“Half, half, two quarters, two quarters, lengthen,” the cox called out.
The rowing shells bobbed fast and light down the river. They surged with the current, gaining speed, then coasted along, while the rowers motioned into another stroke of the oars. The sculls glided through the water and splashed some of it sideways, the blades dripping into the wash.
The crew sat halfway up the slide, their muscles glistening, their hair sticking to their skulls. They had their legs straight out, knees up, and snapped their hands to their chests. When they came to the straightest section of the canal, the boats glided along faster. Even so, the cox's voice rose over the murmurings of the water, shouting instructions. “Keep on the steering line. Keep it easy on bow side. Easy on bow side.”
The flotilla sailed past the tower of St Barnabas and the green banks that lined the canal. Only a bunch lagged behind.
Merlin watched them disappear with a sigh, his shoulders going down.
Lancelot sat down next to him, where the grass sloped the most and the mist rising from the banks was at its moistest. “I've been looking for you, my dear friend.”
Merlin snatched up a handful of grass. He oughtn't have. Nature was sentient and he could almost hear the hiss of protest that came from the bowels of the earth, from its innards, but he couldn't help himself. “I was trying to distract myself.”
“I see, problems weigh on your mind,” said Lancelot, arching an eyebrow. “And yet you did so by attending an event full of the very people who despise you.”
“I don't think the rowers hate me.” Merlin watched the last of the boats float past. “I'm fairly sure their minds are on the contest.”
“I'm talking rather of the young elite.” Lancelot eyed a group of students gathered higher up on the bank. They wore the most dazzling cravats, as white as driven snow. Their waistcoats poked out from under their jacket in heavy folds of the finest brocade. The jackets themselves sat on their shoulders in perfectly-cut lines.
“I won't let them keep me away from the things I enjoy.” While Merlin was no rowing aficionado, he appreciated the effort that went with it, for he found that exertion leant the human form a grace that had no equal. “I'll put up a fight.”
Lancelot smiled. “I'm glad to hear it.”
“Not that I will be able to for much longer.” Merlin reviewed his situation. His prospects hadn't changed since the last time he'd looked. “Christ Church won't have me. I spoke to the dean today and it seems I won't get the Fellowship I need to stay on.”
“The 15 pounds a year for life.” Lancelot nodded.
“Let's be honest, they're giving those to the real gentlemen and not to country lads.” He huffed. “Besides the right to live in Christ Church College comes with requirements.”
“What kind?” As a student who didn't mean to stay on at Oxford after his final examinations were over, Lancelot hadn't likely considered such logistics issues as Merlin had.
“I'd be required to take Holy Orders and remain unmarried.”
Lancelot looked at the canal and grimaced. “And you don't intend to do either?”
“An ordination sounds like a commitment to renounce my other leanings, but I'm willing.”
“So it's not that you object to but the giving up of matrimony?”
Merlin had thought about that. “Yes, I think that's it. I don't want to give up on love and companionship.”
“In that case,” Lancelot said. “I have a proposal for you.”
“What would that be?” A prickling of expectation whipped Merlin's skin into goose flesh.
“Let's get back to yours,” Lancelot said, rubbing at his knees. “It's terribly damp here and we can discuss these matters much more openly there.”
Black-gowned students crowded the streets and by-lanes. They elbowed each other and jostled their friends, their loud voices pinging from building to building. As they moved past St Barnabas, cobbled streets unwound before them. They walked past gabled houses, battlemented walls, college buildings and churches. Tiny courtyards and handkerchief lawns fit snugly between.
Though visiting times were nearly over for the day, the porter at Christ Church didn't stop Lancelot. Merlin opened the door to his room and ushered his friend in. With the light from outside diminishing, Merlin lit a candle and then attempted to revive the fire in the tiny fireplace.
Given how cramped Merlin's quarters were, Merlin sat on the edge of his bed, ceding the only good armchair to Lancelot. “So what did you mean to tell me?”
“It's something that I've come to hear about quite recently and at first thought little of.” Lancelot accepted the glass of sweet wine Merlin gave him. It was just the dregs of the bottle but enough to fill a whole tumblerful. “In retrospect I now think it might be excellent news.”
Merlin sunk back onto his bed. “I'm listening.”
Lancelot took a sip of his wine. If he'd noticed it was by no means newly uncorked, he didn't show it. “There's a family in Derbyshire, the Smiths, I'm close to.”
Merlin's lips curled at the sides. “Are they the same Smiths who count the famed Guinevere among their number?”
“I don't talk about Miss Smith that often, do I?” Lancelot brow crumpled. “But they are. It's the same family. Gwen was so kind as to mention in one of her letters--”
“Oh, so there's a correspondence going on.” Merlin waggled his eyebrows.
“Yes.” Lancelot breathed out. “But I assure you it's all above board.”
Merlin held his hands up. “I was only teasing.”
“I know, my friend, I know,” Lancelot said, his earnest gaze on Merlin. “But that wasn't what I meant to say. I apologise for getting so completely side-tracked.”
Merlin waved a hand to dismiss the notion.
Lancelot continued, “What I meant to say is this. Guinevere has learnt of an opening. The Rector of Camelot has recently passed away. He was a very elderly man and the news not unexpected. Still, the rectory must be filled and the post is vacant. They can't wait anymore and are looking for a learned gentleman to take over. Now if you have nothing against being ordained...”
“You thought of me?” Merlin asked, not sure how he liked this new prospect.
“Well, yes.” Lancelot drank a sip from the glass, then swirled the liquid inside it. “You're short of money, and as you pointed out, an academic career in Oxford is unlikely for the likes of you and I.”
Merlin couldn't say either of those two facts were untrue.
Lancelot said, “Camelot is a small if quaint village but your duties wouldn't be heavy. Besides, the post comes with a living, a house and garden. I'm told they're not big but they would be yours. And it sounds like that's exactly what you need. A place to go.”
Merlin let out a breath. “As inhospitable as Oxford had been to someone working-class like me, I'm not sure this Camelot of yours would be the right solution either.”
“Can I ask why you think it wouldn't suit?” Lancelot asked.
Merlin hummed low under his breath. “It's my magic.” Merlin looked around. They were alone in the room and the cleaning lady who looked after the rooms on this floor was long gone. Even so, habit made him scan the chamber circumspectly. “I can barely hide it here and god knows Oxford is full of sceptics who don't believe it's real. In a small town... I'm afraid I'd stand out.”
“You've hidden it fairly well so far,” Lancelot said. “I can't imagine why you wouldn't be able to do the same in Camelot.”
“Aren't small villages full of gossips?” Merlin was perhaps being uncharitable, but he hailed from one and knew how people talked, how they set their eyes on you if you stood out even the littlest bit. And with his personal history, Merlin did. “Doesn't news travel fast in those kind of places?”
“I can't think this one is so riddled with gossips as to make it incompatible with a quiet life, even in your circumstances.” Lancelot's brow clenched in thought. “The leading family, the Pendragons, are pretty much dead set against tattle tales, very rational, and good at keeping tight reins on that kind of thing.”
Lancelot was making Camelot sound like a haven, Merlin had to admit. “Well, my prospects here are shrinking.”
“And they would be opening up there.” Lancelot patted his armrest, then lifted his gaze. “Once I'm finished with my degree here, I'll probably go there myself.”
“I'd be happy to have a friend in the neighbourhood.” Merlin was sure Lancelot would be too busy keeping house with his Guinevere to mind him much, but having him there would be a solace to Merlin. “And the money wouldn't come amiss.” Merlin's savings had in fact almost completely dried up. “So I...”
“Will say yes?”
Merlin laughed, and with that laugh, the weight he felt on his chest lifted. “Yes. I'll say yes.”
“In that case, then I shall write to Gwen and tell her of your acceptance!"
Once that decision had been reached, Merlin said, “We should celebrate!” He clapped a hand on the bedding. Out of the impact, a hundred butterflies emerged. They fluttered this way and that until Merlin opened the window and let them go. “Perhaps not that way though. I was thinking, a night on the town?”
“It'll be a pleasure, my friend.”
Merlin left Oxford on a bright October day. The sun gilded the roofs and dipped the streets in a yellow glare that seemed unseasonal and the air was so warm as to cocoon him without any need for wraps or overcoats. The stage coach travelled across green hilly country and along roads bordered by pastures. Cows munched on the low grass, flicking their tales. Sheep moved in droves along the fences that enclosed the pastures. Brooks cuts across pockets of land, bridges the carriage trundled along, arching over them.
On the first day they stopped for dinner at an inn called the Rising Sun. Merlin helped their fellow passengers, a Miss Freya Waters and a Mrs Alice Nurse, with their luggage – the gentlman travelling with them refused any such aid – and carted his own things up a very narrow rickety flight of stairs and into his room.
It was cramped. A bed stuck out perpendicular to the wall. A nightstand stood next to it, bowl and pitcher sitting on top. Aside from these items, there was no other furniture.
To escape his rather narrow surroundings, Merlin went downstairs again. The bar was empty but for a drunkard who had planted his face into the table. Seeing as there was no company to be had there, Merlin took a walk across the fields. He meandered up knolls and down gentle dips, sat by a stream, and made his way back following a twisting path overgrown with brambles.
When he got back to the inn, the public room was full again. His travelling companions hailed him and Merlin went to their table. They ordered their food and easily fell into chatting.
It soon became clear that they were all headed towards the same destination. Miss Waters was taking up a job as governess at Perilous House and Mrs Nurse meant to open an herbal remedies shop in Camelot. Merlin told them he was to be the new rector there and the conversation went on from there. They discussed their expectations of the village and wondered whether what they'd heard of it was true.
They were in the middle of their speculations, when a man in a leather overcoat stood from the bar, and wiping his mouth with his hand said, “I wouldn't go if I were you. That place is trouble.”
“What do you mean?” Merlin said, feeling a strange sense of unpleasantness oozing from the man. It jarred his bones.
“Camelot is a place of darkness,” the man said. “And best avoided.”
Merlin was about to insist and require an explanation when the barkeep said, “Oh shut up, Aeredian. You're scaring our customers.”
“I speak as I find,” Aeredian said, and with a swish of his coat, he left the inn.
Seeing as how Miss Waters had blanched, Merlin twisted his face in a smile he hoped wasn't wan, and said, “I'm sure the man was in his cups, Miss Waters. And that there's nothing to fear in Camelot.”
Miss Waters nodded but her expression remained tight all through dinner.
The following day they arrived in the neighbourhood of Camelot. It was a little past noon but the sun never peeked out, and as the clouds were dark, one could hardly make out anything.
The area was all crags and dips, barren rock formations pointing towards the sky and bleak moors flecked with heather. Rivers ran fast with black churning waters and the trees clustered so thick you couldn't see past them. Branches locked so tight Merlin doubted anything but a squirrel could make it into the heart of the woods.
Farmhouses lay scattered upon the terrain. They were few and far between, set among thick wooded areas full of trees and enclosed by walls worked dark by the squalls.
Merlin had just leant out of the carriage window to better take of his new neighbourhood, when he spied a figure on horseback, an elderly gentleman wearing a blue shimmering cloack and hair drained of all colour.
He reined in his mount, a grey whose pelt looked silver more than charcoal, as the beast tossed and pranced. For a brief spell, the animal's hooves seemed to be dancing on mist, then the rider managed to turn his horse around and galloped down a drive that led to a rambling Tudor mansion.
As the carriage rolled on, Merlin was able to make out no more. In the bustle of getting off the stage coach and climbing up the hill with his baggage, he soon forgot about the incident.
The rectory was an old stone house with stash windows and a gabled roof. The door was painted red and three weathered steps led up to it. When he came in sight of it, Merlin dropped his luggage and tipped his head back to stare.
This was the place he was going to occupy for the foreseeable future. If the community accepted him, he might have decades to spend here. He wasn't sure how he felt about that. He couldn't tell whether the low key buzz that travelled through him was excitement or wariness. Well, it was time to find out.
He had just lifted his bags when a young woman came running into the property. She was about the same age as Merlin, She wore a bonnet and flowers pinned onto the lapel of her Spencer jacket and had an air about her of modest gentility. Her wide brown eyes looked sweet even in the wan light of this overcast day.
When she saw him, she put a hand to her chest to stop its heaving, and said, “I'm so glad you haven't gone in yet. I'm so sorry I was late. A moment more and I would have been too late.” She took a big breath and smiled. “But luckily you're still out here and not in there.”
“Um?” Merlin wasn't sure what the young lady was going on about and had no idea how to clear that up. “I'm not positive I...”
“Oh.” The young lady cupped her mouth. “I'm sorry. I didn't introduce myself. I'm Guinevere Smith, the blacksmith's daughter.” She curtsied. “I used to help old Mr Fisher with some of the housekeeping. I know the house like the back of my hand and I was thinking of giving you the tour before I take up my duties for you.”
“Oh.” So this was Lancelot's Gwen. “I don't think I can afford a housekeeper, Miss Smith.”
“Oh.” Miss Smith's face fell.
Merlin felt his stomach twist at the notion of giving this young woman, one so dear to a friend of his, a disappointment. “See, I'm used to looking after myself.” While Christ Church had had a cleaner, it was on the college, not on him. “I can clean up and wash and do everything that's needed.”
Miss Smith's shoulders bent low. “Well, I was looking forward to the job. I was hoping I could still rely on it. It's all very proper working for a rector and my father approves.” She lifted her eyes to Merlin's. “But I can understand if it wasn't part of your plans.”
Merlin's heart cracked the littlest bit. “Well, on second thoughts--” He made a show of studying the rectory. “-- The house looks big and I might need some help.”
Miss Smith pushed off her toes. “Really? That's fantastic. I mean you'll see I won't get in your hair at all. You'll hardly know I'm there.” She smiled. “I'll show you round the house so you can get settled.”
The rectory's ceilings were low and criss-crossed with beams. The parlour and living room both had large fireplaces but were lacking in anything other than rickety furniture. “Old Mr Fisher practically lived in the parlour. Sometimes you'd find him asleep on his rocking chair.” She swept a hand on the arch of its back. “See, it's close to the kitchen and is so very warm. I'm sure his old bones found it a big relief. I can set up the other rooms if you'd like. I'm sure they need a thorough scrub.”
Merlin wanted to say he could do that himself but he was afraid that Miss Smith would take it as a rejection of her offer. “How many more rooms are there?”
“Ten,” Miss Smith said, leading him down the passageway. “But they're mostly small.”
“That's still more space than I need, believe me.”
“Perhaps that'll induce you to seek a wife.”
“Ehm,” Merlin said, wanting to be truthful without revealing too much. “I'm not looking for one.”
Miss Smith lurched to a halt and turned wide eyes on him. “Oh, goodness, I hope you don't think I was trying to flirt with you!”
Merlin held up his hands. “No, no. I didn't think you were.”
“Good, because I was truly not.” Miss Smith shook her head. “I'd never try to angle for a husband in such a manner.”
“I completely understand--”
“Not that I think you beneath my notice.” She spoke quickly, her words bunching together. “I'm sure you're an absolutely lovely rector – man –, but I'm all but promised.” She turned her gaze inwards. “Not that he's proposed yet, or that I'd want to him to rush into it, but as for myself, I feel I'm quite committed.”
“I would never dream of thinking you were not,” Merlin says, quick to stop her torrent of words. “Let's call each other friends, shall we?”
She smiled and he smiled; she curtsied and he bowed, and when it became a little awkward, she sighed, shifted her weight, then sprang into motion, guiding him into the drawing room.
The heavy velvet curtains blocked out any sunlight there might have been. The floor creaked as thet moved, and when he stepped on it, the carpet let out a cloud of dust.
“Of course this place needs dusting.” Miss Smith coughed, then moved forward to open the curtains and the French windows. “But you have a nice view at least.”
Past the garden wall, a lane meandered. The gables of the houses opposite, lashed by rain, shone in the distance. A big iron gate barred access to a drive. “Well, I wager I won't be that lonely. I seem to have a few neighbours here.”
“That's Perilous House,” Miss Smith said. “The owners, the Caerleons, have five children. The eldest is a few years our junior and a lovely girl and the youngest is a boy of six called Thomas.” Miss Smith tipped her head to the side so it pointed at the big gate. “And that's where the Pendragons live. Brother and sister. When I was little, I was Miss Pendragon's particular companion. We're not on such close terms anymore – she's an heiress and I'm not – but she's a wonderful person. Her brother is a fine gentleman, too. He was in the army before he had to sell his commission and thus very heroic.”
“What about the other big house?”
“What other big house?” Miss Smith turned to look at him, her eyebrows converging.
“The one right at the edges of Camelot,” Merlin said, gesturing in the general direction of the house. “Right where the toll road is. It's more of a mansion than a small private home.”
“The only stately house in the neighbourhood is Albion Hall and it belongs to the Pendragons.”
“I'm sure I saw a manor coming over.” Merlin frowned.
“Derbyshire has many fine houses. The one you describe must lie far afield.” Miss Smith said. “You must have nodded off and thought it was closer than it actually is.”
Merlin had no recollection of falling asleep during the drive, but Miss Smith knew the village and had to be right when she maintained the only stately house belonged to the Pendragons. “I suppose,” he said. Then to be quit of the subject, he added, “Why don't you show me the rest of the house?”
“I'll be delighted to.”
Morgana looked in the mirror. Its surface reflected her features but made them wan and highlighted the circles under her eyes and the hollowness of her cheeks. She wanted to say the glass was distorting her reflection, dulling it with renditions of unequal proportions, but she knew that after the night she'd had, that wasn't likely. She really looked that wrung out.
She was touching her hand to her cheek, when there was a knock on the door. “Who is it?”
“Morgana,” Gwen called out, her sweet voice recognisable even from behind the shield of the oak doorway, “it's me. May I come in?”
Morgana hid the mirror under one of the settee cushions. “Of course, dear.”
Gwen strode in with a basket hanging from her hand. When she saw Morgana, her face tightened, but then she smiled. “I hope I haven't interrupted anything.”
“As you can see, I had nothing to entertain myself with.” Morgana put on a smile for Gwen's sake. “I'm really glad to see you, Gwen.”
“Me too.” Gwen placed the basket on the table in front of the settee and walked past it to open the curtains. “And I come with news.”
“News?” Morgana craned her neck so she could keep Gwen in her sights. “What news? You know I I'm always eager for news.”
Gwen stopped and studied her hard. “It seems like you aren't, not lately.”
“You are mistaken. I'm as interested as I used to be,” Morgana said. “I've just been a little preoccupied with Arthur.”
Gwen sat on the stool closest to the tea table. “Well, I've come to take your mind off that.” She opened her basket and arrayed items from it on its top. “I've made these myself,” she said, tapping jam jars lids. “Would you like to have some?”
Morgana wasn't really hungry but she didn't want to make Gwen suspicious, so she said, “But of course.”
Gwen spread jam on honeyed bread, placed a napkin underneath, and passed the treat to Morgana. “I'm afraid it's all very rustic, but also very fresh.”
Morgana gave the bread the tiniest bite she could afford and made a pleased noise. “Lancelot is going to be a very happy man one day.”
Gwen fussed with napkins and jars. “It's too early to talk of such things.” She cut a slice of almond tart. It had a nice golden crust. “So don't you want to hear about my news?”
“Of course,” Morgana said, resting the food-laden napkin on her knees. “Do tell.”
“We finally have a new rector.” Gwen took a morsel of her tart. “He seems very nice.”
“Mmm.” Morgana struggled to find anything about this news item interesting but could not. Maybe once, when she had fewer concerns, she would have been more intrigued or would have rejoiced in the lure of novelty this piece of gossip brought. But these days she had other matters to think on. “I see.”
“I'm to help him with household chores like I did with Mr Fisher.”
Morgana hummed thoughtfully.
“Oh I can see what you're thinking,” Gwen said, leaning forward. “But he's not at all like the old rector, God bless his soul.”
Morgana could do nothing other than make conversation. Anything less would have been rude. “In what way, dear?”
“Oh he's young.” Gwen's eyes shone. “And quite kind. Handsome, too. Tall and blue-eyed. I think you'd like him.”
Morgana's heart raced. “Tall and blue-eyed, you said?”
“Yes, indeed,” Gwen said. “I'd have said he's entirely your type except he's not exactly dashing, you know, somewhat too lanky to cut a dapper figure. But he's a gentleman through and through.” She toyed with her food, a thoughtful expression on her face. “And one who doesn't mind about class boundaries and the hypocrisies that come with them. He was very open with me.”
Morgana tipped her head to the side. “Well, in that case we must have a welcome party for him.”
“Really?” Gwen's eyebrows crept upwards. “I mean as first lady in Camelot in terms of consequence I thought you wouldn't countenance a mere rector with a few hundred pounds a year.”
“This one sounds quite intriguing actually.”
“In that case, I shall invite him,” Gwen said. “He'll be happy to learn of the warm welcome he's to receive.”
Under her breath, Morgana murmured, “Indeed.”
When Gwen was gone, Morgana sat at the desk and wrote, “Dear Alice, there are new and interesting developments I wish to talk to you about.”
When Arthur entered the room, Morgana put her quill down and placed the letter she'd been writing in a drawer. “Ha, brother, have you exacerbated your aches and pains by taking your morning ride?”
“By no means,” Arthur said, striding into the drawing room in such a way as not to draw attention to his hip dragging. “Hengroen was a dream.”
“I'm sure,” Morgana said, turning in her seat. “It was not the horse I was objecting to.”
Arthur sank onto the divan, his leg out so as to ease the tightness in his pelvic area. “I think you're trying to spite me so as to divert my attention away from what you're doing over there.”
Morgana set one of her hands on top of the other. The gem on her ring-finger caught the light and sparkled. It was a green stone, gold filaments coiling around it in the shape of a serpent. “I'm doing nothing other than spending my mornings the way I always do, playing the proper lady.”
“You hid a letter just now.”
Morgana arched an eyebrow. “It was nothing that you would consider beneath you.”
Arthur pursed his lips. “That doesn't make me any less tempted to ask you questions.”
“Really, Arthur, one would think you've become a gossip,” Morgana said, pulling one of her ringlets behind her ear. “It doesn't become you.”
“And you believe that secret correspondence does become you instead?” Arthur knew he had a point and wanted to make sure Morgana was aware of it.
“It's hardly secret,” Morgana said, throwing a look at the closed drawer. “I'm sending out invitations.”
Arthur looked away. “What for?”
“A ball.” Morgana's eyes twinkled. “To welcome the new rector.”
“We can't have a ball!” Arthur stood up. “I absolutely refuse to.”
Morgana's mouth thinned. “And pray why?”
Arthur puffed his cheeks. “These things are nuisances.”
“Hardly,” Morgana said. “They're part and parcel of normal social interactions. We should do it.”
“Morgana, this doesn't please me at all.”
Morgana scowled at him, her jaw set. “That's as may be. I will have my ball.”
Arthur took to pacing and his jaw locked. “I think it's scarcely proper.”
“We can't act as recluses just because you're working through your issues,” Morgana said, her eyes sparking. “And we must welcome the new rector. Not doing so would be a slight and we don't want to continue in Uther's way of looking down upon our neighbours.”
“That's 'Father'.” Arthur's teeth ground whenever Morgana referred to their father by his given name. It's a point she'd always made. But now, after their father passing, it seemed doubly wrong. “And he had strict views as to what made a gentleman or a lady.” Not that he was entirely wrong. During the Spanish campaigns, Arthur had seen so much bad behaviour as to colour his view of many an officer. “And I hardly think welcoming this new rector of yours is necessary.”
