The first day of spring brought sunshine and warmth to the Kingdom of Rheged. It was a good day for riding and Yvain, King of Rheged, couldn't wait to be on the road to Camelot. He especially wanted to be gone because every single person in his castle had found an excuse to harass him with this or that emergency right as he was trying to leave. Right at this moment he was dealing with his son, Idrus.
"Look, you can come to Camelot next year when you're fourteen," Yvain told the boy firmly. At least, Yvain hoped it was firmly. He never felt comfortable acting as an authority figure. That was why he hated being king and felt awkward as a parent. "Then you can find a knight to serve as a squire. Until then, you have your page duties here and I expect you to fulfill them.
"But I just want to see Camelot," Idrus protested. "I've never been and think I should go at least once before I become a squire. I'll only go for a short while and then return in time to complete my page duties."
"And who will escort you back here from Camelot?" Yvain asked. "I'll be riding to the southern coast with the Fifth Command upon arrival. I don't know how long Nimue plans to stay in Camelot, but her decision to go at all tells me this journey is something important to her. I can't ask her to look after you."
"I don't need looking after," Idrus protested.
"You're my heir and future King of Rheged," Yvain said. "Of course you need looking after. Now, next year I promise. I'll make sure you have the best knight master twenty years of service to Arthur and a Kingdom prosperous as Rheged can buy. Alright?"
"Alright," Idrus said, his shoulders slumping in defeat.
"Look, I know it's difficult," Yvain said. "I stood where you're standing now when I was thirteen and begged my father to take me to Camelot a year early so I could serve my uncle as a page. But he refused me as I'm refusing you. And I hope in twenty-five years' time your son proves as obnoxious as I was to my father and you're being now."
That brought out a smile. Yvain clapped a hand on Idrus' back and then slung his arm around the boy's shoulder. Together they walked down to the gates of Rheged's Castle where Nimue, Laudine, Morvydd and the horses waited.
Yvain saw Nimue first. The enchantress stood out in her bright red cloak. Nimue's brown curls had been braided back with far more skill than she possessed— likely Laudine had helped her. He knew that Nimue preferred to have her hair tied back when she rode, but Yvain preferred her hair loose. She looked too young with her hair tied up. It was a sharp reminder to Yvain that Nimue hadn't aged a day in eleven years. He didn't like being reminded of that tragedy.
Next to Nimue stood Yvain's wife, Laudine, and daughter, Morvydd. Laudine looked every inch the Queen she was, with her dark brown hair piled on top head, interwoven along the silver circlet on her brow. She wore a gray dress made of the finest material. But, as always with Laudine, it wasn't the clothes or her hair that made her a queen. It was her posture— straight, proud and unyielding— and the strength of her will reflected in her gray eyes. Laudine's life hadn't been an easy one and Yvain took all the blame for her hardships. But those same hardships had forged her into the ruler Rheged needed and Yvain could not be. Whenever he left his kingdom in the summer months to offer his service to his uncle, Yvain never had any qualms about leaving the kingdom in his wife's capable hands.
Only eight, Morvydd was dressed in a tunic that went down to her knees. Of course, her brown hair was braided as nicely as Nimue's. Nicer, actually, as Morvydd's hair had yellow flowers woven into it. She had her mother's gray eyes although her hair was a lighter brown. Yvain let his court think that the lighter brown came from him— from his dirty blond hair mixing with Laudine's dark brown. Of course, nothing in Morvydd came from him. Yvain had never laid with a woman in his entire life— at least not in any way that counted. But he had acknowledged Morvydd as his own and owed it to Laudine not to let the court discover otherwise. Besides, he was filled with an odd sense of joy whenever anyone said Morvydd shared some of his features.
"Something wrong?" Laudine asked when Yvain and Idrus were close enough to hear her.
"Not at all," Yvain said.
"I'm obnoxious," Idrus said.
Yvain closed his eyes. Dear gods, let him go back to the day he had decided to bring this child into his home and name him heir so he could undo that good deed. This wasn't worth the praise he had received for taking the orphaned boy in as his own.
"That's good, Idrus," Nimue said. "I've never met a knight of Camelot who wasn't."
"Nim!" Yvain cried, his dark eyes flying open. Nimue flashed a smile at him. The little imp.
