Thorns

By Helen Fayle

 

My memory Metamorphosized

Standing in thorns and fire

"Bleeding Roses" Tito and Tarantula

 

Beltaine Eve, Gwynned

 

'Sssh, beloved.' Her grandmother leans over her mother's head, cradles it in her lap, kisses the crown. Her mother is weeping.

Her mother never weeps.

Lord Uthyr lies, unmoving, on the far side of the room, a crumpled, naked figure, no longer the powerful warlord. Not here. Not in her presence. Not in the presence of the Queen of Winter, come too late to save a daughter.

Not dead. Not yet. But only because she has his victim to comfort.

Warlord.

Rapist.

Viviane draws the covers of the bed over Ygraine's bruised body. Ygraine, Lady of Caer Tagel until tonight, clings to her mother; continues to cling to her, ever tighter, enough to hurt. Seeking shelter.

Too late: it had always been too late.

Viviane's hand strokes the auburn hair, her fingers drifting soothingly through the soft curls.

The child stands in the corner. The only sounds in the room are her breathing, as she tries desperately not to cry, and the pained grunts from Uthyr

rapist

and Ygraine's sobs, now harsh and strained.

And a footfall, light as air, heavy as time.

Cold, cold the heart that knows only betrayal and pain. As cold as the ice plains of Breceliande.

The Queen of Winter is the first to break the silence.

'Merlin.' The name is spat from her lips as a curse.

'Viviane. Lady – I swear to you –'

The Lady raises her head, looks him in the eyes. Blue looking into a shifting blue/green/grey. A young/old face topped with straggling red hair. A beak of a nose. She brushes her hair out of her face, ice blond strands falling through nerveless fingers.

'Swear what, Merlin? That this was none of your doing? That you did not encourage Uthyr to this act? To the murder of Gorlois?'

He looks sad, but resolute. 'To take what was destined, yes. But not like this…'

'Destiny!' She cradles Ygraine closer. 'This is your "destiny" Merlin. A reign started with murder, lies and rape. Is this the brave new world you offer?'

He makes as if to approach, a hand offered in conciliation, but she hisses at him, muttering a small incantation under her breath. He backs away as the air between them solidifies, keeps his distance from the barrier she has placed between them. His lined face takes on a sadder air, if such is possible.

The Lady of the Lake remains unmoved.

Colder. As befitted the ruler of Breceliande and its forests of ice.

'I never knew, until this night, what the nature of your hatred for me was, Lady.' His voice is softer. Almost, not quite, reminiscent of other times, other places.

Viviane stands, helping Ygraine, shaking, compliant, to her feet. Supporting her at her side.

Cold, colder, coldest: the Ice Queen now in truth.

'Hear me, Merlin.' She speaks to the other as well, the warlord

rapist

murderer

usurper

now standing unsteadily at his side, fair hair sweat dampened, lust sated.

'You will reap the consequences of this night, I swear. Breceliande will not stand to see one its own treated so. I will not stand to see one of my own treated so. Breceliande withdraws its support from Uthyr and the Alliance of Worlds for this.'

'Eachtar speaks for Breceliande, witch!' Uthyr spits.

Viviane turns her head, only slightly, and holds his gaze with her own.

Lifetimes pass in the depths of such gazes.

The warlord looks away first, and flushes.

Shame? Good.

'Eachtar speaks when I will it, Pendragon. Now be silent, your master is the one I address.' Her eyes meet the prophet's; meet, and hold. 'Use your pawns, Merlin. But know that I will oppose you from this night onwards. And there will come a day when you will be in my power. On that day, you will understand exactly what it is you set in motion this night, with this act.'

He does not back down. He would not. Could not. Their roles in this had been written long before any of them had even taken their first breaths.

'I will claim what is mine, Viviane.' His voice is as cold and clear as her own. She knows he speaks truly. For him, it is the past. A fate accomplished.