“It's the least we could do,” Morgana said. “We didn't attend his very first service.” Morgana pierced him with her glare. “Or do you believe like Uther did that rectors aren't proper gentlemen?”
Arthur really had no opinion on the subject. He was about to say that when Morgana started again.
“Because I assure you, Arthur, this one comes with all the best possible recommendation,” Morgana said, clacking her tongue in the most annoying manner. “He's kind and personable and an Oxford graduate who got there on his own steam, no family to pave the way for him.”
“And you know that how?” Arthur asked.
“Gwen told me.”
“Look,” Arthur said, flinging himself back down on the sofa, “we don't have to throw a ball just because Gwen wants to make cosy with the new rector.”
Morgana's eyes grew big. “It's not because of that!”
Arthur rubbed his knuckles against his lapel. “I do not care for the reason. I don't want to have that many people milling around in my house!” It'd be a nightmare, that was what it would be like. Having to fake social graces, when he had much more pressing matters to think about. “Absolutely not!”
“Just because you're morose about the army, it doesn't mean we shouldn't be civil to our neighbours.”
“I think a good day will suffice if being civil is the requirement.”
Morgana scoffed. “No, it won't and you know that very well. We must open our house to him or people will think we are pulling rank on him.”
“I strongly disagree.” Arthur rolled his eyes.
“Is that your way of pointing out that this house is yours and not mine--” Morgana tossed her head back. “--that as your unmarried sister I'm only here on your sufferance and thus unable to invite whomever I want!”
“You're putting words in my mouth!” Arthur had no idea how Morgana did it but she always managed to get a rise of him, to quicken his temper and make him feel at odds with the universe. “That's not what I meant at all.”
“Then we'll be hosting the ball?”
“Uh--” Arthur searched his mind for another objection but couldn't find one, not with such short notice. “Fine, have it your way. I won't be in.”
“What!” Morgana smirked. “You won't chaperone me?”
“What do you need a chaperone for?” Arthur asked, “you've never wanted one, have actually often railed against the need for one and you're dead set on doing things your way anyway!”
“It's only proper.” Morgana only smiled and when Arthur's face crumpled she added, “Well then I'll add you to the attendee list.”
The drive seemed to be endless. Tall evergreens lined it, their trunks so wide that two men with arms outstretched couldn't circle the base. Green fronds waved and shook in the wind while pine needles carpeted the path. The air smelt of them, their scent sharp, intense.
The house looked more like a castle than an ordinary dwelling. It sprawled across a rise that ran parallel to the drive and nestled among Italian gardens and shrubberies. Copses dotted the terrain around the construction. The grand central building was of grey-coloured stone, ornamented with crenellated turrets, chimneys, and walkways while the side wings were brick, their style much more modern. It was clean of any ornamentation aside from the wrought stonework and the large windows in its façade.
The big oaken doors stood open, two tall, liveried footmen standing guard at either side of them.
The big oaken doors stood open, two tall, liveried footmen standing guard at either side of them.
Merlin cleared his throat and showed them his invitation.
Though Merlin had taken care to put on his best clothes – a fine linen shirt, his one good waistcoat – he knew he didn't look the part of the country gentleman. His trousers had seen rather too much use and were worn at the hem. His cravat looped around his neck in the simplest of knots, which showed he had no valet. And his boots, which he'd taken for a spin across the countryside earlier today, lacked in shine. Even so when shown the card, the footmen could do nothing more than wave him in.
The hall's floor gleamed. A grand chandelier hung from mid ceiling and brightened the whole space with the glare of its candles. The grand staircase extended upwards and led to a gallery that ended in a wide salon. Ornate gilded mirrors panelled the walls. More crystal chandeliers hung from ropes suspended from the tall stuccoed ceiling. A bank of windows, draperies of heavy emerald brocade framing them, opened onto a balcony overlooking the gardens.
As he took in the room, Merlin's stomach bottomed out. At Oxford, he'd often brushed shoulders with the gentry and nobility, but they'd often ignored him and even when they had not, their role as students and then graduates had somehow bridged some gaps. Those same bucks who attended the hallowed halls of Oxford couldn't exactly snub him there in the same way as they would at home in front of their equals. This was different.
Merlin swallowed and fiddled with his cravat, loosening it just a little. Before he could quietly backtrack and leave the premises, Miss Smith pushed off one of the chairs ranged along the opposite wall and came over. “Mr Emrys,” she said, curtsying. “I'm so happy to see you here.”
Merlin bowed at Miss Smith. “I couldn't not turn up. Though--” He looked around and saw ladies in fine muslins and gentlemen in evening gear mill around. “Though, to be honest, I wish I was back at the rectory.”
“Oh.” The corners of Miss Smith's mouth bowed downwards. “I assure you the people here are very nice, very welcoming. I'm much like you --” She smiled, gave a little shrug. “Not exactly upper class and I've always been treated with kindness.” She hooked her arm around his. “Come, I'll introduce you to Miss Pendragon. She's somewhat fierce but she's a good woman, and in spite of her position, she never frowns on people of a lower social standing.”
They walked arm in arm, until they came across a dark-haired lady standing next to a fair gentleman. They were opposites in a lot of ways. Her eyes were green where his were blue. Their noses had different shapes to them. And their mouths had disparate casts. But they had the same bearing. They stood with their backs straight and their heads high and looked around as if they owned the place – which they probably did.
“Mr Emrys,” Miss Smith said, “this is Miss Morgana Pendragon.”
“How do you do, Mr Emrys?” Miss Pendragon didn't curtsey, but inclined her head. Her eye roved up and down Merlin's body. “It's a pleasure to be able to welcome our new rector here.”
Miss Pendragon's frank appraisal brought a blush to Merlin's face. “I'm very happy to be in Camelot.” It was no lie after all. The village seemed pleasant and he was getting used to the house and his new job. “Thank you for your warm welcome.”
Miss Pendragon nodded and turned a little. “This is my brother, Arthur.”
“Pleasure.” Merlin reached his hand out but Mr Pendragon didn't shake it. “And, ehm, thank you for inviting me.”
Mr Pendragon didn't put down the glass he was holding. He looked down his nose at Merlin. Then stiff-lipped, he said, “It was entirely my sister's doing. Thank her.” He took a sip off his glass and walked off, marching over to the balcony. He disappeared behind the fluttering curtains.
“Pray, excuse my brother,” Miss Pendragon said, glaring at the spot the man had vanished behind. “He's a total and utter boor. I'll go and rebuke him for his appalling lack of manners.”
“Please don't.” Merlin pleaded with her, “It's just not worth it.”
“I hope you're not tolerating such behaviour as my brother displayed because of his position in society?”
“Absolutely not!” Merlin's eyes flared. “I happen to agree with you, your brother's manners were very poor indeed. And I'll be happy to say so to his face. But I don't wish to spoil anybody's evening by causing a scene.”
“You're quite a dear,” Miss Pendragon said, her demeanour softening. “Why don't you let me make amends on behalf of my brother and invite you to dance.”
Miss Smith cupped her mouth. “Miss Pendragon, Morgana.”
“Gwen, dear.” Miss Pendragon winked. “Sometimes hostesses need to know how to dare.”
Merlin bowed and said, “I'll dance with you with pleasure.”
Miss Pendragon was a much better dancer than Merlin. She had a sense of rhythm for one. She knew the intricacies of the cotillion and the quadrille for another. And, unlike Merlin, she never stepped on anyone's toes.
Merlin, for his part, flushed and apologised every time he squelched someone's foot. That seemed to endear him to some and reap the censure of others. Miss Pendragon suggested he not mind the latter. That was what village people did, quack about other people's shortcomings so they didn't have to acknowledge theirs.
She most certainly did draw all eyes, for she not only danced well but she was talkative and witty and Merlin could tell he was collecting the glares of many a gentleman simply by virtue of having stepped down with her.
When the first two dances were over, Merlin led Miss Pendragon back to a corner. Next, he invited Miss Smith to dance. She too was better at the minuet than him but her chatter was different in nature from Miss Pendragon's. “How are you doing at the rectory?” she asked him, when she rejoined him at the end of the line. “I keep thinking you must feel cold and lonely in that place.”
“I'm doing fine, truly, Miss Smith.” Having to clear out old Mr Fisher's things had helped him keep busy while he got used to his new environment. “I'm having a good time of it.”
“I've sewn some curtains for you.” The steps of the dance dictated they come apart, and for a while, they couldn't talk. When they touched hands again, Miss Smith added, “I can get them to you whenever you want. Tell me when you might need them and I'll drop them at the rectory.”
Just as they came into a complicated turn, Merlin noticed that he was being observed. Mr Pendragon had come back from his jaunt to the balcony and was standing by the fireplace. He had an empty glass in hand and was watching Merlin and Miss Smith. When Merlin met his eyes, he dropped his gaze, compressed his lips, and went to the punch table in search of a new drink.
Merlin wondered why Mr Pendragon had been looking at him and decided that the gentleman was probably trying to put Merlin down with his sour looks.
Just to spite him, Merlin twirled Miss Smith around over another dance and then took up with Miss Freya Waters, his wayside inn acquaintance, whom he met over the refreshment table.
“I wasn't expecting to find you here,” Merlin said, as he led her down the floor.
“I didn't think I would be allowed to come, either,” said Miss Waters. “I'm only a governess after all. But Mrs Carleon was insistent I come and socialise, too.”
“It was less kindness than giving you your due.” Merlin and Miss Waters parted ways and then met again down along the line of dancers. “And how are you finding your job?”
When they parted and came together again at the bottom of the dance set, she said, “I love my charges. Miss Kenverchyn is very polite and studious and Thomas is ever so lovely though he has a tendency to wander off.”
“Wander off!” Merlin chuckled. “I'm afraid I did that too when I was a child. My mother was forever on the lookout for my escapades.”
“He has quite the bug, too,” Freya said, slipping her hand in his when the moves of the dance required it. “One moment he'll be there and the next he won't. But hearing you did that too is quite reassuring. After all you turned out fine, a clergyman and all.”
“No, I don't think it's that bad either.” Merlin had been a bit of an imp as a child but couldn't regret a single one of his little adventures. They had been a way to practice magic. “He'll be fine.”
Once the reel was over and Freya Waters went back to the Carleons, Merlin decided he was done with dancing for the night. He ate some more refreshments, drank more punch than was wise, got acquainted with a large swathe of the guests, and ran multiple times into Mr Pendragon.
The man never spoke to him. He acknowledged Merlin with stiff nods and eyebrow raises but never approached him.
Merlin didn't stay long past midnight. He had calls to make in the morning, he'd already danced and talked to everyone who was in a mood to converse, and was somewhat sluggish with all the food he'd eaten. He refused Miss Pendragon's offer of a carriage to drive him home, and set off on foot instead.
The night wasn't cold after all and a beautiful full moon, barely touched by any cloud, was out. The warm air touched Merlin's lungs and made him rejoice in the chance to take some exercise.
Two paths opened before him, a short one that would take him to the rectory in five minutes, and a winding one. He had explored the latter in the morning and liked it better. Trees lined it and roses tumbled over the boundary wall that fenced it in. It made for a scenic view.
Merlin took the longer path. He tipped his head back, looked at the stars, and took to whistling. The night air kissed his skin and put a spring to his step. He felt braced and the slowness that had come upon him with all the eating and drinking he'd done lifted.
He was negotiating a bend in the road, when he realised he'd been walking for more than twenty minutes. This wasn't possible. The path he'd taken in the morning hadn't been this long. He ought to have got home by now.
Merlin stopped and surveyed his surroundings. The wall running alongside the path showed gaps before crumbling into a mass of jumbled grey stones. The road itself dwindled into ancient woods, thick with vegetation, boughs and roots and leaves. Moonlight scarcely speared in. Mist hovered at ground level, slowly rising to enfold the foundations of a ruined chapel whose towers pierced the foliage and pushed towards the night sky.
Merlin blinked. He was sure he hadn't run into any chapels in the morning, nor had he entered any woods. He must have got mired in his thoughts and wandered off further afield than he'd meant to.
His magic sparked across his skin and lit fires under it. It wanted to get out and there was no reason for it. He was lost, but that wasn't grounds for his magic to work itself in a tizzy, stupid magic. He breathed in, out, rolled his shoulders. He'd just got his magic to calm a little, when a girl brushed past him.
She wore a short-sleeved white cotton dress. Hair loose, she had on neither jacket nor shawl and her arms were bare almost to the shoulders. Her slippers were made of thin, coarse fabric clearly not meant for long walks.
Merlin stepped towards her and said, “Have you got lost, too, Miss?”
The young lady didn't reply but walked on, directing her steps towards the wild of the forest.
“Miss,” Merlin said, turning round so he could keep her in his sights. “I don't think wandering around in the dark is quite wise.” He wished he hadn't pushed so far himself. “If you're lost, we can try and find the way back to Camelot together.”
The young lady didn't even blink or turn towards him. She lifted her chin in the air and ploughed on at the same regular pace as before.
Merlin hesitated. On the one hand, he didn't want to pester the young woman. Maybe she wasn't lost and had somewhere to get to. On the other, though, the woods looked unfit for anyone to spend the night in and she looked out of sorts, too, unresponsive. Perhaps she was unwell. Her paleness and her fixed expression certainly seemed to suggest that.
“Um, Miss?” Merlin said. “Are you all right?”
The woman's pace was steady, rhythmic, one two, one two. Her dress brushed against the foliage and got caught in brambles. She didn't try to tug it free but moved on, leaving pieces of fabric behind. They fluttered white in the breeze.
That couldn't be right. Merlin gave himself a shake and started going after the woman. A pale figure pitted against the darkness of the night, she was going fast. Before Merlin could quite catch up with her, she'd vanished into the thick of the trees.
Merlin cupped his hands around his mouth and called out for her. He searched the stretch of wood around him for any trace of the lady. But there was none, no footprints that he could see, no broken twigs, no threads of fabric caught in the branches. He went over the same paths round and round.
He found a clearing, and entered the chapel he'd spotted from afar. Lacking a roof, at least in places, it still had an altar. There was no altar cloth but a chalice sat on it. It was small and golden, with the words Aos Sí written around its rim in Ogham. It emanated a strange, jarring aura that told Merlin to keep away from it. Even so, something about it, its odd lure, made him lift it. It was light, insubstantial, cold, but otherwise unremarkable. “Right, this has nothing to do with anything.”
Having put the object back, Merlin resumed his search of the chapel. He wandered round and round it, explored every nook and cranny. They were dark, scarcely speared through by any light, and empty. Birds nested in the roof on thick, partly-collapsed beams. They were the only life there. No woman was around.
It was nearly dawn by the time Merlin gave up searching for her. He wanted to believe she was fine and had only eluded him, but something continued to nag at him for days after the encounter. He only stopped looking for her when he realised that much time had passed and there was no news of an accident. Surely, the lady was fine. Only after he'd reached that conclusion and comforted himself with its soundness did he sink back into his day-to-day life.
The shop's blue door opened on the mews. Windows on either side, displayed coloured stoppered jars, pill boxes, and satchels with labels stitched on in brown thread; they shone without a speck of dust, paint the same colour as the door covering their frame.
The old milliner sign lay propped up by a skirt board near the entrance. The new one which advertised the premises as an apothecary shop hung high over the pale awning.
To a jangle of bells, Morgana entered.
Behind the drug counter stood tall cabinets filled to the brim with more jars, bottles and phials of the type on display in the window. Two sets of scales sat on a table next to a ledger. Bags of Epsom salts leaned against a side bench; on top were bottles filled with dense oils marked chalmoogra, cod liver, castor. Books lined shelves that bent under their weight.
From the next room, a woman emerged.
Morgana said, “I see you've already set up shop, Alice.”
Alice cleaned her hands on her apron. “Thanks to your kindness, Morgana.”
Morgana smiled. “I had to have you here.”
Alice moved behind the counter. “And I was glad to come.”
Morgana trailed a finger along the counter, paced along its length. “It already looks so good and orderly. Your business is going to thrive.”
“Hopefully,” said Alice. “But how are you doing?”
“Not sleeping quite as well enough as I should,” Morgana told Alice. “Otherwise I'm coping.”
“I can give you something for that.” Alice looked at the rows of medicaments that weighed down shelves and cabinets. “You only need to ask.”
“And how about him?” Alice asked, slipping closer to the edge of the counter and thus to her. “Is it him?”
Morgana place a hand on the work-top and leaned towards Alice. “Yes.” For some reason the words came out as a whisper. “Yes, it's him.”
Alice's lips pursed. “You're sure?”
“Positive,” Morgana said, inclining her head. “I met him. I made sure I would.”
“In which case--” Alice searched under the counter. When she found what she was looking for, she put the bundle on the benchtop. It was square, its edges well marked in spite of the excess of cloth. “This is for you.”
Morgana slipped the object in her reticule, hoping the latter would hold against the bundle's sharp corners. “Thank you.”
“Now,” said Alice, turning around to rifle the shelves, “let's find a remedy for your sleeplessness.”
The French cannons had stopped firing while the artillery men hid behind the shelter of farm walls. The drums had ceased sounding too; even the shouts of acclaim for the French Emperor had grown hushed.
Rain glittered on the roofs of the village houses; it begrimed broken windows and walls. Water fountained off the battlements and pooled in the streets below, which had turned to swamps. Thin slices of silver rain hit the puddles, bounced off the bodies of dead men that littered the village street and the fort's parapet.
“The French are only a hundred yards away,” Arthur said to the soldier standing next to him on the walkway. “They have no more provisions. No way out. The Spanish have done their job well.”
He turned to his men. Their faces were grim, dirty, scarred, they held their rifles in front of their bodies, the bayonets shimmering in the squall. “We must hold them long enough to allow Paget and the rest of his troops to get here. And once they're here, we'll have them. I'm only asking you for a little more patience.”
When he turned round to check on the farm, he spotted a group of French infantry, their uniforms dulled by mud and darkened by rain, run up the street and creep along the farmstead walls. Arthur knew they'd been despatched here to help their compatriots out of their bind, was aware they were reinforcements. He needed to do something to stop them from tipping the situation to their favour.
Arthur spun round. “Prepare to fire.”
But the soldiers that were meant to form a line behind him vanished one by one. Their bodies lost in consistency, became pale ghosts of men, and ceased to exist.
“Charge!” the French commander shouted.
The French charged. Their column broke, with men swarming this way and that. One by one they walked into a cloud. Arthur couldn't tell whether that was smoke from artillery fire or a strange weather phenomenon. Either way, the French disappeared into it and didn't emerge on the other side of it.
Arthur whirled round but there was no one to share his news with. His men weren't there either. Their faces were no longer set for battle; their bayonets no longer caught the sun. Arthur walked the broken edge of the battlement. He was directionless, adrift.
He stepped into a field. Dead men littered it, their faces turned up towards the sun. Their stare was fixed, glassy. Arthur wanted to stop so he could recognise the faces, etch them in his memory. But blood seeped from the ground. It stained his soles and stuck to them. It turned the ground into a red lagoon.
Arthur sat up, his breathing heavy. Sunlight seeped into his room, flooding over his desk, still encumbered with letters, and over a section of the floor. He was at Avalon Hall. He was home.
Passing a hand down his face, it came off damp with sweat. He kicked aside the covers, got up, cupped the water in the basin and splashed his face.
When Arthur came down, the footman told him Miss Pendragon and her guests were having breakfast on the patio. Though he wasn't keen on visitors, Arthur was in no mood to stay pent up in his chambers, so he sauntered outside.
The day was clear. The sun shone from behind the tree line and gilded the gardens in patchwork. Flowers opened in their flower beds and were tilted towards the light, dew sticking to leaves and petals in perfect little beads. Definitely a morning to be spent outdoors.
The table stood close to the lawn, the table cloth fluttering in a breeze that was gentle for autumn. Around it sat Miss Smith, Morgana, and the new rector.
When Arthur got there, Morgana was filling Mr Emrys' cup. “Arthur, I see you've finally seen fit to join us.”
Miss Smith dipped her head and Mr Emrys looked from him to Morgana. His eyes rounded and he flushed a notch, his jaw stiffening.
“I didn't think you one for such early habits.” Arthur knew Morgana to be quite decadent in fact. She usually wasn't up before half past ten, “Did you develop them while I wasn't looking?”
“No such thing,” Morgana said, taking a sip of her own tea. “I was simply looking forwards to having my friends here.”
Arthur couldn't tell what she was playing at, whether she was indeed simply glad to have Guinevere Smith there again, after a cooling off in their relationship, or whether she was trying to play matchmaker with her friend and the rector. For all that he knew, she had set her sights on the rector herself.
Emrys was personable enough. In their position it would almost be unheard of, an heiress and a man of modest means, but Father was no longer there to forbid the match and who knew what she'd got into her head. Whatever was moving her, Arthur didn't want to be involved. He poured himself a cup, sank into the seat across from Emrys, and drank its contents in silence.
Morgana continued to make small talk. She discussed the season, Camelot's past, and her hopes for its future. Miss Smith talked about her memories of Avalon Hall and her common childhood with Morgana. Mr Emrys smiled at them both but didn't say much, not even when needled by Morgana to share his life story, until they questioned him about Cambridge.
“So you studied only divinity?” Morgana asked.
“Chiefly that, yes,” Mr Emrys said, with an easy smile. It was somewhat toothy and put lines on his face. “I'm curious about what brings people closer to... the supernatural.”
“God, you mean,” said Miss Smith.
Mr Emrys looked at the table. “Spirituality, is what I mean.”
Arthur moved his gaze from his cup to Mr Emrys. “That wasn't the answer I had been expecting.”
Mr Emrys' cheeks coloured somewhat. “What did you think I'd say?”
“I don't know,” Arthur said, putting his cup down. “Perhaps I was expecting you to go deep into theology.”
“I believe in man's instinctive communion with nature.” Emrys shifted his cup about. “Theology comes next as man's effort to understand the divine.”
“That's quite interesting.” Morgana pinned her gaze on Emrys.
“Your theory also seems to involve a laxer approach to divinity.” Arthur wasn't sure why he was making the observations but Emrys' tenets seemed strange for a rector and he supposed he wanted to fathom him out.
Mr Emrys didn't appear to object to that line of enquiry. On the contrary, he leant forwards, his eyes sparking, and said, “Yes, perhaps it does. I'm all for a friendly approach to faith.” He gnawed on his lip. “Faith in whatever the soul naturally leans to.”
“Mmm.” Arthur gave a bite to a bread roll, and not hungry, put it down. “That doesn't seem particularly Christian.”
“Arthur!” Morgana said.
“The concept isn't naturally divorced from Christianity,” Merlin said, meeting Arthur's gaze. “Or any other religion.”
This was getting curiouser and curiouser. Mr Fisher had certainly never spoken like that. Under his tenure, Arthur had often fallen asleep in the pew. “So what does your idea of religion involve?”
“Love towards others, good deeds, respect of oneself and one's true nature.”
“And do you practice what you preach?” Arthur's lips curled up. “As a rector?”
