You are viewing hobnailedboots

Things Behind the Sun, Part III

blue
Part Two


Chapter Three

Merlin


“What do you know about nymphs?”

“What do you?” Merlin fired back as he staggered in. He'd decided to write off today as a bad job, and was heading to bed – his own, this time – to sleep everything off. He hoped Arthur felt the same muscle-weary tiredness as he did, partly because he wanted someone else to be enduring the same horrors, and partly in the hope he wouldn't notice that Merlin wasn't being a proper manservant.

Gaius pointed to a frayed parchment page of a battered tome. His face was grim. “I told you this elemental idea of Sir Leon's might have some merit. We're not just dealing with an angry sorcerer, or a wild animal.”

“What are we dealing with?” asked Merlin, his stomach turning in a way he didn't think he could wholly attribute to the wine.

He had seen Gaius look this worried before, but that was hardly reassuring. Judging from the slant of his brows, they were hovering at approximately 'we're all going to die, Merlin' on the Magical Disaster Scale.

“We're at war.”

~

So, naiads were real. Next thing he knew, Bacchus would probably turn up and make Arthur wear a dress. Or something. Merlin's grasp of Greek mythology was hazy to say the least – he was a peasant, not a scholar, and there were too many tangible fairytales to deal with in his own time.

“All the books say that the nymphs are weak, that something happened and now they can't do anything like this any more. But there's nothing else that it could be, Merlin. They have mastery of the four elements; they're what that druid Mordred mentioned was talking about. Somehow they've got their power back, and they're using it to end the world.”

Merlin let himself be dragged through the corridor by the large hunting dogs. He'd never actually seen them on a hunt, a gripe which he'd raised with Arthur when he'd ordered him to exercise them again (“You never wake me up in the mornings like you're supposed to, but you're still my manservant”).

Perhaps he should go and live at Gwen's house. She'd never spring the news of a magical war on him, and then shoo him off to find the prince. Merlin rarely had to exercise the dogs, and if he did it was normally with Arthur. Merlin had a sneaking suspicion that members of the royal family weren't allowed pets, and so Arthur had had to disguise them as hunters. He hadn't done a very good job of it; the dogs – all five of them – were the most undisciplined bunch of animals Merlin had ever seen. They'd hurtle along the flagstones for a good ten metres or so, before stopping suddenly and sending Merlin, who was clutching their leashes, flying through the air.

It was as he was lying dazed on the floor, waiting to be savaged, that he discovered that they were more likely to try and lick their quarry to death than shake it between their teeth.

The only thing worse than trying to control five enormous dogs, each the size of a small pony, would have been to actually go through discussing strategy with Arthur. Gaius' hangover cure, which he'd administered midway through a lecture on the many different groups of nymph and the wildly varying reasons they wanted all humans dead, had not taken effect, and Merlin's head felt like it was being squeezed between two boulders.

A laugh bounced off the castle walls. Merlin tried to sit up, and had a warm paw the size of his head pin him back down to the stone. Evidently he was expected to remain still whilst he was licked to the bone.

“Help me!” he sputtered.

“Can't you get up yourself, Merlin?”

Wonderful. It stood to reason that Arthur would follow him to laugh. Arthur had greeted him bright, breezy, and more than a little irked that Merlin hadn't got out of bed to dress him and fetch him breakfast. And lunch.

“On the plus side,” Merlin had said, “I missed arbitration.”

Arbitration was tedious on a good day, and on a bad day it made Merlin want to throw himself from the North Tower. Why did people have to be so petty? Who cares whether some starving eight year old stole an apple? It certainly wasn't worth a claim of three sheep.

“It's getting worse,” Arthur had said, grimacing. “I've made sure rations are being shared equally, but if you were a peasant in the lower town would you believe that the Prince and Court were on porridge and smoked ham, same as you?”

They needed a solution soon. The people of Camelot were starting to fight amongst themselves, the inhabitants of the Upper and Lower Town pitted against the rural refugees. Food was growing scarcer, the streets dirtier, the rooms more crowded.

The good news was that Merlin had a solution. The bad news was that it involved large quantities of highly visible magic.

There'd been no shortage of magical attacks on the castle, to be sure, but usually Gaius would discover the source of the magical attack – and how to defeat it – by reading his extremely illegal magic books, and everything would be sorted within a matter of days. No one ever questioned Gaius' seemingly inexhaustible knowledge of the Old Religion. More often than not the aggressor could be defeated in a thoroughly unmagical way, and if magic had to be used it was a small incantation or potion, something hardly noticeable.

So, whilst Arthur would probably be able to get his head round 'a whole other form of intelligent life exists, and it hates us', he'd more than likely have trouble with 'they're sapping magical energy to affect the weather, and I need to group together all the sorcerers – by the way, I am one – and together complete an arcane, archaic, and possibly fucking apocryphal elemental ritual so we can stop the entire country from drowning'.

It didn't help that the ritual was so bloody dramatic. Whoever had written the book, hundreds of years ago, had thought it useful to provide illustrations, and even they were full of swirling apparitions and something that looked a lot like blood spatter, though Merlin hoped that was just artistic license. Arthur might be totally oblivious to his magic at the moment, but Merlin doubted he'd miss him trooping off to the nearest stone circle with Mordred, Gaius, and all the hedge witches he could find.

A dirty yellow blob appeared in front of his eyes. Merlin blinked and tried to focus.

