NEW: Chapter 6 added, please scroll down.
(for the Prologue and first three chapters, please see "The adventures continue... chapter 1-3")
“I can’t read it, I can’t... can’t read it...” Merlin sobbed and he was feeling more and more frustrated. For hours he had sat there and scroll after scroll he had opened, very careful as not to damage the fragile parchment and each and every scroll was the same. Line after line of illegible script and undecipherable symbols. And yet, the words were there, he could see them hovering in the corner of his eye, all those strange markings turning into familiar words, at least they looked like words, he thought they were familiar and he felt he could almost read them, but every time he turned his head or even his eyes, the words morphed back into those illegible scribbles. “I can’t read it...” Desperately he closed his eyes, pinched the bridge of his nose; and with a heavy sigh he grabbed another scroll and started to unroll it. Wearily he shook his head: scribbles and scrawls, more and more unreadable scribbles and scrawls. Merlin took a deep breath and tried to calm himself. “There must be a way,” he thought, “there must be a way to read them. There must be a way to find out if there is something here to counteract this sleeping spell. If there is something here at all, for all I know it’s nothing but a shopping list.” He started to feel so very sleepy again, but he knew he must stay awake now. He took a large swig from Gaius’ bitter brown potion and winced at the still horrible taste, but at least it kept him awake for a while. Slæp. In the corner of his eye he thought he saw that word, very faint and very blurry. Slæp. There is was again, his eyes moved but a fraction of an inch and it was gone again. “I’m starting to imagine things,“ he thought, but he also knew there was so much magic in these scrolls, it all but leaped from the parchment.
“I must take a scroll to Gaius, he surely must be able to read it,” he finally mumbled and started to roll up one of the parchments.
“If of life you keep a care, shake of slumber, and beware... Awake! Awake!”
Merlin’s heart skipped a beat, he dropped the scroll on the little table and gasped. In front of him stood a human-like creature unlike anything he had ever seen. Black hair, dark piercing eyes, the skin around them an eerie reddish colour. He was naked save for a blue hose with some sort of long white kilt over it and boots of supple white leather. Merlin stared mesmerised at its body: all white with a bluish sheen it was, and completely covered in white spikes, just like a giant porcupine.
“Who... who are you, you... you..., how did you get here, not through the door, I would have heard it, is there a hidden door, yes, that’s it, a hidden door...,” and his eyes darted to and fro, looking but not finding any hidden entrance, “but who are you, have I disturbed something? If so, my deepest apologies, and...,” Merlin gazed with inquisitive eyes at the vaguely smiling creature,“ ...and you look like me,” he said softly, “amazing....” Slowly his hand reached out to that strange being, trying to touch it. “You are me! You are me! Awesome! No, that cannot be, I’m sleeping again, dreaming... and OUCH!” The creature had pinched him hard in his arm. “No, I’m awake, but, you are me... how did you get here, who are you, what are you, what are you doing here...”
“Please allow me to introduce myself,” the creature said, “I am a spirit of the air, an airy Spirit if you like and...” he said, raising his hand, “...and please allow me to explain my presence to you in an uninterrupted fashion, so before you commence your unremitting rambling again, asking half-questions without bothering to wait for an answer, I will try and explain a few things.”
Merlin desperately wanted to say something, but with great effort he managed to keep quiet.
“I am a spirit, my dear Emrys, I come and go as I please. Don’t look so surprised, I know who you are. And as to why I am here, well, you summoned me, but without you even being aware of doing so. In a way I am you, as you are me. You see me, and yet you see yourself. You hear me, yet you hear yourself.” The spirit stood very close to Merlin now, his mouth inches from Merlin’s ear. “You must believe in yourself Emrys,” he whispered, “believe in yourself! Only then will you unlock the powers hidden deep within you.” He paused for a moment, and then said: “But we will come to that later, first there are these scrolls...” and suddenly the Spirit stood on the other side of the room. “These scrolls...” and he sat on the top shelf of the book-case. “I told you Emrys, I come and go as I please, when I please,” and he stood in front of Merlin again. “The words, Emrys, the words on these scrolls are asleep. And yes, to answer the question you have just asked yourself in your mind, they do contain the answer to your problem, you can set your mind at rest. What that answer is, I do not know, that is for you to find. Well, actually I do know, but I’m not telling. But the words, Emrys, the words must be awoken first.”
“But how can words be asleep?” Merlin asked, intrigued.
“You are a sorcerer Emrys, you should know that nothing is impossible, not even slumbering words.”
Merlin took a scroll in his hand and said, “Ic biddan becumen nu worde” and for a brief moment his eyes turned golden. Nothing happened. Puzzled, he cocked his head a little and tried again: “Ic ascian that thu awæcest!”. Nothing.
“It won’t work, my dear Emrys, your spells will have no effect whatsoever. But there are spells to unlock its secrets, spells almost older than time itself. You must find those spells in your head, for they are there.” The spirit edged closer to Merlin, their faces almost touching. He rapped his finger quite hard against Merlin’s temple: “Find the spells in there, Emrys. For not only were you born with the magic of the Old Religion, the magic before that time also flows in you. You are powerful, more powerful than you can possibly imagine, more powerful than anyone can imagine. Finding the magic within you to read these scrolls is only the beginning. I know this, Emrys, I know this because I am you, I can see inside your brain, into your very being.” Merlin found he couldn’t avert his eyes from the spirit’s penetrating gaze. “You Emrys,” he whispered, barely audible now, “you have a destiny. You are to be the greatest warlock of all time, protecting the greatest king this kingdom of Camelot has ever seen. Kilgharrah already has told you this and I can do nothing but repeat it. I know what you have seen in your nightmares, those dreams where Arthur and Mordred fell, mortally wounded, at that fateful plain of Camlann. But that dream is not only your destiny, it is part of other destinies too, Mordred’s destiny, Arthur’s destiny. And remember my dear Emrys, the future is made up of innumerable destinies. Shape that future Emrys, shape your destiny, shape those around you and you can start by awakening these words, for if you do not find the spell to counteract Morgana’s, your destiny, and your very life, will be very short indeed. And you would be wise Emrys, to bear in mind that Morgana does not have that kind of immense power, that sleeping spell was given to her by someone with very great magical skills indeed!”