Mr Emrys was about to open his mouth when Morgana put her knife down with a clang. “Are you questioning Mr Emrys' morals, Arthur, for that is very rude.” Her mouth thinned. “Besides, Mr Emrys has already shown he's an excellent incumbent. He's already taken up all his duties as rector. Aside from Sunday sermons, he's started a money collection to repair the chancel, taken on weeding the cemetery himself, and assisted a needy family in the shape of the Loholts.”
“I didn't mean to imply anything untoward.” Arthur wasn't lying. He may not have liked throwing a ball for Emrys, but by his current questioning of him, Arthur hadn't meant any disrespect. He'd simply wished to be clearer as to this strange man's ideas, his theories. “I can assure you of that. If Mr Emrys took offence, then I am sorry.”
Mr Emrys' eyes widened with surprise. “I didn't take any.”
Morgana subsided, her shoulders relaxing.
“And what's this about the Loholts? Aren't they doing well?” Arthur remembered them as a well-to-do farming family. Now that had been before he'd set off for the Peninsular War, but the Loholts' fortunes couldn't have plunged so much in such few years. “I thought they lived comfortably enough.”
“Not so,” said Morgana, her expression losing its sharpness and softening into a show of pity. “Mr Loholt died, and his mother and his widow have been left alone to tend to the farm. The grandmother is eighty and ailing and the daughter has six children to see to when she's not running herself ragged tending to crops.”
“It's a lot of work.” Gwen sighed. “The poor woman's in a state.”
“But Mr Emrys has been helping.” Morgana raised an eyebrow in his direction.
“I'm sure he's done enough money collecting to see them through the winter.” Arthur had seen the prior rector in action. He was aware of how those things worked. “Good for him.”
Mr Emrys shuffled in his seat, his face pink. It wasn't embarrassment he was trying to conceal, Arthur was sure, he was trying to tamp down on anger.
Miss Smith puffed her cheeks, bit her lips and lowered her eyes.
Morgana said, “He's worked the farm himself, looked after the children, and taken some of the burden off their back.”
Arthur had to admit that wasn't what he'd thought he'd hear. Old Mr Fisher had looked after the parish in his own way. At least before he got so old and frail that he couldn't do much at all. He'd collected money and exhorted his parishioners to help. He hadn't been neglectful in any way though he'd never aided his flock himself. Given this track record, a hands-on approach on the part of the new incumbent was the last thing Arthur expected. “I must retract my statement then.”
“Miss Pendragon,” Mr Emrys said, his facial muscles twitching, “is being kind. I was born on a farm. Farm work comes easy to me. When I realised that that was a bit of a problem for the Loholts, I just went with it. I got to spend a couple of days out in the fields, which beats staying cooped up at the rectory.”
Arthur turned rounded eyes onto Mr Emrys. There was no pride in his bearing and no false modesty. His words and tone had been as matter of fact as they got. “A farmer?” Arthur said, his voice a little used. “You were born on a farm.”
“Does that sound so very astounding?” Mr Emrys asked. “I was born on a neat little farm with one cow and one rather old nag.”
“You don't often hear of Oxford graduates who were born on farms.” Arthur lowered his gaze and pressed his lips together. “It's uncommon to say the least.”
“And that speaks against the institution's elitism, don't you find?” Mr Emrys said. “I was lucky enough to have a benefactor who took an interest in me, but that's not true of everyone.”
“I wager it's not.” Arthur thumbed the tablecloth.
“Don't you think that's wrong?” Mr Emrys asked. He licked his lips and reprised quickly. “Don't you think that skill and a capacity for hard work aren't only to be found among the upper classes?”
“As a matter of fact--” Arthur raised his gaze to match Emrys'. “I do.”
Mr Emrys' shoulders sloped. “I do hope you're actively trying to put a practical spin to your theories.”
Arthur laughed out loud. “Well, they do say that what goes around comes around.”
Mr Emrys head came up rather, fast. He took a breath, and, then slowly a smile flowered on his lips.
Morgana and Miss Smith shared glances and Arthur could tell they didn't know how to take this new conversational development.
Arthur helped them out of their confusion. “I do indeed wish I could do more for my fellow men.”
Emrys nodded. “If you really mean it, and I don't think you don't, it's never too late to begin.”
“No.” Arthur sank back against his chair. “You're right.”
They came to a sort of impasse. Arthur had Mr Emrys' eyes on him, and his attention burned, but not in a way that conveyed animosity. Arthur found himself returning the scrutiny, softening his own countenance. He hoped they wouldn't come to words again because he liked the present status quo between them.
Morgana took a cue from their silence to snatch back the reins of the conversation. After their head-to-head, Mr Emrys didn't participate much in it. He smiled and nodded and looked attentive, but he only put in a few words in between. Arthur wasn't sure whether he wished Emrys to throw in his weight or not. Arthur was positive that whatever the rector had to say would at least be thought-provoking and insightful.
He and Emrys finished their breakfast quietly. They both ate little – Morgana was the one who made the heaviest inroads on the food – and talked just as much.
Eventually, Arthur pushed his chair back, folded his napkin on the garden table, and said, “Having breakfast with you ladies was a pleasure.” He nodded at Emrys. “Sir.” He stood. “Regrettably, I'm must be off.”
Morgana arched her eyebrow but bit her lip. Both Miss Smith and Mr Emrys acknowledged Arthur's leave-taking with an inclination of their heads. Before long, Arthur was on his way to Hengroen and the stables.
Merlin went whistling down Rectory Lane, walking past rows of cottages with puffing chimneys and open doors. He cut across Camelot's High Street, doubled into narrower lanes, and struck out towards the country side.
The sky was as opal blue today, low white clouds curling across it like wisps of smoke. Going deep into russet woods, he passed over bridges that arched over bubbling streamlets. Leaves rustled as he passed, roots moved aside, and vines shook. The whole forest seemed to murmur and thrum. They must be reacting to his magic, making way for him, but Merlin had no idea why.
Reaching the cottage about nine, he knocked and waited for someone to open.
When she saw him, Mrs Loholt curtsied deep. “Rector.”
Merlin lifted the basket he'd been carrying. “I've brought some provisions.”
“You shouldn't have, sir,” Mrs Loholt said, pressing herself against the door to make way for Merlin. “We were doing fine, I assure you.”
“Miss Smith made the food.” Merlin stepped into the darkness of the Loholt's house. The room was spare of furniture. The fireplace gaped in front of him, no flame burning in it. To one side, a curtain separated the living area from the sleeping area. Merlin could see the edge of the beds on top of which thin blankets were piled. Three pairs of feet stuck out at the end. “I'm only the courier.”
“Either way, sir--” Mrs Loholt bobbed a second curtsey. “We thank you, both you and the kind Miss Smith, from the bottom of our hearts.”
Merlin placed the basket on the rickety table in front of him and took out some of the victuals. Large napkins nestled around the bread loaves, which he put down one on top of the other. Pulling out jars full of marmalade, he set them on the worktop, lining them in a row. When he picked up the cured ham, the children, who had been hiding behind the curtain partition, swarmed him, asking him for treats, tugging at his clothes, trying to get at the food.
“Children!” Mrs Loholt said. “Behave! And don't pester the kind rector.”
Merlin laughed. “It's no bother. I used to be just as energetic as a child.”
“I'm sure you behaved much more proper like, sir.”
“Not really.” Merlin flashed her a grin. “I was the terror of Sunday school.”
Mrs Loholt gaped at him. “But you're a gentleman, sir.”
“I'm a country man, that's what I am.” Merlin tutted. “So I heard that your shed wall went down.”
“Oh, yes it did.” Mrs Loholt took that as the conversational gambit it was and changed the subject. She sighed. “It came down when the storms hit. I've been meaning to work on it. With the days shortening so much, the animals need shelter.”
“No need to worry about that,” Merlin said, draping his jacket over a chair and rolling up his sleeves. “I'll patch the wall up myself.”
“Oh please, sir, don't bother yourself with such tri--”
A knock on the door cut her short. Mrs Loholt frowned, excused herself, and went to open it.
Arthur Pendragon stood on the threshold, his hat under his arm, his spine straight. “Um,” he said, “I've come to... enquire after you and the state of your family.”
Mrs Loholt's hands came up to cover her mouth. When she recovered enough presence of mind to actually act, she dipped her body low and said, “Please, do come in, sir. It would be such an honour.”
“I wouldn't want to intrude upon your day,” Arthur said.
“On you wouldn't, sir.” Mrs Loholt made way for him. “Our good rector is here, too, and the more the merrier as they say, sir.”
Mr Pendragon's eyes snapped to Merlin. They widened a fraction before his expression reverted back to normal and he said, “Just for a moment then.”
“I'll make you some tea,” Mrs Loholt said, going to the fireplace. With some scraping and fussing, she scrounged up a meagre flame.
Mr Pendragon gave the place a once over. He blinked once, quickly, then his eyes flashed and his jaw set. He came to stand by Merlin's side.
“So,” Merlin said, biting off a smile. “What brings you here?”
“You mentioned the Loholts'... situation.” Mr Pendragon beat his horse whip against his leg. “And I thought I'd come by and offer some assistance of my own.”
Merlin smiled. “That's very kind of you.”
“Not in the least.” Mr Pendragon stared ahead at the blank stone wall. “I've done less than I should. I've been remiss.” He sucked in a breath. “The truth is I don't even know where to begin.”
“I think,” Merlin said, “that you've chosen the right path. Starting is key. After that, it's a question of letting your heart be guided by the situation.”
Mr Pendragon made to say something, but Mrs Loholt came back with some tea for them. It came with no sugar but a lot of fresh milk. They drank it in sips with the children playing around them. Mrs Loholt told them off for being so bothersome. They ought to behave, she said, because Mr Pendragon was present and Mr Pendragon was such a fine gentleman and used to the best of manners. He must have been presented at court too, for sure. At that, Mr Pendragon made himself small and said, “You oughtn't go out of your way for me, Mrs Loholt. I've merely come to enquire after the health of your family.”
Merlin dipped his head and smiled.
“We're doing well, sir,” said Mrs Loholt, in spite of what Merlin knew to be true. “Village folk have been kind to us – and Mr Emrys had been a real blessing, too. Always so industrious on our behalf. No rector or man of the cloth has ever been that kind to people such as us. ”
“In that vein--” Mr Pendragon put his cup away. “I was wondering if you would accept some help from me and my family. A donation that would go towards allowing your child--”
Merlin elbowed Mr Pendragon and shook his head.
Mrs Loholt flushed and said, “There's no need, sir. Truly. We're doing all right. And hopefully we can apprentice Mark--” She eyed her tallest child. “--come the new year.”
“Yes, I see, I--” said Mr Pendragon.
“I was going to do some work on Mrs Loholt's shed wall,” Merlin said, rolling his shoulders as if in preparation for the work out that would entail. “Maybe you could come with me?”
“I think I will, yes.” Mr Pendragon reddened when he said that, but his features settled in a determined cast. “Why not?”
The gap in the shed wall was large enough for a cow to pass through. It had uneven edges and some of the bricks that were still there were so loose that they might crumble any moment. Merlin probed a couple before deciding on what to do. “I think we should take these out and make sure we have a stable wall first. We can fill the gap later.”
Mr Pendragon didn't object, and instead of ordering Merlin around, as Merlin had expected he would, he took direction quite easily. Together, they chiselled out the broken bricks, swept out the holes for debris, and mixed a batch of mortar.
“Is this part of the practical knowledge you learnt on the farm?” Mr Pendragon asked.
As he stirred the mortar and piled it on a palette, Merlin said, “We had no farmhands, my mother and I, so, yes, I learnt to do odd jobs.”
“I see,” said Mr Pendragon, pouring more sand into the pan. “And how come..?”
“I had a patron?” Merlin could guess the drift of Mr Pendragon's questions and didn't mind answering them. The day of the reception in his honour he would have. But Mr Pendragon had shown himself to be a different man lately. “I was a bit of a handful, that is true, but I wasn't bad at Sunday School. In fact, I had a good memory for numbers.” And for reading Ogham spells, which Mr Kilgharrah had liked. “So I suppose I got noticed.”
“I see why you would be.” Mr Pendragon huffed that, then lowered his gaze again. He busily slathered a row of bricks with mortar.
“Because I can be very obnoxious?” Merlin smiled. “I suppose I did draw attention to myself with my antics.”
Mr Pendragon brushed fingers with him as he passed him the bricks. “Maybe,” he said, eyes on the wall. “Or maybe your patron saw a spark in you, just how different you were, and knew you would make a difference.” As Merlin lay the first layer of masonry, Mr Pendragon shifted back, hands on his hips. “You already have, right here in Camelot.”
Merlin finished a line. “In his defence, Mr Fisher was too old to gallivant around and build walls.”
“And take on farm-work, start door to door money collections, and do everything else you're doing,” Mr Pendragon said, his gaze searching Merlin's. “You're helping in a way no one has in a long time, I can see that.” Mr Pendragon's eyes unfocused and he shifted. “Unlike me, I--. I'm afraid past duties took me away and made me ignore things that ought to have been quite as dear to me as my other obligations.” He wet his lips. “I'm sorry I offered money. Before, to the Loholts. That was insensitive of me. You did well to stop me.”
Merlin tapped the bricks into place, making sure they were flush with the others. “They do need support but--” Merlin worried his lip. “They have their pride and, believe me, when you're in a situation like that, when misfortune has hit you the way it has them, that's often the only thing you have left.” Merlin bowed his head. “Your heart wasn't in the wrong place, Mr Pendragon, you just... You just don't know the struggle of the poor.”
When Merlin straightened, he realised Mr Pendragon was scrutinizing him. The gentleman in question didn't say anything. He rather looked on and on. But Merlin didn't think it was out of anger. His body wasn't coiled and his expression was not strained. “You're right,” Mr Pendragon said at last. “I'll try and be more thoughtful in the future.” He smiled and it was a very unfettered, almost childlike smile he flashed Merlin. “Perhaps you can be my guide as to that.”
They finished the wall together, row by row, until the gap was filled. As a finishing touch, they dusted it clean of mortar residues, then they rolled their sleeves down and went back to the cottage, dust still clinging to them and under their nails. To get rid of the worst, they washed at the pump.
Together, they had a second cup of tea in the cottage. It was a little weak, but it was warm and very bracing after all the work they'd done. Merlin was into his second cup, when Widow Loholt entered the house. She had a shawl over her shoulder and was carrying a pail.
Arthur put his cup down and went to help her with the weight.
Widow Loholt dusted herself, and after having thanked Mr Pendragon, said, “I went to the market. But old Mr Madison wasn't there with his stall.”
“He probably had a bad day, ma,” said Mrs Loholt. “And just didn't feel like driving all the way to market.”
“At our age, dear,” Widow Loholt said, “absence always sounds much more dire.”
Mrs Loholt tutted. “Oh, ma, don't be so morbid.”
“He promised he would be there last week,” Widow Loholt said. “He had a special stock of turnips to sell me. And this week he wasn't there. This isn't right.”
Mrs Loholt walked over to her mother-in-law, gave her shoulders a squeeze and said, “We shouldn't have such dark thoughts.” She turned to Merlin. “Isn't that true, Rector?”
Merlin's eyebrows climbed. “No, well, no. Sad moments are a part of life, just like mourning is, but let's not put the cart before the horse with respect to them.”
So as to reassure Widow Loholt, Merlin and Mr Pendragon stayed a while longer. The children involved Merlin in a game of Living Pictures and dressed up in blankets, using wooden sticks and other paraphernalia to pose as famous people. Merlin and Pendragon had to guess their identity Napoleon, his wife, and the Prince Regent all featured in the game.
The Loholt boys and girls had just broken the ranks of their last tableaux, when the youngest child tugged on Arthur Pendragon's sleeve. “Will you play with me?” she said, sticking her thumb in her mouth. “Please, sir?”
Mr Pendragon looked down, his eyes wide, his mouth open.
Merlin was trying to find the correct wording to explain to the child that Mr Pendragon wasn't likely to take part in her games, when Mr Pendragon's face softened. He rose and said, “Why not, little lady?” He let the child climb onto his back. “I'll be your trusty steed.”
He gave her a piggy back ride all around the room, making noises that sounded suspiciously like a neigh. When they'd ran out of space, he took her outside.
“I didn't know Mr Pendragon liked children so,” said Mrs Loholt.
“He seems partial to them,” said Widow Loholt.
Merlin kept the fact he was surprised to himself and merely smiled and nodded. When Mr Pendragon came back, he and Merlin said goodbye to the Loholts. Once the cottage's door was closed behind them, Merlin said, “I'll uh be getting back to the rectory, but thank you for coming, Mr Pendragon. I'm sure the Loholts were pleased.”
Mr Pendragon bowed his head and shifted his weight. “I hope so.” He put his hat on. “Um, if you're on foot, I could offer you a ride.” He hummed low, his cheeks hollowed as if he was biting the inside of them. “Unless of course, you intended to get some exercise, in which case I'll--” Mr Pendragon reddened. “--retract my offer.”
“I walked all the way here,” Merlin said. “I think I'm quite done with recreational walking for the day.” When Mr Pendragon didn't seem to get it, still fathoms deep in his flush, he added, “I accept your offer, Mr Pendragon.”
“My horse is tethered over there.”
Merlin climbed up behind Mr Pendragon. At first he held on to nothing, but when the animal started to trot, he put his arms around Mr Pendragon's middle. His shoulders were broad and his back muscled and touching him wasn't unpleasant at all. His face got rather hot from it.
“Are you doing well back there?” Mr Pendragon asked.
“Fine,” Merlin said. “Great.”
“You know,” Mr Pendragon said, after a few minutes silence, “What you said at the Loholts', it makes sense.”
Merlin was too focused on the ride, his proximity to Mr Pendragon, and the horse's motions, to pay attention to Mr Pendragon's words. ”What does?”
“How you got some help from Sunday school and how that propelled you into Cambridge.”
Even while knowing he was holding some of the truth back, Merlin made a noise of agreement.
“Well, I was thinking we could help local children in the same way,” Mr Pendragon said, easing the horse over a hilly stretch of wood, “get them books they wouldn't ordinarily have access to, provide other teaching materials, that kind of thing.”
Merlin was about to answer, when he saw the face in the foliage. It was tiny and all eyes. A red mouth moved but no sound issued, at least no ordinary noise like the clopping of hooves or the water rushing past. The same words rang in Merlin's head. It was no more than his name, Emrys, spoken over and over again, but words they were.
In a few moments they'd ridde past the bushes and the voice stopped rattling in Merlin's head. But Merlin was still feeling the effects. So he was only half concentrating on his answer when he said, “Yes, yes. I bet you're right.”
They were still with him when he got to Rectory Lane.
Hengroen flew across the ground. His flanks moving under Arthur, his hooves stampeded across the green fields that rolled ahead of him, jumped obstacles and brushed right into the foliage. Arthur hung on with all that he had, and though he wasn't the one directing their moves, his heart beat fast at the scope of freedom he was tasting. It was in the wind that tangled his hair, it was in the dizzying speed he hurtled past, it was in the rhythm of his pulse when they leapt over a fence that seemed just a notch too high.
Here the pain in his hip didn't grow hot. It didn't chafe. And when it flared a little, Arthur could forget it in the speed and in the beauty of the landscape that spread past him, the deep greens of the field, the burnished russet of the moor, the ochre of the crags that jutted towards the sky.
When Hengroen's flanks got sweaty, Arthur slowed his pace, and with a tug of the reins, led him back towards the village. Low cottages rose before him, and little by little, he rode into the heart of town. Once he noticed that he was in the neighbourhood of Rectory Lane, he steered his mount towards it.
Mr Emrys got the door himself. Arthur had been expecting a maid and he was startled. “I uh,” Arthur said. “I have some books in my saddlebags.”
“Books?” said Mr Emrys, one of his eyebrows shooting upwards.
“Oh, yes--” Arthur sidled from one end of the threshold to the other. “I brought some round. For Sunday School. We talked about it, albeit not in depth? I'd thought I'd donate some to the children.”
“That's...” Mr Emrys flashed him a wide smile. “That's brilliant. What a generous contribution.”
“Hardly,” Arthur said, scratching at the back of his neck. “I merely picked a few books I thought would be useful. They're old primers and mathematical texts. You can have a look and see if they're suitable for children. Let me go and get them.”
Mr Emrys grabbed him by the arm. “I'd love to help you.”
“No need, it's just a few volumes.” Arthur shifted, squaring his shoulders. He might still have some pain in his hip, but that didn't mean he couldn't be of any use. “I can easily fetch them.”
“Still,” Mr Emrys said, starting down the steps so Arthur couldn't do anything to stop him. “I'd rather pull my weight.”
Arthur had tethered Hengroen to a post that stood near an ivy-covered wall. The horse neighed when he saw him, pitching his ears back. “He loves you,” Mr Emrys said.
“I hope I have built a rapport with him,” Arthur said, patting Hengroen's flanks. “He's been my horse for a long time. We've been through thick and thin, him and I.”
Mr Emrys' head snapped up and he pierced Arthur with a wide-eyed look. “I see.”
Warmth prickled Arthur's skin. Before it could burn him or worse before Emrys could notice the heightened colour that went with it, he moved forward, rooted into the saddlebags and said, “Here are some of the books.”
Mr Emrys picked a stack of his own and led the way back into the Rectory. In Mr Fisher's days, Arthur hadn't been a regular guest. Mr Fisher was old and his talk often tedious. Arthur himself had been younger and preferred taking exercise to the sedentary activities involved in entertaining the clergy. So all he remembered of it was musty dark rooms with drawn curtains and clutter everywhere. Nowadays, the aura of the place had changed. Most of the heavy velvet curtains were down, and in their place were gauze ones that let the light in. New furniture replaced the old. There weren't many pieces. Only a couple of armchairs and a table but they made the place cosy. “You've changed it,” Arthur said, depositing the books on the table. “The place.”
“Oh it wasn't me,” Mr Emrys said, smiling wide. “It was Miss Smith. She helped me throw away some of the old stuff and lent me the new furniture you see in here. She had some to spare, you see.”
Arthur lowered his gaze and thumbed at the cover of one of the books. He shouldn't. It was already curling inwards and was fragile. But Arthur couldn't keep that instinct in check. “I see...”
“Let's see what we have here,” Mr Emrys said, rubbing his hands. “Oh, a reading primer. This is going to be very useful both for the younger children and the older ones who're just getting into reading.” He picked another book. “Mathematics. I love this one.”
“There are notes on it, I'm afraid.” Arthur pointed at the scribblings in the page's margins. “I'm afraid they're mine. My tutor was against me littering my books in such a way, but at the time it was my method of fixing a new concept in my head.”
“I think you were right,” Mr Emrys said, his lips curling. “Books are good but they aren't sacred. They need to serve a purpose. And in this case, their objective was teaching you good maths, sir. They succeeded, so...”
“Would you say the same if I'd defaced an illuminated manuscript?”
Mr Emrys snorted. He looked away, then again at Arthur. “You have a point.”
Arthur grinned. He shifted his weight, bowed his head and picked up another book. “These are histories, and there's some Shakespeare, too.”
“That's a little advanced for Sunday school,” Merlin said, turning pages of an old copy of a Richard III biography. “But it's all to the good, I think.” He put down the biography and picked up another book. “What's this?”
Arthur didn't know. It was a thick tome with yellowed pages bound in thick red leather. Gothic print letters shone across the cover and a silk bookmark slid out of its middle. “I don't remember setting this by to give you.”
