He didn’t see the Mage for almost a year. Then he woke up with a cat on his chest, paw pressed to his chin, claws gently extended.
“G’way,” he mumbled, trying to shove it off. It hopped next to his head and put its claws on his cheek.
He ignored it until it pressed hard enough to draw blood. “Fine,” he told it, shoving it away and standing up. “What is it you want?” It stared up at him, tail lashing, then sauntered away. In the darkness, he couldn’t tell its color, just the glow of its green eyes.
Sleepily, he followed. Every time he got too far behind it sat and waited, staring. It did none of the little cat things he might expect — no getting distracted by mice, no cleaning itself, nothing but walking and staring.
It led him to the rookery.
And there sat the Mage, surrounded by sleeping birds. She was just a shape in the darkness, a pale face floating over her dark clothes.
“Should have expected you,” he said, and she blinked glowing green eyes at him. When she opened them they were human, and the cat scampered away.
“Yes,” she agreed.
“Been a while. Overthrown any kings since I’ve seen you?”
“Do you trust me?” she asked instead of answering.
“I let you bite me with a snake,” he said, glad for the darkness covering his expression.
“Do you trust me?” she repeated, still flat but somehow more intense. He shifted uncomfortably.
“Yes,” he admitted. “I trust you.”
“You must fill your table.”
He yawned. “With what? I fill it with food every morning.”
He couldn’t see her roll her eyes at him, but her small fist hit the back of his knee, knocking him off balance. “Alright, alright,” he said, sitting next to her. “Should I run my own trials? Every man of age must try and lift the table from its base. A brand for everyone who fails! Yes, that’ll surround me with loyal men.”
“Don’t be stupid,” she said. “You must seek them out. Your knights. There is a storm coming.”
“Again?” he joked. “We’ll drown if it keeps up.”
“Yes,” she said, “but that is what happens when magic is wild.”
“Oh, magic,” he scoffed. "Has magic ever been tame?"
"No," she said. "Never. And it never will be. You must be prepared anyway."
"Is it all like yours?" he asked, leaning back and scratching an inch on his side. He was acutely aware of how still she was. It almost made him wonder if she wasn't really there at all, but was speaking through a statue the same way she'd used the cat to wake him. "All animals and smoke and summons?"
She was quiet for a moment. "You saw your uncle's magic. You know it is not all the same."
"He didn't come by it honestly," he said easily. "I figured there was a difference."
"Honestly?" She laughed. "What is honest magic? There is only magic."
"Did you kill your brother for magic, then?" he asked.
"Of course not," she snapped. "I went to the woods and learned. I made sacrifices. There are always sacrifices."
"Not blood. I will not speak of this further."
"Not even if I ask nicely?" he asked, comfortable teasing now that she'd assured him she wasn't a kinslayer. Not that he had much room to judge, he supposed, though Vortigern was such a bad uncle it didn't seem fair to hold it against him.
"No." She paused for a long moment. "When you seek them out, you will know them. Not by their faces. By their actions."
"Will you help me search, or am I meant to just go out in the world and hope for the best? It's a big place out there, I might get lost. Never find my way back to the throne."
"You're bored anyway," she said dismissively. "Better you get lost with a purpose than just to run."
He shrugged, unable to argue with that. "You didn't answer my question."
"You say that a lot," he said. "Have you ever considered saying yes?"
She looked at him, a pale smudge in the darkness, then turned away. With her back to him she disappeared. “You have heard the stories about wolves?”
“Everyone has.” He scratched his chest. In the morning, he would have to deal with the hungry messengers from Londinium complaining of food shortages and figure out how to search for more knights, whatever that meant. He was tired already.
“In the end,” she said, turning back to him with a slow roll of her head, “wolves are just animals. They are far less dangerous than a man. Or a mage.” Her teeth flashed in the darkness. He couldn’t tell if it was a smile or a snarl that bared them.
“And what about you?” he asked, somehow not wanting her to slip away in the dark just yet. “How much more dangerous than a man are you?”
“Not as dangerous as the Chosen King with Excalibur in his hand,” she said easily. “But I do not have to be.”
“Anyone who can summon snakes that size is about as dangerous as they need to be, I’d guess,” he said, throat aching where she’d bit him. Via snake, though in his dreams, it’s her own sharp teeth against his skin.
"I am not often troubled by the world," she agreed. "Though if I use the snakes too often, everything starts to look like a mouse."
He huffed a laugh. After a moment, when she didn't seem inclined to leave, he said, "Do you have a name? Or am I to call you Mage for the rest of your life?"
"Your life," she corrected mildly. "I'll long outlive you."
"The rest of my life, then," he said.
After a moment long enough that he thought she wouldn't answer, she said, "Emrys."
