The first thing Arthur became aware of was the sensation of soft, satiny sheets under his fingers. Something heavy was draped over him, keeping him warm, and the weight of his armor was missing. Next, sound started to filter in. The soft patter of drops of water falling. The creak of a chair as whoever was sitting in it shifted. He could pick out the twitter of birds and it felt like there was a soft breeze blowing across his face. Something cool and soft was placed on his forehead. The chair creaked again and that was when Arthur began to make out the voices. Just low, incomprehensible murmurs at first. Then-
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure. You should return to council.”
Hesitance, then a decisive sigh. “Alright. If you need anything, don’t hesitate to send for me.”
Footsteps, moving away from him. Then the whoosh of a door opening and the soft clang when it fell shut and latched. It was all starting to come back to him. Someone had attacked him in the forest. Arthur had almost managed to fight them off, but a strange weakness had overcome him during the battle. He’d felt tired, far more tired than he should have. Maybe his attackers had somehow managed to poison his dinner the previous night. Whatever it was, it had allowed them to gain the upperhand. The last thing Arthur remembered was the sound of hoofbeats fast approaching.
Which begged the question of where was he now? Obviously not at his campsite, which had been little more than a small fire under the shade of a tree in the middle of the forest. Were the people who had brought him here the same ones who attacked him? It seemed illogical, but then nothing he’d studied about the Perilous Lands had struck him as logical. Arthur forced himself to remain calm and still, patient. At last, he heard the creak of the chair and the soft pad of footsteps. He slit his eyes open just enough to peek through his lashes.
From what he could see, the room he was in was lavish, like his own chambers back in Camelot. However, whereas his chambers were decorated in the bright, bold red and gold of the Pendragons, this room’s color scheme was softer. Pale green with accents of white and soft gold. It called to mind a forest glade in springtime, warm sun on your face, soft breeze in your hair, maybe a babbling brook running nearby. The bed he was in was large, a canopy over top, thick curtains tied to the bedposts. Beside it was a chair, old but sturdy. Footsteps alerted him to the return of the room’s other occupant and Arthur shut his eyes. The chair creaked again as it was reclaimed and there was the sound of clinking glass, something being set on the bedside table, Arthur thought. After a moment, he slit his eyes open again.
Sitting in the chair was a boy, attention focused on the source of the clinking sound. It was difficult to make out much without giving himself away, but Arthur could see that the boy had dark hair and pale skin. His tunic was of decent make, though a bit threadbare, sleeves rolled up to his elbows. From this angle, Arthur guessed he was tall, but skinny. No match for a knight of Camelot. When the boy started to turn back to the bed, hand reaching towards Arthur’s forehead, Arthur made a split second decision. His hand lashed out lightning quick to snatch the boy’s wrist.
“Who are you?” Arthur demanded. “Where have you taken me?” The boy frowned at him, but otherwise seemed unperturbed to be threatened. Arthur’s grip tightened on his wrist and a grimace of pain flashed across his face. “I asked you a question!” Arthur tried to sit up, but pain flared through his abdomen and the world slipped from his awareness. When it next blinked back into focus, Arthur was on his back, staring up at the canopy again, the boy’s wrist no longer in his grasp.
“I know this is an alarming situation for you,” the boy said, drawing Arthur’s attention back to him, “but you need to lie still. You were badly injured a few days ago and your wound is infected.”
“Infected?” Arthur repeated. He’d been so focused on his unfamiliar surroundings that he hadn’t thought to take stock of himself.
“Your fever is improving, but it hasn’t broken yet,” the boy continued. “What you need right now is rest. I promise I mean you no harm. I only want to help.” The cloth, removed from Arthur’s forehead during his brief blackout, returned, cool and wet. Arthur couldn’t help but lean into it.
“You still haven’t answered my questions,” he said, injecting as much authority as he could into the words. It wasn’t much. “Answer me.” The boy frowned at him.
“You’re hardly in a position to make demands,” he pointed out. “But fine. I’m Merlin. And this is one of the spare rooms in the citadel of my clan in the Vale of Dragons.”
“Vale of what? There’s no such thing.” Arthur had spent hours pouring over all known maps of the Perilous Lands and nowhere had any of them mentioned a Vale of Dragons.
“A place doesn’t have to be known to you in order to exist,” Merlin said. “What I want to know is what you were doing all the way out here in the first place. The only people I’ve ever seen wondering across our border are mercenaries and bandits. You are clearly neither. So?”
Arthur turned his head away, the best he could do given his current condition. “That’s none of your concern.” He heard a weary sigh.
“Fine, keep your secrets. I was only curious. Like I said, we normally only see mercenaries and bandits and the like braving these lands and only when they have to. The Vale is safe enough, thanks to my people, but the plains are infested with wyvern and the serket population in the forest has been out of control for years. And that doesn’t even touch on the sort of creatures lurking in the marsh. You must either be very brave or very stupid.” Merlin paused to consider something. “Or both.”
Arthur decided to ignore Merlin. Honestly, he was almost convinced he was having some bizarre fever dream and any minute he would wake up to find himself on the forest floor by his campsite. Or he would die. So much for proving himself a worthy heir to his people. He wondered if his father would mourn him. Or, when the news of his son’s death reached him, would Uther Pendragon just shake his head in disappointment, as he did every other time Arthur failed? Arthur liked to think that, disappointed or not, his father would mourn him at least a little, but there was a part of him that had sincere doubts. Morgana would mourn him, at least. Their relationship had been a little strained in the past year, but she was like a sister to him. Upon his departure, Uther had given him nothing but weighty expectations, but Morgana had given him…
Arthur felt out his wrist and found it bare. Panic seized him. Ignoring the pain, Arthur jolted upright and stared at the place on his wrist where Morgana’s gift had been. Had he lost it? Had it fallen off? Had whoever attacked him taken it?
“What are you doing!” Merlin exclaimed. Arthur’s eyes zeroed in on him, anger replacing the panic. He grabbed the front of Merlin’s tunic, pulling him almost off the chair.
“Where is it?” he growled. “What did you do with it?”
“What did I do with what?” Merlin asked. He didn’t look at all concerned over his current predicament, despite the fact that Arthur could probably snap him in two.
“The amulet!” Arthur snapped. He was starting to shake from the effort of keeping himself upright and maintaining his grip on Merlin’s tunic. Merlin regarded him calmly for a moment before easily breaking Arthur’s grip and urging him to lie back down. Arthur only did so because what little strength his adrenaline had lent him was fading fast and he likely would have collapsed back against the pillows anyway.
“You must mean the Eye of the Phoenix you were wearing,” Merlin said. He smoothed out his tunic before taking the cloth from where it had fallen into Arthur’s lap.
“Eye of the Phoenix.” Merlin dipped the cloth into a bowl of water on the bedside table, returning it to Arthur’s forehead. “It’s a special amulet imbued with magical properties. I was surprised a knight of Camelot would have such a thing.”
Arthur snorted. “It’s just a fancy trinket. A gift from a friend.”
“A friend, huh.” Merlin gave him a skeptical look. “I think perhaps you need to reevaluate your relationship with this friend. My father recognized it and you’re lucky he did. An Eye of the Phoenix burns with a fire that sucks the life force out of anyone who wears it until they have nothing left. If the infection hadn’t killed you, the Eye of the Phoenix certainly would have.”
No. No, that couldn’t be true. Morgana had given him that amulet as a token of her affection and well wishes. “You’re lying,” Arthur decided, even as an insidious voice whispered in the back of his mind that a magic amulet would explain the strange weakness that had plagued him since the start of his quest. “None of that is true.” He was vaguely aware of his breathing picking up speed and his heart pounding in his chest.
“Look, forget what I said.” Merlin rested a hand over the cool cloth on Arthur’s forehead. The sun caught his eyes, making them flash a brilliant, beautiful gold. “We shouldn’t be talking about this right now. You need to rest.” Arthur felt his eyes grow heavy. Yes, rest sounded very good right now. And when he woke up, he would find that this had all been some strange, incoherent dream.
Halfway across the room, however, Arthur’s plan was thwarted by the door of the room opening, admitting a serving girl bearing a tray filled with food. He froze. The serving girl startled when she saw him.
“You shouldn’t be out of bed yet,” she blurted. Then, remembering herself, she added a demure, “Sir.”
“Is that so,” Arthur challenged. He glanced at his sword, calculating how long it would take him to get to it. With his wound it would be close, but he was reasonably confident he could keep the girl from alerting anyone.
“You’re fever broke last night, but your wound is still healing,” the serving girl explained. “The best thing for you right now is rest.”
“You can’t keep my here!” Arthur snapped. “I am not your prisoner!”
“No, of course you’re not a prisoner,” the serving girl quickly agreed. She sighed. “I suppose if you want to leave that badly, then I have no cause to stop you, but you should at least have something to eat before you go. You’ll need your strength for your journey.”
Arthur eyed the tray she held, reluctant to eat food prepared by a stranger. He had to admit though that so far he’d been given no reason to think that Merlin and whoever else lived here meant him harm. Right on cue, his stomach growled. Arthur glared down at it. Fine. The serving girl was right, after all. He’d just fought off an infection and his quest was far from over. He needed to eat. Arthur grudgingly took a seat at the table and let the girl serve him. Choosing not to think too much about it, he picked up a piece of bread and tored a chunk off with his teeth. When he didn’t immediately drop dead, Arthur relaxed his guard, just a bit. It would be odd, he allowed, for Merlin to go through all this trouble to heal him only to turn around and poison him. The serving girl watched him.
“You may think it out of place for me to say so, sir,” the serving girl began after a while, eyeing the unnecessary ferocity with which Arthur ate, “but you seem in an awfully fowl mood.”
“You have your irritating little friend to thank for that,” Arthur grumbled.
“You mean Lord Merlin?”
Arthur almost choked on his meal. “Lord? You mean to tell me that scrawny little idiot is a member of the nobility?” He would have said servant, physician’s assistant at best.
The serving girl poured him some water before answering. “Yes, he is the high lord’s only son and heir.”
“Heir,” Arthur repeated, almost knocking the goblet of water over. “You mean one day he’ll rule over this citadel?”
“Not just the citadel. Lord Merlin will one day reign over the entire Vale.”
Arthur turned his gaze back to his food, frowning in thought. He would never have guessed Merlin held a position of such importance. From the sound of it, he was quite possibly this land’s equivalent of a crown prince. Yet he had sat by Arthur’s bedside and tended his fever. Arthur couldn’t imagine ever doing that for someone, let alone a complete stranger. That was servant’s work. He pointed this out to the serving girl.
“Of course Lord Merlin tended you,” she said. “He is one of our most talented healers.”
Something heavy settled in the pit of Arthur’s stomach. Healer. The serving girl had called Merlin a healer, not a physician. It was a small, but very important distinction. While a physician relied on science to cure ills and injuries, a healer relied on- Arthur shuddered.
“Sir?” The serving girl put a hand on his shoulder and Arthur flinched away on instinct. “Are you alright?”
“I’ll take it from here, Sefa.”
Merlin. Arthur’s hands clenched into fists. From the corner of his eye he saw the serving girl, Sefa, bow and hurry from the room. He refused to turn and watch as Merlin approached him.
“You’re a sorcerer,” Arthur accused of his water. He could see his sword just within reach, but then Arthur remembered what Sefa had said about Merlin being the son of the Vale’s ruling lord. “You should have told me.”
“To what end?” Merlin asked. “I found you near Camelot’s border. Judging by the insignia of the golden dragon I found among your things, I could only assume you were a knight of that kingdom and that you wouldn’t take well to knowing how exactly I saved your life. It appears I was right.” He didn’t sound happy about it.
“What kind of sick game are you playing?” Arthur demanded. “What are you planning to do with me? Kill me? Ransom me? Torture me for information? I won’t tell you a damn thing!” Finally he turned to face Merlin. He’d expected defensiveness or anger or smugness. He hadn’t expected Merlin’s expression to be sad and tired.
“I don’t want anything from you,” Merlin said quietly. “There is no game or secret evil plot. You were hurt and I knew I could help you. That’s it.”
No, that couldn’t possibly be it. Magic corrupted. Those who used it never had pure intentions. “How do I know it wasn’t you who attacked me?” Arthur’s hand twitched towards his sword. If he was quick enough he could be out of the citadel before anyone even realized what he’d done. But if he wasn’t, if he were caught, that would be it for him. He would be executed for sure.
“First, if it were me who attacked you, you wouldn’t be alive right now,” Merlin said. “Second, I understand why you think that way about magic, I really do. It’s what you’ve been raised to believe. But just because you were raised to believe something, that doesn’t make it true.”
Arthur scoffed. “It’s what I see all the time,” he sneered. “It’s used to kill and steal. Magic does nothing but bring misery and suffering.”
“One could make the same argument of a sword.”
The comment threw Arthur off. “What?”
“One could also say that a sword is used to kill and steal. That it only brings misery and suffering.”
“What are you going on about?”
“What do you use your sword for?”
Arthur eyed Merlin, sensing a trap, but unable to discern it. “I use it to defend my people,” he answered carefully.
“Yes, but what do you actually do with your sword in order to defend your people?” Merlin pressed. When Arthur was quiet, he said, “You kill.”
“It’s different,” Arthur said immediately.
“How?” Merlin asked.
“It just is.”
“But how?” Merlin crossed his arms. “You don’t know, do you.”
“Magic is evil,” Arthur spat. “It corrupts!”
“No, power corrupts,” Merlin corrected. “Magic is a sort of power. Just like there are people who will use a sword for good and people who will use one for evil, there are people who will use magic for good and those who will use it for evil. Should all those with a sword be punished because some who wield one will use it to steal and murder?”
“Of course not.”
“Then why should those who wield magic be any different?”
Arthur struggled with his answer, unwilling to admit that Merlin had a point. “If magic can be used for good,” he finally started, “then why have I seen none of it? If it can be a tool for helping others, then why do I never see it used as such?”
“Because the penalty for using magic in your kingdom- any magic, be it for good or for ill- is death,” Merlin answered. “Because the king is blinded-” A cursory knock followed by the opening of the door cut Merlin off. A guard, dressed in a neutral grey that reminded Arthur of the ashes of a fire, stepped inside and bowed.
“Your presence is requested at council, my lord,” the guard said.
“Very well. I’ll be there shortly,” Merlin reluctantly promised. With another bow, the guard left. Merlin sighed before turning back to Arthur. “You are not a prisoner here. You may leave whenever you wish, though I would advise against doing so until your wound has fully healed. I will, however, warn you that due to the history between my people and yours, wondering the citadel alone could be dangerous for you.”
“Is that a threat?” Arthur growled, once again considering reaching for his sword.
“It’s a warning. There are those among my people who disagree with my decision to bring you here and heal you. Some may try to take matters into their own hands. Now, if you will excuse me, I’m needed elsewhere.”
Arthur watched Merlin warily until the doors had shut and he was once again alone. Then he glanced at his equipment again, but the urge to leave was fading. Much as he hated to admit it, Merlin hadn’t actually given Arthur any reason to mistrust him. Some part of him argued that Merlin was probably just trying to lull him into a false sense of security. Another part of him, a larger part than he’d expected, was stuck on their conversation. Arthur had been raised to think of magic as a corrupting force capable of nothing but evil. Twenty years ago though everyone, his father included, had thought differently. Had they all just not yet realized the dangers of magic or was there something Arthur was missing?
Blowing out a frustrated breath, Arthur sat back in his chair, wincing when the movement pulled at his wound. Once again, his eyes moved to where his armor and sword were laid out on the table. He would stay a few more days, he decided. Just to give his wound a bit more time to heal. Then he would leave, finish his quest, and go home.
And forget that Merlin and his people and the entire Vale of Dragons ever existed.
“It’s been going on practically the entire meeting,” Freya said. “It was either leave or run someone through and I didn’t think your father would appreciate me murdering one of the council members.”
“I don’t know,” Merlin said. “After an hour of listening to that he’d probably be willing to look the other way. What are they arguing about?”
“Great.” Merlin took a deep breath, gathering every ounce of patience and calm that he possessed, then pushed the doors open and entered the council chambers. The arguing immediately ceased, all eyes zeroing in on Merlin as he approached the council table. It made the echoing clang of the doors falling shut ominous.
“I was told my presence was requested,” Merlin said into the quiet. The focus of everyone’s attention now turned to Lord Edmund. Lord Edmund glanced at the head of the table, but the scowl that flashed across his face indicated that he was getting no help from there. Merlin looked for himself and saw that his father was leaning back in his chair, eyes closed. Some might mistake him for asleep. Merlin, however, knew his father better than that and guessed he was either meditating to keep from doing something he would probably regret later or fighting off a headache brought on by an hour of relentless arguing.
“There is a very important and urgent matter we must discuss with you,” Lord Edmund began. A few coughs around the table indicated that there were those who didn’t appreciate being lumped in with Lord Edmund’s ‘we’. They went ignored.
“And what matter would that be?” Merlin asked, feigning ignorance. Even without Freya’s hint, he could guess what it was that had the council in such disarray. After all, he still remembered quite clearly the look on Edmund’s face several days ago when he’d ridden into the courtyard with a foreign knight slung across his saddle. Unhappy was an understatement.
“The matter of the knight of Camelot that you brought into our home,” Lord Edmund growled.
And there it was. Damn that stupid knight for traveling outside his kingdom’s borders with a bag bearing the Pendragon crest. Merlin decided to keep playing dumb. “What about him?”
Lord Edmund scowled again before quickly wiping it from his face, drawing himself up to his full height, and declaring, “He cannot stay here.”
A muscle in Lord Edmund’s jaw twitched. “Because he is a knight of Camelot.” His tone dripped with condescension, as if explaining a simple concept to an unintelligent child. It was how he often spoke to Merlin and a few other members of the council, particularly those who were young. “Camelot is our enemy.”
