be better.” Bors cleared his throat. “We just came from Nemeth.”

“Nemeth.” Arthur frowned. “I suppose you were there for the wedding?”

“We were. It was a splendid ceremony. Unfortunately Gaius and Morgana are dead. I’m sorry, Arthur,” Percival interjected.

“Morgana?” Arthur nearly dropped his goblet. Despite the enmity between them, Loss threatened to stop his heart. “What happened?”

“Prince Merlin and Princess Mithian were attacked in their chamber. Queen Morgana was struck down as well. She died of burns. My condolences,” Elena reported.

“Burns?” Arthur stiffened. “And no one noticed someone carrying a torch?”

“It was magical in origin. The Queen suffered the same fate as my knights did,” Bors added. “Prince Bors survived a mysterious sorceress’ attack. The knights were not so fortunate.”

Arthur sighed. “Perhaps you all might understand now? We can’t trust magic.” He rubbed his forehead. “Perhaps Merlin might actually learn that?”

“Magic isn’t evil, Arthur,” Bors disagreed.

“Merlin has saved each of us at some point,” Percival pointed out. “I’ve seen dark magic along with you. Still there are good sorcerers as well. How many times has Merlin used his magic for Camelot?”

“Maybe you should consider Merlin’s heart and nature?” Elena jumped in. “He puts others before himself.”

“Don’t you think I know that? Of course I do!” Arthur leaned across the table. He met her glare with his own. “I wouldn’t have sent him to the stake!”

“Nay. You just put him in the stable. He didn’t deserve that,” she retorted. “Instead of just blind hate, why don’t you just consider the person?”

“She has a point, Arthur,” Bors told him.

“Perhaps we might have talked about this before you forced Prince Bors to take sides against me? You stabbed me in the back. Why couldn’t you have talked with me first?” Arthur complained.

“It was a contingency. Arthur, if you would’ve followed your own laws, such measures wouldn’t have been necessary,” Bors countered. “None of us wanted what happened. Prince Merlin, Princess Mithian, Queen Guinevere and Sir Gawain all feel that way. We all feel that you should have been at the wedding.”

“Merlin knows why. If he wants my support then he has to give up magic,” Arthur asserted once again.

“How can you be so stubborn?” Elena protested.

“I have my reasons, Elena,” Arthur retorted. “I told Merlin. He decided what he did.”

“Of course he did! You’re breaking the law. Someone has to tell you that,” Elena asserted. “So what will you do if he’s with the traveling party to bring Master Gaius back?”

Arthur rolled his eyes. “And you’d think I’d arrest him on sight? I think you should know better than that! Of course he can come into Camelot.” He shook his head. “We will honor Gaius. Thank you for telling me about Morgana. We will need to send condolences to Tintagel.” He motioned to the fruit. “Now please eat something. I’m sure the road had been a long one.”

“It has been that. We can save that along with peace,” Elena agreed. She bit into a red apple. “Why were there no guards at your portal or on your walls?”

Arthur narrowed his eyes. “What? I have…” Then he stopped. “You saw the knights training. I’ll have them back on the wall soon. They need to train.”

“And who stands guard in the meantime?” Percival wondered.

“The knights need training. You saw them drilling in the training yard. They have to be ready to fight. I can do it. I can get them ready,” Arthur insisted.

“We can prepare them better together,” Percival offered. “Arthur, despite my being Mercia’s King, I still remember what it meant to be a Knight of Camelot. We heard what you were telling those knights. I can help you. So can the others.”

“So can Prince Merlin. He helped you. He wants to do so now. Accept his presence or continue to wither like a dried out plant,” Elena added.

“It’s more complicated than that.” King Bors cleared his throat. “Arthur, I understand how divided your kingdom is. I also know why you feel the way you do. Still magic has done a great deal of good as well. I have seen both extremes. I am willing to let the sorcerer determine good or evil much as we do with a sword. My son told you the same thing. That’s why he left here.”

“So you want me to worship this goddess then? Just go along with everything? They’re responsible for….” Arthur started.

“Arthur, I’m not completely in favor of the Old Religion either,” Bors noted. “Still I am willing to co-exist and be tolerant. That’s all any of us are asking for.”

“I remember you spoke of equality before we stopped Morgause and Morgana. You knighted everyone except Merlin. Then, in spite of what you said, you didn’t encourage him to join us. We noticed that. Be that great King. Regard everyone as equal. If sorcerers aren’t under threat, they might not act out.” Percival took a draught from his goblet. “Just consider that, Arthur.”

“Aye. I will.” Arthur nodded. “Perhaps we might all speak?”

The royal trio looked at each other. Nods seemed to come from all of them.

“I’m sure Rodor would agree to that. He and his entourage will be here soon,” Percival chimed in.

“The truce could be the start of something more. Please consider it for Britannia as a whole,” Elena requested.

Arthur sipped quietly from his goblet. He’d need to talk further with Rodor and the others about this. Stil he didn’t want to turn his allies completely against him. He still didn’t believe that sorcerers could be trusted.

“Merlin and Gwen are friends. We can trust them,” his heart screamed at him.

“But Merlin lied to us. He does magic. He killed Father,” his head countered.

“Morgana was responsible. Merlin tried to save Father. Besides Father’s policies forced Merlin to lie. I want Gwen! Don’t be a Prat,” his heart fired back.

This isn’t going to be easy. Arthur sighed. Indecision weighed on him. Loyalty to his father and Camelot’s legacy pushed him in one direction. Still Desire and Friendship to his Queen, friends and a certain former servant shoved him back a step or two on that path.

At that point, one of the guards knocked. He stuck his head in. “Sire, Marcus has news.”

Marcus hustled in. Shock paled his face. His hands trembled. “Sire! Good Kings and Queen.” He bowed. “I can’t believe it! There’s a rider from Nemeth.”

Arthur raised an eyebrow. “That isn’t unusual in itself, Marcus. Why are you reacting that way? We may have our troubles. Still they are our neighbors.”

“No, my King. That isn’t it. The rider is Sir Lancelot.” Marcus sucked in a couple of deep breaths. He leaned against the wall. “It really is Sir Lancelot!”

“Impossible. Lancelot’s dead. Morgana made him a shade but he’s gone,” Arthur disagreed.

“He has come back to us, Arthur,” Percival affirmed. “I talked with him myself at the wedding.”

Arthur nodded. Incredulity numbed his thinking. How can someone come back from the dead? Leon came back with the Cup’s help. Perhaps this could happen as well! “I’ll take your word on that, Percival. Let’s see about our revived friend. Shall we?” He led them from the chamber and toward the gate in question.

Seemed miracles might be in the air after all….

Chapter Text

Chapter 6
[Outside of Camelot—A Quarter Turn of an Hourglass Earlier]

Lancelot rode down the trail toward Camelot. As with other significant turns of his life, that route seemed an entrance to another important stage. As a teenager, he did so to find name and identity. As a young man, he affirmed knighthood, Amor and Purpose alongside his fellow knights. Ironically enough, even as Morgana’s shade, he played a role in Progress’ effects for both good and ill around himself.

All stages of life….

Now, on his first official mission after rebirth…he was…back on that path yet again.