The Queen of Winter nods. Bows. Behind the Queen, the child sees the arrival of the other, the third part of the trinity, come at last. Taking her daughter Viviane steps backwards – to Merlin's sight and Uthyr's, into nothing: vanishes from Caer Tagel with a sigh, a breeze brushing past Merlin's cheek.

An icy chill, lancing, deep. Bone deep.

A promise…

It's only then that Merlin turns, and sees the little girl watching them from the doorway, her face pale and drawn under a cascade of red curls, green eyes staring at him – no, at Uthyr, in fear and loathing.

Only then does he realise the why.

 

Tomorrow. Sometime.

 

She's lying in a bed, in a room not too different from her cell. The same off-white plastered walls, cracked and worn even though the building isn't that old. (It had been new when they first brought her here.) But here, at least, there are sounds other than her guards walking up and down the corridor outside, or the ticking of a clock. Except that these new sounds are the steady drip of the fluids hanging in limp bags from the stand at her side, and the persistent periodic beeps from the machines that they use to monitor her failing body.

She hates this world, this place her final folly brought her to. There is no magic here; it is a world of cold science, of technology, not technomancy. Which is perhaps why it was so galling to fail; for the Legion of the Rose to finally be vanquished, after more than a thousand years, on a distant world, their queen a prisoner of a race that once she would have crushed underfoot without a thought.

They call themselves merciful allowing her, and her son, to live.

She would have found death preferable to the slow decay that now consumes her.

They'd permitted her son to visit, not long ago, for the first time in years. But she had turned away from him when he sat beside her, not wanting to look upon his face. And so he had left, with so much still unsaid. So unlike his father. Dark, where Arthur had been fair.

He had burned like starfire. Yet his son was as a blackened ember. Not even half the man his father had been. Mordred reminded her of her father: Gorlois of Caer Tagel. Gorlois, raven haired, dark skinned; who'd played with her and her sisters in front of the great hearth in the hall, letting them climb all over his back and pretend to pony-ride him across the srela-fur rugs.

'I don't know that I should let you in,' a woman's voice was saying. She turns her head, fighting the weakness that has spread bone-deep now through her body.

'Breaking down,' they whisper, when they think that she cannot overhear. The enchantments that kept her immortal for over a thousand years no longer work.

Because I don't want them to, she could have told them, had they asked. Had she cared. But they didn't, and she didn't, and so silence held sway.

'Just a few minutes,'

A man's voice. Young, soft, gentle. She recognises an echo of something familiar in the tones.

'Let him approach.' Her voice, so long unused, is a raven's harsh croak in her own ears.

'Five minutes, no more,' the nurse warns. She closes the door behind her, careful to leave a gap. Two inches, no more, no less.

A footfall: light as air, heavy as time.

The man sits in the chair at the side of the bed, and places a bundle of white and red roses at her side, within reach of her hands. Fresh cut, she can just faintly catch the scent of the flowers over the ever-present smell of antiseptic and the sickly sweet stench of decay it masks.

'Hello, Morgaine.'

'Merlin?' she asks, thinking she sees something familiar in his eyes: pale green, set in a face neither young nor old and framed by long red hair, that curls down to his shoulders, brushing the dark green cloth of a long coat.

'Not exactly,' he replies. She looks more closely, then, and sees the tell-tale signs in the eyes: the look of one given lifetimes worth of experience in the blink of an eye. A risky immortality, the cup of life held out by the vat-masters. One she's never dared - to empty oneself totally into a new vessel takes a kind of desperation she's never needed. Besides, all too often it leaves something behind, and even though her memories hold pain enough for a thousand lifetimes, she would never risk losing those memories she does cherish.

His hand reaches out, brushes hair off her face - grey now, not the red it had once been. She notices that his shadow, cast by the light from the window, is making finger-shadows on the wall. 'I came to say goodbye,' he says simply.

'To gloat,' she rasps. Her hand, withered, age-spotted, veins so denuded that the needles they put into her seem to stand out as much as her tendons, grasps the roses at her side, clenches into a fist.

