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Peach, Plum, Pear

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Peach, Plum, Pear
Or, How in his tenth year of rule King Arthur chose a man to take the role of Court's Magician, and how Arthur made his decision.

 

It was autumn in Camelot, the air frosted with the chill of oncoming winter, but the cold had not dimmed the people's spirits. Ten long years had passed since the death of Uther, and the kingdom was thriving under King Arthur's rule. In the streets, peasants still whispered of their King's kindness, and knights bowed their heads to his bravery. The markets bustled with steady trade, and young maids blushed at the boys. Some girls cast simple, innocent spells of love and courtship. The younger children barely remembered a time when such magic was outlawed.

"You're a great spellcaster," one young squire told his friend, a gangly boy by the name of Tim. "You should go to the trials!"

"Trials?" Tim asked.

"You haven't heard?" The squire laughed, his grin creasing his freckled face. "The King has finally decided to appoint a court magician! Sorcerers from all over are coming to have a go!"

 

*

 

Arthur hid a yawn behind his hand. The sorcerer from the village of Reathon fumbled his spoon for a moment before collecting himself, taking a deep breath, and beginning to stir the contents of his pot counterclockwise.

"What is he doing?" Arthur hissed.

At his side, Guenevere cast a placating look at him. "A spell, my lord."

"It looks like a stew made of hog gut and caterpillars," Arthur announced, no longer attempting to hide his dislike. The sorcerer flinched, but kept stirring. "Rotten hog gut. What the hell is it supposed to accomplish?"

Guenevere looked ready to defend the hapless magician, but her brow furrowed and she said nothing. They both looked back at the man. Beads of sweat were collecting on his forehead; his arms were trembling. He began stirring clockwise.

Guenevere shook her head, sighing. "I don't know, my lord."

"Well, whatever it is, it's ridiculous."

"Not all magicians carry their skill in the palm of their hand, your majesty." This time, when she glanced at Arthur, her look was too knowing.

Not all magicians were Merlin, she meant. Twelve years since Merlin had fled Camelot, and still Arthur often thought of the boy he had known. It was in times like these, when Arthur was confronted yet again with the pomp, pageantry, and general uselessness of the kingdom's sorcerers, that he missed Merlin most. The boy had been obnoxious, and always disrespectful, but also brave as any knight--with dark hair and mesmerizing eyes. Of course, the latter qualities had little bearing on Merlin's skill as a warlock, but they still wrought a surprising amount of influence in Arthur's fantasies.

Arthur dragged himself from his thoughts in time to catch Guenevere's amused expression. He cursed himself yet again for marrying a woman who knew him so well.

"Any lady would gladly have had me as their husband, you know," Arthur told Guenevere, his tone full of mock severity. "Some of them begged for weeks. I could still have rid of you and marry a less impertinent bride."

"Of course, my lord. Perhaps Lady Rodria, with the warts?" Belying her words, Guenevere's voice was deferential, containing the tone of respect one could only learn by wearing servant's garb. When Arthur glanced over at her, however, she arched a devilish eyebrow at him.

Arthur couldn't help but laugh. "I was thinking more of Lady Finnel, with the unfortunate bladder condition."

"Much better that you stick with me, sire," said Guenevere. "I require no diapers, nor must I consume costly potions for the treatment of boils."

"Hmm," said Arthur. "Yes, I suppose you are still the best candidate." He glanced back at the magician, who was still stirring his potion. "Oh, bloody hell. Is it too much to hope for some magic with a bit of power? A bit of bang?"

BANG, went the magician's cauldron. A heavy shard of the cast-iron pot shot past Guenevere's head, and the substance inside began to leak to the floor, steaming ominously upon contact with the stone. The magician himself blinked, wiped a streak of something from his cheek, and beamed up at Arthur proudly.

"No," said Arthur. The magician's face fell.

 

*

 

Arthur judged the talents of sixteen more sorcerers before he could stand no more. Most could hardly conjure a nasty rash, much less command the power and wisdom that the job of court magician required.

"I think that's quite enough for today," he told Sir Kay. "How many more of these idiots are there?"

"Only six," said Sir Kay. "Although there may well be more before tomorrow."

Arthur groaned. "For God's sake. All right, tell those six to return in the morning. I'll meet with them then. And may that be the last of them."

Sir Kay nodded. "Of course, sire." The knight looked sympathetic to Arthur's plight, although his feelings toward the hopefuls had probably been affected by the boils he'd contracted from a witch's charm a few days previous.

Arthur clapped Kay on the shoulder in support. "Good man." He turned to Guenevere. "My lady, shall we take our leave?"

Guenevere smiled at him and looped her arm through his. As they walked down the dim corridors to their rooms, Arthur tried, once again, not to think of Merlin, but failed. Arthur had put out the call for court magician with Merlin in mind. He knew it was ridiculous to miss a boy he had known for scarcely two years, and after more than a decade, Arthur was aware his memories of that time were idealized, but some truth remained. Merlin had never truly been Arthur's equal, at least not in the public eye, but he had served Arthur faithfully as a servant, and believed in and challenged him as a friend. Arthur had trusted Merlin with his life. All other feelings aside, it could not be denied that Arthur could use a man like that in his court.

Guenevere, as if she had read his mind, or perhaps simply his mood, took his hand and ran her thumb over his knuckles. "Are you all right?" she asked softly.

Arthur summoned a smile. "Fine. Just--I wish it wasn't necessary to hold these ridiculous trials. I would rather choose a good man for the job and be done with it."

"You should send out scouts." She turned in his arms and tugged him closer to her, reaching with her other hand to glide a comforting touch across his brow. "Have them look for Merlin. He has to be out there, somewhere. Maybe in a tiny village where they haven't received word of the trials." Guenevere had always been fond of Merlin; perhaps that was why she accepted Arthur's strange fixation on his long-departed servant with such grace and understanding.

Arthur shook his head. "Merlin would know. If he's not here, it's because he can't be--or he chooses not to be."

Guenevere brushed Arthur's hair from his eyes. "Do you want me to stay with you tonight?"

"No." Arthur leaned his forehead against hers, closing his eyes briefly at her kind words, at the feel of her skin and her warm breath against his face. His Guenevere was beautiful. She was his wife, his partner, and his truest friend. But-- "No, my dearest," he told her. "You should go to Lancelot."

"Arthur, don't be stupid."

Arthur drew back, giving her a quick smile. "Gwen, really. I'm fine. Give Lancelot a big kiss from me."

Gwen laughed, but sobered quickly. "Are you sure, Arthur?" Her voice dropped lower. "I know your bed must be chilled tonight."

"You think me a lonely man," Arthur said, making a joke of it.

"Are you not?" She sighed. "You know you are welcome, any time you wish to join us. Lancelot would capture the sun for you, and sink the moon into the sea, if he thought you had need of it. "

Arthur nodded. "I know. But it is you he loves. Go, Gwen." They had already lingered in the hallway too long; it would not do for a servant to come upon their whispered conference. Even badly-kept secrets were secrets, until such time as a loose-tongued scullery maid heard them spoken aloud.

Guenevere hesitated a moment, kissed Arthur gently on the mouth, then was gone.

 

*

 

The next day dawned bright, despite the blistering cold. Only five magicians waited for Arthur in the main hall, the sixth no doubt having given up and gone home. He sighed while settling onto his throne, wishing Guenevere were there to keep him company; unfortunately, she was required in the kitchens to organize the menu for an upcoming feast. Arthur took a moment to glower at the hopeful candidates, just long enough to make a couple of them shift uneasily.

"Your names," Arthur stated tiredly.

A hawkish-looking man with curly blond hair coughed, then announced: "Frederick du'Noir, your grace. Of Elmswood."

"Tim, sire," said a skinny nothing of a boy. "Camelot born and bred, sire."

The next man had a handsome, dark face and a high brow. "Accolon, fifth son of Everett. Formerly of Gwynedd, your majesty." Formerly? Accolon wore the trappings of a royal house and had the bearing of a nobleman. Arthur was intrigued, but there was more of a story there than he wished to hear at present; he asked no questions, and instead looked to the next candidate.

"My name is Myrddin Wyllt." The old man was stooped, with a scruffy gray beard, ragged robes, and an intent gaze. He leaned inelegantly on a large knobby staff. Arthur waited to hear his place of birth, but when it seemed none was forthcoming, he turned to the next and last contender.

"Wallace the Weaver," said the kind-faced, portly man. "Also of Camelot, sire."

The trials themselves took less time than the introductions.

"No," said Arthur to Frederick's summoning of two buckets of roast beef. ("It was supposed to be a cow!" Frederick wailed.)

"No," said Arthur to Wallace's frustrated attempts to make every belt buckle in the room sparkle.

"No," said Arthur to Tim's antics with a pair of sparrows. He added, "Sorry," out of a moment's pity for the boy's crestfallen expression.