Destiny cast him into this opposing role. He wore Nemeth emerald rather than Camelot crimson. He’d seen Merlin to his deserved places as Prince and husband. He bore Gwen’s and Nemeth’s hopes for Arthur to regain some vestige of sensibility. And while he cared for Camelot’s Queen, it seemed that Amor pointed him toward Elaine once again.

That thought gave him pause. He narrowed his eyes. Elaine? He considered her virtues. Despite just meeting her, he really liked her caring and warmth. He could see her bravery and service ethic. He admired her outgoing nature and charity to others. Her eyes sparkled seemingly like only Gwen’s did.

And, for some reason, taking Gwen’s message to Arthur wasn’t prompting Jealousy’s anger. Perhaps it was that.

How things change. He exhaled deeply. He recalled the conversation with Freya just prior to his return. She can sacrifice for Merlin and live without anyone. Should I complain about not being with Gwen? She cares about me but her heart is with Arthur. While I wish it could be different, I should be grateful that another possibility is out there. He nodded to himself. Just see where it goes. King Rodor would favor us being together.

Ahead of him on the trail, Camelot’s spires broke through the trees.

Think on that later. Press on. The others are counting on me. He spurred his horse on. With faster strides, the remaining distance fell away. In no time at all, he galloped into the city and up to the front of the citadel. “Whoa!” He dismounted and tied his horse beside the others there. As the visiting royals had earlier, he wondered at the lack of guards stationed outside of the castle. “Prince Bors?”

“Lancelot? You’re here already?” Surprise stiffened Bors’ posture. He had to digest the other knight’s sudden arrival there. “King Rodor must have sent you ahead.”

“We had the priestesses’ assistance. King Rodor and the Nemeth contingent wait about a league or so from here. He sent me to speak with King Arthur. Strange. Where are the guards?” Lancelot explained.

“Father, Percival and Queen Elena are asking him about that.” Bors opened the door. “Marcus?”

“Aye, Prince Bors?” Marcus rushed into view. He bowed. “Sir Lancelot? You’re…” He gaped. “Are you a shade again? I mean…”

“Nay, Marcus. I am myself again. Might you let King Arthur know I’m here? It is urgent I speak with him,” Lancelot assured him.

“It has to do with the business King Arthur discusses with my father and the others. It is urgent,” Bors clarified.

“I will tell him.” Marcus bowed to them again. Then he rushed off.

“What’s going on here? Arthur would never leave himself so exposed,” Lancelot pointed out.

“Father, Percival and Queen Elena have gone inside to find out,” Bors told him. “I know that the knights aren’t that experienced. Still they should know enough to stand guard out here.”

Lancelot nodded. “I don’t want King Rodor or my comrades riding into trouble here. I can’t believe how quiet it is out here. Where is everyone? I can’t believe there aren’t any people anywhere.”

“I know. I can’t explain it either. It’s early morning. There’s little going on. Even if there is uncertainty, the people should be out and doing what they do. They looked at us with suspicion. Then they rushed back inside of their shops and forges,” Bors presumed. “I know Father will find out what’s going on. Until then, you and I can keep watch.”

Lancelot nodded and set about to wait for Arthur’s emergence.

 

****

 

[A Sixth Turn of the Hourglass Later]

Arthur hustled toward the front door. Caution and Disbelief both lent urgency to his strides. He’d watched Lancelot sacrifice himself. He’d dealt with his friend’s revival and seduction of Gwen. Even if the shade had been Morgana’s pawn, the damage had been lasting.

…Gwen’s lack of faith and leaving him….

…the failed engagement to Mithian….

…Merlin’s deceits and clandestine relationship with the aforementioned Princess….

…Opportunity’s siren call luring off his brother knights….

How can it be Lancelot? He died! What else is going to happen? He can’t be alive! Is he trying to get to Gwen? He glanced back over his shoulder toward King Bors, Percival and Queen Elena. They know about this? Merlin, you’re behind this. I should have known that he’d use that bloody sorcery to revive him! Then he pressed on down the passage. He pushed the doors open to find Prince Bors and Lancelot waiting for him.

Shock and Surprise froze him dead in his tracks.

Lancelot kneeled before Arthur. Anxiety and Doubt filled his mind. He wanted to feel happy. He wanted to embrace his friend and former liege. Still Outrage blazed in his heart. He needed answers for Gwen’s exile and Merlin’s estrangement. Memoria reminded him of Uther’s attitudes from back in the day now coming through in the younger Pendragon. Still Respect held his tongue in check. “Arthur, once again, it’s good to see you.”

“Get up, Lancelot! You know you don’t have to kneel before me,” Arthur reminded him. He hugged the other man tightly. “I can’t believe it! Is it really you?”

“Aye. It’s truly me. I was sent back. It seems my service is still needed.” Lancelot cleared his throat. “I wish this was a social visit but it isn’t.”

Arthur looked over his friend’s new sur coat. “You’re a knight of Nemeth? There is a place for you here in Camelot of course.”

Lancelot smiled. “I know that, Arthur. Thank you. Still my presence here causes tension. Gwen and you need your time together. Things are coming together for me in Whitgate.”

“Then you know Gwen’s left for there. She’s probably back there looking at some knight or noble that catches her eye,” Arthur presumed. “Maybe you?”

Lancelot snorted. “Arthur, why do you think I sacrificed myself in the first place? I will always love Gwen. I don’t deny that. Still she loves you. Part of love is understanding that you don’t own someone just because you want to be with them. I have her friendship. That’s enough for me.” He shook his head. “Can I be blunt?”

“You’ve been taking a cue from Gawain I see,” Arthur retorted. “Go ahead. Please, Lancelot.”

“Thank you.” Lancelot rubbed his chin. “You do know that Gwen misses you. Merlin wants you to accept him and be his brother in arms. Aye. Gawain wants to drive some sense into you. Even Princess Josiane is willing to forgive what happened here. With due respect to your royal guests, I imagine that’s why they’re here. They want you to understand that it’s not necessarily an ‘us versus you’ thing.”

“So you converted then? You’re letting that goddess push you?” Arthur supposed; Irritation seared his tone.

“She did revive me. She wants co-existence and respect for herself and her followers. Arthur, not everyone in Nemeth follows her. Still they work with her. Princess Josiane has her own faith. She’s with us. Maybe you might consider that?” Lancelot offered.

“Sir Lancelot has an excellent point, Arthur. Perhaps we might speak with King Rodor and the others?” Queen Elena suggested.

“At least a conversation. No promises other than safe passage to bury Gaius.” Arthur turned back to Lancelot. “And Gwen? Perhaps Rodor might allow me passage back to Nemeth to see her?”

“I believe she’s with the traveling party. They sent me ahead to let you know they were here. Perhaps you all might follow me?” Lancelot suggested.

“I just need to fetch my horse. Then I’ll follow you,” Arthur agreed. He rushed off toward the stables.

 

****

 

[Two floors above in the Citadel]

Marcus watched the gathering from overhead. He saw Arthur’s acquiescence to at least speak to Rodor. While it would seem sensible for most, he frowned at that sentiment. He knew his lord would not care for Nemeth’s influence or that of its recent recruits in that regard. Count Edgar would be most displeased! He marched down the passage toward his small room.

A message needed to go to Hampton immediately.