Fighting to stay awake, Merlin yawned and took another sip of the potion. There was not much left.
“Try not too hard to find the answer, Emrys, it is already in your mind. All you have to do is search and you will find what you are looking for. I am afraid I cannot help you, as much as I would like to. Empty your mind Emrys, empty your mind.” And suddenly the Spirit’s face and a slightly mocking voice resembled Arthur’s and he said: “Now, that shouldn’t be too hard, emptying your mind, should it Merlin,” and seconds later he morphed back to his former self.
“But how…,” Merlin said, but the spirit had vanished, leaving him with the unreadable scrolls and more questions than answers. He felt a tight knot forming in his stomach, his hands turned cold and his throat was suddenly dry as he remembered that dire warning: “your life will be very short indeed”. And he also remembered that other remark: it was Morgana who had cast the sleeping spell.
Carefully he put the scrolls back in their wooden cases. One he took with him for Gaius to have a look at. He didn’t know why he took that particular one, it was a hunch, or perhaps he was already, and unknowingly, guided by the ancient magic within him.
“You failed, Morgana,” Macha screamed, seething with fury, “you failed miserably.”
“I failed? I FAILED? I saw him fall!” Morgana shouted back.
“And I saw him get up again, you fool, you bungler”
It was your magic, you stupid witch, It was YOUR magic that failed!”
“My magic is strong enough, stupid cow, but the vessel that conducts my magic must be strong also and you certainly lack in that department!”
The two women stood there facing each other, trembling and burning with rage.
“And how do you know Merlin got up again,” Morgana said, her voice dripping with sarcasm, “you’re trapped here.”
“Do you really think that, just because I cannot leave this place, I have no knowledge of everything that happens in Camelot? I have a spy there Morgana, a spy who is my ears and eyes, and you wouldn’t believe the things he told me about you!” Her voice became shriller and louder with each word she hurled at Morgana.
“Then you should know how strong my magic is,” she hollered back.
At that moment Macha’s eyes rolled back, leaving only the whites visible. She sat stock-still, even her breathing seemed to have stopped. Her lips moved soundlessly for a while, then all of a sudden she collapsed on the earthen floor. Morgana just looked at her, not quite knowing what to do. After a few seconds Macha sat up again and with a lugubrious grin she said: “I just got a message. Merlin still lives, but he is getting more and more weak. He might even die. I just might give you another chance to redeem yourself.”
There, in the kitchen of Camelot, amidst the hustle and bustle of the chopping, plucking, cooking and roasting on hot and roaring fires, on a low stool he sat, Cerdic the kitchen boy, waiting for something to do. Asking for it he could not, for Uther had his tongue cut out for speaking out of turn in front of other kings and thus embarrassing him, and after he lost his tongue Uther had banished him, Cerdic, Keeper of the Wardrobe, to the kitchen, far from the Great Hall and the Royal Chambers. And every day revenge was gnawing at him, eating him away.
The kitchen-staff talks freely when he is around, for he cannot reveal their secrets, he cannot speak and he cannot write. And all the girls and some of the boys confide in him, pouring out their hearts on just about everything, but mainly on their real or unattainable beloved, knowing their secrets are safe with him. So Cerdic sat there, silently, eyes forever downcast, listening to all the gossip and idle chatter.
And thus he heard Rose, a smelly scullery-maid, talk to nobody in particular while she was scouring some cooking-pots: “ ’Ave you ‘eard ‘bout poor Merlin? ‘E’s awake they say, and it’s true, I’ve seen ‘im meself, such a weak boy he is, so weak, it breaks y’r ‘eart. Even Gaius can’t do nothin’ they say. I said to Nell, ‘e won’t last another day I said to ‘er, ‘e won’t, ‘e won’t see another sunrise I said…”
And Cerdic sat there, listening. Someone smacked him on the back of his head. “Take this to master Geoffrey and be quick about it, you lazy rattle-brain,” and a wooden platter loaded with bread, cheese, cold meats and a flagon of ale was thrust into his hands. Cerdic took the plate and quickly scuttled away.
After delivering the platter to a distracted master Geoffrey, who was writing with great haste as if he might forget the words he wanted to write down, Cerdic went to his little hide-away in some forgotten corner of Camelot. Here at least he could find some peace and quiet among his treasures he had collected over the years; bits of broken crockery, discarded spoons, a rusty eating-knife. In the corner stood a crude wooden statue of a woman. Cerdic took it in his hands and concentrated. He felt his mind melting together with the statue. A sudden jerk of his body, his eyes rolled back and the link was established. In his mind he heard a voice, cracking with old age, and in his mind he formed words, letting them flow through his arms and hands to the statue. “O great goddess Macha,” came his voiceless words, “this is your obedient servant Cerdic speaking. Merlin is still alive, but he is getting more and more weak. Talk is he may not live to see another sunrise.”
“So, the boy is weak and dying,” said Morgana, her malicious voice dripping with contempt, “I was strong enough after all, as if I ever doubted it myself.”
“Weak yes, but dying no. I don’t believe that for a second. The boy is strong, otherwise he would not have survived. And I’m sure you will be able to harm him a little bit more, but with your pathetic magic that’s just about all you can do.”
Morgana’s nostrils flared and her eyes flashed with uncontrollable anger. A spell formed on her lips, a spell to do serious damage to that miserable old crone sitting there, looking so very complacent and disdainful.
“Before you unleash that pathetic little magic of yours, you pitiful conjurer, it might be wise to save it for something more important. No matter what, that young upstart of a warlock will die before the moon is full, and with him that unbearable prat Arthur. When I gave you that spell, I also told you there was a price to pay and you agreed. So, whether you like it or not, and I really don’t care one way or another, the time for you to pay has come.” She stretched out her bony hands and suddenly Morgana felt her gnarled fingers inside her head. She screamed and screamed until she could scream no more.
