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The Fire Striker

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The Fire Striker will have three volumes: 

 

Volume One: Dragondreams, including chapters 1 to 21 

Volume Two: Dragonwrath, including chapters 35 to 64 

Volume Three: Dragonbane, including chapters 65 to 83 

 

The fic will maintain Merlin POV, Arthur POV, Gwen POV, Morgana POV and Yrien POV. 

We shall welcome some new POV characters, but that is still too early to say ;) 

 

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To all the readers who have subscribed for their convenience, I am so happy to announce that I'll be posting chapters of "The Fire Striker" from Thursday, September 27! I still have to figure out the schedule, but I think we shall remain faithful to our weekly rhythm. 

The first chapters will be from Volume 1 Dragondreams :

Prologue 1: "The Usurper" 

Prologue 2: "The Threads of Destiny" 

Chapter 1: After Storm 

Chapter 2: The Beginning of the End 

 

I can't wait to be back to Merlin and Arthur universe! We've left our king and his warlock in a very exciting moment of the story, and I'm so anxious to watch the Albion's future unfold! Thank you for staying tuned, I love you dearly and I am so looking forward to welcoming you back to the story! 

DiamondAbyss <3

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"The Fire Striker" is the third installment in "King, Prince and Priestess" series, following "The Great Design" and "The Guiding Star". 

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PROLOGUE I

THE USURPER 

twenty-two years ago

 

The candle was burning away, its flame thin and feeble, much as the forlorn hope which Hamelia tried to keep lit in her own heart. Hopes can live forever, they say. Why is mine passing so soon? 

Inside the hut with sod roof and thick walls of rough-hewn logs, few would hope to look for a Camelot nobility, and fewer would dare dream to encounter a member of a druid dynasty in the house where the hearth had nothing save ashes of a fire and the floors were made of hard-packed dirt. Are there many men and women in Camelot who still recall the days of the druid reign, though? 

“Hamelia,” her husband’s voice was soft and sweet and reminded her of seasoned honey. “You best have a seat and drink some wine. Have no fear, nobody will notice us gone.” 

“But what if…” 

“It’s far past midnight,” Thomas Somerset pulled her by the hand and made her share his bench. “They would not dare to disturb our bedchambers at such an hour. Only if something urgent happened, but then again, we would have heard the bells by now.” 

True. But the bells may still ring. Hamelia’s sigh caressed the candle flame and she surrendered to wine: it was dark and sour, nowhere near as sweet as the court wine from Nemeth.  

“These relatives of Uther know nothing of manners,” Hamelia complained. “Vyda’s guards look as though they may as well march right into our bedroom any moment. The fires take them, why have they come?” 

“You, too, would call for family and friends if such a thing befell you.” 

“But my family and friends would always remember they were invited and were meant to be guests at my house,” Hamelia drank more wine. “Vyda acts… the way she moves around the castle, in that horrid grey dress… She looks as if she were the new mistress of the castle, as if she’d come to become Uther’s new wife and take the crown!” 

“You are talking idiotic things,” Thomas had been in the sullen mood for the past days, angry from the rumorus that kept filling the castle, but Hamelia’s suggestions seemed amusing enough to make him smile. “She is Uther’s aunt and…” 

“She’s not his natural aunt,” Hamelia reminded stubbornly.

“She was married to Uther’s uncle, she has raised two sons with Ulwich Gaheris and she is dreadfully old for both, Uther and the throne. Besides, if the king remains as devoted to his grief as he has been so far, the realm is not like to see a new queen for quite a while.” 

“But you can’t deny it’s beyond strange!” Hamelia didn’t seem appeased by her husband’s arguments. “Vyda has never, not once visited Camelot before. Why has she come now? What was the need of dragging half her Daobeth court with her? That Sagramore looks so fat I’m afraid he might accidentally eat one of the servants I’ve lent him, and the Vortimers are so silent it may appear they’ve swallowed their tongues somehow. And…” 

The night was torn apart with one of the most unwelcome sounds: a heavy knock on the door which repeated itself seven times. Seven. A dragon’s number.  

“This is Thulin!” Hamelia cried out, rising to her feet and trying to overtake her husband who near threw himself at the door. 

When they lifted the latch, someone pushed the door open and stormed into the hut – a handsome broad-shouldered lad with silver hair, grey-green eyes and a cleft in his chin. Nobody would have recognized him for a dragonlord had they met the lad in the streets, for dust, dirt and ashes seemed to be covering him top to toe. His cheeks were flushing, and his eyes seemed to be shining with excitement. 

“So? What is it?” Thomas was so nervous he grabbed Thulin by the arm. “What is the news?” 

“It is true, cousin,” Thulin sounded shocked. “The dragon is in the caves beneath the castle. Captured. I have seen him. I have talked to him. The beast is mad with rage, and the walls of the cave have turned black and red from his flames…” 

Hamelia fell back onto the bench. No, no, no. This is impossible, the Usurper would never have had the power, he is just a mortal man, and Kilgharrah is the Great Dragon. Her arms were turning cold and the inhales proved weaker with every new breath she took. By the look of the three people in the hut, it was plain they had never considered the possibility of this most vicious rumour being true. Something ought to be said, but Hamelia’s mouth was twisted in fury, and no words dared pass her lips.  

“Seven fires!” her husband jerked to his feet and tried to kick over the table. “How could Uther have captured him?!” 

“It was not Uther, the dragon says,” the ash-covered youth reached for wine. “It was Nimueh.” 

Hamelia pursed her lips. She would have tolerated any explanation, but to hear that name again, the name whose bearer had already caused the kingdom enough harm and sorrow… She better be dead. If she is not, I will find her and put an end to her life and all the powers of the Isle of the Blessed will not stop me. 

“Nimueh?! How?!” Thomas Somerset spitted her name, voicing the thoughts his wife chose to keep to herself. 

“She has used her wicked magic to turn herself into Balinor,” Thulin said, the wine making his lips glisten in the candle light.  

Shapeshifting!” Hamelia cursed, spitting on the floor. 

“But how… What… How could the dragon not recognize that it was not his dragonlord?! How could the creature be so blindly stupid to let the priestess chain him?!” Thomas asked as if his questions had the power to reverse the flow of time. 

“You go ask him,” Thulin shrugged. “His shrieks nearly ruined my ears.” 

“But you’ve freed him, Thulin, haven’t you? Of course you did!” Hamelia crossed her arms and spent a moment studying Thulin’s face before the answer was known to her. 

“I couldn’t,” the lad mumbled.  

“What?!” 

“I did everything I knew! These chains… They are no ordinary enchanted chains, they are from the days of the Old Religion! And the beast has instructed me to look for the sword forged in the old days to break these chains! Dorin tried to break the chains as well and…” 

“You’ve brought Dorin into this?” Hamelia raised her eyebrow and exchanged a look with her husband. Thulin may be a dragonlord without dragon, but Dorin is different. Dorin is not just a dragonlord without dragon. He is the son of Prince Darian, and some still believe he has the rights for Camelot throne were Uther’s son not to survive his infancy. The fires swallow us, this is beginning to look like a conspiracy to overthrow the Usurper… 

“Of course, I’ve brought Dorin into this!” Thulin sounded irritated. “You’ve brought Sewyll and…” 

“Sewyll Accolon is my brother!” Hamelia reminded him. 

“Dorin is like a brother to me,” Thulin said fiercely. “He’s all I have left. We both lost our fathers to the Battle of Ashes, we are now the last dragonlords.” 

“The last dragonlords? So you think Balinor died?” Thomas asked suddenly, pausing at the empty hearth. 

“I know that Vyda Gaheris has persuaded Uther to send men after him,” Thulin raised his eyes to gaze at Thomas. He is sad. “Rumour has it Balinor is hiding in some Essetir village, Aledoors or Ealdoor, but it’s a matter of time…” 

“Why hasn’t Dorin come here if he means to join?” Thomas drew up a chair between Thulin and Hamelia and reached for wine.  

“Dorin could not come. Somebody has to entertain the westerners. He’s set to go hunting with Safir Gaheris on the morrow, while his mother will accompany Vyda to the Lower Town.” 

“I am sure Elsa will love it,” Hamelias laughter seemed to come from despair. 

Thulind didn’t seem to share her amusement. 

“Elsa is the widow of Prince Darian, a respected lady of the court and she knows somebody must keep an eye on this western scum.” 

“Thulin!”  

“Vyda is scum. She is feeding Uther’s worst impulses. Half the stories be true…” 

“Uther has declared war on druids, and if his western aunt is not sent home anytime soon, he will as easily declare the war on magic,” Thomas nodded.  

“He is not that stupid,” Hamelia shook her head. A war on magic? This is not a war the Usurper can hope to win.  

“He is not stupid. But he is not quite himself, is he? Ygraine’s death has shuttered his senses.” 

“So what do you propose then?!” Thulin demanded with anger. “To pity him? To wait for someone to knock on his head and shutter his senses back?” 

“Thulin, my boy, I beg you, don’t use this foul language…” 

“Our people are threatened! The defensive magic of the Albus river has fallen! Uther’s troops are arresting druids and are charging them with helping Balinor! There are more urgent matters than foul language, Hamelia!”

“You’re right. Of course, you right. I am sorry, I’ve lost myself…” 

“We are all like to lose ourselves if we don’t save Uther from his madness.” 

The glow of dying candle was glimmering in the window of the hut, as if measuring time left for the decision to be made. We don’t have much time. Uther seems to be growing more violent each day. Outside, the rare nightfires were still burning, but the castle of Camelot and the Lower Town had long sunk into the cradle of the night.  

“But how? How do we save Uther from madness?” Hamelia asked them. “What are we to do with him? He is the king of Camelot!”

“Your grandmother was the last druid queen, there must be something we can do…” 

“She was, but she is gone. Has been gone for so long it seems… Anyroad, the mob will not support us, too few of them even know who we are… Ever since Uther built the Lower Town, the number of commoners has grown so much I doubt a tenth is left from the days of the druid reign and…” 

“Wait. Are the two of you planning to overthrow Uther?” Thomas asked cautiously, rising to his feet again. 

“How else can we save our people from extinction? How else can we guarantee the peaceful existence of hundreds of druid tribes all over Camelot and Midlands and Ascetir?” Thulin’s voice was meant to be a battle cry. 

“This is the question we should have asked when we chose to submit to the Usurper,” Hamelia reminded sorrowfully.  

“What is done is done. Stop bringing it up,” Thulind said reaproachfully. “Neither you nor I were old enough to influence Queen Andor’s decision when Uther brought his troops to the gates of Camelot. Your grandmother found a way to guarantee peace, nobody could harm the druids beyong the river Albus and...”

 “Then why is this peace not working now?!” 

“Something must have gone awry,” Thulind concluded.  

“A great many things have gone awry in the past weeks!” Hamelia nearly shrieked. 

“Stop it,” her husband pleaded, casting a long thin shadow on the wall. “I urge the two of you, there is no need to raise our voices. Thulin, what is it that you propose?” 

“We lack the soldiers. We lack the legitimacy in the eyes of those who inhabit the Midlands and Camelot now. Ever since Queen Andor and Uther struck a pact, most of the druids have moved to beyond the river Albus and there remain too few who would rally for us south of the Albus. Killing Uther would bring us nothing, for any of his wretched western scum of a relative can earn the throne with swords. And we can’t free the dragon.” 

“Then we are as good as hopeless.” 

“Not fully. I think we must do what Nimueh did.” 

“Pardons?” 

Shapeshifting,” Thulin’s gaze was fixed on his cup of wine. “It’s not always a gift. Sometimes it can be achieved through potions, we shall only require a flock of Uther’s hair.” 

“And…” 

“If one of us drinks the potion and becomes Uther, and if we abduct and hide the real Uther, we can issue decrees and orders in the royal name. We can order the westerners to go home and the druids be left alone.” 

This might work. For the first time in weeks, Hamelia grasped the sense of hopefulness. 

“This is brilliant. But how do we make Uther drink this potion? He is guarded day and night, there is a flock of westerners around him, we need someone close to the king, someone he trusts, yet someone who’d betray him.” 

“Your brother,” Thulin suggested.  

“Sewyll loves Uther dearly. He has found his destiny, he says. He never had magic, and he always felt the odd one out in the druid family, whilst by Uther’s side he is the famous warrior.” 

“We have nobody else to turn to. I shall not risk Anna and Lewissa. They are married to Uther’s warlords, but those warlords have come from the West and their loyalties have not changed. Sewyll, though. He is your brother, he is the grandson of the last druid queen and yet one of those Uther values the most. We need Sewyll.” 

“Leave that to me,” Hamelia nodded.

Outside, the hound started howling at the full moon.   

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PROLOGUE II

THE THREADS OF DESTINY

present days

 

The woods were filled with disturbing chanting that didn’t agree with Lacafa. Trapped in this sudden outburst of pious thunder, the leader of the River Clan of Essetir druids was seeking the leftovers of night’s calm in the darkest corners of the forest.

Yet there seemed to be no escape from either the blazing heartbeats of fire or men and women in roughly spun robes that were wandering here and there, singing songs about dragons and fire and dragons breathing fire and fire-birthing dragons and much and more. I am one with my folk. I am one of the mightiest seers in Essetir. Then why isn’t my heart, too, on fire with the song of dragons? 

The answer was there, easy to feel and so hard to voice – and it was the bitter truth that was driving Lacafa deeper into the woods, as though the night could harbor her from her own powers. It can and it will. There is nothing a night can’t do.

There, she could be left alone and shutter all the thoughts out of her head, which wasn’t possible to achieve with so many druids all around her, each and every one of them drunk on cider as much as on happiness. 

Happiness was an understatement, though. It was the victory call, the triumphant dance of tribes that, once on the verge of literal extinction, were suddenly coming back to realize they had acquired the mightiest protection against anybody who’d risk bearing them ill will. Dragon. The last dragon and his dragonlord. The fires take me, this is true. 

Lacafa was not different from other druid sorcerers and sorceresses, and she, too, could feel the heat in her palms, and her fire magic had become tenfold as strong as it had used to be, and she had seen the rainbow flames swallow all the holy fireplaces, and the rare crystals they possessed were afire with the rainbow glow, but there was something else she could use to verify her instincts. Her gift of a seer was celebrated all over Essetir, and the mists that had been besieging her visions for the latest month were clearing. Yet I don’t like what I see now that these mists are gone. 

There was death and destruction in the wake of the mists. She had glimpsed at the betrayed king in his grave, with a torn shroud thrown over him, and a bear digging the earth where the king was resting. She had watched the Priestess of the Old Religion feign tears as Morgana of House Gorlois was crying on her shoulder. In the inky waters, she’d witnessed the kraken’s sprouts burned by a dragon who was mounted by the young man whose weak body would later be held in the caring arms of the desolated fair-haired youth in the red-and-yellow cloak. She’d seen wolves howling behind the White Mountains. Yet as she tried to take a step further and see the days that were still to come… 

Lacafa had embraced the green gloom of the piney woods where she was finally left alone, or so she thought until she heard the dried leaves crisping as though somebody had stepped over them. 

“Can’t believe that after all these years you’d still put on that silly cloak o’ yours,” she snorted, addressing nobody save the silence of the night. “Do you take me for a blind owl, Iseldir?” 

“Didn’t want to scare you,” Iseldir appeared out of thin air, the thin cloak flashing in the night before disappearing. He looks confused, Lacafa thought, much to her pleasure.  

“Putting invisibility cloak on and appearing out of thin air in the middle of the night sounds pretty much like a plan to frighten anybody,” Lacafa said with humourous accusation as she tried to make a seat of an uprooted tree.  

“Somebody. But not you, Lacafa of the River Clan.” 

“Of course, not me! These fool’s trick o’ yours will work on green boys and girls. I am an old fox. I’ve learned to smell your magic. So, don’t presume to believe your tricks will work on me, Iseldir, and don’t presume to fool me with your witless explanations. Speak the truth. It’s not like that skinny bottom o’ yours got tired of sitting on that stone. You’re hiding from your own people.” 

Her words seemed to have shamed him, as he quickly turned away and chose to face the thicket instead of looking her in the eyes. 

“I am not hiding. I need… I require more time before I talk to them.” 

“Which still sounds like hiding to me,” Lacafa was glad Iseldir couldn’t see her roll her eyes. “So. You’re here. You can’t talk to your people, yet you choose to speak to me.” 

“You sense it, too,” Iseldir said, cloaking himself in fading hope. 

“Of course, I sense it. Every druid with a scratch of magic in his or her blood senses it. Our flames don’t lie, Iseldir. Flames haven’t burned that bright with rainbow colours in ages. All the holy fireplaces are ablaze with rainbow fire. All the crystals which we have. Magic can’t be tricked. She has spoken. The dragon is returned, and so is the dragonlord. We all feel it.”

 “And now they will all do something,” Iseldir sighed as he turned back to her and walked a few steps, his robes sweeping the moist carpet of the forest. “With or without my leave.” 

Lacafa’s intense distaste with Isedir had a lot to do with the nervous outbreaks she had grown rather unaccustomed to in her age. She was as close to hating Iseldir as she could be, even though their positions had never been conceptually close. No, we’re not close and we shall never be. Iseldir has allowed himself to be too lenient to all the enemies of the druids. He’s often cautious to the point of being weak. 

“Well, of course, your people will want to do something. After all, it’s useful to do something once in twenty-two years. You didn’t hope to sit here for twenty more years, Iseldir? The dragons roast you if you did.”

“That’s what they all have been whispering behind my back. Now that they feel the dragon fire, they all blame me for the lack of actions, for the lack of doing something…”

“Can you blame them, though? It’s been a while since the clans chose to remind the Pendragon crown that Camelot is as much ours as it is theirs. Even when Uther died, all you did was send this silly toothless Lochru to the Triskelion Gathering instead of going to Andor yourself.” 

“You know I can’t go anywhere far. The…” 

“… Cup of Life is too precious to be left unguarded, and if it ever gets into the wrong hands, it can do great evil. Aye. The same song you’ve been singing since we acquired the cup. You know, with that Cup we could’ve…” 

“The Cup is abomination!» Iseldir’s words were stones fired at her in the night’s air - so heavy she was glad they missed. The leader of Essetir tribes always found something menacingly wrong about other druids treating the Cup carelessly. "The Cup is everything we stand against! You know it better than me, it’s the fruit of the darkest kind of sorcery, the blood magic! I lack the power to destroy it, but it is in my powers to keep the cup hidden from the likes of Nimueh.” 

“Nimueh is dead,” Lacafa noted, admiring Iseldir’s ambition to cling to the shadows and ghosts of the long gone threats. «The cup cost her too dearly. Or so the physician has told us.” 

“And we believed him. Even if it’s true, there are many like Nimueh who can seek to exploit the powers of the cup.” 

“Many? I thought there remains but one priestess.”

“And she did try to lay her hands on the cup when she was on her way to Essetir,” Iseldir reminded, although Lacafa knew him too well to believe him. That night we all were roused. The protective charms did work, but how can we know it was Morgause? “My defenses stopped her, but I am sure she will try again. But it is not about the Cup now. The Cup is an abomination and we had to do our best to protect it from the wrong hands… But the dragon’s fire is holy, it calls, and people think it calls for actions and… and I won’t be able to reason with them now, I feel like I won’t…”

“Then you shall give them your blessings and let them go,” Lacafa ruled out. For there is nothing you can do to stop them now. Now that they know and feel the dragonlord has awakened. 

It seemed that even wind had seized its guts to let the night behold Iseldir’s judgement. Merry as the fire songs were, the future of the druid folk was being decided in the forest, in the same forest where they had once chosen to hide from the swords, the spears and the arrows of Uther Pendragon who had lost himself to rage and had falsely accused the druid folk of conspiring with Nimueh to kill his newborn son Arthur. The time is ripe for us to thank the forests for sheltering us and go back to where we have come from

“Go,” the words, salted with the sorrows of the hundreds if not thousands of tragedies, were slow to pass Iseldir’s lips. For a moment it appeared that the druid leader had aged in a blink of an eye, but it was just light play. “Going is easy. Yet where should they go? We don’t know where the dragon is. Emrys is young and unaware of his heritage. Druids are a just a sound to him.”

“He will not deny leadership to his people. I am sure that dragon o’ his can tell him everything he needs to know.”

“And will you tell me everything I need to know?” 

Iseldir was the only person she had known to have mastered the craft of mixing plea and command in his tone. The boned-ass diplomat. 

“I am not the only seer in the clans, Iseldir,” she straightened her back, knowing that the future, unmasked, was as horribly frightening as few other things in the world. Any future, merry or tragic. The empty void where lives would start and end, where doom and chance were as close as though they were one, where she sensed the presence of the mightiest force that was watching her the way she’d watch the visions.  

“But you’re the most gifted one,” Iseldir pressed stubbornly. “Tell me. What do you see?” 

In the late night’s hour, the owl’s sinister laughter seemed enough to make anybody run away. If I were seen now, they’d believe it’s just a wood’s witch. 

Lacafa had done it so many times, but every new attempt felt like beginning anew, with the tongue of cold void licking her spine and making her eyes water, with her breath leaving her the longer she went into the void. 

“I see a raven,” her whisper was as loud as the rustle of the leaves echoing off the tree trunks. “It’s kept in cage, but it wishes to break free. If it is set free, darkness will be his wings, and he will cover the whole of Albion in an endless night. I see one of our own. The last druid prince, Darian, the one we thought would lead us against the Usurper. Him and his friend… His friend wears a crown, too. The Pearl Crown of Seaside Kingdom. There is something they are looking for. Something that has some value for them both.”

Iseldir’s eyes were shining as the druid leader kept savoring every word, although Lacafa could not understand why. His powers of a seer could match mine if he were persistent enough to try. 

“You have not seen Morgana,” his tone made it hard to tell hope from despair.  

“Don’t think that I haven’t tried,” Lacafa smirked. “Go and have a try yourself. You know damn well there is nothing to be seen about Morgana now. Nothing and everything. I’ve seen the summer heat and I’ve seen the winter frost. I’ve seen old friends and new enemies, I’ve seen east and west, north and south. The girl has so many paths her future’s too complex even for all the powers o’ yours.”

“But the girl will know. Sooner or later, she will know of the return of the dragonlord. Will she bow to the true leader of Albion?” 

“Bow?” the assumption made Lacafa put on a genuine smile. “Morgana is more like to break her own knee rather than bend it.”  

“But the raven. The raven is there, too. Following her every step. In every future, and the endless night he promises…» 

The chill in the air was not brought by the wind. Old and seasoned as she was, Lacafa had to cover herself in robes to resist the sense of fright. She was ashamed there were goosebumps traveling her skin, but the very mention of Sigan inspired nothing short of horror since she had been a little girl. So it had always been. 

“Sigan is dead,” she repeated stubbornly. She needed those words to assure herself more than to convince Iseldir. 

“Dead,” Iseldir smirked. “Would death hold any power over the one who defied the greater laws?” 

Is it some trick? Something he intends to tell me to win me to his side and convince the others to stay and wait rather than go and act?

“Have you ever wondered why they never harmed us when we lived in Andor?” Iseldir asked her calmly. 

“What sort of a question is that? We earned exile and lived in peace ‘cause Uther had no son and ‘cause his beautiful lady wife Ygraine was alive and well. Once his lady wife died and his newborn heir was nearly killed, he was quick to blame it on us.”

“When I was young… I heard stories. Rumors. Some said Uther couldn’t harm us whilst we lived in Andor, couldn’t harm us even if he wanted to.” 

 “Couldn’t how?” Lacafa’s cheeks were suddenly burning, and she could feel the heat in her chest paint her voice righteously angry. “Iseldir, the Usurper had all his swords and all his spears whilst we lived in Andor. All his knights and all his spearmen, too. All the king’s men. What could have possibly stopped him if he had wished to kill us all? I say it’s one of the many stupid errors our tribe has made. One of the mistakes we are responsible for. We could’ve used those ten years following the exile of Queen Andor to prepare for war, we could’ve put every effort into restoring the druid dynasty to her rightful throne and overthrowing the Usurper, and instead we… we….”

“He couldn’t harm us while we lived in Andor because of the agreement our Queen struck with Nimueh after the Battle of Ashes. No mortal weapon could harm us in Andor, and our single remaining dragon, in turn, couldn’t burn the Isle of the Blessed, so long as Uther didn’t harm Nimueh.” 

The night was torn by the loudest laughter Lacafa could recall in years. It had been a while since anybody could tell her that funny a joke. 

“This is too much. Even for you. There… There…,» she began to cough, trying to rid herself of the last echoes of the unexpected merriment. “There can’t be such a spell! Such spell would have needed a living source, a vessel to keep it working, and it would’ve drained any living source in a blink of an eye.”

“But what if the source to maintain this spell was neither properly living nor fully dead? What if it could last forever?”  

This can’t be. No. The dragons save us all if… 

“Sigan couldn’t be the source of this spell,” Lacafa’s whisper was so sad it seemed she would never laugh again. “He is gone. Been gone for… for…”

“Uther attempted to murder Nimueh and the spell that protected us was broken. Sigan’s magic awakened in Camelot shortly after Nimueh’s death.” 

“No,” Lacafa had never heard her own voice sound so weak. “Sigan is dead, dead!” 

“Aye. But death doesn’t seem to agree with Sigan.”

Chapter Text

 VOLUME I

DRAGONDREAMS 

 

Chapter 1: BEFORE THE STORM 

 

A promise of storm was all over the dark eastern sky . 

The fishermen’s tales had it that the lightnings were seen far away, closer to Portstown, and the booms of terrifying thunder wrecked the skies themselves, but even without the market gossips, Cynric could sense the change of weather. Fickle winds were rising at rough grey sea, presaging the coming storm. Inkwave, the largest port in the Merchant’s Bay and the seat of King Godwyn of Gawant, was bracing for the moody weather. Shopkeepers who ran estates close to channels were throwing sand-bags on the threshold and locking and bolting the doors and window shutters, the boat-lenders were shouting at the errand boys and girls, encouraging them to pull the boats out of the water and tie them to the special stones so that the wind would not carry them away and smash them, and candlemakers were trying to sell twice as much candles as they would normally do. 

They fear rain and wind more than they fear war. Well, should I be surprised?  

Few other cities in Albion had benefited from ignoring warfare the way the ancient capital of Gawant had over the course of the past few hundreds years. Gawant as a kingdom had acquired its independency from the ancient Kingdom of Daobeth when her ruler, King Virico the Unfortunate, attempted to invade the Midlands and slaughter the six great dragons and their dragonlords. However, the flaws in the monarch’s plan resulted in four dragonlords surviving the battle. The dragonlords’ revenge brought fire upon the capital of Daobeth, destroying the ruling dynasty and delivering a terrible blow to the sense of authority in the entire ancient kingdom which soon enough fell into pieces. 

A tragedy for some, yet an opportunity for Gawant to become a kingdom of its own. 

When the Roman conquest shook Albion, the king of Gawant had made an uncomfortable decision to welcome the invader’s fleet rather than try and fight it. The submission to roman general Ostorius caused riots and unrest in the land at first, but the romanization of Gawant allowed the kingdom to draw more advantages out of the invasion than the roman themselves could, and thus the capital of Gawant turned into a fort and a port, ascending higher in wealth and security than any of the peer cities from the kingdoms of Daobeth era. 

Gawant never wages war it can’t win, the saying went, and defeat was neither a threat nor a humiliation in the eyes of the warlords of that southern kingdom. Yet now that the war was knocking on the kingdom’s door, Cynric could feel the thinly veiled aura of suspicion in the streets of the old city. Even though the night mists were still to conjure, and the slits of blue sky were mirrored in the sprouted city Chanels, the shopkeepers were already not there to chant their lines and to attract the foreigners and cheat them at every turn. The drinks were not sold in the usual numbers in the taverns, and the faint music drifting through the louvered windows seemed mysteriously calm. 

They begin to know. The rumors have slipped through the port guards and have begun to spread in the old city. The dragon is returned to the Merchant’s Bay. 

The wind, too autumn-brisk for summer, and wet from the nearby sea, slammed past Cynric to swirl down the alleys and stir whatever dust and rubbish there had been left from the day. Cynric pulled his hood to cover his face and continued his quest. The city of Inkwave was a poor arrangement of alleys and streets, all due to the wretched channels which annoyed Cynric. Some of them were straight as arrows, others curvy as the gown thread; some deep enough for the sea fish to inhabit them, others shallow enough the let the children play in their waters. When intersecting and ramifying through the city, the channels would form hundreds of islands, large and small, and serve as the perfect mean for the merchants to deliver their goods to almost any point of Inkwave without troubling the streets with heavy-loaded carts. The Trident Island was to the north, with the splendid florid palace of Gawant Crown. 

Cynric had changed his robes three times on the way, stopped at brothels and taverns and shops, made other men put on his clothes and wander in the wrong directions, all to make sure he was not followed. His name was still known in the streets of Inkwave, as some people could remember King Uther’s Councilor of Trade, and chances were he could be recognized - that’s why he’d put on the layered linen robes with turquoise stripes, the colors most common to Inkwave. 

Cynric had few reasons to believe he’d be followed, yet his senses were as tensed as those of a hunter closing on a prey. His unsuccessful audience with King Godwyn of Gawant had made him believe the old monarch might try and keep an eye on him. The event indeed had proved to be a diplomatic disaster: not only was Cynric refused to be granted a status of a foreign ambassador, but he was also met and heard by the king’s record-keeper, which proved that Godwyn himself was not planning to treat Cynric seriously. 

Godwyn’s arrogance was of the sort that was expected from kings and queens, from silly pretenders and posers who believed the crown’s weight did anything to make their minds heavier and sharper. Cynric, after all, was indeed a nobody during his visit- once the councilor to Uther the Great, and now - the adviser to the self-styled king of the Seaside Kingdom and all Camelot Arthur Pendragon, whom most people in Gawant considered dead. 

But Godwyn’s attitude had done little to hurt Cynric’s ambition and much less - feelings; in point of fact, he had found the court of Gawant rather amusing in their attempts to look superior, especially the clumsiness of his daughter who had managed to kick the servant and spill the drinks over her fat nanny in the middle of the discussion. 

If they knew what I am capable of, they would’ve bent the knee and called me my lord. But not now. 

Cynric had played his part well and did his best to look as if the failure of his diplomatic endeavours meant tragedy to him and to Arthur. Arthur’s future was but one card in the game, and he had come to Inkwave out of different reasons - to see her, to kiss her, to run his hand through her hair, and to discuss his plans with her, for she was the only one whose opinion truly mattered. 

It’s not that his visit to Inkwave had been completely fruitless: even before the unbelievable news about the dragon were brought by Cynric’s informers, he had managed to learn that Nentres, the youngest son of Vyda Gaheris, had visited king Godwyn and agreed to some sort of marriage pact between the crown of Gawant and the Western territories of Camelot, although the exact nature of the pact remained unknown: after the death of Sir Vidor, Vyda Gaheris still had two grandsons, and both could marry the clumsy, awkward and untidy princess Elena of Gawant who at times looked as though some beast was about to jump out of her through her mouth. 

Yet solemn as they were perceived in the southern cultures, any betrothals could be undone by fire, Cynric was sure of that. Each new rumor about the dragon tried to outdo the previous one in fantasy, and the details got more and more shocking, so shocking in fact, that some innkeepers had forbidden any dragon talks in their taverns. But Cynric could not allow the rumors to form his judgement in the matters that concerned the plan of his entire life, and that’s why he had been out in the streets, alone, for he could never put her under such a risk. 

The blue silk of the sky was embellished with red patterns of dawn when Cynric saw his companion standing in an arched doorway near the tavern that was raining a pungent smell of crisped fish all over the narrow alley. The man was short and stout, and sweating despite the chilly wind. His face was, too, hooded. The man, who could be easily mistaken for a market beggar, was in fact a court member of high note, serving as one of the physicians in the Trident Island. Bribing him had required more time and far more gold than Cynric had intended to spend, but his service was of paramount importance in the situation.  

"I trust you’ve found the passage easily?» His companion sounded as though he were too overwrought to speak.  

"How could I not? You have described the route so well that even a man who has never been to Inkwave would have found the way. I took great pleasure in walking the sunset streets," Cynric said, hoping no blush would dare betray his lies. He hated these labyrinth-sizzling streets and the risks they brought to his mission. 

The physician responded with a quick nod and invited Cynric to follow. 

"It grieves me you that you have seen no more of Gawant than Inkwave. Our kingdom is beautiful and worth exploring, but the latest events would turn anybody out of the mood for journeys." 

"Are the events as grim as they have been described?" Cynric dared ask in the street as the moon broke out of the clouds, ripe-yellow as the mature cheese. 

"Bodies, bodies of the dead thrown ashore, my lord. Some fishermen pick up the survivers and bring them here… Even though they lived by the grace of sea gods, I ask, why and what for? Some of their wounds… Even if the cure’s found, what life is it? They have turned as ugly as sea monsters, their skin… I have never seen such burns, and theirs don’t look as burns either…" the physician sighed. "It’s like something terrible had happened to them, some sickness… Might be a sickness, who knows? That’s why we’re locking ‘em up and not letting ‘em out, although, truth be told, they show up everywhere at the sea shore, crawling out like monsters and it’d be impossible to find ‘em all… But we don’t want tales of the decease to spread, so we try… Actually, it is quite surprising that my lord had managed to obtain the bits of information.” 

He is afraid, Cyrnic realized, afraid the court will learn that I have bribed him to see the wounded. He even has his hands shaking. What a man.

“Your lord is not stupid," Cynric said, hoping the bluntness of the statement would not offend the physician. "The ports have turned silent, even a blind man can see. Ships are neither sailing away nor allowed in. Something must have happened in the sea, something monstrous enough to make king Godwyn stop the trade. Even your sea gods know king Godwyn loves coins no matter what. Storms would not have frightened him. Seems nothing could have frightened him. Now that I think of it, when was the last time Inkwave stopped trade? You kept it at all times and at all costs, you even kept it during Roman’s conquest.” 

“We did, my lord," the physician said, blooming with pride to his tone. "We always looked for the means to ensure prosperity no matter how much scrutiny there was around us. And scrutiny there was… Might be this is the reason why Gawant prospers while Daobeth has been reduced to a land which doesn’t even have a proper castle and lost its sovereignty.” 

Watch out for Daobeth regain it soon. Daobeth might not have a proper castle, but it has the Mad Hound of the West and two thousand swords that will be marching Camelot’s way to make sure House Gingawaine becomes history. And if they succeed, who knows what future Vyda Gaheris will envision for the kingdom of Gawant? Gawant’s capital is not that far from the castle of Asgorath, and Vyda’s son rules there as lord now.

The alley opened onto a courtyard with candlemakershop where his guide pushed through the gate to climb down the short flight of steps that led them to an even narrower alley with a sharper decline. Beneath lay the wynds and narrower alleys that would criss-cross to form dozens of crookback streets Cynric would have never visited without guards had the circumstances not been so urgent. 

“History is a charming subject, is it not?" Cynric said out of courtesy. "Pity it’s all about the past, the great kingdoms and their noble days and miserable ends, about brave defenders and wild attackers… We, the living, must aspire to look into the future, especially in the days like these.” 

“One could learn a lot from the history of his land, my lord. These record books are kept with such dedication for a reason. A sharp mind can extract wisdom from them. A dull mind can get sharper thanks to the records we have.” 

But no books provide you with one particular wisdom. How do you tame a dragon if you are not a dragonlord? 

“You’re right, of course. My humble mind is nowhere near as sharp as the one that can wield wisdom from history books. Pray tell me, what does history tell us about the dragons?” 

“Little does it tell. Less than we could hope for. The first accounts of dragonlord’s history have been discovered in Lindum’s library by miracle, years after the events which they supposedly describe. We don’t know much about the dragonlords and their ways in the ancient days, but we do believe that somewhere 400 hundred years before Roman invasion the six dragonlord familes gathered for a meeting which was later called Triskelion Gathering.” 

“Triskelion is the word that stinks of druids,” Cynric noted anxiously. The druids had been a thorn in Ryence’s flower, and ever since leaving the castle of Camelot, Cynric hoped the thorn would not grow. His informers were oddly silent about the matter, for few would dare to cross the river Albus which was allegedly enchanted to keep the druids’ foes out of sight. What are they doing now? Massing up for the assault? Dreaming they would teach the castle of Camelot what it means to be purged? 

“Indeed, for druids were ruled by dragonlords. Think dragonlords as druids’ nobility, my lord. The reason for that dragonlords’ gathering, which took place 400 years before Romans, was the growing concern over the expansion of Northumbria, the mighty northern kingdom which was pushing her border closer and closer to the kingdom of Mercia. Northumbria and Mercia were among the group of leading Albion kingdoms at those days, and the consequences of their full-scale military stand-off did little to please the dragonlords. From the evidence in the Lindum library, we know that four of the six families offered terms to Northumbrian king, hoping they would be able to prevent the war. However, the terms were declined, and the Northumbrian king stated in his written response that he would tremble neither at the sight of the dragonlords nor of their pets.”

“I know little about the dragonlords, but calling their creatures pets…" Cynric smiled. Stupidity has always been the courage’s friend. "Small wonder Northumbria is nowhere to be found now. Their king was such a fool.” 

“Well, a fool’s not the word I would use…", the physician, who’d spent too much at King Gawant’s court, found it hard to talk ill even of the dead royalty. "Hard to call his actions foolish, my lord. The creatures of magic had been inhabiting the lands of Albion since the dawn of time, and most of them could be put to rest with swords or arrows or spears. Dragons did inspire horror, but the ones that could be met in the mountains, the wild dragons, could be slain. Northumbria was too far away from the cradle of magic, from the Lake of Avalon, and their warlords knew too little about dragons and dragonlords. I bet they didn’t even suspect great dragons were any difference from wild dragons.” 

“To their sorrow.” 

“To their sorrow,” the physician nodded, as they climbed down yet another stairs. They were heading to the area called Low River, where beacons of merchants’ towers would float in the damp of night, so bright the ships could mistake them for hazy moons from great distances. “The war eventually broke out in year 390 before Romans. Four dragonlords invaded Northumbria, mounted on their dragons.” 

“You say four dragonlords? But there were six families at the gathering?”

“House of Green Flames and House of Indigo Flames never supported the idea of invading Northumbria to stop the war. Dragonlord Mawr, the head of house of Green Flames, was 28 years old during that great council. His son Llywelyn was just three full years old, and his daughter Fudda was almost a newborn baby. We think that for those reasons, Mawr chose that his house would stay out of war - he didn’t want to risk the lives of his children who were too young to see their father go to war. Mawr’s decision to ignore Northumbrian war was backed by house of Indigo Flames, whose dragonlord Digion was 57 years old – probably too old for any sort of campaign.” 

“Interesting. How did the war end?”

“It took the four dragonlords seven years of fire and blood to conquer enough Northumbrian land and claim their own kingdom, which they called the Kingdom of Elmet – now the Perilous Land. The fighting was taking place until the dragonlords’ army crossed the river Blyth. Northumbrian king fell in battle, unbent and unbound. We assume that in 383 before Romans, Anarawd of Indigo Flames, Dragonlord Digon’s son, visited the new dragonlord kingdom of Elmet. He congratulated the four dragonlord families on the decisive victory over Northumbria and expressed House Indigo’s great admiration for their skills. They held talks about the future of their houses and Anarawd, siting his father’s authority, tried to convince the Four triumphant families to create a single dragon kingdom with House Green and House Indigo. The attempts to create a single dragonlord kingdom failed, though, and in 379 BR they agreed to a pact. Since 379 BR, there were two dragonlord kingdoms: the Druid Kingdom with the seat in the plains of Denaria and the kingdom of Elmet, now the Perilous Land.”

Four great dragons and these dragonlords managed to tear a vast piece of land off the mightiest warring empire of their time, Nortumbria. Arthur supposedly commands one dragon now, providing the rumorus are true. But what dragon? Is it a great one? Or the so-called wild dragon? Will one dragon serve the same purpose it served the four ancient dragonlord families? Will Arthur be known as a conqueror or a peacekeeper?  

The ground level of the city turned into a labyrinth composed of storehouses, the dark stone buildings which looked as silent graves in the uncommon silence of the quay. The king had made a decision to ban all ships from entering or sailing away until the matter with the doom the befell the feet of King Alined of Deorham and King Odin of Cornwall. Cynric and the royal physician were walking the narrow streets towards the storehouse where the wounded were kept. Under two huge brick arches they went, holding their breaths in the air so still Cynric thought he had gone deaf, until they came to the heavy, rust-eaten iron doors which looked as though they were made to conceal secrets. 

"It is here, my lord," the physician announced, trying to restore his breath. "Now I do warn you, the stench may be enough to claim your senses. I would strongly advise you to breathe through this piece of cloth, otherwise… Well, best not think about otherwise. And mind the bodies." 

"Bodies?" Cynric asked, disgusted. 

"There are those whom we couldn’t save, we can’t bury them within the town walls, we still fear they might carry some decease or…" 

"What do you intend to do with them?" 

"We are going to pile them on board the ship, tie stones to their bodies and make them sink in the Merchant’s Bay, far enough to make sure they don’t get crushed on the shore by the waves again." 

Ships with dead bodies on the Merchant’s Bay. Whatever Arthur worked, it’s a disaster. What if the merchants think the ports are now too risky to trade? Well, that would cause much damage, but the damage can be undone later. The higher the risk, the higher the income, that’s how it’s always been in the merchants’ world. If the bad word begins to spread about the Merchant’s Bay, some merchants may leave, but others will come, those who’d want bigger incomes for the higher risk. The question is: how much will they charge for their goods to compensate the risk of being roasted by a dragon? 

The physician knocked on the door which opened at once, as though someone was expecting them. There were four people guarding the door, three of them holding spears and their commander, armed with a longsword and a dagger. They were wearing masks wrought in the shape of sharks.   

"Name yourselves," their commander ordered. 

"It’s me, Usfin." 

"Physician! Where the hell have you been?" the commander’s tone was somewhat accusing.  

"Looking for the oils and herbs and elixirs. With the amount of wounded that we have, it may as well be that all the apothecaries will run out of remedies soon. I had to visit them all." 

"No matter what you bring, it doesn’t seem to help. People are screaming and dying all the same. Who’s this?" the commander asked, pointing at Cynric. 

"A physician from Seagate. Usfin thought I might be able to be of help," Cynric said, praying to all the sea gods his lies were convincing enough. 

"Every physician can be of help," the commander said. "Is he permitted to visit?" 

"He is," Usfin nodded, pulling some paper out of his sleeve. "He has a special permission." 

It took the commander a moment to unfold the parchment and a quick glance at the inks to make his judgement - but that moment was the heaviest burden for Cynric’s heart which was beating so hard he was afraid the guards would hear it. 

"I see. Welcome! We pray to the storm gods the suffering of the poor souls will soon end."

"I join your prayers," Cynric nodded. 

"This way," the physician whispered to him. 

A wash of sudden stench and sour smell of torch heat assaulted Cynric at once, and he was glad the physician had lent him the piece of perfumed cloth to hold close to his nostrils. The air beyond the doors was lethal, he could be sure, it had an aura of death, but the special sort of death that seemed mercy to the wounded. Cynric edged forward slowly, always two steps behind the physician who was moving the torch from side to side as though to cast light upon every horror to be beheld in the hall. 

Death rattles were coming from all the sides, with more than a hundred men laid on what was supposed to be beds, and everything reeked of smoke and blood. Cynric was walking slowly to witnesses the terrifying scene. All the physicians that had been summoned to the storehouse were there to cook the elixirs for the wounded, tend to their burns with special oils, but the expressions of the healers were as hopeless as the night was shy of sunlight. They were there to give the wounded water and sleeping draughts in hope to grant them the privilege of passing during their sleep, but sleep oft came hard to those touched by dragonflames, even when invited by the draughts. 

Few words were escaping the tortured gasps, but they mattered the most to Cynric. 

"The beast… the beast… must warn, warn the children, the women… they never told us there would be a dragon…" 

"…red wings, red flames… he fell upon us like a lightning falls from the sky…" 

"…and flew from beyond the clouds, from beyond the castle rock… We didn’t even have time to try and turn around… Mercy, all I ask is quick death…" 

Once the sufferings were over, the physicians were quick to pull the coverlets over the faces of those who had passed and ask the guards to move the body to the infamous ship awaiting in the harbor. 

What a hideous way to die. If the dragons are good, then why half the hells are said to be made out of flames? 

"Have you seen enough, my lord?" Usfin asked him quietly.  

"More than enough," Cynric said, trying not to open his mouth too wide in the awful stench of the place filled with screams and death. 

Will I see more of it soon? 

 

 ***

Far past the hour of the wolf, Cynric pushed the door open to find himself in a spacious room with high ceiling, lit by a couple of scented candles carefully placed in the niches of the thick earthen walls. It shamed him to meet her in a house like that, with nothing but Nemethian carpets underneath their feet, a bed and a cheap tapestry on the wall, but matters of security were not be compromised. 

“You’ve come back!” Leawinna screamed, stepping out from the shadow of the door to throw her arms around him. 

The nervousness was all gone when she landed in his arms, shining in the tender and loving candlelight. Leawinna Reft, the Lady of Wheelskirt, smelled rich and dark, like an orchid in the garden surrounded by earthy flowers. 

“I am sorry it took so long, love," he whispered, not letting go of her. "But there were matters I had to investigate on my own. In these awful times when rumours seem to spin the world, certainty is crucial.” 

“Was there any certainty? Come to me. You’re cold! Your hands are ice. You need wine. And fire.” 

Cynric touched his hands as Lewinna was whispering something about him catching a cold as she was pouring wine and seeing to the hearth. Despite the disguise of her outfit, she still managed to awe him, and no gown would ever be able to dim the beauty of her black hair. 

“It’s too cold a night for summer, I agree," Cynric nodded. "But wine can wait.” 

“Hector, I was so nervous!» she murmured against his neck as she returned to his arms. «Every minute seemed to last for eternity. Don’t you ever leave me alone in a moment like that! I want to be with you, wherever you go, no matter how dangerous it is. We agreed. Remember?”

Too well. Sometimes I wish I could take some of these words back. You’re too sweet a flower for the places I often visit. My love. 

“I’ll spare you as many disgusting moments as I can. Your beauty should not suffer the grimness of war.” 

“You speak sweet and well, but you won’t fool me. Hector, I meant what I said. We got into it together and we shall go through all the perils holding hands. Now tell me, tell me all!” She demanded, pouring herself some wine, showering him with a blessing of her big black eyes. 

Well, wine’s not that bad considering all that’s happened. 

“Alined’s and Odin’s fleet were destroyed by the dragon when approaching Portstown. Some warships survived and are probably sailing back to Deorham, and I pray Alined doesn’t act fool. Hundreds, if not thousands perished in the fire, and many more are being thrown on the shores as we speak, their wounds beyond the healing powers of local physicians. The captains and pirates are unlikely to forgive Alined, they know who sent them to sack Portsown.” 

Her distrust in dragons was so strong she kept piercing Cynric with intense stare to make sure he wasn’t japing.  

“A dragon?! Can it be true?!” she explained, as if stung by the news.

“My love, I can’t see a reason that would make that many men lie on their deathbeds. Of dragon we can be certain.” 

“How is that possible, Hector?» Cynric noticed her hands shaking. «A dragon? What is it, the age of druids?” 

For a moment Cynric closed his eyes, letting the sweet-and-sour smell of wine fill his mouth and free him of headache. When he opened his eyes, the candle flames seemed dancing. 

“I am sorry to say it, my love, but I don’t know what it is. In fact, anybody who’d be able to come up with a sane explanation of what it actually is will be worth as much gold as… Well, he or she would make a fortune. I bet the merchants are in panic. As well as local authorities. As well as…”

“But the dragon died! Even to the West of White Mountains, everybody heard of Arthur’s feat! Vyda, you know her, you know she hates dragons and magic, the old wench still grieves over the castle of Daobeth burnt who knows how many years ago… Even she sent her grandson to Camelot for a tourney which was meant to celebrate the death of the dragon…” 

“You mean the great dragon, love,” Cynric pointed, thinking of how Vyda’s joy over the death of the last great dragon had turned to ashes in her mouth when she received the news about her grandson killed at his own betrothal feast. 

“Are there other dragons?!” 

“There were," Cynric sighed, remembering the bits of history he had learned from the local physician. "There were many wild dragons who’d submit to the will of any dragonlord, but they are gone now, and there were six great dragons who would only bond with a certain dragonlord and his descendants. The one you think had been killed in Camelot was the last great dragon, I forgot its name, actually.” 

“Does it mean… Does it mean Arthur’s feat was a lie? Does it mean Uther fooled people by saying…” 

Questions. Too many questions and I have nowhere to look for answers. Arthur and Uther both be damned. 

“If the dragon who brought hell to the sheets of Merchant’s Bay is the last great dragon, then Arthur’s feat was some mummer’s trick. How could he pull it, though… That’s a different riddle," Cynric said, finishing his goblet of wine and feeling the warmth spreading through his veins. "But, well, we mustn’t overestimate Arthur before summoning enough facts to our side. For all we know, love, it can as well be some wild dragon.” 

“But you said there are no wild dragons…” 

“They all disappeared when druid prince Magnus forged himself some magic horn and chose to cross the sea with the greatest army the world has ever seen and the flock of hundreds of wild dragons who couldn’t resist his call. But we never knew what happened to Magnus. Might be some of those dragons returned. The real question is not about dragon, love. Dragons are useless and abide by no mortal’s will, they only answer to the call of the dragonlord. This is the peculiarity worth examining. Arthur must somehow found himself a dragonlord, and that’s what makes him powerful. And dangerous.” 

Power and danger always go side by side, yet there are distances we mustn’t cross. Leawinna rose to her feet and approached a candle to press her finger to the melting wax. 

“If Alined speaks too much… Hector, we must stop it now.” 

Can she read my mind? 

“Stop what?” 

“Everything. Hector, I beg you, let’s think it over again. A dragon, be it the wild beast or the great dragon, but it’s nonetheless a giant fire-breathing monster! What good are swords and arrows of mercenaries against such force?”

“Are you saying…” 

“We must withdraw our plans," she turned, her old dress swinging so hard it sent a gust of wind that bestirred the candle flames. «Now. Unless we, too, want to be roasted somewhere over the Merchant’s Bay. Or delay.”

“Delay? DELAY?!" Cynric’s hand moved quicker than he could understand, and before long her realized his goblet was sent flying onto the floor and the bottle of wine fell to pieces, painting his linen turquoise robes with blood-like stains. He rose to his feet, stung by her proposal. "Delay, you say?! My love, who do you reckon I am? Some bearded wizard that can stop time?” 

“I meant that we can wait and make the move when…” 

“This is not about our move any longer! We no longer lead the dance! Everything has changed, love, everything and more!» Cynric took a deep breath-in, trying to lower his voice. "It’s no longer the courtesies Ryence Gingawaine owes me for helping him rid the realm of Uther. Ryence is dead, and his ill-witted sister’s brief regency had already resulted in the beginning of big war. Sir Vidor, one of three grandsons of Vyda Gaheris, was murdered at his own betrothal feast in Camelot, and Daobeth will know neither forgiveness nor rest until they mount Yrien’s head on a spike above the gates, for all the common people to see - if any of the common people of Camelot are spared during the fight. Yrien and her son may still hold the throne of Camelot, but most of the court have deserted them and she is doomed. Meanwhile, Arthur Pendragon has somehow conquered the castle of Gedref and is expecting Nemeton and Balor to join his cause, not to mention that he has the princess of Nemeth by his side and a dragonlord that commands the beast to burn entire fleets. If we step out of the game now, we may end up with nothing. Camelot is at war. Nobody will wait for us, if we quit now, all we have done will be lost for nothing."

The silence seemed the only thing that would agree with the grim picture Cynric has painted. Leawinna looked at him with tenderness and care, and came closer as though unbothered by his sudden outburst of anger.  

"Is there anything we can do then? A single good news for us?" 

Cynric smiled. That’t what she’s like, that’s what she’s always been like. She believed in me no matter what and always urged me to go further. She never thought the position of Uther’s Councilor of Trade was my limit. 

"Camelot is torn apart by war. There are three sides at arms, and none would unite against the lesser, to our fortune. Arthur isn’t planning to side with his western relatives, and he won’t support Yrien for obvious reasons.” 

“How do you know it?” 

“Nentres Gaheris has returned to Inkwave after his negotiations with Arthur failed, and I’ve managed to intercept his letter. He is writing to his mother and saying that Arthur’s declined his offer of cooperation, strange as it may sound.” 

“Strange?" Leawinna asked, surprised. "It doesn’t sound strange! Arthur’s got a dragon, he needs no cooperation, he can burn armies and…” 

“Burn armies? What for? To be the king of ashes? My love, the castle of Camelot suffered a terrible attack of the dragon two months ago, they lost hundreds lives to the fire and have not finished rebuilding the destroyed part of the Lower Town…. Were the small folk to learn that their once-beloved prince has anything to do with the creature… His cause would be doomed. Many enough consider him a wraith, but the accusations of having anything to do with the dragon would harm him the most. Besides, forget not that Midlands is still the place that supplies half the kingdom with crops. Dragons do not bring crops. Or gold. They only have fire. And fire’s bad for harvest. Starving commoners will not have much love for the king either.” 

“Fine. I was just… Nervous," Leawinna returned to her seat and pressed her fingers to her head to massage her temples. "Hector, I am so nervous I can’t think properly. This dragon… It makes everything more complicated, more…. Arthur, Yrien, westerners… My head is spinning. There are rumours about druids’ unrest as well, stories of riots in the Lower Town in Camelot… Other kingdoms, Gawant, Essetir, Nemeth and Mercia could join this war…” 

“Let them join it," Cynric said, taking her hand in his own. "Let them all fight and bleed. I don’t care. They may wage as many wars as they wish, the castle of Gedref will still stand, strong and fearless, and the city of Portstown will remain situated on the Great Trade Road that runs from Gawant to Londinium. Kings and queens will come and go, their swords will turn to dust, their names will be forgotten, but the trade will always be, and so will the trade road, and anybody who holds the castle on the Great Trade Road will have wealth and power. Not the power of the monarchs, who, as we have discovered, can be poisoned and overthrown.” 

“But how are we going to own the castle of Gedref now? Your arrangements with Ryence do not work anymore, you’ve said it yourself. You were supposed to receive the castle of Gedref for helping Ryence stage the invasion of Cenred into Brechfa and poisoning Uther, but now that Ryence is dead… His sister has noticed your absence by now, and it’s the matter of time before she learns that you’re on Arthur’s council. Yrien will never grant you the castle of Gedref once she learns of your betrayal. And if the westerners win this war, they will never grant you the castle of Gedref either. And Arthur has already named Owaine the lord of Gedref, which means…” 

"…that I have to choose carefully, love. We have walked half the path towards our goal, it is beyond silly to turn back now. We almost had the castle of Gedref in our hands, I’ve tasted what it’s like and I mean to enjoy this taste for the rest of my life. To help Ryence kill Uther and receive a castle in exchange for the part I’ve played was the easiest plan. Of course Ryence could have tried to re-write our agreement and cast me out of Gedref, but we’ve been saving gold all these years and we would’ve had enough coins to hire pirates, mercenaries and turn the life of Gedref into hell unless Ryence agreed to restore my to the lord of that territory. Now… Now we must choose carefully. Vyda Gaheris, like you’ve said, would never grant me the castle - I’m too low-born for her, but what’s more important is that I don’t come from the West, and those without western blood in their veins are the second-rate people to her."

"But Vyda will negotiate the terms with you if you prove yourself of some value to her, right?" Leawinna smiled, previewing the new plan Cynric was about to make.

"And what value, love? What can I do to earn the gratitude from Gaheris family? Why, I can bring her Yrien’s and Rion’s heads, but the thing is, the Gingawaines are too well-hidden behind the walls of Camelot, and most of my informers and allies have fled the castle following the murder of Sir Vidor."

"Cowards. If they don’t have the stomach for the game, why bother playing in the first place?" 

"Don’t call them cowards. They have served me well. It’s just that Vyda has siege towers and stone throwers so the castle of Camelot became too dangerous a place to be."

"The world as it is now is too dangerous a place to be, but have you ever seen me flee?" 

"You are a totally different bird, love," Cynric said, his kisses climbing up her arm to her shoulder and to her sweet swollen lips which were so ripe for lovemaking. Not now. I can wait a while longer.  

"So. If you can’t help Vyda rid the realm of the Gingawaines, then…" 

"Then I can help her either win Arthur to her side or make sure Arthur’s not a thorn in her plan." 

"What good is murdering the young Pendragon?" Leawinna asked, offering Cynric some figs. "You’ve just told me yourself it is not he who is the problem, it’s this dragonlord he has somehow found. What if this dragonlord chooses to continue Arthur’s deeds after we kill Arthur? What if the dragonlord’s wrath makes the White Mountains melt?"

"I’d rather agree with you…" Cynric nodded. "Vyda would be too strong a player if I help her destroy Arthur. It would be hard negotiating with the mad hound of the west once she tastes some blood. Yrien…" 

"…is lost. She won’t win the fight against Arthur and Vyda Gaheris. She is doomed and her days are numbered. That’s why we have to stick with the young Pendragon. We must help him climb the steps of his father’s throne, and humbly ask for the reward for our loyal service. The castle of Gedref will be ours." 

"And what’s to happen with those who hold Gedref now?" Cynric asked, smiling.

"We must push them to grave mistakes. We must show Arthur how incapable, unskilled and foolish his young allies are, how idiotic it is to entrust Portstown and the castle of Gedref in the hands of Owaine, of that Nemeton boy and of princess Mithian of Nemeth. And once his allies tear each other apart and Arthur gets weaker, you, Hector, will be the wisest choice, the long-serving councilor and the most loyal of all his father’s court members… Arthur won’t be able to resist appointing you the lord of Gedref. The question is, how do we corrupt and destroy Arthur’s allies who rule Gedref now?" 

"Don’t worry, love. I’ve danced this dance before," Cynric assured her.  

"Gods, I so love you, I so love you when we make these plans and when we hate the world together. What am I supposed to do while you bring the downfall of Arthur’s friends? Stab the Gaheris army in the back?"

"No. Make sure your castle remains neutral but keep raising banners. Vyda must attack Yrien first. Would that I could ensure both of them died at the battlefield… The two thousand swords Vyda has gathered on Uther’s command after the news of Cenred’s invasion will march through the pass of Camlann, I am sure. Vyda is bringing siege towers and there is nowhere else to cross the White Mountains other than through Camlann. The swamps of Denaria and the valley of the fallen kings are rumoured to link the Midlands with the West, but few have ever seen that path, fewer have walked it, and an army would never march through swamps, that’s a dire suicide. Vyda can move her host south and cross the river at the castle of Doomspath, but Lady Lludwig may deny her passage and raise the bridge, and even if she agrees to let the western army through, it would make Vyda’s army march through land which has declared for Arthur - I doubt she’d risk it after she learns what had happened to Odin’s and Alined’s fleet. The swords will ring at the pass of Camlann, make no mistake, my love. Let them ring, and let us make our move after there’s nothing over Camlann save for the feasting crows."  

Chapter Text

Chapter 2: THE BEGINNING OF THE END 

 

The sea was ablaze with the pink fire of dawn. Grey sheets seemed smooth far away across the horizon; closer to the shore, however, the waves would rise unruly and strong to smash against the stony coast line. King Arthur Pendragon could not recall feeling more alive than on that chilly morning of late summer, when the salty breeze was mixed with flower scents, and Merlin’s laughter filled the deserted beach as seagulls were soaring in the summery wind. 

Merlin was trying to swim, battling the waves and laughing every time they’d throw him back ashore, legs over head, helpless, scratched and happy. Arthur was lying on the beach, leaning on his elbows and watching Merlin swimming and humming some silly tune of his. As he gazed at the young warlock dive and soar back and spit out some salty water, he couldn’t wrap his mind around the secrets Merlin had just shared with him. The idea that he and Merlin might have already lived, might have already fallen in love in some different life, might have been parted by death and had nonetheless managed to find each other again made Arthur’s longing for Merlin irresponsibly insane. As though Merlin hadn’t already become the only thing that truly mattered, the living and breathing proof that linked Arthur to his Camelot life. In point of fact, Merlin was one of the few rare things that belonged with Arthur’s Camelot days, and a single glance upon Merlin was enough to remind Arthur of their hunting trips in the King’s wood, of the merry days when Arthur would try to make a proper squire out of Merlin by entrusting him with a shield and a bucket-helmet and hoping he’d help with a training… Of the feasts when Merlin would wear the most ridiculous feather hat and accidentally spill drinks of highborn lords and ladies in his clumsy manner… Of the dangers and adventures that would befall them as though out of thin air, and Merlin’s eagerness to never be further than a step away from Arthur when his life was threatened by a new beast or a new witch. Those were the days, but where are they now?  

Now, beneath the grey sky slashed with pink sunshine, Arthur realized that those days were just a Merlin’s smile away from becoming the dust of the past, and so he intended to keep Merlin smiling no matter what. Camelot, the way he knew it, loved it and remembered it, was gone and Arthur could only hope that a day would come when he’d be able to enter the castle of his childhood and once again call it home.

Half the small folk in Camelot think I’m a wraith. Yrien’d soldiers that abandoned the siege of Portstown would spread the word about the dragon and before long, people in all the corners of the kingdom will think I have something to do with the beast. People in the Lower Town… They will never ever call me king once they learn of the dragon. Hundreds of lives were lost to the attack of the beast in June, they will not stand the suspicion of me somehow controlling the dragon, they will not. How the bloody hell am I supposed to rule over them? To bring peace, to restore the unity and wipe out all the divisions that threaten to undo my father’s land? 

The thoughts about Uther made Arthur’s smile fade away. Since Merlin had returned to him, saving the city of Portstown from the grim fate of sacking, Arthur was pushed, over and over again, to reconsider some, if not most of his father’s domestic policies. The ghost of Uther which attempted to haunt Arthur and to drag him into the spirit world was the most terrible thing to ever happen to the young king: no wounds had ever been as painful as the words that hurt the solemn depth of Arthur’s soul. 

However, when Merlin emerged out of the waters, smiling brighter than the sun and with sea weed in his hair, Arthur ran out of worrying thoughts about his father and his kingship as though by command. Did it matter? Did anything matter when Merlin was tip-toeing towards him, trying not to cut his feet with those sharp pointy stones, shivering in the gusts of chilly wind like a cherry tree. The sight of Merlin, safe and alive, the Merlin that outdid the magic of sunstone and moonstone, still seemed too good to be true.  

“What’s so funny?” Merlin asked, sitting down next to Arthur and sneaking beneath Arthur’s red cloak to hide from the morning’s chill. 

“What’s not funny about you?” Arthur responded with a brighter smile, running his hand through Merlin’s hair to get all the sea weed out. “The way you swim… it may seem my father was right about your… afflictions, you know.” 

“At least I swim, and not just sit on the shore, in a silly royal manner like some…” 

Arthur’s hands moved faster than Merlin would’ve guessed, and in a moment, Merlin was writhing in Arthur’s arms as the king’s hand were exploring young warlock’s ribs. 

“Arth… wait, you, just… Ah! Stop, Arthur, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean, your highness, I…” 

“That’s better,” Arthur said, lifting the tickle-siege of Merlin’s ribs and pulling Merlin into his arms. Even after the cold sea, Merlin’s skin still felt fiery-hot. “You shall remember I am the king. Offending your sovereign is high treason.” 

Merlin’s eyes gleamed lusty and sneaky, as he licked his lips and asked, feigning an innocent tone: 

“Might I hope for the king’s pardon?” 

“For your own good, let’s hope you might,” Arthur whispered as his hand climbed the back of Merlin’s neck to invite young warlock for what had been delayed for much too long. 

They were alone on the faraway coastline near the blooming labyrinth of Gedref, and Arthur was so happy he didn’t need to hold back, to think of people that might or might not hear or see them. He pressed his lips to Merlin and let them dance the kiss of sweet tenderness, until he felt how warlock’s lips began to sort of melt beneath the pleasure, and pleasure there was. Merlin’s lips were salty from the sea and chamomile sweet from the natural taste of them, the taste which caused veins on Arthur’s arms to pulse. The king switched to what he loved most – claiming Merlin’s lips with assertive kisses, opening Merlin’s lips with his tongue, not letting the warlock turn away to draw some breath, and making them both evaporate in the pleasure that would cause Merlin’s low breath turn to soft humbly moans. Yes, mine, mine, mine. Now and for ever.  

He took the cloak off Merlin and threw it on the ground, pushing Merlin onto his back as he tried to get free of his own pants. There was no need to pull them down all the way. He wanted to get inside Merlin, he didn’t want to miss the spontaneous passion that was ignited by just Merlin asking for king’s pardon. How am I supposed to keep him around if one his whisper is enough to make me want abandon every stupid council and throw him on the bedsheets and…  

Merlin’s ankles were already so comfortably nested on Arthur’s shoulders and the king didn’t even know how they’d got there. Merlin was underneath him, hot and trembling from desire as much as Arthur was. They had no oil, but Merlin was wet from swimming and a couple of spits were enough to make sure his hole was slick and ready for Arthur. When Arthur pushed his moistened finger inside Merlin, the king gasped from the sight of Merlin rolling his eyes and turning away as his body tensed and his feet stretched. 

“Look at me,” Arthur asked of him when he gifted Merlin one last kiss before pushing inside. “Please. I want to look you in the eyes all the time.” 

Sharing heat was not enough, pushing deeper and deeper inside Merlin’s hole could earn heavens of pleasure but Arthur’s thirst for his former servant had outlived the physical need; he wanted to feel Merlin’s love and where else to look if not in the shining seas of gold that were Merlin’s eyes. As Arthur’s hips would sway their sway, filling Merlin all the way before threatening to leave him, Arthur kept his hands busy locking Merlin’s wrists and their gazes were joined in one sweet connection. 

“Don’t you ever leave me again. Not for that long.” 

Merlin, shy of words, tried to lean closer to Arthur and reach for his lips, but Arthur slammed him to the ground and came to tower over him teasingly. 

“Tell me you’ll never leave me.” 

“I’ll never leave you.” 

“Even if I wear no crown?” 

“Even if you wear no crown.” 

“I love you, Merlin,” Arthur said, feeling powerless to ultimately resist the temptation to fuck Merlin carelessly and restlessly. The sight of pleasure and submission on Merlin’s innocent face was making it hard for Arthur to last. To feel Merlin’s hole try to tighten around Arthur’s cock, to catch the hitches in the warlock’s breathing and to see his legs twitch was one thing, but the mental pleasure from being safe, from seeing Merlin willingly and knowingly give up to him because he thought Arthur was worth love and pleasuring… Arthur’s thrust turned quicker as he kept his lips teasingly above Merlin’s lips, letting the warlock only enjoy the heat of the king’s breath, but never the full kiss itself. When he shoved himself deep inside Merlin to let himself finally spill it, Merlin used the opportunity at once and grabbed Arthur by the neck, pulling the king for a series of hungry kisses. The sea was foaming behind their backs.   

“Your eyes were golden. Nearly all the time,” Arthur said, letting Merlin kiss his hand, finger by finger.  

“Well, er… Right. I guess,” the sight of flush on Merlin’s cheek was the most adorable thing in the world, yet the manner in which he’d press his lips to Arthur’s fingers didn’t seem to agree with his shy tone. “I don’t repress my magic now, so they… you know. They shine.” 

“Do you react with magic to… to me…” 

“To you fucking me? I guess. I react to your every touch. Sometimes, Arthur, I swear, it’s like my magic remembers you or recognizes you and has some private relationship with you behind my back.” 

“Jealous?” 

“A little. Come here, you dollophead. Stop teasing me like that. I wanted to kiss you.” 

“And I loved to see the thirst in your eyes when I denied you that.”

Arthur drew Merlin close and granted him a kiss on the ear before finally letting Merlin obligingly enjoy the king’s lips. 

“Arthur I’m sorry,” the warlock said, breaking the joy all of a sudden. 

“Sorry? What again?!” 

“No, no, nothing of that sort, I didn’t mean it that way. I’m sorry it took so long.” 

Sorry about taking so long. He is mad. I would have waited forever to meet you, my silly star. Arthur didn’t even have to say anything, he just needed to let himself be this way, a hard and lustful breath away from Merlin’s lips, and then Merlin’s mouth was once again feverishly seized, and the young warlock was found gasping at the tide of the blissful sensation as Arthur was pressing him to the ground. Nothing ever felt like Merlin, for it seemed the warlock could find no greater pleasure in the wide world than to let his lips be open by Arthur, and it pleased Arthur more than he could believe in. It pleased him so much he could spend hours on the coastline, delving his tongue deeply into the sweetest mouth and clutching Merlin’s wrists to make sure his little dragon-riding star would not fly away. 

“Shut up, Merlin. You’re talking gibberish. You came to me, crossed leagues of enemy-besieged land and destroyed the great deal of King Odin’s and King Alined’s fleet. There’s nothing to be sorry about.” 

“You think they are gone for good? Odin and Alined? Think we’re safe now?” 

“Safe is ever an overstatement in these days, isn’t it? We are in the open rebellion against the crown of Camelot, mind that. And the kingdom my father had built out of five lands is falling back into fractions, and I can’t do anything about it…”

“You will put all the pieces back together, Arthur, there’s no reason why you can’t,” Merlin promised, his eyes shining as if he could see the day when Albion would be one. “You have the Seaside kingdom. You have allies. You have me.”

Arthur pressed his lips impossibly close to Merlin’s ear.

“And for that I am most thankful.”

Even though Arthur’s mouth was stinging lightly, there seemed to be nothing that would dissuade Merlin of letting their lips meet on and on until they were both breathless. I don’t want them to stop meeting. Never. 

“Arthur, I am by your side to help you mend things,” Merlin said after a while, gazing at the murmurous sea.  

Arthur relaxed, letting himself lie on his stomach as Merlin was caressing the prince’s back. His red cloak was as good as ruined.  

 “Would that it could happen so easily, Merlin. I am out of Yrien’s reach now, and the host which she sent to deal with me has run away when they saw the dragon… But that’s double-edged a sword. I am out of her reach, yes, but she’s equally far away from my grab. One of her major commanders holds Burnwood, and even if we free Burnwood of Gingawaine’s soldiers, be it by hostage exchange or battles, there will be three more Gingawaine castles to take on the way to Camelot: the castle of Chemary, the castle of Brechfa and the castle of Woodspeak. I don’t command an army that will be able to take three castles, I don’t think I even have siege towers and… and my numbers are not worth the siege. Not to mention all the troubles to the west of White Mountains.”

“Your charming auntie, you mean?” 

“My father’s auntie,” Arthur insisted, as though it could make him less related to Vyda Gaheris. “She is the only one who commands a full-scale trained army of more than two thousand swords, and Denaria is everything that stands between her and Gedref.” 

“But there’s a river! You told me. The Sabrina river, right? I mean, she can’t just cross it, she’ll need a bridge, and a large one for two thousand men, and…” 

“And there is one. In Doomspath, lady Lludwig controls that bridge. She is sworn to the castle of Gedref, yet she chose to remain conveniently silent on the issue of me wearing the Seaside crown.” 

“And Denaria? Who will Galla Dindrane support in this… stand-off?” 

“Would that I knew. Galla is the sister of Demeth Dindrane, he was one of my father’s most trusted friends, but… she may find all Uther’s relatives equally attractive. Be it Uther’s son or his cousins.” 

“You think she may be important?” 

Crucial. Every new ally can be crucial for me now. I may sit in Gedref and watch the westerners slaughter the Gingawaines and then defeat whoever survives the war, but then… people will call me a conqueror, right? I am not a conqueror, Merlin. I don’t want to be remembered for shedding blood, like my father. I don’t want to be feared. I want to bring peace to Camelot, for Camelot is my home. And yours, too. I want you to feel like home here. You and everyone who has magic. Oh, Merlin, stop it. Merlin, I said…” 

Arthur turned around and tried to grab Merlin who was using magic to tickle Arthur’s feet, but the warlock was more agile and required a few jumps to be out of Arthur’s reach. Before long, he started tip-toeing back to the sea, thinking Arthur would not follow him. He’s so wrong. 

Arthur dropped his tunic and started chasing Merlin along the coast. The warlock could have more stamina, but without armor, Arthur was faster on the short distances, and before long Arthur’s arms were full of Merlin’s body. That was more than he wanted, more than he could dream of, more than he could believe in – Merlin in his arms, safe and happy and healthy, seagulls in the air and sunlight warming the stony coast. There would be no tickling, it could wait. Even Merlin’s lips could wait, for Arthur felt there was a right thing to do: he hugged Merlin and didn’t let him go for longer than ever, for he needed to feel his familiar weight and warmth, to make sure his warlock would not melt like a spring snow and be gone for another magic mission. 

“I’m sorry, too,” he whispered into Merlin’s ear.  

“About what, your grace?”

“Stop calling me that. I love it when you say my name.”

“Why?” Merlin’s smile was so beautiful and devastating to Arthur’s hopes for chastity.  

“You make it sound special. And it’s like you tell me you love me when you just call me by my name.” 

“Arthur,” Merlin whispered back. “What are you sorry about?” 

“Sorry for making you suffer through all these worthless discussions of lords and ladies and their lands and armies and ambitions. We have so little time on our own that it’s no good wasting it on my war plans. I must be with you. Here. Now.”

“Then come swimming with me,” Merlin invited him, breaking their hug. “Come on, Arthur. Autumn is upon us. In the blink of an eye, the cold nights will come, and the sea will turn to ice and…” 

“Merlin,” Arthur said, laughing. “Gaius really hasn’t taught your anything, has he?” 

“What was he supposed to teach me?” 

“Do you have any idea why the Merchant’s Bay is called the Merchant’s Bay? Because trading gallies sail its waters all the time! All year round. Merlin, we’re in the south, rivers and lakes and seas don’t freeze here. It’s a land of endless summer, they say.”  

“Then come.” 

Merlin pulled him by the hand and made him fall into the sea when they were far enough into the water, the water which licked every inch of Arthur’s skin with what seemed at first freezing and energizing freshness of the new day.

 “See?” Merlin, floating around him, threw his arms around Arthur and let his legs entwine Arthur’s sides underwater. “It’s fine. Swim with me. Oh, Arthur, can you believe it? You are. Here and now. With me. There’s no war here. We’re safe, I promise.”

When stripped off all his secrets, Merlin’s words seemed stronger than any shield, a remedy to cure all ills inflicted upon Arthur by his father’s murder and the fruitless attempt of assassination by Ryence’s soldiers. Arthur reached for Merlin and let them both float in the waters of Merchant’s Bay – with Merlin in his arms, the water didn’t seem that cold. 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 3: THE WITCH’S QUICKENING

The moon was fading. 

Morgana would have felt it even in the blackest night. She no longer required to see the moon to know it was fading, for now she had other means to grasp reality, to connect to the things around her. The fading moon made her own magic weaker and her blood – cooler, it would seem. The idea that her powers would depend on the cycles of moonlight pleased her not, but Morgause had promised it would not be for long. I can't allow myself to turn weaker every fortnight. I must be strong all the time.

Morgana was alone, facing the green night gloom of the piney woods where Morgause had promised to wait for her. Traveling through the forest alone whilst the moon was fading seemed unwise, but Morgana knew she’d thwart any attack, for even if her magic failed her, her sword would come to rescue. But my magic will not fail me tonight. My magic will never fail me. It is the only thing I have now that Alvarr is gone.

Five days passed since they'd burnt Alvarr’s body as befitted the tradition of the druids who’d honor the flames, but the thoughts about his death would still cut her deeper than any swords. She turned around to throw a quick glance at the distant ruins of the castle of Idirsholas which looked unsightly and maintained the fraught silence about it even in the gown of silver moonlight. How can it ever look beautiful? This is the place where Alvarr died, this is forever a tomb. Ashkanar was right to leave it for good.

The wind brushed her hair and went on to rattle among the green and brown branches. This is the night. Five days she had spent studying the potions, all the receipts Morgause could find. She ignored all her sister’s remarks on the levels of complexity.It’s too early, Morgause insisted. Nothing’s too early. We are at war and I am about to wed the king of Camelot. I will go back to this cursed castle of Camelot and I must have all the powers of magic I can study.     

The wind rushed by, cool but caring and tender as a lover's whisper. The rare forests of the land of Powys could not boast of rich grass carpets and flowerbeds; beneath her feet, stones and sticks were prickly as if the woods were deliberately hurtful, trying to weaken her on the way. But Morgana cared not: there were blisters and corns on her feet already, and scratches and bruises she had earned while mastering the art of sword fight. If only potions were as easy as cutting things. Potions were a tedious study. There were simple ones, like those which would cause people and cattle sufferings from flatulence – Morgause had told her that in the earliest days after the exile from the Lake of Avalon by dragonlords, the Meredoc tribe would earn their coins by selling those sorts of potions to the peasants who’d try and give them to the neighbors who’d wronged them. Some jealous wives would buy potions which would make the faces of the young neighbor girls be completely covered in boils. Those potions were the easiest to study, but to make Merlin suffer and pay for what he had done, boils would not suffice. 

There were more complicated drinks which required days and sometimes weeks of brewing, the ones that would permit to track the person who’d drunk it and the ones that would make people think they had fallen in love. Some potions, like the Bloom of Mortaeus, were certain to grant their tasters a prolonged and unpleasant death, the one she’d gladly gift to Merlin. 

The most complicated receipt she had learnt so far was the one that required a special ingredient, the mandrake root. It looked as a thick, dense, black liquid and smelled like boiled mud, and required either tears or blood of the victim to be added in due time. The mandrake roots positioned under the victim’s bed caused him or her to suffer terrible nightmares and visions which would make the victim mistake the dreamworld for reality and beg for the relief of death. Of all the potions she had learnt, it seemed to suit Merlin the most. 

The thoughts of Merlin were enough to make her blood boil from rage even though the moon was fading, but soon enough the quiet of the woods did manage to unnerve her. Merlin’s days are numbered. Once I am queen of Camelot, I shall set the reward for him and I shall demand that he is brought to the castle alive. He will rue the day he killed Alvarr, oh,  I promise he will.  

Swordfight or potions, discussions of war strategy with Ruadan or inspecting the agreement Finna was trying to broker with the merchants of Catha - Morgana was ready to keep herself busy with anything, anything that required thinking about something other than dead Alvarr. She had insisted on taking the second step of her initiation so early for the same reason - potion practice required accuracy, a rigorous approach to studying and a comprehensive inspection of magic liquid on every stage of brewing. It almost left no time to think. Almost.

The nights could not be undone, though, neither with the sleeping draughts which she had resumed taking, nor with the healing bracelet her sister had given her. She had stayed up for two nights, but the third night's sleep was impossible to escape, and when the sunset's ramble was done, and the sky left open for the darkness to swallow it, Morgana got so scared she nearly fainted.

It seemed to her she didn't know who she really was. It appeared that her summer had been spent in vain, all lost for nothing, that she had once again become an insecure girl from the castle where her freedom was bound by the will of a bloody tyrant and by the blind subservience to his authority from the court members. It felt like she had gone back to the state where neither wine, nor music, nor even prayers could allay her deepest and most forceful fear of the night and the terrors it could bring. The only difference being that in Camelot, the dreads of her dreams had never happened, while her present nightmares were filled with visions of Merlin killing Alvarr and her being helpless to stop the wretched servant. She woke up crying and started whispering Alvarr's name as if it could bring him back. Morgana would whisper Alvarr's name every night before falling asleep; she knew it would not make him any more alive, but she refused to let him go. I can't be without him. We shared thoughts. We shared the warmth of our bodies, we shared our dreams, and our hopes and our fantasies. We could share souls. It can't be that this connection is simply gone, it just doesn't make sense.

She shook her head, hating the fact that thoughts about Alvarr had followed her everywhere, even on a night as such. She wanted to howl from the ineffable grief, but the only thing stopping her from crying her eyes out and tearing her hair was the satisfaction her suffering would bring to Merlin. I will not grant him the pleasure of seeing me lose my mind and soul. I will find him first and make him suffer, and he himself will learn the pain from all the wounds he had inflicted upon my soul.

But will it bring Alvarr back to you?

Morgana's fingers turned into fists. She most of all hated her own desire to be weak; in the latest hour of the summer nights perfumed with sorcery and preparations for war, it would appear there was another person buried somewhere beneath that grief deep inside her, the person asking awful questions and condemning her wish of vengeance. I must be strong. If I refuse revenge, I might as well take my own life.

When the forest seemed to have wrapped itself around her to not let Morgana a step further, she noticed the amber twinkling in the depth of the woods. Morgause.  

Her sister was standing by the feeble fire cast on the round clearing. Above her, the lamb was hanging, the animal's legs tied to four different trees to symbolize the four directions of the world. The lamb was alive and scared, but must have spent too much time in captivity and was nearly out of physical powers to resist. The creature's legs were jerking weakly and her belly was rising and falling feverishly, as if the lamb were running out of breath. The clearing had the crafted patterns on its soil, a circle and other lines and figures Morgana could not understand. 

Her sister's soft blond locks had been cut since her return from the risky mission of murdering Sir Vidor Gaheris at his own betrothal feast in the castle of Camelot. Slender, yet managing to look strong, Morgause had nothing on save a black loincloth, and her lovely face seemed to change expressions with every new dance of flames, going from sly to sullen and to outright bestial.

“Sister,” Morgause smiled, the dagger in her hand glimmering in flames. “You have found the way.” 

“I have. It wasn’t that hard.”

“The Triple Goddess favors you, it would seem,” Morgause stepped away from the fire and handed the dagger to Morgana. “Shall we begin?” 

“Yes,” Morgana said, trying her best to make her voice submit to her confidence, but her feelings were defiant to her will. Her hands were twitching, and the lamb, as if feeling what was to come, started to try and tear the ropes apart, trying to get back to the earth.

Morgana didn’t want to look up, didn’t want her eyes to meet those of the scared and innocent creature. She recalled the many times when she’d mock Arthur’s attitude towards hunting, the way he always thought killing things could mend a broken heart. Goddess, Arthur was born a warrior, not a ruler. And he died a prey to assassins. 

The lamb was tied low enough to permit Morgana to open its belly with a dagger, the smell of her fur and piss were filling the clearing, and the four fires lit around it would spit ashes to the gusts of wind. For a moment, the silly voice in her head, that one of a weakling that did not deserve to be heard, tried to tell her she might be following Arthur’s path.

You are too, trying to mend your heart with killing things. Have you considered that you may end up being killed a prey just like Arthur? 

Shut up and be gone!

When Morgause’s voice thundered in the night air, the doubts were repelled and broken. It was no longer about her heart, it could not be about her heart any longer, for she felt as if she no longer had a heart after Alvarr had been stabbed to death. Alvarr is gone. Dead and not returning. He was the man who loved her the way she was - spirited, adventurous and fiercely devoted to her cause, the man who managed to love her amidst the hazardous conditions they were put in, the man who stepped over all the prejudgement that had separated the Isle of the Blessed and the Druids for hundreds of years. He was everything and more to her, but he was gone, butchered in his sleep, and his murderer was somewhere out there, enjoying breath.  

“Morgana of House Gorlois, do you renounce all the false gods and promise to gift your service to none other but the Triple Goddess of Avalon in whichever form Her Devine Entity may require it?” 

Morgana could not see Morgause: it appeared the priestess’s shadows were everywhere, and her voice was wrapping Morgana from all the sides. The lamb’s attempts to free itself got hysterical. The wind got stronger, too, as if trying to ruin the ceremony, but Morgana found something oddly bracing about the onslaught of nature: it made her voice sound stronger in the attempt to defy whatever forces that sought to postpone her initiation, even the nature itself.  

“I swear on my blood that I shall bow to no other gods other than the Tripple Goddess of Avalon, that I shall live to server her in whichever way she may desire and make it known to me, and may death be the sole boundary to my loyalty!” 

The flames were shining brighter, or so it seemed, and the gusts of wind suddenly lost the power to disturb them. The fires were now dancing in the rhythm that resembled a worried heartbeat. 

“Morgana of House Gorlois, do you swear to protect the ancient customs of the Isle of the Blessed? Do you swear that the most important goal guiding you will be the well-being of the Old Religion?” 

“I swear on my bones that I shall act as protector of the Isle of the Blessed, I swear on my bones that in my face the Old Religion will always find the helping hand!”

«Morgana of House Gorlois, do you offer you flesh to the Triple Goddess of Avalon?» 

«May my flesh, all of it, belong with the Triple Goddess of Avalon from this day forth!» 

«Now seal your vows!» 

Morgana closed her eyes, whispered the spell, and thrusted the dagger in the belly of the lamb, opening it from guts to neck. Before long, the rain of blood and entrails was on her, raining on her, covering her in the sticky and iron-smelling glue of a mess which felt strangely warming in the late summer night. The fires were gone the instant, and Morgana thought she could hear laughter in the dark air, and whispers of the grave cold voices, and the weak crying of the person calling for her, and a raven croaking.

When she opened her eyes, Morgause was near her, took her by the hand and guided her to the basin and offered her the cloths which could help Morgana clean herself. In the darkness of the night, the priestess wore a perplexed expression. Morgana began to wash herself reluctantly, for blood of the lamb felt extremely warm on her skin even though the wind was growing more blustery with every passing moment.

«So? Is it over now?» Morgana asked, letting her hair fall into the basin. «Does my flesh, too, belong with the Triple Goddess? Like my blood?»  

«All in due course, sister,» Morgause replied calmly. «We are talking about the most ancient of witchcrafts, and things do take time to work when the Isle magic is practiced. I still blame myself for agreeing to this so early.» 

«Nonsense,» Morgana said, letting the water carry the entrails of the lamb off her skin. «Early, you say. I must go to this wretched castle tomorrow, defenseless as I am. The quicker we are done with my initiation, the better.» 

«You are still far from initiation, sister. The last step is the most difficult one and it won’t be five years before you’re able to offer you bones to the Tripe Goddess. Until then, you’re as defenseless as you were the day before. You can still be killed by mortal blade.” 

«Why can’t we do it earlier?»  

«Because it will weaken you and mayhaps even take your life unless we obey the rules, sister," Morgause had to enforce the strict tone. "The sort of magic required for the third step takes years of study, learning of incantations and spells, of potions and amulets, of the Isle’s history and legacy… You’ve decided to proceed with the second step just months after your blood changed. My sisters would’ve disagreed with your decision.» 

Sisters . The word was fraught with grief. It was, surprisingly, the first time that Morgana spied the notions of grief and pain in her sister’s voice. Morgause had looked fierce and brave, had acted fiercer and braver still, and had not for once let the display of her feelings seep through the armor of her duty as the last priestess of the Isle of the Blessed. But the mention of her sisters brought near as much sorrow to her voice as Morgana could imagine. 

«Your sisters?» 

“My mentors, my fellow priestesses from the Isle of the Blessed who taught me whatever I know,” Morgause had to raise her head as if her eyes were searching for the moon to try and learn the hour. Or she is afraid to cry. “Would that I could seek their counsel now…” 

“How did they die?” 

“Balinor,” if the mention of her sisters was sewn with grief, the name Morgause had just spoken sounded as if she were cursing someone. “When Uther thought Nimueh had betrayed him, he joined his forces with the last dragonlord and talked him into burning the Isle of the Blessed. When they brought me to the Isle, the whole place was engulfed by dragonfire. Those sisters who survived the flames died nonetheless because of the blow the last great dragon delivered to the Isle's magic."

"I don’t get it. Why does the blow to magic have anything to do with health?”

"For a high priestess, magic and health are always nigh. Once the Isle was burnt, the health of the sisters decayed as much. It was all her fault,” Morgause whispered like an outraged ghost.  

“Whose?” 

“Nimueh's! The older sisters hadwarned her. Nothing good would come out of the friendship between a priestess and a western king, they would say. The Isle had learned it when Boodikha tried to use King Virico the Unfortunate to bring down the dragons. Yet Nimueh ignored the warnings, for the vanity of it, and...” 

“But Uther was no western king, though?” Morgana pointed confusedly as she was wrapping herself in a black woolen gown.

“He was near as good as one, sister. His mother was the daughter of the reigning Mountain king. His uncle was the crown prince of Mountain Land.”

“But Uther had no rights to the throne before his uncle and his uncle’s children.” 

“He didn’t. But he had friends and swords. A pity he hasn't butchered half his family like Cenred did when he conquered the throne of Essetir. The world would be a better place without Vyda Gaheris and her sons and her grandsons and her war commanders. Now come, sister, we must return to the castle. You must be ready for tomorrow.”

Tomorrow . I used to have no tomorrow. Back in the castle of Camelot, with Uther's eyes following me wherever I went, I had no need to think of tomorrow. Alvarr changed that, he made me think tomorrow didn't have to mimic yesterday, he showed me that tomorrow could hold plans and dreams and hopes. Is there any sense about tomorrow now?

There is. There shall always remain a sense about tomorrow so long as Alvarr's murderer is not punished.

Morgana heard the wind roll fallen leaves on the ground and tried to straighten her gown which felt glued to her skin where the lamb's blood had not been washed away. She tried to drive the deepest inhales and to feel the difference brought by the second step of initiation, but she felt the same as the previous day. Must be Morgause's right. It takes time.

As she followed her sister through the yawning darkness of the woods, she couldn't resist thinking about Alvarr again. The night before reaching Iseldir's hideout, he had told her legends about a dragonlord and a priestess falling in a tragic love, and had voiced his concerns about the path Morgana had chosen to follow. Priestesses offer their blood, flesh and bones to the Triple Goddess, he had said.In the end of the training, a High Priestess is not exactly a woman. Her flesh, her blood and her bones are not hers. They belong with the Goddess. With magic. She is not quite herself after initiation.

But if there is no more you, why do I need my old self anymore?

***

The castle of Idirsholas had already welcomed the first legions of Cenred’s army. Come daylight, and the yards and ruins would be filled with laughter and filthy jokes, with the sounds of soldiers sharpening their blades. The dull grey air would be full of drifting smoke from the cookfires drowning in the rain, columns of infantry men and riders would keep arriving, but that wouldn’t make the castle lively and homely. This place is a tomb. Maybe it’s best I left it.

The castle of Idirsholas was nothing but a temporary camp, of course. Morgana knew too well that the few measures she had undertaken after the inspection of Idirsholas with Alvarr could not have turned back time and bring back the strong fortress with high walls and massive towers and merlons that resembled sharp stone dragonteeth. Thick as the bleak grey stone walls were, they were crumbling down and would be torn apart with the easiest siege weapons, providing the attackers succeed past the trenches Morgana had been digging. The throne room, dim and smoky, had long maintained the grave silences and resented any guests. Morgana felt as if the fortress would only spring back to life had Ashkanar himself come from the dead, but the dragonlord was dead for centuries. The dead never come back. Neither Ashkanar, nor Alvarr, nor Arthur. They are all gone now. 

Their horses had brought them from the woods quicker than could be expected. By now, Morgana had learned the price the animals would pay for being so fast and swift, but the enchantments Morgause would use no longer shocked her. Magic has the darker sides, but only because those who hate us shower us with darkness as well. We can't fight brutality with humility.   

