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part eight
IP: 2.25.88.132

Warning: the plot part below continues to be emotionally charged and deals with themes some reader might find upsetting, including death and the loss of a child.


Part Eight

Nimueh ran along the corridors, Avalon close on her heels and the frantic pounding of her heart echoing in her ears. She dashed through walls, pirates, and friends alike, passing through them like a ghost. Not one of them tried to stop her. She entered a still corridor; the fighting had progressed further into the heart of the castle but there were signs that even this place hadn’t escaped unscathed. Dead men, in palace red and outlaw brown, lay slumped against blood-stained walls. Nimueh kept running. Her bare foot left a print in a pool of congealing blood as she phased through the door at the end of the hall.

Tristan’s face swam to the forefront of her mind; pale, shaken, his green eyes stretched wide. That look, that horror, had turned her cold and she knew, she knew it would be a part of him forever now. Every time someone looked him in the eye, it would be there, staring back: the moment that had turned a boy into a man. Of all scars, she would have given the world to spare him that one. To spare him, all of them, this.

The tower door loomed into view, dark and foreboding in the gloom. She hesitated, the dread of what she would find on the other side twisting in her gut. Nimueh took a deep steadying breath and phased through the wooden slats to the other side. The silence was deafening.

“Arthur!” she shouted, her voice catching in her throat. There was no reply. She took the steps at a run, bursting through the second door at the top into the circular room where the world ended.

He lay where he had fallen, his left arm pinned beneath his body and the fingers of his right hand reaching for the grip of his sword. Nimueh fell to her knees beside him, rolled him gently onto his back and gathered his face into her hands. He was so pale and so cold; and the darkness of the circles beneath his eyes drew the first of the tears from her eyes.

“Arthur, honey,” she managed, biting down hard on her lip, “Arthur…”

The king’s eyelids flickered, and his grey eyes rolled open. His colourless lips formed a small, pained smile. “Mother.”

Nimueh smiled back, choking back the ball of grief forcing its way into her throat.

“Yes, yes, Arthur, it’s me, I’m here.” His hair flopped down into his face as he shifted a little with a groan, his free hand reaching automatically, uselessly for the wound in his gut. With shaking fingers Nimueh brushed it back. She remembered, years ago, doing the same for a boy as he slept, his hand curling around the hem of his blankets in the candlelight. Her boy; her darling boy.

“You rest, now,” she told him, guiding his head into her lap, “Tristan’s safe.”

“Y-you shouldn’t be here,” Arthur managed, taking a loose grip on her arm.

“Oh Arthur,” Nim replied, leaning forwards to place a kiss on his forehead, “where else in the world could I possibly go?”

She wasn’t sure if he’d accepted it, if he’d understood, if he’d even heard her. He lay still, his eyelids drooping anew. Nimueh gripped his shoulders. Avalon crept closer and put his small front paws on the king’s forearm, his nose twitching.

“Ciara..” Arthur muttered. The effort cost him; he inhaled sharply between his teeth, the pain registering on his face.

“I know,” Nimueh sighed sadly, “I know.” She moved a little, reaching down to where the blood stained his shirt, and channelled her megre magic into her finger tips. Her hands adopted a golden glow and her heart swelled as he relaxed against her.

“I never wanted to leave a fatherless child,” Arthur mumbled, “I… I lived that, I needed… I…”

“Hush, hush,” Nimueh soothed. “You are so loved, Arthur. So loved. There isn’t a chance in this world your children will ever be alone.”

Her strength began to ebb and the light dimmed. She’d done all she could, and she had one task left.

“Arthur,” she said, “we have to go.” He looked at her, his eyes sliding out of focus, and she took a moment to bat her tears away.

“The trunk...” the king rasped, “the shield…”

Nimueh nodded. She slipped out from beneath him, setting his head gently down on the carpet and hurried over to the chest pushed up against the wall. The hinges groaned as she raised the lid, falling into silence as she reached inside. Carefully, Nimueh withdrew her hands again, bringing her son’s ren with her. The shield was heavy; she needed both hands to lift it and staggered back across the room. Setting it down by her right hand, she reached for Arthur with her left. Slowly she phased them through the floor to the level below, guiding them gently through air, wood and stone.

“Mallos…” Arthur opened his link to his friend with what remained of the energy his mother had gifted him, “Mallos.” Something distant, reluctant, shifted at the other end of the connection. Arthur pressed harder, “Mallos.”