"Maybe," said Arthur to Accolon's shielding spell. It was nothing extraordinary, but unlike most of the magic Arthur had seen over the past week, it was at least useful.

When his turn came, Myrddin Wyllt stood silently, leveling his gaze at Arthur. The hair on the back of Arthur's neck prickled, but he didn't think it was from magic. The old man's eyes were a piercing blue, intense and harsh like the light of the sun off a lake. Arthur had not been stared at in such a way in years.

"What?" Arthur snapped, finally.

"What?" Wyllt echoed. The old man must be senile.

"You do magic, correct?" Arthur waved a hand. "Do some."

"What would you have me do?" Wyllt asked.

Arthur straightened a bit in his chair, suddenly more interested. No one else had ever asked Arthur for requests before demonstrating their abilities, although now, Arthur wondered why they hadn't. Perhaps they were worried he would challenge them beyond their skill.

"Mend the buttons on my queen's favorite riding jacket," Arthur told the sorcerer. "And heal the mangy mutt that the squires keep in the stables. It has a bad limp."

"Very well," said Wyllt.

Another long silence.

"Well?"

"It is done," said Wyllt.

It was then that Arthur realized his folly; he could not check the results of Wyllt's work without calling a halt to the day's proceedings. "Very well," said Arthur. "Accolon and Wyllt, you two will return this evening for additional tests. The rest of you may leave. Immediately." He turned to Sir Kay, who was again stationed faithfully behind his throne. "If you'll see them out? It appears I must go rummage through my wife's wardrobe before we continue with this insanity."

"Of course, sire," Sir Kay said. He looked amused.

 

*

 

The buttons were mended. Arthur held the jacket up to the light, and then tugged on one of the buttons, testing the thread. It held fast.

"Huh," said Arthur.

A throat was cleared behind him; Arthur spun around, clutching the jacket, only to be greeted by Guenevere's quizzical face.

"Is there a reason you're in here?" she said, raising an eyebrow. "What's mine is yours, of course, but you should really ask before you borrow any of my clothes--what if I had need of them for some special occasion?"

"Ha, ha," Arthur said flatly. He brandished the jacket. "The buttons are mended."

Guenevere blinked. "I...know?"

"You know," said Arthur. "Wait. How do you know?"

"I mended them." Guenevere's amusement was fading to confusion. "I know you're always saying to let the servants do such tasks, but when I'm perfectly capable, it didn't seem right--"

"You mended them?" Arthur interrupted. "When?"

"Last week," said Guenevere. "Arthur, what-"

But Arthur merely handed her the jacket, kissed her on the cheek, and headed for the door. "I'll tell you later!" he called over his shoulder.

 

*

 

Arthur caught up to Wyllt in the stables. The old man blinked up at him, smiled faintly, then looked back at the sleeping dog before him.

Arthur settled on the straw beside Wyllt. "She had already mended the jacket," he said. "Did you know?"

Wyllt scratched gently behind the dog's ears. "It was done, just as I said."

Arthur snorted. "Right." He glanced at the dog. "And what of Griffin?"

"You know the dog's name," said Wyllt. Arthur couldn't tell if it was a question or merely an expression of surprise, but he answered the man.

"Everyone knows this old mutt." He reached over to rub Griffin's nose; the dog stirred, but didn't wake. "He's been around for ages, barking and chasing rats. Not too many more years left in him, though, I think. He's gone gray and half-deaf."

"No." Wyllt sighed. "Not too many years at all. Months, perhaps." He looked up at Arthur, his eyes sad. "You wanted me to heal him?"

"Can you?"

"Yes," said Wyllt, but his tone indicated there was something else.

"But?" said Arthur.

"Or I can simply ease his pain. For a while. He's old. He knows his time is up."

Arthur nodded. He gave Griffin another scratch behind the ears. "Do that, then," he said. "No miracles. But he's been loyal."

"Very well," said Wyllt. He closed his eyes and bent over Griffin, his wrinkled, age-spotted hands first smoothing carefully over the dog's back, then reaching to straighten the twisted hind leg.

Arthur watched for a while, but when Wyllt took no further notice of him, he left to prepare for the second round of tests.

 

*

 

"This is the first of three tasks," said Arthur. "Both of you have, to some extent, impressed me with your abilities. Now, you must demonstrate your knowledge and skill." He paused. "I hope that you will find this a simple task. It is nearing winter, and the halls are cold and drafty. Warm them. You have an hour."

Wyllt and Accolon exchanged a glance, and then headed out of the room in opposite directions.

"Should I follow them, sire?" Sir Kay asked. "Just in case one of them sets fire to the castle?"

Arthur squeezed the bridge of his nose. "Yes," he said. "Yes, that sounds like a fine idea."

 

*

 

Accolon managed to place heating spells in strategic spots for maximum coverage of the castle, but he returned with blistered hands and the admission that the magic was rather unpredictable and should be handled with care.

"Accolon," Arthur said tiredly, "Is anyone going to combust unexpectedly as they walk through the halls and run into one of these spells?"

"No!" said Accolon. "Well, probably not."

 

*

 

Wyllt went out to the forest and brought back an enormous fir tree. "Firewood," he told Arthur. "And might I suggest that you move the servants' quarters closer to the heart of the castle? You're losing fuel by heating so many separate rooms."

"There's no place to put them," said Arthur.

"I counted several of the more lavish guest rooms that are currently unoccupied," Wyllt replied.

"No," said Arthur.

 

*

 

The next day, Arthur gathered Accolon and Wyllt before him in the throne room.

"After the stunning display of idiocy yesterday, I was tempted to deny you both another try," said Arthur. "However, I have decided to be fair. I have ruled the first task to be a tie between you. We will speak no more of it, and shall move on to the second task immediately." He paused. "I would ask that the information gleaned from this task remain within these walls, as a gesture of respect for your king and queen."

"Of course, your majesty," said Accolon.

Wyllt simply nodded.

"Good." Arthur gestured and Guenevere entered the room, resplendent in pale blue and indigo, her hair falling in curls around her face. She smiled at Arthur in greeting, but her eyes were troubled. Arthur suddenly regretted involving her in this latest debacle.

She glanced at the two sorcerers. Accolon bowed deeply; Wyllt inclined his head and said, "My lady." They were the first words of respect that Arthur had heard out of his mouth.

"My wife is barren," Arthur said. The words tasted bitter on his tongue; he saw Guenevere's shoulders stiffen, but she stood firm. "As king, I require an heir. Despite your failings, of all the magicians who have demonstrated their arts in front of me, the two of you show the most promise. I want you to prove yourselves worthy of the many difficult tasks that may lie ahead of you. Speak to my wife, speak to me, prod us with sticks--or whatever you must do, barring ill treatment--and make your diagnosis. Then tell me of our options."

Guenevere shot Arthur a reassuring smile, but it didn't reach past her mouth. Accolon exchanged a look with Wyllt, then strode toward Guenevere. "May I examine you, my lady?" he asked.

"You may," answered Guenevere.

Arthur was so fascinated with Accolon's quiet, efficient movements--first he looked into Guenevere's eyes, then felt her jaw, and the base of her neck, before pressing a cautious hand to her abdomen--that he was nearly startled out of his wits by Wyllt's arrival at his side.

"Your grace?" Wyllt held out a hand.

Arthur blinked at the hand for a moment before he realized what Wyllt wanted. He offered his own, and Wyllt took it, clasping their hands palm to palm.

"How long have you been trying to conceive?" Wyllt asked quietly.

"Nearly ten years," Arthur answered. "She's been seen by the best physicians in the kingdom. None of them harbor hope."

Wyllt's brow furrowed. Arthur felt a--a something, a warm feeling, stirring in the pit of his gut, and wondered if it was the man's magic. He shifted uncomfortably, and Wyllt's grip on his hand tightened. "If you had a son, what would you name him?" Wyllt asked.

Arthur cleared his throat. "Um. Uther, for my father."

"And a daughter?"

"I don't know," said Arthur. "I'd call her Igraine, for my mother, I suppose. Or Hunith."

Wyllt's eyes flickered up to meet his, then dropped again. Arthur bit back a gasp as the warm feeling increased for a moment before it slowly faded away. Wyllt released his hand. "Thank you," he said. "That's all I needed."

He stepped away, quietly joining Accolon at Guenevere's side to ask more of his odd questions. Arthur closed his eyes, taking a few slow, deep breaths.

 

*

 

"So. Which one should I pick?" Arthur asked Guenevere later, as they waited in his chambers for the sorcerers to return.

"Myrddin Wyllt," Guenevere answered immediately.

"Huh," said Arthur. "Really?"

"Of course, really."

Arthur stopped pacing and flopped into his favorite wood chair, heaving a sigh. "You don't think he's a bit--daft?"

Guenevere shook her head. "You just think that because he's old."

"He's ancient."

"He reminds me of Gaius," Guenevere said, looking faraway all of a sudden. "More quiet, a bit more rude, but there's something about him."

