And for a few months, I thought I had escaped it. The dreams got fewer, I was able to sleep, and because of that I felt better. Arthur was busy, I was busy with keeping up my knightly training and hoping to work up to a place at the Round Table. I began to look for opportunities to better myself, quests that needed to be done, but nothing came up at the time, and I began to fall into the doldrums again. My companions thought it because of my lack of occupation and happily beat me in the lists and took me out onto the town at night, but they couldn’t know what really plagued me, and I could not tell them. Merlin was still the only one I could talk to on the matter, and he had been researching for weeks, sometimes locked in his rooms for days with neither sleep or food as he delved into ancient tomes and practiced magics that had been long lost to the world for centuries. But still, he found nothing.
But before long, I was able to push the things to the back of my mind a bit, though the curse was still a dull ache of anguish plaguing me, it was no longer the gaping sore it had been after my knighting ceremony. Until one day on the training field where it was opened all over again.
Arthur had been so busy with new treaties and such with other kingdoms for the past week that he was going stir-crazy as he normally did when forced to work indoors for long periods, and so one day he strode out onto the lists to challenge his knights, thrashing them all soundly to work out his frustration. I tried to keep up with my duel with Bedivere, but Arthur called me over almost instantly.
“Mordred, you and I have not dueled since your ceremony. Let us see if I can best you this time and win back some of my dignity.”
I grinned, striding over to join him, but my heart was ice and my legs were jelly. I glanced around for Merlin, hoping that he was somehow on the sidelines watching as he usually was. But that day he was holed up in his rooms researching to break the very curse that might jump upon me unaware any second. Please, I prayed silently. Let this not be the day I kill Arthur. Please.
We took our positions and as usual, Arthur wasted no time in attacking. I blocked quickly. I was using the sword he had given me. It was my prized possession, for what boy does not love a gift, especially one that signified manhood, from the man he loves and honors most? Even if that man is not his father by blood. It had not left my side since the night he had given it to me, and I vowed that I would never let Arthur’s sword taste his own blood. I could not allow that to happen.
We traded fierce, heavy blows. I was already wearied from my practice of the morning, and I felt myself flagging early on in the fight. I was glad of it. I did not feel the odd surge of adrenaline that I had during the last fight right before I felt the sudden urge to stab Arthur.
I knew I was nearly finished, and was preparing to yield, when my sword nearly took on a life of it’s own. I felt a force driving at my arm, and it took all the willpower I had to control it. It was determined to head toward Arthur’s chest. I panicked, blocking the blow Arthur threw at me clumsily, and hauling back on the sword with huge effort, to keep it from stabbing him. As Arthur swung forward again, I did the only thing I could think of, foolish though it was, and dropped my sword, having to nearly wrench my fingers from the hilt, but I saw the blade fall, and felt one moment of relieved euphoria before I felt a burn across my ribs, and suddenly Arthur was throwing his sword down as well, stepping forward the two paces between us to grab me by the shoulders and I threatened to fall to the ground.
“Mordred! I’m so sorry, I did not realize you had lost the grip on your sword. I must have gotten carried away with my blow. Are you well?”
I looked dazedly as the bloody spot spreading across my left side, and the pain began to register slowly. Arthur lowered me down into a sitting position as Gawain and the others hurried over. The big, blond man crouched down next to me and started to unbuckle my belt to see to my wound.
“After all the training I gave you, Mordred,” Gawain said with mock disappointment. “You go and drop your sword.”
“My hand sweated on the hilt,” I said, wincing slightly as Gawain lifted my tunic to reveal to cut across my ribs. It was painful, but not deep and he bound a handkerchief in place to help stop the bleeding. “I should have worn my gloves.”
“Yes, you should have,” Arthur admonished as he bent over Gawain, looking as if he wanted to take over the job himself, but probably decided it was best to keep his distance.
“Come on,” Gawain said, hauling me to my feet. “Let’s get you back. I don’t want to see you on the lists for at least three days.”
I had no problem with that, though I would miss the exercise, and the fact that it was the one thing that helped to take my mind away from my troubles. Now the fear had renewed, and I once again felt myself spiraling down into the depths of despair.
When Gawain had left me after making sure I was taken care of, Arthur sought me out, the worry he had hid in front of the others clearly on his face.
“Are you all right, Mordred?” he asked, putting a hand on my face, and making me wish to sink into his arms and bury my face in his shoulder, though I feared what I might do to him against my will in such close proximities. So I pulled away, pretending to have the need to sit down, and it wasn’t a complete lie, because the wound did smart.
“I never meant to hurt you,” Arthur added with a pained expression.
“It was an accident, my lord,” I replied. “We’re always giving each other knocks.”
He seemed to relax a bit but smiled sadly. “You know you may call me father when we’re alone,” he said softly.
