The Lady of Shalott (Merlin's Legacy)

Discussion in 'Survival Reading Room' started by ChrisNuttall, Jul 25, 2011.

  1. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Hi everyone - did you miss me? While I was away, two things happened - I plotted this book and I became engaged!


    If a man is the sum of his memories, what is a man who is over a thousand years old?

    Merlin remembers everything, from the moment when he was ripped screaming from his mother’s womb to the moment his father manifested to him and told him of his destiny, to become the Antichrist. And he remembers the moment he told his father that he refused to accept his destiny, that he would serve neither Heaven nor Hell. He walked away, his father’s curses ringing in his ears, and wandered upon the land, with neither a cause or a purpose...until he learned about Arthur, the once and future king.

    Arthur had dreamed a dream, a land of peace and harmony, a land that Merlin’s father could never threaten or destroy. Merlin, already old and ancient, had finally found something he could believe in, and a person he could follow. He strove to make Arthur’s dream real, providing magic and wisdom to the young man with the very old eyes, using his vast power to safeguard Arthur’s kingdom. Arthur’s promise could not be lost, or Merlin’s father would have won his final victory.

    And yet, Merlin knew that his time on the human plane was coming to an end. Magic was slipping out of the world, leaving behind science and cool rationality. Striking a bargain with the Lady of the ffice:smarttags" />Lake, one of the oldest and most powerful forces in the Land, Merlin walked willingly into his enchanted tomb, leaving behind a land at peace, ruled by a King who was one with the Land. He should have slept for the rest of time.

    But his father had had a plan of his own. Arthur had, unknowingly, slept with his own half-sister, the dread Morgan le Fay. Morgan, a powerful Enchantress with a heritage hidden even from Merlin, conceived a child, Mordred. With Arthur weakened after the betrayal of Sir Lancelot, Mordred led an army against his father, eventually slaying him on the field of battle. Arthur’s dream lay in ruins, until Merlin awoke. With the laughter of his father following his footsteps, Merlin strode out of his sleeping place and destroyed Mordred with his magic. The war was over, and yet the Land was without a King.

    And he remembers how he made a bargain with his father; a thousand years of life, to use as he pleased. With Arthur and Mordred dead, Merlin declared himself King of the Land. His magic allowed him to defeat any challenger. The Pendragon Empire grew until it encompassed the entire world. Even the Old Gods and the Faerie acknowledged the Devil’s Son. The Land was at peace.

    Back then, Merlin knew, a thousand years had seemed an eternity, even to one who should have known better. But now his time was running out. All he had left was the last few years he would have had naturally, and then he would belong to his father.

    And if he died, he asked himself, what would happen to the empire he had built?

    Tired and old, weary of the burden he had assumed, drawing on too much magic merely to keep himself alive, Merlin looked into the future and saw only darkness.
    STANGF150 likes this.
  2. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter One<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    “Ho, the Castle!”

    Sir Robin of Loxley, Knight of the Round Table, reared in his horse as the drawbridge began to creak down to cross the moat. It had been a long ride from Mordred – and the great standing stones that an ancient power had raised over the battlefield – and he was tired, too tired to press onwards towards Camelot. Besides, the Knights of the Round Table had standing orders to call in at the Great Keeps along the way, if only to remind the Lords that Merlin’s servants were keeping an eye on them. The Duchy of Effrul hadn't seen a Knight for many years.

    The drawbridge touched down and Robin spurred his horse onwards, cantering across the bridge. <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:smarttags" /><st1:place w:st="on"><st1:placeName w:st="on">Effrul</st1:placeName> <st1:placeType w:st="on">Castle</st1:placeType></st1:place> was a massive misshapen block of stone, designed to defend against attacks both mundane and magical, yet it couldn't have hoped to stand against Merlin. Like all of the Knights, Robin could sense magic even if he couldn't wield it for himself and he could feel the wards surrounding the Castle, enough magic to keep out unwanted guests and supernatural vermin. Inside the walls, there was space for horses and even room for the local villagers, should a foreign army come on them unawares. That wasn't likely to happen, but the Lords were conservative, often quite alarmingly so.

    “Welcome to Effrul,” a voice said. Robin turned to see a pair of guardsmen, flanking a man wearing the dull grey tunic of a <st1:place w:st="on">Clark</st1:place>. The <st1:place w:st="on">Clark</st1:place>’s voice was low, almost a whisper. Robin had never met a loud <st1:place w:st="on">Clark</st1:place>. “His Grace is currently entertaining in the Great Hall and he would be honoured to see you there.”

    “Thank you,” Robin said, as he swung himself off the horse and down to the ground. His armour, enchanted by the finest alchemists in the land, absorbed the impact with nary a jolt. He disliked meeting the senior nobility at the best of times, but protocol was protocol; if the Duke wished to meet with him, Robin had little choice. “Please see to my horse and I will be honoured to wait upon the Duke.”

    The interior of <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:placeName w:st="on">Effrul</st1:placeName> <st1:placeType w:st="on">Castle</st1:placeType></st1:place> was, if anything, more warded than the exterior. Robin was uneasily aware of powerful spells crawling through the stone walls, watching for any sign of a threat. There were few luxuries on display, a reminder that Duke Rufus Valditch, Duke of Effrul, had no need to show off his wealth and power. Hundreds of servants moved through the stone corridors, carrying out the orders of their lord and master. A number of them wore glowing gems that marked them out as being enchanted for loyalty and unquestioning devotion. Robin felt a shiver running down his spine as he met the eyes of one of the spell-controlled servants. They had always made him feel uneasy, a reminder that even the strongest and most valiant warrior was often helpless against magic. Even the protections built into his armour wouldn't last forever.

    They paused in front of a gold-edged mirror, a none-too-subtle suggestion that he should see to his appearance. Robin’s white-gold armour was stained with the signs of a long trip and his hair was a mess, no longer tied back inside his helmet. Tiredly, he ran his hands through his dark hair and murmured a charm to his armour. It seemed to shimmer around him, and then it was as clean and bright as the day it had been presented to him and bonded to his very soul. It was almost a second skin. He touched the tip of his sword, hanging in the scabbard, before turning back to the <st1:place w:st="on">Clark</st1:place>. The drab man showed no sign of approval or disaporval; he just walked forward, threw open a large stone door, and announced Robin’s arrival to the court.

    Robin wasn't unduly surprised, as he walked into the massive chamber, to see hundreds of men and women glancing at him, a handful turning quickly to conceal signs of guilt or wrongdoing. Many of them had good reasons to fear the Knights of the Round Table, Merlin’s personal enforcers and investigators, even if they were connected to the highest aristocrats in the land. Merlin had appointed their ancestors to the nobility, binding them to the Pendragon Empire, but nobility was no shield when certain crimes were involved. They might well wonder if Merlin had sent him to Duke Valditch with a ulterior motive.

    He kept his eyes level, studying the crowd as the <st1:place w:st="on">Clark</st1:place> led him forwards, towards the High Table. Many were noblemen of lesser ranks – the Dukes were the highest nobility in the Empire, second only to Merlin himself – who would count Duke Valditch as their patron. He would grant them his help and support in exchange for their absolute loyalty, in and out of the House of Lords. A handful would even have been raised to Knighthood by the Duke personally, the ultimate reward. Robin concealed a smile with the ease of long practice; in his experience, Knights who hadn’t been through the heaviest training program in the Empire were often worthless on the field of battle. They were more concerned with winning their place in High Society, rather than defending the population. That, as had been hammered into him from the day he’d reported for training, was the ultimate purpose of a Knight. Very few Knights of the Round Table lived long enough to collect their reward and honourable discharge. Even so, there was no shortage of volunteers.

    A second group was composed of magicians. There were wizards, wearing the white robes of fully-trained magicians, each one wearing a golden badge that signified his College. Robin wasn't surprised to see that most of them had been trained in the nearest College, one largely under the Duke’s thumb. Only a handful had been trained outside the Dukedom. A second group of magicians wore no robes, indicating that they had little formal training. Robin watched them warily. In his experience, a magician who hadn’t been trained formally could be a more dangerous foe than one who had been through a College. It was often hard to predict what an untrained magician would do, or would be capable of doing, given half the chance.

    There were no sorcerers, he noted, with a brief flicker of relief. Sorcerers, the most powerful and dangerous magicians in the Empire, tended to be unpredictable. They rarely found employment from the nobility, even though a sane sorcerer was often capable of defeating any number of wizards. They were just too unpredictable and dangerous, teetering permanently on the edge of madness.

    A third group of guests proved to be composed of merchants, wearing the flashy outfits that signified that they’d made or inherited enough money that even the aristrocrats had to take them seriously. Robin suspected that most of them only wore the outrageous outfits because they wanted to show that they’d arrived – which suggested a certain basic insecurity – but it wasn't something he held against them. Few nobles took commoners seriously, no matter how much money the commoner had earned in his life; High Society rarely sullied its hands making money. It just wasn’t done. Robin kept his face expressionless as two of the merchants – doubtless thinking that they were moving stealthily – tried to move away from him. They were probably wondering if he knew about some of the more…questionable deals they’d made in the past. Their very presence in the Dukedom suggested ties to the Duke.

    The crowd parted around him as he finally reached the High Table. It was a raised dais, crafted out of marble and decorated by gold leaf, a symbol of power and might. The Duke himself sat on an iron throne – a near-copy of Merlin’s throne, in the Iron Palace of Camelot – watching as his guests comported themselves below him. He wouldn't be so gauche as to discuss business matters in public, not when he was holding a fancy ball. The important people – at least to the Duke – would meet with him later, while the other guests were sleeping off heavy doses of food and alcohol in their bedchambers.

    Duke Rufus Valditch was tall and thin, wearing a long tunic that was just one shade lighter than sorcerer’s black. He had long white hair, tied back in a ponytail that seemed to move with a life of its own, and a pinched face that seemed to have forgotten how to smile. His cold grey eyes met Robin’s bluer eyes and refused to quail. The chances were that he had some magical talent of his own – magic was strong in the aristocratic bloodlines – but he wore nothing to signal his powers. He would prefer, Robin suspected, to keep his enemies guessing. The wards his pet magicians had crafted to protect him would block any magician from studying his magical field, except – perhaps – Merlin himself. Robin had heard, when he’d been trained in less violent methods of fighting, that the Duke preferred to remain away from Camelot, so secure was he in his power and position. Or perhaps he just didn’t like the reminder that there was someone more powerful than himself. The castle might be crawling with defensive wards, designed to keep out unwanted guests, but they wouldn’t stand for long against Merlin. Merlin had destroyed entire counties in his time.

    Robin bowed, knowing that it would irritate most of the aristocrats in the room. He came from commoner stock, plucked out of a village several hundred miles to the north and sent to study at the Garrison, and his nobility came from his Knighthood. He wasn't, and would never be, their social equal, but they’d never be able to put him in his place. An insult to a Knight of the Round Table was an insult to Merlin himself – and no one crossed the Emperor Merlin without making out their will first.

    “Welcome to my Court,” Duke Valditch said. His voice was cold and precise, suggesting that he’d been using magical treatments to stretch out his life. “We are honoured by the presence of a Knight of the Round Table.”

    “Thank you, Your Grace,” Robin said. “I am honoured to attend your Court.”

    The Duke seemed unimpressed. Robin was suddenly aware that every eye was fixed on them, every ear straining to catch their every word. What happened between one of Merlin’s Knights and the Duke might determine their futures. He could almost hear minds calculating away behind inscrutable features. If Duke Valditch was about to take a fall, his friends and clients would have a chance to improve their own positions at the expense of their former master – if they switched sides in time. Even the musicians had stopped playing.

    “Please, honour us with your presence and news from Camelot,” the Duke said. “We have not seen a Knight of the Round Table in my lands for a very long time.”

    Too long, Robin thought, coldly. Something was definitely wrong. Just for a moment, he wished that Tiffany was with him. She would not only have been able to read the crowd, but to know what they were trying to conceal. But Tiffany was back at Camelot, serving the Emperor and awaiting their marriage. The thought of her reminded him just how much he missed Tiffany. Her acceptance of his proposal had been a dream come true.

    “Certainly, Your Grace,” Robin said, resigning himself to a few hours of boredom. The guests would expect him to mingle, to play the socialite and tell them his news – all the while analysing his words in the hope that they might allow them to understand his true purpose for visiting the Duke. He smiled inwardly, knowing that none of them would believe the truth. He’d come merely for a rest before he resumed his ride back towards Camelot – and Tiffany. “I thank you for your hospitality.”

    The Duke nodded, dismissing him – and the chamber began to hum with conversation, the tension slowly fading out of the air. Robin was aware of covert glances following him as he stepped back and started to mingle, but he ignored them, at least openly. It dawned on him that the evening could be fun, in a way. A handful of carefully-dropped remarks might frighten the guiltier among the guests into revealing themselves, or doing something careless. He accepted a drink from a serving maid and started to plan his campaign.

    “Commoner,” a voice snapped. A hand fell on his shoulder, from behind. Robin spun around, one hand dropping to the hilt of his sword. The voice had sounded angry. “How dare you come to my castle?”

    Robin saw a young man, wearing golden armour so brightly polished that Robin could see his own face reflected back in it. The young man had long blonde hair and a handsome face, although it was contorted by an unpleasant sneer. His voice was that of a person unused to not getting his way, in everything. Robin didn’t need to study the chin to know that he was looking at the Duke’s son and Heir, Lord Lucas. He had the air of entitlement that every young aristocrat seemed to share, apart from Tiffany. But then, Tiffany had had to grow up in a hurry after her father had died. This young man had never had to learn how the world actually worked, or the limits of aristocratic power. The mere fact that his hand was on the hilt of his sword – as if he was going to draw on a Knight of the Round Table – proved his ignorance.

    “I came because I needed to rest,” Robin said, as patiently as he could. He took his hand away from his own sword, confident that he could draw it if Lucas actually produced his own sword. The young man would have been trained in swordplay – every young male aristocrat was, if only because they might be challenged to a duel by their social equals – but he wouldn't have much real experience. No one would risk challenging a Duke’s Heir, while Robin had had to fight for his life since he’d grown into maturity.

    “And you took her from me, commoner,” Lucas thundered, angrily. He hadn’t taken his hand from his sword, even though he’d made no move to draw it. Robin realised, suddenly, that Lucas was drunk. “How dare you pollute our blood with your filthy mongrel ways?”

    Robin winced inwardly as he realised – too late – what was actually going on. Tiffany was the Lady of Shalott, the mistress of a realm that might not have been a Dukedom, but was ruled by one of the oldest bloodlines in the land. She’d have been a prize catch for anyone, even the Heir of a Dukedom, yet her position at Camelot would have intimidated many potential suitors, or their parents. Lucas had to have been one of the few to try to court her – and, judging from his reaction to her successful suitor, she’d rejected him emphatically. No male would take that very calmly, particularly not one with such a spectacular sense of entitlement.

    “Enough,” he said, quietly.

    “Yes, enough,” Lucas shouted. He started to draw his sword. “I should whip you and…”

    A hand caught Lucas’s wrist before he could pull the sword from its scabbard. “More than enough,” Duke Valditch said, firmly. Lucas purpled, but he had enough sense not to challenge his father publicly. He might have been the Duke’s only male son, yet there was precedent for passing a noble estate to a female if the male heirs were disinherited. “I apologise for my son’s outburst, Sir Robin, and I will see that the matter ends here.”

    “Thank you, Your Grace,” Robin said, quietly relieved. Killing the Duke’s Heir would have had consequences – and if by some dark miracle Lucas had managed to kill him…he would have embroiled his family against Merlin, the near-omnipotent ruler of the empire. Merlin would not have been inclined to let such an insult pass unpunished. “I have taken no offence.”

    “But there is a matter that requires the attention of a Knight,” Duke Valditch continued, almost meditatively. “Last week, an entire village was depopulated, the population stolen away by an unknown power. Your assistance in solving this mystery would be appreciated.”

    Robin’s eyes narrowed. It was fairly common for ambitious or restless peasants to flee aristocratic lands and escape to the free cities – or to hide in the countryside and turn bandit – but an entire village disappearing was something rare, even close to the Greenwood. The Duke was Master of High, Middle and Low Justice in his Duchy – and besides, if he’d been mistreating his peasants, he wouldn't want a Knight of the Round Table investigating. And that raised the question of why the Duke wanted him involved. Did he think that Robin had been sent to investigate the disappearance, or was he trying to divert Robin from something else, something more incriminating? With Duke Blackrock locked up in the <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:placeType w:st="on">Tower</st1:placeType> of <st1:placeName w:st="on">Camelot</st1:placeName></st1:place>, perhaps the Duke was feeling a little concerned about his future.

    “Lucas will show you the village tomorrow,” the Duke continued, taking Robin’s silence for assent. Robin knew that there was no real choice. If the village was close to the <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Greenwood</st1:place></st1:City> – and the Duchy itself was far too close to Mordred – it was quite possible that the village population had been stolen away into Faerie. And that was an act of war.

    Lucas looked as if he would like to object, but a sharp glance from his father froze his tongue before he could speak. Robin kept his own face expressionless. There was little to be gained from humiliating the younger man, even if he needed a sound thrashing. Duke Valditch might be cold and calculating, but at least he accepted his responsibilities. His son seemed utterly fixed on his entitlements and ignorant of the responsibilities that came with his title. If he hadn’t learned by the time his father died, the Duchy was in for hard times.

    “Of course, Your Grace,” Robin said. He would have preferred to go alone, but the Duke seemed unwillingly to offer him the choice. Besides, perhaps Lucas would be better company once he was sober. “I will find out what happened and report to higher authority.”

    The Duke looked unmoved, but his son seemed alarmed. There was only one higher authority in the land, Merlin himself.

    And if Merlin took an interest in the Duchy, there was no way they could hide anything from the Devil’s only son.
    STANGF150 likes this.
  3. beast

    beast backwoodsman

    welcome back and congrats
    you poor sucker you :p
  4. Yoldering

    Yoldering Monkey+++

    Thumbs up! Looks like this will be interesting! Also, congratulations to you. It is the best thing I ever did...
  5. ghrit

    ghrit Bad company Administrator Founding Member

    Welcome home. Congrats to us for your return to writing, and congrats to you for your engagement.
  6. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Two<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    Lucas was still fuming the following morning, when they rode away from the castle. How dare the Knight of the Round Table – the jumped-up commoner – treat him as if he was of no account? He was Lucas, Heir to the most powerful Duchy in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:smarttags" /><st1:country-region w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">England</st1:place></st1:country-region>, with a bloodline that stretched all the way back to the time of Arthur. And to think that the commoner would be marrying one of the most eligible woman in the land! It was intolerable!

    His father had made his position clear, however. They’d spoken – his father had talked at him, rather – the night after the gathering. “You are the Heir to my Duchy,” his father had said, in the cold dry voice that was somehow worse than shouting, or a beating. “You need to learn control and restraint. We depend upon Merlin for our power – even our lives – and the price for Merlin’s support is our...tolerance for Merlin’s messenger, whoever he happens to be!”

    “But father,” Lucas had protested, “he’s a commoner, bedding a noblewoman...”

    “You failed to convince Lady Tiffany to wed you,” his father had said, with deadly calm. Lucas still recalled the discussion they’d had after Lady Tiffany had rejected his suit. His father had had ambitions to unite Effrul with Shalott, something that would have given him an unmatched position in the House of Lords. “He convinced her to accept his suit. You will accept that, at least publically. Do you understand me?”

    “Yes, father,” Lucas had said, reluctantly. “But...”

    “You will be polite and aid Sir Robin in his quest to find out what happened to the villagers,” his father had ordered. “You will do nothing that might imperil our position here. Do you understand me?”

    The memories burned through his head as he led Sir Robin along a forest path used only by the nobles and poachers. Long ago, Lucas had learned to ride in the duchy, but now he rarely had time just to put everything aside and spend time on horseback. These days, he worked for his father, even though his father seemed reluctant to share anything with his son and heir. There were times when Lucas considered assassinating – murdering – his father, but he knew that he didn't have the nerve. His father had terrified him from the day he’d been presented at Camelot as the Duke’s Heir. Lucas couldn't even bring himself to shout back at his father.

    Sir Robin didn't seem inclined to talk, even though his father had hoped that they’d find a way to become friends and even allies. It wasn't going to happen, Lucas knew, not when bitter jealousy and rage burned through Lucas’s mind. The commoner had the woman Lucas had wanted – and he had everything that Lucas had wanted. His father had refused to allow him to try out for Knighthood, or even to raise him to Knighthood personally. Sir Robin, commoner and servant of the Enchanter King, had a freedom and confidence Lucas lacked, and feared that he would never have. They spent the long ride in silence.

    The village itself was nearly an hour away from the castle, even on horseback. Lucas had visited it once as a younger child, back when he’d accompanied his father on one of his yearly tours of his domains. His memories of the village were hazy; like all commoner settlements, it was drab, dirty and populated by people who were loyal to their superiors, if only because they knew that a show of disloyalty would mean immediate execution. Lucas’s father’s justice was harsh, cold and utterly without scruple. The peasants knew that any rebellion against their Duke would be crushed, swiftly and mercilessly. He smiled as a memory flickered through his mind. The village’s headman – a man called Igor - had known just to scrape and bow in front of his superiors.

    He reared in his horse as the forest path widened, allowing them to canter down towards the village. It wasn't an impressive sight, even though it was close enough to the Greenwood to make even Lucas uncomfortable. A handful of stone houses – barely more than hovels – a stone church and a couple of other buildings, surrounded by a handful of fields. The peasants would eke out an existence from the fields, passing on most of their crops and livestock to their masters, living on what little they were allowed to keep. Lucas had never questioned how they lived. As his father had once told him, in a rare genial mood, peasants existed to serve their superiors and they should be happy with their lot. If they weren't, there was always the hangman’s rope and dark magic to keep them in line.

    But the village was completely deserted. Lucas might not have been allowed to fight, but he had hunted ever since he’d grown into his teens and he had a hunter’s instincts. There was no one in the village, or in the scraggly fields where the men should have been slaving away, while their womenfolk cooked, cleaned and made babies. Even the church, the strongest building in the village, had been abandoned. The priest, chosen by his father from a list submitted by Rome, was gone. The entire village was deserted.

    Lucas watched as Sir Robin slipped off his horse and started to walk towards the village, leaving his horse waiting behind, watching with unnervingly intelligent eyes. The Knight seemed surrounded by a brilliant white light as the sunlight reflected off his armour, even though Lucas was sure that that would make him a target for anyone with bad intentions. He slipped off his own horse – a far less obedient animal, even though Lucas loved his stallion – and drew his sword. There was no visible threat, but he had the uneasy sense that something was watching him. Something that might not be human...

    He looked up the forest, towards the boundary line and the Greenwood, and shivered. Every instinct he had was telling him to run, to leave the village to the wind and the rain, but he couldn't leave. His father had ordered him to stay, to keep an eye on the Knight, and he couldn't fail his father. He wanted to call out to Sir Robin, to tell him to leave the dirty smelly commoners to their fate, but he didn't quite dare.

    Silently, lost in his own thoughts and fears, Lucas watched as Robin began to search the village.

    Robin was aware of Lucas’s gaze boring into his back, but he ignored it. A Knight of the Round Table developed instincts very young – or he didn't survive his training, let alone his first year of service – and something was clearly very wrong. Robin had grown up in a small community, not too different from the unnamed village, and it should have been bustling with life. The farmers should have been in the fields, their wives and daughters should have been cooking and the children should have already been learning the tasks that they’d perform as they grew into adulthood. He missed very little about his former life, but one attitude he’d never been allowed to shun was that commoners were people too. The Knights of the Round Table existed to defend everyone, from the highest in the land to the lowest beggar in the streets of the free cities.