“Arthur?” the reply came, finally. It sounded very far away. Arthur felt his friend’s curiosity peak, felt the push for more information, and then it came. “Arthur...what’s wrong with you?”

The king opened his mind and allowed the flashes of everything that had happened over the last few hours pour through the link between them. His argument with Tristan, the flute, the distraction at the Peaks, Mordred’s betrayal, and Arthur throwing Tristan from the room to safety. He finished, finally, with he and Nimueh lying on the attic floor.

“I’m coming to get you,” Mallos swore. Arthur could feel the heat of his friend’s rage pushing against his thoughts. He saw the image of the castle fused to the forefront of his mind.

“No,” he pushed back firmly. “There’s something more important.” Arthur reached for fonder memories, of he and Ciara in their cabin by the sea, of his lover’s swollen belly. “My baby Mallos, your grandchild. Find them, keep them safe. He’ll want to kill them, because they’re mine.”

The image of the castle pushed back. Arthur slapped it away firmly, replacing it with the image of Ciara and the cabin. “No one can know, Mallos. He won’t stop looking. It’s the only way.”

Arthur could feel Mallos’ reluctance; a burning defiance at the the back of his mind. “Find them.” Arthur insisted.

Nimueh phased them down through the floorboards to the next floor, and the next, until they reached the armoury. The place was empty; every weapon, every shield, every breastplate was gone. She crouched down and pulled Arthur’s arm around her neck.

“We’re nearly there, Arthur,” she encouraged, “I just need you to help me, this last little bit.” Nimueh smiled. “I’m not strong enough.” Her lip trembled and she bit down hard to stop it. She wanted to scream, to start screaming and never stop. The world was ripping a part of her away and she’d never get it back. At her side, Arthur coughed.

“I wouldn’t say that,” he wheezed, leaning on her as he did what he could to support his own weight. Together, they approached the door.

They were soaked to the skin as soon as they crossed the threshold. The storm had picked up; a relentless onslaught of wind and rain pounding against the castle walls. Nimueh felt Arthur stumble and squeezed him all the tighter as they stepped out onto the muddy grass. The rain was heavy, she couldn’t see more than a few steps ahead of them, and soon the door to the armoury disappeared into the downpour. She reached out to the ivy that encircled the foot of the tower, and sent it into the armoury to retrieve Arthur’s shield. It wasn’t far now; they didn’t have much time left.

Finally, they reached the water’s edge and Nimueh lowered her son to the ground. She hesitated a moment, reluctant leaving him lying in the mud. What else could she do? The ivy brought the shield up to the edge of the bank. Nim took a deep breath and stretched for her last reserves of magic. The plant’s tendrils twisted in on themselves, coiling up like a spring, and with a final effort propelled the king’s ren out over the dark waters. Nimueh waited, holding her breath, hoping, praying for one last mercy.

A pale hand reached up out of the lake and caught the shield before it hit the surface. Nimueh breathed out her relief and crouched down at Arthur’s side again. She rested her palm against his cheek.

“She’s coming, Arthur,” she explained. “You’ve just got to hold on a little longer. Don’t you dare leave me yet.” The arm lingered for a moment, unimpeded by the rain, and then slowly drew the king’s ren down into the depths. Arthur squeezed his mother’s free hand.

“Thank you,” he said, “for everything.” She shook her head, her tears falling thick and fast again. Arthur tightened his grip, “I mean it.”

Nimueh smiled.

“I know you do, my darling. I know.”

The curved prow of the boat slipped out of the darkness and thudded gently against the mud of the bank. Nimueh rose to her feet and peered around the carved front. A beautiful woman sat at the far end, clad in a dress of rippling blue; like a pool in the height of summer. Her long brown hair cascaded down her back in a tumble of curls and the corners of her mouth tilted upwards in the saddest of smiles.

“I have come for my king,” the woman said. Nimueh nodded. She turned back to her son and helped him to his feet again. When she turned back to the boat she found that it had moved. The lady had steered it so it's low side butted up against the mud. Silk cushions filled the boat’s belly, set-out in preparation. Biting down on her lip again, and ignoring the cold, Nimueh helped Arthur aboard and lowered him tenderly onto the waiting bed.

“We do not have much time,” said the woman in the boat. Arthur’s eyes strayed towards her, drawn by the new voice.

