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A must for all those readers who are fans of Arthurian tales and lore

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Merlin disappeared over a thousand years ago. Now they risk everything to find him.

Vivian needs King Arthur’s help. Nimue, a powerful witch and priestess who lives on Avalon, has disappeared.

King Arthur, Tom, and his friends set off across the Other to find her, following Nimue’s trail to Holloways Meet. But what they find there makes no sense.

Nimue seems to have a quest of her own, one she’s deliberately hiding. Arthur is convinced it’s about Merlin, and he’s determined to find him.

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Excerpt –

Chapter One – Vivian’s Request

Tom leaned on the parapet that edged the throne room of the Aerie and looked across the vast expanse of Aeriken Forest, thinking how different it was now from when he had first visited so many months ago.

The air of brooding intensity and fear was gone, and now the whole place rustled with life and vitality. He could feel it, even so far above the canopy. The Aerie, the palace where they had battled Queen Gavina, otherwise known as Morgan le Fay, had been transformed, too.

A few weeks earlier, Tom had returned with his cousin, Beansprout, to visit Brenna, their bird-shifter friend and heir to the throne, and to help with some palace repairs. Now, it was virtually complete. He turned his back on the forest views to look at the room behind him.

The throne room had severe black granite walls, tall columns that stretched to the open sky above, and shallow pools of water that rippled in the breeze, but everything looked different from that fateful night.

They had swept away the shale and flint that had slipped from the walls, and the throne was back in its proper spot after Prince Finnlugh had magically dragged it across the floor. Huge swags of branches and leaves now hung from the walls and columns, brightening everything, and an air of hope filled the air.

The copper-embellished doors swung open at the far end, and Beansprout stuck her head inside. “Here you are! I’ve been looking for you!” She crossed the space to join him. “You like it in here, don’t you?”

Beansprout, like him, had decided to stay in the Otherworld. It suited her here, he realised. Her long, strawberry blonde hair shimmered in the sunlight, and she glowed with health. It sounded silly, but Tom couldn’t think of a better way to describe it.

He smiled at her. “I do. I love the view. And I love the fact that this place looks so different now, since Morgan has gone.”

“It feels good, doesn’t it?” she said, leaning on the parapet next to him. “I like that we made a difference.”

“What now, though? It’s finished. The Aeriken don’t need our help anymore.”

“True. We could head back to Vanishing Hall and see Granddad.”

“I’m not sure Arthur’s there. He was going to see Vivian,” Tom reminded her.

“I think Woodsmoke went, too,” Beansprout said thoughtfully. “But that’s okay, they’ll be back.”

Vanishing Hall was their fey friend, Woodsmoke’s, ancestral home. He lived there with his father, who barely ventured from his tower, his grandfather, Fahey, who was a bard, and now Tom and Beansprout’s granddad, Jack.

She continued to speak, her gaze distant as she surveyed the forest. “I think we should venture beyond the village when we get back, see some more of this world!”

“Maybe see Finnlugh!” Tom suggested, feeling excited. Prince Finnlugh, Head of the House of Evernight, and Bringer of Starfall and Chaos, had helped them defeat Morgan, and had welcomed them to his Under-Palace for a visit. “I miss him. And it would be good to see his palace when it’s not stuffed full of sprites.” He shuddered remembering his encounter there, when he’d rescued Brenna.

“Yes, let’s! And we can travel back home without an escort, too. That will be fun.”

The Aerikeen had spent the proceeding weeks opening up all the paths across the forest, and hunting down the final sprites that still lurked in the furthest reaches of Aeriken. Tom had helped them clear the main path to Vanishing Wood, and now felt reasonably confident to travel without getting lost. Where the paths had branched, signs had been placed, too. Although the trip would take a few days, it was now perfectly safe to travel alone, and Tom secretly enjoyed their independence from everyone, and he knew Beansprout did, too.

Before he could answer, there was a whirr of wings above them, and a black bird swooped into the hall, transforming before their eyes into Brenna. “You too look like you’re up to something!” she said, a glint in her eye.

“It doesn’t matter how many times I see you do that,” Tom said, “it’s still amazing.”

