Written by Todd Jensen (firstname.lastname@example.org)
All "Gargoyles" characters are the property of Walt Disney
and Buena Vista Television. This story is not being written for profit,
but merely to continue a plot-thread that "Gargoyles" left undeveloped.
"Previously, on Pendragon" (King Arthur).
KING ARTHUR: "Merlin often came here. It was one of his favorite places." (The Last Enchantment, Part One).
BLAISE: "Your grandson is only half human. The other half of him is of Oberon's Children." (The Last Enchantment, Part One).
BLAISE: "You have the capacity to become one of the greatest
of all time." (The Last Enchantment, Part One).
King Arthur ensnared by the mysterious sound. (The Last Enchantment, Part One).
It was no use. Try though he might, Arthur could not break free from the strange song. He found himself rising to his feet, and walking in the direction that it came from.
"Sorcery!", one small part of himself managed to say. But already his thoughts were becoming numb. The song was having a hypnotic effect on his senses. Within a few minutes, he had all but forgotten Griff and Cavall, left behind him in their stone sleep. All that he knew was that the song was beckoning him, and he must follow it. He stumbled onwards, towards the source of the unearthly music.
The one small part of him that had remained free from the magical influence puzzled over what could be behind this. One of the faerie-folk, as likely as not. He might have known that a few of them would still be around. And he had forgotten one other thing; their greatest weapons were not things that could be countered by a sword or by any form of knightly prowess. They often worked in more subtle and cunning ways, through seduction rather than outright force. He thought back to all the accounts that he had heard from his knights on their quests of how they had been bewitched by strange damsels who were more than what they had seemed. Some were human enchantresses, such as Morgana la Fay and her colleagues, but others were of the Third Race. Merlin had spoken once of the Banshee in Ireland, whose songs could numb men's senses, and who had run riot throughout that isle until the hero Cuchulain had overthrown her in battle, one of the greatest deeds in his entire career. And there were others like her in Britain and in Broceliande. He should have been prepared for this. And he was not.
He longed more than ever for Merlin to be there. Perhaps his old advisor would have known a way to break the spell. Merlin had always been there for him, whenever he had been needed. The one part of him still capable of conscious thought ran over the wizard's many encounters with him, the counsel and help that he had provided.
It had begun during his boyhood in Sir Ector's castle.
He hadn't known then that the old scholar who had installed himself as
official tutor to himself and his foster-brother Kay was really Merlin,
but had understood him to be a wise and kindly man, with much affection
for his pupil. Merlin had taught him many things: how to read and
write, the history of Britain and of the known world, astronomy and mathematics
and the lore of far-off lands. And on a few occasions, he had taken
him at night to a lonely cavern some ways from the castle, and there introduced
him to the mysterious winged beings who dwelt there, beings whom Merlin
called gargoyles. Arthur had been
frightened of them at first, but Merlin had soon showed him that they were gentle creatures in their own way, as well as formidable warriors. And very curious about humans, whom they had little contact with. By the time that Arthur had pulled the sword out of the stone in London and been proclaimed High King, he had come to view them as his friends, rather than as monsters. And they had been his allies throughout his reign, until the very end. And had become his allies once more, after his re-awakening on Avalon.
Nor was that all. Merlin had provided him with good
advice throughout the early years of his reign. It was thanks to
him that Arthur had overthrown his enemies, the eleven kings of the north.
And thanks to him that Arthur had been able to meet with the Lady of the
Lake and receive Excalibur. Merlin had taught him the business of
being a king, and had arranged for him to set up the Round Table once again,
after he received it from King Leodegrance of Cameliard as part of the
dowry for his wedding to Leodegrance's beautiful daughter Guinevere.
All in all, he had never had cause to regret having Merlin for his chief
counsellor. Except once. Once, on a dark occasion, when after
listening to Merlin, he had carried out the one tyrannical act of his reign,
the deed that still filled him with shame and remorse whenever he looked
back on it, even from a distance of fifteen hundred years.
CAERLEON, LATE 5TH CENTURY.
"My lord," said Merlin, standing before the High King.
Arthur looked up expectantly at his chief advisor. "Well, Merlin," he asked, leaning back in his chair. "What business do you have with me that cannot be discussed before my council?"
Merlin looked warily about him, an odd expression on his face. "We are alone?", he asked. "Nobody is listening at the door?"
"Hardly," said Arthur amusedly. "The people respect our private conferences, old friend. Nobody will eavesdrop."
Merlin relaxed. "That is well, then," he said. "There are certain matters that cannot be spoken of in public. The revelation of them - well, such secrets can topple kings from their thrones. And remember, my liege, that your throne is still unsteady."
Arthur nodded. He had defeated the eleven kings at Bedgraine a year ago, with the aid of the gargoyle clan that roosted in the forest nearby, and they had given him no further trouble, especially since their own domains in the north had been invaded by the Angles and Picts shortly afterwards. But they had still not sworn allegiance to him, and rumor had it that King Lot of Lothian and Orkney, the strongest of them, was mustering an army for a fresh assault on "the beardless boy", as he so scornfully referred to the young High King. There were also the Saxons in the east of the island, and King Rions of North Wales, who had recently demanded Arthur's beard to trim his mantle with. Arthur had cheerfully answered to that last message with the reply that he as yet had no beard, and therefore could not oblige, although he would not surrender up his beard even if he had one. Rions had not been amused, and all the more so since Arthur had already prevented him from overruning and conquering the realm of Cameliard, King Leodegrance's domain. There was almost certainly going to be war with him, very soon.
"So what is this business that you wish to speak of, Merlin?", he asked.
"You have been experiencing nightmares of late, sire," said Merlin calmly. It was not a question, but a statement.
Arthur stared at him in amazement. "How do you know?", he cried.
"I'm your chief advisor, my lord," said Merlin, still in a matter-of-fact way. "I should know these things."
"Well, you do indeed speak the truth," said Arthur, "although the fact that you should know of these matters astounds me. I've not spoken of my dreams to anybody. Not even Sir Ector or Kay. I suppose that this proves what a mighty mage you truly are."
Merlin nodded, seeming quite satisfied. "Now, tell me about the dreams, Your Highness," he said.
"They always follow the same pattern," said Arthur. "My kingdom is invaded by monsters. Dragons, flying serpents, griffons, basilisks. They lay waste the land, burn down the castles and villages and cities, slay my people or drive them into hiding. Then I take up my sword and battle them. I overcome them all, but at last I must face their leader, the mightiest dragon in the horde. It delivers me fearsome wounds and burns me with its fiery breath. I slay it, but am so greatly injured afterwards that I fear for my life. And that is when I awaken."
Merlin frowned, a troubled look upon his face. "Yes, most disturbing," he said. "A sign of trouble to come, most assuredly."
"What does it mean, Merlin?", asked Arthur. "I know that dreams have significance; you told me that once. What meaning do my nightmares have?"
"A very dark one," said Merlin. "My lord, there is a great danger preparing for you, which your nightmares have predicted. A terrible doom is approaching, a doom which you have, all unwittingly, laid the cornerstone for."
"Merlin, what are you talking about?", asked Arthur worriedly, leaning forward.
"A month ago, there was a noblewoman who came hither on an embassy, was there not?", Merlin asked.
"Yes," said Arthur. "A widow lady from the north. She brought with her her four sons, and told me of the terrible fighting on her lands. How the Picts and Angles had laid the countryside waste and slain many of her people. She besought me to send help to the folk in the north, even if the kings in that part of Britain had defied my rule. And I agreed to do what I could, in the end."
"And is that all that passed between you and her?", asked Merlin, leaning forward himself. The keen gaze in his piercing grey eyes was unsettling. Arthur had never seen his old tutor in such a mood before. He wondered what was wrong with his counsellor. He also felt uncomfortable with the question, considering the guilty memories that it had triggered. But he had to answer it.
