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It turns out the tower is not that difficult to find, after all. Arthur is frankly amazed. He sees the top of it rise above the trees not too long after the pair of them set off and experiences an immense feeling of relief that some tasks in this mad kingdom can actually be straightforward. That feeling gradually dissipates as they journey farther and the tower continues to loom above them stubbornly like a black monstrosity, no signs of revealing its base. Despite the daunting prospect of ascending such a height, it is only once they reach the foot of the tower that Arthur fully recognizes the reason for the lady's laughter.


"Where is the door?" he asks, stopping abruptly.


The lady seeks his forearm with her free hand. "There is no door. We must scale the walls ourselves."


"Why would you build a tower without a door?” Arthur thinks it is fair if he sounds a little incredulous. He is thirsty and tired and Uther had told him the practices of neighboring kingdoms could be a little foolish, but this is ridiculous.


Her hand tightens sharply on his forearm. "Do you really think I chose this for myself?" her voice demands cuttingly. "This tower was built to contain me, to keep me hidden away so I could not disturb the king with the truth of my accusations. It is a prison."


"Then why do you want to return?" he asks, quite reasonably he thinks.


"It is my home." The lady looks sad. "And I am quite mad. No one paid me heed when I spoke of coming troubles, though every word was truth. In despair, I turned to madness. It was that madness which drove me from the tower and stole my sight forever."


Now that he looks, Arthur can distinguish a thicket of brambles surrounding the foot of the tower, dark thorns glinting maliciously. Falling onto them from any height would certainly account for the scars on her face. Arthur feels a strange rush of sympathy. "Why stay here? Your friend would surely welcome you," he feels obliged to point out.


The words manage to bring a smile to the lady's face. "Yes. But I would be a burden, and I will not be the death of my silver trinket. I cannot return to her until this kingdom has been healed." Her face hardens like granite. "Take me to my tower."


He guides her over to the rocky wall, taking pains that her feet avoid the brambles. The lady caresses the rough-hewn edifice when she reaches it, her gesture a mixture of both fondness and loathing. In a flash she is up and climbing, scaling the wall with such alacrity that Arthur is momentarily stunned. He suspects his expression bears all the traces of a sulk as his feet hurriedly seek a foothold and he makes to climb after her.


The ascent is slow and arduous, made more so by the fact Arthur struggles to find any footholds that might allow him to brace the lady should she slip. He ends up following her as closely as he dares, deciding in this instance to let reason overrule his sense of gallantry. When he chances to look down, the height the two of them have achieved leaves the ground brutally distant. Arthur wonders morbidly if the blacksmith’s mail would be enough to protect him from the brambles if he fell or if he would even have a chance of surviving the plummet.


The lady for her part seems to have none of his misgivings, clambering over the rocks with nary a glance downward. The ease of long familiarity can be read in the stretch of her limbs, and Arthur has a brief flare of resentment at her obvious agility before he remembers the price she has paid for such familiarity. He ducks his head to hide his face and studiously returns his focus to keeping tremors from his arms.


When they at last achieve the summit, the lady grasps his hand tightly and pulls him up the last feet. Her person appears no more unruffled than as if he’d escorted her through a garden.  "Too taxing for you?" she smirks.


"No, not at all," Arthur manages, with as much dignity as he can muster between breaths. He takes the moment to survey the room and is startled to find it full of mirrors. "Why all the--"


"Mirrors?" The lady arches her eyebrow. "I became sick of shadows. Now tell me, young knight, what token can I grant you?"


Arthur struggles to recall the pale woman’s tokens. Ah! "I require shoes, if you have any."


The lady studies him shrewdly. "I have shoes,” she says slowly, “but I am afraid it is you who must trade with me." She lifts the hem of her dress. "I cannot remove them for myself."


From the depths of the violet fabric emerge a pair of feet shod with what appear to be crudely formed metal shoes. As Arthur kneels to remove them, he realizes they are made rather unbecomingly of iron and furthermore the iron must have been quite hot when they were put on. Her feet are blistered and burned underneath the dull metal, the skin red and angry. The removal of the shoes exposes weeping sores and Arthur fears it must pain her terribly. Yet she sighs above him with an expression of exquisite relief.


