There were on that day (a Tuesday) two things of especial note: the first was the occurrence of a murder, and the second was the absence of a murder.
You would not ordinarily be particularly roused by the first, since Pestilence and War were ever plying their trades, and doing a rousing good business; but this murder was notable because its victim was already dead, and therefore a rather strange audience for the second perpetrators to target.
The second murder was thwarted only by an incredible restraint which the victim did not deserve, and for which the prospective murderer, in his own exceedingly humble opinion, ought to have been rewarded.
There was that day a keen sun, which burned on faithfully till, suddenly, it was not to be; and, as the poets say, fucked off handily. Now, there is an awful lot of fuss in a dark wood, where those stagnant trees of daytime now sit up, murmurous, and the rabbits in crepuscular glee flit off to eat. The heather lay in sweet latent bunches underneath, working up a good shout: but, not, naturally, till its travellers had already gone unheeding over it, and put their backs to it with the comfort of a child who has checked under his bed and found only a lot of dust, and maybe an old tart. So the complaints which had run on all day, whilst the light was unfailing, changed their tune quite abruptly, not, naturally, to a less strident one, but they did lose a certain amount of whinge in favour of a fat lot of cowardice: “Arthur, what was that?”
And the woods ran on around them as woods like to get on in a gathering dark, each bough conveying to his neighbour a new confidence, and in the interim listening into its own hills for the ghostly hoo-rah hoo-rahing of its many-headed inhabitants, living, dying.
“What was that ?”
“Another owl , Merlin. For God’s sake--”
“ That was not an owl.”
“How would you know?” Arthur snapped, but in a princely way, since he did not allow peasants to rile him up to anything which could be credibly called peevishness, or even mild pique.
“Because I had one for a pet as a child.”
“You didn’t have an owl for a pet.”
“I did too! I called him Archimedes. My mum let him sleep in my room, and--”
There was a sturdy bow in his hand with which Arthur first contemplated shooting himself, and then Merlin. He said instead, “Shh!” with a sharpness that was intended to convey a sudden danger, and which found its mark, for Merlin abruptly discovered that the human mouth had been designed with a sort of hinge, so that it could go both ways, and close as well as flap about interminably. They went on for some blissful distance in this way, with the soft grasses breathing all about them, and the trees in wakeful vigilance.
And then: “Are we lost?”
"You might be, but these are my woods, and I’ve known them all my life.”
“You know the whole woods. You’ve walked every single--”
“ Yes , Mer lin, every inch of them.” And again the bow was hefted, and contemplatively weighed, and Arthur’s chivalry, which at that moment was having a Crisis, whispered seductively to him that after all the Code certainly could not intend for him to protect every innocent, if they were very, very annoying, and hummed too much.
“Doesn’t seem like it, since we’ve passed that same tree three times now. I recognise it because it’s got some Hypericum olympicum growing under it. Gaius taught me that; it’s the scientific name for Chase-devil. You can use it to treat a rubbish mood. Can’t think why he hasn’t prescribed it for you yet.”
“I’m only in a rubbish mood when I’m stuck alone in a forest with you.”
“You mean when you’re lost alone in a forest with me.”
“I am not lost, Merlin !”
“Sure; of course,” his servant said with a distinct lack of veneration, which reminded Arthur that he was due another lecture on proper titles and how indescribably rude it was to accuse one’s prince of being lost in his own forest, when in fact he had an impeccable sense of direction, and certainly would have noticed himself if they had passed the same bloody tree twice, let alone three times. He would need a word with his father upon their return; sacking Merlin had not particularly worked out for either of them, as his dirty hose began to proliferate in the alarming way that dirty hose had when one hadn’t any servant to pick them up, and Merlin had only migrated back to him anyway, complaining all the while about what a knob Arthur was, and how put upon he was by Arthur’s perfectly reasonable requests, and how in fact he no longer believed in the monarchy whatsoever, and thought he might rather become an anarchist, than to serve such a tit. Uther would sort him. Perhaps Merlin might be banished, and then Arthur could get himself a proper servant, who called him ‘my Lord’ and understood that it was an honour (in fact the highest honour) to pick up Arthur’s dirty hose, and to polish his armour, and muck out his stables, and draw his baths, and rub his weary feet. This was so delicious a thought that Arthur for a moment forgot his impeccable sense of direction, and whacked his head on a branch; and Merlin, justifying the last paragraph, let out a great laugh, the big whooping sort which required the aid of his hands on his knees to keep him upright.
