Authors: Laura Anne Gilman
For Ty Wheeler:
The great Merlin, court magician to Arthur, High King of…
“You have the manners of a crow and the voice…
“Witch-child, where are you? I can feel you, I can…
The next morning found them riding out of sunlit fields…
“Lovely. Simply lovely.”
Branches scratched at Gerard’s face and arms as he rode…
Tom had taken down most of Sir Matthias’s belongings and…
“The best of Camelot,” Merlin said in disgust, echoing, unknowingly,…
“This entire Quest has been cursed from the start.”
“You can’t be serious. Ailis, didn’t we talk about this?
“Sir, we must go!”
“That may be more difficult than we thought,” Gerard said,…
“So…What do we do now?” Newt asked.
The name rang out in the grove like the sounding…
“Fools. Mortal barbarian fools.” Nemesis stood before Morgain, having discarded…
And so the Grail was won…and lost again. How…
he great Merlin, court magician to Arthur, High King of Britain, and the most powerful enchanter in the known world, was on the verge of losing his patience.
This wasn’t an entirely unusual occurrence: In fact, most of humanity made Merlin lose his temper on a regular basis. But he had expected better of Ailis, the young maid who had recently shown herself to be a magic user of no small talent.
“Girl-child,” Merlin began again in a voice he clearly thought was kind, even fatherly. But all it did was make Ailis angrier.
“I’m not a child, Merlin. I haven’t been a child in a very long time.” There might have been room to argue that a year ago when she was merely one of many servants in Camelot. But not now; not after she
and the squire Gerard and the stable boy, Newt, had rescued Arthur and his court from Morgain’s sleep-spell; not after she herself had been taken prisoner by Morgain; and not after she had discovered that the sorceress was plotting even more wickedness against her half brother, the king.
And not now, since she had been sent, with Gerard and Newt, to accompany the chosen Knights of the Round Table on their search for the mystical, magical Grail Cup—the holy relic that Arthur could use to solidify his hold over his kingdom. This relic, according to Merlin, was their best hope to keep Morgain’s plots at bay.
“No, you’re not,” Merlin agreed, running one hand distractedly through his hair, the shoulder-length strands flying wildly. “And that is exactly why it is so important that you do as I say.”
She was ready to protest again when Merlin held up one hand, palm outward. “Ailis, do you understand, truly understand, the importance of this Quest?” He didn’t wait for her to answer, but went on. “You can
imperil it. To be blunt, you—and I and everyone else—are not as important as finding the Grail. Specifically, finding the Grail before Morgain does.”
“Is it really magic?” Ailis asked. Morgain had insisted that, whatever the Grail’s origins, the fact that it was a blood-blessed chalice made it part of the Old Ways more than the new, and therefore hers by right, more so than Arthur’s. Ailis had never considered that before, but it made sense when Morgain said it. Then again, many impossible things made sense when Morgain said them. That was half her charm, and most of her danger.
“Magic?” Merlin shrugged, his old, worn robe shifting around his body like a living thing. “Anything people don’t understand, they call magic and blame it or worship it or—I am more concerned with what I know it is: dangerous.”
Ailis’s confusion showed on her face, so he sighed and tried to explain again. “The Grail is power, Ailis. No matter what it may
contain within it, people
that it is the cup which held the Christ’s blood, and that makes it a symbol of leadership, of authority.”
“That’s why Arthur wants it.”
“That is why
want Arthur to have it. Arthur desires it because he, too, believes.” Merlin’s voice held a resigned fondness, as though he had argued the point with his king many times before. “Morgain
wants it because if Arthur had it, he would have an authority she lacks and cannot make up in any other way.”
Ailis wasn’t sure she understood, but Merlin went on before she could ask him more questions. “But the real danger, Ailis, the real danger lies not with the Grail, or in which leader has it. The danger lies within the Quest itself….”
He stopped then and looked at her. Clearly, he was waiting for her to work it out for herself.
Thinking out loud, she did so. “Whoever gains the Grail, whoever finds it and returns it to Arthur…that knight will have much glory.” But she knew that wasn’t it, not alone. Glory would not concern Merlin. “Glory…and influence. He would be seen as pure enough to have won the Grail, pure enough to be without sin…and Arthur, so enchanted by the legend of this Grail, would be swayed by the word of a knight such as that. Perhaps too much.”
The enchanter’s approving nod was enough to make Ailis flush with satisfaction, offsetting the unease she felt about speaking so bluntly—and unflatteringly—about her king.
“So you understand?” he said. “The Quest must continue. For it to fail would play into Morgain’s
hands. The Grail must be found, or at least kept from Morgain’s grasp. It must be done in Arthur’s name, without hope of personal gain. Only then can Arthur’s throne be secure—and Camelot be safe, forevermore. The Quest
Ailis sighed, unable to argue with the passion in Merlin’s voice, and returned to the original point of their conversation. “So I’m to use no magic at all? Not even to help us accomplish our goal?”
“You need to keep practicing, of course. And yes, as needed…but, chi—Ailis, do nothing that will draw attention to yourself or distract the knights from their Quest. Troublesome or not, they are the ones who must find it, not Morgain’s forces.”
“Merlin, I’m the only female on the entire Quest. You are aware of that, aren’t you? Half the knights keep trying to help me across mud puddles, while the others treat me as though I were something—” She stopped herself mid-speech, and ended instead with “something that has no business being anywhere near this oh-so-holy and noble pursuit of theirs—as if I haven’t already proven myself, and far more often than many of them!”
