Uploader Comment: I am delighted to be able to offer this extraordinary piece of writing by Rhuddem Gwelin… if you miss Merlin, just read.. you will not be disappointed. A link to Rhuddem’s Blog is below. Francesca
“Magic is just science we haven’t figured out yet”
- Gaius, ca 550 AD
How was it possible that the world was so peaceful when it had just been destroyed?
The water lapped quietly on the shore. The wind rustled the leaves in the woods and birds chirped in the trees. The sun glittered on the water and on the island that seemed to float in the mist in the middle of the lake.
And it glittered on the armour of the slain man lying on the boat that bobbed gently, receding slowly from the shore.
Staring at the boat, another man stood in the water up to his shins. He was a young man in his twenties, tall and thin with thick black hair and a finely sculpted face. His cheekbones were pronounced and sharply defined in contrast to his wide generous mouth and narrow rounded chin. His nose was long and straight and rather pointed. At the moment his face was haggard, dirty and tear-stained. His deep blue eyes were dark and dull with shock. His simple tunic, jacket and trousers were worn and dirty.
It was his world that had just been destroyed. And the world of his people.
The man on the boat was dead. The man standing in the water was his servant and his friend. But in the end not one who could save his life.
The man standing in the water started having trouble breathing and dimly he realized that he was also having trouble seeing. The island, the water, the boat seemed to be disappearing in a dark mist. Without warning his body was wracked by a terrible pain, in his chest, in his head. He stumbled backwards towards the shore, twisted around and collapsed to his knees with a gasp, his face contorted, his hands clutching his chest. He fell, his face hitting the sand, his feet still in the water.
For a moment everything seemed to be still. The water stopped lapping, the wind was calm, the birds were silent. The young man lay unmoving.
Then four hooded figures emerged from the edge of the forest and hurried to the young man. Two of them pulled him quickly but gently on to dry land. All four knelt down beside him and the oldest, a woman in her forties, reached out her hand and touched him on his shoulder. On her forearm was the triskelion symbol of the Druids.
Gently she rolled him over with the help of her companions. She touched his face, avoiding the side that was scraped and bleeding from falling onto the sand. Wordlessly she reached out her mind to his. “Emrys?” There was no response. She tried again, more urgently. “Emrys!” His face remained still, his eyes closed. She put her hand on his chest. He was barely breathing. She felt the side of his throat. It was difficult to find the pulse and when she did it was shallow and weak.
The younger of the two Druid men, Cathasach, whispered, “Is he dead?”
The woman, Gavina, murmured, “He lives. But his spirit weakens. We must bring him to Sorcha.”
Carefully the older of the two men by a few years, Caiside, a tall powerful man, picked up the unconscious man and carried him towards the wood, followed by the others. The water dripped from his boots. Following last was the fourth Druid, a young woman called Kaita. She looked at the young man in Caiside’s arms, his ashen face half-hidden against Caiside’s shoulder, his black hair ruffled in the breeze. She had dreamed of seeing him but never like this. She had imagined seeing him in his full power, fearful but righteous, as he was described by the hidden people who put all their hopes on him, not as this lifeless figure, hardly more than a boy who looked like he had spent days running through the forest and never cast the simplest spell in his whole life.
She mindspoke. “Emrys?”
Did his eyelids flicker just slightly? Her heart leapt but then sank again when there was no further sign of movement.
Slowly and carefully they made their way into the forest with their deeply venerated burden.
m m m m m m
The peacefulness of the now deserted shore was shattered when a horse tore through the edge of the forest and galloped to the edge of the water. The knight reined in his horse so quickly that it reared. He stared out at the boat, still bobbing gently, drifting towards the island.
His horse prancing uneasily, he kept his eyes on the boat and slowly the dreadful truth came to him. “Arthur, no!” He looked around wildly as if he could find something that would make it untrue. “Merlin!” he called. He spun his horse around, searching in every direction. “Merlin!” he shouted. “Merlin!”
The birds had stopped chirping but the water still lapped and the breeze still rustled through the trees.
He raised his face to the sky and cried “No!” in a long drawn out groan. He rode back and forth among the bushes and the trees but found no sign of the king’s servant. He returned to the shore and stared again at the boat bearing the body of his king and his friend. A wave of desolation washed over him. He was too late.
“No,” he whispered, slumping in the saddle. Then slowly he reined the horse around and they headed back through the trees. After a moment the feeling of urgency returned, only this time it was not in hopes of reaching and helping Merlin and the wounded Arthur but to return to court with the unspeakable report of what he had found.
m m m m m m
Caiside did not feel the weight of the young man he carried but he felt the weight of the loss if Emrys did not survive. “Gavina?” he asked. “Will he live?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know what it is. We must hope that Sorcha will know.”
The forest thickened and the ground became rougher and steeper. Gavina had to struggle at times and Caiside was forced to tread carefully. Cathasach and Kaita were quick to hold back branches to protect Emrys’s face and make the way more passable.
The sun was beginning to set when they finally came to the clearing where they and the others had their camp. A small fire burned brightly in the middle. Around the clearing were four tents. The half dozen Druids in the camp stopped their activities as the group made their way into the clearing.
“Get Sorcha!” Gavina said as she helped Caiside lay the inert figure on the ground by the fire. One of them hurried into the tent behind her and almost instantly an old woman calmly but confidently made her way to the fireside. She was approaching sixty and small but she was still strong and her limbs supple. She knelt down and looked into the face of the unconscious man and then at Gavina and Caiside questioningly.
“Speak to him,” Gavina said quietly.
Sorcha put her wrinkled hand on his forehead and her eyes seemed to look through the pallid skin of his face into his thoughts. What she found were not thoughts but a faint, almost indiscernible chaos of violent images and anguish.
She mindspoke firmly. “Emrys! Don’t leave us! Emrys!”
His eyes flew open and his face twisted in pain. He groaned and tossed back and forth weakly but frantically. She kept her hand firmly on his forehead and leaned closer to him. “Emrys!”
He stared at her wildly, muttering incoherently and clutching her other hand. She realized that though his eyes bore into hers he was not seeing her but the dreadful scenes in his head. His gasping voice rose and his thrashing grew so wild that only with Caiside holding his shoulders to the ground were they able to restrain him.
She turned and spoke swiftly to Kaita, who scrambled to her feet and ran to Sorcha’s tent. She returned within seconds carrying what the old woman had requested. Emrys had curled up on his side moaning in pain and again with Caiside’s help Sorcha managed to turn his face up to her and hold him still enough for Kaita to pour a few drops of the potion into his mouth.
“More,” Sorcha muttered.
Her hands steady but her eyes filling with tears, Kaita poured the rest of the contents of the small vial between Emrys’s cracked lips.
m m m m m m
The court was sombrely but lavishly furnished. The Queen, in red, sat on the throne, fingering the ring with the Royal seal, conveyed to her from her husband, to be hers in the event of his death. Her warm tan hands trembled and she clutched the ring in one hand and the other in the folds of her silken dress.
When Percival had galloped, exhausted, into the castle yard, she had known immediately. In truth, she had known earlier. And now she sat, her throne beside the empty one, the one where he should have been, and wasn’t. And never would be.
She lifted her eyes to Sir Leon, standing at her left. His were red rimmed and his face was rigid. She nodded just slightly.
He took a shaky breath and looked at Percival and the other knights and nobles filling the court in front of the Queen. Next to her, close to her but alone, stood the court physician. Sir Leon had never seen Gaius look so old and defeated.
Leon took another deep breath and proclaimed, “The King is dead!”
The Queen moved her head slowly, as though she were in a trance, and again looked at him.
He said loudly and firmly, “Long live the Queen!”
A hundred voices lifted in unison. “Long live the Queen! Long live the Queen! Long live the Queen!”
The Queen raised her dark brown eyes and they roamed almost blindly over the red robed knights before her. There was sorrow in every line of her young face but she held her crowned head firm, no sign of the struggle within her not to weep. No sign except to those who knew her well. A shadow of pain rippled over her face and the corner of her mouth twitched and she raised her chin just a little more as they had all seen her do when she was gathering the strength to endure something difficult. This time it wasn’t something difficult. It was something impossible.
Leon and Percival edged just slightly closer to her, the voices still echoing throughout the court.
“Long live the Queen!”
m m m m m m
It was dark in the forest now. Only the light of the fire made it possible to see the shadowy group around Emrys. Sorcha was on her knees at his side, waving a small bundle of smoking herbs over Emrys, chanting almost inaudibly. Emrys was curled up on his side, moaning weakly. Gavina tried to wipe his forehead with a damp cloth but he thrashed his head away without opening his eyes. Caiside and Cathasach mindwhispered his name. “Emrys…Emrys.” But they could not reach him. His mind was blocked and there was no response.
m m m m m m
Gwen was alone in her chamber sitting on the bed she had shared with Arthur for what had been such a few years. They were to have grown old together.
