MERLIN: THE END OF MAGIC
Chapter One: The Battle of Honor
It was spring again, and Merlin was always most restless in the spring. He stood upon the battlements of Camelot, gazing toward the northern horizon, and feeling the warm spring sun soak into his bones. The spring breeze ruffled the feathers that trimmed his long cloak, and the sunlight flashed off the crystal ball embedded in the head of his wizard's staff.
Old bones, and older every year, Merlin thought ruefully. I was a grown man when Arthur was born, and now Arthur is a man grown. Where is he today, I wonder... ?
A letter had come from the king three months before. It had been written three months before that, when Arthur was still in Italy; who knew where he might be now? But Merlin's thoughts hovered closer to home on this bright April morning. Somewhere out there was the forest hut in which he had been born, the forest in which he had spent so many happy, innocent years before Mab came to claim him as her champion. Later, he had returned to Barnstable Forest to live a simple life as Arthur grew to manhood in the home of Sir Hector, safe and loved and secure.
But there was nothing in life as constant as change, and just as Merlin's life had been torn apart by the revelation of his true parentage, so Arthur's life had been similarly rent asunder when the time had come for Merlin to tell him that he was King Uther's son.
But Arthur had possessed a mother, as well as a father, and therein lay the seeds of Merlin's greatest failure, for Arthur was not the Lady Igraine's only child. Arthur had a half sister, Morgan le Fay, and Morgan was rotted through with ambition. Morgan's lust for power had caused her to ally herself with Queen Mab, scheming to become the power behind the throne, and then to trick Arthur into lying with her. Now Arthur had a son, a boy, Mordred, begotten in sin and raised in malice, living for the day when he would tear down all that Arthur and Merlin had painstakingly built together, destroying Camelot and Britain.
Merlin's gaze travelled toward the west, and Tintagel as the breeze ruffled his untidy light brown hair. How old was Mordred now, and what was he doing? It had been nearly seven years since Merlin had last seen him, and even then the boy had been growing unnaturally fast. Seven years ago the king had not yet been married, had not yet declared his intention to go on this disastrous quest for the Holy Grail.
As always, thoughts of the Grail led Merlin to thoughts of Avalon, and Nimue.
He had loved her from the moment he had first seen her, more than half his lifetime ago. He loved her still, though he had not so much as spoken to her since the night he had learned of Arthur's disastrous liaison with Morgan le Fay. While Mab schemed to destroy Merlin and all he loved, even a letter between the lovers might be too dangerous.
For a moment Merlin's shoulders drooped with weariness. All he had ever asked of the world was bound up in Nimue's smile, but Merlin was not an ordinary man who could allow himself ordinary joys. He had been created by the Queen of the Old Ways to be her champion, to destroy the rule of the New Religion in Britain and to return Queen Mab to supreme power. Half human, half fay, caught between both worlds and never at home in either, for most of his life Merlin had battled toward a goal that daily seemed to be slipping farther out of reach: freedom for Britain from the tyranny of the Old Ways, and peace and happiness for her under the reign of a good king.
He had held such high hopes of Arthur, and Arthur was a truly good man. But somehow Merlin's dream had slipped away with Arthur's decision to quest for the Holy Grail. Once Christendom's great treasure had reposed at Avalon Abbey, but it had vanished on the night that Merlin was conceived, and had not been seen since. Arthur believed that Britain could not truly begin to heal from the carnage and treachery of three bad kings until the Grail was restored to Britain, but the king's abrupt departure left his new-wed Queen, Guinevere, alone to rule the country in his absence.
Guinevere was barely a bride when Arthur's quest began, and he had never lain with her to make her his wife in more but name. There was trouble brewing in that corner, for Guinevere was of royal blood, raised as a princess of the Iceni and only lately converted to the New Religion that Arthur followed. She could not understand Arthur's motives in searching for the Grail and leaving Britain behind. What she could understand was that she was left alone in Camelot year after year while the memory of Arthur grew ever more distant in her mind.
