Conversations with a sorceress - part 4

Of course, Arthur couldn't let the insult pass. It was almost comical to watch the oaf protesting, his voice full of bluster, his face indignant, looking as if she'd questioned his honour – which perhaps she had. "That's…."

Then he must have realized who she was. In an instant, he changed from being a slightly ridiculous fool to a golden-haired warrior, growing taller, straighter, every inch a future king. She could see the influences of Uther in him and the endless training, the growing power, the potential for greatness beyond his father's own prowess. All protection and blazing fury, with one hand, he reached out and shoved Merlin behind him; in the other, his sword was pointed straight at her heart. "You!"

"Still alive, I see." Nodding, Nimueh looked him over slowly, haughty distaste in her reply. "Pity."

Merlin was fighting to get past him - clumsily she might add, and Arthur kept pushing him back. It was clear that the prince was getting more frustrated by the moment. He was obviously trying to protect him but Merlin wasn't having any of it.

Finally, the prince gave a fierce shove, and as Merlin slipped a little on the wet grass and finally regained his footing only after a moment's struggle, Arthur snapped, "You idiot! Stay behind me. She's a sorceress. She's the one that left me to die in the caves."

There was a frantic desperation in the way he berated Merlin, protective, fierce, and there was terror lurking under it for all his bluster. She could see that Merlin meant more to him than she'd ever realized, certainly more than was apparent the few times she'd been to Camelot. Arthur had hidden it well from the gossips of the court.

And from the way Merlin was reacting, he'd hidden it too well. The boy was standing there, mouth half-open, blinking in surprise. Then shaking his head, breathless and clearly unhappy, he whispered, "Arthur, you have to leave before it's too late."

Tilting her head, she watched them both. So protective, so concerned about the other. A friendship like that was rare, especially among royals. No wonder Arthur had come after Merlin, was willing to face danger to keep his servant from harm. It could make things difficult unless, of course, she used their bond to her own advantage.

"Merlin, why don't you tell him why I'm here?" It was a soft invitation to share confidences, said matter-of-factly, as if they were friends sharing tea and memories.

The warlock was having none of it. "You promised! You promised not to hurt him."

"And as we can all see, I haven't as yet." She lifted her hands in mock protest, whispered, breathed, "Fýrgnást." Her fingertips fluttered in the breeze, leaving a line of crimson sparks that faded quickly.

"Enough of your tricks!" Arthur was still watching Nimueh, eyes full of loathing, his body alert and battle ready, the sword steady in his hand. "Merlin, what is she talking about? What promise?"

"Arthur, just go. She said she'll leave you alone if I agree to go with her." Looking at the prince for a moment and then turning away as if ashamed, Merlin began to shrink inward, hunching down into misery.

"And you said yes?" The prince was livid. The blade wavered as his gaze flicked to the warlock, before snapping back to Nimueh. A trained warrior, Arthur wasn't fool enough to ignore her or the threat she posed but his fury was almost tangible.

Merlin flinched, blinking at the anger in the prince's voice. "I had to. She promised…."

"Are you completely mental? You can't believe anything a sorcerer says." It would seem that Arthur had learned his father's lessons well. Not waiting for a reply, he stepped forward, his voice thickened with decision. "I'll take care of this."

"Your threats are nothing to me, Pendragon." Such a young fool; he had no idea of her power. "Really, Merlin, you chose him over what I had to offer?"

Sending another scurry of sparks into the air, she let them whirl and dance on the breeze before flying over the prince's head and then disappearing. She could see the effort Arthur made, to stay focused on her rather than watch for treachery in simple tricks and nonsense. But she had to admit that it was amusing to bait him, more amusement than she'd had in years.

"And what did you offer him, witch?" Apparently, princes don't have a sense of humour. He looked livid.

But Nimueh wasn't about to argue with him; instead watched the despair on Merlin's face as she reminded him, "You saved his life, again and again, and he never caught on, did he?" Arthur started to protest but she ignored him. It was time for a few truths. "Well, never let it be said that the Pendragons are not wilfully blind."

"You will not speak such lies about my family." It would appear that the Pendragon pride ran deep, deeper even than blindness but she wasn't done just yet.

"And how many lies did you have to spin, Merlin? To keep Arthur from finding out your secret?"

