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Chapter 1 [Nemeth—Merlin and Mithian’s Bedchamber; Same Time as End of “Redemption”]

Sol streamed his light through the windows. The dust laden beams danced about the chamber gleaming off of oak furnishings and sparkling on a few glass surfaces. The air warmed from Nocturne’s cool touch. It stirred the household staff and officials alike…

…some it seemed faster than others…..

****

Merlin dozed in the four post bed. He practically sank into the feather mattress. The sheets and quilt cradled him. He felt as if he floated on the clouds themselves. And that wasn’t the counting his Princess sleeping right next to him. An almost sloppy grin spread across his face. He dreamt of lush places and vistas. Perfection was the order of things….

…that is until she started snoring….

His eyes squinted open. His mouth curled into a frown. His brain struggled to piece together Bliss’ shattered expanse. He blinked. His eyes practically bored into the ceiling. Now? Really? He knew that said-snoring bouts tended to carry on for a while. He glanced over at his chestnut haired muse. And she doesn’t believe she snores? He sighed. Slowly and carefully he eased his way out of bed. He pulled on his robe. Might as well get some work done. He crept across the oaken floor toward the desk by the south window.

On said desk’s right side, a steaming wooden cup awaited him.

Jocelyn’s been busy. He smiled before taking a sip from the cup. He considered how the newest servant in Rodor’s household had grown by leaps and bounds. He’d worked with her at every opportunity on “servant basics”. He watched her confidence increase and performance shine. Everyone deserves a chance. She wants to please Mithian and me. Jocelyn’s doing that. He gazed out the window to the east. Much as Gwen and I did in Camelot all of those years ago. Arthur may be a prat but he did give me my chance. He took a moody draught from his herbal tea. She certainly has that figured out. He reflected on the day’s events. He knew Rodor would want to meet with the council in short order. He wanted to spar with Gawain and the knights. There was the hearing for the subjects’ concerns.

If only there was time for a honeymoon. It had already been delayed for a month and would seem to be more. Issues mounted. Concerns barged in. After the sorceress’ attack, a guard always stood close by. There were no clandestine horse rides. He couldn’t give her the desired picnic or hunt for her sake. He had to even watch out in the garden.

Can’t we get some time to ourselves? He chased that thought with another moody draught.

That is part of our duty, Merlin. Mithian hugged him from behind. Good morning, my Prince.

Good morning. He stole a kiss off of her arm. “Jocelyn makes good tea.”

She nodded. “She does. I enjoyed her peppermint tea last week. I told Father she was improving.” She sampled some of his drink. “Ginger and blackberry? Creative.”

“It soothes the nerves and stomach. Certain noises have me on edge,” he noted with a teasing barb at the end.

She rolled her eyes. “I don’t snore, Merlin.”

He coughed. “Did I say you did? I just said ‘certain noises’. Maybe someone has a guilty conscience?”

“Maybe someone has a vivid imagination? Don’t push it.” She headed for the dressing screen. “Meantime we do have that meeting at half chimes.”

Yeah that. He finished the tea. Then he headed for the wardrobe.

Duty it seemed never let up….

Chapter Text

Chapter 2 [Council Chambers—An Hourglass Turn Later]

Galahad looked about the chamber. He’d spoken with Ywain about the knights’ training. Even with Boeve now back in charge in Hampton, Edgar’s discontent followers still roamed loose in Camelot and into Mercia. He worried about Meleagant and the mystery sorceress. He brooded about the sudden attacks on their interests.

The Sorceress—ah that one—she appeared and disappeared like a will-o-the wisp. She could slip from Shadow’s cloak, accomplish Chaos’ desire and creep back into the dark once more. She’d killed knights. She’d almost killed Morgana. She’d left Merlin and Mithian in an unconscious heap despite the security throughout the castle.

All for messages and points to be made….

He knew escorts would be needed. Despite the royals’ protests and priorities, knights would have to be reassigned to guard them. Such measures would stretch their resources even more thinly. I wish there was a way to speak with the priestesses and the Prince’s creatures. He tapped his fingers on the table.

“Are you unwell, Sir Galahad? You seem ill at ease,” Elaine wondered.

“I am fine, Lady Elaine. I just have a great deal on my mind,” Galahad attempted to assure her and the others.

“We all have a great deal to be mindful of,” Josiane assessed. She sipped from her water goblet. Her mind bounced back and forth between Hampton and there. With Rodor’s leave, she’d gone back and forth between Whitgate and Hampton to be with Boeve. Granted Amor guided her in her missions. Strategy played its role as well. She’d helped in winnowing out Edgar’s remaining followers. She’d planned the new defenses. After the knights had erected a wooden wall just outside of the town’s walls, she’d transmuted it to diamond rendering it all the more impermeable. “We can build strong defenses but our enemy can slip past them.’

“Perhaps Fenice can ask her sister priestesses about counter measures?” Cligés offered. “If we are to survive this, we should look to each other. Prince Merlin seems to have good relations with them. Queen Morgana’s return provides us with another ally.’

“I believe the King wants to have a magic council of some kind,” Peter the Poet interjected.

“He does indeed,” Mithian noted. She nodded to the others in the chamber. “I trust that you all are well this morning?”

“We are concerned with matters of security, Princess Mithian,” Peter informed her. “Forgive us for troubling you.”

“We should all be watchful, Master Poet. Thank you for your consideration,” Mithian expressed. Appreciation guided a nod for his benefit.

“Guess it’s another reason we need to have everyone agree to a treaty?” Merlin supposed. Dread and Instinct both shied away from such oversight. Still did he really have anything to hide? As he recalled Percival saying, being clandestine only increased Suspicion’s hold on everyone. He wanted to go along with Rodor’s wishes to be more upfront.

“We do in the spirit of cooperation,” Josiane affirmed. ‘Prince Merlin, why are you so nervous about that? You wouldn’t hurt anyone.”

“I try not to. Some would say otherwise,” Merlin disagreed. He sighed heavily.

“They shouldn’t hurt others then. I agree with Princess Josiane, Merlin. King Arthur and those who share in his mindset shouldn’t target sorcerers with such prejudice. Let their actions judge them for good or ill,” Mithian assured him.

“Friends can be made from enemies, Princess. Often bad information or deliberate falsehoods cause such bad feelings. With some illumination, we can understand each other. Uncle Alys and Father had such issues,” Cligés continued.

“Well spoken indeed.” Rodor entered the chamber with Lord Brumenwald right behind him. When everyone rose to greet them, the King motioned for them to be at ease. “Good morning. On that note, we should all listen to each other.” He met the counselors’ eyes with his own. “I trust you were discussing our allies’ stances on sorcery? I have given the matter some thought. We will be reaching out shortly to the other rulers. In the meantime, I would like to address another matter.” He turned to Merlin. “You have brought an idea to my attention concerning land surveys. Would you share that with everyone please?”

Merlin stiffened. Granted he’d interjected ideas to Arthur and some of the knights in private or around the campfire. In better moments, he’d held Arthur’s ear. Still in council, Silence muffled that flow. To the greybeards, he didn’t exist other than to meet their needs….

…and now he was being asked to contribute….

“It’s all right, my Prince. You’re among friends,” Mithian assured him.

“Speak please, Prince Merlin. I’m sure Eloquence will guide your words to our ears,” Peter noted.

“Indeed so,” Josiane concurred.

Merlin glanced about at everyone. Then he cleared his throat. “Thanks, Everyone.” Anxiety stiffened his movements. He got up from his seat. “I spoke with you, Sire, and Princess Mithian about the kingdom’s state. After that I visited the royal archives. Lord Brumenwald and Master Peter helped me to find the most recent survey maps.” He picked up a parchment roll and carried it over to the table. “I found something.” He spread the parchment across the table. “The last survey is a quarter century old.”

The map revealed Nemeth’s political landscape. The borders with Tintagel and Camelot reflected differing realities. Gedref still held the “disputed” label. Many spots within Nemeth remained blank.

“As Prince Merlin is demonstrating, we need a new survey. We’ll be moving ahead with this. The nobles and lords have useful information for our needs. Therefore I will be issuing summons for them to come here for that purpose. In addition, Prince Merlin, there was another accompanying matter as well?” Rodor informed them.

“Indeed, Sire. Our recent journeys have brought another need for your consideration. Many of our roads, even our main routes, go through huge stretches of woods. One can go for days without running into a village or any structure. Travelers can run into brigands or worse. If we have strategic places set along these roads, it could help in several ways,’ Merlin suggested.

“Several ways?” Brumenwald asked. “Such as, my Prince?”

“We have places for travelers to stay or just get a hot meal. Knights would have a place to stay. We could station them there maybe? It gives us a royal base out there. We can work with other rulers to have border locations,” Merlin replied.

“That has possibilities. With due respect, my Prince, can we afford to spread our resources?” Galahad wondered.

Merlin shrugged. “I was thinking along our most used roads. We have to do a survey to determine need. Perhaps we can cooperate along the borders? We see what we need, we know how much we can do. Perhaps the nobles will work with us.”

“It is possible. The knights would have to work with us as well,” Mithian agreed albeit conditionally.

“Perhaps.” Rodor rubbed his chin. “The knights and nobles in question would have to be beyond reproach. Queen Morgana and King Accolon have agreed to share such a project on our common border. For other such places, we will have to go case by case. If this had been in better times, I’d say Camelot as well.”

Better times. Because of me. Merlin moped. His mood sank.

Stop, Merlin. It is because of Arthur’s attitude not you, Mithian insisted over the Link. You’re trying to be peaceful and are thinking of our subjects. People can’t deal with magic or your former status. Have faith. It is a worthy suggestion. Father thinks so as well.

Merlin nodded to his wife but remained silent. He recalled having to parse out supplies during some of Arthur’s extended campaigns even to the point of creativity sometimes. (Making Arthur eat rat for instance was one such point.) He valued his friends. Experience reminded him about overextending the knights’ numbers. Especially with the rogue sorceress, Meleagant and any potential traitors lurking out there, Caution seemed all the more prudent. Perhaps through such ways, he’d show Arthur and the other doubters.

Perhaps…one day….

“We do have a great deal to think on.” Rodor offered Merlin a smile. “Meantime we do have the royal progress to consider.”

“Royal progress?” Merlin looked to the King and then his Princess.

“Newly married Princes and Princesses tour the kingdom. The people should know we care. Besides, my Prince, it allows us our role in the survey. Does it not?” Mithian presumed.

“Is that a good idea?” Cligés doubted.

“We have the dragons and priestesses watching. We also need to show that we aren’t afraid. We can be careful but not afraid. As that woman has shown, she can attack even within the most secure walls and chambers. We have to think of our people,” Mithian insisted.

“Aye.” Rodor nodded. He took a draught from his goblet. “So we do. We should look to our patrols as well. Galahad, I wish Ywain and you to pick a supporting patrol to go with the Prince and Princess on their progress. I want them to see the realm and interact with it. I don’t want any other trouble.”

“We will have a suitable detachment for the journey, Sire,” Galahad declared.

“In that case, I believe we should adjourn. We all have matters to ponder. I wish for the progress to occur as soon as possible. Master Peter and Lord Brumenwald, I want the summons to go out to our landholders in short order,” Rodor continued. “That is all. Thank you.” He stood and nodded to his counselors.

The others rose to attention. They bowed or nodded. Then they watched the King leave.

With everything else going on, this progress would definitely need some rapid planning and organization. That was for sure.

 

****

 

Even as the words passed from ear to ear, the cloaked Sorceress smirked. Under her concealment spell, she stood in the corner. A predatory gleam lit up in her eyes. You think you’re ready for me? We shall see! She disappeared from view ready to plot further against the venture…..

Chapter Text

Chapter 3[Training Courtyard—A Turn of the Hourglass Later]

Gawain frowned. Curiosity tugged him from the marketplace on that morning. Now he looked about the area. He noticed some of the knights congregating by the far door. What’s going on now? He made his way over to them. “Hey, what’s going on?”

Lancelot peered up at him. “Ywain said King Rodor has a mission for us.”

“Mission? Lance, we have to protect Merlin and Mith. That cloaked wench wants us to march off and leave them unguarded.” Gawain shook his head. “I’d have thought better than that of you.”

“And you’d be right.” Lancelot inspected his blade’s edge. “Almost.” He swiped it twice more across a sharpening stone. He nodded.

“I think it’s sharp enough,” Gawain assessed half-seriously.

“Perhaps.” Lancelot sheathed the sword in its scabbard. “We all have matters on our minds.” He glanced down at the patched boots. “I thought you were going to get new boots.”

“I was. Ywain summoned me before I could finish the deal. Guess that gets me off of the hook with Brit,” Gawain pointed out. Complaint soured his tone and limed his words.

“Perhaps. You’d do well to listen to her, Gawain. Britomart cares for your welfare. It isn’t such a bad thing to have someone caring for you.” Lancelot clapped his hands on the other’s shoulders.

“Yeah. It means that you’re vulnerable too. I have Sorie, Josie, Cligés and Brit to look after. I do care about Merlin and Mith. I just don’t want people getting too close. We lost you twice before, Lance. Right?” Gawain pointed out.

