Chapter 1: Lay of the Land
Arthur balanced his quill on the back of his forefinger as he slouched in his chair at the table, thoroughly bored.
"An inappropriate use of your writing instrument, young lord," Geoffrey murmured from the other end of the single massive bookshelf, the one reason why the extra room off the old man's house was given the name library. Arthur glanced up to catch a remonstrative glance over his old tutor's shoulder. "Seeing as your assignment is not yet half complete."
"Perhaps if the assignment were not so dull," Arthur muttered rebelliously.
Geoffrey took a moment to locate the volume he sought, then made his way back to the table. "If you expect the correspondence and written law-work of a king or a lord to be as captivating as a bard's tale or a singer's lay or even –" he tucked his chin to give Arthur another reproachful look – "a swordsman's duel, you will live a disappointed life, I'm afraid."
"Perhaps the fighting will go on," Arthur suggested. "Perhaps I'll be a warlord like my father, rather than a prince or king."
"All gods forbid," Geoffrey said, horrified. "That would mean your father's failure, you realize. He fights so that you will not have to."
"And I train because…" Arthur goaded the old man.
"You train so that you may defend yourself," the old man countered. "You plan for the worst, and hope for the best."
"In that case –" Arthur pointed his quill triumphantly at the tutor – "my time is better spent on the training field, isn't it?"
"Hm," Geoffrey said. "Especially on the first fine morning of spring."
"Exactly!" Arthur agreed, grinning.
"Arthur…" Geoffrey shook his head. "Someday you will learn that much of being a man – a lord, a leader of men – is putting aside your own desires to accomplish what is best for the people under your care. For me, that means setting aside my research to force the profits of my education into a certain thick-skulled young man."
"Hey!" Arthur protested. "My father promised you'd get a house-sized chamber for a library when he builds a citadel for the capital of Camelot's territory."
"Even so," Geoffrey nodded. "Sometimes there are rewards for setting aside your own desires to fulfill a duty. For you, for now, it means applying yourself with patience to an alternate form of combat that kings employ – that of the written word. The pen is –"
"Mightier than the sword, I know."
"We all know which one you'd prefer, Arthur," Geoffrey said. "And it is a good thing for a king – or a lord - to have a reputation as an able warrior. But a king who despises the power of language is one who is vulnerable to exploitation by those better versed than he. Now, once again, if you please, from the top paragraph."
"It's not even current," Arthur complained. "A treaty proposal from one dead man to another – boring, Geoffrey."
"Boring is inconsequential, young lord," the librarian observed. "It is necessary."
Arthur grumbled, but began reading at the paragraph his tutor indicated. He hadn't muttered his way through two of the endless elaborate sentences before the door creaked open and Morgana stuck her head around the corner.
Her long black hair in a braid over her shoulder, she gave Arthur a bright smile with more than a little amusement in it – she knew how much he disliked this aspect of his education. Up until last year, when their father had decided more education was not befitting a lady of her status, she had been his classmate. But he was too relieved by her interruption to take much offense at her gloating.
"Ah, Lady Morgana," Geoffrey greeted her. Of the two of them, of course the girl was the prize pupil, Arthur groused to himself. "Welcome home! When did you get back?"
"Not yet an hour ago, Geoffrey," Morgana answered. She seemed excited, but didn't venture further into the library. "We were still in the courtyard when a watchman called that a courier had been sighted, approaching from the northeast at a gallop." Her green eyes met Arthur's as he straightened in his seat. They both knew what that meant.
Geoffrey did not share their anticipation. "Hm," he said. "And I suppose you volunteered to fetch Arthur to the council chamber, my lady?"
Morgana put on an innocent expression that somehow conveyed respect for the aging tutor and a lack of it for Arthur at once. "If it's quite convenient."
"He has not requested my presence?" Geoffrey asked. At a shake of Morgana's head, he mused, "Well, His Lordship still has the maps I copied last week. Let him know I will come if he needs me. Yes, Arthur, you may go."
