"Your third task is the most difficult of all," said Arthur. He looked both magicians in the eye before continuing. "I suffer from a mysterious ailment." He inclined his head toward Wyllt. "According to you, more than one." He cleared his throat. "But this ailment is different. To the best of my knowledge, it also lacks any easy cure. I wish you to diagnose me, treat me, and attempt to rid me of this problem. You have a week, and the resources of the castle and its staff are at your disposal. Good luck."
For sure, they would have better luck if Arthur actually did suffer from the mysterious ailment he claimed, but that was not the point of the task. He stepped from his throne and set off for his chambers. Accolon followed him. Wyllt did not.
Wyllt showed up that same evening, after Arthur had finished court matters and had spoken to his advisors about the current affairs of the kingdom. Arthur felt exhausted; undergoing Accolon's medical inquisition had held the potential to be quite hilarious, but instead had been simply tiring. The man had actually asked Arthur if he had ever copulated with a sheep. ("Just making sure, your highness," he had said awkwardly.)
Arthur sighed heavily when Wyllt arrived, but he stepped out of the way to let Wyllt enter. The sorcerer leaned heavily on his staff, his feet scuffing on the floor, but spared the time to give Arthur a curious look. "Do you not have a manservant, to open and close doors for you?"
"I have many," said Arthur, "But I often wish to be left alone. So, have you come to interrogate me?"
"No," said Wyllt. "I have only one question. Well. Two questions."
"Will you answer honestly?"
Arthur nodded, impatient.
"Does the Queen share your bed?"
Arthur's jaw worked. "Yes," he said finally, thinking of the night before. "She does."
Wyllt nodded slowly, as if in respectful disbelief. "Does anyone else?"
"No," Arthur said sharply. "Never. Why, do you take me as a victim of the whore's pox? "
"It is not my job to judge you, my King," Wyllt said softly.
"The answer is still no."
Wyllt inclined his head in acknowledgment--Gwen was right, there was something of Gaius about Wyllt, a manner that inspired Arthur's trust when the sorcerer himself had not earned it--and took his leave.
Over the next two days, it seemed that wherever Arthur went in the castle, Accolon and Wyllt were underfoot. Knights and servants seemed bemused by their presence, more than anything, although a few of the serving girls tittered nervously whenever Accolon passed them in the halls. For all Accolon's faults, Arthur had to admit he was a handsome man. He seemed a little more harried each time Arthur saw him, though, and often he had his nose buried in a book. Occasionally, Arthur spotted him gathering ingredients from around the castle: a handful of dried herbs, a small acorn, cat's scat, a lady's brooch.
Wyllt, on the other hand, wandered the corridors as aimlessly as a wraith, leaning heavily on his walking stick. Most of the castle's workers were wary around the old man, but a few, he managed to win over. Arthur even heard him laughing and joking with the cook, a grouchy beast of a woman who was notorious for whapping young boys with her wooden spoon if they came too close to her pots.
The sorcerer truly piqued Arthur's curiosity, however, when Arthur visited the training fields only to see, from a distance, Wyllt engaged in conversation with Sir Lancelot. Neither man noticed him. Arthur waited, observing their expressions and body language. Lancelot seemed faintly suspicious of the man, but was answering his questions; Wyllt, for his part, was acknowledging Lancelot's distrust, keeping his hands open and in full view. Arthur wondered that Wyllt was even aware of Lancelot's unease; it betrayed a level of awareness that the sorcerer had not previously shown.
Finally, Wyllt said something that made Lancelot break into a surprised laugh. The sorcerer laughed with him, nodded at Lancelot in thanks, then started back to the castle, leaning on his staff. Arthur waited until Wyllt was out of earshot before he approached.
Lancelot snapped to attention. "My King."
"Lancelot," Arthur nodded. "At ease, dear friend." He glanced after Wyllt's retreating form. "What was he asking you?"
Lancelot, looking thoughtful, chafed his hands together to warm them. "Very strange questions, my lord," he said finally. "At first, Wyllt said he was attempting to diagnose a man's ailment, but then he spent the whole time asking me about you. He seemed very concerned to know what kind of king you were, and whether you were fair and just."
"Hmm." Arthur wondered what Wyllt hoped to accomplish with his questions. "Strange, indeed. Was that all?"
"Not all, sire." Lancelot looked uncomfortable. "He also asked about Queen Guenevere."
Arthur inhaled sharply. "About the two of you?"
Lancelot nodded. "He didn't say so, sire. Not explicitly. But I think he knew."
Arthur knew that Lancelot's anxiety was caused not by meddlesome sorcerers, but by his fear of Arthur's reaction. They had never spoken of their arrangement beyond the vaguest of terms; most of their negotiations, if they could be called that, had been conducted through Guenevere herself. Arthur knew that Lancelot, like he, half-believed that the grave reality of their situation could be avoided if only they did not grant it voice.
Guenevere, on her part, called them both idiots.
"It doesn't matter," said Arthur. "Whatever Wyllt knows, I have faith he will not tell the court. And nothing anyone says will affect my decision." He placed his hand on Lancelot's shoulder and squeezed, feeling solid muscle beneath the metal links of hauberk. "You love my Guenevere, Lancelot, and she, you. Even a king may not stand between such forces."
"A king may not," Lancelot murmured, "but a friend may. Gwen loves you dearly. You need only say the word, and she is yours, and yours alone. I would not--" He broke off. "I would simply rejoice that you had finally found happiness, sire."
Arthur sighed, gave Lancelot a last pat on the shoulder, and drew back. "My words seem to fall on deaf ears today, Lancelot."
"I'm sorry, sire."
"As I have been trying to tell you," said Arthur, "don't be sorry."
He walked away before Lancelot could respond, hating himself for the unspoken envy that bound up his insides.