"Aunt Nimue, couldn't I come to Camelot with you?" Idrus asked. "I just want to see it once before I go in service as a squire."
Nimue's smile fell. "Oh, Idrus. Why couldn't you have asked me last year?"
"You would have taken me?" Idrus asked. Nimue nodded.
"You never go to Camelot!" Yvain said.
"I would have gone for Idrus," Nimue said.
"Well, if you would have taken me last year, why not this year?" Idrus asked.
"I'm afraid I'm making the journey now as a matter of great importance. I wouldn't be able to look after you."
"I don't need looking after," Idrus grumbled.
"See. Obnoxious," Yvain said.
"Like father, like son," Laudine said.
"And not a bad thing at all," Nimue added.
"I'm going down here," Yvain said, kneeling down in front of Morvydd.
"Hello father," the little girl said brightly. "I picked you a flower." She held out a white wildflower— already wilting.
"Oh good," Yvain said, taking the flower and tucking it in his belt. "Because if I get into any fights I want to make sure everyone remembers that I battle for the glory of Princess Morvydd."
"Right," Morvydd said, bouncing up and down. "Because I'm your lady."
"That you are," Yvain said, giving his daughter a hug. "Miss you, princess."
"Miss you, father," Morvydd said, giving him a big kiss on the cheek.
Yvain stood and faced Laudine. The kiss they shared was awkward— he had never been comfortable physically with Laudine. And even with the ways their relationship had changed and grown over the past six years, Yvain always feared Laudine would come to expect more than he could offer. She wouldn't, of course. That wasn't who Laudine was. She had long ago resigned herself to what their marriage was and she knew well enough not to expect that to change. So in that, their kiss served its purpose. For Yvain it assured him that he was leaving Rheged in the hands of a capable ruler who would see to the country's best interests while he was away. For Laudine (and Yvain knew this because they'd had long discussions about the point of this kiss), it assured her that he would ride home at the head of an army should she need him. Sometimes Yvain thought it would be better for the two of them to kiss the ground of Rheged instead of each other, as that was what the kiss was actually about.
"Safe journey," Laudine said.
"Send word if you need anything," Yvain said. He turned to Idrus. "Look, next year isn't that far away. We'll be riding to Camelot before you know it. I promise."
"And if he breaks his promise for any reason, I promise to take you," Nimue said.
"Thanks," Idrus said, trying to smile. "See you in the fall."
"In the fall," Yvain agreed as he and Nimu mounted their horses and finally rode out from Rheged.
Yvain glanced at Nimue, wondering if now was a good time to ask her why she was coming with him to Camelot. She hadn't been to Arthur's golden city in years. At least not since the last major Saxon invasion if not longer. She must have had one big, terrifying vision to get her to break her self-imposed exile. And Yvain was dying to know what that was. But he didn't feel up to asking her. Not yet.
"Oh, Gods!" Yvain cried, stretching his arms out to the sky. "I am so glad to be on the road again. Is it just me or was this past winter a long one?"
"Every winter that Galahad spends in Benoic seems long to you," Nimue teased.
Yvain drew in a deep breath, tasting the warm spring air. This was only the second time in the past seven years that Galahad had spent the winter in his home country of Benoic. Yvain hated that. He preferred to have his lover close to his side.
"So you're saying that the winter didn't feel long to you at all?" Yvain asked.
"Not in the slightest," Nimue said.
"Right. So when we meet up with Galahad, I'm going to tell him you didn't miss him."
"You do that and I'll turn you into a fish," Nimue said tartly.
"A fish? Just a fish? That's not very creative."
"You're not worth the time to come up with something better."
"Not worth it? Nim, my dear, after everything we've been through, I had better be worth your very best and most creative threats."
Nimue flashed him that impish grin she was so famous for before turning her attention to the road. "Let's gallop. I miss riding with the Fifth Command like that."
Yvain motioned for Nimue to go first and soon the two of them were charging down the road. Yvain didn't find much joy in the ride. He spent his summers as a leader of the Fifth Command— one of the five army units that served Arthur's High Kingdom and protected Britain. The Fifth Command was a strict cavalry unit and was often running east to west trying to protect the coastline from raiders. Nimue used to ride with the command, but hadn't in years. So Yvain found joy in watching her thrill and excitement in the gallop.