Slowly she ran her hand over his pillow then pulled it to her and buried her face in it. The sobs welled up in her and she could no longer hold them back. In the court, just hours earlier, she had been in a daze. How could it be that she, Gwen, the daughter of the blacksmith who had been murdered by her husband’s father, now sat on one of the two thrones of the kingdom of Camelot, alone in her power?
How could she bear it?
There was a soft knock on the door and Gaius entered. Through her tears she could see that Gaius had aged since Percival had returned with the report that Merlin was nowhere to be found.
He moved slowly with bent shoulders and his voice quavered when he said, “A potion to help you sleep, Your Majesty.”
He began to weep and sank down onto a chair. She hurried to him and knelt at his feet, taking the potion from his trembling hand and putting it on the table. She clasped both his hands in hers. “We will find him,” she said earnestly. “We will!”
“Of course,” he said but it was clear that he didn’t believe it.
“You mustn’t give up hope, Gaius!” she cried. “You know how Merlin always gets himself into trouble and…” her voice broke and she realized how ridiculous she sounded. This was not trouble. Arthur was dead and Merlin had disappeared. Morgana was still out there. It did not bear thinking about but Gwen feared Gaius was right to have given up hope. But she managed to take a shaky breath and say, almost firmly, “Our patrols are looking everywhere. We will find him, Gaius. We will!”
He nodded, tears pouring down his cheeks.
m m m m m m
They had propped him up on cushions to help his breathing but it was still ragged and Sorcha could do nothing about the fever that raged in him throughout the night and morning. His face was gray and sweating. His eyes were closed and he did not move except to struggle for breath.
“We’re losing him,” Caiside said.
“No!” Sorcha retorted sharply. “We mustn’t lose him.”
Kaita hovered behind her, unable to do anything more to help. She mindspoke desperately. “Emrys! Please don’t go!”
He moaned softly and stirred. His eyes opened slowly and he stared at Sorcha.
He whispered two words so faintly that Kaita was not sure she heard him. It sounded like, “I failed.” Then his eyes dimmed over and his head fell to the side. A stab of fear lanced through her. “Emrys!”
Sorcha rose quickly and grasped the hands of Caiside, Gavina and Cathasach. They knew what to do. They had one possibility left.
They evoked the ultimate chant, their voices strong and in unison, the others gathered behind them, the shadows from the fire flickering over the figures.
Their voices gaining power, the chant ended abruptly and their eyes flashed amber down on Emrys.
He gasped, and his body arched violently. He cried out then collapsed once again against the cushion. Sorcha knelt quickly, felt for his heartbeat and touched his face.
She spoke in a quiet voice. “He is dying. We must bring him to Gaius.”
m m m m m m
How could a room be so empty?
It wasn’t empty. It was the same as it had always been. Books, an old jacket, boxes, dried plants, small bottles, all scattered around untidily.
But so empty. So much emptier than it had been before. Not so many years before. How many had it been since that gangly black-haired boy with the twinkling blue eyes and sunny grin had walked into Gaius’s chamber and said, “But it is Wednesday…”
Gaius sat with slumped shoulders on Merlin’s empty bed holding the empty mug in his hands. The empty mug that Merlin had been unable to summon when his magic had been stolen by Morgana. The mug that had sent Merlin in despair to the Crystal Cave to try to regain his powers.
Was it the mug that transmitted that despair now filling Gaius? No, of course not.
“Foolish old man,” he muttered.
He had loved Merlin like a son, or a grandson more like, from that first moment. From the first words the boy had said after his tentative, “Gaius?” which had startled him so much that he had fallen and would have been killed if Merlin hadn’t…done whatever it was he had done. Scared to the point of anger Gaius’s first words to him had been barked. “What did you just do?”
And Merlin had told his first lie of many. “I don’t know what happened,” he answered quickly and shiftily. And when Gaius had demanded to know how it was that he knew magic Merlin denied it. “I don’t!”
The poor boy was so confused and nervous by Gaius’s cantankerous inquisition that he almost immediately blurted out the truth. “I was born this way.” Gaius’s first reaction of course was that that was ridiculous. Nobody was born with that kind of magic. Spells must be learned, incantations handed down by trained sorcerers, years must be spent… Clearly the boy was lying.
Only this time he wasn’t. When Gaius finally realized who he was – “Are you Hunith’s son?” – his face lit up and for the first time Gaius saw that smile.
To which he crossly responded, “You’re not meant to be here until Wednesday.”
And Merlin replied, puzzled, uncertain, “But it is Wednesday.”
Oh, his impetuousness! To use magic the minute he entered a stranger’s room, to instinctively endanger himself in order to save another. And the lies he told, blatant lies which he told so badly. How he could have lied so convincingly to Arthur all those years when his lies to Gaius were stamped all over his face, Gaius didn’t understand. But it would infuriate Gaius. And his sullenness. And absent-mindedness. And carelessness. And forgetfulness. And ability to not be around when needed.
Gaius laughed softly then sighed, wondering why he was thinking about the things that Merlin had done that had driven him mad with irritation, sometimes real anger. Why didn’t he remember the boy’s kindness, his insatiable curiosity and love of learning, his quick tongue, his silly laugh? His incredible courage and loyalty?
Oh, but he did. Those memories were so entwined in Gaius’s being that he hardly had to think them.
As were the memories of those terrible last moments in the forest, with the dying Arthur, Merlin powerless to save him but desperate to try to get him to Avalon to try. And Gaius sent back to Camelot with Arthur’s ring to give to Gwen.
Gaius had believed at that moment, in their farewell embrace, that he would see Merlin again. He really had believed that Merlin would survive. He was unhurt. His powers were back. Oh, they were back!
The despair mingled with a cold, cold dread. As the days went by – could it only be four? Or was it five? Since he had promised Merlin to have his favourite meal ready when he came home? – Gaius’s hope had dwindled. Percival had seen no sign of him but it must have been Merlin who had laid out Arthur on the boat for his final passing, mustn’t it? He must be somewhere near Avalon, mustn’t he?
But Morgana. Had she found him?
Gaius groaned and pressed the mug to his forehead as though to read an answer there.
He feared, with a fear deeper and more painful than any fear he had ever had, that Merlin was dead and that Morgana had killed him.
He didn’t know how he was going to tell Hunith.
He didn’t think he could bear the loss.
m m m m m m
The Druids had learned long ago to pack up quickly and disappear. The violent oppression of Uther Pendragon had taught them well.
When Sorcha had proclaimed the urgent need to bring Emrys to Gaius the sun had been approaching its zenith. By the time the camp was dismantled, packed and lifted to shoulders and backs and ready for transport, the sun had just begun its early afternoon descent and disappeared behind looming thickening clouds.
The makeshift but sturdy litter was ready.
Sorcha laid her hand once more on the forehead of the immobile Emrys. It wasn’t as hot as it had been before they had tried to use magic but it was still hot and clammy. She felt his throat for a pulse. Was it fainter still? She feared it was. The scrapes and bruises were stark against his ashen face.
She took a vial from her bag. “A few drops,” she murmured to her apprentice Kaita. The girl took the stopper from the vial and gently turned Emrys’s face toward her. With her finger she opened his mouth just enough to drop the dark green liquid onto the inside of his bottom lip. There was no reaction but Sorcha hoped the medicine would find its way.
She nodded slightly to Cathasach and Caiside and they lifted him carefully onto the litter. She arranged the cushion under his head, covered him with a woollen cloak, then rose stiffly with Kaita’s help to her feet. She walked slowly around the group, incanting a spell to make them if not invisible to eyes they needed to hide from, at least unclear.
Then she came back to her position by the litter and nodded again. Cathasach and Caiside lifted the head end of the litter, Gavina and her son lifted the foot end. Emrys rolled slightly but Sorcha on one side of the litter and Kaita on the other steadied him with a hand to his shoulder, a hand to his leg.
They left the clearing, the four litter bearers moving quickly through the trees and bushes. Their fellows took turns holding branches out of the way. Sorcha and Kaita stayed close to the litter.
Sorcha looked up at the sky. The clouds were darkening. It was going to rain. She allowed herself a small sigh and reached her mind out to Emrys. She found a faint and distant turbulence. Wherever he was, that turbulence wasn’t faint for him. Wherever he was, however deep he was inside his soul, he was in agony and she was powerless to ease it for him.
