Morgana turned away from the high, barred window and rubbed her arms, chilled and bare. She was still wearing the fine silk gown she'd put on to go to Uther, hoping to blunt his temper by looking most like what he wanted her to be: demure and ornamental. It had been a waste of time, and useless, and the only thing she'd been able to do. Outside they were putting up the stake.
Arthur was sitting in the dirty straw at the very limit of his chains, which kept him a few inches too far away to touch Merlin's limp body. In the scraps of moonlight and torchlight, the bruises and bloodstains were hidden, but she could still see them reflected in the rigid misery of Arthur's face. His head came up as the bells rang the hour, and he stood as the guard's footsteps came around again.
"Has my father—" Arthur said, so much tense, restrained hope in his voice it made her look away again, because whatever the guard was here for, it wasn't to bring them mercy from Uther.
"No, sire; no word," the guard said.
Then Arthur said, "What are you doing?" and his chains grated. Morgana turned around: the guard had a wooden cudgel, and he was raising it over Merlin.
"I'm to give him a knock, every hour," the guard said.
"You can't be serious!" Arthur snarled.
"King's orders, sire, not to let him wake."
"He hardly looks in any danger of waking," Morgana said, waving a hand at Merlin. The shackle dragged painfully against her wrist. "Have you no one you care for in the town? No one whom he saved, yesterday?"
"Two little ones, my lady, and their mother," the guard said. "But the king's the king."
She turned her back, so she didn’t have to watch.
"You're going to kill him!" Arthur said. His chains scraped angrily against the stone, painful to hear, and then still worse came the meaty thump of wood hitting flesh. Morgana flinched. Arthur stopped trying to pull and stood there panting; his shoulders were trembling. "I will remember this," he said, and there was something cold and dangerous in his voice.
The guard hesitated and offered, "It’d be more of a kindness if he didn't wake for the fire, seems like." Then he let himself out, and the key turned in the lock once more.
Arthur stood there another silent while, very still, then he sat back down on the floor, moving slowly as an old man, to watch Merlin's body again.
"Is he," Morgana said, and swallowed. "Is he breathing?"
"Yes," Arthur said, although it sounded more like he was determined for it to be so, than that he knew.
She looked outside. It was still full dark, she thought, though the torches were dazzling her eyes. They hadn't been down here very long yet, surely. She bit her lip. If the guard kept banging Merlin's skull about all night, he wouldn't wake, for the fire or ever again. "Arthur," she said, low. "When half the hour is gone—" He looked up at her. "When half the hour is gone, we should call the guard and ask for water. Say I'm feeling faint. Maybe if we throw it in Merlin's face, it'll rouse him."
"To do what?" Arthur said, bitterly. "Burn to death slowly?"
"What else are we going to do from in here?" Morgana said. "He's the only one who has a chance of saving himself."
"Morgana, look at him," Arthur said. His voice was raw. "He has no chance of doing anything. He's—" He stopped, and she heard him swallow. After a moment he said, "It's worth trying."
They waited, counting breaths, and then she sat down and Arthur called the guard. "Guard!" he roared, with no answer, and finally pulled off his boot and threw it at the door, with a thump, just as it opened.
"Oh!" Gwen said, jerking back. "You gave me a turn."
"Gwen!" Morgana said, jumping to her feet. Gwen gave her a hasty, anxious smile, and hurried to Arthur with the keys. "What did you do about the guard?" Morgana asked her, as Gwen got her shackles open after; Arthur was already kneeling by Merlin's side, touching him.
"Gaius gave me some of your sleeping draught, and Katharine from the kitchens let me bring the guard down his food," Gwen said, and gave Arthur the keys; he unlocked Merlin's shackles, and lifted him carefully from the floor.
"Come on," Arthur said, and they went outside: the dungeons were quiet, and the guard face down on the table and snoring thickly. Morgana took his knife and sword away, first, and she cut up her skirts to make strips to tie him with, while Arthur wrestled him out of his mail and put it on himself.
He dumped the guard back into their cell, securely bound and gagged. "How long do we have?" Morgana asked, tying the slashed skirts tight around her ankles, and binding them closed around her knee and thigh with more strips.
"Not half an hour," Arthur said, locking the door, and he turned to Gwen. "There's a sewer tunnel that comes out through the city walls. If you go out the northern gate, and turn right—" she nodded. “A way on beyond it, there's a stable. There should be one or two horses there, stabled for the relay riders. If you can get at least one of them—"
"I can manage horses," Gwen said.
"The horses won't be the worst trouble," Arthur said. "Before you go into the stable, you must watch the men on the wall. If they don't go into the tower, you can't even try; they'll see you at once, and it's in easy bowshot. You have to wait until they're inside, and get out again quickly."
"Bowshot?" Morgana said. "Arthur—"
"I don't mind, my lady," Gwen said steadily. "I knew what I was risking when I came."
Arthur gripped her shoulder. Gwen gave them a quick smile, and threw an anxious look at Merlin, a silent heap on the guard's pallet where Arthur had laid him. The wounds had made a gruesome mask of blood and straw matted to the side of his face, and black trickles had dried all around his mouth and down his neck, stark in the torchlight against his pallid skin.
"He'll be fine," Arthur said. "Go on, now."
Gwen nodded and squeezed Morgana's hand, then she was darting up the stairway. Arthur picked up the guard's sword, then hesitated and held it out to her. Morgana blinked at him. He looked disgruntled for a moment. "If we're attacked, don't try anything fancy. Just hold them off until I can put Merlin down and take the sword."
She would have had something to say to that, under other circumstances that didn't involve desperate escapes in the middle of the night, and Merlin's being half-dead for having dared to save them all from burning, the way Uther meant to burn him. Tonight, though, she only took the sword and belted it on, and made sure it was loose and easy in the sheath. Arthur hefted Merlin up in his arms, cradled like a child, and led the way deeper into the dungeon vaults.
Gwen stopped inside the walls, near the gate, and looked up: from this side she could see the men better, walking inside the battlements; three or four of them, perhaps. The night wasn't too cold, though she could just see her breath hang white in the air, and they wouldn't be as tempted to go inside and linger. She looked back at the castle, and tried to guess at the minutes, slipping away one after another, and then she turned down a lane to one of the small taverns near the walls.
"What can I get you, mistress," the barkeep said, wiping mugs with a rag; she'd never seen him before, and hoped he didn't know her face.
"My man's up on the wall, tonight," she said. "With a cold in his head, and he's meant to walk it for hours—could you send a boy up with a jug of hot mead, for him and the others to drink in the tower?"
"Sixpence," he said, and when she dug the coins out from her purse, shouted for his boy, handing him the jug and a cup. "And mind you, if they don't come down here after their shift and tell me my custom was good, I'll know who drank it," he added to the boy.
"I won't drink their mead!" the boy said, and ducked the swat, gave Gwen a wink and darted out.
"Thanks, that's a worry lifted," she said, smiling at the barkeep, and slipped out: she hid in some shadows, and saw the boy go running up the stairs to the guards' tower. In a few minutes, the men one after another all began drifting straight to the tower like flies into a honeytrap.
She smiled and gave the guards on the gate a wave as she went through, with her basket on her arm; soon as she was out of torchlight she ran straight for the little stable, right where Arthur had said it would be. The guards on the wall had all vanished, and in an instant she was inside: two horses, dark-eyed and whuffling at her interestedly, their gear neatly stowed over the stall partitions.
She saddled and bridled them, murmuring low and giving them handfuls of oats to keep them quiet, all the tricks from managing them she'd learned at her father's forge, and then she put her head out of the stable. The battlements were still deserted and the tower lit. She led the horses out of the stable and right up to the wall, where they'd be out of sight from anyone walking above, unless they peered straight down over the edge.
She didn't know just where the sewer would come out, but before she reached it, she heard Morgana calling softly, "Gwen—Gwen, are you there?" and met her along the wall: her face was smudged with dirt, and her ragged skirts even more of a ruin, stained black to the knees, as though she'd fallen. "Oh, bless you," Morgana said, seeing the horses, and they each took one to hurry back.
Arthur was still in the passageway which came out five feet up from the ground, with Merlin in his arms: Morgana mounted up, and he lowered Merlin down to her, slowly. As he jumped down himself after, the great bell began to clang madly behind them.
It was a nightmarish ride: struggling to keep Merlin on in front of him with only one hand for the reins; Morgana and Gwen a murky shadow and drumming hooves up ahead; and barely the weakest occasional breath against his throat to let him know that Merlin was still alive, could still be saved.
Arthur had to pace his horse, let the poor animal drop to a walk every so often; all the while his back itched already feeling the crossbow bolts. The guards would waste a little time searching the dungeons, the castle, the town; but his father knew all the secret passages as well as Arthur did. His father had shown him the one they'd used. It wouldn't be long.
"Arthur," Morgana said, as they pulled up to let the horses drink a little at a stream, "your horse will founder if we keep on like this; you're in mail, and Merlin's not small. Give him to me, and let Gwen shift over to you."
"You won't be able to hold him on," Arthur said grimly; it was all he could do, and Merlin outweighed her.
"We'll strap him on to me," Morgana said. "I'll ride over the withers, and leave him in the saddle."
Arthur hated to do it; the only thing that had given him comfort was seeing Gwen and Morgana up ahead of him and knowing if the worst happened, he could turn and hold the men off, long enough for Morgana and Gwen to get away. But get away to where, and to what end—thoughts he'd pushed away; all that had mattered so far was to get Merlin away, if it could be done. But they'd achieved that much, and now he had to consider not only Merlin, but all three of them. Two women alone on the road could come to worse grief even than Merlin had at the hands of his father's guards, and there was nowhere for them to go.
He shut his eyes a moment, and then he said quietly, "Morgana, if you are taken with him, can you give him the mercy blow?" He saw her and Guinevere both swallow, and then she said, low, "Yes. Instead of seeing him burn, or back in that— Yes."
He nodded. "I won't stop while I have Gwen with me," he said. "My father may imprison you again, but if you tell him that I will return for his judgment, once I have taken her to safety, I think he will not—be more harsh."
"I didn't come so I could make things worse," Gwen said.
"If it weren't for you, all three of us would be rotting in a cell, waiting to watch Merlin die," Arthur said. "We will have no less care for you than you for us, and Merlin would not thank us for letting you get killed." He shook his head, when she would have protested more. "We haven't time to argue. We ride on another ten minutes, then we'll get off the road and make the change while we let the horses rest."
He counted the time by how long it took him to have to change which hand held Merlin on, how many times he had to do so as they pressed the horses for another stretch; then he led them off onto a deer track, and deep into the trees. Behind him, Morgana paused her horse to pick threads of frayed silk off the bushes, where her torn skirts had caught. Gwen immediately understood the idea and slid down and dragged a couple of tree branches over the ground: not much, but at least any immediate pursuers would be working in the dark as well.
He led them on a long while, at the slow plodding pace required to work through the underbrush, and finally stopped beneath an old oak and slid down, holding Merlin in place as he did.
Morgana climbed up in his place while Gwen held the other horse. "They'll be expecting us to go for Ealdor," Morgana said, low, as they got Merlin strapped onto her.