“'S'not fair,” groaned Merlin. “How're you fine, when I feel like death?”

“Because you're a weakling, Merlin.”

A great pressure lifted from his chest as one of the dogs bounded to Arthur, bowling him over. His head hit the ground with a smack. Merlin thought about telling him that was not very kingly behaviour (what if a baron walked by and saw them?) but was distracted by another dog licking his ear.

“Urgh.” He squirmed, trying to push himself away from the long pink tongue slavering all over his face. He was hindered somewhat by the dog lying on his legs. Two on me, two on Arthur. Either there was a dog behind him, waiting to pounce, or one had run loose in the rest of the castle. Merlin blinked and concentrated on making the world swim back into focus.

Arthur laughed, again, and the brown dog attacking Merlin's face halted at the noise, turned, and padded over to him. It considered Arthur for a moment, and then licked a stripe up his face.

“Aargh!”

Merlin couldn't breathe. Laughter rendered him immobile (well, that and about three tonnes of dog). Arthur was flushed, his hair sticking up in spears as he tried to fend off the doggy doom bearing down upon him. A stranger wouldn't have pegged him as a Pendragon, let alone a prince.

“Save me! You're my manservant,” Arthur said, through laughs. “It's the least you could do.”

Merlin was actually quite comfortable under this blanket of animal. It was certainly warmer than the flimsy, scratchy sheets in his room. His eyelashes felt heavy, his limbs numb. Details once again dissolved into hazy blobs, and Merlin felt himself drifting to sleep. If he ever got out from under those beasts, he realised, Arthur was going to kill him.

“Go on without me,” he mumbled. “Save y'rself.”

~


by nane0. Leave feedback here!

Morgana

Morgana hugged her knees to her chest, and tried to calm her breathing. This is what comes of being brought up at court. Ears in the walls. Her heart thudded through her weakened frame and she laughed without quite knowing why.

The rain blocked out almost all other noise, and she found herself straining for any other sound. The thought struck her that she wouldn't be able to hear an attacker approaching until it was too late. “Nonsense,” she said firmly. “I have my weapons. I have my training. I have my magic.”

Morgana was beginning to suspect, though, that she also had madness. Even in the day, her thoughts kept returning to Conorgia, to the dead land in which Uther sat and wept. Having to kill herself every night was taking its toll too; just because it was a dream didn't mean it wasn't painful. She forgot about hunting, instead spending long hours just staring at Morgause, who didn't even twitch in her sleep any more.

And now … now she couldn't shake the feeling she was being watched. Call it magic, call it madness: something was tapping its fingers up her spine and grasping at her throat. There was an odd feeling in her skull, an insistent pressure. If it weren't already torrential outside the cave, she would have said that there was a storm coming.

“Go away,” Morgana said, and she pressed the heels of her hands into her eyes.

Faces crowded around her, unblinking. Arthur, with his stupid thin crown, looking down on her as always. He'd be wondering why she hadn't at least tried to take back the kingdom yet. Perhaps I can try and take credit for the rains. Gwen, offering wordless, useless, ignorant help. I don't need you. Merlin, forever judging her. Why couldn't she just be a submissive little sorcerer like he was?

“I stand up for what I believe in,” she spat, eyes still closed.

Morgause advanced on her. She did not speak, but her eyes accused her. Do you? they said. Do you really? You're slow, slow to act and slow to thought. Camelot – the Pendragons – they've done nothing but lie to you and hurt you, laugh at you, even, and still you were reluctant to do anything. 'Let's not kill the king just yet; let's send him mad!' Your plans were so unsuccessful, sister, that one might think you weren't even trying.

“You're my family. My only family. I tried – I succeeded. We ruled together,” Morgana protested, backing away from a vision before her that was suddenly all too real.

Morgause's lips didn't move, but Morgana heard her voice clear as a shriek. And look at us now, sister. Dying together.

She vanished in a whirl of green fabric and smoke, leaving Morgana with a pale, emaciated version of Morgause lying on the floor. She had to do something. This would be a sorry end indeed to Morgana and Morgause: magical revolutionaries.

“Think of the ballads,” she snorted.

High pitched, feverish laughter rang round the cave, rebounding back at her louder and louder. She tapped her fingers on her knees, and rocked forwards on her haunches until her face was directly above her sister's. Morgana was actively trying to stay awake, and yet it was Morgause who looked as though she had not slept in days.

“This is not a natural sleep,” she informed Morgause's skull solemnly. She couldn't control much of her magic – any, really – but it had started in her dreams, with prophetic visions. Now she was having these dreams with Uther, and she always ended up in his head, no matter when she slept, so either her mind was slowly rotting, feeding her recurring dreams, or he was in some sort of magical coma too.

If I can enter my father's dreams, I can enter my sister's. Morgana eased herself onto the ground, and wrapped herself around Morgause's bones. She thought of collecting berries with the druids, of the first time she repeated an incantation and it worked, of the first time Morgause had brushed her hair for her. Sister, she thought. Sister, sister, sister.

~

Morgana wasn't sure which piece of scenery she was more sick of: the cave overlooking the rapidly-filling valleys, or the black soils and blue skies of Conorgia.

She didn't even bother calling for Morgause; she'd appeared nose-to-nose with Uther Pendragon. He entreated her to listen, but she sneered up at him and stalked off towards the horizon. The nearest boulder was a hundred feet or so away, and when she reached it she immediately began searching the soil around it.