“I wish you could do it, too. It’s the best feeling in the world!” She narrowed her eyes at them. “But you haven’t answered the question! What are you plotting?”

“Not plotting,” Beansprout said, laughing. “Planning what we do next. You don’t need us anymore, so we thought we’d go home.”

“Interesting you should say that,” Brenna said, smoothing down the tiny feathers that edged her hairline. Now she didn’t have to disguise herself, she looked like the other bird-shifters. Feathers threaded thickly though her long hair and edged her forehead, her eyes had become darker, and her eyebrows more pronounced. She looked, Tom had to admit, seriously hot, and he tried to push those thoughts to the back of his mind. She continued, “We’ve just received a message from Woodsmoke and Arthur.”

“Have we? How?” Beansprout asked.

“By bird, idiot,” Tom answered.

Beansprout glared at him. “I’m not an idiot.”

“Well, we haven’t got telephones anymore!” he pointed out. Or TV, or cars, or radio, or any electronic anything, and Tom didn’t miss them one bit.

Brenna swiftly intervened. “Private bird message. Woodsmoke used a carrier pigeon from Vanishing Village. They’re travelling on to Holloways Meet, and they’ve asked us to join them. Shall I say yes?”

“Yes!” Tom said immediately. “What’s Holloways Meet?”

“It’s a place where all of the Holloways converge, making a small town. It’s a hub for all sorts of news. You’ll like it.”

“And the Holloways are?”

“Sunken lanes that cross this part of the Otherworld. You’ll see. Beansprout, do you want to come?”

“Of course!”

“We’ll need more supplies than we have here, so we’ll stop by the village, too. We’ll be a few days behind them, but that’s okay. Woodsmoke said he’ll leave another message there just in case there’s a change of meeting place, but that’s the plan for now. We won’t have time to stop and see Jack and Fahey, though.”

Tom sat on the huge throne, and threw his legs over the side arm. “But why are we going? It sounds like we have to rush.”

“Our special friend Vivian has asked for Arthur’s help. One of her priestesses called Nimue has disappeared, and she’s worried about her. Arthur has agreed to find her. I don’t know the details, but yes, we need to leave today.”

She was referring to Vivian, the Lady of the Lake, who had summoned Tom to the Otherworld all those months ago. But Nimue? “Who? Oh, wait. I think I know that name.” Tom had always read lots about King Arthur, and he remembered that she was one of the famous women in the tales.

“She lives on Avalon, too, apparently,” Brenna said.

Tom nodded. “Yes, she had some sort of love affair with Merlin, I think.” He could hardly believe that these people had really existed. That some still existed. “But I didn’t see anyone else on Avalon.”

“She probably remained in the temple buildings while you were there. Anyway, she’s gone and could be in trouble, so she’s asked Arthur to find her. We’ll find out more when we join them. As it’s still early, I thought we could leave today.”

Beansprout looked at Brenna, arms across her chest. “Shouldn’t you really be staying here?”

Brenna’s guilty look swiftly disappeared. “No! I have done what I promised to do. The Aerie is clean, the paths are open, and the dead are buried.”

Tom groaned, knowing exactly what Beansprout was getting at. “But you’re their Queen!”

“Don’t you start with that. I’m not. I haven’t agreed to be, and I’m not sure I’m going to.” Brenna held her hand up in a stop sign. “No! I will not discuss this now. I need to get out. This is the perfect opportunity!” She dropped her voice, and it became a plea. “I need this. They keep asking me about when I’m going to have my coronation. It’s driving me insane!”

“Who’ll lead them when you’re gone?” Tom asked.

“I’ll ask my cousin, Orel. He’s competent, smart, and everyone likes him. And most importantly, he’s trustworthy.”

Tom nodded, knowing who she meant. He’d spoken with him a few times over the last few weeks. “That’s a good choice.”

“Exactly. Can you be packed in an hour? No, say two, so I can say my goodbyes and reassure everyone.”

Tom leapt to his feet, as Beansprout started walking to the door. “Yep! Saddle the horses!”

“See you in the stables, then!” And Brenna quickly changed form and plunged over the parapet to the stables below to organise their departure.