Following Alvarr’s murder, Morgause had ordered a tent to be raised for Morgana outside the Grey Keep, in the Middle Level, with a dozen guards positioned all around, so that even a mouse would not find a way in unnoticed. But Merlin is no mouse. He is cunning and vengeful and cold-blooded. He had tried to kill me before. He left me for the Medihr knight to cut me to pieces. When it didn’t work, he poisoned me like a coward. And now he has taken Alvarr from me.

The commanders of Cenred's army - the most responsible and reliable men he had sent - were accommodated in the Grey Keep, so that the provision arriving from the Essetir clans of druids would be under the zealous watch of the troop leaders. Morgana reckoned there were no more than two hundred men in the Grey Keep, but even such modest a number proved a test to the castle's facilities, for it had been too long since that many people would gather there at the same time. The Middle Level had welcomed the cavalry, who kept their horses in the stables of the Lower Level, and watched after the countless kitchens, cookfires, smithies and improvised armories that had to be established. The infantry men and the archers had to be positioned outside the curtain walls, but Morgana had done her best to organize the sort of camp that even Lord Sewyll Accolon would have approved of.

She had ordered a deep ditch to be dug around the camp and stuffed it with sharpened stakes to make it defensible were they to suffer an unforeseen attack. She had organized the tents in rows but ensured broad and spacious avenues between them to make the camp compact. The drainage masters from the druid tribes had spent a great amount of time trying to organize the latrines and the system which would wash away the waste and carry away the smells so that the camp would be orderly.

And now the camp was being filled with life, just like the plowed field that was sowed for the first time. The soldiers of King Cenred's army were making their way along the Mercian trade road, helping the Essetir druid volunteers guard the provision carts on their way, and when Morgana rode pas the gates of Idirsholas in the late night, she noticed tall battle standards of cloth-of-green painted with snakes; the standards were flapped along the lofty poles along the perimeters of the camp, and beneath them, the guards would walk their usual night rounds with spears and crossbows, ever alert and watchful of every approach.

Morgana's tent in the Middle Level was made of cloth of purple and surrounded by a rink of pikes topped with lamb's skulls - Morgause had assured her it was necessary to achieve the additional defensive effect of the magic the priestess had summoned to protect her sister from Merlin and the likes of him. All the skulls bore an ugly sameness to them, and beneath the faint silver whisper of the moonlight the sight could inspire fright even in the seasoned guards. Surprisingly, there were not only guards by her tent at such an hour: Morgana spotted a short, aged woman with a crooked nose and a blue turban on her head. Finna. What does she want?

"Is aught amiss?" Morgause asked worriedly as she dismounted the stallion.

"Morgause," Finna greeted the priestess with a courteous nod. "Morgana. I am sorry for the late visit, but the envoys of Catha have arrived. Their journey has been a long one, and full of perils, and they wish to see you."

"Me?" Morgana frowned. "Why me? Why not wake Ruadan?"

"Because you are the future queen of Camelot," Morgana could sense pride in Finna's voice. "And the word of your summer deeds has reached Catha, however far the island is."

Morgause didn't seem to be fancying the talks with Catha envoys.

"Morgana will be traveling to the castle of Camelot on the morrow," she said. "My sister must have some sle..."

"It is fine," Morgana cut her off. "I will gladly welcome the envoys now. Finna, please, wake someone and see that wine and bread are brought to my tent, I can't be meeting Catha envoys empty-handed."

"Thank you, Morgana," Finna replied happily and darted off into the darkness.

The more things I have to do, the better. I don't want to be falling asleep tonight. I don't want to see bad dreams where Alvarr dies.

You think you can evade sleep forever?

"Sister," Morgause called her as they stormed into the darkness of the tent where the priestess conjured a blueish flame that would illuminate the place. "You must rest before..."

"Finna has been promising gold from the merchants of Catha since the day I arrived for the Triskelion gathering," Morgana reminded her. "We need this gold. Some of the Cenred's soldiers are arriving armed with the swords that are no better than the wooden toys I used when we played the melees with Arthur. Forget not that Vyda Gaheris has been running her smithies out of breath for more than a month, ever since she received Uther's order to assemble the army to oppose Cenred's invasion. We may be outnumbering her two to one, but if we send men armed with sticks to the pass of Camlann, we may lose the war."

"The Howden smithies will be at our disposal once you wed the king," Morgause said. "They have all the swords and spears and arrows and shields an army can desire. They..."

"... sell most of their weapons to Mercia," Morgana said bluntly. "You've told me yourself we have to keep King Bayard of Mercia out of this war. We may be tasting his patience already with all the Cenred's forces traveling along the Mercian trade road, how much longer will it be before we finally provoke him to step into the conflict?"

The priestess's eyes gleamed with cold calculation, and it took her some time to emit a calm sigh:

"But no coins, no matter how many, can conjure all the weapons we need in such a short period of time. We shall have to seize the Howden armories, for otherwise..."

"And seize we shall," Morgana assured her. "It's just that I mean to compensate King Bayard's trade losses. With the gold from Catha's merchants."

Morgause smiled, and a look of approval didn't escape Morgana's attention. She loves it that I am learning from her.

The envoys form Catha arrived as the sun was about to turn up at the eastern gates of the sky; they were more than three dozen men, all ahorse magnificent black stallions, and their leader riding a white horse. Wearing linen skirts and tunics of black and white, they also had copper disks sewed into their cloaks. Their leader called himself Vultyol, he walked into the tent without guards, lean, hard and wearing a feather cloak of green and orange, a splendid thing to behold. His hair seemed as red as blood.

"Morgana, the future queen of Camelot," he said, bowing down in front of her seat.

The move was meant to be symbolic and destined to win the man Morgana's goodwill, but she couldn't be awed that easily. She stood up and showered him with a fake smile, though.

"You don't have to kneel in my presence, Vultyol of Catha," Morgana said, helping him rise to his feet. "Allow me to present you my sister, Morgause."

"The High Priestess of Avalon," Vultyol said humbly. "The last of your kind. It is an honor."

"Vultyol," Morgause smiled. "The honor is ours. Catha is an ancient island, ancient and glorious. You were an old force when Camelot was but a squalling babe at breast."

"Indeed," Vultyol nodded, taking his seat in a puffed chair that would normally belong to Morgause. "Catha was one when the dragonlords were divided in two kingdoms."

"Divided in two kingdoms?" Morgana exchanged a naturally surprised look with her sister. "I thought the dragonlords' unity could never be ruined."

Morgause snorted.

"Forgive my sister," the priestess said. "Uther's conquest has influenced the way the nobles are taught by their librarians and record keepers; the Usurper taught only what he wanted to tell of the druids king and queens, and my sister is unaware of many facts from your history. Do not take it for an insult, Vultyol.

Vultyol spread his hands in a warm gesture of conciliation.

"How could I take it for an insult? The Usurper's madness is known even to us in Catha. Morgana, the so-called unity of the druids broke many centuries ago, when four dragonlord families started war against Northumbria, while the remaining two dragonlord families chose to oppose the invasion."

"Why would the dragonlords start a war against Northumbria?" Morgana was puzzled. "I thought their purpose was to keep peace..."

"So they will always have everybody believe, sister," Morgause rushed to explain. "They claimed their war against Northumbria was waged to keep Northumbria out of war with Mercia, yet when the war was done, the four families tore a vast piece of land off Northumbria and proclaimed it their own kingdom. Elmet."

"The Perilous Land," Morgana whispered.

"Indeed. While the two families which opposed the war remained to reside in Denaria, in the valley which is now known as the Valley of the Fallen Kings," Morgause took a sip of wine.

"Catha's fate was joined with Denaria when our king Gruff chose to marry a princess from a Denaria dragonlord family while the Elmet dragonlords were still in war with Northumbria. But those days are long gone, gentle queen, it's the days that are still to come which bring me here."

"The wise man is always looking into the future," Morgause said approvingly. "Tell us what you seek, Vultyo of Catha."

"Freedom," the man replied at once. "Catha is the biggest known island in Albion. Bigger than the Isle of Mora of Nemeth and bigger than the Isle of Man. Yet we have remained ruled by Gwynedd for far too long. Their tyranny is beginning to exhaust us. Many druids are taking shelter at Catha, ruled by the mind-bender Alator. It is also out of care for their future that I've come to humbly ask you to help the Isle of Catha break away from Gwynedd when you're crowned queen of Camelot."

And if I agree, you will give me the gold I need. Very well designed, my feathered lord.

"Vultyol," Morgana began mildly. "I am afraid you ask of more than I can give. It is known that Camelot has fought many a war against Gwynedd. My own father perished in one of these wars, and the small folk know the sad songs about those battles, to their sorrow. Like "Everwick Winds" and many more. Neither Camelot nor Gwynedd could prevail, for our border is marked with treacherous mountains and gorges where armies can't move properly. And Camelot never had fleet which means I can't hope to attack King Caerleon and Queen Annis from the sea."

"But your grace can build a fleet, with the gold that Catha can offer," the merchant said with a rueful half-smile.

"In the Merchant's Bay, yes," Morgana recalled the long-time dream of Uther to one day have his own fleet which would make his enemies dread him even more. "But Portstown is too far away from Gwynedd and..."

"I was not talking about Portstown, your grace," the merchant's smile got even more rueful in the cold blue gleam of the magic fire.

"But Camelot has no other access to sea," Morgana frowned confusedly.

"You can win one in the kingdom of Elmet," the merchant said.

The morning light was already raining on the tent cloth, painting it from purple to shades of lilac and violet. Morgana stared at her sister, visibly at a loss.

"Is it some jape, Vultyo?" Morgause tone was close to irritated. "Elmet is a Periolous Land. It suffered from a curse when her king captured a bird of Phoenix for the priestess Boodikha, and ever since, the land is fraught with doom."

"No longer, it appears," the merchant looked like a child who thought he was sharing the biggest secret with his friends. "The curse is gone."

"Gone? Gone how?!" Morgause sprang to her feet out of excitement.

"Would that I knew," Vultyo shrugged expansively. "The greenery is back. The drought is gone. That awful orange light is dispelled. Somehow, the kingdom is brought back to life."

"But...but...it's...How could it be?!" Morgause was for some reason driven nervous by the announcement. "How?!"

"The reasons are beyond my grasp," Vultyo said. "I am but a humble merchant. I have sent druid men to check it more thoroughly, but it appears the Perilous Land is no longer Perilous and you know what it means for Camelot. Morgana, Camelot has the strongest claim for the Elmet terrain. When you're done with this wretched western Gaheris creature, cross the Northern Plains and enter the Perilous Land, I beg you. If you build a fortress up there and a harbor for your warships, Gwynedd will not dare defy you. King Caerleon and Queen Annis can't win Camelot both, in the field and in the sea. They will have to surrender to your terms."

"We must not let go of such an opportunity," Morgause nodded. "When the war with Westerners is done, Morgana will invade Elmet and claim all its territories for Camelot, Vultyo."

"Thank you, your grace," Vultyo rose to his feet and bowed down despite Morgana's protests. "I know that I was ignorant enough to seek your audience in such late an hour, and I retreat now. For the small portion of Catha's gratitude, we pledge our gold to your present campaign."

That pleased Morgana, but when the merchant disappeared out of sight, she turned around to see her sister staring in the flames, discontent all over her wrinkling face.

"What is it? Morgause?" Morgana asked carefully.

"I like it not, I like it not at all, sister. First the magic of the Albus river, now the curse is somehow lifted off the Perilous Land... What next, the dragonlord coming back to Albion? There are things happening, the deepest changes, and their reason seems so clear, yet it escapes my sight," Morgause was unlike her, garrulous and nervous.

"But Vultyol said Catha has dispatched some druids to investigate the matter, they..."

"He might as well have dispatched some hunting dogs, they would have been more useful," Morgause wouldn't spare an eye roll even if her life depended on it. "The druids are blind when it comes to matters like this. Druid magic is rooted into elemental forces which require neither understanding nor study, they will not be able to grasp the more complicated things. Only Iseldir... But the wretched goat of a man sits on his stone bench in his stupid cave, guarding his treasures the way a troll would guard his gold. I shall have to investigate the matter myself, but not before I am certain of your safety. As for this merchant, what do you think we shall do about his plea?"

"What do you mean? You have just told him..."

"What I told him doesn't matter, sister. It's your opinion that defines the future of the Perilous Land, if everything is as this merchant says."

Morgana froze and tried to measure her sister's expression with a curious gaze. She would not ask me if everything were simple. There's something else she has envisioned for the Perilous Land.

"You think we can make better use of the situation than promise support Catha's fight for independence in exchange for their gold," Morgana spoke slowly, as if she hoped that winning fractions of a moment would bring her closer to the answer. "But what use?"

"Who is the biggest threat to the success of our plan, sister?" Morgause posed the question in the tone Geoffrey would give Morgana when he'd go about explaining the same matter of grammar over and over again.

"Bayard of Mercia."

"And if we..."

"I got it!" Morgana near screamed, the triumph from successful guesswork making her smile - something she thought she'd never do after losing Alvarr. "We can direct Bayard attention to Elmet!"

"Indeed," Morgause's smile lit the tent as much as the magic flames did. "For centuries, Elmet was on his north-western border, and that border line needed no guarding, for Elmet was the Perilous Land, uninhabited and harmless from the military point. We must make sure that the word reaches Bayard. Let him know that Elmet is free of its curse and let him believe that Gwynedd is planning to conquer it now. The Elmet frontline will attract all his attention and King Bayard of Mercia won't trouble himself with Camelot affairs so long as we remain loyal to the agreement Uther and Bayard signed last year."

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 4: LOST AND FOUND 

Gaius was working late.

The position of the Royal Secretary was better than the position of an imprisoned physician confined within the shattered Western Tower, but Gwen was fearing for him nonetheless. He hasn’t taken his imprisonment well. Small wonder. Cold walls and windy rooms would not agree with anybody. He looks worse than ever. He shouldn’t be overburdening himself with all the paper work, it’s bad to read by the candle at his age. 

Bad or not, it was a must-do of his new position, and there seemed to be no way for Gaius to avoid further problems with his eyesight. Gwen remembered too well that the physician’s chambers had never been the tidiest and cleanest in the castle, with dusty tomes piled onto tables and brewing potions filling the room with queer odors, but his new job turned the chambers into a complete mess with papers scattered everywhere. Inks, inks, and more inks.

There was nothing important in those papers, however. Gwen wasn’t spying on Gaius, of course she wasn’t, she was just curious to see if any of those papers mentioned anything related to Morgana’s return. Gaius refused to give her a single word after he’d told her there was a “faint hope” Morgana might be coming back, and Gwen was sure the physician would keep the return of Morgana secret under any circumstances. Yet wasting the chance to check the papers while she was waiting for Gaius to come back from the council work was above Gwen’s powers of self-control.

The inks composed a dull and boresome reading. There were drafts of the tax reform lined out by the late king Ryence, with remarks of his council members and the reviews of the lords and the ladies of the Camelot territories. Not all of them, though. Lady Gedref is still confined for not destroying that stupid labyrinth. Lord Ragnell of Balor is in the castle, but he seems too drunk to be writing any reviews. He still mourns his son slain in Arthur’s patrol, and so does lady Meirchion, but she is in her home castle in Ascetir and some say she’s gone mad. Lord Pellinore of Nemeton has left for his home castle recently, and the rumour had it he’s got a letter that said his wife tried to take her life after she learned Modron was slain. Even Yrien couldn’t keep him after such horrific news. I wonder if Lady Pellinore knows that her boy lived. I wonder if she ever finds out.

Morgana’s name was mentioned in the papers only once, in a note which had something to do with the castle of Asgorath being granted to Nentres Gaheris since “Morgana was missing and likely dead.” Gwen wanted to tear the parchment to pieces or burn in the hearth of Gaius’s chambers the instant she read that line. She is not dead. She was never kidnapped. Morgause most likely saved her and took her out of Uther’s clutches. And now she’s coming back. She can be. There is a faint hope.

“You’re putting too much hopes for this girl,” Gwaine had told her earlier that day, indifferent and busy with a ripe red apple when he had returned to the Western Bridge after bidding farewell to Lancelot.

“You don’t know her,” Gwen thought Gwaine was too bold for someone who had just been released out of cells for street fighting with Lancelot. I am still a little angry with him and he’s saying such things.

“True enough. I don’t know her. And I don’t know many other noble girls, but I know one thing they have in common: they are of noble birth. And you’re a blacksmith’s daughter.”

That stopped her dead. What right does he have to mention my father?

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“I didn’t mean it in a bad way, princess. But that’s how the world works: nobles don’t befriend blacksmiths. And neither do their children, and the children of their children, and the children of the children of their children, and…”

“Enough. I get it. But Morgana is not just some noble,” suddenly, Gwen wanted to argue with him. “She is different. Entirely.”

“You’ve said the same about Rion. The day you were preparing to go see a crown put on his head. And what happened the following day? Rion led men, knights of Camelot, to the streets to slaughter the protesting citizens. How does it make him different form Uther? Or his uncle? Or other nobles?”

Confusion upon confusion upon confusion. His question didn’t come unexpected, for it was what she herself had been thinking about ever since she learned about riots. Yet the answer was not the easy to figure out. The riots provided Gwen with too many complicated matters to reflect upon, the matters that kept knocking on her head, demanding the wakefulness she wasn’t ready to display in the light of Morgana’s promised return.  

“Rion did it… The riot was an angry one. A bad one,” she said thoughtfully, recalling the disgusting cries she heard through the window and the rush that seized the castle guards. “People were beginning to light torches. Gwaine, you know how many lives would be in danger if the fires engulfed the Lower Town? Or the Southern Village? Uther would have used the archers. Rion, on the contrary, used knights and shields, the casualties were only… only…”

Gwaine shook his head, disappointed; his uncombed hair was a delight to behold in the soothing blows of wind. 

“You don’t understand, princess. Shields or arrows, all nobles rely on force when the commoners show disobedience. Uther and Rion alike. Morgana is one of them. If you think that she’ll be able to fix things when she comes back, you know which way she’ll choose. She’ll choose violence.”

“And what will Arthur choose?” Gwen’s tone all of a sudden got so strong it felt she thrusted the words into the thin summer air. “Will he just come to the castle and ask for the throne of Camelot to be kindly returned to him? Will he not choose violence?”

“Make sure he will, princess. But that’s because he’s a noble, too. Will I see you tonight?”

“Depends on Gaius,” Gwen wasn’t sure she wanted to see Gwaine tonight. “If he’s got too much work to do, I might stay in the castle and help him. I would have, you know, invited you to Merlin’s old room, but the security is too tight and I’m not sure I’ll fetch all the papers in time.”

“That’s fine, princess. I am not fond of spending too much time around the guards. I’ll be waiting for you,” he said, planting a kiss on her cheek.

His kiss didn’t feel as sweet as it used to, and she hated that even when Gwaine was kissing her, all she could think of was Lancelot’s sad goodbye. I should have made him stay. I was so foolish.

She returned to Merlin’s old room then, spending thrice as much time, for the yellow-cloaked guards of the Gingawaines were eager to stop her at every corner and demand the passage paper signed by the new royal secretary. Come noon, and the southern wind pulled low clouds over Camelot, so grey that they seemed colorless. They erupted with slow but steady rain which would soak the fields of wheat and turn many streets in the Southern Village muddy.

 It was in a way charming to stay in Gaius’s rooms and watch the teardrops of the rainfall spiral on the windows, to listen to the soothing rhythm of water dancing on the roof. It reminded Gwen of the time before the Gingawaines and their court flooded the castle of Camelot, before they came to seek shelter from Cenred’s invasion, the invasion which, as Gwen had found out, was a mummer’s trick in Ryence’s plan to seize the throne of Camelot. Before it all happened, she had often dropped by and had often chatted with Gaius over a cup of herbal tea, and even though Morgana had been missing for a while, she had a sense that things could turn back to normal if they all believed in it and worked hard and supported one another. Me and Arthur and Merlin. 

 Her hopes were dashed like ships upon the rocks when Sir Leon raced to the castle to announce Arthur had been slain in the patrol mission, and she still felt like she had walked the thin ice between helping the kingdom get free of the grip of a mad tyrant and helping the tyrant’s foes slaughter her dear friend. It was the ice she hoped she’d never cross again. Arthur was more than a friend to me. I thought I loved him. I thought something could’ve worked out. Even after I poisoned his father…The day before I thought I’d poison Uther, I kissed Arthur.  

 And beneath the falling rain, with the comforting heat of cookfire in the room, she felt everything was tying into a knot, into an end of the rope at the gallows. With half the court turning sides and crossing the White Mountains to join Vyda Gaheris and Arthur massing up his forces in the southern territories of Camelot, any move seemed the wrong one. But the price of mistake is too high now. We must somehow do things right, Morgana will know, if she comes, she will know what to do, she always knew what to do. She is a smart girl, the smartest of them all.

 Gaius returned to his chambers after dark, so tired he seemed to be barely standing. No longer in the dusty brown robes sweeping the floor, the physician made a more respectful impression in his new red-and-blue robes, but not until the candles would rain light on his tired face with bony cheeks and grey hair that would almost fall on his shoulders. Gwen’s presence in the room seemed to be upsetting for him.

 “You’ve decided to stay,” Gaius concluded without greeting her.

“You didn’t expect me to leave after you told me Morgana might return to the castle.”

Might return doesn’t mean will return,” Gaius said coldly. “I hoped Lancelot would convince you to travel south.”

“To Arthur?”

“Gwen,” his hands produced a gesture urging her to not talk of Arthur so loudly.  

“Gaius, I’m tired! I’m tired of talking in whispers and be afraid to speak his name!” Gwen words burst suddenly, like sparkles blown out of fire by the sudden gust. “You know he is somewhere there in the south, Gwaine knows he is there, half the court fled because they know Arthur lives! You want me gone because you will have to tell him once he’s here, right?”

“Tell him what?” Gaius did choose to switch to whisper nonetheless.

“That it was me who poiso…”

“There is no need in telling that. shall not say a thing, for I care about you, Gwen. But you think Queen Regent will protect your secret as faithfully as me if she is put on trial?”

Yrien. Will Arthur put Yrien on a trial? If he does, she will tell him everything. Goddess.

“I only want you gone because I feel you’d be safer in Ascetir, child,” Gaius indeed tried to sound caring, but he was far from succeeding. “The times are dangerous. The war is here.”

The war you have started when you agreed to poison Uther, Gwen could hear him say it even though he spoke no such thing.  

 

***

 

Her life was back to the routine, and it didn’t feel bad amidst all the horrible things that had befallen her recently – surviving the dragon attack, being tortured in the dragon cells and being attacked by the ghost of Uther among them. Gaius’s job meant he had to be the first person to greet the king in the morning and provide him with the brief summary of the most important matters of state, and Gwen would wake up early to see the physician off, cook him breakfast and collect all the papers he needed. She knew Gaius didn’t trust her enough, but she felt she couldn’t be angry with him, for Gaius seemed her only shield against Yrien at the moment, and she would not dare meet Yrien without a shield. 

Queen Regent had rarely been seen outside the Royal Tower as of late, and Gwen was slowly coming to understand why, although the truths that she was about to discover were frightening. Gwen, too, wasn’t looking forward to going back to the Lower Town, for the outburst of crowd’s violence in the riots meant fear could not be gone unless the crowd, too, would somehow disappear. Which is impossible. 

It was something she thought she’d never understand. The common people, whom she always viewed as the ones wronged by the greedy, arrogant and hypocrite noblemen and noblewomen, have shown their darker side when they shouted for another purge and demanding to reinstall some Uther’s anti-magic measurers. United in hatred, the crowds rioting in the Lower Town could boast of the most truculent attitude Gwen had ever seen. Morgana has magic, yet if she comes back, she will find herself in the middle of a city thirsting for another purge.   

 Her mind seemed to be elsewhere all the time, even two days after Lancelot’s departure, when Gwaine’s cider smell was all over her lips and his hot and strong hands were cupping her breasts as if she belonged to him. Gwaine was determined and even impatient to claim his share of pleasure, the pleasure which she had denied him since the day of his street fight with Lancelot. Gwaine’s hardness was sinking inside her, the joy so hard he’d throw his head back and mutter filthy words as he’d run his hands through her hair, but when he finished, Gwen realized she was too nervous and too worried to draw as much pleasure from their love as she could when they’d savor each other all night long until the candles burnt out and the dawn would ruin the night.   

 When it was over, Gwaine was lying on the bed, radiant and even luminous, unable to keep his hands off her breasts, trying to circle her nipples. Gwen pulled the blanket to her chin and glanced at the door.

“What?” Gwaine asked, smiling. “You think the mob will break into the house now and rape us?”

Gwen sighed. Gwaine was different, he was different from all the save-the-world kind of men she had previously crushed upon, the men whose hearts and minds were filled with the notions of honor and duty and justice, the notions which could prove too heavy to let other feelings into the hearts of those men. Yet some seriousness was precisely what seemed to lack with Gwaine; at times it seemed he could laugh and make jokes of anything, and his views on the world seemed overly simplified.

“No, I don’t think about it,” she whispered.

“But you fear the mob?”

“I… Listen, I don’t fear. It’s not about the mob. Forget about this stupid riot.”

“I haven’t even bothered to remember,” having been accused, Gwaine switched to accusing tone himself. “It’s you who’s bringing it up all the time.”

“I am not bringing… Listen, I… I am just scarred, alright? Camelot is all I know, it’s always been my home, it faced many perils, but none from within its own walls. That’s why I am so worried about the riot, but there are other things.”

“What things?”

“You.”

“You worry about me?” Gwaine rose to lie leaning on his elbows.  

“I worry about us.”

“What is it about us that worries you, princess?”

“You’ve been to Arthur. You say you saw him, you say you’ve been to his war council and yet you refuse to tell me what he’s planning to do.”

“But I made a promise, princess,” Gwaine tried to brush her hair, but she escaped his touch, straightened her back and sat on her bed.

“I am not asking you to disclose his plans for me, all I want to know is whether there will be war? Will he attack the castle of Camelot?”

“I don’t know,” Gwaine said, but when he realized Gwen didn’t believe him, he spoke mildly. “I really don’t, princess. It depends on what Merlin will advise him.”

“For the thousandth time, what does Merlin have to do with Arthur’s war?!” Gwen snapped, irritated, and rose to her feet. “He is a servant, just like me, not a bloody commander!”

“He is the one who’s never quit Arthur’s side, the one who stayed with Arthur in the most dangerous times and the one who literally nurtured Arthur back to life. He’d make the skies rain with fire just for Arthur, I’m sure.”

“That’s very poetic and all that, and I don’t doubt he’s very loyal, but he mustn’t have the decisive say on the matter,” Gwen noticed reproachfully. “Arthur should listen to someone more… knowledgeable.”

“Did you listen to anybody knowledgeable when you chose to push Uther into the spirit world?”

It felt as if he’d just whipped her with that sentence alone. She turned around, regretting that she’d come, regretting that she was foolish enough to be persuaded into his arms. Gwaine had made her feel safe and wanted before, but now he was making her feel a traitor and a hypocrite. Ever since the day of Rion’s coronation, things had been different, she felt it. Suddenly, she wanted him gone and Lancelot come back. But Lance is gone and not returning.

The bells saved Gwaine from her fury and freed Gwen of picking the careful words. Those were not the bells of the city under siege or a monarch dead; it was the sound of the news.

“Come,” she told Gwaine. “We need to go to the market.”

“Must we?” Gwaine buried his face into the pillow to suppress a loud yawn. “If it’s not war, we’ll hear about it anyway.”

“I want to hear about it first,” Gwen insisted. What if it is about Morgana?

“Why don’t you go and tell me later, princess?” Gwaine asked, reaching for his cider.

He is unbearable sometimes. Doesn’t he care about anything save for women and cider and tourneys?

The leaden sky seemed deaf to sunlight, save for the vaguest traces of rose gold turning to pink far to the west. The market, ever crowded after the working bell, drew too many people from the neighborhood, and the shopkeepers were nervous to watch over their goods. Gwen smiled at the sight of two kids trying to steal the caramel apple, but her smile died when the newsmaker appeared to read his text. It was a tall man with a belly as big as a wine cask, and when he spoke, it seemed his voice was somehow made stronger by that huge belly of his.

“People of Camelot! Please be known that our gracious king Rion and his brave knights have found the hideout of the Dark Witch! It is the witch that sent the dead knights against the castle of Camelot, the witch who enchanted the whole castle to fall asleep, the witch who freed the dragon and commanded it to burn the Lower Town, and the witch who killed Sir Vidor of House Gaheris!”

A wave of shocked whispers stormed through the crowd; Gwen noticed many people who’d come with children dart off.

“Gracious king Rion and his knights have ridden to combat the witch, who holds lady Morgana of house Gorlois captive! The same witch has put a spell on Vyda Gaheris and made the Lady of Daobeth summon an army to attack Camelot! But fear not, people of Camelot, for our gracious king Rion has made a pledge that he will protect us against the Dark Witch and bring lady Morgana back! He will also defend our city from anyone and any army who will try to harm us!”

 

***

 

“Have you heard it?” Gwen asked when she stormed into Gaius’s chambers. She had done it so many times recently that the old physician had grown tired of reminding her to knock on the door before entering.

“Heard it? I read the announcement before it was passed to the newsmakers,” Gaius snorted, discontent in his very breath. “A foolish thing, to announce the war with Vyda Gaheris in such a manner… Prices for bread will go up on the very morrow. It’s the end of summer, our stocks are naturally low at this time, only that this summer we’ve had a dragon burn them, to make the matters worse. And we’re at best half a moon, if not a full moon away from the first new crops… Foolery. But Yrien would not listen… She says the crown will compensate the price inflation, but where will they get the coins for it, I wonder?”

“But Rion can’t be fighting the Dark Witch, Gaius? You’ve told me Morgause is Morgana’s sister, remember? She can’t bear her ill will.”

The silence was uncomfortable for Gaius.

“A fact only a few know, and those who are aware of it do their best to keep their knowledge to themselves. You should not be an exception, Gwen.”

“Gaius, Rion can’t be fighting her. She has magic. And even without the bloody magic, we’ve all seen her fight! She defeated Arthur himself! When she arrived for the tourney, remember?”

“Of course, I remember. Arthur never felt as humiliated as that day, and Merlin couldn’t keep that silly smile off his face. Arthur beaten by a girl, he kept saying,” Gaius smiled, and it appeared the memories of Merlin had the power to lift his spirits at any hour.  

“Then Rion…”

“…is on a mission to rescue Morgana from the Dark Witch, Gwen,” Gaius repeated. “So the newsmaker has said.”

“So he wants people to believe, but, Gaius… This is not the way things really are, right?”

Gaius closed his eyes for a moment of awkward hesitation, and when he spoke, he kept them shut.

“Gwen, these are the matters of state. I am serving the realm now, and even if I knew I…”

“Whose realm do you serve, Gaius? That of Rion? Or that of Arthur?” she muttered angrily.  

“The realm, child. The interests of all the common people who wish to lead peaceful life.”

“Including those common people who demand the new Purge?”

Gaius opened his eyes and measured her with an intense gaze.

“Gwen, the hour is late. I ask you, what is it that you want to know?”

“Rion wouldn’t hunt the Dark Witch down even if he had a whole host with him. Uther couldn’t defeat her, Rion will not defeat her, too. But the newsmaker said that Rion’s going after her, because Yrien wanted it to be said, and she never does anything without calculation. This must be some game. Is Morgana in this game, too?”

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 5: LUCKY MOTHER 

The hardest parts of the battle are fought before the fighting begins, her brother used to tell her. It was the true merit of a commander: to win the battle on the stage of preparation. Ryence would be proud. So far, I am winning.

Yrien was standing in the inner yard of the castle, the beige of the square and the walls slashed with the yellow of Gingawaine cloaks that would flap in the wind like banners. Here and now, amidst all her spearmen and guards, the idea that she had somehow been worried by Anna Dindrane and all the votes the old bat had collected during the Great Council after Uther’s death seemed as silly as a village superstition. Anna Dindrane looked short and wizened and unimportant, no matter how much the wrinkled toothless granddaughter of the last druid queen tried to puff out her cheeks. She wants everyone to believe this is not humiliating for her. It’s not going to work.

They had gathered in the square to see Anna’s granddaughters off. Rion was standing next to Yrien, the bear prints of his house were worked across the front of his plush yellow doublet in beads of lapis. Over it her son wore a mantle of blue velvet decorated with little golden shields. The gold of Rion’s crown glimmered yellow even in the bleak daylight suffering the gloom of grey sky, and rubies smoldered red.

Edwin Chefyl was standing by the wheeled wagon, a bright and handsome youth who was as well-built a man as any maiden could wish. He was the son of Lord of Woodspeak, one of the most trusted allies of House Gingawaine, but since the lord of Woodspeak was at the moment laying siege to Portstown under the command of Sir Leon, the duties of the castellan had fallen on Edwin. Not that he minds those duties, considering all the looks he’s been throwing at Ravenna. 

Ravenna was comely, and Yrien could not deny it no matter how much she hated the fact that half her own guards seemed to be charmed with the old bat’s elder granddaughter. Yet she is awfully tasteless. She’s dressed so lavishly one may think she’s some royalty. Green silk and quartered gown, seriously? Golden suns and silver moon crescents as decorations? You look like an expensive Mercian whore, dear. Medinna’s dress was ivory and better sewn, yet the poor child looked completely ungainly, uncomfortable and utterly lost in her outfit. The girls’ mother bid them farewell in their chambers and refused to go to the square, for her presence would make her daughters cry. Their father, Sir Tawton, was away on the royal assignment.

“My lady,” Edwin Chefyl addressed Anna Dindrane. “It is my duty to provide the girls with a shelter from this terrible war in the castle of Woodspeak and I swear I…”

“See that you don’t trespass the lines of your duty, sir,” Anna said. “My granddaughters are too young to be married.”

“Grandmother!” Ravenna exclaimed, blushing.

“What? Do you think I’ve turned blind after all the years I lived? I haven’t. Now come here. Kiss your grandma and promise to write to me every single day.”

“I promise,” the younger granddaughter mumbled.

“Be reasonable, grandma,” Ravenna said as she kissed her grandma dutifully.

“Letters,” Anna reminded them as she saw her granddaughters climb into the wheeled wagon. “Letters every day, both of you!”

“Your grace,” Edwin bent the knee in front of King Rion. “I thank you for the honor of entrusting our house the protection of these girls of noble birth. I promise I shall not fail you.”

“Arise,” Rion commanded him, putting a hand on his shoulder. “I know you won’t. House Chefyl has been most loyal to my uncle, and I am certain the bonds that unite us will grow stronger under my reign. Have safe journey.”

The horses neighed, and the wheeled wagon rolled away, a splendid construction which was nearly as exquisite as that of Lord Cynric. Nearly. Cynric always had the most expensive things. He rolled away in a wagon, too, hoping to inspect his just-bought castle of Gedref. Did he get lost on his way? Did he flee to Daobeth with the other traitors? The absence of her Royal Treasurer had been lasting for sometime, and his duties had fallen on her temporarily. Her son was seeking the candidates for the position of the court Treasurer reluctantly, hoping lord Cynric might return.

The Royal procession started walking back into the castle. Yrien came closer to Anna Dindrane, her triumph turning into an almost physical pleasure. You may have brokered an agreement with the druid army, but if you dare think of using that army to your own advantage, both your granddaughters will lose their heads. I won the battle against you before it even began, just like Ryence taught me.

“You need not worry, my lady,” Yrien said in an overly sugary-pitying tone. “The girls will be safer in the castle of Woodspeak.”

“Mayhaps,” Anna Dindrane shrugged, masking whatever fury that was eating her inside. “Can’t call it castle, can we?”

“Pardon?”

“The castle of Woodspeak and the castle of Brechfa are no true castles, strictly speaking. They lack the thick stone walls and the towers and can’t last through a siege. That’s why all your nobles from Midlands fled at the news of Cenred’s invasion rather than locked themselves in your safe castles.”

Even when her granddaughters’ lives depends on my guards and my sworn knights, this old bat of a woman dares mock Midlands.

“Well, the castle of Woodspeak can’t compare to the defenses of the capital, of course,” Yrien said less politely. “But I assure you, it is still more than your precious girls ever had.”

“The castle of Woodpseak will be brightened by their presence,” Anna said with a smirk. “I guess it’s not every day that Woodspeak is visited by true royalty.”

  

***

 

Her victory over Anna Dindrane could not taste as sweet as Yrien hoped, for the old bat continued to remain vexing during the council meetings. Seeing her face over the table irritated Yrien so much she wanted to throw something at that toothless parody of a woman. Most of all, Yrien hated the fact that Anna had seen her in the moment of weakness.

I should not have agreed to this druid army scheme so easily. I panicked, and I cried, and I was shocked, and I lost all my senses when the Dark Witch killed Sir Vidor. I was fearing Vyda Gaheris too much, much enough to carelessly agree to the union with people that are no less dangerous than Vyda. There was no need for me to rush. I still have got men to raise. Sir Leon is besieging Portstown with a host of somewhat 500 men, most of them from Woodspeak neighborhood. Lord Gloss of Chemary is leading another host of 400 men south and he’s on the way to Burnwood. I may doubt his qualities, but, so far, he seems dutiful.  

Which means that there remain 200 more men to be raised at Chemary, and might be 600 men can be raised in the castle of Brechfa. That’s 800 soldiers. Sir Logsheath said 500 men can be raised in Camelot. Makes it 1,300. That’s less than Vyda Gaheris, but only because of that Pendragon pup. The unrest he produced in Portstown has drawn 900 of royal soldiers south, the best trained and the best armed of them all. 

Yet Yrien realized that even the 1,300 men she could demand to raise would be as useful against Vyda Gaheris as the parchment against the rain. I will need time to train them and arm them, while Vyda’s men have been training and arming themselves for longer than a month, ever since Uther demanded a western army to be raised in response to Cenred’s invasion.

On the fourth day following Ravenna’s and Medinna’s departure to Woodspeak, Rion summoned them to the new council room, where they would seat in the wicker chairs, the ones so popular in Midlands and so rarely seen in Camelot. There were hollyhocks in the room, rose, yellow, lavender and ruby-red, and the marble-topped table was covered with war maps of Camelot, with detailed maps of White Mountains, Gedref and Denaria.

Even without Anna Dindrane’s irritating face, her son’s council pleased her not. It was a council of the dim, the deaf and the blind. Yrien would’ve understood Rion if he had tried to disregard some loyalty over expertise and experience, but what expertise could his councilors have? What value was there of Anna Dindrane, who was hiding her head beneath a number of shawls, as though it could turn her hair from grey back to black? And Gaius, the sickly old servant to the late Uther Pendragon? The man has treachery in his very blood, just like his former master. Gaius may have been given the title of free man of Camelot, but he remains a slave to Uther’s ideas. And he knows too much. Lord Lamorak seemed as vaguely a councilor as a man could be, and his father served at Uther’s council, and worst of all, Lamorak was married to Anna Dindrane’s niece. The old bat seeks to infest the whole council with her men. Their Councilor of Trade had been drunk for most of the time he was spending in Camelot, but Yrien didn’t care. The man lost a son in Arthur’s patrol. I can’t blame him for seeking peace on the bottom of his wine goblet. I would have done the same. The stiff and bald Sir Logsheath, her former guard and now the Commander of the Knights, was the only person whose qualities Yrien didn’t doubt. But one sanely picked councilor is too few.   

“Need I remind anyone that what we are discussing here are matters of state. If you breathe a word of what you hear to...”

“Mother,” Rion rose his hand. “Please. You don’t have to repeat this line at every council meeting, we all have learned it by heart already. Besides, I trust my councilors enough.”

Then you’re as much a fool as your uncle feared. You must trust nobody.  

“Sir Logsheath,” her son resumed the council. “News from the south?

“From the south and the west, my lord,” the new commander of the knights reported. “I am happy to announce lord Gloss has captured Burnwood.”

It was the first good news in a while, and in the peaceful afternoon chill of the room Yrien felt things were going back to normal.  

“Good. And lady Lludwig?”

“She remains neutral,” Sir Logsheat was quick to upset her. “No soldiers left Doomspath, but you must know she has raised the bridge.”

“That’s to our advantage,” Yrien’s smile grew so bright it could outshine the hollyhocks in the room. “The passage from Denaria into Midlands is closed now. With Doomspath bridge raised, Vyda Gaheris has but one way to cross the White Mountains: through the pass of Camlann. She, of course, may try to swim through the swamps of Denaria and the valley of the fallen kings. And I would gladly see her try.”

Gaius’s expression pointed at no particular reaction to the news, and when he spoke, his tone was as boring as ever.

“We need write to her, your grace,” Gaius was addressing Rion. “We need to offer our condolences one more time and say that the crown has nothing to do with the death of sir Vidor. If she stops this madness, it will be for the good of the kingdom.”  

“A letter to a traitor?” Yrien asked challengingly.  

“A letter that can save thousands of lives,” Gaius snapped back.

Traitors’ lives.”

“Camelot soldiers will bleed as much as her traitors, my lady,” Anna Dindrane said as if she were talking to herself.  

“Thanks to the brave Druid army, they won’t,” Yrien replied spitefully. And with your beautiful granddaughters held hostages in Woodpseak, I have means to make certain you never misbehave with that druid army. “Now what about the pretender?”

“Locked in Portstown. He held talks with sir Leon.”

“Talks? Interesting.”

Sir Logsheath cleared his throat.

“His terms...”

“He dares offer terms?! I will not hear of it! We will not hear of it. How can he be so stupid?” Arthur unsupported boldness was the biggest gift of fate. All he has is one town and a castle, and he dares offer terms when there are two hosts threatening him.The boy may be as bold as Uther, but he has no damn priestess about him to help him with his cause. Pendragons are almost a yesterday’s story. “He lost Burnwood to the host of Lord Gloss of Chemary, Doomspath remains deaf to his calls, all he has is Portstown. Give him our terms: surrender and face trial. Defiance is death.”

“He must lay down his arms and bend the knee,” Rion agreed with her. “That’s all the pretender can do if he hopes to earn mercy for putting on Arthur’s name. Now, what news from the West?”

“Good news and bad ones, your grace,” Sir Losheath said with a lot less enthusiasm.

“Bad?”

“Your grace, our reports from the West are scarce but it appears… It appears that Vyda Gaheris has forged herself an alliance with King Sarrum.”

Sarrum? Sarrum?

“He is the monarch of some forsaken kingdom in the West,” Yrien said carefully. “The name, I forgot?”

“It is indeed not the most prosperous land,” Gaius was quick to respond. “But like all Western lands, it is proud and full of hatred towards magic. Sarrum and Uther were strong allies.”

“Strong how?”

“It is largely due to King Sarrum’s public support of Uther’s conquest that King Edren of Mountain Land did nothing to suppress Uther’s campaign at breast. King Edren feared Sarrum would attack him for that.”

Yrien was feeling cold fury rising somewhere within her. Vyda Gaheris dares bring the foreign kings into this. She is twice a traitor.

“How big an army can this Sarrum gather?”

“No more than 1,500 men, we estimate,” Sir Losheath took some time to count.  

“Even when joined by the 2,000 swords of Vyda Gaheris it will be less than the army Morgana has promised,” Rion pointed.

This is my chance, Yrien thought, her mind illuminated by the sudden idea. This is my chance and I must not miss it.

“We must not trust in promises though,” Yrien tried to sound reasonable. “King Sarrum should not be regarded carelessly. I must raise banners in Brechfa.”

Anna Dindrane gave her a look that meant the old bat understood everything. But she can do nothing. I am raising banners in response to King Sarrum’s involvement.

“My lady, pray tell, how many more men can we hope to raise In Brechfa without disturbing the harvest work that is upon us?”  

“500 men,” Sir Logsheath said.

“There is no necessity,” Anna tried to protest.

“King Sarrum is the necessity.” My foes are breeding like rabbits. Once the battle of Camlann is done, the druid army will have suffered heavy losses, and I will command 500 men in Brechfa, 400 men in Burnwood and 500 men besieging Portstown. Not only will I have Dindrane granddaughters as hostages, but I will also command a force strong enough to oppose those who survive the battle against Vyda Gaheris. I shall invite Morgana and Rion for a visit and I shall seize them and move the capital of the kingdom to Brechfa. Rion and Morgana will rule from there, under my careful guidance. “What is the good news?”

“The West does not seem as united as they wish us to believe,” Sir Logsheath announced with modest optimism. “The castle of Wheelskirt refuses to join the war.”

“Lady Reft,” Gaius whispered confusedly.  

Not everybody in the west is a traitor, it would seem.

“Who supports this lady Reft?”

“All the lords and ladies who hold estates close to the border with Gawant,” it appeared Sir Logsheath was speaking of them dismissively. “All the so-called merchant lords.”

“We must somehow contact her. We must ask her to stab Gaheris army in the back!”

“Impossible,” Gaius exclaimed. “Lady Reft will at best have 700 men. Sending them against King Sarrum’s and Vyda Gaheris’s army is asking them all to kill themselves!”

“This is called war,” Yrien rose to her feet. “Their king is threatened by a mad old wench who wants to blame the death of her grandson on us. The crown has need of castle of Wheelskirt. Now!”    

  

***

 

“This is some ploy, I warn you.” 

The days when she could beat some sense into her son’s head were past her, but she’d give up half the castle of Brechfa to have this opportunity again. Rion was no longer just her boy, he was the king of Camelot and all her territories, seated beneath the enormous oak table overburdened with papers and seals, quills and inks. He had a brass candlestick which had been burning for so long it was covering some papers with trickles of hardened wax. He always was like that. Burying his mind in books when he should have been studying more masculine arts of knighthood. A book worm, Ryence used to call him.

Yet this book worm was wearing the crown of Camelot, and Ryence Gingawaine was dead. Yrien hated that Rion’s chambers in the Royal Tower were the only place where her son would agree to see her and talk to her face to face, but she had no other options. Rion would be stalked come daylight, with that disgusting old bat that would whisper into his left ear and the decaying physician who was too old to hold any position on the council. Two old people whispering into his ears, left and right.  

Rion’s fair auburn bristles were stubbing his cheeks and jaw, and Yrien reckoned her son’s hair needed a quick comb and mayhaps a different cut, but she knew too well to tell him off.

“You see ploys in every shadow, mother,” her son said calmly, not caring to lift his eyes off the paper scratched by his quill with an irritating sound.

“Because this is what they are doing. In every shadow which escapes your sight, they are plotting. This is what ruling is about. You think Morgana is going to marry you just because she wants to bed you?”

“How is sending gold to our Treasury exactly a ploy of Morgana?”

“Why would she do that? You think she’s as selfless as the small folk say?”

“You’ve read the letter,” Rion put the quill away. “The gold is not sent out of selfless intentions. She is determined to provide the Treasury of Camelot with gold to compensate the trade losses for king Bayard of Mercia. This gold will also provide us with recourses to compensate bread price growth once our war on house Gaheris is announced to the common people.”

“You really believe it?” Yrien wanted to knock on his head if it could mean to free him off all the naïve aspirations.  

“What other purpose might there be, mother? You trying to tell me she wants to bribe me with these coins? I am not some merchant lord, I was born to House Gingawaine, one of the wealthiest houses in Camelot. We were lending money to the Treasury of Camelot, you mentioned it yourself. I can’t be bribed with that. Not that easily.”

“But… Regardless of her purpose, where do you think she’s got those coins from? Unless she shits gold, I wonder where she’s got that wealth from. She’s sending chests. Chests, Rion!”

The walls in Rion’s room were hung with weapons, the smartly ordered compositions of round yellow shields with bear prints, crossed partisans, the more exotic javelins, as well as heavy southern sabers and Nemeton axes. Half of the other wall was taken up by an enormous fireplace, above which hung rows of flaking. The third wall, the one facing the entrance was tastelessly filled with Rion’s hunting trophies which he cherished the way a boy would cherish his wooden swords and shileds. She was ashamed that her son still hadn’t learnt that shields and banners could not be hung together with elks and stag antlers whose branching racks were throwing long creepy shadows across the grinning mounted heads of wild boars, and even bears and lynxes – the present sent to him from the house Blanchefleur. It was supposed to be the place of honor, and not be filled with common hunting scum. Does he think that he can hunt his enemies as easily as the prey? Does he think that those weapons on the walls can protect him?

“Where she’s got that gold from?” Rion repeated. “Well, Morgana never was a common girl. She was the king’s ward and the heir to the castle of Asgorath.”

“But… she ought to have been saving that gold for a long time to have so much by now. It means she was doing it behind Uther’s back, she was plotting and that proves the point. She is dangerous, for…”

“You can’t be serious, mother. Since when is plotting against Uther bad? Who are we, then? If plotting against Uther is the crime, we must be the first in the line to the hangman.”

He presumes too much.

“Stop it! I will not hear it! Not from a green boy like you! You’re too young to understand it, you’re too young to understand many things! If there’s a crown upon your head, it doesn’t make you wiser. I am the queen regent!!!”

“Go ahead, queen regent. Tell me,” he leaned back in his chair and threw an angry look at her. “It turns out Morgana and the druids have some gold. How suspicious. How many druids are there? Fifteen thousand? Twenty thousand? You think that many people could not have saved any coins over the twenty-two years they spent hiding from Uther’s swords and spears?”

“Be it as you say,” Yrien figured out those books could have planted some wisdom in her son’s head. “Assume the gold’s not hers. Say it’s the druids’ gold. Why have they chosen her for the marriage?”

“You have the gift to pose questions after the marriage pacts are settled, right, mother?”

“The marriage pacts can be undone,” Yrien still found it hard to believe some awful wench was coming to take her son from her.I have lost my first son already. I have lost my first boy, who was so unlike Rion, who was fond of watching tourneys and loved apples so much. When they took him away from me, he ran away. I will not lose Rion. Morgana will lose her head first. “Rion, the druids want you to marry Morgana while there is Anna Dindrane at court, the living granddaughter of the last druid queen. Yet druids use Anna as a mere broker for the agreement and pay dust to Ravenna Dindrane who matches your age more splendidly than Morgana. How do you explain that?”

“This last druid queen you speak of. When did her reign end?”

“Thirty-two years ago.”

“Thirty-two years ago,” Rion was knocking his fingers on the table. “Thirty-two bloody years ago, mother. There are generations of druids who have grown up after the fall of the dragonlord dynasty. Anna Dindrane is nothing but an empty name to them, a sound that rings no bells. That’s why they only used her as a broker.”

“But why did they choose Morgana? What can link Morgana to the druids?”

“Morgana and Uther had fallen apart before the attack of the dragon, you know it. You’ve heard the rumours. Morgana was speaking treasons, countless treasons, many will confirm. She was calling Uther a tyrant. The girl worked poorly to keep it hidden, and the enmity between the king and his ward was there for everyone to see. If you had been Morgana, who would you have worked with to destroy Uther?”

“I would have worked with Uther’s enemies.”

“And who are Uther’s biggest enemies?”

“Druids,” Yrien pronounced weakly, in low whisper. The picture of Morgana was getting clearer and clearer, and half her guesses be true… The girl is dangerous.  

“Exactly,” Rion couldn’t keep the smile off his content face. “There is nothing surprising about Morgana joining the druids. There are thousands of them, mother. They are a force to be reckoned with. They would have been a natural choice for anybody seeking to harm Uther.”

“But why did this force allow Uther to butcher them? To drive them into hiding? To start the Purge?”

“Uther caught them unawares,” Rion shrugged. “They were planning to do the same, I reckon. Twenty-two years seems too long a time for preparation of the rebellion, but only fools would rush with such a thing.”

“Druids are peaceful,” Yrien disagreed. “That’s unlike them.”  

“You remember the reward Uther was promising for Alvarr’s head? He was a renegade and his fellow druids attacked king’s patrols and tax missions. How peaceful is that? Now, enough of this Morgana conspiracy. It’s just some folly from your beautiful head. You may simply admit that you hate my bride.”

“I always wanted you to marry out of love.”

That made Rion smile.

“I am the king. I belong to my people, not myself. My marriage should benefit the crown.”

“Your marriage will be useless if you don’t remove the old bat from your council!”

“Mother, please!” Rion slapped his own face with a palm. “Anna Dindrane is a respected member of the court. She’s lived in Camelot for longer than anyone else.”

“Maybe she’s lived for too long already?”

“What is wrong with you? You’ve sent Anna’s granddaughters to Woodspeak. They are two little girls surrounded by our men. If Anna shows signs of treachery, her granddaughters will lose their heads. That’s more than enough to ensure the old bat’s loyalty.”

“What about those who have already shown signs of treachery?”

“Lord Sagramore, fat as he may be, is beyond my reach, in Daobeth. House Blanchefleur fled to Ascetir, they are sending presents to me, gifts of good intentions, but they are reluctant to send swords and…”

“I’m not talking about Sagramores or Blanchefleurs. I am talking about Gaius. He is a terrible traitor.”

“Gaius? Traitor?” Rion started laughing, and his laughted did seem sincere.  “Oh, mother… Gaius, a traitor! Quite the opposite. He served the druid court, then he served Uther, then he served our uncle, and he served you. Gaius is the last person to be called traitor. He serves the realm. But the talk of traitors tires me. Everybody is a traitor if it were for you to decide. Ruling’s not about searching for traitors and beheading entire families, mother. It’s about making all of the interests meet. What worries me is the siege of Portstown. It must not last for long. Best it ended before the harvest season.”

“There is nothing to worry over. Once we are done with the Mad Hound of the West, we may switch to the Pendragon pup.”

“The pretender pup.”

“Of course. Sir Leon writes the siege has commenced,” Yrien’s voice was overflown with dark satisfactions. It’s about time I commenced searching for a place where Arthur can be buried.  

Chapter Text

Chapter 6: A DREAM COME TRUE 

Arthur was by his side.

His Arthur, the fair-haired and happy and a little hungry Arthur, was riding his horse, smiling and laughing as he was trying to race Merlin. In high boots of grey leather and a blue-velvet doublet, with his hair still wet from the morning swimming, Arthur reminded him so much of the cheerful and playful prince who was on his way to just another hunting trip. But he is no longer a prince. He is a king who wears the Seaside Crown and means to restore his father’s realm to peace and prosperity. Providing there is anything left to restore when this awful war is done.

That the war was awful was a matter of fact to Merlin. He himself had tasted that awfulness, when his rage had increased the dragon’s magic and turned the skies to hell, sending a wall of black-and-red fire upon the sails of Alined’s and Odin’s fleet. The wooden ships were torn to pieces and melted into the air, while the bodies of many pirates and crew members turned to ashes in the blink of an eye. The fire was so strong the smoke could be smelled miles away from Portstown, and people were lucky the wind was blowing west, and grateful that the storm came soon. Otherwise we would have smelled dead roasted bodies and burned wood for days, maybe.   

The road back to Portstown was taking Merlin and Arthur along the curvy shore of shoals and reefs and rocks, as grey as the restless sea. There was little greenery beneath the Great Trade Road, and it was obvious that a garden like the one in the labyrinth of Gedref could not have grown without magic. Merlin felt some odd connection to that place, the one that made it hard for him to leave the labyrinth. It even felt stronger than the chills that ran up his spine when he learnt the truth about prince Darian and king Reginald, and something about their magic hideout still bothered him.

“Come on, Merlin,” Arthur shouted from afar. “You’re riding terribly! Don’t make me give you the job of a servant again, so that you remember how to be in a saddle!”

He is such a prat, Merlin thought with a smile and kicked his horse. The warlock simply wanted to spare the poor creatures after a rather haste trip to labyrinth, but Arthur wouldn’t listen. He wanted to have fun and race, to swim in the Merchant’s Bay and to make love on the beach, and to have Merlin wrapped in the red Camelot cloak and whisper naughty things into his ears.

“Look at you,” Arthur said teasingly when Merlin finally caught up with his king. “You’re so good in a saddle I think you have to join the cavalry.”

“And you’re so good with jokes I think I shall refuse my honor of being a royal jester and offer the position to you. Sire,” Merlin added humbly and before Arthur could try and do anything, Merlin’s eyes flashed golden and made Arthur’s cloak fall on the prince’s head.

“Merlin, I swear I’ll throw you in the stocks for that!” was all Merlin could hear as Arthur tried to free himself off the cloak.

Arthur wasn’t trying to chase him afterwards; they resumed their ride trading smiles and sharing silence which meant more than Merlin could possibly dream of – the silence of a peaceful morning ride with Arthur, the joy he had been denied ever since Arthur led his patrol to the forests of Brechfa. When they returned to Camelot after killing a troll which was disturbing the village, peaceful rides with Arthur was all Merlin could think of. He wanted to explore what it meant to be as close to Arthur as he had always been afraid to be, but the news of Cenred’s invasion all but postponed their peace and the peace of the entire kingdom. Ever since the arrows were fired at Arthur by the assassins, their journey had been full of perils and strivings for the better things, save for those jolly good days they’d spent in Ealdor. Ealdor. I must write to mother. I wonder if she hasn’t sold Dolly? I best send her some coins, too. I’m sure Arthur has loads of gold now, he’ll lend me some.

The closer they got to the Great Trade Road which linked Portstown and Gawant by land, the bigger the villages would turn up on their way. Arthur chose to stop at one of them before noon.

“I’m so hungry I can eat a boar,” the king complained, dismounting his horse. “There must be a decent tavern in a place like that.”

“Define decent,” Merlin murmured.  

“Where they serve tankards of mead and a chicken,” Arthur said with eyes dreaming of breakfast.

It was indeed a large village, with a holdfast of its own which boasted of the wall ten feet high and the gates which would require quite an effort to destroy them. Outside the holdfast, the narrow streets of houses were stretching from the seaside to the mainland; they looked wealthier than in Camelot, and Merlin could spot fresh thatches upon a score of roofs, and the doors were made of darker wood. There were not so many vegetable gardens, though, for the soil was too salty, but dark ponds and goats were seen everywhere, as well as blacksmith’s forges. “The Talking Goat” tavern was positioned closer to the road, right by an oak which looked so big and ancient Merlin thought this tree had lived through the age of dragons and would still outlive them all. Its roots were so mighty they would twist in and out of the earth like the serpents of an underground kraken, and Merlin noticed medallions and chains nailed to the huge trunk.

The tavern’s common room was nearly as large as the throne room of Camelot, but with a rather low ceiling because of the sloping roof. The wood-plank floor had just been washed, but the place did carry a slightly unpleasant odor because of the fish that was understandably the main specialty of the kitchen. More than half the tables were empty, and their appearance made the tavern owner put on a surprised smile. He was an aged man with fat pink cheeks and a baldness creeping onto his gray-pepper head.

“Lads,” he said as he hurried to the table which Arthur chose by the window overlooking the main street. “Happy to see you at such early an hour! What you’ve been doing? Hunting, I venture?”

“Or, do shut up, Timbo!” a woman appeared out of the kitchen, as aged as the tavern owner, with a broom in her hands and the sweat drops glistening on her wrinkled face. “What hunting, you fool? The woods been gone for a while, the prey been gone as well. Hunting, my fat arse.”

“We were not hunting,” Arthur said. “We were… were…”

“On our way to Portstown,” Merlin came to the rescue.

“Portstown? You must be on your way to the fest, lads?” Timbo ventured dreamingly. “Oh, when I was young, I would so go to the fests… The music, the cider, the pretty ladies…”

 “What fest?” Merlin exchanged a perplexed look with Arthur.

“Oh, where do you live, lads?” the woman sweeping the floor laughed. “The dragon’s back to the Seaside Kingdom! It’s defending us against the pirates and slaughtering the foes at the gates of our capital! People mean to celebrate! I would have gone, too, but who am I supposed to leave to watch over the tavern? Timbo’s nearly blind.”

“I ain’t blind, Tilda!” Timbo protested.

“Aren’t people supposed to be afraid of Kilgh… of the dragon?” Merlin felt his heartbeat fasten when he asked the delayed question.

“Afraid? Again, where do you lads come from?” Tilda eyed them suspiciously.

“From Gawant,” it was Arthur’s turn to lie.

“Well, that says all,” there was a tone of judgement in her voice. “Not all the southern folk is like sheep. There are many good men and women in Gedref who still remember the days of the Seaside Kingdom. Just forty years ago we had our own King Reginald, and he was a good friend with the dragon prince Darian.”

Forty years is like a lifetime. So many things have changed. The Seaside Kingdom was over the day Tristan and Agravaine disposed of King Reginald and married their sister Ygraine to Uther. Camelot was forged out of five separate kingdoms. But they don’t seem to hold so well now.

“Prince Darian often visited our land,” Timbo hurried to explain. “And when he came, he brought the dragon with him. It wasn’t just some dragon, it was the Great Dragon, and people would come and pay respects and such…”

“Prince Darian even visited our tavern a couple of times,” Tilda said with pride.

“He did?” Merlin smiled.

“So my mother told me,” Tilda nodded.

“Her mother told her a great deal of rubbish,” Timbo whispered so that only Merlin and Arthur could hear.

“Yes, prince Darian and his majesty Reginald, they often went hunting in this area, back then, when the woods were lush. Mother told me they were looking for something in this area, for some special beast or prey, don’t know if they ever found it…”

Oh, I guess they found what they were looking for,Merlin thought contently. They found a place for the labyrinth and could spend some time together, and after all, they could be happy.

“What it’ll be?” Timbo asked.

“I am paying,” Arthur smiled at Merlin. “Choose whatever you wish.”

“Anything but the seagull eggs and the fish,” Merlin said.

“Will duck do?” Timbo suggested.

“Yes,” Arthur nodded. “A duck and two tankards of mead, and bread and onion and cheese, if you have.”

“Alright, lads.”

After the tavern owner went to the kitchen, Merlin felt Arthur’s hand grabbing his under the table.

“Is this a date?” the warlock’s cheeks got red. Arthur had never before been so warm in expressing his feelings in any public place, but now that Merlin could look him in the eyes, he realized Arthur was different. His eyes are yearning-blue.

“Now that you’re back every day seems like a date,” the king said.

Merlin’s chest got so warm he thought he’d set his tunic on fire. He had missed Arthur so terribly he couldn’t begin to believe Arthur was missing him even more. If made him feel a little guilty again, guilty for not sharing the real purpose of his Camelot journey with Arthur, for not telling his prince all the truth about the Great Dragon and the bargain they stroke and the lethal consequences of that bargain, guilty for not sharing the horrible truth about poisoning Morgana. But now those secrets were undone, the truth laid bare between him and Arthur, and it was the most liberating feeling in the wide world. Being honest with Arthur and having nothing to hide felt as great as flying. It’s like loving Arthur could give him wings. He wanted to lean over the table and give Arthur a kiss, but it was too promiscuous an act in the village tavern.

“Can’t believe you’ve just paid for my drink,” Merlin giggled. “Remember you told me you couldn’t be seen buying a drink for you servant?”

“I remember I spoke many a folly. But if you start bringing it up,” Arthur pointed at him with his index finger, and Merlin wanted to bite it the instant, and he knew Arthur saw it in his eyes. “Then I guess I’ll have to find ways to put your mouth to better use.”

When the tavern owner brought their “breakfast”, Arthur attacked the fried duck viciously, as if he had been underfed for weeks. Merlin enjoyed the meal, too, but it reminded him, for some reason, of those pitiful cooking experiments of Gaius who’d serve mostly porridges for dinner, for he believed they were good for digestion. Merlin smiled, remembering the old physician’s awful suppers. He was so brave to accept me as his apprentice. I never really appreciated it. He put his head under such a risk. 

“Can there be another person that’s so enigmatic?” Arthur’s voice hit him.

“What? Me, how? I’m just…er… eating.”

“One minute you’re all laughing and swimming with sea weed in your hair, then you’re racing me, and the other minute you’re as moody as a bride’s father. Merlin, what is wrong now?!”

“Nothing’s wrong. I’m just… er… I love every minute with you. That’s the best I’ve felt since you invited me to move in…”

“Knew it,” Arthur triumphed. “It was all written in your eyes back then. Couldn’t help falling in love with me, could you?”

“That’s not the point. Your royal arse. Ouch,” Merlin sighed as Arthur kicked him under the table. “Alright. Let me be honest with you… Arthur, I can’t stop thinking about Gaius and Gwen. And mother. And Gwaine. And Lancelot.”

“I don’t want you to be thinking about Lancelot,” Arthur frowned, tearing the duck meat to the bone. “He took Gwen from me, I will not let him steal my little star.”

“Arthur, I…” Merlin shook his head. “There is nothing between me and Lancelot save for friendship, you, jealous crown-wearing cabbage head. There has never been anything other than that, I swear.”

“If you fear for mother… I think we can arrange bringing Hunith here.”

“She won’t go,” Merlin knew she wouldn’t. Ealdor is her home.  

“But she’s the only one whom we can reach. You said Lancelot will bring Gwaine and Gwen.”

“What if he fails?”

“Then there will be nothing I can do. For some time. The castle of Camelot is out of my reach, see? All the roads are blocked.”

“Can’t we send men for them?” Lancelot helped him so much in the Perilous Land Merlin felt awful for not being able to help him now.Without him, I would have been devoured by the wyverns. “Like the time when you sent Modron and Owaine?”

“I am afraid we can’t,” Arthur said after a short consideration. “This time is different. Modron and Owaine and Gwaine managed to sneak in while King Ryence was away, and they got nearly busted all the same… Now that Sir Vidor has been murdered, Queen Regent will install the tightest measures of security, I am sure. The castle may turn into a prison.”

Merlin knew too well to argue.

“But we shall free it?”

“Yes,” there was an iron confidence in the king’s tone, as if Arthur learnt some secret that would allow him to take Camelot without battle. “Camelot is my home, it is your home. It will be our home. Besides, Yrien is not in the best position. The dragon tragedy in Camelot resulted in the fire of the storehouse. The castle is short of provision. They don’t have resources for a long siege. Queen Regent will surrender, I am sure.”

“You don’t want to kill her for what she’s done?”

Arthur washed down the duck with half a tankard of mead at once before he spoke.

“Remember what you asked of me when you crowned me in the Ridge of Ascetir? I must execute not only justice, but also mercy during my reign. So… I will put her on a fair trial. Not conducted by me. By the high court.”

He remembers his vows to me. Kissing Arthur was harder and harder to resist. Maybe it’s the mead? But then Merlin swallowed nervously, for he began to wonder what would befall Gwen if this high court found out it was her who poured the poison into Uther’s cup. Goddess save her. I must save her. She’s my friend nonetheless, I can’t let the axeman take her head. When Uther sentenced her to death for allegedly healing her father from Nimueh’s decease, I was ready to go all the way to save her.     

“Who will be in this high court?”

“I haven’t decided that yet. Members of the royal houses. Those who haven’t betrayed me, I guess. But you know what’s funny? I’ve lived in Camelot for all my life, and the sad truth is, I don’t have anybody there to worry about now. You, on the contrary,” Arthur measured Merlin with a caring gaze that made Merlin blush again. “You’ve merely been there for two years, and you have Gwen and Lancelot, and this Gwaine, and Gaius, of course. Now that I look back I realize I never had real friends in the castle, except for, maybe… Morgana. But she was different.”

“Different how?”

“Well, we grew up like brother and sister. She was everywhere where I was. We played knights together, and would try and sneak in the tourney pavilions and throw the rotten apples under the ladies’ doors… She was always honest and taught me to never be afraid of my own opinion. She’d be the one to call me a bootlicker when she thought I submitted to Uther’s demands too easily. So it was, until the day when I began my knighthood training. I started spending a great deal of time in the barracks and missions, with our knights-to-be, and we fell out of touch. After I returned to court, I… We… Well, Morgana looked different. Not like a sister any more. You know what I mean?”

“She’s beautiful,” Merlin nodded, recalling the day when he glimpsed Morgana’s naked silhouette as she was dressing for the feast thrown to honor twenty years of the Great Dragon’s capture. 

“She was the most eye-turning girl at court. Half the knights were ready to ride out for quests to earn her heart and beg her to marry them.”

“I wonder if she’ll come back when you retake Camelot,” Merlin said hopefully, although the memories of Morgause in the castle of Idirsholas begged to disagree. They are together. Together and plotting something. 

“I will do everything in my powers to let her know she’s nothing to fear from me,” Arthur promised. “Or you.”

 

***

 

By the time Merlin and Arthur reached Portstown, the western sky had sunk into the purple tranquility, and blackness ruled the east. One by one, as if afraid to show up for the fest too early, the stars were coming out, beaming white and blue, red and yellow and green.

These are the same stars that greeted me in Camelot when I first arrived at the capital, Merlin thought. Except for back then, the starlight would bedazzle a lonely boy who came from nowhere to become something he didn’t quite understand. I am walking beneath this very same starlight now, with Arthur in my heart and a dragon in my mind.

Portstown would usually shut the gates at the evenfall, but because of the fest, the city kept them open for longer than expected. The guards at the Western Gate didn’t look as irritated as the guards of Camelot which refused to let Gwaine and Merlin in; they were not grumbling impatiently, but looked as friendly as any men holding spears could attempt to look. Arthur chose not to flash his seal and his royal ring; instead, he chose to spend as much time in the line with Merlin as the check-in system was about to take. They were standing behind a wagon laden with apples and red oranges from Nemeth, which Merlin took as a good sign. Maybe the relationship between Arthur and King Rodor isn’t broken completely, since Nemeth chose not to suspend the trade.

That evening, it appeared that the wagons overtook people in numbers, for farmers and merchants from all the nearby territories were hurrying to Portstown, hoping to sell their goods at the fest for a good price. Even before entering through the gates, Merlin noticed festive colorful lanterns burning in the windows of the square brick towerhouses by the sea, the estates where the Portsown ruling nobility and wealthy merchants used to live.

“Your grace,” the guard recognized Arthur even before the king pulled his seal and ring out of the pocket. “We were beginning to worry.”

“There was no need. I promised I’d be back by sunset and, besides, I’m with Merlin.”

The guard’s curious look stumbled upon Merlin and left a puzzled expression on the lad’s face. He doesn’t get how I can guarantee Arthur’s safety. Merlin’s hand checked the magic wand in his pocket. With this thing, Arthur’s safer with me than with a dozen of guards.  

“Lord Sei demanded that we sent word to him once you returned to the city, your majesty” the guard said.

“Then do it quickly, goddess knows Lord Sei’s temper is spoiled quicker than cow’s milk when he doesn’t get what he wants,” Arthur nodded. “What news of Burnwood?”

“Lord Rysor led a small host to the town of Burnwood. He took lord Chefyl of Woodspeak with him, hoping to exchange him for lady Gedref. The other noble captives remain in the cells, according to your order.”

“And Sir Leon with them?” the king inquired.

“Of course, your majesty.”

“Merlin, come,” Arthur invited him to step into the gatehouse. “We’re going to walk the walls. I hope your little bottom’s not tired.”

The temptation to gift Arthur a magic kick on the ass was physical, but Merlin judged it would not be considered appropriate by the guards. The stairs of the gatehouse led onto the curtain wall, where archers and spearmen were positioned, their distrusting gazes aimed at the gathering dusk. In the hot and humid air, the dance of trading city’s odors was a little nauseous. Portstown boasted of the flowers’ aromas, and reeked of fish sold all over the markets, and the bay brought an undertone of salty water, and the quays scented it with spices.

Even beneath the fading moon, Merlin noticed that the quays were overcrowded with sails, trading gallies and lesser ships all seeking entrance into Camelot’s only sea town.

“Why there are so many ships?” Merlin wondered.

“Hm,” the observation seemed to puzzle Arthur, too. “I must ask someone. That is odd.”

Odd is good. Dangerous is bad. Merlin hurried after Arthur as they kept walking eastward, and he saw the castle of Gedref farther into the bay, soaked through with the palish moonrain. The darkness had swallowed the rock and the Dragon’s Jaw, and it appeared the castle was floating in the air all by itself. Merlin still couldn’t believe this grandeur was for him and Arthur to enjoy. Mom wouldn’t believe me if I wrote her.

They reached the Northern Gates in less than an hour, and from the height of the wall, Merlin enjoyed the view of the whole town ablaze with lit ornate lanterns hung on the ropes tied between houses’ rooftops. Music and cheers were rising from various parts of town, and it felt almost a trick – to see people celebrating in the middle of Arthur’s war for his birthright.

“Wait for me here,” Arthur asked of him. “I have to talk to Sir Leon.”

“You’re not going to harm him?”

“Of course not. He’s helped me to my knighthood, I would never harm him. Merlin, don’t look so worried,” Arthur said, touching the tip of Merlin’s nose with his finger.

Merlin watched Arthur step over the threshold where the stairs down the Northern Gatehouse began. I’m curious what he intends to do with Leon. He was, after all, the Commander of the knights at the council of Uther.

In the hot humid air that seemed pervasive, Merlin cherished every gust of wind that came from the bay, no matter what smells it brought. The cheering, singing and dancing city spread within the curtain walls and bordered by the Merchant’s Bay was meant for a carefree evening, for tankards of mead and cider with your friends, for watching the tricks of acrobats, dancers, jugglers, strong men, and jesters, and listening to the songs of glory and love. Yet the words his mother shrieked in Ealdor couldn’t let Merlin surrender to the celebrating spree.

Arthur will have to go to war to win his throne back! That’s how people win the crowns, Merlin! With wars and swords! You’ll take part in war, Merlin? You’re no warlord, Merlin, you’re not, you’re not, simply not! You’re my son, I know you. You realize how much blood will be spilled for Arthur to become king? You want to see innocent people killed? You want to make women widowed and children fatherless? Do you, son?

He’ll never start a war to win his throne back because he doesn’t want his own people to suffer, Merlin told her later, but here he was now, in Gedref and with the war circling above them like a crow above the battlefield. Days ago, he had summoned terrible magic to bathe Odin’s and Alined’s fleet in dragonfire, while Arthur had called banners and made Portstown and Breninwall sway to his side, commanding over three hundred armed men now. Merlin kept telling himself the dragon was necessary to rescue Arthur and Portstown, he knew that if the city had been sacked, hundreds, if not thousands, would have perished, but the notion of using the same force which hurt the Lower Town still made Merlin feel uneasy.

If Modron is right about his father, then it is just a matter of days before Lord Pellinore arrives with a Nemeton host, adding five hundred more soldiers to Arthur’s cause. It will take some time to make Doomspath’s allegiance certain, and if Lord Gloss agrees to surrender Burnwood to Arthur in exchange for all the noble hostages of the Gingawaine army which remain Arthur’s captives, there will be nothing standing between Arthur and the castles of Midlands. What will he do to these castles?  

Arthur returned after a while, wearing an expression of relief, and smiled at Merlin.

“So? You’re ready to go?”

“Where?” Merlin frowned.

“To the town, you silly! I’ll take you to the bazaar, we can throw apples at the statues and the one who hits on the nose wins the prize, and there will be music and… Merlin, what’s wrong?”

“You think I can use some… er… magic? To make the evening even brighter?”

“What kind of magic?”

“You just stay there and take a look.”

The desire was strong within him, almost as strong as the desire to hold Arthur’s hand and spend as much peaceful time with his king as possible. Merlin knew it was going to be one of the most powerful tricks he’d ever played, but he wanted to show it to Arthur, he wanted to feel what it was like to use magic not just in front of Arthur, but with the thousands of people to behold his spectacular gift.

He closed his eyes and pulled the magic wand out of his pocket. With the core of a Sidhe crystal, the tool Kilgharrah had helped him create made Merlin’s magic more accurate and precise, it gave him the ability to do magic even when he wasn’t sure he knew the spell – it was as if the magic wand could transform his aspirations into deeds with some power of its own. He draw a deep breath and let himself disappear into the never-silent sea, the sound of the ancient waves washing against the rocky shore of the east where the castle of Gedref nested itself, the castle which once belonged with his kin…

Merlin felt as though a flash of lightning descended upon him, and in that flash, he glimpsed at the light which linked him with the days when wild dragons would roam the sky, inspiring fear and admiration alike, and he felt his veins boil with a magic wish, and he waved the wand.

All of a sudden, the lights were flying out of the colorful ornate lanterns all over Portstown, one by one, rising higher and higher into the sky and leaving the city to the darkness. There were dozens of them, then hundreds, each of the light bubbles maintaining its own unique color and shade, from yellow and orange to purple and lilac, from sunset red to sky blue, from snow white to grass green. When they were high enough in the sky, Merlin waved his wand again, and the flock of light bubbles which seemed chaotic and unruly suddenly started moving as though in some patterns, and before long they composed a giant figure of rainbow dragon which started flying around a city. The cries turned to cheers and applause as the light-dragon was making circles around Portstown, shining bright and glorious, his wings leaving traces of what looked like stardust in the night sky. After a final wave of the wand, the rainbow dragon fell back into pieces of colorful lights which rained all over Portstown, returning to the lanterns. The cheering got so loud Merlin thought it could be heard all over the Merchant’s Bay.

He turned back to face Arthur, who still had his head up high somewhere in the black sky.

“I never really knew that you could cast such a… such a beauty,” he whispered before smiling. “Well, I guess I could actually say I knew…”

“What do you mean?” Merlin smiled as Arthur pulled him to the gatehouse by the hand.

“Well, you were a terrible servant, but I knew you had to be good at something else.”

 

***

 

The areas by the curtain wall were less wealthy, with low houses of bricks that were threatening to turn to dust, small markets and empty fountains where people nonetheless gathered to celebrate the return of the Dragon Age. The crowd was dense enough for Merlin and Arthur to lose sight of each other if they got separated, and so Merlin was clinging to Arthur’s hand for dear life.

The closer to the bay, the bigger the shops grew, and soon there appeared houses with flowerbed and fruit gardens, and the signs of prosperity were more numerous to count. As the streets grew broader, the guildhalls would pop up left and right, with small squares in front of them providing people with stone benches. The inns looked as lavish as the nobles’ estates which loomed close enough, and moonlight blazed off the white-grey domes of the towerhouses of Gedref rulers. There were winehouses everywhere, too, the flute music drifting in the night air, people drinking and dancing.

Merlin’s eyes caught the sight of a white little odd kitten with a black ear: it was sneaking under the wooden tables on the market square, trying to steal some supper, but brushed away carelessly by most people.

“Merlin, will you stop it, please?” Arthur said with an eye roll. “For the sake of Camelot, this is just a stray kitten! There are hundreds like this in Portstown.”

“He is not just a kitten. Look, he’s adorable! He’s got ears of different colours, that’s a good omen in Ealdor!”

“Listen, here, village boy. Stray cats are no omens at all. At all. Come one, Merlin, I want to go walk to the harbor.”

“But Arthur, he’s…”

“Merlin, one disobedient pet in the castle is enough. Come on. Let’s go.”

“Did you just call me a disobedient pet?” Merlin asked, and finally granted Arthur a magic kick on the ass.

“Ouch. Merlin! You can’t hit me in public. I’m the king. People will think I have no power if my own pets dare hit me…”

“I’ll show your royal pratness who’s a pet here!”

But show he didn’t, for Arthur sprang onto him like a wild cat, with the agility Merlin didn’t quite expect from Arthur. Before long, he was trying to grab Merlin by the wrists and pin him to the nearest wall.

“Merlin, Merlin stop it. It’s getting you nowhere. See? You’re in my arms. Just as I thought you’d be. You’re not just a pet,” Arthur’s lips were now irresistibly close, and Merlin felt the sensation, the weakness and smoothness on the skin of his neck where he felt Arthur’s hot breath. “You’re my little dragon. Wait, what? Did I say something wrong?”

“No. You didn’t. It’s just… You know. Reginald… he used to er… used to call Darian his dragon. And he’d call their lovemaking…er…taming the dragon, if I got it right,” Merlin knew he was again blushing.  

“Merlin,” Arthur leaned closer, this time his lips almost touching the warlock’s ear, and his whisper was as tender as the summer night that reigned over Portstown. “You need not worry. Their song ended with sorrow, I know, but ours can be of happiness. We are not bound to repeat their fate. I will never let you die at no bloody stupid Battle of Ashes. Now come, let’s have some fun!”

Soon the overcrowded street opened up before them onto an immense lantern lit square, where some trickster was offering silver coins to the man who’d shoot seven out of ten apples thrown into the sky. With all the wine, beer, mead, cider and ale, the night had not been shy of enthusiasts to test their luck, but most of them had not even hit one apple, paying in bronze coins for the attempt. Arthur looked no more promising than other men, and the trickster seemed happy he had found another drunkard to fool, but when Arthur’s first arrow got stuck in the red apple, it made the crowd go wild with applause and the trickster’s nervous laughter rang.

“One’s not bad, but seven is still too far away!”

The second arrow hit the apple as fine as the first one, and the crowd grew denser.

“Looks like we’ve got someone with a hunter’s eye here!”

The third apple was thrown astray as if accidentally, but Arthur’s arrow chased it all the same.

“The man should be the champion of Portstown!” the trickster cried, not too happily.

Arthur’s fourth attempt failed, but the fifth, the sixth and the seventh were on point, and when the pale-faced trickster was preparing to throw the eighth apple, Arthur was just one hit away from the prize – which he claimed when his arrow slashed through the ripe fruit.

“You know,” Arthur said when he got back to Merlin with a new purse in his hands. “when I was shooting arrows, I couldn’t get rid of the feeling… that someone was assisting me. Someone with a very special gift.”

“Who could it be?” Merlin asked teasingly as they headed for the bazaar.

The fest’s bazaar was a place which looked unlike anything Merlin had been to so far. It occupied a whole square, with pavilions raised to encompass the strangest creatures and objects one could find in the whole wide world. Many of them had been brought from across the Sea of Mora, it appeared, or Gawant or Cornwall, including giant white birds that could parody their master’s speech, weird lizards that looked as miniature Questing Beasts, and a giant orange-and-white striped cat wearing a collar and chains. There were spices which would make Merlin sneeze, long sables which Arthur could not keep his hands off, and so much and more that it appeared to Merlin the pavilions belonged with a different world.

Getting lost in trade pavilions of a bazaar, spying on a white kitten with black ear, conjuring magic rainbow dragon for Arthur and all the town folk to behold, cheering Arthur who was shooting arrows – life suddenly seemed a dream even though Merlin had no clue what Arthur was going to do with the Gingawaines or Vyda Gaheris. It could have been cider or ale, but Merlin felt there was no longer room for despair and anxiety in his heart. Indeed, somewhere in a different life they could have been together in the castle of Camelot, trading kisses in the King’s Wood and waiting for Uther to die peacefully and for Arthur to lawfully succeed his father… But Merlin had no different life, all he had was now, all he could think of was the vastness of the summer night paraded by countless stars, his hand locked in Arthur’s and the peaceful future which they still could carve.

The harbor was as sleepless as the rest of the town when Merlin, tired but happy, followed Arthur. There were no lanterns there, and few torches, but the sailor’s voices found their way through the darkness.

“King Godwyn will shit his pants the moment he learns of the young king and his dragon, I tell y’all. We’ve naught to fear,” a young man sounded assuring.  

“If he shits too much, he’ll never reopen the ports,” a second voice warned them.

“The Merchant’s Bay will turn to ice sooner than that!” someone said, causing a weak round of laughter in the night air. “Never reopen the ports? You think he’s some lackwit? He’s no simpleton, this Godwyn. He’s the king of Gawant. If he keeps the ports shut, who is he to trade with? I bet Alined lost half his fleet in the dragon flames, and Cornwall suffered greatly, too. If Godwyn keeps his ports shut for any longer, Portstown will rise. Our city has wretched itself free from the treaty signed by Rodor and Uther, the duties now will drop, and the port will finally blossom.”

“King Rodor won’t swallow it easily,” spoke a young voice again.

“He is welcome to come and lay his claims and get his old butt cheeks roasted by that dragon, too. I tell y’all, did you see that dragon?”

“Which one? The rainbow one?”

“No, the real one, you fools! I saw him that very day! It felt as though a warship with two red-black sails in the sky, and when the wretched creature screamed, I thought we were all doomed, but then…”

“Why would we be doomed? Seaside Kingdom had been ruled by dragonlords since the day Ashkanar landed on the coastline to conquer the land with fire and blood. This place used to be dragon’s home. There were nests in the Dragon’s Jaw. Even when the dragonlords lost their claim to Seaside throne, the ties with Camelot dragonlords remained strong. Prince Darian often stayed in Portstown on official visits. The dragon has returned home. Seaside Kingdom will rise like a true power it is. Hey!” a man, no more than a shadow in the night, called for Arthur and Merlin when he spotted them. “What are you lads doing here?!”

“Going home,” Arthur said. “My name is Arthur Pendragon, and this is the dragonlord.”   

Merlin had to light the fire heart in his palm to prove Arthur was speaking the truth. The sailors bent their frightened knees at once, and some of them fell, for maintaining balance was not easy after a fest night.

“No need to kneel,” Arthur said. “This is the night of celebration, I didn’t mean to ruin it for you. I was wondering if I could rent a boat?”

“Small boat will need rowers, my lord,” one sailor said. “The wind’s not in the favor of those sailing for the castle of Gedref.”

“I don’t think I’ll need rowers,” Arthur’s smile was visible even in the darkness. “Merlin can make the boat sail without rowers, I guess.”

When they got into the boat, Merlin caressed it as if it were a living being, his eyes flashing golden and the magic wand sparkling in his hand. The boat started gliding along the inky sea.

“That’s not going to be fast, I fear,” Merlin said.

“And it’s perfect. I am in no hurry when I’m with you,” Arthur said as he pulled the tired Merlin into his arms. Merlin sank so willingly and closed his eyes, Arthur’s heartbeat strong against his back.    

“You ever thought about our future?” the warlock wondered shyly.

“Getting to Portstown was all I could think of,” Arthur confessed. “It seemed there was no future past this point. Too much… uncertainty. But now… I do think about it.”

“What do you see in this future?”

“You,” Arthur said as he ran his fingers through Merlin’s hair. “You by my side, until the very end of my life, no matter what thrones I sit upon.”

The boat was carrying Arthur and Merlin across the Merchant’s Bay, and moon was all but gone.  

Chapter Text

Chapter 7: KINGS AND QUEENS

It was agreed that Ruadan and his warriors were to meet King Rion and his warriors by the village of Greenswood, in the woods near the river Albus. The defensive and still unexplained magic of the river was meant to guarantee that no slaughter would take place at the exchange. Riding to the river Albus would take time, but Morgana didn’t care about being late.

They need me and my swords, so they will wait. Morgause and I could’ve defeated this stupid Vyda Gaheris all by ourselves, but then we’d have to wage another war against Camelot crown. That would be a troubled affair, considering the Gignawaines control the harvest-rich Midlands.  

The druid girls were most helpful: they slipped the black gown off Morgana’s shoulders and helped her get into the bathing pool, where the light of the rising sun would shimmer, broken by the grim shadows of the half-ruined towers of Idirsholas. Morgana didn’t regret leaving the fortress, for she hoped that part of her grief would remain in the Grey Keep. But even at the moment when the girls were rubbing her back, she knew she was wrong. Morgause was there, helping her, too.

“There will be no need to fear for your life, sister, but cautiousness is required. The castle of Camelot is guarded by Gingawaine men, their spears and blades and arrows will be everywhere, day and night.” 

“But you think no harm will come to me?” 

“Not before it snows in summer,” Morgause said, washing Morgana’s hair. “Sister, Queen Regent knows you have an army. There is another one threatening her from the West. Were you to join forces with Vyda Gaheris, this Yrien and her boy king would be facing their doom. She doesn’t want it, so she will treat you nicely. I believe she may even try to win you to her side but trust her not. She is a shewolf in the sheep’s skin.” 

“Is this Yrien that dangerous?” 

“Queen Regent fears for the future of her house. She is threatened by Vyda Gaheris, and she suspects Anna Dindrane may be scheming to restore the druid dynasty to the throne of Camelot,” even with her eyes closed, Morgana knew her sister was smiling pitifully at the mention of the druid restoration to the throne. She thinks Anna Dindrane is delusional. “The castle of Camelot is not Yrien’s family seat, so she thinks herself and her son in a hostile place surrounded by enemies. Small wonder, for half her court proved to be traitors who fled to behind the White Mountains once they learned of Sir Vidor’s murder… She is as dangerous as a wounded beast who thinks she’d run out of peaceful tricks and violence is her only way. She has neither love nor respect for anybody because she believes everyone is her enemy.”

Is Yrien wrong in this assumption?  

“I require neither her love nor respect,” Morgana assured Morgause as she rose from the pool, water running down her bruised legs and beading on her breasts. What is the use of this bathing pool. I look as ugly as a wilddeoren. Washing my hair won’t make my face any brighter, I haven’t had a good sleep in near a week. “The first thing I shall need from Yrien and her son is to issue a royal order to find Merlin.” 

“Sister,” Morgause said in a lower voice as she passed Morgana a soft towel to pat her dry. “I… I grieve with you. The loss of Alvarr is terrible, he is the sort of warrior… He is impossible to compensate. But what you’ve tasted is just the smallest share of the sufferings which magic folk has endured ever since the Purge began. Some of them have lost their whole families. Some parents saw their children murdered in front of them. You know what it means, and you will work your best to ensure it never happens again. This is the greatest goal of all, do not let just one Merlin cloud your mind.” 

Morgana’s hand jerked, and she shoved away the girl who was bringing her the royal dress. She was standing by the bathing pool, engulfed in ripe-wheat yellow sunlight and the primal rage that suddenly made her heart beat faster. 

Just one Merlin, you said? I… How… How can I not let him cloud my mind when he is all I can think of?! How can I let him be after what he has done to Alvarr?! You’ve told me, the day I woke up in the crystal cave, you told me that forgiveness could be the gift of soul, but forgiving those who aimed to murder you was a step into a grave, remember?! So I shall not forgive, least of all forget, and I shall definitely not rest until Merlin is found and brought to me!” 

Morgause looked at her understandingly and took Morgana’s hand in hers.

“Then find him we shall. I am sorry, sister. Please, forgive my ignorance. If only… before Merlin…  We must think about that other druid boy.” 

“Mordred?” Morgana sighed. He was so innocent when he came to Camelot, yet Uther’s guards nearly killed a child. I had the chance to help him, but where is he now? What if he is… No. I shall not think of it. Who would wish to harm a child?

Everybody. They always harm people with magic. All of them, children and women, too.

“Yes, Mordred,” Morgause’s voice seemed distant and unimportant. “The concerns you’ve shared are now troubling me as well. In the light of all these events… The Albus river magic, the curse of Perilous Land lifted… I still pray you’ve somehow got it wrong. If Mordred were fathered by Balinor, Iseldir… He would not have left the last dragonlord unprotected and unwatched, he is not that sort of a man.” 

“Maybe he didn’t know about Mordred from the very start? And now…” 

“Even now he knows nothing of the boy, for otherwise he would have long ago used him in this war. We, too, know nothing of this boy, but he best be found. If, by some cruel twist of fate, the boy turns out to be Balinor’s son, Anna Dindrane will start bragging about his rights for the throne of Camelot. This cannot be. There will be no more dragon royalty on the Camelot throne.”  