Arthur bolted from his chair, ignoring the spilled inkwell and the tipped candle. Once out into the sunlight, he set a pace that had his younger half-sister skipping to keep up with. He smiled to himself; if she'd grown an inch over the winter since they'd seen each other last, he'd grown at least three. Finally he was taller – and now, at just seventeen, likely to remain so.
"Just got back this morning?" he said to her. "I'm surprised Father let you return. There's been no talk but that of war for half a dozen weeks, now."
"Oh, there's always talk of war," Morgana gave him a wide smile. "I'm surprised you're still wielding a quill in Geoffrey's back hall instead of a sword in Father's front lines."
He bumped her with his shoulder as they hurried down the busy street, and she yelped and scrambled to keep her divided riding skirt clear of the mud of the puddles. Paving the streets of the lower town with cobblestones was quite low on Uther Pendragon's list of Things To Do When I Am King Of Camelot, but it was there. Right behind, stock a library for Lord Geoffrey of Monmouth.
To show he was sorry, that he had matured – a little – he said to her solicitously, "And how is your family? Your mother, your sister?"
Morgana shot him a venomous look, returning to his side. "My mother is fine," she said stiffly.
"Didn't come with you?"
"She prefers the south-western climate year-round," Morgana said smoothly.
Arthur rolled his eyes. "You mean, she prefers keeping her distance from Uther Pendragon," he said.
Morgana made a sour noise. "After Gorlois was killed in battle, Mother thought attracting the attention of a widower war-lord would mean a second marriage –"
"And, in Uther's case, a throne, and a crown," Arthur interjected.
Morgana ignored him. "Not another daughter, and this one out of wedlock." This fact didn't concern either of them; if Uther reached his goal of conquering the lands of Camelot, claimed the crown, and managed to keep it, that would make Morgana the most sought-after bride in the kingdom, illegitimate heritage or not. Of course, if Arthur really wanted the sharp side of his half-sister's tongue, all he had to do was say the word "bride." It was not dissimilar to his own reaction to the question of marriage, actually – but he probably had twice as many more years to delay answering that question as she did.
"And your sister?" he asked. It had been many years since he'd been in company with Morgause. The older blonde girl had Morgana's snap and fire, but with the additional volatility of magic, a topic that made the pragmatic Uther highly uncomfortable. If he couldn't see it, he couldn't understand it, he couldn't control it. And the gods knew, Uther Pendragon hated anything he couldn't control.
"I didn't get to see her this time," Morgana said, regret in her voice. "She's reached the highest levels in her studies, and couldn't take the time to come home." Studies in magic, they both knew, and neither would say. The forbidden "m" word they had giggled over in deserted corridors when they were children was a serious consideration on the cusp of adulthood.
"You wish you could go, too?" Arthur said, surprising even himself. Morgana had never shown much interest in the subject – though how much of that was due to lack of natural talent and how much to the dampening effect of their father's prejudices, he didn't know.
She shrugged, tossing her head. "Let him try to marry me off to one of these boorish middle-aged lords and then see how fast I ride for the priestesses' isle," she said.
He laughed, and it seemed to him the first such exercise his lungs had felt in months. Laughter was not encouraged in their father's presence, and the joking he participated in with the other young men in training was the sort to elicit smirks and sly snickering at the expense of the aging instructors or the younger squires, not whole-hearted laughter.
"Glad you're back," he told his sister, bumping her again, only not so hard. They came into view of the fort, up the hill from the lower town. Their home in Camelot was dug several levels into the hillside, the visible structure built of rough dark granite blocks, heavy and temporary, as their father was fond of reminding everyone. Easily defensible, which was necessary until Uther Pendragon's power and position were confirmed, but not the sort of soaring, breathtaking citadel Arthur's father had in mind. Towers visible for miles… sometimes Arthur could look up and see it in his mind's eye, and sometimes he thought they'd be crouching in the dim, damp fort for the rest of his life.