“I remember you,” he smiled.

“Yes, my king. This is not your ending; just the cycle come full circle again.”

Nimueh turned to Arthur, running her hand down the side of his face.

“I love you,” she told him, “I always will.” Her voice wavered. “I was so proud to be your mother Arthur, you have no idea. You are the best and most wonderful thing that ever happened to me. Thank you, thank you so much for making me special.” She glanced away, steeling herself. It was almost time. Her gaze met with the blue eyes of the lady.

“Nimueh,” the lady smiled fondly, “for your care, there is a place for you. If you want it, you can come with him.” Avalon rocked back onto his hindquarters and looked up at her, his whiskers twitching.

“Yes,” Nimueh breathed, her eyes on Arthur, “yes, I’ll come.”

The boat left the bank and processed back towards the centre of the lake.

“Mallos,” Arthur said, opening the connection to his friend for the final time, “tell Tristan, tell him I know he’ll make me proud.”

The fog closed in around them and Arthur closed his eyes against the final flare of light which carried him from the world.

“Goodbye, my friend.”

---

Blood oozed from the wound in Jo's shoulder and despite her lack of complaint Mace could tell by her limp that she was hurting. With only Cel as backup, he hoped she was fit enough to provide cover when they reached halls they hadn't cleared, and the grounds after that. His Pathfinder blood sang with magic and he closed his eyes to hear it. Mace adjusted his course, ducking behind a tapestry like the one that Morgana had pulled him into earlier. The passageway was disused, cobwebbed and narrow, but there was a commotion down the hall they'd just left – Mace could hear the shouting echoing through the walls – and he wondered if it was a pirate search party headed in the wrong direction. That'd be an unexpected lucky break, he thought to Josephine with a sigh.

There were fewer pirates than there should have been on the way to the kitchens so, between the three of them, they managed to get through without Mace needing to set Tristan down. The prince came to when they were halfway to the stables, revived by the pounding rain, and Mace was forced to set him against a tree for a moment. He blinked, dazed, raindrops collecting in his eyelashes like tears.

"Can you run?" The older man asked, holding him by the shoulder. Tristan groaned, but nodded. "Good, let's go."

They ran – slowly, to maintain a low profile and conserve their strength. The castle faded into the sheets of rain and darkness behind them.

Mace kept his little group to the shadows, traveling carefully and deliberately between sheltered alcoves, outcroppings of rock and coral, trenches carved by the receding sea… anywhere that provided a modicum of cover. The newly exposed landscape was eerie in the halflight, changed by its time beneath the waves. Ruined buildings, covered in seaweed and clicking crabs, stood where a village had once been. Debris from the arrival and departure of the flood was everywhere and the ground was treacherously wet. It was instinct and magic alone that guided Mace to the coast.

They made their way down the embankment towards the sea and Mace spotted a small craft bobbing in the water nearby. He wasn’t sure if he should be wary or relieved to see it.

“Thoth…” Tristan shouted into the wind, waving his hand. Mace hoped the prince was right – he wasn’t familiar enough with the boy or the craft to be able to verify it at this distance, especially not in the pounding rain. He nodded and allowed Tristan to lead the way, and, as they neared the water, he heard the son of Aura’s familiar voice, squawking softly to a bird on his shoulder. Mace shook his head, relieved, as the prince ran to the boat, and pulled Thoth into an awkward, sopping wet embrace.

“Everybody in,” Mace commanded, ignoring Thoth’s puzzled and reproachful look. He shoved the boat into the waves as soon as all faeries and familiars were on board. “We’ll talk later.”

---

The screams of pain may have echoed from Ciara’s solitude on an empty peak across the sea to the villages. They were loud, but the midwife didn’t flinch. She had heard enough women screaming that her ears had grown accustomed to the sound. Instead, she continued to encourage breathing properly and bearing down with the strong contractions.

Though it had been many years since she’d last given birth, Ciara expected each phase and, with some prompting from her attendant, prepared herself mentally. No matter how many times she’d given birth, however, the pain never stopped affecting her. Mind rattled and exhausted, Ciara took what respite she could between the muscle spasms. She fell back against the bed and let a pair of contractions pass as she caught her breath. She regretted Arthur not being present but she knew he had other obligations. Besides, she was in capable hands.

Another wave of pain, another primal need to push overtook Ciara, and as she strained she could just hear the soothing voice at the end of the bed encourage her.