"Gaius was a good man," Arthur said gently.

Guenevere blinked, returning her attention to Arthur. "Yes," she said. "Yes, he was."

Arthur blew out a breath, absently cracking his knuckles. What had started out as a harmless test was beginning to prey too much on his mind. What if one of the sorcerers actually found a solution? Arthur knew it was folly, but a few traitorous thoughts crept through: images of a young son or daughter with his eyes and Gwen's skin, or her graceful jaw line; a child to teach, to raise with courage and honor.

What was taking them so long?

"Besides," Guenevere added suddenly. "Accolon--I mean, he's good. I can see why you like him."

"I never said I liked him," said Arthur. There was just something about the man that he found reassuring, even comfortable, so different than Wyllt's odd words and challenging stares.

Guenevere waved a hand. "He's got all those qualities you go for," she said. "He's a decent man; he's careful and honorable, and he has courtly manners." She paused. "But when they were speaking with me in the hall today... only Myrddin was speaking to me. To Accolon, I was just... I don't know. He made me feel like a child's puzzle."

Arthur looked at Guenevere; she gazed steadily back.

"All right," he said. "I understand. But I have to consider what is best for the court. If need be, if the kingdom should ever lie in peril, I believe Accolon could think like a warrior. Wyllt is more the type to give sweets to small children." He had not intended his comment to be hurtful, but Guenevere flushed angrily and stared at the table. Bugger.

There was a knock on the door. "Let's see what the fools came up with," Arthur said, and went to let them in.

 

*

 

Accolon carried an armful of stoppered bottles, while Wyllt's hands hung empty at his sides. They both looked grim.

"I am sorry, my King," said Accolon. "Your options are limited. My tests have shown that Queen Guenevere is, as you said, barren."

Arthur glanced at Guenevere, but she ignored him, her face expressionless. Arthur nodded for Accolon to continue.

"I have brought a selection of potions and medicines." He began to set the bottles on the table in a neat row. "They are designed to purify the blood, strengthen the loins, and make the womb more fertile."

"My womb, if you please," Guenevere interrupted sharply. "Not 'the,' as if you were discussing the innards of a cow."

Accolon looked confused. Wyllt began to stroke his beard, as if he were deep in thought, but Arthur could see a slight smile on his lips in response to Guenevere's words.

"Right," said Accolon. "Queen Guenevere's womb." He finished lining up the bottles, then straightened. "All of these methods have proven to work in similar cases," he said, then hesitated. "However, I fear that these medicines may not be sufficient. There is--one other way."

Arthur leaned forward in his chair. "And that is?"

Accolon's face was almost fearful, but he said, "To bring life to the Queen's womb, one could... theoretically... draw that life from somewhere else."

"Sounds difficult," said Arthur. "And dangerous."

Accolon swallowed. "It is, sir."

"Somewhere else?" Guenevere asked. "Like where, exactly?"

"Not people," Accolon assured her. "Plants and beasts. Just enough for a spark, if you will."

Wyllt was busy staring daggers at Accolon's back, but the other sorcerer didn't seem to notice. Arthur ignored him too, saying instead, "So, you've done it before."

"No," said Accolon, looking rather sheepish. "No, sir, I haven't. But I am willing to try."

The traitorous hope in Arthur's heart seized onto Accolon's words. He turned to Wyllt. "And you? Are you willing to try?"

Wyllt was silent for a long moment. "No," he said, finally. "I am not."

Something about the man's tone was utterly infuriating. Arthur gripped the edge of the table until his knuckles turned white. "Then I have made my decision," he said coldly.

"Arthur--" Guenevere said, but Wyllt's head had already snapped up, his blue eyes snapping angrily in the sagging skin of his face.

"Are you an idiot?" Wyllt hissed. He waved a hand at Accolon. "Both of you? No one is meant to harness the power of life and death. There is always a price, and it is always much too high to pay."

"Like you've ever done it," Accolon scoffed.

"I have," said Wyllt. "I have done it. I don't regret my actions, rash as they were, but I would never do it again. Especially when you, my King, remain unaware of some very basic facts." He turned to Arthur. "What my opponent--and for that matter, the physicians of Camelot--have failed to tell you is that the problem does not lie solely with fair Queen Guenevere. She is barren, yes," and here, he glanced at Guenevere, "And I am sorry for that, my lady. With time and care, there may yet be hope," then back to Arthur. "However, you, sire, are the primary cause of your misfortune." Wyllt's passionate intensity faded abruptly, and he shrugged, his careless manner at odds with his harsh words. "The well has run dry, so to speak."

Arthur blinked. "You're sure?" He glanced at Accolon, to see if he would deny it, but the man refused to meet his eyes.

"Absolutely certain," said Wyllt. "There is no hope that you could ever sire children. Perhaps, if Queen Guenevere was willing, you could foster sons from another father."

For a brief second, Arthur thought of Lancelot, but knew that the knight would balk-and rightfully so-at having his children raised by another man. He sank back in his chair, deep in thought. "But this giving life thing--it would still work, wouldn't it?"

"Yes," said Accolon. "I mean, if I could get it to work, then yes, sire, it would work."

"And he probably could," Wyllt said, cocking his head at Accolon. "But the more fool we, for following the same paths and expecting different destinations. You see, sire, this particular condition... I think it likely that it was passed from father to son."

Arthur sat very still. Guenevere reached for his hand, squeezed it, and asked: "What do you mean, Myrddin Wyllt?"

"If I am right--and I know that I am-King Uther was equally incapable of siring children."

"And yet here I am," said Arthur. "Obviously your information is false."

"Yes," said Wyllt. "Here you are." He paused. "But where, I wonder, is Lady Igraine?"

Wyllt's words seemed void of context, at least at first. As soon as the implication sank in, Arthur's hope withered; despair seized him instead, scooping into his stomach and hollowing out his insides. "Leave," he said hoarsely, sitting up straight in his chair. Guenevere gripped his wrist tightly, but her wordless support only made Arthur feel sicker.

"Sire!" Accolon's eyes were wide, as if to protest his innocence.

"Go." Arthur took a breath, making himself add, "I haven't made my decision yet. Come back tomorrow for the third test."

When they had gone, Guenevere embraced him, tipping him so his head rested on her shoulder. He lingered in her arms, ignoring the discomfort of the chair arm digging into his side, and for a moment, he was not king. He was just Arthur.

"Oh, Arthur," Guenevere murmured. "It has been ten years. We already knew it could not happen."

"I know," he said. Accolon's ugly bottles still sat in a row on the table, as if to mock him. Arthur turned his face into Guenevere's neck, shutting his eyes tight.

"I think," said Guenevere slowly. "I think perhaps Wyllt is the wiser of the two."

"Yes," Arthur admitted. "You're probably right."

She pressed a kiss to the top of his head. "Will you choose him?"

"Doubtful." Arthur swallowed a chuckle. "I don't particularly like him. Either of them."

Guenevere smiled; he could feel the motion of her lips against his hair. "Then don't choose. Tell the people that none of the contenders were worthy. Take up the trials again next year. In the meantime, you can search for Merlin. It is his kindness and his love that we need, not these bizarre rituals."

Arthur didn't say anything; he didn't want to think about Merlin.

"I'm staying here tonight," said Guenevere.

"Gwen-"

"I'm staying here," she said, and that was the end of it.

 

*

 

"Your third task is the most difficult of all," said Arthur. He looked both magicians in the eye before continuing. "I suffer from a mysterious ailment." He inclined his head toward Wyllt. "According to you, more than one." He cleared his throat. "But this ailment is different. To the best of my knowledge, it also lacks any easy cure. I wish you to diagnose me, treat me, and attempt to rid me of this problem. You have a week, and the resources of the castle and its staff are at your disposal. Good luck."

For sure, they would have better luck if Arthur actually did suffer from the mysterious ailment he claimed, but that was not the point of the task. He stepped from his throne and set off for his chambers. Accolon followed him. Wyllt did not.

 

*

 

Wyllt showed up that same evening, after Arthur had finished court matters and had spoken to his advisors about the current affairs of the kingdom. Arthur felt exhausted; undergoing Accolon's medical inquisition had held the potential to be quite hilarious, but instead had been simply tiring. The man had actually asked Arthur if he had ever copulated with a sheep. ("Just making sure, your highness," he had said awkwardly.)

Arthur sighed heavily when Wyllt arrived, but he stepped out of the way to let Wyllt enter. The sorcerer leaned heavily on his staff, his feet scuffing on the floor, but spared the time to give Arthur a curious look. "Do you not have a manservant, to open and close doors for you?"

"I have many," said Arthur, "But I often wish to be left alone. So, have you come to interrogate me?"

"No," said Wyllt. "I have only one question. Well. Two questions."

"Go ahead."

"Will you answer honestly?"

Arthur nodded, impatient.

"Does the Queen share your bed?"

Arthur's jaw worked. "Yes," he said finally, thinking of the night before. "She does."