As he rounded a corner, Marcus shivered. Chill raised goosebumps on his skin. The hairs raised on his head and arms. He turned to find the mystery sorceress watching him from the alcove. He stiffened. “Lady.” He bowed.

“What news of the Brat King?” she hissed.

“Kings Percival and Bors not to mention the Amazon and Lancelot have convinced Arthur to listen to King Rodor. They head there now,” he reported. “Apparently Queen Guinevere’s with them. I imagine Merlin’s not far away.”

“Aye he is there.” The cloaked woman considered the revelation with care. “Your master is ready to strike. An ambush can be arranged. Go about your duties. I shall be in touch.” With that, she disappeared.

Normal? You call this normal? Marcus rushed back down the passage and toward his room. He needed to think about this.

Chapter Text

Chapter 7 [Cawdor—Meleagant’s Castle]

Meleagant stared out his throne chamber’s northern most window. Lightning flared toward the ground from dark skies. Sharp gales whistled across the landscape. Chill air settled across the yellowed grass. A few shepherds struggled with their flocks across the barren meadows below him.

Mistakes sabotaged his endeavors. Gawain should have been dead or humiliated at best. Arthur should have been utterly discredited. Mithian had evaded several deadly situations. Merlin and Josiane escaped his lackeys. Boeve and Cligés slipped into Britannia despite his new allies’ machinations. A potential convert, Morgana, was dead rather than Merlin and Mithian.

Indignation curled his lip.

The Tomboy and that Old Fool think their sand castle can withstand my flood? Do they now? He coughed. Perhaps another well-timed strike will snuff out their efforts. He grabbed a tin cup. With a single motion, he clapped it down on top of a struggling candle. He held it there for several long heartbeats.

“Do you care to burn your hand, Dread King?” The cloaked woman shuffled into view.

He considered the hand. He shrugged off the burn. “It’s no matter. I would hope you have some productive news?”

“Aye.” She handed him two pieces of parchment. “The fruits of your envoys.”

He opened the sealed documents. His eyes gulped in their information. He nodded. Affirmation lit up in his eyes. “Finally. Something works!”

“Doun and Alys wish to meet with you. Sultan Mustafa wants the so-called Princess and her paramour eliminated,” she reported. “Accept their alliance and bring an end to this farce.”

He scoffed. “I will accept their help when I’m ready!” He wheeled about. “You don’t tell me what to do. When I listen to their words and look into their eyes then I’ll know them. Then I’ll decide if I’ll accept their help or not!”

She growled low to herself. Indignation chafed in her gut. “You sulk here. Your enemies come together in Camelot once more. Several Kings and the Amazon Queen are there trying to sway Arthur. The Servant Queen is with them. Her influence confounds things! You should watch!”

He rolled his eyes. “Perhaps you might finish what you start first! The Tomboy Princess and her servant still live! Instead you eliminate Morgana Pendragon?”

“She was a traitor to our cause. My reasons are my own.” She narrowed her eyes to slits. “And Merlin has far more uses than you’d expect.”

“Merlin? The Pretend Prince? He almost died from a shove and his stables. Mithian wants a boy she can push around. That snip needs a muzzle not a throne!” He shook his head. “You’re losing it. Do what you’re told!”

She clenched her fists. Crimson flicked in her eyes. She growled a few words.

Before he could react or breathe, he impacted with the far wall. He struggled against the force.

She poured herself a goblet of wine. “You tell me nothing, Meleagant. I do what I want. I’ll do it when I want. I could snuff out your life like that candle. I’m here because it suits me to be. I eliminated the old healer because I could. I left the two brats alive because they have potential! No more. No less.” She snapped her fingers.

He dropped to the floor like a sack of potatoes. “YOU! YOU!”

“Mind your manners. Now get up.” She waited for him to pull himself to his feet. “Perhaps we might deal with the Camelot situation?”

“Pendragon’s chambermaid is a pest. Morgana should’ve eliminated her.” He fumed over her show of power in his throne chamber. “Get that worm, Edgar! He might have another use. That suits you?” Sarcasm bit into his tone. “Take the Nemeth traitors with you. They’ll serve as a warning.”

She coughed. “Watch yourself.” She motioned to the fallen parchments. “Look to those. That is your future not these games.” She disappeared in a dark cloud.

He flung the still half-full goblet across the chamber. “THAT BLOODY WITCH! Just wait, Woman. You will suffer for that!” He stalked out of there. Anger lent weight to his footfalls. He stomped down the stairs and the following passage. He smacked the walls on several occasions. I know what I have to do! I don’t care what that wench thinks!

As he approached, a red clad guard jumped to attention. He fumbled for the keys. Panic numbed him. Somehow he managed to turn the right key in the old lock and push that oak door open. He bowed albeit not smoothly. “My…my Liege.”

Meleagant glared at him. “The prisoner?”

“That one still lies inside. No change, Sire,” the guard reported.

“Someone knows their place.” Meleagant pressed on. He passed by several cells before stopping at another oak door in particular. He glared through the small window therein.

On the other side of that door, an entranced figure lay on a musty hay pile. A chain extended from the wall ending in a manacle around the right ankle. A hood concealed the prisoner’s identity from all save the sorceress and himself. Otherwise nothing else could be said about that particular person.

Let the Tomboy Princess and her Servant think they had the upper hand. He had a few aces of his own to play.

No matter what his so-called allies or enemies thought, he always had a plan….

Chapter Text

Chapter 8 [Nemeth Campsite]

Merlin brooded along the trail’s edge. Melancholy smothered his mood. A deep sigh escaped his lips. He bowed his head and frowned. His eyes inevitably drifted toward Camelot….

…toward his former home….

…toward his former King and friend…

He still hates magic. Even when he sees that it can be good, he still will not budge. His eyes glinted canary. Sparks danced above his hand coalescing into a small dragon shape….

…much as they had on that day before the Witch Finder came….

Prejudice brings out the worst in him. I know what happened to Igraine. Still that wasn’t Nimue’s fault. Uther pushed her. Arthur wouldn’t be alive if she hadn’t did what she did. He wouldn’t be alive now if not for the knights and me, he reflected.

Are you admitting that I did something right, Emrys?

He didn’t even turn around. “At that point, you did.” He drank from his water skin.

“You are so kind.” Nimue moved in front of him. “Sometimes you just have to let things go.”

“Like Arthur or Gaius?” He jumped to his feet. “They’re good people! They deserve better!”

“So do we! Will you stop casting a blind eye to that??” She curled her lip. “I can’t understand why you think of Gaius the way you do! He was a traitor. He turned against us to save his own skin. He poisoned your mind.”

“He made mistakes! Stop being so hateful!” he countered. “I suppose you enjoyed watching him die?” Anger flared in his eyes.

“Let’s ask Kilgarrah or the druids about those mistakes!” Seeing that he was ignoring her again, she spat on the ground. “Oh I enjoyed his death. Make no mistake of that. Still I didn’t kill him. The goddess didn’t kill him. She wanted him to see your hand fasting for her own reasons. Something or someone else did that.

He cast her a look. “Someone who can act and then disappear with nobody knowing? Sounds like our mystery sorceress.” He flung his skin to the ground. “I can’t believe I led Mithian right into that trap!”

She raised an eyebrow. “Your mind was on *something else*.”