As Arthur made his way back to the throne room, he passed Wyllt, sitting on the steps that led to what had once been Morgana's room. The sight of him filled Arthur with anger. He knew most of his frustrations were not caused by Wyllt, but he made as good a target as any.
"Sorcerer, do you find your stay in Camelot comfortable?" Arthur asked icily. "Be glad that I am not judging you on laziness, or I fear that you would be disqualified for your current resemblance to a rotten tree stump. As a magician, your skill seems to be in sitting and doing no one any good."
"Forgive me, your highness," Wyllt said with infuriating calm. "For just as I appear a stump, mine eyes deceive me and tell me that noble King Arthur bears striking resemblance to a rabid boar with a thorn in his side."
"I could have you thrown in the stocks for those words," Arthur growled. "No, worse-I could have you executed. Do you have some sick want for pain?"
Wyllt ignored Arthur's threats, turning instead to face the direction of Morgana's old room. "I had heard King Uther had a ward," he said. "What became of her? Married?"
"Madness," said Arthur. "She fell victim to hysteria and ran off into the woods." Wyllt actually looked startled at that, and perhaps a bit sorry he'd asked. Arthur grimaced. "She's all right, though," he added. "Wherever she is, she's alive. She sends letters, sometimes, but always full of strange ramblings." It was more than Arthur had spoken of Morgana in years. He felt somewhat guilty having wasted the words on an attempt to provoke Wyllt; his anger faded, leaving blankness and old grief in its wake.
Arthur gazed at the steps. He still remembered Morgana's last days in Camelot--her pale, bruised skin, and her wild, frightened eyes. Neither his nor Gwen's words had helped, nor their desperate attempts to convince her to stay.
"I'm sorry," said Wyllt. "I didn't know."
Arthur didn't bother with a response. The sorcerer was dangerous; he made Arthur feel off-balance. Arthur walked on, quick to leave before Wyllt's mulish behavior drove him to more confessions, or else completely justified murder.
Later that evening, one of the girls who fancied Accolon followed him out to the lake as he gathered herbs. She foolishly ventured onto a slippery stone, fell into the water, and began to drown. Accolon could not swim; he tried to tug her to shore by magical means, but the surface of the lake bent back his attempts like light through a prism.
Arthur was busy back at the castle, meeting with his advisors to draft a letter of trade to the king of Mercia. Wyllt had somehow infiltrated the throne room, and was sitting in a corner being completely distracting. In fact, he appeared to be weaving a basket. If Arthur had not been trying so hard--and failing--to ignore Wyllt, he might not have noticed the precise moment when Wyllt's head jerked up. The sorcerer looked alarmed, as if he had heard a distant shout.
"The girl Elaine is in trouble," he told Arthur. He grabbed his staff, abandoning his half-woven reeds, and heaved to his feet. After a startled nod from Arthur, Sir Kay was quick to follow.
"We will have to continue this later," Arthur told his advisors, and ran to gather more knights to assist them. By the time Sir Griflet and Sir Erec joined Arthur in the courtyard, Wyllt, his aging bones apparently spry beyond his years, had already run on ahead.
Mere moments after Arthur and his knights reached the lake, Wyllt discarded his staff and cloak and plunged into the frigid water. Arthur watched him closely, ignoring Accolon's stream of apologies and explanations. Elaine's small form floated face-down, her skirts tangled all round her like the petals of a water lily. Wyllt swam toward her and then, with surprising ease, heaved Elaine into his arms and carried her back to shore.
Behind Arthur, one of the knights, perhaps Sir Erec, let out a choked cry; another cursed softly. Arthur himself felt ill at the sight of the girl's corpse. A pointless waste.
However, when Wyllt glanced at him, Accolon ceased his babbling and stepped forward, his face suddenly determined even as his hands trembled.
"How long?" Wyllt asked him, carefully lowering Elaine to the ground.
"Mere minutes," said Accolon. "I should--I must try--"
"Do it," said Wyllt. "There is still time."
Accolon knelt next to the girl's body, beginning to chant under his breath. He placed his hands on her abdomen, the skin of his palms beginning to glow faintly green. Wyllt nodded, as if to himself, and stood up to give Accolon space to work.
After mere moments under Accolon's touch, Elaine gasped awake and began to cough.
"Thank the gods," Accolon exclaimed, smoothing her water-logged hair from her face. "You silly child!"
Accolon had risen in Arthur's esteem; it was not every day a maid was returned to life and breath. However, it was Wyllt that Arthur's eyes sought out. Wyllt, who without thought or hesitation had jumped into a freezing lake. Wyllt, whose coarse gray beard and commoner's clothes were still dripping wet.
"Gentlemen," said Arthur. "My regards to you both." Without waiting for a response, he aided Accolon in helping Elaine stand; she was shivering and chilled, so Arthur wrapped his cloak around her. "Next time, stay away from the water," he told her. "You cannot always be guaranteed a handsome warlock to rescue you."
The poor girl was too weak to speak, but she nodded fearfully. Arthur gave her a comforting pat on the back. Out of the corner of his eye, Arthur saw Wyllt wordlessly step out of the clearing, then into the trees, until it seemed the forest had swallowed him up.
Such a strange old man, Arthur thought, although, as he was beginning to discover, it was obviously the least of what Wyllt was.
Accolon approached Arthur the next day, his arms overburdened with books, jars, and pieces of parchment. "My King, with your leave, I would like to take some more samples."
Arthur led them back to his chambers, waited until Accolon had deposited his load on the table, then wordlessly offered his arm. Accolon pushed up the sleeve of Arthur's shirt, scooped out a few leeches from his jar, and deposited them on the bared skin. Arthur grit his teeth at the feel of the slimy black worms as they latched onto his flesh.
