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Posted on August 14, 2017 at 09:34:17 PM by aspelta
Warning: the following part contains scenes that some readers may find upsetting. The section deals with issues around bereavement etc.
As if trying to make up for the receding flood, the heavens had opened over Shaman. Mordred shook the wet from his hair as he descended the steps from the watchtower. He had walked the battlements, talking to the troops, helping where he could and now his boots left a trail of dirty water behind him. It wouldn’t be long now; he could feel it. Angmar had turned for home. As he pushed open the door to the Great Hall he was greeted with an audible pop. A group of about ten fairies suddenly materialised in the centre of the room, even wetter and grubbier than him. They were a mixture of pirates and household guards and all looked a little worse for wear.
“We won, I assume?” Mordred asked the nearest guard with one of his half-smiles.
“Yes, m’lord,” the guard replied, “but the fleet is stranded. The teleporters are bringing everyone through.” As if on cue, one of the guards vanished again with another loud pop! Mordred nodded.
“Let’s get these men down to the dungeons then,” he said, reopening the hall door and propping it ajar with a wooden doorstop tucked back against the wall panelling, “I can only hope we’ll have enough room.”
The guard grinned, “a good day’s work I think, Lord!”
“I should say so, Sergeant,” Mordred agreed, taking one of the prisoners roughly by the arm, “a very good day indeed.”
By the time Arthur arrived back with a slightly smaller group of men the process of getting the captured pirates from the hall to the cells had developed into a well-oiled machine. Mordred had taken care to ensure that the prisoners were not only contained, but that they had been processed properly. A couple of scribes hurried back and forth across the hall stacking completed paperwork in boxes.
“No trouble here, I take it?” Arthur asked, detaching himself from the group. He looked tired; there was blood on his armour and mud in his hair. Mordred poured him a drink of wine and handed him the goblet with a sympathetic expression.
“All quiet,” he said, “I’m not sure if that’s a good sign or a bad one?”
Arthur accepted the drink gratefully, “in my experience? I don’t think we should get too comfortable, put it that way. It may be that whatever they were going to do, your trick with the flute put a stop to their plans, but I don’t usually get that lucky.”
“Where’s Tristan?” Mordred asked, turning away a little to sign a document being offered to him on a clipboard by one of the scribes.
“He’ll be along soon,” Arthur sighed, taking another, longer, drink of his wine, “he’s making sure all the fires get put out and there aren’t any buildings that are going to fall on anyone. He did well today.”
Dred nodded, “and you two, you’re…?”
Arthur smiled a little sadly and shrugged, “we’ll get there,” he said, “It’ll just take time.”
Covered in sweat and glowing with exertion, Ciara finally took a seat and a long drink of water. She’d spent the better part of the last few days decorating and redecorating her cottage. She had enlisted the help of the midwife that Arthur had sent to help, but the woman seemed incapable of following directions.
She had eventually been relegated to the tasks of picking things up when they were accidentally dropped, and climbing on chairs when Ciara couldn’t quite reach the perfect spot. The midwife had found herself lumbered with more and more work as the afternoon had worn on and Ciara’s back had started to give her trouble. Still, Ciara was happy with the day’s work and ready for supper and a good sleep.
The midwife, with an annoying amount of energy and enthusiasm, set two plates of chicken and assorted vegetables on the table. It was more flavourful than any of the bland meals stomach lately, and Ciara tucked in eagerly. Every so often she would pause and close her eyes as the muscles in her back tightened. Whether the midwife had noticed the pain throughout the day, or by some miraculous coincidence, the herbs that had seasoned the food eased the pains and allowed Ciara to drift to peaceful, dreamless sleep.
At some time in the night when the moon was the only light source in the cottage, Ciara awoke to an intense pain and, despite a full bladder aching for relief, a damp bed. With a groan of misery at the timing, and a burst of energy from the excitement and anticipation, Ciara lit one of the lanterns by the bed and moved to the adjacent room to wake the midwife.
The Castle hummed with activity as the captured pirates were taken to the prison block and the wounded escorted to the infirmary. Nurses ran in and out of the great hall and the rooms surrounding it, where those with lesser injuries were being bandaged up before returning to their barracks. Staff from the kitchens had set up trestle tables in the corridors to distribute food to fighters and medics alike, and Arthur found himself surrounded on all sides by clerks with clipboards, all of them wanting him to sign and authorise one thing or another.
Tristan arrived back with the final group from the Peaks. Arthur spotted him through the crowds, his face blackened with soot and his clothes filthy. He was giving instructions to the men around him. These men nodded, turned and hurried off to obey. His son had not been wrong. Arthur found himself forgetting, with alarming frequency, just how much Tristan had grown. He was a young man now, not a boy. He had received the best education and training Arthur had been able to give him and he knew how to use it. Perhaps, Arthur reflected, leaning back against one of the tables, perhaps he’d made the egregious error of paying more attention to the mistakes than the successes. He watched as Tristan approached an injured soldier sitting on a bench and helped him to his feet. Draping the man’s arm around his shoulders the prince escorted him over to a waiting nurse. They shared a joke; Arthur picked out his son’s laugh from amongst the hubbub of the hall and smiled.