“I love my wife. Is it my fault that I want to finally be with her legally?” He shook his head.

“And yet you don’t keep your eyes open. You’re alive because that one wanted a message sent. She’s toying with Mithian, you and us. That’s twice now she’s stalked and ambushed you. Freya told us about Ealdor. At least you didn’t try to bake cakes for her or some nonsense,” she hissed.

“I think I have more sense than that, Nimue,” he countered.

“That could be debated.” Sarcasm and Indignation rode on a subsequent cough from her. Then she saw Mithian watching them both. “You’re here to save him from his own blind faith?”

“I happen to like that optimism,” Mithian countered. She exhaled. “Perhaps though we might continue this discussion at another time? While there are some merits to it, this isn’t the time.”

Nimue shook her head. “As long as we all keep in mind our places in the greater order.” She disappeared into the woods once again.

“Can’t she get over her hate? So Gaius made mistakes?” he wondered aloud.

Mithian sat beside him. “Priestess Nimue has her reasons for feeling as she does. So does Arthur. So do we.”

“I suppose.” He rested his chin in his hands. “I told Mother that Arthur couldn’t handle my magic. I just wish it could be different. Why can’t he understand that Nimue and I weren’t responsible for his parents’ deaths? Uther and Morgana forced the outcomes.” He sulked.

“Are you all right?” she rubbed his shoulder.

“Lot on my mind.” He glanced back at her. “I just wish I knew why Arthur was acting like more of a Prat than usual. Other than the magic stuff.”

“Being a King isn’t easy in any case, Merlin. As you are discovering, a ruler can’t just do whatever he or she wants and have a successful reign. Arthur has to balance his nobles’ will against his own. On top of that, he has to consider all points of view. He also has to deal with issues of over-delegation and trust. He thinks Agravaine betrayed him. He’s struggling over Gwen’s leaving him. He’s dealing with the knights’ departures. He has to be diplomatic with the nobles. Then there’s you. He believes you stabbed him in the back. You did have to lie to him in order to remain at court,” she explained.

“I didn’t have a choice. If he would accept magic, I wouldn’t have to be that way,” he defended himself.

“I know that,” she assured him. “I just wanted you to understand his issues.”

He nodded. “Guess his decisions to spit on tradition cost him?”

“It does. There are those who feel he should have married me. He shouldn’t have allowed you to be so involved in courtly affairs or on the battlefield. Gwen should be the maid and nothing else. Arthur isn’t his father. He’s learning how to govern a different way. Pity that he ascended into a boiling cauldron.” She hugged him. “We just need to be patient, Merlin. Arthur has support. He just has to open his eyes and take the hands offered him. He just needs to wake up to it.”

“If he can. I keep hoping,” he noted.

“Then Arthur will make it. Just keep the faith, Merlin.” She took his hand and guided him to his feet. “Now we will be leaving soon and….” She looked around. Merlin, did you…?

I did. He felt the same tell-tale chill from Ealdor and their chambers. He wasn’t about to endanger her again. His ears perked. The hairs rose on his back and arms.

An avalanche of hooves boomed through their ears.

Whereas they’d been alone, now a line of knights bearing Hampton colors bore down on them. Their horses quickly crossed the expanse between Camelot’s moat and their position. Their swords were already out and ready to claim blood.

Edgar grinned. Satisfaction practically oozed from every pore. “GET THEM! REMEMBER MY BROTHER AND HIS WHORE ARE MINE!”

Another day…another ambush….

Chapter Text

Chapter 9 [A Twelfth Turn of the Hourglass Before]

Gawain swiped his blade over the sharpening stone over and over again. A heavy frown creased his face. We’re supposed to be happy. After so many bloody years, things are going right. Then this bloody bag of garbage hits. Really? He rolled his eyes and took another swipe.

All around him, everyone carried on with their routines. Some tended their gear as he did. A few others gabbed around the campfire. Rodor worked with a younger scribe on some proclamation or other. While he couldn’t see them, he imagined Ywain and Malodius patrolling the nearby forest. Britomart talked with Josiane, Boeve and Cligés about some matter or other.

Gawain smiled. Brit’s getting into that aunt thing. Glad to see she can do something besides harp all day on me. He sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. He stood up slowly. With an effort, he sheathed his sword. Then he walked over toward the group. “Anything good? If so, feel free to share.” He plopped himself down beside them.

“Contrary to what some people think, the world doesn’t revolve around them or their cask,” Britomart retorted half-seriously. “I suppose you’re sword’s sharp at least.”

“Always.” Gawain shrugged. “One thing I learned here—always be ready. Have fun of course but be ready.” He smirked at her. “I’ve really got to get you to loosen up.”

“She’s not that bad, Uncle Gawain,” Cligés disagreed. “At least we can all talk. It’s not like dealing with Father and Uncle Alys.” He frowned at the mention of the latter name. “Sorry,” he apologized.

“You know him for a snake as I do. It’s the truth. Why should I be angry with you?” Josiane assured him. “We….” She stopped herself short. Instinct advised that something was a bit off.

“What?” Cligés looked at his sister and then at the others.

“It’s too quiet. We’re all anxious,” Britomart dismissed.

Then from nowhere, the roar of cavalry horses’ hooves shattered the stillness.

“Bloody Hell!” Gawain spat. “I knew the Princess was pissed but now he sends the Kids?”

“This is Arthur. I wouldn’t put anything past him,” Josiane assumed. Anger poisoned her tone. She drew her scimitar.

“You don’t mean King Arthur? I was told to trust him,” Cligés wondered.

“He was an okay Prince. I think the whole being King deal got to his head.” Gawain shook his head. “We can ask him later. Get ready!” He looked around. “Hey! Anyone see Merlin or Mith’?”

“She went after Prince Merlin! He…” Britomart stopped her explanation at the sight of the charging Hampton knights. “They’re back?”

“Hampton Eddie’s like a boil.” Gawain curled his lip. “This is another one Arthur owes me!” He rushed toward the fray.

“Of all the….” Josiane ran after her uncle.

“Typical…” Boeve rolled his eyes. He couldn’t believe that he was about to fight his own brethren again. Bad enough he had to do it on the docks. Now he’d have to do it again. Hopefully Edgar’s here and not hiding under his rock.

“Come on!” Cligés urged jarring the other knight from his reverie. Then he ran toward the now visible fighting at the camp’s edge. “Who’s guarding the King?”

“Go and do that!” Boeve instructed. “I’ll go after them!” He ran toward the battle’s source. Anxiety swept over him. He hoped that Josiane hadn’t picked a fight that she couldn’t handle.

Chapter Text

Chapter 10

Merlin drew his sword. He prepared to defend his Princess no matter what even before his own life. He sized up the opposing knights. He guessed there were about fifteen knights storming toward them. He mused on what to do. Then he grabbed Mithian’s sleeve and pulled her behind a particularly large boulder.

“MERLIN! What are you doing?” she demanded.

“Buying us some time.” His eyes glinted yellow once more. “Tiene!”

A fiery barrier erupted from the ground between the knights and them. With a few gestures, it reshaped itself into a ring around the approaching knights.

Fear provoked the horses. They reared and bucked their riders from the saddles. They rushed about trying to figure a way out of the flame circle.