"I apologize, your majesty," said Accolon. "I assure you, I am very close to determining the cause of your ailment." He seemed subdued; Arthur wondered if it was due to his difficulty in diagnosing Arthur's mysterious problem, or because of the near-death of Elaine. Either way, the look on Accolon's face was one he recognized.
"Tell me, Accolon, why do you want this job?"
Accolon made a mark on his parchment before looking up. "I'm sorry, sire?"
"I am asking you, Accolon," said Arthur firmly. "And I ask you directly, with neither your opponent nor the court to judge your answer. Why do you want to be Camelot's court magician?"
Accolon kept his gaze on the leeches. "Because my parents saw the potential in me at a young age, sire, and despite the laws against sorcery, they ensured that I was trained in the magical arts. And because I feel that I could do some good here, and have time to hone my skills in surroundings that welcome my kind." He paused. "And because I cannot go home."
"You said you were formerly of Gwynedd."
"Yes," said Accolon. "I did."
Arthur didn't bother to phrase it as a question. "You will tell me why you left."
Accolon was silent for a minute. Then he shuddered all over and said, his voice filled with grief, "My family was killed. In a storm."
"This storm," said Arthur. "It was of magical origin?"
Accolon finally looked up at him, his eyes full of misery. "How did you know?"
Arthur sighed. "Get these things off of me." He waited until Accolon had detached the leeches from his skin, then said, "I can smell the stink of guilt on you."
"Sire," said Accolon, but Arthur went on.
"Accolon, I respect your courage in mastering your skills, and I admire your choice to use sorcery to help others. I am especially glad that you managed to save the girl yesterday. I am. But I ask you, with all due respect, to remember who I am, and what you are here for. I can offer no man absolution when it is not my forgiveness he needs."
Accolon said, stiffly, "Thank you, sire."
Arthur gestured toward the door. "Get on, now. Go. Let me know what you find out from those vile bloodsuckers."
"Of course, sire." Accolon gathered up his papers and jars again, his movements jerky, before heading for the door.
"Wait," Arthur said, stopping him. "I have a question for you. Again, just between us."
Accolon looked wary, but nodded.
"What do you think of Wyllt?"
"Wyllt?" Accolon took a moment to collect himself, and his brow creased as he considered his answer. "Truthfully, I think he is a talented warlock, although it seems he often chooses to use means other than his gifts to attain results. He is kind, and he has a keen eye for the inner workings of things. But he is hiding something."
"Right," said Arthur. "Then you sense it, too." He nodded at Accolon. "Thank you. That will be all."
The next night, Arthur had taken his dinner in his chambers and was halfway through a delicious slab of steak when Wyllt once again knocked on the door.
"You've made progress?" Arthur asked around his mouthful.
Wyllt simply stood there and stroked his beard, his ragged fingernails catching on the hairs. "I have already diagnosed you. The treatment, however, is a trickier matter."
Arthur blinked at him. This was a surprise considering that in truth, he suffered from no mysterious ailment. He wondered if his earlier opinion had been accurate, and Wyllt really was daft. "Really? What do I have, then?"
Wyllt's knowing blue eyes should have made him seem fatherly; instead, he suddenly seemed even more alien and strange, like his wrinkled exterior concealed an altogether different man underneath. He said: "You suffer from loneliness, sire."
Arthur stopped breathing for a moment, then swallowed, forcing saliva into his dry throat. The point of the test had been for the two men to question Arthur's orders and their own abilities; they were meant to investigate, find nothing, and approach Arthur accordingly. He had discovered that most sorcerers hated to feel they had fallen short, and so he had meant to judge the two on their ability to admit their own failure. Arthur had not expected Wyllt's unflinching diagnosis, a ridiculous statement which held, unfortunately, a great amount of truth.
"If you know anything of kings, I am not sure 'loneliness' is a difficult guess," Arthur said lightly.
Wyllt shrugged. "Most of my magic lies in observation," he said. "A keen eye can do most of the work without the aid of any supernatural power."
Arthur nodded at the wisdom of that statement. And, indeed, Wyllt had reached an unanticipated conclusion, but Arthur could not argue with it. "So, say that you have diagnosed me. What did you mean about treatment, then?"
"Magic alone cannot ease loneliness. It can only disguise it, for a brief time. Sometimes, it may even hasten the effects."
"You sound as though you speak from experience," said Arthur.
Wyllt spread his hands in supplication. "Look at me, sire. I am an ugly old man. I have no home but untended pastures and the cold forest floor. Do you honestly think I have never been lonely, and tried to magick my way to happiness?"
Arthur held Wyllt's gaze. "Is that the most honest thing you've said to me, sorcerer? I think it must be."
Wyllt snorted. "I may be a liar, sire, but never about magic."
"Hmm." Arthur sprawled into his chair. "But I am curious. Since you mentioned possible treatment, you must have had something in mind. Otherwise you would have said nothing."
"True. Because it is only a temporary solution." Wyllt looked away from Arthur, instead focusing on the grain of the table; he smoothed his thumb over a nick in the edge that had been there since a long-ago fiasco involving Merlin and a sword. "No, not just temporary. Fleeting. Insubstantial. You see, if you yearn for a particular partner, I can fashion a doll that acts as that individual. No voice, no soul, but its appearance would be nearly indistinguishable"
Arthur had to laugh out loud. "You're saying that you could create a bed-mate for me? From what, scraps of cloth?"
"Yes," said Wyllt. "Well, mud, actually. Dirt and sticks."
"What makes you think I would have any need of such a service? Do you think I cannot simply ask, and have all I desire?"
"But what is it that you desire, my King?"
Arthur looked away. He wanted for nothing but a wisp of a dream, a boy who might be long dead. Meaningless. "Nothing I can have," he said. And yet, Arthur did not ask Wyllt to leave his rooms; his interest was captured. He knew that his silent acceptance did not go unnoticed by Wyllt's sharp eyes.