I nodded. “If you wish, my lord.”
He looked pained, but turned to leave, albeit a bit reluctantly. “I will leave you to your rest. Next time I shall be more careful. As should you.”
“Yes, I should,” I said, but not in reference to my wound.
I didn’t tell Merlin about this incident, I didn’t see him again for three days, and that was only a fleeting glance as he crossed the yards with some errand in town, likely to pick up something for one of his spells. I was going to practice my jousting that day. My side still wasn’t healed quite enough for the full body movements of swordplay, but I knew I could handle a bit of tilting and Elith needed to keep his practice up as well as I did. I saddled him up and rode out to the tiltyard, with my light armor and shield in case one of the other knights wanted to practice against me.
The challenge I received was not a welcome one, however.
I’ll admit shamefully, that my heart sunk where it had once rose, to see Arthur among his knights, training in a sort of impromptu melee. I tried to make my way over to the tilt unnoticed, but Arthur caught sight of me and rode his horse over to me with a greeting and a smile on his face.
“To the tilt, Mordred?” he inquired needlessly.
“Yes, my lord,” I replied politely, though I was frantically willing him mentally not to suggest what I knew he was about to.
“How much have you practiced against another live opponent?” he asked.
“Only a bit,” I replied truthfully. I refused to lie any more than necessity called for.
“How about I help you then?” Arthur asked.
“It’s not necessary, my lord,” I tried to protest, but he waved me aside.
“Nonsense, I wish to help you in your training as much as possible. Come then, I will show you some technique.”
I followed reluctantly, vaguely hoping the curse only worked with swords, but highly doubting it.
I donned my helmet and Arthur did the same as a squire equipped us with lances. They were practice ones, thankfully, made of wood that would bend and shatter before it did too much damage to anyone. It would still break bones though, and I knew a broken rib could kill easily enough if forced into a lung…
We were on opposite sides of the tilt and Arthur’s horse was prancing in his spot, eager for the sport. Elith was ready as well, his muscles tensing under me. A squire standing by waved a handkerchief for us to go and our horses sped off so fast we had to rein them in. For a moment, my having to manage Elith made my lance drop a bit out of the way, and I was going to have to fight to bring it up in time, when it seemed to do so of its own accord, and I realized a split second soon enough what was happening. I loosed my grip on it, just as difficultly as before, and twisted myself into another position in a desperate measure to make sure it did not hit it’s mark. Arthur’s did, however and the lance slammed into my shield that was thankfully raised and I was thrown from my saddle, flat on my back, blacking out for a moment and losing all my breath.
When I came to, gasping, Arthur was swinging off his stallion and striding toward me, tearing his helmet off his head. I hauled myself into a sitting position, my left arm hanging limp and numb as I fought to pull off my helmet with my right. Arthur’s face was red with anger, this time, and it scared me, for I had never seen him direct anger so fierce toward me. I almost shrunk back.
“What were you thinking?” he shouted. “Were you letting me win? If you were not good enough against an opponent, you should have let me know—I could have killed you!”
I struggled to my feet, but only made it to one knee. “I—I didn’t want to hurt you, my lord.” I said.
He reached down and drug me to my feet. I gritted my teeth to keep from gasping in pain. Something was wrong with my left shoulder, but I was not about to show my hurts to Arthur.
“No one, no man among us, is afraid to lower his lance. You would not have hurt me, Mordred. I made you a knight, now act like one. I don’t ever want to see you give quarter again in practice, least of all to me. That is the greatest insult one man can offer another. Do you not believe in my abilities? Do you think I am a coward?”
I was still young enough that his words caused my eyes to prick with tears and I turned aside, ashamed, hoping they wouldn’t fall. My heart ached worse than my shoulder. A hand grabbed my chin and hauled my face around so that I was looking into the cold blue eyes that I had never seen flash like that.
“Do you understand me, Mordred?” Arthur demanded.
“Y-yes, my lord. I apologize. I meant no offense.” As I looked into his eyes, I saw what hid under the anger: concern. So, it was not anger of the dishonor I had apparently wrought upon him, but that bourn of fear…of what? Of what he might have done to me with my guard down, I realized with a start and a new warmth for my surrogate father spreading through my heart. It was true, if my shield had been only a few inches lower, Arthur’s lance would have gone right over it and broken my neck. But I could not let him see I understood. As respectfully as I could, I pulled away from his grasp and bent to retrieve my helmet, taking up Elith’s reins, as he stood at my shoulder, having come to me as soon as I had fallen. “If you will excuse me, my lord.” I turned before he could force me to stay. I half expected him to come after me, reprimanding, for I was, after all, turning my back to my king, and in his mind, my father, but I cared not. I had to get away, and I went in a stumbling run, dropping Elith at the stables under the care of one of the boys there before I rushed into the castle, still in my armor to see the one person I hoped could help me.
