Disclaimer: No copyright infringement intended; no profit is being made from this
Notes: This is the third story in an arc that begins with "Enough for Now" and "Broken." Both can be found on my author's page.
Love's Fealty: Chapter One
Arthur stared out over the battlements, past the muddy streets below him, out into the forest whose bare branches were just beginning to boast a dusting of new green leaves.
"Where are you, Merlin?" he whispered.
He turned. Gwen was standing there. "The King requests your presence," she went on.
Arthur bit back a sigh. "I'll be there in a moment." He turned his gaze back to the silent forest.
Gwen stepped closer. "I miss him, too," she said softly. "Do you think he's all right?"
"He's fine." He has to be.
Merlin poked the fire with a stick and huddled closer, trying to get warm. His stomach growled, reminding him that it had been hours since he'd eaten. He tried to ignore the pangs of hunger. He'd no money and there was little to find to eat in the forest, with the last of the winter snows still melting away. He was terrible at hunting—not like Arthur.
Arthur. Hardly an hour passed that he didn't think of him, wondering what he was doing, if he was all right. The nights were the worst—curled up on the hard ground or, if he was lucky, in the straw of a stable he had managed to sneak into. All he could do was wrap his arms around himself, missing Arthur's touch, the warmth of his presence.
He hadn't dared return to his mother's village when he fled the castle—he was sure Uther would search for him there. But he hadn't been able to leave the kingdom, either. Even now, a hard day's ride would carry him within sight of Camelot's walls. Or it would if he still had a horse. Merlin scrubbed a hand across his face. The horse had been stolen shortly after he had escaped, when weariness had at last overridden his despair, and he had fallen asleep, huddled under a thicket. Thankfully, he'd kept the bags of food and blankets next to him, and the thief hadn't dared come close enough to take those, too.
The food had run out quickly, however. And Arthur hadn't thought to include any money. Why would he? He'd never had to worry about money or having enough to eat. Merlin had come up with a few choice phrases to communicate the depth of Arthur's ignorance when they were reunited. After he'd kissed Arthur so thoroughly he couldn't see straight, of course.
When they were reunited. Not when—if. If they were reunited. Every day that passed made it less likely, not more. What was he going to do? Hang about the woods, finding occasional odd jobs in nearby villages in return for some food or resorting to stealing when the villagers treated him with suspicion, as he'd been doing for the past few months? Waiting until Arthur became king—how many years would that take? And when Arthur did become king—what then? Arthur might not care about him anymore—might have forgotten all about him. Merlin had just been a servant, after all.
He told himself that wasn't true. That Arthur loved him. Arthur had set him free, sworn that his magic didn't matter, that it changed nothing between them. He thought of Arthur's face, broken and forlorn, as he'd ridden away. But doubts plagued him. What if Arthur had changed his mind—decided that he didn't want Merlin, tainted with magic as he was? What if he returned only to be greeted with cold words and sent back into exile?
No—no, that wouldn't happen. He would wait here—no matter how long it took. Close by, in case Arthur needed him.
He stumbled across an isolated farmhouse that afternoon as he trudged through the forest. After hesitating for a few moments, he made his way across the yard. A few sheep were out in their pen, and he could smell smoke from a fire. He knocked on the door. An older man with graying hair and rough clothes opened it. Merlin could see a woman behind him, bending over a kettle on the fire.
"What do you want?" the man said, voice thick with suspicion.
"I was wondering if you had any work that needed doing," Merlin said, trying to surreptitiously brush some of the dirt off his jacket. He knew he looked rather desperate—unwashed, unshaven, clothes filthy.
"And if I did?" the man said slowly.
"I'd do it—in return for some food. Perhaps I could stay in your barn overnight."
The woman had come over to join her husband. "Always need more wood chopped," she said.
"Aye—true enough." The man nodded. "Very well—the axe is leaning against the fence over there."
"Thank you," Merlin said quickly and hurried off to the woodpile before they could change their minds.
The man stood on the doorstep watching him for awhile but eventually went back into the house. Merlin worked steadily. He found himself thinking of his village, the many afternoons he'd spent chopping wood there—and the times he'd slipped away, risking his mother's scolding, to wander into the hills and dream of adventure. Sometimes Will had joined him, but more often he had been alone. He could never resist doing magic, then, despite the danger. And the unfairness of it all had burned within him—that he had to hide his magic when he could have done such wonderful things with it, when he wanted to learn about his powers, talk with someone who understood. His mother had listened and sympathized, of course, much as Gaius did, but neither of them could truly understand his feelings—the way the magic pulled and tugged at him, begging to be used.