“Very creative, my Prince. Perhaps we might consider the others?” She fired her crossbow twice and wounding both.

“Yak, yak, yak. Pushy, pushy,” Merlin jabbed.

“What was that?” she retorted half-annoyed/half-amused.

“Oh nothing.” He rolled his eyes. “I did get all but those two.”

“Sloppy, Merlin,” she chided. “Still Father will want to keep these men alive. Hopefully Arthur will deal with them promptly."

“Now he will.” Merlin saw Gawain rushing toward them. “You’re late.”

“Ah…knew you had it.” Gawain admired Merlin’s handiwork. “You could’ve been doing this before?”

“I was. I didn’t let you see me.” Merlin shoved his friend aside. With a single motion, he deflected Edgar’s sword. “Watch out!”

“He’s following Big Red and hitting from behind.” Gawain swung his blade. His steel met Edgar’s once…and again…and again….

“EDGAR! FACE ME, DOG!” Josiane challenged.

“I’ll deal with the Pretty Boy first. Then you.” Edgar deflected another feint and overcommitted on the next sword swipe.

Gawain evaded Edgar’s wild attack. Then he brought his hilt’s knob right into Edgar’s forehead knocking him senseless. “Like that’s going to happen?” He coughed. “Hey, Josie, help me with Eddie!”

Josiane broke off a tree branch. In a lavender flash, she changed it to a length of chain. “Boeve?” She held the chain out to her beloved.

Regret bubbled through Boeve. He wished for a better relationship with his brother. The last thing he wanted was harm to come to the latter. Still he knew Edgar was guilty of usurping his seat and title. He’d heard Josiane tell of her ordeal back in Camelot. He recalled well the ‘reception’ on the docks in Southampton. He bound Edgar’s arms with the chain. Then he confiscated the other’s sword for himself. “We’ll make sure he’s judged.”

“Along with these knights.” Mithian motioned toward the contained knights.

“If King Arthur doesn’t deal with them, I will,” Boeve agreed. He strode toward the remaining knights. He recognized most of them. Despite the others’ following Edgar, he still desired their service. He wanted to be fair to them understanding their situation well. “Put your swords down.”

The Hampton knights looked at each other. They saw Edgar defeated and bound. The rightful Count gave them an order. Accordingly they dropped their swords.

“Good choice.” Merlin motioned with his hand dispelling the flames.

“He…he has magic!” Rouge realized. “The stable boy has magic?”

“Former stable boy. That’s Prince to you,” Josiane corrected them. She touched the ground. Her finger induced the lavender glow again. “And you’re staying right there.”

Glue held the imprisoned knights fast.

“Now it’s our turn to hand you over for justice,” Josiane declared. She observed the approaching Arthur with the two Borses, Lancelot, Percival and Elena on horseback. “Your former overlord, my Love.”

“Our former Bloated Princess,” Gawain corrected; Sarcasm accenting his words.

“He’s still King, Gawain. Give him a chance. I trust Percival, King Bors and Elena to be watchful. Besides Gwen might be able to convince Arthur,” Merlin pointed out. Despite their recent issues, Instinct and Hope promised that Arthur would pronounce an impartial judgment. He bowed his head murmuring a silent prayer in that regard.

Well put, my Prince. Mithian cleared her throat. “Let’s allow diplomacy its due. Father and King Arthur will be able to determine what to do next.” She squeezed her husband’s hand for reassurance. Then she led him forward.

Arthur pulled up on his horse’s reins. He inspected the area around them. “Is everyone all right?”

“We are, Sire. Thank you.” Mithian nodded regally to Arthur and the other rulers. “I trust Sir Lancelot notified you of our presence? We did not wish to appear without advising you first.”

“He did, Princess. Thank you.” Arthur returned the royal nod to her. He cast Skepticism’s glance. “The burnt circle and that liquid holding the knights down, I suppose that’s your work, Merlin?”

“I created a fire circle to trap the knights without harming them. The glue isn’t mine though,” Merlin admitted.

“I did that, King Arthur.” Josiane strode forward. She squinted at him with Defiance’s attitude. “As you can see, magic has its uses.”

“If I hadn’t agreed to safe passage, I could have Merlin and you arrested, Josiane. The exile decree is still in effect,” Arthur insisted.

“Arthur, I still say I didn’t do anything. I had to lie and sneak around because of Uther’s laws against magic. I did so to help Camelot. We aren’t sneaking around now,” Merlin responded evenly. “Edgar and his men attacked our traveling party. We dealt with them. Only Edgar and two of his knights were wounded.”

“It seems we have an incident, King Arthur.” Rodor stepped forward. “Thank you, Prince Merlin and Princess Mithian, for resolving these issues. Did Sir Lancelot bear our message of peace?”

“He did. I don’t understand how he can be here. Merlin, do you?” Arthur’s eye sparked with Suspicion at his former servant and the others.

“He just appeared in our courtyard. He completely shocked us,” Mithian told him. “Thank the goddess for that.”

Arthur rolled his eyes. “That goddess again?”

“She isn’t evil, Arthur, despite what you believe,” Lancelot countered.

“Then why does she allow magic? Why…?” Arthur started to counter.

“Why are so OBSESSED?” Gwen stormed into the picture. Her eyes smoldered into her husband’s. “Lancelot has been brought back to us! Merlin and Josiane trapped Edgar’s knights! Meantime you’re isolated! Your knights are inexperienced! You’re cutting Camelot off from everyone else! Arthur, STOP! Stop hating! We want you! I LOVE YOU!!”

“Then why did you walk away? Why can’t you understand?” Arthur countered.

“Understand what? Arthur, MAGIC ISN’T EVIL IN ITSELF! It’s like that sword or being a ruler! It’s up to the person using it! What kind of King do you want to be? You used to be fair and just! You made mistakes but we could believe in you!” Gwen pressed.

“Magic KILLS! We know that witch, Nimue, murdered my mother! Merlin killed my father! Father told….” Arthur started.

“I cast the right healing spell. Morgana and Agravaine used a talisman to make sure it was reversed. Nimue told your father that there was a risk. He wanted a son. The universe demanded a balance. She loved you . She sacrificed herself so you could live. Uther’s grief and rage drove him to destroy everything magic and Old Religion. Do you think that someone wouldn’t react? Why do you think Kilgarrah, Nimue, Morgana and Morgause came after Camelot? We brought curses down on ourselves. Uther pushed you to take the Cup out of hiding. There was the unicorn horn. Then we allowed Segan to escape. We didn’t help Morgana before she turned desperate. Arthur, you’re just as much to blame as anyone. So am I. We all played a role,” Merlin pointed out.

“A sensible ruler considers everyone’s needs. I’ve never had issues with the Old Religion or its adherents, Arthur. Uther’s hatred however left scars in Nemeth. Perhaps you might wish to speak with Lady Elaine? She lost her mother for the same reason. I understand what it means to lose my wife. Still I would never destroy lives out of vengeance. Nor would I allow my nobles to steal everything from an innocent woman. We can’t have everything we want, Arthur. What we should strive for is balance and justice,” Rodor added. He rubbed Merlin’s shoulder. “The most important part of what we do is to be responsible for our actions. We face the past and learn from it. Then we seek to improve. Ask yourself. Do you want to unify or divide?”