They had had been travelling through the quiet of the forest for days, so it was a shock to emerge into bright sunshine. The light bouncing off the river dazzled Tom and he blinked, holding a hand across his eyes to shield them from the sun that was high overhead. On the opposite bank, he could see Vanishing Village and the high bridges and walkways that spanned the buildings.

He grinned at the sight. It had been weeks since he’d been there. How could he have ever doubted that being in the Otherworld was the single greatest gift of his life? Everything here seemed to have an intensity he hadn’t noticed before. The air was perfumed with a delicate blossom and honey scent, and the colours seemed bright and sharp with a richness that his Earth didn’t seem to have. He could hear bees buzzing and birds singing, and the sounds of fey from the village drifted across the river with a clarity that startled him.

“You all right, Tom?” Beansprout asked, smiling.

“Absolutely,” he said, unable to stop smiling. “I forgot how much Otherworld villages are so different from our own. I’m glad I stayed. I’m glad you helped me make the right decision.”

Beansprout hugged him unexpectedly. “I’m glad you stayed, too. Although I think it was Arthur more than me who made you see sense.” She turned to look over at the village and threw her arms wide. “This place feels full of possibilities, and it’s so odd, but so cool at the same time! I love it!”

“For the record, I’m glad you stayed, too,” Brenna said looking fondly at both of them. “But I’m afraid we haven’t got time to linger. I’ve organised supplies, so once we’ve picked them up, we’ll push on.”

They threaded through the narrow streets of the village, surrounded by the bustle of fey of all different shapes and sizes. Tom would have loved to be able to look around the place for a little longer, but after packing their saddle bags with supplies, Brenna picked up Woodsmoke’s latest message from the pigeon carriers on the edge of the village, and scanned it quickly.

“There’s no change in the plan, so we’re still to go the Meet. They’ve stopped at another couple of villages to ask questions, but no one remembers Nimue, and he’s asked us to ask anyone we see, too,” she shrugged. “Just in case. Let’s go.”

They headed along a road that led in the opposite direction from Avalon, towards the rolling hills in the distance. Over to the right was the river Tom had travelled along in Fews’s boat on his first visit, and beyond that was Prince Finnlugh’s labyrinthine House of Evernight.

It was a road unlike any Tom had been on before. Before long, it had burrowed into the surrounding fields, becoming rutted and worn. High banks topped by hedgerows shielded them from view, and trees arched above them, plunging them into a green and shadowy place. It smelt of pollen-soaked earthiness and it was quiet, the horses’ hooves muffled by the dusty path.

“What’s so special about the Meet?” Tom asked, shuffling on his horse, Midnight, trying to find his rhythm. He still wasn’t comfortable riding, despite the fact that he’d had a lot more practice.

Brenna, effortlessly graceful astride her horse next to him, said, “Woodsmoke said it’s the last place Vivian knew Nimue had been.”

“What was she doing there?”

“I think it was just a place to stop on the way to Dragon’s Hollow, where she was going to meet the sorcerer, Raghnall. She would have probably restocked for her journey there.”

“How long will it take us to get there?”

“A few days. We just keep following this road and we’ll get there eventually. We’re on one of the old Holloways now. Some people call them the hidden ways. They run all across the Otherworld like warrens between places.”

“It’s like travelling in secret,” Beansprout said, lit up by the pale rays of sunshine breaking through the leaf cover.

“Except they’re not a secret, not really,” Brenna explained. “They’re used by all sorts of creatures. I’m sure we’ll meet a few as we travel. These paths were mostly formed by the Royal Houses as they moved back and forth between the various Under-Palaces.”

“So we’ll pass other Under-Palaces?” Tom asked.

“We’ll pass close by. But don’t get too excited. We probably won’t see anyone from them. And you would never know if we passed by an entrance, because they would be disguised as part of the landscape.” She gestured at the bank, covered in grasses and flowers. “That could be one. How would we know? Anyway, we’d better pick up the pace,” she said, urging her horse to a trot, and Tom and Beansprout hurried to keep up.