"A pretty name," he told her. The women who raised him always told him to compliment a girls name, and he did like it. The unassuming beginning, the sharp end. It fit her.
"A name," she said. "It serves its purpose."
She had a way of walking conversations into walls, though he didn't hold it against her. Trees probably didn't give her much practice, and her hawk seemed more inclined to murder than to chat. And yet, poor conversationalist that she was, much as she forced him into answers he didn't want to give, he found he didn't want to stop talking to her. Maybe he could talk her into biting him again. With her own teeth this time.
"You could ask me how I've been doing," he said. "I'd tell you all about it. I'm King, you know, it's very interesting."
One of the birds stirred on its perch, ruffling its feathers and twisting its head. She reached out and ran a finger over its head and it settled back to sleep. "I know how you are. The whole kingdom knows how you are."
"The whole kingdom knows what I've done. That's a very different thing."
"Fine. How are you."
He grinned. "Oh, you know," he said and she made a small noise of frustration. "Tired, bored. There's a lot to being King, and none of it's fun. Well," he shrugged, "some of it's fun. Power's always fun. Having people beg my forgiveness? A great deal of fun. Dealing with food shortages? Less fun. Haven't been able to really fight anyone in ages, Excalibur gives me an 'unfair advantage' or some such."
"Search out your knights," she said. "You will not be bored."
"I could leave Bedivere in charge," he mused. "He'd like that. And he's better at it, anyway. You'll show me where to look?"
She sighed. "You are insistent."
He grinned. "I've been told it's one of my better qualities."
"Because there are so many bad ones? Fine," she said. "I will travel with you."
"Good," he said, standing. "Now, can we finish the planning in the morning? I'm sure we have a room you can use. I live in a castle now, if you hadn't heard."
"Here is fine."
He looked at her for a long moment and she shifted almost uncomfortably. "I spent too long in the cat's body," she admitted. "I cannot sleep."
"Hop in a bird for a moment then," he said. "That'll tire you right down."
He cracked his back while he waited for her to decide. He really needed a better bed. He was king, after all, surely they had something that wouldn't leave him so sore in the mornings. Or maybe he was getting out of shape -- even George wouldn't fight him as hard, now that he had a crown. Only Goosefat would really try to kick his arse, and Goosefat was a better archer than brawler.
"No," she said. "Show me to my room."
He offered her his arm as she rose, but she ignored it. He dropped it, wiping his hands on his pants. That he'd been sitting on the floor of the rookery didn't bear thinking about. He'd wash and change before he went back to sleep.
He led her down to an empty room close to his, thinking about how to tell Bedivere he was about to be regent. Frankly, he didn't even care what horrible threat was about to hit them. He was about to get out of the castle for more than a day for the first time since he'd taken the crown, and it made him a bad king to be excited for that, but the only thing that made him a good king was his blood, so.
"Where to first?" he asked as she slid into her room.
She looked back at him. “We follow the dragons.”
“Dragons?” he said as she closed the door. “Really? Fucking dragons?”
Bedivere took the news with good grace — Arthur was fairly sure that Bedivere liked him at this point, when it came down to brass tacks, but he was also fairly sure that Bedivere found him both exhausting and exasperating and took a great deal of joy in his absence. And besides that, Bedivere had been raised for command in a way Arthur hadn’t. It did him good to keep his hand in.
And, well, Arthur would take any excuse to get his hands dirty.
The Mage -- no, Emrys, her name was Emrys, lurked uncomfortably in the kitchen, surrounded by the ratters. When he was finally ready to leave, he went to collect her and was...encouraged to hurry it up by the cook, who was apparently quite upset by having her space invaded so rudely.
"Time to go," he told her, and Emrys swept to her feet, scattering cats and heading for the door.
She didn't talk to him till they were mounted and riding from the castle. Camelot. Still seemed ridiculous to him. A whole castle, his? Well, he wasn't about to say no.
"Ready to tell me where we're going yet?" he asked, trying to make himself comfortable. He was still a city boy at heart, more comfortable dodging horses than atop them. Emrys, on the other hand, looked like she'd been born in the saddle. Her eagle circled in the air above them, so high it was just a speck.
She closed her eyes. He expected her to open them changed, but she just seemed to listen for a while, then said, "This way," and kicked her horse into a trot.
"Are we fighting a dragon today?" Arthur asked, trying to hide his eagerness. “How big a dragon?”
"No," she said. "Not today."
"You know," he said, when she didn't continue, "I still think there's a connection we need to explore, here. It's not every day a woman wakes me with a cat, you know."
She rolled her eyes at him. "Do I need to dump you from your horse again?"
"Oh, only if that's what gets you going. I wouldn't want you to stifle your desires, just because I'm king."