“Unify.” Arthur glared at Rodor. “But….”

“But what, Arthur? Your needs outweigh the Greater Good? You dodged war almost a half dozen times because of your friends and our understanding. Maybe you should try to consider everyone else? Remember what I wrote in that document. Just follow your own laws. Don’t make double standards. Treat everyone with equal compassion. That’s the Arthur Pendragon who’s my friend,” King Bors insisted. “Think on what we’ve talked about here and in the castle. What Queen Guinevere and King Rodor said makes sense.”

“I don’t believe….”

“Then don’t follow it yourself. Just tolerate and co-exist along with those who do. Hold them responsible for any evil. Still you also want to commend them for the good they do as well,” Prince Bors jumped in. “Look at what Prince Merlin and Princess Josiane did here. They used their gifts to stop an incident with little bloodshed. That’s something to be commended.”

“I do just that,” Josiane asserted.

“You helped Merlin by breaking the rules. It worked once. That’s it,” Arthur countered.

“How little you know,” Josiane told him. ‘It works for us every day. My family is split between different faiths. We may not follow the same being or agree on ideas. We can live together and love each other. We stand beside each other. A castle divided will crumble.”

“Be strong, Arthur. You can be different than your father. You can be stronger,” Gwen insisted.

Arthur hesitated. He exhaled deeply. Doubt and Uncertainty shook his moral compass. All he’d known…all he ever had known…was the hate and crusade. He’d followed that mantra.

Now a different way was offered to him.

Arthur bowed his head. He quivered and shook. Then he looked to Gwen. “You’re my strength, Gwen.” His eyes watered. “I need you.”

“And I need you.” Gwen stood in front of him. “Arthur, if you promise to work with everyone, I will come back. Please.”

He nodded. “I…will.” The response crackled forth like parched dry leaves along chilled Autumn ground. For once he didn’t care what anyone thought. He seized onto Gwen and held her close to himself. His lips pressed down hard on hers.

She returned his gesture equally. Their energy flowed back and forth between them. Amor refreshed their souls like a downpour on drought-stricken land. “I love you.”

“And I love you,” Arthur affirmed. He touched his forehead to hers.

Several heartbeats elapsed. Tempus seemed to slow its pace….

Merlin stared. Did he just say what I thought he said?

Aye, my Warlock. He agreed to co-exist. Now we can move ahead. Mithian brushed her lips across his cheek. I keep telling you to have faith.

Merlin smiled. He savored the sight of his dear friends reunited. He hoped for better times ahead. Still he had a foreboding feeling.

For some reason, there was another boot waiting to drop. He didn’t know what it was but it was out there….

Chapter Text

Chapter 11 [Camelot’s City Square—Several Turns of the Hourglass Later]

Reverence put forth its best last minute efforts. Servants and courtiers swept the cobbles clear of trash and stray animals. The townspeople, courtiers and guests assembled before the castle’s granite steps. Master Wyngate, now that he’d been accepted into the court, stood with them. Arthur and Gwen stood together. The knights surrounded the wood and platform. The various royals watched and waited for the events to come.

Such as it was….

 

****

 

Merlin stood alongside Rodor and Mithian at the bottom of the granite staircase. Mourning dragged his heart down. He recalled all of the good times with Gaius just a few floors above their current position. Gratitude was at the forefront of his thinking. He knew he wouldn’t have made it as far as he did without the elderly physician’s assistance. He’d learned so much about politics and medicine. He wished that the disagreements hadn’t caused the separation at the end. I wish that Gaius would have seen I was trying to respect everything. Is it my fault that Arthur didn’t follow his own rules?

Gaius protected his own hide before our fellow kind, Merlin. He betrayed everything. Arthur adapts when it suits him to do so. He needed you as a servant. Therefore he ignored the laws. He wouldn’t allow you there if Diplomacy didn’t demand otherwise. We are watching, Kilgarrah interjected.

As am I, Dragon, Malodius pointed out. Britannia’s eyes are fixed on Camelot. That means both temporal rulers and magical beings alike. None of us want a scene.

I imagine not, Great One, Kilgarrah snarked.

Oh stop already! Quit being so mean! Aithusa chided.

Kilgarrah has a point, Nimue cut in.

So does Aithusa. This is a funeral. We owe Gaius respect. We can debate the other things later, Merlin declared. Anger bit at him.

Well put, my Prince. Mithian squeezed his hand in hers. You shouldn’t doubt yourself.

Merlin quelled Inferiority’s expression lest he get a lecture later from her. He bowed his head. I still feel like I have a role in putting him here.

As Kilgarrah said, he made his choices. He could have worked with us as Gwen did. He went with Uther and then Arthur’s hate. You couldn’t deny yourself any longer, Merlin. There’s no crime in that. Even as you grow in your role as Prince and Husband, you still want the best for everyone. That’s worth a great deal, Mithian clarified.

And so are you to me, Merlin reminded her.

Well now! It seems you have some sense after all. Mithian’s eyes twinkled at Merlin. We still have those edges to smooth out.

He wanted to continue the conversation. Still he noticed Arthur giving a signal toward the door. He stood reverently. His eyes turned toward the spot in question.

The doors opened. Camelot’s leading knights bore Gaius’ cloth wrapped body down the stairs. They set him on top of the wood awaiting him. Then they stepped back.

Arthur looked at the assembled group. The people around him represented kingdoms, cut across social classes and mindsets of all kinds. He was reminded of Gaius’ impact on Camelot and Britannia in general. Certainly he’d known the elderly physician as healer, advisor, an uncle figure of sorts and a loyal friend. While the admission of previous sorcery use ate at him, Arthur knew Gaius had forsworn that. He was prepared to overlook the fact that Gaius had known about Merlin’s magic and even enabled the former servant to practice said craft right under Camelot’s very nose.

At least on that day, everyone would stand together. After that, well….

“It’s time, Arthur,” Gwen nudged.

Arthur nodded. He cleared his throat. “Friends! Fellow rulers! Thank you for coming! We are gathered here today to say good bye to a dear friend. Gaius was more than just a healer. He was a rock and support for all of us at one point or another. I know my father relied on his counsel at every turn. We all did. It’s a testament to him as a man that he has such a sendoff. Perhaps now he can be at peace. Now he can be whole without the internal conflict between his rightful loyalty and those who’d draw him astray.”

And in that heartbeat, his eyes met Merlin’s.

Gwen shot him a sharp look out of the side of her face. Did you just…?

Merlin bit his lip. He stiffened. He felt the assembled eyes turning toward himself. Indignation and Outrage flared through his heart. Embarrassment flushed his face. Still he stood tall and didn’t waver.

Mithian clasped Merlin’s hand again. Her eyes also met his. You did nothing wrong, my Warlock. Remember that. Let him have his bitter grapes. Arthur will find such words have a heavy price. He further isolates himself from everyone with his views. We will do what we can for our friends and neighbors.

I know. I just wish he’d see how much I did for him, Merlin complained. Lament weighed on him at that point.

Mithian nodded. She could already see Disapproval’s influence in the crowd. While many didn’t get the gibe, the assembled royals did clearly. Other eyes turned back toward Arthur with a clear message.

