In Which Tristan's Suspicions Prove To Be Well-Founded, And There Is Running Away
The attack comes without warning, as all the best of them do. They've walked right into the sorceress's trap, in a deep hollow in the foothills of the Mountains of Isgard, South of the white Citadel of Camelot; three of the roundish depression's sides are too steep to ascend without laying down arms, and are in any case lined with ranks of crossbowmen in ragged black, the gentle slope leading up to the sweeping fields to the North blocked by another three dozen cloaked mercenaries.
These are the remnants of Helios's decimated horde of sellswords, now brought under the aegis of the fierce witch who contracted them in the first place.
All in all, there are five dozen of them, far outnumbering the party from Camelot; the king, his queen, ten knights, and three servants, two cowering and terrified, the one who is always there absent, away collecting firewood. It feels wrong to not have him there.
The horses nicker off to the side, aware that something is going on but with the disinclination to care common to beasts of servitude. Except dogs.
Well, that should be eleven knights, but Tristan doesn't think of himself as a knight, really. It's a ticket to a big, warm bed and a free, warm meal, and good company besides.
Tristan is a smuggler through and through. It's important to get your priorities right. All he has to do is wallop the occasional bandit and give his undying loyalty to King Arthur.
Who is, if Tristan is honest, a massive prat.
Oh yes, he's seen what Arthur can be; noble, wise, tolerant, morally incorrupt, giving… but that seems to be an on-off sort of thing. Not since the witch queen took Camelot a second time has Tristan seen that great, golden king, who cares for all his people and treats them, like, well… people.
But it seems that Arthur only becomes that man when the people need that great golden warrior to save them all, and the rest of the time behaves like an absolute arse.
It isn't in Arthur's nature to rule dispassionately with a utilitarian approach as his father did, but he can't stop trying to do just that. He keeps trying to rule his kingdom as his father would have wanted, no matter that his father is dead and cold and slowly rotting away, and it's now up to Arthur to decide how to rule Camelot.
For that, Tristan finds himself hating Arthur more often than not, but for other reasons as well.
Especially where Merlin is concerned.
Can't Arthur see that no-one has given up more for him than his manservant?
Can't the fool see he's the biggest hypocrite in the Five Kingdoms, making a maidservant his queen and commoners knights while he leaves Merlin as an undeserving servant?
Can't he see that Camelot would fall apart without Merlin?
Maybe he knows all of this, but wilfully chooses to ignore it. It would be just like Arthur, pretending not to care.
Or perhaps he's just stupid.
Tristan thinks that explanation is more likely. Merlin, despite the vitriolic nature of his relationship with his idiot of a king, is clearly the brains of the outfit - no matter that Arthur call him the idiot.
The whole thing confuses the rugged smuggler, no matter how hard he puzzles it out.
How Merlin can stand Arthur is a riddle.
Why he hasn't just upped sticks and left is another.
The biggest of them all is who Merlin really is.
And without his beloved Isolde, Tristan's great love is riddles.
Oh… there's a fourth, too.
Where is Merlin, when his friends and his king need him?
Black lace rustles over leaf litter, and the mercenaries part.
The Lady Morgana, the Last High Priestess, the Traitor Queen, the women who won and lost a kingdom twice, glides smugly down the incline.
Her hair is still a nest of snakes, and Tristan still feels the need to take a sword to that smirk.
The king evidently does too, displaying more of the foolish arrogance Tristan has come to associate with him.
With a word hissed in gleeful malice and a burst of high, cold laughter, she sends him hurtling back, her spells not conveniently failing this time.
The queen shrieks and throws herself to the floor to cradle her winded husband – and really, whose idea was it to bring Gwen, no matter that this is a diplomatic party? Oh yes, the king's.
Tristan can't really blame them; they're still in the cooing and fawning honeymoon phase, after all, when being apart is unbearable.
"Lay down your weapons, noble knights."
Even as a reviled, traitorous witch, she still holds the poise of the highborn, in mocking speech and elegant bearing.
"I only want your king…" She slants her eyebrows and smiles in an expression of innocence so obviously false when her words and tone are poison, blackened by the stains of evil spreading like ink in water from her heart, permeating every word and deed.
"But it's not him you really want, is it?"
There he is, and not before time, too.
The wind tugs the red scrap of cloth perpetually tied around Merlin's neck, the only sign that time hasn't completely stopped for this little showdown.
Ever since Merlin led him to the Lake of Avalon, Tristan has not so much noticed things about Merlin as sensed them. He was never meant to look upon the place where life and death do not exist as mortals understand them, and so left the clearing with its still, blue waters a different man.
When he is within Merlin's vicinity, he breathes the secrets that clog up the air around him, stuffy and dangerous. He never sees them or reads them as they hang there; just tastes them as they flow over his tongue: some gray and salty, regretful; others, green and bitter: the black secrets are no two the same – one burns his tongue like the spices of the Madhavi people, but another may be oily and runny.
But Tristan doesn't need some kind of supernatural sixth sense to spy the true extent of Merlin's intelligence. He's apprenticed to the most learned man in Camelot, and Tristan has seen the way he deftly manipulates the emotions of his king and his friends to any given situation, forgets nothing - no matter that he may pretend to be a fool - and lies like a spymaster. Even so, there are times when something very Merlin brushes against Tristan's mind as the pretender-manservant stretches his mind, immersing himself in a dusty scroll or contemplating something as he polishes a sword.
But chief among these things that Tristan senses is the fact that Merlin's very presence is mercurial.
Some days, the mask Tristan sees all too clearly – perhaps he's the only one who does – is the only thing visible, and there's nothing but the bumbling servant; that gut feeling, tempered by the magic of Avalon, is barely there. Other days, when some of the invisible weight vanishes from Merlin's shoulders and honesty blinks across his pale face, that feeling is greater, the feeling that Merlin is slightly out of sync with the rest of man, that he's more in tune with the world than other people, more at home in places like Avalon where one can touch the ground and touch something older and greater than thrones and crowns.
Once or twice he's seen Merlin on the battlements, dark brows bent in brooding under dark clouds, and on those sparse occasions he feels as if he could touch the lonely figure in blue and red and brown from down where he stands in the courtyard or on the training field, so gigantic is his otherness; so all-encompassing is the hidden part of him that is alien to men when unfurled, that it's tangible if you know what to look for.
That's what Merlin is like now.
He fills the space with his presence. It suffocates the ground and drowns the hollow. It muffles the wind and strangles the trees.
Surely they can all feel it? They must, judging by their expressions.
Even the idiot king, still lying winded and now wearing an expression of supercilious puzzlement – why would his enemies want someone dead more than him? Such arrogance – must be able to feel that Merlin is something out of this world, must realise that Merlin is the biggest wheel in the maintenance-intensive machine that is destiny.
A/N: Due to the magnificent reaction my previous work Loyalty, Cowardice, and Love received, I have decided that longer sequels are in order – in, as you may have noticed, reverse order.
To any readers of the aforementioned collection of oneshots, I bid you hail and welcome to my cluttered halls. Welcome back, and I'm dreadfully sorry about the plot bunny infestation that is stopping me from writing as much as I would like.
Any new readers, I bid thee welcome as well. Mind where you sit. The armchair by the fire is mine alone.