It didn't take long. The large variations between temperature in the morning and the night caused the rocks to flex as moisture froze, expanded, and cracked them into fragments. Some of the boulders, the ones with ribbons of colour running through them, had entire shelves broken off, and she suspected that it was something to do with the layers. This rock had shed small mountains of shards, and she bent to pick up a particularly long one.

“No, wait!” Uther was staggering along behind her, again. “Don't do it! Please, stop killing yourself!”

Under the ribs, up through the lungs, or directly into the heart? She knew that convincing Uther to allow a girl to receive weapons training would turn out to be useful. Morgana pulled back the stake, and turned so her father could see her plunge it into her body.

~

When she awoke, all she could see was blue. It was calming, for a second, until she remembered that in the real world she couldn't remember the last time there'd been a blue sky. Her breath caught in her throat, and she pushed the fingers of her right hand into the soil, slowly.

She was still in Conorgia. Trapped.

“You didn't vanish,” said Uther, and she turned her head, wildly trying to seek him out. He was sitting behind her, too close, holding a dripping scrap of cloth. Though they were in the shadow of the boulder, where she'd stuck the improvised dagger into her heart, things had changed. A pool of water had appeared beside them, and Morgana's head had been resting on what seemed to be the remnants of Uther's shirt, pillowed-up.

Morgana paused midway through her scrambling escape, and Uther followed her gaze.

“You can control it, if you stay here long enough.” He raised a hand, and a flower began to sprout from the soil in front of her. A snowdrop.

A hollow feeling filled her, like someone had scooped out her chest, and her fingers crept to where her wound had been. Her skin was unbroken, but her rags were stained a muddy brown.

“So that's what you dream about, then? Doing magic?”

Morgana sank back to the ground, and wasn't sure whether she wanted to laugh or cry, since dying apparently wasn't an option. Uther picked the snowdrop and held it out for her, and it was as familiar as all the other times he'd done it. The same way he held the flower, stem pinched between the forefinger and thumb of his right hand. The same half-smile on his face.

“It's not my birthday,” she said, and he laid it on the ground.

~

Leon

The rains stopped in the early hours of the morning, and woke everyone up. Leon could only compare the feeling to when the dragon had stopped roaring and started breathing in, slow and deliberate, instead. For the rain to have stopped, something extremely powerful must have intervened, and power went hand in hand with danger. Gaius had said even a man of his power couldn't stop the rains, and Leon worried about what had.

He peered out of his window, and watched the candles being lit all over the citadel.

The customers of the night all paused their drinking, singing, fucking. For the first time in weeks, silence reigned. A few minutes passed like that, with Leon sticking his arm out into the still, early dawn air, and tavern-goers assembled in the streets. Someone whooped happily, and the moment was gone. A group of drunkards started attempting to compose a sonnet for the occasion. There wasn't a bard between them, but they were enthusiastic enough not to care about things like rhythm or rhyme. People who moments ago had been asleep stepped outside in their nightclothes, hands raised to the heavens as though they expected the rain to start falling again any second.

Leon was worried, he was. But, with half the town partying below him, he couldn't help but let out a shout of joy himself. It was finally, finally dry.

~

Later, Leon found out that Merlin had collapsed during the night, and that it was an hour after that that the rains had stopped. Guilt stabbed at him. Not only had he cheered the end of the rain, but he'd actually pleaded that Gaius do something.

He, Sir Leon, was responsible for this. He was responsible for what Gaius had done to Merlin. He had to fix this; he couldn't let a sorcerer (no matter how well-intentioned) use the life force of innocent, bumbling manservants to change the world. First it was Merlin, but who knew where the old man would stop?

Perhaps, mused Leon, that was how he stayed immortal. Leon couldn't remember Gaius looking any younger than he did now; he looked forever old, but was probably ancient, older than the old religion itself. He couldn't go to Arthur. The Prince would never believe that Gaius, such a trusted member of the royal servants, could have magic, let alone be so powerful.

He went for a walk in the morning sunshine, and his feet took him to the forge.

Gwen was there, and was beating her carpets against the wall. Enveloped in a puff of dust, Leon doubled over and tried not to hack up a lung.

“Hi, Leon,” she said, smiling. “Isn't it wonderful? I know it's still a sea out there, but the floods'll melt away, I'm sure of it.”

The words “Merlin is dying” caught in his throat, along with what was possibly a hairball, and instead he forced a grin. “Back to normal, then?”

“As much as possible. Of course, it's no maidservant for me now that … well,” She bundled up the carpet and tossed it inside. “but I'm going to make new swords for all the knights, try to stamp my authority on things. Simeon from Altrecia was thinking about setting up shop here – his village is under water right now, and a city's more lucrative for a blacksmith, you know, not just horseshoes and nails – so I need to stay one step ahead.”

Rumours had been flying around that Gwen had been rejected by Prince Arthur. He'd heard one particular group of linen-carriers say that he'd swapped her for the daughter of Baroness Blanche, which he doubted, not least because it was the worst-kept secret in court that Catherine Blanche preferred her own maidservant to any of the men in the castle.

Leon studied Gwen for a few seconds, wordlessly following her as she invited him in. She didn't look particularly rejected. He'd known her since they were little, and when her brother left had become an expert at cheering her up. There were none of the usual tells: she wasn't flustered; she didn't avoid his gaze; and most of all there was no let-up to her chatter. Gwen, he concluded, with no small amount of bemusement, was utterly fine.