“Aye. I still hurt from not being able to love Gwen. Still I remain open to others. You might do the same,” Lancelot advised. “I can see other possibilities. Be mindful of the past. Still be able to enjoy what you have here and now. You might like what you find.” He saw Ywain motioning them along with the others toward the courtyard’s center. “Think on that.”

Gawain sighed. Think on that. Yeah like every bloody day! Brit! Brit! Brit! He furrowed his brow. “Wonder what Y-Whine wants now?”

Lancelot didn’t hear the last comment. Amor occupied his mind. Once again, his mind floated on its warm currents. Still the eddies and flows weren’t coming from the east but rather from a certain counselor/lady of the court. His eyes inevitably wandered toward Elaine’s chamber. He could feel her concern.

Gawain tapped him on the arm. “Lance.”

Lancelot nodded. He would speak Elaine before this upcoming expedition. Rejection and Loneliness had left him alone. As with his irreverent friend, he accustomed himself to the solitary road. He’d accepted the supportive role rather than the central one. With each passing day, his heart had warmed a tiny bit more and then a little more beyond that. He drew in a composing breath. “Pardon me, Ywain. Please do continue.”

“We all have a great deal to consider, Lancelot. Quite all right,” Ywain assured him. “It is a simple matter. King Rodor wishes for Prince Merlin and Princess Mithian to go forth on their royal progress. I have need for six knights to accompany us. The rest of us will remain at the King’s disposal.”

Gawain surveyed the group. Then he raised his hand. “I’m in. So’s Lance.”

“As I am,” Josiane agreed. “Someone needs to look after you, Uncle.”

“I can take of myself, Josie.” Gawain rolled his eyes.

“That can be debated, you Oaf.” Britomart shoved a sack into his midsection. “Wiglaf had those for you.” She raised an eyebrow at him. “Our lady has requested I accompany the group, Sir Ywain.”

“I accept your sword, Lady Britomart. Galahad tells me we will look for a new physician. Your knowledge and keen eye will serve us well in that endeavor,” Ywain approved.

More nagging. Just great. Gawain fumed to himself.

“Sir Roderick and Sir Daniel will complete our numbers then. Meet in the courtyard in three turns of the hourglass, Friends. My thanks.” Ywain nodded to the group. Then he rushed off toward the exit passage and his affairs.

That should be enough time to see Elaine. Lancelot hustled off as well.

“What’s with him?” Britomart wondered.

“Lance has got a new woman on his mind. Whatever,” Gawain retorted. He considered the new boots. “At least old Wiglaf had these ready. Lord Pompous there dragged me off before I could finish the deal.”

“Well now you are finished. We have enough time to burn those old boots before we leave,” Britomart directed.

Gawain shook his head at Josiane. While he liked being cared for, he could do without the orders.

Errands did need to be done before Duty’s charge after all…..

Chapter Text

Chapter 4 [Garden]

Elaine smelled deeply of Azalea’s perfume. She closed her eyes. Her ears drank in every sound. Her skin dimpled in the breeze. The fragrance tickled her nose. Her brain noted the pleasant scent. She should have been content in that place…in the heart of her paradise.

Should have been….

Alas Hope abandoned that notion. Her heart beat faster with each dropping grain in the hourglass. Her mind refused to pick itself up. A frown spread across her face. Worry ate at her. What if Lancelot is the One? Can he love me or would he love Guinevere? What if he’s hurt or worse on this expedition? Should I admit to my feelings or will I be a fool? Can I not tell him? No other man has been that kind to me save the Prince. She sulked. She wiped a stray tear from her cheek. Her eyes glinted.

Around herself, white petals descended. They descended with little fuss. They kissed the other flowers in their path.

“And now I make a bigger mess,” she griped.

“They add just the right touch, I’d say.”

She stiffened. Embarrassment widened her eyes and flushed her cheeks darkest red. She turned slowly to find Lancelot watching her in turn. She gulped. “Sir Lancelot.” She curtseyed to him.

He bowed to her in turn. “Lady Elaine, I’m glad I found you. I was looking for you.”

“Oh.” Her breath suddenly caught in her throat. “You…were?”

“I was.” Warmth shone in his smile and twinkled through his eyes. “I needed to speak with you before the expedition’s departure.”

“You…do?” She gulped again. “What have I done? I apologize if I’ve offended you.”

“Offended me?” He scratched his head. “How would you have done that, my Lady? You honor me with your friendship. You possess a warm heart. You serve others before yourself. In every way, you are special. So how would you offend me?”

“I…just thought I did.” She blushed and bowed her head. “Perhaps you might help me?”

“In however I can,” he agreed. “It’s all right. Make your request.”

She raised an eyebrow. Disbelief forced her to hesitate for a long heartbeat. Still she pressed on. "Would you…care to hear truth? That is if I can keep these stones from swallowing me up first.” She sucked in a deep breath.

“Of course. Whatever you say is between us,” he assured her.

She trembled. She bit her lip. Her heart ached. Still she forced her eyes up to meet his. “Lancelot, I care for you more than any man I’ve ever known. If you think that’s silly, I’ll understand.”

He regarded her for a couple of heartbeats. His emotional turmoil stirred up. My hesitation misleads her. She thinks I don’t care. He cleared his throat. “And why would I consider that foolish? I am touched and honored by such care.”

“You are?” She trembled again.

“Aye. I am.” To be honest, her confession stunned him. He’d wanted to tell her how he felt first. Still she’d beaten him to the punch. He mulled over his own feelings. Despite lingering desire for Gwen, he felt the tug in Elaine’s direction. His heart beat faster in her presence. His mind wanted to free her from Desperation’s bonds. “In truth, Lady Elaine, I care for you as well. My thoughts are with you and have been since our first meeting. Now perhaps, you can help me with a request?”

She gulped once again. She quaked. “If…If I can.”

He got down on one knee. “Marry me. We can care for each other. Perhaps we can speak to King Rodor about Anna? I’ve had enough time alone and frustrated. Perhaps the answer is in front of us both?”

She stared at him. Incredulity fogged her mind over. “You…you want to marry me? You want to adopt Anna?”

“Aye to both…if you’ll have me,” he affirmed.

She leapt up into the air. “AYE! AYE!” Elation and Joy lightened her heart. “I would be delighted to have you, Sir Lancelot! I am the most blessed woman in the world!” She seized him in the tightest hug she could manage. Her lips whispered across his cheek.

He held her close to himself as well. As if by some miracle, his feelings unified. Devotion pointed him directly toward Elaine. “A woman who wishes my companionship.”

“And you’re surprised, my Good Knight? There are more than you think.” She smiled. Her eyes sparkled with tears. “They can deal with it. I have the privilege of making you happy, Sir Lancelot. And I will do just that.”

He grinned. “Of that I have no doubt. Shall we share the news with Merlin and Mithian then? Perhaps they can legitimize our union?”

“I’d like that. I didn’t want to rush you though. If you need time to resolve any final feelings about…well…you know…” She frowned and motioned toward the woods and the path heading east.

“Gwen is with Arthur. I need a strong yet good woman to love and cherish. Elaine, I’ve known that for a while. You were in my thoughts even in Camelot itself. I told King Arthur that I was moving on. I had feelings even there for you. I would say that’s a great hurdle passed. I am true, my Lady,” he declared.

“Aye. I agree. Shall we go and speak with the Prince and Princess?” she concurred. Relief flooded through her. She took his hand. With great strides, she led them back toward the passage.

For some, news like this shouldn’t wait…..

Chapter Text

Chapter 5 [Merlin and Mithian’s Bedchamber—A Quarter Turn of the Hourglass Later]

Merlin considered his reflection in the full length mirror. He inspected the emerald sur coat with the dark bird’s insignia on its front. His cleaned and polished chain mail gleamed in Sol’s light. His left hip bore Excalibur. I can’t believe this is my armor. I know I’ve borrowed some in the past but….

But what? Merlin, I passed the armor onto you, Balinor’s voice pointed out.

The mirror rippled and blurred.

Balinor looked back at him. “My son, it suits you. So does Kilgarrah’s sword.”

“Arthur should have it.” Merlin drew the dragon’s breath blade. He regarded it in the air between them.

“If he would allow the goddess her due, he would have it. Since he chooses his path, he is not worthy of such a weapon. Nor should it be turned against those who created it or that it was created to serve,” Balinor noted. “You, on the other hand, are the right person for this role. You are the Dragon Lord, Prince and Emrys of the Druids. If anyone is worthy, that would be you. Go forth and be just. Lead well. Care for others.”

“Mithian and I want to do that for our subjects. Hopefully we can get started on that,” Merlin insisted. He sighed.

“Aye. You should take advantage of this expedition. Continue to forge good will. Ease doubts. I have faith in Princess Mithian and you.” Balinor smiled. With that, he vanished into renewed ripples within the glass.

He has faith. That’s something. Merlin frowned. Now if everyone else would too, it would help!

If we proceed as we are, Merlin, it can’t help but work out. We should take care of the sorceress and the Red Knight’s hordes. If we do so, the people will eventually come around, Malodius interjected.

I can hope. We’ll definitely try! Merlin told him.

And that is all we can do. See you in the square, Young One, Malodius concluded.

Merlin exhaled. Inadequacy weighed down on his shoulders. Resolve wavered. Will the people accept us? Will it always be such a fight?

“You’re doing it again, Merlin.” Mithian came up behind him. She rubbed his shoulders. “Stop doubting yourself and our efforts. We can do this.”

“I just can’t understand. Why can’t we just all co-exist?” he protested.

“We all have different motivations. Arthur and we differ on our outlooks. Others agree with him. Some agree with us. We just have to do the right thing. The rest will take care of itself. As Balinor said, have faith.” Her lips whispered across his left cheek.

“Have faith and be patient?” he supposed.

“And Arthur calls you an idiot? You’re smarter than he is,” she complimented.

“How smart?” he supposed.

She smirked. “A lot smarter. We just proceed in a straight forward manner. You need to be strong. We both have to be. The triple goddess and her followers are counting on us.”

Before the discussion could go on, a knock came from the door. The knight guarding it stuck his head in. “Prince Merlin, Princess Mithian, Sir Lancelot and Lady Elaine wish to see you.”

“Please let them in, Sir Weymouth.” She shot Merlin a curious glance.

Now what? Merlin watched their friends enter the chamber. He noted the couple holding hands. He clearly felt Insecurity burning within them. “Lancelot? Elaine? What can we do for you?”

“Is something wrong?” Mithian wondered.

The visitors looked to each other. They wondered who would make the announcement.

“Lady Elaine? What’s wrong?” Merlin insisted.

“There’s nothing wrong. In fact it is the best of news.” Elaine smiled. She squeezed Lancelot’s hand in hers. “Sir Lancelot and I spoke in the garden.”

“Spoke?” Merlin considered them. “Is there something we need to know?”

“Aye.” Lancelot smiled. “We need to speak to the King. We wanted to let you know first.” He looked to Elaine. “I asked Lady Elaine to marry me. She agreed. Still we know that we need King Rodor to agree.”

“And you suppose he’d have an issue? He’ll be delighted!” Mithian embraced Elaine. “Congratulations!”

“Lancelot, this is great!” Merlin clasped Lancelot’s hand. “Good luck on everything. If anyone deserves this, it’s you.”

“If King Rodor agrees to it, we’ll both be here to make sure you remain confident, Prince Merlin,” Elaine promised.

Mithian coughed. “It sounds like she knows you, my Prince.”

“You’re outnumbered, Merlin.” Lancelot raised an eyebrow at him. “I’m sure the King will agree with Princess Mithian and Elaine. I’d like to gain his approval before we leave for the journey.”

“Then why wait? No time like the present,” Merlin urged. Frankly he wanted to secure his friends’ joy.

Some things couldn’t wait….

 

****

 

[Council Chamber]

Rodor sipped on a goblet of wine. His eye scanned a parchment deed on the table. Then he compared the information on it to the archival map from the meeting. He noted that no mention had been made of the estate in question on the map. Father, as much good as you did in other ways, you were careless with our holdings. But what does it say that I’ve allowed the situation to continue on as long as I have? He took another mouthful from the vessel. At least Merlin recognized the issue and brought it to our attention. Pride blossomed within himself. Mithian saw his potential when few others did. Why didn’t Arthur make Merlin his advisor? Given how closely they apparently worked, Arthur would have benefited more in that regard than simply having Merlin as a servant. What a waste. Well his loss is our gain. I have a valuable son-in-law. Mithian has her husband. I’ll be interested to see what else he brings!

A knock came from the door.

“Aye! Come!” he called.

“Father, might we speak?” Mithian requested.

Rodor raised an eyebrow. Curiosity jarred him from the previous reverie. “Is everything all right? You do have your progress.”

“We are all but ready for our departure. There is a matter which requires your attention however.” She motioned out the door.

Merlin guided Lancelot and Elaine in. “Sire.” He offered the nod.