"I have heard tell," Wyllt said, his gaze probing, "that the Queen lies with another. Your bed is empty."
"You should not have heard that," Arthur said dangerously.
Wyllt simply shrugged. "It's up to you. One night, or longer, with your heart's true desire. It may ease your burdens, or--"
"Or it may worsen them," said Arthur. "Like you said." He was silent a moment. He should say no. Except--this kind of magic seemed powerful, and Wyllt had not yet made any grandiose displays of sorcery in Arthur's presence. Arthur was curious. He just wanted to see what Wyllt was capable of; yes, that was it. "All right. Do it."
"I will return in an hour," Wyllt said.
And return Wyllt did, dragging a cloth-wrapped bundle. He laid the branches and twigs in the middle of Arthur's floor, grouping them together in the shape of a man. At the top of the body, where the head would be, he placed a shriveled gourd. Then Wyllt withdrew a handful of mud from the bundle and smeared it along the make-shift limbs, mumbling nonsense words under his breath.
"There," he said finally. "If you're ready, I'll need a drop of your blood."
Arthur offered his hand, dread beginning to stir in his gut. The spell was more interesting in theory, not when it was a pile of wood on the floor. He didn't know what to expect next.
"Úpárís," Wyllt hissed, pricking Arthur's thumb and pressing it to the mud-man's stomach. Something flared just outside of Arthur's vision. Suddenly, the body seemed to shiver all over, the mud seeping into the sticks and forming a fine net, then expanding with ridges and swoops that Arthur faintly recognized as muscle, until a thin layer of skin formed over that, and--
His heart's true desire, Wyllt had said, so of course, the thing looked like Merlin. The Merlin of twelve years ago, smooth-faced, beautiful, with a strange light in his eyes. Arthur choked back a cry at the sight of him.
Wyllt, too, gazed upon the specter. His face had gone bloodless; his skin matched the gray-white of his beard.
The Merlin-thing took a slow breath, its ribs creaking, then sat up. It saw Arthur and smiled. Arthur recognized the fond expression all too well; Merlin had looked at him like that many times, and Arthur had never known how to respond. The last time he'd seen that particular smile, Merlin had been reaching his fingers through cold iron bars, saying, "Arthur, no, it's all right. Really, it'll be all right," as if all could be fixed with comforting words even when the Crown Prince sobbed for grief, his only true friend placed in shackles and bound for execution.
The next morning, however, Merlin had been gone from the dungeons before they'd even finished building the pyre in the courtyard. Uther had sent out a search party immediately, but the knights hadn't found him; no one had found him, not in all the years since. Not even Arthur.
The Merlin-thing's smile began to fade, as if it sensed Arthur's unhappiness. Arthur had to close his eyes against the sight of it.
"You should leave," Arthur said hoarsely to Wyllt. "Tell no one of this." He paused, then added, "You win this trial."
Wyllt was still transfixed by the Merlin-thing he had created, but at Arthur's words he jerked as if he'd been shot with an arrow. "Of course," he said stiffly. He took two strides toward the door before Arthur called after him.
"And for God's sake, take that--object--with you."
Wyllt paused, then waved a hand at the Merlin-thing. Its face froze, then cracked, then turned back into mud, cracked and dry as the ground in summer. Its body collapsed to the floor, once more simply a bundle of sticks. In the tense silence, Arthur could hear the fire crackle in the hearth, but still he felt chilled.
"I knew you would regret it," said Wyllt, sounding strangely shaken.
"Listen, Wyllt," said Arthur, unsure how he could possibly explain, but Wyllt interrupted.
"I fear the magic has exhausted me, sire. I will take my leave of you, and see you in the morning."
Arthur could not summon the energy to protest as Wyllt left. He stared at the sticks and dirt strewn across his floor until he could no longer bear it, and had to call a servant to sweep up the mess.
Arthur woke to the gray light of late morning and Guenevere's concerned face.
"You look like death," Guenevere told Arthur. "What on earth did you do yesterday? I thought the sorcerers had a few more days to solve your silly task."
"They do," said Arthur. He cleared his throat. "Why? What do you mean?"
She stared at him. "Accolon waits in the meeting hall for you. He wishes to tell you he is withdrawing from the trials. And Myrddin Wyllt left Camelot early this morning, without a word to anyone."
Arthur sat up, his heart suddenly pounding. "Wyllt is gone?"
"Arthur," said Guenevere, "What has happened?"
"Nothing." Arthur pinched the bridge of his nose, but it did nothing to alleviate the oncoming headache. "I'm not surprised about Accolon, but Wyllt gave no indication..." he trailed off. "Gwen? Why would he leave? He knew he was to be my choice."
"Really?" Gwen sounded surprised. "Did he? I thought you meant to turn both of them away."
"Damnit," Arthur muttered. Wyllt was sharp enough to know that Accolon was no real competition. There was no reason for Wyllt to leave... unless the sight of Arthur's weakness last night had scared the sorcerer off, but Arthur doubted it. Wyllt, despite his infuriating tendency to challenge--
Challenge. Arthur wasn't sure why the word resonated, but it seemed right.
"Wyllt challenged me, Gwen. On every task. He didn't back down, not until last night." Gwen raised an eyebrow, but Arthur couldn't bear telling her about the thing Wyllt had created. She had seen Arthur at his worst, but he never enjoyed reminding her of it. "Wyllt performed this spell--he knew it was a bad idea, but he did nothing to truly dissuade me. I think he wanted me to see what would happen." Arthur's breath suddenly froze in his chest. "Or he wanted to see what would happen."
"I'm not sure I understand," said Guenevere, but Arthur's reasoning was already following a path that made far too much sense. It was impossible. It was madness. And yet, a sorcerer that could build a boy from scratch--Arthur's head was throbbing, and Gwen was looking on in confusion, but the thought came anyway:
Surely, if one had such power, it would not be a hardship to change one's appearance.