It was a long way to Camelot. She hoped they would get there in time.
m m m m m m
The chamber was darkening and the chandeliers and torches only partly lit the men seated around her at the Round Table. Rain started to patter against the shutters as Gwen raised her chin and spoke. “Sir Leon?”
He rose and though he looked as tired and weighted down as the other knights he held himself straight and spoke firmly. “Our patrols report that the Saxons are still skirmishing on our northern borders but the conflict is under control and we have suffered few losses. I suggest we remove fifty of our knights and send them to the east where it seems some of Morgana’s followers have collected and are planning some kind of raid.”
Gwen nodded her head. “Do so.” Leon bowed and sat down. “Sir Percival?”
The big man who had spoken the dreaded words to her upon his return from Lake Avalon, his voice choked like a child’s, was now composed and his voice was firm. “Our allies are rallying to our support, as indeed they have been since it started. There is little need for action on their part at this point but they have assured our heralds that they stand prepared. They have all sent their condolences for our great loss and especially to you, my lady.”
He looked at her and again she felt the tears well up. She knew her eyes were red and swollen from all her weeping and that her face was more grey than tan but she retained her composure and bowed her head slightly to him.
He went on, “Our strongest ally, Queen Annis, sends her most heartfelt regards and whatever comfort she can offer as one who knows the suffering a queen feels at the loss of a king and a woman feels at the loss of a beloved husband.”
The tears spilled down Gwen’s cheeks and she did nothing to stop them. She saw that she was not alone, although Gaius sat hunched over as though he had not heard a word. He probably hadn’t.
Percival continued, still clearly quoting what Annis had requested that he express. “Her majesty Queen Annis is most eager to meet with your majesty as soon as is convenient to convey these sentiments in person.”
“Thank you, Percival,” said Gwen faintly but steadily. “Please convey my heartfelt thanks back to her and urge upon Queen Annis an invitation to visit us within a month. She is most welcome and her support and kindness are deeply appreciated.”
What was she doing here, speaking in this formal language so unlike her own? How had she learned all this? Where did the strength come from?
It came from Arthur’s love. She knew that. But it also came from knowing these men, from regarding them as friends as well as defenders of Camelot. They were nobles, most of them. She was not.
Arthur’s Camelot lived and was still strong.
She nodded to Percival who bowed and sat down. She could not help but see in her mind the knight in the chair next to him. Elyan’s chair. Her brother. Murdered by Morgana. She missed him so much. Her eyes slid to the empty chair next to Sir Leon. With the same dreadful tidings of Arthur’s death, Percival had come with the report of the death of Gwaine, also murdered by Morgana. Cocky, funny, brave, kind Gwaine, whose first words to her had been, with a brash twinkle in his eye, “A flower for my lady?“
Her throat threatened to choke up completely and she forced her eyes to turn to the knight straight across the table from her. “Sir Dinidan, what are the reports on Morgana?”
Sir Dinidan rose. “Absolutely nothing, my lady. There is no sign of her whatsoever and we have searched everywhere we can think of.”
Gaius had raised his head and his eyes met Gwen’s.
“And Merlin?” she asked softly, not taking her eyes from Gaius’s.
There was a palpable tension as each man around the table waited for the answer. All of them had witnessed the powerful sorcerer on the cliff that had rescued them all with his magnificent bolts of lightning. Only she and Gaius knew who that sorcerer was but they all knew that somehow Merlin had appeared to take care of Arthur and that neither of them had returned. They all liked Merlin. Some of them had spent years in his company and despite his servant status they all knew there was something more to him.
Sir Dinidan said, trying to keep his voice steady, “Nothing, my lady. There is neither any sign whatsoever of Merlin.”
Oh, Arthur, Gwen thought. Did he go with you somehow?
She held Gaius’s eyes. “Thank you, Sir Dinidan. Keep looking.”
“We will, my lady.”
Gaius lowered his eyes and slumped even more. Gwen was silent a moment then said as firmly as she could manage, “Thank you all. Carry on and we will meet here again tomorrow.”
She rose and they did as well, bowing as she left the room, her head held high, her heart breaking.
m m m m m m
They had started out as twenty. They were now almost fifty. One by one they had emerged from the shadows of the forest and taken their place at the end of the procession, helping the Druids with their packs. Some were Druids, some were not. Some knew someone in the procession, most did not. Their greetings were subdued, a nod, a murmur. They respectfully kept their distance from the litter at the head of the procession but they kept their eyes trained on it and Sorcha perceived tentative mindtouches that tried to reach out to Emrys. She stopped them all with a mild enchantment shield around him.
It was evening. The rain had been heavy but short lasting. They had taken shelter under a large oak to protect Emrys. The rest of them were wet, but drying. It was not so cold but it was getting dark. It was vital that they move quickly. But it was necessary to stop and rest. They all needed food. She made the signal.
There was a small brook running along the path where roe deer had delicately walked throughout the centuries, the path they were now following. The bearers put down the litter and though Sorcha had kept constant vigilance over her ward, she now knelt down to look again at him. Forehead – warmer but at the same time cold. Heartbeat – almost indiscernible. Breathing – shallow. Skin – clammy. Mind – Sorcha bent closer in alarm as though that would make it easier to reach him. There was nothing there. She could not touch his mind. She probed again, gently, then more urgently. Still nothing.
Kaita knelt down beside her and wiped Emrys’s face with a damp cloth. She held up a vial and looked at Sorcha questioningly. Sorcha nodded and Kaita reached out to Emrys’s lip. With the touch of her fingers to his skin Sorcha perceived a response in Emrys’s mind. A faint movement, not quite a light but a slight lessening of the compact darkness. She looked sharply at the girl who seemed unaware of the change in him.
Indeed it could hardly be called a change. There was absolutely no sign of it on the outside. Anyone with normal knowledge of the human body would have been convinced that he was dead.
But, with a small sigh of relief, Sorcha knew that, for the moment, Emrys still lived.
Food was quickly prepared and eaten. As they were getting ready to set out once again – they would continue on through the night with the light of the nearly full moon that was rising over the treetops – a young man materialized from the trees. He was tall and thin with dark hair falling over his forehead. His dark sloping close-set eyes were sorrowful; his entire being exuded sadness.
Cathasach, Caiside, Gavina and her son had already lifted the litter and were ready to go. Sorcha had suggested that they allow others to carry Emrys but they had declined. She could see that Gavina’s son was tiring but that could be taken care of when necessary. There were many who wished the carry the litter bearing Emrys.
The youth approached the litter and several closed ranks on him, Sorcha herself blocked his way to the litter and she felt Kaita tense on the other side, her hand hovering protectively over Emrys’s chest.
He stopped but he didn’t seem nervous or uncertain. He spoke directly to Sorcha. “I knew him. We were friends.” Closer she could see he wasn’t as young as he had first looked. Perhaps twenty-four. About the same age as Emrys.
“How?” Her voice was not sharp, nor was it inviting.
“We met at Camelot. He taught me the value, and the responsibility, of having magic.”
Sorcha looked deeply into his close set eyes. He still seemed very young. But he was telling the truth.
She nodded. “You may walk beside me.”
He bowed his head slightly then for the first time looked down at Emrys. He straightened his shoulders as though coming to some decision. Without taking his eyes from Emrys’s motionless face he said, “Merlin betrayed me once and by so doing he saved me. He gave me back my dignity and my worth. I will do anything in my power to help him.”
Sorcha grasped her walking stick firmly and without a sign from her the bearers started forward. Kaita on the other side of the litter held her hand on Emrys’s shoulder.
“Good,” Sorcha said shortly, and started walking, the boy Gilli at her side.
m m m m m m
Gwen sat on the throne, holding her head high, looking out at the knights, lords and ladies, many of whom she had known all her life – from the time when she was the daughter of the blacksmith, and then the lady’s maid to Morgana.
They had not known her of course. To them she was invisible until Arthur had chosen her for his wife. Then, though they had almost without exception treated her with nothing but respect, she knew they had wondered how she had become their queen, what their dashing, young and bold king had seen in her. But the servant girl Gwen had become Queen Guinevere and three years had passed. By participating judiciously in the court proceedings, taking active part in the affairs and welfare of the people and counselling the king and the knights, she had indeed become their queen. If the knights had thought it was strange in the beginning that she sat with them at the Round Table she had heard no protests.
She had already been friends, in a sense, with Sir Leon and she had become friends, in a sense, with some of the rest of them, though there was nowhere near the depth of friendship she had shared with Arthur or Merlin. Or indeed Morgana.
She lifted her chin once more to ward off the threatening deluge of grief.
