Merlin's Pawns

“MEREBETH!!”

“Gah!” I dropped the pestle that had been dangling precariously from the tips of my fingers, as I poured over the large grimoire below me, onto the thin leather of my booted foot.

“Ahhhhh!” Grabbing the throbbing foot, I hopped around, muttering a quick healing spell, as the copper horn in the corner of the room vibrated with my name in a high pitched voice.

“I am coming my lady!” I shouted back into the horn, before slamming the large tome before me with a resounding “thunk.” The Siamese cat on the other side of the book, whose silver gray body was wrapped around my hour-glass, peered up at me with her bright green eyes in annoyance.

“Oh don’t give me that look, Tasha!” I hurriedly fumbled with my apron strings knotted behind my back as I eventually pulled the stained cloth away, hanging it on the corner of the closest bookshelf, overflowing with large dusty tomes like the one on the table before me.

“You were supposed to tell me when the time ran out so that I would not be late!” I grabbed fistfuls of potion bottles and scraps of trash, scurrying around the room in a hasty attempt to right my grandfather’s lab. “Now, the Queen is hungry, and you know how she gets when she is hungry.  Ohhh!” I lovingly flicked the naughty kitty’s ear as I passed once more to grab the hefty book, “I just hope she doesn’t drain one of her maids, they can be so hard to replace, and you,” I pointed a wagging finger at the kitty’s pink nose, as she settled her little face against her paws in an effort to continue her nap, “you are a terrible familiar, perhaps I should trade you in for an owl, or a dove? What do you think of that?” Tasha’s only answer was to open her mouth in a wide toothy yawn, her pink tongue curling in the process, as she stretched her paws before her, splaying them wide before curling herself more comfortably around my hourglass.

“Wretched cat,” I muttered before pulling a thin dagger out of my wrist sheath and grabbing a jeweled goblet from its tray. Walking over to the tall iron cage nestled in the corner of the room, I reached through the bars, grabbed an arm, and dragged the huddled pile of rags, bones, and flesh towards me until the limp arm was almost fully extended outside the bars. Curling the dirty fingers of the hand into a fist, I tied a thick scrap of fabric around the upper arm before I punctured the vein in the center of the inner elbow.  No sound came from the pile of rags inside the cage, as the head of stringy brown hair, lolled against the bars, eyes closed in its sun-lined face.  As the blood spilled forth from the wound, I lifted the arm over the goblet, letting the dark liquid fill the cup to the brim. Whispering another healing spell over the wound, I untied the fabric and folded the arm back in. Placing the goblet back upon its tray, I tried to ignore the vibrating horn on the wall where my name, mixed with a few other choice words, was still issuing forth.

Surveying the room, to make sure I had cleaned up enough, I asked Tasha to keep watch over the room, and made my way into the already crowded hall of the very busy castle.  Despite the cat preferring her naps to helping me stay on time, she was otherwise a very good familiar and a great comfort.  Guarding my grandfather’s lab, and everything in it was only one of her many tasks.  Even though our prisoner was almost to the end of his life, and would soon be returned to his origins of dirt, there were many valuable things in Merlin’s lab. As his granddaughter, he was teaching me everything he knew, and had just given me that new book to work on last night, and I had spent the entire night pouring over it, trying to get a head start on the spell he expected me to have mastered by the end of the week.

As I carefully dodged servants in the hall scurrying about on their daily tasks, mingled with merchants and men on business to the court, I continued to go over the finer points of the spell in my mind.  Most of the books my grandfather had me work through had been all too easy, and although I had begged for something harder, it wasn’t until my seventeenth birthday last week that he finally agreed to let me try something more challenging, a spell that could affect a group of people rather than just one or two.

Rounding a corner, I came to an abrupt halt into a little alcove on the west side of the castle that held a statue of Apollo chasing after the nymph Daphne. The statue was placed conveniently in front of a tapestry depicting one of Arthur’s many great battles, and also hid a private door leading to the Queen’s chambers known by a select few.  Unfortunately the secluded nature of this alcove also encouraged amorous liaisons like the one before me now, causing me to nearly spill the Queen’s breakfast.  The tangle of limbs, hair, and bunched fabric, made it hard to be certain who was involved and when my very loud throat clearing still did not separate the couple, I did the next best thing. Picking up the goblet in one hand, where my body heat would hopefully keep its contents warm, I place the tray between me and the moaning writhing mass of limbs, shoving them out of the way, where they tumbled from their perch on the wide ledge of the statue’s base, onto the floor.