She feels the pricking in her palm, as a thorn pierces her skin. But she's used to that, with their barbaric medical practices.

And she remembers…

Midwinter, Breceliande

 

A high pitched, long drawn out sobbing cry splits the still, frigid night air. A woman's voice. Followed by the wail of a new-born child. Morgaine hovers on raven wings from the safety of memory, watching the scene unfold. He moves towards the open window, into the antechamber beyond, careful to close the heavy window behind him. Finally, the time long awaited has arrived.

If he grieves for the path taken to reach this point, he never shows it.

Viviane meets him at the door to the bedchamber, an outstretched hand barring his passage. The other arm cradles a thickly wrapped bundle that squirms in her grasp. His fingers catch ice blond hair as he takes the child from her, and she pulls away, unwilling to make contact. One day, these two will be bound to a common purpose, but not today. Not today.

The child now in the mage's arms squirms and cries, searching for the warmth, comfort and food he cannot provide.

'A boy,' Viviane of Breceliande, Lady of the Ice Lakes, tells him.

'I know,' he whispers. 'And Ygraine –'

'Tell Uthyr, he can have the child. Ygraine wants no part of him. Or of his father.'

'She should be his queen.' Merlin says sadly. Viviane shakes her head.

'We should not be enemies, thee and I,' he says, softly. The look she gives him is cold, remote, yet strangely vulnerable. For a moment, it looks as though he will reach out to her. Almost. The moment passes.

'You have what you came for, Merlin. Your welcome in my kingdom is over.'

He nods sadly, and turns to leave.

She walks towards him, so proudly, stiff-backed, so small. Had she really been so small? A little girl, no more than six or seven years old. Red-haired, green eyed. She stands in the doorway, and stares at him, raw hatred in her eyes.

Not knowing what to say he settles for a simple 'Hello.'

She stares at the small bundle in his arms, then up at him.

'You're taking my brother away,' she says, accusingly.

'Yes.' Is all he says.

But then, this, too, was inevitable. Or so he claimed.

'I hate you!' she shouts. She runs to Viviane, and she strikes at the Queen of Winter with her small fists. 'I hate you too!' she sobs, and runs away, crying.

Merlin watches Viviane bow her head in pain, and she wonders what he felt. Did he consider offering a small comfort?

But no… what comfort could he offer? He already knows how this will end…

The baby and cries, and Merlin makes his way out of the Fortress of Ice with a heavy tread. Outside, a dragon awaits.

 

Tomorrow. Again.

 

'I hated you for so long,' she whispers. He nods. 'You think you understand?' she asks. The effort of talking makes her cough, and he offers her a glass of water, holding it to her lips for her to drink.

One time, she would have had him killed for his presumption, but now, she lets it pass. What does it matter, now?

'Most of it' he says, eventually. 'I couldn't forgive, though. Uthyr did not deserve the death you gave him, but I think I understand.'

'Do you?' There's more bitterness in her voice than she'd planned. With her free hand she reaches for, and takes hold of his. She closes long fingers over his, letting him feel her nails dig into his flesh. He doesn't make a sound. 'Let me show you…'

Convulsively, her other hand tightens around the roses, and she feels the soft touch of crushed petals graze her skin, and the sharp touch of the thorns piercing her thumb.

 

The Forest of Selladon, Breceliande, Midsummer.

 

She's unbound her hair, now that she's shaken off her chaperone for the afternoon. Alone in the woods, her horse tethered near the stream, she shakes out her waist length hair and dances, delighting in the feel of the sun on her skin, and in the way her hair catches the light and shines with its own, like a fire. And so caught up in the dance is she, that she doesn't see him perched high up in the tree until it is too late.

'Are you supposed to be here?'

She stops, startled, and looks around. Finally she sees the branch sway, as if under a great weight, and she looks up. And there he sits, as bold as brass, staring at her.

'Are you?' she asks, letting her hand drop to the blaster at her waist.