Get on with it. Don’t make this about Merlin or your personal crusade.

Arthur coughed. He noted Gwen’s disagreement over that last statement. Still he knew Gaius’ loyalty against all odds. He understood how much the healer had paid for his stand. After everything was said and done, he’d heard how Nimue had restrained Gaius with her magic. Despite that, Gaius had remained loyal to Arthur. Thus he felt the need to say something. “Now we send you to the Other Side. May you know that peace. May your example teach others to do their duty.” He picked up the torch and stepped down toward the pyre.

The torch touched the wood at several spots. Its flames spread across the fuel setting it and the body on it ablaze.

“And so we thank you for your duty, Gaius. Thank you and be blessed.” Arthur bowed his head for several heartbeats. Then he went silent preferring to let the flames have their expression at that point.

Still his words had their effect. Division firmed its hold across Britannia.

Further words would be expressed on that front. Count on that….

Chapter Text

Chapter 12 [A Turn of the Hourglass Later—Royal Chamber]

Arthur inspected a document on his desk. Normally such tedium left him less than enthusiastic to say the least. In the past, an impromptu patrol with the knights might have seemed in order. He would have gone somewhere….anywhere…but there. Anywhere to get away from the disapproval. He affixed his seal to the letter in front of him and set it aside. He hoped to soothe the ruffled feathers with the banquet later.

Still didn’t a King have the right to speak his piece in his own castle?

I didn’t target Merlin specifically. What is their problem? He took a draught of ale from the goblet on his desk. Then he took the next document from the stack.

Gwen stalked into the chamber. Her brow furrowed. A deep frown creased her face. She’d hoped things would be different. Now she saw how naïve that notion was. “Busy afternoon?”

“These letters need to be looked at before the feast. Those people took time to come. It’s the least we can do,” he replied. He set the latest document down on the desk. “Gwen, are you all right? I know Gaius’ death is hard for us. Is that it?”

“Partially. Arthur, why did you have to antagonize everyone during the funeral? Why?” she demanded.

“I said what needed to be said. You do understand that?” He walked over to her side.

She shook her head. “Did it really? Arthur, I know how you feel about such things. Still you do have to respect other people’s feelings. Merlin had a tough enough time today.”

“Merlin. So that’s what this is about?” Arthur rolled his eyes. “I gave him and that Princess a safe conduct for the funeral. That should show good will.”

“It’s a start. Do you think that lament is for you or those opposed to sorcery? You sounded like Uther down there. You do know that?” she pointed out.

“Father was right. He held this kingdom and Britannia together,” he countered.

She shook her head. “Arthur, he divided this kingdom! He intimidated any who opposed him. You were different! I came back because I thought there’d be hope. Lancelot said….”

“Lancelot.” He rolled his eyes. “So this is what it’s about. You still have feelings for him. Gwen, maybe….”

“Arthur, don’t say it! Lancelot loves me. I don’t share those feelings. I do care for him however. Just as I care about Merlin and Gaius. Just as I’ve come to care about Mithian and her feelings. That’s what friends do for each other!” She folded her arms across her chest. “I came back because I love you. I couldn’t stay away.”

“Then why are you so opposed to me then?” He stepped back to look her over. “Look at what happened to Morgana. How can you say that isn’t a force for evil?”

“The particular sorceress was evil not the magic itself. Merlin nearly died trying to defend Mithian against her. He’s done the same thing for us how many times?” She tapped her fingers on the table. “He won’t be staying for the banquet.”

“That’s his choice.” Arthur exhaled sharply. Regret nagged at him. Still he wouldn’t budge.

“How unfortunate.” Rodor strode into the chamber. “Arthur, pardon my sudden appearance.”

Arthur noted the dropping of his title. “It’s no trouble. What can I do for you?”

Rodor coughed. He exchanged looks with Gwen. “I think you’ve done enough. I’d hoped for an apology. Arthur, you went too far earlier. I won’t have you publicly making inferences and veiled insults at Merlin. Perhaps when he was your servant, you felt that was your right. He’s a Prince. Address him as such.”

“Address…? Merlin’s a Prince because you helped him sneak around me!” Arthur argued.

“Arthur, Merlin followed the letter of the law. He was always so concerned about you as he did it. All you did was force him to live a lie. If you truly care about him then support him. You owe Mithian that much as well,” Rodor told him. “Thank you at least for letting Merlin and Princess Josiane come for the funeral. I appreciate that.” He nodded to Arthur on that note.

“I’m not a monster, Rodor. You’re welcome. I appreciate you bringing Gaius back here for burial. Have a safe journey back to Whitgate,” Arthur wished.

“Thank you for that much,” Rodor accepted. He turned to Gwen. “Thank you.”

“Thank you. I’m sorry,” Gwen apologized. “Thank you for your hospitality, King Rodor.”

“My pleasure. Take care.” Rodor turned and left. Frustration burned at him. Still he felt better about addressing the issue directly rather than allowing Merlin to take more abuse. Doubt filled his mind about a potential co-existence between sorcerers and anyone else. At that point, he was determined to get back across the Severn as soon as possible.

“Arthur?” Gwen turned toward him.

“Gwen, I don’t want this either!” Arthur protested.

“Then you might want to work with the others.” She frowned. “I’m going to see the others off. I’ll be back.” She hustled out the door in hopes of catching up to their departing guests.

Arthur watched the door close. His ears winced at the loud CLICK as door latch dropped back into position. His lungs struggled to get air. He staggered about the room. Turmoil raged inside of himself. Emotions tugged him in all directions. His mind locked up.

Why was all of this so hard? He was the King. Wasn’t he? He had to fall Duty and Tradition. Yet Gwen incited those infuriating conflicts in him again.

Well done.

He furrowed his brow. He knew the voice well even if his so-called “friends” and “allies” didn’t. He looked to his left and the lingering shadows there.

The cloaked sorceress stepped into view. She’d watched the whole scene with Rodor and Gwen from her vantage point. She sensed his emotional conflict. “You do well to remember your duty.”

“I live to serve, Mistress.” He bowed to her.

“You play your role well. Still I’d remember that this is but an act. Don’t let your feelings for the Servant-Queen muddy your judgment. Just because you seem to be Arthur Pendragon doesn’t mean you are.” Her eyes sparkled crimson with dark ebony flashes.

He squirmed and struggled. Pain’s needles ripped through every fiber and bone in his body. His form shimmered. He shrunk in stature. His hair thinned and turned darker. His skin paled. His teeth turned jagged. His eyes narrowed. “Mistress? Why?” His legs quivered.

She shrugged. “A reminder of your true state of affairs, Troll. Don’t fool yourself. Your service to me is the only reason you’re alive. Betray me and suffer.” She disappeared in a dark flash.

After her departure, the spell lost its potency. The burning lessened in his joints and blood. His head stopped pounding. He growled. “No! NAY!” He brought his fist down on the desk cracking it. He ground his fangs. He focused and resumed the disguise once again.

“Arthur” left the chamber heading for his private suite once more. Duty had chastened him. Still Amor wouldn’t relent in its quest for Gwen either. Regret also panged louder than before over her plans for the others.

The waters churned and had muddied once again. Such was the price of living a lie.

