No one can blame you
For walking away
Too much rejection
No love injection
Life can be easy
It's not always swell
Don't tell me truth hurts, little girl
'Cause it hurts like hell
But down in the underground
You'll find someone true
Down in the underground
A land serene
A crystal moon
It's only forever
It's not long at all
Lost and lonely
The diagnoses were hardly surprising: paranoia, schizophrenia, delusions of grandeur, bipolar disorder, and pyromania, all by the time he was fifteen.
He wasn’t fifteen, he was twenty-five and flushed with victory, fifty and confident with power, eighty and bent with age …
It wasn’t even that unusual to find them all in the same person, the doctors told his mother apologetically. The pyromania was probably the most interesting of the lot, but only since no one could figure out how he’d actually started more than half those fires.
He tried to explain, but the words shriveled on his tongue as the visions--heat, smoke, screaming, watching helplessly as they all died--crashed over him like a wave.
No; the best course of action, for the safety of all concerned, was institutionalization and medication, three times a day, for as long as needed. His mother signed him over to their care with tears in her eyes and guilt in her heart; she loved him, she really did, but it would be so much … simpler … with him gone. She visited him whenever she could, and risked the program director’s wrath by smuggling him his favorite book, a small play bound in red leather whose title had long since been worn away from use.
The book was all that kept him going. The world inside of it, with its creatures and castles and adventures, was more real to him that his foggy existence of despair, guilt, and pain. The only things more real than the book were the visions--hallucinations, if he was describing them to the doctors--that flung him to the floor and took his breath away.
Sunlight glinting off steel, horses and saddles and hay, castles and banquets and blood-red banners, light swirling around him as he bent it to his will, fire and fear and hope and love …
And throughout it all, the laughter of a boy--man--boy whose face he could never, ever see.
When the visions struck, they left him feeling weak and sick and so very, very alone. During these times, he’d collapse into bed and take the book out of its hiding place in his mattress. He’d wrap himself around it like it was the only real thing in the world, the story so familiar that he didn’t even need to see the words to watch it play out in his mind. So when, shortly after his seventeenth birthday, he paused in front of the two-way observation mirror in the day room and saw it all--the labyrinth, the castle, everything--stretched out in front of him, he didn’t hesitate before stepping through the glass.
* * *
Arthur Pendragon ran across the park bridge, coming to a stop in front of a stone column. Perched on top of the column was a falcon of some kind--unusual for this area. Caught up in the moment, head spinning with the lines he’d been rehearsing all day, Arthur stalked slowly towards the falcon.
“Give me the child,” he said softly, pleadingly. “Through dangers untold, and hardships unnumbered, I have fought my way here to the castle beyond the Druid City,” pause for emphasis, “to take back the child that you have stolen. For my will is as strong as yours,” raise chin proudly, “and my kingdom is as great!”
A rumble overhead made him look up at the gathering clouds; wonderful, it looked like it was about to pour. Determined to finish his monologue, at least, he continued. “For my will is as strong as yours … and my kingdom is as great … damn.” Reaching into the pocket of his white tunic, he withdrew a small book with a red leather cover . “I can never remember that line,” he muttered. Flipping to the page, he read: “You have no power over me,” and smiled to himself.
The sky rumbled again, and Arthur heard his family’s sheepdog bark in alarm. “Oh, Jareth,” he sighed, as the bells of a nearby church began to chime. His eyes widened in dismay. “Oh no, Jareth, I don’t believe it--it’s seven o’clock! Come on!” Turning, Arthur ran back the way he’d come, Jareth barking at his heels.
Still perched on the column, the falcon watched them go.
* * *
“It’s not fair!” Arthur complained to Jareth as they ran through the rain. Arriving home, they were greeted by Catrina, Arthur’s stepmother, who stood on the porch with her hands on her hips.
“I’m sorry,” Arthur began, but Catrina cut him off.
“Well, don’t just stand there in the rain. Come on.”
“All right. Come on, Jareth, come on.”
“Not the dog,” Catrina snapped, jabbing her finger at the dripping Jareth.
“But it’s pouring,” Arthur protested.
“Go on,” Catrina snapped at Jareth, ignoring him. “Into the garage.”
Arthur sighed, but gave in. “Go on, Jareth, into the garage. Go!” Huffing, he stormed past Catrina and into the house.
“Arthur--” Catrina followed him inside. “You’re an hour late.”
“I said I was sorry,” Arthur snapped, turning to look at her.
“Please let me finish. Your father and I go out very rarely--”
“You go out every single weekend!”
“... and I ask you to babysit only if it won’t interfere with your plans.”
Arthur turned, and headed for the stairs up to his room. “Well, how do you know? You don’t know what my plans are!” Whirling back around, he glared at Catrina. “You don’t even ask me anymore!”
“Well, I assume you’d tell me if you had a date. I’d like it if you had a date--you should have dates at your age!”
“Ah, Arthur, you’re home.” Uther, Arthur’s father, came into the room carrying Morgana, Arthur’s baby half-sister. “We were worried about you.”
Arthur fled up the stairs. “I can’t do anything right, can I?” he shouted as he turned the corner.
* * *
He had found the world incomplete, empty. He had walked through it and saw it, learned it, loved it, shaped it. When they, in all their twisted, misshapen glory, had started appearing to serve him, he had accepted it as natural and named them.
And when they had told him he was their King, he had accepted that as well, but had known he needed a different word.
The words came from the book, lost to him now, but also from the visions. When he trembled with the visions, the world trembled with him, and his creatures hurried to comfort him. Bit by bit, he had built the world around him: cradle and armor, companion and slave. When other creatures had appeared, he had recognized them as well--they were like his druids, but more: their names flickered on the edges of his consciousness, becoming brighter in the immediate aftermath of a vision, dimmer as the vision faded with the passing of time. These creatures were his as well, but not as much.
And they were not enough.
* * *
In his room, Arthur rehearsed his monologue again. The words rolled over and through him as they always did, their power and perfection nearly rendering him breathless. He closed his eyes and let their familiarity bear him along, until he felt dizzy, disconnected from himself, from his body …
Panicking, his eyes flew open, and locked on the reflection in his mirror. Blue eyes wide with shock, cheeks flushed, lips parted slightly …
Who is this boy? It has been years since I looked so young …
The thoughts were his--No!--and he stifled a cry. Shaking himself, he took a deep breath, and the moment passed.
Looking into his mirror again, he caught sight of one of the pictures tucked into the frame. It was an image of his mother, Ygraine, in a long, flowing dress: her costume from “Hamlet.” Uther said he’d fallen in love with her as soon as she stepped on stage, and he’d annoyed everyone in the audience by holding up his playbill to try to make out the name of the enchanting woman cast as Ophelia. Uther assured him that his mother had been one of the greatest actresses of her time, but Arthur would never know; she’d died when he was barely older than Morgana was now.
Not for the first time, he felt the searing pain of loss when he thought of her. If you were here, maybe I’d have someone to talk to … you’d understand, wouldn’t you? Not like her.
Catrina meant well, he supposed, but she wasn’t his mother. Both she and his father worried about him, he knew, and maybe they were right. What 16-year-old boy would rather read stories of magic, knights, quests and romance than go to the movies with his friends? What 16-year-old boy would rather keep his room, his things, as they’d been since he was a little boy, than decorate his space with posters of sports, music, and girls?
And what 16-year-old boy dreamed, not of the girls in his classes with their short skirts and perfect makeup, but of skilled, powerful hands working over him like magic …?
A knock on his door interrupted him. “Arthur,” came his father’s voice, “Can I talk to you?”
Arthur rolled his eyes. “There’s nothing to talk about,” he said. “You’d better hurry--you’re going to be late.”
“Listen, we fed Morgana and put her to bed,” Uther said through the door. “We do have to leave now, but we’ll be back around midnight.”
“You really wanted to talk to me, didn’t you?” Arthur muttered to himself as Uther left. “Practically broke down the door.” He flopped down onto his bed in a huff, and reached for--
“Sir Didymus!” His stuffed bear, beloved since childhood, wasn’t where he’d left it; looking around the room, it wasn’t there at all. “Someone has been in my room again! I hate that! I hate it!”
He stormed out of his room, down the hall, and into the master bedroom. There, on the floor beside Morgana’s crib, lay Sir Didymus. Flipping on the light, Arthur rushed over to retrieve the bear.
Morgana was standing up in her crib, crying. “I hate you! I hate you!” Arthur shouted at her, clutching Sir Didymus. “Someone save me, someone take me away from this awful place!”
There was a crash of thunder, accompanied by lightning, and Morgana cried even harder.
“What do you want?” Arthur snapped, still holding Sir Didymus to him. “Do you want a story? Okay.” Arthur sat down on the bed, and glared at Morgana.
“Once upon a time, there was a handsome young man whose stepmother always made him stay home with the baby.”
Unimpressed, Morgana continued to wail. Arthur went on.
“And the baby was a spoiled child, and she wanted everything for herself, and the young man was practically a slave.” There was another crash of thunder, and Arthur stood up. “But what no one knew was that the King of the Sorcerers had fallen in love with the young man, and he had given the young man certain powers.” He walked across the floor. “So one night, when the baby had been particularly cruel to him, he called on the Sorcerer King for help.”
* * *
* * *
“‘Say your right words,’ the druids said,” Arthur continued, “‘And we’ll take the baby to the Druid City, and you will be free!’”
* * *
* * *
“But the young man knew that the King of the Sorcerers would keep the baby in his castle forever and ever and ever, and turn her into a druid slave. And so he suffered in silence … until one night, he was tired from a day of housework, and he was hurt by the harsh words of his stepmother,” Arthur slowly paced over to the crib, “and he could no longer stand it.” He knelt down by the crib. Morgana kept sobbing, and Arthur rolled his eyes. “All right, all right.” Reaching into the crib, he scooped her up. “Knock it off. Come on.”
Morgana kept crying. “Stop it! Stop it! I’ll say the words,” Arthur threatened. Then he looked away. “No, I musn’t. I musn’t say.”
* * *
* * *
“I wish,” Arthur began, “I wish...”
* * *
“He’s going to say it!”
“You shut up!”
