Chapter 1: Through The Looking Glass
One thing was certain, that the white kitten had had nothing to do with it -- it was the red cat's fault entirely. The white kitten, which had been having its face washed by the old cat for the last quarter of an hour (and bearing it pretty well, considering) couldn't possibly have had any hand in the mischief.
Arthur wasn't entirely certain where old Kilgharrah had even found the poor thing. He had simply appeared with it that morning, dragging it inside from the bitter cold and snow by its scruff. Now he was quite content to hold it down by its ear with one paw, and then with the other paw he rubbed his face all over. The white kitten, for its part, was lying quite still and trying to purr -- no doubt feeling that it was all meant for its good.
Arthur gave a great stretch and slumped in his armchair. He plucked up the ball of worsted that had wound the kitten up in a grand game of romps earlier. The white bundle had rolled the ball up and down until it had all come undone into knots and tangles, with the kitten running after its own tail in the middle. Perhaps that was why Kilgharrah was giving it such a thorough washing now. That rough tongue would certainly teach it a lesson.
But now the worsted was restored to its proper shape, and the cats were occupied with each other, and Arthur was utterly, entirely bored. The whole world seemed dull to him these days, as if it was a watercolor that had been left out in the rain. He yearned for something greater, something more than the life his father had laid out for him. It was true that Lord Ector worked hard to provide for his two sons, and that Arthur's older brother Kay was eagerly following in their father's footsteps. But there was no excitement in managing the family estate. There were no surprises, no great foes to be overcome.
There were two things that Arthur liked, and they were entirely opposite to each other in nature: a good scrap and a good book. His father had channeled the former into lessons in fencing and riding and other athletic pursuits, but Lord Ector had little love for fantasies of magic and knights, monsters and kings. Lord Ector had declared that as soon as this coming spring, Arthur might have to be sent down to South Africa to fight against the Boers -- for battle would make short work of any poetry that infested his soul.
And so Arthur was loathe to think of the spring -- and yet he was loathe to think of the winter, too. For this winter had simply gone on too long, and tucked away all the delights of the world under a deep white quilt. It was hardly a wonder that Kilgharrah had taken pity on the kitten, for if it had been left outside for another day it would surely have frozen as solidly as the Thames. Arthur sighed again and turned back to the chessboard and its neat figures. Every one of them had a place and a purpose suited to their nature. A rook did not feel the need to insinuate itself into a game of poker. But the white and red pieces were each whole families, just as the hearts and clubs of a set of playing cards. None of them were orphans, as Arthur was; they were not foundlings taken in like a lost kitten from the snow.
Arthur tossed the worsted ball onto the rug, and the kitten mewled and struggled out of Kilgharrah's grasp. It lunged after the ball, its sharp tail stiff with excitement, and immediately tangled itself up again. Arthur shook his head and laughed. "You are an utter disgrace," he told it, but the kitten only blinked its blue eyes and went back to its conquest of the terrible, beastly yarn.
"Here," Arthur said, turning to Kilgharrah, who was studiously cleaning his paw. "You take red, and I'll play white." He nudged the chessboard towards the cat, but Kilgharrah only washed his head instead of taking a proper interest in the game. Sometimes Kilgharrah would watch the chess board with intense interest, and seemed to understand -- even purring when Arthur declared checkmate against Kay! The queen might be the most powerful, and the king the most valuable, but Arthur's favorite piece was the knight, that bold defender that jumped over its enemies and snuck past enemy lines.
"Well, if you're going to be like that," Arthur said, and turned away. He began playing on his own, switching back and forth between white and red until he had checkmated himself. He lay his king down in victorious defeat and then reset the board. He stood and stretched, and looked around for something to do.
To his surprise, both cat and kitten had disappeared, and the tangled worsted lay abandoned on the rug. "Kilgharrah?" he called, as he searched the house, leaving the warmth of the study's fire behind. It seemed that the old cat had got some mischief into his head, dragging the kitten out to where it might catch a chill, when it was just recovered from its tenure in the snow. But all the doors were locked, and the windows closed, and there were no footprints in the snow outside. Their disappearance only spurred Arthur's curiosity, and at last he found himself up in the attic, peering among the boxes and dustcloths.
Arthur had never had much reason to be up in the attic, which was cold and dark and generally unappealing. All the more reason to find the kitten and bring it safely back to the warm study. A quiet mewl caught his ear, and he fumbled his way towards the back. He saw a flutter of movement, and pulled away a dustcloth to reveal a standing mirror -- and there, in the reflection, was the kitten. He turned, naturally assuming that it would be behind him, but it was gone -- yet when he looked back again, the kitten was still there. It mewled again, and Arthur stared in confusion. Was this some sort of illusion? He looked around the mirror, but the back was solid wood.
"How did you get in there?" he asked, and wondered if perhaps he was dreaming, and was in truth drowsing in the armchair in the study. But a pinch to his arm felt real enough. He reached out and touched the mirror, and a strange shiver went all through him. When it stopped, the kitten was gone! Alarmed, he turned around, and was relieved to see that the kitten was at last back where it belonged. He picked it up and gave it a bop on the nose for being so troublesome, then petted it to make up for the bop. There was no sign of Kilgharrah, but the old cat could take care of himself. Perhaps he had gone to rescue another orphan from the snow.
Yet as Arthur returned downstairs, he was startled by the bright daylight streaming in through the windows, which was particularly odd as it had been evening when he'd left the study. As his eyes adjusted, he discovered to his great astonishment that in the few minutes he had been upstairs, the cold winter night had transformed into a sunny summer day! Perhaps he was asleep after all, despite the pinch. He had certainly dreamed of skipping spring entirely.
Yet as he walked outside, he felt awake, perhaps more awake than he had even been. Nothing was washed-out or dull; instead every blade of grass, every fluffy cloud, every gently waving leaf was more vivid and alive than any he had ever seen. It was all too much to take in at once, and so he did not try, but merely walked along the twisting path and up the hill, all the while staring in wonder.
The white kitten mewled and wriggled in his arms, so Arthur let it perch on his shoulder as he walked. "We're going to have to give you a name," he told it. "How about Snowflake?" The kitten gave a scornful hiss and kneaded its sharp little claws through Arthur's shirt. "Ouch! All right, not Snowflake."
As they followed the path, Arthur became aware that someone -- many someones -- were whispering and giggling nearby. And yet he saw no one, only the twittering birds and the gentle wind. Bright flowers nodded their heads as he passed, and on a whim he reached down to pick one, thinking to put it in his buttonhole. But as he gripped the stem, the daisy shrieked, and Arthur fell back in alarm, nearly causing the kitten to topple from its perch.
"How rude!" sniffed a yellow tulip.
"Well, I never!" declared an orange tiger lily.
"You can talk!" exclaimed Arthur.
"Of course we can talk," said the lily. "When there's someone worth talking to."
Arthur was so astonished that he could not speak for a moment; it quite seemed to take his breath away. At last he asked, cautiously, "Can all flowers talk?"
"As well as you can," said the lily. "And a great deal louder."
"'It isn't manners for us to begin, you know," said a rose, "and I really was wondering when you'd speak! Said I to myself, 'His face has got some sense in it, though it's not a clever one!' Still, you're the right colour, and that goes a long way."
"I don't care about the colour," the lily remarked. "If only his petals curled up a little more, he'd be all right."
Being criticized for being insufficiently flower-like was too much for Arthur on top of everything else. "If you don't hold your tongues, I'll pick you!"
There was silence in a moment, and several of the pink daisies turned white.
The kitten was gripping into Arthur with its claws, quite agitated by all the hubbub, and so he took it down into its arms and petted it, soothing himself as much as the kitten. "Are there any more people in the garden besides me?"
"Oh yes," said the rose. "Sometimes there are flowers that walk past, all red and silver. It's really quite remarkable, how they can do that."
"You're always wondering," said the lily.
"Red and silver?"
"With the same awkward shape as you," added the rose.
"Where do I find them?"
"They're coming!" cried a larkspur. "I hear their footsteps, thump, thump, thump, along the gravel-walk!"
There was a commotion among the daisies, and Arthur turned around to see a line of men marching up the path behind him. It seemed wiser not to be seen by them, and so he ducked behind a nearby willow tree.
"Oh!" cried the rose, and then all the flowers closed up all their petals in alarm, pulling them together until they were almost back to bud.
Arthur peered through the willow-branches, wide-eyed, for here were the very knights from his books! Their mail and helmets were gleaming steel and they wore vivid red capes, and every man had a sword at his side. What was odd was that they were also carrying cans of red paint in one hand, and brushes in the other. For every length of the troop, they would stop, turn to the flowers that lined the path, and then proceed to paint them red!
As soon as they passed, Arthur exclaimed, "What nonsense!"
The flowers carefully unfurled themselves, shaking off the wet paint. Many of them were quite agitated. The knights had even painted the rose, which was already red to begin with. It seemed quite unfair to Arthur, to cover a lovely red rose with red paint.
"I'll go after them," Arthur said, stepping out from behind the willow. "I shall put a stop to this at once."
"You can't possibly do that," said the Rose, as it groomed flecks of paint from its calyx."I should advise you to walk the other way."
"If you fight, you'll only end up plucked yourself," warned the lily.
But Arthur was determined. Even if the flowers were quite annoying, they didn't deserve to be covered in paint. "I'm a person, not a flower," he told them. Not to mention the fact that he was easily able to defend himself. If he could get his hands on some armor and a sword, he would be a match for any of those knights. And as the knights did not speak to one another, and the helmets obscured their faces, perhaps he could be just that.
He put the kitten down the amongst the daisies and told it, sternly, "You stay here, and don't get into any more mischief. Is that understood?"
The kitten mewled, rolled over onto its back, and tried to catch its tail.
Arthur trailed after the knights, and it wasn't long before they stopped by a stream and dispersed to drink and to relieve themselves. Arthur spotted one his size going off on his own, and Arthur knocked him out and disrobed him. Once dressed in the stolen armor, Arthur blended in with the knights and joined them on their march. But he made sure to whisper apologies to the flowers when he had to paint them.
The parade of knights ran through the town and up into the castle courtyard, where human and non-human townspeople were gathered around a platform. High above, there were more knights on a balcony, and then a man came forth upon it. He must be a king, for he bore a golden crown upon his head; he was clothed in brown leather and the same red cloak as the knights. An old grey rabbit followed after him; he was tall as a man and dressed in robes and wearing spectacles. He carried a large dish of tarts upon it: they looked so good, that it made Arthur quite hungry to look at them.