“Ugh, get a room!” I stuck my tongue out at them before quickly shimmying behind the heavy fabric of the tapestry, pushing open the thick oak door I came upon next with my shoulder.  Shoving the slab closed with my foot, I quickly strode down the short hallway, placing the goblet back on its tray before entering the queen’s chamber via another thick door.

“Merebeth!” she exclaimed, the minute my figure darkened her doorway. She was getting the finishing touches placed on her dark hair and dress by her ladies’ maids, and even though they were still fussing over her, she shooed them away, barking at them to move faster. The moment the last slippered foot disappeared around the corner, I was by her side, and the goblet was in her outstretched hands.  She gulped the contents greedily, as I pulled a handkerchief out of the basket of linen set on her wardrobe table. When she finished she snatched the cloth from my hands, with bared red teeth, and proceeded to blot her stained lips and chin. Tossing the cloth in my face she turned once more toward the mirror, twisting her body back and forth as she examined her reflection, smoothing the velvet of her dress down across her already flat stomach as she sucked it in further and tugged the edges of her lace bodice lower exposing the mounds of her tiny bosom.

“What took you so long?” She didn’t wait for my answer, as she continued in her nagging sulky voice, “You should have been here first thing this morning, before my maids got here. I could have killed one of them! Ugh!” she stomped her tiny foot, as I handed her goblet back to her, now refilled with freshly poured water.  She swished the water about in her mouth, before tilting her head back with a gurgle. I knew any response I had would be useless, so I did not even bother attempting to come up with one, as I waited patiently for her to finish cleansing her mouth so I could take the goblet back to Merlin’s lab. 

Queen Guinevere was a vampire, of our making.  Arthur did not always listen to Merlin’s council, and my grandfather needed to have a permanent bee in his ear. So, when he heard that he pined for the daughter of King Ryon of Ireland, he set his plan in motion.  With help from a vampire friend from Rome, and me, he inflicted the young princess with a deadly illness before her wedding.  He then told her father, that he could cure the young girl, but that the cure came with a price. She would be immortal, but would need to survive off the blood of humans. Valuing an alliance with England’s new warrior king more than his daughter’s happiness Ryon made the deal, and Merlin’s friend made the change. Now, Queen Guinevere, counts on my grandfather and I to keep her steadily supplied with blood from the worst criminals that can be found in the dungeon and we keep her secrets.  In return, she provides the seduction and advice needed to prompt Arthur into taking the right paths of kingship. So, far it was a win-win. Well, almost…

The Queen was in the middle of her third swish and spit, when another figure emerged quietly through the secret door that was well hidden behind some decorative wall silks. The Queen gave a muffled squeal of delight through her puffed water filled cheeks before spitting the contents out in her wash basin, running the back of her hand across her still red lips, and jumping in the strong arms of the tall black haired young man before her.  Their lips quickly met and amid a series of giggles, shrieks and the slapping of roving hands were well on their way to resembling the couple in the alcove when another voice followed by a loud knock sounded at the large front door, used by most, that served as entry into her chamber.  The Queen and the young man flew apart, as her husband proceeded to ask for entry into her chamber from the other side of the door.  I was already halfway through the secret door, attempting to avoid watching the tonsil match, when the voice of the king had me casting a quick glance over my shoulder to see the beseeching gestures of the Queen as she attempted to shoo the reluctant Lancelot toward the secret door.  He had obviously too much wine before he came because his flush face had erupted into giggles behind his hand, and he moved with the languid grace of man half asleep. Rolling my eyes as the Queen’s face turned from beseeching to murderous, I grabbed Lancelot by the collar, slapped him with a silence spell and all but dragged him through the door into the narrow hallway, where it took much fumbling and whispered curses on my end to free my skirts from under his feet, as his too warm body pressed rigidly against my own. Once I managed to pull him by his sweaty palm out the other door back into the alcove, that was fortunately now vacant, I removed the silence spell from him, where he promptly burst into a fierce volley of curses, his good humor now gone. Kicking the door we had just passed through, he paced in front of the statue, running fingers through his thick black curls, anger snapping in his dark green eyes. 

“Damn it! Why must I always run? She said she had told him about us!”

He then stopped before me; nose inches from my brow as his massive frame hovered over me,

“You can do magic, why can you not take care of this for us?  Give Arthur a spell so that he will understand and let us go?”

My fingertips tingled with energy as I had the sudden urge to dig them in his chest, giving his heart a good jolt of well-deserved pain, “Have you not thought, perhaps that she does not want to go?”