There was perhaps another half hour of this, which is not necessary to tell, as it was only the same old plodding round, with here and there an interjection from the forest, and afterwards an interjection from Merlin, who had been frightened by the forest’s insistence on its participation in the general conversation, which ran continuously along the same lines, till Arthur, finally, threw down his bow and said, “Well, Merlin, thanks to your incompetence, we’ll have to make camp for the night. It’s too late and too long a walk to return to the castle now.”
“ My incompetence? It wasn’t me insisted, ‘I’m the prince, every tree here is mine, this rock is mine, look at me, I’m rich, I know what I’m about.’” His mimicry was terrible. Arthur’s mouth made a sour twist as he set about arduously ordering Merlin to collect their firewood.
“I’m not going out there. I’m not the one with the sword. I’ll be eaten.”
“By what ?”
“There are boars! Probably monsters. Deer.”
“ Deer ? A deer wouldn’t eat you, you big girl, and I shouldn’t think a boar or monster would find you to their taste either. Anyway, they’d have indigestion from it, so you could console yourself with that.”
“A fat lot of consolation that would be. It’s bad enough you got us lost, and now I’m to be eaten on top of it.”
“You’re not going to be eaten , you coward, and I didn’t get us lost--”
“If there’s no danger of my being eaten, then why aren’t you collecting the firewood?”
“Because that’s a servant’s job.”
This spawned a rather intense argument, during which there was a scuffle, and an all-around loss of dignity, and finally a hole in Arthur’s trousers which Merlin would need to mend, so that he rather regretted putting it there in the first place. But the end result was that they went off together in search of the firewood, and returning with an adequate amount to perish neither of the cold nor the dark, which Merlin seemed to consider a foe in and of itself, they set to lighting it, which required the assistance of Arthur’s flint, the bit of steel which he had thrown at Merlin’s backside soon as he bent over for a branch, and another argument which never truly was settled, but merely died down whilst they sat round the flames and tried to pretend the other did not exist.
It was awkward business to ignore a man sitting the length of one knee from you, especially when he had such voluminous ears, and though Arthur made a valiant attempt at it, he had soon to abandon this in favour of grousing at Merlin for a myriad of grievous transgressions, the most pressing of which was his manner of sitting far too close, as if they were mates. This shortcoming was to become a theme when they laid down after passing round a hard cheese and some bread, Merlin in Arthur’s cloak, and Arthur in nothing at all, because his was the greater constitution; and whilst Arthur was working himself into the choicest bit of ground, with the least stones, Merlin suddenly rolled over, mummified within the cloak Arthur’s thoughtfulness had provided, and put his nose into Arthur’s neck.
“What are you doing ?” Arthur demanded.
“It’s cold. Do you want me to die of exposure?”
“I wouldn’t hate it.”
“Well, then you can dig my grave, go home alone, and pick up your own damn clothes.”
“I don’t see where the tragedy is supposed to be.” Arthur paused. “Aside from having to pick up my own clothes.” He wiggled a bit. “Get off.”
“ Merlin .”
It progressed in this way for some time, without any noteworthy additions or changes, till finally Arthur rolled over, found himself an uncomfortable nose’s breadth from his manservant, and pushed him, bodily, back toward the oak under which they were sheltering. Then, whilst Merlin was sorting out his arms, which had got tangled in the cloak, Arthur unsheathed his sword, laid it down between them, and turned peacefully back to the business of getting to sleep.
There was a clang, sonorous in the dark. “Ow! Why’d you put your sword here? It’s a good job I didn’t skewer myself!”
“No it isn’t,” Arthur said, darkly.
“Are you worried I’m going to try and steal your maidenhood?” Merlin asked.
“Dear God, what an image; thank you for that, Merlin,” Arthur replied, and turned over to see how his remark had landed; but he found in doing so that Merlin had rolled away, and then it was lonely, terribly lonely, to look upon the hunched back, and the dark tuft of hair above his cloak, and to feel suddenly withdrawn from him all the ceaseless chattering day, which he now recognised as an extension of friendship, whilst the forest in choral rhythm went on round him.