"That was lovely," Nimue said when they finally slowed their horses down.
"Your hair stayed up," Yvain teased. "Did Laudine braid it for you?"
"She did not," Nimue said loftily. "I did this all by myself. I have proven quite the pupil."
"Doubtful," Yvain said and Nimue made a face at him. "Someone must have helped you."
"Morvydd," Nimue said. "But only a little."
"And you escaped without flowers woven into your braids?" Yvain asked. Nimue laughed and reached out to brush a hand against the flower tucked in Yvain's belt.
"Why are you coming to Camelot?" Yvain asked before he lost his nerve.
Nimue's hand fell away and she looked to the road. "I miss everyone."
"Oh, now that's a terrible lie," Yvain said. "You don't like anyone in Camelot except Loholt and Alessandra. Maybe you could count Tristan but he rarely comes to Camelot."
"Well, why can't I be going to see Loholt or Alessandra?" Nimue asked. "And how do you know that I haven't foreseen Tristan being there?"
"You can and I don't, but catching up with old friends doesn't seem like the important business that would keep you from bringing Idrus along." Nimue didn't respond and kept her gaze on the road. "Is it because of your nightmares?"
"What would you know about my nightmares?" Nimue asked.
"That you've been having them regularly for more than a year now. That they leave you terrified. Laudine is worried about you."
"Laudine can keep her worry," Nimue snapped. "I can handle a few nightmares."
"Are they just nightmares?" Yvain asked.
"Laudine said you told her something was coming."
"Well, it's been over a year since I said that and nothing has come," Nimue said. "Yvain, I appreciate your concern, but they're just nightmares. I'm not worried about them and neither should you be."
"So why are you coming to Camelot?"
Nimue gave him an impish grin. "Now, Yvain. You wouldn't want me to ruin the surprise, would you?"
"Surprise?" Yvain asked, but Nimue had already kicked her horse into a gallop. "What surprise?" he yelled, spurring on his own horse. "Nim, wait! What surprise?"
She expected to see him when she rode through the gates of Camelot. Nimue didn't know why. Percival had been dead for seven years and she hadn't set foot in Camelot in ten. She had no strong memories in Camelot associated with Percival. Except that this was where they had first met. Back when they couldn't stand to be in each other's presence. It had taken years for any sort of trust or respect to develop between them and even longer for those feelings to develop into love.
Yvain kept promising her that the hurt would ease one day. To Nimue, the wound still felt fresh. Maybe because she was immortal, it would take longer to heal than it would for a mortal. Nimue hoped that was it. She had a long life ahead of her and she didn't want to hurt like this forever.
Didn't want to always look for him whenever she rode into Camelot.
While Percival was long gone from this world, Galahad was waiting for them just within Camelot's gates. Nimue had made sure he had known when they would be arriving. She knew well that Yvain had wanted to see him before anyone else. Waiting with Galahad, to Nimue's great relief, was Tristan. His presence caused Yvain to look at her through narrowed eyes. Nimue ignored him. Yes, she could have told him that she had asked Tristan to meet them in Camelot months ago, but that wouldn't be any fun.
"Nim," Galahad said, stepping up to her horse. He reached up to help her down even though she didn't really need it. So Nimue took the opportunity to wrap her arms around his neck and hold him in an embrace even after her feet touched the ground.
"We missed you," Nimue said, holding him tight.
"You t-t-too," Galahad said.
Nimue finally stepped back so she could look at him— making sure he hadn't changed in the months he had been away from them. His short, curly brown hair had a few more wisps of white, but other than that Nimue couldn't see much of a difference. His round face was still open and inviting. The lines across his face— while they spoke most clearly of the sorrow he had seen in his life— hadn't taken away from his openness at all. Only his dark eyes ever held any guarded distance, but not with Nimue. With Nimue, Yvain and the rest of their family, Galahad held nothing back.
"You spend all winter in Benoic and you dare to hug her before you hug me?" Yvain asked, coming up to join them.
