Wow... there are so many notes I want to put with this, but that would end up taking me all day, so I suppose I should just ignore all the comments I want to make about this mythology and that mythology and all the slight tweaking I did to get things to fit together and skip to the important parts.
So much thanks go to wrennette who did an awesome job of beta-ing most of this monster for me (and being very kind about my atrocious abuse of the comma) and glitterdash who came in last minute and did a wonderful job of beta-ing the ending (and trying to break my addiction to ellipses). Also thanks to the rest of my brilliant support group who helped with rants and questions and general encouragement.
Table of Contents
They all stood side by side, watching. The air itself was silent, as though it could not bring itself to blow. The odd cluck from a chicken seemed unbelievably loud in the hush as they waited.
The news had come ahead, as bad news always does. It travelled faster than any one person, and the news had brought the city to a grinding halt.
A small child asked his mother what was happening and she hushed him with tears in her eyes.
From the gate of the castle, the whisper came: ‘he is here.’ It spread through the gathered crowds swiftly, until everyone was craning their necks to see, to get the first glimpse… the last glimpse.
The footsteps of the coming knights were subdued, almost apologetic for breaking the reverent silence. They did not say a word, and their heads were bowed as they walked the path between the crowds, the path left for them. Raised above their shoulders, on their shields, lay a body, still and silent, hands touching across his chest, but no sword in sight, where there should have been one.
As they passed by the people dropped their heads, whether merely from respect, or an inability to look at the motionless chest of the man, it would be impossible to say.
There was no wild weeping, no rending of hair or screeching. No one appealed to the gods; no one fell to their knees. It was a quiet grief, personal and private, that they all shared, yet all felt separately.
The knights set their burden down on the top of the steps to the castle and stepped back. If they had tears in their eyes then no one saw. To look at them too hard would be to impinge on their own mourning.
There was no one left to speak over his body, no one who knew him well enough to say anything that wouldn’t sound trite or self-serving.
As all faces were turned towards the body, new footsteps came, quick and firm, exploding into the silence and cutting through it. They were the footsteps of a man doing an unpleasant yet essential job, a job he wanted to have over and done with.
Heads turned to look at him and the silence changed.
It is amazing how much a silence can convey. Where previously there had been respect and sorrow, suddenly the still calm grew sullen, the lack of movement was less from shock or awe, and more from stubborn refusal. The courtyard grew tense, and the knights by the corpse stood firmly to attention, their eyes fixed straight ahead. The traditional rebellion of the dutiful man: obedience to the smallest detail.
The man mounted the steps to stand by the body, and as he did so, the people saw that the crown was already on his forehead. No one commented.
He looked out over the people and smiled, a shark’s smile. His eyes were blue and clear, and there was murder in their depths.
“A new age has dawned for Camelot,” he said, “No longer will your sons be called out to wars fought over matters inconsequential to you, no longer will your King be so caught up in his own life that you suffer for it. No longer will Albion be covered by strife…
“Arthur was a good man, but a good man suffers in power, for he is unable to see the duplicity in those around him. He was noble, but his nobility blinded him to the underhand manipulation of his councillors. But even a good man is not without faults, and it was his pride, his blindness to corruption, that brought us to this point. He was slain from behind on the battlefield, by one of his own men, and so the throne has fallen to me.
“I accepted this crown this morning, as the sun broke over our new day. I accepted it in sorrow, for I knew a good man had passed for me to gain it, but I accepted it in the hope that we could join together to bring something positive from the war that has shaken our country. The war which has ended today.
“And now we must lay our brother to rest, and hope that he finds peace in the next life, that he could not find in this one.
“The King is dead…”
The crowd stayed silent, but from the back, a lone voice, who had presumably shuffled in behind the man on the steps, cried out “long live King Mordred.”
In the silence that followed, a bird could be heard to keen from the castle wall.
The lake was smooth as ice, spreading out from where he knelt to the far reaches. Shores that weren’t really shores stretching round.
The knights had left him hours ago, kneeling by the side of the water, staring at his own reflection and cursing time and all its cruelty. They had carried away their king, borne on shields, back to Camelot, where the women would be weeping in the streets and the moans of pain would echo off the castle walls. Even Mordred knew better than to deny them grief at his passing.
And the world would always be that little bit darker.
That morning they had sat in counsel before the battle and Arthur had bowed his head as they came to understand that this was one battle they could not win.
That morning had dawned and Merlin had looked at the clouds overhead, covering the sky, and thought the day would be dark. He had never imagined, never dared to think, that this would be the day it ended.
It wasn’t supposed to end at all.
Destiny was supposed to be glorious, exalted. There should have been fanfares and triumphs. They would fight forever, side by side, they would make the world a better place, and no force would ever stop them.
And when that hazy someday came, that grew ever nearer with the greying of Arthur’s hair. If then, when the wrinkles that had slowly appeared on the King’s face, Arthur had to die; it would be nobly and righteously, for a just cause and in a blaze of glory.
He would not be slaughtered where he stood on an almost empty battlefield, mourning the loss of his world.
It would not be slowly draining of blood on the shore of a lake.
It would not be as Excalibur sank back beneath the water.
It would not be now.
Merlin’s reflection stared back at him, mocking his glamour of age with the truth. He reached out and dashed the water so that his always smooth skin and dark hair would be swallowed by the ripples, and turned away.
That was a mistake. A dark red stain – slowly fading to brown – caught his eye and he tried not to remember who had lain there, hours before, choking out a few final words.
The King is dead, long live the King.
The future had never been Merlin’s domain. He could now sense the threads of destiny, tying things together, and he could feel Mordred coming to stand in the square of Camelot to read out his enemy’s eulogy as though he were there watching it, but all he could see ahead was night time. The golden age had fallen and the new King, who had never understood how things worked and only seen how he wanted them to be, would lead everything into shadow.
Albion would fail and all their dreams and destiny would be for naught.
He reached out and touched the dark stain of the blood, morbidly fascinated by its coldness. Arthur had never been cold. He let the glamour drain away and felt the beard he had cultivated, so as to be taken seriously, disappear, and his face unfold. There was no one left who would recognise him as himself.
Where would he go? What would he do? His destiny - done with.
He stared down at the blood and began to feel his fury rise. Arthur dead, Gwen dead, Lancelot fallen and Morgana lost. Gawain, Gareth, Gaheris, Percival, Balan, Ector, Kay, all of them… Galahad, as well; all gone beyond the limits of his magic, to a place where he would never follow.
Death was not as easy as it looked.
They had been promised the world, and all they had ended up with was death. The Old Religion had given them destiny, and it had taken everything from them in return. It had taken everything from him.
He stood up without even noticing the wind that was picking up around him, making the trees sway and causing the water to ruffle and waves to form.
There was nothing left for him in Camelot, nothing left for him anywhere. But he was expected to continue because that was his role.
The wind began to howl around him, the waves lifting up and crashing down, rising up the shoreline to wash away the blood of the King, but not daring to touch Merlin’s feet.
He had seen how destiny played out, he had done as the Old Religion had commanded, and now he was done with that too. There was no reason for him to follow it anymore. Arthur was gone…
The Once and Future King was lost.
Everything dies, he had once told Morgana. He had been trying to placate her, trying to make her see sense. He had been trying to stop the inevitable just as much as she had been.
Everything dies, everything has to die; we cannot play at being gods.
And all she had been able to say in response had been two words that had been more devastating than any others in any language could have been to him at that point.
Except you, she had told him, and he had seen clear knowledge in her eyes. She had been telling the truth. It was not his destiny to die.
But it was Arthur’s.
Life and Death were vital, thriving off each other and feeding in to each other. They were so important that you could not interfere. It was the lesson that all magic users learnt in their time: that some things were so fundamental to everything that they could not be done. You could not bring life, only the higher powers could do that. Every magic user tried: to create a flower out of nothing for a lover, to aid conception, to bring back a loved one. And each, in their turn failed, or had to face the consequences. Merlin had been there before; he had learnt his lesson.
Arthur had asked him to try again, several times, and every time he had refused.
Why not? If you’re so bloody powerful, then why not?
It doesn’t work like that, Arthur.
What use is magic then? So you can kill men and clean things, I can do that. It might take me longer, but I can still do it. What use is magic if it can’t do anything useful?
Merlin had felt superior then, calm, wise and powerful. He had known all the answers and he had known that everything would come out equal in the end because that was the way the world worked. Everything was as it was supposed to be. Arthur was King and Albion was united and the world was golden.
“We weren’t finished,” he said to the waters of the lake. “We spent all that time worrying about the world…” The wind whistled past his ears, faster and faster, snatching the words out of his mouth as he spoke them, making him doubt whether they had ever been said out loud at all. “We never had time for ourselves. He never had a chance to be Arthur. He was always the Prince or the King. The Ruler, the Conqueror, the Tyrant.” He spat the last word, remembering Mordred’s speech on the battlefield. “It wasn’t fair. He gave you everything. We gave you everything!” He raised his voice above the level of the wind as it whipped the material of his clothes around him. “It wasn’t FAIR!”
There was a clap of thunder that shook the ground and the trees; lightning flashed across the sky; and then, the world hung there for a second, the water paused mid wave, the bows of the trees bent dangerously towards him, and even the air seemed frozen. Just as suddenly as it had come, the wind stopped, the water crashed downwards again, as though it had just been dropped, and the trees sprang back upright.
Merlin bowed his head and glared at the ground. There was power coursing through him; he could control the weather, he could command time. He had the power to kill with a glance, and to save lives. Why not this? Why not go further?
The grass ruffled slightly, though there was no longer even a breeze on the wind.
We cannot play at being gods.
The room, or cave, was dark and thick with blackness, except that thickness implied presence; what there was was absence – of light, of sound, of touch, of taste. This place was beyond concepts such as space, probably beyond time as well.
Arthur was unsure where that thought came from; it was not his own.
He considered it for a moment, or maybe an hour, but no time seemed to pass in the place. He could not even hear the sound of his breathing. That shocked him for a moment. His hands reached up to his chest, and he was relieved to find that they touched solid cloth, rough underneath his fingertips, though beneath his feet there was no pressure.
But his chest did not rise or fall, he did not breathe in. There was nothing to breathe in.
He considered the moment rationally, with a distance that surprised him. If there was nothing to breathe then the fact that he was not breathing made sense. Not breathing did not seem to be doing him any harm. Why struggle to do something that was clearly unnecessary? He should save his energy for battles that were worth fighting.
As he thought that, Arthur became aware that suddenly he was standing on something. There was a pressure on the soles of his feet, through the boots he must be wearing. The curious feeling of weightlessness he had been hanging in without realising evaporated and he could feel his body being dragged back downwards.
It felt unnatural, while at the same time normal. His body did not want to go down anymore. The freedom he had felt before was almost a dim memory, if it had ever existed. In a place where time had no meaning, what was memory?
It was the sort of question Merlin would have asked when he was trying to be elusive and mysterious. The kind of question designed to make people go away. Arthur had hated those questions. The kind where the answer was a long speech of incomprehensible nothingness which ended up meaning something along the lines of ‘I don’t know’. He had always glared at his Court Sorcerer until he had shut up.
What he would not give now to hear Merlin explaining something he didn’t understand.
As soon as he thought of Merlin’s voice he was aware of sound again, nothing loud, or noisy, just a dim background rustle. He looked around the darkness and caught sight of something, vaguely visible, in the middle distance. It was a figure, on the other side of the chamber or cave, whatever the place was.
“Where am I?” Arthur asked, his voice echoing around the dark.
There was a small chuckle and the figure stepped into a ray of light that seemed to come from nowhere, brought forth for the specific reason of illuminating the figure and outlining her in cool white. Arthur drew back, his hand going automatically for a sword that was no longer with him. He should never have forgotten it. The last time he had seen that face, staring at him with such intent amusement, it had been glazed in death. And the time before that she had been frowning with anger as he had sunk a sword into flesh and felt blood run over his hands.
Morgana just smiled at him, the faint smirk she always wore when she knew more than him.
“You’re dead,” she told him bluntly. Death suited her, her bearing as regal as it had always been, but a light had returned to her eyes that had not been there for years, even before she had made her sacrifices.
“I worked that one out, thanks…” he said, trying to remember the last time he had seen her smile like that. The day she had left Camelot. “I asked where I was. Not what I was.”
“True… and that really is the question, isn’t it,” she took a step forward and Arthur almost took an automatic step back, causing her to let out a small huff of laughter once more. “Where did you end up?”
“Yes… that would be why I asked ‘where am I?’” Arthur continued, unable to stop himself from falling into familiar patterns of conversation, despite the fact the last time he and Morgana had spoken he had apologised for killing her; whispered words into her ear, barely audibly over her desperate gasps for breath and the pounding of his own heart.
“I don’t know,” she said simply, shrugging. “It could be any number of places.”
“I thought you knew everything,” Arthur commented bitterly, and as he spoke Morgana’s face flickered from amused to haunted and back again.
“Nothing changes here,” she said, refusing to look him in the eye. “There’s nothing left to See.”
“Do I get to choose?” Arthur asked.
“If there’s one thing I learnt in life,” Morgana said bitterly, “it’s that everything is already chosen. Even if you change it, that path is chosen too.” She lifted a finger up towards his face and stroked it down thin air, in a carefully drawn line of his cheek. Arthur almost shivered. “You were always destined to kill me, Arthur, just as Mordred was always destined to kill you.”
“I can’t believe that…” he told her. “If that’s true, then what’s the point?” She laughed then, like breaking glass, and it echoed around the place they stood in.
“I don’t know,” she said. “What’s the point in anything? Here we are, again. At least this time you don’t have a sword to stick through my chest.” Arthur refused to look away from her. He could not regret his actions. “You’re the reason I got stuck here in the first place… and now I find that you’re my way out.”
“What do you mean?” he asked, still wary of her, even in death. In life, she had never let on half of what she knew and had always been three steps ahead. Arthur had been glad of that sometimes. He had never known, in the end, whether her mind was still intact or not. Sometimes she looked as though she had shattered into pieces, at other times she looked like she was saner than anyone.
“You’ll see.” Her words were accompanied by a skittering sound from the darkness, and Morgana turned quickly, her eyes widening. Arthur shivered, although there was no temperature.
“Morgana, now is not a good time to be enigmatic. In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re dead,” he waved his hand around at the emptiness that surrounded them. “So why don’t you just tell me what’s going on? I understand that you’re still angry with me.” She looked at him, and the cutting half smile fell away to be replaced by a look of compassion, something he had not seen on her face for far too long.
“I was never angry at you,” his foster sister said, taking a step forward. She looked almost sad. “Well, I was, but that passed years ago. And I’m not mad at you for killing me, either. I would have done the same.”
“I know,” Arthur told her. He was sorry that it had had to happen, but he was not sorry that he had done it.
“We should get out of here,” she said calmly, although her eyes were flickering around, as though she could see something in the darkness.
“Anywhere,” she told him, hurrying forward to grasp his arm. Her fingers were still long and slender, just lightly resting on his arm, and she felt warm despite being dead.
“I don’t know… this is your death,” her voice rose. Arthur heard the chattering, shuffling noise return, a little louder than before. “Look, just take us somewhere. It’s up to you.”
“Then what are you doing here?” he asked, warily.
“I’m here to help. Arthur, you have to trust me.”
“You tried to kill me.”
“And now you’re dead. Mission accomplished.” Her grip on his arm tightened, but she did not look angry, so much, as afraid. “Can we get over the whole mortal enemies thing now? After all, we’re not exactly mortal anymore.”
“Morgana…” he began.
“Just – think that you want to be somewhere else,” she told him, “please, Arthur. I’m not ready yet. Please.” She was definitely afraid, he could see it in her eyes: fear and a little bit of the old madness returned. He reached out and grasped her other arm in a mirror image of her own grip on him and he shut his eyes and concentrated on being somewhere else.
There was a strange feeling of displacement, as though his entire body had shifted somehow. Although there was no physical sensation when Arthur opened his eyes he stood in the Great Hall of Camelot once more. He gazed around and took in the emptiness of it all.
There were no servants bustling about behind the doors, no noises drifting through the windows from the city below, no footsteps or voices or noises of any kind. There wasn’t even the rustle of a light wind. If there had been any pins dropping, they would have been heard as clearly as bells. If Arthur’s heart had still been beating, the cacophony of it would have echoed around the chamber.
He sat down on his throne with a bump and sagged into his seat. In the other place, the darkness, it had been easy to be dead, there had been nothing else to be. He had not expected someone to call out his name or walk up to him.
“Don’t worry, you’ll get over it,” Morgana said, flickering into existence beside him, in a way that seemed so completely her that it didn’t even phase him. “It’s more a matter of remembering not to breathe.”
Arthur realised he was trying to do just that, his chest heaving up and down but doing nothing, everything that rushed into him was just rushing back out again. He concentrated on stopping, which was a lot more difficult than he had imagined.
“I suppose you want to know what’s going on,” Morgana told him, sitting down in the chair that had been Guinevere’s, but before that, many years before, had belonged to Morgana.
“I died,” Arthur said, feeling his old irritation at her casual superiority come rushing back. “I would have thought that was pretty self-explanatory.”
“Yes and no…” Morgana said, “which would be why I’m here. Most people don’t get this, you know. Most people just get packaged off to their own personal afterlife, no choices, no decisions, no fuss.”
“What do you mean?” Arthur asked. “Isn’t this… heaven?” he waved his hand around the empty throne room vaguely, trying not to remember the times he had seen it full of friends and subjects. Guinevere had used to stand to his right, Lancelot poised behind her right shoulder, Merlin at his left, always with an amused smile pulling at his lips as though he could see the punch-line.
“Does it feel like heaven?” Morgana asked, her voice turning icy in a split second and the throne room darkening.
“Believe me, it’s not. It’s far from paradise, and I’ve been waiting here for you. I don’t know how long I’ve been waiting – for the man who killed me.”
Arthur refused to draw away from her. She took a few deep breaths before relaxing again.
“Look, all I know is that this… this place, is specifically designed for you,” she said. “They told me that I should help you through it, though I have no idea what ‘it’ is.”
“Why should I trust you?” Arthur asked, warily. Morgana laughed, hollowly and brutally, her voice cutting through the room.
“Who else is there to trust?” she asked. Arthur glared at the opposite wall, but he took her point.
“There are three things you need to know, Arthur,” she said, standing up to come and stand in front of him.
“What are they?” he asked, pulling himself up straight as she leaned forward. He would not be intimidated by her.
“First – Nothing here is entirely as it seems; it’s not straight forward or simple,” Arthur nodded. He had guessed as much already. “Second – Nothing here is entirely meaningless,” she waited for Arthur to nod again before she continued. “Third – He cannot follow you here.”
“Who…?” Arthur asked, but he already knew the answer.
“Your pet warlock,” she said bitterly, “Merlin, who would follow you into the heart of the storm. He is not bound by mortality, he has no place here.”
“You mean he can’t die.” Arthur said, slowly, looking around at the empty hall again.
“No, he can’t,” she said again. “I’m sorry, Arthur… I really am, but that’s not his fate.”
They paused for a moment, or an eternity, and Arthur tried to imagine Merlin on his own, walking through a world with no purpose. Merlin without Camelot, Merlin without Arthur.
“But Guinevere… Lancelot,” Arthur said slowly.
“They’re dead, Arthur. They’re all dead,” Morgana said, her voice soothing. He pushed the heels of his hands into the armrests of his throne and tried to ignore the feeling of utter loss that was threatening to overwhelm him. Dead or not he was still a King and he would act like it.
“Then I’d better work out a way to get back then,” he said suddenly, watching Morgana blink and take a step back.
“Arthur…” she muttered, looking scared, though whether it was of him or for him, he couldn’t tell. “That’s not what you’re supposed to do here.”
“I can’t leave him alone,” Arthur said firmly. “He’ll probably end up trapped in a cave for all eternity, or falling in with some attractive sorceress who’ll ensnare him with magic. You know what he’s like.” He caught himself as he saw Morgana’s eyes darken with something that looked like it might have once been hatred.
“Yes, I know what he’s like.” Arthur swallowed.
“Then I have to get back…” he said simply, standing up. “How do I do that?”
“I… I don’t know, Arthur. I’m not sure there is a way back.” Morgana said, sounding scared again. Arthur paced up and down the court room, remembering the millions of times he had done this before. Agonising over war plans, over Guinevere, over whether the citizens had enough to eat through a cold winter. All those problems, all those years and always, standing where Morgana was now, watching him carefully and interrupting his musing with suggestions – everything from the insane to the inspired (sometimes at the same time) – had been Merlin.
He halted in the doorway, bracing himself against the frame with both hands as weariness came upon him suddenly. It might be better just to end it, leave himself dead, and accept that his time was over. He had worked his whole life for his people, his Kingdom, surely he was allowed some rest.
He turned to look at Morgana who was watching him as though she had never seen him before, her face a mass of confusion with a hint of awe. He had worked hard, but he had not got everything right, she was proof of that.
For a moment, his vision flickered and it was not Morgana as she stood before him now, in death, he saw. The long court dress changed to mail and plate armour, and at the bottom of her rib cage a red stain was spreading.
He blinked and she was once again as he had seen her – as young as she had been before she had been banished, before the visions had taken her mind – still watching him in silence.
He remembered Guinevere and Lancelot, and the glances shared that he had always told himself not to see. He remembered Gawain standing over the bodies of his brothers and swearing vengeance. He remembered Mordred, with his eyes full of hatred.
No… he had not got everything right, he had not got many things right. Rest came to those who earned it.
“If there’s a way out of here,” he said as certainly as he could, years of leading troops into battle at the fore, “I will find it.”
He would get his second chance.
Morgana sighed and crossed over to him, smiling freely.
“Sometime,” she mused, “when I wasn’t looking, you became a great man.” He ignored the comment. There was no response he could think of which would not bring up old wounds.
“Tell me what you know,” he instructed instead. She sized him up slowly, still smiling a little.
“I don’t know much…” she said. “It’s strange here. I’m not sure how long it’s been.” He nodded understandingly. “The way I think it works, is that everyone goes where they think they should go. If they believe in Christianity, then they go to heaven or hell… if they believe in the Old Religion then they go to that paradise. They’re all essentially the same places, just… different aspects of them.” She shot Arthur a look, as though expecting him to argue or ask for clarification. In the years since she had left Camelot, he had listened to many people explain many things. He wasn’t the boy she knew, but there was no time for that conversation, and anyway, he had a feeling she knew. He just waved for her to go on.
“Then, there are those that are holding on to life still, the ones who don’t want to go into an afterlife. They linger here for a time, caught in this… nothingness,” she waved her hands at the scene around them. Arthur thought that, in places, the stone walls looked almost transparent, but there was nothing beyond them. He turned away quickly. He might be dead, but his mind still couldn’t handle concepts like ‘nothing’.
“What happens then?” he prompted, noticing the way that Morgana’s fingernails were digging into her palms.
“I… I don’t know,” she admitted in a quiet voice. “I’d see them from time to time, people who flickered into existence, wandering around like wraiths.” Her eyes were looking in the direction of his face, but he knew she wasn’t seeing him. He had seen this look on her before, when she had awoken from a bad nightmare. “They didn’t speak, they just walked… like shells, except, I thought the body was supposed to be the shell, what happens if the soul is empty too?”
She shuddered violently and Arthur could not help but see her as his sister again, and he led her to the throne, supporting her weight. The years between them were ignored for a moment as she allowed herself to take comfort in him.
“Some of them were like us though… and that’s worse. I’d talk to some of them. It wasn’t that they couldn’t leave mortality, it was that they didn’t know where to go. There was a little girl,” Morgana broke off with a fractured sob. “She can’t have been more than seven years old. She was walking around with this cut,” she gestured towards her throat, “but she was always smiling… she was looking for her father, but she didn’t know where he had gone.
“When you turn your back, you hear them,” she said suddenly, “you see them out of the corner of your eye. When you lose concentration, when you lose your will…”
“No…” Morgana looked around at the walls. “I don’t know what they are, but you can hear them scuttling past, chattering to themselves.” Arthur remembered the noises from earlier and shivered in spite of himself. He was used to evils you could fight, monsters and humans. “I’ve never really seen them, except as… shadows, where the darkness is darker. Like it goes all the way through the absence of light and into something else.
“They took her, they take them all in the end. They’ll take us… they’re always coming… always…” her eyes were huge and wide and her hands were gripping hold of her knees so tightly that, had she had blood to bleed, she would have been bleeding. Arthur knelt before her and took her hands in his, gently prying them off her legs and stilling them. She felt fragile.
“I won’t let them take you…” he promised her and her eyes caught on his for a moment, a dreamy look.
“How noble of you, the chivalrous King protecting the damsel in distress…” her words were bitter again, and she looked older, like the Morgana he had met on the battlefield after years of estrangement, the Morgana that had been reported to him by men in hushed tones. The Morrigan Incarnate, they had called her, their hushed voices where they thought he couldn’t hear. He hadn’t believed them until he had seen her again, the wind whipping her hair back from her face, one hand raised, magic crackling about it and blood splashed across her face.
She had killed more men in two minutes than he had lost in battle in the five years since she had been gone.
And now he was trying to comfort her in the afterlife. Fate worked in mysterious ways.
“I have no need, nor any desire for your pity, Arthur Pendragon,” she pushed him away and stood up, striding out across the floor, her footsteps making no sound, although they should have echoed off the stone.
She disappeared before she reached the door, and Arthur was unsurprised.
Then he stood alone in the centre of his throne room.
“What the hell am I supposed to do now?” he asked of the walls.
“Oh… you know, standing around and moping’s an old favourite,” a voice came from behind him and Arthur jumped. As he swivelled round he reached for a sword he no longer wore and found himself face to face with… himself.
“Sorry about borrowing your face,” the other Arthur said, running one hand down the side of his jaw, “and you really should have shaved before you died… did no one tell you? You want to look your best in the afterlife.”
“The etiquette and niceties of being dead weren’t really discussed,” Arthur, the real Arthur, said shortly. He drew himself up to his full height and reminded himself that he was King and no randomly appearing doppelgangers were going to faze him.
“I suppose not,” the man said, his face quirking into a grin completely unlike Arthur’s other smiles. “You mortals are all so terrified of death… it’s terribly amusing.”
“Us mortals?” Arthur said slowly. “As opposed to…?”
“Us gods,” the man said, he too straightened up and Arthur found himself looking upwards, although he couldn’t be smaller than himself… The other’s features changed subtly, like Arthur was looking at a portrait of himself where all the flaws and characteristics that made him Arthur had been ironed out and glossed over.
