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When I woke, I was in the shade, lying on a small camp cot in a tent that had been set up on one side of the field for my own benefit. Gawain was standing over me as I opened my eyes, shaking his head in mock regret.
“Well, Sir Mordred, that’s hardly the way to start off your knightly career; fainting like a girl.”
I groaned and sat up, putting a hand to my head, pain pounding naggingly behind my eyes. “What happened?” I asked, the details fuzzy.
“You finished your fight with Arthur, and what a fight, Mordred! I have never seen you do the like. And then he knighted you, and when everyone was cheering, you just dropped down, fainted clear away.” He put a hand to his brow dramatically. “The fame proved too much for you.”
“I think it was the heat,” I said, closing my eyes as memory flooded back, hoping Gawain didn’t see my horror even though I feared it was plastered all over my face. “I haven’t fought in full armor, nor so vigorously before. I couldn’t get my breath. Maybe it was a bit overwhelming too,” I conceded, trying to smile to put Gawain at his ease.”
He clapped a hand on my shoulder. “Let’s get you cleaned up so you can attend your celebratory feast. Arthur was worried about you, just dropping like that, but I assured him you were likely all right, if not a little peely wally, if you get my meaning. Some food in your belly, meat and mead, will go a long way to fixing you up.”
I nodded in agreement, though eating was the last thing I wished to do at that moment. I almost killed Arthur. The phrase kept running through my head. I almost killed Arthur and Merlin knew. He stopped me. Of that I was certain and I was grateful to him for it, though I was even more afraid of him. I knew we would have a confrontation and I would be forced to tell him everything. I was almost relieved with the thought of unburdening myself. Though the look he had given me had frightened me to the very depth of my soul.
I washed hurriedly, and changed into a new tunic and hose of deep blue, my sword hung at my side. Gawain and I headed toward the hall where the feast was to take place, and I forced a smile onto my face again at the greeting I received. I was angry now. This was supposed to be a happy occasion, the happiest of my life. I was where I wanted to be, I had a place, I had a home, and I had family, even if they didn’t know they weren’t really related to me by blood. But because of Lady Morgan, this had turned into a painful experience for I had nearly killed the man I held most dear to me. I knelt before Arthur now and he took my shoulders and drew me up, his arm draped around my neck as he presented me to the gathering.
“People of Camelot, I wish to present you once again, Sir Mordred, the newest member of your august company. Young, though he may be, he has proven himself worthy this position time and again, most of all with his continued protection of your queen, my own wife.” He beamed at me and I blushed as I also saw Guinevere smiling beautifully amid the crashing applause of the knights. “I feel that Sir Mordred will continue in his path of loyalty and true honor in his service as a knight, and I hope you will take him in as one of your family as a brother, as I have begun to view him as a son.” He smiled meaningfully at me and I found I shamefully had to turn my eyes down lest I lose my already frayed hold on my feelings. He squeezed my shoulder as if knowing what I was thinking. “Let us drink a toast to him.”
Merlin stood up, holding a chalice in his long fingers. “Might I offer it, my lord?” he asked languidly and I felt a sudden coldness clench in my gut.
“Of course,” Arthur said and reached for his own drink. Merlin’s eyes fell upon mine searchingly, and I was unable to look away.
“May Sir Mordred serve his king and Camelot unendingly, and may he never fail in that duty, through thick or thin. May he always stay true to those he loves.”
The hearty cheer that rose after the toast told me there was nothing unusual in the words, but I knew exactly what Merlin meant by them, and the feast that followed was uneasy for me. I could hardly enjoy it though I did my best, even trying to make jokes with the other fellows and laughing along when Percival kept stealing an item of food off of Gawain’s plate every time he turned to talk to someone until he finally noticed that half his food was missing.
Still, it seemed the party went long into the night, so long, I began to honestly feel exhausted and wished for my bed. I was glad when the knights began to dwindle, most having drunk far too much to even stay upright. I figured some of them would probably end up spending the night under the table or on it. I had drunk more than usual too, and felt the heaviness of the mead in my head and belly. Finally, Arthur stood and announced he was taking his leave, breaking up the hangers on. Gawain was snoring beside me, his cheek resting on a loaf of bread. I smiled fondly and decided one last night of squirely duties couldn’t go amiss. I pulled his arm over my shoulder to help him to his bed before I sought mine when Arthur’s hand descended on my shoulder. I turned to look at him and saw him smiling.
“Mordred, I would speak with you in private a moment,” he said.
“Of course,” I replied and stepped outside the hall with him.
“I am so proud of your performance today,” he said. “Few have bested me like that—you made a bit of a stir.” He chuckled. “Guinevere even said there was a moment she thought you might kill me.” I tried not to physically flinch at his off-handed way of saying it, but my stomach flipped painfully. “I wish that I could acknowledge you as my son, but we both know that will not do.”
“Of course not, my lord,” I said, relieved.
“However,” Arthur continued, reaching behind him and unhooking a sword that swung from his belt. “I wish you to have this.” I made to object, but he pushed the sword into my hands. “It was my first blade. It is a bit worn, but goodly still. I did many feats with that blade and won many fights.” He smiled reminiscently. “May it serve you as well, Sir Mordred.”