I had never been to Merlin’s chambers before, but I knew where they were. He occupied the east tower, and I headed there, ignoring the strange looks I got from the maids and servants I passed. When I reached the tower door, I knocked, my shoulder aching, too close to tears for my liking. I feared for a moment that Merlin might still be in town, but he answered the door in a minute or two, a glower on his face before he saw me. I must have looked a fright, for within the matter of only a few seconds, he had me inside, sitting on a small couch and started to take off my armor. I said nothing as he did so, my throat ached too much to say anything without it turning into a sob. He piled my armor to one side then put a hand on my left shoulder. I cried out despite myself.
“Your shoulder’s dislocated,” he said. I opened my mouth to reply, but he gave me no time, wrenching it back into place suddenly and I screamed without really realizing I had done so. He pressed me back on the couch and left for a moment, coming back with a steaming cup of something.
“Drink,” he said. I did so, realizing it was mulled wine with some herbs put in. It helped the pain and steadied my nerves a bit, but I was in too bad of a place mentally for it to help everything.
“I’m leaving,” I told him honestly. “I can’t stay here any more. Arthur will not let me avoid him, and it would kill me to do so. I have already been horribly disrespectful to him, and I can’t stand to be so again even if it were to save his life. It would be best for me just to go.”
“Don’t talk that way, Mordred,” Merlin said sternly, going to a table where he worked with grinding up herbs. I noticed the whole room was hung with herbs and plants with bubbling pots and an earthy smell permeating the atmosphere. It was rather pleasant and oddly calmed my nerves a bit. Perhaps that was his intention.
“If you leave, you will have given up,” he said.
“I have given up,” I replied. “If I stay, my only option is to kill myself or kill Arthur, for there is no other way out of it. I fear my willpower will only go so far to stopping the curse. It seems to get stronger each time. Eventually I will kill him, it’s inevitable. Unless you can find a way to stop it I have to leave.”
“I have tried to find an antidote, a reversal,” Merlin said, sounding tired, exhausted, and for the first time, I realized that he truly looked it. When was the last time he had slept? I could see his tower from my rooms and a light always seemed to be on through the night. He didn’t look like he had eaten much either, for he had lost weight, starting to look stretched very thin, where before he had been lithe. His dark hair was uncombed, and his chin sported several days worth of beard where before he had always gone clean shaven. “I only have one solution, and that is you yourself, Mordred. You are the only one who can undo the curse.”
“By doing it,” I replied grimly.
“No,” Merlin said, shaking his head. “The curse was put upon you because of your will to refuse. You must use that will to break the curse. Remember when I told you that love and hate are the two most powerful things in this world? You must combine your love for Arthur and your hate for Morgan la Fay to break the curse.”
“I have tried,” I said. “I have resisted it, but it has not gone away.” I buried my face in my hands, feeling the tears come. I was so exhausted, and I hurt both of mind and body. Merlin came over and sat beside me, putting a hand kindly on my knee.
“You are stronger than you think, Mordred,” he said. “I know you can do this. Perhaps it is just not the time for the curse to break. But I have no doubt you will have the will and the power to do so when the time comes and it is most important. You have not yet seen your darkest hour, Mordred. We never know what we will be capable of when faced with that.” There was a faraway look in his face, and I knew Merlin had seen many dark hours, and even himself, world-weary as he was, wondered how much worse things could get.
“I have seen so much darkness already,” I whispered. “How much more can I really take?”
He turned sad eyes onto me. “I wish that I could look into the future with any clarity to tell you what may come to pass. But your destiny is tangled so in a web that had been woven by everyone but yourself that it is impossible to distinguish one possible future from another. But I do know that it is tangled with Arthur’s and Morgan’s so tightly there is no doubt you will all play a part in the end of things. Whether you are to kill Arthur or save his life, it is not yet to be seen, but I believe that you will do what is right, and triumph over evil in the end.”
He was trying to reassure me, but I was not feeling reassured. He had not been the one to stand over Arthur with a sword ready to plunge into his chest, knowing what was about to happen, and yet unable to stop it. If he truly loved Arthur as a blood brother as he said he did, then surely he must understand in part why I wished to run. Whether it would fix things in the end, it would give me time to think. Time to decide something else. Maybe I would find Lady Morgan and force her to release me from the curse. Either that or she would kill me. But I knew I could not stay in Camelot another day, of that I was certain.
Merlin perhaps saw something desperate in my eyes, for he gave me a long look as if to tell me not to try anything stupid, but I knew what I was going to do, and it turned out to be stupid and childish indeed, but I did it anyway, determined I knew that I was doing the right thing. And so that night, under cover of darkness, when I knew everyone was asleep, I slipped out of the stable with Elith and we rode away into the darkness.
©Copyright 2014 by Hazel B West