Merlin rides slowly through the rain, careful of his pace for the sake of Gaius, still weak from death. But the blood races through his veins, he wants to shout, to fling thunderbolts from his fingers, anything to release the power that fizzes within him, that makes his hands shake on the reins.
He possesses the power of life and death. He called down destruction and gave his friend life. He is Merlin the Sorcerer; every life in Camelot is his, to give or to withhold.
There is a life for a life, a balance to be maintained, but it is his choice who should live and who should die. And the only restraint on his power is his revulsion at Nimueh, his inner certainty that such a cruel and selfish magic is not worth the possessing. He shudders again, inner horror at his own abilities warring with his exultation.
Later, by the fire he questions Gaius, hears the sorry confession of complicity in Uther's purges, the treachery that meant Nimueh would gladly trade Gaius' life for either Merlin or his mother's. The treachery that Gaius thinks can be washed clean if he only protects Merlin, if he saves and trains this one sorcerer while turning away from every other soul Uther sends to execution.
Merlin wants to scream at the weight of expectation, at the idea that his power is so special that he should be saved while others die. He wants to ask how that makes Gaius any different from Nimueh, who would save Merlin now because she wants Arthur to restore magic, or the Dragon who enticed him with titbits of prophecy for much the same reason. (Nimueh, who would cause as much chaos as possible for cruelty's own sake and the Dragon, who is uncaring of anyone who cannot be a tool to kill Uther and break its chains. Neither of them have any care for what kind of king Arthur will be or for the people who must live in Camelot.) Merlin wants to rail at him, but he bites his tongue and brews herbal tea, watches carefully as his mentor drinks it.
Gaius is not uncaring or cruel. But as they return to Camelot that is not enough to make Merlin talk openly to him about the power and the sharp joy of using it, the thrill of magic that does not care for morality, just for the strength of the one who wields it; the fear that one day he could become Nimueh and the question of when it is legitimate to use such powers for the greater good.
He visits Arthur, looks down at his sleeping face, considers waking him. But what would he say? Enough of lying around, I know you're not sick any more? You're going to be the greatest king that ever lived? You call me an idiot, but I saved your life by calling down another person's death. I'd do it again and there is no one in all Camelot who would be able to stop me?
There have been times that Merlin has thought he could tell Arthur about his magic, that Arthur knows him and trusts him and no revelation could change that. But even at the best of times, to ask Arthur to keep such a secret is to ask him to commit treason against the King, against the law of Camelot. If Merlin held his tongue then, how much more should he hold it now, when he's not quite sure that Arthur should trust him afterall.
The same arguments and more hold for Morgana; Merlin knows her principles are probably stronger than his, but he has seen her plan to kill the King and then turn at the last moment on her co-conspirator with a sword. The Dragon, he now knows, has never been a friend of his; his prophecy may still be true, must still be true, but he has never seen Merlin as anything other than a means to an end. Yet as confidants go there still remains Gwen.
He finds her in the castle laundry, trustworthy Gwen, whose integrity is as deep as the caves beneath the castle, who holds desperately now to her faith that the world will be a better place, if they can only all live until Arthur is King. Gwen, whose comfort is that the world is a moral place and injustice cannot last forever.
"Do you ever think..." he begins, "I mean if you had the power to change things, to do great good, but maybe at the cost of evil... How do you know what you should do? If any price is worth it?"
Gwen looks at him shrewdly and he is glad that she chooses not to ask questions. "You asked me before," she says, "whether I would kill Uther in revenge for my father and I said that that would only make me as bad as him. But if I could have saved my father's life, there's not much I wouldn't do. But then, I'm just a servant girl, there are limits to what I can do. I would have defended my father with a sword, but I would not have razed a village or slaughtered innocents even if it could have saved him. Kings sometimes have to choose to send their men die in battle, but I don't think there is any greater good that could justify what Kanan wanted to do to Ealdor, no matter how politic it seemed."
He takes Gwen's words with him to the ramparts and muses. He did not kill Nimueh to save Gaius' life, did not even know that was possible. Was it better or worse to have killed for revenge than to deliberately move the balance of life and death from her to his friend? He does not know, but he knows that he does not want to be the man who finds out.
He leans over the parapet and looks down at the scenes of bustling life. These are Arthur's people, who he loves and one day Merlin will stand at Arthur's side to protect them. He can't do that if he hates his magic, but he can't do it if its power is all directed to serve his own desires either. If a life can buy a life, if magic demands a price then he should draw on his own life, his own being to pay it. When Arthur is King he will dispense justice, he will send other men to die in battle for the sake of Camelot, but even in his king's name, Merlin will not suck innocents dry to fuel a spell.
He laughs softly to himself. Four days ago and a lifetime ago he had offered his life for Arthur's and after all his angst he has come back to that again. He shakes his head and goes to awake Arthur and tell him to dress for the feast tonight.
The realm is uneasily calm in the year Uther dies. There have been reports of troops and sorcerers, strangers who pass through villages at night and beasts that leap out of the forests and out of legend.
Still, Arthur is taken unawares when his father lies wounded on the battlefield, life bleeding out of an enchanted wound while Arthur tries futilely to hold his flesh together. There is no time to grieve, no time for the ridiculous tears stinging his eyes or the gaping void inside him, just a battle to win, knights to marshal, death to be dealt with a sword against terrible odds.
Camelot itself is under attack. Arthur thrusts his sword into an attacker's stomach and watches with horror as the wound closes and the man-thing picks itself up off the floor to resume the attack. He hears Morgana screaming nearby, sobbing "No! My dreams!" When he sees her next she is fighting with grim determination, Gwen swinging a sword by her side. Then there is fire inside the castle, lighting only on the invaders, leaving Camelot's people untouched. And Merlin stands, eyes golden and hand raised, directing the fire, destroying the unclean warriors.
Merlin is a sorcerer. Uther is dead of magic and Merlin has saved them all with magical fire.
Arthur stands in Camelot's courtyard, raises his head to gaze at his servant. He can feel the weight of expectation at his back, his knights and his father's nobles, the castle servants and the people of the village, all waiting on the word of the King. Arthur has just fought a mighty battle, but this will be his first decisive act as King. He can acknowledge Merlin's actions as saving them all, or have him clapped in irons in the dungeon. He can defend his father's reign and uphold Camelot's law, or he can legalise magic, when it has almost destroyed his kingdom. Either way, he must decide now.
"Damn you, Merlin," he mutters to himself.