“Listen, he’s going to say the words …”
* * *
“I can bear it no longer! Sorcerer King, Sorcerer King, wherever you may be, take this child of mine far away from me!”
* * *
“That’s not it!”
“Where’d he learn that rubbish? It doesn’t even start with ‘I wish’!”
* * *
“Oh, Morgana, stop it!” Arthur bounced her on his hip. “Oh, I wish I did know what to say to make the druids take you away!”
* * *
“‘I wish the druids would come and take you away right now,’ that’s not hard, is it?”
* * *
Arthur stopped bouncing Morgana, and stared off into space. “I wish,” he mumbled, “I wish …”
* * *
“Did he say it?”
* * *
Arthur put the wailing Morgana back into her crib, and walked to the door. “I wish the druids would come and take you away,” he said spitefully, turning off the light. “Right now.”
He stepped out into the hallway.
Morgana stopped crying.
Fear spiking cold through his body, Arthur slowly turned back to the room. “Morgana?” He stepped into the dark room. “Morgana? Are you all right?”
No sound came from the crib. Arthur tried to turn the lights on, but the power had gone out.
“Why aren’t you crying?” he demanded, voice rising in alarm. Gulping, Arthur walked slowly over to the crib. He gasped as the blankets twitched suddenly, and a strange, gurgling laugh bubbled up from them.
He reached out and pulled back the covers--
The crib was empty.
Thunder boomed, and something crashed against the window. Arthur spun around to see the falcon from the park beating frantically against the glass. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the shadows in the room flicker and writhe, and uncanny laughter swirled around him.
Then the window flew open, and the falcon dove at him. Arthur ducked, shielding his face with his arms, but he remained untouched. After a moment, he uncurled and gaped.
In front of him, silhouetted against the window, stood a man. His eyes seemed to flicker from blue to gold and back; his hair was midnight-black. He was dressed in thick robes of black and purple, but the way they swirled around him revealed that he was tall and slender, ethereally so. Arthur’s breath caught as strange, alien thoughts assaulted him--Remember, remember, reach out, touch!
“You’re him, aren’t you?” Blue eyes flashing gold, mouth curving up in a smile, lips pressing against … No! Disoriented, he tore himself free of the vision, grasping for reality, for--
“You’re the Sorcerer King!” he managed to gasp.
The man smiled down at him, but said nothing.
Arthur gulped. “I want my sister back, please--”
The man crossed his arms, and smirked at him. “What’s said, is said.”
“But--I didn’t mean it!”
The man’s eyebrows raised in false surprise. “Oh, you didn’t?”
“Please! Where is she?”
The man uncrossed his arms, placing them on his hips. “You know very well where she is,” he said reprovingly.
“Please, bring her back,” Arthur pleaded. “Please!”
The man stepped forward. “Arthur, go back to your room,” he said commandingly. “Play with your toys and your costumes. Forget about the baby.”
Arthur glared at him. “I can’t. “
The man cocked his head to the side. “I’ve brought you a gift,” he said, and a clear ball appeared in his hand.
“What is it?” asked Arthur, mesmerized.
“It’s a crystal,” the man said, waving his hand back and forth, the crystal ball dancing across his fingers, “nothing more. But if you turn it this way--” he brought his other hand up, passing the ball back and forth without losing contact, “and look into it, it will show you your dreams. But this is not a gift for an ordinary boy who takes care of a screaming baby. Do you want it?” He held out the ball. Arthur didn’t move, but neither did he look away. The man raised his chin in triumph. “Then forget the baby,” he said with a smile.
“I can’t,” Arthur said again. “It isn’t that I don’t appreciate what you’re trying to do for me, but I want my sister back. She must be so scared--”
“Arthur,” the man interrupted. With a flick of his wrist, the ball vanished and a snake coiled around the man’s hand in its place. He stretched the snake out in front of him like a rope.
“Don’t defy me.” He flung the snake at Arthur, who yelped and threw it to the ground. A dark cloth fell at his feet, and laughter echoed from the room behind him.
“You’re no match for me, Arthur,” stated the man.
“But I have to have my sister back,” Arthur insisted.
The man scoffed, and pointed out the window. “She’s there, in my castle.”
Disbelieving, Arthur rushed to the window. His neighborhood was gone, replaced instead by a panoramic view of an orange-tinged world, with a huge castle rising in the distance. Between his house and the castle stretched a labyrinth.
“Do you still want to look for her?” the man asked from behind him.
Reeling, Arthur backed away from the window. “Is that the castle beyond the Druid City?” He turned back into the room … but the room was gone. Instead, they both stood on a hill, surrounded by bare trees under a dusky sky.
“Turn back, Arthur,” the man said in a ringing voice, wind ruffling his hair. “Turn back before it’s too late.”
Arthur felt something in him harden. “I can’t,” he said firmly. “Don’t you understand that I can’t?” He turned to look at the castle in the distance.
“What a pity,” the man said insincerely.
“It doesn’t look that far,” Arthur said, trying to build up his courage.
“It’s farther than you think,” the man breathed into his ear, making Arthur jump. Warm lips, hot and sweet … long fingers, certain and skilled …
The man withdrew. “And time is short.” He pointed to a clock that had suddenly appeared on a nearby tree. “You have thirteen hours in which to solve the labyrinth before your baby sister becomes one of us … forever.” Then he vanished.
“Such a pity,” his voice echoed again.
Shaking, Arthur took a deep breath. “The labyrinth. It doesn’t look that hard.” He paused, steeling himself.
“Well, come on, feet.” He trudged down the hill.
* * *
The Sorcerer King--Merlin, the name he’d taken for himself but was never called to his face--stalked through his throne room, his creatures scattering before him. His entire body quivered--the boy had been so close! He could have reached out and--
But he couldn’t, not yet. He trembled at the thought. After watching, only watching, for so long, to be in the boy’s presence, to have the boy see him, speak to him, fear him, defy him … He closed his eyes with the sensation.
With his eyes closed, he could feel the disruption rippling through his world. Everything was changing. The boy--Arthur, Arthur, Arthur!--would alter everything.
A piece of the wall behind him collapsed into dust as he thought of Arthur’s life and energy and strength, the danger and destruction he could feel course through him every time Arthur looked him in the eye. It was too much, too risky, too great a threat to his peace, his stability, his very world. Why had he brought Arthur here? Everything would crumble.
He laughed, a manic, wild sound. Why had he brought Arthur here? Why had he been searching, why had he created the crystals? Why had he seen Arthur in the ball the first day that Arthur had read from the book? Why had his breath been stolen away by the light in Arthur’s eyes as he devoured those precious words?
Why had he watched Arthur from then on, always unseen, unknown? Why had he given Arthur the power to summon him, to command him? Why was his world rearranging itself for Arthur, shuddering and trembling as it did so?
His thoughts shied away from the answers, lurking at the outskirts of his mind, waiting as always to invade and shatter his being with truth. He conjured a crystal ball and watched greedily as Arthur picked his way down the hill, brow furrowed in concentration. His eyes drank in the the vitality that flowed from the boy as he moved, unaware as he began to enter the Sorcerer King’s secret, precious realm.
* * *
Arriving at the base of the labyrinth’s wall, Arthur spotted a small dwarf bending over a pool.
“Excuse me?” he began.
The dwarf whirled around. In her hands she clutched something that looked like a metal spray bottle. “Excuse me--oh, it’s you.” She sounded disappointed.
“Excuse me,” Arthur tried again, “but I have to get through this labyrinth. Can you help me?”
The dwarf ignored him. Raising the spray bottle, she squirted some sort of liquid at what appeared to be a very large bug. Peering closer, Arthur saw that it was, in fact, a small woman with wings.
“Oh, how sweet,” he said.
“Fifty-seven!” cried the dwarf, squirting the … little flying person … again. With a faint cry, the little thing dropped out of the air, and Arthur gasped.
“How could you?” He bent down. “Poor thing,” he murmured, picking her up. Turning to the dwarf he scowled. “You monster--ow!”
He looked at his now-empty hands in aggrieved surprise. “She bit me!”
The dwarf chuckled. “What did you expect a Sidhe to do?” she asked.
“I … thought they did nice things,” Arthur stammered. “Like … like granting wishes!”
The dwarf shrugged. “Shows what you know, doesn’t it?” she said, turning back to her work. “Fifty-eight!”
“You’re horrible!” Arthur said.
“Hmm? No I’m!” The dwarf whirled around, offended. “I’m Gwennie. Who are you?”
The dwarf turned away again with a grimace. “That’s what I thought. Fifty-nine!”
“Do you know where the door to the labyrinth is?” Arthur asked, unwilling to let the matter slide.
“Oh … maybe,” the dwarf said absently.
“Well, where is it?” Arthur insisted.
The dwarf darted after another Sidhe. “Oh, you little--sixty!”
“I said, where is it?”
“Where is what?”
Arthur threw up his hands. “It’s hopeless asking you anything!”
“Not if you ask the right questions,” the dwarf corrected.
Arthur tried again. “How do I get into the labyrinth?”
The dwarf turned back. “Ah. Now that’s more like it!” She walked up to him. “You get in … there.” She pointed behind Arthur.
He turned to find an ornate door that most definitely hadn’t been there before. As he stared, the door swung open, creaking heavily. Smoke drifted out from the doorway.
“You, uh, really going in there, are you?” the dwarf asked hesitantly as Arthur stepped forward.
Arthur turned to face her. “Yes. I’m afraid I have to.” Without another word, he walked through the doorway.
The walls of the labyrinth were made of layered stones, and twice his height at least. They slanted backwards, so the channel they formed was narrower at the bottom than at the top. Dead leaves and broken branches littered the path, and dried-out vines of ivy crept haphazardly across the stones.
Arthur jumped as a hand grabbed his elbow.
“Cozy, isn’t it?” chuckled the dwarf. “Now, would you go left or right?”
“They both look the same.”
The dwarf rolled her eyes. “Well, you’re not going to get very far.”
“Which way would you go?” Arthur asked.
The dwarf seemed surprised. “Me? I wouldn’t go either way.”
Arthur sighed. “If that’s all the help you’re going to be, you can just leave.”
The dwarf glared at him. “You know your problem? You take too many things for granted! Take this labyrinth. Even if you get to the center, you’ll never get out again.”