Her eyebrows shot up and her lip twitched almost to a smile. Victory.
"If I do it now, you've won," she said slowly. He nodded, mocking sadness.
She pondered for a moment, then shrugged, and her eyes went brown and flat -- "Nonono--" and his horse reared beneath him. With his hands unbound, and facing forward, there was a moment where he thought he'd keep his seat --
And then he was spitting out grass as his horse dropped its head to snuffle gently at his hair.
When he rolled back to his feet, she was not quite laughing, but there was trace of it in her face, the way she bit her lip, the gentle roll of her shoulders. "You're still the one on the ground," she said, as if she had never been anything but serious.
The landing had smacked the breath out of him, but looking at her, he couldn't quite catch it. He’d dreamed of her, more than he wanted to admit, even to himself. He wanted to draw her down into a kiss. He wanted her to force him to his knees. He wanted, in a sudden and familiar burst. But what he wanted was only some imagining that wore her face and he would not disrespect her by pretending otherwise.
Things came easily to Arthur. He was charming, and hard working, and smart, and the Born King, whatever that meant. He wasn't used to wanting things and not knowing how to go about getting them, or whether he even should.
"I think you really hurt me," he lied, resting a hand over an old bruise on his ribs. She nudged her horse closer to him, looking almost concerned. He thought about pulling her down to join him, pulling her down to kiss her, but either seemed likely to end with him bleeding.
"Yeah, you'll need to kiss it better," he told her and she scoffed and kicked her horse to canter away. "That's no way to treat your king!" he called after her, struggling to mount his horse. He truly hated riding.
She refused to speak to him for several miles, and then they came to a bridge. "Do as I say," she said, dismounting smoothly and striding to the bridge. It was empty and graceful wood, stretching over the great width of the river that emptied out of Camelot.
"We will pass without lingering," she called. "I bring with me the chosen of the Lady."
The wood shivered and sang in a sudden breeze, and Emrys' face set in a deeper scowl. "We cannot pay that price, but we travel to rid the land of the dragons that shake the ground."
The wood settled, creaking loudly.
"I don't think I want to cross that," Arthur called, settling his hands on the pommel of his saddle.
She glared at him, then at the bridge. "Let us pass," she demanded. "I will not ask again."
The wood stayed still. The pinched look stayed on her face, but she walked to the first slat of wood. "Dismount," she told him. "It's respectful."
Sighing, he did so.
They crossed without issue, and as she mounted once more, he asked, "What would you have done if it didn't let us pass? And what was it?"
She cracked a reluctant smile. "We would have ridden another day south and taken the next bridge. A giant lives under that bridge. Most it does not bother, but it can sense magic, and takes offense to it."
"So it's your fault?" he asked, delighted.
"Oh no," she said. "Excalibur offended it more than me. It didn't ask for passage. Alone, you would have been thrown into the water and eaten."
"Oh, of course," he said. "Lovely."
That night they settled around the embers of the fire without putting up their tents. It was a warm summer night, with no damp in the air. And besides, Emrys’ eagle landed on a fallen tree bough near them and seemed to want to keep an eye on her.
She tossed it a chunk of rabbit and it snapped it out of the air. He watched the talons as they dug deep into the wood it perched on. “So,” he said, and she glanced at him over the embers. “Dragons.”
“Yes,” she said. The eagle flapped its wings and she tossed another bloody scrap its way. “Two of them. Under a hill. Have you noticed the ground shaking?”
He had to think for a moment, but, “Yes,” he said eventually. “During the night.”
“They sleep during the day,” she said. “They wrestle at night.” Her gaze is frank and direct. “They will tear the land apart if they are not stopped.”
“Sounds bad,” he said. “And we’re stopping them, the two of us?”
A smile flicked across her face, there and gone so fast it might have been a trick of the light. “If we can recruit more knights, that would not be a bad decision.”
The eagle settled into itself, fluffing out its feathers and tucking its head under its wing. She softened, as she looked at it, and he softened, looking at her. There was a tender spot in his chest, just waiting for her to rip into it.
“I don’t know,” he said, “I think we make a pretty good team, just the two of us.”
She glanced back over at him, and the softness around her lips didn’t slip away right away. “For one dragon, maybe,” she agreed.
She dropped to sleep right away, under the wings of her eagle. Her familiar? It seemed rude to ask, so of course he would do it tomorrow, before she'd mounted her horse and could escape him easily. It took him longer to fall asleep. He kept touching the tender bruise on his ribs. It hurt, but a dragon's claw would hurt more.
Emrys was an early riser, because of course she was. She nudged him awake with a boot to his bruise while the sky was still gray. He groaned and rolled over, trying to swat her away.
"Up," she demanded. "We have many miles to go today."