It was a shame to have to break the news about Merlin and spoil her day.

“I know what stopped the rains.”

Her head snapped to him. Her expression was all but inscrutable, though Leon thought he detected a flash of worry in her features.

“It was Gaius.” She opened her mouth, but Leon held up a hand. “Hear me out. Did you ever wonder how Camelot defeated the drought, or Cedric? Did you ever wonder how I survived unscathed after being roasted by a dragon, by the Great Dragon? Gaius is the only explanation.”

“I -” Gwen's jaw worked.

“I know,” he said. “I was shocked too, when I first realised.”

“I – uh, it – it makes sense,” she said, eventually.

“Yeah, but listen. Mordred is exhausted, and we all thought it was from the lack of food, and from the journey from the Old Mounds, but it's worse than that. Gaius is using Mordred's energy to stop the rain.”

Gwen frowned. “You don't –”

“It seems far fetched, I know, but listen: Merlin couldn't be woken this morning, and his heart's hardly beating. Gaius is using the life force of innocent people to change the weather.”

“You're wrong,” said Gwen, standing from across the table. The certainty in her voice threw him. It wasn't just a denial, but a statement, and the ease with which she said it knocked him off balance. “I need to go.”

She reached for her sheepskin hood before remembering the weather and leaving it on the hook by the door. She turned and spared Leon, who was utterly lost, a smile.

“It must be something else,” she said. “Gaius wouldn't – he couldn't – do that. I need to see Merlin.”

The door shut behind her with a bang. Poor Gwen, he thought. Always willing to see the best in people. Always disappointed. First Morgana, then Arthur, and now the court physician.

~

Leon wasn't one for spying, and he wasn't much of a fan of subtlety either. He was a knight, and knights fight. Despite that, threatening an old man with violence wasn't something he thought he could get behind, even if the man was an immortal and super-charged sorcerer. That left him with persuasion.

He tried to run through some openers, but he wasn't much of a strategist either.

Thank the gods he could fight, or he'd be just another brainless baron.

“Can I see Merlin?” he heard Gwen's voice ask, just before he rounded the corner.

“He's been moved to Mordred's room.”

“Sir Leon –” there was a pause, and when she spoke again her voice was far quieter. “Sir Leon thinks you've done this. That you're a sorcerer.”

“A sorcerer?” said Gaius, equally quietly. “That's ridiculous: a sorcerer would be mad to come into court.”

Or a genius. It's the last place they'd look.

“I know it's not you,” Gwen said. “It's Merlin, and he's close to killed himself stopping the rain. May I come in?”

~

“Hi, Lance. Enjoying the sun?”

Not much of an opener, but Lancelot smiled and patted the haybale. Leon took a seat beside him and examined his surroundings. The stables had been freshly cleaned, and the horses were frisky, eager to get out into the sun. The bright afternoon light filtered through the specks of dust and hay floating in the air, but Leon could take no pleasure in the warmth.

“Gwen tells me she's starting up the forge again,” he said.

“She is?”

“Yes. You don't look too surprised – did she mention it to you?”

Lancelot scratched the back of his neck. “We don't – we haven't really, er, spoken, much. Not since … not since I came back.”

What Sir Leon did next went against every instinct in his body. He knew how much Arthur cared for Gwen – he'd seen the way he kissed her after his return. He also knew that Lancelot had saved her from the Wilderen, that she'd been complicit in trying to make him a knight the first time he'd come to Camelot. The morning alone had demonstrated that he was likely to put one and one together to make five, but even he knew that was one situation he should stay out of.

But hell, Leon was never going to stop jumping to conclusions. He'd been half right, sort of. And he remembered the first time Lancelot had been here – he'd killed a griffin, for crying out loud. A griffin that Camelot's best knights couldn't touch. Lancelot was good, in drill, but he wasn't that good.

“Not speaking, eh? What have you been doing?”

Gwaine could have carried that off, he thought ruefully. As it was, Lancelot just stared at him.

“I mean, you and her – aren't you, you know—”

Leon waved his hands in the air in a vague sort of way.

“Look at the time!” Lancelot gestured to the shafts of sunlight and started to stumble his way out. “I have to go and, uh, do a thing, now, so …”

“So, Merlin's a sorcerer.”

Lancelot's forced laugh was a fraction of a second too late. Feint with a cross, then shove with the shield; it was easy,when he thought about it like that. This was one of Gwaine's tricks: he had a habit of eliciting the truth from others by dragging the conversation in an uncomfortable or confusing direction before springing a statement on them and watching for their reaction. He'd been caught out by it himself, a few times ('So, let's say the swan is carrying a dagger in its beak as it advances, right, and – oh, by the way, did you tup Mandy last night?' 'Uh, what? I – no! Mandy stokes my fire, that's all!' 'Oh, I'd wager she did stoke your fire, Leon').

“You knew,” Leon said.

“What? No, I didn't know – I mean, Merlin's not a sorcerer. That's a treasonous accusation.”

“I'm not accusing anyone,” said Sir Leon, standing so he was at eye level with the other knight. “You know, Gwen knows, and I'd wager Gaius knows too. Who else, Lance? Because we need to find some way of bringing Merlin back from his trance or whatever, before he kills himself trying to keep Camelot sunny.”

Lancelot opened his mouth, decided that whatever he was about to say was pointless, and shook his head. “Gwen doesn't know.”