Merlin turned death-white; he seemed to hollow out, translucent fear in peasant tunics and muddied boots, a phantasm of his former self.

"You've been lying to me?" Arthur finally glanced in Merlin's direction, blinking disbelief and the beginnings of anger. "Merlin?"

Flinching back, looking for all the world as if he would collapse into dust with a single touch, Merlin refused to meet Arthur's gaze. Instead, with halting voice and defeat, his eyes filled with pain, his face haunted, he said, "I meant to tell you … when the time was right. Everything. I thought you'd forgive me when you knew." Nimueh could see him struggling to breathe, struggling to get it all out before he'd lost whatever courage he had left. "All the things we'd shared. All the times I'd saved your life. But I was too much of a coward to risk it. I couldn't…."

He stumbled to a stop, would not look at the prince as he hunched down, waited for the final blow that would destroy him.

Nimueh knew that destruction would bring its own beginning, knew that Merlin's fate rested with her, not with the Pendragons. If it took the truth to bring about that end, then so be it.

"And so now you understand, my Merlin. Uther and his kin will never accept sorcerers into their midst, no matter how many times you save their lives."

When she stopped speaking, she had expected some kind of protest. The prince was a man of action, after all, and she had just insulted his father. But instead, there was only silence - a deafening, pain-filled nothingness, a breathless stillness, as if time had crystallized into a final, infinite moment without sound or motion or hope.

Then a single horrified word. "Sorcerer?"

It was almost startling to see the prince standing there, still as stone, staring at Merlin. Arthur's face was so bloodless, so absolutely ice-cold that she expected to see the air frosted with snow.

It was only then that she realized he hadn't known what Merlin had been trying to confess, that the warlock's bumbling explanations could have been about any secret, that Arthur had been upset with the lies, not the magic. But this was so much more. So much more.

"You are one of them." His voice was soft at first, questioning what he'd heard, but as Nimueh watched, she could see him realize just what it meant - utter betrayal from the one person he thought he could trust. Edging into steel, Arthur hissed, "A sorcerer."

There was so much grief in Merlin's eyes that it was a wonder the earth didn't tremble with it. "I can do magic, yes but Arthur, please, let me explain. I…."

Shaking his head, revulsion in his eyes, the prince looked hard first at Merlin and then at Nimueh. She could almost see the wheels turning in the fool's head as he gazed at them both, taking in all that had been said, all that was still unspoken.

But it was easy enough to lead him into error, almost too easy. Smiling at the warlock, she nodded toward Pendragon. "My friend, we both know Arthur will never understand about magic. It is beyond him."

"I'm not your friend!" Merlin was all but shouting at her.

But even as he protested, Arthur was already taking the bait. The blade was stark in his hand, deadly steel glinting in the sun, trembling oh so slightly as he stared at Merlin. The balance was changing, friendship morphing into revulsion, love into loathing, the war of it clear on Arthur's face. One final breath and he fell into the trap, roaring, "You're in league with her, aren't you? All a fake - your stupid grin, your clumsiness, your ridiculous attempts at appearing the idiot. And how easily I fell for it. How damn easily!"

"No, it's not what you think! I'm not with her. She's…." Merlin looked undone, the misery stark in his eyes.

"Sorcerers are not to be trusted. My father taught me that. I should have listened." Arthur was growing more and more frenzied with every breath. "What a damn fool I was."

Merlin began to back away, kept shaking his head, mouthing denials and pleas for Arthur to listen, reminding him of all the time he'd saved his life, all the things they'd shared. But it did no good.

"You were lying to me from the very beginning!"

And then Arthur Pendragon exploded into absolute fury. He wheeled on Merlin, sword raised, all the power of his training harsh with steel and sinew. His eyes were blazing, hellish scowl cutting across his skin and he looked for all the world as if he was about to take Merlin's head off.

As Merlin raised his arms, covering his head with elbows and hands and desperation, Nimueh reacted instantly, drew power from the air.

"Clíewen wælfýres." And a fireball flew toward Arthur's feet, blasted dirt and grass into the air. Enough to stop him in his tracks.

She had a moment to feel sorry for Merlin; as she glanced at him, she could see him standing there, swaying slightly, ghost-white, looking as if Arthur had already cut out his heart. Perhaps he had.

"You see, Merlin, when it comes down to essentials, the Pendragons revert back to type."