    He glanced into the first house and scowled. There was no sign of a struggle; it looked as if the population had just walked away one day and never looked back. He looked up at the stone slab above the door and frowned as he saw the horseshoe hanging there, a charm that should have kept most supernatural vermin from entering the house. Robin had hardly any magical talent of his own, but he whispered a handful of words in the magical tongue, words that should have caused a bright flash of light. Nothing happened, proving that the horseshoe charm maintained its power, keeping the wild magic under restraint. A magician could have overcome its limited protections, but a supernatural force should have been unable to enter.

    Shaking his head, he walked back outside, into the bright sunlight, and glanced over at Lucas. The Duke’s son was waiting on the outskirts of the tiny village, as if he was unable to cross the invisible line that separated the village from the fields outside. His bearing suggested that he would sooner be somewhere – anywhere – else, as if what had happened to the villagers hardly mattered. It probably didn't to him, Robin thought coldly; like all aristocrats, Lucas cared little for his social inferiors. Robin, who had been born a commoner, cared more about the poor than he did the wealthy and powerful. The latter could, in his experience, take care of themselves.

    Ignoring Lucas’s constant gaze, he strode over to the church, recalling the smiling warmly dressed priest who’d greeted them every Sunday when the family had gone to church. Robin, as the youngest child, had carried the small bronze coin destined for the priest, even though it had taken his father and brothers a day’s hard labour to earn the coin. It had never seemed fair to him that the family had to give up so much of their wealth to a man who seemed to lack for nothing, but his father had whipped him when he’d raised the question. It had taken him years to understand that his father had been ashamed of his own weakness, his failure to break free of the church’s demands. Those who shunned the church were shunned by their community.

    The church was fairly typical for a small village. There were wooden pews for the villagers – he recalled that they’d been hard on the bottom after a long and vigorous sermon – and a golden stand, draped with purple cloth, for the priest. A golden cross hung behind the stand, showing the moment when Jesus, the Son of God, had been crucified by the Romans. Robin stepped inside, but saw no one. The church had been completely abandoned. Even the feeling of stepping inside a holy place was absent. And that suggested dark magic.

    He walked back outside and started to study the village, looking for clues. Tracking wasn’t a hard skill to master – Robin had learned by poaching from the local forest as a growing man – and it was clear that the villagers had done nothing to hide their departure. They’d simply come out of their houses and walked up, towards the boundary line and the Greenwood. And they’d never been seen again.

    No wonder the Duke was worried, Robin thought, grimly. The Greenwood was one place where the Duke’s writ didn’t run. It was home to supernatural creatures, ones who lived according to their own rules – and cared nothing for humanity. Centuries ago, humanity had cowered in their hovels at night when the old creatures walked upon the land, knowing that anyone walking out after darkness was unlikely to be seen again. They had hidden themselves from the eyes of creatures more powerful than humanity, demanding respect from those they saw as inferiors. Those who spoke ill of the Fair Folk had often never spoken again.

    It had been Merlin who had established the boundary lines, preventing the supernatural creatures from entering human lands. Even the Old Gods had been unable to face Merlin and they’d reluctantly agreed to respect the boundary lines, but anyone could cross them and enter the Greenwood – and they might never be seen again. Robin had walked into the Greenwood as a very young man – when he’d been desperately trying to escape a team of guardsmen intent on beating the poacher to death – and knew that he’d been lucky to escape. If the villagers had crossed the boundary line en masse, for whatever reason, they would never be seen again.

    And yet...why had they crossed the boundary line?

    Robin knew that he could just walk away and report back to Camelot, but that wasn't his style. He couldn't abandon the villagers, not while there was the merest chance they might still be alive – and capable of returning to human society. His hand touched the sigils engraved on his armour, sigils that represented Merlin himself. He could walk into the Greenwood and rely on their protection to gain an audience with the creatures that had stolen the villagers. Perhaps he could even convince them to allow the villagers to return, unharmed. It had to be tried.

    He walked back up to where Lucas was waiting, trying not to show his fear and apprehension. Robin had been reading people ever since he’d started his long apprenticeship and Lucas, although he was trying to hide it, was an open book. The village was bothering him and all he wanted to do was get back to his castle and hide behind the battlements. Robin carefully refrained from showing his amusement openly. Perhaps the experience of confronting something far more powerful than himself would do Lucas good.

    “They went into the Greenwood,” he confirmed, briefly. A handful of peasants might run off to the free cities, or become bandits, but an entire village...? No, it wouldn't happen. “I’m going in after them.”

    He watched a complex series of emotions washing over Lucas’s face. Cruel amusement; Robin might well not come out of the Greenwood, leaving Lucas to renew his suit for Tiffany’s hand. Fear; Robin might expect him to come with him into the Greenwood – and his father would be angry if he refused to follow the Knight, even into certain death. Terror; he didn’t dare walk forwards or go back with his tail between his legs.

    “You’re going to stay here,” Robin said, firmly. He’d never met a Faerie – or one of the lesser supernatural creatures – in his life, but he knew the basic rules for approaching them. They demanded respect from humanity – and Lucas, with his inflated sense of entitlement, would show them none. Bringing him along could jeopardize everything. “If I don’t come back out by sunset, go back to the castle and report to my superiors.”

    “Yes,” Lucas managed. He didn't look any happier at the thought of remaining in the village until nightfall, but Robin was sure that he’d remain behind, if only because he was afraid of his father. Robin had no idea what they’d said to each other, after the gathering had come to an end, yet it had clearly forced Lucas into at least making an attempt to be civil. “I’ll remain here...”

    Robin nodded, patted his horse on the forehead, and turned to walk towards the Greenwood. Even behind the boundary line, he could feel the wild magic crackling through the air, luring him onwards. Anyone with even the slightest touch of magic would be able to feel it; indeed, Robin knew that some magicians walked into the Greenwood in hopes of finding a magical hotspot they could use to power themselves. Only a very few returned alive, and most of them were monsters. It wasn't a reassuring thought.

    The vegetation began to change as he approached the boundary line. He’d been told once that wild magic – uncontrolled by humanity – had an effect on anyone and anything unlucky enough to be touched by it. Plants and animals seemed to be warped by exposure to wild magic, creating new strains of wildlife, some of which were very dangerous. Back where he’d been born, a new species of toad had somehow developed the ability to mesmerise their prey – and humans. He still recalled rescuing a small girl who had been on the verge of drowning herself, influenced by a creature that couldn't form a coherent thought. And that was one of the more harmless creatures.

    He paused outside the boundary line, feeling its invisible presence in the air, and stepped forward. The sensation of wild magic hit him instantly. Blue energy crackled through the air, flickering and flaring in and out of existence. Strange creatures seemed to appear at the edge of his vision, somehow never there when he looked at them directly. Robin knew himself to be brave – he’d proven it to himself hundreds of times over the last ten years – yet it was all he could do not to turn and flee for his life. He forced himself to think of the villagers and pressed onwards. Besides, a show of weakness in the Greenwood might prove fatal.

    The temperature kept rising as he pressed onwards, grimly aware of unseen eyes watching his every move. He heard sounds in the distance that had come from no human throat, strange calls that attracted and repelled him in equal measure. Just for a long moment, the entire forest shook as an impossibly huge creature seemed to be stamping its way towards him. The vegetation pressed in around the path, cutting off his view. Anything could be coming towards him – or shadowing his lonely walk – and he wouldn’t know about it until it was right on top of him. The sensation of threat just kept growing stronger...he reached out with his senses, only to be nearly deafened by a cacophony of sound, so loud and powerful that he had to cover his ears...

    ...There was something shadowing him, right behind him. Robin reached down and took a firm grip on his sword, trying to draw what reassurance he could from its solid metalwork. It might not be any use against a supernatural creature, whatever charms the enchanters had worked into the metal. Some of the supernatural creatures could only be killed by cold iron – and he had none. He tensed as he heard deep heavy breathing, coming from a throat that was very definitely not human. Light footsteps – the kind made by someone who wanted to remain silent – echoed behind him. He had to turn...

    “Please,” a voice said. It was low and gravelly. “Please don’t turn around.”

    Robin half-drew his sword. “I mean you no harm,” it said. Robin’s instincts told him, oddly, that the creature was telling the truth. “I just don’t want to be seen. I was human once. And now I am a monster.”
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  7. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Three<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    Robin hesitated, unsure of how to act.

    “You were human once?” He asked, finally. The creature was right behind him. He could feel warm breath on the back of his neck. “Who are you?”

    “I have forgotten my name,” the voice said. There was a long pause. Human or not, few creatures made a gift of their name to anyone. A dark magician could use that knowledge to craft spells against them. “Call me Thorn, if you wish.”

    Robin nodded, absently. He still held his sword, but his instincts told him that Thorn wasn't a real threat. Or maybe the wild magic flickering through the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:smarttags" /><st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Greenwood</st1:place></st1:City> was deluding him. Wild magic did strange and unpredictable things to unwary intruders. It had certainly done something to Thorn.

    “They hounded me from the village,” Thorn said, from behind him. His voice was growing more human as he spoke, as if he hadn’t talked to another human for a very long time and was out of practice. “I was small and smelly and even my own parents couldn’t look upon me without revulsion. There was not a woman my own age who did not mock me for an ugly gnome. There was not a boy who didn’t seek to make me the butt of his cruel jokes, or to beat me for being what I am. They drove me from the village when their crops began to fail, claiming that I was a changeling from the fairies. I ran into the <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Greenwood</st1:place></st1:City> and never returned.”

    It was a familiar story, Robin knew. There were nobles who talked about peasants having a kind of nobility, as if being born into squalor conferred a dignity that was unmatched by those born to the aristocracy. Robin, child of peasants, knew better. A peasant’s life was nasty, brutish and short, even in <st1:country-region w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">England</st1:place></st1:country-region>. The lucky ones might escape to one of the free cities, or enlist into their master’s personal guard, but they were only a handful. The remainder had little choice. They remained in squalor.

    And it brought out the worst in them. The stronger peasants, helpless before their lords and masters, took it out on the weaker peasants. They beat their wives, thrashed their children and picked on those who were even slightly different, as if it somehow alleviated their own suffering, or gave it meaning. Thorn might have always been touched by magic – he’d been luckier than many who were exposed to wild magic – but that hadn’t protected him from his fellow villagers. They’d taken out their shame and humiliation on him. Robin felt a flicker of sympathy. Whatever Thorn was now, it didn’t excuse how his fellows had treated him as a child.

    “The village has been abandoned,” Robin said. He could feel Thorn’s presence behind him, trusting that he’d have enough warning to defend himself if the once-human creature lunged forward, bent on killing him. Wild magic brought instability – even insanity – along with its other unwanted gifts. “Did you lure them away and kill them?”

    Thorn laughed, harshly. There was a hint of madness in the laugh. “I could not cross the boundary line,” he said. Robin frowned, uncertain if he believed the former human. The boundary lines weren’t perfect; some magician creatures, the ones closest to humanity, could cross them at will. Thorn, touched by wild magic, might still have been able to return home. Or perhaps he had seen himself reflected in water and known that to return would mean death, hunted by Lucas and his cronies as a monster. Ridding their lands of monsters was one of the duties assigned to the aristocracy. “But I saw what happened to them.”

    Robin stepped forward, away from Thorn. “What happened to them?”

    “They came in the night,” Thorn said. Robin could hear cold pleasure in his voice, as if he delighted in the fall of his former tormentors. Or perhaps Thorn’s tormentors were long gone while he’d been lurking in the <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Greenwood</st1:place></st1:City>, where time was often fluid and unstable. There was no way to know. Thorn certainly wouldn't be able to answer him, if he asked. “They raided the village and took them all out of their hovels, dragging them into the darkness. There was no escape. Those who resisted died.”

    Robin frowned. “Who came?”

    Thorn ignored the question. “They were marched up into the <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Greenwood</st1:place></st1:City>,” he continued, telling his story with an eerie delight. Robin had been taught that it was ungallant to sneer at the defeat of a former enemy, but his life – as hard as it had been – hadn’t been anything like as hard as Thorn’s, even before the wild magic had turned him into a monster. “They were enchanted, forced to walk down to the lake. And there they were killed in a moment, screaming out into the night as they died. And I laughed to see them brought so low.”

    His voice grew darker. “I saw them die, begging for a mercy that would never come,” Thorn added. “I laughed. Why should I not laugh? Was there a one of them who showed me mercy and friendship and kindness and compassion? Was there a one of them who deserved a second chance at life? Where was their laughter as they died? You can laugh, for by the words, I surely shall.”

    Robin heard a low rustling behind him as Thorn moved closer. “You could have helped them....”

    “Why should I have helped them?” Thorn asked. He laughed again, the sound driving away the ever-present sounds of the <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Greenwood</st1:place></st1:City>. Wild magic seemed to flicker through his words. “Where was their help when I needed it?”

    Robin pushed the issue aside. “Who came for them?” He repeated. “Who could kidnap and slaughter an entire village?”

    He didn’t expect an answer and so he was surprised when Thorn told him. “The Dark Sorcerers,” he said. Robin felt a flash of alarm as he gripped his sword tighter, braced for an attack that might never come. “They came and took and killed and…”

    Thorn’s voice broke down into another unsteady laugh. Dark Sorcerers! Robin had half-expected that answer, yet Dark Sorcerers rarely showed themselves so close to Camelot. Their very existence was a crime against nature and Merlin, all-too-aware of the terrible price in blood and suffering Dark Sorcerers paid for their powers, had decreed their extermination. And they’d held a ritual here, so close to Camelot! No wonder they’d used the <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Greenwood</st1:place></st1:City> for their Black Mass. A ritual held outside such an omnipresent field of wild magic would be detected instantly, even from half the world away. There were dangers in trying to carry out any rituals so close to a source of wild magic, but Dark Sorcerers were already insane. They would do anything to increase their powers, whatever the risks.

    “Walk down towards the lake,” Thorn ordered, his voice suddenly clearing. “You’ll see their last resting place, if you hurry. The <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Greenwood</st1:place></st1:City> is taking them for itself.”

    Robin let go of his sword hilt and followed the path down a sloping hill. The foliage cleared suddenly, revealing a clear blue lake at the bottom of a hollow, surrounded by trees and strange plants, warped and twisted by the wild magic. The water was surrounded by an alluring shimmer and Robin shivered, resolving to stay well away from the lake. No one knew why, but large bodies of water were somehow connected to the Enchanted Land of Avalon, where the Faerie and the other supernatural creatures lived. They’d retreated back to their own lands when Merlin had created the boundary lines, too scared of Merlin to refuse his command, and were rarely seen in the human world. Robin suspected, from encountering a handful of supernatural creatures in his time, that their hatred for humanity and the half-human who ruled the world had never faded. In Avalon, where time was fluid and years could pass in an instant, they could wait for the world to change again, to welcome them home.

    But Merlin was immortal. They’d never be allowed to return to the land.

    The sense of dark magic struck him the moment he stepped into the clearing. Dark magic, magic worked with ill intentions, was easy to sense, even with his limited perceptions. He had to swallow hard to prevent himself from vomiting, or collapsing onto the path – or even out of it. Walking on the path provided limited protection; walking off the path would expose him to uncontrolled wild magic. The Dark Sorcerers had performed the blackest of black magic rituals in the <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Greenwood</st1:place></st1:City>, slaughtering the innocent villagers to power their spells. Even for black magicians, the act was extreme, with only one possible objective. They’d raised other rogue magicians into sorcery. An entire cabal of Dark Sorcerers existed, right under Merlin’s nose.

    Robin gritted his teeth as he moved closer, keeping a wary distance from the lake and its enchanting shimmer. Or maybe the Dark Sorcerers were based elsewhere, using the duchy as a decoy. Sorcerers could teleport, allowing them to jump across the entire world in an instant. They could be based anywhere. They’d probably teleported out as soon as they had completed their ritual, knowing that detection would mean that the Knights of the Round Table would be dispatched to investigate. Or perhaps the more shadowy – and feared – Tribunal, charged with hunting down black magicians, would become involved.

    The bodies on the ground were almost decayed down to nothing, he saw. The <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Greenwood</st1:place></st1:City>’s unique ecology would already be absorbing them, drawing them into a world warped by wild magic. Who knew what would happen to the bodies? The souls, at least, would be long gone. They wouldn't be trapped in the <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Greenwood</st1:place></st1:City>, unlike others. Robin had seen ghosts wandering through ancient abandoned castles and towns, calling for release that could never come. He knew that he should have the bodies buried properly, but he didn’t dare try to pull the remains away from the <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Greenwood</st1:place></st1:City>. They belonged to the wild magic now.

    “And so they died,” Thorn said. The monster had remained in the foliage, unwilling to come out into the sunlight and expose himself to Robin’s stare. His deep breathing was loud enough for Robin to hear, even in the enchanted clearing. “The Dark Sorcerers destroyed their lives and left their remains here, to become part of the <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Greenwood</st1:place></st1:City>. And so life goes on.”

    “True,” Robin agreed. Dark Sorcerers! An entire cabal of Dark Sorcerers! Camelot had to be warned – which, at least, would provide an excuse to abandon the rest of his patrol and return to Camelot, and Tiffany. The sooner they started searching for the Dark Sorcerers, the better. “I’m sorry for what happened to you.”

    Thorn laughed, harshly. “I am content,” he said, flatly. “I am part of the <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Greenwood</st1:place></st1:City> now, part of a community that human eyes never see, where I have found an acceptance denied to me my humanity. Even my parents rejected me, but now my parents are dead!”

    Robin said nothing. The village had been protected by charms, but they’d only been effective against supernatural vermin. There would have been little stopping the Dark Sorcerers from entering the village, killing a handful of the strongest to establish their control and then marching the peasants up to the place of slaughter. Or perhaps they’d just used their powers, spelled the villagers into helpless obedience and ordered them to march placidly to their deaths. Dark Sorcerers refused to acknowledge the Wizardly Strictures that governed how magicians could use their powers, laws placed into effect by Merlin himself. It granted them vast powers and freedom of action, but the cost of sorcery was high. Dark Sorcerers were often completely insane…and very, very dangerous. One of them was a nightmare in human form. An entire group was a hellish threat for almost any place in the land. Camelot had to be warned.

    “I hear whispers,” Thorn said, as Robin turned to go. He could walk back to Lucas, send him back to his father with a warning, and then gallop off to the main road back to Camelot. He’d reach the railway station outside the duchy by the end of the day, which would speed him to Camelot by the following morning. “There are whispers running through Avalon and down into the <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Greenwood</st1:place></st1:City>. The whispers say that a time of change is coming, that the whole order of life is soon to be reversed. And then we will walk free upon the land.”

    Robin felt a shiver running down his spine. Avalon was fluid, nothing like the fixed land Merlin ruled. It was possible for someone living in Avalon, or near one of the soft places that allowed transit between Earth and Avalon, to see hints and glimpses of the future. Oracles never saw the entire truth, and often they misinterpreted what they saw, but their prophecies could be alarmingly accurate. And Thorn, a being with ties to the wild magic, might well see more than a human oracle.

    “They’re waiting on the other side of the land,” Thorn added. He sounded…unconcerned by his words, even as their full import landed on Robin’s shoulders. “They’re biding their time, waiting for everything to change, storing their malice in their black hearts. The time is coming when they will be able to return to your world and take their place as the lords and masters of all. And humanity will learn, once again, to fear the night.”

    Robin turned, walking back towards the path. Something was moving in the foliage, trying to escape his gaze. Just for a second, Robin saw a hulking misshapen form, crouching low to avoid being seen. At full height, he realised, Thorn would be almost the size of a gorilla, or one of the great apes that lived in the rainforests on the lower continent. He might have been human once, but now he was something far more dangerous, a creature of wild magic. His skin seemed to shimmer with lizard-like scales; his eyes, meeting Robin’s for a fraction of a second, were bright red orbs in the semi-darkness. No wonder, Robin thought with a hint of pity, that Thorn had never tried to return to the village, or even find a place among humanity. He’d never be accepted, ever. Robin knew of others touched by wild magic while growing in their mother’s womb, warped and twisted before they’d even had a chance to live. The lucky ones had been driven away and forced into banditry. The unlucky ones had been killed out of hand. No one, not even Merlin, could reverse transformations inflicted by wild magic.

    He held back words of sympathy, knowing that Thorn would not accept pity, even from a Knight of the Round Table. Instead, he watched as the foliage rustled and Thorn took his leave, before starting his own walk back to the village. He could hear the Greenwood coming back to life – he’d barely been aware of the quiet in the clearing, near the lake – and kept one hand on his sword, ready to draw it at the first sign of a threat. He could feel unseen eyes, colder and more inhuman than Thorn, watching him from a distance. Strange sounds alarmingly close to him suggested that another creature – or many creatures – were stalking him, hidden within the greenery. The footsteps were not human.

    The prickling at the back of his neck only grew stronger as he approached the boundary line. It was all he could do to keep walking steadily, expecting a blow to fall against his shoulders at any moment. The sounds – and the sense of threat – just kept growing stronger and stronger. A rustling behind him hinted that something inhuman had just stepped out onto the patch. He glanced up sharply as a shadow fell over him and saw a mighty dragon, flying through the air, great golden eyes looking down at him with a great emotion he couldn’t even begin to recognise. Dragons were rare in <st1:country-region w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">England</st1:place></st1:country-region>. To see one here, where Earth and Avalon touched, didn’t strike him as a good omen.

    He crossed the boundary line without incident and turned to look back into the <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Greenwood</st1:place></st1:City>. There was nothing there, behind him; at least, nothing visible. He could still feel unfriendly eyes watching him, biding their time. Their owners might not choose to strike down Merlin’s representative, but they weren’t afraid of him. Robin looked away and began a defiant march down to the village, holding himself together by sheer force of will. Showing weakness to a supernatural creature, particularly one of the darker monstrosities was asking for a quick and painful death. And death would be preferable to being held captive by one of the more powerful creatures, toyed with as a plaything until he broke. The tales of unfortunates who had walked into Faerie and become unwilling guests at a <st1:Street w:st="on"><st1:address w:st="on">Faerie Court</st1:address></st1:Street> had never seemed so real. The entire human race owed Merlin a great debt for separating them from the supernatural world of Avalon.

    Lucas was still waiting for him in the village, somewhat to Robin’s surprise. It was easy to lose track of time in the <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Greenwood</st1:place></st1:City>, even if one didn’t step off the path. The Duke’s Heir looked relieved to see him, which had to be a first. Or perhaps he was just worried about his father’s reaction if he’d lost Robin, a Knight of the Round Table.

    “I have to go onwards to Camelot,” Robin said, once he’d explained and they’d shared a small meal. They’d taken bread and cheese from one of the hovels, knowing that the rightful owners would never reclaim their land. “I need you to warn your father to keep people away from this village.”

    Lucas nodded, clearly more discomforted than he was prepared to show. Robin concealed his own amusement. Dark Sorcerers could rattle even a self-obsessed Duke’s Heir. He kept Thorn’s warning to himself. Merlin would have to be the first to know, if only to keep the Duke from trying to use it for political gain. Merlin…and Tiffany. The thought of seeing her again made everything worthwhile.

    “Good luck,” he said, as he clambered back onto his horse. Lucas would have no difficulty getting back alone. Robin couldn’t resist showing off a little as he spurred his horse to a gallop. “Goodbye!”

    Lucas waved after him, and then he was gone.
    STANGF150 likes this.
  8. dragonfly

    dragonfly Monkey+++

    Oh no...I'm "trapped" into reading again!
    See what you do?
    I'll never get any work done around here now!
    But, I like it! I like it!
    PS: Congrats on the engagement!
  9. Yoldering

    Yoldering Monkey+++

    I am so happy that you are back. You really have me hooked...
  10. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Four<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    “Dark Sorcerers?”

    “Yes, father,” Lucas said. His father had started interrogating him as soon as he had returned to the castle, refusing his son permission to wash himself or even rub down his horse before he answered his father’s questions. “Sir Robin was confident that the village was attacked by Dark Sorcerers.”