Arthur nodded tightly. "We'll have to stay off the road. They'll send fast messengers ahead, try and cut us off before we reach the border."
"Won't they just—go there and wait for us?" Gwen ventured.
"My father can't send a party of men into Cenred's kingdom, he'd be risking a war," Arthur said. He finished tightening the strap, and took some strips Gwen cut off the bottom of her skirt to tie Merlin's wrists together in front of Morgana's waist. "All right?" he asked, looking up at her, and she nodded. "We'd better continue as long as we can, tonight, and stop and rest during the day, before we reach the border."
They were riding into Ealdor, down the dusty track between the village huts; Arthur was saying something she couldn't quite hear, and then the doors of a barn were bursting open, men spilling out of a couple of the huts, swords all around them—they were dragging her and Merlin down, and as they cut the strap and drew her away, a sword rose—
Morgana jerked awake gasping and shuddering for breath, her heart thrumming against her breastbone. "My lady?" Gwen said, softly, and Arthur raised his head: he was sitting at the edge of their clearing, the sword bared in his hand and Merlin wrapped in his cloak, tucked up against his side on a bed of dry leaves.
"They are in Ealdor," Morgana said. "They're in Ealdor, waiting for us. They'll kill Merlin then and there, and the rest of us—"
Arthur stared at her. "You're having another bad dream," he said.
"My bad dreams come true when they're ignored," Morgana snapped, bitterly. "Like a great fire, beginning in too much dry straw laid up for winter, and neither you or Uther would listen—"
"My lady, here," Gwen said gently, picking Morgana's cloak up off the ground and wrapping it around her. "It'll be all right—"
"It won't be all right if we go to Ealdor," Morgana said. "We must find another place."
"There isn't another place," Arthur said, low, and she looked at him. "Merlin needs rest, and physic. We can't keep carrying him around like this. Bad enough it's been this long." He was silent a moment. "We'll circle round Ealdor," he said finally. "It's the wise thing to do, anyway."
"Anyway, meaning if I'm a lunatic and making it all up," Morgana noted in some irritation.
"Yes, fine, or having a bad dream instead of seeing the future," Arthur snapped. "Either way. We'll circle around, make a small camp in the woods, and then go into the village after dark. I would expect my father to have a spy watching, so it'll be just as well."
They made it across the border in relative ease: Arthur knew the regular patrols, and there were no others. Morgana gave him a pointed look as all the things that made his hand start for the sword turned out to be deer, or rabbits, instead of the armed men that should have been beating the woods for them. Arthur gave her a glare, but he took the horses even wider around Ealdor, a good three miles from the village, and to make the last approach, he stopped and dismounted.
"Gwen, you go up with Merlin," he said. "Just hold him on. Morgana, I want you to lead the horses, and try and keep them slow and quiet. I want you to only just barely keep me in sight. If you hear me shout, or say anything, you'll need to run for it."
She nodded and took the reins. Arthur drew the sword, took a thick branch from the ground for his other hand in place of a shield, and moved off ahead into the trees, fast and half-crouched, his eyes intent. It was—irritating to watch how quickly and well he could go: a reminder of the sort of thing that one could be capable of if you spent most of your time hunting and playing with swords instead of penned up doing embroidery and fighting off visions. She turned her attention to the horses, murmuring to them softly, and after Arthur was only a tiny occasional flash of red in the thicket, she slowly led them on after him.
He came back towards them after an hour, and stopped the horses: with a hand to his lips, he pointed back the way they'd come, and took one of the horses to lead back deeper into the woods.
"They're there," he said grimly and very quiet. "I saw two guardsmen getting water from a stream."
"I hate to tell you both this," Gwen said softly, "but I think Merlin has a fever."
Arthur didn't curse, but he very clearly wanted to, turning away, his shoulders braced stiff.
"Arthur," Morgana said, "Hunith had a cellar, with a hidden door beneath her bed. If we can just sneak Merlin into the village and hide him there—"
He nodded after a moment. "I'll take him in alone, tonight," he said. "No arguing," he added. "You can't carry him, and I can."
Until then, they all huddled in their cloaks and tried to keep warm, Merlin shivering and murmuring oddly. Arthur gathered him into his arms and wrapped around him, and after a moment Gwen said, "I—I don't mean to be forward, but—" and sat down next to Arthur so she could share her cloak with both of them. Morgana sat down on Arthur's other side with hers, and after a little while she even slept.
Gwen sat up as Arthur's shoulder shifted under her cheek. He was easing out from between her and Morgana, whose head was tipped back against the tree, her face pale and still as a carved statue in the moonlight. "Stay close to her," Arthur whispered, and Gwen nodded and edged into the warm space Arthur had left.
He lifted Merlin and slipped away into the dark, branches crackling softly. Gwen curled in closer to Morgana and said a quiet prayer for their safety; it felt very cold and dark and terrible in the woods, with men out there who wanted to catch and hurt them: like being a small mouse, hunted by owls.
There had been no sense in worrying when it had been perfectly obvious what needed doing, and even if it was likely to end badly, you'd just had to do it. Sitting in the woods shivering with nothing to do, on the other hand, called for endless worrying. Gwen couldn't help wondering what they were going to do if Arthur was caught; and then after that, she couldn't help wondering what they would do if he wasn't.
She supposed she could stay in Ealdor, once the soldiers left. Merlin's mum was very sweet, and the house was big enough—she could probably use some company, and some help. It wouldn't be a bad life, really, and to be perfectly honest, Gwen was quite ready to be done with being thrown in prison herself, or having her friends thrown into it, or bitten half to death by monsters. A simple village on the outskirts, without knights or nobles poking in—she wouldn't mind it at all.
Arthur would go back to Camelot, of course. Gwen hoped the king would get over being angry with him, after a while, but horridly, she thought that maybe he wouldn't. She couldn't imagine what it would be like, to have a father who'd put you in prison—who'd kill your friends. Her father—she swallowed a little. Her father hadn't been a wise man, but Gwen had never doubted for an instant, all her life, that he would've walked barefoot on glass to save her a moment's heartbreak.
It didn't matter, though; Arthur would go back anyway, and take whatever his father did to him. But Morgana—Gwen bit her lip, and looked at Morgana, who'd eased closer and rested her dark head against her shoulder. Morgana was so brave, but so impatient; Gwen couldn't see her happy in Ealdor, in a life where there wasn't any justice—only what the seasons and the weather gave you, and strangers didn't manage to take. But if she went back, what the king might do to her—
Morgana stirred and raised her head. "Do you hear something?" she murmured, and Gwen went very still, listening; then she heard Arthur whispering, "Gwen? Morgana?" Morgana sat up and waved a hand, and he came back into their little hollow.
"Were you able to get Merlin to Hunith?" Morgana asked, while Gwen dug out the waterskin.
Arthur shook his head. "There are men staying in the house with her. I took him to Elizabeth, Matthew's widow; she had some warm clothing she could use for him, and she's some skill in nursing." He drank deeply and wiped his mouth. "She said there are at least twelve guardsmen. They've occupied the entire village, and they beat a couple of the men who tried to resist," he said. "Cenred must respond to this. I have no idea what my father is thinking."
"Don't you?" Morgana said, heavy with irony.
"He is not a mindless ogre, Morgana, whatever you may think," Arthur snapped. "I grant you he won't listen to reason where magic is concerned, but he wouldn't pursue the execution of any criminal at the cost of a war."
"He might, if—" Gwen ventured, tentatively, and they looked at her. "—if the sorcerer had taken away those he loves most. I mean," she added, "not that Merlin took either of you, exactly, but you quarrelled with Uther over him, first, and now you've run away for him. So I suppose, from his perspective, it's much the same."
"Uther forced us into this," Morgana said.
Gwen shrugged helplessly. "I'm not saying he's right. But that doesn't mean it hasn't hurt him."
"Whatever the explanation," Arthur said, "we must avoid any confrontation. I didn't save Merlin to start a war that will mean hundreds of deaths on both sides."
"What can we do?" Morgana said. "Do we just keep hiding here until they give up and leave?"
Arthur said, "You both will. I'm going to take one of the horses and go around to the border with Northumbria, and surrender to the garrison there—"
"What?" Morgana said.
"I'll tell them the rest of you went on to Gwynedd," Arthur said. "My father will believe it, sorcery isn't illegal there, so it's a sensible place. Once he knows that, he should call back the men here, and the two of you can stay in Ealdor until—until he calms down and I can persuade him to forgive you."
"So that would be after he's had you flogged to death?" Morgana said. "Arthur, if you go back this soon, alone, after successfully getting us all away, he'll start by being even more angry than he already is. In a temper he will do things he has the decency to regret, after; you know that—"
"What else would you have me do, Morgana?" Arthur snapped. "Wait until Cenred notices Camelot has invaded his land?"
"But—" Gwen said, "Arthur, would he believe that you sent us on to Gwynedd, alone?" Arthur paused, and looked at her. "It would be at least another two days travelling to reach there, and another to come back—three, if you got us settled, somewhere in safety."
Arthur let his head hang. After a moment he said, "All right. Tomorrow, we stay hidden. The day after, I'll go."
Arthur jerked awake a little after dawn to Morgana's crying out, "No—no!" He grabbed for the sword unsheathed by his side, looking around, but there was no one: Gwen was trying to shake Morgana awake. Arthur threw himself across the distance to clap a hand over her mouth, and Morgana twisted and fought in his hands and stared at him in horror when her eyes finally flew open.
She gripped his arm like a vise, dragging it away from her mouth. "They found our trail on the other side of the border."
"Dammit!" Arthur said. He rubbed his forehead. "All right, we're going to have to move—"
"No!" Morgana said. "You don't understand. They think we got here before them. They think we're hidden in the village already. They're going to start killing the villagers until they surrender us."
"No," Arthur said flatly. "No, there is no—guards of Camelot would not murder innocent men and women—"
"They will slaughter everyone!" Morgana screamed at him, and shook Gwen off her. "They'll kill Hunith; Arthur, I saw her die! I saw—" She stopped on a dry sob, and covered her mouth with her hands.
"When?" Gwen said. "Morgana, when did it happen?"
She turned and looked wildly at Gwen. "I—I don't—"
"Did you see where the sun was, in your vision?" Gwen asked.
Morgana paused, breathed deep. In a calmer voice she said, "The sun—wasn't yet overhead. It wasn't early, but—before noon. Not more than three hours."
Arthur turned away from them and rubbed his face with his hands. He didn't know what the hell to make of Morgana suddenly claiming she could see the future, and still less what to make of her claim being true. It was as though the whole world was suddenly bursting at the seams with magic he'd never seen before—Merlin, Morgana—
And none of it, in the end, made any difference to what was right. "I can't let this happen," he said. He turned back. "Morgana, you and Gwen take the horses—"
"We're not leaving you!" Morgana said.
"What good do you expect it to do for you to come?" Arthur shouted. "Do you want to watch Merlin die in person?" Morgana went white, and flinched back from him.
"Arthur, you wouldn't," Gwen said, and he felt his stomach twist at the betrayal in her voice.
"What do you think Merlin would have us do?" Arthur said, bitterly. "Let his whole village be killed—or half a dozen of them, before Elizabeth cannot bear it anymore, and hands him over herself?"