Mr Emrys opened the book. It released a cloud of dust and he coughed. He read out the title. “A History of Magic in the Township of Camelot.”
“This book is not mine,” Arthur said, shaking his head. “I'm sure I own no such tome.”
“The small and illustrious township of Camelot,” Mr Emrys read on, “was founded in the year 785 during the reign of the Northumbrian King Ælfwald I. Its main buildings were erected at the behest of the powerful and wise Cathbad, the mighty King's chief warlock, on the ruins of a former Celtic burial place. Because of this, and on account of the vicinity of magic woods and groves, Camelot was always a site wherein the physical manifestations of sorcery were not only evident but common.”
Arthur passed a hand over his face. “Oh lord, I'm so sorry. I really don't know where this nonsense book comes from. It's not mine.”
“You deem it nonsense?” Mr Emrys lost the smile and his eyelashes dropped. “So your stance on magic is negative?”
“Not negative as such.” Arthur shook his head. “I just don't believe it exists. These are myths. Take this passage here--” He gestured at the open page. “The author was clearly trying to make Camelot sound important so he mentions the King's warlock. He makes him out to be some sort of powerful personage. He was probably only a clerk of some kind. And as for the magic woods... Well, nature was just wilder in those days so they became the source of folktales.”
Mr Emrys put the book down and closed it. “There are several treatises on magic. I even studied them at Oxford. You believe all of them to be about myths?”
“In a manner of speaking,” Arthur said, wetting his lips. “It's like the quest for the philosopher's stone. It's a quest for knowledge, not necessarily for a supernatural power source.”
“That's an interesting point of view.” Mr Emrys rubbed his thumb along the edge of the book's cover. His eyes were down and his jaw stuck out. “Very... grounded.”
Arthur felt as if he'd tumbled down a conversational crevasse and got stuck. It was a plight of his own making, but the idea of new discord between himself and Emrys left a bitter taste in his mouth and took the legs from under him. “I didn't mean to short-change your studies, sir. All knowledge is good knowledge.”
Mr Emrys nodded and his lips bowed under the pressure of a wan smile. “I know. I know.” He looked away. “Apology accepted.”
Arthur was sure that while that was true, Mr Emrys was still unhappy with Arthur's slighting of his readings. “Look, I know I tend to put my foot in my mouth, more so than other gentlemen, but I meant no offence.” He lowered his gaze. “At your welcome ball at my house, I didn't mean to be rude. I'm afraid I was but not intentionally. I had things on my mind, and while I'm aware that that is no excuse, I--”
“I understand,” Merlin said, placing his hand on Arthur's arm, a notch or two above the wrist. “Believe me, I do. We're not always at our best.”
Before Arthur had had time to think this through, he said, “We're having an entertainment up at the house. The Christmas season is approaching and it's our duty as the oldest family in Camelot to host it. In short, I'd be hon-- My sister and I would be glad if we could have the rector join us.”
“The rector is all for it.”
Arthur was more satisfied with this outcome than he ought to have been.
Moonlight bathed the circle. Crows winged over it. Grass shook in the wind and trapped the voices of all the travellers that had passed through the clearing. Guarding the circle, stones pointed like fingers towards a sky in which clouds moved fast.
Though voices screamed in her head telling her not to, Morgana stepped into the circle. Her nightgown fluttered in the wind and her skin prickled against the cold whisper of it. She hugged herself and looked around.
“Why did you want me here?” she called out.
The voices shrieked; some let out pleas for help. Other wails had no meaning; they were only jumbles of sounds. And behind her, another said, 'Do not enter. You shall not violate the bounds of our realm. Stay back.'
Morgana pushed forward. The grass was wet on the soles of her feet, the soil giving way underfoot, She took step after step until she walked right into a wall. “Take it down!” she said, touching its glass surface. “It has no place here.”
“The portal shall stand,” the voice thundered. “It was here before your kind took over and it will always be here.”
Morgana clawed at the wall, kicked it, but it stood firm. Her eyes were on fire and her body heated and she wanted to scream with the pain of it but then a strange force slammed into her and hurled her backwards. When she impacted the ground, she felt the pain unfurl in her ribcage.
She sat up, panting, her hair cascading in front of her face. The mattress was soft under her and its springs creaked when she moved. The fire in the fireplace crackled softly. “I'm home then.”
Morgana pushed off the bed. Her feet sank onto the plush white rug and stained it. Frowning, Morgana looked down. She picked up the candlestick, lifted her foot, and shone light upon it. “Oh, my God.” Her sole was caked in mud and smeared green with grass stains.
She stared ahead, her eyes widening till they teared up. This made no sense. It was impossible. She was in her room and there was no indication she had left it. She was in her nightgown. It was drenched with sweat and flimsy, but it was definitely what she'd worn to sleep in.
Her folded gown sat atop the trunk in the exact same position her maid had left it. No, she hadn't been anywhere other than her bed. When she placed her palm on them, the sheets proved warm to the touch and creased with the shape of her body. She had slept in her room. That was clear. So it was all a dream.
“But my feet weren't covered in dirt when I went to bed.”
This made no sense, absolutely none. The contradiction between what she had proof of and what she knew to be true was chilling. Though the room was warm enough, she shivered and there were goosebumps on her skin.
When she heard the crack of thunder, Morgana walked to the window. She pulled the curtains aside and saw the moon up in the sky. It had the same shape as in her dream, three quarters full and very bright. She saw it illuminate the Avalon Hall gardens, the statues that lined them, and beyond the roofs of the Camelot village houses.
It seemed all so peaceful and quiet. A mistless night in a rural town. There were no standing stones, no sacred circles, and no walls of power. And yet... And yet she couldn't shake off the echo of that voice warning her off. “Something's afoot. Something must be afoot or I'm going crazy.”
Merlin put the sandwiches and a leather canteen in the sack, pulled the strings, and slung the pack over his shoulders. He left the Rectory by the back entrance. It was so early that the air was thin and the sky still a blackish blue with the heaviness of night.
Shops were closed and the markets stalls displayed precious few wares. But for a few servants who bustled around, no one was about. Merlin left the village behind and made for the woods. Trees thickened and clustered together and the path became overgrown with weeds and roots. He was nearing the spot he and Mr Pendragon had trodden on their way back from the Loholts, when he stopped.
“I know you're there,” he said, looking around, at the depth of the foliage tangling together. “I saw you last time.”
The foliage shook.
“I know that's not the wind.”
A wind swept leaves off the path.
“Well, not entirely the wind.”
A three inch girl appeared on the tip of a leave. She took a caper and a tumble and then bowed deep, her wings fluttering as she did. “You are right, Emrys. Here I am.”
Merlin took a step back and one forward. He rubbed at his eyes and blinked. “You're a... You're a fairy.”
“Of course I'm one,” the woman on the leaf said. “And a very important one. I'm Queen Mab.”
“I thought,” Merlin said, watching Mab twirl, “I thought you'd all gone extinct.”
“What a strange thought to have,” Mab said, shifting into a cross-legged position. “We're always around.”
“But the last to have an account of you was Spencer.” Merlin remembered reading his verses and loving them. “And he was largely thought to have made it up. His work was considered fiction.”
Mab bent down, leaning her weight on her forearms. “And yet you're Emrys. You should know that magic is still alive and shaping the world.”
“Well, yes, but--”
“You've fallen into the trap of those who can't see that magic rules the world,” Mab said, her eyes flashing gold. “They say that magic is dying. That there's precious little of it. They're turning it into a myth when the truth is another...” Her mouth twisted.
“So you're saying that magic is as powerful as it ever was?” Merlin cocked his head. “Is that why you, ehm, got in touch with me?”
“I didn't get in touch,” Mab said, springing upright. She walked right to the edge of the leaf and stood on tiptoe. “I warned you. And I'm warning you again.”
A chilly shiver ran up Merlin's spine. “What against though?”
Mab looked this way and that. She leapt backwards then crawled forward again. “Against Camelot.”
“Camelot is a place.” Merlin scrunched up his nose. “I don't think it has any intent.”
“There was once a village in the country,” Mab said in a sing song tone, “Where magic was wielded very very bluntly. It wasn't of this world. Yet here it powerfully unfurled. Beware or great evil will be done thee.”
“What does that even mean?”
“It means what it means.” Mab clapped her hands and vanished.
“What!” Merlin crawled closer to the bush but Mab was nowhere nearby. “Come on, Mab. You can't scare me like that and then disappear!”
Laughter rang out across the woods, but Mab didn't come back.
The carriage rolled into the Rectory's front yard. Snow fell on its roof and on the backs of the coachman and footman, large flakes that settled over everything like a thick blanket. That didn't stop the poor footman from hopping down the vehicle, walking round it, and letting the step down. Even though Merlin insisted he could see himself into the carriage, the man said that he wouldn't have it. “Mr Pendragon would have my hide, sir.” He blew on his fingers. “He was very particular about it and all.”
Merlin quirked up an eyebrow but climbed into the carriage without further comment.
Miss Smith sat on the seat opposite him. She had a thick spencer on and her hands were buried in a woollen muffler. A sheepskin covered her knees. “Mr Emrys, such a pleasure to see you. Morgana was so kind as to invite me, too. I wanted to walk but she said I should have the carriage. It was so nice of her to think of me, don't you think so?”
The carriage bustled into movement.
“The more so since she's been so unwell lately,” Miss Smith said.
“Oh, I'm so sorry.” Miss Pendragon seemed so healthy and vibrant to him, so full of fight. He couldn't even picture her ill. “I hope it's nothing serious.”
“Oh, no, I'm sure it's not,” Miss Smith said, rubbing her arms against the cold. “She's been sleeping very poorly however and it's taking quite the toll on her.”
“I hope she recovers soon,” Merlin told Miss Smith. “And that the reception tonight won't be too much for her.”
“I told her the same thing.” Miss Smith leant forwards. “Advised her against hosting it, but she assured me that it would be fine and that she wishes for company so...”
With snow so thick on the ground, the carriage made scarcely any noise when it rolled down the lawn of Pendragon Hall.
Decorations decked out the gates and front hall of the mansion. A wreath full of ribbons hung on the door and there were flower garlands stretched across the length of the main salon and rimming the edge of the mantelpiece
The footman announced Merlin and Miss Smith's arrival. Mr Pendragon, who'd been standing among a clutch of guests, came over. “Mr Emrys, Miss Smith.” He nodded to Merlin and kissed the lady's hand. “I'm delighted to have you here.”
“We're likewise thrilled to be here, Mr Pendragon,” Miss Smith said with a curtsey.
“Mr Pendragon,” Merlin said, relief flooding him at noticing he was getting a different welcome compared to the last time he'd been at Avalon Hall.
“You two came together, I see.” Mr Pendragon's gaze shifted from one to the other of them.
“Only technically, sir,” Miss Smith said. “The carriage you were so kind as to send out stopped first at my house and then at the Rectory.”
Mr Pendragon smiled. “Oh I see. I'm glad a way could be contrived for you both to be here. Together.”
“I was so keen to come, sir.” Miss Smith's expression became earnest. “I was looking forward to bringing some good cheer to Miss Pendragon.”
Mr Pendragon's features relaxed. “I believe you're in the right place for that.” He offered Miss Smith his arm. “Come, Miss Smith, I'll take you to my sister.”
In their absence, Merlin chatted with a few parishioners, ate some of the refreshments, and then stole away into the library. It wasn't as large a room as Merlin had thought it would be. Bookcases lining two of the walls, there were two armchairs facing each other in front of the fireplace, plush velvet footstools at their ends. A round table stood by the window, where it could catch the daylight.
Merlin approached the shelves and searched them. There were no other red bound volumes and none of the titles was in any way similar to the book Mr Pendragon had given him by mistake. He got to the end of a section of the bookcase, when the floor creaking brought him round.
“Seeking seclusion from the other guests?” Mr Pendragon said.
“Oh, no.” Merlin shifted rather guiltily about. “I just--”
“You're welcome to any and all of the books that take your fancy.” Hands behind his back, Mr Pendragon closed the door behind him and sauntered in. “No need to stand on ceremony.” He looked at the shelves. “If anything, I'm quite glad someone's using the place.”
“Not one for books, eh?” Merlin said.
“Not really, no.” Mr Pendragon came to stand by his side, facing the bookcase. “I've always been a man for the outdoors. I favour – or at least used to – a more dynamic life.”
“Miss Smith told me you were an army man.”
A shadow crossed Mr Pendragon's face.
“You don't have to talk about it if you'd rather not,” Merlin said, reading Mr Pendragon's face for signs of discomfort.
Mr Pendragon took a seat in the armchair, pulled at his waistcoat, and waved a hand at the seat opposite. Waiting for Merlin to make himself comfortable, he then said, “You'll probably remember the events of '05. Napoleon had assembled an invasion force at Boulogne and threatened to strike at England. Considering the streak of French victories, I considered it my duty to defend my country.”
Merlin nodded. “I can understand the urge, though perhaps it would never have occurred to me to do the same.”
“Wouldn't you defend your dear ones?” Mr Pendragon tipped his head to the side. “You strike me as a man who would.”
“Perhaps.” Merlin considered the notion. There were people for whom he'd go to great lengths. But he wasn't sure the army as an institution would do for him. “It's... the hierarchy of killing that I don't understand.”
“But that's not why I bought a commission,” Mr Pendragon said. “I did it because it was a necessary evil, a hoop to go through to make sure no one at home would ever suffer.”
“I do understand that,” Merlin surprised himself with saying.
“I'd thought, as a man of the church, you'd condemn me.”
“I'm not a saint, Mr Pendragon.” Merlin had got into the church with a lot of lies as part of his personal baggage. His magic was certainly at odds with his position. He wasn't meant to have it. Though historically some early bishops had magic, too, that tradition had gone extinct long, long ago. Nowadays, an admission to it would have either got him kicked out or caused his superiors to believe he was mad. “I feel I'm the last man in the world who ought to fling stones.”
“You're very compassionate.” Mr Pendragon made a thorough study of Merlin. It was an open, rather unrepentant one. “That's not always true of churchmen.”
“I hope most have a vocation of some kind.” Merlin didn't specify that his was mixed with a belief in the magic that breathed life in the world. It wasn't orthodox and Mr Pendragon would not understand. He didn't believe in powers other than those of the physical world. “And that their soul is open to love, to a belief in that.”
“You are different.”
Merlin's eyes shifted under the scrutiny in Mr Pendragon's. “No more than your average person.”
“As true as that may be,” Mr Pendragon said, “I think I've never met someone quite like you.”
Merlin was about to answer, when music thundered loudly from the neighbouring room.
Mr Pendragon coloured. “I suppose I've held you up long enough. You'll be wanting to rejoin the others in the main salon.”
Merlin wanted to say that actually he hadn't even noticed how much time had elapsed since Mr Pendragon had come in. And while he occasionally danced, he hadn't spared a thought for the jigs going on in the next room. But he supposed Mr Pendragon wanted to go back. He was the host after all. Merlin stood and said, “After you.”
The rest of the night passed rather pleasantly for Merlin. He drank some excellent ruby red claret from tall crystal glasses whose glaze was rather intricate. He ate sandwiches piled upon china plates rimmed with gold. And he entertained himself with a game of loo played in a corner over a table covered in green baize. He didn't pay much attention to its intricacies and rather favoured the conversation he had over his cards.
By the end of the evening, his only regret was that he didn't get to speak again to Mr Pendragon. He would have loved to pick up the threads of their conversation. He sensed there was a lot more that they could talk about.
Well, there was always time in the future, wasn't there?
Arthur led Hengroen down the High Street. Mud choked the streets and browned the vista. A low charcoal cloud crept low across the sky, closing off the road, blanketing it so that you couldn't see past the end of it. It was fat and hungry and promised squalls.
The thankless weather hadn't stopped the inhabitants of Camelot from decking the village out in preparation for the festive season. Holly wreaths hung in shop windows – the milliner's displaying the biggest with gold, red and tartan ribbons. Mistletoe twigs dangled from door lintels and garlands snaked above them, heavy with decorations: dried fruit, angels with their wings painted gold, and wooden charms.
Some were a bit unorthodox however. They came in the shape of spoked wheels, trees with intersecting leaves, and rounded spirals with three arms radiating from the centre.
But Camelot wasn't London, Arthur reminded himself, and decoration stocks weren't as plentiful. Surely shop owners had merely hung what they could. Besides, the town always had a character of its own and it wasn't exactly run of the mill.
Arthur was riding Hengroen down the street, when he saw Mr Emrys exit the post office. Smiling wide at Mr Emrys' antics with his scarf – he seemed not to be happy with the way it fluttered in the wind or the way it coiled around his neck – he hailed him.
Not having identified the source of the sound, Mr Emrys looked this way and that. When his gaze alighted on Arthur, he waved. He started to cross the road, but a carriage went past, and it missed him by a few inches.
The moment his heart stopped racing, Arthur shook his head. He tugged on Hengroen's reins, dismounted and led his horse over to Mr Emrys. When he got to him, he took off his hat and said, “Mr Emrys! Where are you off to on this fine day?”
“Oh, I--” Mr Emrys had gone out without a hat and wore mismatched gloves. “I'm back from the post office actually. I...” Mr Emrys got this faraway expression. “I felt I needed to consult some friends on a certain matter that's made itself known to me.”
Arthur's smile fled. “I hope you are well and that no trouble or ill health is affecting you?”
“Oh, no.” Mr Emrys waved his hands about. “It's not that. I'm fine. I'm doing very well, sir. I was just approached about an issue and was wondering if any scholar was aware of its...”
Freya Waters dashed down the pavement and towards them. Her hair had come undone and tresses hung low on her nape. Her coat was raking up mud as she ran but that didn't seem to affect her at all, for she neither slowed down nor seemed at all fussed with the state of her coat. “Mr Emrys, oh my word,” she panted out. “Something terrible has happened.”
Mr Emrys grabbed her by the fists and said, “Miss Waters! Please, do calm down. What's the matter?”
Miss Waters' breath came so quick it shook her shoulders. “An emergency, sir! I...”
“Breathe, Freya, breathe,” Mr Emrys said, pulling her to him and patting her back.
“I took my charges to Broceliande Hill for a picnic,” Miss Water said, closing her eyes. “I was told to take Thomas, too. He's too young for boarding school so sometimes he gets entrusted to my care together with the girls.” She pressed her lips together and they went white. “I was happy to. He's such a dear boy. Very outgoing and polite. He always has an apple and a hug for me. He's that kind of...”
“Freya,” Mr Emrys said, placing both his hands on her arms, “what's happened to Thomas?”
“One moment he was there and...” Freya blinked back tears. “...and the next he wasn't. We searched and searched, the children and I. But we couldn't find him. Not on the hill and not by the stream. We rushed back home to see if he might have stumbled back there but he hadn't.” She looked up into Mr Emrys' eyes and hers watered so much she looked a few seconds away from crying. “The Carleons are so devastated. Mr Caerleon saddled his horse and went out on a search for the boy and Mrs Caerleon is currently going over the house's gardens with the servants.” She wrung her hands together. “But I fear that's not enough. I fear they won't locate him, the poor boy. Sir, will you help me find Thomas? Please, I don't know who else to turn to, please.”
Arthur should probably not have stepped in. He was scarcely familiar with Miss Waters before and her appeal had been to Mr Emrys, not him. But he couldn't refrain from trying to help, not when a child's welfare was at stake. “We must start a village search,” he said, starting to plan this out as he talked. “Mr Emrys, do sound the church bells and gather your parishioners in the green. Once we've got a squad together, we can give out tasks, assign groups specific areas to search. That way we can cover the terrain better.”
Miss Waters said, “Do you think village people will help?”
“I'm sure.” Mr Emrys flashed Miss Waters an encouraging smile. To Arthur he said, “I'll go up the tower, sound the alarm.”
“Good.” Arthur bobbed his head. “The sooner we start, the sooner we'll find the boy.”
“Thank you,” Freya Waters said, her gaze going from Arthur to Mr Emrys. “Thank you so much.”
Moonlight waxed and waned as clouds roved over the forest. But even this pallid wash didn't make the woods any less dark and tangled, with branches spearing branches, roots contorting around roots, vines twining. Pools of grey water hid in the thick of the copses. Waterfalls rushed in the distance in a constant murmur. Boggy dells dotted the surface in between stretches of greenery that led to bare moors rushing into rocky crags.
The wood seemed to morph as they moved across it, every landmark changing its relationship with its neighbours, its own internal architecture shifting with every minute that passed. It was as if the entire forest were constantly spinning on a shifting axis.
Mr Pendragon held up his lantern and shone it around. “I don't get it,” he said. “I feel like we've been here before but this is the first time we've come across that.” He pointed at a rotten trunk that came in the shape of a cross. “I'm sure of that.”
Merlin stomped across a bed of thistle, kicking through the high grass. He walked to the trunk and one of its branches came off in a shower of bark; it looked like a lance spearing towards the sky. “No, we haven't come upon this object before.” Merlin shone his own light upon it and made a show of examining it. It didn't tell him much. It was just a lump of dry wood with its roots in the ground. “Even so I think we've been here before.”
Mr Pendragon turned back around. One flap of his white shirt hung loose over the waistline of his breeches. The wind swept his hair back and cut his face into a grim expression. “What you're saying is plainly impossible.”
Merlin couldn't tell Mr Pendragon that his instincts were telling him that the impossible was possible. Even now, the forest talked to him in whispers that never quite matured into voices. It spoke in the rustling of the leaves and in the gurgling of the brooks, in the shifting of the soil and in the breath of the wind.
Merlin couldn't pick out what it was saying exactly. He couldn't establish whether it was a warning or a welcome, whether he was being enticed deeper into the forest or he was being chased off. Either way, he could taste the magic on his tongue, thick and alluring, both bitter and ambrosia sweet.
“Maybe,” Merlin said, as a concession to not sounding entirely deranged, “we only need a rest. We've been searching for ten hours straight and we're getting confused. We're tired and not as fresh as we were before. If we just sit down for a bit, I'm sure--”
“No, we need to establish what ground we've covered,” Mr Pendragon said, “so as to aim our efforts to the best of our capabilities.”
A breath rattled out of Merlin. “I'm not against that. But we've got to get our strength back. We won't be any good at covering new ground if we're done for.”
Mr Pendragon said, “That child has been out there on his own for hours. We can't risk his well-being because we are a little bit tired. Anything could be happening to him right now!”
“I appreciate that.” Merlin could feel for the child. He really could. As a youngster, he'd struck off alone plenty of times. He'd wanted to experiment with his magic somewhere prying eyes couldn't reach and had therefore got lost quite frequently. Once he'd made his way back to his mother's farm so late it was dawn. In hindsight, he could see how dangerous that had been. “But making rash choices won't help us in the least.”
“Well, you may not care about that child's welfare and take it as easy as you wish,” Mr Pendragon said, lifting his lantern as he whirled around and set off. “But I'm finding him.”
“You know, you're not in the army anymore!” Merlin called after him. “You don't need to prove your prowess!”
Mr Pendragon whirled round, anger draining his face of colour. “You understand nothing! And you understand nothing because you don't know what it means be in the army, risking your life every day, hoping you can do enough to preserve the welfare of your comrades!”
Merlin looked down. “No, I have no experience of that.”
The moment cracked with tension. Mr Pendragon turned around, lowering his lantern. Light pooled on a mass of mulch and twigs.
Merlin shifted and sighed.