After a second he had to avert his eyes, which were beginning to sting like he had been looking at the sun.
“Sorry about that,” the man said, “but I find that a demonstration is often the easiest way to do things. People tend to be a little… disbelieving if you say that you’re a god. I remember once in the 21st century… but then, that hasn’t happened yet.”
“Right,” Arthur said, turning to sit down rather heavily in his throne again. It was not, he assured himself, because his legs would not support him, nor because he was in awe of the god, it just seemed a little stupid to carry on standing when there was a perfectly good throne – his perfectly good throne – right there. “And you would be?”
“Ah… well, technically I’m not supposed to be here,” the man admitted. “I could probably get in big trouble for this, not that I’m not normally in big trouble… it’s just I could be in bigger trouble. But I sort of like you.”
“You sort of like me?”
“Yes, so I thought I’d help you out. Which I’m not supposed to do. In fact, seeing as you don’t really believe in me, I’m not supposed to appear to you at all, but I figured, since you’re in limbo, and technically don’t belong to anyone, really, you’re fair game.”
“I don’t belong to…” Arthur was beginning to feel light-headed, or a vague memory of what light-headedness was.
“Anyone, while you’re in limbo – we divided up the peoples of earth, sort of, and we divide you up in death, but you’re sort of neither at the moment, and therefore don’t belong to anyone, and therefore I’m not really breaking any rules.”
“Well done,” Arthur said, falling back on what he knew, “you officially have more convoluted logic than Merlin. What are you anyway? The God of Stupidity?”
“Try the God of Cupidity…” the man said with a wink… “Well, sort of.... God of Thieves, anyway.”
“You’re a thief?”
“Wouldn’t be very good at my job if I wasn’t, would I?” the god sat down in the seat Morgana had vacated, swinging his legs over the arm rest idly and kicking against Arthur’s own seat with a rhythmic thm-kp. Every impact made Arthur’s entire body shake.
“I don’t have-” he began, before realising that he did, in fact have ‘all day’, or whatever passed for one in the strange in-between place.
“Fine, I’ll get on with it, although the ravishing Morgana was supposed to be doing this… You’re supposed to be tested – you’ve been signed up for reincarnation from the beginning. You’ve been destined to be reborn since before you were born. Something about magic being used to create you and the balance shifting, I don’t know. But, the thing about gods is, most of us don’t like the idea of someone being outside the rules. We like to think that we are the be all and end all of life, death and everything.”
“Aren’t you?” Arthur asked curiously.
“No… not even a little bit. There’s fate and there’s free will. Those are the two things that are really important. We just sort of mess around a bit. But even we can’t change fate or free will, though we like to pretend we can.”
“Why are you telling me this?” the dead King inquired, uncertain. He was not desperate to take the word of a thief, but he had little else to go on other than Morgana’s warning.
“Because I don’t like the rules… or most of my colleagues. They’re all up themselves, self-righteous bastards, a lot like you, actually.”
Arthur opened his mouth to argue, but then reminded himself that he was talking to a god, and wisely shut it.
“They’ve decided that they want to test you,” the god said with a wry twist of the lips. “They want to see if you’re worthy of reincarnation. They really just want to try and prove destiny wrong, but they’ve managed to find a loophole in the whole destiny clause.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean… that there’s destiny or fate, and then there’s free will, like I was saying before, and the only thing that can stop destiny is free will and the only thing that can stop free will is destiny. It’s all very complicated and involved at a metaphysical level that your pitiful human mind would never be able to handle. However, what it all boils down to in the end is this: You have to be given the choice whether or not to return.”
“I choose to return,” Arthur said immediately, and his godly counterpart just rolled his eyes.
“If it were that easy, you’d be back already. No… that was the intention. You’d stay over here until it was time and then you’d say ‘I think I should go back now and poof, there you are back in the land of the living all shiny and new. However, then the gods got involved – all of them (apart from me, clearly) and they thought up this marvellous concoction to try and stop you from getting back.
“You are destined to return, but if you choose not to, then you won’t. No one ever said this choice had to be direct, though. So they decided that they would give you a series of tests, and your choices in them would show whether or not you should return. Destiny and free will appeased and they get to set the challenges. Everyone’s happy.”
“Except you and Emrys…” the god looked over at Arthur shrewdly. “They don’t like him much, either. There’s something fundamentally wrong about a man who can’t die. Even I get the shivers when I look at him, like he’s out of place.” Arthur didn’t answer. “Anyway, like I was saying, they’re using these challenges to try and keep you here. They’re doing something similar to Emrys on the outside…”
“His name is Merlin,” Arthur said abruptly.
“Yes… his human name, but he’s not exactly human, and not exactly god. He’s not exactly anything.”
“He’s Merlin.” Arthur shrugged as though that answered everything, and in his head it did. There had always been something infuriating about his Court Sorcerer, even in the days when he had been his manservant, especially in the days when he had just been his manservant. He had thought the magic explained it, but even knowing that he was a warlock didn’t quite make sense of matters. “You still haven’t told me your name,” Arthur said. It was becoming difficult to refer to the man as ‘the god’ in his head, he needed some sort of signifier.
“Hermes,” his double said, and in a flash he was out of his seat and standing before the throne, bowing deeply. “I’m not the only one on your side, either. You might bump into a few of us.”
“Right… about Merlin,”
“He’s trying to bring you back,” Hermes said with a smirk, “even though he knows it’s against every rule ever made, and he’s not going through the usual routes either – necromancy and sťances. If it were just that we’d have it easy: we’d reanimate your body, or send a demon in the guise of your spirit. But he’s actually looking for you. That makes it very difficult. Although I am quite impressed with him, I’ve seen lovers separated by death before… most of them just throw themselves off cliffs or stab themselves. Very romantic, but death is still death.”
“I thought he couldn’t die…” Arthur said, quietly. Hermes’ eyes shifted a little, and he looked slightly guilty.
“He can’t, which is probably why he didn’t try to... I was just thinking out loud. Right… so there are going to be tests, in order to get back you’ll have to pass them.”
“Fine,” Arthur stood up himself, “when do we start?”
“Don’t be too arrogant, they might not be testing what you think they are testing.” Arthur remembered, a long time ago, a dead unicorn and a series of tests – tests he would never have passed without Merlin. But he was without Merlin now, and if he ever wanted to call the man a witless dunce again he would have to manage the tests without the aid of magic… or Merlin’s twisted thought processes.
Arthur had come to the conclusion, years ago, that magic made people think differently. It didn’t make them evil or insane, as his father had said again and again, and as he had seen played out in Morgana. But the ability to get around problems with a wave of the hand and a few words gave a person a strange way of looking at things. Other people tended to work around the impossibilities, people with magic would go in the straightest possible line. It had made living with Merlin, who was probably the most magical person he had ever met, interesting.
He presumed that gods would work in a very similar way.
“I understand,” he said, “when do these tests begin?”
“Maybe they’ve already started,” Hermes suggested, and Arthur considered the idea.
“Then I might already have failed.”
“You’ll know when you’ve failed…” the thief god told him surely.
“You make it sound like I can’t win,” Arthur commented.
“Do not challenge the gods, for they play by rules you cannot understand,” Hermes told him, sounding as though he was quoting something that Arthur did not recognise.
“I’ve never heard that,” Arthur said.
“Words to live by, if there ever were any. I’d say good luck, but I’ll not curse you like that.”
Before Arthur could ask what he meant by those last words, he had disappeared entirely. There was no sound or vision to mark his vanishing; one second he was there, the next he wasn’t.
Arthur looked down at the floor and contemplated waiting to see what happened next. It did not appeal to him, so he strode off in the direction Morgana had gone, towards the huge doors to the chamber, usually kept open during his life time, but now resolutely shut. He pushed them open and walked into the corridor on the other side.
Morgana had been gone for years before they heard of her again in Camelot. And when they did, they wished that they had not.
She led an army of druids and magic users against Arthur’s forces, beginning the first of the battles that led up to the end, and Arthur and his knights rode out to meet her, Merlin at his side.
The battles had been on going for weeks, things turning in Arthur’s favour, though Merlin’s face was drawn and Arthur did not want to ask him what was on his mind. Morgana still threw her forces at them though.
Arthur had heard her using her magic to call him across the battlefield since morning, goading and taunting him to come out and face her. Sometimes she laughed at his cowardice, other times she tried to enrage him by calling on the memory of his father.
You made me into this, she would say inside his head, you should finish it.
Finish it, over and over again, like what she really meant to say was finish me.
Merlin knew that there was something going on, but Arthur couldn’t quite bring himself to tell his Sorcerer of Morgana’s madness. Merlin had enough to deal with trying to keep their magical defences one step ahead of the enemy’s attacks.
Come on, Arthur, she said again as he went over the battle plans for the next day. Or are you afraid? I always was better than you, after all.
He left Lancelot, Gawain and Ector to the planning, pleading exhaustion, and made sure to stop off to see Merlin before he slipped away. If he didn’t, he knew the sorcerer would only follow him, as he would were it the other way round.
The camp was so busy preparing for the battle the next day that no one noticed him slip away into the woods to the south, and he reminded himself to speak more sharply to the sentries on his return.
She was waiting for him in a clearing, dressed in chainmail with a blade in her hand.
“Hello Arthur,” Morgana said, turning to him and he gasped when he saw her face. Her eyes were milky white and, though she turned them to him, he knew that she could not see in any normal sense of the word. “There must be sacrifices, Arthur,” she said, taking a step forwards. “I sacrificed my sight to bring us here, to achieve greater understanding. What will you sacrifice?”
“Did you bring me here to kill me, Morgana?” Arthur asked quietly. He did not want to do this, although he knew no one else could. She laughed, high pitched and broken, the staccato of it echoing around the forest.
“Maybe I did, and maybe I didn’t,” she said, smiling vacantly at him. “Maybe I’ll slit your throat and the blood will soak the earth – a fitting sacrifice.” She raised her blade until it was level with his jugular. “Maybe I’ll run you through and your blood will stain my hands, as the blood of so many others already does. Maybe I will let you live.”
“Or maybe I’ll kill you,” Arthur said, drawing Excalibur. She laughed again, more hysterical than the first time; it sounded like the chatter of birds.
“Yes, perhaps it is my fate to be killed by Albion’s boy-King.”
“I’m not a boy any more, Morgana.”
“No, and I’m not a foolish girl who thinks that the world can be made right by good people. It must be burnt to the ground and rebuilt. The people will not change, so we must change the people.”
“You’re mad,” Arthur said, with pity that he couldn’t quite control.
“Or perhaps, I am saner than anyone,” Morgana suggested, before flinging herself into an attack with a bellow of rage. She had never taken well to pity.
The fight began like their old fights had used to, each blow predicted by the other and easily deflected. They had fought so many times as children and young adults, sneaking off after it became clear that Morgana was no longer allowed to partake in the less feminine pursuits. Over the years they had learnt each other’s styles so well, adapted to each of them. But that had been years ago, and the differences soon started to show. Morgana had become more erratic, and her sword blows were coupled with magical attacks that were easily neutralised by the protective charms worked into the scabbard Merlin had made for him. Arthur, in contrast, had become less impulsive and far calmer. Morgana’s taunts no longer made him rise to the bait; he waited again and again.
Although, he noticed, there was something off about her fighting style. It was as though she was going through the steps of a prearranged dance, like she knew what was coming – which Arthur could believe – but couldn’t change anything.
The fight didn’t last long. Morgana managed to get the upper hand and drew her sword back for a final strike, but Arthur was quicker than she remembered. He saw his opening just as she was reaching to take hers. He dodged her blade cleanly and thrust Excalibur up and into her rib cage, until the hilt of his sword hit bone. They were body to body, her blood soaking the front of his surcoat, and he brought one arm round her as the pair of them crumpled to their knees.
“This isn’t as bad as I saw,” Morgana muttered into the air between them.
“I’m sorry,” Arthur said.
“No… you’re not,” she told him, and they were the last words she said. She managed one last rattling gasp for breath before becoming dead weight in his arms, his sword still speared through her. She was right: he was not sorry, not really. She had been mad in the end, leading an army to fulfil insane wishes that no one would ever be able to live up to.
He pulled Excalibur from her body carefully and watched her crumple to the ground before wiping her blood from the blade and sliding it back into its sheath.
“It was the only way.” Arthur turned to find Merlin watching them from the shadow of the trees, his eyes on Morgana, sad but resigned. “She wouldn’t have stopped.”
“I know,” said the King, but it was Arthur who couldn’t help but ask, “Was there anything left of her in the end?”
“I don’t know,” Merlin whispered back. “The magic… sometimes… it can consume you. I can feel it pulling at me when I’m not careful.”
“You won’t ever be like her,” Arthur reassured him, with complete conviction. “Never.” Merlin smiled, the stupid grin that made him look so much younger than he appeared – like the person he saw in the mirror rather than the glamour he presented to the world.
“Not while you’re here, I suspect. There’s not enough room in Camelot for both of us to have big heads.” He stepped forward and reached out to grasp Arthur’s arm, drawing him in until he could touch their foreheads together. They held the position for a moment before Arthur drew in a deep breath and turned away, crouching down to pick up Morgana’s body. She weighed hardly anything in his arms.
“We’ll give her a proper burial,” Merlin assured him.
“Yes,” Arthur agreed, and the pair of them headed back to camp.
With nothing left for him in Camelot except hatred and memory, Merlin had set off without even returning for his things. He was not even sure where he was going. He just knew that he should go somewhere new, where he wasn’t reminded of drawled insults and half-hidden compliments every day, and didn’t have to bow to a man who barely deserved his acknowledgement, much less his respect.
Respect had to be earned, and killing the rightful King from behind with no warning was not something to be honoured for.
He was unsure how far he had been travelling when he came to the crossroads. There was a milestone by the side of the track and a raven was sitting on it, staring at him dolefully. Its beady eyes seemed to be following him intently as he walked forward and as he reached the place where the roads joined it let out one, sudden caw before stretching out its wings.
Arthur had once told him that to see a raven over the battlefield was a good omen, but personally, Merlin had always thought of them more as the bringers of death. There was something about the unmitigated blackness of them and their sheer size that made him feel uneasy. He averted his eyes and found himself staring at a man, standing on the other side of the clearing. He had a large brimmed hat seated on his head, covering his face in shadow. In his hand he held a stout stick of wood, worn smooth at the top from use. It had no inscriptions or embellishments on it, just simple unadorned wood. On his shoulder stood a second raven, this one ignoring Merlin in favour of the road behind him.
As the man looked up, Merlin could feel the magic wash over him suddenly. He gasped as the shadow dropped away from the stranger’s face and he caught sight of his eyes, or rather what had once been his eyes. One remained, bright and sharp as those of the bird seated on his shoulder. It seemed to look straight through Merlin and the warlock shuddered, though he was not cold. That one eye was dark and reminded Merlin of the men he had seen on the battlefield and of Morgana, in her later years. There was knowledge there that should not exist, knowledge of ones own death and other secrets. But beneath that knowledge, Merlin could sense an edge of amusement. He wanted to look away, but looking into that eye was better than looking into the place where the other should have been. Instead of a second eye, there was just the puckering skin of the old man’s eyelid over an empty socket.
Earlier that day Merlin would have said that there was nothing left in the world that could scare him, in mere seconds he had been made to re-evaluate that opinion.
The man’s face crept into a crooked grin, and he bowed his head, almost mockingly.
“Emrys,” he said, his voice heavily accented, although Merlin could not say where from.
“I tend to go by Merlin,” the warlock replied uncertainly. “Who are you?”
“I have many names, but you may call me Gangleri.”
“Okay…” Merlin could almost felt destiny twisting itself around this moment. “And what do you want, Gangleri?” he asked. The name was familiar to him, as though he had heard it before, a long time since.
“I am just here to ask you questions, Merlin,” the man answered, leaning on his stick as though he required its support. Merlin was not buying the helpless traveller guise one bit. The raven behind him cawed threateningly, but he stood his ground.
“What kind of questions?”
“The kind which you should answer truthfully…” the man said. He raised one gnarled hand to stroke the head of the Raven perched on his shoulder gently. It was a move incongruous with his external appearance.
“Ask them then,” Merlin replied and the air began to hum around him.
“Tell me, Merlin, the Unaging, where are you going?” The man asked, slowly, his voice deep with ritual. There was more going on here than Merlin could see. Merlin thought for a moment, lacing his fingers together. He had been admonished to speak truthfully, but was that really the best course? To fight against the balance of life and death was one of the worst things you could do.
The man’s one eye watched him patiently, and Merlin could almost feel himself being dragged into the ritual he had started.
“I do not know my destination, except that when I reach it I shall know.”
“A quest for knowledge is a worthy one,” the man said with a deep nod, the ravens echoed his words with cries of their own. “Tell me, Merlin, the Unaging, what is it you seek?”
“I seek the soul of Arthur Pendragon, the Once and Future King of Albion, that was parted from his body not yet a week past.” He wasn’t sure whether the words he spoke were his or not, they seemed to come from nowhere. The archaic formula of the response was clumsy on his tongue and he wanted to laugh at himself for taking up such a ridiculous form of speech in the middle of nowhere.
Except it did not feel like the middle of nowhere. He stood in the centre of the crossroads, and at each corner stood a milestone, rising like a broken pillar from the ground. The man in front of him held his walking stick like a sceptre and wore his full-brimmed hat like a crown.
If Merlin was hoping for some assistance from the man, or condoning of his plans, he was disappointed.
“Tell me why, Merlin, the Unaging, you seek to alter that which should never be altered.”
Merlin slowly turned the question over in his head. He had no doubt that an incorrect answer would result in his quest failing before it had even begun, but he was frozen there, racking his brains in an attempt to come up with the true answer.
“I…” he began, before hesitating. “I need him... back,” he said slowly. “I’m not sure I can live without him and… we never had a chance.” The man did not speak; he just continued to stare at Merlin with his one eye, as though there was more to come. “Because…” he paused for a moment, “I believe he should have another chance, and because I l-”
“Loved ones are taken before their time again and again,” the man said, “I lost my son… Tell me, Merlin, the Unaging, why you should be granted this when no one else is?”
“Because he’s Arthur, and because it’s destiny,” he said immediately.
The man’s face drew into a smile suddenly, his cheeks wrinkling up and creasing. Merlin almost drew back at the sight, but he held his ground.
“You have grown wise, Emrys, and you have learnt much, but answer me a further question: what happens to a man after death?”
“That is a secret known only to the dead themselves and to the gods,” Merlin replied, the words once again coming from somewhere other than his head, “but it is said that men may be taken to Avalon, the faerie paradise and there live in harmony, without war or strife.”
“You have grown wise, Emrys, and you have learnt much, but answer me a further question: how does the belief of the north differ from that which you have just stated?”
“In the north?” Merlin asked, confused, and the man nodded. “In the north…” he struggled to remember the things he had read about the religions of the North. “It is believed that warriors slain in battle are taken to the halls of Odin, where they train and drink and await the final battle and the fate of the gods.”
“You have grown wise, Emrys, and you have learnt much, but answer me a further question: what happens to those who do not die on the battlefield as warriors? Are they too taken to the halls of Odin?”
“No…” Merlin said, shifting from foot to foot. He had been aching from the miles of walking already, saving up his magic for when it would be necessary, and standing still was just giving his muscles a chance to rebel against the harsh treatment. He had spent so long being the Court Sorcerer, leaving the castle only on royal visits and war missions, riding everywhere and sitting so many hours a day, he had forgotten what it was to live like a normal person. “Those who are not slain in battle are taken down to Niflheim, where Hel rules. They live in those halls and they lament.”
“Answer me a further question: What were the beliefs of the people south of this land? What did they think happens after death?”
This, Merlin was on surer ground with. He had studied Latin at great length, and read many of the more interesting works of literature, which detailed the old religion of the Romans.
“They believe that the souls are rowed across the river by the ferryman Charon, who charges them for the journey, and they are taken into the realm of Hades, where the nine rivers flow. Those who have angered the gods are sent to Tartarus, where they are tormented for eternity with Ixion in his flaming wheel and Tantalus, unable to reach either water or food.”
“And the heroes of that land?”
“They live in the Elysian fields.”
“You know much, but there is much you do not know,” the man said calmly and the second raven flew over to his shoulder, his wing tip almost brushing against Merlin’s cheek. “What does the New Religion say becomes of souls in death?” Merlin did not even have to think about the next answer.
“The New Religion teaches that those who have lived a life free from sin are taken into heaven, while those who have committed sins are thrown into hell.”
“You know much, but there is much you do not know,” the man repeated. “Which of these beliefs do you hold true, Merlin, son of Hunith?”
Merlin stopped, realising what it was the man was trying to say.
“You mean I have to know which is true before I can find him,” he said, groaning a little in despair. “How am I supposed to know that? I’ve seen evidence of the Old Religion, but then the New Religion has just as much power, and it’s not like I’ve ever seen any proof the others aren’t real.”
“You know much, but there is much you do not know,” the man said, “If Mordred is King in Camelot then can Hakon be King in Norway?”
“Well, yes… I mean, the two of them are in completely different places, it’s not like the existence of one stops the other from e…oh.” The man smiled again, and Merlin resisted the urge to shudder, at least when he had had the appearance of an old man he had known better than to make himself too old looking. That was just disturbing. “So what you’re telling me is that all of them can be true at the same time.” There was no answer.
He blinked and the old man was gone, leaving Merlin standing at a crossroads with no idea where to go next.
“Well, that was bloody useful,” he said to no one in particular.
From a tree nearby a raven cawed reprovingly.
When Arthur walked through the next doors, he found himself not in the corridor he had been expecting, but in another identical replica of Camelot’s Great Hall. He turned to look back where he had come from, but the doors had disappeared leaving only a seamless, smooth wall.
He turned back to find that the chamber was suddenly full of people dressed in brightly coloured fabric, celebrating. The hall was hung with decorations – garlands of flowers and huge scarlet banners with the Pendragon crest embroidered on them in golden thread. His ears were filled with the customary burble of courtly chit chat as he began to weave his way through the crowds, beginning to relax.
The place was the picture of how it had been at the height of his reign: wine flowed, people prospered and everyone had a smile on their face. He laughed in sheer relief as he crossed to the high table, whirling around to try and take it all in. He hadn’t seen the place like this in years, not since the final wars had begun. He remembered watching the dancing, or leading it with Guinevere at his side, joking with Lancelot and Merlin and just relaxing. This was almost how he had imagined heaven.
He saw between the dancers that his chair at the high table was empty, and no Merlin stood next to it. His heart began to sink, and it was then that he realised that no one was paying him any attention. That was strange. Usually all eyes were on him when he was in a room, it was a side effect of being King. But in this place all attention was held by something else, in the centre of the room, in the middle of the dancing.
He ducked beneath the arm of a nameless lord and his breath caught in his throat as he looked at where everyone’s attention was centred, at the couple that were oblivious in the midst of it all, and once he had seen them, he couldn’t tear his eyes away.
Gwen looked happier than he had ever seen her, glowing almost, in a golden dress that seemed to reflect every bit of light that shone on it as Lancelot twirled her around the dance floor, his hands large and possessive on her waist.
His first knight wore his clothes as though he was born to nobility. There was none of the self-effacing modesty that always covered him when he was alive. His back was straight, his face was open and he too, looked happier than the King had ever seen.
They could not take their eyes off each other. They barely even blinked, they were so lost in themselves. Arthur wanted to say hello, he wanted to talk to them, but he could not bring himself to interrupt. He just watched them, not even having to remind himself not to breathe.
The couple looked like a portrait in motion, so elegant and strangely perfect. They moved together like they were one person and as Arthur watched they seemed to blur into each other slightly, so he couldn’t quite tell where they joined.
Lancelot lifted Gwen up smoothly, spinning her through the air and looking up at her face. She laughed, carefree, and Arthur could feel his heart break a little bit more.
He had not been there when Gwen died. He had hidden in his chambers and tried to ignore Merlin’s silent accusation. They had both known he had no choice, but they had both wished there had been another way. Infidelity to the King was as good as treason. Merlin, he found later, had made sure she felt no physical pain, but he had heard Lancelot trying to reach her, and heard the sounds of his knights fighting one another, and he knew that she had not gone peacefully.
He had not seen Lancelot again after that, just the bodies of the guards he had killed in his attempts to free the woman he loved. He had taken her body with him and ridden off, out of Camelot again, never to return.
Arthur sighed as the two circled each other, their palms pressed together in a way that seemed more intimate than any embrace. He felt like he was intruding on their peace.
The guards had been without their colours, they had refused to mar the names of their houses with the tarnish of presiding over their queen’s death. Gawain had refused altogether, but his brothers had not.
He remembered watching the helmets of the dead being removed, and seeing Gawain’s face grow paler and more drawn. He had sworn vengeance there and then, and Arthur had felt everything crumble around him as the round table had shattered.
One of Gwen’s hands reached up to cup Lancelot’s face, and Arthur had to look away from the gentle smiles that passed between them. Instead he found himself looking at Morgana, as she stared at the couple. Her face was unreadable, although he thought maybe he saw longing there.
“Are they real?” he asked in a whisper. “Is it really them?”
“I hope so,” Morgana replied. She turned to him, her eyes still lingering on the couple even as her face turned, and Arthur could see tears in her eyes. “I hope they’re real. Because then they’re happy.”
“I…” he began, but Morgana’s hand on his arm cut him off.
“They’re happy,” she repeated. “Which is more than they could ever really be while they were alive.”
“I didn’t mean…” he started again. “They… When I married her I never meant to keep them apart.”
“I warned you it wouldn’t end well,” Morgana said, her air of superiority returning. “I told you not to go through with it.”
“You stood in my doorway and gave an enigmatic speech about some things being for the best – I would hardly count that as a warning.” He looked away as she raised an eyebrow, back at the happy couple, who were no longer dancing, but just standing looking at each other. “Why am I being shown this?” he asked of no one in particular. “What sort of test is it?”
“Maybe you just needed to see it.”
He thought of tear tracks down Gwen’s cheeks and Lancelot’s pained bow as he had begged leave forever, and the way neither of them was looking at each other, or at him. Merlin’s hands had been balled into fists and every member of the round table had been furiously silent. It hadn’t been fair on either of them, to be caught up in everything. If he had known, when he married Gwen. If he had known…
“There was nothing I could have done,” he said into the air, and it felt like an excuse, watching Gwen and Lancelot link their fingers together and slowly lead each other out of the room. “I was the King, I had to uphold the laws.”
“Your father used to say that,” Morgana pointed out, her voice hard as an icicle. “He always told me that he was subject to the laws like anyone else, and that to allow one person to break them would mean that the world descended into anarchy.”