“So, in your opinion, I should have simply left him there to die in the forest,” Merlin clarified. “I should have turned my back on someone who needed me because of the circumstances of his birth. Well, I disagree. I do not believe that kindness and compassion should be conditional.”
Lord Edmund turned back to the head of the table. “My lord-”
“I have already stated my opinion on this matter,” Balinor interrupted, finally opening his eyes to bestow a narrow eyed look on Lord Edmund. “Several times, in fact. We put it to more than one vote with the council, per your request, and every time the majority voted to allow the knight to remain here while he heals.”
“And then what?” Lord Edmund demanded. “The knight returns to Camelot and tells his king all about us?”
“If you cannot abide by the council’s decision-”
“I cannot abide by the fact that you are putting us all at unnecessary risk simply to indulge the whims of a child!” Balinor’s expression twisted into one of anger as the council burst to life. Some jumped to support Lord Edmund, but the majority admonished him for speaking so disrespectfully to the high lord about his son.
“Enough!” Balinor’s voice reached above the commotion. Merlin recognized a hint of fiery dragonlord magic in it, a slip up that was a testament to his father’s frustration. The council immediately froze. “Take your seats, all of you. This is not how a council behaves.” Everyone slid into their seats. It was almost funny. They looked more like misbehaving children being scolded for disrupting a lesson than a council of lords and ladies responsible for the wellbeing of their people.
It was Reynard who broke the silence first, standing to give Lord Edmund a disapproving look. “Lord Edmund, we understand your concerns. However, there is absolutely no need to speak with such disrespect to either Lord Balinor or Lord Merlin.” Then he sat. Before anyone else could speak, Merlin stepped forward.
“You are welcome to disagree with my decision,” he said, “but I stand by it. I would think that a people judged simply for the way they are born would not be so quick to judge others by the same crude standards. Perhaps I was wrong. All I know is that I will never stand by and do nothing when someone needs help, no matter who they are or where they come from.” He paused to glance at the head of the table. It was hard to tell, as his father was clearly still angry over Lord Edmund’s earlier comment, but he didn’t seem to disapprove of Merlin’s little speech. “Should the council change their minds on this matter, please inform me at the soonest possibility and I will do my best to abide by their decision. Until then, I have others duties I must attend to.” He turned and left without waiting to see what the council’s reaction would be. As the doors fell shut behind him, the sound of arguing started up again. Quiet applause drew his attention.
“Well said,” Freya praised, smiling at him.
“You don’t think it was too much?” Merlin asked.
“Not at all. You’re doing the right thing, Merlin, protecting that knight.”
“I’m surprised you agree with that, considering-” Merlin cut himself off at the last second, belatedly remembering his promise to never speak of that time. “Sorry.” But Freya just smiled.
“It’s okay,” she said. “You’re right, I have good reason to feel as Lord Edmund does about Camelot. And for a time I did. But what you said in there was right, Merlin. All of us who practice magic, no matter what form it is, are judged from the moment we are born for something beyond our control. We should strive not to do the same to others. Who knows, maybe your actions will inspire this knight to rethink his opinions of magic and try to change the minds of others as well.”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” Merlin said, thinking back to his conversation with the knight. “If nothing else, I’m pretty sure I’ve at least annoyed him into wanting to forget this place even exists the moment he leaves.”
“Well, that’s something.” Freya glanced at the closed council chamber doors where they could still hear the sounds of heated debate. “I suppose I should either go back in there or find something to do other than stand around out here.”
“If it helps, I’m pretty sure my father wouldn’t object to you running Lord Edmund through.”
Freya snorted. “Oh yes, I heard his comment about ‘indulging the whims of a child’.” She shook her head. “Tempting as it is to test that out, I think it would be safer if I went and helped Will with training.”
“By ‘help’ do you mean ‘humiliate him in front of the squires’?”
“Hey, if he didn’t make it so easy I wouldn’t have to.” Dipping into a quick bow, Freya turned and strode down the hallway. Merlin headed the opposite direction, mind returning to the knight. Let the council squabble, he decided. Let Lord Edmund berate and challenge him. The moment he’d laid eyes on the knight he’d known that letting him die wasn’t an option. He just hoped it wouldn’t turn out to be a mistake.
“It’s not like you’re unaware that you’re in a place where magic is legal and practiced freely,” Merlin had said crossly as he prepared a needle and thread. “I mean I get that you’re not used to seeing it used so casually like that, but did you really have to ruin my stitching? Hold still.” Arthur had startled a second time when Merlin’s eyes had flashed gold with magic. Unlike Sefa, Merlin hadn’t apologized, saying only that Arthur would be grateful for the use of the numbing spell. Arthur had been confused until he’d looked down and seen that Merlin was already pulling out the old stitching. He hadn’t felt a thing.
That had been two days ago. Arthur had been doing his best not to think too hard about it, nor that fact that his wound was healing much faster than expected. He was seated at the table, the remnants of his latest meal pushed to the side. Merlin was seated in the chair next to him.
“I still can’t figure out why you’re doing this,” Arthur said. Even without the fact that Merlin was a sorcerer, Arthur had learned from an early age that there were always ulterior motives. Merlin’s were proving hard to determine. A part of him that was growing with every passing day suggested that maybe this was because Merlin had no ulterior motives.
Merlin kept his gaze focused on Arthur’s wound when he answered, “I’m doing this because it’s the right thing to do.” Finished with his examination, he sat back in the chair. “It’s healing nicely. Barring any more complications- such as you ruining my stitching again- it shouldn’t be more than a week before it’s completely healed.” Merlin eyed the prince. “You know, I’m still curious as to what you’re even doing here in the first place. They don’t call it the Perilous Lands for nothing.”
“I’ve told you, it’s none of your business,” Arthur said. Merlin sighed, exasperated. Arthur had no idea why it prompted him to add, “But I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to tell you that I’m on a quest.”
“What sort of quest?” Merlin asked.
“A special one,” Arthur hedged.
Merlin gave him a flat look. “Well no kidding. I figured a knight of Camelot would have to have some kind of very special reason to come to a place well known for being full of danger and magic. What I’m asking is what that reason is.”
Arthur hesitated. He shouldn’t say anymore. It didn’t matter how nice Merlin had been, he was still a sorcerer and sorcerers were untrustworthy. So what if Sefa had let slip that Merlin’s decision to help him meant he was facing significant opposition from his own court? That could be a ruse as well, a trick to lull him into a false sense of security. Except there was something deep inside Arthur that wouldn’t stop calling that into question. He couldn’t explain it. There was just something about Merlin, something that drew him in, that made him doubt his own assertions about magic and those who practiced it. It drew strength from that conversation a week ago, when Merlin had made an incredibly good point about the treatment of magic in Camelot.
Arthur had thought it before and he thought it again now: what if his father was wrong? What if he had simply allowed himself to become blinded by his grief over the death of Arthur’s mother? What if he’d dealt with that grief, not by striving to create a new world in which things like that didn’t happen, but by destroying the very thing he blamed for taking his wife from him? Arthur had heard stories, mostly from Gaius, about the time before the Great Purge, a time when his father was still firm and proud, but tempered by compassion. And how that compassion had been lost to grief and anger. Sometimes Arthur wondered if magic hadn’t simply been a convenient scapegoat for his father to direct his anger at. But when he thought like this, Arthur also had to confront the fact his father’s grief and rage had fueled him to slaughter thousands of innocent people. It was a difficult thought to stomach.
“Hello? Anyone in there?”
Merlin’s hand waving in front of his face brought Arthur out of his thoughts.
“Look, you don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to,” Merlin said and it took Arthur a moment to remember what they were discussing. “If you’d rather I not pry then-”
“No, it’s fine,” Arthur found himself saying. Maybe it was reckless to admit that he was no mere knight, but Arthur was tired of the internal struggle that had been taking place inside him for days now. There was only one way to tell what Merlin’s true intentions were. Arthur would have to take a leap of faith. “It’s a quest undertaken by the heir to the throne to prove that they will be a worthy king.”
“Heir to the throne,” Merlin repeated. Understanding crept over him. “So you are no knight of Camelot.”
“No, I am a knight,” Arthur corrected. “But I am also Arthur Pendragon, crown prince and heir to the throne.”
Merlin stared at him for a long moment, expression hard to decipher. “Huh,” was all he finally said. He started packing away the supplies he’d pulled out of his medicine bag. “Well, that’s definitely something we should keep between the two of us.” When he’d finished with his bag he drummed his fingers on the table before asking, “So what quest did you choose to end up here?” Arthur hadn’t realized he was holding his breath until it came out in a big, relieved rush. There was still a chance that as soon as he left the room, Merlin would run straight to his father and confess that the mysterious Camelot knight was actually the crown prince and they should throw him in a cell immediately. But that same inexplicable part of him that was drawn to Merlin for reasons unknown scoffed at the very idea. Merlin wouldn’t do that to him.
“I didn’t choose the quest,” Arthur said. “It was revealed to me in a vision. After a night of meditation I saw myself taking the trident of the Fisher King.”
Merlin looked highly skeptical. “Admittedly, I have very little experience with the customs of other kingdoms- for obvious reasons- but Camelot sounds like it has some very bizarre traditions.”
“It’s not bizarre,” Arthur said defensively. “It’s an ancient and sacred ritual. What about you? What do you have to do to prove yourself a worthy heir to your father?”
“Show my competence as a future leader? You know, attend council, demonstrate my ability to make decisions in the best interests of my people, show that I understand our laws and traditions, that sort of thing. I certainly don’t need some mystical quest to prove that I will be a good statesman.”
“I would’ve thought, your people being of magic-”
Merlin barked out a laugh. “Gods no! Why would that have anything to do with it? If anything, that makes us even less likely to rely on such things as visions and quests. How do you even know you’ve interpreted your vision correctly? From what source does your vision come? Even experienced seers have trouble interpreting what they’ve seen. Visions are incredibly tricky, even moreso if you have no experience with them. A strange vision from an unknown source is the last thing I would trust to guide me on a quest. Besides, how does anyone know you didn’t cheat to complete the quest? Are you supposed to have a guide? Some kind of chaperone?”
Arthur floundered for words, flustered. “I don’t need a chaperone,” he grit out. “This quest is to be undertaken alone and unaided.”
“Okay, but then how does anyone know you didn’t cheat?”
“I haven’t cheated!” Arthur snapped. “It’s a matter of integrity and trust and- I don’t have to explain myself to you!”
Merlin laughed again. “Relax, I’m just trying to understand. I’m sorry, but this all sounds very strange to me. And it hardly seems like a fool proof way to prove that someone will be a worthy king. So what if you can go on a quest to retrieve some random artifact because a strange vision told you to? How does that prove to anyone that you have the wisdom to rule fairly and justly?”
“It’s a test of strength and courage,” Arthur argued, “which are also important qualities for a ruler.”
“Alright, I’ll give you that, strength and courage are important. But what about wisdom and knowledge? And what if you fail your quest? Like, what if a huge storm were to come and wipe out the remains of the Fisher King’s castle and destroy the trident? Would you be removed as heir? Despite perhaps having shown great competence at court?”
“Actually, you’ve already failed.”
Arthur blinked. “What are you talking about? I haven’t failed.”
“You said you have to complete the quest alone and unaided,” Merlin said. He gestured around them. “If I’d left you alone and not aided you, you’d be dead. According to the rules of the quest, you’ve failed.”
Arthur pressed his lips into a thin, angry line. Merlin was right. He should’ve died out there in the woods. If not for Merlin’s help, that would’ve been the end. But it hadn’t been his fault. Something hadn’t been right (he refused to think of the amulet Morgana had given him and how he hadn’t felt that strange weakness since its removal). “I haven’t failed,” he mumbled.
“I know,” Merlin said. “But that’s kind of my point. Things happen in life all the time that are beyond our control. Asking for help when you need it doesn’t make you weak. It doesn’t make you less worthy of being your people’s heir. When my father has to make a decision, he doesn’t just rely on himself. He relies on the council, on trusted friends, on me.” A deep, familiar sadness flashed across Merlin’s eyes. “On my mother, when she was alive.” Merlin shook his head and the sadness disappeared. “He always seeks the advice and wisdom of others when he can and while he may choose not to follow that advice, he never disregards it.”
“It’s different,” Arthur said. “Your father isn’t a king.” Arthur still wasn’t entirely sure what Merlin’s father was, but he knew he wasn’t a king. “A king must rely on himself. It is the king who must rule the people.”
“Sounds like an awfully lonely existence,” Merlin said softly. “My mother always told me that people were never meant to be alone. We thrive on love, on connecting with others. We aren’t meant to isolate ourselves.”
“Trust is for fools,” Arthur said.
“Then I’ll gladly remain a fool for the rest of my life.” Merlin shook his head. “But my point still remains. You haven’t completed your quest so far alone and unaided so by the laws of your people you are no longer worthy of being the heir to the throne, even though the circumstances that resulted in this failure were beyond your control. Do you feel you’ve failed?”
“No, I don’t,” Arthur answered without hesitation. “I still plan to continue my quest.” He cleared his throat. “Of course, since, as you pointed out, this whole side trip counts as a violation of the rules of the quest, I will be unable to say a word of this place’s existence to anyone in Camelot.” Arthur looked away at where his hand rested on the table, only now noticing its incessant nervous tapping. He stilled it. “Besides, that would be a poor way to repay you for the kindness you’ve shown me.” When he dared to look up again, Merlin was smiling. It was a beautiful smile. Something lurched in Arthur’s gut and his heart pounded against his ribcage for a few beats.
“I suppose I’ll have to take you at your word,” Merlin said. “Which is only fair, considering you’ve had to do the same during your time here. So you’re really determined to go to the keep of the Fisher King?”
“Then, since you’ve already violated the rules of the quest once, perhaps you wouldn’t mind violating them again?”
“What do you mean?” Arthur asked, frowning in confusion.
“I’d like to come with you,” Merlin said. “I wouldn’t do much, I promise. It’s just, if you recall, I mentioned before that the plains are infested with wyvern. Vicious, nasty creatures that like to attack in swarms. There’s no way to get to the Fisher King’s keep without going through their territory and they will notice and they will attack you.”
Arthur eyed Merlin’s tall, skinny frame. “And just what exactly could you do against a swarm of wyvern?”
“Wyvern are distant relations of dragons,” Merlin explained. “Since I’m a dragonlord I can use my voice to tame them and keep you from getting ripped to shreds.”
“Dragonlord?” Arthur repeated. “What on earth is a dragonlord?”
“Oh.” A profound sadness overcame Merlin. “Right. You wouldn’t have heard of dragonlords. My father was the last one to ever set foot in Camelot and that was back before the Great Purge. These days, there aren’t that many of us left. It’s possible I was the last one born.”
“Because my father tried to wipe them all out,” Arthur said. Merlin nodded. “I’m sorry.” That part of him that still clung to the beliefs of his upbringing tried to convince him that his father must have had a good reason for going after the dragonlords. It wasn’t terribly convincing.
Merlin’s smile returned. “You don’t have to apologize. You would’ve been a baby at the time. Besides, your father’s decisions are hardly your fault.”
“Right,” Arthur agreed absently, trying not to think too much about the ways he had participated in his father’s crusade against magic. He took a deep breath and returned to the topic at hand. “So what exactly does it mean to be a dragonlord?”
“It means that we share blood with the dragons, making us kin.”
“Share blood with-”
“I would advise against asking about the exact mechanics,” Merlin interrupted. “There are dozens of stories about the origins of dragonlords and at least half of them will give you nightmares. The important part is that our kinship with dragons gives us the ability to tame them, to command them.”
Arthur sat up a little straighter. “You can command dragons?”
“Well, that’s an oversimplification,” Merlin backpedaled. “We’re not meant to rule over dragons or anything like that. A dragonlord who abuses their power or breaks one of the Dragon Tenets will face severe consequences for it. Not that that really matters anymore, seeing as there are no dragons left.” Merlin stopped and took a breath. “All you need to know is that I can keep the wyvern from attacking you. Because trust me, if you try and fight off an entire swarm by yourself you won’t make it to the keep, much less back to Camelot.”
Arthur hesitated. He shouldn’t even be considering this. Not only did this completely violate the rule of completing the quest alone and unaided, Arthur hadn’t forgotten that Merlin was a sorcerer. A sorcerer who had so far proved to be kind and true to his intentions, but a sorcerer nonetheless. It would be best if, after leaving, Arthur endeavored to put this whole incident as far behind him as possible. Even if Merlin was the one exception to the rule of evil sorcerers, that didn’t change the fact that there were many others out there who sought to destroy Camelot and all she stood for. Arthur couldn’t be hesitant about protecting his kingdom. But, he also couldn’t protect his kingdom at all if he were to die in the course of his quest.
“I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to have your help with the wyvern,” Arthur finally decided. A beautiful smile spread across Merlin’s face as he stood and grabbed his medicine bag.
“Great! Then in a week we’ll head out for the keep of the Fisher King!” He left. Arthur stayed rooted to his chair for several long minutes, telling himself that his heart was beating so fast because of anticipation for his quest.
It definitely had nothing to do with Merlin’s smile.
Balinor glanced up. “One moment, Merlin.” He returned his attention to the document in front of him. As Merlin watched, his father’s expression turned more and more incredulous until he finally rolled his eyes and tossed the parchment aside. “It would be counterproductive to murder Edmund, wouldn’t it?”
Merlin made a thoughtful noise. “I don’t know about counterproductive. Immoral, certainly, but Edmund’s death might do a great deal to improve the council’s productivity. It would certainly improve morale.”
Balinor gave him a flat look. “That’s not the answer I was looking for.”
“Wasn’t it?” Merlin asked with mock innocence.