In fact, no matter what Merlin said, Ailis wasn’t confident that the knights on this Quest had any
chance of success. The Grail was a holy relic no matter which god you chose to follow, and only one of pure spirit and intent should find it. Ailis believed that with all her heart. Unfortunately, since the Quest had begun, what she had seen from the flower of knighthood was closer to pigs shoving over bits in the trough than men of valor and glory. Maybe if Lancelot were here, or Gawain…But they had instead gone with Arthur, dealing with the uprising of a northern border lord who challenged Arthur’s right to the throne. Then they had each gone off on their own to seek the Grail, rather than trying to catch up with the other knights. She suspected they would have more luck individually than with all the knights of Camelot put together, anyway. And Merlin could stop worrying, because neither Gawain nor Lancelot would ever do anything to harm Arthur, intentionally or not.
Ailis pulled at her braid and stared at the enchanter. With his sharp black eyes, he was much better suited for staring than Ailis could ever manage—and she blinked first.
Normally, Ailis trusted Merlin implicitly. He was much older and wiser, if occasionally a little scattered and distracted by his magical nature. But when it
came to being female, she sometimes wished she were back with Morgain. The sorceress might lead the opposing side against Arthur, Ailis’s sworn and chosen king, but she was another female, and at least she understood.
Ailis turned and strode away from the enchanter, her feet kicking up dust from the ground underfoot. Her shoes were tough, practical things, and she liked the way they hit the dirt when she stomped back to him.
“Ailis. You’re wasting energy.”
“What does it matter?” She glared at him, angry again. “It’s not as though you want me to use that energy for anything else. In fact, you want me to pretend I’m not even here—be a meek, good little mouse so nobody will be made uncomfortable by my existence.”
The enchanter’s robes drifted in a subtle breeze, but he was otherwise untouched by the dust of the field Ailis was standing in. Which was reasonable, as they didn’t actually exist where he was. The two of them were communicating through the astral plane, the magical layer of existence just above the physical world. The only reason he could see her surroundings was because she was re-creating them magically.
In fact, Merlin was several days travel to the south, back in Camelot, in a civilized place where people behaved in a civilized manner…mostly.
“Merlin, if I don’t practice, I’ll go mad. There’s nothing else for me to do! You
these knights and their squires. You know how they are!”
“Rude, suspicious, arrogant, and quarrelsome. And those are the well-behaved ones. Yes, I know. Ailis, that is another reason why it’s important you not do anything to rouse their suspicions. For me, they know I’m Arthur’s man. I’ve pledged myself to him, foreswearing any other loyalties under pain of damnation. That makes me, if not safe, then at least a known threat. You’re a young female, and to them that says—”
“Yes. Morgain.” Or Nimue, Merlin’s last student, who had—in a fit of pique—locked him in a magical house made of ice before Morgain had first attacked with her sleep-spell. Ailis was female and magical, and therefore potentially dangerous in a way these men didn’t quite understand. To them, females were chatelaines—housekeepers—or servants, or wives, or off under the tutelage of religious orders. Women were not sent on great adventures, wearing leggings
under their skirts for easier riding, staying in the company of men rather than other females, riding about the countryside. And they certainly did not carry within them the power of magic.
“You sent me here,” she said softly. Merlin had to dip his head to hear her, even though magically he could simply have amplified her voice to be as loud as he needed it. “You sent me—us—on this Quest. Why, if not to help?”
“You will help, Ailis. You will, in fact, be essential. I just don’t remember how…yet.”
Part of the enchanter’s magical heritage was that he lived backward in time, getting younger as he aged, remembering things that had not yet happened, but not knowing which actions would set them in motion. There were rumors that he was insane. In truth, he was just always confused.
“I need you there, so when the time comes, you’ll be ready. And that means not having annoyed anyone so that they won’t listen to you when it is time.
“Continue to practice. But stay low. Be well-spoken, gentle, demure.” He smiled at her then, the rare mischievous spark reappearing in his eyes. “I know it’s difficult, but they’re not all that smart, most of them. A little effort, and you can have them all
eating out of your hand like pet ponies.”
There was a noise behind him, some sort of distraction. “I must go. Girl-child, be careful. Be discreet. That’s all we’re asking of you.” He was clearly speaking for Arthur’s wishes now, as well.
She nodded grudgingly, feeling as though
were a pony being lashed to harness against her will.
Merlin looked relieved, then focused his gaze intensely at her, his hawk-like eyes now worried in an entirely different way.
“You will be all right? With…other things? Not the knights, but…”
She was the one who smiled then, her face lighting up with bittersweet affection for her reluctant teacher, who was so clearly uncomfortable with what he was trying to say.
He was so very, very bad at relationships himself, the idea of him giving advice…
“You mean with Gerard and Newt?” Ailis suppressed a sigh. That was an entirely different kind of stress; one she would have to work out for herself, somehow. “We’ll be all right. We won’t let you down.”
Not entirely reassured, Merlin merely raised a
hand in farewell and turned away, stepping out of the shared astral space. He disappeared back into Camelot’s reality with a whirl of his formal gray robes and red slippers.
Despite herself, Ailis had to smile again. Merlin was unique. He was also right: She had to be more patient. She just wasn’t very good at it.