The afternoon slipped by, the shadows cast by the pale spring sun lengthening. Merlin's arms grew sore, but he kept at it, reminding himself that a supper was hopefully waiting for him. At last he heard the door open, and the farmer stepped out. "Come and get some food, boy," he called.
Merlin stopped, wearily carrying the last logs over to the woodpile and stacking them with the others he had cut. When he entered the farmhouse the smell of onions, simmering in the pottage on the fire, surrounded him, making his mouth water.
"You can wash up there," the woman said, gesturing at a bowl of water and a piece of clean linen.
Merlin scrubbed his hands and face, and then joined the farmer and his wife at the table. A bowl of pottage, some bread, and a wedge of cheese had been set out for him. Merlin tried not to inhale his food, with limited success.
"You look half-starved," the woman commented, and she ladled a second helping into his bowl. Merlin gave her a grateful smile.
Her husband still seemed suspicious. "What are you doing out here anyway?" he asked. "We usually don't see any travelers this far from the main road."
"I got lost," Merlin said. "My horse was stolen. I was heading for Camelot."
"Well, you'll want to head east tomorrow—that'll bring you to the road."
"And tonight?" Merlin asked, holding his breath.
The farmer nodded, somewhat grudgingly. "Aye, you can stay in the barn."
Merlin sighed with relief—he really hadn't wanted to spend yet another night freezing out in the woods. The farmer's wife even gave him a thick blanket as he left the house. Dusk had fallen, the smell of wet earth sharp in the cold air. Merlin was just opening the latch on the barn door when the voice spoke.
He whirled around. The yard was empty.
The voice was in his mind, he realized. Like when the dragon had spoken to him—or Mordred.
Who are you? he asked.
There was no reply, but he felt something—a presence beckoning to him. Like a light, shining through the trees, he could feel the power of whoever—or whatever—it was. He felt drawn to it. Slowly he began walking away from the barn, out into the deeper shadows under the trees. At the edge of the forest, he paused, hesitating.
The power pulled him forward, his feet stumbling over hidden roots and stones. Suddenly, a great wind came up and with it a gust of snow. Merlin threw his arm up over his eyes. When he lowered it, blinking against the snowflakes, a cloaked figure stood in front of him.
A spell leaped into his mind, and he raised his hand, preparing to unleash a surge of force that would send the figure hurtling through the air. But the voice spoke again.
Don't be afraid. And his hand fell limply to his side.
The figure lowered the hood of the cloak. It was a woman. She stepped closer, and Merlin backed away. "Who are you?" he said.
"My name is Brisen." She smiled. "I have been looking for you."
"Yes. I felt your power some days ago and guessed that it was you."
"How do you know who I am?"
Brisen lifted her hand, and the snow stopped as suddenly as it had begun. "Nimueh spoke to me of you."
Nimueh. The magic flared through Merlin, coursing alongside the fear and anger that name inspired. "Leave me alone! Or I'll kill you, too!"
"I mean you no harm."
"Why should I believe you?" Merlin demanded, the spell still hovering on his lips. "Nimueh lied easily enough."
Brisen sighed. "I said I had spoken with Nimueh—not that I agreed with her actions."
"So you say."
"I will not harm you," Brisen repeated. "In fact, I wish to help you."
"Help me?" Merlin didn't bother to hide the disbelief in his voice.
Brisen nodded. "Or do you deny that you are tired and cold, wandering alone, fleeing those who would see you dead?"
"What I am about is my own business."
"All I wish is to offer you a place to stay, safe and warm. I will even speak with you about the magic."
Merlin whispered a spell, and the snowstorm roared back to life. "I don't need help," he said loudly, over the wind.
Brisen inclined her head, and after a moment, Merlin let the storm subside.
"Then I offer friendship, only," Brisen said. "I have spent many years here—alone," she added softly.
"You fled Camelot, then?"
"Yes. Long ago, when Prince Arthur was still a baby. But unlike Nimueh, I do not wish to exact revenge on Uther. No," she said, shaking her head, "I only hope to live out the rest of my days peacefully. But I would like to help you, Merlin, if you will let me."
Merlin hesitated. Brisen seemed sincere, the smile on her face genuine. But she had been a friend of Nimueh's, and Merlin had learned the perils of trusting her.
"Come, Merlin. I swear that you can leave anytime that you wish." Brisen held out her hand.
Merlin remained still.