He’d done it. After two lifetimes of trying, he’d managed to raise a good man.
Arthur turned, collected his wine goblet from the table edge and slipped unnoticed from the hall. At first, he had no destination in mind. He wandered the corridors in search of silence. On one third flood corridor, Pendragon found him staring out at the window at the retreating flood waters. For now, the castle’s bubble remained intact, but many of the larger sea creatures had retreated from the windows in anticipation of the inevitable.
“You’re in a better mood,” Pendragon noted, settling himself on the windowsill, “I won’t miss the water.”
“You didn’t like it?” Arthur replied, feigning surprise. “I’d never have guessed from the hours of relentless complaining, and the cursing, and your rather curious new obsession with threatening fish.”
“Fish are insolent creatures,” the merlin insisted.
“Fish are, at best, vacant,” Arthur shot back, “you’ve just got a foul temper.” The corner of the king’s mouth twitched.
“You’re not funny, Arthur.”
He didn’t remember making a conscious decision to climb the tower, but by the time he was half-way up, the thought of the trunk waiting in the room above had drowned out everything else. Pendragon, tired of the stairs, elected to take the short-route around the outside of the tower. When Arthur finally pushed open the door to the room, his familiar was waiting for him on top of the curtain rail.
“You have wings too, you know.” The merlin chastised him. Arthur rolled his eyes.
“I didn’t ask you to walk up, did I?”
Arthur crouched down in front of the trunk and opened the lid gently. It wasn’t dusty, there were no cobwebs, and the hinges didn’t creak. The king had kept it well-tended over the years. He peered inside. Silk dresses, folded neatly, concealed the wooden base from view and acted as cushions for the smaller items stacked on top: pieces of paper, jewellry boxes, a dagger. Leaving Lilith’s dresses where they were, Arthur reached for the sheets of paper. He gathered them into a neater pile and turned them over. A pencil sketch of his wife looked back at him, her long blonde hair tumbling over her shoulder, her mouth smiling. He turned to the next sheet. It was harder to look at. The boy in the picture could have been a stranger if he hadn’t so obviously had his mother’s mouth. It had been years since Arthur had been able to remember Gawain’s face unaided. That fact alone never failed to make him feel guilty.
The door to the room swung open. Arthur turned slowly to find Tristan standing in the entranceway, looking down at the picture in his father’s hands.
“He was always better at studying than me,” the prince said, “I used to tease him for being so serious all the time.” He took a step further into the room, letting the door swing closed behind him. “He’d look at me with this expression that used to drive me crazy and say, I have to be serious, Tristan. I’ll be king one day.” Tristan shook his head. “I’ve never been very good at being serious, have I?”
The king climbed to his feet and set the sketches back in the trunk. Gawain stared up at him as he closed the lid, trapped forever as that too-serious little boy who loved stories about dragons.
“You were both always so different,” Arthur said, “even when you were babies. You were always louder, and when you were a bit older, I think, because he always used to follow your mother around, you decided you’d follow me. I remember, you came up to me once, took my hand and said, ‘don’t worry, papa, I’ll keep you company!’”
“I don’t remember that,” Tristan confessed, “I remember trying to get him to play with me when he was reading, or trying to learn to play that funny instrument he had.” He hesitated, shedding a layer of confidence like a coat, “and I remember the day we lost him. I remember waking up in the night so terrified because I realised if he never came back then one day I’d be king. And I’d have to do it on my own. I used to think Gawain and I would be okay, because he’d always have me to help him, and make him laugh, whilst he got on with being serious.”
“I hope you don’t think I ever compared you,” he said, “or wished you were more like him. I’m sure he would have made me proud, just like you have. I wouldn’t change you for the world, Tristan. You’re talented, you’re witty, you’re personable, and you’ve got this spark in you that lights up a room. I never had that. I used to envy the men who did.”
Tristan glanced down at the floor and ran his hand through his hair; uncharacteristically embarrassed.
“Look,” he began with a half-smile, “I’m sorry for what happened this morning with the Aurans. I don’t think I’d have done anything differently, but I do wish it hadn’t turned out the way it did. I’m sorry people got hurt because of me.”
Arthur nodded, and willingly accepted the offered olive branch.
“I can respect that,” he replied, “you did what you thought was best. I can’t ask for more than that… Come here.” Arthur closed the gap between them and dragged his son into a strong hug. The embrace took Tristan by surprise, he almost overbalanced and had to brace himself against his father’s shoulder. Once secure he gave the king a hearty slap on the back.
“Alright, old man,” he laughed, “al--”
He broke off. Something was wrong. Arthur grunted and lurched forwards. Tristan caught him, reacting automatically to the sudden transfer of weight.
