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the return of merlin
In the months following the execution of Lancelot, things more of less fell back into their normal pattern. I was not as dour as I had been, and Arthur and I had, for the most part, repaired the bond that had been lost when I had foolishly thought to push him away. There was still just the nagging worry I felt about Lancelot’s words in the prison. But I tried to shove them aside, telling myself that Lancelot had only been angry for being caught and by myself of all people. Talking proud as most prisoners are wont to try and prove their usefulness before anyone makes a firm command to send them to the gallows.
Everyone seemed to put up my previous bout of depression to Lancelot’s multiple escapes, and I did nothing to dissuade them of that thought, in fact, I began to tell myself that as well, and in all truth, it might very well have been part of my problem. In any case, I was doing my best to keep up my spirits now that he had finally been brought to justice.
But something else begun to bother me, as the months passed, and that was that we had heard nothing at all from Merlin. No messages, no word of any kind; not even any gossip coming in from neighboring kingdoms. It seemed, for all intents and purposes, that he had dropped off the face of the earth. I knew Arthur was worried and nearly beside himself, though he didn’t let it show, having to keep up appearances as king. I myself was even more worried, for I knew what Merlin had been going to do, and I would forever feel responsible if he had somehow met his demise on my account. I did trust him, and I knew he was more powerful than Morgan la Fay, but I still worried, for I had no idea what knowledge she had garnered in the past year and a half, and had never really known the full extent of her powers before that. I considered telling Arthur on several occasions where Merlin had gone, but decided there was no real point in it. He wouldn’t be able to do anything about it, and I was still reluctant to tell Arthur about my connection with Lady Morgan. Not now when things were starting to get better. I know I was a coward about it, and I would pay for it later, I can assure you, but right then, I had had enough grief. But I was still worried for Merlin’s safety.
It was now nearly four months since Merlin had disappeared. Small rebellions had started cropping up as they will no matter how good and just a ruler one has. They were all easy to quell. The other knights thought nothing of them, seeing them as normal occurrences, but I had other fears. Perhaps it was my paranoia that made me think so, but I couldn’t help but wonder whether Lady Morgan was behind it, either directly or indirectly. Lancelot’s words still haunted me, and these few acts of rebellion, as small and harmless as they might seem, only pointed to something bigger in my mind. Whether Arthur thought there was more to it too, he never said, but I sometimes wondered, to the point of asking him myself, whether he ever thought much of his sister, and whether he knew where she was or what she was doing.
And then one day we were having our monthly meeting of the Round Table, talking over what had been accomplished in the kingdom over the past few weeks and what we hoped to achieve in the next. Arthur was just discussing the trade for that year’s harvest when there was a hail and cry out in the courtyard and we all were up and rushing out to see what the commotion was. I stopped short on the steps, my hand automatically on the hilt of my sword, but I rushed forward with a cry as I saw the lone rider who was approaching, responsible for all the outcry.
“Merlin?!” Arthur cried, on my heels as I came to a stop beside Merlin’s horse and took the reigns. I feared he would fall for he seemed in very poor condition indeed. He slumped in the saddle, his clothing torn and bloodstained. He seemed even thinner and paler than usual, if that were possible.
“Thank you, Mordred,” Merlin said wearily as he slid from the saddle, his legs nearly giving way under him. Arthur and I leapt to steady him and he accepted Arthur’s shoulder to lean on without protest, clearly showing the condition he was in.
“Merlin, by the saints, where have you been?” Arthur cried, half angry, half worried. “You leave without warning and stay away for months and then come back like this?”
“Easy, sire,” Merlin sighed with a slight chuckle. “There’ll be time for that later. Right now can I p-please sit d-down before I…” His eyes rolled back in his head and he crumpled to the ground before Arthur could catch him again. The king knelt with a horrified look at his friend and Gawain instantly was at his side, reaching down to pull Merlin over his shoulder.
“Take him to his rooms,” Arthur commanded. “Someone see to his horse. Mordred.” I pulled my shocked gaze away from Merlin to look into Arthur’s worried face.
“Sire?” I asked.
“You know something of the healing art; could you see to him while we wait for a healer to arrive from the village? I don’t think he would want too many people prodding at him.”
I felt inclined to put my hand on his arm, he looked so worried about Merlin’s condition, and I fully saw the true brotherly love the two shared. I don’t think I had realized the depth of Arthur’s affection for the sorcerer beforehand. I knew Merlin would have died—and killed—for Arthur, but I began to see that the king would do the same in turn. I had a feeling the two had been shield brothers in their younger years and a force to be reckoned with at that.
“He’ll be all right, father,” I said quietly so no one else could hear me even though they weren’t listening due to the commotion. “He’s probably just exhausted. Saints know how far he’s ridden to get here. Now come, we’re no use to him out here.”
Arthur seemed to snap out of his trance and nodded. “Thank you, Mordred. Yes, let’s go.”
When we arrived at Merlin’s chambers we found that Gawain, Percival, and Bedivere were already there, and sitting at Merlin’s bedside was Guinevere herself, washing his dirty and bruised face gently. She looked up as we came in and Arthur knelt beside her as she reached for his hand.