“He had a point,” Arthur said as the other dancers faded away until the room was left empty, the wall hangings.
“He was King,” Morgana snapped at him. “He made the rules! You made the rules. You used to understand that.” Arthur took a deep breath, shutting his eyes. “They loved each other… they loved you, and you claimed to love them.”
“It was never as simple as you seemed to think, Morgana. There are some things that are more important than love.”
“But nothing was ever as important as Merlin,” she said, and Arthur was brought hurtling back to the reason he was standing there.
“Merlin and I were always discrete,” he said, although he couldn’t quite bring himself to argue the case properly.
“But you would never have given him up, yet you had Gwen murdered for what you were doing yourself.” Morgana pointed out.
“Morgana. After their relationship was made public, there was nothing I could do to save them… either of them.”
“You could have banished them both, rather than just Lancelot,” she told him, “you could have pardoned them.”
“Gwen would still have been my wife, there was no way around that.”
“Then you should never have married her while you were in love with someone else!” Arthur didn’t reply and instead surveyed the room. Somehow what remained of the finery seemed only to increase the emptiness, the bright hangings mocking him with Gwen and Lancelot’s happiness. He shouldn’t be angry at them, he shouldn’t be.
“They have eternity,” he murmured into the still air. Morgana’s fingers tightened on his arm.
“Yes… they do.”
Arthur crossed over to sit on the high table. He looked out over the hall to where Morgana stood, still watching the door the couple had gone through.
“Maybe it was never supposed to end up differently,” he said, even while a voice in the back of his mind rebelled at the very idea and told him that Morgana was right – he should have done more. “Merlin always said that it all came down to destiny in the end anyway.”
“You could have tried.”
“What? To give up Merlin?” he asked, incredulously, “to explain to my people why I had no wife, nor heir? To convince the world that it was okay that my wife was cuckolding me with her champion because I was fucking my sorcerer?” Morgana finally turned back to him.
“Maybe it was all written in stone,” she agreed, “but then, like you said earlier, that means we might as well do nothing, it won’t make any difference. You and Merlin were always supposed to meet, but your destiny had a habit of destroying everyone else around you.”
Arthur stared at the floor, with its stone slabs worn shiny by centuries of wear. Each slab looked identical to the one next to it, and Arthur couldn’t quite work out whether they were aligned with each other or offset. It was that, more than anything, which reminded him that this was not Camelot, this was merely the Camelot he remembered, and he could not recall what the floor looked like, not really. It seemed such a stupid thing not to remember. He had walked that floor almost every day of his life. He had walked up and down those slabs and it had been his feet that had worn them smooth as much as anybody else’s, but he could not remember exactly what the floor looked like, just a vague impression of stone.
“I hope they’re happy,” he said again, knowing that that much was true. He could not say whether he would do anything differently if he were to live it over again, he could not say that what he did was wrong, because what he did had been for the love of his country and his people and, not quite as nobly, for Merlin, and he could not regret any of that.
The door at the far end of the room, which Gwen and Lancelot had passed through earlier, swung open with a creak.
“Did I pass?” he asked, but Morgana just shrugged.
“I hope so, or we’re both stuck here,” she told him, blinking away the tears that had formed in her eyes. Arthur could tell then and there that they were not going to discuss that room again, ever. There were too many things that neither of them wanted to bring up.
“After you,” he said, springing off the table and into an elegant bow. He felt younger and lighter than he had in years all of a sudden, as though the years had been lifted away from him.
“What?” Morgana said, aiming for haughty and amused, but just falling short. The slight quirk of her lips was only noticeable to someone who had known her for years. “Worried that something dangerous might be on the other side?”
“I was just trying to be polite, but if you insist,” Arthur strode towards the door and peered through, although all he could see through the gap was thick, inky blackness.
“Oh, I insist…”
Arthur set his shoulders and reminded himself that, since the worst had already happened, whatever stood in that darkness, even if it was just eternal black, was clearly not something he should be worried about. It did not sound convincing.
He walked through the door without looking back, not letting his stride slow even a little, and the blackness enveloped him.
Hoping that Morgana was following, he kept on walking.
Since he had become the Official Sorcerer of Camelot, Merlin had been relocated into new rooms which would have happily contained the whole of the house he had grown up in, and Will’s as well. It was a source of constant amazement to him (and amusement for Arthur) that the mess simply expanded to fit the room, rather than the other way round.
Merlin’s chambers were in a constant state of disarray, books and papers and clothes mingling in piles on the floor. He always insisted that there was a system when someone asked, but the maids had given up trying to clean after he had tried to help, and stopped them from interfering with a precarious looking pile for the four hundredth time. He did have a system, it just relied on him remembering his system for longer than three minutes at a time. Really, he had about seventeen systems, all trying to work at the same time – it was probably the most organised chaos the world had ever seen.
He was trying to find a spell he had come up with two weeks ago, so it was probably in that pile, if he had been filing chronologically that day. He caught sight of a pile by the window and sighed, he might have been filing by subject though, and that meant it could be in any of three different places.
“Why do you insist on covering that up?” Arthur’s voice startled him. He hadn’t heard the King come in, and he jumped, overbalancing the pile nearest him, but reaching out with his magic to halt it before it could crash to the ground and cause a chain reaction.
“What?” he asked, turned round and scrubbing at his eye with his hand. It had been a long day. There had been council meetings and Arthur had been especially insufferable to a few of the older members, who had still not learnt that while he did sometimes need advice, he wasn’t stupid.
Merlin took a moment to just stare at him, leaning in the doorway with a look of confusion on his face. He had left his crown in his own chambers, he did hate to wear it for anything other than ceremonial occasions – said it felt like he couldn’t do anything without knocking it off. Arthur’s hair was still a little ruffled from where it had been, though. There were a few specks of white sneaking through at the edges, but they just served to make him look more distinguished. Merlin sighed a little at how unfair it was that Arthur was aging as well as he did everything else.
“Why do you always cover that mirror up?” the King asked, not noticing Merlin’s moment of contemplation, or choosing to ignore it.
Merlin looked round at the wall where the offending item hung guiltily. It came in useful for magical purposes sometimes, or he wouldn’t have it at all, but he did hate to think about it.
“No reason, really,” he lied, “just somewhere to hang things…”
“Merlin,” Arthur said slowly, crossing over to it and fingering the cloth over it gently. “I am your overlord, you really shouldn’t lie to me, you know.”
“Arthur. It’s not important…” he said, trying his best to sound threatening, but he knew that he could never pull it off. Arthur had seen him trip over his feet too many times to be intimidated by even his best ‘I can fry you from the inside out’ glare.
“Then there’s no harm in me taking it off then, is there?” Arthur’s amusement shone out through his eyes. The small creases that had formed along his forehead almost smoothed out, and the thin lines that edged his eyes when he smiled appeared.
“I just… don’t like to look at myself in a mirror,” he said softly, “no mystery. We can’t all be as self-obsessed as you are.”
“Don’t be jealous,” Arthur commented, drawing himself up fully, so that his physique, which he had never lost, thanks to his insistence on a strict training regime, was clearly visible under the everyday tunic and breeches he wore. “Not everyone can age as well as me…”
“I’m not jealous,” Merlin said softly.
“It’s alright you know…” Arthur was still grinning at him. “But you shouldn’t hide from yourself, it’s a natural process, you know…” he pulled the cover off in one swift movement and Merlin winced. There had been no avoiding this moment from the minute Arthur had noticed the cover on the mirror, but that didn’t mean he had to like it.
“It’s not that, Arthur…” The King grasped hold of his wrist, lightly but Merlin knew he wouldn’t be able to break away without magic, so he allowed himself to be pulled inexorably towards the mirror, his eyes fixed on Arthur’s, trying to remember the look of good humoured teasing. The King pulled Merlin until he was standing directly in front of the mirror and, holding his shoulders looked at him in mock seriousness.
“You’ve got to face it sooner or later,” he said, before moving to stand behind Merlin, his hands sliding slowly round.
He closed his eyes, but he could feel when Arthur noticed it, when his thumbs, which had been rubbing small circles round his shoulder blades stopped dead and his breath, which had been ghosting over Merlin’s ear, hitched almost imperceptibly.
“Merlin…” Arthur’s voice lowered, the confusion returning a hundredfold. “Merlin… what’s going on?”
The Sorcerer sighed and reluctantly opened his eyes to see himself staring back, his real self. It was disconcerting, to see the truth after so many years of pretending it wasn’t real.
“Is the mirror enchanted?” Arthur asked again, bringing one hand forward to grasp Merlin’s chin and push his face from side to side. He didn’t even put up a token protest.
“No,” he said when Arthur had brought his head back forwards again, allowing his eyes to lock with the reflection of Arthur’s.
“Then… what is this?”
“Mirror’s can be used as aids in magic,” Merlin recited numbly, “but they cannot be affected by it. They can and will only ever show the truth.” He paused and watched as that sank in, watched as Arthur’s jaw dropped a little further.
“You mean…” Arthur began and Merlin nodded before he finished. “Then this…?” Arthur poked one finger into Merlin’s cheek, “This is all a spell?”
“Yes,” Merlin said. One word answers were probably the best way to go. He could understand the impossibility Arthur was faced with, it was the same thing that made him cover up the mirror in the first place, the sense that he was unnatural, wrong.
“Why?” Arthur asked, turning him around so that they looked at each other properly again, not their mirror-selves, although Arthur’s eyes kept sliding away despite his best efforts.
“Because… I thought it would make people uncomfortable,” Merlin said, looking away from his King, out of the window at where he could see the tops of the trees swaying in the breeze. “I knew it would make people uncomfortable, and there would be rumours…” he didn’t need to elaborate. They both knew the kinds of things people would say. Magic had been restored to Camelot, but Uther’s laws had never been forgotten. It was still regarded with distrust, as something sinister and terrible, to be respected, but avoided if at all possible. An unaging Sorcerer in the heart of the realm would lead to tales of black magic and human sacrifice. There were already people who thought that Merlin drank the blood of virgins.
“It doesn’t make me uncomfortable,” Arthur said, bringing one hand up to his face to run his finger tips over wrinkles that weren’t really there. Merlin could see the look of curiosity on his face, even out of the corner of his eye.
“Arthur,” he said, pushing Arthur’s hand away, “I’m your lover, you really shouldn’t lie to me.” Arthur evaded his grip and brought his hand back to Merlin’s face, before moving it round the back of his head and drawing their foreheads together so that Merlin had to look at him.
“I’m not uncomfortable,” he whispered into the air between them, “amazed, confused, envious, yes… but not uncomfortable. You were never exactly able to do things like a normal person – it makes sense that you wouldn’t have the wit to age properly either.”
Merlin was silent, but his hand went up to rest on Arthur’s shoulder almost against his will.
“Maybe I’m uncomfortable,” he responded.
“You’re going to have to face it sometime…”
“Does it have to be today?” Merlin asked, and Arthur pulled away, his hand dropping down to Merlin’s shoulder, his other coming up to clap against Merlin’s other shoulder in a jovial manner.
“No time like the present… show me.”
“You can already see,” Merlin said, trying to turn to look at the mirror, but Arthur held him fast, his face serious again, one finger going up to drag across Merlin’s lips.
“I don’t just want to see,” he said, his voice low. “I want to feel,” he leant forward and kissed the edge of Merlin’s jaw firmly. “I want to taste,” he muttered against his skin. “Show me…”
“Did that sound like a request to you?” the King asked, pulling back, “because I meant it to be an order. Show me, Merlin.”
“Yes sire,” Merlin said and he pulled back the magic that was coating him, feeling it slither away like a skin being shed. He knew that externally the years were slipped away from him, but he couldn’t tell. His eyes were caught on Arthur’s, which refused to look away. He kept it up until every aspect of the spell was gone, all the layers he had put up over the years, slowly deepening his apparent age, bleeding away into nothing.
And Arthur still didn’t look away from him.
“Your eyes,” the King said, after a pause, “they’re the same… always the same.” He brought one hand up to Merlin’s face in wonder, drawing one finger down across his forehead and down a smooth cheek. “God… you look exactly like you did the day we met. Exactly how I remember you. God I feel old.”
“Sorry,” Merlin said quickly, shaking his sleeves away from his hands and preparing to redo the spell, but Arthur grabbed his wrists quickly.
“Don’t you dare,” he said. “Don’t you dare, Merlin… I wasn’t blaming you, but I do feel a bit like a dirty old man…” He smiled a mischievous smile that was half way to a leer, and Merlin could tell what was going through his head. The smile made him look as young as ever, and Merlin told him so.
“I thought we both agreed that lying was a waste of time,” Arthur said with a chuckle, drawing Merlin closer to him, his hands running up and down, taking in every alteration he could find, his hands quickly finding their way beneath the familiar layers of clothing.
“You are a liar, Merlin…” the blond muttered into the hollow of his throat. “You’ve been lying to me for years and you swore that you would never lie to me again after I found out about the magic.”
“Then make it up to me,” Arthur’s hands were winding in the laces of Merlin’s breeches, undoing them with a skill borne of years of practise.
“Right now?” Merlin asked, rocking his hips towards Arthur’s hands as he pulled away the layers of fabric. “I was a little… ah… busy.”
“Well, now you’re a little busy too… and this is more important.”
“If you insist, sire,” Merlin said, giving in and dragging Arthur’s face up to give him a searing kiss. He smiled against the sorcerer’s lips and pulled away, on hand moving from where it was very much wanted, to tweak one of Merlin’s ears.
“These don’t change much either,” Arthur told him with a smile. “Now… let’s see how well I remember you like this.” They stumbled across the room to the door to Merlin’s bedchambers, magic clearing a path for them as they went. Years ago, they would have ended up against the door in a fumbling of hands and gasps of breaths, or tumbling to the ground and Arthur pushing Merlin into the cold stone, making the use of his greater body mass. But the years had had some effect, and the bed was more inviting than being bent over his desk today. There was more to it right now than just mutual satisfaction, and they had done the desk yesterday.
Their clothes ended up scattered across the two rooms, Arthur’s coat flung so violently away it snagged on the top of the mirror and hung there, obscuring the reflection.
Merlin was pushed down onto the bed, completely naked, and Arthur stood over him, looking down in interest.
“Your scars stayed,” he said, reaching down to brush his fingers against a pucker of skin over Merlin’s hip, caused by a lucky blade.
“They’re real…” Merlin gasped as Arthur’s other hand came up to take hold of his cock with firm familiarity. He tried to force his hips up off the mattress as Arthur removed his hand and crawled up his body so they were looking each other in the eye again, their bodies not quite touching, but heat pooling between them.
“So are you.”
The problem with cryptic conversations in riddles that took place at crossroads was that they were cryptic. Merlin realised, after having set out with a lighter heart, all he had really got from the conversation with the strange old man with one eye was that he was going to have to look in a lot more places than he had initially thought. Apparently the Old Religion wasn’t just one religion.
He sighed and glared up at the sky, and the ravens that seemed to have been pursuing him ever since the crossroads. The sky beyond them was as grey as slate, it looked like it was going to rain, but Merlin couldn’t tell any more what was just his pessimism and what was real. The problem with magic was that your emotions tended to leak into the outside world.
He glared at the overcast sky and the black specks of the ravens and trudged onwards, still not knowing where he was going, but at least he knew what he was looking for now.
Days passed and he saw nothing new, just the countryside spreading out on each side of him, looking as it always had. The land recovered and went on, while humans grew and aged and died. The bitter unfairness of it all filled his mouth like the taste of blood. Gods and fate and everything hemmed him in wherever he looked, and he was never going to get any closer to Arthur.
He sighed and looked back at the road ahead of him. It wasn’t much of a road, really, more a line of grass and mud that had been slightly more trampled than the rest and far in the distance, he could see some figures, dark, almost silhouettes, but when one of them looked up towards him, he could see two eyes, clear piercing blue, staring right at him, as though they were right up close.
It felt as though the gaze was examining every inch of him, tearing through him and reconstructing him in every second. He froze where he was, and there was nothing he could do to make himself move in the face of that freezing stare. His feet rooted themselves to the spot and his throat went dry as he stared.
He had never felt anything like this before. It was like magic was passing through him, but Merlin could not feel it properly, like it was out of his reach, or covered in something. There was none of the fizz or warmth he was used to from magic, just a dim sense of power, as though if he reached out he would be touching everything… or nothing.
There was the sound of beating wings and the figure turned. He shut his eyes almost against his will, in an attempt to protect himself from that sense of horror that they brought. The wing beats continued, growing closer, until there was a sudden change in the air.
“You are he,” a voice said, as clear as a bell into his left ear. It probably belonged to a woman, but he had never heard a woman like that before. Even Morgana, in the heights of her insanity and rage, had never had the edge of other that this voice contained. It was eldritch, ancient and more powerful than him. Some force in the back of his mind, an instinct that all living creatures possessed, was screaming at him to run. That voice meant danger.
“You come to call the dead back to life,” a second voice said, from in front of him, just as powerful, just as horrific. It was as though they were speaking straight into his soul. Not his mind – Merlin could handle telepathy, he had even become adept at it, but the voice was not just on the earthly plain. It had a physical manifestation, but other than that, there was something further away, and yet near.
“You dare to defy death itself.” He could feel freezing cold breath against the back of his neck as a third voice spoke. The shivers ran down his spine and as he opened his mouth to speak, he felt the cool metal of a blade being held against his neck. He almost laughed.
“You dare to defy us?” It was as though all three voices spoke at once, but through the first speaker, and Merlin felt himself chilled to the bone. The blade pressed closer to his neck, the edge of it digging in, but not cutting, not yet. “You should kneel at our feet in supplication. We are beyond your understanding.”
“You’re threatening to kill me, when that would solve all my problems?” Merlin asked, incredulously. From behind him there was a growl, like a feral animal, and he felt the press of a cold hand against his back. Somehow the threat in that one touch was greater than that in the blade.
“We would not kill you, Emrys,” the second voice said, almost purring as it moved towards him, “You are not subject to us – you are not subject to death. But even you can be destroyed.”
“Then destroy me…” Merlin said, allowing himself to relax into their grip. “If you don’t I won’t stop trying to get him back. I will never stop.”
“Why?” The second voice asked, silky smooth.
“Because it wasn’t fair,” he told them.
“Nothing is ever fair, Emrys.”
“We were promised destiny.”
“And you got what you were promised.” The first voice told him.
“Destiny is cruel,” added the second.
“But she can be over-ruled,” the third woman’s voice was almost a whisper, and Merlin only just caught it.
“How… how can she be overruled?”
“The world lies in a precarious balance, always on a knife edge,” the third voice said again. “One push in the right place can make all the difference, but you already know that.”
“You mean that… this wasn’t how it was supposed to end?”
“It is how it has ended, therefore it is how it was supposed to end.” The first voice cut through, silencing the others.
“But it might not have ended like this…”
“The past is past, you must look to the future,” the second voice told him, sending a shiver down his spine. “As must we all.”
“I can’t imagine a future without Arthur... do you know where he is?”
“We know where he was,” said the first voice.
“We know where he will be,” said the third.
“But what about where he is…” Merlin asked frantically, trying to open his eyes but finding that he couldn’t. He could feel one of them moving in front of him, leaning forward so he could feel the heat of her body through his clothes and feel the tickle of her breath against his lips.
“We know where he is.”
“What would you give us for that information?” the second voice whispered against his cheek. “How much is he worth?”
“Anything – I’ll give you anything,” Merlin said.
“Would you give us your magic?” The first voice asked, and Merlin drew in a deep breath before nodding firmly.
“Your eternal life?”
“Yes,” he didn’t even need to think about it.
“Your soul?” He nodded slowly.
“What?” he tried to turn round, to face the woman who had spoken, but strong hands held him in place.
“One kiss for the information you desire… that is all we ask.” He couldn’t tell which of them was talking now, it seemed almost as though all of them were talking at once.
“That is all we ask of you, Emrys the Eternal.”
“Emrys the Wanderer,”
“Do you accept our price?” Merlin had to pause. It seemed so simple, but the workings of magic and the supernatural seldom appeared as they were. The way they had said it, as though it were not much to ask, leading up to it with all the other questions. He knew a trick when he saw it. Arthur had used to do something similar to the knights who came in, back when he had just been made King and word had not yet been spread about his Sorcerer. He had lined up Kay and Lancelot in full armour, and next to them he had put Merlin, still working out how to walk in robes that didn’t sit right on his thin shoulders and trailed along the ground.
He had told them to choose their opponent. The entire purpose had been to illustrate that appearances were deceptive, and that magic was a dangerous enemy. Merlin had not been the easy option, as those who chose him realised shortly.
The kiss was not the easy option either. He knew his lore, a kiss was powerful in all aspects of life, magical and non-magical. It could break a curse, or start one. If a man kissed one of the succubae, he was bound to her thrall. Some enchantresses sealed a bewitchment with a kiss so that a man would waste away without her. It was a symbol of love and lust. A mother’s kiss could protect a child from the fiends who lurked in the dark; a lover’s kiss could make your heart race.
He had already told them he would willingly give up his soul or his life or his magic. This was no different, except that he did not know which it would be until it happened. But this decision had already been made years ago, when he was as old as he outwardly appeared. If it was for Arthur, then there were no limits to what he would do, willingly and without reserve.
“I accept your price,” he said, nodding, “one kiss for the knowledge I seek.”
“Bargain struck.” The second voice slid across his face and he barely had time to hold himself together before her lips followed it, pressing insistently against his with a savagery he had not expected. It was like kissing fire, the touch burning through him from that one point of contact until it felt like it was flooding through his body. He wanted to cry out with the pain, but at the same time it felt like the most exquisite pleasure he had ever had, and his knees grew weak, threatening to buckle. Every inch of his skin was alight and he never wanted it to end.
He could feel her smile as she pulled back, and suddenly his body felt as though it had been drenched in icy water. Where he had burned seconds before, he froze. He could not stop his legs from folding under him and he collapsed to his knees, his eyes still unable to open as he shuddered and shook, biting down on his lips to keep from screaming.
It seemed to last forever, the aftershocks of the kiss, racking his body, but eventually, they faded until he could think again.
As he lifted his head, the women spoke again, all at once from in front of him.
He opened his eyes and blinked. Where there had been three before, now there stood only one, her bearing regal and proud. She had long red hair that streamed out behind her, blowing in a wind that he could not feel. Her eyes were brilliant green and her features hard with a sort of untouchable beauty.
“Where is he?” he asked, his voice cracking still.
“Arthur Pendragon died,” she said, her voice the strange blend of the three from before, but yet further away than they had been, as though she was talking from far away. “He passed on, but I did not claim him.”
“I do not know…”
“You told me you would tell me in return for a kiss. We struck a bargain.”
“I have kept that bargain,” the woman said.
“No you haven’t… you haven’t kept it. You’ve only told me where he isn’t, not where he is.” Merlin struggled to his feet and tried to ignore the fact that he was challenging a power beyond his understanding. “One kiss for the information I desire, that’s what you said. The information I desire is to know where Arthur Pendragon is. I have given you what you asked for, now you have to give me what I asked for.”
“We do not know…” she took a step back, sounding almost uncertain, and Merlin could feel the anger and the magic rising in him again.
“Then help me find out.”
“You made a bargain. It was sealed in magic. You have to keep to it. That’s the rules of the Old Religion. You are bound to it as much as I am. Help me find the information I asked for, and I will consider your obligation fulfilled.”
“You have not got the power to force us,” she stepped forward again, eyes blazing, and Merlin could feel his skin tingle at the glance, his wrist still ached from the burning. He ignored the sensation and brought himself up, drawing his magic around him until it coated every inch of him.
“Try me…” he said, managing to keep the tremble out of his mouth, even as his brain told him that this was a spectacularly bad idea. “Maybe I do not have the power, but the lore is on my side. I am not the oath-breaker.”
She seemed to shrink, although she remained the same size, and Merlin let his magic pull back inside him as he watched her nod, unhappy, but resigned.
“I will help you,” she said reluctantly. “Call on me, should you need me, and I will come to your aid.”
“Thank you,” Merlin told her, bowing his head. When he looked up again, she was gone and in her place was a red crow, which cawed at him twice before flying away.
When he was sure that the animal was gone from view, he began to check himself, both physically and mentally. His soul still seemed to be intact, his magic was his to command. He did not feel any unnatural feelings of longing for the terrifying woman. His life force still felt as strong as before.
His wrist still ached, though. Merlin pulled up one sleeve and looked down at where his skin still burnt with the echo of the previous sensation. Where his skin had been clean before, what looked like a tattoo had formed, inked into his skin magically in red and black, a triangle with spirals at each of the points. When he touched it, he hissed in pain and he felt a jolt of his magic, as though it were connected in some way.
The warlock had no idea what it meant. He had seen the mark before, carved into stone by the druids and they had never given him any explanations of it. No doubt Mordred would be able to inform him further should he return to Camelot. But he did not doubt that returning would lead to imprisonment. Mordred ruled as Sorcerer-King now, and he would not take kindly to competition, or reminders of the past. Merlin couldn’t save Arthur from behind magical bars, and if he were to face Mordred himself, he feared that he would not be able to control himself. Arthur’s murderer in his sights – he would kill him as soon as he saw him.
He took a deep breath. Vengeance was a luxury he could not afford. He would have to go onwards and hope that the mark did not bring him to trouble.
It was a vain hope, but whatever trouble it brought, he would deal with it then. He could not worry about things in the future, it would drive him mad.
At least he had discounted one possibility, only infinite other ones to work through.
The blackness cleared suddenly, lifting so that Arthur found himself once more in familiar circumstances - the tournament ground in front of the crowd. Although, even when he concentrated, he could not make out one face clearly, other than that of his father sitting in the royal box.
He looked behind him, to where he had come from, and Morgana did not emerge. Apparently she had left him to his fate.
When he looked down he found himself in full armour, fitted out for a tournament. He could feel the solid metal of a sword in his palm, though not Excalibur. The weight was a little light, the grip too rough, but still, the sword made him feel more comfortable and pushed the memory of Lancelot and Guinevere to the back of his mind. If this was a tournament, then he would need to concentrate on whatever enemy or monster the gods were going to place in his way. Whatever was coming, he would take care of in short order.
There was a sudden drum roll, like the ones played on the battlefield, calling the army to advance. A sick chill ran through him when he remembered the last time he had heard that beat, as he led the staggered remains of his knights against Mordred’s forces. Arthur tightened his grip on his sword until it was almost painful. He had lost that battle and he was not going to lose again.
The cries of the people in the crowds changed, becoming more frenzied, and when he listened carefully he could hear they were calling for his death.