"No," he said. "She - she was a passing fair lady, and I was very much taken by her. So much so that I arranged for a tryst with her, by her consent. I know that this was wrong, Merlin, but she was so lovely to behold, so gracious and wise - and her lord was dead. I thought that no harm would come of it."
"You thought wrong, Your Highness," said Merlin sharply. "That woman was the wife of King Lot of Lothian and Orkney, Queen Morgause. She was sent to your court on a secret embassy, to persuade you to come to the aid of the northern chieftains - and no doubt also to spy out the defenses of your castle here at Caerleon. And she is the daughter of your mother Igraine, by her first marriage to Duke Gorlois of Cornwall, and thus your half-sister."
Arthur stared at Merlin, horrified. "Merlin, I beg you!", he cried, when he finally found his voice. "Say that this is not so!"
"If only I could," said Merlin with a sigh. "But it is the truth, my liege. You have done a foul deed, in taking your sister for a lover."
"But why did she come in disguise?", asked Arthur. "Why did she not come as herself?"
"Blame Lot's pride and arrogance for it," Merlin answered. "He needs your help, but he'll not lower himself to begging for it, not even through the mouth of his queen. So he sent her to you in disguise, so that he would not seem to be yielding to you. And her disguise proved perfect, deluding even you."
"Why could you not have warned me, Merlin?", cried Arthur. "Had I only known - "
"It is too late for that now, my lord," said Merlin. "There is but one question that now remains to be answered. What will you do about the son that you have begotten upon her?"
"The son?", began Arthur, hesitantly.
Merlin nodded. "The son that was the dragon in your dream," he said. "For he will grow up to overthrow you and your knights in battle, and tear apart the kingdom that you built. That was what your nightmares portended. Your son will reach manhood, and there will come a wicked day of destiny where he will destroy you and your realm utterly. Unless you can prevent him from doing so."
"But how?", asked Arthur, almost frantic now in his alarm. He leaned forward even closer, to look straight into his counsellor's eyes. "Merlin, I have to know! How can I avert this fate?"
"There is only one way to do so," said Merlin. "You must find your son while he is still an infant, and you must kill him." He said it in as casual a manner as if he was discussing the weather.
Arthur gaped at the wizard in horror. It was a few minutes before he could manage to recover his voice. "You want me to do *that*?", he cried, at last.
"There is no other way, my liege," said Merlin gravely. "Only by his death may you be safe."
"But, murdering a small child is a terrible thing to do," said Arthur. "Merlin, you must understand that I cannot do this!"
"I like this idea no more than you do, sire," said Merlin, nodding. "But it has to be done. For the good of your kingdom, which he will lay waste if he lives."
"But, such a deed - ", Arthur began.
Merlin leaned forward. "My king," he asked, in a low, quiet voice, "what is it that you want?"
"To rule over Britain justly and well," said Arthur. "To give my subjects peace and fairness, so that they may go about their lives in peace, free from fear and tyranny. A kingdom where all are below the law, where justice governs rather than the sword, where might is used to protect rather than to conquer. That is what I most desire."
"And if your son lives," said Merlin, "he will undo this cherished dream of yours. My lord, you have no choice. As the old saying goes, desperate times call for desperate measures. You must destroy your son, for your kingdom's own good."
"But I can hardly put the newest child of Lot and Morgause to death!", cried the young High King. "It would be the most tyrannous act in all of Britain's history!"
"Yes, you cannot slay him alone," said Merlin. "It would arouse suspicion, start tongues wagging. And besides, his mother would almost certainly suspect what fate you had intended for her child, and hide him away. No, you must take stronger measures than that."
"And just what might those measures be?", Arthur asked.
"Your son will be born on the first day of May," said Merlin. "Send out this order at once, sire. Let your heralds ride throughout all of Britain, from Cornwall to Lothian, and let them make this decree. That all male infants born in the last week of April and the first week of May are to be delivered up to your court, upon pain of death. Then, when you have them all gathered there, kill them all!"
Arthur's shock and horror was nothing compared to what he now displayed. "What counsel is this, Merlin?", he cried. "You would have me conduct another Massacre of the Innocents? Become a new Herod? This I cannot do!"
"You have no choice, my king," replied Merlin, absolutely calm. He laid one hand on the young man's shoulder, while looking at him gravely. "This is for the good of your kingdom. Which is better, that a few infants die - most of whom would have perished anyway from some childhood illness or other - and your realm live? Or that the infants survive, and your kingdom perish? The choice is yours, my lord."
Arthur groaned within himself. He stared at the surface of the table before him blankly, saying not a word, for several minutes. Merlin stood over him patiently, silent himself, awaiting an answer.
At last the High King spoke.
"You have my leave, Merlin," he said, without looking up. "Send out the messengers, and tell them what you have to."
"You are carrying out this course then?", asked Merlin, sounding hopeful. "You will do as I have advised you?"
"Yes!", Arthur almost screamed out. "Do it, Merlin! Have all the infants that you spoke of rounded up and brought here! You have my leave!"
Merlin nodded, satisfied. "I will do as you bid me, then," he said. And with that, he turned about and left the study.
Arthur groaned, and buried his face in his hands, appalled
at the order that he had given. But it was too late to countermand
it, and he was afraid to do so. He could do nothing but weep silently,
what he knew was the act of his entire reign that he would most bitterly regret in the years to come.
The memory still haunted him, all these centuries later. He could still recall the guilt that he felt over issuing the May Day Decree through Merlin, the blackest deed of his entire reign.
Throughout Britain, infant children were torn from their parents' arms, every male baby born in the last week of April and the first week of May. Then, when all of them were brought to Caerleon, Arthur had had to decide what to do with them. He could not kill them outright, so in desperation, he placed them all in a small boat and had it taken out to sea. A boat with nobody aboard but the babies. It drifted away into the distance, and was lost to sight.
Later, Arthur had learned, it had run aground upon the shore near the castle of a minor lord, Sir Nabor. All the babies had died in the wreck except for one, and that one, as it turned out much later on, was the very one that he had fathered upon Morgause. Nabor had adopted him as his own child, and named him Mordred. The very Mordred who had later on destroyed Arthur's kingdom indeed, in that fateful battle at Camlann. So the massacre had been all in vain. The very one that he had tried to destroy had survived, and all the blameless infants had perished instead. A fitting return for his wicked act.
The deed had also shocked nearly all his subjects. Arthur had carried out what amends he could afterwards, offering condolences to the bereaved families and undergoing public penance. It had still horrified the Britons, and given his enemies an opening at him. Although much of the blame stuck to Merlin, who had advised the deed, there were those who declared Arthur to be as great a tyrant as his late and unlamented father, Uther Pendragon, to have been, and urged a fresh rebellion against him. And King Lot of Lothian and Orkney, who had believed Mordred to be his own son rather than Arthur's, and who thus had a loss to avenge, was among the chief of them.
Which had led to more woe. Lot had neutralized the advantage that he might otherwise have received in his uprising by allying with King Rions of North Wales, whose barbaric ways were so notorious that many who might otherwise have sided with him declared for Arthur instead, if somewhat reluctantly. Arthur had overthrown both Rions and Lot in battle, but that had not been without its costs. For King Lot was personally slain by Arthur's new ally, King Pellinor of the Isles, and Lot's sons had sought to avenge their father's death, and Gawain chief of them. Gawain sought out and killed Pellinor several years later, and he and his brothers hounded Pellinor's sons as well, slaying one of the best of them, Sir Lamorak, through treachery. The feud had helped weaken the Round Table all the further, alongside the damage done by Mordred's schemes and Lancelot and Guinevere's love. And it would never have come to pass, without that decree. Which had come about through Merlin's counsel.