But Merlin has never had a sense of time and place, or even of self-preservation. (Although now that Arthur thinks about it, four years as a sorcerer in Camelot speaks of more caution than he would have ever given Merlin credit for.) He does not kneel, or beg, or even launch an impassioned defence of his loyalty. Instead he strides forward, and captures Arthur's wrist in his hand. "Arthur," he says, "there's something horribly wrong in the land. These undead things are only a symptom. And until we stop the cause, they will keep coming or worse. We've got to find the source."
"I have seen it." Morgana sounds regal and resigned. "The magic is unbalanced on the Isle of the Blessed."
They ride in the morning, Arthur, a hand-picked group of his best knights and a powerful sorcerer he had thought was his friend following the visions of the seer who was his father's ward. And of course Morgana and Gwen will not be left behind.
Nimueh is not properly dead.
Of course she is not, thinks Merlin. Since when has his life been that easy?
The magic of the old religion is power, pure and simple. It cares little for belief or creeds and nothing for principle. It gathers most powerfully here, on an island whose physical existence is held together by the magic deep in its rocks, entwined among its ruins. And this is an island dominated for five hundred years by the will of its high priestess, a powerful sorceress. Even from the shore, Merlin can feel the void where her power should be, the imbalance at the island's very core.
They leave the knights camped on the shore; whatever they find on the island will not be something that they can fight with cold steel. Merlin can see the pain with which Arthur looks at him, the betrayal of years of lies, the unease with magic and the weight of responsibility of the King. When this is over, he doesn't know whether there will still be a place left for him at Camelot. He is glad that in this at least, Arthur is reasonable; but reasonableness only goes so far.
"Sire, I mean it, there's nothing you can do. You should stay with your men."
"I can keep an eye on you."
"Look, I know this is all new to you, but I do know what I'm doing. Well, maybe not what I'm doing in this particular case, but I've been handling magic for a long time."
"Not helping your case here, Merlin."
"I am King. I am responsible for this land. I am responsible for trusting this battle to a sorcerer, following the visions of a seer. I may be betraying my people or saving them, but I will see this to its end."
Four of them climb into the small boat, scramble ashore across rocks which seem more illusion than reality and enter a desolate sanctuary, its greenery withered.
Arthur draws his sword and paces slowly to the left. Morgana and Gwen also have their weapons at the ready. Merlin would rather have his hands free; he knows that it will be his power and his ability to draw on the strength of the earth that will determine whether they survive whatever this place can throw at them.
Nimueh's figure flickers into existence briefly beside a pillar and Merlin flings a fireball at her, but she has disintegrated to a screaming face, trailing fingers clinging to stonework before his fire even hits her. The entire island seems shaken with her pain.
Merlin crouches, sinks his hands into the wasted earth, tries to put together a picture of what has happened here. The deep emptiness at the heart of the island reaches for him, snatches of Nimueh's spirit, torn from her in death cling to the earth that gave her power. I did that, thinks Merlin, in shame and awe.
The island needs a priest with magic in his or her veins to anchor its power, to channel or disperse it, someone who can ride the eddies of power and not be destroyed by them. Without an anchor, magic has overflowed into the wider realm; going forth as undead warriors or three-headed wolves. Magicians of little innate power have had great springs of magic overwhelm them; some have used it for minor personal gain, some to launch vendettas, some it has driven mad.
Reaching deeper, he can feel other people, other deaths. Some are Nimueh's victims, their life leached out to feed her power, their spirits absorbed into the ground that became their graves. But some are more recent, a wizard, two druids, magic users drawn by the void, by their lust for power, but unable to master the island, or overcome Nimueh's defiance. Merlin has his answers; he left a job here undone and it has caused upheaval across all Camelot. It is immaterial now whether Arthur will allow him back in Camelot; he must take over the Isle of the Blessed.
"Merlin!" shouts Arthur and he lurches back into his body. Nimueh has reappeared, concentration in every line of her body, hand outstretched towards Gwen whose skirt is being swallowed by creepers.
"No!" shouts Merlin. "Your time here is done. You're a spirit, a revenant. You don't get to keep this island and you don't get to take my friends." His magic pushes against hers and the greenery swallowing Gwen is pushed slowly back.
Arthur grabs her arm and all four of them duck behind a crumbling wall. Merlin hastily fills them in.
"She's not really real any more," he concludes," but she hates Camelot and she hates me. Your problems won't stop until the last bits of her presence are pushed out and there's someone else holding this island's strength. I can do it Arthur. I guess you don't have to worry about how to deal with a sorcerer in your court after all."
"What? No!" says Arthur.
"Magic is real. And this island is too," says Merlin. "It's not going to go away because you hate it. I swear I'm not going to do anything with it except keep the kingdom safe."
"Tough. I need you in Camelot more," says Arthur. "What other magician am I going to trust? Find another way."
The wall above them crumbles, and Gwen pushes them both out of the way. "Men!" she complains. "Fight Nimueh now. Argue later."
Merlin runs to the next pillar, drawing power from the earth and sky to hold Nimueh's shade still while he flings magic against her.
He can feel the balance of power in the island changing and holds firm. He can tell he's winning, Nimueh's letting go her hold, being pushed out of the centre of her power. Yet Merlin knows that he is not doing all the work himself.
Another light blazes across the sanctuary. Morgana is transfigured, glowing with an unearthly power within.
"I claim this island," she tells Nimueh. "I am its priestess. Its power is mine."
Nimueh melts as if into the wind and Merlin knows that this time she has gone for good.
They face each other for a moment across a patch of barren ground, sorcerer and seer, sorcerer and priestess. Then the light goes out of Morgana and she crumples to the ground.
"Morgana!" Gwen shouts and all three of them run towards her.
Her eyes flicker open and she grasps Arthur's hand. "I'm alright," she says, but a moment later she is turning almost transparent, just as Nimueh did. Merlin panics and reaches out towards the earth again, but this time the void is gone, filled by the vital presence of Morgana, who pushes back against his touch.
"Don't worry," she says, "I can do this."
"But it should have been me," says Merlin choked up. "Nimueh was my mess to clear up."
"Well too late now. Unless you want to fight me for the island?" She is fading in and out as she speaks, in an alarming manner. "I'm strong enough. I can do it. I'll be more use to Arthur here than in court anyway -- I never fancied being sold off in an arranged marriage."
Arthur shakes his head in denial and pain. All Merlin's fault. "It should have been me," he says again.
