“Repeat after me, Henry,” Emrys spoke, his voice echoing through the forest. “If magick must be wielded-”
“It will be not my hand that harms,” the boy replied, a bright smile on his face as he placed his hand on his chest. Emrys gave him an approving smile before continuing with the ritual. His words drifted across the pine-filled clearing, joined by Henry’s as they echoed out for all to hear.
“If one must be lost-”
“It will be my honour for yours.”
“If one must be forsaken-”
“It will be my soul for yours.”
“Should death come to one-”
“It will be my life for yours. I am given.”
The druid nodded at him as his expression grew serious. Emrys raised his arm in the air, his fingers trailing across the edged of the circle and sensing the energy. With confidence, he called out to the boy within.
“Ground yourself, Henry.”
He did. The others watched as Henry closed his eyes, tightly grasping the crystal in his hands. His breathing slowed. A breeze passed through the circle, picking up the fallen leaves and making them scatter around his small form.
For a moment, nothing happened.
Until nature answered.
“How do you feel?” Emrys asked, looking down on the boy with a proud smile on his face as he undid the circle.
“Great!” Henry beamed back at him. “My arms are all tingly! And my legs, too! Did the skulls glow? They did, didn’t they?!”
“They sure did,” Emrys smiled.
“I knew it! So can I start practicing magic now? For real? Without hurting anyone?”
“Yes, Henry. You won’t harm anybody.”
“Yes!” The boy cheered. “I’m going to make things fly with spirit magick, just like you! You’ll see!”
“Easy there, sprout,” Emrys smiled, ruffling the boy’s hair as the group of druids around them chuckled. “That’s still a little advanced for you. Let’s start with the basics.”
“Like spirit magick?!”
“Like thanking the Goddess that you have magick,” Emrys said, gently correcting him. “Gratitude is important, Henry. And you’ll need to learn proper control first. If you want, we can cast a new circle, and-”
“Aw man, another ritual?” the boy pouted. “I just did one! Ritual spells are boring! I wanna cast big spells and make things fly, like you do!”
The druid raised a single eyebrow in amusement at his words.
“Now, now. I don’t make things fly-”
“You so do! You did before- you made that bandit fly! I remember that! I want to learn to do that, too, and change the direction of the wind, and heal wounds – oh! And turn into a grizzly bear just like-”
His enthusiastic rambling drew another round of chuckles from the crowd. Emrys shook his head at the boy, an amused smile playing on his lips. Henry’s eagerness betrayed his youth. It was the exact opposite of how a responsible druid was supposed to act. But Emrys couldn’t blame him for it. Henry was just a child, after all. Patience, as well as wisdom, would only come with age and experience. It would be a long time before Henry could be trusted to cast on his own. If it were up to his parents, he wouldn’t have gone through the ceremony at all at this age.
But Emrys knew better. He knew that not being allowed to do something just made it all the more tempting to do it. As a child, he had been the exact same way – and so had Morgana. The two of them had snuck out into the woods time and time again, to test out the contents of what he had managed to sneakily read in his grandmother’s tome.
Neither of them had known what they were doing. Morgana hadn’t even learned the basics of casting. Their behaviour had been beyond reckless. Any number of disasters could have happened. In hindsight, it was a miracle that their haphazard casting hadn’t ended up in them getting seriously hurt – or hurting someone else.
But Henry would not face that risk. Not while Emrys had anything to say about it. He had pushed for the boy to undergo the druidic ceremony because this way, he would be safe. Becoming a druid ensured that Henry could learn and grow without the risk of harming anyone. It would allow Emrys and the others to guide him on his path, gently, without risk to themselves.
Becoming a druid protected Henry from the world… but also protected the world from him.
As Emrys trailed away from the others, lost in thought, the sight of a familiar figure pulled him out of his musings. Muiri was standing on the other side of the clearing. She hadn’t joined the ceremony. That was very unusual for her. Emrys quickly thought back – the druidess had been aloof and absent-minded all day, barely interacting with the rest of his people. She hadn’t said more than a few words since the previous evening. Emrys could feel a sinking feeling in his stomach as he realised.