“He’s back at least, Arthur,” she said reassuringly. “And he’s suffered worse than this before. His hurts are superficial, I think he is more suffering from exhaustion and starvation than anything.”
“Thank you, my love,” Arthur told her and kissed her on the temple as she stood from the stool. “Mordred’s going to see to him. Perhaps you could ask the kitchen’s to make some broth.”
“Of course,” Guinevere said and slipped out of the room.
I crossed the few steps to Merlin’s bed and helped Arthur undress him, seeing Guinevere was right. He sported a few cuts and many bruises; one might have been infected, but was still nothing a little bit of enchanted poultice wouldn’t heal. I was much more worried about his weakened state and how he managed to develop it. Merlin had no spare flesh as it was, so any captivity or hardship he must have suffered would have taken a heavy toll on his body.
I tried my best to clean his wounds, but Arthur was fretting so much that I finally had to ask him, as politely as possible, to leave. He stood looking lost for a minute, then finally let out a short, embarrassed laugh and nodded.
“I’m sorry, Mordred, it’s just we grew up together as brothers and I love him as such. I’ve never seen him in such a state before for all the scrapes we’ve been in. I’m anxious for news of where he has been.”
“I’ll be finished soon enough, and I’ll let you know as soon as he is awake,” I assured him and Arthur reluctantly stood and left the room.
“Yes, thank you, Mordred. Let me know of you require anything.”
I cast a quick glance around the room. “I think I’ll have everything I need here.”
I had learned quite a bit more about healing herbs from watching Merlin during my convalescence and he had taught me several more healing spells. I seemed to be best at those. Magic had never come completely naturally to me, but Merlin had told me I seemed to have a natural gift of healing and that was why those spells worked better. That had made me feel a bit better; at least I still was a natural healer even if I seemed doomed to hurt everyone I cared about.
I was just as anxious for Merlin to wake as Arthur was. Perhaps more so, because I knew exactly what he had gone off to do, and wondered how it had fallen apart so that he would come back to us in this state. I quickly mixed up a poultice and said the simple enchantment to stave off ill humors and spread it first on the cut right under Merlin’s ribs that was redder than the others and seemed to have been made by a blade. There was another on his upper arm and another on his thigh that were the same. The rest of his injuries were bruises or scrapes that could have been gained from running through the woods but I had a feeling they were the result of some confrontation as likely were the others. I quickly bandaged him up and pulled a blanket over his thin frame, saying another enchantment of healing. He felt like he might be somewhat fevered, and I put a hand on his forehead, only to find it caught in a viselike grip a moment later. I quickly looked back down and saw Merlin’s eyes open. I started for a moment before I realized that he was lucid, or at least relatively so.
“Merlin, how are you?” I asked lamely, as he let go of my wrist.
“How does it look?” he asked with some of his old wry humor. I started to move toward the door, but Merlin caught my wrist again. “Do not tell Arthur I’m awake.”
“Why?” I asked. “He’s worried about you, you were gone for so long—”
“Then he can worry a moment more,” Merlin said. “I want to talk to you. Alone.”
Mixed feelings entered my stomach and made it roil. I clenched my hands together in anticipation. “Did you…Lady Morgan, did you find her?” I hesitated, then pushed on in a rush. “Did you break the curse?”
“Will you tell Arthur?” I asked him.
Merlin nodded. “He needs to know. And for the record, he will only know that that is the information I went to gather.” He gave me a small, sad smile. “I really am sorry I wasn’t able to get her to release you of the curse, Mordred. I fear she is not done with you. She thinks you have some part to play in this yet. Saints preserve you, boy.”
I felt chilled by his words, but tried not to show it. Merlin reached out a gripped my knee with surprising strength for his condition.
“I don’t know how this thing will start, Mordred. She refused to tell me no matter how I hounded her for the information, but you, and especially you, need to be on your watch day and night. If anything out of the ordinary happens, to you or anyone around you, tell me immediately, no exceptions.” He sighed and shook his head. “I want you to know that I will do everything in my power to save you from this, Mordred. You have a power inside you that I don’t think you realize, and it’s battling forces between good and evil, and it’s up to you to determine which one is going to win in the end. Just remember what I told you before. And don’t take up a sword around Arthur until we can get this all sorted out.”
I tried not to let his words frighten me, and indeed, I had expected them for so long, they hardly impacted me the way they might once have. But I didn’t like the idea of being a pawn of Morgan’s. Just like Lancelot. I knew I couldn’t stand it if I did hurt to my friends because I couldn’t control this power Merlin said was in me—whatever it might be.
Merlin settled back against the pillows and offered me a weary smile. “But there’s other business to attend to. I think I’m ready to subject myself to my dear friend’s tiring administrations. You can go fetch him now.”
I left to find Arthur after making sure Merlin was as comfortable as possible and afterward I retreated to my own quarters and just sat to think for a while. But after realizing how much of that there was to do, I cast all my thoughts aside, and went to fetch Elith, needing to go for a ride to clear my mind. I had a feeling I would be doing much more thinking in the days to come.
©Copyright 2014 by Hazel B West
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