"Look," says Gwen. "It's too late now to change; we just have to make the best of it. Morgana stays here to keep evil magic at bay and Merlin goes back with you to court. You are planning on appointing him Court Magician right?"
"What? Yes!" says the King. One less thing to Merlin to worry about, anyway.
"I'll stay, obviously," says Gwen. "And I'm sure you can find some trustworthy strong knights to leave with us for our protection and to go bring us supplies." Arthur starts looking slightly happier. The Isle of the Blessed is less than a day's ride from Camelot after all; Morgana is not being banished beyond all reach. Merlin breathes easier too. Morgana is still pale, but she looks fully human again.
Arthur claps him on the back, they make their goodbyes and take boat together back to shore. It is time to begin the new King's reign.
Gwen is breezy enough when she first sends Arthur and Merlin away from the Isle of the Blessed. What choice does she have? The court needs its King whole, not distracted by worry. Gwen can worry enough for all of them.
Two or three knights bustle around, obeying her orders, laying Morgana on a bed in a pavilion and starting to bring the stores ashore that they will need to turn the island into a permanent settlement. All very well for Nimueh to live on magic alone; Gwen will not allow Morgana to become that.
Easily said, but when Morgana starts shaking again in the night, Gwen fears for her even as she holds her down. When Gwen's hand passes through Morgana's wrist, she knows that Morgana is losing the battle for mastery of the island. This is the truth: magic is in Morgana's blood, but she does not have nearly the strength of Merlin. She has displaced a sorceress centuries-old and much stronger than she is, but she may not be able to hold what she has claimed.
Gwen makes plans, orders knights and servants around, starts work on the construction of a timber hall, a palace for her lady. If Morgana is mistress of this island, then Gwen will be its seneschal. She refuses to believe it may not prove necessary.
And always she returns to Morgana's side, talking to her, relying on her voice to call her friend back into her body, willing her own strength into the unseen battle.
As the days and weeks pass, it grows easier. One morning Morgana wakes and smiles at her, holds a full conversation without breaking off mid-word, or becoming insubstantial. Soon she rises from her bed, takes an interest in the fledging village that is Gwen's creation.
But always, there is something else behind her eyes and her smile, something else linked to her very soul and Gwen fears for her.
A Saxon wizard comes to the island, drawn by its power and willing to fight. Morgana's eyes glaze over as she looks through him and he chokes, grasping at his throat until there is no breath left in his body.
Morgana's power is entirely untaught, it consists of visions and dreams. Yet now she wields magic to kill without a second thought.
Gwen has no sympathy for the invading wizard who killed two servants as he crept through their village to the sanctuary. But she wonders what Nimueh's final defeat has done to Morgana and wonders if it was her last revenge.
There is no doubt that Morgana controls the island now, or that the new priestess of the old religion is a better choice than the last one. But Gwen does not need to be a seer to know that Morgana could become as fearsome as Nimueh and she thinks that something in her, in Arthur, in Merlin will die a little if they ever have to take Morgana down.
One morning in spring, Morgana's head lifts suddenly over breakfast and she breaks off their conversation as she listens to something Gwen cannot hear.
"There are intruders on the island," she says.
Gwen is courtier now and acknowledged friend. She rises from her own seat at the table and sends the serving girl running for the leader of Arthur's knights.
Gwen has not returned to court in nearly a year, but Morgana's powers are known now and seem to be accepted; easy enough to accept a seer on a distant island for people getting used to Merlin's power in their midst.
Arthur sends the women every luxury that might support them in exile including a full troop of knights on a two-month rotation. This month their leader is Lancelot, returned to court now that Merlin's magic is known and Lancelot need accept no more credit for heroic deeds that were not his. He comes to Morgana's solar for instructions, but she has no more than an instinctive knowledge something is wrong. So they have to search for their intruders the hard way, on foot, knights and servants together beating their way through the undergrowth.
Morgana still lacks the strength to wield a sword, but Gwen grabs both sword and crossbow as they head out; Morgana's feeling may be nebulous, but she is the reason they know there is anything wrong at all and Gwen fully expects that theirs will be the party to find the trouble.
Gwen is right.
On a beach, in the mouth of the cave, on the least accessible side of the island, they find a boat drawn up and two men on guard.
"Druids!" Morgana hisses.
Gwen steps up to her side. "What are you doing here?" she asks.
The Druids draw themselves up as if for a fight, but the one who answers does so mildly. "The Blessed Isle is a site of great importance to us," he says. "Our traditions require access to its sanctuary, we celebrate balance and harmony with the earth. We are no threat to the priestess."
Gwen looks to Morgana whose eyes are lit with an unnatural blue light, whose eyes. "They lie," she says. "Inside that cave, someone is trying to steal the magic of the island away from me. Other Druids tried that against Nimueh. I'm telling you now: go home."
The taller Druid grabs his staff, mutters words in a language Gwen does not recognize. Beside her, Lancelot grips his sword more tightly; Magic makes battle unpredictable at the best of times. But Morgana's eyes are glowing slightly again and Lancelot is able to move forward without hindrance. The other Druid swears in words Gwen does recognize and draws a sword of his own. It is two against one, but this is Lancelot's own area of expertise and the invaders are quickly despatched.
Gwen follows Morgana into the cave and stops in shock. Rather than the Druids they had been expecting, there is a small figure, eyes aglow, reaching out towards the island's power, shaking with his inability to hold it. Gwen recognizes the child. It is Mordred.
Morgana walks towards him. This is it, thinks Gwen in sick anticipation. No matter how great a threat he poses, the point at which she kills a child is the point at which Morgana will cease to be recognizable.
Morgana drops to her knees and reaches out, takes the child's hands into her own.
"Mordred!" she commands. "Let go." She says nothing more, just gazes at him intently. Mordred's eyelids flicker and Gwen realises with a start that they are talking telepathically.
He shakes, crumples and clings to her. Morgana wraps an arm around him and leads him from the cave.
The Druid delegation appears a week later. They have learnt from past mistakes and their boat pulls in to the main mooring, in plain sight of the island's village.
Morgana greets them, regal as any queen.
Gwen experiences a sharp sense of satisfaction as they stammer and splutter before her. It wasn't a communal decision, the boy was suborned by rogue elements, the island is a source of their religion, they need access to the sanctuary for ceremonies as they did in Nimueh's day, no, no, not harmful ceremonies, just a celebration of the turning year. They are so sorry, they wouldn't dream of trying to take the island from its new priestess, (they have realised that Morgana's power is stronger than they thought, Gwen thinks uncharitably), the rogue elements have been purged and they only want to live in peace.
