Merlin never really was one for silence. There were times where he could appreciate it, but it was never his first choice.
Silence usually accompanied boredom. Not always, but usually. Though a quiet field of flowers was a beautiful scene indeed and noise would probably spoil the ambience, he personally felt sound to be a source of comfort. Sound meant the world was moving forwards.
To Merlin, silence meant static. It implied that the world had come to a halt of some kind, despite the fact that he knew that only in the most exceptional of circumstances would such a thing be possible.
He knew that… but dear God Almighty, it would not have been hard to convince him that time had frozen completely upon stepping into this room.
Simply standing before the Round Table with Gawain, Tristan and Lancelot made the air feel like lead from the sheer tension; heavy and toxic, the gazes of each person at the table nothing short of painfully scrutinizing.
He idly twirled his staff, trying to keep his air of amusement, but one look from Arturia was all it took to convince him that he should probably keep his mouth shut for now.
The King surveyed each of them, her gaze and expression giving away less than a marble statue’s. Finally, it was her voice that broke the silence, “Ser Lancelot. Ser Tristan. Ser Gawain. Ser Merlin. I see you’ve all returned unharmed.”
“Indeed we have, Arthur,” Merlin started, smiling, hoping the familiarity would help him get rid of the lump in his throat. Much to his lack of surprise and displeasure, it did not.
“Your mission was successful?”
“Very, Your Majesty,” Gawain took over, and for once, the Mage was happy to hear the Knight of the Sun’s voice, “We recovered a great many books and documents, several of which Ser Merlin has already gotten to work on studying.”
“Is there any indication of what Morgana is planning?” Ser Kay piped up, seeming every bit as tense as Merlin felt.
“Patience, Ser Kay,” Arturia raised a hand, silencing any further questions from her Knights, “We will hear your report, from the beginning. I want to hear everything you know.”
Merlin bit back a sigh, and stepped forwards, knowing that he would be expected to deliver the bulk of the report. Sometimes, being the smartest person in the room only served to make one’s life harder.
“Morgana has set up her workshop in the northernmost fortress in Britain, as I had suspected,” the Mage began, “She has gone to quite a bit of trouble to make it nigh impenetrable. The surrounding forest has been turned into a deathtrap.”
“It looks fairly normal from the outside,” Tristan interjected, “But barely a hundred feet in, the trees grow unnaturally large and thick; the road disappears entirely, and their roots carve out the landscape in a manner that is extremely difficult to navigate. Furthermore, the entire place gives off an air that interferes with one’s sense of direction; were it not for Ser Merlin’s guidance, we likely would have perished in that forest, simply because it is impossible for even a Knight to navigate. High level magic is a necessity for anyone to find their way through.”
“It was like we had wandered into another world entirely,” Lancelot stated, “The forest from the outside looks to stretch perhaps a dozen kilometers in total, but it felt far larger once we were in the thick of it.”
“Even with an army marching shoulder to shoulder through the trees and advancing straight ahead, one would have difficulty making it through,” Gawain crossed his arms, “Not helping matters were those… what did you call them, Mage?”
“Golems,” Merlin stated, “Animate stone statues the size of siege engines. Slow, but very powerful, and extremely deadly in close quarters combat,” he scratched at an itch, “The only reason we came out of that skirmish unscathed is because they were made to face enemies in large numbers – the forest trees are perfect for forcing an army to separate into small, manageable groups, but not so small that they would have lots of room to maneuver. A smaller group comprised of elite fighters is better equipped to handle them.”
“How many did you destroy?” Ser Agravain asked, eyes narrowed.
“Out of how many?” Agravain’s tone was one of impatience, so much so that one could practically hear his teeth grinding against each other between each word he bit out.
Merlin shrugged, “Unfortunately, we don’t know.”
“Morgana’s golems were scattered throughout her forest,” said Tristan, “We didn’t have the visibility nor the resources to log how many there may have been without engaging in further conflict – something we deliberately tried to avoid.”
Ser Agravain seemed greatly displeased as he processed this information, his ever-present scowl deepening even further than usual. Finally, however, he gave a reluctant sigh of acceptance, “Very well. Proceed.”
Smirking slightly, Merlin continued, “The fortress seemed to be under a very similar enchantment. I don’t remember what it looked like to begin with, but it had been magically transformed to resemble a castle more than anything else – and a very large one at that, perhaps even larger than Camelot. The river that once made a simple moat has been transformed into a lake, and the outer walls run around the entire body of water. If it were fully intact, we would have had far more difficulty getting in than we did.
“Aside from the sprawling design, the castle didn’t seem to have any further defenses beyond traps – both magical and mundane, which, if I might add, were no trouble for me to avoid,” Merlin felt his smile grow slightly; though he felt the gazes upon him abruptly sharpen, he did not regret the opportunity he took to stroke his own ego. However, he quickly sobered, “That is, until we reached the bell tower beneath Morgana’s workshop. She’s learned how to make chimeras – magical beasts formed by fusing multiple animals together.”
“… that sounds like a truly depraved kind of magic,” Ser Percival murmured.
“It is,” Lancelot confirmed, “The thing was not only massive and powerful, but clearly in great agony. I shudder to think that someone could truly bring themselves to create such a beast, let alone the idea that they might do so multiple times. I had to unleash Arondight’s power to finish it off.”
“During the fight, it broke Ser Lancelot’s arm and fended off the rest of us with power close to that of the golem’s, but with far greater speed and ferocity,” Gawain spoke, looking to Arturia, “You chose well in sending us along, Your Majesty,” he then looked to the other Knights who were seated at the table, “I mean no disrespect to anyone present, but any Knight less skilled in the way of combat than I or Lancelot would have been slaughtered. Morgana’s creations, be they stone or flesh, are truly fearsome.”
“Making it worse is the exact combination of animals she used to make it,” Merlin again piped up, “She used three creatures, the first two being a wolf and a goat. I’m sure that image is nightmarish in and of itself, but the third she used is an animal not native to this land – a saltwater crocodile.”
“I have not heard of such an animal,” Ser Gareth mused.
“… I have,” Ser Palamedes’s expression was grave, “I have not heard of a saltwater crocodile, but I know the animal itself well – a large, stout lizard with leather-like scales akin to armour, and a bite strong enough to break bones with ease. They typically live in rivers in the lands east and south of my homeland.”
Merlin nodded, “And saltwater crocodiles are the largest type of all, living far, far to the southeast – so far that I doubt Palamedes has even heard of the lands they are native to.”
“Meaning,” Ser Bedivere surmised, “that Morgana somehow has access to creatures from across the world that we haven’t even heard of with which to make her monsters.”
“Correct,” Merlin nodded, and even his three companions seemed stunned by the revelation. Unfortunately, the Mage wasn’t finished. He sighed again; this was the part he had been looking forwards to the least, “I’m afraid… that isn’t the worst of what we found there.”
Even now, the King remained largely impassive, her eyes only narrowing slightly at the information presented. Finally, she gestured, “Go on.”
Merlin turned to Lancelot, and nodded. The Knight of the Lake stepped forwards, and gently set the bundle in his arms on the table before pulling the top layer away.
Everyone at the Round Table seemed to let out a collective gasp at the sight of the sleeping child; Guinevere, who had remained silent up to this point, had her hands clapped over her mouth in shock. Kay was staring, open mouthed, as was Bedivere. Agravain’s expression was one of disbelief, and even Arturia herself felt her eyes widen and her jaw go slightly slack, if only for a few seconds. Not because of the fact that an infant had been brought to the meeting, but because of the truly eerie resemblance…
“… it looks almost exactly like the King,” Ser Gareth murmured. He seemed to want to stand to inspect the child more closely, but remained in his seat.
“But… but that’s impossible,” Ser Percival managed, “The King doesn’t have any children.”
“… perhaps… the King eloped-?”
“Don’t be an idiot!” Gawain abruptly snarled, the sheer viciousness in his tone making Ser Gaheris recoil so violently he nearly fell out of his chair. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that had the Knight of the Sun been close enough, he’d have struck his youngest brother, “The King has never eloped with anyone! The fact that you are even considering such a thing makes me question your position, Gaheris!”
“Ser Gawain,” Arturia called, making the eldest of the siblings freeze. She stared him down with all the intensity of a lion, her mask back in place, but her tone dangerous, “If you cannot remain calm, I will have you wait outside for the remainder of this meeting.”
“… but… Your Majesty,” Gawain started, looking at his brother again. However, when he met Arturia’s gaze once more, he almost seemed to shrink; his head and shoulders fell, and he bit at his lip, “… as you wish, my King.”
Once he was sure that his older brother had sufficiently calmed, Gareth spoke up once more, “Where did the child come from?”
“We suspect that Morgana has turned to kidnapping, though for what reason we are yet to-”
“The child wasn’t kidnapped.”
Merlin’s declaration cut off Lancelot’s voice, and the room was plunged into silence.
“… what do you mean, Merlin?” The Knight of the Lake’s voice was deathly quiet.
The sigh that followed was long and heavy – the sound one makes when attempting to take up a truly heavy burden. The Mage glanced about the room, “… You’re all aware that King Arthur has no heir, despite being married for approximately a decade now. He and Lady Guinevere have been trying with… minimal success.”
It wasn’t technically a lie; Arturia was King, after all, but being a woman, she could not normally produce an heir.
Merlin opened his mouth to continue, but a voice cut him off.
“Merlin,” Arturia’s tone was one of warning, eyes narrowed, “You agreed you would keep that to yourself.”
The Mage shook his head, “I am sorry, Arthur, but… this is deeply connected to the issue at hand. I have no choice if you wish to know the child’s origins.”
Arturia’s mask, for the first time in years, threatened to crack under her frustration; her jaw was visibly set, and she seemed ready to protest Merlin’s exposure of her privacy further. However, she swallowed her pride, “Very well. But this had better be as important to the matter at hand as you claim.”
“Believe me. I wish it wasn’t,” Merlin cleared his throat, “Several months ago, Arthur came to me looking for… assistance in producing an heir. I used my magic to increase his virility, and thus increase the likelihood of conception.”
Again, not technically a lie. Because she couldn’t very well have a child with another woman, the King certainly could not marry a man, and Arturia was not willing to break her vows, she needed a way to produce an heir. Something Merlin had happily provided her, if only temporarily.
“But, you see… there was an issue. That night, Arthur told me he had been with Guinevere… but Guinevere claimed that she had not so much as seen hide nor hair of Arthur until the following morning.”
“… and what does that have to do with the child?” Tristan asked.
Merlin pulled a book from his robes – one of Morgana’s many notebooks – and set it on the table beside the child, “I didn’t know what to make of it myself, at first…”
That was a bold faced lie. Merlin knew damn well what happened, and Arturia knew that he did. All he could do was thank whatever powers that be that the other Knights were not aware of his powers of clairvoyance as well.
“… but I began decoding Morgana’s notes on the return trip from her fortress. Somehow, she knew about my arrangement with Arthur,” he opened the book, flipping through the pages, “It says here that she knew what she needed to do in order to create a weapon strong enough to destroy Camelot; it goes on to describe how she infiltrated the castle, and stole away to the King’s room in the dead of night… how she disguised herself as… I’m sorry, My Lady,” he looked straight at Guinevere, and for what it was worth, he genuinely meant it, “… how Morgana disguised herself as ‘Arthur’s whore’… and made the most of his boosted virility.”
None of the Knights dared to speak. Guinevere looked visibly sick, the colour having drained from her face and her posture in a slouch. She opened her mouth, and closed it again, her shocked expression clearly displaying her horror.
Merlin cast his gaze down upon the child, “She carried the fetus for a full nine months. She used magic to alter its development, transforming it from a relatively normal baby into a homunculus and ultimately gave birth to it. The result was an infant with incredible magical power – bearing the blood of a fairy, the manufactured strength of a homunculus… and the raw magical power of a Dragon, inherited from King Arthur.”
He raised his head, “That… is what you see here before you. The bastard child of Arthur Pendragon and Morgana le Faye.”