"Just in time for the excitement," she agreed, her green eyes gleaming as she took off running over the drawbridge, through the grassy courtyard around which the fort's various buildings were centered. Arthur gave in to her unspoken challenge, and they bottle-necked at the door to the council chamber, each shoving the other to get ahead, crossing the antechamber giggling and breathless – and coming to a sliding halt under the disapproving eye of their warlord father, himself.
"Morgana. This is no place for a lady. I'm sure, even after six months' absence, that you recall the way to the women's quarters." Uther's tone brooked no argument, though Arthur knew his half-sister well enough to see that she was literally biting her tongue as she made her curtsy and left the council chamber.
Now the sole recipient of his father's gaze, Arthur drew himself up, attempting to appear the model prince his father required, even though it was far too late. Uther jerked his head wordlessly, and he followed into the chamber, taking his place at the side of the table by the foot - since the warlord had not seated himself, none of the others present had, either.
"He couldn't have chosen a worse time," Uther said, obviously continuing a line of thought that Arthur and Morgana's noisy entrance had interrupted. He bent over the map spread at the head of the table. "Rodor I trust to keep to the terms of our agreement. He is an honorable man, and after his wife's death wants nothing more than to be left alone to rule his kingdom in peace. But Olaf and Odin are both treacherous and ambitious. Godwyn and Tristan have all they can do, each with a full quarter of our troops, to keep our borders free and peaceful."
"It is unfortunate timing, my lord, I grant you that," Agravaine acceded. "But I do not believe it is more than unfortunate. Vortigern is not an intelligent man, for all that he is the last obstacle to your conquest of Camelot. We have never caught a single one of his spies for the simple reason that he does not send any out – I don't believe he is aware of the state of the rest of Camelot."
Uther made a thoughtful noise, straightening as he stared down at the map. "Vortigern has the brains of a war-axe," he said. "But he has also the weight of one and the threat of its sharp edge. His men gather in numbers almost equal to half my own, and we have all heard the rumors of his attempted alliances with Saxon invaders that have landed far to the north at the coast."
Agravaine pursed his lips skeptically. "No one has ever substantiated those rumors, my lord," he said. "Vortigern is a lot of noise and wind – a general of questionable skill who cannot and will not hold out against Camelot's most able warlord." He gave Uther an obsequious half-bow that the older man ignored.
"He's rather more than that," Uther said.
At that moment there was a flurry of movement at the door of the chamber, and the courier entered.
Sir Leon, a knight now almost two full years. Arthur still found that he looked up to him, in spirit if not in stature, as he had since his own training began years ago. Older and more skillful, Leon had nevertheless had the patience and compassion to encourage his lord's son, and had taken Arthur's moments of admiring emulation as well as his jealous attempts at competition in stride. He gave Arthur an easy smile of greeting as he strode past on his way to the head of the table. His skin was ruddy, hair roughened by the elements; his movements held a confidence somehow lacking in the knights and squires whose experience was limited to the training field, the tournament grounds. There was a smell of the high wild moor-winds about him that made Arthur long for the freedom and excitement of a courier's life.
"My lord," Leon said respectfully, inclining his head to Arthur's father. "I bring news of Vortigern's army."
"Very well," Uther said, motioning impatiently.
"He is working to fortify his camp, to build a permanent tower," Leon said. "The raids into the countryside have increased and ranged further afield, but he pays now builders and masons as well as warriors and mercenaries."
Uther swore. "He no longer expects to challenge me in open combat, he plans instead to erect his own castle like an uncivilized robber-baron, preying on the countryside and undermining the rule I wish to establish, a constant threat to the peace I wish to bring and an obstacle in the road to prospering trade. A thorn in my side forever, to encourage the resistance and rebellion of the likes of Odin and Olaf – damn it! Where, Leon?"
As Leon leaned over the map to point, Arthur drifted cautiously closer, interested but prepared to retreat back to his place at his father's reprimand. He noticed Gaius doing the same, stepping out from the line of respectfully silent councilors - taking in the points of discussion but holding their opinions until requested – to view the map also.
"This hill controls the valley," Uther said flatly. "Through which the trade route to the entire north must go, or lose all profit through a two-week detour to the west, a route which Olaf controls. The valley through which a Saxon army could descend into the heart of Camelot with little warning." He slammed his hand on the map; Arthur craned his head to locate the hill and valley in question.