He was the worst sort of soft-hearted eejit, of the breed that considers himself unassailable, unfeeling, hard; so that when he is breached easily, often, he feels himself doubly hurt, and doubly shamed--and then it is a thing to be hidden, as if it had never been acceptable for him to experience it in the first place.
So it was then that he rolled over himself, facing out into the wood, away from Merlin, with something like a lump in his throat (though of course it was not), and did not sleep.
Merlin woke to a hand over his mouth.
As this was unprecedented, he started up out of Arthur’s cloak; and in reply, the hand, which had a tremendous lot of strength behind it, pressed down even harder, and this seemed to Merlin to confirm that a murderer had got hold of him, and he would be chopped into bits, and left for any foragers who liked that sort of thing; but as he had warned Arthur not to head into this bit of wood, on account of its gloom, which even in full day had a certain harrowing quality to it, he had the satisfaction of being right, so it wasn’t all bad.
But after all it was only Arthur’s big stupid hand, and Arthur’s big stupid thigh in the dirt beside him where Arthur was kneeling with his sword drawn. He took his hand slowly from Merlin’s mouth, and put his finger to his lips, as if Merlin had not quite got the point whilst Arthur had been smothering him. “Quiet. There’s someone out there.”
“A bandit?” Merlin whispered, with a sudden awareness of all his extremities, and the ground underneath him, and all the gossiping leaves, who with a terrible innuendo trembled their every living stalk in the way that a foot or bludgeoning item might stir them.
“I don’t know. That’s what we’re going to find out,” Arthur whispered back, and pulling Merlin and his cloak upright in one smooth motion, he went on ahead like a cat, with Merlin left to blunder about behind him.
The moon came down like a soft snow, and could be credited entirely for the handsome and noble quality which Arthur’s features took on in its forgiving light. And the wind on swift tiptoe went onward, over the sweet heather, and the tremulous hedges, and in the living bramble thrashed some hidden inhabitant, mewling.
Merlin lost his sense of poetry quite early, when they had gone on some distance, and found nothing, not even a fiendish rabbit. He was tired, and his feet hurt, and he hadn’t had enough to eat for supper--and all of this conspired to put him into a churlish mood, so that it must have seemed to Arthur he was towing a child through the wood, and not a well-behaved one, with elocution lessons; but as Arthur was regularly childish, and couldn’t even pick up his own trousers, it seemed fair enough to Merlin.
They were walking more normally now, with a regular dispersion of heel to toe ratio, and considering giving up the thing altogether, when the hair on Merlin’s arms stood up. This was a right good shock, of the kind that starts in the belly, where some other sense, which we have carried about for a very long time, never knowing its presence, suddenly asserts itself: and putting its flame into our spines, and all down our fingertips, makes of an ordinary man, properly shod, one open nerve. And worrying at it now were the trees, and the beasts, which in a sudden conspiracy shut up: not one after another, but simultaneously, as if a conductor had moved his baton just so. Merlin felt the wind go through the grass underneath him, moaning; but here the leaves obeyed their phantom director, and sat dumbly unruffled.
Arthur in front of him had gone stiff. He reached back to see that Merlin was behind him, and nudging him for good measure, got him all tidily arranged so there was no part of him which could be seen from the position of a threat which happened to materialize between Arthur and his sword. It was very chivalrous of him, and put Merlin into some difficulties trying to do the same. Not out of any personal concern for Arthur’s fat stupid head, of course, but merely because a dragon had told him to do it: and it seemed to Merlin that any oracle which dispensed flames as well as advice ought to be fastidiously heeded.
There was a little clearing ahead of them. It was a very ordinary clearing, where the flowers in drowsy awareness leant their heads one upon the other, and dreamt of cleansing rains; and the grass in easy concession kept its chatter to a minimum, whistling only occasionally, when the wind let off a particularly disagreeable rush, and roused it all to anarchy. There was only one discrepancy, and that was the woman standing in the middle of it, with her feet bare in the silent heather, and her shoulders hunched in a copious weeping. Even this might not have been so unusual, since it was a nice enough place to weep, easily the most agreeable spot in the woods, and the least prone to Saxons, who were proper bogeyman, and liked the deeper bits, with more ominous moss. However, after drawing up short at the sight of her in the midst of these woods, in the midst of this night, Merlin saw that aside from her propensity to wander about shoeless as a wood nymph, the woman had one other eccentricity, which surely wasn’t her fault: she was absolutely transparent. There was a filminess to her, as to a fine lady’s silks, only a bit naughty, as one could see the grass behind her, rippling in the same queer manner in which her own body seemed to undulate. She was like the feeling of a sea before its placidness has totally dissolved, when the storm has got up its bluster, and foams up uneasily, not quite breaking its planes, but certainly agitating them: that was how Merlin felt looking at her. He was not afraid, exactly. But there was a stirring in him which upset his stomach, and lifted a wary premonition, hot, into his throat; and the hair was still alert on his arms, and the hand which Arthur had put back, to stop him from a stupid action, lay white on his forearm.