"His given name was Myrddin," Arthur said faintly. "There are dozens of peasants with similar names, right?"
"No," said Guenevere, looking thoughtful. "At least, few of his age."
"And none of them have such eyes. Gwen-"
But realization was already dawning on her face, too. "Go," she said.
"It's insane," Arthur insisted. "I would be chasing an apparition. There's no way it's him."
Gwen began to smile. She shook her head, her eyes shining. "I'll ask Lancelot to cover for you. Just go."
Arthur bolted from bed, grabbing his boots and a pair of breeches. He didn't have time to get fully dressed, and he could not risk being recognized--imagine it, the ruler of Camelot spotted in a mad dash after a phantom--but he rummaged in the back of his wardrobe, in case his dark brown cloak would serve to cover his face as well as his bedclothes.
"You look fine," said Gwen, watching Arthur pin the cloak around his shoulders. She tugged his hood low to shadow his features, then kissed the tip of his nose. "Arthur? Bring him home."
Wyllt had a head start of several hours, but he was on foot, and Arthur had always been an experienced and able horseman. He chose the fastest steed in the stables, a black stallion named Hengroen; on his back, Arthur would catch up to the sorcerer quickly. He only hoped that Wyllt had stayed on the road from Camelot, instead of wandering deeper into the forest where Arthur would never find him.
Arthur passed a beggar child on the road and tossed him a few coin. "Boy!" Arthur said. "Have you seen an old man on the road, here, with a staff?" He paused, tugging Hengroen to a standstill. "Or-a younger man, perhaps, with black hair."
The boy was preoccupied with the amount of coinage in his hands, but he looked up and nodded. "Yes, sir," he said eagerly. "An old man passed by. He said he was going to Worthbark, and he gave me a piece of bread."
"Of course he did," Arthur muttered, and spurred Hengroen onward. Worthbark was a tiny village located due west of Arthur's current spot; the path leading there was slightly treacherous on horseback, but it was well-worn, and Arthur should be able to follow it without much difficulty.
Except, something wasn't right.
Arthur hesitated at the crossroads, glancing down the trail to Worthbark. The beggar boy had been very quick to answer Arthur's question. Perhaps that was the cause of his unease. Had Wyllt bribed the child to lie? Arthur could not put it past the man, regardless of who he may be.
Arthur cursed under his breath and passed the turn to Worthbark, continuing to follow the main road.
The hunch paid off when Arthur found Wyllt walking by the side of the road. Arthur slowed his horse to a trot and simply watched for a moment, noticing the differences in Wyllt's bearing when he thought himself alone. His back no longer slumped as he walked, and he was using his staff to pick his way over ruts in the dirt, rather than for any real support.
"Halt!" Arthur yelled.
Wyllt stiffened, but did not turn. "Your majesty," he acknowledged. "Have you need of me?"
"Yes," said Arthur, then bit his tongue. He may yet be proven mad. "You left without paying your respects. Do you concede the trials to Accolon?"
"He is a better man than I," said Wyllt. "He will serve you well."
"And me," Arthur said softly. "Do you concede me?"
Wyllt bowed his head, silent, and kept walking.
"You do not move like an old man." Arthur slid from Hengroen's back, his knees protesting, and wrapped his cloak around himself more tightly. Now that the adrenaline of the chase was fading, he found himself quite chilled. "Your bones are not gnarled with age; you can run faster than my knights, and you easily pulled the girl from the water. How do you explain that, Myrddin Wyllt? Sorcery?"
"Arthur," said Wyllt, finally turning around. He looked utterly destroyed, like a man on his way to the executioner's block. Except-no longer. Not ever. "Please, don't."
"No." Arthur reached for Wyllt, clutching at the fabric of his robes. "Is this an enchantment? What is your true face? Tell me."
Wyllt made a noise like a sob. "Arthur."
Arthur smoothed his hand along Wyllt's shoulders, trying to reconcile the sight of a shriveled old man with the form his touch revealed: muscle, sinew, a body both lithe and strong. There was no doubt left in his mind. "Merlin. Let me see you."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Wyllt protested weakly, and that was Merlin to the core. He could deceive and inveigle and hide in plain sight all he wanted, but when it came to denying Arthur anything, he was a rotten liar.
"You idiot," said Arthur. "I just rode for hours through the freezing cold in my bedclothes. If you deny me now, I really will put you in the stocks, if just for old time's sake."
Wyllt cast his gaze heavenward, letting out a disbelieving laugh.
"Show yourself," Arthur asked again. "Please."
"I can't shed this appearance on your orders," said Wyllt. "Not that easily. It's a potion. It wears off at nightfall."
Arthur glanced at the sky. "Soon enough, then," he said. "In the meantime, there's an inn up ahead. You'll go and get us a room. After all, it wouldn't do for the king to catch his death of cold in the middle of the road."
"What? No, Arthur-"
Arthur interrupted him, the questions burning in his chest. "Tell me, Merlin, why did you run? Why hide your face? You know we would have welcomed you with open arms."
Wyllt's jaw clenched. Now that Arthur knew what he was looking for, he could see traces of Merlin's bone structure in the old man's face. "No, sire," he said. "I didn't know. How could I have known? And once I knew, how could I have stayed, after realizing that I had broken your trust once again?"
Arthur's fingers clenched in the rough wool of Wyllt's robes. He had forgotten to let go. "Get us a room," Arthur told him. "We will talk more once we have warmth and privacy."
"If you insist, sire," said Wyllt.
Arthur wondered how he hadn't noticed, in all this time: Merlin's voice, at least, was unchanged.