“That’s your opinion,” Arthur retorted.
“Well, it’s a lot better than yours,” the dwarf replied.
“Thanks for nothing, Gwena,” Arthur said sarcastically.
“It’s Gwennie! And don’t say I didn’t warn you!” The dwarf stormed back through the door, which slammed behind her with a loud bang.
Arthur took a deep breath to compose himself, and began walking down the righthand path.
* * *
“What do they mean, ‘labyrinth,’ there aren’t any turns or corners or anything! It just goes on and on!” Arthur moaned to himself after several minutes. He slumped dejectedly against the wall before an idea occurred to him. “Maybe it doesn’t,” he mused. “Maybe I’m just taking it for granted that it does.”
He began jogging down the corridor, but there were still no turns or doorways to be seen. Frustrated, he growled and kicked the wall before sinking to the floor.
“‘Hello,” came a voice at his elbow.
He turned slowly, and saw a small worm with long white hair observing him from a protruding brick. “Did you say ‘hi’?” he asked uncertainly.
The worm raised an eyebrow. “No, I said ‘hello,’ but that’s close enough.”
“You’re a worm, aren’t you?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“You don’t, by any chance, know the way through this labyrinth, do you?”
“Who, me? No, I’m just a worm.”
“Come inside and meet the missus,” offered the worm.
“Thank you, but I have to solve this labyrinth, and there aren’t any turns or any openings or anything! It just goes on and on!”
“Well, you aren’t looking correctly. It’s full of openings, you just aren’t seeing them.”
“Well, where are they?” Arthur asked, confused.
“There’s one just across there,” the worm nodded toward the opposite wall. “It’s right in front of you.”
Arthur peered at the wall. “No, there isn’t.”
“Come inside, and have a nice cup of tea,” the worm offered again.
“But--there isn’t an opening,” Arthur protested, still staring at the wall.
The worm chuckled. “Of course there is, my boy! Try walking through it, and you’ll see what I mean.”
Arthur stood up and walked towards the wall. “What?”
“Go on! Go on then!” the worm said encouragingly.
“That’s just a wall, there’s no way through!”
“Things are not always what they seem, in this place,” the worm said sagely. “So you can’t take anything for granted.”
With a sigh, Arthur extended both his arms and slowly walked up to the wall … and into empty space.
“Hey!” he said delightedly. The section of the wall he’d walked towards, which had appeared flush with the rest of the wall, was actually set several feet back. As he continued forward, a passage opened up on his right. He grinned back at the worm.
“Hey! Hang on!” cried the worm as he started off.
Remembering his manners, Arthur smiled again. “Thank you, that was incredibly helpful.”
“Don’t go that way!” the worm interjected.
“What was that?”
“I said, don’t go that way. Never go that way!”
“Oh … thanks!” He turned, and headed left instead.
“Goodness,” said the worm after Arthur had left. “If he’d have kept on going down that way, he’d have gone straight to that castle!”
* * *
In the castle, a sobbing Morgana was standing in the middle of a raucous group of the Sorcerer King’s druid minions. The creatures laughed, ate, drank and wrestled around her, ignoring her misery.
Sprawled across his throne, Merlin ignored both Morgana’s cries and the antics of his creatures, tapping absently on his boot with a cane, and glancing over at a large bronze clock at regular intervals.
As the noise around him reached an unbearable level, he grew irritated. Rising from his throne like the falcon from which he took his name, he grabbed a random creature by the throat.
“You remind me of the babe,” he murmured.
“What babe?” the creature gasped out.
“The babe with the power,” he replied, flinging the creature to the ground.
“What power?” asked another one of his minions.
“The power of voodoo,” he replied sarcastically.
“Who do?” asked yet another minion, missing the point entirely.
“You do,” he shot back, rolling his eyes.
“Do what?” several chorused.
“Remind me of the babe,” he finished, tossing a handful more out of his way. The rest chuckled, and he scowled.
“Quiet!” he thundered. Then he pointed at Morgana, who had finally stopped crying. “A druid babe,” he laughed.
The creatures stared at him. “Well?” he asked, irritated, and they hurried to laugh as well.
“I saw my baby, crying hard as babe could cry--what could I do?” he explained. The creatures chuckled knowingly, and pointed at Morgana. Merlin smiled slightly, but in his mind’s eye he saw blond hair, blue eyes, and a stubborn, perfect mouth …
He continued. “My baby’s love had gone, and left my baby blue. Nobody knew what kind of magic spell to use.”
“Slime or snails?” suggested a deep-voiced toad-like thing.
“Or puppy dogs’ tails,” offered some sort of bovine.
“Thunder or lightning,” put in a monkey, or something similar.
Merlin shook his head. “Then baby said, ‘dance, magic, dance,” he murmured to himself. In his mind, he saw a long, high hall, tables piled high with food, men and women spinning round and round … he heard the familiar laughter, but could not see its source ...
The vision was broken as the creatures picked up on his mumbling and began to chant, “Dance, magic, dance! Jump, magic, jump!”
Shaking himself, he rolled his eyes, but let them have their fun. Scooping a smiling Morgana up in his arms, he looked her over. “You remind me of the babe,” he whispered to her. She stared at him uncomprehendingly. “In nine hours and twenty-three minutes,” he told her bitterly, “you’ll be mine.”
* * *
Arthur considered himself quite clever to have remembered the Sharpie pen in his pocket, and figured out to use it to mark stones in the floor, thus tracking where he’d been.
Well, he considered himself clever until he decided to retrace his steps at one point and take a different path, only to find that something--or someone--had moved the stone he’d just marked so that the arrow on it was pointing in the opposite direction.
“Someone has been changing my marks!” he fumed. “What a horrible place this is! It’s not fair!”
“That’s right, it’s not fair,” came a voice from behind him. Turning, he saw two doors side-by-side, with what looked like some kind of dragon in front of each one. The dragons had two heads each, and all four heads were laughing at him.
“But that’s only half of it,” said one of the heads.
“This was a dead end a minute ago,” Arthur said as he walked towards them.
“No, that’s the dead end behind you,” said another head, and the dragons laughed again.
Turning, Arthur saw that they were correct. “It keeps changing,” he complained. “What am I supposed to do?”
“Well, the only way out of here is to try one of these doors,” said one of the heads.
“One of them leads to the castle at the center of the labyrinth, and the one other leads to … certain death!” exclaimed another.
“Ooo,” the remaining three chorused.
“Which one is which?” Arthur asked, figuring it was worth a shot.
“Er, we can’t tell you,” said one of the heads, attached to the left shoulder of one of the dragons.
“Why not?” Arthur pressed.
“Ahhh … we don’t know,” the other dragon’s left-shoulder head admitted.
“But they do,” supplied the first left-shoulder head, nodding towards the right-shoulder head next to him.
“Oh. Then I’ll ask them.”
“Er, no, you can’t ask us. You can only ask one of us,” stammered the right-shoulder head.
“That’s the rules!” said the other in agreement. “And I should warn you that one of us always tells the truth, and one of us always lies. That’s a rule too.” The head nodded at its counterpart on the other dragon. “He always lies.”
“I do not!” objected the other head. “I tell the truth!”
“Oh, what a lie!” said the first head.
The left-shoulder heads laughed, but said nothing as the right-shoulder heads traded insults.
Biting his lip, Arthur walked up to second right-shoulder head. “All right. Answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’,” he demanded. “Would he tell me--” he pointed to the other right-shoulder head, “that this door” he pointed to the door behind the dragon he was speaking to, ‘“leads to the castle?”
“Uh ... yes?” offered the head hesitantly.
“Then … the other door leads to the castle, and this door leads to certain death!” Arthur crowed.
“Ooo,” chorused the other heads.
“How do you know?” asked the head he’d questioned. “He could be telling the truth!”
“But then you wouldn’t be,” Arthur replied. “So if you told me that he said ‘yes,’ I know that the answer is ‘no,’”
“But I could be telling the truth!”
Arthur shook his head. “Then he would be lying. So if you told me that he said ‘yes,’ the answer would still be ‘no’!”
“Wait a minute,” said the head, turning to the other right-shoulder head. “Is that right?”
“I don’t know,” came the reply, “I’ve never understood it.”
“No, that’s right,” Arthur insisted. “I figured it out! I could never do it before.” He walked up to the other door. “I think I’m getting smarter,” he grinned at the heads. “It’s a piece of cake!” he finished as he stepped through the door … and onto nothing.
Arthur bit back a scream as he careened downwards. In the dim light he could see hundreds of hands reaching out, grasping at him, slowing his fall. “Help!” he shouted.
The hands stopped his descent entirely, grabbing his limbs and holding him securely. “Stop it!” he cried. “Help!”
Five of the hands moved together to form what looked like a face. “What do you mean, help?” they inquired. “We are helping!”
“We’re helping hands,” explained an eight-hand face.
“You’re hurting,” Arthur corrected.
“Would you like us to let go?” asked a six-hand face. The hands waggled their fingers as they laughed, and Arthur fell several feet before they caught him again.
“Well then, come on, which way?” asked the hands.
“Which way?” Arthur repeated.
“Up or down,” the hands clarified.
“Come on, come on,” urged the hands. “We haven’t got all day. It’s a big decision. Which way do you want to go?”
“Well,” Arthur decided, “since I’m pointed that way, I guess I’ll go down.”
“He chose down!” chorused the hands, and laughter broke out again.
“Was that wrong?” Arthur asked, panicked.
“Too late now,” laughed the hands as they lowered him down into the darkness.
* * *
“He’s in the oubliette,” Merlin reported to his minions as he tracked Arthur in the crystal ball. The creatures laughed, and he scowled.
“Shut up,” he snapped. The creatures quieted, confused as to why he did not share their delight.
“He should not have gotten as far as the oubliette,” Merlin explained, fighting down the giddy nervousness that swirled in him as he contemplated Arthur’s progress. “He should have given up by now.”
“He’ll never give up,” crowed a … crow-thing.
“Won’t he?” Merlin asked, his stomach churning with hope and fear. “The dwarf’s about to lead him back to the beginning. He’ll soon give up when he realizes he has to start all over again.”
He chuckled by himself for a moment before losing patience. “Well, laugh,” he commanded irritably.