"Liar!" Wild rage in the way the sword swung in her direction, Arthur spat, "You hold your tongue, witch."

"But I haven't lied." She slowly walked over to Merlin, put one hand delicately on his arm, following the line of muscle upward until it rested on his shoulder, squeezed him there in sympathy. It was enough to let her know that the boy was still in shock, still reeling from Arthur's attack. He'd have never let her touch him otherwise.

"Instead, you are the one who has forced Merlin to see how things truly are." The warlock shivered under her hand. Mourning, grief-stricken, he didn't look at her, just kept staring at Arthur in disbelief. "That he'll never be safe in Camelot, that his trust in you was nothing against the fear you refused to question. You have made his choice easier for him than I ever could and I thank you for it."

Arthur's was a harsh, hoarse whisper, like steel scraping across rock. "All this time. I trusted you. Believed in you and you played me for a fool."

"Please…." Jostling out from her grip, Merlin stretched out his hands, pleading for Arthur to listen to reason. "I didn't want this to happen. I didn't want my magic to come between us. I thought you would understand. I thought…. "

But he was beyond reason. "You used me!" Then Arthur seemed to gather himself together, took a long, ragged breath and said, "You are under arrest for sorcery, both of you."

This was just too amusing. Nimueh gave a delighted chuckle, watching Pendragon's mouth tighten in fury at the insult. "Yes, I'm sure we are." Then, deliberately turning away, ignoring Arthur as if he were of no consequence at all, she smiled at her prize. "Say your farewells, Merlin. It is time to go."

"I'm taking you both back to Camelot for trial."

There was boiling anger in his eyes, his mouth twisted into a snarl. It would seem that he was holding in his temper by the barest of threads.

Pathetic, really. He'd been a bully too long, his tantrums legendary in the kingdom, with little to commend him until Merlin had come along. There had been whispers that the prince had grown wiser over the last few months. But she could not see it. There was no reason here, only royal obsession and a zealot's determination to destroy.

"Alone? With nothing but a sword in your hand?" A genuine laugh and she shook her head. "And you call Merlin an idiot."

"I'm not letting you get away with this." He stepped forward, his sword sharp with fury's promise.

Suddenly, she'd had quite enough of Pendragons. "Just try and stop me, young fool."

Ignoring Arthur's furious scowl, Nimueh reached out, pushing Merlin a little, trying to start him down toward the hut and their horses. The warlock moved as if he were encased in mud, feet dragging, white as a shroud but with eyes still fixed on Arthur, begging him for forgiveness.

With the lightning-fast movement of a battle-trained warrior, Arthur's sword cut across her path. "You tried to kill me, tried to poison my…." She could hear his ragged breath and see the sweat on his face. He looked like he was on the cliff-edge of reason. "You can go back to Camelot, alive as my prisoners or I can drag your corpses there. It is up to you but I promise that I won't ask again."

He was too close. He'd have time to swing that damnable sword of his before she could speak the words. She needed distance and to keep her idiot warlock out of the way.

But she had to make a show of it. Letting distaste sneer across her face, she looked at him, dragging her gaze across his warrior body, looked at his sword. Then glancing at Merlin, she dropped her shoulders, as if in defeat. "Take us, then, back to your Camelot. Little good will it do you."

There was a brief flare of surprise. He looked like he wanted to argue, wanted to slice her into ribbons and now had no excuse for it. Or perhaps he didn't believe her. For one breathless moment, she thought she'd gone too far, that he could see through her lies but then he gestured down toward Hunith's hut. "There are horses below. As my prisoners, you will be treated with honour. But if you try to escape, I will not hesitate…" Arthur's eyes were a miserable blue that hardened back into stone when he said, "to kill you both."

Nodding, she gathered up her skirts, waited for Pendragon to lift up the sword and away so that she could walk toward the hut. But Merlin was still in shock, looking absolutely wretched, looking as if his heart was shattering into a million pieces, and refused to move.

"Arthur?" he whispered, "Arthur?"

There was the merest hint of uncertainty in the prince's face. The blade wavered and she could hear the creak of leather, almost feel the strain of steel and muscle as he struggled to remain impassive. Then shaking his head, Arthur straightened, grew more rigid. "I will not hesitate."

Merlin turned away, hunching inward, nodded. He looked gutted.