What followed was one of the worst silences of Arthur's life, worse than dinners with Uther and Morgana when they were at odds. Merlin sat on the room's one bed, the rope mattress creaking dangerously whenever he shifted position. Arthur took the remaining seat, a small chair in the corner that had one leg shorter than the other three, until its incessant wobbling drove him to stand instead.
They simply stared at each other for a while, until Arthur broke down and said, "For heaven's sake, Merlin, say something."
Merlin looked at his wrinkled, bony hands. "Your father sent search parties for years," he said. "I knew he was furious, and would not stop until my head was on the chopping block." He looked up at Arthur. "But then I heard word that Uther was dead, and still, I was hunted."
"By my men," Arthur said. "Not to kill you. To find you. To bring you home."
"I didn't know." Merlin sounded wretched. "I only knew you had been angry at me. Nothing had gone the way I had wanted it to." He buried his face in his hands, a disconcertingly boy-like gesture for his aged form. "I heard no word of Camelot for years. Couldn't bear to hear it, more like. And I was too busy learning all I could about magic. There are many magic-users throughout the land who will gladly take in a young boy, either to teach him, or..." Merlin trailed off, his eyes hardening. "Or to make him a weapon."
Arthur approached him. When Merlin didn't protest, Arthur sat down next to him on the bed. Merlin was close enough to touch, but Arthur couldn't; he knew he had no right. "When did you get the new face?" he asked instead.
Merlin quirked a smile at him. "Once I learned all I could from the magic-users I found, I decided it was my turn to do the teaching. But not many people will listen to a boy about anything, much less things like sorcery and ethics and the laws of the land. So, I invented a disguise, one that could not be pierced by anti-illusion spells." He gestured with one hand, as if to demonstrate his transformation. "I became Myrddin Wylt. I played the wild man, the old man of the forest; I pretended I had learned my magic from woodland creatures. It was great fun. I was good at it, too." At Arthur's skeptical look, he said, "No, really, I was! You can't judge my performance from my time in Camelot. I was terribly distracted. You have no idea how it felt, being surrounded by those stones again."
"Cold, I'd imagine," said Arthur.
Merlin shook his head, smiling. "That too. But no; it was as if they sang to me, all the time."
"All the time? Sounds irritating."
"You would think so," Merlin retorted. He and Arthur grinned at each other for a moment, then Merlin grew serious again. "Anyway, many years passed. You--and Gaius, Gwen, and Morgana, of course--were never far from my thoughts, but I couldn't bear to come near Camelot again. I had always planned to return, but... the longer I put it off, the easier it was to bear being away from you. All of you." His eyes flickered away, then back. "I was a coward. But then I heard of the trials for court magician, and... I had to come back, just to see. I never intended to stay, much less compete for the position. It was just a way to get closer, to spend some time in the castle so I could look in on you."
Arthur huffed a laugh. "And?"
"When you looked in, what did you see?"
"Oh." For a moment, Merlin seemed wistful. "You're still a prat," he said instead, and Arthur had to chuckle. "Aside from that, you..." Merlin smiled wearily. "You're an amazing king, Arthur. Wise, fair, and brave. Your people love you."
It was almost, but not quite, what Arthur had needed to hear.
The last bit of light faded from the window. As Arthur watched, Merlin's body seemed to lengthen. His shoulders broadened, and his hair grew dark, save for a shock of early grey at his temples. His white beard grew short and black, cropped close to the line of his jaw; his face was youthful, but it was now a man's countenance, not that of the boy Arthur had known. Only Merlin's eyes remained the same, fading from a brief flash of gold to a brilliant, familiar blue.
"You're you," Arthur said quietly.
Merlin raised his palms to the candlelight, surveying the back of his hands--strong, capable hands, free of age-spots. "So I am," he replied. He glanced at Arthur. "What do you think?"
"Too skinny," Arthur told him. He took a breath, worried that his speech would betray him. "Too pale by far. And I've seen finer haircuts the time I singed off all Morgana's curls with a candlestick."
Merlin ran a hand through his hair self-consciously. The gesture was so familiar that it made Arthur's heart seize. "Yeah, that's what I thought," he said, sending Arthur a shy half-smile. "I don't suppose you have a mirror?"
Arthur didn't have a mirror. He didn't even have a voice. He could not look away from Merlin; he had to catalog every difference, every similarity. He was unaccountably cheered by the fact that Merlin's ears still stuck out oddly.
At Arthur's silence, Merlin grew wary. "You should be angry with me, you know," he said. "You should be telling me that it was a childish prank, an awful hoax. I was in the castle for a week, never letting on that I knew you. Hell, I'm furious with me."
Arthur cleared his throat, wrenching his gaze away from the smooth arch of Merlin's neck, the skin revealed by the gaping neck of Wyllt's old shirt and loose robes. "I'm afraid that I can't care overly much. You're here now. And I would hope... I ask that you do me the honor of becoming magician in service to the court of Camelot."
Merlin blinked, obviously surprised. After a pause, he said, "All right. Wait. Is that it? I just say yes, and all's well? After twelve years? You don't have to pardon me, or send me to the stocks for a week, or have me sign some papers with the blood of a virgin? I mean, not that I support the sacrifice of virgins--or anything else, for that matter--"
Now Arthur knew why Wyllt had been a man of few words. Any more and he would have recognized Merlin's babble instantly. "Merlin? Shut up."
"Right." Merlin shifted uneasily. He glanced at Arthur and their gazes locked. Arthur's blood throbbed with sudden need; if Merlin didn't look away soon, Arthur might do something completely unforgivable.
Arthur nodded to himself. "That settles matters, then. You will return with me to Camelot, and we will discuss your duties." He began to stand, but Merlin's hand shot out and seized his wrist.
"Forgive me, sire, but I must know." Merlin's diction was careful, but his voice was low and ragged. "Last night. The gelem spell. That wasn't the first time you'd thought of it. Of me."