One born from twice dead
With a florish George opened the curtains of Arthur’s bedroom. The delicious smell of freshly baked bacon, eggs and bread wafted through the air, the rays of the early morning sun filled the room and lit up Arthur’s sleepy face, making his hair even more golden.
“A very good morning Sire,” George said, and started fussing around. Arthur groaned inwardly. Of all the servants available, he had to get George. Again. “Merlin, Merlin, please come back,” he thought and heaved a sigh, but he knew it was all for the best. Merlin and Gaius needed time to try and find a cure and quickly too, for Merlin simply fell asleep where he stood, like yesterday while pouring wine and half of it landed on Arthur’s lap instead of in his goblet; and Merlin stood there swaying, eyes closed and all but snoring. Merlin tried to wipe the wine away, but he managed to make it even worse, ruining Arthur’s hose and shirt; and then his hand landed on the rim of a plate filled with roasted pork, catapulting the meat and it landed on Arthur’s head. “Thank you Merlin,” he had said, “but I prefer to have it actually in my mouth.”
“Yes Sire,” Merlin had answered, plucking pieces of pork from Arthur’s hair, “I thought I might save you some time getting the meat to you this way. You’re not very good at catching are you?”
“No Merlin, but I’m sure I can learn from you. What if I simply put you in the stocks and I’ll pelt you with fruit. I’m sure you’ll be able to catch some in your mouth! It will be fun and I can learn from you at the same time!”
“Ah, yes, my favourite past-time, the good old pillory. Brings back memories. And don’t forget to include some tomatoes. And grapes. Grapes are good for catching. More wine Sire?”
And now he was stuck with George. Efficient, predictable, utterly boring George.
“I hope you did sleep well Sire,” George said, “I took the liberty of laying out your clothes for you to wear this morning, including a freshly polished mail shirt, and your bath will be ready shortly, after you have had your breakfast.”
“Where is Merlin,” Arthur said, sitting up in bed and flexing his muscles.
“I am sure he will be here any moment now I think Sire, as he does every morning,” he said with a hint of disapprovement in his voice. “But while you wait Sire, perhaps I can while away the time by telling you an amusing anecdote I just remembered. It is very amusing Sire,” and George, stone-faced, never smiling George actually chuckled. “Very amusing and diverting indeed Sire. It is a humorous story about brass.”
An audible groan now escaped Arthur’s lips and he let himself fall back on the cushions, closing his eyes. At that moment the door burst open and Percival came storming in, big smile on his face, followed by Merlin.
“Sire, Mordred has returned,” Percival said, catching his breath, totally ignoring George’s disapproving frown. Very deliberately George started to wipe away the mud-stains left by Percival’s boots. Arthur’s face lit up and he smiled broadly. Merlin on the other hand looked gloomy, a deep frown on his forehead.
“Come on Merlin, no need to look so glum, you look like a cranky wilddeorren. Mordred is back, be happy. I’m sure you haven’t forgotten how to smile,” said Arthur and he jumped out of bed, stretching his arms in front of him. Merlin tried to take a shirt to dress Arthur, but George got there first, all but shoving Merlin aside. “How is he?”
“Tired and dusty, but otherwise fine. He’s waiting in the Great Hall.”
“What are we waiting for, let’s go,” Arthur exclaimed and swiftly walked away, followed by Percival and Merlin.
“But your breakfast Sire, and your bath---“ George said, but his words fell deaf on the heavy door.
“I am ready to get back to work Sire,” Mordred said, after a warm and heartfelt welcome from Arthur, “my apologies for running away like that.”
“I understand Mordred,” Arthur answered, “I wasn’t easy for you. But we’re all glad you’re back and that’s the end of it. We’ll talk no more of it”
“Thank you Sire.”
Mordred looked around, looked at the Knights gathered there, smiling and talking, and his gaze fell on Merlin. Their eyes locked and Mordred saw the distrust in Merlin’s eyes, saw his frown, his coldness. “You still don’t trust me, do you,” Mordred said, using his Druid-voice so only Merlin could hear.
“I know you are a loyal knight of Camelot and loyal to Arthur,” Merlin answered, also using only his mind as he followed Arthur into the corridor, one thought predominantly on his mind: Arthur shall die by a Druid’s hand.
“That is not an answer.” With the accusing voice of Mordred sounding loud in his head, Merlin kept silent as he walked with Arthur back to his chambers.
Merlin looked out of the window and saw the Knights training in the courtyard. Sunlight bounced of the brightly polished armour and helmets; and the air was filled with the clanging of swords, maces and quarterstaffs. Merlin rubbed his eyes and yawned. The whole afternoon he and Gaius had been busy trying to decipher the scroll, but to no avail. Merlin had desperately tried to empty his mind, to concentrate, anything to be able to understand those scribbles, but he had gotten nowhere. He had tried summoning the spirit again, but the creature did not appear. He had tried tapping into his unconsciousness to try and find the hidden magic the spirit had told him about and his frustration grew and grew when nothing happened.
A deafening roar rose from the courtyard below and Merlin saw Arthur lying on his back on the flagstones, the point of Mordred’s sword mere inches from his throat. He saw Percival and Gwaine laughing and he saw Mordred holding out his hand to help Arthur back to his feet. Arthur took off his helmet, his damp hair plastered on his head, sweat dripping from his face. He laughed too, clapped Mordred on his shoulder and both men went to get some water. Arthur shall die by a Druid’s hand.
“Empty your mind, empty your mind,” Merlin kept saying this to himself.
Merlin went to the table and looked at the scroll. He tried to calm his breathing and stared at one particular point of the parchment. He tried to think of nothing, only looking at that point and everything around him became a blur, but the scroll did not reveal its secret. Again he felt so very tired and above all so powerless. He let himself fall on his bed and fell instantly asleep.
That night Merlin left Camelot and he went to a clearing in the woods. “O Drakon, e mala soi ftengometta tesd’hup’ anakes!” he shouted, using his commanding and deep Dragonlord voice. After a short while he heard the flapping of enormous wings and a huge shape blotted out the stars. With difficulty Kilgharrah landed and he limped over to Merlin.