They travelled for the rest of the day, breaking only for a brief rest mid-afternoon by a stream where the horses could drink. Every now and again they passed steep paths that led up to the fields around them, and eventually, as the sun began to set and the Holloway filled with billowing clouds of midges, Brenna led them up one of these paths and onto the meadows above them.

They gathered some dry wood and made a fire, preparing to camp for the night, and Tom watched Brenna preparing her bow to hunt.

“You know,” Tom said warily, looking at Brenna, “that you do need to make a decision on your future at some point.”

She groaned. “I’m trying to forget it for now! And anyway, why do you care?”

“Because you’re my friend, and I think you’d be good at being a Queen! You helped me make the biggest decision of my life!”

“I’m aiming to put my decision off for as long as possible. I feel very guilty for having left them in the first place to go into hiding, so I don’t feel I deserve it now.”

“You were in fear of losing your life!” Beansprout reminded her.

“So were many others.”

“Not like you. Morgan killed your parents.”

“She killed a lot more than that in the end,” she said, shaking her head with sorrow. “And I like travelling around with my friends, and I don’t want to think I’ll be shut up in the Aerie all day, making boring decisions.”

“But if you’re Queen, surely you can choose to rule however you want?” Tom suggested.

“There are still responsibilities. Things I will be expected to do.”

“It didn’t seem to stop Arthur when he ruled. He travelled, led battles, went everywhere he wanted… Well, if what I’ve read is true. There are so many stories. It’s hard to know what was real and what was made up. If anyone can give advice on leadership, it’s Arthur. You should ask him.”

Chapter 2: The Hollow Bole

Tom and the others rode into Holloways Meet on a hot, dusty afternoon.

The road broadened and dipped until they reached a large archway formed by thick, interlaced branches. Beyond that, a few small buildings began to appear, built into the high banks of the road. Within a short distance they could hear a steady hum of voices, shouts, laughter, and music, and the banks fell back to form a large, irregular town square dominated by a central group of trees with other Holloways leading into it. It was filled with an assorted collection of beings, young and old, colourful and drab, and the smell of business.

Wooden buildings threaded through the meeting place, some of them perched precariously in branches, others jostling for position on the fields above them, casting deep shadows onto the activities in the centre.

“This place looks busier than ever,” Brenna murmured.

“What do people do here?” Tom asked, looking around curiously.

“Many things. I have been told you can buy almost anything here. Consequently, a lot of people pass through, so it’s particularly useful for finding out information.”

“I love it!” Beansprout declared, her eyes darting everywhere.

“We’d better find Woodsmoke and Arthur. Woodsmoke said he would try to check into the Quarter Way House,” Brenna told them, and pointed to a big building with balconies on the far side of the square, built against the bank and onto the field at the top. “It’s more expensive than most inns, but it guarantees a clean bed and good food.”

They found Woodsmoke and Arthur sitting in a bar to the side of the main entrance. It was an oasis of calm after the bustle of the square, filled with an assortment of tables and chairs, and screened from the square by thick-limbed climbing plants covered with flowers and a coating of wind-blown dust.

“Well, don’t you two look relaxed!” Brenna said, hands on hips.

“The rest of the deserving after a hard day’s work!” Woodsmoke smirked as he and Arthur stood to greet them. “Tom—you’ve grown.” He walked around the table and grabbed him in a bear hug, before hugging Beansprout and Brenna. “I’ve missed you two, too. Look at you, Brenna!” He held her at arm’s length, taking in her hair.

“Woodsmoke, it’s been only been a few weeks since I last saw you,” Brenna said, protesting weakly.

“I don’t care. It’s good to see you looking like a bird-shifter again!”

Tom had forgotten it had been a while since Woodsmoke had seen Brenna, but he was distracted by Arthur, who crushed him in a hug, too. “You look well, Tom. It’s good to have my great-great-great-something relatives join me on Vivian’s mad quest.” He hugged Beansprout too, lifting her off her feet.

“Are you two drunk?” Beansprout asked, suspicious. “You’re very merry!”

“Can’t I just be pleased to see my friends?” Arthur asked, sitting down at the table and picking up his beer again, and gesturing them to sit, too.