“She does now.”

“She does? She can't have been happy when she found out he hadn't told her.” Leon would bet his last gold piece that, even though by all accounts they hadn't exchanged many words, there'd be a conversation between the two soon about Merlin. “Hm. Prince Arthur still doesn't know, though. He'd probably not kill Merlin, but he'd definitely kill someone if he found out.”

“Especially after Morgana.” A horse whickered, and Leon realised they'd been whispering. “He saved me, you know.” Lancelot's frown, present since the beginning of their conversation, deepened considerably. “From the dragon. I had a full blast of fire – can't have been much more than charred meat and bones – but I woke up a week later right as, well, right as rain.”

“He is powerful.” Lancelot tilted his head. “We need to speak to Guinivere and Gaius. Together.”

~

Merlin

Never again, thought Merlin, will I try to master a whole field of magic in a day.

Scrying wasn't even that useful, anyway. All he'd got was a fuzzy picture of Morgana and her dead sister. The fact that Morgana had been attempting to drip water between Morgause's frozen lips did not bode well for her sanity. In this case, the benefit of knowing Morgana was alive was all but outweighed by the burden: he appeared to be in some sort of magical coma.

So much for 'you're the most powerful sorcerer ever, Merlin', and 'you have great power, Merlin'. He could hear the dragon's taunts in his head: "it is not wise to run before one can crawl, young warlock". Okay, maybe he shouldn't have started scrying at the end of a long day of chores, a day that he'd started hungover, but he'd thought having a nap under some bloodhounds would have refreshed him.

Perhaps he was ill; he'd been tired all week. He'd hardly noticed, as the rain had disturbed his sleep since it began.

At least in this place it wasn't raining.

He appeared to have had the good sense to dream up somewhere warm. Merlin sat up and yanked off his neckerchief, using it to wipe his face. There was no wind, and the sun was fat and low in the cloudless sky. His skin felt prickly and sore, as though it was being roasted over fire.

He stood, as though the difference in height would allow him to see further into the distance, as though that would help him locate a scrap of shade. It was no use: all the shadows, even those under the massive boulders peppering the landscape, had been burned away by the sun, and Merlin felt a twinge of unease. If this was the temperature when the sun was disappearing, what would the heat be like when it was at its zenith?

One of the advantages of being a scrawny, weak youth – especially one whose mother believed he needed hiding from the outside world – was a lot of free time. For Merlin, unlike most peasants, that meant time to read; Hunith was a literate peasant, and would be damned if she didn't bring her son up the same. The place he was in now looked like somewhere the Romans had conquered – Alexandria, maybe. He'd give anything to dive into an Egyptian river right now, alligators or not.

Merlin sat there for a few minutes, marinating gently in his own sweat (he half expected to be sizzling) before he remembered that everyone, magic or otherwise, could conjure things in dreams. He shifted around in the sand until he was comfortable under the oak tree, and took a sip of his iced water. He should exhaust his magical resources more often.

~

It was cold at night, though. The sand itched where he lay, rubbing away at his exposed skin to leave him red and raw. His throat was parched. Still, Merlin was used to scratchy bedding and cold drafts.

He conjured some blankets and settled down, placing one underneath him to try and separate himself from the sand, though by that point it was a futile exercise.

For the first few hours, his mind had been racing: he knew not to exaggerate his importance in Arthur's decision-making process, but Merlin was sure that if this coma lasted too long, and the rain continued indefinitely, Arthur would be driven to desperate choices. Merlin needed to heal, and fast. He needed to fight the nymphs and stop the rain before all of Albion was drowned, Arthur's reaction be damned.

Despite his dire situation, despite everything, Merlin found himself drifting off. He wondered absently if it was possible to fall asleep whilst asleep – was it possible to have a dream within a dream? - when the lights started.

They were dim and distant at first, mere smudges in the sky, but they soon dominated his vision. Mostly green and blue, they swirled and undulated with increasing speed, not unlike the winter lights that Merlin used to gaze at from the mountains of Ealdor. However, the similarities ended there; these lights grew ever closer, washing nearer to him each time the centre of the sky pulsed silently. They moved faster and faster, and Merlin couldn't blink or look away. Colours Merlin had never seen before began to flicker in the sea of light, growing brighter and more terrifying by the second.

He took a deep breath, and the lights crashed down on him like a wave.

~

When he came to, Merlin found himself somewhere completely different. Somewhere where the soil was black and the leaves were blue. Where there were hardly any trees. Where the air was moist and warm. And where rivers carved the earth like twine wrapped around meat.

Merlin didn't know his imagination could be so bleak. He felt exposed on the flat plains, but he curled up to sleep anyway. He was shattered, even though he was dreaming, which he thought was rather unfair. He screwed up his eyes and tried to think, but he couldn't muster the energy to sit back up. This tiredness – this utter draining of energy – was the same marrow-deep drain that had washed over him when he was awake. It wasn't natural.

He wasn't in a coma because he tried to spy on Morgana. He had conquered entire disciplines of magic before now, without any knowledge of theory or incantations. To lose consciousness now, when Mordred was rarely waking even though to Merlin's knowledge he hadn't used magic once since he'd been saved, when the Dragon hadn't answered his last call … it wasn't coincidence.

Merlin's world had come under magical attack, and there was no one magical there to defend it.

He lost his struggle against sleep, and made it two hours into his nap before Morgana's voice rent the air.