Or so Arthur had thought at the time. But that was where the strange part came in.
Merlin had reappeared at Caerleon a few days after the
babies had been drowned, and had protested the whole business loudly and
vehemently. In the course of which, he had made it clear that although
the prophecy had been a true one, he had not made it, nor even been at
court at the time. Arthur had been much taken aback by this, and
had puzzled over who could have spoken to him, if not his old friend and
teacher. It had all been very bewildering. However, there had
little time to consider this at the time, for he had so much else on his mind. Still, he found himself occasionally wondering, ever since: just who had it been who had advised him to carry out the massacre? It was a question that, fifteen centuries later, he still had no answer for.
Not that this was any time to ponder it, in any case.
His feet were still leading him on through the forest, towards the source
of the song. And the one small part of him that remained independently
conscious was growing steadily weaker. Soon, it would be almost entirely gone, and the spell's hold on him would be complete. And there seemed to be nothing that he could do to change it.
Suddenly, he emerged into a wide clearing. It was pleasant and shady, covered with tall grass and brightly-colored wild flowers everywhere. A stream rushed through it, sparkling in the sunlight as it tumbled over its pebbly bed. Large moss-covered stones lay in it here and there. A few more could be found on the dry land in the glade. The song was at its loudest and clearest there. Arthur could still not make out the words, if there were any at all, but its strength was much greater now. The portion of him still capable of thought was all but extinguished. He found himself sitting down upon one of the rocks, and waiting. Waiting for what, he did not know.
The answer came soon enough, though, as a small ball of
silver radiance appeared before him. It formed itself into a pillar,
of roughly man-height. And then, out from it stepped a beautiful
woman dressed in a white gown and blue mantle. She was tall and slender, with long reddish-blond hair and bluish-green eyes, pale with aristocratic features that looked strongly familiar to Arthur. The song ended, and the king realized, without being quite certain how he knew this, that she had been the singer.
"Welcome, Arthur Pendragon," she said to him in a musical voice, gazing down at him with a slight smile curling her lips. "Welcome to your new and final home."
Arthur stared up at her, and finally managed to find his voice. "Who are you, my lady?", he asked.
She laughed. "Have you forgotten so much during your fifteen centuries' sleep on Avalon?", she said. "Or did I simply not visit your court often enough, when you were High King of Britain? I am Nimue. Surely you remember me."
Arthur suddenly understood. "I remember you all too well," he said. "You were the enchantress who placed Merlin under the spell of captivity. Am I right?"
"True enough," she said, still seeming amused. "Maybe your memory is still keen after all. I suppose that I must have dulled it a little with my song of enticement. That is the problem with such things," she continued with a sigh. "It is *so* difficult to have an intellectually stimulating conversation with a spell-bound human. An unavoidable side effect, I'm afraid."
"Just what do you want with me, anyway?", asked Arthur, staring at her suspiciously. His wits had returned to him, now that the song had ended and its mesmerizing influence had left. He remembered her fully now. Perhaps she wasn't entirely an unwelcome sight, even if she had deprived him of Merlin's counsel. After all, she had made up for it a few times, such as when she had rescued him from Morgana la Fay's scheme involving Sir Accolon of Gaul, or when she had revealed to everybody's satisfaction that Queen Guinevere was innocent of the charge of poisoning Sir Patrice of Ireland - although he rather wished that she had made this announcement *before* Lancelot had had to champion the queen against Patrice's vengeful cousin Mador. And besides, she might be able to tell him where Merlin was. Assuming that she'd agree to. He had heard enough about her to know that she was as capricious and unpredictable as nearly all the other fays and halflings in the world, and that would make questioning her a problem.
"Company," she said, an amused smile still upon her face.
"Arthur, you have no idea how dull it gets living in an enchanted forest
by yourself. I used to have several of Oberon's Children here for
company, but they all left. There was some talk about a Gathering back on Avalon, and Oberon wants all those of the Third Race who still do him homage to return home and stay there. *And* I wasn't invited because I'm only a half-fay. So I'm on my own once more, with nobody to speak to, except for the wild beasts and birds of Broceliande. And they aren't much of a substitute. Oh, I can understand what they say, but it isn't anything especially interesting. It never is. So I decided that I'd just have to find somebody to provide me with some companionship. And that was when I detected your presence in this wood. Your presence, and a couple of gargoyles. What are you doing, travelling with them anyway?"
"Searching for Merlin," said Arthur. "Have you seen him anywhere? You knew him once."
"True," she said, with a shrug, "but that was a long time ago. I've given little thought to him in the last fifteen centuries. I've had other things to think about, after all. He goes his way, and I go mine. What do you want with him, anyway?"
Arthur was about to speak, when she held up her hand.
"No, don't tell me. I can guess for myself. You've awakened
early, that's the problem. You weren't expected to return to the
human world for quite some time. And so you're confused. You
want to speak with Merlin,
and get his advice on what to do. Is that correct?"
"Pretty much so," said Arthur.
She sighed. "Arthur, you're better off remaining here," she said. "Here where it's safe. If you go on with your quest, you'll find nothing but sorrow and misery. Remain here, Arthur. Here where all is peace and ease. Somebody else can go on missions to save the world."
"No, my lady," said Arthur firmly. "I have slept for fifteen hundred years on Avalon. That was rest long enough for me. I have a duty to fulfill. I vowed to find Merlin, and find him I shall. It is an unseemly thing to abandon a sworn quest."
Nimue shook her head. "You and your knights were always so stubborn," she said. "So short-sighted. I and my sister enchantresses so often gave you opportunities to put aside all this wearisome questing and fighting, to undergo ease and diversion in our gardens and bowers. And you so often rejected our offers. Why choose pain and anguish over pleasure?"
"False pleasure, my lady," said Arthur. "It seems that you have learned little over these fifteen centuries. What you, and Morgana, and her fellow enchantress queens, offered myself and my knights was sloth and idleness, not true peace. We had our appointed tasks. To bring order to a torn kingdom, and protect its people. We could not neglect this responsibility. To remain in a pleasant bower and know naught but bliss, while folk outside are undergoing pain and woe, is nothing other than selfishness. We rejected those temptations for good cause."
Nimue looked amused rather than offended. "Trust me, Arthur," she said. "You do me a wrong in comparing me to your half-sister. If it were she who had captured you, you would not be alive to make any form of protest. Morgana la Fay may have her twisted vengeance to pursue against you, for what your house did to hers, but I can assure you that I bear no malice against you. I never did you any harm at all."
"You kept Merlin imprisoned in your invisible tower for several years, and against his will," said Arthur to her sharply. "That was certainly harm to him."
"So you still feel some bitterness over that?", she asked.
"Well, I had good reason to do just that at the time. Or so it seemed
to me at least. Perhaps it were best for me to tell you the tale,
Pendragon. And then you can judge me for it."
"Very well," said Arthur. "But expect little approval from me for your act."
"I expect none," said Nimue. "I merely ask you to listen, before you speak further."
The king made no reply, so she continued. "Truth to tell, much of the story you already know. My father was Sir Dyonas, a minor lord who dwelt at the edge of this forest. But my mother was the Lady of the Lake, who fell in love with him, and wed him for a time. That was long before Lord Oberon drove forth all his Children from Avalon, to roam the world and dwell among humans, but even then, the Lady chose to mingle her blood with that of one of the Second Race. And I was the offspring of that union, a halfling, just like Merlin. And gifted with the magic of a halfling.
"And then Merlin began to visit Broceliande, not long after he helped you to your throne. And he met me, and was lovestruck. Which led, in turn, to all those visits he began to make here, where he began to teach me some of his magic."
