Katrina stood beside her Queen as Morgana walked into the room. A hush fell on the crowd and she watched as everyone stopped to stare as the sorceress approached. Katrina wondered if they were all holding their breath, waiting to see what trouble Morgana would cause now. Morgana was beautiful. Unlike the other women in the room whose hair was either braided or pinned on top of their heads, Morgana’s long, thick black hair hung down just past her waist. Her emerald dress made her piercing green eyes stand out even more and was cut so daringly low that with every step Katrina found herself wondering if she had used her magic to keep her breast from falling out.
When Morgana finally stood before King Robert, Katrina noticed how she tilted her head up, never once glancing in the Queen’s direction. “Imagine my surprise when I learned you were having a celebration without inviting me, my King. After all we’ve been through.” Morgana made a tsking noise as she shook her head.
Katrina saw Queen Emily back stiffen. Morgana had used every trick to become Queen and seduce Robert. Even having gone so far as to use a love potion on him. It would have worked except for one thing, magic can’t break the bounds of true love and fate.
“Morgana you know why you were not invited,” The King said as he took the Queen’s hand in his.
Morgana arched one perfect eyebrow as she eyed their joined hands. Her painted red lips flattening in anger before she let out a short laugh. The sound echoing off the walls. “You should have married me my liege. Before the next full moon, you will know unbearable loss prior to your death at the hands of someone you know… your son will never be King.”
With that threat, the guards stepped forward and grabbed her by the arms holding her in place. A slow smile curved her lips as she eyed the Queen, “Hold your son close when he is born, for that will be the only time you hold him.”
The King and Queen both stood as the guards began to pull her out of the room, her laughter echoing off the walls a puff of smoke appeared suddenly, as she disappeared before their eyes. Katrina saw the King wrap his arms around the Queen, stroking up and down her back trying to sooth her. As Katrina watched him, she saw the doubt and fear in his face, even as he told his wife everything was going to be fine.
* * *
Three weeks had passed, and Katrina found herself helping the midwife while the Queen screamed in pain as the baby tried to make its way into the world. A wet cloth in her hand, she dabbed her lady’s forehead. “He’s almost here my lady. I can see the top of his head.”
As she panted between pushes the Queen grabbed her hand tight. “Promise me, promise me you will keep him safe. Take him to Merlin and hide him. Hide him before she can get him.”
Before Katrina could respond, the midwife told her to push again. Katrina watched as the head slowly appeared. The midwife smiled and said, “One more.”
“Promise me Katrina?” A panic edge to her voice.
“I promise,” Katrina assured her before the Queen squeezed her hand, letting out a small cry as she pushed. Katrina looked down in time to see the midwife help pull the baby out and announce, “A boy! It’s a boy my Queen.”
The midwife lay the baby on her lady’s chest as she used a rag to clean him up. Her Queen cried, kissing his head and whispering, “I love you my son. Be strong and know that I will always love you.”
Katrina was barely aware of what happened next. After a whirlwind of activity, she found herself brought downstairs, the baby wrapped in a blanket thrust in her arms as she was loaded into a plain black coach, one guard sitting inside with her as another one drove the carriage away quickly. The babe in her arms let out a piercing cry that tore at her heart. In a bag, they had given her bladders full of milk to feed him with.
Katrina made soothing sounds as she tried to get the new baby to latch onto the corner of the bladder. She wished they could have brought a wet nurse to make the feeding easier, but the Queen was so worried about Morgana’s prediction that she knew there was no time. When the baby finally latched on and began to suckle, she sighed in relief. She watched the tiny infant in her arms, noticing that he wore the Queen’s necklace around his neck. A white stone of protection that had been given to her by Merlin on her wedding day. He told her that as long as she wore it she would be forever protected from any trouble his wayward pupil might cause.
Out of the corner of her eye she could see the guard watching out the window. Not sure what exactly was going on, she fought the urge to ask him. The Queen’s ladies-in-waiting generally didn’t speak to the guards unless they absolutely had to. When he noticed her watching him, he gave her what she assumed was meant to be a reassuring smile.
“Everything is going to be all right my lady. We have sent guards ahead to make sure that none of Morgana’s men are in the woods. We will keep you both safe and have you back to the castle before she even knows the prince was born.”
Katrina nodded, looking down she noticed that the baby was no longer feeding and had fallen back to sleep. She carefully placed the milk bladder back into the bag before picking the baby up to burp him. As she patted his back she saw the snow begin to fall outside. It was going to be a harsh winter and all she wanted was to be back in the safety of the castle.
When the carriage stopped, she saw Merlin’s small stone cottage, and Katrina found herself wondering why he chose to live outside the castle grounds. She had been picked to be a lady-in-waiting when she had reached her thirteenth year. Her parents were close friends with the then princesses’ family. The two had become friends when they were young children. When her lady became promised to the King of the neighboring kingdom she was one of three that had been chosen to go with her.
The guard opened the door and she watched as the front door to Merlin’s cottage flew open. She had seen him a few times in the castle over the years. She was always surprised by how young he looked. It appeared that he was only in his late twenties. At first she thought there was a mistake, there was no way he was the man they had been talking about. He couldn’t be the great warlock that she heard about. How was it, a man who looked to be barely older than she could have done all the things she had heard about? But then she watched as he was visiting the King and saw him turn and simply disappear. She couldn’t find a trace of him anywhere. When she asked where he had gone she had found out that he had gone home. When she asked someone how old he was they had laughed at her and said no one knew. But it was rumored he was over 100 years old.