~

Mordred

Mordred was a boy. Yes, he was a highly powerful druid boy with a terrible destiny, but even so, he had only lived eleven years of that destiny. From druid group to druid group, he'd been passed around like a disease. And, like a disease, it was all-too likely that he'd kill the people with whom he was brought into contact. He'd killed instinctively, and he'd been brought into contact with Emrys and Kilgarrah accidentally, at first. Sometimes, Mordred thought that he was less a person and more a nebula of magic held together with skin and sinew.

When his own magic was so unstable, he supposed it was inevitable that he'd end up in some fairly unbelievable situations. The time he'd turned the camp into a beach; the apple harvest incident; and the rains. Although he didn't think that the rains were anything to do with him, no doubt he'd be proved wrong at some point.

He could feel his skin start to blister.

Mordred wrapped his magic around his body, trying to think of it as armour. The pain lessened, but the heat was still oppressive and unrelenting, as though he'd been pushed into a kiln. Every breath burned his lungs. Soon his skin would start to bubble and burst – or would it crack and peel? Mordred had never seen a burning before. Either way, soon he'd be a blackened, dusty husk.

But this was no ordinary execution. He was bathed in flames and could see nothing through the wall of fire. Sweat rolled down his nose and dropped onto the ground before him: there was no ground. Mordred was standing on red coals, and they were eating into his feet like rot into fruit. Bone shone through at his ankle with a sinister glint. He tried to force his magic through his veins, down to his soles, but all he could do was slow the decay.

But for the pain, Mordred would say he was dreaming.

Darkness. Fire. His burning flesh. Nothing about the situation screamed 'reality'.

Mordred was damned if he would wait around to see if death here meant death in real life. He steeled himself – you have a destiny, Mordred; you can't die now – and gathered his magic to his core, stretching it out to search for life, any life.

He was expecting the pain that came from abandoning his efforts to save his skin. What he wasn't expecting, though, was the rush of blood to the head. Mordred swayed and all but fell into the flames. He would have tumbled, were it not for a cool wind pushing him back onto the remnants of his feet.

“Hello, Mordred,” said the girl. “I've heard great things about you.”

Her large mouth stretched into a smile, and if Mordred had been able to move he would have recoiled. He focused his energy on numbing the pain, but every muscle was strained and tired. Every breath was an effort, and speech was almost impossible.

“Y'have me … at a disadvantage.”

The girl laughed delightedly, stepping through the flames so that Mordred could see more than just her smiling face.

“My name is Caliadne, and you have a chance to be part of a new world order. Our new world order, built on the pillars of the Four.”

From what Mordred understood, the more powerful the sorcerer, the more a person's magic was linked to their emotions. Mordred was little more than a boy, still, though a very magical one, and so the slightest spark of anger usually caused something to break. With those words, though, Caliadne had broken a dam. Magical energy – more than he'd ever felt before, even in the presence of Emrys – suffused him, and he felt it crackling at his fingertips, dying to be let loose on this woman.

“No thank you,” he gritted out, not from pain but restraint. The girl, who was a head or so taller than him, frowned falsely, as if he were a petulant toddler to be placated. As if he were a child.

“Do you know,” he said, “just how many people have tried to recruit me for their destinies? The first I knew of it was when Nimueh whisked me away at the age of four. She abducted me from my family and took me to the Isle of the Blessed so that she could raise me in her art. The druids stole me back, and that's when I learned that people have had plans for me since before I was born. And then there was Merlin, who kept on trying to save me, to turn me into a pushover with no loyalty to his own kind. Morgana, who wanted me as her pet, or son, or both. The dragon that wants me dead so the predictions favourable to him come to pass.”

“I'm not a person,” said Caliadne, but she looked a lot less certain than she had just moments before.

“Well, I am,” said Mordred. He sent magic spiralling out of every pore, golden and dazzling. The flames guttered and disappeared. The woman's hair fell in clumps. A violent wind tore at him as he made his way to consciousness, the screams of the burning girl ringing in his ears.

~

When he woke up he found himself demoted to a chaise longue near his former bed, on which Merlin now lay, pasty and shallow-breathing. Emrys must, he thought, be trapped somewhere equally horrific. Something like what he'd experienced must be happening to everyone with magic, some affected more than others.

The silence hit him like a rock. No rain.

He extended his feelers, knowing that it would cost him later if not immediately. As in his dream, he searched for a spark, for the slightest glimmer of magic. He felt for Morgana's distinctive tangled print, but could not find it; he could no longer feel it in the mountains to the north-east, even though Morgause's was still there, unchanged. Morgause's print – a tarnished gold cloud – must be held in place by something, probably by Morgana, assuming she was alive, but even as Mordred observed it her lustre dimmed.

There would be no help from the lady who had saved him before, then. No help from his only friend in Camelot.

Camelot.

Mordred snapped back his senses, and picked Gaius out from the hum of low-level magic in the citadel.

“Physician.”

Gaius' presence flared with a blue burst Mordred could only assume is shock. The voice that he heard in reply is faint and tinny, so Mordred amplified it. It was lucky he was already lying down; otherwise the effort would have floored him.

“Mordred? I had heard … you looked all but dead, when I was last--”

“I don't care.” Quite frankly, he marvelled at the man's stupidity. If Gaius was talking to Mordred, then he was clearly alive. “Tell me what's happening.”