“I was looking for something more along the lines of ‘No, Father, you definitely should not murder a member of the council no matter how stupid his edicts are’. Suppose I should’ve known better than to expect that from you.”
“What’s the edict about?”
“Increasing our military strength.”
Merlin snorted. “With what resources?”
“Exactly.” Balinor leaned back in his chair. “Now, what do you need?”
Right, he’d come here for a reason. Merlin decided not to beat around the bush. “I was thinking… when Arthur is recovered enough to leave, I’d like to go with him. Just until the border with Camelot.”
“Arthur?” his father repeated with a frown.
“The knight,” Merlin explained. “It’s his name.” He noted this father didn’t look at all surprised by this fact. Taking a chance, he asked, “Did you know he’s the crown prince?”
Balinor sighed. “I didn’t know for certain,” he admitted. “But I suspected. He bears a very strong resemblance to his mother.”
“Are you going to talk to him?”
“Why would I talk to him?”
“Well, you knew his mother,” Merlin clarified. “Since childhood.”
“I did. Merlin, I don’t think this is the time for that.”
“Why do you want to accompany him when he leaves?”
Merlin studied his father for a long moment before deciding to let it go. “Apparently he’s on some kind of quest to prove he’s worthy to be the heir to the throne. He’s determined to go to the keep of the Fisher King.”
“Hm. I’m surprised Uther is keeping with that tradition, considering its roots in magic.”
“Did he not do it himself when he was Arthur’s age?”
“No, Uther didn’t inherit Camelot, he won it. So Arthur’s quest is taking him to the keep of the Fisher King. Why do you want to accompany him?”
“Well, I figured with the wyvern infesting the plains he could use a hand getting past them.”
“Yes, but why, Merlin. You hardly know anything about Prince Arthur. The council may be willing to support allowing him to remain here while he heals, but I doubt they will be so agreeable to my only son and heir leaving with him.”
“Who said I was planning on telling the council?” When his father only continued to stare at him expectantly, Merlin sighed and admitted, “I don’t know why. I just know it’s something that I need to do.” It wasn’t an acceptable explanation and Merlin knew it. His father was right. He may have convinced most of the council that healing Arthur was the right thing to do, but that was here in the safety of the citadel. They would be a whole lot less accommodating about their leader’s only child leaving with that same knight. It was all Merlin had to offer though. He couldn’t explain the strange pull he felt towards Arthur. All he knew was that he had to follow it. He stood resolute under his father’s scrutinizing gaze.
“Very well,” Balinor said. “If you feel this is the right course of action, then I support you.”
Merlin felt relieved. “Thank you.”
“Will,” Merlin groaned, pausing his training to turn an exasperated look on his friend. “Stop it. I know the risks. I know what I’m doing.”
“Do you?” Will challenged.
Actually, no, Merlin wasn’t entirely sure of what he was doing. But he was hardly going to admit that to Will. Instead he said, “I know how to take care of myself.”
“I know, but you should still have someone to watch your back. Let me-”
“I said no.”
“Okay, then if not me, take Lancelot.”
“Will, stop it. No one is coming with me, okay? Not you, not Lancelot, not Freya, no one. I will be fine.” Merlin turned back to the training dummy and resumed his practice. From the corner of his eye he could see Will’s scowl.
“I can’t even fathom what possessed your father to agree to this,” Will complained.
“He trusts me,” Merlin replied, not breaking his training. “You’re welcome to go take it up with him if you want to.”
“...No, that’s okay.” Will watched him for a few minutes before admitting, “I’m just worried about you, okay? You don’t always think things through.”
Merlin snorted. “That’s rich coming from you.”
“Alright, yeah, I’m not exactly a planner myself. But it’s different!”
“I’m not the heir of the head clan!”
“You’re not going to talk me out of this. I know it seems crazy, but it’s the right thing to do.”
Will was quiet for a good long while, long enough for Merlin to glance at him. He was frowning contemplatively. Then his expression morphed into one of realization. Whatever the realization was, Will didn’t share it, but he let the subject of Merlin’s impending departure drop, despite dearly looking like he didn’t want to.
His eyes fell on the amulet sitting on his desk. The Eye of the Phoenix looked harmless in its current state, no more than the trinket Arthur had been fooled into thinking it was. But Merlin still remembered the tainted magic that had stung him when he’d removed it from the prince’s wrist, like a sting from an angry insect. He’d almost dropped it on the ground, taking it with him in the end only because leaving such a thing lying around for anyone to take was far too dangerous. At first, he’d given it to his father. However, something had made him ask for it back.
"What could you possibly want with it?” his father had asked.
“To study it," Merlin had lied, pushing aside his guilt at doing so. “I hardly ever get the chance to study magical artifacts." That part at least was the truth, what with so much having been destroyed during the Great Purge. “I promise I’ll be careful." Balinor clearly hadn’t liked the idea, but, as Merlin had known, he was reluctant to deprive Merlin of an opportunity to learn more about magic. So he’d returned the amulet with a warning that Merlin should handle it with the utmost caution. It had lain nearly forgotten on Merlin’s desk since then. Until now, when he tucked it away in his pack for no other reason than something deep inside him told him he should. It came from the same place as the knowledge that he had to go with Arthur and ensure the prince made it safely to the end of his quest. It made little sense. By all means, he should be wary of Arthur. Fate worked in mysterious ways though and Merlin had given up questioning it. Putting it from his mind, he turned his attention to the map laid out on the table.
The mountains surrounding the Vale of Dragons were filled with all kinds of caverns and passageways. They meandered beneath the earth in a giant maze that was a death sentence for any who didn’t know how to navigate them. Learning the twists and turns of the deep mountain passages had been a part of a dragonlord’s coming of age since the clans had first settled in the Vale over a thousand years ago. By now, Merlin could navigate the most common of the passages blindfolded and without the help of his magic. The deeper passages he was less certain of. While his father had kept up the traditions of their people for Merlin’s coming of age, he’d forbidden Merlin from exploring past the well known routes. While these passages could be a great asset, allowing them to bypass areas of great danger, they could also be a death sentence. It was speculated that a substantial part of their civilian losses during the Great Purge had not been directly because of Uther’s army, but because many who had escaped into the passages had become lost and died before being able to find their way out again. Merlin had heard talk of a few caverns deep in the mountains that were filled with bones and bits of things that you would expect to be carried by refugees.
And that didn’t even touch on the things that lurked down in the passages. Most of the entrances were guarded by wolf packs or bears or worse. Philip had told a fair few stories about goblins and trolls that had made their home under the mountain. There were darker things in there too, things that Merlin dared not think about. But there was no reason that any of that should trouble them on the route Merlin had chosen. It was well traveled, though less so since the incident five years ago.
Most importantly though, going through the mountain would allow them to slip away without alerting the council to Merlin’s plan. It seemed safest. According to Sefa, Lord Edmund was acting even more shifty than usual and had had a number of secretive meetings with his own personal guards. Merlin could all too easily picture the rest of the council stepping in to stop him from leaving with a foreign knight, forcing Arthur to depart on his own. If that happened, wyvern would be the least of the prince’s troubles. It wouldn’t be difficult for Lord Edmund to send a few of his men after Arthur to ensure he never made it to the keep of the Fisher King, much less back to Camelot. The council may not appreciate Merlin slipping away without informing them, but it was for the best.
A knock on his door startled Merlin out of his thoughts. Quickly, he rolled up the map and set it aside before calling, “Enter.” Lancelot stepped inside. “What is it?”
Lancelot quirked an eyebrow, but ever the noble gentleman, he ignored Merlin’s defensive tone. “Will’s told me what you’re planning to do,” Lancelot said. Merlin let his eyes fall briefly shut, in no mood to have this argument again right now.
“I have to do this,” Merlin said.
“I figured,” Lancelot said, flashing him a smile. “I’m not here to try and talk you out of it.” His eyes landed on the map and Merlin had to resist the urge to push it out of sight. Lancelot’s smile dropped into a frown. “May I?” Merlin wanted to say no, but that would only make Lancelot suspicious. He reminded himself that he outranked Lancelot and he already had his father’s (reluctant) approval anyway, so what harm could it do?
“Sure,” Merlin said, stepping nonchalantly aside. Lancelot stepped forward and unrolled the map, studying the marked route for a moment before his eyes went wide.
“Merlin, you can’t,” Lancelot said.
“It’s a well traveled path,” Merlin said.
“Not since the incident.”
“That was five years ago.”
“Just go through the Vale. Skirt around Red River Forest.”
“Going through the mountains is faster and avoids the forest entirely. Or should I remind you of what happened the last time I was there?” It was a low blow and Merlin regretted it the moment the words left his mouth and he saw the hurt flash across his friend’s face. What had happened in Red River Forest hadn’t been Lancelot’s fault. They’d had no idea the Serket population had gotten so out of control now that there were no dragons to keep the numbers down. And Merlin shouldn’t have been there alone anyway. If Lancelot hadn’t followed him, Merlin wouldn’t even be standing here putting his foot in his mouth over an event that had been the result of his own rash stupidity.
“I’m sorry,” Merlin said. “It was completely unfair of me to say that.” Lancelot nodded, silently accepting the apology.
“I still think you should reconsider. Red River Forest aside, the council won’t take kindly to you sneaking off. Sure they won’t be pleased that you’re doing this, but you already have your father’s approval, do you not?”
Merlin sighed. “That counts for very little here. Most of the council may disagree with Edmund on almost all matters, but I know one area where they do feel he has a point. That my father is far too indulgent with me and his judgement on such matters is clouded.”
“I’m sure that’s true to a degree,” Lancelot admitted. “You’re his son, after all. But I doubt it’s anywhere as much of a concern as Lord Edmund makes it out to be.”
“I can admit that I haven’t exactly made the best decisions to inspire their confidence in my sense of responsibility and that perhaps there are times my father should be more strict with me.”
“He lets you learn from your own mistakes.”
“The council doesn’t see it that way.” Merlin shook his head. “It was one thing to allow me to bring an injured knight here to heal. If Arthur were of a mind to hurt me- and I know for a fact that he isn’t- he would know that doing so would only lead to his own death. But I’m sure as far as the council is concerned once Arthur leaves here I should have nothing to do with him. They’ll never agree to let me go and I’m worried about how far things could escalate.”
“I know you feel that going with the knight is the right thing to do, but surely it wouldn’t be all that bad if he had to continue his quest alone.”
“Not if what Sefa tells me is true.”
Lancelot’s brow furrowed in concern. “What has she told you?”
“That Edmund has been having very secretive meetings with his own personal guard,” Merlin revealed. “As well, she’s seen one or two loitering around the wing of the citadel where Arthur is staying. There’s no reason for them to be there.”
“You’ve warded the room haven’t you? For exactly this reason?”
“Yes, but that only protects Arthur as long as he’s here.”
“Ah, I see. Have you spoken to Lord Balinor about this?”
Merlin would’ve laughed were he not so worried. “Yes, but what can he do? Tell Edmund off for having conversations with his own guards? Everyone knows of the animosity between them. What if they see it as my father trying to find an excuse to get rid of a councilor he doesn’t like? I know the risks of taking the mountain passages, but I believe it’s the safest of my options.”
Lancelot sighed. “Very well. I don’t suppose there’s any way to convince you to let me come along?”
Merlin smiled. “Will’s already tried. But you both need to remain here. I know I won’t be leaving my father in the best position by sneaking off with a knight of Camelot. He’ll need your help far more than I will.”
“You’re right,” Lancelot agreed. There was no way the council wouldn’t at least suspect that Balinor had known what his son was planning. “Then I suppose all I can do is tell you to be careful. The mountain passages haven’t seen much use in the last five years. The last patrol that passed through there did so many months ago. There’s no telling how safe it is.”
“Trust me, I have no intentions of lingering,” Merlin said. “With just the two of us and my magic it shouldn’t be hard to avoid trolls and bears.”
“It’s not trolls and bears that worry me.”
Merlin knew. But there was no reason that should be an issue. No one had reported anything out of the ordinary during the last patrol down there. Merlin didn’t think too hard about how long it had been since that patrol.
Finally, Arthur tried being more direct.
“I know something’s going on,” Arthur stated. “I do not appreciate being left in the dark.”
“It’s nothing I can’t handle,” Merlin said, patiently working the stitching free from Arthur’s almost completely healed wound. “Your focus should be on resting. If all goes well, and it certainly seems to be, then we leave the day after tomorrow.”
“Someone’s trying to kill me,” Arthur said. “That’s it, isn’t it.”
Merlin let out an irritated sigh and finally admitted, “Possibly. I don’t know for sure. Not everyone agrees with you being here.”
“So they want to kill me.”
“I said possibly.”
God, it was like pulling teeth. “Merlin, I’m a prince. My father has made many enemies throughout his life. This would not be the first time someone has tried to kill me.”
“It’s really not something you need to worry about,” Merlin insisted. “This room is well protected and Sefa knows how to check food and drink for poison. Not that I think he would use poison, entirely unlike him.” The last part was muttered under his breath, likely not meant for Arthur’s ears. Arthur ignored it for a moment in favor of being alarmed.
“Sefa tests my food and drink for poison?” Despite his best efforts, it had proved impossible not to get attached to Sefa. She was sweet and kind, reminding him of Morgana’s maidservant Gwen. “How could you make her do that!”
“She doesn’t test it by eating it!” Merlin exclaimed, looking up at him incredulously. “She tests it with magic!”
“Oh.” Arthur settled back in his chair and let Merlin return to his work. After a moment he said, “What did you mean when you said you don’t think ‘he’ would use poison? Who is ‘he’? You know who’s behind this don’t you.” Merlin remained silent. “I suppose I’ll simply have to investigate on my own then.” Merlin made a noise of frustration and yanked the last of the stitching out, making Arthur eternally grateful that numbing spells existed. He waited while Merlin slathered a salve on the wound, uttered a healing spell that made the hairs on the back of Arthur’s neck stand up on instinct, and finally took a seat.
“Fine,” Merlin said. “I have my suspicions on who may be plotting to kill you, based on a few things Sefa has noticed.”
“Great.” Arthur leaned forward in his chair. “Who is it?”
Merlin shook his head. “That, I won’t tell you.”
“Because I get the very distinct impression that if I tell you, you may attempt to go after this individual yourself, which would have disastrous consequences. Attacking one of my people isn’t going to do you- or me, for that matter- any favors. All it will do is put my father in an extremely difficult position. As I said, this room is very well protected, I made sure of it as a precaution for this exact situation. My father will handle this matter.”
Arthur wanted to argue, but instead he forced himself to reverse their positions. If it were Merlin under threat from someone in his court in Camelot, then he certainly wouldn’t want Merlin running around making a mess of his investigation. It was fair of him to ask the same of Arthur. So, reluctantly, he let it drop.
The following evening, Merlin officially declared Arthur well enough to travel. They would leave the next morning.
As Arthur was changing into his own breeches and tunic once again, the sun just barely starting to rise, he couldn’t help pausing to poke at the thin scar where he’d been wounded a mere two weeks ago. It looked like it had been there for years. For a moment, Arthur entertained a Camelot where magic was allowed to be used in healing. How many more people would Gaius be able to save if he could enchant his remedies and use spells to stop injuries from bleeding out? But the thought was quickly shaken from his mind. His father would never allow such a thing. As far as Uther was concerned, magic, no matter how well intentioned, was doomed to corrupt. Arthur admitted in the privacy of his own mind that he was starting to think different.
When he was ready, Sefa led him not out into the corridor, but through a nondescript door on the wall that accessed the servant passages. Arthur didn’t comment. After Merlin had admitted that there was indeed someone in the citadel planning to murder him it made sense that they would leave by more secretive means. Sefa led him deep into the citadel, reaching a pair of large, reinforced doors that looked like they didn’t see much use.
“Just head down to the end of the corridor, sir,” Sefa said. “Lord Merlin should already be there.”
Arthur nodded, then hesitated. “Thank you,” he said to Sefa. “For everything you’ve done for me during my time here.”
“It was no trouble,” Sefa said, ducking her head shyly.
Arthur paused when he reached the end of the corridor, hearing voices. One he easily identified as Merlin. The other was more difficult. It was familiar, but it wasn’t until Arthur recalled the first time he’d woken in the citadel that he remembered. Whoever else was there was the same person that had been in the room with Merlin that day. Arthur had never bothered to find out who they were. At first he had assumed it was the physician, but now that he knew Merlin was no apprentice his curiosity returned.
“There are other ways out of the citadel,” the mystery voice was saying. “I know you’re aware of them.” Arthur peaked around the bend in the corridor in time to catch Merlin running a nervous hand through his hair, eyes darting guiltily to the side.
“Yes, well, I still think this is the best option,” Merlin said. “You agreed when I first told you about it.” The other man sighed. He was about Merlin’s height, but broader of shoulder. It was difficult to make out details, partly because there was little light down here and partly because the stranger’s back was turned. If Arthur weren’t mistaken, the man’s clothes were of fine make.
“I don’t like you being down here,” the man said, voice gone soft with worry. “Last time…”
“There’s no reason to think that should be an issue,” Merlin said. His voice had also grown softer, as had the look on his face.
“No, it shouldn’t.” The man reached out and brushed a bit of hair back from Merlin’s forehead. “But I worry anyway.”
“Well, it was either this or Red River Forest. At least this way the council won’t be able to interfere.”
“You need to be more mindful of the council’s opinion.”
“You agreed that this is the right thing to do.”
The man sighed again. Arthur was starting to have his suspicions about who he was. “Compromise is an important part of leading. Knowing when it is and isn’t appropriate to put your beliefs before the beliefs of others is difficult. Your mother was never fond of compromise either.”
“I can compromise,” Merlin argued. “Just not with people like Edmund.” The man chuckled.
“I suppose if you had your way he’d be kicked off the council.”
“Don’t pretend you don’t think about doing that every day.”