Wyllt nodded slowly, as if in respectful disbelief. "Does anyone else?"

"No," Arthur said sharply. "Never. Why, do you take me as a victim of the whore's pox? "

"It is not my job to judge you, my King," Wyllt said softly.

"The answer is still no."

Wyllt inclined his head in acknowledgment--Gwen was right, there was something of Gaius about Wyllt, a manner that inspired Arthur's trust when the sorcerer himself had not earned it--and took his leave.

 

*

 

Over the next two days, it seemed that wherever Arthur went in the castle, Accolon and Wyllt were underfoot. Knights and servants seemed bemused by their presence, more than anything, although a few of the serving girls tittered nervously whenever Accolon passed them in the halls. For all Accolon's faults, Arthur had to admit he was a handsome man. He seemed a little more harried each time Arthur saw him, though, and often he had his nose buried in a book. Occasionally, Arthur spotted him gathering ingredients from around the castle: a handful of dried herbs, a small acorn, cat's scat, a lady's brooch.

Wyllt, on the other hand, wandered the corridors as aimlessly as a wraith, leaning heavily on his walking stick. Most of the castle's workers were wary around the old man, but a few, he managed to win over. Arthur even heard him laughing and joking with the cook, a grouchy beast of a woman who was notorious for whapping young boys with her wooden spoon if they came too close to her pots.

The sorcerer truly piqued Arthur's curiosity, however, when Arthur visited the training fields only to see, from a distance, Wyllt engaged in conversation with Sir Lancelot. Neither man noticed him. Arthur waited, observing their expressions and body language. Lancelot seemed faintly suspicious of the man, but was answering his questions; Wyllt, for his part, was acknowledging Lancelot's distrust, keeping his hands open and in full view. Arthur wondered that Wyllt was even aware of Lancelot's unease; it betrayed a level of awareness that the sorcerer had not previously shown.

Finally, Wyllt said something that made Lancelot break into a surprised laugh. The sorcerer laughed with him, nodded at Lancelot in thanks, then started back to the castle, leaning on his staff. Arthur waited until Wyllt was out of earshot before he approached.

Lancelot snapped to attention. "My King."

"Lancelot," Arthur nodded. "At ease, dear friend." He glanced after Wyllt's retreating form. "What was he asking you?"

Lancelot, looking thoughtful, chafed his hands together to warm them. "Very strange questions, my lord," he said finally. "At first, Wyllt said he was attempting to diagnose a man's ailment, but then he spent the whole time asking me about you. He seemed very concerned to know what kind of king you were, and whether you were fair and just."

"Hmm." Arthur wondered what Wyllt hoped to accomplish with his questions. "Strange, indeed. Was that all?"

"Not all, sire." Lancelot looked uncomfortable. "He also asked about Queen Guenevere."

Arthur inhaled sharply. "About the two of you?"

Lancelot nodded. "He didn't say so, sire. Not explicitly. But I think he knew."

Arthur knew that Lancelot's anxiety was caused not by meddlesome sorcerers, but by his fear of Arthur's reaction. They had never spoken of their arrangement beyond the vaguest of terms; most of their negotiations, if they could be called that, had been conducted through Guenevere herself. Arthur knew that Lancelot, like he, half-believed that the grave reality of their situation could be avoided if only they did not grant it voice.

Guenevere, on her part, called them both idiots.

"It doesn't matter," said Arthur. "Whatever Wyllt knows, I have faith he will not tell the court. And nothing anyone says will affect my decision." He placed his hand on Lancelot's shoulder and squeezed, feeling solid muscle beneath the metal links of hauberk. "You love my Guenevere, Lancelot, and she, you. Even a king may not stand between such forces."

"A king may not," Lancelot murmured, "but a friend may. Gwen loves you dearly. You need only say the word, and she is yours, and yours alone. I would not--" He broke off. "I would simply rejoice that you had finally found happiness, sire."

Arthur sighed, gave Lancelot a last pat on the shoulder, and drew back. "My words seem to fall on deaf ears today, Lancelot."

"I'm sorry, sire."

"As I have been trying to tell you," said Arthur, "don't be sorry."

He walked away before Lancelot could respond, hating himself for the unspoken envy that bound up his insides.

As Arthur made his way back to the throne room, he passed Wyllt, sitting on the steps that led to what had once been Morgana's room. The sight of him filled Arthur with anger. He knew most of his frustrations were not caused by Wyllt, but he made as good a target as any.

"Sorcerer, do you find your stay in Camelot comfortable?" Arthur asked icily. "Be glad that I am not judging you on laziness, or I fear that you would be disqualified for your current resemblance to a rotten tree stump. As a magician, your skill seems to be in sitting and doing no one any good."

"Forgive me, your highness," Wyllt said with infuriating calm. "For just as I appear a stump, mine eyes deceive me and tell me that noble King Arthur bears striking resemblance to a rabid boar with a thorn in his side."

"I could have you thrown in the stocks for those words," Arthur growled. "No, worse-I could have you executed. Do you have some sick want for pain?"

Wyllt ignored Arthur's threats, turning instead to face the direction of Morgana's old room. "I had heard King Uther had a ward," he said. "What became of her? Married?"

"Madness," said Arthur. "She fell victim to hysteria and ran off into the woods." Wyllt actually looked startled at that, and perhaps a bit sorry he'd asked. Arthur grimaced. "She's all right, though," he added. "Wherever she is, she's alive. She sends letters, sometimes, but always full of strange ramblings." It was more than Arthur had spoken of Morgana in years. He felt somewhat guilty having wasted the words on an attempt to provoke Wyllt; his anger faded, leaving blankness and old grief in its wake.

Arthur gazed at the steps. He still remembered Morgana's last days in Camelot--her pale, bruised skin, and her wild, frightened eyes. Neither his nor Gwen's words had helped, nor their desperate attempts to convince her to stay.

"I'm sorry," said Wyllt. "I didn't know."

Arthur didn't bother with a response. The sorcerer was dangerous; he made Arthur feel off-balance. Arthur walked on, quick to leave before Wyllt's mulish behavior drove him to more confessions, or else completely justified murder.

 

*

 

Later that evening, one of the girls who fancied Accolon followed him out to the lake as he gathered herbs. She foolishly ventured onto a slippery stone, fell into the water, and began to drown. Accolon could not swim; he tried to tug her to shore by magical means, but the surface of the lake bent back his attempts like light through a prism.

Arthur was busy back at the castle, meeting with his advisors to draft a letter of trade to the king of Mercia. Wyllt had somehow infiltrated the throne room, and was sitting in a corner being completely distracting. In fact, he appeared to be weaving a basket. If Arthur had not been trying so hard--and failing--to ignore Wyllt, he might not have noticed the precise moment when Wyllt's head jerked up. The sorcerer looked alarmed, as if he had heard a distant shout.

"The girl Elaine is in trouble," he told Arthur. He grabbed his staff, abandoning his half-woven reeds, and heaved to his feet. After a startled nod from Arthur, Sir Kay was quick to follow.

"We will have to continue this later," Arthur told his advisors, and ran to gather more knights to assist them. By the time Sir Griflet and Sir Erec joined Arthur in the courtyard, Wyllt, his aging bones apparently spry beyond his years, had already run on ahead.

Mere moments after Arthur and his knights reached the lake, Wyllt discarded his staff and cloak and plunged into the frigid water. Arthur watched him closely, ignoring Accolon's stream of apologies and explanations. Elaine's small form floated face-down, her skirts tangled all round her like the petals of a water lily. Wyllt swam toward her and then, with surprising ease, heaved Elaine into his arms and carried her back to shore.

Behind Arthur, one of the knights, perhaps Sir Erec, let out a choked cry; another cursed softly. Arthur himself felt ill at the sight of the girl's corpse. A pointless waste.

However, when Wyllt glanced at him, Accolon ceased his babbling and stepped forward, his face suddenly determined even as his hands trembled.

"How long?" Wyllt asked him, carefully lowering Elaine to the ground.

"Mere minutes," said Accolon. "I should--I must try--"

"Do it," said Wyllt. "There is still time."

Accolon knelt next to the girl's body, beginning to chant under his breath. He placed his hands on her abdomen, the skin of his palms beginning to glow faintly green. Wyllt nodded, as if to himself, and stood up to give Accolon space to work.

After mere moments under Accolon's touch, Elaine gasped awake and began to cough.

"Thank the gods," Accolon exclaimed, smoothing her water-logged hair from her face. "You silly child!"

Accolon had risen in Arthur's esteem; it was not every day a maid was returned to life and breath. However, it was Wyllt that Arthur's eyes sought out. Wyllt, who without thought or hesitation had jumped into a freezing lake. Wyllt, whose coarse gray beard and commoner's clothes were still dripping wet.

"Gentlemen," said Arthur. "My regards to you both." Without waiting for a response, he aided Accolon in helping Elaine stand; she was shivering and chilled, so Arthur wrapped his cloak around her. "Next time, stay away from the water," he told her. "You cannot always be guaranteed a handsome warlock to rescue you."