'Of course.' He swings down and drops, landing lightly on his feet in front of her. 'My father rules this land. I'm Arthur, son of Eachtar.' He bows. 'And you are the most beautiful woman I've ever set eyes on, my lady.'

He's younger than she is, but by how much she struggles to say. Not much more than a boy. And she feels herself too old and too worldly to fall prey to stripling flattery.

Although he is handsome, she admits.

'I am Morgaine, of Breceliande. My grandmother is your father's overlord.' She holds her head up proudly, expecting him to realise his presumption, but instead he laughs.

'Then we are kin - of a kind. My half-brother Kai would be your half brother!'

She remembers her mother mentioning it once. Her mother and the Lord of Summer had been lovers, long ago, and there had been a child. And not the last to be given up to the father… 'I'm here to visit,' she offers eventually, his good mood impossible to be unmoved by, despite the bitterness of memory. 'But I do not recall seeing you last night at dinner,' she continued. He takes her hand, and to her surprise, she lets him.

'I was travelling with my tutor, and I only returned this morning. I wanted some time to myself, which was why I came here.'

'To sit in trees?' she teases.

'You may laugh, my lady, but you see some wonderful sights whilst perched so high…' He laughs again. 'Come, let me show you.'

She wants to protest, to complain that she's too old to climb trees like a boy: she's a woman now, a squire, and soon to be a knight. Except...

…it's a beautiful day, and he shines like the sun, even under the canopy of the forest, his hair dappled by the light falling through the shading leaves…

He has to be younger than her, far too young for her to even notice, normally.

…but his smile is all for her, and Breceliande is such a cold place, even in the Summer Country. And her grandmother's home is the coldest of all, and she's been so lonely…

…granddaughter of the Lady of the Lake, she has it all.

And has nothing.

She climbs…

 

Tomorrow. Later.

 

It's a small magic, this thing she does, but even this is painful, now.

He has his eyes closed, and his youthful face bears an expression of pain, and sorrow. When he opens them again, she sees sympathy in those pale green depths.

'You're weak, this time, Merlin,' she tells him. He shrugs.

'That's a matter of opinion.'

She's not so close to her end that she cannot see what he tries to hide. Pain, fear, weariness. A catalogue of sorrow, loss and regret, writ large on his face as never before.

'What do you want? I grow weary,' she snaps, putting away the small pang of sympathy.

'Just to say goodbye, I suppose. Or maybe "hello".

She laughs again. 'Never a straight answer. Always riddles and portents. One day that will catch up with you, Merlin.'

'One day, perhaps.' He smiles. 'Not today, however.'

'No.'

The silence that follows is awkward, and she watches as he fiddles with a loose button on his coat. Watches, and waits. She has no need to worry about the silence. She's already a part of it.

He still fights it.

She sees it in his eyes.

She laughs, and he startles at the sound, which despite her best intentions still decays into a harsh croak.

'If not today,' she says, labouring now to get the precious air into her lungs, 'then when?'

He doesn't meet her eyes. A pity. She'd expected more of him, even now, so close to his beginning. Or is it his end?

Withered, age spotted, slack skinned hands clutch the stems of the flowers. Petals fall to the white linen sheets: soft velvet drops of blood. The thorns drive deeper into her palms, and she feels the warm, sluggish trickle of her own blood run down through a clenched fist, down the dark green stems, to fall alongside the rose petals.

Blood to blood.

 

Mount Badon, Spring, Seven years later.

 

It is the scents of battle she hates most: the sharp tang in the air of ozone, in the aftermath of the hellfire cannons barrages. Of the pulse rifles, casings heated almost to melting point. Of charred flesh, of the coppery scent of blood, the acidic odour of bile from belly wounds. The musty smells of urine, and shit, and mud.

The mud… everything came down to that at last. Red earth made redder by the blood of the fallen. Theirs and hers.

She dismounts on the crest of the hill, overlooking the devastation below. Farmland and meadow, this had been only this morning. Now a blasted wasteland, where nothing would grow for at least a generation. The sunset trickles across the landscape, pooling across the land casting a bloody glow across an already bloody scene.