Merlin sighed tiredly, and somehow the sunlight seemed less warm and inviting than it had when he'd climbed all the way to the top of this tower to enjoy the solitude and the view. He could not blame the young Queen for her increasing attachment to her Champion, Lancelot of the Lake, but no good could come of it. And with Mab hatching her plots in Tintagel, raising up Arthur's bastard son Mordred to be her willing accomplice in damnation, they must all be eternally vigilant.
Merlin did not know if Arthur had confided to his Queen the exact nature of the transgression that caused him to seek the Grail so passionately, but he suspected she did not know. Should he warn her of Mordred's existence? Merlin hesitated. Arthur's conscience had long since passed out of his keeping. If he had not told her, it was not Merlin's place to reveal so painful a secret. And perhaps she need never know at all... .
The ravens who lived in the tower took to the air, cawing and complaining. Someone had entered below, and Merlin suspected who it was. Drawing his cloak around him and clutching his staff tighter, Merlin descended the long winding stair that led to the ground floor of the tower.
Guinevere stood on the ground floor, peering up toward the light that spilled down from the windows above. The years had ripened Arthur's child-bride into a magnificent woman, strong-willed and regal. She had never quite lost her distrust of Merlin, a pagan wizard at a Christian court, but she had come to accept, and sometimes she even took his advice. But to Guinevere, Merlin knew he would always remain half-unreal, a creature out of fable. A Wizard of the Old Ways in a land that was rapidly forgetting that Magic had ever existed at all.
She did not come here looking for me, Merlin reflected, and when the Queen recognized him, his guess was confirmed.
"Oh," Guinevere said. "I was just... good morning, Master Merlin. I did not expect to see you here."
Her cheeks were flushed and she would not meet his gaze. Merlin thought he could well guess who the Queen had come here alone so early hoping to meet.
Lancelot of the Lake had been Merlin's own choice for the Queen's Champion. The Lady of the Lake had sent Merlin to Joyous Gard to find a champion to preserve Camelot while Arthur was away, and there Merlin had found the best knight in the world ‑- Lancelot. When Lancelot had returned to Camelot with Merlin he had easily defeated all of Arthur's knights and been named the Queen's Champion. In the few weeks they had known each other, Lancelot and Arthur had become fast friends, and Arthur had willingly entrusted his dream of Camelot, a shining city of peace and charity, to his friend.
Lancelot had only the highest ideals and the most honorable intentions, but sometimes it seemed to Merlin that all those principles weren't quite in Camelot's best interest. The city should have been finished years ago, but Lancelot was forever tearing things down, redrafting Arthur's plans, trying to force Camelot to match a perfection that was simply inhuman. It never occurred to the knight of Joyous Gard that some dreams were not meant to become real.
"Were you looking for someone, my lady?" Merlin asked Guinevere. "I fear I am the only one here."
"No, of course not," the Queen answered, a little too sharply. Bright color flamed in her cheeks. "I was only... looking around."
"You should go back to your women," Merlin told her as gently as he could.
"I shall," Guinevere replied, with a haughty jerk of her chin. She swirled her heavy skirts about her and walked quickly away, the silk making a hissing sound against the stone.
Merlin sighed quietly as he watched her go. Her fear of him made her temperamental; for all that it had been seven years since her wedding day, the Queen was still very young.
Merlin leaned upon his staff, drawing what solace he could from the smooth surface of the gnarled wood. They would endure, somehow. And Arthur would return.
The Queen strode into the bustling streets of the town. She blinked at the brightness of the sunlight after the dimness of the tower, but she stumbled onward determinedly back to where she had left her attendants. It had been a foolish notion really, to go looking for Lancelot like that. He was a busy man, and despite all his efforts, the building of Camelot went more slowly every year. Sometimes she thought that Arthur might even be back before it was finished.
As always, thoughts of the King ‑- even after seven years, Guinevere found it hard to think of him as her husband ‑- brought an unhappy, guilty twinge. How could Arthur have left if she hadn't failed him somehow? Would he have felt such a need to gain the Grail if she'd been a better person?