Down below, a man was led up onto the platform in chains. He had smears of jam on his face and crumbs on his shirt. A man-sized racoon stood beside him, with an axe slung over its shoulder. It was an execution!
The grey rabbit stepped forward, cleared his throat, and announced: "His Imperial Highness, His Grace, His Excellency, His Royal Majesty, King Uther!"
The king stepped forth and declared, with a booming voice: "The King of Hearts, he made some tarts, all on a summer day. But Thomas Collins stole those tarts, and took them quite away! And by laws of Camelot, I, Uther Pendragon, have decreed that such practices are banned on penalty of death. I pride myself as a fair and just king, but for the crime of tart thievery, there is but one sentence I can pass. Off with his head!"
The raccoon executioner raised his axe, and down it went with a great, wet thump!
"How dreadfully savage!" muttered Arthur, quite dismayed. The poor man had only eaten a few tarts. He had probably not even been given a fair trial. Fair and just indeed! But what could one expect of a kingdom where knights spent their days painting flowers?
"Off with his head!" cried the King again. "Off with his head!"
"But sire," said the old grey rabbit, cautiously. "His head is already off."
"Oh," said the King. "So it is. Excellent!" He thrust out his hand, and a teacup was placed into it, and it was immediately filled with wine. He drank deeply.
The old grey rabbit consulted a scroll. "If it pleases your Majesty, there is still the matter of the Jabberwock--"
The King threw his teacup to the ground, where it smashed against the stone. "The Jabberwock! Where? Where?" He looked to and fro. "Off with its head! Off with its head at once!"
The rabbit gave a resigned sigh. "The Jabberwock hunt, sire."
"The hunt!" cried the King, and spread his arms in welcome to his subjects. "Today we shall commence a great purge! Today we shall end the tyranny of the tart-snatchers! For too long, proud Camelot has been without an heir. Whoever brings to me the head of the Jabberwocky shall be the next King of Camelot!"
Well, this was just the sort of adventure that Arthur had always longed for. With one fell swoop of his sword, he would destroy this dangerous Jabberwock and rescue the kingdom from its mad king. Dream or not, it was all very exciting.
As the crowd dispersed, one of the knights took off his helmet and stepped in front of the men; his red hair and beard gleamed like copper in the sun. "Those who do not wish to fight can do so without stain on their character. For those brave enough to volunteer should know, the chances of returning are slim, for the forest of the Jabberwock is full of many terrible beasts. Go kill the Jabberwock, but fear the jaws that bite, the claws that catch! Destroy the Jubjub bird, and spear the frumious Bandersnatch!"
Arthur stepped forward, as did perhaps a dozen others. They knelt and raised their swords in pledge, and Arthur copied them.
"Excellent!" declared the King, and had another cup of wine.
Birds flew overhead, scrawny parrots with high beaks and very disarrayed feathers. They came across another creature that looked even more like a badger, except it also looked like a lizard, and even more like a corkscrew.
"This is a very strange place," Arthur said."How will we know a Jubjub bird or a Bandersnatch or even a Jabberwock when we see them, when the forest is full of odd creatures?"
All the knights turned and looked at him, then at each other. They raised their visors, and Sir Leon said, "You're not George. Show yourself, knave!"
Arthur lifted his visor. "I am no knave!"
Sir Leon threatened him with his sword. "What have you done to Sir George? This is his armor."
"He let me borrow it," Arthur lied, deciding that discretion was the better part of valor. "He decided that the daisies were insufficiently red and needed more painting, and lent me his armor so that I might fight against the Jabberwock and save Camelot."
Sir Leon narrowed his eyes suspiciously, then suddenly relaxed. "That does sound like George. He's so dull he makes jokes about paint. I was rather surprised to see him volunteer."
"Then you'll let me fight?" Arthur asked.
"Camelot needs brave men," Sir Leon said. "You have come with us this far. With that, you have already proved your worth. As for the beasts, you will know the Jubjub bird by its cry and the Bandersnatch by its long neck. But none have met the Jabberwock and survived, so we must track it by its fewmets."
They lowered their visors and continued on, deeper into the forest. Eerie and menacing sounds echoed through the trees, and the knights started at every waving branch. The cry of the Jubjub bird was heard, but it flew too high for them to reach. One knight climbed a Tumtum tree to reach it, but met a foul end: the bird attacked with mighty claws and chomping beak, and the only part of the knight that returned to them was his head.
The surviving knights fled on, for it was the Jabberwock's head they needed, and they had no desire to lose their own. Arthur decided that it was not a dream that he was having, but a nightmare, and he would quite like to wake up now. He pinched himself again, very hard, but the ground and the forest remained quite solid. He was forced to consider that this might not even be a nightmare. In which case...
A terrible howl shook the trees, like sixty hounds barking and growling at once. What manner of beast could be capable of such thunder? And then he saw it, a black shape amongst the darkness: the huge bulk of the Jabberwock. It had eyes of flame, the head and neck of a cobra, the body of a leopard, and the haunches of a lion, and was easily as tall as seven men. One knight succumbed to his fear and ran, only to be grabbed by another creature with a long neck -- surely the Bandersnatch! -- and eaten whole. The rest held their ground, waiting for Leon's signal, and then attacked, lunging at the Jabberwock with swords raised.
Arthur slashed at the Jabberwock's leg with his sword, but despite the fierceness of his blow, the leg was unharmed -- the sword had glanced off it harmlessly! The other knights were in the same predicament, and soon the Jabberwock made short work of them, biting and slashing with its terrible claws. Arthur ran beneath the beast to stab its vulnerable stomach, but the beast was bothered by the tickle of his blade and reached up to scratch it, slicing through the armor and raking Arthur's back. Arthur screamed, and as his back throbbed in agony, he felt the rush of poison in his veins.
As he dragged himself away from the monster, he glanced back and saw that all his companions had fallen. His vision began to fade, and the last thought he had was for the poor kitten, and the dangerous world he had abandoned it to.
He was further surprised when he opened his eyes to find that he was not snug in his own bed, but lying on a cot in a tent in a forest! He sat up in alarm, only to wince in pain. He inspected himself and found that his knightly armor was gone, and he had been dressed in peasant clothes. Beneath his new shirt, his back was bandaged, and he felt the stiffness of healing skin.
Arthur contemplated if it was possible to wake up within a dream, and he supposed that it was. Yet after all that he had experienced in Camelot, he was forced to accept that this was not a dream at all. Though he had longed for such an adventure all his life, now he felt a great longing for home, for the mundanities of schooling and work. For a simple game of chess by the hearth on a cold winter's night. He felt that he had been tested in the forest and had failed.
Cautiously he peered out of the tent. Just as in the town and the castle, the people here were a mix of human and animal kind, though these were dressed in simple robes. While it was a fair guess to say that they were somehow responsible for his survival, the reality of this world made Arthur far more cautious than he had been. He waited until the coast was clear, and then crept over to the next tent. There he found Sir Leon, but he was in a poor state indeed, his bare chest bandaged and his skin pallid. Arthur tried to shake him awake, but he did not stir.
Arthur turned abruptly -- which quite dizzied him -- and found one of the robed men at the other end of the tent. He had dark skin and a bald head, and in contrast to almost everyone else Arthur had met so far, he had an air of calm about him.
"Yes," he said, glancing around for a weapon, in case he should need one. But the man kept his distance.
"I am Aglain," the man said. "And you are?"
"It is an honor to meet you, Arthur," Aglain said, with a nod. "Few have entered the Tulgey Forest and survived."
"I suspect I have you to thank for that," Arthur said, and looked to Sir Leon. "You saved us?"
"We saved those that we could," Aglain said, with a tinge of sadness. "Five men, including yourself. Your injuries were the lightest. We should leave the others to rest and heal."
It seemed that Arthur had finally stumbled onto the only sane people in the entire kingdom. He allowed himself to be escorted out, and was introduced to a large, anthropomorphic tortoise.
The tortoise's name was Iseldir; he was the leader of the group, and he hobbled very slowly. He had white hair and a pair of spectacles perched on his nose. The spectacles actually perched, as they had long, backwards-bending legs like a stork, with which they gripped the tortoise's earless head.
"Thank you for your help," Arthur said. "Do you, perhaps, know the way out?"
"Out?" asked Iseldir, with a slow blink.
"Out of Camelot," Arthur explained. "Only I'd quite like to go home. I came in accidentally, you see, though a mirror."
The tortoise gave him a long look, then blinked again. "Do not be afraid. We know your quest."
"But I don't have a quest," Arthur insisted. "I only want to go home."
"If a fish came to me, and told me he was going on a journey, I should say 'With what porpoise?'"
"Don't you mean "purpose"?' asked Arthur.
"I mean what I say," Iseldir replied, in an amused tone. "To find your home, you must seek the Mad Emrys."
"But I don't want to go among mad people," Arthur protested. He'd had his fill of mad people already.
"Oh, you can't help that," said Iseldir. "We're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad."
"How do you know I'm mad?" asked Arthur.
"You must be," said Iseldir, "or you wouldn't have come here."
"Very well," Arthur said, resigned. "Which way do I go?" He expected some arduous journey, if his books were any guide. A challenge to hone his noble soul, taking him over mountains and against fearsome adversaries. The idea would have been enticing only hours ago.
"He's over there," said Aglain, and he pointed to a clearing a little ways past the tents.
"One piece of advice," Iseldir said, calling after Arthur as he stomped away. "You must remember that it's no use going back to yesterday, because you were a different person then."
As the two saw him, they straightened from their easy poses.
"There's no room," said the boy, grumpily.
"No room?" said Arthur, looking at the mostly empty seats. He pulled one out and sat down. "There's plenty of room."
"Have some wine," said the bearded man, in an encouraging tone.
Arthur looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. "I don't see any wine."
"Must have drank it all," said the man.
"Then it wasn't very civil of you to offer it," said Arthur, annoyed. It seemed that there were two mad people he had to deal with instead of one. He could only be grateful that the dormouse was asleep, for awake who knew what sort of trouble it might bring?
"It wasn't very civil of you to come without being invited," said the man.
"I was invited!" protested Arthur, stomping his foot. "That giant tortoise sent me here."
"Do I know you?" asked the boy. He had been looking at Arthur for some time with barely hidden curiosity.
"Er, I'm Arthur," Arthur said, and held out his hand.
"So I don't know you," said the boy.
"You're the Mad Emrys," Arthur guessed.