Morgana cuts them off, with a sharp movement of her hand.
"Enough," she says. "You want to perform your harmless ceremonies? You will be welcome at my gates as supplicants. But I am priestess of this island and its power flows through my hands; you may not draw from it apart from me and I will overthrow any attempts to take it from me."
"Your reverence is gracious-" begins the leader of the Druids.
"I have not finished. I am not Nimueh. I will demand no price from you in blood or servitude -- don't argue! The power of this place fills my very veins and my will is all that holds it together. Did you think I could not tell what has happened here in the past? I will preserve the balance, and you may draw on that balance for your own faith, but Nimueh's magic was dark and foul and I will not permit any person to continue practices such as that."
The Druid leader looks cowed, but also relieved and he rises a little in Gwen's estimation.
"You are gracious indeed," he says. "May we now collect the boy? I can assure you he will only be apprenticed to a man of peace in future."
"No," says Morgana. "This is my price. Mordred has more magic in his blood than any one of you and twice now you have let that be abused. His first master brought him into Camelot, where his mere existence was a death sentence; his second master used him as a tool to steal from me by intrigue what could not be taken openly. He is a child, not a weapon; you may send him teachers, but the child stays with me."
So their island community grows to include a half-dozen Druids, with others visiting on the great feasts of the old religion.
Morgana still disappears sometimes into a realm that no one else can see, but she is raising Mordred as her own and his presence anchors her more firmly to reality. She is recognized unquestionably as the island's lady, ruler of both its seen and unseen worlds, but she also plays games of catch with her foster son in its groves and teaches him basic swordplay and strategy, with wooden sticks and conjured toy soldiers.
Gwen herself remains the island's seneschal. She plans the village's expansion and settles its people's disputes. She trades with mainlanders, food in exchange for spells, amulets for protection or a blessing for crops and she directs the knights on loan from Camelot.
And having thought carefully, she has her people build her a forge. The island community is too small to really need its own blacksmith, but there are justifications for being self-sufficient. And every justification aside, it is a comfort to Gwen that when her work as Morgana's deputy is done she can retreat into a place of her childhood and continue her father's craft.
She is working at the smithy when Lancelot returns. It is not usual for Arthur to send them the same knights twice in a six-month period, but she suspects and hopes that Lancelot has asked for the duty.
She is hammering out a sword; it will not be as great as her father's finest work, but Morgana has tempered the iron with the tiniest amount of magic and it will be powerful and sharp in the hands of a true knight.
Lancelot watches until she is done, setting the hot metal carefully aside to cool.
"Is my lady free for the evening?" he asks.
She smiles. "Let me tidy up and I can be all yours."
He blushes and she realises what she has said, but she has no inclination to take it back.
He catches at her work stained hand and drops a daring kiss on her lips. She kisses back for a moment and then moves away, asking him what the news is from Camelot.
They talk of old friends as they leave the forge. There is no hurry; they have all the time in the world.
Arthur thinks he has grown into his role.
He sits in judgement in the great Hall and resists the temptation to tell even petty petitioners that they are being stupid and should work their disputes out without involving their King.
He trains his knights, no longer just a suitable pastime for an idle Prince, but to turn them into the elite force of his army. Merlin and Lancelot having confessed to their deception over Lancelot's birth, he has opened the ranks to the best contenders regardless of status; it has not been popular as an interference with the social order, but has had a galvanising effect on the knights' effectiveness. Arthur's borders are now far more secure than his father's ever were.
And always by his side, he has Merlin.
When he thought vaguely about what his reign would be like, he used to picture himself surrounded by his father's councillors. That was probably naive. Gaius is still present, old and weak, but always loyal. But several others have retired and still more Arthur pensioned off when it became clear that they thought they could control a young king.
He had also always assumed he would have Morgana; not a comfortable councillor and often a thorn in his side, but one person he could trust to always tell him truth, to voice the uncomfortable facts he didn't want to hear. That was also naive; if Uther had lived, Morgana would have made a diplomatic marriage, as surely gone from Camelot as she is now. She has visited Camelot only once since becoming the Lady of the Isle and admitted to Arthur then that she is uncomfortable being away from it for long.
The magic has changed her, made her something alien and strange, although both Lancelot and Gwen assure him that he must trust her to have it under control, that she really does live in the real world too, that she is still Morgana and the magic does not control her.
Instead of Morgana's cool insight and biting wisdom, Arthur has Merlin. Merlin, who has power running through him that could destroy all Camelot without exertion, who worked for years as the worst servant Arthur ever had, whose face has always been quick to betray his opinions, but who successfully hid his secrets from Uther's entire court.
Merlin is more powerful than any warlock in Geoffrey's records, he is everything Arthur was raised to fear and hate, yet his presence in court balances Arthur's judgement, centres his self confidence as nothing else can do.
"You're a prat," says the greatest sorcerer in history, as they leave the audience chamber. "Jack really believes that you will let him plough up the southern practice ground if he can only beat your best knight in one on one combat."
"That's not what I said," protests Arthur. "I said I would let no one tamper with my army's training even if they could defeat Lancelot. If he's stupid enough to believe that that's an instruction, he deserves everything he gets. Besides there's no way that fat old fool is going to risk either his skin or his dignity trying."
"And wouldn't it be funny to see if he did?" admits Merlin with a grin.
"I do appreciate you sitting in on these sessions," says Arthur, suddenly serious. "I know they're a waste of your talents..."
"Hey, I'm glad to. Besides, the things which call for magic usually involve complete ignorance of what I'm trying to do, frantic research and a day or two of sheer terror. And that's when you're not endangering your life and the kingdom's stability by trying to kill magical monsters with your little bitty sword."
"I resent that. I don't rush in every time. The kelpie last week totally doesn't count; she had you mesmerised and about to drown. Besides, there's nothing little about my sword," he leers.
"Is that an offer to find out?" asks Merlin.
Arthur looks up sharply, unable to tell if he is joking. It would be a lie to say he's never thought about Merlin, even a lie to say that it's the thought of propositioning a sorcerer who could kill him with a thought that holds him back. Arthur has never liked to be in anyone's power, but Merlin is already an exception to every rule. But he has so much already and he needs Merlin so greatly that the risk has never seemed worthwhile.
Merlin is looking back at him steadily, all humour gone from his gaze. This can happen if Arthur wants it.
His hand reaches out, independent of thought, to cup the back of Merlin's head, to draw him into a tentative kiss.