She was the queen and she had work to do, petitioners to hear, judgments to make. The daily affairs of Camelot had little regard for grief, for slain kings, for vanished servants no matter how likeable or unusual. What the people knew was that the brief war had been won, at great cost for the kingdom but still won, and their lives could go on. The extent to which they had been threatened and the enormity of what Merlin had done to save them they would probably never realize but sometime soon decisions would have to be made about how and how much to tell them. Indeed, what to tell them. Would the secret of Merlin’s magic have to be kept? Only she and Gaius knew about it. Would it stay that way?
She took a deep breath. “Sir Leon, the first petitioner, please.”
m m m m m m
Gaius followed the little girl along the narrow street, muddy after the rain yesterday, trying to keep up with her. She ran back to him and grabbed his hand. “Hurry!” she pleaded.
His medicine box banged against his leg as he walked and he wished…Well, what he wished there was no point in thinking about. Merlin wasn’t here to carry it, he wasn’t here to help and learn. He wasn’t here to go to this girl’s mother himself because he knew enough medicine to do it without Gaius who could just as well have stayed home if only Merlin –
“Here!” the girl said and pushed her way into a dark hovel. Younger children huddled around a moaning figure on the bed. Gaius moved to the woman’s side, feeling the frightened eyes of the children on him.
“Where’s your father?” he asked the girl, setting his box on the floor and sitting on the stool that was quickly given him.
It didn’t take long for Gaius to discern the problem. The woman was conscious and answered his questions easily enough. She was a chronic sufferer of severe headaches which had worsened since her husband’s death. Gaius reached into his supplies and gave the girl a vial. “Three drops – no more! – of this in a cup of cider, three times a day. See to it that your mother follows this regime carefully and she will soon be better.”
The girl’s eyes grew round at the responsibility. She was, what? About eight? Or ten? Gaius was convinced she would carry out the task with honour.
He turned to the mother. “These drops are made from herbs that are gathered in the forests around Camelot. They will help ease the pain and bring you the ease to sleep more deeply. Some of your pain is caused by the loss of your husband. It will never go away but it will become bearable. I will come back and see you again in a few days’ time. Send your daughter again if your pain worsens.”
“Thank you,” she whispered. “I’m sorry, we have no money. We can pay you with bread.”
He nodded. “There is no need for payment. But I thank you.”
He started to rise but she grasped his hand. “I’m sorry about Merlin,” she whispered. “We all loved him. We all hope and believe he will return. But I know that if the worst were to come to be known, you would feel his loss bitterly. Then what you just told me…your words would be for yourself too.”
He drew a shaky breath. “You’re very kind. Thank you.”
“Go with Gaius, Rowena. See him home.”
The little girl took his hand and they left the small home. Her small soft hand in his big stiff rough one gave him some comfort. But he would still be alone when he returned to his chambers.
m m m m m m
Somehow she had made it through the day. It was fortunate really that she had duties because now that she was alone the enormity of her loneliness was crushing.
She was in her chamber. Her servant Lanti – her servant! how strange that still sounded, herself so recently a servant – had tried to cajole her into eating in the dining room with some of the ladies but Gwen had only longed for the solitude of her chamber and sat now at the small table near the bed, picking at the fruit and bread so appetizingly and kindly arranged on the silver platter by Lanti.
She tried to concentrate on the day’s proceedings, the petitions, the decisions. She thought things had gone well but she wasn’t sure. Leon and Percival, her closest friends now among the knights, were never anything but supportive but she was never sure they really meant their agreement. Their kindness, yes, no doubt, but their judgment of her decisions she just didn’t know. She had to hope that they respected her, and Arthur’s memory, enough to protest when they thought she was wrong. They had never failed to express their views to Arthur even when they went against his. She hoped they would with her when their new relationship was less fragile.
She sighed. She didn’t want to think about the day’s proceedings. She wanted to think about Arthur. She wanted to remember every moment, every caress, every laugh, every shake of her head and her disgusted, “Oh Arthur!” when he was being his bullying mean self, especially against Merlin. How Merlin had refrained from knocking Arthur’s thick head off his shoulders throughout the years was more than Gwen could understand. If Arthur had even come close to treating her like he treated Merlin she would have strangled him. Well, she would have tried. Arthur was a little too strong for her to have succeeded.
An intense wave of desire for Arthur’s embrace flooded over her and she groaned, hugging herself and rocking back and forth. Tears poured down her face. She couldn’t bear it. She could not bear it!
Into her memory crept the time when she had been thrown into prison and Merlin had come to see her. She had told him not to worry about her, there was no point in crying about it. When she had asked him to remember her he had said simply, “You’re not going to die.”
She had been sweet on him then. She had fallen a little in love with him the first time she’d seen him stand up to Arthur but he had only ever seen her as, as, as a sister almost and her romantic notions had moved on to others.
“I’m not going to let this happen,” he had said in the prison. She didn’t know why she had believed him but she had and he had, as it turned out, not let it happen.
It was as if she could hear his voice in the room now. “Gwen, I’m not going to let this happen.”
She whispered, “Oh, but Merlin, it already has. Not even your magic can bring him back. Even you can’t keep me alive with this pain I feel.”
But she knew she was wrong about the pain. If only Merlin were here, if only Merlin were still alive, couldn’t they help each other through this?
There was a soft knock on the door and Lanti slipped into the room. “Oh my lady, you’ve hardly eaten anything!”
“Thank you, Lanti, but I’m not hungry.” Before Lanti could say anything else Gwen looked at her. “How well do you know Merlin, Lanti?”
The young woman looked surprised. She had grown up in the same village as Merlin but Gwen knew they hadn’t had so much contact as children. They had first become friends just two years earlier when Merlin’s mother had helped Lanti get work at the court. Gwen and Lanti were already friends, having met in that terrible time when Gwen was exiled, staying in Ealdor. When she had then become Queen she had been very happy to have another old friend along with Merlin in the court.
Lanti thought a moment before answering. “I think everyone has always felt that they know Merlin very well and that he’s their friend. He is always helpful and friendly, except when he thinks someone is being unfair or mistreating others. Then he can be, well frankly, a little nasty. Sarcastic, like. But then when that person felt really bad – which they sometimes did, not always, but usually, like he’d made them feel really small, then he’d feel bad and be extra nice. Until he started joking – rather insultingly at times – with them and then he was always funny. He always made everybody laugh, even the ones he was insulting. And I think he insulted himself more than anyone else.” Lanti had a small smile and a faraway look.
“But how well did you know him? I mean, you? Since you started working with me you spent a lot of time with him. I mean he was always with Arthur and…” her voice faded away.
Lanti looked down. “I think he was the loneliest person in this castle, my lady. But he never showed it. Sometimes I’d see him staring out the window or just sitting somewhere with something in his hand, some task that he’d forgotten he was doing, and he’d be thinking so deeply with such a sad expression on his face…”
Gwen thought of the astounding secret she had so recently learned about Merlin from Gaius. A sorcerer. Merlin had magic. For almost ten years he had lived in danger of his life every day, forced to hide his powers even as he used them to protect Arthur. Of course he was lonely. Desperately lonely. She had sometimes sensed this but had never understood the reason. Or would have believed. Only Gaius had known all those years. Now she knew. But Lanti, she was sure, did not.
“…but when I walked in,” Lanti was saying, “he would immediately brighten up like he really was happy to see me. We had so much fun together when you and Arthur were occupied with other things. We helped each other with tasks sometimes. The king was sometimes…that is, he wasn’t always…”
“Arthur was a brute to Merlin,” Gwen said almost laughing, but wondering what Arthur would have done if he had known. “The demands he made on poor Merlin twelve servants couldn’t have managed.”
Lanti smiled. “I know. And Merlin would get so angry with him and swear at him and call him the most awful things behind his back – and sometimes to his face! – and then he and I would both end up laughing.”
“Was he kind to you?”
“Always! I…” she blushed and looked away. “I cared very deeply for him.”
“I started by asking how well you know him and somehow we’re talking about him as though…” Gwen swallowed as the ever present tears welled up again. “Lanti, do you think he’s still alive?”
“I…I hope so…”
“But do you think he is?”
Slowly Lanti shook her head. “He would be here, if he was still alive. He would never desert you.”
A sob caught in Gwen’s throat and she reached for Lanti’s hand. “You don’t think something has happened to him but that he’s trying to get back?”
“I hope so, Gwen. I really hope so.”
Gwen’s voice was a whisper. “I do too.”
m m m m m m
The day dawned clear and bright but already it was clouding over again. They had rested only briefly in the darkest moments of the night. There was no shortage of hands to take over the burden of the litter and in fact the litter had been carried forward without stop since yesterday at midday. Sorcha had rested in short respites but had always caught up with Emrys soon again. Gavina took over often. Kaita did not leave his side. Nor did the young Gilli.