Arthur squeezed his eyes shut. "Merlin," he said helplessly. "We cannot speak of this."
"Yes," said Merlin. "Yes. We can." He twisted Arthur's wrist, tugging him back to the bed. Arthur damned himself; he let himself be manhandled into Merlin's arms, then he caught Merlin's mouth under his own, pressing him back against the covers. Their teeth clacked forcefully and Arthur fumbled desperately for Merlin's wrists, pinning them at his sides.
Merlin grunted under Arthur's onslaught, sounding vaguely disapproving of the fact that the tables had been turned, but his lips parted, inviting Arthur to deepen the kiss. His beard bristled against Arthur's clean-shaven cheek. Merlin was all angles, jutting jaw and sharp elbows, like no one Arthur had ever kissed, and he felt light-headed and jubilant at the thought that at long last, this was him: this was Merlin.
Merlin twisted his head, just enough to make Arthur break away, gasping, and wrenched a wrist back from Arthur's grip. He tangled his freed hand in Arthur's hair, tugging hard. "I knew you wanted this," he stated, breathless. "I think I knew even before the gelem spell. When I was Wyllt, you watched me."
"Not like that," Arthur protested, and Merlin began to laugh, burying his face in Arthur's shoulder, his whole body shaking in amusement. Obviously, his behavior required some kind of retaliation; Arthur twisted and bit at Merlin's neck, worrying the soft flesh beneath his teeth.
Merlin's laughter died away; he groaned and tilted his head back, at the same time shifting one leg--the one that wasn't trapped under Arthur's heavy thighs--to let Arthur grind even closer. Arthur mouthed under Merlin's jaw, just along the line of his beard, sucking kisses into the pale skin, until Merlin gasped and writhed, his slim body jolting under Arthur's, the strong muscles of Merlin's arms and shoulders solid beneath Arthur's weight.
Suddenly, Merlin yanked his other hand free, seized Arthur's shoulders and flipped them both over, nearly sending Arthur's head crashing into the wooden bed frame. Arthur gasped as Merlin straddled him, rocking into the cradle of Arthur's hips. Merlin kissed him again, filthy and wet, his tongue sliding slick against the roof of Arthur's mouth. Arthur could feel the hard outline of Merlin's prick pressing against his, the feeling blunted through too many layers of fabric. As if Merlin had read Arthur's mind, he reached down to tear at the laces of Arthur's breeches, his fingers tantalizingly close to Arthur's trapped erection.
Merlin breathed hot against Arthur's mouth. "Let's see if I remember how to undress you," he said, and Arthur absolutely did not whimper. He slid a hand beneath Merlin's shirt, tracing his fingers along warm, bare skin, then reached for the hem of Merlin's tunic, groping at the shape of Merlin's sex. Merlin bucked against Arthur's hand, his mouth falling open in pleasure.
He looked idiotic like that, and utterly beautiful. Arthur seized him and pulled him into another kiss, forgetting his work at loosening Merlin's breeches in favor of the heady, addictive taste of Merlin's mouth. They kissed for several long minutes, until Merlin broke away, suddenly stiffening. "No," he said, but he breathed it against Arthur's lips, as if temptation had seized him in chains and he could move away no further. Arthur knew how he must feel.
"Yes," Arthur groaned; he wormed a hand between them, grabbing for Merlin's prick. "Merlin, yes--"
"No," Merlin said again. "Stop." He knocked Arthur's hand away, sitting up until only their thighs touched. "We can't."
Arthur ached with wanting; he felt cold where Merlin's heat had left him, but he didn't push once he saw the look in Merlin's eyes: determination, and beneath that, a flash of guilt. It was that flash that made Arthur pause to breathe, and in pausing, begin to regain his senses. There had been a reason Arthur had thought this was a bad idea, he remembered. There was a very good reason--
If all the breath had been knocked from his chest, Arthur could not have felt more gut-struck. Gwen.
"You're married," said Merlin, echoing Arthur's thoughts. "Arthur, you're married." He tried to move away, but Arthur gripped his forearm and held him fast. He would have to let go of Merlin in just a moment, but--not yet.
"Yes," Arthur said, although it pained him to his core. "You're right. You're absolutely right. We can't."
Merlin responded with a jerky nod.
They were losing nothing, Arthur told himself. Merlin would still be at court; he would be Arthur's friend and advisor. They just wouldn't have--this. Arthur swallowed hard. His lips stung from Merlin's rough beard, the sharp edges of his teeth.
Merlin withdrew from Arthur's grasp, sitting back on his heels, and began to lace his breeches. He didn't blush, Arthur noticed. The Merlin of ten years ago probably would have, but the Merlin of now seemed more assured, and inhabited his skin more fully. Arthur realized, with a sinking feeling, that he would probably spend the rest of his life watching Merlin from afar. There were worse things, of course, but Arthur couldn't help but wonder what Merlin would look like, joyful and flushed with pleasure against his sheets.
Arthur sat up, following Merlin's lead, and began to tug his own clothing back into place. "I'm sorry," he offered awkwardly, as if he could ever apologize for everything with two small words.
"It's all right," Merlin said, smiling oddly. "I knew it couldn't work. I don't know why I even--I should be the one apologizing, sire. I forced my desires on you because I thought you would be receptive. I mean, you were receptive. Just not--" Merlin blushed, finally, and turned away. "Never mind."
Arthur hesitated, staring hard at Merlin's back.
"What was it you were saying, before?" asked Merlin. "You were talking about my new duties."
"Forget that, Merlin." Arthur reached for Merlin's shoulder, ignoring the startled flinch. "I thought it was merely passing fancy--I mean, it has been years--but is this more to you, Merlin? Did you truly want this?"