Lancelot and Elaine offered their proper greetings to Rodor as well. Nerves stiffened their knees and back.

“Sir Lancelot? Lady Elaine? Is something the matter? This is sudden,” Rodor wondered.

“Sire, if I may?” Lancelot requested.

“Of course. What troubles you both?” Rodor reclined in his chair. His eye met the knight’s.

“It is not a troubling matter, Your Highness. It is a source of happiness for Lady Elaine and me. It seems that we share love and respect for one another. I have broached a deeper question to her pending your approval,” Lancelot started into an explanation. For some reason, he remained somewhat cryptic in that regard.

“We wish to marry, Sire, with your permission,” Elaine clarified. “We’d also adopt the young orphan, Anna, if that is her wish. We would be a family.”

Rodor glanced toward his daughter and son-in-law. He could see their support for the engaged couple. Frankly the proposed marriage would solve a great many questions. The couple in question would bring stability through their union. Coincidence had prompted him to grant Lancelot lands near to Astolat. Anna would be cared for. He’d have a sorceress ally in a union with a knight who supported her true nature. Lancelot would finally stop mooning over Gwen and focus on his loyalty to Nemeth. It would also solidify the circle surrounding Merlin and Mithian. It worked toward the establishment of the future. “I agree. You have my blessing. If it is your wish, I suppose the priestesses can marry you in the spiritual sense. The girl will enjoy having a home as well.”

“We do. I am certain the Priestess Freya will marry us,” Lancelot affirmed.

“Then all the better. We have business in the kingdom. My congratulations to you both,” Rodor declared. “We shall speak again of your lands and such upon the return.”

“Thank you, Sire.” They bowed and curtseyed to him. They looked deeply into each other’s eyes. Then they departed.

“I know we have other matters in front of us, Sire. I’m sorry,” Merlin apologized.

“Sorry for what? For seeing to a friend’s needs? Merlin, that is what we should do. I am very proud of you both. Perhaps you might maintain this attitude in your progress? Past princes and princesses have used the journey as a ceremonial one. You both might see it as something more,” Rodor indicated.

“We do, Father. We can hope that all marriages can forge or reinforce friendships beyond what mere alliances can,” Mithian agreed.

“Indeed so. May you have such success.” Rodor stood. “I would see you both off. Come.”

Merlin glanced about the chamber. If we can have success, that would be a good thing! Let’s hope we can convince some people. Maybe them we might have peace. He followed his wife and friends from there.

Away toward the trail and a bigger peace……

Chapter Text

Chapter 6
[Somewhere Else]

The triple goddess watched through her portal intently. She’d witnessed Lancelot’s proposal. She could see Merlin’s gradually coming around to his new duties. She approved of Rodor’s enlightened thinking. While not the total acceptance or monotheism in her favor, she’d decided to take it. Her efforts in Nemeth budded. While a few weeds remained in that garden, she noted their gradual diminishing over time. She wanted to put her efforts in that direction.

Concern however burned at even her.

She frowned. While she’d sent storms and obstacles to hinder such actions, she knew Meleagant would persist in his plans. Even Revolution’s fires in the potential allies’ realms abroad didn’t seem to slow these efforts down. Whether in the center of Europe, the sands of eastern Sahara or in Byzantium, Discontent flared and spat in Tyranny’s face. The usurpers resisted. The counterstrike to her moves developed nonetheless.

And then the mysterious cloaked pest confounded her efforts. That one worked Malice’s agenda to perfection. She slipped from shadow to shadow much like a bothersome gnat or will-o-the-wisp. She knew exactly where to strike and when to do so. And she did that evading the goddess’ efforts to detect her with ease.

Who are you? The goddess tapped her fingers across gown covered arms. She could feel the power crackling around the periphery of such places. She deduced this one had influence over Arthur’s actions. To have the Boy King in her control drives a wedge in Albion. I would have someone speak to Guinevere.

“My Lady?” Freya curtseyed before the deity.

I noticed Lancelot and Elaine of Astolat declared their bond. I wish for you to perform the hand fasting. The goddess looked at her High Priestess. Have you seen the sorceress?

“Nay, Lady. The sisters and I have not. Much as you have, we have seen her handiwork. She seems to watch and stalk much as a wolf pack would its prey. She harasses and plays games to suit her own means. She killed Queen Morgana and yet left Merlin and Mithian alive,” Freya reported.

Very true. Keep careful watch over Emrys, Mithian and their party. The mysterious nemesis will be sure to strike at some point, the goddess instructed.

“As you wish.” Freya curtseyed. “I will go to do the hand fasting then?”

Aye. My thanks, Child. You take care. That one can appear at any point.

“I will, Lady.” Freya turned and vanished into the mists once again.

We should all do so. The goddess turned her attention back to the portal.

Chapter Text

Chapter 7
[Camelot—Citadel]

Gwen wandered through the passages with her thoughts. She wished for understanding. She wanted to grasp the events playing out around herself. Even as she reassured her fellow castellans otherwise, Doubt nagged at her. She wondered about Arthur to be honest. Despite his promises, he’d continued to make increasingly uncharacteristic judgments. He wouldn’t support Boeve’s role as Count. He exiled Edgar rather than deal with his treason. He gave…gave…strategic border villages and castles to Meleagant. He seemed indifferent to their subjects’ concerns. He forgot his advisors’ names frequently. He recused himself more and more.

She frowned. She’d forced a meal with Arthur. For most of it, she’d thought him almost back to the way he’d been during their courtship. Warmth lightened the mood. Flavor teased their taste buds from meat, vegetable and delicacy alike. Amor drew them closer together. All seemed great…

…all but one kiss….

She narrowed her eyes. Cupid himself had crafted a perfect kiss and scene to savor it. Still Arthur didn’t kiss like that. His embrace, while out of Passion’s own design, wasn’t Arthur’s. His eyes didn’t look at her like that. Then he saluted her with a mug of mulled cider and drank it down. Arthur detested mulled cider. Whoever that is, he looks and sounds like Arthur. Still that man is an imposter. She turned the corner and looked around.

Neglect cast its pall over that garden. The cracked and caked dirt around the flowers and plants gasped for rain and water. Vines hadn’t received regular cutting. Flowers drooped; their petals crinkling and turning brown. Weeds choked the younger growth syphoning off any moisture in that parched ground. Stones seemed askew. Everything seemed off.

Again Arthur may not have favored the garden. Still he knew how important it was to her. He wouldn’t have allowed it to fall into such disrepair.

Another thing that’s wrong. She shook her head.

“Not what you hoped for. Is it?”

She stiffened at this voice. Her eyes went wide. “Nimue?”

The priestess sauntered forward. She let her hand run across a twisted ivy vine. “Such a tragedy. This garden was once the pride of the kingdom. Now it languishes and wastes away. Pride and Ego lead them astray. Their crusades distract them from true priorities. This takes investment and effort.”

Gwen sighed. As much as she hated to admit it, Nimue had a point. “Arthur has other matters on his mind.”

“Obviously. You’ve seen how muddled his thinking is. He allows his father’s policies to drown out common sense. Then again how much of it is him? We can’t tell. Merlin doesn’t know. Other than yourself, he’d be the best judge of Pendragon’s character. Wouldn’t he?” Nimue noted.

Gwen chafed at her tone. Indignation chafed at her. Granted she’d hated how Arthur was acting. She wanted to tell Nimue off. Denial desired a lengthy argument for Nimue’s ears. But she knew the priestess had a point. Even when Arthur was the Prince…her Prince...he still let matters go. First his father’s crusades and then his own blinded him to the bigger picture. He had gotten away with it to a certain point.

But then Merlin, Gaius, her and the knights had been there to cover for them.

As King, he has to make decisions for himself. We say that he has to consider everyone. He wants to but can they consider everyone else’s needs? Can we deal with their needs? How can we have a kingdom if we can’t deal with each other? Gwen exhaled. She looked at Nimue. “I appreciate your risk to tell me that. You know he’ll have you killed if he finds you.”

Nimue coughed. “He can try. Whoever he is. We do need to talk, Guinevere. Still it can’t be here. The walls have ears.” She waved her hands.

Mists enveloped them both and swept them away before Gwen could object….

 

****

 

[Arthur’s Chamber]

Parchments sat unread on the desk. A goblet lay askew by the bed. A small trickle of wine dribbled onto the floor. Clothes lay scattered about. Some bore tears in their fabric. Stains from wiping food marred tunics’ sleeves.

Still the troll could care less. He lumbered around the area. He hated the questions about the drawn curtains. He endured the humans’ tiresome questions. He failed to understand their priorities. Pointless manners, games and practices all. Manipulating the courtiers seemed easy enough. He played everyone for fools.

Gwen however proved a different story altogether. Trying to keep with the sorceress’ directives, he kept his distance from her. He tried to maintain a safe version of a relationship. He talked with her. He offered her some flower or other. He even organized a feast for just them. He did care. Affection warmed his heart. Frustration burned at his mind. If he had Arthur’s role, couldn’t he be with Gwen? He brought his taloned fist down on the table next to him. He growled. Loyalty and Amor yanked at him in different directions.

“Having issues, are we?” The sorceress stepped out of the shadows. “Pity. For the most part, you do well.”

“Mistress.” He bowed to her. “I have given the Red Knight what he desires.”

“Aye. You keep Camelot divided. You mislead Tintagel, Gaul, Mercia and Nemeth into thinking that Arthur will accept magic. You have delivered the border villages and Rusflagen Castle to Cawdor. Still you fail to act as he would. They suspect you. Guinevere suspects you,” she lectured/praised with backhanded technique.

“Suspects? I try, Mistress! I….” he asserted. “I am sorry….”

“DO BETTER!” she barked. “You have to convince them. If our little ruse is exposed then our advantage vanishes. Now we can’t have that. Can we?”

He rasped. “N…nay, Mistress.”

“Then do better. Act like the Brat-King would.” With that she vanished back into the shadows.

The troll shook his head. He had done his best to serve. Still he couldn’t bring himself to harm Gwen. He wanted her there. Irony offered a distinctive touch. He desired her.

How complicated things get when one seeks to deceive…..

Chapter Text

Chapter 8 [Camp—Fifteen Leagues from Whitgate]

Merlin reclined against a large oak tree. He wanted to relax. Really he did. Richard’s capon on daggers had satisfied everyone. The berries along the path provided a sweet dessert. The knights had provided welcome company. Mithian seemed to know when he needed his distance.

Overhead Luna poured her gentle light on him. The stars twinkled. A deep rustled through the brush.

Still Balinor’s words resonated in his mind. Perfect partnerships…perfect syncs…. Can Mithian and I ever have anything like that?

You are so very close, Merlin. Kilgarrah alighted next to him. You ponder more deeply than normal, Young Prince.

It’s a fact. Merlin peered up at the Great Dragon. There’s more to just being a Prince than the title.

Oh? You are just discovering that? You seem to be emerging from that comfort zone. You have ideas. There are possibilities, Kilgarrah replied.

That’s why Mithian and I are out here. We can have things. We can take others’ word for it. The best thing is to see it all for ourselves. I want to meet people. I want to know what they think. I have magic. I need to be human as well, Merlin informed him.

How noble of you, Merlin! You are learning from Mithian and Arthur, Kilgarrah snarked.

You complimented Arthur? Merlin asked in surprise.

Arthur isn’t Uther at least not entirely. He has good ideas. He allows his double standards to cloud his judgment. You’ve learned to consider more than that, Kilgarrah noted.

Arthur and Mithian are good leaders! Merlin protested.

She is by words, example and presence, Kilgarrah told him.

Merlin nodded. I’ll see what she’s up to. Thanks.

You’re welcome. I’ll be most interested in seeing what you come up with. With that he took off into the night sky.

Details to come I’m sure. Merlin stalked back toward the main camp. He mulled over the tavern/checkpoint idea. He hoped that his subjects would accept him.

Doubt seemed in prime form.

I can do this. Mithian doesn’t have to carry the entire load. Maybe I’m onto something! He cut through the camp. He spied his Princess and the others speaking.

It’s all right, Merlin. We were waiting, Mithian reassured him.

Thanks. Merlin hustled the last four steps toward the others. Gratitude warmed him for the companionship.

“Hey! There you are! We were going to come and get you,” Gawain presumed. “Mith’ said you needed your space.”

“So he did. We all do at some point,” Lancelot pointed out. “Usually there’s a place being where you do that.”

“That’s good as long as you remember to include us, my Prince,” Mithian reminded Merlin. She motioned to the clear spot at her side.

“Old habits,” Merlin admitted. He sat down at her side. “I just want to keep you safe. Besides I have to set an example for other soon-to-be married people. Right?”

“I’m set in my purpose, Merlin. Perhaps we can think of someone else?” Lancelot supposed. He looked at Gawain.

“Don’t look at me!” Gawain protested. “I’m not some ‘Yes Dear’ type.”

“We wouldn’t hear of it, you Oaf. Having you learn manners would be achievement worthy of the goddess herself!” Britomart groused.

“Gawain, learn while you’re ahead,” Merlin told him.