Feeling weary to the bone she nevertheless summoned the energy to move ahead again, drawing abreast of Kaita and Gilli on the other side of the litter.
“Tell me more about how you met Emrys.” She spoke in a friendly enough voice but Gilli seemed to sense that this was an interrogation.
“There was an open tournament,” he said. “All comers welcome, all weapons allowed. I had become so angry about how we’re treated, how our magic is hated, that I decided to go to Camelot and take part, using my magic to kill Uther. Merlin figured me out right away and, well, I sort of promised to withdraw.”
“In other words, you did promise.”
“I did. But I didn’t withdraw. I didn’t know Merlin had magic but he was nice to me and I liked him but I thought it was right of me to continue.”
“You couldn’t resist the feeling of power it gave you to use your magic in Camelot,” Sorcha said.
Gilli hung his head. “You’re right. But I also thought I was fighting for us and when I almost killed my opponent Merlin was really angry. He came to my room and…” He paused as they came to a hillock that was too big to go around. He helped the bearers lift the foot end of the litter to keep Emrys steady. Kaita and Gavina held him in place.
The ground levelled out and Sorcha prompted, “And?”
“And I accused him of not understanding. I still didn’t suspect but at the same time I could see that he did understand. I just didn’t see how and I was being stubborn.”
“When I said that no one knows what it’s like not to be respected he just looked at me for the longest time and I was…sort…of scared especially when he sort of slammed the door shut. Well, he didn’t slam it, but there was no doubt he meant to say something he didn’t want anyone to hear. I suddenly didn’t want to hear it but I knew I’d gone too far to back down now.”
He fell silent and Sorcha, the bearers, Kaita, and the others within earshot of the young warlock’s voice waited. He cleared his throat. “And then he…created a little fire in the palm of his hand and held it out to me. And just looked at me. And then he said, ‘It’s lonely….to be more powerful than any man you know and have to live like a shadow, to be special and to have to pretend you’re a fool. I know how it feels. I understand’.”
Gilli spoke as if he had been hearing these words clearly in his memory since the day they were said. Sorcha suspected that he had. He went on, his voice breaking, ”And like a fool I told him that then he should understand why I had to fight and I ignored him when he told me I had to learn to use magic for its real purpose which was doing good and I ridiculed him for just being a servant protecting Uther who would kill him if he knew and I said that he’d been pretending for so long that he had forgotten who he really was and I know this hurt him and I know it made him doubt himself and I accused him of being weak and I went out and I would have killed Uther – “ he was speaking faster and he rushed ahead until they could hardly follow his words, speaking as though those words had been burning inside him since that day and now had to escape or he would die “ – but Merlin used magic to stop me and I hated him and he came to my room and I accused him of betraying us and being a traitor and he said no, that I was the traitor because I was using magic for my own vanity and…” He stopped, then said softly, “He made me see how wrong I had been. And then, instead of hating me, instead of having only contempt for me, when I said I was sorry he kind of smiled a little and said that he knew it didn’t seem like it then but a time would come when magic would be permitted…” Sorcha could see the tears on Gilli’s cheeks. “And he said that we’d be free and maybe our paths would cross again and we’d be friends. He said we were kin. And he shook my hand. And…”
He looked down at Emrys whose only movements were caused by the slight swaying of the litter. His head was turned slightly to the side. His breathing was not visible and Sorcha resisted the temptation to feel again for his heartbeat or mindtouch him. She had just done so minutes before.
Gilli reached his hand out and touched Emrys’s lightly. It was lying across his chest. “I never saw him again but now I heard that he has done something incredibly powerful. That he has saved us all.”
“It’s true, “Sorcha said simply.
“And it’s killed him.”
“But will he?”
“Only the future will tell us that.”
For some time Sorcha had heard a faint murmur from the procession, now numbering in the hundreds. She had not been able to discern the words, if indeed they were words and not just an aura of feelings, but now they became clear and she felt a stab of sorrow.
The words were, “Emrys is dying.”
m m m m m m
The reports were now more detailed on the aftermath of the final battle with Morgana’s troops at Camlann. Far fewer of Arthur’s fighters had been slain that would have been the case if the sorcerer hadn’t appeared and crushed the attackers but still there were casualties. And these casualties had left behind families. Many of them were now in need and some of them were struggling to make ends meet.
“We suggest, your majesty, “said the young knight reporting – why was Gwen having such a difficult time remembering names? She knew perfectly well what his name was but simply couldn’t bring it to mind – “that food, clothing and shelter be made available and work found for the older children so that they can help their mothers support their families. Our harvests are looking good. Camelot is still prosperous and this would be no strain about the kingdom’s finances.”
“Even if the harvests were failing and our prosperity were waning, we would do as you propose, Sir Keegan.” Ah yes, Keegan. She was glad the name had come without hesitation. “Our duty, indeed our privilege, is to share with those in need. Please see that this is organized and put into operation immediately.”
He bowed and Gwen nodded. “Thank you, Sir Keegan.” He sat down again and Gwen turned to Leon. “You had a report, Sir Leon?”
“Yes, my lady. Very early this morning one of our patrols…saw something… strange. He said he thought he saw a procession of people through the trees – he was standing on a hill looking down – but when he looked again they were gone. He rode down the hill thinking he would meet them but when he got to where he judged they should be, he found nothing.”
“How odd,” Gwen said, although she didn’t really know what she was supposed to say. “And this is of what significance?”
“I don’t really know. Maybe none. But he deemed it best to report it and asks what further measures should be taken.”
“Wouldn’t it be wise to stay in the area and scout the path they were following – or he thought they were following – to see if any further sign of them appears?”
“Of course, my lady. I will so instruct them.”
m m m m m m
They would soon leave the forest and start heading through the fields and meadows around Camelot. Their numbers had increased even more and it took longer for Sorcha and her companions to set up the enchantments to keep their movement hidden. When they judged that they had done as much as they could Sorcha returned to the head of the procession at the edge of the forest.
There was no change in Emrys. Kaita was just administering more drops, her hand resting almost caressingly on Emrys’s chin as she did so. Sorcha sent a quick mind probe and again felt that slight stirring in Emrys’s darkness. But it was gone before she was sure it was there.
“Thank you, Kaita,” she said quietly. “You are doing well.”
Kaita looked at her in surprise. She was as little used to getting praise as Sorcha was to giving it.
She bowed a little and stepped back, stuttering, “It… it is…my duty.”
“Yes, and you are doing it honourably.”
“Thank you,” Kaita said hesitantly then straightened the cloak covering Emrys though it needed no straightening.
“Our urgency increases,” Sorcha said. “We must proceed.”
She had put a dozen strong and sharp-eyed scouts at the front of the procession and surrounded the litter with dozens more. Attack could come from any direction now that they were approaching Camelot and though all dangers could not be averted Sorcha wanted as much protection and warning as possible if an attack were to come. The leaders now stepped out of the forest and onto the meadow. The four bearers, of whom one was now Gilli, followed them.
It was late afternoon and if their mission had not been so sombre there would have been an air of festivity in the crowd. Now it was uncannily silent. Murmured conversations took place now and then, people helped each other with their packs, now and then a child cried, but mostly all that was heard through the shuffle of hundreds of feet were the birds chirping and the wind rustling in the grasses.
And then they all looked up as they heard the sound of the slow beating of great wings. It was coming from behind. Sorcha turned in alarm and then relaxed.
The flying figure that appeared small as it came toward them over the treetops became enormous as it approached. Slowly it circled above them and when people realized what it was they too lost most of their fear but not their awe. None of them had ever seen the Great Dragon Kilgharrah.
It circled lower and lower, focusing its great yellow eyes on the inert figure on the litter.
Sorcha stepped away from the procession and waited off to the side in the open field as the dragon slowly landed.
“Is he alive?” the dragon asked her, his gravelly voice coming from far above her.
“He is,” she replied.
The dragon just looked at her and then back at the litter which was now a ways ahead of them. “Then I,” he intoned, “will come with him.”
“You are ill,” she said.
“I am old. But then so are you, and you’re coming with him.”
“So I am.”
He spoke no more but turned clumsily and, keeping his distance from the procession and the litter, but his eyes focused on Emrys, he limped heavily forward as the procession continued.
m m m m m m
Another day had been got through. Gwen made her way from the Round Table towards her chamber but when she saw the two soldiers guarding the entrance to her wing of the castle she ducked into a side passage and made her way up to the western rampart. She couldn’t face anyone, not even the earnest young soldiers so eager to support and protect her.