In the seconds that followed, Merlin could feel the building outrage in the room. Finally, it all exploded – the Knights were arguing amongst themselves, reduced to a backdrop of shouts and struggle. Tristan and Lancelot were struggling to hold Gawain back from the child, and Bedivere was attempting to reassert order over the group.
It all stopped at the sound of metal slamming into wood; Arturia’s gauntleted fist had collided with the armrest of her chair hard enough to splinter the carpentry.
It was the first time Merlin had seen her visibly enraged in over twenty years. Her eyes were open and her brow was furrowed, and her lips were pulled back in just enough of a snarl to expose the teeth that were pressing into each other so hard it was a miracle her gums weren’t bleeding under the force of her own jaw. She looked about the room at each Knight, all of whom remained stock still, having never seen this from her even once in their time serving as her Knights.
“That. Is. Enough.”
The words came through her teeth, her jaw pressing too tightly for her to properly move it. Nonetheless, it was enough to have them all falling back into their respective places.
“Ser Lancelot. Ser Gawain. Ser Tristan. Take your seats.”
They heard, and they obeyed, moving to take their seats. On impulse, Lancelot moved to pick up the child, but a glare – not a mere glance or meeting of gazes, but an actual glare from Arturia made him stop. Reluctantly, he left the infant where she lay, and took his seat.
“… We will review the other aspects of your report later,” Arturia’s words almost sounded like they were being bitten out one at a time, likely from her struggle to speak around her slated teeth, “For now… we need to decide what will be done with that.”
“… we can’t just let it go,” Ser Kay finally spoke.
“Obviously not,” Ser Bedivere swallowed.
“She is just a baby,” Lancelot stated, his voice strained, “Whatever plans Morgana had for her were foiled the moment we took her. We don’t need to enforce any harsher measures than that.”
“Oh, you think so?” Gawain snapped. Out of all the Knights present, he was the one who seemed to share most strongly in Arturia’s sentiments – from the way he was trembling and glaring at the infant, he seemed beside himself with anger, “That thing is not only Morgana’s attempt at creating a weapon powerful enough to destroy the King, it is a stain upon the honour and dignity of both the King and the Queen. It should be erased – it may not remove what Morgana has done, but it will at least rid us of a potential threat.”
“Brother, how could you say such a thing!?” Gareth cried, getting to his feet, “Are you honestly going to pin Morgana’s deeds on an innocent child!?”
“Are you going to ignore what Morgana has done, Gareth?” Gawain growled.
“You cannot hold a baby responsible for the actions of a Witch!”
“I, for one,” Ser Agravain started, tone cold, “agree with Ser Gawain,” the way he gazed upon the infant seemed to say everything he had to say about her – he looked upon her as though she were garbage, something to be removed and burned or buried without so much as a thought of mercy, “It is a creation of Morgana. It is a threat, and should therefore be destroyed.”
“Now, hold on-,” Ser Bedivere stood, only to be cut off by Ser Palamedes. Again, the Knights had begun to argue with each other, the volume quickly rising until he could barely hear once Knight over another.
The first Knight of the Round Table grit his teeth, and roared, “Will you get ahold of yourselves!?”
He paused, waiting for a moment as the noise began to die down. When he was sure they were all paying attention to him, Bedivere spoke again, “Here you all sit, Knights of the Round Table. And yet, when addressed with any matter involving Morgana, you’re reduced to bickering children!”
Once more, Bedivere paused, surveying their reactions before continuing, “I’m certain that everyone here knows that arguing amongst ourselves will get us nowhere. We all have things to say and positions to take, but you are all so strongly possessed by your emotions on this matter that you seem unwilling to calm yourselves for even an instant to listen! How are we supposed to come to any reasonable conclusion if we can’t even hear one another?”
At the very least, the other Knights seemed to be calming, however begrudgingly; Bedivere had to keep himself from letting out a sigh of relief, instead keeping himself steeled should one of them pipe up again.
“… now then. The issue of the child is… delicate, to say the least. There isn’t a single person in this room who doesn’t feel strongly about it, in one way or another. But unless we can discuss it in a calm and civilized manner, we won’t get anywhere.”
“… then what would you suggest, Ser Bedivere?” Agravain asked, eyes narrowed.
“… I propose a vote,” he said, looking to Arturia, “That, I think, will bring us to the most reasonable conclusion in a timely manner.”
For a moment, it seemed as though Arturia were contemplating refusing Bedivere’s advice. Instead, however, she gave a harsh breath through her teeth, “Proceed.”
He nodded, and then addressed the rest of the Round Table again, “We are going to put this to a vote. We will address everyone in a clockwise fashion, starting with Ser Kay. Then Ser Percival. Then Ser Agravain. And so on. When it is your turn, please stand, cast your vote, and explain the reasoning behind your decision. When we reach the King, you will have one last chance to reconsider your decision. Are we in agreement?”
The lack of protest was taken as a unanimous agreement. After a moment, Ser Kay, son of Ser Ector and Arturia’s adoptive brother, rose to his feet, his long brown hair swept back. His expression remained twisted in conflict for a long moment before he sighed, “I vote we eliminate the child.”
A murmur rippled through the remaining Knights, though they allowed him to continue, “… I do not approve of killing children any under circumstances. Much less infants,” Kay said, “However… the fact remains that she was made by Morgana. The Witch was trained by Merlin himself for reasons I am yet to understand myself; she is extremely wily. I doubt that she intended for the child to be brought here, but there is no doubt in my mind that she will be able to find a way to twist the situation to her advantage. We should err on the side of caution and put an end to this before anything can come of it.”
With that, he sat back down, his head falling into his hands.
Ser Percival stood next, smoothing out his flowing moustaches, “I vote that we spare the child,” he adjusted his cloak, “I was raised by my mother in the wild, away from the world of men, for the first fifteen years of my life. I may have noble blood running through my veins, but the man I am today has very little to do with that fact. I became a Knight, and a decent man, on my own merits, not because of the blood that runs through my veins. At this point, the child’s origins, as well as her original purpose, are irrelevant.”
When Percival returned to his seat, Agravain in turn rose, expression dark, “I vote we eliminate it. It is Morgana’s spawn, a weapon created with the immense magical potential of the King, and proof of her latest plans to destroy Britain; even with the crimes committed aside, surely you can all see the immense threat it poses by simply existing. I see nothing further for us to debate.”
With that, he sat back down, ignoring the glares several of the other Knights sent his way.
Gawain was next. He cracked his jaw as he stood, “I vote for elimination as well. This thing isn’t worth pitying; it resulted from Morgana’s rape of the King using the form of the Queen. And as Agravain said, it was made to be a weapon against Britain; even if its origins weren’t so heinous, I don’t need to remind any of you that one of Morgana’s specialties is twisting innocents into monsters.”
Ser Tristan stood quickly after Gawain had finished. He paused, then shook his head, “I believe it would be best to spare the child,” he bowed his head, red locks obscuring his face, “She has been removed from Morgana’s presence. In the hands of a loving caretaker, there is no question that the child could become a wonderful person,” he raised his head, his golden eyes flashing brightly in the light, “I myself lost my parents at a very early age, and yet never once was I mistreated by those within my home afterwards; if you need proof of what she may yet become, I ask that you look to me.”
Ser Palamedes rubbed at the ring on his finger as Tristan sat down, a silver band set with lapis lazuli, as he looked about his companions, “I would see the little one spared as well. My life has been a long and tumultuous one. I have travelled across many lands. I have seen many things. While the circumstances behind the little one’s birth are regrettable, they should not be laid at her feet. Fate is a fickle thing; if you had told me I would swear fealty to a King in a distant land I had not even heard of eighteen years ago when I was but a travelling mercenary, I might have slit your throat,” he looked to Arturia, “And yet, here I stand. The loyal Knight of a land far removed from my ancestral home. There is no telling what the future holds in store for us. This does not necessarily bode ill.”
Ser Gaheris stood then, his eyes going back and forth between his siblings; Gareth was looking to him as though seeking his support, asking him to spare the infant. Gawain, on the other hand, had leveled a smoldering glower at him so intense that one might wonder if the elder brother were willing him to burst into flames then and there. Ultimately he shook his head, “I vote that we eliminate it. As often as Gawain and I disagree, this isn’t the time for a petty squabble,” he looked to the infant, expression apologetic, “I take no pleasure in this. But I must cast my vote in the best interests of the realm. Morgana’s influence proves too great a threat, regardless of the form it takes.”
As he sat down, Gareth’s expression fell slightly, clearly disappointed that his younger brother had been cowed into submission, but nonetheless, he tried to give Gaheris a supportive smile… before his face darkened upon looking at Gawain, again.
When the Knight of the Lake stood, his voice remained strong as ever – if anything, it seemed stronger, the vehemence in his tone having redoubled without descending into anger, “I vote that we let the child live,” one by one, his gaze met each Knight as he spoke. In particular, he seemed to be leveling his glare upon Gawain, “I find this entire vote to be completely unacceptable, both as a Knight, and as a father. Some of you would see the child executed merely because of her connection to Morgana. Some of you even see fit to see her as equally guilty of Morgana’s crimes. If that is honestly what you believe to be just, then I would request that you re-evaluate why you are here, and why you were given the position of Knight of the Round Table.”
He paused, and looked to the sleeping child again, “I’ll have no part in it. New life... is innocent and pure. It does not carry with it the sins or crimes of the ones who created it, nor should we condemn them for things they didn’t do. We do not choose our parents; the fact that this one was born to Morgana, and made for such a vile purpose is merely a cruel hand dealt to an innocent victim,” he glanced up at Arturia, though she did not give him any response, “The safest thing to do would be to raise her here, within the walls of Camelot – safe and secluded from Morgana’s legacy and intentions.”
Having said his piece, Lancelot returned to his seat; Gareth was immediately on his feet, his breaths loud enough to be heard, “I cast my vote with Lancelot. There shouldn’t even be a vote on the matter of whether to spare or execute a child,” he cast his gaze among everyone else at the table, “We are the Knights of the Round Table. Our duty is to serve the realm and protect those who cannot protect themselves. In what way are we upholding that simple code if we execute a newborn, regardless of her parentage?”
He shook his head, “No. Knights do not kill children. A Knight should not even consider such an action. If you seriously intend to kill this child… then you are a disgrace to the very concept of Knighthood,” as Gareth spoke, he was glaring at Gawain with such intensity that one thought he might throw himself at his older brother… but ultimately, he took in one last breath, and sat back down.
Bedivere bit at his lip as the Knights all looked to him. Slowly, he rose, heart heavy with doubt as he considered the council laid before him. Both sides of the vote had raised compelling points, but his greatest worry was for the King. He had seen her sit through reports of massacres without so much as flinching, and listened as she declared the destruction of villages for the sake of ridding her land of invaders to be unfortunate necessities without so much as a quiver in her voice.
To see the King like this – to see her so angry it was now visible on her face, in her posture, and audibly bled into her tone – scared Bedivere. He felt no shame in admitting that to himself; he might have seen an occasional flinch of sorrow or anger, but not once in his service of nearly two and a half decades to the King had he seen Arturia react like this, seeing her angry enough to actually physically lash out, even if she only struck her chair. Biting his lip, he cast his gaze downwards…
“I vote we eliminate the child,” he stated, tone reluctant, but resolute. After a moment, he raised his head, “You have all presented very compelling arguments for both sides of this debate. But I must say that the potential threats pose far too great a risk. I am sorry, but in the defense of the realm… sometimes, one must stain their hands.”
He sat back down, praying that he had made the right decision.
For a long moment, silence reigned over the Round Table; at the moment, it was five votes for an execution, and five votes to spare the child.
“… if I may,” the Queen’s voice echoed through the room, “Might I speak on the matter?”
Arturia glanced up at her as she stepped forwards to stand at the table. Guinevere was still in shock, at least to a degree – she was still pale, and seemed to be having some difficulty keeping her voice even, her tone wavering with every word spoken. Nonetheless, she continued, “… this is a matter that heavily involves me. I believe that I have every right to a vote of my own.”
