Time in the village ran different than the rest of the world, but Lancelot had grown accustomed to that. Three years and counting he had spent here, laboring in the smithy Guinevere had designed and the Lady had built to turn good mountain ore into fine steel and iron. Over time his body had mostly given up on its old insistence of rising with the sun. His days had long since ceased to be ruled by the sun, and instead he had learned to work metal accompanied by the flickering reds of firelight and the smoky greens of witchlight.
This was his life, now. Lancelot had once, very briefly, been a knight of Camelot, had fought against Prince Arthur himself in the bright sunlight of the courtyard. Now he was a blacksmith of the Mountain, and his life was measured by sunsets instead of sunrises.
Grigor came to wake him when his watch ended in late afternoon, thoughtfully handing him a sausage roll before wandering home for a few hours more of sleep. Lancelot went to the cooking fires, burning low to embers during the quiet of day when everyone was sleeping, and found Alun pouring a fresh brew of tea, hunched and slow in the merciless beam of sunlight.
"How did you get last watch, you lucky bastard?" Lancelot mumbled, as he grabbed a cup for himself. "And for the third time in a row, no less."
Alun grinned into his plate. "Headwoman likes me."
"Hmmph." Lancelot finished off the last few bites of his sausage roll and stood, cup in hand. "She'll like you a lot less if she finds out Hafren's been visiting you on watch."
"Then maybe no one should tell her," Alun said, and this time the mossy expanse of his teeth bared in a smile was a lot less friendly and a lot more pointed.
"You're supposed to watch," Lancelot reminded him, and went back to his smithy. Gwen's smithy; he just worked in it.
He spent an hour or so on his swordplay, not willing to light the fires and start the bellows before the rest of the village was awake, but after a while he heard the others stirring and put away his sword, breathing hard and sweating lightly. He hadn't had to take up arms in true battle for over three years, in a true fight to defend the village his own poor skills would be as next to nothing compared to the least of the mountain children that lived here, but still he practiced with his sword every day. Just in case.
He'd just started working on his latest piece, a pair of giant iron hinges commissioned by the Mercian king himself, when he heard the alarm bell ring. He waited, with baited breath, for the second toll that would mean emergency, but none came.
"Riders were spotted at the edge of the woods," said Brenin, the headman, when Lancelot found him conferring with Alun near the watch station at the edge of the village proper. "Luckily my daughter did not distract our guard so thoroughly that he did not notice."
That was the end of last watch for Alun, Lancelot thought ruefully. Looking at the young man's carefully rebellious face, though, Lancelot rather thought that Alun might not care. If all went well, the Lady would be overseeing a handfasting before the year was out.
Maybe Gwen could make it up in time for Midwinter, Lancelot found himself thinking wistfully, then forced his attention back to the matter at hand.
"So they're past the first warding," Lancelot said. "That's not good."
Brenin nodded, worry writ large across the rocklike planes of his craggy face. "They should have turned aside before they even reached the forest. The wards are failing us."
Lancelot sighed and hooked his thumbs through his broad leather belt. "The Lady warned us that this might happen," he said. "The wards were never designed to keep out someone that already knew we were here. Especially not today, of all days."
Brenin' eyes flashed black with distress, visible even in the dim light afforded by the slowly setting sun. "It would be today that we get visitors. It's our weakest day and she is gone. Just when is she supposed to be getting back?"
"You know as well as I do that midsummer was the only day she could." But in truth Lancelot had nothing more to offer in answer than a shrug. He had long ago learned not to expect definitive answers out of life, as he had long ago ceased to get any, especially where the Lady was concerned. "She'll be here before the meal is ready, my friend, of that I am sure. The sooner you stoke the cooking fires, the sooner she will be here."
Brenin laughed, almost against his will, and his shoulders went down as some of the stress eased away. "When you are right, you are right. Ah, well." He sighed, deeply. "We will call the village together, in case the Lady is running late."
Lancelot grinned at him. "That would probably be best."
So it was that Lancelot was standing in the village square with Brenin and a dozen of the village's strongest men, all armed with the finest mountain steel, when a dozen horsemen swept into the village, clad in Pendragon red.