She stood high above the grounds below and looked out over the fields beyond, the forests beyond them, the mountains towering on the horizon and the sky above it all. The sun had set behind the mountains and the sky was shifting in golds and dark pinks. It was so beautiful that her heart ached. But then her heart ached anyway. She and Arthur had often stood here in the evening. Even he was moved by the beauty of the sunsets and he had once told her, “I never love Camelot more than at moments like these.” And he had turned to her and added, “Nor you,” and kissed her.
She heard slow heavy footsteps approaching behind her. Gaius. He stood beside her and for a long moment neither of them spoke but then she said, “Did Arthur know?”
“About Merlin’s magic?” She nodded. “Yes. Merlin told him after taking him to the forest after…after the battle.”
“Were you there?”
“No, I found them later so I don’t know what Merlin said but when I got there Merlin was very agitated and unhappy and I don’t think it was just because Arthur was…so badly injured. I sent him to deal with the horses because I sensed that Arthur was only pretending to be unconscious, that he wanted to speak to me and as soon as Merlin left he revealed this to be true. He warned me urgently that Merlin was a sorcerer. I believe he was actually afraid of Merlin but he also felt betrayed. And he was shocked when he realized that I have known all along.”
“I believe he felt very alone at that moment but I convinced him that Merlin was not any ordinary sorcerer but the most powerful sorcerer ever to live.” Gaius chuckled a little. “Typically of Arthur, he looked at me as if I was crazy and said, ‘Merlin??’ in than sneering tone he had sometimes.”
Gwen smiled. “He could never believe it when we told him Merlin was smart, or brave…” her voice trailed off.
“And yet he did believe it and I am convinced that he began to realize it then. That after all these years of his scoffing, he realized that Merlin was the only one who could save him.”
“But he couldn’t!” she cried in a strangled voice.
“Not this time.”
“Not this time?”
“You have no idea how many times Arthur’s life was saved by Merlin’s magic. And by his courage.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that from the day Merlin arrived in Camelot seven, eight years ago, he started protecting Arthur. Without his magic Arthur would have died long ago.” He put his arm around her shoulders. “He couldn’t save him this time, Gwen, but he did keep him alive for all those years so that Arthur could become the king he was and build Camelot into what it is today.”
She turned her head into his shoulder and said, “Oh Gaius, we were so young then.”
“You’re still young, my dear.”
“It doesn’t feel like it.”
“I know. I know.”
“Gaius, is Merlin still alive? We still need him!”
He didn’t answer and she looked up to see the tears on his cheeks. “We still need him,” she whispered again, and they both watched the sky darken into purple then black with twinkling stars.
m m m m m m
The night had been so dark that they had stopped briefly and Kaita had slept an hour or so, as had most of the others. No one had had more than snatches of sleep in the five days they had been travelling.
But Sorcha was clearly even more worried than she had been the day before and before the darkness had eased she had ordered them to continue. The murmur, that everyone was now aware of but which they all tried not to hear, continued in faint waves. “Emrys is dying.”
They now moved forward with the light of a few scattered torches. Gilli, walking beside Kaita, was carrying one. She was now holding Emrys’s hand as they walked, as Sorcha had instructed. She didn’t know why but she was happy to do so. Well, happy wasn’t a word that could readily be used, but holding his bony hand with its long rough fingers brought her comfort. What scared her was its coldness. The fever had left him and though she hoped desperately that that was a good sign she feared it was not. A fever was at least a sign of inner heat. Now there was almost no warmth at all coming from him.
The day before a couple, a warlock and a witch who had lived their lives as travelling merchants, had joined the procession and offered the use of their cart. Some thought it disrespectful to lay Emrys on a cart that was for common wares but Sorcha had thanked them saying, “We are grateful for anything that will ease him as we travel.”
And it was clearly less uncomfortable for him, steadier. Not that he was aware of it. Was he? Kaita glanced at his face, the shadows and light of the torch flickering across his features and bringing his high sharp cheekbones, his sunken eyes, the thickening stubble on his thin cheeks and around his mouth into sharp black and white contrast. No, he was far from caring about physical comfort. Her mind touched his lightly. Nothing.
“Did you know him?” Gilli asked beside her. “Before?”
“No.” And then when she realized her answer might have sounded brusque she added, “But I have heard about him all my life. There has always been talk of a sorcerer more powerful than anyone had ever seen and he was called Emrys. When I was little the talk was always, like, ‘He’s out there somewhere, he’ll come soon, he’ll save us from the hate and the killing and the forced secretiveness.’”
“Why Emrys? Why do you call him Emrys?”
“I don’t know. But I remember the shock when the word came that Emrys had appeared in Camelot and he was just a simple lad called Merlin and he was the servant of Prince Arthur. We were so disappointed and thought, like, ‘This is ridiculous! It can’t be right!’” She looked down again at Emrys and rubbed his thumb a little with hers. Did he respond with just the slightest stirring of his thumb against hers? She looked up quickly at Sorcha who was watching from the other side of the cart. Her expression was unreadable.
“But then what?” Gilli asked, unaware of this exchange, or whatever it was. “When did you all figure out that he was the one you’d been waiting for?”
“Some of my people met him. We heard reports of things he had done. Some of us hated him because they thought he supported Uther in his terror. Others of us knew he was doing everything he could to stop the terror and create a kingdom where we could live in peace. There was talk of this young prince who was supposed to be different and Emrys was protecting him. There were rumours that Emrys had died, that Arthur had died, but then reports would come in. No, they’d survived. We heard about how Morgana turned to violence to rid the kingdom of the Pendragons and many of us supported her. Others of us kept hoping that Emrys would fulfil his destiny to create a kingdom where we too were welcome. And to do it without hate. We tried to believe that to create a new kingdom from hate and killing led by Morgana would only make everything worse. We wanted so much to believe that Emrys could…” her voice faded and she found it impossible to go on.
“His destiny,” Gilli said softly. “When Uther died and Arthur became king, things did get better, didn’t they?”
Kaita thought about his question. “In a way. For most people. But magic is still forbidden. And Morgana is still out there.”
The tone of the murmur changed abruptly and became actual words.
There was a pale glow on the eastern horizon and against it through a layer of rosy fog loomed the spires and towers of the great castle.
Kaita squeezed Emrys’s hand as Sorcha said, “We’ll be there by evening.”
Nobody added what they were thinking. “But will it be soon enough?”
m m m m m m
Young Wolcott was so proud that he thought he might burst out of his mail. It was his first patrol and he was riding with two well established and admired knights, Sir Parry and Sir Dewar. Wolcott dearly hoped he would be a Sir one day.
Their mission wasn’t as exciting as he might have hoped. It would have been fun if they had been sent out to rescue someone, preferably a beautiful lady, or to fight against some Saxons or even meet Morgana. Well, no, if he was going to be honest he really did not want to meet Morgana. He pretended he wasn’t afraid of much but he couldn’t deny that Morgana, and all things magic really, scared him to death.
No, their mission had been to “look around”, as Sir Dewar had put it. Wolcott hoped there was something more to it, something secret, but so far it had been a nice horseback outing on a pleasant late summer day. It was almost time to turn back towards Camelot. The sun was about to set.
Suddenly, Sir Parry hissed, “Look! There!”
Wolcott and Sir Dewar looked to where he was pointing across the field. In the distance there was movement. People. A lot of them. They were heading towards Camelot.
“Don’t let them disappear!” shouted Sir Parry as he drew his sword and kicked his horse into a gallop straight for them.
Wolcott had no time to be puzzled – disappear? Where would they go? They were right in front of them – but pulled his sword as well and galloped after the other two, excitement exploding within him. Was something going to happen at last?
As they galloped nearer Wolcott could see that there was something strange about these people. Some of them were hooded and though they seemed to be moving rapidly towards the three riders there was an air of heaviness surrounding them. When Wolcott caught a glimpse of – a dragon? – moving parallel with the procession, walking clumsily and stiffly, he felt a stab of fear. What in the name of all the gods and goddesses was going on?
The two knights raced ahead with Wolcott right behind. Suddenly Sir Dewar shouted, “Druids!”
Sir Parry shouted, “Attack!”
Wolcott thought they would scatter and flee in fear but the procession continued to move steadily towards them. There must have been hundreds, maybe a thousand – Wolcott wasn’t so good with counting – and there seemed to be no trace of fear amongst them.
In fact, those leading the procession simply separated to go around the charging horsemen and the three found themselves surrounded. No one seemed armed but the feeling of dread increased in Wolcott. These people were dangerous.
And yet they seemed so calm. An elderly woman stepped away from the tight group at the head of the procession and looked steadily up at Sir Parry with clear and fearless eyes. She was short and thin with a rather large nose and dark piercing eyes. Her gray hair was unkempt but she was, Wolcott thought, rather regal.
“Escort us to the queen,” she said, her voice ringing with authority.