"Which you then turned against him," said Arthur sharply.
"And for that, there is an explanation," said Nimue. "If you will but hear it."
FOREST OF BROCELIANDE, BRITTANY - LATE 5TH CENTURY A.D.
Nimue sat on a moss-covered stone by the stream, idly
watching the waters rush past her, sparkling in the sunlight. It
was a pleasant day in late spring, and overhead, the sky was clear, save
for a few
small white clouds. A gentle breeze lightly stirred the branches and leaves of the trees at the edge of the clearing.
Merlin was due to visit again that day. He always
let her know in advance when he was coming, so that she would be there
at their meeting-place. His visits had been more numerous of late;
Arthur's wars were over for the moment, and so his presence in Britain was not as urgently needed as it had once been. Indeed, Merlin had commented that he felt that his pupil was perfectly capable of ruling his realm on his own now, and so he could finally have the liberty of spending some time on other pursuits. Such as meeting with her, and teaching her his arts.
Nimue had never quite known what to make of the wizard. He seemed a decent enough sort, if a little odd at times. He was prone to making off-hand remarks about things that were due to happen about seven hundred years into the future, and had a weakness for very bad puns. That aside, he was courteous and kind, and had never treated her in any way other than that of a gentleman. But there was a certain look in his eyes that gave her the suspicion that his feelings for her went beyond mere friendship. Almost as if he was in love with her.
That unsettled her. Not that she feared any evil
from him; she knew him well enough to realize that he was not the sort
to take advantage of a maiden. Besides, she knew enough magic herself
by now, thanks to his having tutored her, that she could hold her own against
him if he attempted to overpower her by force. But what concerned
her, rather, was that she did not love him in return. She had fondness
for him, true, the sort of fondness that one feels for an older brother
or an uncle, but not love. In fact, she had not given her heart to
anybody as yet; she simply didn't feel herself ready to do so. But
that left her wondering what course of action she was to take now.
she confronted him with what she knew or suspected.... But gently, so as not to hurt him.
Her thoughts were suddenly interrupted by a slight cough. She rose from her seat and turned around. "Merlin?", she began, then stopped, as she saw the person who had come up behind her. A man that she had never met before.
He was a tall lean man, with dark hair and a neatly-trimmed moustache, dressed in fine clothing, black and green in color. He had a sword at his belt, and was standing with his arms crossed across his chest, looking at her with a thoughtful look in his light grey eyes.
"Who are you?", she asked him, staring straight at him.
"Only a traveller," said the man, with a bit of a shrug. "No more than that, my lady Nimue."
The mention of her name drew her full attention to him at once. "How is it that you know my name?", she asked him.
"How is it?", he replied, looking amused rather than offended by her query. "Well, I know a few things, and one of them, my lady Nimue, is that you are on close terms with the wizard Merlin, chief advisor to King Arthur of Britain. Am I correct on that?"
She nodded. "That is indeed the truth," she said. "Why should that concern you?"
The man frowned troubledly. "Oh, dear," he said. "I was afraid that this might be the case."
"Afraid?", asked Nimue, looking at him closely. "Why? Why should that make you afraid?"
The man sighed. "Your parents are old acquaintances of mine," he said. "Or at least, your mother was. She's a distant cousin, in fact. And consequently, I have some concern over your well-being. I would not see you placed in peril by this sorcerer, as could easily be the case."
"In peril?", asked Nimue, staring straight at him all the more intently. "In just what way? Explain yourself."
"I know a great deal about Merlin," said the stranger, in a concerned tone of voice. "And what I have heard of him is not good. He is a grave danger to all who associate with him, yourself included."
"A grave danger?", repeated Nimue. "That sounds impossible to me. Merlin may be a little trying at times, but he's hardly a menace."
"Yes," said the stranger, shaking his head with a look
of pity in his eyes, "that is what he wants you to believe. But it
is not the truth at all. Far from it, in fact. Merlin seems
a force for good in this
world, but it's no more than a cunning facade on his part. He is the falsest man alive, treacherous and disloyal by nature. A trickster and multiplier of words, who will stoop to any sleight, any act of deceit, to gain his ends. Those who traffick with him, do so at their own risk."
"But," said Nimue, looking up at him concernedly, "that hardly seems possible to me. Merlin was the one who brought the noble King Arthur to the throne, who stood by his side and helped him establish his kingdom."
"True," said the man. "But was it for Arthur's good,
and Britain's, or for his own? Consider this, my lady. Might
not Merlin have intended to make Arthur his puppet, his pawn, to sit on
throne and be ruled by him? Thus, in turn, Merlin would rule all the land through Arthur's mouth, and be its true king, in all but name."
"And tell me one thing that Merlin has done that has not been for Britain's own good," she said firmly. She did notwant to believe him. But something prevented her from entirely discarding what this man had to say into the recesses of oblivion. She did not know why. There was a strong note of conviction in his words and his eyes, almost mesmerizing in its quality. Despite herself, she found herself continuing to listen to him.
"Then perhaps you have not heard of what Merlin told the king to do, a few years ago?", the man inquired. "He bade Arthur gather together all the male infants born on or about the first of May, and drown them, lest one of them grow up to destroy him. A bloody and tyrannous act, as surely as was ever performed by any king since time began. Was this the counsel of anyone other than a corrupt sorcerer? I think not."
Nimue shuddered at this. She had heard the stories, of course, but had not wanted to believe them. So firmly had she not wanted to believe them, in fact, that she had never once asked Merlin about the May Day Decree, to find out if he indeed had had any part in it. She wanted to believe him innocent of such deeds. And now, it appeared, he was not. A part of her told her that she should find out more about this stranger first, and what his motives were, but it went unheeded. For deep down inside, this was precisely what she had feared was the truth.
"And as for what he may intend for you, my lady," said the man, with a sigh. "Well, best not to dwell on that. I fear that his intentions are not honorable. They say that his father was a demon, after all. Or one of the Fair Folk that were exiled from Avalon for their revolt. And doubtless, he inherited much of his father's nature. He may be wishing to corrupt you, or worse. You cannot trust him. King Arthur did, and as a result his kingdom was gripped by a civil war in which the noblest chieftain of the north, King Lot of Lothian and Orkney, was slain, and many brave knights with him. Ambrosius and Uther Pendragon trusted him, and both died shameful deaths; Ambrosius by poison, Uther of a wasting illness. Believe me, as young as you associate with him, my dear Nimue, you place yourself in great peril. I wish to warn you of that, for your good mother's sake, if for no other reason. She and I are kin, after all."
"My mother never spoke of her family," said Nimue cautiously, staring at him.
The man sighed. "Well, I know enough of her that I can say that there are certain things that she prefers not to speak about. And her kinsfolk are one of them, myself included. But trust me and what I have to say to you. You would be well advised to do something about your would-be lover, Nimue. Before it is too late." And with that, he turned around, and walked away.
Nimue watched him depart, then sat down on the rock again,
and thought. Could she really trust what the man had told her?
She didn't want to, but much of what he had said was indeed the truth.
She knew about how Ambrosius and Uther had died, and it had been just as the stranger had said. And she had heard of the May Day Decree, as well. This had made her half-doubt Merlin, although her heart had argued against it. And she knew about the rumors that his father was nothing less than the Prince of Darkness himself. She didn't want to believe them, either, but she had heard them repeated so often. And the man's words had strengthened her fears and doubts.
So what would she do? She did not know for certain, as yet. But when Merlin visited her next, she would decide.