Morgana’s instincts told her it was the right time to pose the question. She remembered the warm greeting from the druids who felt flattered in the presence of the dragonlord’s niece. My mother was the sister of one of the dragonlords slain at the Battle of Ashes, Alvarr told me.

“Morgause. Our mother… Before Uther’s conquest, she belonged with the druid royalty, right?” 

 The mention of their mother provoked a heavy sigh from Morgause, a sigh which made Morgana feel uncomfortable for bringing the subject up.

“Yes, she was from the dragon family, sister. Her father was a dragonlord, and her brother succeeded him with that gift. The gift that brought him to his grave,” Morgause said with dark satisfaction to her tone. “Being a part of dragon royalty did our mother no good.”

Being a part of any royalty seldom does any good in the times of war. Only on peaceful days do they enjoy wine and leisure garden walks. Come war, and they are surrounded by swords all yearning to cut them to pieces to occupy their position.

“I understand why she married Gorlois,” Morgana proceeded carefully, watching her sister’s reaction. “It was Uther’s way to join his warlords and the druid royalty. But why would our mother give you to the Isle of the Blessed? You were her daughter, and I thought that dragon families and High Priestesses were no friends.”

The Middle Level of Idirsholas had a ruined morning, with people running around, hurrying to prepare everything for Morgana’s departure. Even Cenred’s soldiers were curious to show up for the farewell. Morgause chose not to hurry, though, and when the sunlight brushed her blonde curls, she looked almost happy when she revisited the memories of her childhood.

 “It was a complicated matter, sister. I was smuggled out of the city of Camelot after a horrific incident. Following Queen Ygraine’s death, Uther was consumed by grief, however hard it may be to believe. Yes, I lie not. So consumed was he, in fact, that some people thought he’d lose his mind and go insane and the realm would have to look for a new king… But fate… She has her own ways. After Queen Ygraine’s death, Uther was visited by his aunt Vyda Gaheris for the first time, and she convinced him to start to force anti-magic legislation. Uther planned no purge, so far as I’ve been told. The legislation implied that from a certain day forth, only magic’s practice would be persecuted, but not the sorcerers and witches themselves.”

“How’s that different?” Morgana snorted.

“Any witch or sorcerer could live in Camelot peacefully so long as she or he didn’t actively practice magic.” 

“But what kind of life is that?”

“A spineless one,” Morgause nodded. “The remaining members of the druid court thought alike. They were not ready to tolerate Uther’s legislation and plotted to get rid of him and restore the druid dynasty to the throne.”

“Who did they see as fitting to rule?”

“Dorin, the son of prince Darian. Darian was the son of the last druid queen, he was one of the three dragonlords to be slaughtered in the Battle of Ashes. Darian’s wife and both their children, Dorin and Gabryss, survived him, though. It was agreed after Darian’s death that little Dorin would be fostered by king Reginald of the Seaside Kingdom, whom Darian was a friend with, but Reginald was soon overthrown by his nephews, Tristan and Agravaine. They took the throne for themselves and married their sister Ygraine to Uther in order to join Uther’s realm peacefully, and the plans to send Dorin to Seaside Kingdom collapsed.” 

Poor boy. They should have sent him away, they should have smuggled him out the way we smuggled Mordred. But they didn’t, and Uther drowned Dorin, Alvarr told me. Did they make Mordred drown, too?

NO .

At that time, Dorin was not a boy, he was a man grown. The plot was led by Thulin and Elsa, prince Darian’s widow, but they failed and Vyda and Uther killed them all, save for Thomas and Hamelia, it is said, but you can’t know them. Well, maybe they all died and just perished and their bodies were fed to Vyda’s hounds. Gaius thought that Uther’s course was a terrible mistake. It threatened the magic’s very origins, and the physician wanted peace to come between the Isle and the druids in order to ensure the future of magic. To demonstrate her kin’s good intentions, mother sent me to the Isle after the dragon’s capture and the failed coup. There were three of us that day.” 

“I remember!” Morgana screamed. “I saw the visions of that day when I lay in the crystal cave, recovering from the poison! There were three of them!”

“So it was. I remember that day, too. Little did I know...” the priestess’s look which seemed somewhat clouded and mystifying turned back to crystal clear. “We shall repay them all, sister. It is in our hands now, not Gaius’s. The future of magic. The Isle. We may restore the powers of the Old Religion. But we must do it carefully. Sorcerers and witches are not as great in numbers as they used to be in the days of the Old Religion. We will never succeed if we relied on charms and enchantments and swords only. We needthe throne of Camelot. We need the knights, we need the laws. We need your marriage to King Rion.”

“Then I am going to Camelot to rule,” Morgana promised.

 

***

The Andor forests were as lovely as the summer bride in green gown, with sunrays trapped between the thick healthy foliage. The past few days had blessed the woods with heavy rainfall and now they stood sparkling with vitality and late summer liveliness. The grass carpets were as smooth as those of southern meadows, and the birds’ singing echoed off the healthy tree trunks. Morgana knew that the magic of the Albus river was contributing to the forests’ strength, too, turning them into a place which offered to seek the wholeness of body, mind and spirit. But I can’t be whole without Alvarr. A part of my spirit died with him. 

The druid camp which had risen spontaneously when Ruadan had called the Triskelion Gathering was melting away, with most of the druid envoys moving to the area of Idirsholas. It was the place where we met.    

She knew she would miss it, but for reasons other than the river Albus being the place where she reunited with Alvarr. The wind was gentle in her hair, and the scents of humid grass and wildflowers were in the air, and there still was an aura of freedom about that place. There was little and less freedom in the castle of Camelot, where tall white walls were strong yet somehow wrong and against the nature’s beauty, where there were no gardens that would match the vividness of the Andor forests. The King’s Wood is a parody. It’s been thinned out intentionally, so that the nobles would be able to hunt there easier. 

I am not going to lose my freedom , Morgana thought, watching a pair of birds high in the blue sky above the tree tops. I am not going to be a caged bird again. Uther couldn’t cage me, and neither Yrien nor anybody else will be able to put me in cage again.

Why would anybody try to put you in cage if you’ve already locked yourself by fearing Merlin and seeing him but in every shadow?

I DO NOT FEAR HIM!

 She desperately needed sleep. Even seeing the nightmares would be better than trying to argue with a nasty voice in her head that kept getting louder and louder. It was the voice of a weakling, the voice of someone who could surrender and abandon the search for Merlin, the voice of someone who could not be. When they began to approach the river, Morgana heard the murmurous flow from afar – it was a dwindling noise that bore traces of magic. She herself had explored the weird enchantment of the river, when on the way to the Triskelion Gathering. Morgana remembered that she only let her hand touch the water, and the visions came: some old woman defeating a fire wall that threatened to burn her, a blue heart of stone, crows and Arthur in some crystal cave with a crown on his head. But Arthur couldn’t be in the crystal cave. It was not a crown upon his head, it was a shroud. In the few visions she’d glimpsed since coming back to life after Merlin’s poison, she saw crows and ravens too often, but Morgause had told her crows and ravens were symbols of war and were expected.

When her party approached the riverbed, the blue-grey shields of water mirroring the golden sunlight made her squint, but she still saw king’s men behind the river. It was a small party of a dozen men armed with longswords and shields, in yellow cloaks with bear prints. The king was not among them, however.

 “They hear us not, sister,” Morgause calmed her down. “And see us neither. Now listen. If you ever have a need to see me, hold this necklace and whisper my name. I will be waiting for you at the market in the Lower Town.”

“You’re going with me?!” confusion rose within Morgana as she accepted a thin golden necklace. “But I thought you would be commanding the army!”

“Ruadan and Sir Tawton would do just well,” Morgause pointed at Ruadan with a nod, and the druid leader returned the courtesy. “I must be with you for the first days. And sister, if something goes wrong and you will find that I am gone from this world…”

“I don’t want to think about such a day, don’t even say anythi…”

“Sister,” Morgause’s horse neighed nervously as if sensing Morgana’s tension. “Things may go amiss. We are at war. If the war takes me away, let this be my final gift to you.”

Morgause’s final gift was a large bronze coin that was almost the size of Morgana’s palm.

“What is it?”

“A drop of your blood, and it will show you the way to my hideout. Iseldir’s not the only man to have magic treasures.”

 “My lady,” Ruadan said before realizing Morgana hated to be addressed like that. “I mean, Morgana. We will not fail you, I promise. Make no mistake, the druids support your cause. Don’t forget about us when you climb that throne.”

“The druids’ wellbeing will be my chief concern,” Morgana smiled. “It’s time for the things to change.”

“Now go, sister! We must not keep the king waiting for too long,” she gave Morgana a warm kiss on a cheek. “And don’t let them scare you!”

“Don’t worry,” Morgana kicked her horse. “They won’t scare me if I scare them first.”

 That she scared them was as certain as daylight. When her horse ran from behind the wall of magic defenses, it appeared as if she descended upon the king’s party out of the blue, splashing the waters and making the men emit sighs they would be ashamed of.

“My lords,” she smiled. “Is the king still waiting for me?”

“Lady Morgana,” it looked like all they could do was just pronounce her name.

“We thought you’d be accompanied,” the other knight suggested, looking around for Morgana’s guards.

“I am not afraid to travel by myself,” Morgana lied, smiling and directing her horse across the river to the other bank. “And neither should you. Where is his grace?”

“My lady,” a man of forty years, white-bearded and with a lined face, stepped forward. “If you remember me, I am Lord Dwynton, ordered by the king to escort you safely to the Greenswood.”

“Lord Dwynton,” Morgana smiled. “You visited Camelot with your sons some years ago. Twins, aren’t they?”

“They are, my lady,” the knight smiled. “Shall we proceed? The woods are perilous. Magic rules in this land.” 

Magic will rule in the whole realm soon. The old ways will be restored.  

That the king had not come to greet her personally seemed somewhat strange to Morgana. She suspected no ploy underneath the scene and was as afraid of the knights as a cat could be scared by mice. I faced many more knights when I came to inspect Idirsholas. They all fell at my wrath. These will fall, too, if need be.

The king was expecting her in a wheelhouse that was suspended between six mammoth horses on heavy leather straps. It was huge double-decked carriage of oiled oak and gilded metal, and Morgana was sure not every road in the Five Kingdoms could encompass such a structure.

They are not even trying to make it look like a rescue mission , Morgana snorted. They will simply bring me back to the castle of Camelot and tell the small folk they freed me and saved me.Goddess, I wonder what’s happening to the knights these days that they lose all the gallantry. 

Lord Dwynton helped her climb the wooden steps into the wheelhouse, and once inside, she found herself among scattered silk pillows stuffed with goose down. The velvet walls of dark purple color curved overheard to form a roof and make the wheelhouse feel pleasantly hot. King Rion was sitting there. She could recall his few visits to the castle, but he had changed too much to let himself be easily recognized. He is too young for that crown. He still had boyish features on his prolonged face, but the look in his eyes was that of a determined and confident man. He was tall and handsome, and Morgana could tell he’d grow strong. His auburn hair were of lighter shades, and his face – kissed by summer sun.

 “Your majesty,” she knew her manners too well to spare a bow.

“My lady,” Rion grabbed her hand awkwardly and kissed it. “Please be welcome and be seated.”

We are alone , Morgana noticed as she sank into the comfortable pillows on an improvised couch. Rion knocked on the door, and the structure came to a soothing motion, swaying side to side as if attempting to unnerve her. We are alone and I am going back to the castle of Camelot.

 “I hope the wheelhouse does not disappoint you,” he said, hiding his pride too poorly. “My mother insisted that you be brought back ahorse, but I thought that you would not refuse the pleasure of traveling in something lavishafter all the time you’ve spent in the… modest conditions.”

Brought back ahorse? Does your mother think she’s bought herself a cask of wine or something? If so, she’ll choke on it soon enough.

“I am not ashamed of the modesty I’ve enjoyed so far, your majesty,” Morgana responded defiantly. “Neither do I regret all the time I’ve spent deprived of the lavishness the castle of Camelot has to offer. The druids lead modest lives, there can be no arguing about it, but if I were an ordinary woman, I would enjoy it gladly.”

“But you are not an ordinary woman.”

“No more than you are an ordinary man,” Morgana smiled before she continued, mockingly. “Why, to just think that you’ve already put on a crown and slaughtered the Dark Witch! All before turning seventeen...”

 In the silence that fell she could hear the wheels cracking and the horse neighing, and the knights and guards shouting something like “make way!” and “move aside!”. Rion studied her face intently, and sighed.

“My lady, let us start this anew,” the boy proposed almost sincerely. “I admit it is my fault. Shouldn’t have brought my mother up. She is always ruining things, even when she is not here.”

“Speaking ill of your mother while she is not here is not very noble, your grace.”

That made him laugh.

“Trust me, you will understand it after the few days you’ll enjoy her company.”

“Why just few days?”

“Once we are married, you will become Queen Consort, and since you’ve already come of age, I will no longer need my mother to ratify my decrees. You will do it. So I shall send my mother to the castle of Woodspeak, where she will reside as princess of Camelot until the day you bear me children.”

This day will never come, Morgana thought. We shall never have children.

“You sound too eager to rid the castle of your own mother,” Morgana noticed, wincing unpleasantly. She didn’t like the boy, she didn’t trust him, he could not be trusted. There was something about the uneasy look in his eyes and the relaxed manner of his position which suggested the boy was not as innocent as he looked. I would be a fool to think he’s just a boy.

 “So long as mother is plotting behind my back, my plans will bear no fruit.”

“And what are your plans, your grace? Would you care to share them with your lady wife-to-be?”

Rion’s smile got beautiful, enhanced by deep pensive eyes.

 “Morgana, I understand how you feel. I understand the stupidity of the situation we’ve got ourselves into. We are two strangers destined to become husband and wife for the sake of the political gains it will bring to the people we rule. But this is precisely what makes our similarities stronger than whatever differences we might have. We both care about the people we rule.”

“Do we?”

“You care about the druids so much you’re willing to lift the magic ban, even though you were brought up at Uther’s court.”

 “Druids saved my life,” Morgana repeated the lies the way Morgause had taught her. “They saved me from the Dark Witch. I owe them more than I can pay. How much is my life worth?”

“And I respect that,” Rion poured himself some wine from a waterskin before offering a cup to Morgana. “But you will have need of me to honor your debt. The common people have grown unruly, there were riots in the Lower Town when the Dark Witch slaughtered Sir Vidor… Yet I believe it’s temporary, I believe I can win them to my side. The common people have been wronged by the corrupt ways of my uncle’s and Uther’s courts in more ways than Dark Witch could’ve thought of. I saw those corrupt ways myself when my uncle had to abandon all the commoners in Brechfa during Cenred’s invasion. He just left people to die. And I heard rumors that hundreds of misplaced by the dragon fire in the Lower Town were not provided with shelters in Camelot at first, so Uther was not much better.”

 “And you disapprove?”

“Of course, I disapprove! People are people. If we cared enough to make our peasants’ lives  more prosperous and safe, we would win them to our side and make them forget their hatred for magic. They would tolerate the lift of magic ban if we put enough effort into raising their living.”

“And what does your majesty intend to do about it? How do you wish to raise their living?”

 “My teacher in Brechfa used to say that a sovereign’s goal is to foresee the inescapable and prepare his kingdom for it,” Rion said and leaned over to her. “Morgana, the common people are the many. We are the few. Our castles are the only things that protect us from being overthrown by the mob. The day the Dark Witch killed Sir Vidor, there were riots in the Lower Town. I’ve been to the streets that night, I have seen those riots, Morgana, with my own eyes. If people are angry enough they will overthrow us unless we lock ourselves behind the thick stone walls. I mean to change it. I want the common people to become a part of the new kingdom, a kingdom where they will have no need to overthrow their rulers.”

“And what about the Druid people? Will there be a place for Druid people in your new kingdom?”

“Druids are no less my people than all the other men and women of Camelot. I intend to bring them back; but without your help I shall not succeed. Will you help me?”

He may not be as dumb as the rest of them, Morgana thought. Besides, the promises don’t bound me to anything. I can reconsider if I sense his lies.

“I shall try my best, your grace. Where have you grown so mindful of the common people?”

 “It’s just that we don’t have thick stone walls in the castle of Brechfa, so we had to learn to take the small folk’s mind into consideration,” Rion shrugged.

 Rion sounded too straightforward for someone who’s made his way to the very top of the court of Camelot. People who wear crowns rarely speak honestly, even with their equals. I am no equal in his eyes. Why would he be open with me? This reeks of deceit. 

Deceits were the least worrying thing. Morgana had grown up at court, where lies, plots, schemes and intrigues were as natural as the water in the sea, and deceits frightened her not. Threats were a different story, and it was something hard to deduce from their exchange. Rion didn’t make in impression of a dangerous man, but impressions could be wrong.

 She spent the rest of the way listening to Rion’s reports on the state of kingdom’s affairs. Vyda Gaheris had managed to forge an alliance with King Sarrum, a ruler of a poor but proud western kingdom Dyfed. Half the court had fled to Vyda’s side since then. There were famed nobles from Uther’s council like lord Sagramore, the longtime Councilor of Camelot, but he held no lands and could call no banners, and thus posed little threat if any at all. Lord Gornemant, on the other side, was the husband of Lady of Denaria Galla Dindrane, a sister of Uther’s warlord Demeth Dindrane, and now Denaria’s future was put under question.

 “Why does Denaria worry you so much?” Morgana frowned. “This territory is all swamps. You don’t expect Vyda Gaheris to push siege towers and trebuchets through swamps, I reckon? That would be jolly fun, but I doubt she’s that stupid. Unfortunately.”

“When I was growing up, our grandma was telling stories about the lonely paths through swamps which linked Midlands and Denaria.”

“And about the ghosts in the Valley of the Fallen Kings, I’m sure,” Morgana smiled, remembering the blood-freezing stories they would share on the longest winter night. “And about a witch killed in the plains of Denaria and how she died with the curse on her lips, a curse that turned the plains to swamps and separated Midlands and Denaria for ever.”

 “Not entirely separated,” Rion disagreed. “There is a bridge over the river Sabrina in Doomspath, a bridge large enough for an army to pass.”

“Doomspath is sworn to Gedref,” Morgana remembered. “Why would Doomspath side with Vyda Gaheris? Who rules in Gedref now?”

“Lady Gedref,” Rion said. “But why need I besiege you with the dreadful talks about Denaria and Gedref? Vyda will cross the White Mountains at the Pass of Camlann, where we shall meet her with our sharp blades.”

Where we will bury her with our blades, you meant to say.

The thoughts about the battle at Camlann made Morgana consider jumping out of the wheelhouse. It was there, at the battle field where she belonged. She felt she was destined to bleed with her people, to share their suffering and to yearn for battle, and she suddenly was disgusted with her own helplessness from sitting around in a stupid luxurious wheelhouse with silk pillows.

 It’s so easy. Do it. Jump out of the wheelhouse. Seize some guard’s horse. Race back to where you belong.

No. I must stay here. I must remain on my way to Camelot.

Is it you speaking? Or is it you submitting to your sister’s will without having your own opinion?

SHUT UP.

 

***

The sight ofthe eight beige-and-white towers of the castle of Camelot was suffocating. The enormous fortress was shining in the sunlight as if immune to any threat, rising tall and strong in the midst of the Darkling Wood and King’s Wood greenery. The castle was raised by Sigan, a sorcerer whose powers lasted far beyond the limits known to both, priestesses and druids, and everything in Camelot, from the curtain wall to the keep, bore the traces of the magic hand that built it.

Yet the magic nature of the castle didn’t agree with the magic inhabitants under Uther’s reign, and Morgana had learnt it, to her sorrow. She had attempted escapes three times, and none of those plans worked. And now I don’t have to run away from the castle. I have to break in. Maybe it will bring me more luck.     

However soothing the swaying of the wheelhouse was, Morgana had not fallen asleep, trying to keep the small talk with Rion going, and horses that had been pouring the wheelhouse began to slow down long before the Iron Gate of the Lower Town came into sight.

“We must proceed ahorse, my lady,” Rion said as he helped Morgana get out of the wheelhouse. “People have gathered in the streets, I am sure. We must make certain you’re seen, they will love you dearly.”

“Then I shall walk,” Morgana said angrily.

And walk she did. She walked, swallowing her tears and praying for the wind to dry her eyes. She walked, crying because she knew Alvarr would condemn her every step, would spit from disgust at the sight of her heading back to the place where people hated magic. She walked, making a new vow with every breath, promising to the hells and heavens alike that Merlin would pay for this, would learn the bitter taste of pain and torture for ruining her life. She walked swearing that her sister would be proud of her deeds.

Worst of all was the wicked murmurs she thought she heard in the air, the noises that made he feel unwelcome. With a sense of foreboding she arrived at the city through the Iron Gate, Rion walking by her side. The wide Smithies Square was as crowded as it had been on the day when King Uther had returned victorious from one of the Gwynedd wars. The mob was there, it seemed equal parts men and women, children and old people. A lot of them had their children on their shoulders, waving at Morgana happily. Mingled in with the crowd were the Gingawaine cloaks, notorious, unshaven and tired creatures who were as numerous as wild flowers on the summer meadow.

The newsmaker was shouting something, the cheers got so loud they grew deafening and made Morgana feel afraid to raise her head. Beyond the square, beyond the wild sea of happy curious eyes, waving and clapping hands, shouting mouths and shining faces, across the city, the castle of Camelot rose in the distance, its towers and battlements blushing pearl-white in the light of the sunset sun. It is not so far.Once I reach the castle, I will lock myself in my room and not step out for as long as possible.

They were shouting her name, praising King Rion and throwing flowers at their feet, thanking them for Goddess only knew what, and Morgana hated them all. She hated them for being so kind, hated them for the hypocrisy that seemed ugly as sin. This is the very same mob who demanded the new Purge.

Morgana would not look them in the eyes, but she did her best to pretend she was happy to be back to the castle of her childhood. She kept glancing at the Western Bridge, counting the remaining steps, when Rion took her by the hand all of a sudden. She wanted to slap him, but then remembered half the city was watching, and had to put on a feigned smile.

So they walked, hand in hand, showered in love of the common people who believed Morgana’s return was the end of the Dark Witch for good. So she walked, until she saw a familiar face among a small party greeting her by the Western Bridge. Oh, Goddess. Gwen!

 

  

Chapter Text

Chapter 8: LORDSHIP 

 

The dawn was tangled up in the long grey clouds, but sunlight managed to break through, a pink grace over the rocky shores of Merchant’s Bay. The training grounds would ordinary have no welcome visitors at such early an hour, but that morning was no ordinary. Owaine was preparing for the first big test of his lordship, and he was so nervous he had to let it all out somehow. And what better way to let it out than beating some sense in Modron?

However, when clad in mail and plate, Modron seemed a little straighter, a little taller, and a little thicker in his shoulders, not the easiest person to beat.

“You ready for the third fight? The one who wins now is declared a champion for the week” Modron grinned.

“Ready,” Owaine nodded.

Modron rushed him hard the instant, as if it was the melee with a prize worth hundreds of golden coins. Owaine had to take a step backward and interpose his shield, for otherwise, Modron would have broken half his ribs. Even with the shield, though, the heavy blow did stagger Owaine and did send a jolt up his arm. Another step backward, and Owaine opened some space for attack, and soon the lads were circling around each, quick and agile, trading blows. Modron had more luck at escaping those blows, however.

Owaine tried to invest everything into his strength, hoping to deliver two blows against every one Modron gifted him, but that did him no good. Modron seemed to be always on the move, sliding sideways, making it impossible for Owaine to catch him and too hard to track him. When Owaine lost a fraction of attention, Modron suddenly threw himself forward with such might that they went down together, legs entangled, losing swords.

“Where did you learn to fight like that?” Owaine roared, when he struggled to his knee, spitting blood.

“What do you think I was doing in Nemeton while waiting for my father to return from the castle of Camelot?” Modron smiled proudly as he offered his hand to help Owaine get up. “Dancing?”

“Bedding lady Datharia's daughter, I’d wager.”

That made the dark-haired pale youth even prouder.

“We can’t be talking about that.”

“So, you did bed her, after all?”

“I said I can’t be talking about it…”

As they rushed to the armory, Owaine felt his body reacting with pain to every move, but that was exactly what he wanted. He would have gladly stayed for the fourth round of fighting, but time was running out. With Arthur and Merlin off somewhere, Owaine remained the highest authority in the castle, the Lord of Gedref. I am just sixteen. I want to be like Modron, too. Learning swordfight and bedding girls.

“…maybe at the fest they’ll show us how it’s done,” Modron’s words reached him as if from afar.

The silent hall of the Gedref armory was a lot more beautiful than the one in Camelot, where the armory looked like an extension of the barracks. The Gedref armory reminded of some homage hall to the glorious weapons of the past, and proved an unforgettable impression on every lad who’d walk in for the first time.  

“I think I may not be going to the fest,” Owaine responded.

“What do you mean you may not be going to the fest?!”

“I told you, I have a lot of work to do.”

“To hell with that work! You’re sixteen, there will be beer and cider and ale and wine and girls!”

And there will be trade blockade and Treasury losses as well if I don’t work.

“Modron, I don’t know if you ever noticed, but I am lord of Gedref now. I can’t simply send work to hell. Not unless I try to deal with it first,” he tried to soften the blow with a joke. He knew Modron wanted to go to the fest with him. His Nemeton friend looked as if he were not easily approachable, but Owaine knew that Modron was missing home ever since he’d escaped, and the dark-haired youth needed the support of the few he could call friends. 

“Deal with it, my arse! Owaine, this is ridiculous! You’re not going to be the lord of Gedref for long! When you mother returns, she’ll assume the duties, so why…”

If she returns.”

That made Modron pat Owaine on the back.

“She will return. Don’t ever doubt it. I tell you, we have half the Gignawaines noblemen in our dungeons, why would Yrien refuse a hostage swap?”

Because she may be evil and wicked.

“Why wouldn’t she? She is hard to predict. I know nothing about her, truth be told. She was always… distant in the castle of Camelot…”

“She had big breasts,” Modron observed dreamingly.

“How are her breasts supposed to tell anything of her ruling ways, you, dumb arse? You think she’s ruling with them or something?”

The next moment, they burst out laughing, and Modron even dropped his iron glove on the floor and nearly broke his thumb with it, but they couldn’t stop it, they just couldn’t.

“We shall write Yrien a letter, asking her to clarify the issue,” Modron was running out of breath, red all over his pale cheeks.

The wind was always strong over the castle of Gedref, but the curtain walls did well to protect the inhabitants from the moods of weather. The seagulls were circling around the colossal white building, their cries common but irritating nonetheless. Mother always loved to watch seagulls fly at sunset. She will watch them again.

“Seriously, Owaine, your mother will be fine,” Modron said, as if gifted with the ability to read his friend’s thoughts. “There is every chance Yrien will agree to the hostage exchange. And if she’s wise, she’ll grab her son and run away into some rich-arse exile once she learns of Arthur’s dragon.”

“This is not Arthur’s dragon,” Owaine noted when they climbed the stairs into the tended fruit garden where half the trees were uprooted after the dragon landed there. “It’s Merlin’s dragon.”

“It’s sort of the same, isn’t?” Modron snorted. “Merlin is as loyal to Arthur as a blind kitten. Strange as it may sound.”

“Strange? You don’t believe in friendship?”

“Not between a prince and servant.”

“Princess Mithian said they were more than a prince and a servant.”

“You talked to her about it?”

“Well, she talked to me one day. After her hawking trip, if I remember it right. She asked about you, by the way.”

“She did?”

“Don’t rip your pants, lover-boy. She just asked some silly courteous questions. She’s a big hunter, it turns out.”

“I’ve got a big hunter, too. Down my pants.”

“You’re embarrassing,” Owaine rolled his eyes. “Anyway, she says she’s never seen a boy worry about a girl the way Arthur worries about Merlin.”

“And that’s precisely what’s weird,” Modron said, kicking an apple which had grown so ripe it’d fallen from the branch; the fruit landed in the fountain with a splash. “Arthur was the prince, he could’ve chosen any girl he wanted. He was the damn crown prince. But he picked Merlin. Who’s not even handsome! And who doesn’t have big breasts!”

“Who doesn’t have big breasts?” a voice from the arbour called.

A girl with the skin so pale it made Modron look tanned, walked out of the arbour, slender in a lined gown of red and blue. Her hair was black and thick, curling more than usually from the sea air.

“Princess Mithian!” Owaine bowed down. “Pardon the foul language, we were not expecting to see you at such an early hour....”

“You’re not the ones to visit the training grounds. I’d left before you came. I must work on my aim somewhere, right? And the best aim is forged in twilight, every hunter in Nemeth knows it.”  

Modron looked as if he had swallowed his tongue for some reason.

“Er… Right… You’re good?”

“Pardon?” the princess smiled.

“Aiming? I mean, you’re good at aiming, princess?”

Owaine chuckled. He had never seen his friend so confused and lost before. He likes her.

“Well, they say I’m good… But people are too often overpraised, right? In any case, you can train with me next time, so that you can see yourself. Now, pray excuse me, my lords.”

She turned and headed for the castle, cleaned an apple with her sleeve and gave it a bite.  

“Go for it,” Owaine whispered into Modron’s ear.  

“Go for what?”

“Oh, you dumb arse, she’s just invited you to the training grounds next time. Now go ask her to join you at the fest.”

“You think so?” Modron looked nervous.  

“Go!”

“Princess Mithian!” Modron shouted as her rushed after the princess of Nemeth. “Princess Mithian!”

 

***

 

The morning ship carried Owaine from the Dragon’s Jaw to Portstown faster than usual. That means the voyage back will be impossible without rowers, since the winds are in favor of those sailing west. On his way to the city, Owaine had seen twice as many ships and trading gallies all over the bay, which meant that the rumours were true, after all: king Godwyn of Gawant had shut his harbors and suspended trade. Well, maybe I would do the same if I were him. He must be shocked to learn of the dragon. Gawant has a mighty war fleet and trade companies that command gallies. But their ships are made of rope and pitch and canvas, of old oaks and young yews, of ashes and spruces. Wood. And every wood burns.

Lord Sei was a thin stooped figure among many people who filled the harbor. He was not attended by his guards: the crowds in the streets on the fest day were so huge that guards would prove useless. Besides, Owaine knew Lord Sei didn’t have much to fear in his native city. The longtime lord of Portstown had lived through greater perils in the days of his youth.

“Owaine,” Lord Sei greeted him with a handshake. “It was good of you to come. Your mother would be proud. But I still think it would be wiser to let me speak.”

Owaine was prepared for that. He thinks I am not ready.He thinks I may fail to control myself and start threatening the envoys with dragonfire

“If I sat silent throughout the whole meeting, that would show them my weakness,” Owaine disagreed.

“You are too young for these things.”

“Well, I’m sorry for that. They forgot to ask my age when the magic stone creatures of Sigan killed my father and when Ryence arrested my mother.”

People were tying ropes all across the tiled rooftops, so that the colored lanterns could be hung to illuminate the city with all imaginable colors later in the evening. The meeting with Gawant envoys was supposed to take place in the towerhouse of Orys family, one of the wealthiest merchant families of Portstown.

“Owaine, you know very well that my intentions are those of kindness and care,” Lord Sei tried to comfort the lad. “We in Gedref treasure your return too much to risk you.”

“Risk me? It’s the merchants we’re dealing with, not pirates,” Owaine smiled. “Merchants carry no swords.”

“But they have gold, Owaine. And gold may win wars as good as any iron.”

So much was true, Owaine suspected. If wars were fought with iron, the world would be a simpler place. People fought with all things imaginable, they fought with gold, with crops, with poisons and even with love. And with fire.

“I value your counsel, my lord. But I must learn to rule. Else Arthur will think me useless.”

 “You’re talking gibberish,” lord Sei laughed it off. “King Arthur owes you his life.”

“He repaid the debt more than once. He saved me from a lamia and his dragon roasted Alined’s and Odin’s fleet.”

“Oh, dear… Lamias and dragons,” lord Sei’s spoke in a bedazzled tone. “It’s as if the nurse’s tales suddenly came to life.”

“Better tales than nightmares, don’t you agree?”

In the brick towerhouse of Orys family, tables were set up for the meeting: one piled with letters, documents and maps, one empty for the negotiations and one with refreshments and meals, including ribs, roasted fish, a mash of peace and carrots, and wine for the guests.

The envoys were late, but it offended Owaine in no way. On the contrary, he was glad he could go over the documents again, although he did acknowledge the fact that there were too many things to keep in one’s head without messing anything up. Nineteen years ago, in the year 413 after Romans, king Quichelm of Essetir invaded Kent. He meant to seize the part of the Great Trade Road which ran through Kent, and then charge every cart traveling the road. Since the Great Trade Road was of crucial importance to Nemeth, King Rodor waged war on Essetir. The fighting went for two years and resulted in the near defeat of King Rodor and the death of both his sons, leaving baby princess Mithian his only heir. King Quilchelm of Essetir was almost certain to celebrate his victory.

However, in year 415 AR King Rodor started secret negotiations with King Uther of Camelot. King Rodor wanted King Uther to invade Essetir and make King Quilchelm accept defeat. In return, king Rodor promised to not press claim for the lands disputed between Nemeth and Camelot for the following twenty years and recognize Uther’s grab of Assetir, while Uther promised to set Gedref’s trade duties twice higher than in Nemeth. King Uther agreed to the terms because he needed to secure his southern borders before marching north to fight Caerleon of Gwynedd.

This pact was signed seventeen years ago. It expires in three years, formally, and Portstown will enter the trade of Merchant’s Bay. But the Merchant’s Bay trade is like a web. We dare not touch a single strand lest all the others tremble. Seagate in Deorham, Pilton in Cornwall, Inkwave, Newport and Swansea in Gawant all have direct interests in the Merchant’s Bay trade. Not to mention other cities in Cornwall, Nemeth and Kent; for some of them it is cheaper to ship the goods to and from Gawant across the Merchant’s Bay rather than to pull them all the way from Londinium to Gawant along the Great Trade Road.    

 “Don’t speak too harsh, Owaine,” Lord Sei counseled him again when the news broke that the envoys were finally on their way. “Do not push them into the corner. Remember, they may call no banners, but they come from wealthy families, and many of them have been saving gold for generations.”

The merchants were introduced by their servant, who looked like a young apprentice of a librarian, with quills and inks and parchments in a bag he was wearing over the shoulder. 

“Before you arrive the noble Usai of the Merman Company, the noble Lywark of the Trident Company and the respected Rodrik from the Silky Bank of Tir-Mor.”

The envoys entered, three figures in robes of green, turquoise and black. Great, Owaine thought, but which one is who?

“The noble and the respected ones,” the young lord of Gedref said, nearly forgetting that it was expected of him to meet them standing. “Please be seated and help yourself with the refreshments. It pains me to learn that your journey has been wearisome.”

A thin man wrapped in green robes put on a tired smile.

“This was inevitable, young lord of Gedref,” he said with a trace of apology to his tone. “The harbors of Inkwave are shut – so bids the king of Gawant. We, the humble merchants, always abide by the royal will, providing the kings and queens respect their own laws, too. Thus, we traveled by land.”

“Our own councilor Cynric has been delayed for the same reason,” Owaine gestured at the servants to help the envoys with the wine.

A fat man who was wearing a nearly see-through turquoise robes coughed, as if from discomfort.

“The councilor did visit the Trident Palace of king Godwyn, that is true. He came by sea, but was supposed to go back to Gedref by the Great Trade Road. We fear you may not be happy to learn the news he brings.”

“Let him bring the news before we discuss it, the noble and the respected,” Owaine smiled. I have enough burdens without filling my head with fears over what message from Gawant lord Cynric brings.

The same turquoise merchant smiled in return.

“The young lord of Gedref speaks wisdom. We came to discuss other matters, the most important things of all. And what can be more important than peace? Peace nurtures wealth and happiness, thus making the common people satisfied and their rulers in control.”

“If it is peace king Godwyn desires, then he has nothing to worry about.”

The green man sipped his wine before clearing his throat. “We are not here on behalf of King Godwyn, young lord of Gedref. We are here on behalf of the Merman Company and the Trident Company.”

“And on the behalf of the Silky Bank of Tir-Mor, of course,” the man in black robes spoke for the first time. Owaine misliked the shine of cold anger which loomed deep within his brown eyes. “Peace is our common desire. It is the desire of hundreds of sailors, crew members, port workers, craftsmen and shop keepers. The desire of all the people who benefit from trade.”

“Then you and all the people who benefit from trade have nothing to worry about,” Owaine reasserted his position. “Peace has dawned upon the Merchant’s Bay.”

“Has it?” the banker’s tone was that of a challenge. “Does your notion of peace include dragons burning ships?”

Pirates’ ships,” Lord Sei hissed.  

“So says the noble lord of Portstown,” the fat turquoise envoy shrugged. “King Odin insists it was nothing but a trading expedition.”

“What kind of an expedition?” the flare of fury lit up Owaine’s face. “The one that has never been agreed with Portstown? I’m afraid it’s another one of Odin’s lies. It was, in fact, an assault on Portstown, an attempt to capture King Arthur. We defended our city.”

“And how many more cities you’re planning to defend with that fire-breathing thing?” the turquoise man asked with a poisonous smile.  

“As many as it takes to secure peace.”

“You’re trying to bring peace with fire and blood,” the man in green robes spoke. They are attacking me one by one. I must not lose myself to anger. I can’t suffer a trade blockade. Portstown can’t suffer it. “What kind of peace is that?”

“The only one we can provide when surrounded by enemies who want us dead.”

“Young lord of Gedref, the kingdom of Gawant doesn’t bear you ill will.”

He is slipping, Owaine triumphed silently.

“You’ve just said you are here on behalf of Merman Company and Trident Company, not the entire kingdom,” Owaine pointed and took a moment to enjoy the flash of irritation on the man’s face. “In any case, if kingdom of Gawant bears us no ill will, then why does king Godwyn shut the harbors of Iknwave and suspend the trade?”

“We are but the humble merchants, but we believe that he shut the harbors and suspended trade until the reasons of king Odin’s and King Alined’s fleet destruction were known. Well, the reason is clear now,” the fat turquoise man sighed. “The dragon roams the sky over the Merchant’s Bay once again.”

“Nothing can be done about the dragon, I am afraid.”

 “King Uther chained this dragon once,” the banker’s voice was cold as ice over the frozen lake.  

“He did. But King Uther never sat the throne of Seaside Kingdom. We were founded by a dragonlord Ashkanar the Obstinate,” Owaine couldn’t help the pride in his voice. “We were ruled by dragonlords for a long time. We will not chain a dragon.”

Even if we wanted to.  

“But the dragons have been gone from the Seaside Kingdom for nearly one hundred years,” the banker said with a poorly masked spite. “Why should they return?”

“The reasons are not for us to grasp, I am afraid. The Old Ways are not always easy to understand for mortals, I know better than claim to be knowledgeable.”

“Old Ways are old,” the banker pointed preachingly. “There is no place for old ways in the future.”

“If this is your understanding, then our paths shall run astray from this day forth and never cross again,” Owaine told them boldly, feeling the intense gaze of Lord Sei pricking him. “If the old ways are as irrelevant as you insist, ask yourselves, the noble and the respected: shall we ruin our common future because of the Old Ways? The Seaside Kingdom is restored, and king Arthur will see to Portstown future himself. It is inevitable. For far too long the city’s development has been restrained by the Treaty signed between king Rodor and King Uther after the end of the Kent Trade War.”

“The Treaty is supposed to last for three more years,” the thin man in green robes said calmly. “If brave King Arthur’s going to start his reign by undermining his father’s pacts, he’s going to earn a dark legacy.”

“King Arthur isn’t going to violate the treaty. In the document, it was written that King Rodor agreed to never wage war on Camelot in exchange for Uther’s intervention in Nemth-Essetir conflict, and Uther also agreed to keep the tariffs in Portstown twice higher than in Nemeth,” Owaine repeated what he had learned by heart. “But King Rodor broke the treaty. He tried to sell Arthur to King Odin. It was an act of war.”

“So you say,” the banker whispered. “Yet what proof of these words can you bring?”

“I can invite princess of Nemeth. She will prove every word.”

“The princess of Nemeth…” the envoy in green robes seemed at a loss now.

“She is a troubled lady,” the fat turquoise merchant mumbled. “Her mother fled to the Isle of Mora following Mithian’s disappearance. Still… The merchants of Nemeth are siding with Queen Mother… Mithian is the one true heir of Nemeth. Her words can be trusted.”

“All the more complicated,” the banker said, grinding his teeth.

Owaine draw a deep breath before he tried to give it a final go.

“The noble and the respected, Portstown will enter the trade in the Merchant’s Bay. With or without Inkwave’s consent. King Arthur understands that you, the noble and the respected, are not mere servants of King Godwyn. King Arthur knows that you act out of your own interests, and he doesn’t mean to disregard these interests. He wants to consider them before making his decision.”

“Then why doesn’t the brave king talk to us himself?” the banker inquired.

“He is on a mission with his dragonlord.”

“Is he? For now, it looks like he’s simply paying us back. Like he’s mocking us the way king Godwyn mocked Arthur’s Councilor Cynric.”

“I assure you, King Arthur is not mocking anybody. His majesty summoned you because he wants our interests to meet.”

Why is it so hard for you perfumed fools to understand it?  

“I am afraid it isn’t likely that our interests will meet if the dragon is not chained,” the banker feigned deep disappointment.

“But his majesty still hopes you will be kind and help him negotiate a meeting with King Godwyn. Maybe king Godwyn and king Arthur will come up with a compromise that will suit us all?”

“You expect King Godwyn to come here?” the turquoise man sounded offended.  

“Of course not. If King Godwyn reopens the harbors, the ship will take King Arthur to Inkwave fast enough. His majesty will be happy to go to Inkwave.”

“We shall consider it, young lord of Gedref,” the thin trader in green robes promised.

After the shared meal, the merchants of Portstown were summoned, and the towerhouse turned into a place noiser than any market or even bazaar Owaine had ever visited. The other part of Gawant delegation arrived, and the full-scale negotiations took place, with merchants from both sides fighting over the duties like hungry hounds over the roasted chicken.

Working out the drafts of the agreement may prove a terribly long affair, Owaine thought as he was standing by the window on the third storey, gazing out into the bay, where seagulls were circling over the foreign sails. The sky was beginning to clear as the sun was making its way westwards through the grey clouds.

“I didn’t think it was going to last that long,” Owaine complained when Lord Sei stepped into the room, a goblet of wine in his hand. The lord of Portstown was smiling.  

“You must be happy that they are talking,” he said. “When people don’t have much to agree upon, they don’t talk for long. They switch to swords faster.”

“I haven’t spotted swords in their hands, my lord.”

“Your heard the threats. Threats often turn to swords. They want Arthur to chain the dragon.”

A banker wants.

“It’s a stupid think to ask. Without the dragon, Arthur only commands 300 men. Providing Modron’s father brings Nemeton’s army, we shall have 800 men. That’s too few to reconquer Camelot. But with a dragon, the numbers don’t look so small.”

“Mayhaps,” Lord Sei said, sharing the concerns about Arthur’s numbers. “But the envoys, they still believe that Arthur is his father’s son. They think he will do to the dragon what Uther did.”

“Arthur is quite unlike Uther,” Owaine was happy to notice.  

“Of course. Otherwise, we would have never bent the knee and called Arthur king. Anyway, Owaine, I hope you do understand that until king Godwyn invites Arthur to Inkwave, we must use this position.”

“How?”

“Look,” Lord Sei pointed at the sails in the sea. “These ships are trapped. They have the goods they need deliver to Gawant, but the harbors are shut. They queue up to unload the goods here, but delivering them by Great Tread Road is a lot longer. We must offer deals to them. The Gedref Treasury must spend its gold buying the goods which were destined for Inkwave. Some captains would agree to sell them at unforgivably low prices. We can fill our storehouses with goods bought much cheaper than usually.”

And make our storehouses ready for war, Owaine concluded.

 

***

 

The debates lasted until sunset, when Owaine had to stop them out of courtesy and mercy to all the tired merchants. The celebrations began in Portstown, but, as he had suspected, Owaine was too tired to dance at the fest, and took the ship back to the castle of Gedref. The wind proved all his expectations, and the rowers took twice as much time delivering him and Lord Sei back to the wonder that was the Dragon’s Jaws. After the exhausting climb of the stairs, Owaine fell so tired he thought he could fall asleep right in the garden’s arbour, but he forced himself to walk all the way towards his bedroom.

However, it seemed that no sooner than his head touched the pillow, the servants were already rousing him, pushing him on the shoulder. When he beheld the serving boy and girl in the candle-lit darkness of his room, he wanted to scream from fright, but he managed to control his senses. They had candles burning in their hands, and a letter with a broken seal.

“Water,” he asked, taking the letter into his shaking hand.

What could have happened that they were forced to wake me so early? What hour is it?

He read the letter half a dozen times to make sure the darkness was not playing a cruel jape on him. His motions were feverish as he was looking for his tunic and trousers, and he felt his inhales and exhales were growing shorter. This is not me who is afraid. This is the boy. I must not be the boy now, I must be the lord of Gedref.  

Lord Sei was already waiting for him, careless in his sleeping robes. Lord of Portstown had believed the issue urgent enough to disregard the rules of protocol.

“Rouse the king,” he commanded at once. “I am to find the librarian, he’s the closest we have to a secretary.”

“Is Arthur returned?”

“He is. He was seen by the guards in the Dragon’s Jaw.”

I pray he is with Merlin. Owaine started running as if Lord Sei had commanded him to start a training session. He felt slow and clumsy, and robbed of his sleep, but he wouldn’t forgive himself if he hesitated. Must rouse the king.

The corridors were long, dark and silent. There was an air of serene tranquility that had slipped inside the castle of Gedref, and it seemed to Owaine that the very night was hostile to him for making so much noise as he tried to reach Arthur’s bedchambers. Owaine kept knocking until the door swung open and the sleepy, swollen face of King Arthur appeared on the threshold.

“What’s wrong?” Arthur’s voice was hoarse, and his eyes gleamy. “Is it Yrien?”  

“No. It is King Rodor.”

“What of him?”

“He is marching on Camelot,” Owaine announced, delivering the letter to Arthur and hoping the king wouldn’t notice his hands shaking. “His army may be in Breninwall by sunset.”

“I shall be to the council room at once,” Arthur promised, and before he retreated back to his chambers, Owaine noticed a slim figure on Arthur’s bedsheets. “Merlin, you little snoring st…”

The king’s voice died after the door shut, but Owaine had seen and heard enough to understand. So it’s true, Owaine smiled. Arthur and Merlin have not been just a prince and a servant. Mithian was right.

They gathered in the council room overlooking the eastern rocky shore, except for at the late night’s hour, there seemed to be nothing to overlook beyond the window, save for the slashes of light atop the restless sheets of booming sea. Sleepy, tired, shaggy and yawny, everybody in the room carried an expression of trouble on their faces. Lord Sei was too nervous to take his seat, and princess Mithian’s cheeks were burning from a sense of shame and guilt. Modron seemed paler than usual, and only Henry the librarian managed to inspire some confidence over the large table with a map of Gedref.  

“How many men?” Arthur asked at once as he rushed into the room, Merlin following him as a caring protective shadow. He doesn’t take his eyes off Arthur for a second, Owaine noticed.

“A terrible host, your grace, if the horseman is to be entirely trusted,” Lord Sei reported without hesitation. “Two lines of cavalry protect the footmen, they have archers, no less than three hundred on each flank, and two more lines of cavalry covering them from the rear. There are half a thousand more footmen trailing behind in a reserve host. They say it’s an army of three thousand fighters.”

“Three thousand,” Arthur repeated slowly, as if hoping his words could slow down the army, too. “I command less than three hundred. I can’t fight Rodor, he outnumbers me ten to one. He may even storm our walls with such an army.”

Owaine noticed Merlin standing by Arthur’s right side. In the place of honor.  

“It is not you he means to fight,” Mithian said, shame bringing her to tears. “Your majesty, this is the army of my father, but the command belongs to my brother’s widow, I am certain. I told you, she’d never let me just be. So long as I live, her son’s rights for the throne of Nemeth will ever be disputed. I’ve brought it on you…”

“Nonsense,” Arthur parried. “I promised to keep you safe the day you promised to help me escape your father’s palace. I mean to keep my word. What shall we do?”

The king’s question was a shadow that crossed the faces of all his councilors.

“Burn them, your grace,” Modron was the first to speak. “Time for smart and merciful plans is over. They didn’t work, and they never work. I remember it as if it were yesterday. We were in Ealdor, and you wanted to make Nemeton and Gedref rise in your name, and you thought that King Rodor will be your ally. It was our plan. Now King Rodor has turned into your enemy. He tried to sell you to Odin and he is marching on Gedref as we speak. Nemeton refused to bestir itself until my father came back home. Burn Rodor’s army, I propose. And then attack the castle of Chemary, if the negotiations of Lord Rysor and Lord Gloss in Burnwood fail.”

“I let the dragon lose and hundreds of people in the castle of Chemary will die in the dragonfire,” Merlin’s voice was weak as morning dew.

“It’s called war. If we don’t have a stomach for it, our enemies will think us weak, and you may as well go back into hiding from Yrien,” Modron told the warlock accusingly.

“I am innocent of the ways of war,” Mithian chose to step in. “But I am certain there’s more to it than burning women and children.”

“Enough! All of you!” Arthur roared. “Why are you talking about Burnwood and Chemary when we have Rodor’s army on our doorstep?”

“Arthur, I beg you,” Mithian did look as if she were ready to get on her knees. “My father may be a wrong and manipulated man, but he doesn’t deserve death by fire. He is my father.”

“I am not burning anyone,” Arthur’s voice was steel and fury. “We are not burning anyone. But I can’t defeat an army of such monstrous proportions. That’s why Merlin will have to show himself.”

As he spoke, the king’s hand jerked, and for a moment it appeared to Owaine that Arthur meant to take Merlin by the hand, but it was probably the game of candle light.

“Merlin will scare them. When Rodor’s horses see the dragon, they are going to cause enough mess and ruin his flanks. Merlin will pass a message that any foreign soldier who trespasses the border of Camelot will be cooked. And then invite Rodor for a reconcile feast.”

“Reconcile feast?! You’re mad?!” Modron yelled.

“No,” Arthur replied with a dark smile. “I can think of putting King Rodor’s army to better use."

Chapter Text

Chapter 9: OLD FRIENDS  

Gwen couldn’t believe it was real.

The moment the news of Morgana’s arrival reached her, Gwen simply refused to believe it. This must be another one of Yrien’s ploys. She wants to make me believe Morgana is coming so that I become hopeful again, and then she will tear my hopes apart, revealing it had been a joke all along.

“Nonsense, child,” Gaius said as he poured water from a bucket into the pot hung over the hearth. His hands were shaking a little from the heavy weight of the bucket, and the skin under his chin had become loosened and was swaying like a bag, for he had lost much weight in detention. “You’ve seen king Rion ride into the woods these days? He’d hunted half the prey to celebrate Morgana’s return before he actually rode out to rescue her.”

“He can’t be doing that,” Gwen was worried. “The newsmaker said Rion was going to rescue Morgana from the Dark Witch. The small folk believes it. If they learnt he’d been hunting and planning a feast in advance, they would think it… suspicious.”

If they learnt,” Gaius pointed.

The physician looked tired but pleased. Rion’s embarkment on a feigned rescue mission meant the king would hold no council, and that, in turn, brought Gaius a much-deserved day-off. Councils seemed all words and no deeds, but they proved as wearisome as a training session to the old secretary. From what Gwen could tell, Gaius had been constantly busy keeping Queen Yrien from slaughtering Anna Dindrane during the meetings. As Yrien grew more suspicious of everything happening at court, Gaius grew more exhausted of trying to reason with the worried mother of the king.

“So you think she will arrive today?”

“For the hundredth time, child, yes, she probably will,” Gaius responded almost indifferently, too busy watching water in the tea pot than talking to Gwen.

The weather seemed to agree with Morgana’s arrival, as leisure white clouds were voyaging the sky, maintaining a distance sparse enough for sunlight to flood the castle of Camelot. It must be looking so beautiful, Gwen thought. A white castle in the greenery of the woods, just like a precious gemstone hidden from a curious eye. Maybe when Morgana sees how beautiful it is, she won’t feel so sad about coming back.

Gwen had spent half her night trying to guess what can make Morgana feel happy in the castle, but she failed to come up with the answers and felt miserably stupid. With her sister by her side, Morgana could go anywhere to explore her talent and live the life she would choose, yet she was coming back. Maybe she just hated the castle when Uther was here. But now that Uther’s gone, Morgana returns home. Maybe.

Yet come dawn, and Gwen was still shy of a solid explanation, and fears and worries were digging a hole in her heart. She’d glimpsed at two documents on Gaius’s desk, and read something about the armory in Howden distributed between some soldiers, but it didn’t make any sense. There are no more soldiers in Howden. The host encamped there had gone to Brechfa, led by King Ryence, and they hadn’t returned. Most of them hadn’t.

Ryence’s host disappearance and Sir Leon’s prolonged absence, the news that roads to the south were seized by Gingawaine patrols, the rumours about Vyda Gaheris, each new trying to outdo the previous one in stupidity and monstrosity, the bread price growth and all the worries it was bringing… Morgana’s return and the news of Dark Witch’s fall couldn’t have been more timely, but Gwen knew it couldn’t be that simple. Morgana had left a castle where the pride of a tyrant had been wounded by the knights of Medihr and the Great Dragon, but she was returning to a different place. Kings and queens, lords and ladies, servants and knights were brooding plots, schemes and secrets, not to mention that the castle could still be hiding mysteries of magic, for it had been conjured by a mighty sorcerer many years ago.

However, the biggest secret was now standing right behind her, and Gwen knew that Gaius had been done with brewing his herbal tea. She could feel his intense gaze on her shoulders, but she hesitated to turn around. He may ask me to keep secrets from her. But there have been enough secrets. I can’t, I can’t.

She turned away from the window, finally, so uncomfortable with the feeling of a girl that had been guilty of some mischief. I’ve done no mischiefs. Except for one, but Uther had it coming.Gaius looked very concerned over the peaceful fume drifting above his cup.

“Gwen, I understand that you… that you have reasons to consider Morgana your friend.”

“She is my friend. She was my friend, and she is the only friend I have now,” Gwen confirmed robustly.  

“I thought you grew rather fond of Gwaine.”

The assumption had made Gwen’s cheeks redden, but she didn’t want Gaius to notice it.

“He is different. He’s very… I’ve met him just recently, and Morgana, I’ve known her almost my whole life.”

“And you reckon it is natural for friends to share secrets, I assume?”

“You want me to keep the fact that Arthur’s alive away from her? That’s madness!” Gwen protested, trying to fill her own voice with confidence. “Gaius, they grew up like sister and brother, she’s got every right to know!”

“She does,” the physician nodded. “That doesn’t worry me. She would’ve found about Arthur anyway, even if Yrien had indeed been foolish to not report this tiny detail to Morgana before. However, would it be too taxing to ask you to not mention Merlin’s name?”

Gwen hated that Gaius’s face was so emotionless as the physician was sipping his herbal tea. She knew it was all phony, she felt there was something about Merlin, something of great importance to Gaius and Gwaine and maybe Lancelot, but they refused to share it, and Gaius’s face was impossible to read. He has mastered the art of lies after all the years of service.

“Merlin’s name?! Gaius, I don’t get it, I just don’t, I… Why? What’s going on, Gaius? Gwaine’s been mentioning Merlin, and now you. What’s so secretive about Merlin that I must not tell Morgana about him?!”

“I’d rather ask it differently, Gwen. What if there’s something new about Morgana, something that we best kept Merlin out of her sight?”

“Gaius, what do you mean?”

“This is not the Morgana you used to know. She is a different person now,” Gaius said in a grave tone that send shivers down Gwen’s spine.  

“She has magic, I know. This is not different, this doesn’t mean she is a bad person. She just has magic!”

“Gwen, I didn’t mean magic. Although in some ways, I did, but… Well. I won’t deny it, Gwen, I hoped you would understand yourself,” Gaius let out a tormented sigh and drank half his tea in one hungry sip. “I know that you were too excited over Morgana’s return and ignored some obvious things.”

“WHAT THINGS?” Gwen was running out of patience.

“Sir Vidor. His death at his own betrothal feast. You know who killed him, Gwen. It was Morgause, make no mistake. You think Morgana’s sister would do something without letting Morgana know it?”

The dizziness seized her at once, and she saw flashes of white in the room air. She stretched her arm out to lean on the table and stared at Gaius in disbelief. This can’t be, this can’t be, this can’t be. He is making it up, he wants me to be cautious of Morgana and to not share the news of Merlin with her and that’s why he is trying to make her look bad in my eyes…

Yet the voice of reason within her was loud and cruel.Morgause was the one who saved Morgana from the castle. Morgause helped her escape the clutches of Uther. Morgause killed Sir Vidor.

“You think Morgana… Gaius, you think Morgana may have played a part… a part in it?” Gwen voice was so weak it seemed to belong with a frightened child.

“For all we know, this war against the westerners may be their doing,” Gaius was clearly not pleased with it himself. “The safest way for Morgana to assume the throne by offering the crown help again Vyda Gaheris. That’s why you’ve got to be careful, child.”

“No, you’re wrong. She would… she would have never done it, she cared about Camelot and her people, she did, she always did,” Gwen blustered as she ran out of the room.

Morgana would’ve never started a war to gain a crown. She’s no Uther. Gaius is lying.

 

***

 

Gwen left the castle for the Lower Town. She wanted to get to her house and find the only gown from lady Morgana which she hadn’t sold. Gwen knew Morgana would be happy to see her in that dress, but the change of wardrobe was a mere pretext – Gwen wished to get as far away from Gaius as possible. She hated that his words were stuck in her ears, impossible to get rid of. For all we know, this war against Westerners may be their doing. May be their doing. Their doing. War. Westerners. Morgana would have never started a war, never, never, never. War is the wildest beast, it’s impossible to control, I’ve lost mother to the Mercian war, and my father fell victim to Uther’s silent war against magic, Morgana would’ve never toyed with something so dangerous, Gaius IS A LIAR.

The royal wedding was on everyone’s mind. According to the spearmen at the Western bridge the bride was the most beautiful lady in the five kingdoms, and even lady Yrien’s beauty of the youth wouldn’t dim Morgana. At the healer’s kiosk, Gwen overheard the old shopkeeper sell a potion to a young maid and promised that it would “remove all pimples from her face and make her as comely as the king’s bride”. The flower ladies were encouraging everybody to buy a fair bouquet to throw beneath the king’s bride feet once she entered the gates of Camelot, and many of the common people were expecting her to distribute food at the wedding. To look at them, the castle of Camelot does appear a peaceful place, safe from wars and riots. But it’s not safe. It’s on the verge of war.

Her street looked busy. The king hadn’t released a decree about the official day-off, but many people considered Morgana’s return a holiday worth celebrating, and left their jobs earlier than expected.

When she opened the door of her house, she bumped into a familiar scent – the one of apples, of summer, of laugh and carelessness. Gwaine smiled at her and took her by the shoulders.

“I thought you didn’t want to see me,” he complained. “Thought you’d not go out of the castle.”

“What are you doing here?” she asked, surprised and confused. “Why aren’t you…”

“The reconstruction is over,” Gwaine guessed what she was about to ask. “The work is done. The king himself will open the houses soon. Just the usual business. A boy with smooth hands will boast about the deeds he is not responsible for at all.”

“Rion supervised the reconstruction,” Gwen disagreed as she freed herself of Gwaine’s embrace and went to the wardrobe to look for Morgana’s dress.

“Aye, and he hasn’t lifted a single brick. The noble way, is it not?”

That noble talk again. Not today.

“Rion did what Uther did not,” she turned around, the dress in her hand. “He gave people their houses back.”

“Uther would’ve done the same,” Gwaine said stubbornly. “I tell you, there’s no difference between them.”

There can be every difference.

“Will you please?” she asked, nodding at the dress in her hand.

“What?” Gwaine asked in a low velvet voice, staring at her as if she’d put a spell on him. “Come on, Gwen. You can change with me watching. We’ve seen each other without clothes, haven’t we?”

We’ve seen, we’ve kissed, we’ve touched, we’ve moaned. But was it the right thing to do? I was lonely and scared after Yrien’s dungeons. I needed someone I could feel safe with.

“Gwaine, I am in a hurry. Morgana might be coming back any minute and…”

“And what? You think she’ll mind you enjoying some love with me?”

“I am in no mood to enjoy some love now,” Gwen snapped. “I want to be back at the gates, I want to be among those greeting her.”

“You best be among those leaving her as well. All this fuss because of her coming, who is she anyway? Is she the best sword fighter in the realm or something? I tell you, princess, the moment this Morgana learns of Arthur, she’ll rue the day she chose to return to Camelot.”

His eyes lost all their summer gleam, his voice was no longer velvet and low-booming – it turned into a voice of a stranger. He has made up his mind already, Gwen realized and gasped, as if someone delivered a painful blow to her chest. He has sided with Arthur, he has been working for Arthur all this time, he was watching after me because Arthur and Merlin told him to, he never really cared about me. Nobody ever really cared about me save for Morgana. And father.

“I don’t want you around here any longer,” the words came hard and heavy, but she knew she had to speak them. “You don’t have to uphold your vows or promises, you may leave, you need leave, you must leave!”

Go, go wherever you’ve come from and bring my Lancelot back.The thoughts about Lancelot made her want to howl. Lance. Lance, Lance, Lance, where are you?

“I will be the one to judge my vows, princess. If you stick with Morgana now, I may find it hard to guard you, but I will find a way, make no mistake.”

He walked away as easy and carefree as he had once entered her life, but when the door slammed after him, Gwen knew it was far from over. She dropped to her knees and started crying, holding Morgana’s dress close and sobbing, sobbing, sobbing. Why is that I always fall for these men, for the save-the-world type of guys? For Arthur, whose sense of honor and duty seemed to be born before him, for Lancelot, whose silly notions of rights and wrongs in the society and pride ruined his promising career among Camelot’s knights, for Gwaine, who was so ready to protect me he’d be eager to find his way into a guard-infested town… Why can’t I just be with someone who makes me happy? Why?

She thought she liked Merlin at some point last year, and Merlin was clearly not that sort of a lad… But he is worse. He gives me headaches. I’ve spent two years in the castle by his side, I helped him protect his village from the bandits and he saved me from Uther’s justice when the mad king thought I was the magic reason of the sickness spreading within city walls… And I still feel like I don’t know him at all! Now he just vanished yet he seems on everybody’s mind, a nobody and everything, as if there’s something about him I’ve failed to understand. Well, I failed to notice he knew Morgana’s secret, but that’s because I never thought Morgana had such a secret in the first place. Merlin gives me headaches.

She spent half an hour washing her face and cleaning her dress, trying to overcome the seizures of weeping that seemed to erupt out of nothing. Morgana will think me a crying cow if she sees me this way, with red eyes and swollen cheeks, Gwen thought, studying her reflection in the mirror. Her cheeks, swollen as they were, were a lot thinner than two or three months ago. I’ve lost weight. Must be because of all the horrible things I’ve lived through in the castle. Must be. Must be so...

Her observations proved true when she felt she needed a belt to keep Morgana’s dress tight around her waist. If she accepts me back, I will leave Gaius, I will leave this house, I will be by her side, just the way it’s always been. Morgana can’t be the reason of the western war. She is a kind girl, she doesn’t have the evil in her heart. Together we shall get through everything, we shall find a way.

She was trying to carefully make her way to the Western Bridge, but soon enough she had to be shoving the most notorious people in the crowd aside to get to the guards and present them with the decree signed by the Royal Secretary. They let her pass reluctantly, and as Gwen hurried towards the welcome party positioned by the bridge, she heard the shouts and screams rising from the Iron Gate: cheerful roars, applause and welcoming phrases. Morgana must be at the Smithies Square already.  

The welcoming party was rather modest by all standards. The queen was missing, Gwen noticed. Truth be told, Gwen couldn’t recall the last time she’d seen Queen Yrien anywhere outside the Royal Tower, and it was the scariest thing of all. She is more dangerous when she hides in the shadows.  

Gwen saw Anna Dindrane and a flock of servants around her. The old woman looked rather lonely without her two granddaughters accompanying her. Gwen knew Ravenna and Medinna have been sent to the castle of Woodspeak. They are hostages of Yrien now, doomed to die if anything goes wrong with the plan of Morgana and Rion military union.Gaius was there, too, so thin for his purple robes that they were flapping in the gusts of wind like banners. Rion’s Councilor of Provision, lord Lamorak and his wife were there, too, as well as their children, a boy and a girl of twelve and fourteen. Gwen also spotted Sir Logsheath, Commander of the Knights, who was wearing a shining white armor and his tourney sword on his belt. Swallowing from nervousness, Gwen joined the servant’s group. 

There are too many of them,Gwen thought as she pricked her ears, listening to the cheers rising and falling like sea waves in the summer air. Morgana never had need of that many servants. I was enough for her.

The cheers were growing louder and louder, but they still were too slow to assume Morgana and Rion were traveling ahorse. Must be in the wheeled wagon. Or.. 

Before she could conclude anything, they emerged down the Main Street, walking slowly. King Rion looked stunning in his black velvets slashed with crimson with a shimmering gold cape with a high collar. He was leading Morgana by the hand, Gwen knew it was Morgana the minute she laid her eyes on that silhouette in a simple black gown that so agreed with the common people. She was trying to smile, and wave her hand at the hundreds, if not thousands, who’d come to greet her and welcome her home. Gwen’s knees were shaking, she wanted to scream her name until her voice was hoarse, but she couldn’t. She had to behave, had to maintain the protocol. I thought I’d never see her again, and here she comes, here she goes, here she…

Her elbows were weak, her palms were sweaty, her legs suddenly felt so light she found it hard to stand properly. Morgana, led by Rion, approached the bridge, turned around to shower the commoners with her pale smile, and started walking towards the castle gates. And when their eyes met, Morgana stopped there, as if hit by something on a head. Gwen lost her breath.

Morgana had been missing for almost two months, but it felt as if she’d been away for two years – so different was her face, so thinner were her arms, so more suffering was written in her grey-green eyes. If she’s been safely away with her sister, then why does she look so scared?

“Your grace,” Gaius bowed down to the young king before smiling for Morgana. “My lady, it’s the greatest happiness to welcome you back. The castle has been missing you terribly. We were beginning to lose hope.”

“Gaius,” Morgana’s voice was a song to Gwen’s ears. “You are the Secretary now. I see a lot of things have changed during my absence.”

“I hope a lot more will change for the better during your reign, my lady,” Gaius’s sweetness was a veil, Gwen could tell. He mistrusts her.“Allow me to present you Anna of House Dindrane, the Councilor of Camelot.”

“As if she hadn’t seen me dragging my old bones around the castle and yelling at my granddaughters,” Anna snorted before stepping back. “Need I be presented? I am as old as some statues here. And as ugly, I fear. Kiss me, child. It’s good to have you back.”

“Lady Dindrane, it’s liberating to see the job of Camelot’s Councilor has finally been given to a woman. I’ve been applying for the position for years, but Uther was deaf.”

“He’s like to remain deaf from now on, I fear,” Anna said, and Gwen could swear she saw Morgana’s mouth resist the twist of smile. “You will be pleased to hear that sir Lamorak is the councilor of Provision, as his father was before him. And this man whose armor is like to make me blind is Sir Logsheath. Our new Commander of the Knights.”

“Where’s Sir Leon?” Morgana frowned, before the whole party started moving towards the entrance.

“On a diplomatic mission. He is trying to sort things out peacefully,” the king spoke.

“And where is my mother-in-law?”

“Her grace is unwell,” Gaius reported. “She couldn’t come.”

“How gruesome indeed,” Anna giggled. “Now, this is the flock of servants who will see to your every need. As a bride, you’ll have enough burdens, I’m sure. There is a feast planned for tonight, to celebrate your homecoming.”

“I’d rather not have a feast when the bread prices are rising,” Morgana said in a kind voice. “Why don’t we send this food to the families misplaced by the dragon fire?”

“This will be most kind of you, my lady,” Rion said with a happy smile. “Why not, indeed?”

Gwen was watching Morgana’s every move. She yearned for her attention, she found it hard to resist the temptation to shove all the court aside and just talk to her, hug her, feel that she was real, but the court was a tedious matter, and Gwen knew better than to interfere. The king and the welcome party parted with Morgana on the second storey. The flock of serving maids and four guards were following Morgana up to her former chambers, until the small hall where tall black candlesticks were leaning on the wall, and a couple of black marble statues were standing in the corners. Morgana chose entrance to her chambers through the stone staircase that formed an arch over the pass to the eastern block.

“There will be no need of you,” she announced to the girls who reacted with worried whispers. “I shall only need one servant. Gwen, please, follow me.”

“But my lady, the queen bid us…”

“I shall only need one servant, and I shall not repeat twice," Gwen was shocked at the strength of her mistress’s voice.

She followed Morgana into the room, silent, feeling the jealous gazes of the other girls on her back. Once the door was shut, Gwen didn’t even have a moment to catch her breath: Morgana flung herself at her servant.

“Gwen! I thought I’d never see you again, I thought all was lost…”

Suddenly, she felt melting away as she was hung in Morgana’s embrace, her shoulders shaking and her eyes full of tears. It was not a dream, not some cruel Yrien’s ploy, it really was Morgana, back in her old chambers in the castle of Camelot.

“Oh, Gwen, you make me cry, too,” Morgana said, sobbing. “We both must look horrid now, right?”

Horrid? I am a nightmare.

“Gwen, my Gwen, my poor Gwen, tell me, have they been good to you?”

Gwen saw her own miserable reflection in Morgana’s green-grey eyes, and she started laughing hysterically.

“Good? They nearly killed me.”

“Who tried to kill you? What are you saying, Gwen?”

“Yrien, Yrien did,” Gwen said in a weak wounded voie. “She is horrible, she is cruel, greedy for power and violence, she never ignores a slight, be it real or imaginable, she just…”

“Why would she do it to you?” Morgana put her hands on Gwen’s shoulders.

“Because I…”

Gaius told you to be careful. Because Morgana may be linked to Sir Vidor’s murder. No, because he wants to turn me against her.

“Because I helped her kill the king,” Gwen whispered, glancing at the door.

Morgana’s eyes widened, and she covered her mouth with her hand.

“Gwen? This can’t be true, can it?” Gwen was surprised to distinguish pride in her mistress’s tone. “Gwen, why, why in the wide world you’d…”

“Uther killed my father, he meant to make the common people in Brechfa suffer, he wanted to go to war with Essetir, he was awful, a tyrant, he was dangerous…”

“Of course, of course, I… Gwen, you’ve nothing to fear, I don’t… I am proud, and, I must say, I never expected… This is too much to digest at first… Oh, Goddess help me… You mean to tell me Yrien helped you dispatch of Uther?”

“Not only Yrien,” Gwen felt blessed to finally have someone she wasn’t afraid or ashamed to talk to. “All the Gingawaines, all of them, they saw Uther to his grave. They stole his crown. Morgana, you’ve walked into a dangerous place. You must watch your every step.”

“Don’t worry, Gwen, I knew what I was doing.”

Goddess, yes, she knew, I knew she did, I knew she would know, she’d come up with something, she will, she will….

“So the Gingawaines seized the throne, but did it wisely,” Morgana’s eyes were wild forest fire. “They held the elections… They secured the votes. They launched a new dynasty... Good.”

“Good? You’re not scared?”

“Gwen, it takes more to scare me than to be able to kill Uther. I nearly killed that wretched creature myself. Oh, I did. Last year, I hired an assassin. Don’t look at me like that, Gwen, he deserved it. Don’t worry, Gwen, nobody will hurt you now. They’ll have to face me first. Now, please, Gwen, I think I am about to faint. I haven’t had a proper sleep in a week, but please, don’t leave me here alone, I won’t be able to sleep alone, this castle carries too many bad memories, it’s just… Can you stay for this night?”

“Of course,” Gwen promised beamingly.

She looks tired indeed. I won’t trouble her with the news about Arthur today, then. It can wait until the morrow. She smiled, watching Morgana fall onto her bed. Her mistress was back, and Camelot felt like home.

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 10: AN UNWANTED COUNCILOR 

 

Yrien’s fingers clutched around her goblet so tightly she thought the glass could break any moment and cut her hand. Cretins. Imbeciles. Fools. All around me, they are all around me.

Queen Regent pushed the plate aside and rose so abruptly the fork had fallen off the table to ring against the stone floor. Her maid, already broad in hips by nature, was keeping her feet so close together that her hips seemed colossal. We should have taken more men with us when we fled the castle of Brechfa. I am shy of capable and trustworthy servants.

“You’ve got ears, girl, don’t you? Answer me,” Yrien said, feeling the vibes of irritation turn to threats in the morning air. 

“I do, your grace,” the girl nodded, not daring to lift her look from the floor. “I have them ears.”

“And what do people need ears for?”

“To…to hear, your grace? To hear other people talk and… and shout sometimes, and sing, and give…give orders, your grace.”

“This,” Yrien pointed her finger at the maid accusingly. “To hear. People need ears to hear, however surprising that may come to your colossal head. I asked you to hear. Was that a hard thing to do?”

“Your grace, I heard no more than I heard, tis true, your grace. Lady Morgana doesn’t…”

“Lady Morgana was parading through the city yesterday, kissing children in the Lower Town, showering the peasants with smiles and promising them that peace would come to the kingdom sooner than they expect. She was attended by the whole flock of hens around her later, and you mean to tell me none of her silly maids take part in those silly gossips? Do you take me for a fool?”

“Your grace, I never… never take… your grace, these maids, they are not truly Lady Morgana’s maids…”

“Then whose?”

“They used to serve… they belonged with… Lady Dindrane.”

The old bat again. Well, it was silly to think I’d be the only one to try and plant my maids in Morgana’s household. It’s supposed to be a blessing I’ve rid the court of that cheap whore of a granddaughter of the old bat. Ravenna was ready to let Rion under her skirts right at the training session.I thought sending the bitches to Woodspeak would cool down Anna Dindrane’s temper. I was wrong. I’ve been wrong too many times. Oh, Ryence…

“Why would I care? Dindrane’s or not, I don’t care. I need to know what they…”

“Lady Morgana never even talked to them or us, your grace. She only has one true serving girl. Gwen, tis.”

“Beg pardons?”

Yrien’s eyes were brimming with fury, she knew, for why else would the serving maid would try and look away so quickly. That name again. That wench again.  

“Gwen is the only true serving girl of Lady Morgana,” the girl repeated in a voice too weak to distinguish the words.

“Gwen is supposed to be Gaius’s apprentice!” Yrien’s lips were trembling, her mouth – a twist of rage. “She can’t occupy two positions simultaneously. She… Get. Out. Out, all of you out! Go, go, go!”

The chief serving maid turned around so quickly she could burn a whole in the stone floor, and the other serving girls rushed to doors as if the room indeed caught fire. Is a simple serving maid trying to outdo me? Rion saved her once. She thinks she will always be that lucky?

Yrien tore the door open. She would have gladly used Ratcatch, and soon there would be nothing to worry about, for there would be no serving maid named Gwen in the castle of Camelot. But her son had sent Ratcatch away to the castle of Woodspeak, fearing Yrien would be too tempted to solve her problems with tortures and daggers had she kept control over that man. And now I am guarded by Sir Tawton Dindrane who wouldn’t even as much as lift a damn finger for me. But I must try.

Sir Tawton sprang to his feet when Yrien kicked the door open and rushed to the castle dungeons.

“My lady,” he said, struggling to keep up with her. “What is the matter?”

You are supposed to guard me, not talk to me, is it that hard to remember? 

“The matter? I may no longer be the Councilor of Camelot, brave sir, but I have some affairs I’ve yet to… settle before fully making way for your wise mother.”

“What affairs can there be in the dungeon?”

Oh, I pray you learn it soon enough. I pray you learn everything of the dungeons one day, brave knight. 

The dungeons were a grim place, torch-lit in the mornings and at nights alike, with a massive staircase running down to the underground levels of the castle. When the guards heard her robes sweeping the floor, they were engaged, rather noisily, in a rowdy game of dice. The appearance of Queen Regent made them hurry to cast away the dice and grab their spears. We dismissed Uther’s guards and sent them south with Sir Leon thinking our own guards would be better. Yet here they are, playing games of dice, just like the ones before them. There are no good guards, it appears.

The cells were overcrowded with people arrested for rioting the night following Sir Vidor’s murder at his own betrothal feast. The physician was advising Rion to pardon people in a gesture of good will, but Yrien insisted that the laws had to be respected. Rioting was a severe crime, and besides, people had to be found guilty before they could be pardoned.

The chief gaoler appeared in front of her, his eyes tired from the hours he had to spend without a shaft of sunlight.

“Your grace. What brings you to such a desolated place?”

“Justice,” Yrien said calmly. “There were two commoners who have been recently arrested for fighting over the… the sympathy of some Low Town whore of a servant. I want them returned to the cells. These commoners. Both of them. By sunset.”

“Your grace, the cells are overcrowded enough without… lovebirds and…”

“You think I would ever demand their imprisonment if it hadn’t been important? If it hadn’t been for the good of the kingdom?”

“Me? What? Think such an… No, your grace, I would never!”

“Good,” Yrien nodded coldly. “Report to me at once.” 

Yrien hated to deal with those two lover-boys, but she saw no other option ahead. Rion made it perfectly clear that he would not tolerate any violent attitude towards Gwen, and Ratcatch was away. What, am I supposed to strangle her with my own hands? Poison could be used, but Yrien knew that the skies would fall on earth sooner than Gwen would agree to share a drink with her. Besides, the wretched physician, old as he was, remained ever watchful and protective of the girl.

Were Gwen to share the truth about Uther’s death with Morgana, however… Under ordinary circumstances, there would be no chance that Morgana would believe Gwen. But… maybe there could be something more. Maybe… Anyway, Rion is safe until the wedding takes place. When Morgana marries Rion, though, it’s going to be more dangerous. Morgana will replace me as queen regent. And if there are those at court who support her… Morgana can accuse Rion of poisoning Uther and stage the trial with both Gwen and Gaius singing the same song. Gwen is never a problem, she is a serving wench and can’t expect her words to be taken seriously. But Gaius… he’s the free citizen of Camelot. His word…

Morgana had returned to the castle the previous day and was already causing headaches. She refused to leave her room, spending most of the time asleep, and sent all the food meant for the celebrating feast to the common people. Rion, who had hunted half the meals for that feast himself, didn’t seem bothered, but Yrien was resentful of Morgana’s flirting with the common people. The mob had shown their face the night of the riots, and Queen Regent learnt that she would never want to look in that face again. That’s why Yrien refused to turn up at Morgana’s welcome event the previous day, the other reason being that half the mob still believed the filthy rumours that it was Yrien who threw the dagger at Sir Vidor.    

The morning was achingly tender and bright, so full of summer blue Yrien had to curse the mob thrice. She would have gladly ridden out for a stroll, but because of the wretched riots, she couldn’t feel secure again, and her heart would threaten to stop every time Rion chose to ride to the King’s Wood for hunting.

I must retreat to the castle of Woodspeak as soon as possible. In the castle of Camelot, there are my foes out of the walls and within them. They have infested castle of Camelot like ugly roaches and any night they can be crawling over me. The Gwen girl must be kept under control. If she decides to witness against me after the wedding… This must not be. To make the matters worse, Morgana was the king’s ward. They all remember her as king’s ward. To the mob in the streets, that can mean legitimacy. But being a king’s ward gives no rights for the throne whatsoever.

The calmness of the castle did little to unnerve her. She thought there would be some parody of a court life once Morgana was brought back. She expected her to parade around the castle, with her flock of hens, telling everybody the stories of her sufferings, fueling kitchen gossips, but the girl remained within her chambers as if confined.

Suddenly, she noticed guards by the council door.

“What is the meaning of this?” she asked of sir Tawton.

“My lady?”

“Why are there guards by the council room?”

“Maybe… because there’s a council going on?”

A COUNCIL WITHOUT ME?

Yrien stormed through the guards whose mumbling could do little other than provoke a look of icy fury from Queen Regent. In a hollyhock besieged room, she found her son’s council of the dim, the deaf and the blind seated at the marble-topped table and surrounded by a sea of flowers.

“Mother?” Rion whispered and the gazes turned to her at once.  

“Your highness,” Yrien said as she grabbed the chair by the wall and pulled it to the table with a monstrous iron-to-stone sound that made the council members shut their ears with their hands. “It’s best our Secretary rids himself of his serving maid. She never brought me the letter inviting me to the council and I would have missed it had it not been for my gift of ...”

“My lady, my maid didn’t deliver you an invitation because she was not supposed to,” Gaius’s tone was apologetic. “His highness never invited you to the council.”

She felt slapped on her face. Never invited me? 

“Why, in the days when I was brought up, coming without invitation was considered a great discourtesy,” Anna Dindrane said, not lifting her eyes off the war maps of Gedref. “But those days were too long ago and look, how the customs have changed.”

The old bat had managed to rig her way back to power, holding the seat of Councilor of Camelot, thirty-two years after her mother was thrown off the druid throne. Here she is now, as close to the crown as none of the members of the druid family has ever been since Uther’s conquest. But one step closer, and she will find herself limping. 

“Your grace?!” Yrien turned to her son for explanation.

“Mother, I thought... We gathered to discuss the matters of warfare and I...”

YOU WHAT?! Has your grace forgotten that I am the Queen Regent and Lady of Brechfa? How am I supposed to defend our homeseat if I miss warfare councils?”

“War’s not the women’s affair, my lady,” Sir Logsheath tried to turn it into a joke.  

“Say this to Vyda Gaheris and live to tell the tale, brave sir. So?” Yrien asked as she sank into her chair.

“We were just trying to overcome some minor challenges, mother…”

Minor challenges?”

“Our dear Sir Leon has not written the letter he had promised,” Sir Logsheath said. “Troubles in the south, it would seem. But it might be that the messenger is taking too long…”

“What if it’s not about the messenger? What if the problem is crucial? What if the pretender has managed to charm or enchant those who live in Gedref? What if the south supports the pretender’s cause now?” Yrien fired at Sir Logsheath, her chest rising from rage and fear.

Gaius was almost smiling at her.

“My lady, an enchantment of such proportions is extremely unlikely to take place. No magic can dare help the pretender conceal his identity...”

“We’ve heard Lady Helen of Mora and Lady Katrina concealed their identity well enough. Maybe too well. One of them turned out to be a witch, the other one - a troll,” Yrien slammed her fist against the marble table to regret it the next moment – it hurt like hell.  

“My lady didn’t let me finish,” the physician shook his head. “All I meant to say that no magic can dare help the sorcerer to conceal his identity for too long. Both, Lady Helen and Lady Katrina were exposed. This...pretender will be exposed, if he uses magic.”

 “In any way, the southern flank is not what must be on our mind,” Rion cleared his throat. “Were this… pretender to succeed, he would never take an army to the gates of Camelot - that would expose him as a pretender, obviously, for real Arthur would have never done such thing. Real Arthur cared about this castle and the common people too much to make them suffer. Real Arthur is dead. There are more pressing matters on the Western frontline, mother.”

“Lady Gaheris,” Yrien’s satisfaction turned her eyes agleam. “So, Gaius, I trust sending her that pitiful letter with apologies didn’t help?

“We had to try, my lady. Now, our spies report that she’s currently moving siege towers and trebuchets from the castle of Daobeth, joined by King Sarrum’s army. They are moving slow, but when they come, they will have more energy.”

“She learnt the lessons of Mercian war, it seems,” Anna Dindrane said. “King Bayard hurried to take our capital as if the bees were stinging him in the arse, and paid for this. He laid siege to the castle, but he didn’t bring enough of the trebuchets and couldn’t tear our walls down. When he heard that Uther’s western army was coming to our rescue, he raced to meet them in the battle like a drunken fool, and he lost his army and retreated, the wounded wolf he was. Vyda is making sure she doesn’t repeat Bayard’s mistake. She is bringing all the siege towers and trebuchets in the world, it seems.”

“A mad hound of the west, indeed,” Sir Logsheath sighed.   

“And what did you expect of her? She’s lost her grandson. She doesn’t have loads of them, she had three and now she has two and she thinks it’s us to blame. Me, particularly,” Yrien wanted to burn the war maps of White Mountains as if it could make Vyda’s army burn in real life. “She means to take Rion from me the way she thinks I’ve taken Vidor from her. I will burn her stupid castle and all her house to the ground before I let that happen.”

The gust of wind brushed the hollyhocks and made them sway, the ripple of colors so apathetic to the dreads of war. 

“What are her numbers now? With this Sarrum?”

“More than three thousand swords, we assume,” Sir Logsheath replied.

“We must not let such a huge army anywhere close to the castle,” Gaius insisted.

“It amazes me still that she managed to raise that many men,” Anna Dindrane was frowning. “I know, she was acting on Uther’s orders after Cenred’s invasion, but…”

“But don’t you agree that this is strange?” Rion rose to his feet. “My lords and ladies, isn’t it strange to you that a vassal lord can raise an army big enough to overthrow the crowned king?”

“So it has always been,” Yrien said dismissively.  

“But shall it remain so? That brings us to a more important issue of our discussion. My lords, my ladies. I have been thinking about it for some time, and I urge you, do not ignore my ideas because of my age and the lack of real battle experience.”

I like it not. What has he come up with?

“Every time there is a threat in Camelot, we have to raise banners,” Rion continued. “Make the smithies work harder. Find food to feed our soldiers and their horses. Organize complicated marches and … The problem is that apart from knights, the other soldiers are no warriors. They are peasants. They do not receive proper training and often fail at the battle fields and bring tragedies to the doorstep of their families. Tell me, what if we had a permanent army?”

“A permanent army? How, your grace?” Sir Logsheath looked lost.

“What if we built a chain of forts throughout the kingdom, just like the romans did, and what if we always kept soldiers in those forts, paid them for their service and trained them all the time and used them when the need came?”

That made Yrien spit out a nervous, near hysterical laughter.

“Impossible. The crown doesn’t have such money.”

“The crown would have such money if the tax reform were stopped,” Rion said mildly.  

RION!” Yrien sprang to her feet so abruptly she knocked her chair to the ground. “I mean, your grace, the tax reform is the legacy of your uncle! It was agreed that the reform was beneficial for all the territories of Camelot! It could provide us with…”

“And yet I ask you, mother, what do we value more: the benefits of the territories or the benefits of the entire kingdom?”

“What benefits will the entire kingdom get from having a regular army?!”

“We’d become senile to the external threats, for we would always have an army to respond quickly, losing no time for calling banners. We’d strip the lords and ladies of the territories from their rights to call banners and we will guarantee that no coups and plotting against the king takes place.”

“And we’d vest too much power in the hands of the king who’d be at the head of such an army!” Yrien knew this had turned into a verbal single combat with her son with all the council watching, but she had to beat some sense into his boyish head. “Think about it, Rion, your grace, what you propose… It can turn into a terrible weapon in the wrong hands! If Uther had had the regular army, he would have invaded Essetir a thousand times! His lords’ and ladies’ reluctance to acknowledge the righteousness of war with Essetir and their hesitance to lend him gold and swords was the only thing that stopped him from invading his neighbor!”

“I am no Uther, mother,” Rion remarked with an offended expression.  

“My lady,” Anna Dindrane tried to sooth the tension. “We need not be so nervous about it. The reform is not agreed upon, and it will not take place before peace comes to the kingdom, and with Vyda Gaheris moving siege towers our way, that’s not to happen for some time. Shall there be anything else to discuss?”

“Our druid allies in Idirsholas are desperate for supplies. They have somehow managed to organize supply deliverance from Essetir druids, but that’s not enough,” Gaius said.  

“So long as they shield us from Mad Hound of the West, it seems unfair that they starve while doing it,” Rion judged quickly. “Lord Lamorak, the harvest is…”

“No longer than a moon away, your grace. Mayhaps closer.”

“Then we can start slowly emptying the remaining stocks we have and ship supplies to Idirsholas.”

“That would make the castle vulnerable,” Yrien whispered.  

“To whom, mother? With the druid army shielding us from the West, and the pretender too far south, the castle of Camelot is safe.”

“There’s eastern flank as well,” Yrien mumbled, but she knew the matter was lost. Rion has grown too unruly. “The Blanchefleurs have withdrawn their whole family to Ascetir after Sir Vidor’s murder. They have, too, chosen to remain silent on their allegiance, save for the gifts they shower you with.”  

“Lord Blanchefleur was just Uther’s treasurer who’s taken his dismissal from the position tougher than anticipated,” Gaius tried to explain. “But he is no warlord and the castle of Ascetir doesn’t have enough men to pose any threat. Besides, Lady Meirchion still grieves over the death of her sons. It’s no wonder she is silent - the war must be the last thing on her mind.”

Yrien looked at her hands. I am shaking.

 

***

 

Rion refused to meet her until the very end of the day, and there was nothing the Queen Regent could do about it. On the wicked night of Sir Vidor’s murder, the young king had changed half the guards in his and his mother’s households, and Yrien could no longer dream of ordering her trusted swordsmen to seize Rion at one of his hunting trips and bring him to the castle of Brechfa, squirming, squealing but unharmed. There are no longer trusted swordsmen. The castle of Camelot, the Lower Town and the Southern Village have 500 guards. 335 of them have come from Brechfa after Cenred’s invasion. The rest are old Pendragon guards who are loyal to the crown, but not me. I must flee after the wedding. I shall raise 500 men in Brechfa, the last ones, but who cares. They, and my two other southern hosts…

However, her dreams of war dominance could turn to dust in a blink of an eye, she sensed it. Sir Leon was not the sort of man to postpone writing a letter to his queen. If anything was awry in Portstown, the fate of her son’s crown would be put under question. If the Pendragon pup defeated Sir Leon, he would try and advance.We would be trapped between two armies. Gaheris to the north-west. Pendragon pup to the south.

The thoughts of her own doom and the fall of her family were bitter as poison, yet Yrien would rather give up honor than hope. Her enemies hated each other as much as she hated them all, which meant there could be a way to win against the odds.

She hoped that wine would amuse her for a while, but ever since Cynric disappeared, the kitchen ran out of the Nemeth wine, and the Mercian pisswater tasted awful. There seemed to be nothing reminding of the old Camelot now: she couldn’t see jousts, or listen to the singers, or watch the acrobats, or even travel to the local market. The whole city was holding her breath in the fearful suspense before the battle of Camlann and Rion’s wedding.

When Rion returned to the castle from the inspection of the rebuilt houses of the Lower Town, he vanished into the training grounds at once, avoiding her as if she carried some dangerous decease. When her maid reported it, Yrien wanted to smash her goblet against the broad-hipped cow. She had to wait again.

Morgana, who could prove an entertainment, turned out completely useless, for late Uther’s ward remained within her chambers. Who does she think she is, some princess from a folk’s story?Well, but she must come out for a dinner.  