“You’re nearly there. Head and shoulders are out,” the midwife reassured her, “You’re doing great.”

Ciara’s back curled as she pressed again, holding her breath as long as she dared. She felt the baby slip free, into the waiting arms of the midwife. Wet and messy and screaming, the baby was placed against his mother’s chest while he was cleaned. Even as he was swaddled in the blanket she had made for him over the course of her pregnancy, Ciara had eyes only for him, and didn’t notice the intruder in the room until the midwife addressed him.

“Can I help you, seba’iqer?”

Ciara turned to the voice and followed the midwife’s gaze. Mallos stood just inside the doorway dressed from head to toe in his usual black. He was covered in a faint grey-white dust. A lot of it had been rubbed off, but the black showed even the faintest speck. His hair was ruffled as though he’d been running his fingers through it, his shoulders were tense and his face drawn. It was a stark contrast to the fleeting image she remembered of an alert man with a playful gleam in his eye. It was as though he’d aged a decade in just a few short years.

As pleasant as a visit from a notoriously tricky god was, Ciara had no relationship with her father that would warrant a bedside visit. The change in his appearance worried her as much as the strange arrival had. She held Edward close to her chest, waiting for him to answer the midwife’s question.

Mallos moved from his position in the doorway: a naturally fluid motion slightly jarred by a certain stiffness. He avoided looking either her or the midwife in the face. At his feet, his large, black Siamese-cross familiar - Sperantia? - pattered lightly across the floor and leapt up onto the bed. Her pained blue eyes passed briefly over Edward before settling grimly on Ciara.

“Hello,” she said very softly, “my name’s Sperantia. What’s your name?”

Having a feline form herself, Ciara didn’t mind the cat’s presence but it did seem an odd time for that look, or for introductions for that matter. Her gaze flicking between the man and his familiar, Ciara replied slowly. “Ciara? What’s… happening? Why are you here?”

“Hi Ciara.” Sperantia took a breath. Her tone was calm and reassuring, like she was speaking to a spirited racehorse. “We’ve got some bad news. There’s been a coup at the castle. Arthur’s gone.”

She paused, apparently to give this a chance to sink in.

It didn’t. Ciara frowned at the cat, and shook her head, trying to find the humor. “Gone? Gone where?"

“Ciara.” Mallos broke his silence. His face was expressionless, but he studied her with a look in his eye which was difficult to identify. “Arthur is dead.”

She held the baby closer to her still, though Edward squirmed in the blanket at the pressure. Ciara studied Mallos carefully. She didn’t know him particularly well, and he was well-known for messing with people, but his untidy appearance and the look in his eye turned her stomach. A sour taste rose in her mouth.

“No. I don’t believe you.”

He glanced at the doorway. Sperantia’s eyes flicked briefly to him before turning back to Ciara with a firm tone to them.

“This is not a joke and it’s not a lie.” She spoke as gently as before, but with an added layer of urgency colouring her voice. “Arthur is dead and there will be people coming for you very soon. We need to get you and the baby somewhere safe. Now.”

“What happened?” Her voice was firm and demanding, more so than it had been in a long time. She needed to know what had happened to the father of her child in the short time he’d been gone. “He was just here yesterday.”

“I…” Sperantia’s voice wavered. “I’m not really sure of all the facts yet, and I wouldn’t want to - ”

“Mordred,” Mallos stated. He was frowning at the opposing wall, not looking at Ciara at all. “Mordred killed him.”

The midwife frowned at the news, but it was too much for Ciara to take in. She turned and started whispering that everything was fine, everything would always be fine, to the baby. That she loved him. Her eyes swam.

“The king is dead?” the midwife asked. She’d been cleaning the after effects of the birth and trying not to eavesdrop, but her curiosity got the best of her. Her words snapped against Ciara in like a fresh blow on an already open wound.

“He’s coming for Ned, isn’t he?” She asked Sperantia numbly.

Wordlessly, Mallos thrust out his right hand and the midwife collapsed where she stood. Her fall slowed unnaturally as she got closer to the floor, so she touched down on the floorboards, completely unharmed. Her moving chest indicated that she was breathing, just asleep. Sperantia glanced around behind her at the scene, shot Mallos a look and turned back to Ciara.

“Yes, so we need to get you both to safety now.”

