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I woke to find Merlin sitting by my bedside. He was not dozing, nor was he occupying himself with something else to pass the time, but he was staring straight at me, giving me a start in my poor condition.
“What, by all the saints, were you thinking, boy?” Merlin said as soon as he saw my eyes open, and I shrunk back onto the pillows, away from his menacing glance. “I told you not to run. Do you have any idea what might have happened if we had not found you when we did?” I didn’t answer, as I took the question to be rhetorical. “Morgan could have caught you and done something worse to you—oh yes, there is worse than the curse you have. Or you could have been found by someone equally ambitious. You were bloody lucky, boy. If your trail hadn’t been so easy to follow, with your over powerful emotions, I would never have been able to track you down. You almost sent Arthur into a guilty rage.”
“Guilty?” I asked, my voice only a whisper.
Merlin rolled his eyes as if dealing with an idiot. “Of course, Mordred! Do you not recall the row you two had in front of no less than all the knights? I swear, I can’t leave that man to his own devices for two hours without him doing something completely idiotic. He thought you ran away from him!”
“I did,” I said. “I ran away because I didn’t want to hurt him.”
“I know that,” Merlin said in a sarcastically slow voice. “But Arthur doesn’t know you’ve had a curse put on you to kill him. That man really cares about you—he thinks you’re his son, for heaven’s sake! What do you think he would have done if something worse had happened to you?”
I immediately felt my heart ache afresh along with the rest of my body. I had not thought of that, not considered it. His words had hurt, yes, especially when I thought back to them, but I had been so blinded by my own fear of almost having killed him again that I had hardly registered their meaning, or the implications behind them at the time. I had run away to protect Arthur, not because he had yelled at me. I knew he hadn’t meant that. And he had found me and brought me back when I was beyond caring about any curse. The realization finally dawned at the pain Arthur had likely been feeling at my disappearance and I immediately felt horrible. Merlin seemed to realize that I finally understood and let out a long sigh, putting his hand on my forehead.
“You’ve been fevered for two days. That arrow took some doing to get out, and if you dare move more than an inch, I will tie you down for all the trouble it took me to close the bloody thing.”
“Where’s Arthur?” I asked.
“He’s asleep. Finally. He wouldn’t leave your side, and he was so distressed that Guinevere finally had me slip something into his drink. I’ll let him know you’re back with us when he wakes.” He reached to a table on one side of the room. I finally realized that I was in his chambers, in some small alcove with a bed, and curtains blocking out most of the rest of the room that I assumed was either his library or the one he worked his spells in. He picked up a cup and reached down to raise my head. “Drink,” he said.
I drank, knowing I couldn’t refuse, nor did I have the strength to. I was thirsty in any case. The concoction tasted pleasant and it didn’t make me feel drowsy so I assumed it was not the same thing Merlin had given Arthur, for which I was glad. I was not ready to sleep again yet.
“Will you get Arthur?” I asked once I had drained the cup.
Merlin hesitated. “I really should let him sleep, but he would have my head if he knew I had waited to wake him. Providing I can, mind. I did give him quite a bit of the stuff.”
I took stock of myself when Merlin left. My left arm was in a sling, I was bandaged from nearly throat to hip for some wound or another and never minding Merlin’s warning about moving, I didn’t think I had the strength in any case. But it was still all petty compared to the wound in my heart, made worse by the thought of the one I had also made in Arthur’s. What was worse still was that I knew there was no real way to repair it. Because I wasn’t going to try. I could not run away—I knew that now. But I could push him away, and though it would hurt me worse than anything, kill me, in fact, there was no other way for me to deal with it. I loved so much that I was willing to sacrifice the love itself for the very sake of that strong emotion. Merlin had said that love and hate are the two greatest powers in the world, but I knew that any hate I felt toward Lady Morgan, who I had too loved when she had been like a mother to me when I was only a small boy, was no where compared to the love I felt now for my surrogate father; a man who truly did return that love wholeheartedly.
I was still mulling these tormenting thoughts over in my head when I heard the door being flung open and then Arthur’s striding footsteps coming closer before the curtain was flung aside and he hurried over to my bedside, sitting on the edge and bending over, his hand instantly going to smooth my hair from my face.