* * *
Arthur sensed that he wasn’t alone. “Who’s there?”
“Me,” came a familiar voice. There was the sound of a match striking, and Arthur smiled as the darkness was banished by a candle.
“Oh, it’s you!”
“Yes, well, I knew you were going to get into trouble as soon as I met you,” said Gwennie, a bit hesitantly. “So I’ve come to give you a hand.”
Arthur looked around the dusty hole.
“Oh, so you’re looking around now,” Gwennie said with a hint of sarcasm. “I supposed you’ve noticed there aren’t any doors, only the hole.” She spread her hands. “This is an oubliette. Labyrinth’s full of them.”
“Really?” asked Arthur. “How do you know that?”
“Oh, don’t sound so smart,” Gwennie said, sounding slightly hurt. “You don’t even know what an oubliette is.”
“Do you?” asked Arthur humbly.
“Yes,” replied Gwennie, mollified. “It’s a place you put people to forget about them.”
Arthur looked around, fighting down a growing horror. Gwennie seemed not to notice.
“Now,” she said brightly, “what you’ve got to do is get out of here.” She dimpled at him. “And it so happens that I know a short cut out of the whole labyrinth from here.”
“No! I’m not giving up now!” The thought alone made Arthur cringe. “I’ve come too far!” He sighed, deflating slightly. “No, I’m doing okay,” he said to himself, sitting down.
“Of course you are,” Gwennie said, patting his knee comfortingly. “But it gets a lot worse from here on in.”
Arthur peered at her. “Why are you so concerned about me?” he asked suspiciously.
Gwennie jerked her hand away and stepped backward awkwardly. “Well, I am, that’s all,” she mumbled. “Nice young man, terrible black oubliette.”
Arthur looked at her warily, and noticed what appeared to be an assortment of hammers, wrenches, and pliers tied to her belt in a bunch. Struck with a sudden inspiration, Arthur glanced down at his wrist. “You like tools, don’t you?”
“Why?” asked Gwennie cautiously.
“If you help me solve the labyrinth, I’ll give you this,” he said, holding out his watch.
Gwennie took a small step forward.
“You like it, don’t you?” Arthur asked soothingly.
“Er, so-so,” Gwennie said with poorly-feigned nonchalance.
“Oh,” said Arthur, standing again. “Okay.”
“Er, tell you what.” Gwennie said as he started to walk away. “You give me that, and I’ll show you the way out of the labyrinth.”
“You were going to do that anyway,” Arthur reminded her.
“Yes, well … that’s what would make it a particularly nice gesture on your part?”
“No. I’ll tell you what. If you won’t take me to the center, take me as far as you can and then I’ll do it on my own.” He held out the watch, and Gwennie stepped towards it almost unconsciously.
“What is that, anyway?” she asked.
“A digital watch,” he shrugged.
“Oh,” she murmured. “Now, I can’t promise anything, but I’ll take you as far as I can. Then you’re on your own, right?”
“Right,” Gwennie said again as Arthur handed her the watch. She put it on her wrist and examined it in the light. “Digital,” she said to herself, sounding pleased.
She walked over to the wall of the oubliette, and picked up a slab of wood. “Here we go.” She set it up against the wall. Arthur was about to ask her what she thought she was doing, when he heard the sound of a lock catch. Gwennie pulled one side of the slab away from the wall, and a large collection of pots and pans tumbled out from the hole in the wall that definitely hadn’t been there before.
As Arthur boggled, Gwennie rolled her eyes. “Broom closet,” she said in disgust. “Well, can’t be right all the time.” She flattened the slab again, and pulled the other side away from the wall. Light streamed into the oubliette, and Gwennie smiled. “Now, this is it. Come on, then.”
With a final look back at the oubliette, Arthur followed her through the door.
* * *
They emerged into a low-ceilinged chamber, and Gwennie started off.
“Don’t go that way,” came a deep voice, and Arthur started when he noticed large stone faces carved into the walls of the chamber.
“Go back while you still can!” warned another face.
Gwennie ignored them, and Arthur followed her reluctantly,
“This is not the way!”
“Take heed! Take heed, and go no further!”
“Soon it will be too late!”
“Don’t pay any attention to them,” Gwennie scoffed. “They’re just false alarms. You get a lot of them in the labyrinth, especially when you’re on the right track.”
“Oh no, you’re not,” piped up a face.
“Oh, shut up,” Gwennie snapped, then looked chagrined.
“Sorry, just doing my job,” the face pouted.
“Well, you don’t have to do it to us,” Gwennie said in a kinder tone.
“BEWARE!” came an exuberant voice.
“Just forget it!” Gwennie said with exasperation.
“Oh, please?” whined the face. “I haven’t said it for such a long time …”
“Oh … all right. But don’t expect a big reaction,” Gwennie warned.
“No, no, no, of course not,” the face promised. It cleared its throat. “For the path you will take will lead to certain destruction!” it bellowed. “Thank you very much,” it said in a grateful, quieter voice.
Arthur was about to compliment the face on its bellowing, when a glass crystal ball rolled past his feet. “Uh oh.”
Gwennie saw it as well, and turned with a groan. Nervously, they followed the ball into another passage.
The Sorcerer King was waiting for them. “What do we have here?” he snarled.
“Nothing!” protested Gwennie, but he cut her off.
“Nothing?” he spat. “Nothing, tra la la?”
“Your Majesty,” Gwennie tried again. “What a nice surprise!”
“Hello, Glenda,” the Sorcerer King smiled.
“Gwennie,” Arthur corrected.
“Gwennie,” the Sorcerer King said warningly, ignoring Arthur. “Can it be that you’re helping this boy?”
“Helping?” Gwennie’s voice rose an octave. “In what sense?”
“In the sense that you’re leading him toward the castle,” the Sorcerer King said sharply.
“No, no! I was taking him back to the beginning, your Majesty!” Gwennie protested hurriedly.
“What?” Arthur exclaimed.
Gwennie ignored him. “I told him I was going to help him solve the labyrinth--a little trickery on my part--but actually--”
The Sorcerer King cut her off. “What is that thing around your wrist?” he asked with quiet menace.
“Oh, this?” Gwennie chuckled nervously, glancing at the watch. “Oh my goodness, where did this come from?”
“Glinda--” began the Sorcerer King.
“Gwennie,” the dwarf said helpfully.
“Yes," he continued pleasantly, "If I thought for one second that you were betraying me, I’d be forced to suspend you headfirst in the Bog of Eternal Stench.”
Gwennie fell to her knees. “Oh no, your Majesty, not the Eternal Stench!”
“Oh yes, Gwennie,” spat the Sorcerer King. He turned around.
“And you, Arthur,” he said, closing the space between them and forcing Arthur back against the wall. “How are you enjoying my labyrinth?”
He placed an arm on the stone next to Arthur’s head and leaned forward until they were nearly touching.
Arthur shrank back into the wall as far as he could, cheeks burning. “It’s a piece of cake,” he choked out, somehow managing to meet the Sorcerer King’s eyes. They swirled blue and gold, and Arthur felt as though he was falling into them …
The smoke of a fire, meat roasting, pine and dirt and rain … laughter in his ear, teasing and young … a sword laying next to him, metal cool and familiar under him palm … lips caressing his neck, making his head fall back with pleasure …
Gwennie stifled a groan, and Arthur snapped back to himself.
The Sorcerer King smirked.
“Really?” he breathed, leaning in farther. Arthur turned his face away, his heart pounding in his chest. The Sorcerer King’s breath was warm on his throat.
“Then how about upping the stakes, hmm?” he asked in a low, rough voice. Arthur closed his eyes, unable to breathe.
Then the Sorcerer King pulled away and pointed at the same clock that had been present with them on the hill. The hour hand began to move forward, faster and faster, and Arthur gasped.
“That’s not fair!”
“You say that so often,” the Sorcerer King remarked. His gaze slowly traveled up and down Arthur’s body, and Arthur felt a rush of warmth wash over him.
“I wonder what your basis for comparison is,” the King said as he brushed past Arthur, leaving him gasping.
“So the labyrinth’s a piece of cake, is it?” the Sorcerer King said, turning again and producing the crystal ball out of thin air.
“Well, let’s see how you deal with this little slice.” He threw the ball down the corridor and into the darkness. A moment later, something stirred--something that made a metallic, scraping, whirring noise. Gwennie shrank back against the wall.
“No, no, the Cleaners!” she cried, before turning and running in the opposite direction.
“What?” Arthur shouted as he followed her.
“Run!” was all she said.
Arthur did, pelting after her as the sound of the Sorcerer King’s laughter echoed in the passage behind them.
* * *
Merlin’s mirth lasted until he reached his throne room. His body sang with tension--he could still smell Arthur’s scent, still see the way his eyelashes stood out against his cheeks as his eyes fluttered closed, still feel the heat that radiated from his body. He flung himself onto his throne, flushed with exhilaration, before remembering …
“The Cleaners,” he hissed, cursing the madness that had provoked him in the tunnel. Overcome by a wave of fear, he summoned a crystal ball, and watched without breathing as Arthur ran for his life.
* * *
Arthur risked a glance backwards as they tore down the tunnel. The passage behind them was completely blocked by a big metal device covered in spikes, drills, gears, and other assorted pieces of metal that spun and drilled and gorged the empty air. Fighting down his rising panic--it was gaining on them--he grabbed Gwennie’s hand and pulled her along, looking for any sort of hole in the wall large enough for them to duck into.
They ran until they were stopped by a heavy iron gate.
“No!” shouted Arthur when the gate refused to budge. He ran back along the passage, testing the walls, looking for something, anything that would move …
“Cleaners, the Bog of Eternal Stench--you sure got his attention!” shouted Gwennie over the noise of the approaching machine. Then, seeing that Arthur was struggling with some sort of metal plate on the wall, she ran over to him. Flinging themselves against the plate in unison, they fell through the wall just as the Cleaners passed by behind them.
* * *
Merlin vanished the crystal ball, hands shaking. Closing his eyes, he sank back into his throne, and began to breathe again.
* * *
Gwennie picked herself up, and made a pleased noise. “Ah! This is what we need!” she said. “A ladder. Follow me!”
Arthur balked. “How can I trust you, now that I know you were taking me back to the beginning of the labyrinth?”