    The Duke furrowed his brow in contemplation. Lucas would have been surprised if his father had been outraged at the crime perpetrated against his vassals, but the Duke was more concerned with the danger of Dark Sorcerers in the Dukedom. Magicians – even wizards – could be brought to heel by the nobility; Dark Sorcerers were hardly inclined to pay attention to a noble title. The only thing they respected was power.

    “And they took an entire village of mine, as bold as brass,” his father continued, thoughtfully. “They must have been very confident that Camelot wouldn't detect their ritual before it was completed. Merlin could have teleported an entire army in to deal with them before they could escape. I wonder...”

    His father trailed off into silent thought. Lucas gritted his teeth, feeling the sweat pooling at the base of his armour. He knew better than to interrupt his father’s chain of thought, or even to sneak off to his chambers, not before he’d been dismissed. Angering his father was dangerous, even for his only son. A servant who angered the master would be lucky to escape with only a savage beating.

    “There have been rumours for a long time,” his father said, after several minutes. He didn't bother to say what the rumours actually were, of course. Knowledge was power and the Duke kept secrets even from his own son. “Strange hints that something is very wrong in the Empire.”

    Lucas started. He’d been to Camelot when he’d been presented at Merlin’s Court – and several other times when he had accompanied his father to the Empire’s capital city – but he’d rarely bothered to pay attention to politics. His father had once hoped that his son would be a willing ally in the incessant political wars that occupied the attention of the great nobles, yet Lucas had had little interest in politics. It was all he could do to meet some of his father’s more extreme instructions.

    “Of course, the Blackrock Affair doesn't help,” his father continued. “The Duchy of Tara is weakening fast. There are opportunities there, for those with the nerve and determination to seize them...”

    He spoke on, while Lucas waited, trying not to show his boredom. As a younger man, barely entering his teens, he’d thought that his father was sharing his world with his son, even one who had been something of a disappointment. Later, he’d realised that his father just wanted to gloat over his own cleverness and Lucas was a convenient audience. He’d never dare to share his father’s secrets with anyone outside the family – and besides, the Duke had only one other child, a daughter. Little Emma would be married off to the best possible match as soon as she grew into maturity. Lucas himself would probably inherit the Duchy without the slightest idea of how to wield its power, or to control the network of alliance and clients that his father had created to support his position.

    “You will be taking lunch with Lady Gwendolyn in seven days,” his father said, finally. Lucas blinked in surprise. “The Heir to the Duchy of Tara will make a more than suitable replacement for Lady Tiffany – and even taking lunch with her will put the Duchess Blackrock in our debt. I trust that you can manage that much without wreaking my plans?”

    Lucas hated it when his father used his sarcastic tone. His father considered him little more than a servant, yet he didn't dare run or even stand up for himself. And Lady Gwendolyn...? She was barely old enough to marry, ten years younger than Lucas himself, and hardly pleasant company for a young man. As Heir to Tara – the Blackrock Family had produced no male heirs – her marriage would reshape the face of politics in the Empire. If she was united with Lucas, himself a Heir...

    “The Emperor may not allow the marriage,” his father continued, thoughtfully. “And High Society may find reasons to object...”

    They’d do more than that, Lucas knew. With Duke Blackrock in the Tower of Camelot, waiting for Merlin’s judgement, Duchess Blackrock had been pushed to the outskirts of High Society. Unless Merlin stripped her family of their rank and title, that wouldn't last, but for the moment the vultures were gathering. An marriage alliance – or even a hint of an alliance – between Lucas and Lady Gwendolyn would rescue her position in High Society, whatever happened to her husband. The thought was enough to make Lucas shudder. High Society turned a blind eye to most perversions, if the practitioner was wealthy and powerful, but there were limits. No one expected Duke Blackrock to leave the Tower of Camelot alive.

    “You will, of course, be as dashing and handsome as you know how to be,” his father ordered. Lucas nodded impatiently. “And while you are talking with the Lady Gwendolyn, do try to avoid mentioning the Lady Tiffany.”

    “Yes, father,” Lucas said, tiredly. That, at least, he could have worked out for himself. He pushed as much sarcasm into his voice as he dared. “I won’t breathe a whisper of her name.”

    It would definitely have wreaked his father’s plans, he thought, afterwards. Lady Gwendolyn had good reason to dislike Lady Tiffany. After all, it had been Lady Tiffany who’d put Lady Gwendolyn’s father in the Tower – and almost certainly condemned him to death.

    Centuries ago, in the semi-mythical time before Merlin, the British Isles had been invaded by the Romans, who had brought the benefits of their civilisation to a half-barbaric land. They’d retreated from the islands several years before the rise of King Arthur, their Empire crumbling away from within and without, but they’d left behind them a formidable legacy. Later, when the armies of the Pendragon Empire had crossed the channel and invaded Gaul – and Italy – the useful aspects of the heritage of the Roman Empire had been incorporated into Merlin’s Empire. The straight roads that linked the cities and castles of the Pendragon Empire together had been crafted by Roman engineers. Even with railways starting to allow faster transport between population centres – at least, unless one happened to have access to powerful magic – the roads still served as the main links between cities. Robin, who had learned the art of military strategy at the Garrison, could appreciate what the Romans had done – and how they’d used their roads to build the greatest empire the world had seen, before Merlin.

    He cantered down the road at a gallop, barely aware of passing hundreds of carts going to the nearest city or town. Some lords insisted on their peasants handing over their produce to their agents – pocketing a hefty profit for themselves when they sold the produce onwards – but the Duke didn't seem to care if his people made some additional money on the side. Or perhaps he did have strict laws and many of the peasants were risking his anger by selling their produce for themselves. The level of freedom enjoyed by the peasants varied from lordship to lordship.

    Robin galloped across a bridge and kept onwards, leaving the duchy behind. The land closed in around the road, reminding him of the Greenwood, although there was little magic in the forest around him. If memory served, the forest served as the dividing line between two separate lordships, providing a home for hermits, bandits and poachers. Wise bandits would know to stay away from a Knight, or any escorted convoy. Robin felt himself smiling as the horse kept moving. Here, away from his duties, as if he were alone, he felt truly free.

    Ahead of him, the road came to a sudden and abrupt halt. Robin pulled on the horse’s reins and the beast cantered to a stop, leaving its rider unable to believe his eyes. He’d ridden and walked down the road dozens of times since he’d left his home and enlisted at the Garrison...and he knew that the road kept going until it reached Rochester, one of the later free cities. Robin reached for his sword as he slipped off the horse’s back, wondering just what had happened. He knew he hadn't taken a wrong turning, if only because there were no other turnings once he’d passed the bridge. And then he realised just how quiet it was. There wasn't even any birdsong.

    He drew his sword, peering ahead of him. Where the road should have headed onwards into the distance, there was a flat patch of grass, with a tall stone building in the distance. There was no sense of threat, oddly; his instincts were insisting that it was safe, if disconcerting. He rubbed his hand against the horse’s flank, ordering the beast to remain where it was, and returned his sword to his scabbard. Carefully, alert for a haze of magic that might signify an attack, he walked towards the building. Up close, it was little more than a crude construction, yet there was something familiar about it. There was no door, merely an opening cut into the smooth stone. Inside, there were stone pews and a single stone cross.

    An odd legend, one he’d heard during his training at the barracks, echoed through his mind. Old tales of Knights who had had encounters with holy entities on their travels, searching for the Holy Grail and other magical artefacts. Robin removed his hand from his sword’s hilt as he stepped further into the building. It felt as if he was stepping into a very holy place. The very atmosphere suggested that it was waiting for someone to clear His throat and begin to speak.

    Robin slowly removed his helmet, exposing his bare head. As if the building had been waiting for him to show proper respect, a new light flared up in the far corner, blinding him for a long chilling moment. When the light faded, he saw a pathway leading down to a lake, shimmering with blue light. It should have scared him, he knew, for power on that scale was always dangerous. Instead, he felt inhumanly calm as a figure began to appear in front of him. There was still no sense of threat, merely...anticipation.

    The figure took shape and form slowly, wavering against the light. It – no, she – was wearing a white robe that revealed her femininity, but obscured her face, hiding it from his gaze. He could barely make out hints of facial features, a small nose, warm lips...curved in a smile. Her hair seemed to blur into her white robe. Slowly, not quite aware of what he was doing, Robin went down on one knee. The translucent figure nodded her head in acknowledgement, and turned, walking down towards the lake. Robin, feeling an overpowering sense of grief and loss, followed her, as if he were walking in a trance. She didn't look back as she reached the edge of the lake and stopped.

    Robin halted too, keeping his distance from the translucent form. It would have felt almost sacrilegious to approach her. Robin was sworn to the ideals of Knighthood – to always respect and defend women – and yet, the translucent figure seemed to somehow transcendent the very notion of womanhood. Strange flickering images seemed to lurk within the glowing form; a young maiden smiling coyly at him, an older woman holding a baby in one hand and a ladle in the other, an old crone fixing him with a gimlet eye. He was being judged, he realised; the apparition was deciding his fate. The thought should have alarmed him. Instead, he still felt calm and composed.

    The figure stepped forward, into the lake. Robin could see, now, that the lake wasn't composed of water at all, but a shimmering mass of blue light. The power seemed to crackle through the air, bright blue flames leaping up to consume her translucent form. Robin opened his mouth to call out a warning, preparing himself to pull her from the flames, but she turned and smiled at him, a smile that weakened his knees and left him standing there, helplessly. The flames crackled around her, yet they never seemed to touch her. She turned again and kept walking, blue fires blurring around her. For a second, he couldn't see her at all, and then...

    She was walking back towards him, holding something in her hand. Robin could see it squirming, as if he couldn't quite see it properly. He’d seen creatures from Avalon that were impossible to make out, as if there was something about their form that was impossible for humans to perceive, but this was different. The object seemed to be deciding on a form suitable for his eyes. As she came closer, it blurred and stabilised into a long sword, wrapped in a jewelled scabbard. She held it out to Robin, hilt first. Slowly, as if he were sleepwalking, he reached out and took it from her. A sudden wave of blue fire swept from the hilt and into his hand, running up his arm and into his body, but there was no pain. The sword felt..good, right in his hand. It felt almost as if it were a part of him.

    Carefully, he drew the sword from the scabbard. It wasn't made of metal; it seemed to be made out of shimmering light. He couldn't see his own reflection in the blade. The sword’s presence hung in the air, as if it were somehow more real than anything else. Robin stared at it, realising – for the first time – that he knew its name. Excalibur, the legendary sword of King Arthur, lost ever since his death at the hands of his bastard son. He’d steeped himself in the legends as part of his training, yet little was known for sure. Some stories claimed that Merlin had created the sword as a gift for the one man he’d acknowledged as his lord; others claimed that Excalibur was far older, dating back to when God created the Heavens and the Earth. The Knights of the Round Table had quested for it many times, ever since Merlin had rebuilt the Order. None had ever come close to finding it. Some had even wondered, privately, if the sword had been destroyed.

    Robin looked up at the translucent figure. Many of the older stories were metaphors, he’d been told, ways to teach humanity truths without overwhelming the listeners. If the sword was Excalibur, the female figure had to be the Lady of the Lake, the living representative of the Land itself. He was in the presence of the embodiment of the entire world. He started to open his mouth, to stutter that he was not worthy of such a gift, but she merely smiled. In her smile, there was an acceptance and regard that quelled his own doubts and fears. Slowly, he returned Excalibur to its scabbard. She smiled at him once more...

    ...and the blue fire leapt up at him, surrounding him in blue light. When the light faded, he found himself standing beside his horse, which was contentedly nibbling the grass growing along the roadside. The road stretched away towards Rochester. By the position of the sun in the sky, it was clear that the whole encounter had taken no more than a few minutes. It had felt like hours. He’d been taken into Avalon, to the enchanted land of myth and legend...if it hadn't been for the sword in his hand, he would have wondered if he’d fallen asleep and dreamed everything. It should have been impossible. He was a long way from the Greenwood. No merely human magician could wield power on such a scale.

    He looked down at the sword and scabbard. Even sheathed within the jewelled scabbard – which had powers of its own, if he remembered correctly – Excalibur seemed to glow with power and light. Magical artefacts could be sensed by magicians and sorcerers – and Excalibur was one of the most powerful of all. Every magician for a hundred miles around would be aware of its presence, if they opened their inner eyes to see. The sheer power would leave them in no doubt that something very old and powerful had returned to the land.

    Carefully, he removed his own sword and placed Excalibur’s scabbard against his belt. He wasn't surprised to discover that it nestled there as if it had always belonged there, even though he’d never considered himself worthy of it. All the legends somehow seemed paltry and weak compared to the reality. The sword was far more than just a sword. If half of the legends were true...

    Robin slowly pulled himself back onto his horse, remembering Thorn’s warnings. The Faerie and the other supernatural creatures were anticipating a change, one that would reshape the world. And Excalibur had just returned to the human lands. Somehow, Robin didn't believe that it was a coincidence. If Excalibur, perhaps the most powerful artefact from myth and legend, had returned, who knew what else was going to returning to the fixed lands?

    He touched the sword one final time and spurred the horse onwards. He could be in Camelot within a day, where he could report to Merlin – and Tiffany. Merlin would remember what had happened the last time Excalibur had been held by a human hand; he’d be able to advise Robin on what to do with the sword. Besides, he had to report the existence of a cabal of Dark Sorcerers. They’d sense the return of Excalibur themselves. His lips twitched in black humour. Who knew – perhaps they would sense the sword’s presence and go hide under the bed, rather than causing trouble.

    Pushing the thought aside, he cantered onwards, praying that the rest of the trip passed uneventfully. One more surprise would be the end of him.
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  11. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


    Chapter Five<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    If her mother could see her, she’d die of shame on the spot.

    Lady Tiffany of Shalott, First Councillor to the Emperor Merlin, stood in the locomotive’s cabin and laughed as the train raced down towards Camelot. The air stank of burning coal, her expensive white dress was stained with grease and dust, the wind blew her long red hair out behind her...and she’d never been happier. Her heart beat in time with the rumblings of the engine, ignoring the driver and fireman as they fought to control the mighty metal beast, wishing that the ride would never end. It would, she knew, and she would have to go back to her duties, but until then...she could pretend.

    Camelot slowly came into view as the train rounded a corner, following the river that flowed down from Shalott. Merlin’s capital city glittered in the sunlight, the towers of the Iron Palace reaching up towards the sky. To the unknowing eye, Camelot looked fragile, as if one strong gust of wind would blow it over and send it crashing to the ground, but appearances were deceiving. Merlin’s magic ran through the Iron Palace, shaping it out of the ground and holding it steady. It was far stronger than the remainder of the city.

    Even at a distance, Tiffany could sense Merlin’s presence, a dark brooding shimmer of magic that could neither be denied or ignored. The city’s inhabitants had grown used to living in Merlin’s shadow, although she knew that very few of the nobility chose to make their home permanently in Camelot. They didn't like to be reminded of Merlin’s presence, or his power over their lives. A word from Merlin could see the strongest and most aristocratic bloodline reduced to cringing beggars, struggling to survive on the streets of an unforgiving city. And if a noble family fell so lightly, its members could count themselves lucky indeed.

    It wasn't the original Camelot, of course. That fair palace, remembered now only in myths and legends, had been destroyed by Arthur’s bastard son, in the early days of his uprising against his father. Its fall had marked the end of one golden age as son fought father across the land, until blood strained the fields and hills of England and two mighty armies met for the final battle. And when Arthur had fallen, Merlin had awoken and returned to the land and proclaimed his rule. The Iron Palace, composed from cold iron and shaped by Merlin’s will, was both an demonstration of his power and a sign that no one could stand against him. No one had even come close to matching Merlin, not in all the years since he’d taken the throne.

    The outskirts of the city were great manors, each one belonging to one of the noble families, or one of the immensely wealthy – if not titled – merchant princes. You weren't anyone in High Society if you didn't have a mansion in Camelot; even under Merlin’s shadow, it was still the place to be for anyone who wanted a political career. Tiffany concealed a smile as the train swept past the latest mansion, one built by a newly-wealthy merchant for his wife and daughters. It was notably lacking in charm, elegance or even good taste. The word on the streets was that the merchant was seeking society marriages for his daughters. Tiffany suspected that it would end in tears.

    She felt an odd sense of dislocation as the train plunged through the first layer of wards surrounding the inner city, protecting Merlin’s capital city from all comers. Merlin’s wards were dauntingly powerful, even when compared to wards created by massed teams of sorcerers. Tiffany could normally read wards, even if she couldn't break them, but Merlin’s always appeared to be nothing more than intangible lines of power, just waiting for someone foolish enough to challenge them. Inside the wards, the sense of Merlin’s presence was suddenly much stronger, a chilling reminder that there was no way to hide from him if he chose to look for her. His presence pervaded the entire complex.

    The train slowed to a halt as it entered the station, a relatively new building amidst the houses that held the men and women who kept the Pendragon Empire running smoothly. Tiffany shook her head slowly, feeling duty settling around her like a shroud, and muttered a charm under her breath as the train slid to a halt. Magic shimmered around her and when it was gone, her white robe was as clean as it had been the day she’d first donned it, when Merlin had appointed her to his Privy Council. The day he’d made her the most important – and powerful – woman in the Empire.

    She nodded her head to the driver and stepped off the train, down onto the platform. She’d deliberately avoided bringing any guards with her – very few would dare to attack Merlin’s First Councillor – even though she knew that it would worry her friends. There were nobles who had raised entire armies of guardsmen and summoned hundreds of magicians to their banner, but Tiffany had never seen the point. She didn't need a private army to prove her power to anyone, not when she wore Merlin’s Ring. It allowed her to draw on a tiny fraction of Merlin’s power, marking her out as his servant. Everyone who was anyone – or thought they were – would know who she was. She could see a handful of people watching her from a distance, or heading off to report to their masters, as she walked down towards the road. The entire city would know that she’d returned. News travelled quickly in Merlin’s Empire.

    The Iron Triangle rose up in front of her as she walked up the road, heading directly for the Iron Palace. The three points of the Iron Triangle – the Houses of Parliament, the Keep and the Great College of Beneficence – surrounded the Iron Palace, keeping the men and women who ran the Empire – from the great nobles to the clerks working away at their desks – under Merlin’s unblinking eye. Tiffany knew that very few of them would dare to act openly against the Empire, or against Merlin’s will. His power was a constant remainder of their vulnerability. A number had made themselves wealthy by serving Merlin, but that, at least, was acceptable. It bespoke a thinking mind that could be put to work elsewhere.

    She frowned as she reached the gardens and looked down, towards the Tower of Camelot. Anywhere else, the Tower of Camelot would have stood out like a beacon and magicians could have sensed it from hundreds of miles away. Here, so close to Merlin’s presence, it was almost impossible to sense it, or the hundreds of wards protecting it and keeping the handful of prisoners locked inside. Two weeks ago, just before she’d returned to Shalott, she’d had a very important prisoner confined to the Tower, awaiting Merlin’s judgement. The tiny flickers in the wards, barely detectable even for her, told Tiffany that the prisoner was still confined. Merlin had made no decision about his fate.

    Up close, the Iron Palace seemed almost defenceless. There were no walls surrounded it, nor were there any guards on the great stone gates that led into the palace. There was no need of physical defences, not when Merlin was his own, all-powerful protector. Tiffany had heard that his enemies had tried to kill him in many different ways, from direct physical assaults to more subtle poisons and deadly potions, but nothing had ever worked. Merlin had even been beheaded once, according to the legends, and it hadn't done more than amused him. He’d picked up his head, placed it back on his neck, and then blasted his attacker into atoms. He didn't even seem to notice poison.

    Bracing herself, Tiffany walked forward, into the antechamber. The crowd was waiting for her, as she’d expected. The great and good of the Empire, demanding to see Merlin’s First Councillor; the braver were even demanding to see Merlin himself. Tiffany remembered how she’d been tempted to just run the first time she’d faced the crowd, but showing weakness at Camelot could be fatal. The Court might know better than to try to dispose Merlin, yet that wouldn't stop them concentrating their malice – and ambition – against his First Councillor.

    Ignoring the babble, she looked from person to person, silently noting who was there – and who wasn’t. There were nearly a hundred aristocrats, each one ignoring the others magnificently, if only because Merlin had banned fighting within his palace. The seven families had been feuding for the past four years – ever since a complicated marriage alliance had fallen apart – and they all expected Tiffany to rule in their favour. They weren't particularly powerful families and Tiffany had been quietly ignoring the whole issue as much as possible. With the Blackrock Scandal still unresolved, the greater nobility had been keeping a very low profile. They probably feared what would be discovered if Merlin started peering in their direction.

    Behind the aristocrats, a number of magicians – more than usual – waited for her attention. Merlin had always encouraged other magicians to attend his Court, although many of the more powerful ones preferred to avoid it where possible. The wizards knew that they’d never be able to match Merlin and resented it. A handful of sorcerers stood near them, with the rest of the crowd giving them a wide birth. Everyone knew that sorcerers were unstable, even the ones who survived burning new magical channels in their mind without going insane. No one wanted to be near the men in black if they decided to start turning people into frogs left, right and centre. They’d have to be insane to start causing trouble in Merlin’s palace, but calmly was a occupational hazard where sorcery was concerned. Tiffany nodded to them cloudily, frowning inwardly. It was rare to see more than two sorcerers together. They always started picking fights with each other. Their presence suggested trouble.

    Puzzled, she looked closer at the magicians. Many of them were from outside England, making their first visit to Camelot. There were slant-eyed wizards from Han, with long fingernails and cruel moustaches that had frightened her as a young child. The magicians could have cut their fingernails, save only that that would have cost them half their power. Dark-skinned fakers from Hindi, turban-wearing mystics from the Fertile Crescent of Persia and nearly-naked black shamans from Nubia. The mystics had little real power of their own – their magical traditions didn't embrace inner power – but they controlled powerful genies in the lanterns they wore at their wrists. Merlin had once killed one of them in single combat – a genie possessed vast power, with little regard for how it was used – yet few others could match such a feat. The mystics were regarded warily by the crowd, although they weren't treated as dangerously irrational sorcerers.

    She passed through the crowd, saying sweet nothings and pretending that she was above their babbling concerns. Inwardly, she was listening carefully and filing everything away in her mind. The free cities wanted to petition Merlin for an expansion of the Charter of Rights. A group of peasants – in hard-worn clothes, with hard-worn expressions – wanted their local aristocrats to relax their price controls on seeds and livestock. The chances were good that they were being backed by one of the merchant princes, but that didn't mean that they didn't have a case. Tiffany knew what Robin would have wanted her to do – hear their case at once, and then rule in their favour – yet she just didn't have time. Two weeks ago, she’d attempted to defuse a nasty political scandal by placing the ball in Merlin’s court and taking a fortnight off. And nothing, it seemed, had been done.

    As if the thought had been enough to summon her, Duchess Blackrock materialised out of the crowd, throwing herself into Tiffany’s path. A short, rather frumpy woman, her appearance was disguised and altered by a magical glamour surrounding her. She wanted to look tall and commanding, but Tiffany didn't need Merlin’s help to raise her Sight and peer through the glamour to the woman beneath. Duchess Blackrock looked terrified, but then...she had good reason to be worried about the future. Her husband was locked away in the Tower, awaiting Merlin’s judgement. And Merlin tended to be indiscriminate when he was throwing his wrath around. There was a good chance that the Duchess would lose her title, transforming her from one of the most powerful women in the world to a helpless dependent, relying on her relatives for food and shelter.

    “Lady Tiffany,” the Duchess said, grabbing Tiffany’s hand. She had a shrill, rather nasal voice. The crueller wags in the Court had wondered if she had a Siren somewhere in her ancestry. “You cannot keep my husband locked up in the Tower! It’s cruel!”