I knew in that moment that I had probably pressed my luck too far, as I smelled the sharp tang of wine on his breath. Knights were sensitive creatures, making them volatile under drink, and often unpredictable.  Fortunately, Lancelot knew what I was capable of because whatever was written on my face, caused him to take a step back, dipping his head to look at the tops of his boots. A few dark curls fell across his brow, reminding me that he was only a few years older than me, despite the many horrors of life he had witnessed, and battles he had fought.

“Ah little witch,” his voice was not unkind as he shook his head in sorrow, “you know not what love is.”

With that he turned on his heel, disappearing into the throng of people clogging the hallway. I stood there a moment, hands on hips, lips twisted as I wondered what could be done about this predicament.  The affair between Lancelot and Guinevere was getting out of control.

A warm furry body, pressed against my calf, and the rumble of a purr pulled me from my thoughts as I looked into Tasha’s bright green eyes peering up at me.

I sighed, “Where to, love?” and followed her flicking tail as she led me through halls and up staircases until I reached another chamber door.  Gazing at the familiar iron filigree as it wound across the door before me I looked down at the feline sitting patiently at my feet.

“Are you sure?”

She nodded her head, before rubbing her body across the bottom of the door. Calming my ratcheting heart, I knocked softly a few times before turning to walk away.

“No one home,” I breathed in relief, but my steps were quickly halted by the bristling, yowling ball of fur in my way.  “Oh, all right!” I groaned, stomping back to the door and giving it a firmer knock.

“Enter!”

Pushing the door open, I stepped into the warm comfortable space that was the King’s study.  The young monarch was standing next to his desk, riffling through a stack of parchments when I approached him. His head remained bent, fair golden shoulder length locks, forming a soft curtain around his face. Finding his quarry, he straightened up holding out a folded bit of parchment in my direction.

I didn’t manage to quell the gasp that escaped my lips when his face finally came into view, for he had a large red imprint of a hand across his cheek. Despite now having an explanation for why he had returned to his chambers so quickly, I couldn’t help but ask, “Sire, would you like, um…for me…to ah…”

I pointed to the mark on his cheekbone, right above his fair beard, my finger aching to reach its desired destination despite my self-control.

“Oh, this?” he waved a hand toward the red mark, “sure, if you want.”

I nodded, nervously licking my lips, as I pressed three fingers to his cheek, unable to take my eyes of his piercing blue ones as I muttered the incantation. It was a wonder I remembered the words at all, amid my drowning, and I quickly withdrew my fingers from his face, stuffing them in the folds of my skirt.

He smiled softly at my behavior before thrusting the folded parchment between us once more. 

“Here,” his voice sounded unusually shaky, “your grandfather asked for me to find this and send it to him as soon as I could. Please tell him I would have gotten it to him sooner, but could not find him.  Fortunately I spotted Tasha in the hall, and asked her to find him for me.”

I nodded, my mouth felt dry, as though it was filled with sand.  I should have explained that as my familiar, Tasha would only know where to find me, but I couldn’t unhinge my jaw enough to speak.

Swallowing thickly, I tugged the parchment out of the King’s reluctant fingers, shivering as I felt his crystal blue eyes on my back when I left the room.  He was till staring after me, as I glanced over my shoulder before closing his door behind me, a ghost of a smile playing with the edges of his full lips.

Gasping for air, I finally gathered my wits about me, closing my eyes; I concentrated on my grandfather’s whereabouts.  Feeling his energy, I followed the thread of magic, back down to his lab.

Upon entering I handed him the folded parchment that was now stained with my nervous sweat before collapsing on the large chair, hiding under silks and furs, in the corner of the room.

“Ah, there you are my child! How has your morning gone? I see you have been eagerly working on the new spell?”

I gazed lovingly at the grizzled man standing over a small boiling cauldron, lit from below with witch fire.  The same kind face, with the wisdom of the ages lining his face, peered at me through the steam of his new potion, waiting my answer.

I offered him a weak smile, before resting my head against the tall back of the chair beneath me.

“Fine,” I groaned.

“Come, come Merebeth, what troubles you?” He stuck a long-handled copper ladle into the mixture stirring it about before pouring it carefully into some empty vials. I instantly recognized the metallic scent of the formula that was given to our special prisoners that kept their blood supply up for the Queen.

“The lovely triangle going on between Lancelot, Guinevere, and the King, is getting out of hand, Grand-pere, and I do not know how much longer I can stand covering up for that little wench!”

Merlin gave me a stern glance before returning to his project, but he was nodding his head, “Yes, I have noticed that matters have worsened over the past few months, Lancelot is growing bold, and Guinevere careless.”