What did you want from me Arthur-the-King? Why wasn't I good enough ‑- or just enough for you, damn you? She'd repeated the questions to herself so often down the years that separated sixteen from twenty-three that they'd almost become a prayer, but the answer was always the same. Silence, from her heart and in his letters.
But however unsatisfactory Arthur had found her, Arthur's champion found her otherwise. She could see it in his eyes.
"Your Highness! There you are!" Dame Linnet cried with relief. She was a plump young woman who favored blue gowns, and her timidity often frustrated Guinevere nearly to tears. Today, however, she was almost grateful to see her.
"Yes," Guinevere answered composedly. "I went to look at the tower, but it was too dark inside to see much."
"Oh, but that was because the shutters for the upper windows are still closed. When the glass for the windows arrives from Flanders, it will be bright enough inside to read at mid-day! Sir Lancelot was just telling us how it would be."
Dame Linnet gestured back toward the others, who were gathered about a familiar figure.
His bronze hair gleamed in the pale sunlight, and he wore a bright blue cloak that Guinevere had embroidered with her own hands, for with Arthur absent she had no one else to lavish her needlework upon. Beneath the cloak he wore a simple linen tunic, but no sword, for Lancelot was a civilized man, from a country so unlike Guinevere's war-torn Britain as to seem almost mythical. He smiled when he saw her, and Guinevere smiled back, all the shadows and doubts of a moment before gone like morning mist. Nothing bad could happen while Lancelot was with her.
"Your Grace," Lancelot said, bowing to her. "I was just explaining how this section of the wall would look once the buildings along the street are finished."
"As beautiful as the castle, I trust," Guinevere answered, for Camelot Castle had finally been finished two years before, the second structure to be completed in the Golden City after the great Cathedral.
"More so," Lancelot answered. "Providing the architect does what I tell him. And now, ladies ‑- and your Grace ‑- if you would care to accompany me, I will show you the new marketplace."
He held out his arm to Guinevere, and she placed her hand upon it. She could feel the roughness of the sun-warmed linen beneath her fingers, and she fancied she felt the warmth of the flesh beneath as well.
Merlin watched them go from the doorway of the tower. He shook his head sadly. He did not need his wizard's gift of prophecy to see what was happening between the Queen and Sir Lancelot. And what he could see, others would soon see. He did not doubt that ‑- for the moment ‑- the friendship was innocent. Both Lancelot and Guinevere were too proud to casually betray their ideals ‑- and Lancelot, at least, was so convinced of his moral superiority that he felt himself beyond earthly temptations. Such confidence could be fatal ‑- no one knew that better than Merlin.
Oh Nimue, Nimue ‑- if you were here, could you stop what I fear is going to happen? Lend me your wisdom to gaze into the workings of the human heart, for there magic is powerless and even the greatest wizard is blind!
But for Merlin, as for Guinevere, there was no answer, and slowly the wizard turned away and walked slowly through the open gates of the city.
Oh, Arthur, where are you? You need the Grail, but your people need you more... .
In the wilds of Cornwall a great keep stood upon the coast, its back to the land. Grey sea-mist veiled it day and night, and the ways to its gates were twisted ones. The gruff fisherfolk who took their living from the grudging ocean swore that Tintagel was only a myth, and that to see the castle looming out of the fog was a promise of dire misfortune. Who had lived in Tintagel, and what had happened to them, was something the fishermen did not know. Their king lived in Camelot, and they had no other lord.
And that was just the way Queen Mab wanted it. There would be time enough to gain the love of the people when Mordred ruled in Camelot... and Arthur was dead.
And Merlin would be there to experience every moment of her triumph. Mab smiled, telling over her dreams of the future the way a miser might gloat over his hoarded wealth. Killing Merlin was no part of her plan. She wanted him to suffer, to agonize, to yearn for what he had lost. She did not mean him to escape that.
But Mordred was still a young man, untutored in the Old Ways, and Arthur was still far away from Britain. Even Mab could not quite see how to take a throne away from someone who didn't currently have it. Defeating the Queen alone would be no sport. Let Guinevere destroy herself with Lancelot first; her betrayal would soften up the people until they were happy to welcome Mordred as their rightful king.