He’d seen her act like that before.
Worry took over. Emrys left the rest of the group behind, quickly making his way across the clearing. She didn’t notice him approach. His eyes narrowed as he saw Muiri staring down at her hands, her body completely frozen and her eyes cloudy and unfocused.
That wasn’t good.
Softly, the druid called out to her.
She blinked. Muiri slowly turn her head towards him, a vague sense of recognition reflecting in her expression.
“What are you doing? Are you all right?”
“I… it’s nothing,” she muttered. “I was just… lost in thought for a moment.”
He took a step towards her and placed his hands on Muiri’s shoulders.
“It doesn’t look like nothing. Are you sure you’re all right?” Emrys pressed, concern seeping through his voice. For a split second, Muiri’s faces was clouded by an annoyed expression.
“Yes. I’m not going to collapse every time you take your eyes off me, Emrys.”
Her words were a little harsher than normal. That wasn’t like her, either. Emrys raised a single eyebrow as he let go of Muiri, taking a step back.
“I didn’t mean anything by it. I was just worried. The last time you acted like that-”
“I know. I’m sorry,” the druidess sighed. “I’m all right, okay? Really.”
“Have you had any visions lately?”
“No. I haven’t.”
Emrys didn’t believe her. Not for a second. But he knew that he couldn’t push her for answers – If he did, Muiri would just pull away and refuse to talk to him. It had happened before. The druid frowned, pushing his sense of unease down for her sake.
“I… see. If you did, you would tell me, right?”
She didn’t answer. Her eyes clouded over again, and Emrys knew that the conversation was over. The druid let out a sigh.
“Very well. Just… make sure to join us for dinner later, all right? You haven’t eaten anything all day.”
“I will,” she nodded. It wasn’t very convincing. But Emrys knew that he couldn’t press her there, either. Every once in a while, Muiri would simply become like that, turning completely antisocial and withdrawing into her shell. The druid had tried to pry answers out of her in the past, but without success. If anything, his insistence had just made it worse. He didn’t have choice – Emrys knew that he had to wait it out.
She would come to him eventually.
She always did.
The silence of the town hospital was deafening. Elyan had moved over to the side of the bed, having woken up with his leg dangling over the edge of his mattress. He had spent the last three minutes silently staring down at it. Glaring at his limb. Willing it to do something.
Eventually, the dark-haired noble placed his hands on his leg, wrapping his fingers around the exposed skin. He frowned.
But his leg wouldn’t respond. It wouldn’t lift, no matter how hard he tried.
It wouldn’t move.
From his waist down, Elyan felt nothing. A strange, distant numbness, drowning out all sense of familiarity in what had once been his legs. Like someone had removed his limbs overnight and replaced them with a pale, hollow imitation.
An imitation that couldn’t move.
“I’m sorry, Elyan. You’ll never walk again.”
Elyan let out a sigh. He leaned back against the bedpost, leaving his numb, useless limb hanging over the edge. Gaius’s words echoed in his mind, plaguing his thoughts and refusing to leave his head.
You’ll never walk again.
Elyan couldn’t take it. He tried to think of something else – anything else. Anything to distract him from the future that he saw lying ahead. The dark-haired noble quickly found his mind pulled in a different direction. His head turned towards the other side of the hospital room. The Crown Prince of Mercia was being treated just opposite of him. They couldn’t see each other – but he could hear him. In a soft voice, Elyan called out.
“Bayard? Are you awake?”
It didn’t take long for a reaction to come. Elyan could hear his rival’s voice drift over from the other bed.
“How are you feeling?”
“Like your torturer had a little too much fun bending my limbs on the rack,” Bayard replied wryly. “I didn’t even know that I could be this sore.”
“Can you move?”
“Nothing is broken,” he responded. “Gaius checked every bone in my body to make sure. Everything is severely bruised and will be sore for weeks, but I’ll heal… apparently. Bloody twisted sorcery,” the Crown Prince of Mercia added, growling between his teeth.