Stepping back, the prince finally, finally waved his sword away from her and pointed toward the village again. She grasped Merlin's arm, trying to get him to move. It was difficult; he was stumbling over his own feet, and she had to keep tugging him along. But eventually he was walking, snail-slow, but enough to let her grasp loosen and she began to drift away.

Pendragon was still close behind but Merlin, clumsy fool that he is, created the perfect moment. His foot slipped, and he floundered back, knocking her out of his way. She used the momentum to angle off, far enough that Arthur couldn't use his sword on them both at once.

The prince stepped forward, blade swinging to one side out of the way, his other hand reaching out, looking as if he were going to help Merlin regain his footing. A friend's gesture, instinctual and incredibly stupid.

Nimueh turned, fingertips pointing, shouting, "Tóbirste."

Arthur's sword shattered into bits, the shards flying, slicing through skin and air. There was a grunt of pain and then another, as blood blossomed on Arthur's face, a long cut. Beside her, Merlin was babbling and moving up to help him but she was having none of that.

One hand out, she pointed to Merlin, "Beweren." And he was flung back, away from the prince and lay there on the grass, dazed.

But Arthur was already in motion. He'd taken out his knife and was rushing toward her. Gathering up her power, she shouted again, sending fireballs toward him but he was faster than she'd thought, twisting and weaving around the flames, his clothes smoking but still no direct hit, no burning wounds on his body. He was gaining ground quickly, murder in his eyes.

Merlin, too, was rising, sending a wave of fire toward her. "Forbeornan."

But she'd been prepared for his poor attempts at magic-craft. As soon as the inferno started to swell around her, she called down the heavens for rain. "Tīdrēn īs." The conflagration raged, growing higher, the heat of it beginning to burn at her skin, and threaten to light her ablaze but then the water poured down, hissing the flames into oblivion at her feet.

Quickly, knowing that fire was useless for the moment, she sent a great shove toward Arthur, throwing him high into the air. "Scúfan!"

It was beautiful to watch, his body like a puppet unstrung, limbs trying to twist into some kind of defence as he hit the ground with a solid thump and went still.

Merlin ran, faster than thought, to Arthur's side and stood there, face wet with sweat or tears or horror.

The prince lay boneless on the rough grass, one hand splayed out as if trying to fend off an attack, the other still clutching his useless knife, a rag doll clothed in red and silver. As she stared down at him, the wind began to ruffle his hair and dissipate the wisps of smoke coming from his burned shirt. Past the dirt and broken skin, blood half-hidden with the tilt of his head, a single line of crimson trickled past his ear and into his chain-mail. Laying there, his eyes closed, he looked defeated; he looked damaged; he looked terribly young.

At least Arthur was quiet. Not so her warlock. "You've killed him!"

Throwing himself down beside him, Merlin kept reaching out with one hand, touching the prince with gentle fingers as if trying to find whatever was broken and fix it, a delicate touch, clearly afraid to make things worse than they already were. The other hand kept smearing across his own face, ineffectually wiping away tears and the remnants of Arthur's blood.

Gulping back sobs, Merlin was whispering desperate, ineffectual spells, and begging Arthur to get up. It sounded as if his heart were breaking.

It brought back too many memories, of screams and pleas for help, of ash and the smell of roasting meat, of endless grief and the knowledge that her family would never return to her.

"Merlin, he's not dead." She wanted to comfort him, reassure him that all would be well. But that was the old Nimueh. Instead she said flatly, "He's unconscious but he'll come around. A few minor wounds. Nothing permanent."

"You promised you wouldn't hurt him." Merlin was blazing between fury and worry. He knelt there, shielding the prince with his body, keeping her from getting near Arthur, as if he had any power to prevent her if she wished. It was almost touching to watch. Almost.

"Don't be a fool. He was going to kill us both, no matter what his promises were." The pain of seeing Merlin so protective made her angry. It reminded her too much of her own past and the tragedy of it. She said, sharply, "Now, it's time to leave, before he wakes up."

"I'm not leaving him here, like this." He kept touching the prince reverently, as if Arthur were made of glass and one wrong move would shatter him. And under his breath, Nimueh could hear Merlin begging him to wake up.

"Pendragon was right. You are an idiot." Something caught in her throat but she shoved it away. Pity, sorrow, regret had no place here. "Very well. Carry him to your mother's house. You can put him on the bed there and I suppose you want a physician to attend?"