At the moment, Mab truly did not care what went on in Britain. She had her dreams of future glory, and she had Mordred.
She looked up from her place at the long table in the great hall ‑- unlike Arthur's Round Table, this table had a definite head and foot, and Mab was seated near the head ‑- as five of the castle servitors shuffled into the room, their eyes rolling with terror. Mab's brow wrinkled as she tried to remember what they'd originally been. Mice, she thought, or perhaps rabbits. They certainly looked like scared rabbits at the moment, but no matter how terrifying his forms of amusement, no one in Tintagel was brave enough to rebel against Mordred.
As the years had passed, Mab and Frik spent more and more of their time at Tintagel, until the castle was nearly as magical as the Land Under Hill. Mab lavished all of her care and attention on Mordred. She had erred in leaving Merlin's raising to Ambrosia, and the old priestess had corrupted him with soft human emotions. Mab would not make the same mistake twice. She would burn all the softness from Mordred's heart, leaving it as hard and crystalline as her own. Every game, every gift that she gave him was aimed toward this, toward the day when he, her perfect instrument, would take his rightful place as King and sweep the New Religion and all its works from the face of Britain.
She glanced around the Great Hall at Tintagel, and even the sight of Frik in his ridiculous swashbuckler's disguise billing and cooing with the enchantingly beautiful Morgan le Fay could not irritate her today. She was on the verge of her ultimate victory. She could feel it.
"Show Auntie what you've learned, Mordred," Mab cooed.
Mordred stepped from the shadows at the far end of the hall into a beam of light.
Mordred had grown into a compellingly beautiful young man. He wore his hair down past his shoulders; through the years it had darkened to a shade of red that was almost black. His eyes were grey, brilliant as mirrors. He dressed all in black, saying it was the only color left unused after Morgan's brilliant extravagances, and today he wore a tunic of black suede trimmed in matching doeskin, with a double row of silver buttons running down the placket. At his hip he wore a box-quiver filled with silver-tipped arrows cut from black hawthorne, and he carried a large double-curved horn bow that Mab had brought him all the way from Khitai.
Across the breadth of the hall, the servants in their dun-colored tunics each quiveringly set an apple atop their heads. They stood along the wall behind Morgan's chair.
"If you five gentlemen don't stop trembling, I might miss and kill you all," Mordred called out to them mockingly.
Their terror increased, but Mordred gave no hint that he noticed it. With inhuman speed he drew and fired, drew and fired, over Morgan's head, sending the next arrow on its way before the previous one had found its target. Their impact was one long thrum of sound, as the five apples fell to the ground.
But only four of them had been pierced. The fifth servant reeled back with a cry of pain, Mordred's arrow protruding from his right shoulder.
"Ah, less than perfect," Mab said.
Mordred's eyes flared at the rebuke. He nocked another arrow and loosed it at Mab ‑- who caught it unruffledly and dropped it to the floor ‑- and then at Frik, who was lounging in the corner. Frik yelped in surprise and seized it only a bare inch from his throat. But Mordred wasn't done. He had nocked a third arrow, and was aiming at his mother.
"That's enough, Mordred," Morgan said sharply. Mordred hesitated, his face still white and furious. After a long moment he lowered his bow and smiled.
The years since his birth ‑- few though they'd been as the World of Men reckoned time ‑- had been more than kind to Morgan le Fay. She still possessed the dazzling beauty that had allowed her to bespell a king, and through Frik's magic, lived a life filled with every form of luxury. Today she wore a jade-green gown in the Roman style that Frik preferred, with a massive gold necklace with three long pendant plaques around her neck. She watched her son with a faint flame of jealousy burning in the back of her glorious hazel eyes, for avarice had always been the defining principle of Morgan's nature, and though he was her son, Morgan resented the gifts that Mab lavished on Mordred.