Rion returned just in time for dinner, and told her that he had to take a bath and change into something appropriate before dining with his bride.

“Your bride can wait,” Yrien said. “I have been waiting the whole day.”

“Mother, I …”

“Rion, I swear, if you don’t talk to me, I’ll set the whole damn place on fire.”

Rion dismissed the guards and invited her to his solar, and then into the study room with shields on the wall, an enormous oak table buried under papers, seals, quills and inks. The brass candlesticks was so short Yrien realized her son was working late again.

 “What were you thinking?!” Yrien screamed the instant he shut the door. “How could you be so blind?!”

“I am doing what I think is right…”

“You’ve never been more wrong about anything in your entire life!”

“Mother…”

“Don’t mother me! Don’t you dare mother me now! It’s not our family business any longer,” Yrien’s index finger was shaking as she was pointing at Rion, so intensly it seemed she’d poke a hole in the air. “You have the destiny of the whole kingdom resting in your hands, and you choose to destroy…”

“I am not destroying anything,” Rion seemed unruffled by her words, as if shielded from them by some inner strength Yrien did not understand. “I am bringing changes.”

“Changes?! What sort of changes?! The changes you want! What will be your next move, your majesty? Will you allow the men of noble birth to marry peasant whores? That’s what you’d want, right?”  

“Watch your mouth,” this time, it was Rion pointing at her. “You’re speaking to your king.”

I must not go too far. He has the power to send me to whichever castle he wishes. Even to that horrible Lord Gloss of Chemary.

“Rion, your uncle…” she knew Rion could tell her mild attitude was now feigned. “He sought the throne not because of some personal ambition… Ryence always believed that a king’s duty was to balance the interests of various groups and territories within his kingdom, so that everybody was pleased enough to not plot against him, for the gain from coups would be unworthy. That’s why he took the crown! Because our interests had been ignored for a long time! Ever since Uther took the throne form the druid dynasty, he started disregarding Midlands. Half the kingdom would feast on our crops, half the crown’s spendings would be financed by our gold, half the men to fight Uther’s wars would come from Brechfa, and what did we get in return?”

“I am trying to ensure that no such thing happens again,” Rion tried to convince her.  

“Rion, you’re mistaking. Taking the lords’ and ladies’ right to raise banners would make the king … a terribly powerful person. Any king, not just you.”

“How can a king rule without power?”

“With his bloody wits! Use them, Rion! Hands are to wield swords, but heads are to conjure wisdom!”

“How does this wisdom help us now? When Vyda is marching our way? She would never dare threaten us if we had the army I propose to build.”

“Vyda… is a different matter. She… It’s the legacy of Uther’s foolery,” Yrien closed her eyes. The foolery of such proportions it looks like crime. “All these silly witches and beasts attacking Camelot, seeking vengeance for the massacre of the druids… It’s small wonder that one of them killed Sir Vidor. That’s why Ryence opposed the Purge. He knew. He told me that Uther would one day suffer revenge, that’s the way men are. He needed to kill all the druids to make himself secure, but he let thousands of them escape to Essetir and Catha, not to mention Camelot forests… They were bound to one day try and bring about his downfall. Well, it turns out their hatred towards Camelot has outlived Uther.”

For the first time in many days, Rion came to stand by her and to give her a hug. His arms felt stronger now, yet it was his face that mattered the most to Yrien. An early beard couldn’t fool a mother: Rion’s features remained almost the same as before. He is still a boy. My boy.

“Mother,” he whispered, gifting a soft dutiful kiss on her cheek. “I know I am your son. But I am also the king now. I’ve been brought this far to try and make the life of my people better. I don’t want commoners to be summoned to wars. I want regular army, composed only of those who’d willingly want to bleed for their kingdom and be generously rewarded for that. It pains me to realize I may hurt the lords and ladies of our territories, but mother, the nobles are the few. The commoners are the many.”

That nearly drove the last breath out of her.

“Rion, this is not you speaking! Who planted this foolishness into your head?! Tell me! It is Morgana?!”

“Nobody planted anything. I am not as dumb as you like to think me, mother.”

Before Rion could even ask her to leave his chambers, she was on her way already, making Sir Tawton almost run after her. Queen Regent was counting stairs and steps as her robes were flying after her like wings. On the balcony, the evening air was dry and warm, and the sky had turned to a layered cake of colours: black upon olive-green upon blueberry-blue upon azure, with the knife of crimson red cutting it to the west. She remembered herself running along the very same balcony after Ryence’s death, thinking the same thoughts: how the weather was good, and the sky was promising, how the nature was mocking her, making her unhappy in the tranquility of the summer. She wanted to vomit from the disgusting feeling, from the nightmarish illusion of being trapped in the castle and forced to be reliving the same things over and over again. No. Not tonight. Tonight I shall make myself clear.

Following the dragon’s attack, the Dindranes switched to the south-western tower, and Yrien reached it soon enough.

“My lady, it’s too late for visitors,” a guard warned her, but she donned a look that made him never wish to speak to her again.

With her granddaughters gone, Anna Dindrane's large and lavish apartments looked lonely. Without the countless shawls to cover her gray hair that had gone bluish from the sun, Anna Dindrane looked like a harmless old toothless grandma, but Yrien knew better than to sympathize with someone as shrewd as the granddaughter of the last druid queen. The open doors were leading to the balcony of white carved stone looking off across the Southern Village

 “It turns out sending your wretched granddaughters to Woodspeak hasn’t invested any more wits into your head,” Yrien launched the attack at once. “The nobles are the few. The commoners are the many. I could hear your voice when Rion opened his mouth.”

Anna didn’t even rise to give Yrien a look.

“I would have told you I had no idea what you’re talking about, your grace, but I believe nothing will convince you since you’ve chosen to hate me so persistently. Is there aught you want to say? Or should I ask my servants to show you to the door?”

“I want this to be understood,” Yrien made a step further to tower over the feeble body of the old woman. “You may post as many of your wretched relatives to the court positions, you may have your stupid son be my personal guard now, but know this: I am no Ryence. I know how the game is played.”

“And this is the point, my dear,” Anna’s sigh was the most wounding, for it was that of compassion. “Maybe if you had used less of those awfully smelling oils, your head wouldn’t have suffered the damage, and you would have known by now that this is no game. We fight for survival now. Vyda Gaheris is upon us and she means to tear this castle apart, every tower, every brick and every wall. This is not a game for me. I don’t plan to have my head on a spike to serve as another symbol of the western triumph.”

“Don’t try to sell me a horseshit and call it a cheese pie. Vyda bothers you no more than the southern pretender does. You’re already seeing far into the future, far past Vyda’s campaign,” Yrien could swear the corner of Anna’s mouth twisted in an ugly smile for a moment. “Once the Mad Hound of the West loses her tail and runs back to her Broken Tooth howling, what future awaits Camelot?”

“A happy one, I hope,” Anna whispered innocently.  

“The future you want to compose. I warn you, Anna, no matter how many councilor positions you and your relatives hold, it will not bring you any closer to your dream. The druids are gone, your dynasty is no more than an old name that doesn’t ring a bell with most common people. There are no more dragons and dragonlords, and your kin will never rule Camelot. And don’t even think of using your wretched granddaughter to seduce my son when she returns. I know how you think it may work. But I know it better. There were days when I, too, could flip skirts in front of men and make them give me all I wanted.”

“Like what? Bastard born children?”

YOU WILL DIE, OLD WOMAN, YOU WILL DIE SCREAMING.

 

***

 

When Sir Tawton escorted her back to the Royal Tower, Yrien lingered by the entrance when she saw the chief gaoler and a young lad with the shoulder-length brown hair.

“Your grace,” the gaoler smiled. “I’ve brought the lad, just as you asked.”

The only good news of the entire day.

“You have,” Yrien studied the lad’s shy face. He is handsome. Why has he chosen Gwen?“What is your name?”

“Gwaine,” the lad said, bending the knee.  

Chapter Text

CHAPTER 11: A Dragon's Call 

Dear mother,

I am fine. The past twenty days have been hard. So hard in fact that I often revisit the time I’ve spent in Ealdor with you and Arthur. It was so sunny and bright and everything seemed rather peaceful as we were waiting for the knights to bring the news.

Anyway, I can’t say it’s too bad now. I am happy to tell you Arthur wears the crown of the Seaside Kingdom. He is establishing his court in Gedref, and means to bring peace to the rest of the realm. I can’t trust many words to the letter, but you need not worry about him. Arthur’s loved by the nobles and the common people alike, and he cares about them. And about me.

Gedref is a beautiful place. Apart from the ugly seagulls that circle around the castle and wake everybody up at the very first light. Even Gaius allowed me to sleep longer. Portstown is a wonderful city, though, it has the highest towerhouses I’ve ever seen, and I sneeze from all the scents in the harbor. There has been a fest in town to celebrate Arthur’s coronation recently, with jugglers and acrobats and I contributed to it, in a certain way I did.

I hope that when the time of unrest is passed, we can all meet in the castle of Camelot to celebrate. It’s very beautiful here, it’s good to watch the sun set into the sea and all that, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t missing the greenery of Camelot, of King’s Wood and Darkling Wood.

If you want, the knight that brings this letter may escort you from Ealdor here, and you can live in Portstown by my side, you only have to say. I hope to hear from you, I miss you and pray that you are safe.

 

P.S. How favors Dolly?

 

Yours, Merlin.”

 

Arthur’s breath was a sweet needle-torture on the back of his neck. It was so hot Merlin realized Arthur’s lips must be irresistibly close to his skin, and the idea of it alone made Merlin arch his back and turn around to see a content and sudden face of his king.

“I haven’t heard you come,” Merlin smiled, trying to resist diving in the plotting-blue of Arthur’s eyes.

“That’s because you’re too busy writing your poetry,” Arthur snorted, rejoicing the triumph of his stealthy mission. The king had been able to crawl close to the desk unnoticed, surprising Merlin with a soft breath on the neck. “Scared you, didn’t I?”

“I am not that easily scared. I am not scared at all.”

“Then why are your arms trembling?”

“Because er… I haven’t slept enough, and it always makes me weak and er…”

“And because you are a shaking butterfly,” Arthur concluded with an arrogant eyeroll.

Merlin rose from the chair and attacked Arthur, trying to make the king fall on the bed. Surprisingly, it didn’t take much effort, but before long, Merlin realized it was a trap. When Arthur fell on the bed, he pulled Merlin with him, and in a blink of an eye the warlock found himself trapped between the bedsheets and the pressing, demanding heat of Arthur’s body. When Merlin saw the eager-blue of Arthur’s eyes right above him, his body melted, his legs partied for Arthur maybe too willingly, and wrapped themselves around Arthur’s sides maybe a bit too eagerly. But a moment of weakness was just enough to ignite the flame of longing in the king, who grabbed Merlin by the wrists and pinned them to the pillow above the warlock’s head.

“Threatening your king is treason,” Arthur whispered darkly.

“How about threatening an arse?”

Arthur leaned closer and smiled at him predatorily, planting a kiss on Merlin’s cheek. Merlin felt stung: it wasn’t enough, it was too little, and he turned his head and tried to meet Arthur’s lips with his own, but Arthur was already on the other cheek, and then on the ear, and then on the other ear, and then on the forehead, and then on the tip of Merlin’s nose.

“Arthur, please,” Merlin giggled. “Just kiss me already.”

“That’s not how you talk to your king, Merlin. That’s most certainly not. You must ask nicely.”

“Your grace. Please. I beg your kiss.”

“Now that’s a good boy.”

Arthur’s lips bridged Merlin’s, and his warlock’s eagerness was so heated it made a moan of uttermost pleasure drown in their kiss, in the kiss where Merlin felt loved, cared and needed; he felt forgotten by the whole world but remembered by the single person who meant more than anything else to him, someone who found him and accepted him and couldn’t get enough of him now. Someone strong and gallant and just and kind. Arthur, Arthur, Arthur.

It was so long, until the moment when their sighs mingled as one, and Arthur closed his eyes from pleasure and let Merlin’s lips explore the king’s neck and shoulders. If it was for Merlin to decide, he could spend the whole day between the sheets with Arthur, his lips exploring the hot skin, but there were other matters.

“Imstflway,” Merlin whispered right into Arthur’s lips.

“What?” the king smiled down at him.

“I must fly away.”

“You must nothing. I don’t command you, Merlin. I ask of you.”

“I want it. I want to be of help. To you. And to the kingdom you want to build.”

“And don’t think I don’t appreciate that. My assisting star,” Arthur tried to burry his nose in Merlin’s hair and smell it as if it were the dearest thing to his heart. He hated to part now, Merlin could feel it, and he hated it no less, but the matters were urgent enough to delay one love-making. “Come. We have something to do before you fly away.”

“Like what?”

“You’ll see,” Arthur promised mysteriously, rising to his feet and reaching for a cup of water. He glanced at the table and his look lingered on the just-finished letter. “And never leave your papers on the table, Merlin. Here. Wait… He cares about me? Oh, Merlin, you’re a lovesick…”

Merlin snatched the letter from the king’s hands and tried to find a proper envelope for it. Sometimes Arthur still behaved like an arrogant and self-permitting royal offspring from the old days, but the good thing was that now Merlin could gift him a nice magic kick on the ass. Maybe.

Arthur never told him where he led him, but it wasn’t that hard to guess. The castle of Gedref looked grotesquely giant from the outside, but behind the walls, the walking routes were rather seldom. Even when they were crossing the garden with half the fruit trees uprooted by Kilgharrah’s landing, Merlin realized they were heading for the armory. Although Merlin was new and rather indifferent to the ways of war, even he could draw some pleasure from visiting the silent hall which looked like a temple of some southern war god. The Camelot armory resembled just another knights’ barrack room or a clean smithy on the best days: it was meant to suit the needs of work and war and trade, while the exquisite hall of Gedref armory was a loving homage to the glorious weapons the fighters of Gedref would wield in the past, and looked as if designed to inspire the young nobles to hurry with their knighthood training.  

In the center of the hall…

“Arthur, what in the wide world is it?” Merlin asked, his jaw dropped to the floor.

“It’s an armor.”

An armor it was, but not so simple and not so common. It wasn’t composed of a single piece, but rather of a series of tiny pieces which were meant to resemble a dragon skin. Merlin let his palm caress the weird black metal which felt oddly smooth and unearthly to the touch.

“Arthur, where did you…”

“The librarian opened the Ashkanar archives for us, and this is the armour Ashkanar himself would put on before a battle. Oh, Merlin, I hope you never thought I’d let you fly the dragon naked, just like the last time? I care hell of a lot about that bottom to let it get injured.”

Arthur couldn’t keep his hands from actually showing he cared about Merlin’s bottom, and Merlin was about to loose his breath. He recalled the day when he tried to persuade Arthur to let him ride out and meet that dragon with him. And now I’m about to be clad in black armour with rubies and fly this very dragon.

“Arthur, I…”

“Come on. Oh, Merlin, don’t be such a girl. It’s just an armor. No need to weep because I’ve made you some sort of present.”

“You’ve never given me presents before!” Merlin smiled, not really caring that the red was all over his cheeks.  

“Well, now you’ll have to get used to it. Now let me put it on you. Never thought a day would come when it’d be me dressing you up. Stop laughing.”

Merlin couldn’t stop laughing. He never thought this day would come, too, but here he was, with Arthur dressing him up in the armory and helping him to his first proper battle outfit. Oh, how quickly one’s life can change.

The armor felt too comfortable to be forged by a mortal smith, Merlin could feel it. The vibrations within the strange black metal were magical, there could be no doubt, for how else could Ashkanar come up with a defensive structure which was both, solid and light. When his first battle outfit was all done, Merlin couldn’t resist slapping Arthur on the ass with a training wooden sword, and after that, Arthur was chasing him in the fruit garden, trying to grab him, to pull him into an embrace and never let him go so far away, but Merlin was too fast for the king.

The council and the guards gathered outside the bridge on the mainland, for it was decided that Klgharrah was best summoned there. Otherwise, the creature would rip apart all the surviving fruit trees and maybe even destroy the arbor, the castellan, lord Stoneworth, was sure.

Merlin noticed them all, Modron and Owaine, and the librarian Henry and lord Sei, but it was Mithian whose look was burning Merlin from head to toe. Don’t kill my father, it said.

With the magic wand in his hand, Merlin no longer had to scream his lungs out to summon the dragon; all he needed was to hold the wand in his hand and think the spell and wish to see Kilgharrah soon.  

“Remember,” Arthur told him when the spread wings of the dragon cast a long shadow over the farewell party. “We don’t want blood. We need to scare them and invest some sense into Rodor’s head. If they try to bring you into the fight, don’t fall for it. Just show yourself and fly back to me.”

Arthur pulled Merlin into a hug and didn’t let him go until Kilgharrah landed on the ground, roaring and breathing fire into the air.

 

***

 

The sky was all covered with the shining white ruins of clouds, and Merlin believed Kilgharrah could take him far and high enough to touch those white puffy castles. The day was meant for flying, as the winds had finally lost their hold over the Merchant’s Bay, and the grey-blue sea was a sheet as smooth as silk, and the white clouds were frozen in the air, like huge broken watchtowers, peaceful and mirrored in the long wide water.

When Kilgharrah jumped off the cliff, Merlin’s heart seemed to turn into stone, too heavy to beat, but the few moments of the freefall ended with a blissful sensation of resurgence, of winning against the odds and soaring back into the sky. Nothing could ever compare to flying, nothing could ever outdo the sensation of being reborn in the sky, amidst sunshine and salty breeze of the Merchant’s Bay, with the castle of Gedref, sharp and huge, nested on the rock, and the sleepy Portstown safely behind the walls, in the cradle by the sea.

Merlin pressed Kilgharrah rightward to direct the dragon towards the morning city: the lanes and streets and allies all looked so different from above, orderly where they had seemed chaotic, careful where they had appeared unruly, tiny where they had boasted huge. I need to let people see us, I want them to learn that dragons are no threat.

Kilgharrah’s shadow fell over the noble towerhouses, over the guilds’ buildings and dry fountains, over the rooftops and dusted lanes, over the fishmarkets and the harbor as Merlin completed a circle and burst out into the wilderness of the narrow sea, with the rocky shores to the east and the shimmering grey-blue to the west. Somewhere there, beyond the shimmering western blue lay Inkwave, the capital of Gawant. We might sail there if king Godwyn agrees to negotiate trade terms, Merlin thought with a smile. It’s funny that we’ve never ever made a journey together, a real journey, not out of need for negotiations or out of safety concerns, but a journey, a proper journey for the two of us… Well, maybe one day when this war’s done and Arthur brings peace to Camelot, we will go somewhere together, just him and me, the way Reginald and Darian did…

However, with new threats constantly erupting from everywhere, that day seemed as distant as a child’s dream. Arthur went south to make allies, and he came back earning twice as many enemies. Nemeth, Cornwall, Deorham and even Gawant are not pleased with him, and Goddess only knows what Modron’s parents will say to Arthur’s face when they arrive at Gedref to take their son back… Burnwood is occupied by one of Yrien’s hosts, and Doomspath has not answered to Arthur’s call…

The perils of ruling the Seaside Kingdom alone were enough to constitute breaches of faith in Arthur’s cause every single day, and Merlin shuddered at the thought of what the throne of all Camelot could do to Arthur. When he had been Arthur’s servant in the castle of Camelot, the kingdom seemed strong and united from the cozy chambers of Gaius’s tower. The world beyond the walls of the Lower Town seemed full of magic beasts and stranger creatures, but Merlin had never glimpsed at the shaft of the complexity surrounding people’s hearts and their desires for glory and power. Now that he had learned that swords were no less dangerous than Dark Arts, he kept questioning the sanity and safety of Arthur’s pursuit. The nobles of Gedref respect Arthur for restoring the independence of Seaside Kingdom, and they need Arthur as a commander to reestablish control over Burnwood and Doomspath, but once it’s done…Will they willingly send their army to the gates of the castle of Camelot? Will Arthur march on the castle of Camelot, which once was his home?

Kilgharrah roared beneath him, and Merlin felt the heat rising beneath the horns of the dragon, the heat that sheltered him against the bitter cold of the sky – although Arthur’s armor was warming him more than any heat could. The air was moist up there, the sun was a blinding fist to his eyes, and all he could see was the rocky eastern shore of Gedref and the road to Deorham running far away to his left, with rare villages building up a stretching chain of settlements lasting until Breninwall, a city on the border with Deorham.

Merlin’s hands were into Kilgharrah’s horns, as he tried to lower their flight and to turn the dragon eastward. Soon the sea was left behind, and the rocky coastline, composed of lifeless stone, began to soften and turn into grasslands. Somewhere north, the far-away tops of Mountains of Isgaard could be seen on a cloudless day, but not today. Today, the white clouds were piled across the sky, heavy and ripe with rainfall, it would seem.

Soon, Merlin had to lower the dragon even more, and to turn south-east, afraid to miss King Rodor’s army, even though it was too big a structure to overlook, judging by the reports they had received. It didn’t surprise Merlin that Rodor had chosen to march through Deorham. King Alined’s kingdom could be kingless, if the rumours about the surviving pirates’ wroth could be trusted, and an army could pass through the land, catching them unawares. To his own sorrow, king Rodor never knew about Kilgharrah, and now he and his army were in the open field, in the worst place imaginable to meet the dragon.

Merlin wasn’t planning to let King Rodor taste the dragonfire. Scheming as he was, the old king had stayed loyal to the treaty he had signed with Uther for seventeen years, and secured peace on Camelot’s southern borders, east of Merchant’s Bay. His treachery of trying to sell Arthur to Odin was beyond redemption, of course, but Merlin realized there was no malice in his actions. Rodor never hated Arthur. He carried about peace in his own kingdom, and can any king be blamed for that?

However, when the dark-grey and brown mass of people appeared from afar, Merlin realized Rodor could be hated. It was a terrifying sight even from the height of the dragon’s flight, the biggest army Merlin had ever seen. It was led by two giant rows of horse riders, no less than three hundred each, followed by a long trail of nine square legions, each of about sixty men. Two prolonged columns of archers were marching on the sides, and the long tail of the army was composed of six hundred more horse riders and six hundred more footmen, and whole camps of squires, smithies, cooks and servants.

Merlin’s heart was pounding, as vague memories of the dragon wroth over the Merchant’s Bay filled his mind with the visions of burning wood and flesh, screams and begging for the mercy of quick death. The banners in the sea of Rodor’s army reminded Merlin of the pirates’ sails, although they were different in size and images, but Merlin couldn’t read them from such height. I must act quick. This is my only chance to surprise them.

Fearing the Kilgharrah would sense his insecurity, Merlin grabbed the dragon’s horns with all his might and directed the dragon into a deep dive.

The whole air around him turned into a blistering wind, so mighty it was threatening to tear his eyelids apart. His body filled with dangerous lightness as the dragon’s wings folded and the creature of magic threw himself into a flight which felt closer to freefall.

Merlin stopped the freefall when he thought the dragon would crash the earth in seconds; Kilgharrah unfolded his wings and soared out of the deep dive with a roar, and Merlin could hear the screams in Rodor’s army, could see the banners with cherries, cherry trees, chains, unicorns, hunter’s arrows flapping in the wind as Kilgharrah was carrying him closer to the enemy’s left flank. There could be little that Rodor’s men could have done, for Kilgharrah had descended upon them too quickly, like a rain from the blue sky.

Arthur’s guesswork proved right at once. Kilgharrah was too fast, but Merlin could hear the horses’ hysterical neighing and could see them run away despite the orders of their riders. Some of the stallions were swamping the footmen legions, who, too, tried to move to the right, farther from the dragon’s shadow. The army’s left flank was ruined in a blink of an eye, with horses darting off to all the directions, away from the red wings of death.

It took Merlin some time to make sure he covered all the army, from head to tail, before he commanded Kilgharrah to rise again, his wings flapping violently in the air, taking Merlin higher and higher into the white-blue sky. The screams and shouts in the army got maddening and hoarse, some orders were uttered into the air, but the soldiers suddenly grew bold to question those orders.

Merlin directed his dragon left, to turn around and fly along the army’s right flank. The army’s structure which looked as solid as a warhammer or a longsword turned into a mess of a market crowd and began to blur: horses were everywhere, and the soldiers were using shields to protect themselves from either the wild stallions or the dragon. When Kilgharrah began to take him lower again, Merlin had seconds to glimpse at the archers lined up along the right flank: he heard the arrows before he saw them, and had moments to turn Kilgharrah sideward, so that the arrows broke against the dragon’s belly and wings, but two or three managed to hit him in the armour, causing some terrible pain.

“Do not imagine that their petty arrows can harm me!” Kilgharrah’s voice was a thunder, and his wings were a storm which caused soldiers and horses alike to fall as the dragon was flying from tail to the head of Rodor’s army.

There was no need for a third message, and when safely past the army’s head, Merlin pulled the dragon by the horns, and in a hundred meters, Kilgharrah landed on the earth, raising waves of dust into the air and breathing out fire.

Merlin knew that time was precious: he glided down the right wing and pulled the wand out his pocket to whirl it; the fiery lasso appeared in the air to outline a circle on the ground, the barrier spell strengthened by the Sidhe crystal core of his wand. Now he had to wait.

The waiting was long, however. The commanders were desperate to restore order to the army, but it was not an easy thing to do with the horses seeing the dragon and aiming to flee the sight of the beast. Archers were summoned to the front, spearmen were trying to form defenses, too, with their knees shaking, and the commanders had to dismount their horses in the end, out of fear that falling off the saddle could easily break their arms and legs.

They were hesitant to approach him, but it was precisely what Merlin needed. Every moment of the unrest was a tiny victory for Arthur, every scared move was a seed of uncertainty that could grow up and destroy the unity of Rodor’s army. The longer they debate, the less trustworthy these commanders will look in the eyes of their soldiers.   

The negotiating party was dispatched, at last, with no less than hundred archers and footmen; they were led by who appeared to be a long-haired knight, at first, until he approached close enough to be seen for what he was – a woman, clad in armor and mail, with a dagger on her sword belt.She looks older than my mother, Merlin thought, but far younger than king Rodor must look. She had long silver hair and a round angry face.

“Name yourself!” she shouted at him from afar, unable to take her eyes off the dragon. 

“Merlin,” it was such a great feeling to no longer hide his name. “I am the dragonlord of King Arthur.”

“A dragonlord? Dragonlords are gone!” the woman shouted back.

Does she think shouting that dragonlords are gone will make Kilgharrah and me disappear?  

“Then what do you reckon I am? A trick? I am real enough, my lady, and so is my dragon. I hope you’ve seen it.”

“What does Arthur send you for?!”

“To make it known that any foreign soldier who dares trespass Camelot’s border will be cooked.”

“BE GONE, MONSTER!”

The cry caught him unawares, and before long, every archer who had a bow fired an arrow aimed at either Merlin or his dragon; the barrier spell made the air vibrate from the invisible defensive shield, and the arrows would bounce off the thin air and be scattered all over the earth.

“SORCERY! SORCERY!”

Merlin’s wand hand jerked, and a whip of fire was conjured as if out of his rage. His voice was so heavy it didn’t seem to belong with himself.

“You are bringing an army to our borders and you have attempted to kill me beneath a peace banner!” Merlin said as the whip came down on the earth with a dangerous flogging sound. “Give me a reason why I need to forget the slight and not cook you right here!”

“Out of my sight, all of you,” the woman suddenly screamed. “You are a disgrace to royal army! Think of what our king would say if he were to witness it!”

One by one, the men from the negotiating party were beginning to step aside and move back. The woman, on the contrary, seemed no longer frightened by the dragon.

“Pardons, my lord,” she said, approaching closer than any sane knight would’ve dared.

“I am no lord,” Merlin made the whip of fire vanish into the air.  

“Dragonlord, you’ve just said.”

“That… doesn’t make me lord.”

“Arguing over titles won’t take us far,” her voice seemed a song, but a dangerous one, like the one which Lady Helen tried to sing to kill Arthur. “I apologize for the behavior of the soldiers. They are young and hungry for glory as well as blood.”

Don’t try and make me think you’re not bloodthirsty.

“I am not sated either,” Merlin put his hand on Kilgharrah’s wing, feeling the heat burning beneath the horns of the dragon.

“But you’ve chosen patience, unlike them,” the silver-haired woman pointed a bit too contently for someone who was trying not to irritate her enemy. “For that Nemeth is grateful.”

“May I learn your name?”

“Princess Hadyfa,” the woman announced proudly. “Widow of prince Devon, king Rodor’s eldest trueborn son. My lord, can we have a private word?”

Princess. It appears Nemeth is too small a kingdom for two princesses.

You must understand that this army has not been assembled out of king Rodor’s will alone,” she switched to a preaching tone. “Our kingdom is in a perilous state, the future hangs in a fragile balance, and Princess Mithian’s escape ruined that balance…”

“The balance of Nemeth is Nemeth’s affair alone,” Merlin cut her. “King Arthur knows better than to interfere.”

“Then why has he kidnapped the princess of Nemeth after refusing to marry her?”

 “Because after King Arthur refused to marry her, King Rodor tried to sell his guest to Odin of Cornwall,” Merlin reminded her angrily. “Princess Mithian saved Arthur, and Arthur repaid her with kindness. She is his honorable guest now, and unlike Rodor, Arthur has no intentions of selling his guests anywhere. Your king is already guilty of trying to sell Arthur to Odin, and what’s worse, now he’s bringing this monstrous army to Camelot!”

“Yet your king doesn’t bring one in response,” Hadyfa noticed, studying Merlin curiously. 

“Arthur is as just as he is merciful. Why shed the blood of thousands of people when there’s hope peace can be born out of negotiations?”

“Negotiations? Where? In Breninwall?”

“No. King Arthur invites King Rodor and his party to the castle of Gedref, to reconcile at the feast.”

“It will take our army…”

“Are you mad?” Merlin laughed. “The foreign army can’t cross the borders of Camelot! King Arthur agreed to generously allow you to camp at Breninwall for the time of negotiations, but King Rodor can bring no more than fifty guards and half his cavalry.”

“Half his cavalry?!”

“As a gift for Arthur’s coronation.”

“Arthur’s mad if he believes that…”

“King Arthur is not mad. He is merciful. The terms are final and not for me to discuss. Shall the invitation be declined; the peace will not be settled. If Rodor fails to show up, it will mean war.”

“How’s that… Where did you get this dragon from?!” Hadyfa demanded, looking as if she was about to reach for her dagger.

“From fire.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

CHAPTER 12: A Fallen Champion

 

The land looked sinister and forbidding, all the grimmer the farther north the road was taking him. Yet when the White Mountains appeared to cut the horizon, the sight of the towering peaks did offer a sense of solace to Nentres Gaheris, like it did to any other westerman. I am home.

Fate had smiled at his mother during her brash dicing with king Ryence Gingawaine, when the crown of Camelot had declared Nentres Gaheris the heir to the castle of Asgorath. It was a bold attempt of the Midlands family to win the allegiance of the West, a daring move which proved to be a lethal mistake. The moment they killed my nephew Vidor, all the parchments became worthless, only fit for wiping their arses with it.

Nentres never asked his mother for the gift of the castle of Asgorath, but he knew Vyda Gaheris too well to refuse. Any lord in the Five Kingdoms would kill to become the Lord of Asgorath. Fat-walled and low-towered, the construction of the castle had claimed lives of generations of Western architects, whose pace was slow because they never relied on magic.

Nested on the five hills, the castle was protected by a labyrinth of bleak white walls and lay on the ancient Roman road which ran from Melios, the capital of Gwynedd, to the kingdom of Gawant; it was a liege to ten towns and another lesser castle of Wheelskirt. According to the last count, the villages, towns and castles of Asgorath were home to more than sixty-eight thousand people, but the librarian who greeted him claimed the count was wrong, and the real number was eighty thousand. But Nentres couldn’t care less about the number of people in the castle when he had finally arrived at the gates. Not only had the wretched insurgence of the castle of Wheelskirt robbed the Western army of the seven hundred more men to join the army, but it also prevented Nentres from crossing the border with Gawant right where he had wanted and made him travel offroad like some rogue. The day will come when I throw this Lady Reft out of Wheelskirt, Nentres thought, remembering the perils of his journey.

His wife had been waiting for him in the castle of Asgorath, innocent enough to believe the gift of Vyda Gaheris was a gesture of love and respect. She’s so wrong.Vyda never cared about Asgorath. Some may call it Pearl of the West, but mother is known to say that western heart has always been and will always be in Daobeth, by the burnt ruins of the castle of king Virico the Unfortunate. Will mother be remembered as Vyda Who-Never-Learned-The-Lesson? Arthur’s dragon ruined an entire fleet. Arthur’s dragon is more than enough to turn another castle into smoldering ruins.

The horrible discovery had turned his journey into a dire urge, but he had to keep his mouth shut all the way to the castle of Daobeth. Nentres didn’t want the news about the dragon reach the Western army before the march; clad in armor and steel as the soldiers were, iron and bronze could melt under dragonfire. The gods save us now.

The news about the dragon turned into a silent scream in his head, a painful thorn to his plans and, strangely enough, a faint hope for the peaceful outcome of the whole affair. Even mother would not be foolish enough to try and fight the dragon. I’d pay hundreds of silver coins to watch her try and tame it, but I’d wager my bladder would erupt from laughter. Safir is different. Vidor was his son, and peace is not an option for him now. It’s blood he wants, Yrien’s blood and the blood of her son to wash his face with it and serve vengeance to Midlands.

Vengeance, not suicide, Nentres brooded. His own thoughts had turned as dark as the cobalt shield of the sky above his head. He had fallen asleep in the inns, thinking about the dragon, he had drunk wine, imagining the dragon over the White Mountains, and every time the red dawn would slash the snow-covered mountain tops, he’d imagine the dragon flames. And now Nentres was bringing the news of the dragon to the gates of his family castle of Daobeth. News was all he had, and he was grateful for that.

He couldn’t explain how it had become possible, he couldn’t be sure Arthur wasn’t possessed by some dark forces of the Gedref labyrinth, the forces which made him lift the ban on magic and summon the dragon to his service. He knew nothing and less about why Uther’s sonwould toy with sorcery, but he knew the dragon was real and returned to Merchant’s Bay. How soon will it be over the White Mountains, though?

On his way to Daobeth, he had already peeked at what this war was doing to the West. From every hundred men in the villages and towns, ten were missing, summoned to the army of Vyda Gaheris. Those were adult men, all fit for work, and the workshops and fields and storehouses and inns were beginning to be short of workforce already. And the war hasn’t even started properly. What will it leave of this land? The West has known enough sorrow without this new dragon wroth.

The ancient castle of Daobeth was hard to recognize from afar, amidst the grey rocks beneath it and the heavy and low western sky. An ill thing it was, a corpse of a castle that had lost all its towers, gates and bridges, but had somehow preserved the anguish which sealed its doom. That anguish still lingered deep in the dungeons of the ruins, they said, and the nobles which had survived the fall of Daobeth had chosen to move the capital of new Mountain Kingdom further west, closer to the border with Dyfed.

The castle of Daobeth where his mother’s court resided looked a mockery when compared even to the ruins of old Daobeth, but it was the best the western architects could come up with following the dragon war. The westerners would call it a "Broken Tooth", for it had many fallen towers and decaying walls, but even broken teeth could be sharp. The castle was built high upon the hill, lacked curtain walls and consisted of three keeps.

The signs of war were easy to notice near the castle of Daobeth, too: many groves near the villages had been cut and stood bare and sad, as if the winter had come earlier than expected. The small folk didn’t seem less active or disappointed, though, and from what Nentres could tell from the inns’ drunken tales and talks and japes, people supported Vyda’s cause for vengeance.

The town by the castle lay on the western side of the hill, while the eastern side was occupied by a new town of its own, composed of tents and improvised stables and a few siege towers and trebuchets which had consumed the nearby groves. By the look of it, there were still no less than 2,000 men in Daobeth, awaiting the command to march.

The guard rode to meet them when it became plain that the party was heading for the castle hill.

“Who comes there?” he shouted rather impassively, a man with a cropped beard dressed a lot more richly than a guard was expected to.  

“It’s me,” Nentres shouted back, slowing his horse. The saddle was giving his loins an ache already.

“Lord Nentres!” the man smiled. In that smile, Nentres recognized the castellan of his mother, lord Adrall. “We were beginning to worry. What took you so long?”

“War,” Nentres said, striding forward like a soldier already marching into the decisive battle. “Where is my lady mother?”

“In the old burial grounds. They started without you, they had reasons to think you were delayed.”

“I was delayed.”

“News from the south, my lord? With King Arthur and King Sarrum by our side, we shall smash the Gingawaines to bitter pieces. Nobody will even find what’s left of them.”

Did he just say King Sarrum?

“I have a nephew to mourn, lord Adrall,” Nentres reminded him. “If ever a war can wait, it is now.

“Of course, my lord.”  

The burial grounds belonged with the southern, most gentle slope of the castle hill, where the wildflowers were sown all over the earth, bringing colors to what sometimes appeared to be a colorless land of stone and steel. Wild garlic of tender white, bluebells, scarlets and oak saplings made the burial grounds look less grievous than in other Western villages and towns.

Nentres was late. He had heard the farewell song before he could glimpse at the flower-peppered meadow and see the small party that had gathered to pay the last respects to the bones of the slain Vidor Gaheris. Nentres’s eyes met the fattest man he had ever seen, lord Sagramore, who had served as Uther’s Councilor of Camelot and later as Ryence’s Secretary. His wife Rolissa and daughter Ewina were by his side, and Ewina was crying louder than Vidor’s mother. She was supposed to marry him, not burry him.

The Denaria nobility was at the funeral, too. Galla Dindrane, the lady of Denaria, was accompanied by her husband Caradol, her granddaughter Laima, a maid of seventeen, and her younger son Keres. Galla’s eldest son was probably left in charge of the castle of Denaria, and Galla’s middle son had perished in the dragon attack in Camelot.

To his surprise, Nentres spotted the king of Dyfed among the mourners, too. Bald and wrinkled, the man looked dangerous despite his eye-catching shortness, had an unpleasant face of a bulldog and a ruthlessness to his small eyes. At least he had the decency to take off his crown for the funeral. 

Safir Gaheris and his wife were standing by the grave. Blasinia couldn’t help tears, but her face had the stone expression of fury, while Safir, his jaw hard as stone, seemed to be lowly muttering the promises of vengeance amidst the mourning song. 

Nentres smiled as he noticed Caridoc, his own son, in the group, standing shoulder to shoulder with Eric, Vidor’s younger brother.

Vyda Gaheris was seated by the grave in her special chair. She wasn’t that fat and could spend some time on her feet, but she’d grown too old to do without a chair. Her hair, once black, was white and scarce as the autumn snow, revealing the ugly sweating skin of her head, covered with age spots.

The choir sang of the brave sir Vidor who died from the wretched treachery of the Gingwaine boy king and his mother. They sang about his bravery and wisdom, his passion and his deeds, his battles and his tourneys, and promised that his bones would turn to stones and that those stones would join the White Mountains, where his spirit would find rest. When the song was done, the guests were invited to the castle for a cup of wine and salt and bread, while the Gaheris family chose to remain by the grave.  

“Brother,” Nentres said, petting Safir on the shoulder.

“Nentres,” Safir nodded with a voice that sounded like a continuation of the mourning song.  

“I grieve with you. And my wife, too.”

“Thank you,” Safir cleared his throat to cast the weakness away. “I know I can never bring him back. But I can teach Yrien what it means to lose a son. She will see Rion torn apart by horses, I promise.”  

“Foul talk, and at the burial grounds...” his mother sounded like a giant toad “Only a foul speaks the words he’ll not uphold before his son’s grave.”

“I shall uphold every word,” Safir flushed.  

“See that you do,” Vyda pointed her crooked finger at Safir. “If I were you, I wouldn’t trouble the horses with such work. We can cut Rion into sixteen pieces, one for each year he’s lived. Starting from the feet, so that he doesn’t die quickly, of course, and feed all pieces to the hounds and make him and his bitch of a mother witness it.”

Mother. Lovely as always.

“Mother,” Nentres kneeled to kiss his mother’s hand. She reeked of decay, but she was still the Lady of Daobeth.

“You are late, son. We were waiting for any word from you. Where the bloody hell have you been?”

“I got delayed. Some news I couldn’t trust to a horseman.”

“Speak, then. There’s nobody to overhear us by the graves,” his mother croaked. “The dead can hear but will not speak.”

Nentres measured his family with an intense gaze. Safir and his stone jaws, his broad-hipped wife, Eric and his own son Caridoc.

“Arthur has got himself a dragon,” Nentres announced to the howling winds of the west.

They all looked as if Nentres was speaking in a foreign tongue, exchanging puzzled looks.

“Uncle?”

“What are you saying?”

“Arthur commands a dragon,” Nentres repeated.  

“The dragon’s dead,” Safir rushed to assure. “Arthur killed him himself!”

“Then Arthur lied. Or this dragon came from the dead.”

“Nentres, I can’t understand…”

“Let him speak,” Vyda barked, greedy for knowledge. “Nentres, tell me, tell me all. You saw this dragon yourself?”

“Yes, mother.” Although I wish I hadn’t seen it, hadn’t heard the sailors die.“It burned half the fleet of Odin and Alined that tried to attack Portstown. It didn’t breath out fire, its magic was so… powerful that the very air was turning to fire everywhere over the bay… King Godwyn has declared all the trading harbors and ports in Gawant shut until the matter with dragon is settled. He withdraws the betrothal of princess Elena to Eric. He wants no part in the Camelot war now.”

“So this is true?” Safir muttered.

“I saw it with my own eyes, brother. And heard it with my own ears.”

“This can’t be true. This can’t, can’t, can’t. The dragon was dead!” Blasinia, Safir’s wife, chanted. She has just lost one son to the Gingawaines, and she doesn’t want to lose Eric to the flames.

“It’s far from over,” Nentres draw a deep breath before he had to announce the most grievous of the news. “Arthur has lifted the ban on magic.”

“I don’t believe you,” Safir shook his head, turning away.

“Send your men to Gedref, brother, and let them find it out themselves. Arthur’s welcomed witches and sorcerers into his realm.”

“Uther’s son…”

“The boy is clearly no longer Uther’s son,” Vyda rose from her chair, leaning on a walking stick. His mother didn’t seem surprised; there was the call for blood in her eyes and the most wicked of the smiles in the corner of her lips. “Oh, I warned him, I did, but when I spoke those words, Uther threatened to have my head. I told him a child born out of magic is not clean. He could have magic himself, I warned him, it could be a beast, and not a child… I prayed I was wrong, but now it turns out I was right. The boy has showed his true face. A dragontamer and a lickspittle for the sorcerers and witches. Disappointing, yet hardly surprising.”

Vyda spat under her feet, cursing Arthur.

“Hardly surprising?!” Safir turned back to face his family.  “Hardly surprising?! A man commands a dragon, mother! One of our kin! How’s that hardly…”

Vyda’s hand moved too quickly for an aged woman, but it hit Safir hard on the cheek nonetheless. Gods be good. They are fighting over Vidor’s grave.

“Never call him our kin,” Vyda’s words were an order. “Remember, he was never our kin. He was conceived with the help of the Dark Arts. We share no blood with him.”

“We thought differently when we sent Nentres to treat with him!”

“And we must be thankful to Nentres for bringing this news,” Vyda sighed.

“Mother, he has a dragon!” Safir looked as if he were ready to tear half his hair. “A living dragon! How are we supposed to defeat this thing?!”

“Then what do you propose we do?” Vyda’s face turned into the mask as hard as the mountains of the west. “I’d rather eat stones than sue for peace with a sorcerer. I tell you what we do. This is what the West has always done. We fight and die, or we submit and die. An old woman like me knows her choice. And commanders like you should know theirs. Now come, we mustn’t keep the royalty waiting. Help me get up. Eric, forget about that princess Elena. We shall find you a different bride, a proper one, with the western blood in her veins.”

Nentres watched Caridoc, Eric and Blasinia help Vyda climb the southern slope. When left alone with his brother, Nentres couldn’t repress the words any longer.

“Safir, she’s mad.”

“So she has always been,” Safir nodded. “Mad Hound of the West.”

“It’s an ill time for japes, brother! You heard what I said, and unlike our lady mother, you are not deaf. It’s not a warhorse Arthur has acquired. It’s a dragon.”

“So what do you propose we do about it? Hunt the beast? There is no crossbow that can take down a dragon.”

“We must abandon this whole affair then!” Nentres knew he was looking weak in his brother’s eyes, but he wasn’t ashamed. “We must change our plan. We need to smash the Gingawaines and be back to Daobeth. Restore the throne of the Mountain Land rather than try and seize the throne of Camelot. Let Arthur rule the Seaside Kingdom and whatever else he finds worth ruling, save for our land.”

“If mother heard you, she’d have you hanged,” Safir warned him as they began climbing the slope.

“You’re not my mother.”

“I am not. But listen to this. We are Uther’s kin. We are the closest he ever had to brothers. He might have despised us because we refused to take part in his conquest, but we were his cousins and we remain his only living cousins by blood. The throne of Camelot should have been ours after his death.”

Yours, you mean. 

“You know the law. Cousins have no ri…”

“Fuck this law! Uther wrote this law when he conquered Camelot, him and that bitch of a last druid queen and the priestess. May they all rot in hell. People will support our cause and when the commoners learn that Arthur’s sold himself to dragon, every village fool will rise against the Pendragon.”

“Every village fool will bleed. And burn.”

“Then burn we shall.”

He just wants to die because he can’t stand the grief over his son’s loss. No parent shall outlive his child, true, but if he thinks I wish to join him…

In the grim castle hall where the guests seemed so sad the  hearth seemed to be the only living presence, Vyda Gaheris and King Sarrum were alone, unattended by guards.

“Lod Safir, Dyfed grieves with you,” the king said, but Nentres questioned Sarrum’s ability to grieve.

“Thank you, your grace,” he heard his brother master a polite response.

“Aye, we all grieve,” Vyda waved her hands, encouraging the guards to lock the doors after Safir and Nentres got into the hall. “However, grief is not a dish to be digested alone. It’s best served with vengeance.”

“The head of my army will be here soon,” King Sarrum assured her, staring into the fires. What does he see there? Does he doubt his actions, now that the fire can rain down on us from the sky?  

“Good. When they come, the march begins,” Vyda nodded.  

“Will mother care to share her strategy with me?” Nentres inquired, trying to warm his hands by the fire.

“Of course. As you can see, King Sarrum has decided to join our cause.”

Out of most selfless intentions, obviously.

“King Sarrum brings 1,500 men to our side. Our total numbers are 3,500 soldiers now. King Sarrum’s men, joined by three hundred from our own army, will march on Camlann with siege towers and trebuchets, and their march will be a slow one. The slow march will force Yrien, the bitch queen, to send her army against us to the Pass of Camlann. She will be hoping to meet two thousand western swords there, but in fact she will meet only a thousand of king Sarrum’s warriors. Another 800 soldiers will use an old secret path over the ridge of Camlann and outflank her army.”

Something is fishy here.

 “I don’t understand, mother. We have 3,500 men with the help of king Sarrum. 1500 Dyfed soldiers and 300 of our men will march to the Pass of Camlann, and then they split: 1000 soldiers meet Yrien’s army face to face, and 800 soldiers use the secret old path to stab her in the flank. But what will the remaining 1700 soldiers from Western army do? Will they be free?”

“They will not be free,” Vyda smiled. “They will be busy as always. For centuries, house Gingawaine has been a power because of their control over Midlands. I mean to destroy the source of that power. The castle of Brechfa is where the rest of our army will march.”

Has she gone completely insane?

“The castle of Brechfa? Doomspath has raised the bridge, mother. There’s no crossing over the river Sabrina.”

“We shall not march over the Sabrina,” whatever Vyda had up her sleeve, it nearly made her mouth water. “Haven’t you heard, son, they call me a toad. I know the swamps of Denaria well.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 13: YOUNG AND IN LOVE

 

Arthur wanted to shout and scream his voice off. Careful! Hold tight! Watch the beast, Merlin! Don’t be such an idiot!

Yet as the morning sunrays washed over Merlin, painting both, the dragon and his rider, in a rapturous shining glow of white gold, Arthur felt there was no need to warn him. Mounted on the massive beast that inspired nothing short of horror in the hearts of all the witnesses, Merlin looked as if he were born to roam the sky on the back of his dragon. The air of clumsiness and gawkiness that would accompany Merlin in his palmy serving days was gone: Merlin looked lean, strong and determined when holding Kilgharrah by the horns, his eyes madly agleam with the fervour of the destiny he was no longer afraid of.

Arthur couldn’t help but savor the joyous feeling of pride for what Merlin had become.Well, he had always been this way, it’s just that back then he never had the courage to embrace his destiny. But now that he’s mine and I am his, there seems nothing that can make Merlin hold back. 

As Merlin turned rightward to cast one last farewell look at Arthur, the king learned that eyes could tell what could be never put into words, as his warlock showered him with love and unbound devotion. Arthur hoped Merlin could read the same thing in his own eyes. Come back to me safe, and don’t do anything stupid on your way. I mean it, Merlin. I’ll be waiting for you every damn moment. My risky star. 

Kilgharrah launched himself off the cliff, his wings half-folded but still managing to cover the guests with layers of dust and raise whirlwinds by the bridge to the castle. Arthur’s heart refused to beat for some moments as the dragon slid off the rock and disappeared, but when it reemerged and soared into the white-cloaked sky, heading to Portstown under confident command of Merlin, Arthur could breathe again.

“I still can’t believe it,” Mithian whispered as her look followed the dragon’s figure circling around the city in the sky. “Dragons! Mother would never believe me if I wrote to her. Dragons and witches, and magic back in the Seaside Kingdom… It’s all real!” 

“I wished it were less real sometimes,” Modron snorted, shielding his eyes from the shining glory of the new day which didn’t agree with his pale sleepy face. “Not all the magic things are as pleasant as a peaceful dragon, princess. On our way to Nemeton we met a lamia who nearly raped us and ate our brains!” 

“I’m afraid she’d have been left hungry if she had eaten your brains,” Owaine said, and before long he was running away, and Modron trying to chase him and give him a good shove. 

“Beg pardons, princess,” Arthur had to say, his eyes still searching the sky for Merlin. “I often forget that they are still too green.” 

“What’s a lamia? I forgot,” Mithian laughed, watching Modron stumble and fall as he tried to kick Owaine. 

“It’s a creature of dark magic which takes the shape of an innocent girl,” Arthur recalled, sending another round of silent thanks to Merlin and his moonstone and sunstone. “She bewitches young men and then kills them. It’s a monster. A powerful one.” 

“And how, pray tell, did the green boys and their wise commander defeat a creature of magic without magic?” 

“With Merlin’s help, like always,” Arthur sighed, watching the dragon grow smaller in the sky. There was a moment in the woods that I hated that Merlin would try to help me against my will, when I thought Merlin was doing my job and stealing my duties by protecting me from magic things. Thank Goddess I learnt that you can’t cut everything with a sword. “Remember the stone you’ve called my “jewelry”? It was a magic stone which, as it turned out, protected me. It shielded me against the lamia and shielded me against the gatekeeper of the spirit world.” 

The dragon turned into a tiny red dot, lost among the white of the clouds and the blue of the sky. It was only when Arthur stopped staring at the bay that he noticed Mithian’s lips graced by a smile. 

“Merlin must care very much about you if he is not afraid to fight this lamia and the gatekeepers of the spirit world.” 

“I care no less about him,” Arthur replied, and the smile on Mithian’s lips grew wider, a sign of unfeigned amusement. She guessed. She knows. “As I do about all my subjects, obviously.” 

Obviously,” Mithian nodded. “I beg your leave, your grace.”  

“Of course.” 

Mithian headed to the bridge, accompanied by the four guards of the castle household, who were an unpleasant, but a necessary precaution against the lingering dangers courting the princess of Nemeth. Goddess only knows what her aunties have up their sleeve for her. It’s something we have in common, Arthur realized with a sad smile,thinking about his aunt Vyda Gaheris who was somewhere behind the White Mountains.Has Nentres reached Daobeth already? 

As Mithian walked away, Modron lost his attention, visibly caught between the desire to address the princess and the lack of any pretext in his head, and Owaine refused to miss his hour in the sun and caught his friend unawares, rather sneakily, using his foot to make Modron trip and mutter curses of a tourney vengeance. 

Lord Sei, thin and stooped, laughed so hard Arthur was afraid the lord of Portstown might choke. 

“Makes me think of the days of my own youth, my lord,” lord Sei approached Arthur to stand by his right side, enjoying the peaceful idyll of the town by the bay, a town which had suffered two attacks in the latest two weeks. “We’d play tricks on each other. One night we put a pig in the knights’ barracks and kicked it to make it run squealing through all the chambers… Scared the hell out of half the knights.” 

Arthur burst out laughing, too. A squealing pig running through the barracks in the back of the night… Leon would be so mad at whoever attempted such a trick… The thoughts about his former Commander of the knights wiped out all the merriment quicker than the gust of wind. He recalled the cold of Leon’s eyes the night of the fest. He was afraid of me, he was afraid of me even when I let him go.  

“Someday, I hope, I may return to the barracks in Camelot, to train my young knights and scare them with squealing pigs,” Arthur said dreamingly. “How soon, though?” 

“Depends on the success of our campaign, your grace,” Lord Sei shrugged. “Reading future has never been easy even for the wood’s witches. Now I believe even a wood’s witch wouldn’t see your future.” 

“Why?”

“Because it changes as suddenly as the winds in the autumn sea.” 

“But we have means to make it more… clear and predictable,” Arthur said, noticing a lonely horse rider climbing the mainland slope to the castle bridge. “Coin is one of such means. May I learn your opinion on the current state of our Treasury’s affairs?” 

“Your grace, I have many opinions, and they will differ, depending on what side of the affairs you wish to inspect.” 

“Say them all,” Arthur encouraged him.  

“Our storehouses are as full as they have never been in the past… gods know how many years,” Lord Sei’s forehead turned into deep greasy wrinkles as he looked at the librarian Henry, who nodded violently in the approval. “The last time the storehouses were so packed was probably… probably when king Reginald was preparing to fight your father, if the records can be trusted.” 

“King Reginald was robbed of this opportunity by my uncles,” Arthur knew it was history, but it was still uncomfortable. 

“He was, your grace. History aside, the city now can withstand a two-year siege with all the goods we shall have saved by the end of the month. Your army will have food and weapons for long and exhausting campaigns. But…” 

“But I don’t have an army,” Arthur hated this irony of fate. “Not yet.” 

“This,” lord Sei gave a courteous, careful nod. “Furthermore, it is costly. The ships in the Merchant’s Bay are trapped, your grace. They can’t unload their goods in Inkwave and, to somehow compensate their losses, they offer these goods to us at a more handsome price. However, these spendings are rather unforeseen on our behalf. The Treasury is way below what it’s supposed to be at this time of the year. We were not supposed to be buying so much. However low the prices, the volumes of imports are draining our Treasury.” 

“Which is sad,” Arthur had to bite his lip. The rider was climbing the slope fast, his horse carrying him as swiftly as the wind would carry a ship. Father hated this coin talk. He always let Cynric and Blanchefleur take care of all the golds and silver and bronze. Damn it, where is Cynric?   

“It may get sadder still,” lord Sei was mild, but it was a warning he was issuing. “The harvest season is upon us, your grace. It’s less than a moon away, and unless king Godwyn agrees to unlock Gawant ports, and this horrible conflict in Camelot is solved, we won’t be able to trade. That would mean even more losses.” 

“And I as a king must somehow make sure that it doesn’t come to pass.”

But how? It seems it’s easier to make a cat marry a dog than to make my auntie Vyda stop this war. She has thousands of swords at her command and a dead grandson to avenge. The only way I can stop her is by burning her army, but what king would I be if I slaughter thousands of my own subjects? 

A strong one, Uther’s voice replied somewhere from the void in Arthur’s heart. 

The noise of the approaching horseman got disturbing. Modron and Owaine had to stop their fighting and spring to their feet, while the guards formed a protective crescent around their king. However, something about the rider and his horse loaded with two bags had dissuaded Arthur from suspicions and cautions at once, something about his unarmored silhouette and the way he’d be in the saddle. I’ve seen him ride before. I’ve helped him learn the art of horseride. 

LANCELOT!” 

Arthur’s scream erupted so unbefittingly for the royal manner, but the king didn’t care.It wouldn’t hurt me if the guards saw I’m friendly with knights.Lancelot’s face, the face that could win any knight the love of hundreds of noble and common girls, was shining with happiness despite the signs pointing at the lack of sleep. Arthur had to make his way through the guards to help Lancelot dismount and grab him into an embrace to feel that the lad was real. They may not have parted on the best of terms, yet here, on the rocky shore of Gedref, with a splendid castle and mighty towerhouses of Portstown that often felt foreign, Arthur couldn’t appreciate anything more than meeting a man from his own palmy days. Merlin would be so happy to learn Lance’s back, it was Merlin who dragged him to the court and had the madness in him to present Lancelot as what… some offspring of some Mercian knights? Goddess, has anything really happened in the kingdom without Merlin playing some part in it? 

When off his horse, Lancelot spent seconds to judge the environment of the king to consider doing as he was expected to: dropping to one knee. 

“Your grace. My sword is yours.” 

“Lancelot, rise! Rise, for the sake of Camelot!” Arthur lifted him so easily as if Lance was a youth rather than a man grown. He was one of the most talented lads on the training fields. The sight of exhausted Lancelot right before his eyes felt so inspiring Arthur wanted to shout for ale and to command another fest thrown in the town, but he knew he had to behave when his councilors and guards were watching. Would that it were easy! “Lance, you of all people can ignore this kneeling thing… Merlin told me, he… Oh, right. My lords, please welcome Sir Lancelot. The one who slaughtered the griffin in Camelot last year!” 

“With the help of Merlin,” Lancelot corrected him.  

“Gods,” Modron rolled his eyes. “Merlin’s hand, it’s everywhere! Seems like nobody could’ve farted in your kingdom without Merlin participating and…”

“Ignore them, they are green,” Arthur said, inspecting Lancelot’s horse. The creature looks scared. It’s so weak it’s surprising it managed to bring one rider. Wait. One rider. “Lancelot, why are you alone?! Where is Gwen, where is Gaius?!” 

Saying their names seemed to make a difference, it felt liberating to send vibrations into the summer air and the summer air answered back with the repeated, excited gusts. Gaius and Gwen, Leon and father, Morgana and Merlin, Merlin, Merlin, one day we all lived under the same roof and Camelot was as beautiful as she was peaceful…  

Lancelot turned his look away, the same way he did when confronted with the truth about his lineage in Camelot. Arthur knew that look too well to let the vain hopes build up in his heart, but he could not command his own heart, no more than any king could. A good king does what is best for his kingdom, and not his heart, Uther’s voice whispered again. 

“Your grace,” Lancelot said bracingly. “Gwen… She… Gwen… Her wish was to…” 

“To what?!” 

“She chose to stay in the castle of Camelot, your grace.” 

“To stay?! How? Why would she?!” 

“She’s taken a shine to some other man, your grace. Gwaine’s the name.” 

Gwaine? The one who escorted Merlin to Camelot?” 

“He did.” 

I knew he’d seduce anyone if given enough time. The man was full of lust and cider. 

“But Gwaine was supposed to return to us!” 

“He didn’t. He chose to stay because he wants to protect Gwen,” Lancelot announced, grinding his teeth and clenching his fingers into fists.  

“But you’ve just told me she chose to stay because of him!” 

“No, it’s not… not like that. Your grace, Gwen chose to stay because she thinks lady Morgana might return to Camelot.” 

Arthur felt as if someone dear had come to him and pushed him off the cliff. His heart was falling and he had nothing to hold to after the news. Morgana… Goddess, please, let it not be true. Why would she go back to the place that had been so horrible to witches and sorcerers for so long? 

“Morgana?! They found her?! Where is she?! Is she well?! Did anybody try to hurt her?!” 

“I don’t know,” Lancelot shrugged. “When I left, there was no news about her. But I saw another woman who knew something about Morgana. She had blonde hair, she captured us on the way to Camelot.”

Morgause. Merlin told me. We thought she’d stay with druids. We thought she’d be safe with druids.  

“What about Gaius? Why has he chosen to stay? Has he fallen in love with Gwaine, too?” 

A grin appeared on Lancelot’s face, but not for too long. 

“He got us out of the cells. He is the Secretary of King Rion now.”

This is too much. 

“You’ve been to the cells?” 

“Yes. For fighting Gwaine. Your grace, you must know. There were riots in the Lower Town. After the witch killed Sir Vidor, people took it to the streets. They were calling for a new Purge.” 

Best people didn’t hear all of it. 

“Lord Sei, you will excuse me, please. I have a lot to discuss with Lancelot now. Owaine, Modron, I see you at the training field tonight.” 

“Of course,” they all muttered in response. 

“Come to the castle,” Arthur invited him. “There will be a place for your horse. Now tell me. Gaius is the Secretary of Rion? How mad must Yrien be to trust him with this position?” 

“She’s risking nothing,” Lancelot sighed, pulling the horse by the bridles. “If the security levels in the castle and the Lower Town speak anything about queen regent… Then it’s Gaius who has to fear Yrien and not the other way around. She’d not miss her chance of putting Gaius’s head on a spike if she spotted a shade of treachery about him.” 

“You think the castle can be taken?” Arthur tried to lock the hopefulness out of his tone, but with the excitement from meeting Lancelot still beating in his veins, he could command his voice no more than he could command his heart. 

“She has more than enough men to guard the walls of the Lower Town, my lord,” Lancelot had to disappoint. “The citadel is as impregnable as ever.” 

“Damn this woman. To think that Morgana might get to Yrien’s reach… Yrien will use Morgana as hostage, she knows I can’t bear the thought of Morgana being hurt. Damn this Yrien,” the king repeated as his and the horse’s steps were echoing off the massive wooden bridge that served as the only connection between the mainland and the rock of the castle of Gedref. “Why doesn’t she just grab her son and her gold and buy herself a rich exile somewhere in Mercia?” 

“Exile is a bitter cask to pour from,” Lancelot observed. 

“A sweeter cask than Ryence served my father,” Arthur hated it that the old Gingawaine had escaped justice through his own death. “Anyway, I’m sorry about this. You must be tired and hungry and here I stand, mumbling something about Gingawaines. Come with me. Leave your horse be, it’ll be taken care after and… Now, what’s this?”

As Lancelot began to unload his horse, Arthur watched him pull a sword from beneath the saddle, and drop the bags on the floor. 

“Merlin’s stuff,” Lancelot said with uneasiness. “Been carrying it all the way praying nothing would suddenly cast no spell in those bags and roast my arse. Even though there’s nothing save for some books and a sword…” 

“The sword feels weird,” Arthur observed. “Something’s written here. What is it? I’ve never seen this language before. These books… Goddess, to think that Merlin was stupid enough to store all these things inside the castle… He could’ve got hanged… or burnt for it… I swear, sometimes he’s such an idiot.” 

“Seems like nothing’s changed between you two,” Lancelot pointed happily. “Where is Merlin, by the way? I owe him my thanks for helping me out of Idirsholas.” 

“He’s out there. Flying to threaten king Rodor’s army.” 

“He’s flying this dragon now?” 

“You saw the dragon?” 

“I did! In King’s Wood. The dragon helped him with some sunstone riddle or something.” 

“Thank Goddess he did,” Arthur whispered to himself, checking the sky.  

 

*** 

 

The day was slow as torture. 

Lancelot’s arrival at the castle of Gedref seemed uneventful to everybody save for Arthur who couldn’t get enough of stories from the first common man to ever become the knight of Camelot. To his happiness, they somehow managed to avoid talking of Gwen. It wasn’t the arrogant attitude where they both pretended as if Gwen never even existed; on the other hand, they seemed to respect each other enough to delay the discussion until the more important issues were settled. The issues of war. After war comes peace. 

Arthur was glad to learn that Lancelot’s break up with Gwen hadn’t put an end to his knighthood endeavours. Much as Morgana hated to believe in it, killing things often was thought to mend a broken heart among men, and Lance proved no exceptions. Arthur listened carefully to Lancelot’s reports on his service in the mercenary company which took him from the Wide Bay in Mercia to Tir-Mor and then to Essetir. In the hindsight of all the adventures which had paved his path to Gedref, king Arthur had grown mature enough to not gloat over the misfortunes of Cenred’s reign. The misfortunes of a monarch often meant sufferings for the common people, and Arthur had no reason to hate the small folk of Esssetir, no matter how hard he loathed their king. And so the news of the chaos in Essetir brought a sense of relief rather than that of dark satisfaction. Essetir is in debt to the Silky Bank of Tir-Mor and the bank is sending mercenaries to collect their debt. 

“Is Cenred putting on any fight at all? Is he trying to resist the Silky Bank?” 

“Hardly so,” Lancelot shook his head, tearing the goose roasted with garlic apart with bare hands and attacking it as if he hadn’t eaten for days. “He is resisting them in other ways.” 

“What ways?” 

“The ways he collects taxes, your grace. The mercenaries are instructed to search and confiscate the tax coins, but Cenred’s smart enough to not move them in the wheeled wagons as he used to. Sometimes these wagons are empty, and the taxes are traveling by other routes. Our duty was to discover those routes and confiscate the gold for the bank.” 

So Cenred has enough troubles of his own. At least my east is secure. If Merlin’s dragon is an argument heavy enough for Rodor to reconsider his strategy, then Gawant will be the only pain in my arse before I can march north, to Camelot, to bring my fond regards to Yrien and Rion. It’s been too long. 

 Arthur joined Lancelot and poured himself some wine even though it was a bit too early for celebration. The red of the cup was made brighter by the sunlight that would make the chalice shine ruby-red, as red as the wings of the dragon which had taken Merlin up to the sky and was supposed to bring him back. If I had magic like Merlin, I’d think of a spell that would let me know if he’s fine.

After making sure that Lancelot was given the chambers for the night, Arthur left him to climb the drum tower where he had spent his night after coronation, waiting for Merlin. It provided the view over the grey-blue sea which looked as tender as the bedsheets from the height of the castle rock. The drum tower was a shelter from the castle, the councilors and the worries over Merlin. He’s on the damn dragon. Nothing’s going to happen to him. 

 But what is going to happen when he returns, Uther’s voice rang in his mind again. Will you command this beast to burn your hometown? And innocent people? 

No, father. I won’t give you the satisfaction you’re so yearning. You built a kingdom out of blood and blades, but I will not fall to the same low. I can eliminate Yrien and Rion from the throne by making them see the war can’t be won. 

She may choose to submit to your rule in the end,Uther smirked, but don’t try to fool me and say that you believe Vyda will recognize your pet. Vyda Gaheris will rather jump into the fire herself than accept the dragon’s return.  

It was the saddest truth which Arthur was powerless to deny. Vyda’s stance against magic had been known to exceed even the limits which Uther Pendragon had been frightened to explore, and the death of her grandson Vidor by the hand of the sorceress would’ve only fueled her hatred. The corrupting idea had already bared its teeth in Arthur’s mind: to let Vyda be and abandon the lands to the west of the White Mountains for good. I can let her restore the Mountain Land throne and reside in Daobeth. When pressed between Gawant and Camelot, she won’t cause much harm. 

The idea to let Vyda reclaim the independence of Mountain Land was as seductive as a drop of cool water on a hot day, but whenever Arthur tried to consider it seriously, he would always stumble upon Merlin’s face in his memory. There were boys and girls like Merlin to the west of the White Mountains, Arthur knew it. Perhaps one could not hope to meet many sorcerers and witches there, for the Mountain Land had been hostile to magic for centuries, but some people with a gift could be born to the western villages and towns nonetheless. Were Vyda to climb her own throne, she would be free to commit all sorts of atrocities against those who have magic across the Mountain Land, and Arthur could not let it happen. Vyda has to be stopped, but at what cost, when the mad hound of the west had already gathered more than two thousand swords marching to the Pass of Calmann? 

Arthur kept tossing the strategies as he tried to stay busy while waiting for Merlin to come back: trade blockade, capturing Nentres or Safir and holding them hostages in the castle of Camelot in exchange for Vyda’s loyalty, invading the land and even burning the castle of Daobeth if Vyda’s crimes turned to the darkest of evils. Yet the final decision never seemed ripe enough to be made. 

He was distracted long after midday, by the approach of a serving boy who had ran out of breath trying to find the king in the castle. 

“A guest party is demanding your presence, your grace,” the boy reported, trying to recover his breath. 

Demanding

“What is this party?” Arthur wondered as his hand reached, rather instinctively, the hilt of the sword on his belt. 

“Lord Bors Pellinore,” the boy said. 

He has come, after all. 

Arthur knew it was the matter of time before the lord of Nemeton would turn up at the gates looking for his son and only heir, but time seemed all that mattered at the moment, and Arthur hurried to the bridge. 

“Has he brought men?” 

“He’s only with a guest party. No more than a dozen guards, your grace, but he’s said to be traveling ahead of his host.” 

A host. Swords to pledge their loyalty to me, or swords he’d threaten me with to take Modron back. What will it be? 

Arthur chose a humble escort of twenty guards himself: meeting his guests with a little army would do no good to establishing good feelings, if the feelings hadn’t already turned hard. For all he knew, he might be confronting angry parents who thought Arthur had seized their son for political purposes only, to make Nemeton swing in Arthur’s favor. A load of horseshit as it was, Arthur realized he had to treat the Pellinores with respect. They have already thought they’d lost Modron once. They will cling to him for dear life now and make everything in their power to lock him in their castle and have him safe and under watch day and night. But the lad’s made of sterner stuff than they imagine.

In the inner yard of the castle, Owaine looked as confused as a cow on ice when Arthur saw him among the guards. 

“What’s the matter?” Arthur inquired, previewing something unpleasant. 

“Modron. That son of a… I can’t find him anywhere.” 

“Are you mad?! The castle sits on a damn rock, he couldn’t have disappeared.” 

“He was at the training grounds with Mithian earlier today, and now they are both gone,” Owaine coughed. “Might be they…” 

Oh, Goddess. A Nemetonian heir and a Nemethian princess. Is the fate trying laughing at me?

 “Listen, I… I don’t care if you have to drag them out of bed, but I need to have Mordred presented to his parents. As soon as possible. Break into Mithian’s chambers, if need be. Find him!” 

Arthur petted Owaine on the shoulder and nodded at the guards who encircled him and Lord Sei as the two began to make it out to the bridge. 

“How comes Lord Bors’s host has not been reported in advance?” Arthur asked condemningly. 

“We don’t have the men for proper patrol chains, your grace. We’ve spared them on the eastern front. Had no reason to expect an attack from the east, your grace.” 

“Let us hope it’s not an attack, then.” 

The guest party awaited Arthur on the mainland, with all the men dismounted save for the two riders which had chosen to remain in the saddle. Arthur had recognized Modron's mother ahorse at once, as black-haired as Modron, beastly curly from the sea air. A thin scarline would appear on her left eyelid whenever she'd blink, and her slim face, slender jaw and thin lips were such a contrast to everything that was about her husband. Lord Bors Pellinore was broad in the shoulders, fat in the belly and short in the legs, a dark-haired man who had a commanding look on his face and a sense of pride spicing the air all around him.

“Lord Bors," Arthur nodded. "Welcome to Portstown.” 

Lord Bors and Lady Lorbenia dismounted after Arthur had issued his greeting.

“Arthur Pendragon," lord Bors nodded in response. He doesn't kneel. He doesn't even shake hands."You happened to see my son? Modron must have made it to this castle by now.” 

“Modron isin the castle," Arthur assured him, praying that Owaine would've found the lad by now. "He will be happy to hear of your visit.” 

“Will he?" anger and suspicion shared equal parts in lord Bors's voice. "The nature of his departure made me think otherwise.” 

“Might be you best discussed the nature of his departure alone,” Arthur hoped his attempt to remain courteous would not fail. He doesn't kneel and has a host trailing behind him.  

“Good. Why don’t you summon Modron here and we’ll be done with it?” 

“I can’t summon him," Arthur shook his head. "He is my respected guest. I can invite you to my castle, where you will discuss whatever you wish to discuss with your son in private.” 

Come on, Bors. Give me a chance.

“Your castle?” 

“Bors…” his wife whispered, frightened, from behind her husband's back.

Lord Bors shoved her away as if an annoying bee.

“Pray tell, Arthur Pendragon, how many of your men guard this castle?” 

“Half a hundred,” Arthur responded boldly, as if he spoke of half a thousand. 

“I am traveling ahead of an army of fivehundred men," Lord Bors slapped himself on the belly in a disgusting gesture. "I don’t think it is up to you to dictate me the conditions of meeting my son.” 

He's not going to provoke me. He's not. Arthur frowned as his eyes climbed lord Bors and shot at the sky far above him. Arthur's lips turned to a modest yet the happiest of smiles as he began to speak.

“It is not in my power to dictate you the conditions of meeting your son. It isn’t up to me to dictate you anything, in fact. You haven’t recognized me as king and I hold no power over you. But I believe it is in our common interest to be honest with each other, and out of respect to this honesty, I must let you know that your mentions of five hundred men are pointless. There has already been an army of greater numbers by my gates. Queen Yrien’s host, defeated, captured and scattered.” 

“How could you overcome such power with the numbers that you have?” Lord Bors asked doubtfully.

“With his help,” Arthur's hand pointed at the sky.  

The dragon descended upon them as if from nowhere, landing upon the rocky shore with such might that it appeared a red rock had fallen onto Earth from the sky. The landing seemed harsh enough to throw the rider out of the improvised saddle, yet Merlin looked unbothered, clad in Ashkanar's mail of black.

Arthur couldn't help but notice the smiles that spread through his guards when they watched the swordsmen from lord Bors's guest party bare their steel and group up as if they were meant to defend themselves from the beast despite the shaking knees. Well, my own guards looked no better when they saw the dragon for the first time.

 “THE BLOODY HELL IS THAT?!” Lord Bors shriek seemed most contradicting to his solid manner.

“Lord Bors," Arthur cleared his throat as he watched Merlin dismount Kilgharrah's folded wings. "Meet Merlin, my… my dragonlord. Our dragonlord.” 

Merlin's walk was paced as if he were marching which made Arthur roll his eyes and put on an awkward smile. He's so funny when he tries to look thickly serious. He's no knight. He's a dragonlord.

“THE DRAGONLORD!” Lord Bors screamed as Merlin reached Arthur and bent the knee. Arthur's mouth felt dry all of a sudden; he couldn't understand what was about the sight of Merlin's knee-bending that looked so kiss-provoking.

“Not only has he helped us demolish Yrien’s host, but he also prevented Portstown from being sacked by Odin’s and Alined’s fleet,” Arthur went on to explain.  

“My lord,” Merlin voice was merry and confident enough to conclude his mission had been a success.  

“There are no dragonlords!" Lord Bors shouted insistently, pointing at Kilgharrah as if the dragon were an unwanted guest at the feast. The dragon, in turns, paid lord Bors no attention whatsoever; his giant eyes were following Merlin. "How… where…. What is this sorcery?!” 

“The ancient one," Merlin said coldly. "Thank you, Kilgharrah. You are free for now.” 

The dragon's wings raised storms of dust in the air as the creature departed in a hurry, as though the presence of mortal men was unbearable to him. Lord Bors and his guards were still holding their bare blades which were shaking and trembling.

“Commanding a dragon is one of Merlin’s many gifts," Arthur announced. "He is a warlock. Now, lord Bors, shall I repeat my invitation?” 

“Bors, please…” his wife pleaded from behind his back once again.

“Alright then. Please. Escort us to our son. Your grace.” 

“Good. Your guards will be welcome in Portstown. Nothing threatens you in the castle of Gedref, make sure, and you won't need them here. Lord Sei, will you please escort lord Bors and his lady wife to the castle?”

"Of course, your grace."  

 

***

 

He led Merlin to the armory himself. Lord Sei was qualified enough to handle the highborn guests, of that Arthur was sure. He was less sure about how much more time he could go on without giving Merlin a sweet welcome backkiss, the one his lips pleaded for and the one he yearned.

He pushed him past the threshold and ran his fingers up the armor, touching the traces of arrow marks.

"They tried to shoot you," Arthur whispered, letting his hand travel up to Merlin's cheek and then rest on the warlock's neck. He could swear he could feel goosebumps on Merlin's skin.

"That's nothing serious," Merlin smiled, hiding his eyes from Arthur. "They failed."

Arthur lost it when Merlin attempted that trick again, or maybe it wasn't a trick at all, maybe it was the natural shyness which Merlin felt when left alone with his king. Arthur's move was sudden even though everything was speaking for it, and when their lips met, the joy seemed to originate somewhere far past the physical source of it. When he kissed Merlin, when he felt their breaths collide, he senses as if he belonged with a part of the greater good in the world: like wind meeting the sea, like the sun dawning over mountains, like the forest welcoming the rain.

He helped Merlin to get out of that armor, thanking goddess that Ashkanar was kind enough to leave his archives in the castle, and thanking Henry for keeping that archive despite the threat of Uther's wrathfulness that would ensue the disclosure of the archive.

When free from the battle costume, Merlin looked so seductively fresh and strong Arthur wished he had magic that would allow him to carry Merlin to bed and undress him in a blink of an eye. Merlin's urge was no less intense, for he was back to Arthur lips as soon as the last piece of armor dropped to the floor.

"I wanted to land and fall into your arms again," he whispered as his kisses grew deeper and longer to showcase the darker, lustier undertone of his devotion. "Wanted to get back to your arms as soon as possible. To kiss you. I hate it that we can’t kiss when they’re watching."

"Merlin, for the love of it, let us go to the chambers, it's the armory," Arthur broke the kiss.

"I want you here, now," Merlin said as his lips brushed Arthur's ear.

"That's silly, Merlin, it's the armory and..."

Arthur couldn't understand what happened when something pushed him back from Merlin and pinned him to the wall by the wrists. It happened so fast he didn't even have the chance to get properly scared, and wouldn't get scared when he saw the golden light shine in Merlin's eyes.

"Merlin. Set me free."

"Why would I?"

"Because I am your king and I command you so to do."

"Do dragonlords actually submit to the will of the Camelot king?” Merlin asked playfully, scratching his head in the worst scene of acting Arthur had ever witnessed. “I'm a bit confused."

"Merlin, you silly careless wanton, this is the damn armory. If they open the door and..."

Merlin waved his hand as if to silence Arthur, but then the king heard the heavy door slammed and locked.

"They won't,” Merlin promised, closer to Arthur with every step, until he stopped inches away from his king’s face. His lips were a kiss away, yet Merlin’s magic trap kept Arthur restrained. “We're locked. Besides, what would they see if they suddenly walked in? I'm not sure they’d see anything… inappropriate. Or would they?"

"Merlin," Arthur warned him, but it was too late as the warlock was kneeling before Arthur, looking up at his king with the eyes of merciless longing.  

"I know what would like to see. If you let me, my lord, I would love to taste you. Would love to feel you harden in my mouth. Would love to enjoy your heat wrapped between my lips. Only if my lord allows me."

Merlin kissed Arthur through the bridges, running his tongue along the visible bulge underneath the cloth. He had never done it before, never been on his knees, pleading and suggesting yet somehow managing to stay in charge of everything that was going on. Arthur’s own helplessness inflicted by Merlin’s magic restraints was something new as well: he felt submitted to Merlin’s power and the hardness growing in his breeches spoke everything Merlin had to know about Arthur’s reaction.

"Does my lord think I can pleasure him with my mouth alone?” Merlin inquired so hopefully his thirsty shameless attitude made Arthur blush. “It's been so long since he's put something other than his tongue between my lips."

"Wanton," Arthur smiled.  

"How can’t I be a wanton with my lord’s cock just beneath these breeches? To think that all I need is to pull them down and…”

“And what?”

“And put you in my mouth even though I can’t fit all of your cock, Sire. And then…”

“Bloody do it. Merlin. Please, do it.”

Merlin’s used magic to untie Arthur’s breeches and get rid of them, pulling them down carefully to finally let himself behold Arthur’s grace and glory. And then there was no way back.

Merlin looked miserably happy when he could finally swallow Arthur’s cock. It wasn’t the welcome warmth and sloppiness of his mouth that brought Arthur most of the pleasure, it was the dashes of eye contact which Merlin gave him, the contact that made Merlin look like he needed Arthur in his mouth, like it was the only thing he could ever really want and worship. Merlin’s lips would explore Arthur’s length at all the paces the warlock could think of, not really caring about the gagging sounds that were ruining the silence of the armory and the spit smeared across his lips and running down on his chest. Arthur couldn’t breathe properly as he was pinned to the wall by Merlin’s magic, watching someone as powerful as Merlin obedient and happy when admitted to Arthur’s hardness.

“Tell me it makes you happy, Merlin,” Arthur commanded, spitting on Merlin’s face.

“It makes me the happiest, my lord,” Merlin said. “The happiest.”

“Tell me you want to earn my seed,” Arthur ordered.

“I want your seed, my lord. I think I’ve got a way to earn it.”

“Really? How?”

“I can think I can fit you in my mouth. All of your length. All the way, down my sloppy throat. I think I can try.”

Arthur rolled his eyes before it even started – he could never tolerate Merlin’s greed for too long, for it was the most seducing thing in the wide world. He started releasing into Merlin’s mouth before Merlin could even swallow half his length, breathing heavily and feeling his head go light and spin. He was sure he would’ve fallen had he not been pinned down to the wall by Merlin’s magic.

“What do you say?” Merlin asked as he rose to his feet to smile at Arthur, looking so grateful one could think Arthur had just saved his life.

“I think that once this war’s done, I’ll take you to some log cabin in the woods and not let you leave the bed for days,” Arthur promised.

 

   

 

 

 

 

  

 

 

Chapter Text

CHAPTER 14: A Princess in Exile 

 

Arthur had to keep the guards around her.

The king’s intentions could not be misunderstood. Arthur knows me too little, but well enough to see that I’d escape these guards easier than a dog would escape a bath.He doesn’t try to chain me, he just has concerns for my safety.   

Mithian’s own concerns were not devoted to her safety, for a dagger hidden beneath her skirts and another one in her left boot was enough to make her feel protected. What she had just seen was far more concerning: a dragonlord climbing his beast and taking off to meet her father. Dad might have grown old and demented with worries, blind to the schemes that sprouted like weedgrass at his court, but he cares about me and would rather give his own life than watch someone hurt me, and he doesn’t deserve death by fire.

Deserve. Careful with that. Start using that word, and you’ll spend hours crying over all the wrongs and injustices the world’s reeked with it.

There were reasons why her father had wanted to keep her in the palace of Lydon – weird, abusive and calculative reasons maybe, but reasons Mithian could understand. He thought nobody would ever harm me in Lydon where I’d be before his nose, while if I’m let to join my mother in Irios, fleet captains and merchants might manipulate me into the war against my nephews. The war he thought he could avoid or delay without violence. Oh, foolish daddy.

The sky was as beautiful as a daisy meadow, and the white of the clouds over the golden shield of sun brought the best memories about her collecting daisies in Darkpine where she used to live when she was a little girl. Her days in Darkpine consisted of flower picking and arrow lessons, of hunting trips and forest tracking, of grass studies and horse ride, of falconry and all sorts of childish debauchery, the memories all the more painful when pinned against the boredom of Gedref.

The castle of Gedref, despite its monstrous size, was a rather modest affair in terms of architecture and couldn’t boast of much behind the curtain wall: there were two keeps (one with bedrooms and one for feasts, throne rooms and council chambers), an inner yard, two drum towers, a long hall, a terraced garden and the garden with an arbor which suffered considerable damage when the dragon had landed there. Outside the curtain wall, the training grounds were the most exciting place, but on that day, nothing seemed exciting about the castle life: it was frozen after the city fest, with most of the servants and guards granted a day-off for the good job they had done.

She could think of nothing better than collecting the apples in the garden, where the warm sea wind would bring the best scents out of the fruit trees, turning the place into a benevolent idyll with the dried fountain in the very middle. Mithian needed apples for untraditional purposes, though – her aim practice required small and smaller targets. Look at me though. Wandering in the garden and collecting apples like some stupid fairy-tale princess.

“Would your princess… no, I mean, ehm… would your highness mind if I… er… joined you?” a voice spoke from behind her back.

Mithian recognized him from the first breath, and when she turned around, she smiled at her own guesswork. Modron of House Pellinore looked as pale as a ghost of the castle.

“Of course not. I’m dying of boredom. Your breeches are dusty, by the way,” she said, amusedly.  

“That’s Owaine’s fault, not mine,” the red covered Modron’s cheeks in moments. “My breeches are dusty… because of that silly goat. He can be beastly annoying at times. Mind I say beastly?”

“Not at all. That’s funny.”

Funny?” for some reason, the heir of Nemeton looked a little confused.

“You think that since I’m a princess I’ll mind foul language and all that?”

“Well… Most princesses do, I guess.”

“How many princesses have you met?”

The red on his cheeks was so strong Mithian was afraid they would turn crimson. They had been to the city fest together, but it had been mostly courtesy, for it was their first proper joined pastime.

“Not many. None, in fact. But that’s what they say about… well… princesses.”

“They say a lot about Nemetonian boys. Should I believe all of it, sir?” Mithian teased him with a flicker of passion in her eyes.

Modron proved too enthusiastic a helper, adding so many apples that they could have brewed casks of cider from the harvest they gathered. 

“What’s happening out there?” Mithian inquired rather carelessly.

“Arthur’s friend from Camelot has come. Sir Lancelot’s the name.”

“A friend?”

“So it seems.”

“Just one friend?”

“Yes. Should there be more?”

He was the damn crown prince. Of course, there should be more. But Mithian knew better than to serve her doubts aloud.

“Doesn’t it… surprise you that King Arthur… that his friends from Camelot are not turning up here in as great numbers as could be expected?”

“Well, how could they turn up?” Modron shrugged. “Yrien has a grip on the roads.”

“And yet this Lancleot has found his way through the blocked roads,” Mithian pointed carefully.  

“Well he’s a knight after all. He’s supposed to be able to overcome all sorts of obstacles. Besides, he was traveling alone. Most of Arthurs’ friends came from court, though, and I guess you can’t expect a rich-arse man with wife and children and gold take chances and go down a guarded road. He can be robbed. Or killed.”

Or maybe his friends from court have chosen the other side. Or the third side. Modron’s too innocent of the ways of politics. Maybe that’s good.  

“Listen, I… You think you can go hawking with me today?”

“Hawking?”

“Right. Hawking.”

“Well, Arthur’s expecting me at the training grounds in the evening…”

“If we take a boat soon, we’ll be back by sunset.”

“Well, it’s a great idea,” Modron’s eyes were smiling. “Why don’t we? Right. I’d love it very much.”

 

***

 

“Come on, it’s not going to hurt you,” Mithian laughed. “You’re wearing this glove, don’t be afraid of him.”

“I’m a knight! I’m not afraid of anything,” Modron protested, but he kept turning away from a giant osprey with mottled white underparts and dark brown plumage on its upperparts.

The bird had a white head with a dark brown band running from each eye down the side of the head and neck and felt visibly uncomfortable nested on Modron’s shaking arm, producing weird sounds and trying to unfold his wings.

“Look, your hand must be strong, and then he’ll serve you. It’s always this way,” Mithian tried to pet the bird on the head in the most gentle way the princess was capable of. “We don’t have many ospreys in Lydon ‘cause they mainly eat fish, you see, but I’m sure they’re not much different…”

“He’s trying to hurt me,” Modron hissed. “Without the glove, he would’ve scratched my arm bloody!”

“He’s just a little afraid and is trying to hold on to you a little too tight, maybe,” Mithian said, admiration for the bird shining in her eyes. The summer when she first learnt the art of hawking, she fell in love with those birds. They were free and powerful, just as she wanted to be.

“You know what’s most funny about them? In Nemeth, we let them migrate. They fly away in the end of summer, but they always come back in spring. Now let’s see this one fly.”

Modron’s hand jerked, throwing him into the air, the bird stormed away into the flight that spoke of both, grace and fury, of freedom and obedience, of decisiveness and inner calm.

Watching the osprey rise above the endless poor grasslands of the neighboring lands of Portstown, Mithian felt inspired and devastated at the same time. Some unwanted and unwelcome sadness somehow rigged her way into princess’s heart and kept piercing her ever since she’d left Lydon. The idea that her aunts had assembled troops to threaten her was the heavyweight worry in her head.

I am not made for hiding. I am a princess of Nemeth, I am one of the best archers the kingdom has ever seen, and I hunt down all things that threaten me.

Mithian combed her hair with a hair tie around her wrist. The salty sea air didn’t seem to quite agree with her; it was turning her hair curly, bushy and unruly, and upon her first glance in the mirror at the break of day, Mithian would often smile, trying to imagine what her mother would say about her hairdo. She’d call me a little crow. The way she always did. 

As the osprey was circling far above their heads, they finally chose to put all the apples they had gathered to the worthy use. Modron would toss them high up into the air, the way some juggler had done at the city fest, and Mithian would try to hit her aim.

Mithian gathered her hair into the right hand and tried to brush off the thoughts about her mother as she wrapped the hair tie around her ponytail. Mum will be fine. She is in Irios and if any word of my aunties’ treachery reaches her, she will flee to the Isle of Mora in a blink of an eye. Nobody will be able to harm her on the Isle of Mora. Mum’s as much a Darkpine girl as me.Her mother was formally the Queen of Nemeth, but had been wise to stay out of court power play for the most of her life, a decision which could turn out to be life-saving. If mother had been in Lydon during my escape…. They would have seized her.

Mithian breathed out and let the grip of the bow rest right on the pad of her thumb. She tried not to overthink her aim as she lifted the arm holding the bow and drew the bow string back, but her aunties’ faces would emerge on the little apples as if by magic. Furious, Mithian pushed her fingers out of the way of the string and let the arrow fly and poke the target, and then another one, and another one, and another one, until they were all dead, until they bowed to her right to lead her life the way she wanted to… 

“Your grace, this is not your fault,” Modron, who sensed something was wrong, said in a calming voice which nearly made her cry.

 “Mithian,” she said. “Call me Mithian. Or princess. I’ve fled my father’s court to see less of that protocol.”

“I… of course. Then… This is not your fault, princess. This situation with your father’s army.”

Then whose? My father wasn’t stupid enough to succumb to the proposals of my aunties and try and bring an army to the Camelot’s borders. He did it because of me, I know, because he wants me near, but… Merlin could have made roasted bones out of them all by now, a dragon’s flight doesn’t take long, and it’s a blessing this realm has got herself a sensible dragonlord. 

 “I… should….have… settled the whole thing before. I know I… Gods be good,” she sighed as she tried to calm the hysteria that was suddenly upon her.

It was horrible. More than half of her arrows never reached the target at all, only two scratched the apples and only one hit the apple. She had been luckier with the arrows, she had always been good, but now something was wrong.