The poor girl was too weak to speak, but she nodded fearfully. Arthur gave her a comforting pat on the back. Out of the corner of his eye, Arthur saw Wyllt wordlessly step out of the clearing, then into the trees, until it seemed the forest had swallowed him up.

Such a strange old man, Arthur thought, although, as he was beginning to discover, it was obviously the least of what Wyllt was.

 

*

 

Accolon approached Arthur the next day, his arms overburdened with books, jars, and pieces of parchment. "My King, with your leave, I would like to take some more samples."

Arthur led them back to his chambers, waited until Accolon had deposited his load on the table, then wordlessly offered his arm. Accolon pushed up the sleeve of Arthur's shirt, scooped out a few leeches from his jar, and deposited them on the bared skin. Arthur grit his teeth at the feel of the slimy black worms as they latched onto his flesh.

"I apologize, your majesty," said Accolon. "I assure you, I am very close to determining the cause of your ailment." He seemed subdued; Arthur wondered if it was due to his difficulty in diagnosing Arthur's mysterious problem, or because of the near-death of Elaine. Either way, the look on Accolon's face was one he recognized.

"Tell me, Accolon, why do you want this job?"

Accolon made a mark on his parchment before looking up. "I'm sorry, sire?"

"I am asking you, Accolon," said Arthur firmly. "And I ask you directly, with neither your opponent nor the court to judge your answer. Why do you want to be Camelot's court magician?"

Accolon kept his gaze on the leeches. "Because my parents saw the potential in me at a young age, sire, and despite the laws against sorcery, they ensured that I was trained in the magical arts. And because I feel that I could do some good here, and have time to hone my skills in surroundings that welcome my kind." He paused. "And because I cannot go home."

"You said you were formerly of Gwynedd."

"Yes," said Accolon. "I did."

Arthur didn't bother to phrase it as a question. "You will tell me why you left."

Accolon was silent for a minute. Then he shuddered all over and said, his voice filled with grief, "My family was killed. In a storm."

"This storm," said Arthur. "It was of magical origin?"

Accolon finally looked up at him, his eyes full of misery. "How did you know?"

Arthur sighed. "Get these things off of me." He waited until Accolon had detached the leeches from his skin, then said, "I can smell the stink of guilt on you."

"Sire," said Accolon, but Arthur went on.

"Accolon, I respect your courage in mastering your skills, and I admire your choice to use sorcery to help others. I am especially glad that you managed to save the girl yesterday. I am. But I ask you, with all due respect, to remember who I am, and what you are here for. I can offer no man absolution when it is not my forgiveness he needs."

Accolon said, stiffly, "Thank you, sire."

Arthur gestured toward the door. "Get on, now. Go. Let me know what you find out from those vile bloodsuckers."

"Of course, sire." Accolon gathered up his papers and jars again, his movements jerky, before heading for the door.

"Wait," Arthur said, stopping him. "I have a question for you. Again, just between us."

Accolon looked wary, but nodded.

"What do you think of Wyllt?"

"Wyllt?" Accolon took a moment to collect himself, and his brow creased as he considered his answer. "Truthfully, I think he is a talented warlock, although it seems he often chooses to use means other than his gifts to attain results. He is kind, and he has a keen eye for the inner workings of things. But he is hiding something."

"Right," said Arthur. "Then you sense it, too." He nodded at Accolon. "Thank you. That will be all."

 

*

 

The next night, Arthur had taken his dinner in his chambers and was halfway through a delicious slab of steak when Wyllt once again knocked on the door.

"You've made progress?" Arthur asked around his mouthful.

Wyllt simply stood there and stroked his beard, his ragged fingernails catching on the hairs. "I have already diagnosed you. The treatment, however, is a trickier matter."

Arthur blinked at him. This was a surprise considering that in truth, he suffered from no mysterious ailment. He wondered if his earlier opinion had been accurate, and Wyllt really was daft. "Really? What do I have, then?"

Wyllt's knowing blue eyes should have made him seem fatherly; instead, he suddenly seemed even more alien and strange, like his wrinkled exterior concealed an altogether different man underneath. He said: "You suffer from loneliness, sire."

Arthur stopped breathing for a moment, then swallowed, forcing saliva into his dry throat. The point of the test had been for the two men to question Arthur's orders and their own abilities; they were meant to investigate, find nothing, and approach Arthur accordingly. He had discovered that most sorcerers hated to feel they had fallen short, and so he had meant to judge the two on their ability to admit their own failure. Arthur had not expected Wyllt's unflinching diagnosis, a ridiculous statement which held, unfortunately, a great amount of truth.

"If you know anything of kings, I am not sure 'loneliness' is a difficult guess," Arthur said lightly.

Wyllt shrugged. "Most of my magic lies in observation," he said. "A keen eye can do most of the work without the aid of any supernatural power."

Arthur nodded at the wisdom of that statement. And, indeed, Wyllt had reached an unanticipated conclusion, but Arthur could not argue with it. "So, say that you have diagnosed me. What did you mean about treatment, then?"

"Magic alone cannot ease loneliness. It can only disguise it, for a brief time. Sometimes, it may even hasten the effects."

"You sound as though you speak from experience," said Arthur.

Wyllt spread his hands in supplication. "Look at me, sire. I am an ugly old man. I have no home but untended pastures and the cold forest floor. Do you honestly think I have never been lonely, and tried to magick my way to happiness?"

Arthur held Wyllt's gaze. "Is that the most honest thing you've said to me, sorcerer? I think it must be."

Wyllt snorted. "I may be a liar, sire, but never about magic."

"Hmm." Arthur sprawled into his chair. "But I am curious. Since you mentioned possible treatment, you must have had something in mind. Otherwise you would have said nothing."

"True. Because it is only a temporary solution." Wyllt looked away from Arthur, instead focusing on the grain of the table; he smoothed his thumb over a nick in the edge that had been there since a long-ago fiasco involving Merlin and a sword. "No, not just temporary. Fleeting. Insubstantial. You see, if you yearn for a particular partner, I can fashion a doll that acts as that individual. No voice, no soul, but its appearance would be nearly indistinguishable"

Arthur had to laugh out loud. "You're saying that you could create a bed-mate for me? From what, scraps of cloth?"

"Yes," said Wyllt. "Well, mud, actually. Dirt and sticks."

"What makes you think I would have any need of such a service? Do you think I cannot simply ask, and have all I desire?"

"But what is it that you desire, my King?"

Arthur looked away. He wanted for nothing but a wisp of a dream, a boy who might be long dead. Meaningless. "Nothing I can have," he said. And yet, Arthur did not ask Wyllt to leave his rooms; his interest was captured. He knew that his silent acceptance did not go unnoticed by Wyllt's sharp eyes.

"I have heard tell," Wyllt said, his gaze probing, "that the Queen lies with another. Your bed is empty."

"You should not have heard that," Arthur said dangerously.

Wyllt simply shrugged. "It's up to you. One night, or longer, with your heart's true desire. It may ease your burdens, or--"

"Or it may worsen them," said Arthur. "Like you said." He was silent a moment. He should say no. Except--this kind of magic seemed powerful, and Wyllt had not yet made any grandiose displays of sorcery in Arthur's presence. Arthur was curious. He just wanted to see what Wyllt was capable of; yes, that was it. "All right. Do it."

"I will return in an hour," Wyllt said.

 

*

 

And return Wyllt did, dragging a cloth-wrapped bundle. He laid the branches and twigs in the middle of Arthur's floor, grouping them together in the shape of a man. At the top of the body, where the head would be, he placed a shriveled gourd. Then Wyllt withdrew a handful of mud from the bundle and smeared it along the make-shift limbs, mumbling nonsense words under his breath.

"There," he said finally. "If you're ready, I'll need a drop of your blood."

Arthur offered his hand, dread beginning to stir in his gut. The spell was more interesting in theory, not when it was a pile of wood on the floor. He didn't know what to expect next.

"Úpárís," Wyllt hissed, pricking Arthur's thumb and pressing it to the mud-man's stomach. Something flared just outside of Arthur's vision. Suddenly, the body seemed to shiver all over, the mud seeping into the sticks and forming a fine net, then expanding with ridges and swoops that Arthur faintly recognized as muscle, until a thin layer of skin formed over that, and--

Well.

His heart's true desire, Wyllt had said, so of course, the thing looked like Merlin. The Merlin of twelve years ago, smooth-faced, beautiful, with a strange light in his eyes. Arthur choked back a cry at the sight of him.

Wyllt, too, gazed upon the specter. His face had gone bloodless; his skin matched the gray-white of his beard.