“Oh I do. Unfortunately, it’s not within my power.” The humor left the conversation. “Be careful, Merlin.”
“I will, Father,” Merlin promised. Merlin’s father pulled him into a hug before turning to leave. Arthur panicked, but there was nowhere to hide. He straightened his back, trying not to look guilty. Merlin’s father merely nodded at him as he passed. Arthur cleared his throat nervously as he stepped into the open, drawing Merlin’s attention.
“About time,” Merlin said. “I was beginning to think I would have to come and get you myself.”
“It isn’t exactly easy putting on armor by yourself,” Arthur said.
The corners of Merlin’s mouth twitched up in an amused smile. “Ah, yes, I forgot that a prince from a kingdom such as Camelot is not accustomed to dressing himself.”
“I can dress myself just fine!” Arthur protested. “There is nothing complicated about pulling on a tunic or fastening your trousers. But armor is different. Are you telling me that you arm yourself?” He gestured to Merlin’s armor. From here it looked like fine leather, but considering Merlin was a sorcerer from a magical land there was a very good chance that it was much more than that.
“Of course I do. You cannot count on someone else always being there to do things for you. And before you ask, no I don’t use magic to help me with my armor.” Merlin reached for a torch, lighting it with a flash of gold in his eyes. “You could have asked Sefa for help.”
“A woman?” Arthur asked, startled both by the suggestion that he should allow a woman to help him dress and the casual display of magic. “That is hardly appropriate.”
Merlin only laughed and went to open a pair of large iron doors, leading the way into the dark. Arthur hurried after him. He paused and watched as Merlin shut the doors.
“What’s down here that necessitates doors such as these?” Arthur asked.
“All kinds of things live under the mountains,” Merlin said, starting down the passageway. Arthur caught up with him.
“That man you were speaking to,” Arthur said after a while of silence. “That was…”
“My father, yes,” Merlin answered. “I’m sorry you never had the opportunity to be properly introduced to him. He has little time to spare.”
“Since you brought me here?” Arthur guessed.
“No, though I can understand why you would assume that. No, my father is always busy with one thing or another ever since we returned here. It has been a struggle to rebuild everything that was lost during the Great Purge. If you ride through the Vale you can still see the remains of destroyed villages, burnt fields, even the remnants of the battles fought here. And with so many kingdoms choosing to side with Uther there are few we can turn to for help.”
“Right. Of course.” This was a side of his father’s war on magic that he hadn’t seen. One that, if he were being completely honest with himself, he intentionally hadn’t given much thought to.
Arthur let the silence last for a bit before asking his next question. “Why are we leaving this way? I assumed at first that it was because of me and that whole potential plot to murder me. But based on your conversation with your father I gather there is another reason.”
“Eavesdropping, hm?” Merlin teased, tossing an amused smirk over his shoulder. At Arthur’s embarrassed sputter, he laughed. “It’s alright. It wasn’t a private conversation. You are part of the reason for the secrecy of our departure.”
“And the other part?”
Merlin sighed through his nose. “The council. They would undoubtedly disagree with my decision to go off on a quest with a knight of Camelot.”
“You really think they would have stopped you from going?”
“It was a chance I couldn’t take.” It was said with a solemnity that gave Arthur pause.
Merlin stopped and turned to face him. “Why what?”
“Why are you doing all of this? Your people have every right to be concerned. I could’ve killed you just now, while you had your back turned.”
“It would’ve been foolish to do so. You’d never find your way out of the mountains.”
“Why?” Arthur demanded. Merlin glanced away, frowning.
“Don’t you feel it?” he asked quietly. He looked back up at Arthur and took a step closer.
“Feel what?” Arthur countered, staring at the way the light of the torch cast shadows on Merlin’s face. It made his eyes flicker gold, like they did when they were filled with magic.
“You do feel it,” Merlin said, stepping closer. “I can see it in your eyes.” Another step. He was within arms length now. If Arthur reached out he could pull Merlin against him. “I could ask the same question of you, you know. Why do you trust me? You’ve been taught your entire life that magic is a corrupting force and those who use it are evil. And yet here you stand. Why?”
“I don’t know,” Arthur admitted. He had no words to explain this strange connection he felt with Merlin, this… thing that pulled him towards him.
“Neither do I.” Merlin smiled, an edge of mystery to it. Abruptly he turned around and kept walking. “We should keep moving. It isn’t wise to linger down here.”
“Why? What kinds of things live down here?”
“Honestly? I have no idea. I haven’t been down here in five years and patrols are rare these days. Bears and packs of wolves, for sure.”
“Bears,” Arthur repeated. “And wolves.”
“Among other things.”
“What other things?”
“I wouldn’t worry too much about it. The path we’re taking is safe.”
“Somehow I’m not reassured.” But Arthur let the subject drop and decided to trust that Merlin wasn’t leading him to his death. After all, it would be Merlin’s death as well.
“There should be a campsite just up here,” Merlin said.
“Campsite?” Arthur repeated. “In a cave? And why would we stop to camp? Shouldn’t we keep moving?”
“It’s nightfall,” Merlin said simply. “That’s why you’re so tired. We’ll rest for the night and reach the exit tomorrow before noon.”
Arthur was quiet for a moment. “Ah. Alright then. How do you know what time it is anyway?”
“It takes about a day to make it to the campsite,” Merlin said absently, straining his eyes to see beyond the torchlight. A few more steps and it fell on the empty firepit. “Ah, here it is.” He shrugged off his pack and went over to the wood piled off to the side, starting to build a fire. “And even if I didn’t know how long it took to make the campsite, I can feel the passing of time.”
Arthur raised a disbelieving eyebrow where he’d sat down to watch Merlin work. “You can feel the passage of time.” He scoffed. “That’s ridiculous.”
“You can say it’s whatever you like, doesn’t make it less true.” Merlin called a flame into existence over the wood, coaxing it into a crackling fire that would keep them warm through the night. “My magic has always been a bit...different. Before I could even walk or talk I was using it to move objects around. I didn’t realize until my father told me that I was supposed to have to study spells and enchantments before I could use my magic like that.”
“This all sounds very bizarre to me,” Arthur said.
“Well this whole going on a quest revealed to you in a strange vision from an unknown source thing sounds very bizarre to me.” Merlin shrugged.
“I suppose I don’t really understand enough about magic in the first place to be making judgements,” Arthur admitted after a moment. “I used to ask, when I was little, but my father always got so angry about it so… I just stopped asking.” Arthur seemed to lose himself in thought after that and Merlin left him to it. He understood that this was all very new to Arthur and that his worldview was being flipped on its head. He needed time to come to terms with his new, conflicting views and that was fine. In the meantime, Merlin set about making dinner. By the time he had a nice vegetable stew going, he noticed that Arthur was staring at him.
“What?” Merlin asked, leaving the stew for a moment to pull out two bowls. “Have you never seen someone cook before?”
“Only servants,” Arthur said. “I mean I can cook meat over a fire when I need to, but generally cooking is-” The way Arthur cut himself off made it obvious how that sentence was going to end.
“Servant’s work?” Merlin finished. “That may be true in Camelot, but not here. My mother would have been appalled at the thought of me relying only on others to cook my meals.”
“I suppose I can see the logic in it out here, but what about in the citadel? Do you cook all your own meals then as well?”
“No, we have kitchen staff. It’s just impractical to try and do everything yourself. But you won’t always have someone around to cook your meals and clean your clothes and help you dress. It never hurts to know how to take care of yourself. It also gives you a much better appreciation for those you pay to do that work for you. You’ve probably never hauled around a basket of laundry, but I assure you it’s hard work.”
“You’ve done your own laundry?” Arthur asked, eyebrows rising straight to his hairline.
“Of course. Sometimes Sefa needs a day off. She’s not feeling well or she’s been working too hard or she needs to visit her father.”
“But surely someone else can take over.”
Merlin glanced at Arthur. “Maybe in Camelot you have the resources to just trade out servants whenever you like, but things are different here. Hiring servants is the least of our concerns. It’s much more important to make sure we have enough people to work the fields, raise the livestock, guard our home, and so on. We have the bare minimum of staff to keep the citadel running. If it’s a choice between training someone to be a farmer and training someone to be a servant, we’ll train them to farm. It’s the more immediate need. Without enough people to work the fields there won’t be enough food to feed everyone.”
“And you can’t rely on trade to pick up the slack,” Arthur recalled. “Were things different before…” He made a gesture that Merlin guessed was meant to refer to the Great Purge.
“I think so. Still not like in Camelot, from what my father has told me, but probably more similar than it is now.” Merlin began to ladle out stew and for a few minutes they ate in silence.
“You mentioned you need people to guard your home,” Arthur said after a while. “Guard from what exactly? If no one knows you’re out here, I would think it would be relatively safe.”
“From invading armies, sure, but that’s not the only danger that exists in the world you know,” Merlin said. “We get the occasional bandits and mercenaries venturing into the land, but they don’t generally make it as far as the Vale. The real danger comes more from the creatures that already live here. Take Red River Forest, for example. In the last few years we’ve started regularly going in there and culling the Serket population.”
Arthur frowned. “What’s a Serket?”
“Giant poisonous scorpions that generally like to hunt in packs by isolating and surrounding a single victim.” Merlin couldn’t help but shudder when he thought about it. “A few years back, we learned that the Serket population had grown out of control in the forest. If we hadn’t started culling them ourselves it wouldn’t have been long before they started spreading beyond the forest.”
“Why did the Serket population get so out of control?”
“The absence of the dragons. They used to hunt Serkets often enough that the population remained manageable. Same with many other creatures. One of the reasons that the plains are infested with wyvern now is because the dragons also used to hunt them and keep the population down. Now we have to take care of it ourselves, but we’re not as effective as the dragons. It’s dangerous work and we don’t have enough people.”
“Ah.” Arthur stared down into his stew and once again Merlin left him to his thoughts.
“There is one dragon left,” he said. “In Camelot.”
“I know,” Merlin said. After a moment more of staring at the map he rolled it up, stowed it, and looked at Arthur. “The Great Dragon, Kilgharrah, imprisoned in a cave beneath Camelot’s citadel.”
“What makes him great?”
Merlin shrugged. “I know he’s very old, which supposedly makes him wise, though according to my father he’s mostly an ass.”
“So your father knew this great dragon?”
“Mhm.” Merlin hesitated. “He… was the one Uther tricked into bringing the Great Dragon to Camelot, so that he could imprison him.”
Arthur stared. “My father tricked your father into helping imprison the last dragon,” he repeated, just to be sure he had it clear. Merlin nodded. “How? I mean why would your father even trust someone who did so many horrible things to his people?” He tried not to think too hard about that statement, not wanting to explore too much of these revelations about his father just yet. Merlin bit his lip and Arthur could see him deciding whether or not to lie, then wondered how he’d come to know Merlin that well in such a short time.
Finally Merlin said, “It was because of your mother.”
Arthur sucked in a sharp breath. “My mother? What does my mother have to do with your father?”
“I wasn’t going to say anything,” Merlin said. “We’ve already left so it didn’t seem like there was much point. And my father asked me to leave it alone so-”
“Just get to the point,” Arthur interrupted, more sharply than he intended.
“My father knew your mother,” Merlin admitted.
“He knew…” Arthur’s heart was pounding against his ribcage. His knowledge of his mother was almost nonexistent. He knew that he looked like her, that she had been kind and generous, that the people had adored her, and his father had loved her dearly. Other than that, he knew nothing. Nobody, not even his father, ever spoke of her. “How?” Arthur demanded. “How did he know her? Were they acquaintances? Friends?” He had a guess. After all, if Uther had been able to use the memory of Ygraine to convince Merlin’s father to help him, he must have known her rather well.
“They were very close friends,” Merlin said. “Since childhood. From what I’ve been told, the whole reason my father went to Camelot was because Ygraine asked him to, so that she wouldn’t be so lonely while she settled in after her marriage.” Merlin’s expression turned guilty. “I should have said something sooner. I’m sorry, I know I should have.”
“Yes, you should have,” Arthur agreed, anger coloring his tone. “But you didn’t. Why?”
“I told you, my father asked me to leave it alone.”
“So? I have a right to know about my mother!” He could’ve asked questions. For two weeks he’d had an opportunity to speak with someone who had known his mother since childhood and Merlin had done nothing.
“He loved her, Arthur,” Merlin said. The guilt had melted away to be replaced with protectiveness. Arthur eyed Merlin.
“He loved her,” he repeated.
Merlin realized where Arthur’s mind had gone. “Not like that. Not like he loved my mother. More like a sister, from what he told me.” Merlin picked up a stick and poked at the fire. “I don’t know that he’s ever really gotten over her death. With everything that happened right after I doubt there was time to grieve. And then you show up here all these years later and probably brought it all back and it was easier to just ignore it. Like I said, I should’ve told you, but my father asked me to leave it alone and things are hard enough for him these days without reopening old, painful wounds. I couldn’t do that to him. I’m sorry.”
Arthur’s anger deflated. “You don’t have to be sorry. I get it.” How could he fault Merlin for wanting to protect his father? He’d spent years not asking his own father about his mother for the same reason. “Perhaps I’ll speak to him another time.” The words just sort of slipped out and Arthur wasn’t sure whether he or Merlin were more surprised. Another time implied that Arthur would return to the Vale of Dragons. Another time was a promise for the future.
Clearing his throat, Arthur laid down, back to the fire. After a moment he heard the rustle of movement as Merlin also bedded down. However it was a good long while before Arthur managed to fall asleep.
“What time is it?” Arthur mumbled, stretching and then watching Merlin move about the campsite with purpose.
“Dawn,” Merlin answered, looking alert and awake. “Eat quickly so we can get going. I wanna be out of here by midday.” He shoved something into Arthur’s hands. It took a moment for Arthur to realize it was bread and cheese. He ate on autopilot, coming more awake with every passing second.
“I don’t normally have this much trouble waking up,” Arthur said as he set about packing up his bedroll.
“Our bodies use the sun as a signal for when it’s time to sleep and when it’s time to wake up,” Merlin explained. “Since we’re underground, it’s more difficult for your body to recognize when it’s time to wake.”
“Well what about you? Why are you so perky?”
“My magic. Its close connection to the earth means I don’t need the sun to help me wake.”
“Ah.” Arthur lugged his pack onto his shoulders and checked that he wasn’t leaving anything behind. That was when he remembered the bracelet. “You never gave me back my amulet.”
Merlin paused to frown at him. “Amulet? What amulet? Oh, you mean the Eye of the Phoenix?” He got to his feet, hauling his pack up. “I told you, it’s a dangerous magical artifact. That thing almost got you killed.”
“And I told you,” Arthur said, unable to keep a scowl from his face, “that was a gift from a dear friend.”
Merlin sighed. “Look, no dear friend would ever give something like that as a present, unless they were giving it to someone they don’t like. If anything, that was an assassination attempt.”
Arthur felt his blood run cold at Merlin’s blunt assessment. Sure, he and Morgana had their differences and things had been a bit rough this past year, but she was like a sister to him. “It must’ve been a mistake,” he tried. “She didn’t realize it was dangerous, she just saw something pretty in the markets and thought it would make a nice good luck charm.”
Merlin shook his head as he lit the torch and extinguished the fire. “Arthur, something like that can’t just be found at a vendor in the markets, especially in a place like Camelot. An Eye of the Phoenix is rare and even someone who knows where to look for one would have a hard time getting ahold of it. My father wouldn’t have recognized it if he hadn’t happened to see a picture of one over twenty years ago when flipping through a book on magical artifacts. Besides…” He hesitated.
“What?” Arthur pressed. “Besides what?”
“A newly forged Eye of the Phoenix is actually dormant. It has to be activated. With magic. You create a likeness of the intended recipient and then use a binding spell to activate its life draining properties. I’m sorry, but I don’t see how anyone could have given you that as a gift by accident.”
“Maybe it wasn’t active.” Even as he said it, Arthur knew it wasn’t true, but that meant that Morgana had tried to kill him and he couldn’t wrap his head around that. “Maybe it was still dormant.”
“It wasn’t dormant,” Merlin said.
“How can you be sure?”
“Because the magic from the Eye of the Phoenix is what drew me to you in the first place. I probably wouldn’t have found you in time if I hadn’t sensed it.”
The world seemed suddenly unsteady and Arthur had to reach out and brace a hand on the wall to keep from falling. “That can’t be true,” he whispered. “It can’t. She wouldn’t. She wouldn't.”
“I’m sorry, I know this isn’t what you wanted to hear.” Merlin sounded pained for him. For a moment, he looked like he might reach out and lay a hand on Arthur’s shoulder, but then the moment passed. “Look, I don’t mean to be insensitive, but we really do need to get moving. The sooner we’re out of here, the better.”
Arthur closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath. The quest. Focus on the quest. Everything else got pushed to the back of his mind and Arthur straightened, gesturing for Merlin to lead the way.
The passageway they were taking opened out into a small cavern. To the left was another passageway leading off towards the exit. To the right were a pair of heavy, ornate doors that stood ajar. The hairs on the back of Merlin’s neck stood on end. Without hesitation, he headed for the left hand passageway.
“Where does that lead?”
Merlin turned to see that Arthur had stopped in the middle of the cavern and was staring at the doors.
“The catacombs,” Merlin said. A shiver raced down his spine. The seal on the doors had been broken for five years now with the result that they no longer closed. It was unnerving. “Let’s keep moving.” But Arthur ignored him.
“Why are they so far from the citadel?” Arthur asked. “Doesn’t that make them difficult to use?”
“They don’t belong to my people,” Merlin corrected. He shivered again, a familiar cold feeling starting to take root inside him. “We have different burial rituals. Now come on, let’s go.”
Arthur finally tore his gaze away from the doors to look at Merlin. “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine. I’m just tired of being stuck down here with you.”