"Thank you, fair knight," she whispers and it must be Arthur's imagination but the milky-white of her eyes seems to be clearing.


"Who would do such a thing?" he asks, a sudden irrational desire to exact vengeance rising in him.


She favors him with a crooked smile. "It is what the king does to witches. Or to those who he fears may be."


"Such a king cannot be just," Arthur challenges.


"No king can be just if he dismisses the fears of his people,” she retorts. “But he sows his own downfall, for only those wearing the iron shoes can hope to scale his glass mountain." She crosses the room and plucks a mirror from her toilette. "Take this. And give me your boots."


"What do I need with a mirror?" Arthur asks, distracted, as he works his boots off.


"The king never dared to visit me in my tower and it is he whom you must see next." She takes his boots from him and dons them efficiently before stepping to the window. "You may stay and rest as long as you need."


"Wait. Aren't you going to stay here?" he protests as she springs adeptly onto the ledge.


She looks back at him through impish eyelashes, her eyes sparkling a brilliant sapphire. "Stay here? With a strange young man in my chambers?" She flashes him a smirk as she flips over. "Why, what would the courtiers say?"


Her voice echoes strangely outside the tower. You know what they’re saying, Arthur? They think I'm mad with grief, but I know-- I know I saw this come to pass. And this is only the beginning.


"What do you mean, the beginning?" he demands. He rushes to the ledge, but finds only a bare expanse of stone.


Arthur thinks he has had heartily enough of this kingdom's vanishing trick.


*


The iron shoes, amazingly, fit him perfectly, and Arthur spares a moment to wonder about enchantment before remembering the story of their origin. A perfect fit, in any event, does not seem to alter the fact that they are bloody uncomfortable excuses for footgear. Upon examining them further, he discovers dozens of tiny nails have been pounded through the soles which, though painful, do make climbing down the tower a much easier feat than the ascent.


Once he is clear of the brambles, Arthur sets off in the rough direction of a shimmer he managed to spy at the top of the tower. What weak light the day had managed is fading, but Arthur presses resolutely on. The gleam would only become more difficult to track as night fell, and Camelot had been without its Crown Prince for too long already. As the final light fades from the dismal sky, his staunch persistence bears fruit and Arthur finds himself at the foot of what can only be described as a glass mountain.


Compared to the tower, climbing the mountain is child's play with the aid of the iron shoes. Arthur levers himself over the crest without a single shortened breath to show for his effort and finds himself in a small courtyard lined with trees. The dark branches are hung with innumerable thick nooses from which dangle rather forbidding shirts of chainmail. Arthur touches one tentatively. It takes him only a cursory glance to confirm it is indeed one made by the iron-mouthed blacksmith.


The hall is silent when he enters it, no bustle or murmurs to indicate the working of servants. The walls are draped in a sombre dark blue and the candles are unlit in their sconces. Oddities aside, the castle appears remarkably similar to Camelot. Arthur finds himself making his way almost instinctively to the Great Hall, as if he knows on some unknown level what he seeks must be there. He proceeds unopposed to the tall oak doors and after a moment's hesitation throws them open.


The king sits at the end of the hall, fork raised as if paused in his dining. He wears a crown made of iron rather than gold, and he seems to fade against the backdrop of his clothes, dark in mourning. Wine trickles from the corner of his mouth and for a moment Arthur's eyes deceive him, swear it to be blood.


Arthur is inexplicably cold at the sight of him.


"Why have you come here?" the king barks, unmoved from his throne. Arthur's eyes snap to his and are unsurprised to find them like hard chips of ice.


He steels himself, wishes the thousandth time for a weapon. "I have come to beg your hospitality for the evening," he states boldly, "and for justice on behalf of your people."


"Justice?" the king sneers. "What right have they to demand justice? I am the law. I am their king."


"And as king, you must ensure that your laws are just, and that the punishment fits the crime," Arthur contends.


"Punishment? What would you consider appropriate punishment for having what was most precious taken from you?" the king asks sharply.


"Surely one person cannot condemn an entire kingdom."


"You are too young to understand, prince Pendragon,” he replies dismissively. “One person indeed can condemn an entire kingdom." The king leans back in his throne, peers at him over his hands. "I will make you a challenge."