For a moment they all breathed, and looked at one another. But ultimately they were both gentlemen, and could not ignore the etiquette.
“Are you in distress, my lady?” Arthur asked, slowly taking his hand off Merlin’s arm, as if that were the more threatening gesture, and not the sword which was still naked in his grip.
“Well, I think that’s a bit of a dim question, isn’t it?”
“I’m only saying; she’s crying. Of course she’s in distress.”
“Well, it’s a rhetorical question, Merlin. Naturally I’m aware she’s in distress, otherwise I wouldn’t be asking.”
“How’s it a rhetorical question, if you’re expecting an answer? You wouldn’t just ask a question like that, just to throw it out there. So it’s not a rhetorical question.”
“ Rhetoric , Merlin, can be used to elicit a discussion.”
“A discussion about whether or not she’s in distress, which she clearly is. Why didn’t you just say, ‘Can we help you?’ and just leave off the whole bit about whether or not she’s in distress in the first place?”
“Are you mad ? This isn’t the place to be having a debate over semantics.”
And the woman, pitiful, or perhaps pitying, looked on with her bright sad eyes.
“Sorry, I’m nervous. I babble when I get nervous.”
“When do you not babble, Merlin? I have yet to enjoy a moment free of it.” But Arthur had felt the eyes on him, and straightened now in a sudden self-consciousness, which Merlin could see in his shoulder blades, now very stiff, and clearing his throat, said to the woman, “I am prince Arthur of Camelot, and you have my protection, my lady; whatever is troubling you, I give you my word, my sword and assistance are yours.”
It was nicely said, even though he was clearly uncomfortable, and did not know how to address a woman who seemed, according to those hearthside tales of old, to be quite dead, and perhaps unaware of it. Merlin was almost touched. He had only been in the prince’s service for some weeks, and was beginning to notice that Arthur was mostly a prat, but even he sometimes needed a holiday from himself, and then he was almost lovely. Very briefly, and afterwards he was unbearable; but it was only fair to mention that this was not entirely anomalous (though it was certainly rare). He was still quite certain the dragon had the wrong Arthur, but this one did seem capable, occasionally, of doing a very minor good turn.
“My child,” the woman said, and when she spoke, there was something like thunder in it, and Merlin’s magic, quiescent, but fast in his bones, ever unslumbering, lifted its curious head, to test this odd disturbance.
But the woman spoke again, and now it was only a plaintive voice, absolutely broken, so that you could hardly listen to it; it moved your own heart to tragedy, and Arthur, for all his bluster, was clearly softened, and took a step forward, so that there was now less distance between himself and the woman than there was between him and Merlin.
“Arthur,” Merlin said, quietly cautioning.
“My child. She’s taken my child!” the woman cried, and putting her face in her hands, broke into another round of weeping which was no less terrible for lack of tears, and might have been even more so.
“Who’s taken your child?” Arthur asked gently, and now the sword was put away, and he went, empty-handed, with his hair shining in the moonlight, tenderly to this apparition, to bend his knee in service.
But to Merlin there was something which was not quite right, beyond the obvious, for if she had simply been a ghost, he supposed he ought not to have felt this way about the matter, since a spirit likely had as much right to their grief as anyone, and probably even more, as their attachment to it had flouted the usual procedure of death, and that was something to respect at least. Certainly Merlin had never had such a passion. But there was the first frightful voice which had quivered the magic within him, and even now it did not settle, but fizzed impatient in his limbs, as if it knew to be close at hand.
“She’s stolen my child; but now you have come, and I know you can help me.” But she was looking at Merlin as she said it, and the look was as single-minded as if she had forgotten Arthur altogether.