    Tiffany wasn't fooled by the act. The Duchess knew what her husband had been doing when he'd been caught, red-handed. In her place, Tiffany would have abandoned her husband at once, throwing him under the wheels of Merlin’s justice. Instead...the Duchess had been working away at the House of Lords, bringing all the pressure to bear that she could, hoping to convince the Lords to petition Merlin to pardon Duke Blackrock. Tiffany had hoped to pre-empt her by putting the affair before Merlin.

    “He’s a Duke,” the Duchess continued. She still hadn't let go of Tiffany’s hand. “He shouldn't be locked away...”

    There had always been rumours about Duke Blackrock, one of the thirteen Dukes – the most powerful aristocrats in the Empire. Tiffany had spent enough time at Court to know that all rumours should be taken with a very large grain of salt; why, rumour had it that Tiffany and Merlin were lovers. Mud stuck, particularly when people wanted to believe the rumours. The Duke had been untouchable, until a Knight of the Round Table had led a raid on an unmarked house in one of the Duke’s towns. He'd discovered the Duke in the act of raping a small girl, barely old enough to walk on her own. And then the Duke had tried to claim aristocratic rights...

    Tiffany, speaking for Merlin, had ordered an investigation – and kept the Duke under lock and key. The investigators had discovered that the Duke had been raping children for years, ever since he’d inherited from his father. No one knew how many children had been raped and murdered, but even one would have shocked Camelot. And he hadn't even been slaughtering children for black rituals. He should have been hung, at once, but his wife fought desperately to save his life. Tiffany had hoped that Merlin would render the issue moot before the political struggle turned violent. Her hope had not been fulfilled.

    The Duchess stepped back when Tiffany met her eyes, allowing her to walk onwards towards the second set of iron doors. They opened in front of her as she approached, slamming closed behind her and cutting off the noise from the crowd. Tiffany pushed their concerns to the back of her mind as she walked through the immense room, trying to ignore the ghostly apparitions that flickered in and out of existence in front of her. Merlin’s presence, he’d explained once, bent the very laws of time and space. The apparitions were glimpses of alternate worlds, or the past – or, sometimes, the future. They’d always given Tiffany shivers.

    She saw, just for an instant, a man she didn't recognise, carrying a sword that glittered with light. He was gone before she could read the marks on his shield, which would have told her who he had sworn loyalty to, as part of the ceremony that had raised him to knighthood. She sucked in her breath sharply as she saw Robin, smiling down at her, before he vanished back into the mists of time. A sad nun appeared, shook her head at Tiffany, and then vanished again. King Arthur stood in front of her, his calm eyes seeming to look right into her soul before he smiled and nodded – and vanished. Tiffany found herself wiping away a tear. Merlin had told her that Arthur had been the True King, the only man to whom Merlin had ever bent the knee, but Tiffany hadn't really believed him, not until now. She couldn't escape the thought that Arthur’s appearance meant something very significant.

    And then a single image appeared in front of her and she recoiled in shock. She saw herself, kneeling on the iron floor, her hands bound behind her back with chains of cold iron. Naked, her head was bowed, her long flowering hair falling down to cover her breasts and give her what little modesty she could. There was someone sitting in front of her, seated on the Iron Throne, but she couldn't make out a face. And then her duplicate raised her head to meet Tiffany’s eyes...and the hopelessness she saw deep within her own face sent cold shivers running down her back. She looked little older than Tiffany herself.

    Merlin had said, when she’d asked him as a young girl, that the apparitions didn't mean anything. They were just shadows of possible worlds, of things that had never happened and never would happen, futures that sprang from different pasts. Sometimes, a person would see the true future, but it was rare. Or so he’d told her. Somehow, it was no comfort to recall his words. It was hard to reject the belief that that...hopelessness didn't lie in her future.

    She strode forward, keeping her eyes closed, until she reached the third set of doors. If she hadn't been welcome, they would have stayed resolutely shut, bound by a will so absolute that every wizard in the empire couldn't have opened them. They slid open for her and Tiffany almost ran into the chamber, feeling almost like a scared little girl again. The apparition didn't follow. Breathing heavily, she calmed herself as best as she could and looked up towards the Iron Throne.

    Merlin Mekratrig, Son of Satan Mekratrig, born to be the Antichrist, was waiting for her.
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  12. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Six<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    The impact of Merlin’s presence hit her like a physical blow.

    Tiffany had faced him many times before, but the effect was always the same. Merlin’s very presence made her bend the knee to him, a gesture of respect that came from her very soul. She’d heard younger nobles, scions of dynasties that went all the way back to King Arthur, speak scornfully of the old man on the throne. They’d never faced him in person, never even felt his presence focused on them and them alone. Merlin, the son of the second-most powerful being in all of Creation, could bring them all to heel with a wave of his hand.

    He was tall, with a thin body that seemed almost too small for the black robes he wore, yet burned with energy. Even trying to look at him through normal eyes was hard, as if there was something about him that was beyond human perception. Her Sight was useless against him; trying to look at him through her inner eye was like staring into the sun. His long white beard seemed to curl and move of its own accord, twisting carelessly through the air. And his eyes were hooded with shadow, dark pools that seemed to suck the life out of the air itself. Power crackled around him, his very presence bending reality, as if nothing was solid. The Iron Throne, his seat of power, seemed almost weak and fragile compared to him. It was simply impossible to look directly at him for long.

    And yet, something was...wrong. Tiffany couldn't have said how she knew, for Merlin seemed to be as powerful as ever. It was hard to focus her mind in his presence, something that was hardly new...she must have been dazed, because she should have seen it at once. Merlin normally reined in his presence once she’d knelt to him, allowing her to talk properly without stuttering, and to look at him without her eyes beginning to water. Instead...he seemed to have forgotten, as if his mind were wandering. And yet, Merlin never forgot anything.

    She frowned, wondering desperately if she’d made him angry. Merlin had delegated his power and authority to her, allowing her to speak with his voice. Tiffany knew better than to abuse the trust he’d placed in her, for a word from her could alter the destiny of the entire empire. She’d wondered, at first, why Merlin felt that he needed someone to speak for him to his Court. It had taken years before she’d realised that people weren't so scared of her as they were of Merlin. They’d actually make suggestions and critical remarks to her that they’d never dare make to their lord and master. And she’d learned to incorporate their comments into her own plans and proposals.

    Had she displeased him? She’d calculated that Merlin would judge Lord Blackrock, find him guilty and execute him before she returned from Shalott. There had been no other choice. If she’d judged him herself, Duchess Blackrock would have brought all the pressure she could muster to bear on Shalott – and Tiffany personally. Hundreds of arrangements Tiffany had created to help the Empire function would be thrown into jeopardy. It seemed insane to her that the Duchess would risk so much for a child-raping piece of ****, Duke or no Duke, but it would have happened. Perhaps the Duchess truly loved her man.

    But no one would have questioned Merlin if he’d executed the Duke. His judgement would have been final. There would have been no appeal. The Empire would have remained stable, the Duke’s Heir would have inherited and few of the Duchess’s allies would risk confronting Merlin. And yet...had he wished her to handle the Duke herself? Was he angry that she’d tried to manipulate the situation – or even him personally?

    Merlin spoke finally – and Tiffany was shocked. He sounded tired, yet he had never sounded tired, not in all the years she’d known him. Merlin was the immortal empire of the Pendragon Empire; he’d been ruler for a thousand years and would be ruling for a thousand years after Tiffany was dust, her children long gone. To hear him sounding...tired was terrifying.

    “I do not wish to be bothered,” he said. There were times when Tiffany could feel magic in his words, as if he didn't need to draw on the magical speech to create magic words. Now, he just sounded very old. “You will inform the Court that they will not attend on me today.”

    Tiffany swallowed, hard. Showing weakness at Camelot was never a good idea. It had been a long time since the last serious challenge the Empire had faced – the Serpent Wars – and there were plenty of lesser nobility who would see opportunity in any hint of weakness. They would have to be insane to challenge Merlin openly, but they could burrow away at his position and try to secure additional power for themselves. Tiffany might have been First Councillor, yet everyone knew that she drew her power from her master. A threat to his position was a threat to hers.

    Years ago, when she’d just turned twelve, her father had died. Her mother, the Dowager Lady Aloha of Shalott, had brought her to Camelot, presenting her before Merlin as tradition demanded. Merlin had claimed the right to approve all Heirs personally centuries ago and few dared to dispute it with him. Tiffany, already young and precocious, had despaired. Her mother, whose interests were limited to clothes, jewellery and socialising, would want to marry her only daughter off as soon as possible, rather than allow her to develop her magical talents and learn how to rule Shalott. But when she’d faced Merlin, the ancient sorcerer had plucked her out of the crowd and ordered a place to be prepared for her at Beneficence, the greatest college of magic in the world. Her mother had known better than to argue, at least in front of Merlin.

    Her studies hadn't been easy, even with the title she’d inherited from her father. Few women studied magic formally, even noblewomen. She’d faced opposition from her fellow students, many of whom had hazed her during her first year in the college. But she’d learned quickly, developing the skill to ward herself and her possessions – and eventually to fight back against her tormentors. It had been years before she’d realised that the college had pushed her deliberately, forcing her to develop her wizardry to its fullest possible extent. And by the time she’d graduated, Tiffany had been beating wizards with years of experience.

    Merlin had summoned her the following year and appointed her to his Privy Council. She’d done well, so well that she’d replaced Merlin’s old First Councillor when he’d finally retired. It had irritated the Court to have to pay respect to a slip of a girl – she’d wondered at times if that had been the point – but she’d overcome the first challenges and earned respect. And now...something was badly wrong.

    “My Lord,” she said, finally, “there are issues that we need to discuss.”

    Merlin turned his great head and looked down at her. She was shocked to see how slowly he moved, as if it was a great struggle to move. The power shimmering around him seemed to be congealing, flickering with flashes of blue light. Merlin seemed to be having difficulty speaking...just for a second, she wondered if he could be under a curse. But who was powerful enough to curse Merlin, the most powerful being in the world?

    “Duke Blackrock can wait,” Merlin said. He sounded...unconcerned. Once, he would have ordered the Duke brought before him and executed him in a manner that would have lived on in infamy. He'd done that once, just after Tiffany had graduated, and the sheer horror of the death had stopped the nobles from plotting for nearly a week. “I do not wish to be troubled with him at this time.”

    A hundred questions thundered through Tiffany’s head, but she had the sense not to say any of them out loud. Why had he allowed her to visit him if all he wanted to do was to send her away? Why had he even allowed the Court to gather if he intended to dismiss them at once? And why hadn’t he dealt with Duke Blackrock? High rank was no protection against Merlin’s judgement.

    Something moved behind her and she started, turning to see one of the Husks. The Husks had once been Merlin’s enemies, until Merlin had reached out with his magic and rewritten their souls, turning them into his servants. The aristocracy used spell-controlled slaves as a matter of course, but that process was reversible. Even Merlin couldn't return a Husk to humanity. Their very existence was an abomination, which was partly why Merlin kept them around. They were an chilling reminder of his absolute power.

    “Go,” Merlin ordered.

    Tiffany opened her mouth to argue, but it was too late. She found herself standing in the antechamber, teleported out as casually as one might walk across a room. The ring on her finger felt warm, yet when she looked at it there was nothing to indicate that she’d lost Merlin’s favour. Confused, she walked back out of the antechamber and faced the crowd. They’d expected to see Merlin, not her. It took nearly an hour before she managed to dismiss them, promising that she’d see to it that they were summoned again when Merlin was ready to see them. She scowled as the last of the visitors hurried out the door and sighed. They’d blame her if Merlin refused to see them a second time.

    She walked outside, feeling a gust of cold air striking her in the face. Camelot lacked the heavy walls of other castles and fortresses and there was little protection for the unwary visitor. Muttering a charm under her breath, she started walking down the path towards Beneficence – and the Library of St Jude. It had been weeks since she’d last had a chance to visit, but she needed some advice. And besides, most of the Court wouldn’t think to look for her in a library. They’d probably never looked at a book since they’d graduated from school. Merlin insisted that everyone – even peasants – were taught basic literacy and numbers, but more than that was strictly optional. Noblemen didn't need to know how to read, write or manage their own accounts. They hired men to do it for them.

    The Great College of Beneficence was an enormous mass of blocky stone, far larger on the inside than on the outside. Countless wizards had created the spells that held the College together, binding it in place with powerful wards and anchors. Merlin had created Camelot and the castle’s winding passageways all on his own, back before there had ever been a College for Wizardry – and there were no anchors holding Camelot in place. It was yet another demonstration of his power.

    Another demonstration caught her eye as she entered the College’s grounds. An iron cage stood in front of her, crackling with blue sparks. Inside, an elf hung in the centre of the cage, cold iron rammed through his body. The elves were effectively immortal – Tiffany had never heard of one dying naturally – and his body was fighting to regenerate, but the cold iron prevented any of his wounds from closing. He’d been fighting the battle for over four hundred years, trapped between life and death. Merlin had caught him, caged him and sentenced him to perpetual torture. No mere human could do that to an elf.

    As a student, she’d seen older students tormenting the elf, throwing pieces of cold iron at its body or singing hymns loudly, knowing that the elf would cringe away from the holy names. It had sickened her, even though the elves were eternal enemies of mankind. They had demanded respect before Merlin, slaughtering and tormenting entire human communities to get the respect they believed they deserved, before Merlin had driven them back and forced them to abide by his rules. And yet...the elves had never forgotten. They could wait for eternity for revenge, if necessary.

    Beside the College, the Library of St Jude was almost unnoticeable. The Sorcerer Roark had designed it that way, intending to ensure that only the most trusted individuals were allowed to see the building, let alone gain entry. Tiffany, as Merlin’s First Councillor, had the right of access, but few others did. If she was lucky, one of the others would be here – and they could chat. There was little time for chat these days.

    “Tiffany,” Lady Aylia called. She was a tall thin girl, with long brown hair and a faintly impatient air. She was also the most accomplished female wizard in the world. Merlin had appointed her Mistress of <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:smarttags" /><st1:placeName w:st="on">Beneficence</st1:placeName> College and Lady Librarian of Camelot four years ago and she’d grown into the job, even though she insisted on spending at least two hours a day in the library. “Welcome back.”

    Tiffany smiled at her friend as she sat down on one of the comfortable, if ugly, sofas. The Library of St Jude looked ramshackle on the inside, with stacks of books piled up everywhere and a handful of cats wandering around as if they owned the place. The Sorcerer Roark had crafted powerful spells to allow visitors to find what they were looking for, but sometime after he’d died a poltergeist had moved in and disrupted the entire order, at least until Aylia had faced the unfriendly ghost down and convinced it to work properly. If she’d had the time, she would have spent two hours in the library every day herself.

    “Things are worrying,” she said, as Aylia passed her a cup of coffee. The early explorers had brought it back from overseas and it had rapidly proven a hit among the nobility. “I was at Court today.”

    Aylia listened carefully as Tiffany explained what had happened, sharing her puzzlement with her friend. It wasn't a breach of Merlin’s confidence; he’d appointed Aylia to his Privy Council a year after he’d made her Mistress of Beneficence. Tiffany had wondered if he had a habit of picking people with few ties back home, for Aylia had effectively run away from her family to train as a wizard. And Tiffany preferred not to speak to her mother, if it could be avoided.

    “It’s hard to know what he’s thinking,” Aylia said, finally. Tiffany snorted. Merlin was ancient, with a memory that stretched back over a thousand years. It was often difficult to predict what he’d do; sometimes he backed the aristocracy, sometimes the commoners and sometimes he just let things work themselves out on their own. “Didn’t you read Marxovich’s latest book?”

    Tiffany scowled. Marxovich was a lesser nobleman from Tchernobog, born to the aristocracy, yet unlikely to ever inherit a title or any real authority. He’d become a scholar instead and thrown himself into studies of the ancient past, the time before Merlin. His third book had been a study of Merlin’s history, noting all the different legends and contradictions that flourished throughout the Empire. Some claimed that Merlin had met Arthur as a young man, others that Merlin had used magic to ensure that Arthur’s father bedded his mother, impregnating her with the child who would become king.

    His fifth book had been hugely successful, at least until the Tribunal had closed down the printing presses and ordered the book destroyed. He’d studied the nature of the empire itself, concluding that Merlin had creating a social structure that balanced between commoners and aristocrats, maintaining his own grip on power with very little effort. Under the circumstances, he’d been lucky not to be executed for sedition. The book was officially banned, which hadn't stopped hundreds of young aristocrats from reading it and discussing its contents, in private.

    “Yes,” Tiffany said, slowly. Marxovich had concluded that if Merlin lost interest in ruling, the result was likely to be absolute chaos. “I think...”

    She stopped. Someone had come in behind her, someone familiar. She turned and saw Robin standing there, smiling at her. Without quite being aware that she’d moved, she found herself in his arms, hugging him tightly. Their love had been a surprise to both of them and had outraged High Society – after all, she was the Lady of Shallot – until Merlin had ruled in their favour. Besides, a Knight of the Round Table was nobility. That had been established long ago.

    And there was something different about him.

    “Robin,” she said, slowly. “What’s happened to you?”

    Robin reached for the sword at his belt and half-drew it out of the scabbard. The sword’s presence hit her at once, a glowing beacon of magic in her mind. The wards around the library might shield its presence from the remainder of Camelot, but there was no mistaking it. Tiffany wanted to reach out and touch the sword, but something held her hand back. She wasn't worthy to touch it. If the legends were true, anyone unworthy who tried to take the sword would burn to death, instantly.

    She couldn't find the words to speak. Aylia seemed to be just as stunned. The last time Excalibur had been wielded by a man, that man had become King of England and inaugurated the First Golden Age. And now...

    A second figure entered the library, moving with slow deliberate movements. Robin spun around to face the Husk, returning Excalibur to its scabbard, as if he feared what the soulless creature would do. Tiffany wanted to shout at him to run, half-afraid that Merlin would react badly to Excalibur’s return. There were factions at Court that would try to proclaim Robin King, trusting in the mythical sword to protect them against Merlin...

    The Husk spoke as if it wasn't used to speaking. “Sir Robin,” it said, “you are commanded to present yourself before the Emperor Merlin.”

    Robin showed no trace of fear. “I understand,” he said. Husks were rarely seen outside the Iron Palace. Merlin using one as a messenger merely underlined the importance of the message. “I’m on my way.”
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  13. squiddley

    squiddley Monkey+++

    Another great story Chris,welcome back and congrats on your engagement.
  14. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Seven<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    Robin could feel Excalibur humming at his belt as he followed the Husk into Merlin’s presence. His magical talent had always been weak, but he’d been able to sense the wards surrounding the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:smarttags" /><st1:place w:st="on"><st1:placeName w:st="on">Iron</st1:placeName> <st1:placeType w:st="on">Palace</st1:placeType></st1:place> – until now. Excalibur’s mere presence seemed to push them away, as if they refused to touch its bearer. Robin remembered the many stories surrounding the sword and shivered. It had made Arthur the King of England. The Emperor might not be too pleased to see it again.

    The Husk stopped, allowing Robin to walk past it and up to the Iron Throne. Merlin’s presence was as strong as ever, but somehow it didn’t send Robin crashing to his knees. The sword was protecting him, shielding him from the power. Robin considered, briefly, and then dropped to one knee, a gesture of respect. Merlin had created the Empire and united the world. He’d protected humanity from the supernatural terrors that had once plagued the night. And he’d refused to become the Antichrist, the destroyer of all that was good and noble in humanity. He deserved respect.

    Robin hadn’t seen Merlin for six months, ever since he’d granted Robin and Tiffany permission to wed. The change in the ancient sorcerer shocked him. Merlin had always looked old, but now he looked as if he were reaching the end of his span. He’d been strong and focused, even though he was far older than even the oldest natural-born magician in the world. Now, he looked as if the last fractions of his life were slowly draining away. Robin had always been told that Merlin was immortal, that there was nothing that could kill the son of the darkest creature in the universe, but now...Robin wondered if he’d believed a lie.

    “Rise,” Merlin said. Even his voice was different. He spoke as if each word cost him a year of his remaining lifespan. “You are welcome in my Court.”

    He fell back into silence. Robin waited, unsure of what to say or do. He’d been extensively trained in protocol, but Merlin rarely demanded total adherence to courtly etiquette. Social graces intended to demonstrate and enforce a pecking order hardly mattered to one whose supremacy was unchallengeable. Merlin had little tolerance for stupidity or arrogance, but he allowed people to argue with him. Only a few dared.

    “You were given the sword,” Merlin said. It wasn't a question. Excalibur was so powerful that every magician in the city would have sensed its presence, even against the deadening effect of Merlin’s own magical field. And Merlin had his own ways to See, ways that no ward or ritual could block. “Draw it, please.”

    Robin hesitated, and then half-drew the sword from the scabbard. Excalibur blazed with light, as if it had been constructed from a star, or as if the primal wild magic had been bound into its creation. Its mere presence seemed to send the shadows scurrying backwards, as if they knew that they had no place in the room. Merlin leaned forward, as eagerly as a small child awaiting his birthday presents, and yet…there was something oddly restrained about his movement.

    “Pull it out completely,” Merlin ordered. Robin obeyed, feeling the sword’s power blurring into his soul. Excalibur felt…good for him; it felt right in his hand. The sword was almost part of him. Absently, unaware of why he moved, he ran through a series of movements with the sword. He’d been trained in swordplay, just like every other Knight, but this was different. The sword was pushing his natural abilities right to the limit.

    Merlin seemed almost hypnotized by the white glow. “The sword left the land a very long time ago,” he said. His voice was so low that Robin had to strain to hear him. “I gave it to the Lady of the <st1:place w:st="on">Lake</st1:place> and she took it away, until it was needed again.”

    Robin swallowed, hard. “Your Majesty…does this mean that I’m the King?”

    Merlin laughed, harshly. Some of the tension seemed to vanish from the massive chamber. “I’m afraid that that offer was only meant once,” he said. Oddly, he seemed amused, rather than angry at the implicit challenge to his power. Robin didn’t feel reassured, even though he was holding the most powerful weapon in the world in his hand. “Arthur wasn’t made King because he had Excalibur. He was given Excalibur, for a time, because he was King in the truest possible sense. He was trusted by his people and he deserved that trust. He worked for their betterment until the day he fell, killed by his treacherous son.”

    Robin nodded, slowly. Merlin remembered everything. Events that were lost in the mists of time, or barely understood by modern scholars – Merlin recalled them all. The legends said that Arthur had pulled Excalibur out of the Stone of Destiny to become King, yet if Merlin was telling the truth…Robin shook his head, pushing that thought aside. Merlin had no reason to lie to him, even though he was holding Excalibur. The one weapon, perhaps, that could destroy the most powerful man in the land.

    “It isn’t really a sword,” Merlin added, a moment later. “It looks like one because your mind needs something that it can understand, but it is far more than it seems. If it stays with you, you may come to understand its true nature better than you do now, or you may never learn to look past the sword to the…true form underneath.”

    That was…odd, Robin decided. “Who forged the sword?”

    Merlin smiled, thoughtfully. “No one knows,” he said, finally. “I was given the credit for it back in Arthur’s day, but the sword is a great deal older than myself. The legends say that it came out of the east, carried by Alexander as he conquered most of the known world, only to vanish again when the great warlord died. It resurfaced later in Gaul, to be presented to Julius Caesar just before he marched on <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Rome</st1:place></st1:City> and defeated his enemies. The sword was carried back to <st1:country-region w:st="on">Egypt</st1:country-region> by Marcus Antonius when he fled <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Rome</st1:place></st1:City>, fearing the wrath of Caesar’s adopted son. But Marcus attempted to pervert the power in the sword and was destroyed for his imprudence. His lover threw the sword away before she was bitten by an asp.