Sir Parry reined in his horse so abruptly that it reared up. The old woman didn’t flinch. “What?” Sir Parry said in amazement.
She stepped aside, as did the others behind her, and they saw a cart with someone lying on it. Sir Parry brought his horse a few steps ahead and to the side of the cart and looked down. His face filled with shock. “Merlin?” he whispered. He looked wildly at the old woman then back down at the lifeless figure on the cart. “Merlin?”
Sir Dewar and Wolcott joined him and Wolcott felt a mixed thrill of pride and sorrow. Merlin! The rumours in Camelot about the king’s missing servant had grown wilder as the week had passed and now here he was. Wolcott had never spoken to Merlin but had seen him many times around Camelot and heard others speak of him. But that was before the king had been killed. Now Merlin was just a mystery.
Sir Dewar said, his voice edged with anxiety. “Is he dead?”
“Emrys lives,” the old woman said slowly. “The man you know as Merlin lives. But he is dying. Escort us to the Queen.”
Sir Parry and Sir Dewar reined their horses around and Wolcott quickly followed suit. Without a word from anyone the procession started up again, moving toward Camelot now glowing in the setting sun.
The sun set, the darkness was approaching. Torches were being lit. Wolcott looked back frequently at the cart. There was no sign of life in Merlin but those walking beside him were clearly keeping a sharp eye on him. A girl, a young woman really, was holding his hand. The old woman seemed to be muttering and several times he saw her hand pass over him quickly.
Wolcott became aware of a low humming sound. It wasn’t exactly voices but it wasn’t exactly not. It was a murmur. It seemed to be saying, “Emrys is dying.”
Wolcott’s heart felt heavy. He didn’t want this to be happening. He wished they had turned back before meeting these people. Not even the honour of finding Merlin could make him feel better.
“Why do they call him Emrys?” he muttered to Sir Dewar.
Sir Dewar looked at him, then looked back at the cart, his face grim. He didn’t answer.
m m m m m m
The day’s session was drawing to a close. Gwen looked out the window and saw that in fact it was dark out. The evenings were getting noticeably shorter, though it was not yet autumn.
She looked back at the people standing around court. Her loyal subjects. The men and woman who attended her. Gaius, who was looking so fatigued that she almost cried out in alarm but then she realized that he always looked like that now. He had not wanted to be excused from attending court, for which she was grateful, but why in the world hadn’t she thought to have a chair provided for him? There was no reason for him to have to stand.
The man bowing in front of her rose and she realized he had been thanking her for her gracious help with his problem. She pulled herself to attention to remember what it was. He was a merchant and had been in quite urgent need of a fair judgment in his dispute with a merchant from the neighboring kingdom of Nemeth, a staunch ally to Camelot. Gwen had assured him that the matter would be seen to quickly and satisfactorily, for which he was now thanking her.
She nodded as he rose but as he turned to withdraw there was a disturbance outside in the corridor or stairway. Gwen lifted her head quickly and saw that everyone had been alerted to something they heard. Feet pounding up the stairs? The rustle of the movement of many people? The noise of wooden wheels rolling over the stone floors?
She rose and stared at the doors which were abruptly thrown open. Sir Parry rushed into the room, kneeling quickly in front of her, saying breathlessly, “Your majesty – “
But before he could go on a wooden cart was rolled into the throne room by four men led by an old woman, a younger woman at the side of the cart tending to –
Gwen’s breath caught in her throat. They turned the cart around and she saw the lifeless figure lying on it.
With a cry of joy mingled with grief she started towards the cart but the old woman held up a hand to stop her. Gaius looked at Gwen then at the cart and he too cried out and moved more quickly than he had in days but the old woman stopped him with a look. Sir Leon and Sir Percival stepped quickly to Gwen’s side and stared down at the cart, stunned.
Gwen made another move toward him then looked at the old woman, unable to find the words for her beseeching question. She was afraid of the answer.
The old woman answered anyway in a ringing voice so that everyone in the court could hear her. “Emrys lives! Merlin lives. But he is dying and will die within hours, maybe minutes, without your participation in our magic. In Gaius’s magic.”
There was a shocked stir among those in the throne room and Gwen shot a startled questioning look at Gaius. He looked as startled as she felt but he knew what the woman was talking about. He looked at her more closely. “Sorcha?”
“Yes, Gaius. We meet again.” But then she turned back to Gwen and said harshly, “Queen Guinevere! Do you, with your royal power, allow this sorcery in your court? Do you agree to participate in it in order to save the life of the young warlock you know as Merlin, who rescued your kingdom of Camelot from certain and terrible destruction through the use of his magical powers?”
As though from miles away Gwen heard the shocked gasps and muttering around her. Without hesitation she cried, “Yes! Yes! What must I do?”
“Our magic is powerful,” the woman called Sorcha said solemnly. “But it is not powerful enough. Our love for Emrys is deep but it is the love of a people for the greatest one among them. Your Merlin now needs the love of those who love him for himself, who love him because they know him in his and their daily life.”
“Yes!” Gwen repeated. “We’re here!”
“Guinevere, kneel at his side and take his hand.” She nodded towards the side where the young woman had been standing holding Merlin’s hand. She backed away quickly, allowing Gwen to take her place on the side of the cart closest to the thrones. Gwen knelt and grasped Merlin’s hand, tears welling up in her eyes. His hand was so cold! He was so still! There was no sign of life in his face, that face that had been so dear to her since the first time she had seen him in the square, standing up to Arthur.
“Merlin!” she whispered.
“Gaius!” ordered the woman. “Kneel at his other side and take his other hand.” Gaius, his stiffness and heaviness gone as though by magic, hurried to the other side of the cart and knelt, grasping Merlin’s hand with a small moan.
“Servants!” Sorcha called. “You who have worked alongside of Merlin and who know and love him, join hands with the Druids and sorcerers behind me.”
Gwen saw Lanti move to the side of the young woman and grasp her hand. She met Gwen’s eyes then turned to the young Druid woman, whose eyes were still fastened on Merlin’s face, beside her.
“Knights! You, who know and love him, form a ring around us.” The knights quickly did so and she continued, “All who know and love Merlin, form an outer ring!”
A moment later everyone was standing as instructed, holding their breath, motionless, staring at the old woman and Merlin in turn. Gwen’s eyes were fixed on Merlin. She could feel the fear, the awe, the sudden hope mingled with the doubt and uneasiness and shocked disbelief, palpitating in the air.
“Gaius,” said the old woman more quietly. “Join us.” It was not an order this time, it was an invitation.
Across the motionless figure of Merlin Gwen saw Gaius lift his gaze to the woman he had called Sorcha. Their eyes locked then she closed hers and raised her face. She started chanting in a language Gwen did not recognize. Others from her people joined her. Then slowly Gaius closed his eyes and at first falteringly then with increasing confidence, chanted with them.
Gwen was terrified, she was exhilarated. She squeezed Merlin’s hand so hard she was afraid she would hurt him but she could not let go. The fear around her emanated not only from the people of Camelot but from the Druids and sorcerers who had brought Merlin back to them.
A small cry escaped Gwen’s lips when she saw the flash of amber in the eyes of Sorcha, the others, and most alarmingly, Gaius. They blazed that amber onto the lifeless figure of Merlin and at that very instant his body went rigid, his back arched, his head thrown back. His eyes flew open in a terrible blue stare into nothingness and a twisted wail almost inhuman in its agony tore out from between his stretched lips. He flung off their hands and writhed so violently that he fell off the cart. Gwen reached instinctively to catch him but he twisted out of her arms and stumbled to his feet, clutching his head in torment.
In front of Arthur’s empty throne he fell to his knees and cried out wordlessly. A great wind blew up from nowhere, blowing out most of the candles and torches. The shutters banged open and slammed shut, a chandelier near the thrones crashed to the floor, tables and chairs along the walls flew through the air, hurtling into each other and smashing to the floor.
Everyone froze and stared at Merlin in stunned silence. They were terrified but did not yet know it.
Still on his knees, his face twisted in anguish, Merlin clutched his head moaning then he rolled forward, his shoulders rounded and his head down, and held himself in a tight swaying crouch.
Then slowly his hands fell forward, palms up as though in supplication. Great pouring floods of sparks exploded upward from his hands. There were screams and cries and then gasping silence as gradually the sparks formed themselves into the images of faces. A young man. An older man with long black hair. A boy. A young weeping woman whose eyes were clearly filled with love.
Then finally, larger than the others and higher, Arthur Pendragon, King of Camelot.
There were more astonished and frightened gasps and Gwen cried out.