“Yes young warlock, what is it now,” he rasped, “even in my last days here on earth you will give me no peace,” and he sat down heavily, groaning.
“I know and I am truly sorry to disturb you, but my question is of the greatest importance, of life and death.”
“Questions, questions, young warlock, always questions and never answers.”
“I am not well, I’ve been hit by an ancient spell and it’s slowly killing me. I can’t take it much longer, my strength is fleeting. I don’t know what it is but I do know there is ancient magic in me too, all I have to do is find it but I can’t. And there’s this scroll which seems to hold an answer of some sort which I’m supposed to read but I can’t. You who are old and wise, please help me.”
“Well, at least you said ‘please’,” Kilgharrah chuckled, “Yes, there is great magic in you, I knew that from the beginning I saw you. All you have to do is find it.”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to do,” Merlin shouted, frustration mounting.
“Trying very hard no doubt. Mayhap therein lies the answer you seek young warlock, trying too hard. Try a little less hard next time, words need to be awoken gently, but you’ve been told that already haven’t you,” and with these words the dragon started to leave.
“That’s it? That’s all you can tell me? I will not accept that. You will tell me all you know. I, the last Dragonlord, command you!”
“You can summon me, young warlock and we both know I must do your bidding, but I can tell you no more.” His head swung towards Merlin, stopping a few yards from his face. All Merlin could see was a giant maw with still razor-sharp teeth, and an overwhelming stench of sulphur and decay engulfed him, making him gag. “Only the ancient gods of a time long forgotten knew how to cast the spell that is consuming you now and the ancient magic deep within you was able to counteract some of its effects. Somehow that ancient magic has come back to this world. You are strong young warlock, very strong. Take that scroll and the answer will come to you. The magic will come to you.” And with those words Kilgharrah, with much groaning and moaning, stood up and flew slowly away, one wing hardly beating at all.
Merlin stood there, all flustered and worn out, unable to move or even to think. Finally, with a heavy heart he walked back to Camelot, hardly aware of his surroundings or where he was going.
The next morning, after a hasty breakfast of gluey porridge and cold water, he tried again. He opened the scroll and looked at it, walked around it, closed his eyes, mumbled spells, tapped at it, talked to it, but all to no avail. In an uncharacteristic fit of fury he grabbed his beaker and with an almost primeval yell threw it with great force against the wall. Furiously and without thinking he snatched the scroll and suddenly there it was: words. He could see words, very faint and short-lived: “an gebyrt of twegan dead”.
Then the words faded as quickly as they had appeared. He looked at the parchment, stunned and hardly believing his eyes. “I did it,” he whispered, “I DID IT!” He shouted and laughed, punched the air, a huge smile on his face. He looked at his fingers and felt a tingling in his fingertips, felt something coursing through his veins, through every fiber of his body.
“The words, what were the words…” he said, grabbing a piece of old parchment from Gaius’ cluttered workbench. He sat down, trying to calm his nerves. “Think, think Merlin, think…” he mumbled as he took a quill and tried to remember. He forced himself to calm down and wrote down what he thought was correct: “an gebyrt of twegan dead”. He recognized the language of old, the language of magic, for he had cast so many spells in it. “One born from twice dead,” it read.
“Gaius, Gaius,” Merlin said as the physician entered the room, “There are words on the scroll, I just read some of them. I can do it Gaius, I can do it!”
Gaius smiled broadly, making his face even more wrinkled. “That’s wonderful Merlin, finally we are getting somewhere. What was it you read?”
“One born from twice dead,” Merlin answered, “All I have to do now is try and understand it and read the rest of the scroll.”
“You make it sound so easy Merlin, but what does it mean and how did you do it?”
“I don’t know yet, but we’ll find out. And I felt something, a tingling all over. It’s happening Gaius, it’s finally happening!”
“I’m so glad Merlin,” Gaius said; and the old man put his bony arms on Merlin’s shoulders.
A knock on the door and Sir Leon entered. “Arthur requests your presence Gaius, and Merlin’s too.”
“I respectfully request an audience with Arthur King of Camelot,” the boy, seated on a dappled horse, said as he approached the gate,. A haughty stance, dark piercing eyes, long dark hair and some fluffy hairs on his cheeks, an adolescent trying to grow a beard. “May I offer you my credentials,” and he handed the guards a scroll.
The guards looked at the writing, looked at the boy and said: “Please enter the courtyard and wait for a while sir, King Arthur will be notified.”
“Very well,” the boy said curtly, tucking the scroll back into his saddle bag.
After a short while a guard came back and said: “King Arthur will see you later this afternoon sir. Someone will come momentarily, take care of your horse and show you to our guest quarters.”
The boy nodded and let his gaze wander around the courtyard.
“Hey, you,” he shouted as Gwen walked past, “yes you, serving girl, get me a decent stable boy will you, my horse need grooming.”
Gwen curtsied, smiling, and said: “Of course sir.” She turned around, bumped into Merlin and said: “Merlin, this gentleman needs someone to look after his horse,” and whispered so only Merlin could hear: “He thinks I’m a serving girl”.
“Right,” Merlin said and walked over to the boy who looked rather condescendingly at Merlin.
“You’re a stable boy?”
“Good. Take this horse to the stables and answer my question. Do you know of a girl named Guinevere.”
“Yes I do, and—”
“You know her, good. Of course you know her, she’s a servant like you after all. My father did talk a lot about her. Soppy stories, I hardly ever listened to them. A scullery-maid I think she was.”
“Well, she’s a little more than that,” Merlin answered, smiling vaguely.
“Well, risen to the ranks of serving girl I imagine.”
“Well, not exactly—”
“Tell her I need to talk to her about my father.”
“Yes, my father and I don’t see that’s any business of yours. Now, go and get her, will you, I must talk to her at once!”
“You just missed her, that was Gwen, Guinevere, you talked to just a minute ago.”
“Well, don’t just stand there,” he said, raising his voice and his cheeks flushed red with anger, “get her this instant, you simpleton. What’s your name again?”