Merlin kisses back? Merlin kisses back! The kiss quickly changes from gentle and shy to intense. Arthur backs his court magician up against the corridor wall so he can press closely against him and nip at his ridiculous, delightful ears. Someone moans, and Arthur is not sure whether it is him or Merlin.
Something in the corridor starts to glow. Arthur didn't know that Merlin responded to desire by creating light, but it makes sense; his control is better now than when Arthur first discovered his magic, but Arthur has seen candles flare to light and books fall from shelves when Merlin is concentrating on something else. It is deeply satisfying to know that he can have the same effect.
The glowing light clears its throat. "Well, excuse me," it says, in Morgana's voice.
Ah. Perhaps Merlin isn't creating it after all.
They fall apart, although Arthur keeps one hand pressed to Merlin's back. Morgana's image is floating in the corridor like a ghost.
"So you have worked that out, at last?" she asks. "I'm sorry to interrupt, but I'm maintaining a very complex spell here and you don't have much time. The Mercians are gathering their army. They march on your northern border tomorrow."
"What?" demands Arthur. The Mercians have been distant since he assumed the throne, but not aggressive.
Merlin leans forward. "Are you sure of the timing?" he asks. "We've had no warning from the scouts on the border."
"I know what I saw," says Morgana. "I had the vision this morning. You need to act quickly, or all villages north of Hambor will be laid waste. There was a lot of blood," she adds quietly. "Good luck."
She fades away and they are left staring at a blank stone wall.
"Did you know that she could do that?" asks Arthur.
"No, but it's a good thing she can," says Merlin prosaically. "If she had sent a messenger on horseback we'd never have time to get to the border."
"When we get back, we have unfinished business," says Arthur.
He strides quickly back towards the great Hall, to call out the army. Merlin is behind him, a shadow at his right hand.
The battle is swift, but brutal.
Arthur might feel sorry for the Mercians, expecting to sweep down on helpless peasants and instead facing an army backed by the Sorcerer Merlin. But he knows what would have happened to those helpless peasants (his subjects) and despite Merlin's presence he has seen his soldiers die today in defence of Camelot, his realm, their homes. Merlin's magic called down fire, spread terror, led the Mercian troops astray; it could not replace Arthur's human army. They are in great debt to Merlin this day, but much is also owed to Arthur's generals.
Two squires hastily set up a pavilion, where Arthur can sit in state to receive the Mercians' surrender.
This scene is carefully staged, Merlin in ominous black silk, Warlock's staff in his hand (although he rode into battle in mail and leather as practical as Arthur's own). Arthur's knights and men at arms stand round the walls of the tent, every least detail speaking of Camelot's power and a great King's displeasure.
Merlin is on Arthur's right-hand and Lancelot on his left. Lancelot will be appointed King's Champion today. It is a tribute he deserves, but it will serve multiple purposes to announce it in hearing of the Mercian prisoners. Camelot's neighbours need to know that it is not just magic that will keep at his kingdom safe, that his warriors can also match anything an enemy throws at them.
Every man on today's battlefield has seen Sir Lancelot in his strength; one moment fighting at Arthur's side, the next bringing down the Mercian standard. He is a great warrior, but also a great general; a strategist and a councillor on matters of state. He has also been spending an increasing amount of time on the Isle of the Blessed. Arthur does not begrudge him or Gwen their happiness, but knows that they were fortunate to have him in Camelot when Morgana's warning arrived. He selfishly hopes he can keep Lancelot's service a while longer, hopes that Lancelot understands the ways in which he makes Arthur's Court more secure.
Arthur's terms are hard, involving both tribute and fealty. They are not so harsh as to beggar the entire Mercian kingdom or to make its peasants starve, but they will humble its princes in the eyes of their people and make them loath to take on Camelot's power again.
Arthur prefers to win allies with respect and fair dealing, but they have clearly failed in this case. Now he only hopes to walk a proper line between keeping his kingdom safe and not creating resentment that will fester into hatred and invasion.
"That was well done," says Lancelot once the audience is over and the chastened Mercian princes have been bound with treaties and sent back home.
Merlin is nodding in agreement. "Your father could not have done it." Arthur thinks of harmless magicians, petty magic users turned into traitors by a draconian law. He hopes to avoid that, but how can he know?
"I mean it," Merlin insists. "You are a great King."
The Court Magician smiles slyly and draws his King back towards his own tent. It is less opulent, but more practical than the pavilion where Arthur sat in state; and it contains a very functional bed.
"And now, Great King," he says, "I believe we were interrupted..."
Neither Arthur nor Merlin has been back to the Isle of the Blessed since the tumultuous year in which Arthur became King. Morgana has visited Camelot once in the flesh and three times by projection and knights and traders have carried news back and forth, but this is the first time that Merlin has seen for himself what has become, a bustling village where the marks of trade and magic and the druidic religion intermingle on every corner.
He is not sure he likes it; at the very least it makes him uncomfortable. It is not a question of power; Morgana's grasp on the island is as deep as the Earth, but Merlin's control of his magic has also multiplied in the last five years and he knows that his power is still the greater. And other than Morgana, he could swat any of these magic users aside without much effort, regardless of what trappings their magic wears.
No, he does not feel threatened. But magic here is practised as the old religion. Morgana may have set the terms of what can and cannot be done on the island, but she has also adopted the ritual practised by her druidic guests and taught to the boy Mordred by his tutors.
The people here are drawn from all over Britain, self-selected to be willing to live in a place where reality is wafer thin and the physical world could change at the least touch of magic. Few are actually Druids, but they live their lives in a weird synthesis of their own traditions and the druidic year, a cycle of seasons, of ceremonial acknowledgement of the source of the power which holds this island together and of gratitude for sustenance from the Earth.
Merlin has built his own code of principles for use of magic, his own morality to judge when the ends do not justify the means. But he feels no need to pray to the Earth or propitiate it for his power. Magic does not come to him through ritual's mysticism, it simply is, there whenever he needs it, overflowing at his fingertips. Small wonder that this island's people made him uneasy. He thinks he may be starting to understand the things that have been troubling the realm.
Arthur's throne seems secure. The surrounding kings are his allies or his vassals; few people are now foolish enough to think they can take advantage of the King's relative youth.