"They won't believe you that we're not there, either," Morgana said. "Are you ready to hand Gwen over, too? Watch both of them die, and afterwards we get carted back to Camelot to be scolded like children who've misused their toys, and so had them taken away? I won't. I won't let you."
Arthur snapped at her, "Give me a damned alternative, then!"
"We fight," Morgana said, raising her chin. "The villagers will rise up with us; together we can—"
"Splendid," Arthur said bitterly. "Fight, against more than a dozen of the guard of Camelot."
"The villagers will help, if we begin. And you and I have an advantage, they won't want to hurt us—"
"And you propose that we use that advantage to kill them. Men I have trained and led, men who have risked their lives for your protection, for mine, for the realm—"
"Men who want to kill Merlin and Gwen! Men who are about to murder innocent villagers and start a war!" Morgana shouted at him. "Give me the sword, if you won't use it; and if you won't, I'll go and fight them with a rake, or a shovel, or my bare hands if I have to—"
Arthur jerked away from her, desperately trying to think. "No," he said, harshly. "No. I will neither slaughter my own men, nor see them do this." He held a hand out, stopping Morgana's protest. "We have to get Merlin, first; then we must scatter their horses, and let them see us ride away. They will pursue us instead of staying."
"But I thought—if Merlin shouldn't be moved—" Gwen said tentatively.
"He'll have better odds than if we leave him to be executed on the spot," Arthur said, "and all we risk will be our own lives, not theirs, or a war."
Morgana wished desperately for a dagger, or a sword; but at least they were doing something different, something that she hadn't seen in a dream that ended with a dozen ashen corpses all around her. Gwen's dark eyes clouded and Merlin's head rolling loose while Arthur shouted and strained against the hands of half a dozen men, something in him broken forever by this failure. She wanted to run all the way back at Camelot to scream at Uther, who saw only himself balked and denied, who would make all of them bloody sacrifices to his pride and to his hate.
Arthur turned, the sword unsheathed in his hand, and pointed at a small house back from the main village lane; Elizabeth with her hair tied in a kerchief was working in the garden, hoeing. Morgana nodded, and then he crouched low and went after the horses, penned into a small paddock at the end of the village. Morgana looked at Gwen. "Are you sure you won't stay back?" she whispered.
Gwen only smiled at her, so very brave, and shook her head. They crept quietly to the field's edge, and stood up where the forest ended: Morgana had a horse-blanket wrapped around her waist, to hide her tattered skirt, and Arthur's shirt over her own bodice; they walked into the field as though they belonged, and Elizabeth raised her head and her eyes widened. In the lane, three men in plain cloaks were sitting, watchful and out of place.
"Show no surprise," Morgana said, whispering. "We must bring Merlin out of your house into this field, together; we have to leave at once. How is he?"
"The fever—" Elizabeth began, but suddenly there was a shout, and a ringing clash of metal, and Morgana jerked her head up: the men in the lane were running towards the horse paddock.
"Go! Get Merlin!" Morgana told Gwen, and she snatched the hoe out of Elizabeth's hand and ran for it.
Arthur was fighting in the open ground before the paddock, as Morgana had never seen him fight before—no tournament style, nor the way he'd dealt with the brigands. He was surrounded by six guardsmen, all of them wary and armed with shortswords and cudgels, like a great stag circled round by wolves snapping—and he was winning. The sword in one hand and a rake handle in the other, and he had one man down already, groaning around his belly; as Morgana watched, he swept the legs out from under another, and with the same movement smashed another man's sword out of his hands.
But the three guards from the lane were racing to join the others, and Arthur wasn't striking to kill. Even as she came up behind them, one man dropped his sword and just flung himself bodily onto Arthur's back. Arthur threw himself backwards against the wall of the barn and dislodged him, but another of the guards, a big man with a heavy oak cudgel, stepped in closer and knocked Arthur's legs out from under him.
Arthur rolled swiftly as he fell, regaining his feet, but he'd lost the rake handle; the three guards from the lane were nearly on him, and Morgana threw herself forward and jammed the hoe between the legs of the last man. She jerked back on it and tripped him with the head, so he fell into one of his fellows, and she smashed the handle's end against the temple of the third man as he turned towards her. She wasn't going to hold back against men willing to commit murder, although she swallowed as blood spurted from his nose and he fell to the earth before her.
"Run!" Arthur shouted at her. "Go for the horses, Morgana, run!"
"You can't fight them all alone!" she said, and snatched the sword away from the man she'd just hit; just in time to meet another man's blade descending. It landed against hers hard, but she angled her blade away, as her father had taught her, so the momentum carried it away, and smashed her elbow up into the man's throat.
The villagers were coming out of their houses and gardens, uncertainly, many of the men gripping rakes and pitchforks. "Help us!" Morgana called, recognizing faces. "Anton! Richard—"
"Dammit, Morgana!" Arthur yelled at her, forcing two of the guards back, sweeping his blade wide to drive the others clear.
"Sire," a voice called, and Morgana looked and saw a sergeant, with a crossbow, and it was aimed—it was aimed at her. "Sire, don't step in front of her, or I'll take the shot. Drop your sword."
"Corthe, you would not dare," Arthur said.
"I'd rather not, sire," the sergeant said, "but the king gave orders: if you yield, we spare the women; if we have to bring you down, we don't take risks for anything more."
"Don't!" Morgana snapped. "Arthur, don't—"
Arthur said, after a moment, "You'll spare them both," in a breaking voice.
"Yes, sire," Corthe said.
"But Uther won't!" Morgana said. "Arthur, this is just a trick to get us back! He wouldn't have told them to kill me—"
Arthur looked at Corthe, and then he said, "Yes. He would have—to make sure they took me alive." And he opened his hand, and let the blade slide to the ground, his face utterly bleak.
"Damn you!" Morgana said, and threw herself at the men anyway; but they seized her from both sides and wrenched the sword from her hands. They were shoving Arthur to his knees and stripping the mail off him, leaving him naked to the waist, and binding his hands roughly behind him.
"Sorry, sire," she heard them muttering, but they were implacable, dragging them out into the lane.
"All right," Corthe said, looking around the villagers. "Where's the sorcerer, and the other woman? Bring them out."
Everyone looked at one another, uncertainly, and at them bound; she saw Anton biting his lip. Then Corthe was drawing his sword and saying, "Don't try me. I'll have an answer, and the two of them, now." He nodded to two of his men, and they stepped forward and grabbed Anton, dragged him out of the gathered crowd and pulled him forward.
"Corthe!" Arthur snapped. "You can't do this! These are Cenred's serfs, you'll start a war—"
Corthe said, "The king's sent wergild to Cenred for them already, sire," apologetically, raising his sword.
Arthur stared at him in horror, and this was—this was becoming what she'd seen, everything she'd seen, and Morgana shut her eyes, trembling. She couldn't bear—there had to be some other—some way out—
She'd never tried to have a vision before, but this time she threw herself into it: she focused her closed eyes on that place in the middle of her forehead that ached whenever she woke from dreaming; she breathed quick and quick, and then she opened her eyes and said, "They're already gone! Gwen rode away with him this morning for Gwynedd. We only stayed behind to delay you."
Corthe looked at her. "Try again, my lady," he said. "They're in the village."
"They aren't!" Morgana said. "Merlin's dead."
Corthe paused, and Arthur shot her a confused look.
"Merlin died on the road," Morgana said. "We only came to bring his body to his mother, and we sent Gwen on. Why would we keep her with us, when we knew you had caught up to us here?" she added. "I didn't believe you'd harm me, but I knew Uther would have her executed in a heartbeat."
Corthe shook his head. "My lady, forgive me, but I know very well—"
Morgana burst into tears, as well as she could manage. "She's my only friend in the world!" she sobbed, noisily, while Arthur stared at her. "And I had to send her away!"
"My lady—" Corthe said, a little blankly, and looked at the other men.
"She's only a girl, she was only helping us, and Uther would kill her for it!" Morgana said. "Like he murdered her father! And you're all murderers, too—I wonder you have the heart to go home and look your wives in the face! You should be ashamed to speak!"
Corthe said, "My lady, you are hysterical," and waved to one of the men. "Fetch a bucket of water and douse her."
"I am not!" Morgana screamed, as hysterically as she could. "I am not hysterical!" She started throwing herself wildly against the hands of the men holding her, though it wrenched her shoulders. "I'm not!" she cried again, even as the bucket drenched over her head and plastered her hair to her neck, and the water ran into her nose and throat and choked her.
"My lady, you will be silent, or I will gag you," Corthe said, and turned back to Anton, raising the sword. "I will not ask again: where is the sorcerer?"
"I'm here," Merlin said, leaning on Gwen's shoulder in the door of Elizabeth's house, and he raised his hand as the guards wheeled towards him, and his eyes blazed with golden light.
It wasn't like anything Gwen had ever felt in her life. Merlin's skin was still clammy from the broken fever, and it was taking all the strength of a blacksmith's daughter to keep him on his feet, but when she felt the magic running up through him she could only wonder how they hadn't always known, all of them. The air seemed to crackle and slow, and she saw his eyes shimmer like the air of a working forge. Then the guards' weapons were flying from their hands, and the men were being flung to the dirt like children's toys.
Morgana was already leaping up and snatching for one of the fallen blades, taking another and giving it to the man the guards had been about to kill. Merlin pointed at Arthur, and the bonds on his arms unwound themselves; Arthur seized another blade and gestured to the villagers. "Take the swords, and bring rope to tie them," he said, and Merlin sagged as they secured the guardsmen.
"Here," Gwen murmured to him, "you'd best sit down," and helped him to a stump out in front of the little house. Hunith came running over to them and cupped Merlin's face in her hands, crying a little; Merlin gave her a small wobbly smile, and then he turned his face up as Arthur and Morgana came to join them, and he said in a stifled voice, "You—you all—" and stopped and just looked at them, at Gwen, at Morgana, at Arthur, and his eyes were still shining, even though he wasn't using magic anymore.
Morgana was wiping water from her face, smiling and crying a little at once, and then Arthur cleared his throat and said, "You ought to go back to bed at once, you look ridiculously dreadful."
"I'm really enjoying sitting, actually," Merlin said. It was more like leaning, to be honest; Gwen and Hunith were both doing some work to keep him upright. "Sitting's underrated."
Arthur rolled his eyes. "So you can knock over fifteen men, but you can't manage to save enough strength to walk three steps yourself. Idiot. Put your arm around my neck." He bent down and picked Merlin up again.
"I don't need to be carried," Merlin complained, but his head tipped against Arthur's bare shoulder and he didn't put up a fight. They took him across the village to Hunith's house, and Arthur laid him very gently on the bed.
They tied up the guards securely and loaded them into a wagon. "Take them to King Cenred directly," Arthur told Anton. "Don't stop on the road—not even to sleep; these are good men, and they'll work free if you give them a chance." Then he turned to the sergeant and said quietly, "Corthe, when you are ransomed, tell my father—" he stopped and swallowed and said, "—tell my father that we will be far from here by then."
Gwen had been giving each of the guards a little sop of bread in milk, seeing as they wouldn't be fed again until they'd reached King Cenred. She looked up at Arthur in surprise.