“Why do your aunts hate you so much?” Modron asked, coming to stand opposite her, his hand holding hers – although Mithian never realized how it had happened.. Mithian felt so stupid. She wanted Modron to follow her and see her at work. She’d boasted she’ be able to shoot all the arrows in the apples and now she was hardly controlling her tears.

“Because I’m younger than they are? Because some say I am more pretty?”

“Not some,” Modron said in a strangled voice. “Everybody.”

“Pardons?”

“Everybody says you’re pretty. And I, too.”

“That’s very gallant of you, Modron.”

“I only speak the truth, Mithian.”

She felt his intentions at the fest, plain and clear, as she could feel them now. She could always feel such things. Modron liked her, but he was so unaccustomed to the sport of courting someone that he looked amusingly awkward. She liked him, too. But he’s just sixteen, gods be good.

Sixteen was a man in Nemeth, but in Camelot, traditions were different. Not much different, Mithian thought. This Gingawaine boy upon the throne is sixteen, too, and he rules over a kingdom already, not without help of his mother, but still…

From what Mithian remembered, it was a common thing among nobles to make their boys squires at fourteen, begin their knighthood training at fifteen and conclude the first stage of training at sixteen. They would then go on and serve in the patrols, then in the parties that guarded the tax gold delivered from territories to the castle of Camelot, then in the raids hunting the smugglers, and ultimately would return to the castle to be knighted by the king himself. So it had been under Uther, and so it would remain, probably. For all the changes Arthur was intended to introduce during his reign, there were elements of Uther’s policy his son would never dare put under question. Knighthood was among those elements, Mithian was sure.

“Your own family’s perturbation don’t seem as troublesome to you, my lord,” Mithian said.

“Troublesome? Mum’s probably going to be ahorse, chasing me around the castle and trying to spank me. Father would order his knights to seize me and bring me back to the castle of Nemeton. It would be a jolly scene for the local nobility, I wager.”

Mithian giggled.

“What?”

“It’s just… funny. The way you say it.”

“Not that funny for me, believe me. I am worried.”

“Arthur is not going to let your father’s bannermen inside the castle, don’t worry.”

“Why?”

“Because if my father isn’t stupid and arrives for negotiations, he would be at the feast, too. The last thing any sane person would want to see is Nemetonian and Nemethian guards under the same roof. The feast would turn to bloodbath soon enough.”

“That’s right.”

And yet the young kiss between a Nemetonian boy and a Nemethian girl happened beneath the ripe sunlight of the summer sky, as the threads of destiny brought two hearts together and love was found where one wouldn’t hope to look for it.

 

***

 

One thing Mithian had learnt that evening was that words had the power of their own and ought to be spoken carefully. When they returned to the castle of Gedref, Modron’s jokes about the farce that could happen were his parents to arrive to Gedref nearly turned into prophecy. When Owaine met them in Dragon’s Jaws, he was shouting at Modron like a madman:

“Modron! Modron, for the love of Camelot, where the bloody hell have you been?! Your mother and father are demanding to drag your bony arse to the gates! Arthur’s went to meet them! Go join him, you lover boy! Pardon my language, princess.”

Mithian knew better than to mock the lord and lady of Nemeton by presenting herself, a princess of the country which had been at war with Nemeton countless times in the past and was at the brink of war yet again. Yet her hopes to spend the evening savoring the excitement from the first kiss with Modron were ruined when the king himself knocked on her doors late in the evening, looking happy but utterly exhausted. Father.  

“Your father was represented by lady Hadyfa,” Arthur announced without greeting. “Merlin never harmed him. He claims he just scared the army and passed the message but got no response. We have to wait.”

That wench. She dares lead the army herself.

“A hard day, isn’t it?” Mithian asked, trying not to display her sense of relief too openly.

“Getting harder still,” Arthur sighed. “Lord Gloss of Chemary has agreed to yield Burnwood, but he can’t bring lady Gedref to the exchange. So, we’re going to get Burnwood back and release all the Gingawaine noble captives save for the Lord of Woodspeak. The exchange must be supervised. Also… Modron’s father, lord Pellinore has bent the knee and is about to add 500 men to my side. The prices are falling because of the cheap goods flooding our harbor as Gawant’s trade blockade continues, but no good comes without bad, for our own merchants that were involved in trade with Gawant are recording mass losses. To make the matters even more complicated…”

Can it get any more complicated?”

“Lord Bors tells me there are columns of druid men, women and children heading to Portstown. They are moving slow and camping every night, but they are already in Balor and Nemeton and heading to Burnwood.”

“The druids? What are they seeking here?”

“Their rightful leader,” Arthur announced not without a sense of pride to his tone. “The dragonlord who will lead them out of the woods and make them the legal subjects of a new kingdom and protect them from those who wish to harm them.”

“They think Merlin is their king?”

“It’s not about what they think. Merlin is their king. He is the last dragonlord, and dragonlords have ruled the druids for hundreds of years before the fall of the Andor dynasty.”

This is getting a little complicated. There can’t be two kings in one kingdom.

“Aren’t there… any other of the descendants of this dynasty in Camelot?” Mithian asked, vaguely recalling the dull history lessons from the librarians in Lydon.

“There are, actually. The Dindrane sisters, Medinna and Ravenna, and the Lamorak children… But they are alive because their grandmas married Uther’s western warlords when the druid dynasty fell, and I doubt the druid traditions are strong with them.”

“And what, pray tell, do you intend to do with these druids? With those who come to kneel before Merlin and not you?”

“Accommodate them somehow, and then welcome them back to the kingdom. What my father did to them was the gravest of all evils. I am responsible for that as well…”

“You were a babe at breast,” Mithian said pityingly.  

“I am responsible in other ways. I must atone for some sins of my father. But let’s forget about them for some time. Mithian, I came because I need your help.”

Arthur looked like he was about to finally arrive to the point. In the candle-lit calm of the princess’s chambers, Arthur felt out of place, as tension was all over his face and in every nervous step he made as he was pondering around the room. It wasn’t that difficult to judge what he was about to ask of her.

“You want to ask me to influence my father if he arrives for negotiations,” Mithian whispered.  

“And can you grant me this wish?”

Arthur’s eyes were honest. He was a man of honor, Mithian thought, or at least one of the most honorable men which she had met. Yet what he was asking lay beyond the bargain they’d struck when she’d helped him escape her father’s palace.

“Depends on what you want to achieve in the end, your grace. Arthur, I am grateful to you for the freedom you’ve given me, don’t get me wrong… As I am grateful for the protection you give me in the castle and for letting me stay. But I can’t betray the people of Nemeth. I am their princess.”

“I would never ask you of betraying your own people.”

“Then what do you seek?”

“Your father’s bringing three thousand swords to my gates. That’s too big an army to have at my doorstep. If your father agrees to lend me half his horses for my cavalry in a gesture of an apology for trying to sell me to Odin, he’ll still have too many swords gathered. I want him to use them in a way which will benefit us both.”

“What way?”

“I want him to invade Cornwall.”

The candle light flickered at the weak tremble of air.

“Invade Cornwall?! That’s… That’s…”

“You told me yourself, princess. King Alined and King Odin were a permanent threat to your father’s throne. Alined was a corrupt brute who never cared about his kingdom and demanded tributes from your father, and if your father refused to pay them, Odin would terrorize your ports with his fleet and Alined would threaten Lydon by land.”

“So it was,” Mithian nodded.  

“We have the chance to no longer have it be. Alined has fallen. Murdered by the surviving pirates that tried to sack Portstown, if the rumours are true. They thought he’d sent them against a dragon intentionally. Deorham is descending into chaos and will no longer pose a threat to your father. But Odin remains. Now, Odin lost a good deal of his own fleet to the dragon flames, mind that. He is most vulnerable now, and the attack of 3,000 swords will make him sign a treaty with your father.”

“Can we put any trust in his signature, though?”

“If we have a valid broker for the agreement, then yes.”

“And who can act such a broker?”

“King Godwyn. I promise I’ll persuade him before your war against Cornwall is even started. If Odin signs a treaty with Gawant as a broker, he’ll never break it. He won’t survive a conflict against both, Nemeth and Gawant.”

There was something about Arthur’s appearance now, something about the tone in which he spoke and the way in which he moved that charmed Mithian. Two weeks ago, he was swimming in the drainage system of my father’s palace, alone, without guards and supporters, a broken worried crownless king. Now, he is commanding armies and designing the future of the Merchant’s Bay. He was born to rule.

“You are a clever man, Arthur Pendragon. I pity your enemies.”

Chapter Text

CHAPTER 15: A Lesson in Vengeance  

She kept floating in the dreamland, cast ashore the reality from time to time only to drift away to sleep again. The lack of proper rest ever since Alvarr’s death had exhausted her more than she wished to admit, and the demanding magic lessons with Morgause had played their part, too, although she would have never stopped them. My magic makes me more powerful even if it weakens my body for some time.

When the sun filled her room with the mellow stains of ripe yellow, she realized she must have slept till noon, and a flash of happiness washed over her, as lightweight as the distant leaves’ rustling of the Darkling Wood. Gwen didn’t wake me up. She let me sleep longer, it’s so nice of her. She always cared about me. 

Have you come here to sleep or what? You sound like a stupid hag. Get up and do your duties.

Morgana hissed at the sense of guilt which spread through her like a morning dew through a predawn forest. So many people have contributed and worked together so that I could be queen and bring the long overdue changes to this kingdom. Some of them had to give up their lives, yet why do I feel useless and unwanted?

Because you’re weak.

Oh, shut up.

Her duties called for her, she felt it. The castle of Camelot had been a grim place for her before, but now there was something as undeniably magnificent about it as the sun on a hot summer day, and no less luminous. Uther Pendragon was gone, dead, poisoned by Morgana’s maidservant and now rotting somewhere in the crypts, alone and soon to be forgotten. Few other things could compare in satisfaction to the realization of Uther’s death, and few other things could define the difference between old and new Camelot as Uther’s passing. Morgana knew she’d have time to walk into the throne room and see that ugly chair empty, and she would not resist going to the crypts and spitting on Uther’s grave. Without him, there were no limits to her plans in the castle, without him and his stupid council which had never treated her seriously, she could overcome whatever obstacles that stood her way. And get rid of that one most annoying and cruel and bloodthirsty creature. Merlin. But before that…  

Gwen appeared on the doorstep the way she had always done, with the most careful and polite knock that made Morgana recognize her from that sound alone. Gwen was wearing a simple dress of milk-and-honey color, which she would normally put on for feasts and ceremonial occasions. She is happy to see me. If only she knew how happy I am to see her. How grateful I am for her part in Uther’s death.

“I must have overslept everything,” she greeted her maidservant with a smile. “You deserved to sleep for as much as you wished. It must have been ages since you could sleep in a proper bed.”

Feels like centuries.

“You think we can somehow fix my hair today?” Morgana asked and burst out laughing after peaking at her own reflection in the mirror. “I am supposed to dine with Rion and his mother tonight. I can’t turn up like this. Well, she never turned up at all. Yrien, I mean. Yesterday. To greet me. The arrogance, can you imagine it? I know she must loathe me, for she thinks I’m taking her son from her, but she’s queen regent and I thought she’d know better than ignore the protocol in such a deliberate…”

“Morgana,” Gwen didn’t seem to share the carefree attitude of the lazy summer morning. There was something about her look, something heavier than the secret of Uther’s death. She has more to tell. “Before… before you go out there, there’s something you must know.”

“What is it, Gwen?”

“Did they tell you about Arthur?”

“They did,” Morgana nodded nervously, recalling the night in the Crystal Cave when Morgause broke the news. The Pendragons are no more. “It’s a tragedy. He deserved better.”

“And what exactly did they tell you?” Gwen’s tone descended into whisper as she kept glancing at the door.

“Why, that he was slaughtered in the patrol and… Gwen, what do you know? Don’t hide from me. I know this look on your face. Do you know who played a part in this?”

The more I know about Gingawaine’s crimes, the better. I was shocked to learn they used Gwen to poison Uther, and to think that they killed both, Uther and Arthur… Well, then Yrien’s a tough nut and it’ll take much to crack her. I may break my damn teeth.

“It’s not about who played a part in this, Morgana,” Gwen sat down on Morgana’s bed and draw a deep breath. “Whoever did it, they failed.”

The noise of the Lower Town was getting louder; the lunch bell was nigh, and a lot of people were shutting their shops and drafting off to secure a seat in their beloved taverns.

“What do you mean – failed?”

The whole wide world froze in the anticipation of Gwen’s answer. For some odd reason, Morgana felt her fingers turn cold and sweaty.

“Arthur survived the assassination,” Gwen looked right in her eyes, and Morgana knew that such openness of her look could harbor neither lies nor deceit. “He’s alive and somewhere in the south, rallying swords to his support. There’s a reason why the roads…”

Suddenly, Morgana’s mouth went dry. She had never felt so thirsty in her entire life, not even after being poisoned hemlock, when she could beg for water.

“Gwen, what are you saying?!”

“Morgana, it’s the truth, there’s a war coming, for how else…”

Gwen hid her face behind her palms and started shaking her head. Morgana grabbed her by the shoulders.

“Gwen, calm yourself. Don’t cry, nobody will hurt you here. There is no war in this castle. I am with you now. Calm yourself. Breathe. Now tell me how you learned all of this, slowly.”

Gwen let her hands off her face and shook her head even more violently. She spoke so quickly one could say she was afraid somebody would interrupt their talk and make it never happen again. 

“Gaius told me, he did that at once, they dumped Uther’s body on the table and tried to help him, but it didn’t work, and Gaius took me downstairs where the other bodies… And he said the body didn’t belong with Arthur, he said it the day they brought the slaughtered members of the patrol...”

Morgana couldn’t understand half of what Gwen was saying, but her own mind was reacting already. As if by command, it opened the chest of her memories and presented her with a vision she had seen. It had come to me before I saw Merlin slaughter Alvarr. When I was taking care after Morgause. I had seen a Pendragon banner, a fat golden dragon on red, flapping at the high drum tower of some pearl-white castle; from the top of the tower, I could glimpse at a town by the sea, full of happy voices until the dragon's shadow crossed the sky. Bloody hell.

“You saw his body yourself?” Morgana jumped to her feet, so anxious she was about to twist her fingers to the point of breaking them.

“I did, but I couldn’t stand looking at it, Morgana, trust me, there was not much to see, they mutilated the body so that even Uther wouldn’t have recognized him…”

I must be certain.

“Where is his body now?!”

“It’s gone,” Gwen’s words came unexpectedly hard. “Ryence claimed Arthur’s risen from the grave as a wraith and slaughtered the guards, but don’t believe this gibberish, Morgana, Ryence, he did it only to get rid of the body, so that nobody would be able to…”

“Arthur?! A wraith?!”

Suddenly, the summer evening conjured up in her head. She was with Morgause, they were on the way to the Triskelion Gathering, and when they stopped by the tavern where she saw Merlin for the first time after recovering…The commoners. They were talking about Tristan. Arthur’s uncle, about Tristan stepping from his grave, like he had never died at all. They were saying that he had serpent skin and wolf’s teeth, and dragon wings behind his back, and that he challenged Uther the Great and Uther the Great defeated him. Bloody hell, it worked on them.

 “Ryence thought that since Arthur’s uncle had risen as a wraith, people would believe it’s some kind of a curse that ran in Arthur’s blood… His mother is from Gedref, you know, there’s this wicked labyrinth there, and Gedref always tolerated magic…”

“But you never saw Arthur alive after the… the reports about his death?”

“I didn’t. But Merlin did.”

 “Merlin?”

It was getting sickening. Merlin might have been far away from the castle, but she felt his shadow was always somewhere a few steps behind her. His name sounded so ugly it made her nearly hate Gwen for pronouncing it.

“He came here,” the maidservant rushed to explain. “He came to the Lower Town with Gwaine, he told me that Arthur was alive and well, told me that the time would come when I would need to go south for the safety reasons, but I don’t want to go south, Morgana, I want it to be safe here and Camelot is all I know, it’s been my home since…”

Morgana came to stand by the table: she needed something to lean on, something that wouldn’t let her fall. Before long, she was harming her nails by trying to scratch the wooden table.

“Where did he go after that?!”

“I don’t know, Morgana, I never saw him again and…”

“How did he make it past the guards?! When was it?!”

“It was like… twenty days ago, maybe less... I… I don’t really know about the guards, he…”

“KILL HIM, WAS ALL THEY HAD TO DO!”

Her hand moved so fast it could appear she was herself surprised with the reaction; in a blink of an eye, all the pottery was on the floor, the teapot broken, the tray was making a wild metallic clanging noise and the forks were bouncing off the floor like acorns off the earth. Gwen’s eyes widened in fright, and she jumped off the bed, taking a few steps back.

“Morgana, calm down, they m…”

“I AM THE QUEEN-TO-BE, I AM ABOUT TO HAVE ALL THE POWER OF THE REALM IN MY HANDS AND YET THIS LITTLE WORM CONTINUES TO DEFY ME! HE’S ALWAYS IN MY SIGHT YET MANAGES TO SOMEHOW FALL OUT OF MY REACH EVERY TIME I CAN THINK OF ANNIHILATING HIM!”

“Morgana, what on earth did he do to earn…”

When she saw Gwen’s scared face, she realized she had gone a bit too far. Gwen did nothing to earn this, she’s loyal, she’s most loyal, she just didn’t know… didn’t know… that

The whirlwind of revelations seemed too strong to let Morgana mentally remain in the room. She got carried away, for what she had just grasped finally made all the pieces and fractions of her guesswork come together to reveal the ugly truth. All this time, I thought Merlin was acting on his own behalf, I thought he was alone, I thought he found himself a new knight to serve… He was never alone, he and Arthur never left each other, Merlin remained his servant… He would have never dared poison me without Arthur’s command, he would have never harmed Alvarr without someone’s command, too… They are in it together, they both, the two lickspittles…

“He tried to poison me, did he forget to mention that?” Morgana’s voice was a challenging thunder that rocked the peacefulness of her bedchamber.

Gwen kept blinking  

“Poison you? That’s…” Gwen rushed to Morgana to hold her by the hands. “That’s nonsense. Merlin wouldn’t hurt a fly.”

“Then he thinks I’m less than a fly. He poisoned me during the attack of the knights of Medihr, he and Arthur…”

“That’s not possible,” Gwen backed away from her, the shock and betrayal written all over her face as she turned away.

“Go ask Gaius,” Morgana said in a less heated tone. “I’m sure Merlin told him.”

“Why would he…” when Gwen turned back, tears were beginning to well up in her eyes. She’s too innocent for this world. Was too innocent. I mean, she killed a king, but the bastard had it coming. “Morgana, you were friends, he would’ve never harmed a friend, he…”

“He and Arthur thought I had something to do with the attack. They thought me guilty because I was the only person immune to the charms.”

“And why were you immune to the charms?”

Gwen could never lie properly, no matter how much she wanted. The way she asked that question already suggested she knew the answer, for why else would she whisper it, why else would her lips refuse to part to let the words out. She fears what I’m about to say. She knows.

“Because I have magic. Oh, you know it, don’t you? Merlin told you that much. Merlin knew I had magic. He told Arthur. They made up their mind quickly. Hemlock.”

“Morgana, you’re scaring me! This can’t be, he…”

“He and Arthur were both falling asleep like everyone else,” she loathed to return to those memories, but she knew she had to explain it to Gwen. I need her, she’s kind to me and Gaius is fond of her and might share some of his knowledge with her… He’s a secretary now…“I had magic and I was immune to the charms, but I never asked for it, Gwen, I never wished to have magic in the castle of Camelot under Uther’s very nose! Merlin knew I had magic, and he told Arthur, and they thought killing me would somehow stop the attack, they thought was doing it because I had magic, when in fact I was as frightened as them, even more frightened, and he served me poison, and then Morgause took me to save me and hold me hostage and torture me…”

“I thought Morgause would be kind to you? I thought she was your sister?” Gwen asked, shivering.  

“Which doesn’t stop her from being a monster. She is a monster, Gwen, she wanted me to cross the limits of magic which are terrifying and when I refused, she decided she didn’t need me anymore, she wanted to take my magic powers and kill me, but the druids saved me…”

Her voice caught off, only to strengthen the impression which hit the right note. Gwen was one of the most compassionate people in the castle, and she couldn’t stand a story of her mistress being tortured by her own sister.

“Morgana… Oh, goddess, this is awful… But I always knew it, I knew you had nothing to do with Morgause killing Sir Vidor, I knew Gaius wasn’t right… You need not worry, the security has been strengthened and if she dares come back, they… they will kill her, probably, there are too many guards even for a witch,” Gwen said promisingly. “But Merlin… I can’t begin to believe…”

“He found me. After the tourney, he found me with the druids and killed my man. Killed Alvarr, the man who saved me from Morgause.”

Merlin?! Killed?!”

“He stabbed him in the heart. He and Arthur…”

“Why would Arthur do such a thing?!”

“He wants his father’s throne, have you forgotten? Druids were Uther’s sworn enemies, as they are Arthur’s. They are just traitors in his eyes and must be put to swords. Merlin would’ve never poisoned me without Arthur’s consent, he would’ve never harmed Alvarr without Arthur’s orders…”

“Why would Arthur send Merlin to eliminate a druid leader?” after everything Gwen had heard, she still resisted to acknowledge the sins of her friends. “Merlin’s not… an assassin, Morgana, he’s quite miserable with the sword…”

“He’s faceless enough to not draw attention, he’s agile enough and can pass where thicker men would not, he spent quite some time with Arthur and must have learned enough of fighting and weapons, and Arthur’s strangely fond of him, he trusts him, and he would trust him with such missions,” as she spoke, Morgana felt she wanted to stand and watch over Merlin as he died, until the wolves gorged on his carcass and bathed in his blood.

“But…if…Morgana, if you marry Rion you will sit on Arthur’s throne, he…”

“Gwen,” Morgana said, grabbing her maidservant by the shoulders. It’s time to show the tough side. “Listen to me. Uther was a curse upon this land, and so will be Arthur. Make no mistake, if he wins this throne back, he will bathe the whole kingdom in blood of all the people who dared defy him, as Uther once did when he conquered the Five Kingdoms. Arthur will repay the Midlands, the druids, the westerners… If what you say is true and he really is alive… He could’ve used diplomacy to solve the issue, by now half the kingdom would have bent the knee if he had just met the lords and ladies of the territories, but he’s as mad and cruel as Uther and sees war as the only solution. I will never let this be.”

“I… Goddess, Morgana, I... I just… I can’t, I need to talk to Gaius,” Gwen mumbled, running out of the room.

Good.

 

***

 

Without Gwen’s assistance, it took Morgana another hour to wash herself and fix her hair and choose the most modest dress from the outrageously tawdry set of attires queen regent had so kindly provided her with. If Yrien thinks I’m going to wear any of this, she’ll bloody well think again.

The guards in the corridor saluted her with some silly gestures and mumbled something about the honor of guarding the king’s bride, but Morgana paid them no mind as she headed for the throne room. I need no guards here. I can protect myself. We need guards to make sure Merlin can’t sneak into the castle and we need men to find Mordred.

All the eloquent staircases, all the stone walls, all the beautiful statues and the views through the painted glass in the windows were painfully familiar, and as she was on her way to the throne room, it could appear all the horrid visions from her fears came back to life to torture her. However, with the demiurge of her nightmares gone, the haunting powers of the castle seemed to melt away, too, save for the faint suspicion of some danger still lingering somewhere in the crypts.I need to see Uther buried in the crypts to be certain he’s gone for good.

“His grace is not here, my lady,” the spearman posted at the throne room announced. “Sorry to disappoint you.”

“Can I get in anyway? It’s been so long since the last time I saw this room. I missed the castle so much,” she lied.

The courtroom was normally not open for visitors, but the king’s bride could be an exception, and the spearmen pushed the heavy wooden doors open, the same doors which were nearly torn apart by the knights of Medihr, the doors which she thought were the last thing on earth that protected her from the walking dead. Until I got stabbed in the very heart from where I never expected. Thank you for the lesson, Merlin. I shall never forget it.

The light-grey massive columns on both sides managed to make the hall look a bit less spacey, but Morgana still believed there were too few objects for such a giant room. In point of fact, there was nothing save for a large wooden chair carved out of expensive cherry trees, the one that Uther used for his everyday throne. Behind the throne, the sunlight was pouring through a window set high in the wall, and the yellow Gingawaine banners were hung to the left and to the right of the window, bear prints on yellow. For how long?   

Even without Uther’s swollen sense of authority, Morgana felt herself small, bleak and unworthy when standing in front of the kingdom’s throne. Forged out of a bloody war, it was conjured to seal the fall of the druid dynasty and proclaim Uther’s dominion over all the Five Kingdoms: the Druid Land, the Seaside Kingdom, the Mountain Land, the Midlands and the Northern Territories. It turned out that as the Gingawaines and the westerners were preparing to tear each other apart, Arthur Pendragon was somewhere in the south, waiting for the right moment to step in and slaughter the winner. But I will not let it be. We grew up together, I know, we’ve grown used to calling each other brother and sister, but he is Uther’s son at his core. He even took part in the raids against druids until he found himself some petticoat reason to not raid the druids anymore. He will not tolerate magic, neither will he welcome druids, and I will choose Alvarr’s legacy over Arthur’s legitimacy every damn time.   

She found the king in the new council room which was styled in Midlands’ fashion, with wicker chairs circling a marble-topped table, and flowers drowning in the buckets with scented water: yellow, rose, lavender and ruby-red hollyhocks that were regarded as low as weedgrass in Camelot.

A big-eyed handsome youth of sixteen, with auburn hair several shades lighter than those of his mother, the lad looked more promising than the last time Morgana saw him. His crown was forged by a Midlands’ master, too: a heavy bronze band with ambers. It must feel heavier than it looks.

“My lady,” Rion smiled, setting his quill aside. “You dim the day with your beauty.”

“My king’s too kind,” she bowed down, trying to smile, too. “Am I a disturbance?”

“How can you be? I was thinking of visiting your chambers myself. I dared not ruin your sleep, for you must have been exhausted by the journey. Later today, though, you might want to join my party at opening the rebuilt houses in the Lower Town and distributing the food from the feast. Will you?”

“Of course. It’s a privilege. Such a joy it is know people will return to their homes.”

“It took us quite an effort,” Rion pointed at the papers with sums written all over them. “It was quite an expensive venture, and the builders had to work really hard, but I’m pleased with the result. People deserved it.”

“Will your mother join us?” Morgana tried to ask casually as she touched a yellow hollyhock swimming in the bucket.

“Very unlikely,” Rion was visibly discomforted by the mention of queen regent. “My lady mother doesn’t fancy the idea of leaving the citadel after the riots.”

“A pity,” Morgana pushed the hollyhock away, turning to face Rion. “It almost looks as if she’s avoiding me.”

“Nonsense. She just… she’s nervous. We lost my uncle and Sir Vidor to magic attacks. She has all the rights to fear, if you ask me.”

“Does she fear only magic attacks? What about other threats?”

I must not be overplaying it. Then again, we’re soon to be wed, I have all the rights to know.

“What other threats?” the king eyed her curiously.  

“The castle’s filled with rumours. About late Arthur in the south.”

The king didn’t seem to like what he heard, but he seemed more disappointed with the fact that it came from Morgana. Did he think I would not learn it until our wedding day?  

“Who told you that?”

“A kitchen maid that brought me breakfast. The one appointed to my household by your mother.”

“You must tell her to never speak of it again,” Rion warned her. “Mother would have her tongue if she heard.”

“Heard what?”

“Heard this.”

“Is there a drop of truth about the…”

When the king spoke, Morgana recognized the tone of an annoyed monarch in him. She had heard Uther switch to the same tone dozens of time. The last time he tried to strangle me.

“Arthur is dead and likely turned into a wraith when he came back to life the way his uncle Tristan did. He broke his own tomb, slaughtering guards on the way. Whoever is in Gedref has no relation to Arthur whatsoever. It’s a pretender who uses Arthur’s name to solidify his claim to the throne. Once we deal with Vyda Gaheris, the pretender’s turn will come.”

“It’s very good of you to share this with me. A queen must know what’s on her king’s mind.”

“Of course,” Rion nodded. “I will send guards after you once my visit to the Lower Town is arranged.”  

 

***

 

The castle had lost the aura of prison and many of her nightmares had been proven vain, but once outside, Morgana couldn’t feel as comfortable as behind the walls. The streets looked the same, composed of stone buildings with hay rooftops and wooden shacks, of massive halls for guilds and merchants, of taverns and apothecaries. The sun was a leaving guest in the sky, a careless trace of red over the white and blue. Shadows were growing as light was thinning, and the streets and alleys seemed narrower, seemed to be wrapping themselves around her and suffocating her.

The amount of people flooding the rebuilt area added to the nauseous feeling: the commoners that turned up didn’t match the number of those who actually had been misplaced by the dragon attack. More and more people were pouring from all the parts of the Lower Town and the Southern Village for their own reasons. Some of them were drawn by the chance to see the boy king, or the Fair King, as they were beginning to call him; others wished to share the happiness of the families who were about to return to their homes. For most of them, though, the reopening of the destroyed part of town was a heavily-needed herald of the new age which was dawning upon the land: the age of safety from magic.

Morgana could feel those vibrations among the crowds as she walked in the trail of the king’s party, next to the carts piled with the leftovers of her welcome feast which never happened. Many people were grateful for being offered some food, but Morgana knew too well what truly illuminated their eyes – the bright shining of the last hope. These houses are stone and wood built over the ashes. People want to believe that any harm caused by magic can be fixed, even dragonfire. They are exhausted by the witches that make all the castle fall asleep or kill the heirs of the western territories, by the dragon wrath falling from the sky and ending hundreds of lives, by wraiths and ghosts. They want magic threats to stop; otherwise they are like to try and cleanse the land.  

The children’s laughter disagreed with her suspicions and mistrust; it seemed to fit the summer evening as splendidly as an easy rain would fit the first field week, adding the much welcome sense of merriment to the street lined up with what appeared to be half of all the Gingawaine guards. With the amount of spears and shields in the streets, Yrien has nothing to fear. She could have come. Yet queen regent was nowhere to be seen.

Gaius, on the other hand, didn’t hesitate for a moment when he received the king’s invitation. His smile was a phony, Morgana could tell, and the way he kept sparing her any eye contacts told volumes about his conversation with Gwen that must have happened earlier. I don’t care. I don’t need him at all. He never was a true friend.

A friend or not, Gaius was walking close to the king, much closer than the king’s bride, and Morgana could read it way too easily. Rion knows Gaius is loved by small folk. The king wants to put the end to the disgusting rumours about Gaius’s imprisonment which happened under Ryence’s brief reign, because Rion needs charismatic people who are loved by the commoners. He is just sixteen, he can marry, so much is true, but by the laws of the kingdom, he needs either a regent or a consort who’s come of age. His mother will be queen regent until our wedding is done, and he is already trying to outbalance her by having the most popular councilors by his side.

Anna Dindrane, the granddaughter of the last druid queen, had been honored with a special position in the party, too. The old wizened lady had approached Morgana earlier in the castle for a brief conversation; she wished that “the royal wedding would not take as long as it usually took the queen to do her hair” and hoped that “entertainment would be on point, but a bit less dramatic than at Sir Vidor’s betrothal feast”.

The only living granddaughter of the last druid queen seemed to also be the only person to not be frightened by Yrien, even though she had her own reasons for fears. Anna Dindrane was the broker of the agreement between the crown and the druids. Yrien has sent Anna’s granddaughters to Woodspeak. Were anything to go amiss between the crown and the druids, the girls would lose their heads. This is savage. After all, maybe it’s best that I don’t see Yrien often.  

For an eye not so curious, though, the town seemed drunk with happiness, but Morgana was afraid of the hangover that might follow. For now, though, children were chasing stray cats, dogs were sniffing their way through the crowd to check if they could earn their fair share of the feast leftovers, people were trying to decide who got the best house and maidens were pointing at the king and his most handsome guards and giggling.

Once he starts talking, people won’t be able to take their eyes off him. It’s my best chance to sneak away. If Rions asks anything, I’ll tell him I was talking to the children.

Her modest woolen dress proved an advantage and helped her avoid some unwanted attention as she grabbed the necklace Morgause had given her by the Andor river and whispered her sister’s name.

She told me she’d be at the market. But where exactly?

The market was nearly empty, with most people choosing the storehouse and the rebuilt quarter for the evening, and Morgana felt relieved that she wouldn’t have to look for Morgause’s face in a dense crowd. Apart from the market guards, a few hopeful shopkeepers and some hag with a broom, there was no one else there. Morgana was looking around nervously as she noticed the old woman walk her way.

“Morgause,” she whispered in disbelief as she narrowed her eyes. She did an aging spell. I can’t believe it.“You came!”

“Sister,” the wrinkled face didn’t agree with the high priestess. “You called for me. Is aught amiss?”

Everything is amiss,” Morgana said through the clenched teeth as she let Morgause hold her by the arm, to make it look like she was helping the old lady on her way to the house. “My serving girl claims Arthur is alive.”

“Impossible,” Morgause stopped at once. “This cannot be.”

I don’t have time to be dissuading her.   

“She says he’s somewhere south, in Nemeton or Gedref, rallying swords to his support. Gwen says the roads south are closed past the castle of Chemary and the castle of Brechfa.”

“Why would Arthur go south?” Morgause asked with a stern look. “If he were alive, he would cross the White Mountains. His father’s relatives are there, commanding a huge army. The Gaheris family. Your serving girl is spreading false rumours.”

“She is not. Rion confirmed it, too, he told me there’s a pretender in Gedref.”

“A pretender?” even though her features were mutilated by an aging spell, they betrayed the maddening fury that seized the priestess. “They told us nothing about this! Anna Dindrane and Yrien! They lied to us!”

“They did, but it’s not what matters,” Morgana reminded her. “This must be about Arthur. The real Arthur. It now makes perfect sense. Why would Merlin kill Alvarr? He would’ve never done this out of his own will, it’s Arthur’s order he must have been carrying out. Arthur hated Alvarr, as did Uther. They both regarded him as a threat to the throne. A sworn enemy of the crown.”

“Neither Anna Dindrane nor queen Yrien mentioned Arthur, even though they both knew. It’s treachery. Sister, they deserve to be punished for this, but only after Arthur’s dealt with.”

 “How? By force?” Morgana smirked for some reason she couldn’t comprehend. “He’s at the other side of the kingdom, while Cenred’s soldiers are at the fortress of Idirsholas and heading to the pass of Camlann.”

“I can deal with Arthur myself,” Morgause said after a minute of judgement. “As I once did when I challenged him to a fight. It’s just… I can’t use the whirlwind spell to travel, I still haven’t recovered from the last time I used it to escape Sir Vidor’s betrothal feast, it happened too recently… And the aging spell is costly to my powers... I shall travel by horse.”

“No,” Morgana grabbed her by the shoulders. “That’s too dangerous.”

Morgause put on a creepy smile, and as sunset was sinking in her eyes, she whispered contently:

“Sister, you forget that even ahorse, I’m the High Priestess of Avalon. No mortal blade can kill me.”

“But will you be back before my wedding?”

“Hardly ever. The ride south is not a fast one. After I deal with Arthur, I shall go to Idirsholas. Time is crucial. I want to personally witness the Gaheris forces defeated before we can introduce some changes to the court. But sister, remember, after what we’ve learned, Anna Dindrane and Yrien can no longer be trusted. You must act carefully in my absence”

“I shall,” Morgana nodded, as she tried to think of the quickest way to make it back to the rebuilt quarter. “I’ve grown up at Uther’s court, carefulness is in my blood.”

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

CHAPTER 16: Love Is No More 

She felt as if she were running up a staircase that was about to collapse beneath her very feet. Ever since the death of her father, she tried to climb a new ground where she could stand firm and strong, but whenever she felt she could be happy again, the joy would vanish, and the ground would melt away and open an abyss that would threaten to swallow her. First father, then Lancelot. Then Arthur. Then Morgana disappeared. Then the Gingawaines staged this awful war in Brechfa. And now…

And now it had turned out that the court of Camelot had corrupted even those closest to her heart. Merlin and Arthur, whose weird union seemed to defy the odds of the ordinary castle life, proved to be as treacherous, immoral and heartless as all the other people who tried to reach the top by getting rid of everyone on their way. They poisoned Morgana.

Gwen’s bitter laughter echoed off the stone and marble walls as she crossed the eastern block on the way to the physician’s chambers. She remembered the day Arthur had been brought to the castle, weak and wounded after his fight with a Questing Beast. In the room where Arthur’s life seemed to be as bleak as the flickering candle flames which the commoners lit up to pay tribute to the passing prince, Gwen seemed the only one to keep faith in the better outcome even when Uther himself believed he’d lose his son. The words she said that night, the words that nobody could hear, sounded foolish and full of mockery now. You're not going to die, Arthur. I'm telling you. Because I know that one day you will be King. A greater king than you father could ever be. It's what keeps me going. You are going to live to be the man I've seen inside you, Arthur. I can see a Camelot that is fair and just. I can see a king that the people will love and be proud to call their sovereign.

There was no need to run. She knew she would not catch Gaius in his chambers, for the secretary was busy seeing to the organization of Rion’s visit to the rebuilt quarter. But he will not escape this talk now. He will not convince me Merlin did some good thing, I will not let him cloud my judgement like he did when I found out he kept giving magic-repressing draughts to Morgana. I’m curious now, did Arthur know Morgana had been administered draughts to blind her magic?

The hysteria in the inner yard suggested the castle was expecting the visit of some foreign king or queen, with guards departing to the Lower Town in the numbers that could compose a small army host. Gwen could blame many wrongs on Uther, but at least during his reign the Lower Town had never been so noticeably overcrowded by spearmen. What is the meaning of this? Does Yrien wish to join her son? Is that why they are sending so many guards?  

Gaius’s chambers had changed: the king had granted his new secretary a special room next to the council hall, where Gaius was now obliged to keep all the most important documents of the court. The mountains of papers and forests of quills were now gone, and the chambers regained the aura of assertive calmness and careful mess that were such a common sight for Gwen. The quietness beside the empty hearth and the faint odors of the herbal drink Gaius must have brewed in the morning managed to calm Gwen down. She sat down on the bench and tried to consider everything she had found out.

Gaius has always been good to me. He really has. He was quick to give me another job after Morgana disappeared. He never broke the secret of my involvement in Uther’s death even though concealing treasons is as grave as treason itself. He tried to protect me from Yrien as much as he could. But his loyalty was with Uther and will be with his son, will always be with Arthur.

The indecisiveness was irritating, and Gwen  tried to make the wait bearable by reading a few pages from the dusty volume about the history of unity and feuds between the courts of Camelot and Mercia.

 

THE UNMENT DIVISION 

Ever since the end of the war against Northumbria, the druid folk lived divided. Four dragonlords and their families chose to fight the rapidly expanding kingdom of Northumbria whose ruler aimed to conquer the lot of Albion. Dragonlords of Red flames, of Orange Flames, of Yellow Flames and of Blue Flames forged their victory over Northumbria of fire and blood, built the castle of Corbenius and ruled in the land called Elmet.

The dragonlords of Green Flames and of Indigo Flames chose not to interfere in the war against Northumbria, for their leaders rejected the idea that peace could be achieved through violence. They built a castle in the plains of Denaria and ruled the Druid Land from there.

 

KING LEO OF DRUID LAND  

In year 310 Before Romans dragonlord Leo of Green Flames, aged 43, ascended the throne of Druid Land. King Leo was married to Queen Trythia, and had a son – prince Welyr (aged 20). King Leo’s cousin, Harold, and his children, Morton (aged 11) and Artemisa (aged 6) also resided in the castle of Denaria, as did Cyngen II of Indigo Flames, the second dragonlord of Druid Land.

Seventy-three years had passed after the Northumbria war when Leo of House Green assumed the reign, and while the threat of Northumbrian expansion had been dealt with, many a danger were challenging peace between the kingdoms of Albion and peace in the Druid Land. The mighty kingdom of Daobeth to the west of the White Mountains was lacking grain and continuously looking for opportunities to invade Denaria and seize her fertile plains. To the north, the kingdom of Gwynedd was looking for revenge after the defeat in the war over Catha island, and to the south, kingdom of Wessex was trying to lock the druids out of Merchant’s Bay after a marriage between the prince of Wessex and the princess of Daobeth. King Leo, realizing he would need allies were a war to break out, sought an alliance with the mightiest kingdom in the east: Mercia.

 

MARRIAGE TALKS

The negotiations between king Leo of Druid Land and King Noerend of Mercia lasted for longer than the druid king had expected. Since Leo had but one son, prince Welyr, who was destined to rule the druids one day, he couldn’t offer his heir for a match. Instead, he offered the hand of his great-niece Artemisa, aged 18, to prince Egrif of Mercia. However, Artemisa was rather distantly related to king Leo, and Mercian king saw no reason why he should marry his trueborn son and heir to a distant relative of a druid king. Artemisa’s claim to the throne of Druid Land was too weak to give it a thought.

However, in year 306 Before Romans, Anglia revolted against Mercian throne, seeking independence. King Leo of Green Flames and dragonlord Cyngen II of Indigo Flames decided that it was an opportunity to establish the much-needed connection between the courts of Druid Land and Mercia. In year 306 Before Romans, King Leo and dragonlord Cyngen II flew to Mercia and helped suppress the rebellion without blood: the presence of their dragons was enough to soothe the temper of Anglia’s lords and ladies.

Six years later, in 300, when Artemisa was 16, the agreement was reached between the castle of Denaria, the capital of Druid Land, and Lindum, the capital of Mercia. By year 298 Before Romans, King Leo, aged 55, reached the agreement with king Noerend of Mercia to marry his great-niece Artemisa to prince Egrif of Mercia.

 

298-293 BEFORE ROMANS

THE FIRST DRAGON WAR  

To attend the wedding of Artemisa in 296, the Druid Land sent a delegation which consisted of crown prince Welyr of Green Flames, and his wife princess Ronella of Catha. Harold, Artemisa’s father, and Alyssa, her mother, as well as Morton, her brother, were also among the traveling party.

Little did they know that the other druid kingdom of Elmet didn’t fancy the idea of the union between the Druid Land and Mercia. The dragonlords of Elmet were planning to assassinate prince Welyr of Green Flames, thus making king Leo the last dragonlord in his line. Leo, who was already 55 at the time of the wedding of Artemisa and prince Egrif was believed to be an aging feeble man that would prove no trouble at all. Dragonlord Cygen II of Indigo flames and his son were believed to be in Idirsholas, far away from Lindum, the capital of Mercia.

However, there turned out to be flaws about Elmet’s plans.

First of all, Cyngen II of Indigo flames and his son were not in Idirsholas at the time of the wedding. Shortly before the ceremony, they had flown to the isle of Catha to ensure the safety of the island and protect it from a possible Gwynedd retake.

Besides, Atremisa’s father, Harold, ruined everything during the attack of Elmet dragonlords in Lindum. Harold saved prince Welyr at the cost of his own life, and even though the wedding was ruined, Artemisa - kidnapped and brought to Elmet as hostage, the crown prince of Druid Land survived the assassination and was on his way to the castle Denaria, furious and ready to report the attack to his father, king Leo.

 

ELMET ATTACKS DRUID LAND, SEEKING TO TAKE IDIRSHOLAS

DRUID LAND DRAGONLORD CYNGEN II LANDS ON ELMET SHORES WITH CATHA FLEET

King Leo formally demanded that his great-niece were released from Elmet, but the kingdom of Elmet started raising banners, and so did the Druid Land.

Elmet’s strategy was focused on Idirsholas, a northern fortress in the Druid Land which served as a strategic military outpost. Four dragonlords of Elmet were leading armies on Idirsholas by the beginning of year 297. Once they got deep enough into Druid Land’s territory, dragonlord Cyngen II and his son sailed Catha fleet to the West Bank of Elmet, landing in vast numbers.

After the landing of Catha fleet, led by Cyngen II of Indigo Flames, the dragonlords of Elmet were caught in a trap. Cyngen’s II army was large enough to threaten the castle of Corbenius, the capital of Elmet. Slowing down the assault on Idirsholas was dangerous, too, for it would let King Leo’s host occupy the fortress before the Elmet army could hope to capture it. Thus, the dragonlords of Elmet decided to speed up their march on Idirsholas, hoping that the loss of such a mighty fortress would force King Leo to plea for peace and abandon his plans to marry his great-niece to the prince of Mercia.

The fortress of Idirsholas fell in 296 after a series of bloody battles, and Elmet gained the most important northern military facility of the Druid Land. However, the advancement of dragnolord Cygen’s II army eastward had cut the Elmet army off their supply chains.

 

MERCIA AND NORTHUMBRIA JOIN WAR ON DRUID LAND’S SIDE  

In year 295, Mercia entered war, attacking Elmet for breaking the marrigage between the prince of Mercia and Artemisa of Druid Land. Northumbria, still vengeful after the loss to the Elmet dragonlords in the war that had taken place nearly a century before, attacked Elmet, too. One of Elmet dragonlords died in the battle when king Leon’s army attempted to retake Idirsholas, and the involvemet of Mercian and Northumbria forced the Elmet king to to withdraw one more dragonlord from Idirsholas  in order to keep up with the invading armies of Mercian and Northumbria. Thus, there were two Denaria dragonlords against two Elmet dragonlords in the stand-off.

Having cut off the Elmet army from supplies, Catha host, led by Cyngen II of Indigo Flames, advanced to Idirsholas from the north, while Denaria host advanced to Idirsholas from the south. Elmet army was trapped in Idirsholas, and the equal number of dragons on both sides did no good to anybody.

 

ELMET SEEKS HELP FROM DAOBETH

In a desperate attempt to save their position, Elmet court addressed the kingdom of Daobeth, calling for their help. Daobeth pressed their attack and captured the capital of Druid Land, the castle of Denaria. King Leo of Green Flames died, protecting it: he fell from his dragon, and was said to mutter curses with his last breath, the curses which are rumored to later cause the decay of Denaria plains into swamps. The Valley of the Fallen Kings was named so in King Leo’s memory.

Leo’s son, Prince Welyr assumed the throne, and his wrath knew no limits when he took his father’s dragon to Idirsholas and cooked Elmet host alive in that fortress, winning the battle against two Elmet dragonlords, killing one and injuring the other. Elmet realized that it now had only one adult dragon-rider and sued for peace.

 

DAOBETH LEARNS TO NEVER INVADE DRUID LAND AGAIN

Catha army, led by Cyngen II, advanced past Idirsholas and helped King Welyr attack Daobeth army which held the castle of Denaria. Enraged by Daobeth’s invasion, Cyngen II burnt Daobeth army together with his own people’s crops fields. The act was considered a disaster, for in order to punish his enemies, king Welyr condemned hundreds of his own subjects to hunger. Wessex and Gwynedd issued warnings that such behavioir would not be tolerated, and soon the Great Peace Treaty was signed. Artemisa was released from Elmet and went to Mercia to marry prince Egrif.

 

AFTERMATH  

According to the Great Peace Treaty, the dragonlords had to move seats. It was now agreed that there would be two dragonlords in the castle Corbenius of Elmet, two dragonlords in the castle Denaria of Druid Land, one dragonlord in the fortress of Idirsholas and one dragonlord in Lindum of Mercia.

The years 293 BR – 99 BR were known as the First Era of Peace. 

 

The letters that graced the pages and the beautiful inks horrified Gwen to the bone. The war described in the heavy volume was a bloody, senseless and purposeless conflict which didn’t deserve to happen. She remembered the siege of the castle by Bayard of Mercia well enough to judge war as an ugly thing that wasn’t meant for people, but to think that one war could last for five years…

The door opened carefully, and she heard Gaius’s robes sweep the floor before she saw the former physician and the current Secretary.

“Gwen,” he said in a voice that seemed to belong with the room. “I didn’t quite expect to see you so soon. I was under the impression you’d devote as much time to Lady Morgana as you’d find.”

He was wearing his ceremonial robes, the ones of white and purple color, but due to the results of Yrien’s imprisonment the clothes looked much too oversized for the physician.

“Gaius,” Gwen tried to speak as calmly as she could, but she had never been good at feigning and at pretense, and it took Gaius’s friendly smile a moment to be gone.

“You did tell her, didn’t you?”

“Gaius, is it true?”

“What is true?”

“About Merlin?”

Suddenly, Gaius put on an expression of uttermost fear, as if someone had accidentally stumbled upon his best kept secret.  

What about Merlin is true?”

“That he… that he poisoned Morgana? During the attack of the dead knights?”

Gaius’s eyes were full of sorrow, but his voice bore the unapologetic tone which made Gwen wince.

“Gwen, there is more than meets the eye in this…”

“Did he or did he not poison her?”

“She gave him no choice,” the physician shook his head. “Gwen, we wouldn’t be standing here right now if Merlin hadn’t done what needed to be done, if…”

Reason, they are all so reasonable, they all are so obsessed with their reasoning that they forget about feelings… She was a defenseless girl, she was an innocent girl, suffering from years of Uther’s tyranny and ignorance, and living in fear that his stance against magic would someday come after her…. She didn’t deserve to be dealt with in such a brutal fashion…

“Gaius, how can you say such things?! She was your friend, too!..”

“She didn’t choose to use her gift for good,” Gaius pressed, his look turn to stern. “She chose to join her powers with a dark and bloodthirsty cult, and there’s a price to…”

“You’re mad, Gaius, mad to the bone. She belonged with no cult, she just had magic, it’s the years of service under Uther that…”

“Gwen, she is no longer who she appears to be…”

“I will hear no more of this, I will not hear, NOT HEAR!”

She rushed out of the room, scaring a spearman positioned by the door. The staircase, the walls, the windows, the sunlight were all racing past her as she tried to get to the corner of the castle which would be as far away from Gaius’s tower as possible… Only on the balcony in the eastern block did she agree to stop and let the air into her lungs. She felt that she had just committed something decisive, that she had just cut one of the ties that linked her with the Camelot of her dream, and yet…

I was such a silly girl to think that I could remake the Camelot that was once my home… Nobody, not even sorcerers can turn back time. Arthur is no longer king and there is no turning back. Rightful or not, Ryence Gingawaine was elected the new king according to Camelot law, and Rion inherited the throne from him and will not give it up, not while Yrien is watching his every step. Arthur will need war to wear the crown, and war is horrible. I would rather see peace than Arthur on the throne.  

 

***

 

Gwen spent the rest of the day doing Morgana’s room, dusting the floor, washing the windows, changing the sheets, pouring new water into flower vases and sorting the dresses into two piles: the vulgar dresses from Yrien and the wearable modest attires Morgana would probably approve of. By the end of the day, the chambers almost looked the way they did when Morgana was a permanent resident of the castle, a misunderstood ward of the mightiest person in the kingdom.For all his might, it took some drops of poison to make him go.

Morgana returned after dusk, smiling, her cheeks red from the wine she had enjoyed at her dinner.

“How was it?” Gwen asked immediately.

“It was nothing short of inspiring,” Morgana ran fingers through her hair and smiled to her own reflection in the mirror. “King Rion knows how to charm the small folk.”

“He is rather good at charming, but you’d do best not to let him charm you,” Gwen couldn’t hold back a warning.

“Gwen, what are you saying?” 

“Remember, it was he who persuaded me to give poison to Uther. He convinced me that it would be better if Arthur were king.”

“And you believed him?”

“There were no reasons to believe that Arthur would make a poor monarch,” Gwen shrugged and turned away.

“There was every reason,” the flare of anger lit up Morgana’s face. “Arthur killed Odin’s son. He took part in a few raids against the druids, he is a murderer. It took ages to convince him to set that child free, even though Mordred was a child, innocent of whatever crimes his father could have committed. He nearly let Gaius be burnt. He ordered Merlin to poison me when he thought I was a threat to Uther’s throne. He sent Merlin to kill the druid leader because he knows people are rallying against the crown. The list can…”

“I just thought he was different from Uther,” Gwen found herself speaking in an apologetic tone all of a sudden.  

Everyone is different from Uther. Few can compare to the ugliness of my dear stepfather. But comparing people to Uther is a low standard, Gwen. Maybe you let personal reasons to influence your bias.”

“Maybe so.”

“Now come. Let’s brush my hair before sleep, so that I don’t wake up with a crow’s nest on my head next morning.”

Morgana’s reflection in the mirror was as pale as the late night’s moon despite the warm and tender candlelight rising all around them. For the first time since her mistress’s return to the castle of Camelot, Gwen could properly notice how much Morgana had changed. She remained beautiful, of course, but her beauty was now of a different kind, like that of a sorrowful melancholic song on a winter day rather than the spirited spring charm she’d display in the good old days.

“Yrien didn’t join us at the dinner. She sent a note and a bottle of Nemeth wine as an apology, and promised another present on the morrow. Rion, though… What do you think about him?”

“He is cunning and manipulative. Just as everyone else in his family,” Gwen added. “He isn’t as ruthless as his mother, he set me free and threatened her when he found out she was torturing me, but still, he’s a scheming young man…”

“Good,” Morgana smiled. “A king must be scheming. Otherwise he’ll become a part of someone else’s scheme. From what I could judge by his proposals, though, he lacks no wits. He plans to end the knights’ privilege and fund a regular army, where people will serve only if they want to, and their service will be handsomely rewarded. There will be no need in calling banners and summoning the commoners, disturbing their lives and peace, and lords and ladies of the territories will no longer be able to rebel against the crown.”

“Who will command such a powerful army?” Gwen asked worriedly as her hairbrush was traveling through Morgana’s hair.  

“Why, the king himself.”

“Isn’t it… too much power for one person?”

“Our enemies will do anything to weaken our chances for reforming the kingdom now. At this crucial hour, we shall have whatever power we can gather to oppose those who want Uther’s ways to outlive the late king,” Morgana promised with regicidal confidence.

“They say our enemies to the West are too strong,” Gwen whispered.

“Nonsense. We outnumber the Gaheris army two to one, never worry about it. The druids are numberless.” As if sensing her servant’s fear, Morgana escaped another touch of the hairbrush and turned to Gwen. “Gwen, this war will not be a war. I promise you. It will end after one battle at the Pass of Camlann.”

“Why there?”

“It’s the only pass through the White Mountains large enough to let a whole army through. If they head further north, they’ll get stuck in the ridges of Everwick, and down south, there’s river Sabrina and the swamps of Denaria, where armored people will drown, as well as horses. Camlann is the only way, and when they come, we shall be ready, and we shall not summon a single Lower Town resident for the fighting. Now tell me something. I assume you’ve talked to Gaius?”

“I have,” Gwen nodded, the impressions from the conversation still biting her. “He confessed. Morgana, this is horrible. For all those years, he had been giving you draughts repressing your magic, and now he sees nothing wrong with Merlin poisoning you and…”

“He said that?!”

“He said you gave Merlin no choice, he said you chose to use your gift for evil cult, he…”

“…is just another Uther’s lickspittle who will earn his fate one day. For now, though, his loyalty to Uther is curious for us. It’s his loyalty to Uther which will certainly make Merlin and Arthur try to contact him. Send letters, maybe?”

“I saw no such letters when I had the chance to look for them,” Gwen assured her.

“Did he tell you anything about Arthur’s plans at all?”

“He must be as clueless as I am. Whatever plans Arthur has, he keeps them secret.”

“Then he is only half a fool I thought he was. This is disappointing, but still, Gaius must somehow be watched.”

“I will think if I can do something about it.”

Gwen was happy to help. With Morgana, things were getting back on track, just as she had secretly hoped they would. Misplaced families were returning home. Morgana was back to the castle, and the war with the West was promised to be over under Morgana’s careful watch. The druids sent some gold to the Camelot Treasury as a gesture of peace between them and the crown, and Rion could use that gold to stop the bread price growth. Morgana and Arthur will have to work something out. Arthur may be stubborn, but he never lacked sense. If Morgana is right and we truly outnumber the enemies to the west two to one, then Camelot will outnumber whatever force Arthur may have summoned in the south. Arthur will not go against such strength. He will have to work out some peaceful solution.

 

***

 

The following morning carried a sense of autumn.

The stone-grey dome of the sky was a steep wall rising from the horizon to the endless beyond, and the castle was booming from the heavy bitter wind which threatened to tear the shutters. The ladies were wrapped in their shawls and looked as if summer were already a matter of yesterday, but Gwen knew the weather would change again.

Morgana’s breakfast, composed of a few slices of ham, cheese and apples and a milk porridge, was among the first to be cooked that morning, and when Gwen was bringing the tray to the doorstep, she stopped as she caught the familiar smell in the twilight of the hall – the smell of summer, of apples, cider, morning flowers and bread. The guard positioned by the door was wearing a yellow Gingawaine cloak, but…

She nearly let the tray out of her hands, and would have dropped all of Morgana’s breakfast had it not been for Gwaine’s flawless reaction.

“What are you doing here?!” Gwen hissed, not believing her own eyes.  

“Told you I’ll always find a way to protect you, princess,” Gwaine could storm any heart with his smile, but Gwen’s heart had turned into a well-guarded fortress.

“Don’t call me princess, not when we are in the castle…”

“As my not-a-princess commands,” he bowed down in a playful manner.

The knight’s armor and cloak agreed with him, and he looked more handsome than Gwen wished to admit, but that couldn’t make him belong with the castle nonetheless.

“Gwaine, what is the meaning of this?! How in the wide world have you rigged your way up here?! Why are you wearing this cloak?! If they find…”

“I am Morgana’s new personal guard,” Gwaine announced, trying to calm her down.

“What?!”

“Personal guard. I won’t be as pompous as most of the knights, princess, don’t you worry.”

“Who made you her personal guard?! You’re but a construction worker, you…”

“I was appointed by the queen herself. The Secretary sealed the order earlier today, and the Commander of the Knights as well.”

“By the queen? What queen? You mean by the queen? By Yrien?”

“By her majesty, aye.”

The chill ran down her spine as she learnt her fears proved just. Yrien wasn’t just silent, she has been thinking of ways to…

“Gwaine, she’s using you. She’s using us. She somehow learnt that we were close and now she’s putting you on a spotlight so that I could see that she would harm you if I…”

“You got it all wrong, princess,” Gwaine sighed and took her by the hand. “It’s not me she means to harm. It’s you she wants to harm if I disobey.”

If? There’s no if, you won’t be Morgana’s personal guard, Morgana will not hear a word about it, she’s not stupid…”

“But…”

“Gwaine, there are no buts!” Gwen was irritated at his reluctance to recognize Yrien’s evil. “This is one of her schemes and plots and…”

“I always thought schemes and plots were the same thing?”

“I don’t care what you think!” Gwen screamed, slapping him on the cheek as she pulled her free hand out of his. “You never took it seriously, you haven’t, Lancelot hasn’t, so all of this is falling on me! Whatever her plan is, we shall not be a part of it! You will resign! At once!”

“And what if I don’t?” Gwaine asked challengingly, touching the red spot on her cheek. “What will you do? Run complaining to your mistress about me?”

“Watch your tongue!”

“I will watch mine if you watch yours. I’m not taking orders from you. I am protecting you as Merlin asked me to.”

“Merlin asked you? Oh, did he? How sweet of him. What will you do when he asks you to poison me?”

“Poison you?” Gwaine repeated with a frown.

“Yes, like he poisoned Morgana?”

“He poisoned Morgana? He… Wait, what? Oh, is she the girl he was talking about? Lady Morgana? The girl he feared he had killed?”

“You knew? You knew and didn’t tell me? Oh, Gwaine…” she dropped the tray on the floor and stormed into Morgana’s room, but his arms were soon around her, the loving, caring, strong arms that proved so treacherous… “Let me through! I said let me through! From this day on, I know you no more, now get off me!”

When Gwen finally broke out of his embrace, she nearly stumbled into Morgana’s chambers, cursing herself for the scene she’d just made. It will be the biggest kitchen gossip in a blink of an eye.

Morgana, in her blue sleeping gown of silk, was walking towards her.

“I heard you screaming.”

“I was… shouting, I’m sorry I woke you up.”

“You shouldn’t be. I’ve had a very good sleep, however unconvincing it may sound. What’s the matter?” Morgana asked, alarmed and glancing at the door.

“There’s a man,” Gwen realized her hands were shaking. “Positioned at your door with a letter from queen Yrien. She sent him as her gift, he’s your personal guard.”

Personal guard?” Morgana’s eyes were suddenly agleam as if the queen had somehow offended the deepest strings of her soul. “How very kind of her.”

“It’s a trick,” Gwen grabbed her by the hand, praying that Morgana would be smarter than Gwaine. “Morgana, she appointed him with the help of Gaius and Rion’s commander of the knights, it’s… This man is the one who came to the Lower Town with Merlin, the one I thought I fell in love with… Yrien somehow found out we were close, and she is threatening him, I’m sure she said that she would harm me unless he followed her every order… She means to use him against you somehow, I’m sure, she always finds ways to harm other people, you must get rid of him, otherw…”

Morgana raised her hand to silence Gwen.

“You said he came to the Lower Town with Merlin?”

Gwen nodded.  

“Then I think I can tolerate this Gwaine for some time. Maybe he has something to say.”

 

Chapter Text

CHAPTER 17: Protector of the King 

The young man attempted to rise, but the chief gaoler shoved him back down a bit too rudely to the queen’s taste.

“You don’t rise unless the queen gives a command, simpleton,” he said, spitting.  

“Please,” Yrien waved him off. “There is no need for this kind of rudeness. I can manage the rest myself. Thank you for your service. Come on the morrow for your reward, and keep your mouth shut unless you wish to lose your job.”

“Of course, your grace! Thank you, your grace, an honor, it’s always an honor…”

She turned to her personal guard.

“Sir Tawton, will you please pass my message to the king? That I would be late for dinner. Don’t worry, Sir, I’m in the Royal Tower, there are enough guards here.”

“King Ryence was in the Royal Tower, too, when he died,” Sir Tawton said hesitantly, trying to avoid looking directly at the queen.

Yrien pressed her lips together, fighting to still her rage with every breath she took. He dares defy me in front of a commoner. Question my order again, and I promise, brave champion, Ryence’s tourney will remain the last time you were able to ride a horse.

“King Ryence died from the attack of magical nature,” she reminded him with a subtle “get out of my way” undertone. “Not even a dozen of guards could have saved him. I never treated you as a servant, sir Tawton, I’ve just grown so accustomed to your wondreful company that I naturally assumed you could be the one to notify the king. Besides, I expect the duties of protecting me are not that demanding, and you must be happy to have some time off. If you insist, though…”

Sir Tawton turned around, strong and able, a broad-chested man who had been reduced to the position of a simple guard by his crooked old mother. As he walked away, Yrien eyes bore into his back, hungry and wary. You may have your son watching my back, old bat, but it’s not for long, I promise you. Once I leave this tomb of a castle, I will go to Brechfa, where I really belong, and do what I was born to do. Rule.

“Your grace,” the commoner’s voice brought her back to the hard stone of the window, the comforts of the carpets and the lights of the candle in the Royal Tower's solar.  

“Arise,” she ordered him the way a queen should. “What is your name, again?”

“Gwaine,” he said, standing as uncomfortably as some unexperienced riders would shift in the saddle upon their first horse. “They call me Gwaine, your grace.”

“They?” the queen smiled. “Do you go by any other names?”

“Not that I’m aware of it,” he replied with a smile she hadn’t seen put on by the noble lords and knights too often. There was something about his smile that made the candle light dance a bit brighter in the tempting depth of his brown eyes. Yrien felt his blazing look on her neck and caught herself forgetting why she had summoned this man.

“Good. Gwaine, then. Tell me, Gwaine, would you refuse if the queen poured you a cup of wine?”

“I wouldn’t dare refuse wine from the queen. Especially the queen of such beauty.”

It was a forced courtesy, she knew it, but it was music to her ears nonetheless. She had been preoccupied with the affairs of her house for so long she had nearly grown unaccustomed to the men’s attention. If this one was some lordling, we… Oh, what am I thinking!..

The queen nodded at the guards who opened the doors to the her chambers. She invited Gwaine to follow her with a careful nod, smiling at the look he put on when he could behold the curves of the white blankets on the fluffed featherbed, when he could smell the scents of the freshly scattered sweet dried flowers, when he could see the logs carefully laid in the hearth, when he could feel the large ragged sheepskin beneath his boots. This one has an eye for comfort.

“A queen of such beauty, you say,” Yrien giggled in an awfully grotesque girlish manner as she poured wine for her guest. “I was led to believe your perception of beauty might be… odd, considering your sympathy for Gwen.”

“She lacks no beauty, your grace,” he told her in the face, accepting wine. “Most importantly, she has the beauty of the heart, the beauty that would never fade.”

What an idiot. And idiot in love, though, and that is precisely what I need. Thank the Goddess for all the idiots in love in this shitty castle and town. 

“You ought to be a singer,” she complimented him nonetheless, approaching the window and letting the light of the early evening sky wash over her. “Such romantic words… Nearly made me cry. As for Gwen... Beautiful she may be, yet beauty is one of the most fragile things in the world, won’t you agree?”

“Fragile how, your grace?”

Fragile enough for me to break her damn neck and make sure this wench never sings a song about what she had done to Uther and who she had conspired with. I let her live and hoped she’d stay out of my sight, and now she dares parade in front of me, hiding behind the skirts of this wildling ward of Uther.

“This Gwen, she’s such a nice and sweet bird, yet I’m afraid she is in danger. I fear for her life, in fact,” she added, trying to accompany it with the most self-soothing gesture she could think of. “The crown has reasons to believe that passing of Uther The Great happened because of poison. Sadly, the crown also has reasons to believe Gwen had played a part in it. What should we do about these… beliefs?”

Yrien breathed in, the joy overflowing her. She was right where she belonged and doing what she had been good at. She was a hunter, waiting for the prey to make the first move so that she would know where to bite.

“Investigate these beliefs to learn that these charges are false, your grace. King Uther died from grief, it is known,” Gwaine put away his cup of wine, concern and mistrust battling for dominance in his eyes.

This one is not without sense. He knows how to talk subtly, at least.

“A wise suggestion,” Yrien nodded, turning around from the window. The city was about to shut the gates for the night, and Yrien spied the first bleak stars in the inky sky. “However, what if the charges are proven? To think that a girl of such a beautiful heart can lose her head…”

It looked as if Gwaine were about to shout, but then his face went red, which suggested he held his tongue, though not without a struggle.

“How can I prevent it from happening, your grace? I would do anything to help you learn these charges are false. My sword would be yours, if I had one, but I’m no knight.”

And I am not a maiden to be soothed by empty promises.

“It’s not your sword which I need. Walk with me,” she took him by the arm and led him out of the chambers, up the winding staircase where the torchlight got black and made it hard to breathe, up and up and up until the smoke-besieged tunnel opened into the entrance to the tower’s rooftop.

When she was on top of the world, she could feel secure and free. When she was on top of the tower, the Lower Town was not real, a toy of a city, a collection of dark shapes in the evening dusk, and the thousands of angry hungry mouths shouting for bread or purge were not real, too. But she couldn’t hope to sit on top of her tower for the remaining time of Rion’s reign. She needed to find safety and freedom down there, too. If only it were that easy.

Yrien wasn’t safe and free in the council room where the ancient Anna Dindrane served as the Councilor of Camelot. The old bat jumped far above her station after brokering the agreement between the druids and the crown. Even with both her daughters in the castle of Woodspeak, she still remains offensively ambitious.

Yrien wasn’t safe and free in the dining hall, where her son would expect her to show lady Morgana every courtesy. She’s a wildling ward of the late king, nothing more. In point of fact, she’s worse, for she is a traitor. She betrayed Uther when he was alive, she conspired with the druid renegade and helped him acquire some magic crystal in the castle. She has conspired against one king, she may conspire against another.

Yrien didn’t feel safe at the news of the western army marching to the pass of Camlann with siege towers and trebuchets to tear the walls of the castle of Camelot down, and least of all did she feel safe at the absence of any sort of news from the south. Something went amiss with Sir Leon’s host. He would’ve reported by now, he would’ve reported the conditions of the siege.

The obstacles were enough to break the spine of any man, it would seem, but Yrien was no man. She was the Lady of Brechfa, the lady of the most important territory of Camelot, the lady of the greatest house of the kingdom. I am the future of Midlands and I shall find the way to set things right. For the sake of my son I shall, and all those who once seemed massive and threatening to me will turn small and defenseless. I promise.

“Now, I hope you do understand that if you breathe a word of what you hear from me, off comes Gwen’s head,” she said without the need to hide her disdain behind the mask of courtesy. I don’t have long before that Sir Tawton the Fool comes back to guard me. “You were caught fighting in the Lower Town. You’re good with a sword?”

Gwaine’s shrug didn’t please her.

“Better than most common people and as good as some of the knights, your grace.”

A bold claim. Will it live to the expectations?

“If my commander finds you a worthy swordsman, you will be appointed lady Morgana’s personal guard,” Yrien announced without further a do, happy with the summer wind in her hair.  

“What for? Does lady Morgana lack guards?” Gwaine stood rumpled and confused.

“You will not be just a guard. You will befriend her. Make her like you, it’s not going to be that difficult, you have a comely face for a commoner… Make her like you so much that she won’t be able to resist you. And when Morgana and the king go to Brechfa for a visit, after their wedding, you will seduce Morgana and bed her. Is that understood?”

Her proposal frightened him so badly his face went white.

“You’re demanding treason, your grace.”

“Well, it seems Gwen will be charged with treason unless you commit one. A difficult situation.”

Finally, he understood his part of the bargain, and Yrien could only hope she hadn’t misjudged the commoner’s feeling for Gwen.

“What if lady Morgana doesn’t like me? What if she doesn’t accept me as her personal guard?”

“Of course, she won’t accept you!” Yrien laughed. “She’s not stupid! She survived Uther after openly defying him, the girl must have some wits about her. But for every locked door, there is a key. Gwen may be this key. I am not blind. Morgana has dismissed all the servants I’ve given her save for this one Gwen. There can be only one reason for it: Morgana trusts her. You are close with Gwen, thus use it. Make Gwen convince her mistress to accept you as her guard. Then make Morgana like you. Do something about it. I’m sure you’ve done it more than enough times with the common wenches. Morgana's not that different. She may be highborn in blood, but she’s an animal, she would have been a common tavern whore had Uther let her hang out on her own. I can see the wildness in her. She doesn't take after her mother, she's got more resemblance to her father. Gorlois was a wild man, too.”

“I will be charged with treason,” Gwaine repeated, stubbornly.  

“Yes, you will. But you know the tradition,” Yrien’s smile grew wider. “There are no executions during the harvest season. Executions are banned for they are said to bring bad luck and bad crops. You will be exiled. Once Morgana is caught in bed with you, she is taken into custody. Rion hasn’t come of age, so he will not be able to conduct a trial, hence will. I will become regent again and I will be building up the case against Morgana and I will be condemning you to exile. You will take Gwen and go wherever you want, I will give you all the money you need. There will be no lack of gold, I promise.”

“And what will happen to lady Morgana?”

“That doesn’t concern you.”

“Your grace, forgive me, but… how can I put any trust into a promise that I will only be exiled for corrupting Morgana once she’s queen? How can I be certain there will be no harsher punishment?”

“You can’t. But if you refuse, Gwen will suffer, I promise. Now leave me, and make sure you tell the guards where you live. I will send for you soon to learn your answer.”

The sky had cracked, and darkness was pouring into the world from above, from the distant beyond Yrien was terrified to think of. There had always been something inherently flawed about Ryence’s approach of building alliances in order to achieve some goals. Alliances happen between equals, and if the king makes an alliance, he acknowledges the other side as his equal. But there can’t be equals to the king. If the druids wish to help me rid the realm of the Mad Hound of the West, they are happy to do it, but if they think that I will honor our tactical mutual agreement by marrying Morgana to Rion, they are perverse. She will never be queen, and druids will learn their place soon. It's such a pity nobody in this kingdom will obey me unless they fear me. Then fear me they will.

 

***

King Rion’s visit to the rebuilt quarter of the Lower Town was the shadow that eclipsed every other event of the day, and the queen seized on that opportunity eagerly. Yrien knew most of Rion’s council would be in the Lower Town, too, those feeble men and women, fighting over the spot closer to her son, hoping they would be able to earn a tiny fraction of the love the commoners would shower Rion with. When the commoners love him, they all want to be there, yet how many of them volunteered to go to the Lower Town at the night of the mob riot? What Rion did was a folly. He should have used the knights to suppress the riot, not go there himself. He could’ve been killed. Not that he is safe now. We still have to scatter that stupid salt around our beds to make sure Uther’s ghost doesn’t harm us at night.

She was crossing the Southern Bridge, heading to where few people would be found on the day King Rion was expected to open the rebuilt quarter. The clouds were drifting in the sky a bit too hurriedly, turning the day into an endless game of lights and shadows, as restless as her thoughts. The sound of armor clangor swept over the queen long before she approached the barracks of the knights, where the aspiring knights of Camelot would break their lances against the shields and beat each other bloody with blunted swords and hammers before going on to serve in the patrols and finally be called the knights of Camelot. She couldn’t help but indulge into dismal memories about the day when she and Ryence watched Rion’s first jousting lessons under Sir Leon’s careful guidance. Ryence had a plan. He had a plan to set things right. He thought blackening Arthur’s name by attributing the magic abilities to him would turn the small folk against the prince forever. Yet the Pendragon pup managed to rouse Nemeton and Gedref and is now threatening me from the south.

Sir Logsheath, who had served as her personal guard until the night of Sir Vidor’s murder, was at the training field, shouting at the lads whom he called “cretins”, “imbeciles” and “as good as blind hens”. He smiled sympathetically when he noticed the queen’s horse.

“Sir Logsheath,” she kissed him on the cheek after he had helped her dismount, and gifted a smile to the sweaty lads who couldn’t take their eyes off her and didn’t trouble to conceal their interest.  

“Your grace,” the Commander of the Knights nodded. “I hardly expected a visitor. Least of all you. Why aren’t you in the Lower Town with the king?”

“I hate that place. Can’t set a foot outside the citadel after the riots. Besides, I’ve grown tired of Sir Tawton Dindrane following me everywhere, and since he chose to accompany his lady mother to the Lower Town, I decided I would take a ride. He is annoying. Sometimes I think I’ve learnt his breath by heart.”

“He is only protecting you,” Sir Losheath’s smile turned to apologetic before he shouted to the lads. “You’re dismissed!”

“Protecting me?” Yrien shrugged as she invited Sir Logsheath to walk with her. “Of course. How kind of him. We’re alone?”

“As your grace can see.”

“Sir Logsheath, we share some history. You have been a model of valor, and a true shield of my house since I can remember myself.”

“That is very kind of you to say, your grace.”

“Ryence once said there is no better knight than Sir Logsheath.”

“You humble me, your grace,” his smile turned to shy. “And not without a reason, I expect.”

“The reason is one. The safety of the king and the peace in the kingdom. There’s nobody else I can turn to.”

His smile vanished as yet another shadow fell upon the Southern Village.

“Your grace?”

“The king mustn’t know,” she said. I will throttle you if you let Anna Dindrane learn a word of this conversation, she meant.  

“I’m serving under vow. When the phrases begin like that…”

Is he about to prate about honor?  

“Something has gone wrong in the south,” Yrien said fiercely.  

The announcement seemed to baffle him.

“Your grace, we still have reason to be…”

“Spare the horseshit you’re about to drop to justify this silence in the south,” Yrien said, not caring that she was forgetting herself. “We’re not in the damnstables. Sir Leon led the host south how many days ago? Eleven bloody days ago! He was in Brechfa when he got the orders, his soldiers had been armed and ready, they had fought one campaign against Cendred, they ought to have reached Portstown twice by now! Sir Leon had more than four hundred men, he was commanding the host which Ryence had gathered at Howden! Moreover, Lord Gloss of Chemary has captured Burnwood, he was supposed to join Sir Leon… Together they would’ve commanded close to thousand men, that could be enough to storm the walls of Portstown or lay a proper siege! Yet Leon’s writing nothing. Lord Gloss is writing nothing. Which means something must have happened in the south. The pretender overpowered them.”

Sir Logsheath remained skeptical. He wants the grim shadows of Arthur’s war to be wreathed in mists, he’s too afraid to face them.

“Your grace, you present too dark a view. If Sir Leon and Lord Gloss were defeated, we would have had the pretender’s army at our doorstep by now.”

“Not unless he waits for the right moment to strike,” Yrien pointed, shocked that the Commander of the Knights hadn’t considered this possibility himself. “What if the pretender chooses to move north only when the fighting at the Pass of Camlann begins? While we are distracted by the battle in the White Mountains? What will stand between him and the capital? You know too well that the castles in Midlands can be stormed easily, too easily. They are not actual castles, they don’t have thick stone walls and high towers and massive iron gates and…”

“The chances for that are sl…”

“Ryence told me once only a fool would rely on chance,” she said, giving him a wary look. “A clever man must be calculating every possibility.”

“I assume you’ve done the calculation already?”

“I did. After the wedding, the king intends to send me away to the castle of Brechfa. I want to summon another army.”

That didn’t sound appeasing to the Commander of the Knights.

“There are not many men left in the castle of Brechfa, your grace. Of those who are fit to fight, I mean.”

“Then I will gather whatever numbers I can! I must protect the Midlands from the southern pretender, but to do that, I shall need approval from the king. Which he will never grant, because…”

“Because raising an army of some hundreds of men while our druid allies fight the westerners in the Pass of Camlann may be found… intimidating,” Sir Logsheath finished.

“Indeed. Misunderstanding comes easily to those who are close to the throne. Some will think I am building an army to fight the druids after they slaughter the westerners. But all I am thinking about are the spears and shields that would protect us if the southern pretender were to march north suddenly.”

“And so you want my signature,” Sir Logsheath sighed.

“Whose else? In the absence of our Commander of War, you are rightfully bound to sign such documents.”

Sir Logsheath stopped and gave her a look that allowed more liberties than the queen would like.

“Swear to me that you mean this army only to protect the Midlands from the southern threat.”

“I swear,” Yrien lied.

“Then signature you shall get.”

“Thank you. Another courtesy, Sir Logsheath. I have found a special guard for my son’s bride. In one of our households. Would you mind… evaluating his skills?”

“You’re asking the commander of knights himself to judge some lad fit or unfit for service?”

“I told you, he’s meant to guard my son’s bride, the future queen who will bear heirs to the throne. I must be certain.”

 

***

 

Rion’s room had turned into the biggest mess queen Yrien had seen since the day they fled the castle of Brechfa after the invasion of Cenred’s army. As his wedding was just four days away, the king decided to move his council room to his own chambers where he would suffer numerous visits of the best tailors in the kingdom who fought for the right to create the wedding outfit for the king.

This day, Rion was deciding which of the shields he would carry during his walk through the city before the wedding ceremony.

“This one looks more like a battle shield, it’ll be inappropriate,” he said, casting aside a fine work which looked like it could endure the pounding of hundreds of swords. “People will think I’m going to fight Morgana rather than wed her.”

“People can think all they want. You mustn’t care. You were splendid yesterday, by the way,” Yien told him, sipping on her wine.  

“Mother. Sometimes when you have nothing to say, you best keep your mouth shut.”

He had been robust with her on many occasions, but that outburst fell as sudden as the rain from the clear blue sky.

“Rion, did I give you any reasons to mistreat me like that?!” she asked worriedly.

“You weren’t even there!” her son tossed another green shield on the floor and pointed at her, accusingly. “You never came to see me reopen the quarter, then why d’you have to say I was splendid?!”

Because I was working hard to ensure I can protect you after you send me away. Because I care about you even though you haven’t grown up to be exactly the man Ryence and I hoped to see in you.

“Because I heard what lords and ladies said about you. They said you bewitched the small folk.”

“Then why do I feel like I failed them?!” Rion shouted angrily, kicking the shield to send it rolling across the floor until it hit the bottom of his bed.

Fail them? How can you fail them? You are the king, it’s them who can fail you, not the other way around.

“Rion, what’s the matter?”

“I went there, I saw them, I saw them all, mother!” he looked at her as if he had done something wrong. “I feel like I’ve memorized every face, every pair of hopeful eyes!.. I’ve seen where they live, what they wear, how they talk, what they eat… It's different! You see, from my council room, my kingdom looks like a pile of maps and parchments with sums written over them, my councilors are all of noble birth, so how can I be sure that the common people’s troubles reach me at all?”

Yrien had to close her eyes to escape an eye-roll. This madness again. When will he understand that he is not a servant of the people, that he is their king? I can smell the old bat planting this foolishness. If she continues to fill Rion’s head with these stupidities, she will lose hers soon.

“You have petitioners. Every week. They are common people.”

“I know they must pass through hell before they turn up in my throne room. Some of them are even denied entrance into the castle!”

“Your preoccupancy with the matters of the small folk has always been charming. But where does it come from now? Is it her?”

“Goddess, mother. You see Morgana in every shadow. Even though you haven’t met her for once since she arrived at the castle. Don’t think she hasn’t paid attention to that.”

She complained to him. Humble, aren’t we?

“I don’t care what she pays attention to! Her pastime in the castle is not my concern. Nor should it be yours. Rion, remember what your uncle has always told you. A ruler is not someone who is rushing to wipe his subject’s arses every time they take a crap. Allow them to take care of themselves. Sometimes people are better at watching over themselves.”

“Then why do they need us?”

She flushed.

“I said sometimes.”

“As a king, I can’t rely on sometimes, mother. Uncle also said a clever man must be calculating every possibility. I want to make it certain. I want people represented better than they are now. Maybe I shall reform my council? Maybe I shall allow the major guilds to send representatives?”

“Are you mad? This is a council, not some tavern room!” she nearly screamed. “It mustn’t get crowded!”

“We shall see...”

She didn’t like the sparks in his eyes – they always appeared when he’d let some mad idea flourish in his head, like the time when he invited common boys to his seventh name day. Least of all did she like that Rion put on his hunting boots and was looking for the raincloak.  

“Now where do you think you’re going?”

“Why? My wedding’s in four days. I am nervous as hell. I mean to spend the time hunting.”

“Enough of hunting! You had already spent much time hunting before Ryence returned to Camelot from Brechfa, remember?”

“I remember that well, mother,” Rion said, giving her a dutiful, but emotionless kiss on a cheek. “But I am the king now. I must have some liberties. Hunting is one of them.”

Yrien watched him disappear at the threshold and closed her eyes in despair. His kingdom suffers from two wars and all Rion can think of is representing milkmaids on the council. He has great need of me. This kingdom has great need of me.

Anna Dindrane may think that her hour in the sun will last long because she brought Morgana and her druid army to our side, but I promise you, old bat, once this folly with the Westerners and Arthur is done, your days will be numbered, and the druids will bend the knee as they should.

After the Pass of Camlann, I shall use the remnants of the druid army to slaughter the Pendragon pup. I will not protest being sent away to Brechfa, or no, I will go home willingly, I will secretly raise a host and then I will invite Rion and Morgana to visit me to celebrate the harvest season. I will seize Morgana for adultery and if the druids dare defy me while I hold Morgana hostage, I will destroy whatever is left of their forces. To make sure nobody ever thinks of rebelling against the crown again, I will persuade Rion to marry princess Elena of Gawant. King Godwyn and Uther were dear friends and Elena was promised to Arthur, she was supposed to be the queen of Camelot. Godwyn will not miss the chance of making his daughter’s dreams come true. Rion will gain a whole kingdom of Gawant to his side once he names princess Elena his wife. While Morgana rots in the cell.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER 18: Wounded Pride

The moon was all but gone from the sky, as if disgusted to cast the silver light upon the soiled knight traveling up the Southern road. Sir Leon hated to move after nightfall like some renegade or rogue who sought the veil of the night to cloak his identity, but the party which had accompanied him from Portstown insisted on it. They had judged, and rather rightly, that many common people in Gedref might not be pleased to behold the man who brought queen Yrien’s army to their land. Sir Leon couldn’t disagree. In point of fact, he had no right to disagree.

There were days when he was known as the sword of the realm, as king Uther’s most reliable knight and protector, as the man who could be entrusted with most important royal missions and most dangerous royal patrols. King Uther was dead now, but failing the crown hurt more than Sir Leon could imagine. Uther trusted me more than anybody else, and I failed him. The crown asked me to lay siege to Portstown, and I couldn’t keep the discipline among my soldiers. When they saw the dragon…

The shame was still strong enough to burn him from inside, as if he had swallowed a cask of wine. The dragon had frightened them to death because it had appeared from behind their back, right after the roar which resembled a terrifying thunder, a heavy nature’s cry. The beast was flying so low his red wings seemed to cover half the sky above them, stirring the wind that made the banners of Leon’s host flap helplessly.

Leon had crawled out of his tent to watch the beast head to Portstown, and it took him a couple of nervous inhales and exhales to realize what was happening. He had been in the command of the Howden host, where no less than two hundred soldiers came from Lower Town and Southern Village. They were the first to run: they had seen what the dragon had done to the Lower Town in June, and they were not ready to see it come back from the dead. Leon was shouting, trying to make them stop, to bring them back, but when the creature erupted with a wall of fire upon the sailing fleet and cut through it the way a hot knife would cut through butter, turned around and headed back to Portstown and the castle of Gedref, many more joined the deserters. And then the gates of Portstown opened, and the enemies attacked.

Never before had Leon felt so humiliated. Yielding his host was the best he could do to keep the lives of the remaining soldiers, and it was the only thought bright enough to keep the sorrow out of his dreams. I did what I could to save their lives. Had the fighting dragged for longer, we would have lost too many men.

Not that they hadn’t lost any men. Some perished at the battlefield, and there were those who expressed the wish to stay in Portstown and serve Arthur Pendragon, as they called him.

Sir Leon wasn’t sure what he should call him. In the lonely cell which was too comfortable for the captivity, Arthur had talked to him, as if he were real Arthur. The night the whole city celebrated, the man who looked and sounded like Arthur repeated some of the words he had said at the hostage exchange, he recalled the days of his knighthood training and many fond memories which only the real Arthur could know. Yet would the real Arthur ever make magic legal after his father had dedicated half his reign to ripping it out, root by root?Would the real Arthur have aligned with the power of the dragon that had nearly destroyed his home castle?

He told me he had changed his views, but how could he change them so fast?

The memories would make Sir Leon descend into madness. He had brought Arthur’s body to the king himself, he had seen the mutilated corpse…It was a faceless horror of bone and brain, but we had few reasons to doubt the identity of the slain. Other dead men were from Arthur’s patrol, so it was natural to assume…

Except for now nothing seemed natural any longer. The realm was in dire peril: with king Uther gone and his son declared dead and resurrected as a wraith by some Dark Arts that haunted house De Bois, everything seemed falling apart. The throne of Camelot, held by Rion and his mother, was more like a title rather than a source of real power when so many could question it: the druids in the north, house Gaheris to the west, if the overheard bits of the conversations between his guards could be trusted. Not to mention the magic pretender who claimed to be Arthur, in the south. During Uther’s reign, nobody ever dared start a rebellion, not even the druids who had all the reasons to fight the crown. I am the Councilor of War, I must seek means to bring peace. Yet how? 

Sir Leon had the honor of learning the craft of swordfight from the greatest knights the kingdom of Camelot had ever seen, from Sir Gorlois, from Demeth Dindrane and Thorpus Elyan, Uther’s famed warlords who had helped him conquer the Five Kingdoms, and now he felt he was miserably failing his mentors.

 

***

 

Even in the black of the night, the city of Burnwood maintained its contours, sitting like a giant spider above the web of roads which ran in and out of the low walls. Located at the crossing of the Southern road, the Nemeton road and the Great Trade Road, Burnwood had always been the trade center with many queer sights for a curious eye.  

Burnwood was at war, Leon could tell by casting just one look at the outlines of tents by the southern walls of the city. His party had to stop countless times on the way to the gates, to be admitted further so reluctantly by the Gedref forces. The streets proved shy of torchlight, and betrayed a dim, abandoned aura of the town. The small folk have fled.  

At the market square of the town, new swords appeared, with yellow banners of House Gingawaine that seemed to glow in the dark. Leon realized what was about to happen. The exchange. Lord Gloss will yield Burnwood and give the town back to the Gedref forces in exchange for the noble captives of the crown returned to him. Lord Gribs and the Dwynton twins, the bannermen of House Gingawaine. And the younger of Wynau brothers, sworn to House Chefyl of Woodspeak.

Leon’s suspicions proved true after a man emerged from a three-storey building overlooking the square: a short man whose bristly grey beard would glisten in the dark. He had a stern look and heavy features that would match his iron-willed character.  

“Bugger me,” he smiled. “That’s Sir Leon!”

Leon’s guards that had been accompanying him from Gedref retired at once, handing Sir Leon and his noble companions to the crown’s men. From what Leon had seen, Burnwood was equally divided between the two hosts, queen’s men and the pretender’s forces, and it appeared that everybody had been anticipating the exchange which would mark the final stage of the agreement.

“Lord Gloss,” Leon nodded, relieved to walk without guards for the first time in days. “The last time I heard, all of Burnwood was under your control.”

“The last time I heard, our enemies in Portstown had no dragon,” Lord Gloss snorted. “I am correcting my plans according to the latest circumstances.”

“You were ordered to hold Burnwood,” Sir Leon reminded him, not caring to withhold accusations from his tired voice. “I thought the nature of orders is that they must be followed despite the changing circumstances.”

“If the queen wishes me to fight the dragon, I would gladly lead the host, providing she sends his grace, the king, to boost our spirits and show us that the dragon can be defeated. Don’t try and play honor with me, Sir Leon. The queen sent me against mortal men of flesh and blood, men which could be cut with blades and poked with arrows. She never mentioned dragon. Nobody mentioned the dragon.”

Sir Leon hoped the dark concealed his wincing face. Lord Gloss was the lord of the castle of Chemary, one of the three castles in Midlands, the one that lay by the Southern Road. It was the only castle in Midlands with the access to the iron mines of Isgaard, and Chemary boasted of the best armories in the Midlands as well. He was a capable commanded and, maybe, one of the best swords in the realm, yet shrewd to the point of being astute and far too ambitious, some would say. The carelessness with which he’d handle queen’s orders displeased Sir Leon greatly, but he did his best to hide his feelings.

“How did you know?” Sir Leon asked. “About the dragon?”

“Why, it seems half your army deserted and tried to run back home, my lord Councilor. Some went up the Southern Road and bumped into Burnwood and my castle, others ran up the Brechfa road, hoping to get back to Camelot through Brechfa and Woodspeak.”

“What did you do to them?”

“Captured them,” Lord Gloss said carelessly, as he led Sir Leon to an enormous building which belonged to the trade guild. “Some of them reached as far as the castle of Woodspeak, Sir Edwin Chefyl has written me. All we did we was capture them. We don’t wish the deserters to reach Camelot. We shut the roads. We try to keep the dragon news from the queen.”

“That’s treason,” Sir Leon whispered angrily.

“That’s war,” Lord Gloss objected as he stormed into the hall of the guild house.