“Yeah be like everyone else. I have to keep some of it for myself. I am a family guy already. I’m trying to keep balance in everything. I’m fun not some recluse,” Gawain countered.

“That’s true. You have to relate to your partner and friends though.” Mithian squeezed Merlin’s hand for emphasis.

“I do care, Mith’.” Gawain stiffened. His mouth twisted into a frown. “I don’t try to push Brit away or tell her to be quiet.” He rolled at his eyes toward Britomart. “Even if the thought’s tempting some times. Anyway that’s just her. I don’t tell Josie not to fight. That’s her. It’s why I like a tavern. I don’t judge. I go in, relate to the others, have a few drinks and just hang out.”

Their fists relate to your face you mean,” Merlin recalled. Sauciness spread a smile across his face.

“Sure, Your Princieness. Ruin my moment,” Gawain fired back.

“You mean making our eyes roll, my Lord Windbag?” Britomart insisted.

“And she gets her buzz kill. Guess we have to know it.” Gawain sighed. “But seriously. That’s what we’re here for. We have to get to know everyone we can. Since *some people* don’t want to break open a cask at the tavern. I’m not saying who but you know….”

“There are far more civilized ways to relate without sinking to that point,” Britomart retorted.

“Perhaps he might have a point,” Mithian offered. “We could visit a few such places….”

“See? Some places are good,” Gawain insisted.

“…and comport ourselves according to the Knight’s Code,” Mithian continued.

“That means best behavior, Gawain,” Merlin noted.

“I’m the ambassador for Rodor. All good relations,” Gawain disagreed.

“Just don’t drain the treasury. I’m sure we have better things to do than polish boots this time,” Merlin disagreed.

“Don’t look at me. I just gave back to my new mates in that tavern.” Gawain shrugged. He tipped a wooden cup at the others. “You aren’t Arthur.”

“Everything in balance, Sir Gawain,” Mithian noted. Practicality guided her thinking. “We will do exactly that. However, as my Prince urges, we will be frugal in how we do it.” She pulled the map back out to its full length. “We should visit the larger settlements.” She ran her finger to the southeast. “Waelsbottom is just before the border with Tintagel.”

“Morgana and Accolon will want us to visit. Wish we could visit Riversmore.” Merlin inspected the map. “We should let the people know that we care.”

“We aren’t ignoring them, Prince Merlin. After this, the people will know it as well,” Josiane affirmed. “We can’t go to Camelot.”

Irony twisted Lancelot’s mouth into a frown. “I never thought I’d see this day. We can’t rely on Arthur. Yet we can go to Morgana’s kingdom?”

“That’s the way it is, Lance. Arthur’s being a prat. Morgana’s smartening up. Who knows? Let’s just do it,” Gawain insisted.

“We aren’t going to see every part of the kingdom on this trip,” Britomart reminded them.

“Perhaps Queen Morgana would let us travel through her lands? Then we can visit Boeve,” Josiane suggested.

“We can ask her.” Merlin looked at the map again. “Freya and the priestesses could help us get places faster. We still have to think of that sorceress and rebels.”

“Again it’s a balance. We have to think of safety and our subjects’ needs. They matter,” Mithian reminded him yet again. “We’ll head for that border at first light.”

And with that, a course has been set. Determination would lead the way from there…..

Chapter Text

Chapter 9
[Two Mornings Later—Just Beyond Waelsbottom]

Merlin looked about the area with care. Although the group could’ve made it there in half of the time, he urged a slower pace so as to check on the peasants. He also noted a couple of potential places for a tavern-way station along their path. He could see the Severn flowing to his right between the town in front of him and Tintagel on the other side. Will they accept us?

“Still worrying. Ah, Merlin, don’t change.” Freya stepped into view. “Good morning.”

“Good morning!” His face brightened. “I was thinking of what to say and do in there.”

She shrugged. “Just be yourself. Mithian will guide you on royal protocols and all of that. You do have a way of winning people over. Just have confidence in yourself.” She glanced across the river. “Accolon and Morgana know you’re coming. They’ll be here to meet you later.”

“Mithian wondered about that.” Relief relaxed him. He exhaled. “At least we don’t have to worry about crossing the river in that direction.” He glanced toward Camelot—only about a league from where they stood at that point.

“Not all of Camelot feels that way, Merlin. Arthur and the remainder of Uther’s followers do. What Mithian and you are doing is valuable. You’re granting hope to the oppressed. They will appreciate what you’re doing,” she pointed out.

“It isn’t just about how we feel. It’s about them primarily.” He glanced down the dirt road. “At least a tavern would give them a safe place too. I don’t see it as some military outpost.”

“Some would. I know you don’t. I hope it doesn’t become that,” she worried.

He shrugged. “I know. Still we can think about security and safety. At least travelers would have a safe place to sleep and maybe get a hot meal. Maybe then the brigands could get a job?”

“Pigs will fly first. Still we can all hope.” She smiled. “Just do what you’re doing, Merlin. You’re on the right path. Just have faith. The goddess knows. So do we all.”

“I appreciate that.” He felt a warm tingle over the Link. “Mithian’s up. I should get back to her.”

Jealousy strummed a brief note across Freya’s mind. Still she quickly suppressed her reaction. With a cut nod, she disappeared into the mists.

What’s with her? She’s not still carrying a torch. Is she? He muddled that thought over for a couple of heartbeats. Then he headed back toward the camp. There he found Mithian drinking from her water skin. “How’d you sleep?”

Mithian considered him. “I managed to get some sleep, my Prince. I am anxious about our subjects. Still I heard your thoughts and felt your tension.”

He bit his lip. Contrition bowed his head. “I was trying to deal with my feelings. I keep forgetting that you can feel them too. I know you’re concerned.”

She nodded. “I am. Still we can only do what we can. After that our subjects will make up their own minds. We need them to see that we care for their welfare. We aren’t tyrants like Meleagant. They aren’t our pawns. As I tell you, just be yourself, Merlin. That in itself will convince them.”

He rubbed the back of his neck. He looked deeply into her eyes. Therein Belief and Amor buoyed up his confidence. “You do that for me.”

Her lips pressed down on his for a couple of heartbeats. Then she slowly stepped back. “As you do for me. Believe in us. Believe in yourself.” She took his hand. “Come with me. Our subjects are waiting.”

He nodded. Doubt had all but disappeared. Purpose had replaced that.

Sometimes that was all that mattered.

 

****

 

[Waelsbottom—Two Turns of the Hourglass Later]

Situated between a bend in the Severn and the woods, Waelsbottom served a number of needs. The few travelers along that route between Nemeth and Tintagel bartered or bought supplies. Local blacksmiths’ hammers rang against metal horseshoes, farming implements and weapons. Peddlers brought their wagons. Hunters and fishermen had meat for consideration. Manorial officials brought crops into town. Otherwise Activity had meandered along slowly. Only the sporadic troop or royal expedition had made its way to that acreage.

Imagine then the stir from the impromptu royal procession. Eyes turned. Curiosity and Wonder raised questions. Knees went to the ground. Curtseys touched hems to dirt. A few meager supplies were offered. Tables rapidly were set up. Even more startling, the flow went the other way. Instead of being waited on, Merlin and Mithian oversaw the distribution of bread to the citizenry.

Heads turned….

 

****

 

[Two Turns of the Hourglass Later]

Merlin meandered by the Severn’s northern shore. He watched as the river gently flowed past him. Froth and Current bubbled white against the rocks. Paradoxically, the water itself lapped against the land by his feet. He noted how the same forces and objects could interact in different ways even when right next to each other.

Perspective meant everything…especially in politics….

So many points of view. At least the people here seemed happy. He inhaled a breath. Relief and Satisfaction warmed his heart and mind. Waelbottom’s citizenry greeted Mithian and him with guarded civility. They all listened to each other. Then he slipped into the village’s storehouse which somehow went from empty to overflowing with grain. With Josiane’s help, he organized some rebuilding efforts on the buildings there. His magic induced lilacs and roses to beautify the village’s common. He noted several potential sites for the tavern.

Much to everyone’s relief, the locals cheered. They actually approved of the results.

They appreciate our presence! They can deal with magic! he marveled.

And that surprises you? Not everyone is Arthur, Merlin.

He looked around the shore. “Morgana?” He found nothing to his left, right or behind himself.

Still oblivious, aren’t you? Look across the river.

He peered upward and across the flowing waters. On the opposite shore, he spied Morgana sitting astride her horse. Beside her Accolon waved in greetings. A half dozen knights accompanied them. I’m dealing with several other things.

You mean you’re distracted. Morgana smirked. Her eyebrow arched. Mischief sparkled in her eye. You should take greater care. That sorceress could be anywhere.

I know but thanks for the concern. Accolon, how are you? Merlin noted.

I am well. As you are finding out, royal life and marriage are challenges into which we must grow. You seem to be enjoying yourself, Accolon replied. Thank you for the invitation.

We’re friends. Since this project’s right on the border, you both should know about it. Come across. Mithian and the others are back in the village, Merlin invited.

Morgana started across the Severn. She waved the others to do the same. In four horse lengths, she climbed up onto Gedref’s shore. “Imagine you growing into a Prince? One might not know what to do with that.”

Merlin shrugged. A grin crossed his face. “Wonders will never cease. Now will they?”

“Nay they don’t.” Morgana squeezed her husband’s hand. “Not for any of us. Shall we see this village?”

“Follow me.” Merlin led the group back toward the village proper. We have company.

So we do. Mithian set her shovel down. She wiped her hands and face off. Then she turned toward the Tintagel’s traveling group. “Morgana, Accolon, welcome to Gedref. I’m sure Merlin has made you feel welcome.” She nodded to them.

“He has.” Accolon dismounted. Then he helped Morgana down. He looked around at the scene around himself. “I see you’ve been busy.”

“Merlin does excel at mischief,” Morgana teased. She offered the resident Prince a smirk. “You missed a spot.” Her eyes glowed. She pointed at a bare patch in the middle of the lilacs. “Flora!”

A patch of violets sprouted up in the bare dirt.

“My own distinct touch. One does have to cover a friend’s oversight. Now don’t we?” Morgana jabbed again.

Merlin rolled his eyes. He sighed.

“She does have an eye for color, my Prince.” Mithian nodded to her. “A terrific addition, my Lady.”

“We aim to please.” Morgana inspected the village. “Have you picked a spot for your tavern?”

“We had a few places in mind. Perhaps something just before the woods along the main road? That way it won’t seem as intimidating to Tintagel,” Merlin suggested.

Morgana nodded. “That’s one place. It doesn’t seem as much like a fortification. Still it does maintain a presence here.”

“Mithian, please relay our thanks to your father once again,” Accolon expressed.

“It is our pleasure. We should help each other,” Mithian concurred.

“Of course.” Morgana agreed. “We would be just as willing to board you and your knights. Speaking of all regards, is there anything new where magic’s concerned?”

“Arthur says he’ll coexist. I want to believe that. I just wish I could trust him.” Merlin sniffed. “Sorry but it still feels strange to be talking to you about this, Morgana.”

“And it feels just as strange for me to watch you casting spells and trust you, Merlin. We all have adjustments to make. You’re trying. I want to make things better. What else can we do if Arthur isn’t willing to do the same?” Morgana declared. “We have to play our part. Even my dear brother has to do that. If he isn’t then what good are our negotiations if they aren’t done in good faith?”

“They will fail.” Mithian took a draught from her water skin. “Annis and Elena have said as much. So has Percival. At this point, only Meleagant and Arthur remain opposed to an agreement. Perhaps we can hope for an agreement without sparking a war?”

“We can hope,” Accolon agreed. “Meantime shall we see more of this site?”

“This way.” Merlin led the others back across the village and toward the location just where the dirt road met the town’s outskirts. “What do you think?”

Accolon dismounted. He walked around the area. “It has proximity to the village. Our troops can barter with them and yet remain apart. Still….”

“Still we should have a path around the village. The road branches off at the river,” Morgana pointed out. “Perhaps we can establish our way there?” She motioned toward the dirt road. With her forefinger, she motioned down its length and across the Severn.

Mithian noted their point. “The route has the best of both possibilities. It does allow for Accolon’s premise. Yet it would offer safe passage as well. I wish the riverbank over there was available. It serves as the village’s prime fishing grounds. This would seem to be best for all concerned.”

Morgana nodded. “So it would seem. Perhaps when we start on our project, Mithian, you and Merlin would like to see it?”

“That sounds great.” Merlin embraced the Queen. “Perhaps we might have hope.”

“We will, my Prince,” Mithian vowed. She glanced toward the north. Even if we have to fight for it.

Chapter Text

Chapter 10 [Three Days Later]

After the all too brief visit with Accolon and Morgana, Nemeth’s royal progress pressed on. They followed the Severn’s shoreline. The forest thickened. Few people seemed to live in that stretch of woods. No structures dotted the roadside either. While they still wanted to visit with Boeve in his newly restored castle, Merlin and Mithian stayed with their purpose.