Elyan leaned back, somewhat relieved. Bayard sounded strong. Recovered. He would probably be back to normal in a few weeks. It was more than the dark-haired noble could say for himself. Elyan’s thoughts trailed back to the tournament, the memories of that day flashing before his eyes before he could push them down.
That thing… it wasn’t him.
Bayard never would have done that. It had been something else. Something dark.
Even now, the memory of it made his stomach turn.
The dark-haired noble struggled with himself. He wasted a few moments by pulling his leg onto the matress, before finally bracing himself and voicing his thoughts out loud.
“…How… how much do you remember?”
The heavy, sullen silence that followed made a strange, unpleasant knot form in his stomach. Elyan hadn’t expected an actual answer. But the complete lack of response from Bayard said enough. It hurt more than he thought it would, too. The dark-haired noble could feel that sinking feeling in his stomach getting worse. He had overstepped. Elyan was halfway through forming an apology, trying to think of better words, when Bayard’s voice suddenly rang out from the other side of the room.
“All of it.”
“I remember all of it. I remember that thing getting me in the woods. It took control of me. I couldn’t do anything to stop it. I remember my entire body going cold, like someone had grabbed me and tossed me into a lake full of ice water. And I couldn’t get back to the surface.”
“Did you know what was happening?” Elyan asked.
“I did. I could feel it moving my limbs around, like I was a bloody puppet on a string. I couldn’t control any of it. But I could see. I could feel what it did. All of my senses still worked. I couldn’t shut those out no matter how hard I tried. I saw myself going after your Princess during the tournament. I heard the screams. I felt Arthur and his men stabbing me.”
“I felt… all of it.”
“I can live with it,” Bayard continued, his voice abruptly going back to a brusque tone. “I’ve lived with war. I’ve had all kinds of injuries. I’ve hurt and killed people in the past. Everything that you can expect from a battlefield. I can live with all of it.”
The Crown prince of Mercia fell silent. His breathing changed. When Bayard spoke again, his voice was so soft that it was almost inaudible.
“I… don’t know if I can live with what I did to you.”
“Bayard… that wasn’t you,” Elyan muttered. “That’s not… you didn’t do any of that. It’s not your fault that I… that I can’t…”
The Lady of the Lake sighed, looking out over the trail of destruction that her encounter with Ceb had left behind.
“For Goddess’s sake.”
A barrage of ice spikes trailed through her sanctuary, embedded in the ground and piercing the sides of her barrier. Her flowers had been trampled. Glowing mushrooms were torn to shreds. The water surrounding her wellspring had darkened significantly. it was a complete mess.
Nimueh could have dealt with all of that –
But she could not remove the gigantic boulders that Ceb had hurled at her. It was impossible. Stone and earth was so far out of her domain that the Lady of the Lake had no control over it. She couldn’t move them. Nimueh rubbed the top of her nose, her frustration increasing tenfold as her fingers touched the still-healing wound on her face.
The least he could have done was clean up after himself, she thought, annoyed. Now I’ll have to waste my dragon form on manual labour. Or ask a witch coven to move it back for me. Again.
Asking meant that she’d owe them another favour. Nimueh despised owing favours to humans more than anything. The Lady of the Lake let out another sigh, trying to decide if avoiding the humiliation of having to ask for help was worth losing her sanctuary over.
She did not get to deliberate for long.
A sudden burst of magick reverbarated through her lair, making the entire sanctuary vibrate. The heavy sensation that followed was similar to that of a gigantic gong being struck. The noise was immediately unbearable. Nimueh covered her ears, crying out as a second burst of magick battered the outside of her barrier.
She knew exactly what the sudden barrage meant. Someone univited was trying to come in. And instead of knocking politely, they’d resorted to assaulting the edge of her barrier with the magical equivalent of a battering ram.
No. Ceb would just break through and come in. And she wouldn’t touch my barrier if her life depended on it.
As Nimueh pondered who it could be, her ears ringing from the magical assault, the Lady of the Lake suddenly realised that she didn’t care which one of the dragons it was. She had reached her limit. The next Fae to show its face would pay dearly for disturbing her. The air around her rapidly grew colder as new ice crystals began to form between her clawed fingers.