"Sire," Corthe said.
"We will not tell the villagers here where we are going," Arthur went on, implacably, "nor will we send any word to them after. I swear this to you on my honor. Will you tell him that?"
Corthe bowed his head. "Sire, when—will—you return to Camelot?" he asked.
"And leave my friends alone and made homeless wanderers?" Arthur said, and turned away.
"Arthur," Gwen said to him, after the wagon had rolled out of the village, "we know you have to go back. None of us expect you to abandon Camelot."
Arthur shook his head shortly. "To what end?" he said. "Morgana was right. If he'd taken the rest of you prisoner or killed you, and could punish my disobedience, maybe he'd get over his wrath; he'll never forgive me for having seen you safely away, or rely on me ever again." He rubbed his face. "Come on. We'd better go through the mail we took off the guards and see what will fit us best."
"I'm sorry," Merlin said to her quietly, that night, while she dished him up a bowl of soup. He still looked pretty wretched, though if she looked for it, she could see the ember of magic gleaming in him, a flicker of gold deep in his pupils that didn't die low with the fire.
"Don't be silly," Gwen told him firmly. "I'm not sorry in the least, myself."
"And neither am I," Morgana said. "You saved all of Camelot, and we've saved you. We couldn't have hoped for either of those, just a little while ago."
"There, you see," Gwen said. "There's no sense in being sorry about getting what we wanted."
"But now—now you've no home, and Uther will still be looking for us," Merlin said. "Where will we even go?"
"The coast of Kent," Arthur said, ducking under the lintel and coming into the front room. He took a bowl of soup and a hunk of bread from Gwen and sat down on the floor to eat, ravenously; no turning up his nose at it now, Gwen noted a little bit sadly. "There are mercenary companies there, who fend off the Saxon raiders in the spring. I can hire on, and we'll sell the spare mail; it should be enough to board you all somewhere decent."
"Oh, certainly," Morgana said, "we'll just settle in comfortably, while you ride around risking your life to support us. I don't think so."
"Don't be an idiot, Morgana," Arthur said. "What else are you going to do? Become a servingwoman somewhere?"
"I'll hire on with you," Morgana said coolly, "and we'll all stay together."
Arthur rolled his eyes. He tipped the bowl back to drain the last of his soup, then held it out for another helping. "Fine. If you can talk a mercenary commander into hiring you on, by all means."
Arthur thought Commander Feren was just humoring Morgana for his amusement up until the moment the man handed her a contract and said, "You provide your own gear, you do campwork same as anyone, and you get your pay less your board when the next contract comes in. You get raped, it's your problem."
"And if they get castrated?" Morgana asked.
Feren shrugged. "That's their problem."
"Then we're agreed." She held out a hand for the contract.
"Morgana!" Arthur hissed.
She smirked at him and signed with a flourish.
"Right," Feren said, taking it. Then he sat back in his chair and looked Arthur up and down, and raised an eyebrow. "Know anything about mounted fighting?" he asked.
"Yes," Arthur said.
"Such as?" Feren said.
"Longsword, saber, javelin, spear, lance, maneuvers in square—" Arthur said, listing off.
Feren shook his head and spat off to one side. "I think you want to try up at the castle."
Arthur stared at him, open-mouthed. "You—what?" he said incredulously. "You just—you hired her!" He waved a hand at Morgana.
"I must just seem like better mercenary material," Morgana said brightly.
"You're a trained knight," Feren said bluntly. "I don't know what you're doing slumming down here—and I don't care either," he added, raising a hand, when Arthur took a breath. "Half the camp is going to want to rub your face in the dirt half a candlemark after you open your mouth, and that's trouble I don't need."
"I don't brawl," Arthur said, through his teeth.
"Oh, don't you, you whoreson cunt-licking pig farmer's dog?" Feren said.
Arthur just barely managed not to put his hand on his sword. Morgana elbowed him and hissed, "You're turning purple, breathe."
Feren snorted and waved a hand at Merlin and Gwen, who were standing in the back of the room. "And dragging servants along isn't going to make anyone like you better."
"Gwen and Merlin aren't our servants," Morgana said. "They're our friends."
"Oh, aye," Feren said. "And out of their deep friendship they'll clean your armor, sharpen your sword, keep your tent nice and neat—"
"I could—" Merlin started, before Arthur shot him a hard look: he'd already had to have the shouting match four times, where Merlin tried to use magic to get them a place to sleep, food to eat, money, or even just to hire on somewhere. Arthur wasn't having any of it: Merlin maybe wasn't bleeding anymore, but he looked about as substantial as an early morning fog. With all Gwen did to tempt his appetite, and all Arthur did with relentless nagging and occasionally actual forcing of food into Merlin's mouth, he still only picked without appetite at his meals, and sometimes stumbled just getting down from a horse.
"Anyway," Arthur had pointed out firmly, "we need to lie low. My father will have people listening for rumors, and magic is the sort of thing people talk about."
"Right, but I can still—" Merlin had tried.
Merlin evaded Arthur's look now, though, and hurried on, "I was apprentice to a physician and herbalist. I could—help your physician."
"Hah," Feren said. "You can be our physician. Half-pay."
Arthur blinked, surprised. "Right, excellent," Merlin said.
"Wait a moment," Gwen said, interjecting. "No. It'll be double pay, for the two of us." Feren looked at her, frowning. "You'll get better men once you can say you've got a physician," she said, "And I can mend armor and sharpen swords, which will save you our pay twice over in smithing costs."
"Done," Feren said, looking just a little bit disgruntled.
Morgana looked at Arthur. "I'm sure we can find someplace decent for you to board," she offered, sweetly.
Arthur clenched his jaw and reminded himself he'd gone to too much effort to keep her alive and well to strangle her now, and then said to Feren, "Fine; no brawling, and no servants; any other objections?"
Feren still looked doubtful, and then Gwen said, "Or we can all four of us try over in Deresford, there's another company there."
Feren grimaced. "All right, I'll try you on," he said, and pointed at Arthur. "You start a fight, though, and you're out, all of you; and no back pay, either."
"And if someone starts a fight with me?" Arthur snapped.
Feren waved a hand as he tossed the contract over. "Someone hits you, you can hit them back; but you stop soon as they do."
The problem was—although it hadn't occurred to Merlin this would be a problem—was that no one was stupid enough to hit Arthur even once. Well, no one was stupid enough to do it after the first man tried. Cylic was a big Angle fighter about a head taller and fifty pounds heavier than Arthur, and he'd evidently been the acknowledged best man in the troop for some two years. He slugged Arthur over the mess tables, the first night; Arthur promptly kicked his legs out from under him, smashed a bench into flinders with Cylic's head, and kept him in a chokehold until Cylic tapped out.
So there wasn't any more fighting; instead, after word of Feren's dictate got around, there was everything else. Arthur got shoved, elbowed, tripped into mud; food was spilled on him, muck was kicked up on him; all of it immediately followed with smirking and insincere apologies.
After about a week, Arthur did learn to watch out for the attempts. He was able to evade them nearly all the time, and usually whoever was trying to get his goat ended up in the mud himself, without Arthur ever touching them. The hazing also died off considerably one day after a particularly bright fellow started trundling over in Arthur's direction with a wheelbarrow fresh from the middens and a vaguely preoccupied air, in an obvious sort of way.
Arthur turned around with his sword hissing out of its sheath and said pleasantly, "Beck, you do realize that whoever actually finds my limit is going to be celebrating the occasion with his bowels piled around his ankles?"
Beck eyed the sword, thought better of his plan, and changed direction.
But that was when things got worse. Because after they stopped with Arthur, they started in on Morgana, who was just as obviously noble-born, ridiculously beautiful, and had made it abundantly clear that she wasn't bedding Arthur, she wasn't bedding Merlin, and she most definitely had no intention of bedding any of the other men at all. In, well, a sharp-tongued sort of way.
"I wish I knew how to help her," Gwen said, unhappily. "They're never like that with me." Except of course, that was because Gwen had already made friends of all the camp women, because she was just as happy to fix washing tubs and pots as armor; and she would straighten horseshoes and even the nails so the men could take them to the town smith and reuse them, instead of having to buy new.
"Maybe if she hadn't told Baudec that his cock was the size of a shriveled earthworm, to match his straggly beard?" Merlin said dispiritedly, poking at the pile of iron scraps that Gwen had started collecting, for patches.
He couldn't help feeling—they'd done this for him. They'd given up everything—Arthur and Morgana had given up the world—to end up here as common soldiers, going through mind-numbing drills twice a day, sleeping on the ground in a small, cold tent, and eating what would've been kitchen slops in Camelot. That would've been bad enough; to be bullied and insulted on top of it—
"Don't be ridiculous, Merlin," Morgana had said, tossing her head. "As though I would allow anything such creatures say to bother me. And don't you even think of using magic on them," she added. "You still look as though you'd fall over in a stiff wind."
But that had been early on; lately Morgana was growing more and more quiet every day, and Arthur more savage from the inability to protect her. These days he was trying to get her tormentors to start fights with him; Merlin had never heard him use language like that before.
"We can't live like this," he said to Arthur. "We've got the money put aside from selling the mail; let's just—"
"Merlin, do you think I'm enjoying this?" Arthur said, wiping an arm across his forehead; it left a streak in the grime from a week without bathing. "Do you know that idiot Rodin has us doing square maneuvers to the left instead of the right, because he can't keep the reverse straight when he's facing the company?"
"I—don't actually know what any of that means, but no, I don't think you are," Merlin said. "So let's leave."
Arthur blew out a sigh. "This isn't a bad company. Feren's not a brilliant commander, but he's sensible, and he doesn't allow any real abuse. Taunting's not going to hurt Morgana, or me."
"Just because it's not actually impossible doesn't mean we should stay," Merlin said.
"Yes, it does," Arthur said, low. "You've no idea how lucky we were to get even here from Ealdor with as little trouble as we did. Four of us alone, two women—we're not safe, no matter how strong I am, no matter your magic or—whatever that ridiculously creepy thing Morgana does."
And Merlin couldn't argue with him very much at the moment. He was still having moments where his vision went fuzzy and he saw two of things, though he thought he was getting better at hiding when it happened. Without his spellbook, he couldn't find any healing spells to try, and the couple he knew already hadn't helped with the headaches, although at least he was glad to have something he could use if Arthur or Morgana got hurt, fighting.
Instead he was trying to eat more, grimly, even though he didn't have much appetite and always wanted to sneak about half his food onto Arthur's plate, anyway. The company was in winter quarters, between contracts, and to a large extent, the mercenaries were expected to be living off their last season's pay. The porridge in the morning and the soup at night were watery, and the bread was hard and stale.
Gwen usually managed to get them a little more, bartering her work or Merlin's physicking, but then she had to cook it, too, after a long day working—they'd tried to share the cooking, with varying degrees of disaster, and gone hungry several times as a result. And if Merlin pushed his stomach too far he ended up having to sneak away somewhere to vomit it all up again, wasting everything. Meanwhile Arthur's face had become almost frighteningly beautiful, the lines of his cheekbones and jaw standing out clearer, stern and unyielding as a statue even underneath the dirt.
