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dark clouds gathering
I continued to travel with no real destination for another week. I had decided that if my fate was so far entwined within the inner workings of the universe as everyone seemed to claim, then it would make little difference where I went because it was likely that I would end up where I needed to be at the proper time and nothing was going to stop it from happening.
And if not, well, I wasn’t going to be too upset about it.
Rumors of war turned into more than rumors. Every town I went through had an edgy quality shown through the manners of the people, watching me and any newcomer with suspicion bred of fear and distrust. I did little to dissuade them of those thoughts. I was hardly the sweet-faced boy I once was. I had not looked into a mirror recently, but I knew I would be harder—colder.
When I stopped for the night at inns along the way, I always listened to the news without adding any input myself. There were stories of Arthur amassing his army and gathering as many men as he could. But there were other tales about Morgan la Fay, the great sorceress, and how her armies seemed to grow every day with mercenaries, or, perhaps with men forced to fight for her under a spell she had enchanted them with as some of the gossip said. I didn’t think she needed it, myself. I knew she was quite convincing enough without her enchantments, especially when one didn’t know her. There was also talk of whether Merlin would fight her and if he would win. Some seemed to think she was stronger than him now, and I disagreed on that point. I knew Merlin, though perhaps more humble, was by far the greater sorcerer. He had already escaped Morgan once, and I knew that without being on her ground and without giving her a chance to set traps, he would be able to take her down quickly. At least, that was my hope.
Whether the rumors were true or not, and I thought that most were likely embellishments at best, there was war coming, and it was coming soon. I also knew that Morgan’s army would outnumber Arthur’s. By how many, who could say, but I was certain of it. That was just how she played. She would not go into battle unless she had a good chance at victory. A wave of guilt washed over me, thinking that I had deserted Arthur at the time he needed every loyal knight the most. But I was hardly loyal, was I? And I hadn’t exactly deserted them either. I was still unsure of what I was going to do about the coming battle. I only knew that I couldn’t get anywhere near Arthur because I would not kill him, not after all this.
Then one night, I was staying at an inn, a poor one, as usual. The talk was that the two armies were amassing nearby, though no one was certain where. I might not have paid any heed to it, but I had seen several men in the town earlier who I thought were Morgan’s. I didn’t rightly know what I felt about this information, thinking it was so near. I think I was trying to feel nothing, but inside my heart stuttered for fear of what would happen to my friends—my family—without me there to help or to share in their fate if the worst befell.
I was staring into my ale cup in deep contemplation, so I started when a hooded figure sat on the other side of my table. I gripped my dagger and shoved it threateningly into the stranger’s face when a dry chuckle sounded from the shadows of the hood and a slim hand moved up to push it back, revealing none other than Merlin himself.
“Merlin,” I breathed, so flabbergasted at the revelation that I could hardly speak or do more than stare.
He nodded, his usual droll look dulled only slightly by the obvious weariness from stress and anxiety that could be seen clearly in the lines of his face. “Hello Mordred.”
“What are you doing here?” I asked, still dumbstruck.
“I came to find you, of course,” Merlin said obviously as if I were slow.
“Why?” was all I could ask.
Merlin rolled his eyes. “You have certainly gotten wiser since you left,” he said sarcastically, before he sighed and grabbed my tankard, downing it in one go, as I watched with indignation. He slammed it down on the table and leaned across, speaking in a low voice so as not to be overheard. “In case you haven’t heard the news, Mordred, there is a war on the brink of starting. And I mean only days away, possibly even hours. We’re amassing at Camlann only a few miles from here. Morgan bloody la Fay outnumbers us at least three to one, if she hasn’t found more friends to fight for her since I last got a head count, and more and more Arthur seems to think this will be a doomed battle. He’s begun losing hope of winning at all, and it hasn’t even started yet. I cannot allow him to lose hope. If his people see that he has then it will all be over before it has begun.”
I swallowed hard, my stomach knotting at the thought of Arthur giving up. “Why are you telling me this?” I asked quietly, trying not to let my emotions show on my face.
“You have a decision to make, Mordred,” Merlin said firmly. “It could very well depend on the outcome of the battle.”