They had been friends for half their lives and lovers for nearly as long. And yet, for two men who meant the world to each other, they couldn't have been more different. It wasn't just their appearance, although Yvain's straight, fair hair and narrow face was a sharp contrast to Galahad's. But it was their nature's that drew the sharpest distinction. While open and honest to all, Galahad was always quiet. He preferred to listen, watch and let others come to him. Yvain liked to talk. He liked his thoughts to be known and never hesitated to shout them loudly. But for all he liked to talk and interact with people, Yvain was so closely guarded. While Galahad's eyes only reflected the barest hint of defensiveness, Yvain's dark eyes let no one in easily. Even Nimue and Galahad had to work at it.
"M-missed her more," Galahad said.
"You…? You missed her more? She didn't miss you at all!"
Nimue looked at Galahad. "If you ask me really nicely, I promise I won't turn Yvain into a fish." Galahad leaned down and kissed her cheek.
"Is there room for one more in this reunion?"
"Tristan!" Nimue yelled, jumping into his arms. She hadn't seen Tristan in seven years. Not since the last Saxon invasion after which Nimue had retreated to Rheged and Tristan had become King of Ceniw.
"Good to see you, Nimue," Tristan said.
"And you," Nimue said. "How are you? And Isolde— is she here? And your children!"
"I'm fine. As is Isolde. She's here in Camelot if you want to see her."
"And your children?" Nimue pressed.
"Drystan and Ysaie are both here. Drystan is serving as a squire to Dinadan. Brangwen is in Dumnonia."
"Ysaie inherited his mother's gifts if I remember correctly." Isolde was a natural healer. It was a rare magical ability but, as with most powers of that sort, tended to be passed through the bloodline.
"Yes. The only one. He'll be studying in Avalon soon enough, but for now Isolde prefers to keep him close."
Finished greeting Galahad, Yvain came up to Tristan and clapped a hand on his back. "Tristan. Good to see you as always but… why are you here?"
"Nimue asked me to come," Tristan said. "She wants me to help Cador lead the Fifth Command this summer."
"Help Cador lead the Fifth Command," Yvain repeated. "Nim. One— Galahad and I lead the Fifth Command. Cador helps us. Two- Why do we need Tristan's help?"
"Tristan is going to help Cador with the Fifth Command this summer because you and Galahad will be so busy helping me that you won't have time for it."
"Helping with what?" Galahad asked.
"That's a surprise," Nimue said. Galahad's brow furrowed and Yvain looked ready to strangle her. Nimue decided now would be a good time to take her leave of them. "Would you see to my things? I have to look something up in Merlin's library."
"Merlin?" Yvain asked. But Nimue had already turned away and was heading up the courtyard steps into the castle. Yvain ran to catch up with her. "Nim, wait!"
Nimue sighed and turned back to face him. "Yvain, I really—"
"Are you sure you want to do this alone?" he asked.
Nimue smiled and rested a hand on his chest. "Thank you, but no. I'll be fine."
"If you're sure. But if you need me, don't hesitate to use magic to drag me to your side. Even if it does turn me into a fish."
"I will," Nimue said before she turned away from him and started back up the stairs.
It had been seven years since she had seen Merlin and they had parted on bad terms. Nimue didn't relish the prospect of seeing him now. But unfortunately she had work to do and she had already put it off for far too long.
"I have the strangest feeling of foreboding."
Nimue glanced up from the book she was reading to find Merlin standing next to the bookshelf she was looking through. Nimue was balancing a few steps up the ladder so she was a good two heads taller than her old mentor.
They called themselves enchanters. They wielded the strongest forces of magic available to humans. They were also immortal. While there were a small handful of enchanters alive in the world, only one was allowed to meddle in the affairs of men. That one was called the ruling enchanter and he or she was more powerful than any of their peers. As a ruling enchanter's time ended, their great powers slowly siphoned away to the one who would come after them.
Eleven years ago, that transfer of power had begun with a single prophetic vision. That was when Nimue had stopped aging. She had been young for it— most enchanters were in their middle years when they stopped aging. Merlin had been ancient. His long, white hair and beard and stick thin frame beneath his robes spoke to that. Only his blues eyes (odd since all the others including Nimue had cream-colored eyes) reflected the youthful energy that no man his age should possess.
"I was wondering," Merlin continued, "if you have been experiencing the same thing."
Nimue's mind went right to her nightmares. That certainty when she awoke that something horrible was on its way.