"Nimue?", asked Merlin, alighting from his horse. King Arthur's advisor now looked, at first glance, in his sixties, with his long white beard and greying hair. A closer examination, however, revealed that he stood as straight and tall as a man in his prime, and his face bore few wrinkles. He was an impressive figure, with his bushy eyebrows and keen gaze. He wore, not the usual formal robes that he donned at court occasions in King Arthur's hall, but a blue tunic and red breeches, with a green hooded mantle, all cut in the latest fashion at Camelot. Some of the knights of the Round Table had made fun of him for his recent change in attire when visiting Nimue in Brittany, but he ignored them. Just as he overlooked their general remarks at the idea of an old man himself courting a young maiden.
"Hullo, Merlin," said Nimue, walking up to him. She seemed a little troubled, but did not show any sign on her face as to what the cause for that might be. "So how go things at the High King's court?"
"Oh, well enough," said Merlin. "There's rumor of a fresh war with the Angles in the north, but it doesn't seem too serious. Arthur can probably handle it without me. He's fully grown now and married; he can stand on his own two feet a few times. And if he can defeat the Angle chieftains without once consulting me, then it will finally convince the under-kings of Britain that he's no puppet of mine. Then they'll be all the more ready to accept him as their sovereign liege."
He followed her as she walked towards the glade where they often spoke, and where he had taught her magic. "So how are things with you, Nimue?", he asked. "All well, I suppose?"
"Pretty much so," she said. There was a note in her voice that belied the words, which puzzled him. What was bothering her, anyway? He thought of asking her, but then decided that it was probably none of his business. Some family problem at home, as like as not; a private matter which he shouldn't be prying into.
They entered the clearing. Nimue then turned to him. "Merlin?", she asked. "Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?"
"Not at all," he replied with a shrug. "Go ahead, by all means."
"Then tell me," she said, "what fates befell Ambrosius and Uther Pendragon?"
"They're well-known enough," he told her. "Ambrosius was poisoned by a Saxon hireling in the pay of Pascent, Vortigern's last surviving son. And Uther Pendragon succumbed to a wasting illness that had crippled him for several years, that so weakened him that in his last battle wtih the Saxons he had to venture onto the field in a horse-litter. Why?"
"You could have prevented those deaths," said Nimue, a troubled look on her face. "With your knowledge and powers, you could have saved them."
Merlin sighed and shook his head. "You overestimate me, NImue," he said. "I do have some knowledge of the future, but it comes and goes according to whether it's needed or not. And my powers are not unlimited. There are certain things that I simply cannot do, and preventing those two kings' deaths was one of them. I am sorry, Nimue. It was a long while ago, anyway."
"I see," she said, still frowning.
"So, is there anything in particular that you would like to know?", asked Merlin. "Some of the smaller news from the court, perhaps?"
She shook her head. "Nothing in particular," she said. "Except for one little thing. A simple spell that I've been interested in for some time now."
"And what spell might that be?", Merlin asked her.
"A spell to create an invisible wall," she replied. "A round invisible wall, that can enclose a space in such a way that none may enter or leave, save the one who cast the spell."
"The Tower of Air, you mean," said Merlin. "Well, I'd hardly consider it a simple spell. More a very complicated one. And ordinarily, I wouldn't be teaching it just yet. It's not something for novices, after all, but for the high-ranking masters in the field. You are asking a great deal, if you wish to cast it."
"Well, my father's sheep have been straying from their fields quite often of late," she said. "And I wanted to find some way of confining them. The Tower of Air doesn't need to hold them for long, just during the daytime. I can cancel it when it's time to return to the manor in the evening. If it can be cancelled."
"Well, yes," said Merlin. "It can. But only by the one who cast it."
"Then can you teach me that enchantment?", she asked, looking up at him with her bright bluish-green eyes.
"Well, yes," he said, after a moment's hesitation. Why did the way that she stared at him always have this strange effect on him? He wondered whether he had done the right thing, falling in love with her. As if falling in love was something that he could have made a decision about. He knew well enough that it certainly wasn't. "I do have the time. So, if you're listening carefully, you do it like this...."
Merlin was never afterwards certain just why he felt so sleepy that afternoon. Maybe it was the long ride through the forest, combined with an all-but-sleepless night before (he should have known better than to lodge at that particular inn; the place should have been labeled a prize breeding-ground for fleas), and the strain of teaching that particular spell to Nimue. How it was that Blaise hadn't taken more naps after the magic lessons that he'd given him as a boy, Merlin had never been able to figure out. For magic can be an exhausting process. Merlin supposed that Nimue might be feeling a trifle drowsy herself by now, after learning the enchantment from him, even though she was certainly hiding the signs of it.
He lay down in the shade of a whitethorn bush in full bloom, and closed his eyes. Before long, he was asleep. Just as he was drifting off, he half-fancied that he could hear Nimue saying something, but he couldn't make out what, and it hardly seemed important to him. Sleep seemed much more important to him right now.
It was when he woke up that he realized that something was very wrong. He was still lying beneath the whitethorn bush, but all around him the air shimmered and glowed. He started to his feet, and stared at it. Nimue was on the other side, looking a little guilty.
"What on earth is going on here?", he asked her in astonishment. He then touched that portion of the air which shimmered, only to withdraw his hand at once, as if it had been stung. "Nimue!", he cried, in a reproachful tone of voice. "You didn't!"
"I am sorry, Merlin," said the young woman regretfully. "But I could hardly do otherwise. There are certain things about you, Merlin that I - I fear. It's better to be safe."
"Nimue, you know perfectly well that you're the only person who can undo this spell!", cried Merlin. "Cancel the Tower of Air, please! I can't spend the rest of my life here!"
Nimue gazed at him for a moment, an unsettled look on her face. Then she sighed, and walked away, leaving King Arthur's wizard all alone.
"So now you know," said Nimue to Arthur. "You know why I did it."
"And that doesn't excuse you at all," said Arthur sharply. "You had no evidence beyond a stranger's testimony that Merlin meant any harm to you or anyone else at all."
"I did what I could," said Nimue. "Have you forgotten how much I have done for you, Arthur, in the years that followed? I saved you from the schemes of your half-sister, Morgana la Fay, twice. I rescued you from the clutches of her fellow enchantress Annowre when she sought to slay you. And I revealed before your entire court that your queen had not poisoned Sir Patrice, as she had been accused of doing. Is that not amends enough to you for depriving you of Merlin's counsel?"
"Perhaps," said Arthur. "But there is a matter of making amends to him for what you did to him."
Nimue sighed and shook her head. "We'll have plenty
of time to discuss this in the years to come, Arthur," she said.
"After all, you will be remaining here for a very long time. For
eternity, if I have
anything to say about it."
Arthur stared at her in alarm, wondering what to say, how to make her change her mind. At the moment, he didn't seem to have too many options available to him.
The sun lowered in the sky, and finally set in the west. As the first shadows of night filled the clearing, Griff and Cavall both awoke from their stone sleep, eyes glowing, stone shards flying everywhere. Both stretched and snarled in the usual fashion of newly-awakened gargoyles, then looked around them.
"Arthur?", asked Griff, noticing his friend's absence. "Your Majesty?" His gaze swept the glade, but he could see no sign of the king anywhere about.
"I don't like this, Cavall," he said to the gargoyle dog, which seemed bewildered itself as to Arthur Pendragon's absence. "Arthur wouldn't have left during the daytime, just like that. There's something strange going on here. Something's happened to him."
Cavall barked once, as if in assent.
"We have to find him," said Griff. "But how is the
question. If he left shortly after daybreak, then he could have gone
very far. There's no telling where he is, or how to find him." He
mulling it over. "Unless...."
He looked at Cavall, and nodded. "Of course!", he said. "You can smell him out, boy! You've got the nose for it!"