He shoved himself up with a great deal of bitching, and made her do most of the packing up while he took his sweet time rolling up his bedroll and changing. He tried to make a show of stripping, but she just wandered away, the eagle circling above her.
When he mounted up, his arse and thighs complained of the time in saddle yesterday. He made sure to pass the complaints along as he chewed on the leftover rabbit.
"Oh," he said, remembering his question as she put foot in stirrup, "is that your familiar? None of your other creatures stay so close."
"Yes," she said, swinging into the saddle. When he was quiet she glanced over at him. "You know I'm a mage, is that so surprising?"
"No," he said, "I just thought it might be a more sensitive topic. Aren't familiars supposed to be...I don't know, close to your soul?"
"And what does he tell you of my soul?"
"Oh, I'm supposed to guess?" he said. "Make assumptions about your innermost self? Well, in that case..." He kicked his horse into a gentle amble. He'd speed up if she made him, but not before. "Bloodthirsty and free-spirited." He stared up at the black shape above them. "And you're afraid that someday, you might have to steal a goat." When he glanced back at her, she looked delighted.
"I'm always ready to steal goats," she said, as seriously as she could. "It's part of being a mage."
"The next time I hear reports of goats going missing, I'll know exactly where to look," he returned, putting on the gravitas of the throne. It still fit poorly, but he only needed to wear it for a second.
She turned her head but her shoulders were loose and relaxed.
"Hey," he said, when the clop clop clop of hooves on old stone was ringing through his head and he was going half mad, "where to first?"
“Mount Snowdonia,” she said. "To start."
“Snowdonia,” he said, sounding it out. "Sounds cold.”
"You survived the Badlands,” she reminded him.
"Ah," he said, "that's right. Nothing's too terrible for a king."
As the day passed, she grew tenser and tenser, and stopped responding to anything he said, ignoring hours of pestering. She'd stop if he did, but with an annoyed look and an impatient set to her jaw.
“And how far is Snowdonia?” he asked.
It took a moment for her to acknowledge him, but eventually she did answer. “Three days.”
“Will you be silent the whole way?” he asked. “If so, I may find that I couldn’t actually abandon my kingdom with so little notice, and guilt will compel me to return immediately.”
“An old spell is unraveling,” she admitted, as if that were enough of an explanation for her silence. As if that meant anything to him at all.
“And?” he prompted, when it became clear that she wasn’t going to elaborate of her own will.
She didn’t look at him, but she let him pull his horse up next to hers, so he could see the tight set of her jaw. “I am…afraid,” she said.
“Are you looking away?” he asked, voice a little harder than he’d meant. So he was angry after all, still. He hadn’t been sure.
She glanced at him, and where he expected a mask of distaste there was something else, something he couldn’t name. Jaw set so tight he could almost hear her teeth grinding, eyebrows tucked together. She’d admitted fear, but there was more to it than that. “I always do,” she said, without shame.
He let his hand rest on Excalibur for a moment, a reminder that he had seen what he needed to. “Take your time,” he said, eventually. He could be kind. “But don’t get us killed.”
“I will endeavor not to,” she said dryly.
Their pace was so easy that Arthur was certain she was dawdling. That night, the quakes were stronger and lasted longer. He couldn’t sleep through them, so he sat up, to find her already awake, hunched in on herself. An owl hooted in the distance and he wondered if she was riding along, seeing the night with different eyes.
Either way, he could use the company. He sat next to her, shoulder bumping hers. She jolted and looked at him, eyes black. Then she blinked and was human again.
“Dragons keeping you up, too?” he asked. The fine trembling of the ground beneath him was more disquieting than he wanted to admit. The land was supposed to be dependable, at the end of everything.
“Something like that,” she said.
“Your spell?” he guessed and she nodded. “Must have been a big one.”
She nodded again, but offered nothing else. He didn’t feel like pushing, not when the ground shivered beneath them and the horses pranced from foot to foot with nerves.
With a sigh, he fell back to stare up at the stars. They were thick and bright out here, away from city lights. After a moment, he grabbed the back of her dress and pulled her down with him. If he could ignore the shivering of the ground, it was nice, looking up at the stars with Emrys warm beside him.
He fell asleep like that, and woke in the morning with her pressed to his chest. The hard angles of her face were less severe in sleep, and he found himself studying them like he had the stars the night before.
“What aren’t you telling me?” he murmured and her eyes flew open.
“Your breath stinks,” she told him, disentangling herself and stalking off to do her morning ablutions.
“Well,” he said, sitting up and stretching. “That was nice while it lasted.”
When she came back, he was setting out breakfast.
“Who gave you that bruise?” she demanded, jerking her chin at him.
His hand strayed to his ribs. “George, Barehanded, he can still kick my arse anyway he likes.”