“Are you scared?” Morgana’s voice asked, and he jumped, twisting to try and see her face, but she was not there. He looked around him in confusion before he caught sight of her sitting by his father, one eyebrow raised.
That was not his memory sitting there, staring right at him; that was really her.
“No,” he told her abruptly. “What is there to be scared of?” He stood up straighter, drawing himself together with every bit of regal bearing he had.
“In this place?” Morgana said quietly, her voice still a whisper in his ear although he could not see her lips move. “Everything.”
The drum beat changed, reducing down to a steady repetition of one note that fell in time with his heart beat, and the crowd quieted, all turning to stare behind him, at the entrance of the field.
Taking a deep breath, Arthur turned with them.
Walking through the entrance was himself… not the same too perfect copy he had seen earlier, but an identical replica of himself before he became king. He looked down at his own hands and saw that they too were without the wear and wrinkles that had come with age, and lifted one hand to his chin to find it without his usual beard. Looking into his own face he could practically read his mind. He could see the same emotions there as were passing through his own mind.
“What is this?” he asked, but there was no answer. “I have to overcome myself? I’m my own enemy? What?” Still no answer from Morgana or any other power, and the crowd was still completely silent, like corpses.
The other him smiled, a superior smirk, and one that he knew he had used himself on so many occasions.
There was no warning before the attack, or there would not have been had Arthur not known his own body as well as he did. As it was, the real Arthur caught the bunching of the muscle on his shoulder that preceded the lunge and reacted automatically. He brought his own blade up to counter his opponent’s… Excalibur, he realised with a shock of anger. His own blade used against him.
Arthur redoubled the force in his next blow, taking the offensive, but his opponent was as swift as he was, deflecting the blow with little effort, and just a quirk of a grin.
“You will never be able to beat me,” the replica told him with certainty, and when their blades hit again, he could feel the truth of the statement. He had fought so many people over the years, brought men twice his size to their knees and been knocked onto his back by men smaller than him, but he had never fought anyone who could read him as well as this.
“That’s because I’m you,” the other self told him, bringing their swords together, hilt to hilt, and trying to force him downwards, but Arthur stood his ground. “There’s no way to beat me.”
“There is always a way to beat an opponent,” Arthur told him firmly, reciting words he had used over and over again to assure scared young knights and squires before battle. “There is always hope.”
“You don’t believe that,” his own voice whispered to him, before Excalibur was brought back and around as fast as lightning, and Arthur barely had time to bring up his own blade to block it. “In the end, everything dies and everything you did came to nothing.”
“But I’m still fighting…” Arthur said.
“What for?” His double asked. “What are you fighting for?”
“For Merlin,” he breathed, without even waiting for a moment, “For Merlin, for Camelot and for…” He attacked again in earnest, but every swing was blocked, every thrust deflected and the double danced away, so light on his feet it was as though he were floating.
“For what, Arthur - King Arthur - High King of Albion, who brought his people to ruin?”
“I. Did. Not.” Arthur bellowed, punctuating his final word with as powerful a swing as he could muster, the clang of metal against metal reverberated and the crowd gasped.
“Camelot has fallen because of you and your pet magician…” he told himself. “It is gone, but you wish to live again for him and for what else…”
“For me.” Arthur said under his breath as he was forced down to one knee. “For me!”
With that the pair of them fell silent and began to attack each other in earnest, no one blow landing, the blade always being deflected at the last moment. Arthur spun away from Excalibur’s blade and brought his own around, his other self leapt away as the tip of Arthur’s sword came dangerously close to his stomach. Arthur was lagging, his body – if it could be called a body in this place – was tiring while his opponent still seemed fresh. He did not let up, continuing to beat away, trying to find a hole in his opponent’s defences, but he could find none.
He was fast, the other was faster; he was strong, the other was stronger. He was brought to the floor time and time again and forced himself back up onto his feet, each time taking longer to get there while his other self waited patiently for him to pick himself back up.
Arthur could tell he was beginning to get sloppy, beginning to make mistakes. He had been through this enough in life to see where he was going to go wrong before it happened and he could just about summon enough energy to recover. But every mistake made it more difficult for him to get back up and start fighting again.
Whatever the rules were in this afterlife, they seemed remarkably similar, in some ways, to those of life. He wasn’t sweating, but muscles were beginning to ache.
“Arthur,” Morgana’s voice was in his ear again. “Stop fighting.”
“What?” he asked, ducking under Excalibur as it tore towards his head, a silver blur, catching the light as it swept past.
“Stop fighting. Surrender,” she said, sounding as imperious as she ever had.
“I have never backed down from a fight in my life,” he said, panting the words out between deep breaths of… nothing, he supposed, but it certainly felt as though he was breathing deeply. “I do not intend to become a coward now I’m dead.”
“It’s not cowardice to know when you cannot change something,” Morgana told him. “You know that… save your strength.”
“I have to do this. I have to win.” He managed to beat the other version of himself back a few steps, only to lose more than he had gained. His sword was flung from his hand and he rolled away to grab it again, bringing the blade up just in time to block Excalibur as it swung downwards in a lethal arc.
“Do you?” she asked. “Why?”
“I have to get out of here,” he whispered.
“You’re never getting out of here,” the other him said, its voice low as it leant towards him. “You don’t deserve to get out of here. You were never good enough.”
“Arthur… this place doesn’t play by the rules,” Morgana told him firmly. “Maybe winning isn’t winning.”
The pair of them drew apart again and circled one another slowly, Arthur could see that his steps were sluggish, whereas the other’s were still as crisp as ever.
“Maybe in order to win, you don’t have to win. Like in the last place, with Gwen.”
“I didn’t do anything there,” Arthur pointed out, watching the other man feint forwards. “All I did was watch.”
“And you said you were glad they were happy,” Morgana reminded him, “you didn’t step in; you didn’t fight.”
“Just because it worked last time doesn’t mean it will work this time,” he said, almost too slow to avoid the tip of his opponent’s blade as it danced towards him. “In fact, if anything, it makes it less likely.”
“Is fighting getting you anywhere?” she asked bluntly. “Stop being such a man and think about things. You can’t just run at everything with a sword and hope that it will turn out all right. You know that.”
Arthur felt the burn and ache that were beginning to consume him and saw the smug smile on his own face across the way. He could see the sense in Morgana’s words, and while he still wasn’t sure whether he trusted her, the fighting wasn’t getting him anywhere.
He shot a quick look into the stands, where his memory of his father stood, glaring at him, eyebrows drawn together.
Unless, the problem was not that he should not be fighting, but that he just wasn’t good enough to win.
A sudden, unexpected blow that he barely had time to catch with his blade brought him to his knees, and the shock ran up his sword and into his arm, jarring it sharply, causing him to gasp in pain.
He watched as Excalibur rose over his head and began to sweep down towards him, ready to split his head open.
“Arthur…” Morgana whispered in his head. He raised his sword halfway, everything seeming to move slower and slower, like it did when Merlin slowed down time.
Merlin… There was a movement to the left of him and he moved his eyes to catch sight of his memory of Merlin watching him, not cheering or jeering like the rest of the crowd, but staring at him, his eyes turned gold and a sad smile on his face. Like he had only seen that face once before, over his father’s body.
Some things can’t be stopped, Arthur.
He swallowed, hearing the familiar noise of a blade’s edge ripping the air, coming closer and closer, and Arthur let go.
He bowed his head and watched his sword thud to the ground, waiting for Excalibur’s blade to slice through him, as he had once waited to be knighted.
The blade stopped, just kissing the top of his head. He could feel the touch of it, feather-light amongst his hair.
“Morgana?” he whispered after a second had passed. “What’s happening?”
“Everything’s stopped,” she said after a moment, “it’s all just… stopped.”
The minute pressure of the blade lifted and Arthur risked a glance upwards in time to see the world around him dissolve into red and gold dust, blowing away, apart from Excalibur, which rose into the air before spearing down, blade first, into the ground in front of him.
There was nothing left but Morgana, Arthur and the blade between them, reflecting light that did not seem to be coming from anywhere.
“I think,” said Morgana, crossing over to his side, “you should pick it up.” Arthur didn’t move. “If you don’t, I don’t think we’ll get out of here.”
Arthur reached out and wrapped his hand around the hilt. It felt warm under his palm, and as soon as he touched it, the weariness was gone.
“Take it…” a voice came from behind him, and Arthur once again turned round to face himself, but not quite the same as the one who had left a few seconds ago, the one from before.
“I told you I’d help…” the god said. “Thought you might want that. I stole it from some watery witch or other. She seemed to think it belonged to her.”
Arthur remembered watching Excalibur slip under the waves as it became more difficult to breathe.
“You mean this is actually…” he asked, not needing to finish the sentence.
“Yes. It’s Excalibur. We can’t replicate something like that - forged in dragon’s breath.” The god gestured for him to pick the blade up and Arthur did, drawing it slowly from the earth, with something akin to reverence. He had never known a blade as good as Excalibur, never felt that any weapon fit him so well. Having it back in his hand, feeling the heft of it, made him feel more real, less ghost-like.
“Thank you,” he said, but when he looked up the god was gone, and from the darkness there came the scuttling, chattering sound again, which made him feel ice cold once more. Morgana drew a sharp breath all of a sudden.
“How do we get out of here?” she asked, looking around into the darkness. Arthur couldn’t tell. There didn’t seem to be an exit and the noises were coming from every side. He could almost see the movement, black on black coming closer. Of course, the bloody god couldn’t have stuck around for one more minute.
It had not taken Merlin long to realise that knowing where to look and finding where to look were too very different things. The underworld was not a place people stumbled across by accident, and it was not a place that welcomed visitors. There were only a limited number of people who knew where the entrances were and fewer still who would willingly part with the knowledge. And even if you could discover who they were, finding where they were was like looking for a needle in a haystack.
Merlin had journeyed to speak with an oracle, an elderly woman with a constant smile on her face and an uncanny ability to finish his sentences before he had even started them. She had taken one look at him and directed Merlin to water, any water. It was there he would find his predecessor, apparently. But, as he had come to learn, water covered most of the world’s surface. She hadn’t been able to tell him anything other than that, but it would have to be enough.
Magic could only help him so far. He would dip his finger into a lake, or the breaking waves of the sea and feel out as far as he could looking for the tiniest glimmer of where he should go, a spark of destiny leading him on, and Merlin followed that feeling for years across oceans and continents, down rivers, from the blistering heat to the icy cold of the poles, and the thing he was looking for had always moved, carried away by the currents.
The warlock was standing on the icy wastes to the North when the feeling finally grew stronger. His teeth were chattering together, and he pulled his robes around him more tightly. Magic was warming him, but he couldn’t completely block out the icy air without causing a disruption of the natural balance. So he allowed himself just enough heat to keep himself from freezing and forced his way on, heading face first into flurries of snow.
He had never seen so much white. Everywhere he looked, no green, no brown and no blue, not even in the sky. There was just merciless white, smothering everything. He felt unbelievably cut off from everything, even his magic seemed more distant, as though it was reluctant to follow him this far.
But his goal was ahead, the information he needed to find Arthur. So he strode onwards, shutting out the comments behind his eyes that murmured about nothing surviving in such a desolate place as this.
He was beginning to give up on ever finding his guide, when he heard something, barely audible over the sound of the wind, a voice crying out hopelessly to the air. He couldn’t make out what it said, but the tone of it thrilled him with warmth. It was one of the most musical sounds he had ever heard.
With renewed vigour, he walked towards the sound, struggling to hear it above the wind. It grew louder, until he could hear what it was saying.
Merlin stopped, remembering reading when he was younger, among the books on magic and history, a thinner book of poetry, written in Latin. He had found it down the back of Gaius’ shelves and read it more out of curiosity than any urge to learn.
The voice came again, calling out with a longing that Merlin couldn’t help but recognise. He hurried in its direction, bending himself almost double against the wind and the snow.
The voice seemed to be coming from the ice itself, and as he came closer to it, Merlin knelt down, scrabbling in the snow and ice with his hands desperately trying to reach it. His fingers turned blue before he remembered his magic and whispered a spell to raise the source of the voice from the ice.
Merlin had been with Arthur through many battles, he had seen people he knew and complete strangers be struck down and killed and he had spilled more blood than he cared to think about. One particularly gruesome campaign had seen the heads of some of their fallen knights speared on pikes and paraded in front of the oncoming army. The twists of their faces and the congealed blood that darkened the wood of the pike where it disappeared into the flesh had haunted him for years afterwards. He had seen too much to be squeamish.
But there was something about talking to a disembodied head that made his mind want to rebel, and it had nothing to do with the cold whiteness around them, though that did serve to make the image that much more unreal.
“Eurydice,” the man cried out again, and the wind responded, letting out a wail as deep as his own. It was as though the whole world listened to the words he spoke.
“No… I’m not Eurydice,” Merlin said, for lack of anything better. “Uhm… hello. I’m Merlin.” The man looked at him with blank eyes before opening his mouth to cry out again. Merlin smothered him with his hand before he could utter a sound. “I’m sorry, it’s just. I need your help.” The head glared at him and Merlin was a little worried that he might be bitten. “Look, I’ve lost someone. I know you understand that, right, and I’m looking for him. I’ve been looking for him for years, decades even, but I can’t find an entrance to the underworld, and I was hoping that you might be able to help me.”
“Oh, sorry,” Merlin pulled his hand away from the head’s mouth quickly. “Forgot about that. So, will you help me?”
The man, or at least Merlin assumed he was a man, with the respectable looking beard that had grown from his chin, surveyed him with weary interest, before letting out a noise that sounded somewhere between a wail and an ululation.
“Seek not the underworld,” the man – Orpheus, Merlin remembered from dim memories of poetry – told him. “The grim King and Queen will not suffer any to leave their realm, and the world of the dead is not one of happiness.”
Merlin spared a moment to wonder why everyone he talked to spoke in such a peculiar manner of speech, before reminding himself that it was probably an issue with the magical translation rather than anything else and addressed himself to the matter at hand… or the head in his hands, as the case might be.
“I know all that… but I need to find him. I’ll worry about getting him out of there when I know where there is.” Orpheus’ head looked unimpressed.
“I tried to get my Eurydice back… I almost recovered her. If I had not looked back, if only I had not looked back,” the final words were shouted into the air and the wind seemed to echo their tone, sounding even more like a lament than ever. “But I wished to look upon her face, I wanted to be assured that she was following, for her footsteps were silent as the shade she had become.”
“I know. I’m sorry that it didn’t work out for you. But don’t I deserve a chance?”
“They will not grant your request unless you give them something equally worthy in return.” Orpheus warned. “I played my music to them, and melted their icy hearts… for in the world of death there is no song to be heard other than the sorrowful muttering of the spirits.” Merlin considered the problem for a moment.
“Well… I’ve never been terribly good at music. Arthur used to say that I handled a sword like a lute and a lute like a sword.” He smiled at the memory, Arthur laughing as he said that listening to Merlin try to play music was infinitely worse than being bashed around the head with the instrument. Orpheus looked even less impressed, and Merlin hurriedly went on. “I can do magic though… I have a lot of power, maybe they’d take that in exchange for his soul.”
“They are gods, what would they want with your power?” The head asked, and Merlin had to wonder at how he was managing to lose an argument with someone who lacked the ability to move in any way other than a roll.
“Fair point, but like I said before. I’ll worry about getting him out when I get to him. He might not even be with them, it’s not like he followed their religion. It’s just… I need to find him, so if you could tell me how to get there, I’d be really grateful and take you wherever you want to go.” Orpheus’ eyebrows drew together thoughtfully as the wind picked up again and Merlin had to hunch in on him.
“Anywhere I want?”
“Anywhere,” promised Merlin.
“And all I have to do is tell you where to find the ferryman?”
“If he can take me to your underworld, then yes.”
“Charon can take you to Hades,” Orpheus assured the warlock, “but he will require payment… and he can only carry you across the Styx, you must make the rest of the way to their thrones alone.” Merlin nodded earnestly. “But…”
“Just tell me how to get there…”
“By the shores of the sea to the south of Athens walk due east…” Orpheus began, his voice rising and falling as he dictated the directions, somehow always audible above the howl of the wind. Merlin listened with rapt attention, trying to recall every direction the man gave him, perhaps adding a touch of magic to allow him to remember more clearly at a later date. The instructions were more detailed than he had anticipated, involving finding a small cave on the shore, and the right way to go through it, right down to how to approach the ferryman. “…and when you have crossed the Styx, do not allow yourself to be distracted by what is around you, just walk straight on, or you might never make it out.” Merlin nodded firmly.
“Thank you,” he said with feeling, “Whatever you want, if I can give you it, I will.” Orpheus’ eyes looked out at the white world around them, with the thick white-grey clouds overhead, and the flurries of white snow falling on them.
“I’d like to go somewhere warm,” he said, and Merlin laughed, in spite of himself, “not that far from where I was born,” he looked into the distance, as though he was seeing something else on the blank canvas of the world. “Not far from where I was happy with Eurydice.” Merlin nodded, standing up only to feel the wind try to push him back down again. He tucked Orpheus’ head beneath his arm, making sure that his face was pointing outwards and not half squashed under his arm.
He sighed as he set out again, struggling back the way his magic told him was the right direction, his footsteps having been covered swiftly by the snow. His feet crunched steadily as he waded through the wind, back towards warmer climes.
Hermes had left the pair of them to their fate, and Arthur cursed himself for having trusted the god, although he had returned Excalibur to Arthur, so maybe his departure wasn’t planned.
He and Morgana were surrounded, and Arthur couldn’t see where to aim his sword, let alone use it, and the chattering, scuttling creatures kept closing in on them, coming closer and closer.
Morgana was shaking next to him, having instinctively drawn closer together in the moment. He had never seen her scared before – not really – indignant, angry, cool cold and manipulative, but never terrified. Whatever these things were, they made her so scared she could barely think straight. He tried to imagine years in this darkness with only the fear of them for company, watching the things swallow up anyone she saw.
He shuddered, and the oncoming rattle of the things grew louder.
There was a sudden glow, appearing right in front of them, growing brighter with every second, and the chattering grew more excited, like this was a sign of something.
Arthur could see their shapes now, all angles and arms, indistinct but definitely there, swarming around them. The glow glinted off Excalibur in his hand and he swung it round, noting how the creatures seemed to draw away from it.
Arthur swung his sword around towards the creatures that were creeping towards them, watching the tip slip past the edge of the darkness. There was barely the distance of a hand between Excalibur’s tip and the edge of the darkness. He could have sworn that the patch of light extended further than that before.
He looked up to where Morgana was standing and when he looked back down again, the tip of his sword was in the dark.
“They’re getting closer,” he said, and Morgana looked over at him, fear evident in her eyes and he looked around into the darkness, trying to see an escape route. “There’s got to be a way out.”
He felt a tug on the end of his sword, and looked down to see what looked like small black fingers wrapped around its tip before they pulled away suddenly, dissolving into the dark. A small hiss of pain accompanied the movement.
“There!” Morgana called out, pointing into the darkness, and Arthur looked up to see where she was pointing as she reached out to pull the sword from his hands.
“Morgana!” he called after her as she ran towards the place she had been pointing at, sweeping Excalibur around to rid her path of the creatures. He struggled to try and follow her, but by the time he reached the edge of the darkness the creatures had returned, reaching for him with eager hands. “Morgana… please…” he called out, trying to think of a way across the darkness without being pulled down. “Morgana come back!”
“It won’t open,” she said suddenly, and Arthur could hear Excalibur sweep through the darkness again and hear the small thuds as it connected with flesh. “It won’t open, Arthur!”
“Good!” he snapped back, his patience gone, “then we’ll both die here.”
The circle of light was still contracting around him, and he had to step back as it edged towards his feet.
He could see them now, on the edge of the darkness, thin bodies and long fingers reaching and grasping, dark beady eyes looking for him, and rows of sharp teeth.
“Morgana… Come back here, I’ll help you with the door if you can get me through them,” he said.
“They’re thicker here,” she said, and he could hear a note of hysteria in her voice. “They’re everywhere.” The swishing noise of Excalibur tearing the air became faster and more frenzied.
“Morgana… breathe… cut yourself a path,” he forced himself to be calm. He might not be able to trust her, but she was his only chance at the moment. “Come back and get me and we’ll work on the door together.”
“Right…” she said, and slowly the swishing noise got closer until he could just make out her shape in the darkness. There was barely enough room in the light for him to stand now, the shadows were almost on his arms.
Morgana reached him just in time, and the two of them made a strange sight on their way back to the door, or they would have done had anyone been able to see them. Morgana swept the sword around them in as wide an arc as possible and they edged through the darkness, standing as close together as physically possible. Arthur couldn’t help but flinch every time the blade strayed too close to him, uncertain whether he could really trust Morgana with a sword.
He could feel the hands grasping at him, every time Morgana swung Excalibur away from him, and he kicked them off, fumbling for the door he couldn’t quite see. Eventually, he felt out the handle and struggled to turn it. Where it had not moved for Morgana, once he began to twist it, it turned easily and the pair of them practically fell through the door and into the room beyond.
The door slammed shut behind them and Arthur leant back against it, gasping for air he knew didn’t exist. Automatically his mind scanned himself for injury even as his eyes were adjusting to the sudden dark.
He grabbed the sword from Morgana’s hand as soon as the door was closed, staring into the darkness that still surrounded them for any sign of more creatures, but the place was silent and still.
“Morgana?” he asked into the shadows.
“Arthur,” replied his one time sister from nearer than he had expected. He turned on her.
“What were you thinking?” he demanded. “All this time you’ve just been waiting for me to turn away so you could throw me to the wolves.” Better the wolves, he thought with a shudder, than those things that scuttled along in the dark and crept up on you when you weren’t thinking.
“I didn’t betray you,” she said with utter certainty.
“Not for want of trying… I can’t believe I let myself trust you again. You always betray me. Always. Why should death change that?”
“If you go,” Morgana said, her voice ringing out through whatever room or place they had come to. “If you leave then I’m stuck here, Arthur – on my own. Again. A decade can pass in a second here, or it can drag out for a century. Imagine what forever alone would be like. Stuck with myself and those creatures for company for eternity.”
Morgana lapsed into silence.
“I wasn’t going to leave you there,” she said, after a moment, “I swear.”
“Your word is worth nothing!”
“You can’t keep throwing that in my face. You already got your vengeance. You already had the pleasure of killing me – can’t the past remain past?”
Arthur could just about make out her outline now, and he sighed deeply as he looked into the dark past her, suddenly feeling tired again, like all the years he had lived were weighing down his shoulders once more.
“Killing you was not a pleasure,” he told her, leaning back against the wall.
“More fool you -” Morgana said with the airy tone of voice she used when she was pretending not to be affected by something. Arthur marvelled at how so many things could change while they all stayed the same. “I would have taken pleasure in the act had it been the other way round. I would have savoured the moment. I used to think about it – feeling you die. It used to be all I thought about. The fact that I wouldn’t be able to watch it happen was one of my biggest regrets.”
Arthur didn’t know what to say to that. The relish in her voice as she spoke chilled his blood. Unconsciously he reached for Excalibur and its solid presence relaxed him and helped him regain his balance.
“Of course, I knew it wouldn’t happen,” Morgana continued sadly. “I knew what was really going to happen for years. I saw it every night. Every time I closed my eyes I would see you killing me. And then I lost my eyes.” She sounded so far away, like she was lost in her memories. Arthur wished he could see more than the dim shadowy outline of her. He wanted to know what she thought and he couldn’t do that if he couldn’t see her. “Then I saw it all the time. Your face, twisted in rage and smeared with dirt and blood was seared into my mind. Your voice echoed in my ears and your sword tore through me. It was almost a relief when it happened. I knew I’d never have to see you again…” There was a moment and Arthur could just about see enough of Morgana to see her shake herself out of her reverie. “And here you are,” she finished, her tone unimpressed.
“I’m sorry,” he said weakly, not that he was - not for killing her. But he was sorry that she’d had to experience it more than once. The one time he had been through it was more than enough for him.
“I told you – a minute can be a decade in here,” she sighed. “I’ve had a lot of time to think… reconsider. And it all brings me back to one question: if I hadn’t had that dream, if I hadn’t seen you kill me, would I still have fought you and brought about the series of events that led to that moment?”
Before Arthur could consider her question there was a sudden flare of light from the centre of the room and he had to shut his eyes in shock.
When he opened them again, carefully blinking to readjust to the light, he risked a glance around the chamber they had entered in their hasty escape. There were eight walls, all of roughly equal length and in every other wall was a door, each one, save the one they had come in by, surrounded by elaborate carvings and guarded by a figure in full armour, carrying a shield. In the centre of the room stood the source of the light: a dais with a carved stone bowl mounted on it, filled with dancing flames.
Arthur did not remember this room from Camelot. It reminded him of some of the tower rooms, but smaller, with doors instead of windows.
He left Morgana at the door and crossed over to the door on their right, standing in front of the knight there and looking at his shield.
It was one he recognised, the gold double headed eagle on the purple background crossed with red. The knight opposite had similar arms, except the band was absent and the bird’s legs were silver rather than scarlet. In between them, manning the door opposite where Arthur himself had entered, stood a knight carrying a shield that bore a gold pentagram on red.
“Gareth,” Arthur said, looking up into the face of the knight he stood closest too. The visor of his helmet was down, but Arthur could just make out the glimmer of firelight on his eyes. “Gawain and Gaheris…” he glanced round at the other two. “What do I have to do here?” he asked.
“Choose a door,” Morgana said.
“That’s all?” Arthur asked, incredulous. “I just have to walk through one?”
“I doubt that’s all,” Morgana said, as though he were stupid. “That wouldn’t really test anything, would it? Perhaps we should find out what’s on the other side of each one.”
“How do we do that?” Arthur asked, looking round at the doors, each looked almost identical.
“I don’t know,” she said, rolling her eyes. “We could ask.” Arthur paused for a minute before looking back at the unmoving helmet.
“Which way should I go to get out of here?” he asked.
“All of the doors lead away,” the man replied. He had the voice Arthur remembered of Gareth, but somehow Arthur always remembered it laughing, not blank and cold as it was, emphasised by the echoing of the helmet.
“Ask a stupid question,” Morgana said, and Arthur could imagine her eyes rolling. “You need to be more specific than that.”
“Fine… you do it then, if you’re so intelligent.”
“Fine, I will then,” Morgana snapped back before marching up to Gaheris, who stood opposite Gareth and looking him up and down. “What lies behind your door?”
“The end of all things,” Gaheris answered, his voice as hollow as Gareth’s. Although he had always been the most serious of the brothers it still sounded wrong - like Arthur would expect the dead to sound. He shivered as he realised that that was not too far wrong.