The Merlin-thing took a slow breath, its ribs creaking, then sat up. It saw Arthur and smiled. Arthur recognized the fond expression all too well; Merlin had looked at him like that many times, and Arthur had never known how to respond. The last time he'd seen that particular smile, Merlin had been reaching his fingers through cold iron bars, saying, "Arthur, no, it's all right. Really, it'll be all right," as if all could be fixed with comforting words even when the Crown Prince sobbed for grief, his only true friend placed in shackles and bound for execution.

The next morning, however, Merlin had been gone from the dungeons before they'd even finished building the pyre in the courtyard. Uther had sent out a search party immediately, but the knights hadn't found him; no one had found him, not in all the years since. Not even Arthur.

The Merlin-thing's smile began to fade, as if it sensed Arthur's unhappiness. Arthur had to close his eyes against the sight of it.

"You should leave," Arthur said hoarsely to Wyllt. "Tell no one of this." He paused, then added, "You win this trial."

Wyllt was still transfixed by the Merlin-thing he had created, but at Arthur's words he jerked as if he'd been shot with an arrow. "Of course," he said stiffly. He took two strides toward the door before Arthur called after him.

"And for God's sake, take that--object--with you."

Wyllt paused, then waved a hand at the Merlin-thing. Its face froze, then cracked, then turned back into mud, cracked and dry as the ground in summer. Its body collapsed to the floor, once more simply a bundle of sticks. In the tense silence, Arthur could hear the fire crackle in the hearth, but still he felt chilled.

"I knew you would regret it," said Wyllt, sounding strangely shaken.

"Listen, Wyllt," said Arthur, unsure how he could possibly explain, but Wyllt interrupted.

"I fear the magic has exhausted me, sire. I will take my leave of you, and see you in the morning."

Arthur could not summon the energy to protest as Wyllt left. He stared at the sticks and dirt strewn across his floor until he could no longer bear it, and had to call a servant to sweep up the mess.

 

*

 

Arthur woke to the gray light of late morning and Guenevere's concerned face.

"You look like death," Guenevere told Arthur. "What on earth did you do yesterday? I thought the sorcerers had a few more days to solve your silly task."

"They do," said Arthur. He cleared his throat. "Why? What do you mean?"

She stared at him. "Accolon waits in the meeting hall for you. He wishes to tell you he is withdrawing from the trials. And Myrddin Wyllt left Camelot early this morning, without a word to anyone."

Arthur sat up, his heart suddenly pounding. "Wyllt is gone?"

"Arthur," said Guenevere, "What has happened?"

"Nothing." Arthur pinched the bridge of his nose, but it did nothing to alleviate the oncoming headache. "I'm not surprised about Accolon, but Wyllt gave no indication..." he trailed off. "Gwen? Why would he leave? He knew he was to be my choice."

"Really?" Gwen sounded surprised. "Did he? I thought you meant to turn both of them away."

"Damnit," Arthur muttered. Wyllt was sharp enough to know that Accolon was no real competition. There was no reason for Wyllt to leave... unless the sight of Arthur's weakness last night had scared the sorcerer off, but Arthur doubted it. Wyllt, despite his infuriating tendency to challenge--

Challenge. Arthur wasn't sure why the word resonated, but it seemed right.

"Wyllt challenged me, Gwen. On every task. He didn't back down, not until last night." Gwen raised an eyebrow, but Arthur couldn't bear telling her about the thing Wyllt had created. She had seen Arthur at his worst, but he never enjoyed reminding her of it. "Wyllt performed this spell--he knew it was a bad idea, but he did nothing to truly dissuade me. I think he wanted me to see what would happen." Arthur's breath suddenly froze in his chest. "Or he wanted to see what would happen."

"I'm not sure I understand," said Guenevere, but Arthur's reasoning was already following a path that made far too much sense. It was impossible. It was madness. And yet, a sorcerer that could build a boy from scratch--Arthur's head was throbbing, and Gwen was looking on in confusion, but the thought came anyway:

Surely, if one had such power, it would not be a hardship to change one's appearance.

"His given name was Myrddin," Arthur said faintly. "There are dozens of peasants with similar names, right?"

"No," said Guenevere, looking thoughtful. "At least, few of his age."

"And none of them have such eyes. Gwen-"

But realization was already dawning on her face, too. "Go," she said.

"It's insane," Arthur insisted. "I would be chasing an apparition. There's no way it's him."

Gwen began to smile. She shook her head, her eyes shining. "I'll ask Lancelot to cover for you. Just go."

Arthur bolted from bed, grabbing his boots and a pair of breeches. He didn't have time to get fully dressed, and he could not risk being recognized--imagine it, the ruler of Camelot spotted in a mad dash after a phantom--but he rummaged in the back of his wardrobe, in case his dark brown cloak would serve to cover his face as well as his bedclothes.

"You look fine," said Gwen, watching Arthur pin the cloak around his shoulders. She tugged his hood low to shadow his features, then kissed the tip of his nose. "Arthur? Bring him home."

 

*

 

Wyllt had a head start of several hours, but he was on foot, and Arthur had always been an experienced and able horseman. He chose the fastest steed in the stables, a black stallion named Hengroen; on his back, Arthur would catch up to the sorcerer quickly. He only hoped that Wyllt had stayed on the road from Camelot, instead of wandering deeper into the forest where Arthur would never find him.

Arthur passed a beggar child on the road and tossed him a few coin. "Boy!" Arthur said. "Have you seen an old man on the road, here, with a staff?" He paused, tugging Hengroen to a standstill. "Or-a younger man, perhaps, with black hair."

The boy was preoccupied with the amount of coinage in his hands, but he looked up and nodded. "Yes, sir," he said eagerly. "An old man passed by. He said he was going to Worthbark, and he gave me a piece of bread."

"Of course he did," Arthur muttered, and spurred Hengroen onward. Worthbark was a tiny village located due west of Arthur's current spot; the path leading there was slightly treacherous on horseback, but it was well-worn, and Arthur should be able to follow it without much difficulty.

Except, something wasn't right.

Arthur hesitated at the crossroads, glancing down the trail to Worthbark. The beggar boy had been very quick to answer Arthur's question. Perhaps that was the cause of his unease. Had Wyllt bribed the child to lie? Arthur could not put it past the man, regardless of who he may be.

Arthur cursed under his breath and passed the turn to Worthbark, continuing to follow the main road.

 

*

 

The hunch paid off when Arthur found Wyllt walking by the side of the road. Arthur slowed his horse to a trot and simply watched for a moment, noticing the differences in Wyllt's bearing when he thought himself alone. His back no longer slumped as he walked, and he was using his staff to pick his way over ruts in the dirt, rather than for any real support.

"Halt!" Arthur yelled.

Wyllt stiffened, but did not turn. "Your majesty," he acknowledged. "Have you need of me?"

"Yes," said Arthur, then bit his tongue. He may yet be proven mad. "You left without paying your respects. Do you concede the trials to Accolon?"

"He is a better man than I," said Wyllt. "He will serve you well."

"And me," Arthur said softly. "Do you concede me?"

Wyllt bowed his head, silent, and kept walking.

"You do not move like an old man." Arthur slid from Hengroen's back, his knees protesting, and wrapped his cloak around himself more tightly. Now that the adrenaline of the chase was fading, he found himself quite chilled. "Your bones are not gnarled with age; you can run faster than my knights, and you easily pulled the girl from the water. How do you explain that, Myrddin Wyllt? Sorcery?"

"Arthur," said Wyllt, finally turning around. He looked utterly destroyed, like a man on his way to the executioner's block. Except-no longer. Not ever. "Please, don't."

"No." Arthur reached for Wyllt, clutching at the fabric of his robes. "Is this an enchantment? What is your true face? Tell me."

Wyllt made a noise like a sob. "Arthur."

Arthur smoothed his hand along Wyllt's shoulders, trying to reconcile the sight of a shriveled old man with the form his touch revealed: muscle, sinew, a body both lithe and strong. There was no doubt left in his mind. "Merlin. Let me see you."

"I don't know what you're talking about," Wyllt protested weakly, and that was Merlin to the core. He could deceive and inveigle and hide in plain sight all he wanted, but when it came to denying Arthur anything, he was a rotten liar.

"You idiot," said Arthur. "I just rode for hours through the freezing cold in my bedclothes. If you deny me now, I really will put you in the stocks, if just for old time's sake."

Wyllt cast his gaze heavenward, letting out a disbelieving laugh.

"Show yourself," Arthur asked again. "Please."

"I can't shed this appearance on your orders," said Wyllt. "Not that easily. It's a potion. It wears off at nightfall."

Arthur glanced at the sky. "Soon enough, then," he said. "In the meantime, there's an inn up ahead. You'll go and get us a room. After all, it wouldn't do for the king to catch his death of cold in the middle of the road."

"What? No, Arthur-"

Arthur interrupted him, the questions burning in his chest. "Tell me, Merlin, why did you run? Why hide your face? You know we would have welcomed you with open arms."