“I – er—” A pause, during which Mordred had to restrain himself from a nasty comment along the lines of 'how many thoughts do you have to gather, anyway?'.

Eventually, Gaius spoke:

“My magical talents are limited, and I use them sparingly. Despite that, even I can feel it being drained. I tried to lift the Sanguine Grimoire by magic, on a hunch, and now I'm sure: Morgana, Merlin, the Dragon – their magic is innate. It is so tied up in what and who they are, whether it be by design or lack of training, that if their magic is sapped so are they.”

Perhaps Morgana is dead.

“And me?”

“You too, but you are young. Your magic is still growing, still unformed, and I think it can to some extent evade the naiads. Regenerate, partly.”

Mordred would rather have been told he were immeasurably strong.

“Naiads? I think – no, I'm sure – one came to me when I was asleep. She – it – tried to get me to join them. I refused.”

Mordred supposed he should feel insulted at Gaius' surprised silence. Instead, he began to wonder why exactly he did refuse them. Albion had brought him nothing but pain, and he wanted to save it? Sometimes, Mordred wanted nothing more than to watch the world drown. She had given him that opportunity, and he had turned it down.

Perhaps if she'd said please. Perhaps if she hadn't talked about 'great plans' and fate, and other things that sounded special but meant imprisonment.

“Don't use your magic, boy,” said Gaius gruffly. “We don't want you dying.”

This didn't reassure Mordred much, and so in defence he refused to believe the old man. Gaius said something about variables and risk, but Prince Arthur walked in and Mordred cut off their connection.

~

Mordred doubted Arthur would have noticed if he was riding a unicorn around his side of the room; the man's attention was focused solely on Emrys. He sank into a leather chair to Merlin's left, and Mordred was struck by the realisation that Arthur had probably come in like this many times when he was asleep.

As Mordred watched, Arthur smoothed down Merlin's pillow. Even from a distance, it was easy to see that his hands were shaking.

The amount of concern in his eyes – not to mention the lost look he had, like someone had stolen his puppy – was quite frankly disgusting. Mordred's stomach turned; he had to make it stop.

“Why is Merlin in my room? If the rain has stopped, can't people start going back to their villages and freeing up rooms?”

Arthur looked at him, but appeared too exhausted to express surprise that he was awake. There were dark smudges under his eyes, and his hair was sticking out everywhere.

“The rain has stopped, but the water hasn't drained, not even a little.”

Well, that was ominous.

“It's not natural,” Arthur added.

Mordred considered a number of responses: “If you haven't worked that out by now, you're never going to make a good king. Sire.”; “Magic is natural”; “Why is he in my room, though?”.

“It's the naiads,” he ended up saying.

“That's what Gaius – how do you—”

“Druid know-how,” he said. “I'd all but forgotten. Came to me in a dream.”

“Did they stop the rain? Most people – even the knights – seem to think a benevolent sorcerer did it.”

Arthur's hands tightened on Merlin's sheets. Emrys looked close to death: of all the magical people Mordred knew, he was the most likely to try something so abominably stupid. And the most likely to succeed. Still…

“I doubt it,” he said. “Magic is being drained from sorcerers and sorceresses all over Albion. From what I know of nymphs, I mean, that'll be what's happening. Sorcerers will be too busy trying to save their own skins to sacrifice themselves for a world that has largely rejected them.”

Arthur looked at him sharply. “Sacrifice themselves?”

“If any sorcerers even realise what's happening, that is. Everyone's heard stories of rains like these in the past. Most won't connect the rains – or the floods – with them feeling a little poorly.”

“Tell me everything you know about naiads,” said Arthur. He leaned back in his chair, but his gaze was no less intense.

“I don't know much – just that they're elemental creatures,” Mordred guessed. In truth, he knew nothing at all about naiads, bar the fact they were sometimes referred to as nymphs. Druids hadn't spent nearly as much time educating him as they'd spent protecting him, and all they ever wanted to talk about was his destiny. “They're fairly powerful, but their main talent is that they can steal the energy of others. Magical energy.”

Arthur exhaled loudly. “Nothing new there,” he said.

Mordred felt absurdly disappointed. For some reason, he wanted to prove himself useful – worth more than a few parchment words written centuries before he was born. Part of him protested that he could be useful without helping the son of a genocidal maniac, but he silenced it. Mordred wasn't helping Arthur; they just had a common interest in the survival of humanity.

“I don't know what they plan on doing next: they could leave us at the mercy of starvation and disease, or they could massacre us.”

“Thank you for that ray of sunshine, Mordred.”

He sat up, ignoring the spinning sensation in his head. “What's wrong with Merlin?” he asked, while he gathered his thoughts.

“He--” That lost look was back in Arthur's eyes. “He fell asleep and won't wake up. Gaius thinks it could be an abnormality in the brain.”

“Ah,” said Mordred.

It was quick thinking on the physician's part; he'd give him that. Either way, Emrys would probably die, leaving another destiny unfulfilled. Even so, something about the lie jarred with him. In a couple of days, at most, Merlin would be dead. He was as much of a magical being as the dragon; when his magic was gone, there wouldn't be anything left. Merlin would die unrecognised and unknown.

Although Emrys was a traitor to his own kind, although he'd spent years protecting the very people who ordered executions of healers and hedgewitches, Mordred felt a jab of pity for him.

He was brought back to the present by Arthur standing up, nearly sending the chair flying.