“I wasn’t,” Gwennie said, sounding annoyed. “I told him I was taking you back to the beginning just to throw him off the scent.”
Arthur wasn’t convinced. “Gwennie, how can I believe anything you say?”
“Well, let me put it this way,” Gwennie said reasonably, as she climbed the ladder. “What choice have you got?”
Arthur gave up. “You’re right,” he admitted, and followed Gwennie up the ladder.
“See, you’ve got to understand my position,” Gwennie explained as they climbed. “I’m a coward, and Merlin scares me.”
“What kind a position is that?” inquired Arthur. So his name is Merlin.
“No position, that’s my point. And you wouldn’t be so brave if you’d ever smelled the Bog of Eternal Stench.”
“Is that all it does? Smell?”
“Oh, believe me, that’s enough,” Gwennie said firmly. “But the worst thing is, if you so much as put a foot in the Bog of Stench, you’ll smell bad for the rest of your life. It’ll never wash off.”
They finally came to the surface, and found themselves in the middle of a courtyard walled in by thick hedges. “Here we are, then,” said Gwennie. “You’re on your own from now on.”
“That’s it. I quit.”
Arthur felt himself starting to get angry. “Wait a minute. Gwennie!”
“I said I didn’t promise anything,” the dwarf protested. “I said I’d take you as far as I could go.”
Yeah, Arthur was angry. “You little thief! You nasty little cheat!”
“Now, don’t try to embarrass me. I’ve got no pride,” the dwarf said proudly.
“Oh yeah?” Arthur snorted. He reached down and grabbed the tools dangling from Gwennie’s belt.
“Hey! Those are my tools!” Gwennie cried. “Oh, you give them back! Give them back!”
Arthur held them just out of her reach. “Ah, ah, ah,” he sing-songed. “Now. There’s the castle,” he nodded over the hedges. “Which way should we try?”
“That’s my rightful property!” Gwennie said, sounding as if she were about to cry. “It’s not fair!”
“No, it isn’t,” Arthur agreed. “But that’s the way it is.” He paused, feeling as though he’d just stumbled on to something important, when a noise from behind him caught his attention.
Into the courtyard limped a strange-looking creature, vaguely human-like but with two heads, one on top of the other. The bottom of the two seemed to be male, and the top of the two, affixed to the bottom head by a thin neck, was female with long blond hair.
Still holding on to Gwennie’s tools, Arthur approached the newcomer.
“Excuse me, but can you help me?”
“Oh!” exclaimed the bottom head. “A young man!” The top head made a wordless cat-calling sound. “And who is this?” asked the bottom head, looking at Gwennie.
“My friend,” said Arthur, placing a hand on her shoulder. Gwennie started with surprise.
“And what can I do for you?” inquired the head.
“Please, can you tell--that is, I have to get to the castle at the center of the Labyrinth. Do you know the way?” Arthur asked.
“Ah … you want to get to castle, eh?” said the bottom head.
The top head smirked at him. “How’s that for brainpower?” she chortled.
“Be quiet!” commanded the bottom head. “So, young man, the way forward is sometimes the way back,” he said ponderously.
“Will you listen to this crap?” put in the top head.
“Will you please be quiet?” shouted the bottom head. Then he composed himself. “Quite often, young man, it seems like we’re not getting anywhere, when in fact--”
“--we are,” finished the top head.
“We are,” repeated the bottom head, frowning.
“I’m certainly not getting anywhere at the moment,” Arthur noted.
“Ha! Join the club,” said the top head acidly. The bottom head promptly fell asleep, and the top head rolled her eyes. “I think that’s your lot,” she said. An arm reached out from the robes, holding a small wooden box. “Please leave a contribution in the little box.”
Arthur moved to drop a small wrench into the box, but Gwennie protested. “Don’t you dare! That’s mine!”
Arthur relented, and removed the Sharpie from his pocket. “Well, I suppose I can spare this,” he admitted. Gwennie’s eyes widened as he placed the new, unknown object in the box.
“You didn’t have to give them that,” she said as Arthur walked away through the hedges. “They didn’t tell you anything.”
They continued for some time in silence. Arthur glanced over at Gwennie, who had stopped trying to get her tools back, and appeared troubled.
“Why did you say that, about my being your friend?” she asked after a while.
“Because you are,” Arthur said. “You may not be much of a friend, but you’re the only friend I’ve got in this place.”
“Friend.” Gwennie turned the word over in her mouth. “I like that. I’ve never been someone’s friend before.”
A deafening roar from somewhere in front of them made them both jump.
“Goodbye!” Gwennie yelled, turning and running back the way they’d come.
“Wait a minute!” Arthur caught her by the shoulder.
“Keep the stuff!” Gwennie said, struggling to get away.
“Are you my friend or not?” Arthur demanded.
“No! No I’m not! I’m not anyone’s friend, I look after myself! Just like everyone!” she said, kicking at him. “I’m my friend!” She managed to free herself, and ran off.
“Gwennie!” Arthur shouted after her. “You coward!”
Another roar from behind him made him turn around. “Well, I’m not afraid,” he declared. “Things aren’t always what they seem in this place.” Steeling himself, he continued towards the noise.
Turning the corner, he saw what looked like three small knights tormenting a huge orangutan-ish thing dangling from a rope snare in a tree. The creature growled in pain as the knights taunted and jabbed at it.
“If only I had something to throw,” whispered Arthur, before noticing a pile of rocks at his feet that he was pretty sure hadn’t been there before. Grabbing a particularly hefty one, he launched it at one of the knights. It crashed into the knight’s helmet, spinning it around. Arthur picked up another stone, scoring another direct hit. The knights began to flail about, running into each other and jabbing at each other with their spears. After several moments of confusion, they barreled away through the hedges, leaving Arthur alone with the trapped monkey-monster.
The creature began to struggle and growl as he approached. “Now, stop that.” Arthur said kindly but firmly. The creature subsided with a noise of confusion. “Is that any way to treat someone who’s trying to help you?” Arthur tilted his head so he could look the creature in the eye. “Don’t you want me to help you down?”
“Le-on,” the creature grumbled sadly. “Do-own.”
“Leon? Is that your name?” He reached out slowly, and scratched under the creature’s chin.
“Le-on,” it--he--said again.
“Oh, you seem like such a nice beast,” Arthur said soothingly, petting his coarse fur. “Well, I certainly hope you are what you seem to be.” The creature--Leon--started to struggle again. “Just hang on,” Arthur said. “I’ll get you down.” He found where the rope snare was anchored, and began to untie the knot. “Just a second.”
Then the knot came loose, and Leon plummeted out of the tree. “Oh! I’m sorry!” Arthur winced as Leon crashed to the ground. He rushed over. “Leon? Are you hurt?”
Leon sat up, and looked at him. “Friend?” he asked tentatively.
Arthur smiled. “That’s right, Leon. I’m Arthur.”
“Ar-thur,” Leon agreed, and tried to stand up.
“Here, let me help you. Are you okay?”
“Ar-thur. Ar-thur friend,” Leon said, walking up to him. He was … much bigger than he’d seemed at first.
Arthur laughed nervously. “Now, wait just a second. I want to ask you something, Leon.”
“I have to get to the castle at the center of the labyrinth. Do you know the way?”
Leon hmm’d to himself. “No.”
“You don’t know either, huh?”
“I wonder if anyone knows how to get through this labyrinth?”
Leon just rumbled.
* * *
Merlin held Morgana on his lap on the throne, studying her ambivalently. Arthur was doing well--too well. He should have given up by now, or … but Merlin’s stomach clenched at the thought of the Cleaners, at the thought of killing him. He focused on the baby--how appropriate it would be to be stuck with her if--when--Arthur failed. A constant reminder of how he had won, and lost.
“Such a lively little lass, I think I’ll call her Kestrel.” The baby stared up at him. “She’s got my eyes.”
The bronze clock on the wall continued its inexorable countdown as the druid creatures laughed.
* * *
After an encounter with a pair of doors boasting chatty doorknockers, Arthur and Leon found themselves wandering through a misty forest.
“Le-on scared,” rumbled the monster.
“Give me your hand,” Arthur offered. “Come on. Imagine a big thing like you being scared.”
“Yeah,” Leon agreed.
“See, Leon?” Arthur said, letting go of Leon’s hand and gesturing to the woods around them. “There’s nothing to be afraid of!”
But when he turned around, Leon was gone.
* * *
Gwennie was tromping along through the forest in a different direction when she head Arthur’s cry--“Gwennie! Help!”
After only a slight paused, Gwennie turned around. “I’m coming, Arthur!” she cried.
“Well, if it isn’t you.” Merlin, clad in black, lounged against a stone and smirked down at her. “And where are you going?”
“Well, the young man gave me the slip,” Gwennie improvised. “I just hear him now, so I was about to lead him back to the beginning, like you told me.” She smiled winningly at the Sorcerer King.
“I see.” Merlin got up. “For one moment, I thought you were running to help him.” He turned to face Gwennie, eyes flashing dangerously. “But no, not after my warnings, that would be stupid.”
“Oh, you bet it would. Me? Help him? After your warnings?” Gwennie laughed a bit too loudly.
Merlin crouched down in front of her, and Gwennie’s laugh died in her throat. “Oh dear, poor Ginny--” he said with concern.
“Gwennie,” she gasped.
“--I’ve just noticed your precious tools are missing.” Merlin’s face was inches from hers, and Gwennie blushed.
“Oh, y-yes,” she stammered. “So they are. My precious tools. Let me see. I’ve got to find them.”
Arthur called out for her again.
“But first! I’m off to take the young man back to the beginning of the labyrinth, just like we planned.” She turned to scurry off in the direction of Arthur’s cries, but Merlin’s voice stopped her.
“Wait. I’ve got a much better plan, Gwennie.” He produced the crystal ball. “Give him this.” He tossed the ball to Gwennie, who caught … a peach.
“What is it?” Gwennie asked nervously.
Merlin’s face darkened. “It’s a present,” he snapped.
“It … isn’t going to hurt the young man, is it?” Gwennie asked.
“Oh, now why the concern?” Merlin asked sharply.
“I won’t do anything to harm him,” Gwennie forced out in a rush.