“… Very well,” Arturia said.
Guinevere swallowed, and then slowly walked over to the child on the table, still asleep. She was so small, wrapped in those blankets with her head peeking through the fabric, the mop of golden hair so similar to Arturia’s own…
The Queen brushed the child’s hair away, and slowly traced her face with a finger before giving a slow smile, looking up to face the Round Table, “I vote that the child be spared.”
A murmur of surprise rippled among the Knights. Even Arturia's fury could not completely override her surprise at the Queen's decision. But before anyone could vocalize their thoughts, Guinevere continued, "I will not lie... the origins of this child do shock and horrify me me. Even now, I cannot hide my fears on just what Morgana planned to do us with this child... but in my heart... I know that this all the more reason to spare the child; she did not ask for this. She did not ask to be born an enemy of the realm. And while defending Camelot is a task we should never shirk away from, neither should we punish the victims of fate. To do so would be needlessly cruel, and we would all start going down a path I refuse to follow."
A moment's pause as she gathered her bearings, wiping at her eyes, though no tears had fallen. She gazed upon the knights then, heart bare and voice beseeching, "If we choose to execute the child, what message does that carve on our hearts? Secrecy? Cloak and dagger deception for 'the greater good'? Where do we draw the line? When do we pass difficult but necessary choices and descend into barbarism? Killing a child for a perceived threat is a coward's tactic. One that Morgana would applaud us for making. I won't be the one to give her that satisfaction."
The room was silent, but the impact of the words unmistakable. Even Gawain’s expression softened, if only slightly; the only one who seemed truly unaffected was Ser Agravain, who remained stubbornly resolute.
“Well, now,” Merlin stepped forwards, an eyebrow raised, “That was quite the speech, My Lady. I’m impressed you have found it in yourself to look past the crimes committed against you for the sake of this child.”
Guinevere’s soft smile grew if only slightly, and she closed her eyes…
“… but I’m afraid I must counter it,” the Mage said.
The Queen’s eyes snapped open, mouth opening slightly as he turned to face the Knights.
“I vote for the child’s elimination.”
Merlin’s tone was utterly devoid of humour as he made his declaration, expression as cold as Arturia’s might have been on any other day. He paused, letting his words sink in before he began his explanation, “I understand why most of you are so reluctant to condemn a child. If anything, the fact that some among you are so eager to condemn her is actually rather worrisome,” he looked at the infant again, clicking his tongue, “I can see the merits of raising the little one away from Morgana. It could do a lot of good; even with morals set aside, something so powerful could prove to be an incredible asset in the future.
“But on the other hand, we would have to be extremely careful. One misstep could easily bring the whole house of cards we would have to construct crashing down. We would need to fabricate a way for her to exist within Camelot without arousing suspicion; we would need to keep a close eye on her development at all times; and above all, we would have to strive to keep Morgana’s influence completely away from her. Even if she doesn’t make any active attempts to get the child back, we all know that Morgana will try to reach her somehow… and we also know how trusting and foolish children can be. Once a viper gets into the nest…”
He trailed off, and the silence that followed was cold. He lowered his head slightly, “I take no pleasure in my vote. If there were an easy way of going about this, I may have a different decision. But sparing her involves building a life that we would have to strictly monitor and control; it may only take one mistake for it to spiral completely out of control, and cause more damage than what we may potentially prevent. As distasteful as it may seem, eliminating her may be the best solution for the Kingdom in the long run.”
With that, the Mage fell silent, and let his words sink in to the room around him.
It was Ser Bedivere who found his voice first, looking about the table, “Is there anyone that would care to change their vote?”
No one spoke, or even raised their hand.
“This is your last chance. If you have something to add, or wish to change your decision, then speak now. Otherwise, forever hold your piece.”
Still, no one moved, and nothing was said.
“… then it appears we are at a stalemate,” Bedivere said, sighing, “It is six votes against six votes.”
“Not quite, Ser Bedivere.”
Arturia had finally spoken again, eyes narrowed; she seemed to have regained her composure, though rather than dispassion, her expression was one of grim determination, anger still smoldering in her eyes. She stood, “As the King of Britain and a Knight of the Round Table, I still have my own vote to cast.
“I vote for the elimination of Morgana’s weapon.”
Not ‘infant.’ Not ‘child.’ Weapon.
No further explanation was needed.
“… but…” Lancelot’s mouth was dry, and he felt as though he were in a daze. This wasn’t happening. This couldn’t be happening, “… Your Majesty…”
“… you can’t be serious,” Gareth murmured. It was only when Arturia stepped away from her chair to walk around the table that Gareth finally found his voice again, “Your Majesty!”
“The vote is seven to six,” Arturia intoned, “A conclusion has been reached.”
“My liege,” Ser Percival started, “You aren’t seriously letting your anger get the better of you!?”
“I am angry, Ser Percival. Not blind.”
“I would beg to differ,” Tristan was on his feet; his jaw was set and his fists were clenched, “You cannot honestly believe that an infant deserves execution.”
“What it deserves and what needs to be done are two very different things, Ser Tristan.”
“Your Majesty, please!” Lancelot finally found his voice again. He had leaped to his feet, standing before his King, a torrent of fear and panic rising in his chest as his blood beat through his ears.
“Stand aside, Ser Lancelot.”
“No one is asking you to raise the child yourself!”
“She has done nothing wrong!”
“Stand. Aside, Ser Lancelot. I will not ask again.”
Lancelot stood in silence for a long moment, then looked to the other Knights, looking for some form of support; though he saw various expressions of protest and outrage, he knew there was nothing they could do.
There was nothing that he could do.
Knowing that disobeying further would not do any good for anyone, Lancelot slowly shuffled to the side, gripping the edge of his chair as the King strode past, approaching the infant.
This time, it was Guinevere who stepped forwards; she looked Arturia in the eye, praying that she would be able to reach the King’s heart, just this once, “Arthur, please…”
Arturia remained silent for a long moment, studying her Queen; Guinevere was clearly distraught, tears welling up in her eyes and posture outstretched, as though hoping to somehow protect the child from her.
However, she knew what needed to be done; this decision was already difficult enough as it was. She needed to keep her heart and mind encased in steel. Let no weakness sway her.
“… Please Guinevere. I have made my decision,” she spoke, soft, but firm, “I do not expect you to agree with it. But I do expect you to abide by it. Please, stand aside. Don't make this any harder than it needs to be."
“… no,” the Queen shook her head, tears now freely streaming down her face, “No. I won’t let you do this to yourself, Arthur. I won’t.”
Arturia remained silent for a long moment, then sighed, closing her eyes, “… Ser Gawain.”
Guinevere’s heart skipped a beat, and before she knew it, the Knight of the Sun had an arm wrapped around her shoulders and was hauling her away from the sleeping child.
“No!” she shouted, immediately struggling against him, but Gawain was not only much larger and heavier, but considerably stronger and better trained. All she could do was yell as she uselessly scrabbled against the Knight’s firm grip and heavy armour, “No! Arthur! For God’s sake, listen to me, for once in your life! Please!”
Arturia did not respond. Couldn’t afford to, lest her resolve fail her against the emotions running amok within. She forced herself to focus on the task at hand, to ignore the Queen’s cries, stepping up to the bundle and pulling it into her arms.
She reached for her belt, and pulled out the dagger from its sheath; a short, double edged blade intended to break through the weak points in armour. The very least she could offer was a quick end.
Arturia studied the blade for a moment, then in turn looked to the child in her - no, the homunculus... the creation of Morgana... in her arm, frowning as she debated on how to administer the killing blow with as little suffering or bloodshed as possible.
She would not allow Britain to fall. If she needed to, she would shoulder all the world’s evils to keep her country alive and well.
But then the bundle began to shift, her mind grinding to a sudden and utter halt.
Without any prompt or warning, the baby slowly started to stir in Arturia’s arms, the movements faint but still enough to distract her, drawing the King away from the moment at hand to look at the bundle in her arms. The teal eyes of the baby met the identical teal eyes of her father. Despite the knife angled so close, the baby seemed more curious than afraid, hands reaching out far enough that Arturia unconsciously moved the knife away to prevent a potential injury.
‘It... it really does look like me...’
The thought was... surprisingly calming, the burning rage within starting to cool, her tight grip loosening slightly...
No. Focus! This was one of Morgana’s sick, twisted games. She knew what had to be done. Staying her hand now would only –
A giggle, as innocent and pure as it was adorable. Even now, knife in hand and intending to end its life, the baby was completely unafraid of her. It felt safe... happy... to be in her arms. It trusted her completely.
Her resolve was breaking. She could feel it slipping away. How could she justify letting this happen? Merlin was right. This was for the better of the realm. Everything she had sacrificed, everything she swore to uphold since she willingly drew the sword from the stone... it would end in disaster if she let the child live. How... how...
Another burbling laugh. The child's face was one of pure happiness. Pure trust. It wanted to play, hands out, trying to reach out for her.
... How could she rightly claim it was for the good of the realm to kill one who trusted her so completely in cold blood?...
That, more than anything, made her already fragile resolve crumble away entirely. With a long, drawn out sigh, she slid her knife back into its sheath.
“Take the child to the guest bedchambers,” She ordered, voice just barely concealing the weariness that had settled over her as she offered the baby back to Lancelot.
He was quick to take her back in his arms (the child squirmed a bit with the exchange, but otherwise remained blissfully unaware of its predicament), but his face betrayed his uncertainty, “Your Majesty?”
“It has been a very long day. Enough blood has been spilled in this venture,” Arturia couldn’t look anyone in the eye, but her voice had already regained its coldness and authority, concealing her true thoughts from those around her, “I have changed my vote. It is now seven to six, in favour of sparing the child. It... may stay within these walls for now.”
The Knight of the Lake bowed as deeply as the baby in his arms would allow, “Thank you, Your Majesty.”
A slight nod from the King, and he departed immediately, not willing to test her sudden display of mercy to Morgana’s creation.
She looked to Ser Gawain, who was nothing short of flabbergasted, and holding an equally shocked Guinevere by the shoulders. Arturia gestured, “You may release her now, Gawain.”
It took a moment for the order to register, but the Knight of the Sun released the Queen, who promptly pulled away from him. Guinevere stared at her husband, tears again welling in her eyes, “Oh, Arthur…”
Arturia did not respond. Instead, she turned to the remaining Knights of the Round Table, “The rest of you are dismissed. See to it that this development is kept quiet. I do not want anyone outside this room knowing about the child until we are ready to handle the situation.”
Some of the Knights looked like they still had questions and concerns they longed to address, but none gave them voice, obeying their King’s orders without question until only Guinevere and Merlin remained. As the doors shut behind them, another sigh made it’s way past the King’s lips, a hand coming up to try and rub away the headache that was now making itself known. What a day this had turned out to be...
Guinevere’s hands, soft and delicate, took her husband’s free hand into her own. Her smile was faint but present, eyes delicate yet hopeful.
“Thank you, Arthur. I know it was a difficult decision to make, but I believe you made the right choice.”
Arturia said nothing, not trusting herself to speak just yet. What was happening to her, to make her suddenly so uncertain, so... imperfect?
Knowing she would find no answers at the moment, she turned to Merlin, trying to change the subject, “Does it... does the child have a name?”
Merlin shrugged, true thoughts on the matter concealed. As difficult as this new situation was, there was surely no harm in divulging that piece of information, “I’m still trying to decode Morgana’s documents. Her encryption methods are very thorough, but I have found some common words and phrasings throughout,” he waited until the King and Queen were both watching, waiting to hear his answer, “Mordred. Her name is Mordred.”
“Mordred...” Guinevere repeated under her breath. The grip on Arturia’s hand tightened for a moment, then eased.
“A fine name, all things considered,” the jest felt flat even in his own years. Better to leave now before things got even worse, “I’ll take my leave now. So many documents to search through, so little time. My King... My Lady.”