Brisen sighed. "Very well. I will leave you, then." She turned and began walking away.
"Wait!" Merlin called out. Brisen stopped and glanced at him over her shoulder. Fear warred with hope in Merlin's mind—hope that perhaps he had finally found an ally, a fellow magic user who did not wish to do harm. The lure of a warm sanctuary, a haven from the cold and the dark, was strong as well. "I'll come with you," Merlin finally said.
"Good." The smile returned to Brisen's face. "My home is not far. Come." She began walking again, and Merlin followed. Brisen did not speak, but Merlin noticed that tree branches lifted into the air as she approached, clearing the path before her.
Brisen's home turned out to be a small wooden hut, built in a copse of pine trees. At first the only light came from the dying embers of the fire, but Brisen spoke and the fire leaped up with renewed vigor and many candles sprang into flame. The hut was cluttered—rolls of parchment piled on the table, dried herbs hanging from the rafters, various potions lined up on the shelves. It reminded Merlin, in a comforting sort of way, of Gaius's chambers.
Brisen removed her cloak and placed some more wood on the fire. Merlin studied her, able to make out her features now. She had brown hair streaked with gray and wore a simple linen dress.
"Sit down, Merlin," she said. "Let me get you something to drink. And I doubt you'd say no to a second supper either."
Merlin lowered himself into a chair. "Um, no, I wouldn't. Thank you."
"Simple fare, I'm afraid—my winter stores are running rather low. Not what you're used to in Camelot."
"I'm only Prince Arthur's servant," Merlin said. "No roasted boar or pheasants for the likes of us." Which wasn't strictly true—several times, during those short, wonderful months that they had been lovers, Arthur had dined in his room and invited Merlin to join him. Arthur had urged Merlin to sample various dishes, trying to hide a smile at the rapturous sounds Merlin couldn't help making, as the taste of meat and fish, flavored with exotic spices, swirled on his tongue.
"Only a servant?" Brisen raised her eyebrows. "Don't be modest, Merlin. I know you were much more to Arthur."
"I have saved his life a few times," Merlin muttered, trying not to blush and give away the fact that he had, indeed, been much more than a servant.
"More than a few. Or so Nimueh told me."
Nimueh again. "How did you communicate with her?" Merlin asked, his suspicions reawakened. "Could you talk to her in your mind?"
Brisen shook her head. "Not over so great a distance. We used a scrying glass. Here, I'll show you."
She led Merlin into the only other room in the cottage, separated off by a curtain. Her bed was there, along with a heavy wooden trunk. A silver bowl rested on the small table by the bedside. It looked out of place—too rich and fine for such humble surroundings.
Brisen poured some water into the bowl. "Nimueh and I spoke to each other with this. It can also be used to see far away."
"What can you see? Anything?"
"No—it must be something you are familiar with, that you can picture in your mind. Without such a focus, you may see strange things—visions of the future that are difficult to understand. It works best when you feel strong emotions in connection with your viewing."
Excitement surged through Merlin. If he could use it to see Arthur—to make sure he was all right. To see him again— "May I try?"
Brisen smiled. "Of course. Come sit here on the bed." Merlin did so, bending over the bowl. His breath stirred the water. "Now, picture what it is you wish to see."
He thought of Arthur. He should be in his chambers at this hour, perhaps sitting in front of the fire, leaning his head on his hand and staring into the flames. Merlin had seen him like that so many times as he moved softly around the room, putting things away, turning down Arthur's bed. Well, trying to move softly—too often he had dropped something, earning a sharp reprimand and disgusted look. But later—before things had fallen apart—Arthur would more often withdraw from his reverie and look at him and smile. And he would go over to Arthur and kneel next to him. Arthur would draw his fingers through Merlin's hair, and then slide down to the floor, pulling Merlin into his arms.
Just thinking about it made Merlin's chest ache with sorrow, not knowing how long it would be before he felt Arthur's arms around him again. But with the sorrow came the familiar flare of magic, and he knew his eyes shone golden. The water in the bowl trembled, and then suddenly a vivid picture sprang into life on its surface.
It was Arthur—Merlin almost cried his name out loud. But Arthur wasn't sitting in his chair; he was striding back and forth. His mouth moved—he was shouting angrily at someone—but Merlin couldn't hear what he said. Arthur gestured sharply, and then turned and went to the window, crossing his arms over his chest. Whoever had been in the room with him had apparently left. Arthur's face was partly in shadow, but Merlin could see enough to know that Arthur was furious—and, beneath the anger, unhappy. Arthur needed him—he had to go back to him—he—
The vision vanished abruptly. "It takes practice to maintain the connection," Brisen said in a soft voice. She went back into the other room. Merlin stayed for a moment longer, composing himself, before following. They sat at the table again, but silence stretched between them for many long minutes.