“I take offense at that,” Arthur said, but it was halfhearted. He was studying Merlin with a contemplative frown. “If these catacombs don’t belong to your people, who do they belong to?”
“No idea. Now let’s go.” He turned and continued on without waiting to see if Arthur would follow. A moment later he heard the echo of footsteps following him. With every step away from the doors, Merlin felt less tense. Gods, he’d forgotten how awful it was to pass through here. It hadn’t always been like that, just since five years ago. Merlin forced himself to put it from his mind and focus on the here and now.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to keep everyone at bay. Philip took absolutely no heed of Lancelot, stationed right outside the door for the express purpose of turning anyone away. The knights protests fell on deaf ears and as the doors slammed open Balinor waved him away. There was no stopping Philip when he had that determined look on his face. He was the only member of the council who could get away with barging into the high lord’s chambers like this to stand cross armed and expectant by the desk.
“You’re fortunate I’ve known you as long as I have,” Balinor commented, turning the page of an absurdly long report on the state of one field of wheat. No wonder he’d been putting off reading this. Instead of replying, Philip just stared at him, one tapping foot away from looking the part of a disapproving parent waiting for their troublesome child to admit to their latest mishap. He went ignored.
“What in the name of all the gods could you possible have been thinking, Balinor?” Philip finally demanded when he’d gone ignored too long for this liking. “Your son is out there alone with a knight of Camelot.”
“Oh is that where he is,” Balinor said idly, resisting the urge to roll his eyes. “And here I thought he’d just gone out for an abnormally long stroll.” Philip made a noise of frustration and slammed his hands down on the desk.
“How can you be so calm about this? Aren’t you even the least bit concerned for your child?”
“Of course I am.”
“Merlin could already be dead for all we know!”
“This could’ve been the knight’s plan all along! What if-”
“Enough, Philip.” Balinor finally looked up at his friend. “Keep your speculations to yourself. I am aware of the risks, but I have my reasons for not stopping Merlin, chief among them being that I trust him.” Philip didn’t look convinced, but he bit his tongue against further conjecture. Balinor was grateful. He wouldn’t show it because it wasn’t wise to give the council a weakness to pounce on, but he was worried that he’d made the wrong decision. Merlin hadn’t even been able to give him a concrete reason for why he had to accompany the prince on his quest. Balinor wanted to believe that Merlin was right, that Arthur was trustworthy. But the more he thought about it the more he wondered if he weren't just projecting Ygraine onto her son. For all he knew, Arthur took more after his father.
"I'm not the only one thinking like this," Philip said after a while. Balinor sighed. "You know it's true. They're questioning your ability to have made a sound decision on this matter."
"Someone is always questioning my decisions when it comes to Merlin," Balinor said. There were plenty of people who thought he was far too lenient with his son, too indulgent. He'd lost count of the number of times he'd been told he needed to be more strict and not allow Merlin so much freedom. They were probably right, to some degree. Merlin was his only child and the strongest remaining reminder of his wife. It was hard not to indulge him. But Merlin wasn't stupid. Maybe he'd been allowed to make more stupid decisions than he should have, but Balinor had made sure he learned from them. He wouldn't have been so insistent on doing this if it weren't important. Balinor just had to trust him.
When Philip remained by the desk, arms crossed and brow furrowed in disapproval, Balinor said, "I'm sure you have more important things to be doing than hovering." Philip pressed his lips into a thin line, but he didn't ignore the dismissal. He bowed stiffly and left. Balinor waited until the door was firmly shut before rubbing his temples. Philip was worried and he appreciated that, but his nerves were frayed enough as it was.
“You’re sure this is the right way?” Arthur asked, darting a glance down one of the numerous offshoots they kept passing by. In front of him, Merlin heaved a put upon sigh.
“If you ask me that one more time I swear I will turn you into a toad.”
Arthur made a face at the mental image. “I’m just saying, if it’s been awhile since you’ve been down here then you could’ve forgotten the way out.”
“I didn’t.” Merlin jerked to a stop so suddenly that Arthur ran right into him.
“What are you doing?” he demanded, scowling at the back of Merlin’s head. “You better not be about to turn me into a toad-”
“Be quiet,” Merlin hissed. Arthur frowned, but when he moved level with Merlin and saw the look on his face he decided to keep his mouth shut. For a moment.
“What is it?” Arthur whispered. Merlin put a finger to his lips. His eyes were unfocused and Arthur realized he was listening for something. Arthur listened as well. At first he heard nothing. Then there was a low rumble, growing slowly but steadily in volume. As it got closer rock dust from the ceiling fell on them and Arthur realized the cave was shaking. He swallowed.
“Shut up.” Merlin’s voice was soft and urgent. He threw the torch on the ground and stamped it out, plunging them into darkness. Before Arthur could panic at the sudden total loss of sight he felt Merlin’s hand clamp around his wrist and drag him, stumbling and tripping, through the dark. He found himself shoved against a wall. They weren’t touching now, but Merlin was close enough that Arthur could feel the heat radiating from him.
“Merlin,” he tried to say, voice as soft and low as possible, but Merlin slapped a hand over his mouth. Arthur was annoyed for all of two seconds before he realized that the low, cave rattling rumbles they’d been hearing were footsteps. He froze, tense with the desire to flee. Whatever was out there he had no interest in meeting it. Merlin’s presence at his side, the hand still resting over his mouth, was the only thing that convinced him to stay in place. Slowly, he turned his head. Without the light of the torch it was pitch black, but he could hear that the creature was passing by the side tunnel they were hiding down. The quaking footsteps paused. Arthur caught sight of two points of eerie red light that his racing mind told him were eyes. Painfully tense seconds passed. Then the creature made a low, menacing sound and continued on its way down the main corridor. Merlin’s hand didn’t move from his mouth until the rumbling footsteps were gone.
After several deep breaths to calm his rapidly beating heart, Arthur finally asked, “What was that?”
“The guardian,” Merlin answered. A spark of gold flashed in the darkness and then a glowing blue orb appeared, floating over Merlin’s hand.
“Guardian of what?”
Arthur shivered, remembering the strange doors and the sense of wrong emanating from them. “So you knew that thing was down here and you picked this path anyway?”
“Of course not,” Merlin said. He crept along the side tunnel, more tense than Arthur had ever seen him yet as he kept an eye out for any movement. “The guardian is supposed to be sealed in the catacombs. There was no reason to assume it would be a problem.”
“Well whoever sealed it in there did a pretty shoddy job, if you ask me,” Arthur muttered. He paused at the narrow eyed glare Merlin was directing at him. “What?”
“I’m the one who sealed it in there,” Merlin said.
“Oh.” Arthur was contrite for only a moment. “Well, like I said, shoddy.” Merlin rolled his eyes. “Hey, all I’m saying is that if you’d done a decent job of it, that thing wouldn’t be wondering around loose down here. Why were you doing it anyway? Shouldn’t someone with more experience have done it?”
“I have plenty of experience. And it had to be me because no one else was powerful enough to perform an ancient sealing ritual like that.”
“Are you seriously telling me you’re somehow more powerful than all the rest of your people?”
“Yes.” It was said matter of factly with an undertone of resignation to it. There was no pride or arrogance, just the simple, almost reluctant fact that Merlin was indeed that powerful, whether he wanted to be or not.
They’d reached the main passage again. On the floor of the tunnel was the torch Merlin had been carrying throughout their journey, snapped in two. Merlin looked once in the direction the guardian had gone before heading in the opposite direction, back the way they’d come.
“What are you doing?” Arthur demanded. “That’s the wrong way! We need to get out of here!”
“The guardian can’t just be left to wander around free down here,” Merlin said, walking quickly. Arthur had no choice but to keep up or be left in the dark. “Eventually it’ll find its way out.”
“Which could be years from now,” Arthur argued. “Someone else’s problem!”
“My people are protectors of this land, it is most certainly my problem. Look, if you just follow this passage the way we were going you’ll come out near the marshlands. The plains and the Fisher King’s keep are just on the other side.”
“What about the wyvern? Wasn’t that the whole point of you coming along in the first place?”
“I have to take care of this, Arthur. You can either come with me or go on ahead, your choice.”
Arthur glanced over his shoulder. Leaving would be the smart thing. No matter how powerful Merlin claimed to be, it didn’t seem possible that the two of them could take on that massive creature alone. But could he really leave Merlin to do this all by himself? No, Arthur decided, he couldn’t. If nothing else, he’d stick around so that when all of this went to hell, he’d be there to drag Merlin out before he got himself killed.
The journey back to the catacombs entrance seemed to take no time at all. Merlin paused to stare hard at the large, ornate doors. That same cold feeling from before started to creep over Arthur, sending a shiver down his spine. “Exactly what’s down there?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Merlin admitted. “The chamber where the guardian is supposed to be sealed is only a short ways in. The actual catacombs are beyond that.”
“It just seems odd that someone felt the need to put this great big monster here, doesn’t it? Just for a couple of old tombs?”
“If the inhabitants were wealthy in life then there’s probably a lot of things worth stealing down there.” Merlin shrugged. “Come on. The sooner we find out how it got loose, the better.” He pushed the doors open and went inside. Arthur took a deep breath and followed.
The temperature inside the doors seemed to drop by several degrees. Arthur shivered, wishing he’d brought a cloak on his quest. Chainmail had always been good at sucking up the cold until not even his gambeson and under tunic made much difference. It had perhaps been an oversight on his part, but he’d been trying to pack light. Merlin for his part looked unaffected by the change in temperature as they followed a gently sloping path downward. Either his tunic and armor were thicker than they looked or it had to do with magic. Arthur’s gold was on magic.
At last, they came out into a round, high ceilinged chamber. Great archways leading deeper into the catacombs were interspersed along the curved walls and old, crumbling torches hung from rusty brackets. At the center was a large depression in the floor. Merlin went and crouched by it, examining faded, intricate markings carved there. Something stained the floor here darker.
“Blood,” Merlin announced. “Probably not more than a few days old. Guess that explains how the guardian got loose.”
“You think someone released it?” Arthur guessed. Merlin nodded. “What makes you so sure it couldn’t have gotten out on its own?”
“Whoever first sealed the guardian here knew what they were doing,” Merlin explained. “When active, these wards are powerful, stronger than anything I’ve ever seen before. It took centuries, probably longer, for them to lose enough power for the guardian to break free.”
“I thought you sealed it here.”
“I resealed it. When I did, I restored the wards to their former power. Unless I really messed up the ritual- and I know I didn’t- five years is not long enough for the wards to lose their power again. From the looks of things, someone stumbled upon the guardian down here and thought they could control it.”
“And instead paid for it with their life,” Arthur finished. Merlin shrugged and got back to his feet.
“Maybe, maybe not. There’s no body. As far as I can tell, the guardian doesn’t need to eat to survive. It’s entirely possible that whoever did this survived and escaped. Right now it doesn’t matter.” Merlin looked around the large chamber before heading towards one of the arches.
“Where are you going?” Arthur asked, catching up with him. “I thought this was where the guardian needs to be sealed.”
“It is,” Merlin confirmed. “But I think you were right with what you said earlier.”
“What did I say earlier?”
“About how the guardian seems like a bit much for a crypt. It’s got to be guarding something else and now is as good a time as any to find out what it is.”
Arthur groaned. “I wasn’t suggesting that we should investigate, merely… merely making an observation!”
“Knowing what it’s guarding might help us figure out why the guardian was put here and if there’s a way to get rid of it once and for all,” Merlin argued.
Arthur hated how much sense that made. He made a frustrated sound and followed Merlin deeper into the catacombs.
Remembering all of this just reminded Merlin how different this would be from the last time. Back then he’d had an entire regiment of skilled knights and guards at his back, led personally by his father. He’d also had days to study the ritual. This time his only support was Arthur, who was probably a good warrior, but wouldn’t make much of an impact against the giant beast of the guardian. And while he was pretty sure he remembered the sealing ritual, it would be nice to have a chance to review it. As far as plans went this was definitely not one of his better ones.
“I know we’re in a mountain,” Arthur spoke up after a while, “but should it be this cold down here? I can see my breath.”
“It’s not a natural cold,” Merlin said. It was the result of something dark and sinister and old hat made him feel sick. He’d been keeping his magic close until then, automatically withdrawing from the creeping sense of wrong he’d felt since entering the catacombs, but curiosity drove him to stretch out questioning tendrils along the passage. It felt like dipping his hands into a frozen lake. He pushed through it until he reached what he thought was the next chamber. A deep aching pain grabbed hold of his questing magic and Merlin gasped, recoiling on instinct. The world spun and fell out of focus. When next Merlin blinked his eyes open he was staring up into Arthur’s worried expression. Something dug into his shoulder and he realized he was lying in the prince’s arms.
“Oh thank god,” Arthur breathed. “What the hell was that? One minute you were fine and the next you gasped, like you were in pain, and passed out. Your glowing orb thing-”
“Witchlight,” Merlin corrected absently.
“Right, your witchlight flickered like it was gonna go out. Are you alright?”
“I’m fine.” Merlin forced himself to leave Arthur’s embrace and climbed carefully to his feet. He glanced around for his witchlight, recalling it to his hand. “I just wasn’t prepared for the pain.”
“Pain?” Arthur repeated, alarmed. “Where? How bad is it? What do I need to do?”
Merlin blinked before realizing. “Oh, no, it’s not a physical pain. I’m not hurt. There’s a sort of magic in this place, old and dark and malicious. I was trying to use my own magic to find out more about it and I wasn’t prepared for the magic already here to lash out like that. It was like… like restless souls. I’m starting to think these aren’t catacombs like we always assumed. This place is something else and something terrible happened here.”
“Terrible like what?”
“I don’t know.” Taking a deep breath, Merlin continued onward, ignoring Arthur’s protests that he should take a moment to rest. A little further on was a pair of doors. Merlin laid his hand on one, almost withdrawing it when he felt that same deep seated ache flash through him. The doors were locked and, to Merlin’s surprise, warded. It reminded him of druidic shrines, the ones hung with brightly colored cloths to warn people away from disturbing the restless spirits there. He was hesitant to break it, but there were answers hiding behind these doors that his people had been seeking for years. If need be, he would restore the wards when they left, but for now Merlin took a step back and cut through the wards with his magic, sending the doors flying open with a bang. Behind him, Arthur sucked in a sharp breath as they crossed the threshold.
“What is this place?” Arthur asked. His voice was hushed and full of horror.
Built into the walls of the room were cages, rows upon rows of them stretching up to the ceiling. They were filled with the limp, skeletal remains of people. Merlin’s witchlight cast an otherworldly glow on them that only added to the eeriness of the scene. Well, this certainly explained why this place would be full of restless of spirits.
“We need to keep going,” Merlin said, making for a pair of doors on the far side of the chamber. He put most of his focus on maintaining his witchlight in an effort to ignore the soft, incessant whispers of old decaying magic prodding at him.
“Are you mad?” Arthur demanded. “Or just completely blind and stupid? We should get out of here!”
“There’s something else down here,” Merlin insisted. Something that kept pulling him forward. It was different from the restless spirits and old, dark magic. He didn’t want to say destiny, as he’d grown sick of hearing that word from the druids, but it was something like that. Similar to the sense that had told him he had to go with Arthur. They were meant to come down here, meant to find this something that kept tugging at Merlin’s senses. It felt almost like a light, a beacon. Whatever it was, it was important and Merlin wasn’t going to ignore it.
“Black flame candles,” he said, moving on to look at a monument.
“Black flame candles?” Arthur asked, not sure he wanted to know the answer. Everything in this place gave him the creeps.
“What it says on the tin,” Merlin answered. “Instead of a normal flame, they produce a black flame.”
“That can’t possibly be natural.”
“Dark magic rarely is. A lot of it is twisted to go against the natural order of the world, which is why it’s so powerful.”
Arthur eyed Merlin. “How can you find all of this so fascinating?”
“There’s value in knowledge,” Merlin said. “Understanding how dark magic works helps me understand how to combat it. Besides, dark magic itself isn’t inherently evil, it’s merely the opposite of light magic. The world is full of opposites. That’s how it maintains balance.”
Arthur couldn’t say he was convinced, but he let the matter drop for now. He was also coming to realize that he really did know very little about magic. Instead, he went to stand by Merlin, staring up at the monument. “Is this a monument to a god?”
“I assume so, yes. I’ve seen similar monuments before with much different symbolism.”
“Which god is it for?”
“Not one I recognize. My guess is this god is so ancient that they’ve been forgotten by time.”
“Judging by the human sacrifice over there I can’t say I see that as a bad thing.”
Merlin hummed in agreement and led the way into the next passage.
The deeper they went, the stronger the sense of foreboding in Arthur’s gut became. He couldn’t help thinking that they weren’t going to get out of this alive. It had started the moment they set foot inside the main doors back in the mountain tunnels and had been growing ever since. Arthur wondered if it weren’t just this place that made him think like that. When he was little, he’d had a nurse who had told him that places retained memories of the things that happened there. The palace, she’d said, had a deep sense of lingering grief ever since the queen’s death. Arthur had gone to his father and asked if that were true. His father’s expression had twisted with anger and he’d snapped at Arthur not to speak of such ridiculous things. The next day, his nurse had been gone, replaced by another woman who had quickly hushed all inquiries about such mystical topics. Now, walking through room after room filled with evidence of terrible wrongs committed, Arthur thought his nurse had been right.
Merlin felt it too. As much as he was intrigued by the glimpses at ancient magical practices, dark as they were, Arthur could tell that Merlin felt the wrongness of this place as well, perhaps even more so than Arthur. He’d been just a shade too pale since his collapse outside the first chamber and it seemed to Arthur that a strong enough breeze would knock him flat again. Nevertheless, he led them onwards, deeper into the mountain. At last they came to a pair of doors bigger and more ornate than any they’d come across yet.