"Only my friends call me mad," said Emrys, severely.
"I'd never have a friend who could be such an ass!" said Arthur.
"Or I one who could be so stupid," replied Emrys. The agitation made his ears redden, and they were already unfortunate enough, with how they stuck out. The brim of his hat could not get past them.
"You should learn not to make personal remarks," Arthur said. "It's very rude." He couldn't see what help this Emrys could possibly be anyway. That would teach him to take advice from a giant tortoise.
Emrys opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he said was, "When do a head and a tail make a whole?"
"Oh, it's riddles now?" Arthur said. "I believe I can guess that."
"Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?" said the bearded man.
"Exactly so," said Arthur. He had always been good with riddles.
"Then you should say what you mean."
Arthur wasn't going to be put up with being insulted by a man without any name, and with such ridiculously silky hair. "And you are?"
"Gwaine. And this snoring lump is Mordred. Say hello, Mordred." Gwaine filled a spoon from his teacup and poured the tea into the teapot.
The little dormouse shook himself, creaked open his eyes, and tiredly began to sing: "Vengeance, vengeance, little king, how I wonder when you'll swing. Far above your head will fly, like a tea-cup in the sky." He then immediately passed out again, and fell completely into the teapot.
"Let him sleep," said Emrys, and replaced the lid.
"What could a dormouse want revenge for?" marvelled Arthur.
"The Red King executed his parents," said Gwaine. "They made the mistake of nibbling on one of his precious tarts, and then..." He drew his finger across his throat.
"How savage!" And yet Arthur couldn't help but wonder why, if eating the King's tarts was so dangerous, everyone kept stealing them. "Why did they do it?"
Emrys gave him a scolding look. "That cruel King has outlawed tarts for everyone but himself. But one cannot have tea without tarts!"
Arthur looked at the heavily-laden table, and saw whole trays of the forbidden food. "But you have tarts. Plenty of them!"
"Clean cup!" cried Emrys, suddenly. "Clean cup, move down!"
"Clean cup, move down!" echoed Gwaine, and the two of them jumped from their chairs and moved to the other end of the table.
"Don't avoid the question," Arthur chided, and followed after them to a new seat of his own.
"I found more wine!" Gwaine said, holding up a bottle triumphantly. "Have some more," he offered, with a toss of his hair.
"I've had nothing yet," Arthur replied in an offended tone, "so I can't take more."
"You mean you can't take less," said Emrys. "It's very easy to take more than nothing."
"Nobody asked your opinion."
"Who's making personal remarks now?" Emrys asked triumphantly.
Arthur did not quite know what to say to this, so he helped himself to some tea and bread-and-butter. "Iseldir said you could help me get home."
"Perhaps after tea time is over."
"When is that?"
"It's always tea time," said Gwaine, after he yanked the cork out with his teeth. He spat it away and filled his cup. "Why do you think we have such a big table?"
"This way we don't have to wash anything," added Emrys.
"You just keep moving around? But what happens when you come to the beginning again?"
Emrys opened his mouth to answer, but Gwaine interrupted him. "Suppose we change the subject," he said, giving Emrys a warning glance. "Have you guessed the riddle yet?"
"No, I give up," Arthur replied. "What's the answer?"
"I haven't the slightest idea," said Gwaine, barely disguising his smirk.
Emrys sniggered from behind his teacup.
Arthur was growing quite tired of their nonsense. "I think you might do something better with the time," he said, standing up, "than waste it in asking riddles that have no answers. Can you help me or not?"
"I vote that you tell us a story," said Emrys. He smiled with his lips pressed together and fluttered his eyelashes.
"I'll take that as a no," Arthur replied, and turned on his heel and stomped away. Conversing with them was like talking in circles -- like their tea party, going around and around forever. Behind him, he heard Emrys and Gwaine talking to each other, but Arthur paid them no mind; nor did he return to the Druids. Instead he walked down to the nearby stream and sat down on the bank to think.
When he had stumbled into this strange land, he had thought it a chance to finally live the life he had dreamed of -- that of a brave and noble knight, saving a kingdom from dire peril. Yet he had failed to defeat the Jabberwock and failed to stop the mad king. He could find his way back to the flower garden and step back through the mirror and accept that his dream had only ever been that. He was only a visitor here; owed these mad people nothing.
The sensible thing, the logical thing, would be to go back home. Perhaps the madness of Camelot was infectious, for he did not feel much like being sensible or logical; yet he trembled at the thought of facing the terrible Jabberwock again.
"Gwaine said I ought to apologize."
Arthur turned to find that Emrys had followed after him, and that the boy did not look overly pleased at having done so. "Out of the two of you, it would be difficult to say who has the worse manners."
"Oh, Gwaine, definitely," Emrys said, and sat himself down uninvited. Away from the table, Arthur could see that Emrys was as tall as he, but not as robust. Emrys removed his absurd hat so that he could pick at the feathers, and with it removed -- and without his earlier scowl -- the boy was not unhandsome, with his dark hair and sharp cheekbones, and his pink, pursed lips -- but here Arthur turned away.
"I still want to hear your story," Emrys said, almost shyly. "You're not like the other knights."
"That's because I'm not a knight," Arthur admitted. "I wanted an adventure, so I pretended."
This had a transformative effect on Emrys. "You're not one of the king's men?" he asked, staring in surprise.
Arthur shook his head. "If you mean King Uther, definitely not. And I would not be a knight for any king so cruel. That is why I volunteered to slay the Jabberwock. Whoever returns with the Jabberwock's head inherits the throne."
Emrys broke out into a wide grin. "Why didn't you say so in the first place? Of course I'll help you with that. Few would be as glad as I to see the mad king lose his throne -- or his head!"
Arthur thought of Mordred the dormouse. "Did he have your parents executed as well?"
"Uther is why I am trapped here with the Druids. I must stay hidden until I am of age, for I am the Emrys."
"Emrys isn't your name?" Arthur asked, confused.
"My name is Merlin," Emrys -- Merlin explained. "I am the Lord Emrys, and like my mother, when I come of age I shall be the Lord of Tarts. She is the Lady of Tarts. The king has imprisoned her in his castle and forces her to make delicious tarts for him and him alone."
That explained how Merlin and Gwaine had tarts when the rest of the kingdom did not. He felt a pang of sympathy for the boy, for losing his mother. "How long has she been held?"
"All my life," Merlin said, sadly. "The king was not always mad -- or so they say, for his madness came into this world before me. I was born in the royal kitchens, and was a prisoner there with my mother, baking by her side until the day I was smuggled out. For years I have remained here with the Druids, waiting until I was old enough to go back and rescue her."
"Surely you are old enough now."
Merlin turned sour again. "Gwaine doesn't think so. He won't let me leave, not until my five thousandth, eight-hundreth and twenty-fifth unbirthday."
Arthur blinked at him. "Your what?"
"You don't know what an unbirthday is? How silly! It's very simple," Merlin explained. "Every year you have only one birthday, yes?"
"But there are three hundred and sixty-four unbirthdays to get presents on! That's much better than just one."
It was all so utterly ridiculous, and yet something in Arthur warmed to the idea -- or perhaps it was just because of how Merlin looked when he smiled. "Well then, today is my unbirthday, too!"
"What a small world," Merlin said, with a conspiratorial smile. "And how many unbirthdays have you had?"
Arthur calculated in his head. "Six thousand, three hundred and fifty-nine."
"Why, then you're old enough to fight," said Merlin, and there was a devious air about him. "What do you say to taking up your sword again?"
"I didn't do a very good job of it the first time," Arthur said. He had a suspicion about what Merlin was up to, and was torn between encouragement and discouragement. "It would be foolish to go up against the king alone."
"Not the king," said Merlin, with an impatient wiggle. "The Jabberwock!"
Arthur stared at him. "You truly are mad! That beast laid a dozen strong knights to waste!"
"That's because you went about it the wrong way." Merlin dropped his voice to a low whisper and leaned close. "They say that there is a creature that knows how the Jabberwock can be slain."
"If that is so, then why has the king not already captured him and found the answer for himself?" Arthur challenged.
"Because he lives in the Tulgey Forest," Merlin replied, undaunted. "The king has sent men in there before. It is only thanks to the Druids that any ever survive, for they know the ways of the woods. I have spent many years in their company, and I can lead us safely through."
Arthur couldn't quite believe that he was actually considering Merlin's absurd plan. Walking back into that terrifying forest, on a wild goose chase after a creature who might not even be there at all. It was almost certain death. But it was an adventure, and it was a chance to succeed where he had failed. Perhaps he could live his dream after all.
"Very well," Arthur said, grudgingly lest Merlin get overly excited. "When do we leave?"
"Tonight," Merlin said, an eager gleam in his eyes. "We'll sneak out tonight, once everyone is asleep. The Jabberwock's head will soon be ours!"
Chapter 2: The Vorpal Sword
If Arthur had thought the Tulgey Forest to be terrifying in the daytime, it was a sunny picnic compared to how terrifying it was in the middle of the night. Eerie sounds echoed through the darkness, sometimes from afar and sometimes seeming to come from just over his shoulder. Strange creatures crawled and fluttered past, like moonlit hallucinations: butterflies made of bread and butter; a flock of birds made of spectacles and others with mirrors for eyes; rocking-horseflies and snapdragonflies. He nearly stepped on a family of living bicycle horns, scattering them as Merlin pulled him away at the last moment -- but their angry honking as they swam away disturbed a colony of frogs with bodies of various percussion instruments and a flock of umbrella birds. Together they made an unholy racket, and Arthur was afraid it would draw the Jabberwock right to them -- a distinct possibility, from Merlin's glaring.
They held their breaths as they waited, then continued on. Merlin had been telling the truth about his ability to navigate the maze of a forest, and Arthur found himself taking Merlin's hand so that he could be safely guided through the darkness -- even though Arthur was the one with a sword.
They stopped to rest in a hollowed-out tree, and had tea and sandwiches as they watched the wildlife pass them by. A creature with a shovel for a head snuffled by, digging holes and then dismissing them as unsatisfactory. A large bird with a birdcage body ran by, chasing after two small canaries; the canaries appeared in the cage once they had been swallowed, apparently unharmed. An owl flew past, but it was like no owl Arthur had ever seen, with an accordion for a neck that wheezed between its hooting calls.
"This place doesn't make very much sense," Arthur whispered.
"It makes sense to me," Merlin said, which seemed a sensible enough response, given that Merlin probably didn't even know what it was to be sensible.