"What kind of challenge?" asks Arthur warily.


"A simple one. I once traded that which was most precious to me. Since that day, I have not cried. If you can force my tears, then I will give you the token you seek." He nods toward his goblet, in which Arthur is singularly relieved to see a little wine still lingering.


He wavers. "And you will swear to rule as a just king?"


"Yes." The king’s voice is calm, untroubled, as if he doesn't believe Arthur can do this, has never forced another man to his knees. Arthur decides.


"I accept."


The king smiles grimly. "Try what you like."


Arthur circles the throne carefully, but the king makes no move to tackle him. The king does not in fact move at all, only watches Arthur from his seat with hard, impenetrable eyes. Arthur feels wrong-footed and abruptly lacks confidence in his initial plan of forcing the man’s submission. He circles the throne a second time while he thinks, sifting through different strategies in his mind and taking the silent king’s measure.


The realization dawns slowly. Forcing the king’s submission would be worthless; pain would never make him cry. The man thrived on pain, had embraced it and made it the core of what drove him. Arthur thinks of the old man's shabbiness and the blacksmith's teeth and the blind lady's feet and sees in them a wounded man forcing others to feel his grief.


The king surveys him calmly. "Do you now grasp the difficulty? You cannot achieve your tears through force. Perhaps there is a story you'd like to try? Some sniveling tale of misfortune?"


Arthur curses internally at the sneer in the king’s voice and abandons his half-formed mental quest for a suitably tragic narrative. For the first time, he resents Uther’s practice of regarding bards as suspicious allies of magic. Arthur can think of nothing sad enough to make this man cry, this grim king who sat alone in his unlit castle surrounded by the empty scaffolding of his former subjects and the hoary weight of his own frozen heart.


With sudden lucidity, Arthur recalls the words of the lady in violet and realizes yet another object missing in the castle.


"With all due respect, sire," Arthur says, cautiously making as if to go into a bow while he disentangles the object from his belt, "only take a look at yourself."


He holds up the lady's mirror.


Silence reigns and for three long heartbeats Arthur fears he has failed. The king sits unaffected, his cold features as stolidly impassive as ever at the sight of his reflection. Yet as Arthur watches in mute amazement, a single crystalline tear wells and drops sparkling from the corner of the king’s unblinking eye.


"You have won the challenge," the king whispers hoarsely. With difficulty, he pulls his eyes away from the mirror and focuses on the table. "You may take your token."


"And you will henceforth be a just king to your people," Arthur feels compelled to affirm.


"Yes," the king accedes, his eyes making a thorough study of the table’s wooden grain.


Satisfied, Arthur lays the mirror face down on the table and grasps the cup. The wine inside swishes attractively as he lifts it, and Arthur is startled to find himself almost all at once unbearably thirsty for the liquid. Now that he thinks about it, he hasn’t eaten or drunk anything since he came to this odd kingdom. In fact, it’s been days since he had a proper meal, and Arthur’s fairly certain he hasn’t slept either in that time. Small wonder he feels dead on his feet. It’s more a wonder he’s still standing. He considers the wine in the goblet – barely a mouthful, really, but smelling rather intoxicatingly sweet– and decides to drink it, take the small boost it will give him.


As he raises the cup to his lips, a strangely familiar ball of light chooses that moment to burst into the room. In a flash, the sphere appears at his side, looping his head in alarming circles and twittering all the while. The wine sloshes out of the goblet as Arthur reflexively ducks and weaves to avoid the thing.


"You again." The words slip from his mouth before he is even conscious of thinking them. "What are you doing here?"


He remembers this particular magic. In the Caves of Balor, the light had been a guide, had lead him out of danger. Despite his misgivings about the use of magic in general, Arthur had never been able to discern any malice behind the beacon and had wondered occasionally if it might appear again. But why would it appear now? What danger could be found in the king’s halls?


Arthur's blood runs cold as he stares at the wine on the floor. He turns to the king. "Was that poisoned?" he asks calmly.


"No," the king sighs. "But had you drunk it, you could not have left."


"What happened to ruling justly?" grits Arthur through his teeth.