Cavall stared at him, looking somewhat bewildered. Griff realized that he'd have to be a little more specific. After all, Cavall was a gargoyle beast, not a regular gargoyle, and they didn't quite understand regular speech. A couple of commands would be in order, the same way as with a regular dog.
Griff led Cavall over to the spot where Arthur had been seated before dawn, and held his nose down low there. "Get his scent, Cavall!", he said. "Seek!"
Cavall snuffled the ground intently, then gave another loud bark. He then began to push his nose along until he had clearly picked up King Arthur's scent. With that, he gave an eager bark, and rushed forward.
"That's it!", cried Griff eagerly. "Good boy! Lead, and I'll follow!" And with that, he dashed after the excited gargoyle dog.
"You cannot keep me here forever, my lady!", protested Arthur. "I request - nay, demand - that you grant me my freedom!"
Nimue sighed. "We aren't going to have to go through this over and over again, are we?", she asked. "Because I'm certainly not looking forward to such a prospect. If you're going to keep on speaking up like this, then I'm going to have to take some serious measures."
She thought it over for a moment. "In fact, I believe that I'll do so anyway," she added. "I've been saving this thing for a special occasion, and this seems just right for it."
She snapped her fingers, and a small box appeared floating in the air beside her. She opened it and pulled out from it a small golden medallion, with strange characters engraved on it all around the rim. Arthur recognized them as Ogham letters, the secret alphabet of the Druids. Used for casting powerful spells, much in the same manner as the runes of the Saxon wizards in his time. Clearly this was some talisman that the halfling enchantress had crafted or obtained. The king wondered about its purpose, though he had a dark foreboding in his heart that it could not be a good one for him.
Nimue approached him, and looped the chain of the medallion over his neck. "You will remain here with me," she said to him, as she did so.
"Yes," said Arthur, in an entranced voice. All thoughts of escape fled from him at that point. "I will remain here with you, my lady." And he meant it with all his heart. For a longing had welled up in him the moment she had placed the talisman upon him to stay by her side till the end of time, and never depart. He knew, deep down inside, that this was sorcery at work, but he could not bring himself to protest it.
"Well, that settles it, then," said Nimue. "There'll be no more argument from you from now on. You will stay here, and keep me company. Unless I decide to free you, but I doubt that it'll happen. I did free Merlin in the end, but - well, the circumstances aren't likely to be repeated."
She fell silent, and seemed to be thinking back to some old memory. King Arthur, however, was in no condition at present to note it.
BROCELIANDE, BRITTANY, EARLY 6TH CENTURY.
Nimue sighed in a bored manner as she sat in the study of her manor-house - once her father's manor-house, but Dyonas had passed on some years ago and left her his lands and estates - reading the report from her steward about the current state of the harvests. It was not particularly exciting, but part of the duties of being a land-owner. Even being the most noted enchantress in western Europe - after Morgana la Fay, of course, who hadn't been heard from for some time now - didn't allow her to escape such a responsibility. It was tedious, true, but somebody had to do it.
Many years had gone by since she had imprisoned Merlin
in the Tower of Air. It was an act whose wisdom she still found herself
questioning, from time to time, but always told herself that it had been
necessary. She had been uncertain as to what his intentions were towards
her, and it had been best not to take any chances. In any case, King
Arthur had gotten along well enough without his wizard. There had
been a couple of magical assassination attempts against him, true, stemming
from Morgana la Fay, but both of these Nimue had foiled, as her atonement for depriving Arthur of the mage who could have thwarted the sorceress's schemes so easily. And after that, the perils to the kingdom had dwindled down to those that could be handled by a good sword-arm rather than by a few spells, robber-barons and Saxon raiding parties and even a dragon or giant or two, rather than magic-workers. For these, the knights of the Round Table had been more than adequate,
and so Nimue had seen very little need to get involved herself. And doubtless Merlin himself would have been an unneeded luxury at Camelot, likewise. She sometimes wondered, perhaps in part to salve her conscience, whether he would even have still been at court had he not been imprisoned in the enchanted tower, or whether he might have departed.
She seldom thought about Merlin these days, however, or even King Arthur. Administering her father's lands took up much of her time. It was fortunate that she had nothing more to do with them than look over the harvests, attend to the upkeep of her manors, and a few things like that. There had been no war or serious unrest in Brittany for a long time, thanks to King Hoel's wise rule and the peace that he and Arthur had together ensured with the Franks. There hadn't even been any bandits reported for five years now. The largest thing that she had to worry about was sudden storms that might strike before the harvests could be gathered. And her magical knowledge was able to deal with that problem quite nicely.
She still seemed a young woman, although that was hardly her age as far as mere years were concerned. Halflings do not age the same way that full-blooded humans do, at least, not those who are fully aware of their mystical birthright. The blood of Avalon flowed in her veins, and regular use of magic had strengthened it. Nimue didn't know if she was going to live forever or not, but it would certainly be for a good many centuries. Possibly even forever.
Her thoughts were interrupted as one of the household squires entered the chamber. "My lady," he said, in an uncertain voice.
She looked up from the scroll laid out before her. "What is it, Yonec?", she asked him.
"There's a knight from King Arthur's court wishes to see you, my lady," said the lad.
"A knight from King Arthur's court," she repeated thoughtfully. "I hadn't known this."
"He's only just arrived, my lady," said Yonec. "Rode into the courtyard but a couple of minutes ago."
Nimue frowned. She obviously had been so engrossed in her thoughts that she hadn't even heard the hubbub and commotion that would have attended the knight's arrival. Well, it was her fault alone, and nobody else's. And the knight meant an actual guest at her table, somebody to give her tidings from the outside world. That was certainly a welcome thing.
"Well, I shall receive him, then," she said, rising from her chair. "Which knight is he, Yonec? Do you know? Is he of the Round Table, or one of the lesser knights?"
"He announced himself as Sir Tristram of Lyonesse, my lady," said Yonec.
Nimue was surprised, but in a pleasant way. Sir Tristram was one of the leading knights of the Round Table, second only to Sir Lancelot du Lac himself, in fact. He had joined King Arthur's order of knighthood not long ago, and had distinguished himself noticeably in the High King's service ever since. Indeed, his position in Camelot was an honored one - aside from the constant gossip surrounding him and Queen Iseult of Cornwall, King Mark's wife. Gossip that had continued to circulate even after Tristram had married another Iseult, King Hoel's daughter. Well, there would always be tongues wagging about one thing or another. Those who didn't want to talk about that scandal might always discuss the rumors about Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere instead. Nimue had heard a few of them as well, although she discouraged them from being discussed in her household.
And, as if that was not all, she actually knew him. They had worked together once, to rescue King Arthur from captivity. She had not spoken with him since, but she supposed that that occasion made him count as an acquaintance. So all the more reason to welcome him, besides the great honor that he did her by his visit.
"Sir Tristram is always a welcome guest here, and I am more than happy to receive him," she said. "I will gladly speak with him, Yonec."
Yonec left the solar, and a few minutes later, escorted Sir Tristram into the room. The knight was in his early thirties, a handsome dark-haired man with a small moustache, still clad in his coat of mail and surcoat, though he had already removed his helm. Nimue stepped forward to greet him. "Welcome to my manor, good sir knight," she said. "I bid you fair welcome upon your coming."
"My lady," replied Sir Tristram, with a courteous bow.
Yonec left the room, and closed the door behind him. Once he had done so, Tristram stepped forward. "Now we may speak privately," he said to her.
"If you so wish," Nimue replied. "And to what do we owe the honor of your visit, Sir Tristram? Have you any errand with us, or have you but chosen to spend the night here, on some quest that you have vowed to undertake?"
"The former, my lady," said Tristram gravely. "There is a boon that I must ask of you."
"Very well, then," she replied. "Name it, and if it lies within my power, I shall grant it."