Now that he was reunited with all four of his closest friends in the Otherworld—or anywhere else, really—Tom felt truly at home. Although Tom had grown in the short time they’d been apart, Woodsmoke and Arthur were both still taller than him—Woodsmoke lean and rangy, his longbow propped next to him at the table, and Arthur muscular, Excalibur in its scabbard at his side.

“Let’s get more drinks to celebrate,” Arthur suggested, and called to the barman. “Five pints of Red Earth Thunder Ale, please!”

As they sat, Beansprout asked, “So, how long have you been here?”

“It took us longer to get here than we thought,” Woodsmoke answered. “We wanted to make sure none of the other villages had seen Nimue, so we only arrived here this morning, and decided we needed to recover after our long days on the road.” He paused as their ale arrived, and took a long drink as if to emphasise his need to recuperate.

Arthur nodded. “Yes, I wasn’t entirely sure Vivian had given us accurate information, but it seems for once, she has. And she’s suggested that Nimue stayed at The Hollow Bole—apparently, it’s where she’s stayed before. That’s where I’ll be going soon, to ask a few questions.” He looked at Tom. “Do you want to come?”

“Yes,” Tom said, spluttering his drink in an effort to answer. “But first, tell me what happened with Vivian.”

“Ah!” Arthur said, gazing into his pint, “Vivian. It was very strange to meet her again, after so many years. I felt quite sick seeing that big, bronze, dragon-headed prow gliding out of the mist.” He sighed, trying to organise his story. “I met her by the lake, at her request. I’d wanted to contact her, but didn’t know how. I thought that standing at the lakeside, yelling into the mist probably wouldn’t work. But then I had these images enter my dreams, about the standing stones and the lakeside.”

“Oh, yes,” Tom interrupted. “I’ve experienced those!”

“So I headed to the lake, and within an hour the boat was there, and then almost instantly she was at my side. She looked so old, and yet so young.” He looked up at the others, as if trying to make them see what he had. “I couldn’t believe her hair was white! It used to be a rich dark brown that glinted with red when it caught the sunlight. She had freckles then, all over her nose and cheeks.” He shook himself out of his reverie as his friends watched him, fascinated by what he must be remembering. “She asked me if I remembered her sisters, the other priestesses, particularly Nimue, which I did. Nimue helped me rule when Merlin disappeared. Vivian explained that she had vanished on her way to Dragon’s Hollow to see Raghnall, the dragon enchanter—whoever he is. She was taking her time, visiting various people along the way. The last time Vivian heard from her was when she was here. It’s another week’s travel to Dragon’s Hollow, but she never arrived there.”

“And how does Vivian know she hasn’t arrived?” Beansprout asked.

“Because Raghnall contacted Vivian, by scrying, to find out where Nimue was. Apparently, Vivian has been trying to contact her ever since, also by scrying, which is apparently how they communicate long distance. Now, Vivian thinks she’s being blocked, either by Nimue or someone else.”

“What’s Nimue like?” Tom asked.

“Oh, she’s very different to Vivian. She’s small and dark-haired, like a pixie, very pretty. Merlin was infatuated with her,” Arthur said thoughtfully. “Vivian is worried that something is wrong, so we’ve spent the last few days trying to track her route, but we’ve found nothing of interest. It all seems a wild goose chase,” he said, finishing his pint. “So, Tom, shall we go? Woodsmoke looks too comfortable to move.” He frowned at Woodsmoke, who had his feet up on a chair looking very relaxed.

“It’s been a busy few weeks,” Woodsmoke said, indignant. “And I’m much older than you are, so I deserve to relax. Besides, I also have news to catch up on,” he added, gesturing to Brenna and Beansprout. He waved them off. “Enjoy your afternoon.”

Tom and Arthur set off on a slow, circuitous route.

“I know I’ve been here a few months now, Tom, but I still can’t get used to the place.”

Tom nodded. “I know what you mean. Everything is so odd!”