Mr Pendragon sniffed, wiped at his nose, stepped this way and that, leaves squeaking under his weight. “I'm sorry, I--” His shoulders bunched. “That was uncalled for.”
“It wasn't. I fully understand what prompted you to say what you did.” Merlin had never acquitted himself honourably on the battlefield, after all. He shouldn't have spoken at all. “You were not wrong.”
“No.” Mr Pendragon's jaw squared. “I was lashing out, implying you had no care for Thomas, and that was unfair to you and beneath me.”
Merlin's attention caught. There was something to the words Mr Pendragon had used that was telling. “You didn't leave the army of your own free will, did you?”
“I sold my commission myself.” Mr Pendragon worked his jaw. “But if I'd had a choice, I wouldn't have.”
Merlin knew he was being invited to ask. But he didn't know how to couch his questions. He wanted to tread carefully so as not to wound Mr Pendragon further. “So why did you?”
Arthur sighed. “It happened in Spain. French general Victor needed a win, so he pushed the men under his charge into the valley between Medellín and Segurilla. My cavalry brigade was ordered to drive them back. While the first Hussars advanced, our men, the 23 Light Dragoons, broke into a wild gallop.” His throat worked. “I knew when it started that it was no good. The charge was as undisciplined as it got. Our colonel had given us no clear orders and everyone tried to achieve the objective in the way they thought best. I tried to warn my closest companions but being in the middle of a charge...” He trailed off, his voice lowering. “It's not so easy. The thundering of hooves was too loud, the battle yells too deafening. I could do nothing.”
“It must have been terrible.” Mr Pendragon was being so descriptive, Merlin shivered with the fear of a moment he had never faced and never would. “I can't even imagine.”
“I found myself pressed on all sides by my fellow officers and pushed into a wild gallop I could no longer control. We were going so fast the ravine came upon us as a surprise. Till then, it had been hidden from view. The descent hobbled many horses. It was... It was wild, the neighing of the poor beasts, the shouting of their riders. I reined in mine--” Mr Pendragon made a sign with his hand to indicate the motion. “--but there was no stopping its momentum. I fell under my horse and was out for the count. I heard the French infantry plough into our cavalry and could do nothing about it. That was the worst.”
Merlin nodded. “That's why you're not in the army any more.”
“Yes, I took a severe hit. My hip--” Mr Pendragon said, raising his gaze to Merlin's. “I wish I could still be part of it and in a position to help my men. There's still a war raging across Europe, after all. But I'm scarcely fit to anymore. I'm--” He grimaced. “I would be no good on the field of battle. I'd be a liability.”
A rush of emotion made Merlin's heart beat fast against his ribcage. “But that's none of your fault.”
“Probably not.” Mr Pendragon acknowledged that with a nod. “But the fact remains, my men are out there, fighting for their country and I can't be with them.”
“Perhaps,” Merlin said, understanding more of Mr Pendragon now than he could before, “but that doesn't mean you're less worthy. I think the love you bear your men is indicative of the kind of person you are.”
“And what does that all mean if I can't be there when it most counts?” Mr Pendragon winced.
“Some things are out of our hands.”
“And in God's?” Mr Pendragon's raised an eyebrow.
Merlin huffed. “That's not what I meant. I wasn't advocating that kind of resignation.” Merlin's mouth twisted in a smile. “But that I suspect you know.”
Mr Pendragon inclined his head. “Yes,” he said. “Yes.”
“That's why you're so intent on finding the child, isn't it?” Merlin toed the foliage under his foot. “That's why you won't stop for a rest.”
Mr Pendragon inhaled sharply till his cheeks hollowed. “I just want to make sure the little boy is fine.”
Merlin lifted his lantern and walked over to Mr Pendragon. “I think on that at least, we agree.” He walked past Mr Pendragon and made for the thick of the woods.
Their search for Thomas continued.
The wood was dark and dense with all kinds of plants and trees. The moonlight threaded its way down between thin, notchy branches that twisted like hands pushing weakly up to the inky sky. Casting dark shadows on the ground, boughs creaked and groaned in a wind that came from nowhere. Green moss and dead leaves carpeted the soil itself. Tendrils of fog blanketed the undergrowth and wound around tree trunks and bushes.
Arthur could scarcely see Mr Emrys anymore. All he could make out were his pale hands and the back of his neck. “Mr Emrys, you'll have to slow down,” Arthur said, quickening his pace so as to keep Emrys in his sights. “We shouldn't get separated, not when it's this dark.”
Emrys turned around. “I'm not making a point of going faster.”
It seemed to Arthur as though Mr Emrys was. Even now he was gaining ground. “I think you should just stop.”
“But I've stopped,” said Emrys, just before a thick fog enveloped him.
Arthur's eyes strained to pierce it but couldn't. It was like staring into a vat of milk, like wading into a dense cloud. “It doesn't look like that to me. Even now, you sound further away.”
Mr Emrys must have moved his lantern about for its light floated in the fog. “I swear, I'm not moving. I think it's you. You're the one who's going in the wrong direction.”
Arthur knew it couldn't be. For more than an hour, he had been walking a few steps behind Emrys, the long shape of him silhouetted in the dark. Since then Arthur had neither changed tack nor turned back. The path didn't stray either left or right either. So there was no way they could have drifted apart. “This makes no sense, Emrys,” Arthur said, stopping in his tracks. “Just-- just wait over there and I'll be catching up with you in a moment.”
Instead of answering him, Emrys swung his lantern round and shouted, “Who's there!”
Words came from nowhere into Arthur's head. They didn't sound like Mr Emrys' voice nor in the tones of any of the villagers searching for Thomas, from whom they'd split earlier.
Steps sounded in the distance. It was a dull repetitive sound that made the ground shake in tempo, as if troops were passing by on parade. Arthur had enough experience of this to know that type of clang well. But there was no army anywhere, of course, only the darkness of the forest, the shape of hulking trees and the shadows that moved between them. They shifted and changed shape. They advanced and retreated, and Arthur stepped back and back, sweat breaking along his back and forehead.
“Emrys, are you there?” he shouted, inching away from the dark pools that advanced on him. “Emrys!”
Emrys didn't answer.
“Something must have happened to him.”
The shadows encroached upon him. They moved forward like an uneven tide, the apex of them reaching for him. Arthur looked back over his shoulder. The forest stretched out in that direction in a tangle of greens and browns. Moonlight bathed it. Ahead of him, it was only lapping blackness. But Emrys was that way.
Arthur went forwards at a rush. The moment the shadows closed around him, Arthur's head spun, in whirls and vortexes. The forest came at him upside down, the sky at his feet, like liquid crystal, the ground over his head. His thoughts caught in an eddy and his vision blurred.
When it darkened completely, Arthur hit the ground.
“Mr Pendragon?” Merlin shouted into the void. “I can't see you! Where are you?”
The forest returned no sound from Mr Pendragon.
“Arthur!” Merlin yelled into the fog. “Arthur, are you there?”
A hum came out of the ground; leaves whispered in conversation. The wind spoke. But Mr Pendragon didn't. “This is not right.” Merlin shone his lantern around, hoping its beams would pierce the darkness. They didn't; it stayed as thick as a pall. “Something is afoot.”
Merlin had just shouted Pendragon's name again when the chant of the forest became louder. The whisperings he'd been so far able to dismiss as nothing in order to continue in his search now deafened him. He heard voices pitched one against the other, speaking in tongues that were unknown to him, and that yet he could make out in his marrow. The wind picked at him. Cold tendrils of fog climbed around his legs and arms like vines. He shook them off but they came back, licking at his skin in a way that made his hairs rise.
He'd just brushed off one such attack, when he heard the stampede. The forest echoed with the footfall of a hundred men he couldn't see. It shook with it. Under his feet, the ground gurgled. Branches waved about in the aftershocks. The sounds were loud and cadenced and booming.
“Who's there?” he shouted.
He strained his eyes but saw nothing. Closing them, he tapped into his magic, nudged it awake till every pore in his body was alive with it, till the forest lighted up with it. When he looked again, he spotted the procession.
Two long files of individuals walked abreast. But they weren't men and women, at least not in the way Merlin was accustomed to think of them. These had wrinkled green skin and horned heads with wings sprouting out of their backs. Their eyes were completely black, pupil-less. Their six-fingered hands twisted over-long, like so many branches; their ears came in shapes that better suited bats or cats. Winged creatures with humanoid features flew about in swarms, their wings beating fast, whispering like a wind of winter.
At the centre of the group, a child walked. He had dark blond hair and plump legs and a sleepy air about him. He stumbled, but that didn't deter him from pushing forwards, following the creatures.
“Thomas,” Merlin shouted, guessing that this was Freya's charge, for no other child could be out here in the dead of night. “Thomas, please come here.”
But Thomas didn't heed him. He neither turned nor cocked his head and gave no indication he'd even heard Merlin. He marched on, head back, body rigid. Two winged creatures prodded him on with big tridents pointed at his back.
“So that's how it is,” Merlin said, and set off to follow the procession.
As they moved, light scattered across the twisting forest paths. They moved under arches created by hollowed out oaks, through walls of briar and brambles, and over a path of stars that shone so bright it lit up the wood in a crimson light.
Merlin followed them until they came to a great door made of creepers and vines. He watched the procession pass through it and hurried after. Just a second before going through the door, he took a breath, braced himself against the cold that suddenly froze his lungs, and stepped through. He found himself on the other side of the forest, at the border of a clearing. In its middle rose jagged standing stones pitted in a circle.
Merlin knew that if the child reached it, he would be lost forever. He felt it in his skin and in his bones. His magic spread fire and ice in his insides. This was bad. So bad. He shouted, “Stop now and release the child!”
This time, one of the creatures turned, one of the smallest ones. “Keep out of this, Emrys.” The creature hissed. “It's not for you to rule over us, for the pact standing between your people and mine has long been forgotten. We now do as we please.”
Merlin had no idea what the creatures were talking about, what promises it was they mentioned. “I can't, not unless you give the child back.”
“The child is ours,” said the creature in a buzz of wings. “He's bound for our realm and there's no stopping us.”
“That child belongs to his family.” There was no doubt about that. Even now they would be worrying themselves sick, thinking up the worst possible scenarios, though probably not this one. Only Merlin was in a position to do something about it. “You're wrong if you think I'm letting you get away with this!”
“The child is ours,” the creature called back, sinking a long nail into the boy's shoulder. “We'll not give him back!”
Merlin tapped into his magic. It was like a brilliant beacon cradled at the core of him, calling to him, inveigling him in tendrils of power. It filled him to the brim with an energy that made him feel taller, that gave his body a scope it didn't ordinarily have. He warmed with it, sparked with it, till his eyes washed aglow.
With effort he directed it outwards, blasting out of him in a shimmering wave, which surged towards the group like an angry cloud, scorching grass, ploughing down trees, unfettered, barely under Merlin's control.
In fact, it moved too fast and had too little aim. The child. He was in the way, surrounded by the creatures. Merlin needed to shield the child.
He closed his eyes tight. He traced the ley lines of his spiralling magic, the threads of it he'd unleashed outwards and with little thought. As he searched, his forehead creased. He couldn't find the right strand. And if he couldn't, how would he manage to spare Thomas?
With a tightening of his fist, he grabbed a bunch and yanked. When he opened his eyes, he saw the wave of magic part, rushing over the creatures but going round the child.
The creatures disappeared with a pop and only Thomas remained standing. He blinked, rubbed at his eyes and said, “Where am I? Where's Miss Waters?”
Merlin rushed over to him. He went to his knees and placed his hands on Thomas' shoulders. “You got lost. Miss Waters is waiting for you at home.”
The child smiled sleepily. “All right,” he said. “Could you take me to her, sir?”
“Yes, yes, of course,” Merlin said, barely hiding a smile of relief. “I'm taking you home.”
Arthur felt the sting across the whole of his cheek. He blinked his eyes open and out of the fog of his blurry vision, Ermrys appeared. He was smiling, a myriad lines engulfing the corners of his eyes. “You're awake, I see. Sorry for the slap.”
“Where?” Arthur said, sitting up and looking around. Trees surrounded him and a bed of grass cradled him. “Where the hell am I?”
“In the forest.” Merlin waved his hands around. “Don't you remember? We went looking for Thomas.” Merlin pushed a child forward. He was dirty and had bags under his eyes that were a clear indicator of tiredness. “Remember? Freya Water's charge.”
The memory came back to him, Miss Waters running up to Emrys, her entreaty on the subject of the missing child, their night search. “I do but...” Arthur scratched at his hair. “...what am I doing here?”
Shadows crossed Mr Emrys' face. “I don't know. We got separated. There was a mist wall--” He dipped his head. “And then I heard a noise. I realised it could be something to do with Thomas and went after the sound.” Mr Emrys smiled at Thomas. “I thought he should be the priority since you could probably look after yourself.”
“Of course I could.”
“And when I found him--” Mr Emrys placed a hand on the boy's shoulder. “I went looking for you.”
“But how come I was unconscious?”
Mr Emrys climbed to his feet, dusted his knees and reached out his hand. “I don't know.” His mouth tipped sideways. “Perhaps you knocked yourself out.”
“I didn't!” Arthur had good balance and in spite of his wound, he was still nimble. A trek through a forest was nothing compared to the strains of army life he was used to. “That's preposterous.”
“Maybe you fainted then,” Mr Ermrys said, offering a hand up. “We ate little and traipsed around all night. It's not good for your health.”
Arthur harrumphed and grabbed Mr Emrys' hand. “I enjoy thoroughly good health.”
“I'm sure that's the case,” Mr Emrys said, squeezing Arthur's palm. “I wouldn't worry too much about this little incident.”
Arthur was about to put in a retort, when young Thomas pulled at Mr Emrys' trouser leg. “Are we going home now, sir?”
“Yes, of course,” Mr Emrys said, picking the child up and cradling his neck. “Right this moment. I was only teasing Mr Pendragon here.”
Mr Emrys's accompanying smile made Arthur's heart stumble; he was slow in catching up.
Mr Emrys had already started taking the track at a swift pace, when he turned around and said, “Coming?”
“Yes,” Arthur said. “Yes.”
It was dawn when Merlin made it back to the rectory. The pale sun peeked out from wispy white clouds and gilded its roof. It thawed the ice that had gathered on the sill and pooled around the bushes that grew either side of the main entrance. A few valiant flowers perked their heads up.
Merlin put the key to the lock and entered the hallway. Slipping his boots off, he left them by the door. Crumbs of mud flaked off the sole and dusted the floor.
Merlin swore to himself he'd clean up later and went into the living room. While the fire in the fireplace was banked, the chamber itself was cold, but enough light streamed in from the windows to allow Merlin to see. He took the envelope out of his pocket, re-read the address, and broke the seal.
My Dear Emrys,
I must admit that the contents of your last letter surprised me both in tone and subject matter. I imagined you had given up scholarly pursuits in favour of a quiet life in the country. I envied you that, my friend, and wished I could take up dwelling amid the beauties of solemn Derbyshire, too. But I must confess your interest in the history of the place you've come to inhabit does you credit.
Merlin poured himself a glass of port wine, sank into the armchair and smiled. “I do bet you envy me Derbyshire for another reason entirely.”
He took a sip and the taste of it was both so jarring early in the morning and bracing.
As you asked, I visited the Christ Church library. At first, I couldn't find the material you sought. I did get my hands on many volumes of antiquarian nature that described the natural and social history of Camelot. But none of these tomes lingered on the magical aspects of it.
It was nearly closing time and I'd consulted at least twenty tomes, when I looked up from my seat. I coughed at the dust in the air and gazed into the lead latticework of a stained glass window. My eyes latched onto a section of striking reds. They belonged to the gown of an angel. I was so enticed by the brightness of the colour I didn't at first notice the peculiar shape and hue of the creature's wings. They were gossamer white, light filtering through them, and of peculiar form. I realised I wasn't beholding the wide golden wings of traditional iconography, but smaller ones placed high in the back.
Full of this conviction, I abandoned my post at the reading table and walked to the head librarian. “I'm looking for the other section of the library,” I said, sure I'd hit on the truth.
Doctor Gaius said, “I don't know what you're talking about, young man.” He ignored me and wrote something in his ledger.
“We both know what I'm talking about.” In ordinary circumstances, I wouldn't have insisted. I know that having no magic myself, I had no call impugning on the wishes of those who guard its secrets. But you had asked me to seek news, so I felt under an obligation to find them. That thought gave me strength. “The section about the magical arts.”
“I'm afraid, young man,” Doctor Gaius said, “that the too much studying must have addled your brain.”
That was when I felt obliged to share what I did know. “The angel in the window--” I pointed over my shoulder. “It isn't one, was it? It's a fairy.”
Doctor Gaius said, “What sort of information do you need?”
To know everything there is to know about a place called Camelot.”
Doctor Gaius made a little sound at the name but told me to follow him.
I followed Doctor Gaius down the dustiest and darkest aisles in the library. The books housed along these shelves had the simplest and most worn of jackets, their bindings loose and barely fitting.
Doctor Gaius led me up a narrow staircase clothed in shadows and along a walkway penned in by a bookcase on one side and a rusting black iron banister on the other. At the end of this gangway rose a mirror. It was an exact copy of the one hanging above my desk on the reading floor, but it was bigger and when Doctor Gaius placed his hand on the wing, the glass partition swung aside, revealing a dark and musty chamber.
“That's our section on magic,” Doctor Gaius said, putting a handkerchief to his mouth. “Once it covered two floors but that was in the late sixteenth century when the library was housed in St Frideswide's Priory.” Doctor Gaius waved his arms about to clear the air. “Nowadays it's much less frequented.”
You'll be delighted to know, Dear Merlin, that thanks to my visit to this secret section, I did find plenty of material on the subject of Camelot. The most thorough information comes from a little volume bound in red. It had a huge seal on the top of the cover that represented a motif consisting of three spirals bending away from an equidistant centre. I opened it and knew immediately that I had found what I was looking for.
Since my summary of it might contain imprecise references, I decided to copy verbatim the most relevant passages.
Merlin squinted at the rest of the page. Lancelot had been running out of space and had crammed his lines.
The area in whyche Camelot was later erected belonged, according to olde territorial subdivisions, to the Sidhe of Weternesse. The reigne of these Faire Folke was located in the same spot as the townshippe, in that invisible realm between worlds in whyche they do abide. The general surroundings of Camelot being so close to this goode neighbour enclave, the mighty Sidhe Lord Aulfric called it his. A pact with the Rheged leader Meirchion Gul granted him this very boone. Gul's son, Urien, however, under the urging of warlocke Taliesin reneged this allegiance and waged war upon the Sidhe Lord. Thus Taliesin the powerfulle lay siege upon Lord Aulfric's castle. This was no easy feat to accomplishe for the castle itselfe, whyche no mortal could behold, changed shape at the behest of its ovrerlorde, and the way to it also changed, sometimes leading through a wood pathe and sometimes cutting across a highe tor. But thanks to his poweres Taliesin found it and unleashed the might of his magick upon it, starting a war that lasted for generations.
Merlin leant forward and turned the envelope round so he could read the rest.
This state of things lasted for many a century, with warlocks defending the human kingdoms or selling their services to the fairy kingdom overlorde instead. It was under King Ælfwald I of Northumbria that this conflict came to an end. A new treaty was signed that enjoined new rules upon both parties. The fairy lorde was not to take any more slaves from the ranks of the Northumbrian people nor trick travellers into everlasting servitude. The Northumrbian King was to swear to no longer try and find a path that would take him into the very hearte of the Sidhe Realm, a land where no time passeth and that was rumoured to bestoweth everlasting life upon its dwellers.
“So that's what that meant,” Merlin said, looking up from his reading.
Thus peace was found.
The quote ended there; a little below it Lancelot wrote:
I have more information but I've ran out of space and if I cram in more the whole will become illegible. I'll write again soon with the rest of it. In the meanwhile, my friend, please tender my greetings to the lovely Miss Smith and tell her that in spite of the distance currently between us, the memory of her abides strongly in my heart.
Lancelot du Lac.
Arthur put the lantern out, for dawn flickered in the east. The shape of the land emerged from beneath the lightening sky—the whisper of hills, the roll of valleys, the stretch of meadows. It gilded the sky and painted the rooftops of Camelot bright, throwing the mass of Avalon Hall into stark relief.
Swinging down the lane that lead to the back entrance, Arthur sighed. After the night he'd had, there was nothing he longed for more than his own bed. His head was heavy with the after effects of a migraine after all, and his body ached in more places than he was willing to count.
Perhaps he had indeed knocked himself out and these pains were the result of that. It was strange that he shouldn't remember what had happened, but there was a possibility that the hit he had taken has just wiped his memory clean. He'd seen it happen to soldiers countless of times and there was no reason to think that some similar affliction couldn't be bothering him too. Yet something nagged at him, telling him it was not so – not that he had any other explanation for how battered he felt.
He sighed. He supposed his mishap wasn't of great import. He and Mr Emrys had just delivered Thomas safely into the hands of his parents and that was what mattered. The relief in the Caerleons had been palpable. They'd gone from stony-faced and drawn to smiling in the space of a few moments.
Arthur smiled at the notion.
He'd just veered into the lane that led to Avalon Hall's servants' entrance, when he saw Morgana. She was wearing a lilac hooded cloak and no part of her face or body was visible. But Arthur knew it was her from the shape and the way she moved. The folds of her cloak billowing after her, she glided with ghostly assurance down the drive.
She didn't see him, but continued on her path. A delivery boy came out of the mists. He pushed a cart and when it became stuck, he kicked pebbles out his path. When she sighted him, Morgana dove behind a tree and remained there, palm flat against the bark, face pressed against the trunk, until the boy disappeared into the servants' entrance.
Arthur started after Morgana. When the coast was clear, she slithered out of her hiding place and continued down the path. Her pace was fast-clipped and purposeful, but not one Arthur couldn't match.
Even so, Arthur hung back while still keeping her in his sights.
She made it past the east gates and hit the village road. Going a little slower, she turned left, past a row of orderly cottages, and struck out into Rectory Lane. Coasting along a wall and bypassing a few shops still closed for business, she moved down its length until she came to the end of the lane. Here she turned into the Rectory's front yard.
Arthur jogged down the pavement. Before Morgana could knock on the door, he said, “Paying visits to friends is commendable but doing so at dawn and under the veil of a cloak has something suspicious about it.”
Morgana let go of the knocker and whirled round. “Arthur,” she said, clutching at her chest, “you gave me a fright.”
“I didn't.” Morgana didn't look scared. Her narrowed eyes and compressed mouth suggested annoyance rather than fear. “You're up to something and I'd love to know what that is.”
Morgana clacked her tongue. “I'm up to nothing. You're really fantasising, Arthur.”
“I hardly think so.” Arthur waved at the Rectory behind them. “You don't usually pay calls at six in the morning, Morgana. Nobody does.”
“I wanted news about the boy.”
Morgana wasn't that stupid, Arthur knew. “You could have waited for me to come back and you'd have had it.” Arthur shook his head. “Are you acting as in-between?”
“In-between for what?”