He snapped back, "Ealdor is too poor for that. But my mother knows enough medicine to make sure he's not injured."

"Well then, pick him up. We have to leave before he wakes up or it will just make things worse for him. I've not hurt him…. much but I'm not willing to promise more."

Hunith was waiting by the door. She must have seen the battle; indeed most of Ealdor must have seen it because they were clustered around in knots of gossip and wariness, watching them approach. But Hunith said nothing, just gestured the trio inside.

Merlin gave a grunt as he carefully lowered Arthur to the bed. The prince hadn't woken in the short walk but he was showing signs of recovery. The bleeding had stopped and he seemed to be breathing easier. He was covered in blood and sweat and smoke but he would be fine in time.

The two of them, Merlin and his mother, stood there, looking down at the prince, saying nothing. There was nothing to be said. Nimueh and Merlin had to leave before the prince woke up. And that was the end of it.

Hunith gathered up water and a cloth and sat down on the bed, began to clean the prince's face, gentle and soft and with a mother's warmth. Merlin gave a long relieved sigh and started to sit beside her but Nimueh drew him back up.

"We have to go, Merlin. Now, before he wakes." She looked down at the unconscious prince and then nodded toward Hunith. "Say your farewells. I don't know when you will return here but it will not be soon."

"Merlin?" His mother looked up at her son, her face crumbling at the realization that she might never see him again.

Sending her a watery smile, he leaned down and smoothed one old cheek. She grabbed his hand and stilled it, holding him close. "Mother, it will be alright. I'm going to go for training. Nimueh has promised that I would be safe and I can't go back to Camelot, not now. Arthur would…. " Gazing toward the prince, sorrow and regret and pain swimming in his eyes, he said softly, "Well, Arthur wouldn't want me there."

"I should never have sent that letter." She stood up, reaching for him, and then burying her face in his chest. Whispering into his heart. "I'm so sorry."

"It's not your fault. It would have happened anyway." Wrapping his arms around her, he rested one cheek on her head. His voice seemed far away, as if he couldn't get the words out for the tightening of his throat. "I want you to explain everything to Arthur. I think he will listen to you. We… we didn't really get a chance to…." He stumbled to a stop and just stood there, grief-silent.

She just hugged him tighter. "I know some day you will see Arthur again. You were always two sides of the same coin."

Nimueh remembered her own mother, screaming in Pendragon's fire. She needed to get away from this before it broke her resolve. "Merlin, we have to go. Now."

"Good-bye, mother. Just remember I will love you always." Merlin loosened his grip, pulled them apart and then leaned down to kiss his mother's forehead.

"And I you, my son. Be well." A final touch and it was done.

It's been three weeks since we returned to the Isle of the Blessed. I know it has been difficult for Merlin. For the first week, he refused to talk with anyone, refused food and drink and only relented when the others reminded him that he could go home eventually, when training was complete.

He still moves like a shadow, still mourns his old life.

He won't talk with me but it is enough that he's learning the old ways, the Old Religion. How can he not? He was born of it and we are all kin here. The others say he grows in power and soaks up the lessons like a sponge whenever his melancholy lifts.

There are good days and bad.

I do not tell him that the Lady Morgana and Merlin's friend, Gwen, left Camelot a week ago and even now are making their way to the Druids. I don't know why. My spies are silent on this but it is said that the Lady and Arthur had a terrible fight and that they took flight the next day. There were rumours of more burnings and more beheadings, of the Pendragons, Uther and Arthur both, seeking out sorcerers with even greater fury than before. The prince's temper grows short and even the knights show signs of rebellion.

But I will make no apologies for what I have done. The Pendragons are a scourge on the earth and the sooner their line dies the better.

And Merlin is destined to be the greatest sorcerer of all time and it was through my interference that he'll achieve it someday.

But sometimes, in the dead of night, when the moon is overhead and the faithful Dog Star follows across the starry sky, my heart aches and I wonder if there shouldn't have been some other way to fulfil it.

Yes, it is his destiny. But was it the right path to take?

And that is the question that haunts me still.

The end.

Fýrgnást – spark of fire
Clíewen wælfýres – sphere of deadly fire
tóbirste – shatter (a command)
Beweren – I push back, I defend
Scúfan: to push with violence
forbeornan – to burn by fire