“Can you do something? Can you heal him? With magic, I mean – can you …”

Mordred shook his head and wished he could say yes. Even if it had been a physical problem, he didn't know if he could solve it. His magic use was instinctive, unbound by incantations but also untrained and imprecise. Mordred would have as much chance of causing a brain abnormality than fixing one. As it was, spending magic on Merlin would only leave him drained.

The best he could do, if he did want to save him (he told himself that he was still in debt to Emrys, that it had nothing to do with making Arthur Pendragon feel better, because if it did he'd be just as traitorous as Merlin himself) was to defeat the nymphs and stop the drain. And for that, he'd need Gaius.

Gaius, who rushed through the door like a man of twenty, a sack of books over one shoulder. In the chaos that followed – the wheezing and the panting, the clatter of books to the ground – it was easy for Mordred to pretend he hadn't noticed Arthur scrubbing at his eyes with his sleeve.

~

“The degree of starvation – his magical drain – I thought Mordred would awaken today.”

Arthur frowned but said nothing.

“I have a number of ideas,” said Gaius, in between deep breaths. “Healing draughts and poultices. You remember when Morgana fell.”

Arthur didn't even start at her name. “Yes, that's right,” he said, standing. He smoothed down the sheets he'd been twisting between his fingers, and pushed back his chair, turning back to Merlin and away, then back. “You remember what I said: Merlin is your top priority. There are healers aplenty in the Upper and Lower Towns, both legal and otherwise. My people are adequately protected without your help, so your every effort must be to save Merlin's life. Do I make myself clear?”

Privately, Mordred thought that Prince Arthur – king in all but name – would do a better job at the whole 'commanding leader' thing if his voice didn't keep cracking all the time. He was prevented from pointing this out by Morgana's maidservant, or whatever she was now, rushing in to the room.

“Guinivere.”

“If I've told you once I've told you a thousand times, Arthur: it's Gwen.”

“This isn't really—” Arthur gestured to his surroundings. “It isn't a great time.”

“I can't believe you,” she said. “You think I'm here to wail that you've been avoiding me? To insist you give me jewels or lavish attention on me?”

Guinivere – Gwen – shook her head.

“I don't know why he puts up with you. Whatever we are to each other, whatever happens when the floods are gone, you should remember that whenever you're not here I am, sitting beside him and hoping he'll wake up. Merlin's my friend too.”

“I know,” said Arthur, looking humbled.

Of course, Mordred was above the social circles of magic-haters and their servants, but he'd admit he was a little intrigued. By his reckoning, Gwen was a former flame who had been snubbed by Arthur when his time had come to lead. An affair with a commoner: interesting.

“I'm here because Geoffrey of Monmouth sent me. He says it's urgent.”

The plot thickens. Mordred could feel his brows lowering as he studied the woman. Gwen might be many things, but she was not a good liar. Even Arthur, who'd kept the most powerful sorcerer alive as a manservant for years without suspecting a thing, noticed the act. Again, he said nothing, simply cocking his head to the side and studying her for a moment before he followed her out of the room.

Gaius waited until the door had thudded closed behind them before he hefted the bag of books over to Mordred's chaise lounge.

“There is only one way,” he said. “And you're not going to like it.”

~

“You have energy that can evade the naiads,” Gaius said, before Mordred could even ask, “partly because you're so powerful, partly because you're so young – you're still growing. Perhaps you have a natural resistance to control.”

Mordred liked the sound of that, but remained uneasy.

“There's no one else in your position, with your power. Right now, you're the most powerful sorcerer alive.”

“Flattery gets you nowhere, traitor,” he said, but his heart wasn't really in it. Mordred wanted to defeat the nymphs, and the idea of being the one with the power to do that was especially enticing when he considered that he had control over how it could be done. He was the weaver at Camelot's loom, and he could cut whatever threads he wished to on a whim.

“You need to give your power to Merlin," said Gaius, ignoring the frown which settled over Mordred's face like a cloud. "You're an extraordinarily powerful young sorcerer, but Merlin is almost completely magic. It's so … innate, with him. We don't have time for theory, but there are two types of magic in the world: magic of the soul, like in you and I and every other sorcerer and sorceress, and magic of the body, like a dragon or a sidhe or a goblin. Merlin appears to have both.”

Mordred didn't care about all the things Merlin had.

“You aren't seriously expecting me to give my power to Merlin? He's Emrys! That man there is my destined foe, and I'm supposed to destroy everything he cares about and everything he loves.”

Gaius leaned forward, looming over him like a disapproving mop.

“You must,” he said. Mordred bristled. “You must wake him. If you wake him up, if you bring his mind back to his body, Merlin can use the magic stored in his bones to complete the banishing ritual. The magic in his body, never mind his soul, is far greater than the depleted energy of druids and low-grade healers all over the land. We need Merlin – we need you.”

“So I wake him up. I use up the little magic I have left to help him. Maybe I can shield him from the nymphs long enough for him to get a coven together and defeat the lot of them. What's to stop him from simply letting me die?”

“I wouldn't worry about that. Merlin has a talent for saving people he shouldn't.”

Mordred wasn't sure if it was Gaius' words or the memory of Arthur Pendragon's tears that made him reach for the guttering flame of magic inside him and extend it towards Merlin's sleeping form.


Part Four


Comment Form

No HTML allowed in subject

  
 
   
 

Notice! This user has turned on the option that logs IP addresses of anonymous posters. 

(will be screened)