It just felt like the winter was grinding away at them in a way Merlin had forgotten it could, living in Camelot safe behind thick walls and warm fireplaces, and all they could do was lie quiet and hope for spring.
Morgana knew it was driving Arthur wild, and Merlin and Gwen looked almost as unhappy, but for her part, the loutish idiots weren't the real problem; they were something she could fight. She could snap back at them, and if necessary she could and would cheerfully gut any of them who gave her real trouble. Sometimes she almost wished one of them would, but they were all too afraid—although, annoyingly, not of her but of Arthur.
But she couldn't fight the visions that came every night, battlefields and faces, flags and towers. She'd learned, grimly, not to cry out in her sleep; she jerked awake silently now, breathing through her open mouth with her heart hammering against her ribs, so as not to wake the others: Gwen asleep in her pallet beside her and the cold thin wall of fabric on her other side, Arthur and Merlin's snores coming faintly from the next tent over.
Drill was the best time of day: one step after another, body and mind wholly engaged. None of the men harassed her on the field; the officers didn't care what they did in the lanes of the camp, but anyone who broke discipline in drill ended up flogged. The only problem was it didn't last long enough. She started to stay on the field after everyone else had gone to keep going through the steps while the light lasted; Arthur stayed with her, and even though he approved as little as he ever had, he started to teach her how to fight.
After the first lesson he gave her, she stopped and wiped her brow and said, "Arthur, these officers, they're terrible. The drill they have us doing—"
"They are terrible," Arthur said, "but the drill's not their fault. The best knights can follow a drill of a hundred steps or so. These men can probably manage ten at most before they confuse themselves. In a company like this, a single man who's lost his place can throw the entire line into disarray."
She eyed him. "Show me a longer drill, then. That one was only fifteen."
"Master this one first, and I'll give you another."
"Give me another and I'll master them both," she bargained.
Arthur rolled his eyes. "This is like that time you harassed Fortnoy to teach you how to jump water the first week you got a full horse."
"I did it, didn't I?" she said coolly. All right, so she'd come back soaking wet for three solid weeks of riding lessons; it had been worth it to be sailing over jumps while Arthur was still going around and around the ring on a lunge-line.
"Yes, and ten years later you've still never learned your left lead from your right," Arthur said. "Didn't it ever occur to you that there was a reason he wouldn't let me skip ahead with you, when I howled just as loudly? He did you no service. He gave you what you wanted because he didn't think it mattered if you didn't learn it properly."
Morgana bit her lip, because as soon as he'd said it, she could see at once Arthur was right. It made her want to ride straight back to Camelot and hit Fortnoy in the face. And then she thought of Fornoy's stupid, buck-toothed face, always chewing a bit of straw so he looked very much like the horses he trained; of the thick quiet forests of Camelot and the earth soft with matted leaves as she rode; and she was all at once so homesick she wanted to weep.
She went back into the drill instead.
The steps weren't very hard, or the sequence; certainly no worse than a dozen court dances she'd had to learn. She practiced that night until she couldn't see the ground anymore, and two days later, she ran through it again for Arthur and wheeled on him, eyebrows raised. "There. Next?"
He said, "Start from the fourth step and do the whole thing backwards."
"What?" she said, annoyed.
"Go on," he said, smirking. "Since you know it so well."
She had to think of the fourth step, then she stumbled over herself three times switching direction, and got stuck on the ninth step trying to figure out what the right reversal of the move was—"Yes," Arthur said, "I'm overwhelmed by your command of the sequence."
"Let's see you do it backwards and from the fourth step, then!" she said, and Arthur promptly ran it through for her without the least pause. She glared at him. Show-off.
"This isn't something you learn in a day or a week," he said. "You probably won't have it mastered for the better part of a month." He wasn't even trying not to look smug. "Of course, if you haven't the patience—"
"Shut up," she muttered, and set her teeth to go into it again.
And sometime in the third week, there was a moment that came where she understood all at once: the sequence began to happen without thinking, her muscles remembering and her mind floating free. She even caught Arthur forgetting himself enough to look pleased as she spun effortlessly from one cut to the next, thrust and counter-thrust, Arthur saying, "Breathe now. And now. And step—" and as she moved, there were men around her, faces distorted with fear and battle-lust, swords everywhere and shouting, and Arthur was fighting beside her, deadly and graceful, as her own sword slid into the belly of a tall, red-bearded man, completing the last stroke of the drill.
"What the hell," Arthur was saying, his hand on her arm. She jerked herself free and ran off the field, towards the tents, panting in horror. She couldn't—she couldn't start seeing them waking; wasn't it enough her nights were already not her own—
And then abruptly she was falling, the sword slipping from her hand into splattering mud as she went down, pebbles and dirt scraping her palms raw as she caught herself. She struggled back up onto her knees, and Baudec was looking down at her with a smirk, saying, "Oh, sorry, milady," and others sniggering.
She stared up at him, seeing his eyes clouded over, blood trickling from his mouth, and his smirk began to fade; then Arthur was on them, blazing with rage. "Don't!" she said, covering her mouth to stifle a terrible laugh that wanted to bubble out of her. Arthur halted and stared at her. "Don't, you don't need to. You don't need to—" because Baudec was already dead; would be dead before midsummer—
She started sobbing into her hands, and Arthur picked her up bodily; she didn't protest, just pressed her face against the cold reassuring metal of his armor as he carried her back to the tent.
Gwen looked up startled from her mending as Arthur came shouldering into her and Morgana's tent; he looked white with terror, and Morgana was in his arms, spattered with mud and—and crying. "What's happened, is she—" Gwen said, jerking up onto her knees, snatching out one of the rolled-up pallets and spreading it out, trying not to think of the worst, of what might have happened—she had been living with this fear, for herself and for Morgana, so long now that it had died to a low underlying ache; like a clenched hand easing up unwillingly, only to suddenly squeeze tight all over again.
"I don't know," Arthur said jerkily, laying her down. "She was practicing, then she ran off the field, and that idiot Baudec tripped her, and she just—burst into tears—" He didn't sound very far from tears himself, or at least panic. "I don't understand, I was three steps behind her, I don't see how he could have done anything—"
"He's dead," Morgana sobbed, shivering, as Gwen wrapped one of their thin blankets around her shoulders. "He's already dead. I saw him," she added, and Gwen felt a chill crawl over her skin.
"Give me your cloak," Gwen said, "and go fetch Merlin," she added, and Arthur nodded, his face full of relief for something to do; he ducked out as Gwen put the cloak around Morgana also and laid still more of their blankets over her. "It's all right," she said, chafing Morgana's ice-cold hands. "It's all right, Morgana."
"It's not," Morgana said, with a gulping sob. "It's not."
Merlin came back inside with Arthur, and Gwen looked at him. "The potion Gaius used to make for her, to stop her dreams," she said, urgently.
Merlin stared at her helplessly. "I'm sorry, Gwen, I don't know how to make it. He said—he said it was really dangerous, too much could kill—"
"We've got to do something," Arthur said.
"There's nothing to do," Morgana said, choking into her hand. "This will never end. This is—this is all there is. I can't ever go home. I can't ever get away—" She tried to draw away from Gwen.
"Hush," Gwen said. "Hush, there," and then Merlin was picking up the water jug and staring at it; he said, "Coltemære cierran," and handed it to her full of strong, unwatered wine. Gwen poured a cup, and gave it to Morgana to drink, urging her on until her sobs finally quieted, and the shaking grew less.
Morgana swept the back of her hand across her face, turning half away from them, as much as she could. "I'm sorry," she said, still choked. "It won't happen again."
"We'll leave in the morning," Arthur said flatly. Gwen stared at him, and Morgana and Merlin also. He glared back at them. "We'll find someplace else! We'll—" he waved a hand, "—go live on a farm, or something."
They were all silent, and then Morgana hiccuped with shaky laughter, even through the wreckage of her tears. "I'd like to see you milking a cow," she said, and Gwen found herself smiling a little, too, as Arthur said belligerently, "Farmers do it! How hard can it be?"
"You do remember what happened when you tried to cook?" Morgana said, recovering more of her spirit. "All three times you tried?"
"We'll manage," Arthur said. "You're not going to endure this any longer."
Morgana paused and said, desolately, "It wouldn't be any different anywhere else. Maybe even—even in Camelot. The dreams were already getting worse." She looked down into the wine cup.
"You could—" Merlin said, "—you could try. If you—" He glanced across the tent at Gwen, his face a little desperate and sorry, and then he looked back at Morgana and Arthur. "If both of you went back," he said, "Uther would—"
"Throw us into the dungeons to rot," Arthur said, rolling his eyes.
"You could write, at least," Merlin said. "Maybe he'd forgive you."
"Forgive us what?" Morgana said bitterly. "Not letting him commit murder?"
"We're not leaving you and Gwen," Arthur said.
Gwen drew a deep breath. She wasn't ashamed of being anxious; the men who would be the worst danger were the ones who were afraid of Arthur, and even if Merlin was getting better, he didn't look like much; there would still be trouble, surely, if it was just the two of them. But that didn't matter; Morgana couldn't live like this. "You should," she said. "Arthur, you should take Morgana home. You don't belong here," she added to Morgana, forestalling her protests.
"And we can manage," Merlin said.
"You couldn't manage your way out of a wet sack!" Arthur said.
"Oh, stop, all of you; don't you see it's no use?" Morgana said. "It doesn't matter if Uther would forgive me treason; he'd never forgive me being a witch. I can't go back even if I want to, not when I can't even stop them coming when I'm awake."
The argument died. Gwen hugged her knees against her. She hadn't realized how deep she'd held to this last lingering hope—that Morgana and Arthur would go back, if they all couldn't, and one day maybe even soon, Arthur would be king; and then—but Morgana was right. Uther would probably only get even angrier. Gwen looked at her sadly, as Morgana scrubbed absently at her tear-stained face.
"What exactly happens when you—have one of these things?" Arthur said.
"It was like I was there," Morgana said. "On the field, fighting, and I saw—" she drew a deep, shuddering breath, "—I saw a man die. On my blade." She stopped.
"Better than the alternative," Arthur said, after they'd all sat in silence for a moment. "Can you use it?"
"What?" Morgana said.
Arthur gestured impatiently. "Can you see what an enemy is going to do, while you're fighting?"
"I—I have no idea," Morgana said doubtfully. "It's not as though I've ever tried to have one."
"Of course you haven't," Arthur said, with sarcasm that didn't entirely manage to sound cutting, although he was trying very hard. "Why would you ever put a little effort into practicing something you didn't master instantly. I should have known," he added, in superior tones.
Morgana was flushing pink. "Oh, be quiet, you ass," she said.
"We'll start work on it tomorrow," Arthur said decisively. "And give me that, before you get hopelessly drunk," he added, holding out a hand for the wine.
Morgana held the cup back. "You can fetch the soup and bread," she said, "and then maybe I'll share my wine."
Arthur glared at her, then poked Merlin. "Make some more for me."
"Oi, stop that," Merlin said, batting his hand away. "There'll be no water left to wash with!"
"We can get more in the morning," Arthur argued.