Merlin, in a voice painful to hear, wailed without looking up at the faces he had evoked, “Arthur! I couldn’t save you. Freya –. “ His voice broke and he struggled to speak, his ragged voice hardly more than a whisper, “I couldn’t save you. I couldn’t save any of you.”
Gwen scrambled to her feet and ran to him. Falling on her knees in front of him she pulled him up and into her arms with tears running down her cheeks, and held him, his body wracked with sobs, tight to her.
m m m m m m
The pain, the pain! It was unendurable. He couldn’t breathe. An iron fist was squeezing him inside, crushing the life from him. A storm crashed inside his head and he longed to die.
“Merlin, Merlin, Merlin…” A sobbing whisper penetrated through the swarming fog in his head and he slowly became aware of the fierce embrace that was holding him in this world. And then another set of arms around him and another voice. “Merlin…”
Gwen. Clasped in his arms weeping. Gaius, his arms around both of them.
His struggle for breath eased, his head cleared.
How had he got here? The last thing he remembered was gazing numbly at the boat bearing Arthur’s dead body away onto the waters of Avalon. How had he ended up in Camelot? What was he doing on his knees embracing, and being embraced by, Gwen so hard that he felt their bones might be broken. And Gaius.
He opened his eyes cautiously. The light was dim. It looked like a storm had raged through the throne room. Things were knocked over. The candles were out. Then suddenly they were lit again and he realized he had just lit them without thinking. When he heard sharp intakes of breath behind him he thought in confusion, “I shouldn’t have done that.“ There were people there. A lot of people. But it was again dead silent and he wondered if his hearing was somehow damaged. But no, he could hear Gwen weeping and he heard Gaius’s whisper, “You’re alive.”
Images came to him. An old woman. A young woman. Others. Forest. Rocking and swaying like on a boat. Gilli’s face. Gilli?
With a shaky breath he raised his head and pulled back to look at Gwen. She met his eyes. Hers were red and swollen, her face worn. She reached up to touch his face and a new stab of pain pieced him. “I tried to save him, Gwen,” he whispered, his voice ragged. “I did.”
“I know,” she said simply. “I know. You did everything you could.”
The loving kindness in her voice broke his heart. “But I failed!”
Gaius spoke softly in his ear. “It was his destiny, Merlin.”
Merlin shook his head, leaning again on Gwen for support. “I failed him. Arthur was my friend and I couldn’t save him.”
“But you saved all the rest of us, Merlin,” Gwen said gently.
“And you saved Camelot,” Gaius said. “Camelot lives and the spirit and force and justice of Arthur live with it.”
Gwen wiped her eyes and face with her sleeve then pulled the fabric around her hand, reached up and wiped Merlin’s face. She rose slowly to her feet and with Gaius’s help she helped Merlin up. He felt as unsteady as a newborn colt but they supported him between them and slowly turned him around so the three of them were facing the court. For a long moment they stood, receiving the gaze of the others. Merlin felt his eyes pulled from one to another, meeting theirs, and seeing the fear, the relief, the happiness, the disbelief, the hostility, the blankness of shock, sometimes all in the same eyes. Whatever had happened here – and he was beginning to dimly remember – was beyond anything any of them, himself included, could ever have imagined. He seemed to have used magic in front of all of his old friends and an awful lot of strangers and the enormity of it left him bewildered.
His confusion multiplied when he heard Gwen’s strong voice – a Queen’s voice though still choked with tears – speak to the people.
“Sorcery has saved our beloved Camelot. Sorcery has saved the life of our beloved Merlin. We thank you all who kept Merlin alive and brought him back to us. With the power that is vested in me, and with the firm conviction that this would be King Arthur’s wish, I declare that sorcery that is used for the good of the kingdom and its people is henceforth legal in Camelot.”
Merlin turned sharply to look at Gwen then at the Druids and others who he now realized had brought him to court. They murmured in astonishment among themselves and then the old woman bowed her head respectfully. The others followed suit.
“And with all the gratitude and love my heart can hold,” Gwen continued, “I give thanks to you, my dear friend Merlin.” She squeezed his hand and he looked at her, startled once again. “We are truly, forever in your debt.”
She knew. She knew!
She went on. “Our thanks can never be enough for what you have done for us. You are a great and powerful sorcerer and we bow to you.”
He looked at her uncomprehendingly. It seemed the others were unable to grasp her words at first too and he saw the nobility and servants alike stare first at her, then at him, then back at her.
They didn’t know. They hadn’t known. They had seen his magic here, now, but they couldn’t grasp it. And they hadn’t known that he was the sorcerer on the cliff.
But then Sir Leon, his friend, knelt in front of him. And Sir Percival, his friend, knelt in front of him. And then slowly, everyone in the court, save Gwen and Gaius, knelt to him.
He shook his head and looked at Gwen, his mind swirling in puzzlement. What was happening?
Then to his horror Gaius, his old knees creaking, stiffly but determinedly, knelt before him. “No!” Merlin protested.
And Gwen knelt before him.
“No!” he cried. “Don’t kneel to me! Please don’t!”
Tears filled his eyes and he started trembling. He swayed and started to kneel to Gwen but Leon and Percival sprang up and took his arms to keep him upright. More slowly Gwen and Gaius, with her help, rose and the four of them stood close to him as though to protect him from the people still kneeling in front of him.
His eyes fell on the old Druid woman only paces away from him. She looked up to meet his gaze and he felt a trace of calmness, a kind of peace ease into him. He held his hand out to her. She approached him slowly. He took her hand and she stood in front of him, her back to him as though she was shielding him. She was so short that she barely came up to his shoulder and yet he sensed her strength and was grateful for it. He felt her mind speak to him. “Welcome back, Emrys.”
His mind responded. “Thank you.”
Sir Leon stepped forward and called, “Long live Merlin!”
Merlin looked at him as the kneeling people slowly rose. Sir Percival echoed his fellow knight. “Long live Merlin!”
Other voices joined in. “Long live Merlin!” And a few scattered, “Long live Emrys.”
The throne room ringing with the shouts Merlin looked at Gwen. The corner of her mouth lifted in that wry little Gwen smile he liked so much, the one that said, “It’s all mad, isn’t it? But here we are!” He had seen it so often throughout the years and he felt his own mouth twitch in response but then he remembered he had most often seen it after some nonsense from Arthur. He saw that she was thinking the same thing and her face again echoed the sorrow he felt.
He turned to Gaius and felt enormous relief at being with him again. Still holding the old Druid woman’s hand he took Gaius’s in the other. Whatever had been happening to him and however he was going to get through the impossibly grueling time to come, he had Gaius.
Still feeling dizzy and shaky, he turned away from the court to look up at the images, still hovering above the thrones, that had come from his hands. He didn’t remember exactly how but he had created these images. Of his childhood friend William who had died defending Arthur whom he had hated, for Merlin’s sake, and taking Merlin’s secret to the grave. Merlin had not been able to save him. Of Freya. He had loved her, and promised to save her from herself and the hatred of those who feared her. He had not been able to save her. Of his father, Balinor, whom he had met and lost in the same day. He had not been able to save him. Of young Daegal who had lured him into Morgana’s trap only to stay and save his life, and die helping to save Arthur’s. Merlin had not been able to save him. Slowly these images faded and Merlin felt the weight of their loss bearing down on him.
But heaviest was the loss of Arthur, whose image still shimmered above his throne. It may have been Arthur’s destiny to die, as it was Merlin’s destiny to keep him alive until Camelot was strong enough to go without him.
But what did the destiny have to say about saving the life of one’s friend, one’s brother? Maybe Camelot could go on without Arthur, but could Merlin?
The image of Arthur slowly faded and the dismayed murmurs of the people around him echoed his intensified sense of loss. He heard Gwen’s soft weeping and he looked at her. She had also lost everyone she loved. Her father. Her brother Elyan. Her husband. And Gaius, whose gnarled old hand squeezed his. He had given up everything for Camelot, friends, love, his powers.
And all of them had lost Morgana in the most painful way possible – to the Dark Side.
So he wasn’t alone. But he felt so terribly alone. He was the one who had failed to do what he had so desperately needed to do. And they had all knelt to him.
He turned slowly to face the people again but found he could not raise his eyes to them. He was not worthy of their tribute, of their gratitude, of their respect.
He felt himself tremble and a dark dizziness swept over him but then he also felt a faint wave of strength flow into him like a soft mist. He felt the soft touch of Sorcha’s mind.
“Don’t despair, Emrys.”
“How can I not?” he mindanswered.
“That you must discover. But you will.”
She had moved to his side and he looked down at her. She met his eyes tranquilly but he felt, if anything, more fragile than ever. The darkness was taking over.
He looked away and looked up at the night outside the window. “I don’t think I can,” he whispered.
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