"Then I have this to ask of you," said the knight. "There is word that it was through your enchantments that the wizard Merlin was imprisoned in a Tower of Air, and thus secluded from the rest of the world, unable to intervene in its affairs. And so he has remained for many years."
"The tales speak the truth," said Nimue, if a trifle uncomfortably. It was something that she did not like being reminded of, and especially not so soon after she had just been thinking over the qualms that she had had concerning it. But she could hardly deny what he had said.
"I had feared as much," said Tristram. "Then, my lady, what I mean to ask of you is this. That you release Merlin from his durance, and return his freedom to him."
Nimue stared at him, speechless. "I can hardly do that, my lord," she said, when she had quite caught her breath. "I had good reason to cast the spell upon Merlin in the first place, and no good reason to undo the enchantment. Ask some other boon or favor of me, but not this."
"I will ask none other," said Tristram firmly. "Either grant the boon that I have besought of you, or be an oath-breaker, to your shame."
"I would know a few things first, before I proceed with either choice," she replied. "Why do you come to me now, to request Merlin's freedom? I placed the enchantment upon him many years ago. You certainly bided your time before seeking me out. Especially since you could have so easily made the request from me on the occasion that we together rescued King Arthur from the sorceress Annowre."
"I did not know for certain whether or not the tales were based on truth," said Tristram. "I knew that Merlin had been gone from the High King's court for a great many years, and that rumor credited you with his disappearance. But I did not know for certain. There were other accounts of the reason for his departure - that he had died, or that he had simply chosen to associate no longer with the race of men and had retreated to some lonely hermitage. It was not until I spoke with Blaise that I knew the truth."
"Blaise?", asked Nimue, startled. "So Merlin's tutor is still alive?"
Tristram shook his head. "No longer, my lady," he said sadly. "He was on his deathbed when I had words with him. He was a long-lived mage, but not immortal. He called me and one other to his home, when he knew that his final hours were at hand. To the other - whose name I am not at liberty to reveal - he entrusted the two great books in his possession, the chronicle that he had written of Merlin's life and King Arthur's reign, and the Grimorum Arcanorum, which he had received from the wizard who had taught him. The former goes to the royal archives at Camelot, and the latter to Blaise's destined successor as Magus - whoever he might be. But to me, he had a different matter to entrust, words rather than books."
"And what was that?", asked Nimue.
"He bade me seek you out at your manor in Broceliande," said Tristram, "and request of you that you undo the spell that created the Tower of Air. Only you can do it, for you were the one that wove the spell in the first place. But you must release Merlin from his captivity."
"And if I do not?", asked Nimue. "You will surely
not offer me violence, Sir Tristram. Even if I were not a mighty
enough enchantress to freeze you into stone before you could draw your
you would be eternally shamed and stripped of your knighthood for harming a woman, contrary to your vows."
"You mistake me quite, if you believe such a thing," said Tristram calmly. "Rather, I wish to tell you what Blaise told me. The time is drawing near when Merlin must be free, or great harm and sorrow shall befall the world. Blaise would not say what this peril was, but he said that Merlin's freedom is necessary, to prevent it. And he also had one other thing to say. Merlin's father is abroad, and has many subtle crafts. He would be glad to see his son rendered forever powerless, if not slain outright."
"Merlin's father?", asked Nimue. "Who is he? Are the stories true that he is the Prince of Darkness?"
"Close to the truth," said Tristram. "Blaise told
me that there were many of Oberon's Children, who were expelled from Avalon,
thousands of years ago, for defying his authority. They roam the
world now in bitterness, seeking vengeance upon the Lord of the Third Race
in one way or another. And Merlin's father was one of the greatest
of them. He begat Merlin upon a human maid to aid him in his designs for
revenge, but Blaise foiled them by training Merlin when he was but a
child to use his faerie gifts for other purposes than to serve the outcast fays. Now Merlin's sire seeks to destroy his son, to punish him for his desertion - as he sees it. He has plotted against him
many times, and has taken many guises in so doing. And one of them, Blaise said to me, was a stranger in the forest of Broceliande who spread false rumors to darken his halfling child's good repute."
Nimue suddenly remembered the man who had filled her heart with doubts concerning Merlin, and fell silent. She was feeling extremely uneasy now, as she began to realize what she must have done. And it was clear enough that Tristram could read her thoughts, as well, from the expression on his face.
"I know how this must grieve you," he said gently to her. "Take comfort in the thought that you are not the first to be deluded by the lies of one of the banished fays. Others have been deceived, and done things which they regretted afterwards. But you made your mistake in honest ignorance. And you yet have the opportunity to make amends for your act."
Nimue nodded, after some minutes in thought. "I will do as you advise me, sir knight," she said. "And I thank you, for what you yourself have done. Others may say about you what they will, but I shall never see you as anything other than a good friend, who opened my eyes to a grievous error that I made, and showed me how I might undo it - while doing so with utter courtesy and gentleness. You are a true and worthy knight, Sir Tristram."
"I thank you, my lady," said Tristram, with a bow.
"Now let us be on our way," said Nimue to him. "We have much to do before tonight - and to undo, as well." And with that, she walked out from the study, and he followed.
It was half an hour later that the two of them came to the clearing where Nimue had imprisoned Merlin within the Tower of Air. The tower itself was invisible, but there was a shimmering in the center of the glade that indicated its presence. Nimue and Tristram dismounted from their horses, and Nimue approached the site of the tower, signaling the knight to stand well back.
Stretching forth both hands, the halfling enchantress spoke in a loud, clear voice:
"Tower wrought from walls of air
Woven by enchantments fair
From this place you must now flee
That your dweller may be free."
Rays of green light shot out from her finger-tips and struck the place where the invisible tower stood. An emerald radiance lit up the clearing for a moment, and then was gone. So was the shimmering. And Merlin stumbled out from the place where his prison had been, looking somewhat bewildered.
Nimue approached him hesitantly, as he managed to right himself. He looked thinner and more care-worn, but other than that, no different from when she had last seen him. "Merlin?", she asked him, in a troubled voice. "I - I am sorry for what I did to you. If you can bring yourself to forgive me - ".
"Even if I was a vengeful man," said Merlin, accepting her hand to steady himself, "I doubt that I would have sought any form of reprisal upon you. I'm too glad to be free at last. In any case, I realized long ago what prompted you to do this. You had been used by somebody else, deceived. There's little shame in that."
"That doesn't change the fact that I imprisoned you," said Nimue.
"Nor that you released me," said Merlin. "Thank you for so doing."
"It's not I that you should thank, Merlin," said Nimue. "But another, rather." And she pointed to Sir Tristram, who came forward now.
Merlin turned to the knight. "I suppose that I owe you a great deal," he said to Tristram. "And you are - "
"Sir Tristram of Lyonesse, knight of King Arthur's Round Table," the knight replied. "If it please you."
"It certainly does," said Merlin. "My thanks to you, for assisting in my release."
"I could hardly do otherwise," said Sir Tristram. "You may not remember it, but several years ago, you rescued my father, King Meliodas, from captivity. I felt duty-bound to return the favor."
"Well, I would certainly say that you have done just that," said Merlin, with a bow. "I shall not forget this."
"So what will you do now, Merlin?", asked Nimue. "Will you return to King Arthur's court, and become his advisor again?"
Merlin thought it over. "Truth to tell, I don't
know," he said at length. "I had thought of it at one point, very
early on in my imprisonment. But now I'm not so certain. Our
ways have parted, and
it may not be the wisest course to join them again. Not yet. I had better go to some quiet place apart first, and learn all that I can about how things have changed since I was first confined in the Tower of Air. Only then can I know for certain what to do."