Cligés and Josiane however accepted some magical aid to make the visit. They vowed to return in a few days’ time. While they knew Merlin and Mithian needed support, Family and Amor tugged them toward Hampton as well.

Merlin glanced about the clearing. As with other places along the trail, he noted the landscape. He saw every flowing brook, made a point of each clearing and hedge. He had insight about the road’s potential tavern sites. He knew each place would have to be just under an average day’s ride apart. The road would also need an armed presence for the supply wagons for said places.

All issues…Administration pressed down on his shoulders….

He listened to the surroundings intently. Silence smothered those words like a wet blanket. Not a bird’s warbled note. Not a hint of breeze to rustle his hair. Not a deer loping from the brush.

All strange….

His hair stood on end. Despite the aforementioned lack of wind, his skin dimpled. His psyche discerned a crackle of energy burning throughout the place.

Merlin, Malodius cut in.

You feel it too? Merlin wondered.

Aye. The sorceress is close, the lion told him.

Figures. Merlin shook his head. He glanced around the clearing again.

“Trees getting to you, Merlin?” Gawain patted a thick oak’s trunk. “One kind looks like another.”

“They may look alike. An oak is different than a maple, Gawain,” Merlin pointed out. “Still the woods is peaceful. It provides shade. It will give wood for a fire or maybe a tavern near here.”

Gawain shrugged. “Maybe. You’re overthinking it, Mate. They’re pretty. Still I’d like the planks in a cask barrel or on the sides of a house. All in the needs. You know?” He frowned. “Could use some. Brit’s driving me nuts.”

Merlin chuckled. “Complaining about the drinking again, is she?”

“She’s trying to make a bloody ascetic out of me! Nag! Nag! Nag!” Gawain continued.

“Might do you some good now that you’re a family man now,” Merlin sassed. An eyebrow raised. Sauciness glimmered in his eyes.

Gawain rolled his eyes. “Sure. Now you turn on me too? I thought you were my mate. Mith’s really got you whipped. Doesn’t she?”

“I just know where my priorities are. So should you. Maybe you might want to consider moderation?” Merlin supposed.

Gawain frowned. Bile burned his stomach. Indignation ate at him. “Maybe you might want to consider moderation?” he parroted. Sarcasm dipped from his tone.

“You really want that Ministry of Produce position. Don’t you?” Merlin cleared his throat.

“Sure Gwen told us how you raised the bar of the rest of us like that. I mean we can’t top you, Your Worship,” the knight cracked.

Before Merlin could respond, a deep hissing came from cam.

MERLIN! Mithian called.

“Come on!” Merlin rushed back toward the camp.

“Now what?” Gawain narrowed his eyes. He hustled behind Merlin. He held his sword at the ready for the next threat beyond those peaceful trees…..

 

****

 

[Camp—A Twelfth of an Hourglass Turn Earlier]

Mithian tapped a quill against a piece of parchment. Her eye surveyed the latest clearing. Detail offered positives and negatives of said place for the royal enterprise. She definitely supported Merlin’s initiative. It allowed for him to get his foot in the door so to speak. He could serve the kingdom and their people. He was reaching out to allies and other kings for connections and collaboration.

And Confidence bubbled up all the more.

All great things as far as she was concerned.

He’s getting there. Relief broke Worry’s chains binding her mind. She noticed that the progress was having its desired effect. She and Merlin bonded with their friends. Away from Whitgate’s official eye, Protocol seemed to fall away. Perhaps it was Arthur’s influence and example with his own knights. Still Merlin had some direction in that regard. He pursued it exceeding Rodor’s comfort level.

Tradition had its place but Practicality did as well….

She scratched out a few observations onto the parchment. Her quill seemed to run away with a mind of its own. Detail quickly filled out a quarter of the surface. Imagination played with potential scenarios for a tavern in that place.

Perhaps this might be the place, Princess?

Perhaps. She turned to find Malodius regarding her. How is the perimeter?

Everything seems peaceful. Still I’d advise caution. Malodius looked about the area. Despite Serenity’s bliss, he knew Trouble could blow up like a storm on the sea. The sorceress could be anywhere.

You’d have to bring her up. She frowned. Reality stung her.

My apologies, Lady. Everything should be a balance. We should enjoy our blessings. Still those with evil can ambush from anywhere, the lion reminded her.

I know. I will speak to Sir Ywain about the guard. Another threat. Will they stop? she lamented. She noted their friends pursuing conversation and cooking. They all seemed so at peace. She wondered why things couldn’t always be like that.

Naivety had its heartbeat…and then another. Then, much as Sunset’s colorful show, it faded into dark…

Nay. Challenges and tests seem to lie heaviest on the royal head it seems, the lion added. I say this because I care for Merlin and you. His tail twitched. His mane stood on end. We have danger!

Where? We…. Her eyes went wide. “Where’d they come from? TO ARMS! TO ARMS!” She grabbed for her crossbow.

From the trees’ cover, three enormous serpents slithered across the damp ground into their campsite. Their dark scales plowed grooves into the damp earth. Their forked tongues flicked at the air. Deep hisses escaped their fanged jaws.

Malodius roared loudly. He charged the first serpent placing himself between it and Mithian.

“My Lady!” Britomart dropped the skewer of venison. Her eyes narrowed. She ran toward another of the intruders. She swung her blade several times with little effect; the metal clanging off of the scales.

The snake wrapped its coils around the fire haired maiden. It on the other hand could squeeze the breath and life from her.

“Britomart!” Mithian fired several bolts from her weapon. Somehow she just managed to evade the third snake’s lunge. MERLIN!!

“Lady, be careful!” Ywain called.

“I’d say the same of you.” Mithian bit back further comment. Instead she focused on the link. Where are you?

Gawain and I were talking. We’re coming! Merlin called. At that moment, he reached the scene. His eyes went wide. Where did they come from?

Obviously they were conjured. When we see the sorceress next, you can ask her, Mithian retorted. Her eyes sparked a ‘do something already’ glare.

“Where’d they come from? I wasn’t gone that long!” Gawain wondered.

“Perhaps you’d care to assist us?” Ywain suggested with an edge to his voice. He battered at his adversary with continued little effect.

“Don’t let your mail bunch up, Y-Whine! I’m on it!” Gawain frowned. “Maybe you can whammy something up, Your Princiness?” With that, he rushed toward the second snake. “You’ll have to wait, Y-Whine. Big Red’s in over her head as usual!”

“Take…your…time, Oaf,” Britomart groused in a pained whisper.

“Everyone’s a critic!” Gawain considered the situation. He tried to stab at the dark coils but met with the same results as the others. “Even when she can’t breathe, she nags. Seriously?” He stuck his blade between her and the coils. Then he pulled against the coils. His teeth ground against each other. His arms felt the strain. Yet he wouldn’t stop his efforts.

The snake, stuck between Surprise and Disdain, loosened its coils for a half of a heartbeat. Granted it didn’t do that much. Its tail flicked just missing Gawain but snapping the oak behind him like a twig.

In the process, Distraction allowed Britomart to free herself. She somehow staggered away from the large predator and toward Mithian. She ached. Still she forced herself to hold her sword at the ready. “M…milady?”

“You need time,” Mithian asserted.

“I can’t…leave…” Britomart grabbed at her side. Her eyes narrowed. Her mouth twisted in a frown.

Mithian caught her friend as the latter’s legs collapsed under her. “Lie down. That’s an order.”

Britomart shook her head. “Sorry….” She accepted the Princess’ help to recline on the grass.

“Just relax. We have this under control,” Mithian assured her. She looked across the clearing. Merlin! Come on!

Malodius jumped over the first serpent’s lunge at himself. His paws pressed down on the coils. His teeth snapped down just beneath the snake’s head. He spat obsidian blood. Merlin!

Now I know how Gawain feels! Merlin shook his head. His eyes glowed canary yellow. “Aag èirigh!”

The remaining two serpents floated into the air. They thrashed about to no avail. The spell held them both fast.

Merlin drew Excalibur from its scabbard. He stalked up to the two snakes. Twice the rune-marked blade stabbed forth dispatching the two assailants. Then he waved his hand once again. Once more his eyes glowed.

The snakes or what remained of them vaporized in a puff of brimstone and smoke.

“Are you all right?” Merlin asked Mithian.

“Now I am. I’m glad those serpents didn’t catch Sir Gawain or you, my Prince.” Mithian motioned to Britomart. “Her side’s hurt.”

“That’s what she gets for jumping in. I tell her to be careful,” Gawain insisted. Irreverence failed to mask Concern’s overtones in his voice. He leaned close to his fiancée. “You can’t stay out of trouble.”

“And…you…can?”Britomart rasped between coughs. “My…lout…in dull…armor.”

“Even now she can’t resist.” Gawain rolled his eyes. He pulled up the side of her mail shirt. He grimaced at her bruising and the dark stain under the skin. “Great! Just great!”

“We’ll wrap it.” Merlin assured them both. He touched the wounded area. Again his eyes glowed. Magical energies flowed from his finger into her.

The bruising and darkness faded ever so slightly. Britomart relaxed and fell asleep.

“Hopefully that did some good.” Merlin stood up. He walked back over to Mithian’s side. “Now we wait.”

“You did all that you could,” Mithian assured him. That time.

I had to think. I had to get away. Merlin slumped his head. “I did run over. I tried. I got rid of the snakes.” He frowned. “Two of them anyway. And Gawain was talking with me. That’s my fault.”

“I’m…sorry,” Britomart whispered her apology.

“I know.” Merlin smiled. “Gawain needs some guidance. You’re good for him. Maybe give him a break this time? He was being a good friend. You are too. When he goes for the cask….”

“I HEARD THAT!” Gawain snapped.

“DON’T! Don’t…push…your luck, you Oaf….” Britomart scolded. Still the words came out less forcefully than they might have. “Our Prince has a point. Are you all right, Lady?”

“I’m fine. It seems this sorceress knows when to strike.” Mithian winced at the snakes’ ashen remains.

“We need to be more careful.” Merlin squirmed. How can I get away to think?

We must all be on guard. Nobody can do it all alone, Malodius assured him.

And we support each other, my Prince. Mithian embraced Merlin. As he just said, we all have to be watchful. Her eyes sparkled into his. Just another rough edge.

Rough edges. Merlin sighed deeply.

She simply smirked. No further response was necessary.

“Maybe before we get to Rafton, we should rest?” Merlin suggested.

“I’ll stand watch, my Prince. You need your time,” Ywain volunteered. Getting a nod from Mithian, he started into his rounds.

“As you suggested, we should all get rest.” Mithian took Merlin’s hand. She walked with him back across the camp.

It seemed there were other issues to consider….

Chapter Text

Chapter 11 [Next Day—Rafton]

A brisk breeze whistled through the trees. Overcast spread across the skies in patchwork fashion. Sol peeked out from perch to perch.

In the village, the citizens went about their business. A miller ground some grain between two stones. A hammer rang out against metal on a forge. Two hunters bartered with a third man with furs for other goods. On the outskirts, a few peasants tilled the soil.

All seemed normal at least on the surface.

Despite the air’s crispness, a heaviness weighed down on animal, plant and person alike. Sharp static burned on psyches. Eyes rolled. Feet dragged. Truculence slowed even Enthusiasm’s ardent supporters. Attitude soured lowering faster than the hand could set tools or cease a task before heading for the common.

Time to see what Whitgate had up its sleeve….

\

****

 

Mithian put her hand up stopping the procession. Her hunter’s eye surveyed the village. She could see people coming in from the woods. A few craftsmen wrapped up tasks before joining their neighbors. Despite nothing seeming out of the ordinary, Intuition advised a cautious approach.

“Is something amiss, Princess?” Ywain queried. “What concerns you?”

“Just a feeling I can’t shake, Sir Ywain. We’ll proceed. Be careful though,” Mithian advised. She glanced toward Merlin. Are you getting anything?

Other than the overwhelming magical residue? Not really. Something’s off though about this place. Merlin pointed out.

Oh? We feel that. Do we? Perhaps we are learning some caution? Mithian coughed.

I have survived a scrape here and there you know, Merlin reminded her. Ask the boar.

Touche. Mithian sighed at that concession. Until then she felt like she had the better of their verbal judo. Just keep your eyes open.

I will. Let me try something. Merlin took a deep breath. His eyes glowed. “A 'nochdadh faireachdainnean!”

The spell turned the crackling energies opaque. He and the others now saw the crimson and ebony energies saturating the air.

See? I’m not about to let you charge in without knowing. Not bad for having caution. Is it? Merlin smirked at his wife.

Mithian had to nod at that thought. Just keep your wits about you, my Prince.

But who would do this? Merlin wondered to himself. This is an isolated village.

Need you ask, Merlin? Kilgarrah jumped in.

And I suppose you do? Merlin scoffed.

It isn’t hard to guess. The triple goddess and the priestesses want you to pursue this course. That leaves the sorceress. Whoever she is, she has shown great skill and power. If she can evade the goddess’ gaze, who’s to say she can’t influence an entire village? the Great Dragon supposed.