Arthur was immediately recognizable, all shining silver armor and gleaming gold hair, the first horse in the spearhead of mounted warriors. And behind him, sidesaddle on a fine white mare, wearing a fine lady's gown, was Gwen, his Guinevere. Lancelot's throat went tight.
Arthur pulled his horse to an abrupt halt a safe distance away from the villagers, as the stallion sidled nervously and blew air out of its nostrils at the scent of the villagers. Arthur shifted in his seat and Lancelot saw, for the first time, the Pendragon seal on his chest, the same medallion that Uther was said to have warn since the day of his coronation. Arthur was wearing the seal of the Albion king.
"Where is she," Arthur said flatly, and he didn't even bother to shout. He didn't have to; his voice eddied and echoed around the tight confines of the village square, as if even Wellspring magic itself recognized and feared this man. As if the very air did so.
"King," Lancelot acknowledged. He left off the traditional possessive at the beginning; he would not say my King because he did not belong to Arthur any more than Arthur belonged to him. "I'm afraid you've come too late. She isn't here."
For a moment Lancelot was afraid that Arthur was going to set his charger forward and simply trample him, and the gods only knew how Brenin and his men would react to that, but then Arthur abruptly swung his leg over the saddle and slid to the ground with the same boneless grace he displayed in battle. Out of the corner of his eye, Lancelot was watching Gwen's tight, strained face, and the way she flinched hard at the jarring thump of Arthur's boots into the soft earth.
Arthur put one hand on the hilt of his sword, not as if he intended to draw it but just as if he needed the comfort of having it under his hand, and stalked forward. Behind him, Lancelot heard Brenin growl, an inhuman subvocal that Lancelot had once seen drive away an entire pack of wolves with the sound alone, but Arthur didn't even look at him, just continued inexorably forward until he was close enough for Lancelot to feel the king's breath on his face.
"Where. Is. She."
"Sire I told you she would be gone-" Gwen tried to say, but Arthur waved one hand to silence her, not bothering to even so much as glance in her direction. Gwen closed her mouth with a snap and bit her lip, her hands in their fine silk gloves tightening on the reins.
"Guinevere is telling the truth," Lancelot managed to say, steadily. He had travelled the lands and found few fighters who could match his skill, but the man standing before him was enough to fill him with trepidation. Arthur had already been one of the greatest warriors he'd ever seen, and that was years ago. There was no telling what changes time had wrought, but Lancelot doubted he'd grown worse. "It's Midsummer, sire, one of the days where the barrier between our world and Avalon thins. It's not just that she isn't here, it's that she isn't anywhere."
Arthur's eyes narrowed the same way they did before he renewed his attack. "I am not leaving here without her, and I will tear down every building in this village of yours until I find her."
The growl intensified, and Lancelot flinched. Lady, if you have ever loved us, return *soon,* he prayed, hoping that somehow, she would be able to hear him. Stranger miracles than this had happened around the Lady. "Sire," he said, as calmly as he knew how. "That would be a bad idea."
"And why is that," Arthur returned, clearly losing patience, and Lancelot jerked his thumb toward Brenin and Alun and Grigor and all the other villagers.
"Because this is not a village of men. And the sun is setting."
Now Arthur looked wary, now Arthur realized what he had ridden into. As the final blood-red rays of sunlight crept reluctantly backward, the shadows of the villagers stretched not just longer, but wider, the outlines losing their solid human shaping and stretching into something new, something frightening.
Everyone knew that mountain trolls became their true selves at night. Everyone knew the fearsome things that these creatures could do, the strength that allowed them to plumb the depths of mountain mines terrifying when turned against mortal man in battle.
Arthur had heard the legends. But looking at him now, Lancelot realized that Arthur simply hadn't cared.