The doors thudded shut behind him a moment later, leaving the King and Queen along in the giant room. It felt surprisingly hollow now. As if the life and power that normally radiated within had been drained until only a faint flicker of its fire remained. Everything was changing so rapidly it seemed, the future now uncertain and not sure how to react to recent developments.
“Are you sure of this?”
The question was sudden, and it took Guinevere a moment to register Arturia had spoken. When she did not reply, Arturia asked again.
“Are you sure this is what you wish? If this is what you want, there will be no turning back.”
Was this what Guinevere wanted? She had vouched strongly to keep Mordred alive, but now that the decision was made, Arthur was still giving her a chance to back out, to find an alternative if she desired. It was the closest the King had ever been to uncertain in the entire time they had known one another. A subtle hint that her husband would offer her no ill will if she decided to go back on her word.
“... I am,” she finally declared. Words soft, yet wrapped in the strongest steel, “No matter what happens, I will stand by my decision. Nothing will convince me otherwise.”
Arthur stared back at her, emotions hidden but eyes surprisingly bright, “...Then we will keep the child. We will be vigilant, but it will remain within Camelot’s walls.”
“Thank you, Arturia...” the sound of the King’s true name sent chills down her spine, “I promise, she’ll be a good addition to the family some day.”
“I said it could stay,” Whereas the previous words had been soft and accommodating, this statement was cold and sharp, pulling the hand away abruptly as Arturia turned away, “That doesn’t make it my child.”
Without another word, the King departed the hall entirely, the very image of the perfect King of Camelot, leaving Guinevere all alone with her thoughts.
Merlin could feel his teeth slate against each other as his eyes fell upon the infant in Lancelot’s gentle grasp; though his outward expression was one of idle curiosity, he could feel the telltale hints of irritation beginning to build up in his stomach.
Of all the things that could have happened to change the future he had charted out all those years ago, this was not something he had anticipated in the slightest.
Merlin had known about the baby for years, of course; really, how could he not? He had known how Arturia’s rule would begin and how it would end, and everything in between; his clairvoyance had shown him everything, from the moment of her birth to her end after Camlann.
He was fine with how things were going to play out. King Arthur’s story was one that would end in tragedy, and as far as he was concerned, that was okay. There was no need to interfere with fate.
And yet here they were, with Lancelot holding the object of Arturia’s demise in the crook of his arm.
The Mage knew from the instant he saw the child, and from the reactions of his three companions, that there was no way he could convince them to leave the infant be; all three of the Knights were still in shock, but there was no way that they would leave a baby in the care of Morgana. He briefly considered casting an illusion of the child so that the real one might be left behind, but logic shut that solution down almost as quickly as it had presented itself; not only would it be impossible for him to maintain an illusion that intricate without eventually slipping up, he knew that it would likely end in every member of the Round Table demanding his execution once they learned he had tricked the three into leaving the baby here – and given the context of the situation, he wasn’t sure if Arturia would stop them. Say what one might about her methods of ruling, her moral code is still up to par.
Furthermore, it wasn’t possible for him to simply tell the Knights who and what the infant was – that would just make them even more reluctant to leave the baby behind, if for entirely different reasons. One did not simply leave a powerful weapon in the hands of their worst enemy, after all.
His irritation only continued to grow as it dawned on him that, at this stage, there really was no way to “fix” what was broken.
The future had changed, his prophecy was ruined, and that was all there was to it.
“Well… that’s just great,” Merlin muttered.
“A baby,” Tristan repeated, his voice quiet. Finally beginning to recover his composure as he stepped forwards. Cautiously, he reached out to the infant, only for her to recoil upon his gentle touch, as though he were some kind of terrifying beast. Tristan flinched back, seeming hurt; he hadn’t meant to scare the poor thing, but…
“… I can’t believe this,” Gawain’s face was beginning to lose its shock as well, but rather than any form of solemnness or serenity, his expression was grim, his grip on his sword tightening in the throes of anger, “I knew Morgana was a monster… but to kidnap a child?” he let out a hiss, his weapon beginning to audibly clatter as his lips pulled back in a snarl, “That’s repulsive, even for her!”
Merlin had to bite down on a snort of laughter. The other Knights, however, were as solemn and silent as the grave, Lancelot doing his best to soothe the baby, but to relatively little effect.
Finally, Merlin stepped forwards, softly murmuring under his breath; he then slowly brought his hand over the baby’s head, a shower of countless twinkling white lights slowly falling over her. After a moment, the child finally stopped crying, dazzled by the countless small stars surrounding her, her eyes a vibrant shade of teal. She reached out to touch them, only for them to zip away before they could be grabbed. Again and again, the baby tried, but her movements were steadily growing more and more sluggish. Finally, the baby’s eyes drooped shut, and she stilled.
“Minor sleep cantrip,” Merlin smirked, crossing his arms, “Works much better than any lullaby.”
“And you would know that… how?” Gawain shot at him, his grip on his sword still so tight he feared the hilt may break in his hand. Something, anything to distract him from his own fury was welcome.
“I raised Arthur, remember?” Merlin gave the Knight of the Sun a lazy smile, “I’ve got more experience with children than all three of you.”
At this, Lancelot glanced away, biting his lip as his mind wandered to days long past – to the boy he could only briefly act as a father to…
“… whose child do you suppose she is?” the Knight of the Lake finally asked, looking back down at the sleeping infant.
Tristan frowned, once again reaching for its face to brush the hair from its eyes, “… if I didn’t know any better…” he seemed to struggle with the words for a moment, “I would say she was Arthur’s child. The resemblance is… uncanny.”
“But that isn’t possible,” Gawain stated, seeming grateful for the change in topic, the rattling of his sword finally beginning to die down, “Arthur doesn’t have any children,” the matter of fact tone Gawain carried seemed to imply something else entirely – that Arturia in fact couldn’t have any children, being one of the few to know of her true gender, “Besides, even if Arthur did have an child, we’d have known about it if they were kidnapped. Resemblance notwithstanding, I’d wager that the child is a commoner.”
“But why?” Lancelot wondered, “What would Morgana have to gain by kidnapping a common-born newborn?”
“Birth does not necessarily determine one’s ultimate place in the world,” Tristan pointed out, “Ser Percival may have been of noble birth in the end, but he was raised in the wild – no one, not even Percival himself, knew of his bloodline until after he had joined the Round Table. And Ser Palamedes wasn’t even of British birth – many see him as even lower than the common folk, and yet he stands among us as equals,” he looked at the child again, “There may be more to this child than what any of us are aware of.”
“Perhaps,” Merlin interjected, “the answer lies in Morgana’s notes.”
The Knights turned to look at the Mage, and he pressed, “Let’s not forget our objective, here. Our mission was to find out what Morgana was doing. We know this child has something to do with it, and we can’t very well just leave it here,” he glanced back at the entrance, “Aside from that, Morgana is on her way here. We don’t have time for an extended investigation. We have to take what we can and get out.”
“… He’s right,” Tristan spoke, turning back to the others. He shouldered Failnaught and reached into the pouch on his belt, retrieving a large burlap sack, “Merlin? What should we grab?”
“Books,” Merlin stated bluntly, “Artifacts and ingredients aren’t as important; the former are often fragile, the latter spoil, and we don’t have the time needed to make sure they will remain intact in either case. The books, on the other hand, may be helpful in the long run. Ancient texts might give us some inkling on what Morgana has been trying to do, as will more explicit notes.”
“There are a lot of books here,” Gawain glanced about at the towering bookshelves, “How should we differentiate in terms of importance?”
“Dust. Anything that has a layer of dust has been left for some time; try to find books and notes that were recently disturbed. I’ll take this room,” Merlin stepped over to the desk, a sack of his own in hand, and began unceremoniously dumping books into the sack, “If the shelf itself has a consistent layer of dust, then chances are nothing on it’s been touched in a while.”
Gawain paused, then looked to the others, “I’ll take the observatory.”
“I’ll take the common room,” said Tristan.
“I suppose that leaves me with the library,” Lancelot looked from Gawain to Tristan, “We leave at the count of five hundred. Keep your search brief.”
“One,” Gawain started, “Two.”
And the three departed for their respective search areas, keeping an internal countdown as they began.
It did not take long for Lancelot to fill his bag completely; many of the books were large, and attempting to fit everything together like a puzzle was easier said than done with the baby in his arm. Nonetheless, he did what he could, taking care not to directly touch what he couldn’t read – his English and French were both flawless, and he knew a level of Germanic and Latin, but there were still many texts whose written language he could not even hope to place despite many hours of study.
Tying the sack off and affixing it to his belt, he made for the entrance of Morgana’s workshop.
It didn’t take long for Tristan or Merlin to join him, their bags filled and tied; Gawain, however, barely made it back in time for the final count, one hand on a bag full of books, the other on a thick curtain cord bound around an ancient text with a cover of mottled green that had, according to the Knight of the Sun, tried to take a bite out of him (“You’re supposed to stroke the spine first, you idiot!” Merlin had snapped as he took the book from Gawain, rolling his eyes in disgust).
Merlin cast his wards one last time to hide them from Morgana’s magical defenses, and they swiftly retraced their steps, the scribbles in the halls that the Mage had made with his staff disappearing as they passed them, one by one.
Thankfully, leaving the castle was far easier than entering had been; with their increased pace and memorized route, they emerged onto the frozen rocky shore within twenty minutes of emerging from Morgana’s workshop; the lake itself, however, impeded their progress, the deep snow banks upon the ice, along with their new burdens (the sleeping infant having been wrapped tightly in a thick blanket), making it a long, slow trudge to the abandoned town.
When they finally reached and mounted their horses, Merlin took off with a gallop, leading the Knights out of the forest as quickly as possible whilst avoiding the golems. All the trio could hope to do was follow blindly, and hope the Mage knew where he was going.
Finally, the trees began to thin; they were no less numerous, but they weren’t nearly so incredibly thick or tall, becoming more natural. And then, they emerged onto the northern road, the fields and forests of Britain visible once more, stars faintly glimmering beyond the clouds, a wave of relief washing over all of them.
“Oh, thank God,” Lancelot whispered.
Gawain turned, and stared into the dark forest, his grip on his reigns tightening, “We did not manage to kill Morgana…”
“She wasn’t present, and Lancelot was injured,” Tristan said, ever the voice of reason, “It could not be helped, Gawain. Even if she were there, Lancelot’s injuries would have put us at an immense disadvantage.”
“Besides,” Merlin cheerfully began, “We’ve given her a pretty hefty setback. She’s not bouncing back from this in a few days; it’ll take her years to recover everything we took.”
Lancelot let out a long, slow breath, staring into the forest. Then, the bundle in his arms began to squirm, faint whimpering reaching his ears; he pulled the blanket down slightly to expose the child, beginning to stir.
Merlin hopped down from his horse and approached, looking the child over with a curious eye, “Restless little thing. It hasn’t even been an hour since I cast my cantrip, and she’s already waking up.”
The baby’s eyes slowly opened, and she looked upon the Mage and the Knight of the Lake; for a moment, it seemed as though she would begin to cry again… but then a snowflake gently landed on her forehead. She blinked, burbling slightly, and gently prodded the melted snow before noticing the falling white around her. She reached up, fingers outstretched, seeming to be trying to catch them…
“With this little one with us, we’ll have to make haste on our way to Camelot,” Tristan’s voice was somewhat grave as the others turned to look at him, though the baby still seemed more interested in the falling snow. He pulled out his rations, lips curled downwards slightly, “We have water, but our food is not fit for a newborn. If we do not make it there within a few days, it is likely the child will starve to death on the way.”
“Can we not stop by villages to see her properly fed?” Lancelot asked.
Gawain shook his head, “The villages are all at least several days apart, and we need to report our findings to the King as soon as we are able. If we do stop, it will only be for an hour or two at most.”
“I can slow her metabolism,” Merlin offered, “It won’t be any sort of miracle, but it should give her a week before any ill effects begin to set in. That being said, she’s probably going to be miserable if she doesn’t get food for that long.”