“And that was so useful, wasn’t it?” he said, looking at Morgana over the flame in the centre of the room. The brilliant light of it reflected off her eyes, making her look as blind as she had been the last time he saw her. Arthur had to turn away.
“Gareth…” he said slowly, “which of these doors should I take to find Merlin.”
“Each of them will help you find something you are missing,” Gareth replied and Arthur gritted his teeth in irritation.
“That’s not what I asked,” he said.
“Will any of the doors kill him?” Morgana asked suddenly.
“He is already dead,” Gawain said, from the middle door, in as dead a voice as both of the others. Arthur couldn’t even bring himself to look at him. “As are we all.”
“Yes, but will any of them kill him more?” she asked.
“No.” Gawain replied.
“Will I be able to return to this room from them?”
“Yes,” Gawain replied.
“So all I have to do is go through them all and see which one takes me where I want to go,” he said to himself.
“It can’t be that simple, Arthur,” Morgana protested. “You know it can’t.”
“Is there a trick to this?” Arthur asked the room at large and all three of the guards – he was loathe to call these statues by the names he had known in life – replied in unison.
“Of course there is,” he said, with a small smile, “it wouldn’t be any fun otherwise, Morgana. But I can’t stand around here all day asking questions. I need to do something.” He looked back at the figure that might, in life, have been Gareth. “What lies behind this door?”
“The beginning.” Gareth’s empty voice replied.
“As good a place to start as any, I suppose,” he said with a nod. “Wish me luck Morgana,” he told her walking around Gareth to grasp the latch of the door, “and try not to stab me in the back.”
He turned the latch and pushed the door open and he was immediately bathed in daylight.
“Well, that doesn’t seem too bad,” he said with a wry smile, “which probably means there’s an angry dragon on the other side, or something.”
He pushed the door open further and walked through, ignoring the way Morgana called out his name.
On the other side, a brilliant blue sky stretched into the distance and his feet were walking across grass. Camelot stood to the east, as he remembered it from his childhood.
“I am willing to try anything,” a voice said behind him and Arthur turned to find the doorway he had come through gone and three people in its place. Two women and a man, who looked so much younger than Arthur remembered him.
“Father?” he asked, staring at the man incredulously.
The room was deathly silent for a few moments, as though everyone had stopped breathing out of sympathy, and then, seconds later, Arthur stood up and crossed over to where Merlin sat.
“Bring him back,” he commanded, his voice as firm as ever.
“Arthur… I…” Merlin stammered, unable to draw his eyes from the King’s dead body to his son, who stood above him with his eyes half-crazed with grief.
“It wasn’t his time… bring him back!” Arthur’s voice rose, and he grabbed Merlin by the shoulder, dragging him up and off his chair to where Uther’s body lay, pallid but peaceful in death.
“It’s too dangerous,” Merlin said, his voice tired and small.
“I don’t care about the danger – bring him back!” Arthur shook him, pushing Merlin further until he had to put out his arms to stop from falling onto the King’s body. “Whatever it takes, whatever you have to do, whatever I have to give, do it.”
“It’s not as simple as that,” Merlin continued, keeping his voice calm, which only served to annoy Arthur more. “Magic doesn’t work like that. There are some things that cannot be changed.”
“You’re saying you can’t do it?” Arthur asked, refusing to look at his father’s face, watching Merlin instead and seeing the tiny wince which he knew meant his manservant was hiding something. “What is it?” Merlin did not reply. “Tell me, Merlin. The truth – can you bring him back?”
Merlin sighed and Arthur dragged him back upright by the scruff of his neck, stepping forward until their faces were millimetres apart.
“No.” Merlin said, simply. “Not anymore.”
“But you could have done, if I had asked earlier, you could have done?”
“Everyone dies. Some things can’t be stopped, Arthur,” Merlin told him softly, neatly avoiding the question. “I can’t change what has happened.”
“Why not?” Arthur demanded, shaking Merlin slightly. “If you’re so bloody powerful, then why not?” Merlin brought up a hand to Arthur’s, resting it lightly on his wrist, enough so that their skin was just touching.
“It doesn’t work like that, Arthur.”
“What use is magic then?” he asked. “So you can kill men and clean things? I can do that. It might take me longer, but I can still do it. What use is magic if it can’t do anything useful?”
“Arthur…” Merlin tugged Arthur towards him until their noses were almost touching. “I’m so sorry.”
“Sorry doesn’t help,” Arthur muttered, closing his eyes so that he wouldn’t see the sympathy in Merlin’s gaze.
“I… didn’t think it would be so soon,” Arthur admitted, after a moment of silence.
“I don’t know…” Arthur broke off, not finishing the sentence and unwilling to show weakness in front of anyone. “I’ll have to make arrangements… for the funeral,” he whispered into the air between them.
“And the coronation,” Merlin reminded him gently, and Arthur let out a shuddering breath at the word.
“Merlin…” he murmured, his lips hardly moving.
“My father is dead.” The world did not stop at the words; he didn’t collapse.
“I’m sorry,” Merlin repeated.
Arthur pressed forwards, pressing their lips together. Merlin tasted of salt and it took Arthur a second to realise that those were his own tears on Merlin’s lips.
“Thank you,” he murmured into Merlin’s mouth. The only response he got was a tightening of Merlin’s arms where they had slipped around his waist, but it was all Arthur needed.
Orpheus’ instructions proved complete, and, after dropping the man’s head off where he had asked, Merlin followed them to the letter. He found the cave on the shore and the entrance at its back. He walked through the gateway to find himself on the edge of a river, in a world that was grey and misty.
A boat stood nearby, with a man sitting in it, and as Merlin approached, he held out his hand.
Charon, the ferryman, he realised and Merlin dug in his pocket to find the fare for his passage, pressing it into the silent man’s hand before stepping into the boat.
The ferryman did not smile, nor did he look around, and Merlin was left to his own thoughts as they pulled across the green-grey water to the other side. He could feel the chill of death in the air and the world slowing around him, until it was virtually standing still. Time had no meaning to the dead after all.
They reached the other side both sooner and later than he would have liked, and when he stepped out of the boat he could feel nothingness. It spread like freezing cold from the sole of his foot and up his leg, like water trickling upwards.
Around him the world seemed to be made of shadows, wind and silences. He could sense the souls of the dead around him, just beyond his reach, just out of sight. Merlin walked on, wrapping his arms and cloak around himself in an attempt to keep the chill out, though he knew it, like his magic, could do him no good.
He would have been hard pressed to describe what he was walking through. He couldn’t see any aspect of it, other than the absence of anything. His footsteps made no sound, and although he could feel a wind, it made no impression on his clothing, merely chilled him to the bone.
So this was death, the world of the dead, beyond life. He could not imagine Arthur here, a lost voice among the thousands of lost voices, faded into nothing but dust and shadow.
Something rushed past him, like smoke carried on the wind, and he couldn’t help but shiver, pulling away and stopping for a moment where he was. When there was no repetition of the action for at least half a minute, he started out again, keeping his head down and his arms tight in to himself.
“Who are you?” Asked a voice from above, that seemed to echo like empty hallways, or mausoleums. Merlin almost jumped out of his skin and looked up into the darkness, where he could just about make out a pair of eyes watching him.
“I’m Merlin… Emrys,” he said. He wasn’t entirely comfortable with talking to something he could not see, but there was no alternative. “I’ve come in search of-”
“We know who you search for.” A woman’s voice cut him off and it was as though the fog lifted suddenly, and he could see the people he was addressing. A man and woman sat before him in huge stone thrones, the backs of which were carved with designs of bones. The woman who had just spoken wore heavy robes of purple, and her hair was gathered above her head in thick curls and braids. She was lovely, and Merlin was reminded of a crisp spring morning all of a sudden, but there was an edge of terror to her beauty and her face was cold. Her partner had jet black eyes set in a face that was handsome but made Merlin freeze where he stood. The god, for Merlin had no doubt that that was what he was, carried a large sceptre in one hand and held a heavy silver key in his lap.
Merlin drew in a deep breath of something that was not truly air and tried again.
“Is he here?” he asked.
“Arthur Pendragon was not of our religion,” the god said in the same echoing voice. “He has not entered this realm, nor crossed the Styx. The ferryman has never seen him. He does not walk in the fields of Asphodel, nor in the golden fields of Elysium. His soul is not forever tormented in Tartarus.” Merlin felt his heart drop, he still had no way of reaching Arthur and he was no closer to the end of his journey. It had been an outside hope at best, coming here, but he had to try.
“Do you know where he is?” he asked, looking up at the pair of them, only to see them looking back at him as though he were no more important or impressive to them than a flea. The man stood up, towering over him, and his hand seemed to tighten on his sceptre.
“Death is not something to be presided over by mortals,” he announced, and Merlin could feel even the darkness retreat from his anger. “You have no power here to ask such questions. I will permit you to leave, but only should you never return.”
“I just want to know where Arthur is, please,” Merlin said, taking a step forward. There was a sound as though the air itself was tearing and the god brought his sceptre swishing down through the air to stop barely a hair’s breadth from Merlin’s face. “Perhaps I can help you some way… a bargain maybe.”
“You have nothing we want.”
“Please…” Merlin began again.
“He is not here, that is all the information I will give you. Leave before you are condemned to stay here forever.”
The woman stood up also, taking a step down to him and resting a hand on his shoulder.
“Emrys,” she said, and Merlin felt as though a warm breeze was blowing through his hair. He remembered running through the forest with Will, so fast he thought he was going to go flying, the smell of spring rain and the first touches of the cool sun. “Arthur Pendragon is not here. Continue your search elsewhere… you will find him one day.”
“The laws of nature are not to be interfered with…” her husband roared.
“And destiny cannot be escaped,” she said simply. “Go Emrys.” She leaned forwards and pressed a key into his hand. “This will see you safely out. I wish you luck on your quest.” The warlock clenched his hands tight around the freezing metal of the key and bowed his head in as great a sign of respect as he could allow himself.
Reluctantly, Merlin turned away and began to make his way through the nothingness again, but now he could see figures in the darkness, as though his eyes had become used to the place. Some of them were moving slowly from place to place as in a daze, but not aimlessly. They moved as though they were treading out paths they had walked a million times over, this time no different than the last. The others watched him with pale eyes. There was no interest in their examination of him, just knowledge that he was something they had not encountered before in the world of shadow. As he moved away from the huge dark thrones of the King and Queen, they began to pull towards him, as though he was drawing them with an invisible string, following in his footsteps like eager puppies for scraps.
When he risked a glance at them, he shuddered at the change he saw in the figures when they drew near him. The listless apathy of their eyes turned to hunger, and their insubstantial hands reached out only to pass right through him like smoke. He felt nothing, but the hunger was still there, and they kept reaching.
The path he was following out did not lead back to the Styx and to the ferryman but along a different trail. There was little on either side of him other than the shades and the darkness, but Merlin felt like he was walking along the edge of a cliff, as if were he to stray too far to either side he would plunge to his death. He kept his eyes fixed straight ahead, to the slight thinning of the smoke in front of him, where the path was, determinedly not looking at the figures that crowded around him. Arthur was not here, there was no way Arthur could ever be here, among these things that were no longer people.
He imagined Arthur, sapped of colour, just shades of grey rather than red and gold, reaching out with hands that could not hold a sword, or push him, or drift over his shoulders gently. He imagined his King robbed of warmth and voice, left to drift into nothing, walking the same steps over and over again, with no purpose and no end. His mind rebelled and he felt sick to his stomach. This was not Arthur’s death.
He walked onward for what felt like days, ignoring the wraiths that clung to him, until he saw a glimmer of light ahead, and a creature that made his steps pause.
It had three huge heads, each fitted with teeth that looked like they could tear a horse apart, saliva dripping from them. Merlin hoped it was saliva, it was too dark to see clearly. As he approached, all three heads watched his progress. It was then he noticed that what he had presumed was fur around each of them was actually a thick mane of snakes which undulated to and fro as all of their heads twisted round to see him, their thin tongues flicking out as some of them opened their mouths so wide he could see all of their teeth, and others hissed.
Behind the creature were the gates, through which distant rays of light could be seen. There was a tinny clang as the monster’s tail twitched against the metal bars. Merlin took a step forwards, and suddenly the smoky figures were gone, shrinking back into the darkness, whether they were afraid of the creature or of the light, he couldn’t say.
The monster stood in front of him for a moment, its teeth bared, and some of the snakes in its mane darting forwards to snap at him, missing him occasionally only by the smallest of margins. But Merlin held his ground. He had faced down worse than this with Arthur. He had killed the Questing Beast, fought dragons and sorcerers. He had spoken with gods. He would not be intimidated by a guard dog. He lifted up the key in front of him, like some sort of shield or token of freedom.
One of the heads looked over Merlin’s shoulder for a second, off into the darkness, but Merlin did not turn around, unwilling to take his eyes off the clear threat as a low growl began to rumble from one of the throats. Then, as if at some signal, the animal slunk to one side, leaving the gates clear for Merlin to pass through.
He wasted no time in working the heavy lock with the key. For one dreadful second, it stuck and he thought that he had been tricked, but he twisted it as hard as he could and, with the screech of barely used metal, the lock turned. He darted outside, removing the key from the lock and tossing it to the beast, whose middle head caught it in midair with a great snap of its teeth. Then Merlin shut the gate firmly behind him and turned to flee back into the sunlight.
Back above the ground, the sun fell on his face, and Merlin was struck by the sudden warmth. It had not been cold in Hades’ realm, but at the same time it had been colder than the icy pole where he had found Orpheus’ head. There had been no warmth there.
He blinked in the daylight, his eyes so unused to the brightness again, and looked around in dazed amazement. The relief at his freedom was almost overwhelming, and for once, he did not feel that his immortality was a curse. He walked to the edge of the shore on which he had emerged – a different sea from the one he had seen when he walked in to see the ferryman, and lay down on the sand there, feeling the water tickle at his toes and breathing deep lungfuls of air.
But he had not forgotten Arthur, he never would. Even in the moments of relief, revelling in the warmth and sensation of living, he was even more determined. He had seen death, true death, and there was nothing there he wanted Arthur to ever experience. It was the antithesis of everything Camelot’s King had ever been. If Arthur was anywhere like that, even if he was not there specifically, then Merlin would stop at nothing to get him back. Nothing.
“Hello?” Merlin looked around the small house he appeared to be standing in. This was not what he had expected, not at all. A journey to the world of the dead, the spell had said, etched in thick lines on the walls of a sorcerer’s tomb. This did not look like the world of death.
The voice sounded like it was engraved on sarcophagi, not that Merlin thought he was hearing it as such. He turned around and managed to stifle a gasp at what he saw there – a tall cowled figure, that was not so much skin and bones as just bones - a living skeleton. Merlin looked into his eyes and steeled himself. Rather than human eyes, in the black sockets of the skull, where they should have been were two sparks of blue light. Merlin swallowed. He had seen a lot of terrible things in his lifetime, but somehow he knew that this was the most terrible.
WOULD YOU LIKE A CUP OF TEA?
Or perhaps not.
ALBERT HAS JUST PUT THE KETTLE ON.
“Uh… no, thank you,” the warlock said, haltingly. “I’m fine. I was just… looking for someone.”
YOU WILL FIND THEM HERE. The figure – Death, Merlin presumed – told him. He felt a little like the rug had been pulled out from under him. After all that trouble, talking to gods and journeying through death itself, all he had had to do was cast a spell and that was it.
“You’ve seen Arthur?” There was a pause, where Merlin thought that Death was considering the situation, but there were few facial expressions one could make without the aid of tissue, just a permanent grin.
SORRY. I MEANT THAT EVERYONE PASSES THROUGH HERE EVENTUALLY. The grave slab voice almost sounded apologetic. Merlin felt his heart sink again.
“Oh… he would have already been through – a while ago now,” Merlin said, determined not to give up. “I’m trying to bring him back.”
OH… YOU’RE ONE OF THOSE. Death said and Merlin wondered if, for a moment, the blue glow of his eyes might have rolled, but he must have been imagining things. YOU HAD BETTER COME WITH ME.
Death led the warlock along a black corridor and through a black door to a room lined with black bound books. His interior decorator had not had much of an imagination when it came to colour – it had been him, after all. Anyway, black went with everything, especially more black.
WHAT IS HIS NAME?
“Arthur… Pendragon. King Arthur Pendragon,” Merlin muttered, looking down the line of books in astonishment. The shelves extended so far into the distance that he could see the horizon.
Death continued down, and Merlin hurried after, watching a bone finger drift over the spines.
P…P… I KNOW IT’S AROUND HERE SOMEWHERE.
“Where are we now?” Merlin asked, unable to read the language on the books.
a86; Death replied.
IT IS THE SEVENTEENTH LETTER OF THE ALPHABET USED BY THE CURIOUS SQUID.
“There are books down here written in Squid?” Merlin asked incredulously, taking another look at the spines to check for excess seaweed.
THERE ARE BOOKS HERE WRITTEN IN EVERY LANGUAGE THAT HAS EVER AND WILL EVER EXIST.
“What are they?” Merlin asked, unable to help himself.
“Books that people write about themselves?” Merlin asked, wondering when Squid had time to write about their lives, and what there could be to say of interest about them.
NO, said Death. BOOKS ABOUT PEOPLE THAT WRITE THEMSELVES.
“And you have one about Arthur?”
THERE IS ONE ABOUT EVERYONE LIVING AND DEAD… AND THOSE THAT ARE NEITHER.
“Is there one about you?”
YES. Death said, and there was a note of finality to the word so Merlin didn’t ask any further. When Death ended something, he really ended something.
Q… QUIGLEY…AH, HERE WE ARE: P. PRATCHETT – NO… A LITTLE FURTHER – PENNYWORTH, PENN, PENDRAGON… UTHER… PENDRAGON, ARTHUR. He tugged out a thick black book with a skeletal hand and opened it up to two thirds of the way through.
THAT IS ODD.
“What’s odd?” asked Merlin, craning his head to see what was written, but the pages appeared to be blank. Death flicked backwards and they were over half way through before anything was written. “What does that mean,” he asked, “all those blank pages?”
I DO NOT KNOW, Death admitted. USUALLY THE BOOKS ARE EXACTLY THE RIGHT LENGTH. YOU SAY HE HAS ALREADY DIED?
THEN HIS BOOK SHOULD BE FINISHED. BUT IT SEEMS THERE ARE STILL PAGES TO BE WRITTEN.
“You mean he comes back? I get him back?” Merlin asked eagerly, looking up into the grinning skull.
“You don’t know?” the sorcerer said, taken aback.
AS YOU MIGHT SAY, THAT IS RATHER OUTSIDE MY AREA.
“Oh…” Merlin thought about that for a moment and nodded. “And you don’t know where he went?”
I AM MORE CONCERNED WITH THE JOURNEY THAN THE DESTINATION.
“Right…” Merlin said, heaving a huge sigh. The whole exercise had been pointless. “I’ll be going then.”
WHAT IS YOUR NAME?
“Merlin… or Emrys, sometimes, if you ask the wrong people,” the warlock answered. “Why?”
“Oh.” Merlin tried not to be unnerved by that, but there was something about Death taking a personal interest in you that made the blood run cold.
When Merlin had left, Death opened the door to the other room and stepped inside. He walked along the rows of hourglasses until he came to P and took one down. It had three sections, although all the sand appeared to be held in the central one by some unseen force. He put it back without a word and continued on to M and examined all the labels carefully before walking slowly to E and repeating the process.
He walked over to a door in the far wall and an observer would have been surprised at how quickly he could walk there when it had looked like it was miles away.
Behind the door was another collection of hourglasses – huge ones that would never have fit on the shelves outside. He walked past the huge black one carved with gothic designs and towards one at the back which looked plain compared to the others – until you realised that it was made of gold and the sand was actually gold dust, which glowed gently.
Death pulled it forwards and looked at the name engraved into the bottom.
On the hillside outside the Camelot of years long past, Arthur stared at his father as the man smiled, honestly smiled, with no prompting or extenuating circumstance at all. Arthur took a step forward, almost reaching the three of them before he noticed his father’s companions. Both were women, one dark, one fair, and they were smiling as well. He let out a startled huff of breath when he recognised one of them, the dark woman, walking on his father’s left side.
She had blue eyes, almost as bright as Merlin’s, and long dark hair. She did not look identical to how he had seen her before, but there were enough similarities in her appearance for him to identify her.
“Nimueh,” he said, remembering the last time he had seen her, years before. She had changed – probably in order not to be recognised – but not enough for him not to know what she was when he saw her.
She looked straight through him, her face troubled.
“I’m not sure, Uther. Meddling with forces that powerful can be… erratic.”
“We just want a child,” the other woman said, softly, and Arthur turned to her in shock, his mouth dropping open.
Her skin was pale, and her hair was golden, lighter than his had ever been, small parts braided intricately around her head while the rest fell almost to her waist. Her eyes were the same shade of blue as his and her smile seemed almost to be laughing at the world.
“Please, Nimueh…” she said, reaching across her husband to gently rest her hand on the other woman’s arm. “You know the sickness left me unable to bear children.”
“I cannot alter your fate, Ygraine,” Nimueh said, all gentle chiding and serious wisdom. She reminded Arthur of Merlin in his later years, when he had grown into his powers, if not his ears. “If that is to be childless, then that is how it must be.”
“But I have Seen him,” his mother said, her hand falling to her stomach unconsciously. Arthur reached out to brush one finger over the back of her hand. It was warm to the touch, but she did not react, as though he were no more substantial than the breeze which ruffled her hair. “I have seen our child in my dreams. I see him laughing every time I go to bed at night. I know what he will look like when he is grown, the King he will be – what a King he will be. That is my fate, to be the mother of the child who will be the greatest King this world has ever seen.”
“Ygraine…” Uther said, resting one hand on her shoulder. “You aren’t fully recovered yet. You know that Gaius said you weren’t to get excited.” His mother’s cheeks were rosy, and her eyes excited; she did not look ill.
“You worry too much, Uther,” Ygraine said fondly, reaching up to lightly touch his father’s cheek. “I’m fine…” She waved off his concerns and the three of them commenced walking again. “Nimueh, please. Give us this. Just this.”
“The consequences…” Nimueh began.
“It will be worth it,” Ygraine said firmly. “Believe me.” Nimueh looked at the queen thoughtfully.
“You have foreseen this?” she asked, carefully.
“Yes…” Ygraine said, her voice full of wonder. “I have Seen it.”
“Then I will do it.” Nimueh said, with the tone of a person who was not sure what they were getting into. Ygraine hugged her fiercely before turning to her husband who picked her up and swung her round so that her feet did not touch the ground.
“Our child,” he said, “our boy…”
“He will be beautiful,” Ygraine promised and Uther laughed, kissing her in delight as Nimueh watched the pair of them with a reluctant smile.
The world faded and changed, twisting to a new position. The sky faded into a stone ceiling and the grass became the slabs of a floor. Three people became twenty, thirty, forty, and in the middle of it all stood Uther and Ygraine, in their state robes, the crowns of Camelot on their brows. Ygraine’s stomach was swollen beneath her robes.
She glowed with pleasure, the smile never leaving her face as they walked through the room to their thrones, Arthur’s father assiduously making sure that she was comfortable before sitting down himself. He still fussed over her cushions and pillows until she batted his hands away. Arthur couldn’t stop himself from being drawn to them, moving between the people who milled around, some dancing, some serving. He passed as unnoticed as a ghost.
Arthur watched his mother with hungry eyes, looking at her laugh, how she drank, how she accepted compliments. She was as beautiful as he had always been told.
He came close enough to hear them speak to one another, their hands linked on his mother’s stomach, over where the far younger Arthur waited.
“Nimueh says…” his father began, his eyes darting to a corner of the room, Arthur followed them and saw the sorceress standing in a corner, not taking part in the revelries. She looked as though she had heard news of a tragedy.
“Don’t mind her,” his mother said, reaching out to turn his father’s face back to her. “You know sorcerers, all that worrying over the little things. She’s just being paranoid. This isn’t a night for paranoia, this is a night for us… you and I and our baby.” She smiled, kissing the King lightly on the lips. “We shall call him… Arthur,” she said after a moment.
“Arthur,” his father agreed.
The world switched again, the gaiety of the feast fading once more into greater darkness, and the music changing to strained cries and yells.
“What’s happening?” his father’s voice, more like he had heard it in his life time, hoarse and angry. “Will someone tell me what is going on?”
Arthur squinted, trying to adjust to the now dim light and he saw his father pacing the corridor they now stood in, a young woman in the garb of a midwife looking terrified in the face of his intent stare.
“Everything is proceeding normally, sire,” she said, bobbing a curtsey.
“Thank you,” Uther replied, “please return.”
She went past him, opening a door to a room, and as the door opened the cries grew louder. Arthur, drawn by something he couldn’t quite understand, followed her, unthinking, before the door closed.
The bedchamber was full of women, fussing around his mother who lay on the bed, sweaty and panting, with her legs bent. He quickly averted his eyes, crossing over to the top of the bed. His birth. That was what Gareth had meant by the beginning. He ran a hand over his mother’s forehead, trying to soothe away her pain.
His mother’s death… he remembered. She had died in childbirth, there had been complications.
Ygraine smiled as he brushed the hair from her eyes and, for a moment, her eyes seemed to lock on his, although that couldn’t be possible.
The midwife had said it was a normal birth though, she hadn’t mentioned complications, and you couldn’t lie to the King. He looked around, taking in everyone’s expressions. They seemed anxious, true, but not worried. The older woman who stood at the foot of the bed looked completely in control of the situation, not as though something had gone wrong.
“Breathe my lady, breathe deeply,” she said, her voice calming and gentle. “I know there’s pain, just breathe through it…” The queen nodded, a small, tight movement that belied the agony she was in. Her teeth were gritted together.
Arthur dropped his hand to her shoulder, trying to offer some comfort. If he was to be there at the end of her life, then he would give her as much as he could. Her smile grew, despite the pain.
He watched and waited as the women fussed about the room and finally his mother was told to push. He held onto her shoulder as he was born, watching the looks on the midwife’s faces. They still seemed untroubled by events.
His mother cried out in pain, but she kept going. Hours after he had walked in there was a cry, and Arthur saw himself, red and bloody, wailing in the midwife’s arms. She held him as his mother delivered the afterbirth, wrapping him up in a red shawl she had waiting, and cleaning him off gently with warm water.
“A Prince, my lady,” the midwife said, smiling as she handed the newborn child to the Queen, “with a fine voice.”