“Father?” he said, rocking the king back onto his heels. “What’s wrong?” Arthur reached down, and Tristan’s stomach rolled over. The tip of a blade protruded from his father’s abdomen, glinting silver in the half-light of evening and soaking the king’s shirt with blood. The attacker, whoever they were, wherever they were, withdrew their weapon. It disappeared back into nothingness.
“Tristan,” Arthur managed, “run!”
“No!” Tristan replied, lowering his father down onto the top of the trunk. He pushed his hands against his father’s wound: apply pressure, reduce blood flow, help with clotting. It would be fine. Everything would be fine. Tristan’s hands shook, “I’m not leaving you.”.
“Behind you!” Arthur warned.
Tristan reached for the dagger at his belt and turned to block a downwards blow. The movement forced his hands away from Arthur’s stomach. The blood on his fingers made the dagger handle slick - he couldn’t get a proper grip. Thinking fast, Tristan kicked out, guessing at the vicinity of his assailant’s ankles. His right foot connected with something solid; hard enough to buy him some time. He helped his father to his feet and, steered him towards the door, keeping his body between Arthur and the room. They were nearly there. Tristan fumbled with the catch whilst Arthur leaned against the wall, catching his breath. The blade came again, appearing out of the shadows. The bolt of the door drew across of its own accord, screeching all the way. Cornered, Tristan parried the second blow, his wrist jarring against the impact of the larger, heavier weapon.
“My sword, Tris,” Arthur called, urgently. Tristan heard his father draw it and reached back, his fingers closing around the unfamiliar grip.
Arthur pressed his hands against his stomach and stared at the door. In his desperation he reached for his magic. He willed the bolt to open. It moved slowly, the sound drowned out by the clashing of steel of the battle raging in the centre of the room. Whoever it was, they weren’t just trying to kill him; they wanted Tristan too. They would not have him. A sharp blow sent Tristan staggering backwards and Arthur seized his opportunity. He grabbed the back of his son’s shirt with his right hand and pulled open the door with the other. With all the strength he could muster he threw Tristan out through the doorway and out onto the staircase beyond. He took one last look at his son as the latter turned wide-eyed and terrified to face him, still holding his father’s sword. Arthur took a deep breath and slammed the door closed behind him, jamming the bolt back into place.
“NO!” he heard Tristan bellow from the other side. The boy’s hand slammed against the woodwork. “Open the door, father! Open the door!” Arthur turned back into the room and drew the short sword at his right hip.
“You can have me,” the king turned to the empty room, “but you won’t lay a hand on him.” The blows on the other side of the door grew more forceful as Tristan began to kick his way through.
“Let me in!” the prince shouted. Arthur winced; the desperation, the crack in his son’s voice tearing at his heart. “Father!”
“He won’t make it out of this tower,” a smooth voice announced, as a man stepped out of the shadows. He was tall, with golden eyes and auburn hair, and he was smiling, “my men have the tower.”
“And my son has a sword,” Arthur replied defiantly, ignoring his increasing light-headedness, “I fancy his chances.”
The man’s grin widened, “I don’t.”
Their swords met with a crash. Arthur parried and stepped backwards, a sharp pain shooting down his injured side. He clenched his teeth, launching an attack of his own, and forcing the stranger to take a hasty step backwards. Capitalising on the advantage, the king struck again, and again, and again. Kaliban caught the third blow, deflecting it with a scraping of steel. Pendragon took flight with a furious screech, hell-bent on protecting his fairy with his claws. As the merlin swooped past an angry red wound opened up just beneath Kaliban’s left eye. Pendragon came in for his second assault, but Kaliban was ready. Closing his hand around the heavy pommel of his sword, he swatted the falcon aside like a fly. Arthur winced with a fresh pain as the bird’s delicate little body broke. Pendragon dropped to the floor like a stone where he burst into a shower of blue sparks. Pen. Angered, Arthur struck out at Kaliban again with the last of his strength.
“I know this dance,” Kaliban said smugly, “do you know mine?” He made a fresh assault with his sword, forcing Arthur back and away from the wall. At the same time he drew his dagger and, taking advantage of the king’s raised arms, plunged the blade into his torso.
Pain shot through Arthur’s body and he dropped to his knees with a gasp. He tasted blood in his mouth and coughed, slumping back against the trunk. A fresh pain shot up his back as his spine hit wood. Kaliban came with him, keeping the dagger in place. He glanced at the wound with academic interest, checked Arthur’s face and began to twist.
“It really isn’t personal, Arthur,” Kaliban purred in his ear, “I’ve learned a lot from you. You’re a brave man, a clever man…” The long auburn hair started to turn black, the nose lengthened and the golden eyes changed to an intense blue. Mordred smiled down at his brother. “You’re just in my way.” He yanked the blade free and Arthur crumpled face-down onto the floor.
Mordred left him where he fell, wiping his blade clean on the carpet.
“It was always going to end this way, Arthur,” he said from the doorway as the bolt flicked free, “it’s why he made me.”
Written by Merlin and Edel
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