    “The Lady of the <st1:place w:st="on">Lake</st1:place> gave it to Arthur after he’d been crowned King,” he added, a moment later. “And when Arthur died…the sword fell back out of history, waiting. And now it has resurfaced.”

    Robin felt brave enough to ask another question. “My Lord,” he said, carefully, “who is the Lady of the <st1:place w:st="on">Lake</st1:place>?”

    Merlin snorted, irritably. “She is one of the primal forces of the land,” he said, flatly. “Not human; never human, not even partly human. She serves the land itself. She has not been seen for a thousand years. Her return now bodes ill.”

    He lapsed back into contemplation, almost as if he’d forgotten Robin – and Excalibur. Robin watched him carefully, his mind ticking over thoughtfully. A thousand years…Merlin had been on the throne for a thousand years, ruling with an iron hand. The boundary lines had been drawn, keeping a barrier between humanity and the supernatural. Had the Lady of the <st1:place w:st="on">Lake</st1:place> been barred from rematerialising by Merlin? And if so, what did her return portend for the future?

    Merlin looked up suddenly and fired a series of questions at him, demanding to know everything about his encounter with the Lady of the <st1:place w:st="on">Lake</st1:place>. Robin tried to explain about the Dark Sorcerers and the threat they posed to the Empire, but Merlin simply dismissed the matter. Robin wasn't sure if Merlin intended to deal with them himself – even a cabal of Dark Sorcerers couldn’t hope to stand against Merlin – or if he was simply uninterested in their appearance. Excalibur blazed with light; Merlin, watching the sword, seemed somehow diminished in its light.

    “My Lord,” Robin said, finally. “Do you wish Excalibur…?”

    “No,” Merlin said, flatly. He looked…unsure, although Robin couldn’t tell why he was unsure. “Excalibur was given to you. You will wield it until you die. An unworthy man who takes the sword will find that possessing it against its will is dangerous. And when you die, it will go back into legend until it is needed again.”

    He leaned forward, the dark pools of his eyes somehow standing against the sword’s glow. “I told Arthur that the sword didn’t make him invincible,” he said, coldly. “No Object of Power is unbeatable, even one that dates back to the Time of Legend, when Gods walked the Earth. Be warned; the sword is only as good as its user – and it has a mind of its own.”

    Robin frowned. Holding Excalibur felt…right, as if the sword had been made for him. The power within the sword had fused with his soul. It felt trustworthy, as if it would be there for him as long as he was worthy of the blade. He didn’t feel worthy, but there was a trust and acceptance in the sword’s presence. The sword seemed to think that he was worthy. Robin felt humbled by the trust placed in him. Merlin’s warnings didn’t seem…real.

    “You must take care of Tiffany,” Merlin added, sitting back on his throne. The remaining tension in the chamber had evaporated. “She is going to bear a heavy burden in the weeks and months to come. Be there for her, but never forget that you are a Knight of the Round Table, the finest men to walk the land. You will be needed by the Empire.”

    Robin frowned. The Knights weren't forbidden to marry – only sex outside of marriage was forbidden, as it tainted their image – but it was rare for a serving Knight to marry, certainly to someone who was his social superior. And yet…the love he felt for Tiffany burned through him, even if the Court had sneered. Excalibur seemed more amused than offended by the thought that there might be another woman in his life.

    They’d planned their wedding in a month, at the <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:placeName w:st="on">Summer</st1:placeName> <st1:placeType w:st="on">Palace</st1:placeType></st1:place> near Londinium. Merlin had created the palace as a place he could rest, back when he’d been new to ruling, but it had fallen into disuse until the aristocrats had started to use it as neutral ground. Merlin had tolerated it, even though he’d known that they’d started using his palace to plot, confident that they could not be overhead.

    “I do not envy you our burden,” Merlin said. “You are dismissed.”

    Robin opened his mouth to argue…and found himself outside the throne room, Excalibur glowing in his hand. The sword seemed brighter somehow, even outside the half-darkness of Merlin’s chambers. Robin stared down at the sword for a long moment and then returned it to its scabbard, grimly aware that every magician within the city – or further away – would have felt its presence. Some of them would risk everything to capture such an Object of Power.

    Shaking his head, he started to thread his way through the long corridors. Tiffany would be waiting for him.

    Merlin slowly relaxed as the glow left by Excalibur’s presence faded from his chambers. He prided himself on never forgetting anything and yet, somehow, the sword’s sheer presence had slipped from his mind. It was yet another sign of his impending death, he told himself, refusing to believe the alternative. A thousand years ago, he’d made a bargain with his father. And one of the terms had been that Excalibur had to be sent into Avalon, far from humanity, far from anyone who could wield the blade.

    His father was the Lord of Lies, the Master of Darkness, the Adversary of God – and very little worried him. Why should it? He was one of the most powerful beings in Creation – and yet, Excalibur made him nervous. At one point, Merlin had hoped to use the sword against his father, but Excalibur had refused to be used. Merlin had had to use trickery to throw the sword into Avalon and bar the Lady of the <st1:place w:st="on">Lake</st1:place> from ever returning. He'd told himself that it was necessary, that he could rule without Excalibur or any divine right to rule – and he had, for a thousand years. And his time was running out.

    He looked down at his hand, searchingly. A mundane human, without even the Sight, would have seen an old hand, flesh and blood. A magician would have seen mystical energies – the most powerful in the world – burning through the flesh, endlessly consuming Merlin’s body and soul. Only his colossal will had kept Merlin from burning up, consumed by his own power – his will, and the terms of the deal he had struck with his father. It had been too long since he’d faced his own unshielded power, a thousand years since he’d mastered the eternal pain that had tormented him since he’d been ripped screaming from his mother’s womb. A hundred years before Merlin’s birth, the Virgin Mary had had a peaceful childbirth, bringing the Son of God into the human world. Merlin’s father had wanted to cause pain – and his mother, a witch who’d sold herself to the darkness, hadn’t survived Merlin’s birth.

    Pain flared through his body, taunting him. He’d known the moment the Lady of the <st1:place w:st="on">Lake</st1:place> materialised in the human world, for that had marked the end of his bargain with his father, the end of a long thousand years. Mortal flesh and blood wasn’t designed to contain mystical energies for very long, even the relatively puny energies gathered and wielded by sorcerers. Half-bloods rarely lasted long; Merlin’s longevity owed as much to his bargain as it did to his force of will. His father had thought that it was a great jest; the Antichrist, the one who would rule the world and crush God’s finest creation, would himself be tormented by his very nature. Merlin wondered, sometimes, if he would have been more inclined to accept his destiny if his father had shown him a little love and kindness. But then, Satan was the distillation of pure evil. Love and kindness were alien to him.

    A thousand years ago, the terms of the bargain hadn’t seemed onerous. Merlin had been desperate to avenge his friend and monarch, to make his dream real and bring about a new era of peace and prosperity. Now…time was running out. His father would come for him soon, demanding that Merlin fulfil the final terms of the contract. And there would be no escape. Merlin had placed himself into the devil’s hand; nothing, not even repenting his sins, would save him. Heaven would refuse to help the devil’s son.

    Carefully, very carefully, Merlin drew on his power. Over the years, scholars and political agitators – they thought Merlin couldn’t hear them, even though he heard every time his name was spoken out loud – had wondered why Merlin didn’t simply impose a peace on the entire world. Why did he need the Knights of the Round Table, or the Garrison, or the Dragon Queens? A handful had even questioned Merlin’s near-omnipotence, wondering in whispers if Merlin was simply a very powerful sorcerer who had somehow cracked the secret of making the legendary serum of immortality. They had never understood the truth.

    The world was fragile. Powerful creatures – angels and devils – would break the world if they were allowed unrestrained freedom to act as they pleased. The Divine Presence Himself had decreed that no such creature could act freely on Earth, without something summoning and binding them to the mundane plane. Merlin possessed half the power of Satan himself, enough to destroy the entire world if he lost control. He used tools and allies because he didn’t dare draw too much on his power. The results might have been catastrophic.

    Merlin reached out, slowly, closing his eyes. He’d seen much in the years he’d wandered the Earth before discovering Arthur – and a chance to upset his father’s long-term plans for humanity. He’d learned that there were other worlds and realms out there, some so close to humanity’s world that they could step across with only a little effort, others so far and distant that even Merlin would be hard-pressed to reach them. Somewhere, out among the dimensions, he’d find a way to avoid paying his father the final part of the bargain. It was a final desperate gamble, but there was no choice.

    The power grew as he pressed against reality itself. There were creatures out there, creatures so alien and powerful that their mere presence would have destroyed the world, at least as humanity knew it. Merlin could hear them scratching at the walls of reality, waiting patiently for some fool to open a door to allow them entry. That was the true danger of sorcery; not madness, not a megalomania that would force the sorcerer to claim more and more power for himself, but breaking down the fragile walls and allowing incomprehensible monsters to enter the fragile human world. Even rule by the Antichrist – the next Antichrist – would be preferable to rule by those monsters.

    Merlin opened his heads. Ahead of him, in front of the Iron Throne, was a simple wooden door. It looked simple, but Merlin could sense the raw power crawling over the wood, holding it in place. Like Excalibur, like many other Objects of Power, it had assumed a form that human minds could comprehend. It was far more than just a gateway to other worlds and universes. It was…indescribable, even for Merlin. It had no place in the human world.

    Standing up, Merlin made a gesture with his left hand and the door opened. The path lay beyond, inviting him to step on a route that would take him to his final destination. Merlin, without looking back at his throne, or the Husks waiting for his orders in the shadows, stepped forward and walked through the door, right out of the human world. It closed behind him silently.

    A moment later, it was gone.
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  15. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    How about some lovely comments?

    Chapter Eight<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    Tiffany paced the confines of the Privy Chamber, unable to control her fear.

    Her lover had Excalibur. Her lover had an Object of Power that was very much a legend. Her lover had a sword that had symbolised Arthur’s rule – and confirmed him as the King of England. She cursed herself under her breath, unsure why she was so nervous – and fearful. Her father had told her to listen to her instincts – and every one she had was telling her to run. But where could she run, even if she’d been prepared to abandon her oaths to Merlin?

    Merlin had shaped the Privy Chamber himself, but his councillors had decorated it over the years. Colossal paintings depicting events back in the Empire’s past – from Merlin’s defeat of the Witch-King of Bavaria to the destruction of the Serpent Empire – were scattered around the chamber, reminding the councillors that history looked down upon them from the future. She was far from the first to serve Merlin and she would hardly be the last. Her stewardship wouldn't last forever.

    Outside, she could tell that the Court was already reforming itself. Robin had Excalibur; the mere presence of the enchanted blade would attract vultures, each one keen to find a way to turn this latest development to their advantage. Tiffany felt tired, rubbing her eyes as if she hadn't slept for a week. She didn't have the strength to deal with the Court, not now. Perhaps Merlin would simply banish them from his palace and talk to her again, as he had before she’d left for a brief vacation. Perhaps...

    She looked up sharply as the door opened, revealing Robin. Excalibur was sheathed at his belt, hidden inside a jewelled scabbard, but she could feel the sword’s presence from right across the room. It was unmistakable. The Empire had thousands of enchanted or cursed blades, yet Excalibur was in a class of its own. And now it had resurfaced, the hundreds of different factions would be trying to find a way to get their own hands on the legendary sword. They could use it to pressure anyone, even Merlin himself. She didn't even want to think about the consequences of that, not when Robin was alive and unharmed. She practically ran across the room and into his arms.

    He held her, just as tightly. Tiffany allowed herself a moment of weakness, not something she would have dared show in public, and relaxed into his arms. The sword’s presence became oddly muted, as if Excalibur was choosing to leave the young couple some privacy. It bothered Tiffany, even though she appreciated the gesture; she’d seen too many Objects of Power with their own agendas. Only a year ago, the Dread Bloody Blade had resurfaced and sent a lone madman on a quest to slaughter everyone in his country. The Tribunal had dealt with the madman – who had been a victim of the blade himself, driven mad by its deadly and subtle whispers – but the blade itself had vanished, again. Tiffany had no doubt that it would resurface soon. Objects of Power with dark intentions were always seen again.

    “Robin,” she said, leaning up to kiss him. She just wanted to ride off with him and forget everything, but she knew that that wasn’t possible. Technically, they shouldn't even be alone together, not before the wedding. On the other hand, Merlin had given them his blessing, her mother was a hundred miles away and no one apart from Merlin himself could spy within the Iron Palace. And Merlin would know to grant them some privacy. “I...”

    Merlin’s presence snapped out of existence.

    Tiffany started, jumping backwards and shouting in alarm. She’d always been aware of Merlin’s brooding presence pervading the walls of his palace, ever since she’d first visited Camelot. Now...the presence was gone. It was impossible, yet no matter how she tried to expand her senses and feel Merlin’s presence, she sensed nothing. The flickers of magic representing other magicians and sorcerers, normally drowned out by Merlin’s sheer power, appeared at the back of her mind. A moment later, she realised that the wards protecting the Iron Palace had fallen as well.

    Robin was staring at her. He hadn't understood. Most magicians knew to anchor their wards in solid matter, ensuring that they weren't drawing from their power reserves, but Merlin had never needed to worry about such trifles. He’d had power to burn, and enough concentration to keep the wards – and everything else – in existence without either losing his mind or draining his reserves down to nothing. The sheer complexity of the spells he used to channel his power into the wards were an order of magnitude more complex than anything any other magic-user could produce.

    “Merlin,” she gasped. She felt the ring he’d placed on her finger personally, the ring that allowed her to call on a fraction of Merlin’s power, her argument of last resort. Few had dared to argue with her when she’d drawn on Merlin’s vast reserves...but the ring was cold and she couldn't feel the power. The ring had always been warm to her touch. “Robin...he’s gone!”

    Robin touched Excalibur, as if the blade could provide answers. But nothing seemed to be forthcoming. Tiffany reached out with her Sight, looking for answers herself, cursing her limited reserves. She’d grown far too used to depending on Merlin, to the point where she’d been drawing on his power without conscious intention. she was dependent upon her own reserves, and while she was a skilful wizard, she’d never had the time to develop her reserves. The Iron Palace seemed almost completely devoid of magic. Outside, the mighty wards that protected Camelot were fading away.

    “But...where?” Robin asked. The Knight looked shocked, but he hadn't taken his hand off Excalibur’s hilt. Tiffany wondered, insanely, if Robin had slain his liege lord, yet that should have been impossible. Besides, Merlin hadn't vanished – she refused to believe that he was dead – until after Robin had returned to her. “How can he be gone?”

    Tiffany opened her mouth to answer, but heard shouting outside before she could speak. She was hardly the only person in the Iron Palace with a magical talent; Merlin looked for such talents in his servants and assistants. Everyone would have sensed his departure, and the fall of the wards. She led the way to the door and stepped out, into a scene from hell. The massive bookcases that dominated the Grand Corridor seemed to have exploded, scattering their contents over the floors. The Courtiers had scattered, some clearly injured by flying books. Tiffany stared at them in disbelief. How could the shelves have simply exploded...

    A horrifying thought struck her, so horrifying that she didn't want to even consider the possibility. Before she could speak, although she had no idea what she would have said, there was an almighty crash. A section of the roof, halfway around the palace, had fallen in, smashing through the floors and plummeting downwards. Her worst nightmares were coming true. The Iron Palace had been held upright by Merlin’s magic...and Merlin was gone. The bookshelves, which had been magically enhanced to allow the servants to cram far more books onto the shelves than anyone would have believed possible, would only be the first to go. Tiffany had heard reports of enchanted castles – built on clouds, or impossibly weak foundations – that had collapsed when their builders died, or ran out of magic. And the Iron Palace had nothing, apart from Merlin’s magic, holding it up...

    “Get out,” she bellowed, drawing on her magic to amplify her voice throughout the entire structure. It crossed her mind that they might not obey her now, even though she was the Lady of Shallot. Merlin was gone; who needed his First Councillor? Another series of crashes underlined her words and anyone who might have been inclined to dispute her authority shut up. “Everyone out, now!”

    The entire structure was shaking madly, each crash sending terrifying shockwaves through the entire building. Tiffany saw the High Magus and a group of his apprentices on the other side of the corridor and yelled at them to try and stabilise the building as long as possible. Magic had its limits and only Merlin had ever been able to build and maintain something the size of the Iron Palace, even without the pocket dimensions and warps that made it so much bigger on the outside. The floor started to give under her feet and Tiffany almost fell, before Robin caught her and leapt over the rapidly expanding crevice. His army gave him a boost as he ran down the corridor, forcing the servants and courtiers to run. Tiffany saw a wall disintegrate in front of her with a terrifying sound, revealing the shape of the Houses of Parliament in the distance. The MPs would have to be shaking in their shoes, wondering if Merlin was feeling angry...but some of them would have magical talents. They'd know that Merlin was gone.

    An ear-splitting crash sent Robin and her tumbling to the floor. She pulled herself to her feet, cursing her hugely impractical dress. A group of servants ran past her, screaming. Their entire world was coming apart at the seams. The High Magus and his team were roaring and chanting and raising their wards, but even the High Magus’s sorcery couldn't hold the Iron Palace for long. A great section of the wall tumbled outwards, falling down towards the gardens. Tiffany prayed with a favour she rarely felt that no one had been underneath it when it fell. Robin caught her arm and thrust her onwards. She ran, drawing on her own power and feeding it into the High Magus’s network of spells. Every little fraction of power would help.

    Robin bellowed a vile word as another section of the wall fell, revealing a group of children, young noble children who had been making their first visit to the Iron Palace. They were trapped, screaming for help as the building disintegrated around them. Their chaperones, mostly minor nobility desperate to forge alliances – or hint at such alliances – with Merlin, weren't in any better state. None of them had any real talent, or they would have been trained and put to work serving their families. Robin turned, drawing on the white-gold armour and leaping up towards where the children were cowering. As Tiffany watched, he caught the first child and hurled her towards the High Magus. Magic shimmered around her, breaking her fall. The other children followed, still screaming. A handful had blood trickling down their ears, a sign that they’d been exposed to a powerful magic field. Or, perhaps, slammed with the sudden absence of a powerful magic field.

    Tiffany waited a fraction of a second too long as Robin leapt back towards her. A piece of debris fell from high above, right down towards where she was standing. Time seemed to slow down as she reached for her power, but she’d funnelled almost everything left in her reserves to the High Magus. Her legs refused to work, leaving her staring Lady Death in the face...and then Robin was there. Excalibur, a blade of shimmering light, sliced through the chunk of debris and destroyed it. Tiffany found her legs working again as Robin caught her arm and ran for her life. The High Magus bellowed a final series of charms into the air and followed them, his legs pumping desperately as he ran. Tiffany had a moment when she was sure that they wouldn't make it out before the ceiling came down on their heads, and then they were running through the great iron doors and out into the gardens. She kept running as the ground shook time and time again, great chunks of iron debris slamming into the gardens. The pounding seemed never-ending. If anything, it was growing louder.

    She caught herself and turned to look, watching in horror as the final collapse began. Merlin had crafted the Iron Palace personally, creating a network of spindly towers and minarets that reflected the different arts and civilisations from all over the Empire. It had been, in its own way, a remarkable work of art, as solid and omnipresent as the Empire’s master. It had been a visible expression of his will, a mocking reminder to the supernatural that Merlin, humanity’s protector and champion, had no need to fear cold iron. And now it was gone.

    One by one, the remaining towers toppled inwards, crashing down towards the ground. Each fall set off the next one, until the entire structure came tumbling down. The noise only grew louder as the remaining pocket dimensions collapsed, some expelling their contents violently back into the world, others simply vanishing without a trace. Her attention was caught by the statue of King Arthur, one crafted by Merlin himself, that had been mounted on the north gate of the palace. It had clearly been secured by iron as well as magic, an odd gesture from Merlin, but it was dangerously unstable.

    Tiffany felt weak, uncertain of what to do, as the statue started to fall. She’d studied it often when she’d arrived at Camelot, wondering what kind of mortal man had been able to command Merlin, the son of the Devil. Arthur had had a kind face, one chiselled from granite, and muscles on his muscles. She’d once asked Merlin if he’d not created an idealised statue of his former friend and monarch, but he’d insisted that he’d remembered Arthur perfectly. No mortal man could have had so many muscles and walked upright, unless Excalibur had helped to shape his body. The sword had many powers and the legends only hinted at some of them.

    The statue hit the ground with a mighty crash. Silence fell, broken only by screaming and calls for help. Tiffany watched, feeling...empty inside as the dust slowly began to settle. Merlin was gone. The most prominent sign of his power was gone. She felt as if she had gone beyond behind horrified, into a cold numbness that tore at her mind and refused to allow her to think. She knew she should do something, but what? No magician could hope to restore the Iron Palace to its former glory. She couldn't take her eyes off the pile of rubble. Merlin’s greatest legacy was gone.

    Robin caught her arm. “You have to take command,” he whispered, so quietly that only she could hear. Tiffany wanted to shake him off, but she could barely move. Without Merlin’s presence, Excalibur was suddenly brighter, even in its scabbard. “Look at them. They’re panicking. They need leadership or someone is going to do something stupid.”

    Tiffany looked up. The gardens were packed with courtiers, magicians, sorcerers and noblemen, staring at the wreaked palace. Many were injured, blood streaming down their faces or with broken bones; others looked to be in shock, gripping their wands and weapons as if they expected to find an enemy they could fight. None of them could believe what had happened. Merlin hadn't just dominated their lives; he’d dominated their ancestors lives as well, all the way back to King Arthur’s time. And now he was gone. Would they obey her, now that the source of her authority was gone?

    She pushed all the authority, all the regal bearing her mother had taught her over the years, into her voice. “Magicians, start healing the wounded,” she ordered. Magic could be used to heal most wounds, but it was often expensive. She braced herself for an argument, yet no one seemed inclined to pick a fight. They were in shock, then, or perhaps they were just scared of Excalibur. Robin stood behind her, one hand on the sword’s hilt. “Everyone unwounded, start working on helping the wounded away from the building...”

    A troop of soldiers from the Garrison arrived and started to help restore order. Tiffany continued to bark orders, organising rescue and healing parties and transporting the wounded into the Houses of Parliament. Some of the MPs had come out to help, she noticed with some amusement; even MPs who were at each other’s throats on the debate floor were working together to help. The High Magus summoned other magicians from Beneficence and the various guilds in the city, putting them to work on the wounded. They wouldn't allow themselves to be pushed around for long, not now Merlin was gone, but for the moment they would help.

    She glanced to the north and bit back a curse. The Tower of Camelot hadn't fallen – it hadn't been raised using magic, unlike the Iron Palace – but most of the wards around it would have fallen. There weren't many prisoners in the Tower at the moment, yet...what if they’d escaped? What if Duke Blackrock had escaped?

    “Robin, take a set of soldiers and a magician to the Tower,” she ordered, grimly. “If they’re escaping, kill them.”

    He nodded and headed off, taking Excalibur with him. Tiffany mentally ran through the list of prisoners, muttering under her breath. Most of them were relatively harmless, but at least one of them was a trained wizard. He’d have sensed the weakened wards, if only because his powers wouldn't have been constantly drained any longer. And if he had enough time to regain some of his powers, he could escape into Camelot. Without the city-wide wards, he could cause real trouble...

    She looked over at the pile of debris again and shuddered. Everyone was working together – now. How long would it be before they got over the shock and started wondering what to do next? What would they do, now that Merlin was gone? They’d never have a better chance to take complete control...

    “Damn you,” she whispered, under her breath. Merlin had been...aging. She hadn't wanted to admit it to herself, but it was unavoidable. Merlin had been growing old. The immortal ruler had been far from immortal. “Why did you have to leave us?”
    STANGF150 likes this.
  16. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Nine<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    Merlin was gone.