They had left Gwaine and the Druids a note, presumably so they wouldn't worry -- though Arthur suspected that it would only make them worry more. But what was done was done, and they had a quest to complete and a kingdom to save. Gwaine seemed the noble sort, despite his rough edges, and he would probably understand and not attempt to behead Arthur personally for running off with his charge.
"How do you know we're going the right way?" Arthur asked, as they set out again.
"It has to be the right way," Merlin said. "It's the way we're going."
"But that doesn't make any sense!" Arthur hissed, suddenly even more aware of the fact that they were deep in the heart of a forest full of strange and lethal creatures. "Are you telling me we're just wandering aimlessly?"
"Of course not," Merlin said, annoyed. "We're following the path. The path wouldn't be there if it led the wrong way."
"That is the most absurd, ridiculous thing I've ever heard, and I've heard a lot of nonsense since I came here," Arthur said, working up a good head of steam. "No wonder Gwaine didn't want you wandering off on your own. You're going to have ten thousand unbirthdays before you have a single sensible thought in your head!"
Merlin narrowed his eyes, pursed his lips, turned on his heel and stomped off into the woods. Arthur ran after him in alarm, but he was barely able to follow the path in the darkness. "Merlin!" he hissed, angry and worried. "Merlin!"
But it was Arthur who was in trouble, as he stopped in his tracks. Another strange creature had appeared, this one a dog with a broom for a head -- and it was sweeping away the path! Arthur gaped at it as it erased the path before him, and then waddled around to the other side to erase the way he had come, leaving him on a single, useless square of path.
Warily, he stepped off the path and kept going, whispering for Merlin as he fumbled his way through the darkness and the dense trees. He wasn't certain if he was more worried for Merlin or for himself.
Among the cries and crunches of the forest, Arthur suddenly heard a humming. "Merlin?" he called, but as the voice drew clearer, he realized that it was not Merlin he was hearing, for the voice was far too deep. He followed it, knowing full well that it might be luring him to his doom, and saw a gleam of light up in the branches. At first he thought it was the moon, but then the crescent of light swung down and resolved into a smile -- a very large, toothy smile. Two cat-like eyes appeared above the smile, one and then the other, and they focused upon Arthur.
"How small you are, for such a great destiny," rumbled the smile.
Arthur drew his sword. "Show yourself!"
The smile chuckled, and began to hum again, then sang in its deep, rumbling voice: "Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe..." As it sang, a shape faded into view around the smile, and Arthur stepped back in fear: it was a monstrous creature, perched impossibly on a thick branch. It had great, leathery wings and a fearsome maw, and yet -- quite unexpectedly for a dragon -- it also had a soft red coat of fur, triangular ears, and a twitching tail. It stretched, its talons extending, and then sheathing themselves into their respective paws.
Beneath his terror, some part of Arthur niggled, for there was something familiar about the beast. Having already seen so many impossible things, Arthur dared a guess aloud: "Kilgharrah?"
The dragon-cat gave a deep, rumbling purr of delight. "There may be hope for you yet, young Arthur."
Arthur wasn't sure if he should be relieved to find an old friend, or alarmed that his pet cat had turned into a dragon. "What are you doing here? What happened to you?"
"Why, I'm here because you're here," Kilgharrah said.
Arthur shook his head. "This is all wrong. You're supposed to be a cat, not a dragon!"
"There is no right or wrong, only what is and what isn't."
Arthur glared at his erstwhile lap cat, and sheathed his sword. "You're just as bad as everyone else here." He looked past the dragon and its tree perch, hoping that perhaps Merlin had seen the light and been drawn by it.
"Lose something?" asked Kilgharrah.
"As a matter of fact, I have. I don't suppose you can help me find him? His name is Merlin, he's about yea high, wears a silly hat, and he's mad -- but then so is everyone here."
Kilgharrah chuckled. "Tell me, young Arthur: when do a head and a tail make a whole?"
"That riddle again," Arthur said. "Does everyone here tell the same riddle?"
"Find Merlin, and you will find the answer... and your destiny," rumbled Kilgharrah, and he began to fade away.
"What do you mean? What destiny? Wait!"
Kilgharrah stopped fading. "Yes?"
"Merlin was helping me find someone who knows how to slay the Jabberwock. If I can find him, I can find Merlin."
"I think you'll find it's the other way round," Kilgharrah said.
Arthur turned, and found that Merlin was right behind him, staring in awe at Kilgharrah. "Merlin! Are you all right?"
"You found him," Merlin said, breathlessly. "You found the Cheshire Dragon."
"The what?" Arthur said. "That's Kilgharrah. My cat. At least, he used to be."
"O Great Dragon," Merlin said, dropping to one knee. "Please tell us, how can we defeat the Jabberwock?"
"Only the light of the sun can aide you," rumbled Kilgharrah, and he began to hum his song again.
"The light of the sun?" Arthur asked, baffled. "What does that mean? Where do we go?"
"Well, that depends on where you want to get to."
"But we don't know that!"
"Then it really doesn't matter which way you go," smirked Kilgharrah, and he faded out completely.
"Wait!" Both Merlin and Arthur cried out together, but Kilgharrah and his smile were gone, leaving only his humming moving through the air.
"Oh!" echoed Kilgharrah's voice. "If you'd really like to know, the Isle of the Blessed is that way." And then suddenly a path appeared where none had been at all. And that was the last they saw or heard of Kilgharrah.
Arthur stood dumbstruck, and only returned to himself when Merlin pulled him by the arm. "Come on, there's no time to waste!"
Arthur let himself be pulled along, and in his daze he nearly stepped right on another one of the forest creatures. He stopped himself in time, but lost his balance and fell. A quiet mew made him look up, and there on the path was the white kitten!
"I'm glad you're not a dragon," Arthur said, scooping it up. "What are you doing out here? I told you to stay in the garden."
The kitten gave another plaintive mew.
"What did you mean," Merlin asked, as the kitten tumbled in his lap, "when you said the Cheshire Dragon was your cat? I thought you didn't like nonsense." The last he said rather tartly -- and not the sort of tart that went with tea. It was clear that despite Merlin's enamour of the kitten -- and the fact that they had reached the next stage of their quest -- he was still upset.
"It wasn't nonsense," Arthur countered, trying not to be defensive himself. "It's Kilgharrah's fault I'm here in the first place. He tricked me into passing through that looking-glass, I'm certain of it."
"Why would he do that?"
"Why does anyone here do anything?" Even as the words left his mouth, Arthur knew it was the wrong thing to say. Merlin turned even more stubborn, and the tips of his ears flushed pink.
"If you don't like it here, maybe you should just go home," Merlin fumed.
"Maybe I should," Arthur replied. He certainly didn't have any reason to stay in this mad kingdom. He would help Merlin complete their quest and slay the Jabberwock. Then he would go back through the looking-glass and home, where everything was normal and flowers couldn't talk and cats didn't turn into dragons.
They sat in silence for a while, as the kitten claimed victory over the feather. Merlin surrendered it, then made a whistling call that sounded like a teakettle. It drew the attention of one of the cagebirds, which ambled over and lowered itself to the ground. Merlin pulled a handful of seeds from his pocket and fed the canaries, and in return the cagebird let him pluck one of its plumey feathers, which he tucked into the brim of his hat.
"Camelot has always made sense to me," Merlin said. "Perhaps it's your world that's nonsense."
Merlin put the kitten onto his shoulder and stood. The canaries twittered happily as the cagebird ambled back into the trees. Arthur stood and joined him as they walked out onto the rolling hills, following the winding path.
"Perhaps this is just my dream," Arthur said. "Though I don't know why I would be dreaming all of this."
"Perhaps you are only a thing in my dream," Merlin challenged. "And when I wake up, you'll go out -- bang -- just like a candle!"
"I would not!" Arthur said, then had a better thought. "But if I was such a thing, what would you be? Hmm?"
"Exactly what I am now," Merlin said, undeterred. "Though perhaps that would explain it."
Merlin reached up and rubbed the kitten's ear. "Why I'm mad."
"I don't think you're mad," Arthur said, but Merlin gave him a look for that. "Well, maybe a little mad. But you're one of the least mad people here."
"That's just it," Merlin said. "I've never quite fit in, you see. Everyone else is exactly as mad as the other, but I'm not. That's why they call me the Mad Emrys."
Merlin was the sanest person in Camelot, and therefore he was the one to be called mad. It was exactly the opposite of how it should be, which meant it made complete sense by the rules of this place. "Why are you different, then?"
"I don't know," Merlin admitted. "I've always been this way. My mother did her best to teach me to hide it, so I could fit in, but that only changed how I was outside. That's why I like the riddle."
"When do a head and a tail make a whole?
Merlin nodded. "That's how I feel. Like a half without a whole. Like Tweedledee without Tweedledum." He smiled. "You wouldn't be able to stand them at all. When this is over, we should--" He stopped, his smile fading as he remembered that Arthur would not be staying after their quest was over.
"I could stay for a little while longer," Arthur offered. It wasn't as though he needed to get back in a hurry, with his father and brother away. "I'll tell you a secret. I've never felt like I fit in at home, either."
"Oh?" Merlin looked interested, and it coaxed Arthur to share more.
"My father -- my adoptive father -- he always says I have my head in the clouds. I've always longed for an adventure."
"And now you have one." Merlin gave a shy smile.
"I do," Arthur said, smiling back. "Maybe I can help you find the answer to your riddle. Kilgharrah seemed to think that we would be able to find it if we were together."
"Do you really think so?" Merlin asked, cautiously hopeful.
"Only one way to find out." Arthur gave Merlin a bump with his shoulder -- startling the kitten -- and Merlin grinned before bumping him back.
As they made their way down the grassy hill, they passed clusters of sheep. But instead of grazing as sheep ought to, they were knitting, pulling yarn directly from their fluffy wool! Some were knitting sensible things like socks and sweaters, but others were knitting furniture and another had knitted a kite, which was flying in the breeze as it rose on a yarn string.
At the bottom of the hill, an old ewe was sitting in an arm-chair -- which itself had been knitted from yarn -- and knitting pages of a book as she read them. She pushed up her spectacles -- which were properly made of metal and glass, and comically large -- and blinked at them.
"What is it you want to buy?" the ewe said at last, looking up for a moment from her book.
Arthur opened his mouth to say he didn't want to buy anything -- but then realized that Merlin was already wandering around, looking at the various knitted objects with interest. "I think we need to look around first."