The cybrorse at her side snorts, and paws the ground, already ploughed deep by the thunder of the cavalry charge earlier. She strokes its nose absently, enjoying the feel of the silky smooth artificial skin that covers its huge frame.

She hates the aftermath of battle, but she loves the melee. Already she misses the fight. But it is over, now. Her rose and hydra banner flies from the centre of the plain, with Arthur's red dragon standard beside it. The Rose and the Red Dragon Knights have fought side by side this day, and emerged victorious.

And Arthur… Arthur, by the time the sun has finally set, will be High King.

'A crown for your thoughts.'

His voice. His beloved hands on her shoulders, felt even through her armour. She turns, smiles, a radiant smile reserved for him. Only for him.

'They are not worth nearly so much.' She bows. 'My liege.'

His hands raise her. 'Not you. Never you, my love.' He kisses her, exuberantly despite the fatigue of battle. 'We should go. They are waiting for us.'

The sound of something torn asunder disturbs the ravens circling over the battlefield, and they wheel away en masse, taking refuge in the woods nearby. She half-recognises the sound, and with Arthur turns to see its source:

An image of great azure wings unfurling: an impression of vastness, older than the stars, deeper than the farthest reaches of Annwn. And a man steps away from the thing that folds back upon itself just enough to be present.

She knows him. He was older, then. Red haired, a beak of a nose, and wheeling above his head, two raven circle, as if adding to the ill omen of his arrival.

'Merlin - by all the gods you come too late!' Arthur runs forward, embraces his tutor. Morgaine stands back, her hand resting on the hilt of her powersword, fingering the delicate organic circuitry that forms the runes on its slick surface, ready to key the blade to life with a muttered word.

'I hope not, dear boy. I wouldn't miss your coronation, now would I?' His face is creased into a beaming smiles - until his eyes see Morgaine. He steps back, his face shuttered, wary, but not before she sees the look of sorrow that crosses it when he looks back at his former pupil.

'Oh Arthur…'

His sigh could have made a stone weep, yet it cannot touch the ice that is in her heart when she looks at him.

'Merlin? This is Morgaine, my second.' Arthur, unseeing of his tutor's sudden change of demeanour, tries to introduce them.

'We've met,' she says, coldly.

'Yes my dear, I rather think we have.' Merlin's voice is carefully neutral. 'Arthur, there is something we should discuss. In private,' he adds, with a pointed look at Morgaine.

'I have no secrets from her,' Arthur says, taking her hand. Filled with a sudden sense of unease, she pulls away.

'No my boy, perhaps not, except for the one you do not even know you keep.'

Arthur laughs. 'You speak in riddles, old friend. What could be so painful that you seek to break it so?'

Merlin looks at Morgaine, meets her eyes, and for a moment she feels as though he sees her soul. In that moment, she knows, and could curse the gift of sight that brings memory and foreknowledge together: here, now.

She remembers a midwinter night, so long ago.

The words he speaks to Arthur are lost to her, as she stands there, in the dying rays of the sun. She watches it seems from a great distance as he pronounces her doom. Watches as Arthur's eyes widen in shock, then horror, at what they have been, what they have done.

It doesn't matter she wants to scream. There's a sharp scent of bile, and it's her, her, on her knees in the mud. It doesn't matter. Except that it does. For a man who would be king. And he's at her side, one hand reaching out as if to help her stand, but pulled back at the last, still half-extended, afraid to touch, afraid to hurt by not touching.

The ice in her heart grows just a little bit more.

 

Tomorrow.

 

'You could have stopped him,' she says. He won't meet her eyes, just stares at the walls of this, her new, and last, prison. 'You knew, you must have known what he would do, yet you stood by and did nothing.'

'The path I walked, for all the legends you tried so long and so hard to destroy, is not linear, Morgaine.' He speaks softly, and finally raises his head to meet her accusing gaze. 'But once having seen, once knowing the path that will be I cannot turn it aside. No-one can.' He stares past her, to where his shadow plays upon the wall. 'It's part of the price I paid long ago.'