    There was no doubt. Merlin’s presence had been omnipresent to those with the Sight, a constant nagging presence at the back of their minds. Even hundreds of miles from Camelot, magicians could sense him – and now it was gone. There could be no mistake. Merlin’s presence had never faded, never retired as age or sleep overcame its master. And now there was a gaping hole at the heart of the empire. Merlin was gone.

    He stood on one of the ruined buildings, hands raised upwards to the dark skies, staring down at a scene of unimaginable devastation. Kentigern had once been one of the wealthiest free cities in the empire, parlaying its position on the west coast of Scotland into a trading empire had had helped to bind the Empire closer together. The great shipbuilders of Kentigern had constructed the mighty ships that had sailed to far-distant Han, or <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:smarttags" /><st1:place w:st="on">Oceania</st1:place>; the master tradesmen had produced devices sought throughout the entire world. A bright future had beckoned for a city many had believed to be touched by God. And then disaster had struck.

    Like most of the free cities, Kentigern had played host to hundreds of magicians who weren't inclined to swear fealty to one of the lords. One magician, scarcely more than a stripling if the stories were to be believed, had been desperate to gain power. That was hardly uncommon among magicians, particularly ones without any formal training in wizardry, but few were stupid enough to try to summon one of the Great Demons and bargain with it. The infernal being had broken out of the wards that should have held it, killed the fool of a magician instantly and rampaged through the city. Fifty thousand men, women and children had died in the first chilling moments of its onslaught. It had taken an entire army of magicians and sorcerers to drive the beast back to Hell – and by the time it was finally banished, the city had been ruined.

    A mundane eye would have seen nothing, until it was far too late. One with the Sight could see dark pools of infernal energy, polluting the landscape and warping the local wildlife. The handful of unfortunates who’d wandered into the ruined city – hoping to recover some of the loot that was supposed to be buried under the ground – had been twisted by the magic, transformed into shambling beasts that roamed the countryside, seeking blood. Merlin’s servants had established wards to warn anyone else not to enter – and to trap the beats inside – and left the city strictly alone. The dark magic flickering through the ruins provided more than enough camouflage to hide an entire demonic army. It was more than enough to hide the Dark Sorcerers.

    The Dark Sorcerer Maledict laughed as rain started to fall, glancing off the ground and splashing around his robes. Even the weather in the city couldn’t be trusted; strange energies ran through the rain, suggesting deadly danger – and promise. Maledict had warded himself thoroughly, as had the rest of his small cabal, yet even he couldn’t stand in the rain for long. He’d drawn on wild magic to turn himself into a sorcerer, risking madness or death, but even his power had limits. Or so he’d been led to believe.

    His laughter grew louder, more high-pitched, as eerie sheets of lightning started to flash through the darkening skies. It was easy to believe that the land was mourning Merlin, even though his death – or disappearance – opened up all kinds of opportunities for his enemies. Merlin had been part of the land, part of the network of power that had held the land together, for centuries. Everyone had thought that he was immortal, until he’d died. Or disappeared. It was impossible to tell for certain…

    Maledict looked down towards a handful of buildings, old factories that had been abandoned, after the demon had slaughtered the workers who’d made their lives toiling for their masters. A man didn’t have to have an aristocratic title to be a bastard, a fact Maledict knew well. He’d been born in a similar building, nearly fifty years ago. It had been a hard life for anyone newly come from the fields, escaping the nobles only to discover that he had walked into another form of servitude. His father had never recovered, drinking himself to death over five years, while his mother had simply lost the will to live. The boy who would become Maledict – he’d forgotten his real name years ago, part of the price he’d paid to become a sorcerer – had found himself an orphan, beaten and kicked by those stronger than himself. He’d been a beggar, a street urchin and then a thief, narrowly escaping capture and certain death a hundred times. His luck would have run out eventually…

    And then he’d met the old man, who’d found in him a gift for magic, a gift he’d never known he’d had. The young boy had done whatever was necessary to find the money to pay for lessons, until the day he’d mastered a handful of killing spells and murdered the remains of the street gang that had abused him, laughing aloud as they died in fear and torment. He’d snapped that day, he knew; that night, he’d murdered his teacher, stolen his few books and Objects of Power, and headed out seeking…power. He’d never had power in his life, not until he’d started to master magic, and the taste of it was intoxicating. He could do anything he wanted, to anyone.

    Perhaps he’d been mad all along, but only a madman would have even considered challenging Merlin. It had been risky as hell to draw on wild magic, gouging out new channels in his brain to expand his powers, yet he’d survived. And if he took delight in pointless cruelty, or had the occasional discussion with people who weren't there, it was a small price to pay for ultimate power. And yet, there was Merlin. Merlin, the magician who effortlessly dominated and intimidated every other magician in the land; Merlin, the magician who wielded supreme power; Merlin…the magician who Maledict dreamed of supplementing, of taking all his power for himself.

    He rubbed his hands together as he saw flickers of his own reflection in the torrential downfall. He’d solved a problem that countless sorcerers had tried and failed to master; he’d found a reliable way to create new sorcerers without killing them outright. A third of all magicians who attempted to become sorcerers died in the attempt and two-thirds of the survivors went mad and had to be destroyed. Maledict didn’t care if his followers were insane; it would only make them more powerful and terrifying to those who had bent the knee to Merlin. He’d told himself that one day he’d have enough sorcerers under his control to face Merlin, to strike down the all-powerful magician who ruled the land…and now Merlin was gone! And he had the most powerful army in the land.

    Maledict reached out with his mind, feeling the flickering pools of dark magic bubbling through the city – and, beyond them, the presence of his followers. Some had been lowly magicians with little real power, desperate to do anything to gain power – and with it, rank and station. Others had been ambitious, or desperate; a handful even had started believing that Merlin was evil and that anything was acceptable to remove him from power. Maledict didn’t care what had brought them to him originally, not now that he’d reached into their minds and transformed them all into sorcerers, sorcerers who depended on him for their power.

    Lightning flashed again, followed rapidly by a rolling peal of thunder. Maledict turned and walked towards the hatch that led down to the building below, a mansion that had once belonged to a merchant family. Abandoned ever since the city itself had been abandoned, even though it was almost intact, it had proven an excellent base for the Dark Sorcerers. Even if Merlin and his lapdogs had known where they were, they’d have problems finding them in the city, if only because they were shrouded by the dark magic. He gestured with his right hand and the hatch slid open, allowing him to levitate down into the darkened chambers below. There was no need for light, even that supplied by a thief’s lantern. The Dark Sorcerers welcomed the darkness. It was their home.

    The handful of Dark Sorcerers awaiting him dropped to their knees as he passed, refusing to meet his terrifying gaze. Maledict smiled openly and felt their shudders, knowing that they feared him – as was proper, as the world had once feared Merlin. The Dark Sorcerers had committed themselves to his cause when they’d joined him and taken part in the dark rituals that had summoned and stored up power for their transformations into sorcerers. After they’d gleefully participated in torturing, slaughtering and finally sacrificing innocent children, Merlin’s enforcers would show them no mercy. They had nowhere else to go.

    He snapped his fingers and the mirror ahead of him, charmed to show him anywhere in the world, provided that it was not warded against magician prying, let up with an eerie glow. For a moment, he saw his own reflection and laughed, knowing that anyone who saw him without a concealing cloak or glamour would know him for what he was, a Dark Sorcerer. Maledict was fifty years old, yet he looked well over a hundred – and dark power burned in his eyes. Sorcery had many prices for the booms it granted to those who wanted power. His warped and twisted body was only a small price to pay for his vast power.

    Absently, he plucked one of the sorcerers out of the kneeling pack and summoned him forward. Finding the young man had been a stroke of luck, despite the risks involved in seducing him and offering him more power than even Merlin’s chief enforcers could wield; he’d thought seriously about refusing the opportunity – but how it had paid off! And if Merlin was truly gone, he’d never have a better chance to take power for himself.

    “Master,” the young man said. Maledict considered him thoughtfully. He was young, barely seventeen; his face bearing the marks of a harsh upbringing and a father who cared little for his bastard son. Magic ran in the noble bloodlines, but it was diluted over the generations. This young man had been a disappointment to his father, with only limited gifts. It had taken sorcery to grant him powers he’d never dreamed could be his. “I live only to serve you.”

    Maledict cackled. The young fool was right, even though he had no conception of the true nature of his servitude. Mortal men, even sorcerers, could only bear a small amount of magic before it burned them out and left them piles of dust and ash. Maledict had solved that problem, at least for a short while, by sharing out his power among his followers and using them as a base for his reserves. It drove many of them insane, unable to understand or control whatever was happening to them, but there was no shortage of victims.

    “I wish you to return to your father, when he arrives at Camelot,” Maledict ordered. He’d never dared visit Camelot, even before becoming a sorcerer. Legend had it that the wards around Camelot would detect a Dark Sorcerer and capture him before he could enter the city – but now the wards were gone. “You will tell him that I wish to discuss an alliance.”

    Merely taking power wouldn't be enough, Maledict knew. He’d need allies, at least at first, if only to ensure that the Empire Merlin had created didn’t fall apart before he could bend it to his will. And afterwards, his allies would be the first to discover that one didn’t make a bargain with a Dark Sorcerer. As soon as the alliance had outlived its utility, Maledict would see to its dissolution and the death of his allies. When the Empire was his, he would depend on no one to maintain his power.

    He laughed again, savouring the moment.

    With Merlin gone, all of his dreams could be made real – now.

    An hour after the <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:placeName w:st="on">Iron</st1:placeName> <st1:placeType w:st="on">Palace</st1:placeType></st1:place> had collapsed, after the world had turned upside down, the recovery work was still going on. Countless volunteers – some more willing than others – were working to move the wounded out of the way until they could be treated by the healers and alchemists. Seekers – magicians with talents for finding people or objects – were picking their way carefully through the rubble, looking for survivors who might be trapped down in the darkness. A handful of sorcerers were even trying to move great chunks of iron out of the way, although their interest was hardly altruistic. Every time a magician died, his neighbours tried to seize their Objects of Power and books before they were lost, either to his heirs or to the Tribunal. Merlin had had the greatest collection of Objects of Power in the world and every sorcerer and wizard worth their salt wanted them.

    Robin rubbed his tired eyes as he directed recovery efforts. Tiffany had left him in charge as soon as he’d returned from the <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:placeType w:st="on">Tower</st1:placeType> of <st1:placeName w:st="on">Camelot</st1:placeName></st1:place>, with barely a moment to give him a hug. He missed her dreadfully, even though duty told him that they had to focus on the recovery and save as many lives as they could. Besides, if Merlin was really gone, all hell was likely to break loose.

    He scowled as he felt a reassuring shimmer from the sword at his belt. Magicians, even sorcerers, were obeying him without question, or even argument. And that was eerie. Trying to get three or more sorcerers to cooperate was like herding cats, when the cats could snap their fingers and transform the imprudent speaker into toads, or slugs, or stone statues. And they were obeying him, a Knight of the Round Table. Even when Merlin had been…present, the sorcerers had resisted submission to anyone below Merlin, even his appointed First Councillor. Sorcerers respected nothing, but power – and Excalibur was power incarnate. He saw, out of the corner of his eye, a number of magicians eying him speculatively. A moment of weakness and they’d be trying to steal the sword. Excalibur wouldn't allow an unworthy man to use it, but a magician, given enough time, could probably find a way to draw on the sword’s power. Sorcerers were always teetering on the brink of insanity. The thought of something as powerful as Excalibur would tempt them, no matter how hard they tried to deny it – or how insane any thought of stealing and using the sword seemed.

    Another line of soldiers from the Garrison appeared, reminding him of something he’d refused to consider. The Garrison – Merlin’s army – was only 200’000 strong. Most of them were highly-trained soldiers, backed up by combat magicians and sorcerers, but their numbers were very limited. Merlin hadn’t needed a large army, or so he’d told his advisers, and he’d never ordered the Garrison expanded. It had made sense, at the time, but Merlin was gone. And the noblemen – and even some of the free cities – had far larger armies of private guardsmen under their control. They’d never posed any threat to Merlin, not when he’d been able to destroy an entire army with a wave of his hand. And now Merlin was gone and those private armies would far outnumber the forces the central government could deploy in a hurry. He remembered the nobles he’d met over the years, the ones who would do anything to squeeze an extra glimmer of influence and power out of Merlin, and shuddered. How long would it take them to realise that they could take power for themselves?

    And then there would be civil war. The free cities would rise against the nobles. Magicians would start trying to carve out empires for themselves. And then…

    Robin swore, out loud. Several people glanced at him in surprise; they rarely heard Knights swear, even ones who weren't of the Round Table. He barked a command at the nearest Troop Commander – no other Knights of the Round Table had appeared, much to his surprise – and started to run, leaving the poor man behind to take command. It was only a few hundred meters to Beneficence, yet now – with wounded and recovery crews everywhere – it took him time to push his way through the crowd. The <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:placeName w:st="on">Great</st1:placeName> <st1:placeType w:st="on">College</st1:placeType></st1:place> was right in front of him as he ran through the gates and into the grounds…

    The iron cage was empty. Robin reacted without thinking, drawing Excalibur and holding the sword out in front of him. The Elf had escaped, which meant…trouble, real trouble. Merlin had created the cage himself, crafting it out of cold iron, but it hadn’t been stable. Merlin’s departure had broken the spells and the cage had weakened, enough to allow the Elf – stronger than an average human, and far more willing to absorb pain – to free himself. Robin walked forwards slowly, drawn by instincts he vaguely realised were being driven by the sword, and stopped in horror. In a shrouded garden, one used by young lovers, he found a scene out of nightmares. A dozen young students had been ripped apart, their wands broken and snapped on the grass; the remains of their bodies had mangled and woven together by dark magic. Their eyes were still alive and haunted, endlessly suffering in pain.

    Robin swung with Excalibur and the shimmering sword cut right through the warped flesh and bone. He sensed their souls departing, freed from the Elf’s parting atrocity, and smiled, before he looked around for the Elf. His instincts – and Excalibur – told him that the Elf was long gone. Elves were unburdened by puny human concerns; given a head start, an Elf could be halfway across the country before a human even covered a mile. This one would have ample time to make it to the nearest patch of <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Greenwood</st1:place></st1:City>, and Avalon.

    And then all hell would break lose. The Elves had hated Merlin, but they’d feared him.

    And now Merlin was gone.
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  17. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Ten<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    The Keep had none of the elegance that had marked the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:smarttags" /><st1:place w:st="on"><st1:placeName w:st="on">Iron</st1:placeName> <st1:placeType w:st="on">Palace</st1:placeType></st1:place>, or the understated arrogance of the Houses of Parliament. It was a blocky ugly building, occupying one corner of the Iron Triangle, housing the countless clerks who kept the Empire running. Tiffany had spent more time than she cared to remember in the Keep, trying to cope with an endless series of minor crisis points that threatened to upset the Empire; now, the blocky solidity of the Keep seemed almost reassuring, as if it would provide shelter from the trying times to come.

    She stood at the window, hands clasped behind her, staring down into Camelot. The streets were packed with citizens, some helping with the recovery efforts at the Iron Palace, others merely coming to gawk at the remains. The news would have spread all over the world by now; Merlin, the man who had effortlessly dominated the Empire, was gone. Who knew what was going to happen next? She lifted her eyes, looking towards the south, towards the undefended edges of the city. Camelot had no walls, not even a single structure marking the edge of the city. Who would have dared to attack Merlin’s capital city, knowing that the near-omnipotent sorcerer could have destroyed any attackers with a wave of his hand? It was the only major city in the Empire, ruled by lords or commoners, that had no walls.

    Behind her, the Privy Council was slowly gathering in the chamber. Tiffany didn't want to turn and face them, but there was no choice. At least the Keep hadn't been packed into a multitude of pocket dimensions, kept in place by Merlin’s will. The government would have a stable base of operations while it struggled to shape the coming weeks and months. Everyone was too shocked to move now – watching the Iron Palace fall had probably reminded the courtiers that nothing was permanent – but Tiffany had no illusions as to how long it would last. Someone, sooner rather than later, would try to push the Privy Council. And then God alone knew what would happen.

    Damn you, she thought, in the privacy of her own mind. Merlin would not have appreciated her swearing at him out load – and rumour claimed that he heard every time his name was mentioned. The ring on her finger was still dead and cold, a grim reminder of what she’d lost. Did you know that you were leaving us? Why didn't you tell us?

    Merlin hadn't really been a friend; he’d had few friends, and most of them had died off in the years since King Arthur had died. He’d once told her that he’d granted the last of the original Knights of the Round Table a form of immortality, but the Knight had finally come to him and begged to be allowed to die. Merlin had released the spell, watched his old friend crumble into dust, and then seemed to turn away from friendship. Tiffany had tried to talk to him from time to time, just to see if he would open up to her, but he’d been reluctant to talk. She’d eventually realised that she would grow older, have children and eventually die – while Merlin would go on forever. He wouldn't want to keep burying and mourning his friends.

    A cough from behind her caught her attention and she turned around, her gaze flickering over the gathered faces. The War Room was large enough to house over a hundred men, but she’d only invited the Privy Council – and Robin – to this meeting. They were seated around the WorldEye, the device that Merlin had created for his servants, a device that was now nothing more than dead stone. Some of the devices held within the Keep had their own supplies of magic, or could be charged by other magicians, but most of them had drawn on Merlin’s endless power. Tiffany – now blessed with hindsight – cursed that oversight. Without Merlin, the Keep had been crippled, rendered nearly blind and deaf. There weren't even any contingency plans to cope with such an emergency.

    She stepped forward and stopped in front of the chairperson’s seat. It had occurred to her that the Privy Council was composed of experienced men and women, all with their own field of responsibility – and her. She had been charged with chairing the meetings and, when necessary, speaking with Merlin’s voice. What was she, she asked herself, without Merlin? Her sense of duty told her to keep going, yet her position was incredibly weak. The entire Council’s position was weak.

    The chair – hewn from solid stone – felt cold as she sat down and placed her arms on the table, trying for a nonchalance she didn't feel. They regarded her, their faces as stricken by shock as her own; their entire world had been turned upside down, in the space of a single terrifying hour. Merlin had had a good eye for loyalty – and competence – and he’d trusted the Privy Councillors. Tiffany could do no less, even without Merlin. She’d just have to keep going and hope that it all fell into place.

    They were all her political allies, if not her friends. Major General Sir Valiant, a big bluff man with a long ginger beard, the Master of the Garrison and – effectively – the senior Knight of the Round Table. He was known for quiet competence, if not imagination, and could be trusted to watch her back. Merlin had appointed him four years before Tiffany had graduated from Beneficence and told her, in confidence, that Sir Valiant’s only flaw was a willingness to consider violence as the first and last resort. Tiffany had thought that that was a little hypocritical, at first, but she’d kept that thought to herself.

    Lord Chancellor Rupert was a thin man, with a very pale face and pinched cheeks, topped by the monkish tonsure of dark hair. The Master of the Imperial Treasury was scrupulously honest, although his iron regard for tax laws and a complete unwillingness to either take bribes or use his position to enrich himself had made him a fair number of enemies. Tiffany had endured many hours of listening to him droning on about the latest modification to the tax laws, and quarrelling with him over the operational budget for the Empire. Merlin had written a fairly simple tax code, back when he’d assumed the throne, but a thousand years of clerkship had turned it into a complicated nightmare.

    Eleanor, sitting next to him, was a complete contrast to the thin bureaucrat. She was tall, the tallest woman that Tiffany had ever seen, wearing nothing more than a belt of dragon skin and a single necklace. Her bare breasts bobbled invitingly every time she spoke, but the complex tattoos covering her body warned men to keep their distance. Eleanor was a Dragon Mistress, bonded with one of the dragons that allowed Merlin’s armies unquestioned command of the air – and her dragonish partner would go berserk if anyone threatened his rider. Eleanor wore a sword at her belt, but her real power lay in her link to her dragon. No one wanted an angry dragon after him.

    Aylia sat next to her, dressed rather more conservatively in a long brown dress. The Mistress of <st1:placeName w:st="on">Beneficence</st1:placeName> College and Lady Librarian of Camelot had been invited onto the council after Tiffany had become Merlin’s First Councillor, leading some to wonder if she’d displayed favouritism. She hadn’t; it had been Merlin who’d selected her, for reasons that he’d never bothered to share with Tiffany. Tiffany had wondered if he’d thought that she needed a friend, but then – the Mistress had considerable influence over all of the magical colleges. And her knowledge of the Empire’s history, geography and culture was extensive.

    Tiffany frowned as Baron Blackley, Lord Chief Minister of Justice, tapped his fingers impatiently. Baron Blackley and her had clashed many times, most recently over the arrest and imprisonment of Duke Blackrock. The Baron had no love for the Duke and had suggested that she merely execute him personally – or he would happily do it for her – without regard for the political consequences. He considered her a weakling, she knew, and wouldn't hesitate to speak out against her if he thought that she was doing the wrong thing. His bushy eyebrows kept tracking towards Robin, who was standing by the door; he didn't quite believe that Robin had such a powerful sword at his belt. He kept stroking his dark beard compulsively.

    Finally, seated opposite Baron Blackley, the High Magus watched her with calm, knowing eyes. The High Magus was a sorcerer, one of the few to embrace the transition from wizard to sorcerer without killing himself or going mad with power. With Merlin gone, he was almost certainly the most powerful magician left in the Empire, dominating the House of Magus with a combination of powerful magic and an unbending personality that refused to bow to threats or even darkest magic. He was tall, inhumanly thin, with long pale fingers and a shaved head. Power seemed to crackle around him. It had always been there, but as long as Merlin’s power infused the city, it had been hard to sense anyone else. Now...Tiffany kept her face expressionless, even though her emotions were churning inside. No one rose to become a sorcerer without making some...questionable decisions, or even more questionable bargains, and sorcerers had only been kept in check by Merlin. Without him...

    She pushed the thought aside as she leaned forward, catching and holding their attention. Merlin had taught her that if she acted as if she was in charge – and she knew what she was doing – she could get away with almost anything. She wasn't sure about the former, and she knew she didn't know the latter, but it seemed to work. Or perhaps they were just so desperate for normality – of whatever kind – that they were inclined to accept her without question.

    “The Empire has seen bad days before,” she said, calmly. It was true, although the worst the Empire had faced had never included the death – or disappearance – of the near-omnipotent sorcerer who’d ruled them all. “Merlin has gone, but he appointed us to handle the day-to-day running of the Empire. We will carry out our duty or die trying.”

    She switched her gaze to Sir Valiant. At least he wouldn't be considering trying to overthrow her. “What’s the latest report from...from the Iron Palace?”

    Sir Valiant spoke slowly, deliberately. “There were over three thousand people in the palace when Merlin...ah, departed,” he said. His voice had an edge, suggesting that he was being pushed right to the limit. “Four hundred and seventy-two people were killed when the palace collapsed, or injured too badly for the healers to save them. An additional two hundred and nineteen were wounded and are receiving treatment now. I’ve brought in a couple of additional maniples from outlying garrisons and assigned them to help with the recovery effort. I do not believe, however, that we will find many more survivors.”

    Tiffany nodded. She’d expected as much. The Iron Palace had been huge, with passages wandering in and out of the mundane world. Hundreds of people could have been crushed out of existence, without anyone ever realising that they were gone.

    “So far, we’ve had no trouble reported from any of the other garrisons, but that will change,” the burly soldier continued. His thoughts had run along the same lines as hers, and Robin’s. They’d lost Merlin – and without him, the Garrison was badly outnumbered. “There's another piece of bad news.”