Merlin grimaced. That’s what we don’t need. Is there a counter spell?

For a heartbeat, Kilgarrah hesitated. Déjà vu elicited an eye roll. It seems old habits die hard, Young Prince.

Merlin didn’t miss the point or tone. I do have my reasons for asking, Kilgarrah.

And perhaps I would offer that knowledge to another. As your brother, I may owe you fealty. I also owe you protection. If you cast the spell in question, it would have ramifications. The sorceress manipulates. She cares little about the damage she causes. You should. You have a wife, kingdom and allies to consider, Kilgarrah argued.

As Prince, I took an oath to serve. Have I done any less for Camelot or Nemeth? Merlin shot back.

Aye, Emrys. You have served. Still Kilgarrah’s point is merited. As Morgana has, you must achieve balance. Your promise lies with magic and service to me. Remember that, the goddess declared.

I understand that, Merlin agreed.

I hope you do, Emrys.

Merlin spasmed. Needles and burning stabbed at him. He ground his teeth.

Your control over magic increases. Cast your spell, the goddess advised.

Merlin nodded. He sucked in a deep breath. Doubt held him in check for a heartbeat. He pushed through that. Power flushed through him. He pointed. His eyes glowed.

Much as Wind dispels Odor away, his enhanced spell pushed the crimson and ebon energy away. A deafening boom shook the clearing. A few leaves floated to the ground. The animals skittered into the woods. Still the air had been cleansed.

Merlin leaned against a tree. He gasped from Exertion’s effort. “I…I…did it.”

Aye, Emrys. Have faith in yourself and me. We shall speak again, the goddess concluded before going silent.

Merlin shook his head. What did she do? I’ve never been able to cast a spell like that.

She magnified your capabilities, Merlin. What you said is nothing lightly dismissed. Think on that, Kilgarrah declared before going silent.

Think on that? I have a headache. Merlin stalked back toward the camp. What will she want? Then he saw Mithian looking at him expectantly. Now I really have a headache. Deliberation slowed his steps across the clearing.

“You’re really so smart. Aren’t you?” Gawain sassed.

Merlin rolled his eyes. He wasn’t about to dignify that comment with a response. It’s not like I just did it on my own. He crossed the last few steps to where Mithian and a couple of the villagers were talking.

Mithian turned to Merlin. She motioned with her head beckoning him to her side. “You are just in time. These are Saegel and Merthyn, the village elders.”

A heavy man bowed slowly. His knees creaked toward the reverent position. “Prince Merlin, it is an honor, Sire.”

“As it is for us, Saegel.” Merlin studied the duo. He clearly discerned Disorientation in their eyes. “Something wrong?”

Merthyn bowed her head. "Forgive us, Sire. We were preparing for your arrival. As we told Princess Mithian, we began picking flowers for laurels and wreaths in your honor. Then a strange odor stung our nostrils. A strange fog and chill hung over the land. Our heads burned. We were so tired. We fell asleep. That was two days ago.” She curtseyed again.

“There’s nothing to forgive,” Mithian assured them. Even if she’d talk to Merlin later about the details, she deduced that their mysterious adversary had caused it. Urgency pushed at her to present a plan for a sorcery council anew to her father. “We can make sure you’re all right.”

“That would be most generous, Milady.” Saegel bowed again. Gratitude and Surprise overwhelmed him. “The children seem sluggish. I fear.”

“I’ll see to them myself,” Merlin agreed. “Then we can see to the village’s security.”

“Very well, Sire.” Merthyn guided him across the clearing toward the sick kids.

Service and Good Will would be the driving force in this case it seemed…..

Chapter Text

Chapter 12 [Next Morning]

Mithian stirred. Slowly her eyes blinked open. Contentment warmed her heart. She’d had a nice guided walk about the village. While seemingly like most others, the residents greeted her warmly. They appreciated the attention especially since the last visit had been twenty-five years earlier.

That fact widened her eyes to say the least. She understood that Gedref’s disputed status meant the threat of war if either Camelot or Nemeth crossed into that territory. She shook her head. Certainly Grandfather or Father could’ve worked something out with Arthur. If only Uther hadn’t been so pigheaded! That man…ARGH! Her face crinkled up like a prune. Father will take care of this now. Thankfully Merlin proposed this tavern idea. She smiled. Warmth melted Discord’s mood away quickly. She glanced toward him.

He, for his part, relaxed. Healing and helping others put him right in his element. Between Freya, Ninane, Nimue and himself, they had tended to the villagers. Ever the diplomat, he smiled and bade greetings. He asked questions and learned all he could about them. He performed spell-driven illusions and tricks for the children. He and Mithian even walked with the elders. He asked them for advice on prospective sites for the village’s tavern.

Trust hesitantly poked through because of these efforts. The villagers could tell that the royals genuinely cared about their welfare. Generations had languished out on the frontier under both Camelot’s and Nemeth’s blind eyes. They’d learned to make it on their own. Even if a few resented this visit, most welcomed the protection and promised assistance from Whitgate. Experience and Co-existence would develop these bonds further for good or ill.

All from Merlin’s efforts…even if he was snoring at the moment….

Amusement raised an eyebrow. It lifted the sides of her mouth into a bemused smile. It shook her head.

He’s entitled to his quirks, I suppose. The greatest sorcerer of our age. A Prince who exceeds in his training. A husband who tries to please me…sometimes too much. He’s entitled to those rough edges. She twirled his dark locks between her fingers. Despite the weeks of royal pampering, the strands still stubbornly clung to their peasant coarseness.

Just another sign of how difficult Merlin’s transition proved for him. It represented the point of clinging to the past while trying to jump ahead and reconcile both at the same time. Skepticism would hamper many in such a situation. Prejudice and Rejection impeded the effort. Most men would quit.

But Her Prince wasn’t most men…and if he’d been, she wouldn’t have fallen so hard for him….

But then she wasn’t the usual Princess either—quilting samples and being an arm ornament be damned….

You are bringing about a new world, Merlin. Thank you for partnering with me on it. She kissed his brow. Then she slowly untangled herself from their embrace. She carefully slid out of the bed roll. She smoothed her white riding blouse and breeches. She sucked in a deep breath of that setting. She knew that they’d firm up their new kingdom in places such as that. They’d reassure their supporters. They’d convince their critics to consider anew. But they’d work with everyone.

“Ho! Milady!” Britomart called.

“Aye?” Mithian hustled toward the duo. She noticed a thin or rather emaciated man stumbling to maintain the others’ pace. She could see the villager’s rags hanging from his arms. His eyes bulged almost seeming too large for his face. Hunger clearly had taken its toll on him. “Please get this man something to eat.”

“I…I am not worthy, Princess,” the man coughed. He lowered himself slowly to his knees. “My…daughter….I must speak….with you.”

“And we will. I promise. Please. I want you to eat something first,” Mithian insisted. She helped the visitor to the ground. “Sir Gawain, is someone on guard?”

“Yeah Ywain and the new kids are on patrol. Blood Lion’s doing his own patrol. We didn’t want this guy to drop on us.” Gawain motioned toward the supplies. “Maybe some bread?”

“And water. Thank you,” Mithian added. She leaned over the shuddering man. “We’ll get you something.” When Gawain had returned with the bread, she ripped a piece from the loaf and handed it to the man. “Here you are. What’s your name?”

“Randolph, Milady.” Randolph accepted the meal. Skittishness stiffened his movements. His teeth tore into her offering bite by bite. His stomach didn’t seem to burn so much. A subsequent water skin parched his arid throat. “Thank you, Princess.” He bowed his head.

“You’re welcome, Master Randolph. Let me get Prince Merlin. Then we might talk,” Mithian advised. “Finish your meal.” She smiled.

“You’re too generous, Lady. Might I keep some for my family? My wife and children…they’re hungry,” Randolph requested.

“Of course. We’ll see to them. I’ll be back,” Mithian assured him. Then she walked toward her sleeping husband.

Charity had a much bigger burden than any had supposed…..

 

****

 

[A Quarter of the Hourglass Later]

Merlin accompanied Mithian back across the campsite. Granted he’d needed a bit of coaxing from her to wake up. He blinked back a bit of the sand in his eyes. “And did you find out more about him?”

She snorted. “Priorities, Merlin. I’ve seen starving wolves devour prey with less ferocity. We satisfy his stomach. We’ll see to his family. Then we can discern the best course of action. Wouldn’t you agree?”

He sighed. “I can’t believe Uther and your father left these people out here like this. And even so, the villagers seem all right all things considered. So why would this man and his family be any different? Arthur would’ve helped them if he’d known.” Regret once again pricked at his heart. He frowned.

“All good questions, my Prince. I am sure Arthur would’ve given aid to these people had he known. As for why some benefit and others are shunned, perhaps you might ask Mother why she sent you to Camelot in the first place?” she suggested.

“You have a point,” he conceded.

“Do I now?” She raised an eyebrow and smirked at him.

He shrugged. “Let’s see if we can help him.” He noticed Britomart tending to Randolph. “How is our patient, Britomart?”

“Better, my Prince. Randolph has more energy. He is ready to speak with you,” Britomart reported.

Randolph tried to climb to his feet. His legs, however, still felt too weak to do so. “Prince Merlin, I…I…”

“It’s all right.” Merlin shook his head. He stooped down to Randolph’s level. He clearly discerned the remaining weakness there. “I know you would kneel if you could, Randolph. How are you? Are you feeling better?”

“I am. Thank you, Sire.” Confusion sent Randolph’s brain spinning. He couldn’t believe that a Prince much less the Crown Prince had kneeled to his level rather than the other way around. “I appreciate the Princess’ kindness and yours.”

“It’s our pleasure. Princess Mithian tells me that your family is hungry. We can walk back to the village if you’d like….” Merlin started.

Randolph snapped to attention. Fear paled his complexion once more. “Nay, Sire! I…” He bowed his head. “Forgive me. I didn’t mean….”

Mithian rubbed his shoulder. “Of course you didn’t.” Still she puzzled over their visitor’s mindset. “What happened in the village? Why don’t you want to go back there?”

Randolph shook his head fiercely. “Nay. Please! I can’t! They’d come after her.”

“Come after her? Come after who, Mate?” Gawain interjected.

“My daughter.” Randolph frowned. “I was a tanner in the village. Then my neighbors found out about my daughter. They feared her. She…” His eyes watered. His mouth went dry.

“Why did they fear her? It’s all right. You can tell us,” Merlin assured him. Fear practically pounced on Mithian and him from Randolph. “So are you in the village?”

“Nay. We live in the forest. We survive on fruit and what fish I catch.” Randolph trembled. “You promise not to harm her?” He backed away from them.

“I promise. Nothing will happen to her,” Mithian vowed.

“We both promise, Randolph,” Merlin affirmed.

Randolph glanced at the two royals. For a dozen long heartbeats, his mind weighed potential consequences and benefits of their proposal. Need and Risk both pressed at him. Finally Necessity shoved him forward. He nodded. “I can lead you.”

“Okay.” Merlin looked him in the eye. “Show us the way.”

“Follow me.” Randolph slowly stood. “It isn’t far.” He headed toward the woods.

“Gawain and Ywain, accompany us. Everyone else, keep watch here,” Mithian told them all. She beckoned Merlin and the two aforementioned knights to follow Randolph and her.

The quintet trudged through the trees and brush. They crossed a small stream. They wove their way through some oak trees. A half league later, they came upon a cave…well more like a hollow than a cave actually. In front of it, a small shelter of broken wood strips, tree branches and leaves extended into the small clearing. Off to the side, a rouge haired woman and a young girl leaned close to a smoldering fire. Their threadbare clothes bore animal-skin patches. They wore deerskin breeches.

Seeing Randolph’s companions, the two women stiffened. Their eyes jerked upward. Their jaws slackened. They dropped their skewers and rushed into the shelter.

“We mean no harm! It’s all right!” Merlin assured them. He grimaced. Memoria reminded him of how Hunith would’ve reacted in much the same way to Mercian officials. He could definitely relate to the family’s feelings.

“Pardon, Prince and Princess, we have learned to avoid others. We do have our reasons,” Randolph explained.

“I’m sure. Still we did promise safety to you,” Mithian reminded Randolph.

“We can bring them out,” Ywain offered.

“Nay.” Merlin sucked in a deep breath. It’s all right. I have magic too. You can trust us.

For several heartbeats, Silence and Tension hung heavily over the clearing. Only a few birds chirped from the trees. None of the traveling party or Randolph made a sound.

How can I hear you? a female voice called back to Merlin.

Prince Merlin can speak to some in their minds. So can I, Mithian explained. We mean you no harm. Please come out.

We do understand. Magic isn’t evil in itself. You can be safe, Merlin promised.

As they have vowed, Young One, so shall it be, the goddess affirmed. In a flash of light, she appeared in their midst. Emerge now.

A dark haired girl emerged from the forest with her elder close behind her. Amazement widened her eyes. She struggled to digest the situation. “The…goddess? Is it?” She threw herself to the ground. “Can it be?”