Gwen looked at all of them thoughtfully, and she said, "No more wine for any of us until we've eaten," and took the cup out of Morgana's hand, setting it with the jug behind her mending basket. "Would the two of you please bring the soup?"
"Certainly, Guinevere, we will be honored to oblige you," Arthur said, in a lordly tone, looking pointedly at Morgana, who tossed her head and ignored him.
After they'd gone, Gwen poured a little wash-water for Morgana, and gave her a cloth. "I must look a fright," Morgana murmured, wiping her face, and then she put down the cloth and looked at Gwen tearfully. "I'm so sorry. You've lost your home, too, and here I am, just—"
Gwen cupped Morgana's face in her hands. "That's enough of that, my lady," she said.
"No," Morgana said, shaking her head, and put her own hand against Gwen's cheek. "I'm not a lady, not anymore; and least of all your mistress. I'd always rather have been your friend, anyway," she added, with a sniffle. "You've more courage than any of Arthur's knights, and in any just world, you would be a queen and not a servant."
Gwen smiled at her, and brushed Morgana's hair back from her face, the strands that had escaped her braids. "You always want the world to be better than it is," she said. "Maybe that's why you have the visions."
"It couldn't get much worse," Morgana said, dredging up a weak smile.
"No," Gwen said quietly, "but it can get better than this." She took the washbasin away and set it on their little chest. "Move your pallet over a little, would you? I'll be back in a moment."
She ducked outside and went to Arthur and Merlin's tent, and rolled up their pallets and the little sack of their spare clothing, all they had in the way of possessions; Merlin's herbs and supplies were kept overnight in a locked chest under guard in Feren's quarters, so the men didn't go poking into them. Morgana looked at her, puzzled, as she came back in with them. Gwen said steadily, "Help me lay these out."
"Why are you moving their things in here?" Morgana said. "Everyone will think—" She stopped.
Everyone would think that they could now be slotted neatly into place: Arthur's woman and Merlin's, and not available. "I'm tired of being cold, anyway," Gwen said with determined brightness, shaking out the bedrolls next to one another, although they had to overlap some to fit all four. "We'll sleep warmer for it."
Morgana opened her mouth and then shut it again and said quietly, "All right," and helped Gwen lay them out. "Although I don't think they've washed these in weeks," she added, wrinkling her nose.
"I'll make Merlin help me clean them tomorrow," Gwen said.
Arthur and Merlin ducked back in shortly with the soup and the stack of trenchers, and stared at the new arrangements; Gwen calmly took the soup pot from them and said, "We'd best eat while it's still hot."
"But," Arthur said, baffled; then Merlin cleared his throat and manfully said, "Yeah, um, thanks, Gwen," and sat down on Arthur's pallet, in the middle, and held out a trencher for her to pour the soup into.
Arthur stared until Gwen put a trencher in his hands, and then uncertainly sat down and ate his soup; he and Morgana awkwardly avoided even looking at one another. Gwen passed the wine cup around and kept it full. By the time they had finished the soup, the jug was empty, and they were all much too sozzled to be worrying about propriety.
Morgana hiccuped over the last cup and said, "At least I'll never have to worry about being married off to some horrible earl ever again. I had to feign fits of insanity to scare off the last one."
"What d'you mean, feign," Arthur said muzzily, making a grab for the cup, and tipped over onto his back as Morgana shoved him away. He groaned. "Why 'm I still in my armor?" he said plaintively, though he just lay there and didn't do anything about it.
Merlin rolled his eyes. "Go on and sit up, then," he said, and the two of them wrestled for about ten minutes fairly unproductively—Arthur got stuck with his head buried halfway—before Merlin finally fell back with a thump under the mail shirt. Arthur flopped back down bonelessly and groaned again with satisfaction, stretching, and Gwen felt her cheeks get hot; his shirt was riding up and showing his flat, muscled belly, and a line of darker golden hair skittering down into his trousers.
"I think it's time to sleep," she said firmly, because that was very obviously a sign that she'd had too much wine, and if she'd had too much wine, the others were all going to be terribly sick in the morning.
The others docilely fumbled their way under their blankets, and Merlin blew out the one candle. The tent really wasn't big enough for four to lie comfortably; there was a contest of squirming and poking of elbows and knees, which Arthur unfairly won by virtue of being too heavy and too impervious to nudging for any of them to shove out of the way. Eventually, though, Gwen was comfortably on her side and snuggled up to Morgana, whose head had ended up pillowed on Arthur's shoulder; Arthur's arm was stretched out and warm around them both. Merlin was almost entirely draped over Arthur's other side, and their pallets had all got squashed into one large pile of bedding and blankets.
"I am warmer," Morgana murmured, and sighed.
"See, it's much nicer," Gwen said, feeling quite pleased with herself; she hadn't been this warm since autumn, in Camelot. She rather thought she should've done this sooner.
"Yeah," Merlin mumbled.
"Mmrm," Arthur said, sounding a bit squeezed.
"Stop poking, Merlin," Morgana said sleepily.
"’m not poking," Merlin said.
"What is that, then," Morgana said.
"What?" Merlin said, groggily putting out his hand to pat around, and Gwen realized—
"Maybe you oughtn't," Gwen said hastily.
"Mmrm," Arthur said, much more pointedly.
"Oh," Merlin said, sounding abruptly much more awake and sober.
"What?" Morgana said. "What is—oh," she squeaked and snatched her hand back and rolled over hastily.
They were all very quiet for a moment, and then Gwen met Morgana's eyes in the dark and couldn't keep the giggle choked down anymore, and then Morgana was laughing, too.
"Very funny!" Arthur snapped in a rather injured tone. "If you're all done pawing at me now, can we go to sleep?"
"Serves you right for hogging the bedrolls," Morgana said, still giggling with her forehead pressed against Gwen's. She snuggled backwards against Arthur's side and tugged Gwen in close with her. Arthur didn't take his arm away from around them; Merlin was already breathing in slow even measures, and Gwen closed her eyes still smiling, warm all the way through.
Arthur woke the third week after Imbolc and put his hand down through the bedding and the layers to feel that the ground beneath them wasn't frozen anymore. "What is it?" Merlin murmured against him, sleepily.
"Winter's broken," Arthur said. "Go back to sleep." Merlin was finally beginning to have some semblance of color in his face again, since Gwen had moved them all into the one tent. It was worth even the regular awkwardness, although he did feel that when you were nobly enduring three people all cuddling up to you every night, they ought to have some sympathy for the perfectly natural consequences, instead of giggling. At least Merlin ought to have understood; it wasn't as though it didn't happen to him, too, and it didn't seem fair that he managed to be utterly unembarrassed about it.
He carefully shifted Merlin off and shook Morgana awake. They crept out into the second tent: Gwen's idea; they had made it into an entry, and kept their clothes and armor there. It meant neither wind nor rain nor snow would ever come biting into the sleeping tent, and at night, if they came back late and cold, they only had to shuck their things and get into their shifts, one after another, and go into the sleeping tent to be warm again.
"It's still dark," Morgana grumbled, tugging on her mail shirt. "Why are we getting up so early?"
"When spring comes, the Saxons come," Arthur said. "We'll be fighting in five weeks; maybe four."
He drove her harder that morning than he ever had before; she was beginning, just beginning, to learn how to use the visions. He could see it would make her dangerous eventually, but right now they confused her as much as they gave her an advantage. If one took her in a fight, muscle memory would have to carry her, at least long enough for him to come to her aid; he wanted her so exhausted that she could think of nothing, remember nothing, but the drill.
She was panting and her hair plastered down with sweat by the time the other mercenaries began staggering out of their tents for the regular morning drill. Arthur looked them over critically as they took their places. There wasn't enough discipline in this camp to fill a thimble, much less keep men in fighting trim all the long winter, when most of them had money for ale and whores. These next two weeks would tell what kind of metal they were, if any.
"Form square," Rodin bawled out, at the head, and began to give the orders, still the wrong way around.
"Rodin," Arthur snapped, "look at your hands."
Rodin stopped and eyed Arthur warily, then stared down at his hands as though he expected to find them turned green or something.
"The one you hold your sword in is the company's left," Arthur said pointedly. "Would you stop making us do the maneuvers mirror-fashion? I do realize it's asking a great deal, but it would be nice not to be spitted on our own blades before we even have a chance to engage the enemy."
A titter ran around the field, and Rodin purpled, indignantly. "D'you want to run drill, then, ay?" he snapped.
"Very well," Arthur said, and stepped to the head of the company in two quick strides. Rodin's mouth hung open, and Arthur didn't wait for him to draw breath before he'd turned, shot one scornful look over the assembled men, and said, "I wonder how many of you we'll be burning, three weeks from now. You, Scorda?"
Arthur stepped up to the man and flipped up the leather collar over his mail. "A Saxon blade will go through that rust like a knife through warm butter. Take that to Guinevere tonight, unless you're that eager for your kin to get your death-money."
Scorda gaped at him; Arthur turned and snarled at Reglaud, who'd been standing next to him. "What are you gawking at, you idiot? Did it escape your notice the frost's broken?"
A low murmur went through them, and Arthur knew he had them; he gave them his back and shoved a stunned Rodin a few steps further back. "Get those blades into position, right hanging guard, if any of you have strength in your wrists for anything but dicing. I said right hanging guard, Ardo; do try not to disembowel Medren if you can manage it, I'm sure he'll be grateful. Now begin: forward step, cut from the right to the left—"
The drill was ridiculously simple; half the men still got it abysmally wrong. Arthur mentally marked off the ones who were useless and good only for putting in the front rank so they'd get themselves killed without endangering anyone else; others were worth working on. He kept a steady stream of insults going, and slapped some offenders with the flat of his blade as they called for it, which was often. They went two hours instead of one, and when the bell rang for midday, Arthur stopped and said with an air of delivering grudging praise, "You might not all be killed the first day out. Company dismissed."
"What are you doing?" Morgana hissed, catching up to him as he left the field. "Rodin's going to have you flogged for that—"
Arthur snorted. "Rodin's stupid; Feren's not. I'm going to go speak with him. I want you to go to Gwen and help her with the forge this afternoon," he added. "Don't get cooled down; we'll train again after lunch."
"We'll have drill this evening," Morgana protested.
"And more training after," Arthur said, stretching as he walked, and dragging in a deep breath; the air was still cold, but he could taste melting ice on it.
Rodin was already in Feren's office blustering when Arthur arrived. "Rodin, don't waste anyone's time," Arthur said, in bored tones, when Rodin turned on him. "You're a decent fighter, but you're an incompetent drillmaster, and the only virtue you could possibly have is that you're cheap. If you weren't about to be replaced for spring, I'd be disappointed in our commander." He looked at Feren. "Am I?"
Feren eyed him grimly. "No," he said, and Rodin stopped open-mouthed.
"Fine," Arthur said. "Double pay going forward, and I'll want a line command in the field, with Morgana assigned to me. Do we have a contract yet?"
Feren scowled and then said grudgingly, "We ride out in three weeks and Sunday, for Mablethorpe town."