    Tiffany wanted to rub her eyes, but she made herself sit upright. Robin had told her, just before the meeting had begun, that the captured Elf Merlin had imprisoned and tortured for laughs had vanished, after slaughtering a handful of student wizards. The Elves...she didn't want to think about what might happen if the Elves decided to reclaim their ancient lands, the ones Merlin had driven them off centuries ago. And the Elves might not even be the worst problem. There were thousands of creatures in Avalon, from the relatively harmless Brownies to the Faerie and the Old Gods. It had been Merlin who had confined them to the Greenwood, and Avalon. How many of them would seek to return to the fixed lands?

    Sir Valiant didn't try to sugar-coat the bad news. “The Armoury is gone,” he said, flatly. “There’s nothing there now, but an empty space.”

    “Oh, I’m sure it’s not gone,” the High Magus said, languidly. “We just don’t know where it is, at the moment.”

    Tiffany swallowed an urge to swear aloud, using words that would have made her mother faint. The Armoury hadn’t been a standard pocket dimension, but a place somewhere far away, linked to Camelot through Merlin’s power. It had stored all the Objects of Power the Knights of the Round Table had gathered over the years, from objects that were relatively harmless to objects that were so terrifyingly lethal that they were legends in their own right The Armoury had made a useful club to threaten the occasional rebellious lord, a reminder that Merlin didn't have to draw on his full power to destroy them. And no one had known where the Armoury was located. It had been part of its mystique.

    And now it had come back to bite them, hard.

    “That is little use,” Baron Blackley snapped, icily. He was one of the few who would dare speak rudely to a sorcerer. “We need to recover those Objects of Power before someone else gets their hands on them.”

    The High Magus made a show of placing his fingertips together, leaning back in his chair. “The Armoury was never just a pocket dimension,” he said, easily. “It was a place in our world, bound to Camelot by Merlin’s power. The Armoury is still there; we've just lost the link that bound it to us. We never knew where it was in the world. Merlin never saw fit to share that knowledge with us.”

    “We could search for it,” Eleanor said. She crossed her arms underneath her breasts, pushing them up at the High Magus. It was a taunt; powerful sorcerers preferred to remain celibate. Certainly, Tiffany had never heard of Merlin having lovers, let alone children. “The world isn't that large...”

    “A cache of Objects of Power, concealed by the most powerful magician who ever lived,” the High Magus sneered. If he was touched by her display, he didn't show it. “It would be hard to find and harder to enter...”

    “Unless the spells guarding it have fallen as well,” Eleanor pointed out. She stuck her tongue out, mischievously. “We could look...”

    “There’s no harm in looking,” Tiffany agreed.

    “There is a potentially more serious problem,” Aylia said. “The boundary lines. Merlin created them and anchored them in the local Lines of Power, but they won’t last forever without him. The Greenwood might start to expand again, at terrifying speed.”

    There was a long moment of silence, their thoughts elsewhere. The Greenwood housed the wild magic – and the creatures it had warped and twisted over the centuries. The thought of all of them bursting out to reclaim lands Merlin had protected from them was terrifying. There was a patch of Greenwood only thirty miles to the south of Camelot.

    The discussion ranged from subject to subject, all avoiding the elephant in the room. Merlin had created the government, but he’d been its linchpin. There was very little linking the Privy Council to the Houses of Parliament – or, for that matter, the Garrison to the Iron Triangle. Could the clerks still collect taxes without Merlin? What could they do if the Lords and Commons refused to pay?

    “There is an issue we should discuss,” Sir Valiant said, finally. He nodded towards Robin, who was still leaning against the wall, waiting. “Excalibur has returned to our lands, just before our Emperor...departs. I believe that there is a connection between the two events. Merlin always told us that he was holding the Empire in trust for Arthur, when he returned. I believe that the sword Excalibur knows its rightful master.”

    Robin started, shocked. “I am not King Arthur!”

    “People have been allowed to reincarnate before,” Sir Valiant pointed out. “And we were told that Arthur would return one day.”

    “Absurd,” Tiffany said, with more heat than she’d intended.

    “People are already whispering that King Arthur has returned,” Lord Chancellor Rupert said. “And your future husband carries his sword.”

    Tiffany stared at him, genuinely shocked. She worried that Merlin would take offense at Robin holding the sword, but it honestly hadn't occurred to her that Robin might be the reincarnation of King Arthur. The thought was horrifying, even though it might serve a useful purpose. The land needed someone to serve as linchpin, but Robin...

    “The legends refer to King Arthur sleeping under a hill, until the land needs him,” Aylia snapped. Her words quietening the growing stir in the room. “No legend refers to him being reincarnated.”

    “Legend are legends,” Eleanor said. She held up a hand as Tiffany glared at her. “I don’t mean to imply that Robin actually is King Arthur, but we could use the thought he might be as a rallying point...”

    “No,” the High Magus said, a moment before Tiffany could object. “Names have power, and that name is tied into the very shape of the land. Invoking it falsely would cost us dearly.”

    “We won’t discuss the possibility,” Tiffany agreed. She exchanged a long glance with Robin. He looked relieved, rather than angry. Kingship wouldn't suit him. “I believe that we should refrain from outright lies...”

    “I’d suggest announcing your marriage and setting a date,” Aylia said. She frowned, thoughtfully. “It might concentrate a few minds.”

    Tiffany opened her mouth to protest that her marriage was not a political event, but stopped, considering. It might provide enough of a distraction – combined with the threat of Excalibur – to allow the Privy Council a chance to consolidate its power and build new alliances that would prevent outright civil war. Robin’s warnings about the Dark Sorcerers could not be dismissed, on top of all the other threats.

    “Very well,” she said, rising to her feet. “I will announce the date in front of Parliament, as tradition demands. That should give us enough time to get ready.”

    “Ready,” Rupert repeated. “Ready for what?”

    “For anything,” Tiffany snapped. “Everyone is too shocked to act now, but how long will it be before someone decides to test the waters? We’re powerless – and it won’t be long before someone realises that they can just take us...

    “And when that happens, we’d better be ready.”

    On that note, she – and Robin – swept out of the chamber, leaving the others alone.
    jasonl6 and STANGF150 like this.
  18. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Eleven<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    Lucas staggered, feeling his chest heaving desperately. It felt as if he was about to be violently sick, right in front of his father and some of his most trusted servants. He swallowed hard, feeling the nausea slowly recede. His father wouldn't appreciate a show of weakness, not by his Heir. A Heir could never show weakness, for the Court had a very long memory. Who knew what enemy would be heartened by seeing Lucas in such desperate straits?

    “Come along, boy,” his father said, coolly. If he was affected by the shock of teleporting several hundred miles in a split second, he showed no sign of it. Lucas carefully kept his resentment off his face. They could have ridden to Camelot, or even taken the nearest railway line, and it wouldn't have taken them that long. “We don’t have time to waste.”

    Lucas scowled as his father nodded to the wizards who’d prepared and powered the teleport spell. Sorcerers could teleport on their own, without the need for complex spells, but wizards and mundane humans – and Lucas had never been allowed to develop his scant magical talent – required the spells, and anchors to hold the spells in place. The experience was thoroughly unpleasant and most sane people preferred to ignore it. In the wake of Merlin’s disappearance – or death, although rumour seemed unsure of the truth – his father had wanted to reach Camelot as soon as possible. The whole balance of power between the lords, commoners and magicians was up for grabs.

    He followed his father through the door and into the mansion proper. Anyone who was anyone in High Society had a mansion and servants in Camelot, even if they preferred to pay their homage to Merlin and his allies from a safe distance. His father had, naturally, one of the biggest and best mansions in the city, although he'd been careful not to outshine the Iron Palace. Sorcerers could be touchy when they thought someone was trying to outshine them and Merlin was no exception, even though the Iron Palace had collapsed into a pile of rubble.

    “You won’t be dining with Lady Blackrock in four days,” his father informed him, as he walked onwards. He didn't care if the servants overhead him speaking so dismissively to his son; after all, they’d been spelled to be loyal and obedient – and keep everything they overheard to themselves. “You’ll dine with her tonight and attempt to forge a relationship.”

    “Yes, father,” Lucas said, quietly. There was no point in arguing. His father would have him try to marry the Heir to Tara, knowing that without Merlin, the Dukes were suddenly the most powerful elements left in the Empire. The government, without Merlin, was likely to melt away sooner rather than later, leaving a vacuum that the Duke intended to fill. Lucas risked asking a question, hoping that his father would choose to answer. “Do you not feel that it would be wise to keep our distance from the Blackrock Family?”

    “The sooner I get you married off to someone suitable and raising kids, the better,” his father growled. He sounded irked, but Lucas had had enough practice with reading his moods to know that he was quietly amused at his son’s naivety. “There is no room for doubt or scruples in the service of the family, son; our power and position are all that matter. Do you really feel that any of the others would hesitate before making an alliance with a disgraced family?”

    He smiled darkly, ticking points off with his fingers. “Who is going to strip the Blackrock Family of their wealth and power?” He asked, mockingly. “Who is going to tell Duchess Blackrock that she cannot use the wealth of her family? And even if the Privy Council tries...well, the House of Lords would never let them get away with it. It would be a clear threat to the rest of the aristocracy.”

    Lucas swallowed, hard. He knew what Duke Blackrock had been doing before he’d been arrested and it sickened him. His victims might have been only commoners...but there were limits. He knew that his father had played his own little games, bedding hundreds of commoner wenches just because he could, yet he’d never touched a child. Lucas himself had had his fun with the servants, as was expected of a male child of the aristocracy, but he too had never touched a child. And Duke Blackrock hadn’t even been trying to enhance his magical powers. He’d only been indulging his perverted tastes.

    “No, the Blackrock Family will not be touched,” his father continued. “And that makes them powerful allies. And that means that no one will dare to push them too hard, even that damned Cromwell and his bunch of so-called Reformists. Do they not think that we can't recognise the signs of a power grab in the making?”

    His study in Camelot was an exact duplicate of the one in his castle, even down to the paintings on the walls. Lucas had thrilled to the paintings in the past, for they covered the lives of his ancestors, from the great Sir Lancelot to Sir Richard, who’d commanded one of Merlin’s armies in the Serpent Wars. The latter was depicted as riding on a dragon, sword held high, as he led the charge that broke the defenders of one of the many fortresses that had defended the great western continent. Afterwards, they’d discovered that the remains of the city’s population had been sacrificed to fuel the dark magic unleashed by the Serpent Empire’s sorcerers. And after that, Merlin had unleashed his power and shattered the heart of the Serpent Empire. There was nothing left there now, but a handful of islands populated by magic-warped mutants. Lucas had once dreamed of being like Sir Richard, yet his father had refused to allow him to serve as a Knight. The Heir could not be risked in combat.

    “Without Merlin, the aristocracy will come into its own,” his father said, as he bellowed a command at a servant girl to bring wind and pasties. “Merlin understood that we were born to rule, that we were gifted with the right to command our peasants and use them as we saw fit. We can take control of the Empire and ensure that jumped-up peasants and tradesmen are kept firmly away from the leavers of power.”

    Lucas took one of the glasses of wine, careful to only sip at it. His father’s rage was understandable, in a way; the aristocracy had suffered a considerable lose of power and influence when Merlin had started issuing charters to the free cities. The more discontented peasants, influenced by tales of lives of freedom and lower taxes, had a nasty habit of deserting their towns and villages and making their way to the free cities, where they could work without noblemen taking most of their produce. Many of the lords – including his father – worked hard to keep the peasants in their place; loyal, hard-working and ignorant. A knowledgeable peasant was a dangerous peasant. It didn’t stop hundreds from fleeing the land each year.

    He frowned, thoughtfully. Lady Tiffany had come up with a novel solution to the problem of reduced manpower. She’d actually started paying the common-born scrum to work. His father had been apocalyptic when he’d heard the news, believing – not without reason – that eventually his peasants would demand to be paid too, or they’d simply leave and go to the free cities. Lucas could see the sense in the idea. The peasants didn't have to be paid too handsomely. All they’d really need was a reduction in taxes. His father had refused to even consider the idea.

    “So we’re going to be building a coalition,” his father informed him, finally. “And you, my son, are going to help me gain control of the entire Empire.”

    His eyes gleamed with a dark passion. He’d never dreamed that he’d have a chance to take complete control, not until Merlin had...departed. There had always been limits on how far the aristocracy could push their demands under Merlin, but now those limits were gone. A person with courage and cunning – and his father didn't lack for either, which was why he still sat on the Dukedom’s Throne – could take the entire Empire before everyone else had even realised that the rules had changed.

    “Sit back and watch,” his father said. Lucas knew what he meant; he wanted someone to gloat to, someone who had to be loyal. “You’ll see a master at work.”

    The next five hours passed slowly. Lucas would have preferred to go to one of the local taverns and drink himself senseless, or hunt up one of his noble-born friends and visit the nearest brothel, but his father refused to even let him consider leaving the chamber. A session of dignities, from lesser noblemen to representatives from two of the other Dukes, filed through the room, bargaining with his father. They all shared the shocked expression that suggested that their world had turned upside down – and that they didn't know what to do. His father was more than happy to provide suggestions.

    Lucas had had plenty of practice at pretending to pay attention while he allowed his mind to wander and this was no different. It helped that his father didn't expect him to actually contribute, merely listen carefully. His magical talent was very limited – he had no reason to expect to become a wizard, even if his father had allowed him to train with private tutors – and he hadn't really been aware of Merlin’s presence until it had vanished, as if the immortal sorcerer had snapped his fingers and dropped dead. It made little sense and the lies his father was spreading, suggesting that Merlin hadn't really been immortal after all, made even less sense. No one could gaze down upon Merlin’s Rage, the remains of the Serpent Empire, without knowing that Merlin had effortlessly channelled power that would be beyond even the capabilities of a hundred sorcerers.

    And yet... “Confidence is the key to running a kingdom,” his father had said, in one of his more expansive moods. “If you act hesitant, as if you don’t have the right to do whatever you are doing, you will be questioned. Act like you own the place and you can steal everything they have before they realise that something is badly wrong.”

    He pushed the thought aside as another serving girl entered the chamber. It pleased his father to take commoner-born girls from their families, enforce their loyalty with carefully-tuned spells, and then add them to his army of servants. This one had shown considerable promise and his father had arranged for her to be trained in running a large household, freeing up time for his own schemes. Lucas half-smiled, remembering one evening a year ago when he’d summoned her to his bed, before straightening upright. Something was badly wrong.

    “You have a guest, master,” the girl said. Her eyes were blank, lifeless. “You have a guest, master. You have a guest, master. You have a guest...”

    “Shut up,” Duke Valditch snapped. The girl ignored him, repeating the same phase time and time again. A dark stain had appeared in her garments, suggesting that she’d lost control of her bladder. Lucas stared, horrified. His father seemed much more composed.

    “You destroyed the mind of one of my servants,” he said, coldly. He seemed to be addressing the empty air. “Come into the open and we will talk.”

    Lucas reached for his sword as a man appeared out of nowhere. He was tall and thin, with a handsome face, but the pose of a much older man. His tunic was Sorcerer’s Black, a darkness so profound that it seemed to suck in all of the ambient light in the chamber. Lucas half-drew his sword, only to be halted by a gesture from his father. He couldn't hope to prevail against a sorcerer.

    His father showed no sign of concern, or fear. “She was one of my people,” he said, nodding to the servant girl. She was still hopelessly repeating her message. “I assume you wanted my attention?”

    “Of course, father,” the sorcerer said. His voice was light and breathy. “Did you like watching her stand before you, little more than a puppet to one with superior will?”

    Lucas stared. Father? How could the sorcerer be his brother? But then, his father had raised hundreds of illegitimate children, hoping that cross-breeding his aristocratic blood – stretching back over a thousand years – with commoners would give some of the children an enhanced command of magic. It was risky – the Tribunal would have taken a dim view of an unauthorised breeding program, if it had caught wind of the project – but his father had few doubts and less scruples. A cadre of trained magicians, unknown to the wider world, could be very handy to a man who wanted to secure and enhance his own position.

    “You gained new powers then,” his father said. A new edge entered his voice. “You are aware, of course, that such tricks will not work on your brother, or me?”

    “You have warded yourselves thoroughly,” the sorcerer said. “And yet, are you confident in those wards?”

    “You were sent to become a sorcerer,” his father said, ignoring the question. Lucas wished he felt as confident. Sorcerers were dangerously powerful – and his half-brother looked more dangerous than most. “I assume that your master succeeded in keeping his word?”

    “He has accomplished something great,” the sorcerer agreed. “I stand before you as his representative, the Sorcerer Shade. My master wishes to discuss an alliance with you.”

    Lucas’s father leaned forward. “An alliance?”

    “My master is aware of your plans to take Merlin’s place,” Shade said. His voice seemed cool and calculating, but Lucas was uneasily aware that he could be weaving all manner of charms into his words. “You must realise that the magical force you have at your disposal is insufficient to claim power for yourself? Others will rise to oppose you, led by the High Magus. Your plan is doomed to failure.”

    “So you say,” Lucas’s father said. He seemed unworried by the claim. “And you believe that you can help me?”

    “My master wishes to share power with you,” Shade informed him. “He does not wish to rule the world, but merely to enhance his own powers and control over the magical world. You may have the remainder of the Empire, if you work with him now.”

    Lucas started. He spoke before he could stop himself. “Work with a Dark Sorcerer?”

    His father said nothing, merely smiled. Lucas almost swore aloud. His father hadn't needed Sir Robin to tell him what had happened to the dead villagers; he’d always known. If he’d sent Shade to the Dark Sorcerers, hoping that he’d become a sorcerer loyal to his father, he might well have traded a hundred peasants for Shade’s training. And when Sir Robin had arrived at his castle, he must have wondered if Merlin had suspected the truth.

    “My master is offering you the world,” his half-brother said, turning to face him. Up close, it was easier to see the family resemblance, although there was something...not quite right about his brother’s face. Dark sorcery came with a price and the price was often physical and mental decay. “Do you not think that that is worth working with him?”

    “The Privy Council cannot hold onto power,” his father said, slowly. He took no notice of Lucas’s concerns. “If you weaken it to the point where we can take control without a bloodbath...”

    “You will rule the land,” Shade agreed. “And as long as you keep your side of the bargain, we will keep ours.”

    He lifted one hand in ironic salute – and was gone. His puppet, the serving girl, collapsed as if her strings had been touched. Lucas felt a flicker of cold terror as he reached down and touched the girl’s forehead. Her body was still warm and breathing, but her mind was long gone. There was literally no one at home.

    His father seemed unmoved, summoning two of his other servants. “Dispose of that,” he ordered, “and then have Master Boyle sent to me. I want to know how he was able to walk through our defences so easily...”

    Lucas had never tried to argue with his father before, but he felt as if he had no choice.

    “Father,” he said, slowly, “is it wise to make a deal with the Dark Sorcerers?”

    His father lifted a single elegant eyebrow. “You propose to question my decision?”

    Lucas swallowed, but pressed on regardless. “They’re not sane,” he protested. “You can’t trust them to keep any bargain...”

    “Of course they’re not sane,” his father agreed, without visible emotion. “But then, that very insanity is often their greatest weakness. We can use them to spread chaos, weakening the Privy Council, while holding out the promise of allowing them dominion over magic and magicians – and when the time comes, we remove them and ensure that they no longer pose a threat to us.”

    “You intend to kill a group that even Merlin couldn't eradicate,” Lucas said. Fear, oddly, had granted him a certain level of bravery. He’d never stood up to his father so openly before, even when his father had beaten him as a young man. “What happens if they turn on us first?”

    His father smiled. “I’ve met his master, dealt with him,” he said. “I know how he thinks. We can hold out the promise of vast power long enough to take control, reassert control of the Garrison and the Colleges of Magic, and then turn on them. If they were so insane as to pose an irrational danger, to turn on us for no sane reason, they’d have destroyed themselves by now. Dark sorcerers are sane enough to know where their best interests lie.”

    Lucas frowned. “And if you’re wrong?”

    His father shrugged, and then smiled. “You will take my place,” he said, finally. “In the end, it’s all about the family. The family comes first, always.”
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  19. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Twelve<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    The Houses of Parliament had impressed Lord Mayor Thomas Cromwell when he’d first seen them, even though he’d understood that true power had always resided inside the Iron Palace. The three Houses of Parliament formed a smaller triangle at the tip of the Iron Triangle, surrounded by gardens that had been beautifully landscaped – before they’d been turned into emergency housing for the wounded from the Iron Palace. The MPs – the Lords, the Commons and the magicians who formed the House of Magus – waited, as tradition demanded, on the greenery, waiting for the doors to open.

    Thomas openly looked around, moving from face to face. The other politicians were doing the same thing, for the same reason. They were counting friends and allies, enemies and neutrals, people who might help or hinder their factions in the coming power struggle. The Lords, with their bright garish robes, kept a polite distance from the Commons, who wore basic overalls and sashes of office. Many of the MPs from the House of Commons were richer and more influential than most of the minor nobility, a fact that didn't stop the Lords looking down on them in public. In private, the minor nobility were often willing to deal; indeed, Thomas had been offered a chance to marry his son to the daughter of an earl, knowing that his descendents would have a title and a guaranteed place in the House of Lords. And all it would have cost him would have been a few hundred thousand crowns.

    He’d dismissed the offer, after careful consideration. His father had been a farmer, a serf working the fields belonging to his local lord. After several years of watching all of his produce – apart from a bare minimum – confiscated and sold by the nobility, his father had taken his wife and infant child and walked out of the noble lands, into the free city of Londinium. It had been risky – his lord would have had him whipped if he’d caught him trying to escape – but he’d made it. The free city was hardly a paradise, yet he’d survived and prospered – and his son had become Lord Mayor, and the city’s representative to the House of Commons. Thomas Cromwell, the effective leader of the Reform Faction in Parliament, was hardly about to betray his father by claiming a noble title for himself.

    Merlin had originally set up the Houses of Parliament to provide representation for the citizens of the Pendragon Empire. Over the years, they had developed political factions, from the Conservatives – heavily backed by the aristocracy – to the Reform Faction, who drew their support from the free cities. Reform had been growing more powerful lately as the subtle conflict between the free cities and the aristocracy had been starting to break out into the open, with both sides seeking ways to inflict harm on the other. The Lords had been raising the prices of foodstuffs for the free cities, trying to make the population hungry and more tractable; the free cities had been refusing to sell the Lords the manufactured goods that they needed for their farms. With the House of Magus consumed by internal politics, as always, the struggle had been growing more and more intractable. And now, without Merlin, it might break into open war.

    Like everyone else with political ambitions, Thomas had his agents scattered through Camelot and the other political factions. It hadn't been hard to track the thousands of private guards the aristocracy had been shipping into the city, a move that was not – technically – illegal, if only because an entire army couldn't stand against Merlin. The common-born were not entitled to private armies of their own, but Thomas and his allies had been fiddling with the technicalities and transported in a large force of City Guardsmen. No one wanted a bloodbath, yet everyone was uneasily aware that everyone else was preparing for war.

    He looked over at a pair of sorcerers, screaming insults and threats at each other, and started to wander away towards the other side of the gardens. Merlin had designed the House of Magus to give the Empire’s magicians a voice in its politics – and distract those who wanted to play political games. There were two hundred magicians in the House of Magus, magicians who had won their seats by the simple expedient of killing or intimidating the last holder. They spent most of their time fighting each other, but now that Merlin was gone...

    The magicians have powers far beyond those of mundane men, he thought, as the two sorcerers started throwing magic spells at each other. They would never have dared fight when Merlin was alive, not when their duel posed a threat to everyone else in the gardens. Without Merlin, will they seek to take control of the Empire?

    A flash of light heralded the arrival of the High Magus, backed up by a pair of combat magicians with long staffs and bad intentions. The two sorcerers reluctantly separated, although not soon enough to prevent five people from being struck by deflected spells and transformed into animals or small objects. Thomas knew better than to expect that the sorcerers would be punished, not now that Merlin was gone. Even the High Magus would have difficulty imposing his will on a mass of angry sorcerers.