"You and the Prince were more than just friends," Brisen finally said.
Merlin shut his eyes. "Is it that obvious?"
"I can tell you care for him deeply," she replied gently.
"I love him," Merlin said, voice choked with unshed tears. "Why didn't I tell him? Why didn't I tell him I could use magic? If I had—maybe this wouldn't have happened."
"You were afraid. And with good reason."
"I know—I was afraid." Merlin sighed. "I didn't even tell Morgana."
"She is the king's ward, correct? And why would you tell her?"
"She can do magic, too. She can't control it very well, but she has prophetic dreams. They're terrifying for her." Merlin scrubbed a hand over his face. "I should have told her—maybe she would have felt less alone."
"Nothing can come of dwelling on the past." Brisen smiled sadly. "Don't I know it? How many hours have I spent, thinking back on those last days—wondering if I could have changed Nimueh's mind. I told Nimueh that it was too dangerous, too uncertain, but she refused to listen. She and Igraine were great friends."
Merlin frowned, confused. "Arthur's mother? What does she have to do with it?"
"I didn't think Uther would have spoken of it," Brisen said, nodding her head. "It appears Gaius held his tongue as well."
"Yes. He was the only other one who knew. Igraine was barren, you see. She wanted a child so badly—as did Uther. Igraine begged Nimueh to help her, to use magic to help her conceive."
Merlin felt a horrible certainty settle over him. "But when a life is created—"
"—another must be taken in its place," Brisen finished. "Yes. Nimueh knew this, but she thought she could control the magic, could determine which life was given up in return."
"She did control it," Merlin said bitterly. "She almost took my mother's life."
"Her powers had grown much over the years. At the time, she was not strong enough. Arthur was born, and Igraine died. Uther was mad with grief. He swore to destroy the magic that had taken the life of his beloved wife."
"And Arthur doesn't know," Merlin whispered.
"No. Imagine the effect such knowledge would have—that your father hated and destroyed the very thing that gave you life, that is intimately bound to you."
"He would be devastated." Merlin shut his eyes again. Please—please keep him from harm, until I can return to his side.
Arthur sat on the edge of his bed, head buried in his hands. He felt exhausted. He'd lost his temper with his new servant—shouting at him until the poor man looked ready to faint. It had been nothing—tepid bathwater instead of the hot steam Arthur wanted to sink into—but after the earlier events of the day—
"We've found where the druids have been hiding," Uther had said, looking up from the map he was studying as Arthur walked into the room. "I want you to take an expedition to burn them out—a substantial force, this time. Set the forest on fire if you have to, but I want them dead."
Uther had pursued his quest to destroy magic with redoubled fury over the past few months. The discovery that Merlin, a sorcerer, had managed to escape detection for so long had galvanized Uther into a flurry of action. He expected Arthur to carry out his commands. But all Arthur could think of was that if magic hadn't made Merlin evil, why did it make others so? If he had been willing to set Merlin free, shouldn't he be equally merciful and understanding to others?
And now his father wanted him to go destroy the druids. Arthur had gripped the edge of the table. What if Merlin was there? What if Merlin had gone into hiding with them?
"Is this necessary?" he had asked, trying to keep his voice steady. "The druids are doing nothing to harm Camelot."
"We do not know what they might be planning!" Uther had exclaimed. "We must keep our people safe, Arthur. How can we ignore this threat?"
He wanted to do as his father asked. But—"I cannot go and kill innocent people," he had managed to say, and then turned away quickly before he could see the disappointment and anger on his father's face.
"They are not innocent!" Uther had shouted after him as he left. "You will obey me in this, Arthur!"
Arthur slumped back onto the pillows. What was he going to do? He couldn't disobey his father, his king. But he couldn't do what Uther asked of him, either.
He wanted Merlin back. He wanted Merlin to take him into his arms and whisper that everything would be all right. He needed to look into Merlin's eyes and see Merlin's confidence in him, his faith that Arthur would do the right thing. But Merlin wasn't there. Arthur would have to face this alone.
Note: The name Brisen comes from T. H. White's The Once and Future King (it's spelled Brusen in Malory). In the legends, she is Elaine's maidservant, and an enchantress, who helps Elaine trick Lancelot into her bed.