Arthur went utterly insufferable the entire three weeks. Merlin didn't understand why the soldiers, who had loathed him violently all winter long, suddenly became completely docile instead of rising up en masse to murder him. Merlin was feeling murderous urges himself, and he wasn't even poor Morgana, who was being dragged out of bed at dawn every morning and chased around with a sword until she was so tired she couldn't even keep her feet by the time Arthur grudgingly allowed her to go to bed: she just got out of her mail and crawled into the sleeping tent on hands and knees and fell solidly asleep right where she lay.
But apparently the more Arthur insulted and harried them, the more the soldiers liked it. Some of them were even showing up for the extra sessions Arthur was giving Morgana. "Because, you idiot," Arthur said in the tent that night, "they can tell listening to me will keep them alive." Then he demanded to know if Merlin had organized cots for the wounded.
"Er," Merlin said, a little blankly. The healing tent wasn't really big enough for more than a couple of people. "I thought I'd—go to their tents?"
"You can't run around to fifty different tents! The wounded will bleed to death while you're walking from one to the other," Arthur said. "You need a pavilion. What about bandages, do you have bandages?"
"Of course I've got bandages," Merlin said.
He looked past Arthur longingly: Gwen was dishing out their dinner. She'd put her foot down, yesterday, and demanded that Arthur hand over the money he'd squirrelled away from selling the mail so she could buy some better food for them. "You can't work like this on thin soup and porridge," Gwen had said sternly, "and in case you haven't noticed, we aren't going to change our minds and quit at the last instant, so stop trying to save it." Arthur had grudgingly surrendered the funds, and whatever she was ladling out into the trenchers smelled amazing. Merlin hadn't felt really hungry like this in months, it felt like.
"Merlin," Arthur said sharply.
"What?" Merlin said, dragging his eyes back over to Arthur. "There's plenty—there's a whole chest—" He paused at Arthur's expression.
"Tell me something, Merlin," Arthur said, bitingly, "does magic just not leave room for ordinary common sense? All that wizarding just drives out anything resembling intelligence?"
"It's a big chest!" Merlin protested.
"One chest?" Arthur said, voice rising. "Everyone in the ranks is likely to take some injury, you idiot. You can't bandage five hundred men with one chest of bandages!"
"All I've got's what Feren gives me, you ass!" Merlin said, irritated. "If anyone's going to die for lack of bandages, then they're just going to have to die."
"I am not going to lose half this company after the battle!" Arthur said, and Merlin stared at him pointedly. "What?" Arthur snapped.
Merlin opened his mouth to point out that this wasn't Arthur's company to lose or keep, actually, and then he sighed and gave that up. "Can we eat before it gets cold?"
Arthur ignored him. "Stop taking this lightly! What would you do if I brought in Morgana after you'd used all the bandages?" Morgana was eating so ravenously she didn't interrupt even to retort to that, just broke off a bit of trencher and threw it at Arthur's head.
Merlin stared at him. "Heal her with magic, like I'd do anyway."
"You can't heal the entire company with magic!"
"I don't like them that much anyway—what? Why are you looking at me like that?" Merlin said to Arthur's appalled expression. "I don't! They've been absolute monsters to you all winter—"
"These are still our companions in arms!" Arthur said. "You can't—we will be trusting our lives to their hands, and they trusting theirs to us. You can't take that on and then just—" He flung out an arm, incoherently, and Gwen reached out and caught him by the wrist and put a filled trencher into it.
"I'll see about finding some more bandages," Gwen said firmly. "Now eat."
Arthur opened his mouth to keep quarrelling, because he'd gone mad with power, obviously, Merlin thought resentfully. "Eat!" Gwen said, stern, and pushed the steaming trencher closer to him. After the first bite, that silenced Arthur as effectively as it had already silenced Morgana, and Merlin could finally get his own dinner, too. "How much bandage do you need, usually, when someone's hurt?" Gwen asked him, as he dished it up.
"Er," Merlin said. "I don't know. Depends if it's on a leg, or—the shoulder's nasty, or hands are a bit difficult, because you have to go all round—"
Gwen frowned thoughtfully. "Would you say a yard would do, about?"
"I s'pose?" Merlin vaguely tried to envision it, and they worked it out as they ate.
But the bandages went unused, mostly, after all that. Mablethorpe town was a small but prosperous town half a mile in from the coast, sturdy houses full of good wool and barns full of grain and sheep, not perhaps the richest target, but the Saxons had plundered most of the richest targets already, and there was a little silver in the church. There was no wall around the town, and Morgana thought they were fools for only hiring a single small company: they needed either none, if they got lucky, or at least three if they didn’t.
They didn’t, as it turned out. The company was camped just inside the trees, off the shore, and they charged down the slope as the four dragon ships pulled up on the sands. Feren went down in the first rush with a Saxon arrow sprouting from his helm eyeslit like a black-leafed sapling, and Arthur had to seize the standard to rally the men to him and keep the line together. Morgana saw a dagger slide between his ribs, five steps on, and flung herself forward to meet the stabbing blade and knock it away.
Arthur was shouting orders that went past the mind and straight to all their spines and arms and legs, his voice ringing out clear over the clashing of arms. He led them into a charge, storming forward to meet the raiders, and Morgana stayed by his side, her shield turning the blades that would have stabbed him, her sword slicing out to cut the hands that would have dragged him down: her vision was blurring into the world and leading her feet where they needed to be. There was blood, but she’d seen blood before, and she steeled her stomach to it; what she wasn’t going to see was Arthur, dead.
Arthur handed the standard off after he’d gotten them into the thick of the fighting, surrounded—so the mercenaries couldn’t think about running away. After that he was fighting like a demon, and Morgana fell into step at his right hand. His eyes darted to her a few times, and she half wanted to glare at him: what, did he mean to criticize, and then she realized he was letting her take blows, letting her guard his side: it was freeing him up to carve them up twice as fast.
The Saxons outnumbered them badly, almost two to one. But they weren’t ready for Arthur, and then they made the mistake of noticing. The Saxon chieftain bellowed, “Bring down the knight!” and a dozen men with axes began to converge on them. Morgana’s vision went sliding away abruptly, as though all the world had suddenly gone unsteady around her, seething with tumult like an ocean storm. She seized Arthur’s arm and pulled him down to the ground, just as she heard Merlin’s voice crying out over them all: a sound piercing as a hawk’s cry and loud as thunder, words she couldn’t quite understand that rang in the bones of her ears.
The clouds overhead boiled into pitch black, and lighting came forking down, smashing the first of the axemen and arcing along from him to the rest of the converging warriors. Arthur was on one knee staring up at them beside her. The lightning hung in the air for a moment like a line of fire, dazzling away all the world, the Saxons strung upon it like beads on a chain. Then it cracked away like a whip, and twelve smoking corpses fell to the earth in a ring around them.
The Saxons broke and ran for their ships in terror, streaming past their furious and roaring chieftain. Arthur surged forward and met the man blade to blade before he could try to rally his men: they fought, but only three passes, and then Arthur caught his wrist on the backswing and spitted him straight through the armpit. “Onward!” he shouted even as the man toppled, waving his arm, and the whole company roared behind him and followed him charging down to the launching ships. Morgana stopped, though, and sheathed her sword; she picked up a burning branch from the ground where the lightning had struck, and carried it down to the shore with her: their archers lit their arrows, and half the Saxon sails were burning before they cleared the horizon.
The men carried Arthur back into camp on their shoulders, cheering, and everyone poured out of the town to meet them, crying out and rejoicing with relief. The townspeople had seen the number of ships landing, and they’d known they should have spent more. They brought food and drink, and instruments. Arthur wouldn’t sit down until all the wounded were settled, but that didn’t take very long, and then they were all feasting together, and someone started the dancing going. Scorda came and offered her a hand, and Morgana was going to tell him where he could put it, but then she took it instead, and he even turned out to be a good dancer.
Morgana took a turn with a dozen of the men after that, her hair slipping out of her braid little by little as she went whirling around. She was laughing and more than a little drunk, and Gwen was dancing nearby, Arthur calling toasts out to the men from the head of the table, his arm slung around Merlin’s neck.
She went and took Arthur out into the dancing with her at last, determined, and he put down his cup and took her hands with a suddenly serious expression. She’d been romping really more than dancing, but they slipped back into formality with each other, the measured steps, only their fingers touching in the passages, as if there were danger in anything more. And there was, but there was also something tight and pent up inside her, and she wanted to let it rush free.
She abruptly put up her hands and shook out her hair completely as she whirled, let it fall in a wave down her back, shining in the firelight. Arthur was staring at her as they whirled, and when the music ended she leaned in and kissed him determinedly, his mouth open and startled and oddly soft beneath hers, warm and wet with wine.
He looked desperate and half-ashamed as he led her back to their seats, Gwen and Merlin both avoiding their eyes, edging to the side—making way, as if of course she and Arthur were going to go back to the tents now and leave the two of them behind and out in the cold, except that was all wrong. For a moment she saw: her and Arthur tangled and moving together in a sweet urgent rhythm—and Arthur unable to quite look her in the face the whole time, insisting stiffly afterwards on more of those formalities, all the bindings she’d just slipped free, nothing she wanted at all.
She took a deep breath and stopped at the fire’s edge, and reached her hand out to Gwen, instead. It took a moment before Gwen even noticed, she was working so hard to avoid looking at them, and then she stared up at Morgana in complete confusion. Merlin stopped staring fixedly at the ground, and turned a puzzled look up.
Arthur was darting looks at her, too, and his hand moved a little in hers, as if he thought he should let go, after all. She gripped him harder and didn’t let him pull away. There was a faint gleam of vision overlaid on her Merlin and Gwen’s faces: another night, the two of them smiling back instead, something knowing and secret and a little wicked in their eyes, standing up with them—
“Come,” she said to Gwen, smiling helplessly at her, at both of her, utterly sure. “Come with us. Both of you,” and looked at Merlin, too.
“Er,” Merlin said, wide-eyed, but Gwen, her beloved Gwen, laughed suddenly and stood up, pulling him with her. “I have got used to sleeping warm again.”
Arthur made a faint sort of choked squawk and planted his feet, but what did he know. He wasn’t going to be complaining by tomorrow morning, anyway. Morgana linked arms with Gwen, who bit her lip and darted a bright, laughing look at her, half-afraid, as if she didn’t really believe yet they could do this. Morgana couldn’t help giggling with her a moment, and then she tossed her loose hair and looked over her shoulder at Arthur, still holding her hand, and let herself draw away the full length of their arms. “Unless you don’t want to join us,” she said to him slyly.
Arthur glared at her, speechless and half-outraged, shooting a look over at Merlin at the other end of Gwen’s arm. Morgana maintained her cool inquiring look. Merlin had obviously already got over the surprise and wasn’t torn in the least. He even looked at them with longing—but then he looked back at Arthur and said simply, “It’s all right. I can stay.”
Morgana couldn’t help a flash of impatience—why should Arthur’s prudery leave Merlin out—but Gwen squeezed her hand and gave her a gentle look that kept her silent, and after a moment, Arthur swallowed hard and straightened his shoulders and said in a firm, decided voice, “No,” and then, more stifled, “No,” blushing fiercely and looking away, as if he’d just noticed that actually he didn’t mind.