“For Emrys and Miss Smith,” Arthur said, remembering how often those two popped up together. “Miss Smith was your confidante and as first lady in Camelot it was expected of you to welcome the new rector. It was but natural that you should be chosen to act as their in between.” Arthur sighed. “Normally, Morgana, I would have nothing against helping two people get together.” Even though the particular notion of Emrys and Miss Smith seemed to Arthur inherently wrong, that didn't mean he would condemn Morgana for her good heart. “But calling on him at such an hour can only be a cause for scandal.” Arthur frowned. “Unless of course it's not on Miss Smith's behalf that you're acting but your own. Morgana--”
“Will you stop talking nonsense!” Morgana said, looking daggers at him.
Normally Arthur would think this was nonsense, too. But he'd seen Morgana slink out himself and there was no good explanation for her behaviour unless she was trying to hide something. “I can take a lot of things, you know, but I don't appreciate being lied to.”
Morgana drew herself up. “And I don't appreciate you following me around!”
“I wasn't following you around!” Arthur couldn't believe he was being called a stalker. “I was getting back from the search, which you'll be glad to know ended successfully, and ran into you going furtively about.”
Morgana looked away, scoffing. “Furtively?”
“I'd really like it if you saved your snorts for another time,” Arthur said, flexing his shoulders. “I didn't do anything untoward.”
“I didn't either.” This Morgana said in such a high pitched voice, a bird took off from a nearby tree.
“You are lying!” Arthur said in tones he was afraid weren't calm either.
“I am not!”
The door to the rectory flew open, a wide-eyed, somewhat the worse for wear Emrys appearing behind it. “What is going on here?”
Arthur's mouth slipped open. “I'm afraid I cannot tell.”
“I need to speak to you, Mr Emrys,” Morgana said, whirling round. Her cloak danced about. “It's about the book I left for you.”
“The book.” Mr Emrys' eyes flared, but not in surprise. It was as if he knew what the hell Morgana was going on about. “Come inside.”
Merlin guided Miss and Mr Pendragon into the room he'd just left. He showed them into different armchairs, took the letter he'd left on the table, pocketed it, and crossed his arms. “So,” he said, mostly to Miss Pendragon because she was the one who seemed to be in the know. “It was you.”
She inclined her head.
“May I ask why?” So Merlin's feeling the book hadn't been slipped to him out of coincidence was accurate.
“I dreamt about you,” Miss Pendragon said, as if that made sense. “I had visions of other things as well in my sleep. I had to find out if they were at all true.”
“By means of a book?” Merlin raised his eyebrow. He had to say he was relieved he wasn't the only one making faces. Mr Pendragon was certainly pulling his weight in that regard. “That seems unusual.”
“I had to make sure I wasn't seeing things.” Miss Pendragon gave him a tight smile. It was strange coming from her. So far she had oozed charm and confidence. “But if I was, I had to ensure I could deny it without suspicion.”
Merlin nodded. “So you slipped a book among those Mr Pendragon--” He gestured at the man himself. “--meant to give me for Sunday School.”
“Wait,” Mr Pendragon said, eyes wide with a mixture of confusion and outrage. “You used me.”
“That's taking it rather too far.” Miss Pendragon rolled her eyes. “I knew you were going to donate those books anyway so I added one to the pile.”
“But whatever for!” Mr Pendragon asked.
Miss Pendragon looked to Merlin and Merlin sighed, squeezed the bridge of his nose. He was fairly sure Morgana meant him to be the one who explained everything to her brother. While he wanted Mr Pendragon to understand – wished he could with a trepidation that weighted his heart – he wasn't confident the man would. Condemnation would hurt. It would bleed him raw, more than the censure of his fellow scholars at Oxford, more than the casual derision of his home town's inhabitants. He didn't know why. He was new here. But he felt wary down to his marrow.
Silence spread in the room. Miss Pendragon and Merlin held each other's gazes.
Mr Pendragon rose to his feet. “So that's it, then.” He looked from his sister to Merlin. “Both my sister and a man I've come to regard as--” Mr Pendragon bit his lip. “...a friend are virtually lying to me.”
Merlin opened his mouth and managed to say, “I--”
But Mr Pendragon held a finger up. “No, omission is the same thing as lying when one is doing it with a view to conceal relevant information.” Mr Pendragon's eyes flamed and his jaw stuck out. “I honestly believed you were quite a good rector, Emrys. And a good man. I thought--” He swallowed. “I thought you displayed rectitude and quite a good amount of courage facing the bigotry of some Oxford circles--” Mr Pendragon shook his head. “This... this opacity doesn't befit you.”
“I'm afraid,” Merlin said, shoulders slumping, “that you thought rather too well of me.” He made himself speak because the thought of disappointing Mr Pendragon was unbearable. “I have dissembled. Not in words perhaps but in spirit.” He breathed hard to work out the courage to speak out. He had before – with Lancelot – and this shouldn't come as hard as it did. “I haven't said as much of the truth as I might have because many consider my brand of it lunacy.”
“Mr Emrys.” Miss Pendragon's eyes became wide and glassy and she blanched.
“I didn't mean to imply you,” Merlin told Miss Pendragon. To her brother, he said, “You won't believe it – you've spoken of your incredulity before – but I can't ignore this, can I? Well, the truth of it is that I have magic.”
“Magic is a myth.” Mr Pendragon rattled the words out quickly, but he lost steam in the talking. “I mean, surely it can't exist.”
“But it does.”
“Old legends have their basis in folklore,” Mr Pendragon said, “but they're nothing other than parables, meant to teach, old wisdom intended to explain away those oddities of the natural world that only modern scienc--”
Merlin made butterflies dance around him. They had wings of every colour and small antennae that twitched as they flew about. They belonged to a species you couldn't find in every garden – or at all in the British Isles. “Do you believe me now?”
Mr Pendragon's jaw slackened and he blinked fast. “That was not sleight of hand, was it?” A butterfly landed on his shoulder and batted its wings. Mr Pendragon let it climb on his hand and watched it walk on his knuckles. “A parlour trick.”
“I think you know the answer,” Merlin said.
A smile was flowering on Mr Pendragon lips. It was childlike and full on awe. It died the moment the butterfly took off. “And you knew,” he told Miss Pendragon.
“He never told me,” Miss Pendragon said. “If that's what you're asking.”
Mr Pendragon's brow crinkled. “But you spied on him and put two and two together. Or took a guess. Somehow found out.”
“I did none of that, I can assure you.” She was addressing those words to her brother but looking at Merlin. “I simply...”
Mr Pendragon's eyes widened. “Simply what, Morgana?”
“Dreamt it all,” she said, tipping her head back proudly. “I dreamt of his coming before he ever set foot in Camelot.”
Mr Pendragon muttered something in a very low voice.
Miss Pendragon said, “At first I thought it was nothing but an ordinary dream.” She cocked her head and her earrings jangled. “But then Gwen told me the new rector was young, dark-haired and blue-eyed and I knew he was the man I'd had a vision of in my sleep.”
“And that's why you were so keen to throw a ball in his honour.” Mr Pendragon looked at his sister as if he'd never seen her before.
Miss Pendragon tutted. “It was also a nice gesture, I thought.”
“So you're saying you had a prescient dream?”
“Yes,” Miss Pendragon said, rolling her shoulders up and back. “It's not new. I... have premonitions. Mostly in my sleep.”
“How long has this being going on?” Mr Pendragon paced back and forth.
“Ever since I can remember,” Miss Pendragon said with a lightness Merlin knew she did not feel. “Of course, as I grew up the dreams intensified in nature. Sometimes I can predict events and sometimes I only get a sense of a possible future.”
“This is...” Mr Pendragon stopped in his tracks. “I don't know what to say.”
“How about saying that you don't mind?” Morgana said, her voice thinning at the end. “How about saying that you don't hate me for what I am?”
“Of course I don't, Morgana.” Mr Pendragon started towards his sister. He placed a hand on her shoulder. “You're my sister. I don't hate you.”
“You don't?” A fragile quality came into Miss Pendragon's voice. “Not even if I told you I had magic too?”
“No.” Mr Pendragon smiled before stepping back. “No, never.”
Merlin sighed. He looked away and retreated to the front of the room, wondering if he should leave so that brother and sister could reconcile. He hoped they could, that the secrets between them hadn't built a barrier around their hearts. None of them deserved unhappiness or broken familial bonds. Merlin hadn't had much luck in that area himself, but at least his mother had been unwavering in her love of him, no matter what strange powers he wielded. He wished Morgana Pendragon could have the same. He was gingerly trying the handle so he could make an exit, when Mr Pendragon stopped him.
“Wait,” Mr Pendragon said, looking past his sister, and to Merlin. “I'm sure Morgana hasn't just contacted you because she predicted you'd be our new rector. There must be something more.”
Merlin couldn't think of any other reason for Miss Pendragon's dreams of him other than the strange occurrences that were happening in Camelot. “You know what's going on, don't you?”
Miss Pendragon said, “In my dreams, you saved Camelot.”
The knowledge wrote itself in Merlin's bones. “From the Sidhe, right?”
“I don't know what to call them.” Miss Pendragon's eyes flashed and her jaw set in a way that was reminiscent of her brother. “But I know they care nothing for humans.”
“Wait, wait, wait.” Mr Pendragon's gaze moved from his sister to Merlin and hung on him. “What are you two talking about?”
Arthur sank into his armchair, his legs hollow, just as his chest was. “So you're saying some evil game is afoot.”
“I didn't think so at first.” Emrys was as pale as Arthur thought he himself must appear to others. There was a tightness to his mouth and fear lurked deep in his eyes. “I didn't put two and two together.”
Arthur wanted to get to the point. He was bloody tired of being kept out of the loop. “But now?”
“With Miss Pendragon having dreams...” Mr Emrys bit his lip. “I can't help but think it's all connected.”
“What is?” Arthur made a fist of his hand as it lay on his thigh.
Morgana said, “My dreams, Mr Emrys' arrival, the spiking of disappearances.”
“Disappearances?” Aside from Thomas, this was the first Arthur had heard of it.
“Think about it,” said Emrys. “Thomas--”
“He just wandered off, though,” Arthur said, unable to think anyone would be so vile as to snatch a child. “When Miss Waters wasn't looking.”
“And Old Mr Madison.” Merlin arched an eyebrow.
“Mr Madison?” Arthur narrowed his eyes.
“Widow Loholt's market friend?” Emrys said, making expansive gestures with his hand. “Surely you remember him.”
“I do.” Arthur breathed that out. “But two don't make a pattern.”
“That isn't all.” Merlin hunkered down with his hands between his legs. His gaze was now level with Arthur's. “On my return from the welcome ball Miss Pendragon was so kind as to host, I ran into a young woman. We were further off from the village than I meant to go and I asked her if she was lost. She never answered.”
“That in itself isn't indicative of foul goings on.” Arthur had to point that out. While he didn't doubt magic existed, not after what Emrys had shown him, he wouldn't attribute all strange happenings to some sort of evil scheme. “Maybe she didn't hear you. Maybe she didn't trust you.”
“Yes, but,” Mr Emrys said, “that's not all. I turned around and tried to catch up with her to make sure she needed no help, but she vanished into some kind of chapel that hadn't been there before.”
“There are no chapels in Camelot,” Morgana said, blinking, her eyes wide. “They were all done away with during the reformation. Completely razed down.”
“Well, that's not the only vanishing building in Camelot.” Merlin tipped up an eyebrow.
“Vanishing people, buildings you can see but nobody else can.” Arthur pressed his head against his hands. “This makes no sense.”
“There are more clues.” Mr Emrys' voice gentled. “I didn't find Thomas by chance. Not at all.”
Arthur looked up but he blanked of words and had no question to ask.
Morgana asked for him. “Then how did you get to him?”
“There was something strange in that forest.” Mr Emrys' gaze turned inwards. “It made my skin crawl and acted on my magic.”
“I remember it being a distinctly odd place, too.” The mists had coalesced in a way had indeed never Arthur witnessed before. They had formed such thick banks that they didn't seem natural at all. “Is that why I fainted?”
“Possibly,” Merlin said, lifting a shoulder. “You're not used to magic being woven around you. You might have reacted to it or have been the victim of some kind of spell. But I can't tell for sure. What I can tell is that there are creatures in those woods.”
“Creatures?” Arthur asked, the choice of words chilling him to the bone.
“I knew it!” Morgana slapped her knee.
“They weren't human,” Mr Emrys said, his shoulders hunching upwards. “They'd taken Thomas and were leading him to...”
“A standing stone circle.” Morgana paled. “It was in my dream.”
“Yes.” Mr Emrys bobbed his head. “He was under some kind of spell, unconscious of what was going on. I--” Merlin moistened his lips. “I freed him.”
Something told Arthur that more had gone down than Merlin was willing to tell him about. But whatever that was, Arthur was fine with it. If Thomas had been abducted against his will, then Arthur had no qualms with Merlin doing whatever was necessary to tackle the problem. He understood conflict. “From whom exactly?”
“I cannot be sure, not wholly,” Mr Emrys said, humming under his breath. “But I have an inkling.” He rose to his feet and took a letter from his pocket. He handed it to Arthur. “I asked a friend from Christ Church to look Camelot up.”
Arthur unfolded the letter and read the contents. “So you're saying Camelot is being preyed upon by fairies.”
Emrys shifted his weight from side to side, set his hands at his hips and looked away. “I--” He fixed his gaze back on Arthur. “I think we share the world that we know of with the Sidhe. But magic has been on the wane on our plane.” He made magic spark on his fingers. It wasn't a show – the tendrils were too much like banked flames for that. It looked more like a reminder that magic did indeed exist. “The old pacts were broken, and with no balancing counterforce in place, the Sidhe are doing what they want.”
“But why would be they taking people?” Arthur said.
“From that passage in the letter.” Merlin pointed at it. “I suspect they're taking them as some kind of indentured servants.”
“Slaves,” Morgana said, snatching at the letter Arthur had been reading.
“And we must assume this is still going on,” Arthur said. Thomas was accounted for. Merlin had returned him to his family. But the other people Merlin had mentioned must still be in the clutches of the faerie people. “Those who've disappeared, they haven't made it back, have they?”
“I don't think they have.” Emrys' mouth set grimly. “And I don't think it'll stop.”
If people kept being snatched, something had to be done. Arthur would make sure of it. “So what do you propose we do?”
Emrys walked to the window, his eyes ranging outside. “We're doing nothing.” He pushed his jaw out and his face took on a grim expression. “I'm going to the Sidhe enclave and make a case for humans.”
Arthur stood up in sudden push that dizzied him. “That's reckless. If they really have such power, you can't go and face them alone.”
“I'm the only one who can.” Emrys beat a fist on his chest. “I have these powers. They must be for a reason!”
Morgana walked over to Merlin. She tilted her head back and sized him up. “You're not just going to parley, are you?”
Emrys pivoted round. His mouth thinned. He didn't answer.
“You mean to fight!” Arthur said, eyes rounding. “You mean to wage battle against them.”
“Someone must do it.”
“Not you!” Arthur was adamant about this. Emrys might have magic and be able to do very neat things, but war was something else. Emrys didn't have the experience. “You don't know what you are committing yourself to.”
“I got Thomas back.” Mr Emrys pushed his shoulders out. “That much I achieved. If I can help others as well, then I must do it.”
“I'll come with you.” Before Emrys could object, Arthur added, “I may have no magic, but I have experience on the battlefield. You need me.”
“You can't come.” Emrys moved his hands sideways in a motion of denial. “You've no idea what you'd be walking into. You can't sense spells or enchantments. You got knocked out by one and had no idea. I'm not getting you killed.”
“I'm not as useless as you seem to think.” Arthur's wound may have slowed him down. But he was still a good soldier at heart. “You may believe that I'm no good but I can still protect you.”
Emrys watched him, his eyes intent on Arthur. “I'm not questioning your prowess when it comes to pitched battles. I'm sure Wellington himself must be proud of you. But this is different. You'd be fighting blind, without knowing where danger is coming from.”
“Even so I know more about fighting than you do.” Emrys was a scholar and a rector, a man of magic. And one so marvellous at that, with such a bright talent, that he needed to live. Arthur would ensure that. “Besides, we're talking about my people here. They may be your new parishioners, but these are my folk. I'll shield them against any supernatural power that wants to harm them.”
“If you put it that way, come with me.” Emrys didn't look particularly enthused about the notion. His eyes flamed and his brow took on a frown. “I'll try and protect you against the magic as best I can.”
“In that case, I'm coming, too!” Morgana said, both her eyebrows up. “I'm far more entitled than he is.” She smirked at Arthur. “I had dreams forewarning me of this long before either of you became aware of it, and more importantly, unlike my brother, I have magic and can withstand its lures.”
“You can't come!” Arthur wanted to work some sense into Morgana. “It's too dangerous!”
Morgana whirled on him, eyes wide with fury. “Why? Because I'm a woman?”
“Because you've never faced such a danger before.” He didn't want to lose Morgana only because she thought could tackle more than she could chew. Courage was all well and good but it wouldn't save you when it came down to it. It was bad enough Emrys was bent on going. He wouldn't lose his sister, too. “You're not trained for this.”
“I can fence.”
“Because you sat by during my lessons,” Arthur said, looking in disbelief at Morgana. “That doesn't make you an expert.”
“I'm better at it than him!” She pointed at Emrys. “And I beat you plenty of times, my dear brother.”
“In controlled environments.”
“I still beat you fair and square.”
They both turned to Emrys.
Arthur said, “Tell her that she can't come.”
“Tell him I ought to come.”
Mr Emrys had folded his arms and was looking at them with his head tilted. His eyes twinkled and he grinned. “So that's what having a sibling's like.”
“Are you going to make pithy remarks or take action?” Morgana said, crossing her arms.
Mr Emrys' shoulders rose on an intake of breath. “She's coming.”
“Ha!” Morgana said.
“You can't let her bully you.” Arthur sent them both a glare. Morgana deserved one for being so obnoxious and Mr Emrys for being a pushover.
“She's right.” He shrugged. “She has magic. She can help.”
Arthur objected for the longest time but Morgana ignored him and Emrys reassured him it was for the best. Once they'd agreed – Arthur had been strong armed –, they settled down to discuss a battle plan. They did this over the tea Emrys made.
“So,” he said, as he handed Arthur and Morgana their cups, “how are we doing this?”
“We need to find the person behind the abductions,” Arthur said, before correcting himself and adding. “The fairy behind it.”
“Sidhe,” Merlin said, giving him a smile that was far too sweet for the challenge conveyed by his words. “I think we know the identity of the Sidhe behind this.”
“Lord Aulfric,” Morgana said, nodding slowly.
“Wouldn't he be dead by now?” Arthur asked, palming the cup for the warmth of it rather than because he had any intention of drinking any of the weak tea Emrys had given him. “That reference to him goes back centuries.”
“It's the Sidhe we're talking about,” Emrys said, touching the table top with one hand as he gestured with the other. “I don't think they're mortal in the way we think of. At least not when it comes to life span and such.”
“But if they're immortal,” Arthur said, frowning at the thought, “how can we defeat them?”
“I don't think they're invulnerable. Otherwise, what would have been the point of previous warlocks fighting them?” Emrys mouth thinned to a pale line. “But I do think Aulfric's still around.”
“So where do we find him?” Arthur asked.
“I dreamt of the place,” Morgana said, her eyes losing focus as if she was sinking into the memory of the dream. She paled, recollecting her haunting nightmare. “But it changed shape in my dream. I'm afraid.” Morgana's voice went thinner. “I can't help you locate Aulfric.”
“I think I know where he is.” Emrys told them of a strange occurrence he'd been witness to. It had been during his first drive over to Camelot. He'd been looking out the carriage window, when he saw a sprawling manor house. Later he asked Miss Smith about it, and she told him no such place existed at all. “I believe that's Lord Aulfric's abode.”
“All right then,” Arthur said, not liking these strange tales in the least. They made him feel small and impotent and more than fairly useless. He pushed off the table. “Let's go pay the lord of the manor a call.”
Morgana pulled him down into his seat. “Not now, Arthur.”
“Why not?” It seemed to Arthur that this Lord Aulfric was causing enough trouble and giving enough pain as it was. Stopping him sooner rather than later seemed important. “We can surprise him and put an end to his foul actions.”
“Because it's not a good day for it,” Emrys said, engaging Morgana's gaze. It was as if the two were speaking a language of their own. It was still plain English but it sounded completely foreign to Arthur. “The Winter Solstice will be a better time for it.” He gazed at Arthur. When Arthur made a face, he added, “It's the shortest day of the year but it also marks the return of the sun.”
“Of the forces of light,” Morgana said.
“We'll be stronger against the Sidhe then.”
Arthur wasn't sure he truly understood the ins and outs of this. To him, the winter solstice was only a calendar occurrence; at most, it marked the approach of the Christmas season. He'd never even considered its impact on magic and its practitioners because he'd felt so sure they didn't exist. And yet... He didn't get how Morgana could be so knowledgeable about it. They'd grown in the same household, had had the same education. She couldn't have been taught. But she was aware of magic lore while Arthur had never even suspected she had powers of her own. “All right, the solstice it is,” Arthur said. “How about the actual plan?”
Encroaching at the edge of the sky, night came in purple swathes that touched at the edge of the horizon, where clouds frayed and stars already shone. With it had come a cold wave and the air stilled to frost. But there was something more to it, too. There was a taste of magic in the ether, one that she could sense with her whole body. And Morgana now knew that she wasn't seeing things, that her dreams weren't driving her mad. Mr Emrys had confirmed everything, all her suspicions and fears, and acknowledged her powers. She breathed in. It felt...
“Ready for battle, Morgana?” Arthur said, carting weapons into the room.
“Of course.” She dropped the curtain and turned around. “Much readier than you.”
Arthur deposited the weapons on the table. The rifles muzzles glimmered dully. A sabre's blade caught the candlelight and shimmered. Arthur picked it up and said, “I'm sure you can use one of these, can't you?”
“Of course.” Morgana picked up the sabre. It had a nice weight to it and it fit well in her palm. It had been made for Arthur, a present from Uther, but it felt perfect for her body, too. With a few swings, she lunged and tested its heft. “This is an excellent blade.”
“Good,” Arthur said, watching her try the sabre out. Worry played in his gaze. “Just make sure to keep your guard high.”
She scoffed. “As if I would ever lower it.”
He inclined his head. He chewed his lip and his gaze roved back to the table. “What about Emrys?” He ran his hand along the muzzle of a musket. “Do you think he knows how to use one?”
Morgana ticked up an eyebrow. “He's a clergyman, I think not.”
“Right, then perhaps my cavalry sword,” Arthur said, his hand closing around a golden hilt. “Everybody can use a sword, more or less.”
Morgana smiled. “That's quite sweet of you, Arthur.”
“What is?” Arthur grunted.
“Your wanting to give him your own sword, the one you fought with.” Morgana knows how much of a relic that is for her brother. When he came back from Spain, sulky and wounded at the thought he would never serve again, he'd put that sword in a trunk and forbidden anyone from touching it. “The one that's perfect for you. You'd be better served keeping it.”
“I can fight with any weapon, Morgana,” Arthur said, drawing himself up. “And this is a good sword. It would protect him.”
“You seem to care a great deal about our new rector.”
“Nonsense.” Arthur ran his thumb along the hilt's groove and frowned at it. “I merely want to make sure he survives this. He's the best rector we've ever had. He's a hard worker who truly has the welfare of others at heart.” He bit at the cuticles of his thumb. “He's a good man.”
“You like him.” Morgana saw hints of that in the way Arthur pinked up, in the manner he avoided her gaze. “And before you wax lyrical about his sermon making, you're not merely appreciative of him as a cleric. You're falling for him.”