“Of course,” Arthur said, and he too looked back at Merlin, and there was a slight furrow between his brows, as if he had felt there was something incomprehensible which had passed between the woman and his servant, and was not for him to know.
“Be careful,” Merlin whispered when the woman turned and went silently on ahead, the grass untroubled underfoot.
“What’s she going to do, Merlin? She’s only a woman. And dead.”
“That’s the most dangerous kind.”
“The kind who’s wandering round looking for whatever poor child she died heartsick over?”
“The kind you underestimate,” Merlin said, and Arthur, looking at him in a contemplative way, put a hand on his sword.
So they went on afterwards, unspeaking, whilst the woman told them of a sorceress who stole new babes in the night for the pleasure of snuffing their pink young lives; and such had happened to her own infant, and so she had wandered, and finally discovered the creature’s cave, and there been put to death herself: and there they had the whole vile history, and Arthur certainly was indignant, and having no room for both his indignation and his foresight, forgot Merlin’s warning entirely. He had his sword back in hand, and was readily prepared to spit any number of sorcerers, simultaneously; and Merlin, swallowing, remembered this was to be his life, friendless indeed once Gaius had completed the usual requisites of age, and gone away from him. He had not particularly planned to befriend Arthur, on account of the deficits which he had already listed, at some length; but sometimes he thought they would get used to one another, and have a thing that was like companionship, though surely neither would call it by that affectionate name. He had thought he could have Gwen, who was lovely indeed; and perhaps even Morgana: but he would have to lie, he would have to build another Merlin, who was more palatable, who was only silly Merlin; and they would love him only as that, and never as he knew himself.
The trees breathed softly down upon them, and the moon in silent accord lit their plodding way; and the wild things went with wicked hearts to other glades, to commit their nameless deeds.
They were led what seemed to Merlin a long distance, and then the woman stopped before a mighty rock, the largest Merlin had ever seen, and which stuck out on the landscape as his own poor ears stuck out on his otherwise proportionate head, and turning back to him said, “This is her cave. You must enter, and find my child.”
“Um,” Arthur said, looking round the whole smooth thing, which had no break in it. “I’m afraid...it appears there’s no opening.”
“That is why I have brought you,” she said, and turned the burning eyes back on Merlin alone.
“What is Merlin going to do?” Arthur asked with an offensive amount of incredulousness, but as the only argument which should take it out of his voice was, “Come and see, you insufferable sod”, Merlin only stood there smiling in the stupid way he had when he needed to appear innocuous, and shrugging his shoulders, said, “I have a knife from supper!”
“Well, then, have at it, Merlin. You just go on and chip your way inside, whilst I sort out how to do something useful.” And saying this, like an ass, Arthur went round the boulder, as if he thought from another angle he might notice something that was like an entrance, or could be fashioned into one, with enough manpower which was not applied by Merlin. So while he did this Merlin, after he had gone out of sight, laid his hands on the stone, and closing his eyes, sent out all his senses, to every thin flaw and breach, and poured himself, shuddering, into them; and under his hands the stone began to quicken, and burn off as under a blacksmith’s touch. He felt his heart troubling itself, and the breath hot in his throat, and then, suddenly, from behind the face of the stone, there rose up such a feeling as he had never experienced: and it went shrieking through all the bones of him, and he fell backward with a cry, landing thump on the grass, where for a moment he had to nurse the sickness in his raging belly.
Arthur ducked out from behind the rock, frazzled; he looked down at Merlin on the ground, and at the opening before him. “What the hell have you done?”
“There was...I found a lever. On the stone. I pressed it.” He was trying to breathe. He felt as if he were a very small child, and the cave his limitless bed, with the monsters teeming beneath it. There was an insubstantial dread, indefinable, and it gnawed out his heaving gut, and his burning throat, and Arthur, seeing something in his eyes, or perhaps even feeling in a rare bout of sensitivity Merlin’s flinching discomfort, looked once more to the cave, and down at his servant, and then kneeling beside him, put out a tentative hand.
“Are you all right?”
“I don’t think we should go in there,” Merlin gasped.
But the woman had passed on before them, into the cold depths of it. And Arthur, after a moment, his hand limp on Merlin’s shoulder, as if after putting it there he had quite forgotten what ought to be done with it, pursed his lips and, almost gently, patted the trembling arm underneath him, and stood.
“Wait here,” Arthur said, and went ahead into the cave.