All enchanters were born with one prophetic ability. Nimue had been able to hear whispers from the fairy otherworld her whole life and she was almost certain that Merlin had been born with the ability to see the future. When an enchanter held the ruling position he or she had all manner of prophetic abilities. Nimue had slowly been gaining those abilities over the years. The different powers came and went as they ebbed and flowed between her and Merlin as his power slowly filled her. She hadn't sensed a possible future in years. But her nightmares were more than making up for that.
"I have not," Nimue lied, looking back down at her book.
"You haven't?" Merlin asked.
"So you feel no sense of foreboding and yet you make your first journey to Camelot in nearly ten years. You feel no sense of foreboding and yet you are here in my library researching fairies and selkies and spells you can never hope to cast. Now, why-ever would you be doing those things if you did not sense the coming of something dreadful?"
"Are you aware of what's happening in the north, Merlin?"
"Of course I am. But I see no reason for you to involve yourself in that matter."
"No, of course you don't. Your idea of dealing with a crisis is to wander off and make yourself impossible to find."
Merlin huffed. "You're still upset about that?"
Nimue closed the book she had been reading and returned it the shelf. "I've found what I need. Thank you for allowing me the use of your resources." She started down the ladder.
"This has gone on quite enough, Nimue," Merlin said. "You will one day be the ruling enchanter. You cannot allow such petty emotions to cloud your judgment."
"Cloud my judgment?" Nimue yelled, suddenly furious. "Camelot nearly fell because your judgment told you the best thing to do would be to take a holiday!"
"Are you truly angry about that or are you just upset because you foolishly believe Percival's death could have been averted in the last Saxon invasion if I had been at court during Guinevere's betrayal?"
"Not so foolish! We don't know how different things would have been if you had been doing your duties to Arthur as ruling enchanter!"
"You think one man's presence at court could have prevented another from dying six years later?"
"I think that if you had been there, Gawain and Gareth might not have died," Nimue said. "And we don't know how different things would have gone if they had fought in the last invasion!"
"Might not," Merlin said. "We can't be sure of anything, Nimue."
"I need to dress for supper," Nimue said, turning to leave.
"That spell you were looking at," Merlin said, causing Nimue to pause. "You can't cast it. Even I can't cast it. There are limits to what you can do."
Nimue turned back to face him. "You're wrong, Merlin. I can cast that spell and there will be no limits to what I can do."
Isolde hated being in Ceniw alone. It reminded her too much of those few wretched months when she had been engaged to Ceniw's former King, Mark. It wasn't a time in her life she liked to dwell on. Especially not since her marriage to Tristan. She was grateful to Arthur for giving Ceniw to Tristan after Mark had been deposed. Tristan had more than earned it, but Isolde could never be comfortable there. And she would never stay in that castle without her husband.
She had thought of going to Dumnonia to visit Brangwen when Tristan had told her he was needed at Camelot. But when Isolde had learned that Nimue was going to be coming south for the first time in seven years she had decided to join her husband in Camelot. Isolde had become quite close to Nimue during the years she and Tristan had lived in Dumnonia. She had missed her friend. She missed her life in Dumnonia before those she had been closest to had all gone away.
"Goddess," Isolde breathed when Nimue stepped out of her bedroom. "You look…"
"The same," Nimue said.
Isolde straightened up and hid her shock. "My apologies. I'm sure you get tired of hearing that."
"One day I'm sure I'll get used to this," Nimue said.
Isolde wrapped an arm around Nimue's shoulder and together they started down towards the dining hall. "So, are you going to tell me why you've summoned us all here or is that a secret you intend to keep a little longer?"
"Do none of you value the power of being surprised anymore?" Nimue asked.
"We've all been worried," Isolde said. "It's been a long time since you've been concerned at all with any of the on-goings in Camelot. And it's not as though things haven't been happening here or you haven't been needed. We fear that it must be something dire to get you involved again in Arthur's Camelot."
"Oh, nothing so exciting, I'm afraid," Nimue said. "After the last invasion, I needed some time. Time to just be Nimue while I still can before I become the ruling enchantress. Now I'm afraid that time is coming to an end."
"So we'll be seeing more of you in Camelot?"
"Not right away. I want to ease back into this. There are still things I need to do before I take my place here."
"Well, I will be grateful to have you among us again," Isolde said, dropping her arm to give the young woman's hand a squeeze. They had just entered the great hall and she knew this would be difficult for Nimue. "Galahad and Yvain sit up near the front. Rheged is a powerful ally and holds a blood relation to the king."