The place was furnished in the merchant’s fashion, designed to display both, the wealth and ambition of the trading companies and the vanity of the merchants who would always complain about trade duties being too high while involved in smuggling schemes at the same time. Sir Leon had glimpsed an oaken throne, cages with rare colorful birds whose feathers seemed more expensive than some swords, and the odor of spices was in the air. Lord Gloss hung his sodden cloak, pulled off his worn-off boots and commanded the servants to fetch some food for fire, and wine for guests.

“They’ll bring barley soup at once. And spiced wine. The further south, the better the wine, they say,” Lord Gloss smiled as he took his seat beside the table. “Come, Sir Leon, sit with me. I do not bite. And I am not as much a traitor as you wish me to be.”

“You are withholding sensitive information from the crown,” Sir Leon did sit down and let the spiced wine warm him as soon as the servants brought his cup. “Why isn’t it treason?”

“And why should I let queen Yrien know there is a dragon in Portstown? A great deal of things happened while you were south, lord Councilor. Did you know that House Gaheris has declared war on the throne of Camelot?”

“I had the chance to overhear the conversation of the guards who escorted me. I never knew wh…”

“Sir Vidor Gaheris was murdered in Camelot. At his own betrothal feast. Some say the queen did it, or that it was done by her command.”

“That’s not possible!” Sir Leon rose from the table, nearly overthrowing his cup of wine. “Why would the queen do such a thing? It’s the worst crime of all, nobody would’ve…”

“The whys and whynots are not for me to judge. The truth is plain: Sir Vidor was murdered. What’s more, he was murdered in Camelot, while he was formally under the crown’s protection. He won the tourney of Camelot before that. His grandmother didn’t take it easy. She is leading an army against the crown, some two thousand swords, we believe.”

“The swords which Uther ordered her to gather when he received news about Cenred’s invasion…”

“So it appears,” Lord Gloss nodded, his eyes shining with dark amusement. “Now tell me, Sir Leon. With your host demolished in Portstown, and my people ready to retreat from Burnwood… How many men does queen regent have in Camelot? Or in Brechfa? Not many enough to oppose the giant army of the westerners. Now, why should I tell the queen of the dragon? To make her divide her weak forces between the West and the South, so that her chances for victory would decrease? No, I don’t want her to look south until and unless she deals with Gaheris army. Let her be focused on the westerners and let the southern pretender’s turn come when it comes.”

 Words of a wise man. Or a coward. Or a traitor. Sir Leon knew too well that every great lord or lady of the realm had a jealous bannerman who envied the higher place. The Gingawaines had been a power in the Midlands for long, but ever since Ryence struck a deal with Uther after the battle of Ashes, House Gloss had all the reasons to despise the Gingawaines. Lord Gloss thought Uther wasn’t worth a peace treaty after what the Westerners did to the land of Eofham, where the castle of Chemary had so many ties.

“Why aren’t you sending men to help the queen fight the Gaheris?”

“It appears her grace has forged herself an alliance with the druid folk who have all the reasons to loath the Mad Hound of the West. They say it was she who pushed Uther to extreme measures following queen Ygraine’s death. The druids will be glad to rid the world of her, I heard they are gathering at the Pass of Camlann. And I shall remain in Chemary, guarding the southern Midlands from the Gaheris invasion.”

“That’s folly,” Sir Leon said. “They can’t cross the White Mountains anywhere but at the Pass of Camlann. The swamps of Denaria and the Valley of the Fallen Kings are no fit for an army passage. And the Sabrina river stands their way…”

“… until lady Lludwig keeps the bridge raised,” Lord Gloss pointed with discontent. “If she lowers it, their army will be able to cross. Now as you’re about to return to the castle of Camelot, please, do us a favor and visit Woodspeak on your way, and escort the younger granddaughter of Dindrane back to the castle.”

“What are the Dindrane granddaughters doing at Woodspeak?”

“How do I know?” Lord Gloss shrugged. “The queen has no intent of sharing every scheme with me. But I have some intent to share bits of wisdom with her. Now you listen, lord Councilor, and please, be kind to pass my words to her grace, unaltered. This war she is fighting is coming to every doorstep. Autumn is upon us, and we need men in the harvest fields, not on the battle fields. She must find a way to end this war quickly. Spend all the crown’s gold and hire mercenaries, if she must. If she lacks gold, she has to negotiate a loan with the Silky Bank of Tir-Mor. Seduce foreign kings, like Bayard of Mercia, if she must. Marry her son to some foreign princess in exchange for troops. You know that Midlands have never been friends with the West, but even some of my lesser bannermen are whispering about the righteousness of Western’s cause. Safir and Nentres are Uther’s cousins, and some begin to suggest that they, after all, have some right for the Camelot throne. If they were to guarantee peace in the wake of harvest season, many would flock to their side. Tell your queen that. If she continues to lead this war in the noble way, she may not outlive Ryence for long.”

Chapter Text

CHAPTER 19: A Moment of Truth

Arthur had grown so accustomed to the annoying seagulls’ crying that when he heard the loud laughter in the garden he stepped out on the balcony, expecting to see the wicked birds occupying the fountain and the arbor and laughing in human voices. However, the garden was filled with children who were racing along the allies, throwing apples at each other, shaking the apple trees so that the fruits would fall into their baskets. For a moment or two, Arthur remained frozen outside, taken aback by the sudden scene of utter peace in the midst of a warring castle. Most of Portstown’s nobility sent their heirs to the castle to show both, Arthur and the anxiously anticipated king Rodor of Nemeth that there was nothing to fear behind the white mighty walls. Will Rodor read this sign, though?

Arthur dearly hoped the Nemethian king would not be blind to it. Signs are better than warnings, Arthur thought, watching the smoky blueish clouds pass over the castle. The sun had just dived into the Merchant’s Bay, and the splashes of golden light were melting off the eastern sky. There was also a faint amber glow to the east, caused by king Rodor’s host camping by the walls of Portstown and lighting fires to welcome the night. Arthur couldn’t help but feel a bit sorry for the soldiers who had endured the long march only to sleep in the tents, but with so many Nemeton soldiers brought by Modron’s father, Arthur dared not make the Nemethians and Nemetonians share the barracks in the city, and thus he offered Rodor to camp by the city walls, which he did.

A soft, reminding cough knocked Arthur on the back, and the king was quick to return to his chambers where Merlin was standing by the hearth, looking most admirable when so helplessly confused in the loosened breeches. The negotiations with Rodor were scheduled for late evening, and the feast would ensue, providing Arthur and Rodor could reach an understanding. The circumstances of the feast required Merlin to put on something decent, which the warlock didn’t seem to fancy.

“Arthur, I swear, you could let me stay with the servants. Nobody would give a damn about what I’m wearing then, right?”

Merlin’s look was almost pleading, and his dressing reluctance seemed somewhat amusing. They have tried half a dozen of breeches which all turned out much too oversized for Merlin, and since there was little time left before the negotiations to summon the tailor, Arthur advised him to just put on the tightest ones, of the satin color.

“I look ridiculous,” Merlin muttered. “These breeches are twice my size, Arthur. Children will think me some wood monster in them. Be honest with me, have you conquered Gedref just to gain more opportunities to make me look ridiculous?”

“If you want me to unlace your breeches, just say it,” Arthur told him with a smile, and came closer to look Merlin into the eyes. “No need to come up with size excuses. Relax. I’m just fooling around.”

Merlin gave him a naughty smile, melting under the pressure of Arthur’s gaze. After their reunion, Merlin’s longing got stronger than Arthur expected even in his wildest and most daring dreams: he could senseMerlin’s excitement whenever they found their lips close. But it was his eyes, not his lips, that would drive Arthur out of his mind, the way Merlin managed to misbehave between the bedsheets and yet pretend to be the good shy boy and turn his look away whenever Arthur confronted him with lustful intentions. He still trembles at my touch. Even at my look. I hope he’ll always do.

“And why does your fooling around always include making a fool out of me?” Merlin’s voice was softer than the summer wind.

“As if I had to put any effort into making a fool out of you,” Arthur giggled and caught Merlin’s hand that was about to gift the king a generous cuff on the nape. “Stop messing around. Merlin, I’m not putting a feathered hat on your head. You look good. I think satin agrees with you.”

“Fine,” the warlock agreed. “But I want a blue doublet then. It will remind me of your eyes. Arthur, I… Just wanted to say that, feathered hats set aside, it’s very kind of you. To put me in some nice clothes for a change. After all, people at your council would begin to wonder who’s the boy in rugs that’s standing behind you at the meetings. If you introduced me.”

“I won’t introduce you to my new council, Merlin. I’m not mad,” Arthur said, inspecting the heavy velvet doublet with matching satin sleeves.  

“Why is introducing me to the council a mad idea?” for once, Merlin sounded hurt.

“Because council rooms are dangerous.”

“Any more dangerous than flying a dragon to threaten a foreign army?”

Arthur let go of the doublet and faced Merlin, whose cheeks seemed to have reddened.

“It’s a different sort of danger, the one I pray you’ll never learn. I tell you, Merlin, the battles and blades are not as vile as the court schemes. I’ll do my best to keep you away from them. Because you’re my dragon-flying star and I will never let anybody try and use you to manipulate me.”

“I am not that easily used or manipulated,” Merlin whispered in a weak response.

“You’re not. But court games are known to have ended the lives of more cunning men than you. My father saw threats in every shadow and tried to wipe out each and every one of them, real or imagined, and yet it wasn’t at the battle where he fell. He died at court.”

Arthur reached for wine as he suggested Merlin wear the velvet tunic with satin sleeves. Merlin had every right to misunderstand Arthur’s motives, but the king was ready to make peace with the sense of guilt for keeping Merlin out of his official new council. We are at war and my enemies will seek to weaken my everywhere, not only at the battle fields. The councils could be attended by guild leaders and petitioners, and Arthur didn’t want to let them notice the glances he’d exchanged with Merlin were his warlock in the presence.

The first session of his council which had taken place in the morning proved a dull and tiresome work, with his councilors discussing everything from granaries to gold shortage to the Essetir druids reportedly heading to Gedref in the wake of the dragon news and to Morgana marrying Rion Gingawaine. The news had been brought to him during the council meeting, and Arthur had lost all the appetite, trying to think of what the Gingawaines might do to Morgana. Although Merlin tells me I need to worry about what Morgana might do to the Gingawaines. Whatever the truth, the only self-soothing thought that Arthur tried to focus on was the fact that Morgana was found and brought to the castle of Camelot, that she could be reached and talked to. 

“Now come,” Arthur said once Merlin was done dressing. “Rodor’s may be awaiting me already.”

Merlin didn’t forget to take the sword and the dagger off the king’s belt: no swords were allowed at the feast. The Nemethians and Nemetonians will find a way to slaughter each other with wine gobletsand forks, princess Mithian had warned him, so Arthur made it clear that no weapons could be carried into the hall.

“I’ve seen Rodor’s cavalry,” Merlin told him when they left the room. “He’s brought as many horses as I’ve asked. Suppose he’s inclined to accept your terms.”

“It may be nothing,” Arthur said nervously. “It’s just… he wants to have something on the table during the talks, something mouth-watering enough to make us accept histerms. The cavalry horses can prove useful, though, I agree, but it’s something else I need from him.”

“You want him to attack Cornwall,” Merlin repeated. “To send all the forces which he had gathered against Odin. That’s why you’ve allowed Mithian to spend some time with him before the talks? Is she playing on our side, too?”

“You’re reading me like an open book,” Arthur caressed Merlin’s hair in the empty corridor. “She is. But I’ve also thought it would be cruel of me to deprive her of the chance to enjoy her father’s company before Rodor is consumed by negotiations and feasts. Now, Merlin, I want your magic bottom near me at the feast. All the time. The hall will be filled with Nemetonian and Nemethian men, they’ve warred for so long that even with beer tankards they can bathe the whole place in blood, so if things go wrong, I want you close so that I can protect you.”

The blush on Merlin’s cheeks suggested Arthur’s words warmed his heart to the point of no quarreling about who should protect who. As they headed downstairs out of the keep, the corridors and chambers grew peopled by nobles and servants involved in a feverish haste before the feast. Arthur had spied on Lord Sei of Portsown reading some papers on the trade agreements between Camelot and Nemeth while his lady wife urged their son to pay attention to the ladies at the feast, for there might be an appropriate bride and he needed to be wed. Four servants nearly buried Merlin under a mammoth apple pie they were carrying to the feast hall, and the king suspected that only magic would explain the fact that the servants managed to keep their balance and not drop the pie – although maybe the flash of gold in Merlin’s eyes was just a twisted game of torchlight. In the decorated inner yard, where lesser lords, landless knights and merchant families would enjoy the feast, Arthur observed a couple of singers and the discontent face of Modron who was accompanied by his mother. The castle of Gedref which enjoyed unparalleled tranquility ever since Arthur had taken residence in the former capital of Seaside Kingdom, was now as full of fuss as any market square in the Lower Town and reminded of the castle of Camelot more than Arthur agreed to accept.

“Arthur?” Merlin asked, vexed. 

“Hm?”

“If everything goes as you’ve planned, if you get the cavalry horses and Rodor is attacking Cornwall… What will happen after that? Will you…”

“I am not attacking the castle of Camelot and the Lower Town, if that’s what you fear. We are not attacking it, I promise,” Arthur wanted to rub the tip of Merlin’s nose, but there were too many people around and he could be joined by the guards any moment. “Merlin, I’ve grown up there. Those streets and castle halls and village barracks are in my heart. Camelot is the place where I met your annoying conspiring magic bottom. It’s too precious to ruin. The town, I mean, not your bottom.”

That made Merlin laugh and lean closer to Arthur. The warlock’s longing was almost physical: Arthur knew that Merlin suffered when they could be holding hands or trading kisses but hesitated to do so because of the eyes all around them. The king knew he’d have to come up with some sort of solution one day or another, for restricting himself from giving Merlin a hug or a brush or a kiss required more will than Arthur probably possessed. However today was not the day, for he was about to face king Rodor alone, as they had agreed. Later, I will think of something. I wonder if Reginald and Darian ever displayed their feelings that openly. Did the court know? They both had wives, but they still remained faithfully in love throughout all those years until the Battle of Ashes did them apart.

“So, apart from ruining my bottom, what shall we do after the talks with Rodor?” Merlin inquired almost casually.

“If Rodor agrees to our terms, we sail to Inkwave and make peace with Gawant. That will secure all our southern borders. Nemeth and Cornwall will be at war, Deorham will be in chaos after Alined’s been murdered by the pirates that survived the dragon’s wrath, and Gawant will be our ally. I shall then invade Midlands, seize the castles of Brechfa and Chemary, and make Ascetir join my cause.”

“You want to deprive Yrien of all the trade roads,” Merlin said after silent calculations that made wrinkles appear on his forehead.

“Now that’s a clever boy,” Arthur nodded, approvingly. He’s got all it takes to be a royal advisor.“I know she’s cut herself from the south, but the Mercian trade road still links her with one of the most prosperous kingdoms in the west. Now, if the territory of Ascetir joins my cause, they will help me cut her off the Mercian road, and she will be locked inside the castle that is cut off from the rest of the world. How long will it take for her bannermen to abandon her after that?”

“You think Ascetir will join you?”

“Lord Blanchefleur served as my father’s treasurer for many good years. Ryence’s dismissed him rather gracelessly, and so far as we know, Ascetir has taken no part in this conflict.”

“Will the fighting be bad in Midlands?” Merlin asked worriedly.

 He doesn’t want me to ride with my army.

“I don’t think so. The castles in Midlands are no true castles. Unlike Idirsholas, the castle of the Fallen Kings, Camelot or Gedref, they were not built by dragonlords. The castles in Midlands are more like… vast towns encircled by wooden walls. They can be taken easily.”

“What about your western relatives?”

“I think I can reach some agreement with them,” Arthur muttered hurriedly as he observed king Rodor’s party approaching him. It’s time I summon my own guards. “Nentres Gaheris doesn’t want war, no more than I do. Now be good and wait for me.”

 

***

 

King Rodor was expecting him in the second keep, whose windows opened to the view of the dark eastern cliffs and rocks, with the restless noises of waves crushing the stones, sometimes loud and wild as the echoes of storm, at other times – sweet and murmurous as the singer’s voice. Arthur hated the sweat on his skin, the weakness in his knees and the fingers that would clench into fists. He had expected himself to be the true leader that would know neither nervousness nor fear, he had thought that seeing Rodor under the new circumstances would be a lot better, when in fact it seemed to only have gotten worse.

The last time we spoke, he wanted to sell me to Odin after I refused to marry his daughter. This time, he is camping by Portstown’s walls with six hundred men and has another twenty-five hundred at our borders. I will never restore Camelot to peace if I keep fighting all the Rodors, Odins and Godwyns of this world. I may hate Rodor for what he attempted to do, but it’s not his love that I need. It’s peace.

As Arthur was marching along the corridor, followed by guards of both parties, he came across many familiar faces of Portstown nobility and many tanned faces of Nemeth vassals: their silence seemed louder than the battle cries, horns and drums. They all looked as if they’d withheld their very breathing from the world, too afraid to inhale unless the word came out that there would be no war. Whatever happened when the dragon’s shadow had been cast upon their forces seemed to impress them greatly, and their hungry for battle glory was gone, as if never there.    

The king climbed the stairs and pushed into the room unannounced, to find that king Rodor was not alone. Princess Mithian was standing by the window with merchant’s bay wind swirling around her, flattening her white gown against her body in a way that would quicken any man’s pulse. There were swirls of tiny rubies to brighten the ends of her wide sleeves and spiral down her bodice, and larger gems were set in the golden spiderweb that bound her dark hair which, as she had complained, grew unruly and impossible to comb because of sea air. The white gown was cut low, to bare her shoulders and the tops of her breasts. She is the bride to die for.  

If his daughter was the youth and beauty, king Rodor was all about the grim and the black of a seasoned commander and ruler, in the black doublet and black breeches and a golden crown which looked modest compared to the golden band with seven shining gems on Arthur’s head. Impossible as it looked, the king of Nemeth seemed to have gained years in a short span of weeks since their last meeting.

“Your grace,” Arthur tried to sound humbly. “The castle of Gedref is honored by your visit.”

Princess Mithian turned to Arthur, a warning frozen in her eyes, but before she could say a thing, Rodor roared:

“Leave us!”

“Father…”

“Mithian, for once in your life, do as you are told! Allow me to speak to the king alone!”

Mithian retreated from the room, giving Arthur a guilty look on the way, and before the door was shut, Rodor rose to his feet.
“The things she’s just said,” he spit in anger, pointing at the door. “You have planted them into her head! Setting up my only daughter against me!”

It was not the way Arthur had envisioned this conversation. Rodor was supposed to issue an official apology, maybe a written one, and instead he was on his feet, shouting at Arthur, pointing fingers and throwing accusations. Maybe he thinks he’s got nothing to lose? But I have hell of a lot to lose, I can’t be lured into this sort of discussion, I can’t.   

You have set your daughter against yourself, Rodor. For all the years that you’ve kept her at court against her will.”

“You dare educate me?!” Arthur could smell Rodor’s fury as his voice erupted like thunder. “You, who’s yet to produce an offspring?! What can you possibly know about raising children?!”

“Little and less,” Arthur agreed. “But since the Gingawaines poisoned my father, I’ve learnt a great deal about freedom, not without your help. Freedom is essential. You should’ve let your daughter be.”

“And where could she be, you witle…?” Rodor stop right when he was about to cross a dangerous threshold. “You know nothing about our kingdom, Arthur! Nothing! We are fraught with division. Before Ashkanar and his dragons came, we had been Wessex. The dragon king chewed a fat piece off our land, Nemeton, and thus the first division was born. There were, and there still are, those who live through trading with Nemeton, and those who call them traitors. When the Romans came and built their roads and trade flourished, there appeared sea merchants who would quarrel with cart merchants and land lords… After the war against Essetir, there appeared those who want revenge and those who cherish peace. We are fraught with division! If I had let Mithian away, she would have been used in a game by one group or another…”

“And now she’s using you instead of being used, and you don’t like it,” Arthur concluded, trying to mask a wicked pleasure that suddenly got hold of his senses.

The king went pale.  

“If you invited me here to trade insults then I fear I…”

“Oh, king Rodor, I could trade more than insults! To break it even, why don’t I capture you and sell you to Cendred of Essetir, for instance? He will bid a handsome price for you.”

“You swore me safe conduct!” Rodor’s mouth was half open, as if he considering summoning his guards.

“You swore it, too, when you welcomed me to the Palace of Lydon. And yet it didn’t stop you from trying to sell me to Odin of Cornwall,” Arthur reminded him with icy courtesy. “King Rodor, let us spare empty words. Let us not pretend there’s great sympathy between us. There is no, and will never be, sympathy between us for what you’ve tried to do and for what you may think I have done by rescuing Mithian. But there can be respect between us, if we both work hard to earn that.”

Suddenly, the king sank into the chair and closed his eyes, not caring that his crown looked dangerously close to slipping off his head.

“Respect? Arthur, after you fled and took Mithian with you, my kingdom has been on the verge of civil war! Half the court will have my head unless I proclaim my eldest grandson Rabos my rightful heir. Another half will kill me if I return without Mithian, whom they deem the next ruler of Nemeth. Mithian’s mother fled beyond my reach to the city of Irios where my admiral has rebelled against me, not without her meddling, I suppose. He’s taken most my fleet into the Sea of Mora and refuses to return to ports unless Mithian is crowned. And when Mithian disappeared, Lady Hadyfa, my son’s widow, reacted as quickly as I couldn’t expect… She has the support of all those who wish another war with Essetir, and of the cart merchants who suffered from Essetir war greatly. The banners were called quickly, and what could I do? Hadyfa keeps her own guards in her household, outnumbering the royal guards two to one. She keeps Rabos near her. If I had called it treason… You’ve been to Lydon and you’ve seen it. It’s a city, not a castle. I can have little safety there. The best for me to do was to show some iron will and lead that army myself.”

He’s desperate. He’s desperate and needs help, but he’s too proud to openly ask for it.

“That’s perfect, Rodor. You are the head of this army now, you chose to lead it, you are the king of Nemeth, you are the true commander. So command Hadyfa’s army to invade Cornwall. King Odin has been our common pain for far too long. Mithian told me how Alined of Deorham used to fund the Pirate Companies that would attack Nemeth Fleet and ports unless you paid him generous sums. You were never ready to threaten King Alined with war, for you knew King Odin the Unruly would come to Alined's rescue. Now Alined’s gone, and Odin stands alone. You must use this chance.”

The old man considered a moment.

“Even if I do, I don’t have the strength to wipe Odin out. Cornwall is a populous land.”

“We don’t have to wipe him out,” Arthur rushed to explain. “We mean to show him strength and to bind him to our will.”

“Forgive me, my lord, but how? Camelot is rather far away from Cornwall, and you have no fleet.”

“I don’t. But King Godwyn of Gawant does.”

The announcement achieved what Arthur aimed to pursuit. Rodor’s eyes were fixed on him, and his face brightened at the mention of Godwyn’s name. He knows Gawant is a true power on the other side of the bay.

“Why would Godwyn support us in our pursuit?”

The fish has swallowed the hook.

“He loves trade, first of all. His kingdom has prospered from it. When he got the news about the dragon over the Merchant’s Bay, he shut the ports so that no ship would suffer the fate of Alined’s and Odin’s fleet. King Godwyn has every reason to wish a more controlled Odin on the throne of Conrwall. Remember, Cornwall is as much a gateway to the Merchant’s Bay as is Gawant. The gateways must behave. Besides, I am betrothed to his daughter, princess Elena. I am sailing to Inkwave after you depart the castle to meet king Godwyn in person, to discuss my betrothal and much and more. If you agree to my plan, I shall lend you half the grain in my granaries, for your campaign against Cornwall. Once you attack Odin from the east, Gawant’s fleet will attack from the west,” Arthur lied, hoping he would manage to persuade Godwyn to attack Cornwall. “You will destroy Odin’s shipyards and dockyards and sign a peace treaty with him afterwards.”

The prospects seemed charming to the old king, Arthur could tell it. Alined’s pirates had been terrorizing the waters of Mora for years, but it was Odin’s army that blocked Rodor from dealing with Alined. He never dared fight Cornwall alone, but if Gawant joins him…

“But what then? Hadyfa’s army will return from war, victorious and more dangerous. With sharper blades and stronger arms.”

“Then call you banners while Hadyfa’s army is in Cornwall,” Arthur switched to a more decisive tone. “When we talked in Lydon, your grace, you promised me ten thousand swords in exchange for marrying your daughter. I assume that without Hadyfa’s army, you can still assemble seven thousand?”

“No. Not seven. Four at best.”

“Then gather the four thousand swords. By the time Hadyfa’s army returns from Cornwall, you shall meet her with four thousand swords of your own, and I promise that after I retake my throne, I will deliver your daughter to Lydon with an army of my own, some fifteen hundred men and a dragon, if you wish, so that Mithian is crowned queen of Lydon with your and my swords behind her back. Hadyfa will not dare oppose you.”

Rodor stroked his cheek, consumed by calculations.

“Hadyfa will suffer losses in Cornwall anyway,” he said after a long break. “Odin is a stern commander. She will bring back less than she has now. My army, on the contrary, will be unharmed, and yours – forged in the battles for your throne. That plan may work. The dragon is not a necessity, however. Many a generation have died fighting Ashkanar’s beasts. The dragons are not loved in Nemeth.”

“Have we reached an agreement then?” Arthur asked, cursing himself for sounding way too hopefully.

Rodor rose and looked Arthur in the eyes. For a moment, Arthur believed the old man would finally apologize for what had happened in Lydon, but Rodor chose to dwell on the future rather than the past:

“I will declate war on Odin of Cornwall and send the army Hadyfa brought to Camelot against him. In exchange, you will deliver princess Mithian to Lydon with an army of fifteen hundred swords before Hadyfa’s host returns from Cornwall. By that time, I will have gathered swords of my own, and when Mithian returns, she will be crowned the queen of Nemeth and I shall retire from ruling. This crown’s become too heavy for my head. But make no mistake, Arthur: if you fail to deliver on your part of the bargain, I will join forces with Hadyfa and smash Gedref. I will not be made a fool of. You may use as many dragons as you like, Nemeth has fought them for centuries. Now the dragons are gone, but Nemeth still stands, strong and proud.”

They were gone. Dragons were gone.

 

***

 

Benches and tables were set in the inner yard, where guests were filling their cups from passing flagons. Arthur made sure he paid a visit to every section of the feast, even the poorest ones with the youngest squires, to purposelessly announce the news which had spread throughout the castle before king Rodor left the negotiating room. Peace was reached between the kingdoms, and Rodor of Nemeth swore to punish Odin of Cornwall for sending ships to sack Portstown.

The smell of Nemeth summer wine washed over him, and the evening full of tensions turned into a seemingly carefree night with stars sprinkled all over the pitch-black sky. The walls of both the keeps were covered with banners, and singers could hardly be heard over the loud drunk conversations and the clangor of plates. Inside the feast hall, the tables and benches were set in a way that would allow to avoid unnecessary contacts between Nemetonians and Nemethians, except for the central table, where princess Mithian, joined by lady Hadyfa, the widow of Rodor’s eldest son, enjoyed the company of Owaine, lord of Gedref, and Modron, who represented his father as the lord of Nemeton.

Merlin was never farther than a step away, yet Arthur was missing him terribly: it was his warlock, his most insanely loyal servant who Arthur wanted to share this diplomatic victory with. Nobody in the wide world had suffered for him more than Merlin once did and probably would, and when his plans finally worked and the agreement with Rodor helped the two kingdoms avoid a war, it was Merlin Arthur felt most grateful to. Arthur thought nobody could understand him better than his warlock, for nobody else had accompanied him all the way since the very first step. Merlin watched over him when he lay agonized and wounded in his tent in the forests of Brechfa, too weak to take a shit; he protected him from the gatekeepers of the spirit world and from mortal enemies on the way to their shelter; he sacrificed his life to heal Arthur’s wounds and helped him recover in Ealdor. He had seen him in the moments of the darkest despair and was always there to dispel that darkness with his loving eyes and a sly smile, and never even considered leaving despite the awfully long time they had to spend apart after Ealdor. He made Arthur believe the impossible things could be possible, and not only did he manage to find the solution to the sunstone and moonstone riddle, but he also came back to him riding a dragon. All Arthur wanted to do was to grab Merlin and whirl him in the air and kiss him and whisper that they were one step closer to going home, but he had to postpone that moment until later that night, for not everybody would understand.  

When another singer took leave after a round of applause, Arthur seized the opportunity to shatter the silence with a speech that would put an end to the celebration and mark the beginning of the hard work that had to follow. Raising his cup of wine, he overlooked the great lords of Portstown, the wealthiest merchant families, the brave commanders of Rodor’s army, the beautiful princess Mithian and the irritated lady Hadyfa of Nemeth, and spoke:

“My lords and ladies! Days ago, we were on the brink of war. However, today we can enjoy peace, and I call it a reason worth celebrating! Drink with me, my lords and ladies, drink for the long-lasting peace between kingdoms of Nemeth and kingdoms of Camelot!”

Nothing else had to be spoken: Nemethians, Nemetonians and the local folk shouted cheers and knocked their cups and goblets to spill more wine than they probably could hope to drink. War with Cornwall seems a fair price for peace with Camelot to them, Arthur observed silently as he returned to his seat, winking at Merlin who stood by the wall as a king’s shadow.

Even king Rodor responded with a courteous smile.

“If we bring peace between our kingdoms after all what happened, it will be next to miracle,” he said hopefully. “But I hope you understand, Arthur, that defeating Odin and bringing Mithian back to Nemeth is just the beginning?”

“You’re talking about the disputed lands,” Arthur said readily. His councilors have already briefed him on the matter: the treaty signed many years ago between Rodor and Uther when Camelot agreed to enter the war against Essetir on Nemeth’s side had to be renewed.  

“I am. The shadow lands, as your father and I would call them.”

“Why shadow?”

“They were never on the map, as if always in the shadow,” Rodor shrugged. “There’s nothing magical about them, however grim their name may sound. Most of them always used to pay their taxes to the crown of Camelot, I know, but your father was always cautious enough to not draw them on the official map of Camelot. They have been disputed ever since the dragon king came.”

“You never speak fondly of Ashkanar,” Arthur said, letting Merlin refill his cup from a special flagon.  

“You wouldn’t speak fondly of him, too, if your ancestors had been on the other side of that conflict,” king Rodor grinned.  

“My ancestors have nothing to do with Ashkanar.”

“Your father was a westerner, but your mother was born in this very castle, have you forgotten that? She is from the lesser branch of House Gedref. An ancient house. They were tigernas in Wessex, and when Ashkanar came, they chose to bend the knee after years of fighting. Weaklings, I’d say, if you forgive me. The dragon king was quick enough to marry his daughter to some Gedref offspring, to win the small folk to his side.”

The mention of marriage made Arthur think of Morgana again. I must rescue her before I march. I’ve learnt the castle of Camelot by heart. There are secret passages that may allow her to escape. We can rescue her the same way we rescued that druid boy, whatever his name.

“Why would Ashkanar seek power through marriage?” Arthur asked quizzically. “He was the dragonlord in the days when there were both, great dragons and wild dragons. He had all the power of the wide world, it would seem.”

“Dragons are good for ruining armies, those armies which are silly enough to be lured into the open field, where they would burn like wood in the fire. It is but the truth,” Rodor admitted with too much discontent to his tone and his old wrinkled tired face. “But what if the army is scattered? What if the soldiers occupy every house in the city, for instance? What would you have him do? Burn every hut so that he would rule over ruins and ashes? That’s not what he left his precious castle of Idirsholas for.”

“And what did he leave it for?”

“Some sorcery he couldn't practice in Druid Land,” Rodor muttered dismissively. “He had a brother called Sigan. Was believed to be a seer, that one, and got executed for stupid prophecies he’d make. He used to say hundreds of ships would come from across the Sea of Mora and bring men that would put the lot of Albion to swords. He was powerful and his prophecies of the doom from across the sea scared a great deal of people. They had him hanged so that he wouldn’t spread fear among the small folk, I reckon.”

“But he was right,” Atrhur whispered, ashamed of chills and goosebumps running up his spine at the mention of Sigan. Even dead, that man caused enough harm to Camelot. “The romans did come from across the sea of Mora. They put the realm to swords.”

“Not the dragonlords’ realm, though,” there was something accusing in Rodor’s voice. “The romans were terrified by the dragons and threaded carefully wherever dragonlords were involved. The romans never pushed further than the Fosse Way, for they had no wish to fight the dragons. Instead, they camped at Cornwall before sailing across the Merchant’s Bay to conquer the west.”

“The West didn’t seem to mind the romans,” Arthur hoped Vyda Gaheris would never hear these words from him. The western pride means everything to westerners. She would tear me apart if she heard me say it.  

“Well, the kingdom of Gawant extracted more from that invasion than the romans themselves did, I reckon, but there were some who opposed it. Daobethian King Caratacus gathered the biggest army the west had ever seen and put on a decent fight.”

“He lost, however.”

“Yes, he did. He lost the battle and the war, and fled to Mercia where some dragon king ruled, thinking he’d enjoy safety there. Caratacus was betrayed. The Mercian dragon king sold him to the Romans, sighting peace as a reason. That’s what they do, that’s what they always did, the dragonlords. Commit the vilest atrocities in the name of peace. Be wary of that dragonlord of yours, Arthur Pendragon. He may not be what he seems. And be ready to discuss the terms of shadow lands once this war is done.”

“I will.”

“Now, you will excuse me,” Rodor said, spending much effort to rise from his chair. “I have to talk to my daughter before she shoves a dagger up lady Hadyfa’s back.”

Lady Hadyfa, as if overhearing their conversations, departed Mithian’s company herself, heading Arthur’s way with a cup of wine in her hand and the summer wind in her silver hair. Arthur misliked the dark amusement written all over her round face.

“Prince Arthur! Oh, excuse me, it’s king Arthur!” she shook her head, covering her face with a fat palm. “I meant to say king Arthur! I am sorry, your grace, I still find it so hard to adjust to your new title. I still can’t believe your father’s gone, and I keep calling you prince out of habit. Allow me to be the first one to raise a cup in the sweet memory of Uther Pendragon. He was a great man, your grace, and deserves to be remembered fondly. He united the Five Kingdoms into one and look what a mess they’ve turned into with him gone. We miss him.”

“As do I,” Arthur said, not sure if his father would be happy about the evening. He would’ve given Rodor a few battles before proceeding to negotiations.“Thank you for the kind words, princess Hadyfa.”

“The feast is magnificent, your grace! I speak on behalf of all the Nemeth leaders: it’s exquisite! In fact, I enjoy your company so much that I feel robbed when I remember how you couldn’t stay in Lydon longer than you did!.. If only you had spent more time with us, we would have enjoyed your presence, which is such a privilege, as it turns out. We were told you couldn’t stay longer, for you, of course, had more urgent matters at the moment. When we learnt that our dear mistress… pardon, princess Mithian went with you, we thought we’d receive marriage invitations in due time… But then we found out your grace has rejected princess Mithian as your bride… Now, your grace, please be kind and satisfy the curiosity of an old gossiping woman: who does your heart belong to that even princess Mithian seems like a second-rate livestock to you?”

Arthur closed his eyes to give himself seconds to consider the answer. Hadyfa tried to humiliate Mithian, there was no mistake, but it wasn’t about Mithian being second-rate livestock, Arthur wanted to shout. It was simply about him loving someone else. Arthur pursed his lips, ready to pronounce the first letter of Merlin’s name, and suddenly, he felt all the pressure of the world in the silent curiosity of the feast hall who couldn’t wait to learn his bride’s name. As the pause continued awkwardly, Merlin dropped a flagon of wine and headed to the exit. Arthur heard him run.  

Chapter Text

CHAPTER 20: The Old and The New 

Faces were racing past him, and angry words were chasing him – words sent by those he had accidentally bumped into during his flight from the feast hall of the castle of Gedref. Merlin’s breathing was so feverish it consumed all his senses, and he didn’t even think to stop and say sorry for being clumsy and carelessly making people spill wine or beer from their cups. They will survive spilled wine somehow, it’s not that big of a deal.

Ironically, he knew that he would survive lady Hadyfa’s accidental slight as easily, but knowingthings had never been more different from feeling them. In the silence that followed Hadyfa’s question, the question about whom Arthur loved so much that he refused to marry princess Mithian, Merlin let all his hopes be written on his face and beating in his heart. He wanted his own name to be pronounced by Arthur to cause a roar or a storm so much that he nearly started to shout it out himself, loud as some market shopkeeper. But the silence lasted long enough for him to understand that Arthur wasn’t ready to announce his loved one to the court. And neither to his council nor even to his closest knights.

The night would’ve been dark had not a hundred of torches been lit all over the inner yard, the flames burning bright and painfully reminding Merlin of all the flames he had seen and cast in his life – the flames that took Freya from him, the flames that took hundreds of lives in the Lower Town, the flames that roasted the pirates in the Merchant’s Bay, the flames of his soul and destiny. Arthur is my destiny, but if so, why can’t we love each other openly and freely now that he accepts everything about me, even my magic?

Merlin wanted to be alone and let himself be attacked by tears and disturbing thoughts. The keep with bedchambers would probably see too much fuss after the feast, and so Merlin had to sneak into the long gallery that let him out on the gardened terrace beyond the curtain wall, the one overlooking the sleeping silhouette of Portstown. The wind was strong and salty, blowing Merlin’s tears away before he could even cry them. On the terrace, the feast hall music was a muted hum of a nonsense with neither melody nor lyrics, and the drunken conversations, shouts and roars were swallowed by the wind. The Merchant’s Bay was no less black than the dome of the sky, where the moon hang, as thin as silver-knife cut, but waves would flash in the dark when crashing the shore.

Somehow his breath adjusted to the rhythm of the sea, the rhythm which seemed a song that contained some ancient wisdom powerful to illuminate the mind if one cared to listen to it fully. However, Merlin’s mind had little chance to soar up through the worries and frustrations the warlock was drowning in. I’m fire, but now I’m like a candle that’s to be put out by its own melted wax. He hated self-pity more than he hated anything else in the world, yet why all of a sudden did he feel so sorry for himself in this beautiful summer night?

Months ago, Arthur knew nothing about my magic and my feelings, he refused to even hug me and the best I could hope for was to polish his armor and wash his clothes and clean his room and tend to his horses. And now I stand here wining like some silly greedy child that Arthur is not announcing me as his … loved one. I must appreciate what I have.

To say it was easier than to do so. Merlin remembered the blissful relief when lady Hadyfa asked for his name at the field where Merlin confronted Rodor’s army with a dragon. I could say my name and who I was, and I didn’t have to hide anything. He also recalled the wild pleasure from kissing Arthur in the armory after that mission and making whatever he wanted to his king and not caring that someone could overlook them. It would be nice to accompany Arthur officially and to never fight my desire to kiss him and hold his hand…But that’s impossible. His claim is still far from being fulfilled, and were the nobles to learn that he would never marry and produce an heir… Thay would weaken him as king. What was I thinking?

Merlin knew what he was thinking, though: it was similar to what he had attempted to achieve with Freya. To take her to the faraway land, to some place where nobody would know who we were…To love and be happy without feeling constrained by… by all those silly constraints.

The boy in him wanted to kiss Arthur whenever he wanted, to mess with him and call him names and run from him and let Arthur tickle him, but the dragonlord in him knew he couldn’t make his affection so public, for Arthur was now a king. We are no longer a servant and a master. We are a dragonlord and a king. We have a lot more to worry about, but if I understand it so bloody well then why does it hurt so much?

Merlin sighed and started gazing over the city of Portstown, until the pale pink light of dawn touched the sky above him and the grass beneath his feet got covered with a blanket of fine dew. It’s time to let go of this endless summer bliss and face the reality that’s not as sweet as my dreams.

 

***

 

He hoped he’d find Arthur asleep in his bed, but the chambers were empty when Merlin walked in.

“Where’s the king?” he demanded of a sleepy page boy that was positioned at the door.

“His grace went to Portstown.”

“Portstown? Why?” Merlin felt a blaze of unexpected anger. He hoped to explain everything to Arthur and to talk it over, yet the king went to Portstown without even announcing anything to him.

“To hold the court,” the boy replied, indifferent. “He asked to pass this letter to lord Merlin.”

Lord Merlin, my arse. He felt the color rising to his face as he nearly ripped the envelope together with the page’s hand.

 

Wait for me in the castle. There is no need for you to go to Portstown. I haven’t held court for once since I came to Gedref, and you wouldn’t believe the crush of cases that’s awaiting me, and the number of petitioners is insane. I will be in lord Sei’s company most of the time, so we wouldn’t be able to spend much time together. The court is important because I need everything settled before we go to Inkawave. I hope I’ll be back by sunset. Yours and yours and only yours, Arthur Pendragon.

 

He read the letter sitting on his bed, his left foot jigging with impatience. The prospect of spending the whole day waiting for Arthur seemed physically aching, but the last line where Arthur wrote “yours” thrice made a smile appear light up his face, a smile that refused to go. It was only when the knock on the door made him rise that he burnt the letter with a flash of golden light in his eyes and gathered his expression for a more dutiful look.

“Come in,” he said loudly.

The door swung open; the man that walked in carried new signs of wealth, like a silver arm ring, a new silken tunic and silver-studded sword belt, but beneath his newfound wealth it was undoubtedly the same humble looking man Merlin had met in the Darkling Wood last year. Lance.

“I hope you haven’t drunk too much at the feast,” Lancelot smiled as Merlin rushed for a hug. It was so good to have him back that he wanted to jump into his arms the same way he’d jump into Arthur’s, but the night had taught Merlin to control his impulses.

“Lance, I am so happy to see you! Arthur told me you’ve come, he told me about everything! Thank you for bringing my books and sword, it’s…”

“It’s a strange sword,” Lancelot cut in. “But alas, so is everything about you. Good to see you doing well. You wouldn’t be sleeping in the royal chambers had Arthur not recognized your talents, right?”

Which talents, Merlin wanted to giggle.

 “Some of my talents can be of use at times of war,” he nodded.

“This tale is all over Portstown and every drunk man retold it yesterday. It began with you just flying over Rodor’s army, mounted on your dragon, and by the end of the feast it was you feeding Rodor’s soldiers to the beast.”

“I didn’t feed anybody to the dragon,” Merlin rolled his eyes. “Kilgharrah doesn’t eat at all. Those rumors, I swear, they… Speaking of feeding, are you hungry?”

The kitchen servants brought them some leftovers from the feast, a kid cooked with young carrots and hard dates, some grey bread and spiced southern wine. Lancelot ate with appetite, as he always would. The journey south must have been tiring. Lance gave the whole room an aura of good old days, as if they were supping in Gaius’s chambers after having fooled the whole of Uther’s court with feigned knighthood papers.   

“I wanted to meet you earlier, but there was too much… fuss about Rodor. It’s good to have you back,” Merlin said sincerely. “You are very brave for making it here.”  

“I wish I could say the same. But I failed. I was supposed to come with Gwen.”

“You couldn’t force her to go if she didn’t want to,” Merlin tried to pity him, but the sense of biting guilt washed over him as he was secretly happy Gwen remained in the castle of Camelot. I still don’t know how to tell Arthur that Gwen played a part in his father’s death. Best she remains in Camelot until… Until I can think of something. “What could you do? Knock her out and pile her ahorse?”

“I wouldn’t do that. I wanted her to go with me willingly, told her it’s not safe in Camelot… A pity she… she doesn’t want to see me anymore,” Lancelot voice was filled with self-accusing notes.

“Why?”

“She’s with Gwaine now. You’ve trusted him with guarding her, I suppose?”

Goddess be good, this man makes love to every girl he meets.  

“Lance, I never suspected that he… Well, he seemed very lovefull… Goddess, is she really with Gwaine?”

The thought about Gwen and Gwaine falling in love didn’t call for celebration. Gwaine knows who I am. He knows I have magic. My secret is less safe if he and Gwen get really close.

“She is with him. I couldn’t persuade her to come, and I know she’s hurt… But it felt… Merlin, I was so angry I would’ve cut him! I misliked him at first glance, and, honestly, it’s good that I’m here, because Arthur’s charged me with some mission, and I’ll have something to keep my head busy with instead of thinking about her all the time…”

Arthur didn’t tell me about this mission.

“What will you be doing?”

“I will be tracking smugglers and their wagons. Lord Cynric worked as Uther’s Councilor on Trade, so he thinks he has some ideas about the smuggling routes in Gedref… We’ll be tracking them and bringing them to justice. We want to know who’s running them.”

“Is it risky?”

“As risky as my mercenary service in Essetir. We were searching for Cenred’s tax wagons there, and this time we shall be searching for smuggling chains. It’s pretty much the same. My sword will be of use, finally. To the good cause.”

Lancelot finished his spiced wine and glanced at the door, worriedly, before nodding at the balcony. Merlin understood him without a word. When they stepped out, they spent some time watching children playing in the fruit garden before Lancelot spoke, slow and in whisper:

“Now, Merlin, Gaius wanted me to tell you something. He made me swear I would pass his words to nobody but you. Even the king mustn’t know I’ve told you this.”
Merlin felt his breath freeze. What has Gaius found?

“Gaius is now the Secretary of the crown, so he has access to a lot more information. He believes that the druid uprising to the north of Mercian trade road is led by Ruadan, Alvarr and Morgana. After Sir Vidor Gaheris’s murder, the druid army agreed to help Yrien rid the realm of Vyda Gaheris in exchange for Rion marrying Morgana and ultimately lifting the ban on magic. Anna Dindrane, the granddaughter of the last druid queen, has brokered this agreement. What Gaius doesn’t understand is where the druids could possibly gather that many swords, but it’s not what matters.”

Lancelot whisper had a plotting tone, even though they were not discussing anything treacherous. Yet every feature of Lance suggested the young knight felt uncomfortable with plot schemes, that he would prefer to fight a dozen of battles rather than participate in the delivery of secret information.

“Gaheris army is marching on Camelot through the Pass of Camlann, and if the westerners prevail and occupy the castle of Camelot before Arthur marches north, the realm will bleed,” Merlin could hear Gauis’s voice even though it was Lancelot speaking. “Too many commoners in the Lower Town are asking for a new purge, and Vyda has been known for designing the purges well. The murdered sir Vidor Gaheris was a popular and well-loved champion who won the latest tourney of Camelot, and Vyda’s sons are Uther’s cousins, which may prompt many and more to see righteousness in western cause. Once the Gaheris family set their foot inside the castle of Camelot, small folk will support them, so Vyda must not be allowed to storm the capital, whatever the cost.”

But Arthur doesn’t want to go to war against his kin. He may dislike them greatly, but they are his father’s family, and he can’t blame them for hating the Gingawaines.

“If Vyda is defeated, though,” Lancelot continued. “Gaius fears that the Midlands and the Druids will try and slaughter each other for the throne, which may condemn the realm to a starving winter. He urges you to negotiate with them. Gaius knows that above all things Arthur seeks justice for the murder of Uther, but it is not what the realm needs on the verge of the harvest season. Instead of trying to destroy the Gingawaines, you must try and negotiate with them. You have two impregnable castles and a dragon which gives you a good starting position. Offer them terms. Disinherit Rion of the castle of Brechfa and send him and Morgana to rule over the castle of Asgorath instead, which is Morgana’s by rights. Send Yrien into permanent exile. Grant the druids the castle of Idirsholas and name yourself their rightful leader.”

Me? A druid leader?

“And where shall I send Morgause?” Merlin smirked. “I doubt she’ll go anywhere willingly.”

“Gaius believes Morgause will not cause trouble providing the ban on magic is lifted. He says that Morgause never poisoned wells in the cities, never tried to pin Camelot against Mercia, and never sent beasts against innocent people, unlike Nimueh. Morgause just needs the lift of ban. Give her that, and she will retreat to the Isle of the Blessed.”

How can I ask Arthur to make peace with the family who slaughtered his knights-to-be and poisoned his father? Merlin searched the garden for answer, and to his surprise, he thought he stumbled upon one.  

 

***

 

The librarian differed greatly from all the children and their nurses that were occupying the fruit garden; a slightly plump man in dark-blue rippling robes, he looked like a wizard himself and was easy to notice. He was not that easy to reach, though, as the playing children had turned the whole garden into a state of a battle field, chasing each other and firing rotten apples despite their nurses trying to somehow prevent it. A couple of shots were fired at Merlin, too, but he had to dodge and run as if he were a child himself.

“Henry?” Merlin approached the librarian from the back.

The old man turned around, surprised. His face brightened when he recognized Merlin.

“My lord!” he shook Merlin’s hand. “I so hoped to talk to you at the feast. Sadly, by the time I arrived, you had been gone already. What can I say? I ought to have climbed the bloody stairs faster, but faster is not something that comes with age.”

“Do you have a moment?” Merlin asked hopefully.   

“Of course, of course. Now, make sure you don’t hurt the apple trees when collecting the fruits!” he shouted at some of the children and pleaded to a nurse. “The dragon has hurt them well enough when he landed here. Genna, see to them. Walk with me, my lord. These boys and girls will not permit us a quiet talk, I’m afraid.”

“I thought you were not a gardener? I thought you were lord Sei’s librarian…”

“Oh, I am as much a librarian as Gaius is a physician,” Henry laughed. “I mean, Gaius’s healing powers are beyond doubt, but he’s a lot more than just a physician, isn’t he?”

“You know him?” Merlin eyed the man curiously.

“Most old men know each other. I had the pleasure of working with Geoffrey as well.”

“Then you know about… Gaius’s?..”

“His magic? Of course, I do. My lord, there’s nothing surprising about that to me,” he said as they walked past the arbor which was piled with baskets filled with green, yellow and red apples. “In the days of the Old Religion, it was common for the rulers of Seaside Kingdom to keep a special councilor at court, someone who would advise them on the matters of witchcraft and sorcery. I was one of such councilors. I have exchanged many a letter with Gaius.”

“How did you survive Uther’s Purge then?”

“I have to thank king Arthur’s uncles for that. After they killed king Reginald, they had to act quickly and dismissed all of his council in a foolish haste. I lost my job and fled. If I had kept it until the days of Purge, I would’ve lost more than a job. Many great men and women and children perished when Uther turned his grief to rage and vengeance.”

Which Arthur mustn’t do. He mustn’t turn his grief over Uther into madness of the new purge aimed at Midlands and the Gingawaines. So easy to say, but so difficult to make it happen.  

“Why did you choose to flee?” Merlin wondered as they continued their stroll that led to the open gardened terrace beyond the western curtain wall.

“I neverendorsed what happened to king Reginald. I never forgave Tristan and Agravaine for what they had done to him. Regicide is one of the most terrible crimes, and Reginald was one of the best monarchs this land has ever seen,” his tone betrayed an unhealed heartache. “Reginald took great interest in the matters of magic, thanks to the influence of his dragonlord friend.”

“Prince Darian,” Merlin nodded with a smile.  

“You know that much,” Henry seemed surprised. “So, you were schooled?”

“No, not in a traditional way, I wasn’t. But I have other means to… know things.”

“What means? There are many ways to tell the future, but only some to learn the past,” Henry measured Merlin with a suspicious gaze. “Did you peek into some magic crystal?”

“No.”

“Then you’ve talked to the spirits?”

“I think I did,” Merlin remembered his weird dream where he learnt about Darian and Reginald for the first time. “In the forests of Ascetir, when I was on the way to Camelot, I saw the streams aglow with silver light, and when I touched them, the visions opened to me.”

“This is incredible!” Henry rubbed his hands in excitement.

“It happened by the river Albus,” Merlin went on. “The next time I crossed it, my friend’s blade melted like butter. All the weapons we carried were destroyed by the most powerful magic I have ever seen. Do you have any explanation for that?”

Henry glanced over the bay, warmed by the mature summer sunshine.

“I’m afraid I don’t. The river Albus has long been rumored to have a magic nature, all thanks to the agreement struck between the last druid queen and Uther the Usurper. The river was meant to protect all the druids who didn’t want to accept Uther as their monarch and shelter them from those who’d wish to harm them after the druid dynasty fell. Queen Andor did her best to conceal the terms, though: it was rumored that she gave potion that erased the memories about the precise details of the agreement to everybody save for Uther, Nimueh and Balinor. After Uther’s death, I’m afraid there are no chances to ever find the truth.”

“Kilgharrah once told me that the greatest magic can’t rely on spells alone, that it needs a vessel, a living presence to keep it going…”

“Your dragon is wise beyond the limits of human knowledge but he can’t know everything about the magic of mortals. Queen Andor can’t be alive after all these years. She’s dead, as are her children. Her only living granddaughter Anna resides in Camelot, but Anna’s recollections of the deal were erased as well, and she remembers nothing of the agreement between Uther, Nimueh and queen Andor, save for the fact that all druids could live unharmed on the left bank of the Albus river. Whatever kept that magic going… wasn’t the living presence, I assure you. The labyrinth of Gedref has been protected by magic for many years after Darian’s and Reginald’s passing, too, and definitely not by some living presence. There are more mysteries to magic.”

“Can’t… a feeling be the source of this long-lasting labyrinth magic?”

“Pardons?” Henry replied, perplexed. “A feeling?”

“Like… friendship? Or devotion? Or love?”

“That’s interesting,” he rubbed his head. “I know of sorcery that aims to mimic love, substitute it or create the illusion of it… But the common notion is that love itself is one of the greatest mysteries, too dangerous to be used as a source for magic…”

“How can love be dangerous?” Merlin felt confused by such a bold statement.

“When unfulfilled or ignored or betrayed, it easily turns to hatred and violence.”

It was the bitter truth that echoed with painful memories about how Arthur felt betrayed by him when he revealed his magic secret to the prince in the forest of Brechfa, about how Arthur said he didn’t want to see his servant at all.  

“So, there are some reasons why this magic of Albus river suddenly sprang back to life, right?”

“There certainly are,” Henry nodded. “For in magic, nothing happens without a reason. But do not seek any link between the labyrinth of Gedref and the river Albus. They are not related, it’s safe to assume. Queen Andor had to act quickly after Uther won the Battle of Ashes, while Reginald and Darian spent quite a lot of time constructing the magic labyrinth.”

“I know. They often traveled there. I’ve recently met an innkeeper in that area, she remembers Reginald and Darian hunting there.”

“The only silly thing king Reginald did,” Henry said with a smile. “Those hunting trips.”

“Silly? Why?”

“They were not mere hunting trips, as you could’ve guessed. Reginald and Darian searched for Ashkanar’s tomb, a foolish enterprise. I’ve told him many times that if Ashkanar had built a tomb, people would’ve found it by now, but the king wouldn’t listen…”

“Why would Ashkanar build himself a tomb?”

“Gaius didn’t tell you about Ashkanar?”

“He didn’t. All I know about him I learned during my brief stay here, and I haven’t learnt much.”

“Ashkanar’s story may be crucial for the understanding of your destiny,” Henry said. “It began in times when two great empires prospered in Albion: the empire of Mercia in the east, ruled by a dragon king Wigmund, and the empire of Wessex in the south. In the year 97 Before Romans, a giant fleet of an ambitious Roman commander Caesar crossed the Sea of Mora and landed all over the south-eastern shores. Then it split in two parts, one landed in the territory of Mercia called Anglia, and another occupied the territory of Wessex called Kent. For the first time Albion was dealing with a massive foreign invasion, and the dragonlords, who had been charged with keeping peace after the First Dragon War, flew to Idirsholas to discuss what was to be done with Romans.”

“What could be done with them other than thwart them and throw them back into the sea where they had come from?” Merin asked, recalling how he never hesitated for a second about what had to be done with Alined’s and Odin’s fleet.  

“Thwart them, aye, but how, my lord? With an army of soldiers? If yes, then whose army should it be? Or will only dragons suffice? If so, what dragons? There remained four great dragons and their lords at the time of Caesar’s invasion, one of them was Wigmund, the king of Mercia, another resided in Denaria, another in Idirsholas, and another one had no official seat, so terms had to be discussed,” Henry sighed, as if dragonlords’ division still upset him greatly. “Anyway, you are right: no army could hope to prevail against a dragon unless prepared to do so. Caesar was not prepared to fight dragons, and even though his occupation of Anglia was met with enthusiasm from anglians who wanted to gain independence from the Mercian throne, it ended as quickly as it had begun, when the Mercian dragonlord Wigmund flew to Anglia and burned a good deal of Caesar’s ships.  The romans were quick to retreat. Anglians hated romans for abandoning them, and the Mercian king tried to somehow meet the demands of anglians by granting Anglia a princedom within Mercian kingdom.”

“Wessex was less lucky, though. After Caesar left, a civil war broke out in the great empire in year 94 BR, and it lasted for four long bloody years, pinning Nemeth against Kent. The dragonlords viewed it as a domestic affair of Wessex and didn’t interfere until the conflict got too bloody to let the warring sides carry on. When Nemeth was close to victory over Kent, dragon king Ysel of Druid Land informed the Nemeth crown that Druid Land recognized independence of Kent, that it would see no more fighting and that anybody who’d shatter peace would be given to flames. To guarantee the peace agreement, Faeda, the younger princess of Kent, got married to Oswig, the dragon prince. She departed her kingdom for good, leaving her parents, her elder sister Paeda and her niece Kynea behind.”

“The marriage of the Druid Land prince Oswig and Kent princess Faeda was a happy one, if the accounts are to be trusted. They married in 89 BR, and soon princess Faeda was with child, who was born next year, a boy named Ricos. Their second son, Gillis, was born in 85 BR. In year 82 BR, dragon king Ysel accompanied princess Faeda and her younger son Gillis on their trip to Kent – the princess had not seen her parents, her sister and her niece for six years, after all, and she missed them terribly and wanted to pay a visit. However, their ship got into storm, and all who were aboard died in a cruel shipwreck.”

“All of them? And dragon king Ysel?”

“The storm spared nobody,” Henry admitted in a grievous tone. “Ysel’s son, prince Oswig, assumed the throne, of course, but didn’t give up the attempts to find his father, his wife and his younger son, hoping they were cast ashore somewhere, alive and safe. After a year of fruitless searches and patrols, king Oswig of the Druid Land went to Kent for the official mourning ceremonies, leaving his son Ricos in Denaria. It was in Kent that king Oswig met his late wife’s niece, Kynea of House Sigan, who reminded him of his lady wife so much that he wed Kynea once the mourning ran its course and had her brought to Druid Land.”

“Needless to say, Oswig’s son by first marriage, Ricos, didn’t like his father’s new wife, for reasons best left unsaid. King Oswig’s new marriage lasted for five years; queen Kynea gave him a daughter Bassa in 79 BR. Sadly, in year 76 BR king Oswig of Druid Land was assassinated during his hunting trip by a group of Nemethian renegades who cursed him for ruining the unity of Wessex and supporting Kent’s separatism. The throne passed to Oswig’s twelve-year-old son Ricos, and Oswig’s widow Kynea was declared queen regent.”

“To solidify her position at court of the Druid Land which was still foreign to her, and no less hostile, Kynea married Wigmund, the dragon king of Mercia. Wigmund of Mercia couldn’t be expected to leave his kingdom, no more than Kynea was expected to leave the Druid Land, and their marriage was more a political one, where Wigmund would come once or twice a year to perform his marriage duties. In the year 74 BR queen regent Kynea gave birth to a boy called Cornellius.”

“Cornellius Sigan!”

“The greatest sorcerer that ever lived, aye,” Henry sighed. “He took the name of his mother’s house. Meanwhile, the situation in the Druid Land remained complicated. The kingdom yearned for vengeance even many years after king Oswig’s assassination and many court members persuaded prince Ricos, still underage, to go to war with Nemeth, but Queen Regent didn’t want to hear a word of it. She was busy raising her own children now, Bassa, her daughter from the assassinated king Oswig, and Cornellius, her son from king Wigmund. She was so charmed with the light brought by her children that she didn’t notice the shadows grow. Once prince Ricos came of age, he charged his stepmother with involvement in the conspiracy that resulted in his father’s assassination and sentenced her to death. Her sent her children to the castle of Idirsholas.”

“Did Kynea really play part in Oswig’s death?”

“I am afraid we shall never find out,” Henry shrugged indifferently. “Now, King Wigmund of Mercia was shocked with the trial over his wife Kynea, but he could do little to save her other than go to open war against Druid Land, which he wasn’t ready to do. He mourned her for twenty years before he married again and had a son from another wife, a boy called Ashkanar, who was sent to Idirsholas to be fostered among the druid nobility.”

“So Sigan and Ashkanar are brothers?”

“They are. Through their father, king Wigmund of Mercia.”

“But if Sigan was the first son born to the king of Mercia, he was the eldest child, then why didn’t he leave Idirsholas and go rule over Mercia?”

“Sigan never expressed interest in the crown. Least so in the dragons. He used to say that there was too much magic beyond the fire-breathing monsters to get so focused on them, and in the castle of Idirsholas, he devoted himself to the exploration of magic’s darkest secrets. They said he embarked on a quest for immortality itself, they said that he could breathe life into stones and was a capable seer… His magic got so powerful that he even managed to build the castle of Camelot, the triumph of his magic. A pity he forgot that he was but a guest in the Druid Land, whilst King Ricos still ruled. Sigan was fifty-four years old when king Ricos couldn’t ignore the rumors about his disgusting experiments any longer and sentenced him to death.”

“For what?”

“In his pursuit of immortality, Sigan… Well, some healers open the bodies of the dead to study the nature of life. Sigan opened the bodies of the living to study the nature of death. He did many more unspeakable things. The king couldn’t tolerate it. Moreover, Sigan kept spewing prophecies that spoke of Albion’s doom that would be brought by ships from across the Sea of Mora. The small folk were disturbed by those prophecies, and so Ricos sentenced Sigan to death in the year 20 BR.”

“Ashkanar was never much too fond of his brother, but there had always been respect between them. When Ricos killed Sigan, Ashkanar considered it that last drop. Remember, Ricos had condemned Sigan’s mother to death as well; he charged her with conspiracy against his father Oswig and killed her, and now he killed Sigan, too. Ashkanar believed it was a personal matter, and so he took his great dragon south and invaded Nemeth. Ashkanar led the commoners of Druid Land believe that he was avenging Nemeth for the assassination of the beloved king Oswig, so that Ricos would be powerless to stop him.”

“The rest is history. Ashkanar’s conquest lasted for ten years, and ended with the foundation of the castle of Gedref in the year 9 BR. The conquest effectively froze most of the trade over the Merchant’s Bay, for few ships would dare sail beneath the dragons, and many wealthy merchants fled east and founded Londinium, the greatest trade city of them all, which would later get linked to Gawant by the Great Trade Road. As soon as the Romans invaded, Ashkanar initiated the second wave of his conquest, seeking to broaden his realm to Nemeton and Balor in response to the Roman invasion. King Ricos, who had turned dreadfully old by that time, warned Ashkanar against further expansion, to which Ashkanar responded with war. It is known as the Second Dragon War. Ashkanar cooked Ricos in the castle of Denaria which turned into the castle of the Fallen Kings, brought fire and blood upon Nemeton and ripped it off Nemeth. At the time of this war Ashkanr was the only son of king Wigmund of Mercia and, thus, mercian king by law, but the brutality of his southern conquest shocked the Mercian nobles so much that they chose to break apart from Mercian throne and founded a separate kingdom of Essetir. The swore that they would have no more dragon kings. Ashkanar didn’t seem to mind, though, for by year 14 AR he had a Seaside Kingdom of his own and paid little attention to the Essetir revolt.”

“What did he do to the Romans?”

“It was pretty much thanks to his efforts that the Romans hesitated to push further than the Fosse Way road, and stayed far away from Gedref, camping in Cornwall and building a giant fleet that sailed across the Merchant’s Bay and conquered the West: Gawant and Mountain Land. Ashkanar remained the king of Seaside Kingdom in fact and the king of Mercia in name. He watched the West fight the Romans and when the defeated Western commanded fled to Mercia for safety, he handed him over to Romans who in exchange recognized the legitimacy of Seaside Kingdom on behalf of all the roman territories of Albion: in Kent, Nemeth, Cornwall and Gawant. However, when an Anglian princess Boudicea rebelled against romans in 17 AR, Ashkanar did nothing to suppress the rebellion even though Anglia was still formally a part of his domain. Boudicea captured three important cities of Colchester, Londinium and Verulamium, effectively preventing Romans from finishing their western conquest and luring them into the decisive battle which she lost, because the Druid Land’s dragonlords sided with the Romans.”

“Why would the dragonlorsd side with the Romans?!”

“They viewed the Romans as the force for good. They thought that when under the reign of one empire with such a numberless army, the kingdoms of Albion would finally coexist in peace. Ashkanar died in year 32 AR, having lived for 80 long years. His death marked the beginning of many silly legends about him, the legend of his tomb with the last egg of the wild dragon being one of them. That’s what king Reginald tried to find during his, so to say, hunting trips.”

“What am I supposed to understand about my destiny from the story of his life?”

“That, my lord, is entirely up to you to find.”

 

***

 

Merlin asked the servants to bring as many candles to Arthur’s room as possible and took special pleasure in lighting them up with magic, unafraid that someone might break into the room and see him use his powers. There was no longer but one punishment for sorcery and Uther’s dark legacy was safely dead in Gedref and all over the territories that had once been the Seaside Kingdom. It still made Merlin as happy as he was when he heard about it for the first time.

When surrounded by candle flames, he felt closer to his dragon nature, and it helped peace reign in his mind no matter how troubled the realm seemed. It took him on a search for answers, the answers that he knew needed to come before actions would be taken. In the candle-lit room surrounded by darkness, he thought about how the story of Ashkanar could help him to understand his destiny, if ever it could. Ashkanar was born to king Wigmund of Mercia, yet he never truly succeeded his father on the throne of Mercia. He chose a kingdom of his own, he conquered the territories of other countries and founded a kingdom that he truly wanted. He also devoted himself to shielding the Druid Land from the Romans and stopped them from going further than the Fosse Way road, setting the disagreements aside. Why has Henry told me that? Does he mean that it’s not necessary for Arthur to win back the throne of Camelot? Does he mean that Arthur can stay here and rule over Seaside Kingdom and try and make the life of this kingdom better rather than start a bloody war against the Gingawaines? Does he mean that Arthur should devote himself to a greater cause, as Ashkanar devoted himself to opposing Romans?

Evenfall came, but Arthur never did. Merlin’s thoughts were heavy enough to make him drown in his sleep and swim through the weird underworld of dreams where names and faces of ancient kings and queens would get all messed up in twisted plots and fantasies and fears. And so when he felt the familiar loving hand caressing his back, he thought he was dreaming of Arthur, until he finally opened his eyes and saw Arthur on the edge of their bed, tired but smiling, with the few candles dancing in the shy-blue of his eyes.     

“rthr!” Merlin coughed, trying to turn over and raise on his elbows.

“Didn’t want to wake you,” the king’s voice belonged with a temper that so suited the late-night conversation between two lovers.  

“It’s…it’s fine, I’ve slept enough anyway,” Merlin lied. “And…”

He tossed all the words aside and flung himself at Arthur, embracing him and trying to cling to him for dear life, savoring the scents of Arthur’s hair, strawberries mixed with sea salt. The happiness from seeing Arthur return was overwhelming, and he could sense that even his magic was triumphant, as if having Arthur back made his magic whole.

“Arthur, I’m so sorry for the feast, I didn’t mean to run and…”

“I understand what you did,” Merlin could feel Arthur’s voice vibrations in his own chest. “I’m not entirely a dollophead.”

“Arthur, I…”

Arthur broke their embrace and pressed his index finger towards Merlin’s lips.

“Merlin, let me speak. So, as I’ve said, I know it may be shocking to you, but I am not entirely a dollophead. I understand many things. Now, first, I want you to know that I value your advice. Almost every major decision I made after Ealdor, I made either after talking to you or keeping you in mind. I don’t value your advice because I love you. I value your advice because you are very curious and present a very special viewpoint at the councils. Your thinking’s sharp and instinctive. It would be good to have you on the council and I will have you there one day.”

He sealed his promise with a rather unexpected kiss that made Merlin melt like wax on one of those candles that were lit in the room.

“As I will one day openly declare my love for you and put an end to every other lord trying to wed me to some princess or lady. Some people at court already know about us. I think Mithian understands everything. And I think Owaine gets it, too. But at this moment, it is important that most of the lords and ladies see me as a rather common king with common interests so that they can serve me better as I try to regain my rightful throne. Once I retake my father’s seat from the Gingawaines, I will do as I please. And all I please to do is you.”

It was Merlin’s term to break his king’s speech with a kiss that made him want to bite Arthur by the lower lip. Arthur was in his candle-lit room, they would share a bed and spend the night unafraid of being discovered. I was so silly at the feast. Merlin pulled Arthur, but the king wasn’t done yet:

“I know how much hopes you’ve placed in Gedref. I remember how we both yearned to turn up here as quickly as possible, how we thought things would change overnight… Merlin, I promise, things will change, but not overnight. And as a token of my love, I want you to accept this gift. Remember when we were at the city fest, you paid attention to one of my subjects? Now, I noticed you enjoyed him greatly and I brought him to you.”

Arthur left the room, and when he came back, he was holding something in his hands. He approached the bed and carefully placed whatever it was on the bedsheets: Merlin recognized a white little kitten with a black ear that he had noticed sneaking under the tables at the market square in Portstown. The kitten froze, looking at Merlin, and as Arthur pushed him carefully, he climbed the blanket and rubbed his tiny face against Merlin’s hand, purring.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER 21: Bitter Truths 

 

So far being the lord of Gedref meant to suffer through unbearably long sessions of councils. Half of them were so dull, boring and uneventful Owaine literally had to punch himself in order not to fall asleep. Many of the petitioners in the line were sleeping while they waited, though: foreign bankers, the secretaries of smaller treasuries, merchants and storehouse owners, and when they would walk into the room, they’d besiege him and Lord Sei with numbers. Owaine had never before seen so many numbers written down, it seemed to him that the lives of those men were controlled by numbers, directed by numbers and determined by them to the greatest extent possible. His clerks and scribes would run out of quills and papers so often he’d got used to it. Other sessions reminded him of tavern fights, where innkeepers, ship captains, blacksmiths and oarsmen would raise their voices when debating lord Sei over one issue or another, and the language they often used would make even Modron blush.

Owaine often thought about Modron with a sense of light envy; he realized that living in the castle where your parents could be scheming to find a way to send you home was not the prettiest pastime either, but at least his friend was free of those time-consuming duties. So free he looks like he deserves a kick on the ass, sometimes.

Yet if it were not for his training sessions with Modron, he’d probably rot on that job. Fighting allowed him to yell all the anger and irritation out, and Modron was challenging his own troubles, too, when he tried to overcome him at the battlefield. He must be worried about his parents finding out about him and Mithian.

The early morning meeting didn’t scare him much, for it was not for him to conduct. He was in the presence of Modron’s mother, lady Pellinore, a black-haired woman in modest grey gown, who kept her thin lips pursed. Owaine tried not to look at the scarline on her left eyelid. Lord Sei, the lord of Portstown was in the room as well, talking to lord Rysor, Owaine’ relative by mother’s line, a man with a bald head that remined of a seagull’s egg. Lord Rysor came back from Burnwood; he delivered the city to Arthur, but their plan to exchange lord Chefyl of Woodspeak for Owaine’s mother failed, and Owaine couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed by the commander. He should’ve seen to it, he should’ve somehow made it work. She’s alone with Rion and his bitch mother, alone with the people who murdered their king. Lord Cynric looked healthier than ever after his trip to Gawant; he had put on some sun and it appeared that his goatee had grown bolder. Henry, the librarian, was standing by the window. When Arthur marched into the room, they rose at once.

“My lords and ladies, welcome to the first meeting of my council,” the king looked in a hurry, and opened his papers without waiting for everyone to take their seat. “We have a long day ahead of us. The negotiations with king Rodor are taking place tonight. The lesser part of his host is approaching Portstown already, so we shall not waste time. Before long, our preparations for the war with the Gingawaines will be over, and I will need to rule in peace. For that, I shall require a permanent council. For the time being, I want to style my council as my father did. Lord Sei, I will be honored to have you as my Secretary.”

“The honor is mine, your grace,” Lord Sei nodded humbly.  

“Lord Rysor,” Arthur continued. “I thank you for your successful mission in Burnwood and humbly ask you to be my Councilor of War.”

“I will serve you good, your grace.”

“Lord Cynric is known to most of you,” Arthur pointed at the man nonetheless. “We are happy to see him return safely from his voyage to Gawant. He’s served as the Councilor of Trade at my father’s court, and he will serve as my Treasurer from now on.”

“Your grace is too kind,” lord Cynric rose in excitement.

“I value loyalty above everything else, lord Cynric. Nobody from the old council abandoned Yrien and returned to me except for you. For that, I shall ever be grateful. Now, lady Pellinore will assume the position of the Councilor of Trade. Her experience of governing Stoneroad, the Smuggler’s City, will be most precious.”

“Don’t worry about the smugglers, your grace. They’ll be all gone soon after I start working,” Modron’s mother kindly promised. Nobody took it as a threat to the smugglers, but Owaine knew smugglers were punished heavily in Nemeton.

“Good,” Arthur’s look switched to Owaine, and the lad felt stung by the bright blue of the king’s eyes more than he was blinded by the sunshine in the seven gems of his crown. His eyes are happier than ever these days. “Now, I know many of you think lord Owaine’s too young, but I trust him with the position of my Councilor of Provision. Autumn is upon us, and provisions might be of crucial importance for the whole realm.”

Owaine was glad nobody heard his heavy sigh, for otherwise, he would’ve made a fool of himself and Arthur. Shut up and smile. He gives you this position because he trusts you. He’s just told Cynric he values loyalty above everything else. Goddess, will I ever see the light of day with two bloody jobs?

“Speaking of the realm,” Arthur paused and clapped; a couple of servants stormed into the room, carrying a gigantic bouquet of white flowers for lady Pellinore. “I am proud to announce that Nemeton has joined us. We now control most of the territory of the Seaside Kingdom.”

“Most is not all,” Lord Rysor noted after the applause. “Balor has not sworn her allegiance to anybody.”

“I don’t blame them,” Arthur said mercifully. “That’s because Lord Ragnell is at the castle of Camelot now. Were Balor to act carefree, lord Ragnell would lose his head, Yrien will see to that, I am sure. Now, we have reports that King Rodor is hours away from our castle with his negotiating party, and lord Cynric has kindly informed me that king Godwyn of Gawant is expecting me for negotiations as well. Before I go to Gawant, however, I want to discuss with you all the measures that need to be implemented to make sure the kingdom is strong while I fight the Gingawaines.”

A short silence proved a relief, for everybody rushed for their notes. However, it was lord Sei who spoke first: he had accompanied Owaine at every council and never needed notes to refresh his memory.

“We must hope for the best but be ready for the worst,” he spoke in a tone of a dark prophecy. “Were this war to drag for longer than one moon, we’d experience severe issues with trade. We need some gold and raising taxes will be inappropriate.”

“What do you suggest? The Silky Bank of Tir-Mor?” lady Pellinore asked.

“Londinium is half an Albion away,” Cynric shook his head.  

“They have representatives in most cities,” lord Seir suggested carefully.  

“I’d rather notsee my kingdom depend on some faraway bank which lacks clarity behind its principles. We all know what happens to those who struggle with the payback to the Silky Bank. Cenred’s kingdom is a good example. I will solve the issue of gold during my visit to Inkwave.”

“King Godwyn is rich enough to provide a loan,” lord Cynric, who had just been appointed as Treasurer, nodded. “What shall we promise him in return, though?”

“I have a plan, but we best discuss it later.”

“Refugees,” lady Pellinore spoke next. “They can turn into a big problem, your grace. The druids that are traveling from Essetir to Gedref through Balor and Nemeton, your grace, their numbers are described as staggering by most patrols. Too many to count, they say. There must be thousands of druids walking our way.”

“There may be as many druids in those columns as there are people in Portstown,” lord Sei voiced another concern.

“We can’t turn them away,” Arthur said with a thoughtful look. “They are coming because of me. We won’t make them go away. But Portstown is evidently too small to fit them all. Lady Pellinore, we shall agree to fund the plan of reintroducing them to our society. We can’t let all the druids live in Portstown, of course – there’s simply not enough space for them within the walls. We must distribute them among all the towns and villages, we must take their skills into account, so that they would bring most use to their new communities, we must not separate families and friends… There is a lot of work to do. Will you agree to add another title to your long list? Will you also serve as my Councilor on Druids, please?”

“I will be honored, your grace,” Modron’s mother responded eagerly. “Might be some of them will want to fight for you to help you win your throne back.”

“Might be. Now, with enough gold to last through this autumn, with a good harvest, with the druids safely returned to our realm, with Alined of Deorham fallen and Odin of Cornwall hopefully at war with King Rodor, providing Rodor agrees to our plan, we shall have our southern borders and our midst secure before we march north. Anything else?”

“Your grace would have no need to beg king Godwyn for gold if smugglers payed their due,” lord Cynric said.  

“Smugglers,” Arthur hissed. “My father hated them. But he knew fighting them would require too many recourses for too little evident gain, and thought the Treaty of Five Kings would eliminate them by simply making their… craft unprofitable.”

“The treaty no longer holds,” Cynric pointed.  

“So it is. What shall I do about them? I can’t be fighting smugglers while I’m fighting the Gingawaines!”

“War against smugglers would indeed be ill-timed, your grace, there can be no doubt…” Cynric said in an uncertain tone. “But we must enforce discipline to show them the new king will not be cheated of the crown’s incomes and doesn’t take law for hollow letters on a parchment.”

“What is it you suggest?”

“We must capture the most influential smugglers. The ones that had been on the wanted lists for years. We will need small parties and a man who can lead them into the woods, as well as into the mountains of Isgaard. After we capture them, we can offer them pardons on condition that they reveal all their schemes to us. We need to find out who benefited from all the smuggling schemes the crown suffered from,” Cynric concluded.

“A wise suggestion,” lord Rysor boomed in agreement for the first time.  

“I can think of a trustworthy man who’s qualified enough to lead these search parties. Sir Lancelot,” Arthur announced happily. “He performed similar duties in Essetir. Now, the bigger meal. Lady Yrien. What is she doing?”

“My lord, the information I’ve managed to obtain can’t be verified until some later time,” the librarian, Henry, complained. “Lord Gloss of Chemary and lord Edwin of Woodspeak spend every effort on shutting the Southern road and the Brechfa road, but they say Morgana is about to return to Camelot to marry Rion.”

The king didn’t respond to the news: he closed his eyes and started breathing deeply.

“Morgana marrying a sixteen-year-old boy?” lady Pellinore was frowning in disbelief.

“What’s wrong with it?” Owaine asked curiously. “Can’t boys at sixteen be great lovers?”

 “I’m afraid this isn’t about love-making, my lord,” lord Sei laughed. “A king’s marriage is seldom a matter of love. The king must marry for the sake of brighter future for his kingdom.”

Owaine noticed Arthur’s eyes open and widen all of a sudden.

“Morgana can’t be walking into this voluntarily,” king’s voice was aching with denial. “She used to thwart every groom my father could come up with. The Gingawaines must be holding her hostage.”

“Forgive me, your grace, but… how can the Gingawaine benefit from marrying Rion to Morgana?” lord Cynric scratched his goatee. “The girl has neither wealth nor lands behind her.”

“Morgana is the rightful heir to the territory of Asgorath,” Arthur reminded everybody.

“Asgorath is ruled by Nentres Gaheris now.”

“Not all of Asgorath is ruled by Nentres Gaheris,” lord Sei said with a smile. “Many merchant lords dislike the prospects of fighting the throne of Camelot. They are united by lady Reft who commands some 700 swords.”

“Nentres mentioned her when he came to the castle,” Arthur recalled, his face still an angry mask after the news about Morgana’s marriage.  

“Have the Gingawaines found a friend in lady Reft? Do they think that lady Reft will carry out Morgana’s, not Nentres’s orders?” lady Pellinore inquired.

“Who knows?” Henry shrugged. “We may find out soon. The news is old, the wedding is probably happening in days. The wait is not long.”

“It changes everything,” Arthur rose to his feet. “Morgana is like a sister to me. I can’t put her life at great risk.”

“It seems to me it’s rather Gingawaines who put their lives at risk by forging this marriage,” Owaine whispered. “Morgana’s wild as a forest fire.”

“We must somehow obtain a hostage noble enough to exchange for her,” Arthur concluded and looked at his Councilor of War. “Lord Rysor, think of it, please.”

“I shall put every effort, your grace,” lord Rysor promised, and the meeting was at an end.

 

***

 

Owaine found Modron in the garden with an arbor, which turned into a nightmarish scene where noble children, who were brought there to collect apples and peaches, were throwing apples at each other and at their nurses. Modron must have been returning from the armory, and Owaine took special pleasure in throwing a peach into his friend’s back from behind.

 “How do you fare?” Owaine asked, trying to block Modron’s jokingly vengeful hitbacks. “Has your lady mother whipped your misbehaving arse for escaping Nemeton and joining Arthur’s rebellion?”

“You think I can’t beat you because you’re some lord of bread now?”

“It’s Councilor of Provision, you silly,” Owaine smiled, not really surprised that Modron already knew. News spreads fast in this castle. 

“Provision, my foot. What a drolly jolly funny job. Counting grain and vegetables!”

“It’s important,” Owaine said stubbornly. “Counting grain and vegetables helps a great deal when the Treasurer is estimating taxes. But it’s dull, you’re right.”

“I’d rather serve as a cupbearer for a Nemethian swordsman than be counting grain.”

“You’ll have this honor when king Rodor comes to the feast hall,” Owaine laughed.  

“Still can’t believe Arthur agreed to this madness,” Modron said when they got to their chambers in the castle keep. “Nemethians in the feast hall with Nemetonians! My father will not attend, and half his bannermen will only do it because they don’t want to offend Arthur.”

“Can’t you persuade your father to come to the feast?”

“Are you mad? I dare not test the limits of his patience and urge him to break bread with Nemethians! I still believe he’s going to kidnap me and drag me back to the castle of Nemeton any moment, for joining Arthur’s questionable cause.”

“How is it questionable?” Owaine knew he had to lower his voice. “Arthur’s got one thousand swords on his side and will have six hundred horses if Rodor agrees to terms. And a dragon. You may say Arthur has the throne in his pocket.”

Modron threw his sword belt on his bed angrily and turned to Owaine.

“What good is dragon if Arthur refuses to use it? Merlin should’ve burnt Rodor’s army so nothing would’ve remained of them save for the ashes in the fields! And instead he invites Rodor to the feast hall! I can’t understand the two of them,” he rolled his eyes. “We’ve been with them for all this time, Owaine, we, too, were nearly shot dead in the forest of Brechfa, we were hiding there like some scared rabbits or squirrels, we traveled to the castle of Camelot to see what really had happened, we went to the village where we only had a sword, a horse and a hearth, and now that we’re in a better position Arthur refuses to take the advantage despite working his arse off for gaining that advantage! How so?”

“You’re saying you would’ve burnt all those people in Rodor’s army? Burnt them even though you knew they were someone’s fathers and sons and husbands and brothers?”

“They invaded our kingdom!” Modron’s voice was steel. “They came without invitation! I can show mercy to several intruders, I can, but to pardon thousands of them…”

“Modron, sometimes I think your father’s right if he intends to keep you locked inside that stone castle of yours. You need to learn patience and calm. I know that it’s tempting to see all your enemies as evil and wicked brutes, but trust me, the saddest story in the world is that there is often good and evil in every war ever fought.”

“Sometimes you seem so hesitant towards this war it seems you are afraid,” Modron said spitefully.  

“Yrien has my mother, you fool!”

Modron hid his face in his tunic before saying in a weak voice:

“Sorry. I am truly sorry. I forgot that.”

“People forget too many things when they let anger sweep over them. Keep that in your mind. You think anger is strength, but the truth is, anger is the perfect way for your enemies to manipulate you into acting when they want. Don’t let anybody manipulate your arse into conflict, Modron. Ever.”

“I promise my arse is safe with your guarding and watchful curly self by my side,” Modron grinned.  

“Speaking of arses. I couldn’t help but notice you’ve grown fond of a certain princess trapped in the castle.”

Chapter Text

 VOLUME II

DRAGONWRATH 

CHAPTER 22: Wedding Gift  

 

She dreamt of Alvarr again.

In her dreams, they were happy together, storming fortresses and castles, overcoming all the perils the fate dared throw at them, and druids were rallying to their side and knights were dismissed and the sun would shine bright and high, and the summer would never end. The old ways were no longer old, and magic was coming back to Albion, as if the purge had never happened…

Her dream was ruined by a shriek of a raven and a gust of wind that brought unexpected chill to the room, as if it were the autumn herself knocking on her door. Every single waking up from the dream proved a heartbreak, for it meant to let go of the illusion of Alvarr and to step back into the world where Alvarr’s ashes had been scattered. Sometimes she felt that she would rather enjoy an endless sleep where Alvarr was alive rather than walk the lonely earth where Alvarr was dead.

And that would fully ruin his goals, you stupid wench. He died fighting, he wanted to give the druids back their rights. You’re close to shielding druids from persecution, you can protect them with a single strike of your quill once you are queen, you have more power than Alvarr could dream of and yet you’re too weak to even try.

I AM NOT WEAK. I JUST DON’T THINK ALVARR WOULD APPROVE OF WHAT I’M DOING.

Then you should scurry back into hiding. You don’t have the stomach for it, you are not worth Alvarr’s memory.

She sat in her bed, running her fingers through her hair and trying to claw at the annoying irritating thoughts that seemed to be ripping her mind apart ever since she set foot in the castle of Camelot again. Sometimes at night she’d wake from a strange sense of fright, terrified that Uther might open the door and walk into her room, and sometimes during daytime she’d hear strange noises rising from somewhere beneath the castle, the noises nobody else could hear. It made her want to visit the crypts to make sure Uther’s tomb was secure and locked, to make sure the stupid king couldn’t be summoned from the dead to haunt her.

She hated the doubts that she couldn’t rid her mind of, she hated her own insecurities in the sight of the wedding to come. There was so much she needed to accomplish once she was crowned queen consort of Camelot: send search parties after Mordred, offer a lordship for Merlin’s head, legalize magic, all while battling Uther’s charming auntie in the Pass of Camlann and Arthur in the south. Well, I won’t need to battle him if Morgause battles him first. Her sister went to Gedref to try and solve the problem of Arthur Pendragon single-handedly, and it made Morgana all the more nervous. Morgause is traveling ahorse because she’s too weak to attempt yet another whirlwind spell. What challenges might she face on the road? There was also a sense of guilt which made her heart itch a little, but she couldn’t see why it was more noble to let Arthur live and make hundreds of soldiers die at the battlefield rather than orchestrate one quick painless death for the crown prince. If one death can save hundreds if not thousands of lives, then why not let the prince go? His father was a curse upon this land, and Arthur would’ve been the same. He told Merlin to poison me. He commanded Merlin to kill Alvarr. He led the knights to the druid camp where they butchered women and children.

The sky had turned to a heavy iron shield of murky clouds, but even without sunshine raining over the white castle of Camelot and the bells filling the air, it was plain that midday was upon them. Gwen should have woken me up earlier. The wedding is in two days and all sorts of merchants and tailors will hope to attend and persuade me to buy their gown.The queen herself had passed her a note where she wrote that Morgana could buy as many gowns as she wished and that the queen would not suffer her son’s bride be wed in some woolen tasteless cloth. The more notes Morgana got from queen Yrien, the happier she was that her mother-in-law kept refusing to pay her a visit. Her counsel seemed unwise, too: in the time when most of the provision from the capital was sent to Idirsholas, spending chests of gold on wedding gowns looked as ill-timed as a juggler at the burial ceremony.

Gwen hurried in to bring her modest breakfast soon enough, porridge and honey, and before long, the tailors were upon her, with their immeasurable wealth of satins and silks, velvets and furs, and promises of the best-looking gown for the queen-to-be. Some tried to offer her stiff-laced outfits, others advised to wear something free with long sleeves, and there was one special gown of purple that gave her pause, but purple was too lavish a color, and in the end she settled with dark blue velvet dress, a simply cut piece with leaves and vines embroidered around the bodice, sleeves, and hem in silver thread. No purchase was ordered, though, and Morgana thanked every tailor for his or her effort, promising to send her servant in any case. Before the tailors left her, another page arrived from the queen, with a list of seven courses to be served at the wedding feast to be approved by Morgana.

“Seven courses,” Morgana whispered when Gwen locked the door. “Seven. Is she mad? The bread prices are at the highest because of all the turmoil this summer brought, and she wants to serve seven courses at the feast?”

“Queen Yrien had often been fond of… wealthy exuberance, so to say,” Gwen sighed. “Think about all the gold and silver she spends on her hair oils. It is bedazzling.”

“As if it made her hair look any better,” Morgana tried to make that remark sound innocent. “Lady Dindrane once told me that all the gold of this wide world can’t buy you a good taste. Anyway, what about Rion? Why is it me who has to suffer through all these tedious arrangements?”

“He’s still hunting,” Gwen shrugged. 

“He’s still hunting, can you imagine? Hunting! Our wedding is in two days and my groom just disappears in the forests, leaving all the preparations to me and to his lady mother. How do you like it?!”

“That’s what they do, what they always did and what they will continue to do,” Gwen voice echoed with icy indifference which sounded much too feigned as she was making notes of all the dresses Morgana has tried. “Whenever there is any responsibility pressing them, they escape it if they can. When Lancelot realized he’d have to discuss his feelings for me with the prince, he just disappeared without saying goodbye.”

“I hope Rion doesn’t disappear without saying goodbye to me,” Morgana said. Not before I am queen consort of Camelot, she thought. “We have a kingdom to rule, after all. What about Lancelot? You sound as if you still missed him…”

“I don’t miss him,” Gwen shook her head so fiercely she nearly overturned the inkwell.

“Please, Gwen. We've known each other for too long, I can see it in your eyes. You still like him, don't you?”

Gwen took a deep breath and stared out of the window, her eyes as gloomy as the frowning sky dome.

“A part of me will always miss him, I’m afraid. I… Anyway, I don’t think I should talk about it.”

“Oh, Gwen. It’s the verge of my wedding, so please. We’re meant to gossip and share dreams and bathe in the lake with flower garlands on, so do tell me.”

“I don’t think…” Gwen turned back from the window and showered Morgana with a look that spoke of pain and betrayal, and hopefulness and hopelessness at the same time. “It seems to me that if you truly love someone, it means that even when you break up, a part of you will forever love him and you can’t do anything about it.”

She got together with Gwaine because she wanted to erase the pain, Morgana realized suddenly, and felt so much pity for her maid that she came to hug her and hold her by the hands.

“I agree. Wholeheartedly agree with you, Gwen, and I know of such pain, but we must go on. Lancelot was a good man, I am sure, but not the best one, since he left you. And you deserve the best.”

Gwen smiled and quickly wiped out tears, pretending she was brushing her cheeks.

“Speaking of the best,” her servant continued. “What will his grace give you as a wedding present?”