“Why?” I asked, slamming my hand down on the table. “Merlin, I can’t join you. You know that if I get within a hundred yards of Arthur I might try and kill him. And what other choice is there? Joining Morgan?”
“You won’t do that, will you?” Merlin asked sharply, his eyes flashing.
“No! By the saints, Merlin, no!” I cried, causing several heads to turn toward us before Merlin gave them a look that instantly made them decide that wasn’t a wise idea. “I can’t do this and you know it. I don’t even understand what you think I can accomplish.”
“Nor do I,” Merlin told me earnestly. “I only know that the instant I saw you I knew you were important. And at first I thought that might be a bad thing, that you might be bent on Arthur’s ruin, but I don’t think that anymore. Not after everything I have seen you go through. Seen you overcome.” He reached across the table and gripped my forearm tightly. “Mordred, I feel that you may be the key to Morgan’s destruction, not Arthur’s, and if that is true, I cannot let you walk away from this. I told you before that I would do anything for Arthur. I love him like my brother, and I know you love as much as I do, so you must help us, Mordred, if it’s at all possible. You cannot let me go back to Guinevere and tell her that her husband is dead. Please, whether you wish to believe in fate and destiny or not—and maybe you’re right, and it has nothing to do with it, that it’s all free will after all—then I beg you, if you love Arthur, come.”
I was silent, shaking my head, my throat tightening. “Merlin, I can’t.”
He gripped both my arms now, hard, bruising, the desperation clear on his face. “Mordred, you must not abandon him. Do you wish him to die?”
Tears welled in my eyes though I fought so hard for them not to. I finally looked up at Merlin and shook my head. “It is better that he die by anyone’s hand but my own,” I choked out. “I will not be the one to kill him.”
“You will if you don’t help us!” Merlin hissed, dangerous.
He stood up, rage flooding his features, and he threw the table aside as if it were nothing, gripping me by the tunic, and hauled me to my feet before he threw me against the wall. My back hit hard, and I could not catch my breath before he was in my face, his eyes flashing with more than just anger. I don’t think I had ever been so frightened of someone in my life.
“I took you for many things, Mordred,” he hissed in disgust. “But never once for a coward.”
“Call me what you will,” I choked out. “I won’t be the death of him. He’s the only father I ever had.”
“Then save him, damn you!” Merlin pleaded, shoving me back against the wall again.
I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t. I couldn’t say no to that, but I knew I couldn’t do what Merlin asked of me either. I knew he would not be able to stop me if the spell took me over and forced me to kill Arthur. He waited a few seconds for my reply, then sneered in my face and brought his fist across my jaw. It was hard, and I blacked out for a moment, coming to on the floor as I watched him walk away. Everyone in the tavern had been watching with bated breath and they were all staring at me as I hauled myself to my feet. I felt blood trickling from my nose and I wiped it off on my sleeve before I went to pay for my meal and left for my room, with the eyes still following me.
I lay in the uncomfortable bed for a long time. I could not sleep. My soul ached as much as it had when Arthur threw me out, all the old wounds reopened. What was I to do? I wanted nothing more than to help him. If I were certain I could only be of help then I would run to his side in an instant, whether he would take me back or not; but though I trusted Merlin, I was not willing to take that chance. Arthur dying was hard enough to think of, but Arthur dying by my hand was so much worse. I knew I was a coward, but I could not let that happen.
I don’t know if I really slept or if I had just fallen into a stupor for a moment, but I was startled by a creak, a sound I knew to be the door of my room opening. It was far too stealthy to be a drunk lost on his way to bed, and I was just reaching for the dagger under my pillow when a figure surged toward me. I rolled over, raising my dagger in time to stop the small club coming down at my head. I could not see my attacker, but he fell on top of me as I scrambled backwards off the bed. He grunted upon landing and we grappled. I sliced him with my knife across the thigh, but he grabbed my wrist and slammed it against the side of the bed, causing it to numb and the dagger to slip through my nerveless fingers. He slammed a fist into my face and I was stunned enough for him to sit up and grab his club. I only saw a blurry vision of it coming toward me and then a burst of pain before there was nothing.
©Copyright 2014 by Hazel B West