Wyllt's jaw clenched. Now that Arthur knew what he was looking for, he could see traces of Merlin's bone structure in the old man's face. "No, sire," he said. "I didn't know. How could I have known? And once I knew, how could I have stayed, after realizing that I had broken your trust once again?"

Arthur's fingers clenched in the rough wool of Wyllt's robes. He had forgotten to let go. "Get us a room," Arthur told him. "We will talk more once we have warmth and privacy."

"If you insist, sire," said Wyllt.

Arthur wondered how he hadn't noticed, in all this time: Merlin's voice, at least, was unchanged.

 

*

 

What followed was one of the worst silences of Arthur's life, worse than dinners with Uther and Morgana when they were at odds. Merlin sat on the room's one bed, the rope mattress creaking dangerously whenever he shifted position. Arthur took the remaining seat, a small chair in the corner that had one leg shorter than the other three, until its incessant wobbling drove him to stand instead.

They simply stared at each other for a while, until Arthur broke down and said, "For heaven's sake, Merlin, say something."

Merlin looked at his wrinkled, bony hands. "Your father sent search parties for years," he said. "I knew he was furious, and would not stop until my head was on the chopping block." He looked up at Arthur. "But then I heard word that Uther was dead, and still, I was hunted."

"By my men," Arthur said. "Not to kill you. To find you. To bring you home."

"I didn't know." Merlin sounded wretched. "I only knew you had been angry at me. Nothing had gone the way I had wanted it to." He buried his face in his hands, a disconcertingly boy-like gesture for his aged form. "I heard no word of Camelot for years. Couldn't bear to hear it, more like. And I was too busy learning all I could about magic. There are many magic-users throughout the land who will gladly take in a young boy, either to teach him, or..." Merlin trailed off, his eyes hardening. "Or to make him a weapon."

Arthur approached him. When Merlin didn't protest, Arthur sat down next to him on the bed. Merlin was close enough to touch, but Arthur couldn't; he knew he had no right. "When did you get the new face?" he asked instead.

Merlin quirked a smile at him. "Once I learned all I could from the magic-users I found, I decided it was my turn to do the teaching. But not many people will listen to a boy about anything, much less things like sorcery and ethics and the laws of the land. So, I invented a disguise, one that could not be pierced by anti-illusion spells." He gestured with one hand, as if to demonstrate his transformation. "I became Myrddin Wyllt. I played the wild man, the old man of the forest; I pretended I had learned my magic from woodland creatures. It was great fun. I was good at it, too." At Arthur's skeptical look, he said, "No, really, I was! You can't judge my performance from my time in Camelot. I was terribly distracted. You have no idea how it felt, being surrounded by those stones again."

"Cold, I'd imagine," said Arthur.

Merlin shook his head, smiling. "That too. But no; it was as if they sang to me, all the time."

"All the time? Sounds irritating."

"You would think so," Merlin retorted. He and Arthur grinned at each other for a moment, then Merlin grew serious again. "Anyway, many years passed. You--and Gaius, Gwen, and Morgana, of course--were never far from my thoughts, but I couldn't bear to come near Camelot again. I had always planned to return, but... the longer I put it off, the easier it was to bear being away from you. All of you." His eyes flickered away, then back. "I was a coward. But then I heard of the trials for court magician, and... I had to come back, just to see. I never intended to stay, much less compete for the position. It was just a way to get closer, to spend some time in the castle so I could look in on you."

Arthur huffed a laugh. "And?"

"I--What?"

"When you looked in, what did you see?"

"Oh." For a moment, Merlin seemed wistful. "You're still a prat," he said instead, and Arthur had to chuckle. "Aside from that, you..." Merlin smiled wearily. "You're an amazing king, Arthur. Wise, fair, and brave. Your people love you."

It was almost, but not quite, what Arthur had needed to hear.

The last bit of light faded from the window. As Arthur watched, Merlin's body seemed to lengthen. His shoulders broadened, and his hair grew dark, save for a shock of early grey at his temples. His white beard grew short and black, cropped close to the line of his jaw; his face was youthful, but it was now a man's countenance, not that of the boy Arthur had known. Only Merlin's eyes remained the same, fading from a brief flash of gold to a brilliant, familiar blue.

"You're you," Arthur said quietly.

Merlin raised his palms to the candlelight, surveying the back of his hands--strong, capable hands, free of age-spots. "So I am," he replied. He glanced at Arthur. "What do you think?"

"Too skinny," Arthur told him. He took a breath, worried that his speech would betray him. "Too pale by far. And I've seen finer haircuts the time I singed off all Morgana's curls with a candlestick."

Merlin ran a hand through his hair self-consciously. The gesture was so familiar that it made Arthur's heart seize. "Yeah, that's what I thought," he said, sending Arthur a shy half-smile. "I don't suppose you have a mirror?"

Arthur didn't have a mirror. He didn't even have a voice. He could not look away from Merlin; he had to catalog every difference, every similarity. He was unaccountably cheered by the fact that Merlin's ears still stuck out oddly.

At Arthur's silence, Merlin grew wary. "You should be angry with me, you know," he said. "You should be telling me that it was a childish prank, an awful hoax. I was in the castle for a week, never letting on that I knew you. Hell, I'm furious with me."

Arthur cleared his throat, wrenching his gaze away from the smooth arch of Merlin's neck, the skin revealed by the gaping neck of Wyllt's old shirt and loose robes. "I'm afraid that I can't care overly much. You're here now. And I would hope... I ask that you do me the honor of becoming magician in service to the court of Camelot."

Merlin blinked, obviously surprised. After a pause, he said, "All right. Wait. Is that it? I just say yes, and all's well? After twelve years? You don't have to pardon me, or send me to the stocks for a week, or have me sign some papers with the blood of a virgin? I mean, not that I support the sacrifice of virgins--or anything else, for that matter--"

Now Arthur knew why Wyllt had been a man of few words. Any more and he would have recognized Merlin's babble instantly. "Merlin? Shut up."

"Right." Merlin shifted uneasily. He glanced at Arthur and their gazes locked. Arthur's blood throbbed with sudden need; if Merlin didn't look away soon, Arthur might do something completely unforgivable.

Arthur nodded to himself. "That settles matters, then. You will return with me to Camelot, and we will discuss your duties." He began to stand, but Merlin's hand shot out and seized his wrist.

"Forgive me, sire, but I must know." Merlin's diction was careful, but his voice was low and ragged. "Last night. The gelem spell. That wasn't the first time you'd thought of it. Of me."

Arthur squeezed his eyes shut. "Merlin," he said helplessly. "We cannot speak of this."

"Yes," said Merlin. "Yes. We can." He twisted Arthur's wrist, tugging him back to the bed. Arthur damned himself; he let himself be manhandled into Merlin's arms, then he caught Merlin's mouth under his own, pressing him back against the covers. Their teeth clacked forcefully and Arthur fumbled desperately for Merlin's wrists, pinning them at his sides.

Merlin grunted under Arthur's onslaught, sounding vaguely disapproving of the fact that the tables had been turned, but his lips parted, inviting Arthur to deepen the kiss. His beard bristled against Arthur's clean-shaven cheek. Merlin was all angles, jutting jaw and sharp elbows, like no one Arthur had ever kissed, and he felt light-headed and jubilant at the thought that at long last, this was him: this was Merlin.

Merlin twisted his head, just enough to make Arthur break away, gasping, and wrenched a wrist back from Arthur's grip. He tangled his freed hand in Arthur's hair, tugging hard. "I knew you wanted this," he stated, breathless. "I think I knew even before the gelem spell. When I was Wyllt, you watched me."

"Not like that," Arthur protested, and Merlin began to laugh, burying his face in Arthur's shoulder, his whole body shaking in amusement. Obviously, his behavior required some kind of retaliation; Arthur twisted and bit at Merlin's neck, worrying the soft flesh beneath his teeth.

Merlin's laughter died away; he groaned and tilted his head back, at the same time shifting one leg--the one that wasn't trapped under Arthur's heavy thighs--to let Arthur grind even closer. Arthur mouthed under Merlin's jaw, just along the line of his beard, sucking kisses into the pale skin, until Merlin gasped and writhed, his slim body jolting under Arthur's, the strong muscles of Merlin's arms and shoulders solid beneath Arthur's weight.

Suddenly, Merlin yanked his other hand free, seized Arthur's shoulders and flipped them both over, nearly sending Arthur's head crashing into the wooden bed frame. Arthur gasped as Merlin straddled him, rocking into the cradle of Arthur's hips. Merlin kissed him again, filthy and wet, his tongue sliding slick against the roof of Arthur's mouth. Arthur could feel the hard outline of Merlin's prick pressing against his, the feeling blunted through too many layers of fabric. As if Merlin had read Arthur's mind, he reached down to tear at the laces of Arthur's breeches, his fingers tantalizingly close to Arthur's trapped erection.