"You are not one of my subjects," the king replies. "But had you stayed, you would have been a fine king."


Arthur is suddenly, abruptly sick of this entire place. "Can you lead me back to the woman by the river?" he asks the sphere of light, which can currently be found bouncing around his shoulders affectionately.


The light streaks in front of him and bobs. Arthur takes that for a yes.


He motions with his free hand.


"Lead the way."


*


The journey back seems to take no time at all, the scenery speeding by in a blur as the light cheerfully bobs and darts ahead to illuminate the path. The pale woman is waiting by her boat when they arrive, grey eyes rising to meet Arthur’s from across the clearing.


He makes her a short bow and offers her the cup. "Here are your tokens, as required."


She takes the cup gracefully, peering curiously inside while he wordlessly removes his chainmail and shoes for her as well. Arthur feels oddly naked without the accoutrements, but decides to forgo any sense of indignity in favor of hastening the return to Camelot. He wonders briefly how he is going to relate the events of the past few days to Uther. Save for the original blow that delivered him, there could be no mention of magic in the official report if he wanted to avoid creating alliance difficulties. Perhaps the pale woman could be a foreign peasant or some sort of local wandering crone.  Uther would approve that.


All thoughts of editing his story into a suitable account for his father scatter abruptly into the ether as Arthur catches sight of the pale woman's downcast expression.


"What?" Arthur ignores his suddenly dry throat, the way his stomach has chosen to plummet. "What are you waiting for?"


The pale woman does not answer.


Arthur’s fear turns quickly to righteous fury. "I have kept my end of the bargain," he argues fiercely, gesticulating sharply toward the line of objects on the riverbank. "I have brought you your tokens and brought peace to this kingdom. Now return me to Camelot."


"All tokens save one." Her quiet voice is tinged with sympathy. "Your cup is dry, fair prince. Without the elixir of life, it is a vessel, nothing more."


Arthur has had heartily enough of this kingdom’s nonsense. "Then I will fill it," he says, snatching the cup from the woman’s fingers and making to submerge it in the river.


"If you drink from that source, then you will come home with me," the woman informs him calmly.


Arthur freezes and turns from the riverbank, still half-crouched. "Then where can I find this elixir of life?" he demands slowly.


"It cannot be found in this kingdom," the woman replies. "Nor in mine."


Arthur's fingers tighten savagely around the goblet. "So there never was a way for you to return me. This was all a trick," he says. He makes no effort to hide the cold fury in his voice.


"Not a trick," the woman prevaricates. "Rather, a form of preparation.” She gestures to encompass him and the armor lying on the ground. “The hearts the Questing Beast sends are stalwart, the hearts of warriors. They will not come until they have achieved peace, realized their battle is done."


"No," says Arthur incisively after half a breath. "I will not come with you. Camelot needs a king."


The woman's expression is serene. "You can fight, my child. Capsize my boat, and be swallowed by the waters. It will be a violent end." She bows her head. "Or you can fall asleep, and I will bear you gently."


Arthur’s mouth opens to protest – does she seriously believe he will fall for such an obvious trap? – but the words die unvoiced in his throat as his eyelids suddenly feel fantastically heavy. The cup drops unnoticed from his slackened fingers and he sinks to his knees, practiced limbs too cumbersome to lift. He has a brief moment of confusion -- why is he trying to leave so quickly? He can’t possibly find the energy to leave now, not when he hasn't eaten or slept for days. Surely it would do no harm to rest for a short spell, regain his strength. The ground is warm and inviting, the perfect resting spot for a weary prince. Arthur feels himself drifting off into unconsciousness and finds he doesn’t mind at all. It will be a relief to embrace the coming darkness, immerse himself in blissful rest.


A blinding light flares hot and bright, searing open his fallen eyelids. The source is his forgotten luminary companion, the sphere blazing so brightly as to be white. Arthur forces himself ungainly to his feet and watches in bemusement as the abandoned goblet begins to roll unsteadily on the ground. The cup rights itself and then rises in the air to rest in front of the radiant sphere. As Arthur raises a hand to shield against the brilliance, he bears witness to a column of water which materializes into the air above the vessel. The conjured water hangs briefly in a sparkling arc before dropping with a splash into the cup.