"Of course I bloody wanted it!" Merlin let out a choked laugh. "That does not change the fact of Queen Guenevere, your highness--your wife--"
Arthur shook his head, even though Merlin couldn't see. "But this changes things! If you wish this--whatever this is--to be more than a night's folly, I could speak to Guenevere. She would understand. Merlin--I only wish for your happiness."
Merlin turned back to Arthur, his face incredulous. "Are you actually saying what I hear? It's all right if it's for my happiness?"
"Yes," said Arthur.
Merlin's expression shifted into something close to anger. "Arthur," he growled. "Sod my happiness. What about yours?"
"I'm the king," said Arthur. "I do what I must for the good of the people." Merlin was beginning to look murderous, so Arthur took pity and cocked his head to the side, as if considering, before adding, "My happiness... would be a pleasant side effect."
Merlin's mouth twitched, almost but not quite a smile. "I guess that works, too," he said with a snort. His amusement faded swiftly. "I cannot believe that Gwen would agree to this, though. If I were she, I would never share you with another."
"We have an arrangement," Arthur said. "And she knows my heart. I must trust that will be enough to convince her."
Merlin's expression softened. "We will see, then. When we return to Camelot." At that, he began to fuss with the bedcovers, untangling the blankets and pulling the bedding down. Then he held a hand out to Arthur in invitation. "It was a long ride, sire. You should rest, for at least a few hours."
"I don't sleep that easily," Arthur warned, tempted to decline, but his heart felt light under Merlin's regard. He shed his breeches and got under the covers, already relishing the prospect of a shared bed's warmth. Merlin crawled in next to him. As soon as the bedding covered them both, Merlin turned, tucking his knees against Arthur's legs and hooking an arm over Arthur's side.
"Try anyway," said Merlin, clutching him close.
Merlin, already up and dressed again in Wyllt's robes, gently shook Arthur awake. The sky outside was still dark, but Arthur felt better rested than he had in weeks. Perhaps it was because Merlin had slept next to him for most of those few hours; Arthur could tell from Merlin's slow-blinking smile and the fact that all the heavier blankets had been stolen to Merlin's side of the bed.
"We should leave if we want to be back in Camelot before dawn," Merlin said quietly.
Arthur nodded sleepily, indulging himself with a few more moments beneath the warm covers. Merlin gave him a fond smile, then--quickly, as if he thought Arthur would mock him for it--bowed his head, seized Arthur's hand, and kissed his knuckles, as a knight might peck the back of a lady's hand.
"Merlin!" Arthur said, startled. Merlin flashed him a quick grin, and then took advantage of Arthur's distraction to rip the bed covers away, exposing Arthur to the cool air. Arthur's reflexes were too slow with sleep for him to tug them back.
"Up!" Merlin demanded cheerfully. "Who knew that brave King Arthur was such a lazy sod? Good thing he has a new court magician to wake him up in the mornings."
"I hate you," Arthur groaned, but he sat up and rubbed the sleep-sand from his eyes.
"I will enchant a cock to sit outside your window." Merlin handed Arthur his breeches from where they had been lying crumpled on the floor, and Arthur yanked them on. "A dazzling black and green cock that will crow the hour every morning, and twice on Sabbath days."
"Do so, and I will kill the damn bird," Arthur growled.
"I will make it immortal," Merlin countered, still grinning. "No, even better--strike down one, and two will rise in its place."
"I am going to regret giving you this job, won't I?"
Merlin beamed. "Of course, sire." Arthur slid from bed; Merlin handed him his cloak, then helped Arthur fasten it, his breath on Arthur's cheek as he fumbled with the clasp. He cleared his throat and stepped back, suddenly serious. "And I promise you... I pledge myself to you, Arthur. My power and my life are yours--all that I am and will be. Please, never doubt my loyalty." He swallowed visibly. "Or my love."
"Don't pledge me that," Arthur said fiercely, shaken by the strength of Merlin's words. "We are friends, Merlin, and I hope we will be more, but it has been twelve years. I have changed. You don't yet know me."
"I know you have changed," said Merlin. "So have I. But we still fit as two halves. Can't you feel it?"
Such strange phrasing, as if Merlin was quoting a poem, but Arthur could hear the truth in Merlin's words. He hesitated, then curled a hand around the back of Merlin's neck, his thumb resting on Merlin's pulse; it beat more quickly at his touch, but Merlin's gaze never wavered from Arthur's face.
"Yes," Arthur said. "I feel it."
It was winter in Camelot, the ground frozen cold and the trees bare, but King Arthur's lands bloomed with warmth. In the streets, peasants whispered of the unseasonably good weather, wondering if it might be connected to the King's improved mood, or perhaps to the actions of his new court magician, a strange man named Merlin. Young maids traded gossip: it seemed the court magician could change shape at will, fly or hide anywhere in the kingdom, and always manage to rescue fair young girls from monsters. Some judged the new magician and said Merlin was not Accolon's match in beauty, but others argued that he had a pleasing face.
What the people of Camelot did not know was that the world was about to change. The King's court magician had whispered to him of bright, shining futures, seeds of destiny found in the wilds of Albion and carefully cultivated. Arthur planned to bring a new golden age to all the land, and Merlin would assist him. Such plans lay heavy on the King's brow, and sometimes, in the dead of night, he would toss and turn in his sleep. But for the first time in years, when the King woke, he was not alone, but in the arms of one he found beloved.
Destiny beckoned, and a magnificent era approached, full of righteous battles, undying love, and epic feats of sorcery. Over the next few decades, Camelot would weave an undying tale of truth and glory, birthing tales of brave men and women that would be passed down through the ages.
Eventually, it would end in tears and bloodshed, as all things do.
But not yet.
Am I so dear
Do I run rare
You've changed some
Peach, plum, pear
-- Joanna Newsom