"You may look in front of you, and on both sides, if you like," said the ewe. "But you can't look all round you -- unless you've got eyes at the back of your head."
As Arthur did not have such a thing, he contented himself with joining Merlin in his browsing. "Find anything you like?"
"The kitten has," Merlin said, and held up a scarf.
"Fetching," Arthur said. "Did she pick out anything for me?"
"Of course," Merlin said, and handed Arthur a bundle of cloth. When unfolded, it was revealed to be a fine cloak, not unlike what the knights had worn -- though of course it wasn't red. "If we're on a quest, we should dress the part."
"Shouldn't you have a cloak as well?"
"Don't be silly, I'm a baker, not a knight." Merlin tied the scarf around his neck and the kitten immediately took a liking to it, clawing it and purring loudly. Arthur thought of her sharp little claws and decided that Merlin had made a very sensible choice indeed.
They returned to the ewe, and Merlin paid her by slipping a tart beneath one of the pages of her book. The ewe's eyes opened wide, and she quickly tucked the precious tart into her wool.
"We need a boat," Merlin said.
"Then follow me," said the ewe, eyeing Merlin's pocket -- no doubt in hope of another tart. She hopped from her armchair and trotted down to the waterside, where she immediately began knitting again -- this time with furious speed. Her two needles moved so fast they blurred -- and then Arthur realized that they had multiplied to four, then eight, then sixteen!
"How can she knit with so many? he whispered to Merlin. "She gets more and more like a porcupine every minute!"
In no time at all, she had knitted a wool rowboat -- and to Arthur's surprise, it remained afloat, even as they climbed aboard. The only problem was that there weren't any oars, and he said as much.
"Can you row?" the ewe asked, and held out two of her knitting needles.
"Of course," Arthur said. "But not with needles!" But as soon as he had taken them, the needles turned into oars in his hands.
Merlin repaid her for her help with another tart, and then they were off, Arthur rowing and Merlin perched at the bow, both he and the kitten peering ahead in excitement. The little boat glided smoothly through a forest of scented rushes and over a patch of weeds that threatened to catch the oars. Soon enough they reached the island, and were thankful for the lightness of the woolen boat, for they needed to carry it with them for the lake within the island. They were even able to fold it up, neat as you please, and Arthur tucked it under his arm. Once on dry land, the oars turned back into needles.
"So this is the Isle of the Blessed," Arthur said, as they walked into the forest. It was an ancient wood, with tall, old trees, all lined up in neat rows like the columns of a church. Something about the place felt almost holy, and the feeling was increased by the rays of sunlight streaming down through the canopy, casting bright light on circles of glittering stone. "What do you know of this place?"
"Only rumors," Merlin said. The kitten had tucked its head under the scarf, as if to hide itself -- though its presence was quite given away by its rump and twitching tail. "The Druids say that this is where the White Knight lives. No one knows much about her, except that she is a brave knight and an inventor. They say she fights against the Red King, but she has never helped the Druids."
"'They' say quite a lot of things," Arthur declared. "What do 'they' say about the King? Do they know why is he so obsessed with tarts?"
"Now there is a story," Merlin said, and seemed eager to tell the tale. "This all happened before I was born, so here I can truly only say what I've been told. The king had a son before he had a daughter. One day, the King and Queen Ygraine were having a lovely picnic, and they dozed off in the summer sun. While they were sleeping, the Prince -- who was only a toddler -- wandered off, and vanished entirely, never to be seen again!"
"How awful!" Arthur said. Having lost his own parents, he could well imagine how terrible it must have been for them to lose their son. "But what does that have to do with tarts?"
"They were the Prince's favorite food," Merlin explained. "The King purged every tart from the land, and banned all from baking more, so that when the Prince was hungry for a tart, he would have no choice but to come back home to have another. But he never did."
Lord Ector and his wife had always been very strict about desserts, and so Arthur had never had any tarts -- he expected they must be very good, what with all the trouble they had caused. "But then they had another child."
"Yes, the Princess Morgana," Merlin said, and gave a fond smile. "I remember her from when I was still with my mum in the kitchens. She was very kind, and often argued with the king about the ban. But no one's seen her since she was exiled, and that was years ago."
"Exiled?" King Uther had said that he had no heirs. "What happened?"
"She wanted jam," Merlin said. "But the King feared she would use the jam to make tarts for the people, and so he promised her jam tomorrow and jam yesterday, but never jam today."
"It must come sometimes to 'jam today,'" Arthur argued.
"Not according to the King. He declared that she would have her jam only on every other day -- and today isn't any other day. She took matters into her own hands, and one night she snuck into the vaults beneath the castle, where the jam is kept under lock and key. But she was caught, and the King declared that for such treason she would lose her head!"
"His own daughter!" Arthur exclaimed. While he had some sympathy for the King and his grief, that was no excuse for his cruelty. "Did the Queen have nothing to say about that?"
"If only she had known," Merlin said. "She could not bear the King's foul temper, and left him years before. Now she lives with the White King Gorlois, far away from Camelot."
"Then the King had a change of heart? How else would the Princess still be alive?"
"She escaped," Merlin said, excitedly. "I was so glad to hear of it. They say a mysterious rescuer stole her away in the middle of the night!"
"Oh yes! And as she would not give up her head, the King exiled her, disowning her from the throne. But the people believe that one day she will return to them, and she will provide jam and tarts to the whole of Camelot!"
"And you shall be her royal baker?" Arthur said, smiling.
"I shall," Merlin declared, proudly. "No one will call me mad ever again."
"Perhaps that will be the wholeness you seek."
"Perhaps," Merlin said, but he seemed reluctant to believe it.
They drew ashore and followed the last length of the path to a perfect little cottage, which was nestled in a clearing in the woods. It was surrounded by a garden filled with flowers and vegetables, and as they passed, the flowers stirred and giggled with delight.
"Visitors!" said a hollyhock. "We have never had visitors."
"Of course we have," said a climbing rose that twined up a trellis. "You're simply too young to remember."
"Is there someone home now?" Merlin asked.
"Yes," said a stately iris. "But the poor girl is too ill for visitors."
"You must go away," insisted a flock of pansies, which were closest to the entrance. "Go away, go away!" They leaned towards the door as if to block it. They were quite put out when Arthur simply stepped over them and walked into the house.
The inside of the cottage was as eclectic as the outside, with shelves full of bottles and books and odd trinkets. A large pot hung in the hearth, which was cold, but sweet, warm air and sunshine poured in through the open windows.
"Who's there?" said a voice, and they walked towards it. At the other side of the cottage was a bed, and in the bed was a dark-haired girl, perhaps the same age as Merlin. She was pale and wan, and did not appear to be at all well.
"Morgana?" Merlin breathed, his eyes wide. He rushed over to her. "Is it really you?"
Princess Morgana stared at him, and then smiled in recognition. "Merlin! I never thought I would see you again. Oh, how you've grown!"
They held each other in a tight embrace, during which the kitten hopped off from Merlin's shoulder and onto the bed. It mewed plaintively, and Morgana took it into her arms.
"And who is this?" she asked, petting it.
"It doesn't have a name," Arthur said.
"It's not an it, it's a she," Morgana corrected. The kitten mewled in agreement.
"I thought this was the home of the White Knight," Arthur said.
"It is," Morgana said. "But she's not at home today."
"Then she's the one who rescued you?" Merlin asked.
Morgana nodded. "She was very brave. She brought me here to keep me safe, and yet..."
"You're ill," Merlin said, and the kitten mewled in shared concern. It settled itself where a sunbeam lay across Morgana and began to purr with enormous determination.
"Poisoned," Morgana said. "A gift was delivered to us soon after our escape. A single tart, the most perfect tart you have ever seen. It was so wonderful that I could barely bring myself to take a single bite of it -- and a single bite was all I took. And that is what saved me, for the tart had been baked with poison!"
"No!" Merlin said, shocked. Arthur realized it was because Merlin's mother must have baked the tart.
Morgana lay a comforting hand on Merlin's arm. "I'm certain that Hunith would never have made it if she knew what a cruel use it would be put to."
"Is there no cure?" Merlin asked.
"The White Knight has searched for one ever since," Morgana said. "And while she has not found a cure, she has done so much for me. But tell me, why do you seek her?"
"We were sent here by the Cheshire Dragon," Arthur explained. "We are on a quest to slay the Jabberwock, and here we may find our aide."
"The Jabberwock!" Morgana cried in alarm. "Oh, do not go against it, Merlin. I will not see you slain, as so many have been."
"But we must," Merlin insisted. "For whoever returns with its head shall become Uther's heir. It is what we need to save the kingdom."
"If only I were not sick," Morgana said. "I would carry its head up to my father's throne and reclaim what is rightfully mine. But I am so ill that can barely leave my bed. How could I help Camelot when I cannot help myself?"
"Oh, Morgana," Merlin said, sadly. "I cannot make up for what was done with my mother's tart, but I can give you this." He handed her the bag that contained all the rest of his tarts.
Morgana's eyes went wide. "I cannot take all of these," she insisted, pushing it away.
"I insist," Merlin said, and pushed the bag back into her hands. "Please?"
Morgana relented at last. "Oh, very well," she said, and smiled again. She took a single tart and admired it, then took a bite. She moaned in delight. "Delicious!" she exclaimed, through the mouthful. "Exquisite!" She took another bite. "You have exceeded even Hunith."
"I certainly have not," Merlin protested, but his pride was evident. "I may have been practicing. There isn't much else to do in the forest but bake."
"Humble as ever," Morgana said, and as she took another bite the color seemed to be returning to her cheeks. Perhaps it was only her cheer at seeing an old friend, but as she worked her way through the tarts, her vigor was undeniably restored.
"Merlin, I think you've cured her!" Arthur said.
"Oh my!" Morgana exclaimed, pressing her hands to her chest. "I suddenly feel quite strange!" She pushed aside the rest of the tarts, and disturbed the kitten from her comfortable perch. She pushed aside the covers and swung her feet down to the ground. And then with a bound she was up! She grabbed Merlin and pulled him from the bed, and as they swung around in joy they began to sing:
"'You are old, Father William,' the young man said, 'and your hair has become very white. And yet you incessantly stand on your head -- Do you think, at your age, it is right? 'In my youth,' Father William replied to his son, 'I feared it might injure the brain. But, now that I'm perfectly sure I have none, why, I do it again and again. I do it again and again!'"