"You mustn't get carried away, my sweet," Mab said. If the murder attempt had fazed her at all, the Queen of the Old Ways didn't show it. "It shows a lack of control."
Mordred tossed his bow aside and walked toward the foot of the table.
"And why fire at Auntie Mab and Uncle Frik?" Morgan added, anxious to seize control of the conversation.
"I do hope the boy was just having fun and it wasn't personal," Frik said, coming toward Morgan's side. He was holding the arrow very much as if he expected it to turn into a poisonous snake ‑- which was not completely unlikely ‑- and he still sounded breathless and flustered.
"Of course it wasn't personal. He likes you," Morgan reassured him. She took his hand and turned to the side to kiss it.
"I often wonder what he'd do if he didn't like me," Frik muttered, staring directly at Mordred.
As always, Frik irritated him, but Mordred knew better than to challenge the gnome openly. There would be time enough for that, when Auntie Mab stopped stalling and granted him the power he needed to take the crown. Until then, he had to restrain himself and be nice to the people who mattered.
"Oh, stop fussing, Mother," he snapped. "Auntie Mab understands. Don't you, Auntie Mab?" he appealed, looking toward her.
"Of course I do," Mab cooed in her graveyard voice. "You were testing yourself. Now come sit by me."
The avidity in her voice was plain to hear, and it soothed Mordred's feelings. He swaggered over to her, seating himself at the head of the table. Mab, seated in a chair behind him, reached out to stroke his cherry-black hair.
"You know you're my favorite, Mordred," she said wheedlingly. "But you must learn to channel your aggression."
"Against Arthur," Mordred said promptly. That had been the first and most constant lesson: Arthur was the enemy, Arthur must be destroyed.
"Yes, always Arthur ‑- and Merlin," Mab added, smoothing Mordred's hair as though she could not get enough of touching him. Mordred was her future ‑- a future when the Old Ways would be restored and all those who had dared to challenge her would be punished. "You're looking pale, Mordred. You're not eating enough."
There was a flash of lightning, and suddenly the whole length of the table was covered with trays of savory delicacies in dishes of gold and silver, plucked from other lands and other feasts through the power of the old ways. Morgan sat forward with an expression of greedy interest, inspecting the treats closest to her.
Mordred picked up a morsel of sweet-and-sour chicken. "I already have the strength of ten men," he said pettishly. He regarded the banquet that lay before him without favor.
"Listen to your Aunt," Morgan said from the foot of the table. "And please do something about your hair."
Mordred glanced over his shoulder at his patron, She nodded, indicating he was to agree. Auntie Mab liked his hair just the way it was. But Mother was jealous and spiteful ‑- Mordred could recognize his own best qualities in another without regret ‑- and yet did not dare to go against the power of the old ways. So she sniped at him, and he criticized her, and round and round they went on the Wheel of Years, waiting for the day they might come into their power.
But Morgan's day was past, Mordred knew. And his was yet to come.
"Very well, Mother," Mordred said reluctantly. He popped the morsel of food into his mouth and bit down on it savagely, wishing it were her finger. At the other end of the table, Frik was using Mordred's silver arrow to offer Morgan a choice morsel, and Morgan had always been easily distracted by her gnomish cavalier.
"There's a good boy," Morgan said obliviously, the matter already forgotten.
Mordred sneered once he was sure she wasn't looking. He wasn't good, and he was fast leaving his boyhood behind. As soon as he proved himself ready, Auntie Mab would take him to the land of magic, and give him the fairy gifts that would make him unstoppable.
And then... .
Mordred was not entirely sure what came next, but he had his dreams. Smash Camelot, smash Avalon, kill Arthur and every one of his knights who followed the New Religion. Drench the land in blood until all that was left was a void and howling of old night and chaos come again. He would smash and destroy until there was no one anywhere who had anything that he didn't have: not love, not light, not family, not hope.
When Mordred was finished, there would be nothing left.
He smiled and sat back, humming a tuneless little song under his breath.