“Mordred, are you well?” he asked. “I was so afraid for you. I could not let you leave me after the words I unjustly spoke to you.”
“I’m sorry,” I said meekly. I wanted nothing more than to just tell him the truth, to end this, but I had no idea how he would take it. Another part of me, that part that was still a boy, wished he would hold me like he had before, his strong arms hiding me from the world and the cruelty there. But I could not let him. If he did I would break and I would never be able to enact the horrible, yet necessary plan I had embarked upon.
“No, Mordred,” he said in a pained voice. “No. You need not be sorry for anything. What you did might have been foolish, and likely Merlin has already admonished you on that subject, but you cannot take the blame for what is my fault. I should never have said those things to you. I was so afraid of what could have happened if my lance had been turned just a few points up—I could have killed you, Mordred! And that would have killed me. I realize my reaction was unguided, and unfair, but do know that I only did so out of my love for you. My only son.” He stroked my face and rested his hand gently over my heart as if to reassure himself it was still beating.
“I forgive you,” I said, fighting with everything I had to keep the tears from welling in my eyes. I could not weep now. It would betray my pain. He seemed to notice something was wrong. He took his hand away and folded them in his lap. “You’re still angry with me,” he said.
“You called me father in the woods,” Arthur said, half pained, half elated. “The only time you ever did so. I thought…” he took a deep breath and turned away. “No, you have every right to still be angry. I know it will take more than that to heal. More than an apology.”
“I am sore wounded, my lord,” I told him softly. “I am simply not sure how to feel right now.”
“It was because of me you ran away, though?” Arthur asked. “Nothing else?”
“Yes,” I replied. “But perhaps not for all the reasons you think.” I couldn’t help but say that. The look of anguish on his face was tearing me apart, and if I didn’t say something, anything, I knew I would never be able to bear this. I wasn’t even sure if I would be able to anyway.
He put a hand on my shoulder, looking at me earnestly. “Then why did you leave? You can tell me, Mordred! Please, if something is troubling you, you need not be alone.”
“I cannot,” I replied, my throat tightening. I reached up and grabbed his sleeve. “Please, my lord, if you do indeed love me, do not ask it of me. I know it is not right for a son to keep things from his father, and if I could tell you I would, but there are things that cannot be told at the danger of those I love most, so please do not ask it of me!”
He looked at me appraisingly for a few moments, likely trying to decide whether he should force me to tell him, or if he should respect my wishes. Finally he took his hand from my shoulder and stood up.
“Very well, I will respect your wishes,” he said, sounding much more formal than he had before. “But do know that if you do wish to talk, I will always be there for you.” He then turned, but not before I saw the look of pain on his face that agonized my heart. A few moments later, I heard the door close. That was when I turned on my pillow and released my tears.
Merlin came back a few minutes later, and I glared at him viciously. “Please just leave me alone!” I pleaded.
“No,” he said simply, sinking into the chair languidly and lounging back in it. “I fear to leave you alone at the moment after what happened last time I left you so distraught.”
“I have to push him away,” I sobbed. “It’s the only way I can do this, but it hurts. It hurts so much!”
“It is the only way, sadly,” Merlin said in a surprisingly gentle voice, far more gentle than I knew he was capable of. “The hardest thing in this world is to hurt a friend to save them. I have not given up looking for a cure for you, but I have found nothing more than I have already told you. I am thinking of going to Morgan la Fay myself, and forcing her to cure you, but that might not work either. For now, though, why don’t you tell me exactly what happened.”
Forcing my grief aside, I told him about Lancelot’s attack. He seemed interested, mildly, but not overly concerned. Relieved was a better word. I was beyond caring about any of it.
Finally, Merlin stood up and offered me another cup of something, this one smelled headier and I turned my face away but he glowered sternly.
“No more childishness,” he snapped, taking my head firmly and shoving the cup against my teeth. “Drink it now, and it will offer you a dreamless sleep. And trust me, that is exactly what you want.”
I fought a few more seconds, feeling stubborn, but Merlin finally plugged my nose and forced the stuff down my throat, nearly choking me. But I had barely finished coughing before I was drifting off, and I had to admit it was not an unpleasant feeling of nothingness after all the grief I had suffered, and the thought of more to come.
©Copyright 2014 by Hazel B West
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