“She will have to bear it,” Gawain stated simply, “We cannot delay – for the King’s sake, as well as her own.”
“… very well,” Lancelot muttered, internally cursing the circumstances to keep himself from cursing Gawain, “Then let us make haste.”
But before they could set off, a streak of black, darker than even the clouded night sky above, arced across the sky like a fell falling star, soaring over the forest towards the castle within. Though it made no sound, all of them saw it – even the baby, who promptly began to cry again.
“… what was that?” Tristan wondered, a chill running down his spine.
“… we have to leave,” Merlin mounted his horse, “Let’s go.”
“Mage,” Gawain’s voice was stern, “Ser Tristan asked you a question.”
Merlin sighed, “That… was Morgana. And I don’t think she’s going to be in the mood for tea. So I recommend we put as much distance between us and her as possible before she can find a means to track us down.”
The Knights needed no further prompting. Once Lancelot had the baby once again tucked in her blanket, they took off down the road at a full gallop, not stopping until well after the forest was out of their sight, and the first rays of dawn began to climb over the horizon.
Morgana was no stranger to rage.
If anything, rage was something she knew very, very well.
She still remembered the fury that accompanied the fear at her mother’s rape; the blinding anger that followed the sorrow of her father’s murder; the outrage and humiliation that overtook her on the day she was taken from her mother and sent to a nunnery… and again, when she was married off to King Urien.
All at the hands of King Uther Pendragon.
Even the name was enough to bring Morgana’s blood to a boil.
Morgana couldn’t think of an appropriate word for how this made her feel.
The ajar door was the first thing she noticed upon arriving at her tower, letting snow sweep into the darkness within. The second thing was the residual prana in the air, which no doubt belonged to Merlin – she knew that signature far too well to mistake it. The third thing she noticed was the stench – the smell of rotting flesh and blood.
She knew her chimera was dead from the moment her link to it was broken; but she did not expect to find it so thoroughly destroyed, with nearly half of its right side completely missing.
It was the dread that hit her first; there were very few weapons that could pierce the magically strengthened hide of a chimera, let alone one with a base formed from the thick, leathery scales of the massive saltwater crocodiles from the lands far to the south. To do this kind of damage, one would need the power of a cursed sword… like those wielded by the Knights of the Round Table.
At that thought, she sprinted up the stairwell to her workshop. Most of the books that had been strewn across her desks were gone; years of research and centuries old notes and texts from magicians and wizards who lived hundreds or even thousands of years ago… all gone.
But that could be recovered.
Morgana needed to make sure her homunculus was intact.
Her heart nearly stopped when she found the entrance to her laboratory proper open, its illusion stripped away. She rushed in, praying that her creation remained unharmed, throwing the curtains aside with all her might-
Only to find the cradle empty.
Disbelief washed over her, a chill running down Le Faye’s spine as she tried to process what she was seeing. She blinked, half expecting the child to simply appear before her – and yet, nothing happened. The baby was gone.
For a long moment, all she could do was silently stare into the crib. Then, she slowly walked away, as though in a trance, her trembling steps taking her out of her workshop and into the tower below once again. She stopped right beside the chimera, breaths heavy... and her hands began to shake, slowly clenching into fists.
Abruptly, she let out a shriek of unholy fury that would make the divine cry out in fear, a wave of black lightning causing the tower to tremble. A solid, jagged pillar of dark flared from Morgana’s outstretched hand, and the chimera’s remains were completely consumed, smote by a power so dark and terrible that even she did not know its true name. At the end of it, the tower had a jagged, gaping hole in the side, and much of the floor had fallen away into nothingness; it still stood, but only through some miracle that the Witch neither knew nor cared for.
She breathed heavily, trying to force herself back into a state of calm. This was a heavy blow indeed; not only were her notes gone, so was her magnum opus. The weapon she would use to bring Arturia and everything she stood for tumbling down had been stolen from her, no doubt to be disposed of…
She took a long, slow breath. No… mere disposal wasn’t it. If the intruders had wanted to dispose of her homunculus, all they would have needed to do was stick a knife in the infant’s belly when they found her. No, there was another purpose for taking the child.
And as long as she was alive, Morgana could still recover her prized weapon.
She simply needed to bide her time.
Breathing through her slated teeth, she started up the steps once more. This fortress had been compromised; her golems and her chimera had failed to stop the intruders. That being said, this place was still Morgana’s home, and she would not leave it so easily. She simply needed to better fortify it; armies were no longer her sole concern, not if Arturia was willing to send the Knights of the Round Table after her, and Merlin was willingly taking a more active role in assisting them.
This meant she needed a different type of guard.
Slipping back into her workshop, Le Faye reached out and pulled a particular book from the shelf, directing her energy back into study.
She would not be able to replicate her masterpiece…
But a single masterpiece homunculus would never be able to patrol the halls of a castle on its own anyways.
Lancelot sat outside of the tent, shivering slightly in the harsh winter cold and his breaths turning to mist in the cold night air. It had been six days since they left the castle, and thus far the infant seemed to have finally adjusted to the presence of the Knights and Mage; merely looking at them did not cause her to cry anymore.
That said, she still seemed to have her preferences when it came to whose presence she was in. She squirmed constantly whenever Merlin held her, never seeming comfortable in the white haired man’s arms; but that was nothing in comparison to when Gawain held her. She would not lie still for him in the slightest, and even went so far as to reach up and yank out a tuft of his hair, as though to demonstrate her pure disdain for the Knight of the Sun. She even went so far as to laugh at his pained swearing, as though she understood that he was uttering curses that truly should not be uttered in front of children.
In Tristan’s arms, however, she seemed relatively calm. She remained still and quiet for him, and was quick to sleep in his arms whenever she was tired. If anything, Tristan seemed to be growing rather fond of the child, using his musical talent to lull her into calm and sleep whenever it was possible.
But it seemed that Lancelot was her favourite; merely seeing him seemed to excite her, and she would squirm and reach for him until he finally acquiesced and held her. She would occasionally reach up and try to grab his hair, but unlike with Gawain did not yank on it, merely content to play with the indigo locks. She frequently vocalized her happiness with burbles and sudden wordless shouts and giggles in a way that reminded the Knight of the Lake very much of his own son.
But even then, there was one thing the baby seemed to hate above even Gawain, and that was being inside.
Not even Tristan’s lullabies could get the child to calm whenever she was brought into the tent. Even when they brought her in from harsh cold, the Knights were met with unhappy squirming and even wailing; the child would cry until she was either too tired to continue crying, or until she was taken back outside into the chill. It was almost as though the inside of the tent were a reminder of her first few weeks of life in Morgana’s workshop, the outside world closed off entirely.
It had taken two days for them to figure out the baby’s fascination with the mysterious yet beautiful sky above. Even when clouds scudded low overhead with the threat of snowfall, her innocent green eyes were focused upward often enough that Merlin had joked she must have been formed from the stars above. During the day, she was mesmerized by the sea of bright azure and its islands of grey and white. At night, the child rarely seemed to sleep, the twinkling of the stars evoking a near rapturous bliss that kept her awake and excited throughout most of the night, tiny hands occasionally reaching out to try and pluck the shining gems from the sky.
And so here Lancelot sat, out in the cold as opposed to in the tent wrapped in a fur blanket, the child happily giggling; oddly, she didn’t seem to display any sign that she even felt the cold, her cheeks remaining clear as ever. Even Merlin seemed to be affected by the chill, if only in temperament.
Lancelot couldn’t help but smile, brushing the child’s hair out of her face again, “You’re a fussy one, aren’t you?”
The only response he got was another laugh, though he pulled his hand away before she could try to grab it; a cold glove wasn’t an ideal child’s toy.
The Knight glanced up at the sound of the voice to see Gawain, standing in the light of the tent. The two simply stared at each other for a long moment before Gawain finally spoke, “You should come inside.”
Lancelot paused for a moment, debating his response, before turning his gaze away, “You know she doesn’t like it.”
“This cold isn’t good for either of you.”
“I’ll come in once she’s gotten to sleep.”
Gawain sighed, knowing that there was no arguing the point; instead, he asked, “Would you like me to get Tristan?”
“No. She should be asleep soon.”
The Knight of the Sun sincerely doubted that, given how active the infant seemed to be, but ultimately made no further argument. Instead, he sat down beside Lancelot, staring off into the darkness.
“… You’ve gotten attached to her,” Gawain remarked.
“And she has gotten attached to us.”
“Some of us more than others.”
“Still angry about your lopsided haircut, Gawain?”
The only response Lancelot got was a snort of displeasure, at which he couldn’t help but smirk.
Silence reigned for a long while…
“… you won’t be able to keep her, you know.”
Lancelot blinked, then felt his eyes narrow; he already didn’t like where this was going, “What do you mean?”
Gawain leveled a heavy gaze at him, expression serious, “I’ve seen the way you look at her, Lancelot.”
“And what of it?”
“It’s the look of a father.”
Lancelot felt all his possible responses die at that; all he could do was stare at Gawain, who had now cast his gaze back into the snow.
“Lancelot, I know you regret having to leave your son behind… but you can’t treat this girl as though she’s a second chance at being a father. It isn’t fair to you, or to your son, or to her. Especially not when she’s likely going to be sent to an orphanage.”
“Gawain,” Lancelot’s tone had grown dangerously low; the baby in his arm had grown quiet, as though sensing the Knight of the Lake’s darkening mood.
Gawain looked at him again, unyielding, “I am not trying to offend you, Lancelot. I am simply trying to keep you from making a mistake. After we report our findings to the Round Table, you will likely never see this child again. If you get too attached, you will never be able to let go of what could have been.”
Lancelot’s jaw was set, but he could not say anything in response. All he could do was remain silent, knowing Gawain was right at least on some level… despite how badly Lancelot wanted to deny it.
“It would be better to let go now,” Gawain stated, “When you were recalled to Camelot and had to leave your son behind, you were a complete wreck of a man for weeks. I’d rather not see history repeat itself.”
Again, Gawain received no response. He let out a long, slow breath, and stood, turning back to the tent, “You should come back inside before you freeze. Those furs will only keep you warm for so long.”
With that, he disappeared back inside.
Lancelot did not return to the tent until long after the baby had fallen asleep.
It was a silent trip back to Camelot that was infused with a sense of urgency and caution both. With Merlin scouring through and trying to decode one of Morgana’s encrypted books and Lancelot still keeping the newcomer safe, Gawain and Tristan were tasked with keeping watch of the surrounding area for hints of pursuit. Whereas the previous lack of combat when approaching the fortress had been a welcome change of pace, the opposite was true on the venture back. Now it felt like they were being watched, another danger purposely lurking just out of site within the tree line, waiting to pounce the moment their guard was down. The two of them refused to let that happen, hands close but not quite gripping the grips of their weapons, not willing to trust the supposed emptiness until the forest was well and truly behind them.
Even before the walls of Camelot came into view, it was agreed they would keep the child out of sight until she was delivered to the King. The situation was precarious enough as it was. The last thing they wanted was for the citizens to see a child near identical in appearance to King Arthur in the arms of his knights. Thus as they started approaching the main gates, Lancelot kept his cloak close to his person, concealing the bundle underneath from view, with Merlin again using the same sleeping cantrip to ensure the child did not wake at an inconvenient moment. None of the guards appeared to notice anything amiss as they passed by, yet they all remained vigilant.
It wasn't the first time that the Knights had found themselves visiting the streets of Camelot; once, a long time ago it seemed, they would have accompanied each other with a closeness like family, striding atop their horses through the market district with shining new armour and the cocky arrogance of young gods who accepted the deference shown to them by the commoners as no less than their rightful due.
Merlin had put it best, during one of their last ‘mighty adventures’: “If only they could be young again, so that today’s troubles could stay far away.”
An issue for a later time, indeed.