“Oh, come come come, Greta,” Merlin said. “I’m surprised at you, losing your head over a boy.”
“I haven’t lost my head!”
Merlin stalked over to her. “You don’t think a young man could ever like an awkward little scab like you, do you?” he sneered.
“Well, he said we were--”
“What? Bosom companions?” Merlin asked mockingly. His voice lowered warningly. “Friends?”
Gwennie looked away. “Doesn’t matter,” she mumbled.
“You’ll give him that, Gwennie, or I’ll tip you straight into the Bog of Eternal Stench before you can blink,” Merlin snarled, shaking her.
“Right,” Gwennie said, defeated, and started to walk away.
“And Gwennie,” Merlin called after her. Gwennie turned. “If he ever kisses you, I’ll turn you into a princess.”
Gwennie’s jaw dropped. “You will?”
Merlin smiled cruelly. “Princess of the Land of Stench!” His laughter echoed behind him as he vanished.
Gwennie looked down at the peach in her hand, and groaned.
* * *
Arthur tore through the forest, hotly pursued by a harrowing group of trolls who wanted to know why Arthur’s head wouldn’t come off like theirs did, and if that could be fixed. He’d managed to give them the slip for a moment, but it was only a matter of time before they found him and tried to remove his head again--
A thick rope dropped to the ground in front of him. Arthur looked up hopefully--
The dwarf peered down at him from the top of a crumbling stone wall, and smiled. She pulled him to safety just as the trolls poured into the clearing.
“Gwennie!” he exclaimed again, once he reached the top of the wall. “You’ve come to help me!” He threw his arms around her.
“Don’t kiss me! Don’t kiss me!” Gwennie panicked, but it was too late. Arthur planted a happy kiss on her cheek …
… and the ground beneath them collapsed, sending them careening down a tunnel. Arthur managed to catch hold of the wall just as the tunnel emerged onto a narrow ledge over a sharp drop-off, but Gwennie fell over the edge. She barely managed to catch a small root in time to save herself, and swung precariously over the void.
“Oh my God,” Arthur choked as noxious fumes assailed his nose. “What is it?”
“The Bog of Eternal Stench,” Gwennie wailed as he pulled her up next to him.
“I’ve never smelled anything like it, it’s like--like--”
Below them, the bog made a belching sound, releasing another wave of the foul odor.
“It doesn’t matter what it’s like, it’s the Bog of Eternal Stench,” Gwennie snapped. “What did you have to go and do a thing like that for?”
“Do what?” Arthur asked, confused. “You mean, rescue you?”
Gwennie glared at him. “No! You kissed me!”
Part of the ledge beneath them collapsed, nearly sending them tumbling into the bog. When their heart rates had resumed their normal tempos, Arthur replied. “Don’t pretend to be so hard. I know that you came back to help me, and I know that you’re my friend.”
“Did not,” grumbled Gwennie as they inched cautiously along the ledge. “Am not. I’ve just come to get my property back. Oh! And, um, give you--”
Arthur turned to her. “Give me what?”
At that moment, the stone Gwennie was standing on collapsed entirely. Arthur lunged forward to catch her, but it was no use--they both pitched forward...
...and landed on Leon.
“Leon!” Arthur cried happily.
“Ow,” moaned Leon.
“Where’s Gwennie?” Arthur asked, looking around.
“Get off of me!” came Gwennie’s muffled cry, from somewhere underneath Leon.
“It’s okay,” Arthur assured the dwarf when she scrambled to her feet. “This is Leon. He’s a friend too.”
“A what?” asked Gwennie.
“Smell!” groaned Leon.
“Ugh, you’re right.” Arthur tried to cover his nose with his sleeve.
The bog belched again.
“There’s a bridge.” Arthur pointed into the bog. “Come on.”
“Watch it,” Gwennie cautioned as they picked their way over to the bridge. “You step in this stuff, you’ll smell bad for the rest of your life.”
They made it to the bridge unscathed, and Arthur was about to cross it, when--
“Stop! Stop, I say!” A small fox jumped in front of him. He was wearing a red jacket, a blue hat with a feather, and green gloves. In his hands he carried a red saber.
“Please,” said Arthur, “we have to get across!” The fox drew himself up to his full height. “Without my permission, no one may cross!”
“Please!” pleaded Arthur. “I only have a little time left!”
“We’ve got to get out of this stench,” added Gwennie.
“Smell bad!” Leon agreed.
“Stench?” asked the fox. “Of what speaketh thou?”
“The smell!” Arthur was losing patience.
“I smell nothing,” stated the fox.
“Aw, you’re joking,” said Gwennie.
“But I live by my sense of smell!” the fox said indignantly. He took a deep breath. “The air is sweet, and fragrant … and none may pass without my permission!” He waved his saber at them threateningly.
“Smell bad!” Leon said again.
“Get out of my way,” Gwennie growled, storming towards the fox.
The fox poked her in the stomach, and she doubled over. “I won’t leave! I’m sworn to do my duty!”
“Come on, let us get across!” Arthur started forward.
“Hold!” cried the fox. He whacked Leon in the shin. Leon retaliated by grabbing the saber, and lifting both it and the fox into the air.
“I don’t want to have to hurt you,” the fox protested as he dangled in the air.
Gwennie took advantage of the moment and ran across the bridge.
“Gwennie! What are you doing?” Arthur called after her.
“Let go of my sword, sir!” the fox demanded. Leon did, and the fox fell unceremoniously to the ground. He launched himself at Leon again, and the battle began in earnest.
After a moment, the fox cried out, “Enough! Before this day, never have I met my match in battle. Yet this noble knight has fought me to a standstill.”
“Are you all right, Leon?” Arthur asked worriedly.
“Smell!” Leon replied, covering his nose.
“Sir Leon, if that’s thy name” said the fox, “now I, Sir Lancelot, yield to thee. Come! Let us be brothers henceforth, and fight for the right as one!”
“Le-on get brother,” Leon agreed.
“Well met, Sir Leon!” cried the fox.
“Good. Come on!” said Arthur, starting forward again.
“Wait half a minute!” The fox--Sir Lancelot--blocked his way. “You forget my sacred vow, young man. I cannot let you pass.”
“But you just said that Leon is your brother!”
“I have taken an oath, and I must defend it to the death,” Sir Lancelot said firmly.
“Smell,” said Leon sadly.
“Okay, let’s handle this logically.” Arthur wracked his brain. “What exactly have you sworn?”
“I have sworn with my life’s blood that no one shall pass this way without my permission,” the knight said proudly.
“Well … may we have your permission?”
The fox blinked in surprise. “Well, I … er, yes?”
“Thank you, noble sir,” Arthur said, rolling his eyes.
“My lord,” the fox said, removing his hat and bowing.
Arthur approached the bridge first, and was not comforted by its condition. He stepped onto it gingerly, spreading his arms for balance as he crossed on the the narrow, wobbly structure.
“Have no fear, sweet lord!” Sir Lancelot said encouragingly. “This bridge has lasted for a thousand years!” He beat on the anchoring stones with his saber ...
… and the bridge promptly collapsed.
Arthur managed to grab onto a low-hanging branch; cursing, he dangled over the bog, just out of reach of either side.
“It seemed solid enough,” the knight mumbled to himself. “Fear not, fair lad! I will save thee … somehow!”
Leon began to howl.
“Sir Leon! Canst thou sit by and howl while yon lad needs our help?” Sir Lancelot reprimanded.
Leon kept howling, and Arthur gaped as several large stones rolled into the bog. One landed right below him and he dropped down onto it gratefully. More stones settled into place, forming a stepping-stone path to the other side of the bog.
“That’s incredible, Leon!” Arthur beamed.
“My dear brother!” exclaimed Sir Lancelot. “Canst thou summon up the very rocks?”
“Sure,” Leon grunted. “Rocks friends.”
As Arthur got to the other side, Gwennie popped out from behind a rock. He greeted her with a smile as she helped him down.
“Sir Leon! Wait for me!” Sir Lancelot called out from across the bog. “Gwaine! It’s all right, Gwaine, you can come out now. Come on!”
A sheepdog padded into view, a saddle strapped to his back.
“That-a-boy,” said Sir Lancelot. “My royal steed. Steady...” He hopped up into the saddle. “Forward!”
Gwaine slowly picked his way across the stones.
“Let’s get out of here,” Arthur declared, once the party was assembled.
Gwennie lingered behind as the others headed away from the bog. Pulling the peach from her pocket, she drew back to launch it into the bog--
“I wouldn’t do that, if I were you,” Merlin’s voice swirled in the air around her.
“Oh, please,” Gwennie begged. “I can’t give it to him.”
There was no reply.
* * *
Merlin held Morgana in front of the crystal ball. “Look, Arthur,” he murmured. “Is this what you’re trying to find?” Morgana clapped her hands, and Merlin smiled. “So much trouble over such a little thing, but not for long. He’ll soon forget all about you, my dear girl. As soon as Gwennie gives him that present.”
His voice lowered to a choked whisper. “Then he’ll forget everything.”
* * *
“Hungry,” Leon complained.
“Yeah,” Arthur agreed. “Well, we can’t stop now. Maybe we can find some berries or something …”
“Uh, Arthur?” Gwennie asked hesitantly.
“Here.” Gwennie held out the peach.
Arthur took it from her with a smile. “Gwennie! Thank you, you’re a lifesaver!” He bit into the peach. “It tastes strange,” he said in confusion. He took a step forward, and swayed. “Gwennie,” he said distantly. “What have you done?”
“Damn you, Merlin!” Gwennie sobbed as she turned and ran. “And damn me, too!”
Arthur clutched at a tree trunk as the forest started to fill with mist. “Everything’s dancing,” he said weakly as his vision began to blur.
* * *
Merlin sat on a window ledge, smiling to himself as he juggled four crystal balls in one hand. With his other hand, he plucked them up one by one and blew them away.
* * *
The balls floated out of the window and over the trees like bubbles, until they reached the place where Arthur had collapsed on the forest floor. He blinked his eyes blearily, trying to focus. The bubbles seemed to be holding different things--statues of knights, people dancing, himself dressed all in white ...