“I just wish we could do something about it! Can we not make a potion to force Guinevere to hate Lancelot, but love Arthur, more? You know be the Queen he actually deserves?”

“You mean like you, ma Cherie?
I felt the heat creep across my cheeks at his words.  I knew that I could not hide my regard for the King from my grandfather for long, but I did my best to try.  It seemed as if I had not succeeded for long.

“Well,” Merlin placed the final stopper in the last vial, before opening the King’s note, and read it with a furrowed brow that soon smoothed across his alabaster skin, as he smiled in satisfaction. Muttering a few words the paper was consumed in flames, its ashes promptly scattered by Merlin’s breath.
“Fortunately, I have a plan.”

“You do?”

He smiled kindly before pulling forth a fresh sheet of paper, scribbling a quick note on it, folding it, and then placing it in the capable beak of his hawk familiar, Percival. The elegant bird quickly disappeared out the window, into the bright cloudless day.

“I had Arthur send me a list of Lancelot’s gaming debts. Apparently there are many, and he has become so destitute and frivolous in his spending that he has become an embarrassment to his peers.”

I was barely aware of my body leaning forward, eager for Merlin’s plan.

“I have just sent in a favor to an old fey friend of mine. If she accepts the request then she will provide Lancelot with a love he can be proud of and the money he needs to earn back his honor among his friends.”

“So, that’s it?” The disgust was thick in my tone, “he threatens to ruin everything we have worked for and you are going to reward him?”

Merlin smiled fondly at me, as he gathered his dark green robes about his sturdy old body, sinking into the chair opposite mine. He patted my hand tenderly with his gnarled one, before removing a pipe from the small table between us and stuffing it with his favorite grass. “My dear, Lancelot needs a distraction, and Guinevere needs to learn a lesson. This is for the best.”

“Hmph,” I eyed him warily as I tugged a book off the precariously tipping pile next to my chair, settling it my lap, as I tucked my feet beneath me, “what he needs is his head removed.”

Merlin smiled around his billowing pipe, “Perhaps later, my dear.”

The next day, word arrived from Merlin’s friend, agreeing to his request, and the next month became almost unbearable.  Lancelot had become the laughingstock of the Round Table, so he left to sulk in the woods where he was miraculously approached by three beautiful maidens who bid him come dine at their mistress’ table. True to her word, the beautiful fey, seduced the brash knight, vowing to love him, and showering him in gifts of coin, clothes, and food.  As soon as the Queen caught wind of Lancelot’s fortune that left her bed cold she went on a slight rampage, draining no less than ten of her maidens, and a few other servants as well. Despite keeping her supplied with double the amount of blood, Merlin and I had to inflict the castle with a mild plague to cover her tracks. One hot afternoon, after disposing of yet another body, I collapsed into my favorite chair, too tired to clean the blood from my hands.

“Grand-pere?” I yawned, struggling to keep my heavy lids open, as they fought against two nights of lost sleep. “Will this be over soon?”

Merlin’s grey head was bent over another piece of parchment, his dark blue eyes, darted across the page, soaking in its message with a smile.

“I believe so,” the paper crumbled once more to ash in his palm before he looked up, “Merebeth, make haste to the Queen’s room. Lancelot is on his way to break the news of his engagement to Guinevere. I need to you be sure she does not try to drain him as well.”

“Great,” I groaned, rising to my throbbing feet, and rubbing my gritty eyes. Hastening to the Queen’s chambers, muttering a healing, cleaning, and energy spell, I made no pretense at secrecy as I barged into the room, for the screaming had started when I was still quite far down the hall.

“Please my lady!” I came up behind the screaming Queen, her quivering naked back was to me, her fair skin flushed with splotches of rage, as I wrapped my arms around her waist, pining her arms to her side.

She barely paid me any mind, as Lancelot, backed out of the secret door, one hand holding up his torn tunic, another raised in defense against the heat of the words she hurled his way. As soon as the door closed behind him, I spun her around, shaking her by the shoulders.

“My Queen, what is the meaning of this? Do you want the entire castle to come running?”

I looked into her brimming hazel eyes, as tears streaked down her cheeks.  Blood trickled down her chin where her sharp fangs had undoubtedly extended during her rampage, and she had bitten her lip. The unabashed pain in her eyes melted my heart slightly, as I wrapped her robe around her shaking shoulders. I quickly realized from her scented room that she had been attempting to seduce her lover back.