Arthur made a pained noise. When he looked up, his eyes shone full of the struggle he was going through. They'd become bigger and bluer, much more guileless than she was used to seeing them. “You can understand now why I want him safe?”
“I do.” If Arthur had had the good grace of sharing his feelings with her, Morgana wouldn't have teased him. “I still think you should keep your cavalry sword to yourself.”
“Not because I want you to be awfully selfish when it comes to weapon sharing,” Morgana said. “But because I firmly believe Merlin Emrys doesn't need any swords.”
“Morgana--” Arthur squeezed the bridge of his nose. “--we're going to face a bitter and cunning enemy.”
“A harsh otherworldly foe, yes.” Morgana knew what sort of dangers they were running into. In the days leading up to the Solstice, she had read up the books Alice smuggled in for her. She had even more reason than Arthur to dread their upcoming ordeal. “But Merlin has magic and that's his best defence.”
“And you think that's enough?” The worry etched itself in the taut lines of Arthur's face, painted itself in his newly hollow cheeks. “That his powers, whatever they are, can ward off the attacks of a centuries old creature?”
“I think,” Morgana said, remembering her dreams, how they'd featured their new rector, “that Merlin Emrys is a beacon of power.”
Arthur looked at her sceptically.
“I started dreaming of him long before he ever came!” Morgana's voice rose. “Long before he'd even made the decision to move here. Destiny hangs on his choices; it makes way for them and sweeps out everything in his wake.” She'd often woken reeling from the power of the man in her dreams, his significance. “For some reason, he's at the centre of everything and that's not because he's a weakling of a sorcerer.”
“I'm still concerned.”
Morgana kissed his cheek. “You wouldn't be you if you didn't worry yourself sick about the welfare of others.”
Arthur pouted. “Are you mocking me, sister?”
“I would never dream of it.” She held the sabre up. “Now let's go fight this fight.”
The moon shone in the sky, casting its pale rays on the village path. It silvered everything, spreading a gossamer sheen over hedges and groves, the furrows of vegetable gardens and toll gates, lanes and trees.
The thick of the forest that grew either side of the old route out of Camelot stayed dark instead. Trees clustered together in night-time shadows, the core of them a tangled grove that sight could not pierce.
“This path is leading away from Camelot,” Arthur said, adjusting the sling of his musket over his shoulder. “The Lord Sidhe's keep can't be there.”
“That's where I saw it,” Merlin said, clearly remembering having passed by these parts when he'd first come to Camelot. “And that's where it must be.”
“Merlin.” Arthur exhaled. “I've been this way hundreds of times. In and out of Camelot. There's nothing.”
“There's nothing for you to see, true,” Morgana said. “But the keep is there. I dreamt it.”
“I'm sorry but if I can't see it, then it's not there.” Arthur's brow puckered.
“That's not necessarily correct.” Merlin had felt this coming for a while now. “Aulfric's house sits at the confluence of two worlds. Ours and the Sidhe's. That's why you can't see it. Because you have no magic.”
Pendragon hummed; his scowl deepened. “If that's true, then how can I fight something I cannot see?”
Knowing this was what he'd feared the most when involving Pendragon, Merlin bowed his head. Arthur was right. He was coming to this fight hobbled. Since he was determined to be in it, Merlin couldn't leave him like that. “There's something I can do about that – probably.” He came to stand face to face with Pendragon and chewed on his lips. “But it's... not something you take on lightly.”
“What is it?” Mr Pendragon tilted his chin up.
“A kind of blood oath.” Merlin had read about it in Oxford on lonely nights when he'd been too tired to attend to his studies and too wired to go to sleep. “If you take it, you'll be able to... sense things with my senses.”
Miss Pendragon frowned at them.
Mr Pendragon said, “Will this blood oath give me magic?”
“No.” Merlin breathed out. “Nothing can. It can alter your perception of things though.”
“Will it last forever?”
“I don't know.” This wasn't the kind of thing that was easily tested and Merlin had made no study of its after-effects. “Probably not. You'd have to go through more serious binding for that.”
“If we do it...” Mr Pendragon compressed his lips. “Will it hurt you?”
“No more than it will hurt you.”
“And then I'll be able to see the enemy?”
“Yes.” Merlin had no reason to think the oath wouldn't work. “You'd be aware of magic.”
“Then we do it.” Pendragon nodded sharply once.
“Arthur, are you sure?” Morgana said.
“Yes.” Mr Pendragon turned to his sister. “Never been more certain about anything.”
Merlin took out his knife. It was an ordinary hunting knife the Pendragons had given him for self-defence. Mr Pendragon had come up to him and said – somewhat stiffly – that he knew Merlin had magic and therefore didn't need weapons, but he'd feel remiss if he didn't give him something to protect himself with. Merlin had accepted and Pendragon nodded and huffed a bit, then he'd stalked off and set out on their current expedition without waiting for Merlin to join in.
Merlin was glad he had the knife now. Not so much because he really thought he could ward Aulfric off with it. But because it was a token of Mr Pendragon's... thoughtfulness. Besides it was turning out pretty useful now.
With its blade Merlin sliced across his palm. The skin parted and blood welled. Merlin grimaced at the pain, at the burn of it, but he made himself smile. “Your turn,” he said, offering the knife to Pendragon.
Pendragon stepped closer and took the knife from him. Without any hesitation, he ran the tip of it along the meat of his hand, with crimson welling in its wake. When he looked up, his face was just the littlest bit taut around the mouth. “Let's do this.”
Merlin fit their bloody palms together. At first he felt nothing but the heat and prickle of the gash in his hand, but then the magic inside him flowered. It sparked around his hand and wove inside and out of him. It made him aware of Arthur Pendragon in ways he hadn't been before, recognising Pendragon's heartbeat, the pattern of his breathing, and the weight of his soul. It was a beautiful soul, shining brightly with all the colours of the rainbow, shimmering like the sun. When he took in all its hues, Merlin smiled.
Pendragon gasped. “Is that...” His eyes widened, softened, misted up a little. His Adam's apple took a plunge. “Is that you?”
Merlin knew what Mr Pendragon meant. “Yes. That's me... my magic, me.”
Arthur Pendragon beamed at him. “That's good, that's...” He cleared his throat. “Excellent.”
Merlin blushed and shifted his gaze to their joined hands. “If you can feel me--”
“Yes, yes I can.”
“Then I think we may be done here.” Even though it was, Merlin felt Pendragon too strongly to be able to step back. The heat of his palm was as much of a lure as the siren call of his soul. “Because of the... you know.”
Pendragon laced their fingers together. “You're the expert. You choose when, uh, to let go”
Merlin wanted to part from Pendragon even less now than before. But he had to. Aulfric was still out there, taking slaves, profiting from the fact there was no warlock protecting Camelot as there had been in days past. Merlin had to do something about it.
Merlin healed Mr Pendragon's hand before letting go. “There you go”
“You're still bleeding,” Mr Pendragon pointed out.
Merlin wiped some of the blood on a handkerchief. “Can't heal myself. My magic doesn't work that way.”
Mr Pendragon's face fell in on itself. “Oh.” He licked his lips. “So what now?”
“Now we let go and face Lord Aulfric.”
At first the blood oath didn't much change Arthur's perception of the physical world around him. He had felt the thrill of the pact itself, but he suspected much of the excitement – the tectonic shift in him – was due more to Merlin Emrys himself than to the ritual. But now he was starting seeing things. Forest paths shimmered in blue light, the most knotted of groves shed a dark aura, and haunting voices sounded from the woods' depths. He couldn't track them and couldn't tell what they were saying, but he was aware of them in a way that was beyond normal hearing.
They came upon the house. The drive to it swerved away from the old toll road and led to an old crumbling Tudor pile. There were two main wings branching off from a central body to which clung several centuries' growth of creepers, greens and foliage, all encompassed by tall elm trees and a lawn so extensive it seemed to know no end.
“I've never seen this house before,” Arthur said, goggling at the construction. “I'm sure of it. I've passed this way so many times and that--” He pointed to the house. “--has never been there.”
“It's always been though.” Emrys baulked as he looked at it. “It's been there long before Camelot was ever a thing.”
“You just couldn't see it,” Morgana said, as she unsheathed her sabre.
Arthur turned his gaze from Morgana to the mansion. It shimmered. Shadows enveloped it, then lifted. When they did, a keep surrounded by towers replaced the more modern central building. Turrets started jutting out of the lateral wings. A barbican rose in place of the lawn. “It's changing into a medieval castle.”
“No,” Morgana said, pointing, “it's turning into a long-house.”
“No,” Emrys said, “it's all of those things at once. Or rather those are all the faces the place has worn over the centuries. In truth it's--”
Emrys' words were stopped by the appearance of a man. He looked old, with hair as white as snow, wrinkles around his eyes, and gnarled hands. But there was something in his eyes, dark eyes framed by arched eyebrows that spoke of vigour, strength, cunning. "Ah, Emrys!" cried the man. "How do you do? It's a pleasure to meet you—” He looked at Arthur and Morgana. “And your companions. What brings you here?”
“You know what does, Lord Aulfric,” Emrys said, standing taller. “You broke the pact. You're taking humans as thralls.”
Aulfric's face darkened. “It is but my right.” He cast his head back and put his chin up. “They are owed me. It's ancient tradition.”
“That is not true.” Emrys took a step forwards. “The warlocks of old fought you tooth and nail to preserve the rights of the people of Camelot.” He sucked in a breath. "And I will, too, if you don't release the people you hold hostage.”
“And you'd risk angering the might of the Sidhe for that?”
“Yes,” Emrys said, “freedom has no price.”
Pride swelled in Arthur's chest with such power, he got dizzy on it.
“Does peace have no price?” Aulfric asked, waving his staff about. “You'd be incurring the retaliation of my people and all for what?” He tsked. “A few Camelot people who're actually better off serving in Avalon than toiling their lives away on dull earth?”
“As opposed to there?” Emrys said. “Without a say in their destiny.”
“Sidhe country is beautiful.” Aulfric lifted a shoulder.
“I'm afraid that's not enough.” Merlin's mouth set in a firm line. “Release them or face the consequences.”
“I think it's you who will suffer the consequences,” Aulfric said, lifting his staff and punching the ground with its tip.
A thin mist came up and the house vanished. In its place, a lake formed and trees grew around it. Shrubs pushed upwards and shoved Arthur, Emrys and Morgana off their feet. Out of the mist, shadows walked. When they solidified, Arthur saw that they were Camelot people. They were brandishing weapons, scythes, swords and staves. Their stare was vacant, purposeless, at odds with their pace, the way they went at a clop, charging them.
Emrys threw his hand out and a wall shimmered between them and the possessed Camelot people.
“You think that's enough,” Aulfric said, laughing with gusto. “You'll never defeat the Sidhe!”
The Camelot people slashed at the magic wall with their swords and created thin fissures in it. They stepped through these, odd creatures following in their wake. Some were small and blue and had wings. Others were as tall as human beings but had horns and boar snouts. They were all to the last one of them armed.
“They're using enchanted blades,” Morgana said, holding her own up. “Sidhe blades.”
“Great.” Arthur ground his teeth together and tried not to wonder how his simple man-made weapons could withstand the force of magical ones. “Aim to incapacitate, not kill. Most of them are Camelot citizens under the thrall of magic.”
“Morgana and I'll take on the Sidhe.” Emrys put both of his hands out. To Arthur, he said, “The mortals are yours.”
Arthur had barely any time to nod before he had to put up his sword to fend off a blow. It rang off his blade and made his wrist twinge with pain. His attacker retreated, then advanced from another angle. The person Arthur was fighting might be enchanted, but that didn't mean he didn't know how to fight or that he was making it any easier on Arthur. If he wanted to get out of this alive, Arthur had to give it his all. He would pull his blows, but otherwise he'd have to defend himself to the best of his abilities.
He feinted and launched a running attack that took out a few of his attackers in one go. He cut a swathe through for himself, but his momentum took him further away from Emrys and Morgana than he would have liked. Searching for them in the melee, at first he couldn't see them. Thralls surrounded them. Sidhe flew around them and pelted them with rocks and magic blasts. A blinding light bathed them, and only when it dimmed a notch was Arthur able to see.
Magic swirled from Emrys' palms, moving in waves that distorted the air. It tinged Morgana's eyes gold, her palms releasing lightning just like Emrys' did. They both seemed to be doing well, fending off their opponents, but Arthur couldn't help but look their way to make sure they were fine.
Pain bloomed on his shin. He looked down to find a gash in his breeches and blood welling from it. Right, focus. He had to focus. He'd just reached that decision when a blade came hurtling his way.
A bolt of lightning, bright as the sun, shot forth from Aulfric's staff. Merlin threw up his hand, fending off the beam. But Aulfric summoned a second blast and it hit Merlin right in the chest. It slammed him backwards, burning his lungs.
When he landed, he hit his head and the world blurred around him. Breathless from the impact, Merlin went on his side and retched. The nausea had barely settled when Aulfric said, “You thought you could triumph over me, warlock. Well, you can't.”
The air crackled and thrummed with a buzz Merlin didn't like one bit. It seemed to carry with it an ominous threat. It wasn't verbal, but it made Merlin's hackles rise all the same, his powers chanting a warning against it.
And then a wave of magic hit him. Merlin closed his eyes, made himself into a ball and gritted his teeth against the pain.
The world around him lost consistency. It became ephemeral, shapes and bulks coalescing into a black mass of nothing.
It was the voice that brought him to.
“Surrender all of Camelot to me,” said Aulfric. “Let its people come to me and I'll spare you, warlock.”
Merlin spat blood, slowed his breath, and pulled himself up on legs that wouldn't quite hold him. “No.”
“We're kin, after all, aren't we?” Aulfric advanced on him, the head of his staff gleaming bright. “Different from all mortals. An alliance between us would be nothing but natural.”
Merlin wiped at his mouth, his knuckles smeared with blood. “That's what you'd have me do, is it?”
“Think about it, warlock.” Aulfric's lips stretched into something Merlin daren't call a smile. “Why lay down your very being for a handful of mortals without a spark of magic in them?”
Merlin made fists of his hands and gathered his magic in their palms. “They may have no magic but they do have a right to free will.”
“To do what?” Aulfric snapped his fingers together. “They're better off working for the might of the Sidhe.” He sized Merlin up. “Just as you'd better off aligning yourself with us.”
“No,” Merlin said, sending his magic fly away from him in all directions.
Aulfric was blasted backwards until he hit the ground hard. Merlin was preparing the second volley when he paused. Aulfric was moaning and grunting, his face scrunched up in pain. So ravaged by Merlin's magic, the man seemed to have withered and aged in the span of seconds. He clung to his staff as if it was the only shield between him and dissolution.
Merlin kept his magic at bay and said, “We can come to an agreement. If you promise not to abduct any more people, if you promise you'll stay away from Camelot, I--”
A volley of power ribboned out of Aulfric's staff and rushed over Merlin, sapping his energy, sucking at his magic. It wrapped around him so that his blood burned and his bones cracked. Pressure made his lungs seize and he couldn't breathe. He screamed and when he had no voice left to scream, he gasped. But that didn't help any. A gale rose, moving over and around, lifting dead leaves and making snowflakes dance around his body. His heart turned to ice.
"I told you," said Aulfric, picking himself up and aiming his staff at Merlin. “You should have accepted my offer. You've still time.”
"I have," Merlin said, fighting past the limitations of his broken body, the pain that burned in his limbs and numbed his brain, “no intention to make friends with you." He wanted to protect Arthur and Morgana and the people of Camelot. “My answer is--” He gasped. “Once again...” A sharp hissing sound escaped his ribcage. “No.”
“You can't say I didn't offer an olive branch,” Aulfric said, waving his staff at Merlin.
Bark formed around his feet and ankles, encasing them in its grip. It grew around his legs and upper thighs, trapped his chest, squeezing his organs in a relentless grip. It wrapped around his arms together with ribbons of ivy. Off shoots sprung from the bark; fruit blossomed, heavy and ripe and hung from the boughs that had once been his hands. He could no longer even fight for a breath.
It was then that Merlin spared a thought for Arthur and regretted not having had more time with him. Not having spoken when he had a chance. A word might have sufficed and even if it all had gone nowhere, it would have been better than silence.
When foliage wrapped around his neck in lush strands, Merlin knew he was done for.
Morgana parried a cut so hard that the rapier flew from the hands of its wielder. A kick to her opponent's leg broke his knee. With her hand out, she directed a blast of magic at the Sidhe circling round her.
And then she saw it, Aulfric wielding his staff, and Merlin turning into a tree. “Merlin,” she screamed, but as much as she tried to cut a path through to him with her magic, she found she couldn't, not with Aulfric's winged army surrounding her in a swarm. “Merlin!”
The impact of a lance sent Arthur's sword wide and high. Another attacker came at him from behind and Arthur ducked and blocked the blow by putting his sword up. He elbowed his closest opponent so as to carve some space out for himself.
If this had been Spain, he'd have used his musket, sliced his way of out of the melee. But these were his fellow citizens and he couldn't do that, not even if worst came to worst. As owner of the main manor in Camelot, he was meant to protect them. So he made weapons spin out of his adversaries' hands, decking any fighter who got too close.
Blades came at him from all directions. He blocked and blocked and blocked. When someone stabbed forward, he dove, kicked out, and used his fists.
He was exchanging blows with a woman armed with a particularly sharp cutlass when he felt it, the tug in his insides, at his heartstrings. His chest ached as if his lungs were failing and his senses dulled. And yet he could move easily, lunging and risposting, his muscles obeying the calls of his body. At the same time though, pain bloomed at the core of him. The sensation chilled his blood for however much it did not make sense.
And then he knew. He only looked to confirm that he was right. A beam of power was hitting Merlin right in the chest and making him scream. Arthur knew he had to get to him, that if he didn't, Merlin would die.
He twisted his blade free, kicked one of his opponents in the guts, and elbowed another right up in the sternum. The woman gasped and doubled over. Arthur chopped at her wrist with his hand so she lost her shimmering sword. Diving for it, Arthur grabbed its hilt, pushed back to his feet, and started running.
He gave it his all. He pumped his legs, hands fending the air. When he gained speed, he pushed even more, until his heart was in his throat and his hip, still racked by the pains of his Talavera wound, ached with fresh agony. It burned as he lifted his leg and it hurt even more when his foot came down as he propelled himself forward.
But Merlin was in danger. Something was happening to him, something bad. His feet seemed rooted to the spot and his legs were turning into a block of bark. Above all, Merlin's pain lodged deep into Arthur's heart, ran in his blood and singed his veins. It wasn't real – couldn't be – but it hurt just as much as the fire in his hip. And worse, it slowed him down. Past the pain and past the tiredness that was setting in, he made himself go on, strive forwards. He went over hurdles, wrested free when possessed Camelot people tried to grab him, and sprinted over a rising stretch of ground.
When he got close enough to Merlin, he saw that he was mostly gone. Where he had been was a trunk with branches shooting out of the main stalk. But Arthur could still see his eyes, was still able to make out the dying spark in them.
Grief hobbled him. It choked out his soul and blinded him with tears. It took his breath and sapped the strength from his bones. This was it, all over again. He had failed to save a person at risk, someone who counted on him to be there for them, someone who was dear to him.
At the end of his tether, he went to his knees. He buried his face in his hands and let his shoulders shake. No sob came out of him, but his body was out of control. Merlin's voice was thin and reedy, sounding like wind whistling through branches, but still distinguishable enough when he said, “The staff, Arthur, the staff.”
“The staff what?” Arthur wondered, and he wasn't sure whether he'd said the words or only thought them, he still got an answer.
Merlin's feeble voice rattled in his skull and said, “You must destroy the staff.”
Arthur pulled himself up and turned to Lord Aulfric. He was pointing the staff at Merlin, channelling beams of light through it. They seemed to be knitting a web of vegetation around Merlin, spinning leaves and tendrils of ivy. As for the Sidhe himself, his face was cast in a frown, his lip bit to the quick, and he had no idea Arthur was even there. That was good and all but how could Arthur destroy a magical artefact with no magic?
“Brute force, not magic,” he said, and threw his sword hilt-first at the magic staff.
The blade severed the head of it, lobbing off the jewel head within the grip of Rowan wood.
Roots uncoiled from Merlin's feet. In a whirlwind, bark chipped off his chest and legs and leafy offshoots fell away and Merlin could breathe again. His heart beat steadily and pushed his blood through his veins. He could bend his fingers and move his lower body. Not that he had any strength to do it, but his limbs were no longer caged.
His lids weighed on him and he was heavy though. He wanted to go down in a heap and sleep for centuries. But one look at Aulfric and the battling Sidhe surrounding Morgana told him he couldn't let go. Not yet.
He said the word in a whisper. It wasn't a spell exactly, not one he knew of anyway, but it was a directing of his will, a form for his magic to take.
Power shot through him. Magic welled up from the earth and poured into him, ribboning around his limbs and seeping into his skin, mixing with his own. It flared bright. Brighter than it ever had before. He pushed the magic outwards with all his strength.
Wind and fire joined together in a tornado that moved fast across the plain. It didn't ravage it but spiralled forward at a great pace. It swept around Aulfric, engulfed him at its centre. Aulfric screamed.
When the wind storm of fire dissolved, the Lord Sidhe was no longer there.
Merlin crashed to his knees.
Morgana was keeping the Sidhe behind a wall of magic, when the creatures popped out of existence. They went out like lights, in waves, first one group, then another. The citizens of Camelot who'd been in the thrall of fey magic dropped their weapons and stopped fighting her. They looked about, their pupils focusing and taking in their surroundings, their jaws slackening with the realisation of where they were.
The house behind them lost the shape of a home and became a floating mountain into which caves were worked. Each of them shone with bright light, glittering dust scattered on their doorstep. They brightened, whitened, and then, with a sigh, they all disappeared.
Morgana dropped her sabre and her magic at the same time. To the nearest woman, she said, “Are you all right?”
“Yes,” the woman answered, her gaze where the Sidhe habitation had been. “How did I get here?”
“I think it's a fairly long story,” Morgana said, deciding she'd tell the woman later. “All you need to know is that you're safe.” She rubbed the lady's arm. “Can you stay here awhile and take care of the others?”
The woman nodded.
“Then do.” Morgana sheathed her sword. “I'll be back as soon as I can.”
She raced over to Arthur and Mr Emrys. Mr Emrys was on his knees, leaning forward with his head on Arthur's shoulder. Arthur had his arms around him. “You defeated him,” Arthur said, running his hands up his back and patting him. “You made it, Emrys.”
Mr Emrys made a noise that was a cross between a laugh and a moan of pain. “I'm not sure what just happened.”
Arthur drew back and cupped Emrys' face, thumbing the cheekbones. “You conjured up the elements and did away with him. You were brilliant.”
“And nearly got turned into a tree,” Emrys said, picking a leaf off his hair. “Without you... without you, I'd have been gone.”
“I did nothing.” Arthur's fingers wouldn't stop tracing the angles of Emrys' face.
“Will you stop putting yourself down all the time, you soft-headed, valiant man?” Mr Emrys' lips lifted in a smile. “You did everything.”
Arthur's eyes went the shape of a roundel, a grin split his face in two, and he beamed. “I wasn't that bad, was I?”