Aye. Tis true, Daughter. These are my allies and followers. You are one of many who has hidden your face and gifts for too long. Once trained, you will know how to use them for the Light. You will be one of my priestesses, Daelfryn. It is time. The goddess held out her hand.

“What do you mean? You can’t take her from us!” the woman protested.

I do not steal her for pleasure. She is to be trained. Such as her duty and yours. As I give so can I take. The goddess took the girl’s hands in hers. She will be safe. With that, she disappeared from view with her young charge.

“Where is our daughter? You said she’d be safe!” Randolph insisted.

Gawain shrugged. “If the Prince says she’s safe, then she’s safe. Kid will be fine.” He shot Merlin a look. She’d better be safe.

The woman shook her head at Randolph. “Daelfryn’s been taken by the goddess, Randolph. You know of Avalon! The myths…they’re true!”

Randolph squirmed. He recalled the legends and myths from around the campfires. As a boy, he did see the emerald clad priestesses. Still he thought them long hunted down and gone. “And what of those who Uther and his ilk hunted down? Will our girl be safe?”

“The goddess promised. So have we. I fear that’s the best we can tell you,” Mithian indicated. “We did not know she’d take your daughter. That is her will. At least she will not be hunted for what she is.”

And she will not be. That I promise you, the goddess chimed in telepathically before going silent once more.

Mood hung heavily over the clearing. The air warmed as Sol climbed into the sky. A slight breeze billowed through the leaves and grass.

“Come. Let’s see what we can do in the village. The days of sorcerers being hunted down are over,” Merlin told them all. Then he turned and walked back toward the flowing water.

“So you’re just going to make them accept these guys?” Gawain inquired. Skepticism flavored his tone.

“He is the Prince, Sir Gawain,” Ywain reminded his fellow knight.

Yeah but will those blokes listen? Gawain shook his head. Merlin, I hope you know what you’re doing! He followed the others down the path.

Chapter Text

Chapter 13 [Rafton—A Third of an Hourglass Turn Later]

Malodius watched the trail. His eyes roved over the trees and spaces between them. After the snakes’ ambush, Concern pressed him to attention. He paced about the clearing. Merlin?

We’re coming. We found Randolph’s family. Is everything all right there? Merlin answered.

Britomart is anxious. Was there any trouble? Malodius wondered.

We’re all right. Randolph and his wife are with us. The goddess recruited their daughter as a priestess, Merlin informed him.

We have an unexpected asset. How are the villagers? Mithian interjected.

Malodius considered Rafton’s residents. He noted Tension’s paling of their faces. They whispered amongst themselves. Ill At Ease held their eyes toward the forest. Hospitality seemed to lessen with each passing heartbeat. He could feel the villagers’ lack of enthusiasm for Randolph and his companion. They don’t want Master Randolph or his companion. Perhaps it has to do with the girl?

More than likely. She has magic. When will this stop? Merlin complained.

Patience, Merlin. Prejudice does not infect the mind in one day. To purge it takes longer, Malodius reminded him. Then he saw the royal party emerge from the brush with Randolph and the latter’s wife. He roared to alert the others.

Britomart slowly stood. Her side still ached from the injuries. Still she helped the villagers as best she could. She moved slowly about the clearing. She offered herbal remedies to a few sick people. She treated wounds and even bound up a farmer’s bruised side. Pain cut through her. Still Diligence urged her down Duty’s path. “I’ve seen to…the villagers.”

Gawain frowned. “She’s supposed to rest. Can’t ever do what you’re told. Can you?”

“Some live to serve, my Lord Windbag. Others rely on being served,” Britomart fired back. “A healer was needed.” She leaned against a tree.

“I’ll look at you. It’s all right,” Merlin noted. “Sit down.” He looked around the clearing. He observed three adults with several children standing by the woods’ edge. “I can help them.”

“My Prince, I can examine them. It’s…” Britomart exhaled sharply. Her lungs burned.

“You’re going to stay put,” Gawain insisted. He shook his head at his fiancée.

“You’re not my liege lord.” Britomart narrowed her eyes and set her jaw. She started to stand again.

“Prince Merlin said he will take care of it. You have done what you can,” Mithian disagreed. “Please allow us to take care of the rest.” She rushed over to the red haired healer’s side. “You need to rest.”

“Aye, Milady.” Britomart sighed deeply. “You found Master Randolph’s companion?”

“We did. We were going to speak to the villagers for them. And….” Mithian started.

Before anyone else could say anything, a heavy set villager pointed across the clearing. Anger reddened his face. “HEY! WHAT ARE THEY DOING HERE?”

“What are they doing here? They’re supposed to be GONE!” Saegel pressed. He raised his walking stick. His eyes narrowed.

“Prince Merlin, I told you. They don’t want us here. We should….” Randolph reminded Merlin. He grabbed onto his wife. He tried to keep himself between the villagers and her.

Mithian shook her head. Indignation flared up inside of herself. “Randolph, nobody should have to live as you have. This is your home.”

“We don’t want them here!” Seagel insisted. “It is our village!”

“Which is part of Nemeth. Prince Merlin and I can insist that you accept Randolph and his wife, Master Seagel. If you disagree, King Rodor will hear of it,” Mithian argued.

“Princess, may I speak?” Randolph’s wife queried. Getting a nod, she continued, “Would there be opportunity for us in the capital?”

Merlin frowned. He wanted to force the issue. Discrimination stirred up the bile in his stomach. He sucked in a deep breath. “We can ask the King. I can’t believe there’s no opportunity here.”

“Exactly. King Rodor can find the best solution for everyone. Diplomacy can provide the best way here. Meantime, Master Randolph, you can return with us to Whitgate,” Mithian decided.

“Milady, what of your progress? I appreciate your intercession. Still we are but peasants and….” Randolph doubted. He cringed. Fear seized onto him. He ground his teeth. He trembled.

“It is our duty to care for you and your neighbors, Master Randolph. Thank you for your consideration.” Mithian assured him. “We can resume our progress when these matters are resolved.” She sucked in a heavy breath. “Master Seagel, might I ask for your reason?”

Saegel bit his lip. His eyes fled Mithian’s glare. He looked to Merthyn. His mind struggled to explain.

Mithian’s mouth twisted into a dark frown. “Don’t look at them. Look at Prince Merlin and me. We’re right here. Address us.”

Merthyn cleared her throat. “We don’t need sorcery here. We can’t trust them.”

Merlin clenched his fists. Somehow he restrained himself. “And you think all sorcerers are evil?”

“Aye, Sire. We do. You’re not out here. You haven’t dealt with their kind with due respect,” Saegel asserted.

Gawain stiffened. “Hey! You watch it! They’re our Prince and Princess!”

“Sorcerers can be like anyone. They can be anyone. How do you know what their intentions are? We have faced dark magic. We have friends who are good sorcerers. Think on that,” Merlin informed them. “Now let’s walk through your village. We do have to look at some places. I don’t want to talk about this any further right now.”
Mithian squeezed his hand. Are you sure? We can order them to accept them.

They’ll do it while we’re here. Then they’ll force Randolph and her out after we’re gone. I can sense that, Merlin disagreed. Let your father support us. Meantime we can have them start on the tavern and have good will. I hope that works.

It is excellent. While you do still have more rough edges, it seems you keep learning. Well done! Mithian indicated. Now shall we see what they have to offer? She took his hand. “Shall we begin our tour, Master Saegel?”

Saegel nodded. He glanced at Randolph. Then he led the two royals and their entourage into the village.

And in such ways, Diplomacy made its inroads…..

Chapter Text

Chapter 14 [Whitgate—Mid-Afternoon on the Next Day]

Rodor rubbed his chin. His mind weighed the case’s facets. He listened to the two nobles’ disputed border between their estates. With Lord Brumenwald and Peter’s research, he set the boundary and summoned the respective manors’ officials to settle details. His eye kept drifting to his left.

Mithian’s throne sat empty.

I hope that Merlin and she are enjoying their progress. They will carry on our diplomatic priorities. I just hope they can enjoy themselves. He exhaled. The kingdom needed an heir. Still he valued his daughter’s undivided attention and advice.

Experience vs. Necessity. Which one should win out?

There will always be crises. We need our future. I pray Merlin can get over his feelings of inferiority. He will need to be strong as well. Rodor took a draught from his goblet.

At that moment, Galahad strode briskly into the chamber. He bowed before the throne. “Sire? The Prince and Princess have returned.”

“So soon?” Rodor puzzled over this turn of events. “Please show them in, Sir Galahad.” What happened? Such a tour—even an abbreviated one—takes a moon or more. Something went wrong.

The touring entourage entered the chamber. Mithian and Merlin offered Rodor the royal nod. The others bowed to the throne.

“Father, I apologize for not sending word ahead. We had a difficult encounter at Ralston,” Mithian explained.

“Difficult encounter?” Rodor looked over the group. “The villagers didn’t attack you. Did they?”

“Nay.” Merlin felt glad that he had thought to leave Britomart in the physician’s chamber to rest. “The prejudice toward magic forced a man and his family into the woods. They were living in horrible conditions, Sire.” He motioned toward their guests. “This is Master Randolph and his wife, Roslyn. Perhaps we might find them some work and a place to rest?”

“Aye. I know of several places in the royal household. Master Randolph, perhaps we might speak on such things?” Rodor presumed.

Randolph quaked. He bit his lip. “Sire, I do not wish to trouble you. I was a blacksmith and a tanner. I can learn.”

Rodor nodded. “Galahad, please show our friends to their quarters. Fetch them some food and water. When they are fed, we shall determine Master Randolph and Mistress Roslyn’s roles.”

“At once.” Galahad bowed along with the two guests. He led them from the chamber.

“Their situation could occur in other parts of the kingdom, Sire,” Merlin noted.

“Indeed it could. You did the right thing in returning as soon as you did.” Rodor cleared his throat. “How much of Gedref did you observe?”

“We rode along the border. Queen Morgana and King Accolon visited with us at our mutual border. Strangely I expected Camelot to maintain a presence across the Severn. Fortunately they did not do so,” Mithian pointed out.

“Fortunate for us all,” Rodor agreed. “I know we wanted to build our taverns and strengthen our hold across the kingdom. Still perhaps we should focus on each area. I would like to strengthen our position in Gedref. Then we can look toward Cawdor and Queen Annis’ realm.”

“A sensible idea, Father,” Mithian indicated.

“Not everything comes in a single day or trip. We will reassure our allies and accomplish our goals. Still Gedref is our priority. After that area is strengthened, we can look elsewhere,” Rodor insisted. “Meantime I believe Princess Josiane wanted to speak with you.”

“She returned?” Mithian glanced to Merlin. Then she faced Rodor again. “I assumed she’d be with Count Boeve longer.”

“She reported a good visit. It seems however we all have concerns. She said something about going to the garden. We shall speak again at dinner. Welcome back to the palace. I look forward to hearing more about the progress,” Rodor explained.

“We’ll tell you everything, Father. In the meantime we should be heading for the garden.” Mithian nodded to him one more time.

“Thank you, Sire,” Merlin concluded. He wondered what other things could happen. He knew the Sorceress watched them from under Shadow’s cloak. Instability threatened them from within and without. Josiane could tell them of Hampton and what was going on there. He nodded. Then he walked with Mithian from the chamber.

Things were getting more complicated…..

Chapter Text

Chapter 15 [Cawdor—Meleagant’s Palace]

Darkness smothered the northern skies. Lightning flared. Thunder boomed. A steady rain pelted the meadows. Chill stabbed at the shepherds herding their sheep. Mud squished under foot. Hair matted back on their scalps weighed down by sweat and the elements. Wolves howled at the obscured skies overhead.

Meleagant’s castle loomed over the whole scene. Granite walls and towers intimidated the inhabitants below. Sentries watched the meadows from atop the towers. In the courtyard, crimson garbed knights trained. Diligence fueled by Fear prodded them through their drills. The household staff kept the chambers immaculate.

Activity buzzed throughout the area.

 

****

 

Meleagant stewed in the throne chamber. His fingers tapped Impatience’s Morse code across his oaken arm rest. Frustration curled his lips into a frown. He ground his teeth. He gulped down a goblet of wine and slammed it onto the table. “MORE!!!”

A slender dark haired man rushed into the chamber. His trembling hands allowed wine to slosh in the pitcher. Some drizzled onto the carpet. He refilled the royal goblet with halting and uneven flows. His breathing escaped his lips in tortured rasps.

“GET OUT IF YOU CAN’T FILL MY CUP NEATLY, PIG!” Meleagant bellowed. He shoved the servant back toward the door.

The servant bowed. He ran from the chamber as if all of the demons of Hell were on his tail…

…which they might have been….

The tyrant scowled. He glared at the chairs around the table. Since the Sorceress’ news about his allies’ willingness to meet with him, he’d heard nothing of note on that front. He despised being the victim rather than the grand master in such designs. He craved an advance sweeping across Mercia or Amazonia. Perhaps he’d sweep down across Nemeth to take advantage of the brewing instability there. He could also rip away the façade of Camelot’s independence.