"He cannot be allowed to remain there," Agravaine said. Arthur refrained from rolling his eyes with an effort; the man had a politician's way of stating the obvious while concealing his own opinion and providing no insight or advice whatsoever. Uther, who retained a warrior's fondness for getting to the point, sometimes had little patience for him, family though he was and riches and influence though he had.
"My forces are divided, Agravaine," Uther growled. "If I cannot hit Vortigern hard and fast and triumph immediately than I must not hit him at all – either Odin or Olaf will surely attack while my back was turned, carve another slice of Camelot's lands for their own. And if I withdraw troops from the west to send against Vortigern in the northeast, they will surely both move against me. Yet the more I delay, the stronger Vortigern's position becomes."
"My lord, if I may?" Leon interjected hesitantly. Uther gave him a nod of permission, only half-attending. "Vortigern's chosen site is undoubtedly the most strategic – however, he has met with some difficulty." Now the young knight had both Uther and Agravaine's attention. Gaius took another step closer.
"Difficulty," Uther echoed. "Explain."
"They've surveyed their site and marked off the outer defensive wall, measured for the inner structures," Leon said. "They've cleared and leveled the land and sunk a well –"
"A well?" Gaius interrupted, speaking for the first time – a rare occurrence for the close-mouthed old physician, who rarely spoke his mind without being pressured into it by Arthur's father – it had to do, Arthur and Morgana had once theorized, with the physician's small talent but vast education in the arts of sorcery.
"There is a natural spring," Leon said. "The difficulty they have, however, arises from earth tremors that occur every night at midnight, ruining much of the progress of construction accomplished that day." Gaius lifted his head as if a sudden thought had occurred to him, but as he stood behind Uther and Agravaine's attention was on Leon, no one seemed to notice but Arthur.
Uther said, "You have witnessed this phenomena?"
"I have, my lord," Leon said.
Morgana often accused Arthur of having no imagination, but for an instant he had no trouble envisioning the experience – the black of night, the uncertain chaos of the earth itself in rebellion, the screams and calls of the men attempting to tame the mount.
"It does not sound like a natural phenomena," Uther stated ominously. Then he turned to Gaius.
After a moment, the old physician stated, "It is certainly unusual, if not impossible, for a natural event such as an earth tremor to be so consistent or predictable, my lord, yes."
"Sorcery," Uther spat.
Arthur opened his mouth to point out that if it was a sorcerer's doing, then it worked in their favor, if it prevented Vortigern from building a tower to defy the would-be king of Camelot, then thought better and remained silent.
"Possibly, my lord," Gaius said, reservations clear in his tone.
"What else could it be?" Agravaine inquired with no little amount of sarcasm.
"That hill," Gaius said. "The name of it is Dinas Emrys, is it not?"
A moment of silence; no one understood the significance that the old man attributed to the name. Arthur held his breath, hoping – Gaius' stories were always the best. Uther, who was impatient to the point of incredulity, made a motion indicating the old man's limited time to speak.
"It has been forty years since the last of the dragons has been seen," Gaius stated. "Your fathers and their fathers fought long and hard to exterminate the species as well as the race of men who were their kin, in the Dragon Wars."
"And rightly so," Uther said. "Sorcery is bad enough – no offense intended, Gaius – without the evil distortion that the dragonlords practiced."
Gaius looked at the warlord with that singular expression that meant the old man was biting his tongue for all he was worth on words he wanted to say. Arthur didn't know whether it made him privileged or unfortunate that Gaius always spoke freely to him.
"But what do dragons have to do with the hill of Dinas Emrys?" Agravaine said.
"There are some who say that the last and oldest of the dragons was not killed," Gaius said. "There are some who say the great dragon merely – retired."
"Retired," Uther scoffed. "For forty years? No, Gaius, we would have heard if one remained alive – there would be sightings."
"As you say, sire," Gaius acquiesed. "I was merely relaying the rumor of the site."