Moving through the market district now, all four of them saw it with new, more experienced eyes. Everything familiar, and yet not, and not just because the recent snowfalls had reduced the number of people moving throughout the packed streets. No one here was likely to recognize them, at least, not as the Knights of the Round Table. With concealing hoods over their heads and battered looking cloaks with nondescript tools at their belts, they resembled nothing more than a small group of travellers, albeit well supplied ones. They drew curious stares, though not as curious as they would likely have gotten had they been dressed in more proper armor for their stations.
Lancelot’s eyes swept the stalls of the market, wondering if they had truly changed so much, or if the greatest changes were within him, or the Knights as a whole. The gaily striped awnings and tents did not seem nearly so bright, the filth on the snow covered cobble-stoned streets seemed more pronounced, and the people themselves looked weary and worn. There had once been a time where he'd never noticed the tension around their eyes when he was younger, never given any thought to the notion that whether or not the noblewoman browsing the available goods made a purchase might determine whether or not the merchant's family ate that night. He'd never noticed how thin the children playing in the street were, or the way the guards stood grimly outside the closed gates that marked the direction of the castle; had they been closed when he had been here last?
"You're looking thoughtful," Tristan murmured.
"It just looks so different from the way I remember it sometimes,” Lancelot replied quietly, "I can’t describe it. Sometimes the city just feels... different from how it should be.”
“This year’s winter arrived sooner than anyone anticipated. It hasn’t exactly lead to a pleasant preparation period.”
“Even still...” Lancelot trailed off, still uncertain.
"It will not always be so," the redheaded knight assured him, “We just went through quite a harrowing experience. And earned a new passenger along the way. Don’t be surprised that things seem distant now. That time will pass, and the memories will fall back into proper perspective."
Lancelot nodded, hoping that he could feel as sure of that as Tristan was. Perhaps he was just being a bit more cynical than usual, and hadn’t noticed it.
He gave his head a shake, drawing back to his full height, once again tall and firm. "We should probably gather what we need before seeing the King," he said, surveying the market once more, forcing his mind back to practical matters, "We need to inform Arthur about what we found as soon we can, but it has been a long ride. Our new arrival hasn’t eaten for nearly a week.”
They had barely moved to split up however when a voice seemed to break through the surrounding noise and cold alike, warm and beautiful like a summer melody.
“Welcome home, Knights of the Round Table.”
All four of them turned at the same time to see a beautiful woman flanked by a pair of guardsmen approaching, though her posture was relaxed and open, as if finding such protection unnecessary. Dressed in a simple but expertly designed red silk dress of nobility and a heavy fur cloak, the woman smiled a faint and but sweet smile of welcome, golden brown eyes possessing warmth and relief at their safe return. Even without the golden circlet on her brow, her posture and effortlessly graceful movements made it impossible to mistake her for anyone else. Even Merlin could not quite hide the surprise of being greeted in the markets by none other than the Queen of Camelot herself.
“Lady Guinevere.” Lancelot was already standing straight, yet seemed to try and stand even straighter as he spoke to her, as did the other Knights, “So good to see you again.”
A small dip of the head in thanks, a slight action that was still enough to knock a single curled strand of brown hair out of place. She raised a small, delicate hand to gently brush it away from her eyes as she straightened, “To you as well, Ser Lancelot. It is wonderful to see the four of you have returned safely.”
She then noticed the damage to Lancelot’s gauntlet, the warmth of her eyes briefly betraying a look of worry. Her voice remained as calm and serene as ever, “None of you are injured, I trust?”
Now it was Lancelot’s turn to dip his head in a faint bow, “Nothing that Merlin’s magic couldn’t mend. We are all safe and well, My Lady.”
The worry disappeared entirely, replaced with relief and much of the previous warmth. But before he could say anything more, the noise of the Round Table’s Court Mage clearing his throat broke them both from their reverie.
“Forgive the unsightly break of decorum, my Queen, but I’m afraid we must call for a meeting with the King immediately. The whole situation with Morgana has become much more complicated than we anticipated.” The Mage’s face was devoid of its usual humour. “And I would request that you were present as well, my Lady. There are things that we discovered that you will need to know as well.”
Whatever her thoughts on the rare request - it was not often the Court Mage requested she attend meetings of the Round Table as well - she hid them well. She motioned to a nearby guardsman, “Send for the others. Tell them to meet the King and myself in the main chamber immediately.”
The chosen guardsmen gave a quick salute, then rushed to complete his given task. The other moved to escort the Queen and Knights, the entire party silent as they made their way back to the castle. As they moved, Lancelot’s arm gently reached up to touch the hidden burlap sack beneath his cloak, careful not to wake the child within or inadvertently reveal the surprise too soon.
Things were about to get interesting indeed.
Fate is a rather fickle thing. All it takes is one minor change to alter the entire course of history. The claims that one might make that you cannot alter a river, no matter how many pebbles you toss into the roiling waters?
They could not be farther from the truth.
If anything, reality is more fickle and subject to change than anything else. Change the painting hanging in a room, and what might have been a pleasant night with a conversation piece could be reduced to a vicious argument that destroys a friendship.
Should that special someone opt to walk through the gardens instead of past a pair of men, and what would have been a quarrel over lovers instead remains a seemingly unbreakable bond.
Indeed, it’s like that saying;
For want of a nail, the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe, the horse.
For want of a horse, the message.
For want of a message, the battle.
For want of a battle, the war.
Don’t believe me? Do you think that such changes are inconsequential, in the end?
Heheh… well, what do you say we make a change? A small, minor change… and see how “inconsequential” that change is.
Let’s say we give a minor travelling inconvenience to a certain woman…
The bitter chill of winter had already begun to set in.
She could see her breath in the cold evening air, steam fading into the ever-darkening grey of the sky above without so much as a trace. The wind ran through the dying trees like a mischievous child, its faint whispers accompanied only by the rustling leaves that danced low across the ground.
The first frosts had already come some weeks earlier, much earlier than what had been anticipated; the people of Britain had found their harvest being cut painfully short by the rapidly approaching winter, many of their remaining crops abruptly killed by the sudden snap of cold. It would be a hard year for the country, without a doubt.
It was almost a pity that the woman hadn’t opted to take advantage of it.
Winter was not one of the tools by which she would claim her desires.
The road, usually either thick with dust or caked in mud, was like cold stone – hard and brittle, whatever moisture that might have been present turned to ice within the earth. She grit her teeth as the wagon tossed and jostled, a normally smooth, if boring ride turned into a truly irritating test of her patience. If it hadn’t been for the fact that she had used up much of her stamina in a recent endeavour for materials, she’d be walking right now.
Huddling in her cloak, she did her best to ignore the cold and the constant bouncing of the wagon. If there was one thing that was beneficial about all this, it was that she was all but alone; not many people were willing to travel in this weather.
She only barely registered the slow creak of the wood before it was followed by an abrupt snap. She threw her arms out just in time to grab hold of the side of the wagon as it tipped, the seat beneath her rising; she felt pain jar up through her hips, hissing in pain.
“Ah, shite!” the voice came from the front of the wagon, the man directing it leaping down from his seat to the side.
The woman felt her eyes narrow as she stood, and descended, not making so much a sound as she moved. Not even the wood creaked under her footsteps, nor did she shift any dirt in her path.
This was an interruption she was not appreciating.
When she drew up beside the coach, it became clear what the issue was; one of the wagon’s wheels had collapsed under its own weight, the old wood broken into splinters.
“I knew I should have replaced that bloody wheel!” he cursed, then looked at the woman, “… I’m sorry, miss, but-”
“This isn’t something you can fix,” her tone was colder than the air around them.
He lowered his head, “I’m afraid so. We’re going to have to turn back – get some of the boys to come out here with horses to retrieve it later.”
“What about your horse?”
“Your horse. We can continue the journey on it.”
He shook his head, “No, miss. That horse hasn’t carried anyone for fifteen years. A draught horse, that one is – good for burden, but not fit for riding. Besides, I’ve no saddle.”
“We can make do,” she spoke, “This wouldn’t be the first time I’ve ridden bareback.”
“I’m sorry, miss,” he insisted, “But that isn’t an option. We’ll just have to turn back and continue in the morning,” he dug into his pocket, and took out several coins, counting through them, “I’ll even give you your coppers back – give you a ride back out as soon as me wagon’s fixed.”
Turn back?... no. That was out of the question. She needed to be back in her workshop by tonight. Tired as she was, walking wasn’t an option, especially not with the cold sapping even more of her strength. Night was already falling, and she was in no mood to deal with any wild beasts; they were less likely to attack a large wagon than a single small person (she’d already driven off all the bandits within miles of her home some time ago).
She glanced at the man beside her, who was holding out the coins she had given him earlier as payment for the ride. It wouldn’t take much to force him into compliance; minor hypnotism, or perhaps the threat of her dagger in his belly.
She glanced at the draught horse, then gave a low curse; the thing was large, far too big to comfortably ride even if they had a saddle. Riding, even as a passenger, took energy – energy she simply didn’t have at the moment.
But she could not, would not wait another day to return to her workshop. She couldn’t. She had to make it back tonight.
Finally, she looked at the wheel of the wagon, broken, rendering the entire contraption lopsided. Gritting her teeth, she knew she only had one option if she wanted to be home before the night was through.
Raising her hand, she reached deep, deep into the wellspring at her core; a wave of overwhelming heat flowed out and into her limbs, rendering the cold a moot point, at least for the moment. Then shadows began to dance along her fingertips, shadows where there should have been none… and they began to grow, thickening, darkening, and finally rising, giving way from insubstantial shade to a physical blackness, tendrils dancing in her hand like a flame.
She paid no heed to the bewildered coach, merely stepping forwards and tipping her hand and letting the shadows fall to the broken wheel. They immediately set to work, picking up every last splinter of wood and slowly forcing everything back into place; the wagon slowly rose with each piece set in place, until finally, it stood once more, solid as a rock.
The woman glanced back at the coach, “Now we can continue.”
“…you… you’re a… a…”
“What I am makes no difference.”
“You-you’re a Witch!”
“What of it?”
The coach had begun to back away, clearly terrified by the woman before him. He seemed about ready to sprint, but abruptly, shadows rose up from the ground and gripped him by the ankles. He tripped, fell, and was dragged back to the woman’s feet with all the effort of a child dragging around a toy duck on a string, unable to pull away out of a mix of fear, bewilderment, and simply being bound in place.
The woman leaned down, gripped his shirt by the collar, and glared into his eyes, a minor hypnotism spell immediately kicking in; slowly, the man began to calm, his eyes growing hazy as the memories of the last few minutes were eaten away by the spell. Before long, he seemed to be in a dreamlike state, awake, but senses clearly dulled.
Finally, she released him, and he fell back to the ground, the shadows gone. He groaned, “What… what happened?”
“We hit a rock, and you fell to the ground. I’ve been trying to wake you up for some time now.”
“Did I?” he frowned, but ultimately pulled himself to his feet, “Sounds like I owe you an apology. I don’t mean to hold you up at all, miss.”
“You can apologize by getting me as close to the old fortress as you can.”
“Ahright,” he made his way back to the wagon as the woman climbed back to her seat, “Why do you want to go there, anyways? Place hasn’t been lived in since the King’s siege of it all those years ago.”
“That’s none of your concern.”
“… I guess it ain’t.”
The rest of the journey proved uneventful for the woman…
It was so sudden - a flare of light where there was once only black sliding over black with the subtlety of a serpent - he barely had time to react as his wards were triggered so abruptly. To the unknown eye, it would appear that Ser Merlin had accidentally burnt himself or been struck aside the head by an unseen object. With a grimace, he tried to recover and was now struggling to regain his bearings.
The constant search for Morgana’s whereabouts had been a task imposed on him by the King, one that he had carried on dutifully and without complaint. Weeks had turned into months without success in finding the elusive Witch, so thorough she was in erasing her trail. Even for his abilities, Morgana had proven herself a troublesome foe to catch.
So why was she so suddenly giving her location away, using enough power that even a novice could notice her whereabouts?