The sphere of light dims gradually to its normal blue. It hovers for a moment, then drifts over to Arthur, trailing the goblet behind it. Arthur reaches out to grasp it automatically.


The water in the cup is still sparkling and Arthur feels the thrum of power beneath his fingertips. He knows what it is instinctively. "This is the elixir of life," he states.


"Yes." The woman's eyes shine where she stands, her expression one of uncertain wonder. Yet her tone is sad. "Your friend has found a new destiny to replace your lost one."


"Any destiny where I breathe is preferable to one where I do not," Arthur tests, mystified.


The pale woman’s grey eyes are fathomless. "How little you understand, young prince. The two of you once shared a destiny, far greater than the ability of any one man. Alone, you shall never achieve all for which you were meant."


Arthur watches as the sphere of light leaves his side to bob around the lady's robes and has a sudden creeping suspicion. "This friend,” he asks, “what will his destiny be if not with me?"


"That I cannot say, but it will not be with you."


The cold feeling intensifies. "Is there a way to tie our destinies back together?" he asks, unable to tear his eyes from the overly cheerful dancing light.


"Yes,” she replies. “But it will come at a price."


He does not hesitate."Whatever the price is, I will pay it."


"Steel is strongest when it is broken and reforged," the woman intones. "To form a new bond, you must do the same."


"How?" asks Arthur.


"You must forget the bond you have formed and begin anew." A vial appears by his side. The pale woman waves her hand purposefully and a stream of water rises from the river to fill it. "Mix this water with the elixir of life. The memories of your bond will be hidden beyond your ken and thus you may start afresh."


"How do I know this won't simply bind me here?" he says skeptically, taking the vial from the air.


"The elixir of life is far more powerful than anything in my domain," the woman responds. "Mortals who pass from here do not remember coming. With luck, the loss of your friend will not be permanent. Find them, reforge the bond, and the memories will return.”


Arthur glances again at the sphere circling the swirling robes and examines the vial in his hand.  "And this will bind us together?" he asks carefully.


The woman nods. "Such that no man can separate."


Arthur pours the vial into the goblet and raises it to the pale woman. “Then to our shared destiny,” he says.


He drinks the contents with one swallow.


*


The fire crackles as Arthur picks at the veritable feast before him. In truth, he's not hungry, but his father had ordered food brought up and Arthur hadn't had the heart to stop him. One look at the newfound lines in the king's face had told him the steep toll the past days had taken on the king, how close to death Arthur himself had come. For his part, Arthur’s shoulder still throbs from the bite of Questing Beast and Gaius has left him multiple draughts with instructions to take some every few hours to keep the pain at bay.


He can't shake the feeling he's forgotten something. Arthur knows people sat with him while he slept, can remember brief snatches of conversation from them. He confirmed that with Gwen, and wasn't it entertaining to make her stutter an admission he wasn't all bad? He hasn't seen Morgana yet, but he can't wait to tease her into admitting she was sick with grief as well.


Perhaps he's still feeling strange from that visit with his new manservant. What had been his name? Marlin? Merlin? Arthur can't recall all the words that were exchanged, but the boy had been decidedly odd. He had worn a completely dreadful neckerchief that did nothing to disguise the fact his ears stuck out horribly, and he had spoken to Arthur with an uncanny familiarity – as if they were close friends rather than a newly appointed servant and master. Arthur’s not sure, but he believes that at one point he had even been called a prat. The entire exchange is disconcerting in hindsight.


A knock on the door alerts him to the servants waiting to enter his chambers. Merlin is not amongst them. Arthur waves them in and stands back as they clear the table of the largely untouched dinner things. He makes a mental note to tell Merlin (when he shows up next) to go ahead and put his things in the adjoining room. It makes more sense for his manservant to simply remain on hand if he needs anything. Arthur’s not sure why he hasn’t thought of this before.


An odd sense of exhilaration rises in him as he considers the possibility of prodding his new manservant, provoking him and taking the measure of him. He can’t put his finger on why, but he has the strangest feeling there is something different about this Merlin, something worth pursuing. Whatever the untapped potential may prove to be, Arthur is determined to find out.
 
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skywindsong

February 2011

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