Strange creatures bustled across the square, some tall, others small, male and female, some part human, part animal. They passed a group of satyrs and felt small by comparison. The satyrs were over seven feet tall, with muscular bodies, their upper half bare-chested, the lower half with the hairy legs of goats. Their hair was thick and coarse, large curling rams’ horns protruded from their heads, and their eyes were a disconcerting yellow that made them look belligerent. Tom and Arthur skirted past them, making their way to a row of buildings at the side of the square. These were a mixture of shops, semi-permanent markets, eating places, and inns, ranging from the small and shabby to the large and less shabby. Smoke from braziers drifted through the still air. They looked at the wooden signs that hung from the entrances, trying to find The Hollow Bole.

The pair had been looking for nearly an hour, taking their time drifting through the warren of buildings, before they had any joy. Walking down the start of one of the Holloways, they saw a vast tree to their left, pressing against the bank at its back. There was a narrow cleft in its trunk, above which a small sign announced The Hollow Bole. Peering upwards through the leaves, they saw small windows scattered along thick and misshapen branches. Ducking to avoid hitting their head on the low entrance, they stepped into a small hall hollowed out of the trunk and followed the narrow, spiralling stairs upwards into the gloom. They emerged into a larger hall built into a broad branch overlooking the Holloway and the edge of the square. There were no straight lines anywhere. Instead, the chairs, tables, and balcony were an organic swirl of living wood.

A dryad, green-skinned and willowy, stepped out of the shadows and asked, “Can I help you?”

Thinking they were alone, Tom jumped. Arthur remained a little more composed and said, “I’m looking for an old friend who passed through here, probably a few weeks ago now. Can you confirm if she stayed here?”

“And what do you want with this friend?” the dryad snapped.

“She hasn’t arrived where she should have, and I want to find out if anything has happened to her,” Arthur replied, trying to keep the impatience out of his voice.

The dryad went silent for a moment. “It depends who it is. Her name?”

“Nimue. Our mutual friend, Vivian, asked me to find her. She’s worried.”

The dryad was startled. “Nimue? The witch?” She spat out witch viciously.

Now Arthur was startled. “Yes, Nimue, one of the priestesses of Avalon. Or witch, as you choose to call her.”

“They are all witches on Avalon,” the dryad replied disdainfully. “Yes, she stayed here for a few days. And then she left. I don’t know where she went,” she added, to avoid further questions.

Arthur groaned. “She gave no indication at all of where she might be going?”

“She stays here because we are discreet. We ask no questions of our clients.”

“But you know her well? She stays here often, I believe.”

“Not often. She travels less frequently now. But yes, I think she usually stays here. However, I do not know her well. I do not ask questions.”

Tom was curious about the word now, and clearly Arthur was, too.

“But she used to travel here more frequently? In the past?” Arthur persisted.

The dryad was visibly annoyed at the constant questions. “Yes, many years ago. But, I do not see what that has to do with now—and I was not here then.”

“So if you weren’t here then, how do know she came here?” Arthur asked.

“Her name appears in our past registers. We are an old establishment. And her reputation precedes her.”

Now Arthur was clearly very curious, and he leaned in. “What reputation?”

“As a witch from another world. A meddler in the affairs of others.”

“What affairs?”

“Witches meddle with the natural order of nature!” the dryad snapped, now furious. “As a dryad, I am a natural being, born of the earth and all her darkest mysteries. Witches plunder that knowledge! They have no respect for natural laws. How do you know her?”

Arthur looked uncomfortable, and decided not to answer that. “I am just an old friend who cares for her safety. I am sorry to have taken so much of your time. Are you sure you don’t remember anything else?”

“Nothing.”

“Just one more question. Did she ever stay here with anyone else?”

“Yes. The greatest meddler of them all—Merlin.” With that, she stepped back into the shadows and melted into the tree trunk, becoming invisible and unreachable.

“With Merlin?” Arthur turned to Tom dumbfounded, his face pale at this unexpected news.

Tom felt a thrill run through him at the mention of Merlin, but why was Arthur so upset? Before he could ask, Arthur turned and raced down the stairs. Tom raced after him. Maybe it was because Merlin had travelled here, to the Meet, Tom reflected. It was probably quite unexpected.

Arthur was halfway back to the Quarter Way House before Tom caught up with him. “Arthur, what’s the matter?”

“Everything!”

“What do you mean, everything?” Tom asked, even more confused.