A moment longer he needed to recover in full, then another to cast a much more subtle scrying spell over the location the Witch had cast her magic. Given the recklessness of the Witch’s spells, he suspected she would have been in conflict, either with beasts from the forest or perhaps one of the patrols still enduring in their duty in spite of the cold weather.
He was surprised to discover neither suspicion was the case. She had simply repaired a broken wheel on a carriage, then erased the memories from the driver to continue on her way away from the cities... but to where, he couldn’t determine yet.
A discovery like this was interesting to be sure, and one that he had been waiting for quite some time... but was it worth alerting the King now? Or would it be better to wait, discover where exactly the Witch was headed? Morgana wasn’t the kind to use her magic without justifiable cause. Repairing a wooden carriage was hardly cause for such a display of power.
Both options had their respective merits, as well as their drawbacks. What a conundrum...
There was also the matter of time to consider, both present and future. A simple rift in the timeline could easily tear apart a carefully crated story. If he rushed ahead unwisely, then years of preparation and watching over the land would be wasted because he too had been careless with magic.
It would not be the first time he had chosen to conceal his findings from his King. Nor would it be the last, assuming the timeline followed the path he had foreseen.
Another ward triggered, this time - thankfully - without nearly blinding him in the process. His attention was again drawn to watching over Morgana, who evidently decided her driver was still moving too slow in taking her further north... Just what was provoking her into such foolishness? Whatever she had in mind, she wanted to reach her destination with all possible speed, and was willing to take great and greater risks to counter the poor conditions of a rapidly approaching winter.
Perhaps it was for the best to report this development to the King after all. Morgana was not exactly being subtle with her magic at the moment. Without apparent reason from what he could tell. There had to be a objective they hadn’t thought of, else Morgana would not have been so easily snuffed out.
Besides, the search had been trying King Arthur’s patience, especially after several months without success. It would not do if another came to the King and reported something he had already learned about earlier.
He left his scrying spell active as he departed for the main hall. If Morgana reached her destination, he would be the one to report it. Perhaps a closer investigation with the help of his fellow Knights might shed light on why the realm’s most dangerous Witch was suddenly acting like a fool.
The room was dead silent.
Though not an uncommon occurrence, this day, the silence bore a heavy chill – a tension not unlike the cold of the night beyond the windows, the first snows of winter gently powdering the stone.
A total of twelve figures sat at the table – an ornately carved, perfect circle depicting images of battle and glory, a true masterpiece that could only be produced by the finest of craftsmen.
But that was hardly what they were paying heed to.
None of them made so much as a sound as they waited, the unease enough to drive a man mad. All they could do was glance at their King, and then to one another in concern, wondering exactly what could have caused him to call a meeting at this hour.
Finally, the door swung open, and a young man clad in white slipped in, humming a gentle tune as he carefully swung it shut with his foot, white hair cascading down his shoulders. Glancing about the room, he smiled, taking a step towards the table, “I take it that everyone is here?
“Everyone,” the King intoned, her voice as cold as ever.
“Good, good,” he glanced about. Gawain and Lancelot were as sharp as ever, like a lion and a panther sizing him up, ready to strike – and really, why shouldn’t they be, this early in the morning? He didn’t typically like being woken up early either. And there sat Tristan, eyes closed… for all his magic and clairvoyance, he could never tell when that man was awake and attentive or just asleep.
‘Back on track, Merlin,’ he coached himself, shaking free of his wandering thoughts, ‘Arturia brought you here for a reason.’
Ser Kay leaned forwards in his seat, the dark bags under his eyes matching his dark hair and sullen expression perfectly as he glared at the Court Mage, “Ser Merlin. If this has something to do with you, it had better be good.”
“Can’t I get a moment to enjoy the suspense? It isn’t often all of us are in the same room at the same time these days,” Merlin teased, lips splitting into a grin.
At this, he felt the chill in the room grow and focus, all the Knights’ expressions seeming to sharpen into the stares of particularly irritable wolves. Seems they weren’t in the mood for his particular brand of humour…
“Merlin,” the King’s voice ran out, erasing all the irritation from the room… as well as any sense of mirth the Mage might have had, “You told me you had something of great importance to report.”
He felt his expression turn into a pout, then he sighed, spinning his staff slightly, “As you wish. I was hoping to ease you all into this; it’s not exactly a weather report,” he gestured to the window for emphasis… then glanced outside, “Oh, hey, it’s snowing!”
“Merlin,” though the King’s tone had not changed even in the slightest, there was a slight hint of warning in it – a clear demand to get on with it.
He sighed again, returning his attention to the King, “I’ve finally managed to find Morgana.”
He wasn’t surprised when he was met with yet more silence – and once again, he couldn’t blame them. He didn’t pretend to understand any of them personally, but he did understand that Morgana was a heavy subject for everyone at the Round Table, for one reason or another. Merlin could see Gawain’s blue eyes being cast down towards the floor, obscured by his short blond locks his armoured hands clenching into fists with audible clicks… the man was likely thinking about the Green Knight – one of Morgana’s sickest attempts at damaging the Knights of the Round to date, twisting a man into a monster.
“… how did you manage this, after months of repeated failures, Ser Merlin?”
Ah, that would be Ser Palamedes. Merlin turned to look at the darker skinned Knight, his smile returning, “She made a rather foolish mistake earlier tonight. She used magic without preparing a proper ward to keep me from seeing it.”
The Knights all seemed to have questions they wanted to ask, but one by one, they turned their gazes to the King. For a long moment, Arturia remained silent, her fingers interlocked and expression blank. Finally, she stated, “I suppose the most important questions now are where she was and why she would use her magic so recklessly.”
Recognizing the statement for what it was, Merlin had to swallow the urge to offer a witty retort. All of the Knights had issues with their senses of humour, but Arturia was like a brick wall, and had been ever since her early days as a King; and right now, she was in even less of a mood for jokes than usual. Which was really saying something when you consider how humourless she was normally-
‘Again, Merlin. Get it together!’
He shrugged, his internal dialogue hidden from everyone present, “Earlier tonight, I saw her travelling along a road by wagon. The wagon had been damaged to the point where it was unable to continue – one of its wheels had basically been reduced to splinters.”
“… and what does that have to do with Morgana using her magic without wards?” it was Ser Percival that spoke this time, “Was she attacked?”
“See, that’s the strange part,” Merlin felt his expression grow more serious at this, “She used her magic to repair the wagon and made the coach forget everything he saw – all so she could continue her journey without delay.”
“… that seems like an extremely foolish move,” Ser Lancelot rubbed at his chin, dark eyes narrowed, “Using magic when she likely knows she’s being watched?”
“It could be a trap,” Ser Kay pointed out, “An attempt to draw one or more of us out. It wouldn’t be the first time.”
“I doubt it,” Ser Gareth seemed especially thoughtful, his youthful, exceptionally feminine face perfectly matching his youthful, exceptionally feminine voice, his eyes of blue and sandy blonde hair matching his older brother’s almost perfectly, braids aside.
“And why is that, Ser Gareth?” This time it was Ser Gaheris.
“Because Morgana is a lot of things. Straightforward has never been one of them,” Gareth frowned, “Even when the bait was obvious, she’s never been so brazen as to use herself for something like this. This seems more like a mistake.”
“A very foolish mistake, at that,” Ser Tristan finally stated – so he was awake! His long red hair shifted as he raised his head, expression as unchanging as Arturia’s herself.
“I still don’t like it. I think it would be better to err on the side of caution,” Kay again. He’s certainly grown from the reckless little child Merlin once knew him to be – the difference was like night and day.
“Merlin. Your conclusion?” Arturia spoke once more, silencing the others.
The Mage frowned a bit more deeply at this – even he wasn’t entirely sure what was going on. If everything was in accordance with his clairvoyance, then this should be about the time when Morgana’s… project was undergoing its last bit of fine-tuning before the final gears of his prophecy began to turn. But if so…
“… to be honest, Arthur,” he began, using the petite woman’s given name rather than her true name – not everyone knew her true nature, after all, “I would say that this is an act of impatience. Something has Morgana on edge, enough to push her to move along on her journey rather than keeping to caution as she usually would.”
Merlin knew that would have the attention of every Knight present.
“Impatience…” the dark, sullen tone came from the figure clad in dark armour, his hair slicked back and his skin pale – Ser Agravain.
“Well, it will prove her undoing,” Gawain finally declared, eyes like steel, “We have an approximate location of where she is. If Merlin would be so kind as to direct us to where he found her, I can physically track her and do the rest. We can finally be rid of this Witch once and for all.”
“With all due respect, Ser Gawain, it would be foolish to act so rashly,” it was Lancelot that spoke this time, his dark eyes fixing Gawain with a stern stare, “We cannot forget that Morgana is a powerful Witch. Mistake or not, rushing in will only result in disaster. No doubt she has prepared defences for just such a miscalculation.”
“There is also something else to consider,” Ser Gaheris’ voice was quiet, his expression grave, in contrast to his brothers’ – Gawain’s fuming anger and Gareth’s silent pondering, “What would cause Morgana to abandon her sense of caution to begin with? As Ser Gareth has said, she is not one to be so straightforward. There may be more to this than we realize.”
“A greater threat at hand, great enough to frighten the Witch?” Palamedes asked.
“Or,” Gawain interrupted, “Perhaps another one of her plans. Something bigger, more dangerous than what she’s done before – something she wants to ready and test as soon as possible,” he was truly itching to hunt her down.
“So on one hand,” Ser Bedivere started, “There’s a possibility we now have something worse than Morgana on our hands. On the other, there’s a possibility that she’s planning something big enough for her to abandon her normal habits. Either way, this isn’t something we can ignore.”
“In other words, we must act quickly,” the King intoned. Again, her voice failed to inflect any particular tone, but it still carried an authority like no other. It was a voice one obeyed on principle – not out of any sense of loyalty or affection (though among those present, those certainly existed), but simply because her presence was just that commanding. Her gaze never once left Merlin, “Do you have any idea where she might be going?”
“There are only a few locations around where I saw her that I can think of,” Merlin stated, “But given the road she was taking… I’d say the most likely candidate would be the abandoned fortress along the northern road.”
“Wasn’t that place a frequent hideout for bandits?” Gareth asked.
“It was. We cleared it out several times, but Morgana heavily opposed restoration efforts back when she was a member of King Urien’s Royal Court, and I don’t need to remind you how strong her influence among the Courts was back then. Eventually, the castle was abandoned altogether, and it became a haven for criminals to hide in. Reports concerning bandit activity came to an abrupt halt about six years ago, but we had more pressing issues at the time, so we never bothered to look into it,” Bedivere took a breath, eyes narrowing, “If Merlin is right, then it seems we’ve finally found out why the bandits disappeared… and why Morgana may have opposed restoring the castle as vehemently as she did.”
Merlin fixed his gaze on the King, “Your Majesty?”
Arturia closed her eyes, not so much as letting her breaths make any sound for a long few moments. Finally, she opened her eyes, “Ser Gawain. Ser Tristan. Ser Lancelot,” she glanced at each of them as she spoke their names, “I am leaving this task in your hands. I want you to go to the fortress Merlin speaks of and investigate it – in disguise.
“You are not to wear your coats of arms. Your swords are to be carried in non-descript sheathes. And you yourselves will answer to different names along your journey should you happen across anyone else. If Morgana catches wind that three of the Round Table are approaching, she may flee, and this will all have been for nothing.”
“Your Majesty,” all three stood and bowed at the same time, their actions borderline simultaneous.
“Furthermore,” she looked up to her Court Mage, “You are to protect them on their journey, Ser Merlin. You are the only one here with any form of magical prowess, and the only person in Britain who can hope to match Morgana. Wards, disguises – anything you believe may be helpful in this endeavour.”
Merlin smiled, giving a somewhat lopsided bow, “As you wish, my King.”
She nodded, and then stood, “You will leave as soon as the four of you are rested and prepared. This meeting is dismissed.”
With that, each Knight stood, and filed out one by one, returning to their respective quarters. Merlin waited until the last one had left, leaving him alone with Arturia.
“Well… it seems things are about to get interesting.”