She tilted her head at him, then snatched up an apple and took a bite. “You like to be hurt.”
His face did something he couldn’t have replicated on purpose. “No.”
“Yes. You wouldn’t have leapt at the chance to fight dragons, otherwise. You are bored, and you like to be hurt.”
“Did you look away again?” he asked and she snarled.
“I will look the dragons in the eyes when I kill them,” she announced and her eagle screamed above her. She looked like she would have liked to be able to mount up and ride away, but the tack was still on the ground and the horses were still snuffling happily in their feedbags, so she just took another savage bite of her apple, juice dripping down her chin.
He sat back on his heels and looked her up and down. Her left hand was clenched into a fist, and she kept rocking from heel to toe, just the slightest bit. “I don’t doubt you,” he said carefully. “Can we spend tonight in a town? I’d rather like to sleep in a bed.”
She took a deep breath, and visibly forced her tension away. “Yes. Eat quickly.”
He didn’t push for conversation, not even to ask why they were heading straight for the dragons, rather than looping around to search for knights. Something to do with her spell, he assumed, when he had to think about it. And besides, Excalibur was worth more than any lone knight.
The town they entered late that day had some structural damage — buildings collapsed or rudely reinforced — and was filled with frazzled looking folk.
"Emrys," one woman called and Emrys' head snapped around. "Gods, you look just the same. How many years has it been?"
"Not enough," Emrys said, swinging down from her saddle and striding over to the woman. She was middle-aged, with laugh lines around her eyes and the ruddy cheeks of someone who spent their time in the sun. She could have been any of the petitioners that came to him from far flung towns. "How's your Edward?"
"Oh, well enough," the woman said. "Full grown and breaking my heart, just like you said he would." When Emrys was close, she grabbed her up in a hug, lifting Emrys into the air. Emrys went without struggle, though she didn't hug back. "Who's this?"
When the woman set her down, Emrys glanced back at him. "Arthur," she said. "The Born King."
The woman glanced him over. "Well, you always did find the high and mighty and bring them low. Are you spending the night?"
"Yes. We're on our way to deal with the quakes."
"Hah, finally," the woman said. "So they are magic?"
The woman nodded, pensive. Then, "Has anyone offered you their hearth yet?"
She beamed. "Lucky me! Spend the night, Emrys. Bring your king, if he'll suffer a floor. I'll even give it a sweep, just for you."
Emrys nodded at her. "We would be grateful, Kate. Thank you."
The ground shook the whole night and the next morning, he said, “Let’s camp tonight.”
She looked at him. “If we push, we can arrive at the mountain tonight.”
“And fight the dragons tired? I’ve heard better plans.”
“No,” she said. “But we can find the entrance and rest.”
"Sound plan, I suppose," he said, as they got their horses and began to trot out of town. "And will you tell me what has you so edgy, or will we be going into this fight with half a mage?"
Emrys scowled at the pommel of her saddle. "The thing I look away from? I will not be able to look away much longer. You do not have to worry about the fight."
He watched her until he was sure she was trying to be misleading. "Just what comes before?" he guessed and she grimaced.
She refused to say more, but her eagle dipped and screamed above them.
"Your soul seems unhappy," he said.
When her gaze flicked to him it was so desperately unhappy, he almost felt bad for pressing. Not quite though. Not when she had pressed him so mercilessly.
She gnawed on her lip for a moment. The town faded behind them. "This is not a story I like to tell. I did not like to live it, either."
Arthur shrugged. "We all look away. You know how it ends."
Emrys tilted her head back and he found himself looking at the long line of her throat. She whistled, and her eagle came crashing down, catching itself so close to the ground that Arthur had already braced for the impact.
It looked at her, tilting its head this way and that, then she blinked her eyes and they turned golden and fierce and the eagle took flight once more, powerful wings beating the air so hard it hurt Arthur's ears.
He snagged the reins of her horse and led it while she was out of her body, keeping them at an easy pace until the eagle came back and dropped a thin branch into her lap. Before it landed, her eyes were human once more, and she opened her hand to catch it.
She took her reins back, but their pace didn't change. She seemed absorbed with the branch, turning it over and over in her hands.
After a while, she snapped it in half and dropped it, kicking her horse into a canter. Arthur sighed and nudged his to keep up with her.
They arrived at the mountain in the late afternoon.
"Here," Emrys said, circling them around the base until she found a thin path he wouldn't have been able to spot and dismounting. She eyed the horses speculatively as Arthur swung down to the ground. She stripped the tack quickly, hiding the saddle, bridle, and some of her pack in the tall grass that hid the trail from the front. The rest of her pack she slung over her shoulder.
Arthur followed her lead as she set out some grain and water for the horses but didn't tie them up or hobble them. "Horses are expensive," he told her as they started hiking up the mountain.