"You may be right," said Nimue. "Arthur's fared well enough without a wizard at his side for many years now. Maybe you are no longer needed, now that he's secure on his throne."
"Maybe," said Merlin. "Especially since I have the feeling that whatever trouble may yet befall him, will come from a source that even my magic is powerless against. The human heart. More than that, I can't say."
He made ready to leave, then suddenly paused in his footsteps and turned around. "I hope to see both of you again sometime," he said. "Not for a while, perhaps, but in good time. And give my greetings to King Arthur. Maybe I will see him again as yet." And with that, he walked off, and was soon lost in the shadows of the trees. Nimue and Tristram both silently watched him go, without a word.
A loud and eager barking noise suddenly disturbed the silence of the clearing. Nimue turned around and faced the sound, an annoyed expression on her face.
"Some beast," she said, her eyes glinting dangerously. "An overgrown hound, all muddy paws and waggy tail, and very little in the way of wits. I am going to have to send him on his way, and swiftly."
The barking grew louder, and then the figures of Griff and Cavall burst into the glade. "We're here, Arthur!", cried Griff eagerly. He then stopped short as he saw Nimue. "Who is your friend, anyway?", he asked.
"I am going to have to ask both of you to leave," said Nimue sharply, drawing herself up to her full height, her arms folded across her chest. "The Pendragon and I have private business to attend to, and I would just as soon prefer it if you did not disrupt matters."
Cavall gave a low growl, his eyes glowing white. Then he sprang at her.
Nimue casually raised one hand, and Cavall froze in mid-leap, a glowing green light surrounding him. A similar emerald radiance played around Griff, rendering him motionless as well. He could still speak, but was unable to move his limbs or wings.
"You should know better than to attempt brute force against
an enchantress," she said calmly to the entrapped pair. "Sometimes
I wonder about you gargoyles. It's almost as though your wits remain
stone at night when the rest of you revert to flesh."
"Release King Arthur this very moment!", cried Griff. "You've no right to keep him as your prisoner!"
"My prisoner?", echoed Nimue, with a silvery laugh. "Why, whatever gave you that impression? He's no prisoner if he wishes to stay here, remains of his own choosing. And that is the case with you, Arthur, is it not?", she said, turning to him.
King Arthur nodded. "So it is with me," he spoke, in a toneless voice, his eyes blank. "I do not wish to leave this place, Griff. You and Cavall must depart without me."
"Arthur, no!", cried Griff in horror. "What are you saying? The world needs you! That's what the Stone of Destiny and the Lady of the Lake both told you! You can't remain here!"
"I must," said Arthur. "I have chosen to abandon my quest, and remain here with Nimue. You and Cavall must seek Merlin without me."
Griff stared at his friend in disbelief. The Once
and Future King would never abandon his ordained mission, surely.
It was completely out of character for him. Unless.... He saw
the unfocused eyes, and had heard the almost robotic voice, without feeling
or emotion. And he now noticed the medallion hanging about his neck.
Combining these with the spell that he and Cavall were now enmeshed in,
it was not too difficult to understand what was at work here. Arthur
was under a
spell, the work of this sorceress. And almost as soon as he realized this, he had an idea on what to do.
He sighed unhappily. "Have it your way, then, Arthur," he said. "I guess that we'll just have to do without you, Cavall and I. I'm sorry, but if it's your decision, we'll just have to accept it." He then spoke to Nimue. "You've won," he said. "We'll go without him. Just release us from your spell, my lady."
"Very well," said Nimue. She gestured, and the green light vanished. Both Griff and Cavall were free once more. Griff walked up to King Arthur, who rose to meet him.
"Farewell, my liege," saId Griff, giving him a bow. "I will continue the quest for Merlin in your name, as my duties as your knight demand. That I promise."
Arthur nodded. "I thank you, Sir Griff," he said, still in that toneless voice.
It was then that the gargoyle made his move. Before either Nimue or Arthur could react, he reached out one hand, and snatched the medallion from off the king's neck. He clenched his fist around it hard, and it broke asunder with a loud snapping noise and a flash of green light.
Nimue stared at Griff in horror for a moment, realizing what he had done, then let out a scream of fury and frustration. But before she could act further, King Arthur now spoke. His eyes were keen and focused once more, and his voice that of a free man again.
"Well done, Griff!", he cried. "That was a great thing that you did."
"A great thing, indeed!", cried Nimue, clenching her fists angrily and glowering at the griffon-like gargoyle. "You had to go and ruin everything! Do you realize how much work it took to make that binding talisman? And it will be years before I can craft another! Years! Splendidly done indeed, Sir Griff!"
"Sorry to have inconvenienced you, my lady," said Griff, with a bow in her direction. "But I couldn't just abandon my king. What sort of knight would I be if I did such a thing?"
Cavall had rushed forward the moment that the spell had been broken, and was now barking joyously at Arthur, wagging his tail. The Once and Future King scratched him behind the ears, smiling. "Yes, I've missed you too, Cavall," he told the gargoyle dog. Then he straightened up and turned to Nimue.
"Your offer was truly tempting, my lady," he said to her. "But I cannot remain here. I was awakened early from my slumber, true, but awakened I was all the same, and I could hardly return to sleep of any sort, once that happened. I have a quest to carry out, and I must not abandon it. The quest for Merlin. I trust that you understand, my lady."
Nimue sighed, looking absolutely miserable. "I can hardly do otherwise," she said. "I've no more talismans to hold you here, and you'd make poor company without one. Believe me, if I had another such enchantment on my person, it would be quite different. But as it is, I can't hold you here now except against your will, and that will not be enjoyable for either of us. I might as well give you leave to go on your way."
"Not quite yet," said Arthur. "My lady, you can be of some help to me. I am seeking Merlin, as you know, and you always knew him well. Can you tell me where I might find him? I would have his counsel as to what part I must play in the new world that I have awakened to find myself in."
"Where is Merlin?", echoed Nimue, her voice calmer now. "Truth to tell, I've not exchanged words with him for over a thousand years. Not since I released him from the Tower of Air at Sir Tristram's bidding. He could be anywhere in the world now. Anywhere. Especially since he is good at making sure that he cannot be found, when he wishes not to be found. If you seek him, it may be a very long while before your quest ends - if it ever does."
"That I know, my lady," said Arthur. "But I would still have your counsel."
"Then I will tell you this," said Nimue. "To achieve your quest, you must seek out your old haunts, and those of the folk who were once close to you. Visit those places that hold memories for you, both good and ill. Confront your past, and remember it. Become at peace with it. Then, when that is done, you may be able to find Merlin at last."
Arthur listened to her words thoughtfully, and nodded. "I thank you for your good advice, my lady," he said. Then he stepped forward, and kissed her on the hand. "I will not soon forget this."
"You treat me thus?", asked Nimue, looking surprised. "After what I have done to you?"
"My lady, there are things that I myself have done that I am not proud of," said Arthur. "It is the same way with all of us. If we cannot forgive others the actions that they have done towards us, how can we ourselves be forgiven for what we ourselves have done to others? You have released me from confinement, just as you released Merlin. I will bear no ill will against you."
Nimue was silent for a moment. "It seems that you may indeed be such a leader as the world is in need of," she said at last. "Your courtesy and gentleness have certainly not gathered rust on Avalon. And that impresses me."
She gave the former High King of Britain a gentle curtsy. "I bid you farewell, Arthur Pendragon," she said. "And I wish you well upon your quest."
"Even as I wish you well, my lady," said Arthur, with a bow. And with that, he turned around to join his waiting companions.
"So where do we go now, Arthur?", asked Griff, as he and Cavall followed the king from the clearing.
"To the place most fitted for the true beginning of this quest, my friend,' said Arthur to his knight. "To where it all began."