    He turned as the doors to the House of Lords opened, allowing the waiting crowds a chance to enter the building. As befitted the senior House of Parliament, the other Houses came and sat in the House of Lords whenever someone – normally Merlin or his First Councillor – chose to speak to all three Houses at once. The Lords had been swearing for years that they would convince Merlin to change that custom, but they hadn't been able to gain a majority of aristocrats who were prepared to enter the House of Commons. No one in their right mind – and without substantial magical protection – would enter the House of Magus.

    The interior of the building dated from forty years after Merlin had established his rule over England, just before the mighty armies of the Pendragon Empire had set off to conquer Gaul, and then the world. Each of the Patriarchs – the senior Lords from each noble family – had a individual box, allowing him to sit in state and gaze down upon his social inferiors. Below them, the lesser nobility would sit, although not all of them chose to attend. They knew that their votes counted for little if seven of the thirteen Dukes agreed on a course of action. By long tradition, the Patriarchs controlled the votes of the rest of their families.

    Below the lesser nobles – and bitterly resenting it – were the clergy, led by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Archbishop was, in theory, second in power to the Pope, who resided in Rome. In practice, it was whispered by the wags that the Pope was only ever allowed to chose his underwear, with all other decisions made by the Archbishop. Thomas met his eyes and they exchanged smouldering looks. The orthodox clergy had made the decision, years ago, to ally themselves with the aristocracy, preaching loyalty, patience and obedience to the peasants, in exchange for hefty tithes. It hadn't made them popular in the free cities, which allowed dissident clergy to preach, even though it was officially forbidden. It was yet another faultline that might be about to explode.

    Thomas frowned as he made his way towards his own seat, right at the bottom. The House of Lords wasn't known for being subtle, and while they’d ensured that the magicians received comfortable chairs, they’d given the Commoners hard wooden benches. It kept them in their place, or so the Lords had been known to claim. A number of MPs from the Commons normally refused to attend the House of Lords, just on general principles, but today the building was heaving. Everyone who was entitled to attend – Lords, Commoners and Magicians – had come to the session.

    And most of them, he realised, were carrying weapons. Merlin had forbidden his politicians from carrying weapons, on the theory that bloodstained walls didn't make political discourse any more interesting. Normally, the MPs were exempt from the Code Duello in any case, but now...without Merlin’s ever-present observation, almost every MP was carrying a weapon. One misstep and there’d be a bloody slaughter, right at the heart of government.

    He took his seat and allowed his eyes to roam freely, starting with the splendidly-dressed Patriarchs in their boxes and roaming down towards his fellow Commoners. There was an undertone of quiet unease running through the chamber. Everyone had known where they stood under Merlin; now, without him, who really ran the Empire? The Lords, with their titles and control of most of the land; the Commoners, with their control over the industries and the source of much of the Empire’s yearly tax revenues...or the Magicians, with the power to crush the other two and establish a new Rule of Magic?

    A gong echoed through the chamber and silence fell, drowned out by the waves of magic that shimmered out from the Speaker’s chair. Merlin had designed the gong himself, ensuring that his trusted servants could use it to make sure that they were heard – and silence their enemies, if necessary. Now...Thomas Cromwell braced himself. The world had already turned upside down...and if the session went badly wrong, it would fall down into civil war.

    Tiffany wore her formal First Councillor gown as little as possible. It was white, like the robes she wore under normal circumstances, but it was covered with diamonds and magically-enhanced gems that allowed her to draw on additional power – and alarmingly tight in all the right places. And it took a team of nine maidservants to help her get dressed in the morning, with another team carrying the long white train behind her. There were times when she wondered, looking at herself in the mirror, if the gown wasn't Merlin’s idea of a practical joke. She looked as if she was going to a wedding.

    As First Councillor – Merlin’s representative to his people – she’d addressed the Houses of Parliament many times before, but she’d often preferred to work behind the scenes. Facing the best and brightest of the realm – or at least those who had chosen the right parents – could be a nightmarish experience. Besides, Merlin preferred to work more subtly than merely threatening everyone to get his way, although no one would ever forget that the threat of naked force hung in reserve. Tiffany, now, knew that there was no longer anything backing her words, but tradition.

    The silence grew and lengthened as she made her slow walk down to the podium. Merlin had clearly designed the House of Lords with an eye to permanence, for the spells that enhanced voice and vision hadn't collapsed when he’d departed from the world. Or perhaps the team of magicians the High Magus had assigned to providing security had restored the spells on their own, without waiting for orders. There was no way to know for sure, at least not without asking, but the thought kept her focused as she completed her walk. The entire Empire – or at least its rulers – hung on her every word.

    She wished, suddenly, that Robin had accompanied her to the House of Lords, but he had no right to enter the building, certainly not as her lover and fiancé. A Knight of the Round Table was only supposed to claim his noble title after retirement, although that rule had been rarely observed in the last five hundred years. She didn't dare break it herself, not now. It would raise too many questions.

    “Noble Lords, Elected Commoners, Powerful Mages,” she said. The magic running through the chamber would ensure that they all heard her words. “Our Lord Merlin, Emperor of the Pendragon Empire, Prince of Enchanters, Lord of the Darkness, Grand Sorcerer of Sorcerers, Grandmaster of Magicians...has chosen to leave us, for a time. We must govern wisely in his absence.”

    The chamber remained silent, although she could almost hear hundreds of minds considering her statement. No one knew if Merlin had left the world, or died, and that uncertainty would hamper any attempt to take supreme power. The prospect of someone overthrowing the Privy Council and taking power – and then having to face an angry Merlin when he returned to the fixed lands – wasn't a pleasant one, even to the ambitious. She’d deliberately listed all of Merlin’s titles to remind them of his power.

    She’d asked herself, time and time again, what had happened to Merlin, but she’d never been able to answer the question. The magicians picking their way through the remains of the Iron Palace hadn't found a body, yet that proved nothing. Merlin had been a supremely powerful magician and, if he’d died, the last of the magic in his body should have reduced it to dust and ash. They might never find conclusive proof of what had happened to him, leaving them to draw their own conclusions. She prayed that the threat of a future return would convince them to avoid rash action.

    “There is much to be done in the coming weeks and months,” Tiffany continued. She’d dispatched several other Knights of the Round Table to the nearest patches of Greenwood, trusting them to check the conditions of the Boundary Lines. If they were falling, the entire Empire would be in mortal danger. “We may face a renewed threat from the Elves, from Dark Sorcerers...perhaps even from the creatures contained within the Greenwood. We must be vigilant and concentrate on our own defence.

    “The Privy Council was trusted by Merlin to handle the day-to-day running of the Empire. We will continue in that role until the Emperor returns and reassumes his powers. I trust that you will all work towards ensuring that we have a stable and prosperous Empire to present to him when he returns.”

    She half-closed her eyes. The bluff – if it was a bluff – had to be completely convincing. Given time, the Privy Council could secure its position and ensure that the Empire Merlin had created didn't spiral down into civil war, or fragment into nothing. And if the Houses of Parliament believed that Merlin would return, one day, they'd be less likely to do something everyone else would come to regret.

    “At Merlin’s command, I wish to formally notify you of my marriage to Sir Robin of Loxley, Knight of the Round Table,” she added, a moment later. The shift would concentrate a few minds on Robin – and the sword he held, despite an official request by the House of Magus that he turn Excalibur over to their custody. “The wedding will be held in the Summer Palace, two weeks from today. The Houses of Parliament are, of course, invited.”

    She smiled at their confusion. Tiffany might have been Lady of Shalott, but Shalott was too minor a realm to merit the attention of Dukes and Lords – if she hadn't been Merlin’s First Councillor. She was required by law to announce the engagement – which they’d done two months ago – and then the date of the wedding to the Houses of Parliament, just so that High Society could prepare for the party. And, announcing it after Merlin’s departure, it would confuse the hell out of them. Anything to buy time...besides, a formal wedding party would provide a venue for political discussions, away from the public eye. It would give them at least two weeks, she hoped, before new alliances firmed up.

    “I thank you for your time,” she concluded. “I look forward to seeing you all at my wedding.”

    Lucas watched as Tiffany turned and walked towards the great stone doors, the long train of her dress shimmering out behind her. He was completely confused; she’d told them very little, apart from the date of her marriage. It didn't hurt, not really. He'd known that she wasn’t interested in him after their first and last meeting. Lucas had acted like a boor and Tiffany, who’d dealt with someone far more powerful and important than Lucas’s father, hadn't been impressed.

    And Merlin might be coming back...

    He looked over at his father and received a nasty shock. His father was smiling, a cold nasty smile that fluttered around the edge of his lips. Lucas had learned never to trust his father’s smiles, for his father took very little delight in anything that didn't enhance the position of the family. The House of Lords was starting to buzz with conversation as the doors closed behind Tiffany, with Lords and Commons arguing over what she’d said – and how it affected their plans for the future. Lucas didn't take his eyes off his father. If he hadn’t known better, he would have sworn that his father was laughing.

    Lucas leaned forward. “Father?”

    The magic in the gilded box kept them from being overhead, but his father spoke quietly anyway.

    “She’s weak,” he whispered. He sounded almost as if he were gloating, although Lucas couldn't see why. Tiffany had never struck him as weak. Besides, she’d rejected him, hadn't she? That wasn't the act of a weak or foolish girl. “She doesn't have the power to force us to do anything.”

    Lucas stared at him. “But...”

    “But nothing,” his father said. “She raised the spectre of Merlin’s return – but how does she know that he’s going to return? She raised the spectre of the Elves, of Dark Sorcerers and even the Greenwood...”

    His smile grew colder. “She’s weak,” he repeated. The cold confidence in his voice shocked Lucas, even though he was used to his father’s moods. And with the bargains he’d been making ever since Merlin had vanished, he might be right. “The Privy Council won’t be able to keep control, not for long – certainly not when our new friends start their war. And then we will be ready. This whole empire will be ours.”
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  20. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


    Chapter Thirteen<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    “I still don’t see why you’re marrying him.”

    Tiffany sighed. The Dowager Lady Aloha was short, with curly dark hair and a smile that could charm at a thousand paces. She had certainly charmed the Lord of Shalott – although Tiffany couldn't complain about that, as without her mother Tiffany herself would certainly never have been born. On the other hand, she had a sneaking suspicion that her mother had married well to improve her station in High Society and her endless attempts to wed Tiffany to a series of well-connected men hadn't helped. Her mother had seemingly never realised that the title of Shalott ran from generation to generation; her mother couldn't even serve as regent for her young daughter. And if she married again, she would lose her link to Shalott.

    “Because I love him, mother,” Tiffany said, with heavy patience. She’d coped with threats and anger from the House of Lords, angry protests and denunciations from the House of Commons and sullen anger from the House of Magus. She could certainly cope with her own mother. “Robin is a good and decent man.”

    “Love?” Lady Aloha repeated. “What does love have to do with anything? People of our exulted station don’t marry for love, not when we have to keep the bloodlines pure...”

    “If half of the stories of the original Lady of Shalott are true,” Tiffany pointed out, in the most reasonable voice she could muster, “the bloodline was never pure, even back in the days of King Arthur.”

    Her mother scowled at her. Shalott was hardly Tara, let alone the vast open plains of Tchernobog, but it occupied one of the places where the barriers between Earth and Avalon were very thin, if indeed they were present at all. Even before Merlin, the Castle of Shalott had been built to provide a barrier between the two dimensions – and the castle’s keeper, a man appointed by King Arthur’s ancestor, had had a Faerie wife. Their daughter had been cursed by others from Avalon and condemned never to set eyes on a man, until she’d accidentally looked upon Sir Lancelot of the Lake as he rode southwards to Camelot. Dying, she’d embarked upon a barge and drifted down towards Camelot, dying before she could reach the original castle. King Arthur had confirmed her sister as the Lady of Shalott in her place, even though others had questioned the wisdom of appointing a half-Faerie to watch over the gateway.

    The Pendragon Empire took a dim view of half-breeds, even though Merlin, their ruler, had been a half-breed himself. Everyone knew that blending human strains with something else produced a strange combination – and some of those hybrids could be extremely dangerous. Tiffany knew that she had barely any Faerie blood left in her – her ancestors had only bred with fellow humans, unless some of the stranger stories about Great Uncle Oswald were true – but prejudice had never been particularly rational. Her mother might well be rejected by High Society for giving birth to a hybrid child.

    “I only want the best for you, daughter,” her mother said. The odd thing was that Tiffany believed her, even though she rebelled against her mother’s concept of the best thing in her life. If she married a senior aristocrat, Shalott might end up subsumed in greater holdings, whatever the marriage contract said. Her child would combine the title of Lord of Shalott with something more substantial. “And I do feel that a mere Knight would not suit you...”

    Tiffany rounded on her mother angrily. They’d been engaged for nearly a year and her mother still hadn't abandoned her quest to convince her that Sir Robin wouldn't make a good husband. She was getting married tomorrow and her mother still hadn’t given up. In some ways, it was almost welcome, because it provided a distraction from more pressing concerns – or it would be, if she’d had time to deal with it. No one had tried anything overtly in the two weeks since Merlin had departed – she still refused to consider the possibility that he might be dead – but her finely-tuned political senses were warning her that various parties were jockeying for position. Sooner or later, someone would cough at the wrong time and someone else would take it as a signal to start something violent. And then all hell would break loose.

    “Mother, the Lady of the Lake gave him Excalibur,” she snapped. Robin’s possession of the sword had set a great many tongues wagging, with some pointing out that he should be crowned King of England, of not of the whole Empire. Others had warned of the dangers of someone walking around with a terrifyingly powerful Object of Power and insisted that it be removed and stored in the Armoury. So far, no one had dared to try to take the sword, which had saved Tiffany from admitting that the Armoury was lost. She had a sneaking suspicion that only the threat of the Armoury was deterring the more ambitious souls from launching a coup. “He is worthy.”

    “But is he worthy of you, child?” Her mother said. She leaned forward. “The Duke of Hastings has a son who was presented at Court last year. You could break the engagement and...”

    Enough,” Tiffany thundered. Her mother could probably nag the Lords of Faerie into leaving the human race alone, if she tried. “I am marrying him, mother, and that is the end of it!”

    Her mother snorted, but had the sense to say nothing else. She’d come from minor nobility – her father’s brother had been an Earl – and she had very little to depend upon. Traditionally, when a noblewoman married upwards, socially, she cut formal ties with her former family – and if some became haughty and arrogant because they had married well, their former family often refused to have anything to do with them. Merlin had quietly encouraged the tradition, although Tiffany had never been able to understand why. It seemed to push the aristocrats into maintaining a fairly stable nobility, but it also kept women in unhappy marriages.

    Tiffany signed inwardly. Tradition also dictated that when a noblewoman married, her mother – or nearest surviving older female relative – took control of the wedding arrangements. She’d wanted a simple wedding, even though she’d known that it would become a political circus, giving the different factions a chance to plot and scheme – and associate with people they would cut dead if they met them on the streets. Her mother, if nothing else, would ensure that everything ran smoothly, if only because she’d feel personally humiliated if something went wrong.

    She thought, briefly, of Robin. Wherever he was, standing his final vigil, she hoped that he was having an easier time of it. At least he had no parents trying to organise his life for him.

    Tomorrow, you will be married, she thought, looking down at the wedding dress. Thankfully, she’d managed to convince her mother not to use any of the more outrageous dresses the designers had offered. One of them would have barely covered her breasts and thighs; another would have covered everything, leaving only a tiny slit for her eyes. And tomorrow you will be a bride.

    She shook her head. She’d planned to take a long vacation when they’d married, a honeymoon that took them right around the Empire. Merlin had kept her close and she’d never set foot outside England; she hadn't even visited Gaul. she’d be lucky if she had time to take a few brief hours before they had to return to Camelot. She hoped that Robin understood. Her mother had offered little useful advice about men, but her married friends had been happy to share their thoughts with her. Men...

    Smiling, she reached for the dress and started to pull it on. Her mother and a pair of maidservants caught her arms and helped her to pull it on properly, allowing her to relax and study herself in the mirror.

    “You look like a bride, my dear,” the mirror said. The tiny face someone had carved into the wooden frame smiled, rather unpleasantly. “And a woman should always look her best on her special day.”

    Tiffany scowled at the mirror. “Who charmed you so you could speak?”

    The mirror seemed to flicker, tossing an image back at her she didn't recognise. Enchanters worked hard to infuse magic and spells into objects, turning them into semi-aware magical devices. Some of them were fairly mundane, like the mirror; others could be deadly dangerous, or surprising. Merlin had sometimes crafted devices himself, but most of his counted as Objects of Power. At least he hadn't created the mirror...

    Her mother finished tying up the back of the dress and started to fuss away at the front. Tiffany sighed and resigned herself to a few wasted hours. At least the plotting wouldn't become serious until after the wedding. She’d hoped that it would provide a convenient location for last-minute alliances and, so far, it seemed to have worked.

    Robin knelt on the hard stone floor of the small church, feeling the cold stone pressing against his knees. As tradition demanded, he had divested himself of everything, but his undergarments – and Excalibur – before kneeling in front of the alter. There were no priests or vicars visible, yet there was a sense that he was in the presence of something holy. He allowed it to soak through his body as he remained still, concentrating on the candle mounted on top of the alter. It burned steadily. It had been burning steadily for nearly a thousand years.

    You will be tempted, a voice echoed through his head. His old master, back when he’d been squired after four intensive years of training and drilling at the Garrison. Each would-be Knight was paired off with a senior Knight and tested extensively. He still had nightmares about how Sir Young had fired off question after question, often in the midst of battle. And yet, the old Knight had prepared him well for his vigil. He remained focused on the candle, waiting for the sun to rise. It was the first moment he’d had for peace and contemplation since Merlin had left.

    His master had warned him that the final vigil – by tradition, only unmarried Knights stood vigils – would be the hardest of all. He hadn’t exaggerated; Robin’s meditations were constantly disturbed by thoughts of Tiffany, by the thought that once they were wed they could do anything they liked, without social censure. It was hardly unknown for noblewomen to indulge themselves outside marriage – although it was always a scandal – but Tiffany wasn't that kind of girl. They’d kissed, and held each other, yet they’d gone no further. It had left him feeling frustrated, and yet...he’d respected her decision. There were too many stories of what happened to Knights who lost their...innocence.

    The stories echoed through his head, a warning from the past. Sir Lancelot, once the greatest Knight of the Round Table, had fallen in love with the Queen. And she’d fallen in love with him. He’d been forced into rebellion, raised an army against his former master, and eventually lost the final battle. King Arthur had pardoned him, but Lancelot had never pardoned himself. He’d hung himself shortly after his defeat, according to some of the legends. There were darker legends, ones whispered about what had happened after Merlin returned to discover what had become of the First Golden Age. Lancelot hadn't just been killed, they whispered; he’d been condemned to hell.

    Some of the younger stories were darker, in their own way. Knights had been seduced by Faerie women, weakening to the point where they were stolen into Avalon and never seen again. Others had weakened themselves to the point where they became vulnerable to attacks from demons and darkest magic, or lost themselves in madness. The Knights of the Round Table liked to believe that they were incorruptible servants of the Iron Throne, but the truth was often darker. A handful of Knights had fallen to the darkness over the years.

    He breathed slowly, feeling his heartbeat slowing down until it barely echoed in his ears. Sleep was the great temptation, a threat that forced him to remain alert – or risk nodding off while conducting his vigil. No one would know, but him, yet failure would always burn away at him, weakening his confidence in himself. He touched Excalibur – the sword had refused to be left behind, whatever the tradition said – and felt the sword’s energy flowing into him, providing a measure of reassurance. Sir Robin still felt unworthy.

    There hadn't been time for a proper bachelor party – but then, he hadn't really wanted one. He’d attended two in the past, both for Knights who were on the verge of marriage, and both of them had been rancorous tavern crawls. One of the Knights, he suspected, had actually lost his virginity to a prostitute hours before he was due to be married. Certainly, something had happened to call the wedding off.

    It’s going to be fine, he told himself, firmly. He loved Tiffany and she loved him back. What more did they need? Tomorrow you will be a husband.

    He shifted, slightly, and refocused on the candle. The vigil would go on.

    The Summer Palace was a bare two miles from a medium-sized town that housed most of the Palace’s staff. Merlin had originally envisioned the Summer Palace as a place of quiet contemplation, but when the nobility had started holding their weddings in the building the staff requirements had shot upwards rapidly. They demanded fancy food, drinks and clothing, each requiring a massive staff. The town of Waterford had expanded to match.

    Maledict strode down the town’s main street, concealed behind a glamour that hid his warped features and glowing eyes from the patrolling soldiers. Someone was convinced that something was likely to go wrong at the wedding, his spies had told him; the Garrison had moved three maniples – three thousand men – into the vicinity. Or maybe it was just an attempt to convince the soldiers to remain loyal in Merlin’s absence. They hadn't bothered to set up wards around the town, let alone the network of smaller villages surrounding the Summer Palace. They had warded the Summer Palace itself – the original wards had collapsed when Merlin vanished – but it wouldn't be enough to match Merlin’s work. The larger the area needed to be covered, the less specific and powerful the wards. It wouldn't be hard for a single determined attack to break through and cut down the most important and powerful people in the Empire.

    There was no need for him to undertake the mission himself, but he’d been determined to go and none of his followers had dared object. Maledict had been...frustrated by the need to remain in hiding, even after Merlin was gone. He’d wanted to launch an immediate attack on the remains of the government, indulging his men and their sadistic tastes. Waiting, even for a greater goal, was hard. Besides, he wanted to amuse himself by walking right through the small army that had been gathered to protect the wedding. They had no idea that their greatest enemy was right in front of them.

    He strode towards a single building, concealing his smile under the glamour. A thousand artisans had taken up residence in Waterford, producing their finest creations for the wedding. Like most workshops, it was owned and almost completely operated by a family, with the younger children apprenticed to their elders. It reminded him of some of the arrangements within his home city, before he’d fled into the darkness and remade himself. The thought drove him onwards, angrily. Back home, lucky families had formed a cartel and cut out the unlucky families, leaving them to starve on the streets.

    The doorway was solid wood, but it couldn’t have stood up to a hedge witch, let alone a sorcerer. He looked up at the horseshoe mounted above the door and snorted, before using a simple charm to unlock the door and step inside. A pair of workers – one barely old enough to grow stubble – started as he entered, and then reached for the clubs they wore at their wrists. They couldn't have reacted in time to save themselves; Maledict snapped off a quick spell and they froze, helplessly. A second spell ensured that they would have no memory of his appearance, or their paralysis.

    Inside the building, he found the artwork, a set of beautifully carved wooden miniatures. A pair of serving girls were examining them, unaware of his arrival. He froze them before they saw him and started to reach into his bag, removing a handful of charmed objects. It took no more than a few minutes to replace some of the carved objects with the items he’d brought in his bag, followed by a simple charm that would ensure that neither of the girls saw anything odd about the wooden statues. They’d take them up to the Summer Palace, right through the wards, without suspecting that anything was wrong.

    Holding up one hand, he cast a final charm. It was a subtle piece of work, one he flattered himself was worthy of a fully-trained wizard – and backed with all the power of a sorcerer. No one would see anything wrong; the charm was so subtle that few magicians would even possess enough of the Sight to perceive its existence. It helped that it wasn't trying to compel anyone to do anything. It merely made it impossible for them to see the statues as they really were.

    Chuckling to himself, he walked back out of the building and shut the door behind him. The staff would return to normal without realising that anything had happened; after all, no one had been robbed, murdered or raped. His smile only grew wider as he walked past a pair of magicians and out towards the countryside. They never even sensed his presence.

    Soon, he promised himself. He could just make out the blur of light and magic surrounding the Summer Palace. The wedding itself was set for one hour before noon. It would never be completed. Soon you’ll see me as I really am...
    jasonl6 and STANGF150 like this.
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