“Some stag, I’m afraid. I will ask him of a different thing, though. When he returns, I want him to help me find Mordred. And Merlin.”

“Who’s Mordred?” Gwen frowned, putting on an uneasy look at the mention of Merlin’s name.

“That boy, remember? The one Merlin brought to our chambers, the druid child. Don’t give me that look, Gwen. It says nothing about Merlin. He had the decency to not harm an innocent child, I recognize it, but that’s a must have. He would later harm me and Alvarr without a second thought, though. Even with the druid boy, he chose to dump all the responsibility upon me as he was afraid Uther would behead him if he ever found out that Merlin was helping the boy. He was a coward, but a loyal one, and that’s what makes him dangerous.”

“Morgana, he…”

“I will hear no more of that wretched WORTHLESS thing,” Morgana felt her rage close to getting out of control. “I will have him found once I’m queen. Found and brought to justice.”

“But he doesn’t need to be found!” Gwen tried to reason, switching to whisper. “You know damn well where he is! South, with Arthur, and Arthur will never give him up, of that we can be certain. You’ll need to launch a full-scale war against Arthur to…”

Her worries are justified, but she is too innocent of the ways of war. I could tell her about Morgause, but she wouldn’t understand, not now, she wouldn’t.

“Arthur might not live forever,” Morgana said in dark tempting voice. “Why, Gwen, a great deal of noble men has perished recently. King Uther was poisoned, all the brave knights-to-be in Arthur’s patrol were poked with arrows… King Ryence died in his own tower, lord Accolon fell victim to a rockslide together with lord Catigern of Asgorath, the courageous and famed Sir Vidor Gaheris was butchered at his own betrothal feast… My dear Gwen, we live in dangerous times, and who knows what might happen to Arthur? Besides, he’s not even half as dangerous as the crown fears.”

“Yrien was afraid he’d join forces with his western relatives,” Gwen said with a look that suggested she was ashamed of what she was saying. “Gaius told me when… when we still… stayed in touch.”

 “Joining forces with his western relatives would be the end of Arthur,” Morgana smirked. “Gwen, I know you don’t understand the warfare, but do. The West lacks the supplies for a long-lasting campaign. They lack fields and can’t even get enough harvest to feed themselves, so they will not be able to fight a real war against the crown. Rion, on the contrary, he has the fields of Camelot and has access to the fertile Midlands. The only hope for Vyda Gaheris is to strike hard with all her might and take the castle of Camelot with just one swift battle, which will not happen. Even if she wins the battle at the Pass of Camlann – which is not possible – she will still have to somehow storm the castle of Camelot – which is not possible either. There is no way the Gaheris can win this war.”

“Then why are they marching upon us?”

“Because Vyda is just a more terrible version of Uther. She has this silly notion of what being a westerner means, and she lets this image determine all her actions, which makes her easy to foretell. Submit and live versus fight and die – it’s not a choice for her, as it wouldn’t have been for Uther. If she is to go down, she means to go down fighting. The Western army is on a dire suicide mission for the sake of their descendants singing songs about them one day, and it’s not songs that Arthur needs. He will seek no alliance with the West. A bolder man might roll his dice for Gawant, though.”

“Gawant?” Gwen sounded quite confused.

“It’s a kingdom on the western shores of Merchant’s Bay. King Godwyn was Uther’s dear friend, remember? He came to court once or twice, with his clumsy daughter Elena. She was betrothed to Arthur since before she could walk, oh, poor creature. Gawant is a great sea power but what’s more important, it is a trade power as well, and might provide Arthur with almost endless supplies for his campaign and a war for years.”

“But doesn’t it make his intentions… dangerous?”

“Gawant is not the only kingdom in the Merchant’s Bay,” Morgana smiled. “Arthur has foes there, too. Why, if king Odin of Cornwall sends his fleet to close the sea for Portstown, Arthur’s hopes will die without battle. King Godwyn might help Arthur to fight one war against the Gingawaines so that his precious princess Elena becomes queen, but Godwyn will not fight the Gingawaines and the kingdom of Cornwall.”

“Which means Arthur can settle for peace, after all?”

“Peace? Gwen, you’re talking about Arthur Pendragon. This man will fight to the bitter end and beyond. He will never settle for peace, so long as he lives, he will always look for means to drown the whole Albion in blood for the sake of retaking his father’s throne. He was charming when he was a lad, but once he became a crown prince, he started taking after Uther and I saw it only too late. He commanded Merlin to poison me and he commanded Merlin to kill Alvarr. I pray Odin of Cornwall gets him and does whatever he wants to him. Whatever he asked Merlin to do to Alvarr. Gwen, need I remind you that this is between us only?”

“Of course, Morgana,” Gwen nodded hurriedly. “I’ve nobody to tell.”

“Good. Now, speaking of Merlin. Fetch me Gwaine. I believe as my new personal guard, it will be his duty to escort me to the lake of Avalon.”

 

***

 

Gwaine, or Sir Gwaine, as the captain of her royal escort felt obliged to remind her, was not the only one to watch over Morgana during her brief trip to Avalon. As the ancient tradition required, Morgana had to travel to the lake of Avalon where she would bathe with other high and lowborn maids, wearing flower garlands and trying to find the four-leaf clover. On the way to Avalon, she’d stop at the biggest villages where she’d share the royal bread and mead with the common folk, sing songs and accept gifts from the children, and wish the villagers luck and a good harvest.

Morgana was surprised the queen didn’t choose to ignore this part of the tradition; after all, the lake of Avalon lay north of the castle of Camelot, closer to Greenswood and Mercian trade road, and concerns over the security of the bride had been voice by a number of council members, such as Gaius and lady Dindrane. However, it appeared that Yrien thought that commoners were hungry for something more than just food; she wanted to give them a distraction from the grim news about war and magic attacks and didn’t mean to step away from the traditions.

Morgana would’ve enjoyed this tradition under other circumstances. In the age of Uther, she couldn’t even dream of leaving the castle without notifying the king and getting a special written permission from fat Sagramore, the Councilor of Camelot. She could always use her knowledge of the castle’s disguised routes to disappear for some reason, though, but it was always a matter of time before Uther found out and sent a whole knight patrol after her, like he did when she went to the druids to look for answers about her magic.

Yet this time the joy that meant to come from the careless summer trip was not there, and the sense of coming storm in the dark sky was not the only reason for her worries. Morgana couldn’t stomach listening to songs and accepting gifts from the children who belonged with the communities that would protest legalizing magic and who would probably call for another purge. Here, amidst the greenery of the Darkling Wood, beneath the booming summer sky, these people seemed peaceful and harmless when they were busy working on their crops and taking care after their children and beloved ones… Yet they can turn into beasts in a blink of an eye. They can stand still and watch sorcerers and witches be dragged away by the knights of Camelot. It has already happened once. 

Morgana could understand one reason behind the purge. After the fall of the druid dynasty, many druids fled the fields of Camelot to live on the left bank of the river Albus; the fields of Camelot, in turn, attracted many migrants from the West, where the newly crowned Uther came from. That’s why they were so indifferent to the Great Purge.

Having suffered through three stops in three villages where she couldn’t help but feel a hypocrite, Morgana’s party finally arrived at the shores of Avalon. Yrien dispatched so many guards to escort Morgana one could judge the queen was too afraid her son’s bride might run away, but Morgana didn’t feel a bit threatened. My magic is somehow stronger in this place, she noted to herself as she let Sir Gwaine help her dismount the horse. The lake of Avalon looked immense even through the dense branches of trees that seemed to be tied up around its shores in a protective embrace; when Morgana came through the thicket, she felt she stepped onto the threshold of a different world rather than some lake: lasting far away into the mists, the colorless sheets of Avalon seemed unbothered by the windy weather, as if they had a source to keep them calm throughout any storm. This is the place where magic started. And the place where it nearly ended when some druids created the seven great dragons.

Soon enough, the shore of Avalon was turned into a feast, with tents raised for those who wished to celebrate the coming royal wedding and hide from the rain, flower garlands swimming in the lake, together with candles in special waterproof cups. As the dusk crept from the woods, the sight of celebration proved truly beautiful, and Morgana couldn’t help but emit a sigh of relief. Alvarr, I promise you, in two days, I will be closer than ever to fulfilling our dreams. Strangely, by the lake, no angry or annoying or spiteful thoughts rose in her mind to combat her remarks. I only get these thoughts in the castle.

Sir Gwaine was most dutiful around her, guarding her as none Uther’s knights ever did, but Morgana realized he had few other things to do. The queen refused to grant Gwen leave and made the girl stay at the castle, and so Gwaine had nobody to turn to for company. Morgana grabbed him by the hand and invited him to walk with her.

“Isn’t it considered a bad luck to have lads around girls during this ceremony?” Gwaine asked, a smile of corrupting charm dancing on his lips.

“I don’t believe in bad luck, sir,” Morgana giggled. “Besides, it’s folly. When you have beautiful maidens swimming in the lake of Avalon with nothing on save for their flower garlands, there will be boys in the bushes, spying. No matter what.”

“I’m not just a curious boy thirsty to behold women’s beauty for the first time.”

First time? You look like you’ve beheld half the women’s beauties in the Five Kingdoms.  

“No. You’re certainly not,” Morgana chose to gift him with a smile, too, working all the charm she needed to make the young man talk. The response in his eyes was so strong she suddenly felt weakness in her own knees. “You’re a knight and you’re brought here for my protection. The queen refused to let us go without a royal escort.”

“The queen is wise. The woods and lakes are not safe for the king’s bride.”

“No more dangerous than the woods where the king’s hunting, I’m sure. Besides, with you by my side, I’ve naught to fear, I am certain. Tell me, brave sir, how did you end up in Camelot?”

“Came here for work,” Gwaine shrugged. “I worked at the reconstruction of the Lower Town. It’s not an exciting story, my lady.”

“How good of you to use your power to make the lives of common people better. You came alone?”

“I’m sure your serving maid has told you I wasn’t alone when I came.”

He’s too straightforward for playing games.

“She did,” Morgana admitted, stopping abruptly and letting go of Gwaine’s hand. She looked around: they were alone, not too far from the tents, but far enough for other guards to not overhear them.

“My lady, forgive me, but why are you asking then? If you already know?”

“To hear it from you,” Morgana confessed, deciding to make the first move. “You know Merlin.”

“I know a great deal of men.”

“But none as cruel as this wretched serving boy.”

“Cruel? Only to those who wish to harm him.”

“Do I look like someone who could harm him, sir? And yet he poisoned me. He and Arthur. Together, they did it!”

Gwaine stepped back, laughing. The moment he did, Morgana wanted this laugh to be the last thing to ever come from his mouth.

“Merlin would never do such thing,” Gwaine caught her look and the laughter died. “Not unless you did something awful to him.”

“You trust him, don’t you? Maybe you’re his creature, after all. Maybe he means to get rid of me with your hands. Should I report you to the queen?” anger flared through her. In truth, she was battling the desire to throw him against the tree and then drown his unconscious body in the lake.

“The queen will do nothing, I assure you. She intends to get rid of you with my hands before anyone else does.”

That chilled her.

“What are you saying? I am her daughter-in-law, I…”

“She wants me to bed you once you go to the castle of Brechfa to celebrate the harvest season. She will then arrest you and me for adultery. I will be sent to permanent exile, since no death sentence can be carried out during the harvest season. You will be held prisoner, and your marriage to king Rion - denounced.”

His words didn’t make any sense: they meant to be a threat, obviously, but he spoke them with warning and care. Is he not that straightforward? Is he subtle enough for court games, after all?

“She… This is sheer folly. I can go to the queen and tell her all of this and…”

“And she will deny it rigorously with every breath she takes, make no mistake. And then she will dismiss me from your service and one day I die an unsuspicious death. Who would care if I died? And if you tell her nothing and if I don’t perform what she wants me to perform, she will harm Gwen and then get rid of me all the same.”

Yrien’s using Gwen as a bargain.

“Why would she do this to me?” Morgana demanded; she felt disappointed, yet hardly surprised.

“How am I supposed to know all the ploys of this damn castle? Perhaps she thinks her son deserves a better wife.”

Who, though? A bolder man might roll his dice for Gawant, Morgana’s own words echoed in her mind. Yrien is no man, but bold all the sameShe wants to marry Rion to Princess Elena after my forces win this war for her.  

“I am not anybody’s creature, my lady,” Gwaine suddenly knelt before her, offering his sword. “Merlin paid me so that I escorted him to the castle of Camelot, for I am good with a sword. He’s gone now, and I am here only to protect Gwen. I thought it’s our common desire. I beg you, help me do it. Help me protect her. We need to put Gwen elsewhere, out of this castle. Even when the queen departs for Brechfa, she will still leave all her guards and bannermen in Camelot, and Gwen will ever remain threatened because of the part she had played in Uther’s death. She is a witness and Yrien will want to make Gwen take her secret to the grave. Please help me save her.”

He’s wet with love.

“I will help you if you help me. Tell me, why did Merlin want to come to Camelot?”

“To talk to some Gaius.”

What a shocking news.

“What did they discuss?”

“I have no idea.”

“Where was Arthur?”

“He never came with Merlin. He was severely wounded. He went elsewhere.”

“Where to?”

“South. To Gedref.”

I know that much already. Is he telling me only something that I already know? No, he can’t be that cunning.   

“I may have need of your service,” she concluded, accepting his sword in a symbolic gesture. “See that you remain loyal, Gwaine, and I promise, I will smuggle Gwen beyond the reach of queen’s swords.”   

 

***

 

She went to swim in the lake when most of other ladies and lowborn girls were already looking for a warm place by the fire. The coolness of the early night water didn’t frighten her; her blood seemed so heated from the news that it would surely keep her warm during that bath.

It felt strange to be back to the lake of Avalon for the first time after Alvarr had told her the legends about the origins of magic on the shores of this strange lake. With the flickers of cookfires shimmering on the sheets of Avalon, she instantly recalled the cookfire which she had created with magic during her and Alvarr’s journey to Esseitr. It seemed that just yesterday Alvarr had been telling her how some tribes of men found the Lake of Avalon, where the Sidhe resided. And since the land of Albion was a horrid place for mortals at that time, for it was overrun with all sorts of creatures of magic, men prayed to the Sidhe and asked them to grant them magic to help defend themselves from the creatures in the woods, to which the Sidhe agreed on one condition only - men had to sacrifice an innocent soul to the Lake of Avalon every year, on the day of the longest night. It was thanks to Alvarr that she learned about the first conflict in the tribe of those living on the shores of Avalon, the conflict which erupted when some people in this tribe suggested to use magic to bring order to other tribes of men, tribes who knew nothing of magic and who were warring against each other. Some people in the Avalon tribe said that it was a smart idea. They advocated using magic power to make other non-magic tribes abide by their will. Magic could be a tool to bring order, they said. Others thought that magic could only serve its initial purpose, which was to defend men from the dangerous creatures in the forests. However, in the end, those who favored the use of magic to bring order into other tribes, prevailed. But they were betrayed. Those who wanted to restrict the use of magic to self-defense against magic creatures were vastly outnumbered, and that’s why they turned to dragons for aide. Dragons were the wisest and mightiest creatures of all, creatures who could not be easily thwarted by magic. Unlike the Sidhe, dragons were mortal. The minority of Avalon tribe promised dragons immortality if the dragons agreed to serve them and abide by their will. Seven dragons agreed. So, one night, the traitors captured one Sidhe and killed him in a ritual that was meant to make seven dragons immortal and obedient to the will of seven men. That was how the dragonlords were born, that’s how they ruined the integrity of magic tribe. It was agreed that magic should be used to rule other non-magic tribes, most of the people agreed on it, yet those silly dragonlords thought they knew better. I will not repeat their mistake. I will not sit and do nothing in the name of greater good or peace. I will use magic whenever it takes and for whatever cause I see fit.

And causes there were. Now that Yrien’s poorly masked betrayal was so easily revealed by Gwaine, the queen regent joined the long list of treacherous people in the castle of Camelot. Neither Anna Dindrane nor Gaius told me about Arthur Pendragon surviving the assassination, and queen regent happens to have trial plans for me.I will need to get rid of them once I am crowned. Gaius, Yrien, Anna Dindrane, they are all fighting like children, really. They won’t obey me unless they fear me. Rion can be useful, he seems quite nice apart from his hunting obsessions and I will need Midlands when I legalize magic. Midlands were never enthusiastic about the Purge.

Morgana glanced at her own hardly distinguished silhouette in the water and realized she could be wearing a sad smile. There’s nothing to be sad about. It’s good that I’ve learnt about Yrien now. It’s a lesson. I must trust nobody, nobody except for Gwen. She is my only friend in the castle.

Suddenly, her reflection in the water cleared and turned into a soft-blue glow, and Morgana gasped in horror; a rather old woman with skin hanging low at her chin and hair as white as snow was staring at her from that reflection.

“Good goddess, what are you?!”

“Be quiet, child,” the reflections was talking. “I am Lacafa of the River Clan. We met when you came to Essetir.”

Bloody hell, we did! Morgana tried to relax and inhale properly, but the fear wouldn’t go so easily.

“Lacafa! Are you real?!”

“Real enough. Child, we don’t have long: there are too many swords around the capital, and around you now, and I am too old for such trips, and this magic is tiring… There is something you must know.”

“Is it that urgent?”

“Emrys is real,” the woman hurried to announce.  

“I... Excuse me?!”

“Emrys, the last dragonlord and the savior of the druid folk. Remember, I told you about him, and Iseldir must have told you, too. It’s not a silly legend, no matter how much your sister wants you to believe it. Emrys has come and summoned his dragon. Druids left Essetir for Gedref, where Emrys now resides.”

Morgana’s head started spinning, and she was afraid she might lose her mind and drown in the lake two days before her royal wedding.

“What do you mean, summoned his dragon?” she whispered.

“The great dragon, child, the great dragon is at his service now! The dragon rained fire upon the foes of Emrys, the crystals have responded, it is but the truth!”

“I… This is… Morgause! Oh, Goddess, Morgause!”

“Your sister has no hopes to stand against the dragon,” Lacafa dismissed the mention of Morgause as if they were talking about a fly. “The Ancient Ones are gone. The Questing Beast is dead, as is the Phoenix, and the Unicorn is under protection of the Keeper of Unicorns after the prince’s folly last year… The gateway to the Sidhe world has been locked for centuries and can’t be opened by a priestess. There are no ways left to kill the dragon. Morgana, rejoice. The Old Ways will reign again once Emrys takes over.”

“Emrys is but a boy in Arthur’s hands!” Morgana screamed. Arthur dares abuse Mordred’s powers, he dares make this innocent child submit to his political cause…

“Magic is already legal in Gedref. Whatever you may think of Arthur is wrong,” Lacafa’s voice was as quiet as the murmur of lake waters, and filled with sadness. “He’s welcoming the druids as well. It’s over, Morgana.”

“No, you’re wrong,” Morgana hissed, splashing the ugly reflection. “This has just begun!”

Chapter Text

CHAPTER 23: Sweet Goodbye 

Queen Yrien took a seat beneath her window. The day was finally there. Rion’s to be wed tonight.

The goddess seemed merciful enough to grant them a rainless day, and half the servants were doing their best to clean the streets off the mud that appeared after yesterday’s downpour. From her window, Yrien could see the greying outskirts of Lower Town, a nauseous labyrinth of narrow streets and lanes that made her feel trapped inside the wretched city. Not for much longer, though.Once Rion’s wed, I am free to leave.

Rion could sense her upcoming departure, she could read it in his eyes that were aglow with excitement. Her son was as happy as a hound that was about to be let off the short leash for the first time. Without her in the castle, he would fancy himself a true ruler, a king this land needed, a force to unite the common people and the noble landlords. But there are bigger forces at play than kings and queens, Rion, and you will learn it, much to your sorrow.There’s envy and lust, there’s greed and ambition. Why, there are things that would make even your lady-wife betray you, Yrien dreamed thinking about Gwaine and Morgana.  

Queen regent turned her gaze from the window and watched her son stare at his reflection in the mirror. The goldsmith had finished a new crown, a rather modest piece created as a simple circlet of four rectangular silver plates, jeweled with amethysts and topaz gemstones. It was Morgana’s idea, the queen knew it: the queen-to-be was advocating modesty everywhere, and went as far as to say that the previous crown was a bit too extravagant. Well, what good is the word extravagant if it can’t be used to describe the crown? The girl has much to learn. But she won’t. 

“I wouldn’t be that excited if I were you,” Yrien told her son, savoring the nutmeg perfume of her hot spiced wine. The Mercian horsepiss which they called wine was impossible to drink without spices, and Yrien cursed Cynric for disappearing without leaving casks of his Nemeth wine behind. “Your marriage is not to be consummated before our victory at the Pass of Camlann.”

“Which will happen soon enough,” Rion smiled. “Anyway, mother, I am sixteen. I am well-informed about my marriage duties, you can rest assured I will not fail the kingdom in the bedroom.”

“Half the men say so, and half the men fail miserably,” Yrien snorted. “You’re too bold for someone who’s been a monarch for less than a moon. However, I am not going to be involved in your bedroom affairs, on that we shall agree. Before you enjoy your wine and your beautiful lady wife, let us discuss the safety again.”

“Mother,” Rion uttered a moan of exhaustion. “We’ve been through this.”

“And we shall be through this as many times as it takes for you to remember everything.”

“As if there’s much to remember. You will be escorted to Brechfa by the swords of house Ian and house Melyn. House Arth, house Leoh and house Reith and all their swords and guards will remain in the castle of Camelot.”

Yrien nodded, for there was not much else she could do. House Ian’s and house Melyn’s swords had comprised most of the castle guards before the night of the riots. After that, Rion replaced them and is now sending them away with me. He means to rid himself of men loyal to me.

“And you must not let them farther than a step away, Rion. Keep them close, preferably within the citadel. They have over three hundred swords and spears, they are enough to defend the castle if need be.”

“Defend from whom, mother?”

“From the druid army if they are stupid enough to ally with the Westerners and march upon the capital together.”

“You ought to hear what you’re saying. Druids allying with Westerners? It’s like fire joining water. Never going to happen.”

“We must be ready for every possibility. Even for something that is unlikely to happen. That could’ve saved Ryence’s life,” Yrien reminded him bitterly.

“Why you keep saying it?” Rion turned away from the mirror, looking at her defiantly.       

“Pardons?”

“Why do you keep talking about uncle’s death as if it were some tragedy?”

“Because it is tragedy, you simpering fool! He was of your own kin, he was the best hope for this land’s future an…”

“Was he? He seemed pretty hopeless to me. Winning his throne by killing a crown prince? That’s not what I was promised. Now that the time has passed, uncle seems just like another Uther to me.”

She slapped him. She slapped that dashing arrogant boy who thought himself a king, and she would’ve done it anyway, even in view of half the court. He has no moral right to talk about Ryence in this way. Her fingers left red marks on his cheek, but before she realized what she had done, Rion grabbed her by the wrist and bent it back until she cried out.

“You will never hit me again, mother,” he said, shoving her away and Yrien felt his words were more than a warning this time. “And you will have the decency to accept the bloody truth! All my uncle wanted was for the good of Midlands. He felt that our territory had been treated unfairly, and he chose to fix it. But how long was it meant to last? How long would it have been until the West attempted to do the same? Or the South? Or Ascetir? Ryence’s cause failed not only because he was so selfishly a Midlander, it failed when he profaned the throne with the murder of the crown’s prince! I couldn’t tolerate him when I found out and I won’t tolerate you if you keep slapping me like your little boy! I have to tell you that I’ve grown up, in case you haven’t BLOODY NOTICED!”

He walked away without looking back, his words wounding her so much that terror seized her every heartbeat. What did he mean when he said he couldn’t tolerate Ryence when he found out? Was it him who… Was it…    

She looked back at the window, thinking of whether her own son would be capable of murdering his uncle. Rion’s not a murderer. He loves hunting, but that’s sport to him, he doesn’t enjoy cruelty.

Yrien opened the window for she felt she was running out of air to breathe. What cruelty was there in Ryence’s murder? He was killed by Uther’s ghost. He died because the salt that was meant to protect him turned out to be just some ordinary salt, and not the magic one which Gaius

Suddenly, a memory washed over her: she recalled the day when the physician suggested to use the Meredoc salt to protect the royal family against Uther’s ghost. Go, Rion, go! Don’t be standing here until the sunset! Bring this damned salt and see that you make it quick!

It was Rion who brought the salt. It was Rion who replaced the magic salt for Ryence with the ordinary kitchen salt. Rion killed Ryence.

Yrien swallowed the remaining hot spiced wine to calm herself. She felt shocked, yet some part of her believed that the truth was not as terrifying as it could be. To know that Ryence had been killed by one of his kin rather than one of his enemies was liberating. It meant that Ryence’s defense calculations were always right.He died because he assumed his own nephew would never harm him. He didn’t die because he underestimated our enemies.   

It changed everything. Rion could no longer be treated as carelessly as before: the boy that wore the crown had crossed a dangerous threshold and joined her on the slippery and dodgy path to power. She wanted to scream at herself for the outburst that was unacceptable given the circumstances of the day. He deserves rounds and rounds of whipping for what he has done, but if I keep slapping him, he’s unlikely to pay me a visit in Brechfa, and my whole plan of destroying Morgana will fall apart. I can’t let it happen. I must be more careful unless I wish to join Ryence.   

The scandalous scene was an ill way to start her day which didn’t look as it was going to improve any time soon. She had to spend the rest of her morning with the father of lord Gribs, whom she saw as the most fit candidate for the position of Treasurer. The old Treasurer seemed gone, and no news on Cynric were brought. They said no news was good news, but it didn’t work that way when lord Cynric was involved: the wretched goatee man disappeared for good, it seemed, and Yrien needed somebody to count the gold, silver and bronze coins of the crown. The old Gribs proved qualified enough, and it was good to keep the old man close – he was growing extremely querulous as of late, ever since his son went south to camp by Portstown and never came back. If he thinks whining about the war will make us win it any quicker, he best bloody think again. We shall win it quicker after we capture the western mangonels and bring them to the walls of Portstown to fling stones against the city walls. I wonder how the Pendragon pup will enjoy that. The city will fall within a day.

After the old Gribs was done talking about the expenses of the royal wedding, they received a delegation of Mercian trade lords who complained about the delay in the shipment of many goods because of the unrest at the Mercian trade road. Fortunately, Yrien was prepared for the talks and spent an hour or so trying to reach an agreement that would finalize the compensation sum which the crown of Camelot would pay to the poor Mercian trade lords. The gold would be taken from the generations donations Morgana had brought to court, the donations that still made queen regent uncomfortable.

Following the audience with Mercian lords, the queen thanked lord Gribs for his service and left her chambers to inspect the kitchen and the preparations for the feast. Much to her surprise, she had stumbled upon Anna Dindrane in the eastern wing: the doddery old bat was walking with her younger granddaughter Medinna, wearing that ugly ivory dress of hers.

“Your grace,” Anna gave her a toothless smile. “What a pleasant surprise. You appear outside the Royal Tower so seldom I was beginning to think you’ve already left for Brechfa.”

I was beginning to think you’ve already left for the spirit world, but here you are.

“How could I leave before seeing my son wed to the beautiful lady Morgana?”

“Of course. The wedding. The biggest happiness in any mother’s life. They say his grace has hunted down half the courses for the wedding feast. A spirited lad. Well, I’ve seen the wedding of my daughter, so I count myself lucky, but now I wish to live to see the day my granddaughters are married.”

“I trust Medinna enjoyed her stay in Woodspeak?” Yrien asked courteously. If you’re planning any sort of mischief, I will send her back faster than you will remember your worthless name.

“Apple tarts were great!” the girl said happily. “I liked it there. Why couldn’t I stay for as long as Ravenna?”

Honey, I wouldn't be that enthusiastic about tarts if I were you. You may grow up with a belly that will match that of lord Sagramore. The elder granddaughter of Anna was still in Woodspeak and was only expected back after the battle at the Pass of Camlann, but Yrien reckoned Anna Dindrane hadn't cared to explain it to Medinna.

“Your sister is a big girl and can stay a little longer,” Anna caressed Medinna’s hair. “Now go, child, wait for me in our chambers and tell your father I will come shortly.”

After the girl ran away, Anna encouraged the queen to walk with her.

“Your grace, we may have our differences, but I want you to know that I remain a faithful servant of the crown,” the old bat said too formally, as if Yrien had never stormed into her room to accuse the granddaughter of the last druid queen of planting foolish ideas into Rion’s head. “There are things which I would never do, like withhold sensitive information from the crown. I hope I can expect the crown likewise to not withhold sensitive information from me?”

“What information?” Yrien frowned. Is this awful day going to get any better? I've just learned my son might have killed my brother. 

“Edwin Chefyl of Woodspeak believes his father was captured during a battle in the south. He thinks lord Chefyl is now held prisoner in Portstown.”

The queen blinked a couple of times, aimless and silly. Bloody hell. 

“Where does Edwin Chefyl gets this from?” she wondered almost casually. I must not let the old bat see that I am taken aback by the news.

“From some reliable source, I reckon,” Anna hesitated to give up her source, however reliable. “Why would a lad spread false rumors about his father’s captivity?”

“Lord Chefyl is lord of Woodspeak, one of the wealthiest cities in the Five Kingdoms. His ransom is worth a fortune. Does Edwin think that those who captured his father would choose to remain silent on the matter of the ransom? Capture him without demanding a ransom? Is Edwin utterly witless?!”

“What if it isn’t the money they need?”

“Then what?”

“How do I know? Justice? Vengeance?”

“Edwin sounds as if he had grown too tired of his heirship. What if he intends to succeed his lord father faster than possible?” Yrien rebuked. “Spreading these rumors about his father might convince the lesser lords to recognize them as their liege.”

“Perhaps,” Anna Dindrane was pouting. “Then your departure is even more anticipated. I am sure your grace will stop at Woodspeak on her way to Brechfa, and make sure the bannermen of House Gingawaine have not grown too unruly and too tired of their heirships. A queen must, after all, have some control over her vassals, otherwise it gets a bit confused and you can’t tell who’s whose liege, right?”

Anna Dindrane bowed down, with as much input of grace as her old body allowed and darted off. Yrien wanted to scream.

 

***

 

The royal wedding was a miserably small and modest affair to Yrien, even when compared to the betrothal feast of Sagramore’s ugly pig of a daughter. After the terrible assassination of Sir Vidor, nobody at court wanted another lavish ceremony except for the queen, who insisted the extravagance needed to shine for all the Lower Town to behold. However, she had to agree with the councilors who all pointed at the fact that the Lower Town was still holding its breath before the battle of Camlann, and that displaying wealth in the days when people were paying the most for bread could fan the fires.

The bride and the groom looked beautiful together, Rion’s new silver crown matching the silver threads of Morgana’s beautiful blue gown, although the queen would have preferred to see her son in the old crown, of gold and rubies. The groom and the bride rode two beautiful stallions through the city, for all the good men, women and children to behold the sacrament serenity of two young hearts joined on a bright summer day. Yrien, who agreed to ride outside the citadel for the first time in weeks, couldn’t help but feel appalled by this travesty of a wedding. Morgana has as much love for Rion as she has for me. She was forced into this wedding as much as I was, and there is nothing to celebrate here. Nothing.    

When they returned to the feast hall of the castle, the vows were spoken, with most of the noble houses' members to witness. Most is not all, though, Yrien thought, counting faces. Lord Sagramore, fat as he was, proved sneaky enough to escape the castle following his daughter’s tragic betrothal feast, and was now serving Vyda Gaheris. Lord Gornemant disappeared and was probably to the west of the White Mountains as well, where his wife Galla Dindrane served as Lady of Denaria. Lord Blanchefleur, who served as Uther’s Treasurer, went to Ascetir and remained ever silent, but used Rion’s wedding most auspiciously, sending a beautiful dagger as a present for the king. If he turns out to be a traitor, I shall command Ratcatch to shove this dagger up lord Blanchefleur’s arse. Lord Ragnell of Balor was at the wedding, well drunk before the feast even began. Yrien was growing tired of her useless Councilor of Trade and his endless grief and was thinking to replace him with somebody sober. Lady Gedref was at the wedding, too; the woman still pretended to mourn her son Owaine, but Yrien suspected the confined Lady of Gedref had learnt everything there was to learn about unrest in the south. She must be watched more carefully now. If Anna Dindrane doesn’t lie and Lord Chefyl was captured in Portstown, I will need to ransom him. Exchanging Lady of Gedref over Lord of Woospeak seems fair enough.

While Rion was mumbling something about his wish to become one with Morgana, Yrien kept staring at the old crone. Anna Dindrane looked as happy as if she were watching her granddaughter wed to the king. There was something terrible about the satisfied expression on her wrinkled face. What else has she learned through Ravenna’s letters? Ravenna must have passed her letters with Medinna. What have the two of them seen in Woodspeak? The notion of Ravenna in Woodspeak did manage to irritate the queen. That whore is charming enough to seduce Lord Chefyl’s son. If Edwin marries Anna’s granddaughter, the old bat will have the castle Woodspeak under her skirt.

The only soothing thing about the feast was the dominance of Brechfa houses in the hall. House Melyn, house Arth, house Ian, house Leoh and house Reith were among the honored guests, and the sight of common faces brought an aura of Midlands’ peace into the room.

Yrien’s mood failed to improve after the vows had been spoken, for, to her horror, the guests started rising to lead the toasts, each one more silly and witless than the previous one. At times Yrien wanted to smash her cup against the head of every new man or woman who’d say the toast, so that they would realize that these toasts and these vows and this music and this wedding were all a mummer’s farce. However it was required of her to pretend to be happy, and so she did, or at least tried to do. When Rion and Morgana joined the floor for the first dance, they looked so ridiculous together Yrien wanted to howl. Morgana was so tall she stood a good foot and a half taller than the king. Rion is a clumsy dancer at best, Yrien thought resentfully as she was watching the dance where Morgana overpowered her son with natural easy grace.

Then it happened.

He appeared in the back passage, like some grim shadow, a ghost more frightening than a night’s beast, with bruises on his face and red marks on his hands. Sir Leon looked somewhat dishonored and less capable when not donned in the red of the Camelot cloak, and his eyes didn’t promise anything good. For a moment, the queen didn’t realize it was truly happening, but then she rose to her feet and knocked aside some serving girl in a haste to reach the back door before her Councilor of War would be noticed by most of the wedding guests, who were either laughing or talking furtively or brooding over their seven courses and the disgusting Mercian wine.

“Sir Leon,” Yrien hissed, pushing him into the back passage.  

“Your grace,” he replied in a tired voice.  

“What is the bloody meaning of this?! Couldn’t you send your squire for me?! Half the court saw you and will be bombarding me with questions onc…”

“Your grace, we best speak at once,” Sir Leon grabbed her by the hand urgently, so urgently in fact that Yrien didn’t know how to act. “The matter is urgent.”

“How urgent? I have a wedding feast to attend, and… What are you even doing here, you’re supposed to be fighting a war in Gedref, you and Lord Gloss, you both will be held acc…”

“My queen, the pretender has the great dragon at his command,” Sir Leon looked as if announcing the news caused him physical pain. “He looks and talks every bit like Arthur, the similarity is so striking that anybody who’s unaware of his magic nature will mistake him for our fallen prince.”

Color rose to her cheeks. The queen could scarce understand what she was hearing, least of all – believe it. Who looks and talks every bit like Arthur? The dragon? Goddess, give me strength, give me all the strength I need. She had suffered quite enough for one day.

“What dragon?!” she demanded.

“The great dragon, the same that burned the Lower Town and…”

“You think I’m dumb?!” Yrien let him see her anger. “You think I’m some stupid tavern whore to be awed by your tales of dragons and other beasts?! Are you making that up because you failed the campaign?!”

“Then lord Gloss is making it up, too. He yielded Burnwood.”

“HE WHAT?!”

She fixed Sir Leon with a furious stare, she looked deep into his eyes and to her sorrow she discovered no lies there. Madness, it’s utter madness, it’s

“He yielded Burnwood,” Sir Leon repeated. “And retreated back to the castle of Chemary. He wanted to pass you a few words. He says his people are not ready to fight a dragon.”

IT CANNOT BE, IT CANNOT BE! HOW CAN A DRAGON SERVE UTHER’S SON?!

Yrien itched to slap Leon, who’d put on a weirdly solemn and somewhat pious expression.

“It’s no Uther’s son, your grace. It’s a wraith, a creature of magic, and I see no reason why two creatures of magic can’t pair and…”

“Of course, of course, I forgot myself, this is a wraith, and still,” Yrien coughed. I must remember my lies better. “You saw it with your own eyes? Swear to me, swear to me on the honor of your house, on your honor as the commander, on your honor as the knight!”

“I swear. We did lay siege to Portstown, just as you commanded. I wrote one letter to you as I was expecting lord Gloss’s host to arrive…  And one day, in the morning, we heard a terrible sound in the sky. The dragon came from the north and headed for the Merchant’s Bay, where some fleet was approaching Portstown.”

“Fleet?! What fleet?! Whose fleet?!”

“Alined’s and Odin’s, presumably. The dragon burned it. His fire was unlike anything I witnessed during the previous attack on the castle of Camelot. It wasn’t just breathing fire, it was turning the whole air above the bay into a wall of fire, like it’s magic has grown much stronger… The sails caught fire, the ships wrecked, the wood cracked… By the time I realized what was happening, half my soldiers were running away, and Lord Rysor was leading an attack against us…”

“Then what?” Yrien asked eagerly. Leon’s story was of such importance she nearly forgot there was a wedding feast going on behind the door.

“The wraith held me captive and then let me go. They agreed to send all the noble captives to lord Gloss providing he agreed to yield Burnwood. Which he did. I was among those captives, your grace. They still hold lord Chefyl, though. They will only exchange him for lady Gedref.”

Let them have her. It doesn’t matter if what he’s saying is true. Dragon, my foot, a dragon, a living dragon at Arthur’s service! Uther must be rolling over in his grave. Were the stories about Arthur’s mother line curse true, after all?

“How many men do we have left?” Yrien asked after a strangled pause.

“Lord Gloss has only lost a few when he took Burnwood, but his host has since then grown fatter thanks to some of those who deserted my camp and fled up the Southern road… Half a thousand is what lord Gloss has gathered in Chemary, I wager. Some deserters tried to make it to Camelot through Brechfa road, but I fear most of them were captured either in Brechfa or Woodspeak.”

Five hundred in Chemary. And maybe another four hundred if I completely drain Brechfa. My Portstown host is lost. My powers are melting. But I must not panic, I will not panic the way I did when Sir Vidor was assassinated. I must gather myself, I must, I must, I must… Yet the world was spinning around her, and darkness was falling around her until she glimpsed at the weak source of light. This can work. 

“I can’t blame you for failing the crown, Sir Leon,” Yrien let him see compassion in her eyes. You should have died fighting. But worry not, brave sir, you will have that opportunity soon. “Nobody was prepared to fight a dragon, and least of all me.”

“Your grace, let me…”

“My lord, while you’ve been gone, his grace has struck an agreement with the druids.”

“The druids? My lady…”

“House Gaheris has declared war upon the throne,” she hurried, not letting him object. “They want to crown Safir Gaheris since he’s Uther’s cousin, ignoring the lawful elections which have been held after Uther’s most untimely death. They have a great army of more than two thousand swords, they have allied with King Sarrum of some forsaken land and we couldn’t hope to oust them alone. We have agreed to join our forces with the druids, so that the rightful king will stand. You must ride to the castle of Idirsholas at once, to represent the crown at the command table, as has been agreed. I will write a letter to Ruadan.”

“Ruadan was a sworn enemy of the crown,” Leon was finding it disgusting to even pronounce the druid commander’s name.  

“Not anymore. You must not hesitate, Sir Leon. The battle of Camlann is nigh, the crown needs you at the battle field.”

“I live to serve the crown, your grace,” Sir Leon bowed down and turned around.  

 

***

 

Yrien never returned to the feast hall. Instead, she ordered the guards to summon Gaius to her chambers, where she sat waiting for the physician in complete darkness. She hesitated to light even one candle, for every source of fire reminded her of a dragon now. Dragons and dark witches. Ryence, did we know what we were meddling with?  You would've known what to do, had Rion not seen to your passing. 

The thoughts about her son turning out to be as calculating and dangerous as her brother were as wretch-provoking as the Mercian wine, and made her angry from the sense of her double helplessness. I have to deal with the threats from within and without my family.

“Gaius,” she said mildly when the old sickly man opened the door. “I was beginning to think you’d ignore my summons.”

“How could I?”

“Why, you are a very unruly councilor, who knows what you might or might not do?”

“Unruly?” the grey-haired man chuckled as he began to light the candles. “I serve the realm with all my powers, your grace.”

“Does concealing bits of information from queen regent qualify as serving the realm? You really thought you could hide the news about Arthur’s pet for long?”

Gaius’s expression didn’t so much as flinch. He knew, he knew the whole time. I should have thrown him off the Western Tower when I had the chance. Is it too late to do it now, though? No, I will not be the one to do it. I shall handle the opportunity to the one who deserves it better. 

“I hoped the news would reach you in the right time,” he sounded as if he was trying to explain himself.  

“Well, it has,” Yrien got up and smoothed her skirts. “The news is here. What am I to do with it? Counsel me.”

The old physician pondered that a moment.

“My lady, you have many qualities, but fighting dragons is not among the long list of your undeniable talents. For a start, focus on your campaign against Vyda Gaheris and forget about your plans to defeat Arthur. He has two impregnable castles behind his back, an army of a thousand soldiers and a dragon. By now, he would’ve gone to Gawant if he’s as smart as I believe, and he will have Nemeth by his side, if what I heard about him weeks ago is true. If it comes down to combat, Arthur will prevail, whether you will it or not.”

“You say “if” it comes down to combat. And what is left for me, if not combat? What will you have me do? Sue for peace with Arthur? Rion sits on his father’s throne, the man we betrayed and murdered. What terms do you think Arthur will offer?” Yrien smirked from despair.

“There is small chance that you can agree on terms, but I urge you to try every chance if it promises peace. My lady, many years ago your brother agreed to wed you to Uther in exchange for keeping Midlands out of further war. He was not only thinking about himself, he had the needs of the kingdom in his mind, too. You must do the same. There is small chance, but there is chance, after all, that Arthur will agree to blame the death of his father on Ryence. Rion will be dethroned and most likely sent to the castle of Asgorath with Morgana, while you will go to a permanent exile in Gawant, where Rion will be able to visit you now and then.”

“How can a man with two impregnable castles, a thousand soldiers and a dragon be disciplined enough to offer terms instead of just cooking me inside this very castle?” Yrien asked, studying Gaius’s face.  

“Maybe Arthur has someone to check on his worst impulses, my lady. Someone whose opinion he values too highly to ignore it.”

Then he is as big a fool as I suspected.

“Even if I agreed to such terms, Arthur would have no easy time claiming the throne. The druids have gathered a great army at Idirsholas. Five thousand swords, it’s proven. Even if I stepped down, Arthur would have to make druids bend the knee.”

“You shouldn’t worry. The druids will bow to the dragonlord who serves Arthur.”

Yrien smiled at him, solving the riddle of Anna Dindrane’s satisfied expression at the wedding feast.The granddaughter of the last druid queen must have learned that the dragonlord is returned, and so is the great dragon. Thirty-two years after her dynasty fell, the dragon king might rule again. You may have won this battle, old bat, but you’re a fool if you think you’ve won the war. I will go to Brechfa and I will gather extra swords and I will command them to set all the fields afire and I will claim it was Arthur and his dragon who did it. He will be king over ashes, I promise. The common people will never ever welcome him. He will not wear the crown. Not unless he is put to rest beside his father.   

Once Gaius was gone, she reached for a quill to compose a letter which was meant to be her farewell gift to her enemies. 

"To Her Grace Morgana of House Gorlois, Queen Consort of Camelot and all her territories, Acting Regent of the Five Kingdoms.

Let it be known to your grace that even as you celebrate your wedding to King Rion, your enemies are restless in their pursuits to bring you down. Let it also be known to you that the great dragon is now under command of the pretender who styles himself as "Arthur" and occupies Portstown. Now that the magical nature of his power and his connections to the dragon are brought to light, it is only a matter of time before Anna Dindrane and Gaius attempt to flock to the pretender's side. Make no mistake, the granddaughter of the last druid queen will not miss the chance to reinstall her fallen dynasty with the help of the dragon, and Gaius is the sort of a servant who fancies being on the winning side. Shall any doubts regarding the validity of this news come to your head, please, use the vast resources of your position to watch Anna Dindrane and Gaius: I am sure the proof of their treachery will present itself. 

Congratulations on your wedding and welcome to the royal family, 

with love, Yrien of House Gingawaine, the Lady of Brechfa." 

Chapter Text

CHAPTER 24: A Sorcerer's Shadow 

The queen had made it clear that Gwen could not join Morgana for her trip to the lake of Avalon.

“Her grace insists that servants are crucially needed at the castle, so that all the necessary preparations are made for the royal wedding,” Yrien’s page reported.

Gwen had to spend every effort trying to dissuade Morgana of the idea to storm into Yrien’s room and demand that Gwen were permitted to join the party traveling to Avalon. It won’t work, she’s keeping me close out of different reasons, and besides, we best not irritate her. Of late, the very sight of anybody else seemed to make the queen very angry, and Gwen had no wish to test the limits of Yrien’s patience. Finally, Morgana left without her, and Gwen found herself alone.

Except for this time, she felt alone, but not lonely. There was no Arthur, no Merlin, no Lancelot, no Gwaine by her side. Even Gaius had turned into a man she could no longer call her friend. How can he live with himself knowing that Merlin poisoned Morgana? How can he try and justify what Merlin attempted to do?

She didn’t want to learn the answers to those questions; she prayed she’d never be able to understand the logic where killing your friend was not evil. If wisdom means twisting your views to the point when good is bad and bad is good, I choose to remain a fool forever.

The citadel and the Lower Town were as noisy as Gwen could remember them in the days when king Ryence returned from the supposed fighting in Brechfa. Now, more than thirty knights and as many esquires awaited queen regent outside the royal stables. They were all Midlanders, sworn to house Chefyl and house Gingawaine, and Gwen was happy to know these men were about to put the castle of Camelot behind them. She had no taste for the company of their servants, the lickspittles and spies who surrounded Yrien and trembled at every breath the queen took.

After Ryence had been elected king, he marched out to feign his fight with Cenred through the Silver Gates to the booming storm of war drums, and thousands of commoners lined up to see him off. The sounds of drums and the sight of soldiers were such an impressive scene that many boys joined the march, striding alone beside the soldiers, holding their heads so high they’d stumble now and then, and Gwen knew no girl who’d not throw down her kisses at soldiers from the window.

Queen Regent didn’t intend to take after the fashion of her late brother’s departure. Her baggage train had already been prepared and awaited her outside the city walls, guarded by some outriders and mounted archers, and it almost looked as if Yrien was hurrying to leave unnoticed.

Her numbers are not that great, Gwen thought as she passed the stables. Then again, this near to the castle of Camelot, the road promises to be as safe as any rider can hope to travelWhy would she need great numbers to get to Woodspeak? It’s not that far away.

Gwen’s day was busy as ever: after inspecting the horse Morgana has picked for her wedding stroll in the Lower Town, Gwen had to go to the merchant’s shop and pay for Morganas’ wedding dress, as well as deliver the invitations written by Morgana’s hand to all the noble houses which resided in Camelot at the moment. She also had to visit the Southern Village to make sure that Morgana’s demands regarding the feast for the common people were met.

When Gwen returned to the castle of Camelot, she felt utterly exhausted and nearly fell in the inner yards after being knocked aside by a tall man in a beige tunic and a dark-brown leather vest as long as any cloak. He had dark-auburn hair and a dense beard, freshly shaved.

“Pardons, my lady,” the man said in the deepest and strongest voice Gwen ever heard. “Never meant to hurt you. Don’t you happen to know where I can find Gaius?”

“Who are you?” Gwen asked warily; the man who managed to get to the inner yard past all the Gingawaine guards was probably no threat, but life had taught her to put little trust in strangers.

“Julius Borden,” he bowed down. “I am here to be considered for the position of the Royal Physician. Gaius can’t hold two jobs now that he’s the Secretary to the king.”

He looks much too young for a physician, Gwen thought, inspecting his face. Although, maybe it’s the light…  

“Gaius has a room in a separate tower, it’s in the eastern wing and…”

“I wouldn’t be asking if he were there, my lady,” Borden smiled. “I’ve known both, Gaius and that tower for long enough to remember the way. He’s elsewhere, I’m afraid, that’s why I’m asking.”

“Gaius may be anywhere, truly,” Gwen shrugged. “He’s the Secretary, he goes wherever the king commands, so I suggest you wait for him in his tower. Otherwise you might miss him. Good night, my lord.”

New king, new commander of the knights, new physician. Camelot was changing, one man at a time, and afterward, alone in Morgana’s room, Gwen found herself wondering whether she was intrigued or scared by those changes. She opened the shutters to feel the night growing cold and hear the city slanted with rain, the downpour growing thicker and faster and the familiar scent of wet mud rising into the air. The moon was but a bleak silver smear in the sky, and soon enough the Lower Town sank into the night, and shadows came to play after the candles were lit.

The sleep didn’t come to Gwen. She was thinking about Merlin and Arthur somewhere far away, on the shores of the land which seemed so distant to her she considered it foreign. They were so far away now that it was hard to believe the four of them had went to Ealdor to fight the bandits together. We were ready to give our lives for each other. Goddess, we disobeyed the king for probably the first time. We risked our lives, but it didn’t matter, the risks and threats and dangers all melted away in the light of our friendship. Where is that friendship now?  

Friends don’t poison friends, friends don’t hide secrets from friends, friends don’t manipulate friends to get what they want,Gwen thought swallowing tears. The three of us could have been the true councilors for Arthur, we could have been the guidance he needed, we could belong together, all of us, and instead we’re fighting.How did it come to this?

Gwen closed the shutters and slipped under the blanket, hoping that the music of the rain would somehow shut her own thoughts, but her conscience was an intrusive force. If half the nobles are as overburdened with thoughts as I am now, it’s small wonder they choose to silence their sorrows with wine.

It made no sense whatsoever to doubt the fact that Merlin had poisoned Morgana. Morgana said so and, to Gwen’s horror, Gaius said so, too. Was it really Arthur who gave a command, though?  

Morgana believed that Merlin would’ve never carried out such an action on his own. There was a seed of reason behind such an assumption, Gwen agreed, her ideas so uncomfortable they made her turn to other side beneath the blanket. After all, Merlin had been Arthur’s servant for longer than any other servant in the castle, and Arthur had grown strangely fond of him, or at least displayed the sort of fondness he was rarely thought to have. Merlin has always been at Arthur’s side.

Yet Merlin was unlike other servants. Many said that he presumed too much when he’d challenge and even question the orders received from the prince, and Gwen could recall many a time when Merlin would do something Arthur would later disapprove of. Merlin never asked for the prince’s consent when he chose to save the life of that druid boy, for instance. Arthur didn’t know.It could be that Arthur didn’t know about the poison, it very well could be.

But why would Merlin poison Morgana without Arthur’s consent? Well, he knew that she had magic. Morgana told him herself. Maybe he thought that Morgana’s magic had something to do with the attack?

 

***

No shafts of sunlight had broken through the thick curtains of Morgana’s room before morning bells began to peal, waking Gwen from a troubled sleep. When she opened the shutters, she saw anger and pain in the scowling sky and a sense of unrest was in the air. Will the rain delay the wedding?

There was every reason to believe Morgana would be back to the castle soon: the road back was expected to be quicker, for the bride didn’t have to stop at all the villages again. Gwen felt she needed to make up her mind before her mistress returned to the citadel, but the decision refused to come. She used anything she could think of to focus on the bitter truth: she’d wash her face with the ice cold-water from the basin, she’d breathe the chilly morning air through the open window, she’d try and talk to herself, but all her words seemed unbecoming, as if chosen to disregard Morgana’s sufferings.

What am I supposed to tell her? Morgana, please, you must forgive Merlin. He poisoned you because he thought your magic was to blame for the attack of Medihr knights! It sounds pathetic. Whatever he thought, he poisoned her all the same, and she’s not like to forget it. Least of all forgive. But sending Odin of Cornwall for Arthur is overreacting. There’s no proof Arthur knew of Merlin’s intentions. No proof at all. But how do I talk to her about proof? All the proof she needs was in her veins. 

The sky erupted with rainfall soon enough, and echoes of thunder traveled the sky which had turned iron-grey and inky-black at the western corners. By midday it became apparent that the king’s party would be delayed by the rain, and the only thing that could match the black of the sky was the mood of queen regent. The wedding had been intentionally designed as a small event for a number of nobles out of security concerns, but queen regent had not forgotten to schedule a special event for all the other prominent residents of Lower Town who could take the lack of invitation as an insult. From what Gwen could understand, Rion was meant to return today to host a very special dinner for the envoys of Mercia, Anglia and Gawant, as well as for the distinctive members of the merchant families, as well as the representatives of the guilds and the representatives of the Silky Bank of Tir-Mor. Yet Rion was nowhere to be seen, and Gwen pitied every servant whose misfortune was to come across Yrien that day.

Gwen spent her day accepting presents which most nobles were sending to Morgana and looking for Gaius. Morgana was right about him. Gaius may have his ways to contact Arthur. Gaius can warn him about Odin. Surprisingly, the sense of guilt was not eating Gwen once she’d made up her mind to tell Gaius about Morgana’s plans to send Odin against Arthur. I am not betraying Morgana by doing this. I am winning us some time to find out the truth. She knew it had something to do with her sympathy for Arthur, the sort of sympathy she had never developed for Merlin even though she had once kissed him. I don’t want Arthur to suffer, he may be innocent of whatever wrongs Merlin’s guilty of.

However, Gaius wasn’t so easy to find. Some guards told her he was questioning the man who had come to Camelot to be the new royal physician. Others told her he was invited for the king’s special dinner, and some insisted he was seen in the Dindrane’s tower. Gwen only glimpsed at him in the inner yard, when the wheeled wagon from Woodspeak arrived, splashing the puddles, and Medinna Dindrane stepped right into the rain. The rain’s so fierce, Gwen thought, watching the growing puddles.

Morgana proved fiercer than the rainstorm, though: she turned up at the doorstep of her room after the evening bells, wearing a soaked-through gown and a tired expression.

“Morgana, are you feeling fine?” Gwen asked, hurrying to put fresh logs into the fireplace. “You look rather pale.”

“I guess this stupid trip wasn’t worth it,” Morgana cursed, stepping behind her changing screen. “I barely slept.”

“Everything went as planned?” Gwen asked carefully. There was something very wrong about Morgana’s voice. Something happened, something that makes her sound so terribly distraught.

“Suppose so. Has there been any news from the south?”

“What news?”

 “Any news.”

Morgana walked from behind the screen in a maroon gown, her face – a pale mask of fright and vulnerability that Gwen had so rarely attributed to her mistress before. She’s never been ashamed to show her emotions, but she was always good at hiding her fear. What has scared her so much? 

“No, there hasn’t been news, I’m afraid,” Gwen replied, closing the shutters to let the fire warm the room. Morgana glanced at the fireplace warily before going to bed. “The queen has made all the preparations to depart for Brechfa. She will visit Woodspeak, too. The younger of the Dindrane girls is back from Woodspeak, by the way.”

“The younger. But Ravenna remains a guest at Woodspeak?”

A hostage, rather.

“Seems so. They say Ravenna will meet the queen in Woodspeak and return to Camelot after that.”

“What about Gaius?”

“I’ve not talked to him at all. I’ve spent half the day looking for him, but I’d rather avoid him, to be honest. We haven’t parted on good terms.”

“A pity. It wouldn’t hurt to have the Royal Secretary on our side,” Morgana’s voice was stern and accusing. “Has the king come back from his hunting trip?”

“Not yet. He was delayed by rain, and couldn’t come to host the special dinner for envoys and guild members and…”

“Our wedding is after tomorrow and he is still hunting,” Morgana gave a round of cheerless applause. “Great! I guess I will try and fall asleep then. Will you put out the fire, please?”

“I thought you were cold…”

“I said put it out,” Morgana raised her voice rather unexpectedly. “Please.” 

Gwen did as she was told and hurried out of the room. Gwaine was by the door, as motionless as one of the statues in the small hall.

“What happened to her?” Gwen asked, not too happy to see him or talk to him. He knew about Merlin’s deeds as well. Gwaine knew he poisoned Morgana.

“Don’t know, princess,” Gwaine shrugged. “She really didn’t enjoy the ceremony, it would seem.”

“The ceremony?”

“Just so. Nobody harmed her, I swear. Nobody even talked to her.”

Then why does she look as if someone frightened her?

“That’s strange.”

“You have a strange mistress,” Gwaine pointed.  

 

***

 

Gwen was the first servant in the kitchens the following morning and carried Morgana’s breakfast upstairs carefully, hoping that warm bread and porridge could cheer her mistress up a little. The clouds still refused to part, and the drawn curtains of Morgana’s windows gave the whole room and aura of sadness, the same sadness that was written all over Morgana’s face when she woke up and asked Gwen to open the shutters.

“I’m sorry I shouted at you yesterday,” Morgana said in a voice slightly hoarse from the sleep.

“Well, you need not be,” Gwen smiled, handing Morgana a glass of lemon water to make her breath fresh. “When Sagramore’s daughter was getting ready for her betrothal to Sir Vidor, she got so nervous and angry she dismissed all her servants. I understand you’re no less nervous, for you’re to wed the king.”

Yet when Morgana tried to pretend she was having breakfast, it became plain to Gwen that there was a deeper reason beneath the tormented look in her eyes.

“Something’s wrong,” Gwen said after summoning all the courage in the world to voice it. “You look unhappy.”

“How can I look happy?!” Morgana suddenly rose to her feet, throwing the porridge plate aside. Her eyes were wide with rage. “I’m no longer certain that I’ve done the right thing!”

“You can undo it before it’s too late,” Gwen proposed with caution to her tone.  

“It’s already too late!” Morgana’s breath was heavy, so heavy she looked as if she were about to start ripping her hair out.

“It’s not. Rion’s not returned from hunting. You can leave the castle for good and go back to the druids.”

And take me with you.  

“I can’t,” Morgana blurted. “The meaning of my marriage is political! The druids agreed to lend all the swords to the crown and help them fight Vyda Gaheris, and in return, the Gingawaines agreed to marry Rion to me and lift the ban on magic. If I cancel the betrothal now, I may endanger the whole druid uprising. What if the Gingawaines and the West decided to strike a deal? What if they agreed to destroy the druids together before settling the affairs between them?”

“It’s unlikely considering that Vyda Gaheris blames Yrien for the death of her grandson,” Gwen said critically.

“But it may be that her hatred for the druids overpowers her thirst for vengeance. The chance is small, but’s a risk nonetheless, and I can’t put the uprising under risk, not after everything Alvarr has done for the sake of legalizing magic…”

And suddenly, Morgana began to cry, struggling for breath, the colours rising to her pale face. Gwen reached a hand for her mistress’s shoulder.

“Morgana?”

“And now they say there is a dragon south…” Morgana whispered scornfully.

Gwen felt her eyebrows rising, and her breath seizing to go on. She couldn’t mishear what Morgana had just said, she did utter that word, that ugly word which reeked of destruction, flames and decay. Her temples were pulsing as if a blacksmith was working his hammer on them.

“Dragon? What dragon?” she asked, praying Morgana didn’t mean it.

“There is but one dragon, and there is but one man who can command a dragon,” Morgana sniffed. “It’s Emrys.”

“Morgana, where… why… who… how did you come to know it?”

“My magic,” her mistress whispered. “It doesn’t lie, it neverlies. Arthur has somehow captured the dragonlord, he corrupted him and now the dragon is at his service, and my sis…”

Arthur would never do such a thing. He was fighting the dragon during the attacks on our city. He would never ever side with such a force, he wouldn’t.

“Morgana, this is not possible!” Gwen took her by the hand. “The dragon was wounded mortally, and the last dragonlord died in Essetir, Balinor was his name, it is known! The dragonlords are gone!”

“Not unless Balinor fathered a son,” Morgana upset her. “That boy we saved.”

“You mean… Mordred?!”

“Why do you think the druid leader himself showed up to take this boy? Iseldir rarely leaves his bloody caves, there could be but one reason for Iseldir to look for the boy personally. Mordred is Balinor’s son, he is the dragonlord, the man who appears in the druid legends under the name Emrys,” Morgana said with a heavy sigh, trying to mask tears. “The poor boy must have felt so abandoned and lost, he deserved to be treated with love and care, and instead he ended up in Arthur’s reach…”

“Goddess, Goddess save us all! Morgana, you can’t think Arthur can possibly send a dragon against the castle?!”

“I don’t know what to think and I don’t know what to do! Gwen, I don’t know how to fight a dragon!”

 

***

 

They spent the rest of the day debating what could and could not be done if the news about the dragon turned out to be true. Gwen refused to believe it, for it would mean the death of Arthur as she knew him. The man she knew would never ally with a dragon force after all the pain and destruction the beast had brought to the Lower Town, just as the smiling charming Merlin she had met when children were throwing vegetables at him would not poison his friend. No reasons can justify poisoning your friend or siding with a dragon.

A part of Gwen hoped that Morgana’s revelation was misinterpreted; after all, magic was a mysterious thing, and Morgana was more than reluctant to discuss it with Gwen. Given the moment and the place, there was but one other person in the whole castle whose confirmation could serve as a valid proof, not only of the dragon’s survival, but also of Arthur’s involvement in the fate of the beast. Gaius.

Gaius was ever elusive, though: the king returned from the hunting the following day and summoned his councilors to discuss whatever needed to be discussed before the wedding. The tradition bid that the groom and the bride were not to see each other on the verge of the ceremony, and so Gwen chose to stay with Morgana and to delay the conversation with Gaius until the very feast despite the urge to go see the physician at once.

When the wedding day came, Gwen asked the kitchen boys to bring steaming hot water for Morgana’s tub. Afraid or not, they both realized Morgana had to look beautiful for the commoners and the court alike, and so Gwen had to scrub her mistress until she almost glowed pink. She trimmed her nails and helped Morgana brush her hair and curl it in away that would make it fall down her back in ringlets.

“Why, I almost look beautiful,” Morgana said as she spun, making the skirt swirl around her. Her dark blue velvet dress with hem in silver thread looked too adorable.

“You are beautiful,” Gwen smiled at her. “You look like a true queen.”

“Don’t say that to Yrien, though,” Morgana giggled.

“You are sure you don’t want to wear gemstones?”

“I don’t have any gems save for those which Uther gave me, and I don’t want his gems. His death is the biggest wedding gift to me, and I will not forget who presented me with this gift,” she touched the tip of Gwen’s nose playfully. “Now, will you wait for me at the feast? You know we’ll have to ride through the Lower Town before swearing oaths.”

“I will,” Gwen promised.

The ceremony passed as in a dream. The servants had done all that was required of them and even more to decorate the Feast Hall, the same hall Gwen had refused to visit during the holiday of the Summer Feast.If I had joined the celebrations back then, Rion would not have found me sitting alone in the corridor and weeping, he would not have talked me into Uther’s murder. Everything would’ve gone so differently.

The tall candles burning in the hall produced pleasant forest smells and were mirrored in the crystals hung beneath the ceiling, producing rainbow reflections all over the room. There were musicians and singers ready to entertain those who were invited. The tables were designed for forty guests, Gwen could see, and most of them were nobles from Midlands who have fled to the castle of Camelot following the news of Cenred’s invasion. Fools. It was all a trick.

The last royal wedding happened when Uther Pendragon married Ygraine du Bois, and they said that hundreds of noble guests were invited to the castle of Camelot to witness the unity of the new king and the princess of the Seaside Kingdom. Compared to the rumored scale of Uther’s ceremony, Rion’s wedding feast was a modest affair, but modesty didn’t necessarily imply the lack of happiness or taste.

When Morgana and Rion appeared in the Feast Hall to speak their vows, Gaius appeared with them; as the Secretary of the kingdom, it was his duty to record the act of marriage. Rion was no less magnificent than Morgana that day: in his doublet of black velvet covered with silver scrollwork, thigh-high boots which added more than two inches to his height, and a silver crown upon his head, the broom did compete with the bride.

“My lords, ladies, and good people of Camelot,” Gaius spoke as the whispers in the crowd died. “We are gathered here today to celebrate the ancient rite of hand-fasting, the union of Rion Gingawaine, king of Camelot and all her territories…”

Except Daobeth, Asgorath, Landshire, Denaria, Gedref and Nemeton, Gwen wanted to add. Why, Rion rules over two of the five kingdoms at best, he’s the king in the Druid Land and Midlands.. Arthur rules over what used to be the Seaside Kingdom, and Vyda Gaheris controls what used to be the Mountain Land. The Northern Lands have turned to a waste after Uther’s purge.

“…and Morgana Gorlois, the rightful lady of Asgorath. Is it your wish, Rion, to become one with this woman?”

“It is,” Rion roared to a round of cheers and applause.

“Is it your wish, Morgana, to become one with this man?”

“It is,” Morgana nodded, smiling at Gaius. Gwen recalled the way her mistress described Gaius recently. Just another Uther’s lickspittle who will earn his fate one day.

“Do any say nay?” Gaius inquired formally. “Then as we gather here today, we are all witness to this moment. With this garland, I do tie a knot, and by doing so, bind your hands and your hearts for all eternity.”

Rion straightened his back to appear taller than Morgana, and spoke:

“I, Rion of House Gingawaine, King of Camelot and all her territories, shall not seek to change thee in any way. I shall respect my marriage vows as I respect myself.”

“As shall I,” Morgana said, cutting her speech unexpectedly short.  

“I now pronounce you to be husband and wife,” Gaius announced.  

Despite the wild roars and cheers which came mainly from the Midlanders, Morgana’s and Rion’s kiss was more dutiful than passionate, and Gwen noticed Queen Regent in a splendid long-sleeved turquoise gown looking least happy of all, her eyes bearing into Anna Dindrane, the Councilor of Camelot. She’s not happy about it. She’s not happy at all. Oh, Goddess, I pray she leaves soon.

Meanwhile, Gaius was not done. The servants fetched him the crown with the frame made of bronze and decorated with gleaming rubies.

“By the power vested in me, I declare Morgana Gingawaine the queen consort of Camelot and, thus, Rion’s regent through marriage.”

Morgana kneeled to have the crown placed on her head and arose the queen of Camelot. She looked satisfied, but there were shades of uneasiness in her eyes, the shades that could be dimmed by neither the gleam of the rubies nor the glow of the candle flames. Gwen recalled herself thinking about marrying Gwaine one day, and she was happy she had not made that mistake. When a witness to other people’s empty ceremony, she realized she didn’t want to enjoy same emptiness. There was but one man she would gladly marry, but it was the man she could neither forgive nor even talk to, for he was somewhere far away. Where are you, Lancelot? 

When the feast began, Gwen was pouring wine for Morgana and watching other guests. Yrien drank heavily while scarcely touching her plate, and whenever someone rose to make a toast, she managed to nod to produce a court acknowledgement, but otherwise, her face could be made of stone. Anna Dindrane seemed happy to have her younger granddaughter by her side, while Gaius was busy discussing something with Sir Logsheath. When the musicians began to play, Rion and Morgana hit the floor for an awkward dance, and soon other guests joined the king and the queen.

The feast seemed to drag forever, and Gwen wanted, on the one hand, for it to be over as soon as possible, but, on the other hand, she was dreading its end. For after the feast, she was supposed to find out the truth.

Gaius didn’t stay at the feast for long, though; after the imprisonment in the Western Tower, his health had been shattered and he could no longer stay up for that long. Gwen decided to visit him some time after she spied him leaving the hall. She cast one last look at the celebration: Yrien was nowhere to be seen; some servants said she left through the back passage and was gone to bed, for she was supposed to leave at first light on the morrow.

Gaius was done lighting up candles when Gwen knocked on the door of his room.

“Come in,” he said in a weak voice.

She stepped in, unable to lift her gaze off the floor.

“Gwen,” Gaius was surprised. “I didn’t think it was you. You’ve no habit of knocking on the door.”

She ignored the jape. She wanted to be done with it, she wanted to know. She shut the door and switched to whisper. Gaius was standing by the hearth with a note in his hands.

“Gaius. We must talk. You… you may claim whatever reasons to distrust and loathe Morgana, but you can’t stand and watch Arthur abuse a child to get control over a dragon.”

Gaius’s mouth fell open, but there was more confusion than shock in his look. He isn’t surprised by the news of the dragon.

“Arthur abuse a child to get control over a dragon? What nonsense are you talking, Gwen?”

“The news will reach the castle sooner or later. Arthur is in the south, and so is the dragonlord and his dragon. It’s not a coincidence,” Gwen chose to attack.

Gaius’s solemn silence was more proof than she ever needed. It’s true, oh goddess, it’s all true!  

“Hardly it is. But the dragonlord is not a child, he is a man grown.”

“Mordred is a boy of twelve!”

“What does Mordred have to do with the dragon?” Gaius asked, perplexed. “He’s just a druid boy.”

“He is Balinor’s son!”

“Who told you that?” the assumption made the old physician grimace. “Gwen, don’t be ridiculous.”

“How do you know it’s not Mordred?! How can you be so certain?!”

“I am certain, I know it as a fact and it’s all you need to know,” he sounded as if their conversation were drawn to a close. “Your mistress shouldn’t trouble herself with worries. The dragon is no threat to the castle of Camelot. Now you must excuse me, I have the queen to attend.”

In the abrupt silence that reigned in Gaius’s chambers, Gwen began to think.

Gaius didn’t look shocked or even a bit surprised when he heard about the dragon. He knew the dragon didn’t die, and he claims it’s not this boy Mordred who commands the beast.

Gaius somehow knows it, knows everything, knows that the dragon lived, and that the dragonlord isn’t Mordred. But what’s most amazing is that Gaius looks as if he expected the dragonlord to turn up at Arthur’s service.

How can it be? How can Gaius know the dragonlord would serve Arthur? What is the only thing in the south that may link Gaius and Arthur? Who’s always been at both, Gaius’s and Arthur’s side?

She stared into the flames, recalling one of her conversations with Gwaine.

“I am not asking you to disclose Arthur’s plans for me, all I want to know is whether there will be war? Will he attack the castle of Camelot?”

“I don’t know,” Gwaine replied. “I really don’t, princess. It depends on what Merlin will advise him.”

“For the thousandth time, what does Merlin have to do with Arthur’s war?!” she snapped, irritated, and rose to her feet. “He is a servant, just like me, not a bloody commander!”

“He is the one who’s never quit Arthur’s side, the one who stayed with Arthur in the most dangerous times and the one who literally nurtured Arthur back to life. He’d make the skies rain with fire just for Arthur, I’m sure.”

 Suddenly, she felt as if the heat of the flames was burning inside her. There was another talk, with Gaius:

“You want me to keep the fact that Arthur’s alive away from Morgana? That’s madness! Gaius, they grew up like sister and brother, she’s got every right to know!”

“She does,” Gaius nodded. “That doesn’t worry me. She would’ve found about Arthur anyway, even if Yrien had indeed been foolish to not report this tiny detail to Morgana before. However, would it be too taxing to ask you to not mention Merlin’s name?”

“Merlin’s name?! Gaius, I don’t get it, I just don’t, I… Why? What’s going on, Gaius? Gwaine’s been mentioning Merlin, and now you. What’s so secretive about Merlin that I must not tell Morgana about him?!”

And then the world ended, and she gasped for air.

 

Chapter Text

CHAPTER 25: Honeymoon 

They had sailed at the break of dawn, and Portstown was the first to vanish in the blurring line that was the horizon. The castle of Gedref remained in their sight for some more time, a beacon of white walls and drum towers rising high above the sea, on a rock which seemed even more giant when beheld from afar. Yet even the enormous castle and the rock that held it disappeared out of sight in the end, and all that was left to watch were the oarsmen.

The oarsmen were everything, for the wind refused to come for most of the day. The sails painted in faded red looked like feeble useless pieces of cloth which served as poor elements of decoration rather than as essential attributes of the ship. King Arthur watched the oarsmen work for some time, finding something oddly hypnotizing about staring at the repetitive rhythm of oars diving into the sea to come back with a splash and then dive back… And on and on it went. Watching something so monotonous happening helped Arthur to take his mind off the worrying thoughts.  

I’m sailing to Gawant without a clear plan. Rodor is already leading his army to Cornwall, the army he initially wanted to use against me. It’s a great beginning, but I need to persuade king Godwyn to join this war against Cornwall. Otherwise, it’s going to be a purposeless butchery without consequences. If King Godwyn joins the war, Odin of Cornwall will have no choice but to recognize the new rules. He will stop supporting pirates. He will stop threatening Nemeth ports in the Sea of Mora. The size of his new fleet will be restricted, too. I will seriously reduce Odin’s ability to harm Portstown ever again. 

Arthur let out a heavy sigh and glanced overboard, in his fast reflection in the smooth water. I don’t look a bit like father now, yet I can’t get him out of my head. If father had a dragon on his side, he would’ve turned both, Lydon and Plymouth into ashes. He was a conqueror because it was easy. Just killing those who stand your way. Why can’t I act the same?  

Arthur knew the answer to that question when this answer appeared behind his back. Merlin’s hand brushed his shoulder in the most carefree way, yet the touch of his former servant made Arthur find calm amidst the storm of thoughts. In fact, with Merlin’s sneaky self so comfortably close to him, the king felt like home wherever they were: in the modest hut of Hunith back at Ealdor, when he’d chase Merlin in the garden to whirl his unconvincingly protesting warlock in the air, in the rich castle of Gedref where he’d make Merlin grab the sheets of silk from pleasure and whisper Arthur’s name into the pillow, the two of them eager and greedy in the silence of the summer night, and on the tremulous galley sailing to the capital of Gawant, overloaded with guards and burdens of Arthur’s political quest. There was some personal charm about Merlin, the charm that was ironically in no way related to magic. He makes me feel like home wherever I am.

Merlin has been given a separate cabin as his chief servant - a measure they both considered necessary for the safety of the journey. The effort that had gone into establishing the security of his visit to Gawant was immeasurable: lord Sei had hand-picked four crews to ferry the royal party to Gawant and had only announced which crew would go the night before the voyage. Yet Arthur wanted the crew of the ship to see no more than they were supposed to watch and to learn no more than they were supposed to know. For now, the king thought it best for the crew to know that there were just servants and guards on board. He wanted King Godwyn to believe the dragonlord was left behind, and in case some members of the crew were spying for Godwyn despite all the prudent measures of lord Sei, they would report to Godwyn of Gawant that the dragonlord never climbed the ship in Portstow, and that Arthur’s party consisted of only servants and guards.

Only was not the most befitting word, though. The guards and the servants had been chosen with the same meticulous care as the ship crew: even though all the major and minor houses of Gedref and Nemeton and merchant families of Portstown volunteered to provide Arthur with servants to tend to the king’s every need, lord Sei and Henry believed that no single family could supply Arthur with servants, and picked no more than one from each house after hours of questioning. The guards were comprised of those who fought the briefest of the battles against the queen’s forces besieging Portstown the day the dragon had shown himself, and none of the newly brought Nemeton soldiers managed to get on board, which displeased Modron’s father.

Arthur spent his day talking to Darmund Sei, the captain of his guards, discussing his vision for the movement in Inkwave and for inspection of the guest chambers in the Trident Palace.

“Godwyn was my father’s friend for decades. He doesn’t need to give me a room with secret spy passages to find out something. He can ask me directly, I am sure,” to Arthur, the thought about inspecting every inch of walls and floors in the chambers seemed below his standards of dignity.

“Might be so, your grace, but…” the sun agreed with the ginger beard of Darmund but was too bright on his head shaved bald. “If I may, king Godwyn’s attitude is largely… Well, your grace… It may be more determined by your influence on the trade in the Merchant’s Bay rather than by the memory of your father. Godwyn shut the ports because of you, and this decision was echoed all over southern Albion, from Seagate in Deorham to Stoneroad in Nemeth, to Kent and to Londinium in Tir-Mor. If I may put it straight: he’s pissed off a lot of wealthy people, all thanks to you. Maybe he’s no longer your friend.”

“I never wanted for the trade to stop,” Arthur said, frowning.

“But he doesn’t feel it safe for ships to sail beneath the dragon. He wants assurances or at least promises from you, and he might be not as predisposed towards you as he was during your father’s reign. I think it would be best for you to spend your nights on the ship.”

“I can’t do that,” Arthur ruled that out immediately. “My visit is the major news for Gawant’s capital. I am certain Godwyn wants to present me to all of his court, and I can’t be seen hiding on my ship. I am the king now, and if I do that, I will show signs of fear and weakness, which I don’t want for Godwyn’s court to see. I must pretend I feel safe in the Trident Palace. You must be guarding me.”

“Your grace…”

“Don’t worry, my lord, I’ve learned from my Lydon fiasco,” Arthur all but shivered from the memories of swimming through the drainage channels. “I won’t dismiss my guards this time. However, if Godwyn insists that no weapons are to be carried into the palace, then we shall stay elsewhere in the city. Inkwave is a large place, and your uncle gave me a list of merchant families that would gladly host me during my visit.”

“As your grace commands,” Darmund nodded before taking his leave.

After the sun slipped beneath the clouds, the day turned lazy, almost as slow as the unchanging scenery of grey-blue sea beneath the ship and grey-blue sky above it. The oarsmen took a break soon, and Arthur went to talk to them and to thank them for their work and to share his bread and mead with them. He knew it wasn’t expected of him, but he felt it was the right thing to do. Merlin seemed to approve of it, too, and the king could feel his warlock smile even behind his back.

They spent the rest of the day discussing which families they would turn to in case Godwyn refused to allow Arthur’s armed guards into the palace, and Arthur had to go through his papers on the desired sums he was planning to borrow from Godwyn’s Treasury or merchants in case his negotiations would be as swift as in Rodor’s case. Half the notes Arthur lay off onto the bed would later be assaulted by Merlin’s kitten, who’d attack them with a sudden jump from beneath the bed, and retreat after a condemning hiss from Arthur. Merlin found it extremely funny and was feeding his kitten with some milk porridge he’d taken in a special pot from Portstown, which didn’t add to the tidiness of the cabin at all. Yet to Arthur, Merlin’s happiness was worth an army of rogue kittens in a cabin, and all he could do was not wear too wide a smile when he’d glance at Merlin teasing Eirianwen.

 

***

 

The wind came after midnight, and the waves followed shortly.

King Arthur could feel the motion of the ship change; it was as if now the deck were rolling beneath his feet. He welcomed the change, for he’d grown so tired of the changeless scenery he thought them trapped within the sea. As the winds filled the sails, the moonless night seemed now starrier, and the crystals of light which hang high above in the black of the sky would beam playfully as their reflections sparkled in the hustling sea. Finally, the oarsmen could retire, as could most of the crew. Good. Let them sleep. We shall arrive at Inkwave tomorrow after midday, we have a long and tiring day.

“The waves would wake Eiry,” Merlin complained, holding both, Arthur’s hand and the gunwale stronger.

“Can you think of something else except for that fluffy monster?” Arthur asked, trying his best to feign a sore voice. “I am getting jealous.”

“As if it were news.”

“Pardons?”

Merlin’s smile could not get any wider, hard to mask even in the dark of the night.

“You’ve always been jealous.”

“Have I? My memory fails me.”

“You didn’t like Gwaine accompanying me to Camelot.”

“For he’s a trouble. You can say by casting just one look at him,” Arthur complained despite feeling beyond grateful to Gwaine for helping Merlin get to Camelot after they’d parted in Ealdor. 

“And you were angry when I called Lancelot just Lance,” Merlin continued.

“Because you’ve never used a loving short name for me despite everything we’ve been through! You have a short name for Lancelot and a short name for this Eirianwen kitten, but not for me.”

“What’s a short name for Arthur?”

Your grace would be a fine start,” Arthur said quickly to prevent any mischief from passing Merlin’s lips; he pulled his warlock abruptly, to hug him from behind. It was maddening for Arthur to have his lips so close to the back of Merlin’s neck and to feel the chamomile smell of Merlin’s hair mixed with the salty breeze of the sea. “Mustn’t forget you’re still my subject. You belong to me. Here.”

Arthur took Merlin’s hand in his and pointed to the warlock’s heart. Merlin cast one quick look at the deck to make sure they were alone, and turned around to kiss Arthur on the lips: eagerly, selflessly, and the way a subjected was not expected to.

“Thank you for traveling with me,” Arthur whispered in a low voice as their kiss broke.

“I would never let you go to Gawant alone.”

“Why?”

“I don’t want you come back married to princess Elena,” Merlin giggled.

“Jealous, aren’t we? And you somehow have the dignity to accuse me of being jealous…”

“I may cast it aside. My dignity. All of it, if you want,” Merlin proposed shamelessly.

Arthur’s response was almost immediate, and it still made the king shocked at the lack of control over his body whenever Merlin’s whisper was involved. Merlin didn’t have to do anything: sometimes one word or one look was enough to paint naughty images in the king’s mind, the images that would rouse him as if they were real. To make the matters worse, Merlin started playing with the laces of his breeches, an invitation the king couldn’t refuse. He let his hands under Merlin’s breeches to squeeze and grip his ass whichever way he wanted, and goddess, there were so many ways...

“When the war’s done and all my subjects are safe, I will go into the woods to live with you for weeks. We’ll have some forest house, I’ll be hunting, and you’ll be awaiting me by the hearth, wrapped in furs and naught else,” Arthur promised with faithful kisses that grew wilder and harder to control. “Why you’re smiling?”

“This reminds me of Reginald and Darian so much.”

Arthur had to stop to look into Merlin’s eyes, where shadows of sorrow were lingering despite the most joyous circumstances. It was the look most common and so easy to recognize: Arthur used to spot the shades of anxiety and the warlock’s perpetual worry for his prince back in Camelot, but he’d explain that look by the fact that Merlin, clumsy as he proved, was an astonishingly loyal servant. This anxiety now had turned into unrest and nervousness from fearing that the future held something fatal for their love. 

“Merlin, I promise I’ll love you like no other prince ever did. Reginald or not. Come with me below the deck and I’ll show you. There’s no need to be so broody about them on such a beautiful night.”

Merlin turned his gaze away, ashamed that he had ruined a heated moment.

“It’s not broodiness. It’s just… I’ve talked to Henry about the labyrinth.”

“Did he say anything useful?”

“Well, he assured me that there might be some other magic at play underneath it all. Reginald and Darian are long dead, none of them can possibly be a source for such a long-lasting spell. I asked Henry if their love could be a source of magic power for this spell, but Henry was skeptical...”

“Why does it bother you so?” Arthur ran his hand through Merlin’s hair to calm him, but for some reason, the warlock suddenly lost his nerves.

“Because a great deal of magic things is happening in the kingdom! And without Gaius, I’m as useless as a goose-grass against an open wound!.. I’ve no idea why the defensive magic of the river Albus suddenly sprang back to life, and the magic behind the labyrinth is another riddle!..”

“I thought the labyrinth magic is awake because we kissed there? Because we are… Reginald and Darian reborn?”

“So it appears, but to think that such a great spell could be unlocked with just a kiss…”

“Just a kiss? Since when are my kisses just kisses for you?” Arthur tried to stick to the jesting mood. “I hereby sentence you to death by tickling.”

“Arthur, no, oh, Goddess, no, don’t make me jump overboard…” Merlin panicked as he’d try to escape the captivity of Arthur’s embrace. He is different after he’s taken that sunstone off, he’s a lot stronger, Arthur thought with hints of lusty preview as he observed he required more power to keep Merlin locked within his arms. “I’m sorry, it was not just a kiss obviously, kissing you is itself an act of magic…”

“Good,” Arthur laughed, letting him go. “Remember that. Now, Merlin, I guess I, too, am as good as a goose-grass against the open wound when it comes to magic, but I know someone who might help you grasp those mysteries, if they are as important as you believe.”

“Who?”

“I’m sure the druids heading for Portstown will bring some explanation regarding that river Albus. But you won’t learn it until you return to Portstown. Until then, you may have some fun. With me, of course. Will you?”

“I guess you’re right. Let’s go to your cabin then,” Merlin nodded after a brief moment of hesitation. “By the way, Arthur, how would the oarsmen know where to sail the ship at night?”

Arthur rolled his eyes and messed up Merlin hair.

“Do you remember virtually nothing of what I’m telling you? They look at the guiding star, you silly.”

“Says a royal cabbage head.”

 

***

 

This time, he wanted to take special pleasure in watching Merlin undress him. Arthur was by the bed as Merlin had wriggled out of his clothes already, his skin scorching hot to Arthur’s touches which didn’t seem to keep up with the warlock’s fever. It happened as though by itself, when Merlin pushed Arthur onto the bed and climbed the king, and Arthur didn’t even get the chance to say anything before Merlin offered him that kiss. Merlin’s lips remained the sweetest wonder, so soft and pleasant to explore, yet there was something unyielding in them too, and so wherever Merlin’s lips landed, be it on the neck or on the jaw, they’d provoke sparks of warmth and care, and Arthur’s blood would turn hot with desire and anticipation of the love Merlin couldn’t wait to give.

With naked Merlin straddling him, Arthur felt drowning in pleasure from the tightness in his breeches being pressed down by the weight of his servant, and with the hotness of Merlin’s ass which he could feel even through the cloth. The warlock did act as if he were a stranger to dignity, rubbing his ass against Arthur’s bulge with such tease the king feared he’d see relief before being undressed.

“Pull the bloody breeches down already,” Arthur commanded as he near tore his own tunic, and the next moment he was shocked to hear himself emit a groan that could wake half the crew when Merlin rubbed his cheek against the still clothed hardness of the king. “Do as you’re told unless you want me to spank you.”

The king could see the expression of uttermost content when the candlelight outlined Merlin’s face; the warlock pulled the breeches down hesitantly, his hot breath teasing Arthur’s throbbing cock.

“Don’t,” Arthur warned him as Merlin let his spit fall from his mouth to cover Arthur’s cock. “I’ll spill in your mouth the instant. I’d rather be inside you.”

Arthur chuckled when he saw Merlin’s eyes shine golden and the bottle of oil flying the warlock’s way out of the bag.

“Is that what you’ve learned your magic fo…”

He didn’t finish the question, for Merlin’s oiled palm found the way to his cock, to caress it and squeeze it and before long, he felt Merlin’s hand guiding his cock to the place where he belonged. The pleasure was so strong Arthur had to bite his lower lip and close his eyes for a bit; it was the thing he loved the most: to feel the heat of Merlin’s tight little hole against his hardness, to sense the tip of his cock propel against that circle like a battering ram against the closed gates until he managed to break in…

Only this time, it was even better. This time, he felt his cock wrapped by Merlin’s heat slowly without really putting much effort in it; he saw Merlin thighs shake and his cock throb as the warlock tried to lower himself carefully, but carefulness was not what Arthur had planned for them: he wanted himself inside Merlin, he wanted to feel his hardness meet the sweet resistance of Merlin’s tightness until his whole length could slide in and out of Merlin, he wanted it here and now, and so he raised himself a little and pulled Merlin by the shoulders, by the spots where the bones jutted out, and then came thrusts, the good thrusts which meant the king didn’t intend to hold back.  

Merlin was gliding along his oiled cock, his face a twisted mask of unbearable pleasure, his eyes golden with magic; he was chanting something about how good it was and how Arthur had to go on until the king opened his lips with his fingers to stretch him by the corners of his sweet little mouth and to feel the smooth insides of his cheeks, and then he’d pull Merlin by his hair... Merlin’s voice became a song of undignified humming which would make his very neck vibrate. Unskilled as he might be, Merlin’s wild instincts made him so good at feeling the rhythm, and he seemed as enjoying riding Arthur as Arthur was enjoying being ridden. 

“You’re a slut for me, aren’t you?”

Merlin opened his mouth to say something, but Arthur slapped him on the cheek, lightly and playfully.

“Didn’t give you leave to speak. That wasn’t even a question. Don’t need your words. Show me, Merlin. Show me what sort of a slut you are for me.”

Arthur closed his eyes and allowed himself to helplessly melt away into the sensations. Arthur felt Merlin’s hands pressing into his chest, Merlin’s hole slick and loosened a bit, and Merlin’s cock slapping across the king’s belly as the warlock would bounce on Arthur faster and harder, until he suddenly stopped and his hole tightened and began to pulse, and he was raining seed all over Arthur’s belly and chest. The king felt captured by Merlin now, unable to draw out, he felt as if they’d become one and then the tension was gone, he was all force and all happiness and all freedom, and he was as much Merlin’s as Merlin was his. In that moment, he felt as though Merlin’s heart was beating inside his chest, as though their bond and connection had outgrown any strength, as though they shared more than they could possibly comprehend.  

 “It was insane. I am all slicky,” Merlin giggled when Arthur finally pulled his softened cock out.

“You looked like you liked it. And sounded pretty much the same.”

“I loved it. Love you,” Merlin reached for another kiss.

“I love you more. Come here,” Arthur muttered in disappointment when he observed Merlin get out of the bed. “Where do you think you’re going?”

“I need to have a wash. Where’s the damn basin? And I want to check the kitten.”

“Merlin, he’s sleeping, I’m telling you,” Arthur said with a smile. “And so must be you. And me.”

Yet Merlin wouldn’t listen. He never did and never will, Arthur thought with a smile after he’d washed himself, too, and made it to the smaller cabin where Merlin was traveling. The white kitten was indeed asleep, occupying Merlin’s pillow; his ears were twitching in response to the sounds, and his paws would jerk sometimes, as if he dreamed of running.

“See? These waves are a lullaby even to oarsmen. He’s pretty much asleep.”

 “Isn’t he adorable?” Merlin asked, looking at the tomcat with admiration that made his eyes glow.

“He’s ripped half my sword belts.”

“He was just playing!”

“Why can’t he play with your clothes and not mine? It was I who found him on the streets, and this is how he repays me?”

“I’m sure he’ll love you eventually,” Merlin smiled.

“Why is he so obedient when it comes to you?”

“Don’t know. I’ve always… found it easy to talk to animals. Dolly, for instance. Even that dog which I turned alive out of stone, she nearly bit Gaius’s arse but left me unharmed.”

“You can create a dog out of thin air?”

“No, of course not. I made it out of stone, and it only was alive for… for some time. It went on to turn back to stone.”

“Sometimes I feel grateful that such powers are given to such a kind and loving wanton heart as yours. If I had magic, I'd conjure the hunting hounds. Now come,” Arthur urged, pulling him by the hand. “Sleep with me. I have easier sleep when I’m with you.”

 “Wasn’t the whole purpose of us living in separate cabins to make the crew believe we don’t share anything?”

“Maybe it was. But now I want you beneath the blanket with me. I’ll fall asleep faster, and you will be able to leave.”

“You can always talk to me if you’re finding it hard to fall asleep,” Merlin proposed, his eyes heavy with faithfulness and devotion. “Always.”