"I will fetch them back to us if they wander far." She glanced over her shoulder at him. "We're facing dragons tonight, remember. It would be cruel to bind them to this spot if we fail."
The trail was a thin goat trail, steep and winding, and slippery dirt where it wasn’t slippery rock. It took too much concentration to talk. He was reminded of the Badlands, though no huge creatures tried to carry him off.
There was no proper summit, just a thin ridge of folded rock. And in the middle of that ridge was a hawthorn tree, twisted and gnarled. Emrys' lips tightened as she looked at it. The sun shone low through it's branches, sending black shadows across Emrys. Though there was no wind, the branches and leaves trembled.
"You're weakening, old man," she said, then glanced back at Arthur. "Meet Merlin."
"Nim-u-e," the tree hissed, and when Arthur looked closer, he could see a face frozen in the bark. "Nim-u-e, it's been too long."
"Never long enough," she said. "Why have they stirred?"
"You're too weak, Nim-u-e," the tree murmured, sounding pleased. "I'll be free soon."
"I'll burn you first," she promised. "Arthur, come see him. The one I've been looking away from."
Arthur drew closer and the branches shivered above him. "Uther's son," the tree said, a murmur of leaves. "You have his eyes."
"I have his sword," Arthur corrected. "I can see how you would get the two confused. Emrys, who is this?"
"Emrys!" The tree laughed. "Not enough to do this to me, you stole my name? Oh, you horrible girl."
For the first time, he saw her smile. It was a terrible thing, razor sharp and cruel. "Do you hear that? No one remembers you, Merlin. I took your name, I took your legacy, I took your power. You are nothing."
"Then why are you still afraid, Nim-u-e?"
Her smile disappeared. She turned to Arthur. "Merlin was in love with me. I was sixteen. How old you were you, Merlin?"
"Older than you'll ever be," he hissed.
"Centuries," she said, voice hard. "He thought I was beautiful. He offered me power. I took it."
“I offered you love,” Merlin cried.
Her eagle screamed above them. The world stretched out around them, Merlin’s cracked voice fading into the pale blue sky, the tumbles of rock. Slowly, deliberately, Nimue turned to Arthur and seized him by the back of the neck, drawing him down into a hard kiss.
Merlin’s scream of rage echoed in the thin air, but even without that, Arthur would have known he was not being kissed for himself. Her fingers dug hard into his nape, and her eyes were wide-open and viciously pleased.
She blurred in his vision and he surrendered, closing his eyes and opening his mouth. A king existed to be used, after all.
When she pulled away, he felt like he should be bleeding, from his nape or his lips, or the tender place in his chest he’d never bared and that she’d found anyway. Her chest heaved and her fingers flexed and she walked over to Merlin, his branches twisting furiously in the still air.
“I took what I wanted from you,” she said, sliding her fingers up the bark of his face. “You should have kept them trapped, old man.”
“You should have taken my love,” he said and her face twisted and her fingers dug in, scoring furrows in his face. He laughed, a terrible sound of splitting wood, and Arthur found his fingers curled around Excalibur’s hilt.
“Leave him,” she said, pulling herself away with a visible effort and circling Merlin’s trunk.
When Arthur followed her, she kicked a stone off the knife’s edge ridge. Darkness yawned beneath them, where before there had only been more stone. She looked at him, then back down at the hole in the world.
“Do you trust me?” she asked.
“You know I do,” he said. His lips still ached. Still, he felt a wild type of joy.
She cast him a sly, sidelong look, not quite a smile, but then he didn’t really want to see her smile again. She held out her hand and he took it without hesitation.
They jumped together.
The darkness was soft and caught them like a living thing, setting them down gently between the two sleeping dragons. To the left, the white, to the right, the red. Both were the worse off, covered in deep gouges and with scales crumpled and torn apart.
Nimue licked her lips and Arthur unsheathed Excalibur, slipping easily into the twilight world. He turned to the red dragon and its eye slid open, golden and the size of his fist.
Despite its size, it could not match Excalibur in speed. And Excalibur slid through its eye and into its brain as easily as it killed anything else.
When he turned, Nimue’s eyes were golden and slit, the white dragon stretching out its neck behind her to expose a weak spot on its chest. He strode over, noticing that blood started to stream from Nimue’s nose, and sank Excalibur deep into its heart.
It jerked hard enough to pull the hilt from his hands and suddenly he had to run to dodge the death throes, and drag the wheezing Nimue with him.
“I was still in there, you idiot,” she snarled as it thrashed, hitting the walls of the cavern and making them shake. The stone ceiling above them groaned and she cast a wary look up.
He did too, as another death throe shook the walls. The stone cracked above them. “Shit, can you get us back out of here?”