“Dangerous,” Arturia intoned, walking around the massive table to face him.
“No, Merlin. There is a very distinct difference.”
He smiled, “I remember when you would have said that to me.”
She glanced at him, expression still cold, “I was a child, then. Now, I am older. Wiser.”
“And apparently have lost your ability to smile,” he smirked, “I know I told you your story would end in tragedy, but would it kill you to lighten up once in a while?”
Arturia didn’t give him an answer this time, instead turning on her heel and starting for the door.
He was about to call after her when he felt something in his head twinge.
It didn’t hurt, really. It was more like… a shift. A change in focus, like when the mind moves from one task to the next. He gave a slight grunt as he pressed a hand to his temple; what had just happened?
He glanced up again to see Arturia at the open door. Her expression remained cold as ever, but there was something beneath the monotone voice that he had not heard in a very long time; concern, “Are you alright?”
He smiled, “I’m fine, Arturia. Just… slight concerns with my magic, is all.”
“Will you be able to perform your duties?”
“I can do that much. Don’t start losing faith in me now,” he teased.
“… very well,” she stated, and pulled into the hall, closing the door behind her.
Merlin paused, then sighed, making the slow return to his own quarters. When he arrived, he shrugged out of his robes and sat on his cot, frowning. Something wasn’t right…
Closing his eyes, he activated his clairvoyance; the ability to see all of Humanity. The past, the present… the future…
He grit his teeth, trying to make sense of the muddled mess that was being presented to him. This… this didn’t make any sense. None of it did. The war that would see Camelot’s end, the war that would grind the Kingdom and its inhabitants into mere memory…
It was gone.
His eyes snapped open, a sudden shiver of dread running up his spine.
“Oh… horse shit,” he whispered, finally realizing what he’d done without ever intending to do so.
He’d changed the future.
He’d changed fate.
Morgana felt her teeth slate against each other in concentration as her mixture came to a boil, the acrid stench of rotting flesh wafting in and out of her nostrils. One of her many books was open beside her, though at the moment she paid it little heed; her utmost focus was on her current task, the fleshy vat before her continuing to boil, all but disintegrating everything that fell into its depths.
When the appropriate time had passed, she took a pair of tongs, and reached into the boiling acid, heedless of the sweltering heat that surrounded her arms, and slowly extracted her prize.
She couldn’t help but smile at the result – the gleaming object held firmly in her grasp, coated in a thin layer of bile, but nonetheless maintaining a beautifully polished surface.
A Dragon’s pearl. One of the very items used to infuse her dear sister with the strength of a Phantasmal Beast of the highest order, and normally very difficult to obtain; after all, in order to get your hands on the genuine article, you would have to slay a Dragon.
Morgana had essentially bypassed that step entirely with this creation; using the stomach of the Dragon Merlin had used to begin with, she had slaved over long hours to examine the process by which these nigh-priceless lacrima were created. Hundreds of thousands of ingredients used over years of experimentation had been lost… but it seemed that she was growing very close, if she hadn’t already succeeded.
Before she could move to set it down, however, the small sphere abruptly cracked.
She could never have moved fast enough to stop it. The cracks spread, one turning into two, then four, then eight; within seconds, there were dozens of cracks all running in different directions, and the pearl didn’t so much shatter as it did simply disintegrate, the pieces falling away into magically infused dust.
Joy and satisfaction turned to raw frustration, but however much she wanted to, Morgana did not rage or curse. She forced it down, only allowing it to manifest through a single click of her tongue, “Another failure…”
She let out a long, slow breath through her nostrils, sinking into a chair and rubbing at her temple. Her creation already had Dragon blood, that much Morgana was sure of; it had already proven her predictions correct by inheriting dear Arturia’s Magic Core.
But that wasn’t the problem.
The problem was the Dragon blood’s actual interaction between the magics used in the art of creation, as well as Morgana’s own blood.
Normally, humans and Dragons proved to be incompatible with one another. Coexistence had proved time and time again to be borderline impossible on nearly every level, from the sociological differences, to the psychology, from the biology, to the sheer difference in strength. Interaction between the two almost always ended in conflict, and by extension the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands of people.
And yet, it wasn’t impossible for proof of some twisted marriage of human and Dragon to emerge; that fool from the Burgundian Courts in the east some few decades ago somehow managed to attain nigh invincible battle prowess by bathing in the blood of a Dragon he slew, his skin like Dragon scales – nigh impossible to even scratch.
In dear Arturia’s case, Merlin had somehow gone even further, infusing her with Dragon’s blood and giving her all the magical strength of the world’s strongest Phantasmal Beasts. Indeed, on the battlefield in days long gone, the woman had often been compared to a Dragon in human form, impossible to so much as touch and striking down any and all who would oppose her, single-handedly breaking the spirits of twelve separate Kings through twelve consecutive wars, conquering Britain in one fell swoop.
The promised King indeed…
Morgana shook her head, forcing herself to return to the task at hand. She had assumed that because of the lineage, her creation would have inherited all of Arturia’s same traits. Of course, she hadn’t been wrong, but Morgana had nonetheless made a miscalculation that she was doing everything in her power to fix.
Put simply, the Dragon blood wasn’t properly mixing with Morgana’s fairy blood, or the increased magical potential of a homunculus.
Homunculi of any type, even the lowest of the low, still had incredible magical potential through their magic circuits; one of high quality made for combat could be expected to properly face an army and still come out victorious and no worse for wear, provided they were properly trained and equipped. Combining that with Morgana’s blood, fairy blood, would create something truly powerful – after all, it was fairies that made Excalibur and its sister swords, Caliburn, Arondight and Excalibur Galatine, and fairies were also capable of magic far beyond what could ever be expected of humans. Even those that didn’t learn magic still had plenty of magical energy to make up for it.
Dragon blood should have created something borderline unstoppable when combined with these aspects.
Instead, it was clashing – only slightly, for now, but as time went on, it would slowly grow worse. The combination of magics was simply too much for a mortal body of any type to handle.
In the end, Morgana supposed that she shouldn’t have been surprised; humans were fragile, after all. Surprising, certainly. Tenacious, most definitely. But fragile nonetheless – a result of their mortal coil.
That meant she needed to find a way for this body to withstand the incredible energies dwelling within it.
So far, the problem seemed to be rooted in the Dragon blood itself, the magic core’s constant magic production interfering with the extraneous (but still exceptionally high quality) magic circuits, slowly overflowing them with prana. It was similar to the result one could expect from trying to compensate for cracks in a massive dam by directing the water into small creeks or streams – the resulting flood would cause catastrophic damage no matter how slow it was.
She stood, and glanced back into the vat. Morgana had been trying to make a Dragon’s pearl in hopes of finding a way to regulate the prana overflow – using the pearl to create a runoff point, of sorts. In the meantime, Morgana had also slowed her creation’s aging down in hopes of buying the both of them a little bit more time to create a working system; the accelerated aging she had initially intended to implement would, at this stage, only worsen the problem. However, she’d been struggling to find any kind of success in actually making a pearl, and she’d just used her last ingredients in the attempt.
She’d have to leave to gather more.
Sighing, Morgana stepped away from the vat and over to where her creation lay, peacefully asleep. She looked so much like her father when Arturia was an infant; the resemblance was uncanny.
Then again, that was something Morgana had been hoping for when she began this venture.
Smiling, she leaned down, and gently whispered into the small homunculus’ ear.
“You’re going to be King someday.”
With that, she silently pulled away, and swept from the room to find her cloak. Within the hour, a dark shape was fighting against the wind across the grey sky, like a black meteor through the ever falling white.
The Jarl’s Musings; On the Subject of Purity
Hello, everyone, and welcome to the second installment of the Jarl’s Musings, the Musings that could potentially leave your own Musings in utter ruin.
There’s something that’s been bothering me lately about the idea of purity. The way that people seem to treat it as one of the ultimate expressions of goodness and compassion. It’s even been used as a synonym for words such as righteousness or virtue. This is especially prominent when it is one of the major themes in a given story, and it is often given links to both benevolence and to innocence. Which is where the problem comes in for me. What is that problem, one may ask?
Simple. Innocence and benevolence are not the same thing. Not by a long shot.
Allow me to explain my position here. A benevolent being is one that will go out of their way to attempt to make the world around them a better place, even if it’s in the smallest of ways. They at the very least understand the basic concept of good or positivity even if they don’t necessarily grasp the concepts of evil or negativity, and their actions reflect the goodwill they carry. Although in some cases – usually ones where the lives of the characters in question are considerably more complex than the hedonistic lifestyles of the Felaryan predators - it isn’t always clear, as sometimes the greater good requires some necessary evils to be attained. I would expand further on this, but as I have another Musing planned for the natures of benevolence and malevolence specifically, I think I will save that particular subject for a later date.
On the other hand, however, we have the nature of innocence. I find that Felarya is an excellent setting with which to demonstrate the darker side of this trait; yes, the actions of children or childlike beings such as Karbo’s Crisis are rarely taken with any intent to cause legitimate harm, but that is hardly any consolation to those whose lives are destroyed at their hands. Crisis routinely eats caravans of people who pass through central Felarya without so much as a second thought the vast majority of the time, the only exception that I’m aware of being the day she met Lea (I’m not saying there aren’t any other exceptions, but I’m not about to go digging through the whole Writing section looking for specifics). Another good example of this is the animated short that inspired the Toy Story movie series, where a toddler plays rather roughly with his terrified toys. The toddler might not have any malicious intent or even know what malice actually is, but that doesn’t make things any better on the toys’ end. It doesn’t make the encounter any less horrifying or any less painful to watch or, as some may see it, any less evil.
So why exactly is purity linked to both of those concepts when they can clash so heavily? It could be the roots of the word, but I personally don’t see how there could be much of a connection there.
Rather, if you were to ask me personally, I’d actually say that purity is significantly closer in nature to innocence than benevolence or goodness. The reason behind that being the actual definition of purity; unsullied. Free of outside influence.
Think about it. When a child is born, one couldn’t possibly expect them to understand the nature of good or evil. It’s beyond them; their primary concerns are going to be eating and sleeping. Now, some may argue that as they age, they’ll begin to get a grasp of right and wrong on their own, but by and large, that’s learned behaviour, not innate nature. People learn from their environments; where a gentle, kind child would result from a stable, supportive family, a violent, insecure one would arise from a dysfunctional, broken household. I know that there are exceptions to this rule, and that some people are more inclined to certain types of behaviour than others, but that’s generally how things tend to go down.
So what does this say about good and evil in relation to purity and innocence?
It says that purity is neither good nor evil, but of utterly neutral ground as a result of lack of exposure. Felarya isn’t exactly a place where good or evil have much sway among the predators of the world. As I said before, most of them lead simple, hedonistic lifestyles free of such hefty concerns; with a few exceptions, at best, they concern themselves with right and wrong in a much looser sense, and at worst, they don’t even think about that, their thoughts only extending to how something feels. They’re pure, but purity isn’t necessarily a positive thing, as a pure being can do absolutely catastrophic damage without concerning themselves with the morality of it. A pure creature is the closest thing to a truly amoral being that I have been able to find (I will discuss the nature of amorality in another Musing).
Essentially, good and evil are little more than additives, elements of learned behaviour, each of which eradicate purity in its own way. Good, in its own way, affects those it touches just as easily as the way evil corrupts. We have a natural grasp of positive and negative, but we don’t really learn how to apply that to the world at large without the proper environment and people to show us that.
And in all honesty... I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing that good and evil are things we have to learn. After all, we don’t always understand our most base emotions; if good and evil were innate, would we really be able to truly understand the nature of either one? Besides... even if positivity and negativity are innate, who is going to know better? The one who was born good? Or the one who learned about it, who chose it, and overcame everything that barred their way through great effort?
... So that’s all I really have to say on the matter. What are your thoughts on the issue? I’m legitimately interested to hear what you have to say.
With that said and done... I think that will be all. See you in the next installment.
|Just an aspiring writer.|