“And unleash a burden of thousand issues on you?”

“I’m stronger than I look.”

“I remember you told me something like that before our first fight,” Arthur remembered with fond merriment, as he always did. He had the courage to challenge the prince. And I had the stupidity to fight him. Courage and stupidy. Why, we are a jolly match. “Alright, I know it, it’s just…”

Arthur sat down on the edge of Merlin’s bed, beside the warlock.

“What?”

“I love to think that I can guard you, like… shield you from all these troubles,” the king confessed. “That I can deal with them and save you a great deal of worries. I just want you to be happy with me, and not go grey because of everything that’s besieging my mind.”

“You worry about Morgana,” Merlin guessed.  

“Of course, I do! She’s in Yrien’s hands, married to that boy, she…”

“Rion’s the same age as Owaine and Modron.”

“And they all are an ill match for Morgana. She’d never agree to this marriage willingly, she…”

“She is also a lot stronger than she looks,” Merlin voice was shockingly shy of compassion when he spoke. “Arthur, I’ve been to Idirsholas with Lance, alright, with Lancelot. I’ve seen the fortress. It’s no longer the ruined abandoned rock which we once visited. They have fortified it, they are gathering forces, Goddess only knows what else is taking place there. Morgana is reunited with her sister, and I wager she is in the castle of Camelot because she wants to be there, because she has a plan.”

That would be easier, that would be a much more comforting thought. To know that she’s there because she wants to be there, yet what if he’s wrong?

“You assign too much power to Morgause,” Arthur said.

“Before I escaped from Idirsholas, I’d heard Morgause tell someone from the castle of Camelot she had a plan to destroy Vyda. I’ve heard it with my own ears.”

She is the Priestess of the Old Ways. She can destroy anything. Nimueh nearly scorched the whole Lower Town with plague.

“Even so, even though she is with Morgause now, I can’t help but think about her!” Arthur rose to his feet, angry that his warlock was missing the point. “Merlin, she was like a sister to me, we grew up together, she’s a living reminder of the days when Camelot was my home! Just like Gwen. What is it? Oh, Merlin, will you be bringing that kiss up forever?”

“It’s not about your kiss with Gwen. It’s about Morgana,” there was now fear in Merlin’s eyes, as if a sudden worrying thought crossed his mind. “If she marries Rion, she’s queen consort, right?”

“She is, but if the Gingawaines are put on trial for poisoning my father, then…”

“What if they are not? What if Morgana gets rid of them before you reach Camelot?”

“Merlin, why wo…”

“Just tell me what happens then,” the warlock insisted.

“She’s just a consort queen to Rion, she has no rights for the throne herself,” Arthur concluded. “If Rion and his mother die, Morgana’s queenship dies with them.”

“And?”

“And the Great Council must be summoned to elect the new king or queen, for Rion and Yrien leave no heirs.”

“So, who is the Great Council comprised of?”

“Firstly, nine lords and ladies of all Camelot territories.”

“All of the west is in the open rebellion. So, count four territories gone. Lord of Nemeton won’t attend the Council, too. Count five gone. Gornemants and Sagramores are gone from the castle, too. That makes seven members of the Great Council absent.”

“Which means the Great Council can’t be,” Arthur whispered.

Merlin rose, too.

“So imagine this. Rion and his mother are dead, but the Great Council can’t happen because seven members of this bloody council simply won’t arrive. In such a situation, who has better chances than Morgana for becoming the ruler? She’d be the widow of Rion, she’s Uther’s ward – which is as much as daughter to most of the people – and she is the daughter of one of the most famed Uther’s warlords. She’ll have the most legitimacy in the eyes of noblemen and commoners alike. Arthur, I fear that she’s got to the castle of Camelot to oppose you. I fear that she might want the throne for herself and I fear that she might use Morgause against you. So long as you live, nobody’s claim for the throne is secure. You are the only rightful king of Camelot.”

Their talk seemed to be waking Eirianwen, who opened his eyes and gave them a lazy-lazy yawn. Merlin’s guesswork left Arthur too worried to fall asleep. Morgana never lacked wits, she was as bold with sword as any knight, as brave as any conqueror and as manipulative as any court schemer. But to think that she detests me so much that she’s ready to fight me on the field of battle… 

“It’s a troubling assumption. But what reasons may Morgana have to treat me like that?”

“I’d rather think of her sister. Morgause.”

“What of her?" Arthur frowned. 

“She may be a terrible influence on Morgana," Merlin said with wariness to his tone. "Morgause was dangerous from the very start, she aimed at your father alone, while Nimueh was trying to bring devastation to the small folk… There could be but one reason to explain why Morgause had chosen to spare the commoners while directing her attacks only at Uther and him alone. She wanted the kingdom to suffer as little as possible because she meant to rule over it.”

“She has no rights for the throne,” Arthur shook his head violently. 

“No, she doesn’t. But if Morgana destroys the Gingawaines, she will proclaim herself queen and no great council can be summoned to dispute that.”

“She will not do such a thing,” Arthur sounded as if he wanted to convince himself, and worst of all, he knew he was failing at that.

“For our own good, I hope she won’t. Morgause is dangerous.”

“But she… she can’t withstand the fire flames, can she?”

“No. If the story taught us anything, it’s that priestesses burn as good as logs.”

 

Chapter Text

CHAPTER 26: A Traitor In The Midst 

Lord Cynric chose to hold the session from a simple bench of polished ebony. Many of the merchants in Portstown still remembered him from the days when he served as Uther’s Councilor of Trade, but Cynric wanted to change the reputation he had earned under the reign of the late king. Everybody used to gossip about my coins and my stables, but it’s modesty I want them to see now. 

For that purpose, he’d refurnished the chambers he had been given in the castle, and now there was nothing save for the bed, the bedside table, his chamber pot and a small wardrobe for his clothing. If I hope to one day own this damn castle, then I need them to accept me as a humble servant of the crown. Humble, and so be it.

The hall belonged with the building of the Merchant’s Guild; it was a spacious room with wide windows that permitted the freshness and the youth of the morning in. Some walls were hung with tapestries from Gawant and Nemeth, and carpets covered the floor to give an aura of uttermost comfort to any member of the guild. As lord Cynric entered the room, it was still thrumming to the sound of dozens of low voices, the voices echoing off the pillars and the carpeted marble floor. The faces in the crowded hall were the masks of curiosity, intrigue and suspicion.

 “My lords, I thank you all for arriving on time. Time’s the most expensive thing in the world, they say, and it would be a crime to waste it,” Cynric smiled as he sat down on the bench. “Without further ado, let us devote all our attention to the matters of state. As your new Treasurer, I must present to you the royal decree regarding the tax collection. For obvious reasons that need not be voiced, the gold shan’t be sent to the castle of Camelot this fall. The Royal Treasury Hall is moved to Portstown for some time, and the crown will accept the taxes here henceforth.”

“Does it mean his grace has no hope to win the war before the harvest season?” a sonorous voice rang in the hall.

“His grace doesn’t discuss his battle plans with a simple bookkeeper, so I know nothing of our war plans,” Cynric shrugged indifferently. “However, if you ask me, the harvest season is less than a moon away, and you know what they say: an army is as fast as the slowest horse in the host. The road to Camelot, swift as it may appear from the windows of your wheeled wagons, may prove a long journey for hundreds of armed men and their squires. Three Midland castles must be dealt with before his grace reaches the capital. I know that they are no true castles, but still, it’s not a task for one moon, in my humble opinion.”

“My lord,” another cold voice asked, “I don’t want to seem indifferent to our king’s war, but as a merchant, I am more worried over the taxes. The crown has always accepted taxes in gold. Gedref trade balance has been more or less equal, there’s never been deficit of gold at our Treasure Court, yet we couldn’t boast of the capital’s advantage in gold either. We’d usually purchase the gold at the Brechfa Treasury to pay our taxes.”

“The king understands that converting silver to gold may prove a problem when Gedref is cut from the rest four Treasure Halls. That’s why his second decree states that the taxes can be paid in silver this fall only. That would please not only the tax payers, but the crown, too. His grace has plans to increase spendings.”

“What sort of spendings?”

“If Portstown means to enter the trade of the Merchant’s Bay on newer, better terms, we might expect the increase of trade volumes. When king Godwyn shut the ports and many a ship chose to visit our harbor, we learnt that we were not ready for the increase of trade. Our harbor is old. We need to rebuild most of it, to increase its capacity. The crown is ready to bear the costs, but we’d also be pleased if some of you agreed to help us with this burden. In return, you may expect tariff and duty cuts for some period, I believe.”

Cynric spent the rest of the session discussing the plans for the reconstruction of the harbor and the terms which suited the merchant families well enough to help the crown with investment. As a former Councilor of Trade to Uther the Great, he had danced this dance before, only this time, he felt there was more space to whirl his partners. The Royal Treasurer surpassed the Councilor of Trade in the power assigned to him, and his influence at court could be matched by nobody save for the Secretary.

The morning turned to day soon, and refreshments were brought into the hall, much to Cynric’s taste. The good thing about Portstown was the fact that Nemeth’s wine was always at disposal. Wine was not the only thing where the Lower Town of Camelot and Portstown differed. Camelot’s always been like a large village that’s outgrown itself. Portstown has not fertile lands around, so it’s a lot more like a city and has almost no peasants.

After the debates had ended with several drafts of the investment agreement, the head of the guild staged a pathetic tour for lord Cynric. He intended to take the Royal Treasurer across the city to show him the blossoming commercial areas, with bigger shops, flowerbeds and gardens. Cynric accepted the invitation graciously and was vocal about his admiration for the state of affairs, for the craftsmen, for the broad streets and guildhalls popping up left and right. In truth, Cynric knew it was all phony: the head of the guild had prepared the area for the inspection, and so after the tour was done, Cynric dismissed his guards, changed his robes and ventured out into a different tour to learn the real state of affairs. He chose to visit the poorer areas by the curtain wall of the city, where houses were low, and their bricks threatened to fall apart and turn to dust from a hard gust of summer wind. There were no towerhouses in that area, only small markets and smaller shops, and brothels closer to the places where the barracks were. A few whores called out invitations as he passed, and one in hunting boots and a brown cloak dared to jape:  

“My lord looks so grim as if a mermaid stole his heart. Would a round of a dice cheer him up? Or a tankard of mead? Or something else?”

Cynric turned around. It wasn’t what she said, it was about the way she smelled, inappropriately rich and dark, as if an orchid in the garden surrounded by earthy flowers. It took one glance at her curling black hair which moved in the wind.

“My lady looks too noble even in the rugs such as these,” Cynric observed, stepping closer. “Did she really hope somebody would fall for this mummery?”

“Half the men passing by would fall for it,” Leawinna Reft, the Lady of Wheelskirt, replied with a sly smile.

“Half the men are fools. I specifically instructed you not to come,” Cynric’s voice was all but an angry hiss.

“I’d be an unbearably boring lady if I followed instructions. How could I stay away from all the fun?”

“This is war, not some village entertainment,” he cursed at her, grabbing her by the hand to push her behind the door of some forsaken establishment. “You’d do well to remember that.”

“My lord’s too rough today,” it was all a game to her. “Have I displeased him in some way?”

She led him along the narrow corridor into a small room, past the sounds of pleasure rising from behind the closed doors. The room had no windows and was lit by the oil lamp.

“What have you done? Why have you come? What if somebody saw me entering?”

“Hector, you will not be the first nobleman to frequent brothels,” Leawinna smirked. “Nor will you be the last. Rest assured, it’s safe here.”

“I gave you an order. You were to keep raising banners in Wheelskirt and…”

“Nobody gives me orders,” her voice was soft yet venomous. “Talk to me as if I were you serving wench again, and I will leave you the instant.”

He closed his eyes. She didn’t understand, she wouldn’t learn. Yet she was the reason of it all, the dearest thing.

“I’m sorry. You must understand, I say so because I fear for you.”

“If I don’t fear for myself, you don’t have to,” she slipped from beneath the robes, naked. “Wheelskirt is doing fine, my castellans will perform the duties better than me. They are my kin, they’ve no reason to betray me. We’ve burnt too many bridges too return back to lick Gaheris boots. Your bloody war can wait. Kiss me.”

Cynric pulled her gently to him and did as she bid him. Her mouth tasted of honey, and her fingers were as deft and practiced as ever. She couldn’t wait to welcome him, whispering endearments and letting the gasps of pleasure join the music of the brothel.

Afterward, as she lay quietly in his arms, he’d play with her hair and think that there wasn’t anything in the world she couldn’t make him do.

“I hear that king Arthur has gone to Inkwave,” Leawinna whispered.

“He has.”

“You’re not jealous that king Godwyn will eat all the cherries and leave nothing to us?”

Cynric rose from the bed to reach for the vase with the fruits.  Lovemaking always made him hungry.

“On the contrary. He can choke on those cherries if he wants. Peace between Camelot and Gawant suits our interests,” he said.  

“Because it will make the Great Trade Road safer.”

“Yes. And the safer the road, the heavier the coin that would fill our chests,” the look of her nakedness in the oil lamp light was still taking his breath away. “I’d rather worry about Rodor.”

“Why? Isn’t he and his army off to Cornwall to fight Odin?”

“He is, and that’s the problem. He succumbed to Arthur’s terms too easily. I understand that Arthur used Mithian to manipulate the old man into this, but…” Cynric chewed a green apple before going on. “What will happen when the war with Odin is over and Arthur will demand to renegotiate the treaty signed by Uther and Rodor? Will Rodor prove as spineless?”

“Which treaty you’re talking about?”

“The one according to which trade duties and tariffs in Gedref were settled to be as high as in Nemeth, and never lower.”

“It was a stupid treaty anyway, why worry about it?” Leawinna proposed dismissively.

“It was never a stupid treaty,” Cynric objected. “My love, look at the map of Albion and you will find that there are now only two kingdoms which have access to both, The Great Trade Road and The Merchant’s Bay. Gawant and Camelot. But it hasn’t always been this way. Camelot only gained access to the Merchant’s Bay when Ygraine du Bois married Uther Pendragon and the Seaside Kingdom became a part of Camelot’s realm. Before it happened, though, the Seaside Kingdom had been a country of its own, and at war with Nemeth for generations. In point of fact, they had been warring ever since Ashkanar’s landing.”

“I’m sure you’ll make a point eventually?” Leawinna asked impatiently.

“Nemeth’s ports are in the Sea of Mora, where they strive to compete with Kent, Cornwall and Londinium. Nemeth has noaccess to the Merchant’s Bay, only to the Great Trade Road. Whereas the Seaside Kingdom had access to both, the Merchant’s Bay and the Great Trade Road. That’s advantageous, right? Nemeth could tolerate that because under the rule of Gedref dynasty, Seaside Kingdom eventually turned to a small land inhabited by what? 120,000 men? It was no big threat. Nemeth had five times the people and ten times the harvest. However, everything changed when Seaside Kingdom lost its independence and joined Camelot.”

“It was Camelot who gained access to both, the Great Trade Road and the Merchant’s Boy by swallowing the Seaside Kingdom,” Leawinna figured out.  

“Precisely. Except for Camelot, in terms of scales, was no Seaside Kingdom at all. Camelot was composed of Five Kingdoms and counted more than a million people in her realm. It was a force to be reckoned with. Too dangerous a force to be allowed to have access to both, the Great Trade Road and the Merchant’s Bay, so king Rodor believed. Those accesses would make Camelot prosper, and everybody knew where young Uther preferred to invest his prosperity: warfare.”

“Why did it trouble king Rodor? Why would he think Uther’d choose to wage war on Nemeth?”

“Remember, my love, Nemeth and Seaside Kingdom had many unfinished and unsettled territorial disputes when king Reginald was killed and du Bois took over. I’ve told you, Seaside Kingdom and Nemeth had been warring for generations. Much territory was contested, and Rodor feared Uther would one day try and put an end to those disputes with swords, providing he had enough money.”

“And when the opportunity presented itself, Rodor forced Uther into treaty which effectively made the Gedref ports too unattractive for merchants because of their duties set as high as in Nemeth. Uther couldn’t lower the duties to compete with Gawant or Cornwall,” Leawinna said with a sweet poisonous smile. “Rodor effectively ripped Camelot off the advantage of having access to the Merchant’s Bay. He blocked many a coin that was destined to turn up in Uther’s Tresury. A wicked cunning old man, that Rodor.”

Cynric brushed her hair and leaned for another kiss, sweeter than the honey this time.  

“Nobody forced anybody into that treaty, my love. Uther was as much interested in it as Rodor. Back then, Uther was recovering from a humiliating betrayal by his most trusted councilor Nimueh and a near defeat in a war with Mercia, and there were no signs of truce negotiations between Bayard and him, so there was every reason to believe the war with Mercia would start again. There were also rumours about Gwynedd planning to seize Everwick, and Uther was designing Purge for the Northern Lands within Camelot. All the areas he saw as problematic were north, so Uther neededhis southern borders secured. The treaty was as good for him as it was for Rodor.”

“I still think he got pretty much cheated?” Leawinna sounded puzzled.

“But think about it from Uther’s perspective, my love. He was brute but ever smart. Indeed, after Uther signed that treaty, he pushed Gedref into forced underperformance in trade and annihilated all the advantages from Merchant’s Bay access, and the trade could not make Gedref flourish. But in return, he got a twenty-year truce with Rodor which allowed him to focus on his northern campaigns, he annexed Ascetir when he invaded Essetir to help Rodor defeat Cenred’s uncle. Finally, to compensate for the trade losses in Gedref, he betrothed Arthur to princess Elena of Gawant, the greatest trade power in the Merchant’s Bay. Uther was the strategic winner of that treaty, I say.”

“And Arthur wants an even greater win.”

“Doubtlessly he does. Arthur means for Portstown to enter the trade of Merchant’s Bay on his own terms, with the duties and tariffs he sees fit. But that would make my smuggling business extremely unprofitable, for it would be easier for merchants to unload their goods directly in Portstown,” Cynric sighed helplessly. “If Rodor were made of sterner stuff… However, the way he agreed to Arthur’s terms on Cornwall… Makes me think he’d submit to the terms Arthur proposes when it comes to renegotiating the trade treaty which Uther signed seventeen years ago. I would love to stop Arthur, darling, but we must be realistic and accept that it’s probably not going to happen. It’s hard to oppose a man with a dragon. Since we can no longer be involved in the sea trade smuggling, because of Arthur’s intentions and because of Alined’s death, we need to switch to having control over the Great Trade Road customs in Gedref. That’s why we need the lordship of this castle.”

“I’m intrigued about the plan you’ve designed to help us gain this lordship,” she said, her eyes darkly agleam. She’s always found my smartness rousing.  

“Before departing for Gawant, Arthur appointed one of his trusted knights to lead patrols against smugglers,” Cynric began to explain. “Sir Lancelot. Soon enough Sir Lancelot will find himself surprisingly lucky to arrest most of the smuggling leaders at their secret meeting in the forests by Isgaard. Shockingly, when questioned, they will all sing different verses of the same song, the song that will imply that the smuggling routes were controlled by the Pellinore family.”

“Pellinore? The lord and lady of Nemeton?” Leawinna sounded delighted.

“Just so. A shocking news that would make. And remember, this Lancelot is a dutiful lad. Once back to the castle, he will feel obliged to report it to the current lord of Gedref. Imagine the scandal that will erupt. Lord Pellinore already finds it hard to digest that his only heir, Modron, who has not even come of age, who was reported andbelieved dead, has now joined Arthur’s army to risk his life again. Why, when lord Pellinore is accused of participating in smuggling by Owaine, the green lord of Gedref, what will happen in the castle? The goddess only knows. Preferably, lord Pellinore takes his son and his host home. Hopefully, there will be bloodshed. When Arthur returns from Gawant and finds half his army gone and hopefully half his councilors slaughtered, the surviving part of his court may advise him to appoint a different lord of Gedref. Or lady.”

It took her moments to understand.

“Shut up,” she laughed, her look so playful.  

“I mean it,” he repeated, kissing her hand. “Everybody at court knows that you hold the only castle to the west of the White Mountains that defies the Gaheris family. Arthur values loyalty above everything else. He will also value the soldiers you’ll be able to bring to compensate the soldiers he’ll lose once lord Pellinore retreats back to Nemeton.”

“Owaine’s mother is alive. I can’t skip her in the succession line,” Leawinna’s voice was doubtful for the first time.  

“Alive, yet where is she? Enjoying the hospitality of Yrien. Queen regent has been known for letting noble men die under her watch before.”

“Speaking of queen regent. Have you heard that Yrien has decided to marry her son to Morgana?”

“A stupid move,” Cynric chuckled. Yrien’s stupidity has always been amusing. She must be rather angry, for she always is most stupid when enraged. “Uther always made it clear that Morgana was the heir to Asgorath, but Ryence has given the castle to Vyda’s younger son, Nentres, in order to appease the Mad Hound of the West who was pissed she didn’t make it to the Great Council after Uther’s death. Well, if Yrien thinks that by marrying Rion to the rightful Lady of Asgorath she may win the castle back, then she’s a fool.”

“An angry fool, though.”

“Angry or not, she is the fool. And fools do not survive wars.”

The lamp went out.

Chapter Text

 

1. The Map of Camelot when Five Kingdoms were stand-alone countries: 

Five Kingdoms

Orange for The Northern Land, 

Green for The Druid Land

Dark Pink for Mountain Land (aka The West)

Yellow for Midlands

Blue for The Seaside Kingdom

 

2. The Map of Camelot when united into a single country: 

 

Rough Map of Camelot

 

1 - The castle of Camelot

2 - The castle of Brechfa

3 - Portstown and the castle of Gedref

4 - the castle of Nemeton and Mountville

5 - the castle of Asgorath

6 - the castle of Daobeth

7 - the castle of Denaria

8 - the castle of Ascetir

9 - the castle of Idirsholas

***

10 - the castle of Woodspeak, sworn to the castle Brechfa

11 - the castle of Chemary, sworn to the castle of Brechfa

12 - the castle of Wheelskirt, sworn to the castle of Asgorath

13 - Lydon, the capital of the kingdom of Nemeth

14 - Londinium, the capital of Tir-Mor

15 - Lindum, the capital of Mercia

16 - the capital of Essetir

17 - Inkwave, the capital of Gawant

18 - the castle of Fisher King

19 - the capital of Gwynedd

20 - Stoneroad, a city on the border between Nemeton and Nemeth

21 - Burnwood, a city in Gedref

22 - Breninwall, a city in Gedref

23 - Doomspath, a city in Gedref

24 - Seagate, a port in Deorham from where Arthur and Mithian sailed to Gedref

25 - Ealdor

***

26 - River Albus in Andor

27 - River Gethwick in Nemeton

28 - River Fulgeo in Brechfa

29 - River Sabrina in Denaria and Gedref

30 - Darkpine, a city in the kingdom of Nemeth

31 - Irios, a port-city in the kingdom of Nemeth

32 - Jarl's Fortress

 

thin red roads are the roads built during the age of Romans; 

thicker pink roads are the roads built by King Uther and the crown's finances; 

yellow roads are the roads constructed and funded by local authorities.

 

3. Current position of fractions striving for power in Camelot: 

Fractions

Dark Pink is for The West led by House Gaheris, 

Yellow denotes territory under the joined controlled of House Gingawaine and the druids led by Morgana, 

Red stands for Arthur Pendragon. 

The division into lighter and darker shades of blue in Nemeth are meant to roughly point at the unrest in the country following princess Mithian's escape. The darker shade paints the territory that supports princess Mithian and her mother, while the light blue is where Lady Hadyfa's support comes from. 

The Green is for Essetir druids which are now heading to Portstown in massive numbers. 

Chapter Text

THE CROWN OF CAMELOT

  • RION of House Gingawaine, King of Camelot and all her territories, aged 16;
  • his wife MORGANA of House Gorlois, consort queen and regent of Camelot and all her territories, aged 24.

LOYALISTS

Ruled by YRIEN of House Gingawaine, mother to King Rion and former queen regent of Camelot and all her territories, aged 40, now The Lady of Brechfa, currently traveling to the castle of Brechfa. 

her sworn bannermen: 

  • house Dwynton (the Dwynton twins have been captured at Portstown by Arthur Pendragon and given to Lord Gloss of Chemary in exchange for Lord Gloss surrendering Burnwood);   
  • house Gribs (lord Gribs has been captured at Portstown by Arthur Pendragon and given to Lord Gloss of Chemary in exchange for Lord Gloss surrendering Burnwood); 
  • house Melyn, currently escorting Lady Yrien to the castle of Brechfa; 
  • house Arth, currently escorting Lady Yrien to the castle of Brechfa. 

 

  • Lord CHEFYL, the owner of the castle of Woodspeak, captured at Portstown by Arthur Pendragon and held captive still; 
  • his son Edwin Chefyl, currently serving as Castellan of Woodspeak, and his bannermen: 
  • house Ian, currently protecting King Rion in the castle of Camelot;
  • house Leoh, currently protecting King Rion in the castle of Camelot;
  • house Reith, currently protecting King Rion in the castle of Camelot; 
  • house Wynau (the younger of Wynau brothers captured at Portstown by Arthur Pendragon and given to Lord Gloss of Chemary in exchange for Lord Gloss surrendering Burnwood).

 

  • Lord GLOSS, the owner of the castle of Chemary, currently camping at the castle of Chemary, and his bannermen: 
  • house Fethog;
  • house Nyth;
  • house Wygos.

landless:

ANNA of house Dindrane, widow to Demeth Dindrane, the granddaughter of the last druid queen, aged 51, currently in the castle of Camelot, serving as the Councilor of Camelot to King Rion,

  • her son Sir TAWTON, aged 31, currently heading for the castle of Idirsholas to help lead the battle at the Pass of Camlann;
  • her granddaughter Ravenna, aged 17, currently in the castle of Woodspeak; 
  • her granddaughter Medinna, aged 13, returned to the castle of Camelot. 

Lord Ragnell, Lord of Balor, who serves as Yrien's Councilor on Trade, after his son was murdered in Arthur's patrol. 

Ursula Gedref, aged 36, depraved of lordship over the Gedref, and held captive. 

 

 

THE WEST

SAFIR of House Gaheris, lord commander of the Western army, aged 47, the heir to the castle of Daobeth, and: 

  • his wife BLASINIA, aged 42, 
  • his son ERIC, aged 24,
  • his son VIDOR, aged 21, slain in the castle of Camelot,
  • his brother NENTRES, the Lord of Asgorath, aged 42,
  • his nephew CARIDOC, aged 21,
  • his mother VYDA, aged 64, the Lady of Daobeth  

Daobeth bannermen:

  • house Asech, marching with king Sarrym of Dyfed towards the Pass of Camlann;
  • house Dostur, marching with king Sarrym of Dyfed towards the Pass of Camlann
  • house Raig, trying to cross the swamps of Denaria in search of a shortcut to Midlands;  
  • house Twir, trying to cross the swamps of Denaria in search of a shortcut to Midlands;
  • house Wyrton, trying to cross the swamps of Denaria in search of a shortcut to Midlands. 

Asgorath’s bannermen:

  • house Erlog (marching with king Sarrym of Dyfed towards the Pass of Camlann);
  • house Ladau (marching with king Sarrym of Dyfed towards the Pass of Camlann);
  • house Saer (trying to cross the swamps of Denaria in search of a shortcut to Midlands);
  • house Liwir (trying to cross the swamps of Denaria in search of a shortcut to Midlands);
  • house Wysog (trying to cross the swamps of Denaria in search of a shortcut to Midlands);
  • house Fynys (trying to cross the swamps of Denaria in search of a shortcut to Midlands);
  • house Reft (rebelled against their liege);
  • house Annaid (rebelled against their liege);
  • house Achod (rebelled against their liege);
  • house Feyd (rebelled against their liege);
  • house Neh (rebelled against their liege).

 

GALLA of house Dindrane, the Lady of Denaria, aged 58, sister to Demeth Dindrane, currently at the castle of Denaria; 

  • her husband CARADOL of house Gornemant, aged 60; 
  • her son NYDD, aged 40;
  • her granddaughter LAIMA, aged 17; 
  • her son ARBAY, killed during the Great Dragon attack; 
  • her son KERES, aged 29.  

Denaria’s bannermen

  • house Lasg (trying to cross the swamps of Denaria in search of a shortcut to Midlands);
  • house Giswig (trying to cross the swamps of Denaria in search of a shortcut to Midlands);
  • house Chopasu (trying to cross the swamps of Denaria in search of a shortcut to Midlands);
  • house Lefwtyr (trying to cross the swamps of Denaria in search of a shortcut to Midlands);
  • house Roscyd (trying to cross the swamps of Denaria in search of a shortcut to Midlands);
  • house Flyff (trying to cross the swamps of Denaria in search of a shortcut to Midlands).

House Sagramore, who escaped the castle of Camelot after Sir Vidor's murder, including:

Deos Sagramore, aged 39, the Councilor of Camelot of Uther's High Court and the Secretary of King Ryence, and:

  • his father, Sullum Sagramore, aged 58. Sullum Sagramore is brother of Vyda Gaheris;
  • his mother Loana Vortimer, aged 58;
  • his wife Rollisa Sagramore, aged 40.
  • his daughter Ewina Sagramore, aged 18. 

 

THE SEASIDE KINGDOM 

ARTHUR of House Pendragon, who styles himself as King of Camelot and all her territories, aged 22, 

  • his warlock MERLIN the Last Dragonlord, aged 20, capable and very cute. 
  • Lord Sei, Secretary to King Arthur Pendragon, the Lord of Portstown,
  • Lord Rysor, Councilor on War to King Arthur Pendragon, the Lord of Breninwall
  • Lord Cynric, the Treasurer to King Arthur Pendragon, the man who conspired with Ryence Gingawaine to kill Arthur's father and is now planning to sabotage the work of the new lord of Gedref in order to get the castle for himself; 
  • Lady Pellinore, Councilor on Trade to King Arthur Pendragon, wife to Lord of Nemeton and mother to Modron; 
  • Owaine of House Gedref, Councilor on Provision to King Arthur Pendragon, the Lord of Gedref

 

Gedref's bannermen: 

  • house Lludwig, the owners of the only crossing over River Sabrina, have raised the bridge ever since Arthur proclaimed himself king;
  • house Glodyn,
  • house Rysor,
  • house Sei.  

 

BORS of house Pellinore, the Lord of Nemeton, and his bannermen: 

  • house Harly,
  • house Ymfin, 
  • house Notton. 

 

THE TERRITORIES THAT HAVE TAKEN NO SIDES 

The territory of Ascetir, where Segma Meirchion, aged 38, rules as the Lady of Ascetir, after both of her sons died in Arthur's patrol. Enid Blanchefleur, aged 53, who served as the Treasurer of Uther's High Court, took his family to Ascetir after Sir Vidor's murder.

The territory of Balor, where Lady Ragnell rules while her husband is in the capital. 

Chapter Text

Chapter 27: Dreams of Peace 

 

Lord Sagramore was reclining on a padded couch. His tiny eyes seemed to be shining with excitement, and the huge medallion and chains produced a clanging sound whenever he moved. Safir Gaheris was brooding over a table covered with drawings and schemes. The oil lamps had been brought to keep the darkness of the night at bay. 

“You’re sure these are the only secret passages into the citadel?” Safir asked after studying all the drawings again.

“I am, my lord,” lord Sagramore nodded. “I’ve served as Uther’s Councilor of Camelot for…”

“For many years, I know, but what if… what if something has changed?”

“He would’ve notified me. Uther would’ve told me.”

“This looks too easy.”

“Easy? My lord, a stranger would never spot these passages. Never. He’d never even suspect they exist.”

“And why do they exist?” Safir couldn’t rid himself of suspicions.

“The royal family must always have ways of escape.”

“Uther would never attempt to escape,” Safir pointed with irritation. “When Bayard of Mercia besieged Camelot, Uther remained in the castle, despite all the stones Bayard was firing at the walls and towers. He was not the kind of man to think about escape routes. If any of this proves wrong, I swear I’ll…”

“Brother,” Nentres felt the need to intervene. Else he’ll bloody scare the poor fat Sagramore to death. Why do we so prefer to inspire fear rather than love? “I’m sure Yrien will have access to the same plans of siege tunnels. Doubtlessly she will equip them with traps if need be. You won’t blame our friend lord Sagramore for that, will you?”

“Lord Sagramore claims these three tunnels have never been on any plans.”

“They were never documented, my lord, it is but the truth,” lord Sagramore began to nod so fiercely his chains were singing a song. “They were known to nobody except for the king, the prince and me.”

“Good,” Nentres smiled. “Then we shall ask nothing else of you, my lord. I am afraid we’ve abused your hospitality for much too long already.”

“Nonsense,” Sagramore sighed, rising from the couch. “I’m missing being useful. Send for me any time you need my counsel, and may the mountains grant you victory.”

Sagramore clapped his hands together, and the serving men rushed in to help the fat man get down the stairs. Nentres accompanied him with a pitying look. I’d rather throw myself off any rock in the White Mountains than allow myself to become as big as Sagramore. The sour smell of Sagramore had not left the room when another servant knocked on the door.

“My lords, lady Dindrane and lord Gornemant expect you at table already.”

Good. Eating wouldn’t hurt anybody, Nentres thought with a smile of relief. Wars were beastly tiring when fought in the chambers and study rooms of castles and keeps. A soldier always had the easy part: to follow orders and to use swords or bows or spears when told. A commander had to come up with a plan that would ensure victory, something that couldn’t be done by simply following orders or instructions. Everything had to be calculated, every issue had to be weighed in, every problem had to be solved, every threat had to be opposed and every chance had to be not ruled out. Hundreds of what-ifs turned the planning into an exhausting procedure, and the soldiers couldn’t possibly imagine the scale of work done to have just one order issued.

Safir hid the papers into a leather bag and reminded the guards of his room that they would both lose their head were an intrusion to occur. Nentres knew his brother would rather prefer to keep working all night and would survive without the dinner break, but Galla Dindrane was the Lady of Denaria and it would be an ill gesture to ignore her summons. It was far beyond the matter of courtesy, though: they were at war, where anybody would disregard courtesies without a second thought. It was about the numbers: Denaria had contributed the most to the Western army, dispatching close to 600 soldiers. Well, if Wheelskirt hadn’t rebelled, Asgorath would’ve sent the most, of course, butif is if. We should have bloody seen it coming. Wheelskirt is the second castle in Asgorath, and Leawinna Reft had all the reasons to believe the crown would give the lordship over the territory to her after the old Catigern died. To think that she’s gathering swords around her, well, she must be sore.

Asgorath was worth all the hard and sore feelings, though. Low and fat as a rich purse, the castle was shiny beneath the gold of the summer sun when Nentres had visited it briefly on the way to Vidor’s funeral. It had five keeps on five hills, and the labyrinth of walls wrapped around it reminded Nentres of some tender flower petal. And there was more tenderness that awaited him inside, when his wife met him in the bedchambers, and he could once again enjoy the scents of that flower, the one he’d once plucked and could never get enough of.

She was beautiful, in her grey linen gown with pearls on the bodies, looking every bit like the wife to the new Lord of Asgorath, and enjoying it so much she seemed to be smiling when even asleep. Yet how safe is she in Asgorath when this wretched Leawinna Reft is gathering swords around Wheelskirt? Why wouldn’t lady Reft join us? What reasons does this damn woman have to love the Gingawaines?  

While the West was heading for the major battles with Midlands, lady Reft chose to, as if absentmindedly, stay away from the war and the consequences which it would bring. But there aren’t too many consequences about this war. Whatever happens between Arthur and us, the Gingawaines are doomed. They’ve murdered Arthur’s father and they’ve murdered my nephew. They won’t escape justice. Lady Reft knows we’re going to return from the battle against Yrien victorious, she knows what we shall be able to do to her, yet she seems indifferent towards these consequences, as if she didn’t intend to suffer them. At all.

Nentres blamed the self-abasing and miserable merchant lords who held estates closer to the border with Gawant. He blamed them for whispering all sorts of treasons into lady Reft’s ears. Women are weak and easy to influence. The thought that had given him sleepless nights was the idea that Lady Reft might not be supporting the Gingawaines either; the company of merchant lords which she kept around her could suggest ties to lord Cynric, who had served as Uther’s Councilor of Trade. And Cynric is at Arthur’s side now. Does it mean the Lady of Wheelskirt has plans to join the last Pendragon?

The thoughts gave him no easy time as he tried to climb down the stairs in the guest tower, the stairs dangerous enough to make a healthy man stumble and break his damn neck. In truth, the whole castle of Denaria resembled a watchtower sinking in the swamps rather than a castle. Its architecture was a mark of pain and suffering: the main keep had seen two towers collapse and multiple roof reconstructions, while the newly built keep had to be raised on a steeper hill slope and was a wooden one, for the sake of the whole building not sliding off the damn hill. The hour was late already, and the night air carried some chill, and so he followed Safir along a pillared gallery that led to the Wooden Keep, where Galla Dindrane and her husband, lord Gornemant, awaited them in the small dinner hall. They made a queer couple, for Lady Galla Dindrane looked as if she had enough flesh to make two of her husbands and threatened to overflow her gown. Her face was broad and smooth, and her cheeks were pink. Lord Gornemant, was everything his wife was not: a thin, tall and elegant figure wrapped in the dark green cloak of his house.

“My lord, my lady,” Nentres bowed down before approaching the table.

“Come, Safir, Nentres,” Galla waved them closer. “The supper is long overdue. It’s been a tiring day, I’m sure.”

“It has, my lady,” Nentres nodded. It’s been a tiring summer. Let us not hope it’s going to be a tiring winter.

Lord Gornemant clapped his hands together and the servants came in running, although Nentres wondered how the hell they could have heard that sound at all. For the hour was late, they were treated with a broth of crab and monkfish for a start. The good thing about living by the swamps and river Sabrina is that crabs and fish are inexhaustible.  

“I hope Sagramore has been of use,” Galla’s voice suggested hints of complaints. “The man will have swallowed half our kitchen by the end of this campaign, the point of keeping him…”

“He’s shared plans of Camelot siege tunnels with us. He’s been most useful,” Nentres was quick to point  

“If these plans are what they are,” Safir reminded.

“Siege tunnels?” Galla’s eyes were wide with surprise. “So, you are heading for the capital after the castle of Brechfa falls? What? Don’t look at me like that, my lord husband. I am sister to Demeth Dindrane, the greatest warlord the Five Kingdoms have ever seen! I know everything about war, and I have the right to know more.”

Nentres smiled. The sight of the jokingly quarrelling husband and wife reminded him of his own wife Enida. We could be together now, together, ruling the castle of Asgorath. But because of my mother’s wild temper, I’m stuck here carrying out my mother’s war.

“We have no choice, it would seem,” Safir responded. “A usurper sits the throne of Camelot. The Gingawaines are forever accursed in the eyes of the westerners. These people have killed Uther and cheated the western territories off our right to participate in the Great Council. They killed my son. We can’t let them have the capital. These tunnels, if they really exist, will allow us a swift entrance into the citadel.”

“Yrien will know of these tunnels, to be sure?” lord Gornemant voiced an understandable concern. “You can’t expect her to just keep them open for you?”

“Sagramore claims there are three tunnels that had never been put on the plans. Nobody in the castle of Camelot will know of them.”

“What of Anna?” Galla’s tone turned serious. “She’s been in the castle for longer than we care to remember. She will know the darkest secrets of that place.”

“Anna is dangerous,” lord Gornemant nodded. “She approached me in the castle, a moon ago. She was so secretive she insisted our conversation took place in the crypts.”

“And what was the nature of her approach?” Nentres inquired.

“Uther always treated Anna with a healthy portion of suspicion. He made sure that the granddaughter of the last druid queen ever remained a landless lady of the court. Anna sought to change that. She wanted to marry her elder granddaughter Ravenna to Hengist of Balor, lord Ragnell’s son.”

“Hengist died in Arthur’s patrol,” Safir remarked bitterly.  

“He did. Yet the matter between Anna and lord Ragnell was agreed on the day of Summer Feast, when the lad was alive and only getting ready for the patrol mission.”
“And once the lad was reported dead?”

“Anna approached me and proposed to marry my youngest son to lord Ragnell’s daughter.”

“Why?”

“Would that I knew,” lord Gornemant shrugged. “She told me it’s better to have Balor than not to have Balor, was all.”

“And you were stupid to believe her,” his wife had to roll her eyes. “I’ll tell you the truth. The bitch always hoped that I’d die before her. She was married to my late brother, you may know, to Demeth Dindrane. She had plans for Denaria, always had, I’m telling you.”

“My lady, how could she hope to become the Lady of Denaria after your death?” Nentres tried to sound polite yet doubtful. “You’d still leave sons.”

“Aye, sons. Three I had. Arbay was killed by that dragon two months ago. That leaves two. Now, if Anna had succeeded in talking my husband into marrying Keres to Ragnell’s daughter, Keres would’ve gone to Balor, that wildling hunting cesspit. Nydd would’ve been my only heir. And just one dagger thrown at Nydd, and Anna would come at once and try and claim this seat.”

Safir’s eyes glistened in the lamplight, dark and vengeful.

“A dagger? My lady, do you imply that Anna could have something to do with my son’s death?”

As bowls of dark-red cherries and sweet creams were brought for them, Galla invited the servants to pour wine generously into her cup, maybe a bit too generously.

“She could. For all we know, you, Safir, were supposed to join Sir Vidor for that betrothal feast. As was your son,” Galla turned to Nentres. “Yrien invited you. You were supposed to be in the castle of Camelot. It was only because of Vidor’s bride who couldn’t wait to be bedded that the betrothal was rushed, and you couldn’t make it to the castle on time. Otherwise, the assassins would’ve killed you all, I am sure. Your house would’ve been uprooted, save for Eric, who’s aged well to marry Anna’s granddaughter. It was her plan, I’m sure. That’s why she’s staying in the capital. That’s why she hasn’t fled like the others.”

“Why would Anna do this?” Safir’s rage seemed to be painting his cheeks red and purple.

“Need I remind that compassion and mercy were never your mother’s second names?” Galla laughed. “Vyda made the whole of your house play their part in destroying the druid folk. There were 100,000 druids in the Druid Land before the Fall of the Andor dynasty. How many are there now?”

“14,000, they say. In Camelot. Some more in Essetir and on the Isle of Catha,” Nentres whispered.  

“Here’s your answer then. I tell you, Anna Dindrane is a vicious vengeful cunt. I’m a cunt myself, so I know it when I see it. You’d do well to treat her with uttermost caution. Uther could deal with her, but now that he’s gone…”

“Fear not, my lady,” Safir rose from the table. “Uther is dead, but his family still lives.”

“That is what I fear the most, in truth,” the fat woman sighed.  

“Why should you fear us, my lady?”

“Safir, I’ve known you since you were a little screaming boy at your mother’s breast. You may be Uther’s cousin, and so are you, Safir, but Arthur is the real family of Uther, not you. The boy is as bold as his father, and I fear he’s coming for us all.”

 

***

 

The rest of the night passed as Nentres suspected. Safir refused to go to bed, listening on the reports of the soaked-through squires that were turning up in his solar with a loud bang on the door. The whole castle of Denaria was robbed off sleep that night, it would seem. Nentres allowed himself to go to the highest room in the guest tower and looked through the window into the black of the night which concealed hundreds of people trying to cross the swamps of Denaria for the shortcut to Midlands. When his mother revealed the plans to him at first, Nentres judged her utterly mad: the swamp plains had known to separate Denaria and Brechfa for hundreds of years, and no man ever managed to find a path to cross them. Not that there had been many volunteers, of course, for the terrain had been feared by the small folk who spoke of the ghost of a priestess murdered there and the spirits of the fallen dragon kings that haunted some forsaken ruins. For generations people used Doomspath bridge in Gedref to cross the river Sabrina, and it was the safest and quickest way from Brechfa to Denaria. Yet it appeared Vyda had managed to find a shortcut to Brechfa through the swamps, even though at the cost of many a drowned man. Well, when did mother bother to count men who gave their lives for the West?

“Now, where were we?” Nentres asked loudly to battle the sleep. The darkness behind the window seemed of black, suffocating nature.

“Reports are good,” Safir was tired but smiling. “Three safe paths across the swamps have been discovered, three at the very least. Soldiers will have to swim a bit, but otherwise, the paths are safe.”

“How many have drowned searching for them?”

“Dozens. Even as we speak, people are moving along the safe paths, but any wrong step may be the last one, and dozens and dozens more will remain in those swamps forever.

“Were they permitted to move with torches lit,” Nentres said with pity. “The situation would be different, but alas…”

“Arthur has the dragon even though it’s the last thing he was believed to ever acquire,” Safir shook his head angrily. “For all we know, this bastard can be flying it day and night, and we can’t let our men be seen from above. The whole campaign is already riskier than betting money in the dice game, brother. Let’s not make it any riskier. It’s not every day that eighteen hundred men cross the swamps of Denaria and the Valley of the Fallen Kings and live to tell the tale.”

“Less than half the men have crossed the swamps so far, according to the reports. Let’s not count our chickens before they hatch.”

“You are worried,” Safir gave him a cold stare.

“Of course, I am! This succession crisis is turning into a war for survival, is that not a reason to be worried?”

“It is not. All we need to do is reach for Midlands and seize them. It will happen soon enough,” Safir’s tone was a sacred vow. “Nobody is expecting us to cross the White Mountains here. The swamps of Denaria have never been thought to link Denaria and Midlands. The bitch queen will be fighting Sarrum’s army in the Pass of Camlann, while we attack the castle of Brechfa out of the blue. Nentres, it’s not even guarded properly. Woodspeak will follow, and we seize the better half of Midlands. Arthur will have a choice. He will either talk to us and have his crown or defy us and see the entire harvest of Midlands burnt and his subjects condemned to starvation.”

“What if he chooses the flames?”

“He won’t. Galla Dindrane was right. Whatever he is, whatever he has become, he still sees himself as king. We offer him fealty in exchange for slaughtering the dragon and outlawing magic again. He has to kill his pet to get the Five Kingdoms. It’s not that big of a choice.”

“It’s the biggest choice he might have faced in his life,” Nentres protested. “This pet is the only reason which keeps him strong against us. Without this dragon, we outnumber him nearly three to one, if you count Sarrum’s men. If he kills his pet, he will become vulnerable.”

“He’s not that weak. We’ve got reports about Rodor arriving to the castle of Gedref for some meeting. He didn’t look as if he meant to wage war. For all we know, this bastard may have won Rodor and Gawant to his side.”

“Stop calling him that,” Nentres hissed. “He’s no bastard.”

“Uther’s trueborn son would’ve never embraced magic. Never. He would’ve never joined the dragon. I tell you, and it’s plain now – Arthur was not born out of Uther’s seed. He was born out of magic.”

“Well, let us then add this assumption to all the nonsense we are going to spread about him to blacken his name and make the small folk hate him.”

“You sound if you disapproved,” Safir’s tone was less trusting now.  

“How could I?” Nentres raised his hands to welcome the darkest shades of sarcasm. “It’s what our mother commanded.”

“Cut that crap. I can see through your lies. You disapprove.”

“Yrien deserves to die. I agree. Yet Arthur is our kin. We can’t prove that he’s not. None of us was there when he was consummated, none of us has seen anything. None of us can prove he was born out of magic. He is Uther’s son, his blood and flesh. He takes after him immensely. Uther used the priestess to work his way to the power, and Arthur uses a dragon. They are not as different as you wish they were.”

“Uther renounced magic af…”

“Maybe Arthur will renounce it someday as well!” Nentres blurted out. “But we must ask ourselves a tougher question, brother. The Isle of the Blessed has been swallowed by flames, the druids have been put to swords, the Purge has taken place, three of the four great dragons were killed at the Battle of Ashes, yet the Old Ways refuse to die. Maybe we’re underestimating the Old Ways? Maybe we let Arthur live in his new world if he lets us live in our old one?”

Chapter Text

CHAPTER 28: Queenmaker 

South of Crossinggate the hills began to rise, and the dense forests of Brechfa which had been closing in about her like hosts of Uther’s guards began to melt. It was time for her to get back on the road, she knew, for she had been already far too deep into the Brechfa territory to be that worried about patrols. I am already far past the spots where Uther’s patrols camped when that idiot thought he was threatened by Cenred’s invasion. There are surely less men guarding the road here.There must be.

However, Morgause remembered that Camelot was now under reign of queen Yrien, a woman whose notions of logic contradicted many principles of reason. She’s stuffed Camelot with more than three hundred guards. I bet feeding so many soldiers takes more magic than the whole Isle of the Blessed apprenticeship. And yet she keeps them. What if queen’s patrols are keeping their eyes on the road here?

Morgause had decided the Southern Road to be the shortest. There would be just one castle on the way, the castle of Chemary, whence if she had taken the Brechfa road, she would have had to pass both, Woodspeak and the castle of Brechfa.

The towns and villages grew smaller the further away she traveled, but no less frequent. Morgause preferred to stay in the woods during daytime; come nightfall, she’d seek an inn. She was often tempted to kick her horse and race along the road at daytime, but her life in the Five Kingdoms had taught her it was likely to slow her down. A woman traveling ahorse, unaccompanied, had been a sight even in the rare peaceful days; the rules of war were sure to give her as much suspicion as a bandit. Guards would stalk her, some adventurous men would approach her to try and win her heart, some outlaws might test their luck and try and win her purse, peasants might take note of a strange rider and report her to the regular village guards. That would not do. The woods offered shelter at daytime, while the inns proved most suitable for her other needs.

She didn’t need sleep; having passed through all the stages of initiation, Morgause could do without sleep for longer than any other human being. She could do long without food and water, too, but she needed to refill her magic powers. The two whirlwind spells which she used over the course of the latest two months had drained her, she felt it, and so now, each night she had to practice other spells, the incantations which were meant to restore her strength. A pity the moon is thinning, Morgause thought as she glanced at the empty sky through the tree claws. But new moon is upon us, and new moon brings new powers.

The inns were more suitable for the night because there, she could focus on her magic without fearing the wolves or some bear trying to sniff her out, and chances were slim Iseldir would seek her in the village with Camelot guards. The man is a coward, after all. 

Coward or not, Iseldir’s leadership over the Essetir druid clans was yet to be questioned, and Morgause hated the man for abducting the Cup of Life and for speaking Goddess only knew what treasons to Morgana.  He must be dealt with, before he becomes a threat. He was never a thorn in Uther’s arse, yet he killed Nimueh and took the Cup of Life from her. And now that the dice has been rolled, he might choose to abandon his peacekeeping stone bench and bring the druids back into Camelot.

As the trees parted before the road, Morgause beheld the star-encrusted sky. Hidden somewhere in the impenetrable blackness which inspired both, the worship and the dread, the otherworldly gems produced the glow that carried echoes of the strongest Magic the priestess had ever come across. Peasant fools and ignorant lords often thought stars just lanterns hung in the sky for their convenience; Morgause sensed those were the marks of the most powerful magic ever executed in this world. They were so far away that no man could ever dream to reach them, yet their light managed to carry the magic traces through the great distance, and seemed to be carrying it even further, to the very edge of the world. When Morgause tried to focus her sight on the stars, she heard a peal in her head, as if a joyous herald to welcome magic back to the realm. To think that Uther wanted to cleanse the earth of such a treasure and make the magic’s song end… It’s good Yrien found a way to kill that fool.

Uther was dead, rotting in the crypts beneath the castle of Camelot, yet his poisonous legacy refused to die that easily, beastly as a kraken in the seemingly calm waters. She could spend a lifetime trying to cut every sprout, or she could use Morgana and make it faster. Once the crown issues a decree that welcomes magic back, the commoners will obey. They always obey. It may take time, but they will accept magic in the end, providing the crown does it first.

Morgana felt sore, she knew it. Her sister had taken much pride in serving the needs of the magic uprising that swept the north of the realm following Uther’s death, and it wounded her when Morgause proposed that she remained at the castle of Camelot, in beautiful gowns beside the boy king. Like many witches her age, Morgana’s head was full of thirsts for glory and no doubt she was picturing the prowess she would display fighting as she did when she destroyed the slave trading castle in Essetir. She refused to marry Rion willingly, so I had to kill Alvarr and blame it on Merlin. I knew she’d race to Camelot after that, to use all the resources of the crown to find that wretched serving boy.I’ve spent a great deal of effort trying to get her onto that throne, so she best remained there for some time.

That night, Morgause took shelter in a big farming village with no inn to be found, and so she paid some old couple a few coppers to allow her to bed down in a hay barn. It was more than she needed, in truth. The villagers were hesitant at first, but she seemed too nobly dressed and had too good a horse to take much after the wood witch from the silly peasant tales, and her payment seemed generous enough. They even tried to persuade her to sleep within the house, claiming it was natural in the light of the coins she’d given them, but Morgause politely refused. Once left alone, she washed her face and checked her robes, whose sleeves were full of hidden pockets which she inspected attentively at the break of every new day and after the sunset. Her mentors had taught her that one day those sleeves could save her life, and she never had reason to question their guidance and their warnings. In those pockets, she had magic powders which could produce flames that would roar and hiss and follow any man like some prey. She had potions that could make any person tell the truth, potions which produced smoke that can cast fear upon the bravest of men, and potions whose single drop was enough to take any man’s life. Once the Isle of the Blessed is restored, I shall need no more potions and powders. My spells alone would suffice. I will become stronger than I ever was, I shall be stronger than Nimueh. The Ilse of the Blessed will be once more, a place perfumed with magic and filled with merriment and laughter of the girls and boys who will come to study magic.

She spent the night chanting the spells which were meant to strengthen her powers, and left the barn at the sound of peasants sending their cattle into the field. The street where the old couple lived was filled with Camelot guards walking door to door to ask something of the farmers.

“What is happening?” Morgause wondered as she met her host, Betty, the old woman, who was leaning on a stick.

“Some guards of lord Gloss, m’lady. Asking for them horses again, it’s such a pity…”

Morgause frowned. They are never going to have mine.

“What for?”

“Nobody knows, m’lady. Those who know do well to keep their mouths shut. But the rumours traveling the land are vicious, m’lady.”

“Shall I be worried?” Morgause asked with feigned anxiousness to her voice. “My journey lies to the castle of Chemary.”

The woman sighed heavily.

“Would that I knew, m’lady. My husband’s cousins went to Chemary to try and sell a cow last week, they say the army’s back to the castle, and there is that queer talk of dragons.”

That made her smile. Dragons, manticores and krakens always bewildered the crippled mind of the peasants, so it was no surprise that farmers traveling to big towns would come back to recite the most stupid of the drunken tavern stories. It was the army that worried her.

“Would m’lady have a cup of milk, please? I’d be happy if she would. You paid us generous enough to share our breakfast.”

Worry not, silly woman. These coins will melt in your pockets and turn into thin air once I leave the village.

“I never refuse the kindness of strangers,” Morgause said with a smile as she followed the woman into an old but cozy and tidy hut. “Why is the army back to Chemary? Where has it been?”
“They been at Burnwood, m’lady. In Burnwood, where some bastard raised his banners and called himself late Uther’s son,” the woman seemed unbothered of bastards and banners as she was setting the table. 

“We’ve heard no such news in the Lower Town.”

“Small wonder, m’lady. Guards are at every road that leads to the capital. They only allow people to travel between Brechfa castles and villages. Nobody is allowed outside the territory without them special inks on papers.”

“Why would lord Gloss abandon Burnwood?”
“They say there’s no bastard down there, in the south. My husband’s cousins… What they heard… M’lady, there’s a sorcerer down there. A sourcerer with dragons.”

“The dragons are gone,” Morgause said with a smile. This one is a fool.

“They are returned! They burned the queen’s army, they would’ve burned lord Gloss and his army had he not come back… Oh, what’s to happen to us now, m’lady? Ryence is dead, blessed be his memory, as is Uther, and now the dragons might be coming for our crops!”

Morgause would’ve forgotten the stupid conversation by the end of the day, yet the taverns closer to the castle of Chemary boasted of queerer dragon talks. Morgause had long learnt that the tales retold at the inns and taverns all over again could be both, the truth and the ugly lies spread intentionally, yet one rule remained unbroken: there was neversmoke without fire.

Of smoke there was plenty. Almost every village which came her way had seen the knights of lord Gloss’s household come and take the spare horses away, and the blacksmiths seemed to be laboring day and night. Lord of Chemary may have yielded Burnwood, yet he is planning to march elsewhere, Morgause judged by the amount of preparations. Where to?  

Two nights later, she witnessed the sun rise from beneath the mountains of Isgaard. She knew their grey peaks would stay coal black in the early hour and wouldn’t brighten until the sun finally rose high enough in the sky to paint their slopes ice-blue and dust-red. The castle of Chemary looked like a giant granary surrounded by rounds of wooden walls and deep-dug speared moats, and the nearby town stretched from east to west, along what had once been the trade road to Essetir. If only the ancestors of house Gloss built the castle in the mountains of Isgaard, the fortress would’ve been as strong as maybe the castle of Nemeton or the castle of Gedref, but back in those days, the wild dragons nested in the Isgaard mountains, and people tried to avoid them.  

The gates of Chemary were closed and even barred for whatever reason, as if the castle was in the middle of some war. Morgause found the move pitiful: the only real war that mattered was the war against magic deniers, and it was fought at the Pass of Camlann. Predawn mists were descending upon the town from the mountains of Isgaard, giving the whole place an eerie and gloomy sense even though the day promised to be bright. By the time she reached the gate, dozens of oxcarts had been lined up in front of the city entrance, and farmers were eying her curiously as she joined them in the line. She was wise enough to keep her mouth shut and do no more than listen to what they were saying, and by the time the guardsmen appeared on the parapets, she had heard plenty.

Most people in the line were farmers, climbed onto their wagons and wishing to enter the city to sell fruits and vegetables they had brought. There were also wealthier townsmen half a dozen places ahead of her, discussing some land disputes of their distant relatives, some merchants complaining about how hard it was to ship wheat to Camelot, and a blacksmith looking for labor force. Morgause didn’t spy any soldiers except for the regular guards of the town.

The gatehouse opened on a broad market square, which was surprisingly busy despite the early hour. It was a complete mess at the beginning, for the farmers were dumping their things, unloading sacks and casks and bags, while greedy town traders would rush forward and offer the lowest price before they even had a chance to lay their eyes upon whatever the farmers brought. There was clothing for sale as well: everything from small clothes to hunting leather boots, from wedding gowns to fur cloaks. Men were shouting calls for the lads to join work in the mines of ridges of Isgaard.  

The market square was so broad it appeared the whole town had been built around it, yet it was the castle that overlooked the town and was visible from every part of it. The keep was plain and square, and big drum towers aspired to make it look more defensible, although Morgause knew they would prove rather useless were the town to suffer a real threat of sacking. The streets were much too crowded to the priestess’s taste, and cobbled to the point when it was much easier to walk than ride, and so Morgause decided to put her mare up in the town’s stable and resume afoot. The better side of the crowded streets was the notion that guards were less likely to be drawn to her.

She looked for the inn by the merchant’s guild, where wooden spears swung beneath an iron sword, a sign meant to speak of the greatness of the Isgaard blacksmiths. It was a finer establishment than most of the other inns in the town, and the common room was less crowded than the streets. When Morgause emtered, in robes which were stained and dusty from the long road, she found more than half the room empty.

 “What brings such beauty to my humble tavern?” a young-faced innkeeper, with full cheeks and a shadow of a beard asked of her.

“Ale,” she smiled. The death of Arthur Pendragon, she thought. “What else?”

“I love the conversations that begin this way! Sam, bring the finest ale for the finest guest.”

“You honor me, innkeeper.”

“Nate. Call me Nate. Might I have your name?”

“Martha.”

“So, what brings you to our town, Martha?”

“Lord Gloss,” she lied. “Autumn is upon us, and my father’s due some taxes. I was hoping to discuss it…”
“Taxes… Highborn, aren’t we?” he sounded disappointed as he served her the full tankard. “Well, I suppose lord Gloss has more on his mind than taxes now.”

“Just so. I haven’t been able to get his audience! It’s as if I stepped into a different world. Rumours of dragons, dead princes come alive, sorcery…”
“More like it’s the whole realm sprinting to meet its end,” the lad said in tone of a warning.  

“You frighten me.”

“Better I frighten you than lie to you, my lady. I think you’d be safer by your father’s keep. The dragons bring fire, and fire is dreadful in a big town.”

“Has anybody truly seen this dragon?” Morgause asked, quite irritated.  

“Some merchant guild members swore the beast burned down the entire fleet in the waters of the Merchant’s Bay. They also say thousands of Essetir druids are traveling to Gedref to swear fealty to their dragonlord. Dark news, I say. Darker, considering that her grace, queen Yrien… She and her family, they abandoned us. They abandoned Midlands. They’ve hidden inside that stone castle of Camelot, where fires can’t burn them. We are left here alone, to face this dragon. Lord Gloss is furious.”

Morgause was no less furious than lord Gloss. The talks of dragons was beginning to tire her, yet the rumour of Essetir druids traveling to Gedref was something she could investigate. Iseldir would’ve never made his people move for nothing. If they left Essetir, it means…

No, that cannot be.

 

***

 

In order to avoid the frontlines, it would have been a lot safer to cross the mountains of Isgaard and follow the routes established by smugglers to get to Nemeton and then to Gedref. Yet Morgause had no time for it. The new moon has dawned, and my powers have grown, but I do not wish to waste another whirlwind spell on this journey.

She had to charm her mare and send it galloping off the roads, and yet three or four patrols tried to chase her down before she broke through the border and was deep enough in the Gedref territory. By the time she reached Burnwood, her mare was near dead, and she had to steal a new one from the knight’s stables, and get out of town before the knigths noticed it. She reached Portstown on the fifth day of her journey and was terrified to confirm her worst fears.

The Merchant’s Bay looked like a grey scratch to the land from afar, but the narrow cut was growing wider and wider as she rode until she heard the roar of the restless gulf and felt the salty breeze playing with her hair. The rare trees which she had seen were now gone, and the steady rain turned everything to mud, except for the great Southern road. Her cloak would’ve been soaked through, had she not cast a waterproof spell to keep herself warm. The castle of Gedref, the colossal bastard born out of passion between the sky and the sea, turned bleak in the rain, but it was unmistakable. The town was at the bayside, protected by the curtain wall, and there was another town outside the curtain wall: the town of tents which Morgause recognized at once. Druids. They are here.

“Why are the gates closed?” Morgause asked warily as she approached the outskirts of the druid settlement.  

“Nobody bothers to explain,” some dark-haired man answered to her. “We’ve traveled long and far and we don’t understand what we’ve done to deserve such hostility.”

Is being born a solid reason?  

“The Nemeton host inside the town has taken arms against the soldiers of lord Brysor, they say.”

“The lords are fighting?” Morgause nearly chuckled. “What does the king have to say about it?”

“The king is not in Gedref.”

“Where is he?” she asked, holding her breath.

“He’s in Gawant, they say.”

BLOODY HELL. TO THINK THAT I HAVE WASTED FIVE DAYS FOR NOTHING. ARTHUR BE CURSED. THE PENDRAGONS BE CURSED. THIS STUPID LAND OF GAWANT BE CURSED.

“They say Modron of Nemeton is slain, and his father taken prisoner, that’s why Portstown is in chaos.”

Morgause cared little and less about chaos in Portstown, as well as about slain Modrons.
“Are you absolutely certain the king is in Gawant?”

“He wouldn’t let us freeze under rain if he were here, would he?”
Of course he wouldn’t. She wanted to talk to them no more; since the gates were barred, she knew she’d have to swim into town, and so she kicked her horse and traveled west, where the shores were low and gentle enough to step into the water. She waited in the rain for the dusk to come, and just when she thought the darkness was dense enough to avoid the watch, she heard him say:

“You’re here. Just as I thought you would be.”

She turned around lazily, not letting him see her fear. In the rough-spun grey robes he stood before her, barefoot and grey-haired.

“Am I growing too easy to foretell, Iseldir?”

“I am no seer. I foretell nothing and nobody. My mission is to think.”

“You’ve mastered the art of thinking to the point of nearly thinking the druid civilization away,” Morgause said bitterly, taking a few steps away as the druid leader moved towards her and walked closer to the waters, letting the waves lick his feet.  

“These druids whom you have seen are here because their civilization is far from over,” for once, he sounded boastful.  

“Far is an overstatement. Thousands of Gaheris swords are in the Pass of Camlann. Yrien’s got hundreds of swords, too. These women don’t have soft hearts and they are no friends to the druids.”

“Are you a friend to the druids, though? Is it why you’ve come, Morgause, the Last Priestess?”

Not the last, though. There is one more still to come.

“I am here on my mission, too. Just like you.”

“And what mission is that, pray tell?”

“A diplomatic one. Oh, come on, Iseldir. Why don’t you believe me? You wrong me. What woes have I inflicted upon the troubled realm of druids for you to hate me so?”

“You tried to steal the Cup of Life,” he was disappointed, but not accusing. He sounds as if he’s sentencing me already. “You’ve managed to steal a part of our Triskelion.”

“I never steal,” Morgause reminded him sternly. “The Cup of Life is not your property. It belonged with the Isle of the Blessed, just like the Tree of Life did. Just like the Crystal of Neahtid did. I wanted for the cup to return. I played no part in your Triskelion thing, though, nor will I ever do. It’s too disdainful to touch. If you lose your toys, don’t blame it on me.”

“You don’t deny that you’ve tried to acquire the cup.”

“Are you getting old and deaf? The Cup belongs with the Isle of the Blessed. I meant to return it.”

The rain and wind were mixed in the fury of the nature that descended upon the shores of Gedref. Iseldir wore no waterproof spell, and his robes were soaked, yet the druid leader seemed as unbothered by the weather as anybody could be.

“How selfless of you. Surely your determination to get the cup has nothing to do with the five thousand Cenred’s soldiers who crossed the Camelot’s border and are now camping at Idirsholas, disguised as druids?”

By now they must have marched from Idirsholas already. He sniffed it out somehow. What a wretched man.

“I will not discuss my intentions with you. And you can stop working that magic on me – I have my means of protection,” she promised him, sensing pain I her temples at once. The priestesses taught her that there was such art, one of the most dangerous kinds of magic which allowed sorcerers to walk into other person’s minds. “You won’t get into my thoughts. Keep doing it and my hands might begin to itch to crack that head of yours to peek at your thoughts.”

He stopped the instant, but she grabbed the dagger in her sleeve anyway.

“Leave the Pendragon king be,” Iseldir’s voice was a weird mix of plea and command.  

That made her smile.

“Iseldir, I had Arthur in my hands, with his head on the block, with my axe above his neck. If I wanted to kill him, Arthur would have long been dead.”

“You kept him alive because you planned to use him against Uther. You kept him alive because you needed him alive. You no longer need him now, so you will try to get rid of him soon. That’s why you’ve come.”

“Even if I wanted to, he’s not so easy to get rid of when the walls of his castle are guarded by Ashkanar’s magic.”

Iseldir ignored her remark.

“I urge you, Morgause, give in to the wisdom which binds the world together. We are at the crossroads of destiny, and the Old Ways are coming back. All of them. You can’t just revive the Isle of the Blessed without reviving the dragonlord. The Isle and the Dragons coexisted peacefully, and they can do s...”

“Peacefully? PEACEFULLY?! BALINOR BURNT MY SISTERS! HE DESTROYED THE ISLE AND PROFANED THAT WHOLY PLACE WITH DRAGON FLAMES! YOU DARE SPEAK OF PEACE?!”

Her hand jerked involuntarily, and the little stones gracing the beach rose from the ground and flew at Iseldir, sharper and quicker than arrows. But the man’s reaction proved fierce: he made a weird movement, as if he tried to cover himself with an invisible cloak, and the water rose from the bay, wrapped around him and turned to ice. The stones the priestess had fired at Iseldir knocked off the ice wall like beans off the stone, and before she could make a move, the ice turned to water again, and water was all that was: it was all around here, she was trapped in a weird cocoon that threatened to kill her, that twisted and moved her as if she were a doll, and she couldn’t break free no matter what she did, not until she used that dagger in her sleeve and cut her own finger to summon blood magic. The water cocoon broke at once, and her lungs made a weird screeching sound as she took an inhale like it was her first one. As shadows raised by her blood rushed to attack Iseldir, the priestess hurried away, using the rain to disguise her flight as multiple silhouettes of Morgause’s appeared in the air. She had no time for Iseldir. Arthur wasn’t in Gedref, he was in Gawant, and she wasn’t sure he’d ever return considering his subjects were said to be slaughtering each other in Portstown. Her journey was utterly purposeless. She couldn’t kill him while he was across the shore, but at least Iseldir confirmed the Pendragon king was ruling in Gedref. She would come back later, but now she was more needed at the Pass of Camlann, and she was ready to kill all the horses in the world to get there.

 

 

Chapter Text

CHAPTER 29: Nightmares Again 

 

“There is no way it’s true. It’s not, it can’t be. If it were true, Yrien wouldn’t go.”

Gwen was standing by the window, as if hoping that the morning light pouring through the open shutters could cast some clarity upon the dusty yellow parchment bearing Yrien’s ink. Morgana had read it so many times she thought she’d learnt it by heart, and now she was anxious to learn her servant’s opinion on the subtle warning the queen mother had designed for her. Her head was still aching from the wine she’d swallowed at the wedding feast, and her heart was torn apart by fear for Morgause’s life, but she couldn’t just lock herself in the room and stay there until her sister got back. That’s not who I am. I’ve stayed locked in this damn castle for too long to surrender to fear now. I must do what needs to be done. She could feel the rage from the realization of her helplessness building up, though, fueled by the nauseous feeling of the walls of the castle listening to her, watching her every move and closing on her. At night she’d felt it again: a dark sound, as eerie as the dead man’s heartbeat.

“The fact that she went away proves it is true,” Morgana took the note from Gwen’s head and read the last lines again before hiding it into the pocket of her dress. Use the vast resources of your position to watch Anna Dindrane and Gaius: I am sure the proof of their treachery will present itself. Congratulations on your wedding and welcome to the royal family, with love, Yrien of House Gingawaine, the Lady of Brechfa, the letter said. “She’d be a deal safer in Brechfa. She can hide in any hut in any damn forest and the dragon won’t be able to sniff her out. Here, if the beast set the Lower Town on fire, we’d all be trapped in a fire storm and die from inhaling the smoke alone, before the flames get anywhere close.”

“But her son, she… she’d never leave him, Morgana!” Gwen’s eyes were wide with shock. Her naïve appeal to the sense of care and love and nobility still made Morgana pity the poor girl. She’s so much to learn about the world. So many things to discover, the things that will disappoint her and break her.

“She wouldn’t have left her son unless she’d learnt something horrible about him. Something that even she couldn’t put up with. And she didn’t seem much too pleased about his wedding yesterday, I assure you.”

“But what could she…”

“I don’t care!” Morgana whirled on a spot, trying her best not to break her own fingers from clutching them a little too hard. Her hands felt empty now; now, when the dangers had left the shadows and stepped into the light for all of them to see, she needed her sword. She needed Alvarr. But Alvarr was dead and her sword was sheathed, for the queen couldn’t be expected to carry a blade into a throne room. “I don’t care what the hell is happening or has happened in their twisted sick scheming family! The witch in the lake warned me about the dragon, and now Yrien claims the beast is returned. That can’t be a coincidence. We need to respond! I am the queen now, I will not stay here and wait for the time when Arthur crucifies Mordred to the point when the poor boy gives the dragon the command, and…”

“What if it’s not Mordred?” Gwen asked nervously.

“What do you mean? Gwen, I told you, this must be Balinor’s son and…”

“But it could be that Balinor fathered more children? What if Mordred had an elder brother?”

Morgana winced from the damning complexity of the situation. Balinor was old enough to father half a hundred sons all over the realm, that’s true. But Iseldir told me I’ve met Emrys. And I’ve met Mordred. Still, Gwen’s doubt was solid enough, although unexpected. Morgana took seconds to study the tired underslept face of her maidservant.

“Gwen, you know something?”

“I went to Gaius yesterday. After the feast.”

Bloody hell. You must stay as far away from him now as you can.  

“You shouldn’t have. Gaius and the Dindranes are not to be trusted, they’d flock to Arthur’s side the moment they spot the dragon wings in the sky!”

“Gaius claims Mordred’s not the dragonlord. He…”

“He knows nothing!” Morgana grew tired of the endless reasoning and guesswork. Why, why in the bloody hell was it so much easier to storm castles and slay my enemies with sword rather than to find one little frightened boy abused by a power-angry son of Uther?! “Gaius is an old book worm with exaggerated healing abilities. I have met Mordred in the castle, Iseldir warned me of him and I have seen Mordred in my vision, so I know it’s him. Merlin was after him, too, in that vision, Arthur must have sent Merlin to find Mordred, that’s why this little monster came to Idirsholas, but that’s not the point! That doesn’t help! We must act.”

“You said you didn’t know how to fight dragons!”

“I still don’t,” Morgana sighed, approaching the window to look at the idyll that was the Lower Town. Grey-roofed, narrow-lined and densely-peopled, it breathed of life and hopefulness as the sun unraveled the story of yet another day in the smoky-blue sky. But how much is this serenity worth when somewhere out there, there’s a monster that may bathe the whole damn place in fireflames? If Arthur uses dragon against the Lower Town, magic will forever be cursed in the eyes of people of Camelot and all my effots to make it legal will turn to dust. I must stop this fool. “But we must do what we can. And we can get information, we can rob Arthur of new allies at least. Talk to Gwaine. Ask him to keep an eye on Dindranes and Gaius. Tell him it’s my command.”

Gwen didn’t look pleased with what she heard; for some reason, the girl looked as if she were torn by thousands of thoughts happening all at once. When will she get over this man, after all?

“Morgana, this is exactly what Yrien wants. She wants to pitch you against Gaius and Dindranes, she…”

“As if there were not already enough reasons for me to hate Gaius,” Morgana smirked. “He kept poisoning me for years. And the Dindranes… if they think they can regain the throne with my hands, they bloody well think again. Still, if they are plotting something, we must have proof. I can’t accuse members of high court and the free citizen of Camelot of treason based on an unsealed letter. Gwaine may prove useful.”

That’s the least I can do. If there are still traitors at court, I shall have their heads. There are so many questions that beg for answers, I can’t let the suspicions of Arthur’s sympathies consume my time. I must know for sure.

“Morgana, before that, there’s something else,” Gwen said in a weak wounded voice. “Something… I’m not sure of it yet, but I’ve been thinking, and it seems to me…”

The knock on the door caught them both unawares; Morgana’s hand jerked, and she was ready to whisper the spell to protect her from the king’s squire, who bowed down before reporting the news:

“Your grace. The king begs your presence in the council chambers at once.”

“We shall talk after the council,” Morgana petted Gwen on the shoulder before making her way out of the room. “Make sure to pass my command to… you know who.”

The castle was silent, much as on any other day following a major celebration. It seemed to Morgana that only a king as bold and as unexperienced as a sixteen-year-old boy could be foolish enough to summon a council on the fay following the royal wedding. Half the guests are still drunk, Morgana thought. The other half may find it hard to rise from the bed. There was close to nobody at the gates earlier today when the queen mother left for Brechfa.

Rion awaited her in the council room, as handsome a lad as any bride could wish for. It was plain that he was blessed with both, his mother’s elegance and his uncle’s toughness, and the signs of his maturity were all the more intriguing since they were just showing up. He was playing with a dagger, a gift for his wedding, trying to reflect the morning sun with the blade and cast a sunbeam on the wall. His council room was as different from the one Uther used as Morgana could dare imagine. Where the late king preferred austerity, Rion relied on comfort, with Midlands furniture, flowers, wine and colorful maps of the kingdoms on the expensive marble table. Her appearance made him smile.

“My queen,” he said, kissing her hand a bit too dutifully. “The morning sun herself is dimmed by your beauty.”

“My king. Is aught amiss? The squire told me it was urgent.”

“I hate to plague you with the woes of our troubled realm, but I couldn’t but summon you to the council despite all the love I bear you. You are the queen now, and must do your duty, as I must do mine.”

“What duty will that be?” Morgana smiled, hurrying to occupy the chair beside the king.  

“I want you to listen to my lords and ladies as they reason about taxes and armies. It’s a never-ending discussion that has been giving me headaches for so long I fear I can no longer tell right from wrong. You are a different story, my queen. This is going to be your first council, and your vision is as clear as drops of dew on the summer meadow.”

He is a young lad whose head is filled with hunting, horseracing, songs and poetry. It’s the king we have in such dire times. The Goddess help us all.

“Your grace, wouldn’t it be more appropriate to put all these silly talks away until the war’s done?”

“These are not silly talks,” Rion responded robustly as he turned around.  “This decision may determine my whole future kingship, it’s important to me. My uncle promised the lords and ladies tax cuts, while I plan to make the tax burden heavier in order to pay for a single state regular army. We are at crossroads here, nothing’s silly.”

“You’re right, of course. Forgive me for the wrong choice of words, I simply thought that the war…”

“We are not at war, Morgana. Nobody has stomach for war in the Five Kingdom. There are a bunch of claimants to the throne, war’s too generous a word for them all. The Gaheris are Uther’s cousins, they fancy themselves fit to rule and use the horrible tragedy of Sir Vidor to justify their assault against the elected ruler. The man occupying Portstown dares mock Arthur’s name by wearing it. None of them have allies or provision or smithies productive enough to sustain a war. Once the fighting in the Pass of Camlann is over, we shall devote ourselves to the harvest work and come spring, I shall drive the pretender out of Portstown, providing winter doesn’t drive him out first. If I decide to turn a blind eye on everything that’s happening in my kingdom until the claimants are defeated, I don’t deserve to rule it.”

This claimant to the south is the legitimate heir of Uther, and he has a dragon on his side, you dumb boy.  

“Of course. I would gladly listen to your court.”

And listen she did. They appeared before the midday bell, the yawning faces that gave her curious looks and whispered about something while trying to figure out who sits where. Gaius was there, too, although she was not quite sure why, and she would’ve chosen another seat had she known the Secretary was that close to the king. The former physician congratulated her on the wedding and wished her true happiness in the marriage.

“How successful have your searches for the new royal physician have been?” Rion inquired as the lords and ladies were still searching for their seats lazily.

“The fruits are yet to come, your grace,” Gaius sounded disappointed. “You might have heard that one of my former apprentices have applied for the position, but he is too young and I’ve yet to estimate the broadness of his experience.”

Your last apprentice has a broad experience and is rather good at murdering people with a wide range of weapons, from poisons to blades.

“Might we learn his name?” Morgana asked casually.

“Julius Borden. I doubt his name speaks anything to you, my queen. He left Camelot many years ago, and I was surprised to see him come back.”

“Surprised? Why? Camelot is the best place in all the Five Kingdoms to master the craft of healing, is it not? Please let me know when you make up your mind, Gaius. You may consider rising one of the town healers to the vacant position while you proceed with the search.”

Lady Dindrane was among those invited for the discussion, so pale she looked half a corpse herself in the ripe of the yellow sunlight. Morgana was wise enough not to study the old woman’s face too obviously, but everything about her behavior now seemed worrying. She is the granddaughter of the last druid queen. Married off to one of Uther’s warlords after the dragon dynasty fell, yes, but it’s impossible to believe she’s forgotten her roots. And it’s impossible to believe she’ll not abandon Rion and join Arthur when she learns about the dragon.

“In the days of my youth, they used to feast the wedding for three days,” her voice was all innocent and sweet as honey. “What’s wrong with the world that we put affairs of state above the joy of love? A question for the wise men, I guess.”

Morgana could only smile to that. I will learn your intentions soon, my lady. I pity you if you chose to abandon Rion.

The lords and ladies kept pouring in, and Morgana thought the council room would burst unless the doors were shut. The matter was a delicate one, she realized after the first minutes of the debates. There were those arguing that the rebellion of the West had already cost the kingdom more than any tax increase, and that such a rebellion would have never been possible if the crown had organized a regular army with forts in the Roman fashion scattered all over the land. The lords and ladies of the Midlands were less enthusiastic about the proposal, though, for they knew feeding a regular army would ultimately consume a considerable share of their harvest, decreasing the crops they could put on sale. Rion allowed everybody who wanted to contribute to the discussion have their say, but his attitude, liberal as it was, soon turned the room into a mess louder than the market square.  

“The arguing may go forever,” lady Dindrane summed up when the floor passed to her. “Yet some of us here are old and would love to live to the day when decision is made. Your grace, with all due respect, there will be as many opinions as there are tongues in this room. But there is but one tongue that matters, and that is yours. What is to be done after you hear every lord and lady in this room?”

“I thought I’d announce my decision after discussing it with my wife,” Rion didn’t seem to be taking the pressure too well.

“There’s no need for that, your grace,” Morgana told him with a polite smile. “Our discussion would’ve been short. I think there is but one right thing to be done in this situation.”  

The whole room held their breath as Morgana rose to lean on the table.

“My lords, my ladies. I think the decision on taxes and armies is too important for one person to decide. A true king is the one who listens to his people, so I think the Great Council shall vote.”

The chambers responded with excited whispers and exclamations.

“The Great Council can’t be summoned, your grace,” Gaius hurried to explain. “The West and the South are in open rebellion, which…”

“…means we shall have a different great council,” Morgana said dismissively. “The taxes and the armies concern every single lord and lady who holds lands; therefore they must have the right to vote. Does my king agree with me?”

She knew he’d agree with her even before she met the shining approval in his eyes. He wanted me to listen to this debate partly because he wants to dump responsibility on someone else. Cling to this option, Rion. Give your lords and ladies the right to vote on the issue, and the responsibility will be on them.  

“My lady wife is right,” Rion rose, triumphant. “I’ve heard enough to conclude that both options deserve the future. Therefore, the voting will take place. It will begin in three days and will end with the Harvest Feast. Every lord or lady who holds lands and who has been listed on king Uther’s Great Council is welcome to vote, except for those who are in the open rebellion as we speak.”

The approving matters hadn’t died when Morgana raised her voice to seize the nobles’ fading attention.

“My lords, before the session is at an end, might I beg your attention? It’s only that now when I am officially under the protection of the crown that I feel safe enough to talk on the matter. I haven’t shared it with anybody before, even with his grace.”

Gaius gave her a distrusting look, while lady Dindrane raised her eyebrows, sincerely surprised.

“My lords and ladies! Before his grace and the druids saved me from the depraved clutches of the Dark Witch, I witnessed something. Near Greenswood village, I saw Merlin,” Morgana announced with a sense of the deepest relief.  

“Who would that be?” some grey-bearded Midlander asked, confused.

“Merlin was prince Arthur’s servant,” she could almost hear Gaius clenching his teeth.

“That donkey-eared boy whom Arthur would drag all around the castle? His hit-toy?”

“Merlin was Arthur’s servant, indeed,” Morgana nodded fiercely. “They say he rode out to the Brechfa patrol with the prince. And yet even though the prince was slain, his servant continues to walk freely. My heart trembles at the thought of it, but what if the prince’s death was not a tragic accident, but a cold-hearted, calculated murder carried out by someone he trusted the most? What if Arthur’s servant played a part in the prince’s death?”

Come on, Rion. I am giving you and your whole damn family a chance to blame the death of Uther on a useless serving boy. Don’t miss it.

“The boy must be found then,” Rion announced to every single lord and lady in the room.

“Rightly so,” Anna Dindrane nodded. “His body was never brought to Camelot together with other slain knights-to-be. If the boy is alive, we must question him.”

“It is decided then. Prince Arthur’s servant must be found and brought to justice. My lords and ladies, send the word to our patrol missions within your areas.”

Choke on that, you little murderous worm. If Arthur ever sends you on some mission again, you’ll not be able to walk the roads of Camelot freely.

 

***

 

She remembered that Gwen wanted to talk to her, but there were more important things to do that afternoon. If Arthur has the dragon, I need to learn his strategy, his strength, his weaknesses, and I must have a mean to keep my eye on Morgause. There was but one mean which Morgana could think of: deep down beneath the crypts of Camelot, there was a vault where Uther used to store the artifacts of magic he stole from the Isle of the Blessed. The crystal of Neahtid was there, too, and Morgana needed it. The last time her powers were not enough to interact with it, but the last time, she was not the priestess of the Old Ways. Now, my blood and my flesh have been offered to the Triple Goddess. I will be able to use the crystal.

To use the crystal, though, she needed to get to it first, and it was not possible without a sleeping potion. She had to lock the doors of her chambers and commanded to send any intruder away, even Gwen. Magic is still illegal. If they catch me brewing the sleeping potion, I can lose my head, and it’s a silly thing to do right now.

Brewing potion proved liberating, for it provided her with the much-needed feeling of usefulness. She hated the fact that everybody seemed to be busy with something while she was stuck in the castle. Ruadan is commanding the druid forces in Idirsholas, fighting by the side of Cenred’s soldiers in the Pass of Camlann. Finna is negotiating with the Catha merchants, Morgause is heading south to kill Arthur, and I am here doing nothing. Stealing the crystal is the least I can do.

Stealing the crystal was rather easy. She knew that four guards were positioned in the vaults, and she knew they’d change at midday and were not permitted to leave their watch throughout the night. The kitchens provided them with food and water, and so she had to put the potion in the kitchen waterskins destined for the vault guards. Morgana chose another way, though: she duplicated the waterskins with magic and replaced them during her inspection of the kitchen, which she conducted using the pretext to make sure that all the leftovers from the feast were given to the poor people of the Lower Town.

When the evenfall broke, she notified her guards that she would want to visit the crypts to pay her respects to the late Uther Pendragon.

“It pains me to know that my beloved stepfather had not lived long enough to feast at my wedding,” she told her guards, feigning tears. “I missed him so greatly yesterday that I want to visit him now.”

The crypts and the vaults shared the staircase, so Morgana could head straight to the storage with the sleeping guards, but she chose to go to the crypts anyway. The torch which she had lit illuminated the ominous dungeon where the gone kings, queens, lords, ladies and prominent court members were resting, silent forever. She wanted to be strong, she wanted to look in the face of the evil that haunted her and defy it, but little did she know that the evil was going to look back. Uther’s statue was put onto his tomb, and the stone mask resembled the late king so much the torch began to tremble in Morgana’s hand as she approached the source of her nightmares. Suddenly, she realized she was still scared to look even at the dead face of the tyrant, and she was struggling to believe he was gone. So deep was his hatred for magic that Morgana feared her presence might tempt the late king to rise from the dead and destroy her. Yet the layers of dust on the statue of Uther were a proof that even the deepest hatred could wither and rot. She couldn’t understand why she wanted to speak so badly, but once she started, she couldn’t get enough.

“A part of me misses you, really. Sometimes I think I’d give up anything in this world to bring you back to life and watch your face. Watch your face when you learn that I have sided with my sister and with the druids. Watch your face when you learn that Cenred’s soldiers are walking freely in Camelot and that we’ve teamed up with them to put an end to your relatives in the Pass of Camlann. Watch your face when you learn that your only son is using the dragon which you’ve chained. Watch your face when you learn that I am on my way to kill your only son and legalize magic. But I hope that you’re comfortable in your own hell watching it all, howling from your own helplessness. Sleep well, dear stepfather. May you never find peace for all the lives you ended.”

 

***

 

It was close to midnight when she returned to her chambers with the crystal of Neahtid in her bag. All the vault guards had fallen asleep, and she hoped the lads would not be punished too strictly for falling asleep while on duty. She was greeted by the irresistible smile of a yellow-cloaked knight with shoulder-length hair.

“Sir Gwaine,” Morgana was glad to see him. “Do come in.”

“I was beginning to worry. The guards assured me you were in the crypts.”

“I was,” Morgana lied as she hurried to light the candles to dispel the darkness of her room.

“They say it’s an ill thing. To visit the graves at night.”

“A village superstition,” Morgana waved it off. “Now tell me all. Has Gwen passed you my word?”

“She has, your grace.”

“So? Have you found anything conspicuous about lady Dindrane and Gaius?”

“Nothing, your grace.”

“You disappoint me.”

“They spent most of their day within these damn walls. I don’t think Gaius’s health permits him to climb the stairs, to be honest. Lady Dindrane is a crone, too. Her son, though…”

Tawton. Of course, she’d use him.

“What of him?”

“Nothing wrong with him, again. But one of the knights from their household, he did pay visit to the Lower Town today. I followed him.”

“And where did he go?”

“Wherever he went, he made sure it was well-concealed. He met with another man on the market, as if by chance. I followed that man, and he delivered some message to the wagon-maker. What message – that I can’t tell. If I wrecked the threshold of the wagon-maker, he’d know someone’s onto him. He’d know and that would make the whole missions senseless.”

Wagon-maker. Of course. Anna is too old, and her younger granddaughter is too little to travel ahorse. They’d need a good wheeled wagon to travel south.

“Wagon-maker,” Morgana whispered darkly, staring in the candle flames. “That’s very sad to hear. Yet we live in the sad world, don’t we?”

“There’s no sadness that can’t be washed away with a couple of tankards of cider and a good fight,” Gwaine shrugged. “Or a good kiss.”

“Wisdom of the streets. You’re a poet, turns out?”

“I can be whoever you want me to be.”

He did smell of cider, of apples, of roughness and adventure, and his smile was the invitation to lovemaking, and his breath seemed dangerously close. Yet Alvarr’s memory was too strong within her.   

“Aren’t you doing exactly what we are supposed to avoid?” Morgana asked teasingly. “Yrien wants you to seduce me and accuse me of high treason, remember.”

“Yrien is far away.”

“Treasons are close, though.”

“Some women are worth any treason.”

“Some men are worth considering a treason, too. I wish you good night, Sir.”

For mine is going to be sleepless and full of nightmares again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

CHAPTER 30: Inkwave 

 

The following day, the waves were pulsing beneath the ship, and Arthur had a feeling they were sailing across the echo of some heavy, monstrous heartbeat. Now, it was easy to see where all the legends about sea monsters, krakens and mermaids sprouted from. Is it that difficult to conjure monsters in your fantasies when your ship is sailing the waters of the greatest monster of them all?

The winds were hurrying them to Inkwave and drawing mournful grey clouds to the ancient capital of Gawant, the clouds that would mingle with the blurry sea line and make it impossible to notice their destination from afar. Nevertheless, Arthur kept studying the horizon every now and then, hoping that the city would finally rise to sight, and the wait was getting on the king’s last nerves. 

“We are not going to miss it, right?” Merlin asked to tone down the tension. “So maybe it would be better for you to go down to the cabin? Relax a little?”

“I can’t relax. We’ll arrive at Inkwave in hours, that’s all I can think of,” Arthur replied nervously. If I had magic, I’d cast a spell that would make me fall asleep until Inkwave. Can Merlin cast such a spell? Maybe I should ask. “Besides, I’ve had enough encounters with that monster.” 

“Eiry is innocent. Mostly. Well, he did rip half your sword belts and shirts and tunics, but we had it coming, didn’t we?” 

We had it coming?!” 

“Well, we…er…should’ve hidden your clothes. Somewhere safe. I guess,” Merlin said before breaking into smile. 

“It’s like we’ve welcomed a ba