“Merlin, it’s Merlin. I’m—”
“Well, Merlin, I’ll make sure King Arthur will hear about this, you impertinent boy. He’ll have you in the stocks or whipped before you know it. Now get Guinevere before I lose my temper!”
“Sir,” and Merlin ran away, his face serious but inwardly laughing, looking for Gwen.
“And what about my horse!” he shouted, but Merlin was already gone.
“He does look kind of familiar,” Gwen said to Merlin, “I can’t quite put my finger on it.” She looked out of the window to where the boy stood, waiting, impatiently tapping his foot, yelling at a stable boy and cuffing his ear. The unfortunate boy quickly tried to take the horse to the stables to avoid being hit again.
“Will you go to him?”
“Hmm, no, not now. Tell him I’m busy preparing for the feast tonight and I’m not allowed to leave. So he thinks I’m a serving girl, a scullery maid even! You know Merlin, I think I’m going to have some fun, get him of his high horse. Tell him I’ll be seeing him this afternoon. I know Arthur will summon him and I will be there too. I really want to see his face when he sees me on the throne. And please, don’t tell Arthur. Then can he tell me all about that father of his. I don’t know, it’s like I’ve seen him before.”
“Yes, he does look kind of familiar. Right, I’ll tell him.”
Later that afternoon Merlin went to the guest quarters and said the boy who sat there, beaker of ale in his hand and the remains of his lunch still on the table: “Sir, King Arthur desires to see you, at your convenience. He is waiting in the Great Hall. Please follow me.”
“It’s about time.”
Merlin swung open the doors of the Great Hall and bade the boy to enter. He strode into the Hall, saw Guinevere sitting on the throne besides Arthur and he turned as white as a sheet, before he turned a deep crimson red. He fell on one knee, his head bowed and stammered: “Please forgive me my queen, I… I… I did not know you were… I mean, I… My King, I give you my most sincere greetings, my queen, I… please forgive my impertinence.”
“Please arise sir,” Arthur said, “and do you mind telling me what’s going on here.” He looked at Gwen who sat there with a huge smile on her face.
“We met this afternoon in the courtyard,” she said, “and this gentleman mistook me for a serving girl. An honest mistake, I’m sure.”
“My queen,” he said, “I offer you my most deepest apologies.”
“Well sir, I have been given to understand you came here on a mission of the utmost importance,” Arthur intervened, “may we know your name and lineage first.”
“My name, Sire, is Galahad, son of Lancelot.”
Arthur opened his mouth, but no sound came. Gwen just looked at him, stunned, and slowly she understood. Now she realized why he did look so familiar, only now did she see Lancelot in Galahad’s facial features, saw him in his eyes, in the the curve of his lips.
“Lancelot? You’re the son of Lancelot?”
“Yes, Sire, I am indeed. I have in my possession a letter my father wrote some years ago, intended for the lady Guinevere. I came here to both offer you my services and to impart this letter to Guinevere, whom I thought to be a serving girl…” and Galahad’s face turned crimson again.
“A son of Lancelot? But how is that possible, I mean, how old are you?”
“I am eighteen summers old Sire, soon to be nineteen.”
“Cerdic, go and tell George… forget it, you can’t talk. Luke, tell George to prepare a room for Galahad, our guest. Cerdic, please escort master Galahad to his chambers. May I invite you to our feast tonight?”
“The honour is all mine,” Galahad said, bowing deep.
“A son of Lancelot,” Arthur said after Galahad had left. “Who would have thought.”
“Yes,” answered Gwen, still a bit shaken.
“Merlin, are you planning on standing there all day? Go and do something useful, like getting my clothes for tonight.”
“No Sire,” Merlin said, “Yes Sire.”
Suddenly, in the woods not far from Camelot and seemingly out of nowhere, a woman stepped into view. Her body was bent and she walked with unsteady steps. A cracking voice, old and feeble, said: “Finally, free at last!” Her head turned towards the setting sun and its rays illuminated her half-hidden face. She smiled, cruel and cold. A few more unsteady steps. “Your final days are upon you,” she said in a voice both of Morgana and Macha, “Revenge at last! You will suffer, Arthur Pendragon, you will suffer as my kind has suffered. Your death will be a most agonizing one, and ever so slow. And the same fate will befall your precious and meddlesome Merlin.” Another laugh, horrible and shrill. “And you thought I couldn’t leave my cave, didn’t you. I am so sorry, I forgot to tell you I can leave, but I need a willing vessel to do so. And you, poor gullible Morgana, you proved to be the perfect vessel,” and slowly her voice started to sound exactly like Morgana’s, and her stance became less and less bent.
And Morgana knew everything what was happening, she heard her voice utter words she did not speak, she felt her limbs move; but she was completely helpless, trapped in her own body. She let out a shrill cry, but she was the only one who could hear it, no sound escaped her lips.
For mischiefs manifold, and sorceries terrible…
They never knew what hit them, the envoy of king Ban of Dinas Emrys and his companions. They were on their way to Camelot to pay homage to king Arthur, to strengthen the friendship between the two kingdoms, to exchange gifts and to bring news. King Ban himself was unable to come, during a joust a large piece of wood from a splintered lance flew through the slits of his visor, shattering his right eye, immobilizing him. To ensure a more safe passage through Saxon-infested land, they were dressed as poor day-labourers, riding shabby horses; their precious gifts hidden on a simple wooden cart and covered in cloths and straw. Suddenly their horses stopped dead in their tracks, their unblinking eyes staring at nothing. The men sat like statues in the saddle, not moving a muscle, their eyes devoid of any life or recognition.