Merlin breathed hot against Arthur's mouth. "Let's see if I remember how to undress you," he said, and Arthur absolutely did not whimper. He slid a hand beneath Merlin's shirt, tracing his fingers along warm, bare skin, then reached for the hem of Merlin's tunic, groping at the shape of Merlin's sex. Merlin bucked against Arthur's hand, his mouth falling open in pleasure.

He looked idiotic like that, and utterly beautiful. Arthur seized him and pulled him into another kiss, forgetting his work at loosening Merlin's breeches in favor of the heady, addictive taste of Merlin's mouth. They kissed for several long minutes, until Merlin broke away, suddenly stiffening. "No," he said, but he breathed it against Arthur's lips, as if temptation had seized him in chains and he could move away no further. Arthur knew how he must feel.

"Yes," Arthur groaned; he wormed a hand between them, grabbing for Merlin's prick. "Merlin, yes--"

"No," Merlin said again. "Stop." He knocked Arthur's hand away, sitting up until only their thighs touched. "We can't."

Arthur ached with wanting; he felt cold where Merlin's heat had left him, but he didn't push once he saw the look in Merlin's eyes: determination, and beneath that, a flash of guilt. It was that flash that made Arthur pause to breathe, and in pausing, begin to regain his senses. There had been a reason Arthur had thought this was a bad idea, he remembered. There was a very good reason--

If all the breath had been knocked from his chest, Arthur could not have felt more gut-struck. Gwen.

"You're married," said Merlin, echoing Arthur's thoughts. "Arthur, you're married." He tried to move away, but Arthur gripped his forearm and held him fast. He would have to let go of Merlin in just a moment, but--not yet.

"Yes," Arthur said, although it pained him to his core. "You're right. You're absolutely right. We can't."

Merlin responded with a jerky nod.

They were losing nothing, Arthur told himself. Merlin would still be at court; he would be Arthur's friend and advisor. They just wouldn't have--this. Arthur swallowed hard. His lips stung from Merlin's rough beard, the sharp edges of his teeth.

Merlin withdrew from Arthur's grasp, sitting back on his heels, and began to lace his breeches. He didn't blush, Arthur noticed. The Merlin of ten years ago probably would have, but the Merlin of now seemed more assured, and inhabited his skin more fully. Arthur realized, with a sinking feeling, that he would probably spend the rest of his life watching Merlin from afar. There were worse things, of course, but Arthur couldn't help but wonder what Merlin would look like, joyful and flushed with pleasure against his sheets.

Arthur sat up, following Merlin's lead, and began to tug his own clothing back into place. "I'm sorry," he offered awkwardly, as if he could ever apologize for everything with two small words.

"It's all right," Merlin said, smiling oddly. "I knew it couldn't work. I don't know why I even--I should be the one apologizing, sire. I forced my desires on you because I thought you would be receptive. I mean, you were receptive. Just not--" Merlin blushed, finally, and turned away. "Never mind."

Arthur hesitated, staring hard at Merlin's back.

"What was it you were saying, before?" asked Merlin. "You were talking about my new duties."

"Forget that, Merlin." Arthur reached for Merlin's shoulder, ignoring the startled flinch. "I thought it was merely passing fancy--I mean, it has been years--but is this more to you, Merlin? Did you truly want this?"

"Of course I bloody wanted it!" Merlin let out a choked laugh. "That does not change the fact of Queen Guenevere, your highness--your wife--"

Arthur shook his head, even though Merlin couldn't see. "But this changes things! If you wish this--whatever this is--to be more than a night's folly, I could speak to Guenevere. She would understand. Merlin--I only wish for your happiness."

Merlin turned back to Arthur, his face incredulous. "Are you actually saying what I hear? It's all right if it's for my happiness?"

"Yes," said Arthur.

Merlin's expression shifted into something close to anger. "Arthur," he growled. "Sod my happiness. What about yours?"

"I'm the king," said Arthur. "I do what I must for the good of the people." Merlin was beginning to look murderous, so Arthur took pity and cocked his head to the side, as if considering, before adding, "My happiness... would be a pleasant side effect."

Merlin's mouth twitched, almost but not quite a smile. "I guess that works, too," he said with a snort. His amusement faded swiftly. "I cannot believe that Gwen would agree to this, though. If I were she, I would never share you with another."

"We have an arrangement," Arthur said. "And she knows my heart. I must trust that will be enough to convince her."

Merlin's expression softened. "We will see, then. When we return to Camelot." At that, he began to fuss with the bedcovers, untangling the blankets and pulling the bedding down. Then he held a hand out to Arthur in invitation. "It was a long ride, sire. You should rest, for at least a few hours."

"I don't sleep that easily," Arthur warned, tempted to decline, but his heart felt light under Merlin's regard. He shed his breeches and got under the covers, already relishing the prospect of a shared bed's warmth. Merlin crawled in next to him. As soon as the bedding covered them both, Merlin turned, tucking his knees against Arthur's legs and hooking an arm over Arthur's side.

"Try anyway," said Merlin, clutching him close.

 

*

 

Merlin, already up and dressed again in Wyllt's robes, gently shook Arthur awake. The sky outside was still dark, but Arthur felt better rested than he had in weeks. Perhaps it was because Merlin had slept next to him for most of those few hours; Arthur could tell from Merlin's slow-blinking smile and the fact that all the heavier blankets had been stolen to Merlin's side of the bed.

"We should leave if we want to be back in Camelot before dawn," Merlin said quietly.

Arthur nodded sleepily, indulging himself with a few more moments beneath the warm covers. Merlin gave him a fond smile, then--quickly, as if he thought Arthur would mock him for it--bowed his head, seized Arthur's hand, and kissed his knuckles, as a knight might peck the back of a lady's hand.

"Merlin!" Arthur said, startled. Merlin flashed him a quick grin, and then took advantage of Arthur's distraction to rip the bed covers away, exposing Arthur to the cool air. Arthur's reflexes were too slow with sleep for him to tug them back.

"Up!" Merlin demanded cheerfully. "Who knew that brave King Arthur was such a lazy sod? Good thing he has a new court magician to wake him up in the mornings."

"I hate you," Arthur groaned, but he sat up and rubbed the sleep-sand from his eyes.

"I will enchant a cock to sit outside your window." Merlin handed Arthur his breeches from where they had been lying crumpled on the floor, and Arthur yanked them on. "A dazzling black and green cock that will crow the hour every morning, and twice on Sabbath days."

"Do so, and I will kill the damn bird," Arthur growled.

"I will make it immortal," Merlin countered, still grinning. "No, even better--strike down one, and two will rise in its place."

"I am going to regret giving you this job, won't I?"

Merlin beamed. "Of course, sire." Arthur slid from bed; Merlin handed him his cloak, then helped Arthur fasten it, his breath on Arthur's cheek as he fumbled with the clasp. He cleared his throat and stepped back, suddenly serious. "And I promise you... I pledge myself to you, Arthur. My power and my life are yours--all that I am and will be. Please, never doubt my loyalty." He swallowed visibly. "Or my love."

"Don't pledge me that," Arthur said fiercely, shaken by the strength of Merlin's words. "We are friends, Merlin, and I hope we will be more, but it has been twelve years. I have changed. You don't yet know me."

"I know you have changed," said Merlin. "So have I. But we still fit as two halves. Can't you feel it?"

Such strange phrasing, as if Merlin was quoting a poem, but Arthur could hear the truth in Merlin's words. He hesitated, then curled a hand around the back of Merlin's neck, his thumb resting on Merlin's pulse; it beat more quickly at his touch, but Merlin's gaze never wavered from Arthur's face.

"Yes," Arthur said. "I feel it."

 

*

 

It was winter in Camelot, the ground frozen cold and the trees bare, but King Arthur's lands bloomed with warmth. In the streets, peasants whispered of the unseasonably good weather, wondering if it might be connected to the King's improved mood, or perhaps to the actions of his new court magician, a strange man named Merlin. Young maids traded gossip: it seemed the court magician could change shape at will, fly or hide anywhere in the kingdom, and always manage to rescue fair young girls from monsters. Some judged the new magician and said Merlin was not Accolon's match in beauty, but others argued that he had a pleasing face.

What the people of Camelot did not know was that the world was about to change. The King's court magician had whispered to him of bright, shining futures, seeds of destiny found in the wilds of Albion and carefully cultivated. Arthur planned to bring a new golden age to all the land, and Merlin would assist him. Such plans lay heavy on the King's brow, and sometimes, in the dead of night, he would toss and turn in his sleep. But for the first time in years, when the King woke, he was not alone, but in the arms of one he found beloved.

Destiny beckoned, and a magnificent era approached, full of righteous battles, undying love, and epic feats of sorcery. Over the next few decades, Camelot would weave an undying tale of truth and glory, birthing tales of brave men and women that would be passed down through the ages.

Eventually, it would end in tears and bloodshed, as all things do.

But not yet.

 

*

 

Am I so dear
Do I run rare
You've changed some
Peach, plum, pear
Peach, plum

-- Joanna Newsom