He blinked again, and found himself standing in the middle of a masquerade ball, people in all sorts of costumes whirling around him dreamily. He was wearing a white tunic with gold brocade, embroidered all over with crystals, and white hose. The tunic was cinched at the waist with a wide belt of braided gold, and his shoes were soft golden slippers. He reached up to his forehead, and found a thin golden circlet resting on his brow.
The people around him were familiar and strange--I’ve been here before. He knew this hall, knew these voices … but something was missing. He scanned the room, looking, searching …
A masked figure, clad in midnight blue and silver, caught his eye from across the room. He made his way through the crowd, never taking his eyes off the man. As he crossed the room, the man removed his mask, and Arthur stared.
The man’s eyes were as blue as the sky, or as golden as the sun; his hair shimmered black; his skin was as pale as marble. Arthur felt sharp heat burst in his stomach, as though he’d been stabbed. He bit back a cry of recognition, or fear, or need … and the man disappeared.
Suddenly frantic, Arthur hurried to where he’d been standing, but he was gone--there were so many people, too many people, people with masks and feathers and gowns and jewels, and it was all wrong … he felt what he knew were the man’s eyes on him, but when he turned, the man wasn’t there …
And then he was, stepping up close to Arthur, wrapping his arms around Arthur’s waist, pulling him in tight, slowly spinning him through the crowd. Arthur clung to him and trembled as the man’s lips grazed his ear.
“There's such a sad love,” the man murmured, “deep in your eyes; a kind of pale jewel, open and closed within your eyes...”
His breath was hot against Arthur’s neck, his hands holding Arthur to him tightly, so tightly. “I'll place the sky within your eyes,” the man whispered, his lips brushing across Arthur’s jaw.
“There's such a fooled heart, beating so fast in search of new dreams … A love that will last within your heart.”
Arthur shuddered and clung to him, the words reaching deep inside him, calming, stroking, caressing.
“I’ll place the moon within your heart.” The man’s mouth moved until his lips were nearly touching Arthur’s, their breath flowing back and forth.
“As the pain sweeps through, makes no sense for you, every thrill has gone, wasn't too much fun at all...” The words meant nothing, and everything, and Arthur drank them from the man’s soft, warm lips.
“But I’ll be there for you, as the world falls down,” the man promised, and Arthur felt himself falling, falling, falling …
And then a clock was chiming, and Arthur felt panic rising in him--this wasn’t right, this wasn’t how it should be, he had to get out, get away! He pulled away from the man and ran through the laughing crowd, searching for a way out, any way out … he came to a mirror and, not fully aware of what he was doing, picked up a chair and smashed it.
The other guests shrieked as the room started to disintegrate. Arthur covered his face with his arms as shards of mirror glass whipped through the air, and then he was floating in nothingness ...
* * *
In his throne room, Merlin screamed and clutched his head in pain. Eyes wild, he reached out blindly for a crystal ball, but the crystal was dark, cloudy. “Show me!” he hissed. “My dreams, show me my dreams!”
The clouds in the ball swirled; lightning flashed. In the ball, he saw Arthur as he’d appeared while they danced--young, entranced, pliant in his arms …
Then the image faded, and it was Arthur again, but older--a crown on his head, his face lined from the passing of the years, smiling with such warmth and wisdom and love …
Merlin screamed again, and the ball exploded.
* * *
Gwennie warmed herself by a small fire, surrounded by mountains of trash and old, discarded things.
“He’ll never forgive me,” she moaned. “What have I done? I’ve lost my only friend, that’s what I’ve done.”
* * *
Arthur woke sprawled across a pile of junk. “What was I doing?” he murmured, disoriented, as he stared at the peach in his hand. A worm crawled out of the center, and he flung it away in disgust. Flailing, he tried to get to his feet.
“Ow!” a piece of junk cried out. Arthur jumped back, and the protesting pile shifted until a head became visible. Some sort of female … thing … with a load of various objects strapped to her back glared up at him.
“What don’t you look where you’re going, young man?” she snapped.
Arthur looked away, dazed. “I was looking,” he murmured.
“And where were you going?” pressed the stranger.
“I … don’t remember.”
“You can’t look where you’re going if you don’t know where you’re going,” the creature scoffed.
“I was searching for something,” Arthur said, trying to remember.
“Well, look here!” said the stranger. From deep within the tattered robe she wore, he produced a teddy bear.
“Sir Didymus?” Arthur took his old friend in astonishment. “Thank you.”
“That’s what you were looking for, wasn’t it, my dear?”
Arthur hugged the bear to him. “Yes,” he said distantly. “I forgot.”
“Now,” said the creature, “why don’t you come in here and see if there’s anything else you’d like, hmm?” She pulled aside a ragged drape dangling from a mountain of trash, and ushered Arthur inside the pile.
* * *
Arthur breathed a sigh of relief as he stepped into his own room, and flopped face-down into the bed. “It was just a dream,” he whispered to Sir Didymus. “I dreamed it all. It was so real.”
He sighed. “Let’s go see if Dad’s back, okay?”
He walked to the door, and--
“Better if you stay in here, dear, yes?” The creature was hovering outside the door.
Arthur gasped and staggered back.
Pushing her way inside, she continued. “There’s nothing you want out there, no, oh no.”
Spying something on a chair, she squeeled. “Ooo! What do we have here? Oh, your little bunny rabbit, you like your little bunny rabbit, don’t you, yes yes yes, there you go. Ooo, and there’s Betsy Boo! You remember Betsy Boo, yes yes yes.” She shoved the toys into Arthur’s arms, and turned to the rest of the room. “Now, what else have we got?”
Arthur sank down in front of his mirror as the creature piled things on top of him, chattering away--“Right, there’s Charlie Bear for you--”
Arthur stared at his desk. “There’s something I was looking for,” he said distractedly. Almost without thinking, he reached out for a small, red book.
“Don’t talk nonsense,” said the creature. “It’s all here. Everything in the world you’ve ever cared about is all right here.”
Ignoring her, Arthur opened the book and began to read. “Through dangers untold, and hardships unnumbered, I’ve fought my way here to the castle beyond the Druid City to take back the child that you have stolen.” He stared at the words on the page, breath beginning to quicken.
“What’s the matter, my dear? Don’t you like your toys?”
“It’s all junk,” he breathed.
“Well, what about this?” The creature picked up his toy knight, clad in a white tunic with gold trim. “This is not junk!”
“Yes, it is!” Arthur cried, flinging the toy to the ground. “I have to save Morgana!” he shouted as the walls around him began to crumble.
“My lord!” he heard someone--Sir Lancelot!--call from outside the room. “Are you all right?”
“Ar-thur!” bellowed Leon, as Arthur scrambled over the junk cascading into the room. His friends grabbed his seeking hands and pulled him out into the light.
“Fair lad!” said Sir Lancelot. “Thank goodness thou art safe at last!”
“Where are we?” Arthur gasped.
“Ar-thur back!” Leon said happily.
“My lord, look!” said Sir Lancelot. “We’re almost there! Those are the gates to the Druid City.”
“Leon,” Arthur said, scrambling over the shifting trash, “Sir Lancelot. Let’s go quickly--we don’t have much time!”
As the trio set off, Gwennie, peeked out from behind a broken dresser.
“He’ll know,” she said in horror.
* * *
“Open up! Open the door!” Sir Lancelot shouted in front of the gates, before Arthur shushed him.
“Sir Lancelot, we must go quietly,” he whispered.
The guard leaning against the wall didn’t stir.
“Open up!” Sir Lancelot shouted again, beating the gates with his saber.
“Sir Lancelot, you’ll wake the guards!” Arthur said in despair.
“Well, let them all wake up!” cried Sir Lancelot, beating the sleeping guard. The guard groaned but didn’t wake. “I should fight you all to the death!”
“Please, Sir Lancelot,” Arthur pulled the irate fox back from the gates, “For my sake, hush!”
“But of course,” said Sir Lancelot agreeably. “For thee, anything! But … I’m not a coward?”
“No,” Arthur whispered.
“And my sense of smell is keen?”
“And I shall fight anyone, anywhere, any place, any time--!”
“Yes, yes, we all know!” Arthur cut him off. “Now hush!”
And with that, Leon opened the gate.
“Quietly,” Arthur cautioned.
“Gwaine, hush,” Sir Lancelot commanded. “I don’t see why we have to be so quiet though,” he complained. “It’s only the Druid City.”
“I smell trouble,” Arthur replied.
The streets were empty, the houses were shuttered and dark. The trio made their way carefully, until a huge iron gate swung closed in front of them. Etched into the front of the gate was what looked like a metal giant.
“Oh no,” groaned Arthur. “What’s that?”
“Who goes there?” boomed the giant. It slowly detached itself from the gate and lumbered towards them.
“Who goes there?” it repeated. Drawing a giant battle axe, it began to swing at them clumsily. They were able to avoid the blows, but there was no way around the behemoth.
Glancing up, Arthur noticed a small figure running along the top of the wall behind the giant.
The dwarf jumped onto the giant’s head and tore off its helmet, revealing it to be a machine manned by a small squirrel-like creature. Gwennie pulled the creature out of the giant and threw it to the ground, where it fled. Then, taking the controls--”How do you drive this thing?”--Gwennie pulled a few levers and flung herself into the air just as the machine exploded.
“Are you all right?” Arthur asked, rushing over to her.
Gwennie picked herself up dejectedly. “I’m not asking to be forgiven for anything I did,” she said stiffly. “Merlin made me give you that peach. I don’t care what you think of me; I told you I was a coward,” she looked away, “and I’m not interested in being friends.”
“I forgive you, Gwennie,” Arthur said.
Gwennie looked at him. “You do?”
“And I commend you,” said Sir Lancelot. “Rarely have I seen such courage. You are a valiant woman, Sir Gwennie.”
“I am?” she asked.
“Yeah,” rumbled Leon. “Gwen-nie and Le-on friends!”
“Here are your things, Gwennie,” Arthur said, handing her the tools. “Thanks for your help.”
“Well, what are we waiting for?” asked Gwennie, jumping to her feet. “Let’s get that rat who calls himself Merlin!”
And with that, the four friends sped off through the Druid City.
* * *
Merlin was dandling Morgana on his knee, when--
“Your Highness! Your Highness!” A creature with the appearance of a small, purple yak rushed up to Merlin’s throne. “The boy!”