"What, that a dragon lives there, still? And causes earthquakes at midnight?" Uther's sarcasm was thick. Arthur half-wished he could believe it, but wondered what a dragon might do without a lord to command it. "Tales for old women and children, Gaius. Besides, it is a better question for us to consider, not why construction on Vortigern's tower is delayed, but what he is doing about it, and how we can turn the weakness to our advantage in the meantime. An attack at dawn, perhaps, after their camp and its defenses have been destroyed, and before they have a chance to recover? if we can get close enough to launch such an attack before he knows we are there. Sir Leon, has Vortigern indicated any measures he plans to take, aside from merely re-building?"
"Sire…" Leon hesitated. He'd listened respectfully to Gaius' story, and by his expression, he was uncertain enough of the phenomena to accept any explanation as truth. "The local druid clan has declared the hill a sacred site, and it is true that they use a nearby grove for their rituals and practices. There was some talk among Vortigern's men that other clan elders would be consulted for a solution."
Agravaine turned to Uther. "If the sorcerers can find a solution to the problem, construction on the tower would proceed apace."
"And what would you have me do?" Uther said in a mildly mocking tone. "Threaten the druids again with swift retribution should they be caught practicing their dark arts within Camelot's territory? Borders and laws mean little to those drifting vagrants. Or perhaps you think I should offer them amnesty if they refuse to help my enemy? Allow them to ravage our countryside like a swarm of locusts, devouring the crops and herds and livelihoods of our people? No, I think not. Let Vortigern consult the druids; we prepare for war. Leon, take this day to rest and refresh yourself; be ready at dawn tomorrow to reassume your post."
"Yes, my lord." Leon gave a respectful half-bow.
Gaius said, "Please excuse me as well, my lord, I have patients to attend to and other duties to perform."
Uther flipped a hand in negligent permission, and Arthur watched the two men he most wanted to have a conversation with walk from the room, while he was obliged to stay behind, respectfully unproductive. "Now, Agravaine," his father said, bending over the map once more, "this is what we'll do."
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The pine branch was sticky-rough beneath his hands as he balanced carefully, extending his full length along the slender limb. It dipped slightly under his weight as he inched forward. Bark tugged at his clothing and roughened the skin of his hands, his tattooed forearms as he pushed himself forward with his toes.
A flutter of wings, a slight flare of instinctive panic that he reached out immediately to soothe. "I just want to see," he assured the female robin whose nest this was, on the next-lowest branch below his perch. She settled out of his sight, somewhere above his head, to keep a wary eye on her home and her young, and him.
Cradled in the down-lined bowl of grass and twigs, two grotesque new-hatched birdlings, beaks perpetually opened, heads wavering on too-skinny necks, legs too weak to more than topple them against each other and their egg-bound sibling. He breathed in the pine tang, and marveled at the beautiful unique color of the robin's unhatched egg, the delicacy and the durability that the young exhibited.
That was life. So fragile, and so determined. That was light. That was magic, and it filled him so fully, so easily.
Balanced in his perch nearly thirty feet off the ground, his eye caught movement a good fifty yards to the south. The measured, purposeful movement of men – of a group of men, moving as a trained unit. And the red of the cloaks of a patrol of Camelot knights.
Merlin sighed. His clan had been forcibly moved from their last camp not yet a week ago. He wondered if somehow the handful of druids tasked with covering their tracks had slipped up, had forgotten or overlooked something which had allowed the knights to follow them.
Usually no one was killed. Occasionally someone was hurt, if they resisted. Scared, yes. Inconvenienced, always. Things were inevitably left behind in the rush to escape, broken, destroyed. Dishes, tools, other implements, items of food, clothing, shelter. A handful of livestock an enterprising few had managed to keep and raise and breed confiscated. A headache and a half, all told.
Merlin lay motionless along the branch, watching. It was an hour til sunset; preparations for the evening meal had begun, back at camp. Children released from lessons and chores, members who'd sought and found employment with neighboring landholders making their way home. It was terrible timing.