Ambition tempted him. Hunger burned in his belly. Vengeance desired a final victory.

Patience, it seemed, wasn’t a strong suit.

The iron is hot. We should strike now! Meleagant fumed.

“Impatient are we?”

He turned to find the Sorceress standing beside his throne. “Can’t you just walk in?”

She shrugged. Her eyes glinted at him in the torchlight. Almost like a cat would regard a rat, she tolerated his impertinence. “Perhaps you might act like a priest? We enter as we’d like. I do have news.”

He shook his head. “I had wondered why you hadn’t gathered our allies. We should destabilize our rivals! They are like birds limed and waiting to be plucked!”

She nodded. “And I work at such things, Great King. I harassed Mithian and her peasant paramour. They found their royal progress less than enjoyable. I created tension between their new subjects and them in Gedref. Little things. Pebbles to start an avalanche. Perhaps I will give my agent a pretext to invade? It won’t take much.”

“The Servant Queen will cut him off at the knees,” he sneered.

“She could. I could deal with her first. What else remains to keep Camelot from oblivion? I say nothing,” she declared. “We allow Illusion to do its work. Let Camelot believe it’s still free. Let the others believe that as well.” She glanced toward the passage outside. “Our guest assures us of an advantage.”

“If we don’t sit on that advantage. I would strike NOW!” he complained.

“And so we shall. “ She grabbed him by the arm. “It is time.” She whispered a low chant.

An obsidian flash enveloped the chamber and swept them away.

Where its dark light set them, Villainy would utilize them in its poisonous stew.

Use them well indeed…..

Chapter Text

Conclusion
[Whitgate—Merlin and Mithian’s Bedchamber]

Sol bathed the chamber with his warm beams. Pixie dust danced in the shafts washing the expanse. The light sparkled and gleamed on the varnished oak furnishings. A slight breeze rustled through the open window. It stirred the parchments on the desk. It swayed the hanging garments in the open wardrobe.

Dust tickled Merlin’s nose. He wrinkled his nostrils. Allergy burned and itched in his sinuses. His breathing caught in his throat. He twisted and turned. He struggled to keep his breathing shallow. For several heartbeats, he resisted against the brewing sneeze.

Then his lungs betrayed him. He exhaled and then released a single sound. “AAH-CHOO!!!!” Then another and another.

He winced. Great. Mithian wanted to sleep in. I would have to be that way! He shook his head.

Sneezing is a natural act, Merlin. Quit berating yourself already! Mithian blinked back Dream’s bliss. She rubbed his shoulder.

“You were sleeping so soundly. I didn’t want to wake you. I guess….” He admired how her eyes caught the early morning’s light. Even as it was mussed, her hair glistened softly against her pillow. Her lips twisted into Mischief’s smirk. “And that doesn’t bother you?”

“Bother me? Well I did want to sleep further. I suppose we could prepare for the day’s activities,” she supposed. She leaned close to him. Her lips whispered Amor’s reassurances across his cheek. “Then again, my Prince, I don’t think we have anything today. Father will want to speak over dinner.”

“We have that long, do we?” he supposed. A grin spread across his face.

“Aye, Merlin. We do.” She coughed. “I can think of a few things to keep us occupied.”

“As can I.” Anticipation and Desire lightened his heart. He felt as if he could fly in that particular heartbeat. He kissed her forehead. “And a proper good morning to you.”

“Even if your sneeze conveyed me abruptly into it?” she teased. Her eyebrow raised. Her eyes sparkled. She embraced him.

“It’s an art. I learned from Arthur. What can I say?” The mention of Arthur’s name distracted him. Instinct nagged at him. He had that feeling. Once again he felt as if his former liege was misled. Much as Agravaine had done, Arthur was heading down the wrong path…

…a path from which only Gwen could rescue him…if he’d listen….

Mithian shook her head. “Merlin?”

He stared into space absently. His mind continued to puzzle through the question at hand.

“Merlin.” She rubbed his back.

“Hmm?” He jumped. He turned to her. “Oh sorry. My mind….”

“You’re thinking of how to pull Arthur’s head out of his arse. I know. I worry as well. Still we have to trust Gwen to do her share. Meantime we have our own duties to consider. That…and our subjects…and well…you know?”

He rubbed his chin. “Maybe your father’s concerns?”

“Aye. There’s Continuity to consider. I’m sure it won’t be unpleasant,” she declared. She drew closer. Her hands massaged his shoulders.

“Oh I know it won’t be.” His eyes danced at that suggestion.

She grinned. “You are the greedy boy. Aren’t you?”

He smirked. “Can’t be helped. I have this uncouth Princess who’s a beauty and more than she appears. How can I refuse?”

“How can you indeed?” Her lips stamped Affection’s seal across his. She pulled the quilt over their heads and snuggled close.

Some parts of the royal affair were private after all…..

 

****

 

[Physician’s Chambers—Half of an Hourglass Turn Later]

Britomart stared at the ceiling. Duty tugged at her. Patients needed tending. Sickness had to be cured. Wounds bandaged. Cures made. Instead she was on her back. She sucked in a burning breath. Her ribs ached. She frowned.

“You’re staying put, Brit.” Gawain put a hand on her shoulder. “For once, I’m telling you.”

She rolled her eyes. “Don’t…enjoy this too much, you Oaf.”

“Who me?” Satisfaction spread a smirk across his face. “I get the last word for once?” He held a wooden cup of water up. He waved it in the air. “Don’t talk. Drink. Rest. Be quiet.”

She frowned. “You…hush. I’m…I…” She grimaced.

“Can’t listen. Can you?” He frowned. He put the cup to her lips. Slowly the liquid eased through her mouth and down her throat.

She drained the cup. Her eyes drooped. Sleep claimed her.

He set the cup down on the table. He reached down and straightened a stray wisp of her red mane. “Only way to get you to relax.” He considered her pale face. Her breathing rasped catching every few attempts. “Maybe if you did that before, you wouldn’t have the two broken ribs.” Following Merlin’s directions, he checked the wrap around her torso. “Wish he could use a whammy on you.”

“For some things, the body should respond on its own.” Nimue looked over the sleeping patient. “Sleep is the best thing for her. You do know not to irritate her?” She raised an eyebrow.

He rolled his eyes. “She gets herself in trouble. Don’t look at me.”

“I believe Mischief is acquainted with you on a first name basis, Sir Knight.” Nimue coughed. “Sister Fenice has heard a great deal.”

He frowned. “Sorie should keep that to herself. Whatever.”

“Is it her fault you’re reckless? I’d look to yourself first.” Nimue checked the wrap one more time. Then she nodded. “Just let her sleep. With rest, she’ll recover and be back in charge of you in no time.” She waved toward the corner. Her eyes glinted canary. “Do be aware.” She disappeared in a poof of white mist.

“Be in charge of me? Sure. Dream on.” He settled down on a stool. He set a wet cloth on Britomart’s forehead. “And you rest.” He sighed.

Some people couldn’t win for losing…..

 

****

 

[Garden]

Josiane sniffed deeply of Rose’s scent. The smell eased her mood. She’d enjoyed her visit with Boeve. She ate of fresh fish from the boats at the harbor. She listened to the bards’ best tales and songs. She reacquainted herself with several exiles from her homeland. She’d helped the city’s poor with foodstuffs. Bliss couldn’t have been any better….

…that is if Malice would’ve kept out of it….

Threats spoiled the ambiance. Camelot pressed for an increase in tribute. Raiders attacked but were driven back. Exiles from the Roman inner sea’s eastern regions reported on Mustafa’s and Alys’ tyranny there. Elyan and Leon shared other accounts of strife with the Holy Roman Empire to the east. And that was before hearing about the royal progress’ abrupt ending.

Who is that Sorceress? What connection does she share with the Red King? And why would the two tyrants work together? She frowned. “On the eve of happiness, the ingrates seek to ruin everything.”

“There will always be people like that, Josiane. We just need to deal with them,” Merlin assured her. He led Mithian down the floral lined path. “You had a short visit. Why didn’t you stay longer?”

“Boeve and I had some time. Threats however demanded my return. I wasn’t about to leave King Rodor or you both without my aid, Merlin. Aunt Britomart’s injury needed additional tending. I brought some healing herbs for her. And then there’s the Sorceress’ threat. Word that Cligés’ uncle and that ingrate, Mustafa, have allied reached my ears,” Josiane explained.

“They have?” Mithian’s eyes went wide. “I thought they were enemies.”

“They had been. Still the snakes will turn toward a common goal. They hate my brother and me. Alys still lusts for Fenice. Counts Leon and Elyan spoke of skirmishes along their eastern borders with her father,” Josiane reported.

“Elyan and Leon? They were in Hampton?” Merlin inquired. Disappointment crinkled his brow.

“They sailed north for Mercia. I am sure King Percival and Queen Blancheflor will wish to speak with us. I told them to speak with Queen Elena as well. The war comes to our shores.” Josiane bowed her head. “I didn’t wish for this.”

“No one would say that, Josiane,” Mithian assured. “Is it our fault that Meleagant and this Sorceress bring anarchy to our land? Did you invite them to harass your family and endanger us all? Nay. I’d say you stop blaming yourself. “ She embraced the other woman. “Your concerns are ours. How are relations between Hampton and Camelot?”

Josiane narrowed her eyes. Frustration darkened her features. “Arthur pressed Boeve for greater tribute. I can’t believe this! After what Edgar put us through, Arthur would do this? Really?”

“Perhaps if we’d speak to Gwen, she could intercede?” Merlin suggested.

“Before our standoff at the Severn, I would hope so. Perhaps Morgana might assist? Given how uncharacteristically Arthur is acting, there is no way to tell,” Mithian presumed.

“I do not wish to come between Arthur and Morgana. I won’t sink to his level,” Josiane denied.

Merlin shook his head. “I just wish I understood why Arthur’s being such a prat. Even if he’s being stubborn, he tries to be considerate of his nobles. He didn’t summon Boeve to Camelot?”

“He did. Would you trust him after what he’s putting us all through? I’m sorry. I wouldn’t see my love in the dungeon for trust,” Josiane doubted.

“And yet Arthur is his liege lord. If summoned, Boeve must go.” Mithian frowned. “I’m sorry. Given everything else, I wish I could offer another solution.”

“I know. It isn’t your fault, Mithian. I appreciate your father’s generosity. I don’t want trouble. I just want a life with Boeve! I want to serve my people! Why is that so difficult?” Josiane demanded.

“Arthur’s being difficult. It’s almost like he’s turned into Uther.” Merlin shook his head. “He spent years protesting such decisions. Now he’s doing it.”

“All we can do, my Prince, is be watchful. After that, we can trust in our allies. Together we can all bring order to Britannia. Beyond that, we trust in the goddess,” Mithian noted.

“We should hold onto our faith. I am praying to my god for such relief,” Josiane agreed. “He has blessed me with you, my Friends, and your aid. We should take comfort in that. Lancelot and Elaine, you two, Gawain and Britomart, Fenice and Cligés in addition to Boeve and me—our happiness is reason enough to celebrate.”

“And soon Father will join Britomart and Gawain. Everything else will come together in its own time.” Mithian spread her hands to envelop the entire garden. “For now, let’s enjoy as you’ve said.” She sniffed a lilac blossom for emphasis.

“We’re here for you,” Merlin affirmed.

“As you always have been, Merlin. Given the magic you work, I have confidence in our chances, my Friends.” Josiane smiled for them. “We created this place together. We can extend that magic together.”

“Together,” Merlin agreed.

“Together,” Mithian concurred. Confidence urged her head to a strong nod.

“Together!”

The trio turned to see Lancelot, Elaine, Fenice and Cligés watching them.

Merlin smirked. “As you said, stronger together than by ourselves. Right?”

“Indeed so. Whatever Fate puts in our path, we shall prevail,” Josiane declared. She embraced her brother.

“No matter what Uncle Alys does, we’ll take a strong stand,” Cligés declared. “You’re stuck with us.”

“To the end, Princess,” Elaine chimed in.

“We stand by one another.” Lancelot took a solid breath. “Meantime King Rodor calls us to breakfast. Shall we?”

“I’d say we’re ready.” Merlin felt a rumble coming from his stomach.

Mithian’s eyes sparkled. Mischief tugged her lips into a smirk. “Oh? Are we or is your stomach ready, Merlin?”

“I wasn’t hungry before. Maybe because I’m concerned about everyone? And then there’s this Princess…I don’t know what her name is,” Merlin teased.

Mithian rolled her eyes. “We could’ve called for some fruit, Merlin. It’s not my fault your mind was occupied with something else. Come. Let’s fill that delicate stomach of yours.” She took his hand and guided him toward the passage door.

Perhaps War loomed to the north and off of the coast. Perhaps Insecurity dogged them both within and outside of their kingdom. Still Amor bonded them. Companionship brought them together and gave them allies across the continent. And that in the end might make all of the difference in the end.

But then again, Adversity brought together the dark forces to test them.

How that conflict goes, a great deal hung in the balance…..

 

THE END (for now)