It has been seven years since they came here. Nimue gazed at the empty altar before her. She knew she should be keeping vigil, clearing her mind of earthly distractions in preparation for the great blessing she was about to receive. After so many years, she was about to enter her novitiate, taking one more step away from the world and one step closer to God. Nimue had longed for this day, down through all the years when she had wondered if she was worthy of it.
Seven, and seven, and seven again. My life runs on sevens.
The beads of her amber rosary were cool against her fingers. Nimue used them to count the years.
Seven years from the day she first met Merlin to the day she saw him being carried unconscious into Vortigern's dungeons. Seven weeks of joy to spend with him under the shadow of the old tyrant, until Mab's plotting sent them both to the maw of the Great Dragon. Merlin had brought her here to Avalon, and she had never been able to bring herself to leave again.
Seven days passed from the day she entered these gates until Vortigern faced Uther upon the field of battle and died so that Uther could gain his throne. Seven days more, and Uther was crowned.
And seven months after that, all Britain knew their king for a mad and venal man. By autumn of that year Cornwall was dead, and Igraine disgraced. Nine months later Arthur was born ‑- spoiling her count a little ‑- then seven, and seven, and seven again while Merlin raised him in secret on Sir Hector's estate in the Forest Sauvage.
Those had been the best years of all, Nimue reflected, for in them she and Merlin had often written back and forth to share their joys and cares, hoping for the day when Arthur would take the throne and the two of them could be together once more.
Then Uther died, and Merlin made Arthur king. And in the aftermath of Arthur's great battle with Lord Lot he had come at last to Avalon to take her away with him, and Nimue had wept for joy.
Only it was not to be. Mab's treachery had intervened once more, and Merlin had left in the night. After that there were no more letters; Nimue had learned the news through the gossip of nuns and messengers, of Arthur's wedding, his vow.
And then one day she had seen Arthur himself.
He had come riding into Avalon at the head of a band of knights, and asked for the Father Abbot. Gossip ran swiftly through the little community, and soon everyone in Avalon knew that Arthur had come to Avalon to pray for a blessing on his quest to seek the Grail. He had knelt in the Grail Chapel just where she was kneeling now, surrounded by his knights. The chapel had been filled with candles and incense, and Arthur had seemed as if he were formed of gold to Nimue's dazzled eyes.
But only her eyes were dazzled. Her heart told her that the young king's quest meant disaster for Britain, no matter how much joy the religious at Avalon greeted it with. Nimue had spent many years at Vortigern's court. She knew that a king must be on his throne, ruling his land, not gallivanting where he pleased in search of a dream.
But in those days she had been only a lowly postulant, and she knew from bleak experience that no one would listen to her anyway. She was doomed to know the truth but never dare to speak it, a marred Cassandra, unable either to warn or to guide.
She knew that for as long as Arthur wandered, Merlin would remain at Camelot, helping to guide Arthur's young queen to rule the land. And so every morning and evening for the last seven years she had added her own special prayers to those of the Abbey, praying for Arthur's speedy and safe return. But if God had heard her prayers, He had not granted them. Perhaps her faith was too weak to compel His attention, and she must strengthen it through further vows.
Nimue hung her head, listening to the holy silence all around her. Was that the reason behind her decision to join the novitiate? To make a vassal of God?
Or did she do this in the hopes of erecting a further barrier between herself and Queen Mab? On the night after Merlin had left her, she had gone walking in the herb garden to calm her soul, and there Queen Mab had found her.
Though Nimue had heard tales of the wicked Queen Mab all her life, it had been the first time she had ever seen the Queen of the Old Ways. She had been wary, and rightfully so, for the Queen of Magic had come to offer her a devil's bargain.
"I'll restore your beauty if you take Merlin away to a place I've created for you. You can live with him there to the end of your days." Nimue had refused, but Mab had not withdrawn her offer. "If you change your mind, just call my name. Out loud." And so the matter had lain between them for the last seven years. Was it any wonder that Nimue, weary with the unequal battle between her mind and her heart, sought to put the temptation as far away from her as she could?