The question was not, really, what he could do about it. The question was not really what he should do about it. The question was, what would the consequences be if he was caught.
The patrol would kill him outright, or capture him to face the justice of the warlord Uther Pendragon, which was the same as saying he'd be burnt at the stake. But a dozen tricks and twice as many variations on said distractions assured him of escape long before that fate. No, he feared being caught by his clan.
There would be a lecture on the appropriate use of magic, on the limitations for underage practitioners and apprentices in place for the safety of all, the importance of leaving decisions that affected the clan up to its elders. There would be punishment. He himself could go no lower in the social strata of the clan, and didn't mind that, but he was always ashamed at how his inability to conform to the clan rules affected his mother. And of course it was his fault they lived like this, anyway.
The patrol had covered maybe twenty yards. His pine tree was between the knights, and the camp. He could call his cloak and his boots to his hand from their place at the base of the pine with a second of minimal unnoticed magic; it would take little more to conceal himself while they passed. Well, it was magic either way, then.
Merlin relaxed his muscles, letting the limb support him rather than clinging to it, and concentrated, calling on his magic. "Andslyht," he breathed. A light breeze kicked up, displacing last autumn's fallen leaves, covering the last vestiges of the camp's passage. Not even a hound could track through the magical dissolution, he thought with satisfaction. Perhaps next time he'd be allowed to participate in placing the camp wards, or cleaning their back-trail, in spite of his youth.
But now – he concentrated again, this time using instinctive magic for which he had no words, nor did he need them. Off to the right, a copse of young beeches rustled suspiciously. The red cloaks stopped, exchanged words that he couldn't make out. He grinned and hunkered lower on the pine limb, causing the same grouping of trees to rustle, then moving the magical distraction even further. This time he didn't need to hear the knights' words to understand what they said – they turned aside to follow his false trail unquestioningly.
He ducked his chin slightly to see through the trees in the direction he'd chosen for the patrol to follow, the boles and branches whipping past his inner eye as though he rode on the wind itself, a hundred yards, two hundred. He slowed his sight, alert for the first ideal location to put the other part of his plan into practice… there. A scraggly scrub brush struggled to grow in a rocky, dusty wash. He blew a little more wind to free the area of dried leaves, then concentrated.
The scrub burst into flames that were in no danger of spreading. The smoke would attract the patrol, the spindly charred remains would convince them that someone – the druid clan perhaps, or at least its scouts, had passed that way.
Merlin blinked, drawing his sight back to his own eyes, feeling blurry and a little dizzy, hoping he hadn't over-reached himself. The last of the red cloaks faded from his sight and he smiled. But his moment of personal triumph was short-lived.
Something prickly struck the side of his face, so sudden and unexpected he almost tumbled from his perch. A second small brown projectile arced toward him – he froze it instinctively. A pine cone.
"The next one'll be a rock," a man's voice growled threateningly from the ground. "Come down from there."
Though he didn't immediately move, his heart plummeted straight to the forest floor along with the pine cone he released. He knew the voice – Alvarr. He looked down – yes, and there the explanation for how the young druid leader had found him. Alvarr had a firm grip on the back of Gilli's neck.
Merlin winced and began to inch back toward the trunk of the tree. Last time Alvarr had caught him, he'd had finger-bruises around his neck for a week, and had been forced to hide the marks from his mother's concerned eye with a neckerchief. He sighed, moving from a prone to vertical position for his descent.
"I'm sorry, Merlin," Gilli said as Merlin jumped down from the lowest branch and turned to face them. He was rigid in Alvarr's grip, and there were tear-tracks down his face.
Merlin gave the younger boy a cheerful grimace and a shake of his head. It wasn't Gilli's fault. Merlin wasn't the easiest boy in the camp to be friends with – Alvarr saw to that.
