Winter came to Pendragon Castle and because it was a cold and drafty old place, the brazier fires burned constantly. Everywhere one looked, there was fire. It was in the torches, and from the candles made with fat rendered from last spring’s meat. The massive hearth in the great hall was constantly ablaze. It was a time for eating, drinking, and telling stories by the fire.
The King looked at his beautiful wife; enraptured at the way the firelight burnished her red hair. Their love spilled over so that anyone who spent time near them soon began to feel the warmth that kindled in their hearts for each other. By the grace of God, The King wed Gwenivere and the land in the same ceremony.
In these quiet times, his mind often turned to his kingdom. Gwen was always there to listen when he wanted to share his most secret thoughts and dreams of uniting Britain.
In spite of the cold, Merlyn spent a good deal of his time prowling the snow-clad hills around the castle. At times, he would be gone for an entire day, returning at nightfall with frost clinging to the hem of his robe and ice in his beard. He would appear as a dark apparition cloaked in dark shadow, eyes at times glazed and staring. He had become fearsome to look upon and one day, Prince Arthur commented on this.
“Merlyn, my friend, you are not looking well lately. Are you ill?”
Merlyn stared at him for more than a few breaths and then blurted out at him loudly,
“Have you taken a look at yourself lately? That beard does little to enhance your good looks either.”
Then they both laughed at each other and the moment passed. Arthur ran his fingers over his own beard and went in search of a sharp knife to see what he could do to tidy up his appearance.
Then the day came when Merlyn wanted to know if Arthur had talked with The King.
“Have you given thought to what you will say to him?”
“I have been pondering this very thing endlessly. There seems to be no way to get to the core of what to say. I cannot simply deliver a speech to him. He deserves better than that. I have decided that it has to begin as a conversation like those we had when he was a young boy. There should be an exchange of dialogue between us that will have greater impact than if I try to warn him of things that may or may not be.”
Merlyn smiled. For the first time in many months since they had returned, he smiled and it was so grand, it illuminated his face, white teeth flashing in his dark beard.
“Now that tells me you are on the right track.” Merlyn paced around the room and then whirled to face Arthur, speaking in that animated way he had when he became excited, making gestures with his hands as if he were casting spells. Some people, who did not know him well, cringed in superstitious awe when he did that, but Arthur knew he was merely illustrating his thoughts.
“Here it is, then. The King has said many times that he might wish to join me for an outing in the fresh cold air. Perhaps do a bit of hunting. Yes, I would relish a good rabbit stew for supper. That would be the perfect time as there would be no females around to distract.”
Merlyn chuckled and rubbed his hands together as if that settled the matter.
“I’ll go and tell him now.” He was already out the door but called back over his shoulder, “Be prepared to leave on a moment’s notice. You never know when plans must be put into motion.”
Then he was gone. His striding footfalls could be heard echoing down the stairs.
They rode out early the next morning, Merlyn, Arthur and the King. Two knights and their squires accompanied them. Merlyn positioned himself behind Arthur and The King so as to divide them from the followers and afford them enough privacy to have their long overdue conversation.
The sky was blue for a change and the snowfields were blushed with a lingering rosy hue from the sunrise. The forest seemed more open without the foliage that usually graced the tall trees. They stood with bare branches in sharp contrast to the places where morning light filtered down making a glittering carpet of the snow that lay deep within.
The King was telling Arthur how wonderful the days had been since they returned. It was clear that his happiness was without limits.
“Arthur, I tell you that woman is a miracle. She is so loving and kind. In many ways, she reminds me of my Matilda. I am hoping to pay William and Matilda a visit in the spring. I want to take Gwen to meet them. Perhaps you and Merlyn will join us.”
Arthur saw this as the perfect opening for him to speak of the past times.
“That is a splendid idea, your majesty. Those were good times there when you and I first met. We had some grand talks of kingship in those days. Remember our battles? Remember how we planned strategies and in the discussion of it found ways neither of us could have imagined on our own?”
The King smiled at the memories.
“I certainly do remember that. With things as they are, I wonder if we will ever have need of those strategies. Who knows what comes with the spring?”
“Ah yes. Well just suppose that there are things we should prepare for just as we are prepared for the reported invasions that are said to be coming from the sea.”
The King cast him a serious frown,
“What could be worse than that? I would say that is the most severe situation we could deal with. But we have alliances now and they are as ready as we are to ride to the aid of any that fall under siege. I am well satisfied with our success in bringing the landholders together in this part of Britain. But we have much yet to do. More will come to join us next year. I know this, Arthur. Truly I do.”
Aware that Merlyn could hear their words, Arthur glanced back over his shoulder. In the way of Merlyn that was unique to him, he gestured with his hands in a kind of shooing movement to say, get on with it. So Arthur reading his impatience took a deep breath and plunged in.
“Well, there are things that could be worse, much worse and thus more difficult to make ready for.”
The King turned and studied Arthur’s face with the same expression he used to have as a child. Eyes locked on his, silent for a brief time, then his decision made, he spoke softly.
“Let me hear your thoughts, Arthur. What sort of things do you mean?”
“You know of the magic that still lingers in these times. It lurks everywhere. So much so that we must never forget the possibility exists that things may take place that are not what they seem.”
“Well then, what do you suggest we do, Arthur? It occurs to me that kind of threat can come without warning and take us unaware.”
“Exactly, but we don’t necessarily have to be completely unaware. I have spoken to you of the place I come from. A place far into your tomorrows when all you see here will be gone and changed. Everything I have told you, all the suggestions I have given to you have been based on the knowledge of you that has survived in those future times. Granted not all of it may be true and most certainly I have seen evidence of that phenomena with my own eyes. But enough of it has survived that I can tell you and so we must be most cautious and vigilant at all times. Merlyn and I believe that this is why I am here to prevent disaster and hopefully bring about what is best for Britain.”
The King was very quiet, as was his way to digest what he had been told. Arthur knew he always had been a great one to deliberate facts before giving his opinion. But these days, it seemed he arrived at conclusions more rapidly than before. Arthur could not help but feel some pride as he was reminded of the inherent ability of this young man to become one of the greatest leaders in the history of the world.
“Will you and Merlyn help me then? I need you to see me through this. I know I can rely on you and from this day forward we must hold regular council, just us three, to stay any of the magic that might work against us.” At this, The King looked back at Merlyn who just smiled and nodded. “That settles it then. Together we can be ready Arthur.” There was that confidant smile again, so full of promise and courage.
“Um, there is another matter I need to discuss. A rather delicate one it is too.” The King’s face flushed a deeper shade of blush than that produced by the cold. “I hope you will not mind Arthur. It is about Gwen. But I have no one else to ask.”
Arthur felt his own face burn with the question that might be coming next.
“Well you see I am not any more experienced than yourself when it comes to females. So perhaps, Merlyn might be the best one to advise you on matters like those.”
Another quick glance back at Merlyn coupled with a sheepish smile, gave him to know that Merlyn was not too happy about this.
“Perhaps we can wait until we stop to have a bit of hot food and rest the horses. You can go off with Merlyn and ask him about what is bothering you.”
Arthur congratulated himself on the handling of that issue but it was short lived as The King was not to be put off about it.
“Well it’s not such a big thing, but one that I know little about. You see I was wondering if a woman can still be a virgin after she has once been with a man.”
So quickly did Arthur turn to look back to see if Merlyn heard this that he nearly unseated himself from his horse. He looked from one to the other and was amazed at himself at how rapidly the implications came home to roost in his mind. The time had come for the utmost vigilance.