Merlin was at the door of the carriage before she could even get out. His dark wavy hair had caught several snowflakes and his hazel eyes were dancing with mischief as he reached into the carriage to help her, “Come milady let me help you with our future king.”
Katrina blushed nodding at him as he took the sleeping baby from her. Merlin tucked the baby into his arms and held him easily before he offered her his free hand and helped her down. It was snowing harder now, as he pulled her along. Her dress hindering her movement as she tried to keep up with his long strides.
“Come now let’s get you both inside.” Merlin said giving her a smile that showed a small dimple on his right cheek.
Katrina silently agreed and found herself walking much faster than was considered ladylike. When they got inside she noticed how the two guards stood outside and she wondered if there was anything she needed to worry about.
A glance around the front room showed that his home was covered in books. There were rows and rows of bookshelves lining the back wall along with several tabletops that were covered with open books. There were pots filled with things she couldn’t name and a big blazing fire that had the room warmer than she liked.
Coming out of one of the rooms she gasped when she saw the King step out of the back room. “Your Highness,” she said as she started to curtsy before him.
“No need for that, thank you for bringing my son,” the King said, dismissing her as he took the baby from Merlin.
Katrina watched as the King stared down lovingly at his son who had awoken from being moved around so much. At that moment, the baby’s eyes were a greenish blue, but if she had to bet, she knew they were going to end up like his fathers, a sea green that changed often, depending on the light. However, his hair was going to be lighter, like his mothers. Sandier blonde than brown. He was going to be a handsome mix of both his parents.
Movement near the fire caught her attention and she noticed Merlin holding something on a round poker in the fire. She watched as it got red in the flames. He was wearing a pair of long thick gloves, like she had seen the smithy wear.
“Your highness, remove the blankets and his shirt please,” Merlin directed as he brought the poker from flames.
Katrina frowned until she realized on the end of Merlin’s poker was a small symbol that resembled the King’s ring. His crest. A bird rising from the flames. It wasn’t until the baby let out a cry alerting his father that he was not happy with losing the warmth of his blanket and his shirt that she realized what they were going to do.
“No,” she let slip out as she took a step toward the baby.
The King looked at her and she stopped. The heartbreak she saw tore at her heart. He was a man defeated. In all the years she had known him he had never looked like he did now. In one day the King had aged.
Merlin stopped and touched the back of her hand, “Do not think ill of me, Katrina. There is so much to do and so very little time to do it.”
With that she watched in horror as Merlin gave the King a nod. The King put the crying baby to his chest as he exposed his lower back. Holding the baby tight, Merlin pressed the end of the hot poker to the underside of the baby’s left butt cheek. Katrina almost jumped at them both when the baby let out a horrific cry. The whole process was quicker than a blink, but it felt like an eternity. Merlin quickly pulled the poker away and grabbed one of his odd containers. She watched as he rubbed a weird ointment on the baby’s back, whispering words she could not hear.
“Katrina take the baby,” the King ordered. Her legs shaking under her, she did as he comanded, the baby still crying and squirming in her arms in protest.
“Give me your sword your highness,” Merlin said holding out his hand. “Let me see the baby’s right palm.”
Katrina shook her head. “He’s just a baby.”
Merlin nodded and gave her a sad smile. “He is our future king and from now on you will be his protector. Let me secure his future.”
Confused by what was happening, Katrina watched as Merlin took the baby’s right hand and cut it with a sword as he chanted words in a language she had never heard. The King instantly at her side rubbing the lotion on the cut as Merlin continued to chant. When he was finished she stepped away from them both, holding the baby tight to her while trying to soothe him as he cried.
Katrina sat down with the baby when her legs threatened to give out from under her. Trying her best to comfort him she pulled out the bladder of milk hoping a feeding would help him feel better. She couldn’t see the mark on his back but as he settled against her she looked at the cut mark. It wasn’t bleeding like she had expected. It hadn’t fully healed either. She could see the cut trying to heal itself.
With the room having gone quiet, she saw Merlin handing back the King’s sword to him. The King nodded, putting it back in its sheath. In just two big steps he stood in front of her before kneeling to admire the baby in her arms. She watched a tear slide down his cheek as he bent forward to kiss the baby on the forehead. “May my love protect you even when I cannot be there.”
With that, the King stood up. “Your duty is now to Prince Arthur.”
Katrina, lost by what was happening, simply nodded. She was going to stand when he put his hand on her shoulder. “Thank you, Katrina, for all you’ve done for the Queen and all you’re about to do for my son.” With those words she watched as he strode away from her grabbing his cloak before leaving out the front door.
As she felt eyes on her she noticed Merlin watching her. “Please don’t think less of me milady. I did what was necessary to protect him.”
Not sure what to say, she simply nodded choosing to watch the baby instead. He had fallen back to sleep in her arms. Merlin came up beside her and as she adjusted the baby so she could burp him, he took the bladder of milk stating he would refill it.
A knock sounded on the door as Merlin put the bladder into her bag and helped her up. “Trust your instincts.” Merlin told her as he helped her outside. Taking the baby from her, he offered her his hand to help her back into the carriage.
When she reached out to grab the baby she heard what sounded like thunder. Merlin swore under his breath as he thrust the baby into her arms yelling for the guards to hurry as he slammed the carriage door. Katrina was almost thrown back into her seat as she held the baby tight while the horses took off at a fast pace.