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The Holly and the Oak

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Emrys is strong, sister. He will not break.

“Then I will make him break.”

We must be cunning.

“I could send Niviane. She has not failed me before.”

She must tread carefully. Emrys will be suspicious, will be on the lookout for tricks. He knows we will not take his refusals lightly. We need him.

“Niviane will know what to do.”

She'll need help.

“I know just the thing.”

***

She came in the spring, when the first buds pushed their way through the detritus of winter. Tiny daffodil stems peeked from under mouldy leaves; droopy white snowdrops struggled to emerge from the layer of mud that covered everything, all that remained of that year's snowfall.

When the girl came, the sun shone brighter. The flowers stood straighter, and the wind turned warm and gentle. The ripples on the lake organized themselves into perfect rows of silver shimmers, and even Merlin's ramshackle cottage perked up, as if freed from an oppressive weight.

Merlin was not much concerned with the state of his home. It sufficed, and that was good enough for him. He spent most of his time outdoors, learning the ways of the sparrow and the snail. He spent long periods of time as an animal himself, discovering the wisdom of minnow and mouse. It helped to distract him from the ever-present tower on the island in the lake, a constant reminder of Merlin's worst failure.

But he would always return to his cottage, to spend time as a human, afraid that one day the wildness might carry him away, too far to make it back when Arthur finally returned.

Merlin was sitting in a wooden chair in his tiny porch when the girl came. He had been pondering whether he felt up to turning into a fish for a trip to the bottom of the lake to visit the old Leviathan that lived tucked up in the depths.

But the girl came, with her creamy skin, silky hair, and mesmerising eyes. Merlin instantly forgot all plans of turning into a fish, and indeed forgot his ability to transform entirely.

The Leviathan would wait for many years for the friend that never came back. She would die calling for Emrys to come and bless her final journey, but it would be for naught: she would die alone.

She reminded Merlin of a girl that he had once known, a girl he had failed, as he must fail everyone he grew close to. He wanted to give this girl everything to make up for his prior mistakes. She smiled sweetly and pulled her body close to his. She smelled of strawberries and sunshine, and Merlin completely lost his head. He could not have enough of her, had to be with her all the time.

And never once did he think it strange that he didn't know her name.