She lies still, wanting to lever herself up and face him, but her body, so long past its time, will not obey. 'We all paid the price for your choices, Merlin. In blood, in pain, and sorrow. Did you never, in any of your lives, understand that?'

He doesn't answer, for the longest time. Then: 'I'm sorry.' He's staring at her hand, but makes no move towards her. He simply makes an impotent gesture with one hand.

'That must hurt.'

'No more than do the memories I bear. Twelve hundred years of them, yet the oldest are still the most painful.' She clutches the stems harder.

'Immortality,' he says, 'is never easy. Even after a thousand years.' She thinks for one moment that he means to say more, but he doesn't.

Although weak, she manages to raise her bloodied hand, the roses still held tight. She sneers. 'Nothing but empty words. Is that all there is left of you? Perhaps my bards performed their task better than I thought.' The hand falls back to the bed, to lie on warm blood and soft petals and cold linen. 'It took me a thousand years to erase your legend, your very memory from the histories, from the consciousness of my people. And yet you still survive to haunt me.' Another racking cough, that leaves her exhausted. The nurse puts her head around the door, but she waves the woman off impatiently. 'Although you are even more hollow than I, Stormcrow.'

This, at least, stings him. She sees the sudden hurt in his eyes.

'And what defines you, Morgaine? - The Deathless, finally dying. Empress of a thousand worlds laid low on the least of them. The Rose of Hell, fading on the vine?' he snaps. She sees the regret writ deep on that hawk-faced countenance she'd learned to hate so long ago, the moment he finishes speaking, yet cannot resist setting one last barb.

'Hatred. Anger. Revenge,' she tells him.

And lies in the telling.

 

Samhain Eve, Caer Tagel. Fifteen Years later.

 

A cold wind blows tonight, through the corridors of the castle. The tall woman in the grey armour strides towards the council chamber and pulls her verrin lined cloak tightly around her, a vain attempt to keep out the chill.

She should not be here, not so soon from the healerie, and she has much to do. But summoned, she came. She dared not do otherwise.

Her King awaits.

He sits alone in the chamber, in the seat closest to the hearth, yet otherwise no different from the others that surround the massive girth of the table that all but fills this great hall. Unbidden, she lays her hand upon the smooth surface of the round table, feeling the pulse of the World Tree

Yggdrasil… heart of the world…

whose mighty bough this is.

At least, she had thought he was alone. There was another in the room.

Her.

Guenevere. It takes an effort to smooth her features into a semblance of a smile, from the snarl that is her first response. For his sake, she does it.

'My liege.' She takes refuge in formality. Bows, still somewhat awkwardly. He knows of her wounds and so assays a rueful look of understanding before accepting her homage.

Yet only a few days before he had knelt to her

'Commander.'

In the firelight, his golden hair seems made of flame.

'You summoned me away at a busy time, Arthur. May I ask why?'

His face is troubled. She knows him well enough by now to know this. Troubled -and something else.

Guilt?

She turns on instinct then to look at the woman who became queen in her place: the woman placed at his side by that stormcrow Merlin.

My place, if not for that meddling fool. Why did he tell him? Why? We were not raised as brother and sister, and the father…

…the father is only half.

Guenevere's normally placid face holds a smile of triumph now, and for the first time in many years, Morgaine feels a sense of foreboding.

'I need your troops, 'Gana,' Arthur's voice almost breaks as his speaks.

What has he done?

She schools her own voice to calm, letting nothing slip. Perhaps later, tonight, he will come to her chambers. Perhaps then she can tell him what she has kept secret these past years. The boy will be of an age to come to court as a page next year.

Past time.

'I am always yours to command, Arthur. The Legion of the Rose stands ready, as ever.'

He nods, turning his face away again, to stare deeply into the flames. 'Your - our grandmother persists in creating trouble for me. Now she seeks to turn the mage-lords of Lyonce to her cause.'