Chapter Text

Conclusion [Two Days Later]
[Whitgate]

Merlin sat under a particularly fragrant trellis of roses. The blooms’ scents eased his pain. They relaxed Tension’s grip on his shoulders. He admired the various blooms and flora all around. Sol’s warmth through the dome invigorated him. How can anyone say magic is evil? Oh yeah. Arthur thinks that way.

Arthur….

He felt Mood deflating like a popped balloon. He shook his head. From Lancelot’s report, Hope seemed bright. He believed that the other royals had convinced Arthur of Coexistence’s benefits. Anticipation cleared the path to success. Perhaps it could work…..

Reality however sank everyone’s hopes...

Still Merlin kept up with Duty’s call. He attended the council meetings. He’d spoken with Lord Brumenwald. He made a proposal to Rodor for future council considerations. He sparred with the knights in the training yard. With Freya’s help, he’d gone to Avalon for advice. He’d deal with \these matters without bothering Mithian. He knew she had enough concerns without his issues.

“Room for one more, Your Princiness?”

Merlin rolled his eyes. He glanced over toward Gawain. “Never thought you’d be wandering in here.”

“I do a lot of wandering you don’t know about.” Mischief lit up Gawain’s grin almost like a flare. “I just don’t tell Brit or Sorie.”

Merlin shook his head. “You? Sneaking off without telling Britomart? Now that’s a surprise.”

Gawain shrugged. “I just learn from the master. You know him. He’s a certain sorcerer who snuck in a promotion around a certain Prat’s double standards. Now he’s hiding from the wife too.”

Merlin coughed. Then he supposed, “You have a message for me?”

“Yeah. Mith’ wants you. Brit knows I’m here. Guess I’m not the one sneaking? Am I?” Gawain jabbed.

Merlin efforted himself to his feet. Guilt shuffled his feet. His pace slowed. Despite his best intentions, he knew another lecture would be forthcoming. He pushed himself through the archway.

“Guess Mith’s no Arthur. Huh?”

“Not helping!” Merlin’s voice admonished.

“I’m on royal business. I’m immune, Your Worship,” Gawain reminded him; Sauciness prompting a big smirk and snarky glint in his eye.

All Merlin could do was shake his head.

 

****

 

[Council Chamber]

Mithian paced about the area. She took a somber draught from her goblet. Consternation burned in her chest. Why doesn’t Merlin trust me? She wondered why he didn’t trust her. She was the more astute politician. She’d proven herself in the arena…or at least thought she had done so. She’d demonstrated that she wasn’t just some fragile flower.

Of course Merlin only wanted to protect her from everything.

He would do that! She was trying to be patient and understanding. Really she was. She knew the dangers he’d faced. She knew about the losses in that regard.

The sorceress’ attack had more than carved that in stone.

I know he wants to protect the world. Still I don’t have to be shut out. I can’t shut him out of the political arena. He has to trust that I can hold my own in his world. She frowned at that notion. At least I can understand his world. She shrugged and took another draught. Then she felt his aura approaching. Speaking of my Prince.

Mithian, are you all right? Merlin called.

Merlin, that’s my question for you. She sighed. Can you come in here?

He peered into the chamber. Seeing her raised eyebrow, he didn’t know what to expect. He eased his way in and closed the door behind himself. “I was thinking in the garden.”

“Brooding you mean.” She raised an eyebrow. “It’s all right, Merlin.” She poured water into a goblet. “You should trust me.”

“I do trust you,” he affirmed.

“Then why are you hiding? Father talked to you about being open. Merlin, you aren’t invincible. You can get hurt. You can be killed. You can’t do everything all by yourself. I can stand by you!”

“I know.” He exhaled. “I just can’t…I….”

“You can’t what? Confide in me? Merlin, I’m not going to go back to Father on a whim with what you say. We are married. I can keep secrets. I will advise you at times to speak to him if that’s what you need to do. Still we have to trust each other,” she pressed.

He flushed bright red. “I just can’t lose you.” He bowed his head. “I can’t lose you.”

“You can’t lose me? I…” Then Realization dawned across her brain on that note. “Freya. Is this because you lost her?”

“Aye. I know you’re capable and strong. So was she. It wasn’t her fault that she was cursed. Still to see Arthur and the knights kill her. I….” He shuddered.

Compassion quelled Anger’s flames within her. She seized him in an embrace. “I understand. Then we both need to be careful. Guess what? I don’t want to lose you either. I’ve waited too long for you to come into my life. The kingdom needs both of us. Britannia needs us. So we watch out for each other?”

“Aye.” Merlin conceded a nod. “I’ll do better.”

“I know. We both have to grow like that.” She smiled. “Maybe you might include me in some garden time?”

He smiled. “On one condition?”

She rolled her eyes. “And that is?”

“If I can arrange a picnic for us and not involve a certain Once and Future Prat?” he supposed.

She coughed. “Of course! I promise not to make you move three times for a great view.”

“And I thought all pushy royals acted that way,” he fired back.

“Keep it up and I just might,” she teased. She took him by the hand and led him into the passage.

At least for the moment, everything seemed to be all right in that part of the world…..

 

****

 

[Avalon]

Freya stepped onto the hidden isle’s damp ground from the mists. Frustration pounded at her temples. Anxiety slowed her reactions. A scouting expedition to Camelot turned up no source for earlier sorcerous energies or continued vibrations therein. No trace of this mystery sorceress could be found for that matter. She’d returned the discarded counselors’ bodies to Whitgate. Gwen’s efforts to soothe Arthur’s vacillating thinking came to naught. Even her efforts to charm and glamour Arthur had failed for some reason.

Most curious indeed….

The goddess can show me something! Certainly she’s discerned this mysterious woman’s identity by now! Even that possibility reinforced Doubt’s hold upon her. She narrowed her eyes. Nonsense! She’ll penetrate whatever disguise that one has! She has to.

Nimue stood by the village path. “Sister, we have a situation. You need to see this to believe it.”

Now what? “What happened? I have spent most of the day pursuing our adversary’s damage.”

“It’s Morgana Pendragon. Just follow me.” Nimue led her toward the village.

As they progressed, Freya’s mind swam through several scenarios. She wondered who would have been able to steal a corpse from their sanctuary. It’s not like Morgana could just get up and walk away. She allowed Nimue a few steps head start.

“This way.” Nimue pushed the door to their hut open. She guided the High Priestess inside. Then she motioned toward the bier.

Freya stared at the now-empty platform. Only the discarded white shroud betrayed any evidence that Tintagel’s Queen had ever been there. “Where is she?”

“I don’t know. She was there an hour ago. I went outside to fetch water. When I returned, she was gone,” Nimue explained.

“And Ninane? Does she know anything?” Freya wondered.

“She’s been with Queen Elena all of that time. None of us could take Morgana’s body without the others or the goddess knowing,” Nimue declared. “Perhaps Emrys might know?”

“He’s in seclusion. The recent expedition to Camelot left him with much to think about. Mithian’s with him now,” Freya disagreed.

“Emrys? Thinking about implications? Truly?” Seeing Freya’s face wrinkle up like a sour prune at that barb, Nimue backed off on that note.

“Another mystery. Just what we need,” Freya supposed. She shook her head.

And with that, another strand had been set in motion. Although not for the purposes supposed.....

 

THE END (for now)