“Surely I can’t really take this,” I tried to protest but he grasped my hands and held them around the worn leather of the scabbard, leaning down to look me in the eye.
“You are my son, Mordred, and one day I wish to proclaim that to the whole kingdom, but for now, take this small token of my love and pride in you.” He reached out a hand and placed it against my cheek, nearly causing tears to come to my eyes. “I am so proud of you, Mordred. Never think any different.”
I nodded, too overcome to speak. He squeezed my shoulder one more time and then turned to leave. “You had best get some rest. There will be work for you tomorrow.”
I nodded again, and turned away before I would sob within his hearing, forgetting all about Gawain sleeping on the loaf of bread as I hurried down the hall to get to my quarters in the barracks as quickly as possible, the sword still clutched in my hand.
When I got to the door of my quarters, I had finally allowed the tears to flow and I pushed the door open, already pulling at the tie of my cloak to throw it off. But I was stopped by a figure standing in the shadows in one corner of the dark room. At first I thought it was Lady Morgan, then as the figure stepped forward, I realized it was Merlin. I opened my mouth to speak, but he gave no preamble before he leapt forward with inhuman speed and slammed me against the wall, his thin face pressed close to mine, his eyes flashing. I dropped the sword onto the ground with a clatter, the breath knocked out of me.
“What was that, Mordred?” he asked, his voice only above a whisper, cold and dangerous. I thought I had seen the dangerous side of Merlin before, but never like this. I was frozen in fear, expecting him to tear me apart should I even dare open my mouth to speak. “What did she do to you? If you do not tell me now, Mordred, I swear I will get it from you one way or another.”
I gasped in a breath. “Let me go, I can’t breathe.”
He seemed to realize he had a hand around my throat, and he let go with a somewhat guilty look. I collapsed to my knees, half gasping and half sobbing. I didn’t know what I felt. I was horrified, angry, hopeless, in utter agony. Merlin stood above me for a moment before he stooped and drew me up more gently by the shoulders and maneuvered me to the bed where he sat down next to me and handed me a tankard of wine.
“Drink,” he commanded. I did, and found myself steadier for it, my breath coming back to me. He took the cup when I had drained it and set it on the side table. “I’m sorry for my outburst. I should have dealt more gently with you. I was not sure of your intentions fully, though I am now. I can see you are in great pain over this.”
“She cursed me,” I whispered without preamble. Merlin went rigid and I turned my face upward to look at him, my countenance contorting in rage and disgust at Lady Morgan and myself. “She captured me in the woods and set some curse upon me, saying I would be forced to…to kill Arthur. When she realized I wouldn’t do it voluntarily, she decided to take matters into her own hands.” There, it was out. I felt much better for it, light. Merlin snatched my hand and traced his finger along the scar at the base of my thumb. It never seemed to have fully healed. It was still red, and stung frequently, even if it didn’t bleed.
“I feared as much when I saw this after you came back from hunting Lancelot that day,” Merlin said grimly. “But I didn’t want to think the worse. I wish I had confronted you sooner; I can’t imagine the pain you have been going through.”
“I’ve been in agony,” I said truthfully. “I’ve hardly slept, I can’t stop thinking about it, it is eating me, driving me insane.” I suddenly grabbed his wrist, looking up into his eyes. “Please help me!”
Merlin gazed at me with pity for a few seconds before he took my hand again and mumbled something. I yelped in pain as the scar burned and gritted my teeth until it faded to a dull ache. Merlin pinched the bridge of his nose as if he had a headache.
“That’s a powerful spell,” he said. “She’s bound you to her will with blood. I don’t know how to reverse it, save killing you—don’t worry, I won’t do that, not unless you try to kill Arthur again and I can’t stop you like I did today. I will have to look into it.”
“Please help me,” I said again, hating the pleading in my voice, but unable to help it. “I don’t want to kill him. I could never stand it. It would kill me.”
“Well, I certainly would,” Merlin said and reached out to squeeze my shoulder. “In the meantime, keep up hope, and try not to put yourself into a position where you could possibly harm him. The spell seems to work on opportunity, though it might change more dramatically the more times you fail in the mission it requires of you. I don’t entirely know what it is capable of. I will have to read up on it, and I might require you for a few tests—nothing dangerous, mind, just for seeing if I can untangle the spell a little bit. But I will get you through this for I like you, Mordred, and I would hate to have to kill you myself.” He smiled but I felt little reassured. “Now try and get some sleep.”
“How can I sleep?” I asked.
Merlin put his hand on my forehead and muttered a few words. He smiled. “That will ward against dreams, so you will sleep peacefully, even if you are not so when you wake.” He stood. “Always feel free to come to me if you need to talk. And I would advise you not to tell anyone else about this.”
“I know,” I said. “Thank you, for making me tell you. I feel much better now.”
Merlin smirked. “Yours is hardly an unburdened mind, young Mordred. But I am glad to offer you a little relief. “Now sleep.”
I felt drowsy the instant he closed the door behind him and barely undressed before I fell into my bed and closed my eyes to merciful dreamlessness.
©Copyright 2014 by Hazel B West
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