To be whole ‑- to be with Merlin ‑- there was nothing more Nimue could imagine wanting. But all Mab's promises led to selfish and wicked ends. Britain needed Merlin more than she did, so long as Arthur was away.
Come back to us, King Arthur! Nimue prayed angrily, clutching her fists against her chest. Come back to us! Your people need you!
And I need Merlin... .
I wish that Merlin were here, Arthur thought despondently. His old tutor had always had some wise counsel for him when his plans became hopelessly muddled, and, though Arthur followed the New Religion, he did have to admit that there were times when Merlin's magic would come in very handy.
When they had ridden out through the gates of Camelot they had been four-and-forty of the most puissant knights in Christendom. The years that had passed had winnowed their numbers. Some had died, some had been taken hostage by foreign kings, some had succumbed to magic and enchantments. Only a scant two dozen of them remained, and Arthur felt that by nightfall their numbers would be thinned further.
He glanced down the hill, to where the party of Venetian knights stood, blocking their access to the ford. Their armor gleamed brightly in the sun, perfect and polished, and Arthur felt the ragged condition of his own knights keenly. The years of travel had battered away all their ornamental aspects, leaving only the warrior beneath the gilding.
In seven years their travels had led them through Gallacia, Allemagne, and the kingdom of the Rus, all in fruitless search for the Grail. They had seen marvels and wonders ‑- serpents made of living fire, giants taller than trees, peasant huts that walked on chicken legs ‑- but they had only received tantalizing rumors of the Grail. Their journey had led them ever eastward, and Arthur had hopes that it would end soon, perhaps in the Eternal City itself. Surely Roma Magnus, once the center of the world, held the treasure they so eagerly sought? But to discover the answer to that, Arthur must first reach the city, and to do that, he must cross this ford.
"Let me go down and talk to them," he said to his companions. "Perhaps they will be reasonable."
"By my beard!" Kay swore. "We have already had a taste of their reason, have we not?"
The others grumbled their agreement ‑- even Gawaine, who had been unfailingly cheerful, even in the face of disasters that had claimed his brothers one by one. The party had already tried to cross once, several hours earlier, and the knights had beaten them back with almost contemptuous ease. Arthur could not bear for more of his comrades to die senselessly.
"Sure and there must be some other way across this foul river," Sir Balan said.
"Perhaps," Arthur said. "And I swear to you, Sir Balan, we shall seek it in haste if I cannot reason my way across this ford."
"Reason!" Kay snorted. "The only reason they'll understand has a swordblade." He cradled his helmet in the crook of one arm and rubbed gingerly at the large purplish welt over his right eye.
"I'd expect you to say such a thing, since you fight so much better than you can think," Bedivere shot back. Kay turned on him, his hand going to his swordhilt, and Arthur stepped quickly between them.
"Gawain, stop these hotheads from killing each other. I'm going to go see if they'll parley. I won't be long," Arthur said tiredly.
He mounted Boukephalous and rode slowly down the wooded slope toward the ford where the three-and-thirty stranger knights waited. Their leader wore a red surcoat with a black minotaur embroidered upon it, and his gleaming helm was ornamented with a pair of painted and gilded bull's horns.
"We wish to cross the ford," Arthur said.
"No one crosses this ford and lives," the horned knight rumbled. "We slay all who dare."
"It must get tedious for you," Arthur commented politely. He wished Merlin were here. Merlin had so much experience of the world. Surely he would know what to do.
"It does," the horned knight answered unexpectedly. "And so we will give you a choice, Arthur of Britain. Seek another path to your goal, or answer my riddle."
"What is your riddle?" Arthur asked. The other knights stood still and unmoving. Not even their armor creaked.
"It is a simple one," the horned knight said, and now he sounded amused. "All you need to pass this ford unscathed with all your men is the answer to the question: what is it that women desire most?"
"That isn't a riddle," Arthur said indignantly. "It's a question."
"If it is a question, then answer it, Arthur of Britain," the horned knight said reasonably.
"Have I leave to consult with my men?" Arthur asked quickly.
The horned knight bowed his acquiescence, and Arthur rode quickly back up the hill.