"And Tristan?" Nimue asked.
"In the middle of the hall. See the Unicorn?" Isolde said, pointing to Tristan's banner. "Ceniw has rich ports, but it's small in size. And Tristan prefers to keep his distance from the king."
"Some wounds never heal," Nimue said softly. "Where are our men?"
"Yvain, Galahad and Cador were introducing Tristan to the command and ensuring the men understood what's happening. But they should have a seat up there for you."
"May I sit with you and Tristan?"
"Oh, certainly," Isolde said. "But wouldn't you prefer to be with Yvain and Galahad?"
"No. Let them have their reunion. Besides, I see them all the time. I haven't see you or Tristan in seven years."
"Very well," Isolde said, pulling Nimue along to the Ceniw seats at the table.
Nimue took the seat furtherest from the high table. The seat that Tristan preferred to take, but Isolde let Nimue have it without comment. She doubted Tristan would mind sitting one chair closer to Arthur if Nimue was sitting with them.
A page came to fill Nimue's cup and then nodded to the head table. Both Nimue and Isolde looked. Prince Loholt, Arthur's son from his marriage to Guinevere and heir, and his wife, Princess Alessandra, both raised their cups in salute to the enchantress. Nimue smiled and returned the gesture.
"Are you a close acquaintance of the prince?" a deep voice asked.
Isolde looked around Nimue to see Sir Bleoberis taking his seat next to the enchantress. Isolde reached for Nimue's hand underneath the table in silent warning. Sir Bleoberis was a Benoic knight and the son of the late Sir Bors. Bors and his brother Lionel had been cousins of the disgraced Sir Lancelot and loyal to Queen Guinevere in her betrayal of Arthur. Bors and Lionel had been killed by Sir Percival. Nimue, Isolde believed, had been there when the men had died. She may have even had a hand in their demise.
Bleoberis was not a man to trifle with. He would become a fast enemy if he knew who Nimue was and who she associated with. Things were already strained between Bleoberis and the High King's family and there was no love lost between him and his cousin Galahad.
"We're old friends," Nimue said, giving Isolde's hand a squeeze. She barely spared Bleoberis a glance.
"Not too old, I daresay," Bleoberis said.
"You might be surprised."
"You're new to court, though. I don't recognize you." Nimue finally turned to look at the knight and Isolde heard him draw in a sharp breath. "And with those eyes, I'm sure I would have remembered."
"What's your name, Sir Knight?" Nimue asked.
"Sir Bleoberis," the man said. "Son of Sir Bors and the future King of Benoic."
"Future King of Benoic?" Nimue asked, sounding interested. "But aren't you only a distant cousin of the current king?"
"Galahad has no children of his own," Bleoberis scoffed. "And is unlikely to in the future."
"And why is that?" Nimue asked. Now she rested her chin on her hand and leaned closer to Bleoberis. "It was my understanding that Galahad is not so old or withered to father a child. Has he received some injury?"
"No, nothing so unfortunate," Bleoberis said. "But I can't see god gifting such a man with children. Galahad has committed an unforgivable sin, after all."
Nimue laughed and Isolde held on more tightly to the Enchantress' hand. She wondered what game Nimue was playing. "King Galahad? An unforgivable sin? Sir, that seems hard to believe. I've heard nothing but praise for the Benoic King over the years. He sounds a kind and generous man. A formidable knight and a respected king."
"No complaints on his conduct as king or knight," Bleoberis said. "It's his relationship with King Yvain of Rheged that soils him."
"How so? I thought they were close friends and comrades in arms—"
Bleoberis laughed. "How innocent you are, lass! They're lovers. This isn't even a secret in Arthur's court or seen as a disgraceful act."
"Why should it be?"
"It's a sin, m'lady."
"A— ah. You're pagan. I should have known with you keeping the company of Ceniw royalty. No offense, your highness." Bleoberis tipped his head towards Isolde.
"None taken, Sir Bleoberis," Isolde said quietly.
"So loving a man is a crime in the eyes of the Christian God?" Nimue asked.