The two of them giggled and laughed helplessly, collapsing back onto the bed together. The kitten sprinted away from them and climbed back up onto Arthur's shoulder, entirely alarmed by the commotion. She puffed up her fur, and Arthur petted her to calm her.
"You still remember all the words!" Morgana said, as her giggles trailed off.
"So do you!" Merlin said. His grin was so wide it nearly split his face.
"You are certain that the answer is here?" she asked, as she sipped her tea.
Merlin nodded. "The Cheshire Dragon told us to come to the Isle of the Blessed, and that there the light of the sun would aide us."
"I faced the Jabberwock once already, and barely survived," Arthur said. "What we need is a weapon -- a strong and mighty one."
"Morgana," Merlin began, thoughtfully. "Do you still have those visions?"
"I have not had one since my illness," Morgana said. "But I will try." She drained her cup to reveal her tea leaves, and then took some of the jam from her last tart and mixed it in with the leaves. She held the cup in her hands and swirled the jammy dregs.
Arthur leaned over to Merlin. "What's she doing?" he whispered.
Merlin pressed a finger to his lips, and waited eagerly for Morgana to finish her ritual. At last she opened her eyes and looked down into the cup, and was quite surprised. "Well!" she said, and handed the cup to Merlin.
"Oh!" said Merlin, and handed the cup to Arthur.
Arthur looked into the dregs, and there had formed a perfect representation of a sleeping kitten. He lowered the cup, and directly in front of him was the white kitten, curled up and napping in a sunbeam.
"How can a kitten help us against the Jabberwock?" Arthur asked, baffled. It was nonsense, even for Camelot.
Merlin screwed his face up in thought. "But she's not just any kitten. The Cheshire Dragon gave her to us. And you said that's how she first turned up in your world."
Arthur looked at the sleeping kitten again, and thought of old Kilgharrah. "You don't suppose she's the same as Kilgharrah? Another dragon?"
Merlin picked the kitten up and put her on the table. She yawned widely, shook herself, and then headed right for the clotted cream. "All right, sunbeam," he said to her. "How are you going to help us?"
The kitten raised her head up, licked her chops, then bent down for more cream.
"She needs a name," Merlin decided. "Something that suits her."
"Cottonball?" Arthur offered. "Snowdrop?"
"How mundane," Morgana said. "It should be something grand. Dragons are powerful creatures."
"We'll let her decide," Merlin said. "Whatever she likes best."
The three of them began to throw out whatever names came to mind, most of them related to her white fur. "Apple Blossom." "Snowcap." "Blizzard." "Marshmallow." "Coconut." "Cream."
"Piglet," Arthur said, referring to the kitten's appetite, as she had quite finished all the clotted cream.
Merlin rolled his eyes. "Clotpole."
"Don't insult the kitten," Arthur said, smiling primly.
Merlin narrowed his eyes at him. "I wasn't referring to the kitten."
"Boys, focus," Morgana chided. "What about Moonlight?"
"Or Sunlight," Arthur said.
"The light of the sun," Merlin said, thoughtfully. "That's what Kilgharrah said would help us. What's another name for that?"
"Dawn." "Helene." "Gisli." "Aurora." "Sunbeam." "Liane." "Solana." "Aithusa."
At the last, the kitten picked her head up and gave a loud mew.
"Aithusa?" Merlin said again, and the kitten mewed.
Before their eyes, a startling transformation occurred. Her white fur began to sparkle in the sunlight, and two white, leathery wings grew out from her shoulders. Her face reshaped and lengthened, and as she stretched out her claws they grew into fierce talons.
"Finally," Aithusa said, as she settled into her new form. "I thought you'd never figure it out."
"You can talk!" Arthur exclaimed.
"Of course I can talk," she said, her voice high and small as befitting her size. "Do you have any more cream?" She licked her chops again, revealing a miniature version of Kilgharrah's toothy smile.
"That's the last of it, I'm afraid," Morgana said. "Until we get our next delivery from the sheep."
"Can you help us?" Merlin asked. "Do you know how we can defeat the Jabberwock?"
Aithusa licked her paw and washed the last bits of cream from her face. "There is only one weapon that can defeat the Jabberwock," she said. "A vorpal sword."
"What sort of sword is that?" Arthur asked. "Where can we get one?"
"Why, one is already here," she said. "At least, in parts."
"But the only sword here is mine," Arthur said, "and it did little against the Jabberwock." He drew it out and placed it on the table.
Aithusa examined the sword. "It needs a polish, but it will do. You may wish to stand back."
Arthur and Merlin exchanged glances, and then all three of them stood back from the table. Aithusa finished her inspection, crouched as if preparing to leap upon some hapless prey, and took a deep breath. When she exhales, she spewed forth a great gout of flame, singeing the tablecloth beyond repair. But when the flames stopped, Arthur's sword had been transformed from dull steel into a fierce and gleaming weapon, engraved with golden lettering.
"Do as it says," Aithusa said.
Upon the vorpal sword was written 'take me up,' and so Arthur obeyed. Despite the heat it had been subjected to, the metal was already cool to the touch. He gave it a few testing swings, and then struck out against a nearby tree branch. The blade sliced through it as if it were made of butter.
"How remarkable!" Arthur exclaimed.
"The Jabberwock will not stand a chance against that!" said Merlin.
"Then we must leave at once," Morgana said, excitedly.
"What about the White Knight?" Merlin asked.
"I shall leave a note for her," Morgana said, as she entered the cottage. It took her only minutes to gather what she needed, and then the four of them were off, headed back towards the Tulgey Forest... and the beast that lurked within it.
Though Arthur had become accustomed to Camelot as a whole, the Tulgey Forest was as ominous and eerie to him as the first time he had entered it. If anything, it felt more dangerous now, for he knew the face of his foe. He had felt the Jabberwock's sharp claws and the agony of its poison, and was not eager to do so again. And this time, he did not have a dozen knights to aide him. Merlin and Morgana were not fighters, and while Aithusa was powerful, she was still a kitten. As the eldest of them all, it fell to Arthur to keep them safe.
They heard the beast before they saw it: the terrible howl of sixty hounds barking and growling at once.
"Get back behind those trees," he told the others. "And do not come out until the Jabberwock lies dead."
With his vorpal sword and his woolen cloak, facing off alone against a terrible monster, Arthur had never felt so much and so little like the knight of his imagination. But he would not fail a second time, not when so much hung in the balance. He was not fighting for himself this time, but for his friends and for the future of their kingdom.
There was a black shape in the gloom, and there it was: the huge bulk of the Jabberwock, headed straight for him. Its eyes flared with flame, and its snake-tongue licked the air with eager appetite. But having faced it once, Arthur knew something of its methods, and quickly ducked out of sight. He climbed up a Tumtum tree until he was above the monster.
As the Jabberwock reached where he had been, it looked around in confusion, but Arthur had already leapt into action. He jumped down from the tree and landed upon the creature's back. The Jabberwock howled terribly and tried to shake him off, but he held on tightly. The creature's shaking kept him from grabbing his sword, but it could not reach him with its claws, and its tail could not whip him.
The beast howled again and tried to use one of the trees to dislodge him, and Arthur was forced to swing around its long, thick neck to avoid being crushed. The new position endangered him, and he was nearly caught by the poisonous claws -- but out of the gloom came a small patch of white: Aithusa flew at the Jabberwock's head and blasted its eyes with flame.
It was just the distraction that Arthur needed. He pulled himself back onto the creature's back and took the vorpal sword in hand -- then with a mighty swing he cleaved its head from its neck. The Jabberwock gave one last, terrible cry, and then it died, its head rolling to a stop on the leafy ground, and its body slumping onto its side. Arthur leapt away as the body fell, and he was met by Aithusa, who landed on his shoulder and fluttered her wings in satisfaction.
Merlin and Morgana ran out from their hiding place, hugging each other with delight. Merlin jumped into Arthur's arms and Arthur swung him around. When they both had their feet on the ground again, they could not look away from each other, and Arthur looked down at Merlin's lips as Merlin licked them.
"Merlin," Arthur murmured. His heart was racing, and it was from more than just his victory.
Merlin sighed, and leaned closer.
But before anything could come of it, Morgana cried, "Look out!" Arthur turned his head just in time, and he and Merlin leapt to the ground to avoid having their own heads cut off. A knight in gleaming silver armor was standing over them; she had hair so fair it was nearly white, and but her face was flushed with anger.
"Stand and fight, so that I might slay you with honor!" she snarled.
"Morgause, no!" said Morgana. "Don't hurt them!"
"Why should I not?" Morgause said. "They stole you from me with subterfuge, killed my pet, and now they are taking you to our mortal enemy."
"Your pet?" Morgana said. "Then you created the Jabberwock? But why?"
"To keep you safe, my sister," Morgause said. She calmed, but she kept her sword at Arthur's throat.
"You're the White Knight," Merlin realized. "How can you be her sister?"
"It is not by blood, but by marriage," said Morgana. "My mother married her father."
"You are the White King's daughter?" Arthur asked.
"I am," Morgause said. "And I created the Jabberwock to keep Uther from sending his knights against us. But I see that one knight has succeeded at last. No matter, for one man is easily dispatched." She brought back her sword, readying to strike, but Aithusa flew between them, staying her hand.
"He's not one of the Uther's men," Merlin said.
"Why should I believe you?" challenged Morgause.
"Merlin's my friend, he wouldn't lie to you," said Morgana.
"Arthur's not even from Wonderland," Merlin continued. "He's trying to help us stop the Red King."
"Arthur?" Morgause said, and she gave Arthur a thoughtful look. "Very well. I will spare him. But Morgana, you must not go with them. Uther will never accept you back. He will have your head!"
"He will not have my head as long as I have this," Morgana said, hoisting up the Jabberwock's head. "My father issued a challenge: whoever brings him the head of the Jabberwock becomes heir to the throne. He will have no choice but to restore me to my rightful position."
Morgause gave a bitter laugh. "And you trust him to keep his word? After what he did to you?"
"That no longer matters. Merlin was able to cure me of the poison."
"Where I was not," Morgause said, and looked away. "And so you turn to them and away from me?"
"I have to try," Morgana said. "Merlin has told me of the destruction the Jabberwock has wrought, and not just upon my father's knights. I know that you were trying to keep me safe, but this is not the way." She gestured to the Jabberwock's body. "Let it rest. Forget revenge and come with us. When I am Queen, I will need my champion."
But Morgause refused to turn back to her. "I will not help you march towards your death."
"If she will not, then let me be your champion," Arthur said, and he knelt before Morgana, presenting her with the vorpal sword.