“What?” Merlin’s insides clenched.
“The boy who ate the peach and forgot everything!”
“What of him?” he gritted out.
“He’s here with the monster and Sir Lancelot and the dwarf who works for you!”
Merlin leaped up from his throne, anger warring with a fierce, desperate joy. “What?” he shouted.
“They’ve got through the gates, and they’re on their way to the castle!”
“Stop him!” Merlin ordered. “Call out the guards! Take the baby and hide her! He must be stopped! Do something!”
The room exploded into action as his creatures scurried to obey him.
“Come on, move! Move!” he shouted as his fingernails bit deeply into his palms.
* * *
Merlin watched from a tower as the monster traveling with Arthur called down boulders to make short work of his guards. His entire body trembled--fear, anticipation and a thrilling sense of powerlessness mingling in equal measure. Finally, he could bear it no longer, and withdrew into the castle.
* * *
Arthur and his friends made it to the castle with only minutes left.
“Oh no,” moaned Arthur as he saw the time on the bronze clock in the throne room. Spying a staircase, he started for it. “That’s the only way he could have gone!”
“Well, then, come on!” said Gwennie.
“No!” Arthur said. “I have to face him alone!”
“But why?” asked Sir Lancelot.
“Yes, why?” Gwennie echoed.
“Because that’s the way it’s done,” Arthur said, pleading with them to understand.
“Well,” said Sir Lancelot, “if that is the way it is done, then that is the way you must do it. But--should you need us--”
“Yes,” said Gwennie, “Should you need us …”
“I’ll call,” Arthur promised. “Thank you. All of you.” With that, he turned and darted up the stairs.
* * *
All the breath left Merlin’s body when Arthur exploded into the room of stairs. Arthur paused, taking in the sight of the room composed entirely of uncountable shifting staircases, leading all directions at once. Before Arthur could see him, Merlin stepped off the stair he was standing on at the top of the wall ... and onto the underside of the platform on which Arthur stood, frozen.
“How you turned my world, you precious thing.”
Merlin’s voice echoed in the room. Needing to see Arthur, he jumped, and walked through a doorway on the other side of the room … completely parallel to the ground. Arthur’s eyes snapped to him.
“You starve and near exhaust me,” Merlin spat out at Arthur’s look of horror. As Arthur stared, he vanished again.
“Everything I've done, I've done for you,” Merlin said, reappearing directly behind Arthur. Arthur spun around, and Merlin walked towards, then through him entirely. He turned back to face Arthur.
“I move the stars for no one,” he said said, pointing at Arthur accusingly before swinging over the edge of the staircase, out into empty space.
“You've run so long, you've run so far …” He swung up from the underside of Arthur’s staircase again and advanced on Arthur, making him fall back. “Your eyes can be so cruel,” Merlin said, conjuring up the crystal ball.
“Just as I can be so cruel,” he said, flinging the ball across the room.
“Though I do believe in you,” he continued as the ball bounced up, down, around the staircases before landing in Morgana’s lap.
“Morgana!” Arthur shouted, attention torn from Merlin entirely.
“Yes, I do,” Merlin murmured as Arthur began to run again, searching for a path to his sister.
“Live without the sunlight,” Merlin continued in a breathy voice, his throat constricting.
“Love without your heartbeat.” He stared at Arthur, eyes burning into the back of Arthur’s neck, but Arthur did not turn.
Merlin withdrew to a shadowed alcove. “I can't live within you,” he whispered.
Arthur kept running, but no matter how many stairs he climbed, he got no closer to Morgana.
“Morgana!” he cried out again as Merlin watched. Then Arthur saw her, sitting on a ledge far below him.
Arthur closed his eyes, and jumped.
Merlin gasped, and reached out his hand … and slowed time.
Around him, his world quivered, then began to come apart. Gritting his teeth, Merlin struggled to hold as much of his world--of himself--together as he could, hand still stretched out to slow Arthur’s fall. The staircases broke apart piece by piece, swirling weightless in the air, and Arthur floated gently down onto the small piece of the platform that remained.
Morgana had vanished, and Arthur stared wildly around the wreckage.
Shaking, Merlin emerged from a broken archway in front of Arthur, clad all in white. He stared at Arthur silently, challengingly.
“Give me the child,” Arthur said.
“Arthur, beware,” Merlin said, cowering behind a shield of anger. “I have been generous up until now.” He paced forward. “But I can be cruel.”
“Generous?” scoffed Arthur. “What have you done that’s generous?”
“Everything!” Merlin spat, circling him. “Everything that you wanted, I have done! You asked that the child be taken; I took her. You cowered before me; I was frightening. I have re-ordered time, I have turned the world upside-down, and I have done it all for you.” He stopped in front of Arthur, close enough to touch.
“I am exhausted from living up to your expectations of me,” he said quietly, pleadingly. “Isn’t that generous?”
Arthur stared at him, unable to speak. Then, as if in a dream, Merlin felt the words come flooding back to the boy.
“Through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered, I have fought my way here to the castle beyond the Druid City.” Arthur took one step forward, then another.
Merlin fell back before him.
“For my will is as strong as yours, and my kingdom--”
“Stop!” Merlin hissed, his heart pounding in his chest. “Wait! Look, Arthur. Look what I’m offering you.” The crystal ball appeared in his hand. “Your dreams.”
“And my kingdom as great,” said Arthur.
“I ask for so little,” Merlin said, growing desperate as he continued to retreat.
“Just let me rule you,” he gasped, feeling his world coming apart at the seams. “And you can have everything that you want.”
Arthur’s face fell. “And my kingdom as great,” he whispered to himself, turning away. “Damn. I can never remember that line.”
Merlin stretched the crystal ball out before him, triumph and defeat swirling inside of him. “Just fear me,” he pleaded softly. “Love me. Do as I say, and I will be your slave.”
Arthur looked up at him with a smile so pure that Merlin thought his heart would explode.
“You have no power over me,” Arthur said wonderingly.
The words echoed in the air, blending with the sound of the clock chiming the thirteenth hour.
Merlin’s scream was lost in the wind that tore his world apart, stripping him of his robes in a maelstrom of swirling fabric, the very fabric of his being itself …
* * *
When the wind died down, Arthur found himself standing in his own front hallway. A falcon--a merlin, he remembered now, fluttered at his feet, before launching itself out an open window. Stunned, Arthur watched it go as the clock chimed midnight.
“Morgana,” he remembered.
“Morgana!” he shouted, running upstairs. He turned on the light in the master bedroom, and rushed over to the crib. Morgana blinked up at him sleepily, and Arthur reached out to stroke her hair. Turning, he saw Sir Didymus lying on the bed. He picked up the bear and tucked it in next to her.
“Here you are,” he whispered. “I’d like Sir Didymus to belong to you now.” Then he turned off the light and left the room.
Back in his own room, he heard the downstairs door slam as his father and Catrina returned. “We’re home,” Uther called up the stairs. “Arthur, are you home?”
“Yes--yes, I’m home!” he called back with a smile.
He glanced at his mirror, and almost fell off his chair.
“Good-bye, Ar-thur,” said Leon from the mirror. Arthur spun around, but his room was empty. He slowly turned back to the mirror. Sir Lancelot and Gwennie had joined Leon, and they looked at him sadly.
“And remember, fair lad,” said Sir Lancelot. “should you need us …”
“Yes,” said Gwennie, “should you need us, for any reason at all …”
Arthur fought back tears. “I need you, Gwennie,” he said softly.
“I don’t know why,” he said, feeling as though a hand was clenched around his heart, “but every now and again in my life, for no reason at all, I need you. All of you.”
“You do?” Gwennie repeated from behind him. “Well! Why didn’t you just say so?”
This time, when Arthur spun around, there they were--Leon and Sir Lancelot and Gwennie, and all the creatures he’d met in the labyrinth. He hugged them all in turn, and everyone cheered. He felt his heart swell, almost to bursting ...
But something was missing.
His friends looked at him as if waiting for him to figure it out. Slightly disgruntled, Arthur walked over to his window and threw it open. He scanned the sky for … something, peering out into the dark. Then, on impulse, he stuck his arm out the window and made a fist.
A moment later, the merlin landed gently on his arm. Its talons grasped him just enough to stay balanced, ever-so-careful not to break the skin. Holding his breath and trying to ignore the sudden fire in his stomach, Arthur backed into his room and brought the merlin inside. The bird stared at him, unblinking, its eyes flashing blue and gold.
“I need you. All of you,” Arthur whispered.
And then the merlin was gone, and Merlin was there, in his arms. In the light of Arthur’s room, the light of the real world, he looked young, barely older than Arthur at all. His eyes met Arthur’s, hesitant and terrified and full of hope ...
Arthur stared at him as the memories came rushing back. Battle upon battle, a kingdom in peace at his feet ... and by his side, a smiling, ridiculous, powerful sorcerer, lover and beloved, the other half of his heart.
He realized he’d been gripping Merlin’s arms hard enough to bruise, but Merlin was smiling at him in wonder, eyes shining with their shared knowledge.
“How long?” Arthur gasped. Have I been gone, have you waited for me, did you have to wait in this life before I came, were you stuck in that world … ?
But Merlin only smiled, and drew him closer, and all the words could wait. When their mouths met, it was new and familiar and magical and perfect and home. Arthur lost himself in the feeling of Merlin pressed against him, finally both where they belonged, together.
When they eventually parted enough to breathe, Arthur noticed that the room was empty. He raised an eyebrow at Merlin, who gave him a small, bittersweet smile.
“They all were me,” he said simply. “But if you need them--”
Arthur silenced him with another kiss.
“All I need is you.”
* * *
The visions had stopped.
Well, not stopped, but changed. Now they felt like memories--sometimes blurry, sometimes distant, but real (I’m not insane) and knowable (I know what I am). They no longer consumed him, content to fade into the background until he summoned them.
He lay next to his lover, his king, his friend, balancing a crystal ball on his fingertips.
“Show me my dreams,” he whispered.
The ball remained clear, showing only what it reflected from the room: the boy--man--boy who lay against him, one arm sprawled across his chest, drooling slightly on his shoulder.
Closing his eyes with a smile, he vanished the ball and slowly drifted into sleep.