But of course he couldn’t, and had not even thought about it.
Arthur did not know what he had expected. It was a cave, and had all the usual fixtures of a cave; certainly he must have expected that.
But he had not foreseen the poor tiny bodies, preserved as if in stone. They had not decayed, not withered, not gone to bits from the elements, the animals, all the myriad cruelties of slow-decaying Time. They were flawless; they were hundreds.
He stood there in the opening to the cave with Merlin warm behind him, and the depths cold before him, and saw all the perfect limbs of them, like marble, and all the unclenching fists, in hot pink flower, as if the blood had newly risen. He felt Merlin’s hand touch his shoulder, and fist there, and he leant, very subtly, into it, so that he was not alone, and helpless: so there was some other human heart, beating the fresh blood into its living organisms.
Merlin was silent, for once. They watched the small creatures, as if they expected there to be a collective breath, and a collective rising, and for the cave to suddenly, at once, go from tomb to nursery. Arthur was briefly sick, and swallowed it. He heard the woman move, weeping, into the far regions of this mausoleum, touching the little hands, and passing, inconsequential, through them.
He allowed them both to gape for a little longer, and then gathered his princely resolve, and keeping Merlin behind him, stepped softly onward, his sword before him.
The woman had stopped crying. It was rather abrupt, as if she had let off the weeping by turning a spout within her, and now had stopped it up again. When they found her she was standing, not beside any dead infant, and looking tenderly upon it; but beside a woman who had gone into death as if it were merely a sound slumber, and was now sitting in a chair with the hair down over her knees, and her pale face transfixed in the midst of it.
“You have a soft heart, Arthur Pendragon,” the woman said, touching the long foaming hair, which Arthur saw now was the same shade as her own, and covered the same cheekbones as her own. “It will make you a weak king. Do you know,” she said, and suddenly her hand which had passed so easily through the small bodies, sank into this one as if into something gelatinous, down into the still chest, and the unbeating heart, “that your mother brought you here, to me, soon as she had birthed you?” And the voice came now from the lips of the woman in the chair, and the stare looked out from the serene green eyes as they came, brilliantly, alive beneath a fine black brow.
“Get back, Arthur!” Merlin yelled, like an idiot, and was picked up unceremoniously by the woman’s magic, and slammed into the nearest wall.
And then it was only the two of them, both breathing hard, the woman with unaccustomed labour, and the fresh excitement of life, hot in her veins; and Arthur with the mention of his mother, whom he had never met, and yet loved.
He put himself in front of Merlin’s crumpled body.
“Thank you for bringing me back here. Igraine, I think, was wrong to try and give you to me.”
“What are you talking about?” he said in what was supposed to be a roar, and was only a whisper, because it had failed in his throat, and then he had got to force it past his tongue, unwillingly.
She smiled at him, and it was not an unfriendly smile, but a commiserating one, as if there was something about him, tall, handsome, blonde, which was miserable and pathetic.
“I had a boy like you once, and he betrayed me, and sealed me in this cave to die. And then your mother brought you here, and I saw how beautiful you were, just as my son was; I wouldn’t have killed you, just as I didn’t kill him. But I could only watch as she laid you here in the grass, at the foot of this cave, after seeking entrance, which I could not give her; she left you in the woods to die. It would have been a very small, ignoble death; I was sorry for it, but I was helpless. My soul was already cleaved from my body.” She looked at him steadily, and he did not lift the sword, but only went on holding it mechanically, as he had been taught to hold it; as if he had been taught nothing beyond it.
“She’s lying, Arthur,” Merlin said groggily from behind him. And here he paused, and sounded very small, “You know sorcerers do that. It’s all they do. She’s lying. Your mother loved you; she must have, since you wouldn’t have had time to be a prat yet.”
And the woman went on unblinking, as if Merlin had never spoken: “You may leave; I think your reign will be an interesting one. But Emrys I cannot allow to live.”
“Emrys? He’s called Merlin,” Arthur corrected her, and then a sudden wind swept the blade from his hand, and his feet from beneath him; and behind him Merlin let out a little cry, and was jerked roughly toward the seat in which she suddenly towered like a queen, leaving behind him the nails which he tried to dig into the stone.
The sword had spun out of Arthur's reach. And there was some invisible hand, holding him mightily; it did not let up as Merlin was being dragged writhing over the floor, but in fact tightened, as if it could feel in him the sudden panicked surge, and all the stretching of his battle instincts, crying his feats to hand.