From the darkness of the dense undergrowth and gnarled trees, like a black shadow detaching itself from an even blacker darkness, Morgana suddenly stepped into view, brushed a few leaves and spiders from her dress and smiled a cold smile. Cerdic had been right, the envoy did indeed travel via this path. A plan then had formed in her mind and with great haste she had come to this secluded spot. She walked to the cart, lifted the coarse cloth and gazed upon the precious gifts. She found a splendid mail shirt hidden beneath the straw and she smiled even more, the sparkle of the cold steel of the rings reflected in her equally cold eyes. That surely must be intended for Arthur, she thought, just the thing I need. Her right hand hovered above it and in her mind she cast a spell. Carefully she put the mail shirt back where she had found it. “Goodbye Arthur,” she whispered and with a scornful laughter she disappeared back into the woods. At that moment the horses woke up and started walking again as if nothing had happened and the men sat there a little puzzled, looking around, trying to figure out where that sudden gust of wind had come from. “Creepy woods,” they muttered, but the incident was soon forgotten, for in the distance they saw the white crenellated towers of Camelot sparkling in the midday sun.
“You are quiet today my love,” Arthur said and he gently took Gwen’s chin in his hand, gazing into her dark eyes.
“I was only thinking, nothing more.”
“Happy thoughts I hope.”
“Oh yes, Arthur, very happy indeed. I was merely thinking of the past.”
“Good,” he said a bit awkward, wondering if he should ask what she had been thinking about, show some interest, but he decided to let it go and left, leaving Gwen alone with her thoughts and the preparations for the feast tonight. He hurried to the Great Hall where the envoy of king Ban was waiting for him. He longed to hear some news from the kingdoms of the north, and to inquire after king Ban’s health.
Gwen was indeed thinking of the past. She had read the letter Galahad had given her earlier, the letter Lancelot had written for her, so many years ago now and every time she read it, she had to smile and laugh and cry. In the most tender words he had recalled the moment they had first met and how he had instantly fallen in love with her. “I will love you always,” he had written, “just as you promised to always love me.” Gwen cried when she read this, tears of love and tears of pain. Both had known it could not be, they could never be together, somehow she had always known her heart could only belong to Arthur, and Lancelot had known that too. She carried the letter hidden in her bodice now, to have Lancelot close to her heart once more.
“I think I will wear the purple gown tonight,” Gwen said to her maid-servant. She curtsied, took the dress and hurried away to get it spotlessly clean. All alone now Gwen sat on her chair and sighed, her hand touching Lancelot’s letter through the fabric of her dress. “I still love you Lancelot,” she whispered, a far-away smile on her lips.
“Lancelot’s son?” Gwaine said with a voice full of disbelief, “Galahad’s his son?”
“He can’t be,” chimed in Percival, “I mean, how old is he anyway? Twenty-something? He can’t be. I mean, how old was Lancelot when he was with us? In his twenties surely! And he is supposed to have a son almost his own age?”
“Well, he did lie about his lineage,” said Leon, “so he might very well have been lying about his age too.”
“Yes, but come on… Merlin, MERLIN, come over here,” Gwaine shouted, “Merlin, do you know how old Lancelot was when he was with us? You must know, you’re an archive-dweller, you speak with master Geoffey, you know stuff and things.”
“I’m sorry, but I really don’t know,” Merlin answered, “It seems there was more to Lancelot then all of us ever knew.”
“Yes, posing as the fifth son of Lord Eldred of Northumbria!”
“And getting banished from Camelot for that!”
“And ending up in Hengest’s kingdom, fighting the wildeorren.”
“And rescuing Guinevere at the same time!”
“You know, I always thought there was something between those two.”
“Why not ask Galahad himself,” suggested Merlin, effectively shutting the Knights up. They could go on for hours like this, especially Gwaine.
“No, couldn’t do that, that would be imposing,” Percival replied, “Where is he anyway? I haven’t seen him since last night.”
“In his chambers, bullying the servants,” Merlin said, “but he’ll be here any moment now to practice with the lot of you.”
“Ha! Finally a chance to see if he has the skills of his father, I’m ready for him!” Gwaine boasted and he swung his sword dangerously close to Merlin’s head.
At that moment Galahad entered the courtyard, armour clanking, his helmet under his arm.
“Wow, now that’s what I call shining armour,” Gwaine said, leaning on his quarter-staff and squinting as the reflected sunlight from the armour all but blinded him.
“Merlin,” Arthur said dangerously nice and putting his arm around Merlin’s shoulder, “now, take a good look. What do you see?”
“Someone in heavy armour, trying not to stumble.”
“No Merlin, all you see is that wonderful armour. It shines, it sparkles, it’s polished! Why don’t you go to his servant and learn some secrets about proper armour-polishing!”
“Well, Sire, it may sparkle and shine, but you know what they say, a knight in shining armour is a man who has never had his metal truly tested.”
Involuntary the knights looked at Galahad’s brand-new armour and then they looked at their own: dull, dented and their coats of mail were missing numerous rings, showing the greasy gambesons underneath.
“Don’t tell me you’re turning philosophical Merlin,” Arthur remarked with a sigh, slowly patting Merlin’s shoulder, “and no need to change the subject, I won’t let you forget it”.
“Well,” Percival said lazily, picking up his sword, “let’s test that metal of his, see what’s he’s made off.”
“Excellent idea,” and Arthur immediately turned into the focused and formidable fighter he was, “Who wants to go first?”
But before they could do anything, Galahad halted them and exclaimed: “My name is Galahad son of Lancelot. I implore you to send your best fighter so we can commence into a test of strength. No need for weaklings, I cannot be bothered with them.”
“So you think you’re the best, are you,” said Gwaine.
“Indeed I am Sir, I was taught by the best.”
“If you mean Lancelot, then yes, you had a good teacher.”
“You, serving boy,” Galahad shouted at Merlin, “you, get me my sword I left lying there and be quick about it.”
“You heard him Merlin,” Arthur said, smiling that predatory smile of his, “go get him his sword.”
Merlin walked to the rack where the swords were hanging, but an impatient voice stopped him short: “Never mind, you simpleton, I’ll get it myself. I need it today in case you didn’t know.” With great strides Galahad walked past Merlin, knocking him to the ground. “You might consider getting another serving boy, Sire,” he said to Arthur and stood there, ready to do battle.
“No,” said Arthur, “we’ll fight with the quarter-staff first. Sir Leon, your turn.”