Rolling my eyes at the absurdity of the situation, I coaxed her to the couch where I sat next to her, placing her head in my lap, I pierced my wrist with the sharp edge of my nail, letting her feed from my wrist as I smoothed her hair, and dried her tears.  She whimpered like a child as she sucked greedily from my wrist, and once I felt her heart beat calm, I gently pried my arm out of her grasp, rubbing her temples in soothing strokes.

“Do not worry, my Queen, you still have a husband who adores you. Lancelot is nothing.”

She sniffled loudly before sitting up, her eyes raking over my face in sincerity.

“You are right,” she said through hic-upped breaths, as she ran her fingers along the silk edges of her robe. “He will pay for his disrespect to me.”

Grimacing, at her words I pondered where to push, but realized that this was all a part of Merlin’s plan. Guinevere had been hurt, but she had not yet learned her lesson.  Leaving her to her sulking thoughts, I made my way back to my room, thinking only of my soft pillow, when I nearly ran into the King, leaning against the wall halfway down the hall from his chamber to the Queen’s.

“My lord!” I quickly hid my embarrassment in a low curtsey, which Arthur waved away with a hand.

“No, please, Merebeth, don’t.” His hand, gently cradling my elbow sent heat coursing through my veins, until it settled into a dull ache in the pit of my stomach. Rising from my curtsey, I offered a nervous grimace before continuing on my way.

“Merebeth,” I froze, realizing that he had just used my name twice, and my heart leapt with excitement, soon quelled by his next words. “Will she forget him soon?”

I turned back to look at the King, hope etched across his fine features as he pushed off from the wall and took a few steps towards me. I nodded dumbly, licking my lips free of their usual fear at what his heady musk scent that radiated from him, often did to melt my bones.

“I believe she will, sir.”

He offered a soft smile, his right cheek dimpling in a boyish way as he nodded, “Good.”

“Wait, you knew about her and---“

“Lancelot?” he finished for me.

I gulped, wondering how much damage her little tryst had done, and how we were going to fix it.

“I’ve known for a while,” he clasped his hands behind his back, rocking back on his heels as he cocked his head at me thoughtfully.

“What are you going to do?” I kicked myself inwardly at my sudden rash outburst, and held my breath for his answer.

“Nothing,” he shrugged, his curls brushing against the soft velvet of his tunic, “she loved me once, and I have faith in Merlin that,” he sighed deeply, “all will be well in the end.”

“Oh,” I mumbled, looking down at my foot as I made circles on the stone floor, “right.”

“But, you Merebeth, are an invaluable jewel,” I looked up quickly and was face to face with the hollow of his neck, pulsing slightly from waves of his heartbeat, “I would be lost without you.”

I stood wide-eyed staring dumbly as the silky threads of his beard lowered into my view, and he brushed a tickle of a kiss across my cheek.

Somehow, although, I later do not remember doing so, I managed to drop another courtesy, mumble my gratitude and flee to my room, where I laid curled in my bed, holding my cheek, worried that the mark of his lips would suddenly dissolve if I did not hold it in place.

The next few days happened in a blur that I still barely remember. Guinevere accused Lancelot of dishonor by seduction, and a trial was held.  Lancelot, maintained his innocence by calling on his new consort, who before the noose was tightened around the knight’s neck, finally came parading with her stunningly gorgeous handmaidens down the street. She vouched for his honor, Lancelot was set free, and Guinevere was publicly humiliated and had finally learned her lesson. Knowing that she was no longer the most desirable maiden in the land, was a large piece of humble pie for her to consume.

Things have not been the same between her and Arthur since, and he still does not know that she is a vampire, or that she is under our control.  She is learning to control her urges more, and there have been fewer accidents, but she is still short tempered.  There also seems to be another issue that even the great Merlin was not able to predict. She has not been able to conceive, and the kingdom of Camelot will soon need an heir. Before rumors spread and other women come to dethrone our Queen to take her place, my grandfather and I have our work cut out for us.

Merlin’s friend from Rome, who turned Guinevere, arrives tomorrow, and as I clean the lab in anticipation for his arrival I have my usual chat with Tasha.

“Please, feline, for the love of all that is holy, don’t mess things up for us.  I see what you have been up to, lately. Finding me and taking me to the King when he has not asked for me. It has been making things very awkward as of late, and wherever you have hidden those fertility spells, you best find them quick.  We have a royal baby to make.”

Blinking up at me with her bright green eyes, Tasha let out a throaty meow, that sounded more like a chuckle, before curling herself around my hourglass, and tucking her nose under her tail for a nice long nap.