“This is it,” Merlin said. He held his hand out and the doors opened at his silent command.
This chamber was different than all the ones they’d already traveled through. Those had told a dark tale of misery and suffering. The hall they walked into now had a different air about it. Lighter, almost serene. Arthur felt like he could breathe a little easier and some of the cold left him. The structure and decor was old and faded, but it put Arthur in mind of a throne room. Nothing as grand as the throne room of the citadel in Camelot, but impressive nonetheless. However, the most mesmerizing part of the room was at the base of the throne, where soft sunlight filtered in through the collapsed ceiling and illuminated a sword stuck fast in solid stone.
“Sir Marhaus,” Merlin breathed. His expression was one of complete and utter awe.
“Sir who?” Arthur asked. Merlin blinked and looked at him, as if he’d forgotten Arthur were there and had just rediscovered his presence.
“Sir Marhaus,” he repeated, then frowned. “Haven’t you heard any of the tales of Sir Marhaus?”
“Not if they contain magic.”
“Ah, right. I suppose your father wouldn’t approve of magical bedtime stories.” Merlin looked back at the sword. “According to legend, Sir Marhaus was one of the greatest knights to ever live. He was the epitome of nobility; kind, brave, selfless. There are countless stories of his courageous acts and good deeds. Such was Sir Marhaus’s greatness that the dragons decided to present him with one of the most powerful and precious gifts they could bestow: a sword forged in a dragon’s breath.”
Well, it certainly sounded impressive, but Arthur couldn’t say he knew what the difference was supposed to be between a sword made in a smithy and one breathed on by a flying reptile. “What’s so special about that?” Merlin ripped his eyes away from the sword for a second time to give Arthur an incredulous look. Arthur shrugged. “Fire is fire, isn’t it?” Judging by Merlin’s expression it wasn’t.
“Arthur, dragons are creatures of great wonder and magic,” Merlin explained. “They’re not just overgrown lizards with wings. They have their own language and culture and share a connection with the earth more powerful than most sorcerers could ever dream of. A blade forged in dragon fire is infused with incredible magic. Sir Marhaus’s sword has power far surpassing that of any made by man.”
“Oh.” Alright, so that was pretty impressive. “What did he do with his magic dragon sword?”
“Sir Marhaus defeated many foes with his blade, but the most famous of all was his defeat of a tyrannical sorcerer who was- what?”
Arthur shook his head, trying to wipe his surprised expression off his face. “Nothing. Just… didn’t expect that one of your favorite bedtime stories would feature an evil sorcerer as the villain.”
Merlin crossed his arms. “Magic may not be an inherently corrupting force, but that doesn’t mean those who use it can’t fall prey to the same pitfalls as all others. It’s not one or the other. Now are you going to keep interrupting me or can I finish the story sometime this century?” Arthur raised his hands in silent surrender. “As I was saying, the most famous foe Sir Marhaus ever defeated was a tyrannical sorcerer who lived in a vast underground fortress deep in the mountains. There are of course several versions of the story, but the sorcerer is most commonly depicted as a priest of an ancient god, charged with building a cult dedicated to this god’s worship. Those wishing to join the cult could only do so after surviving initiation.”
“You mean passing initiation?” Arthur asked.
“No, surviving. Again, there are several versions, but most agree that all those wishing to join the cult were tossed into the deepest caverns of the mountains and left to fend for themselves. Some stories say it was for days, others for weeks, and one states that an entire year had to be spent down there. They were given no food or water or any provisions, nothing but the clothes on their back. Those who managed to survive the ordeal were welcomed into the cult with open arms.”
“God,” Arthur said, hushed and horrified. “What was the point?”
“To strip them of their humanity so that they could be ruthless, relentless tools of their god.” Merlin shuddered. “I’ve never liked that part of the story. Anyway, this cult started to spread outward from the mountain fortress. Any who refused to follow them were destroyed. Finally, the high king of all the lands sent a message to Sir Marhaus, pleading for his help before the cult could spread any further. So Sir Marhaus went to the mountain fortress and faced down the evil priest. He was victorious, however it came with a price. During the battle Sir Marhaus was fatally wounded. Knowing his death was near and fearing that his sword would fall into the wrong hands, he thrust the blade into solid stone in the very throne room where he had defeated the evil priest.”
Arthur looked at the sword in the stone, realization creeping into his mind. “So what you’re saying…”
“This is the mountain fortress of the evil priest and his cult,” Merlin confirmed. “That explains so much.”
“Many of the stories of Sir Marhaus feature someone referred to only as the warlock, a loyal friend who often helped Sir Marhaus on his quests. Some of the stories about the evil priest have the warlock fighting beside Sir Marhaus while others have him making several brief appearances and still yet other stories only feature him at the end, arriving after the conclusion of the battle, too late to save his friend from death. In all versions of the story, Sir Marhaus’s final request is for his friend to watch over his sword until someone worthy of its power could claim it. So the warlock cast an enchantment over the sword so that only one who is worthy of Sir Marhaus’s legacy would be able to pull it free. Many traveled from all over the land to try and pull the sword from the stone, but none succeeded.
“Nevertheless, the warlock feared that one day someone more powerful than him would be able to overcome the enchantment and steal the sword before the worthy champion could claim it. So he made the decision to summon a great beast to act as guardian of not just the sword, but all the dark knowledge contained in these halls, before sealing the mountain fortress shut.” There was an excited flush to Merlin’s cheeks as he turned to Arthur. “You have to pull the sword out.”
“I have to what?” Arthur asked, sure he must have misheard.
“You have to pull the sword out,” Merlin insisted. “Don’t you see, Arthur? It’s why we came down here.”
Arthur shook his head. “Merlin, it’s impossible. You can’t pull out a sword stuck in solid stone.”
“Weren’t you listening to the story?” Merlin asked, a touch of impatience to his tone. “Only a worthy champion, someone worthy of carrying on Sir Marhaus’s legacy, can pull the sword free.”
“And you think that’s me.” Arthur’s tone dripped with skepticism.
“I know it’s you,” Merlin said. “Listen, I’ve been feeling something pulling me deeper ever since we set foot in this place. This is it, this is what I’ve been sensing this whole time, I’m sure of it.”
“Then maybe you’re the one who’s supposed to pull it free.”
Merlin shook his head. “It’s you, Arthur. Only you. Look.” He went over to the sword and tried a few times to pull it free, but it didn’t budge. “This sword isn’t meant for me. It’s meant for you and you alone, Arthur.”
Arthur looked back at the sword, if only to avoid having to look at Merlin, eyes bright with his faith. Where his conviction came from was a mystery, but it must have been from the same place as the strange connection they felt with each other. Because looking back on his life, Arthur couldn’t think of anything he’d done to be named worthy of the legacy of a knight well known for his kind, brave, selfless nature. Bravery may be something Arthur was never short of, but he could admit in the privacy of his own mind at least, that he often fell short of kindness and selflessness. Once again, he thought of his father’s crusade against magic, of his own part in it, of all the things he’d learned lately that contradicted the beliefs he’d been raised in. If anyone in this room was worthy of pulling that sword free it was Merlin. And if Merlin couldn’t do it, what chance did Arthur have?
“It doesn’t hurt to try,” Merlin said.
Arthur sighed and finally said, “Fine, I’ll give it a go.” He stalked forward, grateful they were alone and Merlin was the only one about to see him make a complete fool of himself. Although, truth be told, he didn’t want to make a fool of himself in front of Merlin either. No one could pull a sword out of solid stone. It was impossible. The story Merlin had told was just that, a story. Oh it likely had elements of truth to it, as all legends did, but in the end it was no more than a story, told to him by his father or maybe his mother or even another adult in his life when they were tucking Merlin into bed.
The sword was beautiful up close. A handle of fine leather with a golden pommel that looked at once ancient and new. There was a glint to the metal that Arthur had never seen before, not even on his finest ceremonial sword. Writing ran along the blade in a language Arthur couldn’t decipher, disappearing into the stone. It was a sight to behold, drawing Arthur in closer. He wrapped his hands around the hilt and prepared himself to look like an idiot. With a deep breath, Arthur pulled. He pulled until his muscles were straining with the effort, but the sword didn’t budge, just as he’d predicted.
“I told you,” Arthur said, turning back to Merlin. “Impossible.” Merlin frowned at him.
“Well, if you go into it with the belief that you can’t do it then of course you’re going to fail,” he said. “You have to-” An enraged roar cut Merlin off. Around them the pillars and walls of the throne room started to shake coating them in a fine layer of rock dust.
Arthur swallowed. “Is that-”
“The guardian,” Merlin finished. “Yep. Guess it got bored and decided to come back and do it’s job.”
“Oh joy,” Arthur muttered. Another roar echoed down the corridor towards them, closer than the first. “We have to get out of here.”
Merlin pulled out his bow. “Not yet.”
“Are you insane!” Arthur hissed.
“If we don’t seal it, it’ll find its way out of the mountains. I don’t know what manner of creature it is, but something this filled with wrath and hunger will rage across the lands destroying everything in its path. Right now, we’re the only ones who can stop it.”
“Merlin this is not the time for heroics!”
“It’s even less the time for cowardice!”
Arthur jerked backwards. Cowardice. It was a word he had always fought against, refusing to let fear keep him from protecting his people. It was not a coward who led the knights of Camelot into battle or patrolled his lands to keep them free of bandits and thieves. It was not a coward who had left Camelot to prove his worthiness as heir. There was no place for a coward on Camelot’s throne. But it was a coward who stood in these ancient halls, frozen in place by the knowledge that the right thing to do was to stand and fight but overcome with the desire to flee. Because Merlin was right. If they didn’t stop the guardian here it would continue to roam the mountain passages until it found a way out. Still, Arthur remained frozen where he stood, even as he watched Merlin walk out into the middle of the room and nock an arrow. He was-
Arthur was afraid. Not for the first time in his life, he wanted to run away from a fight. But unlike all those times before, he couldn’t manage to push past the fear and find the will he needed to stand and fight. Fight how, he kept asking himself. What could he possibly do against the great behemoth of a guardian coming towards him. He looked to Merlin again.
Merlin stood firm even as the walls and ceiling shook around them. Arthur couldn’t see his face, but he could picture the determined set of Merlin’s expression. From the darkness emerged the guardian, so large it filled the doorway, a snarl on its every breath. It was terrifying to behold. Cold, red eyes searched the room until they landed on the lone figure standing tall between the aged pillars. Still Merlin didn’t flinch. Arthur wondered how he could be so calm with nothing but his bow and arrows. They looked like they wouldn’t even scratch the surface of the guardian’s dark hide. But then Merlin let his arrow fly and it pierced the guardian’s shoulder, drawing a roar of pain from the beast, and Arthur remembered that right, Merlin was a sorcerer, of course he would have enchanted arrows. It was a shame he hadn’t thought to ask Merlin to enchant his sword. Instead all he had was a useless piece of metal as mundane as a rock.
There was nothing he could do to help. Merlin was on his own in this one. And the air… it was so cold, like clear nights in the deepest part of winter when the chill could turn your bones to ice and you despaired of ever being warm again. There was no hope of victory here. Merlin was only one man and Arthur was useless. He was barely aware of the clang of his sword against the stone flooring as it slipped from his grasp. His hands trembled. Distantly, Arthur was aware that he was backing away from the scene of the fight. As he watched, Merlin dove to the side just in time to avoid the sharp claws of the guardian, so strong that they plowed straight through the floor to leave behind a crater. Merlin started to raise his bow, only to be forced to throw out a shield instead. Black, viscous stuff shot out of the guardian’s mouth, sliding off Merlin’s golden shield. Merlin retaliated with a wall of fire springing up from the ground. It forced the guardian away from its position guarding the exit. Merlin made a move to get past it, but the guardian shot more of that black goo and Merlin was forced to retreat.
It continued like that. Narrow misses and counter attacks as Merlin tried to find a way to get past the guardian and lead it back to the outermost chamber where it could be sealed. It wasn’t going well. The thought entered Arthur’s mind that he should help, but it was quickly squashed by the cold, deep seated fear that gripped him. It was hopeless. Arthur was useless and Merlin, no matter how powerful and skilled he was, wouldn’t be enough.
Arthur didn’t even realize he was still backing away until his back hit something solid. One of the fallen pieces of ceiling, he assumed. He put a shaky hand on it when his knees threatened to buckle under him. Before him, Merlin continued to fight. With the support his fellow dragonlords Arthur could well imagine that Merlin was a formidable opponent for the guardian, but alone he was outmatched. He refused to give up though. Another shield went up to protect against the black, viscous spit of the guardian. Unlike before though, it didn’t slide right off. It oozed slowly down the sides of Merlin’s shield, preventing him from seeing the giant clawed hand coming towards him. Arthur saw it though. He opened his mouth to shout a warning, but the words stuck in his throat. The clawed hand drove right through the shield. The force of the shattering shield knocked Merlin to the ground and he cried out in pain as some of the guardian’s sludge splattered on his shoulder. His bow skittered across the ground with a clatter. Time slowed to an agonizing crawl. Arthur watched as Merlin climbed to his feet and was immediately wrapped in the guardian’s clawed hand. Merlin screamed, the guardian’s grip tightening as it lifted him into the air. It took Arthur a moment to realize that Merlin had screamed his name.
Adrenaline surged through him. No. No, he would not let this happen. He would not let Merlin die like this and if this was going to be his end then he would go down doing what he was born to do: protecting others. Arthur still had no idea what he could possibly do against the guardian, but he no longer cared. Arthur Pendragon, Son of Uther Pendragon, crown prince and heir to the throne of Camelot, was not a coward and it was time he stopped acting like one. First things first, he needed a weapon.
Arthur reached out blindly behind him, hand grasping the hilt of a sword. His sword, he assumed, based on the easy, familiar way it fit in his hand. There was a slight resistance the first time he tugged on it, but then Arthur firmed his grip and it came easily. Still trapped in the guardian’s clutches, Merlin started to incant a spell, but the guardian roared as it tightened its grip, cutting off the incantation before it was finished. Arthur didn’t give himself time to think. Taking advantage of the guardian’s preoccupation with Merlin, he charged forward and swung at one of the guardian’s legs. With a furious roar, the guardian released Merlin, letting him fall to the ground with a loud thud where he remained still. Arthur spared a moment to hope that he hadn’t acted too late before his full focus was taken up with dodging the guardian’s giant, clawed hand. He dove behind a pillar just in time to avoid being sprayed with the black sludge, then flung himself back at the guardian’s leg. His second slice cut deep into the flesh and the leg collapsed under the guardian.
Emboldened by his success, Arthur went for the other leg. He was forced to dodge out of the way before he reached it by the appearance of a large, clawed hand. Thinking fast, he brought his sword down in a quick, strong overhead slash once, twice, three times, severing the guardian’s hand. It howled in pain. Now Arthur dove for its other leg again, barely avoiding more of the black sludge. Two strokes of the sword and the guardian had lost the use of its remaining leg. It fell to the ground and Arthur seized his chance to finish the fight. With a fierce battle cry, he drove his sword into the guardian’s chest. The roar ripped from the guardian was deafening. Then it was still.
For a long moment Arthur knelt over the body, not quite daring to believe that it was really over. The guardian was dead. He’d killed it. He’d actually killed it. After a few tries he yanked the sword free, stumbling back a few steps. His foot landed on something that turned out to be a bow. A familiar bow. That was when Arthur remembered Merlin. He searched the room wildly, expecting the worst, blood smeared on the ground, bones breaking through skin. But when his eyes finally landed on Merlin it was to see him already staggering to his feet, gaping at Arthur with an awed expression. No, not at Arthur. At his sword.
“Arthur,” Merlin breathed, a grin starting to spread across his face despite the pain he must be in. “You did it! I told you it was meant for you!” Arthur finally looked at the sword he’d grabbed, really properly looked at it.
“This isn’t my sword,” Arthur said, uncomprehending. His sword didn’t have a golden pommel or an inscription in an unknown language running down the blade. In fact, his sword was still lying where Arthur just now remembered he’d dropped it as he backed away from Merlin’s fight with the guardian. But if his sword was lying over there on the ground, where had the one he was holding come from? He found the answer when his eyes landed on the stone at the base of the throne, the very same stone that had had a sword stuck fast in it when they had first entered, but no longer held one. He looked at the sword in his hand again.
“I would argue that since it’s in your hand it most certainly is your sword,” Merlin said.
“But… but this isn’t possible,” Arthur said. “I tried to pull it out before and it wouldn’t budge.”
“Well of course you couldn’t do it before. Like I said, you went into it already thinking you were going to fail, so you did. What were you thinking about this time?”
“I don’t know.” Arthur shook his head. He’d been thinking about a lot of thinks, but foremost in his mind had been- “You. I was thinking about you. About- about how I couldn’t just sit there and do nothing. If this were going to be the end, then I was going to die doing what I’d been born to do.”
Merlin was looking at him intently now. “And what’s that?”
The smile on Merlin’s face was soft and gentle and so, so beautiful. “That just proves the sword was meant for you.” At Arthur’s confused frown he added, “Sir Marhaus spent his whole life protecting others. That was his legacy. It makes sense that it would be passed on to you.”
“I doubt I match him in kindness and selflessness,” Arthur said. “I’ve done a lot of things in my life that I regret. Things you should probably hate me for.”
“Maybe,” Merlin acknowledged. “But we all do things we regret, things that someone somewhere should probably hate us for. That doesn’t erase any of the good you’ve done in your life and it doesn’t mean that you can’t strive to do better in the future. I guarantee you that no matter what the stories say Sir Marhaus wasn’t always kind and selfless or even brave.” He started to come towards Arthur, but the pained grimace that flashed across his face reminded Arthur of his injuries. He quickly crossed the distance to Merlin.