“Oh lord.” Emrys sighed and a chuckle went through him. “I've created a monster, haven't I?”
Arthur braced himself to receive Emrys' weight as he slumped. “Yes, that's exactly what you've done.” Arthur's gaze went past Merlin's shoulders and pinned itself on Morgana.
She said, “I don't need to ask whether you've made it out in one piece, do I?” She could tell that Emrys had taken quite a battering, but that he was alive at all meant that his magic was putting him back to rights. As for her brother, he seemed fine, bruised and a little bloodied, but otherwise alright. “What do we do with all the freed people?”
“We escort them back home,” Arthur said, getting to his feet and pulling Emrys up with him. “Make sure that they have everything they need.”
“I'll be doing that,” Morgana said. Emrys needed a bed and someone to get him into it. And Morgana couldn't think of a better person to do that than her brother. Who knew, maybe he would kill two birds with one stone and do something about his attraction for the bloody man. “You take the rector home.”
Arthur's jaw set. “Are you sure?” He eyed the throngs of people milling a little purposelessly around the plain. “That's quite a lot of people to look after.”
“He can barely walk.” Morgana arched an eyebrow at Emrys. “Besides, I think I proved I can take care of myself.”
“Don't get too excited, Morgana,” Arthur said, even though warmth burnt his eyes. “You were unfairly advantaged.” He waggled fingers and eyebrows. “Some of us have only training to rely on and--”
Morgana rolled her eyes. “Shut up before I decide to use my sabre on you.”
“You would--” Arthur's lips twitched. “Wouldn't you?”
“Most certainly.” She thrust her chest forward. “Now go. I'll help these people by myself.”
As she gathered the victims of the Sidhe together, she watched Arthur and Emrys go, Arthur limping a little, Emrys leaning on him.
“Come on,” Arthur said, as he hoisted Emrys' dead weight up the stairs, “just two more steps.”
“Give me a moment.” Emrys stalled and gave him a long look. His eyes shone bright in the candlelight and cinched at the corners.
There was so much in that gaze Arthur lost his balance A wave of tenderness swept through him and unmoored him, rendering him barely capable of thought and speech. He sank into a contemplation of Merlin Emrys, his body, now at a slump, his eyes rich with warmth, his heart so full of courage.
When a few moments had passed, Arthur made himself say, “Let me get you to bed, Emrys.”
“I think after all that we've been through, you can call me Merlin.” Emrys' eyes flashed with soft good humour. “And yes, do take me to bed.”
Arthur worked at a swallow, made a point to think only chaste thoughts, then geared his mind towards the practical. He hooked Emrys' arm around his shoulder and heaved.
They made the landing relatively safely, negotiated the length of it, and staggered into the room Merlin pointed out as his bedroom.
They wobbled across it and Arthur deposited Merlin on the bed. When he hit the mattress, Merlin groaned. He closed his eyes for a moment and slumped, pressed the heel of his hand against his temple and scrunched his face up. After several moments, he rearranged himself so his back was propped up by a mound of pillows.
Arthur said, “Would you like a glass of water...” He looked around for a decanter. “Or a restorative? Hell, I don't know what a sorcerer would like after a magical battle.”
“For you to take a seat.” Merlin patted the bed.
Arthur eyed it and his legs went just a little bit hollow. He wasn't sure he could trust himself with doing it, with sitting in bed with Merlin and showing nothing on his face of what he was going through. When Merlin's face fell, however, Arthur sat.
“I wanted to thank you,” Merlin said, wringing his hands in his lap. “For being there for me despite not initially believing in magic and for helping me with the Sidhe Lord and...”
Arthur made an instinctive grab for Merlin's hands. “You shouldn't have to. I ought to have been more open to believing.”
“You were probably told magic didn't exist.” Merlin shifted his gaze to match Arthur's.
“And yet I had a sorceress in my family and never knew,” Arthur said, thinking about Morgana hiding letters and acting suspiciously. It now all made sense. “I was so blind.”
“Maybe you didn't know how to look,” Merlin said, covering Arthur's hand with his. “But you came through for us, me and Miss Pendragon and the people of Camelot, and irrespective of that...” His face softened in a clutch of emotion. "You're a good man. I didn't see it at first--”
“I was rather rude at first,” Arthur said, the shock of Merlin's touch burrowing under his skin. “There was no reason for you to like me.”
“Well, maybe not exactly then.” Merlin's lips quirked. “But knowing what I know now, I'm sure there must be a reason for that first outburst of yours.”
Arthur breathed in. “Bad dreams.”
Arthur knew Merlin wouldn't ask – wouldn't pry – so in spite of how hard it was to find the words, he made himself speak. “About the war.”
Merlin sat up and leant forwards. “You don't have to speak about that, not if it is too painful.”
“No, I think it's time for me to.” Arthur had thought he would never speak about this, not to anyone, that no one would understand. But that had, he felt now, been the wrong stance to take. “I know why I kept dreaming about it. I blamed myself for not being there to help my men. This has haunted me for quite a long time. But I was wrong to think that. Not because I don't care about my men any more. I do – My thoughts are with them every day. But because I have another task now and that is taking care of the people at home. That's my new mission and it's as important as the Spanish campaign ever was.”
Merlin curled his fingers around the back of Arthur's neck. “You can't do without a cause, can you?”
“That's all right.” Merlin's eyes gleamed. “I like you just as you are, Mr Pendragon.”
“I thought we'd decided to do away with formality--”
Merlin pulled him forwards and touched his lips to his. The suddenness of it, the warmth of it, the beauty of it put fissures in Arthur's heart, unmade him so that he would never be quite the same again. He shuddered and made a sound that was far too broken for his pride to come to terms with. But that didn't matter, for Merlin's mouth moved whisper-soft over his, rubbing at the catches of it, and Arthur leant into it, opening to the kiss, to a brush of tongues, to a nip of teeth.
Merlin's hands went into his hair, threading through it. They scraped down the back of Arthur's head, cupping his nape. They cradled the side of Arthur's face while his mouth opened for a succession of kisses that were as soft as they were heartbreaking.
Arthur's heart thrummed against his ribcage, bringing a flush to his face. He sighed a sigh that was more of a moan and went with it, his tongue curling around Merlin's. He hardened, felt the pull of it first in his lower belly and in his cock moments later. A rush swept through him and he wanted to kiss and kiss, breathe Merlin in, and never let go. But Merlin had had such an ordeal, his frame was shaking so, and he felt so fragile under Arthur's hands that Arthur couldn't go on. Panting, he drew back. He traced the gouges under Merlin's eyes and said, “This can wait.”
“But,” Merlin said, face pink and eyes wide, “I--”
“Don't tell me you're not exhausted.” Arthur had eyes to see and could pick out the telltale signs of Merlin's weakness, the shivers that weren't only of pleasure, the translucency of his skin, the tautness of his frame. “I would love to...” He moved his hand about, feeling heat at his throat. “But you need sleep more than you need me.”
“That is not true,” Merlin said, thumbing at Arthur's forehead. He dropped his gaze. “Besides...” He mumbled the rest.
“I'm afraid you'll change your mind, and well, carpe diem.”
Arthur chuckled. “I won't change my mind.” His mind was so made up, he was afraid of how deep into this he was already. “I hope you don't think me as fickle as that, because I'll have you know that I'm the opposite.”
“I believe you.” Merlin eased his body against the pillows. The strain was still there in his face, noticeable in the way his hand trembled, but he seemed willing to let his body rest. “Perhaps you're right.” He shifted and the move brought on a groan. “I need some recovery time.” He chewed on his lip. “But if I may ask something?”
“Don't go,” Merlin said. “Stay here tonight.”
“Yes.” Arthur circled the bed and sank down on the other side from Merlin. “I promise I will.”
Merlin woke when all the room was golden and the sun high. Rolling onto his side, he saw Arthur there. He was barely awake, with eyes a little reddened in the corners and pillow creases on his face. He had shed some of his clothing from yesterday and had only his breeches and shirt on. He'd done without sheets or blanket, too. “Hello,” he said, when he met Merlin's gaze.
“Hello.” A smile grew on Merlin's lips. “Good morning.”
He didn't know who moved first, if it was Arthur who leant forward or if it was Merlin who did. Their lips met in a kiss, soft but not deep, and Arthur thumbed his face and cupped his neck. His palm was such a source of warmth, it flooded Merlin and lit him up within. Smiling, Merlin brushed his thumb across Arthur's forehead and under Arthur's eyes. They rounded and shone quietly blue, with surprise, some well of emotion, underscoring Arthur's smile.
“I like this, sir,” Merlin said. “I like you.”
“Do you?” Arthur grinned and nuzzled Merlin's throat, covering it with butterfly pecks and little bites. As Merlin's flesh puckered in tiny goose bumps, Arthur's heartbeat raced; the air squeezed from his lungs in a dizzying rush. He hardened too, the pull of it alive his belly.
Nosing Merlin's jaw and the line of his throat that went from chin to the hollow between collarbones, his lips trailed along Merlin's skin. The ghosting of them on Merlin's neck was soft and gentle, slow paced. Merlin angled his head and bared himself to Arthur's touch.
It felt so good, it carved so much sensation in his flesh, that his bones softened and his core heated And then Arthur stamped a kiss at the base of Merlin's throat and skimmed his lips upwards in a motion that sent tremors under Merlin's skin. “God.”
“Shouldn't a rector not say that?” Arthur asked.
“Some mild swearing is allowed in circumstances like this.”
With a little nudge, Merlin found Arthur's lips and pulled him into a kiss that was deep and more than a little messy.
“I want you,” Merlin said, cupping Arthur's forearm and pulling him on top while clinging with all his might. Arthur repositioned himself with a groan, but he latched onto Merlin's mouth without fail and Merlin's chest became too small for breath.
He threaded his hands through Arthur's hair, the soft strands of it, combed it and combed it till he fancied he could tell the different locks apart. As he pushed into Merlin's embrace, Arthur was making broken noises, stifling them against Merlin's lips, a rumble of them coming from his chest.
Surging forward, Arthur slipped one leg between Merlin's and his thigh nudged Merlin's cock. Merlin's gut clenched tight with it. Lightning whipped up his back and he rocked upwards and against Arthur, against the hardness of him, Arthur's cock stiff and hot, taut against his belly.
A corresponding hankering bloomed in Merlin, and he bucked against Arthur, his breathing quickening, the air he was sucking in too thin for his labouring lungs. Need bristled like an ache low in his belly, deep in his mind. It made him latch onto Arthur's mouth, enjoying the heat of his tongue on his, pushing at it in a desperate game of which he didn't know the goal.
With both hands, he rucked Arthur's shirt up, baring his back notch by notch. When Arthur shoved forward, Merlin gave the garment one last pull and lifted it over his head. “Much better,” he said, sweeping his palms up Arthur's flanks, feeling the heaving warmth of them.
The motion bringing his face level with Merlin's again, Arthur's back muscles flexed. He zeroed in on his mouth. With a push of his tongue, he started another kiss.
By now Merlin needed more, his body already craving for climax. Seeking that elusive quantity of bliss, Merlin rolled them over. He slipped off his jacket, fumblingly undid the cravat still crumpled around his neck, and took off his tunic. They all fell by the bedside in a messy heap.
Finally, he and Arthur were chest to chest, with Arthur cradling him between his legs, his face flushed, his eyes full of wonder. “So,” he said, taking a breath, grinding the littlest bit against Merlin, until Merlin hurt with arousal and he had to grit his teeth against it, “you want it like this.”
Wanting to burrow in him, Merlin pressed his body against Arthur's. “Yes, for now.” He frowned. “Unless you were thinking of something different?”
"No,” said Arthur, smiling a dazed smile at him, his palms coming around Merlin's forearms. “No.”
Merlin ran his hands down Arthur's chest, palm flat, feeling the coarseness of the hair that grew there, thicker on the pectorals, curling golden around his nipples. When he was done with that, he unbuttoned Arthur's breeches and grabbed the fabric at the hips, pulling it down, inhaling hard when he saw Arthur's cock bob partly free. It wasn't all out yet, but its tip poked out, glans out, crown reddened and fat and leaking warmth. Arthur shimmied his hips and Merlin moved off him and yanked his trousers the rest of the way down.
When he was fully bared to Merlin's sight, Arthur sucked in a breath that hollowed his belly. Merlin palmed him, feeling the thickness of him, the heat that leaked off him. Arthur dampened, made a noise low in his throat, and when Merlin looked at him, there was something deeply vulnerable and completely unshielded in his eyes. There was a quality in that gaze that made Merlin fall deeper, as if from a height. It was a heady descent, one that felt both incredibly risky and safe.
“Arthur,” he said, unable to verbalise the revelation he'd stumbled upon.
Merlin fisted Arthur's cock, where it lay flat to his belly, rubbing at the underside. Arthur's face reddened and his mouth slackened and Merlin could see he wanted to say something, but the only sounds he made were barely chocked sobs. They came in a rhythm with Merlin's pulls, a little croaky, a little wild. When Merlin poked at the slit with his thumb, Arthur's hips gave a sharp jerk, a start stop motion. When he came, his shoulders hunched in in a defensive stance.
Then Arthur pulled him to him, burying his aftershocks in Merlin's neck, caressing his back as his breathing eased. “I wanted to do more,” he said in Merlin's ear, voice low and a notch raspy. “For you. I--”
“You can help me on, too.” Merlin wanted Arthur in whichever way, shape or form Arthur felt like sharing himself with. “Rub me or suck me or...”
Arthur flattened a hand on his shoulder blades and pulled his knees up so they cradled Merlin. “I want you--” Arthur's breath fanned on Merlin's neck. “--to fuck me.”
Merlin's breath stuttered in his ribcage and his muscles locked.
“I'm sorry,” Arthur said, dropping his hands away from Merlin's body. “That was coarse. I was in the army and that isn't always a place for the kind of talk one should reserve for the people one cares for. It was completely unwarranted and I--”
“No, it wasn't what you said.” Merlin's heart beat fast in his ears. “It's how much I want to.”
“Really?” Arthur's chest filled under Merlin's; his arms went round him.
“Yes.” Merlin leant back and sought Arthur's eyes. “I think I'm quite irredeemably mad about you and it might be very sappy and ungentlemanlike but I want you quite fiercely.”
“Let us, then.”
Merlin shuffled off the bed and pushed his breeches down. He knew he had Arthur's eyes on him when he crossed to the dressing table. His skin burnt with the awareness of it. But he didn't wish to hide. He enjoyed the intentness of Arthur's gaze, the fire in it.
In spite of how heavy his cock felt now, he didn't hurry, but rather made himself go slow about his business. There was a beauty to the anticipation of sex with Arthur, a lure, and he meant to taste it till his body forced his hand and he gave in to need.
Dropping the glass bottle on the bed, he wedged himself between the knees Arthur spread for him. Arthur was soft now, his prick still smeared with the dregs of his come, nestled to one side. Merlin ignored it. Arthur was sure to be too sensitive right about now.
Instead, he stroked his hands along the length of Arthur's flanks and upper thighs. Arthur settled into the caress, his body still lax with orgasm, a small sigh on his lips that yet made Merlin's pulse speed up. Merlin pressed at the skin behind Arthur's balls. It was taut and hot. Arthur swallowed. Merlin could see the workings of it, his Adam's apple going for a bob. When Arthur pushed back, Merlin pressed inside and loosened him up and Arthur shuddered and planted his feet wider on the mattress.
The lotion burned Merlin's own skin and he was leaking by now too, which he supposed made things easier, slicker.
Arthur moistened his lips and said, “What are you waiting for?”
“Nothing,” Merlin said, finding hard to say the words, any word, because even breathing hurt. “Nothing.”
Eyes shut, he eased in. Arthur had a warmth and tightness to him that cracked at the tapestry of his skin in such a way he was afraid he might shatter, the component parts of him scattering to the four winds. Braced over Arthur, he breathed in and out, outwaiting the shivers chasing each other up his spine. When they eased, he moved, rolling into Arthur in deep slow strokes. Arthur clutched at him, pulling him forward, and into him by the haunches, by the buttocks.
Merlin couldn't help it. He moaned and kissed Arthur in time with his thrusts, open and raw, licking into his mouth and rubbing at it, off centre and off kilter, getting bitefuls of chin every now and then, or the folds of skin stretching at the corners of Arthur's mouth.
Something about it, about the friction and the pressure, made Merlin's chest seize. Feeling swept through him in one big unknown wave, one that seemed to want to shape him anew. He snapped his hips at a faster pace then, one he wasn't master of, as Arthur clutched at him. He levered off, then back in, and again and again.
“Arthur,” Merlin said, and Arthur curled his legs around him and jostled him forward. At that, Merlin could do nothing but let his lower body snap forward in a couple of uneven strokes. And then he couldn't support himself any longer, couldn't rein it in any longer.
He hunched over Arthur; spasms took him and he cried out, burying the sound in the hollow of Arthur's throat, shaking and shaking, until he became aware of the soothing sweeps of Arthur's hand on his back. “Easy, easy.” And then Merlin turned his head and laid it on Arthur's shoulder, taking Arthur's hand and lacing their fingers together.
The Christmas tree stood in the great salon and glimmered bright with light and decorations. Small glass baubles hung from the outer branches, gold chains went round it, gingerbread figures poked out from the spaces between the branches, and candles perched on the rim of the boughs. Long pale strands of icicle shaped ornaments circled it, and a little angel with outspread golden wings sat at its tip. Next to the tree stood the fireplace with its blazing flames. Ribboned packets littered a table clothed in red velvet and decked with white china.
Merlin made his way through the throngs that crowded the room, and seeing as Arthur had a circle of people round him, he walked up to Morgana. “Happy Christmas, Miss Pendragon.” Then lower he added, “And good Yule.”
Morgana put down her wassail cup and said, “I think you should call me Morgana, Merlin.” She eyed her brother. “We're nearly family.”
Merlin made wild eyes eyes at her. “I--”
“He didn't tell me,” she said, threading an arm through his and taking him for a walk around the room. “If that's what you're wondering. Arthur's private.” Her eyes glowed. “No, no, I guessed.”
“I see you're doing well with your magic.”
“Oh, yes,” Morgana said, taking him for a spin in the opposite direction, “now that I know it's for something and not only dreams of gloom and doom, I feel like I'm making much more progress.”
Merlin watched the people in the room, the ones Morgana had saved. They gathered in clusters, laughing and chattering together. Merlin knew some of them to be his parishioners – Freya Waters was there with her young charge and so was Mrs Alice Nurse, but some were new faces, faces of the people who'd disappeared over the preceding months and years. “It's really done something. It's reunited so many people, freed them from a harsh yoke.”
Morgana squeezed her arm. “Without you, I couldn't have achieved any of that.”
“I think your powers are quite strong,” Merlin told her.
“They're nothing compared to yours.” Morgana's magic crackled across his skin. “But then again they're a part of me and I'm learning not to be afraid of them.”
Merlin stopped their pacing. “You know if you ever need a helping hand, or the advice of someone who's been through that themselves, you can always pay me a visit.”
“Thank you.” Morgana's smile was soft. “Though I have a friend in Alice, I know how to value your assistance.”
New guests appeared in the doorway. Even without the butler's announcement, Merlin could tell who they were. Lancelot stood tall and dapper, his arm around Miss Smith, radiant in winter muslins.
“What's he doing here?” Merlin asked, a smile on his face.
Morgana leant closer. “I think you may easily guess.”
Considering that Lancelot and Miss Smith strolled into the room hand in hand, Merlin could safely sat that he could. “He's come to propose.”
“Indeed.” Morgana acknowledged that with a nod. “Of course dear Gwen maintains that Lancelot meant to visit you too, but you know how silly matters of the heart make us.”
“Yes.” Lancelot had always spoken of Miss Smith with such warmth, Merlin didn't doubt he had come primarily for her. “That's true.”
Lancelot and Gwen came over and greeted both Merlin and Morgana. While Morgana congratulated Gwen and started discussing the type of marriage ceremony the latter wished to have, Merlin turned to his friend. “Well, congratulations.”
Lancelot ducked his head. “Thank you, my friend. I feel I'm indeed blessed.”
“I knew you would do that sooner or later.”
Lancelot beamed. “Well, I'm graduating after Christmas and my prospects are opening up. I thought there was no time like the present for me to propose to Miss Smith.”
“I'm sure she's enthusiastic as you are.” Merlin couldn't help but tease Lancelot a little.
“She was so kind as to say yes,” Lancelot said, loosening the fabric at his collar. “And that's all I could really ask for.”
“I'm truly glad for the two of you, you know.”
Lancelot put a hand on his shoulder. “Of course I've also come to check on you. Your letters really worried me, with the frequent mention of magic in Camelot.”
“Oh, yes, that.”
Lancelot said, “You should tell me what that was all about.”
“Well, it's complicated...”
Just a second after Merlin had finished his tale of the Sidhe, Miss Waters rang a spoon on her glass and made an announcement. “Uh, uh,” she said, “I just wanted your attention for a minute. I know you're all busy talking to your friends and families, but I believe this is quite important. Some of us have been reunited with their dear ones. Some of us have found their way back to their homes after a long, long absence. I think that ought to be celebrated.” She paused and her warm gaze embraced everyone in the room. “I've thought and thought about a suitable way in which to do that and then Thomas--” She nudged him forward. “--Thomas suggested we should sing a song. I said there was nothing like music to offer thanks for our good fortune. So Thomas is going to sing for you, a small song of thanks.”
The Pendragons guests formed a circle round Thomas, and chest stuck out, he began to sing, a sweet swelling melody. The string quartet the Pendragons had hired joined in and accompanied him.
With his group having moved closer to the boy to listen, Arthur made eyes at Merlin, and signalled for him to follow him outside, on the balcony.
They leant together against the stone parapet, their shoulders brushing, the moon, bright and clear, shining its light upon them. “I hope you weren't too intent on the music.”
“No,” Merlin said, bumping shoulders with Arthur. “It's a very nice thought, but I'd rather be here with you.”
“In spite of the cold?”
Snow carpeted the garden, it was true, and the air had a crisp bite to it. But Merlin wanted to stay with Arthur, and while he could do so in the midst of the salon, he wished they could be alone awhile. His eyes glowed gold and a blanket of warmth came upon them.
Arthur's eyes grew big and then he smiled. “You did something. It's... It's so warm!”
Merlin sniggered. “Yes, I'm afraid I worked some magic.”
“You,” Arthur said, covering his palm with his, “are quite something, Merlin, did you know?”
“It depends on what kind of something you mean?” Merlin turned his head, edged forward and cocked his head.
“Something quite special,” Arthur said. “A unique man I'm proud to call my partner.”
Merlin couldn't quite refrain. He kissed Arthur.
Arthur's mouth opened under his with a surprised sound and he deepened the kiss from a mere brush to a touch of tongues. “You like me when I'm lavish in my praise of you, don't you?”
Merlin dimpled. “Well, it does things to me.”
“Well then I'll say you're also strange, magic and marvellous.”
Merlin gave a peck to Arthur's lips and snow fell down in big flakes that settled over everything.
Arthur looked up and Merlin could see the delight shining in his eyes. “Did you just make it snow, Merlin?”
“Maybe.” A huge smile split Merlin's face. “Perhaps.”
“You're also very, very soft in the brain.”
“Oh shut up,” Merlin said, and instead of elbowing Arthur in the ribs as he'd meant to, he took his hand.