Alvarr gave the younger boy a shove that sent him sprawling. Merlin took a step, and had to stop himself and his magic, both. "Back to camp," Alvarr ordered Gilli. "And not a word of this to anyone, or my father…"
Gilli tried to nod and shake his head at once. The rest of the sentence was unnecessary, a silent warning. Gilli's father was timid and quiet; Alvarr's father Ari was the chief elder of their clan, outranking every other man. That in itself gave Alvarr free rein – that and the fact that he behaved with perfect charm to everyone else. Just – not Merlin, nor anyone who dared show him any special favor or consideration. Gilli did look back, once, before he disappeared from sight.
Merlin bent to pick up his boots and his cloak, and a sudden burst of magic made the leaves and dirt explode under his hands. Harmless, but it made him startle and jerk back.
Alvarr grinned maliciously. "You obviously don't want them, or need them," he said. "Leave them."
Returning to camp without boots and cloak would earn him a scolding from his mother, censure from the other adults – there was no excess of supplies in the camp to permit for loss through carelessness – and yes, again the lecture or punishment from the elders.
"You've got nothing better to do?" he said without thinking. It was stupid, stupid even to open his mouth. There was nothing new to be said; he and Alvarr had been over and over this ground so often no magic could erase those marks.
Alvarr sneered, and Merlin tensed. Ever since he could remember, the older boy had singled him out for his cruelty, testing the limits of his magic and his control. Lately it seemed Alvarr wished to provoke him into the sort of display that would have him and his mother banished. And with every season that passed, Merlin found submission harder and harder to accomplish, even knowing the consequences. Manhood, and the right to face Alvarr openly, was too far off.
"Nothing better to do?" Alvarr said, stalking forward. Merlin backed warily, ready to counter any attack with an acceptable defense, and escape. No witnesses could work against Alvarr, too. "Look at you. What have you contributed to the good of the clan, today? What were you doing up there, sleeping?" He glanced up, then back down, his eyes narrowed, his grin unpleasant. "Lazy, good for nothing, son of a whore," he said softly, and his eyes gleamed gold. Merlin's muscles jerked in response, but nothing seemed to happen.
Only – a brown twiggy mass appeared in the man's outstretched hand, the two spindly necks struggling to hold up the burden of the blind, open-beaked heads. The delicate green-blue egg rocked gently beside them. Alvarr chuckled softly to himself, and reached into the nest.
Merlin reacted them without thinking, without planning. He pushed his palm forward against the air, and Alvarr was tossed backward, the nest caught in stillness in midair. Merlin snatched the nest and fled, one hand tented over the tiny creatures and their unborn relative to shield them as much as possible from the jostling of his mad scramble through the trees. Behind him, he heard Alvarr's roar of rage.
He darted behind the thickest trunk he could see and gave the nest a gentle toss, watching it rise in the air, ten feet, twelve, to settle into a cozy crook between two branches. He hoped it was close enough for the mother robin to find; if he could manage it later, he'd come back to help the reunion with his magic – he took off sprinting again, hearing Alvarr screaming obscenities and threats behind him. His one hope was to reach the encampment, where the young man would not dare to torment him without excuse.
Jealous? he thought, in response to the explanation his mother always gave as she patched him up, her eyes tight and sad. Jealous, my foot!
Merlin had always enjoyed running, enjoyed stretching his lungs and skimming along the ground until his legs burned and his chest ached, it felt free like climbing a tree until it swayed under his weight and the high wind was in his face did. This, though, was why he hated hunting. Hated the chase. The feeling that fast wasn't fast enough, merely prolonging and exacerbating the inevitable. He couldn't hear Alvarr over the noise he was making himself, gasping for breath and crashing over fallen leaves, through underbrush, couldn't tell if he was gaining ground, or if maybe this time–
A fallen branch leaped into the air a yard in front of his feet. He couldn't check his rush, and gathered himself to hurdle the obstacle. He almost made it. Around a mouthful of dead leaves, and as he coasted forward on his chest, he cursed his feet, that had grown faster than the rest of him, this year.
Then he heard Alvarr, breathing heavily just behind him. Heard him hiss words like bastard and monster. And then it didn't matter what he heard, only what he felt, as he curled inward, trying to cover his head with his arms, trying to wait out the other's rage.
Consciousness departed before Alvarr did.