They were already warm with wine and spring, and their tent was pitched on soft dry pine needles just inside the forest, and they’d already taken off their armor. The heap of blankets welcomed them, and there wasn’t even anything strange about lying down together: only the startling, lovely warmth of bare skin, and suddenly the freedom to touch, to have Arthur’s mouth, to have Merlin’s quick fingers sliding between her gone-slippery thighs, to hold Gwen gasping in her arms, laughing breathless, sharing one more delicious secret, their hands moving together. “But we probably shouldn’t, you know, that,” Gwen said wistfully.
“No?” Arthur said, with a faintly agonized air. He’d ended up on the bottom of their heap again, and they had all more or less taken turns petting him. He was breathing very hard and shining with sweat, one hand buried in Merlin’s hair holding their foreheads pressed together, his face clenched up.
“Oh, there’s a potion for that,” Merlin said suddenly. “I know that one.”
“Do you have some?” Arthur said.
“Er, not right now,” Merlin said, apologetically.
“We’ll just have to make do,” Gwen said, and kissed Morgana as they both laughed.
Sir Tremain didn't think there was much hope in this goose-chase, not that he would have said as much to King Uther; one spy claiming to have seen the Prince fighting with the Eastern Legionnaires at the battle of Brighton did not make a reliable report. "Well," Sir Dernal said, as they made camp on the way, "you can't blame the king for wanting us to try. It makes some sense, after all—the sort of thing the prince might do. There's no dishonor in mercenary work."
"Say it is so; still he might be with any one of three dozen companies, from Norwich to Exeter," Tremain said. "I don't mind trying; I mind going back to our king with nothing but failure."
"We'll stop at Amesbury on the way and offer prayers for success, first," Dernal said cheerfully.
The Eastern Legionnaires were settled for the winter around Lewes, the farmers told them, with none of the grimacing that usually mercenaries drew from peasant folk; one woman asked them in all apparent sincerity if they were going to join up, though they were in full armor and tabards.
Tremain understood it better when they rode into the camp: scouts hailed them a full two miles from the town’s walls, and the tents began a mile after that. Dernal whistled, and said under his breath, "There must be near ten thousand men here." For all the huge numbers, the camp was orderly: mail scrubbed bright, no drunkenness, wide paths marked by small planted trees at the crossroads, and not even a smell of the middens. Patrols were being walked in broad daylight, men in pairs.
Dernal leaned over from his horse as one came by. "Cry you pardon, gentlemen; we are looking for Arthur Pendragon—"
He didn't even have to go on to description: one of the pair turned and pointed. "Go to the holly bush, turn left, straight on to the center of camp," the man said.
"What did I tell you?" Dernal said, as they rode on, and Tremain had to admit, it made a man give serious thought to conversion.
The paths widened near the center of camp, and the tents yielded to pavilions; there were knights here, and lords' banners, and Tremain saw in some astonishment even the banners of the kings of Lindsey and of Kent, among large companies of men, who nodded to them as they went by.
They were sent on, each time they paused to ask, until drawing near the red pavilions near the very heart of the camp, Tremain saw his cousin Sir Adebar, of the court of East Anglia, and swung down from his horse to kiss him in greeting. "I have not seen you this five years, cousin; how goes it?"
"Well, and with you?" Adebar said. "What do you here: has Camelot come to swear fealty? Surely the Saxons have not reached to your lands."
"Fealty?" Dernal said: the commander, it transpired, would take as vassals any who could not pay and yet needed protection from the raiders, and in lieu of money take land for his men.
"We are not come for that purpose," Tremain said, after they had shaken their heads a little over the strangeness of the world, "but to seek our prince. Adebar, have you seen—"
"Friends of yours, Adebar?" a voice said, and Tremain wheeled to find Prince Arthur behind them, just dismounted and handing off his reins to a squire; Arthur turned and saw him and said, "Tremain? Dernal, good God; what are you doing—" and in reaching out a hand his face went suddenly still. "My father?" he said sharply.
"In good health, sire," Dernal said immediately.
"And all is well, in Camelot?" Arthur asked, and the tension eased from his shoulders as they affirmed it. "Then you are very welcome indeed; come inside with me," he said, and clapped Adebar on the arm as he went past, and led them to the central pavilion. "One small thing first," Arthur added, as the guards pulled the panels aside, "and then I am yours; Gwen," he said, as they came inside, "Fifty more men came in—"
"Arthur!" a protesting exclamation came from the woman sitting at a broad desk in the middle of the pavilion; she sat up and glared at him with not the least sign of deference—the servant girl who'd run off with Lady Morgana and the Prince—Guinevere, Tremain thought. She didn't look like much of a servant anymore, in a warm gown of dark golden velvet and a net of gold studded with pearls holding up her dark hair. "I told you, you can't have any more men—"
"They brought some supply?" Arthur said, in a wheedling tone.
Guinevere folded her arms. "How much," she said sternly.
"Well," Arthur said.
"I can barely feed the ones we have!" she said. "You know there's nothing more coming in until spring."
"Just fifty of them!" Arthur said. "They're a trained company of lancers, from Grimsby—you should see how they maneuver—"
"Do they have horses too?" Guinevere said.
"Only two each?" Arthur said, and she tilted her head and gave him a look. "Oh, come on. Can't you—stretch things a little?"
"The whole camp will be eating mutton stew five nights a week," she said. "And that includes you."
"I love mutton stew," Arthur said. "My absolute favorite."
"Yes, of course it is," Guinevere said, very dryly. "And if you dare whine at me, even a little—"
"I won't!" Arthur said, and leaned forward across the table to kiss her soundly.
She made a muffled squeak and squirmed away. "Not in front of—" then she paused and said, "Sir Tremain? Sir Dernal? Oh my goodness, how are you? I—" she stopped and looked at Arthur.
"No, I asked, everything's all right in Camelot," Arthur said, and turned back to them. "So why are you here?"
"Sire," Tremain began, and the tent flap opened again, and a knight stuck his head in. "My lord, the earl of Ipswich has arrived."
"See that he and his men are comfortable, and send them wine with my compliments—have I got wine?" Arthur asked Guinevere.
"You don't have a mutiny, do you?" she said. "Riad, tell the quartermaster to give you the good wine, though."
"Excellent," Arthur said, "and tell them we'll speak after dinner, when they have rested and refreshed themselves."
"Yes, sire," the knight said, bowing out of the tent, and it finally dawned for Tremain, through the haze of confusion, that the prince was the commander here.
Dernal had evidently awoken to that same fact, and when at last they could continue, they looked at each other and did not know how. Dernal at last said, apologetically, "Sire, his majesty—his majesty bid us seek you, on rumors—we heard only you were here, with the company—" and hesitated.
"He would—be glad for your return," Tremain said. "If—you desired his forgiveness."
Arthur paused, and then said, "He actually said that?" skeptically.
Tremain opened and shut his mouth. Actually it had been a little more on the order of, "Tell him if he will return and sue for my forgiveness on his knees, doing penance for his treachery, he may yet be restored to his place if I am in a merciful mood."
Though Tremain hadn't said anything, the prince took on rather a wry look. "Well, I'm glad he's forgiven me even that far," he said. "Will you tell him that?"
"Sire," Dernal said, "will you not come home? His majesty was very wroth, and—" he looked at Tremain, then went on, "perhaps his language intemperate, but he is sore grieved by your absence."
Arthur looked away and down, frowning a little with strong emotion; Guinevere reached across the desk to touch his hand where he leaned against it. He smiled briefly at her, then said, "Dernal, I swear I would come if I could. But I have more than two thousand new men to train this winter, and the Saxons will be back in three months. I can't leave right now, not and keep faith with those who have sworn allegiance to me."
"And I'm afraid you'll have to give over the idea of your backup plan, by the way," a cool voice said, and Tremain turned to see the Lady Morgana enter, under arms, in a tunic of leather with a cloak of fur and dark blue wool—and with her was the sorcerer. "And that notion, too, unless you want Arthur to have you beheaded," she added, before Tremain had even moved his hand to the hilt of his sword. "You wouldn't get anywhere near Merlin in any case."
Arthur's eyes narrowed, and he straightened and beckoned to the sorcerer.
"I'm not going to let myself be spitted on a sword," the sorcerer said, rolling his eyes, but went over to Arthur anyway, to rather pointedly be pushed behind the desk.
"You might stop paying attention at a crucial moment," Arthur said. "And I really don't want to go beheading any knights of Camelot, Tremain, so get your hand away from your sword."
The king's orders on that point had been clear as well, if opportunity presented itself, but Tremain thought that in all honesty he could tell the king there had been none, under the circumstances; he took his hand away and bowed instead. "As you command, sire."
Later that night, Arthur asked Morgana, "So what was their backup plan?"
"Cut their way into the back of the tent tonight, presumably to knock you over the head and carry you back," she said, yawning, as she stretched against the furs. "They wouldn't have made it very far; it turns out Merlin can use magic perfectly well even when the two of you are—busy," she smirked at him, "but I put a couple of extra guards on, anyway. Merlin would have knocked them through two pavilions and straight into the armory, and I don't really fancy being exposed to the half of the camp that would come running."
Guinevere gave a choked laugh as she slid her gown off and climbed into the bed with them, and snuggled up into Morgana's arm. Merlin climbed in on Arthur's other side and nuzzled at the back of his neck. "Does that mean you're in the mood to—?" he said, and slid his hand over Arthur's hip.
"I certainly am now," Arthur said, but he paused in turning down on his belly, and warily asked Morgana, "They aren't going to burst in on us, are they?"
Morgana was settling back against Gwen's bosom to watch, and she only smiled, a little secretively. "I wouldn't think so," she said, blandly, "but you never know."
He glared at her, and she laughed and leaned over to kiss away his groan as Merlin slid his fingers in.
Uther had not sent Derval and Tremaine with any real expectation of success; only because a small parched scrap of hope was better than none. They came back into the great hall not two weeks later, though, and Uther abruptly cut off the lord currently presenting his case and dismissed the assembled court. He called them forward to the throne, anger and fear together warring in him: they had news, and they had not brought Arthur back.
But Derval held a folded cloth in his hands, and gave it over to him: a banner sewn with a quartered coat of arms: in one corner the Pendragon crest; beside it a sheaf of wheat crossed with a blacksmith's hammer, beneath that a golden chalice, and in the last corner a lion rampant on a blue field—the crest of Gorlois. The material was finest crimson silk, embroidered in gold with small gems strung upon the threads; a treasure for a noble house.
Uther unfolded it slowly over his lap as Tremain in his stolid, careful way told him whence it had come, and named to him the lords and kings who had sworn their allegiance to his son, not yet twenty-five years of age, and the victories he had won against the Saxons.
When Tremain was done, Uther said nothing, his temper stilled by something too much like wonder. "Morgana also was with him?" he asked eventually, his fingers resting on the lion. "And they looked well?"
"Yes, sire," Tremain said, and fell silent so immediately that Uther knew he was closing his mouth on the rest: the sorcerer was still with them.
But he looked down at his son's banner again and said, "You have done well, both of you," before he dismissed them.
The hall was empty when they had gone, but for the guards flanking the door; afternoon light slanted through the windows, reaching even to the throne, and lit the threads in the banner to flame. He would have the servants hang it on the wall behind the throne, Uther thought, to wait.