She wiped blood from her lip, shaking her head. Then she narrowed her eyes. “Cover me,” she demanded.
“With what?” he asked, but her eyes were golden and slit already and across the cavern, the dragon spread its wings.
He had no shield, so he covered her with his body, wishing for Excalibur in his hand.
The dragon reared — Excalibur shone from its breast — and it threw its body against the cavern wall. The ceiling shook again. The dragon belched fire and the stone melted and streamed, revealing a twisting root system that burst into flame as soon as he saw it.
The mountain shook and he could almost hear Merlin’s scream of agony. Nimue looked fiercely satisfied under her golden eyes. The dragon threw itself against the wall once more and burst through into sunlight.
He hurried her out as stone started to fall around them and as the dragon thrashed to stop, she blinked and was herself again. Arthur pulled Excalibur from its breast as they ran and they did not stop until they were well away from the shivering mountain.
When they stopped he turned to her. He half wanted to kiss her again, to see if she was gentler without an audience. Luckily, his brain still worked, as did his eyes. Blood vessels had burst in her eyes, flooding the white with red in a mimicry of the scene they’d just left, and blood had streamed from her nose and crusted over her lips and chin.
“I’m glad you kissed me before that fight and not now,” he found himself saying and she rolled her eyes at him and wiped her face with her sleeve. It didn’t make much of a difference.
It had taken more time than he’d thought — the sun was low in the sky, and they were in the shadow of the mountain. Despite the season, a shiver worked its way up his spine.
“Our things,” Nimue said and turned back to the mountain, swaying suddenly.
Arthur slid a supportive hand around her waist and she glanced at his hand but didn’t tell him to remove it. “Horses first?”
She nodded and blinked. Her eyes were brown and slotted for a moment, and then bloody and human again, and she sagged against his chest. When she forced herself up again, there was fresh blood under her nose. “I…” she started.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “We can walk.”
She wiped her face again and spat. “I’ve never been in something that complex when it died before.” She was pale behind the blood.
“Yeah,” he said, eyeing her. “Can you wait to faint until we make it back to the packs, or am I gonna have to carry you?”
She drew herself up. “You will not carry me like some tired child.”
To be fair, he only had to carry her half the way, and she hardly weighed a thing.
“Bird bones,” he told her, or at least the bits of her that he could see from how he’d slung her over his shoulders. “Best thing you could’ve gotten from that familiar of yours. Good thinking.”
She didn’t wake until he put her down next to the packs. By that point, the moon had risen. “Now, I don’t know about you,” he said, “but I’d rather not sleep in the shadow of your old man.”
She tried to shove herself to her feet, but she was still shaky and off balance and didn’t make it very far. “Merlin is nothing of mine.”
“Well, I was pretty sure you were nothing of his, but—“
“Stop,” she said, and despite her bloody eyes and the exhaustion that still tremored through her, there was steel there. He stopped. “He cannot hurt us. Still, I would not stay here.”
Despite that, they do not make it far.
“That snake didn’t take so much out of you,” Arthur pointed out.
She shot a glance at him. “The snake did not have near as much in the way of brains. Nor did it require half as much direction. Now,” she said, and swayed, and sat suddenly. “This seems to be as far as I can go.”
“So,” he said, dropping his pack and pulling out his tent and bedroll. “Nimue.”
She shuddered. “Emrys, please. Nimue was long ago.”
“Emrys. There a reason you didn’t tell me we were visiting your ex?”
Her mouth twisted. Dried blood flaked off and he handed her his canteen. She wet her sleeve and wiped her face before starting to talk. “I…looked away for so long that I hoped he would not be there when I returned. Silly, but fear always is.”
She’d left smears of blood on her chin and cheeks and he left his bedroll half laid out to stand over her and use his spare shirt to clean the last traces of blood from her face. She stared up at him with her red eyes, face unreadable. “Did he hurt you?” Arthur asked and Emrys glanced away.
That was answer enough, but she rallied, taking a deep breath. “He…” The corner of her mouth twitched, something that could have been amusement or disgust. Either way, she tamped it down quickly. “Merlin never struck me. He bought me from my father for the price of a prophecy. An apprenticeship, he called it, and he did teach me. His expectations were clear.” Her voice was clipped and clear. “He knew I would betray him, but he thought he could get what he wanted from me before that.” She stared frankly at him. “He did. Ask him if it was worth it.”
Arthur breathed deep. “Think I can guess. You want me to go back there and cut him down?”
She tilted her head at him and though she didn’t smile he could tell she was pleased. “England could have done worse.”
“High praise indeed,” he said. He wanted to kiss her when she looked up at him like that, tension melting out of her. But given where they’d come from, and what she’d just told him, it would be selfish at best. He shook himself and turned from her to finish setting up camp. He laid out her bedroll as well, a few feet from his.