"Perhaps we can sit down and wait," Lancelot said softly. He didn't want this to turn into a bloodbath and he doubted that Arthur wanted that either; Arthur was simply blinded by his single-minded pursuit of his goal. "We will have word soon. The Lady is returning and she will be able to tell us of Morgana's safety among the Siddhe-"
Behind Arthur, Gwen's eyes went wide, and Arthur looked at him as if he was mad. "Morgana," he said, shaking his head slowly. "I am not here for-"
Six feet away, the Lady Emrys climbed out of the Wellspring like it was an ordinary day, shaking water droplets from the hem of her cloak and running one hand distractedly through her hair. "Sorry if I'm late," she was saying, "Morgana was telling tales again and you know how it is when you get a group of Druids in one place, it's like they never shut up-" She stopped, her cheerful patter dying down into silence as she took in the tableau before her. "Oh, dear."
"Merlin," Arthur growled, and Emrys gave him a sheepish smile, twisting her hands behind her back.
"Hello, Arthur," she said softly, a peculiar smile on her face. "It's been a long time."
Arthur looked like he was contemplating murder, his hand clenching around the hilt of his sword. "Three years, two months, three weeks and five days." His lips twisted thinly. "But who's counting."
"You prat," Emrys informed him, and then, inexplicably, she laughed. "You've been king for ages, you silly bastard, I was starting to wonder if you were ever going to show up."
Arthur reached out and grabbed her, easy as breathing, as Lancelot was left to stand with the mountain's children as the Lady Emrys, the greatest sorceress the world had ever seen, was lifted clean off her feet and soundly hugged by King Arthur.
Gwen climbed off her horse and came to stand next to him, shaking her head. "He's been like an enraged bear for the last few weeks, ever since he realized I wasn't exactly visiting my mother's village and figured out where I'd been slipping off to."
Lancelot discretely hand-signalled Brenin to get Arthur's knights out of the town square and into proper quarters. There was no more chance of bloodshed here, not with Arthur and Merlin embracing like their lives depended on it. "You don't even have a living mother, Gwen, you couldn't have thought up a more convincing lie?"
"Well it wasn't really an issue until Uther declared Morgana dead and her will was read." Gwen's face abruptly went nervous, and she twisted her hands in the hem of her cloak. "Lancelot, I need to tell you-"
"She granted you her title," Lancelot finished for her. Gwen looked surprised, and from somewhere in him Lancelot managed to dredge up a smile. "The clothes sort of give it away, m'lady."
"Oh, gods, don't you start," she vowed, and from the way her hand was curling into a fist he thought she might hit him. "I am so tired of the attention already. What are ladies supposed to do all day, without chores? I think I might go mad."
This time, Lancelot's laugh was more genuine. That was his Gwen. And from the way she was standing, so close next to him, she was indeed still his Gwen. "Somehow, I am sure that you will be able to find something to occupy you." He glanced at Emrys and Arthur, and found the two of them still standing in the middle of the village square, still wrapped in each other's arms. One of Arthur's gloved hands was fisted in the long, windblown mess of her dark hair, as if he was making sure that she wouldn't be able to leave. "And if all else fails, I have a very well-tended smithy kept waiting for you."
Her smile was dazzling, and even in the low light of the witchlight the headwoman had called up he could see the way her eyes creased at the corners. Gods, but he had missed her. Six long months since the last visit- but now, at least, he knew why. It was much harder for a lady to slip away from Camelot than a simple maidservant.
"It's mine anyway," she told him anyway, but something in the softness of her smile told him that she wasn't talking about anything so simple as a building.
He didn't know what it meant for him, to have King Arthur ride into this village and hold Lady Emrys like he was never going to let her go, but change was coming whether he liked it or not. Emrys- no, he supposed he had better get used to calling her Merlin again- would no doubt be returning to Camelot with Arthur, the way she had always longed to do all those times she had stood on the mountain and looked to the South, and Gwen would ride back as the lady she was…
…and maybe, just maybe, Lancelot would ride with them. Once upon a time, Arthur had thought that there was more to being a knight than just an accident of noble birth, and he had been willing to give his life for Merlin when he believed her to be just a servant. The winds of change were blowing, and Lancelot had always known how to move with them. It had brought him to Camelot once, and it had brought him here, when Merlin had called on him for aid. Perhaps this time, it would bring him somewhere even better.
"My lady, it was never anyone else's," he told her, and he wasn't talking about the smithy either.