But not everything has been going well. In recent months, the endless round of diplomatic visits has been becoming ever more intense. Merlin knows the cause of that. Every neighbouring prince or baron of Camelot who has a daughter is eyeing up the empty throne at Arthur's side; those without daughters (or sisters, or nieces, or female second cousins) are sniping in fear that their rivals will gain an advantage they can not. As Arthur's lover, Merlin is thrilled that Arthur is his alone. As the King's chief councillor, he knows Arthur needs to take a Queen.
And not every problem can be put down to the normal court politics. Sightings of magical beasts have been increasing again. Unicorns or silver hawks are benevolent, if uncanny but griffins and wyverns can pose a serious threat. (Arthur and Lancelot took great delight in leading a troupe of the younger knights against those last two beasts.) There has been nothing too troublesome, but the magic in the Earth is unsettled again.
To the west, the Druids remain as distantly polite as ever since Arthur's coronation, but gossip carried to Camelot by traders suggests a rising sense of distrust. That, Merlin had not been able to understand; Morgana does not rule this island as part of Camelot, but the Druids surely recognize the connection between them and they seem to feel at home well enough here. Now he wonders if the problem is simply the gulf between the ways they understand the world and the traditions of Camelot.
Arthur seems glad enough to have left the court for a little while anyway; he talks jokily with some of the traders on the street and pauses outside the smithy for Gwen to fling herself into first his arms and then Merlin's.
Because of course this entire island society is Gwen's creation. She built it, she administers it, Morgana's strong right hand and voice of common sense. Merlin stops feeling quite so adrift; however strange these customs are to him, Gwen approves them and practices them.
They make their way to Morgana's villa, a delicate wooden hall that is larger inside than out and where the walls rearrange themselves at will. Those knights who have visited the island regularly stride confidently ahead: Arthur, used to the overflow of Merlin's magic mutters "At least I can assume that these shifting walls are deliberate," and follows. But at least half their party are new here and bunch together behind Merlin in fear.
Morgana had asked them to visit, her message delivered by conventional methods this time, but betraying concern behind the formal words. Tonight they will feast, but tomorrow they must parlay and Merlin is increasingly sure that Morgana has the same concerns he does.
It is as Merlin thought; the magic users to the west fear Camelot's ascendancy. Merlin's place of honour and influence at court is not enough to reassure them, given his lack of respect for their traditions.
If Merlin is shocked by anything at all, it is only the frankness with which Morgana makes herself a spokeswoman for these people beyond Camelot's borders. After a little further discussion it is also clear that knowledge of the diplomatic unrest between the various major kingdoms is not helping matters either.
"Can we speak privately?" asks Arthur. Morgana raises an eyebrow, but nods. Her servants leave the room, together with Mordred (now a gangly youth) and Arthur directs all his knights but Lancelot to follow them. There are five of them now, Arthur, Morgana Gwen, Merlin and Lancelot. It could almost be old times.
Merlin knows what Arthur is about to suggest; they discussed it at length last night. He doesn't like it very much, but he agrees that it is the best thing to do.
"My kingdom is mine," says Arthur. "I hold it and I will not permit any lord to think he can hold it to ransom or manipulate his way into my favour. But it is also a kingdom where those of all beliefs, those who can use magic and those who fear it should be able to live in peace, without fear or favour. It is time for me to marry."
Three faces turn at once to Merlin who holds his own face impassive. Lancelot has known of the King's love almost as long as Merlin has; Gwen and Morgana knew shortly thereafter. "Sire, you know I agree," says Merlin.
"This is a matter of state," Arthur continues. "The good of the kingdom may often demand sacrifice, and this would be a sacrifice for us all. I can demand that of myself, I will not force the sacrifice from any of you unless you are willing. Yet the kingdom must have a Queen and I will not give the influence of being the Queen's family to any of my rival kings or ambitious lords. For the common people of Camelot, who fear being swamped by outsiders, or overrun by magic, the Queen should be a woman they can recognize as one of their own. But for our neighbours to the west who are magic users and the earth itself which feels their unease she should be a woman they also know and trust."
Arthur pauses and fixes his gaze on each of them in turn. "Guinevere," he says, "will you do me the very great honour of becoming my wife?"
Running a kingdom, Gwen has found is very little different to running an Island community. The scale is somewhat larger, but the petty squabbles are the same and the tactical planning to ensure that Camelot's farms bring in an appropriate mix of rye and barley is not unlike the issue she faced when Meg, Eddie and Aneirin all wanted to set up specialist leather working shops on the same street.
The politics can be more complicated at court, but the pigs are less likely to turn into rats when the wind is in the wrong quarter and in Camelot she has never yet had her hairbrush sprout wings.
She has been pleased to discover that she has almost as much influence in running the kingdom as she had when Morgana delegated the island to her. She had wondered whether she had agreed to become a trophy, a figurehead to stop unrest, but if Merlin sits at Arthur's right-hand in deliberations, she is at his left, Lancelot across the table. Her husband is not only courteous to her in public, he truly values her advice. It surprises her a bit; she had not thought herself particularly wise in the days when she was a servant at Camelot, though she trusts her own abilities now.
The commoners call her Guinevere the Just; she remembers a blacksmith's daughter sent to the castle as a serving maid and she wonders which one of them is the dream.
"But I used you as my moral touchstone for years," Merlin tells her in a rare moment of honesty. "Working out how magic worked, whenever I couldn't tell what was right, I asked myself 'what would Gwen do?'"
She appreciates the thought. But honest moments with Merlin happen more rarely nowadays. He is her husband's lover after all, although neither of them flaunt it for the world to see.
On their wedding night, Arthur had reached for her diffidently, kissed her hesitantly on the lips, so different from Lancelot's confident touch. She thought of the golden prince she had once known, the great king he had become, but Arthur, the man did not rouse her.
They broke apart and Arthur grinned at her, ruefully. "It's not going to work, is it?" he asked. Gwen heard the unspoken subtext: he had not been with anyone but Merlin for years and did not want anyone else. It was a compliment, of sorts, that he could say so, rather than fumbling through a diplomatic consummation.
They each settled into their respective sides of the marriage bed, the last time that Gwen has shared it with him.
"You know, I would never require more of you than is reasonable," he murmured as they fell asleep. "I would never expect more than I can give you."
She has always thought that was oblique permission for her to go back to Lancelot, but still she hesitates.
The rules are different for queens than for kings. Queen Guinevere's chastity is not a matter just for Arthur; it has the power to rouse or inflame the people, it can become a weapon in the hands of the King's enemies.
It might be different, if she had ever really had Lancelot. But their paths had crossed for perhaps two months out of the year, they had stolen brief hours of comfort and love among the duties they each owed their King or their Lady. He was never hers.