Merlin quickly took Galahad’s sword and handed him a quarter-staff. Galahad tested the weapon and he looked with sheer arrogance and contempt at Leon. The fight did not last long, Galahad proved no match for the skillful Leon and in no time Galahad’s quarter-staff was knocked out of his hands. “Get me that quarter-staff,” Galahad shouted angry at Merlin. The second round proved even shorter and Arthur declared Sir Leon the winner.
“Now Galahad, I think it’s time to test your sword-skills. Anyone in particular you wish to fight? Gwaine, Percival, Merlin…”
Galahad nodded at Gwaine and said curtly: “You.”
“Wish me luck boys, I need it,” Gwaine whispered with a twinkling is his eyes matching his smile.
“Boy, BOY, get me my sword now, you lazy toad!”
Furiously Galahad hacked away at Gwaine who parried each blow easily. He got his sword under Galahad’s, twisted it and Galahad had to drop the weapon, or his wrist would instantly be broken.
“That move was not worthy of a knight,” he grunted, nursing his painful wrist.
Gwaine merely shrugged his shoulders, picked up Galahad’s sword and offered it to him. Galahad didn’t even look at it.
“Galahad,” Arthur intervened, “I can see you have the potential to become a good swordsman. A pity Lancelot could not have trained you more.”
Galahad threw his helmet on the ground, unbuckled his vambraces and they too landed in the sand. He strode away, but Arthur called him back: “We will see you at the banquet tonight, your King requests your presence.”
Galahad turned and answered curtly: “It will be my pleasure and privilege, Sire.” He bowed stiffly and disappeared into the castle, leaving his armour lying around for the servants to collect.
“Doesn’t he remind you of someone?” Merlin asked Arthur.
“Well, you know… condescending, obnoxious, an arrogant prat.”
“No, doesn’t ring a bell.”
“Supercilious, self-satisfied, insufferable…”
“Yes Merlin, I get it, you know big words, but we know that already, don’t we.”
“Still, watching Galahad is like looking back in time.”
“Will you be a little bit more comprehensible Merlin, who does he remind you of.”
“In two words?”
“Yes Merlin, in two words,” and Arthur let out an exasperated sigh.
“Pick up that shield Merlin.”
“You’re not going to… Oh no.. no, no, no, you’re not!”
“Pick it up Merlin,” and the spiked ball of the flail Arthur was holding swished a little bit too close to Merlin’s head.
Merlin picked up the heavy shield and with great force the first blow landed on it. He stumbled, found his footing again and with both hands gripped the shield as if his life depended on it.
“Obnoxious?” and the flail hit the shield again. “ARROGANT?” and the ball bashed on the shield, sending sparks and woodchips flying. He felt his whole body trembling now from the impact of the blows. “PRAT?” Another hit and Merlin fell backwards, letting the shield cover his upper body, and still the blows kept coming. “Are we talking about the same person Merlin?”
“Do you know another King Arthur, Sire?”
“No, but I suggest you do,” and the spiked ball landed with a thud mere inches from Merlin’s head. “And when you’re done resting, you can clean my armour.”
“Yes Sire,” Merlin croaked.
I really can feel it now, I am getting stronger. I can feel this ancient magic in every fiber of my body, I can feel it tingling all over, feel it in every nerve. There are snippets of spells floating in my mind, half-formed words, vague ideas, images, anything, but it’s all so random. I can’t form one of those ancient spells yet, can’t see them clearly, but they are there, lurking… Like those words on the scroll, being there and not being there. But there is something that’s really bothering me, frightening me even. The sleeping-spell is growing in strength also. I don’t know why, there must be a link or something. Whoever gave me this magic did play a cruel trick on me. Strength and weakness always in balance, like in the Old Religion: for every life given, one must also be taken, the balance of the world must be restored. And now my balance is being restored, but that spell is not a part of me, so I am being destroyed and not restored.
I tried to read the scroll again today, and I really am making progress, I was able to read a few sentences, no, I was able to “wake up some words”. I don’t know what they mean yet, but there is mention of dreams. I wrote them down, in case I forget or the words on the scroll should suddenly decide to go to sleep again:
Hwæt, ic swefna cyst
Hwæt me gemætte
To midre nihte,
Yes, there’s dreams and sleep in there: “Hear while I tell about the best of dreams which came to me the middle of one night while humankind were sleeping in their beds”. That’s what it says.
I’m, well, Gaius and me that is, we’re also trying to solve the first words I read: “one born from twice dead”. Well, I’m sure it will come to me. To us I mean. In the meantime I’m doing all I can to solve the riddle and to stay awake. It comes and goes now, the sleepiness, but most of the time it’s there. Arthur is very nice about it, I know he really cares, but he doesn’t always show it. I mean, did he really had to clobber me with that flail? Luckily George had already cleaned his armour and polished it too when I came to see him in his chambers! You know, I’ve seen images in my head of Arthur coming to see me while I was in such a deep sleep, right after I was hit by that spell, he came to me every day and gave me water to drink. I don’t know if it was real or just a dream. I’m not asking him, that’s for sure! I’ll ask Gaius and whhoooaaaaa! My head, it explodes! So many things happening, so many words, so many images, the pain… the light… hot swords slicing into my brain, I can’t see… can’t breathe… I can’t take it anymore, I… I…
And Merlin crashed to the floor, head clasped between his hands, face contorted in agony. Then it was over. He lay still, breathing rapidly. His ashen face was covered in sweat. Slowly he tried to stand up again. He staggered, leaning on the table for support. His felt his heartbeat slowing, his breathing more regular. He shook his head and with his sleeve wiped the sweat from his face, rubbing the salty drops in his eyes, making them sting and water. In his head he felt something, like the nucleus of a new spell. He tried to concentrate, but whatever it was, it remained hidden, leaving nothing but a dull headache.
“This is so beautiful,” Arthur said, admiring his new mail shirt, one of the gifts from king Ban. “Just look at this Merlin, look how all those tiny rings are so carefully riveted together. Look, it’s a 6-on-1, I’d like to see the arrow that can pierce through this. The workmanship is quite extraordinary!”