"A most heinous one," Bleoberis said. "And Galahad has certainly suffered for it. No wife or children— of course I suppose Yvain has it worse. His wife cuckolded him and he doesn't even have the strength of character to set her aside. But Galahad has also seen his father disgraced and his own reputation tarnished through his companionship with the traitor, Mordred."
Nimue stilled. She had taken Bleoberis' insults of Yvain and Galahad easily enough. But it was the insult to Mordred that seemed to push the enchantress over the edge. Isolde wondered why.
"The traitor?" Nimue asked quietly.
"The High King's bastard son by his sister," Bleoberis said, unaware of the danger he was in. "A creature of evil, to be sure. It's a testament to Arthur's generous nature that he welcomed the traitor into his court. It's only a shame Arthur banished the traitor instead of executing him."
Nimue's eyes locked with Bleoberis. The knight froze, suddenly realizing that he was dealing with someone not of this world.
"You sound as though you carry some personal grudge, Sir Bleoberis," Nimue said. Her piper-like voice held a deadly edge.
"Who are you?" Bleoberis asked.
"Ask anyone here," Nimue said. "They all know me."
A shadow fell over the table and Isolde looked up in relief to see that Tristan had joined them. He was frowning at Nimue. The enchantress looked up and flashed him a smile— her cold anger gone as quickly as it had come. But Tristan didn't look convinced.
"King Tristan," Bleoberis said.
"Sir Bleoberis," Tristan replied. His green eyes stayed on Nimue though.
"Who is your wife's charming companion, Tristan?" Bleoberis asked. "The young lady refuses to give me her name."
Tristan stared down at Nimue, but the enchantress' coy smile didn't falter. Finally, Tristan turned his gaze to Bleoberis. "This is the Lady Nimue."
"Nimue," Bleoberis repeated, looking at then enchantress. Nimue's smile widened as her cream colored eyes met Bleoberis' brown ones. "No, your highness. Surely you jest. This woman is no more than a child and the Lady Nimue is said to be as old as you are."
"I said you might be surprised," Nimue said.
The knight let out a roar and reached for the sword hanging on the back of his chair. Tristan jumped back, reaching for his sword. Isolde grabbed Nimue by the shoulder and tried to pull her back, but the enchantress wouldn't be moved.
Of course, there quickly proved to be nothing to fear as Bleoberis was unable to draw his sword from its scabbard. Tristan dropped his hand from the hilt of his own sword and stared at Nimue. The enchantress didn't seem to notice as she was watching Sir Bleoberis struggle to pull his sword from his scabbard with a bored expression on her face. As Nimue had already proven, though, looks could be deceiving and Isolde didn't doubt that the enchantress was silently laughing at Bleoberis' humiliation. She had never been above causing mischief.
"Sir Bleoberis," a warm voice said and the knight ceased his struggle. Tristan turned and bowed to King Arthur. Bleoberis followed in suit. Isolde moved to stand so she could honor the High King of Britain, but Arthur motioned for her and Nimue to stay seated. "Is something amiss?"
"No, my lord," Bleoberis said.
"I'm pleased to hear it," Arthur said. "However, if you feel the need to draw your sword again, do remember that I hold no tolerance for fighting in this hall. If you have a grievance, it must be presented before the Round Table as a formal challenge."
"Of course, sire," Bleoberis said.
Arthur's blue eyes shifted to the enchantress. "Nimue. It's good to have you among us again."
"Thank you, sire. It's good to be back."
Arthur seemed about to say more, but then abruptly turned away and went to his place at the center of the high table. Bleoberis retook his seat and turned to grumble to one of his companions.
"Are you joining us, Nimue?" Tristan asked. He sounded upset.
"If you have no objections," Nimue replied.
"None. But move down a chair. You're in my seat."
Isolde very much doubted that Tristan was so attached to his chair that he wouldn't survive a night if he had to sit any closer to the High King. But the men who knew her had always been overprotective of the enchantress. Isolde wasn't exactly sure why. Nimue was more than capable of taking care of herself— as she had proven this evening. Although, perhaps it was Nimue's penchant for mischief that brought out that protectiveness. And maybe they weren't protecting Nimue so much as protecting themselves from the fallout of her mischief.
Isolde couldn't help but chuckle as they moved down a chair and swapped around the cutlery.
"Nimue," Tristan said, pulling the enchantress close and lowering his voice so Isolde could barely hear him. "Sir Bleoberis already carries a grievance against you for the death of his father. I'd advise against making him any more your enemy."
