Merlin stepped into the audience chamber and was, as ever, impressed with how well it reflected the thought processes of its builder. The space was utilitarian; practical. Nothing wasted, nothing out of place. Such was how many had described Camelot’s ruler – even Merlin himself, at times. There were worse things a king could be, Merlin knew.
That often meant preempting certain situations before they turned into full-blown problems. Merlin was happy to nudge the elbow of fate when he thought it was called for, but Arthur had made such interference into an art form, especially of late. Not just when it came to his fellow rulers, either.
“We’ll be caught in the middle, if he fails,” Arthur said. He ran a hand through his hair. “If your auguries are right, I mean,” he added, with a flash of boyish humor.
“And when have they ever been wrong?” Merlin said, fixing his former student with a stern eye. Arthur laughed and shook his head.
“I don’t doubt you or your visions, Merlin. I just wish they were a bit clearer is all. We could weather a clash of kingdoms easily enough. But…” He trailed off, shaking his head. Merlin nodded in understanding.
“A clash of pantheons, on the other hand, might well swallow us all up.”
Arthur sat back, a look of weariness on his face. His eyes fell to Excalibur and Merlin recalled the last time Arthur had wielded the blade against a member of one of the pantheons – Norse, in this instance – near Deira. Though Arthur was something close to a god himself these days, it had nonetheless been a taxing encounter. Merlin had almost been forced to intervene, however much it might have stung Arthur’s warrior-pride. But the king had won the day on his own power and forced his opponent, Tyr, from the field.
There was peace between Camelot and the Norse these days; an uneasy peace, but peace nonetheless. Arthur was loathe to endanger it. But the auguries had been clear – war was on the horizon, borne on night-black wings. Unless they stopped it.
“He will succeed, Arthur,” Merlin said, and hoped, despite his own forebodings, that he spoke the truth. “Lancelot does not know the meaning of failure.”
Some days later, and far to the north, Lancelot du Lac urged his horse through the snow and peered up at the mountains that rose wild above him. The wind bit fiercely at his exposed skin, and he pulled his cloak more tightly about him. It had taken nearly a week’s hard riding to reach the spot Merlin had described to him, but thus far he’d seen nothing of interest save snow and more snow.
He patted his horse’s neck, and felt the animal trembling. “Tired, are you?” he asked, softly. “Me too. Let’s take our ease, and wait to see whether there’s anything to this prophecy of Merlin’s.” He slid easily from the saddle and led the exhausted animal towards a nearby scattering of standing stones. The stones had knotwork markings carved into them – boundary markers, perhaps, denoting the frontier of some long-vanished kingdom. He paid them little mind as he gathered wood and lit a fire.
Lancelot saw to his horse first, and then made to feed himself. He was nearing the end of the provisions he’d brought. Soon, he’d have to forage if he wanted to keep himself fed. If he were lucky, something would happen before then. He stoked the fire, adding more sticks, feeling the old, familiar impatience stirring within him.
He hated waiting. He always had. He longed for action – not battle, necessarily. But he’d never turned away from a fight, and he didn’t intend to do so now. Not when so much was depending on him. He stirred the fire again, and stared into the flames. It reminded him of other fires, other battles. Dragon-fire and sorcery. He had faced warlocks and monsters by the dozens since he had come to Camelot, and worse besides.
None of it was enough. Bravery was not enough. That was what Merlin said. Camelot had brave men aplenty. Courage alone could not win a warrior a seat at the Round Table. To be a knight of the Round Table, a warrior must show that he possessed more than skill at arms, more than the ferocity to put enemies to flight.
“I must be more,” he murmured.
“I have always thought you more than enough,” a woman’s voice murmured. Startled, Lancelot leapt to his feet, his hand reaching for his sword. A familiar form sat across the fire from him. She had arrived so silently that he had not heard her approach. Then, it was said that none could see Morgan Le Fay, unless she wished it.
He sat back down. “Morgan. Might I ask why you’re here?”
“Can I not simply pay an old friend a visit?” Morgan asked, with a chuckle.
Lancelot frowned. “Forgive me, but we are not friends.”
She clucked her tongue, as if in disappointment. “Oh, come now Lancelot. If I were not your friend, I would not be here.”
“And what is that supposed to mean?”
“Merely that I am here to help you, of course.” Morgan reached out and ran her fingers through the fire, causing it to change color. “Merlin sent you to solve a problem. Don’t bother denying it; I know everything that goes on in Camelot.”
Lancelot nodded, knowing there was no use in denying it. “If you know why I am here, then you know better than to interfere with a knight of the Round Table.”