Morgana looked pleadingly to Morgause, but Morgause refused her. Morgana nodded, accepting, and took up the vorpal blade. "From this day forth, you shall be my knight," she said, and touched the blade to Arthur's shoulders. He stood, and accepted the sword again.
"Camelot awaits," Morgana said, and Merlin, Arthur, and Aithusa followed her, leaving Morgause behind.
No one paid much mind to Arthur, which was fine with him. Aithusa was perched on his shoulder, but she had turned herself invisible -- which Arthur thought was rather wise of her, especially given her tender age. He was content to act as their bodyguard, watching for any sign of attack from the crowd or from Uther's knights.
But the knights and the crowd let them through, and they passed up into the castle unhindered. The King met them from his balcony, and the grey rabbit was at his side. Arthur, Morgana, and Merlin stood below, and it struck Arthur how similar this was to his first time in the castle, and that they were standing where Thomas Collins had lost his head.
Morgana hefted the Jabberwock's head into the air, and proclaimed: "Whoever brings to you the head of the Jabberwocky shall be made heir to Camelot!"
"So you have returned for your punishment at last," said the King.
"I return for my throne," said Morgana, undaunted. "And by your own words I have won it. Do you deny them?"
The grey rabbit whispered in the King's ear, and they spoke to each other in soft but urgent tones. The King turned back to his audience.
"A challenge was made, and you have answered it," he said. "But I have no proof that you were the one to slay the Jabberwock."
"That was not part of the challenge," Morgana countered.
"Then you admit that the beast was killed by your own hand?"
"I killed the Jabberwock," Arthur said, stepping forward. "But I acted as Princess Morgana's champion."
"Who are you, stranger?" said the King. "If your hand slayed the Jabberwock, then the reward is yours."
"I am no one," said Arthur humbly. "And I will not accept what is not mine."
"Very well, No One," the King said, with evident reluctance. "The Princess Morgana is restore as my heir. But she must still pay for your crimes. Off with her--!"
"Sire," said the grey rabbit, interrupting. "If you recall, Morgana escaped before she could be put on trial. She must have a proper trial or she cannot be sentenced."
"Very well," said the King, as if the whole matter was intolerably dull. Then he brightened. "But first we must have a game. To the croquet grounds! Get to your places!" he shouted in a voice of thunder, and people began running about in all directions, tumbling up against each other. This being Camelot, everyone but Arthur took this as perfectly normal.
The croquet ground was surrounded by tiers of seating, which surrounded it in a wide oval. It was just the sort of space that would be used for a tournament in Arthur's books -- but here it was covered with grass instead of bare soil and sawdust; and instead of being neat and flat, it was all ridges and furrows. Arthur didn't see how anyone could be expected to play the game properly. But 'properly' was a concept with a different meaning here. Instead of hoops to mark where the ball must be struck through, there were knights in full armor, bent over in the grass, forming arches with their bodies. Instead of balls, there were curled-up hedgehogs, and instead of mallets, they were to take their strokes using live flamingoes!
"Is this some sort of trick?" Arthur asked Merlin, though given that Morgana had already been threatened with execution, he could not see the point of trying to entrap her.
Merlin just hushed him -- he was visibly eager to see the game begin. "Morgana's an ace at croquet. She used to beat the King at it all the time."
The grey rabbit cleared his throat. "The King shall only play against the strongest opponent."
"Then he shall play against me," declared Morgana, stepping forward.
"Is No One better than you, my dear?" asked the King.
"No one is better than me," agreed Morgana.
"Then step aside, and we'll see what he can do!" said the King. He grabbed a flamingo and thrust it at Arthur.
"What?" Arthur said, as everyone turned to stare at him. He stared at the flamingo, and it stuck its tongue out at him. He did not have a good feeling about this.
"You did say you were No One, did you not?" the King said.
"Well, yes, but--"
"Then let the games begin!" shouted the King, so loudly that Aithusa leapt from Arthur's shoulder in alarm, and hid against Merlin's back.
Morgana did not look pleased with this turn of events, and Arthur gave her an apologetic look. But he had no choice but to step up to take his strike.
The chief difficulty that Arthur found at first was in managing his flamingo. He succeeded in getting its body tucked away, comfortably enough, under his arm, with its legs hanging down, but just as he had got its neck nicely straightened out, and was going to give the hedgehog a blow with its head, the flamingo would go completely limp, making it impossible to hit the hedgehog at all -- and even when he could keep the flamingo in line, the hedgehog would invariably have unrolled itself and begun to crawl away. This went on for several minutes.
"I'll show you how it's done," said the King, pushing Arthur aside. He rolled up his sleeves and drew out a flamingo, and it immediately went stiff as a board. The King tapped its head upon the ground behind the curled-up hedgehog, lining up his shot. He drew back his flamingo, then gave the hedgehog a great thwack! The little creature went flying across the pitch -- and it was a very impressive shot indeed, except that it went nowhere near the knights. The bent-over knights saw with alarm that the ball was going the wrong way, and they frantically scurried to meet it, almost throwing themselves onto the poor creature as it barrelled along. By some miracle, they all managed to arch themselves over the hedgehog in time -- all except the last, who immediately looked up in fear.
"Off with his head!" raged the King, and to Arthur's horror the poor knight was hauled off the pitch.
The King rounded on Arthur. "You're next!" he shouted, then gestured to the starting position.
Arthur looked over to Morgana and Merlin for help, and they gave him inexplicably encouraging looks. They must have some trick up their sleeves, but Arthur didn't know what it was. All he could do was try and get his hedgehog rolling and hope for the best.
The doomed knight was replaced and the field was put back in order, and Arthur once again tried to get his flamingo and hedgehog to cooperate. "Do you want us both to lose our heads?" he hissed at the flamingo, and it nodded stupidly at him. Arthur supposed that it wouldn't be the smarter birds that ended up as croquet mallets.
"You want to play rough?" he muttered to the flamingo. "Let's play rough." He grabbed the bird by its ankles and flung it around like a bolo until it had gained some serious momentum, and then with a might thwack he hit the hedgehog, which had been just about to crawl away again. This time it went flying towards the first knight, and Arthur was certain it was going to go through -- until the knight saw what was about to happen and leapt aside!
Arthur threw his flamingo down in outrage, but before he could protest this blatant act of cheating -- and before the second knight could also leap out of the way -- the hedgehog stopped rolling; it lifted an inch off the ground and began to fly! It flew directly through the second knight's arch, and then the third, and no matter how the knights tried to escape, the hedgehog made it through -- even if it had to fly through their legs as they ran!
Aithusa, Arthur realized. It had to be her. He watched as she went so far as to double back through the hoops to get extra points, ensuring that he would win. But before Arthur could celebrate his victory, the King turned on him in fury.
"Someone's head will roll for this!" the King snarled. "Yours! Off with your--"
The grey rabbit cleared his throat again. "Sire, would you not agree that it is not possible to execute no one? That is, if there is to be an execution, someone must be executed."
The King scratched his head in confused. "Well, yes, I suppose."
"Have some more wine," said the grey rabbit, handing him a full goblet. "And you agree that an execution must take place."
"Of course!" agreed the King, and took a hearty swig.
"Then I suggest, sire, that if you want someone to be executed instead of no one, that we move on to the trial of Princess Morgana."
"Very sensible, Gaius," the King said, and slapped the grey rabbit on the back. "To the main hall! Get to your places!"
And just like that, people began running about in all directions again, tumbling up against each other as they rushed back the other way, towards the castle again.
"I don't know how you did that," said Arthur, as he pulled Gaius aside. "But thank you."
"I have no idea what you mean," said Gaius, but he winked at him before he hurried along after the King.
"How on earth did Morgana ever win against him?" Arthur asked Merlin, as they joined the crowd.
Merlin smiled. "She saved the crumbs from her tarts and fed the hedgehogs with them."
"Bribery!" Arthur whispered, and despite the fact that they were about to face Morgana's possible execution, he was relieved to know that they had a friend in high places. There was a real chance they could all make it out of this alive.
"What are they doing?" Arthur whispered to Merlin, as they found a spot at the front of the crowd. "They can't have anything to put down yet, before the trial's begun."
"They're putting down their names," Merlin whispered in reply, "for fear they should forget them before the end of the trial."
"That's absurd!" Arthur said -- and too loudly, because all the jurors looked at him and then furiously wrote down what he had said.
"Silence in the court!" cried Gaius.
Morgana walked right up to the King and sat down in the empty seat beside him -- but then, she was the Princess again, after all, even if she was on trial. There was a smile floating just above her shoulder, and Arthur realized that Aithusa was guarding her.
"Let the accusation be read!" said the King.
Gaius opened the scroll and read from it: "The King of Hearts stored jam for tarts, beneath his castle white. But these Morgana tried to steal, which gave him quite a fright."
"Consider your verdict," the King said to the jury.
"Not yet, not yet!" Gaius hastily interrupted. "There's a great deal to come before that!"
"Call the first witness," said the King.
Gaius called out, "First witness!"
The first witness was Morgana's former maid, a girl named Guinevere. She came in with a teacup in one hand and a piece of bread-and-butter in the other. "I beg pardon, your Majesty," she began, "for bringing these in, but I hadn't quite finished my tea when I was sent for."
"You ought to have finished," said the King. "When did you begin?"
Guinevere looked at Morgana and winked at her. "Fourteenth of March, I think it was," she said. "Three years ago."
"That's the day before the crime!" said the King. He turned to the jury. "Write that down." They scribbled obligingly. He turned back to Guinevere. "On the fifteenth of March, you saw the Princess Morgana leave her chambers and go down to the jam vaults."
"Oh, no, sire," Guinevere said. "I couldn't have seen her do that, because I was still having my afternoon tea."
"It was the middle of the night," said the King, looking down his nose at her.
"It was a very long afternoon," Guinevere sighed. She took a tiny sip of tea, and nibbled a single crumb from her toast. "It was so long, it hasn't ended yet."
"So you deny your previous evidence?" the King asked, angrily.
"Oh, no, sire," Guinevere said, politely. "It's only that I was so busy buttering my toast, and the toast was so crunchy, that if anyone walked by, I couldn't have heard them at all!"
The King gave up. "If that's all you know about it, you may stand down."
"I can't go any lower, sire,' said Guinevere. "I'm on the floor, as it is."
"Then you may sit down," the King replied.
"I'd rather finish my tea."
"Then you may go!" said the King, pointing the way out. "Call the next witness!"