She rolled her eyes and dragged it closer to his. “I am not afraid of you because you know my name. Nor,” she said, turning her face to the moon, “am I afraid of any man.”
“In the end,” he said slowly, “I would guess a man is not much more dangerous than a wolf, to you.”
She sighed, eyes fluttering shut. “No,” she agreed. “Not much more.”
The next day, she was still red-eyed but was able to call the horses without bleeding anew. Her eagle appeared in the sky above them, drawing lazy circles in the thin clouds.
“It’s time for you to go home,” she said as she mounted up.
“Without my new knights? I’ll think you just wanted to get me alone.” He grinned up at her.
Her hands clenched on her thighs. “It would have been…harder…with others to witness. Thank you.”
“Oh,” he said, knocked totally off balance. “You’re welcome.”
“You do need to fill your table,” she continued. “You can do it without me.”
He swung onto his own horse. “I see how it is. Using me for my sword, don’t even want to help with the task you set—“
His horse started to canter underneath him and when he looked back, her eyes were brown.
“Being King means I’m busy, you know, I have to rule a country, not as glamorous as soaring through the skies and mixing potions and such but still pretty important, I think—“
“The last knights had to help me defeat a witch-king, I think any new ones are just not going to measure up, and I don’t want to be stocking my Table with, you know, bad knights, low quality knights—“
“Fine,” she snapped. “Fine, I will help if you will just shut up.”
He grinned. It had only taken a few hours, which was less than he’d expected, honestly. “Now, what kind of help are we talking? Cryptic hints? Floating in and out once a year?”
She made a noise of frustration in the back of her throat. “Ask Percival about his brother. There, a place to start. I will…send you those with promise.”
“Mm, sounds like a bad deal for me.”
“Make your proposal then. I know you have one.”
He grinned at her. “Stay at Camelot. Advise me.”
“You would hood me like one of your hawks?” she asked, voice hard. “Keep me from roaming?”
“No,” he said. “I would have your company, willingly given. I would have you leave as you please, but keep a room, and stay in it as long as you wished. I would give you a seat at the Table.”
The tension went out of her so fast that her horse shifted beneath her, whickering quietly. She didn’t say anything, and for once, he didn’t push.
That night, she started the fire with a snap of her fingers and stared pensively into it. “Do you trust me?” she asked.
“How many times will you ask me that?” he complained, laying back to look at the stars. The view lacked something without her pressed to his side.
She said nothing, but he could hear her moving, and then she leaned over him, blocking his view. “Do you love me?”
Slowly, he said, “I could. You’d have to stick around a bit, to find out, though.”
She nodded, then leaned down and kissed him.
She was gentler without an audience, a tentative press of her lips to his. When she started to pull away, he slid his hand to her nape without thinking about it. At the press of his hand, she kissed him deeper, tongue sliding along his. Vaguely, he wanted to see what she was like without that iron control.
When she was done, she planted a hand on his old bruise and didn’t press so much as make clear that she could. He released her instantly.
“I will not stay in Camelot,” she said. “I will never be bound to anyone or anything ever again. But…”
“But?” he prompted, covering her hand with his own.
“I will visit. When you need me. And when I want to.”
He smiled up at her. “You want to visit? I’m charmed.”
She looked at him, considering. “I’ve made a mistake.”
“Probably,” he said, and reached up to cup her face. She closed her eyes and pressed a kiss to the scar on his palm before settling down next to him and looking up at the stars. “Know any good stories about the stars?”
“Many,” she said, and raised a hand to point out a cluster. “You see those? That’s Corvus, where the soul of the old king Bran lives. I knew his sister…”
Emrys settled into Camelot easily enough. Easier than she’d obviously feared. She had a way with people — she wasn’t charming, and she was unsettling, but she spoke and listened to everyone, and besides, they were already used to Arthur and his knights. Her strangeness was not so strange after that.
She claimed a chair at the Round Table before he could invite her. When they sat the Table, she sat across from him, between Bill and Bedivere. But mostly, the Table was a statement, like the throne. It was used only infrequently, or if they all managed to eat together.
A month after their return, they played dice on the floor in front of the throne, George and Bedivere training below them in the hall.
“You could sit next to me,” he said as he rolled. “Shit.” Two ones.
She rolled — a three and a four — and pulled his bet towards her. “They’ll say I whisper in your ear. The world does not love my kind.”
“They’ll say that no matter where you sit,” he said. “And I’ll tell them all the sweet nothings you whisper to me, to allay their fears.”
She raised her eyebrows and passed the dice back. “All the sweet nothings?”
“Well,” he said, rolling — five, two — “maybe not all.”