Unable to process the depth of information with her mind swimming in hormones and grief, Ciara shook her head wordlessly. How could she leave? How could she just abandon Arthur, her home, the family she’d once had? How could Ned? The shaking slowed the more she thought about it, about the implications of staying and what Mallos and Sperantia were saying.

“He’d know. He’d never stop searching,” she said, finally managing her thoughts coherently. It was beginning to dawn on her just how painful the day that should have been one of the most joyous was going to become. “I can’t leave…”

Sperantia glanced at Mallos again. The two looked at each other for a moment, apparently having a conversation via telepathy.

“Ciara, Ned can’t stay here,” Sperantia said gently but firmly. “You both need to come with us back to Earth. You’ll be safe there. We can keep you both safe.”

“No,” she said, digging her heels. Ned had fallen asleep, tightly wrapped in his home-made blanket. Her hands shook as she pushed Arthur’s rosary beads into the folds of fabric, and when she was done, she sat up and held her son out for her father to take. “I can’t go. I’ll find some way to throw Mordred off his trail.” She paused as the threat of tears blocked her airway. After a few seconds to gain composure, she continued. “Keep him safe. Please.”

Sperantia’s feline face went slack, her head dipping a little. Mallos visibly hesitated before moving closer to the bed and reaching out to take the baby.

As soon as the infant left her arms, Ciara struggled to find something to do with them. They felt so empty. After a few trial movements, she settled for crossing them at her waist. Fingers gripped and then dug into her sides, forcing the physical pain to numb the emotional tide. Tears clearing, Ciara’s eyes bore into Mallos. She couldn’t look at Ned. Not without losing her nerve and taking him back for good.

---

“Mordred!” Morgana called, running down the corridor towards him, her blades drawn. He turned to look at her, his blue eyes stretched wide; innocent eyes in a boyish face, unlined by malice or envy or greed. A face painted to make lies and false words sound truthful. She wanted to kill him. She had trusted him for years, bound to him in a way she’d never been to anyone else; his blood was her blood. Mordred, however, was stronger than her. She’d known it from the moment she’d met him. He had more magic than her; more aggressive, more domineering magic. If he sensed anything was amiss, anything at all, she’d be dead before she could land a blow.

Her knives clattered to the floor with a crash and she threw her arms around him in a tight embrace.

“Thank Aura, you’re alright!” He hugged her back, and when she pulled away and looked down at his face, there were tears swimming in his eyes.

“Ana… Arthur… he’s… he’s dead.” She watched his lower lip tremble, heard his voice crack, and despite herself, she felt her heart stir in response. She had loved him, her true long-searched for family. The connection was not easily surrendered; she had lost two brothers in one day. An all too-genuine tear slid down her cheek.

“H-how?” she demanded, keeping a tight, steadying grip on his arm. “The pirates? Was it an ambush?” Mordred looked back at her helplessly, shaking his head. He looked pleadingly to one of the men at his side.

“My lady,” the older lord ventured gently, “the prince was seen fleeing the castle, his shirt was bloody and he had the king’s sword…”

“No!” Morgana shook her head, looking beseechingly at Mordred again. “Dred no! He couldn’t, he wouldn’t!”

“We think he did, my lady,” a second Lord said gently, resting a warm hand on her shoulder, “they’d been arguing…”

Morgana made her knees crumple beneath her and lurched forwards. Mordred caught her in a firm grip and lowered her the rest of the way to the floor.

“Lord Mordred,” a new voice said, as a younger man pushed his way through the crowd, “the pirates, they’re pulling back. I have no idea where they’re going, but the corridors are emptying.”

King Mordred,” another voice said, correcting the first. “King Arthur is dead and Prince Tristan is a traitor, so far as I can see that leaves us with one choice.”

Lord Rolf and his son Humphrey drew their swords and knelt down before Mordred and Morgana, their heads bowed. Morgana watched Mordred as the other lords around them followed suit, until everyone in the corridor was on their knees. Her brother looked at her, and Morgana forced an encouraging smile through her tears. Slowly, Mordred rose to his feet, and raised Lord Rolf.

“Long live King Mordred,” Humphrey shouted, straightening up and sheathing his own sword. The other lords followed suit, returning their weapons to their scabbards and calling with one voice; “Long live King Mordred.”

The new king glanced numbly down at his sister.

“Long live King Mordred,” she smiled.

Written by Merlin, Dema, Edel and Aspelta



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