Arthur didn’t answer, and instead headed to their inn, ran up the stairs, and banged on what Tom presumed was their shared room door.

“Yes? I’m here and I’m not deaf! Come in, the door’s open.”

But Arthur was already in, throwing the door wide open and striding across the room.

“What’s the matter with you?” Woodsmoke asked, alarmed. He was sitting on a chair on the small balcony overlooking the square.

Tom followed Arthur, closing the door behind him, while Arthur sat agitatedly beside Woodsmoke. “Nimue used to come here with Merlin.”

Looking confused, Woodsmoke asked, “Is that good or bad?”

“I don’t know,” Arthur said, confused. “Both? Neither? It’s just odd. It’s a shock, that’s all.”

“But this was a long time ago? She wasn’t here with him recently?” Woodsmoke asked.

“No, no, of course not. He disappeared years ago. Well, not so long ago for me, merely a few years. But even so, it’s a surprise.”

“Why? You said they knew each other.”

“Yes, but to know that they were here! Together! I didn’t think she liked him. She actively avoided him at first, I think.” Arthur looked troubled as he tried to recall the nature of their relationship.

“So, you’re shocked because you didn’t think they knew each other well?” Woodsmoke asked, trying to get to the root of Arthur’s problem, and looking further confused in the process.

“Yes,” Arthur said. “And now it seems they knew each other better than I realised. Merlin had a sort of obsession with Nimue, but she used to keep him at a distance. Of course, he was much older than her at the time, an old man. A very grumpy, unkempt old man. Still powerful, of course. And she was young and very beautiful. I saw her more often than Vivian—she represented Vivian and Avalon at Camelot. It was there that Merlin first met her.” Arthur gazed into the middle distance as he tried to remember the details. “But he could be charming. And he never stopped trying to impress her.”

“So, maybe he finally managed to charm her into friendship.”

“Maybe. I think she was impressed with his powers, if nothing else. Perhaps that’s what swayed her? Maybe they did become good friends?” he mused.

“What powers did Merlin have?” Tom asked. He sat on the floor of the balcony, leaning back against the railing, watching the exchange.

“He was a shape-shifter. He favoured fish and stags, but he could turn into anything he chose. And he had the power of prophecy. But he could perform other magic and spells. I gather he learnt much from travelling here. Obviously, the dryad at The Hollow Bole did not approve of either Merlin or Nimue.”

Woodsmoke looked puzzled. “Why not?”

“She said they meddled in the natural order. She seemed to prize her own natural magical abilities far more highly.”

“Maybe because their magic is acquired. And of course, they are human.”

“Perhaps. Although, I believe Merlin was born with his powers of prophecy and shape-shifting. The rumours were that nobody knew who his father was.” Arthur shrugged. “I don’t know. Merlin always guarded his secrets closely. He didn’t like to share where he was going or what he was doing.”

“Perhaps he bewitched Nimue?” Woodsmoke asked.

Arthur looked up sharply. “No, I find that hard to believe. Although,” he said thoughtfully, “he was not averse to doing things that would benefit him.” He shot off his chair and paced up and down. “You cannot understand how odd this is for me! I have been dead—or asleep, whatever you choose to call it—for hundreds and hundreds of years, but for me that time was only months ago. And yet all of my friends are dead and buried, my kingdom has disappeared, my home is gone, and I am a myth! It’s as if I never existed, as Beansprout and Tom told me.” He gestured vaguely in Tom’s direction. “No evidence that I ever existed at all! As if I am a mere shadow. But then I find that Vivian is still alive, that Morgan was alive, albeit in some other form, and now Nimue! Such unnatural lifespans! And Merlin disappeared hundreds of years ago, but the dryad spoke as if he had just left the room.” Deflated, he sat down again. “I don’t think I will ever get used to this.”

Woodsmoke seemed to take this outburst in his stride, as if he expected it. “I’m sorry, Arthur. I can only imagine how confusing this must be for you. But I thought you liked your chance at another life?”

“I did, and I suppose I still do, most of the time. But today has made me reconsider. However, there isn’t much I can do about it. This is my fate, and I must live with it.”