Arthur looked at his mother as she held him to her. She seemed tired, but not dying, not in trouble, happy and weary and alive.
“Arthur,” his mother whispered reverently, brushing a kiss to the top of his forehead as she held him in her arms.
He had never known that his mother lived long enough to hold him. He had always thought that she had been dead before she had even seen him and no one had ever told him differently.
“It was worth it,” she said again, her voice so very soft. “You were worth it.” She looked up, directly into the older Arthur’s eyes, seeing him quite clearly and spoke directly to him. “Know that I did it willingly, and I love you.”
On the last word her voice broke slightly and she gasped with pain. A figure rushed to her side and Arthur looked up, expecting to see his father, but instead it was Nimueh who was holding his mother’s hand.
“Ygraine… what?” she said, looking at his mother. Arthur could see that the colour was fading from the Queen’s cheeks, draining out of her. “No… not you, Ygraine, talk to me.”
“Worth it,” his mother said again.
“You knew?” Nimueh said, her voice rising. “You knew that this would be the price and you let me do it?”
“I’m sorry,” his mother said, her face twisting with pain. One of the midwives stepped forward and scooped the baby from her arms, and Arthur felt the loss immediately, as though he had been dunked into cold water. His younger self began to cry, great wailing screams.
“What have you done?” Nimueh asked, her voice dying down to an almost silent gasp. Arthur felt his world begin to spin as his foundations were ripped out from underneath him. He had been the product of magic. His mother had known that giving birth to him would kill her. He understood his father now, understood the rage he had seen growing up.
“I have given my son life,” Ygraine whispered back. Her eyes fell closed and Arthur was dimly aware of the nurses scurrying around him, muttering to each other about blood loss and problems, but he was frozen to the ground as he watched the life bleed from his mother and she fell still on the bed.
The door swung open and his father strode in, the nurses and midwives scuttling to the sides and curtseying deeply, except the older one who gave a slight bow before standing aside.
“What… Ygraine…?” As soon as he saw his wife, Uther ran to her side, dropping to his knees and grasping her hand tightly in both of his. “Ygraine!”
“Your son, my Lord,” the midwife said firmly, carrying the baby over to his father. But the King paid her no heed, looking up at Nimueh with rage burning in his eyes.
“What did you do?” he demanded, still imperious from his position on the floor. “Bring her back. Bring her back!”
“I warned you when we started this that forces like these were erratic.”
“I never agreed to this.”
“DON’T say her name,” Uther roared. “What did you do?”
“This is beyond my power to command,” Nimueh told him. “If I had known what it would cost, do you think I would have agreed?”
“Your magic did this!”
“Yes, but I did not intend…”
“Are you refusing to undo what your own hands have wrought?”
“I can’t undo it, Uther… understand that this is more powerful than…”
“So be it!” the King bellowed. “Leave us,” he yelled at the nurses. “Leave us now! I wish to be alone with my wife.”
“Sire,” the elder midwife said, “your son.”
Uther looked down at the child in her arms and let out a muffled sob before reaching for him.
“My son…” he said slowly, “her son.”
“Arthur,” the midwife agreed, bowing before walking calmly from the room.
Nimueh lingered a second longer before turning on her heel and leaving. Arthur could see tears in her eyes.
He turned back to his father, but as he did so the world disappeared once more only to be replaced again.
His father stood in front of him, his face the same as Arthur had always known it, carefully blank, with the icy rage he reserved for sorcerers written across it plainly. The King was lit in brilliant, flickering orange and red.
“Sorcery is a plague upon this kingdom. Its practitioners prey on the weak and the unwary and they destroy them. I shall see that it is wiped out in this land. I promise you that these monsters will perish. There is only one punishment that can rid them of their taint – death.”
The smell of burning flesh assaulted Arthur’s nostrils and he turned and gasped at the sight he saw. Three pyres, taller than houses, dominated the field they stood in, and on them he could see bodies charring in the heat, as he watched, more were thrown on – some still moving.
He wanted to be sick, but he had no stomach to empty onto the slabs beneath his feet, but his throat spasmed anyway, trying to quell a nausea that had nothing to do with the physical. He had seen battles and bodies before, but the screaming, coupled with the stench and the image of those bodies was too much for him. He turned back to his father and saw the utter conviction on his face.
Then he was falling, falling through space, until his knees hit the ground and he was back in the room he had left.
“Arthur?” Morgana was by his side in an instant. “I thought you weren’t coming back. What was through there?”
“The beginning,” he said, trying to keep the bile down, “like he said: the beginning of everything.”
“What do you mean?” she asked, helping him to his feet.
“Was that true?” he asked, looking at Gareth, trying to catch his eye through the visor.
“Yes,” the man said simply. Arthur drew in a deep breath and shut his eyes, trying to pull himself back together, but the sight of the pyres was still burnt into his eyes. He had to swallow before he could speak again.
“My mother couldn’t have children,” he said, catching Morgana’s eye, “she had Nimueh exchange her life for mine with magic.” He saw dawning understanding in his almost-sister’s face. “Which explains a lot when you think about it.”
“Arthur…” Morgana said, in a tone so like his mother’s that he had to grit his teeth together, pulling himself together.
“Right,” he said, setting his shoulders. “So, if that was the beginning, then - the end, is that what you said?” he asked, turning to Gaheris on the other side of the room. “Is that what lies behind that door?”
“It is an ending,” Gaheris agreed.
“Then that’s where I want to go,” he said, walking towards the door. Morgana caught his arm as he walked over.
“Arthur, you don’t have any clue what you’re walking into. By the end, he might mean the end of you. It might mean that you die properly and go on to some after life or other…”
“And if I do that then you’re left here,” Arthur said, looking at her with disgust.
“If you do that, then you never get what you want,” Morgana said quietly. “Think about this.”
“I am thinking,” Arthur said, striding to the door and pushing it open. As before there was daylight beyond, dimmed through the canopies of trees. “See, it doesn’t look that bad.”
“I’m coming with you,” Morgana said simply, walking right past him and into whatever lay beyond the door.
“Morgana!” he called, hurrying after her to try and pull her back, but as soon as he walked through the door, it vanished.
No matter how many battles Merlin had seen, he never got used to the aftermath. He had once imagined, while sitting waiting for news of Arthur and the campaigns, an eerie silence when the fighting had paused, the ground littered with bodies. He had thought of miles of desperate wasteland.
The reality was the survivors wading through mud to collect their dead friends – sometimes in pieces. There was no silence, just the low hum of activity as everyone got on with it. Mass graves were dug, huge pyres were built, and any unidentifiable body parts were collected to one side, so that later they could play fit the arm to the body.
Of course, that was only when you looked at it through normal eyes. When you saw it through magic, everything looked a little different. For a start, every fallen warrior was collected twice. While their comrades bore them away with solemn faces, Merlin watched fiercely beautiful women literally pull the souls out of them and herd the lost ones wandering the field. Some were passed over, but many were selected and stood by the women’s sides, looking bewildered.
When Merlin approached one group, he could hear one of the men arguing with his living friend who was carrying his body to the grave.
“That’s not my arm!” he called, trying to grab the living man, but his hand passed right through his shoulder. “Look at it for a second. I never wore a ring like that. It’s not my arm. My arm’s over there.” The ghost gestured across the field. “Go and find the right one. I don’t want to go to the afterlife with the wrong bloody arm.”
Merlin wanted to point out that the ghost already clearly had two arms, but he had more pressing matters than missing arms. The fallen soldier continued his litany as Merlin addressed the woman.
“Hello?” he asked, trying to walk by her side but unable to quite keep up with her strides and the twists and turns she took, testing this body then that. She ignored him. “Sorry to interrupt, but… I’m Merlin and I was wondering…” she didn’t even hesitate, leaning over one corpse and shaking her head in disdain.
“…and look at the back of it… look at that hair, I never had hair like that on the back of my hand…”
Irritated, Merlin raised a hand and gave her a magical shove. He was aware of the souls of the dead watching him with confusion and gave them a small cheerful wave. No one had ever really told him how best to address the recently deceased. Happiness didn’t seem particularly tactful, but they probably didn’t want to have their noses rubbed in it.
“…They don’t even match! It’s bad enough to be dead, but to have to be dead with hands that don’t match…”
The Valkyrie turned around in one sweeping movement, and Merlin was reminded of watching Arthur or Lancelot in battle – the way their movements seemed to flow into one another, like they weren’t quite human. He looked down to see the tip of her sword at his throat.
“You are not dead,” she said in a voice that sounded like battle, looking him up and down.
“…And that scar. I never had a scar like that. I think I would know if I had a scar like that and I don’t… didn’t…”
“No, I’m not. But I’m looking for someone who is,” Merlin replied.
“You have power,” she continued, “but not that much.”
“Maybe not,” Merlin conceded, although his mind rebelled against the idea. He was going to find Arthur and he was going to bring him back. “I just want to find him and I thought, perhaps, you might know where he is.” She looked at him curiously for a moment.
“… And I didn’t bite my nails…”
“His name is Arthur Pendragon. He was a King, slain in battle years ago. He died by the side of the lake,” Merlin told her, trying to pick out details which she would remember.
“Was he worthy?” she asked.
“Yes.” Merlin didn’t even need to think about that. The answer was obvious.
“Then he may well be in Odin’s hall at Valhalla, where the souls of the worthy await Ragnarok.” She turned away.
“Can you take me there?”
The Valkyrie turned back to him with a chilling look of disdain.
“Only the dead and the immortals can gain access to Valhalla,” she told him. Merlin smiled grimly.
“Then we won’t have a problem.”
“No one’s laughing at you…” Arthur told him indulgently as Merlin twisted round to look at the serving girl who had just passed them. She had been staring. “No one would dare.”
“I look like an idiot,” Merlin told him turning forwards again and succeeding in tripping over the hem of his new robes. As he picked himself up off the floor, he caught sight of Arthur, leaning against the wall, his mouth twisted in amusement.
“You do when you trip over your own feet, yes,” the King, and Merlin was still having to get used to thinking that, and Arthur was still having to get used to hearing it. King Arthur of Camelot. King Arthur the Just, King Arthur the Fair, King Arthur who had removed the laws against magic. King Arthur who would give any man a chance at knighthood if they could pass the tests, no matter what station they were born into. King Arthur the complete prat who had had some sadistic seamstress make up some sorcerer’s robes that would have looked impressive had Merlin been three inches taller and built like… well, Arthur.
But he was built like a collection of twigs and he moved too fast for them to trail regally behind him, and his fingers got tangled in the sleeves whenever he tried to do magic. He had landed on his face four times that morning already, most of which had, gratefully, been out of Arthur’s line of sight.
“I did not,” he said, struggling not to sound like a petulant child, but failing miserably if the increase in Arthur’s smile was anything to go by, “trip over my own feet.” He brushed down the infernal robes, trying to find some horrible tear that would mean they had to go, but sadly the material was too hard wearing for that. “I tripped over these ridiculous robes you insist on making me wear.”
“Is that ingratitude I hear?” Arthur asked, pushing himself back up off the wall and walking onwards. Merlin noted with a small glimmer of affection that he did slow down a bit though. “I make you court sorcerer, I gift you with clothing befitting of your station and you complain at me. I am your monarch, Merlin.”
“Doesn’t stop you from being a prick,” Merlin muttered.
“I could have you beheaded for that.”
“I could kill you before you even gave the order.” The threats are meaningless. Neither of them would even dream of hurting the other, and they both know it.
“So what are we doing?” Merlin asked, trying to change the subject.
“Didn’t I say?” Arthur asked, surprised. Merlin bit back a retort, it was not Arthur’s fault that Merlin was coming second to the flurry of court – balls, banquets, enemies on the far borders, alliances to be made. He was king now, he had even more to do than before, and Merlin knew that he was barely sleeping. If it wasn’t the council’s request that he choose a wife, then it was the raids near the eastern border and the possibility of war to the north.
So instead of snapping back at him, Merlin just shook his head and concentrated on staying upright.
“The training ground. There are three new men who want to be knights.” Merlin looked at him.
“Arthur, I thought you agreed that Lancelot was going to handle the testing now. You have other things to worry about; you can’t go challenging every hopeful who comes through the gates.” The king turned to look at him.
“I am letting Lancelot handle it… mostly.” When Merlin opened his mouth to protest, Arthur cut him off with a wave of his hand. “I need to do some of it, Merlin. They need to know that I am able to lead them in battle, and willing to work as hard as they are. I need to know that their loyalty is to me and not to Lancelot, no matter how much I might trust him.”
“He would never betray you,” Merlin said, shocked by the suggestion. Arthur shrugged.
“You can never truly know what’s going on inside another person’s head.”
“I can!” Merlin said. Arthur looked at him with wary alarm. “Not like that, I would never… that would be… I don’t look inside people’s heads.”
“But you could?” Arthur asked speculatively.
“I wouldn’t,” Merlin said firmly and Arthur let the subject drop. “Not without their specific permission, or there was no other choice. What I meant to say was that… it’s Lancelot. I know him. He was too honest to take the credit for killing that griffin even when it would give him the knighthood he always wanted and save my neck from the block. He hasn’t got it in him to betray you.”
“I hope not,” Arthur said, before smiling broadly and clapping Merlin on the shoulder. They were almost at the knight’s training ground now. “Anyway, as I was saying. I’m not going to challenge them…”
“Then what are we doing here?”
Merlin froze where he was, forcing Arthur to stop too, and he stared at the King with complete disbelief. He opened his mouth to speak, but then closed it again. He couldn’t have heard that right.
“Come on, Merlin. They’re waiting on us.”
“You want me to challenge them?” he asked, still gaping.
“But…” Merlin said, the information still filtering through his brain. “They want to be knights. They’ll have swords, and armour, and they’ll probably be quite good at using them. And you always take great pleasure in reminding me that I still haven’t worked out how to tell the hilt from the blade.”
“You’re not going to have a sword,” Arthur said, looking a little confused. Merlin blanched completely. There was a distinct possibility that he was going to end up hacked to tiny pieces on the training field. “You have magic.” Arthur spoke as though the whole thing was self-explanatory.
“You want me to use magic against them?” Merlin asked slowly.
“Obviously,” Arthur said, “what did you think I wanted you to do? Flail like a lunatic and then trip over your own feet. I know you’re good at it, but it could hardly be called a useful defence tactic.”
“What am I allowed to do to them?” Merlin asked, uncertainly. “Just deflect their blows? Hold them in place? Trip them up?” Arthur shrugged.
“You can do whatever you want to them… although try not to kill them. A few more knights would be useful with the problems we’re having to the north.”
“I can do anything to them?” he asked, just to be sure. It wasn’t what he had expected. Magic, even in Arthur’s Camelot, was contained and controlled as much as possible. You didn’t hear about how evil it was for your entire life without at least learning to be wary of it. So far Merlin had been introduced as the Court Sorcerer, but he had not given any demonstration of his abilities. The people took their king’s word as truth.
“Except kill them,” Arthur said.
They started moving again, Merlin feeling a little light headed with the levels of trust being placed upon him and Arthur watching his dazed expression with mild amusement. The king schooled his face as they came in sight of the knights, though, the amusement falling away to be replaced by what Merlin was coming to know as his kingly expression. It was just this side of blank, and could be taken as anything from amused to angry without even twitching. It unnerved people who stood before it because they could never tell what Arthur was really thinking.
“Lancelot! Kay!” He called out to his first two knights and they fell in behind the pair of them immediately, although Merlin would not have been able to say where they were before. The four of them strode into the middle of the field, and Arthur nodded for them to form a line. Merlin struggled not to look out of place beside the knights, who stared straight ahead, their armour shining in the morning sun.
He couldn’t stop his eyes from darting around though, looking at the three would be knights who stood in front of him. One was wearing an old coat of mail which looked serviceable to Merlin’s eye. He had no surcoat or coat of arms on his shield – a peasant then. He might have been a blacksmith’s lad, he had the muscles for it and he wore his sword as though he knew it well. Beside him stood another man, who looked bored with the whole proceedings, he wore armour that shone brilliantly, a well made surcoat of rich material and a shield which didn’t look as though it had ever been dented. To his right stood the last, a well-built young man, whose eyes were flickering back and forth between Arthur and the three of them in the centre of the field. When he caught Merlin’s eye he gave him a small wink and a slightly nervous smile. His surcoat and shield marked him out as a nobleman as well, but there was a jagged scratch across the surface of his coat of arms.
Arthur was winding down from the first part of his speech, which as always spoke of the rigours of knighthood and the probability of death and dismemberment. There was a lot of talk of glory and honour and Merlin had heard it all ten times before.
These were the first applicants for knighthood since he had become king, however, and where he had used to declare himself as the final challenge. The new system meant that the next part would change, so Merlin looked away from the young men and turned his attention to the king.
Arthur had always had a flair for the dramatic. He could lead a crowd to tears or to rage as easily as he smiled, and he did so with no shame.
“In order to be accepted as a knight of Camelot, there is one final test, not just of your skills, but also of your judgement,” he announced, “Each of you will select one of the three men behind me, Sir Lancelot, Sir Kay or Merlin, to challenge to single combat, and should you survive that combat for two minutes without surrender then you will be accepted.
“You should choose carefully, but I must assure you that we will think no less of you for taking the easier option. There is no shame in knowing how to pick your battles. It is often better to choose a battle that you can win easily, than to elect one where it is likely you will lose. Being a knight is not just about being able to fight, it is about knowing when and where to fight. Strategy is important.”
“Lionel of Mercia, Thomas of Cumbria, Gawain of Orkney. I will call you forward one by one and you will select your opponent.” He strode off to stand to one side of the field and Merlin caught sight of Gwen standing behind him, where they had both used to watch from. She smiled cheerily at him, before he realised that Arthur was glaring at him and he redirected his attention forwards.
“Lionel,” Arthur called out, and the young man Merlin had pegged as a blacksmith stepped forward.
Merlin could tell what Arthur was doing. Like he had said, this was a test, just not the one the knights thought it was. He was giving them a choice between the formidable looking Lancelot and Kay, who were the epitome of what he wanted his knights to be, and Merlin, who in his oversized robes and with his lack of discipline, looked like he could be knocked over with a feather. Their choice would tell Arthur more about them than the way they fought would. An honourable man would not choose to fight an unarmed man. An intelligent man would steer clear of what looked like the obvious easy route with suspicion. The people who chose Merlin were not supposed to become knights.
He was almost angry with Arthur then, and he caught the king’s eyes in an attempt to glare at him, but Arthur looked away almost immediately.
Lionel walked forward and before he even moved Merlin could have told Arthur he wasn’t going to look twice at Merlin. He was a commoner, he had something to prove. Even if he deemed Merlin the easy choice, there was no way he would choose him.
He strode straight for Lancelot and nodded at him. Lancelot nodded back and Arthur called out from the sidelines.
“Lionel has chosen Sir Lancelot. Thomas, please elect your opponent.”
Thomas, with the perfect shield, stepped forward and ran his eyes across the line up with disdain. He took in Lionel standing next to Lancelot with a flick of his eyebrow and walked forward. He looked Kay up and down dismissively, and did the same to Lancelot, and Merlin caught sight of a small smirk on the knight’s face as Thomas passed him by.
His heart sank as Thomas came to stand in front of him. He had been hoping to get through this without having to do anything. Then he caught sight of the smug look on Thomas’s face and he almost returned it as the man nodded.
Arthur’s voice had a hint of happiness to it as he called Gawain forward. Unlike Thomas, Gawain walked straight to Merlin but shook his head when he reached him.
“Good luck,” he whispered to Thomas as he passed him by. The man snorted, looking away. Gawain looked at Lancelot.
“Sir Lancelot,” he murmured, “your reputation precedes you.” Lancelot nodded slightly in acknowledgement. “I fear that if I were to enter the ring with you, then I might have to be carried out in pieces.” Lancelot smiled imperceptibly. “We must pick our battles.” He walked past Lionel with a quirk of a smile and a sincere wish of good luck and came to stand in front of Kay. “Sir Kay, I do not mean any disrespect, but I feel I have more chance of coming through this with you. If you do not mind.”
Kay inclined his head and Gawain responded in kind. Merlin shot a look over at Arthur, who was watching the proceedings curiously.
“Gawain has chosen Sir Kay,” he called out. “Now, if the others would step away, Lionel and Sir Lancelot… the field is yours.”
Merlin hurried over to where Arthur and Gwen were standing, almost falling over twice, but managing to keep his balance, just.
“Sire,” he said out of the corner of his mouth as Lancelot and Lionel drew their swords. “You have a twisted mind.”
“Thank you,” Arthur muttered back. “And make sure that arrogant tit doesn’t get through, won’t you.” Merlin shot a look over at where Thomas was standing, slightly apart from Gawain, smirking at him.
Lionel managed to stay on his feet against Lancelot through sheer force of will. His skill was good enough, though nothing jaw dropping, but he had never had any chance of winning. He dropped to one knee three times, but struggled back upwards with determination every time. He landed a couple of hits on Lancelot, but nothing crippling.
“He’ll be reasonable,” Arthur murmured, “when we’ve trained him up a bit.”
When the bout was over there was a roar of applause. The people of Camelot loved Lancelot, and they loved bravery. Lionel, a bashful grin on his face, was led over to Arthur who smiled at him and received his sword.
When he had been led to the side of the training field on which the knights stood, Arthur gave Merlin a light shove towards the field.
“Thomas, Merlin… your turn.”
Merlin felt like a complete moron, shuffling out into the field, rolling up his sleeves. This would not go well if he got caught up in them and ended up turning his right foot into a chicken. Opposite him Thomas was stretching out slowly, grinning like he had already been knighted. He reminded Merlin a bit of Arthur when they had first met. He could see the man deciding where to hit him, what to do first, choreographing the whole fight in his head. He was going to get a shock. Merlin stood up straighter and allowed himself to smile and, for the first time, Thomas looked uncertain.
Merlin didn’t even blink when the man rushed at him with the sword, he had had the same from Arthur enough times before, and when you’d faced down dragon’s fire there wasn’t really much left that scared you. He flicked his wrist and Thomas went flying into the mud. He struggled to his feet again, looking down at them as though they were what had caused his fall. He ran forwards again, raising his sword to strike Merlin with the flat of the blade, but Merlin lifted one hand and held him where he was, in mid air. The shock on his face as he saw Merlin’s eyes glow gold made the warlock’s smile grow.
“What?” he asked, but Merlin didn’t reply. He let go of his hold on Thomas and gestured to his sword with one hand, it flew through the air towards him and the hilt smacked into his palm. He looked at it for a moment. Arthur was right about one thing, he was no good with weaponry. He thought about it for a moment and then muttered a couple of words and there was a strange sucking noise as the sword turned into a white rose.
During Lionel and Lancelot’s fight, there had been mutters and shouts from the crowd, they had called out encouragement and given ragged cheers as Lionel stood up again, now there was nothing but hushed silence. Merlin glanced over at Arthur, who was still standing where he had left him, arms crossed over his chest and a grim, but pleased, smile on his face.
Gwen, behind him, started in alarm and Merlin turned in time to see Thomas trying to make the most of his moment of inattention, he was running at him, no pretence of order to his movements, just blind rage. Merlin quickly waved his hand and held him in the air, wondering what to do with him. He walked over to where he floated, motionless and lifted one hand to Thomas’s forehead. The man collapsed to the ground, unconscious, and Merlin looked around the field, suddenly nervous.
There was no roar of applause, no cheer from the crowd, just a stunned silence, which Merlin couldn’t quite fathom until he looked at Arthur’s expression of approval directed, not at him, but at his knights, and he realised that this had not just been a test of the three knights, but a test of all of them. They had never seen Merlin using magic before, they had known he had it, but just dismissed him as Merlin still, Arthur’s ineffectual manservant. Arthur had deliberately set it up so that he would earn their respect.
He certainly had it now, and he hadn’t even done anything particularly complicated, apart from the rose. He was quite impressed with that himself and he looked down at it with a smile, he had been trying to get that right for a while now, but he had never managed the bloom, and metal was always difficult to magic.
He walked through the thick silence to Arthur and gave him a perfunctory bow.
The king signalled two of the servants to help the recovering Thomas from the field and accepted the rose from Merlin’s hands before turning to give it to Gwen with a small smile. She blushed furiously as she accepted it.
“Thomas has failed in his match against Merlin, our Court Sorcerer,” he declared. “We can only hope that he chooses more wisely from now on.”
There was a pause and then a spattering of applause began. Merlin glanced over at the knights and he saw Lancelot clapping firmly and the others slowly joining in, one by one, still staring at him as though he had grown another head.
“I didn’t even do anything spectacular,” Merlin murmured to Arthur, who stared at him with undisguised amazement.
“You held a man in midair with one hand, you turned a sword into a flower and you won without drawing a weapon… you don’t call that spectacular?”
“Well… it’s not like I called down lightning, or fire, or wind. I didn’t make the earth quake or conjure things out of midair.”
“You can do all of that?” Gwen asked, her eyes wide, “I mean, I knew you were powerful, but really – you can do all of that as well?”
Merlin blushed a little and nodded. Arthur pulled him firmly aside until he was standing next to Gwen, facing the field once again.
“We need to talk about exactly what you can do one day,” he said. Merlin nodded.
The stunned applause died down and Arthur nodded across the field to Gawain, who was grinning broadly at the pair of them.
“Sir Kay, Gawain of Orkney, please take the field.”
Of the three bouts that afternoon, Merlin enjoyed the last one most. Gawain, for all his words to Lancelot previously, was almost as swift with a sword as he was, he weaved and ducked and fought like he had been born to it. He was not as good as Arthur, but he managed to make Kay yield before the time was up and helped the man up after Arthur had called the halt. The pair of them walked over to Arthur together, and Merlin could tell the king was impressed, although he had pulled his kingly face on once more.
The challenges over, the crowd dispersed and Arthur strode away, Merlin hurrying after him as he had always done and no doubt always would do, forgetting to stumble over his robes in the process.
As soon as he walked through the door Arthur almost fell flat on his face. He looked down at what he had tripped over and saw a stone half buried in the ground.
In front of him Morgana stood, staring around them with amazement. Her dress rippled in the wind that blew past them and made the trees rustle.
“I feel like I’ve been here before,” she said to him, walking with confidence between the trees to a pile of rubble nearby. “It all feels familiar somehow.”
“Maybe you’ve seen another pile of rocks in the middle of a forest,” Arthur suggested, trying to get his bearings. He did not know what he had been expecting from the door, but the middle of nowhere had not been it.
“No… there’s definitely something about this place that I know,” she said, and he watched her clamber up what might have been a wall at some time in the distant past.