“Ah, but you are not of the Round Table yet, are you? Arthur keeps you at arm’s length, advised to do so, no doubt, by Merlin. Merlin does not think you are worthy to sit at his precious table – and he has convinced you of the same. So now how you are, engaged in another impossible quest. How many times will you risk your life before you see sense?”
Lancelot smiled gently. “I might ask you the same question, Morgan. How many times will you come to me with your pretty lies before you realize that I will not join you?”
Morgan stood. “Lies are but the shadow of truth. Merlin taught me that.” She gestured, and the flames rose up, forcing him back. She gestured in the direction of his steed, and the animal snorted in sudden fright. His horse tore itself loose from where he’d tethered it and galloped away, kicking at the air as if under attack.
“What have you done to my horse?” he demanded, taking a step towards her. Morgan gestured again, and the flames reached out as if to envelope him. Lancelot drew his sword and retreated. “Cease this madness, Morgan. I do not wish to fight you!”
“What if I give you no choice?” Morgan laughed, from the other side of the fire. “If I defeat you, will you finally listen to me?”
“You wouldn’t be the first to try,” Lancelot said, trying to keep a rein on his temper. Getting angry would solve nothing – indeed, he half-suspected that was Morgan’s aim. She was trying to provoke him into some rash action. But what?
“You will see sense soon enough,” she said. “Then you will call on me, Lancelot du Lac, and I will come with all due haste. Call my name, and I will show you that I can be a better friend to you than either Merlin or Arthur could ever hope to be, whatever you believe. That I promise you.” At her words, the flames lunged for him and he slashed out. They parted before his steel, revealing – nothing. Morgan was gone. The only trace of her presence was the faint echo of fading laughter.
Lancelot sighed and sheathed his sword. Morgan had made her interest in him plain from the start. She wanted his loyalty because Arthur had it – and, by extension, Merlin. She desired Camelot for herself, or so Merlin claimed. Lancelot wasn’t sure that she desired the kingdom itself, so much as she desired Merlin’s defeat. He’d asked her about it once, in his innocence. She had merely laughed and attempted to beguile him with her sorceries. He knew better than to bandy words with her now.
He started after his horse. He knew the animal hadn’t gone far. It was too well-trained for that. But there were wild beasts aplenty in these lands, and a lone horse would be seen as easy prey – even one bred for war. As he followed his steed’s trail, he wondered why Morgan had even bothered to send the animal running. Was it just an expression of her spiteful nature, or did she have some ulterior motive?
Lancelot was still pondering the matter when he found the animal. Morgan’s spell had driven the horse into a dense thicket of trees nearby, where it stood trembling. Lancelot made his way over to it and began to stroke its neck while murmuring soft encouragement. The animal grew calmer, but stamped the ground in warning. When he saw its nostrils flare, he realized that it smelled something. “What is it?” he murmured, reaching for his lance where it was strapped to his saddle. “What do you smell?”
The horse stamped the ground again, and whickered. Then, as if in reply, a great roar echoed from somewhere deeper in the trees. The horse reared, and Lancelot turned.
A bear lumbered suddenly into view, panting. Arrows jutted from its hide, and the tang of blood settled on the chill air. Its eyes fixed on Lancelot, and it reared, roaring in challenge. Thinking quickly, Lancelot swatted his horse on the flank. “Go! Give me room.” Without waiting to see if the animal would listen, he raised his lance and shouted to catch the bear’s attentions. “Here! Over here!”
The bear swung its shaggy head towards him and took a heavy step in his direction. Blood pattered the snow. He was amazed that the animal hadn’t yet succumbed to its wounds. Even as he thought it, the bear tried to rear again, but faltered and collapsed in a heap. Lancelot stared for a moment, then cautiously made his way to the bear’s side. It was still breathing, but only with difficulty. There were half a dozen arrows in the bear’s flesh, and they all shimmered with a strange light.
Setting his lance aside, he carefully extricated one of the arrows and examined it. It was cold to the touch – like ice. It shattered into shimmering fragments in his hands, and the fragments spun away on the wind. The bear moaned in obvious pain, and Lancelot felt a surge of pity for the beast. “Easy,” he said, reaching to pluck away another arrow.
“Step away from the beast.”
The voice was cold; calm. Like ice on stone. Lancelot turned to see a strange figure clad in a blue cloak and armor, with a bow and quiver strapped to his broad back. The newcomer ducked beneath a tree branch and brandished a pair of axes. “This quarry is mine, mortal. Find your own.”
Lancelot stared at the being before him. His eyes widened in sudden realization. “You are a god,” he said. It was not a question. The newcomer’s divinity beat against his senses like cold water.
“I am Ullr, and the bear is mine.” Ullr pointed one of his axes at Lancelot. “Now stand aside, mortal – or become my prey as well.”