"But it suits my purpose to have Sir Bleoberis standing strong against me," Nimue said.
"And what purpose is that? Or is that a surprise as well?" Tristan asked.
"Call it whatever you like. But I'm certainly not ready to tell you yet," Nimue said.
Tristan didn't look pleased, so Isolde quickly jumped into stories about her children before he could voice his thoughts. Nimue was finally back among them, but from how she had spoken it didn't sound as if she would be with them for long. Isolde didn't want to waste this time with Tristan and Nimue fighting when there were so many other things they could be discussing.
Nimue asked so many questions about Dyrstan, Branwen and Ysaie. Isolde was startled for a moment at how well Nimue seemed to know the three children she hadn't seen in seven years. But then she remembered who she was dealing with. It wouldn't surprise her at all to learn that Nimue was keeping an eye on them from her home in Rheged.
Soon Nimue was telling them tales of Yvain's two children and they were laughing their way through the meal. Even Tristan soon joined in their camaraderie. It was an entertaining evening and it reminded Isolde so much of the old days in Dumnonia. Days that she often wished they could go back to. She missed all her old friends.
When they had finished their meal, Arthur called in a bard to sing old songs from early in his reign and that of his father, Uther, or uncle, Aurelius Ambrosius.
"Have the bards gotten lazy?" Nimue asked Isolde quietly as the bard began the story of Arthur drawing Excalibur from the stone. "Or are our tales so poor in quality of character and heroic deeds?"
"Not so poor as I remember them," Isolde said. "But the bards never seem to tell them the way I remember."
"I see," Nimue said quietly. She sounded so calm, but Isolde knew not to be deceived by what her ears heard. Tristan, who had been politely listening to the bard, glanced at her. Isolde shook her head. "I thought it would be better in the south."
"They tell those tales in Rheged?" Tristan asked.
"We don't have guest bards much anymore," Nimue said. "They're too fearful of inciting Queen Laudine's rage. She's run quite a few bards out of her hall."
"Arthur's done the same," Tristan said. "But the bards never bother to ask those of us who've lived those stories they tell so poorly the truth of it. And so now they only tell stories of Arthur, Uther or Aurelius."
"One of their favorites is the tragic love story of Tristan and Isolde," Isolde said, trying to lighten the mood. It worked. Nimue laughed.
"How tragic can such a story be when the two of you are happily married with three children?" Nimue asked.
"I died of poison in Brittany and Isolde died of grief soon after," Tristan said. He didn't sound amused at all. Isolde gave him a look. She knew he hated that tale, but it was one of the less offensive ones. And Nimue was right— they were both alive and happy. This only made fools of the bards.
Nimue squinted up at Tristan. "Well, you almost died in Brittany. I'll give them that."
Before Tristan could answer, Nimue looked at the double doors of the hall. "Ah. Right on time."
"What?" Tristan asked. Both he and Isolde looked to the doors and were one of the few who didn't jump when they slammed open. Prince Gaheris, third son by Arthur's sister Morgause and her husband, King Lot of Orkney, strode into the hall. With him came the Lady Lynette, sister to Lady Lyoness, wife of Gaheris' younger brother Gareth. Together Gaheris and Lynette made up the backbone of Arthur's Third Command, one of the five commands of knights and soldiers that protected Britain and her people. Gaheris was the leader of the Third Command and Lynette was the sorceress who often traveled with it— using her powers to protect the men or heal their injuries. A role Nimue had once inhabited in the Fifth Command.
"They made quite an entrance," Isolde said as Gaheris and Lynette strode up to the High King's table. Arthur rose to greet them.
"Gaheris wasn't expected to arrive for another month," Tristan said. "He must have left Orkney as soon as they could get a ship out." His gaze settled on Nimue. "Now why would he be in such a rush to come south?"
"There's trouble in Orkney," Nimue said.
"You knew," Isolde said. "That's why you came to Camelot. You knew there was trouble."
"The veil between worlds is thinning and the Fairy Otherworld is bleeding into ours. Merlin and I are the only ones who can stop this. And it all starts in Orkney." Nimue frowned. "Besides. This is the only way he'll see me and I have important things to tell him."
"Important things to tell who?" Tristan asked.