“Morgana… come down, there’s nothing here,” he said looking around, although he knew what she meant. There was a strange stillness to the air that made him feel almost as though he was walking over somebody’s grave. He shook the feeling off and headed over to her. “It’s just some ruined building or other.”
“It can’t just be some ruined building or other,” she said, huffing, lifting up her skirts so that her feet had more freedom to move. “There’s got to be something more to it than that. He said it was the end of it all… the end of all what? Where? The beginning was the beginning of your life, so this must be the end of it… right?”
“And you told me that this place doesn’t have any rules to it,” Arthur pointed out. “This could be the end of anywhere, anything, any time, there doesn’t have to be a meaning to it… it just is.”
“You don’t believe that…” Morgana told him. “If it were just anywhere, why would I recognise it?”
“You might be imagining things…” Arthur suggested with a shrug, finally deciding to follow her up the wall, climbing it easily to his pleasure. He felt young again.
“You look like you did when we were younger,” Morgana noted, almost as though she had read his mind. “You have for a while now – since the tournament.” He stared at her incredulously. “Don’t look so surprised. I’m not reading your mind… the look of surprise on your face at being able to climb that wall was enough.”
She half-ran up the slope of fallen masonry to the top of what might have been a tower, never even pausing despite the steep drop on both sides. Not to be outdone, Arthur followed her, rising steadily until they were above the tree tops.
When he reached the top he looked up and caught another expression of shock on her face.
“What is it Morgana?” he asked, turning to look where she was facing. “Where are-” he broke off as he caught sight of the view.
She had been right, he knew this view. He had seen it most of his life. A few more trees, a slight change in the bend of a river, but other than that it was the same.
“It can’t be,” he said slowly, looking down. “It can’t.”
“It is,” Morgana replied quietly. “So that’s what he meant by the end…”
“Camelot,” Arthur murmured, the wind snatching the words away from his mouth as he spoke them. “It fell…”
“It couldn’t last forever,” Morgana told him, clearly trying to sympathise.
“How long do you think?” he asked, “How long has it been forgotten?” She shrugged.
“Years… decades… centuries…”
“It was meant to last forever,” he told the air, before turning and hurtling back down the wall, not caring whether he tripped. He had no fear in this place.
When he knew where they were it was easy to see it all laid out in front of him, the lines of the walls, this corridor leading to the armoury, this one to the kitchen. This one leading to…
“The council chamber,” he said, leaping across the line of a wall. “Where the table stood, where I sat… where we…” Morgana was by his side in an instant.
“Everything ends, Arthur.”
“Yes… but this,” he waved his hand around the remains of the room. “This shouldn’t have been forgotten. There are some things that should never be forgotten.”
“Memory is an unreliable thing,” she told him, but he was moving again, having caught sight of something sticking out of the grass. He ran to it and began to pull dirt away from it.
“Some wood,” Morgana said, looking at the artefact with a shrug. “It’s probably not old enough to have been anything you would have known. I can’t imagine wood would have lasted long here.”
“Look at it, Morgana,” he said, thrusting it towards her, “look at the edge.”
“It’s all splintered.”
“Not that edge… this one,” he ran his hand along the edge he was holding, smooth and slightly curved. “It’s part of it, part of the table.”
“It might be,” she conceded, “or it might be a chair back… or something else. Arthur. It’s gone.” He stared at the piece of wood in his hands, willing it to be whole again, to see the people sitting around the edge of the table, smiling, looking at him as they once had.
“They can’t come back,” he said, realising it for the first time. It hit him like a blow to the gut. If he had been breathing the sheer force of the new understanding would have knocked the air out of him. He wanted to drop to his knees, but he forced himself to stay upright.
“Who?” Morgana asked, looking around the ruins.
“The knights… everyone…” he said, “Guinevere, Lancelot, Gawain and the others. They can’t return.” He dropped the piece of wood to the floor, where it thudded into the thick undergrowth and disappeared. Arthur looked across at Morgana seriously. “If I succeed, if I make it back, then they won’t be with me. It’ll just be me.”
“You knew that,” she said.
“Yes… I suppose I did,” he looked away, at the crumbling walls. “But I think I thought that… if I managed to make it back, then it would all be the same. They would all be there and I’d be King again. We’d be as we were - only better. I wouldn’t make the same mistakes. But it won’t be like that, will it?”
“No,” Morgana told him simply, half reaching out to him, but thinking the better of it.
“I’ll be alone…”
“Apart from Merlin,” she said, and he turned to her again.
“Merlin… he’s living this,” he said stepping forward to grasp her shoulder, the shock running through him. “He’s… there’s no one left but him.” Arthur swore.
“So you still want to go back?” Morgana asked, “even if it won’t be the same?”
“I don’t think that’s even a question,” Arthur told her, with a sad smile. “He’s out there somewhere in a world that’s forgotten everything… He needs me.” Morgana smiled at that.
“You’re saving him, for once,” she said with a smirk.
“I always saved him,” Arthur protested, and she laughed in amusement.
“Nowhere near as much as he saved you.”
“Then I should try to even the score, then,” Arthur said with determination, looking at the ruins of the life he had once lived.
It happened in a split second. One moment he was standing beneath the trees, the next he was falling again through space, the ruins of Camelot disappearing without warning. He could feel Morgana next to him this time, plummeting through thin air with him, until they hit the ground together, landing in undignified heaps.
“So…” he said, dusting himself off and trying to ignore the ache in his gut from what he had just seen. “Onto door number three, which will probably be as totally useless as the other two.”
Morgana laughed, picking herself up with far more composure than she had any right to.
“Did you expect this to be straight forward?” she asked. Arthur blinked suddenly, looking at her. “What?”
“Straight forward…” he said slowly, looking over at where Gawain stood, motionless. “Really that simple?” he asked no one in particular.
“Probably not,” he answered himself, “but it’s worth a try…”
“What’s worth a try?” Morgana asked, looking at him.
“You said that nothing here would be straight-forward,” he said, turning to look at her. “But what if it was a double bluff and all you have to do to get out of here is go… straight forward.” He nodded to the door Gawain stood by and offered her a smile.
“Arthur, that’s ridiculous.”
“This entire place is ridiculous, and it’s the last door left anyway. We can’t go back the way we came, so what have we got to lose?”
“Besides our souls?” Morgana asked.
“Precisely…” Arthur offered her his best reckless grin and reached out his hand to her. “Come on, where’s your sense of adventure.” She watched him for a moment before slowly reaching out to take his hand. “Trust me,” he said with a grin.
“If I must… it can’t be worse that what’s behind the door we came in by,” she said with a sigh. “I think you should ask first, though.”
“Of course,” Arthur agreed with a bow. “Gawain,” he said, addressing his friend by name with as much spirit as he could. “What lies behind the door you guard?”
“Danger,” Gawain replied.
“That sounds fun,” Morgana said sarcastically.
“It really does,” Arthur agreed without even a hint of sarcasm, dragging her over to the door. He reached out for the handle, but paused before he touched it, looking back at the three knights who stood around the room. “Thank you,” he said a little self-consciously. “I hope you rest peacefully.”
As one the three of them nodded, and Arthur turned back to the door to find it already open. Beyond there was not daylight, but the glow of a fire similar to the one that stood behind them.
“After you,” Morgana said, raising one eyebrow.
“Of course,” he replied, holding his head up and squaring his shoulders, Excalibur’s hilt warm in his hand. He walked through.
If Merlin had been expecting paradise, he was sorely mistaken. As they approached Valhalla, Merlin and the collected souls heard the clamour of battle and even from the distance he could see the light glint off metal.
He was… uncertain how all of them were managing to fit onto one horse. The animal did not seem to be any bigger, but there was more than enough room and none of them seemed about to fall off. Eventually, he put it down to magic and left it at that.
The distance was covered far quicker than any mortal animal would have been able to manage, the grass beneath them flew past in a green blur and Merlin had to drag his eyes away to stop himself being sick. There was a reason living people weren’t supposed to take this journey.
The dead were staring forwards with an eerie acceptance of their fate and part of Merlin wanted to ask them just what they thought was waiting for them there, where the yells of war could still be heard and whether this was what they had always prayed for.
He had a sneaking suspicion it was.
Arthur was not like that, he reminded himself, grimacing at the expressions of total determination on the ghost’s faces. He had seen war and battle as a means to an end, whether that be glory, victory or peace. Maybe – when he was younger – he had seen the battle itself as something desirable, but years and many wars had worn that impression down.
These men were not like that. Some of them were young, eager for the promises of eternal glory that had been told to them while growing up; dead in their first campaign. Others were older men who, from the look of them, could not imagine anything but more fighting.
Yet again Merlin was torn between his desire to find Arthur and his hope that it would not be here.
The gates of Valhalla were opened to them, swinging open as the horses approached, each bearing at least a dozen souls and their rider. A horn heralded their arrival and, when the Valkyries pulled up, the souls were led away by the people around them – some by souls who had been there for many years, others by what Merlin presumed were gods.
It took approximately three seconds before someone saw him and realised that he really shouldn’t be there.
“What is your name?” a man asked. He was more than twice Merlin’s height and built like a bear, muscles everywhere (including several places Merlin had not known that muscles existed) and a huge blond beard.
“Merlin,” he said, holding his ground as well as he could. “What can I call you?”
“I am Thor,” the man said, with a voice that could move mountains. Merlin half expected to see lightning, or clouds rolling overhead. “Why have you come here?” The man hefted a hammer in his hand, and Merlin found his eyes drawn to it almost uncontrollably. That was the sort of weapon that killed people very efficiently. One blow and your brains were probably dribbling out of your ears. Not that Merlin could die, but that wouldn’t stop it from being very painful.
“I’m searching for the soul of Arthur Pendragon. Is he here?”
Thor looked around the practise fields around him, where the dead tore each other apart. Merlin followed his gaze. He had thought the battle fields in the mortal world were bad, but here the warriors kept on fighting until they were literally in pieces, before being reformed to fight again.
On the sidelines, gods and Valkyries watched, making sport of the carnage. Merlin’s stomach roiled.
“Come with me.” Thor turned, without even waiting for Merlin’s answer. He led Merlin towards the doors of the hall, which swung open for them without being touched.
Inside the hall men sat on benches, singing and drinking, downing cupfuls of mead and eating meat from the bone. Merlin had thought that Arthur’s men could be unruly in the camp after battle, but they had never been as loud or as boisterous as this.
He dodged mugs, ale and bones as they walked between the benches, narrowly avoiding being knocked unconscious by one warrior as he flung his mug to the side in a demand for more ale. A Valkyrie hurried past them to serve him.
At the high table sat the gods, separate from the warriors. They were set apart by their appearance and the sense of magic Merlin could feel about them. All of them had a look of something beyond the normal. They were either beautiful or terrible to look upon and when Merlin’s eyes rested on some of them, he felt discomfort tingle through his limbs.
In the centre of the high table sat a man who looked familiar. One of his eyes was missing and the skin around the hole puckered gruesomely. He wore no hat and grey hair fell to his shoulders, although he did not look frail with age. On his shoulder sat a raven, and another watched from the rafters above while, at his feet, two wolves gnawed on bones.
“Emrys,” the man said, “You have travelled far to find your way here. Has your quest been successful yet?”
Merlin did not bow down, though he now recognised the man.
“Odin,” he addressed the lord of the hall, “You know what I’m here for. Will you tell me where to find him?”
“If you tell me one thing,” the god said, leaning forward and the bird on his shoulder cawing loudly across the room, cutting through the noise. Everyone present fell silent as he spoke again. “The man you seek, what is his name?”
“Arthur Pendragon,” Merlin replied, nonplussed. The people watching them appeared to be expecting something.
“Tell me one more thing, yet, Emrys,” Odin said again, echoing the words he had spoken the last time they had met at the crossroads. “When he lived what did he do?”
“He was King…” Merlin replied. Odin did not speak again and he continued, filling in the silence, almost nervously. “He united Albion.”
“What names has he gone by?” Odin asked, smiling at the answer. His face no longer as lined by wrinkles as when Merlin had seen it before, but still almost as terrible to look at.
“He was called Arthur… and Arturus in writing sometimes. He was the High King of Albion and the King of Camelot, in chronicles he is called Dux Bellorum, the lord of war.” Merlin listed, trying to recall everything Arthur had ever been called officially.
“And what do the prophecies call him?” Odin asked, his voice merely a whisper, but Merlin could hear it clearly, though the rest of the hall seemed unable to.
“The prophecies call him…” Merlin began, thinking back and trying to recall the words he had read and listened to. “They…” Suddenly he recalled the dragon, way back, when he had barely met the creature, telling him of his destiny, words that had stuck in his mind, but he had never really thought about. “The Once and Future King.”
Odin smiled, and Merlin gaped in astonishment.
“The man you seek is not here,” the god told him, “but sometimes we find that the answers we are looking for are not the answers we need to know. Now… sit and drink with us.” Merlin looked around and found a Valkyrie standing at his side, offering him a cup of mead. “Drink with the gods, Emrys, and we will talk much and you will learn of the secrets which I have discovered.”
Something was wrong, Merlin could feel it in his bones. Instincts as old as he was itched beneath his skin, telling him to get out, and he could almost hear his mother’s voice in his ear warning him. Don’t eat the fairy’s food or drink from their cups, or you will belong to them for a year and a day. She had said it to him at dusk, while the sun was slipping down below the horizon and the world was still apart from the odd buzz of insects - the traditional time for fire-side tales. But she had had a far-away look in her eye, like she was seeing something different, or remembering something that might not have happened, and Merlin had taken her words to heart.
“No… thank you,” he said, smiling gently, and beside him Thor laughed, hitting him on the back hard enough for his knees to buckle.
“The young warlock is wise,” the god said, and Odin nodded with a smile. “He knows your ways.”
“Yes… and he shall be rewarded for his wisdom,” Odin said, gesturing to one side. “Emrys. Destiny is a curse, and knowledge of it often leads us into the very thing we are trying to avoid. You may borrow my horse, Sleipnir, fastest of steeds, to leave this place. You have my word that Arthur does not wait with me here for the twilight of the gods, nor does he exist in Hel’s realm over Bifrost.”
“But I will find him?” Merlin asked, cautiously.
“He will return,” Odin said, “whether you two will meet, I do not know.”
“Thank you,” Merlin said, bowing his head. It was not the answer he wanted, but it gave him something to hold on to.
One of the Valkyrie led him out to where Odin’s horse, Sleipnir, was stabled and Merlin looked up at the mount. It returned his gaze with disdain, much like every other horse he had ridden over the years.
Once mounted, the animal sped across the realm of the gods and down to Earth again, and Merlin saw, from it’s back, the great world tree extending upwards and downwards, and in the distance he could see mountains rising to touch the sky.
When they reached Earth again, Sleipnir let him off near a stream in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere. Merlin had not seen a sign of civilisation for miles.
He thanked the animal, feeling a little foolish for talking to a horse, but it seemed to nod to him before it disappeared, so apparently the horses of the gods had more intelligence than ordinary animals.
He looked around him at the forest and realised that he had been dropped back in England by some freak of happenstance. Although, given that he was working with divine powers, it was probably design more than chance.
But now he knew that Arthur would come back, one day, he just had to help that happen as soon as possible.
It was three years to the day since she had ridden from Camelot in the middle of the night that Morgana walked alone through the forest, following the call of something she could not see or understand.
“Never return.” Arthur’s final words to her still echoed in her ears years later, twisted by memory from a warning to a threat. She couldn’t remember the look on his face, or the tone of his voice, only the words. As Morgana hurried between the trees, following a trail laid out by a sense beyond the normal five, she thought over those moments again, the small pack in her hands, the sword wrapped up in blankets and the horse ready prepared. She had never had a chance to say good bye.
Cut off from everything she had ridden into the wilderness, and she had become truly herself.
Uther saw druids and magic users behind every tree and corner; they haunted his dreams and gave him nightmares. If he knew the truth, if he knew the legions of them who dwelt on the land, sheltering each other and never staying still long enough for anyone to count them, then he would never sleep again.
He thought he knew nightmares. He knew nothing of what lurked in the darkness. People feared the dark because it allowed their imaginations to run riot, it allowed fears to take hold. But then the day would dawn and life would filter back in, people would sigh and remember that the things that came to them in the darkness were not real, just illusions.
Morgana had no such comfort. The only good thing that could be said of her nightmares was that they had not happened yet. Yet… always yet. She saw flames and battles and people dying bruised and bloody. She saw a world shot to hell and when she woke up she knew that she would see it again, for real.
The path was getting clearer as she got closer, and she followed the feeling without even thinking about it. It was tugging on something deep inside her, as though there was a hook through part of her soul and some force was pulling her towards it, inexorably winding her in.
The nightmares were too strong, too many, and they were consuming her mind. She could feel reality slipping away from her as she tumbled into the future, seeing only what would be, not what was. Her companions would speak to her, question her, soothe her with gentle words, but she barely saw them, in her mind she saw fragments of death and devastation and she couldn’t break through.
Ahead of her lay a cave, the mouth dark and forbidding, but a part of her longed for darkness. Peace lay in darkness. If her vision failed, then she would be free.
She was not scared as she walked into the cave, firm and resolute. She knew she must look terrible, her eyes wide and ringed by dark circles, her lips edged with the dark brown of dried blood and her hair undone, falling down her back, but in the darkness appearances did not matter. All that mattered was the truth.
“Welcome, my lady,” said a voice from ahead of her. It sounded broken, but she heard power, raw and open. “We were hoping you would come.”
“I was led here,” she said, wary for the first time. She remembered something Arthur had said to her once. It was when things went easily that he began to truly worry – when things went easily it made you ask why. You had to wonder whether everything was being prearranged, and he had never liked being led around by the nose.
But that Arthur was dead to her, killed off by the words never return and replaced forever by the merciless, unforgiving nightmare of him, who ploughed through the battles of her mind, taking no quarter.
Still, she had never liked being told what to do either.
“I summoned you,” the voice said again. It sounded like an old woman, and Morgana could almost picture her, old and bent, shuffling around in the dark. “It is time.”
“Time for what?” Morgana asked. She had not foreseen this - as with all her visions, her knowledge of the future was fragmented, cracked, just starts and stops, flashes of insight with no link between them.
“You are a Seer,” the woman said.
“I know that… If you just brought me here to tell me things I already know, then I’m leaving.” Morgana turned and took a step towards the light, but as she walked away a gnarled hand grasped hold of her wrist, old fingers stronger than imagined. When she turned back she could see a dim outline of a woman, not bent, but standing as upright as a pillar, and she could see the glint of her eyes, staring at Morgana.
“You are not trained, the visions will drive you mad.”
“I can handle them.”
“You tried for years to suppress the Sight, my lady,” the woman said, pulling her back into the dark. “Those years are being repaid now. You cannot ignore such a gift. It is part of the balance.”
“The balance?” Morgana had heard of it certainly, but never in conjunction with her own magic. Life and Death had to balance each other, Fate and Free Will, Light and Dark, everything had its opposite.
“Magic cannot exist without the balance: if we could do anything then there would be no purpose to life, no reason for it.”
“I know about the balance,” Morgana said shortly. “The Druids explained it all to me when I came to them.”
“The Druids see the balance as a religion in itself,” the woman said. She sounded unimpressed by such a vision of the world. “They worship it and insist that men and nature must live in balance with each other. They don’t see the deeper pattern.” She released Morgana’s wrist, and could be heard to walk across to the other side of the cave. There were strange clinking sounds and Morgana wished for a fleeting moment that she could see what was going on, but she knew the knife in her belt and she trusted in her own ability. The blessed relief of the dark was worth more to her than any advantage sight would give.
“They do not truly understand the Old Religion,” Morgana could hear the capital letters falling into place, like inscription on stone. She had heard the words said before, but never with the level of faith given in that moment. “Only the creatures of the Old Religion can ever truly understand. It’s not something you learn, or something you work out, it’s something that you know, deep in your bones.” A long finger jabbed at Morgana’s breast bone suddenly, startling her for she had not heard any movement. “You’re a Seer, you’re subject to the Old Religion. And you can’t turn your back on it because it doesn’t like it when you do that. It’ll fight back, fight to be heard, be known, be Seen.”
“What do you mean?” Morgana asked, bringing one hand to where the jab of the finger still stung.
“I mean when you ignore it, it comes back stronger, harder. It’s a gift, and you have to use it and treat it as such, or it will become a curse.”
“The visions are getting harder to shake, no?” the woman asked, the sly edge to her voice telling Morgana that she already knew. “They are flooding your mind and you never dream anything that isn’t true.”
“How do you know that?”
“I’ve seen it before. The Old Religion doesn’t like those who reject it. It’s jealous and vengeful.”
“You talk of it as though it is alive.”
“In its essence it is life itself, and death, and everything in between.”
“I did not come here to speak in riddles with an old crone who has nothing better to do than crow,” Morgana announced, drawing herself up as regally as possible. There was a wheezing laugh from the other side of the cave.
“Crone? I suppose to the young I would seem so. But to myself, I am as young as you.” The silence fell between them, and Morgana waited to see what would happen next. “When we look in the mirror, what we see is not what other people see, for all a mirror cannot be enchanted. There are many types of vision. I can help you with yours.”
“The visions were meant to aid you, but you have turned from the path they intended, and they will now overwhelm you.”
“How do I stop them?”
“It’s all a matter of balance, girl. You threw yourself too far one way, and now the Old Religion is throwing you back the other way.” The woman was in front of her again, and Morgana still couldn’t see anything through the thick black in front of her eyes. A hand grasped her wrist again, but gently, pulling her arm forward. “I can help, it’ll only take a moment. It’s a simple spell.”
“What are you…?” she broke off with a gasp of pain as something was stabbed into her wrist.
“A drop of blood and a lock of hair, that’s all I need.” The hand holding her wrist snaked up and Morgana felt a small tug on her hair, followed the sound of a knife. “Don’t worry, child. In the end, everything turns out all right. The good and the bad balance each other out.”
“Not in my experience,” Morgana said, straining her ears to hear the words that the woman was muttering in the Old Tongue. But the hissing syllables slid past her brain without her being able to catch them. It was melodic, like a lullaby, and she could feel herself being lulled by it, sleep trying to overwhelm her.
Just as her eyes were on the cusp of closing, she felt them begin to heat up, tingling and sparking, like magic. And she could see a red haze over them, although it was still dark. Gradually the feeling grew, the heat rose and the tingling became a fierce itching that she couldn’t scratch, the woman’s hands clamped around her wrists.
“No, girl, you’ll claw your eyes out, and then you wouldn’t look very pretty, would you? Hush, hush,” Morgana realised that she was screaming as her eyes burnt and the red grew so intense it overwhelmed her, the colour of fresh blood all she could see. “It’ll all be over soon and then everything will be better.”
“What did you do?” Morgana asked struggling to control her voice. She could feel tears on her cheek, but her eyes were still on fire.
“What I had to. Your Sight and your sight could not exist together. It would have driven you mad.”
“You… took my visions away?” Morgana asked. The burning died down and the red faded as she blinked. She looked up into the woman’s eyes, feeling the cold stone beneath her knees, realising she had fallen in the moments of agony.
But she should not have been able to see that, and as she watched, the woman flickered, edged with the blue of Morgana’s magic, and then faded into blackness that was not the same as before. If anything it was more unrelenting. She felt one hand lift to pat her head softly.
“No, child. I took your eyes.”
Morgana collapsed, burying her head in her hands and feeling tears racing down her cheeks and soaking into the fabric of her clothes. She wasn’t sure how long she knelt there, the witch’s hand resting on her hair in benediction, but after long moments, she dashed away the tears.
There was a glimmer of vision, edged in the magic blue again. In that instant Morgana Saw her next course of action more clearly than she had seen anything with her eyes.
“Thank you,” she said before slamming her knife up to the hilt into the woman’s heart. Blood trickled down her wrist to mingle with the tears and she heard the woman’s last gasp of breath and the words upon it, as she stood up.
“You are already lost,” the woman breathed into her ear. “I am sorry.”
“I’m not,” Morgana told her, pushing the woman’s body off the blade and wiping her dagger on the bottom of her tunic before slipping it back into her belt. “It’s a lot clearer now.”
She turned and walked out of the cave, and began to make her way back through the trees towards the camp where they had been staying for the past few days. She felt the sunlight on her face, but she did not miss the sight of it.
Merlin was halfway across Europe again when he was caught in a storm in the middle of nowhere. He had been across the world, and seen things he had never imagined possible, years had turned into centuries as he wandered looking constantly for Arthur. He had crossed into Africa and spoken to Osiris and the jackal headed god of the dead, and walked even further and spoken to people and things that he had never even dreamed existed.
The answer he received was always the same – Arthur was not there, he did not rest with them. And so Merlin walked on again, his face never changing but the years making his feet and head ache so much that he just wanted to lie down and let time pass over him. Immortality, be it a gift or a curse, wore at him slowly, like a wave on the rocks. Whether or not Odin had told him the truth when he travelled to Valhalla, Merlin still did not know, but the idea haunted him in his dreams. Sometimes he would see Arthur reincarnated on the other side of the world while Merlin still wandered, forever onwards without ever realising. He woke in a cold sweat and tried to use his magic to reach out and find Arthur if he was really out there, but there was never any response.
The storm passed overhead and Merlin huddled in a small cave he had found, allowing his magic to keep him warm and dry, but he would not stop the storm.
Maybe, when he was younger, he would have controlled the weather for fun or challenge, just to show that he could. He would summon lightning or banish clouds to give one perfect day. It was not as though his magic had waned in the intervening years, far from it. But with power had come greater understanding.
Even the small things, the tiny details, affected the rest of the world. That was what the Old Religion had meant by balance. You could not affect one thing without affecting everything else. The world tried to tilt back to its precarious state of equilibrium and it did not care what got in the way.
And there was always the possibility that you would push it too far and it would keep going, falling further and further into chaos. It was always easier to break things than to fix them.
Thunder rolled overhead, taunting him, but he let it. Lightning flashed and the rain came down in sheets, but the cave left him dry.
Anyway – the rain was beautiful.
Given his mission, Merlin thought that it was probably a terrible example of double standards that he was choosing not to disperse a storm when he wanted to upset the natural order of life and death.
The rain was still beautiful though.
“A man is outside his house all day, the rain falls heavily for most of it, but after the storm he returns home untouched by the weather.” A voice commented behind him. “How?” It had the distant quality Merlin had begun to associate with gods, but there was an edge of hysteria to it.
“He sits in a cave,” Merlin replied, not looking back, slightly worried about what he might find there.
