I had gathered wood for the morning fire and was squatting next to it, waiting for my friend to set it alight, when the girl, perched on a stump, raised her bow and prepared to shoot. In a small clearing past a sparse stand of trees stood a stag, chest deep in mist off the river. Head raised, he was scenting the air, the great rack of antlers angled back to catch the early sun.
Rising, I rested a hand on her arm. “It would be a waste of meat. It’s only the three of us here.”
She glanced at the older man kneeling before the stacked wood. “No waste if he can magic what we don’t eat back to my people.” The tone bordered on insolent, and I smiled and waited to see how he’d react.
“My magic, such as it is, doesn’t work like that.” He flicked his fingers at the wood, and a flame leaped from the rowan branches. He sat back on his heels with a satisfied sigh. “Arthur is right. Let the stag live. There’s dried meat in the saddlebags.” He gave her a sharp look under lowered eyebrows. “Your people will be well rewarded for your help in seeing Arthur home. He’s assured you of that.”
I laughed shortly. “Set upon by bandits in my own kingdom. Times are most definitely changing, Merlin.” I squatted before the fire and warmed my hands.
“Twas Saxons who did that.” She set aside her bow and went to Merlin’s horse to retrieve our dinner. She’d traveled with us for several days and become comfortable in our presence. “None of mine would dare touch you, my lord.”
“And for that, I am grateful.” I grinned at Merlin, who’d settled against a fallen log and pulled his hood close against the chilly morning air. He was staring into the fire, as was his habit, and I wondered what, if anything, he saw there. “When we reach Camelot, would you like to stay and serve the court? You could wait on my Lady Guinevere.”
Her surprise and pleasure at my offer was plain, but suddenly she looked past me and narrowed her eyes. She raced to where she’d left the bow, picked it up, notched the arrow, and let it fly. I turned to follow its path; it flew straight and true, piercing the rabbit through the shoulder.
She strode over to it and efficiently broke its neck. “Fresh meat for breakfast after all, my lords.”
Within minutes, the rabbit was on a spit over the fire. The smell of cooking meat made my mouth water. “You never answered my question.”
“I’ll answer it now then. Aye, I’ll serve you at Camelot, and gladly.” She snuck at look at Merlin. “Though I’m more interested in learning magic than sitting with the women.”
She was brash, and I admired her for it. “You’ll have to take that up with Merlin. In the meantime, will you tell us your name at last?”
She turned the spit, and grease fell to the wood and sputtered. “I am called Niniane, my lord.”
A sharp exhalation from Merlin drew my attention. He’d bolted upright and was staring at the girl with something like fear in his eyes.
“Merlin?” I leaned toward him and stretched out a hand. “Are you ill?
He shook me off and settled once more against the wood, his muscles stiff and unyielding. “‘Twas nothing.” He chuckled uneasily. “I but saw a dream come to life.” He hadn’t taken his eyes off Niniane. She returned the look without flinching, chin raised as if in challenge.
“Meat’s done,” she said. “Lord Merlin, will you partake?”
A long moment passed, and I got the impression they were conversing without saying a word. Perhaps I had been hasty, asking her to come to court. It was on the tip of my tongue to rescind the offer when Merlin finally answered her question.
“It seems I must,” he said quietly. “The future has arrived.”
The legend of Merlin says a young girl name Niniane (or Vivien or Nimue) enchanted him in his later years, stealing his magic and leaving him in a state of living death. This is my take on their meeting.
Word count: 677
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