"Well?" Gawain asked eagerly.
"He's set us a riddle. If any of us can answer it, we may pass unmolested."
"I say we fight them!" Kay said.
"Are we surprised?" Bedivere answered.
Gawain pulled them apart with a clatter of armor. "What is the riddle, Arthur?"
"It seems to me to be more of a question," Arthur answered, swinging down off his horse. "We have to tell him what women desire most."
"Ah, that's easy enough. Love-talking and pretty clothes," Balan's brother Balin said.
"A handsome husband."
"Tourneys fought in her honor."
"To be always young and beautiful."
Each of the knights made his suggestion, and Arthur listened to them all, but in his heart he knew it couldn't be as simple as this. The suggestions came slower and slower, and at last there was silence.
"Gentlemen, this is getting us nowhere," Arthur said. "There can be only one right answer to such a question."
Bradamante cleared her throat, pointedly. The woman warrior was armed and armored just as her male companions were, for she was under a vow not to assume women's dress until Jerusalem had been freed. She had come to Britain to ride in Arthur's tourney, and had stayed to join in his quest.
The others all stared at her, until at last Arthur realized what she meant. He blushed. Painfully. In all their months of travelling, he sometimes forgot what Bradamante was.
"My lady knight," Arthur said humbly. "You are a woman. Can you answer this riddle?"
"It seems too simple to be a proper riddle, your Majesty," Bradamante said. "Women want what men want, and what men desire most is their own way. That is your answer."
"Preposterous!" Bedivere scoffed. Bradamante glared.
"But women want dresses, and jewels, and fine castles," Kay protested. "While men want horses, and armor, and tourneys. The answer cannot be the same for both."
"Am I so different from you?" Bradamante demanded. "I bleed as you do, Sir Kay ‑- and fight much better."
Bedivere made a rude noise. Kay scowled.
"My lords," Arthur said hastily. "And lady. I think Dame Bradamante's answer is worth offering. I shall ride back down and try it, for the hour grows late and I should not like to spend the night here in this desolate wilderness."
"I will go, Sire," Gawain said. "If they do not like the answer, better that I face their wrath than that Britain should be without her king."
Arthur smiled tiredly. "She is without her king now, Gawain. I will not give them any reason to call me a coward. I asked the question and I will deliver the answer. If necessary, Excalibur will protect me."
He touched the sword at his hip. This was the sword that the Lady of the Lake had given to Merlin, the sword that had defeated the tyrant Vortigern. He had pulled it from the grasp of the Old Man of the Mountain to become king, and it was filled with magic. The true kings of Britain had carried it in an unbroken cycle stretching back into the mists of history. It would not fail him.
He rode back to the water's edge.
"Well, King of Britain?" the horned knight asked.
"I have the answer to your question. What women desire most is what men desire most: their own way."
The horned knight's horse reared, and the man within the ornate armor howled. His companions, standing in a double row on each side of the ford, wailed and clashed their swords against their shields. The sound increased until Arthur was deafened, until it seemed to blot out the very sun. A whirlwind rose up, blowing dust and leaves into his eyes. Arthur raised his arm, as if it could shield him from whatever necromancy was occurring. He could feel the ground shake as his compatriots rode to join him, but even if they had wished to, there was nothing here for them to fight.
A moment later the wind dropped and Arthur could see again. The ford was empty. The stranger knights were gone. He looked at Gawain.
"So we cross, them?" Gawain said.
Later that night, when they had made camp, Arthur took the time to pen a rare letter to Guinevere. They would be in Rome, soon. He could find a messenger there who would take it to Camelot.
But what was there to say? Honesty warred with the desire to spare his wife pain. There were so many things he wanted to say to her, and as always, words came hard to him.
"We are no nearer finding the Holy Grail than when we left," he wrote with painful honesty. "We hear rumors that it's housed in the next town... and the next, and the next, and each town takes us further away from you and Camelot." He set down his pen and sighed. No news there. Only the eternal unwavering truth. I need the Grail and I need you, my love and my Queen.