Lancelot is the King's Champion, bound to Arthur in honour, duty and love. He might come to her, but he would see it as a betrayal.
So she lives as Queen, in lonely state, watches Lancelot across the Great Hall, smiles when their eyes meet or at the occasional brush of his hand. It will have to be enough.
She does sometimes wonder what it would be like to have all her husband's passion turned on her; would their wedding night have been different, if it had been more than a duty to him? But Merlin would always have been between them and even if she never touches him again, Lancelot is in her heart. She can no more seduce Arthur than Lancelot.
Arthur is now the King who was all her hope, the dream on which she pinned her hopes when she lived under the rule of a tyrant and suffered judicial murder of her Father. How many people live to see their dreams come true, to help shape those dreams into reality?
He is shrewd but compassionate and has made the court of Camelot into a vibrant place, where people do not live in fear.
And people are drawn to his court. There are always the never ending emissaries, but young knights come merely to pledge him there service, outlying barons to give him their fealty.
There is even a grouping of poetical young men who vie with each other to write the most extravagant poems in the Queen's honour. One of them is Morgana's Mordred who for all his uncanny telepathy has proven more adept with a sword than with magic. Not quite on the brink of adulthood, he serves in the court, now as a squire, but he hopes to become a knight.
Her marriage has quietened both the political and the magical unrest. Camelot's knights rarely need fight more than a skirmish these days. The business of the kingdom is settled at Arthur's table, where she has a weighty influence.
She is not Arthur's wife, but she is his consort. She focuses her attention on statecraft, and most of the time she is more than content.
Her content is rudely shattered when Merlin draws her aside one day.
She sometimes misses the easy camaraderie of their youth, but the problem is not simply, or even mainly, that Merlin is her husband's lover. The magic Gwen knows is ceremonial; prayers alongside spells, libations poured out on the earth in thanks for its power.
And then she is faced with Merlin.
Merlin draws on power as easily as breathing, and unleashes magic with a slight motion of his hand or a golden glow in his eye, seems entirely undisturbed by any thought that magic may be limited, or have a price to pay.
She does not distrust him, she respects his opinions in council and acknowledges his wisdom, but she finds such boundless magic fearsome.
So they talk mainly in public, and it is almost unprecedented when he takes her arm and leads her to a room -- in fact a linen storeroom, and doesn't that bring back memories? -- where they may be private.
He looks uncertain and for a moment she sees past his imposing robes to the young manservant she once knew.
"Look Guinevere," he begins, "Gwen. I was accosted by Mordred today. And let me tell you it's very uncomfortable to be challenged by a boy of fifteen."
She raises an eyebrow in question.
"He's worked out that Arthur and I are lovers," Merlin says. "To say he was unhappy would be an understatement. I did assure him that you knew, but that didn't help much. He's not a fool and he was old enough to have noticed that there was something between you and Lancelot on the island."
She nods wordlessly.
"But he is adamant that you gave Lancelot up for Arthur, that it's deeply unfair that Arthur should have me and leave you with nothing. I hadn't thought... I had assumed you would... but he's right isn't he? You must know that Arthur would never expect that of you."
"I could point out," she says, "that my love life is really no concern of a lowly squire. Are you saying you want me to take a lover to satisfy Mordred?"
"No," he says, "but to satisfy yourself? I mean, not if you don't want Lancelot, or anyone in particular. But you shouldn't hesitate if you do. I'm speaking for Arthur as well. We know you gave up a lot to be Queen, but we want you to be happy."
For a moment, the years roll back between them and she reaches up to hug the greatest sorcerer in the world.
That evening, when Lancelot bows courteously to ask for her hand in the dance she smiles and leads him instead to a secluded garden. "I think we should talk," she says, and she kisses him for the first time in years.
The realm is at peace, the harvest has been plentiful and Arthur is content as he surveys his court.
He inherited a kingdom racked with suspicion and under attack by its neighbours; he has built a prosperous country where the King's justice holds the faith of the people and he is High King of all of Britain.
And despite everything his father ever said about kings ruling alone, he is surrounded by trusted friends and advisers. Merlin, always his hope and centre, but also Gwen, Lancelot, even the younger knights such as Mordred, grown brave and strong. Only Morgana is missing, her destiny stranger than his.
He should have known this cosy lifestyle could not last forever.
"Arthur," says Gwen. "I'm pregnant."
They are sitting over wine in the King's chamber; Gwen and Lancelot have requested an audience: that alone should have warned Arthur that something was serious.
It is not that he had never considered such a thing, in the years after Merlin basically told the other couple to stop being so stupid, but Gwen is approaching forty now, nearly at the end of her childbearing years.
"I want this baby," she says.
"I never expected anything else," he says, honestly. He looks at Lancelot and back to Gwen. "You must know that I would be honoured for any child of yours to be my heir."
Gwen relaxes a little. Lancelot's hands tighten on his cup, although he does not say anything. All of them have made building this kingdom the heart of their life's work, snatching their personal joy in among it where they can. This would be just one more sacrifice for Lancelot, to see his son raised by another man.
"Thank you," says Gwen. "I thought you would say that, but I had to ask. But I don't know that I want to raise my child to believe a lie."
"You need to be sure," says Merlin. "We will support anything you choose, but we can't afford to declare in three or four years time that Arthur's son is not his after all."
"How long until you start to show?" asks Arthur.
"Maybe two or three months, if I'm careful with my dresses."
"Then think about it some more," he says, although he knows Gwen now and he is almost sure she will want to raise her child with the man she loves. "Just please promise me that if you're going to leave the court, you won't let Mordred believe I threw you out?"
Three months later, Lancelot and Gwen leave for the Isle of the Blessed.
Their true goodbyes have been said in private, with tears and hugs and manly claps to the shoulder. They have made many promises to write, and more promises to ensure no one (and particularly the Druids) believes that this augurs enmity between Camelot and Morgana. But even so, Arthur knows it will be difficult to meet either of them in person again.
Their official departure has been stage-managed by Gwen herself. They leave at dawn, without ceremony and without anyone to see them off. That is why Arthur and Merlin are watching from the ramparts.
Tonight, Arthur will make a bland announcement that the Queen has left court; Lancelot's absence will not be mentioned at all, though it will surely be noted by gossiping tongues.