“Are you okay?” Arthur finally asked. The black sludge had burned through Merlin’s tunic where it wasn’t covered by his armor. In addition, he had to have several cracked, maybe even broken, ribs.
“I’ll be fine,” Merlin said. “It’s probably not as bad as you’re thinking. My magic does a lot to protect me and I’ve already used a few basic healing spells. I’m mostly just sore at this point. And I’ll admit, the burns from that weird black stuff the guardian was spitting everywhere are a bit concerning, but I’ve had worse.”
“Great, let’s get out of here then.” Arthur tucked the sword from the stone away in his belt and retrieved his old one. He was halfway to the door before he realized that Merlin wasn’t following him. “What’s wrong? Do you need some help?”
“We can’t leave yet,” Merlin said.
“Oh for fucks sake what is it now?” Arthur snapped. Merlin narrowed his eyes at him.
“This place needs to be cleansed. All that rage and sorrow has been festering here long enough. It’s time the souls who died here were given peace.”
Arthur blew out a breath. “Alright, fine. How long should that take?”
“I don’t know.” Merlin glanced upwards in thought. “A few hours at least.”
“A few-” Arthur forced his anger back. “Look, I get what you’re saying, Merlin. And you’re right, those who died here deserve peace. But we don’t have a few hours to spare. We’re on a quest remember?”
“When you get back home, tell your people what happened here. They can help you.” Arthur went and put a hand on Merlin’s shoulder. “You’re not responsible for what happened here, Merlin. It was long before you were even born.” Merlin was quiet for a moment.
“I’ve always known there was something wrong here,” he finally said. “There’s always been this… this thing lingering in the back of my mind. I’ve always tried to spend as much time as possible away from the citadel because the further I go, the less I feel it. If I go far enough, I don’t feel it at all. All my life I’ve had nightmares about terrible things happening to people I’ve never met. For a while it was thought that maybe I was a seer, but they’re not prophetic dreams. They’re… they’re memories. Memories of the things that happened here.” Merlin took a deep breath. “It’s not that I somehow feel responsible for what happened here. I don’t. It’s just that this place and the horrible things that happened here have been hanging over me my entire life. But you’re right. We have a quest to finish and I shouldn’t do this alone anyway.” He made to retrieve his bow and Arthur quickly picked it up for him. Then they finally left the dark halls of the mountain fortress behind.
“You’d think we’d been in there at least a month with the way you’re acting,” Merlin said, amusement in his tone.
“Certainly felt like it,” Arthur said, getting to his feet. He watched Merlin drop his gear to the ground and start trying to inspect his burned shoulder. “What are you doing?”
“Well, I’m a bit more worried about the burns than I originally thought I should be,” Merlin admitted. “My magic is being weird about them.”
“Weird how?” Arthur asked, coming over to investigate. He could see patches of red, raw skin where the black sludge had burned through his tunic.
“Mm, it’s being kind of skittish.”
“Magic can be skittish?”
“Yes, shut up. And give me a hand, will you? I need to get my armor off.”
Arthur told himself there was no reason for his heart to be thudding like this over helping Merlin get his armor off so he could better treat his injuries. His heart apparently disagreed. So he tried to distract himself.
“What’s this stuff made of?” he asked as he took off one of the arm guards. It looked like leather and it felt thin and light, but it had stood up against the guardian’s black sludge with only a bit of discoloring. It was patterned in a way that reminded Arthur of a dragon, which was ridiculous because who had ever heard of armor made from dragon hide. It was functional, simple, and apparently stronger than any chainmail Arthur had ever seen. Maybe some kind of enchanted leather?
“It’s made from dragonhide,” Merlin answered, dropping it to the ground beside his gear. Arthur stared at the armguard in his hands.
“You mean to tell me,” he started slowly, “that this armor is made from the hide of an actual dragon?”
Well, that explained how it was so tough. “I didn’t realize your people hunted dragons.”
“Why in the name of all the gods would you think we hunted dragons?”
Arthur looked up to see Merlin paused halfway through the act of taking his tunic off to give the prince an incredulous look. It took a moment for Arthur’s brain to remember they were in the middle of a conversation and he yanked his eyes back up to Merlin’s face. Merlin, for his part, didn’t seem to have noticed his companion’s improper staring. Finally Arthur managed to convince his tongue to work properly again and said, “How else do you get dragonhide for making armor.”
“Not by hunting,” Merlin said firmly. He finished taking his tunic off and tried to twist around to see his back. “Can you take a look at my back? I think some of that weird guardian goo stuff dripped down under my armor, but I can’t quite see…” Arthur obligingly went to look. He stared.
“It dripped,” Arthur declared. “It definitely dripped. A lot.”
“Great,” Merlin muttered. “Alright, in the… left outermost pocket of my bag there are a few tinctures. Grab the one that’s colored light purple.”
Arthur bent down and began rummaging through the indicated pocket. After a moment he found the correct tincture. “Got it.”
“Good.” Merlin sat in front of him. “Now apply it to the burns on my back.”
Arthur stared at Merlin’s back. “What?”
“Is that too difficult for you?” Merlin asked, throwing a raised eyebrow over his shoulder. Arthur cleared his throat.
“Of course not.” He was not at all thinking about the fact that he was about to touch Merlin’s bare skin. Even if it was for the purpose of treating an injury. “It’s just… aren’t you supposed to not put anything on a burn? I swear I’ve heard Gaius say that before.”
“You shouldn’t put creams or anything greasy on a burn,” Merlin said. “This tincture was specifically made to treat burns though. My people have used it for centuries to treat burns from dragon fire. Granted, weird goo stuff from a summoned guardian isn’t the same as dragon fire, but sometimes you’ve gotta work with what you’ve got. Any day now.”
“Right.” Arthur stared at Merlin’s back a moment longer before forcing himself to open the vial and pour a bit of tincture onto his hands. When he touched the burn, Merlin winced. “Sorry, does it hurt?”
“It’s a burn, Arthur, of course it hurts. Just keep going. Make sure you get all of it. And don’t use too much, just a light coating will do. I still need to get my shoulder and chest when you’re done with my back.” Someone else might have thought rubbing tincture on the back of an attractive man would be sensual. Arthur probably would have agreed right up until this moment. It was hard to think of this as sensual though when Merlin kept hissing in pain and Arthur was trying to strike the perfect balance between firm enough to ensure he was properly treating the burns and light enough that he wasn’t causing Merlin too much pain while also worrying over whether he was using too much or too little tincture. He was relieved when it was done and he could hand the rest of the job over to Merlin. His eyes drifted until they landed on the dragon hide armor again.
“You never told me how it is you get dragonhide for making armor,” Arthur said. “If not by hunting dragons then how?”
“When a dragon is nearing the end of its life it will often give permission for its hide to be used in the crafting of armor,” Merlin explained. “Not every dragon agreed to it, but many did. Some even granted permission for their bones to be used in the crafting of weapons.” Arthur’s eyes immediately went to Merlin’s bow. “Yes, my bow is partly made of dragon bone.”
“And to think, the rest of us have just been using plain old metal,” Arthur muttered. He looked out towards the forest. “How far to the plains?”
“Not far,” Merlin answered. He was rubbing tincture onto his chest now. Arthur kept his gaze firmly on the trees. “This is the edge of Red River Forest.”
Arthur frowned. “You mean the place with the giant scorpions?”
“There shouldn’t be any out here. They prefer the deeper parts of the forest. Beyond that is the marshlands.”
“And what sort of big dangerous creature lives in there?” Arthur asked, an edge of sarcasm to his words.
Merlin was quiet for a moment. “You know, I’m not really sure. All I know is it comes out at night and it sounds kind of like a pheasant.”
Arthur stared. “A pheasant?”
“A really big one.” Done with the tincture, Merlin began to wrap himself in a clean bandage. Finally he dug a fresh tunic out of his bag, pulled it on, and had Arthur help him get back into his armor. “Alright, onwards.”
“Something wrong?” Arthur asked when Merlin had remained still for several moments. Merlin forced himself to breathe.
“No, just thinking.” He pushed his anxiety back. Everything would be fine. His voice would not fail him. He glanced at Arthur. He wouldn’t let anything happen to his prince. “Come on. We’re passing into wyvern territory now so keep an eye out. They won’t be hard to spot, not on a clear day like this.”
“How do you fight wyvern?” Arthur asked and the note of uncertainty in his voice was almost funny, considering he’d killed a mythical guardian beast just that morning.
“In the open? You don’t.” At Arthur’s unimpressed look, Merlin explained, “They’re creatures of flight, Arthur. They may not breathe fire like their dragon cousins, but they’re fast and vicious. You’ll be lucky to get a hit on one when it dives on you. And though they’re small, wyvern are pack creatures. It won’t just be a few of them, it’ll be a swarm. There’s a whole cave system full of them nearby.”
“What about you? You’re an archer. And a-a sorcerer.”
“What I am, is a dragonlord,” Merlin reminded him. Perhaps not an entirely confident dragonlord, but a dragonlord nonetheless. The ancient gift of the dragons flowed through his veins. “If all goes well, you won’t even have to worry about fighting any wyvern.”
“Gee, that’s comforting,” Arthur muttered. Merlin ignored him in favor of stepping over the invisible boundary into wyvern territory. Beside him, Arthur was tense, but the further they went with no sign of dark splotches in the sky, the more the prince relaxed. Merlin knew better. Wyvern tended to be sluggish during the day, slow to wake, but once they had stirred from their nests in defense of their territory they were a force to be reckoned with. Merlin reached deep inside himself for the burning connection to his dragon magic. It surged up to greet him, ready and restless. Merlin told himself firmly that there was nothing to be worried about. He could command wyvern.
His worry of failure wasn’t entirely unfounded though. While part of it simply came from the fact that Merlin was not as practiced with his voice as those who had been born before the Great Purge, there was another reason as well. Wyvern were cousins of the dragon, yes, but that did not make them as easy to tame. Merlin still remembered his first attempt with vivid clarity, ten years old and eager to have whatever meager training his father was able to offer in a world determined to strip their culture, their very selves, bare. They’d lured a solitary wyvern out and Merlin had been ecstatic when, on his first try, the wyvern had obeyed his command and turned away. In the next moment, however, the tenuous connection Merlin had managed snapped and the wyvern had dove down, intent on snatching him up. Before it could, Balinor’s voice had boomed out across the clearing, filled with the wisdom and experience of an elder dragonlord, wisdom and experience Merlin had always feared he himself would never be able to claim. Merlin was no longer an inexperienced ten year old child, but that didn’t change the fact the wyvern were not dragons. They were far more finicky and unpredictable.
Merlin tried to get his mind off his worries. He was normally better about keeping it under control on the rare occasion he came out to the plains. Glancing at Arthur, Merlin could only assume the fact that he felt responsible for the prince’s safety was affecting him. He didn’t have much time to think about it. A ping to his senses drew Merlin’s attention away to his right.
“Here we go,” Merlin said.
“I don’t see anything,” Arthur said, scanning the skies. A moment later he added, “Has that cloud always been there?”
“That is not a cloud.”
Holy hell that was a big pack of wyvern. Merlin nocked an arrow, just in case. For a moment he was tempted to say screw trying to connect with the wyvern and tell Arthur they should book it. But that wouldn’t actually solve their problem. After so many years of abandonment the citadel was in terrible shape. Wyvern, especially angry territorial wyvern, would have no problem finding a way in.
“Anytime now,” Arthur said.
“Distance plays a factor here,” Merlin said.
“The closer they come, the more likely we’re going to die?”
Yes. “No, the further they are, the harder it is for me to make the connection necessary to tell them to fuck off.”
“The fact that you look ready to start shooting them down is not inspiring me with confidence.”
“Having a backup plan never hurts.” Merlin turned away from the approaching wyvern long enough to glare at Arthur. “Can you please shut up and let me concentrate?” Arthur held up his free hand in surrender. Sighing irritably, Merlin looked back at the wyvern. He could do this. This was going to work. He came from a proud and strong line of dragonlords, he could definitely handle a pack of wyvern.
Taking a deep breath, Merlin closed his eyes and reached for the burning dragon magic running through his veins. He let himself sink into it, then opened his eyes to focus on the wyvern. They’d come even closer now. Arthur had unconsciously shifted closer to him. Merlin had to fight to keep his focus on the wyvern and not the pleasant tingle thrumming through him at Arthur’s proximity. Now was definitely not the time for that. He took a deep breath.
“Stop!” The order was a deep rumble, amplified by ancient dragon magic. The wyvern had been about to go in for a dive, but abruptly broke off and began circling. Okay, so far so good. They were definitely not happy with him, but they were listening. “Leave!" There was resistance to the order. One of the wyvern let out a protesting shriek. Merlin dug deep and his next words were a roar, “Leave, now!” This time, the wyvern broke from their circling formation and headed back the way they’d come. One of them lingered a moment longer to shriek angrily at Merlin before following after the pack.
“I can’t believe that worked,” Arthur said, staring at the retreating wyvern.
“Oh yee of little faith,” Merlin said, careful to hide his own surprise. No need to let Arthur know that he’d had doubts about his ability to fend off an entire pack of wyvern. A handful were one thing, but a pack that big? Merlin hadn’t actually ever dealt with that before. Which Arthur absolutely did not need to know. At all. Ever. “Now come on. Let’s get inside before they come back.”
“Come back?” Arthur repeated, jogging to catch up with him. “What do you mean come back? You told them to go away.”
“It’s only a temporary thing,” Merlin explained. “They’ll go away for a while and then when the command wears off they might come back.”
“Well, they might decide it’s not worth it. We need to keep moving.” He could feel Arthur’s unimpressed stare burning a hole in the side of his head, but Merlin resolutely ignored it.
A lot, as Arthur soon found out.
It started with the three wyvern waiting for them in the citadel’s courtyard.
"Oh shit," Merlin said, backing away slowly.
"I thought you told them to go away!" Arthur hissed, also backing away.
"Well obviously they weren't part of that pack."
"What the hell does that mean?"
"Look, I don't have time right now to explain how the dragon tongue works, just run!"
Muttering about useless dragonlords under his breath, Arthur took off towards the citadel. The angry shrieks of the wyvern followed him. It was a few minutes before Arthur realized they were the only thing that had and Merlin had either been eaten or picked another direction. Great, just fucking great. Well, he’d have to worry about finding Merlin later. For now, his top priority needed to be getting inside so that he wouldn’t be such easy prey for the wyvern. He hoped. God, he really should’ve asked Merlin more about wyvern when he had the chance.
First opportunity he got, Arthur dove headfirst through a paneless window into the citadel, rolling neatly to his feet and sprinting down the corridor. He heard an angry shriek and looked behind him long enough to see one of the wyvern stuck in the window, too big to fit through. It was tempting to stop for a laugh, but Arthur kept running. Turning down corridor after corridor, ducking past windows, taking a flight of stairs two at a time. Finally he stopped in a circular room, listening intently. There was nothing but the sound of the wind through stone hallways. No shrieks, no clicking of talons on stone, no-
“Ah fuck,” Arthur muttered. Scratch the ‘no clicking of talons on stone’ bit. Arthur drew his sword and faced the doorway the sound was coming from. The room was small, but there was enough maneuverability that he was reasonably sure he would be fine. This couldn’t possibly be worse than facing down that guardian.
A wyvern prowled into the room, hissing. They were ugly creatures up close. Arthur tightened his grip on his sword. The wyvern lunged forward and he dodged, rolling to the side and right into a swing that nicked the wyvern’s side. Quickly, Arthur backed away and that was when his foot hit something hard and he went down. At that moment, a second wyvern slithered in through another door. Great. Just great. This was how he died. Eaten by wyvern because he’d tripped, of all things. He would’ve preferred to have been killed by that guardian. At least that would’ve made an epic story. This was just sad.
Arthur’s mind raced through possibilities. He tightened his grip on his sword. If this was how he died, then he was at least going to die fighting.
“Hey! Back off!”
The deep, rumbling roar of nonsensical words caught Arthur off guard. He watched the two wyvern hesitate as Merlin burst into the room, bow in hand, arrow loosely nocked. Instead of firing at the wyvern, Merlin firmed his stance, glared the beasts down, and roared, “I said back off! Now! Get out of here!” The wyvern hissed angrily before withdrawing through one of the doors. Merlin released a long, slow breath before turning to Arthur. “Alright down there?”
Arthur, still getting over the fact that he had come this close to being eaten, could only say, “Oh, so now your freaky dragonlord powers work.”
"Look," Merlin said irritably, crossing his arms, "it's not like I've had a lot of opportunity to practice this stuff. There's only one dragon we know of that's still alive and, as we've previously established, he's currently chained up in a cave in Camelot."
"What about the wyvern on the plains?" Arthur challenged. "There are loads of them. And you said they're cousins of dragons."
"Distant cousins," Merlin corrected. "And what, you think I just have all the time in the world to come galavanting out here and train my voice on wyvern? It's a day's journey by horseback and not only would I be abandoning my duties for it, but a more experienced dragonlord, something we already don't have a lot of, would have to abandon their duties for that time as well in order to teach and supervise me."
"To make sure I don't get torn to shreds by angry wyvern. They don't exactly appreciate being ordered about, assuming you can even establish the connection necessary for it. It tends to be very finicky, especially when I don't have time to prepare." Merlin kicked his foot against the ground. “You have absolutely no idea what it’s like for us. The Great Purge changed everything.”
Arthur snapped his mouth shut, swallowing back his next argument. Merlin’s irritation had melted away to sadness and Arthur reminded himself that it was his own father who was responsible for this. Uther was the reason Merlin hadn’t been able to be taught how to use his gifts like he should have. Uther was the reason that the only dragon left in Albion was chained up in a cave.