Merlin was looking at him in a queer sort of way. It was almost watery, as if he should have liked to cry; but there was a strange significance to it, which Arthur could not fathom: he was not afraid. His face had a look of resignation. Arthur had seen it on men who had either to fall on the blade before them, or backward into the pike at their spine, and no other choice; and seeing it now, realised Merlin was going to die, and, secondly, that he would be sorry for it.
He stretched out his arm for the sword. He did not know how he managed it. There was still the same invisible hand, holding him fast; he felt as if he were to be split, right down the seams of him: his arm took up the cry, and wailed dismally in its socket, and in his fingers there was all the maddening numbness of a serious wound. But he stretched out the arm, and stretched it out, and looked the sword straight in the blade, into the reflection of himself, as if willing a sudden autonomy into the weapon; and, miraculously, it quivered, or appeared to do so. He had the fuzzy incoherence of battle, when sweat has come like an old frost to blind the young eye; but he had seen it move, and redoubled his efforts. He made all his fingers long as he could reach them, and tried to roll whilst in the grip of this unseeable hold; but there was a white flash along his side, and the flesh bubbled in terrible concert, and he was fixed, fast; but then he looked from the sword to Merlin, who was now in the flesh and blood hands of the woman, looking back at him.
There seemed to be something in Merlin’s face which said it was all right for Arthur to give up. There was a strange tenderness which Arthur had never associated with his manservant, and certainly not with his manservant’s feelings toward himself.
“Arthur, it’s ok,” Merlin said, and seemed to believe it himself.
And Arthur, taking hold of the sword, his hand boiling where it touched, and the heart loud within him, every wound he had ever taken concentrated now, in every square inch of him, and his head booming like a beleaguered shore, taking the brunt of earth’s unearthly squall, came up off the floor, and onto his knees.
The blade went up past Merlin, and pierced her newly blooded heart. Arthur, still on his knees, trembling, turned it sharply, and held on stubbornly whilst each new wave struck him a terrible blow; he was sick, violently: but he did not let go the sword, and in fact pressed forward, with all his weight behind it, till he heard the tip score her very spine.
She burst out in a terrible screaming; he saw Merlin twist, once, in her grip, unnaturally; and he felt through all the upheaval of his body a single point of terror, more pressing than all the rest.
And then the world collapsed in on itself, and in a miffed protest, suddenly blew out once more: and he was blasted at least the height of a man, and triple the length; and coming down in a shower of stone and the bright pinpoints of light which continued to rack his eyes long after the world had settled back into itself, he saw Merlin land beside him with the terrible rag dolling of limbs typical of a man thrown fatally from his horse.
He tried to lift himself on an elbow, to seek out a pulse; but there was another tremendous blow to the shivering cavern, and all he could think to do was to pull Merlin by the sleeve toward him, and wrap himself round the whole limp mess of him, whilst the roof came down.
It ought to have killed him; there was an entire slab of it which plunged straight away for his head--and was suddenly arrested, perhaps a foot from his neck, and there hung, raining the soft bits of it down the neck of his tunic. There was a calm blue light round it, and a sensation within him that he certainly had never known, and could hardly recognise as comforting: Arthur knew only that he was safe, by some inexplicable miracle, and there was aside from that a pleasant melting sort of awareness, which people who are very loved know in the embrace of someone dear. He did not know it; princes are not held. But he felt that the light meant him no harm, but had only an immense goodwill for him.
He looked down to see Merlin awake underneath him, and smiling blearily.
The slab smoothly turning rolled to one side, and smashed benignly, where it would not harm him.
And then Merlin, his eyes darting back in his head, went absolutely still once more.
So it was that Arthur had to carry him, swaying, over one shoulder from the cave and into the new day.
The woods had come on fantastically in the evening, and now in full glory burst out madly, trilling. The heather was now fully awake, and the grass in youthful blaze burst like a warm fruit underfoot, sending up its aromatic death.
He could see, just over the hill ahead, the battlements of Camelot, orange in the fresh sun. And with a sigh he said to the slack body over his shoulder, “You are entirely useless, aren’t you?” and started off home through the amiable trees, which were now only a lot of foliage under the remorseless sun, who would allow none of that midnight capering.