She nods. It is a battle she doesn't wish for, but has sensed would come, one day. But something underlies his words: Truth, but not the whole of it…

and she sees in his eyes he knows she isn't fooled. He takes a deep breath.

'And…there will be… trouble… when this day's work is made public.' He won't look at her, and the sense of wrong becomes almost overwhelming.

'What have you done?' The words are out before she thinks. To the side, she hears Guenevere's hiss of disapproval. Well let the pale placid whore vent her spleen if she must. She cares not.

'The prophecy… Merlin told me…'

'Arthur - tell me!' She does not raise her voice, but the imperative is there. For once, however, he resists.

It is the whore who speaks.

'The children, Morgaine.'

She turns her attention to the younger woman, seeing now the petty spite that lay hidden behind the vapid mask. Oh, she's misjudged this one, and badly.

She has a hold over him now, Morgaine knows. But what?

'Arthur's bastards. Rounded up this morning, and put to the sword.'

Morgaine stares at her, unbelieving. 'All of them?' She turns to Arthur, daring him to tell her this is some sick joke.

It has to be… My son…

Safe, has to be safe. She couldn't know.

Safe, with Morgause on Orcadia. No-one to know, but the two of them. Safer for all, Morgause had said, and what life for a child with a warrior for mother? Or for a sister-son and potential heir (and pray she did not guess the truth; Morgause has never been slow, and some things she would not hide, even for her own sister…)

'All.' Arthur replies.

Bile rises in her thoat. He could not, surely? Little Aidan, almost ten. Branwen, almost a woman grown. Ygerna, Uthas, Celyn, Mael.

She'd never begrudged him the comfort of other women, or the children they'd borne him.

Her eyes turn again to the queen. But she could. Her, and that vile meddler.

Colder, colder than ice her heart in that moment.

No hope now. For her son.

Gareth, Morgause had named him for her: "Beloved".

Her son. Arthur's son. Her brother's son.

The son this woman, with her womb more barren than the icelands of Breceliande, could never give him.

She has the gift, at times, of foreknowledge. She knows the why, sees his desperate attempt to pervert the course of his fate, and knows in that moment that all he has done is fixed his path in stone. Sees her behind him in this, and behind her the man who has heralded all that is painful in her life, or so it seems.

Guenevere. Merlin. There is hate in her heart for them both, but not for her golden warrior and king. Never for him.

She turns and walks out of the chamber without a backward glance, ignoring Arthur's calls for her to return.

Eventually, there will be war.

 

Tomorrow, much later.

 

He's gone, at last. The nurse bustles in, clicks her tongue in horror at the blood on the sheets, and pries the roses from her hand. She hears the woman mutter something about "putting them in water", but ignores it. For now, the past is more immediate than the present.

She's outlived them all: everyone she knew, loved, hated, long dead. Except for him. She finds it ironic that having started her feet along the path she took, he was the only one there at its ending.

Except for Mordred. And not even he has remained at my side. She brushes aside the small voice inside that tells her "you sent him away…"

A bitter sorrow, that she did all that she did for her son, who could never be all that she'd hoped. Gareth. Mordred. The once hated nickname he now bore with a pride that had been a thorn in her heart since the betrayal that had earned it.

"Ill counsel," in the old tongue.

She turns her head to stare at the small pile of cut flowers on the dressing table by her bed: dead, yet still with the illusion of life clinging to them. She wonders if the symbolism is for her or for Merlin.

She feels pain in her hand, and raises it slowly, staring at the bloody pinpricks. A thin trickle of blood traces the crease of her lifeline: thus far, and no further.

Yet even dead roses have thorns…

Her hand falls limply to lie palm upwards on the petal-strewn cover.

After that, there is silence, broken only by the sound of a falling petal.

 

~~~

(c) 2001 Helen S. Fayle. First published in a slightly different version in "Walking in Eternity" edited by Julian Eales.

 

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