“Yes, Sire,” Merlin said a trifle bored. He never had been able to understand Arthur’s fascination with armour. “Don’t you have enough mail shirts by now?”
“You can never have enough mail shirts Merlin.”
“And I suppose I’ll be the one to polish it?”
“Each and every ring Merlin. And don’t forget to polish the sides of the rivets too, they do tend to get rusty.”
“Try and don’t get it wet then, don’t go swimming in it.”
“Are you trying to be clever with me Merlin?”
“I wouldn’t dare, Sire.”
“Yes you would. Just look at those rings sparkle, this is the most beautiful mail shirt I’ve ever seen! I’ll wear it at the feast tonight. Come on Merlin, don’t stand there, help me get dressed.”
“How about a bath first, you smell like a horse.”
“Fine, have it your way. But don’t be surprised if nobody wants to sit near you.”
That night hundreds of candles were lit in the Banqueting Hall of Camelot, setting the armour and mail shirts of the knights in a dazzling golden glow, and the numerous semi-precious stones on Gwens purple gown and crown made her the radiant centre of attention.
Great laughter erupted from the table were Gwaine, Leon and Percival were sitting.
“Another wager? Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten the last one?” Leon said, clapping Gwaine quite energetically his shoulder.
For once Gwaine didn’t answer. There was not a day he didn’t think about it, that ill-fated wager he made not so long ago with Sir Vert of Sinople, that strange knight who had wanted Gwaine to chop off his head. Gwaine only scared him of course, but then the knight actually detached his head from his shoulders, creating quite a stir. “A head for a head,” the wager was, and Gwaine was in danger of losing his head also one day when he and Sir Vert would meet. And meet they will, Sir Vert had solemnly promised before he rode away from Camelot, his head under his arm.
“Lost your tongue?” Percival laughed, “better than losing you head I reckon!” Gwaine emptied a goblet of ale over Percival’s head. “Hey, that’s good ale that, don’t go wasting it!”
Quickly the goblets were filled once more and the three friends were all but rolling on the floor laughing.
At another table Galahad sat, a perpetual scowl on his face and hardly talking to the other knights at all.
In his chambers Arthur was struggling to get his mail shirt off. He stood there, head almost touching the floor, but the mail shirt would not glide from his torso.
“Come on Merlin,” he said with a muffled voice, “how about some help.”
“Sire,” Merlin said, eyes half closed, stifling a yawn but failing miserably.
He took the mail shirt at the neck opening and pulled. Nothing.
“Please allow me, Sire,” said George who had crept silently into the room. Delicately he pulled, but the mail shirt would not budge. George looked puzzled and said: “I fail to understand this, Sire. There seems to be a slight problem.”
“Will you get this confounded mail shirt off me!” Arthur said agitated, raising his voice.
Merlin and George were pulling together now, but to no avail.
“Like it’s fused to your gambeson, Sire,” Merlin said.
“Then why can’t I take my gambeson off too,” Arthur said, fear creeping into his voice, “and it’s starting to itch!”
“You should have taken that bath earlier like I told you,” Merlin said, looked at Arthur’s neck and saw red welts, big and ugly, emerging. “This is not normal,” he thought. He concentrated and saw an aura of evil magic surrounding the mail shirt, very faint, but it was unmistakably there.
Arthur started scratching himself vigorously now.
“I must strongly advise against that, Sire,” George said, “It will only make things worse.”
“I know!” shouted Arthur, “now, get the blacksmith in here NOW and tell him to bring his tongs and… and whatever else he can find!
“But it’s night and…” George protested.
“I don’t care if he’s awake or asleep or whatever. Get! Him! NOW!”
Henry the blacksmith used all his strength trying to cut through the rings, using the weight of his whole huge body. There was a loud metallic snap and a huge grin appeared on Arthur’s red face, thinking the rings were cut.
“I’m so sorry, Sire,” Henry said and he showed Arthur the broken tongs. The rings of the mail shirt appeared to be undamaged, there was not the tiniest dent in them, not even a scratch. “These are the biggest tongs I have. Had…,” he added apologetically. Arthur just looked at it, hardly taken in what just happened.
“Perhaps if we were to heat the rings to make them more pliable,” suggested George.
“What! Are you trying to roast me, you fool?”
“Please forgive me, Sire, my only thought is with your welfare, I did not give full consideration to the implications this idea might have.”
“Go and get Gaius will you. This itching is killing me.”
It did not take long for Gaius to appear. He looked at Arthur’s neck, tried unsuccessfully to shift some of mail and slowly shook his head. “I fear there is sorcery involved, Sire,” he said gravely.
“Sorcery! That’s just great! When will we ever get rid of it! And what about this infernal inching! Any ideas how to get rid of that?”
“I must consult my books first, Sire, trying to find out what type of sorcery it is that caused this mail shirt to cling to you,” Gaius said, “and I can prepare an ointment for your itch to ease your discomfort, and I must find a way to apply it. In the meantime, I think it would be best if you immersed yourself in a warm bath. It will bring some relieve I’m sure.”
“I’ll see to it right away,” said George.
“I’ll go with Gaius,” Merlin said to Arthur and added: “Are you sure you’re not doing this on purpose, to get your mail shirt wet so I must polish each and every ring?” He ducked just in time and the goblet Arthur threw at him clattered loudly to the floor.
“Can you do something about that magic?” Gaius asked.
“Yes, I think so, I felt the magic, it feels familiar, but I need Arthur to be unconscious. Can’t have him awake while I perform my magic.”
“No, that would be most unwise. I’ll put a little extra something in his ointment, something that will make him sleep for an hour or so. Apply a little bit on a welt in his neck, that will do the trick. But do stay with him, he will fall asleep almost instantly.”
A short while later Merlin walked to Arthur’s chambers, carrying a jar filled with foul-smelling salve.
Next time on “Merlin, the adventures continue…”: will Merlin be able to remove Arthur’s mail shirt and will the scroll finally reveal its secret?
(Words on the scroll taken from the Anglo-Saxon poem The Dream of the Rood)
For the love of Camelot!