“I’m sorry,” Arthur finally said. “You’re right. I don’t know what it’s like. I never will. And it isn’t my place to criticize you for something you have no control over, especially when you’ve risked so much to help me.” Merlin stared at him with surprise. “What?”
“I just didn’t take you for the apologizing type,” Merlin said. The corners of his mouth turned up in the hint of a smile. “Figured you’d been raised on the whole ‘apologies are weakness’ crap.”
“Hey, I can apologize when it’s called for,” Arthur said. Merlin gave him a skeptical look. Before he could answer, an angry shriek announced the arrival of a wyvern behind Arthur. Arthur ducked out of the way of potential sharp teeth and claw swipes. Merlin jumped and in what was clearly pure fear reflex, fired his nocked arrow right between the wyvern’s eyes. It dropped to the ground, dead in an instant. Arthur stared at Merlin.
“Well that sure caught me off guard,” Merlin said after a moment.
“That was off guard for you?” Arthur shook his head and snorted. “Guess I’m never sneaking up on you when you’re holding a bow.”
“Probably a good idea.” Merlin went over and yanked the arrow out of the wyvern, gave it a perfunctory wipe, and stuck it back in the quiver. “What? I’m not wasting a perfectly good arrow. I only have so many.”
Arthur shook his head again. "So where should we start looking for the trident?" he asked.
Merlin shrugged. "How should I know?"
Arthur stared at him for a long moment. "But... you're from here, aren't you?"
"I'm from the Vale of Dragons," Merlin corrected. "And while yes, I've been to the plains several times before, I've never gone as far as the keep of the Fisher King."
"Out of respect for the Fisher King."
That gave Arthur pause. "So then... you're not... I mean..."
Merlin frowned in confusion. "What?"
Arthur cleared his throat and hesitantly said, "If you don't want to be in here, then I understand. I wouldn't want you to do something that makes you uncomfortable."
"Oh." Merlin blinked. "Oh, no, you don't have to worry about that. Trust me, if I didn't wanna do any of this I never would've come with you in the first place. Besides, I can sense that we're supposed to be here." He shrugged again. “Anyway, I figure this is your quest so you should figure out how to find the trident.”
“Lovely,” Arthur grumbled. He looked between the three doors branching off from the room, trying to remember which one he’d come through. The wyvern had been a bit more preoccupying than keeping track of where he’d come from.
“Eenie meenie miney moe always works in a pinch,” Merlin suggested.
Arthur didn’t bother dignifying that with an answer. He stared at the doors for a bit longer. “This way,” he finally said, pointing to the one immediately in front of him. He strode purposefully towards it, hearing Merlin follow behind him.
"This is hopeless!" Arthur snapped, throwing his hands up. "At this rate we'll die of old age before we even come close to finding the trident!"
"We just need to take a different approach," Merlin said calmly. "Maybe I can..." He rested one hand against the wall and closed his eyes. Arthur was tempted to demand what he was doing, but could tell that Merlin needed his concentration. It was probably something magical Arthur wouldn't understand anyway. He forced himself to be patient and wait. At last, Merlin opened his eyes.
“Well?” Arthur asked, reminding himself at the last second to keep his impatience in check.
“This way,” Merlin said, and lead the way down another corridor. They twisted and turned through stone passageways. Occasionally Merlin would stop before continuing to lead them confidently onward. It was boring, but Arthur supposed he should be grateful. After the bandits, the guardian in the catacombs, and the wyvern he should probably appreciate that the last leg of their journey was a boring maze.
“You don’t think someone’s taken the trident already, do you?” Arthur asked. The thought hadn’t occurred to him before, but it did now. That would be one hell of a wasted quest.
“I doubt it,” Merlin answered. “No one from the Vale would’ve come looking for it and anyone else would’ve had to fight their way through the forest and the plains to get here. There are far more easier things to steal.” He paused along the corridor they were in and put his hand on the wall. “This is it.”
“What is? I don’t see-”
Merlin pressed his hand against the wall and the stones moved. A hidden door creaked open just to their left. He smirked at Arthur.
“You were saying, oh impatient one?”
“I believe I was saying shut up,” Arthur grumbled. Merlin laughed and lead the way through the door. It opened into a secret passageway. To the right it went off into the darkness. To the left it spiraled tightly up a set of stone steps illuminated by late afternoon sunlight coming in through tall, narrow windows. Merlin went for the stairs.
“Do you have any idea where this even goes?” Arthur asked.
“No idea,” Merlin said.
“So for all you know it’s leading us straight to a trap.”
“I know it’s leading us towards the trident.”
“Which is probably booby trapped.”
“You are such a downer right now. Why so grumpy, Arthur?”
“Because shut up.”
“Oh that’s a fine way to talk to the person who’s helping you complete your quest.” Merlin paused. “Hey, this looks promising.” He stepped into a room and immediately a stone wall started to come down right on top of him.
“Merlin!” Arthur yelled. He leapt up the last few steps to Merlin and shoved him forward at the last second. Then the wall came crashing down, sealing off the room. Arthur’s heart pounded so loud it was all he could hear. Oh god.
It was mesmerizing. Old, clearly in disrepair and full of dust and cobwebs, but there was magic in the air. He could feel it sparking across his skin, nudging questioningly at his own. Merlin had been hearing stories about the Fisher King since he could remember. The door he'd come through was clearly a secret entrance, possibly used by servants or there for making quick escapes when there was need. He walked further into the room, gazing in awe at the tall pillars reaching up to a high ceiling, the ripped standards adorning the walls, the fading decorations and elaborate torch brackets. It was breathtaking. And then Merlin turned to face the throne. His breath hitched in surprise.
Because there sitting on the throne was a man, covered in cobwebs and so fragile looking, but cleary and inexplicably alive.
"The Fisher King," Merlin whispered, louder than he’d meant to in the hushed calm of the throne room.
"Emrys," the Fisher King said, inclining his head. Merlin startled at the name. It was what the druids called him by. They had been explained to him a few years ago that he was part of some great prophecy about Emrys and the Once and Future King. It was a mantle he hadn't quite gotten used to carrying yet.
"You're alive," Merlin said. "How?"
The Fisher King ignored his question. "Come closer, Emrys. I have been waiting for you."
"For me?" Merlin approached slowly. "Why?"
Arthur forced himself to pause and take a deep breath. No need to let his imagination run away from him. Merlin was probably fine. He'd nearly been squeezed to death by a giant, angry guardian beast and had brushed it off like it was nothing. If- If!- there was anything dangerous on the other side of that door, Merlin could handle it. There might not even be anything in there at all. Merlin could be doing the exact same thing Arthur was doing now, searching for a way to open the door. Arthur glanced down the tight spiral staircase and briefly considered seeing if he could find another way into the room, but quickly discarded that idea. The castle was a literal maze. All he'd do was get himself lost and then Merlin might end up trapped in there forever and he would probably die trying to find his way back. No, his best bet was getting the door open.
Closing his eyes, Arthur thought back to Camelot's secret doors. There weren't many, mostly just ones that had already existed before Uther had conquered the kingdom. Uther believed secret passageways were excellent ways for assassins and sorcerers to sneak into Camelot. However, there were enough of them that Arthur had spent part of his childhood exploring where they went. Every one of those doors had had a secret latch of some kind, a way to open the door in case it ever locked you inside. Arthur had made a game of finding them all, but it had been long enough that he was having trouble recalling them. Some had been simple, just a chain hanging on the wall or a nearby lever. One had been a switch located inside the wall. Arthur looked at the wall in front of him. Well, worth a shot.
Careful inspection led to the discovery of a loose stone. With a triumphant cry, Arthur pulled it loose.
And watched in horror as countless little black insects spilled out of the opening. Of course. Nothing on this quest had been simple or easy so far so why should opening a door be any different? For a moment Arthur seriously considered leaving Merlin to his fate.
"You slew a giant magical guardian beast," Arthur told himself. "You fought wyvern. And now you're gonna let yourself be scared off by some bugs?" Strange bugs that he didn't recognize, that could be part of the door's defenses, could even be magical in nature. Or they could just be bugs. Only one way to find out. Taking a deep breath, Arthur thanked whoever had the foresight to invent gloves and stuck his hand in the hole.
Merlin fucking owed him for this.
"The Once and Future King, I know," the Fisher King said.
Merlin sucked in a sharp breath. "Are you saying- Are you saying Arthur- Prince Arthur of Camelot- is the Once and Future King?"
"He pulled the sword free, did he not?"
Merlin glanced at the door again, even though Arthur was still stuck on the other side of it. "I didn't realize that had any connection to the prophecy."
"Everything is connected," the Fisher King said. "That is the nature of the world."
Shaking his head, still trying to wrap his head around all of this, Merlin asked, "What is it you want?"
The Fisher King's eyes went distant. "I want an end to my suffering," he said softly. All thoughts of prophecies and swords were swept from Merlin's mind as the meaning of those words sank in.
"You want to die," he clarified, expression turning sad.
The Fisher King nodded. "I have been waiting all these years for the arrival of a new time. The time of the Once and Future King. That time is dawning and my time can finally come to an end. This is why you were brought here. For this is not Arthur's quest, it is yours. Arthur thinks the prize is the trident." The Fisher King unceremoniously dropped it from his hand, its echoing clang startling Merlin. "But the real prize is something far greater." When Merlin next looked at the Fisher King's hand there was a vial of liquid resting on his palm. He held it out in offering. "Water from the Lake of Avalon. I've kept it safe these years, waiting for the right person to claim it, and that is you. You are the one chosen."
"What are you talking about?" Merlin asked. He knew of the druid's' prophecy, the destiny that had followed him since birth. This seemed like something different though. Merlin recalled the Fisher King's words about how everything is connected.
"Albion's time of need draws near," the Fisher King explained. "And in that dark hour you must be strong, for you alone can save her. Your powers are great, but you will need help. And this is what I'm giving you." He held the vial out again. Merlin took the final steps to the Fisher King's throne. When he touched the vial, the Fisher King said, "When all seems lost, this will show you the way." Then he let Merlin carefully take it from his hand.
"Thank you," Merlin said. He still wasn't entirely sure of what was going on, but that was fine. Whatever happened, this moment right here held a significance beyond imagination. When Merlin stepped back, he kept his head bowed in reverence.
"I have given you a gift," the Fisher King said, causing Merlin to look up again. "Now you must give me one in return."
Merlin thought of the meager supplies he had packed and knew the Fisher King wasn't referring to any of that. He shook his head. "But I have nothing to give." A smile slowly turned the corners of the Fisher King's mouth. With a groan like the wind through old castle corridors and the creak of ancient bones, he stood from his throne.
"I think you do."
Finally, Merlin recalled the one other thing he'd packed for this journey, for no other reason than something deep inside him had told him he had to. He shrugged his pack off and knelt, tucking the vial of water safely away and drawing something else out. He stood, holding the Eye of the Phoenix that he had found alongside Arthur. For a long moment he stared at it. Then he looked at the Fisher King and said, "If I give you this, you will die." Instead of answering, the Fisher King held out his arm and nodded.
Giving an answering nod, Merlin knelt, like the dragonlords of old once did back when the Perilous Lands flourished under the rule of a good, strong king. Back then Merlin's people had been guardians and protectors of the whole land, serving under the Fisher King for the good of all. It felt appropriate in this moment, as one of the remnants of the old world died so that a new one could rise. Swallowing back any doubts or hesitations, Merlin placed the eye of the phoenix on the Fisher King's wrist. The enchanted gem at its center glowed with renewed life. Merlin remained kneeling on the ground, bowing his head once again, eyes slipping shut. He heard and felt the great wind that whipped up in front of him and when he next looked the Fisher King was gone. One last echo, a whisper, threaded through his mind:
Merlin was still kneeling when he heard the secret door open. He jumped to his feet and watched as Arthur rolled under the opening he'd made. When the prince's eyes fell on him, relief broke across his face.
"Merlin, thank god!" Arthur exclaimed. He crossed the room in quick strides and yanked Merlin into a kiss. Merlin made a surprised sound. He was just starting to melt into it when Arthur pulled back, expression stricken. "I'm so sorry, I-"
"Don't apologize," Merlin interrupted, smiling. "I mean, certainly you should ask someone before you just go kissing them, but in this case I don't mind." When Arthur didn't move or say anything, Merlin leaned forward and initiated another kiss. Arthur kissed back without hesitation. This time when they parted it was to share a smile. For a moment, as Arthur leaned in again, hands moving to settled on his waist, Merlin forgot where they were and why they'd gone there.
Then Arthur reluctantly pulled away and said, "We probably shouldn't linger."
"Right," Merlin agreed, a bit dazed. They stayed rooted to the spot for a moment longer, just staring into each other's eyes. Then Arthur cleared his throat and took a deliberate step back, eyes roaming around the room. They stopped on something behind Merlin.
"No way," Arthur said, walking towards what had caught his interest. Merlin turned and watched as he picked up the dusty old trident. "Did you know this was here?"
"Oh. Right. That." Merlin ran a hand through his hair, trying to regain his composure. "Yeah, I was gonna mention that, but I, uh, forgot." Because you kissed me and it was really distracting. "Sorry."
"Well, I guess we should get out of here then."
Merlin hid his disappointment. "Yeah, we should." He didn't want this to end.
From the plains it was back to the marshes. By then it was getting dark and Arthur guessed they wouldn’t make the border by nightfall. He wasn’t terribly upset by the thought. The sun was barely visible by the time they made it to the edge of Red River Forest. At some point while crossing the marshes, Arthur had grabbed hold of Merlin’s hand. Purely to keep from falling into the mud pits, of course. Merlin didn’t look back at him, but he did squeeze Arthur’s hand.
They set up camp by the light of a dozen witchlights and sat too close to each other around the cooking fire. When morning came, it wasn’t a surprise to find that they’d gravitated nearer in their sleep. A niggling thought in the back of Arthur’s mind reminded him that this was temporary. Just a few hours away was the border of Camelot, a land that was far too dangerous for Merlin to set foot in. Arthur shrugged it off and resolved to enjoy what little time he did have left with Merlin.
The sun was much higher in the sky than it should have been when they finally reached the border. They stopped just shy of the invisible boundary dividing their homes. Arthur turned to Merlin, studying his face closely, intent on memorizing it. He wanted to say something, anything, but he couldn’t think of a single word. Eventually, Merlin gestured to the sword Arthur had carried with him since the fight with the guardian.
“Probably best if you don’t take that home with you,” he said.
“No, probably not,” Arthur agreed reluctantly. Carefully, he drew the sword. It didn’t feel right parting ways with it, not when it fit so perfectly in his grip. But Merlin was right. Taking a magic sword into a magic hating kingdom was a bad idea.
“You’ll get it back someday,” Merlin swore as he took the blade and tucked it into his own belt. “It’s meant for you. In the meantime I’ll keep it safe.” Arthur nodded. Well, this was it. This was where they parted ways.
“I hope we meet again someday,” Arthur said, stalling a bit longer.
“So do I,” Merlin said. He smiled. “Maybe under better circumstances.”
“Perhaps the next time I visit the Vale.” Arthur gave Merlin a significant look. “For, say, treaty negotiations.”
Merlin’s smile grew. “Perhaps.” Neither of them pointed out that such negotiations would never happen under Uther’s rule and there was no telling when Arthur’s reign would come. Merlin’s smile turned sad. “I’d like to say that until then you’ll always be welcome in the Vale, but…”
“Some of your people would object,” Arthur finished. “It’s alright. They have good reason to hate my father and those who follow him.”
Merlin made a sound of agreement, nodding absently. He seemed to be lost in thought, his expression slipping into something considering. Finally he looked at Arthur, declared, “Screw it,” and pulled him into a kiss. Arthur responded immediately, arms coming up to wrap around Merlin and hold him close. He broke the kiss silently cursing the need to breathe.
“I’m gonna miss you,” Arthur admitted. Merlin’s response to that was to kiss him again. It was several minutes before Arthur forced himself to let go and take a step back. This was an impossibility, he told himself. Uther was determined to see his son marry a princess from one of their allies. Whatever this thing was that had been growing between him and Merlin, it had to be forgotten. The problem was that Arthur didn’t think he could forget it.
“I should go,” Merlin said. “It’s unwise for me to be here too long. Besides, I’m sure my father has been worried about me. The sooner I return, the better.” He stood rooted to the spot a moment longer before releasing a deep breath. “Goodbye, Arthur. I look forward to the day we meet again.” He turned to leave and Arthur felt his heart clench painfully.
Merlin paused, looking back at Arthur curiously.
“Just… wait one moment,” Arthur said. He slipped his ring off his finger. “Hold out your hand.” Merlin raised an eyebrow, but did as asked. Arthur placed the ring there. “This ring once belonged to my mother.”
Merlin’s eyes widened. “Arthur, I can’t possibly-”
“I want you to have it,” Arthur interrupted. He curled Merlin’s fingers around the ring. “This is a promise. We’re not saying goodbye, Merlin. At least, not forever.”
Merlin nodded. “No, we’re not.” His hand tightened around the ring before he carefully placed it in a pocket. Then, he reached up and unclasped a necklace from around his neck. Arthur had absently noted it when he’d been treating the burns on Merlin’s back, but had been more preoccupied with the injuries. “This belonged to my mother,” Merlin explained. “It’s her family crest.” He stepped back into Arthur’s space to clasep the necklace around his neck.
“I’ll keep it safe,” Arthur vowed.
Merlin’s smile returned. “I know you will.”
They finally parted ways then. Arthur glanced back only once, just catching sight of Merlin disappearing into the Red River Forest. Then he focused his gaze on his own path, the one leading back to Camelot. To home. He had no idea what he would do once he got there. So many things had happened since he’d left. The crown prince that was returning to Camelot wasn’t the same one who had left. Arthur supposed he would just have to take it one thing at a time.
Starting with Morgana.