“A trick! A trick!” the god crowed delightedly. Merlin risked a glance over his shoulder. Crouched behind him was a curious creature. The only way Merlin could think of to describe him was shrivelled or diminished. He looked as though he had shrunken in on himself over the course of centuries, his outsides trying to creep inwards, only to find that he already had insides. Hidden in flat, tangled, hair were what looked like horns and his legs were not clothed, but encased in wiry fur. A sheet of lightning lit up the world for a second and Merlin could see that the god was resting on split hooves and completely naked apart from the fur.
“It’s always a trick,” the god muttered, more to himself than to Merlin it seemed, “always. Miracles don’t happen every day – it doesn’t work like that – you save them up for when you really need one. You know that,” he shot a pointed look over at Merlin, as though he could see right through the warlock’s head, into every one of his dreams and nightmares. “You don’t stop the storm, you just get out of the rain.”
“Or get wet,” Merlin said, trying to relax himself again. He struggled to find a state of mind which would find talking to a goat-man completely normal, but after a second he gave up. There just wasn’t any way to make the situation normal. The god giggled to himself.
“Or get wet, yes, yes… Haha… You don’t use miracles every day or they wouldn’t be miracles. People used to respect that.” Merlin nodded as understandingly as he could while the god babbled on. “They knew that it was a trick – but they didn’t look for it because they knew that it was what it represented that was important. It’s all about symbols.”
“Mmm…” Merlin hummed in agreement.
“People these days…” the god said savagely, spitting out the words as though they tasted of ash in his mouth. “People these days look at things. They look at things and they poke around and they say ‘here’s the wire’ or ‘there’s a trapdoor’ or ‘a hidden wind chime’ and they laugh. It’s all a trick they say, and they don’t get the point of it. They don’t understand faith. You plop a real miracle right on top of their heads and they’ll look for the catch because if it’s fake once it must always be fake. But we can’t be everywhere… Haha,” he chuckled to himself. “Can’t be everywhere…”
“Who are you?” Merlin asked, uncertainly. He was beginning to think that the storm, with the wind howling past, looked preferable to close quarters with an insane god.
“Everywhere. I’m everywhere,” the man answered in a mutter, “and they say my name. They say my name with fear, but it’s not the same as awe. I’m in their mouths on their tongues and they never realise it. But it’s not worship: the mindless mutterings of blind fools who have forgotten. I am recalled and reconstructed, but I am not worshipped.”
“Who are you?” Merlin asked again. The creature shuffled over to him, his cloven hooves scratching against the rough stone of the cave’s floor.
“They corrupted my image, made me a sign of their New Religion – a sign of the darkness and all that is wrong. And I do, I do lurk in the shadows, in the corner of your eye, in your nightmares. But I am not the devil, their adversary, their hell-lord.”
“Who are you?” Merlin repeated, half afraid, half irritated by the circuitous answers. He caught the glowing amber eyes of the god and found that the creature seemed to be expanding, growing. No longer did he look shrivelled and diminished.
“I am the Unknown,” and Merlin could hear the capitalisation. “I am the world outside your head and I am the place inside it that you fear to go. I am the darkness you get lost in and I am the forest you separate yourself from with your puny little cities which Time crushes into dust. I am Pan.”
Merlin blinked and when he looked back again, Pan was small once more, pulled back in on himself as though he had never been towering over the warlock, rage flaming in his eyes. His hands fidgeted and his eyes blinked rapidly
“Who are you?” the god hissed in accusation. “Why did you disturb me, sorcerer? Your kind should know better. Your control only stretches so far. Haha… you have no power over me.”
“I’m Merlin,” the sorcerer said, offering his hand. As he offered it, his sleeve rode up slightly, revealing the entwined red and black of the Morrigan’s mark. Pan’s eyes alighted on it and his twitching hands hurtled forwards to grip Merlin’s arm like pincers. There was a hungry look on the god’s face – desperate and eager.
“You wear my sister’s mark…” he said, unable to take his eyes off the red and black swirls.
“Your sister?” Merlin asked, confused. “There were three of them.”
“Yes, my sister, my sisters. All gods are brothers and sisters as are all humans – and you are brother to all and to none. My sister – there are three of her, you wear her mark. Why?” Merlin pulled his arm back firmly and Pan let go reluctantly.
“It was a price for a bargain she didn’t keep, though I still hold her to it.” Merlin paused to look down at the mark he had had for so long it seemed as much part of him as the skin it coloured. “What is it? You know what it is?” Pan nodded, looking up at him with starving amber eyes.
“It means you are her devotee, her worshipper. As long as you live, she lives. And you live forever, Emrys.” His final words sounded almost like a prayer. “That bargain… may I hear it?” Pan shuffled forwards again, his eyes bright. “If I could help you where my sister failed, maybe we could enter into the same arrangement.”
Merlin looked down at the twisted form of the god and his mind rebelled from the idea of worshipping it.
“She said that she would tell me where I could find the man I’m looking for…” he said slowly. The god edged forward, his eyes still bright and hungry.
“Find someone? Easy, easy… I can do that, I can tell you where he is. I know places, the far places and the wild places. I can find him for you, sorcerer.” A small, hairy hand grasped Merlin’s other wrist in vice like fingers, and the warlock could feel the beginnings of irrational fear beginning to creep up on him. He had not noticed before how dark and wild the place was, how far away from civilisation he was in this dark cave. He tried to pull his arm back, but Pan’s grip held fast. He was stronger than he seemed.
“He’s not among the living,” Merlin said, cautiously, part of him hoping that that would not matter to the diminished god, another part hoping that it would and he could leave and never turn back.
“He is dead? He is dead,” Pan chattered back at him. “The lands of the dead are the most wild of all. I can find him for you. Promise yourself to my service and I will find him for you. I will find him…”
“You’re not lying?” Merlin asked, even thought he knew he would not get a straight answer.
“Only one way to find out, Emrys. The only way… pledge to me and you will see… haha, yes, you will see.”
Merlin looked out of the cave mouth, towards the lightning that speared down from the clouds, and the thick diagonal lines of the rain. It had been centuries since he had begun his search, and he had looked high and low to find Arthur. Now, in this cave that he had only entered by coincidence, he had come across someone who claimed he could end it all.
After all this time he did not even know if enough of Arthur would be left to be able to come back. From what he had seen of the underworlds, what came back might be nothing like the Arthur Merlin had watched die, and watched live all those years before. He sighed, knowing his decision before he even made it. He didn’t even really need to think about it. It had been made before any of this had begun, before he’d even known what the decision meant.
If there was a possibility of getting Arthur back, if there was the slightest chance, then he would have to take it, grab it with both hands, creepy goat god or no creepy goat god.
“Alright, fine. How do we do this then?” he asked, remembering the Morrigan leaning in to kiss him and the fire that ran through his body. He looked down at the figure before him and shuddered at the very thought of kissing him.
“I agree,” Merlin said, resigned to his fate.
“Drink… drink.” Suddenly Pan was holding a horn out before him, lifting it to his own mouth and taking a gulp. “Now your turn.” The horn was pushed into Merlin’s grip, and he took it automatically, “drain it, and when you have finished it then the pact will be complete.”
“And you’ll tell me where to find him?”
“Yes, yes…” Pan assured him, dismissing the question with a wave of his hand, “now drink, Emrys. Pledge me your worship, your adoration, your awe.”
Merlin set his shoulders, wondering whether he would always be cursed to drink mysterious and possibly harmful substances for Arthur. But if he had learnt anything over the years, then it was to do what must be done quickly, without thinking too hard. He nodded his head to Pan and raised the lip of the horn to his mouth before tilting it up and beginning to swallow down the substance.
The drink was sweet, and definitely alcoholic, but its effects were almost immediate, a heady feeling of power and pleasure coursing through him. He remembered the feeling of the Morrigan’s bond to him, but this was different, more visceral. It seemed to centre on his lower abdomen and… he suddenly had a vivid flash of memory: Arthur above him, over him, in him. Heated flesh against heated flesh, and through it all the flow of the drink into his mouth and down his throat. He wanted to moan out loud with the sudden sensory overload. But his mouth was still full of liquid.
He tried to pull the horn away, to draw a breath and recover himself, but he couldn’t do it. His hands refused to move when he told them to, his throat didn’t stop swallowing. He could feel Arthur’s hands on him as vividly as though the man were there, in front of him. Centuries and worse separated them, but the feeling was as immediate as the last time they had been together before the King’s death.
The liquid kept pouring, seemingly never-ending, into his mouth, cool now against his flushed skin where it trickled out of his mouth, and he was dimly aware, for a split second, of the old god’s eager chuckles and his presence in front of him. Merlin could feel gnarled fingers grasp at his wrist near where he held the horn aloft.
But then he swallowed again and everything was lost for moments, minutes, hours until, finally, the dregs of the liquid dripped into his mouth and he could catch his breath once more.
Merlin’s hands immediately dropped the horn and he looked at where it lay on the ground, empty and nowhere near as big as it should have been given how long he spent drinking from it.
Staggering backwards, he looked back up at Pan, who seemed to have grown in stature since he had last seen him. His hair, or fur, was still wild but it looked less matted, and his eyes were brighter, though still with that edge of insanity. Almost involuntarily, he looked down at his wrist and shuddered; placed identically to the Morrigan’s mark was the thick black outline of a twisted horn, similar to those on Pan’s head, similar to that he had just drank from. As he watched it, the image appeared to writhe under his skin slightly, as though getting itself comfortable. He swallowed back the bile that rose to his mouth at the thought of it. A part of that creature was now a part of him.
He had once sworn never to let the Old Religion gain that much power over him again, but he had had no choice.
“Now it’s your turn,” Merlin said, with far more self assurance than he felt. “Where is Arthur Pendragon… Take me to him.”
Pan’s eyes widened suddenly at the name and he looked around the small cave, as if for an escape route.
“You swore…” Merlin told him, feeling his anger begin to rise. He would not allow himself to be used in the same way twice.
“I swore,” Pan agreed, his voice a mere whisper, though amplified by the cave. Outside, in the storm, the wind blew more loudly, although Merlin could not tell whether that was him, or just a coincidence. “But I didn’t know…” the god said. “Not Pendragon…”
“So if it had been anyone other than Arthur,” Merlin cursed. He knew that somehow he was supposed to bring Arthur back, Odin’s words had told him that much, but it seemed as though the world was arrayed against him in the task.
“I would take you to him… but… as it is…” Pan looked around them at the bleak little cave, lit only now and then by the lightning and shrugged. “I can’t take you to him, but I can take you to them…”
“Who?” Merlin asked, leaning forwards.
“Those who can help you,” Pan said. “Come with me…” The faun turned and scurried further back in the cave, turning to beckon Merlin after him. “Follow…” he muttered. “Follow where I lead and not a step different.”
“Fine,” Merlin said, waking swiftly after him. “Where are we going?”
“To those who can help,” Pan repeated, refusing, stubbornly, to give him more information than that. “Come…”
The back of the cave seemed to go on forever, reaching so far back that soon even the lightning was not illuminating it and Merlin couldn’t tell whether they were still in the cave or whether the god had transported them somewhere else.
In the distance, as they walked, with the noise of thunder fading, Merlin heard a low hum and a steady clicking.
“What is that?” he asked, and he felt his discomfort grow as Pan looked over his shoulder with an almost panicked look.
“That which even the gods must bow down to,” he said in a whisper. “I…” he looked around at the darkness. “I must leave you here, go on alone.”
“Go on where?” Merlin asked. They were still surrounded by the darkness.
“Towards the sound. Go towards the sound,” Pan prompted, “and plead your case.”
“Than-” Before Merlin could finish saying thank you, the god had vanished, leaving him alone.
The whirr and click in the distance continued, never losing a beat, and Merlin drew his shoulders up and walked forward again, reminding himself that there was little in this world or any other that could be worse than what he had already faced. Although - a place where the gods feared to tread…
The firelight flickered in the tiny room, which looked to all the world like a cottage, and in the middle of it stood three women around a spinning wheel. Arthur had never seen anything less threatening in his life. He shot a look at Morgana, whose eyebrows were drawn together as though she was considering something he couldn’t see.
One of the women looked up as he approached; she had a pair of scissors in her hand and was using them to cut off the excess thread that one of the other women was indicating to her.
“Greetings,” said the woman measuring out the thread. She did not look up at him. “You have come a long way.”
“Yes,” he agreed, resisting the urge to roll his eyes, “I died.” There was no response from the women so, after a pause, he continued. “You can’t tell me how to get out of here, can you?”
“We can,” said the third woman, who sat on a stool, spinning out the wool. Arthur couldn’t make out her face from the angle he was standing at, and he moved round to see the three of them better.
“And you don’t happen to know what all this has been about, do you?” Arthur asked. “I was told that I was being tested, but I don’t see what showing me my parents has to do with anything…” he broke off as the woman with the shears cut through another thread. His own mortality brought back to him with sudden clarity. He could almost feel Mordred’s sword tearing through him again.
“Some things are so strong that they change the world around them,” the woman measuring out the lengths said, looking right at him, and he could feel what she meant, deep inside him. He had seen the world changed in front of him – by Merlin, by Morgana, by his father.
“Arthur’s birth,” said Morgana, taking the comment far more specifically.
“Such power can be catastrophic,” the woman agreed, going back to her work.
“Or it can save worlds,” the woman with the scissors told her, almost harshly. She shot Arthur a look, as though measuring out his soul.
“So there are powers that can change fate, like Hermes said – there is free will?” Arthur asked.
“Like a mother’s love for her son, a man’s guilt or a lover’s grief,” the woman measuring out the thread said.
“So I can change my fate – I can change Merlin’s?” he asked, looking from one to the other as they solemnly spun out the lengths of yarn and severed them, one after another.
“You can survive without him,” said the woman as she cut, looking not at Arthur or Morgana, but at a point somewhere in front of them.
“Yes, but he needs me,” Arthur said with certainty. Heavens only knew what trouble Merlin was getting himself into without Arthur there to keep an eye on him. Although he very much doubted that the man was talking to three old spinning women about fate.
“You have survived. It is not a question of need,” she continued, dismissing him.
“I wouldn’t call this surviving,” said Arthur, indicating the world around him. “I’m dead, aren’t I?” He paused and took a deep breath. “The truth is… I want to go back. I don’t think I’ve done what I was supposed to. If it’s all been forgotten, then someone needs to make people remember. The truth is…” he paused again. “I want him back.”
“It is always best to speak the truth,” the spinner told him with a nod.
“Who are you, anyway?” he asked, looking at the three of them. Morgana’s hand came up to his arm and she leaned in towards his ear.
“I’m not sure you want to ask that…” she said, but it was too late, the words were already out of his mouth. The measurer was looking at him with grey eyes, her hands still working, but her eyes fixed on his. She looked old, older than anyone he had ever met, and he shivered.
“We have many names…” she told him, “Fates, Parcae, Moirai, Norns… but no matter what people call us, we are what we are.”
“Well,” Arthur said, trying to figure out what to say to that. “I’m King Arthur Pendragon. Pleased to make your acquaintance.” He bowed as deeply as he could, unsure how one should greet a fate.
“The Once and Future King,” said the cutter. He turned to her, wanting to ask what she meant, but the flash and snip of her shears gave him pause. She wielded them with the same power he saw when knights wielded their swords. Arthur had no doubt that they were a weapon.
“If you are the fates, can you help me get back to him?”
“Fate is already set, and we would not change it.”
“Yes, but -” he began, only to be cut off.
“Everything will be as it is destined to be.”
“You’ve got to help us,” Morgana said, stepping forwards. “Please…”
“We are not subject to the wills of mortals… or immortals,” said the spinner, not even looking up as Morgana reached out to her.
“If you’re not going to help me,” Arthur said bitterly, “then what was the point of all that? Guinevere and Lancelot, my parents, Camelot, the tournament… what was any of it if it meant nothing?”
“If you have learnt something, your journey was not wasted,” the cutter told him.
“You’ve got to let me go back,” he said. “There are things I need to put right. Why show me that if I don’t get a chance to do anything about it?”
“A thread, once lost, cannot return to the pattern,” the measurer told him firmly.
“I’m not lost!” Arthur snapped. “I’m right here!” He wanted them to look at him, acknowledge his existence. It was as though they were speaking to someone else.
“But if it has not been lost…” suggested the cutter, glancing at him.
“Yes? What if it hasn’t been lost?” he asked, waiting for an answer.
“If it has merely been covered up by other threads…” the spinner continued, but she trailed off, leaving only the whirring of the wheel in the quiet.
“What then?” he asked. “What happens then?”
“People die and empires fall… that is how life is.” The cutter said, and Arthur felt his shoulders fall, but Morgana was moving again.
“But you’re in charge of it,” she said, and Arthur recognised her wheedling tone from years of listening to her arguments to his father - and himself. “You’re the ones who make the rules - even the gods bow to you…”
“We preside over it all,” agreed the measurer.
“Then give us a chance, please…” Arthur joined in, clinging to the ray of hope offered. The three women did not speak for a moment.
“You have been heard.”
“You have been weighed.”
“And you have been judged.”
“What does that mean?” Arthur asked, looking at them. Then, all three of them looked up at once and spoke together.
“All will be as we have ordained.” The cutter severed one final string of thread and Arthur felt himself falling again and the darkness rising up over him. He heard Morgana’s voice fading in his ears and then there was nothing.
After Pan left him, the room seemed to form around him, rather than him walking into it, and it was not the place Merlin would have expected his journey to end. It was more like the house in which he had grown up than any of the grand palaces he had visited with Arthur.
In the centre of the room three women sat around a spinning wheel, winding and unwinding threads; one spinning them, one measuring them out and the last one using a large pair of scissors that glinted in the dim light to cut each thread where the second woman indicated. The whirring noise was the turning of the wheel, and the steady clicking was the snipping of the scissors.
The women looked old, in the same way that mountains were old. One of them, the spinner, looked up and noticed him, but then went right back to her work. The woman with the shears looked up in a different direction.
“Greetings,” the middle woman said, measuring out a length of twine as she spoke, not looking up. She held the string in place and the third woman’s scissors came together with a snick severing the thread. “You have come a long way.”
“Yes…” he said. “I was told that you could help me.”
“We can,” the first woman agreed. There was a pause, and just as Merlin was about to open his mouth to speak, she spoke again.
“Some things are so strong that they change the world around them…” she said, looking past Merlin. He turned around but there was no one there. “Such power can be catastrophic.”
“Or it can save worlds,” the woman with the scissors chided.
“Like a mother’s love for her son, a man’s guilt, or a lover’s grief.” The measurer said, stretching out another length of yarn and watching as it was cut short.
“Yes,” Merlin agreed. “Look… I need him back.”
“You can survive without him,” the cutter said, looking up sharply at him. Her eyes were black as midnight and he felt as though she were judging him. “You have survived. It is not a question of need.”
“I want him back,” Merlin corrected.
“It is always best to speak the truth,” the spinner told him. She did not smile, just kept spinning out the thread, relentlessly.
“You’re the fates, aren’t you,” he said, his voice lowering in wonder. “You’re the ones who decide people’s destinies.”
“We have many names…” the measurer said, “Fates, Parcae, Moirai, Norns… but no matter what people call us, we are what we are.”
“Then you can change his destiny – you can bring him back.”
“The Once and Future King,” the cutter said, bringing her shears together cleanly.
“Fate is already set, and we would not change it.”
“He will come back? Odin was right?” Merlin asked, feeling the twinge of hope that had almost been eliminated grow again.
“Everything will be as it is destined to be,” the spinner told him, and Merlin cursed the higher powers and their utter inability to give a straight answer.
“We are not subject to the wills of mortals… or immortals.”
“Just tell me if he will return. Please,” Merlin begged, wondering if his case would be better fought if he dropped to his knees. “Look, I’ve been travelling for centuries to find him…”
“If you have learnt something, your journey was not wasted,” said the measurer, sliding the thread through her hands steadily.
“If I don’t bring him back, then there was no point to any of it,” Merlin replied, bitterly, thinking of the miles he had covered, and the things he had seen. He had learnt things, but none of them worth the weariness he felt.
“A thread, once lost, cannot return to the pattern,” the measurer told him.
“But if it has not been lost…” the cutter suggested.
“If it has merely been covered up by other threads…” the spinner added.
“Arthur can return?” Merlin asked, taking a quick shaky breath. The women in front of him were pushing and pulling him backward and forward, they offered him hope before snatching it away. He wanted to yell at them to tell him what they knew, but he could sense the power from them, drowning out his own magic easily.
“People die and empires fall… that is how life is.” The cutter told him, slicing downwards, another length of thread measured out and cut.
“We preside over it all,” said the measurer.
“You have been heard,” said the spinner.
“You have been weighed,” said the measurer.
“And you have been judged,” said the last woman, bringing the blades of the scissors together with finality.
“All will be as we have ordained,” the three said in unison.
And as the scissors came together again, Merlin saw the room dissolve around him, drifting into nothingness until he was back in the cave. Outside the storm had passed and it was daylight, brilliant sunshine in a brilliant sky. It seemed to be mocking him with its perfection.
“No…” he said to the air around him, “you can’t leave me with that. You’ve got to tell me – is he coming back? Please…”
There was only the song of the birds outside in response; even Pan had gone from that place.
“Is he coming back?” Merlin asked again, but there was still no answer.
Over a millennium of running and racing, and Merlin was standing here, at a bus stop in London, waiting to go somewhere that was anywhere but here.
Over a thousand years of searching and nothing to show for his efforts except a set of tattoos that would never fade and memories that seemed to be receding even as he thought about them.
He had once commanded the earth and the air, the fire and the water. He had stood beside a King as he led armies into battle. He had loved and lost, wandered and found. He had seen forests grow and be chopped down in their time, and marked the passing of the seasons one by one as they spun past him. Centuries ago, Merlin had thought he was old, thought he had seen it all, but still the years past, and now he felt ancient.
Cars filled the streets and planes flew overhead. Technology that everyone took for granted still seemed miraculous to him, who commanded magic the like of which people now only heard of in fairytales.
He huffed out a breath into the midwinter air and watched as it moved away from him in clouds, the same as it always had done in winter. The people and the places changed, but underneath everything was the same, and Merlin hadn’t managed to change a damn thing.
He wore jeans now, ragged, tattered old things that he had been wearing for far too long, and a coat worn thin through overuse. The people at the bus stop gave him a wide berth, deliberately not looking at his unkempt hair and tired eyes. He had once been the second most important man in all of Albion. Now people treated him with barely concealed disgust.
Merlin smiled at the irony and wiggled his fingers in his pockets. He was not cold, his magic surrounding him like a blanket, but it did no good to appear any different from the people around him. As long as he kept his head down and didn’t trip over his own feet then he should be fine. He had managed to survive the entirety of the witch hunts with that philosophy.
A harassed looking woman with a pleasant smile and wavy blonde hair pushed a pram that was almost as big as her up to the bus stop and looked down the road with the air of someone who wished that there was more time. In the pram, her son stared out at the world with huge blue eyes and thoughtfully sucked on his fist, as though it was the most interesting thing in the world.
The child stared at all the people walking past, their thick winter coats making them look like arctic explorers. Merlin smiled at the thought, remembering a time when he had walked the poles in nothing thicker than a couple of layers of cotton. The little boy watched the brightly coloured cars as they rolled by, smiling in delight whenever he caught sight of a red one. So easily entertained by things that everyone around him no longer even noticed.
Then he twisted in his seat and looked right at Merlin, his gaze fixing on him like it was drawn there, and Merlin felt a jolt pass through him like a lightning bolt. He shook it off, wondering if perhaps the child had latent magic. It was a rarity these days, but always possible, and he had always been drawn to other types of magic.
The kid grinned infectiously at him, pulling his fist from his mouth to reveal his baby teeth. Merlin couldn’t help but smile back, and offered a small wave, which the boy attempted to mirror, but only succeeded in hitting his own nose, much to the child’s amusement. He held out a hand to Merlin, almost like he was asking the wizard to step closer, but Merlin didn’t move, just smiled again. Even if the child wasn’t magic, young children often saw the world in a different way from adults. There was a possibility that he could see that Merlin was something other than natural - but it wouldn’t do to get any closer to the boy. The world had grown old and bitter and lost its ability to trust; a man, even one as young as he appeared to be, getting too close to a young boy was viewed with suspicion and went completely against his decision to keep his head down.
The child’s eyebrows drew together as he pouted and stuck his hand out again, waving it around urgently, but Merlin remained where he was. The boy would get over it.
A huge red bus was coming up the road towards them, though not the number Merlin was waiting for, when the boy screwed up his face and began to wail as his new friend ignored him. His mother looked down in dismay at her son as he tried to crawl out of his pram to where Merlin was standing. She cast an embarrassed look at the people around, all of whom studiously ignored her and her screaming child.
She reached down and tried to rearrange the boy in his seat so that he was sitting properly, prying his hands from the frame and pushing him back down. He ignored her and squirmed around her hold, trying to get free. His eyes were still avidly staring at Merlin, his small face getting rapidly redder and redder as he continued to wail.
The bus pulled up in front of the stop and the woman moved forward, muttering under her breath at her son, almost too quietly for Merlin to hear.
“Calm down… Please, Arthur, just calm down.”
Merlin froze on the spot as the pram was hoisted onto the vehicle with the aid of a helpful passenger. He stared in shock at the woman as she tried to juggle comforting her baby with paying her fare. The jolt passed through him again, harder than before, and his jaw dropped open.
He knew that he was getting funny looks from the people around him, but he honestly didn’t care. The child: the stare he had given him, and the huge smile. Arthur.
He breathed out the name under his breath, trying to calm down his heart, which had suddenly started beating ten times faster. Over a millennium of searching and he was here at a bus stop in Britain, making his mother’s life hell.
Without even thinking Merlin darted forward onto the bus. He didn’t know where it was going, he didn’t know what he was going to do when he got there, or how he could ever explain to a woman that her son was the reincarnation of his dead lover, the Once and Future King of Albion. He didn’t care. He just knew that Arthur was there, albeit at the stage of life in which sucking his own fist was the height of cool, but still; Arthur.
He gave the driver what he knew must be a slightly psychotic grin and bought a ticket to wherever the hell the bus was going. As soon as he could, he hurried along the gangway to sit diagonally across from Arthur. The small boy was bouncing on his mother’s knee and gave a gurgling laugh, still staring at Merlin with fascination.
He wanted to laugh, but he knew that would be too much in public. He wanted to tell someone, but who would he tell? The only person alive who would ever be able to understand any of it was sitting watching him from the other side of the bus. But at least he was here.
He was here, and Merlin felt younger than he had in centuries.