The Lady of the Lake slowly exhaled… and opened the barrier.
Almost immediately, the faerie ring at the edge of her lair activated. Nimueh could see the water rising up, swirling around itself in waves as someone forced their way through the passage.
They were about to dearly regret that decision. Nimueh would make sure of it. The Lady of the Lake aimed her barrage of ice shards directly at the faerie ring, a growl escaping from her lips as her anger continued to swell.
She didn’t care which Fae it was. Barging into her lair uninvited was the last thing they’d ever do.
A shape began to materialise inside the faerie ring. Nimueh didn’t give herself time to look – with another growl, the water dragon released a volley of spikes. They soared across the sanctuary, aimed directly at the Fae that was materialising within the portal-
But it wasn’t a Fae.
At the last second, the human in front of her released a burst of magick from her body. A strong gust of wind slammed into the volley of ice spikes. It was not enough to stop them, but just enough to make a few of them change direction, ever so slightly. It was barely more than a few inches.
But it kept Morgause from dying on the spot.
The witch staggered, falling backwards as Nimueh’s spikes violently pierced the wall behind her. Two of them had torn right through her trousers and a third had barely missed her face, leaving a deep gash in her cheek that instantly started to bleed.
Nimueh took a step forward, her shoulders relaxing at the same time that an annoyed expression crossed her face.
“…oh. It’s you.”
Of course it was a human. She should have guessed. Nimueh let out an indignant huff as the witch stepped forward, leaving the barrage of ice shards behind. She narrowed her eyes at Morgause.
“Do you know what a closed barrier means, mortal? It means I don’t want guests.”
With the Fae, that warning alone would have been enough to send them apologizing on their knees. Then again, except for Ceb and Lincoln, most Fae would not dare come to her uninvited. It was universally despised among them as having atrocious manners. Her threats never seemed to have the same effect on humans, though. Not until she added deeds to her words and froze them in a block of ice.
This time was no different. Morgause barely responded to her words – if anything, her comment seemed to agitate the human even more. Nimueh watched as Morgause opened her mouth, a glimmer of anger flashing in her eyes.
“It don’t give a damn about what you-”
Then, her expression suddenly changed. Her words trailed off, falling silent as the human finally took in the trail of destruction around her. The giant slabs of stone laying haphazardly strewn around the sanctuary. The wicked ice spikes littering the grounds of her lair. Morgause’s gaze trailed from the giant rock next to the wellspring back to the Lady of the Lake, lingering on Nimueh’s cheek and lips.
“…what happened to your face?”
“A disagreement with an old friend,” Nimueh responded, anger flaring up at the human’s blatant display of discourtesy. Morgause raised a single eyebrow.
“You have a twisted way of treating your friends.”
“So it seems. Do you have a purpose for being here, or did barge in just so you could insult my relationships?”
That finally seemed to reach her. Morgause blinked, regaining focus. Nimueh fully expected the next words to come out of her mouth to be a heartfelt apology – but the lack of manners that humans displayed never ceased to surprise her.
“Lincoln. He went to you weeks ago and never returned.”
“So?” Nimueh shrugged. “You seem to be good at misplacing people.”
“I didn’t misplace anything,” Morgause growled in response. “He went to you. He never returned. Give him back.”
“I don’t have him.”
“What do you mean, you don’t have him?!”
Nimueh broke eye contact with Morgause, her gaze trailing off towards the wellspring.
“I chucked him into Avalon.”
“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” Nimueh huffed. “I forgot that you mortals have trouble coming back out again and-”
She never got to finish her sentence. The Lady of the Lake watched in shock, then unbridled annoyance as Morgause dashed past her, jumping over the stones and boulders in her way.
But the human didn’t listen. She jumped head-first into the wellspring, her body immediately vanishing beneath the water surface. Not a single ripple was made. Within moments, Morgause had vanished. As if the witch had never been there in the first place.
The Lady of the Lake couldn’t help it. She facepalmed, letting out the third frustrated sigh of the evening.
She was so incredibly fed up with humans.
“Oh, for Goddess’s sake.”