Hints of the true story has been carefully scattered, a serving maid permitted a glimpse of a slightly rounded belly, a stable boy who saw the lovers ride out alone together last week. It hurts Arthur's heart that the story believed will be one of betrayal and dishonour, but Gwen was adamant; people will understand a brief and torrid affair ending in either banishment or elopement; they would not accept the truth.
Arthur only hopes he will not start making stupid decisions once he has lost Gwen's clever, strategic mind from among his advisers.
He watches the two small figures on horseback until the road enters woodland. They turn to look back just before they are lost to sight and Arthur and Merlin both wave frantically. The last glimpse of Camelot should be of friends.
Morgana wakes screaming, with the horror of her dreams.
This is unusual; it has been some years since she slept regularly and more years yet since her visions came at night through her subconscious. Normally the other world is always before her, not quite here and not quite now, something she sees in double vision.
Not only are her waiting women in the room, but Gwen and Lancelot too. She must have been screaming for quite some time.
"Camelot!" she gasps.
"It's all right," says Lancelot. "We can send word."
But the Isle of the Blessed is increasingly cut off from the material world. Its people grow ever stranger and more fey; often there is no route to be found through the mists of the lake and she might fear her people would starve were it not that their provisions multiply and change in strange and abnormal ways.
"There is no time," she says. "I will send to Merlin magically and I only hope he can hear me."
Merlin looks out over the battlefield and draws breath. For once he feels every day of his age. He has thrown the power of the enemy warlocks back for now, their footsoldiers drawing back to regroup once they no longer have the cover of magical protection, but he can feel them gathering power again and knows this is only a temporary reprieve.
He sends a small tendril of magic to calm his horse; the world is becoming more mundane, magic fading, his power an anomaly. The men and beasts of Camelot are no longer used to fighting a sorcerer's battle. If he were gone, Mordred's minor magic would be the strongest left in the kingdom. He had been sure the world was changing, leaving him behind.
Then came Morgana's frantic message, sea dogs, Saxons attacking the kingdom, accompanied by their last great warlocks. There is work for the Court Magician again.
"Great warlocks" is something of an understatement -- for the first time in a long time, Merlin is not sure that this is a battle he can win.
This is the last battle, Morgana promised, it will set the kingdom's future for many generations; there could be a golden age of peace, but if Arthur falls, if the Saxons win, all the glory of Camelot will be swept away in decades of war.
The invaders swoop down again and Merlin throws himself into the fighting. One moment he is holding up the sky, pushing back malevolent magic, the next flinging fireballs into the enemy ranks, then aiming his staff directly at individual warriors.
The enemy sorcerers are drawing on the lives of their soldiers he realises in sick horror. It may count against them if the Britons can persevere long enough, but for now their ranks seem endless. They are neither as strong nor as skilled as he is, but he rejected Necromancy in the days of his youth and he will not turn to it now.
He reaches inside himself and then deeper into Camelot's earth. He draws on the amoral power of magic and reinforces it with all his own moral indignation. He casts a shield across all his men, keeps their lives safe from the enemy's spells and flings himself above them at the three points of darkness that are the Saxon warlocks.
For an instant he is the power, shapeless, flying above the earth, swooping like an eagle, striking like a snake. Then he falls back into his own body, breathing heavily. The warlocks are destroyed. Camelot has truly human battle to fight.
Merlin ploughs back into the fray, looking always for Arthur's helm. The King is fighting fiercely, urging on his army and Merlin rides towards him.
Two Saxons strike at his horse and he turns to despatch them. He has lost sight of Arthur for a moment. But no -- the king is surrounded, fighting valiantly, but with five Saxons against him. Merlin raises his staff, but he is too far away to take them all out. Then a golden knight appears suddenly beside the king, his sword swinging valiantly, two more knights behind him and they triumph together.
Merlin thinks that he knows that crest, but then the battle sweeps over them again and the King's Sorcerer must focus on the matter at hand.
The battle is over. They have lost many men, but they have won.
Merlin clings to Morgana's promise that this is the last battle before a time of peace. He is too old for war, although he knows that his age will not stop him from being whatever Arthur needs him to be.
They regroup on the battlefield. Arthur is moving stiffly, bleeding from his left shoulder. Mordred, now a father himself and a King's councillor, is tugging at his chainmail, but the King waves him away.
"Don't be an idiot," Merlin says, taking over from Mordred and exposing a nasty wound. He touches its edges gently and they slowly knit together. This wound will not be fatal, but Merlin's lover has grown old.
Arthur draws himself up to receive his generals. The knight in golden armour rides up beside them.
"We were nearly too late," says Lancelot, removing his helm and kneeling before his king. His companions dismount behind him; one is Gwen, clad all in a man's armour, the other is a vibrant young man.
"Sire," says Lancelot, "I am honoured to present my son, Galahad."
Merlin stares. Neither Lancelot nor Gwen looks a day older than when they left Camelot for the last time. He is very aware of his own white head, Arthur's grey hairs.
"We can't stay long," says Gwen. "Morgana thinks the way will soon close forever between the kingdoms of men and the Isle of the Blessed."
"Yes, she's right," says Merlin. He feels the truth of it in his bones. He is an anomaly, a man out of time, the last great sorcerer in a world where magic no longer rules.
He is so weary, but he knows he will continue as long as Arthur needs him.
"You could come with us," says Gwen. "Both of you, I mean. On Morgana's island you will grow young again."
The thought is tempting, but Merlin's eyes turn to his King.
"Magic is fading?" asks Arthur. "You will not be leaving the kingdom unprotected?"
"I'm sure of it," he says, hope leaping in his chest.
"And Mordred?" asks the King. "You will stay?" The papers appointing Mordred Arthur's heir have been signed and sealed in Camelot for a decade. But there will be no smooth transition of power if Mordred wants to return to the home and family of his youth.
"I will," says Mordred. Merlin even believes it is not a difficult choice; Mordred has not only a kingdom, but a wife and three children in the world of men. For him, the price of returning to the Isle of the Blessed would be too high.
"Merlin? Will you travel once again with me?" asks Arthur. Merlin takes his lover's hand, presses his lips to Arthur's knuckles, the greatest show of affection he will make before the assembled knights and generals.
"Arthur, I will," he says.
A small group of people assemble on a misty lake shore. A boat is drawn up here. It has neither sail nor oars, but Merlin steps into it confidently, places his hand on the prow.
Arthur takes his place beside him, gazing at an unknown future, Gwen, Lancelot and their son sit in the rear. With one last farewell they glide away into the mists.
Mordred stands alone on the beach, watching the greatest heroes of his age pass into legend.
Read posted comments.