The next witness was the royal baker -- none other than Hunith herself! When she saw Merlin, she nearly broke into tears of joy -- but she gathered herself and marched up to give her statement.
"Give your evidence," said the King.
"I will not," said Hunith.
The King looked anxiously to Gaius, who refilled his goblet.
"Your Majesty must cross-examine this witness," Gaius told him.
"Well, if I must, I must," the King said, with a melancholy -- and somewhat drunken -- air, and, after folding his arms and frowning at Hunith till his eyes were nearly out of sight, he said in a deep voice, "What are tarts made of?"
"Pepper, mostly," said Hunith.
The audience snickered.
The King rounded on them, furious. "I'll have all your heads for that!" he warned. "Call next witness!"
"Next witness," Gaius called. Hunith walked directly to Merlin and pulled him into a hug, squeezing him so tight that he nearly popped -- but he didn't seem to mind at all.
"Ahem," Gaius said, looking at Arthur. "Next witness."
"Who, me?" Arthur asked, and Gaius nodded. Confused as to what he could possibly contribute, Arthur walked up and stood before the King.
"What do you know about this business?" the King asked.
"Well, nothing," said Arthur.
"Nothing whatever?" persisted the King.
"Nothing whatever," agreed Arthur.
"That's very important," the King said, turning to the jury.
They were just beginning to write this down on their slates, when Gaius interrupted. "Unimportant, your Majesty means, of course," he said in a very respectful tone, but frowning and making faces at him as he spoke.
"Unimportant, of course, I meant," the King hastily said, and went on to himself in an undertone, "Important -- unimportant -- unimportant -- important --," as if he were trying which word sounded best. And then as if he had suddenly reached an epiphany, he stood up from his throne. "Of course! Rule forty-two. All persons without a name must leave the court."
Everybody looked at Arthur.
"But I do have a name," said Arthur. "It's Arthur."
A sudden silence came upon the hall, and the King stared at him.
"That is not a name we speak of," said the King, angrily.
"Well, I can't help it," said Arthur. "It's my name. And I have no intention of leaving this room."
"And has it always been your name?" asked Gaius, with sudden interest.
"As long as I can remember," Arthur said. "My father -- my adoptive father -- said he it was the only name I would respond to after he found me. So it must be my name."
The King had gone quite pale. "And do you -- Are you quite fond of tarts?"
Arthur thought of Merlin's tarts, and realized that he had never had the chance to try them. "I don't know," he said. "I've never had any tarts."
The King rounded on Hunith. "A tart! Bring me a tart at once! Your very best!"
Hunith and Merlin hurried off to the kitchen, and in no time at all they returned with a silver platter, and upon the platter was a perfect, gleaming tart. Hunith presented it to the King, and he took it reverently.
"Take a bite," said the King, his hands trembling as he handed over the tart.
Arthur brought the tart to his lips, and took a cautious bite. The soft pastry crumbled on his tongue, and the sweet jam danced upon his tastebuds. He chewed slowly, savoring the delicacy, and as he did he suddenly remembered: A warm summer day, chasing after butterflies with a half-crushed raspberry tart in his hand, and then one wrong step and a sudden plunge into the darkness of a bottomless rabbit hole.
The entire hall held its breath.
Arthur opened his eyes, and looked at the King, and saw a man almost twenty years younger and happier. He closed his eyes again, and when he opened them, he saw his father.
"Father?" he said.
The King was beside himself, and his eyes filled with tears of joy. "Come to my arms, my beamish boy!" he cried, and pulled Arthur into a hug so tight he nearly popped. But he didn't mind it very much. Uther might be mad, he might be an awful king, but here at last was his father, his real father.
"I thought I would never see you again," said the King, his voice tight with tears.
"I'm here now," soothed Arthur. Perhaps this would be the end of it: no more beheadings, no more cruelty. The King would not have to jealously guard all the tarts now that his son was restored to him. "We'll have tea and tarts together, and you can tell me about my mother. I've always wondered--"
But the King had gone quite stiff. "Your mother?" he said, and released Arthur from his hold.
"Yes," Arthur said. "What was she like? Merlin said--" He turned to look at Merlin, who was shaking his head in alarm, and then at Morgana, who looked as stunned as he felt as they both realized that this meant they were siblings! He was the eldest -- did that mean he was to inherit the throne? He didn't know if he wanted that at all.
Arthur turned back to the King, but instead of the peace that Arthur had hoped their reunion would bring them, it seemed to have pushed Uther over the edge at last -- and until now, he had barely been clinging on by his fingernails.
"Off with her head!" the King yelled, pointing at Morgana. "Off with his head!" he yelled, pointing at Merlin. "Off with all their heads!" he yelled, spreading his arms wide.
The knights all looked to each other, uncertain if they were meant to arrest the crowd or each other. They each reached for their necks in alarm, and then seemed to decide that it was better to be on the side that was doing the arresting than be arrested themselves. The headed straight for Merlin, Arthur, Hunith, and Gwen, and grabbed them, ready to haul them off.
"All I need is you now, my darling boy," the King said, quite madly.
"You can't!" Arthur protested, and tried to stop the knights, but they pushed him away. He drew his sword, only to be surrounded by the rest of the knights, who had drawn their own swords. With the vorpal sword, he could probably cut most of them down, but the odds were not in his favor overall.
"Father, please!" Arthur pleaded, hoping that there was some spark of sanity left in the King. But the King had not taken his resistance well.
"You," he growled, accusingly. "You are not my son. My son would never stand against me. You are a thief! You tricked me into giving up one of my precious tarts! Off with your head! Off with your head!"
The knights began to close in, and Arthur braced himself for a nasty fight. But a sudden commotion made everyone stop and turn. Riding into the hall was none other than Morgause, her silver armor gleaming as she charged into the hall, and behind her came the knights that had survived the failed attack upon the Jabberwock! Sir Leon and Sir Lancelot, Sir Elyan and Sir Percival, and even Gwaine had come along. It was an unlikely but very welcome rescue party. From their mounts, they quickly drove away the King's knights, rescued Arthur and his friends, and captured the King, who by now was practically frothing in his madness.
"Shall I dispatch him for you, sister?" Morgause asked, a dark gleam in her eye.
"Tempting," Morgana said, "But no. I know of a better place for him to live out his days." She took the crown from his head and marched up to the throne, and handed the crown to Gaius.
"Long live the Queen!" declared Gaius, and he placed the crown upon her head.
"Long live the Queen!" answered the crowd, and the people cheered.
"Things are going to be different now," Morgana said, as she looked out from the balcony and surveyed her kingdom.
"What will become of Uther?" Arthur asked. The man might be stark raving mad, but he was still their father.
"There is a quiet little cottage on the other side of the Tulgey Forest," Morgana said. "It should be perfect for him."
"You're going to make a fine Queen," Arthur decided, feeling rather proud of his new sister. Revenge would have been easy and justified, but she had taken the better path.
"I think you'll find that I'm already a fine Queen," she replied, smiling. Then she sobered. "Will you stay? I have sent an invitation to mother. I'm certain that she will return to us, now."
"I don't know," Arthur said. He had never intended to come here, and never intended to stay. He could not disappear on Lord Ector and Kay as he had on Uther and Ygraine -- it would not be fair. And yet here was his family -- the family that had been lost to him for so long.
"Well, you know what they say," said Aithusa, from her roost on the ledge. "It's no use going back to yesterday, because you were a different person then."
"Easy for you to say -- you're not even the same species anymore!" Arthur said, but in his heart he wondered if she might be right.
As the evening wore on, he quietly made his goodbyes and snuck away. But he had not said goodbye to Merlin, and therefore it was little surprise when Merlin caught up with him on the path.
"I thought you said you wanted me to be less mad," Merlin said, not hiding his anger. "You saw what happened to Uther after you vanished on him without a word."
"That's not fair," Arthur protested, but he knew Merlin was right. It was cruel of him to leave Merlin like that, and yet he had forced himself to do it. Because -- it was because -- "I didn't go to you, because if I did I knew I might not be able to leave at all."
"And that's a bad thing?" Merlin asked.
"It's a wonderful thing," Arthur said. "And that's what makes it so terrible."
"I think you're starting to fit in at last, because that made no sense at all."
Arthur looked at the sleeping flowers beside the path, their petals curled up for the night, and ahead he saw the cottage that contained the magic looking-glass. He wondered who had put it there, and suspected that it had something to do with a certain raggedy old cat.
"I have to go back," he said, needing Merlin to understand. "The people on the other side of the mirror, they're my family, too. I belong there as much as I belong here."
"Oh," Merlin said, and wiped at his eyes. "I understand."
"No, I don't think you do," Arthur said, fondly. He stopped and turned to Merlin and took hold of his hands. "I won't leave them behind forever. I can't, because I care about them, even if it hasn't always been easy. Even though there were times that I didn't want to care about them. But I care about the people here, too. The kingdom, the people I've met, the family I thought I would never find. And you."
Merlin looked up, his eyes shining with unshed tears and hope. "Me?"
Until then, Arthur had not been certain if Merlin felt the same attraction to him -- the attraction that had nearly led to a kiss in the Tuley Forest. That kiss needed to be completed for that certainty to be reached. Arthur took Merlin into his arms and kissed him. Merlin stiffened in surprise, then melted against him, and kissed him sweetly back.
"I think I know the answer to your riddle," Arthur murmured.
"When do a head and a tail make a whole?" Merlin asked.
Arthur nodded. "But I'm not going to tell you until I get back."
Merlin scowled and stepped away, but Arthur pulled him back, and kissed him again -- an apology and a promise in one.
"That's to hold you over," Arthur said. "Wait for me, and you'll never be mad again."
Merlin pulled Arthur back and kissed him again, like a starving man who had finally found a plate of tarts. When he stepped back, he was blushing but proud.
"If you don't come back soon, I'll come and get you myself," Merlin said. "You're not the only one who's brave enough for an adventure."
"When I return, we will go on all the adventures we want," Arthur promised. "And we will go together."
"Together," Merlin promised, and the night-blooming flowers sighed around them.
Arthur left Merlin outside as he went into the house that was so alike the one he had grown up in. He went up to the attic and marvelled at all that had happened to him, and all that he had learned. And just before he stepped through the mirror, he left a coin on the other side, just in case Merlin wanted a hint. Because Kilgharrah had told the truth: when they had found each other, they had found the answer to the riddle -- for the two sides of a coin, head and tail, made a whole.