shuddered in Merlin’s grip. Vortigern’s blade was sheared
off at the hilt.
King and wizard both stared at the enchanted blade. When Merlin looked up, he could see the knowledge of defeat written plainly
on Vortigern’s face. As Vortigern began to step backward, Merlin raised the sword high above his head and brought itdown again, but this time Vortigern was not his target.
The tip of the sword touched the ice gently, and the ice exploded away from the blade. In moments a deep fissure appeared
in the frozen surface running directly toward Vortigern, and widening as it ran. The surface that had been so solid a moment
before gave way beneath the king’s feet, and Vortigern fell through the ice into the icy black water beneath.
For a moment it seemed as if he would drag himself onto the ice again. His mailed hands scrabbled at the edges of the ice
as he strained to save himself, but the cold leeched the strength from his limbs as the weight of his armor pulled him inexorably
down into the chill lightless dark. He screamed as he sank from sight, and his last despairing scream echoed through the icy
air, unnaturally loud, startling the men who fought around him. The ice closed over him as Vortigern struggled desperately
to reach the air once more, entombing him like a dragonfly in amber.
As the men around Merlin realized what had happened, the fighting stopped. Men lowered their weapons, turning to stare at
the spot where the king had vanished. Slowly the clash of weapon against weapon died away, until the entire battlefield was
Merlin stared down at the shining blade of Excalibur, and at Vortigern’s dead face gazing up at him from beneath the ice.
“Surrender!” The cry was taken up by others; it rippled through the soldiers like wind over summer wheat, and men began to
throw down their weapons.
“That’s a mighty sword,” said Uther—King Uther, now.
Merlin had not seen him approach. The force of the rage that had sustained him ever since the moment he’d seen the Great Dragon
attack Nimue had ebbed at last, leaving him hollow and sickened by what he had done. He had used his magic, or the sword’s,
to kill—and in this moment, standing in the cold bloodstained snow, Merlin could not remember why killing had seemed so important
“It’s Excalibur …” Merlin said. He offered the sword—still unstained by blood—to Uther, who took it reverently. Swords like
Excalibur were for executioners and kings, and Merlin did not wish to be either.
“It can only be used by a good man in a good cause,” Merlin said, though even as he spoke he knew that was not true. Excalibur
would grant victory to any who held it, but they must look elsewhere for wisdom.
“I understand,” Uther said. He flourished the shining sword in the air, and his men closed around him, cheering his great
victory over Vortigern as if Uther had won the day by force of arms alone.
No one in Uther’s Christian army wanted to congratulate Merlin, and he was able to slip away, unnoticed, from the king’s side.
He walked steadily, empty-handed now, through the men and the horses, the reddened snow, and the vast landscape of the dead.
Vortigern was dead. Only one tear had ever beenshed for him, and his pride had cast it away. In the end, he had paid for that pride with his life.
Now Uther was king, and his Christian rule would heal the scars of the land and so defeat Mab. Merlin could return to Avalon
Abbey, and Nimue.
Merlin looked back toward the frozen river, and saw that the men were carrying Uther on their shoulders, cheering as lustily
as if so many of their fellows did not lay dead at their feet. Now they would crown their new king. The Red Dragon had defeated
the White, and the prophecy that had called Merlin from his forest home was fulfilled.
But a strange sense of uneasiness filled his thoughts, as though—somehow—he was wrong.
T HE T HRONE