"Ok. So, um. We know you're, uh, that you can call fire." Merlin bit back a nervous, not-quite-appropriate grin. "So why don't we start there?"
Morgana looked at him levelly, dubious but calm. "Are you sure that's the best idea?"
"Well. I mean." He jiggled his leg a bit. "The thing that's most important, at least at first, is control. You can make fire, but you can't control it. So it's not really the fire part that matters."
He did have a point, she mused. She sat in the sun-warmed grass, knees together in trousers and boots while the horse she was meant to be exercising whuffed at its tether behind her. Weeks of planning had gone into this moment. If only Merlin has been a woman, or a noble; as it was, she'd had to start up this riding scheme and slowly work on her minders. Each of them thought the other was with her today so that she could come here alone. To meet Merlin. Who was maddeningly twitchy, all of a sudden.
"All right," she said. "We'll start with fire."
Merlin smiled again, rummaging through a leather satchel for a minute before producing a stump of candle in his right hand. He set it firmly on the ground between them before leaning back and re-crossing his legs. He raised his eyebrows and gave a little nod--go on.
Morgana looked down at the wick, exhaling slowly through her nose. She'd only ever started fires in her dreams. She just saw them, already there, a foregone conclusion, and when she woke, it was true. Frowning, she tried to imagine fire now: what the candle would look like, its flame thin in the bold light of day, though with rather more smoke that she liked--it was a servants' candle, after all--curling up through the still, hot air.
Nothing happened. She set her lips and tried again, staring intently at the tiny, bent-over wick, thinking of the blue flame that would surround it and the orange radiating out from there. She imagined the glistening cup of wax that would draw up into the wick and feed the flame's heat, and the gobs that would dribble down to the dirt to be pliant for a moment before hardening again.
"Sometimes using words helps," Merlin offered, breaking in. "Like this: Forbearnan/"
She shrugged off a twinge of irritation. "Forbearnan," she repeated, fixed still on the candle.
"That's it," Merlin said, nodding. "And sometimes if you point with your hand, or even a finger, that can help focus it too."
Focus what? But such a question seemed too base, so she bit it back and extended her arm and looked at the candle and thought fire and said, "Forbearnan."
A lightness fluttered through her stomach, but still the candle failed to burn.
"Sometimes... you have to practice new spells a lot," Merlin said. "There was one with a statue that took me all night, once."
"Forbearnan," Morgana growled, jutting her palm. Nothing. "Forbearnan!"
She kept at it, muttering the spell and shouting it, trying by turns to relax and to force, and while the flutter never returned a sharp twist took its place and spun itself tighter with each failed attempt. She had to figure this out, she had to, now, this afternoon, because who knows when she'd have another moment away from prying eyes. Worse, Merlin was right. She needed control, because what if one day she made something happen and she wasn't able to hide it, or what if she hurt someone, or--
Her head snapped up. Merlin's voice. She'd heard it... but not aloud. She looked up at him, gaze narrowed, and opened her mouth. "What was--"
<Try it,> he said. <In your mind.>
<Like... this?> she tried, and her inner voice echoed in a way she'd never felt before.
<Yes!> Merlin's crinkled grin lit up the clearing. Morgana couldn't help but smile back.
Merlin. Arthur had said once, long ago, that there was something about him he couldn't quite place. That was what had first led Morgana to notice him--Arthur had never said anything so interesting about a servant before. She'd asked Gwen about Merlin and her maid had blushed. Merlin was curious, she said, but good-hearted and rather amusing.
The more Morgana looked, the more she had seen. Clumsy but courageous, forthright and kind... yes, there was something about Merlin. And all that was before she'd learned about his magic.
When the witchfinder held her hostage she'd seen Merlin's eyes glow before the smell of her captor's burning flesh filled the air. She'd confronted him afterwards, confused and hurt--why hadn't he told her? Why did he hide when her power had begun to manifest, at a time when the one thing she'd needed most in the world was someone who could understand?
She still didn't know the answer to that, not really, because Merlin could dissemble as skillfully as any of Uther's councillors when he had a mind to. But he had apologized and offered to help her learn more, which led to him here, sitting in the dirt and grinning like a loon at her first, halting steps towards magic.
<What is... this?> Morgana asked him. She felt as though a new space had expanded within the crown of her head.
<I don't really know,> Merlin admitted. His face fell, just for a moment. <The truth is, Morgana... my magic is unusual. At least compared to others I've seen, not that there have been many who weren't trying to kill someone I... care about, so I mean I haven't exactly had the chance to study their finer points of technique or anything, but anyway what I'm trying to say is that-->
<That you're making it up as you go.>
<Well. Yes.> Merlin bit his lip. <I know I'm powerful, at least. And I think you might be too.>
If nothing else, he always caught her off-guard. But she never stayed on the back foot for long.
<Show me,> she demanded, lifting her chin and raising her brows.
He never had any defense against that tone of voice. The tips of his ears burned red. <What should I... what do you want to see?>
<Your best,> she commanded.
He obliged. With a deep breath, he straightened his shoulders and glanced at her once before turning his attention away. His irises flashed gold and one of last year's moldering leaves rose into the air between them. A moment later, it was crisp and dry, and a moment beyond that it burst into flame.
Where an ordinary leaf would have flashed out in a moment, this one burned on, and its flame soon grew, broadening and flaring up until it resembled a fire in a grate suspended invisibly between them. Its heat caressed her face. The tips of the tongues slowed their flickering and instead began to firm up, transforming into a herd of wild horses galloping in place. Their sinuous, mesmerizing motions had manes and tails flying, and she could almost hear the thunder of their hooves.
Captivated, Morgana looked on. It was beautiful. She hadn't thought magic could be like that.
She reached out with one hand, instinctively. Come, she thought, and the lead figure broke away to canter onto her palm.
Merlin, alarmed, started forward. "Morgana!"
The little figure flickered, uncertain now that it was separated from its source. Its contact with her skin flashed icy and hot, but still she held it there, marveling at its noble face and swiveling ears and quivering nose.
Will you light my candle? she asked, and the horse tossed its head before leaping to the ground and trotting to the little stump. It whisked up the wick and dissolved into a little oval flame dancing merrily upon it.
It. The magic "it"--she had felt it. Spoken with it, touched it, commanded it--it was something that would listen to her, now that she knew how to speak.
She looked around the clearing, drinking in the vivid colors and dappled sunlight throughout the movement of the trees and the life stirring around. A clump of new cornflowers grew at her right hand, still tightly wrapped in their nascent buds, and she could not wait to see them, so she said, simply, open, and they did, bursting forth with bright blue petals like shaggy crowns to share their joy with the world.
"Morgana," Merlin whispered, and she turned her eyes at last to him.
He'd moved to a crouch and put the fire out. One hand hovered at his side. His eyes were hawk's eyes, glittering and focused and calm. And the magic within him showed her more: beneath his skin, a power roiled, a power pulsing with the deep and eternal heartbeat of the land.
But he didn't know that yet, she realized. He couldn't see.
So she grabbed at his hand and showed him.